Dennett – Freedom Evolves (lecture)

February 15, 2010    By: Jacob J @ 11:20 am   Category: Determinism vs. free will

I am worried this answer will crater the discussion that continues on the previous thread, so I’m opening a new thread to discuss Dennett’s lecture on his book Freedom Evolves. I know it is sort of stupid to post about this when I haven’t read the book yet, but oh well. Consider this a post about the lecture.

Daniel Dennett – Freedom Evolves – a Dangerous Idea Part 1 (9:55)
Daniel Dennett – Freedom Evolves – a Dangerous Idea Part 2 (9:58)
Daniel Dennett – Freedom Evolves – a Dangerous Idea Part 3 (10:01)
Daniel Dennett – Freedom Evolves – a Dangerous Idea Part 4 (9:59)
Daniel Dennett – Freedom Evolves – a Dangerous Idea Part 5 (9:48)
Daniel Dennett – Freedom Evolves – a Dangerous Idea Part 6 (3:01)

Dennett starts by concededing the obvious implications of determinism. Yes, a Laplacian Demon could calculate everything that will every happen, yes, there is only one future which is inevitable. However, he argues that once a person comes along who can see a brick coming, imagine the future of being hit by the brick, and duck so as to avoid being hit, this introduces an element of evitability to the universe which otherwise does not exist (inevitable=unavoidable; evitable=avoidable).

It is almost so obvious as to be insulting, but the use of inevitable and evitable in this analysis is entirely equivocal and appears to be intentionally designed to obfuscate. Based on his own analysis, the fact that he ducked to avoid the brick is inevitable and his being hit by the brick was evitable because of his inevitable duck. If there is no word game involved here may God strike me down.

So, let’s move on the what I think his real point is. He is demonstrating that from the standpoint of the person, getting hit by a brick was avoided and it was avoided by something that person did. Since we all experience the world from a perspective like that brick ducker, this shows that the things we do really have consequence in the world. Furthermore, because he used an example of a person imagining the future and ducking based on that imagination, he has provided an example which will show that people are free whereas other kinds of things (like rocks and machines) are not.

I would suggest that the evitability he is hinging his argument on is present in everything that has ever happened, so it is not particularly special. It is always true that a different thing could have happened if one participant in the event had behaved differently. These “other things that could have happened” are thus avoided at every turn. The fact that our parts in the causal chain represent real causes with consequence is maybe the most obvious bedrock position of compatibilism ever, so I understand it, but I don’t think it represents a contribution to the field.

The interesting part of his solution flows from his insistence that only certain kinds of events count as “avoidance.” Specifically, it is the events in which someone consciously tried to avoid a certain thing and then succeeded. This is crafty because it means only things like humans can be free, which is what we all want. It also leads to all of your demands about computational and counter-factual robustness. What I just said is perhaps slightly too restrictive, because he seems to be comfortable talking about chess playing programs as real “avoiders” of checkmate (and, thus free). I haven’t read his book (so please correct me if I’m wrong), but based on his presentation it appears that a thing qualifies as being free if it is purposeful. Something can be purposeful (1) if it was designed to serve a certain purpose (like a chess program) or (2) if it has a conscious desire and can purposefully act to realize that desire (like a person does).

Notice, however, that something need not be computational to fit that requirement. It could be a simple filter or sorter. Imagine a machine that has a single file line of bananas coming down it on a conveyor belt. It has an optical sensor that can gauge the color of the banana and if one of the bananas appears to brown, it swings its mechanical arm across so as to guide the brown banana to the banana bread factory on the right then back again to let the yellow and green bananas go to the left where they will be sold in Vons. This machine creates “evitability” in the same way as the person ducking to miss a brick. Without this optical sensor and mechanical arm, it was inevitable that a brown banana would end up in the yellow/green banana bucket, but now that this machine evolved an optical sensor and a mechanical arm brown bananas in the wrong bucket can be avoided. Brown bananas in the wrong bucket is now “evitable.” This should qualify as a a machine with free will according to Dennett’s argument.

