Monthly Archives: May 2012

It’s not out of your control

In my last blog I discussed why I wasn’t finding Sam Harris’s treatise on Free Will convincing and why I didn’t think that what he insists must be the topic of conversation has anything to do with Free Will. Contrary to what he and many other incompatibilists claim, that what compatibilists talk about is nothing like the Free Will that the average person thinks they have and wants, I have become more convinced that they are talking about something so utterly foreign that we wouldn’t even recognize it as anything we’d want. The concept of Free Will seems central to the ideas of responsibility, blame, and praise and these things are important to our common view of morality. What incompatibilists talk about is obviously to them central to these topics but seems to me to be clearly way out of scope.

Now it must be said to begin with that the question of how much freedom we have is really up for grabs at this point. I also know of at least some arguments that we do not have free will are challenging to say the least, but these are not incompatibilist arguments they are instead arguments about how much of what we call ourselves is involved in the decision making process. There are a lot of psychological influences in our lives and the question of how much we are guided by them rather than ourselves, and how much we are able to know this, are very interesting questions that have nothing whatsoever to do with determinism and are not predicated on a definition of the universe and of free will that renders the two incompatible.


I don’t believe it is fully necessary to know what determinism is before coming to an understanding of the general incompatibilist argument. All we need in order to begin is to imagine a being that knows everything that is ever going to happen. Most people don’t have to go very far outside their general view of the world to imagine this as they call this being “God”. The gist of the argument goes that this “God” knows everything that is ever going to happen. Knowing this of course he knows everything that you will do. Given that God knows everything you will do, you obviously can’t do otherwise. If you could do otherwise then God would have to be in a state of not-knowing about your future. Since your actions are pre-determined by God’s knowledge (we’re not talking about his “plan” here, just his knowledge) you are actually more like a robot that just does whatever it was preprogramed to do. You can’t do anything else but what your programming dictates.

Most, but not all, incompatibilist arguments follow this line of reasoning with a determination that you cannot be held responsible for your decisions since they are not yours. Since you are unable to decide other than what you are programmed to decide you have no choice to do otherwise. The respondent of my last blog reworded this a little bit and claimed that you have no viable choice, but it amounts to the same point. Since your choices are determined by Gods knowledge you cannot own the choice and what you don’t own you are not responsible for.

An introductory rebuttal

An alternative thought experiment can help us see that maybe there’s something wrong here.

Let us take away this “God” being for a moment and assume a world in which Free Will either exists or does not…we do not know at this point. In this world you witness a choice being made. It is not your own (and this is actually very important) but someone else’s. Nothing you are doing interferes with this decision being made but you know after it is made what the outcome was. Now, being the superman that you are, you travel back in time to witness this decision again.

Now we ask ourselves some questions:

Will the same decision be made?

Well, since whatever deliberation the mind of the individual went through to arrive at the decision will have not been altered we can say that it will. The only way in which this would not be true is if the decision was completely arbitrary, without reason, aimless, and random. Otherwise, reasons will be what they are and that all being the same…the outcome will not be any different than it was last time we watched this same decision be made.

Did your knowledge have anything to do with it? Since we can see that this knowledge did not exist the first time through we can see that it had nothing to do with it.

The most common response to this thought experiment is that it’s just a thought experiment. This is of course the truth of things, and none of the above is even possible in our universe (most likely anyway) so it’s hard to see what this says about anything. Well, the first thing to note is that so is the position I’m arguing against. We all use thought experiments to figure stuff out and the whole “perfect knowledge being” thing is a thought experiment only. Neither of them lays claim to reality. What my experiment shows though is that the main assumption of the first thought experiment is false: choices are determined by knowledge of outcome.

A problem with language

What went wrong in the first thought experiment? The main premises seem to be obvious. If “God” knows what you’re going to do then that’s what you’re going to do. Some might be tempted to begin going down a road that makes it possible for God to be wrong. That’s not really being honest to the problem though as we’ve posited a God that knows in the plain sense: its beliefs reflect fact. Let’s stay true to the problem here and say that no, God is not wrong; your decisions will be as he knows they will be.

