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The Illusion of the Illusion of Free Will

December 21st, 2009 · 55 Comments

I’ve written about this at some length before, but I want to quickly repeat the point because I keep seeing reader submissions to Andrew Sullivan’s running colloquy on free will that make a point to the effect that, whatever the metaphysical truth of the matter, we all have this “illusion of free will,” and ordinary people all act “as if” they have it. I think this is a confusion.

Suppose I look at a spoon in a glass of water, and note that while it appears to be bent, this is only an optical illusion. What do I mean? Well, it means I have a concept of what kind of visual experience I’d have if the spoon were actually bent, and that my perception corresponds to this, though I know that in the instance my perception is caused by the refractive properties of water, rather than anything unusual about the shape of the spoon. Some similar account works for illusions more generally: I have an idea of what it would look like if the magician really sawed his assistant in half, and he manages to approximate my concept without actually doing it.  How would this work in the case of (radically contracausal) free will? If we don’t have it, after all, this is presumably not a recent development. If we haven’t got the genuine article, then we have no point of reference for what it would  subjectively be like (if anything) to have it.

I think people who talk like this usually mean  a few related things. For one, ordinary decisionmaking does not seem like other kinds of “unfree” action—doing something by reflex or under hypnosis, maybe. Also, we’re no more directly aware of the neural underpinnings of our decisionmaking than we are of, say, our sensory processing. And of course, we aren’t aware of what the results of our deliberation will be in advance—otherwise, why deliberate?—so they will be necessarily “open ended” in that sense. But to call these things an “illusion of free will” just seems like a mistake.  It is as if someone had told me for the first time about subatomic theory, and I mused that I nevertheless have this illusion of a solid desk chair, when after all, it is really these clouds of quarks and whatnot. And this would be silly: The parameters of “solid” and “desk chair” are given by ordinary life, and within those bounds the chair is exactly as solid as it ever was. A theory about the microstructure of the chair could not be in conflict with, or prove “illusory,” my ordinary perceptions,  because they were not perceptions of the microstructure in the first place.

The same goes for claims that we “act as if” we are free, or “cannot help talking as though” we were free.  What does that mean? That when I decide what to have for breakfast, I must simultaneously represent to myself a metaphysical theory about the nature of consciousness and human agency? Clearly not. Is it that our language is riddled with talk like “if I were to do so-and-so,” in which it’s implicit that multiple courses of action are live options? But as one of Andrew’s commenters points out, we use “if” talk constantly in cases where there’s epistemic uncertainty about things everybody thinks are determined by ordinary causal processes: “If it rains tomorrow, we’ll have to cancel the picnic.” And again, if we don’t have contracausal free will, then we talk and act exactly “as if” we are beings without that strange property, since evidently this is just how such beings act. What is really meant by this is that Western thinkers have ginned up a bunch of metaphysical theories that implicate terms like “if” and “ought” and “choice,” and then import the theoretical baggage back in to our ordinary use of the terms. But our use predates our theorizing. “Choice” and “if” are not like, say, “phlogiston”—derived from a theory and rendered conversationally obsolete when we discover that the theory is mistaken and the term extensionless. When we try to explain what we “mean” by the word “could,” that explanation or definition is really a further act of interpretation of our linguistic practice. We sometimes misleadingly say our ordinary way of talking about choice “assumes” or “presupposes” some theory implicitly, but we cannot literally believe that toddlers must have consciously formulated a position on the nature of human choice before they are able to begin using such terms. (Nobody, I hope, will suggest instead that we should believe the toddler subconsciously holds the theory, whatever that would look like.) There’s nothing contradictory or incongruous about continuing the practice after you’ve decided a particular interpretation of it is wrong.

You’ve probably heard this old joke: Guy goes to the psychiatrist and says his brother’s gone mad, and believes he’s a chicken. Psychiatrist asks why they haven’t already brought him in for treatment, to which the guy replies “Well, we could use the eggs.”  There’s actually a neat ambiguity here. You can read the joke as being that the man hasn’t drawn an obvious implication from what he knows—that his brother is not really a chicken, and so he shouldn’t expect any eggs. He says he doesn’t believe his brother is a chicken, but he continues to talk “as if” he does believe it. But there’s another reading: That the guy who comes to supposedly report on his “brother’s” condition turns out to be the crazy one, under the delusion that this chicken is his brother. His talk about eggs is just fine, but it’s gotten tangled with some weird ideas about kinship ties. (And of course, there’s the surreal reading: That the human brother’s delusion is so powerful he really has started laying eggs.)   With free will, we’re in the second joke. Our ground-level talk about choices and counterfactuals is fine; it just seems problematic because we think free will is our chicken brother.  OK, that doesn’t quite work, but you get the drift.

We can say something similar about the folks who weigh in with dire concerns about what the rejection of free will means for moral judgment. Our particular intuitions about its content may benefit from theoretical reflection, but it’s just backwards to suggest that the “wrong” answer to a metaphysical question about agency or the nature of the mind could somehow require us to throw out the whole language of value and meaning. And while it would require a long post of its own to really cash this out, I think it’s a good sign that something’s wrong with your value theory if it does depend in this crucial, systemic way on the answer we give here.

The theoretical error may have practical costs as we start to learn more and more about human genetics and neurology. Jonah Lehrer notes several studies in which subjects prompted to think about a view of persons as “biological machines” were more disposed to cheat on a mock-test. You can say: Aha! The corrosive effect of materialism!  Or you can view it as an unfortunate side effect of an excess of transcendentalism in our ethical thinking: People confronted with facts that throw the contracausal theory into doubt come to confusedly think moral precepts are undermined. I think elsewhere I’ve called this theorizing “in the shadow of God,” but we can be less dramatic about it and just say we’re in the first version of the chicken joke. Why not correct this mistaken metaphysical theory? Well, we could use the ethics…

Tags: General Philosophy



55 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Drew // Dec 21, 2009 at 9:10 am

    This is one of those subjects where I always end up feeling like I’m either seeing something obvious that other people just aren’t getting, or I’m a blind person in a room full of the sighted.

    I guess I just, in the end, don’t understand what people think they MEAN when they talk about things like radically contracausal free will being “necessary” for this or that: to explain our intuitions about choice, to explain moral responsibility.

    If I could convince myself that I was just too dumb to grasp it, that would at least be satisfying. But most of the time I can’t seem to convince myself that anyone making these theoretical arguments is really even sure of what they are saying or arguing. It’s maddening.

  • 2 Alex Knapp // Dec 21, 2009 at 9:32 am

    Every time this debate gets bandied about, I always wonder why it boils down to the simplistic “determinism vs. free will” argument. Has compatibilism just not trickled down into mainstream argument yet? I only have so many copies of “Freedom Evolves” I can hand out.

    I find this even more fascinating because in a recent survey of philosophers, there’s a pretty strong consensus for compatibilism.


  • 3 Drew // Dec 21, 2009 at 10:06 am

    The problem is that I can’t have a “determinism vs. free will” or even a compatibilism argument when I’m not convinced anyone knows what these concepts really mean, how they contrast with each other, and so forth.

