I recently read a book called Freedom Evolves by the philosopher Daniel Dennett. In it, he puts forward the idea that free will is compatible with a deterministic view of the universe.

Determinism is the idea that everything that happens has been determined by a previous state of affairs. Imagine a beaker of liquid. If we know all the positions of the molecules in the liquid at time T we also know their positions at time T + 1 because they will all move in accordance with the laws of physics and we can calculate what their new positions will be. This idea can be applied to the universe as a whole. Theoretically, by knowing the position of every particle at the beginning of the universe and knowing the laws of physics governing those particles you can extrapolate everything that will ever happen.

At face value the idea of determinism seems to contradict the idea of free will. If everything is determined by what has gone before then how can any individual make a free choice? This has caused many thinkers to imagine there is some kind of non-material substance (e.g. mind, soul, spirit) that is not subject to the laws of physics. This supernatural substance is supposedly the seat of our free will and interacts with our brain to freely cause our actions. The philosopher Rene Descartes believed this interaction occurred at the pineal gland (source). I am not comfortable with supernatural entities at the best of times but even less so when they can interact with the natural world (i.e. our brain). Therefore I do not subscribe to dualism and have to account for all our actions from our material brain.

Dennett explains that some people have tried to use quantum indeterminancy to resolve the issue. The trick is to have some form of genuine randomness (through quantum particles) involved in our decision making process such that strict determinism is avoided. I do not know enough about quantum theory to confidently speak about it but I understand that in some way quantum-level randomness is different from the sort of pseudo-randomness you get from a computer algorithm. A computer algorithm will give you a bunch of numbers that seem random to us but they are actually predictable (since a set of deterministic computer instructions creates them). Quantum randomness is supposed to be genuinely random (completely unpredictable).

Dennett does not hold with the quantum explanation though. He states that, even if it were true that quantum level events occur as part of our thought processes, this does not provide us with the free will we seek because by definition we do not control this randomness. Therefore we are just slave to a different kind of process that happens to be random rather than determined. This does not make you any more free in his opinion, and I agree with him.

So what is Dennett's approach? Obviously condensing a large and complex book down to a few paragraphs does not do it justice but there was a particular example he used which I think illustrates his point. Imagine two computers that are designed to play chess. The first is a rather crudely written program which uses a sort of trial and error approach. It will analyse the result of a potential move and according to some basic rules work out whether this move puts it in a better position or not. It may even consider two, or three moves ahead depending on the computing power available. The number of possible moves in chess is so vast that the computer must be constrained in some way to keep it practical. A computer designed in this way will play a serviceable game of chess.

Now consider the second computer. Instead of trial and error it has been equipped with a database of previous chess games by grand-masters, along with a framework for understanding more complex strategies such as protecting the queen, or sacrificing pawns. Due to the superior design this computer plays chess at a much higher level than the first computer.

If you present these two computers with the same chessboard configuration the second computer, due to its design, has more useful options available to it than the first computer. A useful option is defined as one that increases the chances of the computer winning. This gives the second computer more freedom, according to Dennett. The level of freedom is defined by the amount of benefit-enhancing potential moves available. This is despite the fact that both computers are entirely deterministic (because they are running a predictable set of algorithms). Dennett claims that it is the same with humans. Our cognitive equipment presents us with a myriad of potential moves at any point in time and this gives us our freedom even though all the atoms composing our brains follow a deterministic course.

It's an interesting idea and I am drawn to it. It does imply that humans have more free will than, say, a fly because humans are more cognitively equipped. I am comfortable with this notion. However, an extension of this argument is that adult humans have more free will than baby humans. It also implies that the more knowledgeable one gets, the more free will one has. This is because the knowledge one gains presents more options for actions than were previously available. I'm not sure I can get on board with this idea.

What do others think? Can we be free in a deterministic universe?

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I don't think we even have that choice. It seems to me all social animals have evolved various systems of justice. If a single human organism doesn't exhibit "responsibility" towards a society we remove them from that society. Again, it seemed to us (for centuries) that this person was applying  "freewill" to be "evil". Now we can often detect a brain abnormality.

On a "macro" level a whole "system of justice" can become atypical. In this case normal individuals adhere to an abnormal system of justice. It becomes OK to kill infidels, etc.

Unseen has often said war is inevitable. I am starting to agree.



However imperfect our social system of justice is we must strive to maintain it, tweak it, improve it and not give in to fatalism. Just because all our actions can ultimately be attributed to our brain chemicals and not "ourselves" does not mean we should absolve people of responsibility. If we do it is the law of the jungle. I think our imperfect system is better than that - maybe because I am a gentle soul and would not last long in the jungle ;-)

As to war being inevitable - possibly so, but it will be hastened along if those of us striving for a stable society do not stand up for those values that support it. I don't mean to be holier than thou here - I admit I do not do anything personally to combat warmongering groups such as ISIS. I cannot win a ground battle against ISIS troops but as a society we must show why we choose democracy and the laws we have in place. If a law is threatened that would remove the freedoms we take for granted then we must move as one to oppose it.

Yet Harris among others claim that responsibility (in a practical sense) is a meaningful term even though we are meatrobots with no free-will. They are pretty iffy on the details though...if they provide any at all. I cannot fathom how this is possible unless accepting to some degree Dennet's explanation of freewill. Yet Harris discounts Dennet's explanation.

How is practical responsibility meaningful if we are meatrobots? Harris gives examples (explaining the what) but doesn't actually explain anything (explaining the how). I think he needs to spend more time working this out.

