Slam, Dunk, No Free Will?

Here's Jerry Coyne at his blog today, discussing his column arguing against free will in USA Today:
Compatibilists resemble theologians in many ways, not the least of which is that they both engage in endless lucubrations trying to show that something that doesn’t exist, but that is necessary for our psychological well-being, really does exist in some form or another. People hate the idea that they aren’t agents who can make free choices, just as they hate they idea that there might not be a Protective Father in heaven.
As someone who leans toward some sort of retention of free will, I don't think this makes me like a desperate theist.  Free will seems real, whatever your position on it.   Should I lift up my tea cup now or keep typing?  I seem to be free to go either way.  God would have to be appearing in the sky day in and day out and speaking in a thunderous voice for theism to have as much experiential support as the belief in free will.  Free will supporters are trying to "save the phenomena," which can't be said of theists.

I do hate the idea that I can't make free choices, but not "just as" people hate the idea that there's no "Protective Father in heaven." It's much more unsettling to suppose the course of history was settled, in every last detail, before you were born, than to do without a heavenly father.  It's not just seeing myself as an automaton that's disturbing. What really bothers me is thinking that my efforts never alter the course of the future, though of course I do my part to bring about the future that's bound to be.  This used to especially bother me a lot when my children were very small.  I wanted to think that being vigilant in all things would protect them from some awful eventuality, shifting the future away from Bad B, and toward Good A.  But there aren't two possible futures, if determinism is true.  We're heading for Bad B or Good A, and my efforts are just a link in a predetermined, unilinear chain.  If you let that thought sink in, it's extremely unsettling.

So--free will is much more "evident" than God, and free will is much more existentially crucial than God.   That doesn't mean, of course, that free will is a reality.  Coyne says science will not allow it, since our choices take place in our brains, and our brains are part of the completely law-governed material world.  But this simple overview of what we know subtlely exaggerates what we know. OK, choices do take place in our brains, and not without brains, but it's not as if consciousness has been fully explained and reduced to a specific physical property of brains.  Consciousness is a huge unsolved puzzle.  Since free choices are conscious choices, it would seem premature to say you were absolutely sure how they work.

Weird analogy (since I'm pre-coffee):  suppose you think a river works deterministically, its direction and flow constantly determined by past events.  You now learn that the river is conscious and experiences itself as making various decisions.  Should you stick to your guns as far as determinism goes?  I think you ought to slow down at least a little--what's going on to make the river conscious?  And is that, whatever it is, relevant to whether the river flows deterministically?  Until you're on top of consciousness, it seems only reasonable to be a little modest on the subject of free will.


Aeolus said...

Coyne's piece is an exercise in begging the question: Since we are merely products of physical processes operating in strict accordance with laws of physics beyond our control, we don't have free will.

Coyne says that "we should continue to mete out punishments..." and "we should continue to reward good behavior...." But if we don't have any choice in the matter, where does this "should" come from?

But of course my criticisms are misplaced: after all, he couldn't help writing that silly article.

Russell Blackford said...

I don't think his article is silly, though I do think that it's a lot better than his subsequent post at WEIT and than the passage he quotes from Sam Harris.

As far as I can see he is correct that there is no spooky gap between his decisions and the events that formed his beliefs and desires (and whatever physical substrate these supervene on or are identical to). That's not the problem.

The problem that I have is that I don't see why such a spooky gap is required for deliberation to be rational and to some extent efficacious in shaping our futures. That seems to me a separate question from whether we have been shaped by our pasts. Since I think that we are essentially physical things, I have no problem about the idea that we have been shaped by our pasts. But the future goes via us: these physical things really do act on the world in effective ways.

It's partly a matter of teasing out the issues (even Jean is tending to run them together), and I do resent the claim by Harris that we compatibilists are somehow changing the subject when we do that.

Anthony Hopper said...

I just finished reading the article and responding on 'USA Today's' website. My response is below; due to its length, I had to break it up into multiple responses. I would also add that the title of Coyne's article is misleading, as it indicates that his views are theories or even axioms when they are no more than hypotheses at this point.

Jerry Coyne's hypothesis seems to be flawed. I have listed some of my reservations to Coyne's analysis below. Perhaps, apologists in the "no free will" camp can provide valid rejoinders to these queries. As an aside, this list represents my immediate concerns with Coyne's article; I could probably posit a more erudite, lengthy list if I had the time to devote to research the issue.

From an Evolutionary Perspective:

1) If I recall, isn't 1/3 of the human brain devoted to higher-end, thought processes (ie. not subconscious but conscious actions). If that is the case, and assuming no free-will, human minds are horribly inefficient. We should have been out-competed by organisms which utilized more efficient means to overcome the problems inherent in living in complex societies (mentioned in Coyne's piece).

2) From my view, wouldn't evolution favor organisms with free will over animals whose behavior was wholly determined by their genes and past experiences? The more dynamic and fluid a creatures have the best chance of overcoming unique environmental occurrences long enough to maximize the number of off-spring they produce.

From a Statistical Perspective:

Even in closed systems, it is impossible to predict some outcomes, which is due to the inherent randomness in these systems. The existence of this randomness calls into question Coyne's view that all human actions are predetermined. It is impossible to say that something is foreordained if the same object placed in exactly the same conditions behaves in differently in each test.

Anthony Hopper said...

From a Biological Perspective:

It is possible that free will, as such, could be an emergent trait and thus is "more than the sum of its parts." While this may seem unrealistic, it is worth noting its possibility, given the existence of another emergent trait--consciousness. In regards to consciousness, it really should not exist. Its antecedents cannot be traced (ie. it does not seem to emanate from any part of the brain), and it does not seem to derive its powers from any particular grouping of cells.

