Free Will: Good Riddance

This baby violet-green swallow faces the first big decision of her life: should I stay or should I go, now.

I never cared much for arguments about free will, one way or the other. I put free will into a similar category to other wastes of time in philosophy, like the Great Deceiver concept or the trolley problem. Angels on the head of a pin, anyone? It seemed like one of those unresolvable debates that has persisted for centuries: a tar baby that one would be foolish to punch.

If an opinion was demanded of me, I would say without particular conviction that I leaned toward a position that free will was an illusion, but that I was happy to behave as if I had free will, and then get on with life. My leaning toward illusory free will stemmed from a sense that our decision center is no more than a bolus of interconnected neurons, shaped by many influences in the physical universe.

After listening to a podcast featuring Robert Sapolsky based on his new book Determined (which I have not read yet), I found my position coming into focus. A large majority of people in our society—over 80%—believe in free will. Indeed, it is often pointed out that our criminal justice system is predicated on the concept. Some folks (called compatibilists) adopt a squishy compromise position that attempts to assess how “internal” a decision is (good luck with that). Few members of modernity reject free will completely, but that’s where Sapolsky landed, and I found his arguments to be persuasive.

A recent article by Richard Heinberg explored the interaction between belief in free will and our response to the meta-crisis: can we save the world if we don’t have free will as a motivating engine? Although I am somewhat reluctant to weigh in on the pernicious free will topic, what the hell. I find myself compelled to do so.

Free Will vs. Determinism

I am not one of those people who thinks that absence of free will means everything is set in stone, playing out like clockwork. No. The universe is far messier and more interesting than that. No atom knows what it’s going to do from one moment to the next. Entangled quantum probabilities preclude perfect predictability (say that five times, fast!). On the macroscopic scale, hopelessly complex interactions generate “sensitive dependence to initial conditions” (e.g., the butterfly effect)—a hallmark of chaos. Boring clockwork determinism isn’t the way of things.

Are our decisions subject to these elements of indeterminacy? Maybe. Why not? When we’re teetering on a decision and have no idea ourselves which way we’ll go, it seems quite possible that the initial impulse that starts the neural avalanche in one direction or the other could come down to a random event at the quantum scale. While such a process would dispense with the idea that our actions are deterministic, the result still does not constitute free will. Rather, it simply reflects a consequence of yet another physical process in the chain of events.

We have moved beyond thinking that a divine hand is necessary to keep Earth in its orbit around the sun: gravity suffices. Many have discovered for themselves that moral and prosocial behavior does not require belief in a punitive god: evolution has seen to it that social animals know how to behave reasonably. Likewise, free will seems to fall into this same category: a facile cop-out to explain biophysically sophisticated and amazing behaviors in terms of a fanciful bit of magic. We need not resort to such beliefs to behave responsibly.

Free of What?

A colleague, Ben McCall, helpfully posed the question about free will this way: “free of what?” For a decision to exhibit free will, what must it be free of? Must it operate outside of mundane influences from the physical world: physics, evolution, genetics, arrangement of neurons, history, upbringing, life experience, hormone levels, last meal, last interaction, or what?

Sapolsky, when asked if a set of experimental results could convince him that free will exists, said: “Sure.” He went on to describe what would have to be shown, which amounts to a demonstration that a decision is made despite the tangle of physical, cultural, and physiological influences—an insertion of something outside of these mundane elements: an override. As mentioned above, the insertion of chaos and quantum indeterminacy into a decision does not constitute some sort of “free” override of what remains a purely physical process. Sapolsky would want to see evidence that a decision would come out the same way independent of the litany of physical influences. Of course, this is not a viable experiment to perform conclusively, but it does illustrate the principle at stake.

Some may interpret free will as free of constraint. First off: no such thing—the physical universe is heavily constrained, and we do not have the freedom to act in defiance of those constraints. More generously, maybe the sentiment is that multiple options exist, and we might choose any among them. Okay, but what bizarre physical universe would not present options for our brains to process? Every being makes decisions between various (legitimate) choices, and those decisions have unforeseeable consequences that can impact survival. Crucially, each of these decisions is governed by physics, evolution, genetics, arrangement of neurons, history, upbringing, life experience, hormone levels, last meal, last interaction, etc., shaped in a feedback loop by survival odds at the species level. Sometimes those elements stack up to make a decision a “no-brainer,” like choosing between cake or death.  Harder decisions involve a battle of sorts within the brain, perhaps not too dissimilar to how bees select a new home site in a dance-off—a phenomenon that I will return to shortly.