Maybe there’s something wrong with the second thought experiment then. The premises again though seem to be obviously true. A choice is made without knowledge of its outcome, we travel back and watch the same choice be made again. We know what the outcome will be this time, it is as we know it will be, and yet nothing about how that choice came to be has changed.

I believe the problem comes from the language used in the first argument, and I purposefully removed that language this second time through. Here I have stated the argument in terms of what will happen: God knows what your choices will be, you are going to make those choices. Previously I stated the argument in terms of what can happen: God knows what your choices be and therefor you cannot chose otherwise. These are not at all the same statements and the incongruency of the two thought experiments seems to happen here, at the difference between “can” and “will”, for there is a difference.

Category Error

A category error is what happens when you use terms that belong in one category in another. The term was invented by Gilbert Ryle in his book, The Concept of Mind, so it seems prudent to take an example he used to explain what it means:

John Doe may be a relative, a friend, an enemy or a stranger to Richard Roe; but he cannot be any of these things to the Average Taxpayer. He knows how to talk sense in certain sorts of discussions about the Average Taxpayer, but he is baffled to say why he could not come across him in the street as he can come across Richard Roe.

… [S]o long as John Doe continues to think of the Average Taxpayer as a fellow citizen, he will tend to think of him as an elusive insubstantial man, a ghost who is everywhere yet nowhere

Note that this quote may not be exact as my copy is in epub format and it looks like they used a character recognition scanner…I’m interpolating the computer’s mistakes.

So what is it that John Doe has done here that has confused him? We can see quite well the mistake he’s making and get a bit of a laugh out of it, but what exactly is John Doe confusing and what is he confusing it with?

What is Richard Roe? Richard Roe is an instance of a man, identified by the title “Richard Roe”. There is one particular Richard Roe and you can meet him on the street, shake hands with him, talk to him, etc.

What is the Average Taxpayer? The Average Taxpayer is a set of men identified by common characteristics…the main of which is that he pays taxes. You can’t meet the Average Taxpayer on the street because there’s no such person but a people. You could meet a person that falls into that category, and probably Richard Roe is such a person. You can’t meet the Average Taxpayer though because he/it is not in the category of individuals but is in the category of “set of individuals”.

What is “possible”?

The word “possible” means, “Capable of happening, existing, or being true without contradicting proven facts, laws, or circumstances,” according to the nearest online dictionary. Far be it from me to refer to the dictionary as an authority, and in fact I strongly disagree with many dictionary definitions of “God”, but the dictionary does come fairly close in most circumstances to the average use. This means that normal use of the word “possible” is perhaps relatively explained by the dictionary. Words are just symbols to intend meaning, so we can use them any way we want, but to convey meaning we need to either agree to what the words mean or explain (in agreed to meanings) what we mean my a term. In this case I agree with the meaning given by the dictionary and I believe it is the responsibility of those that would use it otherwise to define their meaning; in the meantime we must assume something like the dictionary is saying. I do wish to extend it though and dig down into what the definition means.

Basically when we say something is “possible” we mean that its, “…happening, existing, or being true…,” is among the set of universes that follows the same physical laws as our own. Truth be told, we actually mean a bit more than this because physical laws are not always part of the equation and we may pick and choose among them and is no doing add universes that are nothing like our own. So for example say I’m about to throw a lawn dart. Among the set of universes that we say are “possible” might be one in which I:

  1. Throw the dart such that it lands in the circle.
  2. Throw the dart such that it misses the circle.
  3. Really fuck up and throw the dart straight up such that it lands on my own head.

Since none of these “possibilities” violate the known laws of physics, they are all “viable” outcomes…meaning that they “could” happen. Alternatively we might say that among the possibilities is that I might throw the dart, it turns into a Unicorn, flies to the moon and back, shits on the circle, turns back into a dart, and lands at my feet. This scenario is so unlikely, based on our knowledge of expected outcomes, that we call it “non-viable” and in so doing we mean that it can not happen. This is a filter upon the overall set of “possibilites” that narrows it down to those future universes that are actually realistic.

