Sloppy Dualism on Bad Astronomy

In the history of this blog, I’ve gone after lots of religious folks. I’ve mocked
lots and lots of christians, a few muslims, some Jews, some newagers, and even one
stupid Hindu.

Today, I’m doing something that’s probably going to get me into trouble
with a lot of readers. I’m going to mock a very well-known atheist. No, not PZ.
As much as I disagree with PZ, as far as I can tell, he’s consistent about his

Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has been a major voice for skepticism and
a vocal proponent of atheism. He has, quite rightly, gone after people of all stripes
for foolishness and silly supernaturalism. He’s frequently talked about how silly he
thinks religion is. All well and good.

But Phil just really
screwed up
. And I’ve got to call him on it.

He was arguing with a post-modernist. My opinion of post-modernism is
mixed, but mostly very negative. There’s a kernel of value at the heart of it,
but most of the practitioners of postmodern analysis have turned it into
something fit only for mockery.

The argument that Phil got involved in was about “meaning” and “objectivity”.
His opponent said “Gravity may well exist. But if we can’t describe it, it’s
hardly objective. And we can’t possibly know its meaning”.

That’s classic postmodernism. Gravity may exist; and then moving
into very fuzzy zones of intention and meaning. What does gravity
mean? To even ask the question is to create a huge amount of strange
context. Why should gravity mean anything? It can only mean something
in a universe where gravity had some intention. And that, in turn, is a way of
embedding some kind of theism into the context of the discussion: meaning is
an artifact of consciousness; if there’s no consciousness that created gravity
for a purpose, than how can it mean anything?

So far, I’m with Phil, when he says:

I think this is completely wrong. It’s objective whether we can
describe it or not. Gravity exists. Since the Earth has been orbiting the Sun
for 4.55 billion years — a good 4.549 billion years before humans were around
— we can be pretty sure gravity is objective.

But it’s the last word he used that got me really scratching my head.
“Meaning?” Of gravity? Why should gravity have a meaning? It’s a law of
nature, not a piece of art.

You can look for meaning in the Mona Lisa, or a sonnet, or in a child’s smile.
You can argue over the meaning with someone else, and you can both disagree
and yet both be right. When something is created with artistic intent — or
just simply created by the human with or without that intent — it’s open to

But the Universe itself as a physical object isn’t like that. You can look for
meaning if you’d like, but the Universe is a semi-random collection of energy
and matter, and based on all the evidence I have seen was not created with
intent. A nebula is beautiful in form and color, but is simply a collection of
particles, photons, fields, and motions. It has no meaning outside of your
personal interpretation of it. But whether you think it has emotions and is
alive or not, it will still do what it does: make stars. Nebulae have been
doing this for billions of years before us, and will continue to do so long
after we are gone.

You might even ascribe purpose to a nebula: its job is to create stars. But
that’s what’s called the Pathetic Fallacy: ascribing human characteristics to
inanimate objects. The nebula doesn’t want to do anything. It just does things
according to the laws of physics.

But then, he goes off the rails.

You might want to use the same reductionist reasoning on humans too, and say
we are nothing more than machines and have no free will, no choice but to obey
whatever laws of physics command us. And I cannot discount that, but I suspect
we are richer than that. The laws of physics are not binary; they don’t say to
us “Behave this way or that.” There are huge, perhaps even uncountable numbers
of choices that lie before us. It’s not just a matter of cranking all our
atomic states and field equations through a black box and determining what we
must perforce do; there are probabilities involved, so that our actions may be
predictable in a sense but are not fundamentally determined in advance.

That is the difference between us and a nebula. We can choose. And that’s why
a post-modernist relativism can work when describing Mozart, but will fail
when applied to a black hole. The event horizon of a black hole cares not what
we think of it.

This is what I call “sloppy dualism”. Classic dualism is the belief that
there are two separate parts to our beings: bodies, which are physical, and
spirits, which are something else. Phil has been very clear in the past:
he utterly rejects religious beliefs in “spirits” or “souls”; dualism is
just religious nonsense. But the implication of what he’s saying tries to sneak
dualism in by a back door. It’s almost like a “god of the gaps” argument;
a “free will of the gaps” kind of dualism. He’s claiming to argue in favor of
a purely scientific universe, with no room for the supernatural. But he tries
to sneak a little bit of space in to the fuzziness of how things work to make
room for his own free will.

Physics – the realm of scientific description and exploration of way the universe
works, using mathematics as its tool – describes how all matter and energy interact.
Without dualism – that is, without believing that there is something fundamentally
different about consciousness, something that can’t be described by the
mere interactions of matter and energy – it makes no sense to talk about
choice for people, but not for other collections of matter. If you’re
truly a materialist, then there’s no fundamental difference between a person and
a black hole in terms of physics. We’re both made up of some complex mix of matter
and energy, interacting with other bits of matter and energy in all sorts of

What Phil is doing is asserting that we are, somehow, different. He starts
off OK; the way that physics appears to work, things are not completely deterministic. There’s
a lot of fuzziness and probabilistic nondeterminism.

But moving from non-determinism to choice is a problem. If you’re consistent,
and you reject non-physical entities and influences in the world, then you
are no exception.

There’s no scientific reason to believe that we have free will.
There’s no buffer zone that we’ve found in any of the physical laws of how the
universe works to make room for free will. There’s non-determinism; but there’s
not choice. Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it,
supernatural: some influence that isn’t part of the physical interaction,
which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they’ll
collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.

There’s nothing wrong with believing that there’s something more than
the simple physical to the world; something that allows this thing we call
consciousness. But it’s not a scientific belief. And for all his hedging, Phil
is clearly saying that he believes that the math of physics isn’t,
and can’t be all that describes how the universe works. And once you
make room for that kind of supernatural, it’s hard to explain just why
your kind of supernatural belief is perfectly rational, and someone
else’s kind of supernatural belief is silly.

The funny thing is that at the end of the day, I agree with him. I’ve mentioned
before that I’m a theist. The reason that I’m a theist is because I believe
in consciousness. But I suspect that Phil would be horrified to be put into the same
bucket as a theist, believing in some kind of supernatural phenomena. But that sure
seems to be what he’s saying.

0 thoughts on “Sloppy Dualism on Bad Astronomy

  1. Dale Sheldon

    Sounds like Phil needs to read Douglas Hofstader’s (of “Godel, Escher, Bach” fame) “I Am a Strange Loop”. It (like GEB) covers a lot of ground, but along the way, it provides the most complete (also concise and consistent 😉 anti-dualist argument put to print.

  2. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    IAaSL is a great book, and you’re write, it does an excellent job presenting an anti-dualist argument. I may not agree with it, but it’s a strong, consistent, and engaging argument. (The book is nowhere near as good as GEB, but that’s like complaining that Bach’s inventions aren’t as good as the “Saint Matthews Passion”. GEB is my favorite non-fiction book ever, so every other non-fiction book I’ve ever read falls into the “not as good as GEB” category.)

  3. Russell

    There are different contexts in which will is discussed. It makes a lot of sense in the context of human intent, a context in which Phil’s will was free, because he was working absent coercion or threat. It makes much less sense in the context of physics, where for the most part, its proponents cannot even define what free will means. They simultaneously want it to be non-random but also not a function of the state of the person who makes a decision. The problem is that there isn’t much conceptual space between those alternatives. In the context of physics, the opposite of deterministic is probabilistic. And while it is quite likely that we are not fully deterministic systems, given that physics isn’t fully deterministic, the involvement of the random flip of coins doesn’t help the philosophical case for a mystical free will.