Now, let’s suppose that instead of an optical sensor and a mechanical arm, the machine is sorting walnets by size (small and large) and it has a long shoot with small holes in it. The walnuts roll along and by the end of the shoot all the small ones have fallen through holes into the bucket for small walnuts and the big ones drop out the end of the shoot into the bucket for big walnuts. This also seems to qualify as creating evitability and freedom according to Dennett’s criteria.

We can keep simplifying the machine and it seems that as long as the machine serves a certain purpose we can describe that purpose in terms of avoiding a certain outcome and the machine will qualify as being free. All of his talk about competence is meaningful only in the context of accomplishing a certain purpose. As far as I can tell from his lecture, having a purpose is the principle ingredient of freedom.

The interesting thing is to talk about what moral responsibility and accountability mean in a framework like the one Dennett suggests, but before we open that can of worms, where have I gone wrong so far in representing his argument for what constitutes freedom?


  1. “Based on his own analysis, the fact that he ducked to avoid the brick is inevitable and his being hit by the brick was evitable because of his inevitable duck. If there is no word game involved here may God strike me down.”

    I guess there are two ways of seeing what he’s doing: 1) using the equivocation so as to confuse and slip one past us, or 2) point out that there is an equivocation and show how the two meanings come apart. I have no clue how you would ever come for the first conclusion.

    Take the sentence “it was unavoidable(1) that I would avoid(2) the brick.” He’s intentionally trying to show that there are two meaings at play here. Compatibilists can lay claim to the second kind of evitability, and that’s all they need. The first kind of evitability only means something to a person with a view from nowhere, a perspective which simply doesn’t exist. In other words, “it was unavoidable(1) from absolutely nobody’s perspective that I would avoid(2) the brick from everybody’s perspetive.” What could evitability from absolutely nobody’s perspective ever contribute to?

    Now let us suppose that the brick is actually a rock that rolled down a cliff toward me, and then I ducked out of its way. The tree that was standing right behind me didn’t duck out of the way. Which of us would say was able to avoid something and which wasn’t?

    “It is always true that a different thing could have happened if one participant in the event had behaved differently.”

    It doesn’t matter whether something different would happen if things were simply different. Why would you ever think that? What matters is the regularities which can be found. If a leaf was placed in front of a silk worm, it would move forward. If it were placed in back of the worm, the worm would move backwards. If the rock were clearly rolling straight for the point to which I ducked, I would not have ducked in that direction. The tree, on the other hand, still would not have done anything at all. What matters is HOW, not THAT, a particular system responds to input.

    Finally, nowhere does Dennett ever offer a single sufficient condition for free will. Ever. Not avoidance, not having a purpose, not anything. Although you do attribute this to him a couple times in the post. I should note, however, that the all or nothing view of freedom which LFW seems to be trapped in is one of the reasons why I can’t buy it. The compatibilist view is that some things, like us, are really free. Others, like dogs, frogs and flys are less and less free. Freedom comes in degrees. That banana sorting machine might be kind of free in some really, really insignificant sense of the word, but I doubt it.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 15, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  2. Jeff,

    You’re right to point out that Dennett doesn’t offer a sufficient condition for free will. I was trying to divine one from the nature of the argument he was making. He did label his book “Freedom Evolves” and the thrust of the entire talk is to describe how evitability arises because agents evolve which can purposefully avoid things. Am I way off here? You took me to task for attributing to him what he didn’t say but I’m just trying to understand his argument.

    Now I want to show you, the sentiment…Determinism does not imply inevitability. And the way I’m going to do it is simply by showing you that in some deterministic worlds some things are inevitable and some things aren’t. Some things are evitable.

    Now, I’m going to give you a very very simple example of this, and it actually stands in for all the others. They just get more fancy, but it’s all just basically the same thing. (Part 2, minute 5)

    He then tells the story of the person ducking to avoid the brick. This seems like fairly good basis to assume that the rock throwing example captures the/a crucial aspect of evitability that is the basis of freedom.