From a Sociological Perspective:

Even if we assume that people could not make free choices if they were closed entities (ie. made up of and controlled by genes and environment, it is worth noting that human beings are not closed systems. Individuals interact with each other and transmit ideas, information, feelings, behaviors, etc. via these social interchanges. Further, these interactions are dynamic. In other words, people don't act as passive entities in these interactions; they respond in both active and passive ways. Their open-ended relationships provide them with the impetus and occasions necessary to make decisions which run counter to their internal programming.

From a Neurological Perspective:

It appears that Coyne's article conflates two types of choices that human beings make. He refers to scientific research (which might or might not be flawed; I have not reviewed the literature) to debunk instantaneous choice-making. It would make sense that human beings would rely on their subconscious when making quick decisions, ie. which button to push. One wants to be able to process a decision quickly (ie. via the subconscious) when making instantaneous choices. However, I think it would be more difficult to prove (or disprove) that human beings utilize free will when making decisions after thinking on the matter for some time.


Personally, I think that this issue is complex. On some occasions, we certainly rely on instinctual behaviors to guide decisions. In these instances, our choices are foreordained (not a free choice). In other instances, we do not consciously make a decision; however, our unconscious choice is not predetermined (so the choice is free to some extent). In both of these cases, our conscious minds trick us into believing that we made conscious, free choices. At other times, we are able to exert some conscious control over our choices; however, we make a decision from a limited set of possibilities (greater freedom of choice). Finally, I cannot conceive of it ever happening, but it is always possible that someone, relying on the input of numerous other individuals, is able to make a free decision from an almost unlimited set of potential choices (absolute freedom of choice).

Jean Kazez said...

Aeolus, I don't see Coyne's column as silly--I just wonder, though, whether he fully appreciates how bizarre it would be to seriously believe oneself and others are not free. To appreciate that bizarreness is (in my experience) to retain some level of respect for artful ways of defending the reality of free will.

Russell, I think most determinists will be happy to grant that deliberation is "rational and to some extent efficacious in shaping our futures". Deliberating (they will say) is a physical event in the world that makes a difference to how things turn out, just like a thunderstorm makes a difference to whether the grass gets wet. The determinist doesn't deny any of that, but rather simply says there's never more than one possible future we're heading for. But yes, our deliberations are a link in the causal chain that leads to that one future.

For compatibilists, the fact that deliberation is deliberation makes it something distinctive--and I think Coyne doesn't give enough credit to that line of thought. But like him, I do find the idea that only one future is possible hard to reconcile with the notion of being free in a really full-blooded sense. But can we be 100% sure of determinism where mental events are concerned, before we have a complete understanding of mental events themselves, including consciousness? (And I don't think we have that at the present time...) I think there's just a little bit of a question about that, perhaps enough to warrant being an agnostic about free will, rather than a flat out skeptic.

Russell Blackford said...

Yes, you've actually explained my position pretty well - i.e. the compatibilist one.

The only caveat is that there do seem to be events at the quantum level that do not have causes in the ordinary sense (if they have "causes" at all, the cause is merely that the laws of physics allow such events to happen with some degree of probability). Thus, the future is not literally fixed causally by the past ... though it may be, or very close to it, at the level of neural events.

It's conceivable, and some people argue, that undetermined quantum effects can scale up to have an impact on brain operations and thus our decisions. I don't want to rule that out, though I don't see how it makes me more "free" if some decision I make is partly the result of a quantum level event that I didn't control, any more than I controlled my genetic make-up.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Charles Collingwood here,

If one's nature is to have free will, then one acts according to one's nature---and how is that free, since one has no choice but to act according to one's nature.
If ultimately we are parts of the operation of the universe, then what shall we say, that the universe acts as its nature dictates? Is the universe then not free? Seems selly.
Truly, the whole notion of free will seems a muddle.
Why not just say that things happen, or things are done or something?
What is it about the human "I" as an independent agent that needs such preservation, considering that ultimately it really is the universe that we are integral to and so which is and does everything? Seems silly then, "free will"; and an unecessary concept.
And as far as ethics is concerned, we will hold people responsible for actions we consider harmful, regardless whether they acted freely or not.

Faust said...

The latter portion of the article is poorly conceived.

Coyne writes:

"But we should continue to mete out punishments because those are environmental factors that can influence the brains of not only the criminal himself, but of other people as well. Seeing someone put in jail, or being put in jail yourself, can change you in a way that makes it less likely you'll behave badly in the future...What is not justified is revenge or retribution — the idea of punishing criminals for making the "wrong choice." And we should continue to reward good behavior, for that changes brains in a way that promotes more good behavior."

Coyne is not entitled to say that revenge and retribution are out of bounds after making his primary criteria for evaluating the meting out of punishments the modification of behavior generally. One can just as easily say "we ought to continue to promote a sense of retributive justice and revenge for past wrongs because people who see retributive justice enacted will be less likely to commit wrongs in the future."

Or to put it another way what if the following proposition were true:

(P)People that believe in free will are more likely to recover from addiction than people who are are determinists.

Pragmatically speaking then, we ought to promote belief in free will for addicted individuals if (P) is true.

Exactly how belief in free will hooks up to various actions is of course a subject that would be amenable to empirical investigation.

I would not be surprised if belief in free will was beneficial in some cases (cases where belief in one's own capacities was important), but less helpful in other cases (e.g. being compassionate to bad actors).

Jean Kazez said...

What particularly bothers me about the column and Coyne's blog post is that he's trying to smart-dumbify the free will debate. As in: not just take a position, but make it appear that it's the obviously smart position, and anyone on the other side is like people engaging in religious apologetics. I think this is a major distortion of the state of the debate. There is enough to suggest people are free that it's a good thing for philosophers to continue trying to make sense of that--it's way too soon to cast that position as the dumb one that ought to be left behind with other superstitions.

