Intelligent Design Philosophy

Battle of the two Elizabeths: are free will and physical determinism compatible?

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I’d like to introduce my readers to two women of formidable intelligence who share a common first name. On the left is the British philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001), as she appeared in her younger days. Anscombe, a famously forthright philosopher who translated Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations from German into English, is best known for her highly original monograph, Intention (1957) and for her 1958 essay Modern Moral Philosophy. On the right is our very own Elizabeth Liddle, who lectures in Translational Mental Health in the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham. Dr. Liddle is particularly interested in ADHD and schizophrenia, as well as neuroimaging. She has described herself as “a catholic turned atheist, an ex-professional musician turned cognitive neuroscientist and computational modeller of evolutionary learning algorithms.” She attributes her atheism to “a radical shift in stance over the nature of free will.” She has stated that reading Professor Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves in 2007 literally changed her life: “I changed from dualist to monist half-way through the book.”

The topic I’d like to discuss in this post is whether free will and physical determinism are compatible.



Elizabeth Anscombe’s argument for incompatibilism

Elizabeth Anscombe argued that physical determinism and freedom were incompatible, in her Inaugural Lecture as Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University in 1971, entitled Causality and Determination. The following passage expresses her point with brevity and lucidity:

Ever since Kant it has been a familiar claim among philosophers, that one can believe in both physical determinism and ‘ethical’ freedom. The reconciliations have always seemed to me to be either so much gobbledegook, or to make the alleged freedom of action quite unreal. My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom. (p.26)

For Anscombe, indeterminism was a necessary but not sufficient condition for free will: freedom involves the power of acting according to an idea, and mere indeterminacy is incapable of endowing us with this power. Anscombe’s account of free will in her Inaugural Lecture made no attempt to be complete: it left unspecified the precise manner in which human agency meshes with quantum indeterminacy. I attempted to provide a solution to this question in my recent posts, How is libertarian free will possible? and Why I think the interaction problem is real. The purpose of today’s post, however, is to get to the bottom of a long-running dispute between compatibilists, who think that we can still have free will even if our actions are fully determined at a physical level, and libertarians, who believe that we cannot.

I should add, too, that despite periodic claims that the experiments of Benjamin Libet have discredited the notion of freedom, Libet himself took a different view. Indeed, the neuroscience of free will remains very much up in the air, as this recent overview illustrates. There are eminent neurologists who espouse some form of dualism. Given our current lack of knowledge about the brain, accepting monism would be a rush to judgement, to say the least.

Dr. Liddle’s defense of compatibilism

Dr. Elizabeth Liddle, unlike the late Elizabeth Anscombe, is a convinced compatibilist. For her, the locus of freedom resides in agents rather than actions, and I am certain that Anscombe would have agreed with her on this point. Dr. Liddle then argues that on a very plausible definition of freedom, an agent can still be free even if her actions are fully determined:

[I]f we are discussing whether an agent is free, then all you have to do is define the agent, then say whether that agent makes choices and is able to act on them. And if the agent makes choices and is able to act on them, then the agent is free.

Yes?

I can make choices, and I am able to act on them, therefore I am free.

To maintain otherwise is to say that I am not an agent at all.

Dr. Liddle has not defined the critical term “choice” in the foregoing passage. Elsewhere, however, she defines a decision (which, I take it, is the same as what she means by a choice) as a situation “where the brain processes the available data and then produces some type of behaviour” and describes the processes that her brain undergoes when making a decision:

[M]y brain cycles through the behavioural options, at sub-execution threshold , it simulates the outcomes of each option (what we think of as “imagining the consequences”, and the desirability of each outcome (signalled by the degree to which our reward circuits are activated) feeds back into the motor-program until a winning program reaches execution threshold and we do that (what we describe to ourselves as “acting on our decision”).

Dr. Liddle goes on to explain that when she makes a moral decision, her brain is performing the same processes, the principal difference being that her brain is now simulating how the other people with whom she is interacting would feel if she were to act in a certain way. She adds:

…I regard my freedom as the freedom that the thing I call “I” possesses in virtue of being a highly evolved decision-maker. I am free to choose, not just randomly … but after taking account of the pros and cons, short and long-term. The fact that we can account (at least I don’t see why we can’t) for that account-taking in physical terms doesn’t make my freedom any less, it just incorporates (literally) as the decision-making thing.

When I pressed Dr. Liddle for details, and asked her how intentions are coded in the brain, she answered that in her view, they are coded as a “repertoire of weighted models of options (although that probably suggests something far simpler than I have in mind, which is a highly nested and contingent set of options).”These intentions have a meaning of their own, but that meaning “is not inherent in a given neural state, it’s inherent in the programs of optional action … in my brain, which includes highly attenuated action programs that give rise to my sense of myself as an intender” to whom incoming stimuli (such as the sound of an alarm clock going off) have a meaning. More specifically, “I would say that I make meaning when I interpret a signal as having implications for some future action.” For instance: “My laptop can tell me that its battery is low, and I understand its meaning, and I can tell my laptop to shut down, and it understands mine.” In a nutshell: “Our motor programs have no ‘intrinsic meaning’. What has meaning is their relationship to their inputs.” Dr. Liddle continues:

I would say my freedom resides in the sheer number of options, and possible outcomes that I am capable, by virtue of my sophisticated human, symbol-using brain, of putting into the melting pot before initiating an actual course of action. What makes us so much freer than other animals, and even from other primates like chimps, is what is sometimes called our “freedom from immediacy”, conferred, I suggest, largely by our extraordinary capacity for language, and the tools it provides us with for simulating distal goals, and recalling outcomes from previous actions. Most importantly, we agree, I think, that neither a chimp nor a small child has much “Theory of Mind capacity” – cannot easily imagine – simulate – the consequences of their action from the point of view (literally) of another being. But I also suggest, following Dennett, that moral responsibility is coterminous with the act of defining the self; as Dennett repeats throughout Freedom Evolves: “if you make yourself really small, you can externalise virtually anything”. By the same token, he argues, it is by accepting moral responsibility for our actions that we define ourselves. And this is relevant to the chimp question – we don’t jail chimps in part because we don’t accord them a full human self. With adult human beings we mostly do, which is why we sometimes jail them when they fail to accept their human moral responsibilities. Sometimes we don’t, in which case we say they are “not fully responsible”, and, by the same token, we make them a little smaller – we say they are damaged, ill, crazy, not fully in control of their own actions. In other words, we draw the boundaries of their selves rather tightly, and regard much of what their brains do as “not them”.

I regard myself as free, even if the universe proves after all to be deterministic, not because there could be an alternative universe in which I could have done something different, but because I identify the thing I call “I” with the decision-making machinery that is my brain (together with all the things that make it what it is, including my own past decisions). In other words, I am free because I accept moral responsibility, not morally responsible because I’m free:)

In a comment on another thread, Dr. Liddle develops Professor Daniel Dennett’s argument that freedom arises from our decision to take responsibility for our actions:

And, to paraphrase Dennett … the more responsibility I accept for my actions, the larger I make myself – the act of taking moral responsibility is, literally, a “self-forming act”. And, conversely, if we minimise our responsibility, if we blame our genes, our brains, our upbringing, our life for our actions, then, while we let ourselves off the hook, we also define ourselves out of existence.

Here’s another way Dennett puts it:

…[B]y defining ourselves as the agent morally responsible for our actions we bring ourselves into being. We “ensoul ourselves” as you might say:)

Dr. Liddle then goes on to discuss the case of a mentally ill woman, who suffer from hearing voices in her head, and who goes on to commit a terrible crime under the influences of those voices. Such a woman could easily deny responsibility for her actions, saying that the voices made her do it; or alternatively, the same woman could take responsibility for her actions, by saying that she could have resisted the voices in her head, since she knew that they were wrong. Dr. Liddle comments:

It is not that one woman is right and the other wrong. That the first rightly or wrongly takes a Hard Indeterminist view of Free Will and the second, rightly or wrongly takes a Compatibilist view. It’s that in taking the view each adopts, each, by that same token, adopts a different definition of her self.

In other words, it is not that free will is true or false, but that the answer depends entirely on how we define the thing that is alleged to be (or not) free: “I”.

And that itself is a matter of choice.

