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Photons, Quasars and the Possibility of Free Will (scientificamerican.com)
121 points by sdeepak 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 253 comments





>Of course, randomness isn’t the only thing necessary for free will

Not only that, but randomness and determinism are equally against the (casual) idea of free will.

Free will, as commonly understood, means there's an "extra layer of abstraction" between the universe (material objects and their relationships) and me. What people called "soul".

It's not just that our decisions (will) are random instead of predetermined by a cascade of material interactions.

Note that if one presumes a soul, free will is then not an illogical impossibility. It's just an extra layer of abstraction: it can decide based on our material-timeline-history (our interactions with the universe and others), but it's not absolutely bound by them (in the way a deterministic brain would be).

A soul, in that sense, is like when a protagonist in a movie breaking the fourth wall. They exist in the world of the movie, but they have some footing outside of it. (Of course in the case of the movie, the breaking is scripted).


The idea of punting the problem off to some metaphysical cloud in the sky is just plain old fuzzy thinking.

We're starting from the position that we are not entirely sure how the physical world works. From that starting point, pushing the problem of free will off into some other metaphysical realm which we also don't fully understand solves no problems. Unless we can posit rules or mechanisms that apply to souls but that can't apply physically, and show what those are, they are philosophically indistinguishable.

Personally I'm very much in the compatibilist camp. For a decision to be mine, it must depend on my state. If the decision does not derive directly from my state (memories, personality, emotions, etc) then it is not my decision. So the extent to which a decision comes from some other source, to that extent the decision is not mine. Again punting the problem off to a 'soul' adds no conceptual value. Either the soul is part of me and part of my state, or it isn't.


You seem to be saying that only explanations that rely solely on the physical world are valid or worthwhile. But when doing philosophy, it would be hasty to say that only empirical facts are knowable.

I' not really saying anything about non-empirical facts. I'm open to the principle they might be knowable. I tend to thin they must be encoded physically in order to affect us in any way. How does a non-physical thing with no representation in the physical world have a physical effect?

That aside, I'm saying that I don't see how non-physicality solves the problem of free will. In a physicalist interpretation decisions can be influenced by internal state, influenced randomly, or influenced by external forces. Non-empirical facts are still state. What additional factor does non-physicality contribute that I didn't list?

Is a 'soul' part of the person or external? Does it have state? Does it contribute randomness? What is it that it actually does except add something else we have to ask these questions about?


I'm of the mind that soul involves the encoding in DNA and the magnetic fields generated and sensed by the electrical systems of the body.

When you have a group of people "gathered together" ("In my name") there surely must be a subtle but coherent magnetic field that interacts with the physical to bring about "unexplainable phenomena". Perhaps the notion of God/gods could be explained this way.

Indo-european rune technology involves subtle magnetic fields in complex shapes, and are believed to affect the physical in "non-deterministic" ways as well. [1]

1. "Runelore" by Edred Thorsson


> But when doing philosophy, it would be hasty to say that only empirical facts are knowable.

Only if you want to stay with reality not venture into phantasy.


I don't think it's fantasy. There are some reasonable arguments on that side. Even though I'm not entirely convinced on them I've got an open mind on that point. I just don't think it makes any difference to the question of free will though, at least I've not yet seen a coherent argument to that effect.

> It's not just that our decisions (will) are random instead of predetermined by a cascade of material interactions.

You seem somewhat knowledgeable about this topic, so maybe you or someone else can answer this.

Why can't free will just be a complex system feedback loop and name for the way we humans perceive our own decision making process in this loop. I mean why can it not be that "free will" is the decision making process which is influenced by unconscious processes and in turn influences those unconscious processes? It could be deterministic and random or the universe could turn out to work differently at some level and it really wouldn't matter.

Is something like this a standard view in this whole debate on Free Will?


This is called compatibilism and yeah it seems to be a mainstream view in the academic debate

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compatibilism

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism/


More than mainstream, it's the majority view among philosophers (59% Compatibilists, the rest even split among 3 other possibilities): https://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl

I wonder if it is mainstream because it is functional rather than because it mirrors reality. The ability to ascribe a moral weight to a choice and then punish or reward an individual for that choice, resolves issues such as nudging people toward "appropriate" behaviour, enacting some vengeance against people who do harm to others, etc. It appears to me to be a neat legal fiction but, perhaps, not the most effective tool.

First, I think it's important to distinguish justice from moral responsibility. Punishment and rehabilitation are about justice. Free will is about identifying who is morally responsible. So accepting free will doesn't automatically mean you can punish wrongdoers.

Second, I'm not sure what you mean by "mirrors reality". The debate surrounding free will is about defining the term and its properties and how it's a factor in moral responsibility. To do so, it must provide a justifiable framework for moral reasoning and our moral language to make sense of how we use the term. Compatibilism convincingly meets the necessary criteria, and that's why it's the majority view.

The holdouts are people who insist free will must have certain properties that Compatibilism probably doesn't have, but they haven't been able to argue this convincingly enough to persuade a majority.


An idea that's been tickling me lately is that 'randomness', as perceived by people inside a system, is actually an avenue by which free will from some hypothetical meta-system might assert itself.

The actions causally derived from randomness in our universe seem random because we inside the system have no Informational view in to the meta-system in which they have some kind of causal logic, but the decision makes sense when you have access to that higher-order logic in the meta-system. The random state of some set of particles in someone's brain that makes them choose one action over another, could be a connective tissue by which the meta-'soul' asserts its control.

It's useless for any kind of pragmatic ethical effort, and really it's just pushing the problem up one level, but it's fun to think about.


This is why the standard interpretation of QM to me implies that there is a higher-order universe, which seems a high price to pay (in Occam units) for an experimentally successful theory, even if it is so incredibly successful as QM.

Razor Blades aren't short in supply

> Free will, as commonly understood, means there's an "extra layer of abstraction" between the universe (material objects and their relationships) and me. What people called "soul".

This was commonly believed for a long time, but there have been numerous studies in experimental philosophy that actually tested this question, and it turns out that people's moral reasoning is Compatibilist. See the latest:

Why compatibilist intuitions are not mistaken: A reply to Feltz and Millan, https://philpapers.org/rec/ANDWCI-3

So people only claim to be incompatibilists when they confuse determinism with fatalism. Regardless, they tended to agree strongly with Compatibilist moral reasoning.


>So people only claim to be incompatibilists when they confuse determinism with fatalism. Regardless, they tended to agree strongly with Compatibilist moral reasoning.

I pretty strongly disagree with this statement. I am not a compatibilist, but I am fully aware of the differences between fatalism and determinism. If I believed in fatalism then I would believe that If am fated to recover or die from an illness, it would happen regardless of whatever actions I take, etc. With determinism I believe the outcome from whatever illness I receive will depend on the illness, the actions taken, my overall health, etc. etc. etc., all the way back through the causal chain at the start of the universe.

I believe everything adheres to causality. Compatabilists and I would both agree that we cannot determine our motivations, but then we would disagree if there is "free will" in the choice we make based on those motivations. My brain is a physical entity, ruled by the laws of physics. Every decision I make is ruled by those laws, because my brain cannot work in any other way. If we had perfect knowledge of how the brain works (and I believe this is possible), you can boil down the thought process of "I have a memory of stubbing my toe and it hurt, so I will make the conscious effort to avoid stubbing my toe" to the composite physics that result in said thought process. Given all of the same inputs, the same outputs will come in to play.

This somewhat ignores the randomness of the quantum world, but I don't think it particularly effects the outcome - if time could be rewound to the start of the universe, and the play button pushed, quantum effects would likely mean that we do not end up with the same universe we have today, but I don't see how having randomness fundamentally would mean that I as a human being have any increase in my ability to come to a decision. The inputs would be different, if I were to exist at all, but I would still be bound by the same laws of physics that determine how my brain functions.

Compatabilitists and I sharing similar ideas about moral reasoning doesn't change that. My "moral reasoning" is that things like the laws we create are still all based on causality, and that the actions people take are in turn causally related to the inputs we give them, such as the laws. Changing this inputs results in different outputs when considering things like potential futures, which are then inputs into the decision making process, etc.

But I also believe that it doesn't really matter, as far as day to day life goes. At current, humans lack the ability to perceive life in such a way that we can figure out how any of that shit actually works. I can behave and think in a way that is similar enough to how free will would work that it doesn't matter. To change this, we would need perfect knowledge of how basically everything works, have the ability to measure every necessary input in the system, and calculate the outcomes. If we are ever able to reach that point, I'm pretty sure it'll be so far into the future it's nothing worth worrying myself about.


To change this, we would need perfect knowledge of how basically everything works, have the ability to measure every necessary input in the system, and calculate the outcomes. If we are ever able to reach that point, I'm pretty sure it'll be so far into the future it's nothing worth worrying myself about.

Its pretty easy to argue that this is impossible. To exploit determinism to 'predict the future' you'd have to simulate a large chunk of reality at the sub-atomic level. Arguably, you might have to simulate the whole universe. But lets just say you were trying to simulate our planet - you would need a computer running a model of the world at the sub-atomic level and somehow running it faster than the world itself unfolds. I'm 100% sure that would be impossible. Also, there's the whole 'sensitive dependence on initial conditions' for your simulation (see chaos theory etc).

So you can think of the universe as a computer that is calculating its own future in real time. There is no way to 'get ahead' of the univere's own unfolding. As such the fact that it might be deterministic becomes irrelevant because there is no way to exploit that determinism. Simply put: It may be deterministic but its fundamentally unpredictable.


>Its pretty easy to argue that this is impossible.

Yep! It is very likely that this is impossible.

>you would need a computer running a model of the world at the sub-atomic level and somehow running it faster than the world itself unfolds. I'm 100% sure that would be impossible.

I'm not 100% sure.

The universe? Sure. We know that's impossible because of our understanding of physics - we cannot store the amount of information in the universe in anything smaller than the universe, much less compute on that information. Every single state we compute would again require the entirety of the universe to be stored, plus any transitional states in between. But I can't say with 100% certainty we'll never be able to compute everything necessary to predict how humans behave.

It might be, at some point in the future.

But my point was less about the theoretical possibility of this and more of how the fact that it currently is not, and is unlikely to be so at any point that is particularly relevant.


Chaos theory is what seals the deal on this one.

This is called Laplace's Demon. It has been disproven by chaos theory.

>This is called Laplace's Demon.

Pretty close!

Laplace's Demon also talks about seeing the past - which my hypothetical does not. Nor am I concerned with calculating the entire universe, only the portions that would effect human cognition - just that which will be observable. Much of the universe is beyond our light cone, and unless we are in the center of the universe, almost certainly the vast majority is, and none of that needs to be calculated. Severely restricts the requirements vs. Laplace's demon.

>It has been disproven by chaos theory.

Not quite! Chaos theory relies on imperfect information. It does nothing to disprove Laplace's Demon, which involves perfect information. For chaos theory to be applicable, there has to be minor variations between the initial conditions. Chaos theory is not a theory that we cannot predict things because they are unpredictable, it is a theory that says that minor variations at the onset can result in huge differences in the eventual outcome. These problems only exist if you do not have perfect information.

Thermodynamic irreversibility disproves Laplace's Demon's seeing into the past portion. The Copenhagan interpretation of quantum mechanics also puts a nail in the Demon.

Things get interesting if we are ever able to create a 300 qubit quantum computer - at this point, you can perform more calculations in an instant than there are atoms in the known universe. Is that granular enough to accurately determine human behavior?

The whole computer thing is more an aside than anything, though - just providing a hypothetical in which case free will not existing would actually have practical application on how humans live. Without it, I can't think of any reason why we should behave in any other way than we do, regardless of the underlying truth.


Lets say you have that 300 qubit quantum computer, and you only need to simulate your own light cone. Trouble is, that quantum computer is also in your light cone. So to accurately simulate your light cone, your simulation has to include itself, recursively. Hence: not going to happen.

Not if you're only attempting to prove or disprove free will and run the simulation after the fact. If you can get perfect knowledge of the starting conditions for everything in the light cone, run it, and then compare it against what actually occurred.

It might not work for telling the future, but if you limit the computation to see if it accurately models what is now history, you don't need it to simulate itself.


Oh and also your simulation would most likely be part of the region you were trying to simulate, meaning you'd have to simulate your simulation as well. Doubly impossible

You've written a lot of text, most of which I might agree with, but you haven't demonstrated why any of it precludes the existence of free will.