Here's something that puzzles me about mental events, and gets in the way of my being a committed causal determinist about them. If I sit here and do a few simple math problems, the events in my brain will be responsive to truths about mathematics. It's as if these brain events have two masters: (1) the past which led up to them, and (2) the domain of mathematics. Ideally, you'd say both (1) and (2) explain the fact that I think things like "the number 3 is odd", but how can that be? If (1) explains the thought, there doesn't seem to be room for (2), and vice versa.

I'm not sure if this conundrum helps in the least to shore up free will, but it does cast a little doubt on a simple sort of causal determinism, as applied to mental events. Maybe.

Chris Schoen said...

Faust wrote:

I would not be surprised if belief in free will was beneficial in some cases (cases where belief in one's own capacities was important), but less helpful in other cases (e.g. being compassionate to bad actors).

The problem is that Coyne's "hypothesis" obviates any possibility of choosing one's belief, or advocating such a choice to others. So it doesn't matter if it's beneficial or not. We have no capacity to make pragmatic decisions.

Coyne writes that one benefit to acknowledging the non-existence of choice is that it kneecaps Christian apologists who ask others to choose to accept Christ as savior. But if we can't choose Christ, we can't not choose him either, and it follows that we can neither choose or not choose evolution (or other scientific theory) based on the evidence. So what would be the point of writing that book of his? Or intoning so dutifully on the follies of the faithful?

Anthony Paul said...

One problem with the discussion (I think, or the little guy in my head apparently thinks) is that the word "choice" no longer appears to mean what it once did if you accept Coyne's approach since, if I understand him correctly, an apparent conscious decision is never conscious. What exactly is a "choice" if we have no way of knowing if it is, for want of a better phrase, a deliberative decision, albeit unconscious, or something more in the nature of a response to a stimulus. (I'm beginning to think of good old B. F. Skinner and operant conditioning as well as "A Clockwork Orange".) If my mind is just doing a lot of behind the scenes deliberating, I'm not sure I care if it's unconscious, and in that case I'm not sure what his point is, at least in practical terms. ("I am what I am and that's all that I am!" (cite to Popeye the Sailor).) Also, absent a more thoughtful discussion, I think this is apt to backfire in odd ways as it also reminds me of Cartesians laughing at what appears to be an animal in pain because the animal is really just a complex robot. Perhaps I just don't understand, but it appears to me (you know what I mean) that there is a lot of question-begging going on, and/or some willful obtuseness. "Or do I owe someone an apology?" (cite to "Men in Black") Actually I guess I'll never owe anyone an apology again as I'm not responsible.

Deepak Shetty said...

But like him, I do find the idea that only one future is possible hard to reconcile with the notion of being free in a really full-blooded sense.
Does Coyne actually say this anywhere?
Since almost everyone accepts true randomness - especially at the quantum level - one future is almost certainly false. (and if I remember my sci-fi correctly quantum mechanics makes predictions about parallel universes and versions of you making every possible choice , probability functions determine which is the future etc etc).

Me I have always been stuck at if a reset button was hit, what would ever cause me to choose differently - but randomness?
Given the same everything else - why would I reason differently - why would I choose differently?

Damned if I do - Damned if I don't.

Jean Kazez said...

Chris, I don't think causal determinists have to think we should stop advocating positions, reasoning about what's true and false, what's right and wrong, etc. Although there's an inevitability to which conclusions we will reach, decisions we will make, etc., there's no reason at all not to go through the deliberative process. In fact, we can make the generalization that deliberators do better in life than coin-tossers, giving us all the more reason to go ahead and deliberate (and reason, etc). There's no inference to be made from "our deliberations are inevitable" to "we should do something else."

Deepak, Coyne argues that it's never the case that we could have chosen otherwise (thus: we're not free), on grounds that our choices are material events, and the material world is deterministic. If that's the case, it follows that everything that happens in the future is just as "fixed" by the past as our choices are--no more so, and no less so. So it seems fair to say that someone who sees our choices as the only possible ones, given the past, will also see every event lying in the future as the only possible one, given the the past.

Deepak Shetty said...

Coyne argues that it's never the case that we could have chosen otherwise (thus: we're not free)
Subject to randomness as far as I remember(too lazy to go back and search though!)

Everyone discounts randomness - because well that makes everyone unhappy - compatibilist and incompatibilist.

Chris Schoen said...


I'm not sure how to logically read Coyne's remark that hard determinism refutes the capacity to accept Christ except as likewise refuting the capacity to reject Christ, and by extension to accept or reject any offered proposition. I'm not saying all causal determinists must follow suit; there are numerous "soft" determinists, after all who don't think the language of causal explanation should be applied to subjective experience. But I don't see by what faculty deliberation can remain a meaningful option once we deny the ability to choose beliefs. Perhaps we may still "deliberate" in an epiphenomenal way, but this cannot by definition be described as having any pragmatic value whatsoever, since epiphenomenal thoughts and dispositions cannot be brought to bear on behavior.

What really floors me is Coyne's even further (and astounding) step of suggesting that no one be allowed any moral responsibility for his actions, whether saintly or dastardly. This too would make it hard to see how our deliberations are supposed to have any real import--if you take the argument seriously (which it is hard to do.)

Jean Kazez said...

Chris, I think Coyne's point about accepting Christ is that for a determinist, there can be no credit for accepting him, or blame for not, given that you couldn't have chosen otherwise. So it doesn't make sense for salvation to be based on belief. That doesn't mean that any determinist (hard or soft) has to doubt the causal efficacy of deliberation or choice or other mental processes. Determinists are not at all obliged to be epiphenomenalists about mental events, any more than they have to be epiphenomenalists about other material events, like heart attacks and thunderstorms. Deliberation consists of a bunch of physical events in the brain, and they have consequences--like other bodily events do. The troubling thing is not how deliberation makes a difference, but why the deliberator should get any kind of credit or blame for the way he/she deliberates.

Russell Blackford said...