And so, by saying “I am free” I become so, whether or not determinism is true. And by becoming so, I am accepting moral responsibility. It’s something, as Dennett says, that only human beings appear to have the capacity to do, and it’s what makes us human.

For Dr. Liddle, our consciousness naturally arises from the interactions between the various parts of the brain, but it is not a property of any particular part. Thus she considers herself to be an emergentist non-reductionist. She also dislikes the “materialist” tag – for her, it is the patterns and information within the brain, rather than the material in which they are realized, that generate our consciousness, so I shall refer to her as a monist.

My own comments on Dr. Liddle’s defense of compatibilism

I hope I have done justice to Dr. Liddle’s view of the self as a free but determined agent in the foregoing exposition. I’d now like to make a few comments of my own.

1. Preliminary remarks

1. On the positive side, I would like to thank Dr. Liddle for the many long hours that she has spent explaining and defending her views on Uncommon Descent. She is a very sincere individual, who has made a genuine effort to achieve a meeting of minds, and I am extremely grateful for her long-suffering patience.

I would also like to add that Dr. Liddle’s account of human action does provide some sort of explanation of how my actions can genuinely be said to be mine (agency), as well as how agency can make a genuine difference in the world, by deflecting the course of events. The example that Professor Daniel Dennett gives in his book, Freedom Evolves, is that of turning your head to dodge an approaching ball, which I’ll discuss below.

2. What’s missing from Dr. Liddle’s account: could we have done otherwise?

Professor Jerry Coyne, who is (like myself) an incompatibilist, but who is also (like Dennett but unlike myself) a determinist, makes the following astute observations on Dennett’s example of averting danger by dodging a ball in his essay Did freedom evolve?:

He uses, for instance, the act of turning your head to avoid being beaned by a baseball. That behavior is an evolved one: like many things we do, it enables us to survive. Those individuals who didn’t react to and avoid oncoming objects didn’t leave their genes behind! We are always making “decisions,” like whether to turn our head, where to find food, whom to mate with, that were built into our genes by natural selection. In those decisions resides our freedom.

It’s a bit more complicated than this, because Dennett sees free will as something largely limited to humans…. We make long-range plans not just for ourselves, but for our society. And Dennett also sees this complex behavior as a production of evolution. Because we have so many choices to make, and because they’re so complicated, this gives us a kind of “freedom” unprecedented among beasts.

This is the way Dennett reconciles deterministic causation with “will” and “free will.” At bottom, things are still physically determined. There’s just a new layer of complexity, one added by biology and evolution….

We turn our head because our evolved eyes perceive that something is approaching fast, and our evolved neurons, interacting with our evolved brain, make us swivel our skull to avoid collision. But it’s still all physics and molecules; in the end, we didn’t really choose to turn our head. It just looks (and feels) that way. Natural selection and evolution, of course, were themselves determined….

I see free will as the way most of us conceive of it: a situation in which one could have made more than one choice. If that’s how you see it, and you’re a determinist — which I think you pretty much have to be if you accept science — then you’re doomed. You’re left with the task of defining free will is some other way that comports with determinism.

But to me those other ways seem contrived, and avoid the ultimate question: could we really have done otherwise?

Precisely. More generally, if external circumstances which are beyond my control (e.g. my genes, my environment, or my evolutionary history) are what ultimately determine the specific motor pattern which I will select on any given occasion, from among the vast repertoire of patterns residing in my brain, then there is no way that this selection can be described as a genuine choice. And that is why on a determinist account of agency, bodily movements cannot legitimately be described as choices. Selections, yes; but choices, no. Or as Elizabeth Anscombe put it in the passage I quoted earlier:

My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory.

The problem with Dr. Liddle’s account is that it omits a vital ingredient of freedom: a situation in which one could have chosen otherwise. If determinism is true, then it is never true that we could have chosen otherwise.

Professor Dennett (and Dr. Liddle) might argue that there are some cases where it is plausible to say that we could have done otherwise: for instance, in the case of mistakes that we’ve previously been taught to avoid. Consider the example of a child who has been taught previously about dangerous objects (“Don’t touch that hot plate!”) but who has (through lack of attention) forgotten her mother’s lesson. Later on, that child suffers the consequences of her lack of attention, and burns her fingers on the hot plate. It might seem that in this case, the child could have done otherwise, IF she had been more attentive. But this example does not help at all. For the failure was itself predetermined: it was the product of an insufficiently powerful stimulus, which was not strong enough to bring about a permanent change in the child’s behavior. Perhaps one leson about hot objects was not enough for the child, but two or three lessons would have been.

Some determinists (I’m not accusing Dr. Liddle here) attempt to argue that “I could have done otherwise” really means “I would have done otherwise if the circumstances had been (slightly) different.” No, it doesn’t. It means that I might have done otherwise, even if the circumstances had been exactly the same. It was up to me. There were two (or more) ways that I could have gone. I chose one of these. That is what “I could have done otherwise” means, in ordinary parlance. Redefining terms in ordinary language to suit your view of reality is disingenuous. If you are going to implement a philosophical revolution, be bold about it: throw out the old, and bring in the new. And if you’re going to be a determinist, be a noisy, full-throated one!

3. Attitude changes are not the same as motor pattern changes

Dr. Liddle talks about two kinds of choices in her account of action: the choice of a motor pattern from a repertoire (e.g. when catching a ball) and the choice of how we define ourselves (particularly in terms of which actions of ours we choose to take responsibility for). It seems to me that the latter kind of choice is utterly different from the former. For the latter choice is attitudinal, whereas the former is kinesthetic. And that gets to the heart of the matter. In our everyday lives, we do not just “make moves.” Life is not a perpetual game of baseball, or cricket. We don’t just act; we also reflect. We mull over things. And we don’t just mull over future courses of action (e.g. how shall I throw that ball tomorrow, so that I can get Jones out?); we think about agents, including ourselves.

The act of thinking about myself and about who I am and what I shall take responsible for is not the same as the act of selecting a motor pattern. It’s a categorically different kind of act. It is entirely internal; it cannot be “cashed out” in terms of bodily movements. To be sure, after having adopted a certain metaphysical view of the limits of my freedom (or as Professor Dennett would say, my selfhood), I might move in different ways than I did before. My motor patterns will probably be quite different. For example, if I decide to take personal responsibility henceforth for colliding with people while I am running down the street, I will run more slowly from now on, or perhaps even walk. However – and this is my point – the mental act of adopting a new view of myself and the limits of my responsibility is quite distinct from the subsequent dispositions (or motor patterns) that I will gradually acquire of moving more carefully, when I am going down the street. The mental act of changing my attitudes logically and temporally precedes the change in my motor patterns. To be sure, there may be some feedback, as my new motor patterns reinforce my change of attitude (“Hey, no collisions! No embarrassing situations! This is wonderful!”). However, something has to come first, and in this case, it’s an attitudinal change.

Dr. Liddle dislikes the term “materialist”; but she would surely agree that attitudes towards oneself and others correspond to patterns in the brain. If she does not believe that, then she really is a dualist, after all:) Now, I would acknowledge that Dr. Liddle has given us a fairly plausible account of how motor patterns in the brain can possess a kind of meaning, in relation to their inputs and outputs. But I have to say that I find her account utterly implausible, when it attempts to explain how a pattern in my brain can “mean” my old school-friend, whom I haven’t seen in years. For even if the pattern were caused by my school-friend, a pattern’s being caused by X is conceptually quite distinct from a pattern’s meaning X. And we have to ask: caused in what way? Are wayward causal chains meaningful as well? I find that Dr. Liddle’s monism (I shall use that term, as she dislikes being called a materialist) breaks down here.

Dr. Liddle has argued previously for a natural theory of meaning, along the lines of “Black clouds mean rain”, but as I argued here, this won’t work:

“Natural meaning” is, it seems, a derived rather than a primitive usage of the term “meaning”: it assumes the existence of a community of observers who possess a stock of shared scientific knowledge. [In the foregoing example, the shared knowledge is meteorological – VJT.]