Substance vs. Soul

An override to mundane physical influences sounds to me like a force that acts outside of physics. It evokes the dualist stance that stuck with us from the Enlightenment: mind and body as separate substances on different planes. In short: a soul. Indeed, one study found a great degree of correlation between dualist beliefs and belief in free will: stronger than the correlation between free will and deterministic beliefs, in fact.

This makes intuitive sense to me. The illusion of free will is connected to self-regard as an “entity”—a being apart from the mechanistic body. Belief in life after death or reincarnation is common in modern cultures, which is tantamount to belief in a soul. After all, what else would we call something that survives without the body? Fun fact: the U.S. air traffic control system counts “souls” aboard an airplane (human only, of course). If free will exists, where else would it originate if not from a presence that works independently from (and in mastery of) the pedestrian, mechanistic body? Either the physical body—including the brain—makes our decisions, or something else transcending the material world does. We have lots of evidence for one of these options, by the way—just sayin’.

Indeed, if a non-material soul is making the decisions and calling the shots for our “higher” functions, why on Earth would we also need such a large meat-brain? Isn’t our outsized capability attributed to a large energy-hungry brain sporting large frontal lobes? It’s just math!

The more secular proponents of free will may reject “soul” and prefer “mind” instead. Is this much different from replacing “meat” with “protein” to soothe our sensibilities? Mind, here, alludes to consciousness: to me another transcendent cop-out that simply labels our forgivable ignorance of a complex emergent phenomenon. Mind over matter? I suspect not.

[Late addition 2024.01.19: What do we make of the fact that a very small amount of mind-altering drug (pill-sized) can utterly transform or incapacitate the “free will” of a person (also think: anesthesia).  Who’s the boss: physics/chemistry, or the ether?  How can free will stand by during such abuse?]

Does Bee Will Exist?

Maybe bees are a useful way to look at this. During the pandemic year I tended bees that moved into my yard, and I closely observed their behaviors. When a “split” happened (which my home-brew continuous-read scale would detect and send a text message alert), I would stand within the air-filling (and pooping) swarm to watch them condense into a bivouac-ball in a nearby bush—where they would stay for one, two, or three days depending on weather (sunny went faster, facilitating navigation). I would watch the scouts’ wiggle dances on the surface of the ball, and initially see multiple sites being advertised (based on orientation and duration of the wiggle). At some point, one of the contenders—perhaps even a new entry—would gather favor as “judges” went to check out the prospects and return to dance enthusiastically for a good spot. Once I saw all scout bees dancing the same location, I knew their exodus was at hand. At some point, over a 30 second period, the ball would disintegrate into the air, and the swarm would head off in precisely the direction I had gleaned from their dance. Every time. Very rewarding to witness.

The bees had many options: not constrained to one. No one bee (certainly not the queen, deeply sequestered in ignorance by a ball of bees) could force the decision. They have a process for weighing options, entertaining several at a time. Early in the process, the colony does not already secretly know which site will emerge as the winner. The collective opinion may ebb and flow as myriad considerations are evaluated—trying to optimize access hole size, chamber size, chamber condition, vulnerability, direction of the opening relative to sun exposure, and tons of other factors. Eventually, they arrive at a consensus and head off.

Does the superorganism (collective of individuals) have free will? Is there a soul? Is there a mind? To all appearances, the bee colony is a living organism that makes a tough decision in the real world—one that will impact its survival and genetic success. I hesitate to proclaim that such a decision is fundamentally different from complex decisions made by human individuals. Rather than punt and ascribe a soul or mind to the collective, perhaps we might simply appreciate the colony as an amazing example of emergent complexity like so many other examples that crop up in all forms of life—like the human body and brain, for example.

I guess I have no objection to labeling the emergent phenomenon of advanced decision making as mind or soul, as long as it is understood that such things are merely temporary products of matter, utterly dependent on its arrangement and biophysical fitness.

All for One, or None for All?

Belief in free will is often a tell-tale sign of human supremacist leanings—pervasive in our culture. It appears that most people who believe in free will do not afford the same quality to any animals besides humans, which is truly bizarre to me. How can that be so? Where is the sharp line? Are we not made of the same atoms, meat, bones, neurons, etc.—based on incremental genetic modifications using essentially the same foundational blueprint as all the rest? What magic happened that could allow us suddenly to override biology? I’m not saying that proponents of human-only free will have no answers to these questions—just that the answers are unsupported by anything other than assertion, rank belief, and a lamentable sense of superiority.

So, is all free will dedicated to one privileged species, or is there none for all species?