All that being said, none of these future universes exist. These are all models that human minds create. When I throw my dart and the future unfolds, all of these alternative scenarios we invented are equally as real as the unicorn one–not to be confused with their “viability”, which conveys the obvious fact that the unicorn scenario so violates our understanding of reality that we can say no universe similar to our own would have that future. Although the set of possible futures is perhaps infinite, or practically so for human minds, the set of viable futures is smaller and the set of futures that are going to happen contains exactly one. Our “possible” is to our “future” as Ryle’s “Average Taxpayer” is to “Richard Roe”. If we continue to think of them as being in the same category we will be, like John Doe, forever baffled by the simplest of concepts.

Other words that belong in the set category rather than instance category are, “could”, “can”, “might”, “can’t”, “option”, and any other word that portrays the future as having multiple instances. The word “could” is simply a past tense occurrence of “can”, which conveys that the future is uncertain and might unfold in any number of ways. You may begin now to see what the problem is with the conclusions in the “God” thought experiment: what will happen is in a totally different category from what can happen just like what did happen is in a different category from what could have happened.

Where choice fits in

Choice fits somewhere in the gap between “can” and “will”. Exactly where is not certain to me and I see much room for debate on how much “can” we really have in our lives. We have the ability though to see the universe not only in how it will unfold, but in how it can unfold. The more we know about the universe we live in the better we’re able to predict what can is really a “can” and not just fantasy. Within and in addition to this ability we are able to simulate ourselves in these alternative futures, to anticipate what it might be like to be in one future or another. We desire some futures over others; I for example desire a future where I am employed and can pay my bills more than a future that is not so. Provided as we are with all of these possibilities we are able to model our own real world actions in ways that reflect those actions we anticipate are necessary for the future we desire.

This is where people often will start balking and say, “Oh but you’re just playing with words, you still can’t do anything other than you are determined to do.” They might add to this that, “You’re not talking about the Free Will everyone cares about, the kind that enables responsibility.” In fact, these are indeed the two main responses I get.

The first part is hard to respond to. It indicates a total failure to hear the argument as they are still using words that I’ve shown fall into a different category than the category they are using them in. In so doing they imply something that is not valid, that seems to say more than it really does, and makes people think that they’ve shattered this illusion everyone cares about. Truth be told they aren’t talking about anything anyone cares about, but because they’re violating categories they’ll be forever baffled by this simple fact.

What they imply by saying that one “can’t” act in any other way is fatalism. It is this that people fear, and perhaps rightfully so. It implies that nothing a person thinks matters and this is simply so utterly far from the truth that it’s hard to reconcile. Our evolved, mechanic ability to anticipate possible futures and select among them very much steers the course the universe takes in the future. In as much as a rock falling will eventually hit the ground and damage both the rock and what it hits in some way, this modeling of alternate futures and selecting among them will force the future into a direction dictated by that deliberation in at least some way (clearly simply deciding something doesn’t make it so, and acting on that decision doesn’t either…but it helps). Unlike the rock though, which has no such ability to anticipate futures and will them into being, our ability gives us control. The rock falls. “Can” has no place in our discussion about it. We act. “Can” has everything to do with it.

It’s hard to say how one might go about convincing someone not open to the former line of reasoning. The only thing one can do is continue mentioning that “can” has no place in a discussion about a single universe. It only has place in a discussion of possibilities which are within the realm of our understanding of how the world works. Although some might claim that only one such possibility is “viable”, this is really flying in the face of language use and so will never be about anything the average person cares about. The average person cares whether the things going on in their mind affect the course of things to come, and they do.

Is this “free” though?