    Free Will seems radically anti-explicable. Any attempt to explain how people make choices is almost by definition an explanation of a causal process. And if Free Will is a coherent concept, we’d need to be able to explain at what point it plays into the making of choices, and what special effect it has on the process. But explaining it in that way seems to defeat the very concept.

    So instead, invoking “Free Will” is almost like a casting a curse or saying a blessing: there’s no mechanism by which it seems to have any theoretical effect on anything anyone can describe in detail, even hypothetically: it’s just vaguely granted or denied, and then whether or not you agree it exists is given great moral import for reasons that, likewise, no one can explain.

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2009 at 10:27 am

    I think my argument is implicitly compatibilist, though I don’t call it that.

  • 5 Alex Knapp // Dec 21, 2009 at 11:28 am


    I agree with you. I’m talking more about the debates playing out on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, in which the last two centuries of philosophy apparently did not happen.

  • 6 Daniel // Dec 21, 2009 at 11:54 am

    You might want to check out Mark Johnston’s “Human Concerns and Superlative Selves.” There he makes a general version of the point you suggest would take a longer blog post. He’s primarily discussing personal identity, and he thinks our ordinary practices shouldn’t be seen as depending on deep metaphysical assumptions about the nature of persons. If I remember right, he also suggests that he would take a similar position on free will–he would think that our ordinary practices shouldn’t be seen as depending on assumptions about theses like determinism. Most of it is available on google books.

  • 7 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2009 at 12:55 pm


    I will confess I am always a little stunned when people start speculating about what a “secular ethics” could possibly look like, as though it’s some kind of crazy innovation.


    I will check it out. This is indeed a thought I first had in the context of debates about personal identity. Some essay responding to Parfit was going on as though it would clearly be this awful thing if such-and-such facts about identity were true, and I remember thinking: “Do strawberries stop tasting good if the wrong theory of mind pans out?”

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Agreed. There are a lot of Underpants Gnomes arguments in philosophy—they depend on terms like “free will” or “God” or “cause” or “matter” functioning as a kind of black box. Plenty of problems dissolve—or seem more tractable, anyway—when you try to pry them open and see how the concepts do the the theoretical work they’re taken to perform.

  • 9 DivisionByZero // Dec 21, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    Julian, I’m not sure I understand where you fall on this topic:

    “It is as if someone had told me for the first time about subatomic theory, and I mused that I nevertheless have this illusion of a solid desk chair, when after all, it is really these clouds of quarks and whatnot. And this would be silly: The parameters of “solid” and “desk chair” are given by ordinary life, and within those bounds the chair is exactly as solid as it ever was.”

    I agree with this statement and therefore would say that there is no reason for calling free will illusory. It’s simply an unexplained phenomenon awaiting an explanation (causal or otherwise). In fact I’d say it’s probably one of the most important scientific problems that is currently outstanding. We could attempt to explain it by some sort of reductionist argument (i.e. putting a square peg in to a round hole) or we could try to figure out how we would need to change our metaphysical (deterministic?) preconceptions (assuming Occam’s Razor) in order to accommodate some sort of “free” will. Right now, everything is so ill-defined or so much is taken for granted that having a dialogue or discussion is nearly impossible because the conditions under which we would accept a given point as established are completely unclear.

  • 10 jre // Dec 21, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    There’s this old farmer, and he’s spent his whole life on a farm in southern Manitoba, right on the US border. Or at least that’s what he thinks.

    One day, a surveying team comes through and finds that the border actually lies a quarter mile north of where everyone had believed it to be, putting the whole farm in Minnesota. Comes a crew from the local TV station to do an interview:

    “So, old timer — it turns out you’re a US resident. How do you feel about that?”

    “Well, that’s pretty good, there, because I hear it’s awful cold up there in Canada!”

  • 11 Michael B Sullivan // Dec 21, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    So, look. It might rain tomorrow. It might not. There are a lot of relatively productive discussions about the possibility of rain tomorrow — we could add to each other’s sources of information about the weather tomorrow (I just checked weather.com). We could make conditional plans (let’s go shopping at the outdoor mall if it doesn’t rain, but the indoor mall otherwise). We could discuss what that means for longer term uncertain futures (what’s our water situation like in California this year).

    But it would be absurd to get into a discussion or argument about whether or it should rain tomorrow. Neither you nor I can affect the weather tomorrow. There’s nothing we can do about it.

    If your and my decisions and beliefs are as foreordained — but uncertain — as the weather tomorrow, isn’t it just as absurd to have a discussion about what we ought to believe or do, as it is to have a discussion about whether it ought to rain tomorrow?

  • 12 Drew // Dec 21, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    “DivisionByZero: “I agree with this statement and therefore would say that there is no reason for calling free will illusory. It’s simply an unexplained phenomenon awaiting an explanation (causal or otherwise).”

    What’s the phenomenon in the first place though, really? What are we really claiming anyone is experiencing? I identify and make choices. I do so by entering into a process, some of which is conscious, and other parts of which seem unconscious. I can’t always predict what those choices will be, but I would say that the conviction that _I_ am making them is a heck of a lot more important than the bizarre idea that they are not determined by anything characteristically “me.”

    “Michael B Sullivan: If your and my decisions and beliefs are as foreordained — but uncertain — as the weather tomorrow, isn’t it just as absurd to have a discussion about what we ought to believe or do, as it is to have a discussion about whether it ought to rain tomorrow?”

    Why would it be absurd? Having the discussion is one of the factors that will play into whether or not you’ll be convinced or not. The fact that someone could hypothetically predict that the discussion will happen, and whether or not you will be convinced by it or not is neither here nor there. It doesn’t demonstrate that this or that argument made is invalid or pointless.

    Moral principles, for instance, proceed from some agreed upon value to some conclusion about proper action: that’s the context in which the “should” operates, and if you buy those arguments, HOW it would influence your behavior.

    If we can’t, in fact, agree upon basic values I’m not sure there is any “should.” But, luckily, we often do, which is why we do seem quite capable of having coherent moral arguments.

  • 13 Matt // Dec 21, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    A word now from a physicist: We do not live in a deterministic universe, period.

    The reason is simple to explain. Essentially all physically realistic systems—the human brain being a key example—experience nonlinear dynamics, and hence exhibit chaos. Chaos, in turn, implies that no matter how many decimal places you assign to the initial state of a system, the final state will always come out with exponentially fewer decimal places, and so predictivity is fundamentally and irreversibly lost. Thermodynamics makes the situation even worse—the famed second law, when phrased in the language of information theory, is literally the statement that information is irretrievably lost as time moves forward.

    Our knowledge of all these facts actually predates the discovery of quantum mechanics. But quantum mechanics, as you know, makes the case for determinism even worse, by plugging the concepts of probability and uncertainty directly into the fundamental laws of nature. And the human eye is sensitive enough to pick out small numbers of photons, thereby implying that the human brain is not merely chaotic at the classical level, but responds also to quantum-mechanical effects.

    So all these metaphysical questions about the ethical dilemmas of living in a deterministic universe are entirely moot; you all seem to be unaware that there have been a lot of developments in physics since the days when Newton imagined a rigid, deterministic, clockwork universe! Why don’t you move on already and talk about something more interesting, like the philosophical implications of living in a non-deterministic universe, for instance? :)

  • 14 silentbeep // Dec 21, 2009 at 4:34 pm


    Not much to say here other than: this makes perfect sense to me. Excellent

    The whole “chair example” just put in in crystal clear perespective for me. Fuck I hate to gush but, dammmn.

