Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Predetermined Lunch and Moral Responsibility

The final session of the 2011 FQXi conference concluded with a brief survey. The question “Is a ‘perfect predictor’ of your choices possible?” was answered with “Yes” by 17 out of 40 respondents. The follow-up question “If there were, would it undermine human free will?” was answered with “Yes” by 18 out of 38 respondents.

I’m in the Yes-Yes camp, and I was surprised that doubting one’s own free will was so common among the conference participants. It is striking how unrepresentative this result is for the general population who likes to hold on to the belief that personal choices are undetermined and unpredictable. In a cross-cultural study with participants from the United States, Hong Kong, India and Colombia, Sarkassian et al found that more than two thirds of respondents (82% USA, 85% India, 65% Hong Cong, 77% Colombia) believe that our universe is indeterministic and human decisions are “not completely caused by the past”(exact wording used in the study).

One of the likely reasons many people believe in free will is that if fundamentally there is no such thing as free will, how come that most of us* have the feeling that we do make decisions?

Lacking a good theory of consciousness, it may be that rather than making decisions, the role of our consciousness is to simply provide aggregated information about what our brain and body was doing, is currently doing, and provide a crude extrapolation of this information into the future. As we grow up, we become better at predicting what will be happening next –in our surrounding as well as with our own body and mind – and may mistake our prediction of what we will be doing for an intent to do it, and our imperfection of making precise predictions creates the illusion that we had a choice. (I doubt I'm the first to have this thought. If you know a reference with similar spirit, please let me know.)

This would mean, if you slap your forehead now, rather than consciously deciding to do so and making the choice to perform this action (which we may call the “standard interpretation”) your neuronal network has arrived at the necessary state that immediately precedes this action and your consciousness notes that next thing that will likely happen is you’ll be slapping your forehead, which it interprets as your impulse to do so (we may call it the “self-extrapolation interpretation”). You are not entirely certain about this since you have learned that your subconscious on occasion makes twists that your consciousness fails to properly predict, thus the possibility remains you’ll not be slapping your forehead after all.

It has in fact been argued that the reason why most people reject determinism it is their inability to predict actions, first by Thomas Reid I am told, and later by Spinoza, not that I actually read either. So possibly theoretical physicists are more inclined to believe in determinism because making precise predictions is their day job ;-)

Sean Carroll recently argued that free will can have a peaceful coexistence with modern science on an emergent level, in an effective description of human beings. That only works though if in the process of arriving at that effective level you throw away information that was fundamentally there. I believe Sean is aware of that when he writes “But we don’t know [all the necessary information to predict human decisions], and we never will, and therefore who cares?”

Well, I'd say that if you make room for free will by neglecting in principle available information, then his notion of free will is an empty concept that, as I've learned from the comments to his blogpost, the philosopher Edward Fredkin more aptly named “pseudo free will.”

I'm only picking around on Sean's post because it's short enough for you to go and read it unlike hundreds of pages that some philosophers have spent to say essentially the same thing. In any case, it is interesting how some scientists desperately try to hold on to some notion of free will in the face of an uncaring universe. I believe one of the reasons is that rejecting free will sheds a light of doubt on ones' moral responsibility, and since I feel personally offended, some words on that.

Morals and Responsibility

Whether the universe evolves deterministically, or whether its time evolution has a random element, an individual, fundamentally, has no choice over his or her actions in either case. It is then difficult to hold somebody responsible for actions if they had no way to make a different choice. This and similar thoughts have spurred a number of studies that claim to have shown that priming people’s belief in a deterministic universe reduces their moral responsibility.

For example, a study by psychologists Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler (summary here) had half of the participants read a text passage arguing against the existence of free will. All participants then filled out a survey on their belief in free will and completed an arithmetic test in which they had an option to cheat, but were asked not to. It turned out that disbelief in free will was correlated with the amount of cheating. Also, in the previously mentioned study by Sarkassian et al, most participants held the opinion that in a deterministic universe people are not responsible for their actions.

However, the issue of moral responsibility is a red herring, for morals are human constructs whether or not we have free will . From the viewpoint of natural selection, the reason why most of us don’t go around cheating, stealing, or generally making others suffer is not that it’s illegal or immoral or both, but that our self-extrapolation correctly predicts we will be suffering in return. Not primarily because we may be thrown into jail but because our brains would keep returning to that moment of offense, imagining how other people suffered because of our wrongdoing, telling us that way that we did act against the interests of our species, and more generally reducing our overall fitness.

In fact, that our species still exists and seems to be doing reasonably well means that most of us do not take pleasure in letting others suffer. The reason we don’t perform “immoral” acts is that we can’t: We’re the product of a billion years of natural selection that has done well to sort out those who pose a risk to our future, and we've called the result “moral.” (I am far from saying one can derive morals.)

The less consequences an act has for ones’ own future and that of others the larger the variety in people’s behavior. (There are more people jaywalking than strangling talk show hosts in front of running cameras.) That we have laws enforcing rules is because there remain people among us whose brains are some sigma away from the average and our laws are one more channel of natural selection, keeping these people off the streets, trying to readjust their brain’s functionality, or at least generally making their lives difficult. David Eagleman recently made a very enlightened argument for a rethinking of our justice system in light of neurobiological evidence for our reduced capability to change our brain’s working.

In a world without free will, we should not ask if a person is worth blaming, but simply look for the dominant cause of the problem and take steps to solve it.

Similarly, instead of asking if who is morally responsible we should ask what incentives do people have. The problem with the above mentioned test for moral responsibility in a deterministic universe it that the consequences of the alleged “immoral” act of cheating are entirely negligible. Putting forward the plausible thesis that the illusion of free will is beneficial to our brain’s performance (or otherwise, why is it so universal?), the test subject’s cheating might have been simply a reassurance of their illusion. If one would replace the temptation to cheat on a test with a questionnaire for the participant’s likings in food and then offer snacks, chances are those who were suggested a deterministic universe would feel the urge to select a food they do not usually prefer. Better still, one may have told the test subjects that the better their brains in the deterministic universe are adapted to living a modern life in modern times, the less likely they will be to perform “immoral acts” that violate the (written or unwritten) rules and values of that society (whether that is true or not doesn't matter).

Predetermined Lunch: Not Free Either

That our decisions are determined does not mean that we do not have to make them, which is a common misunderstanding, nicely summarized by Sean Carroll’s anecdote
“John Searle has joked that people who deny free will, when ordering at a restaurant, should say ‘just bring me whatever the laws of nature have determined I will get.’”

The decision what you will eat may be predetermined, but your brain still has to crunch the numbers and spit out a result. One could equally well joke that your computer, rather than running the code you’ve written, returns it back to you with the remark that the result is predetermined and follows from your input. Which is arguably true, but still somebody or something has to actually perform the calculation. Though in a deterministic universe it is in principle possible, it is highly questionable that the cook will be able to make the prediction about your order in your place, even after asking Laplace’s demon for input.

In other words, even if you don't have a free will, to make a decision you still have to collect all the information you deem necessary and scan your memory and experience to build an opinion, or perform whatever other process you have come to think is a good way to make decisions, may that be rolling a dice or calling your mom. Whether or not you believe you have a freedom in making a decision doesn’t save you the energy needed to do it.

The original version of this post had a poll included on the question "Do you believe in free will?" but the applet is no longer functional. The results were
  • I believe human decisions are in principle predictable and there is no free will. 35.4% (45)
  • I believe human decisions are in principle predictable, but still there can be free will. 28.3% (36)
  • I believe human decisions are not predictable, neither in practice nor in principle, and we have free will. 27.6% (35)
  • I believe something else that I'll explain in the comments. 8.7% (11)

* The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, describes Depersonalization Disorder as follows: “The essential features of Depersonalization Disorder are persistent or recurrent episodes of depersonalization characterized by a feeling of detachment or estrangement from one's self. The individual may feel like an automaton or as if he or she is living in a dream or a movie. There may be a sensation of being an outside observer of one's mental processes, one's body, or parts of one's body.”

Thus, interestingly enough, not all of us share the feeling of being in charge of one's actions. That the failure to relate to oneself is filed under "disorder" seems to me to show that believing in free will is beneficial to the individual's functionality and well-being.


  1. I vote for other: There is no such thing as free will (as usually formulated by a naive public), but human decisions are too complex to be calculated even in principle. The exponential divergence of nearby initial states characteristic of a chaotic system, combined with even tiny quantum uncertainties will make sure it's always impossible. Maybe you could come up with a way to predict probability distributions of potential behavior?