Which brings me to the final part of the discussion. Is what I’m talking about the kind of “Free Will” that people care about? What I am talking about is not a “contra-causal” free will, an ability to pop events into the universe that have no causes (note I didn’t use “create”). Our thoughts, our wills, our emotions, and our reasons all have their causes too. If I had perfect knowledge of the universe, and/or was able to observe the state transitions in your brain, I could anticipate your decisions. How can this be “free”?

First of all I think we have to ask ourselves what we mean by “free”. If we mean in an absolute sense, a sense in which we can do or think anything, and can decide what to think next, etc… I think we have to abandon this idea as absurd. Further, I don’t think anyone really does expect it nor do we feel like we’re exercising such power in our everyday lives.

We recognize and understand that many times our decisions are based on what we call “whim”; yet we do not cry over this or say it happened without our say so as that “whim” is part of what we self-identify with. Something came over me such that I wanted one thing over another. This is as close, I think, to what incompatibilists must expect of “free will” as anything and these are the decisions we’re the least attached to.

Another class of decision we make are over choices that require much deliberation. In these decisions we reason things out, we converse with ourselves for great lengths of time over the matter. The decision whether or not “Free Will” is a reasonable concept was such a thing for me, as was the decision that this assumed magical version is both absurd and not what people want was another. How much of my belief is based on reason and how much my reason is based on the belief are debates I’m willing to have, but these are the kinds of things that I feel most clearly identify me, these are the decisions I feel most involved in being a part of making and it must be said that if they are indeed as reasoned and deliberate as I hope them to be…they are utterly formulaic in their design, meaning they were calculated by in incredibly complex and powerful machine.

It is in this later class of choice that most people at least like to believe that their moral choices are within. Do I cheat or do I not cheat? Reasons for cheating: if I’m not caught I get into a better position than I would be otherwise. Reasons for not cheating: it’s immoral and if I get caught I’m so fucked it’s not funny. There is a lot of evidence that says this isn’t necessarily how it really plays out, and this is just a story we tell ourselves after the fact, but I don’t need to break away from causation to feel free here…I need to break away from psychology and have my decisions be even more rational and computational. I need my reason and my ethics to be involved.

I suppose there are certainly people out there who feel otherwise, who want all of their decisions to be based on something fundamentally outside of reason without which they feel trapped by reality, unable to exercise their will and guide the future into something they want to live in. I really have to debate with those that would claim that’s the most common view though. Certainly there are many people who, baffled as they are by categorical error, are terrified that a rational view of the world dictates that nothing they are matters and that the universe dictates to them what will be rather than the other way around. I don’t believe though that what they really want is at all hindered by reality and I am fairly certain that their fear is based utterly on misunderstanding and a misuse of words. Our choices matter. They are a part of what happens in the future. What you are thinking is not pointless; quite the opposite in fact.


Bringing this into focus with regard to a closer view of incompatibilist thinking we forego the “god” being we discussed above and replace it with physics. “For every action there is a reaction.” Determinism is very likely NOT true, but any freedom you’d care about cannot be saved by indeterminism (a universe with truly random events that are not caused). What determinism does is basically assert that because every event has a cause, which in turn had a cause, etc… and that every cause has one result, and this will have one result, etc… that the entire future of the universe, every event that will ever happen, is known and expressed in its current state.

To explain a bit better perhaps, consider a pool table. Pool balls behave in a very rigorous, determined manner. If you hit a cue ball straight on another ball, the queue stops and the momentum is directly transferred to the ball it hit. This is pretty much impossible to do, so you generally see balls bounce off each other in consistent directions based on the trajectory they were going in. A pool player becomes better by being able to recognize this determined action of pool balls and alter where he or she hits the queue ball in order to cause the rest of the balls to go where he or she wants them to. Add to this some strategy and the inability of the human brain to formulate ALL of the mathematics necessary to completely map out a position to win in one hit all the time…and you have a fun game. Underneath this uncertainty within human frailty though is very clear, very determined, and very certain outcomes.

Determinism says you’re a system of pool balls. Don’t take this metaphor too far though, as many do, because the difference between your brain and a pool table is similar to the difference between a round stone wheel and the fucking starship enterprise…way beyond that actually.