  4. Sigmund

    I don’t buy your idea of consciousness as being in some way supernatural – or allowing for the supernatural. What evidence do you have that consciousness is anything other than the result of physical processes (in the human brain, although in theory one could imagine consciousness existing in other things (advanced space aliens, for instance or even complex computer brains)?
    I don’t see consciousness as being “something more than the simple physical to the world” any more than a wonderful painting, novel, play or poem. None of them are simple but there’s zero evidence that they are anything other than the result of purely physical forces. You certainly don’t need supernatural explanations for any of them.

  5. sorceror171

    It depends a lot on what’s meant by the word “choice”. Our choices are shaped by our desires, our beliefs, our character… or else in what sense are they our choices? Looked at a certain way, choice is a process of sorting through our wants, and applying those wants to the available options. (Y’know, one operational definition of “integrity” might be “sticking to fulfilling a mutually-consistent subset of one’s desires”.) That’s a meaningful understanding of ‘choice’ that doesn’t depend on ‘back-door dualism’.

  6. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    I’m not asking you to buy into anything.
    I don’t have any evidence that consciousness is anything but the result of purely physical processes.
    The argument that I’m making in this post is that claiming that the non-deteriminism of probabilistic behaviors in physics provides for free will is just a cop-out – that it’s hiding dualism under the covers of something we don’t understand.
    If consciousness is the result of purely physical processes, then I think that free will doesn’t, in any meaningful sense, exist. If we’re the result of purely physical processes, then we’re the result of purely physical processes – there’s no ability for us to “push” things in a particular direction by making a choice. For a complex system like our brain to make a choice, it’s got to go through a lot of work; that work is physical stuff, which is mostly occurring well outside the range of quantum randomness. If we’re physical, then our choices are just the result of purely physical processes; in that, we’re no different
    than a black hole. A black hole might, at a particular moment, allow a photon of hawking radiation to escape, or it might not. Which one actually occurs is, essentially, a random result of a nondeterministic, probabilistic system. For a conscious physical being, a “choice” is no more free than the black hole’s choice whether to radiate that photon.

  7. TimothyAWiseman

    A fantastic post. I personally am a theist (a Christian to be specific), but I am well aware that this is a non-scientific belief that requires something of a leap of faith (two, one to move to theism and another to move to Christianity in particular).
    I believe that there is plenty of room in the mind of a rational person for both science and religion, but I also largely believe they occupy different domains.

  8. wice

    “Choice is the introduction of something, dare I say it, supernatural: some influence that isn’t part of the physical interaction, which allows some clusters of matter and energy to decide how they’ll collapse a probabilistic waveform into a particular reality.”
    i’m afraid even introducing “something supernatural” (like a “soul”, or whatever) doesn’t bring you any closer to free will. if your soul is, what decides, its decision will still be either deterministic or stochastic. i don’t see a third option, that could be considered as free will.
    having said that, i have to agree, that atheists, who believes in free will, are inconsistent. but since the very concept of free will is in itself inconsistent, so are theists.

  9. AlefSin

    I don’t think consciousness is anything but just a label to a black-box that we have not opened yet. The contents of that black-box, however, I think are just normal physical entities. Brain is a machine that make decisions based on input information and what it has learned so far. Now the decision making process at its lowest level might be deterministic or non-deterministic and at the same time the machine might not have enough processing power to consider all given information (which includes internal states that we might call mood, personality, etc.) at the time to generate an output so does a good job at looking only at part of given information and reach a solution. We might call this process choice if we consider each brain at any time has gone through a slightly different process of learning but that might very well be just a label. Given the unique complexity of each brain, unique number of inputs (we even don’t know the number of internal states) and unique learning background predicting the output, for all practical purposes might be impossible to predict the decision for every give input but that does not make it supernatural or anything. In short, I’d like to know the evidence that brain does anything other than what any computing machine does not…

  10. t3knomanser

    How are we defining free will? Personally, I define free will thusly: the ability to apply decision-making processes to alter decision-making processes to an arbitrary recursive depth.
    There’s nothing dualistic about this. Computer programs can do it. Most mammals can do it. It’s the recursive nature of it that makes it interesting.
    But I agree- Phil’s statement implies a non-materialistic bent, or perhaps a more holistic approach to intelligence.

  11. AlefSin

    wice: I think I understand what you’re saying and I agree. I think what we call free-will might just be a function of the complexity of the decision making process not the details of the process itself. Probably somebody has to define what they mean by free-will and why it is something new or unique.

  12. wice

    oh, btw: i think the fact, that not all processes of the mind are conscious, explains the “feeling” (or, shuld i say, illusion) of free will very well. when you decide, you may have a feeling, that you chose an option _despite_ every information you have pointing to the other option. but since your decision was obviously also affected by non-conscious brain processes, it’s only an illusion.
    btw2: experiments with (physical or chemically induced) separation of the two halves of the brain show, that the person with the separated brain becomes two distinct persons in one body, with separate consciousnesses. if consciousness was separate from the brain, i would expect the patient to keep his/her integrity of counsciousness, even with his/her brain split in two.

  13. Eric

    Free will is one of the easier questions for a rationalist to work through that initially appears impossible. I’m not saying it’s easy (and I didn’t get it all right the first time I tried to work through it), but it’s good practice to attempt to reduce it.
    See here for preliminary material, try it out, and after you come up with an answer, see the spoilers. But do try it out – it’s a good exercise in thinking like a rationalist.

  14. t3knomanser

    If consciousness is the result of purely physical processes, then I think that free will doesn’t, in any meaningful sense, exist.
    I don’t follow, Marc. I don’t see how “purely physical processes” is inimical to free will. I don’t see how these things relate to each other at all.
    Free will is the ability to act, and to reflect upon that action to alter it, the process used to determine it, or to apply that to future actions. It’s the reflexive ability to alter behavior in complex ways. A purely deterministic system of sufficient complexity is capable of doing this.
    Note: I don’t think our universe is deterministic, or at most, it’s a very bound form of determinism (Laplace’s Demon couldn’t predict the future or past in all cases). But determinism and free will are utterly unrelated.