  • 15 Michael B Sullivan // Dec 21, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    But it’s not really a “factor that will play into whether or not I’ll be convinced.” The factor that will play into whether or not I’ll be convinced is the present state of the universe. The discussion is just inevitable winding down of the mechanism.

    If I roll a couple of balls down a complexly contoured hill, and they potentially interfere with each other, sure, the balls are influencing each other’s paths. But to ascribe any meaning to that is so bizarre that it’s difficult to express in our language how strange it is. We wouldn’t even begin to describe that as one ball “convincing” the other, or that one ball’s path is “right” and the other’s “wrong.” If we imagined that the balls themselves have some kind of consciousness (and why not? In this view, consciousness is just a strange waste-product of a deterministic but complex process — why would we imagine that our brain is the only deterministic-but-complex process which generates a consciousness?), they might ascribe value to their paths and their interactions, but from an external perspective, that notion is laughable.

    And what we’re doing here is trying to take an external perspective. From the internal perspective, we have something that we call free will (which I think is mostly Julian’s point). That’s the truth, I think: it feels meaningful to us to make decisions. When we ask what’s happening when we make those decisions, and we hypothesize that we are deterministic, we put ourselves into the role of the observer watching those balls interact.

  • 16 Sigivald // Dec 21, 2009 at 4:49 pm

    The way I always put it is that we have the experience of free will, and thus the “reality” of it from a determinist perspective is irrelevant.

    Just like your chair, in a sense.

    (Or, to put it another way, if we’re all determined, we’re evidently all determined to think we have free will, so it’s a waste of time to carp about it or act like it actually changes anything.

    Which carping would also be determined, but the people doing the carping never act like they’ve accepted that, so loop and repeat.)

    Matt: What does information loss have to do with it? Determinisim in the context of people carping about free will has nothing (at least in any of the understandings I have of it) to do with that issue, interesting as it is to physicists.

    (For that matter, despite quantum handwaving, why does the large-scale universe behave just like a deterministic one, despite… all the quantum handwaving?

    [The old, "if everything is quantum froth, plainly it's not random quantum froth, because it acts like traditional physics at the large level" thing.

    All the "because of quantum" in the world won't change that the chair feels solid and that we can predict the operations of metal and wood well enough to produce the chair in the first place.]

    It acts deterministic in every way that’s relevant to the philosophical question – and even if it didn’t, “random unpredictable chaos” no more gets you”really real free will” than “completely deterministic lockstep” does.

    The philosophical problem hasn’t changed or been replaced by a new one.)

  • 17 Drew // Dec 21, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    “Michael B Sullivan // Dec 21, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    But it’s not really a “factor that will play into whether or not I’ll be convinced.” The factor that will play into whether or not I’ll be convinced is the present state of the universe. The discussion is just inevitable winding down of the mechanism.”

    Again, I’m tempted to respond…. yeah, so?

    I want to go to the bank. I get in my car and drive there. The car is just a “mechanism.” So I guess I didn’t “really” go to the bank? I don’t get it.

    No, the balls clacking into each other are not “convincing” each other. But that’s because they haven’t been described as having any of the mechanisms for abstraction and conceptualization relevant to that term, and so of course we’re not talking about the same sorts of interactions. You might as well say it’s stupid to talk about the balls rolling down the hill “posting on the internet” to each other. Yes, it IS stupid. Because that’s not the particular sort of thing that they’re doing. But how the heck do you get from that to the claim that there are no particular higher-order interactions that ARE deserving of concepts like “convincing”?

    Computers can be ordered such that they can calculate sums in particular ways when fed math problems. Balls rolling down hills are not calculating anything: so therefore computers can’t solve math problems?

    I’m not even sure I see that YOU understand what you mean by “feels meaningful” to make decisions. In what way is something more or less meaningful? What’s the actual characteristic that is or isn’t missing from a “meaningful” decision or a non-meaningful one? (And don’t just say “choice”: WHAT is this choice: what is going on there? what role is it playing and how?)

    The very statement that SOMETHING is MAKING a decision implies some particular causal sequence. Why do you object or find it non-meaningful when we go and fulfill that implication by describing the particular process that is occurring when that happens? What could you possibly even be talking about if you claim that there IS no possible causal description of what is going on?

  • 18 Matt // Dec 21, 2009 at 5:18 pm


    In science at least, a system is said to be deterministic if all well-defined features of the system are uniquely determined by some initial set of information somewhere, together with a set of dynamical rules. That’s what determinism is! If information is always being lost, then the final state of a system cannot be predicted even in principle from its initial state, and the system is by definition non-deterministic. That’s why no being, no matter how powerful or intelligent, can predict the behavior of a non-deterministic system.

    Note, of course, that randomness does not necessarily imply that things are totally unpredictable, just that there is a degree of uncertainty in all things. We can, after all, predict many things with 85%, 90%, sometimes even 99.999% certainty!

    As for quantum mechanics, decoherence is responsible for the emergence of what looks like a very classical world at large scales. To understand what decoherence is in any detail, however, you need to study quantum mechanics in great depth—Nature reveals her secrets only to those who put in the years of elbow grease that she demands.

    In any event, a priori, the universe is either deterministic or non-deterministic, and if the free-will question is independent of that, then just say so. But science has told us what it can, and that’s that the universe is, in the end, non-deterministic. So please stop saying otherwise! How did so many philosophers get permanently stuck in the 18th-century Newtonian paradigm of a clockwork cosmos?

  • 19 Drew // Dec 21, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    “But science has told us what it can, and that’s that the universe is, in the end, non-deterministic. ”

    But not in any sense relevant to explaining what a choice is, distinct from simply inexplicable random brain-farts that can’t actually be ascribed to any agent responsible for them. Explanations require causality: even probabilistic causality. The problem of Free Will is that it seems conceptually allergic to any sort of explicable causality, not just mere literal predictability of that causality.

  • 20 Wilbur // Dec 21, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    It makes a big difference whether you believe in free will or determinism. The two are NOT pragmatically equivalent. If you believe in free will, you can blame people for doing bad things (and praise people for doing good things). If you don’t believe in free will, you can’t really blame anyone for anything, because there are reasons (causes) for why people did what they did. You can encourage people to do different things, and in so doing, you can become one of the contributing causes of their future behavior. So you can say, “Please do this,” or “Don’t do that,” but you can’t really blame anyone for having had the set of experiences and thought processes that resulted in them doing whatever they did.

    Compatibilism is mushy and meaningless. If you can trace the causes of your behavior to events that originate outside your own life experiences, then you are a product of such causal forces, and free will does not exist. If human beings can somehow transcend those causal forces (during a seemingly magical moment), then they are capable of freedom.

    Quantum theory and such has no import on this discussion. Randomness and “free will” are two very different things. An epileptic seizure is not “free” in any significant sense of the word.

  • 21 Drew // Dec 21, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    “Wilbur: If you believe in free will, you can blame people for doing bad things (and praise people for doing good things).”