    As to the banana machine, you said you doubt that it is “kind of free” even in an insignificant sense of the word. What is the difference between the banana machine and the person who ducked to avoid the brick? They seem to me to have exactly the same features: optical input, programmed avoidance response, movement to prevent a certain outcome that is undesired. Does this count as creating evitability? Is it that freedom takes a lot more than evitability, or do you disagree even with the idea that this meets his requirements for creating evitability?

    Comment by Jacob J — February 15, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

  3. The tree, on the other hand, still would not have done anything at all.

    And you keep complaining that *I* pick the examples that are easiest to criticize? At least pick an example where the thing in question has the capacity to respond. I can give you examples all day of things people have no capacity to respond to and it won’t do the slightest to suggest that people are not free.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 15, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

  4. Jacob,

    “At least pick an example where the thing in question has the capacity to respond.”

    That is the point! Some things have the capacity or respond to its environment and avoid some things while others do not. That is the point! That’s why the rock example sucks. That’s why I mention the tree, to show how terrible your example was.

    As for Dennett’s description of free will, he doesn’t put forth much of an attempt in this matter. He takes the two intuitive premises 1) we are free and 2) everything has a cause and shows how the argument that is presented against it doesn’t hold muster. That’s all. Like me, he throws the burden of proof on other people to show that both of my intuitions aren’t compatible with each other. He then simply shows how this burden has not been met.

    Comment by Jeff G — February 15, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

  5. Jeff,

    Holy crap. I went through all this to find out that Dennett doesn’t offer a theory of free will?!? He just throws the burden of proof on the other side as you accused me of doing yesterday?!? …mind…exploding…{boom}

    That is the point! Some things have the capacity or respond to its environment and avoid some things while others do not. That is the point!

    I hate to repeat myself too many times, but you have got to be kidding me here. Even humans have things that they do not have the capacity to respond to. I recently gave the example of radio waves. Are paraplegics “terrible” examples of people with free will because they can’t avoid falling rocks? C’mon.

    People, machines, rocks, trees, dogs etc. all have certain stimuli that they can respond to based on their internal physical structure. People have ears/eyes/noses/hands so they have the capacity to respond to a greater number of stimuli than a rock, but if we’re going to discuss any one of these (people included) it is a complete straw man if we don’t pick stimuli that are relevant to the thing in question. If you want to advance the idea that freedom requires more input mechanisms, then do so, but I haven’t seen you put forth that requirement yet.

    You obviously want there to be something significantly different about the physical response to stimuli that happens in a person as opposed to a rock. Fine, I didn’t bring up rocks on this thread since I know the rock argument is frustrating you. I did, however, give an honest attempt at zeroing in on the things that seem to have a special role in Dennett’s analysis so that we could discuss whether or not the offer anything to help answer the problem of moral responsibility advanced against determinism in a theistic framework. Before I go any further with Dennett’s argument, are you ready to help me understand how his insights into evitability help the problem or should we just drop that avenue of discussion?

    You obviously think a person is free while the banana machine is not and I’d like to understand the key differences between the two that lead to your conclusion.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 15, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  6. Holy crap. I went through all this to find out that Dennett doesn’t offer a theory of free will?!?

    Hehe. Yep. You did.

    But don’t feel bad. I spent more than an hour of my life listening to a long Dennett lecture when Jeff linked to it some time ago too.

    Dennett’s whole shtick seems to be to convince people that a world without LFW is not as bad as it seems.

