Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

Dan Dennett has provided Sam Harris with a refutation of the incompatibilist notion of free will, and support for the compatibilist view.

Dennett fails totally. Here’s the post.

Dennett still does not get the incompatibilist perspective. In fact part of the problem is the philosophical literature. It is typically hopelessly loaded with fine-tuned and rather meaningless variations on the issues of free will.

One of the great values of good science explanations is that they can make very difficult subjects easy to understand. Sam Harris is usually crystal clear. Sadly, in spite of their claim to be the torch bearers of critical thinking, philosophers’ texts can be downright messy, obtuse, as clear as mud. Dennett’s is no exception. And it doesn’t help when he references the Nahmias et al. 2005 paper. But I’ll try to get around to that in another post.

For now I want to address Dennett’s hopeless use of the sunset/free-will analogy. Dennett has used this analogy as one element of his arguments for dismissing the incompatibilism case that free will is an illusion. Here’s the analogy as expressed by Dennett.

After all, most people used to believe the sun went around the earth. … When we found out that the sun does not revolve around the earth, we didn’t then insist that there is no such thing as the sun (because what the folk mean by “sun” is “that bright thing that goes around the earth”). Now that we understand what sunsets are, we don’t call them illusions. They are real phenomena that can mislead the naive.

What point is he trying to make here? Well there are two obvious points:

1) On the existence of free will – The sunset exists, even though our understanding of what it does has changed; and therefore free will still exists, even though how we perceive it has changed.

2) On the illusory nature of free will – We have changed our understanding of sunsets, but we don’t call them illusions. Sunsets are real phenomena that can mislead the naive. Therefore we should not infer that free will is an illusion just because we have changed our perception of it.

The trouble is that he is equivocating on the term ‘sunset’, and is not clear in how the various elements of his analogy are related.

He starts equating free will with a sunset, which is fine. But at the end he is equating the physical phenomenon that causes the human experience of a sunset with the human experience itself. He insists sunsets, the physical phenomenon, are obviously not illusory, and so free will is not illusory either. But the real problem is that we incompatibilists are not claiming that the physical phenomenon that causes the experience of a sunset is illusory, but that the experience is illusory – and similarly, the phenomenon that causes the experience of free will is not illusory, it is real, but the experience, the perception of it, is illusory. The experience, as our brains perceive it, is that the small disk of the sun is moving down below the horizon, while we on our point on earth are stationary.

To make all this clearer here’s the analogy in full, with each element of the analogy stated separately, so we can see which are real phenomena and which are illusory.

Physical phenomenon:

Sunset: The earth rotates in front of the sun, causing the position of the sun and a spot on the surface of the earth to change position and direction with respect to each other.

Free will: Brain activity is caused, and by active feedback processes causes in turn actions by the brain, and these in turn cause actions of the body.

Mistaken perception (illusion):

Sunset: The first person POV, when at a point on the earth’s surface, is to perceive the motion of the sun across the sky and its descending below the horizon. It ‘feels’ like the sun is setting, rather than our point on the earth rotating away from the sun, in a changing direction caused by rotation.

Free will: The first person POV, from subjective feeling and introspection, is to perceive that willed decisions are made free of any physical cause in the brain. In fact the whole mind feels free of physical causation.

Cause of the illusion:

Sunset: Our senses that indicate our personal motion cannot detect the rotation motion of the earth – we cannot ‘feel’ the earth rotating. When we are stationary on the earth relative to all objects around us we feel we and the earth are stationary. So, we perceive the rotation of the earth in front of the distant sun as the sun moving across the sky, and it’s descending below the horizon at sunset.

Free will: Our peripheral senses, our senses of touch and balance, and sight,all indicate our personal physical activity; but the activity of the brain’s neurons do not produce such a sensory experience internally – we cannot ‘feel’ our thinking*. When we are thinking and making decisions we cannot detect the brain activity involved, and so we feel as if our mind, our thinking, our decisions, our will, are all free of the physical brain that is actually performing these functions.

* In one respect we could say that our feelings, thoughts and decisions are in fact what it feels like for a brain to sense itself and control itself.

Persistence of the illusion:

Sunset: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from astronomy and other sciences, that the earth does indeed rotate in front of the sun and that the sun is not a relatively small disk or ball moving across the sky, our normal POV and the lack of appropriate motion sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we are watching the sun move, when in fact we are moving in front of the sun.

Free will: Even though we have an intellectually satisfying explanation, from all science, that the brain is the cause and location of our mental experiences, our normal subjective POV and the attendant lack of appropriate neuronal sensations prevent us subjectively feeling the reality. We succumb to the illusion that we have free will, when in fact our will is not free of physical causes in any way.

Where the illusion is experienced:

First, a note on visual illusions. Visual illusions are so called because they are effects that reach our brains through the eyes. Some are illusions of visual phenomena – such as the apparent bending of a stick inserted in water, caused by refraction. But some visual illusions occur entirely in the brain – they are mental illusions. In watching a rotating wire frame Necker cube, the visual signals that reach the eyes are consistent with the physical phenomenon. The light reaching our eyes from the Necker cube is consistent with the one actual direction of rotation of the Necker cube; but the brain can perceive it rotating in either direction, and can perceive a change in direction when there isn’t one. When seeing the correct direction the brain is experiencing an accurate representation of the physical phenomenon. When the brain ‘sees’ the cube flip to the wrong direction it is experiencing the illusion. We could walk up to the Necker cube and get a better perspective, and so remove the illusion completely: we change our POV.

Sunset: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. And, unlike for the Necker cube, watching the sunset we cannot easily changed POV – without leaving the earth. We are pretty much stuck experiencing the illusion of sunsets. The mental illusion.

Free will: In the brain. It’s a mental illusion. Unlike sunsets and Necker cubes we don’t have any visual cues to aid our thinking. We have no sensory input at all, except in as much as the brain experiences its activity through feelings and thoughts. And unlike the Necker cube we can’t change our POV. We are stuck with the first person subjective and introspective POV. Why do we think we don’t have the free will of a free floating non-physical mind? All our third person science: the total lack of any indication that there are such things as non-physical minds (or souls), and all the science that only ever shows that everything has a cause.

I’m surprised philosophers put so much store in the subjective POV, particularly when it comes to consciousness and free will. I can understand why theologians do; and perhaps this common love of introspection is why philosophers and theologians are such good bedfellows so often, and why theologians are often mistaken for philosophers (Plantinga).

What about the language? Should it change?

Sunset: When appropriate, yes. And it does. Astronomers standing on earth, or astronauts standing on the moon for that matter, will generally refer to sunsets, or earth rises, or whatever they experience, using the common terms, when they are in the first person POV zone. It even makes sense for Mission Control, on earth, to speak in terms of earth rise, when communicating with astronauts standing on the moon. The earth bound controllers are humans, and humans are capable of projecting their POV as appropriate, when required. But in any scientific context that involves an imaginary third person perspective of the solar system scientists will talk in terms of planetary rotations and orbits. We switch the terminology as required. We change context from first person POV to third person POV, as required.

Free will: When appropriate, yes, change the language. Scientists (and some philosophers) can shift their POV from first to third person to view brains as physical objects performing functions of thinking and willing in terms of brain activity. We don’t have to be subject to the first person POV to the point that we persuade ourselves to deny that free will is an illusion. But nor do we have to abandon the first person POV whereby we succumb to the illusion of free will in common language. Philosophers should not take the incompatibilist perspective as a denial of having the illusory experience of free will.

If the sunset or any mental visual illusion analogy is going to be used I can’t see how one can conclude that free will is not an illusion.

I can see that Dennett isn’t convinced. Try this:

there are mad dog reductionist neuroscientists and philosophers who insist that minds are illusions, pains are illusions, dreams are illusions, ideas are illusions-all there is is just neurons and glia and the like

Philosophers and theologians alike love their emotive language. We’re mad dogs now. This makes mockery of Dennett’s complaints about the language Harris uses. Dennett doesn’t play to the standards he sets for others.

With free will, Dennett mistakes the phenomena for the experience of the phenomena. It is an illusion that we have a free floating mind. It’s no good Dennett complaining “all there is is just neurons and glia and the like” if he’s not going to give any alternative explanation to support his claims about free will. That’s all there is inside our heads: neurons and glia and the like. What else does he think is the product of the experience? What (i.e. who) does he think is having the mental experience? Get used to it Dan, it’s the brain: the neurons and glia and the like. He rules out non-physical dualism, and he rules out the brain. What magic is he supposing?

Here are some more instances of Harris’s move: We do not have the freedom we think we have. Who’s we?

This is a common failure on the part of compatibilists that I’ve seen many times. They see an incompatibilists using common terms, in order to make statements easy to parse, and presume the incompatibilists are falling into a free will error – denying its existence while using it.

We are brains. When I am thinking it is my brain doing it. That’s my brain talking about itself in both first and third person: as the first person possessive, “my”, of the third person, “brain”. I am me, I am the brain that refers to itself as “my brain”, or “I”, or “me”.