  2. Nice post! I recommend Dennett's book Freedom Evolves.

  3. What about computability? What does something that can perfectly predict the future (faster than the future itself actually arrives) look like? Can something predict perfectly without changing the world itself, by measurement? Can something predict perfectly without having the same number of degrees of freedom encoded in it as the world has (assuming that the world has a finite number of DoFs)? Can something predict perfectly if it doesn't know its own initial state perfectly? Can the something be local?

    Even supposing the future could be perfectly predicted by something that has enough DoFs to do the job, could it still do the job if it ever fed any information about the results of its calculations back into the system? Something would just have to watch, saying, meanwhile, "Oh look, there's precisely what I knew was going to happen. I'd better not tell them what happens next." I'm not sure there's enough fun in that for something to bother.

    If there's an infinite number of DoFs to predict, whether countable or uncountable, I'd say it gets much more difficult to believe one way or the other.

    Bashed out on my without forethought.

  4. Well, if there is no free will that would presume no indeterminism. If there was no indeterminism that would presume there are hidden variables in the universe. But even hidden variables can't account for the original symmetry breaking of the universe. And we shouldn't confuse the method of symmetry breaking with the cause. The universe seemingly wanted to create itself. That seems to me to be free will. Either that or some omnipotent other that can be refered to as god. I prefer to leave god out of it.

    So in my view we are all tiny mirrors of that original symmetry breaking moment and we all similarly have a small amount of free will.

  5. That our decisions are determined does not mean that we do not have to make them...

    So, Bee, we can choose to make or not make a decision?

    It is perfectly plausible that the brain has evolved the equivalent of a coin-toss, so that one cannot predict what the brain is going to decide based on its current state. This unpredictability might give some evolutionary advantage to those who have it.

  6. First, the mainline concept of quantum mechanics used to accept genuine randomness and expressed an overthrow of the pre-determined (in principle, which is what matters here) Laplacian "clock-work universe." Then some people falsely IMHO got the idea that the determinism could be brought back by saying the Schroedinger equation just continues to evolve. First, that basically has to lead to all possible outcomes happening but breaks down in so many ways, from not providing proper Born probabilities (from the frequentist number of branchings not giving the right answer, not resolvable with phony bamboozlement about "weights" or "thickness" of worlds), to it actually violating the conservation laws (note that a wave function represents a certain amount of mass-energy, and having "a whole photon, electron" etc. in several places just doesn't cut it, as it were.) Nor is decoherence, the supposed separation mechanism, a legitimate argument: having disorderly waves just means that we can't prove the existence of combined waves by prolonged statistical measurements, which has nothing logically to do with whether I can literally "see" both outcomes at once, as actual distributions of material etc.

    Instead, a candid assessment must recognize a genuine level of unpredictability in the universe. You can say "that's not really choice", and maybe for a particle it isn't, but if your brains are an interactive system with some organized "wholeness" (see below), that character could be expressed as "choosing" (the thinking and weighing, without a predetermined outcome.) In any case, any reader of Hume knows that even the idea of "causality" itself is questionable.

    As for the usual put down of the strawish-man "choice" examples of "do X when you feel like it": not a good example. If you wait to do something "whenever you choose", it gets to be a response to just that sort of inner activity. The real and venerable test of will is *resistance* to something you do want to do: "free won't" as veteran choice-researcher Benjamin Libet elaborated to me in a phone conversation in 2000. The "administrator" suppressing reaching for the candy, or (as I argued in a paper at Tucson 2000: Toward a Science of Consciousness) being able to suddenly stop what you've been doing for awhile. (Requires a central authority because otherwise, as in "pandemonium" theory, the ongoing entrainments and brain processes should at least continue to go on and take a while to decay.

  7. "In fact, that our species still exists and seems to be doing reasonably well ... "

    Yes, that sounds like something that someone WITH A JOB would say. :-) j/k

    Well done Bee! One of your best pieces ever, and I'm definitely in your camp.

    I think, therefore I think I am. Maybe. Maybe not. Prove it. Or not.

  8. "However, the issue of moral responsibility is a red herring, for morals are human constructs whether or not we have free will . From the viewpoint of natural selection, the reason why most of us don’t go around cheating, stealing, or generally making others suffer is not that it’s illegal or immoral or both, but that our self-extrapolation correctly predicts we will be suffering in return."

    Hi Bee, I certainly think you are very wrong here. Almost no one who does an immoral act thinks they are doing it at the time. People find ways of justifying those acts and they happen all the time. I think you are being far too kind here.

    My father at one time said that if he had grown up in
    Germany he would probably have been a Nazi. He has passed away now but I think he was right. He was always a little cut off from his feelings and he was convinced he was on the autistic spectra. He never understood sarcasm as an example and tended to take things literally. It was in his nature to be somewhat abusive, this from my personal experience, but he couldn't just do it outright. But he would find excuses for being that way. War and political turmoil are all very good excuses for individuals to act out
    their darker sides. And it is much, much more prevalent than you think.

    Like all people I too have a darker side but unlike my father I always know how it feels to be on the other side. Many people suppress those feelings of previous
    victimhood by actually becoming the victimizer. This is very common. It takes it's easiest expression in large groups in which individual responsibility is diluted. I would say the United States "war on terrorism" is a good example of naked aggression. Of course Germany in the previous century is another good example.

    How can you possibly say that almost all people tend to be
    good if you get a bunch of them together and then they act shitty. :-)

  9. Maybe worth a read:

    Confessions of an ex-moralist.

    Joel Marks writes, among other things:

    "But suddenly I knew it no more. I was not merely skeptical or agnostic about it; I had come to believe, and do still, that these things are not wrong. But neither are they right; nor are they permissible. The entire set of moral attributions is out the window. Think of this analogy: A tribe of people lives on an isolated island. They have no formal governmental institutions of any kind. In particular they have no legislature. Therefore in that society it would make no sense to say that someone had done something “illegal.” But neither would anything be “legal.” The entire set of legal categories would be inapplicable. In just this way I now view moral categories."

  10. I also agree with Neil. Anyone who has ever been powerless and a victim at one time and then chooses NOT to get their revenge in turn on when they later have power is displaying free will. Or as Neil said " free won't"
    I actually think it is very destructive when you imply that everyone is just good by natural selection because it sweeps the real work required in free will in these situations under the carpet.

  11. For some reason, commenting with FireFox 7.0 is failing on your blog! This is being composed in Chrome.

    Bee says:

    "In a world without free will, we should not ask if a person is worth blaming, but simply look for the dominant cause of the problem and take steps to solve it."

    If one believes in determinism, this statement is self-contradictory:

    "look for" and "take steps" imply free will.

    Except for a very few 'defective' individuals, our nervous systems apparently contain an implicit 'free will axiom'.

    No axioms can be proven to be 'true' or 'false', so the issue is essentially unresolvable – and most of us will 'believe in' free will.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. If I could choose to believe or not to believe, you know what I would choose - not to.

    If I could choose to believe or not to believe, you know what I would choose - not to!

    But I can't choose not to!

  14. Perhaps free will is real but is just more exceedingly rare than any of us know. Perhaps free will is what is left after all previous history, genetic temperament, and even reasonable probability is eliminated from the equation. From a theological perspective the central figures of different religions usually exhibit this ability to act in heroic ways that cannot be accounted for in earthly terms.

    Siddhartha Gautama, as one example, was raised in extreme privilege as a prince. Yet on opening his eyes and seeing the suffering around him felt sympathy. Perhaps much more unusual than being a good person, (people can be raised to be good people) was the fact that raw probability, genetic temperament, and previous history should have blinded him to this suffering. What he was showing was free will. It is a very rare commodity, but it exists.

  15. "In any case, it is interesting how some scientists desperately try to hold on to some notion of free will in the face of an uncaring universe."

    There is nothing desperate about not rejecting the idea of free will. Like you noted, we are still lacking a good theory of consciousness, and therefore we should keep our options open. As a scientist you should know better than believing something without evidence just because it's cool.

  16. "In any case, it is interesting how some scientists desperately try to hold on to some notion of free will in the face of an uncaring universe."

    They don't have any choice, do they?

  17. Is free will about randomness or about accepting moral responsibility? They seem to be two different issues to me.

    The former needs to account for motivated and reasoned decisions, like jerking back from a hot surface, and the latter seems to be about our place in society.

    I've never seen a definition of free will that makes much sense. Colloquially it refers to the fact that one might have made another choice, but seems to be built into the definition of choice.