Compatibilism is specifically the position that free will is compatible with deterministic agents. Merely stating you disagree that this qualifies as free will isn't particularly compelling. Compatibilism makes sense of our moral language, we clearly have the free will described by Compatibilism, and it's strongly predictive of our moral reasoning as the paper I linked shows.

That seems to describe what most people mean when they use the term "free will" quite well, just like "day job" describes quite well what I do every weekday from 9AM to 5PM.


>but you haven't demonstrated why any of it precludes the existence of free will.

Except I don't need to. Compatibilists haven't proven the existence of free will, so the null hypothesis still holds true, at least for now.

Throughout the comments here you seem to continually rely on the fact that professional philosophers strongly agree with the idea of compatabilism, but from my point of view, it doesn't really matter what philosophers think. It's a matter of what the science says.

I don't see any real incompatibilities with moral reasoning between a universe where there is no free will and one where it is compatible with determinism, so saying that compatbilist moral reasoning is predictive of how we generally behave is not an argument for free will.


> I don't see any real incompatibilities with moral reasoning between a universe where there is no free will and one where it is compatible with determinism, so saying that compatbilist moral reasoning is predictive of how we generally behave is not an argument for free will.

Prove that "a universe without free will but behaviourally indistinguishable from one that features Compatibilism" is actually a coherent definition/non-empty set.

Compatibilism entails that any universe featuring intelligent agents acting on reasons and capable of understanding and learning from their actions will have free will. So basically, you're claiming that a universe that features such intelligent agents is indistinguishable from a universe that has no such intelligent agents.

> Except I don't need to. Compatibilists haven't proven the existence of free will, so the null hypothesis still holds true, at least for now.

I honestly don't understand what confusion would lead you to make such a statement. Null hypotheses are simply not relevant to this sort of question. What populations are you comparing here exactly?

Secondly, Compatibilism describes exactly what humans do because it's compatible with both deterministic and indeterministic worlds (see point above re:universes with Compatibilism). Compatibilist free will clearly exists in our universe virtually by definition, ie. we are clearly intelligent agents acting on reasons and capable of understanding and learning from our choices.

> Throughout the comments here you seem to continually rely on the fact that professional philosophers strongly agree with the idea of compatabilism

Because most people don't have the requisite knowledge to evaluate possibilities that require profound domain knowledge. Would you be similarly derisive if I referenced the medical consensus when wading through a health debate?


>Prove that "a universe without free will but behaviourally indistinguishable from one that features Compatibilism" is actually a coherent definition/non-empty set.

It being at all meaningful for me to do that relies Compatibilism having been proven to be correct. There's no evidence that this is the case.

>I honestly don't understand what confusion would lead you to make such a statement. Null hypotheses are simply not relevant to this sort of question. What populations are you comparing here exactly?

What? The null hypothesis is 100% relevant to this sort of question. The scientific null assumption is that something doesn't exist. If you are claiming it does, you're the one that needs to prove it.

>Because most people don't have the requisite knowledge to evaluate possibilities that require profound domain knowledge. Would you be similarly derisive if I referenced the medical consensus when wading through a health debate?

Philosophers do not have profound domain knowledge in determining how the universe actually works. Physicists do. The medical consensus question makes no sense because that is a false equivalency.


> The null hypothesis is 100% relevant to this sort of question.

Take a look at the actual definition of null hypothesis and tell me how it's relevant: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Null_hypothesis

You're suggesting there's no relationship between what two phenomena when it comes to free will?

> The scientific null assumption is that something doesn't exist.

No it's not. Science is agnostic on such questions until there's evidence, and that's the proper answer. Making a definitive claim of existence or non-existence both require proof.

> It being at all meaningful for me to do that relies Compatibilism having been proven to be correct.

Lay out what constitutes proof of such a question, because I frankly think you're very confused either about what Compatibilism actually says, or what the whole free will debate is actually about.

> Philosophers do not have profound domain knowledge in determining how the universe actually works.

Fortunately, the philosophical question of free will is not about how the universe works.


From the very Wikipedia article you are attempting to use to say I'm using it incorrectly:

>Scientific null assumptions are used to directly advance a theory. For example, the angular momentum of the universe is zero. If not true, the theory of the early universe may need revision.

We have not proven that the angular momentum of the universe is zero. We assume it is, and have created our equations of how the universe works assuming this, and those equations have accurately described how the universe works.

However, it is not impossible that the universe is has angular momentum, and some scientists have proposed that it does, actually, and have some evidence that backs their claims. However, it hasn't been proven, so most scientists still work under the assumption that the angular momentum is zero.

>Fortunately, the philosophical question of free will is not about how the universe works.

Uh. What?

Whether or not we have free will is 100% about how the universe works. Either we have it, and the laws of nature allow it, or we do not.


> From the very Wikipedia article you are attempting to use to say I'm using it incorrectly:

I asked you specifically about how the null hypothesis applies to free will. Angular momentum has no bearing on this question.

> Whether or not we have free will is 100% about how the universe works.

And this is why you're confused. Because it's not. Some definitions of free will depend on physical or metaphysical assumptions, and some do not and absolutely and unequivocally apply to our universe. One such definition is Comaptibilism, and if you don't think so, then you don't understand Compatibilism.


Because the free will either exists or does not, and that existence requires it be compatible with the rules that govern how our universe exists. If it's not compatible with how the universe works, it doesn't exist.

There is no such proof, and as such, the null hypothesis or null assumption is that free will doesn't exist, in the same way we assume the angular momentum of the universe is zero.

I'm not arguing about whether or not that's what Compatibilism believes, I'm arguing that Compatibilism is wrong because you cannot separate the way humans act and think from the physical laws of the universe. Regardless of whether or not most humans act in a way that is compatible with Compatibilism doesn't prove Compatibilism, especially if Compatibilism basically agrees with all of the physics that say free will likely doesn't exist, and then does a philosophical shoulder shrug and says that free will exists anyway, because we have freedom to act, despite that not being nearly enough to encompass actual free will.


> Because the free will either exists or does not, and that existence requires it be compatible with the rules that govern how our universe exists. If it's not compatible with how the universe works, it doesn't exist.

I very much agree but have to conceed that your view on the label 'universe' might be too narrow. I too vigourisly oppose to the notion that the philosophical question of free will is not about how the universe works. Because will is all about how I will work the universe.

I suppose meeting somewhere halfway would be compromise, and naasking was just teasing with a reductio ad absurdum thought experiment.


> Because the free will either exists or does not, and that existence requires it be compatible with the rules that govern how our universe exists. If it's not compatible with how the universe works, it doesn't exist.

Agreed.

> There is no such proof, and as such, the null hypothesis or null assumption is that free will doesn't exist

1. This is a misapplication of the null hypothesis. There are good reasons why angular momentum should be zero and that's why that would be the null hypothesis. If I were to accept that a null hypothesis is sensible in this scenario, then the opposite is the case here: we directly observe us making choices free from coercion and are good at inferring and understanding other people's choices with or without coercion; we use terms like "free will" and are able to communicate precisely what this means to others, and they easily understand our meaning. The null hypothesis is then that we do have free will and a test must be devised to disprove this (some might argue that something like the MRI tests that detect decisions before we're consciously aware of them would qualify).

2. Compatibilism doesn't require such low-level physics considerations. It depends only on intelligent agents acting on reasons, a category under which humans fall, and that is proof that Compatibilist free will exists. You can dispute whether this should qualify as "proper" free will, the type of free will that grounds moral responsibility and matches our moral language and moral reasoning, but you cannot deny that Compatibilist free will itself exists. I have further provided considerable evidence that Compatibilist free will does in fact explain our moral language and reasoning and does ground moral responsibility, therefore there is no reason not to accept Compatibilism as "proper" free will.

In both cases, your burden of proof has been met and exceeded.

> I'm not arguing about whether or not that's what Compatibilism believes, I'm arguing that Compatibilism is wrong because you cannot separate the way humans act and think from the physical laws of the universe.

Compatibilism doesn't require you to.

> and then does a philosophical shoulder shrug and says that free will exists anyway, because we have freedom to act, despite that not being nearly enough to encompass actual free will.

Physics says that day jobs don't actually exist. There is nowhere in the fundamental physics ontology for a location in spacetime where certain aggregates of matter must go for 8 hours a day from 9AM to 5PM on week days.

And yet, by and large we all have such a day job. Do you agree? Is it a philsophical shoulder shrug to say that day jobs don't exist, but then say day jobs kinda do exist because I quite clearly go to a day job every week day?

So either the distinction you're making exists but doesn't matter, or it doesn't exist and you're simply making a category error, confusing two phenomena which have no direct relation to each other.


>What? The null hypothesis is 100% relevant to this sort of question. The scientific null assumption is that something doesn't exist. If you are claiming it does, you're the one that needs to prove it.

That's not what the null hypothesis is.


It very much is. Please see my response at https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18610573

>so the null hypothesis still holds true

And who said the existence of free-will is the null hypothesis?


>And who said the existence of free-will is the null hypothesis?

How could it not be? You don't assume that literally everything is true without evidence of its existence.

Otherwise there is an infinite amount of an infinite variety of things existing in my room right now that I can't observe.


I take the computational approach. Even if a system was computable in a finite time, if that time is too long, then effectively for all practical purposes the system is computationally intractable.

I find even the idea that we could one day compute the human brain completely preposterous. We can't even compute water flowing in a pipe today (I'm saying this as an effective non-expert who has dabbled a bit in computational physics).

So, if the philosophical basis is that "if we can deterministically compute something, it's deterministic" then human cognition at the moment is most indeterminate.

Free will or no free will, we really can't know the difference. So it's best to behave like you have a free will, and own your own actions as far as you can.

This is a slight modification to Pascal's gamble :)


Sorry, I think I must have written this in such a way that some people are mistaking my point. I'll try to clarify. :)

>So, if the philosophical basis is that "if we can deterministically compute something, it's deterministic" then human cognition at the moment is most indeterminate.

My belief, based on my understanding of physics, is that human cognition is deterministic, regardless of whether or not we can compute it.

But I do largely agree with your broader point that whether or not we have free will should have little impact on the inputs in our system. Even if I believe that everything is deterministic and we have no free will, I can't use that information in any practical way, and human cognition (or perhaps more accurately modern Westerner cognition) is slanted towards believing in something resembling what we call free will. No reason to worry about it for anything beyond philosophical discussions. I brought up the computation as a hypothetical point at which acting differently would matter.


> So, if the philosophical basis is that "if we can deterministically compute something, it's deterministic" then human cognition at the moment is most indeterminate.

I think computational complexity is important, but I also think it's important not to conflate "unpredictable" with "indeterminate", even if they are behaviourally indistinguishable.

> Free will or no free will, we really can't know the difference. So it's best to behave like you have a free will, and own your own actions as far as you can.

Dennett calls this the "intentional stance", ie. that any system of sufficient complexity should be treated as if it were acting with intent.


> Not only that, but randomness and determinism are equally against the (casual) idea of free will.

I'm not sure that I'd agree. Maybe the layman doesn't think about how to reconcile determinism with their concept of free will, but it is possible. Talking about free will without a working definition is hard.

If free will is: "You are free to make any choices presented to you."

Then it becomes simple to argue that you are in fact making these choices regardless of whether what makes up you is pre-determined. The same you would of course make the same choices, but then it is still you making them. The outcomes and opportunity of the choices is irrelevant.


I'd define free will as used by the average person to mean the ability to make decisions that are based at least in part on something other than your makeup and environment.

I'll go poll the world and get back to you to see if you align ;)

Already been done. They do not: https://philpapers.org/rec/ANDWCI-3

Or so says a paper. Assuming no methodological errors and replication, in which Psychology (this being posted in "Philosophical Psychology" is a very bad culprit, and stats/polls even more so).

Let's be fair, it's more than one paper. That's just the latest in a whole series of papers empirically testing lay people's intuitions on this question (see the citations).

>Then it becomes simple to argue that you are in fact making these choices regardless of whether what makes up you is pre-determined. The same you would of course make the same choices, but then it is still you making them. The outcomes and opportunity of the choices is irrelevant.

I made the same argument in my comment above: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18607762


Why wouldn’t a soul be subject to the same cause / effect nature of the universe?

