red lampWas Libet wrong? The question has often been asked since the famous experiments which found that a detectable “Readiness Potential” (RP) showed that our decisions were made half a second before they entered our consciousness. There are plenty of counter arguments but the findings themselves have been reproduced and seem unassailable.

However, Christian Jarrett reports two new pieces of research which shed fresh light on the issue (Jarrett’s book Great Myths of the Brain is very sensible, btw, and should be read by all science journalists).

The first piece of research  shows that although an action may be prepared by the brain before we know we’ve decided to act, we can still change our minds. Subjects were asked to press a button at a moment of their choice after a green light came on. However, if a red light appeared before they pressed, they were asked to refrain. The experimenters then detected the RP which showed the subjects were about to press the button, and used the red light to try to cancel the intention. They found that although there was a ‘point of no return’, so long as the red light appeared in time the subjects were able to hold off and not press the button after all.

That means that a significant qualification has to be added to Libet’s initial findings – but it’s one Libet himself had already come up with. He was aware that the emergent action could be suppressed, and memorably said it showed that while we might not have free will, we could still have ‘free won’t’. I don’t know much use that is. In the experiment the subjects simply responded to a red light, but if the veto is to make consciousness effective again we seem to need the veto decision to happen instantly and overtake the action decision somehow. That seems problematic if not paradoxical. I also get quite confused trying to imagine what it would be like to veto mentally a decision you’re not yet aware of having made. Still, I suppose we must be grateful for whatever residual degree of freedom the experiments allow us.

The second piece of research  calls into question the nature of the RP itself. Libet’s research more or less took it for granted that the RP was a reliable sign that an action was on the way, but the new findings suggest that it is really just part of the background ebb and flow of neural noise. Actions do arise when the activity crosses a certain threshold, but the brain is much quicker about getting to that level when the background activity is already high.

That certainly adds some complexity to the picture, but I don’t think it really dispels the puzzle of Libet’s results. The RP may be fuzzier than we thought and it may not have as rigid a link to action as we thought – but it’s still possible to predict the act before we’re aware of the decision. What if we redesigned the first experiment? We tell the subject to click on a target at any time after it appears; but we detect the RP and whip the target away a moment before the click every time. The subject can never  succeed. The fact that that is perfectly possible surely remains more than a little unsettling.

84 Comments

  1. 1. Stephen says:

    We tend to think of our conscious as our “self” and our unconscious as some “other” that we must contend with. A more realistic perspective, however, is that our conscious and unconscious are deeply connected and cooperative. This brings up a couple of possibilities regarding how they cooperate and what it means to us.

    The first is that the conscious, when given the task of pressing a button at some random time in the future, might not take on the entire task. The conscious might set the parameters of the task and initiate it, but hand off the task of determining the exact timing of the button press to an unconscious part of the brain. Some introspection (admittedly a dangerous proposition) reveals that is at least a possibility. Consider how you would feel if you were pushing the button. Wouldn’t there be an anticipation, an experience of waiting for the moment, and then suddenly it becomes time to press the button? Where did that come from? A good reason for doing it this way is that the conscious would not waste valuable resources on making this sort of decision. I have no proof of this, but it seems plausible and worth investigating. This could be generalized to cover much of our problem solving and many of the decisions we make.

    More broadly it speaks to our free will. If we consider our conscious to be the centre of decision making and free will, then we have a problem. Our unconscious “other” seems to have taken it away from us. If we consider the whole organism, body and mind, conscious and unconscious, to be the entity with free will then there is no problem whatsoever. The unconscious contributes it’s part of the decision making, but it is the entire organism that takes on the responsibility for the whole decision. The unconscious uses the same beliefs, values and information as the conscious (to the extent that they are available to any one part of the brain). There is no tug-of-war over which part gets control. The parts simply work in harmony and what we think of as “free will” is preserved.

  2. 2. Mark S says:

    I like Coyne’s take on it:

    http://youtu.be/Ca7i-D4ddaw

  3. 3. Sci says:

    IIRC it was Dennet who pointed out Libet’s experiments have nothing to say regarding free will?

    I know Smolin, Kauffman, and a few other scientists don’t think the free will issue is closed. Ideally they’ll find something because I don’t think the compatibilism trick will be convincing to the general population.

  4. 4. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    Very good Peter I thought the light was changing colour before I realised it actually was.

  5. 5. Callan S. says:

    Yeah, I don’t think these ‘choose a random time or random choice’ ones are all that great an indicator of anything.

    I think random, being something you don’t know the result of, would specifically mean accessing parts of the brain oneself isn’t conscious of. If you were conscious of it, it wouldn’t be random!

    So of course the ‘choice’ happens well before the conscious decision, because they are specifically asking the subject to access parts of their brain that the subject is not aware of, when they ask for a random choice.

    What if they redid the experiment, but deliberately biased it? The subject has two choices to ‘randomly’ choose from, but one gets him/her five bucks.

    I suspect that while some subjects will try to honestly* choose randomly, in others you will cease to get that ‘decision made six seconds before you’re conscious of it’ scan result as they draw from a far more immediate part of their brain for what to do. Ie, that six seconds before part of them is more for random choice generation.

    However, I don’t dismiss how something six seconds before could on a regular basis be influencing any choice at any time. I kind of think of it as a horse and rider arrangement – at any time the horse might decide to canter this way or that – and of course takes the rider with it. The worst is where the rider rationalises that they wanted to do that. This can be most clearly shown in the case of a person with split-brain condition (the corpus collosum has been cut, as a supposed treatment for epilepsy), where a researcher on one side holds up a sign saying for the subject to go get a can of coke. The subject is then asked why he did that and he replies he just wanted a coke.

    The horse shifts and then the rider insists they wanted to move that way. Seems to show up in some debates, where people simply abandon genuine rational discussion – because they don’t see a distinction between the horse (who has grown to hate their interlocutor) and rider (where a fact is a fact, even if the guy who is stating the fact is a douche). Really there aught to be Aesop like fables on that.

    * Given such research is kind of lying, it’s not really fair to make a call about honesty, I’ll just note.

  6. 6. Stephen says:

    Interesting talk by Coyne, but I do have one or two quibbles about his ideas. He blithely states that the only reason we can’t predict exactly what anyone’s actions will be is that we just don’t have the tools to do so and the only variability is somewhere at the sub-atomic quantum level. Maybe that isn’t true. It seems a case for something that could be called free will is the lack of predictability in our lives and actions. I suspect that the complex system of our brain has such a high degree of non-linearity and sensitivity it makes inapplicable a model based on the simple and straightforward digital computer algorithms we are used to.

    Other than that, yup – we’re meat machines. The most incredible awesome meat machines ever, though.

  7. 7. Callan S. says:

    Mark, I have a hard time swallowing someone who pimps their book, then talks about not needing a blanket of faith. How much is he banking on his money still having value, in order to protect him/blanket him. And I say that as someone who doesn’t particular believe in traditional notions of free will (you’d think I’d be in the choir, in other words)

  8. 8. Mark S says:

    Callan it is not whether you “pimp” this or that which makes what you say automatically suspect. In fact I do not know anyone that is not a pimp or a player to some degree. In any case, free will is just superstitious nonsense as is compatibilist forms of determinism. One just violates laws of physics like a miracle and the other is semantic bison scatter.

  9. 9. Sci says:

    Mark S:

    “just violates laws of physics”

    Where are these laws? How do they restrict events?

    I find free will discussions are too high level, given causality remains a mystery…Though as Bakker has noted if something like his BBT is true it doesn’t really matter anyway…hopefully he’s wrong! 🙂

  10. 10. Sci says:

    @ Callan: Yeah your argument is, IIRC, Dennet’s issue as well. He didn’t see how the “decision” made in Libet-type experiments was anything but the conscious brain letting the subconscious decide.

    I believe his example was being at the grocery store and being asked to choose between identical pickle jars. You just let the subconscious take over and pick one within reach. Nothing at all to do with free will at all.

  11. 11. Callan S. says:

    Mark, to repeat my point from above, money is another blanket of faith. The video felt no better than a person one one religion putting down other religions. In fact most religious people don’t look as confident and perfectly correct whilst doing so as he did.

  12. 12. Jochen says:

    One problem that I always have in free will discussions is that for a great many of my own actions or choices, they don’t actually feel free. If I choose whether to have a ham sandwich or a tuna melt, I will choose based on my preferences; the choice there is simply a deliberation of which preferences, at the moment, outweigh the others. I’m not sure I see much ‘freedom’ in that.

    As for other types of mental events, ideas, thoughts, and so on, simply seem to occur to me—I certainly don’t choose what ideas I want to have (would that I could!), or what thoughts enter into my mind. I might choose things on the basis of my ideas and thoughts, and I think that the resulting deliberation process is all that can be meant by ‘free choice’; but I don’t think I’ve ever had any experience of this kind of causa sui free will where I just make up some choice out of thin air.

  13. 13. Callan S. says:

    Sci, as said above I myself aren’t really into the traditional idea of free will (the traditional idea of free will seems to span into the supernatural).

    But I think certain over estimations come from these tests. Framing a bridge between the test results and traditional notions of free will isn’t easy – and I think it shows in some of the claims made.

