Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Misunderstanding Understanding Jerry Coyne on free will

Jerry Coyne protests that I misunderstood his viewpoint on free will in a recent post. Coyne, who denies the existence of free will, had complained about a hit-and-run driver who dented his car in a parking lot.

I pointed out that, if free will is an illusion, Coyne has no justification to condemn the fellow who hit his car and drove off, because without free will the dishonest driver had no choice to do otherwise. If we lack free will, Coyne might as well complain to the manufacturer about the offending car as complain to the police about the offending driver. The driver, no less than the car, can't be held morally responsible for an act he was not free to choose.

I observed that the moral concepts of "good" and "bad" don't really apply to human acts unless free will is real. Without free will, morality doesn't make any sense.

The statement that “‘good’ and ‘bad’ don’t really apply to humanity” is Egnor’s own mistaken characterization of my views. Of course I see actions as “good” or “bad”, based on their salubrious or deleterious effects on individuals or society.

Coyne denies that the fellow who drove off after hitting his car was morally wrong. Coyne was merely upset that the guy was insalubrious.
Approbation and disapprobation are useful social tools, for, although we have no choice about how we act, we can influence howothers act by giving their behavior labels and sanctioning or rewarding them accordingly.
Coyne insists that he called the cops on the hit-and-run driver-- who 'had no choice about how to act'-- only to label the fellow's behavior and sanction him accordingly.

Presumably, if the driver had stayed at the scene and accepted responsibility, Coyne would offered him a biscuit or a small fish.
Indeed, I don’t believe in moral culpability: that term is without real meaning if one denies the possibility of free choice. But there can still be still “culpability” based on the effects of one’s actions. (I’d be glad to hear readers’ feelings about why we should retain the term “morality” if there is no free choice.)
 "Culpability" connotes moral fault. What Coyne means by culpability is simply "effect'. Acts certainly do have effects. If there is no free will-- if we are merely following instructions of one sort or another-- Coyne is correct that no agent, regardless of effect, is morally culpable.

Note to Coyne: your argument was a hard sell when it was used by the defense counsel at Nuremberg.
As for my using the terms “good” and “bad” as showing a “flicker of libertarian free will,” well, that’s just wrong. It’s bad for me, and bad for society, if people are allowed to damage other people’s property and then get off scot-free. Yes, the guy who hit my car had no choice in what he did, and I had no choice about reporting him, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not useful for me to report him.
Coyne insists that hit-and-run driving is not morally wrong. He insists that nothing is morally wrong. He called the police merely because denting his car and running off was "bad".

Coyne denies objective good and evil, so it's unclear what he means by "bad". Perhaps he means "ineffective in securing social cohesion". But if there is no objective moral good or evil, how can social cohesion be good, or social fratricide be bad?

When you strip reality of moral standards, nothing makes any sense.
[Egnor]—and no doubt many of his creationist colleagues—do indeed believe in libertarian free will: the “ghost in the machine,” as do many religious people.
I don't believe in ghosts, and men aren't machines. I do assert that man has free will. To assert otherwise is lunacy.
So those philosophers who say that few people are true libertarians are simply wrong. True libertarian free will is an essential part of many religions, and without it the foundations of faith would crack. And there are a lot of religious people. That is why I think that those philosophers who spend their time confecting ways to reconcile free will and determinism are wasting their time. There are more important jobs to do, like telling religious folks about determinism. In fact, even using the term “free will” helps enable religious belief.
Acknowledging free will is merely acknowledging the truth about man.

