Participants and Spectators
April 20, 2010 9:37 AM   Subscribe

Suppose ... that the right picture is that characters who take themselves to be deliberating and initiating various deeds come to look like somewhat pathetic figures frantically pulling various wires and pushing various buttons which are, unknown to them, not connected to some moving machine they are riding, on a course completely indifferent to anything such characters pretend to do (or much more indifferent than the riders believe) ... The first thing to say is that this is not an academic exercise. The problem I want to raise has become especially interesting in the last hundred and fifty years or so, because, under the influences, first, of the so-called “Masters of Suspicion” – Marx, Nietzsche and Freud – and in our own day under the influence of everything from structuralism and various “anti-humanisms” in European philosophy to evolutionary biology and the neurosciences (experimental results, brain imaging, Benjamin Libet’s famous experiment and so forth), many seem to have concluded that in an ever expanding range of cases, it only seems to us that we are “running any show” as conscious agents in any even metaphysically modest sense; it only seems that we could be actually leading our lives.
posted by nasreddin (104 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
(Don't miss the comments, by the way.)
posted by nasreddin at 9:40 AM on April 20, 2010


Scrolled to the bottom, read "This is admittedly still hand-waving and promissory notes..." and now I'm wondering what incentive I have to read the rest.
posted by edguardo at 9:50 AM on April 20, 2010


For a bloodier take on a similar theme, see Peter Watts' Blindsight.
posted by Fraxas at 9:50 AM on April 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


summarize, please. My morning is already committed to something-or-other.
posted by philip-random at 9:57 AM on April 20, 2010


and now I'm wondering what incentive I have to read the rest.

Um... because in those aspects, it's not much different from any other philosophical paper?

When I read things like this, I can't help but wonder what we're going to discover about brain chemistry / function / etc over the next decade that will reveal things like how we make decisions and how autonomous (or agency-driven) those are. The intersection between physiology and philosophy really interests me around this topic. Should be fascinating to watch unfold.
posted by hippybear at 9:58 AM on April 20, 2010


When I read things like this, I can't help but wonder what we're going to discover about brain chemistry / function / etc over the next decade that will reveal things like how we make decisions and how autonomous (or agency-driven) those are. The intersection between physiology and philosophy really interests me around this topic. Should be fascinating to watch unfold.

Some philosophical papers have more to recommend them than their being speculating hand-waving on an "interesting" subject.

Also, if you think brain chemistry and function has the final word in how we make decisions, why bother reading the philosophy at all?
posted by edguardo at 10:01 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


if you think brain chemistry and function has the final word in how we make decisions, why bother reading the philosophy at all?

For those who may think that, then yes, reading the philosophy would be an exercise in frustration, at best.
posted by hippybear at 10:05 AM on April 20, 2010


The article (to summarize) questions how much agency we have in the direction of our own lives and admits that the easiest way to live our lives is to pretend we do, even if that might not be the case. (We Buddhists have a slightly different philosophy about the mindful life.)

The interesting part comes in at the last part of the article: how much blame should we assign individual actors in the drama of life when their actions are so profoundly shaped by other factors: societal, individual, neuropsychological, genetic, family, peers etc.

Liberals and conservatives routinely disagree on this one!
posted by kozad at 10:06 AM on April 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


For those who may think that, then yes, reading the philosophy would be an exercise in frustration, at best.

You leave me no option, sir, but to agree with you.
posted by edguardo at 10:09 AM on April 20, 2010


It's funny. Right now I'm reading For the Thrill of It, an account of the Leopold and Loeb case, and as the author frames it, the central question in the trial (which was really not a trial, but a hearing. Leopold and Loeb both pleaded guilty.) was the extent to which they were responible for their actions. Clarence Darrow, who defended them, believed that people were not responsible for their actions, and that punishing criminals was pointless. The DA, (Crowe, I think his name was), took the opposite position. Even with all the advances in science over the years, we're still unable to determine exactly to what extent we have agency.
posted by dortmunder at 10:11 AM on April 20, 2010


Spinoza is very helpful in this discussion. On the question of crime, he maintains that the question of agency is irrelevant, that the crucial question is rather one of the power/right of the community to protect itself.
posted by No Robots at 10:14 AM on April 20, 2010 [4 favorites]


Liberals and conservatives routinely disagree on this one!

I've always thought this was interesting. I thought Robert Wright's The Moral Animal presented some fascinating arguments for conservative policies based in the discoveries of evolutionary psychology, which is in the United States usually source material for the more secular left instead of the more religious right.
posted by edguardo at 10:15 AM on April 20, 2010


On the Human is such a great site. Thanks, nasreddin. I just learned of Robert Pippin this week when I found out that he'll be speaking at a seminar series I'll be part of next year. And now he's on MeFi... bizarre synchrony. It'll be good to have read in advance something that he's written. I won't be able to get to this article for a few days at least, but I'm looking forward to it.
posted by painquale at 10:17 AM on April 20, 2010


Even with all the advances in science over the years, we're still unable to determine exactly to what extent we have agency.

Because science isn't primarily in the business of deciding what words mean.

With an appropriately specific definition of agency, it can be determined quite exactly.

Just for fun's sake, first make up a definition of control: A controls B if the state of A can be used to consistently predict the state of B.

Then you decide what counts as a person, which is also something science can't do, then you decide using the above definition if the state of that person determines the state of say, their body, and presto, they're free agents in control of their lives.

I realize this is probably maddeningly arbitrary for some people, but I've mostly given up hope on determining any rigid, natural distinctions between "controller" and "controlled" and "person" and "not person."

I'm open to suggestions.
posted by edguardo at 10:23 AM on April 20, 2010 [8 favorites]


Interesting thought experiment: assume this is all correct; how much of the language in the post and the comments here is rendered meaningless?
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:30 AM on April 20, 2010


and now I'm wondering what incentive I have to read the rest

Incentive is meaningless. You were always either going to read the rest, or you weren't. What's really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you not still have not read it if I hadn't not said anything?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:32 AM on April 20, 2010


summarize, please. My morning is already committed to something-or-other.

I think this is warranted, because the author seems to use more words than necessary, given that he doesn't form very substantial conclusions. Meanwhile, it's still a very interesting topic.

Basically, the author is starting from the assumption that we have little or no free will (one that I happen to strongly agree with). He then briefly discusses the history of thought about how to conceive of one's actions and decisions if one adopts this position. Kant apparently held that you can either believe in a will that is fundamentally free and nondeterministic, or one that if fully deterministic, and nothing in between (again, I fully concur). The author contends that this is not a practical viewpoint for a variety of reasons. He seems to be suggesting that the notion of social justice is a necessary concept even if it isn't grounded in physical reality. What he seems to propose is that we can allow this notion to evolve over time as we discover more about the universe and our own minds to reflect that we should not punish what we cannot control. In the meantime, I suppose, we are to pretend that we have free will in those domains where we are as yet unable to explain human behavior.

My objection to this is that he fails to consider where this leads us. The advance of scientific knowledge can only narrow the scope of what we consider to be intentional action. After all, science identifies the impersonal materialistic natural laws. Anything that is discovered to affect human behavior, in this context, will chip away at our idea of free will. So where will we end up? With a constantly shrinking idea of what we can really choose to do, and a reduction of what we consider to be punishable behavior.

Since I take a fairly absolutist position on the topic of free will (i.e. that there is none), I have revised my own notion of social justice in a completely different direction. I do feel that some things are "good" and some things are "evil," but these are essentially aesthetic concerns. By "aesthetic," I don't mean "The genocide is awful but those drapes are fantastic!" Rather, I mean that my judgment of what is right and wrong does not rely on free will so much as what I find to be detestable behavior, and what I find to be admirable behavior. To me, it's simply a matter of what I like and what I don't like. If you really don't believe in free will (or don't even believe that it is a coherent and meaningful concept *ahem*), then ultimately you have to excise much of the requirement for agency from your moral framework. Otherwise, you're just playing games with yourself.
posted by Edgewise at 10:35 AM on April 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


I don't see how it could matter.

Let's say we somehow discover we are only "riding" our brains and choice is an illusion. Will that mean people just quit their jobs and sit around all day because what's the point? How could it mean that? They have no choice. They will go to their jobs if their brain chemistry demands it, which by definition will not involve anything they think or feel outside of that brain chemistry (whatever that could mean).

Furthermore, they won't be helplessly trapped inside their brains, wanting to stay home but being forced (by their brains) to go to work. They will have the illusion that they chose to go.

Universe A: I think of things to do, then do them.
Universe B: I do things, then make up reasons why I believe I thought of doing them.

In what practical sense are these universes differentiable?
posted by DU at 10:42 AM on April 20, 2010 [6 favorites]


Here's a good book that is relevant to this discussion.

My own view is that I'm not sure why the question of agency is an either/or question.

It seems rather that there are--at least for living, sentient creatures with brains (consciousness)--something like relative, modal degrees of (something like) freedom, (something like) agency, (something like) willed action, and (something like) autonomy.

Furthermore, given that imperfection is the natural state of human beings, the degree to which we can be said to have these potentialities is always finite, contingent and relative. We obviously are not able to truly control anything in an absolute, metaphysical sense, but I'm not sure that means the situation is helpless.

The first degree of freedom is motility: the ability to move. The second degree is the ability to assess: the ability to interpret one's environment in order to exploit one's niche. The third degree of freedom is language, and with it the epistemic and ontic frameworks that structure our reality. Language, as the basis of conceptual thought, is after all where humans will continue to test their limits of what is knowable--since without language there is no science, industry or philosophy, but likewise probably also no ecological crisis.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:44 AM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


Determinism v indeterminism is a red herring. We surely wouldn't consider ourselves to be exercising free will if it turned out our decisions were determined by the flip of some quantum coin.

Rather, as edguardo points out, this is largely an exercise in defining "agency," "free will," and "person." I'm unconvinced that two of those can have meaningful, interesting definitions.
posted by PMdixon at 10:45 AM on April 20, 2010


tl;dr. Just like Philosophy class back in college. ;- )
posted by Doohickie at 10:48 AM on April 20, 2010


Sorry to single you out edguardo, but you've raised some controverial points I'd like to respond to

Because science isn't primarily in the business of deciding what words mean.