  15. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    The definition that I’m using for free will, and the one that I think is implied by Phil, is that free will is the ability to make a choice that isn’t dictated by the result of a physical phenomenon. Given a choice between two options, with free will, I have the ability to make a decision which path I’m going to follow.
    If I’m entirely the product of physical phenomena, then if you could perfectly predict the outcome of a physical process, you could perfectly predict every choice that I would ever make. My choices would not be “free” – they would be dictated by the clump of matter and energy that is my body. There might be random, non-deterministic elements to that, but if it’s just the physical process working itself out, then my choice is determined by some non-determinstic factor, but it’s not really a choice: it’s dictated by the physical laws of the universe.
    I think that Phil’s comparison with a black hole or a nebula demonstrates what I’m trying to get at. A black hole is a physical object. Lots of things happen around it. Lots of non-deterministic things happen around it. But just because there’s non-determinism, and one out of a menu of possible things occurs, it doesn’t mean that the black hole chose an outcome. One of the outcomes happened, because one of the outcomes had to happen. Which one actually happened wasn’t a choice – so the black hole doesn’t have free will.
    Phil claimed that we are fundamentally different from the black hole, because we can *make choices*. That statement reduces to nonsense if our choices are really no different in nature than the “choices” made by a black hole: “we’re different than the black hole,
    because the black hole’s choices are made by a non-deterministic physical process that it can’t control, whereas our choices are made by the same kind of non-deterministic physical process that we can’t control.”
    I’m not trying to make an argument for dualism here. I’m just trying to point out the problem with the kind of sloppy dualism that I think Phil was falling into.
    To be honest, I don’t really care whether free will really exists. My point of view is that there is something which makes me aware – and whether it’s physical or meta-physical doesn’t matter. My awareness senses, feels, enjoys, suffers. Whether that awareness is an illusion, doesn’t matter – because if it’s an illusion, it’s an illusion that I’m so deeply embedded in that it doesn’t matter. I listen to Bach, and I feel something; whether that something is really the music moving me because there’s something to me that appreciates beauty, of whether that something is a physical response from the configuration of molecules in my brain to the vibrations of air – it doesn’t matter. It feels the same to me.
    But I don’t like sloppy reasoning, and it doesn’t seem fair to refuse to call Phil on it, just because I think in general he’s a good guy, or because we have mutual friends, or because I think he’s on the right side in some cultural conflict. He’s making a sloppy argument, trying to sneak a kind of metaphysical free will into the fuzziness of the universe.

  16. t3knomanser

    @17: The definition that I’m using for free will, and the one that I think is implied by Phil, is that free will is the ability to make a choice that isn’t dictated by the result of a physical phenomenon.
    I’m not sure that was implied by Phil. And I’m not sure I can understand the idea- if it’s not caused by a physical phenomenon, I’m not sure it what its cause could be.
    I don’t think “awareness” could ever be considered an illusion. Awareness is a perceptual artifact, so if you perceive it, you have it.
    But I do agree- it was sloppy, if only in the wording. Perhaps the thinking as well.

  17. Eric

    The difference between the black hole and the human is that the black hole doesn’t run an algorithm which simulates a portion of the universe, assumes particular inputs (actions), calculates and approximation of what the universe would look like after those inputs, and then selects the action which led to the state which most closely resembled a previously chosen goal state. From inside the brain running that algorithm, it may feel like it’s not deterministic, like the other branches of the switch-case “could” have been taken, but that doesn’t mean it’s not deterministic.

  18. Adrian Cockcroft

    Victor Stenger’s new book: “The New Atheism – Taking a stand for science
    and reason” has some very detailed arguments that debunk the possibility of a supernatural consciousness.
    The most interesting part for me was a discussion of where scientific
    laws and constants come from, to refute the “fine tuning” arguments.
    He shows very elegantly that all you need is conservation of energy,
    linear and angular momentum and from that you can derive the
    fundamental laws of physics and constants that appear. So there is no
    fine tuning, you can’t have different laws of physics without breaking
    one of the fundamental conservation principles. You also can’t have
    any supernatural forces or beings or souls that interact with nature
    without also violating these fundamental conservation principles.

  19. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    That’s basically my point.
    The human and the black hole *appear* to be fundamentally different from our perspective. But if they’re both purely physical, then they’re not fundamentally different – they just *look* different, because we happen to be sitting inside of one of them. But if the outcome is completely deterministic, then the “choice” isn’t free.
    I don’t know whether we have what I’m calling free will or not. It *feels* like we do, but if we don’t, then that *feeling* that we do is basically hard-wired.
    My point isn’t to argue that we do or do not. It’s just to point out that claiming that we’re different from a black hole because of our consciousness, our ability to choose, is a cop-out. It’s just a free will of the gaps, where you create a freedom for conscious beings that’s based on the areas of fuzziness, uncertainty, and non-determinism in the way the universe works.
    If you’re going to allow for *us* to have freedom and consciousness by way of the gaps, then you can’t rule out *other things* having the same attributes by way of the same gaps. You can’t just point at a gap, and say “Presto: there’s our free will, but only living things can use it”, unless you somehow attribute a metaphysical property to living things.

  20. Gav

    Bach’s inventions aren’t as good as the “Saint Matthews Passion”?
    Bach’s inventions don’t have as many notes as the “Saint Matthews Passion”. There, fixed that one for you.

  21. Jon

    Another aspect to all this is what I will go ahead and call “Informational Dualism” for lack of a better term. I think it was described in GEB but I could be very wrong about that. Anyway the point is that a material object can contain information which can be transferred to another medium. The material object can then be destroyed and later reconstructed from the stored information. Thus information can ‘transcend’ physical reality. Taken to the extreme this could mean that a human mind could be transferred into a computer. And given that (in many cases at least) what we really care about when dealing with another person isn’t their body but the information it caries, it could mean that there are 2 parts (a dualism) to a human being, the body and the mind (or ‘spirit’ or ‘soul’ roughly speaking) and they can in fact be separated. This isn’t to say that the mind is supernatural, it still has to be contained in some physical media, but it isn’t bound to a specific media.
    Anyway, this doesn’t have much to do with free will and I’m not sure what Mark thinks of this given his understanding of information theory, but I didn’t see it mentioned before and thought I’d bring it up.
    (Ah ok, one more unrelated thing about free will. While it appears that the mind mostly operates in the realm of classical physics, if it does in fact have quantum components this opens up the possibility that the human mind is a non deterministic turing complete machine. If this is the case then ‘free will’ may just be the process of (or illusion created by) a non deterministic branch. However I will admit, while a neat idea, this is pretty unlikely and not the point of my post.)
    To sum up my post: What is an information theoretic view of dualism?

  22. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    I’ll have to get a copy of that book. My admittedly limited understanding was that physical constants fell into three categories:
    (1) Fixed constants: some properties are inevitable. Given a couple of basic rules, like conservation of energy, and they become unavoidable.
    (2) Topological/structural constraints: some properties (and fundamental limits) are based on the physical structure of the universe. That physical structure isn’t *required*;the planck scale could be different, the speed of light could be different – but they’d have to have some fixed value, and that particular value is determined by the shape/structure of space.
    (3) Random constants: some properties had to have a value, but exactly what value they
    have could be anywhere within some range of values, and which ones we would up
    with are dependent on random fluctuations in the first moments of the universe. For
    example, my understanding is that the ratio of the strengths of the basic forces could
    have been different. The masses of the basic particles could have been different. The fact
    that they are what they are is just chance.
    From what I understand, you’re saying that Stenger’s book argues that all three actually collapse down to the first?
    I’ll put it on the “to-buy” list.

  23. Archena

    First time commenting here (long time reader). I feel like you’ve set this argument up to make a purely materialistic account seem impossible, so that a kind of quasi-supernatural account seems the only alternative. Forgive me if I’ve misread you here.
    You state that “it makes no sense to talk about choice for people, but not for other collections of matter”. However, there are many things which are properties of some collections of matter while failing to be properties of other collections of matter.
    If we say instead that “choice is a something which certain configurations of matter have, and others do not have” then is that not a reasonable materialistic account?