Have you ever opened the door to let a pet out, only to watch them hesitate and get stuck deciding whether to go out or stay in? We might even say: “Make up your mind!” Hold up: mind? Animals absolutely make decisions. Moths make decisions based on the world they perceive: is that scent gradient strong enough to be worth following? Amoebas make decisions based on their environments. In the case of the amoeba, we may be able to penetrate deeper into the mechanistic stimulus/response origins of the decision, but then why aren’t moths and humans simply more elaborate versions? Are we not responding to stimuli in sophisticated, yet biologically-based (and culturally programmed) ways?

If humans have free will, then I would think amoebas must, also. I find it simpler to say that none of us do: none of us possess an ethereal override to the (exceedingly complex) mechanisms that govern our decisions. We are all incredible beings, doing extraordinary things in this world—and all without pixie dust.

What’s the Point?

The reaction of free-will believers to the proposition that free will is an illusion can be rather revealing. Many will instantly (and hilariously predictably) do something “spontaneous” to demonstrate free will in action. Nice try, meat bag. Saw that coming. Classic subroutine execution.

Of course we are more than inert lumps. Of course we navigate our world, making decisions among multiple options. How would any lifeform sustain itself otherwise?

The free will adherent might challenge me: “what, then, motivates you to write this post, or to warn of existential trouble as you are wont to do via your blog?” Well, how is what I am doing different from the first fox in a den who smells smoke rousing the others for an escape? A bee will do the same. What kind of social animal would I be if I did not remain alert to dangers and warn my fellow humans (upon whom I myself depend within a social group)? How would a social species survive without an evolutionarily-honed survival instinct to sound the alarm when conditions seem to warrant it? Urgency is built-in. The person that I am: my genetics, my background, my environment, my experiential history all contribute to my being that person who starts Do the Math in response to the ensemble of stimuli I have received. It would be very odd and dull indeed if a world without free will suppressed reactions to stimuli—however complex. Likewise, it would be weird if I didn’t act in some way to the inputs I have received. I’m just being my biophysical self, and that’s more than enough for me.

Why bother writing a post about free will? I sense that belief in free will may be detrimental to long term ecological success. It acts to set us apart as privileged inhabitants on the planet. Only by knocking us off our self-aggrandizing pedestal might we open our brains to work with the community of life—as part of it—instead of in opposition to it or mastery over it. Ironically, then, belief in free will can impose unnecessary constraints: acting to close off beneficial choices!

Also ironically, just as a lifelong believer in a deity may feel there’s no point to life if faced with the prospect of that deity’s non-existence, those trapped by staunch belief in free will are more likely to contemplate despondency and resignation when presented with its removal, perhaps as a form of pointless intellectual protest. The rest of the universe barrels along apparently without needing such belief to function, showing no sign of abdicating actions or resigning in defeat. It’s the philosopher’s self-inflicted left-brained paralysis. To them I say: suit yourself—be a lump if you must—we’ll just be over here not moping but reacting proactively to the challenges presented to us by the universe.

Abdication of Responsibility?

Along these lines, some imagine that denying free will amounts to absolving oneself of responsibility. Maybe these are the same sort of people who would be murderers if not for fear of eternal punishment by a god. Why does anyone need the crutch of free will to behave responsibly? As a member of a social species, irresponsibility on my part is not well tolerated by my band, nor by the community of life. It has consequences. I also happen to value some things, so that I act according to those values—which act as weights in evaluating competing neural outcomes. An amoeba values food, and acts to secure it. More sophisticated values likewise stimulate sophisticated responses. It is these values that counter nihilism for me, not belief in free will.

If a person—or any other animal—does something, then the action is attached to the actor, together with the resulting consequences. In other words, that being bears some degree of responsibility. Why should it matter whether the decisions were produced by meat or by ether? Part of being social is owning one’s contributions and costs to the collective. How else would social behaviors evolve if not via response to consequences. Indeed, perhaps it is no mistake that the stimulus/response model suggests a stimulability/responsibility pairing. Linguistically, it is the ability to enact a response that creates responsibility, not free will. Our physicality is what provides the ability to respond, after evaluating the many nuances presented by the stimuli.

The important point is that we have the capacity to evaluate long-term consequences of our actions based on a complex cognitive apparatus. This knowledge provides an input to decisions/responses, with a view to consequences. Lack of free will does nothing to change the options before us, and does not impact consequences.  Enough with the mind games.

The question becomes: is our organism—clearly capable of inflicting great ecological harm—also capable of reacting to warning stimuli so that we might favor options that reduce long-term harm? Can we “save the world” without free will? Will our individual and collective circuitry act responsibly? Only if provided with relevant inputs to inform the process. Only if we stay alert to novel threats to ourselves and to the entire community of life. Let our phenomenal meat-brains, in collective communication do the rest. Yes, it’s possible. What physical principle would stand in the way?