You're probably correct if the emphasis is on "primarily", but I'd argue that deciding what words mean is a close second objective. So much of setting up an experiment or proposing a hypothesis is about framing the argument by selecting a scope. This can consist of selecting an equation that defines a common-use term (words like "force" or "energy", for example). One might reasonably characterize the goal of physics as eliciting a consistent set of definitions for observations of the universe's operation.

A controls B if the state of A can be used to consistently predict the state of B.

I'm unhappy with this, because I require causality somewhere in a definition of control, and this definition can not distinguish between cause and effect. If my body develops some disease shortly after consuming a particular food, but never develops the disease otherwise, there is no feasible causal chain that keeps me from ingesting that food by not contracting that disease.
posted by agent at 10:53 AM on April 20, 2010


I'm completely powerless to stop from being all LOL WUT
posted by codswallop at 10:58 AM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I only think I chose to write this comment.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:59 AM on April 20, 2010


In what practical sense are these universes differentiable?

Pippin seems to be drawing the discussion away from that question. I read him as suggesting that it's not the fact of the matter which is interesting, but how we as a culture try to incorporate whatever our understanding is into our day-to-day practices of praise and blame. He's suggesting that this question is a fruitful point of contact between philosophy, psychology, and sociology, and beginning to sketch out what that contact might look like.
posted by avianism at 11:00 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


If free will did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

Our social system depends on the notion of agency. I am skeptical that anyone (much less everyone) is capable of completely divorcing their actions and beliefs from their intuitive notions of justice/responsibility. I, like many others in this thread, don't believe in free will. But that doesn't stop me from getting angry at others for acting foolishly or selfishly, regardless of whether that anger will have any bearing on the situation.

I feel that one's belief or lack of belief in free will is ultimately inconsequential to the integrity of our justice system, so long as we continue to act as if it does exist. Whether someone is ultimately responsible for their actions or not, consequences still serve a vital role in altering future behavior. Whether it's "fair" in some metaphysical sense is beside the point. Like the concept of money, it is a useful and necessary fiction.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:09 AM on April 20, 2010


How could it be right to hold someone subject to years of abuse and neglect to the same degree of accountability as someone privileged and loved?

There's an entire branch of social work dedicated to death penalty mitigation.

"For many poor defendants, the difference between death and life in prison without the possibility of parole is made at mitigation hearings in which the jury may hear testimony which puts the defendant’s life and crime in context."

Basically the social worker does an insanely detailed analysis of all the various trauma incidents, failed institutions, failed networks of social support, broken familial structures, etc. that the defendant was shaped in and presents an argument to the court for leniency based on the horrifying circumstances most death penalty defendants experienced in early, developmentally crucial stages of their lives. I am kind of dying to get this job at some point though I've been cautioned by a few people who have done it that you should book your psychiatrist appointment in advance because being mired all day, every day in the most extreme details of childhood violence is the most suicide-inducing job on the planet.

This dude should be involved in the discussions going on where criminal justice meets mental health, I would be interested to hear his ideas about agency, mental illness and criminality as it relates to judicial decisions regarding punishment or treatment.
posted by The Straightener at 11:10 AM on April 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


Prioception to the rescue.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:11 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


how we as a culture try to incorporate whatever our understanding is into our day-to-day practices of praise and blame.

If we are riders, how are we going to "try" to incorporate anything? And wouldn't my praise/blame method be pre-determined for me anyway, with me making up ad hoc reasons why my brain did what it did?

If you want to "do something" about your findings, you have to have exist in a universe where you can "do something". Or put another way, if I'm willing to believe I can "do something" about the findings, why shouldn't I just be willing to believe I can will things in the first place?

A universe where we "decide" to let criminals go free because they have no free will is not coherent. Either we have to consider them as having free will (and lock them up) OR we have to say that we ourselves have no free will (and are forced to lock them up).
posted by DU at 11:13 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Free will ist gradual. Rock -> worm -> pig -> human.
To be absolutely free in your decisions you have to have access to all the facts to base your decision on, and to be able to process all the facts in an infinitesimally small amount of time.

Solved. Thank you.
posted by vertriebskonzept at 11:19 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Forget all this environmental stuff - solipsism is the way to go. DANCE, MY LITTLE PUPPETS! DANCE!
posted by AdamCSnider at 11:28 AM on April 20, 2010 [3 favorites]


The Driver vs. Passenger Question will get messier and messier over time, because it will get more and more technical.

"When" will become a factor-- due to circadian and ultradian rhythms, among (I suspect) many other as-yet undiscovered things, the exact degree of agency and conscious participation in an action will vary from one moment to the next.

Really, though, the further one pushes the question, and the messier and more technical and complex and multiply determined the answers, the less interesting the question becomes. It pretty quickly just becomes a can of worms.

>> My very brief suggestion is that we accept (i) that the possibility of the self-knowledge criterial for agency is much more difficult and complicated than in the standard picture of agency (and rarer, though not impossible), (ii) that deliberations are rarely “freely” undertaken by persons simply qua rational deliberators, and they are never capable of “stepping back” from all their commitments and assessing them, and (iii) that we are likely “in charge” of much less of our fate than has been assumed in the traditional picture that has come down to us from the Humanist Inheritance.

It is unfortunate that the protocols of academic writing required him to write three pages before he could get to the statement above. In my view, it's also telling that his paper didn't really get beyond that simple statement.

Here is a question.

Here is how this question evolved.

Here is that question again.

Later, perhaps, from sources unknown: An answer!

posted by darth_tedious at 11:35 AM on April 20, 2010


I am with DU on this one. Aside from some pretty trivial definitions of free will, I have yet to see any kind of proposed setup which would reveal its existence or lack thereof. We might on some purely biophysical level discover if the urge for some mint chocolate chip precede internally vocalized desires for something creamy, bright-tasting, and chill — and it would certainly be entertaining to know if we are merely moving along from instinct and constructing some kind of false narrative wherein some "I" has control to explain the whole thing — but that doesn't sound like "free will" as I hear it discussed.

Talking about how we might restructure accountability in society on the basis of one interpretation, indistinguishable from a different interpretation, seems to me at the least to be premature, if not arrogant, given that we don't have much of a way to tell one way or another yet.
posted by adipocere at 11:38 AM on April 20, 2010


Well, I didn't have time to read it, but as always I'm guessing it comes down to the fundamental question "what is consciousness?"

Furthermore, they won't be helplessly trapped inside their brains, wanting to stay home but being forced (by their brains) to go to work


My question here, is how can "you" forced "by your brain?" What are "you" besides your brain? Unless we are talking about some sort of "soul" floating in the ether, I would say "you" are probably inside your brain.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:49 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


how much blame should we assign individual actors in the drama of life when their actions are so profoundly shaped by other factors: societal, individual, neuropsychological, genetic, family, peers etc.

In every discussing about free will, someone brings this up, like it's the main issue. But it's a non issue.

"If free will doesn't exist, should we blame people who commit crimes?" Does anyone see the contradiction there? "Should we" means "should we choose to," so the question is asking, "If free will doesn't exist, should we choose to...?" WAIT! If free will doesn't exist, we CAN'T choose to do anything. If it doesn't exist, then we WILL do whatever we are determined to do. If we're determined to blame people, we'll blame them; if we're not, we won't.

Sometimes, when people come to the conclusion that free will doesn't exist, it sounds awfully like they mean "for other people." It's like they're asking, "What if I wake up tomorrow and discover that everyone ELSE is an automaton? In that case, should I blame them for their misdeeds?" I guess that's an interesting sci-fi scenario, but it seems more likely that if you discover everyone else has no free will, then you don't have any either.

To be fair, the bit I'm quoting doesn't posit that free will is completely absent. It raises a question about what we should do if actions are LARGELY determined (whatever that means). But it conjures up this strange world in which it just so happens that the one thing that isn't influenced by external forces is our ability to choose whether or not to place blame. That's really convenient for this old-saw of a problem.

(By the way, if free will doesn't exist, then we don't have any choice as to whether or not we should believe in it. But that doesn't mean we SHOULD stop debating it. If free will doesn't exist, then we will or will not stop debating it, depending on what we're determined to do.)
posted by grumblebee at 11:51 AM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


...come to look like somewhat pathetic figures frantically pulling various wires and pushing various buttons which are, unknown to them, not connected to some moving machine they are riding, on a course completely indifferent to anything such characters pretend to do...

Philo-pedal-porn!
posted by chavenet at 11:53 AM on April 20, 2010


Not even a mention of Eastern philosophy. As usual.

I'm not proposing that Buddhism or Zen are the correct answers to his question, but in his pursuit I am disappointed to see these Western philosophers re-inventing the axle, even if not the entire wheel.
posted by polymodus at 11:54 AM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill. I will choose a path that's clear; I will choose free will.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:55 AM on April 20, 2010


I have yet to see any kind of proposed setup which would reveal it [free will] or lack thereof.

But I've also yet to see how any account of conscious human actions makes sense (biologically, psychologically, anthropologically, sociologically, physiologically) without at least some appeal to the intentionality of goal-directed behavior.

In other words, doing away with something like FW seems a lot more problematic than including something like FW in our descriptions (even if we cannot account for it in as robust a scientific way as we had hoped).

There seems to be a false sense that because we cannot get a reductive account, we cannot get any account. Even if we do not have first-person access to other people's thoughts (the classic "problem" of behavioral-phenomenological description), and thus cannot always adequately understand their motives, we can for pragmatic reasons make inferences about the causal nexus of environment and neuroscience.

The failure to reduce scientific explanation according to a single set of covering laws does not mean we need to throw up our hands. But I would challenge anyone to show how getting rid of the idea of agency entirely (in specific instances it obviously can create problems, depending on context) will actually help us grasp the larger picture. Like it or not, the notion of agency, even in a modest and much less robust form, seems conceptually and descriptively necessary to understanding behavior at all.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:57 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aside from some pretty trivial definitions of free will, I have yet to see any kind of proposed setup which would reveal its existence or lack thereof.

Without total understanding of the universe, I quite agree that it is impossible to empirically determine whether or not there is such a thing as "free will." However, I don't think it's necessary to perform any kind of experiment, since the problem with free will is that the concept itself is meaningless. I could discuss this at great length (as I have on many previous occasions), but for the tl;dr crowd, I think you can boil it down to this:

How are we to define free will? There are two essential qualities. First, there is nondeterminism. In other words, your actions are fundamentally unpredictable to observers (possibly even yourself, before you perform them). But that's not enough, because we don't consider quantum uncertainty to be an expression of free will (unless you're being hippy-dippy about your physics). The second quality is total self-control, meaning that the actor is the sole determiner of his or her actions.

