You know, with most factual matters, rational people are satisfied with the facts and draw the conclusions those facts lead to simply because facts are facts. However, what if the facts lead to a disturbing conclusion?

Then people can be less rational.

That's the problem with the determinism vs. free will discussion. The facts inexorably lead to the conclusion that we are not really free and that every behavior of ours, conscious or not, has its physical causes. We don't don't like this, so a lot of needless energy has been devoted over the years to finding creative but intellectually bankrupt ways around the unpleasant truth.

One member has several times now gone out of his way to basically call me a dope who's out of touch with contemporary philosophy on the matter of free will, and especially in terms of what is called "compatibilism." He tells me I need to read some books about compatibilism. He's too lazy to explain it for the benefit of not just me, but you as well, so this discussion is a challenge to him to explain his view clearly and let us discuss it.

Actually, compatibilism was discussed even back in the 1970's when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. It's not new to me at all and its roots go way back to the Greeks. If you'll take a look at Sam Harris's discussion of compatibilism below, you'll see that his problem with it is basically the same as mine: It depends upon creating a new problem and refuting that (which is basically a kind of strawman argument) and also upon not looking behind the curtain to see how behavior is produced in the brain. It's a game of "let's pretend."

As a general rule, this is how discussion groups work: You present an idea or ideas and the discussion starts. Sending people off to read books isn't discussion. It's bailing on a discussion.

So let me restate the problem for this person I have not named.

In a nutshell, it's that everything that happens (at least above the subatomic level) is constrained by the laws of Nature as revealed by first Newton and then expanded upon by Einstein.


Whatever happens happens due to antecedent conditions and events governed by immutable and ever-present natural laws.


In the case of humans, the locus of all conscious actions happens to be the brain. The brain is part of the universe and so far as we know, nothing happens in it that doesn't happen deterministically following antecedent conditions and circumstances in conformity with natural law.

Is there room for doubt? In science, I suppose there's always room for at least cartesian doubt. However, we accept evolution based on the preponderance of evidence rather than conclusive evidence and yet the determinism of physical laws goes far deeper than that. It's actually a necessary precondition for making sense of the world around us. If physical laws weren't deterministic, then we'd live in a chaotic universe where things can sometimes fall up rather than down in defiance of gravity and where light can slow down to freeway speeds or even hold still.

We believe in deterministic natural law because there really is no rational alternative. If the world weren't so ordered and determined by laws, why bother trying to understand a world you couldn't trust to behave predictably?

But not to worry: we don't live in that alternative chaotic universe. In this one, everything happens because of a chain of events and circumstances leading up to it and obeying immutable and deterministic natural laws.

However, compatibilists, who believe that determinism and free will aren't mutually exclusive beg to differ. I'm sure we'd all like to know how that can be.

Compatibilist, the lectern is now yours. 

(The brief Sam Harris video on compatibilism referred to above follows. There is a bit of an audio delay, for which I apologize, but try to follow his train of thought nonetheless. If anyone wants to present a pro-compatibilist video, fine, but follow my lead and find one that's brief enough for busy people to get the basic idea without having to devote a large portion of an hour, or more, to it, because they probably won't.)

Oh, and here's another one where Harris talks about how compatibilists approach the problem by first changing the subject and trying to discuss something else.

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Free will can't be proven. It's silly to believe it can.

Determinism can't be experienced or measured. It's silly to believe it can.

Silly = silly.

Nice try, but determinism is far more firmly ensconced in our systems of reason than free will is. Where are there any examples of exceptions to the determinism of physical laws? All it would take is a verifiable fact or two such as maybe a metal that sometimes expands but sometimes retracts when heated or photons that slow down to freeway speeds on occasion.

In fact, the determinism of physical law goes way deeper than mere facts. It's a kind of necessary presupposition and underpinning of science that physical laws operate without exception. It's beyond proof, it's simply something one needs to assume such as that we are not dreaming. 

If physical laws aren't deterministic, there's no point in trying to understand them.

If you break it all down, there are probably trillions of actions, electrical, chemical, gravitational, (plus all their interactions) occurring every millisecond within a centimeter of "my body". There are billions of discrete life forms operating in that same space - the vast majority of which have no sign of human DNA.

I touch my keyboard. Did I really touch it? Did the atoms collide? How does one define "touch"?

In order to apply determinism (as it relates to "free will"), every single one of these actions, reactions, and interactions need to be measured and recorded - not just measurable, MEASURED - and that's only for THIS millisecond. And, by the way, if you miss ANY, your experiment has failed.

Don't be silly.

We don't need to prove determinism true through tests, measurements, and experiments because it is even more obviously true than evolution, which we believe on the preponderance of evidence. We believe determinism in that way but also because believing otherwise implies that there really are no physical laws, just physical serving suggestions.

You and I depend everyday on the assumption that the universe is governed by physical laws. You put a kettle on the stove to boil and either it boils or it doesn't, and if it doesn't there is a reason it doesn't which will quickly be discovered (the burner is broken, the liquid in the pot isn't water but something else).

It's never "I guess the physical laws stopped working temporarily."

As far as we know, they physical laws elucidated by Newton and refined by Einstein operate 100% everywhere and all of the time. 