Even if the universe was run by Greek gods, it would still follow this chain of causality or be completely random. It seems like this applies to any thing you can ask “why?” of.

Interestingly enough you run into a paradox because the chain of causality had to begin some where...which begs the question “why did time begin? What triggered it?”


The problem with looking at randomness as evidence of free will is that randomness has a nature in and of itself. True randomness is predictably unpredictable, therefore meaning that it's highly constrained and not really lending itself to free will anymore than nonrandom mechanisms.

In either scenario, there can be knowledge about the future, which, paradoxically, might cause that future never to materialize.

In such a situation it was not knowledge of the future, but something else.

There's no paradox, just a wrong assumption.


My view on "free will" is that it's a non-falsifiable notion.

The universe isn't deterministic due to randomness. In absence of determinism in the universe's laws, free will is at least possible. However talking about it is like talking about the existence of God.

The question is this: what observations can you make that, if they were true, would lead to the conclusion that "free will" doesn't exist? And the answer is, in the presence of randomness, there are no such observations.

Think about it like this: if you could observe and analyze two universes in parallel, almost identical except that in one people have free will and in the other people don't, what differences would you be able to see? And the answer is obvious.

N.B. I'm not talking about compatibilism, which is irrelevant.


If you have a will, your will is not free. A slightly corny but apt analogy is one of an empty cup. An empty cup can be filled with anything, but once full it needs to be emptied again before it can accept a new substance.

I think this is a useful touchstone in the debate about freedom of will. - It moves the goalposts so that your requirement is the ability to shed will instead of the ability to pick new ones.


Consider the possibility that whether the future is predetermined or not has nothing to do with free will.

The persistence of the notion of free will seems to be an attempt to reconcile a feeling of what seems to be a very real, conscious and subjective "me in here" vs, what seems to be an objective, deterministic "world out there". This division is necessary for science to exist.

But what if there is a deeper truth than just being stuck with the question of whether "I" can control the outcome of events or "I" am powerless to do anything about them. Consider the possibility of access to knowledge before there's an intellectual division into a "me" and "not me", a knowing where the entire notion of whether there's free will or not becomes completely irrelevant. This seems to be the common theme running through various teachings of mysticism, from Zen to Sufism.

I don't think science should try and make use of mysticism, as science starts where mysticism ends (and vice versa), but any attempt by science to wrestle with the question of free will appears to me as pointless as an attempt of a Zen master to wrestle with solving problems in quantum mechanics. It's simply not in their domain.


> Consider the possibility that whether the future is predetermined or not has nothing to do with free will.

If free will exists, that would seem to imply that people can make decisions that affect their future. Wouldn't free will therefore imply nondeterminism?

I agree that notfreewill does not imply determinism.


I think a better way out of the trap of the free will vs. determinism question is to really dive not into the question of whether or not we have free will, but of who exactly is asking the question. What exactly is this me that's supposed to have this thing we call free will.

The first change in my perception of this question was many years ago when I read Raymond Smullyan's piece "Is God A Taoist" - I think it's definitely still worth read:

http://www.mit.edu/people/dpolicar/writing/prose/text/godTao...


Disclaimer: it's my take on free will and it's probably not backed up by prominent philosophers (I haven't checked).

While your body exists in the physical world, you as an intelligent agent exist in probabilistic distribution of possible worlds. You don't have enough information to know the physical world your body belongs to. You thusly exist in all of possible worlds that don't contradict your observations.

Your act of making a free choice selects a subset of possible physical worlds where physical laws make your body go through motions of making the choice.

The physical world is still deterministic, but you don't know which one is THE physical world.


>If free will exists, that would seem to imply that people can make decisions that affect their future. Wouldn't free will therefore imply nondeterminism?

Not necessarily.

"Free will" is being able to express your actual self (your will) in a decision.

But if on a matter that calls for A or B decision, you can make either A or B, then "you" are not a coherent thing (because you can go multiple ways. Wouldn't a person that is authentically themselves can only chose one option --the one truer to themselves and their ideas, courage, cowardice, etc.-- each time?).

So, what if there's only one possible outcome of each decision one makes each time, and the set of prior decisions (that they followed A in this matter, B in the other, and on on) is what defines you as you?

Then free will and determinism are the same thing -- the untangling of yourself as a unique being.


If that is so, then free will is a redundant concept (the outcome is actually determined without it), and the question becomes one of why do we feel we have, and are exercising, a choice between A and B.

As it happens, I am pretty sure that I am not a coherent thing - or, at least, I would not rule out a putative explanation on the grounds that it would imply that I am not a coherent thing.


>and the question becomes one of why do we feel we have, and are exercising, a choice between A and B.

Perhaps there's no choice, but there's an examination/consideration of the alternatives. We mistake this examination as a choice process, even though we only have one choice (the one we end up making).


> We mistake this examination as a choice process, even though we only have one choice (the one we end up making).

Or perhaps you're mistaken that "choice" was ever anything else.


In the absence of free will, expressing yourself in a decision is simply a function taking the current environment and your past as input.

You may be a unique being, due to your past, meaning that the possibility for another being to make the same "choices" in the same sequence as you is really low, however that's just high entropy.

Compatibilism is basically word play. If the universe is deterministic, then we are just a bunch of atoms reacting predictably to external forces, making us not very different from rocks.


> If the universe is deterministic, then we are just a bunch of atoms reacting predictably to external forces, making us not very different from rocks.

No. This is very disingenuous. We are a beautifully ordered, continuously changing, unlikely set of atoms with history and the ability to affect / finely order huge amounts of other atoms. We're much better and more interesting than rocks! :)

(No offense to anyone who really likes rocks--they're cool too).


I'm not talking about what's interesting or not in the universe.

I'm saying that compatibilism basically says that rocks too have free will. Which makes the term meaningless.

I mean, if you think about it, rocks too can suffer grinding due to their environment, having their shape, size or texture changed, which will affect what "choices" they'll make in the future and all rocks are unique in the universe due to their shape, composition and location.

So in regards to a "free will" discussion, the only difference between us and rocks is what? That we are living organisms and thus can move around? So is an amoeba.


>So in regards to a "free will" discussion, the only difference between us and rocks is what? That we are living organisms and thus can move around? So is an amoeba.

No, it's that we perceive our time-line-uniqueness as will (consciously) whereas rocks don't.


It's very frustrating to have discussions with deconstructionists. Rocks do not have cognition.

I'm just messing with you :-P

> If free will exists, that would seem to imply that people can make decisions that affect their future.

Yes, and this is trivially true. I will demonstrate: you must now make a decision whether or not to lift your arm overhead. Whether you lift your arm or not, you manifested that future by a choice.

People who make claims like yours typically misunderstand either what's meant by "you" or what's meant by "decision", typically the latter.


But you need a level of determinism for peoples' decisions to affect their future.

The idea that randomness gives rise to free will is ludicrous. If my brain randomly chooses to eat an apple on Monday and randomly chooses to eat a Pear on Tuesday how is that giving me more free will than if my brain was predetermined to choose an Apple then a Pear.

There is no way to even conceive of what free will could be, determined or not. Either the activity of your brain is causally determined by previous brain states and interactions with the environment plus or minus randomness, neither option gives you the intuitive notion of free will.

Edit: also the Nobel winner Gerard t’Hooft argues that even these quasar experiments don’t rule out determinism. He argues that any closed deterministic system will have correlations across any distance in spacetime.


You may or may not have "true" free will with randomness, you definitely can't have it with determinism.

Random just means unpredictable. It means that the information about whether your eat a pear or an apple is nowhere to be found in the universe. We can only see it after the fact. Something has been injected in the universe from outside.

That something is undecidable by definition, therefore, it is outside the realm of science, and it may very well be free will, god, a soul, whatever. Having that randomness leaves an opening for metaphysical free will.

On the opposite, without randomness that form of free will is impossible. Everything is determined and science doesn't leave any space for these concepts.


So if this metaphysical 'force' is deciding your actions, that still is not free will. You can posit anything as the ultimate cause of your activity but that isn't free will, it's just a higher-level cause. Either things are ultimately caused (at whatever level, metaphysical or not) or they're just acausally random or some combination. Pushing free will into the realm of souls and God doesn't help.

However, your point about unpredictability is right. There are some processes that are fundamentally unpredictable, but this unpredictability can and does occur in a completely deterministic setting.

A completely closed deterministic system will have processes that are unpredictable to agents acting within the closed system, this is the nature of computational irreducibility as elaborated by Stephen Wolfram and more recently Tim Palmer.

Personally, I certainly hope we live in a deterministic universe because a fundamentally random or a-causal universe would be nihilistic to me. If things just happened for no reason then that seems far more distressing than the universe following (possibly a few elegant) well-posed and deterministic rules, even if some aspects of its future evolution are unpredictable due to computational irreducibility.


I've always thought of free will as an absurdity.

Here's my thought process:

If I make a decision, there's 2 possibilities:

  1. The decision is based upon prior information and states, therefore there is a deterministic causality

  2. The decision is not based upon prior causality: E.g. I have a "soul" and that's what decides.
However, if we look into 2, we arrive at the same problem:

  1. Either the souls decision is deterministic based upon metaphysical information

  2. Or the soul has a soul (where the same problem appears, turtles all the way down)
3. Or, if the choice is not based on any prior information, then we must conclude that it is therefore completely random (since its not based on anything)

So, either there is no free will because all your actions are determined by past actions, or instead free will just means that part of your actions are just based on, essentially, the throw of a dice. In both of these cases, you yourself have 0 agency.

I think saying that Free Will exists when it equates to a random choice is absurd.


As usual, these kinds of discussions are really about what we mean by words.

What does "free will" mean? I think technically inclined people like us are easily led down the path you describe, but over the years I've become convinced that the kind of definition that leads you to "free will = random choice" is pretty pointless because it's so vacuous.

I like to take a step back and ask: why are we interested in free will in the first place?

In practice, what tends to be really relevant are questions like: are criminals responsible for their actions?

Free will is better defined as a shorthand for these kinds of questions. And in that context, it seems clear to me that even if our actions are purely deterministic, we can still have free will. What matters isn't whether our will is free of physics or determinism; what matters is whether or to what extent our will is free from the influence of other people and society.

Once you look at it this way it's also clear that there are no absolutes. We all influence each other, which puts limits on our free will, but we aren't just puppets, either.


Agree it's about word meanings, and superimposing different meanings of the same word on each other (often in an attempt to close any cracks in our worldview that might allow religious concepts to take hold). That's probably why "free will" discussions are such a mess.

> In practice, what tends to be really relevant are questions like: are criminals responsible for their actions?

Exactly what I've landed in too, i.e. does free will have any real every-day meaning. The answer must be an unequivocal "yes", otherwise questions like these would be meaningless (which they are not):

- "did they force you to take that apple or did you do it of your own free will?"

- "was the sex voluntary or were you forced?".

- etc

The problematic word/concept here is really "force" and the different meanings of that word. The force of causality is fundamentally different from the force of coercion, and they can not be used interchangeably.

And so the question of "free will" should really be disentangled from physics, once and for all.


> And so the question of "free will" should really be disentangled from physics, once and for all.

Welcome to Compatibilism!


Yeah, maybe. Although (from what I can see) compatibilism is more like carving a niche for free will in an otherwise deterministic universe. I find that the "deterministic universe" is a concept without sufficient empirical support. It is a nebulous abstraction of reality, a faith good as any, but even as such it has a structure (a meaning) that disqualifies it from interfering with any practical notion of "free will" as outlined above.

A more pertinent question is really why the question (of whether "free will" exists) is posed at all. I find that it is often for anti-religious reasons, sometimes for moral responsibility evasion, and sometimes because people want to avoid the all too common cases where a single individual (or group of) is chastised when other factors (like circumstances, other people's actions) are just as important. The former two I don't care for much, that latter is more likable, even if none of them accomplish what they seek using this line of reasoning IMO.


> A more pertinent question is really why the question (of whether "free will" exists) is posed at all.

Good question. See my reply to this post for an answer: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18608440


I think this practical definition is quite interesting, useful, and worth discussing about, but I suspect that most people have a more nebulous, metaphisical idea of free will.

Yup, free will is meaningless, there's no measurable difference between an universe which has a free will and one that doesn't.

> are criminals responsible for their actions?