    How? What are you blaming? They randomly could have decided otherwise, and since nothing in their nature made them choose this or that, how can you judge them? How can you even use their past behavior as a guide to future behavior? You’re randomly judging and punishing people based on something utterly arbitrary.

    “If you don’t believe in free will, you can’t really blame anyone for anything, because there are reasons (causes) for why people did what they did.”

    So, let me get this straight: if there is a reason that traces back my evil act to my evil personality, I’m not responsible for my choices?

    “If human beings can somehow transcend those causal forces (during a seemingly magical moment), then they are capable of freedom.”

    The problem you aren’t addressing is: freedom from WHAT? You seem to be saying that they are free from THEMSELVES. And that doesn’t make any sense at all. You can’t transcend your own identity and then turn around and hold that very same identity responsible for what got chosen. You just flat-out admitted that it didn’t have anything to do with it.

  • 22 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2009 at 6:05 pm

    I think Wilbur’s right that quantum mechanics isn’t super relevant here—”determinism” is mostly a shorthand here; adding quantum indeterminacy doesn’t change a whole lot.

    I think he’s wrong about the other stuff. The correct inference is that if we don’t have contracausal free will, then this is too strong a condition to impose on moral judgment—it’s the wrong sense of “could,” just as “logical possibility” is the wrong sense of could for moral evaluation.

    Also, the folks saying that we after all inevitably have “the experience of free will”… the central argument of the post is that no, we don’t really. We have a model we’ve laid over our experience so intimately that we think it’s somehow forced on us by the experience itself. It isn’t.

  • 23 Matt // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    I think I made it clear in my first post that quantum mechanics was not the only source of non-determinism in Nature. Non-determinism arises at the purely classical level as well; quantum mechanics just adds to the non-determinism.

    My point was just that physics, both classical and quantum-mechanical, shreds the myth of Newtonian determinism.

    Now to the second misconception: Non-determinism does not mean total randomness. There is a sliding scale between being an automaton and being in an epileptic fit. Those “brain farts” are highly non-random—indeed, they exhibit a strong degree of statistical correlation, and that correlation itself is closely associated with thoughts and various brain states. You can’t predict what patterns of brain firings will occur or when—that’s the non-deterministic part—but when they do occur, they are far from uncorrelated or random! Don’t conflate these two notions of unpredictability!

    Thirdly, explanations do not require causality, at least not in the naive sense of temporal cause and effect. What explanations require is an understanding of the underlying pattern. When I say that I understand or can explain Benford’s law, or even quantum mechanics, I’m making a statement that I have identified the underlying principles and patterns. Even a non-deterministic system can be explained, for example. I can explain the three-body problem, even though I cannot predict its long-time behavior.

    As for “free will” and “choice,” could someone please set forth a clear and non-circular definition of these things? How are we supposed to debate any of this in the first place if people are going to hide behind vague statements of their terms? If terms like “free will” and “choice” cannot be given definitions that we can subject to a rigorous analysis, then that would seem to be the real problem, wouldn’t it?

  • 24 Wilbur // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:05 pm

    Drew: “So, let me get this straight: if there is a reason that traces back my evil act to my evil personality, I’m not responsible for my choices?”

    My personality came from somewhere, so I have to trace my evil act further back to the set of causes that ultimately resulted in my personality. I’ve only existed for a finite period of time, so eventually I would have to trace all of my thoughts, hopes, fears, decision-making mechanisms, etc., to a set of causes external to me. That’s why I can’t be blamed for my evil acts. I can be pitied, but not blamed. I can be reformed (by someone skilled at such things), but that will only change my future behavior.

    Drew: “The problem you aren’t addressing is: freedom from WHAT? You seem to be saying that they are free from THEMSELVES. And that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

    Well, yes. You are right. That’s why free will doesn’t make sense.

    Julian: “The correct inference is that if we don’t have contracausal free will, then this is too strong a condition to impose on moral judgment—it’s the wrong sense of “could,” just as “logical possibility” is the wrong sense of could for moral evaluation.”

    If my behaviors have been determined, then I could not have done otherwise. It is logically impossible for me to have done otherwise (if I take all the relevant antecedents of my action into consideration), and therefore it is really impossible for me to have done otherwise. Is there another morally relevant sense of “could” or “should”? I can beat myself up for my poor choices. I can say to myself, “I shouldn’t have done that,” even though I know that I could not really have done otherwise, being the person who I was at the time. What I am saying in such cases is that I would not make the same decision today if confronted with a sufficiently similar set of circumstances. I’ve learned something. But there’s still no reason to blame my prior self for my poor decision-making. The purpose of judgmental self-reflection is to guide future action more wisely.

  • 25 Wilbur // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    Matt: “Explanations do not require causality, at least not in the naive sense of temporal cause and effect. ”

    Explanations do require causality in this case, because the relevant question is whether we could have done otherwise. Fundamentally, this is a question of whether the existing causes necessitate a certain outcome (determinism), whether the existing causes are unrelated to the outcome (indeterminism), or whether the existing causes can be overruled somehow if people just try hard enough (free will). It isn’t fair to ignore the importance of causality in resolving this question.

    Determinists believe that people make choices, but that there are causal chains resulting in the choices being made. Indeterminists believe people make choices, and that there are no causal chains resulting in the choices being made (or at least that there are “breaks” in the causal chains that result in unpredictability.) There is no morally significant difference between the determinist and the indeterminist, as I’ve defined them here, because neither of them claim to be blameworthy or praiseworthy for the decisions they have made. The determinist points to a series of billiard balls leading up to his or her decisions. The indeterminist points to the seemingly random movement of popping corn, but cannot be blamed for where the corn lands, either here or there.

    Advocate of free will DO claim to be blameworthy or praiseworthy for the decisions they make. Their choices do not result from billiard balls or popping corn. Instead, advocates of free will take all the billiard balls and popping corn into consideration, look at the advantages and disadvantages of the different trajectories, and then choose one. He or she can choose the right path or the wrong path, thus he or she is worthy of praise or blame. You say, “Explanations do not require causality, at least not in the naive sense of temporal cause and effect. ” And in saying this, you give advocates of free will a way out. They no longer have to explain how they choose one trajectory over another. It isn’t via a billiard ball process or a popping corn process. It is by some mysterious third way that cannot be explained via causes. This is the core sloppiness of voluntaristic ethics.

  • 26 Michael B Sullivan // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Drew: “Again, I’m tempted to respond…. yeah, so?

    I want to go to the bank. I get in my car and drive there. The car is just a ‘mechanism.’ So I guess I didn’t ‘really’ go to the bank? I don’t get it.”

    Well, we agree that you don’t get it!

    Your analogy there is pretty awful, to an extent that I don’t really know how to begin to address it. I don’t think it parallels what I was talking about in any way, and particularly I’m confused by how you think “do you or don’t you get to the bank” parallels my question of whether or not it’s absurd to talk about what we should or ought to think or decide.

    What we all basically seem to agree is that we have a subjective experience in which we are agents of something that has a distinct flavor, which we might call choice or decision. There is an experience which each of us can identify and categorize as, “I decided to do something. I chose something.” We’re all on board with that.