  18. Kaleberg, free will isn't about accepting moral responsibility, at least not the way I see it. It is just one prism through which to see it. Bee happens to think the belief in lack of free will should not affect a person's behavior. I don't think that is accurate, though it offends her sensibilities.

    She thinks people are basically moral beings through natural selection. That conveniently ignores people doing monstrous things in wars. So according to her, if I read her correctly, it would conveniently allow people to be taken off the hook for doing those monstrous things in wars. And it also conveniently allows people to be taken off the hook for SUPPORTING people doing those monstrous things. I'm not picking on her because being from the USA myself we have plenty to be guilty for also.

    I guess she thinks it's ok if your country tells you to do something rotten. Especially if you don't have free will. "I was only following orders".

    I'm not taking a partisan stand

  19. A natural suggestion, then, is to modify the minimalist thesis by taking account of (what may be) distinctively human capacities and self-conception. And indeed, philosophers since Plato have commonly distinguished the ‘animal’ and ‘rational’ parts of our nature, with the latter implying a great deal more psychological complexity. See:Free Will

    What makes you think there is not a matter forming apparatus that is not equal to the nature of the Higgs? In a "self evident state" you are describing the nature of reality as you will meet it?

    While thinking about Penrose's diagram "on the triangle" as an interactive phase, tell me why one would not settle "on mental facets(abstractions)" as idealism so as to perform appropriate theoretical actions, and to perform such action means to solidify the thing in (measure) as a physical manifestation? You see?

    Some may only see the primitive nature, yet, how did one get there? How would we allowed for such corrections, but to have been made aware of, and through such interactions allowed synaptic possibles by the choice we make by being viable and creative(inductive\deductive)?

    This does not resolve, the ability of that part of consciousness, so as to be able to record and assess from another perspective lets say given the language of dreams to tally the road we are on. To tally the outcome of traveling such a road. So there in lies the wanted ability "to listen" and make a decision on and about the future "based on possible outcomes?"

    You have t trust there is this part of yourself to judge one's own actions so as to defer to another life plan?


  20. Plato,
    I think I see what you are saying. One could think of a nation and it's psychological zeitgeist as being something real and tangible, just like a new web of entanglements that represent mass. But this effect is similar to hypnosis. A hypnotist cannot make someone do something they really don't believe in or want to do.

    To make it a concrete example. People here were very upset after 9-11, including me. The majority of the population wanted to get even. But instead of going after obl we invaded Iraq. It was satisfying to many people but it was absurd. It was as if the population was hypnotized. No matter how much people like myself said it was absurd all that mattered was to be able to enact violence and then be purged of that emotion.

    Everyone who buys into the justification of satisfying an emotional urge on the innocent is guilty as hell. And I don't want any of them that supported it in this country to forget that perhaps a million people in that country died directly or collaterally from that fiasco. There is no way that the people in this country who supported that war and attacked others as being unpatriotic are not guilty individually for those

    I personally think the people most attracted to lack of free will are the very people with the most blood on their hands in supporting past behavior like that. I'm sorry, but to me belief in there not being free will is just a little to convenient for a lot of people. Remember, you can't hypnotize someone to do something they didn't already want to do.

  21. Hi Bee,

    I clicked your last option, not because I’m certain about the invalidity of any of the earlier ones yet more so as I’m not; that is to admit that anything else would be just a belief. Then again if I did give way to what I consider my reasoned belief, I would still have to admit I don’t know. However using this as my guide and more particularly in my favouring the Bohmian view of reality, then if this view is true there is good argument to be made we at least have a ‘private will’, if not then a free one.

    What this is of course is a way such a ontological view replaces orthodox quantum uncertainty, resultant of true randomness (that is if there is such a thing), with an impenetrable ignorance of what any other observer knows for certain about their choice in respect to observation, although never the less having this knowing originating out of a reality which is fully determined (note I avoided adding the prefix ‘pre’ as this would have me being falsely certain about the reality of time).

    So in a way from such a perspective it is this ‘private will’ which leads to the ultimate uncertainty which then might be called as a ‘collective free will’ as then forced upon as such. That as having each to necessarily make decisions about decisions that we can never know, as restricted otherwise by what nature allows; not in respect to its destiny, yet rather in respect to that of others; except of course our own of the now or pre-now if such a thing is real. Oh by the way, if you find you don’t totally understand what I just said, I can assure you neither do I (no pun intended).

    “On Bohm’s theory, there is, right now (that is : before those upcoming measurements get carried out) an objective physical matter of fact about what the future act of h’s is going to be: and (moreover) h knows with certainty, what that act is going to be; and (moreover) no other observer in the world (no matter how adept they may be at measuring or calculating) can possibly know (right now) what that act is going to be.

    And so h, under these sorts of circumstances (even though the complete physical theory of the world here is a deterministic one), has what you might call an inviolably private will.”

    -David Z. Albert, “Quantum Mechanics and Experience” (page 188)



  22. Hi Len,

    Sorry about the Firefox glitch, can't do nothing about it though. Not because I don't have free will but because the software is hosted by Blogger and only customizable in tight limits. Chrome is better than Firefox anyway ;p

    I have to disagree with you. You can "look for" and "take steps" whether or not you have free will. What you can't do is actually have a choice whether or not to do it. Best,


  23. Hi Xerxes,

    Interesting. You think that human decisions are not predictable in principle but still there is no free will? That's the one combination I did not put on the poll. I don't understand your explanation though. Chaotic systems are in principle predictable, they are not in practice predictable because you need infinitely precise initial conditions that you can never measure. In any case, what does it matter that you don't know or can't measure the initial state as long as you know it exists? Best,


  24. Hi Jani,

    Thanks. Will put that on my reading list. Best,


  25. Hi Peter,

    Yes, I seem to have been through the same thoughts. But the end I came out of these thoughts was that eventually it doesn't matter if somebody or something can de facto make a prediction. The only thing that matters is if the future is fixed, or if there are in fact different future options from which "you" (whatever that is) can "chose" in some sense. I don't see how there is place for it in the laws of nature that we presently use and know. Best,


  26. Hi Eric,

    An interesting thought. I agree with you on the matter of determinism, but I have learned that there is a substantial amount of people who believe determinism to be compatible with free will. It takes some twists of minds to get that done and I find the "free will" you get doesn't have much freedom to it, but then who am I to fight with others how they want to use a word. Best,


  27. Hi Arun,

    You also have to decide not to make a decision, and no you have no choice in that either. Yes, possibly the brain evolved towards an edge where it is very difficult to predict, that would make sense indeed. Best,


  28. Hi Eric,

    I didn't say we're all perfectly moral and infallibly so. We make mistakes because we don't have information or make wrong predictions or don't see the big picture etc. I'm not even saying there's an unambiguous "moral," thus not clear what is a "mistake," since the social consequences are complex to say the least. I see it more like an evolutionary, adaptive process. There's some variation in people's judgement and some of it works better, some not so good. There are some "morals" that are clearly bad ideas, like if we have a bad day we go around and randomly shoot others, to give an extreme example. In other cases it's not so obvious (one common example is if you're allowed to steal from a rich man when you're about to starve or something like that). Best,


  29. Hi Phil,

    Yes, I had read Albert's passage on the private will since you pointed it out earlier. But is there any distinction to Fredkin's "pseudo free will"? Both basically seems to mean, I have no choice to make, but at least nobody knows what I am going to do and that will be sufficient for my idea of free will.



  30. Hi Bee, I got a little worked up over the anniversary (10 years) of some really bad actions in the world. It wasn't meant as a personal attack on you. I just felt that now, especially with some reflection on what really happened and all it's ramifications, it is not a good time to talk about lack of free will, especially in the plural form of it. The only way to learn from these things is to take responsibility. And the only way for the population to take responsibility is to accept free will.

  31. Hi Bee,

    Yes, when I first read Albert’s explanation of what mandates as underlying the Bohmian view in respect to will; this is how I initially took it. Then some years after began to think about it from a different angle, with having the total of content and actions of a finite universe to be necessarily representative of a finite set (as to be limited by both substance as well as time), while the choices that have it formed derived from that of an infinite one. Interestingly then one could argue that such a perspective to be also consistent with David Bohm’s thoughts regarding implicate/explicate order. This has that forming decision having a very unique role after it comes into being and yet that’s not to insist that such must be definable as life, yet only representing to be entities which cannot know and yet are influenced by the actions of the whole.