    Further, he assumes atheism and physicalism and then dares anyone to defend LFW based on his assumptions. Not surprisingly, he has not yet been convinced on those terms.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 15, 2010 @ 8:08 pm

  7. Geoff, thanks for the link. I participated in the first half of that thread but I didn’t remember the last 15 or so comments. The last one from Jeff G actually spells out fairly clearly what I learned here, so I should have read more closely back then.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 16, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

  8. Yeah I’m a little surprised that Jeff got all grumpy when I pointed out that the underlying assumptions are what we are really arguing over (Dennett assuming materialism and atheism and us… not so much). That is basically what Jeff already said in that thread. We say show me how determinism can provide moral responsibility given our assumptions. They say show us how determinism cannot provide moral responsibility given our assumption. Neither can convincingly be done because each side has the home court advantage.

    Comment by Geoff J — February 16, 2010 @ 7:10 pm

  9. Well, now I have this nascent thread and Jeff G has bowed out. But, I am still interested in this discussion, so I think I’ll take up both sides of the debate.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 11:04 am

  10. I am just not getting why Dennett’s “evitability” makes any difference. I still maintain that if causal determinism is true, then we are just like billiard balls bouncing around in space because of whatever happened in the big bang and there is no meaning to anything nor is there free will.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 11:06 am

  11. Ugh. You are taking way too simplistic a view of persons. We are not like billiard balls. We are determined, fine, but we are a much more complex system. Think of us as computers, not as billiard balls, and you will get closer to the truth.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 11:07 am

  12. But that’s just the thing, there is no fundamental difference between billiard balls on a poll table and electrons bouncing around inside a computer. Their movements are deterministic. They have no choice, they do whatever they must do based on the laws of physics.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 11:09 am

  13. Open your mind a bit and think more closely about a computer. I can write a program which can do very meaningful computations. It can figure out the answer to problems that no person can solve without the aid of a computer. Just because it is deterministic does not remove meaning. The motion of a billiard ball is meaningless, maybe, but the answer from a computer program often is not.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 11:11 am

  14. Sure, that’s true, but the only reason something meaningful comes out the back end of a perl script is that someone intelligent designed it. Computers don’t solve problems humans can’t solve, precisely because when the answer comes out the back end of a computer, that counts as a human solving the math problem. The meaning doesn’t come from the laws of physics, but from the arrangement, the design, the algorithm. If determinism is true, there is nowhere for intelligence and meaning to come from. How does meaning get injected into a fully deterministic universe?

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 11:47 am

  15. That is the really amazing thing about the idea of evolution. It offers a coherent explanation of how this can happen and how meaning gets introduced. All you need is random variation and natural selection. Natural selection is beyond dispute since it is empirically demonstrable. As for random variation, the universe is a treasure trove. I know you accept evolution already, so I’m sure you’ll be on board.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  16. It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times…

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

  17. Laugh all you want about the monkeys typing at typewriters, just because it is hard to imagine time on the scale that evolution takes place doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. A trillion years is a long time. Besides, comparing evolution to monkeys at typewriters is an unfair comparison because it lacks an analog to natural selection. The monkeys produce lots of random variation, but there is nothing like natural selection to make use of it.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 12:33 pm

  18. Careful LFW Jacob J, with that attitude, CFW Jacob J is going to quit blogging here.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 17, 2010 @ 12:47 pm

  19. If you deny LFW and allow random causation and wait long enough every possible state of the system will be visited. Fifteen billion years isn’t long enough, but a few eternities here or there, and every possible snapshot of the universe will be materialized.

    So you cannot logically disprove the “evolution” of the works of Shakespeare from random noise in such a world, because in such a world the works of Shakespeare are random noise, and all random noises are materialized.

    Determinism is not like that though. With determinism, the universe follows a fixed orbit through state space and the only possible past, present, or future states are the ones on that orbit.

    In order for the works of Shakespeare to exist in a deterministic world, the universe must have started out in an orbit that contains the works of Shakespeare, or anything like them for that matter.

    The a priori probability of any given orbit out of all possible orbits containing advanced works of literature is vanishingly small, so the existence of the works of Shakespeare is nigh unto conclusive proof that determinism is false – short of introducing theistic assumptions about the initial state of the system that is.

    The case against metaphysically stochastic evolution (i.e. evolution with random causation) is harder. In such a world the universe does not follow a fixed orbit, but gradually diverges from its present trajectory onto any number of alternative paths.

