Sam Harris, free will, and blaming believers for the things they say

Last week, I read Sam Harris’ new book Free Will. Until now I’ve liked everything I’ve read of Harris’, but I can’t recommend this book. The problem is that Harris argues against the notion of free will without ever putting much effort into figuring out what people mean by “free will.” Russell Blackford has been doing a series of posts on free will over at Talking Philosophy, and his introductory post makes some very smart comments:

I still tend to think of myself as a compatibilist, although I’ve increasingly come to wonder whether “free will talk” is actually very useful at all, one way or the other, in illuminating our situation. Perhaps everything that needs to be said can be said without actually using the expression “free will” – and perhaps both “You have free will!” and “You do not have free will!” convey false or misleading content, or are simply too unclear to convey anything very coherent at all to the average person. So I’ve become something of a sceptic about the whole concept, or, rather, the expression, while still thinking that there are useful things that can be said in the vicinity, perhaps in other language. Since these things include some of the content that affirmations that we have free will are apparently intended to convey, my scepticism is not so much about whether we have free will, whatever it is, as whether the expression “free will” is especially clear or useful.

Harris, on the other hand, just talks about “the popular conception of free will” or “the traditional idea of free will”  (he uses the latter phrase in particular a lot in this blog post) as if it were obvious what the popular conception is, or which idea of free will is the traditional one. But this isn’t obvious.

Now a similar complaint often gets made when talking about God, that atheists are wrong about what the idea of God is. I think that charge is wrong, so it’s worth explaining the difference. The difference is that if you want to know what ordinary people mean by “God,” it’s easy to find relevant evidence. Look at what the holy books they claim to revere say about God, look at what the preachers they listen to weekly say about God, look at how they invoke God in political debates, and so on.

With free will, though, people don’t talk about free will nearly as much as they talk about God, so it’s much harder to find clues as to what people mean when they talk about free will. So I understand why Jerry Coyne compares compatibilists to theologians who try to save the idea of God by redefining it, but I agree with Blackford that the comparison doesn’t hold. (For the full Coyne-Blackford exchange, see also here and here.)

I’ve said that I, like Blackford, am inclined to be cautious about using the phrase “free will.” But if what we mean by free will means the ability to chose, or our actions being up to us, or the ability to do otherwise (in a sense), I have no trouble saying I think free will exists. And research done by Eddy Nahmias seems to indicate most people understand “free will” in something like one of those senses. Or at least, they understand it in a sense compatible with determinism.

But debates about the meanings of words get annoying fast. Thankfully, it’s clear that what Harris is trying to argue in Free Will isn’t just about words. Harris also thinks it’s important that because we have no free will, it’s irrational to blame people for wrongdoing, much less hate them for it or seek retribution.

Now one thing I liked about Harris’ book is that he does a good job of explaining how, even if we reject free will and reject the idea of punishing wrongdoers for its own sake, it still makes sense to punish criminals for the sake of discouraging people from committing crimes. That’s a point that’s important for total newbies to the free will debate to get. And in fact, I think Harris is probably right that our system for punishing criminals should be built along consequentialist lines, that is, we should try to build it in whatever way will produce the best effects, rather than design it to punish criminals for the sake of punishing them.

But to accept consequentialism you don’t have to think we can’t make choices, or that our actions aren’t up to us, or that we never have the ability to do otherwise. Those are distinct issues. Nor do I see anything wrong with blaming or even hating wrongdoers.

I’ll start with hatred.Let me tell you a story about a man you may have never heard of before, King Leopold the II of Belgium. In 1885, Leopold managed to persuade the governments of Europe to make the Congo, under the Orwellian name the “Congo Free State,” his personal property. When rubber became heavily in-demand in the 1890′s, Leopold’s administration set rubber quotas to maximize profits. These quotas were enforced through torture, burning entire villages to the ground, and most infamously cutting off hands. No accurate records were kept of the death toll, but estimates place it in the millions. All so one European king could get even richer than he already was.

When I think about these facts, I can’t help but hate Leopold and the men who carried out his policies. I know anyone with their exact same environment and genetics would have done the same (and given my dim view of human nature, I suspect environment was the key fact0r.) But thinking about that doesn’t stop me from hating them. Why should it? We can hate a disgusting piece of food, a bad movie, an ugly building, or even a general fact about the world (like the fact that life is unfair) even though all those things are the product of outside forces. Why should our attitude towards monsters like Leopold be any different?

To take a less-extreme case, any atheist who’s spent enough time arguing about religion has a pretty good mental catalog of annoying talking points believers use. In some cases, I don’t think believers can be blamed for saying the things they say, particularly when they’re honestly ignorant through no fault of their own. (Remember that everyone is ignorant at some things.) In other cases, they’re clearly to blame for the things they say, such as if they’re just plain lying (*cough* William Lane Craig *cough*). Other cases are in between: they’re not lying, but they clearly don’t care enough to think about what they’re saying.

Now Harris would point out that that Craig’s decisions to lie is the inevitable product of environment and genetics, and the same goes for people’s lack of caring enough to think about what they’re saying. But so what? It still seems to me that there’s  a very important difference between those cases and someone who’s merely ignorant and previously had no reasonable chance to be informed. Talking about whether or not they’re “at fault” or “to blame” seems to me to be a perfectly fine way to talk about that difference–indeed, it was extremely awkward to write the previous sentence without using one of those phrases.

From the archives: Gary Gutting on Mackie, Plantinga, and the problem of evil
When passing a law is the easy route
Bertrand Russell explains Ray Comfort
Abolitionism vs. reformism
  • ash

    Fantastic post.

  • Cuttlefish

    What you hate about Leopold is not who he was, it is what he did. His behavior, which is not freely chosen but the product of environmental selection–that is, its antecedents and consequences. Appropriate consequences (punishment, perhaps) for those behaviors will decrease them. Without blaming Leopold in the slightest, the response to the behavior you hate is still an appropriate attempt at controlling that sort of behavior.

    But you must also see that blaming Leopold has the odd effect of letting the environment off the hook. We might still punish Leopold (a very different thing than punishing the behavior; this sort of punishment requires moral responsibility, and is what our current society does), but the goal is not to change to behavior, but to exact justice, to make him pay. And it utterly ignores the antecedent conditions of the environment which, in your narrative, you admit play a causal role. Changing antecedents may prevent the behavior we abhor from occurring in the first place.

    But of course, that would require us to admit we do not have free will. We would far rather blame an individual and seek justice, than recognize we are controlled by our environments.

    The vocabulary trick you mention at the end is similar to the notion of the “selfish gene”; if we focus on the behavior, not the person, it is far easier to see causes (mostly selection pressures, sometimes a directly eliciting stimulus) in the environment, with the person as the behavior’s way of reproducing itself (a chicken is how an egg creates another egg; an organism is how DNA reproduces itself; people are how memes reproduce themselves). It’s a different way of looking at things from our current society, but no so different that we haven’t made similar leaps.

    • Jason Streitfeld

      Why is it okay to hate what a person does, but not hate the person?

      Cuttlefish says what we hate is not the person but what they do. Why separate the person from their actions? It is their inclinations, their desires, their dispositions to behave, which we hate, and these at least partially comprise the person. No?

      • Cuttlefish

        No, Jason. “[T]heir inclinations, their desires, their dispositions to behave”, are all inferred from their actions. If I were inclined to act in a particular way, if I desired to act in that manner, if I were favorably disposed to do so, but in fact never actually did act, you would have A) no reason to hate me for my inclinations, desires, or dispositions, and B) absolutely no way of knowing what those were.

        Do you blame some personification of the weather, for when a tornado or hurricane acts hatefully? We certainly used to. But the more we find out about complex systems like weather or like human behavior, the less need there is to infer an willful actor. Oh, we will still do so colloquially–after all, we cannot see a person’s environmental history, but we can see her actions. But just as we still, when watching the sun rise and set, can remind ourselves that it is the turning of the earth and not the movement of the sun, we can remind ourselves that we are the products of our histories and environments, not of inclinations, desires, and dispositions.

        • Jason Streitfeld

          I didn’t say we are the products of our inclinations, dispositions, and so on, but that we are (at least partially) composed of them. What sense does it make to say it is okay to hate the behavior, but not okay to hate the disposition to behave? That’s my question.

          • Jason Streitfeld

            I think you ultimately want to undermine our talk of persons altogether, and claim that there is no such thing as an intelligent, intentional action. If that’s the case, then, again, I have to ask: what sense does it make to say it’s okay to hate a person’s actions, and not the disposition? Because, in hating the person’s actions, aren’t you supposing that it is a person who is acting? If you deny the personhood and agency, then you are denying that it was an action. So there is no action for you to hate. Yet, you say (or seem to, at least) that it is okay to hate an action, just not a person. I don’t think that makes sense.