Chris, although I disagree with Jerry the "astounding" step that he takes is actually a pretty popular one among analytic philosophers right now. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that this has now become the central issue in the professional philosophical debate about free will. Have a read of, for example, Neil Levy's new book Hard Luck.

And if Neil is reading this, he owes me another bloody beer for the above plug of his book! Of course, it won't be his responsibility if he fails to provide it.

Chris Schoen said...

Russell, your finger is a lot closer to the pulse of the analytic zeitgeist then mine, but I hope you're wrong about this, because it would just be too sad.

I suspect it's a question of parsing terms. Levy claims that only Americans care about "free will," in which case we can't be talking about the same thing. We would have noticed if the other 5 continents had moved on to some post-volitional phase of civilization. I'm pretty sure of that. Which is to say that Levy's definition of free will seems far more finely drawn than Coyne's. (I'm also no great fan of the concept of "libertarian" free will.)

Furthermore, Levy appears to disagree with Coyne on the two main particulars put forth in the USA Today column. Levy does not appear to believe that causal determinism is any threat to the concept of free will. Nor does he seem to think that there's much to be drawn from the Libet study. In general Levy's position seems marked out quite a distance from Coyne's, especially the (I'll quote myself) "astounding step" of declaring moral responsibility moribund. From what I can see, Levy appears to consider moral responsibility quite intact. (As here: http://agencyandresponsibility.typepad.com/flickers-of-freedom/2010/07/does-consciousness-matter.html?cid=6a0120a8bb6b2e970b013485736059970c)

At any rate, no matter how many professional philosophers take a Coyneian view (I suspect the number is small--as I wrote over at my place we can't really even call the Churchlands his philosophical kin on this issue), it nonetheless remains an astounding move to seriously propose that we abandon our concept of moral responsibility. Thankfully, Coyne doesn't actually seem all that serious about it, given the way he can't be bothered to apply the rubric to his own interpersonal goings-on.

Chris Schoen said...


I'm not sure I follow your reasoning. Perhaps I also have not been clear enough in mine.

Coyne doesn't merely suggest that Christians are to be given no credit for accepting Christ, he goes right out and claims it as an ontological impossibility. His words:

Many faiths make claims that depend on free choice: Evangelical Christians, for instance, believe that those who don't freely choose Jesus as their savior will go to hell. If we have no free choice, then such religious tenets — and the existence of a disembodied "soul" — are undermined, and any post-mortem fates of the faithful are determined, Calvinistically, by circumstances over which they have no control.

He gets Calvinism wrong here, but we take his point: If you accept Christ it is not because of an act of volition, but rather because of causal forces you cannot surmount. In your paraphrase: you could not have chosen otherwise.

How, then, can you write that determinists need not "doubt the efficacy of deliberation or choice or other mental processes," given that we have just declared one of these processes (choice) ontologically non-existent? And that another of these processes (deliberation) relies upon choice to operate (because we cannot truly evaluate propositions without the capacity to select the superior alternative)? That sounds to me like a barrier to "efficacy," and it would indeed be a "troubling thing" if deliberation could "make a difference" once we had established (as Coyne tries to) that there is no faculty that would allow a different outcome if we re-wound the tape of our lives and tried again. This part of my objection really is tautological.

You write, next, that determinists are not compelled to be epiphenomenalists about mental events any more than physical--which you quickly qualify by re-defining mental events _as_ physical events in the brain. Epiphenomenalism, though, regards to the power (or rather the lack thereof) of (subjectively experienced) thought to influence the (objectively observed) behavior of oneself or others. It originally arose as an ideology as an attempt to purge the ghost from the machine--it only makes sense in regard to private, subjective mental activity. (Thomas Huxley would have been delighted to know that there are theoretical neural correlates to mental dispositions--it would have made his job a lot easier.) Since "choosing" happens, if at all, in the mind, not the brain, we nestle right up next to this problem the moment we declare choice illusory.

The fact remains that if we cannot evaluate propositions (which would require choosing), we cannot reason, we cannot deliberate, and we thereby cannot bring our (subjectively accessed) thoughts to bear on the objective world. That's epiphenomalism in its simplest formulation.

Jean Kazez said...

Chris, Quick response, because it's late--I don't read that passage from Coyne as you do. I don't think he's calling into question that some people become Christians as a causal consequence of their own deliberations and volitions. The problem is that these particular deliberations and volitions were inevitable, given the past. So they don't deserve credit for them. So it doesn't make sense to think they should be rewarded by eternal life for them. When he says the bit about "Calvinistically," I don't think he means that literally--he just means if determinism is true, salvation is not within a person's control.

As for epiphenomenalism--almost everyone involved in the contemporary debate about free will sees mental events as identical to, or composed of, or supervenient on, brain events. There is no problem with brain events being causally efficacious, so it's fairly straightforward to think mental events are causally efficacious too. I would say almost all philosophers of mind see mental events as causes of behavior and explain that based on their being very tightly tethered to physical events.

I might have missed something in your comment--sorry, must go watch some blather from Rick Santorum.

Russell Blackford said...

Chris - I'm not saying that Neil's view is identical to Jerry's. But I'm pretty sure that he sees the question of moral responsibility as the key one in the mainstream debate among professional analytic philosophers ... and he thinks there's really no such thing (much like Galen Strawson does).

I'm only addressing that one issue in my comments on his views.

Chris Schoen said...


Thanks for reminding me about Strawson. I find his arguments particularly puerile, though to be fair the ambiguity in the language that he is exploiting ("ultimate," "free") has always been there waiting to be seized upon, so we (as a culture) might as well have the discussion and get it over with.

His main point seems to be that because we don't have total freedom and unfettered agency, that freedom and agency are altogether illusory. This is not a philosophical argument, it is pure fallacy, the find we see in children when a treasured ideology is taken from them too soon.