I think the paradox here is best illustrated by edguardo's definition of control, which I believe to be an excellent one:
A controls B if the state of A can be used to consistently predict the state of B.
You see what I did there? Nondeterminism and total control are mutually exclusive.

Damn, someone pulled a fire alarm...thankfully I just finished this post!
posted by Edgewise at 11:57 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


No, drjimmy11, I am inside your brain.

Ha. Haha. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAHAHAAH HAHAHA HA ha heh. Hrm.
posted by everichon at 11:58 AM on April 20, 2010


“Even with all the advances in science over the years, we're still unable to determine exactly to what extent we have agency.

edguardo: “Because science isn't primarily in the business of deciding what words mean. ¶ With an appropriately specific definition of agency, it can be determined quite exactly. ¶ Just for fun's sake, first make up a definition of control: A controls B if the state of A can be used to consistently predict the state of B. ¶ Then you decide what counts as a person, which is also something science can't do, then you decide using the above definition if the state of that person determines the state of say, their body, and presto, they're free agents in control of their lives. ¶ I realize this is probably maddeningly arbitrary for some people, but I've mostly given up hope on determining any rigid, natural distinctions between ‘controller’ and ‘controlled’ and ‘person’ and ‘not person.’”

There are several confused things in this paragraph, not the least of which is the apparent assumption that if something can be determined exactly it has been determined exactly by science. What's more, of course 'agency' is simple and straightforward to define within the context of science - an "agent" is merely the original cause of an action. The trouble is that this definition doesn't appear coherent to science, which aims to uncover the original causes of things through experiment; an original cause uncovered by rational thought rather than by experimentation is not valid within the context of science.
posted by koeselitz at 12:01 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


My question here, is how can "you" forced "by your brain?" What are "you" besides your brain? Unless we are talking about some sort of "soul" floating in the ether, I would say "you" are probably inside your brain.

Everyone acts in accordance with their own beliefs and desires, and insofar as we feel intuitively that we consciously choose how best to act on these beliefs and values, we feel that we must have free will. But here's something that's rarely asked: what determines those beliefs and desires? Are they consciously decided? And if not, if they indeed beyond our control, what does that say about the actions that are done in their service?
posted by dephlogisticated at 12:04 PM on April 20, 2010


science, which aims to uncover the original causes of things through experiment; an original cause uncovered by rational thought rather than by experimentation is not valid within the context of science.

This is not true of science-as-practice at all: the biologist does not need a physicist to validate her research.

The question of the unity or disunity of science is an interesting one, but the notion that every scientific description collapses into physics, at least in theory, has led a lot of philosophers of science to see more unity of explanation than is currently possible.

In other words, if science were only the pursuit of ultimate nomological explanation, then yes we could speak of science as having unified aims in "uncovering original causes," but the history of science shows an expansionist proliferation of new domains of inquiry--and not, it should be said, a purely reductive collapse of explanation to a single theory of first causes. Science-as-metaphysics is not the same as science-as-practice.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 12:12 PM on April 20, 2010


But I've also yet to see how any account of conscious human actions makes sense (biologically, psychologically, anthropologically, sociologically, physiologically) without at least some appeal to the intentionality of goal-directed behavior.

Intentionality and goal-driven behavior are not the same as free will. I don't happen to believe in free will, but whether or not it exists, it is not necessary for the things you mention.

Intentionality is a FEELING. We feel like we have an intention, e.g. I feel like I want a glass of water. I haven't heard many philosophers (whether or not they believe in free will) claim we don't have feeling. Obviously, we FEEL like we have an intention, and just as obviously, we FEEL like we make a choice to carry it out. If we didn't have these feelings, we wouldn't be having debates about free will to begin with.

Let's say a goal forms in my head to get a glass of water and then I DO get a glass of water.

Those facts to not show that the goal caused the action. Nor can you infer from them that I could have had some other goal or taken some other action. Maybe I was determined to have the intention of getting a glass of water.

There's also a chicken/egg problem. Which comes first, the feeling-of-intent or the start-of-the-action? Could intent be a brain mechanism to explain why we carry out actions?

Like I said, above, I don't think my objections prove free will doesn't exist. Rather, I think intent and goals don't help us establish the truth or falsehood of free will.
posted by grumblebee at 12:13 PM on April 20, 2010


Intentionality and goal-driven behavior are not the same as free will.

I agree, but they assume as (psychologically descriptive and conceptual) background something like it. There is still something like a self in psychology, which I know seems scandalous to certain computational theorists in cognitive science. The problem of agency is really the problem of whether or not one takes psychology seriously at all. Having seen how the history to "do away" with psychology (and replace it with behaviorism, etc.) has ended in failure, I think it may be time to admit it's an actual discipline.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 12:20 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


"If free will doesn't exist, should we blame people who commit crimes?" Does anyone see the contradiction there? "Should we" means "should we choose to," so the question is asking, "If free will doesn't exist, should we choose to...?"

This is a really extreme position. It sounds like you're saying that if there's no freedom, then there can be no normativity. That is, we can never appropriately use the word "should." (Nor can we ever appropriately use any word, because "appropriate" is a normative concept.) Do you think this?

Would you allow a counterfactual version of the question? E.g.: "If there were people who had free will, then should those people blame people who commit crimes?" Or do you think that free will is incoherent and hence not even logically possible?

Intentionality is a FEELING.

As most philosophers use the term, and as HP Laserjet was using it I think, intentionality is a technical term that has to do with 'aboutness'; it doesn't have anything to do with feeling in particular. A book has intentionality, because it is about things, but it doesn't feel anything.
posted by painquale at 12:24 PM on April 20, 2010


Between really running your life and only thinking you are, is there a distinguishable difference? Isn't that a bit like "There's really no external world out there but everything appears to me exactly as it would appear if there were?"

Preferred solution: there is no "me". 10% of the time it's a linguistic convention, the rest of the time the subject doesn't arise. Unties a whole bunch of knots.
posted by jfuller at 12:25 PM on April 20, 2010


I hate to think about being a spectator on a life of philosophizing about agency...
posted by ServSci at 12:31 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Preferred solution: there is no "me". 10% of the time it's a linguistic convention, the rest of the time the subject doesn't arise. Unties a whole bunch of knots.

Or perhaps there are dozens if not hundreds of "mes" that are largely context specific and have various degrees of interaction between the other "mes".
posted by Burhanistan at 12:32 PM on April 20, 2010


I see departments are still removing humans from the Humanities, one undergrad at a time.
posted by four panels at 12:33 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


The problem of agency is really the problem of whether or not one takes psychology seriously at all.

I don't get how this is. Again, we all (I think) agree that we have the feeling of making choices and that we do, in fact, take actions. Maybe the choice feeling is there because we actually make a choice; maybe it's an illusion of sorts. (Even if free will DOES exist, the fact that it exists could be disconnected from the fact that we feel like we make choices.)

Let's say my dad beat me and so I wound up growing up with all kinds of emotional problems. Someone who doesn't believe in free will would say that my dad had no choice as to whether or not to beat me. If, as a result of the beating I got, I now beat my kids, I have no choice in that either (according to a deterministic theory).

By there IS psychology involved. I DO beat my kids because I'm disturbed, and I AM disturbed because my dad beat me. And maybe if I go to talk therapy, that will cause me to stop beating my kids.

IF there's no free will, that doesn't at all rule out all sorts of psychological mechanisms. People without free will can still feel lust, guilt, anger, etc. They can even feel choice. They just can't actually choose. People without free will can have their psychology altered by other people, e.g. therapists. They just can't choose to go see therapists and the therapists can't choose whether or not (or how) to help them. They WILL go see therapists (or not) and the therapists WILL help them (or not).
posted by grumblebee at 12:35 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


It sounds like you're saying that if there's no freedom, then there can be no normativity. That is, we can never appropriately use the word "should." (Nor can we ever appropriately use any word, because "appropriate" is a normative concept.) Do you think this?

Maybe you know some meaning of the world "should" that doesn't imply choice. I don't. I've never heard anyone ask "should water be wet?" If everything is like water -- if it just is the way it is and there's no possibility for it to be any other way -- how does "should" make sense?

Normative still makes sense. If 100 people wear shirts, and they're all red except for one guy's shirt, which is blue, then red is the normative. It doesn't matter whether that one guy CHOSE the blue shirt or was destined to wear it. He's not applying the norm.

Would you allow a counterfactual version of the question? E.g.: "If there were people who had free will, then should those people blame people who commit crimes?" Or do you think that free will is incoherent and hence not even logically possible?

I do think there are some inherent logical problems with free will. I can discuss them if you want. But I can also ignore them and imagine people who have free will (as long as I don't think too much about how that could be possible). To me, free will is like a flying horse. There may be all sorts of physics reasons why such a beast couldn't possibly exist, but we can ignore that and say if, somehow (by magic) it did exist, what would the world be like?

Presumably, people with free will would be people who, when faced with two physically possible potential actions, A and B, might perform either one. And there's no possible way, even if you knew everything about the universe (the position of every atom, etc) that you could predict which action they'd wind up performing. (And the unpredictability of their choice can't be caused by randomness.) I don't see how that's possible, but it doesn't matter for your scenario.

Somehow, by magic, such being DO exist. They can choose to blame or not to blame other creatures -- creatures that don't have free will. Should they do so?

Well, according to my ethics, BLAME doesn't matter much. Blame is a sort of feeling. But I do have a problem with certain actions, such as chastisement and punishment. As a supposed free-well-having being, I claim the right to protect myself and my loved ones. If that means locking up non-free-will beings that pose a threat, I'll lock them up. But what I won't do is chastise them or humiliate them (unless I can clearly show that doing so stops the dangerous behavior). That would be wrong. Nor will I lock them up for non-practical reasons (like "they deserve to be locked up.")
posted by grumblebee at 12:52 PM on April 20, 2010


You mofes obviously feel differently, but I found this to be an un-clarifying treatment. I understand that the ideas around "agency" are important to our "Humanist Inheritance," and I understand that they're subject to extremely strong challenges. I understand that in some sense this is a "practical" problem, since our individual and social practices seem to depend on unlikely naive positions on agency.