Let’s return to the causes of my attitudinal changes. Now, the question arises: are these attitudinal changes determined? On Dr. Liddle’s view, the answer is: yes. When I give myself a “pep talk”, or scold myself for a thoughtless deed that I have just performed, and resolve to do better in future, I am consciously trying to redefine myself. Maybe I’ll succeed, or maybe I won’t: I might relapse to my bad old ways. Some people in my situation might not even bother trying to change themselves. But the point is that the attitudes that we adopt throughout our lives are themselves, in Dr. Liddle’s view, the product of circumstances beyond our control, and when we do adopt them, we could not have done otherwise. How, then, can Dr. Liddle coherently claim that in adopting a new attitude towards myself – e.g. in deciding to take responsibility for my actions instead of blaming others – I thereby become a free agent? The very decision that I made to change my life and redefine the boundaries of my self, is itself a product of circumstances over which I had no control. Why, then, should I be praised or blamed for it?

4. Crime and punishment

The topic of praise and blame brings us to Professor Dennett’s rationale for punishing criminals and holding adults responsible for their behavior. Professor Jerry Coyne, in his essay, Did freedom evolve?, argues that Dennett’s reasoning on crime and punishment is disingenuous, because instead of facing up to the facts, Dennett constructs an argument achieve his objective of a properly functioning society, which he so desperately desires:

But if our “choices” are still really determined, how can we have moral responsibility? This is a bit tricker. As far as I understand it, Dennett’s solution is that we must be morally responsible if we’re to be allowed to take our place in society, and to enjoy all its benefits. Our understanding of this contract is our tacit admission that we’re morally responsible beings. If we don’t acquiesce, and don’t accept our punishment when we err, then we have no business enjoying the largesse of society.

That’s Dennett’s argument, and he presents it with clarity and panache… But in the end I wasn’t satisfied. Even though evolution tells us why we make certain “choices,” they still are not choices in the classical free-will sense: situations in which we could have decided otherwise.

In the end, I saw the argument as a type of philosophical prestidigitation, in which our intuitive notion of free will had suddenly been replaced by something that, at first, sounded good, but ultimately didn’t comport with how we see “free” choice. I felt as though I’d been presented with a cake, only to find that it was hollow in the middle, like a hatbox covered with frosting. And the argument for moral responsibility seems contrived, as if innate responsibility were replaced by something else: a social contract…

It seems to be a philosophical shell game, conducted so that we can conclude that we’re morally responsible agents. If we didn’t, of course, society would break down, so we really need to find a philosophical justification for moral responsibility. But this is hardly scientific: we decide what conclusion we want to reach a priori, and then twist the facts, and our arguments, so they lead to that result. Ubi sunt the philosophers who follow the facts to their logical conclusion: we aren’t really responsible for anything we do?

Professor Dennett would have been more consistent if he had admitted that we’re not free, but then gone on to argue that punishing a few people for things they can’t help doing is the only way to prevent a slide into social anarchy. Or as Mao Zedong memorably put it: “Execute one, educate a thousand.”

5. What do you mean? Why did you do that? You mean to say you don’t know?

The final problem I have with Professor Dennett’s views on freedom is that unlike the philosopher John Searle, who distinguishes between the intrinsic intentionality possessed by conscious agents such as humans and other animals who have beliefs and desires, and the derived intentionality of words, sentences, pictures, diagrams and graphs, whose meaning depends on what other people (language users) think, Dennett regards all intentionality as derived, and denies the existence of original (or intrinsic) intentionality altogether. As he puts it in a celebrated example:

Suppose some human being, Jones, looks out the window and thereupon goes into the state of thinking he sees a horse (cf. Fodor 1987). There may or may not be a horse out there for him to see, but the fact that he is in the mental state of thinking he sees a horse is not just a matter of interpretation (these others say). Suppose the planet Twin-Earth were just like Earth, save for having schmorses where we have horses. (Schmorses look for all the world like horses, and are well-nigh indistinguishable from horses by all but trained biologists with special apparatus, but they aren’t horses, any more than dolphins are fish.) If we whisk Jones off to Twin-Earth, land of the the schmorses, and confront him in the relevant way with a schmorse, then either he really is, still, provoked into the state of believing he sees a horse (a mistaken, non-veridical belief) or he is provoked by that schmorse into believing, for the first time (and veridically), that he is seeing a schmorse. (For the sake of the example, let us suppose that Twin-Earthians call schmorses horses (chevaux, Pferde, etc.) so that what Jones or a native Twin- Earthian says to himself–or others–counts for nothing.) However hard it may be to determine exactly which state he is in, he is really in one or the other (or perhaps he really is in neither, so violently have we assaulted his cognitive system). Anyone who finds this intuition irresistible believes in original intentionality, and has some distinguished company: Fodor, Searle, Dretske, Burge, and Kripke, but also Chisholm 1956, 1957, Nagel 1979, 1986 and Popper and Eccles 1977). Anyone who finds this intuition dubious if not downright dismissible can join me, the Churchlands, Davidson, Haugeland, Millikan, Rorty, Stalnaker, and our distinguished predecessors, Quine and Sellars, in the other corner (along with Douglas Hofstadter, Marvin Minsky and almost everyone else in AI).

So in some cases, at least, there is no objective “fact of the matter” about what I really believe.
For Dennett the distinction between intrinsic and derived intentionality is redundant, because the brain is itself an artifact of natural selection, and the “aboutness” of our brain states (read: mental states) has already been determined by their “creator, Mother Nature”, who “designed” them (1997, Kinds of Minds, London: Phoenix, Paperback edition, p. 70). On Dennett’s account, then, actions performed for a clearcut natural end have an objective meaning, and we can legitimately speak of the beliefs and desires motivating those actions: they are the beliefs and desires that Mother Nature programmed into us. But in other situations, our actions do not carry any such meaning. When John buys Mary flowers and champagne for a dinner date, his actions mean something very natural; when he sends her flowers via Interflora from halfway round the world, poor Mary has to interpret his meaning – and there is no objective fact – not even John’s response to her question, “Why did you send me flowers?” – that could determine whether her interpretation is correct. Is he expressing his love for her, or is he just trying to cheer her up, or is he covering up his guilt over the fact that he hasn’t sent her any flowers in a long while, or is he merely acting on a whim? Asking John why he sent the flowers would only make sense if his beliefs and desires towards Mary possessed intrinsic intentionality in their own right, but on Dennett’s account they do not. I have to ask my readers: who does not find this account odd?

Dennett is also famous for claiming (Do Animals Have Beliefs?, in Roitblat, H., ed., Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Sciences, MIT Press, 1995) that since the shape of the bimetallic spring in a thermostat embodies information about room temperature, a thermostat qualifies as a minimal belief-holder. Dennett construes “beliefs” in a “maximally permissive” sense as “information-structures” that are “sufficient to permit the sort of intelligent choice of behavior that is well-predicted from the intentional stance”.

By now, it should be clear what is wrong with Dennett’s account of claiming one’s actions as one’s own, and thereby enlarging the scope of oneself and one’s freedom. For on Dennett’s own account of intentionality, there is no objective fact of the matter regarding whether John (who has until now led the life of an irresponsible scoundrel) really believes that he has wronged other people (fellow agents), and really desires to make their lives better henceforth. We might ascribe the dramatic change in his behavior to a sudden change of heart on his part; but a cynic might say that John’s altered behavior merely reflects a newfound desire to achieve respectability among his peers by adhering to social norms. Perhaps he simply realizes that his partying days are over. But the most peculiar thing of all is that on Dennett’s account of intentionality, not even John knows why he changed his lifestyle so dramatically. And thus not even John knows whether he is a free agent, even in Dennett’s funny sense of “free”. Now that is bizarre.

6. Why a mechanical view of the self is a debasing one

If someone were to ask me what the best single idea anyone ever had was, I’d say: the idea that the world and everything in it – including ourselves – is the work of a wise, loving and personal Being, who wants us to love one another, and one day share eternity with Him. If we have that vision of who we are, where we’re from and where we’re going, it lends dignity to our lives. It’s an ennobling belief: we know what we’re here for.

There are many good atheists who believe that we should love one another, despite their lack of faith in a hereafter. I salute them for “soldiering on”. But there’s one crazy idea that some atheists have, which, if they took it seriously, would make it impossible for them to soldier on. I’m referring here to the absurd idea that your every thought, word and deed has been determined in advance, by circumstances over which you had no control, so that you could never have done anything other than what you did. I would like to nominate this as the worst single idea that anyone has ever had, in history. You cannot simultaneously keep it in your mind and lead a normal life. Even Professor Coyne can’t – he admits that you can go crazy thinking about it.