So Let’s Get Going!

It’s okay to let go of the free will illusion. Nothing big changes. The universe will not stop. Just breathe. You will still have a menu of responses available when presented with a range of stimuli. Do your best: aim for long-term benefit. Trust your gut. You’ve got amazing circuitry that has been shaped by evolution, history, life experience, and more. Let it do its job—even if it will forever defy full understanding as to how it works. Don’t let a magical idea bind you to the non-existent ether: accepting a biological basis for our actions in no way diminishes appreciation at a spiritual level for the awesomeness of life in our universe and our lucky seat at the table. So, set aside the security blanket. Cast off the training wheels. Swim without arm floats. Open your eyes underwater. Dare to eat chocolate that has touched peanut butter. You’ll be fine. The result, in fact, is liberating. Our capacity for effecting and celebrating valued outcomes is not diminished.

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32 thoughts on “Free Will: Good Riddance

  1. "You will still have a menu of responses available when presented with a range of stimuli. Do your best: aim for long-term benefit."

    This sounds like choice, which means some form of non-deterministic will. (Choices resulting from random quantum events vs. "clockwork" events still seem "determined" to me.)

    It also seems to me that without non-deterministic will, there's no "saving" anything, either. The quanta will either tend to one thing or another, but no potential future has any moral claim over any other if whatever results was beyond any being's deliberate influence.

    • Choices, sure: what else would our brains need to work on? Amoebas make choices, too. We might imagine pinning down all the mechanistic elements to an amoeba's choice, but that doesn't mean it's not a process, and whose outcome is not obvious before the process runs.

      For "saving the world," it's a matter of weights that participate in the mental math. Those can change, by exposure. A fox won't be alert to smoke that doesn't make its way into the den. I'm basically saying that those few who currently are catching a whiff of something dangerous ought to open the passage to let more smoke in so others can recognize the danger as well. You don't need free will to have sensible stimulus/response, however sophisticated.

      As for morals, these are just constructs we invent to capture acceptable behaviors in a social species.

      • "Amoebas make choices, too. We might imagine pinning down all the mechanistic elements to an amoeba's choice, but that doesn't mean it's not a process, and whose outcome is not obvious before the process runs."

        I don't see what you've described here as a choice, just merely outcome. It's the same as randomly tapping keys on a calculator. The same random key-presses would always get the same answer. The knowability of the outcome beforehand doesn't seem material to me.

        Perhaps your own term, "mental math" reveals what an absence of free will actually means. For a given set of inputs and weights, the answer will be the same every time.

        "Ought" is a strange word to use for someone who doesn't have the capacity to act other than the inputs and weights direct them to act. What could they do differently?

        I have yet to see someone who believes we lack free will to express the idea with complete fidelity. Either the mirage of free will keeps tripping them up or they don't fully believe we lack it.

        • I can't speak to some people's need to believe in an influence beyond the physical universe we live in (alluding to the "being" you reference that seems to have influence/agency/override over the physical process). It seems that a mechanistic description is simply unpalatable to some, and therefore rejected. Certainly we have no proof of a non-mechanistic influence, and in some sense cannot. Occcam's razor suggests to me that we simply accept the dumb version of the universe as we find it.

          It could well be that the same person with the same history at the same moment in time *would* always make the same decision. I'm fine with that.

          As for word choices, I am a product of our culture and language. I use "ought" to stand for a behavior that is time-tested to be socially acceptable and commensurate with my values. The brain is weighing decisions, outcomes, and consequences. "Ought" is simply expressing a better outcome in reference to the value system a brain has developed via acculturation and simple survival.

          We've each said our pieces, so I'll end this thread, as I doubt anything more productive will emerge given polar beliefs.

  2. Discussions about "free will" go back at lest to Helenistic philosophy. The Stoics famously were compatibilists, believing both in a materialistic and deterministic universe and free will. Then, as now, the point wasn't to get lost in the semantics of what it means for something to be "free" but rather to make sense of moral agency. To 'will' something is to make a choice and if people can do that then they have wills. Their wills are considered 'free' insofar as we (ei society generally) are willing to hold them accountable for their own choices. If you've ever gotten mad at somebody because of something they've done, but became less angry when you found out they hadn't done it on purpose, that's because you implicitly base your judgements on how much agency a person has in their own decisions and (most likely) attribute at least some of a person's actions to their 'core self'. Those actions would be the result of their "free will".