Coyne denies free will because free will doesn't fit nicely with his materialist metaphysics. Rather than jettison his non-sensical metaphysics, he jettisons free will. But he has no choice to do otherwise, so you can't blame him.
Finally, Egnor’s blathering continues to show that the people at the Discovery Institute have run out of arguments for Intelligent Design. They’ve lost the battle against evolution: they lost it in Texas, twice, they lost in at Ball State, and they’ve repeatedly lost it in court. Now, bereft of success, they’re reduced to pointing out what they see as inconsistencies or character flaws in evolutionary biologists. (Remember when they allied me with Nazis, racists, and eugenicists simply because I visited John Scopes’s grave and said I’d like to shake his hand?) But it would at least behoove them to understand what their opponents are saying before they attack them.
We are devoted to challenging philosophical materialism. Pointing out the absurdity of the denial of free will-- a denial that follows naturally from philosophical materialism-- is fitting and proper, and I must say that Coyne makes the refutation of philosophical materialism uncommonly easy and, rather often, entertaining. 


  1. 'Free will' means that decisions are made consciously.

    'No free will means that decisions are made subconsciously, for reasons often unknown to the individual, often with rationalisation of the reasons afterwards.

    'Strong free will' means that the decisions are entirely uncaused.

    'Weak free will' means that the decisions are caused - there's some underlying factor(s) in the person causing the choice of decisions, whether innate or learned from experience, which may be unknown to the person.

    'No free will' is supported by the observation that an action can be predicted in a subject by EEG before the person is aware of the nature of the action to be performed. Decisions are made subconsciously and the reasons for the decisions are also made subconsciously and both are passed on to the mind, which reverses 'action' and 'reason' to give the illusion that the mind made the decision.

    Even without free will, the individual still owes the decision. Is still culpable for any misdemeanour or felony. The person still has 'free won't' and is able to veto a decision.

    Weak free will is reasonably close to no free will. Decisions are still made for reasons allowing the possibility that the decisions made are predictable, and the person didn't have any choice.

    Strong free will is what most people would define as free will. Decisions made are entirely unpredictable, and the person has the maximum choice, not affected by past experience. It also doesn't exist.

    What makes you think that denial of free will naturally follows from philosophical naturalism? Decisions could be made entirely consciously by the mind, and it would be entirely consistent with philosophical naturalism, if the mind is entirely material.

    Free will would be inconsistent with philosophical materialism if the mind is partly or wholly non-material. And it's up to you to prove this assertion.

    1. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJanuary 7, 2014 at 7:05 AM

      blankfield: "Free will would be inconsistent with philosophical materialism if the mind is partly or wholly non-material. And it's up to you to prove this assertion."

      Which explains the number of fMRI and cognitive psychology studies attempting to "prove" that free will does not exist.

      You're silly, blankfield.

    2. Bachfiend,

      I'm not sure this free won't makes sense for a materialist. Why is this one action exempt from the laws of physics?

      Materialists generally acknowledge that antecedent states determine future states. That's why materialists in psychology/neuroscience invoke those Libet experiments with the pre-conscious EEG. But why is this mysterious "veto action" itself not a result of unconscious activity, environmental conditioning, genetic predisposition, or the motion of sub-atomic particles? What is it about certain configurations of matter (ie: me, you, Coyne and Egnor) that endow collections of particles with "free won't"?

      - Curio

    3. And just because we haven't yet discovered pre-veto electrical activity in the brain which predicts when and how subjects will exercise this faculty, it doesn't mean we never will. Suppose tomorrow we discover a pattern of synaptic firing which occurs 3-5 seconds before an action is "vetoed". Aren't you opening yourself up to "free won't of the gaps" by taking this route?

      - C

    4. Curio,

      'Free won't' is also predicated on subconscious processes occurring in the brain. What happens is that for many decisions, different regions of the brain are coming up with different actions and different reasons for the actions.

      If the different regions of the brain can agree amongst themselves concerning the action, then the one action is presented to the mind with the appropriate reason.

      If there's no consensus, then several possible actions are presented to the mind which then 'chooses'. This is the only time 'free will' occurs - deciding between actions proposed subconsciously by the brain.

      If you want to see something extremely funny, look at Egnor's definition of 'free will' below. He's clueless about what it is, despite knowing that it exists.