What’s more important, though, is that in the long term, the idea of physical determinism – which even some religious people now defend – is spiritually destructive in the long term. As Professor William Dembski put it in a memorable 1991 essay entitled, Conflating Matter and Mind:

One God in particular I have no desire to spend eternity with is the God of the semi-materialists (cf. CMIM, pp. 215-219). Let us recall Donald MacKay’s recommendation to all good semi-materialists that they “not hunt for gaps in the scientific picture into which entities like ‘the soul’ might fit.” For the purposes of this discussion, semi-materialists are those Christians who hold that mind supervenes on brain. Why is this bad? If God decides to create us as physical systems whose consciousness and intelligence flow strictly from the constitution and dynamics of those physical systems, what’s wrong with that? Is our value diminished because semi-materialism deprives us of a spirit or soul (spirit and soul being conceived as aspects of our person whose ontology transcends the physical organism)?

To this last question I answer, Yes. Nevertheless, by diminished value I’m referring primarily to my own, personal valuations, not necessarily to God’s. I know my mind and I know what I value. I frankly know very little of God’s mind, and I’m loath to attribute valuations to God except in cases where the valuations I attribute to God are crucial to my valuation of God himself. If humans are no more than carbon-based machines (and here by machines I include any physical system of arbitrary complexity), if God loves and values such machines, if Christ died for such machines, so much the worse for God – I’ll look for another religion. I cannot worship any old God and I cannot worship God while maintaining a warped view of myself. A great God can properly be worshipped only by a great creature. Machines are wholly inadequate for the task. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

Strong words indeed, but very true ones. There are some beliefs that endanger one’s sanity, and which sensible people should shun. The idea that we are nothing but glorified machines is surely one of them.

40 Replies to “Battle of the two Elizabeths: are free will and physical determinism compatible?

  1. 1
    Ilion says:

    Torley: The purpose of today’s post, however, is to get to the bottom of a long-running dispute between compatibilists, who think that we can still have free will even if our actions are fully determined at a physical level, and libertarians, who believe that we cannot.

    Anscombe: My actions are mostly physical movements; if these physical movements are physically predetermined by processes which I do not control, then my freedom is perfectly illusory. The truth of physical indeterminism is then indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim to freedom.

    If you want to get to the bottom of the issue, then you (and, going strictly on your quoting of her, the late Anscombe) need to phrase what you’re talking about – and, thus, what you are thinking – more clearly.

    “Free will” isn’t about moving your body; it is about moving your thought – the quadriplegic is no less free in this regard than the Olympic athlete.

    Yes, ‘actions’ are physical, or mostly so. But, “free will” isn’t about actions, it is about ‘acts’, which are mental entities. The man who falls to the ground because he was struck in the head might be said to have “performed”, or at any rate, to have undergone, an ‘action’, but he has performed no ‘act’. The man who falls to the ground because he is throwing himself on a live grenade, has performed an ‘act’, and on the basis of the ‘act’, has performed an ‘action’.

  2. 2
    Ilion says:

    Further, I would say that EL is attempting to redefine “choice” in much the same way as the silly poster who recently tried to claim that a wire mesh being used to sort pebbles by size is making “choices”. That is, and in keeping with the inescapably eliminative nature of materialism, she seeks to “explain” choice, and freedom, by explaining it way: the “freedom” she asserts equates to “there is no freedom”.

  3. 3
    Barry Arrington says:

    Sadly, Dr. Torley, I can no longer share your optimism about Dr. Liddle. I have had several debates with her over the last few days, and this is what I have learned:

    1. Many of her arguments rest on an egregious abuse of language, as I pointed out in my “Foundations” and “Humpty Dumpty” posts. She equivocates without hesitation. The word “choice” appears to be her favorite word on which to equivocate. As you point out in your OP, the entire compatiblist argument rests on an equivocation on that word. And as I pointed out in one of my posts, she equivocated on the word “choice” when she attributed a position to Dr. Dembski that he plainly never took (and she ought to have known never would take).

    2. She is unwilling to follow even her own logic where it leads, which leads her to be intellectually dishonest with herself and her interlocutors. I pointed this out in my final comments to her in the (“Lizzie Joins the ID Camp”) post. She has a frustrating habit of tiptoeing right up to the edge of the precipice of a true conclusion that follows from her own logic. This gives one hope for her. But, sadly, if she sees that it endangers her faith commitments to her metaphysical presuppositions, she will shrink back and start spewing gobbledygook, and she dashes your hopes for her time after time.

  4. 4
    Barry Arrington says:

    Uh, Ilioin, that silly poster was EL.

  5. 5
    Ilion says:

    No, it was someone who seems to be male.

  6. 6
    Querius says:

    Determinism (as in a mechanistic universe) has been falsified by observations in several scientific fields, most notably meteorology, giving rise to Chaos theory. The result is that within chaotic regions, there is enough potential “room” to hide free will and all sorts of interesting things. Thus, the existence of deterministic phenomena, things that can be calculated precisely and repeatedly, does not rule out free will.

    Philosophy often incorporates popular scientific thinking such as evolution, behaviorism, and so on. As far as I know (which isn’t much), philosophy has not yet been very enthusiastic about incorporating Chaos theory, or Gödel’s Incompleteness theorem.

    As stated humorously in the Harvard Law of Animal Behavior, “Animals in a carefully controlled environment behave as they jolly well please.”

  7. 7
    Ilion says:

    She may have picked up on it, but I’m pretty sure that the original attempted redefinition in the particular thread was made by a guy in a comment directed to something I’d written.

  8. 8
    Ilion says:

    I first encountered this distinction between ‘act’ and ‘action’ somewhere in the small bit of Mortimer Adler’s writings I’ve read. I which I could recall where and supply a link, for he doubtless explains it far better than I.

  9. 9
    Frost122585 says:

    There is no way to predict every thought a human being wil have because there are too many variables.Minds do not behave like machines because they are not machines like the ones we make which serve the purpose of being predictible and reliable. The human mind is creative and has a built in random element. Therefore, there is no absolute detemrinism when it comes to the will man. Also no one is arguing for absolute determinsm is an absurd sense. That is, no one is saying that if say you were to hit someone with a baseball bat that the person might not feel pain. These type of necessary physical responses are a given. free will comes in when there are dialectics in our lives. That is, when we have a decision to make regarding an issue where we our selves are not sure the best solution.

    No computer can guarentee the results when the probability of a result happening is 50/50.

    Also it is important to remember that feee will becomes a necessary determinstic thing itself, paradoxically, when one believes that they have free will. A person that constantly reminds themsevles and realizes, and believes that a choice actually exists is empowered by that very realization. Ergo, I think therefore I am.

    But at the most fundamental level of physical reality, Heisenberg all read killed determinsm with his uncertainty principle long ago. Just a fact of physics, and perhaps the most fundamental law of physics in the universe.

  10. 10
    Ilion says:

    Ah, here is what I had in mind: RrREC attempting to redefine “choice” to be an effect, rather than a potential cause:

    DrRec @ 10: Upright BiPed asks: “Which evolutionary process has the facility to make a choice between alternate options?”

    Differential survival and reproduction.

    BA77 @ 12: And lo and behold Elizabeth has performed ‘linguistic gymnastics’ in post #1 in order to justify her ‘linguistic equivocations’,,, As Dr. Hunter would say of this type of absurd Darwinian behavior,, ‘You just can’t make this stuff up’ 🙂

    Ilíon @ 13: Consider how DrRec is playing fast and loose with the term ‘choice’ in post # 10.

    DrRec @ 15: Why don’t we substitute a synonym like pick, select
    cull, separate, etc?

    The effect is the same whether a set of wire meshes selects for pebbles of a certain size, or I do.

    But playing the game of “choice” requiring a “chooser” just reveals your desire to jam an intelligence into the process.

  11. 11
    Ilion says:

    There is no way to predict every thought a human being wil have because there are too many variables.

    It isn’t the complexity of the variables, but rather the fact of agent freedom.

  12. 12
    DrREC says:

    Illion,

    Only you could conflate a debate about ‘choice’ as it relates to selection (in which pick, select, cull, separate are synonyms) in the context of natural or alogrithmic selection and ‘choice’ as in free will, as synonymous with freedom.

