Years ago I decided that the issue of "free will vs. determinism" is irrelevant to questions of ethics, and untestable with respect to matters of science. Since then I have tried to avoid wasting time on it. But it comes up every now and then in Freethinker circles, and many people are lured into arguing at length over it.

Our ordinary practice is to ascribe "free will" to beings which are conscious and intelligent. "Conscious" meaning that they have an internal ("mental") model of the external world, which they use to anticipate the consequences of different "imagined" courses of action. "Intelligent" meaning that their model is complex and sophisticated, and their imagination likewise, so they can find courses of action that will serve their purposes even in novel situations. "Free will" in such cases means that the great bulk of the IMMEDIATE causes of their actions lie inside their "skin" rather than outside, AND that their actions are not easily or reliably predictable by an outside observer.

This use of the term "free will" does not require denying the hypothesis of "universal causation", nor does it depend in any way on whether "causation" is always a single-valued function (i.e. whether the same inputs always produce the same output, or whether instead the output may be any of several values with some statistical probability for each.) In other words, this use of the term "free will" is fully compatible with "determinism". Beings with "minds" sufficiently sophisticated to have "free will" may operate their "minds" deterministically.

We assign "moral responsibility" to beings with "free will", we assign praise and blame, rewards and punishments, to such beings, because that is the easiest (often the only) way we know to intervene in the causal chain. We want them to behave in one way rather than another, so we initiate some causes that we hope will have the effect of modifying their behavior. We hope they will include in their "mental" model that we will respond to their actions with praise/blame, reward/penalty, and that they will therefore "choose" a different course of action. The hypothesis of "universal causation" is irrelevant to this.

If we gain some ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of the causal chain affecting their actions, then we may intervene at a different place. For example, if we find that childhood exposure to high levels of lead in the environment leads to neurological damage that results in a lack of ability to control impulses, i.e. their ability to control their own behavior by "rationality" is impaired, then we may seek to reduce crime by banning leaded gasoline, lead-based paint, lead solder in water pipes, and so forth. But this is not the same as "determinism", considered as a philosophical hypothesis.

"Determinism", the hypothesis of Universal Causation, says that "all events have causes; there are no uncaused events". This is a universal claim. The critic may offer as a counterexample some event with no apparent cause. The believer in Determinism will reply "the cause may be unknown at present, but there must be one". This is not something that can ever be proved or disproved, by any amount of evidence, short of complete examination of the entire Universe throughout all of Time. It is a starting assumption, a working hypothesis. Some have claimed that it is a NECESSARY assumption for the practice of science, but I don't think so. Science can be practiced perfectly well under the assumption that many/most events have causes.

So: I see no reason to spend one more second debating the question of "free will versus determinism".

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Comment by John B Hodges on August 11, 2011 at 2:06pm

Well, several things.

 

Religious believers sometimes have accused atheists of taking that position for emotional reasons, because they don't want to be subject to moral rules, don't want to be judged or held morally accountable. Passionate believers in Determinism might easily be accused of the same thing, for the same reason. In both cases, the accusation would be off the mark; moral accountability has nothing to do with either an imaginary Lawgiver and Judge, or with unknown but assumed prior causes. This is precisely the point of my essay, that EVEN IF we assume Universal Causation, it does not eliminate moral agency or moral responsibility. So, people who actually understand this point, should also understand that their emotional attachment to Determinism is also mistaken. 

 

To say that Universal Causation is false would be unjustified, because the hypothesis of Universal Causation is un-falsifiable. It would be equally unjustified to claim that Universal Causation is true, for the same reason. We know of events with no apparent causes, and probably our knowledge of causality will always be less than complete. 

 

In complex organisms, how much "free will" we assign to them depends on how predicable their behavior is. If we have ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of the causal antecedents of their actions, such that we can predict their behavior in detail, then we do not consider them to have "free will". For example, computers and robots. Complex they are, but we know we have built them and programmed them to behave as they do. 

 

"Free Will", like all other "mental" attributes, would be a matter of degree. Certainly nature, nurture, and the individual history of the organism have some influence; the question is, if you were given complete detailed knowledge of that nature, nurture, and history, how much of the organism's behavior could you predict? I once read a compilation of corollaries to Murphy's Law that included "Under the most carefully controlled laboratory conditions, the organism will do what it damn well pleases." We do not typically have detailed knowledge of their nature, nurture, or history, but even if we did, the larger the brain, the less predictable their behavior would be. With organisms of large brain, the chain of causation, as far as we know, arguably as far as we CAN know, stops in the recesses of their brain.

 

I would certainly consider cats and dogs to have a degree of "free will". I grew up on a small farm, we raised sheep. Sheep are stupid, but they have distinct individual personalities. I was once stopping a ram from going into the shed with the ewes, pushing him toward his own shed in an adjacent pasture; to all appearances, judging by his body language, he stopped and considered his options (to continue to struggle with me or to go to his own shed, where there would certainly be food) before deciding. Dogs are smarter; we keep dogs as pets because they can learn the rules for proper behavior (for dogs) in human society. We say "Bad dog!" and "Good dog!" according to whether their behavior is desirable for us, as neighbors and family members. We  say "Bad man!" and "Good man!" for the same reasons. Universal Causation is irrelevant to this. 

