When discussing free will, people quite often refer to it as an emergent property. Emergence is described by Wikipedia as an entity having properties its parts do not have, due to interactions among the parts. This is fair enough. Sure, humans behave differently to molecules that make up the body; but so what? The assembled car can behave differently to its parts disassembled lying on the ground. An autonomously driven car behaves differently than an ordinary car without a driver. The first and second laws of thermodynamics are still in place, nothing magically has been changed as far as we can tell.

So, is this so called emergence a recognizable pattern of behaviour that is more complex than its component parts? But is it more free? The double pendulum might be considered freer than the regular pendulum shown initially in the video below. Which is the emergent property, the constrained single pendulum swinging regularly with the pin or swinging chaotically when the pin is removed?

Single and double pendulum, regular and chaotic motion

What happened here? A highly ordered system went from being a metronome that can be easily be predicted to a chaotic pendulum whose motions can only predicted depending on the accuracy of the model and the accuracy of the initial input data. Effectively it is a simpler version of trying to predict next month’s weather on a certain day.

Snowflakes are another classical example of emergence. Here we have vapourized water molecules crystallizing on a surface (deposition). The water molecules are moving around chaotically in the air and because the atmosphere is more or less uniform around the growing flake, an approximately symmetrical D6 crystal is formed. Sure the snow crystal is more complex, but ultimately the behaviour of the system was completely constrained. Is the crystal more free than the water vapour? Why do we think that processes like crystallization can lead to more freedom?

Synergism while as a phenomenon it clearly exists. But what is it? A classical example, for me, in the metallurgical field, is with the extraction of copper from solution. Alpha-hydroximes are moderate to weak extractants (complexing agents) for copper. Organo-phosphates are also weak extractants, but a combination of the two produces a very strong extractant for copper, much more than would be expected from their individual contributions. In this synergic mixture the hydroxyoxime still chelates with the copper, but the organo-phosphate now coordinates the hydroxyoxime-copper chelate instead of trying to complex the copper ion.

Is this magic? Plainly no, as no thermodynamic laws have been broken here. So, what happened? Well, we were applying a simplified model of our expectations to a more complex system. Quite often we have religious people (and others) saying that a motor car is more than the sum of the parts. Well this may very well be true, but it does depend on what ‘expectations’ model we are comparing it to. Complex systems can (not always) behave more complexly giving us a bigger bang than expected or they can behave antagonistically (opposite of synergism). There is no freedom here, but we might describe it as an emergent property.

Two ups and a down make a proton

The two up and one down quarks, make one proton (although it is more complicated than that). While the behaviour of the proton is reproducible and different from that of the three quarks and can be considered emergent, so what?

There is an interesting paper here describes how Newton’s theories of gravity can be derived from first principles; I won’t pretend to understand it, but it is interesting nevertheless. The paper is peppered with references to emergent and emergence. Emergence can be predicted from first principles or from equations? Really?

Billiard balls

And speaking of gravity, a while back on Greg’s https://naturereligionconnection.org/blogs/ blog he had picture of some billiard balls and the caption said something to the effect that billiard balls can exist without interacting with each other. This, I think, is an inaccurate statement and immediately reminded me of the high school torsion balance experiment. I can still remember the hairs on the back of neck standing up when I saw this.

Torsion balance and lateral gravity

The video shows gravitational forces, objects interacting laterally. We don’t see the billiard balls pull together on a billiard table because the gravitational forces are not strong enough to overcome the frictional resistance of the table. If those balls found themselves in deep space, they would attract one another and could not be considered independent. But here on the billiard ball table we can safely ignore their dependent existence because the other forces playing on them are much greater.

When we did this experiment in high school it was one of the magical moments when the wonders of science transcended our experience. From a couple simple experiments using the torsion balance and an experiment measuring the acceleration due gravity, we could estimate the mass of the Earth using Newton’s equations.

In short, when we talk about emergent phenomena especially with respect to free will, there seem to be two broad meanings we associate with the word emergent. A weak and a strong meaning:

  • Weak Emergence: here we use a it as a shorthand for a set of prior phenomena combining to give a reproducible behaviour.
  • Strong Emergence: this is almost akin to magic, where the new property or phenomenon is almost inexplicable.

I am happy with the first sense of the word, but not the second. The first sense does not help the concept of free will one iota.

32 thoughts on “Emergence

  1. Lovely article and the videos were both enlightening and entertaining. Your point, if I understand it correctly, is that emergent objects may operate differently than their individual parts, but they never introduce causally indeterminate effects, only effects that are more difficult to determine (predict/know). That sounds reasonable.

    I’m not sure what freedom from reliable causation even means. I can only imagine that any object that became absolutely free would disappear in a puff of smoke. After all, the quarks would no longer be bound by whatever the heck force holds them together (yeah, I never took chemistry) and all objects made of atoms would be reduced to … well, to whatever “the smallest part of the smallest part” is.