    To continue if we stretch this just a bit further we could consider this as what marks the dividing line between the mysterious period of the early universe from the present one; which Alan Guth had explained with inflation. So then this would have all which is to be found after surely seen as but merely actors on a stage, yet having roles that might still be derived from a realm of nothing other than what could be comprehended beyond as one of limitless and unfathomable potential. Of course I don’t know if any of this is true, yet I find it certainly as something interesting to consider as being.

    ”You may say that I'm a dreamer
    But I'm not the only one
    I hope someday you'll join us
    And the world will be as one”

    -John Lennon “Imagine”



  32. Hi Eric,

    Yes, I see your point. Telling people they are not responsible for their actions is socially difficult, even if true. Does this mean scientists should be forbidden to discuss the question? I believe in the Edge annual question "What's your most dangerous idea" somebody brought up the topic of nonexistent free will.

    However, in my blog post I have tried to explain why asking for responsibility does not make sense if there is no free will, but it's the wrong question to ask. Instead you should be asking if that person is fit to survive another round of natural selection. Suicide isn't particularly helpful to that end. It is clearly preferable to sort these people out in some way, or take measures to avoid their indoctrination. Punishment also has benefits for the society, which is why we do it.

    In any case, I know we're not used to thinking that way, and I'm not expecting, not even hoping, we'll be doing this in the future (as I wrote, I think believing in free will has benefits), I'm just saying it can be done. Best,


  33. Hi Eric,

    Here is the essay I had in mind. Clay Shirk's "Dangerous Idea": Free will is going away. Time to redesign society to take that into account.

    "In the coming decades, our concept of free will, based as it is on ignorance of its actual mechanisms, will be destroyed by what we learn about the actual workings of the brain. We can wait for that collision, and decide what to do then, or we can begin thinking through what sort of legal, political, and economic systems we need in a world where our old conception of free will is rendered inoperable."

    He was somewhat ahead of Eagleman there. Best,


  34. No free will.

    Apart from other problems I can also form a biological argument against free will.

    We are all products of evolution and from evolutionary point of view free would be clearly harmful as it would make us (at least partially) immune to the beneficial effects of natural selection.

    If decisions we make are not influenced by our biological makeup then those decisions cannot be impacted by natural selection, that would be very detrimental to our chances of survival.

    But one look at human decisions should be enough to tell anyone that they are greatly impacted by natural selection.

  35. I'm with Xerxes, I think: the behaviour of sufficiently complex systems is in principle unpredictable, as such prediction is equivalent to solving the halting problem -- think about, say, predicting the evolution of the cellular automaton Game of Life, for instance, determining whether or not it will ever produce a given pattern. The question is undecidable, since Life is capable of universal computation, and if you could answer this question in general, you could create a Turing machine within Life and predict whether or not it will ever reach its halting state. So if we're capable of universal computation, the same holds for us.

    Of course, on the strictest interpretation, we're not computationally universal, having access only to finite resources; but I think the argument is 'in-principle' enough to not fall victim to this practicality. So, in principle, if we didn't eventually drop dead, we're unpredictable.

    That doesn't do anything to give us free will, though -- Life evolves according to a fixed, deterministic rule, after all. Though I think determinism vs. indeterminism is actually a red herring -- probabilistic Turing machines do not have greater computational power than traditional ones, after all, so the absence of determinism does not add anything qualitatively 'new'.

  36. Sabine worte:

    Lacking a good theory of consciousness, it may be that rather than making decisions, the role of our consciousness is to simply provide aggregated information about what our brain and body was doing, is currently doing, and provide a crude extrapolation of this information into the future....
    (I doubt I'm the first to have this thought. If you know a reference with similar spirit, please let me know.)

    Antonio Damasio had written about that aspect (see e.g. here). He puplished several books about issues related to consciousness.
    A lot of the books (if not all) were so popular that they have even been translated into german.

  37. I have an small scale (N=1) experimental result about this.

    My girlfried had bougth a horse few months earlier, and she was riding in a forest. Something (still unknown) happened and the horse frightened, dropping her down on a rocky area (probalby hit her head badly (wearing a helmet)).
    She then phoned me asking "what am I doing here in the forest? And do you have any idea why there is a lonely horse nearby". I arranged an abulance to pick her up and went to the hospital to see her.

    Her first comment, when I popped in, was "Where am I? Why am I here?", me: "because you dropped down from your horse, and hit your head". She: "Do I have a horse? When did I buy it?" etc.
    BUT, after about 5 minutes of discussing about the situation, she started again: "Where am I? Why am I here?", and the discussion took exactly THE SAME WORDS. And it went on every 5 minutes for hours. She could only remember short term (~5 mins), and very-long range (recognized me without any problem), but couldn't remember between 5 mins to at least 2 months (buying the horse).

    Next day she had recovered, but still couldn't remember being in the hospital, or riding. After few years, she claimed to to remember faintly being in the hospital.

    In the hospital she definitely "felt free will", when discussing with me. And in the same moment I had the power of prophet to know the exact words she was going to say ;)

    After this experience I have been sure that free-will does not exist.

    If I wouldn't been so shocked about the actual accident, I should have conducted a second experiment: using two different wordings in my answers to her and seeing whether her responses are correlated to my wordings...

    BR, -Topi

  38. Hi Nad,

    Thanks for the reference, I'll have a look at that. Best,


  39. Whether we have free will or not, the mechanism is in the brain. Learning more about brain mechanisms do not,a priori, detract from free will.

  40. Eric:I think I see what you are saying. One could think of a nation and it's psychological zeitgeist as being something real and tangible, just like a new web of entanglements that represent mass.

    Yes...and what started as a conscious direction of the masses to deal with what had transpired on the nation, but "to react" as a nation. A Physical manifestation from "another action" that imploded to form, "as an idea" from the people of that nation?

    Take the war then to "another place" then. As if, the war was taken here at home?

    What is the attractor here that once the fight began, as it was with simple math, that the elimination of the Taliban was the effective action of placing the seed for it's elimination there?

    You see, they were attracted to the fight like bees to honey and all that the United States had to do is eliminate and to sacrifice it's soldiers in the process. Your countryman. My countryman.

    But over all, how did this fair for the economics of outcome, as a nation? Was there something even deeper here that we do not recognize in the embodiment of the whole person, the whole spirit?

    Eric:I'm sorry, but to me belief in there not being free will is just a little to convenient for a lot of people. Remember, you can't hypnotize someone to do something they didn't already want to do.

    I concur on your assessment on the emotive correlations of what can well up in any of us and that is part of the understanding of the currents that stream through our beings.

    That is not being hypnotized, but a coming in touch with that we were not able to express on an everyday level(it's expressed in all other ways). This is traumatic and while the events have taken place how is one to heal at the deeper level of our being?

    Revenge, and the cost toward finishing that job, excluding all the innocent as by product of the job that needed to be done?

    Again I agree with you that the cost of innocent lives does not justify the way in which a nation must heal itself.

    The point is to be aware of the emotive charge that arises from some place, and manifests in the world as ?????? To have freewill means to listen for the very subtle levels of our expressions.

    A universal language that is not separated by linguistics, but applies to all peoples. What form would that take, expressive of our very natures? This "possibility" transcends all nations?


  41. Consciousness emerges when this primordial story-the story of a object causally changing the state of the body-can be told using the universal nonverbal vocabulary of body signals. The apparent self emerges as the feeling of a feeling. When the story is first told, spontaneously, without it ever being requested, and furthermore after that when the story is repeated, knowledge about what the organism is living through automatically emerges as the answer to a question never asked. From that moment on, we begin to know.

    Pg 31, The Feeling of What Happens, by Antonio Damasio

    Whose to say that the abilities of our methods to communicate and ue our minds will not develop areas of the brain that will dictate future experience? much more are we using the frontal lobe that protrusions of the forehead, um... not the eyebrows(if we don"t get in touch with that part of the brain):) will have forced the human body to adapt and change it's evolutionary path?

    Damasio's First Law
    The body precedes the mind.

    Damasio's Second Law
    Emotions precede feelings.

    Damasio's Third Law
    Concepts precede words.

    If you were to say that the life force is the energy behind the mass, and that the mass was a result of that energy, then what said's it cannot counter Damasio's laws?

    That mind precedes body would make sense in terms of our evolution above?


  42. "...most of us do not take pleasure in letting others suffer" Morals are imposed by the State as protection against its citizens. Ethics are assumed by citizens to protect each against the others. Nothing prevents anybody from doing anything but fear of consequence.

    The camps, 1938-1945: Europeans overall were not horrified, they were enthusiastic. Czechago, Vietnam, Afghanistan, the War on Drugs, next POTUS Rick Perry - The US has no superior moral position. Pot Pot, Sendero Luminoso, Hutus and Tutsis, the 1400s' Inquisition. It is unending. CEOs, salesmen, brokers, priests, politicians, and policemen are rewarded with others' blood.