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 10, 2011 at 12:35pm
"Our ordinary practice" is what is so confusing and misleading. We as a species are not alone in having intelligence and the ability to create models of the world and act according to what appears to tbe the best options available, but we would hardly accuse cats and dogs of having free will. Likely we are not the only species to whom we can attribute "consciousness" either. Other species have imagination, they play and they have ideas and act on those ideas (and presumably restrain themselves from them, too). Using the phrase "free will", the way it is ordinarily used, is to insinuate that we could have acted differently from the way we "freely" chose to act or behave. This is done to preserve the notion of personal justification for praise and blame, when the fact of the matter is that there is such a complex number of things which goes into every act of a living creature that even the phrase "agency" becomes problematic. Without even going that far, however, it's clear that either you intend just what I mean by the term "will", and you are nevertheless inexplicably attached to this notion of "free will", or else you really are saying X, Y, or Z by your use of the term. So while you have not necessarily said that X, Y, or Z is what you believe, by challenging the notions of universal causation, and bringing up the possibilities that quantum effects could produce dramatic (unsubstantiated) effects for our understanding of human agency/motivation, and that consciousness may be an "emergent property" which is somehow not confined to causation in the same way which its components, nature and nurture, are, you are giving a lot of weight to those with a background in philosophy to say that you are indeed saying X, Y or Z. If you are saying them, which you did, then you should say that you believe them, or not. Either way, we would be in the position then to discern whether it is more or less likely that our will is somehow not confined by the same rules as everything we are aware of (excepting quantum effects, of which we know practically nothing).
Comment by John B Hodges on August 8, 2011 at 4:37pm
Our ordinary practice is to ascribe "free will" to beings which are conscious and intelligent. "Conscious" meaning that they have an internal ("mental") model of the external world, which they use to anticipate the consequences of different "imagined" courses of action. "Intelligent" meaning that their model is complex and sophisticated, and their imagination likewise, so they can find courses of action that will serve their purposes even in novel situations. "Free will" in such cases means that the great bulk of the IMMEDIATE causes of their actions lie inside their "skin" rather than outside, AND that their actions are not easily or reliably predictable by an outside observer.
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 8, 2011 at 6:35am
What you seem to be trying to say by the use of the term "free will" is simply motivation, or "will" - nothing more than that. You haven't given any argument that I can see which would justify your use of the word "free". As you admit, even if everything were caused, we could still talk meaningfully about moral responsibility. I did read the damn text, and I've read some Hofstadter as well, including some of GEB, and I see nothing which justifies the use of the term. We assign moral responsibility to beings with will, that's all. There is simply nothing free about it.
Comment by John B Hodges on August 7, 2011 at 10:20pm
Something I have noticed, that sometimes happens, is that a reader will see that I have used the term "free will", and their background in philosophy leads them to think "He believes in free will!! That means he must be saying X, Y, and Z!!" And somehow they fail to see what I plainly say in the text in front of them. I am not necessarily saying X, Y, OR Z; kindly read the damn text.
Comment by John B Hodges on August 7, 2011 at 10:11pm

My point is not  that Universal Causation is false, my point is that it is irrelevant with respect to ethics, and untestable with respect to science. I am not saying that [All events have causes] is false, I am saying that [if all events have causes, then we cannot hold anyone morally responsible for their actions] is false. 

 

I am not really interested in semantic debates over what the term "free will" REALLY means. I've explained how I use it, and that is how I understand  most people to be using it in ordinary language. The Catholic Church may have a more technical definition, but I don't know it.

 

The mathematics of chaos makes me think that true randomness on the quantum level may make macro-events unpredictable beyond a limited time anyway (the errors in the prediction grow exponentially with time). Not everything is chaotic, but many things are. FYI, this (impossibility of prediction) holds even if the system in question is completely deterministic. Accordingly, we may never develop ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of the causes underlying human behavior, even if they ARE fully determined by external causes. Our vision of the causal chain may be increasingly dim and foggy the further back we try to trace it. 

Have you read the books of Douglas R. Hofstadter? 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Hofstadter

From Wikipedia:

"Hofstadter's thesis about consciousness, first expressed in Gödel, Escher, Bach (GEB) but also present in several of his later books, is that it is an emergent consequence of seething lower-level activity in the brain. In GEB he draws an analogy between the social organization of a colony of ants and the mind seen as a coherent "colony" of neurons. In particular, Hofstadter claims that our sense of having (or being) an "I" comes from the abstract pattern he terms a "strange loop", which is an abstract cousin of such concrete phenomena as audio and video feedback, and which Hofstadter has defined as "a level-crossing feedback loop". The prototypical example of this abstract notion is the self-referential structure at the core of Gödel's incompleteness theorems. Hofstadter's 2007 book I Am a Strange Loop carries his vision of consciousness considerably further, including the idea that each human "I" is distributed over numerous brains, rather than being limited to precisely one brain.[21]"