You’ll note that we don’t have very good language for expressing this. Tough. Make the effort to understand that and give up on this idea that you have trapped us into using the free will we are denying.

So, when Harris says, “We do not have the freedom we think we have” it means that the brain that perceives itself through thought suffers an illusion that it is a mind free of the brain.

The brain is a delusional organ in this respect.

This is not an unreasonable claim. For example, there are brain conditions where brains feel they are not connected to their bodies – they feel totally disembodied. There are not only specific neurological maladies that lead to this but quite common psychological experiences, such as the out-of-body experience. Why is so difficult to understand that a brain can feel itself disembodied from the brain, from itself? Why is it so difficult to understand that the brain thinks it is a free floating mind with a will free of physical cause?

So, this is what it feels like, to be a massively connected bunch of neurons that have collected and contextualised masses of data about the world, encoded as active neuronal activity and neuron memory states. This is what it feels like, for such a system to process data about itself, to ‘observe’ itself. It cannot ‘observe’ itself visually or with any other senses. This thinking business, this is what it feels like for a system with no external experience of its own internal operation to form concepts about itself. It feels like a free floating mind exists that is unconnected to the brain.

That is the nature of the illusion of the mind. When that brain switches into action mode, this is what it feels like to will, and we call it free will because it feels free of the brain events that it consists of.

There’s a lot more wrong with the Dennett piece. But I wanted to address this particular perspective on the illusory nature of free will in terms of illusions. particularly since Dennett makes such a bad job of it.

UPDATE: Sam Harris mentioned this poor analogy of Dennett’s in less detail, but covered much more, in his reply:

The Marionette’s Lament
– A Response to Daniel Dennett

32 thoughts on “Free Will: Dennett’s Poor Sunset Analogy

  1. Hello Ron:

    A very interesting discussion and I don’t feel up to arguing, but for the record, the philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who is, I believe, an incompatibilist, describes himself as a “mad dog naturalist” and thus, Dennett is using (playfully, I believe) Rosenberg’s own playful self-description.

  2. Hi, Ron. I’ve read only your excerpt from the Dennett as well as your response to it, but as a traditional compatibalist, I don’t really understand either position. I take compatibalism (of the Hobbes/Mill) sort to simply say that “freedom” is misunderstood in the context of human action. There, it’s compatible with total causation (by neurons, etc) of every action. What it means is, roughly, absence of EXTERNAL constraints–guns to the head, being pulled, etc.

    So the sunset biz just seems to me off-topic. “Free will experiences’ (such an odd locution) are really illusory only in cases of stuff like hypnotic suggestion.



  3. Hi tougis,

    The significant differences are as follows:

    Degerees-of-freedom (of motion):

    In a deterministic system the independent variables determine the degrees of freedom. So, for example, an aeroplane has six: x,y,z translation, and pitch, roll, yaw. As a rigid body in an external world, that’s it. But take the flexing of the wings into account, and the internal mechanics of the engines, and the movement of passengers, and you have a lot of internal components with their own degrees of freedom acting on the system from the inside.

    This is the nature of human ‘freedom’. There are external forces (e.g. guns, weights too heavy to lift) that limit freedom of motion. But there are lots of internal deterministic components that are in turn caused to be active. To a neuron the biological chemical environment exerts external forces onto the neuron, just as our external local environment exerts forces onto us as a bodied human. A neuron can’t jump outside the head and do stuff. Its action is contained within the head, but collectively those determined neurons have a causal effect on the bodied human.

    In this respect a human has very complex degrees of internal freedom that are determined by internal and external forces entirely. As far as we can tell, that’s it.

    From this perspective we can also say the human has a great deal of localised autonomy – but it’s still determined one way or another.

    Dualist free-will:

    This is the notion that there is a separate non-physical mind that somehow (it is never made clear) can monitor the brain-body system, and also control it. The notion is one like a humunculus driver of a big truck – the truck (brain-body) does what is asked of it by the driver (mind), but many other forces, including inertia, make the truck (brain-body) difficult to control at times.

    Compatibilists seem to mix these ideas. They say that we are determined, but their examples of non-freedom (e.g. guns, heavy weights) amount to no more that limits on the will of the humunculus mind.

    The thing is, we really do feel like we have dualist free-will, but it’s an illusion.

    The problem for compatibilists is that they want to deny free-will is an illusion, because they want their definition of free-will, which amounts to degrees of freedom in a partly autonomous system, and so have to dismiss dualism because otherwise they are stuck reconciling dualist free-will being illusory.

    Compatibilists could said clearly (and Dennett does not) “Yes, we feel we have dualist free-will, but that is an illusion. So, compatibilist free-will amounts to degrees of freedom.” But they’d rather keep equivocating.

    Humans have the degrees of freedom available to them by virtue of the mechanics of biology and the supply of energy/food. So, another problem for some compatibilists is that by their definition of free-will a wind up toy has free-will, since as long as it has wind-up-energy (food) it too has internal degrees of freedom. So do computerised robots. Yes, humans have far more complex mechanism at work, but we are still machines. We do not have dualist free-will, but it feels as though we do, so it’s an illusion. A mental illusion – as are visual illusions.

    So, I guess some compatibilists do misunderstand ‘freedom’, or use that vague term in a way that does not differentiate between these two significant notions. The lengths to which compatibilists will not take on and address this distinction sometimes suggests they are succumbing to several cognitive biases. It’s not like they address it and provide a decent objection; they more often never address it, or address it, grudgingly accept it, and then go back to their compatibilist statements.

  4. FWIW, I don’t feel like I have “dualist free will.” What I mean when I say I did something freely or voluntarily is solely that I did it because I wanted to. So, it’s my view that you put a particular position into the compatibalist’s mouth so you can refute it. (Or maybe Dennett takes that position–I don’t know.) But either way, it is patently NOT the traditional compatibalist position, which is simply that acts may be free/voluntary even though thoroughly determined. Period.

  5. Another way of putting this, is that the compatibalist will agree with pretty much everything in your post–except the way you characterize compatibalism.

    It seems to me that your argument is with libertarians and those who (maybe, again, Dennett?), who think there is some kernal of truth in libertarianism. But there’s nothing in what you say that is contrary to the claims of compatibalism, which has no problem whatever with the proposition that every single human action is entirely determined by neural and other factors. That, in fact, is its whole point.

  6. Hi tougis,

    The problem I have with what you say is that it’s essentially a ‘no true Scotsman’ response; and this is how I feel many compatibilists respond.

    You say you don’t feel as though you have dualist free will? Well, what does it feel like then, when you do things that ” may be free/voluntary”? Can you feel the cogs turning, the neurons firing? Can you tell how your thoughts are determined by your brain’s activity, simply by introspection, by feeling how it feels?

    I suggest we cannot. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some people can detect their thoughts emerging.

    Where do thoughts and decisions emerge from? When you make a ‘free’ choice, can you explain in what sense it is free? Free of what? Just degrees of freedom? Just the motion of brain molecules (neurotransmitters, action potential movement of ions through molecular channels, the movement of molecules within neurons inhibiting and enabling chemical activity, …)?

    This is where compatibilists want to have their cake and eat it. They use the term ‘free’ in ‘free will’, without being specific about what they mean.

    “But there’s nothing in what you say that is contrary to the claims of compatibalism”

    On the one true Scotsman point, many compatibilists will not agree with my explanation of free will in terms of degrees of freedom, and many will not agree that therefore computers or mechanical toys have free will. Many want to retain the use of ‘free-will’ for very similar purposes that the religious use it. And the religious that believe in souls are very much dualists. Many will not concede that dualist free-will is an illusion, and they avoid the need by dismissing dualist free-will as if nobody believes in it, as Dennett tried to do. But theists specifically do believe in dualist free-will, and some atheists Rationalists and Idealists do too.

    Think of it in terms of sets:

    Dualists (Anti-determinist incompatibilists) – The set of people who think there is something other than just the material brain-body at work. They think there is a soul, or a mind, depending on their views on theism. They think that material DETERMINISM is INCOMPATIBLE with FREE_WILL, their belief that the soul or mind has free-will. They tend to claim that they feel as though they have free will too.

    Determinist Incompatibilists – The set of people who think that determinism rules out free-will, and so FREE_WILL is INCOMPATIBLE with DETERMINISM. They agree with the dualists that it feels like our will is free of physical constraint, as if some non-material mind makes unconstrained decisions*.

    These are disjoint sets. In the matter of free-will they do not overlap, except in as much that we agree that it feels like we have free will. And note the opposite aspects of their incompatibilism. The first denies determinism (well, complete determinism, because many do see determinism in the material aspect of their dualist view). The second denies free-will, and says the feeling we have it is illusory.

    Compatibilists are using the language from both sets in a confusing manner. They insist on using the term ‘free-will’, as the dualist do, and will not deny we have it or that it is illusory, as the determinist incompatibilists do. On the other hand they insist on determinism. This is total equivocation on the term ‘free-will’. They are trying to construct a union out of disjoint principles, by equivocating on the use of the term ‘free-will’.