      The definition I've given of 'strong free will' I gave above is at least a starting point. It involves being able to make conscious decisions, which aren't caused. If a decision is predictable, even if only in theory, then it's not an example of 'free will'.

      Free will could be created in a 'soulless' machine if a random decision maker is built in - but that's not anyone's definition of free will as commonly understood.

    5. Bachfiend,

      You're still positing some extra-material thing that decides between actions originating in different parts of the brain. And, while I realize you're speaking analogously, it also sounds like you're attributing volition to parts of the brain.

      Maybe it's semantics, but it really sounds like a "have your cake and eat it too" kind of deal. On the one hand, antecedent events cause electrical activity to build up in various parts of the brain and eventually send electrical and chemical messages to other parts of the body to do things. On the other, there's a mind which is making conscious choices and decisions.

      It's also not clear to me how random decision making is in any meaningful way free. Chopra-types are always invoking Quantum indeterminacy to "save" free will from the materialists.

      - Curio

    6. Curio,

      I'm not positing some extra-material thing that makes decisions. The brain makes decision - a material thing. It's up to those who think that the mind is partly or wholly non-material to come up with some proof (evidence would be nice even) that it is, not just assert it.

      I was deliberately vague about which parts of the brain are involved in decision making, because it's complicated, not able to be summarised in a short comment.

      Functionally, the brain consists of modules, each having different biases. There's one dealing with 'fear', another with 'desire', yet another with 'self-esteem'. Each makes a decision for particular reasons, and the different decisions are subconsciously compared and a decision reached.

      In the case of the damage to Coyne's car, the 'fear' module might have been activated (that Coyne might have been an inherently violent person). The 'self-esteem' module might have been involved (what decent person refuse to accept responsibility for ones own actions?).

      A certain person might have no activation of the 'self-esteem module', admitting responsibility is a impossibility, and there's no free will. Another person might have overwhelming activation of the 'self-esteem' module, and again wouldn't think of avoiding responsibility. Again no free will.

      It's only in cases where both are roughly equally strong that the appearance of choice appears, and there's possible free will.

    7. bach:

      The brain makes no decisions. People make decisions. The brain in an organ-- a part of a person. It subserves some of the powers of the soul.

      To speak of "the brain" as if it were the person is a bizarre fallacy.

    8. Egnor,

      The liver doesn't break down toxins. People break down toxins. The liver is an organ - part of a person.

      Bizarre? It's exactly the same argument you're making. Making decisions is one of the functions the brain has. In the same way that detoxification is one of the functions the liver has.

      Adding the 'soul' is just putting a cherry on the top of a cow flop argument.

    9. Bachfiend,

      I don't think there's anything wrong with saying the liver breaks down/filters toxins. Obviously it needs to be connected to other parts of the body, namely the heart. There's no anthropomorphizing going on when we say "the liver breaks down/removes toxins". Unintelligent things without "free will" can do this. Some plants remove carbon dioxide from the air, ozone removes UV radiation, rushing water breaks down sedimentary deposits, etc.

      "Decide", "desire", "will", "choose". Those are all anthropomorphic terms. Whether or not the modules you described are anatomical structures or patterns of synaptic activity, I have a hard time seeing how you can attribute these actions to them.

      "It's only in cases where both are roughly equally strong that the appearance of choice appears, and there's possible free will."

      And this just seems untestable, in practice and in principle.

      - Curio

    10. Curio,

      The reference to the liver was to ridicule Egnor's claim that the brain doesn't make decisions - it's an organ - the person makes decisions.

      The fact that there are 'modules' (actually discrete anatomical regions of the brain) involved in making decisions is testable, both in theory and in practice, using techniques such as fMRI.

    11. Bachfiend,

      Modules can't make decisions. The following sentences should immediately strike one as absurd:

      "Broca's area decides to talk", "the amygdala decides to fear", "the nucleus accumbens decides to feel pleasure", "the prefrontal cortex decides to execute actions X, Y, and Z".