  14. 14. Callan S. says:

    Jochen, a terrible thought : what if some people just aren’t equipped to sense they are dealing with preferences? They just find themselves going for a particular sandwich and say they chose freely – because their brain/they don’t have any more information to go on. They feel free and state that precisely for not being able to see the channels of preference they are heading toward or down.

    I mean, some people can curl their tongue and some people just physically can’t – sometimes a capacity is just plain missing (hey, I said it was a terrible thought! )

  15. 15. Jochen says:

    Didn’t Chalmers once (tongue firmly in cheek) speculate that maybe eliminativists actually are zombies? (I might be misremembering here, though; I don’t want to spread rumors.)

    But those things also work in reverse: maybe eliminativists are the clear-headed ones, whereas the qualophiles are just more prone to romantic confabulation; or maybe the libertarian free-will advocates have a better grip on just how their minds come up with decisions ex nihilo, while I simply confabulate reasons after the fact. There’s some interesting split-brain experiments where people are shown some naughty pictures on the non-lingual side of their field of vision, causing them to invent reasons for their behavior—say, they claim that it’s awfully hot in the room if they experience some flushing, or explain away their giggles by claiming that the experimenter is just the most hilarious person they ever met. My reasons for preferring ham sandwiches might just be as spurious.

  16. 16. Mark S says:

    I am with you Jochen. Free will is dead, let’s bury it.

    http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2016/01/free-will-is-dead-lets-bury-it.html

    All I ever hear from the free will crowd are evasion and mystery mongering.

  17. 17. Sci says:

    “Free will is dead, let’s bury it.”

    I don’t she really understands that deterministic causality as dependent on laws is asking for dualist interaction. This is regardless of whether or not there’s free will. (Though her Free Will function doesn’t seem as impossible to me as it does to her, it just requires a concentration of causal power in the individual.)

    As you say compatibilism isn’t convincing at all but then Hossenfelder’s essay is really not providing anything more than compatibilism with a new name. (See Dennet’s criticism of Harris for trying the same trick.)

    As such if there isn’t something genuine to free will I think over time society will lose much of its grounding.

    “All I ever hear from the free will crowd are evasion and mystery mongering.”

    I agree this is the case for Libertarians who try to argue for a magic switch at the last moment that interrupts causality. (Though Arvan at least ties this into how reality would work at large but barring some major scientific upsets I don’t see his Libertarian Compatibilism gaining ground?)

    I hope Gregg Rosenberg does a better job in A Place for Consciousness, as from what I’ve read he actually examines causality and consciousness before trying the two together. (I haven’t read the entire book yet, just skipped around to get some feel for the book.)

  18. 18. Sci says:

    @ Callan: Right, Dennet doesn’t think there’s genuine free will either. He just also thinks (IIRC) trying to answer the question using Libet’s tests is foolishness.

    @ Jochen: On suggesting eliminativists are zombies, I feel that was Lanier since he wrote “You Can’t Argue with a Zombie”. Though his target, IIRC, was computationalist mind uploading fantasies rather than people like the Churchlands.

  19. 19. Jochen says:

    Mark:

    I am with you Jochen. Free will is dead, let’s bury it.

    Well, I don’t know I’d go quite that far. I think there are problems (and, I believe, fatal problems) with the libertarian notion of freedom, but they ultimately don’t have anything to do with the issue of determinism vs. indeterminism; rather, as Schopenhauer put it most succinctly, the problem is that ‘we can do what we will, but we cannot will what we will’—i.e. there lies a sort of infinite regress beyond the idea that will can in some sense be self-determined. (And just parenthetically, I think Bee—whose scientific writings I usually greatly admire—misses the point here, too.)

    But that doesn’t mean it’s curtains for every possible notion of freedom. A possible concept of freedom would, for instance, be that there is nothing beyond that choice that a given choice is reducible to—that is, all stories one can tell in which that particular action is undertaken necessarily include the making of that choice. I’ve argued just the other day (see here, comment #8) that something like this may in fact be the case—if we are universal computing agents, then our behavior is not reducible: there are no shortcuts one can take, computationally, and every account of our behavior is computationally equivalent to that behavior—the only way to see how a universal system behaves is through explicit simulation. So every story explaining you making that decision boils down to you making that decision—there’s no further explanatory fact. Hence, the decision itself is a necessary cause of bringing about the action.

    Other people have advanced versions of compatibilism on different bases. For one, one might note that the past is perfectly determined in any case, but that doesn’t mean that decisions made in the past were not made freely—the pizza I ordered yesterday, I ordered freely, even though it’s a fact set in stone. Why should what holds for the past not also hold for the future?

    I think there is also a certain allure to Rilke’s idea that ‘the future enters into us, in order to transform itself in us, long before it happens’. There, it’s our look-ahead capacity, unique in some manner (certainly, sticks and stones, and other lifelessly determined parts of the world don’t exhibit anything like it), that enables us to base decisions on what might be (or, in fact, what never will be), bringing into being a sort of causality that’s at least profoundly distinct to the inert tumbling around of bits of matter (even though, at bottom, it’s underwritten by the very same laws). (Peter has also shared some interesting thoughts on the matter here.)

    So I think trying to lay matters to rest by the simple argument from determinism (or indeterminism) is premature, at any rate.

  20. 20. Sci says:

    @ Jochen: I can’t remember, did you read Vojinovic’s argument against determinism at Scientia Salon:

    https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/09/11/farewell-to-determinism/

    Curious as to your thoughts.

  21. 21. Jochen says:

    Sci, that’s an interesting argument. But my problem is that I’m not sure it really takes aim at the right target—he shows (if his arguments are correct) that one indeed can’t calculate the state of the universe at any given moment, given the state at some other moment. But this is, to me, not a statement of determinism—of how the world is—but of determinability: of what we can say, or predict, about the world. I think it’s somewhat unreasonable to require that just because we can’t predict the state of the world at all times, it follows that it hence isn’t determined at all times.

    And he muddies the waters somewhat more in the end when he purports to have resolved an ontological question—however, he doesn’t really argue how his discussion, which really stays firmly within the epistemological, is supposed to have any import regarding ontology.

    Also, I’m not sure all of his premises are completely air-tight. For instance, hidden variable theories are not the only way to impose determinism on quantum mechanics—many worlds theories are also deterministic, albeit on the level of the full set of worlds, not within any particular world. And in this interpretation, a quantum state is a set of determinations of values in the different words, such that while one can’t associate a definite value within a single world with a superposed state, each value of the superposition is realized in a different world. Moreover, many worlds theories are both local and realistic (rejecting instead counterfactual definiteness—and in fact, also factual definiteness, since an experiment does no longer have unique outcomes, but all possible outcomes).

    It remains true, however, that within a single world, even in many worlds QM no perfect prediction is possible; but again, whether that is the relevant concept of determinism seems unclear to me.

  22. 22. Sci says:

    Thanks!

    Well I agree with Smolin that Many Worlds isn’t a serious proposition, so that at least I don’t need to worry about. 🙂

    I’d agree that determinability doesn’t exclude determinism, but it does seem that unless superdeterminism is true there doesn’t seem to be much for determinism to bank on? I think this is why he felt one could make a conclusion about ontology.

    But I would agree one probably has to make a philosophical argument about causality…yet it seems to me the determinist is on even shakier ground in that arena once the dualist notion of Platonic laws is rejected?

  23. 23. Sci says:

    Massimo Pigliucci’s critique of Determinism from Physics, the Libet Experiments being about Free Will, & Coyne’s attempt to rescue morality in his determinist reality:

    http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com/2012/01/jerry-coyne-on-free-will.html

    ‘How is it possible to argue that we “should” do X in order to achieve Y if, as Jerry’s intellectual kin, Alex Rosenberg, would put it, “the physical facts fix all the facts”? It is hard for me to make sense of a position that denies that we have any choice in any matter, while at the same time advocating that we should or should not do certain things rather than others. How can we have a choice to contemplate (or not) what Jerry is proposing? How can we then decide to build a kinder world? And since morality itself is an illusion, why should we try to build a kinder world anyway? I’m sure I’m missing something, but I would very much like to know what that something is.’

  24. 24. Mark S says:

    Sci, get rid of the notions of “moral responsibility” and “choice” along with free will. These ideas are just blocking progress.

  25. 25. Mark S says:

    The lunicy of free will has spawned insane children like moral responsibility and choice. It has infected thinking in a ways that want to remove one but keep the others. The whole crazy family has to go!

  26. 26. Jochen says:

    Sci, well, I have my doubts about many worlds myself (but could you point to the argumentation Smolin uses?). I also think that superdeterminism isn’t a serious option—besides its being on par with brains-in-vats scenarios, it’s also got far less explanatory power than the other options: quantum mechanics, for instance, predicts a certain value of the violation of Bell inequalities; superdeterminism is compatible with any value at all, so why we should find that particular value in experiments remains unexplained. But then again, it’s not even clear whether we can do such a thing as ‘explaining’ in a superdeterminist scenario, I suppose.