    The problem with a demonstration that the probability of the universe visiting a state with advanced works of literature is vanishingly small is the intractability of a mathematical definition of advanced works of literature, such that the state space of the universe can be partitioned into states that have advanced works of literature and those that do not. Big problem.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 17, 2010 @ 1:17 pm

  20. I should clarify: Stochastic causation with no LFW causes every possible snapshot consistent with conservation of energy to be visited, and no others. Rather large number of those though.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 17, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

  21. CFW Jacob J (#17), Fair enough, but it seems like we’ve strayed off topic.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

  22. Not off topic at all. The monkey analogy is flawed, but I’ll give you a valid analogy that demonstrates how determinism does not destroy meaning. You remember designing low-pass and high-pass filters in college. We started with the most basic capacitor and resistor designs, then we went on to analyze more complex filters.

    Some researchers wrote a program to design a filter using a genetic algorithm. Basically, they taught it how to introduce random variation by inserting resistors, inductors, and capacitors in random locations and with random values. For natural selection, they gave the program a way to tell if the variation was helpful—after introducing its random variation, the program runs a simulation of the circuit and analyzes whether the change had a desirable effect on the transfer function. If it did, it will keep the change, if not, it throws it away.

    They started the program with a very basic filter, then let it try to invent new better ones. Most of what it turned out was ridiculous, but over time it came up with some of the standard improvements. They’ve let it run for a long time, and it has now invented genuinely new circuit tricks which we have to study so we can figure out why they work. Random variation coupled with a selection process can actually create new things which are meaningful and the intelligence is obviously not restricted to the humans because they don’t even understand some of the solutions!

    We are like that program except we have many more feedback loops and we’ve been running (humankind) for a lot longer.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

  23. Mark D,

    My comment #22 to LFW Jacob J also applies to your objection. The problem with creating the works of Shakespeare is that there is no good selection mechanism for judging if something is good literature. So we probably can’t get Shakespeare using random variation and selection because the second piece is missing. However, with other kinds of things, random variation and selection can create new technology and it really is new.

    The only selection process for checking if something is good literature is to have a person read it. And, in piont of fact, when using people as the selection process evolution *did*, in fact, produce the works of Shakespeare. That is why there are plays by Shakespeare that you can actually read.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

  24. (#22) That’s cool, who gets the patent for the new circuits?

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

  25. Right, that question just makes my point again. This kind of thing shows you how artificial intelligence is quite possible. The better our computers get, the more feasible it becomes to see ourselves by analogy.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

  26. Well, I’ll admit that your example is compelling, but I must point out once again that the whole thing starts with an intelligent programmer. I’ll concede that a certain kind of progress can be accomplished through an evolutionary process. I’m still suspicious that getting it started in the universe takes a magic step, but I don’t really want to argue about that right now.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 17, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

  27. They started the program with a very basic filter, then let it try to invent new better ones. Most of what it turned out was ridiculous, but over time it came up with some of the standard improvements

    The flaw in this argument is related to the a priori selection of the goal of the evolutionary process. If you want a band pass filter, you get a band pass filter.

    The reason why the laws of physics should prefer advanced civilizations with sophisticated art, literature, and music over any number of available alternatives isn’t exactly obvious.

    The only value to “joy” in evolutionary theory is as a momentary surge of reproductive lust, the only value of morality as the artificial desire not to eat your relatives. Anything more than that is all Borg and no beauty.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 17, 2010 @ 8:29 pm

  28. And, in piont of fact, when using people as the selection process evolution *did*, in fact, produce the works of Shakespeare

    Here, you incorrectly assume that all evolution is the result of stochastic natural selection and further that LFW either doesn’t exist or is a non-factor in all creative activity.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 17, 2010 @ 8:42 pm

  29. and further that LFW either doesn’t exist or is a non-factor in all creative activity.