    Nuclear weapons only ended war between nuclear powers. Give the State a hammer and it will find nails. When it runs out of nails it will redefine screws. When it runs short of screws it will bust heads.

  43. Bee wrote:

    "In fact, that our species still exists and seems to be doing reasonably well means that most of us do not take pleasure in letting others suffer."

    Non sequitur.

  44. I think Clay Shirky is confused.

    ...all assume that people are uniformly capable of consciously modulating their behaviors...

    The falsity of this assumption says nothing about free will.

    This presents a curious problem for the concept of free will — the patron has already made a calculation about the amount of money they are willing to pay in return for a particular amount of food. However, when the question is re-asked, — not "Would you pay $5.79 for this total amount of food?" but "Would you pay an additional 30 cents for more french fries?" — patrons often say yes, despite having answered "No" moments before to an economically identical question.

    This is rubbish. As any mathematician knows, it takes some finite effort to establish that two different problems are isomorphic to each other. E.g., the fact that you and I would have to spend a significant effort to show that these different things are all equivalent to the Riemann hypothesis says nothing about free will.

    But the cited example involves only elementary arithmetic or logic, you say. But our brains are not even set up to do elementary arithmetic or logic trivially. The long (pre-)history of mathematics proves this.

  45. This theoretical divide, between the mass of people with a uniform amount of free will and a small set of exceptional individuals, has been broadly stable for centuries, in part because it was based on ignorance. As long as we were unable to locate any biological source of free will, treating the mass of people as if each of them had the same degree of control over their lives made perfect sense; no more refined judgments were possible.

    This is also not true. Historically, we haven't done that. The simplification of the law is relatively recent. There were more elaborate rules based on who did what to whom. Class, gender, heredity, citizenship, etc., entered into it. e.g., a simple example, women were not considered the equal of men with regard to giving evidence.

  46. Will we keep more kinds of criminals constrained after their formal sentence is served, as we become better able to measure the likely degree of control they have over their own future actions? How can we, if we are to preserve the idea of personal responsibility? How can we not, once we are able to quantify the risk?

    Again, modern dilemma, not eternal verity. E.g., in the ancient world, thieves were branded, or a limb or nose or ear was cut so that everyone could recognize them; and thus such criminals were already constrained. Yet the notion of free will existed back then and now today. We choose - our free will in action - to create a dilemma today.

  47. This has been a childish obsession of theoretical physicists since, what, Schroedinger's what is life

  48. Hi Christine,

    If humans did take pleasure in letting others suffer we'd spend our days torturing and eventually killing each other. Sadly enough, this does happen, but it's not what most people spend their days on. If we did, we'd probably have gone extinct long ago. By and large, we all try to get along with each other, even with other species, though we're not always very successful. I don't know what about this you find objectionable. Best,


  49. Hi Arun,

    Shirky's essay is not particularly well argued, which is why, if I recall correctly, I didn't mention it in my blogpost on the Edge 2006 question. I just brought it up to say this comment section wasn't the first instance to note that free will is a potentially 'dangerous idea.'

    I believe what he's trying to say with the paragraph you quote is that human decisions are irrational (in the sense of being contradictory, not in the sense of squaring to -1) thus we don't even know what we want (it depends on the way the question is asked), so it's ambiguous even what "free will" means: it can easily be manipulated. And yes, you are right that in the end it depends on the effort one has to make to answer the question, most people just take the cheapest route (in terms of energy and time) and that't not irrational.

    Shirky also leaves out that there are other studies showing that if people are told about their biases, it helps them to make more rational decisions. I think that the day will come when we'll learn in school what may cause us difficulties to make good decisions and how to deal with it. And who knows, in some hundredthousand years or so, these biases might be gone... Best,


  50. Hi Uncle,

    "Morals are imposed by the State as protection against its citizens. Ethics are assumed by citizens to protect each against the others. Nothing prevents anybody from doing anything but fear of consequence."

    L'état, sommes nous. You have it backwards, we institutionalize what we believe to be the best morals. You don't need laws to fear consequences, it just makes it more tangible for those who have problems understanding the consequences. Best,


  51. Hi Practical and Theoretical,

    That's an interesting story about your girlfriend's accident. Glad to hear she recovered. Best,


  52. Sabine wrote:

    "Thanks for the reference, I'll have a look at that. Best,"

    Sabine, I had written a critical comment to one of your writings, which I was about to post here on your blog but which I then decided to send you via email.
    I got no reply on that email.
    (nad from randform)

    So I don't know wether the email arrived.

    If this comment here appears then I assume that you read it, since you did reply to my comment from yesterday. I leave it up to you to tell me, wether you would want me to resent the email or want me to post the critical comment here on the blog.

    If I don't hear from you then I will leave it as it is and from now on assume that you got the email.

  53. Hi Nad,

    I did get your email. It is still lingering in my inbox waiting for a reply. Sorry about that. I had a brief look at it and figured I'll have to think about it, so should take the time for that. Best,


  54. Hi Bee,

    You said suffer, not kill. Statement is non sequitur.

    And, like each of us, your life experience is quite biased. We can't escape this. Some of your conclusions/statements in your blog sound funny and out of reality to me sometimes. But never mind.



  55. Hi Christine,

    And yet the distinction between suffering and pleasure being also often subjective where free will is concerned; just ask a dominatrix and/or her clients :-)



  56. Bee,
    Are you familiar with the PEAR Proposition? I realize most mainstream scientists disregard any type of "para" phenomena as pseudoscience, but empirical results are empirical results. We should not ignore the data from rigorously performed experiments just because the results don't conveniently fit into our current paradigms. After all, don't we tend to learn the most when the known laws of physics break down and we get results that contradict our predictions?

    In case you are unaware, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab has performed various experiments over the last 30+ years with the overwhelming conclusion that our conscious intention affects the outcome of the experiments. Each experiment is set up essentially as follows: A (typically solid state) Random Event Generator (REG) is used to create a certain sequence of events per unit of time, such that its output is displayed (normally plotted on a computer monitor with subsequent events adding or subtracting from the previous plotted event) with an initial baseline calibrated to a zero mean score. IOW the output fluctuates randomly about a zero baseline, that is, until a human "operator" is included in the experiment. They have shown that a human operator is able, with varying degrees of success, to have a small but measurable affect on the mean score by *conscious intention* alone.

    This set up can essentially be thought of as a series of Schr√∂dinger cat experiments, where the observation alone does nothing to change the outcome, but willful intention does. It is my opinion that these trials are evidence of two separate yet amazing conclusions: 1) Free will exists and 2) we are able to use that will, consciously, via intention only (all psychic phenomena is not bogus) to affect random events in the world. In this particular experimental set up, the human operator has three choices: if she is a cat lover, she can have a measurable affect on the number of “cats” that survive the experiment; if she hates cats, she can have a measurable affect on the number of “cats” that do not survive; or if she is agnostic toward cats, she can choose not to act. The choices she makes are not forced upon her. She may hate cats, but may decide that they are nonetheless worth saving, and choose to do so, or she may choose to do nothing. She may love cats, but decide to “let nature take its course”. (By “cat” I am, of course, referring to the individual REG result)

    Now if we include conscious action with intention, the obvious affect one has to change the world escalates dramatically. Increase the number of individuals, all acting with the same intention, then we should expect to have substantial affect on the world. I don’t really know what definition of free will everyone is using, but if free will is the ability to make choices, free from the constraint of determinism, then these results suggest that even if the world is stochastically predetermined from one moment to the next, it will remain so unless acted upon by conscious intervention which biases the outcome wrt to will of the agent(s).

    These experiments and their remarkable results couldn’t be much simpler, yet they have been ignored to the point that many people are still unaware of them, even after all of these years. I find this rather puzzling, since the results suggest a fundamental connection, perhaps the most fundamental connection, between ourselves and our environment.
    For reference see:

  57. This comment has been removed by the author.

  58. I think human actions can have a random element, either consciously (if this coin comes up heads I'll do A, if tails B), or as a random or pseudo-random algorithm programmed into our neurons.

    I don't know if the latter is true or not, but from my experience in writing computer games, they work much better and seem more realistic with a random element programmed into them, so if I were in charge of evolution, that is the sort of nervous systems I would produce.