At any rate, when push comes to shove this amounts to the same thing as the omnipotent God and the same argument applies. “Can” is not the same as “will” and the place decisions are made are in the brains of agents (human beings). The emergent phenomenon of choice and possibility within the brains of human beings implemented by the bouncing around of atoms that have no such concept at all is difficult to fathom, yes…but not illusory.

Final thoughts

I hope that I have fairly represented the common incompatibilist view. I try not to belittle the view since while I believe it is mistaken, and based on flawed thinking, I am not one to say that they do so on purpose. Nothing frustrates me more than to have someone say to me, “Compatibilists like to bypass these issues by claiming…” It doesn’t really matter what follows after that since from the start you’ve proven that you’ve not reasonably reviewed the opposition. I’m not immune from these human deficiencies in reason though so if I’ve unfairly attacked a straw man, overgeneralized the position, etc…then that is my own lack of understanding. Although not entirely technically rigorous, I’ve attempted to remain true to my oppositions view and rebut it on its own merits rather than claim any kind of intellectual dishonesty or lack in its adherents’ parts. Obviously I think they are wrong, but not stupid (obviously some will be since there always is) nor guided by “likes” or “desires” for a particular side any more than I am.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sam Harris’s “Freewill” – initial thoughts

So I recently started reading Sam Harris’s more recent book, Freewill. This is his major, definitive masterpiece meant to once and for all put to rest this “illusion” of free will. “There’s no other rational way to see it,” is basically the whole of his introduction.

Sam Harris played a big part in my becoming an Atheist but since that time I’ve become more and more convinced that he’s really just an arrogant boob. Well spoken mind you, but still. It is really hard to take anyone seriously when they start out with, “There’s no other rational way to see it.” But I’ve been trying to continue reading…

Although he brings up some interesting points, he seems, like many of those who are on his side of the discussion, to be rather insistent that Free Will has to be defined as something magical and impossible or it just isn’t Free Will that we’re talking about. He charges those of us who are compatibilists with changing the meaning of things in order to continue deluding ourselves. Daniel Dennett of course is one of his primary, explicit targets in this. I don’t believe he does well in supporting this assertion so far though.

One particular example comes to mind. He quotes a current philosopher discussing what Free Will must mean and how that operates in the brain. What the philosopher explained seemed to make a lot of sense to me and although I will admit that the average person’s view of Free Will could not be satisfied by the explanation, that it would scare the fuck out of them and make them run to the nearest Bible for help, I could not accept Harris’s basic assumption that we all have to talk about it at that level or we’re playing word games or whatever. After quoting this rather reasonable explanation and distinction from what he called “contra-causal free will” (free will outside the chain of causes) from the only possible kind, Harris just says, “See, he’s talking about stuff you would NEVER accept as Free Will.”

That simply doesn’t work for me. There at least seems to be something about the decision making process that takes part in my brain that remains independent and essentially “me”. I do NOT think that I have to accept a magical explanation of that in order to continue believing it. I may need to alter my understanding of something and forego some assumptions I have about it, but I see this as a path of growth…a sophistication of understanding what seems quite clearly an existent phenomenon. Consciousness itself is such a thing and I think it absurd to claim it doesn’t exist just because we have to accept the fact that its foundation lies in the unconscious, that everything we’re conscious of we were first “unconscious” of, and that much of what we think we see or feel we in fact do not.

Yes, the naive, commonly held view of these things are inherently flawed and impossible, but there is a rational view of them that can be understood within the real world and not depend upon magic. Asserting that we can only talk about magic as the base thesis in your argument may be interesting to you, and it may convince you that you’ve taken the only rational approach and abandoned your “illusions”, but you’ve still got a lot of explaining to do no matter what you chose to call it.