    *On the ‘unconstrained decisions’: another confusing aspect of compatibilism. Compatibilists talk about not being totally free, as you did, by referring to external constraints, as if that’s the issue. It isn’t. Under dualism I could make a free-willed decision with my separate mind, and then still have it constrained by my incapacity to act it out physically – e.g. I decide to lift a balloon, but unknown to me it’s a fake one filled with concrete. So, in that sense compatibilism is compatible with dualism – there is a spooky element to compatibilism because compatibilists will not clear up these discrepancies.

    So, let me ask you specifically, when you say ‘free-will’, do you mean dualist free-will, or do you mean degrees of freedom of action of deterministic mechanisms in a brain? Are you sure you don’t feel like your decisions emerge un-caused by physical activity in your brain? Is it possible that when you say you don’t feel you have dualist free-will of a separate mind you are simply echoing your intellectual position rather than your mental experience?

    As a determinist incompatibilist I cannot say my decisions feel determined by any aspect of my physical brain, because I cannot feel the thoughts being formed and emerging as language, for example as I type this. My thoughts seem to emerge, free of physical determination, as if being produced magically by my ‘mind’. But intellectually, given determinism, or anything so far implied by quantum stuff, I cannot find any evidence for anything like a mind. I also know of many examples where what this supposed ‘mind’ comes up with is verifiably nonsense, and so there is good reason to suspect what the ‘mind’ tells us, particularly what it tells us about itself. The conclusion I reach from evolution and biology is that at no point was there the need to inject a magical ‘mind’, and that therefore what I feel is a separate ‘mind’ is how a brain feels when it is working. The ‘mind’ is a convenient conceptual model, but does not exist in its own right. When a brain works, and monitors its own operation, this consciousness is how it feels. It is an illusion.

    1. Ron Murphy,

      It seems to me that you and Tougis are simply talking past each other.

      Compatibilism, as far as I know, is about moral responsibility. The compatibilist does not deny determinism or facts about brain science, but asserts that even given determinism and brain science, we are still morally responsible for our actions unless we are forced to act by a gun to our head or a drug or mental illness, etc.

      I waver between compatibilism and incompatiblism myself.

      1. I’m not sure I’d (tougis) say that compatibalism is ABOUT moral responsibility, but I think that part of its purpose was to explain how determinism can be consistent with it. I agree with the rest of your post completely. And yes, Ron and I are indeed talking past each other.

        I’d just insist that what compatibalism IS or (is “about”) is the claim that (total) determinism is consistent with human freedom. As moral responsibility requires some freedom the view has an important role in ethics.

        But, generally, yeah.


    2. So what’s so special about our brains that make them capable of sensing themselves? And if it’s not just our brains , do other animals, in your words other machines, possess the same intellectual capacity we do?

      1. Hi Myrla, welcome,

        Nothing is special about it. It’s the action of cells interacting. The brain is the most localised most complex combination of such cells and so forms the locus of interaction.

        There is no evidence of anything else other than the particular arrangement of differrent brains that determines the intelletual capacity.

        The problem we have in seeing the specific deterministic causes of intellectual capacity is that they are acquired long term in tandem with other evolutionary and cultural processes.

        Each birth is unique. But differences across generations are close to continuous with boudaries difficult to determine.

        As an analogy take speciation, based on reproductive capacity. Look back along the female line of any human, and every mother is the same species as the child. But keep going back until you find an acnestor that is definitely a different species. There is no point in that line when a mother is not the same species as the child – and yet generation X may ne a different species, incapable of reproduction, with generation X+N, where N is large*.

        Similarly, how do we tell when humans at one stage Y, had significantly different intellectual cpacity than Y+M. We can see it long term. There may have been intellectual differences as well as other bodily differences between early humans and Neanderthals – but it seems speciation wasn’t a problem in reproductive terms, so are they a different species? In otehr regards, yes.

        So, it’s not only difficult to see the specifics on intellectual differnces in teh development of a species, it’s hard to see which diffeences between current species categorically would make a dolphin into a mathematician that could understand calculus.

        Whatever the differneces are they must be (without further evidence of something else) doesn to the arrangement and use of neurons. But since genetics is at the bottom of differences, combinations of genes must all contribute.

        I have to say that when talking about neurons here I’m beings specific for the purpose of ruling out ‘spooky’ dualism and other magic. Glial cells seem to have a function, but that’s just adding another cell type to the mechanistic dscription I’m referring to.

        Steps are underway to test these differences. Changing mice to resembler human genes can increase the capacity of mice in some respects – glial cells being the factor here:

        *Barring some odd single step genetic mutation related to reproduction specifically – but even then that would be considered a genetic fault, not a speciation event as other offspring might not have that fault.

  7. It seems to me that you’re just very insistent on redefining “compatibalism”–a term which has a long, and well known meaning that defines a class that doesn’t fit into your own dualists/determinist-incompatibalists dichotomy. You ask what I mean by “free will” and I tell you (very unoriginally): An act A is free for a person S =df. S does A because he wants to (if S wanted to do A he would because he wants to.) This, I claim, is what people generally really mean by having the power to act freely, and it not inconsistent with determinism. Furthermore I dont’ believe it has not much to do with “feelings of free will” dualist or otherwise–except in some genetic fashion. That is it may be the case that without certain feelings, nobody would have ever thought about this issue in the first place. I don’t want to deny that, but it’s also the case that without human respiration or digestion, nobody would have thought about this issue either. It’s just a case of the genetic fallacy to suppose that breathing is part of the meaning of “freedom.”

    So, again, my sense is that what you do here is (i) defend determinism, and (ii) redefine “compatibalism” so that it is inconsistent with determinism. And maybe the impetus for that is found in Dennett (who is often unclear and unhelpful). But “compatibalism” has had a meaning since Hobbes’ time, and it doesn’t included any particular feelings. As you ask about your degrees of freedom remarks, It’s consistent with (traditional) compatibalism, if it’s consistent with determinism. That’s just logic.

    It seems to me that to refute compatibalism, one has to show that the conception of freedom it uses (that I’ve put above) isn’t “really freedom” and that’s precisely what libertarians like van Inwagen try to do. I think unsuccessfully, myself, but the topic has been controversial for several hundred years. I don’t think, though, that picking your own version of what compatibalism is, and then saying you don’t like it, amounts to much of a refutation of anything, however. And I believe that’s what you do in your post.

  8. s. wallerstein: “The compatibilist does not deny determinism or facts about brain science, but asserts that even given determinism and brain science, we are still morally responsible for our actions unless we are forced to act by a gun to our head or a drug or mental illness, etc.”

    This whole sentence is about moral responsibility and not about how free will is compatible with determinism. You have switched the subject that’s in dispute.

    tougis: “but I think that part of its purpose was to explain how determinism can be consistent with it”

    I agree, determinism is consistent with moral responsibility. But we’re not disputing that, we’re disputing the use of the term ‘free-will’, and specifically the compatibilist claim that it is compatible with determinism.

    Both dualists INCOMPATIBILISTS and determinist INCOMPATIBILISTS are agreeing that determinism and free will are incompatible, but are in dispute about which is the case; and once they have decided one (free-will or determinism) is the case then the other (determinism or free-will) cannot be the case.

    Significant dualists, such as Descartes and Aquinas, insist there is a non-determined free will capacity of a non-physical mind or soul. So it’s no good compatibilists passing dualist free-will as some insignificant metaphysical stance. It is very significant and lies at the foundation of what most monotheists, at least, think.

    1. From the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Compatibilism:

      Hence, as a theory-neutral point of departure, free will can be defined as the unique ability of persons to exercise control over their conduct in the fullest manner necessary for moral responsibility.[2] Clearly, this definition is too lean when taken as an endpoint; the hard philosophical work is about how best to develop this special kind of control. But however this notion of control is developed, its uniqueness consists, at least in part, in being possessed only by persons.

  9. tougis,

    “It seems to me that you’re just very insistent on redefining ‘compatibalism'”.

    I’m not trying to redefine it, I’m trying to get a clear an unequivocal definition of it. And all attempts I read seem to fail to provide one.

    “I tell you (very unoriginally): An act A is free for a person S =df. S does A because he wants to (if S wanted to do A he would because he wants to.) This, I claim, is what people generally really mean by having the power to act freely, and it not inconsistent with determinism.”

    Then what you have described is a sense of a macro scale ‘degrees of freedom’, the ability to act out what one ‘wants’ to do, what one has already ‘decided’ to do. But what about the micro scale ‘degrees of freedom’? What causes the wanting, the deciding? Is it a will that is free of physical material brain causes? You say not, when you say it is not inconsistent with determinism. But why the urge to label that localised determined brain event ‘free-will’?

    “That is it may be the case that without certain feelings, nobody would have ever thought about this issue in the first place.”