    But to me, there still is a gap between determinability and determinism, even if superdeterminism is false. There are scenarios in which determinism holds, but we nevertheless can’t predict the future from a single set of initial conditions. One involves undecidable problems, for instance (be sure that I always return to my old tricks!). The question of whether a given computer program ever produces a particular output is undecidable (and it has been shown that undecidable problems also occur in physics, e.g. in general, the question whether a certain kind of physical system has a gap between the energy of its ground state and its first excited state is undecidable). So, anything that depends on the answer to such an undecidable question is not something we could predict; yet, the answer will always be the same, given the same initial condition (that physical system either has, or doesn’t have, an energy gap).

    Thus, I don’t think it’s sound here to derive metaphysical consequences from the epistemological reasoning Vojinovic uses. (And that’s generally true, moreover: what we can know of the world only has any implication on how the world is if one accepts some metaphysical stipulation such as ‘we can know everything about the world’, or some variant, which I don’t see how to substantiate—certainly, epistemic reasoning won’t suffice to do so.)

  27. 27. Jochen says:

    Mark:

    Sci, get rid of the notions of “moral responsibility” and “choice” along with free will. These ideas are just blocking progress.

    I think that’s simply false. Most of the social progress we’ve made in the past centuries is explicitly due to refining the notion of moral responsibility—the abolition of slavery, ever-growing equality between ethnicities and the sexes, greater welfare, and so on.

  28. 28. Callan S. says:

    “So it is with all of our other choices: not one of them results from a free and conscious decision on our part. There is no freedom of choice, no free will. And those New Year’s resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you’ll have no choice about whether you keep them.”

    Wow, that’s irresponsible! How far will someone go to sell a book?

    If someone is more like a vehicle traveling along with inertia, and they can only turn the steering wheel a little bit to slowly make the vehicle go in a direction quite different from before, what is it when you tell them they can’t steer at all? And you make money from doing so?

    It’s like telling someone they can’t give up cigarettes, then selling them some more.

    Sure, there’s people who think they can do right hand turns (if they wanted to!). They think they can steer in any direction they want…though they never actually do right hand turns. They think they have free will that lets them do so.

    But to hit the other extreme? When it’s plainly clear people can adjust behavior over time? When if there is no amount of guiding will, what would the point of his article be? No one would do anything different from reading it because no will to do so, right?

    It’s like he’s expecting a result from saying no result is possible. And expecting to turn a buck from people buying his book due to the effect of his words which he says has no effect.

    Worst thing is some people will turn their steering wheel the small way they can toward what he’s saying or something approximate to it and eventually go in a direction quite different from before. Quite an irresponsible direction, given they could steer – as proven by them changing their behavior in responce to the book! The very book that says they can’t do that! What a train wreck!

    Really it seems religion as much as the right hand turn free will believers have got religion. Despite everything showing no gross changes, the free will believers still believe. And here, despite humans changing their behavior over time more than a rock ever will, there’s still a belief in no will.

    One thing’s for sure – it makes an easy headline. More easy than most philosophy.

    “any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program.”

    And that’s just ignorant! It’s more than possible for a program to reference the memory storage where it’s program is stored and change the states of that memory! It can rapidly screw up the program, but it’s easily possible. Generally programs are only allowed to work on certain memory and not where the program is stored. But that’s because they are just regular programs rather than self editing programs/AI, currently. Self editing is a very fancy level of programming (and ceases to be the work of the programmer after a certain number of edits, really).

  29. 29. Sci says:

    I’d also point out that if you trace a line from Bergson to Whitehead you see the shortcomings of time as a mere spatial axis and other aspects of misplaced concreteness.

    Likely some of that got to Unger & Lanier, two people who also influenced Smolin in his realization that the timeless laws of physics would require dualist interaction between Platonic Forms and actual matter.

    So it seems entirely arguable that a desire to preserve free will – even if ultimately false – actually might lead to scientific progress, at least if you agree with Smolin that whatever preserves the regularities of the universe can’t be in some separate timeless reality miraculously interacting with the one we exist in.

    At the very least his call to reject the multiverse can allow for real scientific progress to continue once that fantasy is jettisoned.

  30. 30. Sci says:

    @ Jochen: Smolin’s case against the multiverse, from Time Reborn:

    “Some of the literature of contemporary cosmology consists of the efforts of very smart people to wrestle with these dilemmas, paradoxes, and unanswerable questions. The notion that our universe is part of a vast or infinite multiverse is popular—and understandably so, because it is based on a methodological error that is easy to fall into. Our current theories can work at the level of the universe only if our universe is a subsystem of a larger system.

    So we invent a fictional environment and fill it with other universes. This cannot lead to any real scientific progress, because we cannot confirm or falsify any hypothesis about universes causally disconnected from our own.”
    -Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

    There was an interview at Scientia Salon where he seems to suggest the idea of AI as conscious entities comes from the same “pathology” of “science fantasy” that produces the Multiverse, but sadly he didn’t expand on that. My guess would be he’s following Lanier’s Why You Can’t Argue with a Zombie.

  31. 31. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @All, I’m afraid I got lost when “superdeterminism” got introduced…

    @Mark and Callan:
    I agree that it’s a bit harsh to criticise someone for ‘pimping’ their own content: first, we all do, whenever we open our mouths or type/write. We have a point to make, and we make it, trying to make it as convincing as we can. Don’t we all (I will do it explicitly in a sec)?
    Second, people need to earn a living, so if I managed to make money out of my content, all the better for me – what’s wrong with that?
    The legitimate target of criticism has to be the argument, not the proposer, nor the supposed hidden aim of an argument. Having said that, I think that Coyne is wrong on free will (see below).

    Jochen (#19 and here:
    I think you are 100% right, how unusual is that? You can (and should) rescue a bit of free will by noting that:
    A. A decision is being made.
    B. The decision is being made by a particular machinery. If we change the machinery, the decision might change.
    C. The particular machinery happens to coincide with individuals. In situation S, you made choice X, while I’d have picked Y.
    Thus: we own our actions, what we are is reflected in what we do, and we can be held accountable. This makes determinism irrelevant. It may not be fully fledged compatibilism in the sense that it doesn’t rescue a full libertarian free will, but it does rescue what I (and presumably Dennett) care(s) about:
    – By Jochen’s computational account, “I could have done differently” means: before choosing, it was impossible to know what I would choose. To find out what the decision would be, the only way is to let me (or equivalent machinery: a copy of me) decide. Thus, it’s an epistemic point: it’s equivalent to “for all I (or any other conceivable physical entity) know, I could have done differently”; something that is forever outside our epistemic reach is FAIP not worth the status of “really real” (reminds you of something? blush). Thus, whether the choice was fixed from the start or not is irrelevant to us: we still need to make it in order to know what we’ll choose.
    – My choices are mine. I bear the praise and blame that may result from my choices. Moral responsibility is naturalised without killing it.
    – My past experiences changed how the machinery which is me works, so consequentialist approaches to crime and punishment (what Coyne would want to promote, replacing popular, but childish/dangerous ideas about “retribution”) remain very much in the picture.
    – When I evaluate my options, when I am choosing, it feels like something. When I’ve made up my mind, it feels of something else. Thus, the sensation of choosing (exercising my ‘free’ will) is real (relates to things that are actually happening): the machinery is machinating (that’s a pun that would work better in Italian, sorry!).

    Furthermore, there is nothing in the original Libet experiments, or anywhere after, that negates the above, the whole “we’ve rescued free will from Libet” noise is due to naive scientists that don’t understand the tools they use and/or the assumptions they make. If we take a reductionist approach to study human decision making, we are looking at (or hunting for?) sub-components of the human machinery. By doing so, we assume some things will happen before some others: it would be surprising otherwise. Thus, one would expect the decision (sub-mechanism A) to be made before awareness of the decision (sub-mechanism B). The opposite wouldn’t work quite as well: I can’t really be aware of what I’ve decided before having decided, can I? While expecting sub-mechanism A and sub-mechanism B to be concurrent is equivalent to expect that they are indivisible (if they are separate mechanism, some latency from A to B is necessary), and therefore that the reductionist approach will fail. Of course (the announced self-promotion) I’d like to remind you all that I’ve written the above in grater detail here.

    @Sci #30
    Hurrah for Smolin on multiverses (I remember thinking “he doesn’t understand the consciousness topic quite as well”, but I don’t remember why). “This cannot lead to any real scientific progress, because we cannot confirm or falsify any hypothesis about universes causally disconnected from our own” in my eyes, this means “epiphenomenalism is a scientific dead-end and should be avoided” (unrelated QED, with apologies again).

  32. 32. Stephen says:

    “So I think trying to lay matters to rest by the simple argument from determinism (or indeterminism) is premature, at any rate.”

    We’re like a natural philosopher from an earlier time, familiar with pulleys and cogs, trying to explain how a digital computer displays a spreadsheet. It obviously some kind of illusion because the laws of physics require a mechanical connection to transfer power between the gears.

    Maybe once we solve the “easy problem” we’ll have a better handle on the extent of any individual’s free will.

  33. 33. Mark S says:

    Jochen, it would have happened anyway. Lol.
    Seriously, you are saying that something similar could not have happened without a different understanding. Slavery may have been abolished sooner without those concepts. I think this needs to be explored better and believe that science will give the answers to this as it moves more and more into the field of responsibility and “moral” behavior in other animals and humans. Keep in mind that illusions by their very nature are often persuasive.