  24. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    It’s all a matter of taste. I’d take the Invention’s over most of the Cantatas. But to me, “Art of the Fugue” beats the inventions, and SMP beats “AotF”. I think Saint Matthews Passion is the single greatest piece of music ever written. It’s magnificent. I can’t imagine that a human being could get any closer to musical perfection than that. Every time I listen to it, I’m just reduced to sitting with my jaw hanging open in awe.
    (Of course, as always, statements like that are inevitably relative; the moment I heard something better, that would be the new pinnacle beyond which I couldn’t imagine.)

  25. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    That’s really not my intention. Honestly, although I’m religious, I’m a religious person with doubts.
    I do think that what we generally mean by “free will” is just an illusion without dualism. But that doesn’t mean that materialism isn’t possible. It’s entirely possible that free will as I’ve defined it is nonsense. To be honest, at times, I do believe that. At other times, I don’t.
    I do think that it’s impossible to be a consistent materialist, and maintain that living things have this innate property of “free will” by virtue of their life, while simultaneously maintaining that life is just a natural property of physics. (Or replace “living things” by “conscious things”.)
    I don’t think I’m explaining my point very well, but I’m trying. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t get to do any kind of special pleading for free will or consciousness to give it some property that isn’t possessed by anything else in the universe.

  26. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Sorry, accidentally hit post too soon.
    With respect to your second point, that some things can do things that others can’t:
    I’d argue that that’s not really true in a deep sense.
    Sure, stars can fuse atoms and create light and heat, but human beings can’t. But fundamentally, we’re both composed of matter and energy that behaves in the same way. There’s nothing about the atoms in our body that’s essentially different from the atoms in the sun. They’re the same; they follow the same rules.
    For free will as I think Phil described it – that is, something that is essentially different from the non-deterministic processes that occur around a black hole – you’ve got to have some ability for a collection of matter and energy to somehow get together and do something *outside* the normal realm of what matter does. I’m claiming that to be able to do that is to be able to shift the non-deterministic events that provide the fuzziness of choice according to our choice. Since no other matter can do that, there’s got to be some phenomenon to account for it if it exists. And we’ve never observed anything like that.
    I don’t think it’s consistent to claim that we’ve got some unobserved, unexplained ability to do things, but that *other* things in the universe can’t. To me, that’s dualism: there’s some essential *something* about living/conscious things that’s different from other things in the universe.

  27. JeffB

    Daniel Dennett wrote a book, Freedom Evolves, about some of this. If I remember correctly, he conceded that a really strict view of free will like the one Mark is using is incompatible with materialism, but that we have a looser version of free will that’s good enough (there’s more to the book than that, but that’s the relevant bit).
    That’s sort of vague because I read it several years ago and don’t remember specifics. It’s an interesting book.

  28. Archena

    I agree with you on dualism and the criticism of Phil. There’s no reason that certain things like consciousness and free will should be ‘special’.
    Certainly the same laws of physics fundamentally apply to everything and I don’t think any special exceptions are necessary to explain choice; emergence is sufficient physical explanation for me. So I’m not seeing the need for invoking anything extra, either by claiming materialism but making exceptions, or claiming dualism.
    As far as I can see my position requires me to admit that free will is (probably) an illusion, but I don’t have a problem with that. The world is complex enough that I wouldn’t notice the difference.

  29. Mark C. Chu-Carroll

    Very well said. That’s roughly what I was trying to say about consistent materialism.

  30. Brian

    No argument from me; I gently winced when I read Phil’s paragraph also. But I’m surprised that you introduced this by saying that this was “probably going to get me into trouble with a lot of readers.”
    Phil’s paragraph was written by a non-philosopher, and (more importantly) addressed to non-philosophers. Little bits of sloppiness are easy to accidentally insert into such conversations, especially when they’re about a tangential issue. I’m sure if you cornered Phil and asked him to talk specifically about this issue, he’d be more precise in his choice of words.

  31. micah

    There is a semantic reason to believe that humans have free will: if they don’t, it means that your definition of free will is meaningless. That is, defining “free will” in such a way that humans have it is a more useful way to discuss the world than defining it in such a way that nothing has it.
    (Personally, I would say that the essence of free will is contrariness: if you give a black hole information about its probability distribution of future states, the difference this makes to that distribution is small. If you give a human being information about its future probability distribution, it’s very likely to alter that distribution in substantial ways…)

  32. magetoo

    (re Stenger)

    I’ll have to get a copy of that book.

    I think the book to get is The Comprehensible Cosmos (Amazon), which deals exclusively with the question of the laws of physics. I have to admit it was tough going for me as a reader with only a general interest, but as far as I know he does not argue that the points you listed boil down to just one.

  33. haru

    I certainly agree that the injection of nondeterminism does not give us anything like free will, and there is nothing “special” about free will and consciousness. That being said, it’s a non-sequitur to conclude that free will “is an illusion”. By doing so, you’re implying that free will is *necessarily* “special”, an assumption which is not as firmly grounded as you might imagine (a related question: do you also hold that consciousness is probably an illusion?). Just because a lay-construal of free will is incoherent we cannot safely conclude that there is no construal that is firmly grounded. In fact, there are a number of intellectuals (notable Daniel Dennett) who *have* advanced positive materialist accounts of free will that don’t require non-determinism or “specialness” of any kind and that don’t suffer from the obvious defects of naive libertarianist accounts (such as Plait’s).
    I’ll second the recommendation of Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for a fuller treatment of this topic.

  34. George

    While the concept we call consciousness, provides the illusion of free will. It is likely that true free will does not exist. Whether I buy a new motor boat or not may seem like a choice where I have free will, it is probably not. It is just the outcome of my make up and the circumstances.
    We can see evidence of this where our social assumptions and order hit the rub. We criminalize a drug addict for using drugs. We assume that person has the free will to make the choice. They clearly do not have a choice, they are under a powerful influence based (probably) on their make up and the changes imparted by the addiction.
    There is no question that we are complex entities and consciousness is a complex manifestation. There is no question that it feels like a free choice when I choose a meal in the restaurant, but there is nothing to suggest that is more than just an outcome of the details.
    There is lots of evidence that it is the consequence of the details with a dolup of the lack of precise determinism.
    Just like the notion that because there is existance, there must be a creator; the notion of free will is an illusion of the complexity.

  35. Adrian Cockcroft

    Stenger proposes that free will is being driven by randomness since the brain has plenty of “hot chemistry” to generate random events, then we post-rationalize the randomness into what we call free will. So the outcome is not pre-determined, since it is based on the amplification and rationalization of a randomly occurring thought.

  36. Kaleberg

    Choice, to Plait and many others, is just a matter of point of view. Plait seems to be making a fairly conventional argument that in addition to our actions being the result of our stimuli and state in the physical world, we also have a conscious point of view through which we experience making choices. This is a pretty old argument. Descartes used it. Most of us accept it for people and many animals by convention. I suppose if ESP were scientifically developed, and we discovered that the Blah Blah Blah nebula was not only conscious, but had decided to get a pastrami sandwich, we would have to extend our understanding in scope, but not kind.

  37. llewelly

    How are we defining free will? Personally, I define free will thusly: the ability to apply decision-making processes to alter decision-making processes to an arbitrary recursive depth.