Couldn't agree more. This is an excellent article where Dennett reviews Harris' book and makes many points I agree with on this issue. He claims that Harris dismisses his theory but then Harris, through his statements, reveals himself to be a compatibilist in all but name. I think many people who are materialists hold a similar outlook to Harris.

The historical evidence suggests that people are somewhat incapable of changing. I can go to the British Museum and see a stone relief of ancient Assyrians holding baskets full of human heads. Or I can log onto Youtube with my cellphone and see the same thing going on now. Some progress !

Why is that?

Part of our makeup is that the strong will take advantage of the weak, and the species will get stronger. Another part of our make-up is that we need each other to survive. Two of our basic tenants conflict. Simple as that. Sometimes, one is more important than the other.......increasingly the "working together" seems to be more important for survival, because there are so many of us.

Could this whole "good versus evil" thing come from our natural dichotomy?

Can we overcome our roots garnered from 1000's or millions of years of natural selection? I think we can, but I think may take a while.


Fabulous critique. It always does seem that of those who deny free will...the longer they talk about it...the more they end up betraying themselves as compatibalists. Some lines from his critique are hilarious and well put:

  • Like many before him, Harris shrinks the me to a dimensionless point, “the witness” who is stuck in the Cartesian Theater awaiting the decisions made elsewhere. That is simply a bad theory of consciousness.


If he can be the author of his book, then he can be the author of his thoughts.  If he is not the author of Free Will, he should take his name off the cover, shouldn’t he?

But then he had no choice but to put his name on the book and collect thousands of dollars.

So unlike the grumpy child (or moody bear), we intelligent human adults can “grab hold of one of our strings”.  But then if our bodies are the puppets and we are the puppeteers, we can control our bodies, and thereby our choices, and hence can be held responsible—really but not Ultimately responsible—for our actions and our characters. We are not immaterial souls but embodied rational agents, determined (in two senses) to do what is right, most of the time, and ready to be held responsible for our deeds.

Sam seems to claim repeatedly through the book that we do sort of have access to pulling a string or two under certain conditions, sort of, in a limited way, in a sense.

He blandly concedes we will—and should—go on holding some people responsible but then neglects to say what that involves.

Do you know anyone who claims there is free will yet morality and responsibility is still important...ever say just what that involves?

It's hard to even discuss an incoherent concept. What do you mean by free will? If all you mean is that somehow we make choices that are sometimes hard to predict and which are free of external constraints (no gun pointed at your head), then of course we have free will, but then that is a rather trivial sort of free will. It'd say it's based on willful ignorance.

In order to have the free will that makes us morally responsible and answerable for our actions in the way, not just religious people but atheists want to use the term, it's hard to avoid some mixture of dualism and magic.

All I know is that once you accept that every event has a physical cause, what most people seem to think free will implies (I won't say "means") is dead in the water.

I think this is where we disagree. The "trivial" sort of free will you have described (rather well, actually) is exactly what I think should make us morally responsible and I don't think it is trivial at all. Our ability to make those unpredictable choices you talk about renders us responsible beings whether we like it or not.

I agree that the way most people use the term is not attainable without dualism but since when have most people been the authority on the correct use of a technical philosophical term?

The article I linked to in a response to Davis earlier in this thread touches upon this point about most people's view of free will. Here is an apt quote:

"Again, the popular notion of free will is a mess; we knew that long before Harris sat down to write his book."

So, you think that the term "free will" is somehow disconnected from the concept of free will. You're saying free will just might be a concept we really can't talk about, aren't you?

Well then, what are we doing here? Why did you start this thread?

This may seem contradictory but the important thing is not to go down a path of fatalism where people become convinced they have no responsibility or choices because "free will" does not exist. I don't want that sort of world.

So, whether "free will" exists or not is beside the point for you. We need, it seems you're saying, to pretend it exists even if it doesn't because otherwise people will behave badly. I guess these are those OTHER PEOPLE we are always talking about in conversations like this. Or are you honestly saying that YOU might rob a bank or murder your mother if you come to disbelieve in free will?

Rather than individual people I was more referring to a society where the accepted view was that free will does not exist. I agree that this would not cause everyone to suddenly run amuck but it could be used to get into the whole "it wasn't me it was my wiring" cop-out.

"So, you think that the term "free will" is somehow disconnected from the concept of free will?"

No, I do not. But it may well be disconnected from the popular concept of free will that you keep talking about. I have tried to make it clear that a more useful theory of free will is likely to be different from the popular conception of it. Dennett's theory is different from that - and I believe it is useful.

I certainly didn't start the thread so that you could keep reiterating why the popular or understood notion of free will is problematic. I believe I addressed that near the beginning.

Let's backtrack a bit. My conception of free will is pretty simple: it's to consider the proposition that everything that happens follows inevitably from antecedent events governed by physical law, and then to deny that that is true.

If you believe in free will, in other words, you simply disbelieve in the universality of the the physical laws governing the universe and think that when it comes to people' and their brains, humans are an exception.

Your turn.

I understand where you're coming from but I think it's important to not mix the idea that the term "free will" is not coherent with the idea that we do not have free will. This may seem contradictory but the important thing is not to go down a path of fatalism where people become convinced they have no responsibility or choices because "free will" does not exist. I don't want that sort of world.

I might simplify it this way, for people who haven't made up their mind already. (Or maybe it sounds like I'm on drugs?)

We can plan, and adjust to circumstances, and adjust our plans, and execute them. We can do whatever we want, but only within limits of what's actually possible in reality. Free Will in the sense that we can live forever just because we want to is not realistic. We have enough self-determination to be able to be good to others, and to live longer by taking good care of ourselves, but when the body dies, we die, and our will dies. Will is then only free if you think being dead is free.


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