    So, then, what we’re examining is what is objectively happening when we have that subjective experience of “making a choice.” The two basic thing that you’re arguing is, “a series of sensory input are going through a deterministic process in the brain (involving, probably, some kind of self-feedback loop), which has the side effect of making your consciousness feel like this.”

    There’s certainly good evidence that that is the case.

    But I’m saying, once we’re looking at this from outside of the subjective experience, what differentiates this from any other complex process, of which there are literally trillions every day which we don’t regard as “choices” or describe as making a decision? You seem to be arguing that we should privilege the process of “making a decision” in a way that we don’t privilege the process of “all the raindrops presently outside my window in a few mile area finding a place to rest for the next several minutes.” Why?

    And if your answer comes back to the subjective experience of a “decision,” then I think that you’re basically arguing the same line as people who say that “we all behave like we had free will.”

  • 27 Tom Clark // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:35 pm


    “The correct inference is that if we don’t have contracausal free will, then this is too strong a condition to impose on moral judgment…”

    Right, but in holding people responsible we shouldn’t apply the retributive principle that was based in contra-causal free will (CCFW): that offenders *deserve* punishment because they could have done otherwise, even given all the causes and conditions in play. Once we abjure CCFW, we’re led to a consequentialist conception of responsibility in which the (fully caused) offender is held responsible in order to shape future behavior for the better. This means that punishments designed merely to inflict suffering, and that further damage the offender, aren’t justifiable. So getting clear about free will has considerable implications for criminal justice and other policy domains. See for instance Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen’s paper “For the law, neuroscience changes nothing, and everything” available on the Web.

  • 28 lw // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    I am not worried that scientific explanations of what goes on when I play the game of basketball makes it the case that I am getting something wrong when I talk about “shooting” and “dribbling” the “ball” (as opposed to lots of quarks or atoms or whatever doing whatever they do to each other). Although you might be able to describe what’s going on in scientific language, we don’t think that the scientific description is what’s “really” going on and that everything else is bosh. If anything, basketball is what’s “really” going on, and the scientific explanation is at least irrelevant (if not bosh).

    Similarly, I am not worried that scientific explanations about human beings and their interactions with the world around them have much bearing on our ability to talk about choosing, doing, and so forth.

    Thanks, Julian, for providing some sense to a pretty besides-the-point debate.

  • 29 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    This is a longer argument than it makes sense to attempt in a comment section, but I’m inclined to think that if there’s a problem with retributive punishment, it’s a moral problem. The way we talk about the problems with a particular theory of agency may illuminate the moral problem, but if the moral idea is broken, it will turn out to be broken independent of the answer you give to the metaphysical question. Here as elsewhere, I think CCFW is a kind of black box that doesn’t end up able to do the work it’s supposed to in the retributive argument.

  • 30 Jay Levitt // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:46 pm

    Isn’t Julian’s whole quibble with the definitions of “solid”? The only philosophy course I’ve ever taken was Philosophy of Language, so maybe this looks like a nail because I’ve got a hammer. But…

    Isn’t every sentence implicitly qualified by definitions that encodes the speaker’s belief system to date? When I say “My stomach hurts”, what I mean is “I’m feeling sensations that I associate with the concept of pain as I understand it, and they seem strongest in the part of my body that from what I’ve read contains my stomach.” And so on, and so on, until you have more qualifications and parentheticals than a British apology. Sentences carry their context; statements have state.

    No, the toddler doesn’t have a compete theory of choice. When the toddler says “I want the chair”, “want” means “that which I associate with wanting”, and “chair” means “that which I associate with the chair”, and there’s no self-awareness of those facts. When the toddler grows up to become a moody philosophy major, “want” might encode “that which makes me feel darkly empty and listen to Ani DiFranco, even as I know the children in wherever are starving, and I don’t deserve to want, and my want isn’t as pure as it was when I was a toddler, so I’ll get a tattoo of the chair instead.”

    And then you get off into qualia and naming and referents, Kripke and Russell and Wittgenstein. No? When you and I talk about Shakespeare, neither one of us would recognize him if he walked into the room. And if it turns out that Shakespeare’s plays were all written by some guy named Maurice, then everything we’ve said about “Shakespeare’s plays” was really about “the plays we call ‘Shakespeare’s plays’”, but we sort of understand that.

    Which is to say: By “free will”, what we mean is “the thing that we imagine what we call free will would be like”. It’s turtles all the way down.

  • 31 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2009 at 7:55 pm

    No, you’re right; this is very much a Wittgensteinian argument in spirit—if you’ll click through to the link at the outset, you’ll see I originally got off on this line of thought while reading one of his better one-liners.

  • 32 Jay Levitt // Dec 21, 2009 at 8:01 pm

    D’oh! Well, er, we’re obviously thinking along the same lines…

  • 33 Wilbur // Dec 21, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    Here’s a simple point: It makes a difference whether you believe in determinism or free will. This is not an irrelevant discussion, like wondering whether a basketball or chair is “really” made of atoms. Consider this simple example: When the red-faced man stands outside the prison, waving his sign in the air, screaming for justice to be done, calling on the prison officials to “fry” the man who raped and murdered his daughter, he is not just trying to shape the inmates’ future behavior or the behavior of other bad people in society. He really believes they deserve to fry, and this affects his behavior in a powerful, visceral way. I feel very bad for this man, but I do not believe his emotions are metaphysically justified, nor do I believe his actions are likely to lead to the best possible outcome for society. There are other things (smarter things) he can do that will have a more positive, enduring impact. Bad metaphysics can result in bad ethics. Julian is right when he calls this a moral problem, but it is only a problem for advocates of free will. Determinists do not march outside of prisons calling for the blood of the people who wronged them, because it wouldn’t make sense.

  • 34 paradoctor // Dec 21, 2009 at 8:22 pm

    “The Judge’s Philosophy”
    a fable

    A judge said to two convicts, “You have been charged, tried, found guilty, and sentenced. Do you have any last words to the Court before the bailiff takes you away?”

    The first convict said, “By my philosophy, this is all unfair; for I am a victim of circumstance. My actions were pre-determined by society, psychology, biology, and the laws of physics and mathematics. I am a material bio-mechanism; I do what I must; why then do you punish me?”

    The judge replied, “If you are a material bio-mechanism, controlled by deterministic laws, why then so am I; and those laws determine that I shall punish cowards like you. I do this under the illusion of my own free will; for I calculate that your example will cause others like you to reject a life of crime and instead obey the law.”

    The second convict said, “By my philosophy, this is all absurd; for I create my own reality, in which your rules do not apply. My will is free; I am beholden only to the mysterious promptings of my sovereign soul. I am a spiritual being; I do what I may; who then are you to judge me?”

    The judge replied, “If you are a free spirit, beholden only to your sovereign soul, why then so am I. And my own soul mysteriously prompts me to punish lunatics like you. I do this although I have little hope of reforming you, or even deterring others like you, for nonetheless I have the physical power to protect society by removing you from it.”

    The judge pounded his gavel, and the bailiff took the convicts away. The bailiff returned later, and asked the judge, “What is _your_ philosophy?”

    The judge said, “Any stick will do to beat a dog.”