Invoking Buddhism and Krishnamurti (as he does) is not helpful. Whether or not certain individuals can transcend the everyday world of volition, credit, and blame does not directly bear upon how we structure a society for the rest of us.

Coyne is writing in USA Today, of all places, and cannot pretend to be formulating a utopian model for an elite vanguard. His denial of moral responsibility is for the common woman and man, and as such it's a serious social hazard.

But I do appreciate your reminding me that Coyne's stance is not without precedent among professional philosophers, even if most of them are more careful about it.

Chris Schoen said...


Let me backtrack a little and see if that helps us grasp each other better.

My critique of Coyne is, at its most essential, that you cannot ontologically excise "choice" and have Reason left over. The two are inextricable. There is simply no way to meaningfully describe Reason without positing a reasoner who has the capacity to discern and evaluate competing propositions.

(We can describe another type of "reason" without invoking discernment, when we talk about Darwinian algorithms, for example, being programmed into the genetic code. I don't like this kind of talk--for me its too teleological--but even if we accept it, we are no closer to explaining how contra-Darwinian reasoning can transpire, as surely it does).

Another way of looking at this is through a Kantian lens: Through the faculty of reason (an elaboration of symbolic forms), humans are able to distinguish between the actual and the possible. Without volition and agency, such a discernment can be nothing more than an illusion played out in the theater of the mind. Just like the river cannot choose its bed from among alternatives, neither can humans choose beliefs, propositions, dispositions--indeed they cannot even discern true from false. (I recognize that Kantian reason is unfashionable, and readily concede that his idea of the will was far too libertarian. I'm just trying to highlight the problem that is not solved by hard determinism: Without agency and choice, whence Reason? (And thus whence philosophy, and science?)

When you write that the problem Coyne proposes is that "particular deliberations and volitions were inevitable, given the past," the question I have is: Why, then, call them "deliberations and volitions," if they could be nothing other than what they were? Isn't that a touch animistic? If we have already eliminated agency and volition from the realm of the possible, as Coyne proposes, these words should be as welcome in the conversation, henceforth, as augury, prayer, or sacrifice--meaningless acts that only appear to bequeath results.

Regarding epiphenomenalism:

There is no problem with brain events being causally efficacious, so it's fairly straightforward to think mental events are causally efficacious too.

I don't see how supervenience dodges the problem. If mental events are, as you say is widely held, "identical to or composed of brain events," then we have the classic epiphenomenal model. Causation can be entirely described by brain events, making the mental experience of those events irrelevant. This is just what Thomas Huxley and BF Skinner proposed. But then we have the very strange question of why we have consciousness at all, if nothing in it can make any impact upon brain states (that is, if the causal chain doesn't run that way)?

I would say almost all philosophers of mind see mental events as causes of behavior and explain that based on their being very tightly tethered to physical events.

This is the statement of yours I really can't grok. How can we say that mental events are causes of behavior when we already have a perfectly good set of physical brain events poised at the ready in the causal chain? Effects can't have redundant causes (Occam's razor), and furthermore determinism would rule out the capacity for a purely mental event to impinge upon a physical one (no ghost in the machine).

The only options I can see are:

1) Mental events refer to physical events but do not actually in themselves cause new physical effects (hard determinism)

2) Mental events may, by a mechanism as yet unknown, in themselves influence physical events (soft determinism or non determinism, depending on the explanation)

In the case of (1), both epiphenomenalism and no free will are inescapable deductions. In the case of (2), all bets are off but we are no longer insisting on a causal determinism when it comes to mental activity.

What I argue is that we can have (1) or (2) but not both.

Jean Kazez said...


I think it's odd to say that Coyne is trying to "ontologically excise 'choice' and have Reason left over." He's not denying people make choices, or that the choices influence their behavior--he's only saying that at each point in time one couldn't have chosen otherwise, and subsequently couldn't have behaved otherwise. I'm also skeptical that a hard determinist (like Coyne) can't say that people "discern and evaluate competing propositions." There's room for such cognitive processes in a deterministic world (why shouldn't there be?).

Maybe what you're thinking is that nobody counts as discerning and evaluating propositions unless they could accept a proposition as true and also could reject it--so it has to be possible to think otherwise than one actually thinks. But do we really want to say that? The most rational person will be unable to go from "p" and "if p then q" to anything but q. Does that mean they aren't really rational after all? Surely not.

Maybe your basic intuition is more that hard determinists can't grant that people are responsive to facts, logic, etc., since their thoughts are wholly explained by past physical events. I think there's something to worry about there--in fact one of my comments above was more or less along the same lines. (Jan 3, 8:55 am)

Re: epiphenomenalism. It seems to me like you're running together different issues in your rundown of options. Your option (1) is puzzling. The view that mental events ARE physical events is called "token physicalism". On that view, there is no problem at all with mental events being causally efficacious. Someone with that view of mental events wouldn't have to be a hard determinist--they could easily be a soft determinist (i.e. a compatibilist). They could even (with some fancy footwork) perhaps be a libertarian.

Some philosophers think mental events are intimately connected with physical events, but not identical with them (for complicated reasons). On that view, you do run into worries about the mental becoming redundant, but you might be able to solve them by recognizing that mental events are very tightly connected to physical events, even if not identical to them. This is not just a puzzle about the mental. You might, for various reasons, want to say that a wedding is composed of a whole bunch of physical events, but not identical to the physical events. That wouldn't necessarily stop you from saying the wedding caused an uproar. Macro events might ride piggy-back on underlying physical events, having an impact courtesy of the underlying events.

It seems to me that mental causation creates difficulties for anyone, whatever position they take on free will. So I'm a little lost as to why you think it's particularly an issue for a hard determinist like Coyne.

Chris Schoen said...