These are modest propositions that don't need to be messily developed to be believed. I can't really tell what this essay is trying to add.

I don't mind that the argument proceeds by hand-waving and promissory notes -- I just can't tell what is being promised.
posted by grobstein at 1:00 PM on April 20, 2010


I've never heard anyone ask "should water be wet?"

I have. Putnam, Goodman, Quine and many others have asked this very question and related questions, because it all hinges on deeper questions of conceptual analysis and how language "hooks on" to the world (such questions as analytic/synthetic distinction, sense/reference distinction, intension/extension distinction, the inscrutability of reference in radical translation, the relation of ontology to language, nominalism, etc.)
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:03 PM on April 20, 2010


"If free will doesn't exist, should we blame people who commit crimes?" Does anyone see the contradiction there? "Should we" means "should we choose to," so the question is asking, "If free will doesn't exist, should we choose to...?" WAIT! If free will doesn't exist, we CAN'T choose to do anything. If it doesn't exist, then we WILL do whatever we are determined to do. If we're determined to blame people, we'll blame them; if we're not, we won't.

Yes, now apply that methodology to just about everything else we talk about here. Without assuming free will, language (other than descriptive) loses all meaning.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:07 PM on April 20, 2010


So it's not my fault that I'm reading MetaFilter instead of studying for my exam?
posted by Jacqueline at 1:08 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


DECIDE, v.i. To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.

A leaf was riven from a tree,
"I mean to fall to earth," said he.

The west wind, rising, made him veer.
"Eastward," said he, "I now shall steer."

The east wind rose with greater force.
Said he: "'Twere wise to change my course."

With equal power they contend.
He said: "My judgment I suspend."

Down died the winds; the leaf, elate,
Cried: "I've decided to fall straight."

"First thoughts are best?" That's not the moral;
Just choose your own and we'll not quarrel.

Howe'er your choice may chance to fall,
You'll have no hand in it at all.
posted by dilettanti at 1:13 PM on April 20, 2010


Yes, now apply that methodology to just about everything else we talk about here. Without assuming free will, language (other than descriptive) loses all meaning.

I agree with that. I think we must assume it to exist (or just not think about it) in order to get all kinds of work done (including philosophy that attempts to prove free will doesn't exist). I'd go further and suggest that we WILL assume it exists. In other words, I don't think we can say, "well, let's just give up the assumption, and if that means we can no longer do philosophy, then so be it." I don't think we have the capacity to give it up.

But I also don't think free will exists.

If you must live under the assumption that an illusory thing exists, an interesting discussion is whether or not it's worth spending time discussing whether it exists or not. (And even there, I expressed a bias towards the assumption! I implied that we could choose whether or not to think about free will.)

Another point: IF I'm right -- if free will does not exist -- than the reason I don't believe in free will isn't because it doesn't exist. The reason I don't believe it is because I'm determined to not believe in it. And the reason you do believe it -- if you do -- is because you're determined to believe in it. Which is not to say you can't change my mind or I can't change yours. If you change my mind then my mind was determined to be changed.
posted by grumblebee at 1:18 PM on April 20, 2010


Even determinists look both ways before crossing the street.
posted by one_bean at 1:27 PM on April 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


grumblebee: Maybe you know some meaning of the world "should" that doesn't imply choice.

Well, we use the word all over the place in a way that has nothing to do with choice. For example, lightning strikes and kills a child, and the father says, "I should have been the one." He's not saying that the lightning should have freely chosen to strike him. So, not all 'should's reduce to 'should choose to's. The sense of 'should' in that sentence does not involve choice, so it is available to the hard determinist in making claims about what should happen. You might think the sentence makes no sense (I assume you will?), but that would be a completely different argument for the conclusion that hard determinism means we can't make claims about whether we should punish criminals. There's no quick jump from hard determinism to moral nihilism. (But it's not altogether implausible.)

I do find it a little strange that you're willing to say "that would be wrong" when discussing humiliation and punishment. You probably just mean something like "I don't like them," right?

HP Laserjet: I've never heard anyone ask "should water be wet?" [...] I have. Putnam, Goodman, Quine and many others have asked this very question

I don't see how. Putnam argues that water is necessarily wet, but there's nothing normative (involving 'should') in that statement. You might have something about the norms of language in mind, like "should we refer to non-wet things using the term 'water'?", but that's a different sort of statement from the one that grumblebee is offering, which is non-linguistic in content.
posted by painquale at 1:36 PM on April 20, 2010


Putnam argues that water is necessarily wet

Err... that should be "water is necessarily H20".
posted by painquale at 1:59 PM on April 20, 2010


Well, we use the word all over the place in a way that has nothing to do with choice. For example, lightning strikes and kills a child, and the father says, "I should have been the one."

You are right. I was limited in terms of how I defined "should." But, I think, the way it was meant above was in the choice sense. Any time someone says "we should do X" or asks "should we do X?" (as in, "if free will doesn't exist, should we punish criminals?"), it implies choice. At least I think it does. I'm willing to hear that it doesn't. If I'm right, and it does, then it has no place in the same sentence that claims free will doesn't exist.

I do find it a little strange that you're willing to say "that would be wrong" when discussing humiliation and punishment. You probably just mean something like "I don't like them," right?

That was in a counter-factual, one that I indulged for someone else's benefit, in which I was creating a fictional me that believes in free will. (If you go back and read my post, I think you'll see that's the case.) When I'm being rational and logically consistent, I (the real me) doesn't talk about right and wrong.

In my day-to-day life, though, I use moral language all the time, and I assume free will exists. I have no rational basis for that. I know it doesn't exist. (By "know," I mean I have reasoned that it doesn't exist, via logic that I found sound.) I just can't seem to escape the assumption without tremendous will power -- and I don't have the will to keep the assumption afloat for long periods.
posted by grumblebee at 2:08 PM on April 20, 2010


There's a bit of a disconnenct here regarding determinism and its implications. I'm a determinist (though a compatibleist). That doesn't mean I don't think there's a point in, say, the criminal justice system, because one can believe that free will is illusory and still believe in the effects of deterrence. It becomes just another cause in a long chain of cause and effect that ends with an action (a crime is committed, or it is not). Determinism doesn't loose cause from effect. It just removes some ineffable black box from between those various causes and the effect (in this case, your actions). It doesn't necessarily change anything, although I find that people with this perspective use a slightly lighter touch when it comes to issues of blame. But as a few others have noted, it doesn't invalidate or ignore psychology at all.

My favourite example of cognition following action comes from hypnosis (I've personally known two people who use it in a clinical setting who have confirmed this) where a suggestion can be placed to, post-trance, perform an act on cue (if the person is succeptable). Doesn't matter what -- take off your left shoe and scratch your foot, or remove your watch and put it on the other wrist, or what have you. The believer in the conscious mind as aware and in control of decisions leading to actions should guess that the person should stop when asked why they performed this act and incredulously exclaim: ... omg... I don't know! But I understand that this never happens. Instead, the person produces a reason and believes it. And it makes me wonder how many times, outside of this context, some pressure, social, biological, causes us to do something and we fill in the blank as to why with a rational reason. We never seem to be lost for an internally justified, pre-examined determinor for our own actions.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:10 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


I am of the mind that free will does exist. But perhaps "free will" is a term with too much baggage, so rather than call it free will, call it the ability for an entity to develop self-optimization strategies. As these strategies become more complex and abstract, to the point where the strategies can be modeled and scenarios developed then the entity must have a mechanism to select between options. That selection mechanism becomes very important to this discussion. For if that selection mechanism can also be modeled and scenarios developed for it, such that the selection mechanism itself is malleable to internal state representations, you have the equivalent of free will. Or more precisely, the ability for an entity to learn and modify their behavior based on new input. They can "choose" differently because they will have modified their model for selecting a behavior.
posted by forforf at 2:15 PM on April 20, 2010 [2 favorites]


If free will did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

That's very well put. I subscribe to the stronger formulation of the same idea: Free will does not exist, and therefore was necessarily invented.

If general relativity is right (and there's ample reason to think it is) then there is no "now." Things occur at varying times to varying observers. Which means that, if I can construct a pair of relative reference frames such that someone at frame A sees the first event of time as being simultaneous with the last event of all time in Frame B (and there's no reason to think I can't do this), then all of time has to have already happened. If all events in time have to have already happened right from the get-go, there doesn't seem to be much room for actual true free will in any meaningful sense. Whatever you're doing right now you're doing because, in your frame of reference, now is when you did that thing. Think of what you did at 9am this morning. At 9am this morning, you're still doing that thing. Whatever you're going to do at 9am tomorrow morning, you're doing then right now.

BUT! (I like big "but"s and I cannot lie.) There is no way for information about things you haven't experienced yet to leak backward from what you see as the future in your reference frame, which is the only place you can ever be. That's the other thing we get from Einstein. So if the structure of the universe taketh away any true chance of agency, it giveth the necessary and baked-in appearance of agency to a consciousness that only experiences time as a one-dimensional transit from past to future. This is not a trick! It's not the imaginary appearance of true free will, it's the necessary and true appearance of an imaginary free will.

So whatever you're going to do, whatever is going to happen, it happens no matter what, just the same as events in the past happened no matter what you wish. Your third birthday and your ninety-third birthday (if you are lucky enough to see it) are no different in reality just because one is in your past and one in your future. But you also have no choice but to proceed as if you were an agent, acting of your will and whatever complex combination of biology and society leads you to choose what you apparently choose. DU's point about the indistinguishability between a universe where you're making up excuses after the fact vs. one where you're deciding what to do beforehand is right on. "Free Will" as I understand it is pretty much the construction of a narrative that makes sense of the events that happened to me, as I perceive them happening. That I experience it as a series of decisions is truly necessary but not necessarily true.
posted by rusty at 2:21 PM on April 20, 2010 [5 favorites]


There's a bit of a disconnect here regarding determinism and its implications. I'm a determinist (though a compatibleist). That doesn't mean I don't think there's a point in, say, the criminal justice system, because one can believe that free will is illusory and still believe in the effects of deterrence.