The kind of doubt you are expressing is along the lines of cartesian doubt. Is it possible that physical laws get suspended (by whom? why?) just so we can have free will? I suppose. In the same way that you and I our lives might merely a dream.

You're just being silly with a straight face whether you know it or not.

Wel don't ned to prove x is true because [fill in excuse here]...

Yes...god forbid those pesky things like proof and intelectual integrity get in the way of ones "obvious irrefutable absolutist negative claim that all the facts demonstrate". Funny words from a guy who once said absolute negative claims are impossible.

Time to reevaluate your framework of ontology and epistemology and a quick reread of Karl Popper. Another good reason to pick up a book and read.

As a layman, I can see now how one discusses these issues is subject to the extent of one's readings. I now have strong, personal opinions about why Free Will is such a huge, largely unanswerable topic. It took me decades of armchair philosophizing and armchair science to arrive at mostly-satisfying conclusions.

At this point, I'm still dissatisfied with my ability to speak in common terms with among people who have different levels of "expertise". It's easy to see how most people can only satisfy their "understanding" of Free Will by relying solely on personal experience and/or by relying on what a specific, supposedly trustworthy authority tells them.

I like Unseen's definition of this issue as being a non-scientific issue, and find myself falling back to not wondering so much about "what is a scientific definition of Free Will"--as there is no scientific definition!--but wondering more about why people assume there is any, valid definition at all for it, other than in the context of the existence of one's spirit or will beyond our merely physical brains.

I suppose the one major difference I have with Unseen is that I don't see how people should not be held accountable for their own actions, unless their behavior is both pathological (i.e. scientifically determinable as a brain defect or injury), and harmful to others.

There are no authorities on free will...only those with promising theories.

If you have come to a barrier after armchair philosophising as you say you have and if highly simplistic explanations don't satisfy you...what better way is there to proceed that catch up on modern literature? I've done it, Simon has done it, Reg has done it and they aren't philosophers nor neuroscientists. Why on Earth would someone highly interested in and passionate about a topic not do this? It is beyond baffling.

There comes a point when you have to do your homework if you are serious about trying to understand the formidable problems when dealing with free will (or any complex problem).

I would happily send you a PDF of several articles if you would like.

 Why on Earth would someone highly interested in and passionate about a topic not do this? It is beyond baffling.

Well, here's the thing. One of my paradigms wrt trying to understand a topic is to understand it in a way that I can pass on to laymen. I'm finding that keeping myself naive wrt what established "experts" and passionate people say disconnects me from naive points of view, which are the points of view that I am most interested in improving.

That is my armchair/layman's position, and I'm sticking to it. Although I'm realizing I should at least slog through the lengthy wikipedia article on this topic. What I'm looking for is a "new" way to tackle this subject without resorting to extensive "education"... again, so I can relate to "normal", naive people. So far here, I feel it's nothing more than intellectually complex suppositions, not suited for the masses.

I suppose the one major difference I have with Unseen is that I don't see how people should not be held accountable for their own actions, unless their behavior is both pathological (i.e. scientifically determinable as a brain defect or injury), and harmful to others.

I recommend the second, longer video of Sam Harris on the radio show. He really gets into ethics in an atheist/determinist world there. He does so by taking the moralizing and blaming out of crime and punishment. I'll save you the trouble of looking for it by republishing it below. It's optional, of course, but very interesting.

Taking the example of Charles Whitman, a man who murdered his mother and wife and then went to a high place and using his sniper skills shot 32 people 12 of whom were killed. Whitman, he says, is probably a poster child for an evil person.

He goes on to say that a subsequent autopsy revealed a tumor on his brain which was the probable cause of his actions.

In Whitman's case, he says can we really play the blame game? No, because there was a reason why he did what he did. Not a rational reason, perhaps, but a cause that Whitman couldn't manipulate and control.

But, he wonders, is it any different for the causes of any of our actions? 

Once you understand this, the notions of blame and guilt go out the window. Instead of punishing offenders, it becomes how to control them and keep them from causing additional harm. And of course, fixing them to whatever extent is possible. 

And ignore Davis. If he understood compatibilism, he'd offer a compatibilist refutation that someone with no background in philosophy could understand. 

I'm going to ignore your implied "Only someone who has read a lot of books could possibly understand the truth of compatibilism" dodge, and I always will.

Stop the BS and accept the invitation to educate us all. Not just me.

You're just being silly with a straight face whether you know it or not.

Why do you assume I have a straight face?

I've never once implied that physical laws are suspended. You're contending that I CANNOT have free will because physical laws determine all effects. I'm just saying, "show me". Stop your unscientific philosophical pontification and just show me how this works.

I believe "Free Will" is an illusion - one of many that we live in. The image projected onto my cornea is upside-down. We can reject everything we know about what we see. You can campaign vociferously for the world to reject these illusions - or you can live in them like the rest of us do.

We can prove and demonstrate that our image of the world is upside-down, but we CANNOT prove and demonstrate that physical laws determine our choices. I'm not saying they don't. I'm just saying that it can't be proved.

Free will is an illusion.

I have free will.

With tongue-in-cheek:

Upside-down is an illusion, depending on what you consider is up or down. Like, what if it's merely our eyeballs that are upside down, which cancels out an upside-down illusion?


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