    Discussions about determinism or whatever tend to be a distraction when talking about this. Some free will advocates believe that free will is incompatible with determinism but these people tend to be religious practitioners committed to a dualist conception of human nature: they're trying to prove the existence of the soul. It's ironic then when otherwise secular people buy into this conception of free will because it was designed specifically to force them into straw-man positions regarding ethics.

    Of course, one can still question the utility of having a conception of moral agency. That is the point of Sapolky's book (which I've read;) he want's to argue against a punishment as a concept. I'm not certain his programme is realistic. The tendency to attribute some of a person's actions to their core self and then decide whether they deserve praise or blame based on that seems to be pretty universal. He seems to understand that this difficulty exists but is committed to his project anyway.

  3. Excellent and much along the lines of some of this post of mine:
    The only difference between the posts is your supposition that humans are the only species that can act for the long term benefit of its own species. To me, that suggests some magical input just at the point that Homo sapiens evolved from other species. I think the last few decades, during which we've had a pretty good idea of the consequences of our modernity but done nothing of significance to alter our way of life, is proof that humans, just like any other species, can't act for some imagined long term benefit (imagined because we can't know the future).

  4. I appreciate your revisiting this perennial topic from a position outside that of human supremacy.

    From William James, in his lecture The Dilemma of Determinism:

    "A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the
    free will controversy, and that no new champion can do more than warm up
    stale arguments which everyone has heard. This is a radical mistake. I know of
    no subject less worn out, or in which inventive genius has a better chance of
    breaking open new ground – not, perhaps, of forcing a conclusion or of coercing
    assent, but of deepening our sense of what the issue between the two parties
    really is, of what the ideas of fate and of free will imply."

    James, lecturing his Divinity Students, famously comes down in favor of choice – his choice – with the example of which Cambridge street to choose for his walk home:

    "What is meant by saying that my choice of which way to walk home after the
    lecture is ambiguous and matter of chance as far as the present moment is
    concerned? It means that both Divinity Avenue and Oxford Street are called; but
    that only one, and that one either one, shall be chosen."

    James meanders a great deal in his lecture. But it was a transitional era after Darwin and Lyell, and his meanderings reflect his intense engagement and intellectual passion.

    Thank you again for the post. I always learn something valuable from your blog.

  5. What external agency determined you would write a diatribe against free will? What daemon dictated that particular set of words in that particular order?

    I couldn't find a definition of free will above. Surely people must have radically different ones to even be arguing.

    I listened to an interview with Sapolski and thought "you wrote that book of your own free will".

    • A common reaction, addressed at length in the (undigested) post. No external agency or daemon needed: my biophysical self did it all! Amazing, I know. Understanding not required.

      • So I read it again. It still makes no sense. You describe how free will works then say "see, there is no free will".

        Your bees made a careful and deliberate decision. They were not performing a ritual to divine the predetermined outcome. All their physical, biological, and social constraints still left them with options and they chose one freely.

        We are material, non-dual, biophysical systems with free will. Magic not required.

        • I agree with almost everything in the last statement, except that in my view free will IS the magic. It's the override. It's the part that says: ignore the physics, genetics, biology, biochemistry, life experience (which configures the meat brain), and imagine that a decision happens free of this meat-baggage. It says there's something special, transcendent, indescribable by mundane rules that also apply to mere dirt. If we are material, non-dual, biophysical systems, then that's sufficient to produce the amazing, complex world we witness.

          Views expressed: end of thread.

        • It's not just a matter of doing nothing and expecting some predetermined outcome. The act of "deciding" to do something depends on the physical world (which is the only world) and all of the experiences in that world that you had. Remember that we are all made up of various molecules. That's all there is in us. So the illusion of free will is the illusion that we can somehow decide to do something (or to form some opinion) which wasn't affected by any of our past experiences. Indeed, there is research which suggests that decisions we make were made before we became conscious of them. For example:

          I guess it's a question of the definition of free will. It's not free of all of the experiences and genes that go to make us what we are, including all of the various molecules, atoms, electrons that comprise us. There is always a cause for the thoughts we have because thoughts are a biophysical process, which requires causes.

  6. (First let me say I love your blog and agree with all previous articles (i.e. on human supremacism, silly faith in technology etc.)

    Your leading question "So, is all free will dedicated to one privileged species, or is there none for all species?" has another answer: all species have free will.
    "If humans have free will, then I would think amoebas must, also" – yes indeed they do.

    Why do you feel the need to ascribe some supernatural or spiritual cause to free will? An atheist can believe free will exists just as easily as a religious person can.