I agree with you for the most part, but I think there's a wee sticky area in your language, somewhere in the vicinity of "there's a point in." I'm deeply in danger of flogging a dead horse, but I worry that, in a very subtle way, you're implying choice. At least, I'd like you to make it clear that you're not and explain how you're not.

I can't imaging wondering if there's any point to fire being hot. There's a REASON why fire is hot, but there isn't a point to it being hot, unless you believe in a god that made it hot for a some purpose. "point to" implies an intelligent mind, doesn't it? And an intelligent mind doesn't waste time debating whether there's a point to something, unless it can make that thing happen or not happen, right?

"What's the point of giving those kids a test? It won't teach them anything." That implies we have a choice to give them the test or to not give it to them. If someone shoots you, it would be odd if I asked, "what's the point of dying?" It's odd because you don't have a choice.

So I think you're asking the same question that was asked before -- just using different words. I think you're asking, "Isn't there are point to CHOOSING TO HAVE a criminal justice system, even if there's no such thing as free will?" But, again, if there's no free will, then we don't get to choose whether or not we'll have a criminal justice system. So why talk about the point of it? It's a force of nature.

For reasons I don't understand, this question seems to be very important to people -- whether they believe in free will or not. I think it makes an odd assumption: it assumes a counter-factual universe in which MOST people don't have free will but in which the "hero of the story" does, and he has to CHOOSE whether or not to keep a criminal justice system that judges those people who don't have free will.
posted by grumblebee at 2:25 PM on April 20, 2010


Any time someone says "we should do X" or asks "should we do X?" (as in, "if free will doesn't exist, should we punish criminals?"), it implies choice. At least I think it does. I'm willing to hear that it doesn't.

This is fair! I think there are reasonable positions in which normativity is completely orthogonal to freedom, though. Say I'm a utilitarian. I might think that claims of the form "X should do Y instead of Z" are grounded by the truth of the claim "Y maximizes utility more than Z." There's nothing about choice involved here. At least not directly. Something like this might be what the father has in mind when he says "I should have been the one." What he means to say is that the world would have been a better place if he were taken instead of his son.

That was in a counter-factual, one that I indulged for someone else's benefit, in which I was creating a fictional me that believes in free will.

Yes, sorry for misreading. Sounds like you're a fictionalist!
posted by painquale at 2:29 PM on April 20, 2010


@Agent: I don't feel singled out at all. I didn't expect my cheeky comment to go uncontested. :)

You say: You're probably correct if the emphasis is on "primarily", but I'd argue that deciding what words mean is a close second objective. So much of setting up an experiment or proposing a hypothesis is about framing the argument by selecting a scope. This can consist of selecting an equation that defines a common-use term (words like "force" or "energy", for example). One might reasonably characterize the goal of physics as eliciting a consistent set of definitions for observations of the universe's operation.

This sounds like a very reasonable philosophy of science to me! I don't think any singular field should be in the business of deciding what words mean, but science should definitely be having a continual discussion about how to discuss the world: what to say, what not to say, and about the evidence why we should and should not say it. This can certainly include deciding on terms. I just meant to emphasize that science doesn't have the final word on what "agency" is (nobody has the final word, really), which in my opinion is why science hasn't told us "how much agency we have."

"A controls B if the state of A can be used to consistently predict the state of B."

I'm unhappy with this, because I require causality somewhere in a definition of control, and this definition can not distinguish between cause and effect. If my body develops some disease shortly after consuming a particular food, but never develops the disease otherwise, there is no feasible causal chain that keeps me from ingesting that food by not contracting that disease.


This is a good point. I guess control also implies directionality, which I failed to mention. Switches control light bulbs, light bulbs don't control switches. Thanks for illuminating my comment.

@Koeselitz:

There are several confused things in this paragraph, not the least of which is the apparent assumption that if something can be determined exactly it has been determined exactly by science. What's more, of course 'agency' is simple and straightforward to define within the context of science - an "agent" is merely the original cause of an action. The trouble is that this definition doesn't appear coherent to science, which aims to uncover the original causes of things through experiment; an original cause uncovered by rational thought rather than by experimentation is not valid within the context of science.

If "confused" is a polite way of saying "wrong," then put up your philosophical dukes for a proper debate, sir.

I don't assume that science has a monopoly on determining something exactly. Logic and mathematics are even better, if those are still considered separate disciplines from the other sciences by the world at large. The natural sciences can't get by with deduction alone and so, in the words of Morris Kline, shouldn't be be surprised to be wrong once in a while. :)

Your definition of an "agent" being the original cause of an action... uh, doesn't appear coherent to me. Can you give me an example?
posted by edguardo at 2:36 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Sounds like you're a fictionalist!

No, but I'm very comfortable with counter-factuals. It has been a surprise to me to learn that not all people are. Some people are so uncomfortable with them, they can't even parse sentences like, "If you had three kids instead of two, how much would you have to pay for their college educations?" Sometimes I hear people get asked questions like that, and they respond, "But I DON'T have three kids." That's really frustrating to me.

There's a really funny exchange in David Mamet's play "American Buffalo," in which one character understands counter-factuals and the other doesn't -- or at least he has a really flimsy grip on it. I wish I had the play before me, but the basic situation is that Don and Teach are planning a robbery. Teach is confident about it, but Don is worried about all sorts of things that might go wrong. The dialogue goes something like this -- loosely remembered from when I worked on the play, years ago:

Don: What if he has a safe?
Teach: You want to know what you do he has a safe?
Don: What?
Teach: You find the combination.
Don: But what if you can't find it?
Teach: Oh, you can find it. Stands to reason, he's worried he'll forget it, he writes it down.
Don: What if he doesn't write it down?
Teach: He writes it down, Don.
Don: I know. But I'm saying, what if he doesn't?
Teach: Don. He writes it down. He's got to write it down. Human nature --
Don: But what if he doesn't?
Teach: The guy -- ?
Don: Yes.
Teach: You're saying he doesn't write it down.
Don: Yes.
Teach: Don?
Don: Yes?
Teach: How do you know he doesn't write it down?
Don: I'm -- you know -- I'm making it up?
Teach: Oh, well, then. This is not based on fact!
posted by grumblebee at 2:51 PM on April 20, 2010


grumblebee: “Well, according to my ethics, BLAME doesn't matter much. Blame is a sort of feeling. But I do have a problem with certain actions, such as chastisement and punishment. As a supposed free-well-having being, I claim the right to protect myself and my loved ones. If that means locking up non-free-will beings that pose a threat, I'll lock them up. But what I won't do is chastise them or humiliate them (unless I can clearly show that doing so stops the dangerous behavior). That would be wrong. Nor will I lock them up for non-practical reasons (like "they deserve to be locked up.")”

I don't see how you can justify this protection of yourself and your loved ones. It's a traditionally utilitarian course of action, but that doesn't make it any more coherent than any other justification. Nietzsche pointed out somewhere in Beyond Good and Evil (I'm not going to find it right now, unfortunately) that utilitarians may believe that they have more coherent justifications than others, but in the end "just to protect myself and my loved ones" boils down to a "good" that is just as fuzzy as anyone else's. What is "protection"? What is "harm"? These are difficult questions that I think are harder to answer than people realize. Nowadays, we might say that denying someone basic medical care is harming them, or at least failing to protect them. That certainly wasn't how most people felt a hundred years ago.
posted by koeselitz at 3:27 PM on April 20, 2010


Choosing to have a crim justice system? I've never approached it from that angle. It always seems to be part of any conversation about free will because it involves punishing people for their "choice" to commit or not commit crimes. But I mean to imply no real choice in either case. By "point" I mean reason. It's nonsense to say "it's determined and therefore we cannot 'choose' to have a crim justice system or not". As I said, I'm a compatibleist. We choose things all the time, in the sense that we discuss objectives, methods, reasons, and we arrive at a conclusion and follow through with action. None of that is fiction. It's just that I think every thought in your head (and mine), your every balancing consideration, is itself determined, as is the outcome. You are an observer, and research seems to continue to demonstrate that you aren't even privy to that internal balancing of factors at the time it occurs.

Take any conscious decision a person arrives at. Imagine if you could peel away the "influences" and determine their weight in this decision. Some of this conditioning -- internalized values, education, religion; some of it biological -- genetic, hormonal, drive induced. Most people who believe in free will acknowledge that these things play a part in their decision making, maybe a large part. The difference is I believe these things add to 100%. Mind you, I think this is somewhat orthogonal to the issue of free will, because research that demonstrates that conscious thoughts follow unconscious decisions still leaves room for a "you" to be making these decisions, just not the conscious entity you're used to ascribing decisions to. I think it goes beyond that, because conscious or unconscious, there is nothing between you and cause and effect. Free will is, I think, the natural impression of self-aware creatures, but that's all.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 3:40 PM on April 20, 2010


grumblebee: “In my day-to-day life, though, I use moral language all the time, and I assume free will exists. I have no rational basis for that. I know it doesn't exist. (By "know," I mean I have reasoned that it doesn't exist, via logic that I found sound.) I just can't seem to escape the assumption without tremendous will power -- and I don't have the will to keep the assumption afloat for long periods.”

I think this is actually a minor point (as it doesn't necessarily change anything in the end) but it seems nonsensical to me to say "I know free will doesn't exist." Knowing is an act of will - an independent act of will that surveys the world and determines the truth about it. If there is no such thing as free will at all, then this act simply isn't possible. Thus, to know that there is no such thing as free will is a contradiction.

Now, it's also possible that the nature of the world is itself contradictory. Thus it is that, for example, al Ghazali can argue coherently at one point in his The Incoherence of the Philosophers that the knowledge of our own lack of free will is a miraculous gift of God. And you could just as easily make the same argument having subtracted God from the equation - the point is that no cause is needed. But even then, it's hard to know what you mean by 'know;' and you'd have to accept that knowing in this case seems to be of an entirely different category than knowing in any other case.

I point all this out, by the way, because it seems to me that in Aristotle's On The Soul he attempts to argue that in a certain sense the only way in which we have free will is in the sense of knowing - that knowing is the only act available to us independent of physical causes. This is in part because our knowing doesn't act on anything physical. But that's another story entirely, to be honest.
posted by koeselitz at 3:42 PM on April 20, 2010


A few years ago I became aware of Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" and it seems like — despite it having nothing, really, in the way of proof or evidence behind itself — it would go a long way towards explaining the free-will issue. At the very least it's kind of an interesting platform for speculation.