    Of course, that’s why my name is CFW Jacob J.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 18, 2010 @ 12:24 am

  30. (#26), No need to feel nervous about a magic step. In the programming example there was a programmer, but all she did was set up a system with random variation and a mechanism to select for a desired behavior. These both come free in evolution without a designer.

    As to your not wanting to discuss this aspect, remember that this argument started because you were saying that determinism is incompatible with meaning (in #10). It is hard to see meaning on a pool table, but it’s relatively easy to see it in this program given that it can invent useful technologies.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 18, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

  31. CFW JJ, “mechanism to select for a desired behavior” is precisely what is either missing or ill determined in stochastic evolution.

    First, because there is no such thing as “desired”, and second, because the notion of “survival of the fittest” is ridiculously ambiguous.

    I submit, for example, that an atom of iron is the most fit organism in the universe, as in it is better equipped for survival than anything else. Not immortal of course, but of enormous longetivity – practically invulnerable to both nuclear fission and nuclear fusion even at temperatures and pressures characteristic of the middle of the sun.

    A long time ago there weren’t any of these advanced organisms around of course, just lots and lots of temperamentally instable hydrogen atoms. But as time went one, those hydrogen atoms evolved into much heavier, more durable elements – elements much more fit for survival into the eternities.

    Some of those elements got a little too heavy, and what do you know, all the sudden they start getting bounced around a bit, and the evolve back into those iron atoms. Even us fragile humanoids have nothing on iron atoms – we will return to the dust, the dust will return to the stars, and the luckiest atoms will be transformed by fusion or fission into iron – the most fit species in the universe.

    And don’t bother claiming that iron atoms aren’t alive. We all know that is a dubious distinction in the first place. Iron atoms are the pinnacle of evolution, superior to squishy carbon based organisms in every relevant respect – they actually survive. Not only do they survive, everything else has a strong evolutionary tendency to turn into iron. Because only the fit survive.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 18, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  32. Mark, regardless of whether or not “alive” is well defined, the fact remains that self-replication is required for something to propagate its “fitness” in an evolutionary system. The phrase “survival of the fittest” was created in that context so it is a straw man to criticize it outside of that context. As to “desired behavior” being problematic, LFW Jacob J is always making that same complaint, so I’m it won’t be long before he echos your point.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 19, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

  33. (#30): Even if I concede that evolution can introduce meaningful behavior, it doesn’t help with the problem of free will. Every computer is deterministic, so it would really make no sense for a computer to say it had free will. Even if it comes up with a new circuit, it couldn’t have done otherwise.

    Even if you convince me that artificial intelligence can exist with CFW, it is a huge leap from there to the idea that anything is “free” in a fully deterministic universe.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 19, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  34. It is true that free will is a difficult concept to wrap your brain around in a deterministic universe, but it’s not as hopeless you suggest. There is no such thing as libertarian free will, but it is still a useful illusion. For example, the best way for me to get people to do what I want if for me to pretend they have free will and interact with them under this false pretense. So, the illusion of free will is useful because humans are such complex machines that it is more efficient to pretend they have free will than it is to try to figure out how they work and manipulate them like a machine.

    In fact, we are much better at manipulating humans under the false premise of libertarian free will than we are manipulating them at the level of micro-physics. Consider crime deterrence for example. We want people who commit crimes to stop doing so. The best way we know of accomplishing this is to punish them, so it is a practical requirement that we function under the auspices of LFW. But, if we figure out how to fix their brain directly at some point, we’ll do that instead.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 19, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

  35. I find this really fascinating. I have come to believe, if we are just something that evolved, then consciousness probably is just something that is an illusion.

    However, if we have a spirit, then I believe we are more than just the some of our parts. Consciousness is real and actually allows for free will. I am free to make a choice and be held accountable for my actions.