            I think the predictive power gained by our notion of persons is clear enough, and it justifies our notions of intentionality and will. These are inferred from behavior, of course, but that doesn’t make them superstitions.

          • Cuttlefish

            Undermine talking of persons whatsoever? No.
            Intelligent, intentional action? By some definitions, of course it exists. If your definition includes free will, then it does not.
            I am not denying that a person acts, nor am I denying the action. I am denying that the person acted freely, in the sense of libertarian free will.

            Our notions of intentionality and will have served us fairly well. We can do better. Understanding the environmental influences (i.e., not giving up and saying “oh well, it’s human nature, can’t do anything about a freely choosing person”) allows us to recognize the factors which, if we change them, will make our lives better. I have nothing against persons; I was once a person myself, before I became a cuttlefish. Some of my best friends are persons, and I’d like the world to be as hospitable a place for them as possible. Pretending we have free will limits the ways we will look to improve the world.

        • Jason Streitfeld

          Also, I think there’s a big difference between attributing intentional states to a human being and attributing them to the weather. Do you disagree, and think that only superstition is responsible for our talk of persons? Or do you think our talk of persons is rational, but it’s the “willful” part that needs to go? If that is the case, then I think you might be defining “will” out of existence, and I’m not sure why you should want to do that.

          • Cuttlefish

            Time and again we can demonstrate, a tweak in the environment leads to changes in a person’s actions, without any awareness on the account of the actor that her behavior is under the control of external factors. “Inclinations & dispositions” are, at best, partial reports of the products or byproducts of our thinking, and not a report of our thinking whatsoever (remember, no sensory nerves monitoring the brain). And that applies only to oneself–you have absolutely no access to some other person’s alleged inclinations or dispositions, so any talk of them is purely circular: you have inferred them from actions, and allege them as at least a partial cause of those actions (else, why care?–see my example in the first paragraph of the comment you are responding to).

            A single neuron does not “decide” or “will” to fire an action potential. Its cell membrane sums local potentials; once the threshold is passed, the neuron cannot decide or will not to fire. I have read authors who anthropomorphize the actions of a neuron and say it “decides”. I have also read others who attribute mind-like states to their computer (it hates me), car (it doesn’t want to start), or even an unpredictably spinning top (it has a mind of its own). Unpredictability gets translated into “willfully”. Since we cannot observe someone’s environmental history, we settle for a poor proxy of inferred “will”. The fact that it is a poor predictor becomes one of its characteristics–we choose “freely” and unpredictably. It’s a bug, but we’ve made it a feature.

            If the causes of our behavior are in our environment, I am not “defining ‘will’ out of existence”, I am placing the burden of proof back where it belongs, on anyone who wishes to assert a causal “will” in the first place. Why would I want to do that? Because the evidence points that way. Because knowing this allows us to focus on more effective means of changing people’s behavior when need be. Because science has a better track record than magic, and as flattering as our myth of human free will is, it is at base just magic.

          • mikmik

            Are you saying that our consciousness exists in a sectioned off part of the brain that that has no influence on our actions? Are you saying that we are not alive because we are but inanimate particles?
            Conscious will and self deliberations exist, and they are part of the causal chain, or do you contend otherwise?
            As Piglucci asks, what is the point of a conscious awareness that uses up so much energy, makes us vulnerable to injury, and makes birth such a dangerous process, anyways.
            These very facts almost guarantee that our decision making and awareness have a profound purpose to our survival, and reductionists never, ever, explain this, hey Cuttlefish?

            It’s all fine and dandy to posit that any system is just a sum of parts, but obviously this does not hold, because the very fact that inanimate matter can decide to move and survive does not follow whatsoever from particle interactions.

            There is no way I can imagine that conscious awareness and thinking is necessary but not part of our function, and even less can I imagine that our awareness and conscious perceptions are just cosmetics and exist by accident, for even you ‘illusionists’ that say this is somehow necessary yet ineffective are contradicting yourselves.

            Best take a look at Occam and check out what kinds of difficulties your mindless reductionism introduces for explaining our function.

            I can’t explain how consciousness arises or what qualia are, but neither can you, but you ignore this part of the causal chain. If you don’t know what they are, you can hardly explain how exactly they don’t fit into the chain of cause and effect.

            That plain and unavoidable fact is that our minds play a major part of our ability to function, and if our minds are physical, then they can cause effects/behaviors.

            I am tired of reductionists only ever debating on one level, that of particle mechanics. Oh, then jumping to ethics.

            I’ve pressed many dozens of reductionists to consider qualia, and the problem of why we have minds(let alone the hard problem) and only one person I have ever conversed or interacted with has even mentioned that qualia was a problem, let alone why they are (apparently) necessary.

            We already are understanding how environment and genetics can affect the brain and mind, and it is far from required that we adopt an absolute understanding that we are not responsible for our actions because we did not choose them, only did them. There is ample evidence, physiologically, and psychologically, that our function is organically mediated, and that extreme limitations are imposed upon many individuals when it come to making rational and socially adaptive decisions. That is not at issue, so what is this emphasis on prescribing our wills to something uncontrollable?

            It makes no difference, and is not likely to in any foreseeable future when every single person alive can, by observation and demonstration, refute the idea that we are merely automatons.

            Shite, do I blabber!

          • mikmik

            Time and again we can tweak and get unforseen behaviors, also. What’s your point, Cuttlefish? That you can cherry pick and interpret examples without understanding why? Libet has been shredded, as have follow up experiments, by other researchers, so I can hardly give your preferred, yet insufficiently explored, conclusions any real consideration.

            If you want to start tossing around epithets like magic, save yourself the embarrassment of looking childish and just outright admit you have nothing more to offer and slink away in defeat.

        • Jason Streitfeld

          Cuttlefish, I’m not claiming that dispositions or inclinations are causes (or even partial causes) of actions. I’m claiming that they are characteristics of persons. Consider that brittleness is the disposition of, for example, glass to break. When glass breaks, we shouldn’t say that it was brittleness that caused it to break. And yet the brittleness is a meaningful characteristic of the glass and has some relation to its breaking. We might say that brittleness is a concept that we apply to glass, but which has no actual existence. So our more fundamental physical description of glass (and the breaking of glass) would not include britleness. And yet, there’s nothing superstitious about talking about glass being brittle. The point is, some things we talk about, such as dispositions, lack causal properties. So I still wonder, why is it okay to hate the behavior, but not the disposition to behave?

          Sure, our talk of intentional states is not the most accurate, but I wouldn’t say it is completely lacking in predictive power. We do gain some ability to make good predictions by talking about people’s minds and desires and whatnot. People’s behavior is caused by external factors, but it’s also caused by internal ones, too. Unless you want to externalize everything, and define the will out of existence.

  • ash

    I’m with you. The fact that we can’t ‘not’ feel like self directed agents almost makes the issue pure sophistry. We have no choice but to act as if we do have free will, whether or not it’s true. However, it’s implications could have an effect on creating a more humane criminal justice system…

  • ash

    Yes Cuttlefish! Even if the justice system treated blacks and whites fairly (which it doesn’t), and the disproportionate numbers of incarcerated blacks was actually based on greater crime rates commited by blacks, we would be (are)required to look at the circumstances and trajectories that lead to that state and take responsibility as a society to aknowledge and end the inequity.

    • mikmik

      Well, we already know all that stuff but it is not a scientific debate, it’s political, and the one’s in power don’t like knowledge and science.

  • Daniel Engblom

    My biggest problem with Harris’ take was his laziness; He blames compatibilists of word play and yet treats his dualistic language as if it were respectable.

    Taken from so if you’re curious of what emphasis I’m talking about, check the original post.

    Sam Harris tries to argue that there’s no free will. How? By saying that your brain – but not you – makes all the actions. he does see some role for the “self” (A point I’ll return to), but apparently not much, and on that, too, he seems confused on what to think (Again, a point I’ll return to repeatedly).

    Don’t believe he is a closet cartesian dualist? Page 5: “Our wills are simply not of our own making.” Page 7: “The choice was made for me by events in my brain that I, as the conscious witness—” Page 9: “—your brain has already determined what you will do.” Page 14: “None of these adventitious mental states are the real you.” Page 37: “You are not in control of your mind – because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind—”.