  • 35 Julian Sanchez // Dec 21, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    And you think the guy crying for vengeance is doing so because he’s trapped in the grips of bad metaphysics? I agree that historically CCFW has been invoked as part of an argument giving an ex-post justification for these emotions. The question is whether it will do the work. My claim is that it can’t. If you’ll forgive an extreme comparison: It’s true that Darwinian ideas were invoked and misused by people looking to justify racism, oppression, and outright horror. It does not follow that, as IDers would like to claim, “it matters” in this moral way whether we accept evolutionary theory. These arguments were not wrong just because they misunderstood the scientific ideas in fundamental ways, though they did that, but because they were morally broken arguments—the normative inferences would have been invalid even if their understanding of the science was right.

  • 36 lw // Dec 21, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    If Julian’s argument is Wittgensteinian in spirit, then I’m not sure he and Jay would be thinking along the same lines. On Wittgenstein’s view, when you say “My stomach hurts”, you’re expressing pain, similar to (although not exactly like) how a grunt or a wince can act as an expression of pain. When you wince, I just take you to be in pain — I don’t take you to “seem to yourself be in whatever state you call ‘pain’”. (Notice a common use of the word — ‘he winced in pain’ — is there even such a thing as wincing not in pain?) Similarly, when you tell me you are in pain, I take you to just be linguistically expressing the same thing a wince expresses. Perhaps it’s easier to be misleading with linguistic expressions of pain. But when you’re not being misleading, you are expressing the same thing a wince expresses: pain, not ‘the thing that seems to you to be what you call “pain” in a certain area’.

    Pain just is that thing you feel when I prick you with a pin — that thing which also makes you wince. Pain is also what I feel when someone pricks me with a pin, and what makes me wince. That’s all pain is. There’s no mystery to it; it doesn’t even make sense to be skeptical about whether or not it’s the same thing to me as it is to you until you start taking philosophy classes.

    Similarly, ‘doing’ and ‘choosing’ are not things which, on a proper analysis, I call ‘the thing that once seemed to me to be “choosing”‘. Doing and choosing are moves in the practice of being a human being. I can understand the moves and make the moves in virtue of being brought up as a participant in that practice. It makes as much sense to say that I only _seem _ to be doing now as it does to say that I only _seem_ to be shooting a three-pointer. (Of course that could be true; my foot could, unbeknownst to me, be on the line, so I only get two points. But that is not the sense we’re interested in.)

  • 37 Wilbur // Dec 21, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    I don’t think the man crying for vengeance is using a philosophical commitment to free will as an ex post justification for his emotions. I think he really believes that vengeance is an appropriate response. I think he really believes that the person who hurt his daughter deserves to be hurt. And I think a severe course in logic would show him that his emotions were misplaced. That’s why logic matters.

    Darwinism is basically true, and it can be misused. Free will is pretty much completely false, and it is always misused. Even if you are more Christlike than the red-faced man, you are still condemning the sinful to the fires of hell–a fate they deserve for having made bad choices.

    This is why I object to people trying to blur the lines and pretend this question doesn’t matter. Advocates of free will can try to be humble, but their humility is fundamentally a lie. They believe that they deserve the good things that they accomplish in life because of their earnest effort to do the right thing. Determinists cannot claim credit for their accomplishments, and they cannot condemn others for failing to achieve the same. All they can do is try to solve social problems by affecting the conditioning of others. That really is better.

  • 38 RickRussellTX // Dec 21, 2009 at 9:28 pm

    “But not in any sense relevant to explaining what a choice is, distinct from simply inexplicable random brain-farts that can’t actually be ascribed to any agent responsible for them.”

    But it might be relevant. Denning has described our decision-making process as choosing from a universe of choices, only some of which are apparent to us. That certain choices are apparent and others not apparent could very much be dependent on our response to stimuli at the quantum level (small numbers of photons, as someone mentioned), as well as actual chemistry at the quantum level in the brain (e.g., see the work of Matthew Shtrahman, I recently attended an excellent lecture where he made a very good case of neuronal activity as a constant interplay of chemical states constantly on the border between stable and unstable).

    It turns out that lots of things that are interesting — like semiconductors, or magnetic resonance imaging, or perhaps even brain chemistry — are dependent on systems that are in meta-stable states and react to the world by moving from one disturbed state to another.

    In that sense, while I can only speculate what “agent” is responsible for making choice, it’s possible that the range of choices — the selection of actions that we can conceive in a particular time and place — has intrinsically random quantum influences.

    So whether or not you believe human agency itself is sensitive to quantum indeterminacy, I would argue that the environment in which human agency operates definitely is, and that means our choices come from some indeterminate sources.

  • 39 Meroe // Dec 21, 2009 at 9:52 pm

    Free Will. We have no direct knowledge of other minds, so the only philosophical argument for Free Will is one from introspection. Yet our capacity for introspection is constrained by the very things that make it possible: our capabilities of detection, reaction, and linguistic association. The very act of introspection to determine “Do I have Free Will?” is already inescapably dependent upon the assumption of a unitary entity that is both the object of the question as well as an inquisitor with the necessary knowledge, perspective, and “free will” to answer it. So, the argument from introspection, the only argument for Free Will actually on the table, is hopelessly circular. We are forced to ignore the constituent parts of countries, corporations, and other organizations when the paradigm of discussion makes no provision for them: “The United States or Company X decided to…” While such statements may be true as far as they go, in these instances, we also have other paradigms readily available to describe the same events in terms of branches of government and business units, or even at lower levels in terms of citizens and employees. No such alternative level of introspection is available. That said, the self is not an illusion any more than any other category like ‘France’ or ‘tree’. (No frame or category exists in the world independent of the mind; all classifications are dependent on our unique sensations, emotions, and associations.) The shadows on the wall are no less real than the objects outside Plato’s cave; there is just another way of understanding them. This paper presents an alternative paradigm for the self where our decisions and feelings, like those of other animals, are limited and determined by the prison of our individual instincts and experiences. That said, through self-awareness and reflection, we can seek new experiences, perspectives, and possibilities and “consciously” force back the prison walls.

    Excerpted from A Brief Explanation of Consciousness.by M. E. Tson
    at http://www.scribd.com/doc/22188289/A-Brief-Explanation-of-Consciousness

  • 40 Tom // Dec 22, 2009 at 1:01 am

    I agree with everything in the post (and am sorry that I don’t have time at the moment to go through the comments). The clarity with which you explain away the illusion of free will leaves me wondering, though, how you approach a similarly-structured problem: Dan Dennett’s explaining-away of seemingly unified conscious experience (which I conflate with the existence of qualia, though probably Dennett would be horrified to hear me do so — it’s been quite a few years since I read the book). Perhaps this problem resists the same approach — explaining away the appearance of something may not be viable when it’s the fact of appearing that’s at question. Or maybe I’m wrong to be dissatisfied with Dennett’s account (smarter people than me have assured me I am). Anyway, curious to know your take on it.

  • 41 sam // Dec 22, 2009 at 6:11 am

    “We have no direct knowledge of other minds”

    And thus are loosed the dogs of metaphysical war.