Basically (and I'm sure there are othes who can sum up Jaynes' work far better than I can), Jaynes hypothesizes that at some point in the past, humans had a "bicameral mind," where one part of the brain literally commanded the other parts, and that we transitioned to a "unicameral mind" with a unified consciousness and sense of self-direction, in relatively recent prehistory.

I am extremely skeptical of Jaynes' timeline and some of the linguistic evidence (e.g. the Illiad and Old Testament) he asserts, but have always thought that it's potentially an interesting model for animal cognition — and potentially a model for truly prehistorical (on a physical-evolution rather than social-evolution timeline) human cognition as well.

But if you take the bicameral mind hypothesis on premise, the question of free will disappears. Someone with a bicameral mind would never wonder about free will, because they would never perceive it. Rather than "I am hungry, therefore I'll decide to go eat," they might perceive the motivation as external. You're hungry. You will go and eat. Or, and this is where I differ from Jaynes — maybe it wouldn't take the form of language but would instead simply be an irresistible compulsion. Whatever the form, however it might be perceived, it is only because we don't perceive the motivation as external — our sense of self encompasses the part of our brains that, according to Jaynes' model, in the past might have issued commands like that — that we feel as though we have free will.

But that free will could be illusory.

We know that it is incomplete: there are many actions that your consciousness is simply not allowed to perform, or is overridden: try holding your breath if you don't believe me. Eventually, your consciousness will be overridden. For most people, the effect would be the same if they tried to starve themselves to death in a room full of food. (Some people, interestingly enough, can do this. Although they arguably have more free will than we normals do, they tend to get labeled mentally ill.) It is as though we are only allowed a certain amount of space in which to exercise our free will.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:17 PM on April 20, 2010


Knowing is an act of will - an independent act of will that surveys the world and determines the truth about it. If there is no such thing as free will at all, then this act simply isn't possible. Thus, to know that there is no such thing as free will is a contradiction.

Begging the question. I could argue with equal justification that if there is no free will, then knowing is not an act of will.
posted by nasreddin at 4:56 PM on April 20, 2010


Knowing is an act of will - an independent act of will that surveys the world and determines the truth about it.

Distinguish "free will" from "will" --- the latter suffices for the purposes of knowledge.
posted by voltairemodern at 5:04 PM on April 20, 2010


For me, the question is not whether or not free will exists. I posit that it does, and even that it obviously does. For all practical purposes, there is no difference between free will and the illusion of free will. We make choices and the choices have consequences within the context of our perceived reality and we are, to a greater or lesser extent, held accountable for those choices and those consequences. We are liable for cause and effect, so we have to treat them as real.

So the question for me is not whether free will exists, but whether it matters. The issue of predetermination is often twisted up with the issue of free will. How can free will be real, one wonders, if the result of every preceding moment is inevitable (however incalculable the algorithm defining the result or however inscrutable the Agent designing that algorithm)?

The answer, I think, is that free will and predetermination are not mutually exclusive. Free will is one medium through which the universe expresses itself. That's good enough for me.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:06 PM on April 20, 2010


IRFH: What you're stating is effectively identical to compatibilism, which was referenced above, and very well-explained by rusty. But how we conceive of ourselves definitely does matter.

The criminal justice system is a good example, despite it muddying the waters earlier in the thread. I propose that popular notions of punishment are tied to a pervasive Christian conception of free will, where our Creator (your Agent) has imbued us with the gift of reason and it is our responsibility to exercise it and conduct ourselves ethically. If we do not, the Divine provides Judgement, and ultimately we are measured and punished/rewarded eternally based on our conduct in the present. None of this makes the slightest bit of sense in a determinist framework; while we are physically responsible for our actions in a determinist universe, we cannot be said to be morally responsible.

Which I would argue is a good thing. Criminal justice is totally dysfunctional these days, and frequently loses sight of the goal (reducing crime) in favour of retribution. The horrible irony is that embracing determinism leads to a Christ-like conclusion of forgiveness and universal love, which just shows you how completely ass-backwards we have things right now. "But it's wrong to reward criminals for their wrongdoing", goes the argument. Getting tough on crime is "right" and forgiveness is "wrong," even if providing rehabilitation and social services has been proven to reduce crime and mandatory minimums have been proven to increase recidivism. It's just not fair.

When the conclusion is "reality isn't fair", we should probably check our premises. All of this has its roots in a narrative of free will.
posted by mek at 6:36 PM on April 20, 2010


grumblebee: “Well, according to my ethics, BLAME doesn't matter much...

I don't see how you can justify...


If you go back up and reread my post, you will see that this within a counterfactual and is not what I actually believe. Someone asked me what I would believe IF I thought I had free will but other people didn't. I was answering withing that framework. But I actually don't believe I have free will.


it seems nonsensical to me to say "I know free will doesn't exist." Knowing is an act of will - an independent act of will that surveys the world and determines the truth about it.


Maybe we're using the word "know" in different ways. I know my skin isn't purple. This is because when I look at it, I can see it isn't purple. Free will isn't required. A deterministic force may compel me to look at my arm while my eyes are open. This may cause my eyes to take in data. My brain may then compelled to interpret that data as "not purple." If my brain makes a firm decision about something, I label that "knowing." No free will required.

Similarly, determinism may compel me to perform various logical "calculations" in my head. Via those calculations, my brain may reach an inevitable conclusion that free will can't exist. Hence I know that it doesn't exist. No free will is required.
posted by grumblebee at 9:58 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


The criminal justice system is a good example, despite it muddying the waters earlier in the thread. I propose that popular notions of punishment are tied to a pervasive Christian conception of free will

Though most Christians -- like most people -- believe in free will, Christian doctrine does not inevitably lead to free will, and there have been major Christian teachers and sects that are/were determinist. I have a very close Christian friend who doesn't believe in free will.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will_in_theology

posted by grumblebee at 10:02 PM on April 20, 2010


A deterministic force may compel me...

This does not sound exactly empirical. It could be what you are calling "a deterministic force" is no more scientific than phlogiston or elan vital or Descartes' faith in the pineal gland as the seat of the soul.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 10:04 PM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]


Very nice essay, thanks for the link.

So I think you're asking the same question that was asked before -- just using different words. I think you're asking, "Isn't there are point to CHOOSING TO HAVE a criminal justice system, even if there's no such thing as free will?" But, again, if there's no free will, then we don't get to choose whether or not we'll have a criminal justice system. So why talk about the point of it? It's a force of nature.

This is ridiculous. A criminal justice system is obviously not a "force of nature," but a complex sociological object that was intentionally created by a specific society for a specific purpose. Going around saying that criminal justice systems are just "illusions" because of a philosophical belief is not a rational thing to do. Denying the existence of free will is very similar to religious faith in this respect.

This from the essay gets to the heart of the matter,

"My suggestion is that this is not, cannot be, a purely philosophical or theoretical question. It is largely a practical question and concerns a collectively sustained social practice. That is, the question of how to hold each other to account has obviously varied a great deal over historical time, sometimes including notions of familial guilt and inherited responsibility and quite varying notions of the relation between intention and responsibility. No theory of agency that does not acknowledge this from the outset seems to me to have much credibility. The idea is that agency – being the subjects of deeds that are categorically distinct events, being subjects whom others hold accountable for their deeds – is much more like a social status instituted and sustained by the relevant social attitudes shared in a community at a time than it is like being a unique sort of entity, one either exempt from the causal laws of the spatio-temporal universe or possessed of a distinct psychological structure and mode of causation that requires a distinct logical form of explanation."

Free will or agency or whatever you want to call humans making decisions and being accountable for them is a real thing. However it is not some special kind of metaphysical property or a fundamental fact about the universe, but a very complicated psychosocial phenomenon that daily affects our lives from things like justifications for wars to our basic personal relationships.
posted by afu at 10:20 PM on April 20, 2010


This is ridiculous. A criminal justice system is obviously not a "force of nature," but a complex sociological object that was intentionally created by a specific society for a specific purpose. Going around saying that criminal justice systems are just "illusions" because of a philosophical belief is not a rational thing to do.

You have either grossly misunderstood me, or I horribly miscommunicated.

I NEVER intended to say (and I don't think I did say) that the criminal-justice system is a force-of-nature, and, having recently served on a jury, I certainly don't believe the criminal-justice system is an illusion.

The force-of-nature is our DECISION to HAVE a criminal-justice system. It's not a force-of-nature if free will exists. But if free will doesn't exist, then we can't choose whether or not to have a criminal-justice system, because if free will doesn't exist, we can't make choices. So, what SEEMS like a choice (whether or not to have a criminal-justice system) is actually an illusion (if free will doesn't exist). If free will doesn't exist, all seeming choices are illusions. That's what free will not existing means. If free will doesn't exist, anything that seems like a choice is actually a force-of-nature; it's destined to happen based on deterministic forces.

You suggested that if free will doesn't exist, that has important implications for whether or not we should have a criminal-justice system or what sort of system it should be (what the "point of it" is). What I'm saying is that if free will doesn't exist, it's foolish to talk about whether or not we SHOULD have a criminal-justice system. If free will doesn't exist, we will or won't have one, depending on what whether or not we're determined to have one.

In short, it's not the criminal-justice system that's the force-of-nature; it's the decision to have one that is! If we're destined to have one, why talk about whether we should have one or what or what the point of one is? (No one asks, "Should we revolve around the sun or not?") If we're NOT destined to have one, then free will exists, and, if it does, then we don't need to worry about what it means for the criminal-justice system if free will doesn't exist.

Denying the existence of free will is very similar to religious faith in this respect.

I thought the whole point of faith is that it's the opposite of reason. ("No. I don't have any proof that God exists. But I have FAITH that he does.") Isn't that what most people mean by "faith"?

I don't believe in free will, but that's not because I have faith that it doesn't exist. It's because I've reasoned that it doesn't exist. In fact, I FEEL like it DOES exist. So, if anything, I have a sort of faith that it exists, but I'm ignoring that faith, here, because logic (reasoning -- the OPPOSITE of faith), tells me it doesn't.

You can claim that my logic is faulty, and it may well be faulty. But faulty logic is not the same thing as faith.
posted by grumblebee at 7:38 AM on April 21, 2010


What I'm saying is that if free will doesn't exist, it's foolish to talk about whether or not we SHOULD have a criminal-justice system.