  59. Dan T. Benedict wrote:

    "Are you familiar with the PEAR Proposition? I realize most mainstream scientists disregard any type of "para" phenomena as pseudoscience, but empirical results are empirical results. We should not ignore the data from rigorously performed experiments just because the results don't conveniently fit into our current paradigms. After all, don't we tend to learn the most when the known laws of physics break down and we get results that contradict our predictions?"
    Yes one can say that "we tend to learn the most when the known laws of physics break down" however I have some doubts about the PEAR experiment.

    There seem to be flaws in the preparation of the experiment and the statistical evidence. You need a lot of experiments in order to have something which can be called an evidence in physics. In case you are a non-physicist here some more explanations on that issue:

    If you throw a coin t times and you get k times "heads up" than the relative frequency is defined as k/t. The probability of getting a head is in this case defined as 1/2 -that is you expect for an unbiased coin (and which stays unbiased over time) that on average in 50% (=1/2) of all throws you will get "heads up."
    If you do this experiment once more than you can look at the difference between the new relative frequency and the previous one. The absolute value of this difference tends to zero if t gets large. That means that the more throws you do the smaller the difference between the consecutive relative frequences will be.

    In the turn this means that if you perform a huge number of experiments then in order to get a large deviation from the expected 1/2 you would need a very long sequence of small deviations in the same direction, i.e. that means if you do a lot of throws you would need to have a really large number of e.g. consecutive "heads up", which is as everybody knows getting more and more unlikely. So if you do a lot of throws then on average you will be quite certain that your relative frequency will be 1/2, since as said a large deviation is getting more and more unlikely.
    If you however perform only a few experiments then a larger deviation is not so unlikely.

    But it is somewhat a matter of taste at what point you say something is really unlikely. If I try to convince people of this I usually do a "coward's russian roulette". That is I take something in my hand and say: "I let this thing now fall down. If it doesn't fall down but flys away (which is quite unlikely, but of course you can't exclude this possiblility) then I shall be shot (like in a russian roulette). I then let the thing really fall down. It is funny, but its not only me who finds this experiment still a little thrilling.

    So physicists have some very well defined notion of how many times you have to perform an experiment and what deviations you allow for calling something "statistically evident." If you observe something, which is quite unreproducable than you are sort of doomed, unless you don't have some other form of evidence, like that a large number of people observed something (like in astronomy) etc.

    The experiment you are talking about is reproducable, so one can investigate it in a scientific way.

    It seems this had been done with a negative result if I look into Wikipedia. Moreover by looking at the abstract of an article in nature: the critic was that the involved random number generation of the PEAR experiment was biased.

  60. Hi Bee,

    I chose "other" in the poll because I agree with Xerxes and Jochen.

    I think that human decisions are statistically predictable and so there is no free will.

    I would be interested for you to explain how human decisions can be predictable in a quantum mechanical world.

    Otherwise I agree with you and in particular your points on morality.

    I describe morality as an approximate cost-benefit analysis tool provided for us by evolution.

    Morality can thereby be flexible and relative because the costs and benefits of various actions are not the same for everyone, everywhere.


  61. Nad,
    While I will agree that what determines a statistically significant result is a subjective notion, the only real bias in this case seems to be from the skeptical critics who have a stake in the status quo.

    You wrote: "Moreover by looking at the abstract of an article in nature: the critic was that the involved random number generation of the PEAR experiment was biased."

    I won't respond to the article (I refuse to pay $32 in order to read it), but only can say that if an REG is biased, it would only be biased in one direction (i.e. producing more zeros than ones or vice versa) or inconsistently biased in either direction and neither form of bias would alter the relative effectiveness of the human "operator".

    Although the baseline of many of the trials did eventually drift off of a true zero mean, it usually only drifted slightly, normally toward the positive. One only has to look at the plots of the HI, the BL, and the LO, to recognize that the HI and LO are significantly different from the BL, even after it drifted.

    One might wonder: "how does a full professor in electrical engineering get involved with psychic research?" It was only after a graduate student proposed such a project, of which Prof. Jahn was extremely skeptical, and then showed actual results that he couldn't ignore, that he committed the rest of his career (31 years) to a rigorous study of the phenomena.

    Unfortunately, I believe Paul Davies was correct when he wrote: "The one true acid test of any weird phenomena (he actually wrote 'theory') is 'can you make money from it'?" IOW, skeptics of any study can always deny extraordinary results as they see fit, claiming incorrect protocols, etc., and will be more aptly believed by the scientific community in general. They will never believe something fantastical to be valid unless it is actually utilized in the sense of creating a technology based upon the phenomena such that they can no longer deny it. It seems to me that with a properly engineered product, using pattern recognition, a "psychic" switch or perhaps even a rheostat should be able to be produced using this phenomena. IMHO, only after a former skeptic is able to use such a device will they acknowledge the phenomena's existence. Only time, effort, and ingenuity will tell if any useful technology is realizable in this case.

  62. Dan,

    This is not the place to discuss parasomething or -other. I've never met a "mainstream scientist." That's just a word people use who'd like to be scientists without using the scientific method. Scientists are not "ignoring evidence" for consciousness influencing this or that, they have a big bulk of negative evidence. All further off-topic comments will vanish into digital nirvana. Feel free to continue the discussion elsewhere. Best,


  63. Sabine,
    I obviously wrote something that offended you. This was not my intention, and I apologize. I can tell by your comment that you don't agree with the PEAR conclusions, even though Professor Jahn has never been accused of not using the scientific method. His claims and methods are not immune to interpretation. However, if the phenomena were real, IMO it would be pertinent to the fundamental question of free will.

  64. Dan T. Benedict wrote:
    "Unfortunately, I believe Paul Davies was correct when he wrote: "The one true acid test of any weird phenomena (he actually wrote 'theory') is 'can you make money from it'?" IOW, skeptics of any study can always deny extraordinary results as they see fit, claiming incorrect protocols, etc., and will be more aptly believed by the scientific community in general. "

    I actually don't see either why there can't be applications were you could make money with weird phenomena. In fact it seems there is a big market for pseudoscience. So I find that argument not very convincing.

    I also won't pay for the nature article, but just by looking at the abstract it seems that there were severe scientific problems with the PEAR experiment. In particular the mechanical machines as described in the abstract of the nature article seem to provide no good random number generation.

    Moreover as said by looking at the Wikipedia article about PEAR it seems that the experiments had been repeated but with different results than the PEAR people received.

    It could of course be the case that these different experiments (and the nature article) were all wrong, but the chances that the PEAR lab was wrong are higher the more independent labs disprove it.

    This doesn't exclude though the possibility of the existence of parapsychological phenomena, so I think in principle one shouldn't exclude this possibility in scientific research and Dan I found your comment not offensive.

    It just seems that this PEAR experiment was probably not proving a parapsychological phenomenom....but if it was proving something then rather some psychological phenomena.

  65. Dan,

    (Just found two of your comments in the spam queue, sorry about that.) You didn't offend me, I'd just appreciate if you could stay on topic. Paranormal phenomena have nothing to do with free will, for they don't address at all the question whether you have any choice doing what you do. They just attempt to enlarge the realm of things you can do. Best,


  66. Bee wrote:

    "Paranormal phenomena have nothing to do with free will, for they don't address at all the question whether you have any choice doing what you do. They just attempt to enlarge the realm of things you can do."

    I don't understand why para-phenomena (if they would exist) could not in principle also influence your ability to make choices.

  67. Nad,
    Thanks for your comments. I value the opinions and arguments you have expressed here. The question of free will is a complex one (philosophers have written pages just in order to define it) and until we have a better understanding of consciousness, I believe the question will remain open.

    I just have a strong belief (and it is only a belief) that one of the traits that distinguishes us from animals is the ability to make rational decisions and choose to act positively, or negatively, or even choose not to act, accordingly. We are, after all, able to modify the behavior of our children and we are self-aware, therefore we should be able to modify our own behavior. That's not to say it is easy or everyone is equally adept at doing it, or that our choices aren't subject to constraint.

    Which brings up an interesting point: If we as adults do have free will, do our children? Are they able to modify their behavior via rational decisions alone or do they only react to positive and negative stimuli? I would suggest that they are definitely self-aware, at least after a certain age, but they only possess the potential for free will, and this is only an ability that they develop as they mature.

    "by making money from it" - I'm sure he was referring to valid technological applications only and not pseudo-gadgets. Then again, I guess this would depend upon ones definition of valid. The inventions that I referred to above, if they indeed could be devised, would be undeniably valid (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence - and what better evidence could you require) and would hence validate the phenomena, but your point is well taken.