    The very foundation of original sin and the garden of Eden is based on theological and philosophical notions of dualism, whether it’s mind, soul, spirit. Dualism is not only a very ancient idea but also a very natural one.

    “But “compatibalism” has had a meaning since Hobbes’ time”

    I think the Bible trumps Hobbes for originality. But forms of compatibilism go back further than that. On top of that in both Hobbes and Mill the problem is confused by their dragging the issue into the political sphere. The politics of freedom, one’s freedom to act against opposition, or in the face of coercion or repression, is a macro-world physical measure of degrees of freedom and is not directly addressing the metaphysical issue regarding minds and souls. All of which is irrelevant now.

    It is not uncommon for terms to change and to be clarified over time. Science has come a long way since Hobbes, and as a result the case for materialism has grown ever stronger, and the case for the supernatural has grown ever weaker. There is a greater chasm now between religious supernatural and materialist world views, and a great deal of the issues in dispute revolve around the material nature of the brain as opposed to the non-material nature of the mind and soul. A non-material mind or soul and its free-will is one crucial area in that dispute.

    Compatibilism is a side show that simply gets in the way, since compatibilists are atheist determinists anyway, and yet they offer free-will on a plate to dualists.

    “It’s just a case of the genetic fallacy to suppose that breathing is part of the meaning of “freedom.””

    I’m afraid I don’t get the analogy. Breathing can be described as an aspect of a human body’s degrees of freedom, the extent to which biological mechanisms cause breathing, and the extent to which the rest of the physical world does not prevent it. The ‘willed’ intentions of a brain are also aspects of the degrees of freedom of brain activity. The acts that a body performs, or does not if prevented, are aspects of the degrees of freedom of the body, as caused by the will, as caused by the biological mechanisms of the brain. All deterministic, as you agree.

    “It seems to me that to refute compatibalism, one has to show that the conception of freedom it uses (that I’ve put above) isn’t “really freedom””

    It’s difficult to refute something when it still isn’t as specific as it could be. And “really freedom” is still an equivocation on the term ‘free’ as applied to ‘free-will’. The term ‘free-will’ has meant a will free from physical causes, a spiritual will of the mind or soul. And the term only gets confused with variants on the term used by compatibilists wanting to retain the notion of free-will while also maintaining that we are determined.

    For example, ‘freedom’ in the social political sense is another thing altogether. And ‘freedom’ in the physical sense merely means a body is not constrained in some way.

    Even if I have a gun to my head I still have this ‘freedom’ to choose to attempt to act as I wish, even if I end up dead without succeeding in the act I intend.

    Compatibilism still misses the distinctions:

    1) Freely willing to perform some act A in a dualist sense, using a non-physical mind, or a soul – free will, a will that is free of materialistic determined causes.

    2) Having one’s brain’s intentions caused by deterministic processes such that the brain produces an internal action plan, encoded in neuronal states, to do the act A.

    3) Having the bodily physical and political freedom to perform act A. Being unconstrained from performing act A, whether the will to do A is a result of 1 or 2.

    4) Being coerced or physically prevented from performing act A, whether the will to do A is a result of 1 or 2.

    Determinist incompatibilism is unequivocally claiming 2 is the metaphysical case, and that either 3 or 4 might follow as a result of external physical or political forces. It is also the position that 2 feels like 1, but that is an illusory notion that human brains have developed. It is also the position that the distinction between 3 and 4 is not where the incompatibilism between free-will and determinism lies, but is rather between 1 and 2. It is 1 and 2 that are the distinct metaphysical positions relating to how free the will is of physical causes of a material brain.

    Why are compatibilist examples examples only those that respond to 3 or 4. All compatibilists I’ve read, give examples that address the distinction between 3 and 4. But both 3 and 4 are consistent with both 1 and 2, and so compatibilism does not address the distinction between 1 and 2. But 1 and 2 is an important distinction.

    tougis: “An act A is free for a person S. S does A because he wants to (if S wanted to do A he would because he wants to.)” – Addresses 3, with the ‘want’, the ‘will’, the ‘decision’ already made. This statement does not address how the ‘want’ comes about.

    tougis: “What it means is, roughly, absence of EXTERNAL constraints–guns to the head, being pulled, etc.” – Addresses the distinction between 3 and 4. This is about freedom of action, being physically restrained or not in some way, allowing or denying a willed act. It does not relate to the issue of free-will, how the intention, the decision, is made, in the dualist mind or in the materialist brain, 1 or 2.

    And this is why I don’t get the utility of the compatibilist position. How can compatibilism be about how determinism is compatible with free-will when it doesn’t address free-will, but instead merely labels freedom of action as free-will.

    In a way I see compatibilism very much like some sophisticated theologies, whereby an ‘atheist Christian’ says, “Well of course there is no actual entity that is God, and of course there was no real physical resurrection, but God is the ground of all being and Jesus is still real, in some sense.”

    Compatibilism seems to be “Well, yes, we are determined, and of course dualism is nonsense; but still, free-will is important and therefore we have it.”

    Your ‘free-will’ vanishes in the smoke of your determinist expressions of ‘freedom’. As a sophisticated theologian denies all the unsupportable supernatural religious stuff and yet still calls his beliefs religious beliefs, so compatibilists seem to deny all that’s significant about free-will and yet still claim we have it.

  10. s. walleerstein,

    The compatibilist notion really does confuse a very straightforward dichotomy, one that goes to the heart of atheist/theist differences. And the Stanford site isn’t always that great – but then it’s run by philosophers that don’t necessarily take modern science into account as much as it should.

    “can be defined as”

    This is part of the problem, distortions on the metaphysical point of the capacity of humans to make decisions – free of physical causes or not.

    The state of our free-will is a metaphysical question that only when resolved in that space can be used in the moral space, because whether or not we have the free-will of a mind or soul impacts on how we view morality.

    Not that this matters for a determinist incompatibilist if one also rejects objective morality. There is no evidence to support theistic beliefs about gods, and so no evidence or a divinely prescribed morality. There is also no evidence to support the notion of any objective morality out there in the universe. Morality is a social construct, probably developed early in human or pre-human history from biological feelings about what we like and don’t like, with regards to the behaviours of others. The development of consciousness, self-awareness, the theory of mind, has all probably contributed to the abstraction of morality out of the biological domain into an invented normative domain. This is how I see Hume’s complaint that we can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ – because the ‘ought’s are abstractions.

    That leaves us in the position whereby we not only don’t have free-will, but also that there is no real objective morality outside the objective observation that humans have invented it. As such, with regard to all animals and all inanimate matter, human morality is arbitrary and specific to human biological and social development.

    The result then is that not only do we not have free-will and the free-will we feel we have is illusory, but the morality we invent doesn’t need it.

    Our morality remains what it always was, despite millennia of philosophical and theological confusion, a biological motivation enhanced and developed into social codes of conduct – and some developed quite arbitrarily even in that human context. Taking human history as a whole, an act can be morally good, bad or indifferent depending on many arbitrary factors. Humans or pre-humans were once naked, and in many isolated places remained naked, and yet all sorts of dress codes become moralised for really arbitrary reasons: Victorian European women showing their ankles, or current Muslim women showing their hair, or even their face; or determining that some meats are ‘unclean’.

    Free-will and morality are distinct in their determination, but then related once their determination is made. So, we have dualist free-will, plus God given morality, where the free-will actions determine moral responsibility. Or, we have no free-will, and no objective morality, where moral responsibility becomes a non-retributional means of determining the cause of actions we collectively decide we don’t like.

    The non-free-will incompatibilist model allows for a morality that is closest to that of the Golden Rule, in that no actions are inherently immoral, so you can do whatever you want; but we can decide collectively that some actions have sufficiently unpleasant consequences that we form social moral codes to dissuade people from enacting them.

    Because it’s a collective social and hence political determination we can include moral codes towards other animals, because as with the theory of mind regarding other humans we also construct a scale of empathy with the suffering of other animals.

    Our justice system is then a system for attributing the cause (responsibility) of an action to a brain (or brains), and deciding to what extent society needs protecting from that brain, given some assessment of its likelihood to to act in the same way again. Such a justice system can also enact reparations for harm done. All this is quite consistent with determinist incompatibilist notions of illusory free-will.

    Without any absolute God given or in-the-stars morality one would expect morality to vary by place and time. And it does. I am seriously anti-FGM. Yet I accept that on the above grounds I have no absolute moral guide to tell me it is wrong. I self-declare it is wrong based entirely on my human background that gives my a theory of mind and an empathy that is repelled by the act of FGM on young girls. I oppose it because that is what my brain is currently determined to do, given my biology, social development, culture. And I oppose it seriously, even though I know that outside the above human context it has no moral consequence at all.

    To put this in another perspective, if an alien race saw humans as prey for food I could have no absolute moral reason to put to them that was not solely an appeal to their theory of mind and their empathy for our suffering. If I failed to convince them, then tough on me. If I wanted to make any absolute moral assertion that they should not eat me, I’d be deluded to think it meaningful.