      Discrete anatomical regions of the brain, be they cortical or sub-cortical, can't make decisions. And if they could, you end up saying that every living person is essentially composed of dozens (or more?) of little minds inside their head all making different decisions.

      - Curio

    12. And on this view, free will gets attributed not to people but to discrete aggregates of grey matter. Either there is free will or there isn't, but we have to own up to the consequences and implications.

      - Curio

    13. Curio,

      'Broca's area decides to talk'.

      Who thinks it does? Patients with damage to Broca's area have motor aphasia. They often desperately want to talk (if the damage is limited) and get extremely frustrated when they can't.

      You're doing a classical strawman argument.

      There's only one mind per person. Usually. Although occasionally in patients who've had their corpus callosum (a broad band of white matter connecting the two cerebral hemispheres) divided for intractable epilepsy, they develop two minds which produces subtle effects, not usually obvious.

      Google split brain split mind for an explanation.

      Actually, thinking about it - it might be that everyone does have 2 minds at all times. The two halves of the brain are in constant communication, so that the 2 minds are in constant agreement.

      I wonder how dolphins think? They're apparently very intelligent. Each half of the brain takes turns sleeping (all animals have to sleep to perform necessary housework on the brain - perhaps clearing out toxins from between cells?), because it would otherwise drown if both were asleep at the same time.

    14. "Who thinks it does? Patients with damage to Broca's area have motor aphasia."

      Very true, I've worked with them. The fact that any of the aforementioned structures can be damaged without impairment to volition or will should be proof that modules themselves don't decide. And verbs like "decide" only make sense in light of free will.

      "You're doing a classical strawman argument."

      I don't think it's a strawman. Naturalist philosopher Alex Rosenberg, biologist Richard Dawkins, neuro-philosophers Churchland and pop sci writer Sam Harris all deny the existence of "free will". Generally, those of the naturalist camp. I suspect some try to have their cake and eat it to by at once asserting that everything in the universe is determined by laws of physics, and also human beings are free to choose between actions - but this is a clear contradiction no matter how complex the brain is.


      Corpus callosotomies are interesting, I wonder if Dr. Egnor has ever performed one. And good question about dolphins. Maybe their brains are more plastic than ours? I know that there have been cases of full hemispherectomies in people, mostly children, with interesting and varied results.

      - Curio

    15. Curio,

      The point is. No one thinks that Broca's areas decides. It's a strawman argument.

      I don't think 'free will' exists because I think that decisions are made subconsciously. I think 'free will' entails making uncaused conscious decisions. Even if decisions are made consciously, there's always a 'cause' - a reason. And hence other people's decisions are at least predictable, if you know the reasons.

      'Predictable' means that the person had no choice in making the decision.

      It's impossible to get from the laws of physics to neuropsychology. We can never specify the position and state of the almost infinitely large number of subatomic particles in the initial state to predict where they'll be at a future time. Not even allowing for the Uncertainty Principle.

    16. "Functionally, the brain consists of modules, each having different biases. There's one dealing with 'fear', another with 'desire', yet another with 'self-esteem'. Each makes a decision for particular reasons, and the different decisions are subconsciously compared and a decision reached."

      I mentioned earlier the possibility that you were speaking analogously or metaphorically, but there are some who may be confused by these sorts of phrases.

      Whatever "free will" is, it's fundamentally impossible to square with a materialist view of mind. And though the materialist may admit we cannot predict behavior with 100% accuracy (if for no other reason than the Uncertainty Principle), this doesn't mean that behavior is volitional and exempt from antecedent, determinate causes.

      I'm driving this home because it's really important to be consistent in these matters. It's like Christians who violate the Biblical commandments or Libertarians on welfare - materialists who believe there is such a thing as "free will" are sneaking in concepts from a philosophy far, far removed from their own. Which is why all the big names in contemporary naturalism deny such a thing, at least on their good days.