    Another way that I imagine indeterminism is that the effect of a given cause, such as picking an apple from the tree, would always be unpredictable. In a deterministic world, I end up with an apple in my hand. But in an indeterministic world I might find a kitten, or a glass of milk instead of an apple. Or perhaps I’d pick the apple and gravity would reverse. Who knows? It would be worse than “Alice in Wonderland”.

    Let’s face it, our ability to do anything at all requires a deterministic universe, where the outcomes of our actions are reasonably predictable, and the rules of how things work can be discovered by observation and experimentation. That reliability and that knowledge are the source of our ability to control ourselves and our environment.

    So, the words “free” and “freedom” cannot reasonably be required to imply “freedom from reliable cause and effect”. I suspect that you would agree that such a notion is irrational.

    Freedom of speech doesn’t require freedom from causation. A free cup of coffee doesn’t require freedom from causation. Setting the bird free from its cage doesn’t require freedom from causation.

    So, why would anyone think that “free will” implies “freedom from causation”?

    There is a perfectly good operational definition of free will that everyone understands and accurately uses: free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. This is the meaning that people use for moral and legal responsibility. It requires nothing supernatural. It makes no claims against causation. And yet it is both meaningful and relevant to practical scenarios.

    I believe that philosophy has screwed this up. They have cast reliable causation as some kind of boogeyman that robs us of any control over our destiny, when the truth is that reliable causation is the very mechanism of all of our freedoms.


    1. Welcome Marvin
      I have seen (and probably responded to) your defence of compatibility on WEIT. I think as both of us understanding we respond to cause whether it be determinate or indeterminate or perhaps simply probabilistic, I think we both agree that in a given situation we could not have done otherwise, despite being able imagine possibilities before and after the fact. So our disagreement is purely semantic in nature. And your quote below points to that:

      There is perfectly good operational definition of free will that everyone understands and accurately uses: free will is when someone decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.

      I agree, in everyday conversation I too use a similar operational definition. I also use phrases like the sun rises over Beaver Mountain, and I have a perfectly good operational definition for this also. But I do not forget that the Earth follows a complicated corkscrew path through this universe. And I think we should not forget that we could have not done otherwise; and in this sense philosophers remind us of this, hopefully even those of a compatibilist bent.

      ps thank you for your kind words


      1. I don’t think that I can agree that philosophers have enlightened the discussion on free will, or on determinism for that matter, but have rather muddled both concepts by a simple misunderstanding. I go into the details of the many self-deceptions that create the paradox in my post here: https://marvinedwards.me/2019/03/08/free-will-whats-wrong-and-how-to-fix-it/

        I think that the people who have done the best at informing us of the many influences upon our choices are the psychologists, sociologists, and other social scientists who study human behavior. They make us aware of the parental, peer, church, school, and other cultural influences, including those behind subcultures like gangs. And they do this without attacking free will and responsibility.

        So I feel that philosophy has done us a disservice by confusing the operational definition of free will (free of coercion and undue influence) with an irrational definition (freedom from reliable cause and effect).

        Anyways, that’s why I post on this topic. Thanks for the pleasant conversation.


      2. Hi Marv … I presume when you say philosophers have not enlightened the discussion on free will, are you not referring to over 50% who happen to be compatibilists? So here I cannot help but agree with you Marvin.

        If you like me are a physicalist, or materialist when we come to mind and matter, then it is the cause and effect of the chemistry/physics that is occurring in our brains that drives our thoughts. You did not seem to object to the idea “that we could do otherwise”, so I assume you accept this as likely possibility. So if this true for the past event, say in the last millisecond, then I can only accept this is true for the next millisecond too.

        Regardless of any operational definitions we are caused to choose, we cannot do otherwise. And no matter how we dance around this, (unless we take a libertarian position of free will), then in this sense free will cannot be defended. Do you agree?


      3. Actually, we can do otherwise. Choosing is an operation that inputs multiple options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice. At the BEGINNING of this process (a) there are at least two options and (b) we have the ability to choose either one (“the ability to do otherwise”). At the END of the operation, we have a single choice, a single intent for the immediate or distant future, a single “I will”.

        Now, you’ll be tempted to say, “Whoa! Causal inevitability means that we ‘really’ have only one choice”. But that would be speaking figuratively. What you mean is that “it is AS IF we only had one choice”.

        The only problem with figurative statements is that they are always literally false. If you offer me chocolate or vanilla, then I literally (actually, empirically, and objectively) have two options, two possible choices. And, I have the ability to choose either chocolate or vanilla (the ability to do otherwise).

        It remains a fact that my choice was causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity. But it is also a fact that I actually had two choices: (1) chocolate and (2) vanilla. And I could choose either one. Finally, it was me (literally, actually, empirically, and objectively) that did the choosing.