    You (and other anti-free willers) seem to seriously underestimate the implications of what a rejection of free will really means. It means all criminals are innocent. Murderers, rapists, torturers – none are responsible for their actions, because none have free will. It's ok to send children down the cobalt mines, to destroy the natural world etc., because the mine owners, the owners of capital, the child miners – none of them have any choice, because free will is an illusion.

    When you refer to the 'circuitry' of brains, that is telling, the implication being that brains are nothing but meat-based computers. But that is not the case at all. Life is fundamentally different to machines.
    You yourself said as much in your previous article about 'robotic thinking'.
    The brain does not work algorithmically. Yes, it is capable of computation, but that's just one tiny subset of 'thinking' (see 'The Emporor's New Mind' by Roger Penrose for detailed information about this).

    Nothing I can say is likely to change your mind. You've come to view on this subject of your own free will.

    • I continue to be amused by reactions as I touch a nerve. As for changing minds, right back at ya.

      The supernatural element is just: something that countermands the physical brain. Most believers in free will fundamentally believe in this element. Brains can do more than algorithms, even if they are nothing more than neurons in connection (and auxiliary supporting glands/structures). The brain is just a piece of physical machinery: extraordinarily sophisticated and capable, but lacking an external influence that governs its decisions. Simply emergent complexity.

      Why wouldn't a social species develop and uphold norms to incentivize prosocial behaviors and suppress harmful ones? Evolution has tricks up its sleeve, without reliance on free will. Lack of free will does not translate to a free-for-all melee. Destroying the environment is self-defeating (as I hope we begin to recognize), so that long term success demands attention to such things. Free will not required. Lack of free will does not mean lack of options. Behaviors among lifeforms are emergent, based on what works. Options that appear to carry benefit are favored. The world does not come crashing down if we remove free will from the picture.

      End of thread.

  7. Organisms that have a tendency to make decisions biased in a certain way may live longer and reproduce. Their offspring inherit the tendency to make similarly based decisions. Over millions of generations it becomes part of the genome. You can really see it in dogs, they have all sorts of behavioural tendencies that can be brought out by training. Humans are just animals, nothing special except for our larger brains.

  8. Can't you see the contradiction? You say that destroying the environment is self-defeating – but according to free will denialists, it is inevitable. Everything is inevitable, including all murders etc. so there is no such thing as responsibility.
    You're letting all those environment destroyers, murderers and so on, off the hook!

    Of course we are responsible for our actions – and that fact necessitates free will.

    Nothing "countermands the physical brain" except in your interpretation of free will. No supernatural element is required. We make decisions using our physical brains.

    It amuses me to see hardcore materialists (like Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins etc. and now (sadly) your good self) so determined (no pun intended) to deny free will. What are they afraid of?
    Part of the problem with science (ever since it split from metaphysical questions a long time ago) has been the 'robotic mind', and the quasi-religious denial of free will is just one more expression of it

    • [I'm making an exception to my "end of thread" termination because this *might* expose the core disconnect. I'll make one more attempt, anyway, then end.]

      I have never implied that environmental destruction is inevitable: no crystal balls, here. The response to the stimulus is far from known. If enough meat-brains (a compliment, in my eyes) apprehend the nature of the crisis, the wiring can do the rest and produce a result we like.

      Evolution shapes brains to suppress negative consequences and enhance beneficial ones–on the whole. Social beings exert additional influence via consequences, attending to long-term fitness. Part of that conditioning is precisely not to tolerate arbitrary behavior. Remove free will and the wheels don't suddenly come off the cart: evolution doesn't require it to function or to produce marvelously sophisticated beasts.

      The brains of organisms make decisions that are unpredictable a priori, and those decisions have consequences that attach to those individuals, in part. I call that responsibility. The outcomes may be no more than the "mindless" turning of an elaborate crank (almost deterministic, aside from uncontrollable quantum indeterminacy). Still, it's an outcome of physics based on the arrangement of atoms/neurons and all the uncountable external influences at play. Anything else *is* supernatural, in my book. To claim otherwise seems a glaring contradiction.

      On the quasi-religious angle, yes, I admit that I lean toward a belief that free will is an illusion of a complex brain clearly capable of processing choices. I have no proof. So it's religious. I'll own that. Proponents of free will likewise have a religious attachment without proof (do they own up to it?). I might also point out that free will believers are clearly afraid to let it go: imagining a world of chaos (where even evolution throws in the towel, inexplicably). Fear and religion are not unilateral, here, although I have no equivalent panic-level fear if free will turns out to exist.

      Okay–I think this particular disagreement has run its useful course.