  11. Ron, that’s a (mostly) good post, because it gets–at least for a while–to the heart of the matter. You write, ” The term ‘free-will’ has meant a will free from physical causes, a spiritual will of the mind or soul. And the term only gets confused with variants on the term used by compatibilists wanting to retain the notion of free-will while also maintaining that we are determined.” That is precisely the libertarian argument against the compatibalist position. They say (and have said for over a hundred years), “Yeah, the problem is that what you compatibalists say exists isn’t REALLY freedom.”

    So the nub of the debate is whether the way I define “free will” (or you define “degrees of freedom” merits the use of “free.”) Following Hobbes, Mill, and lots of others, I say it does. You stand with the libertarians and other incompatibalists and deny this.

    Is it possible to get over this impasse? I believe one has to look at ordinary language and common sense to determine which of us is using “freedom” in the more orthodox manner. And, with Hobbes and Mill (and the law courts since time immemorial) I insist that “free” in the context of human action means, roughly, “voluntary.” You demur, preferring the position that nothing can be free if it is caused. I take that to be a redefinition that produces a term that is nearly useless for ordinary endeavors (like determining fault in moral or legal cases), but if you really like it anyhow, there must be an impasse.

    I believe however, that it is actually YOU taking the “real Scotsman” position here, with a term, “freedom,” that is in common parlance and which has an unmodified use that is quite important to society.

    The rest of your post, regarding theology, atheism, dualism, xtianity, etc., is off-topic, IMO–mostly red herrings involving a bunch of positions you don’t like that have nothing whatever to do with this issue. What does matter here is pretty simple: whether or not it begs the question against the compatibalist to insist that human freedom is inconsistent with determinism, based on the meaning of “free will.” Again, I say it does, and that we should not re-define terms in common usage for the sole purpose of claiming that they don’t actually refer. Either some acts are voluntary or none are. If some are, then (leaving quantum indeterminacy out of the picture here) either libertarianism is true and determinism false, or compatibalism is true. Nothing more to this matter.

  12. tougis,

    I don’t think theology is at all off-topic, when you have such theistic stalwarts as Descartes and Aquinas making a case for a free-will that is dualist. It is the compatibilists that try to push dualism aside as if it is inconsequential merely because they feel it is wrong. I agree dualism is wrong, but it is not inconsequential.

    And if determinist incompatibilists and dualist incompatibilists are both declaring the incompatibility of dualist free-will with determinism, though each taking a different view on which takes precedence, then I don’t think compatibilists are in a position to say it’s off-topic. It is the topic. And my OP addresses the extent to which compatibilism confuses that debate.

    My OP was also intended to highlight how compatibilists arguments just don’t stand up to examination – such as Dennett’s incorrect use of the sunset analogy.

    Again, if all you are saying is that determinism holds, and that within that framework that once a choice is made, through wanting to do something, by a brain then there are various degrees to which the brain-body system that is a human is free to enact that choice, then that really isn’t very much. If you call that free-will, as opposed to freedom, freedom of action, degrees of freedom, then anything that is not constrained has free-will; and a computer that weighs inputs and makes a decisions has free-will by that measure.

    Compatibilist free-will does not address how that will, that decision, that choice, comes about, which is the significant difference between determinism and dualism, a dualism which which is a genuinely held world view and not some insignificant sideshow. That point is at the heart of the difference between determinists (incompatibilists and compatibilists) on the one hand and dualists on the other.

    Libertarianism complicates matters further because they can be divided between dualists, panpsychists and other varieties. Consequently they are a mixed bunch some of which are outright dualists, referring to the non-physical mind, while others are more like compatibilists in that they restrict their language to matters of freedom of action and not the capacity to make decisions free of physical causes.

    Dennett made a big thing of the sunset analogy, using it to make the compatibilist case; and I responded to that in the OP by pointing out that it too is an illusion and if anything makes the case for free-will being illusory. I think you started off being evasive by declaring that off-topic too. How could it be, when the compatibilist Dennett is using it and incompatibilist me is criticising his use of it.

    You keep saying I’m redefining terms, but I’m not. Dualist free-will, meaning a will being free of physical cause, is what dualism is all about, with regard to the will. And you state the meaning of compatibilism yourself very clearly: “You ask what I mean by “free will” and I tell you (very unoriginally): An act A is free for a person S. S does A because he wants to (if S wanted to do A he would because he wants to.) This, I claim, is what people generally really mean by having the power to act freely, and it not inconsistent with determinism.” That seems very explicitly to mean the freedom to enact a decision that is already made, and is not addressing the forming of the decision and whether that is mechanism, dualist or physicalist, is compatible with determinism.

    “So, again, my sense is that what you do here is (i) defend determinism, and (ii) redefine “compatibalism” so that it is inconsistent with determinism.” I am agreeing that compatibilism is a determinist view, and that it is about the freedom to perform actions, but I’m then saying it’s use of the term ‘free-will’ is inappropriate for that view. Other than my complaint over the compatibilist use of the term ‘free-will’ can you point to anything I’ve said about compatibilism that I’ve got wrong?

    You seem to claim the term ‘free-will’ for compatibilism, as if compatibilism ‘owns’ the term, when dualists and determinist incompatibilists already have a good use of the term. In this regard I see this position somewhat like a person claiming that there are unicorns, while pointing to a rhino, and having their error pointed out they accuse their informant of redefining terms. Simply calling a rhino a unicorn and asserting a tradition of calling a rhino a unicorn simply won’t do. There is a distinction, between how a willed decision is formed, and whether that decision can be enacted, and compatibilists are all about the latter.

    While you deny you feel you have dualist free-will, you still haven’t said how you feel your decisions are made. Can you detect them being made by the deterministic mechanisms of your brain, or do they in fact seem to spring forth uncaused, except perhaps by yet other thoughts and musings which also appear to be uncaused by physical processes. That inability to pin down your thoughts and decisions may be something that as a compatibilists you don’t want to call ‘free-will’, but that experience of thoughts and decisions being formed free of physical causes is is the perfect referent for the term ‘free-will’, while the capacity to act on the resultant willed decision is a matter of freedom of action or a measure of degrees of freedom.

  13. Wouldn’t it just be easier to reserve the term “free will” to the traditional dualist, libertarian view and to talk about different degrees of moral responsibility/moral competence, which seem very related to whether the act is voluntary or not?

    Let’s take two examples:

    1. Bill is a model citizen, responsible and concerned about others. He has a stroke while driving, loses consciousness and runs over a small child.

    2. Joe runs over a small child because he’s “in the way” and he’s in his hurry.
    Several psychiatrists and neurologists examine Joe and decide that he is not mentally ill and does not fulfil all the criteria for sociopathy.

    In both cases, running over the child is a result of physiological processes, a stroke in the first case and various brain processes (formed genetically, by early childhood and by education or lack of it) in the second case, but it seems to me that Joe has a higher degree of moral responsibility. There is no need to talk about “free will” to affirm that, however. It does seem to matter that Joe’s act was voluntary, even though his volition was the product of his brain chemistry and a set of causes going back to Big Bang.

  14. s. wallerstein,

    That still leaves us debating free-will. In (1) there is no free-will, by dualist or determinist standards, so it doesn’t address free-will.

    In (2) there is a decision, to run over the child, but was it reached a decision made the dualist free-will of an evil mind.soul, or was it a cumulatively determined brain event in a brain that has had massive number of precursor causes acting on it to cause it, eventually, to make that specific decision.

    If it’s dualist, and evil, then all the religious ire of retribution can be brought to bear on it, as is the case in the US and in Iran where religious moralising dictate justice.

    If it’s determined by causes, what are those causes? Was he an abused child that now enacts his self-loathing for his own inability to protect himself as a child? Or perhaps it was a stroke that like Phineas Gage has his character altered for the worse by brain damage?

    The distinction can be helpful. The religious with their free-will and sin model condemn people, often to death, resulting in two deaths rather than one. The determinist incompatibilist model of justice avoids the emotive need for retribution and allows us to assess what’s important – is the driver a continued threat to others? Can his brain damage be repaired or ameliorate by treatment?

    Incidentally, the retributional lobby sometimes see no good in the fix option, but long term, by trying to fix we can learn how to avoid. The retributional model is always acting after the fact, and pretends to have a deterrent effect that sometimes will not work. Deterrents may work for the more maliable plastic brain states that cause some behaviours, but in other cases the brain problems are not going to respond to all the hell, damnation, retribution and deterrent elements of the evil and sin model. It’s no good simply blaming free-willed decisions if they are not freely willed.

  15. s. wallerstein, I think to act freely IS just to act voluntarily. So if somebody performed an action voluntarily he/she can be punished for it, because it was (in sufficient part) free. That’s all “free will” means.We can look at thousands of court cases to confirm that.

    But Ron makes one interesting point above that I think has to be addressed. He writes

    Again, if all you are saying is that determinism holds, and that within that framework that once a choice is made, through wanting to do something, by a brain then there are various degrees to which the brain-body system that is a human is free to enact that choice, then that really isn’t very much. If you call that free-will, as opposed to freedom, freedom of action, degrees of freedom, then anything that is not constrained has free-will; and a computer that weighs inputs and makes a decisions has free-will by that measure.