    Comment by CEF — February 20, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

  36. You act like what you pretend about other people will make a difference in the future. However, under determinism, your pretense is as determined as everthing else. You talk as though you are choosing to play a game where you treat people like they have free will, but, in fact, this game of pretending people have libertarian free will has been fated since the big bang and it has just been a matter of waiting for the inevitable future to play out.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 20, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

  37. I don’t know what you are talking about. Of course my thoughts will make a difference in the future. They will be part of the casual chain, some of the determining influences on the fate of the universe. Thought happens in the brain and is ultimately a physical phenomenon. It can cause things just like anything else. Just because something is determined it doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a real effect on what happens.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 20, 2010 @ 10:05 pm

  38. Right, so you want to argue that thoughts—and I assume consciousness as well—are all physical phenomena. This allows for thoughts to influence things. That’s all well and good, but it almost seems like you are trying to sneak in libertarian free will inside the Trojan horse of thoughts. Could you have done something different than you did or not? You could not if determinism is true. Your thoughts are just as determined as anything else. The fact that something is part of the causal chain is not particularly interesting. All sorts of things are part of the causal chain. If thoughts are just more pinballs bouncing around in the causal chain, then they should not be treated as more special than other pinballs.

    Sure, what you do is determined in part by what happens in your brain (which you say gives you free will), but what you do is also determined in part by what happens in your liver. If thoughts give me free will, why doesn’t protein synthesis give me free will? They both determine why I act the way that I do.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 20, 2010 @ 10:11 pm

  39. I couldn’t do anything different than what I did, that’s true. In fact, I insist on that since I thing libertarian free will makes no sense. You keep on saying this as though I haven’t conceded it. That said, I would have done something different if I didn’t think the way I thought. If I think I am free, then that thought itself is a cause of my actions, causing me to act as though I am free. You see, thoughts are like self-modifying code. I act, in part, according to my mental “program,” but part of the program (my thoughts) also modifies the program as it runs. If I can act like I am free, then that’s all I really need. That’s the only freedom worth having or wanting. Literally, I do whatever I want to.

    Comment by CFW Jacob J — February 20, 2010 @ 10:21 pm

  40. First of all, your last comment totally ignored my point about the liver.

    With this new comment I’m now positive there is a Trojan horse lurking. You are trying very hard to avoid seeing the obvious. Let’s see if I have this straight, thoughts are like self-modifying code because they can affect themselves. From this self-modifying property, you are suggesting that self-determination arises–“As long as my thoughts control my actions, if I think of myself as free then I will act as though I am free.” Is this what you are suggesting?

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 20, 2010 @ 10:27 pm

  41. So here’s the problem. Self-modification does not actually lead to self-determination. Lots of things affect themselves, but that doesn’t make them willful agents. If the sun collapses due to its own gravity, do we then say that it choose to become a white dwarf? No. Was it free to become a white dwarf or not to? Of course not. Making your thoughts part of the causal chain doesn’t solve the problem, it creates the problem. If they are part of the causal chain, that means that they are determined just like everything else. Therefore, you have no control over them since they are entirely determined by the physical state of the universe in the moment before they obtained. You are continuing to use a concept of thinking that is derived from your experience of it, but which is incompatible with the your deterministic view of it.

    If your thoughts are determined, in what sense are they “yours”? They can be yours in the same way that your skin is white, or your beard is patchy. They are attached to whatever it is we are calling “you,” but you are not responsible in any way for them. That is the catch. If you never initiate them in any way, you should talk about your thoughts happening to you. When your white skin ends up in the causal chain, say, when you get a sunburn, it doesn’t mean you are free. The reason it seems like a break-through when you realize thoughts could be self-determining is that you are mentally jumping from that idea to the idea of self-initiating. Self-initiating is, of course, the key ingredient of freedom, and the actual property of our actual thoughts, which is the only reason you can make this jump without noticing. “Self-determination” is used casually to mean “self-controlling,” but if the “determination” is consistent with the philosophical definition, then self-determination does not lead to freedom. At least, if it does lead to freedom, then we should start talking about virtually everything as being free.