His main contention seems to be that because the source of our conscious thoughts are themselves unconscious that it is impossible that consciousness plays a part in Free Will and therefore, “where’s the freedom in that?” I think this is a reasonable challenge but I don’t accept it as definitive. Although he can cite various studies in which some rather trivial decisions appear to be completely made before the person making them is conscious of them, I think it may be an invalid assumption to say that ALL decisions are made before we are conscious of them. For one thing, we have to then figure out why consciousness exists at all if it apparently serves no purpose. It seems to me that the subjective POV and self-simulation that seems to play a big part in how we are conscious probably provides some amount of input into the decision making process even if that decision bubbles up out of the deep and into the conscious. So I’m not convinced that his assertion that the consciousness plays no part in decision making is true and thus remain so far unconvinced that any feeling I might have that my consciousness is involved is entirely illusory.

His second contention seems to be that we should only accept a definition of free will that allows the patently absurd. For example, I can’t decide what I’ll think next. This is obviously tautological for anyone who gives it the remotest amount of thought (lol). To decide what to think next you would need a variety of possibilities and this is simply astronomically huge if not infinite. The brain simply has to calculate thoughts and perculate them up into consciousness. It’s basically obvious that this HAS TO HAPPEN. It is not clear though if what we are conscious of can have influence upon what happens in those levels and it would seem to me that it would have to have some. If Dennett is correct about what consciousness is, a popularity shouting match of thoughts, then it would seem that the more popular, more conscious thought would continue to have weight and thus be VERY involved in the process. Perhaps the idea that my conscious thinking can create the decision to focus on some area of reasoning is not entirely flawed.

Another example he gives is that we can’t decide to think of things we did not think of. It’s hard for me to take this line of reasoning seriously at all actually. It’s simply absurd to expect it. This kind of absolutist view of free will is patently insane and obviously naive and childish to anyone that considers it but for a moment. It’s hard to even reason what he expects in this case but it is very much in line with the example I previously mentioned. In order for what he thinks must be possible for free will to be truly “free” it would have to be possible for us to have in our minds at all times an infinite variety of possible next things. Nothing could be omitted or out of view. We would then select our preferred next thought and have it. But what, pray tell you, would THAT decision be based upon?

It’s an infinite regress that isn’t even possible in any view of non-material, non-calculative views of thought and consciousness let alone anything that can exist in this world. That seems to be the basis for his entire argument and yes, if that’s the only thing you can accept as free will then hey, you win…it’s fucking ridiculous. On the other hand, I think it patently absurd and arrogant to insist that we all HAVE to share your view of this phenomenon, accept your ridiculous definition, or stop talking about it entirely and accept that what we’re actually interested in, the phenomenon of agency and the degree to which it is free, is untenable and deluded.

He follows this up with a major straw man that he seems to think is a reductio ad absurdum: that compatibilists because they recognize that these things, consciousness and will, are essentially built from thing that are neither that what we are saying is that we decide every moment to make new red blood cells. Anything that happens in the body must then be an exercise of free will. This is the kind of black and white, fundamentalist thinking though that gets in the way of ALL progress in ideas and understanding. Consider the abortion issue and the question, “When does life begin?” Well, we can see that when a baby is born that it’s pretty much a human being and accept this as true. We can see also that birth doesn’t seem like a reasonable distinction here as little about the baby has changed. We can do this all the way back until it’s nothing but a combination of two half-cells…and we can go back further. In all of this very little has changed and so the fundamentalist thinker has to come up with something and so they say, “Conception! Life begins THERE!” I think that we can all accept that there are some things we clearly have no choice in, and maybe there are things we DO have choice in. Simply claiming that everything is the former or we have to be talking about ridiculous shit like I decided to make my blood…that is very far from rational discourse and thinking.

So it’s hard for me to continue reading his great thesis on free will. From what I can tell, he’s not talking about anything I care about, he’s not conversing about agency, he’s not talking about any kind of free will I’d even want…but he expects me to give up the subject entirely because his fucked up definition is ridiculous at a level worthy of mockery toward anyone that would believe in it. Sorry Mr. Harris…you’re not convincing me.


Filed under Uncategorized