 

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 7, 2011 at 8:28am
all the evidence suggests that there is a natural and causal explanation for everything (again, at least for everything above the quantum level).
Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 7, 2011 at 8:24am

Very well then, I'll give it a shot! :-)

 

"Events with no known antecedent causes happen all the time at the quantum level." The operative phrase here is "at the quantum level". Particles may pop into existence seemingly out of nowhere (we don't yet know what causes this, if anything, but its a moot point), but we don't have evidence of that happening at any level larger than the quantum level. Pigs don't pop into existence wholly formed, and while we don't have access to "ideas" per se, we can make some reasonable conclusions that complex concepts, requiring perhaps many millions of neuronic interchanges or more, don't just pop into existence either. And even if they did, this would not point to a "free", controllable will but rather a still less-predictable and controllable, random state of affairs where what we are motivated to do and think, what we "will", is still further beyond our ken. This is not an argument for free will at all, there is no plausible connection that I can see which would make me think that quantum indeterminacy and the possible non-causality of things at the quantum level could produce an effect which gives us more control over, and therefore more accountability and responsibility for, our moral behavior.

 

I completely agree with you that the hypothesis of universal causation (which I apparently hold) does not lead to moral nihilism. But I think your point is that we are not led to moral nihilism because universal causation is false. I hold instead that, because values are reducible to experiences, there is nothing to preclude our being fully caused to experience certain things positively and others negatively, and to be further caused and motivated to take appropriate action to enable our experiences to be more positive and less negative.

 

People generally get hung up on this issue (not sure if you are one of them or not) because they can't see how we can justify our moral judgments of the behavior of others, how we can assign praise and blame to them, if nobody has ultimate control over what they do. One need only take the position that we are still justified in experiencing others (and ourselves) positively and negatively based on what they have been caused to do, and to use a myriad of methods for altering another's behavior, including and especially using shame/punishment and honor(pride)/reward to negatively and positively reinforce the behavior of others. And it is my deep conviction that taking this deeper understanding of human behavior leads us to appreciate the real causes of another's behavior and induces us to be far more tolerant and understanding of others and to take far more appropriate measures for correcting the behavior of others, and changing the behavior of people in general. We may understand why Hitler did what he did, but we are still perfectly justified in our visceral emotional responses of revulsion, fear, and righteous indignation. This all seems to fall quite in line with your own beliefs: "We assign "moral responsibility" to beings with "free will", we assign praise and blame, rewards and punishments, to such beings, because that is the easiest (often the only) way we know to intervene in the causal chain."

 

Free will doesn't mean that we just don't know the causes of a person's actions, and thus we are in no position to make appropriate moral judgments of another, or that we are. It means that there are no causes for some behavior ("choices"), which is a very strong claim to make, one which you also have absolutely no proof of. And it doesn't aid us in our moral judgments at all, it only makes the issue murkier. It certainly doesn't mean that we are somehow able to make moral choices which rise above our current motivational direction. It may not be at all clear what chain of events lead to a person suddenly or dramatically altering their life's course, or why they seem to refuse to do so, but all the eviden

Comment by John B Hodges on August 7, 2011 at 5:18am

Events with no known antecedent causes happen all the time at the quantum level. Particle/antiparticle pairs pop into existence out of empty space, then pop out again. particles decay into other particles. We can describe their behavior statistically but not individually. 

 

It is a "closed topic" simply because I have never heard any argument about free will/determinism that answers my points in the above essay. If we gain ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of a causal chain affecting a person's behavior, then we can consider NOT holding them morally responsible for that behavior. But the (evidenceless) a-priori positing of a hypothesis of Universal Causation doesn't affect our moral or judicial judgements at all. The usual argument I hear is that Universal Causation implies ethical nihilism. Sometimes this argument is delivered with anguish, sometimes with glee, but I think it utterly false, for the reasons given above. If you have an argument WHY my point above is mistaken, I would not mind hearing it. 

 

 

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on August 6, 2011 at 11:55pm
I couldn't disagree with you more, excepting most of the fourth and fifth paragraphs (the parts dealing just with the way the world works). "Science can be practiced perfectly well under the assumption that many/most events have causes." Practiced? Sure. But as I begin to think of the world as possibly having events without any causes whatsoever, I see no reason to suggest that there might not be causes for some things, or why one would even entertain the idea of such a world. What sort of a world would that be? Would it be a rational one? A logical one? Certainly you are not suggesting that whole pigs could suddenly materialize out of thin air (are you?)? I think it is a mistake to say that will can be "free" of causes when we see that there is a cause for just about everything we investigate, with the qualification "just about" only in there because you are right that we cannot "prove" this is so, anymore than we can prove anything at all. That's not a reason to disregard having a reasonable belief for anything - based on all available evidence, there appears to be a cause for everything, so why doubt it? And I completely disagree with you that there are no moral implications for this debate as well. I think you are being obtuse about it, but since it's a closed topic for you I guess we won't be having this discussion.

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