That applies to all decisions, and is certainly (as I am programmed to report) not in keeping with my deterministic view. It is not foolish to talk about desired outcomes, because action and inaction lead to different consequences -- that our decision to act or not act is determined is, when we're concerned with having a desired effect, trivial. Determinism isn't magic. If the desired outcome is to get groceries from the store, you don't get there by realizing that whether or not you choose to get up from your chair, grab your coat, and jump on the bus is determined; you get there by getting off your ass and going. It's not foolish to talk about the possibility of starvation, and thus whether or not you should get groceries at some point because determinism does not lead to a certainty that you will. Realizing that it is not a free choice does not put food in your stomach.

Likewise, we don't want people breaking into our houses at gunpoint. So we enact various laws, hire and train police, etc, all in the expectation that this will have some effect on people's behaviour, and possibly keep us safe and deter crime. The would-be robber's decisions may entirely be a product of influences, but that doesn't make his or her behaviour random. We change the inputs in hopes of achieving different output.

I agree with you entirely that determinism provides a different take on blame. But where you and I seem to differ is on what implications this has for personal responsibility. None, as far as I can see. Yes, our language for describing the situation is, to me, somewhat artificial, but it remains meaningful, because "He decided to go to the store" still describes the event, if inaccurately. It is extremely rare that I conclude that an issue is a matter of semantics, but this may be one of those times. Actually, it was a philosophy prof of mine who charged that the compatibilist view is of "trivial consequence", and it is exactly in matters of blame that I find it distinguishes itself. Perhaps nowhere else, though.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:19 AM on April 21, 2010


I agree with you entirely that determinism provides a different take on blame. But where you and I seem to differ is on what implications this has for personal responsibility.

Huh? Where in this thread, other than in a counter-factual in which I was asked to take on the role of someone who is different from me (someone who believes in free will), have I said anything about personal responsibility?

If free will doesn't exist, and if we're having a conversation in which we fully own the fact that it doesn't exist, does it make sense to say, "Lee Harvey Oswald could have CHOSEN not to kill Kennedy?"

If you think that does make sense, then fair enough, but then you're making a claim that differs from the normal way people talk about determinism. You're definitely using words in a way I don't get, so we probably shouldn't debate.

If, on the other hand, you think that, in a deterministic universe, Oswald DIDN'T have a choice, then, do you think it makes sense -- in that universe -- to say "Oswald SHOULDN'T have shot Kennedy"?

(I guess you could say it meaning "I wish he hadn't shot Kennedy." I don't argue with that. So if all you mean by "we should have a criminal-justice system" is something like "I'm glad we have a criminal-justice system," then you and I have no disagreement.)

It doesn't make sense to me. If Oswald had no choice, then he's like a machine. I would never say, "My hair dryer should stop drying hair." To me, that's a strange use of language. It's GOING to dry hair. I might say, "I WISH it wouldn't dry hair," but should or shouldn't don't work for me when you're talking about agents that are BOUND to act in some way.

If you happen to agree with me, then why would you say that it makes sense to say, in a deterministic universe, in a discussion that fully owns the fact that it's deterministic, "We SHOULD have a criminal justice system." Why does what applies to Oswald not apply equally to us?

If there are beings that believe in free will, the fact that they believe in it WILL have an impact on what actions they take, even if they live in a deterministic universe. Their belief will make them take certain actions, even if that belief is based on a falsehood.

So if you're saying that good things come out of our (false) belief that we can choose whether or not to have a criminal-justice system, then I agree with you. I am very happy that I live on a planet where people believe in free will, even though I think they are believing in something that doesn't exist. I am very happy that, most of the time, when I'm not thinking about it, I behave as if I believe in free will.

But I don't think people actually CAN choose whether or not to have a criminal-justice system. I think that choice will be made for them, partly based on the fact that they (falsely) believe they have a choice. If a criminal can't choose whether or not to commit a crime, then we can't choose whether or not to punish him. But the criminal and we are cogs in a machine, and it's pretty weird to talk about what cogs should do. What they are GOING to do is spin.
posted by grumblebee at 9:58 AM on April 21, 2010


It is fascinating to see meaning of language crumble in the last few comments, as we try to throw out or even discuss a world without the the concepts of intention and will.
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:07 AM on April 21, 2010


But the criminal and we are cogs in a machine, and it's pretty weird to talk about what cogs should do. What they are GOING to do is spin.

The future is unknown to us, but our actions, though determined, are part of the chain of events that take us there.

Acknowledgment that our inputs are determined, as is the outcome: sensible.
Acknowledgment that our inputs are determined, therefore goal-oriented pursuits are not meaningful: not sensible.

I'm being charitable here; maybe you're just playing with language. But if you are saying that acknowledgment of determinism would lead you to act differently than you do because the outcome is "determined", then I think you are in error. As I said, I very rarely characterize an argument as semantic, but I think you're playing in that pool. Determinism does not in any way invalidate goal-directed behaviour, because outcomes differ depending on our (determined) actions. The sense of "should" changes not one bit. It implies choice, but at the level of implication (we can act or we can not), it is meaningful.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:47 AM on April 21, 2010


grumblebee: “I haven't heard many philosophers (whether or not they believe in free will) claim we don't have feeling.”

I think this isn't quite true. And even if it were true that not many people claim we don't have "feeling," that doesn't make it rational for us to baldly assume such a thing. That is, I think the notion of "feeling" you're working with is a very specialized and particular thing, no matter how much it may seem to be common. Moreover, it seems to me that you're using the word "feeling" in several different senses - first a broad sense, as when you call blame a "feeling," then a narrow sense, as when you seem to mean "sensation." And half of the things you label "feelings" are apparently, from what I can tell, much more differentiated than that - for example, I imagine you might say that your point is that blame is merely a sensation, but it certainly has some differences from some other sensations, and moreover how can one sense what isn't physically there? What exactly do you mean by "feeling?"

Maybe this is just a natural result of the fact that "feeling" isn't really a very precise word for what you're talking about - it is, after all, apparently a metaphor based on physical sensation. Or do you mean physical sensation?
posted by koeselitz at 11:20 AM on April 21, 2010


Also, there are a few points I don't quite understand about what you're saying, grumblebee:

Can we choose to believe something?

Can we choose to reason about something?

Can we choose to try to know something?

I know that, with the example of your eye seeing your arm, you were trying to duck these difficulties by saying that knowing can be independent of free will. But I don't think it's that easy. In your own parlance, I would say that knowing is just a feeling, and that feeling might not have anything whatsoever to do with the way the world actually is.
posted by koeselitz at 11:24 AM on April 21, 2010


Maybe this is just a natural result of the fact that "feeling" isn't really a very precise word for what you're talking about - it is, after all, apparently a metaphor based on physical sensation. Or do you mean physical sensation?

Gurdjieff spoke at length about how most Westerners did not sufficiently differentiate between "sensation" and "feeling". Sensation, in my opinion, is largely a function of prioception. Feeling is quite another story, and is usually an admixture of thoughts, emotions, physical posture, and sexual drives.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:29 AM on April 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm being charitable here; maybe you're just playing with language.

No. I rarely play with language. To the best of my ability, I used language to communicate. Maybe I am failing in this case, but that's definitely my intent. I am not just playing word games. That would bore me.

But if you are saying that acknowledgment of determinism would lead you to act differently than you do because the outcome is "determined", then I think you are in error.

I don't understand what you mean by the bold part.

What I do believe to be true is this: the past CAUSES the future. (This is an article of faith, since we can't prove causation exists, but that's a whole other debate. Most people on either side of the free-will-vs-determinism debate accept causation.)

What does it mean to say that the past causes the future? It means that properties A, B and C of the past cause event X to happen in the future. If you could go back in time and change A, B or C to something different, X would not happen -- or X would happen differently.

If you believe in free will, you can say that some of those past properties are caused by your will (e.g. you chose to do B). If you don't believe in free will, A, B and C were chosen for you by physics. Either way, A, B and C lead to X.

Let's say...

A = Fred saw someone rob an old lady;
B = Fred has the ability catch the robber;
C = Fred believes in free will (he believes that he can choose to catch the robber and he believes that the robber could have chosen not to rob the old lady).

X = Fred catches the robber.

Given those past properties, A, B and C (and a few others we'd have to add in), X will happen.

However, if we go back in time and change C to "Fred doesn't believe in free will," X may not happen. Maybe Fred, now a determinist, won't run after the robber, because his determinist brain will lead him to conclude that the robber, just a cog in the machine, doesn't deserve to be caught.

So, yes, I do believe that "whether or not someone believes in free will" is a meaningful input that may change what happens in the future. It is a meaningful input whether or not free will actually exists. I don't see how it's especially different from any other input. X may not happen if Fred has a heart condition; X also may not happen if Fred is a determinist.

(I am not saying that determinist never catch bad guys. I hope that's clear. I'm saying that one's belief -- or not -- in free will will have some sort of affect on the future.)

Determinism does not in any way invalidate goal-directed behaviour

I don't know what you mean by "invalidate." Do you mean determinism does not mean that goals have no effect on outcomes? If so, I agree. As I've said in this thread, I'm glad I live on a planet where people (falsely, in my view) believe they can choose which goal to have. I am glad, because I think the fact they believe this may lead to various future events that will make me happy.

The sense of "should" changes not one bit. It implies choice, but at the level of implication (we can act or we can not), it is meaningful.

No. In a deterministic universe, we can't act or not act. We are bound to either act or not act. We will do one or the other. We may not be able to predict which one we'll do, but we will do one or the other. And which of those two paths we wind up taking was set in stone at the time of the Big Bang. That's what determinism means!
posted by grumblebee at 11:32 AM on April 21, 2010


"We can act or we can not" was not a statement about choice; it was a statement about two possible outcomes, only one of which will occur, but which could result in different outcomes. Imagine a tally of 99 votes which will lead to a decision and an action. Ahead of time I don't know who will vote which way. All of this, I believe, is determined, as is the outcome. "We can act or we can not" is a statement of fact about what might occur, and what consequences it might lead to. Speeches might be delivered about those possible outcomes, arguments crossed. The end result is determined. But talk of "should" and the possibility of future action are not at all inconsistent with determinism -- of any stripe.