Doesn't matter, what matters is - is a commitment to punish certain behavior decreasing number of people behaving that way? If so - punishing crimes makes sense, no matter if there's a free will or not.


>Doesn't matter, what matters is - is a commitment to punish certain behavior decreasing number of people behaving that way?

If there's no free will obviously not -- since any crime decision is predetermined upon the earlier states of the universe (even before we appeared on Earth), and any drop in crime in correlation with a "commitment to punish certain behavior" is just correlation itself, and not causation (both things being caused by those earlier states).

In fact, if there's no free will, then there's also no free decision of a "commitment to punish certain behavior" or not: all those decisions to make laws, punish certain behaviors, etc are already determined.

Without free will nobody can influence whether we create this or that law.

In essence, you started that "free will is meaningless" and then your whole argument was like as if free like totally exists and we can take actual non predetermined decisions.


> If there's no free will obviously not -- since any crime decision is predetermined upon the earlier states of the universe (even before we appeared on Earth), and any drop in crime in correlation with a "commitment to punish certain behavior" is just correlation itself, and not causation (both things being caused by those earlier states).

An asteroid hitting Earth is predetermined by early stages of universe too. Is the collision just correlated with dinosaurs extinction, or was it the cause?

When a ball hits another ball in snooker - is the movement of the second ball caused by the collision, or just correlated with it? In deterministic universe it was known since the start of time it will happen after all.

Why is it different when people are involved?

If everything is determined by early stages of universe - then you can still discover how exactly that determinism works between 2 particular events (no matter that they share a common causation chain higher up).

In the case of criminals and punishement assuming determinism - our brains deterministically evolved to deterministically respond to punishement by deterministically changing the behaviour when punished. This deterministically caused the brains to come to conclussion, that punishement makes sense. Then they deterministically punish crime, and criminals deterministically respond by avoiding being caught which reduces the crime.

No need for the free will at all.

BTW even if universe is not deterministic it doesn't mean free will exists. After all you wouldn't say dices have a free will.


> No need for the free will at all.

You're mistaken. Free will is needed to identify who the criminal is in any given situation, ie. who are the morally responsible parties. You can't escape that with the arguments you presented, and you just skipped it to talk about justice, which is a whole separate matter.


> Free will is needed to identify who the criminal is in any given situation, ie. who are the morally responsible parties.

Belief in free will is required (in most common ethical systems at least - there were whole religions believing in deterministic salvation, where God made people who will sin and can't do anything about it - and people carried on, punishing crimes as usual :) - instead of striving to be good to deserve the salvation people were supposed to strive to be good to prove they are these that will be saved).

Existence of free will isn't.

In universe without free will there can be people who believe in free will and "decide" who is criminal based on that. It's their brains causing them to do so, but in reality neither they, nor the criminals make any decisions - it's all predetermined. But everything still works the same way, and their consciousnesses feel in control.

BTW even the common moral systems doesn't always care about responsibility - for example if you steal because you're a drug addict - nobody searches for the first guy that gave you the drugs and got you addicted. It's assumed it's impossible to find, and to keep society functioning they put you in jail (even if you had no choice).


I suggest reading my other reply here since it covers the same ground: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18608505

>Free will is needed to identify who the criminal is in any given situation,

No. Causality is all you need to identify who the criminal is.

Physical stimuli are basically all we need as intelligent beings to come to a conclusion about things we don't like happening to us, and thus ultimately make into moral laws or codified ones. These are the inputs, these are the causes. Then, once enough human beings have had those inputs result in a large enough collective coming to the conclusion that stuff is Bad, we end up with laws.

Then, whenever someone acts in a way that we have determined is Bad, they are the criminal. They do not need to possess free will for the rational thing to do to be to provide punishment for them, because punishing them ultimately changes the inputs used by others to reach decisions. Nothing about this requires free will - it's all just as applicable if you just believe the laws of physics and causality determine every choice we make.


> No. Causality is all you need to identify who the criminal is.

Unfortunately not. If your gets car stolen, without free will, you can't assign responsibility to the "thief", because you yourself were a causal factor in your car getting stolen: had you parked somewhere else, your car wouldn't have been stolen. Had society or his parents better supported the "thief", he wouldn't have stolen that car. Had your city placed that street somewhere else, your car wouldn't have been stolen.

To designate the "thief" as the "singular" cause that's relevant, you need free will.


All of those things are true, and I don't need them to be untrue to assign the largest share of responsibility to the thief.

Having laws (and the enforcement of laws) in place is something we believe to be the most effective input in causing the Bad Things to not happen. As such, having them and enforcing them is purely logical. We have decided that having someone "broken" in such a manner that these inputs are not enough to result in them not doing Bad Things need to be removed from the public, and do so.

Let's even step away from laws and assigning moral responsibility there. Let's look at interpersonal relationships.

I love my SO. I try to avoid doing things that hurt her, because seeing her hurt fundamentally makes me unhappy. It makes me unhappy enough that it outweighs the personal benefits of whatever decision I was making. We would all agree that not being shitty to your SO for personal gain is a morally correct choice, but this is still all a matter of causality. Either you have negative stimuli to it from something more direct, such as in my situation, or perhaps just because of social pressure and the desire to conform, but morality still comes into existence from the causal nature of reality. Free will is not necessary to explain it.


>Having laws (and the enforcement of laws) in place is something we believe to be the most effective input in causing the Bad Things to not happen. As such, having them and enforcing them is purely logical.

It's only logical assuming free willing agents making logical choices.

Else, it's only automatic and predetermined, like everything else.

>Either you have negative stimuli to it from something more direct, such as in my situation, or perhaps just because of social pressure and the desire to conform, but morality still comes into existence from the causal nature of reality.

No, it doesn't. Morality (as we understand it) only comes into existence if we assume a causal nature PLUS free agents (not totally bound to that causal nature).

Else, there's no morality to a murder anymore than there's a morality to the formation of Earth. Both are events destined to do by the initial state of the universe in the big bang.


The lack of free will doesn't eliminate consciousness and intelligence. We're veering into deconstructionism here.

Yes, everything is largely deterministic (quantum effects have impact, and may or may not be deterministic, but that impact is still bound by the laws of physics), and the universe will someday reach maximum entropy. On the scale of the universe and its lifespan, morality obviously doesn't exist.

I've been reading some of your responses to various other people, so I'll respond to some of the ideas your arguing in general, rather than just specifically what you've type in this comment.

We'll skip through the causal chain of the universe to get to modern humanity with laws. It may be pre-determined and automatic that we would become such that we dislike the things that we make laws about. But it is still causal that creating these laws prevents some people from doing actions that they otherwise would without repercussions.

The fact that it is predetermined and automatic doesn't change the causality. If anything, it enforces it. You don't remove the cause-effect of everything in the middle of the chain just because the end was known from the start.


>The fact that it is predetermined and automatic doesn't change the causality

It doesn't change the causality (and I concur to that -- as I wrote "both are events destined to do by the initial state of the universe in the big bang"), but it changes the cause of the event. The cause is not someone deciding as a free agent (picking X or Y, or able to go either way), but someone that cannot but do but X, because of events outside their own control and personality.

What I say is that predetermination it removes any personal agency from the creation of the laws and from the people doing less crimes.

>You don't remove the cause-effect of everything in the middle of the chain just because the end was known from the start.

No, but you don't attribute any particular significance to a mere step in the chain, be it moral or whatever, when it was inevitable due to earlier steps.


> No, but you don't attribute any particular significance to a mere step in the chain, be it moral or whatever, when it was inevitable due to earlier steps.

Why? Assuming universe is deterministic we do it all the time.


> All of those things are true, and I don't need them to be untrue to assign the largest share of responsibility to the thief.

You actually do. The very process of assigning "share of responsibility" is precisely the question that depends upon free will. If the thief stole your car only because someone was holding his wife hostage, now where does the responsibility lie? The circumstances immediately surrounding the car theft are precisely the same, but now an influence further back in the causal chain is presumably responsible. How would you differentiate these two scenarios without free will?

> I love my SO. I try to avoid doing things that hurt her, because seeing her hurt fundamentally makes me unhappy. It makes me unhappy enough that it outweighs the personal benefits of whatever decision I was making. [...] Free will is not necessary to explain it.

Free will is necessary to explain why you are morally blameworthy or praiseworthy for your choice of whether to go with your inclinations.


>If the thief stole your car only because someone was holding his wife hostage, now where does the responsibility lie?

Still with the thief. He still has all of the other inputs into his system beyond just the fact that someone kidnapped his wife. Believing that causality ultimately determines every decision we make doesn't mean that I believe that it's a simple one to one mapping. He knows he can call the police - this isn't an action movie, and he's not the characters Jason Statham plays. If he is the characters Jason Statham plays, well, it doesn't really matter because he's not going to be caught anyway, and I'm left railing against the hypothetical thief that more often matches reality than your car getting stolen by the living embodiment of an action movie hero/anti-hero.

>The circumstances immediately surrounding the car theft are precisely the same, but now an influence further back in the causal chain is presumably responsible. How would you differentiate these two scenarios without free will?

By not believing that one changed input unrelated to all of the others somehow invalidates all of them.

>Free will is necessary to explain why you are morally blameworthy or praiseworthy for your choice of whether to go with your inclinations.

Free will is unnecessary to explain why I am morally blameworthy or praiseworthy for my choice of whether or not to go with my inclinations.

Both are assertions that do not stand alone.


> He knows he can call the police - this isn't an action movie, and he's not the characters Jason Statham plays. If he is the characters Jason Statham plays, well, it doesn't really matter because he's not going to be caught anyway, and I'm left railing against the hypothetical thief that more often matches reality than your car getting stolen by the living embodiment of an action movie hero/anti-hero.

You're evading the question. The point of moral dilemmas is to highlight the qualities that meaningfully affect the outcome. We have here two scenarios, one in which the thief would be held responsible, and one in which he would not. Free will easily distinguishes these two scenarios, and since you claim we don't need free will to make such judgments, let's hear how you distinguish these.


>You're evading the question. The point of moral dilemmas is to highlight the qualities that meaningfully affect the outcome. We have here two scenarios, one in which the thief would be held responsible, and one in which he would not. Free will easily distinguishes these two scenarios, and since you claim we don't need free will to make such judgments, let's hear how you distinguish these.

Someone kidnapped my wife so I stole a car is not a valid legal defense, nor would I argue it is a valid moral defense. As I stated from the get go, I would hold the thief responsible in both situations.


> Someone kidnapped my wife so I stole a car is not a valid legal defense

That's not the scenario I posed, although perhaps the presentation wasn't clear. So to be perfectly clear so there are no misunderstandings, the thief was told to steal your car or his wife would be executed.

Clearly he's morally culpable for stealing the car in one scenario and not in the other. This distinction can be clearly made using free will. You claim you don't need free will to make this distinction, so I'd like to hear how you do so.


He is responsible for stealing the car in both situations. He has an excuse in one, but excuse doesn't stop responsibility, and both doesn't require a free will to exist.

To provide better example - one guy blackmails you to kill me, or he will kill your whole family. You still have a choice.

You make your choice or it's predetermined cause no free will - it doesn't matter.

You are responsible for your choice, and the blackmailer is responsible for the blackmail. You have an excuse why you choose the way you did, and it may be decided to be a good thing to do or evil, depending on the morality of particular person (basically the trolley problem).

With car the responsibility for stealing compared to the responsibility for a murder is negligible, so people focus on the second one. But both are still there, they don't cancel out.


> He is responsible for stealing the car in both situations.

He's causally responsible yes, free will is about assigning moral responsibility. The validity of various reasons for acting immorally is precisely the question that free will addresses.


> free will is about assigning moral responsibility

Moral responsibility seems to me to be the same as the casual responsibility in these cases?

There's the famous "goal does/does not justify means" - if blackmail removed your moral responsibility then it's meaningless because there's nothing to justify. I don't think it's the case.

I think moral responsibility is still there, it's just negligible compared to the alternatives.

And I still don't see how it requires free will (except for the useless definition "anything that learns and can make a choice" - then by definition we have a free will, but that was never in question, why even waste a word on such a concept?).


> He's causally responsible yes

On one case, only as inevitable intermediary in the chain of causation, in the other as a necessary part of the ultimate, uncaused causation.

These are very different senses of “causally responsible”.

> free will is about assigning moral responsibility.