  34. 34. Sci says:

    @ Sergio: “he doesn’t understand the consciousness topic quite as well”

    Well in Time Reborn he says a little at the end. He’s making the same argument as Gregg Rosenberg does in A Place for Consciousness, but it’s probably way too short to be convincing in the final part of Time Reborn.

    I think once I finish the Rosenberg’s book I’ll ask Smolin if he’s read it. Maybe try Chris Fuchs as well, I know he’s very interested in the free will question as well.

  35. 35. Sci says:

    On topic I’d recommend the free will tag from Esser’s blog:

    http://guidetoreality.blogspot.com/search/label/Free%20Will

    Some of the arguments he considers are admittedly bizarre (he spends 3 posts on Balauger’s “randomness at the right time” argument for Libertarianism, which unless I’ve grossly misunderstood it is actually *weaker* than compatibilism IMO).

    Aaronson’s argument seems to be the limits-of-computability argument Jochen is making.

    He also provides a review + critique + Q&A on Rosenberg’s book:

    http://guidetoreality.blogspot.com/search/label/Rosenberg

  36. 36. Callan S. says:

    Sergio, I might need to repeat this each time – I’m not laying the old charge of commercialism on him. What I’m saying is that money is itself a blanket of faith! Or at the very least I treat it as such – but does money have intrinsic value, or do we just habitually project value onto it? And hope it gets us food for us and our children tomorrow – a blanket, in other words?

    The charge I’m laying is that we’ve got this guy preaching his blanket of faith (ie, money for book) then decrying having a blanket of faith the very next instant. It undermines the structure of one society so he can line his pockets in another society. It’s not much better than taking the land of natives in exchange for a few shiny baubles.

  37. 37. Jochen says:

    Sci #30:

    Smolin’s case against the multiverse, from Time Reborn:

    I think he’s here rather talking about the cosmological multiverse, as in eternal inflation, or some versions of the string landscape. I’m not sure I find the usual ‘it’s not science’-argument to be very convincing—it amounts to imposing metaphysical limitations from an epistemic consideration. Just because it’s not science (as understood, more often than not in these debates, from a simple Popperian point of view) don’t mean it’s not true! It’s both possible that this particular understanding of science is incomplete, and that there are truths that can’t be discovered by the hypothetico-deductive model.

    But, no matter: I broadly agree that there’s no real reason, at the moment, to accept the idea of a multiverse (indeed, sometimes I’m not even sure about a single universe!), and that the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics opens up more questions than it solves.

    Sergio #32:

    I think you are 100% right, how unusual is that?

    Well, praise the day! 😀 Although, given the sheer volume of our discourse, some agreement was perhaps eventually inevitable. I do think you framed the issue nicely, though. (And also, I don’t think we’re quite that far apart on a number of other topics.)

    the machinery is machinating (that’s a pun that would work better in Italian, sorry!).

    Traduttore, traditore (I hope I got that right?).

    Mark #33:

    Seriously, you are saying that something similar could not have happened without a different understanding.

    No, I’m saying that slavery was originally due to mistaken moral concepts, and that their rectification (if still only partial) played a big role in abolition.

    I think this needs to be explored better and believe that science will give the answers to this as it moves more and more into the field of responsibility and “moral” behavior in other animals and humans.

    I think that’s a conceptual error: science is able to describe how we behave, and perhaps even why we behave the way we do; but that doesn’t imply anything on how we ought to behave. That’s of course Hume’s great realization on the impossibility of deriving an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; and science only ever tells us what is—it has no normative dimension. In more recent times, this has become known under the name ‘naturalistic fallacy’.

  38. 38. Sci says:

    @ Stephen:

    “It obviously some kind of illusion because the laws of physics require a mechanical connection to transfer power between the gears.”

    It seems to me physics (like all other sciences IMO) isn’t about causation, or at least physics cannot explanation causation by an appeal to laws. After all those laws are extrapolations made from observing causal chains. I don’t see where the causal power is coming from?

    Rosenberg gets into this in his A Place for Consciousness, but one can also read Talbott’s “Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?” ->

    natureinstitute.org/txt/st/mqual/ch03.htm

    “So we can hardly find coherence in the rather dualistic notion that physical laws reside, ghost-like, in some detached, abstract realm from which they impinge upon matter. But if, contrary to our initial assumption, we take laws to be in one way or another bound up with the world’s substance — if we take them to be at least in part an expression of this substance — then the difficulty in the conventional view of law becomes even more intense. Surely it makes no sense to say that the world’s material phenomena are the result — the wholly explained result — of matter obeying laws which it is itself busy expressing. In whatever manner we prefer to understand the material expression of the laws, this expression cannot be a matter of obedience to the laws being expressed! If whatever is there as the substance of the world at least in part determines the laws, then the laws cannot be said to determine what is there.

    Peter also gets into this in his book The Shadow of Consciousness, that “laws” are really more like regularities.

    Dupre, in The Solution to the Problem of the Freedom of the Will, goes even further and suggests that reality is largely indeterministic, that it is humans who possess great causal power in a world of causal incompleteness. It’s an interesting (IMO), contrary take:

    http://cogprints.org/341/1/FREEDOM.htm

    @ Jochen: On the MWI there’s an amusing story where one physicist in the 80s, upon hearing about it, noted it sounded more like something from Genesis than a real scientific theory.

    It recalls Lapace saying he doesn’t need the God-hypothesis, but then Lagrange opines that “God did it” – just like “Multiverse did it” – is a beautiful hypothesis because it explains so many things. 🙂

  39. 39. Sci says:

    @Everyone-Smolin & Unger’s book, A Singular Universe & The Reality of Time, is now offered freely on Unger’s site:

    http://robertounger.com/english/pdfs/singularuniverse.pdf

  40. 40. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @Sci,
    you’re an endless source of interesting links and refs, thanks! I’ll try to check out at least a few.

    @Jochen,
    Yes, I don’t think we are that distant, but you’re playing the Devil’s advocate so well that I sometimes forget! (“Traduttore, traditore”: perfect!)

  41. 41. Sergio Graziosi says:

    @Peter,
    I was forgetting (again): the animated gif is just too good. Wonderful, both the idea and the execution.

  42. 42. Jochen says:

    The first time, I only caught a glimpse of the animation and wasn’t quite sure I hadn’t imagined it; so, Peter, are you engaging in a little ‘gaslighting’ of your loyal readers? 😉

  43. 43. Stephen says:

    @Sci What I was getting at was that we are constrained in our thinking because of our current world view. We tend to use technology such as a digital computer as a metaphor for other processes, which is very useful as it can give us a lot of insight, but has limitations. Hard determinists find it very comforting as digital computers and their algorithms are clearly understandable as causal. In a couple of hundred years (or whenever), we’ll have something else that helps explain more. So I’m trying to keep an open mind, even though for someone like me, hard determinism is a bit seductive.

    wrt causality: The reason we believe in causality is the overwhelming reliability of the predictive abilities of the concept. I don’t really care if we call it a law, a regularity or just an observation. It is the normal state of affairs. There might be some special circumstances where causality does not hold or there might be other circumstances where causality holds, but doesn’t look to us like what we think of causality. When you say that you “don’t see where the causal power is coming from”, does that mean you could comprehend a world without causality? For now, I think causality is the working assumption.

    I’ll have a read of the items you referenced. I’m constantly amazed at the creativity and inventiveness of philosophers. I’m usually a little less thrilled with their arguments, which are often based on a fantastical assumptions (If you accept…), awkward and unsupported logic (surely…) or rhetorical devices (there are only three possible answers…) and don’t always seem very grounded. But who knows, one or two of them might be right!

  44. 44. Richard J.R.Miles says:

    Jochen 41, re: my com.4 also beware of the winking Owl.

    Peter and Sergio, I have just realised it is over a year since we met in the pub. I am sure time like the pound has devalued.

    [We should do it again. Peter]

  45. 45. Sci says:

    @ Stephen: I believe in causality, but it seems to me causality is outside the remit of physics to explain. Science in general is about relations, but causality is intrinsic.

    And yes the regularity is necessary, but we see regularities in zoology and economics that are good enough without being enforced by laws. As Smolin notes in the aforementioned book, hard determinism isn’t necessary.

    I think there’s a tendency to assume there must be laws of biology, laws of psychology, etc. This leads to the problem of taking experiments – like Libet’s – that are really isolated toy examples and assuming they apply to our real lives.

    I suspect a lot of our assumptions in these arenas need to be rethought. That the everyday conscious qualitative experience is seen as “supernatural” & the Present seen as “illusion” while the multiverse or mystical laws binding reality from some timeless realm are deemed acceptable by naturalists signals a wrong turn, or numerous wrong turns, have been taken. IMO anyway. 🙂

  46. 46. Sci says:

    Adam Frank has my back, sort of. 🙂

    Was Einstein wrong?

    http://n.pr/20lzDko

  47. 47. Callan S. says:

    I’m having trouble posting – this is a test post to see if that’s changed

    [I restored the first of your lost posts – no idea what the problem was. Peter]

  48. 48. Jorge says:

    As far as “big” philosophical questions are concerned, I consider “free will” essentially solved- there is no evidence for acausal free will outside the realm of the known laws of physics. Beyond that, one can get into the semantic quagmire of what “free” means within the scope of a deterministic or pseudo-deterministic universe*… and what it means for morality and judicial punishments. If anyone only ever does what they were predetermined to do given their genes/development/history/input, then how do we justify any kind of non-corrective punitive measure or moral judgement? (This leaves theists who believe in divine judgment/hell in a very tough spot as well, for how can an omniscient God judge a person’s choices that were predetermined by Him from the start?)