    Arbitrary? The recursive depth of the human brain is in all likelyhood finite, because the human brain is finite and has finite resources.

  38. lmr

    Don’t all discussions of “free will” just boil down to physics (how does the universe work) and semantics (what are you calling “free will”?)?

  39. cchan0535

    Mark said:
    The definition that I’m using for free will, and the one that I think is implied by Phil, is that free will is the ability to make a choice that isn’t dictated by the result of a physical phenomenon.
    I’ve gotta pop in to say that this makes no sense to me at all. We make choices in response to stimuli we receive from the physical world. If the act of choosing is entirely uninformed by the physical context which supplies the choice itself, and if such a divorce is what folks call “free will,” then I can’t help but wonder what it is about free will that people value so darned much. It strikes me in that context as being pretty useless to whatever extent that it is divorced from the physical world.
    Alternately, if what you’re saying is that the act of choosing itself is at least not entirely the product of deterministic phenomena, but that it does occur with reference to its physical context, then all you’re really doing is pushing the deterministic element of choice-making off on your surroundings without changing the actual operation of the process. Free will then remains useless to the extent that it is not informed by your material circumstances (please read “material” there in a very broad sense).
    I’ve encountered alot of people who place very high value on the belief that their consciousness possesses some form of supernatural or non-deterministic component. They’re typically willing to go on at great length about how wonderful it is that such is so, but they never seem interested in explaining why. What is it exactly that a supernatural/non-deterministic element of human consciousness enables that’s useful or even desirable?

  40. Ken

    Mark, this a lot of talk for what i see as a simple matter of reading too much into phil’s post.
    but i’ll play along
    – black holes are actually much simpler than us, effectively all of its characteristics have been compressed into a few physical laws (if you will pardon the pun) acting like one huge particle. The brain is far more complex. … false analogy.
    – You use the intelligent design excuse that if you dont understand something (conciousness) there must be a god. … argument from ignorance
    -the uncertainties shown to us by quantum mechanics ensure that it is impossible to absolutely predict the future based on this instant’s physical characteristics. A decision is not an absolute predetermined thing whether it happens at a conscious level or not. . … straw man argument.
    Im surprised i didnt see the roadrunner invoked here, holding his ‘i didnt study gravity’ sign while disobeying gravity … the old cartoon shows phil’s meaning pretty darn well.

  41. Nigel

    Phil is absolutely right here (except, maybe for the hint that quantum indeterminism may be relevant). He is merely pointing out a well known and unsolved intellectual problem, whereas Mark is making a god-of the-gaps style argument from ignorance worthy of a pre-Darwinian creationist.
    Before Darwin, people could look around and say “the enormous complexity and the purposefulness of living things are undeniable facts, and there is no way that the laws of physics and chemistry can account for their having come into being, it must have been done by hugely intelligent and powerful designer.” It is a fallacious argument, but it looked like a very powerful one to many intelligent, thoughtful and open-minded people. Then along came Darwin (and Wallace), with a clever conceptual innovation that showed how, in fact, the complexity and apparent purposefulness of living things can readily be explained without making any appeal to the supernatural, and is entirely compatible with the known laws of physics and chemistry.
    As Phil quite rightly points out, people seem to be able to make choices about what they will do – certainly people can and do deliberate, weigh alternatives, consider reasons, and certainly this sometimes affects what they actually do – whereas non-living things seem to be able to do nothing but blindly follow the laws of physics (whether they be deterministic or random). If we believe (as practically everyone does) that these laws also apply to human bodies and all their components, then this presents a very perplexing problem, just as the complexity and purposefulness of life presented a very real and perplexing problem before Darwin showed us the solution.
    Phil is merely pointing to a very real and significant gap in our understanding. It is Mark who goes wrong by jumping to the conclusion that because the problem (and the closely related problem of consciousness) has not yet been solved, we will have to invoke the supernatural. (Some other scientifically minded people seem to prefer the strategy of denying the facts, by pretending that consciousness and choice do not exist, and Mark actually seems to be doing this at first, before he jumps to supernaturalism at the end of his post.)
    We do not have a scientifically acceptable solution to the problems of consciousness and intentionality yet. Of course, there are lots of ideas about how to solve them floating around, and maybe one of them is on the right track, but no-one has made the case for any of them stick, yet, and it remains possible that the right idea has not yet been thought of. But it does not follow from the fact that we do not have a solution that there cannot be a solution. Neither does it follow that there is not really a problem

  42. bad Jim

    We still have to make choices. We’re constrained by our circumstances and hedged in by our predilections, but from moment to moment we have to act and, at least for some of us and at least some of the time, what to do next is not obviously predetermined. In fact, we can choose to toss a coin, subordinating our will to chance.
    Freedom is, to a considerable degree, a product of our environment. I spend more time selecting wines at Trader Joe’s, considering Malbec, Tempranillo, Barbera, Primitivo, than at the convenience store which only offers Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. I always vote for the Democrat, but perhaps, like my grandfather, I’d vote for a Socialist if Norman Thomas was on the ticket.
    As a practical matter the question of free will is a dead end. When you get up in the morning you still have to decide what to do next.

  43. Steve Witham

    The biggest mistake about free will is to think it’s defined. That breaks into two variations: assuming it doesn’t need to be spelled out, and proceeding as if a specific definition is the real one.
    Everybody really should read Dennett before talking about “free will.” An earlier book of his is “Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Having.” He shows that it’s not easy to define free will in a way that has a point to it. Jumping outside the laws of physics? Why? By what way of sensing or deciding where to jump? God throwing fair QM dice in a big role playing game? Why?
    One interesting approach of his is to defuse the free will issue by asking what we’re so eager to have it do for us. When Phil Plait says, “but I suspect we are richer than that,” what lurks in that that this silver bullet is supposed to free us from?
    What is it about not having free will that would scare us? (Not quite the same set as Dennett’s:) Being “machine-like”? Having one’s choices made by one’s genes and then just rationalized to look like conscious decisions? Being easy for others to predict? Unable to recognize one’s own patterns and break out? Not being special as a species? Not being unique as an individual? Only mimicking others, unable to have one’s own point of view?
    Free will isn’t so much a cohesive concept as a linguistic talisman supposed to ward off such fears. Poking around them instead and clearing the air reveals values, but values that are less mystical and grandiose. And not much that’s incompatible with even deterministic physics.