    On a side note, this site seems somewhat obsessed with Elizabeth Liddle. Numerous original posts stemming from comments (in which the original topic is often substantially, let’s say ‘reframed’ have appeared. It is getting a bit much-running bio and photos of a commenter?

  13. 13
    Ilion says:

    Do you really imagine that I concern myself with your low opinion of me? Please! You’re a man who is either so incorrigibly ignorant about the meaning of English word ‘choice’ (i.e. you may be stupid), or so unwilling to think-and-state the truth (i.e. you may be intellectually dishonest), that you brazenly attempt to ascribe to power to make choices to inanimate objects.

  14. 14
    DrREC says:

    The new site design is a bit baffling. There is no icon to reply at 2.1.2.1.1 above.

    At any rate, Illion, my original post was to dispose of the word ‘choice’ because it is a poor descriptor of the process and lead to semantic arguments like yours where choice requires a chooser.

    And how did we get to free will from a discussion of the best word to describe differential survival and reproduction?

  15. 15
    bornagain77 says:

    Lot of Good stuff Dr. Torley, but I have to agree with Mr. Arrington.

  16. 16
    Ilion says:

    At any rate, Illion, my original post was to dispose of the word ‘choice’ because it is a poor descriptor of the process and lead to semantic arguments like yours where choice requires a chooser.

    Riiight!

    That’s why you quoted UBP’s question (“Which evolutionary process has the facility to make a choice between alternate options?”), and rather that telling him that the term ‘choice’ does not properly apply, you replied that “Differential survival and reproduction” satisfies his question. And that’s why you later said that “The effect is the same whether a set of wire meshes selects for pebbles of a certain size, or I do.”

    … the word ‘choice’ … is a poor descriptor of the process and lead[s] to semantic arguments like yours where choice requires a chooser.

    For, as we all, know, it’s only due to ‘semantics’ that the making of a ‘choice’ requires’ there be a ‘chooser’ to have make it.

    ‘Semantics’ is about the meanings ascribed to words. Small wonder then, that those who wish to use words equivocally, or even falsely, are generally so negative about ‘semantics’.

  17. 17
    Jack Golightly says:

    Hear, hear! Yes, good stuff! I really like the Dembski quote at the end. (Great creatures – gotta save that one!)
    Me, although I appreciate those who are able to sustain these dialogs coherently, I think that ultimately all the discussion is trumped by the simple fact that I believe that I am a free agent and act accordingly. After all, how can anything be “proven”?

  18. 18
    Neil Rickert says:

    As usual, the “free will” topic generates more heat than light.

    The problem is that people disagree over the meanings of “free will”, “choice” and other terms used.

    I’ll note that when we talk about computers, we do normally say that the computer is making a choice when it encounters the “if” statement. Yet we also think of computers as deterministic.

    If asked “could the computer have chosen otherwise”, we might say that we don’t want it to choose otherwise, for then it would not be acting logically or rationally. That’s roughly the reasoning basis for compatibilism.

    On the other hand, most computer scientists and AI proponents would say that the computer does not have free will.

    For myself, I have vacillated over the question of compatibilism. But I think its an unimportant question because, as far as I can tell, there is no basis for assuming physical determinism.

  19. 19
    Ilion says:

    So true … some persons will not admit to certain truth (and they desire to continue to misapply the meanings ascribed to certain words) … THEREFORE, no one else can know anything.

  20. 20
    DrBot says:

    On a side note, this site seems somewhat obsessed with Elizabeth Liddle. Numerous original posts stemming from comments (in which the original topic is often substantially, let’s say ‘reframed’ have appeared. It is getting a bit much-running bio and photos of a commenter?

    Onlookers might perceive it as an orchestrated campaign of intimidation. The photo seems to serve little purpose other than to hint (mafioso style) that ‘we know who you are, we know where you live’.

  21. 21
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    First of all, I’d like to thank vjtorley for doing me the honour of reading my posts with such attentiveness and summarising my position so well, and to make it clear that he sought permission to use my photograph in his essay, and I gave it.

    Since he did so, however, a number of OPs have appeared on this site with my name in the title, and I am aware that I myself, rather than my views, have become a major topic of dicussion, specifically my perceived personal failings.

    I am extremely unhappy about this. It’s not that I mind critiques of my views – I wouldn’t post on sites where I was likely to be disagreed with if I didn’t like being disagreed with, indeed, I wouldn’t post on discussion sites at all if I didn’t enjoy an argument.

    But while I am more than prepared to defend my point of view, and, indeed, to change it if I find a rebuttal persuasive, and while I am genuinely interested in the views of people who differ radically from me, and in trying to drill down to where the fundamental disagreement might lie (often, in my experience, not where either party initially locates the difference), I am not prepared to spend time arguing over my own integrity, and nor am I prepared to spend time on a site, particularly a site where I use my own name, and where it frequently appears in OPs, where my personal integrity is repeated called into question.

    If people think I have said something untrue, made a fallacious argument, or made self-contradictory points, I’m more than happy to have these pointed out, and I’m more than willing to discuss it.

    But being regularly accused of lying, having my posts responded to not by a rebuttal, but by a dissection of my personal failings, treated like a third party exhibit despite my participation in the thread, having any failure to respond to a thread or a post interpreted as evasion or deceit, is simply too much.

    I have hugely appreciated the welcome and courtesy extended to me by many on this site, including those who fundamentally disagree with me. I have enjoyed coming to understand better the various arguments for ID, some of which were unfamiliar to me. I’ve appreciated visits from people here at my own blog, which I set up partly to house conversations that were spanning several threads here, mostly long ones that take (or took) a while to load, and which were mostly derails from an OP about something quite different and left the conversation homeless when they were eventually locked.

    But right now, I seem to have “become the story”, as politicians say, at which point, it’s usually time to bail out.

    I will wait until this thread has run its course, and I’ll try to address any outstanding comments to me as well.

    Then I think I’d better, regretfully, take my leave.

    If anyone wants to stay in touch, or to continue any discussion (and there have been many that I would love to continue) then you are very welcome at my site.

  22. 22
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Barry, I beg to differ. You have not had “several debates with [me] over the last few days”. You have scarcely engaged in debate with me at all.

    What you have done is to take various of my posts, and make them the subject of several OPs. When I have attempted to respond to the points you have made, you completely failed to engage with my rebuttals.

    I explained, in detail, why “equivocation” was not an appropriate charge, vis a vis Dembski’s definition of Intelligence. If you have engaged this explanation, and it has got lost in the reshuffle, then I apologise, but I cannot at the moment find any evidence that you have even read my argument, let alone rebutted it.

    I also explained, in detail, that it is not “equivocation” to use a word in a specialist sense as long as you clearly define it in context. In fact, doing so is our insurance against equivocation, which is why operational definitions are so fundamental to scientific methodology. Humpty Dumpty did not “equivocate”, though he may have been as irritating as if he had. What he did was to define his terms in non-standard ways. This is not equivocation.

    What gave rise to the charge of equivocation vis a vis Dembski was not “equivocation” by me, but my drawing of attention to “equivocation” by Dembski – defining, like Humpty Dumpty, a word in a non-standard sense, making an argument based on that sense, then, unlike Humpty Dumpty using the standard definition when applying the conclusions of his argument.

    Now there is a decent discussion to be had about this, and CannuckianYankee, being the perceptive and decent guy that he is, took me up on my argument, and forced me to attempt to demonstrate that Dembski’s argument did only hang on his non-standard definition, not on the standard one he later generalised his conclusion to.

    That discussion is ongoing, in a civilised manner. I think CY is wrong, but he has raised a very legitimate challenge. Being, contrary to your assertions, and “intellectually honest” person, I am more than willing to turn my argument inside out in response to a challenge to check that it does indeed hold water, and will happily concede if I find it does not.

    As for your comments in the “Lizzie Joins the ID Camp” post, you seem to have completely missed my point (again!) as MarkF makes clearer than I managed to do.

    Rather than try and engage with the difference between two modes of probabalistic reasoning (Bayesian and Frequentist), you simply assume dishonesty on my part: that I am “tiptoeing right up to the edge of the precipice of a true conclusion that follows from her own logic”.

    And conclude that because I go no further I must be in hock to my own “faith commitments to [my] metaphysical presuppositions”.