    As Peter said-
    “We tell the subject to click on a target at any time after it appears; but we detect the RP and whip the target away a moment before the click every time. The subject can never succeed.”

    End of story.

    *Surprisingly, the semantics of “free” here have actual consequences in physics (of all things) since it has implications on interpretations of the experimental results of tests of Bell’s Theorem. If physicists ever find a way to test “superdeterminism” it will be the concrete poured over a coffin that’s been already been nailed shut.

  49. 49. Jochen says:

    Surprisingly, the semantics of “free” here have actual consequences in physics (of all things) since it has implications on interpretations of the experimental results of tests of Bell’s Theorem. If physicists ever find a way to test “superdeterminism” it will be the concrete poured over a coffin that’s been already been nailed shut.

    Leaving aside the issue that superdeterminism inherently isn’t the sort of thing you can test—it’s essentially the statement that you were predetermined to make that sort of experiment, and obtain that sort of result, and hence, compatible with any empirical evidence—, there’s a bit of confusion in the way physicists use the term ‘free will’ in relation to Bell’s theorem. What’s meant is, essentially, just that there are no correlations between an experimenter’s choice of measurement and the properties of a physical system sent out by some distant (i.e. causally unconnected) source.

    So even if ‘free will’ exists in this sense, the universe may still be entirely deterministic; conversely, the nonexistence of such ‘free will’ (i.e. superdeterminism) doesn’t really add any more constraints to behavior than plain old determinism does: in both a deterministic and superdeterministic world, your behavior is essentially fixed by the boundary conditions of the universe.

  50. 50. Sci says:

    @ Jochen:

    “in both a deterministic and superdeterministic world, your behavior is essentially fixed by the boundary conditions of the universe.”

    Forgetting about free will, ultimately too high level for me -> what ensures the future is fixed by those boundary conditions? Why those boundary conditions? As Hume noted, even if we see A -> B X times, that doesn’t mean A -> C is impossible.

    Even if we accept the substance dualism of laws, it seems one can ask why the laws don’t change from moment to moment?

    I think Peter does a great job of critiquing the assumption of laws in his book:

    “Why is it that haecceity seems so much in need of explanation, so clearly an itch to be scratched? I think it might be because we believe too literally in Laws of Nature. In keeping with our clerkish tendency to put theory first, we tend to believe that reality is indeed regulated by a collection of principles and equations, which although they are not literally engraved on tablets of stone, do stand above the detail of reality. What happens next, we assume, is determined by calculations rooted in these laws.

    In fact talk of the laws of nature, or the laws of physics, is metaphorical. When a string stretches, no calculation takes place inside it to determine how far. Stuff just exists, stuff just happens; the laws are our description of the observable regularities of stuff.”

    Of course we know that causation must be real, at least insofar as anything is real because our experience of change is real.

    So what, as Hawkins would say, breathes fire into the equations? That’s where things get interesting, as if Rosenberg is correct it’s consciousness itself because something like consciousness has to exist anyway for causation to be possible.

    This would, if correct, explain why this qualitative experience is here at all.

    Very, very short summary of this idea on Esser’s blog:

    http://guidetoreality.blogspot.com/2010/12/experience-and-causation.html#more

    In some sense it recalls Freya Matthews stuff Itay Shani mentioned, where Panpsychism is argued to solve problems other than the Hard Problem and thus the seemingly unnecessary, worthless consciousness is put to work.

  51. 51. Callan S. says:

    Thanks, Peter 🙂

  52. 52. Callan S. says:

    Jorge, I think what is acausal is that there is a universe at all. Occam’s razor would suggest it makes more sense for there to be nothing – not even a space for nothing to be in (like space is around our plant still a place for something to be, therefore a thing itself), just absolute nothing. No things, no space for things to be in.

    It’s absolutely bizarre that there is a universe – currently without explanation it may as well be acausal. And we’re all three pounds of the acausal stuff (more, given how intimately the body is tied to the brain, really. Perhaps more as were socially tied to each other and even go a bit mad when cut off from others of our species).

    I mean, a ghost might always, after X occurs, do Y – so it’s causal – but WTF, it’s a ghost!? Even a causal ghost raises a big “How’d that occur?” We may as well be a ghost universe.

    Are they going to crack the question of why there is a universe, without some parochial explanation (ie, an explanation coming from a personal agenda/bias)? That’s definitely the question.

  53. 53. Sci says:

    @ Callan: Perhaps the better question is “Why something instead of Everything?”, where Rosenberg argues causality would be the constraining force.

    I say “better” only because future investigation into superposition and other quantum level oddities might give us insight into that mystery, whereas I fear the question of “Why not Nothing?” is probably inanswerable.

  54. 54. Jochen says:

    Sci:

    Forgetting about free will, ultimately too high level for me -> what ensures the future is fixed by those boundary conditions? Why those boundary conditions?

    Well, it either is, or it’s not. If it’s not, then that’s indeterminism; if it is, it’s determinism. It’s not that their is some external fact of the matter of whether the universe is deterministic or not, which then makes it so that the universe is this way; it’s that the universe is one of those ways, which is then reflected in our description of it.

    Even if we accept the substance dualism of laws, it seems one can ask why the laws don’t change from moment to moment?

    I think ‘substance dualism’ is putting it too crassly. Few people, if any, think of the laws of physics as being disembodied truths floating around in some Platonic sphere, determining (through ways unknown) how stuff behaves down here—in fact, since there presumably ought to be some law governing such determination, the concept seems incoherent.

    Rather, the laws of physics are descriptive—because stuff behaves such-and-such a way, we formulate our laws accordingly. So it’s not that the laws are that way, and hence, the universe must behave like this; this would, indeed, be an undue reification of the laws.

    We don’t typically are amazed at regularities in three-dimensional objects, such as the facts that tree trunks are generally topped by green-leaved stuff; so, should we really be that amazed at regularities in a four-dimensional realm?

    But the notion of changing laws is a strange one, to me: either, those laws change in some regular manner; then, you have some law governing that change, and hence, haven’t won anything. Or, the laws change in some meta-indeterministic fashion; then, you have a high burden of explanation to meet in order to make it plausible that there is any sort of regular world out there at all.

    Another factor is that there’s laws, and then there’s laws. Some laws, like e.g. the second law of thermodynamics, don’t really leave open other options—it’s ultimately just a statement of probability, a statistical fact, so it’s difficult to see how it could have been otherwise. All it says, really, is that if you reach into a grab-bag of possible system states, the one you’ll get out is with high probability of a sort that’s present the most often in the bag. That’s ultimately why physicists like Eddington have held the second law to be surpreme above all others.

    Additionally, there’s a chance that all laws might be of such a character—quantum mechanics is really just a theory of probability, albeit a non-classical one; and gravity, on the other hand, has recently been brought into close contact with thermodynamics—in fact, Einstein’s equation can be derived as an equation of state from the second law. And if that’s the case, then it’s also possible that the other forces might be of similar character—since it’s well known that higher-dimensional gravitational theories (Kaluza-Klein theories) reduce to four-dimensional gravity plus additional forces (although the approach faces some serious obstacles, such as coming up with chiral matter content).

    So ultimately, nothing breathes fire into the equations; nothing needs to. Stuff simply behaves a certain way, which we describe using those equations; and if something like the above far-fetched speculation is true, then it may not even have a choice in behaving that way, without postulating that there are laws that dictate material behavior.

  55. 55. Sci says:

    @ Jochen:

    If it’s not, then that’s indeterminism; if it is, it’s determinism. It’s not that their is some external fact of the matter of whether the universe is deterministic or not, which then makes it so that the universe is this way; it’s that the universe is one of those ways, which is then reflected in our description of it.

    I’ve seen many people make this claim that reality is absolute chaos or absolute order, with nothing in between, yet I can’t make sense of it.

    Because it seems to me a universe that is either one of these things, or consisting of parts that are only one or the other, fails to make sense – at least if we think when something happens there should be sufficient reason for it to happen.

    Obviously intrinsic randomness doesn’t make sense, because it suggests that something can happen one way rather than another for no reason at all.

    But if our issue with randomness is its arbitrariness, then the fact a determinsitic causal chain holds without something enforcing the constraint is also arbitrary…so I feel like it should also disturb our rationality for the same reason indeterminism does?

    It seems to me people think this dichotomy holds because they first assume everything is deterministic, but then are confronted with the quantum level of reality and thus decide genuine randomness is possible. But I think if one starts with the Principle of Sufficient Reason it seems neither horn holds up?

    Rather, the laws of physics are descriptive—because stuff behaves such-and-such a way, we formulate our laws accordingly. So it’s not that the laws are that way, and hence, the universe must behave like this; this would, indeed, be an undue reification of the laws.

    But this only makes the mystery deepen for me. If matter, without outside constraint, behaves with enough regularity for us to feel justified in extrapolating observations in our corner of the reality – if not in the corner of some little science lab – to extend to universal laws?