    His treatment of compatibilitism is shallow, confused, muddled and contradictory. His gripe with compatibilitism is that it is not intuitive! That, it just doesn’t feel like free will, which would somehow make it false (see the logical fallacy). Page 16 “However, the ‘free will’ that compatibilitists defend is not the free will that most people feel they have.” [Emphasis added, and on the same page he continues in the same vein.] Page 26: “To say that ‘my brain’ decided to think or act in a particular way, whether consciously or not, and that this is the basis for my freedom, is to ignore the very source of our belief in free will: the feeling of conscious agency.” [Emphasis added] Page 25: “This is the trouble with compatibilitism. It solves the problem of ‘free will’ by ignoring it.” Page 22: “They trade a psychological fact – the subjective experience of being a conscious agent – for a conceptual understanding of ourselves as persons. This is a bait and switch. The psychological truth is that people feel identical to a certain channel of information in their conscious minds.” [Emphasis added]

    Sam Harris might have read about how science works. Science moves and doesn’t care for how we feel, only at reaching the truth. Dennett made the case for free will that was compatible with what we know, but Harris dismisses it by saying “It just doesn’t feel right – therefore you’re wrong.” Odd to argue that it’s a psychological truth to feel free, and then try to dispute that and show the opposite, all the while dismissing Dennett’s concern with truth rather than what feels right. In his conclusion he tries to show how it’s actually obvious intuitively that we are not free (his saying that the illusion of free will is itself an illusion comes up on page 64). So everyone is wrong on how they feel (but right when it comes to proving compatibilitism wrong!/ End sarcastic remark), but Harris will show you the right way to feel. I think I’ll just go with not trusting my gut, period. As Duncan Watts quoted Paul Lazarsfeld in his critical book, Everything is Obvious (I’m paraphrasing): “When every answer and its opposite appears equally obvious (once you know the answer), then something is wrong with the entire argument of ‘obviousness’.” – It simply is no proof of free will’s illusion to show that you can feel it to be one. Just like it is no proof of its existence that we can feel like we’re in control, which is why Dennett doesn’t even bother with intuitive judgements. Harris seems to suffer from this bias towards introspection and intuition in other areas of consciousness (see his blog on “The Mystery of Consciousness”), which is odd, seeing that he should be aware of the fallibility of intuition and introspection (he interviewed Kahneman on his blog), but nevertheless, he goes on, in the conclusion of his book to prove, “very scientifically”, how, by introspection, he can show free will for what it ‘truly’ is.

    On Page 23 Sam Harris complains how Dennett makes the case that we are more than what we seem to be, and we shouldn’t narrow our picture down (“If you make yourself really small, you can virtually externalize everything!”), but what does Harris do on page 49? “Judgements of responsibility depend upon the overall complexion of one’s mind, not on the metaphysics of mental cause and effect.” Now, the context is different, but so is Harris’ weak complaints of what Dennett has written. So what should one make of this repackaging of Dennett’s views as your own?

    He cites Roy Baumeister’s work but cannot fit it into his his muddled framework of dualism (also a bit on page 33 & 38 and later) with the self as a prisoner of the brain. But he also almost sounds like he concedes all points to compatibilitism (though he may not realize it, see page 47), all at the same time saying it’s illusiory, because that’s how he feels. Of course we have constraints (a pair of hands and a pair of legs, limited attentional capacity, limited reasoning skills and tools, and all sorts of other constraints we may not even know about yet), but within those we wiggle our way through – a point Harris concedes, though promptly disagreeing with himself (page 47: “Getting behind our conscious thoughts and feelings can allow us to steer a more intelligent course through our lives—” [Emphasis added]).

    Poor Premise = Poor Conclusion.

    Sam Harris gives a poor, muddled and confused picture of what the self is. So the real issue is on what we understand the self to be, and the relations between consciousness, mind and brain. Dennett and Harris might actually be in agreement that the self is a construct (though I’ve noticed different emphasies between them: Harris focuses on his wishy-washy meditation as proof of the illusion of the unified self, while Dennett focuses on neuroscience and psychology that shows the fragmented and frail nature of the self), but Harris goes on to argue on his shallow and intuitive sense of self – relapsing in this book to the common sense dualistic picture of an “I” sitting in the brain. So with this contradictory premise of who you are, how can you argue about what you can do? You can’t: You need to straighten out the science and philosophy of what makes a person, before you can ask what the person can do, something Dennett is aware of and has written about far more objectively than Harris with his introspective, intuitive “examinations” of it through meditation.

    All of Dan Dennett’s career he has resisted the sirens of intuition and thought about consciousness as scientifically as humanly possible, the goal always being to seek out truth, regardless of preconcieved preferences.

    Not Sam Harris. He wallows in eastern mysticism and has even written that either truths about ourselves will be found in introspection and meditation, or not at all (see his blog for instance, the entry The Mystery of Consciousness). Harris seems more concerned with what feels right – Dennett is concerned with what is actually right. You be the judge on who is a more reliable authority on consciousness and the self.

    I’ll concede that maybe the term “free will” should be abandoned so that devouts like Sam Harris will relax, but I don’t see Harris criticizing Dennett for saying “Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots!” and retorting that we don’t have souls, but throbbing life juices! (Seeing how confused Harris is, I think he wouldn’t contradict himself only once though, so maybe after enough murky reasoning, it would all cancel each other out?)

    I would give it two stars for the rest, but others, like Dennett or Pinker, have made better elaborations for the legal and societal contexts of free will. Harris merely rehashes his and others already written – Plus how he didn’t really have anything new or cleverer or better thought out (or even logically consistent) arguments to offer. So one star.

    The subject is deeply personal to Harris. He has meditated on it, made it (paradoxically) a part of himself (see page 46), and now, think, Harris might have to live with the fact that he’s more free than he feels he is, assuming he’ll be intellectually honest about it. I know how he feels; I don’t feel particularly free myself, but that doesn’t change reality. I actually used to be a “free-will-is-an-illusion”- sort of guy. Read The Moral Landscape and it was intuitive, made sense (some of the points were valid, though there were signs of his sloppy thinking). Then read Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, and noticed the bigger picture Dennett was drawing; how evolutionary pressures selected genes that could build better online computers that could respond dynamically in real-time – brains. And we fit in there as algorithms that reason, evaluate and regulate behaviour.

    Dennett prefers to call it free will, Harris doesn’t. And the reasons Harris gives to why we all should dump free will, were poorly thought-out and rested on poorly thought-out assumptions.

    • Annatar

      “All of Dan Dennett’s career he has resisted the sirens of intuition and thought about consciousness as scientifically as humanly possible, the goal always being to seek out truth, regardless of preconcieved preferences.

      Not Sam Harris. He wallows in eastern mysticism and has even written that either truths about ourselves will be found in introspection and meditation, or not at all (see his blog for instance, the entry The Mystery of Consciousness). Harris seems more concerned with what feels right – Dennett is concerned with what is actually right. You be the judge on who is a more reliable authority on consciousness and the self.”

      You know, as much as I generally like Sam Harris, I think you hit the nail on the head here. “It’s not intuitive” is a terrible reason to reject some aspect of consciousness (since the whole thing is unintuitive), and Harris seems to bank his whole case against free-will on that.

      I read “Free Will” when it came out, and I noticed a bit of an inconsistency between his take on morality and his take on free will.

      In “The Moral Landscape” he says (paraphrase, I don’t have the book on me), “Many of our general notions about what is or isn’t moral are probably false.” He goes on to say that we simply need a better foundation for morality. But in “Free Will” he says “Many of our notions about how free will functions are probably false” and concludes that free will is just a bogus concept that should be abandoned, he doesn’t say “well, we need a better foundation for free will,” which seems to be the approach Dennett and the compatibilists take.

      • Cuttlefish

        Introspection and meditation? That’s the last place we’ll find answers. There is a reason the introspective tradition in experimental psychology died out–not just that they found no answers, but that it clearly became evident that it would be impossible to find answers that way. We have no sensory nerves in the brain to feel how we think, in the way we can feel how we walk, or throw, or type. Processes that are divided into many parallel channels may feel unitary, and one unitary channel may contribute to several different perceptual phenomena.

        We have, at best, a partial access to a small subset of byproducts of thinking. Most of our introspective vocabulary was learned by watching the publicly available behavior of our fellow humans; we know what it looks like to be sleepy, but (any parent can tell you) we have to be taught to recognize it in ourselves.

        Speaking of Harris, it bothers me to no end when people rightly reject Cartesian dualism, then jump right in with a brain-body dualism. How convenient, when we say our brain controls us (or worse, as I hear an in-the-works book by [redacted] is going to claim, our brain is us), to forget a lifetime of experience that shapes what that current brain is.

    • Rosemary

      Don’t blame Harris for his laziness. He can’t help it. :-)

  • Emanuel Goldstein

    None of you have any choice in these matters.

    I don’t either as I laugh about atheists thinking they are free.

    • Cuttlefish

      My goodness, of course we have choices.

      They just aren’t free choices. Neither are yours.