  9. I find this approach is helpful in this debate —

    From the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

    Reframing cognition: getting down to biological basics
    Pamela Lyon, Fred Keijzer, Detlev Arendt, and Michael Levin
    Published:25 January 2021

    The premise of this two-part theme issue is simple: the cognitive sciences should join the rest of the life sciences in how they approach the quarry within their research domain. Specifically, understanding how organisms on the lower branches of the phylogenetic tree become familiar with, value and exploit elements of an ecological niche while avoiding harm can be expected to aid understanding of how organisms that evolved later (including Homo sapiens) do the same or similar things. We call this approach basal cognition.

    Also mentioned in Scientific American:

    ‘Indeed, the very act of living is by default a cognitive state, Lyon says. Every cell needs to be constantly evaluating its surroundings, making decisions about what to let in and what to keep out and planning its next steps. Cognition didn't arrive later in evolution. It's what made life possible.’ – (paywall)

  10. Dear Professor Murphy,

    the topics which you have presented on this blog are utterly exhilarating.

    The purpose of this reply is to forward sincere appreciation and gratitude across the world from one being to another.

    Even with the predicament of Homo Colossus, the knowledge and expressions utilised to communicate in this blog provide a sense of relief and clarity.

    The way these topics are presented reflect a sense of wonder and kindness,
    such behavioural patterns and gestures are unfortunately not as common as one would prefer.

    The ability to experience such a variety of sensations is nonetheless truly marvellous.
    Life without free will is incredibly complex and brilliant, to realise this is to rejoice even in times of distress.

    Need not to reply.

    Kind regards from yours truly.

    • Thanks! Your statement about rejoicing over lack of free will anticipates the post for next week, which I am excited about!

      For your knowledge and that of others, I usually do not approve off-topic comments, however praiseworthy. I appreciate them, but try to run a tight ship. In this case, the last paragraph earned a place in the discussion.

  11. Tom,

    Uncanny, but your post elaborates themes from several short ones I've posted to a small list over the past few years. The most recent one was a few days ago. Regarding the responsible unit in social species with deviants, the group *holds the individual responsible* to maintain perceived well-being. Other social species do likewise. Correction, punishment, ostracism, even death can occur. If groups fail in this, their risk of de-selection increases. (Darwin Awards)

    One dilemma I have is understanding the huge disparity between many 'enlightened' Western European, AU/NZ, Canadian, etc. correctional systems, and those of Sharia Law with lashings, limb amputations, etc. There are other similarly 'vicious' systems in other cultures too. We are the same species. Geography is different, along with cultural values developed over centuries.

    Many legal systems protect inventions, music, writings, scientific discoveries, etc with patents, copyrights, and such. Here positive responsibility is attributed to individuals or groups/corporations. In both bad and good examples, no non-physical speculation is necessary. The same 80% you mention is around the same % who believe in supernaturals. We 'mutants' are indeed up against a tidal wave of resistance.

  12. Wanted to thank you for your renewed efforts on the blog for quite a few weeks again now – and now for turning comments back on again – hopefully it doesn't add too much workload.

    With this article I still find myself most aligned with your original viewpoint at the top – I'll call it: agnostic tending towards atheist. Not sure what is to be gained one way or the other debating the topic.

    To those who hold strongly to the idea that there is a core essence (a soul or otherwise) that weighs moral choices and then makes decisions – punishments and rewards can help to bind those who tend towards breaking social norms and encourage pro-social-norm behavior. To those who weigh the evidence and conclude that we're fantastically complex machines with no such essence but just a complex meat-brain interacting with a complex world and changing it and being changed as a result – punishments and rewards can help to bind those who tend towards breaking social norms and encourage pro-social-norm behavior (in this case because of all those feedbacks changing the meat-brain). I don't see the point of choosing between the two (or any other viewpoint).

    In practice, regardless of how we think about our decision-making process, our social norms and rewards/punishments already make allowances based on levels of responsibility, capability and culpability (even if our ideal mental models often fail horribly in practice – turns out the world's a pretty chaotic place). We apply different norms and reward/punishments to children / foreigners / the powerful / those with diminished culpability due to mental health issues / planned vs "spontaneous" behavior and on-and-on. I suppose you (and the free-will proponents) make the argument that a better model of our decision making process could guide our society in beneficial ways – but I feel the reality is simply that our species is highly social and constantly learning from the environment incl. each other's behavior, and that we tend towards empathy – whether the result of evolutionary advantage or thanks to the divine spark.

  13. those decisions have consequences that attach to those individuals, in part. I call that responsibility.