  • 42 llewellyn // Dec 22, 2009 at 6:31 am

    For me the most interesting aspect in this discussion is to wonder about our likeness to billiard balls. There obviously are causal chains (perhaps at times chaotic ones) bringing us to the present and hurling us forward. That must be quite billiard ball like – we could imagine a really complex and unpredictable set of balls to simulate human situation with its myriad of factors, but in any case there is a certain similarity of situation. But it is quite hard to imagine billiard balls having a debate about determinism and free will. I would think that awareness would be quite an important complication in our situation. This is not to take any particular stand in the overall question (though I’ve never really exactly understood what is meant by free will – I think there was a rather helpful suggestion from the natural science side to start with definitions, and I’m not sure whether all discussion in this thread is totally sense making), just to wonder about our special nature that separates us from billiard balls and other fellow physical objects. Is it an essential difference or can we simply treat ourselves as slightly more complicated physical objects – then it might be that physics, a really strange kind of physics, would be the best method to study the structure of human experience.

  • 43 Can one act “as if” there were free will? : The Public Philosopher // Dec 22, 2009 at 7:49 am

    [...] Sanchez has some lucid thoughts about an ongoing discussion at the Daily Dish regarding free will: We can say something similar [...]

  • 44 Drew // Dec 22, 2009 at 10:01 am

    Wilbur: I don’t see why tracing the origins of your nature to causes outside of yourself invalidates your responsibility. You are the agent responsible. You are the one doing an act that is evil. You are to blame. If we want to trace the effect back to the proximate cause, we’ll find you. Yes, we can trace things back further, but we’ve already found an agent that made the choice via a process of choosing (and likely, one of moral evaluation) and is capable of moral reasoning. If we later find, say, God, we can also (since guilt is not a zero-sum game) charge God with the responsibility for creating a being like you. But in the meantime, we have you. We don’t merely pity you. We also want, instinctively, to let you know that your act is evil in the context of our social mores: mores we expected you to appreciate.

    And this concept of “blame” is inherently one meant to appeal to a) YOU, assuming that you are like most human beings in nature: that is, capable of being changed BY the blame/guilt/etc. b) other agents who want to know what sort of being you are. It implicitly assumes that you have at base the same sorts of values that other people do. If you don’t, then we indeed might as well be trying to guilt trip a volcano, or an alien. But we humans are very, almost insanely, social beings: we relate to nearly everything as if it were a rational & emotional person.

    People are generally capable of taking, for themselves, moral responsibility: realizing that it was something in themselves that made particular choices, identifying with those choices, and feeling good or bad about their effects. That is what we’re appealing to when we talk about guilt and wrong and blame and so forth.

    Your talk about retribution: I agree with this. But this seems to me to be a spandrel: the demand for pointless blood is an over-the-top expression of rage and revenge and anger and hatred that comes about because all the normal channels for have been blocked, yet being human we can’t help but express them anyhow. Even if the person in question, the villain, can’t possibly be changed by the retribution, even if no good can come of it, that impetus to take justice is still there.

    And you know what? Human beings DO viciously attack inanimate objects, to “punish” things that can’t possibly be made smarter or wiser or kinder by it. It’s in our nature to see moral beings everywhere, even when it doesn’t make sense.

    Finally, I also don’t see what any of the remaining folks that think “Free Will” is a coherent concept think the alternative is. If your nature comes from nowhere at all, who is responsible for the way it is? The whole point of this is to argue that YOU are responsible, right? But FW invalidates the very chain of causality that would allow us to trace the choice you apparently made back to ANYTHING. So in that sense, it’s STILL wrong to “blame” you, because there’s no smoking gun that you had anything to do with it: you acted out the choice, certainly, but how can you in any sense say that you _caused_ the choice to be made? There was nothing identifiably or characteristically “you” at work.

    Michael B Sullivan: What I’m saying is that decision-making is ultimately a causal process, and it HAS TO BE in order for it to make any sense. I don’t care whether that causal process works in the realm of spirits or magical invisible jellybeans: it needs to be not only a distinct process, but one that is characteristic of individual agents.

    My point with the car/bank, or with the balls posting things on the internet is simply that just because all processes have an underlying substrata doesn’t mean they are all the same sorts of processes. Yes, when a computer does a math problem, it’s still just an arrangement of silicon. But the point is that it’s a very particular arrangement which does some very particular things: things deserving of a particular sort of name (say, “calculating”). I’m arguing that when we talk about choosing, we’re employing the same reasoning in order to say that a person making a decision is in some important way distinct from an avalanche. So therefore, it’s perfectly legitimate to use a different word. Who ever heard of arguing an avalanche out of hitting a particular house, or falling on a particular day?

  • 45 Matt // Dec 22, 2009 at 3:12 pm

    The neuroscientist Rodolfo LLinas appeared in an interview on the Science Network last year and described a marvelous experiment he performed on himself that – even though he is a neuroscientist who frankly believes that free will is an illusion (in the sense being discussed here) – vividly demonstrates how powerful the illusion is:

    It was extraordinary really. There is an instrument used in neurology called a transcranial magnetic stimulator. It has a coil that you put next to the top of the head and you pass a current such that a big magnetic field is generated that activates the brain directly, without having to open the thing. So if you get one of these coils and you put it on top of the head, you can generate a movement. You put it in the back, you see a light, so you can stimulate different parts of the brain and have a feeling of to what happens when you activate the brain directly without, in quotes, “you” doing it. This of course is a strange way of talking but that’s how we talk.

    So I decide to put it on the top of the head where I consider to be the motor cortex and stimulate it and find a good spot where my foot on the right side would move inwards. It was – pop – no problem. And we did it several times and I tell my colleague: “I know anatomy, I know physiology, I can tell you I’m cheating. When you put the stimulus and then I move, I feel it, I am moving it.” And he said “well, you know, there’s no way to really know.” I said “I’ll tell you how I know. I feel it, but stimulate and I’ll move the foot outwards.” I am now going to do that, so he stimulates and the foot moves inwards again. So what happened? I said “but I changed my mind“. Do it again. So I do it half a dozen times.

    And it always moves inwards?

    Always. So I said, oh my God, I can’t tell the difference between the activity from the outside and what I consider to be a voluntary movement. If I know that it is going to happen, then I think I did it, because I now understand this free will stuff and this volition stuff. Volition is what’s happening somewhere else in the brain, I know about it and therefore I decide that I did it. It happens in science as well. You actually take possession of something that doesn’t belong to you.

    So what was your … so you’re saying because there’s this straightforward linkage between the stimulation and the foot moving inward, right and that’s going to happen every time – even if you will yourself to move it out and it still moves in, are you saying that you nevertheless thought your sensation was of having moved it out?

    No! The sensation is different – it was I who did it!

    Even though I was moving it in.

    It moved it in and the sensation is, well, I moved it in. I could not, my system, I could not have a feeling different to what I would have had had I moved it inwards. So I want to move it outwards, when I feel the stimulus, I move it outwards and move it inwards. Did you feel that there was a problem? No, I didn’t feel there was a problem, I moved it inwards! But you thought, you decided you were going to move it outwards! Yes, but I moved it inwards. And then you think and you realize that you are saying it after the fact that you moved it inwards because it moved it in the inwardly manner and you knew this was going to happen so you take possession of it. In other words, free will is knowing what you are about to do – that’s all.

    These discussions always remind of my own personal favorite Wittgenstein anecdote, where he and a companion (Anscombe?) are strolling through Cambridge:

    “I’ve always wondered why”, W. says, “people have for so long thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth.”