    No, Barry – the reason I do not go where you think my logic leads is because you have not actually followed my logic. Which you dismiss as “gobbldygook”.

    This is, as I said on that thread, Kafkaesque.

    You accuse me of intellectual dishonesty because you think I do not go where “my” logic leads. But rather than consider that my logic may not be your logic, you dismiss my logic as “gobbldygook”.

    What can I do? I make an argument you think you understand, and you accuse me of not following it to its conclusion. I point out that my argument is not the one you think I am making, and you dismiss my actual argument as “gobbledygook”.

    How would you know, if you haven’t actually attempted to follow the reasoning?

    You are doing exactly what a few others, here, repeatedly do, which is to assume that if you disagree with what someone is saying that they are being dishonest, and if they come back with a rebuttal that you do not understand, that they are talking nonsense.

    It’s quite extraordinarily arrogant. More to the point, it renders communication impossible. Communication is a two-way street, which is why the first strapline on my blog was “park your priors by the door” and my second is, from Cromwell “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

    I once said, when defending the case that Bush had probably beaten Kerry, despite his exit poll lead (and a long battle that was) that I could never go to the stake for any belief. Someone then pointed out that I would probably go to the stake for the right to remain uncertain. That is probably true. Your characterisation of me a having a “faith commitment” to a position is a somewhat bitter joke.

    Uncertainty has its price,sometimes a bitter one, but it has its rewards as well. I commend it to you.

  23. 23
    dmullenix says:

    I don’t understand you. Are you saying that nothing was broken in Lenski’s experiments or that functional complexity was not achieved.

    Hey, here’s an idea. Instead of “breaking”, why don’t you say the DNA was “re-written”? Since the DNA was changed and the change seemed to produce a very definite improvement (as in alive instead of dead), I think “re-written” makes more sense than “broken”.

    And remember, this re-writing only took 20 years. Imagine what you’ll see if you run that experiment for a million years!

  24. 24
    dmullenix says:

    “10” above was supposed to go into the “The ID Hypothesis” thread. Don’t know how it wound up here.

  25. 25
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    OK, offloaded some baggage, and ready to engage vjtorley’s argument 🙂

    You write:

    The problem with Dr. Liddle’s account is that it omits a vital ingredient of freedom: a situation in which one could have chosen otherwise. If determinism is true, then it is never true that we could have chosen otherwise.

    Well, leaving aside what I, with Dennett, consider the unimportant point that determinism isn’t actually true, my counter argument to your point above is that it all depends on what you mean by “we”, or, rather, “I”.

    And this is at the heart of Dennett’s argument (and mine) – that how free we are is not a matter of whether determinism is true or not, but of the boundaries we draw around our selves: how many degrees of freedom (literally, but the metaphor works as well) I grant my self.

    This was the point about my (fictional, I should point out!) example of the two mentally ill women. Both are identically ill, but one chooses (I use the word advisedly) to define herself as inclusive of her disorder, the other externalises it.

    In other words, one says: yes, I could have done otherwise, and by doing so, includes, as part of her identity, as within the boundary of herself, a number of alternative scenarios. Now, in a deterministic universe, obviously, those scenarios could only take place in an alternative universe to the one that has actually transpired, but by saying “yes, I could have done otherwise ” she is saying “there are other universes in which someone I acknowledge to be me did otherwise”. In other words, by embracing her actual actions as being within the boundaries of a self that was capable of other actions she is drawing those boundaries to include the self she could have been in universes not too far from the one she is in.

    I wrote a fictional (obviously!) story on that theme a while back, to explore this idea, and I just reposted it on my blog, here, although has a slightly different slant.

    Now, the obvious counter to this idea is: but there aren’t multiple universes, free will, by this usage, is an illusion. Well, again, leaving aside the possibility that there are, in fact, multiple universe in which the things we might have done did in fact occur, I offer the following the counter-rebuttal to your anticipated rebuttal. The past we know is fixed. We cannot undo our deeds. But that is not the same as failing to take responsibility for them, if we are willing to take ownership of other, non-existent, but nonetheless imaginable nearby universes in which we acted otherwise – put more simply, if I can imagine acting differently, and yet remaining myself. And the reason that I would not call this an “illusion” is that even though the future may be “fixed” in a deterministic universe, it is not known, unlike the past. Our capacity to imagine ourselves having acted differently in the past – to imagine a universe only slightly different from the one I am in, only in which I acted differently (note the ownership of “I” in those imagined worlds) is precisely the capacity that enables me to act differently in the future, in other words to choose a wiser course of action next time.

    And that is not an illusion. Taking ownership of alternative universes in which I acted differently in the past is what gives me the freedom to ensure that the universe I am in is one in which I act in the future as I failed to act in the past! Failing to do so removes that freedom, and makes me a prisoner of my past – confines my “I” to the fixity of what has occurred, instead of releasing me into the unknown future armed with the knowledge of how I could be different.

    Now you may still object that all this is playing with words (“equivocation!!!”) and of course it is. But words are one of our most important tool for modeling the universe, and, I’d argue, models are all we have. Moreoever, the ultimate test of a model is whether it is useful no model can be “true” because it is, well, a model. One use of a model is whether it predicts data. We call those models scientific models, sometimes, and if they predict badly, we call them bad models. We also use predictive models simply to navigate our world, and if they let us down, we call them illusions. If we insist that they are not illusions, but that it is the world itself that is malfunctioning, then we call them delusions.

    Taking ownership of the self we might have been in alternative universes is neither an illusion in this sense nor a delusion. It is highly predictive – if I take responsibility for my past acts I am more likely to act well in the future, whereas if I blame my past acts on something I do not regard as “me” (the voices; my depression; the alcohol) I deprive myself of most of my power to act differently in the future. So if it is neither illusory, nor delusional, then, I submit, it is perfectly real, or at least as real as any other model of reality is. Which is never quite real, but as close as we can make it.

    Some determinists (I’m not accusing Dr. Liddle here) attempt to argue that “I could have done otherwise” really means “I would have done otherwise if the circumstances had been (slightly) different.” No, it doesn’t. It means that I might have done otherwise, even if the circumstances had been exactly the same. It was up to me. There were two (or more) ways that I could have gone. I chose one of these. That is what “I could have done otherwise” means, in ordinary parlance. Redefining terms in ordinary language to suit your view of reality is disingenuous. If you are going to implement a philosophical revolution, be bold about it: throw out the old, and bring in the new. And if you’re going to be a determinist, be a noisy, full-throated one!

    I think this is a(n interestingly) false dichotomy. It depends on the assumption that there is tangible reality on the one hand, and true or false descriptions of it on the other.

    I’m no solipsist – I think the fact that we can derive testable models of the world that are highly predictive, i.e. that we can discern regularities in the world such that if a stone drops to the ground on Tuesday it will do so if we let it fall again on Thursday. That suggests that there is an underlying reality to the world that is there for us to discover. But my view is that we can only discover it via models – we probe the world using models, rather like sending out ravens from the ark, hoping they will return with confirmatory data, retaining them when they do, abandoning them when they don’t, and revising them if a tweak looks like it will give the model better predictive power. And this is how we actually perceive and navigate the world – our perceptual system is a forward-model-making system that is constantly updated in the light of discrepant data.

    And so a “deterministic universe” is just a model. It’s an odd model, even if it turned out to be true in the sense that underlying quantum mechanics there might turn out to be a a system that predicted the as yet unpredictable quantum events, because it implies a synoptic view. Typically, when people talk about a deterministic universe they say things like “you mean, if the universe were to be re-run, the same things would happen?” just as, if we run a stochastic model in a computer, but use the same pseudo-random number seed we get the same results.

    Yabbut.

    The universe may (or may not be) deterministic to a postulated external viewer. But we are not modeling will from that Point of View. We are modeling the universe from within, and from within (remember that the modelers are part of the universe-to-be modeled), there is no access to re-runs, the only part we have access to is the part that has already occurred (and only a tiny fraction of that) and even if we had a Theory of Everything, like a Mandebrot set, we’d have to run it completely from scratch up to the event we are interested in to find out the answer, and we’d still be missing data because we can’t model the entire universe from within, because our model will also be within it, and we will trip over Gödel. This is crucial.