      Fortunately, this external scaffold we call science, and an environment where education has been a successful strategy, have led us to recognize this, and to be the beneficiaries of the cumulative selection of centuries of cultural evolution. I cannot help but see that my behavior is controlled, and by looking about me for the sources of that control, to take measures to make that environment control my behavior in ways that are more beneficial to me. Centuries–millennia– of looking inward to my will, soul, or psyche have not had nearly the effect.

      Just as we have our past evolutionary history in our genes, we have our past environmental history in our culture (collectively) and learning (individually). It’s not a directed determinism, it is a variation-and-selection determinism. Our culture is both the result of past successful selection, and the partial agent of current selection; we abandon what does not work for a particular function, in a particular context. (Rather like science, that way.)

      So, laugh at me, but I don’t think I am any more free than anyone else. I am fortunate enough that my environment produced someone who loves truth more than illusion, the natural world more than obsolete texts, and empirical inquiry more than the passive reception of what ignorance allows to pass as “revealed knowledge”.

      • mikmik

        Why? What difference does it make? How do you know what truth is if your very mind is illusory? How do you know that you might be happier in a different situation, like many Christians that are so relieved that they found god?
        What use is any of your evaluations or judgements if they are inconsequential to what you are?
        It’s all just mindless output, anyways. What makes you so happy about that?

        What gives your life meaning, anyways? You don’t make decisions expressing an individual will, not one that is yours in any sense that has merit. You just happen to be conscious of the experiences of a body of inanimate matter. You don’t control anything – ever.

        You just happened to be placed in front of a television that has a nice program on it. After a while, no one gives a fuck, it doesn’t impart some special meaning or individuality to you.

        I mean it, now that you think that everything that you do, and happens to you, is beyond your control, how can you, with a straight face, think that being the only thing possible is somehow special?

        You do not act like you understand what you are talking about, but that’s okay, because for some reason you are fortunate to be kind of smart, I mean display the behavior of a sentient being that is kind of smart, yet disturbingly unable to understand why you are wrong.

        • Cuttlefish

          Asked and answered, mikmik–I’m so sorry you didn’t understand it. Your questions betray your misunderstanding, and demonstrate your grounding in a philosophy I once shared.

          The answers we will accept depend on the questions we ask, which depend on the philosophical assumptions which underpin them. It is quite unlikely that you will be satisfied by my answers, because you are asking your questions under quite a different set of assumptions. To wit (hope springs eternal), your view is mechanistic, mine contextualist. You are seeking proximate causes, not because they are necessarily necessary (did that make sense?), but because they are necessary under your model. Your model, but not reality, gives rise to things like “qualia” and “the hard problem”. Yes, I can speak your language, but you are asking the wrong questions, so why should I?

          Your view is perfectly acceptable for some questions. It has been tremendously useful; I won’t deny that. But it’s the wrong tool for the job here, and using it leads to problems. Linnaeus was great, if mechanistic, but Darwin’s contextualist approach attacked the same problem under different assumptions. The questions of consciousness and free will are surprisingly similar in nature to the questions that used to be framed as “creation”. Some still do not accept that the incredible variety we see around us can come without a directing agent. It’s a seductive world view…

          • mikmik

            Asked, and answered? You didn’t address a thing?
            Then you meander down a path of newspeak bullshit.
            You evade the real questions, and you show your cowardliness. The same old same old avoidance. I called your bluff, cuttlefish, and that’s the best you got?

            Like I said, you try to sound pedantic, but perhaps you would be so kind as to actually prove you know what you talk of, and point me to where the problem of claiming that our perception of only part of our experience, the act of deciding and then initiating behavior, is illusory, yet the act of deciding and initiating a the behavior of concluding the truth of a situation is not.

            How can one perception in our mind be perfectly false, and a near identical process be obviously correct.

            And stick to the point, quit wasting so much fashionable nonsense trying to convince yourself you have knowledge. Your argument from authority, and you assumption of my understanding, bores me to tears. If you fail to address my point directly, then you fail – you reveal your ignorance.

            For some time I have been noticing the emergence of a strange trinity of beliefs among my fellow skeptics and freethinkers: an increasing number of them, it seems, don’t believe that they can make decisions (the free will debate), don’t believe that they have moral responsibility (because they don’t have free will, or because morality is relative — take your pick), and they don’t even believe that they exist as conscious beings because, you know, consciousness is an illusion.

            That is a mere iota of some of what I’ve read.

            In trying to solve the hard problem, philo-science is trying to conceptually unify, by means of a theory, a pretheoretical represented categorization of reality divided into the mental and physical (the mental-physical distinction, MPD), a categorization generated by our being knowledge-seeking systems that to flourish must distinguish self from world, inside from outside, and representations from what’s represented (see the previous section). [Pessimist says: this might explain why this project is impossible: because the categorization is so categorical, there are exactly no conceivable entailments from one to another! The MPD is a basic non-conceptual categorization of experience which won't admit of a conceptual reconciliation.]

            The gloves are off, you are a pretentious fraud, your very manner declares it.

            Show me some substance.
            To wit (hope springs eternal), your view is mechanistic, mine contextualist. You are seeking proximate causes, not because they are necessarily necessary (did that make sense?), but because they are necessary under your model.
            What, of course they are proximate FFS. They are perceptions, what else would they be?
            I am the one talking contextually – the context of evaluating your thoughts using your thoughts.
            Mechanistic, behavioral, logical, sociological, evolutionary, ethical.

            Erect your scaffold, Cuttlefish, your words are meaningless. You are the exact reason Ophelia Benson has her blog.

            We have, at best, a partial access to a small subset of byproducts of thinking. Most of our introspective vocabulary was learned by watching the publicly available behavior of our fellow humans; we know what it looks like to be sleepy, but (any parent can tell you) we have to be taught to recognize it in ourselves. What??? We recognize sleepiness because we want to fall asleep. No one has to teach us that. It takes insight to recognize it others, not the other way around. You don’t even make sense whatsoever, I mean it.
            It takes our own experience of the crankiness, absent mindedness, etc, and tying it to sleepiness to be able to empathize with the behavior in others.

            Your musings are the farthest thing from science. You want to explain the “partial access to a small subset of the byproducts of thinking”?? How so? What do you mean by ‘byproducts’? Do you mean conscious thought, sub-conscious processing, what? I know that our brain activity only increases 5 – 10% or so above innate activity going on, when we focus our attention on a task, but what does this mean, you seem to be trying to say something – pray tell, what?

            Pretending we have free will limits the ways we will look to improve the world.
            How? More importantly, how can we decide to change anything, you state that we have no free will! Nothing new can be introduced to any process, mental, social, cosmic(LOL), if at some point an action is taken to alter an otherwise blind course of events.

            You talk of making differences without being able to take different actions!

            We all know that our nature + nurture + environment shape us. Not one person says otherwise. We get it, okay? But then, you haven’t been free to evaluate the validity of anything, for how can you, your illusion of control is just that, an illusion. Your thinking, evaluating, and deciding to hold an opinion on the validity of your conclusion is == thinking, evaluating, and deciding to hold an opinion on what action to take is exactly the same thing!!, so you cannot have freedom of thought but not freedom of action.

            And if you do not have freedom of thought, you do not have freedom to evaluate what is true, because your thoughts one way or the other are coerced.

            And if your thoughts of truth or error are coerced to be that way, you have no way to tell what is true or not, because you are caused to think and act that way – you don’t choose.

            So, why in the eff should I, or anyone, listen to someone that claims that we don’t have free will, because that person cannot not have any freedom to decide how to act, yet then have the freedom to decide truth. They are both acts of conscious deliberation, or they are both not.

            Okay?? Now do you see why the issue of responsibility is so awry? Not only is the ‘transgressor’ completely unable to have any say in what s/he does, both the transgressor and the judge have the same claim right and wrong: none!

    • Rosemary

      We have choices within a matrix of determined things controlled by maturity, education, environment and what we believe is possible.

      Your set of choices about what to think about athiests is determined by all of these factors. That means you cannot be totally blamed for making idiotic statements. Now that you know, however, your choices just expanded. You could choose to do something positive and constructive about it. Over to you.

  • Charles Sullivan

    Why don’t these long-winded people just start their own blogs?

    You say:
    “Now one thing I liked about Harris’ book is that he does a good job of explaining how, even if we reject free will and reject the idea of punishing wrongdoers for its own sake, it still makes sense to punish criminals for the sake of discouraging people from committing crimes.”

    Kant would argue that it’s ok for us to “pay you back” for your crime, but to use your punishment for the purpose of discouraging others is to use you as a means to an end. If you’re what Kant calls a rational agent, then there could be a problem, but if you’re no better than the dog that eats the food off the table when no one is looking, then all you need is needs to be conditioned, and the other dogs will follow your example.