    This harmony between individual particles at every moment would seem to demand explanation even if the underlying reality at the quantum level followed a similar regularity as the classical world. In our universe things are much more mysterious given how odd our reality seems to be at its foundations. For example if my physics is right there’s a percentage of photons which reflect off a sheet of glass on average, even if they’re shot through one at a time? That a “law” is probabilistic seems incredibly weird. (A quick retread through QED has Feynman saying he doesn’t know why a photon would “decide” to pass through or be reflected.)

    We don’t typically are amazed at regularities in three-dimensional objects, such as the facts that tree trunks are generally topped by green-leaved stuff; so, should we really be that amazed at regularities in a four-dimensional realm?

    Yet the sum total of the regularities happening within our conscious experience is the Binding Problem. If bits of matter also manage to bind together own their own accord to produce our very predictable reality, that too seems like a problem in need of solving?

    On the notion of a four-dimensional realm, it seems to me if the present is real then either time can’t be thought of as a spatial axis or at least such a description of time is incomplete? Admittedly Smolin could probably make this point better than I can, but in my defense he’s got more space than a blog comment. 🙂

    But the notion of changing laws is a strange one, to me: either, those laws change in some regular manner; then, you have some law governing that change, and hence, haven’t won anything. Or, the laws change in some meta-indeterministic fashion; then, you have a high burden of explanation to meet in order to make it plausible that there is any sort of regular world out there at all.

    If something behaves in law-like fashion, I’d think that would also call for explanation? But that leads us to an infinite regression of actual meta-laws or layers of law-like progressiona that need to be explained?

    I see your point on indeterminism, yet isn’t that very place we find ourselves? Why is the macro-world largely devoid of quantum weirdness? (I realize quantum biology might raise the weirdness quotient at our level…)

    Also I think even under law-like progression one has to explain where there’s any sort of regular world. I believe this is what Callan is referring to when he notes the universe itself is “acausal” – it’s consistency at every moment is completely arbitrary.

    Stuff simply behaves a certain way

    But why a reality made up of bits of matter behaves in a harmonious way in the absence of empowered constraints/laws seems like a vital question if we’re to genuinely understand causality?

    I guess this goes to back to the question of haeccity?

  56. 56. Sci says:

    Ah, the quoting tags didn’t work for me. Peter if you could delete that post I can post it later.

    Thanks!

  57. 57. Jochen says:

    Sci:

    I’ve seen many people make this claim that reality is absolute chaos or absolute order, with nothing in between, yet I can’t make sense of it.

    That’s not what I’m claiming. Certainly, determinism is an absolute—if determinism holds, then indeed everything is determined. But indeterminism can be gradual: random events may occur very infrequently, say once a century; then, we’d have determinism most of the time, with occasional indeterministic interludes. Still, on the whole, the universe would then be not strictly deterministic, and hence, indeterministic; which doesn’t entail a claim of ‘absolute chaos’.

    Obviously intrinsic randomness doesn’t make sense, because it suggests that something can happen one way rather than another for no reason at all.

    Hmm, I’d be careful with claims that something ‘obviously’ makes no sense (and also, with the implied claim that the world is somehow obliged to make sense, to you or anybody). In the end, I don’t think it’s much less mysterious how things happen in a causal fashion; we don’t really have any more of an idea what makes A reliably cause B, than we do of how B could just occur spontaneously. It’s just that we tend to use some blanket terms to clothe our ignorance in the first case (‘A causes B’, whatever ’causes’ may mean), which we don’t have in the latter.

    Indeed, there are arguments that there are ‘facts true for no reason’ even in mathematics—there are certain uncomputable numbers for whose digits we hence can’t point to any recipe that determines their values; yet they have determinate values all the same. So there’s nothing we could point to and say, ‘the value of that digit is such because of this’; and likewise, in some indeterministic event, there’s nothing we can point to and say ‘this happened because of that’. But to claim that hence, the event can’t occur, I think, overstretches the limits of our description and understanding.

    But this only makes the mystery deepen for me. If matter, without outside constraint, behaves with enough regularity for us to feel justified in extrapolating observations in our corner of the reality – if not in the corner of some little science lab – to extend to universal laws?

    Well, I tried to point towards one possible way of resolving this tension—namely, that ultimately all laws (or at least, the as-yet unknown fundamental laws, should they exist) have a character similar to the second law of thermodynamics: something that can’t really fail to hold, because it’s in the end not a law of physics, but a tautological statement about probabilities—more likely things happen more often.

    Consider a bit-string universe, whose state is given by a single, n-bit string. In the space of all n-bit strings, those that have roughly as many (randomly distributed) zeros as ones vastly outnumber those with some regularities, like the all-1 bitstring, or the one that consists of repetitions of ‘1101001’, and so on. So if you start out in a highly regular state, and then introduce an evolution by ‘updating’ one bit at a time, eventually, you will always reach a state with such an equidistribution, and afterwards, only fluctuate around that equilibrium (as long as we limit us to timescales shorter than the Poincaré recurrence time). So, in this case, there is no law that says (read this in a thundering voice booming from the heavens for effect): ‘You must always proceed into the direction of greater equilibrium!’, but rather, this is something that merely happens; from observing such a system’s behavior, one could abstract this law, but the law would not itself be causally responsible for this behavior in any sense.

    In fact, this would be a highly indeterministic system (which bit you flip, and where, is random), which nevertheless gives rise to an approximately deterministic high-level (‘macroscopic’) description—if you could, say, not observe the individual ones and zeros, but just some sort of averaged-over description—say, a black line for the all-ones string, and a white line for all-zeros—, you would reliably observe this system to evolve to a uniform gray starting from either white or black. You could even formulate some sort of equation of motion, parametrizing the gray-ness with time.

    On the notion of a four-dimensional realm, it seems to me if the present is real then either time can’t be thought of as a spatial axis or at least such a description of time is incomplete?

    Imagine, for a moment, that you’re in a computer simulation, simulating each moment of your conscious experience individually. Then, say I shuffle around these moments: where first, we had a-b-c-…, it’s now, in fact, x-a-e-z-…. What would change in your experience? And I think the answer is: nothing. Each moment contains the memory of its prior moment, hence, no matter the underlying ordering, or whether there is any ordering at all, you can’t help but experience a linear progression, always remembering the past, or rather, taking the past to be what you experience.

    So, time really has many different aspects that are usually swept under the rug, and conflated to some degree: you’re right that the subjective aspect of the ‘flowing present’ isn’t well-described in a four-dimensional view, but the view instead very well models the order-theoretic aspects of time. Much confusion is often generated by not distinguishing between the different notions of time—its directionality, its ordering, its flow, and so on.

  58. 58. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Callan (#36),
    my apologies, I’ve spectacularly missed the interesting point you are making.

    I struggle to make sense of it, though. I’ll offer my interpretation, which may help you “see” what I’m missing from your own argument.

    In the larger picture, we have three potential “blankets of faith”: money, religion and the belief on some sort of free will. Are they “blankets of faith”? Should we get rid of them?
    Money: doesn’t have intrinsic value, but we use it as if it did. Money is “just” a convention, something that works only because we all tacitly agree to the arbitrary side, but the crucial fact remains: while the convention is kept in place, the system works spectacularly well. It’s a fantastically useful system, and doesn’t break even if we all accept that the value is derived, not intrinsic. We can remove the “false belief” (that money has value per-se) and keep the system up and running. In fact, many of us recognise this and still use money just like those who don’t. So, to the extent that it’s a “blanket of faith” we may want to remove it, but keep the good part which is also the one that generated the idea in the first place. We still need to put collective faith in the system, but it’s justified: we know from experience that the system works if we do.

    Religion: true or false, if we remove the unverifiable (or disproved) beliefs, most large religions will crumble – you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe Christ resurrected, are unsure he even existed, etcetera. I don’t know if religions are overall a source of good, but I’m inclined to think they aren’t. However, big difference: money survives removing the unjustified beliefs, most religions wouldn’t.

    Free will: one belief associated with it is probably unjustified. It’s really-really hard to paint a coherent picture and include the libertarian contra-causal sort of free will, so yes, the “blanket of faith” metaphor holds some water. If we remove the unjustified beliefs about free will, for me, we remain with a sort of weak compatibilism, for Coyne, we remain with no free will at all. Fine, I’d criticise him for this difference, not on the “blankets of faith” approach: for him, it works. He’s saying that, like religions, if you remove the unjustified beliefs, the whole edifice breaks down.

    Overall, looking at the matter from this angle, and including the monetary element allows to see the difference between incompatibilists and compatibilist: the former group thinks free-will is (metaphorically) like religions, the latter see it as more similar to “money” (although Coyne is like to disagree). Neat!

    So yeah, I think I can see why you talk about “blankets of faith”, but I think some of them can be recognised for what they are and still remain useful. I suppose it is some sort of compatibilism, in the end ;-).
    As I hope it’s clear, on free-will (or better, the notion of “my will” – I seem to concentrate on the “will” side, Coyne on “free”), I disagree with Coyne in many subtle ways, but I don’t feel cheated by how he tries to promote his views. To be honest, I still don’t fully understand why you do.