    In other words, whether the universe is deterministic or quantum-uncertain is irrelevant to the question of the freedom of any entity within the universe. The entire model only makes sense if we place the “modeler” outside the universe we are trying to model. From within, what matters is that the universe is only partially predictable, and that the reason it is unpredictable is not because it is irregular, or quantum-uncertain, but because the predictors – us – have, and can only have, limited data, from which we make models that we hope will give us some advance notice of what will happen next, given the data available.

    In other words, we make contingent models – we say: “if this happens, that will probably happen” – we also say “if I do this, then that will probably happen”. We can also say “if I had done this, that would probably have happened”. And, I suggest, that it is in our capacity to make contingent models of a universe of which we are a part that our freedom lies. We can pose alternatives to ourselves, and choose the action that is most likely to match our goals. In a sense, you could say, it’s our ignorance that gives us our freedom, but it’s an ignorance that is intrinsic to being a part of unfolding reality. If we were not part of that unfolding reality we might not be free, but we are, so we are 🙂

  26. 26
    William J. Murray says:

    In other words, we make contingent models – we say: “if this happens, that will probably happen” – we also say “if I do this, then that will probably happen”. We can also say “if I had done this, that would probably have happened”. And, I suggest, that it is in our capacity to make contingent models of a universe of which we are a part that our freedom lies. We can pose alternatives to ourselves, and choose the action that is most likely to match our goals. In a sense, you could say, it’s our ignorance that gives us our freedom, but it’s an ignorance that is intrinsic to being a part of unfolding reality.

    Determinists are no more capable of framing a determinist argument without using libertarian assumptions and phrases than darwinists are capable of framing discussions of biology and evolution without using design assumptions and phrases.

    The determinist uses “we”, “I”, and “our”, and the acts of such agencies, as if they are libertarian commodities – first sufficient causes in and of themselves, ignoring the necessary causation of what produces the sensation of personhood and the sensation of choosing and the sensation of making contingent models.

    The sensation of self, thought, act, concept, reflection, choice and meaning are all entirely self-referential to the same thing – sensations produced and experienced by the actual sufficient and necessary cause in the determinst’s world – the ongoing interactions of physical matter.

    IOW, the monists view is entirely self-referential, and thus incoherent. X means X, or means Y, or means nothing if the aggregate physical interaction (API) results in it “believing” that is what it means. Incoherent arguments are soundly logical if the API (which is all logic is, logic being a mental construct, and thus the product of the API) says so. Up is down, right is left, and a barking dog makes more sense than Aristotle, if the API so dictates.

    And thus, by the only arbiter of sound logic and good arguments, since my API says “you’re wrong”, then you are wrong by the only arbiter there is of such things, from the determinist perspective. I don’t even have to tender an argument, or logic, because logic and arguments are not “more valid” than any other expression of the API.

    If all things are consumed by the API, and the API is all we have to evaluate the API by, then I’m right, you’re wrong, and that’s all the debate I need make here by the determinst standard.

    Nobody with any self-respect and intellectual merit actually argues that way, which would be the necessary consequence of determiism. Except, of course, if determinism were true, then you couldn’t help arguing in a way that is based on your argument not actually being true (and being forced by API to not recognize the intellectual dishonesty inherent in your argument), any more than leaves can help rustling in the wind (and perhaps thinking they were making sound arguments, if the API so directed).

    This is one of the reasons I dont believe everyone has free will; they are actually leaves blown by the API wind, saying and believing whatever self-refuting nonsense their aggregate physical interactions dictate.

    [My API forced me to post this in the Kinesian Motor thread first (I’d say “by mistake”, but the API doesn’t produce “mistakes”, it only produces what it produces), and now dictates that I ask a moderator to remove it from that thread – that is, if their API dictates accordingly.]

  27. 27
    William J. Murray says:

    What is truly ironic is that Elizabeth argues for a model of reality where she couldn’t hope to know (other than as self-referential programming) if she was being intellectually dishonest or not (since she would just be programmed by physics to believe one way or another), so she cannot actually be “intellectually dishonest”, since there is no independent and sufficient “Elizabeth” in existence to moderate, check, supervene or arbit what the aggregate physical interaction knowns as “elizabeth” says and believes.

    IOW, Elizabeth argues that we are arguing with a programmed computer simulation (a biological automaton) that is incapable of independent reflection and examination. The only thing the machine has to check its programming with is .. its programming.

    Of course, if we were to accept Elizabeth’s assertion that we are all just programmed biological automatons forced to believe and say and do whatever the aggregate physical interaction commands, why bother arguing with anyone? Why bother debating? We have no means by which to independently arbit truth or reality.

    According to the determinist perspective, are necessarily material solipsists, our sensations, interactions, beliefs, views and ideas all individually generated and inescabable, with no way of knowing or discering what – if anything – is true and real.

    The API produces both the madman and the scientist, Gandhi and Hitler, kindness and cruelty with equal belief each is true and right; that makes them all true and right by the only arbiter of such thing – what physics actually produces.

  28. 28
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Of course, if we were to accept Elizabeth’s assertion that we are all just programmed biological automatons forced to believe and say and do whatever the aggregate physical interaction commands, why bother arguing with anyone? Why bother debating? We have no means by which to independently arbit truth or reality.

    Could you point out where I asserted this? I’ve argued rather strenuously for something rather different.

  29. 29
    William J. Murray says:

    And this is at the heart of Dennett’s argument (and mine) – that how free we are is not a matter of whether determinism is true or not, but of the boundaries we draw around our selves: how many degrees of freedom (literally, but the metaphor works as well) I grant my self.

    You say that as if “deterministic processes” and “you” are two different things. You’re borrowing the concept of a sufficient, libertarian free will when you use the term “I” or “we” as if it is something other than “materials in a deterministic process”.

    If “I” am nothing more than a collection of materials and interactions in a determnistic process, that collection of materials is not free, even if that deterministic process makes those materials think they are, and makes them think “they” am something other than “it” (the deterministic process) and that “they” are freely drawing boundaries around themselves.

    Materials in a deterministic process are not free in any meaningful sense of the word, and that is all you are if the universe is deterministic.

  30. 30
    material.infantacy says:

    Laughs: Jacksonville Jaguars have an existential epiphany

    It’s not new, but still funny.

  31. 31
    Elizabeth Liddle says:

    Have you actually read my argument? I’m saying that “I” is a great deal more than “a collection of materials and interactions” or can be, if we choose to do so. If set the boundaries of the self so close that the “I” – the agent we assign responsibility for our actions to – is a mere spectator on a surge of material interactions, then, sure, we have no moral responsibility, but, by the same token, we have defined ourselves almost out of existence. By accepting that I am not merely the sum of the actions done by the matter that makes me tick, but also the sum of the actions I might have done had I made different choices, as well as the sum of the things I plan to do, but are contingent on other things, then the “I” is hugely more than than a blur of leptons moving briefly through space and time. Indeed, it isn’t “material” at all.

    It – she – is nonetheless an agent, morally responsible for her actions.

  32. 32
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Elizabeth,

    Thank you for a thought-provoking response. I have to say that despite the impressive level of argumentation, I was not persuaded that a determinist gains anything by taking responsibility for past mistakes.

    You offer the example of the two women, one of whom takes responsibility for her past while the other one does not. You appeal to a complicated metaphysic of alternative universes to justify your point that by taking responsibility for your past, you can change your future. I would reply that you can change your future without taking responsibility for your past. Consider the following example.

    Tess is a young athlete. She’s very good at running 100-meter sprints. She has a rival, named Sandra. One day, at an athletics carnival, they race. Sandra wins by 0.2 seconds. Tess feels disappointed. But she’s an incompatibilist determinist, so she does not feel guilty for not having trained harder.

    After the race, her coach walks up to her with a video in his hand. He’s an incompatibilist determinist, too, so he doesn’t raise his voice or get angry at her. He sits down with her and they watch the video together. “Now I want you to look at this,” he says, showing her a clip of the beginning of the race. “Do you see how your feet were positioned at the start? Now have a look at Sandra’s starting position. Her feet are perfectly positioned. That gave her a 0.3-second advantage. But Sandra only won today’s race by 0.2 seconds, so I’d say she’s 0.1 second slower than you are. Why don’t you try Sandra’s crouch position next time? Our next practice session is tomorrow.”