    But the concept of "responsibility" is entirely alien to physical science. Who or what is responsible for the speed of light? Do we say that the sun is given the responsibility of keeping the planets in their orbits? Does the moon have any agency over its composition? These are nonsensical questions.

    As a lifelong atheist, I easily believe that every motion of every atom in the universe is controlled by physical law, there is nothing supernatural. There is nothing outside of physical cause and effect, including those that are stochastic as a result of quantum mechanics, but if we humans are going to act as a social species, the concepts of agency and responsibility, the core of any kind of morality, have to exist at a very deep level of human cognition. And once you start down a normative path, "free will" is always part of the journey.

    Belief in free will may well be an illusion, but it has evolved as one of our most essential illusions, one that everyone operates under almost all of the time. I'll bet that even though you believe the case against the concept of free will is ironclad (and one you present very persuasively), the vast majority of your interactions with the world and other people would be described as being "of your own free will" by everyone around you, including your wife and children (if any) and even yourself. This is a battle you can never win. Why fight it?

  14. First off, I have to say we obviously have free will. That's my personal experience, and it's what I see when observing other people, dogs, cats, and the gecko climbing my wall.

    Reducing what I regard as a freely-chosen course of action to a mere quantum fluctuation in a neuronal cascade is going too far. It is like peering closely at a Van Gogh painting and declaring it's just blobs of paint on canvas. You have missed some sort of essence.

    Compare a living creature with the same creature a millisecond after death. Physically and chemically they are identical, but some sort of animating principle, and with it free will, has gone. And I don't think that is explainable by the same science as you use to dismiss free will.

    • I see many faults. Obviously nothing here is obvious, or the debate would be over before it began. The Van Gogh is perhaps a good example. Both things can be true: up close it's just colored blobs, but still manages to arrange into a coherent whole. Atoms can absolutely do the same thing. You could not possibly apprehend the whole painting if the blobs were not even present. Finally, the notion that death is a sharp sub-millisecond event betrays your flawed mental model. Sure, the brain loses functionality as it is deprived of blood/oxygen, going first to an unconscious state that externally is practically indistinguishable from death, but the atoms can't continue to function without their requisite supplies, and the apparatus winds down as the seconds tick by. Similarly, a car on the freeway that runs out of gas does not come to an abrupt millisecond stop. I even coasted into a gas station once, out of gas!

      We're too far apart to merit continuation, so this is the end of the thread.

  15. Free will is the freedom to choose between options within a valid decision space. (note that that space is closely constrained by physical laws) Choice means that the option that was picked was not pre-determined. If it was not pre-determined (it isn't), and those choices are dependent on physical processes (they are) suddenly you find yourself in a place where the probabilistic movements of individual fermions and bosons are themselves representative of decisions, choices. These might not be big decisions, and in aggregate they may be very predictable, but decisions they remain.

    There is another view on free will that does not say "we have it but amoebas don't", and that's "we have it because particles do too."

    This all is more or less a non-scientific discussion, because the hypotheses aren't testable. But one really great way of thinking about it can be found one of David Graeber's more delightful essays "What's the Point If We Can't Have Fun?":

    • "Who’s the boss: physics/chemistry, or the ether? How can free will stand by during such abuse?"
      Just because free will exists doesn't mean the brain is immune to drugs etc. It's a physical/chemical object, susceptible to physical/chemical change. If that weren't the case, you'd be immortal.

      • Complicated rules as to when free will is allowed any power! Correct: free will is not capable of providing immortality (or of overriding *any* physics, for that matter). A simpler approach: take free will out of one's cosmology and the messy wrangling goes away, along with any notion of immortality (which was only invoked here as an admission of limits to free will–which is a good start to narrowing its scope/power–keep going…).

        Point made: end of thread.

  16. Tom Murphy's 'Free Will: Good Riddance' presents a compelling examination of the free will debate, thoughtfully weaving in elements of physics, neuroscience, and philosophy. The article's exploration of how our choices may be influenced by a myriad of factors, beyond the simplistic notion of free will, provides a fresh perspective on this age-old question. It's particularly intriguing to consider the role of quantum mechanics and chaos theory in shaping our decisions, moving the discussion beyond traditional deterministic views. This piece offers a thought-provoking read for anyone interested in the interplay between science and the concept of free will.

  17. Tom,

    Perhaps my first post wasn't clear enough. I'm with you that FW is an illusion ( ditto Sapolsky, Galen Strawson (Oxford)
    and Gregg Caruso and others)

    I've corresponded with both Dan Dennett and Massimo Pigliucci (compatibilists) on this (mutual recipients of my emails) and they responded that my group responsibility position was solid.

    Cheers on the Downslope,


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