  44. Jonathan Vos Post

    Mark, you and Phil Plait and his target are all, IMHO, vastly oversimplifying a confluence of traditional Philosophy, the modern Cognitive Science Revolution, Computer analogies, and recent publications asserting a connection between consciousness and QM (i.e. “The Free Will Theorem” and a recent arXiv paper by Stuart Kauffman on the hard problems of mind-matter philosophy).
    Today’s rewrite of my monograph “Is Your Gut Conscious?” got it up to 77 pages, 49,150 words, added a section on “Consciousness Is The Brain’s Wi-Fi, Resolving Competing Requests, Study Suggests”
    and tied it to a shorter paper I’ve written:
    Humaniqueness Combinatorics
    by Jonathan Vos Post
    Version 4.0, 4,800 words [includes References],
    13 pp. [6 text, 7 References], of 29 September 2009
    1.0 Introduction
    This essay is a review of a literature review, connecting many threads in the tapestry of the Cognitive Science Revolution [Searle, 1992], in an attempt to extend a fascinating synthesis.
    Marc Hauser, the author of Moral Minds and other books, Professor of Psychology, Human Evolutionary Biology, and Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in “The Origin of the Mind”, Scientific American, September 2009, pp.44-51, claims:
    • Charles Darwin argued that a continuity of mind exists between humans and other animals, “one of degree and not of kind” in Darwin’s words, a view that subsequent scholars have supported.
    • But mounting evidence indicates that, in fact, a large mental gap separates us from our fellow creatures. Recently the author identified four unique aspects of human cognition.
    Humans, as observed by hypothetical aliens: “appear to have a system for creating new expressions that is infinitely more powerful than those of all the other living kinds.”
    Hauser claims: “What we can say with utmost confidence is that all people… are born with the four ingredients of humaniqueness.”
    I (JVP) applied a combinatorial approach to Hauser’s claims: what if only 3 of those 4 applied? 2 of those 4? Do these really apply to ALL humans? In EVERY State of Consciousness (given that new experiments show that humans can thoughtfully learn while in a Persistent Vegetative State). And I reconnect this with the Literature, raising far more questions than I can answer.

  45. Noam GR

    This is precisely what has been depressing me for the past couple of weeks. There’s no way around it. Whether nature is deterministic or not, either way free choice cannot exists.
    I’m interested in knowing how this has brought you to theism though? It had the exact opposite effect on me; while I used to be an agnostic, now that I’ve come to realize some of the implications of these issue, I am almost certain that God is a logical impossibility. That not only there might not be, but that the *cannot* be such things as fate, meaning, purpose, etc. — as you put it, we’re no different form a black hole.

  46. efrique

    So you criticise Plait’s weak dualistic-y comments, and then come in with “consciousness – I don’t understand how it follows from natural processes – therefore god”?
    The argument from ignorance?
    Seriously? Surely you’re kidding me?!
    I wouldn’t have objected to your takig Phil to task for sloppiness… but to follow it with *that*?
    – What do you mean when you say “consciousness” (it seems to be a very slippery concept, especially when people start invoking god as an explanation)?
    – Let’s take as given (I hope) that the ability to infer intent in the action of other animals has useful survival benefits (as in “that tiger is heading toward the river – it’s probably looking for a meal” vs “that tiger’s just gone toward its cave after a feed – it’s probably looking to have a sleep”), whether the animal in question actually possesses consciousness or even actual intent. Such an ability becomes even more critical in an intelligent social species, like say, wolves or baboons, or even more so in bonobos, chimps, or ourselves, of course.
    – Given that inferring intent is potentially useful for survival, demonstrate that what you call consciousness is not something as simple as say, our intention-inferring brain’s attempt to rationalize what it observes itself doing.
    If it’s potentially something reasonably trivial (almost a side effect, perhaps), why invoke something complex without a reason to do so?

  47. Jonathan Vos Post

    Although I enjoy this thread, and like some of the questions, to seems to too often recapitulate 19th Century arguments, and older ones.
    I urge those interested to go beyond saying that “consciousness…. seems to be a very slippery concept” and using antiquated interpretations of “free will”, to rather read and ponder the many publications by Crick and Koch on NCC (Neural Correlates of Consciousness) and
    Title: Physics and Five Problems in the Philosophy of Mind
    Authors: Stuart Kauffman
    Subjects: History of Physics (physics.hist-ph)
    and the provocative papers in the set that started with
    Title: The Strong Free Will Theorem
    Authors: John Conway, Simon Kochen
    Subjects: Quantum Physics (quant-ph)
    and includes
    “What Does the Free Will Theorem Actually Prove?”
    Authors: Sheldon Goldstein, Daniel V. Tausk, Roderich Tumulka, Nino Zanghi
    Comments: 6 pages, no figures
    Subjects: Quantum Physics (quant-ph)
    Folks, this IS the year 2009, not 1909 nor 1809. Let’s raise the level of informed debate, with consideration of fascinating contemporary refereed literature, please.

  48. Stephen Wells

    If you start out defining “free will” as the ability to defy the laws of physics- thought as a form of miracle- of course you’re not going to find it in a consistent physics.
    “Free will” is just a label we attach to our capacity to make decisions and be held responsible for them. I’m sure there’s a whole bunch of physical interatomic interactions going on “under the hood”, some deterministic and some stochastic, but so what? People seem to get fretful over the idea that somehow they’re not “really” making decisions if our brains are consistent physical systems- but you might as well declare that a statue is not a statue if it’s made from marble.
    The “Free will” theorem isn’t really anything of the kind; it’s about nonlocality and causality, not “will”. Our current understanding about physics tells us that certain events (involving entangled particles) happen in accord with definite laws (e.g. conservation of momentum) and are not even in principle predictable before they happen. That’s a lovely result but labelling it as something to do with “Will” is a triumph of marketing 🙂 I suppose it should relieve the fears of those who’re worried that their decisions might be fully predictable in advance.
    It’s like the joke about the biochemistry undergraduates who’re dating. One comes back from a lecture and says “apparently the emotion of love is explicable in terms of neurochemistry and hormones” and the other says “See, I told you it was real.”

  49. Stephen Wells

    @49: I think it’s possible the entire experience of consciousness is a recursion; once our minds are modelling _other apes_ as entities with emotional states and intentions, our minds start modelling _ourselves_ as entities with emotional states and intentions, and we end up with a brain modelling itself modelling itself modelling itself…

  50. Jonathan Vos Post

    In a less grumpy mood, I do like what Stephen Wells wrote @52: “it’s possible the entire experience of consciousness is a recursion…”
    [as in “I am a strange loop”, the 2007 book by Douglas Hofstadter]
    As Marc Hauser cleverly summarized in his September 2009 Scientific American article, as I annotate below and give my suggested citations:
    GENERATIVE COMPUTATION. This combines two types of operation: (a) Recursion; and (b) the Combinatorial; as applied to arrangements of words, notes, actions, or strings of mathematical symbols (which overall resembles Noam Chomsky’s demolition of Stimulus-Response Behaviorism as applied to Language). Hauser suggests that, in Evolution by Natural Selection of the human brain, somewhere between 800,000 and 45,000 years ago [Meindl, 1992], this represents “release of recursion from its motor prison.” [Jeannerod, 1995].
    {excerpted from Humaniqueness Combinatorics
    by Jonathan Vos Post
    Version 4.1, 4,800 words [includes References],
    13 pp. [6 text, 7 References], of 29 September 2009}

  51. James Sweet

    @49: There is nothing self-contradictory in Mark’s worldview, I think that’s what he’s getting it. I personally think that the argument is super-weak (“I want to believe in free will, therefore there must be a soul”), but Mark pretty much admits that it’s super-weak, and he chooses to believe it anyway. As long as he’s not proselytizing about it — and clearly he’s not — I don’t have a problem with that.
    I tend to operate my day-to-day life on the assumption that there is such a thing as an atomic “me” (the so-called Ghost in the Machine, as opposed to “me” being a phenomenon that emerges from the interaction of several different parts of my brain) and that the choices I make are “free”, even though when you get right down to it I don’t literally believe either of those things. They are, however, useful delusions (I would argue that the delusion of an atomic self is not just useful, but absolutely critical to sanity!) so I choose to operate under them most of the time anyway.
    I think Mark has just gone one step further and chosen to literally believe in a “soul” of sorts, as a support on which to hang these important delusions. That seems rather superfluous to me, and maybe even a bit lazy… but I whole-heartedly agree with Mark that it is far less objectionable than pretending there is some sort of scientific basis for a “soul”! I think it’s quite unfair, as you did in #49 there, to say that Mark has made a mental error of similar magnitude because he chooses, with full cognizance, to embrace a rather minor yet comforting delusion.