Only indirectly, in the context of it being assumed axiomatically that having ones will be a necessary uncaused cause of the outcome is required for moral responsibility; it's directly about assigning root cause.


> These are very different senses of “causally responsible”.

The posters I'm engaging here don't believe in uncaused causation (nor do I), so there's little difference in the causal character of the thief's actions here in either case.


> The posters I'm engaging here don't believe in uncaused causation

Free will is, by definition, both uncaused and a cause of other actions. If you don't believe in uncaused causation, you don't believe in free will, but you can't discuss the meaning and implication of free will in any meaningful way while ignoring the entirety of it's definition whether or not you believe in free will (or the broader conceptual class of uncaused causes of which free will is a part.)


> Free will is, by definition, both uncaused and a cause of other actions.

No it's not. The free will debate is about defining what free will actually means so that we can assign moral responsibility.

The scientific meaning of "free will" as experimenters being able to setup their instruments free from influence of that which they're measuring is not what's being discussed here.


I get your point - where does the distinction lie? At what point does responsibility shift? And I understand that you argue free will is necessary to make that distinction.

But you don't need free will to do that. You need a system of inputs that result in an output, with that output being the decision. It's still all a matter of causality. We've evolved in such a way that we want to stay alive, and that the vast majority of people value being alive over having a replaceable object. Or, I suppose in this example, their spouse being alive. Our collective morality is the result of that system of inputs.

If you get right down to it, it's a value judgment on life vs. property. Those values are shaped based off of our past.


You still haven't answered the question. You can't claim that we don't need free will to address these questions while simultaneously refusing to provide even a single alternative concept or process that could do so equally well.

Clearly some quality leads people to make a distinction between the scenarios I presented. Compatibilism calls this quality the free will of the agent in question. This is not an earth-shattering concept and does not violate any scientific principles, and it matches how people talk and reason about these scenarios.


>You can't claim that we don't need free will to address these questions while simultaneously refusing to provide even a single alternative concept or process that could do so equally well.

You keep saying this, but it's simply not true. I've specifically explained how it is a matter of making value judgments based on our past. That's all it is. This same system of judgments also equally explains people's beliefs when it comes to morals as well.


> I've specifically explained how it is a matter of making value judgments based on our past.

This is not an explanation. In your approach, is the thief morally responsible for their actions in neither case, in one but not the other case, or in both cases? And why?


If they just steal a car: Responsible

If they steal a car because someone has a gun to they or their spouse's head: Not responsible

Why: Because the causal chain of events that have gotten us to modern humanity have resulted in our cognitive functions valuing human life over physical objects. These are the inputs to the system. These are all causal, products of evolution, etc, and deterministic. The output, the lack of moral responsibility when it's a matter of a human life, is just as causal and deterministic. Free will is not a requirement to come to these conclusions.

If we had evolved in such a way that we kill and eat our spouses after mating like some other species on Earth, but vehicles were a scarce and irreplaceable resource, our morality would be quite different and the thief would likely be morally responsible in both cases. (For what it's worth, I much prefer that we do not live in such a reality ;))


> If they just steal a car: Responsible > > If they steal a car because someone has a gun to they or their spouse's head: Not responsible > > Why: Because the causal chain of events that have gotten us to modern humanity have resulted in our cognitive functions valuing human life over physical objects

Our values have little to do with the question of free will. A value system determines what we consider to be good or bad, it does not determine who is responsible for a specific good or bad outcome.

So if the thief is not responsible for stealing the car in the hostage scenario, then I assume that you agree that the hostage taker is responsible. And the reason you reach this conclusion is because you assign moral agency to the thief when he's acting alone, and you acknowledge that he has no moral agency when he's being coerced. In other words, he's acting of his own free will in one circumstance, but not the other.

Simply saying "we value life over property" does not enable you to absolve the thief for his immoral act.


>Someone kidnapped my wife so I stole a car is not a valid legal defense, nor would I argue it is a valid moral defense

Actually it's a very valid legal defense, and if someone stole a car under such situations, and could prove it (that they were blackmailed etc), they would either have been let go, or given a much smaller sentence.

>* As I stated from the get go, I would hold the thief responsible in both situations.*

That's bizarro though. No judge would do that.


> How would you differentiate these two scenarios without free will?

Circumstances change the moral evaluation of actions, it doesn't matter if it was a blackmail, or a hurricane (which doesn't have a free will) - still people would be more lenient on the guy that stole a car to save his wife. And the guy still made a choice (or had the illusion of making a choice), just with different circumstances.

And still the existence of free will changes nothing in the situation. If the free will doesn't exist - people can still evaluate what is good and bad using the concept of free will. Some people use the concept of God to define morality after all, and it certainly possible (s)he doesn't exist.


>still people would be more lenient on the guy that stole a car to save his wife

No, people will be just as lenient as their puppet like automatic responses to chains of events created at the Big Bang dictate. All of those being set in stone in advance.

>If the free will doesn't exist - people can still evaluate what is good and bad using the concept of free will.

Evaluate means a process that examines the facts and can come into this or that result. But without free will (in pure determinism) there's no this or that result: just whatever is destined to be. Even the term "evaluation" is bogus, it's just an automatic reflex.

>Some people use the concept of God to define morality after all, and it certainly possible (s)he doesn't exist.

Which would make their morality meaningless. And so would the non-existence of free will.


You start with

> No

and then repeat what I said, stressing the fact that people are puppets in this scenario. Yes they are, and it doesn't matter, they will still do the exact same thing as if they weren't puppets. That's the point.

> without free will [...] there's no this or that result: just whatever is destined to be

So what? This line of code evaluates distance between two points and prints "Boom" if it's smaller than 10.0.

    if (sqrt((x0-x1)*(x0-x1) + (y0-y1)*(y0-y1)) < 10.0)
        printf("Boom");
Doesn't seem to need a free will to do all of that :)

> Which would make their morality meaningless. And so would the non-existence of free will.

No it wouldn't. Provide arguments if you think otherwise.


It is allowed to park a car, it is not allowed to take somebody else's car.

If it was a place where you can't park, and a police took your car - it would be your fault, not theirs. It doesn't depend on the free will, it just depends on the laws.

And the laws are what they are because of practical concerns and not free will.

Notice that if you left your TV on a parking lot for a week - and accused people who got it of theft - you would be ignored. But with car it's a theft :) It's all about agreed customs that work reasonably well for the socity, not some platonic ideals.


>Unfortunately not. If your gets car stolen, without free will, you can't assign responsibility to the "thief"

Actually you can. Or rather, without free will, you have no say on whether you can or cannot.

If the deterministic chain comes out so, you will assign responsibility to the thief, even if it has no meaning to do so.


> If the deterministic chain comes out so, you will assign responsibility to the thief, even if it has no meaning to do so.

I describe a contrasting scenario further down the thread with the other poster, where the thief is now compelled to steal your car because his wife was taken hostage. Responsibility for stealing your car lies with the thief in one scenario but not the other. How would you make this distinction without free will?


>No. Causality is all you need to identify who the criminal is.

Causality just determines who did something criminal. The word criminal though also invokes a moral judgement (of character) and intent, which presupposes an agent, which presupposes free will.


> which presupposes an agent, which presupposes free will.

In an universe without free will there can still be agents.


>An asteroid hitting Earth is predetermined by early stages of universe too. Is the collision just correlated with dinosaurs extinction, or was it the cause?

It was the cause but it was predetermined itself.

Note that the free will of the dinosaurs or the asteroid doesn't enter the picture at all here. Similarly, and this is the argument, in the drop-in-crime case, our "commitment to punish certain behavior" is not any more of a commitment than the rock was "committed" to extinguish the dinosaurs.

>Why is it different when people are involved?

It's not different physically. The actions can't be said to be decisions is all or to have caused a particular chain of events is all (that chain was the only possible one).

>In the case of criminals and punishement assuming determinism - our brains deterministically evolved to deterministically respond to punishement by deterministically changing the behaviour when punished.

The point is that they couldn't have evolved any other way, and the crime couldn't have been any less or more than what it is. So those measures can't be said to have dropped crime (since it could never be anything else).


> So those measures can't be said to have dropped crime (since it could never be anything else).

That's redefining words to the extreme.

A rock has dropped because of gravity and lack of support. It doesn't matter that in this universe with the starting conditions as they are - the rock had to drop. It still dropped.

Homo sapiens (or whatever ancestor it was when it happened) - evolved to punish crimes. It lowered the crime, or had other beneficial effects on the population, that's why it was preserved by the evolution. It doesn't matter that it couldn't evolve in any different way given the starting conditions of the universe. It still happened.


>That's redefining words to the extreme.

The fact that crime can't drop or rise depending on prior decisions, and will always be what it's predetermined to be at any point in the future is pretty non-controversial if you accept determinism.

And requires not "redefining" at all.

When we say "we've dropped crime" we don't just describe a casual relationship, but that we achieved something that otherwise would not be. We understand it as if free will is given, if you like.

>It lowered the crime, or had other beneficial effects on the population, that's why it was preserved by the evolution. It doesn't matter that it couldn't evolve in any different way given the starting conditions of the universe. It still happened.

Only, "that's why it was preserved" has no meaning anymore. It wasn't preserved because of any beneficial effects (which weren't a concern at all). It was preserved because initial conditions were so and so.


> It wasn't preserved because of any beneficial effects (which weren't a concern at all). It was preserved because initial conditions were so and so.

This again. This is basic logic.

a imply b imply c imply d

Does c imply d?


If I write a program that scans for counter example of Fermat-theorem it will run until physics is kind to my machine.

The non-halting property of this setup is caused by the physical arrangements/movements of particles and the laws of nature. Fermat-theorem is an abstraction having no real causal power.

I would say, that for us the proof of Fermat-theorem is the right abstraction level to explain the general behavior of the machine: The machine does not halt because Fermat theorem is true

Similarly "punishment causes less crime" may be the right level of abstraction if the correlation is there, even if it can't be reduced to physical terms. And "Responsibility for action due to free will" may be worse abstraction if agent causation[1] is impossible (I am not saying it is)

So even if increasing/decreasing punishments is determined by low level laws of nature, we still can use the higher level explanation if it suits us better.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agent_causation


>Similarly "punishment causes less crime" may be the right level of abstraction if the correlation is there, even if it can't be reduced to physical terms.

If it can't be reduced to physical terms (and there's no free will) it doesn't matter if its the "right level of abstraction" or not.

We have no other alternative but to think of it at whether level of abstraction we're determined to think of it. We don't have a say in the matter for our thoughts on it to matter at all.

(In fact both our thoughts of it and this comment and your responses will also be pre-determined).

>So the future increasing/decreasing in punishment is depend on elementary particles, also the effect of those, but we still can use the higher level explanation if it suit us better.

This presupposes some "us" that can or cannot use the this or that explanation at will. Which is exactly what we assumed doesn't exist.

If free will doesn't exist, then we don't have any say on whether we "use the higher level explanation if it suit us better". We use it or we don't use it as was predetermined by the causal chain of the universe -- not because it "suits" us.


Ok. I see your point. So I just hope (not actively as a free agent - of course this was determined too) that we are determined to use logically more consistent explanations for our behavior than classical libertarian free will. ;)

> Yup, free will is meaningless, there's no measurable difference between an universe which has a free will and one that doesn't.

Actually there is: in a universe with free will, you must have intelligent agents that can understand their own actions and learn from their choices. A universe lacking free will would lack these qualities, and be observably different as a result.


> A universe lacking free will would lack these qualities

Why?


Because free will merely requires the ability to understand the choices we're making and learn from them, like I said.

AlphaZero made choices in chess, and learned from them. So did I get you right: it had a free-will because it is a necessity for this behavior according to you? Because mere "machines" can't make decisions, and can't learn from consequences.

> AlphaZero made choices in chess, and learned from them. So did I get you right: it had a free-will because it is a necessity for this behavior according to you?

That's domain-specific learning, not general learning. If you could then take AlphaZero out for coffee to talk about a match and why it made certain choices, I'm fairly certain you'd be less confident that it wouldn't qualify.

> Because mere "machines" can't make decisions, and can't learn from consequences.

I disagree. Humans are a type of machine.


Am I getting you right? If Alpha Go was able to hold a conversation you'd assume it has a free will? Even if you know it's a program on a deterministic computer?