  59. 59. Jochen says:

    Religion: true or false, if we remove the unverifiable (or disproved) beliefs, most large religions will crumble – you can’t be a Christian if you don’t believe Christ resurrected, are unsure he even existed, etcetera.

    Well, there are people who argue that you can (usefully) live by Christian standards, while being non-realist (or perhaps pragmatist) about religious truths (and usually, truths in general), e.g. Don Cupitt.

    But then again, there are people who argue just about anything…

  60. 60. Sci says:

    @ Jochen – Out of curiosity what tags are you using?

  61. 61. Jochen says:

    ‹blockquote› and ‹/blockquote› (with standard angle brackets of course).

  62. 62. Sci says:

    ‹blockquote› and ‹/blockquote› (with standard angle brackets of course).

    Thanks!

    On our disagreements I suspect we might have fundamentally different intuitions. I increasingly wonder if that’s all philosophy comes down to in the end. 🙂

  63. 63. howard berman says:

    Why can’t the terms of the debate shift to whether organisms, being human, can rationally or autonomously make decisions independent from environmental pressures?
    That would satisfy both sides of the argument.
    To be practical, when making a decision we don’t consult our neurons like some I Ching in our brain.
    The whole argument seems silly

  64. 64. Sci says:

    @ Howard:

    Why can’t the terms of the debate shift to whether organisms, being human, can rationally or autonomously make decisions independent from environmental pressures?

    Well to me that question requires an account of where causal power resides and how it relates to consciousness.

    Dupre, in the aforementioned paper, seems to frame matters in the way you do. The environment has a certain indeterminism stemming from its incomplete causal power.

    Along similar lines, see Balauger’s ‘Why there are no good arguments for determinism’:

    http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/mbalagu/papers/Why_there_are_no_good_arguments_for_determinism.pdf

    That said I find Balauger’s own explanation for free will so bizarre it actually makes the sham of compatibilism seem reasonable. 🙂

  65. 65. Callan S. says:

    Sergio, you seem to be treating it that Coyne treats money as a blanket of faith. I don’t know why. I don’t think he does. I have Occam’s razor on my side – it’d be the simpler explanation that he doesn’t treat money as a blanket of faith. Further, I don’t know how anyone could go so smoothly from relying on a blanket (ie, pimping their book) to decrying a blanket (ie, ‘there is no free will’), without blushing a little at the hypocrisy. How could that be explained? That he doesn’t think/realise money is a blanket.

    You have to acknowledge that the people who bought the lands of natives for a few baubles didn’t realise that was really dishonest. Or atleast they didn’t want to realise that.

    What’s the quote? “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it” – Upton Sinclair

  66. 66. Sci says:

    @ Callan: I suspect Coyne’s blanket is determinism, that everything stands in perfect relation to everything else. Notice he could just as easily say the universe is indeterministic, as suggested by our fundamental reality, but this would ruin his sense of aesthetics. 🙂

    But, as you point out, this deterministic reality has the “ugliness” of being fundamentally arbitrary at the initial boundary conditions at least – in fact I would so far as to say that it hangs together at every moment is due to an arbitrary harmony between the universe’s fundamental constituents.

  67. 67. Callan S. says:

    Sci, unless he’s okay with not finding clean water and dying of dehydration in three days, which is also a valid outcome of determinism, his blanket is not determinism.

    It feels like people are treating the subject of free will as some lofty topic, far away from the regular humdrum of everyday life.

    I’ll attempt to draw a primitive connection between the lofty and the humdrum : What he’s saying could raise violent crime rates.

    It’s not even that that I directly have a problem with.

    It’s that he’ll be lining his own pockets/making himself safe while he endangers others.

    I get people will think ‘No, he’s not endangering others’ – but hold on the after thought of ‘How could you say that, Callan?’, because if it seems disruptive of me to say that, then his words are just as capable of being disruptive. Unless he’s incapable of disruption – but that sounds like a blanket itself.

  68. 68. Sci says:

    @ Callan: Oh I’d agree that the Coynes of the world might sing a different tune if they weren’t shielded in the comfort of the ivory towers…but I think they’d still be determinists.

    Coyne, and I suspect Sabine Hossenfelder, *want* determinism to be true – they see it as an aesthetic necessity that preserves their intuitive sense of what it means to have an ordered reality. (Though they’ve missed or dismissed our points about the arbitrariness of this order.)

    Hence Hossenfelder’s grail quest for superdeterminism.

    I also think Coyne at least has an insecurity that demands other people also agree with him, that everyone has to accept this deterministic claim. That’s why he trots out this silliness of preserving the justice system largely as is, without wondering about the long term effects.

    At least he seems to have put more thought into than Hossenfelder, though both bring up the same poor arguments.

    Finally, it is important to note (and I’m sure you agree) that as silly as the determinists are in trying to sell us weak arguments like honest Dennettian compatibilism or Coyney “I can’t believe it’s not Compatibilism” compatibilism…that doesn’t make them wrong.

    But that final account, IMO, is yet to be determined….uh, sorry for the pun. 🙂

  69. 69. Callan S. says:

    Ach, my bridge goes untrod…

    At least I had the fun of being taken as anti determinist! 🙂

  70. 70. Callan S. says:

    Unless I don’t get what is meant by ‘determinism’ here, in which case I’m lost!

  71. 71. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Callan (#65 & more)
    I’m lost again, perhaps I’m misunderstanding the “blanket of faith” expression. But really, I don’t think we need to invest too much on this dialogue: I can’t get too many kicks from defending a position I disagree with.

    (All)
    Anyway, for the record, I don’t think there is any risk of society crumbling down. Since there is a “what is it like” making a decision and another one for when the decision is made*, the core idea, that we make up our own mind, will survive. What is a danger is fatalism assumed by people who have key roles in society (teachers, police, social services, doctors, psychiatrists, etc.), things like “the guy’s a crook, he can’t help it (=>he will always be)” or “kid is just hopeless (=>s/he’ll always be a bad student)”. Because you can never underestimate stupidity, all attempts to kill free will do risk promoting (or, to some extent, do promote) such attitudes, and these do actively harm society, especially when held by people who work with children.
    In the scheme I share with Jochen (#19 & #31) the key thing to observe is that we are decision making machines, but the machinery is flexible by design, the environment shapes it _all the time_. My fear is that people are prone to over-simplifying, so a society that is shaped by the realisation that we are just deterministic machines will, at least to some extent, end up putting a break on people, because of assumptions about knowing they have a fixed potential. There’s plenty of research in education suggesting that a very good way to impede learning is assume each kid has a fixed amount of potential or talent. With apologies: I don’t have time to look up the primary sources right now.

    *(anyone remembers an overwhelming sense of relief when a difficult decision has been made convincingly? How about when you have decided, but can’t actually translate the decision into action and eventually change your mind again?)

  72. 72. Sci says:

    @ Sergio: ” Because you can never underestimate stupidity”

    As I’ve argued I’m not convinced Coyne’s paradigm is correct, but how can it be stupidity if the things you mention follow directly from determinism?

    Bakker actually has a recent post about this sort of thing, how the Enlightenment can’t be the triumph of reason in a reductionist framework where everyone is an information processor:

    https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2016/02/08/the-zombie-enlightenment/

    I mean it’s not just Bakker who sees this – there’s a reason guys like Lee Smolin and Stuart Kauffman want to find something better than compatibilism.

  73. 73. Callan S. says:

    Sergio,

    the core idea, that we make up our own mind, will survive.

    The issue is more the selective dismantling. In regards to responsibility, how far do you think the core idea will go? Or will ‘you don’t have free will’ be a great excuse to shirk responsibility because anyone they are responsible to are left stammering a made up argument on the spot? Oh, when it comes to their rights, the core idea will be held up where it holds those rights. When it comes to responsibilities, though…? You can see how attractive it’ll be to dismantle responsibility.

    Really with Coyne, it’s like if you knew someone was adopted but they didn’t, would you just bluntly say that to them? Yet here, something that rivals parentage in importance (or is even more important) and he’s just bluntly saying it. And it’s not even that that’s the problem – it’s bluntly saying someone is adopted in order to sell a book.

  74. 74. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Sci #72, (maybe also Callan #73?)
    I don’t know how to read Scott’s post, his language requires me far too much internal translating and I’m never sure I end up identifying the intended take home message(s) – this time I followed fairly well until the last two paragraphs, leaving me with a big “what is he trying to say?” question…

    Anyway, my approach to stupidity is linked to decision making. Once we have kept the idea that we do take decisions, we also are obliquely recognising that we have goals, we decide things in order to achieve our goals. Stupid actions/decisions are those that eventually take us further away from the intended goal. Say, I add some flowery decorations to my CV, presumably to make it “stand out” and the person evaluating it bins it without reading it because s/he finds it unprofessional. There is also an important distinction between stupid decisions and actions, a “smart” decision might result in a stupid action. The distinction depends on what the decision-maker knew: if all the data you have point in one direction, the correct decision would be to follow the data, but this could still have adverse effects. Note also that this view applies to actions or decisions, not individuals. That’s because “smart” people do stupid things all the time and stupid people will do smart things just as well. The approach follows the same desire I’ve expressed above: we shouldn’t label people, because their potential isn’t fixed. Labelling people smart or dumb has an element of self-fulfilling prophecy, so on consequentialist grounds, I try to steer away.