  52. trrll

    The closest I can come to defining free will in an objective manner is “goal-directed behavior that is not entirely predictable based upon knowledge of external conditions and history.” That is different from purely random events like radioactive decay, but clearly involves an element of randomization.
    From an evolutionary point of view, it is clear that organisms need randomization: 1) Organisms need to do non-redundant searches. Even simple organisms foraging for food need to be able to explore a search space that is not identical to their clone-siblings, because otherwise only the first one would get fed. 2) From the standpoint of predator-prey relationships, it is advantageous for both predator and prey to be unpredictable, otherwise one could “hack” the behavior patterns of the other and be a step ahead. 3) From the standpoint of learning and discovery in higher organisms, an organism needs a mechanism to discover novel behavior patterns. So there is every reason to believe that randomization mechanisms are built into our nervous systems at a low level. For example, the ability of birds to improve their song seems to be dependent upon a center in the bird brain that injects random variations into their singing.
    How this is physically implemented is another matter. Conceivably, an organism could amplify quantum-mechanical events that are inherently probabilistic, or it could amplify more macroscopic environmental events that are deterministic in principle but unpredictable in practice, such as Brownian noise, or it could exploit deterministic chaotic cycles that amplify tiny differences in initial conditions. Or some combination of all of those.
    So presumably, free will amounts to something like evolution–a randomization mechanism feeding into some kind of selection mechanism to filter out actions that are predictably unproductive in terms of the organism’s goals.

  53. John Farrell

    @49: There is nothing self-contradictory in Mark’s worldview, I think that’s what he’s getting it. I personally think that the argument is super-weak (“I want to believe in free will, therefore there must be a soul”), but Mark pretty much admits that it’s super-weak, and he chooses to believe it anyway. As long as he’s not proselytizing about it — and clearly he’s not — I don’t have a problem with that.
    Mark, is that true? Or have you posted elsewhere about your reasons for being a theist?
    Would be fascinated to read. I always assumed you were an atheist.

  54. Ergo Ratio

    Mark, I’m sure you disagree (and could provide good reason for it) with the following, but this is how I think of the word ‘choice’:
    ‘Choice’ is what a deterministic system arrives at by weighing the forecasted results of various actions.
    Obviously you’ve used it in a different way in your article, but I see ‘free will’ as an imaginary force that can override ‘choice’. Maybe you have a better word for ‘choice’ that means the same thing? (Not so much interested in whether you disagree whether I’ve correctly defined ‘choice’, since I know what you’re getting at in your post.)

  55. Yngve

    My language skills are not sufficient to properly lay out a consistent take on this issue in the short time I have available. To sum it up I would use the word emergence, as has been used by others in this thread.
    My real reason for posting is to say that I have rarely seen such a thoughtful debate on an internet forum. Most often I think these things evolve into trench warfare where the substance in the argument is lost.
    Thank you all for some good stuff to read.

  56. Rudy

    I’m not sure I would have ever thought of free will as a problem if I hadn’t had a Catholic grade school education where this was hammered home all the time as the difference between us and animals (and angels, oddly enough). Both this philosophical free will and the determinism of science seem rather abstract and far from the everyday; I think Dennett is right to see “freedom from compulsion” as the natural free will most people want.
    But since we tend to find minds in animals, trees, teddy bears, … etc. from a young age, the question of consciousness is pretty natural.
    I go along with Mark’s response to consciousness,- it pushes me in a theistic direction. Not just because it’s mysterious, but because consciousness seems to illuminate things with meaning, the way a painting has meaning, beyond the paint and canvas that makes it up.
    On the other hand the fact that parts of my mind can go “unconscious” while I’m driving (making all the right turns for me while I’m listening to a show on NPR)
    makes consciousness stand out in relief a bit.
    On the one hand one can imagine ALL of one’s behavior being unconscious in this way – a contrast with our experience that emphasizes the “transcendent” view of consciousness. (Aren’t we lucky not to be zombies!) Or, on the contrary, since consciousness can seemingly be compartmentalized, this may just be evidence that consciousness is a purely natural phenomenon.
    That we have an entire sensory system that is completely unconscious (proprioception) is also a puzzle for a transcendent view of consciousness – why that sense and not vision or hearing?

  57. Stephen Wells

    Hofstader gives a thought experiment involving a device with multiple rows of dominoes. The action of the device is such that, if a row contains a prime number of dominoes, the device knocks over the first domino and the whole row falls. If on the other hand the row contains a composite number of dominoes, the dominoes are left undisturbed.
    After the device has run, we find that the last domino in a row of 659 dominoes is lying down. _Why_ is it lying down?
    There is a physical answer; the domino is lying down because it was knocked by the previous domino which was knocked by… all the way back to the machine which ran a sensor over the dominoes and the output of the sensor triggered certain actions in the machine…
    There’s also a mathematical answer. The domino is lying down _because 659 is a prime number_.
    Both answers are correct.
    I think the “free will”/”choice” argument, to a physicalist, is in much the same class. Probably, if you had sci-fi scanning devices, you could track my taking a particular sandwich off the shelf for lunch as a series of physical events involving the states of all my neurons and my muscles and so on, and I grabbed the sandwich “because” of all those events. It’s _also_ true that I grabbed the sandwich “because” I fancied beef rather than cheese and I had a free choice of sandwiches. Different perspectives on the same events.
    It seems to really bother some people to think that the activity of their minds could be ultimately a bunch of chemical and physical interactions- witness Rhology’s constant carping on Plantinga’s silly ideas about naturalism- but I really don’t see the problem, myself.

  58. Jon H

    Mark C-C wrote: “A black hole might, at a particular moment, allow a photon of hawking radiation to escape, or it might not.”
    We don’t operate at such time scales. If you go to a fine enough time scale, sure, we’re all chemistry and physics, and there’s no free will, but humans don’t function at that level. Only cells do.
    Humans function over longer time scales, with feedback loops, and can modify our actions if we they aren’t what we want. That’s where free will comes in.
    We aren’t black holes. Our decisions and actions don’t take effect instantaneously and irrevocably in the picosecond after the brain takes on some activation pattern.

  59. Jon H

    “We make choices in response to stimuli we receive from the physical world.”
    Nonsense. Composing a poem in your head, you aren’t choosing words in response to stimuli from the physical world.

  60. Jonathan Vos Post

    Compare and contrast:
    @62: “Nonsense. Composing a poem in your head, you aren’t choosing words in response to stimuli from the physical world.”
    “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.”
    —William Wordsworth, British poet and essayist, Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads, 1800

  61. Hypocee

    From my perspective, Mark, it seems you might need to read GEB again – thankfully that sounds like it’s not a hardship. The central point I derived from it was that even disregarding the nondeterministic nature of quantum mechanics, any useful definition of free will can be derived from Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem; that, for instance, a Game of Life structure or a Von Neumann automaton could possess free will despite the rule entire of cold, hard mathematics over their behavior. Now, technically, you could still take issue with Phil’s statement for targeting the wrong source, but crying religious hypocrisy on grounds of dualism could be compared to equating the Fibonacci sequence with the number 3.