Or do you say it's impossible to make such a program on deterministic computer, and will never be possible, no matter how far IT develops?


If a computer is able to hold a conversation about any topic, was able to understand and learn from its choices and explain its thought process leading up to a choice, then yes, it has free will.

I have no doubt whatsoever that computer programs could have free will, even deterministic ones. The qualities that are relevant for free will simply have nothing to do with determinism.


You seem to define free will in a very strange way. It seems to me the words you are defining is consciousness and intelligence, and not free will?

If I predict what you will ask and record the responses on a tape perfectly timed to your future questions, and then press play and leave it playing as you are asking questions - does this tape player have a free will? It seems to learn because it answers as if it learnt.


> You seem to define free will in a very strange way.

Rather, you are coming into this debate with certain assumptions about what "free will" means or what properties it must have. Most such assumptions have been invalidated over the past few centuries. The whole debate over free will is about defining what it means and what properties it has.

My position is that of Compatibilism, which is the same as that held by most philosophers on this question. It's "strange" only in the sense that people sometimes find it surprising that free will can be compatible with determinism.

> If I predict what you will ask and record the responses on a tape perfectly timed to your future questions, and then press play and leave it playing as you are asking questions - does this tape player have a free will? It seems to learn because it answers as if it learnt.

"Seems to" is not the same as "did". Also pointing out a bizarre outcome by assuming an impossible precondition, ie. predicting everything I will ask, is not a compelling argument.


No that is absurd and dehumanizing towards the victims.

Plenty of things about reality are unfair. I'm not quite sure how free will being nonexistent is dehumanizing towards victims, but even if you feel it will be, that isn't an argument that free will exists.

No your last part it was directed towards.

Why not just consider that there's a mix of determinism and randomness? I mean, if the question is "What's 1+9 in base 10?", the decision/answer is always "10".

But if it's "What do you want for lunch?", the decision depends on how I'm feeling, what I've been eating lately, etc, etc. And there's certainly some randomness there.

And then there are decisions where there's just too little information, or too much confusing information, and I'm left with making a SWAG. Maybe almost random. Even literally, with a coin or whatever.

But about the soul thing, I totally agree. There's the same problem, "turtles all the way down" (or up, as the case may be).

Also, there's the issue that our conscious awareness is clearly not making any decisions. Other stuff is handling that, and we mostly just observe, and tell ourselves that we're in charge. As Old Bill Burroughs put it in Naked Lunch:

> "Possession" they call it.... Sometimes an entity jumps in the body -- outlines waver in yellow orange jelly -- and hands move to disembowel the passing whore or strangle the nabor child in hope of alleviating a chronic housing shortage. As if I was usually there but subject to goof now and again.... Wrong! I am never here.... Never that is fully in possession, but somehow in a position to forestall ill-advised moves....

> Patrolling is, in fact, my principle occupation.... No matter how tight Security, I am always somewhere ...


I myself have gone through a similar line of reasoning. My conclusion however has always been undecided and that the answer lies in an area where I'm not sufficiently versed.

A good thought experiment is to consider the simulation hypothesis. It doesn't require you to believe it, it's just a thought experiment to show a counter example that lies outside of the deduction.

1. We are living in a simulated universe. 2. But our characters are controlled by beings in an outer universe with everything else that follows the laws of physics being programmed.

So in the context of our universe our actions are based on metaphysical mumbo jumbo, inexplicable in our laws of physics. We the avatars are the beings in the outer universe. So we have 'free will' that is not determined by the state of our universe.

Now of course the simulation hypothesis has a turtles all the way down issue, but that's not the point here. The point is to be clear about our terms. When we say deterministic we mean with respect to the laws of our universe. The thought experiment just makes the terms clear and not conflate what's happening in one with all. If you want to make the definition that free will is something that's not deterministic in all universes, that's something different to discuss.


It seems that the avatar theory should be falsifiable: does the mind behaves fully accordingly to the laws of phisics (whether deterministically or probabiliatically via quantum effects) or does some unphisical, unaccoutable effect affects it? It should be possible to design an experiment to magnify this effects and test for them, at least in theory.

A decision can be based on prior information (in the sense of being informed by it) while not being deterministic.

This is how Aristotle and Aquinas handle the relationship between the Intellect and the Will, where the will chooses between goods which are known by the intellect. It is precisely in this choosing between different goods that we are classically understood to have free will.

So, our decisions are determined in the sense that we are only able to choose things that appear good to us, but free in the sense that we can choose between those goods.


Absolutely no human has ever operated like this.

We experience choice and decision as subjective processes controlled by a subjective experience of self. But all of those experiences are subjective, and delusional to varying degrees.

I recently had a fascinating experience with a lawyer while buying a house. The vendors and the agent did various things annoy my lawyer, and she set up a situation where the agent was - apparently as a free choice - compelled to pay the lawyer a sum of money to close the sale.

I'm sure the agent made what she considers a free choice, albeit not a comfortable one. But in fact the lawyer was always in control of the situation, and knew exactly where to push, and how hard, to get the result she wanted.

If you have good psychological insight, humans can be ridiculously predictable and easy to manipulate. And said humans will still insist their decisions are made with full awareness and agency - even when they aren't.

So in what sense is will free at all? You really don't need to resort to quantum physics to understand there are serious problems with the concept. Marketing, politics, and law provide plenty of evidence that free will is a convenient fiction, not a psychological ground truth.


In game theory, you encounter situations where a player's optimal strategy is a "mixed strategy", i.e. "x% chance of choosing strategy A, y% chance of choosing strategy B, ...", with at least two nonzero values in x,y,... . For example, in rock-paper-scissors, if your strategy is anything other than 1/3 rock, 1/3 paper, 1/3 scissors, then an opponent can defeat you (in terms of expected value) by choosing the right pure strategy. People don't normally take out a die to make the choice, but... In a sport like boxing, if in certain situations you always "punch high" or "punch low" or otherwise act predictably, that will probably hurt your chances against an observant opponent. That presumably applies to real fights as well. Outside of direct combat, sometimes someone does you a small favor (or a small offense), and maybe the only favor (or punishment) you can do them in return is significantly larger than that; in that case, the appropriate response might be an x% chance of doing the thing and 1-x% of doing nothing.

So nondeterminism is a useful skill in at least some circumstances, quite likely some circumstances that existed in the environment where we did lots of evolving. Therefore I would expect us to have evolved some capability for (apparent) nondeterminism.

How often does the agent deal with lawyers in an adversarial situation? How often does the lawyer deal with people in adversarial situations like that? If an expert is able to see through and manipulate a beginner, well, I don't consider that good evidence that humans can never effectively deploy nondeterminism.


On the contrary, this example only /supports/ the classical understanding of free will, in the sense that it shows the will operates only on goods that we perceive, and not on those which the intellect does not know.

We often operate with imperfect knowledge of our situations. That is simply because our intellects are not all-knowing.


Sometimes you pick from a set of actions for each you have equal reasons/information to pick. And you pick technically randomly. But after you made the choice, you stick/commit to it, you identify with it. The other choices are no longer a possibility. You become fixed in this particular causality. And it defines "you" as "the one who [randomly] picked choice X and Y and ... and ended up on this particular causal path".

This is what exercising free will means and how it defines you.

And if you put it in this terms it also becomes obvious that any kind of mechanism can "exercise free will" if you choose to look at it from this perspective.

(The problem with defining "free will" I think is that people get stuck thinking in terms of it as a fixed concept that needs a "what is" type of definition, instead of a procedural/operational "how to" definition. You only care about processes and mutations to the state of reality... not fuzzy wozzy philosopondering. Replace "what is" kind of knowledge with "how to" kind of knowledge and concepts like "free will" become christal clear and obvious. Also it's pointless to bring in another undefined concept, eg. "soul" when defining other.)


Any definition that assigns free will to potentially any object, including fundamental particles, doesn't seem a very useful definition to me.

> Sometimes you pick from a set of actions for each you have equal reasons/information to pick. And you pick technically randomly.

If this were true, people wouldn't have any actual preferences and be fairly consistent with their choices. Clearly they are, ergo people do not make choices "technically randomly".


The question doesn’t really have significance in an everyday sense. To have free will means to be able to choose between options. To ask questions about determinism may be intellectually interesting but is of little practical consequence.

> So, either there is no free will because all your actions are determined by past actions, or instead free will just means that part of your actions are just based on, essentially, the throw of a dice. In both of these cases, you yourself have 0 agency.

Your mistake is assuming that determinism precludes agency. You've merely claimed this, you haven't proven it like you did with case #2.

You'll actually find that you can't prove this and so you should give up that assumption, at which point you've reinvented Compatibilism. That's why Compatibilism is the majority view among philosophers.


I would say that anything which is both deterministic and fundamentally unpredictable by humans can be said to have something like "Free Will", which I think includes a lot of non-conscious systems as well as human beings. The weather, flocks of birds, river flows, sunspot activity, etc -- really any kind of chaotic system -- which is not the same thing as saying it's random.

But it's also a self centered definition, because I think a being with vast computational power and perfect knowledge of the current state of a chaotic system might not see it as free.


If the soul has free will, then it cannot have a second-soul to dictate to it. What is the problem with the first-level soul that can freely choose, perhaps incorporating that metaphysical information into its decision?

The problems arise when you start to think what influences the soul's decisions. Does it make decisions solely based on its state? Then you have determinism. Not only state? Than what is this not-state that creates the free will? Adding some dice throwing into this mix does not sound like free will either.

That applies if you think of a soul as ‘just another mind’, but my understanding is that souls are usually seen as different. What I find problematic with them is that they can be defined to be whatever you need to get out of a logical fix eg “souls use state but are non-deterministic”.

Ultimately you’re asking what defines a soul, which is unknown as far as I can tell.


Ultimately I am asking what defines free will. The attempts at definitions that involve soul seem either circular ("soul is that part of human that has free will") or an unnecessary step, i.e. the considerations about soul might as well apply to original human, without the attempt to define a separate soul.

An argument could be that the soul is not constrained by the law of phisics or even logic and ultimately unknowable.

But then the link between the soul and the phisical world should be detectable due to violations of the laws of phisics.

Unless we believe that the whole universe is unlogical and does not follow the law of phisics. We might as well end this, and any other, debate then.


I would completely agree. Our decisions are made based on previous stimuli. Our networks of neurons are altered by stimuli as we grow, this determines how we process later stimuli and the process repeats.

The thing is, this process is so complex it’s useless to talk about determinism of human actions.

I would agree, at this point in time it isn't really possible for us to truly understand the overall system that affects how we make decisions as in. We can at least start with the basics of understanding that it exists rather than stating that we somehow have this sort of magical "free will"

A silver atom's angular momentum is aligned based on the field in a Stern-Gerlach device. This alignment determines how these atoms react to a future magnetic field. Therefore a silver atom's angular momentum is deterministic. But it's not.

A totally deterministic universe would have been a lot simpler. Why go through so much trouble?


Why there should be a why?

You don't get to know in advance which questions will pan out into answerable ones. You could answer "why should there be a why" to literally and question about why. In fact, you could have said that about the motion of the planets, right up until Newton - which shows that the category of things that can be answered like that contracts over time.

That's a how, not a why. Asking why is it worth the trouble ascribes intentionality to the universe where none is expected

What if the prior states that your decision is based on are states of your brain? For example, states of your brain processing particular information, considering all the factors involved in the decision, and determining what the best decision is, all things considered?

You're making the assumption that thought is a computational process. While there's a ton of evidence to back that up, you can't claim it as an absolute truth, especially when allowing the existence of metaphysics and souls.

Not sure if it makes sense to use concept of soul in logical reasoning, maybe that's where absurdity comes from.

Well. People argue against free will.

I've learned to embrace it and it makes my and my kids and my neighbours and my colleagues (and so on) lives a tiny bit better everytime I take advantage of it. (Yes, I've made a decision to use my life for good.)

I've lived like this more and more for 20 years now and my life has become increasingly better.


To me, articles like these are littered with logical fallacies. I truly wonder if the quoted scientists really meant what the article says.

For example:

"And if our measurements are random, there is no way for the photons to know ahead of time which orientation will be measured. So, there can’t be any hidden variable to determine the outcome. Whether we get the left or right shoe, or the left or right glove, the result is truly random."