    I realize that the internet is full cranks. I assure you that I don't want to be lumped in with them, or give your critics any ammunition to take potshots at you or your forum (I am familiar with one particularly caustic blogger/critic and empathize with recipient(s) of his attacks).

    This is my first visit to your blog, and you have many topics that are of interest to me. I also realize that I may be more open to unusual (even taboo) ideas (as long as some potential evidence exists) than the professional scientist, who have their valuable reputations at stake. In this respect my choices are less constrained than yours, but I will abide by your justifiable reluctance to be connected to contentious ideas, even if I believe they are relevant.

  68. I voted for Other -- Scientists have a vested interest in determinism, because only a determinist model could account for both mind and behavior with zero information loss. Any insertion of freedom is essentially a claim for indeterminacy, or lack of accountability, and this is anathema to scientists who advocate eliminative materialism.

    That said, there are many credible arguments for determinism in human motivation and action. But I agree with Xerxes that the calculations would lead very quickly to a combinatorial explosion and thus we can only assert determinism via induction and not by mathematical or formal axioms.

    Another aspect of freedom involves interacting with others, not merely my own choices in vacuo, and that only increases the magnitude of complexity. For human minds and present-day computers, this makes the antinomy insoluble for now.

    Furthermore, because of complexity, even a small input that could not be quantified would completely demolish the determinist project, whereas proponents of freedom can allow any amount of hard-determinant constraints into their model while admitting the influence of an indeterminate variable.

    Also, I think the author's sententious remarks that "the issue of moral responsibility is a red herring, for morals are human constructs whether or not we have free will . . . In a world without free will, we should not ask if a person is worth blaming, but simply look for the dominant cause of the problem and take steps to solve it" are absurd and self-contradictory. The notion of a moral problem relies on a corresponding notion of freedom as a criterion of the good. On what basis could a moral problem be addressed (or be said to exist at all) without a unit that would have a stable decidability factor (in this case, freedom)? Without taking into consideration freedom as an instantiation of good and as a measure of fairness, then moral problems have no qualitative representation and are a matter of bean counting. I can understand why scientists, businesspeople and some politicians might find this elimination of freedom to be ideal, but this conclusion too favorably aligns with their interests for this to not arouse suspicion.

    True, one could dance around the issue by eliminating the word "freedom" entirely and substituting it with another more scientific-sounding term, but that would be a poor hack, and would only further beg the question.

    Freedom ultimately may be a convenient fiction; I am willing to entertain the idea, but the arguments of the determinists have all foundered with regard to the specificity of their claims. i.e., they posit more than they can prove. The biggest entanglement in determinism is that it quickly subsides into a quasi-religious form of foreordination, which is a belief, even a superstition, dressed up in molecules and statistical thermodynamics.

  69. Hi Nad,

    For what I am concerned, para phenomena would be some sort of 5th force that for whatever reason only couples to 'consciousness' and allows things like remote sensing or telekinesis and other fantasies. I don't see how its existence would change anything about the question whether your choices where predetermined or random, or what it means to make a choice to begin with. It would just enlarges the range of choices you (believe you can) make. Best,


  70. Sabine wrote:

    "I don't see how its existence would change anything about the question whether your choices where predetermined or random, or what it means to make a choice to begin with."

    It seems to me that in some sense the question is related to the question of "is there pure randomness?"
    If there is and if you would have some para-phenomena than you could think e.g. of an device which could couple this pure randomness to your will.

    Likewise you could start out predetermine some future choice of some individuum and then apply some para-phenomenom to influence the individuums will in a given instant. Depending on how good this works some choices of that individuum would be predetermined by someone else.

  71. Hi Nad,

    I don't see how any of that addresses the question whether there is free will. It just pushes around the bump under the carpet. If somebody's decisions are determined by somebody else's decisions, then this just begs the question whether that somebody else has free will. I also don't know why this has something to do with whether there is pure randomness, for if something is random you're not making any choice either. Best,


  72. This independence created by philosophical insight is—in my opinion—the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth. (Einstein to Thornton, 7 December 1944, EA 61-574)

    Hopefully I can bring more to the table on this subject by connecting further topical insights? Something to think about? Does the Bell curve have any relation?

    It's more the understanding of what the 5d world actually represents by theoretical examples and as applied to the real world? More then just mere fantasy for sure?;)Muons, Muon, muons......what relativistic measure with such particle decays?

    Klein's Ordering of Geometries

    A theorem which is valid for a geometry in this sequence is automatically valid for the ones that follow. The theorems of projective geometry are automatically valid theorems of Euclidean geometry. We say that topological geometry is more abstract than projective geometry which is turn is more abstract than Euclidean geometry.
    (link now dead)

    As in any mathematical pursuit would you say such a thread runs through the development of the historical geometrically from the classical world, to see the world more now in "non-euclidean ways?"

    We say then that with Riemann, Einstein made use of, and if we follow such thoughts, might we not say that this leads us to further insights about gravity?

    Asks us to prepare for new methods in research with which we approach experience? Try to combine views with, in regard to the quantum world and Relativity?

    You might approach it as Freewill?


  73. Sabine wrote:

    "If somebody's decisions are determined by somebody else's decisions, then this just begs the question whether that somebody else has free will. I also don't know why this has something to do with whether there is pure randomness, for if something is random you're not making any choice either."

    In school, in the subject "ethics" we had one semester under the theme "freedom and determinism". A lot of time there went into agreeing on terms, sometimes without positive result. So I am a bit hesitating to start discussing about the term free will itself. That is the notion of free will is rather fuzzy. But sometimes one can eventually also find some kind of "fuzzy agreements". Free will is for me here the free will of an individuum. That is you have the notion of the free will of peoples a.s.o. but this is not I am discussing about. (Free) Will means here for me that an individuum is having some internal brain state upon which it makes some decisions (I understand that amongst others you want to discuss wether it is per se possible to predict or not predict the decisions of that individuum given its brain state, but for the following this is not important). Let's for simplicity assume the decision is to pick a cereal. If someone else is doing this decision for you (like via the previously mentioned hypothetic device) or if the decision is completely random (via coupling with a random device) then this person doesn't make his/hers decision based on his/hers own brain state. One could infer that the brain state is just altered by someone so that the decision is -after the alteration- then still made on an internal brain state of the indivduum. Thats why I had added the word "instant" because brain states which are radically altered within the instant of decision are in my opinion not to be accounted for as "original" brain state of the individuum.
    The usual from-outside alteration of the brain state takes time, in particular it is at least causal. In this context it is an interesting question to which extend non-para-phenomena (like by using electric fields) can be used to alter brain states.

  74. The reality of wave function collapse has always been debatable, i.e., whether it is a fundamental physical phenomenon in its own right or just an epiphenomenon of another process, such as quantum decoherence.[2] In recent decades the quantum decoherence view has gained popularity.[citation needed] Collapse may be understood as an update in a probabilistic model, given the observed result.Wave function collapse

    If you are a scientist and do not like the inference as to the nature of the association to freewill, can you please explain why?


  75. I'm telling Neil Bates you mentioned Decoherence, Plato. You're in trouble now, hoo-boy.

  76. This comment has been removed by the author.

  77. Heh, well Steve he is in trouble if he glibly accepts the fallacious argument (as I and others have argued it is) that loss of coherence relations would lead to anything resembling selection of the quantum options (lead to collapse.) If collapse is inexplicable, and it still is, then our actions are not predetermined. I think it's no coincidence, it relates to "free choice."

    Word Veri. strikes back with "graph"!

  78. Neil:If collapse is inexplicable, and it still is, then our actions are not predetermined. I think it's no coincidence, it relates to "free choice."

    Okay Neil, thanks for clarification of the relation to Free choice, but you did not say Freewill?

    If you believe there is "no singularity" then is it possible to believe in "cyclical universes?"

    Time travel?


  79. Plato, I think free will and free choice mean about the same, to most people - but I do make a distinction. "Will" means the ability for the "self" to force the rest of the mind into compliance: will myself to sit still even though I feel buffeted by stimuli or feelings of wanting to move, forcing oneself not to eat more, to diet, to quit smoking despite the cravings, etc. That is also Libet's "free won't."

    Time travel: I don't know what kind of singularity you mean, I sure don't believe in the spacey Kurzweil version. I don't believe in a cyclical universe since the same things would all happen again, and I believe in real indeterminism. (Maybe it does expand and contract in general, but given dark energy how could it do that, even?) Finally, if we really can travel in time then we can change the past or create new ones, since of course we can change things once there. The most pathetic idea I've seen is, you just wouldn't be "able" to do other than what already happened.

