Responding to Comments on Free Will/Determinism: Different Outcomes, Same Inputs.

Responding to Comments on Free Will/Determinism: Different Outcomes, Same Inputs. March 4, 2019

I recently wrote an article that talked about how any research that finds a category of people are more likely to do some behaviour than the non-category (and this covers an awful lot of psychology, sociology and, well, scientific research and data) is necessarily negating libertarian free will.

I would like to clarify a few things and respond to a few comments.

Firstly, as whenever I write about the subject of free will, I am critiquing libertarian free will (the real ability to consciously and rationally choose otherwise given identical scenarios) and saying little about compatibilist free will. My opinion is that the definitions of the philosophical position of compatibilism (that free will and determinism are compatible) are essentially semantic such that it is, as William James once stated, a “quagmire of evasion”.

Eric stated:

What would the world’s data look like if everyone had perfect, unconstrained free will? Well, the data should look the same as random distribution because if there was no causality acting on decisions, then things would look random.

I disagree. You’re envisioning a system analogous to rolling a 6-sided die. But a ‘free will’ system might be like rolling two six-sided dice, or three, or four, etc. And each time you add a die, the distribution gets more of a peak shape and less ‘random’ in the vernacular sense. It’s still random, but the point is that positing a probabilistic system does not necessarily require positing an equiprobabilistic system. There are many many probabilistic systems where one or several outcomes are far more likely than others. Random also doesn’t mean anything can happen; probabilistic systems can also have nodes of zero probability. Flipping a fair coin is a ‘random’ outcome generator, but if you have three paths you could follow and flip a coin (only once) to decide which one to take, you’ve essentially allocated a 0 probability to at least one of them.

To be fair, I adhere to a narrow frequency interpretation of probability. That is to say that there is no such thing as random, and probabilities are created out of inductive analyses and are only useful in a Bayesian sort of way because a human doesn’t know all the variables and is creating a probability based on the ones they do know. Behind these unknowns, however, is a deterministic framework. Flipping a coin is only random if we don’t know all the variables; if we knew every variable then the flip becomes a straightforward prediction.

The point about talking about random distribution is that, given libertarian free will where the human mind can seemingly overcome all influencing data in a sort of executive manner, and given that we cannot defer to these influencing factors, then what does data supporting libertarian free will actually look like? It’s the idea that if something is not caused, it is uncaused; and “uncaused” is synonymous with “random”.

Again, it is worth reading about what I call the 80-20 problem.

Eric continues:

Secondly, I can envision evidence that would support a non-random free will hypothesis over a deterministic one. Pretend for the moment that we found a simple part of the brain that could and did provide different outputs in different people, even when fed exactly the same inputs and under the exactly the same conditions. And that those outputs did not show a pattern of randomness but could nevertheless change.. That would be a prima facie observation consistent with the ‘free will’ concept. Now…do we have something like that? We don’t appear to have it. So right now there is no empirical support for free will. But I do think it’s an hypothesis open to investigation (or, more cynically, one undermined by current observations), and that it wouldn’t necessarily be equivalent to random behavior if it were true. [my emphasis]

The bolded quote above is the key here, and it makes no sense to me. If something produces different outputs give the same inputs, and there is no explicit causal determinism involved, then it must be random, pretty much by definition. The only way it can get away from showing a pattern of randomness would be:

  1. If there were some causal variables that were actually at play here.
  2. If the non-looking randomness was actually still randomly generated. This is akin to the Prosecutor’s Fallacy, when mixed with a bunch of other fallacies, as was seen with the Lucia de Berk murder case. The Dutch nurse was later acquitted of her supposed murders after the suspicious looking data was seen as coincidental and random.

The second comment I want to look at is C Peterson’s:

The problem I have with any assertion that we are 100% lacking free will is that the human mind is- provably- not deterministic. If you could duplicate a brain, have the same state, the same conditions, there is no assurance that the two will produce identical output. What has to be considered, and normally is not, is the mathematics of chaos theory, and the nature of feedbacks described by network theory. These things either argue for true volitional free will, or force a better definition of “free will” than anybody seems to be working with.

I would disagree here. If they were not to be the same, short of randomness (indeterminacy), what could explain the difference? Chaos Theory is deterministic. As the SEP states:

The idea is that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Argentina could cause a tornado in Texas three weeks later. By contrast, in an identical copy of the world sans the Argentinian butterfly, no such storm would have arisen in Texas. The mathematical version of this property is known as sensitive dependence. However, it turns out that sensitive dependence is somewhat old news, so some of the implications flowing from it are perhaps not such “big news” after all. Still, chaos studies have highlighted these implications in fresh ways and led to thinking about other implications as well.

In addition to exhibiting sensitive dependence, chaotic systems possess two other properties: they are deterministic and nonlinear (Smith 2007).

The key here is that different outcomes come about from different inputs (i.e., butterfly or no butterfly). Why chaotic systems are unpredictable, such as weather systems, is not to do with indeterminism, but to do with the shortcomings of those doing the analyses. We, as mere humans, cannot accurately predict weather well enough because our systems are not good enough, Yet.

So, I would have to disagree here.

Whether it matters or not depends on the context of the discussion… as I suggested to him. Jonathan does not provide strong evidence against free will, only evidence that free will is limited. Being influenced- even strongly influenced- by external factors is not enough to eliminate the possibility of volitional free will. Indeed, it’s unclear that his evidence even argues that external influences substantially influence our decisions outside of specific areas…. We don’t live in a causative world….

Are you saying that cause and effect don’t drive the universe?

I don’t know what it means to say “drive the universe”. What I’m saying is that there are effects without direct causes, and that there are effects that can not be predicted even with the best possible knowledge of initial states. That “omnipotence” can be proven false by rigorous logic combined with scientific knowledge.

It does not appear that sentience is a property that is deterministic or can be viewed (entirely) at the product of causation.

Ideally, if C Peterson has time, I would love him to put forward a case here, write a guest post, that I could look at. As far as I can see, this is merely an assertion that I cannot make too much sense of, unless it is quantum indeterminacy he is talking of. Again, my 80-20 piece looks to address arguments of influence and not total causation. Thanks to both these commenters, as ever, for commenting here. Kudos.


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