    On one side, my approach revolves around epistemic humbleness: there will always be a prediction horizon, because no measurement is error free, computing capacity is never going to be unbounded, and by definition no formal system can model the whole universe. Each one of these three considerations looks inescapable to me, and each independently means we will always inhabit an unpredictable world – whether beneath our understanding lies a deterministic universe or not, makes no radical difference to us. This means we need to rely in one or the other form of heuristic in our decision making processes, whether they are our own pre-installed biological ones or not.

    Regulars here will immediately raise an eyebrow because all the above relies on “intentional idiom”. Sure it does: the aim for me is naturalising the intentional idiom, plug it in scientific accounts of reality, so any theory that just bypasses it will not do for me. The reason is that intentional idiom is currently the best we have to describe what we care for, so a decent theory needs to be able to identify these things as well. If it can’t, it’s not fit for (my) purpose.
    Thus, I really don’t see it as Scott, when it comes to intellectual doom and gloom. My aim is to understand how we work, and this implies understanding what makes my heart race, why a piece of art moves me and another doesn’t but moves someone else. Given the aim, any explanation that does not include pain and pleasure and our primary and derived aims (what we do things for), but instead eliminates them (or bypasses, makes them irrelevant), is simply not fit for purpose.
    [Note here: the idea about stupidity expressed above (coming from Carlo Maria Cipolla) relies on the idea of purpose. The same directly applies to all our actions, so indirectly reaches knowledge/knowledge acquisition and scientific theories. If purpose is the central pivot of the sort of understanding I’m after, the whole project needs to start from basic intentionality/”aboutness”.]
    Talk of what is real/true won’t cut it either: my desires, my pain, my pleasure are more real than any fundamental entity posited by a scientific theory – in all circumstances, I have to deal with how the circumstances feel, while I can only speculate or abstractly think about wave functions – but doing the latter invariably makes my head hurt, you see the point? Anything I do has a “what it’s like”, comes with intentional states of one form or the other, so we need to find a way to keep them in the picture. But if we keep them in the picture, Scott’s apocalypse is just not going to happen (other equally bad things may happen instead).

    Going back to free will and decision-making by deterministic mechanisms: something better than compatibilism as we have it now should be possible if we’ll get something that shows us which mechanisms acquire a “what is it like” inner feeling, along with how it is done. With that link in place, I expect present-day compatibilism to raise to a new level, as it will become possible to start exploring what creates the feeling of choosing, as well as the post-hoc feelings of satisfaction for picking the right option, or regret for wrong choices. Sure enough, the idea of responsibility will change a great deal, but at least we won’t have to endure people saying “your joy/pain/whatevs” doesn’t even exist, it’s a radical illusion. I’d like to give a toothache to anyone who says that ;-).

    In short, a scientific theory that doesn’t include intentionality, for me, is just a dry tool. If it accounts for (a good amount of) human behaviour it will be extremely powerful, but would not satisfy my thirst. I do think such a dry theory is possible, but I also think that it will implicitly include what I’m after, even if it might not be immediately clear why/how. Additionally, I believe that once you have intentionality “explained” you can build on it to reach some understanding of “purposes” and from there, stupid/silly choices follow without trouble.

    So that’s how you can be stupid in a deterministic universe.
    Before anyone takes the bait: yes, I might be demonstrating “how”, live in here, for your eyes only ;-).

  75. 75. Jochen says:

    @Everyone-Smolin & Unger’s book, A Singular Universe & The Reality of Time, is now offered freely on Unger’s site:

    http://robertounger.com/english/pdfs/singularuniverse.pdf

    Sci (or anyone), have you read this? I’m about 80 pages into the section by Unger, and so far, it’s pretty tedious, and moreover, there’s a lack of arguments for (sometimes highly) contentious positions that’s pretty disheartening. Does this get better? Are the arguments just postponed, until the general structure has been developed? Because right now, there simply doesn’t seem to be any reason to go along with the claims he makes, and his strategy in bringing the points home seems merely to be to repeat them ad nauseam.

  76. 76. Mark S says:

    Jochen, here is a review of Unger and Smolin by a philosopher:

    https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2015/03/24/the-singular-universe-and-the-reality-of-time/

  77. 77. Jochen says:

    Yes, that review is actually why I’m reading the book (and have persevered to this point); but so far, I can’t really relate to Pigliucci’s excitement…

  78. 78. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Jochen, #75
    🙂 😀
    Careful there! 😉 (You know why I’m laughing, right?)

    Having winked enough, I may add that when I find myself disagreeing with Pigliucci (frequent, but not that frequent), I either do because I find his position to be biased by (usually agreeable) preferences/desires or because he is cutting corners(!). So there may be a larger pattern there, not merely one that is confined to how you yourself read philosophy and/or what you expect when reading philosophy (more winks).
    [Haven’t read the book myself, and please do note that this comment is mostly written in jest.]

  79. 79. Mark S says:

    Sergio, I guess you are referring to an inside joke but many have a hard time taking philosophers seriously since they almost always disagree with one another. Guess because field seems like such a useless mess to many. So I should not have given a link to that review by that philosopher. A physicist would have been better.

  80. 80. Sci says:

    @ Sergio: Impressive defense of compatibilism. I’m unconvinced but I appreciate the effort. Sadly to me compatibilism seems like a means of placing comforting blankets – complexity, appeals to the necessity of determinism, etc – around cold facts rather than an actual argument.

    @ Jochen: I’ve found myself skimming Unger’s sections. I appreciate the man’s thoughts but I find he needs a course on brevity. 🙂

    Curious though what do you think are the contentious claims?

  81. 81. Jochen says:

    Sergio:

    (You know why I’m laughing, right?)

    I’m German; I never know why anybody’s laughing. That whole sense-of-humor thing is just not in our genes… 😉

    However, I trust you see now that I don’t just pick on you with my ceaseless asking for more rigorous argumentation!

    Mark:

    So I should not have given a link to that review by that philosopher. A physicist would have been better.

    In this case, it’s indeed a bit ironic that you should link to this particular philosopher, who on occasion has produced several spirited takedowns of physicists displaying their ignorance when it comes to philosophy and its value; e.g. Lawrence Krauss, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and <a href="http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.de/2012/09/krauss-does-it-again-so-soon.html"Krauss again. All of these are well worth reading (and I do say so as a physicist).

    Sci:

    Curious though what do you think are the contentious claims?

    Well, this is a bit off-topic, but for one, the claim that the laws of physics change if time is real—I’m not sure why ‘time being real’ entails ‘everything changes’; in particular, Unger himself doesn’t seem to believe this for all the facts about the world, such as, for instance, the fact that there is only one universe at a time.

    The analogies he proposes I find wholly unconvincing—he only considers open systems, whose change ultimately stems from outside influences. It’s true that natural selection alone can’t predict the forms of life that actually emerge, but such emergence is simply due to factors outside of evolutionary theory—changing geographical and climatic conditions, for example. Why this should have any relevance for cosmology, where we’re thinking about the ultimate closed system, is unclear to me.

    Additionally, there are laws—such as the second law of thermodynamics—which I can’t see being susceptible to change at all, since it’s ultimately just a simple statements of statistics, which doesn’t depend on any physical contingencies.

    So in the end, with respect to this—quite central—point, the sum total of my reaction is more or less, ‘well OK, but… why?’.

    There’s more, but I don’t want to clutter Peter’s comment section anymore than I usually do…

  82. 82. Sergio Graziosi says:

    Mark #79
    (Yes, sorry, and inside joke – couldn’t resist the temptation)
    Yours is an odd comment to make, can’t avoid reading as “people don’t take philosophy seriously because the field is a mess, so quoting philosophers isn’t a good idea”. It’s also odd that of all philosophers, it specifically refers to one who started as a scientist (genetics, ev. biol.) and as a philosopher stands out as one of the most open to debate, always making sure he’s not attacking straw men and mostly focussing on problems that don’t strike me as over-specialised and insular.
    As an outsider of both physics and philosophy, I can see flaws in both camps, but whoever says “therefore what’s happening on the other side should be ignored” strikes me as someone advocating wilful ignorance, with apologies for remarking the obvious.

    @Sci,
    You’re always too kind! I didn’t set out to write a defence – didn’t feel that way anyway ;-). I think my primary aim was (and probably usually is) checking if my reasoning can survive being made explicit. Re-reading my comment, I realise one can use it as a tiny guide/list of problems that compatibilists need to overcome. As the list isn’t short, not being convinced is sensible. In our case, our disagreement isn’t a surprise: we both had placed our bets before our first encounter here, didn’t we?

    @Jochen,
    Yes, I was laughing because I have been honoured by the analogy 😉 – half of my amusement coming from (a bit perversely) observing how happy the other half was, and crucially, why!

  83. 83. Mark S says:

    @Sergio. Yes I have heard it a few times from professional philosophers themselves that analytic philosophy and possibly the rest is a mess/cannot-agree-on-anything. Off the top of my head Peter Unger, Alex Rosenberg, Richard Rorty, Phil Goff.

  84. 84. Mark S says:

    @ Jochen. Smolin had a big part and I do not think he is well regarded by other physicists/cosmologists.

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