The above assumes that the actual properties that lead to the specific measurements have to be communicated between particles. But there has been no research in finding out if these properties are truly encoded into the particles themselves. Maybe there are no hidden variables, and maybe there is no communication, but these properties are simply encoded into the light particles, by the way they are created.

"It’s spooky because entangled objects have a quantum connection, even if they are light-years apart."

Or maybe they don't, and the appropriate properties are encoded into the particles themselves.

"Of course, randomness isn’t the only thing necessary for free will."

Free will means the power to determine one's fate through a set of thoughts (logical or not). If there is actual randomness in the Universe, then there is random will, not free will.


On the contrary, a series of groundbreaking experiments have demonstrated that Bell's Inequality holds, which is incompatible with any local hidden variable theory (and what you are saying here is a local hidden-variable theory.) Non-local hidden-variable theories are just as counter-intuitive as any of the conventional interpretations of quantum mechanics, which is not surprising, as they also have to satisfy Bell's inequality.

I have no opinion on what this says about free will, though I suspect that whatever it does, it is not much.

See, for example, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAXxSKifgtU


> Maybe there are no hidden variables, and maybe there is no communication, but these properties are simply encoded into the light particles, by the way they are created.

I believe this is exactly what "hidden variables" means. Some unknown property that would be present in both particles before we measure it and constraint the possible outcomes. This is inconsistent with experiments, it was shown there is no such properties.


It's only inconsistent if you assume information can't travel faster than the speed of light, for which there is no basis besides gospel.

Science is no "gospel."

How is it science? We literally have direct empirical evidence that suggests the contrary, but physicists do complicated mental gymnastics to come up with other explanations that fit their preconceived notions better.

A different view: if we live in a universe that branches into multiple universe at every $PLANCK_TIME, then free will could be our consciousness choosing the branch it follows without actually interacting with the universe.

Of course, there is branching in the quantum sense, but alas, no evidence that we can choose which "world" we end up in. Run the Schrodinger's Cat experiment a million times, and if you get something far from a 50-50 distribution, then maybe this definition is useful.

Love this! As if God designed universe timeline to be immutable. The question is, by making choice B you get universe B unique to that branch you chose, but is it a new branch per person per choice? Or do multiple people get “switched” to that branch?

If you were to view people as a composition of their choices, then in the current branch every individual chose said branch. Every person who did not chose the current branch, is now a different individual.

If the universe is considered a set of individuals or object, then it's unclear whether a multiple paths could lead to equivalent universes or the same. It all depends on the category theory (is the composition of choices associative, etc).

That being said, I really don't like multiple/branching universes theories.


I do not remember ever choosing a branch (as an act of free will), so I am left to assume that my consciousness itself has been branched.

This maybe is a question more about our egos than about the universe (which we do not just exist in, but are the most intricate part of). But is it even very much possible to begin to answer it?

What I mean is this: The idea of choice is a human concept, which seems to be made to be illusory by the fact that, for the most part, our universe is deterministic in nature.

But even in the case the universe is wholly deterministic, as the article's hidden variables theory proposes, then our choices would still be attributed to ourselves.

So in that case, what created ourselves is the big bang. And what created the big bang? Is it even possible to answer that?

The nature of time and the universe is not something that is understood. We understand a lot more than our ancestors due to the scientific method and the spread of the tolerance of Enlightenment-era ideals which allow its pursuit, but that seems to give the illusion that we understand the nature of our universe well-enough to answer these metaphysical queations.

Perhaps we are just in a bubble that is a kind of Sagan's Flatland. Perhaps we are some insignificant random combination of patterns, or perhaps not. We have no idea what we are. But I dont believe our ownership of our choices is refuted by a universe without randomness.


I’m a person who acknowledges everything is deterministic and free will is a facade. The two types of people I’ve encountered who desire the notion of free will: 1) Person with ego who needs to have a belief in free will. 2) Persons who has ego, gets annoyed by free will being a facade and refuses to think about it because “it doesn’t matter” to this person.

I’m perplexed if the problem is singular between the two types of persons and if it’s either: ego, desire, greed, selfishness, or these people really need a belief similar to persons of religious ideology to continue functioning as who they are subconsciously. To me it’s fascinating to observe because I genuinely propose the world would be better when the majority lives by reason in reality; when it comes to law, health, the environment, finances, and social problems. The psychological impact would be the most exciting thing for me personally to witness as I cannot imagine any negatives of a majority understanding determinism compared to the madnesses today in society; where the majority “who blame everyone” or compare themselves to others unfortunate as the outcome wasn’t determined before birth.


>I'm convinced I'm right, and I've transformed any opposing arguments into two ad hominen attacks relying on stereotypes

I don't have anything to say about the debate of free will vs determinism, but I particularly dislike your style of reasoning. Most people do this within topics of politics and economics, which conveniently allows them to allow their confirmation bias without putting themselves in the other person's shoes to understand where they disagree. Instead they'd rather go with the prejudiced "oh they must be that kind of (stereotyped) person."


My style of reasoning is how it came to be by all the events I've lived in life. A lot of unfavorable events, unfortunate circumstances and with its happy moments. I could try to do mental gymnastics to produce something more desirable for "you" but I prefer to simplify my observation into what I wrote. I don't really see any substance other than from your ego in your reply.

The real question with free will is: free of what?

Free of physics? Obviously not, but that conclusion is pretty vacuous because almost by definition anything that can affect our actions is a potential object of study for physics once you break it down sufficiently.

For actual applications of the notion of free will in moral reasoning, this line of argument is also pretty irrelevant. What matters more is whether our will is free from influence by other moral actors and society at large. And obviously it's not totally free of such influence, but we can enjoy a pretty significant degree of freedom there.


There is no freedom with understanding determinism. I'm just a vessel forcibly navigated from start to finish in life. All the external forces make me who I am. I'm not free of the order assigned to me and the linear outcomes is scrutinized when it comes to others who had a less favorable order or different producing variables with undesired results.

> The two types of people I’ve encountered who desire the notion of free will: 1) Person with ego who needs to have a belief in free will. 2) Persons who has ego, gets annoyed by free will being a facade and refuses to think about it because “it doesn’t matter” to this person.

This is a complete straw man. Let me describe the contrary claim: in my experience, the type of person who desire giving up free will either a) want to give up punishment and so confuse justice with moral responsibility, and/or b) are confused about what determinism and choice really mean. You appear to fall in the former category at the very least.

I suggest you read up a little more on the meaning of free will and Compatibilism specifically. There's a reason why the majority of professional philosophers are Compatibilists.


You don’t have a good grasp on philosophy to suggest the meaning of free will and complatiblism. Yes the justic system is a disgrace to humanity and I understand determinism. Prove otherwise please from what I wrote and I’ll be thankful. Instead it looks like someone with a hurt ego writing nonsense to me.

There's nothing to prove. Your comment had no substance, and advanced no arguments. It was a set of bald assertions without justification, and so can be dismissed without argument.

3) Person who desires it for the sake of personal accountability

I would think that is still either 1) or 2). It all comes down to the ego with accountability.

How do you figure? Seems to me ego would want no accountability at all.

Ego creates accountability on both sides of the equation (ex. victim & assailant) when it comes to something undesired in society.

Ego is constructed by the person viewing what encompasses reality and comparing the self to form self-esteem or self-importance.

As a person who understands determinism, I feel my ego has diminished when it comes to individuals. I realize me comparing others who are "unfortunate or fortunate" to myself is nonsense and accountability for individuality is diminished to null. My accountability for society as a whole is instead greatly increased and where I view the complete system of what makes an individual who they are being at fault for any undesired outcome.

Basically if someone were to do a horrible act it is by fate, how they were raised in the family they were born, with genetics and all the events that happened in the specific linear order of no real control because free will does not exist. I would see everything at fault "the will of the universe" and where the best humanity can do is study what made the outcome; with working on fixing the problem and rehabilitation for the person.


Seems that you are speaking of Id rather than ego. That or your neurology is alien to me.

Not everybody is ruled by circumstance. With hard work and dedication you can begin to eliminate the factors which force your hand. For some individuals the task probably is insurmountable. For those of us lucky or unlucky enough to be able to reach a state of free will, accountability is a dubious reward.


I’m confused why you would think id. Everyone is ruled by circumstance “every moment” and even when the person enjoys every bit of it. A puppet that loves who controls his strings is still without free will. I’m a transgender woman for example and had an unfavorable life, almost everyday by how persons treat me by aesthetics and from my understanding of your writing “I would only be considered having free will” if achieving the impossible against reality. Except even in that case I wasn’t free for desiring the outcome, having it happen and even enjoying it. Accountability never is correct unless directed towards the complete system as a whole. Everyone is forced every moment till death.

Well, the rhetoric about Id, Ego and Super-ego is Freudian, so it probably doesn't hold up under scrutiny.

Strictly, what I mean is that some things which seem impossible are in fact possible if only barely. E.g. With advances in genetic engineering, the term 'transgender' might have a very different meaning in 100 years, but those advances appear to come at great cost. Perhaps then one will not need to be as brave as you to undergo vast psychosexual changes to the self.

I see accountability as something I have to myself. - I am very reluctant to lie to myself since I realized there are things which I only have myself to blame for. Furthermore I don't believe there is a purpose to life since that would contradict free will. Instead of purpose, I have the freedom to make whatever I want of my life.


I haven't lost "accountability" for myself, in a sense "it" has morphed into awareness of certainty of how every little thing alters the assigned story of everyone. It has made me a lot more forgiving to others & myself, with less anxiety and better mental health. I believe it has brought me clearer analysis of my thinking patterns.

Basically, I think I'm closer to my perfect self because I understand better to why my actions are taken and how I'm controlled by what is around me on the highest level obtainable. Similar to how a god would perceive anything if one existed and is truly omniscient.

I'm leaning towards the idea, "people are better humans when understanding free will doesn't exist" and how there is "no control" over anything. I think a lot of people who haven't lived with my mindset for an extended period of time, dismiss the health benefits by assuming it's bad because you will feel like you need to be at fault or in control for joy to exist or meaning. I don't believe for a second that is the case.

I'm still able to have happy moments. I would say I'm more grateful and acknowledging of them when they happen. I likely would be dead by suicide if I didn't think the way I do now but I still contemplate suicide with likelihood because gender dysphoria sucks when born in the time period I was without getting help. So I don't think understanding there is no free brings suicide and really whatever happens was fate when understanding determinism. I do 100% believe life is not meaningless from me understanding determinism and truly everyone fills a purpose in progressing society or even retracting progress. Freedom isn't necessary and will never exist.


I like the way you think

Ever heard that knowledge is the opposite of thought?

I think either we do not have free will or we have some special brain that shapes probabilities that literally make the reality as we see.

And I always prefer to believe we are not special animals.

Still, as opposite as deterministic universe, we may do not have free will but the future is not determined. The future may be random at some scale, with most obvious sequence of events happening and yet not prohibiting different events to happen.


The question of free will is bound up with the question of consciousness. We first need to understand what consciousness is, where it resides, and what its boundaries are, before we can understand free will. It is not possible to properly test a statement such as: "I have free will" without understanding what the "I" refers to

Ah, the age old question where it doesn't matter if the answer is positive or negative at all.

Since it is opinion time: I do think that we posses free will whatever the definition might be.

There are enough know non-deterministic processes. I also think consideration of randomness vs determinism isn't sufficient to find an answer.


Can you supply a non-deterministic process, where the non-determinism is fundamental and not a way to quantify a lack of information about the system?

Yep. That's the question. Some quantum processes are indeterministic. However, one might ponder if it is because of ignorance of the inner-workings on the said process.

One also might conclude that non-determinism is ignorance or lack of information. It is an unanswered question as far as I know.


Anything that is best described by quantum mechanics.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superdeterminism

What do you think of ideas like this then?


I think it's a boring theory that doesn't pass Ockham's razor. For the universe to be superdeterministic you'd have to encode its whole evolution somewhere. That is more complicated that the normal interpretation of QM but doesn't explain more.

> I think it's a boring theory that doesn't pass Ockham's razor. For the universe to be superdeterministic you'd have to encode its whole evolution somewhere

The Cellular Automaton Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, by 't Hooft https://arxiv.org/abs/1405.1548


That's really interesting, I like CAs a lot. However the author himself states in the introduction that Bell's inequality and related theorems very strongly suggest that his theory is not correct.