    What’s going on there is that I defined “free will” in terms of doing what one wants because one wants to. Ron says “then anything that is not constrained has free-will” which actually doesn’t follow from that, but I think it’s a good point anyhow, because it points up that compatibalists indeed DON’T “explain the mechanism.” We render unto science that which belongs to it. Mechanism questions aren’t philosophical questions. But the question of whether we’re free is.

    This same disagreement would likely arise If he’d asked me what thinking is. I could say I think it MEANS (to the extent that I believe it’s definable, which is to say, to a very limited extent IMO). And if were then asked how it arises, I’d refer the questioner to a neurophysiologist. Are any of our actions uncaused? I don’t think so. Why? (Again leaving quantum jumps out of it), because scientists tell us so. Now, do I think they can be free (i.e., voluntary, not forced upon me) anyways?
    Yes, I do.

    Descartes and Aquinas (neither of whom were compatibalists) notwithstanding, introduction of theology here absolutely is a red herring. FWIW, my background is in philosophy, and t’s interesting to me when I surf around the net, how many of those trained in science and computing are absolutely obsessed with theology questions. It’s perhaps a weird sociological point, but very few people I know who studied philosophy since the 1950s, care very much about these xtianity questions. They seem just silly and not worth discussing. But the pixels spent on “refuting” this crucial nonsense is obviously very important to scientists and computer analysts. I really don’t know why this is.

    Anyhow, whether compatibalism is a viable theory or not is, as I’ve said, a function of whether the definition of “free” they use is cheat (even though it’s what pretty much everybody means when they aren’t attempting to philosophize). I say it’s not; incompatibalists say it is. This has nothing whatever to do with Jesus, Vishnu, sunsets, or, I’m guessing, anything Dan Dennett has ever said or written.

  16. Oh, sorry, I forgot to finish up with Ron’s interesting question about whether I think computers act freely. I would say they don’t because they don’t do anything because they want to. But I can’t define either “want” or “because” as it’s used in that sentence. Philosophy can’t tell us very much at all on my view. It takes empirical science to answer the meaty questions. Nevertheless, the itsy-bitsy philosophical questions stymie a lot of people and a huge hash is made out of nearly all of them. It’s weird.


  17. tougis,

    I’m not sure how you think you can dismiss millennia of theistic philosophy just by dismissing Jesus. Dismissing something as a red herring is hardly a philosophical approach to the very philosophical business of theism, as distinct from specific religious claims, such as those about Jesus, that are derived from a philosophical foundation that is theistic. And are you dismissing Descartes as a philosophical red herring? Again I say that just because you think they are wrong and not worthy of inclusion in a free-will debate does not mean you should dismiss them. And Aquinas may have been a theologian, but are you dismissing the whole of Scolasticism as not having any philosophical content? If you don’t like dualism in particular, and so dismiss it, are you also going to cut out Idealism and Rationalism as having any contribution? Before long you will have no one to debate because your view on compatibilism stands and everything else is a red herring. Yet so many philosophers, atheists, scientists, theists, see compatibilism as a red herring.

    “compatibalists indeed DON’T “explain the mechanism” We render unto science that which belongs to it. Mechanism questions aren’t philosophical questions. But the question of whether we’re free is.”

    Several points here:

    I think you’re playing fast and loose with the term ‘explain’.

    As to rendering unto science, many philosophers object when it is claimed that science can explain stuff. There is a boundary between well established practical science which philosophers can add little, to the boundaries of science where the scientific models are limited in some way for want of data or theory, where philosophers are often very eager to tell us that science can’t explain everything. And many philosophers are very much not leaving it to neurologists and neuroscientists but are explicitly telling us that science cannot address the details of consciousness, mind, free-will.

    You seem to be choosy with your philosophers if you think that Descarte’s views on the mechanisms of mind and will are distinct from his philosophy. How about David Chalmers? All except compatibilists put free-will right therre with consciousness and mind, and not with the freedom to act out our will decisions.

    The issue here is confused by the use of free-will in politics, sociology, and psychology, where again I say they are using the term free-will as a choice already made and then discussing the various influences on the ability to enact what has been willed. They are not interested in what free-will is and how it comes about, but how it played out in the world.

    So, based on what you have said, and what you have described of compatibilism, you are engaged in a number or areas: the political philosophy of the freedom to enact one’s wishes; the psychological and sociological philosophy regarding what you do with a gun to your head, the social, psychological ethical philosophy of which decisions, however the decision comes about, are appropriate regarding pushing people off bridges to save lives. These are all post-willing philosophical questions. They are not the philosophy of free-will but the philosophy of acting on the will, once made, or the appropriateness of a willed decision.

    And, some examples offer by compatibilist are still very much mechanistic, though not about the mechanism of free-will. When compatibilists discuss the extent to which an act can be carried out physically, they are considering mechanisms. To say that I freely will that I should fly unaided, but I’m constrained by the physics of human anatomy to the extent that a bird is not, then this is a mechanistic consideration, a technical one. I’m not sure philosophy has very much to say on that matter at all. One’s free-will has little to do with it, except as perhaps a psychological consideration of the extent to which one can will something and believe one wants to and can do it and how that is constrained by reality.

    If only philosophers would cede unto science what they ought to. Philosophers are generally very keen to say a lot about the ‘mind’, as if they know what it is, as if there were every any evidence of such a thing.

    And, ” question of whether we’re free”, is such a vague an loaded phrase that I really don’t get why a philosopher would not parse it into its various meanings.

    “we’re free” – To move mechanically, to the extent we can fly unaided, against the apparent laws of physics?

    “we’re free” – To move mechanically, to the extent that we can leave the country without a passport?

    “we’re free” – To vote in elections?

    “we’re free” – In a democracy to vote, but not really free because our political masters ignore us when in power?

    “we’re free” – To ignore moral guides if we wish to?

    “we’re free” – To love someone, whether they love us back or not?

    “we’re free” – To engage in commercial markets unhindered by political intervention?

    “we’re free” – In that our love cannot be bought?

    “we’re free” – To express our opinions on Islam?

    All the above are consistent with explanations of compatibilism I’ve seen. These are nothing directly to do with the philosophical and scientific dispute of where our willed decisions come from. They are all about acting on free-will (the real free-will of a separate mind, or the determined mechanism that results in the illusion of the free-will of a separate mind).

    Thinking, mind, consciousness, free-will – they are all in the same basket. having not convinced you with the rhino/unicorn analogy, then let me say that for compatibilists these issues seem like the elephant in the room that they refuse to discuss. Except all other philosophers, and theologians and scientists are busy having that very debate, about what these things are.

    Science and philosophy overlap, so I think it completely unreasonable to talk of ‘rendering unto science’. The interdisciplinary nature of all human knowledge acquisition is most recently and most eloquently explained by Sam Harris. This is precisely the point he is covering, but with regard to that other favourite philosophical business of morality: He gets into the ‘meaning of science’, and it explains why your delineation is unreasonable.

  18. “I would say they [computers] don’t [think] because they don’t do anything because they want to. But I can’t define either “want” or “because” as it’s used in that sentence. Philosophy can’t tell us very much at all on my view. It takes empirical science to answer the meaty questions.”

    Since when has thinking been restricted to wanting? And you can’t define ‘want’, or even ‘because’, with sufficient clarity to support your thoughts on the matter?

    As a determinist, and without any evidence for anything like a mind or soul, I infer, from all science, that thinking is a process performed by a collective of neurons. The brain neurons are just like the sensing neurons, but they sense and interact with each other rather than directly with muscles, eyes, ears, etc. But in principle the brain is a collective of processing components.

    The ‘wanting’ is a primarily biological mechanism. Humans ‘want’ stuff and want to do stuff in order to satisfy the want to have stuff – food, hunting. These are the basic biological drives that drive all our wanting.

    The complexity for human brains is that they’re a bit like a runaway system. Compared to most mammal brains, that tick along nicely doing what they ‘want’ to do only to satisfy biological drives, humans are like a nuclear power plant gone critical. Human brains have become carried away with not only thinking, but thinking about thinking. The self-awareness and the capacity to reason has gone crazy. And we’ve abstracted so much of our thinking about thinking that we think we have minds unconnected to the corporeal body.

    But that aside, our wanting is the following of a program. A biological survival program.

    So, the self-awareness and the abstractions that come out of that are all that distinguish human wanting from other animal wanting, or the basic drives that program everything – from inanimate matter, through complex chemical replication, to cells, organs, collections of neurons, to human brains.

    And all this comes under science. Understanding all this, understanding and explaining how brains work, is the business of science.

    Philosophers have no problem chipping in an telling us about the philosophy of science, and informing scientists where their philosophical thinking is going wrong.