Jean, you write:

He's not denying people make choices, or that the choices influence their behavior--he's only saying that at each point in time one couldn't have chosen otherwise, and subsequently couldn't have behaved otherwise.

But he is not *only* saying this. Here's Coyne, from the very second paragraph, with my emphasis:

You may feel like you've made choices, but in reality your decision to read this piece, and whether to have eggs or pancakes, was determined long before you were aware of it... 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 Years resolutions you made? You had no choice about making them, and you'll have no choice about whether you keep them.

I think it would be fair to paraphrase this as a denial that people actually make choices which influence behavior. We might say that Coyne is allowing that "selections get made" (such as New Years resolutions) as result of neurological processes, but I don't see how he could any more clearly state that such selections are not consciously made. What applies to New Years Resolutions (and to acceptance of Christ, in our earlier example), must logically also apply to the selection or denial of rational propositions.

I'm also skeptical that a hard determinist (like Coyne) can't say that people "discern and evaluate competing propositions." There's room for such cognitive processes in a deterministic world.

I agree there is room for "cognitive processes" of all shapes and sizes in a deterministic world. However, the capacity to discern and evaluate requires that we are able accept or reject propositions--otherwise these terms have no meaning (and we would be perfectly within our rights to say that a river discerned and evaluated the many possible paths to the sea before choosing to jump its banks.) Given that we've just disallowed the capacity to accept or reject belief in Christ as savior, or to make a "free and conscious decision" to have eggs or pancakes for breakfast, then it's hard to see where this capacity is going to come from.

The most rational person will be unable to go from "p" and "if p then q" to anything but q. Does that mean they aren't really rational after all? Surely not.

I don't dispute that logic and reason require certain things of us. We are not inventing the wheel anew each time we reason. If we are making a commitment to logical form, we must then adhere to that form.

And yet, each time we apply the syllogism, we have to discern whether or not the actual terms match up with the logical placement of premise and conclusion--to ensure we aren't misled by a fallacy the (the fallacy of questionable cause, e.g.). I don't doubt that we sometimes do this unconsciously, or semiconsciously. Once we are good at something, it becomes second nature. But any challenging intellectual endeavor requires our full attention and awareness. When Coyne wrote his last book, surely he spent a good portion of it consciously deciding what to include, and what to exclude, and furthermore that he evaluated his decisions to make sure they were sound.

Chris Schoen said...


The view that mental events ARE physical events is called "token physicalism". On that view, there is no problem at all with mental events being causally efficacious.

Granted, but this is not a very long way from epiphenomenalism, since there is always a physical explanation at the ready. The mental explanation is redundant. It would be misleading to say that mental events qua mental events are efficacious as though the mechanism of causation did no owe to their equivalent identity as physical events. This is just bookkeeping, not a true theory of mental causation.

It seems to me that mental causation creates difficulties for anyone, whatever position they take on free will. So I'm a little lost as to why you think it's particularly an issue for a hard determinist like Coyne.

I agree, it creates difficulties for everyone--which means, as you write in the OP, that nobody should be too blithe about a theory of free will and consciousness without taking these problems seriously. Coyne's theory has serious, serious problems with logical consistency, and serious, serious implications for moral reasoning.

Jean Kazez said...

Chris, Coyne equivocates a bit. He sometimes uses the word "choose" to mean "choose freely". So when he says "you had no choice" I think he means "you didn't choose freely." I say that partly because the way he sometimes puts it is that we are unfree because we could not have chosen otherwise. But look: if you could not have chosen otherwise, then you did choose in some actual way.

Coyne is just taking a standard hard determinist line here, nothing more unusual or unique. The standard line is that when I choose to get up and make tea, there's a choice there, and the choice causes me to get up. But the choice is inevitable. I did choose, but I couldn't have chosen otherwise. Here's a sentences where he casually refers to our choices--"And if our choices are unconscious, with some determined well before the moment we think we've made them, then we don't have free will in any meaningful sense." He's not saying we don't make any choices; he's saying we don't make our choices freely.

I can see how you might be a little wary of the term "choice" if you take Coyne's line, and you believe there are these neural events that precede the feeling of choosing. Is the felt choice really a choice? Maybe the choice starts at the time of the slightly earlier neural event. Etc. But if you take the totality of the column, I think it would be over-interpreting to say he's committed to altogether denying that people make choices.

Re: token physicalism--if x=y, and x is causally efficacious, then y is efficacious. It just follows unproblematically from the identity.

Everything else--I think we're on the same page in our sense that something about rationality is going to fall by the wayside if we go along with everything Coyne says.

Chris Schoen said...

I think we're on the same page in our sense that something about rationality is going to fall by the wayside if we go along with everything Coyne says.

This is all I'm really saying. Coyne can keep the word "choice" if he wants, but this is just sleight of hand. Choice that isn't chosen is like ... Medicare that's been replaced by privatized insurance and still called "Medicare."

Re: token physicalism--if x=y, and x is causally efficacious, then y is efficacious.

Easy to assert in the abtract. Not so easy to defend in practice. Can such equivalence ever be legitimate? We're not talking Hesperus and Phosphorous here. If I pay you $10, and you get a paper cut from one of the bills, is it right to say that the mental construct of money cut your finger? There are huge problems cashing out this theory.

But it sounds like we're in agreement on most of the other stuff. Thanks for playing through.

Chet said...

OK, choices do take place in our brains, and not without brains, but it's not as if consciousness has been fully explained and reduced to a specific physical property of brains. Consciousness is a huge unsolved puzzle.

Maybe, but not in any sense that would help you. Consciousness may not be fully understood, but what absolutely is fully understood is that consciousness is a phenomenon of brains behaving completely consistently with the laws of physics.