> However the author himself states in the introduction that Bell's inequality and related theorems very strongly suggest that his theory is not correct.

It's widely believed that Bell's theorem and other no-go theorems preclude a local, hidden variable interpretation of QM. The author merely mentions that he can reconcile existing results with this local, hidden variable interpretation via "superdeterminism".


Isn't it simpler? There are just a few rules and everything works? For the normal QM you have to get some randomness from somewhere else.

edit: I mean I agree it's problematic for experimental science, but I think Occam's razor cuts the other way in this instance.

edit2: Isn't the entire history encoded anyway in the current state of the universe in the deterministic case. I don't understand what the problem is there.


To get rid of the randomness you have to have prepared the result of every decision that is currently attributed to randomness in a big lookup table.

Why would that be necessary if there are local deterministic propagation rules, that have been there since the beginning?

Because local, deterministic rules don't agree with experimental observations as far as I understand quantum physics. You can have either local, or deterministic, but not both without superdeterminism, i.e. the giant lookup table, or instant communication.

That's only according to some interpretations of quantum mechanics. (I.e. Copenhagen) Other interpretations, such as Many Worlds or Pilot Wave are deterministic.

Many worlds is deterministic, but not in the same sense that people might think of, right. The evolution of the wavefunction (which never collapses like in Copenhagen) is deterministic, but in any given world, random draws are appearing.

The big bang/creation

I have a hard time understanding how people disbelieving in free will do not just devolve to fatalism. Why bother discussing it as if it matters, when it's all predetermined? Why do people having the argument seem to assume in their lives that free will exists, exhibited by their pursuit of their wants?

>Why bother discussing it as if it matters, when it's all predetermined?

Because personally, I do find it quite enjoyable.

All my decisions and everything I do being predetermined doesn't change the fact that I will still experience it and can enjoy and want things.

Determinism doesn't make the things that you experience and the things you choose any less real, they happen. Similarly, Nihilism doesn't mean you give into depression because there is no morality and the universe doesn't give a shit about you, quite the opposite, you can do what you enjoy precisely because the universe doesn't give a shit about you, you can do what makes you happy, not what society things ought to make you happy.

In short; because it's enjoyable and the alternative is not, even in the face of determinism.

>Why do people having the argument seem to assume in their lives that free will exists, exhibited by their pursuit of their wants?

Because ultimately the answer doesn't matter and having free will is a comfortable illusion. Humans like being in charge, especially being in charge of themselves. Since science still owes us a definitive answer (although IMO the current state seems to lean in favor of determinism), people choose free will over determinism.

Similarly, people choose to believe that inherent, objective morality exists, that a higher power protects them, etc. It's comforting. Reality is lovecraftian.


I thought this experiment was explained just as well by decoherence? Under the many world interpretation, there's no instant communication, or hidden variable, we just happen to learn in which world we are by performing the measurement.

The laws of physics are still deterministic as far as I can tell.


This just pushes back the point of non-determinism. Instead of the measurement, or wave function collapse, or decoherence or whatever you want to call it being not deterministic, the "world" you end up in is.

If even that point is to be considered deterministic then there has to be some previous state of something to lead to it, and we're back to non-local hidden variables.

This is one of the many reasons I dislike the many-worlds theory, and it's seeming popularity of late. It does not actually solve non-determinism, it just shuffles the deck a little, while also tacking on an ever expanding number of alternate universes, all the while remaining as non-falsifiable as any other QM interpretation.

If I had to choose between two non-local hidden variable theories, I'd choose the one without the constant branching alternate worlds.

Non-local hidden variables are almost by definition unknowable to us, so I'm not sure what we gain by pretending all this meta-physical philosophizing is actual science. It did make for a good TNG episode though.


Many Worlds is popular for a reason: it's one of the simplest interpretation that fits the facts. The scientist in you might dislike that it came about later than the Copenhagen interpretation without any experiment to distinguish them. The Bayesian in me just applies Occam's razor.

Just realize that a collapse interpretation is the same as a many worlds, with the additional assumption that the blob of amplitude you don't live in is somehow flattened to zero. The "it's just maths" interpretation isn't much better: the maths tell us that we have two worlds worth of amplitudes, yet for some reason the one we don't observe isn't real. This is as ridiculous as believing that stuff you send outside the observable universe ceases to exist once it crosses the boundary.

As for how far it pushes non-determinism… I'd say quite far. Under the MWI, the universe is entirely deterministic. What is not is just our subjective experience. What was originally a Physics problem is now an *anthropic" problem, similar to what you would get if you were to copy & paste humans, or do mind uploading. The more interesting mystery in my opinion is more about why the Born statistics are the way they are, instead whatever else we could imagine them to be.


So many popular science articles have started to commit ontological fallacies like this. Free will obviously exists because we experience it. This question presumes a denial of experience and a claim that really the experience isn't real but instead this other thing that cannot ever be experienced is. What's even the motivation for that?

The motivation seems to be to paint an awe-inspiring picture of mystery through the facade of science for link clicks, with the defamation of science. Science is meant to make things clear not enigmatic.

The question debating if free will actually exists, is a denial of experience and a solicitation to some sort of ontology outside of experience that can never be known.


> Free will obviously exists because we experience it.

You seem to be confusing the subjective experience of consciousness with free will. They aren't equivalent. (Free will can be viewed as a conjecture about the relationship of conscious experience with the outside world, but is not synonymous with conscious experience.)


I'm not. If I meant the experience of consciousness I would have said so.

How do "we experience" free will?

By making choices on one's own accord. This is the only qualifier of Free Will. The argument against Free Will is that this is actually an illusion despite the experience–the argument is a metaphysical one, which can never be known as it's circumscribed in the noumena.

The article argues that "randomness" (by which it means essential unpredictability) is experimentally backed. This is an awkward constraint for a universe designer: isn't a totally deterministic universe much easier and simpler?

Free will has no room to survive in a clockwork universe. But free will remains a viable position, despite the philosophical contortions, but supported by experimental evidence like what's discussed here. And that seems like an argument in itself, right? It ain't come this far...


Why would randomness leave more room for free will? It's random.

> Free will has no room to survive in a clockwork universe.

Reminds me of this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i1TVZIBj7UA

Effects of electromagnetic waves you emit will appear random to you, even if you produce a rather orderly amount (and distribution) of them. Did the universe take away with no reason? Well, it did go and drained off a good portion of your emitted energy because of the many places they go and the many effects they can have. I'm not entirely sure what I'm trying to say here, I just think the actual pipes through which you send information (waves) in this universe are quite a mess, and that's probably being gentle.


> This is an awkward constraint for a universe designer: isn't a totally deterministic universe much easier and simpler?

Huh? Maybe it's natural selection, all the way down, and all the way up. The results aren't at all "random", but they're also not at all designed.


I think he means it would be expensive to inject randomness all the time instead of just letting a rule-based system go from state to state deterministically.

OK, except why are you putting it in those terms?

It just is what it is. There's no reason to think that stuff evolves in the least-expensive way.

And there are rules. What we call laws of physics. It's just that there's lots of wiggle room. At least, if you're lucky enough.


> Free will has no room to survive in a clockwork universe

Incorrect, see Compatibilism. In fact, free will as a concept is incoherent without some degree of determinism.


What is interesting about this article for me is that, the question of free will has been one of the oldest subject of academic scholasticism. So how come now it is being discussed by people whose profession is about measuring and classifying natural phenomena in relation to the physical concept of force? I wonder what changed? Did physics become academic scholasticism or did free will is transformed into a physical force?

> So how come now it is being discussed by people whose profession is about measuring and classifying natural phenomena in relation to the physical concept of force? I wonder what changed?

Quantum mechanics changed how physicists see the universe's classical deterministic character (see Einstein's famous quote). Then they published The Free Will Theorem and the Strong Free Will Theorem, but this conception of "free will" has no relation to the one in philosophy. It was a very poor choice of terminology IMO.


>Did physics become academic scholasticism or did free will is transformed into a physical force?

Unless you believe in a soul or something similar, and that that soul is what governs free will, then physics would have to be involved. The workings of our brains are governed by the same laws of physics as everything else.


Wow! Such a lot of work on top of a mistake which they already figured out, too bad that only in a scale of laboratory room. If EVERYTHING is determined taking quasars from far far away (in time and space) doesn't change anything in the experiment. Back then, the experiment in the laboratory room also was determined. Pop-"science".

I believe that free will is possible. Our conceptions of existence are limited by our perspective; that of a causative (and, OK, possibly random) reality, but it's possible that our wills are interfaced with super-dimensional spirits (souls, if you like). The fact that we cannot conceive of an existence which is not causative does not mean that our spirits do not dwell in one. One way of approximating such an existence is to consider it as "timeless". This timeless spirit may then, in a sense, exercise influence on our wills throughout our entire lifespan, simultaneously (perhaps through a quantum interface). You could call this deterministic, but how is it deterministic in any meaningful sense if our choices are "determined" by a spirit which is, by definition, our essential self, free of circumstantial preconditions?

It turns out if you make unjustified assumptions (information can't travel faster than light) you can make unjustified conclusions (no hidden variables).

someone mentioned free will not existing because every decision made is the result of past decisions. Given a choice between A or B, I will only choose given who I am and therefore there was really no choice to begin with. When you're born you have no past to rely on but there sure seems to be a lot of randomness in a baby/child. Maybe randomness is free-will but it slowly erodes away with time.

> Maybe randomness is free-will but it slowly erodes away with time.

It's a bit tricky depending on your idea of what "free will" means, but essentially it can be argued that there's a difference non-trivial difference between free will and determinism.

If the development of the Universe is predetermined, then the Universe is deterministic (in some system of logic) and free will does not exist.

If the development of the Universe depends on the the outcome of truly random events, then the universe is non-deterministic, but this does not imply that free will exists.

Consider: Someone has to decide between two choices which for all intents and purposes are exactly the same when measured against each other. On the most fundamental level, the only way to break the deadlock is through a "random" selection. If this random selection is driven by the aforementioned random (possibly quantum) events, then is this really "free will"? After all, the person making the decision has no conscious control of the events influencing the decision process on that level. This implies that decision making ("will") is just a function acting on inputs.


I think this analogy would assume baby branches off of parents decision tree, i.e. parents are responsible for choices and there is probably a mix of both throughout life (i.e. parents restricting / influencing which colleges you should apply to)

Free will is a lie the mind tells itself to cope with reality.

No matter where the choice to act rests, it's not with the individual willing it to be so.

In a western society, with ample choice and the ability to make those choices, one might feel like they have free will. Look elsewhere, and you'll see that the "choice" to act is very limited to the circumstances of your life.


If free will did not exist, how would you ever be able to imagine such a thing?

An entity that is constrained by determinism, say a computer program, has no room to "step outside" its own frame and imagine things running an different way.

In essence, free will and consciousness the same thing.


We can imagine tons of things that don't exist. For instance I'm currently imagining a bouncy ball that instead of bouncing according to deterministic laws, bounces according to a mystic will-based system.

and i'm currently imagining getting work done rather than being on HN :)

My free will told me not to read this thread, and yet here I am...

I think Sam Harris put it like this: for free will, it doesn't even matter if reality is deterministic or random because the determinism or randomness are found at the quantum level, many levels "below" neurological free will.

Let's say we have Universe 1 (deterministic) and Universe 2 (random). You face a choice - raise your left hand or your right hand. In U1, if you went back in time several times, you would always pick the same hand because the configuration of matter in the universe would "require" that the next step, globally, is you raising that same hand. In U2, if you went back in time, there could be some variance - maybe you'd pick the other hand 50% of the time - but this variance would happen on a quantum level and only manifest neurologically/physically. I still see no possibility of the classical idea of free will there.


wasnt there a story linked here a couple weeks ago about neurons possibly having some sensitivity to quantum interactions? Wouldn't that mean that the quantum level is not actually below neurological free will?

> I still see no possibility of the classical idea of free will there.

That's because you're mistaken that the classical version of free will requires the ability to do otherwise in the sense of making different choices after rewinding time.

Consider what that actually means: an outcome that is different every time you sample it, even going back in time, is classified as a random phenomena. That's not what free will means, classically. Where is the will if your choices are random?

Furthermore, the Frankfurt cases debunked this old notion of the principle of alternate possibilities back in the 60s. Sam Harris is simply mistaken about the applicability of this principle.

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