    • anat

      That’s a much broader argument against consequentionalism than about the specific matter of punishment. These two approaches to morality are often in conflict (unless we determine that ‘being treated as an end rather than the means to an end’ as an outcome that trumps all others, including all the benefits of living in a benevolent society).

  • mnb0

    If free will is connected with choice we should think about what choice means. Extreme cases might be helpful then. If you are starving, what does it mean have the choice between bread and meat? What does it mean to have a choice between not eating (thus dying) and eating (with a chance to survive?
    Now let’s turn to the donkey dilemma so popular in the Middle Ages, the poor animal not being able to chose between two haystacks with exactly the same qualities, quantities and circumstances. That doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t make much sense either to find out what factor causes the donkey to chose one or the other stack.
    The solution might be to lift it to a somewhat larger scale. When we put 10, 100, 1000 or a million donkeys in that dilemma we can expect 50% of them chosing one stack and 50% the other.
    When we have 1000 starving humans though we can expect nearly 100% of them chosing to eat. There might be one though who prefers to die.
    Then free will is just a statistical distribution, influenced by all kind of factors. There is no need to apply determinism.

  • piero

    Chris, I think you are being disingenuous when criticizing Harris for not giving a precise definition of “free will”. Offer anybody the choice between chocolate and strawberry icecream; once they’ve made their choice, ask them if they chose freely, and all of them, without exception, will say “Yes” (except the tiny minority of people who are aware of the illusoty nature of free will; but it’s unikely you’ll ever meet one of them).

    Cuttlefish has already said what needed to be said, so I won’t repeat his/her arguments. Instead, I’ll just suggest that all compatibilists here read about Newcomb’s paradox ('s_paradox) and ponder this question: is it possible in principle to build a machine that will exactly predict your behaviour? Of course, no such machine exists now, but would you regard its existence impossible forever? In the past century technology has allowed us to predict the behaviour of a very compex system such as the weather with ever-increasing accuracy. Can you state with certainty and prove with irrefutable arguments that it will be forever impossible to build such a machine? Can you even imagine what the human race will be like in a few million years? Certainly not. The technological development over the past 2000 years has been of such a magnitude that not even Newton (a relatively recent genius) could have predicted the existence of the LHC, for example.

    A physical system must be predictable. Even a chaotic system of the kind that falls within catastrophe theory can be predicted if we have an accurate enough model. The most powerful supercomputers can simulate the atmosphere as blocks of about a cubic metre. What will happen when they are able to simulate the atmosphere to the level of single molecules?

    Why should the firing of neurons be any different from the interaction of air molecules?

    As I see it, free will not only cannot exist, but it is also obvious that it does not exist. At any given moment, hundreds of possible choices present themselves to us. Yet we know we’ll choose just one, and we know which one. For example, you go to work in the morning, and stop at a traffic light. What will you do when it changes to green? You could choose to stop the car’s engine and use that minute or so to ponder about the futility of life. So far, I have never seen it happen. Why not? Because you are conditioned to get to work on time; because the choir of angry horns behind you will make you nervous; because you know you are causing other people to be late, and so on.

    Is there any really free choice you can make? I don’t think so. At this very moment, a folder of classical music is open on my computer screen. I could just click on one and listen to it. But I am in a particularly sad state of mind, so I don’t want to listen to sounds that would make me even sadder. Of course, I could listen to them if I wanted to be sadder for some inscrutable reason, but would that desire to feel even sadder have been chosen? By whom? I can only experience my desires, not choose them. I cannot choose to find elderly ladies sexually attractive; I cannot choose to enjoy earthquakes; In fact, I cannot choose anything at all about my motivations. Where does that leave the idea of “will”, let alone the idea of “Free will”

  • Max

    I can highly recommend Eddy Nahmias:

    “I’ll argue that the neuroscientific evidence does not undermine free will. But first, I’ll explain the central problem: these scientists are employing a flawed notion of free will. Once a better notion of free will is in place, the argument can be turned on its head. Instead of showing that free will is an illusion, neuroscience and psychology can actually help us understand how it works.”

    • Cuttlefish

      I would further argue that neuroscience is the wrong level of analysis. Our conception of free will was around long before we had anything close to our modern understanding of the nervous system; we learn about “free will” in the context of whole people, interacting in a social environment. It came about from trying to predict and understand the actions of those around us, in the absence of sufficient data to do so. A “free will of the gaps” found us attributing obvious causes to the environment (well of course she came inside; it was hailing out) and unknown causes to the individual (no idea; I guess that’s just how he is).

      We are the only species that can ask “why?”, and we can ask it in far more occasions than we can accurately answer it. We cast about for answers, and until we learned to look to our environmental histories, the most accessible possible answers were found in our perceptions of bodily action. It makes perfect sense that these feelings, caused by the same events that caused our actions, would be temporally contiguous and thus “the usual suspects” as inferred causes. We knew nothing of neuroscience; we defined free will in our actions and feelings.

      The neuroscience of making a choice, of doing A or B, I suspect will not be terribly helpful. It is too far removed from the introspective and observation-of-others, too far from our social interactions, to have useful information. But we will continue to look there, I am sure, because the light is so much better there.

      • piero

        Cuttlefish, I agree with most of your posts. But this one just baffled me. If the illusion of “free” will cannot be clarified by neuroscience, where shall we turn to? Buddhism? Chopraism? Wooism?

        Of course, I undertand that the present stage of development of neuroscience is inadequate to answer such complex questions. Is neuroscience therefore inherently flawed?

        It took mathematicians some two thousand years to resolve Zeno’s paradoxes; but they got there in the end. I can imagine thousands of mathematicians through the centuries being derided because they could not reply to the taunts that an infinite sum cannot have a finite answer.

        In my view, neuroscience is now at the stage where mathematics was in the 18th century: almost there, but not quite. Yet I’m pretty confident that the neuroscience equivalent of Weierstrass will show up in the next ten years or so. An then we’ll have he equivalents of Russel, Whitehead, Cantor, Bolzano, Peano, Quine, Gödel, etc. It’s just a matter of time before the mind is explained in purely formal statements derived from the most basic experiential axioms (like “something is the case”).

  • Dennis

    ” the ability to do otherwise (in a sense), I have no trouble saying I think free will exists”

    What is the nature of your caveat in parentheses? I have read Harris’ book along with the corresponding Blog posts and his segment in “The Moral Landscape”. This is exactly how he defines “Free Will”. It is a will that is absolutely free as opposed to determined in any sense.

    Throughout the book he repeatedly refers to this definition of Free Well. I’m not certain how you can then make the statement, “The problem is that Harris argues against the notion of free will without ever putting much effort into figuring out what people mean by “free will.”” and this statement, “Harris, on the other hand, just talks about “the popular conception of free will” or “the traditional idea of free will” (he uses the latter phrase in particular a lot in this blog post) as if it were obvious what the popular conception is, or which idea of free will is the traditional one. But this isn’t obvious.”

    If I read Harris correctly it is that given everything else is equal at a given time you could have chosen to do other than what you chose to do. If you could recreate the exact instant all all things were exactly the same done to the minutest aspect, you were “free” to choose something other than what you chose at that moment under those EXACT conditions and circumstances.

    Harris reiterates this throughout all his treatments on Free will including his talk at Caltech. He is critical of compatibilists for trying to redefine “Free Will” as something else which will allow determinism and “free will” to coexist.

    I have not yet read the research but this statement, “And research done by Eddy Nahmias seems to indicate most people understand “free will” in something like one of those senses. Or at least, they understand it in a sense compatible with determinism.” just does not seem at all to be true. I will however, read what he has written.

    • Chris Hallquist

      That caveat is explained in this post. The issue is “ability to do otherwise, given what?”

      • piero

        As I see it, there’s a basic flaw in you argument, namely the failure to realise that you have no choice over your desires. Of course, if I have a desire to eat chocolate ice-cream, I can devise a reasonable strategy to satisfy my desire: get some money, go to the ice-cream shop, buy a chocolate ice-cream, eat it.

        Barring any unpredictable accidents, I’ll be able to satisfy my desire. But the real point is this: could I have chosen not to want to have a chocolate ice-cream?

        I have tried to get this point across so many times that I’m starting to feel like an alien. You cannot choose your desires, which are your only reasons for action. Therefore, none of your actions is free, because each of them was aimed at satisfying an unchosen desire. This is so obvious it took a very clever guy to notice it. Please check Alonzo Fyfe’s blog ( and you’ll see why the whole issue of free will has already beeen shrink-wrapped and disposed of.