I am not saying that determinist never catch bad guys. I hope that's clear. I'm saying that one's belief -- or not -- in free will will have some sort of affect on the future.

Sure, maybe, but as you note that's no different than any other input into someone's actions. Fred may have any number of theories about crime and punishment apart from free will/determinism which affect his actions.

I don't think we actually disagree here, except with regard to the use of certain language. Again, I think the implications of "should" and "choose" make those terms inaccurate, but at no point do they stop being meaningful in the context of describing human behaviour.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 12:10 PM on April 21, 2010


Maybe we are just disagreeing about word definitions. I'm not sure, because I don't understand what you mean by "should."

talk of "should" ... [is] not at all inconsistent with determinism -- of any stripe.

I hear you saying that, and I respect your opinion, but I don't understand your opinion. I guess I just don't understand what you mean by "should."

In terms of "we can act or we can not act," I think it's more accurate, given a deterministic framework, to say "given what we know now, it seems possible that we MIGHT act or not act." To me, "can" implies real possibility, and, as we determinist know, the future can't go one way or the other. It's already bound to go one particular way. But I do see how "we can act or we can not act" might be casual speech for "we don't know which of the two paths we're on, so it feels like it could go either way. We don't, given out current state of knowledge have any reason to predict one way over the other."

But I am stuck on "should." Maybe it's a block you can't help me past, but I fail to see how "you should" doesn't imply "you're not but you could CHOOSE to."

Though to me it would be pretty sloppy language, I do see how by, "we should put murderers in jail" might be a determinist's way of saying, "though I can't predict the fated outcome, I HOPE it's one in which we put murderers in jail."

Sometimes people do use "should" that way, as in "God dammit! We SHOULD be able to eat all the chocolate we want without getting fat!" No one, when they say that, is implying choice. They mean "I WISH we could do that" or "If the universe was a perfect place, we WOULD be able to do that, and I'm pissed of that the universe isn't that perfect place."

But I've already brought that meaning of "should" up and you haven't responded. So other than "I hope," I don't get what "should" could mean to a determinist.

You brought it up in the case of the criminal-justice system. Okay: ssuming a deterministic universe, we will definitely have such a system in a hundred years or we won't. There's no way it could go either way. However, we don't know the future. So from where we're standing, it SEEMS like it could go either way.

So when we think about the future, we imagine two parallel universes, one with a criminal-justice system and one without it. (Or two parallel "timelines" or "outcomes" if you prefer thinking of it that way.)

You are asking us to imagine those parallel universes, right? (I assume you're doing this, because your language has implied, in some way, metaphorically or actually, that having or not having a criminal-justice system is an important thing to think about. If there was no imaginable possibility of not-having-one, even in an imaginary parallel world, you wouldn't bring it up, right?)

So we're imagining those two worlds, one with the criminal-justice system and one without it. And then you say, "we SHOULD go with the criminal-justice system version."

What EXACTLY do you mean by that? What is it that you want us to do? It can't be to choose one world over the other world, because you're a determinist. You don't believe we CAN choose.

Sorry if I've misunderstood or mis-characterized you. I am honestly wrestling with the limitations of my own intellect and imagination to try to understand what you mean.
posted by grumblebee at 12:45 PM on April 21, 2010


Honestly, I brought up the crim justice issue not in the context of its earlier mention in this thread (to have it or not to have it) but because it is my go-to example of how a compatibilist goes from "no free will" to "but consequences/punishments still have a place in our society", because that is the usual stumbling block for determinism "vs" crime and punishment (when I think there is no need for them to be at odds). I get that this applies to any decision (including to have laws, judges, prisons) -- there is nothing that is not determined. But I cite this particular example for its use in the former debate, not the latter.

But back to terms, I'm not sure about our disconnect. Let's leave aside "can" because, yes, I was talking about the future unknown, not the future undetermined. Again, because humans are dealing with an uncertain future, language that reflects this has a place despite any issues of determinism. But back to "should", yes, this implies that more than one result is possible. This is not a feature of free will; it is again a feature of our limited knowledge. But our decisions, and subsequent actions (or reaching back upthread, our actions and subsequent or coincident rationalizations) being determined doesn't mean that they do not have any affect on the outcome. They are merely intermediate links in the chain. "Should" remains sensible to a determinist with a preferred outcome because he or she desires the outcome, and may argue in favour of it (may = again, mere possibility; he will or he won't, sure). How this implies that there can be more than one result I do not understand. The determinist understands there can only be one result. He is pulling strings while understanding that his own strings are being pulled. He could sit silent and let the free-will-believers hash it out, by why would he cease to believe in the efficacy of his own actions? Because he cannot fully own them?

This isn't like, say, the weather. I know that there is no such bloody thing as a 30% chance of rain tomorrow. It will rain or it will not rain. Looking back, there will be no issue of "30%". But I also can't affect it. Contrast this with, say, casting a vote. Only one outcome of the election will occur, and sure, it's as predestined as anything ever was. That doesn't mean your vote doesn't count. That doesn't mean you can't talk of a preferred candidate; you can still talk, and help bring about, preferred outcomes.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:04 PM on April 21, 2010


"Should" remains sensible to a determinist with a preferred outcome because he or she desires the outcome

This makes me think we're in total agreement but have been ignoring (subtle?) points in each-other's arguments.

Here's how I, in my last post, said (I think) the same thing:

I do see how, "we should put murderers in jail" might be a determinist's way of saying, "though I can't predict the fated outcome, I HOPE it's one in which we put murderers in jail."

I think this gels with your idea of "a preferred outcome" -- a "hoped for" outcome.
posted by grumblebee at 1:26 PM on April 21, 2010


We're close! I tend to avoid the word "hope" in situations where a person can influence the outcome. Similar to your earlier use of "wish" in this way, which to me is like the rain situation: I might have preferred outcomes in situations where I have no personal influence one way or another. Not to throw in comment on modern democracy, but I could certainly see how a law, a system change, an approach by prosecutors, are things that I can lobby for and perhaps effect change. That my actions, and my decisions to act (or not) are determined takes nothing away from my ability to achieve a result. Just my tendency, mind you. It's certainly still proper to talk about a "hoped for" result of something I have a hand in. I hope I'll get this promotion -- and I'll work hard to get it -- but whether I do or not is still determined. *shakes fist at sky*

The only issue then for me is that your hypothetical robber-catcher is unnecessarily circumscribing his actions out of care for his deterministic view -- there are very good reasons for working toward disincentives for criminal activity that have nothing to do with "blame".
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:43 PM on April 21, 2010


there are very good reasons for working toward disincentives for criminal activity that have nothing to do with "blame".

You can't "work for" anything without volition.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:02 PM on April 21, 2010


The only issue then for me is that your hypothetical robber-catcher is unnecessarily circumscribing his actions out of care for his deterministic view -- there are very good reasons for working toward disincentives for criminal activity that have nothing to do with "blame".

I wasn't advocating this. I was just saying some random robber-catcher MIGHT forgo "doing the right thing" because he's a determinist. I was saying that I can imagine such a person. I was not claiming that determinism logically leads to such apathy. Nor was I implying that determinists should (heh!) take such a lax position.

I am not taking a position on the ethics thing one way or another, and nothing I wrote was meant to do so. I was just trying to illustrate that one's beliefs are factors that may influence ones actions. I can imagine a determinist who, due to his beliefs, quits fighting crime. That's not to say I endorse (or don't endorse) that choice (heh!). That's not to say I think his logic is sound (or unsound). I'm haven't been talking a stance on that stuff. It hasn't been what I've been talking about.

I'll go full-circle to where I began in this thread and simply say that I'm surprised so many people say things like, "If there's no free will, does that mean we SHOULD stop punishing criminals?" without even mentioning or thinking about the potential contradiction in that statement.

You have brought up some ways that it might not be a contradiction, and I think I get what you're saying, but it still strikes me as an odd thing to say without even recognizing that it sounds like you're positing a word in which you have free will but the criminal doesn't.
posted by grumblebee at 2:03 PM on April 21, 2010


You can't "work for" anything without volition.

Such is the illusion.

I'll go full-circle to where I began in this thread and simply say that I'm surprised so many people say things like, "If there's no free will, does that mean we SHOULD stop punishing criminals?" without even mentioning or thinking about the potential contradiction in that statement.

Yeah, I think that's wrong-headed, too, but not because "should" loses all meaning when free will disappears. Especially when it's a term used for collective (or collectively determined) action. There is nothing contradictory about acting toward a result knowing full well that your reasons for doing so are not your own, so to speak. In fact, I think that people who question acting toward a result due to determinism aren't really getting that it doesn't affect cause and effect at all. It's just a lazy take on the unknown, like the person who says "Why wash my hands? People do it and still get sick." Randomness and limits to knowledge are completely different things. That's a "whatever will be, will be" attitude that only that such people only ever seem to apply to events beyond their control, which is a pointer that they're not talking about determinism at all. They're just abdicating their possible influence having recognized that their efforts may be in vain. That's not determinism.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 2:58 PM on April 21, 2010


Gah. Wrongly italicized word there. That's a "whatever will be, will be" attitude that such people only ever seem to apply to events beyond their control.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 3:01 PM on April 21, 2010


Oh, meant to say: I really liked your "going back in time and changing C" example, because that illustrates nicely to me what this is about. Go back in time to the moment you make a decision, but this time... don't change anything. What happens? With all the same inputs, is the same output necessary? I say absolutely. A believer in free will apparently thinks otherwise.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 3:31 PM on April 21, 2010


You can't "work for" anything without volition.

I'm pretty sure you can "work for" THE MAN!
posted by mek at 3:39 PM on April 21, 2010


Pippin continues to post replies to his commenters, so check back in on his post, at least through the rest of this week.

In response to the why read it at all when the author admits handwaving comments, you should know that one of the reasons On the Human is a conversational website using blogging software instead of a journal is that we encourage exploratory pieces. And, we think, this has opened up a much needed space for humanities scholars to field ideas and get professional feedback before publishing in journals elsewhere.

I'm glad to see that at least two of our posts (this and the Disenchanted Naturalist's Guide to Reality post) have solicited so much conversation here on MeFi.

Phillip Barron
Managing Editor, On the Human
posted by nicomachus at 12:05 PM on May 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for commenting, Phillip! On the Human is a fantastic site.
posted by painquale at 8:22 PM on May 5, 2010


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