Free will is actually the exact opposite of "rational and efficacious deliberation." If the facts of a circumstance lead rationally to one deliberated outcome instead of another, it will do so again if you were able to re-wind time and make the choice under the same circumstances again. Free will means "contracausal choice." And from what we know of the brain, that's simply not possible. We're organic computers, we process inputs and produce outputs according to laws of physics and chemistry. That doesn't leave us without the ability to respond to changing circumstance or new information, but then, nobody ever said that it did. Computers do that too, because that's not what "free will" has ever meant. Free will means that your choices are not constrained by circumstance, but contrary to your assertion, nobody ever feels that their choices aren't constrained by circumstance. Nobody actually feels like they have free will.

Anonymous said...

As a scientist, your point escapes me. Thought is a deterministic process. There are some bits of non-determinism, sure, depending upon the rate of chemical activity in the brain, signal propagation, and so forth; also there is non-determinism in terms of the "inputs" that go into decision making: did an apple happen to fall on your head at the time, did you happen to see something on TV that influenced you, etc. Its a complex process. Of course, *you* perceive free will. But *you* are a largely deterministic process.

Deterministic doesn't mean simple or predictable. Newton's laws of motion are deterministic but far too complex to admit a "computable" solution, as far as we know.

Where are you stuck? Is it the mind-body duality, that is not borne out by science?

Anonymous said...

I'm a scientists as well (a neuroscientist, actually), and much of this discussion seems to entirely miss the point. The situation is, very unfortunately, much simpler.

It doesn't matter whether or not we understand consciousness. It is entirely beside the point. Philosophical arguments don't matter at all. None of them. You can talk until you're blue in the face, they won't change anything. The facts are facts.

Let's go through them:

1. The activity of our material brain is inextricably linked to our thoughts. You literally cannot have a thought or a feeling, unless a certain configuration of activity is present in your brain. It works in the other way as well: inducing a particular configuration of activity in your brain will create thoughts or feelings in your mind.

2. This "configuration of activity" is material in the most direct sense of the word. In the most basic sense, it is determined by the relative position of large populations of sodium and potassium ions. All that talk about neural impulses and signals is just a shortcut to a bunch of sodium and potassium (ok, some chlorine and a little bit of calcium) moving into and out of neurons in a particular way.

Every thought, every feeling that you have REQUIRES this movement. You CANNOT have a thought or a feeling, UNLESS you have the right pattern of sodium, potassium, chlorine and calcium moving within your brain.

3. These movements are entirely governed by the laws of physics. No movement of these ions was ever observed to break these laws.

4. For us to have free will, there has to exist a force that can break laws of physics.

Currently, the state of my brain is moving towards the configuration of ions which corresponds with me clicking on the "Publish your comment" button on this blog. If I have a free choice NOT to push that button, some intervention has to change the laws of physics inside my head.

Literal, material atoms of matter have to be made to move in a different way, in a way they shouldn't be moving. Otherwise, they will move according to the laws of physics, and produce the inevitable ("click") configuration.

That is it. Unless you can show actual atoms within the brain moving in a way that breaks the laws of physics, we cannot - absolutely, irrevocably, no ifs, no chances, no possibilities - cannot have free will.

(The quantum physics quibble, by the way, doesn't help. In the unlikely case that there is a link between quantum phenomena and our will, at best we get a will that is less predictable due to a random element within it. That is not a free will: it is a random, chaotic will.)

Jean Kazez said...


No doubt you're on top of the science here, but what do you think of my river point (last paragraph of the post)?

Russell Blackford said...

Chet, you seem to be making some very large dogmatic assertions without evidence. How do you know that what we label as "free will" had always had the meaning you attach to it? The claim that free will means means contracausal choice surprises me.

As I review Homer, Leucippus, Epicurus, the Stoics, Hume, et., etc., it's not obvious at all that everyone has had the same concept of "free will", let alone that it is the concept you decribe, that of "contracausal choice". Even modern libertarian philosophers don't describe it that way (though in my opinion what they do describe is unintelligible).

Likewise with the anonymous commenter - the science may be correct, but there is, amongst it, a semantic claim about what is meant by the expression "free will" - that is hardly a question that can be settled by neuroscience (though I can see other kinds of scientific inquiries that might be relevant to it; social psychologists may be abel to shed light on the issue). Point 4 is a semantic claim, not a scientific claim.

Russell Blackford said...

Ugh - sorry about all the typos. When I say "abel" I mean "able" ... etc.

Peter Moore said...

I know you weren't asking me, but I don't think your river analogy adds anything. As long as you believe that the river's consciousness derives purely from physical processes, then the details don't matter: its actions are as deterministic as the physical processes it derives from. The rest is just implementation details.

If you take free will literally, by which I mean contra-causal, then I don't see how any argument for free will can survive without dualism. So in my mind, if you want to go down that path, you have to reopen the dualism issue. If you don't posit dualism, the consciousness/qualia are just implementation details.

Let me be clear: I'm not immune to the wonder/terror that stems from the question that if I am just meat machine, where am "I"? How do I as a human, rather than physicist or programmer, swallow that? The best guess I have is that consciousness is an effect that arises in self-modifying computational systems of sufficient complexity. It is a feedback effect. But that is purest speculation and not particular satisfying. But I've never expected the universe to be satisfying or comforting: just true.

Chet said...

The claim that free will means means contracausal choice surprises me.

I guess I don't understand. I'm a native speaker of English so that's primarily how I know what words and phrases in English mean. But moreover, it seems perverse to describe a process of mechanistic reasoning from objective facts and mental rules as "free will", since that process is precisely not free. That process is meant to be constrained; we engage in that sort of reasoning precisely so that our conclusions are constrained (preferably, so that we're constrained to arrive at the most supportable conclusion.)

Taking 2 + 2 and getting 4 isn't an expression of free will; it's the precise opposite. So all the people who say "I must have free will, because I'm able to weigh the facts of a situation and apply some mental rubrics to arrive at the conclusion that seems best" are barking up the wrong tree - that's not, and has never been, free will. I've never heard of anyone who thinks that it is; that's why we can have computers do that kind of thing. Now, I don't define "free will" as "whatever computers can't do", but a computer is the canonical example of something that has no free will.