    Comment by LFW Jacob J — February 20, 2010 @ 10:43 pm

  42. This is what I should do – start a web log and debate myself.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 20, 2010 @ 10:47 pm

  43. the fact remains that self-replication is required for something to propagate its “fitness” in an evolutionary system

    That is an arbitrary constraint – certainly such replication is a highly effective method of propagating a certain species, but it is certainly not the only one.

    Even in a strictly biological context, “survival of the fittest” is tautological. It is like saying “what survives, survives”. “Fit” has no other meaning.

    The theory of natural selection is largely devoid of intellectual content. The main reason for that is that generally speaking it is not falsifiable.

    No matter which species or properties of species survive, we always attribute survival to survivability. That doesn’t tell us anything. It is like saying, “Why did so and so get a higher score on the test?” “Because he was a better student.”

    Comment by Mark D. — February 20, 2010 @ 11:38 pm

  44. This is what I should do – start a web log and debate myself.

    Haha. Just remember, you saw it here first.

    The theory of natural selection is largely devoid of intellectual content.

    In my mind it is foolhardy at best to take a concept that revolutionized a major branch of science and claim that it is tautological. Natural selection is a cornerstone of modern biology. It is just not plausible that something with such a history and place in modern science could turn out to be devoid of content. Luckily, your argument was advanced by Ann Coulter a couple of years back so there are lots of people who have already spilled a lot of ink responding to it (which means I don’t need to do it here).

    Comment by Jacob J — February 21, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

  45. I said largely for a reason. By the way it wasn’t Ann Coulter who originated this argument but rather none other than Karl Popper.

    My complaint is not that evolution isn’t an essential element in the explanation of any number of things, my complaint is that in the hands of biologists it so completely explains everything that anyone who suggests otherwise (reality of LFW perhaps) is treated like some sort of sub rational, anti-scientific heretic.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 23, 2010 @ 3:36 am

  46. I said advanced by for a reason.

    I agree with you that people sometimes get carried away with there conviction that evolution not only can, but must, explain everything that exists. I posted not long ago on one example of that (not exactly what you have in mind, but relevant nonetheless).

    I should mention that Jeff G has pointed out elsewhere that CFW does not require evolution and people like AdamG almost certainly argue for CFW in the context of creationism.

    Comment by Jacob J — February 23, 2010 @ 9:45 am

  47. Well I just thoroughly enjoyed myself.

    Comment by BHodges — February 23, 2010 @ 5:34 pm

  48. Jacob J, Certainly. CFW is de rigueur among (most of) the creatio ex nihilo crowd and has been for about 2400 years.

    And of course the step from creating the universe out of nothing to managing the laws of physics out of your home office is not that big of one.

    Comment by Mark D. — February 24, 2010 @ 12:09 am

  49. This is by far one of the funniest things I’ve seen in the Bloggernacle. This was ridiculously funny. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this blog just now. Thank you. I literally guffawed.


    Comment by Arthur H. — February 27, 2010 @ 5:12 pm

  50. Mark: I don’t believe that your assertion that CFW is de rigueur is near accurate. Almost all were not reflective of their view of free will. Of those who were, at least the most notable have consciously adopted LFW like Aquinas, Luis De Molina, Suarez, Ockham, Leibniz and a number of very notable others.

    Comment by Christine — February 28, 2010 @ 10:12 am

  51. Jacob, your arguments are sound. If evolution were the true beginning of our minds, I think Dennett’s free will is limited, and not quite the ultimate free will we are looking for from a theological perspective. Of course this isn’t much of a concern from an atheist perspective.

    The solutions from a theological perspective to several of the issues you bring up are found within LDS concepts–eternal uncaused minds, intelligence (that has an inseparable uncaused property of thinking built within it), the complete physical universe including spiritual matter, etc.

    When you add these to the mix, you can get a free will that is free in every desirable way one could hope for in a theological framework, and that is not only compatible with determinism but dependent on it.

    Comment by Steve — May 26, 2013 @ 3:22 pm

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