  80. Neil,

    If collapse is undetermined, then it's random and there isn't anything "free" about your decisions either. Best,


  81. Hi Nad,

    Yes, it does of course depend on what one means with free will. My post was quite fuzzy on that. Thing is, I wrote a much longer text in which I explained what I mean with free will, but then that part I left out. Since I have your email address, I can just send you the full text (and don't worry, you don't have to read it if you don't want). Basically, I think if you want to have a notion of "free will" that makes sense, then a choice should neither be predetermined in principle, nor be caused by a fundamentally random process. That's why I say, what's it matter if somebody else's random generator random generates for you. There's no free will in either case. But if you're with Sean Carroll on the notion of free will, then it presumably does make a difference. Best,


  82. Sabine had written:

    "Paranormal phenomena have nothing to do with free will, for they don't address at all the question whether you have any choice doing what you do. They just attempt to enlarge the realm of things you can do."

    Nadja had written:
    "I don't understand why para-phenomena (if they would exist) could not in principle also influence your ability to make choices."

    Sabine, in the previous comments I tried to explain why I think that para-phenomena could in principle influence your ability to make choices. Since the notion of free will is usually connected with the question of choice it may thus be in principle affected by para-phenomena.

    Sabine, you can send me your definition of free will if you want, however I probably won't comment on that, because I have currently not the time for such discussions. I just wanted to defend Dan. T. Benedict.

    Nevertheless I urge you to read my critique, which I had sent to you. I studied your paper with care and put some work into making precise comments, which I think could improve the paper.

  83. Bee, that is understandable and likely correct at the piecemeal level. However, I think that the brain has an interrelated wholeness (I know, fuzzy concept and hard to validate but there are some interesting studies of the behavior of the whole that are hard IMHO to understand as separated parts just influencing each other. Was discussed in Wired Magazine of 3/24/08.) I will need to see what Sean Carroll says, BTW I think he is wrong about time.

  84. Neil:I don't believe in a cyclical universe since the same things would all happen again, and I believe in real indeterminism. (Maybe it does expand and contract in general, but given dark energy how could it do that, even?)

    No singularity.

    If a duality in nature can exist, then can one counter any position of expansion by saying, possible contractions in the universe can exist? The universe would have to be older then 13.7 billion years, you see:)No information is lost.

    Cycle of Birth, Life, and Death-Origin, Indentity, and Destiny by Gabriele Veneziano

    In one form or another, the issue of the ultimate beginning has engaged philosophers and theologians in nearly every culture. It is entwined with a grand set of concerns, one famously encapsulated in an 1897 painting by Paul Gauguin: D'ou venons-nous? Que sommes-nous? Ou allons-nous? "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?"

    You would have to go back to what Veneziano is saying?

    Cosmology likes it's box, yet, how can something greater then "that box" become part of any change in the future?

    So, nature has that possibility of becoming, while holding all information about the universe, it's past, and can take from that past, and reconstruct itself?

    All information already exists, you see? What does awakening mean to know we had only to recognize the potential exists to realize we are part and parcel of such a grand plan, as the universe becoming?

    Neil:I sure don't believe in the spacey Kurzweil version

    Not Kurzweil, yet fundamentally on a universal scale "that nature" can also explain it at the quantum scale as well.

    Why can this not universally be applied to our own very natures that nature can do this in consciousness, as well on such a grand scale to say that we as human beings do not partake of that process all the time?

    I have said nothing about determinism, yet still refer to "freewill." We only have to remember, and we cannot do that if we do not ask the right question?


  85. This is strange, people worried about the existence of free-will and moral responsibility, but do not worry about the existence of "self".
    As I see it, self comes before free-will, there is no sensible idea of free-will without a self. Without self we can not be sure what should be responsible for an action - is it the genes? is it the chemistry? or is it mis-connections of the neural networks? If it's neuronal issue, which part of the neural network?
    Free-will can be real only in a framework where self is assumed, and I think it is.
    In short, we do possess free-will, although there is no free-will in this world.

  86. Some further thoughts:
    1) If free-will is illusive and is entirely passive in all courses of human action, then we are simply zombies of deterministic processes inside our brain. If this is true, why did evolution create such an illusion?
    In other words, what are the evolutionary advantages of this illusion of free-will?

    2) Maybe the action of a person is really non-deterministic, because determinism is true only for the entire system of {person + environment}, where environment here includes EVERY THING the person interacted with ever since she was born?
    Therefore, even knowing the state of all her neurons do not determine (most of) her actions, because as a subsystem she behaves stochastically. This is especially true for higher cognitive processes, since such processes involves a lot of input information the person absorbed since her birth.

  87. Determinism is not a problem for "free will" if you define it properly: free will is acting as a function of one's goals.

    Any (deterministic or not) mechanism that will result in your body undertaking actions that promote your goals is an expression of "free will".

    The point is rather that your *goals* are not freely determined. Your goals (the satisfaction of your desires) are a "given".

    If you "fall in love" you didn't decide so. It "just happens", it is "chemistry". If you are jealous, then that just "happens". If you like strawberries, then that just happens.

    But with your given desires which come from "nowhere", you will act in such a way to try to satisfy them and that possibility is your (impression) of free will.

    You could say that an electronic calculator has the "desire" to do correct calculations, and as such, uses its free will to display the right sum. That one can analyze the inner workings of the calculator doesn't undo the fact that the calculator did display things according to its free will, which satisfied its desire to make the right sums.

    That it is predictable that I will take strawberries for desert (because it is known that I like eating strawberries) is not a denial of my free will. It is the outcome of a predictable algorithm that tries to satisfy my desire for strawberries.

    I didn't determine that I liked strawberries, I just "happen to like them". THAT is obviously externally determined and I have no power over that.

    Punishment and law is just a way to weed out those calculators that desire to display wrong results.

  88. Patrick,

    "Determinism is not a problem for "free will" if you define it properly: free will is acting as a function of one's goals."

    Yeah, there are arguably many ways to define free will so that we have one. But what's the point in doing that? Also, it's simply not the definition I have used because I don't think it's useful, and it's moot arguing about definitions. To understand what I'm saying, you'll have to stick with my definition. Best,


  89. The point about the misunderstanding about "free will" is that people think, have the feeling, that they act in order to satisfy their desires, and they seem to succeed ; and that's also correct!
    People usually DO succeed in handling in such a way that their desires are accomplished. The point is that that is in no way in any contradiction with even a deterministic universe, as "trying to satisfy your desires" can be perfectly algorithmic and predictable without giving conceptual problems.

    If I like strawberries, it is not difficult to write an algorithm in my brain that will pick the "right" dessert at the cantine ; and people who know me will be able to predict that I will take that dessert with strawberries.

    The point I wanted to make is that what is the drive for these algorithms are our desires, and I think most people will agree that they don't freely choose their desires. They just "happen". So that they are determined eventually by an algorithmic and/or deterministic universe and its peculiar initial conditions will not surprise anybody.

    I didn't choose to like strawberries. That's due to some initial conditions and several random phenomena in the past light cone of my body without any difficulty.

    So I don't have "free desires" - they are "god-given". But I do have free will, that is to say, there are the right algorithms in my brain to try to satisfy these externally imposed desires.

  90. The point I wanted to make is that the thing that is externally given over which we don't really have any conscious control, is our desires and emotions ; but we don't have the sensation either that we determine them "freely". It just happens, and we realize that we don't choose them.

    We may have the impression that our consciously chosen actions try to satisfy those desires and that we "freely" decided that ; but if it turns out to be deterministic or even calculable and predictable, there is in fact no problem with that. If a predictable and well-determined algorithm allows us to handle such that our desires are satisfied, that corresponds perfectly to what we "want" to do.

    We have "free will" and that doesn't clash with it being eventually deterministic or calculable.

    We don't have "free desires" but we don't have the impression we do.

    As such there is no clash between our impressions and the laws of nature. It is only when we fail to make the distinction between our desires and our actions to try to satisfy them, that we seem to have a contradiction between our experience and the laws of nature.

  91. Patrick,

    What I am saying is: You can call "free will" whatever you want. It's just not what I'm referring to as free will. I don't see the point really in discussing the use of a word. If you think it makes sense to call decisions being a consequence of executing "free will" when the decision was predetermined at an earlier time, then I'll not prevent you from calling it "free will". I'll just say that this does not agree with my notion of free will. What you are referring to, I would call it the illusion of free will. (And that illusion arguably exists, otherwise we wouldn't having this exchange.) Best,




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