March Hare said...

I am broadly in agreement with Coyne's article, but there are a couple of issues with it:
1. Hard determinism (single future mapped out in advance) is trivially easy to disprove* - it simply becomes a probabilistic future (or futures).

2. "any more than a programmed computer can somehow reach inside itself and change its program"
While I can't expect him to be on top of all fields, computers routinely do this, even relatively simple chess computers.

The comments here have been interesting and I have a few observations:
There is a massive disconnect between people thinking 'free will' is libertarian free will and those pushing a more Dennett-style compatibilism. This has meant people talking past one another. Coyne's article seemed to be arguing strongly against libertarian free will while also taking a side swipe at compatibilism by removing the 'choice' from any decision.

Choice. There have been a few posts regarding choice. The way I see it Coyne is technically correct but that doesn't matter as choice exists for us because we don't know the outcome. When there is uncertainty we can see choice even if it is an illusion (like free will of any stripe).

Finally, people have been talking about 'my' choice, what 'I' could have done different. This is the central problem as far as I can see for people clinging on to free will of any stripe (other than as a rough heuristic for how people act). I am not just my conscious processes, I am all my biochemical reactions from my brain to my testes (testosterone affects a heck of a lot of decisions!). To take Coyne's example of rewinding the clock I, the whole package, would always choose the same given exactly identical circumstances otherwise in a very real sense it isn't me.

In simple terms, we are our choices. If I could choose differently it wouldn't be me choosing. If you accept this description of what it is to be you (which you may not) then the idea that your decisions are in some way fixed doesn't matter, all the problems with (soft) determinism go away.

PS. We should praise/reward reasoning because the decisions that come out of reasoning are usually much better than those that don't and we want to encourage/incentivise things that lead to better results.

* Set up an experiment where a radioactive particle might decay and commit to do X if it does and Y if it doesn't. Bingo, a probabilistic macro event.

Russell Blackford said...

Chet, if I engage in a process of rational deliberation, working out how to achieve my goals, with no one holding a gun at my head, or anything of the sort, I have acted of my own free will in ordinary usage. If my decision then leads to efficacious action, it looks as if fatalism is false. It then looks to me as if have everything that I might reasonably want that could be called "free will".

None of this has anything to do with mysterious "contra causal" but not random processes.

Sure, if you define "free will" as something mysterious like that it becomes almost trivially true that there is no free will. So what? Turning your position into one that approaches being trivially true just undermines the impression that it contains substance.

What we need to do is not impose some definition, but try to see what issues are really bugging ordinary people - and what issues have bugged people historically - under the rubric of the "free will" debate. That means doing historical research (digging back into the history of ideas), doing psychological and sociological research (or at least suggesting lines of research and looking to see what research has already been done), engaging in careful analysis of concepts, and so.

For example, it would be very interesting if social psychologists did some research to see whether exposure to "no free will talk" tends to subconsciously demoralise people and harm their performance (as racist talk does to people of minority races and sexist talk does to women ... there's a body of literature on this). If it does, that is at least some evidence that what is stake in ordinary people's minds is an idea of fatalism/futility. If no such effect is observed it will be some evidence against that conclusion.

My bet is that "no free will talk" conveys, in part, "your deliberations and actions are futile", in which case we should expect it to have some demoralising effect. If we can't find that effect, it starts to undermine compatibilist positions.

I suggest that the issue of demoralisation could become a larger part of the debate, and a focus for the attention of philosophers and social psychologists. It looks more potentially fruitful to me than the current esoteric debate in the philosophy journals about the meaning of moral responsibility and desert (though this is also a debate that we have to have).

GTChristie said...

Before one discusses freedom of "the will," s/he should demonstrate first that the will itself exists. What is "the will" to begin with? The root of the idea is closely related to the ideas of "soul" and "psyche" which in classic texts seem to do the "willing." Until someone shows us the actual physical organ that operates the function called "willing," it's too early to argue about its freedom. I think the will, just like the classic "soul" and "psyche," is just a metaphor for decisive types of thinking, and it's rather unscientific to argue about the freedom of a metaphor.

Chet said...

Chet, if I engage in a process of rational deliberation, working out how to achieve my goals, with no one holding a gun at my head, or anything of the sort, I have acted of my own free will in ordinary usage.

Ok, but the point is there is a gun to your head, actually a gun in your head, called the "laws of physics." And it seems incoherent to suggest that one consequence of the laws of physics - your "rational deliberation" - is called "free will", but another almost identical consequence of free will - my gun to your head to make you put in your ATM pin number - is called "coercion."

The laws of physics constrain your decision-making just as much as a gun to your head does, so, like Coyne, I don't see how "free will" is either "free" or "willful." Free will, by any definition but the most absurd, simply can't exist.

Anonymous said...

I'm the neuroscientist who left the comment on Jan 8th. With apologies for the delay, two answers to two questions (even though it's unlikely either will ever be seen):

Jean, the river analogy doesn't change anything about determinism. I do not know what consciousness is, or how it works. But I do know it does not have an ability to move physical objects in a manner contrary to the laws of physics. I also know that it greatly depends on attention, and the process of attention is similarly completely deterministic (you don't really choose what you are conscious of, in other words). So the river is deterministic, whether it is conscious or not.

Russell, you are right about the definition of free will. However, there is a common notion of what those words mean. If you ask a person on the street, they will say something along the lines "our actions are not predetermined, we make them freely moment by moment." That common definition is untrue. I leave it to philosophers to come up with a definition that works, but frankly... to me, this looks very much like putting the words "free" and "will" through semantic gymnastics, just so we can find some way to truthfully state that we do have free will.