    “Why?” said his surprised interlocutor, “I suppose it just looks that way.”

    “Well,” retorted W., “and what would it look like if the Earth revolved around the Sun?”

  • 46 Jay Levitt // Dec 22, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    @Matt: that’s a terrific anecdote… more real-world evidence of how we’re wired for denial, bias and rationalization. (Phantoms of the Brain is a must-read for anyone who muses about this stuff… the tray-of-water-glasses test is a wonderful way to show what you -really- intended vs. what you now believe you intended.)

    @lw: I’m arguing way out of my depth, but hey, thats what blog comments are for. I disagree with your pain example; I think that there are oodles of assumptions built into your seeing my wince. (And, dealing with chronic pain problems, I’ve discovered just how much the philosophical arguments actually matter. It’s very difficult to convey details about your pain in a way that’s specific and meaningful to the listener.) Three easy counterexamples:

    1. If you’re male: Ever see another guy hit in the groin? Did you wince? That wasn’t pain.. what was it, and how would a bystander interpret your wince? What about if someone pretends to punch you, but pulls the punch before it hits?

    2. Last week, my physical therapist was working on my hips, and when she did something with my right hip I winced. She naturally assumed that my right hip hurt more; in fact, I was listening to her music player, and wincing at Annie Lennox (who, I was surprised to discover, can be pitchy sometimes.)

    3. I have no feeling in my left hip. So when it’s in spasm, it should hurt when I lay on my left side, but it doesn’t. What I feel instead is the sudden VERY IMPORTANT urge to be doing something else right at that moment. It’s so predictable it’s funny. “OK, I’m done stretching my right hip; time for the other oh my god I should go feed the cats.” Very much like what Llinas describes.

    Oh, and then there’s neuropathic vs. nociceptive pain, and referred pain… if I have a spinal injury that makes me feel pain in my leg, am I feeling pain in my leg? Or am I feeling pain that I perceive to be coming from my leg? What about phantom limb pain? (And now we’re back to Phantoms in the Brain again.)

    So yes, I think that when you see me wince in pain, you see what you (and maybe I) consider a wince, from what you (and maybe I) would assume is pain, based on our lifetime experiences of wincing and pain.

  • 47 RickRussellTX // Dec 24, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    “more real-world evidence of how we’re wired for denial, bias and rationalization”

    I don’t think that’s what LLinas was describing at all. I think he is claiming that, from the standpoint of his conscious experience, there was *no difference* between choosing to move his leg and having the machine stimulate his motor cortex to move his leg.

    He wasn’t rationalizing. After the fact, *he truly believed* that he had changed his mind and moved his leg inwards, because that’s how his brain recorded the event — as a conscious decision to move his leg inwards.

    That’s the subtlety of this anecdote. We know he didn’t decide to move his leg a particular way, but he truly does not know it — he remembers “changing his decision”, because the machine genuinely changed his decision for him.

  • 48 Libby // Jan 12, 2010 at 7:06 pm

    This reminds me of an episode from the 5th season of House (forgive me if you’ve seen it, or just hate the show):
    Colleagues Foreman and “Thirteen” Hadwell’s relationship is getting in the way of their professional decision-making. A conversation between House and Thirteen follows:

    HOUSE: I told him to [risk his career for her continued good health] if he loves you.
    THIRTEEN: He only ~thinks~ he loves me.
    HOUSE: (staring incredulously) …it’s the same thing!

  • 49 steve talbert // Feb 10, 2010 at 2:57 am

    why are you people so afraid of things just happening my chance?? There is no ‘free will’,, because free will implies a direction with a purpose… who knows if who happens will lead to something good or bad, and then from there bad or good? you only know in hindsight when you make a pattern from your actions and forget the things you did that don’t reinforce the pattern. As to predestination… the law of thermodynamics just doesn’t work that way. We really need better high school science classes.

  • 50 Eli // Feb 17, 2010 at 1:07 am

    Drew/Wilbur: I see you both agreeing. Drew, your social argument for retribution was very well fleshed out. But I think what Wilbur wanted to emphasize was the disconnect from how we approach retribution emotionally, and how we should instead understand it from a utilitarian perspective.

    I think the problem is in degrees. His example of the angry man highlighted the broad spectrum of human emotional response to “justice”. Should the man be killed (or possibly tortured – you could argue our current prison system is quite tortuous), or should he be locked away, yet with compassion? Or in the case of positive behaviors, if the goals are ostensibly the same (appealing to him and others), how many riches should the well-behaved, successful man be allowed?

    I think these questions go to the core of the schism between modern liberalism & conservatism. Most conservatives will emphasize the man’s role in determining his life, “Who cares how bad his childhood was?!!!” While liberals will emphasize the role of society, “Look at the demographic disparities in life success!!!”

    There is still a basic human desire for justice. When we stub our toe on a misplaced chair we will still want to kick it. But was it responsible, or whomever moved it? Certainly not to the degree that we feel momentarily driven to punish it. We must chasten our responses in order to find a justice that promotes both social prosperity and fairness.

    So as a matter of degree, we can both be responsible for our actions, and ultimately not responsible. We can live in the micro-, yet structure law and order around the macro-.

  • 51 m65 // Feb 17, 2010 at 3:10 am

    good read thanks for the share. i really like the way the article is written and also the design of the website

  • 52 Elf M. Sternberg // Jul 11, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Michael B. Sullivan: All that is true, but conversations of this always bring me back to the experiment in which transcranial magnetic stimulation inspires visions of God or visitors from another planet or whatever.

    Peter Watts’s book Blindsight, a novel about a disastrous first contact, has a lot to say about free will and consciousness, with an alarmingly deep and fascinating bibliography and end notes about the science of consciousness. I’ve already ordered the book he based a lot of his work on, Metzinger’s Being No One. One of the biggest shocks in the book is when the main characters discover just how effectively they’ve been played:

    “I could apply a transcranial magnet to your head right now and you’d raise your middle finger or wiggle your toes or kick Siri here in the sack and then swear on your sainted mother’s grave that you only did it because you wanted to. You’d dance like a puppet and all the time swear you were doing it of your own free will, and that’s just me, that’s just some borderline OCD with a couple of magnets and an MRI helmet.”

    And that’s just one of about a dozen nasty shocks the book throws at the reader.

    This is the big fear we have about free will: that it itself “manipulable,” that our internal experience of it will be wholly coherent with our ideas about selfhood– and that coherency can be controlled. Dennet, in the seminal work on compatibilism, Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting, points out that this is cyberneticism: subject A can push subject B into whatever state A wishes. The more we know about brains, the more illusory B’s claims to willfullness can become.

    When Dr. Helen frets about Cass Sunstein and dismisses the argument, what she’s also doing is distancing herself from the tools with which to fight back.

    In the end, I fear both Helen and Watts are right: we will only have free will by banning the techniques that permit ever more precise circumvention of it. In the process, we will either doom the human species to a static existence in the muck and mire of our short, biologically circumscribed lives, or we will have to leave free will– and possibly even consciousness– behind.

  • 53 M // Jul 11, 2010 at 7:21 pm

    Does the unconscious have free will?

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