  62. Jonathan Vos Post
    There are many definitions and studies of complexity in the literature (22) (23) (24) (25) (26) (27) (28). Different
    definitions have mostly originated within separate disciplines and have been shaped by the classes of systems that are considered pertinent to particular fields of study.
    Early usage of the term complexity within biology was fairly ambiguous and varied depending on the context in which it was used. Darwin appeared to equate complexity with the number of distinct components (e.g. cells) that were “organized” to generate a particular trait (e.g. an eye).
    Since then, the meaning of complexity has changed however nowadays only marginal consensus exists on what it means and how it should be measured. In relatively recent studies related to the theory of highly optimized tolerance (HOT), complex systems have been defined as being hierarchical, highly structured and composed of many heterogeneous components (29) (30).
    The organizational structure of life is now known to be scale-rich (as opposed to scale-free) but also multi-scaled (31)(29) (30). This means that patterns of biological component interdependence are truly unique to a particular scale of observation but there are also important interactions that integrate behaviors across scales.
    The existence of expanding hierarchical structures or “systems within systems” implies a scalability in natural evolution that some would label as a uniquely biological phenomenon. From prions and viruses to rich ecosystems and the biosphere, we observe organized systems that rely heavily on the robustness of finer-scale patterns while they also adapt to change taking place at a larger scale (32).
    A defining characteristic of multi-scaled complex systems is captured in the definition of hierarchical complexity given in (33) (34). There, complexity is defined as the degree to which a system is both functionally integrated and functionally segregated. Although this may not express what complexity means to all people, we focus on this definition…

  63. Stefan W.

    To me, free will is, for example, my daily decision to drink coffee, and, for instance, not tea.
    It’s very deterministic in that I can predict it since 20, 30 years, so someone could argue, that I’m not free to choose something else(tea). But a disruption of my habits is allways possible.
    Predicting my decision of tomorrow, or a day in 2056, by inspecting all my neurons, cells, and calculating every atom of the universe is not possible today and will not be possible 2056 – maybe not possible at all, I guess.
    As a more ‘free’ decision might be seen the question, whether I should go to work by bus or by bycicle. There is an outer influence – rain might let me use the bus. But I’m free. It’s my decision, unless a thief steals my bike. Then it isn’t my free will anymore.
    But the difference is, that the circumstances which have strong influence on my decision are varying. It’s me who decides to drink coffee, and not my doctor for example.
    Free will doesn’t mean without influence from outer circumstances. And it doesn’t mean free from historic influences, which formed my habits.
    It means it’s me who makes the decision, not my parents, the police, a guru.
    Yes, my brain is involved, there are neurons, working in a way that I don’t entirely understand, but that’s my brain, my neurons, not something strange to me, but strange in some way though.
    In some cases I can explain why I do something, and in some cases I can’t. But even then it’s me who is deciding what to do, when I’m free.
    Outer pressures, for example to stop at a traffic light, might get internalized, so that I’m initially driven by fear to pay a penalty, to stop, and later, I stop by habit, and don’t think about it any more.
    But when I’m in great hurry, I’m free to ignore that habit and risk the penalty. Then I’m aware of my reduced freedom.
    Could I act otherwise? Against my interests, habits and taste? Why should I? Would it still be me, if I would? There is no possibility to test that idea – there is just one world and one me, and no timetravelling. Not yet.

  64. Mike Dark

    Thanks for all the book recommendations, I have not read GEB, et al, but am already adding them to my wish list.
    I think the Matrix movies have fun with this; it’s the question of choice. You think that you have a choice of coffee or tea, but it’s a choice you’ve already made well before hand. How exactly did you choose? We spend more time rationalizing our choice after the fact than we do on the actual choice. The only thing convincing you that you actually made a choice is the belief in *me*, a *me* that matters.

  65. Mike Young

    I wonder if the nebulae ever argue the PHYSICS of their situation? Those that feel compelled to discuss seriously the state of their beings yet reject the profound brilliance of their existence compared to,say, a rock; might just be better off becoming that rock. Was the previous sentence, brilliant or foolish, I will guess that is for you to choose. The author, myself, has little opinion or thought to apply to such a random display of atoms that appear to have some sort of a design worthy of any discussion whatsoever.
    Knowledge without wisdom is something that cheapens the human experience and the unwise will disagree with this knowledge. – Mike

  66. Marko

    Being a materialist, I wouldn’t describe choice as supernatural. In the sense Plait was using the term, it’s a subjective thing, an epiphenomenon, an emergent property of our brains. So, indeed we can make choices while a black hole cannot.
    Our choices may be decided by electrochemical processes or even quantum phenomena (cough Penrose), so no dualism enters there. What emerges, then, is our impression of having made a conscious choice.

  67. S.C. Kavassalis

    You wrote:
    “Without dualism – that is, without believing that there is something fundamentally different about consciousness, something that can’t be described by the mere interactions of matter and energy – it makes no sense to talk about choice for people, but not for other collections of matter. If you’re truly a materialist, then there’s no fundamental difference between a person and a black hole in terms of physics. We’re both made up of some complex mix of matter and energy, interacting with other bits of matter and energy in all sorts of ways.”
    I think you are defining “choice” in an unusual way. “Choice” is really just something that animals with brains have, by any standard meaning of “to choose” something. An atom does not choose to follow a certain path, even though we may phrase it like that, it’s the local physics which governs the path taken. Yes, I believe our brains are completely constrained by physical laws, but “to choose” is a higher order process. It happens because of the macro structure of the brain, so it does make sense to talk about people making choices while it doesn’t make sense for a black hole.
    Also, saying that the ‘physics’ of us and a blackhole are the same is another statement you need to be careful with, because to some people, ‘physics’ just means the physical laws governing the universe as a whole (and then yes, blackholes and us are governed by the same global laws), but to other people ‘physics’ is a more local term, and can refer to things such as local coordinates or definition of time, which are not the same for us. And despite energy-matter ‘equivalence’, most solutions for a blackhole don’t actually have a mass component – a blackhole is really a topological phenomena.
    You wrote:
    “There’s nothing wrong with believing that there’s something more than the simple physical to the world; something that allows this thing we call consciousness.”
    Yes, there is something wrong with believing there is more to the world than the physical (ie. what is inside of our universe and constrained by physical laws). Doing so says that you don’t truly believe in the physical sciences. Yes, physics isn’t complete (and probably never will be), but that doesn’t mean some things exist outside the scope of our universe. To imagine such forces, existing outside spacetime is acausal, and requires a rejection of some pretty fundamental physical principles. Why can’t physics account for consciousness? There is no reason to say that it can’t, just because we can’t currently describe it. The brain is an incredibly complex system, a massive n-body problem, so the fact that we can’t solve it, to map out “consciousness”, should come as no shock.

  68. Pingback: Choice-talk, if taken literally, is invalid. [part 1] | The Prime Directive

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