        If you are not in the mood for a long read, let me offer you a summary (I hope Alonzo won’t mind): people do things because of some reason; the only real reasons for action are desires; you can never, by definition, act against your desires, even when you feel you are. For example, when a policeman gives you a ticket for going 3 mph over the limit, what do you REALLY want to do? You feel as if you really wanted to tell the policeman to fuck off, and remind him that his salary comes from your taxes, and that anyway 3 mph is within the error range of his fucking radar gun, and that he knows nothing about physics and the Doppler effect, and that he should be chasing real criminals instead of harassing law-abiding, tax-paying citizens. What do you IN FACT do? You know that reacting as you think you actually want to could land you in jail: so you try to weasel out wirh some lame excuse. Did you do what you wanted to do? YES. You evaluated the different courses of action open to you, and chose the one that would minimize your suffering. So in fact you did WHAT YOU WANTED TO DO, namely suffer as little as possible, even though you FEEL as if you did not. Everyone wants to be a superhero, but we know we cannot. So we water down our desires to reasonable levels.

        Thus, desires are malleable, mainly by the environment. If you happen to live in a country where hitting a cop carries a death sentence, you will surely refrain from hitting one, no matter what your fantasies are. Your desire to survive trumps your desire to exact revenge. In a country where hitting a cop carries a 1 dollar fine, most cops would often be beaten up, because in that case your desire to get even is worth much more than a mere dollar.

        How do we define ethical behaviour in this context? Easily: you are behaving ethically if the desires which motivate your action are unlikely to thwart other people’s desires.

        But you should really read Fyfe’s account of his ethical stance: I could merely scratch its surface.

        • mikmik

          How do we define ethical behaviour in this context? Easily: you are behaving ethically if the desires which motivate your action are unlikely to thwart other people’s desires.

          So? That’s pretty much been it for thousands of years. What has this to do with free will?

          Keep in mind that if you answer, you can go ahead and explain the process you undertook in reaching that decision so I can assess whether it is obvious that you had no choice to answer. Then, go ahead and explain to me how you know what is correct when whatever causes you to act also causes you to think it is correct.
          Then go ahead and explain to me why I would accept anything said from you when you have been caused to think that no matter what you see, you see it as true.

          You say nothing new, piero, you only do the same annoying thing over and over – state your opinion as fact.


          • piero

            I’m sorry to bore you, but I will bore you to death whenever I think I’m right and you are wrong. Should I refrain from putting forward an argument just because a single person finds them boring? I think not.

            Your fundamental mistake is to assume that decisions are entirely personal, hence free from outside influences. This is, of course, not the case. If I decide that the best course of action is one that will not thwart other people’s desires, it is simply because I don’t want society to be structured in such a way that other people can act in ways that thwart my desires. The principle of reciprocity is very strong in human beings, and it is ultimately based on egoism. I favour laws that strongly punish murderers not because I desire to be strongly punished if I murder aomeone, but because I don’t want to be murdered.

            I regard your criticism concerning my evaluation of my own decisions as mere word-play: it is obvious that I approve of them, otherwise I would have decided otherwise. But that’s not in the least surprising, and I fail to see why it could constitute an argument against my case. As I’ve said before, you cannot help doing what you want to do: the real problem is whether what you want to do is truly free or determined by external influences and the configuration of your mind, which in turn has been shaped by heredity and other external influences.

            Can we shape our own desires at will? Of course not. If that were the case, many homosexuals would decide to become heterosexual just to skip the hassle; serial killers could decide to become human rights activists, etc. Ergo, given that we alway act acording to our desires, and our desires cannot be shaped from within, so to speak, free wil does not exist.

            We can, however, shape or contribute to shape other people’s desires. If you went to school, you know haow easily an institution can shape your desires: did you really want to sit for hour on end on a hard, uncomfortable chair, and be forced to listen to boring stuff? Yes, you did, because you knew the consequences if you did not comply. Similarly, most civilized societies harshly punish theft, murder, rape and similar crimes. Thus your desires are shaped: you want to force that woman to have sex with you, but you also know that if you are caught, it will mean a long prison term where you most certainly won’t be having a good time. Is raping that woman worth it?

            Notice how these rules of acceptable behaviour are determined by purely selfish reasons: if I’m female, I want to live in a society where the likelihood of being raped is low; if I’m male, I want to live in a society where my female loved ones are unliklely to be raped.

            In summary, people are unable to shape their own desires through mere will (whatever “will” means”). The only way to achieve a livable society is to ensure that desires that thwart other desires are in turn thwarted. The question of morality is wholly absent from this scheme: the only valid reason why I oppose murder is simply that I don’t want to live in a society where I could be murdered at any time.

            Have I bored you enough? I certainly hope so. I disliked your reply, I think you are odious and uncouth. Do you want to keep being disliked? Be my guest. It does not in any way thwart any of my desires. But it probaly thwarts several of yours.

  • Jason Streitfeld


    You wrote: “I am not denying that a person acts, nor am I denying the action. I am denying that the person acted freely, in the sense of libertarian free will.”

    None of your previous responses to me had any mention of libertarian free will, so, frankly, I don’t know what to make of this. Apparently you think, somewhere buried in my comments lay a defense of libertarian free will, and your responses to me were an attempt to deny that any such thing exists. In which case, we haven’t been commnicating at all. Oh well. Thanks, anyway.

  • Jason Streitfeld

    But, okay, since we’ve gone this far, and as long as you realize I’m not trying to argue for libtertarian free will here, I’ll give another go at explaining what I find wrong with your perspective, Cuttlefish.

    You accept that people act. And I presume you are willing to accept that one of the many actions people perform is puppeteering. People can manipulate puppets, right? In which case, we say the puppet’s behavior is caused by the person, and not by the puppet itself. We can, then, blame the puppet’s performance on the puppeteer.

    So we can blame people for things.

    And if we can blame them for what they do with puppets, we can blame them for what they do with their own bodies.

    Obviously, then, we’re not puppets. Because, unlike with puppets, you can blame people for things.

    So you can’t blame everything we do on external forces. You have to accept that there is something going inside us which makes us (at least partially) responsible for our actions. That’s what “will” means. It means that, some of the time, we intentionally act, and this is what distinguishes us from puppets.

    Again, I’m not saying anything against determinism. I’m not arguing for libertarian free will. I’m just pointing out the fact that we can and do blame people for things. And, so, if we hate the things they intentionally do–if we hate their intentions, and their willingness to act on those horrid intentions–then it seems perfectly logical to hate the person (to some degree or another). What sense would it make to say that the action is worthy of hate, and that they acted intentionally, but that the intention is not worthy of hate?

    For example, a puppeteer kills a person with a puppet. We don’t say the puppet killed the person. We say the man did. And the man did it intentionally. What sense is there in saying it is okay to hate the action–the man’s action, of course, since the puppet didn’t act–but not the man? I just don’t get that. And none of your responses have suggested an answer.

    I thought your answer was that we shouldn’t hate the person because the person is not responsible for their actions, in which case the person is just a puppet, and the person cannot really act at all. But you say you’re not denying that people act. So people can be blamed for things. So then why not accept that it is okay to have feelings, such as hate, towards people, and not just their actions? The very fact that they are their actions makes them blameworthy, and thus viable objects of affection or loathing.

  • Roxane Paczensky

    Sams discussion of Free Will, and the debates generated from it, are interesting to follow. Some in the debate still seem to be arguing from the premise that the Free Will he speaks of is the Free Will  we exercise when deciding to act, or not act, on thoughts and/or emotions available to us in our concious awareness. I don’t think this is the Free Will Sam speaks of. If that’s the Free Will you are discussing I think you are not discussing Sam’s.
    I don’t find it difficult to think of the Free Will Sam is discussing. Perhaps my lack of difficulty is because I have not been a student of philosophy and so am not trying to square what he is saying with what philosophers whose opinions I may, or may not, have subscribed to have said before to make sense of it.
    From what I currently understand at birth our brains are not a blank slates. Neurons in particular places performing particular functions fire, or not, depending on the inherited genes of our DNA, or modified genes due to random mutation. We are thrust into the world and, if the neurons controlling skeletal movement aren’t damaged, begin to learn that by practicing acts perceived via our senses we can acheive intentional movement. Of course this is the simplest of what our neurons do through practice. 
    Memories are similar. Rehearse a peice of information enough times, in the absence of any brain damage, the information is easily recalled. Memories are more complex though. The accuracy of the recalled information, however, depends upon the associations made with other information in our brains when we are exposed to it, and the influences newer peices of information have when added later. Emotions have a significant role too. For example, was our brain flooded with happiness inducing hormones when we were exposed to the information, or was a noxious stimulant, like pain, present, or were we indifferent? Were the same emotions evident when exposed to the associated information, either preceeding or succeeding? Did the information dictate the associations formed, or the emotion, or both? Given the evidence of learned phobias, I suspect emotion plays a significant role.
    So, our brains are full of bits of information gathered through our own senses independantly, or through intentional external input . This information is stored alongside millions of bits of other information that have associations with each other along a continuum of strong to weak including the emotions we felt when exposed. 
    From this ocean of information in our brain (constantly in a state of reinforcement or decay depending on age, illness, degree of repetition and association, etc.), bathed in whatever emotion producing hormones are currently present, in competition with the hormones present at the time of exposure,  the mind becomes concious of a singular peice and feels about it in a particular way. 
    The decision to accept it as valid, act on it, ignore it, speak about it, teach it, etc., I suspect depends on all the other singular peices that also pop into our conciousness at the same time and in the same way – we can acknowledge the process is rapid. Here’s where free will exists. Making decisions about how to respond to all the information and emotions that have arisen in one event in our concious minds. How those thoughts were initiated into concious awareness in the first place is, I think, something I find easy to accept we have no choice about.