    But what many philosophers are keen to sweep under the carpet is that it’s science that tells us how brains work, includimg the braians of philosophers. The science of philosophy is the science of thinking.

    And both science and philosophy are influenced by maths. From the complex maths of technology, physics, cosmology, right down to the maths of logic, which many philosophers seem to be particularly bad at.

    So, in an abstract way computers do think, because they perform algorithmic reasoning, as humans do. They ‘want’, in a very simple non-abstract sense in that the soak up power and are deterministically compelled to run their programs, as are humans when they are busy wanting.

    The question then is not, do computers think in the abstract sense developed by millennia of philosophy, but do humans think in that way? It seems we don not. We think mechanistically. And the fact that we can’t feel and explain the detail of those mechanisms at work is why the whole philosophical, and theological, business of mind, consciousness and free-will have developed along the lines they have.

    Had humans been able to feel their thinking the way they feel their touch, sense their pain, then much of the philosophy on the matter may not have arisen and dualism may not have got off the ground.

    Or, from another perspective, in one hundred years, or more, we may find the notion of free-will an entirely redundant concept, as are many old philosophical notions. We might also have completely different perspectives on freedom of action. But I maintain that except for compatibilists we already have a sufficient understanding freedom of action, as in the many cases of “we’re free” above.

  19. “But I maintain that except for compatibilists we already have a sufficient understanding freedom of action, as in the many cases of “we’re free” above”

    Most of those actually ARE the compatibalist notion of freedom. We think that they are consistent with determinism, and, based on your posts, so do you. You don’t like the term compatibalism and are intent on redefining it for some reason, but if you’d just leave it alone, you’d find that you actually ARE one.


  20. You say I’m redefining compatibilism,. And yet you say my description of its claims are right? So in what way am I redefining it?

    What I I am saying is the claims of compatibilism are about those notions of freedom of action, and not about the will being free of physical causes in the brain.

    The two types of incompatibilists are disputing the nature of the incompatibility between dualist free-will and determinism. One might think a claim that free-will and determinism are compatible would be addressing the same dispute, but would differ in the claim free-will is compatible with determinism.

    But it turns out, as you say, that compatibilists are making the (trivial) claim that freedom of action is compatiblewith determinism. So what? Neither form incompatibilists would disagree. So why insist that this is free-wiil?

    Dennet tries the ‘you are a compatibilist too’ on Sam Harris, using the same duplicitous ploy. By the same token I say you too are an incompatibilist, because you think dualist free-will is incompatible with determinism.

  21. “You say I’m redefining compatibilism,. ”

    “And yet you say my description of its claims are right? So in what way am I redefining it?”

    No, I think you got that from Dennett and if so, he’s wrong.

    This really isn’t rocket science. You take those “You’re free if….” examples. If you think those are true (and you’ve said you do), and you also think determinism is true (and you say you do), you’re a compatibalist. That’s all it is to be one. Anything more is distorting Mill’s original position. Maybe Dennett has done that, and he’s confused you.

    “But it turns out, as you say, that compatibilists are making the (trivial) claim that freedom of action is compatiblewith determinism. ”

    Right that’s what the view is. I didn’t make it up, it’s hundreds of years old. Someone already linked the wiki article on it, so I won’t bother to do that again. If it’s trivial, it’s trivial, philosophy can be like that. It’s obviously complicated enough to have managed to make you say wrong things about it for several days.

    You ask –Why insist that that trivial stuff that everybody (except when they’re doing philosophy) calls free will is free will. Both Hobbes and Mill discussed that, and I have too, about five times already. We insist it’s what free will is, because that’s what those words mean in common parlance.

    What you are claiming is the tautological “if determinism is true, then every human action is caused.” The thing is nobody denies that. Then you add:

    “And, determinism is true” (which compatibalists agree with) and then conclude “Therefore, every human action is caused.” Which is a valid inference to a (if determinism is true) sound argument. That’s all obvious and even more trivial than anything the compatibalist claims. The only controversial thing here (and it has nothing whatever to do with Aquinas or Beelzebub or Santa Claus) is what “free” means. But that’s not terribly interesting either. I say it means, roughly voluntary and unconstrained, you say it means roughly uncaused. Lets call those “free1” and “free2.” If we use those instead of the undefined “free” we’ll again agree. We both say that determinism is true and compatible with us being free1, and we both deny that humans are free2. So we are now simply disagreeing about usage.

    How should those questions be decided? By dictionaries, pramatics, etc. And it doesn’t matter: nothing hinges on this word choice. But, in any case, I say you’re a compatibalist, because I prefer my usage as being more in accord with the way words are actually used, and you say you’re not because you prefer your usage (for whatever reason). There’s still no substantive disagreement. Your argument must be taken to libertarians, who actually do have a substantive disagreement with you.



  22. Sorry, I meant to start with this: (I really do need an edit function):

    “You say I’m redefining compatibilism,. ”

    Yes, I think you are. You can look it up in SEP, or wikipedia or in any standard philosophy text or encyclopedia. It’s not controversial what compatibalism means.

    “And yet you say my description of its claims are right? ”

    No, I don’t say that at all. I think you got some kind of weird description of it from Dennett and if so, he’s wrong.

    [The rest of the post is generally what I meant to type…..]



  23. Tougis,

    I may have missed something, but I don’t think that compatibilists, even though at times I believe that I’m one, use the term “free will” as people do in common parlance, as you claim that they do.

    In common parlance, when lay people speak of “free will”, they mean roughly what dualistic libertarians mean by “free will”, what Descartes means, what Sartre means, that is, a will (whatever a “will” is) that is not determined, that is self-created and self-creating, so to speak.

    So I think that Ron Murphy is right in insisting that compatibilists use the term “free will” in a special sense. I agree with you that his tendency to bring in theology,
    Christianity, the stupid idea of sin, the repressive mentality of rightwing Republicans, etc., is neither here nor there.

  24. Where did Santa Claus come from? I don’t recall any philosophy about Santa Claus and free-will. And you talk about red herrings?

    And Beelzebub? Another red herring. I’m not bringing up theology and religion specifically, I’m brining up theism – they are different. Theism is a philosophical perspective that is the basis for some theologies, but it’s still as respectable a hypotheitical as solipsism, idealism, naturalism, … That some theologians, like Aquinas, use the philosophy of dualist theism does not make it an irrelevant philosophy. Both determinists, incompatibilists and compatibilists, may well disagree with dualism, but it’s still an active philosophical position.

    There is the dualism of theism, in the soul; the dualism of non-theism, which can include Libertarians, though they are a complicated case; and the dualism of panpsychists – these are all well established philosophical positions. You are simply dismissing them without good reason. From those philosophical perspectives free-will is a will free of the physical causes of the brain and so that perspective is where dualist incompatibilism comes in. And determinist incompatibilism is presented in opposition to that.

    Stanford is not as reliable as one might hope. It has a completely skewed position on this:

    The page on free-will,, mentions Descartes, but doesn’t mention dualism. But it does say this:

    “René Descartes, for example, identifies the faculty of will with freedom of choice, “the ability to do or not do something” (Meditation IV), and even goes so far as to declare that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained” (Passions of the Soul, I, art. 41). In taking this strong polar position on the nature of will, Descartes is reflecting a tradition running through certain late Scholastics (most prominently, Suarez) back to John Duns Scotus.”

    i.e. it mentions a will unconstratined – not a body unconstrained.

    i.e. it mentions the Scholastics. Aquinas is a Scholastic theist who has a dualist perspective on free-will, the soul and sin. So, hardly a red herring.

    Later: “Descartes, in the midst of exploring the scope and influence of ‘the passions,’ declares that “the will is by its nature so free that it can never be constrained””

    i.e. a will free of physical constraint. How is that not dualistic?

    And: “And as we’ve seen, he believed that such freedom is present on every occasion when we make a conscious choice”

    i.e. ‘when we make a conscious choice’ and not merely when we act on that choice.

    Or, on Aquinas: “Campbell both appear to agree with Descartes and Sartre on the lack of direct causal influence on the activity of free choice while allowing that the scope of possibilities for what I might thus will may be more or less constricted. So while Scotus holds that “nothing other than the will is the total cause” of its activity, he grants (with Aquinas and other medieval Aristotelians) that we are not capable of willing something in which we see no good, nor of positively repudiating something which appears to us as unqualifiedly good.”

    i.e. Theistic Scholastics. And Aristotle to boot.

    Later: “A more moderate grouping within the self-determination approach to free will allows that beliefs, desires, and external factors all can causally influence the act of free choice itself. But theorists within this camp differ sharply on the metaphysical nature of those choices and of the causal role of reasons. We may distinguish three varieties. I will discuss them only briefly, as they are explored at length in incompatibilist (nondeterministic) theories of free will.”

    i.e. dualism.

    And this: “First is a noncausal (or ownership) account (Ginet 1990, 2002; McCann 1998; Pink 2004; Goetz 2002). According to this view, I control my volition or choice simply in virtue of its being mine—its occurring in me. I do not exert a special kind of causality in bringing it about; instead, it is an intrinsically active event, intrinsically something I do. While there may be causal influences upon my choice, there need not be, and any such causal influence is wholly irrelevant to understanding why it occurs.”

    i.e. non-causal. Dualism.