      Some people see the rejection of free will as a reductio ad absurdum against materialism - other's see it as an unpleasant reality we have to face up to.

      - Curio

    17. Curio,

      No, no, no. 'Free will' is easily squared with a materialist view of the mind. The mind could be entirely material (and it is - if you think it's partly or wholly non-material, then it's up to you to provide some evidence that it is), and it could be making conscious uncaused decisions.

      No problems. Except it appears from the evidence that decisions are made subconsciously.

      Subconscious caused decisions. Not conscious uncaused decisions. I could go along with conscious caused decisions.

    18. And anyway. I noted that theoretically it's possible to predict a person's decisions if one knows the reasons. Nothing controversial there. Reasons and decisions are of the same scale.

      I noted that it's impossible to get from subatomic particles to decisions. Completely and enormously different scales.

    19. Explain to me how free will exists given materialist without using the following phrases

      "impossible to measure", "the brain is really complex", "quantum", and "random/randomness".

      - Curio

    20. Curio,

      The mind could be making conscious uncaused decisions. I haven't used any of your 'forbidden' phrases.

      The mind is wholly material, not partly or wholly immaterial. If you want to assert that is partly or wholly immaterial, then you need to show some evidence.

      We have absolutely no evidence that the mind ever exists without a functioning brain.

      Therefore, the wholly material mind could be making conscious uncaused decisions, and hence has free will. But there's no evidence that it does.

    21. Bachfiend,

      When you say wholly material mind, do you mean the CNS? Or the entire body? Or what?

      Science is in the business of explaining material things. "This electrical activity was detected in the Parietal lobe because X, Y and Z occurred".

      compare with

      "Electrical activity was detected in the Parietal lobe for no reason. No cause. Just happened"

      To answer any question is to give a causal explanation. To assert that a material organ can generate uncaused effects is a claim at least as extraordinary as anything you're likely to hear from Young Earth Creationists or on a given episode of Dr Oz.

      You have to ask yourself - is this consistent with the way I look at everything else in the Universe? Am I making a special exception for something (human beings) because of a bias or because it fits more comfortably with other beliefs I have? (morality, etc.)

      - Curio

    22. Though you admit that the material organ in question doesn't have free will because of empirical evidence, such as that of the Libet experiments...

      My point is that regardless of what Libet et al found in their EEG readings - "free will" doesn't make sense given materialism.

      - C

    23. Curio,

      Well, why do you think free will necessitates a non-material mind?

    24. Bachfiend,

      Free will is difficult, I'm no expert. Given the way matter is conceived by contemporary materialism (lifeless, inert, moved by external "forces"), it seems pretty clear that there is no room for free will.

      The short answer to your question is - because free will requires rational agency. Egnor has said a few times that the soul is the form of the body. He's right, though philosophy is tricky and I'll admit up front that hylomorphism is confusing.

      The idea is that the form of the human soul is rational. We are able to apprehend immaterial things like universals, forms, abstractions, etc. If we are to have true knowledge of things themselves, then somehow the same form that exists in the thing has to exist in the mind. You can't fit something immaterial in a material organ. Here's an excellent paper on the subject

      - Curio

    25. Curio,

      You're citing David Oderberg as an authority? It's a circular argument using hylomorphic dualism to show that the mind is immaterial, when it's also required that the mind be immaterial for hylomorphic dualism to be true.

      I'm going to stop commenting on this thread. It's going nowhere. Perhaps I'll stop commenting on the blog too - this week I'm getting a 14 month old Staffie terrier X kelpie from the RSPCA refuge to overcome the grief from the loss of my 15+ year collie who died from old age. She requires a lot of training and 2 one hour walks a day (where is the time going to come from?)

    26. Bachfiend,

      Best of luck with the collie! I'm a cat person myself, but I hear they are truly great companions. And the walks, definitely worth it.