    • mikmik

      What about if we set an alarm to remind us to do something. Does the thought arise from free will when the alarm reminds us?

      • Roxane Paczensky

        I find the question strange, but will answer it as best I can based on my understanding of the topic as I have expressed above and the presumption that the intent of the question was to understand my point of view rather than some cloaked insult. You asked: “What about if we set an alarm to remind us to do something.”….and…. “Does the thought arise from free will when the alarm reminds us?”
        The process could be described thus.

        Human being experiencing free flowing thoughts (or one thought if really good at meditation).

        External input occurs. The human’s boss tells the human to be at work an hour earlier tomorrow.

        The human’s subconcious mind has stored in it many different memories about methods used to force waking from a sleep, all of which have formed associations with each other along a continum of strong to weak with an emotional response attached from happy-indifferent-miserable.

        The alarm clock method is the strongest memory in the associated group of methods as it is the one the human has used the most and the emotion memory attached is pleasant because prior experience of using it had the most episodes of success.

        The subconcious mind projects this thought onto the concious mind due the these factors and the human then sets their alarm click an hour earlier.

        The alarm clock goes off, making a particular sound the human’s subconcious mind told his concious mind to select when setting it via the same process listed above from a “sounds that will wake me” memory association complex.

        The human’s auditory centre is assaulted by a sound while sleeping when the alarm goes off, which results in the human moving from a sleep state into an awake state.

        The human wakes and their subconcious mind projects onto their concious mind the reason why from the “reasons why I awake because of an alarm” memory complex.

        The human did not freely choose the method of waking himself up from all the methods they might have used previously to force wakefullness, such as: “get mum to wake me”, “get someone to ring me”, “just tell my mind to wake me”. The thought of the alarm clock appeared in their concious mind as a singular option because of the “strength” of that memory and the associated emotion in their subconcious mind.

        I hope that answers your question.

  • mikmik

    I just came across this interesting article:
    Scientists say free will probably doesn’t exist, but urge: “Don’t stop believing!”
    It sums up a few points that I’ve thought were clear,

    One of the leading investigators in this area, Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, puts it this way in a recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science :

    At the core of the question of free will is a debate about the psychological causes of action. That is, is the person an autonomous entity who genuinely chooses how to act from among multiple possible options? Or is the person essentially just one link in a causal chain, so that the person’s actions are merely the inevitable product of lawful causes stemming from prior events, and no one ever could have acted differently than he or she actually did? …

    To discuss free will in terms of scientific psychology is therefore to invoke notions of self-regulation, controlled processes, behavioral plasticity, and conscious decision-making. 

    Further on, there’s a couple of points made

    A middle-aged man hires a prostitute, knowingly exposing his wife to a sexually transmitted infection and exploiting a young drug addict for his own pleasure. Should the man be punished somehow for his transgression? Should we hold him accountable? Most people, I’d wager, wouldn’t hesitate to say “yes” to both questions.
    But what if you thought about it in the following slightly different, scientific terms? The man’s decision to have sex with this woman was in accordance with his physiology at that time, which had arisen as a consequence of his unique developmental experiences, which occurred within a particular cultural environment in interaction with a particular genotype, which he inherited from his particular parents, who inherited genetic variants of similar traits from their own particular parents, ad infinitum. Even his ability to inhibit or “override” these forces, or to understand his own behavior, is the product itself of these forces! What’s more, this man’s brain acted without first consulting his self-consciousness; rather, his neurocognitive system enacted evolved behavioral algorithms that responded, either normally or in error, in ways that had favored genetic success in the ancestral past.
    Given the combination of these deterministic factors, could the man have responded any other way to the stimuli that he was confronted with? Attributing personal responsibility to this sap becomes merely a social convention that reflects only a naive understanding of the causes of his behaviors. Like us judging him, this man’s self merely plays the role of spectator in his body’s sexual affairs. There is only the embodiment of a man who is helpless to act in any way that is contrary to his particular nature, which is a derivative of a more general nature. The self is only a deluded creature that thinks it is participating in a moral game when in fact it is just an emotionally invested audience member.

    I don’t know why so many determinists seem to not understand this simple conclusion, that of being merely a powerless spectator and nothing more. You can’t choose what to do, think, feel – absolutely nothing that has any real meaning is available to you. I have a very hard time believing the people that say they are quite comfortable with this and it’s no big deal.

    If this deterministic understanding of the man’s behaviors leads you to feel even a smidgeon more sympathy for him than you otherwise might have had, that reaction is precisely what Vohs and Schooler are warning us about. How can we fault this “pack of neurons”—let alone punish him—for acting as his nature dictates, even if our own nature would have steered us otherwise? What’s more, shouldn’t we be more sympathetic of our own moral shortcomings? After all, we can’t help who we are either. Right?
    In fact, a study published last year in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Roy Baumeister and his colleagues found that simply by exposing people to deterministic statements such as, “Like everything else in the universe, all human actions follow from prior events and ultimately can be understood in terms of the movement of molecules” made them act more aggressively and selfishly compared to those who read statements endorsing the idea of free will, such as, “I demonstrate my free will every day when I make decisions” or those who simply read neutral statements, such as, “Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface.” Participants who’d been randomly assigned to the deterministic condition, for example, were less likely than those from the other two groups to give money to a homeless person, or to allow a classmate to use their cellular phone. In discussing the societal implications of these results, Baumeister and his coauthors echo Vohs and Schooler’s concerns about “insulating the public” against a detailed understanding of the causes of human social behaviors:

    Some philosophical analyses may conclude that a fatalistic determinism is compatible with highly ethical behavior, but the present results suggest that many laypersons do not yet appreciate that possibility.

    These laboratory findings demonstrating the antisocial consequences of viewing individual human beings as hapless pin balls trapped in a mechanical system—even when, in point of fact, that’s pretty much what we are—are enough to give me pause in my scientific proselytizing

    I don’t know how many times a few of us have pointed this out to Coyne and others in discussions on Jerry’s blog, but all the tickled giddyness these people seem to effuse when they prance about exclaiming that it is so important to understand and embrace our, ahem, lack of free will because of some moral revolution it will have on society says to me that they haven’t really thought this through very deeply at all.
    For one thing, all the knowledge and science in the world hasn’t made much of a dent in religion’s popularity and adherence – let alone being a springboard for new variations of new age quackery, so how do Harris, Coyne, hard determinists think they are going to get people to abandon the very thing that defines our humanity, the unescapable sense and appearance that we have free will?

    Shit, this’s long enough, sorry. Just want to re-iterate that all this intellectual masturbation about free will is pretty much inconsequential, and if you insist on talking down to others and insist that there is no free will – who cares? Say something that matters or makes sense once in a while.

    Maybe if it gets repeated enough times, people will understand why I say to non-free willists that by saying our free will is an illusion, they are ipso facto stating that our minds are an illusion. Right piero, you remember tushcloots at Steve and y’all? LOL…

    Anyways, who cares:

    Most scientists in this area aren’t terribly concerned over whether or not free will does or doesn’t exist, but rather how people’s everyday reasoning about free will, particularly in the moral domain, influences their social behaviors and attitudes. (In fact, the Templeton Foundation has just launched a massive funding initiative designed to support scientific research on the subject of free will.)

    One of the leading investigators in this area, Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister, puts it this way in a recent article in Perspectives on Psychological Science :

    At the core of the question of free will is a debate about the psychological causes of action. That is, is the person an autonomous entity who genuinely chooses how to act from among multiple possible options? Or is the person essentially just one link in a causal chain, so that the person’s actions are merely the inevitable product of lawful causes stemming from prior events, and no one ever could have acted differently than he or she actually did? …

    To discuss free will in terms of scientific psychology is therefore to invoke notions of self-regulation, controlled processes, behavioral plasticity, and conscious decision-making. 