    OK, so does the free-will article mention dualism specifically? No. Curious? yes, when the author, Timothy O’Connor, of Indiana, because there are some hints in his profile:

    “I am currently trying to make sense out of an emergentist, property dualist view of conscious animals such as ourselves, with efforts along these lines in a number of articles co-authored with former students.”

    “In recent years, I co-edited three volumes of new work on some of the above topics: A Companion to the Philosophy of Action, Emergence in Science and Philosophy, and an interdisciplinary compendium of views on the status of empirical research on the human will, titled Downward Causation and the Neurobiology of Free Will. (Don’t blame me — the scientists liked the title.)”

    OK, he doesn’t like the title; but still, the neurobiology of free-will? Isn’t thaat about how free-will is formed neurologically, and not really about political freedom or constraints of one’s ability ot enact an already willed decision? OK, maybe there’s some psychology in there, such as considering how

    But then let’s go to the page on compatibilism,, doesn’t mention dualism once. Nor does it mention Descartes.

    But what it does mention, contra your dismissal of s. wallertstien’s comments on morality (“I’m not sure I’d (tougis) say that compatibalism is ABOUT moral responsibility, but I think that part of its purpose was to explain how determinism can be consistent with it.”) the Stanford compatibilism has this to say:

    But from Stanford: “For the most part, what philosophers working on this issue have been hunting for, maybe not exclusively, but centrally, is a feature of agency that is necessary for persons to be morally responsible for their conduct.”

    So, it is not merely trying to explain how determinism is consistent with agency, but that compatibilism is actually ABOUT morality, according to this post; and ABOUT the goal of explaining agency with a prerequisite of moral responsibility. This is what is so arse-backwards about it. It’s not asking, “OK, seems determinism is true, but there’s this free-will think, what’s going on?”, but rather, “OK, seems determinism is true, but there’s this free-will thing that we don’t want to lose, how can we make free-will fit with determinism? I know, let’s ignore all that free-will of the mind stuff and focus on implementing the will once made, and caall that free-will.”

    The compatibilism page is clearly written by a biased compatibilist. Well, not entirely. It does addresss the compatibilist debacle that is the ‘could have done otherwise’ notion.

    And in the very next section it explains “Finally, P.F. Strawson defended compatibilism by inviting both compatibilists and incompatibilists to attend more carefully to the central role of the morally reactive attitudes in understanding the concept of moral responsibility (Strawson, 1962). According to Strawson, the threat determinism allegedly poses to free will and moral responsibility is defused once the place of the morally reactive attitudes is properly appreciated.”

    So, not only is it about morality, but it is not really a well established tradition but an evasive one which has evolved over time as compatibilists try to rescue their notion of free-will, which has the sole purpose of saving moral responsibility, from the rather obvious criticisms that keep being put to it.

    I guess compatibilism seems traditional, in that many self-declared compatibilists still try to pass off these older compatibilists ideas as current.

    Back to the free-will article:

    “Most philosophers suppose that the concept of free will is very closely connected to the concept of moral responsibility. Acting with free will, on such views, is just to satisfy the metaphysical requirement on being responsible for one’s action.”

    Yep, still a view that it is about moral responsibility. And, theists dualists certainly agree with that. The compatibilist page neglects to mention the theists explicitly, and hence ignores their dualist take on free-will.

    How about this, from the free-will page: “Philosophers who distinguish freedom of action and freedom of will do so because our success in carrying out our ends depends in part on factors wholly beyond our control. Furthermore, there are always external constraints on the range of options we can meaningfully try to undertake. As the presence or absence of these conditions and constraints are not (usually) our responsibility, it is plausible that the central loci of our responsibility are our choices, or “willings.””

    So, this page does distinguish between the nature of the will and the external factors that are influences that determine the extent to which “we’re free”, a distinction that you and it seems the Stanford compatibilst author Michael McKenna wish to ignore.

    And you seem to be in dispute with the self-proclaimed compatibilist Dan Dennett.

    Seems to me that compatibilists can’t really agree on compatibilisms scope or the nature of free-will.

    I’m not surprised s.wallerstein can’t decide if he’s a compatibilist or not. Well, yeah, sure, I’m a compatibilist in that I think determinism is compatible with freedom and agency or deterministic autonomous systems like human brains, but I’m still an incompatibilist when it comes to free-will of the dualists; and for completeness I’m an incompatibilist with regard to the separate non-physical mind and any spookiness of consciousness – as are you. But, if it helps, I am a compatibilists when it comes to determinism and my wife – we are determined entities, and we are compatible with each other. See, it’s easy to equivocate on terms like ‘compatibilism’ as well as ‘free’.

    And yes, compatibilism is a well established tradition in philosophy. So is dualism. And dualism I’d say has far more adherents in theism alone, and a far greater tradition, than compatibilism. But, hey, yeah, let’s dismiss all that.

    And philosopehrs wonder why so many people think much philosophy irrelevant? When you dismiss so much on free-will as irrelevant, because it doesn’t fit your very specific need to fit free-will into a framework that rescues morality, then all those that don’t see freedom of action as the nature of free-will but the attempt to apply it, then yes, compatibilism becomes irrelevant to those that don’t see it in such needy framework.

    How about Stanford on dualism? No mention of free-will. That’s strange, given Descartes on dualism and the extent to which he associated it with free-will.

    OK, let’s change source and try Wiki: Yes, sure enough that source gives quite a complete discussion that includes dualism, compatibilism, incompatibilism, Libertarianism, determinism – the whole spectrum is put into perspective. It even mentions theological determinism, on a page about free-will. Wow! Not irrelevant after all?

    I’ve often complained that some philosophy is very much like theology. Philosophy is not always about acquiring knowledge about the world, it is often about defending a position by ducking and diving, equivocating on terms, re-inventing itself not to take on some knew knowledge but to maintain the old claims in terms of the new knowledge, fudging in order to maintain consistency, when consistency isn’t worth tripe.

    Both dualism and determinism can be cobbled together to make a ‘consistent’ system – just not one that survives the scrutiny of clear and precise meaning. Theisms can be constructed into ‘consistent’ systems, by equivocationg on terms, using unsupported premises. The same applies for compatibilisms – which worls only if you assert as a premise that free-will is about freedom of action, political freedom, and the rest, and if you assert as a corollory to that premise that it specifically isn’t about dualism, the capacity to will free of physical causes of the brain. Define your own close ivory tower framework and sure, you can make a consistent system, and you can call incompatibilists compatibilists. It’s rediculous.

    You say it’s simple. Yes it is, when stated simply, ignoring all the differences within compatibilism as well as the debate between the different incompatibilists, when eqquivocating on terms used. Physics is easy: F = ma; if you only go with Newton and ignore Enstein and Schrödinger.

    Determinist incompatibilism on the other hand is very clear:
    1 Free-will is a notion that is distinct from freedom of action or political freedom and the rest.
    2 Free-will is about how a the human will, intention, decisions, are free of physical causes.
    3 Free-will is a well established notion as part of several dualisms, including theistic dualism, and variants like Libertarian free-will and panpsychism.
    4 Humans ‘feel’ they have free-will of the above sort.
    5 Free-will of this separate mind, this dualist free-will, is not consistent with determinism.
    6 From all science it seems determinism, even accounting for quantum stuff so far, is pretty much how the universe works.
    7 There is zero evidence to support the notions of free-will above.
    8 Therefore, we do not have the free-will of 1-4, and so the free-will of 5 must be illusory.

    Now though you claim 4 is false, I say it is not, because you are failing in another important distinction, between intellectual position and natural un-intellectualised feelings. The long history of dualism suggests it is a natural feeling, And that the feeling is inevitable in the light of the fact that brains performing decision making cannot feel the physical process going on. I also maintain that it is possible to hold the two views in mind, maybe not simultaneously, but by switching views, as one can switch between a pair of vases and a face in the vase-face illusion, or perform the switch in the duck-rabbit illusion.

    I also suggest (though we’d need better neuroscience than we have to test this) that modern humans aware of philosophy and science can be so persuaded by their intellectual view that they do not realise that in every day life they act as if dualist free will were true. Personally, and as explained to me by other determinist incompatibilists, applying illusory free-will to every day life takes effort and the use of inconvenient language at times. Left to our natural brain behaviour we act as dualists, and we feel we are making dualist-like free willed decisions. This is why compatibilists are confused about the problem – yes, I know you don’t feel confused, it’s simple, right, got that. It is a confused doctrine, that I think comes about because our natural brain behaviour conflates the forming of the will (free of physical cause or not) with the acting out of the will. Yes, I agree that there is much literature that does conflate them, and it is heavily biased by the pre-scientific views – at least up until Descartes, when the distinction was made pretty clear. But compatibilists still conflate these distinct issues.

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