    Tess agrees and the next day, she practices starting a race in Sandra’s crouch position. Her coach is right. It shaves about 0.3 seconds off her time for the 100 meters. At the next athletics carnival, Tess beats Sandra by 0.1 second, just as her coach had predicted.

    See what I mean? No counterfactuals, no alternative universes, no Godel paradoxes. Just give it a go, based on an appeal to deterministic considerations: the mechanics of running. Change the inputs to get different outputs. In my story, Tess manages to turn her running career around: she gets to be the State champion. But she remains an incompatibilist determinist. She isn’t a “prisoner of her past”; she simply doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past. “There’s no use crying over spilt milk”, as she puts it.

    End of story? No, not quite. Just before the National Championships, Tess is feeling rather nervous, because she knows that ten runners from other states are better than her. Her coach (who has no scruples about doing whatever it takes to win) offers her a drug that will speed up her reaction times, and that will leave no traces in her system after two hours. She agrees to take the drug, because she has heard that athletes are seldom tested right after the race. Unfortunately, the coach of one of her rivals has videotaped the event, and notices on the replay that Tess was out of the blocks very early. He calls for a drug test immediately after the race. Tess is found to have taken a performance-enhancing drug. She is banned from competition for two years, and is sent home in disgrace.

    On the bus ride home, Tess gazes out the window, and has a good, hard think. All her life she has been focused on one thing: getting good results. Do whatever works best. That has been her motto. Now she sees that living in acordance with that motto has landed her in disgrace. She realizes too that all her life, she has been manipulating her circumstances to help her get the best results, in a very calculating, deterministic fashion. That includes people too. She has been treating other people merely as means to help her realize her personal goals, instead of as agents like herself. That has been her mistake. She remembers the look of utter contempt that the other State runners gave her when her result came back positive. “I’ve been training for this day for three years”, one of them said to her. “Why did you have to spoil it for me?” Tess realizes that she has neglected to think about how other people feel. But then a little demon of doubt enters her mind. “We’re all determined”, it says. “That’s science. You know that. Change your attitude if you like, but don’t pretend it’s any different from improving your running techniques. You’re just changing your behavior to fit your new goal: social acceptance by your peers, so you can come back and race again in two years’ time. I suppose you’ll be appearing on TV soon in a commercial, telling kids not to do drugs? Nice. Will that be that part of your rehabilitation? Whatever. You’re still the same old you. You haven’t changed a bit, deep down. And you never will.”

    “NO!” Tess screams aloud, startling herself and the other passengers on the bus. Something has changed inside her. She felt a surge of empathy with the other State runners, this afternoon: she felt their pain and disappointment. She recognizes that she has stopped thinking of herself and other people as objects – very complex objects, to be sure, but still objects – bascially, glorified machines. That, she realizes, has been the root of her problem. For if people really are like that, then what’s wrong with manipulating them? The key to freeing herself from the machine metaphor, she realizes, is to stop thinking like a machine. No more “What are my goals and what’s the best way to achive them?” Forget about goals,and focus on agents. “Who is in my world, what are my relationships to them, and what obligations do I have towards them?” That is the primary question. Once she has adopted this moral perspective, Tess notices that she is no longer goal-focused. She has become more people-focused. She has stopped living her life as if the arrow of time were moving inexorably towards the big D. Her new moral perspective is now a timeless one. She, like the other moral agents she has started noticing around her, is no longer concerned with future goals as such. For the goals that befit a human being are not future goals, but ones that transcend time. She decides to go back into athletics, not as a runner but as a coach. She decides not to train champions, but to help kids of varying backgrounds and levels of ability experience the pure, wholehearted joy of participating in a physical activity while doing their personal best. Looking back, she can see that it was that feeling of joy that got her into running in the first place.

    In Tess’s new life, determinism doesn’t get a toe-hold. She still believes that procedures work, and that they can be made to work better by manipulating the circumstances. That’s a perfectly legitimate way of thinkig about objects. But she no longer counts people as objects. Insofar as they are capable of moral agency, they transcend the physical universe. She thinks of herself as transcending this cosmos, too. Laws constrain her – she can’t run 100 meters in 2 seconds – but they do not define her. Neither do circumstances. The moral universe in which she operates is no longer one of past, present and future alone, and she no longer fancies that her thoughts are the product of her brain chemistry. Her thoughts are what they are, and she doesn’t try to put them in a box. She realizes that her thoughts and attitudes are, to a large degree, something which she can freely choose. She no longer tries to predict other people’s behavior, in order to manipulate it better; instead, she tries to understand it. She is always aware, however, that to understand is not the same as to excuse. She can understand her past moral mistakes, but she makes no attempt to excuse them. She simply wants to live a good life in her chosen field: athletics.

    Elizabeth, I know that you strongly believe in agency. But it is profoundly self-limiting to accept the notion that your noblest thoughts, words and deeds arise out of your body and brain chemistry – even if they are not reducible to it. For by accepting this notion of supervenience, you have allowed yourself to believe that the domain of the moral can be explained in terms of a domain whose workings are entirely non-moral (physics and chemistry). That is a notion that stunts people from achieving their full potential. And there’s not a smidgin of scientific evidence for it. I would urge you to liberate yourself from the confines of the material cosmos. For it does not contain you; part of you will always lie outside it, no matter how you draw it.

    I know you like Godel, so here are a few quotes from him, taken from A Logical Journey: From Gödel to Philosophy by Hao Wang (MIT Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0262231893). “Consciousness is connected with one unity. A machine is composed of parts.” “The brain is a computing machine connected with a spirit.” “Materialism is false.” “Our total reality and total existence are beautiful and meaningful . . . . We should judge reality by the little which we truly know of it. Since that part which conceptually we know fully turns out to be so beautiful, the real world of which we know so little should also be beautiful. Life may be miserable for seventy years and happy for a million years: the short period of misery may even be necessary for the whole.” And I suppose you’re aware that Godel originated an interesting little proof for the existence of God, right?

  33. 33
    William J. Murray says:

    Have you actually read my argument? I’m saying that “I” is a great deal more than “a collection of materials and interactions” or can be, if we choose to do so. If set the boundaries of the self so close that the “I” – the agent we assign responsibility for our actions to – is a mere spectator on a surge of material interactions, then, sure, we have no moral responsibility, but, by the same token, we have defined ourselves almost out of existence.

    Unless drawing larger boundaries and mentally taking responsiblity for more stuff factually transforms “materials in a deterministic process” into something else, calling it “a great deal more than a collection of materials in a deterministic process” is the very essence of equivocation, because under determinism that is all you can ever be, regardless of what you think, believe, or do.

    Or, perhaps you are just saying we should lie to ourselves, like a rock saying “I’m a great deal more than just a rock!” when, in fact, it’s just a rock.

    You’re sneaking in the stolen concept again. You having nothing other than “collections of materials in a deterministic universe” to work with or to end up with, regardless of what kind of mental gymnastics and equivocations you use to hide the facts of such an existence from yourself.

  34. 34
    StephenB says:

    If, though an act of the will, one cannot affirm one course of action and negate another, or pursue one destiny and withdraw from another, then that act does not constitute a free choice. Compatibilism is nothing more than second order determinism and its proponents can only “reconcile” it with free will by perverting the meaning of the word “free.” Either we are nature’s plaything are we are not. There is no middle ground.

  35. 35
    William J. Murray says:

    There’s always the middle ground of lying to ourselves 🙂

  36. 36
  37. 37
    Matteo says:

    But for too many, the tastiest cake is the one you can have and eat, too. I suppose a lot of folks want just enough determinism to make God an impossibility, but not so much as to make themselves an impossibility.

  38. 38
    Mung says:

    That suggests that there is an underlying reality to the world that is there for us to discover. But my view is that we can only discover it via models – we probe the world using models

    Let me suggest that you pick up a heavy object on Tuesday and drop it on your foot. And then pick up that same object on Thursday and drop it on the same foot. Some things just don’t need a model.

  39. 39
    Ilion says:

    I suppose a lot of folks want just enough determinism to make God an impossibility, but not so much as to make themselves an impossibility.

    That’s it, precisely. Such a perfection of determinism can’t logically be had, of course … but, as we’re dealing with persons who choose to embrace irrationality, what bother is a little illogic?

  40. 40
    Ilion says:

    Goodness! EL seems to be not merely confusing the territory of the map, but to be asserting that the territory cannot even be seem without the map.

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