    Like i’ve said, it sure seems to me our minds are part of a causal chain that has effect. If you believe that our thoughts and feelings affect our choices, then you have to conclude that our minds affect our behaviors, and our minds evaluate and make choices. Why else would they be?

    (Sorry hallq, for the length)

    • piero

      This post of yours must be the silliest and most incoherent post ever.
      You said:

      Shit, this’s long enough, sorry. Just want to re-iterate that all this intellectual masturbation about free will is pretty much inconsequential, and if you insist on talking down to others and insist that there is no free will – who cares? Say something that matters or makes sense once in a while.

      If you really think that it does not matter whether we have fre will or not, then may I ask you why you bother posting on this thread? Is it because you freely decided to spend time writing about an issue which is of no importance to you (in which case you are a weird kind of person, or an idiot)? Or is it because you were compelled to write about an issue which in fact is important, and you could not help doing so (in which case you are conceding my point)? Heads, I win; tails, you lose.

  • mikmik

    piero says:

    I’m sorry to bore you, but I will bore you to death whenever I think I’m right and you are wrong.

    Fair enough!

    Your fundamental mistake is to assume that decisions are entirely personal, hence free from outside influences. This is, of course, not the case.

    piero, I agree with you on this. Our decisions are very strongly coerced by both personal AND outside influences, not to mention physical constraints – for instance, we can’t just decide to levitate.
    I don’t understand why you think I mean the libertarian type of free will when I use the term ‘free will,” which I guess you don’t, really. But I agree strongly that outside influences affect both what we can decide – which is beyond our control – and shape our options personally.
    For instance, say I want to cross the street by jaywalking. It might save me time and physical effort to dash across during a break in traffic, but if a cop is watching, I might get a $250 ticket. Whether or not I perceive that I can run across safely is determined by the traffic and proximity of any officers. I’ll call these external influences.
    Now, I still take these external factors into consideration, but it is up to me, personally, when I decide to cross, and even if I decide. It can depend upon my mood, my values – say I’m late for a meeting and need to get there as quick as possible, or my respect for just following the bylaws – all sorts of things get taken into consideration, but by me personally. Maybe a child is watching me and I don’t want to be a bad example that leads him to believe it is okay to run out in traffic. There could be many factors outside ourselves that we weigh. But we weigh them, and nothing or no one else is responsible for the ultimate decision we make. It seems to me that we choose what is important to consider, and the relative importance of each.
    So yes, I think deciding to act, how to act, and whether or not to act, rests exclusively in my personal domain. In this way I exhibit both volition and voluntariness.

    That’s my opinion, of course, and I certainly understand that although it seems like I freely evaluate all the options I am aware of to find the one that appeals to me best, I think you are saying that because there is one that appeals to me the most, I will inevitably do that one.
    Something unexpected may happen, say two cars collide or almost do, up the street, but the screech of tires or loud crash might distract everyone providing me with an opportunity to cross unnoticed, or, in any event, any cops wouldn’t be concerned with me over investigating the developing road rage up the street!

    Okay, am I safe, or correct, to say that this scenario generally explains both our views on deciding whether or not to jaywalk? I’m probably missing many things you might or might not take into account, the relative amount of attention each person might give to the specifics in similar scenes, etc, but can we work with something like this, piero, and everyone?

    I just want to really narrow it down to tiny detail in order to explore, or highlight, our differences in interpreting/analyzing how each of us sees a decision being made. It seems to me that we’re all very insightful and intelligent, yet the same things keep getting repeated to each other again and again, so I figure that I must be missing something, seeing some things wrong, or not communicating properly(which seems likely, LOL), or vise versa.

    But here, piero, you say

    did you really want to sit for hour on end on a hard, uncomfortable chair, and be forced to listen to boring stuff? Yes, you did, because you knew the consequences if you did not comply.

    Yes, I did, but sometimes I didn’t, because I skipped many, many classes, choosing otherwise. In either situation, there were positives, and negatives, to either situation, and there were further options available to me such as being a wise ass when I did go to class in order to express my frustrations/boredom/immaturity, or getting the gist of the class I skipped from a friend that attended so I could stay abreast and suck up the next day not to get into as much trouble ;)

    You see, even the simplest decisions seem to me to be quite complex with countless considerations to be made. And while I agree that we always SEEM to pick the most desirable, or least painful, of alternatives – in fact, that’s exactly how we decide, by weighing the alternatives using emotional pay-off as the measurement – what I end up doing ALWAYS is what I wanted/decided to do.

    In this way it seems irrelevant to worry very much about whether or not my will is free, or just following instructions. There are times I feel weak and/or unsure, and merely a victim of my circumstances, but this is contrasted with many other times where I am confident and worry free, and it seems that I have many options open to me, all of them quite favorable. It is not so simple to say any one decision is the best one in some circumstances, or to say whether my rational thinking or my feelings play a part, and how much, in many countless decisions, small and large.

    I know I’m not saying anything you don’t already know, piero(and cuttlefish and everyone), but I want to illustrate that thinking and behaving are far more complex than we can begin to understand, and it doesn’t take very much alternative choice, on a very small level, at some point, to influence the course of our direction(that was uncomfortably put!) in life. Systematically declaring our will to be illusory is not warranted. Ultimately, your conclusion rests entirely on your own perception of what goes on in your own head, does it not? This means everything from ‘what it looks like’ is going on, to HOW you interpret and filter the fraction of knowledge you are aware of, and even unknown biases and expectations. Yes, yes, shut up already, Mike, we heard this in grade 3 already! This leads to…

    Ergo, given that we alway act acording to our desires, and our desires cannot be shaped from within, so to speak, free wil does not exist.

    We can, however, shape or contribute to shape other people’s desires.

    Our desires are exclusively known only within ourselves, and whether or not they came, as you claim, exclusively from outside ie learned/taught/genetic, no one, or anything(within reason), outside ourself is anything more than a consideration we choose to take into account in our own thoughts, which are exclusively inside oursleves.
    First, how can you choose to influence others if you haven’t first influenced youself to undertake the effort to influence others, piero?
    Secondly, how can you choose to influence others when it is up to what goes on in their head what influences they want to consider, and may decide not to care or bother, or whatever?

    Are you trying to say that we can influence the course of people, or society, in a manner we choose to?
    This seems to me what you, and many others, are implying, that somehow even though we can’t personally choose any but one predetermined action, we can collectively, somehow, ‘push’ other people, or society as a whole, in a preferred direction.

    That is about the biggest question I have of non-free will proponents. Do you think the lack of free will of an individual is somehow overcome when you involve others? If so, how?

    • piero

      Very simply: we are biological entities, and reasoning entities. Our biological nature leads us to desire to survive and reproduce; our reasoning natures seeks the best means to attain that goal. We are also social creatures, so that reciprocity is strongly valued. Given these premises, it would be foolish of me to propose complete anarchy, for example, because that would put my own life and the life of my loved ones at risk.

      So it’s not a matter of lacking free will in personal decisions and having free will when we try to shape other people’s desires. In both cases we are merely trying to satisfy our own desires, and those desires do not stem from our cortex, but from far more primitive levels.

      For example, I desire that murder be deterred as strongly as possible; that’s not a moral stance, but merely the desire to minimize the chances that I will become a victim of murder.

      Think o how you behave at a social event. You might very well desire the guy who is boring you to death with his endless chatter to ve swallowed by the earth. But you won’t explicitly voice your thoughts, because you wouldn’t like the event to become a sort of verbal (or even physical) dispute. Why?

  • Carlos Cabanita

    We probably are deterministic, even in our decisions and behaviors. I don’t know if there is some margin at the quantic level that allows us to be unpredictable. But we are extremely complex and a great part of our decision processes happens outside our conscience. Most of our sudden decisions can’t be foretold, only critiqued afterwards.
    Even with a full course in psychology and neuroscience, each of us would not have the resources to think and think about what we are thinking at the same time.
    And then again, think about what we think about what we think we are thinking…
    So we are maybe predictable theoretically, but not in practice.
    As for free will, it is a religious concept, created to give a foundation to sin and to grant god the moral right to punish us humans. Except evangelicals, who don’t need it.

  • Carlos Cabanita

    One more thing: I am only predictable if I am unaware of the prediction. I mean, someone may study me and conclude I’m predictable, as long as I am not told about what the prospect for my next decision.
    If I know that, I become unpredictable again, because my decision will be based on the factors I knew before, *plus* the knowledge of the prediction!
    My next decision and the prediction are now based on different sets of information.
    So, for myself, I am always really unpredictable.