      - C

    27. Er, excuse me, terrier. I misread. And I'm sorry about the loss of your collie, 15 years is at least a ripe old age

      - C

  2. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJanuary 7, 2014 at 7:37 AM

    For the utilitarian, the criminal law is an instrument of social education and motivation.
    Jones, Duke Law Journal 52, 1131

    "Approbation and disapprobation are useful social tools..."

    Utilitarians punish individuals not so much because of their own culpability, but because they hope to avoid the conduct that leads to societal harm.
    Jones, ibid.

    "It’s bad for me, and bad for society, if people are allowed to damage other people’s property and then get off scot-free"

    The goal is to deter future conduct not only by the individual herself, but by society as a whole. Individuals are part of a greater collective and must sacrifice their own individual liberty for the greater good.
    Jones, ibid.

    It's not about innocence or guilt, or good and evil. Forget those antiquated notions. The Nazis weren't guilty, or evil, they were bad for the collective.

    But who gets to pick what's "bad for me, and bad for [the collective]"?

    when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.
    --- Gen 3: 5

    That writer had Coyne's number quite a while ago.

  3. Jerry :I'm pondering...we are all meat robots.

    El Booto :Domo arigato,Mr.Roboto!

  4. It might be helpful if Egnor gave us his preferred definition of "free will".

    According to that definition, is it possible for a machine to have "free will"? Why/why not?

  5. Adm. G Boggs, Glenbeckistan NavyJanuary 7, 2014 at 8:03 AM

    Off Topic: Image of the Day

  6. [It might be helpful if Egnor gave us his preferred definition of "free will".]

    Excellent question. There is no consensus on the definition of free will. Here's my definition, and its predicates:

    1) I am a hylemorphist, so I restrict free will to living things with souls.

    2) I am an incompatabilist, so I yoke free will to falsity of determinism.

    3) Determinism is easy to define. It is the impossiblity of more than one outcome at any given time.

    4) I deny determinism, so I believe that there are situations in which more than one outcome is possible.

    5) When a non-deterministic act is done by a living thing with a soul, that is an act of free will.

    1. 1) I am a hylemorphist, so I restrict free will to living things with souls.

      Given a living thing, how do you infer that it has soul? Why can't a non-living thing have a soul?

      5) When a non-deterministic act is done by a living thing with a soul, that is an act of free will.

      How can you tell an act is non-deterministic?

    2. “I deny determinism….”

      I bet you suck at billiards.

      “….so I believe that there are situations in which more than one outcome is possible.”

      Most people figure that out around the time they’re learning the word “mommy” and figuring out how to stand. More deep insights from the intellectual giants at the Discovery Institute!


    3. Megnor,

      You haven't defined 'free will'. Try again.

    4. I guess Egnor is reluctant to give his definition of "free will" because he is afraid that will make it too easy for us to show it does not imply his desired conclusions.

      For example, I asked if a machine can have free will, and Egnor simply asserted that only living things with souls can have free will. Without an explicit definition of free will (let alone souls), it's impossible to check whether that makes sense or if it's just an analytical truth.

  7. Elimantive materialism is a form of autism.

    1. Pretending you have a personal relationship with an invisible cosmic superman on the other hand...

    2. ... is a form of schizophrenia.

    3. Could well be, I suppose. The difference of course is that your example is of some fringe (invented?) cult, while EM is seriously proposed in the academe.

  8. Jerry : I'm pondering (again).... I'm just a soup of chemicals.

    El Booto: Enough pondering Mr. Minestrone!

  9. If chemicals did everything they made huge mistake. We humans have too many choices unlike animals. We can choose suicide, not to procreate or to kill each other for fun. All this with full awareness and knowledge of how bad those actions are for us and others. Animals have no choices like that. Why would chemical process go that far?

    Brain doesn't make decisions, it's a processor. That what is self-aware, self conscious, the "I", the "decider" , the "understand-er" of reality is what makes decisions.