        The single inevitable choice was causally determined by my choosing process, a deterministic operation. And this generally applies to how deterministic events within the domain of human influence come about, by imagination, evaluation, and choosing.

        Concepts like “can happen”, “ability”, “possibility”, “option” get their operational meaning from the choosing operation. Their context is the imagination. Concepts like “will happen”, “did happen”, and “actuality” get their operational meaning from the context of actual reality.

        The fact that, at the beginning, I could have chosen chocolate or vanilla, does not contradict the fact that, at the end, I will choose vanilla.

        And later, since I was on a diet, it occurred to me that “I could have had a V8”. The “could” throws us back into the context of the beginning of the choosing operation.

        Causal inevitability does not alter the meaning of these concepts.


      4. Hi Marvin … when you say we can do otherwise do you mean we can imagine doing otherwise? Our imaginations are as much a result of causality as anything else.

        But here’s my question again. Do our thoughts control our brain chemistry/physics. Or does our brain chemistry/physics control our thoughts? Or are our brain/chemistry and thoughts one and the same. If you think it is the first then my brain/chemistry/thoughts directs me to think you have some explaining to do. If you think it is either of the latter cases then you have some explaining to do also.


      5. Right. We imagine alternatives, possibilities, options. We estimate how each choice might play out. We may even experiment to test different options. And then we choose the option that best suits our purpose and our reasons, and then we implement that possibility. When actualized, it ceases to be referred to as a “possibility”, and is now called an “actuality”, such as a house we just built, or a trip to the Grand Canyon, or whatever.

        Now, EVERY aspect of this was causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity–every thought, every feeling. The fact that we would encounter an issue that required us to make a choice was inevitable. Each option our mind imagined was inevitable. The criteria we used to judge them was inevitable. The ideas and associations, the memories we tapped, the words we produced to communicate our plan, … all of this was causally inevitable.

        So, where is the free will? It is in the fact that it was ACTUALLY us making the choice for ourselves, to suit our own interests, our own purpose, and our own reasons. Had someone held a gun to our head, and forced us to choose something else, something that suited his purpose and his reasons, then we didn’t have free will in that case. Because our will was subjugated to his will by force.

        And if that were the case, then his choice would also have been inevitable from any prior point in eternity, etc.

        Please note that causal inevitability offers us nothing useful here. Both cases are identical as to their causal inevitability. In fact, every event that every happens is always causally inevitable. So causal inevitability makes no distinction between any two events. It is a background constant of reality, that cannot make any useful distinctions at all.

        Free will, as operationally defined (a choice we make for ourselves free of coercion and undue influence), makes a critical and significant practical distinction between those two events. That distinction is employed to determine the meaningful cause of the event (either me or the guy holding a gun to my head), so that we know who is responsible, and whose behavior (if bad) requires correction.

        As to the brain, as I understand it, we exist as a process running upon the neurological infrastructure. We are not matter per se, but rather a series of rapid changes in that matter. So, when we are brain dead, the hardware of the brain is still there, but we are gone. And, without the process, the brain is useless. We are an interdependent relationship between the process and the hardware of the brain.

        The process running on the brain does not “direct me to think”, rather, it is me, thinking. I am the process.


  2. “I am the process.”
    I agree, “I” is actually a verb. “I” has a mechanism and the process extends beyond our physical body, out into the universe.

    Insisting on the an operational definition of free will to me seems to ignore this. Regardless of what definition of free will we settle on there is a mechanism to this process which we are largely unaware of on a moment to moment basis and seem unwilling to explore.


    1. The mechanism is local, and personal. It exists solely within the physical body of each biological organism that is intelligent enough to sense itself. The universe has no skin in the game. The universe is just another inorganic natural object. Biological organisms, on the other hand, have an interest in the consequences of their actions and the effect upon themselves of other natural events. That interest exists nowhere else in the physical universe except within the organism itself and its species.

      The key distinction between a living organism and inanimate matter is that the organism exhibits purposeful or goal-directed behavior. They are animated to seek out what they need to survive, thrive, and reproduce. We can say that purpose emerged with living organisms. And they are the only things in the physical universe that can be said to act purposefully (even when they are of species that lack the intelligence to act deliberately).

      Insisting upon the operational definition of free will doesn’t ignore anything that is meaningful or relevant. Free will already assumes reliable cause and effect. Operationally, our goal is to correctly identify the cause of a good (or bad) event, so that the cause may be better understood. With that understanding comes our ability to predict what is likely to happen next, and then to control it in some fashion. For example, we want to avoid bad events and bring about good ones.

      This ability or freedom to control events is totally dependent upon their predictability, which is dependent upon the reliability of the causes and the effects. A deterministic universe is the underlying mechanism of all our freedoms.

      And that’s why “freedom from causation” is an irrational concept. Without reliable cause and effect we could not reliably cause any effect, and would have no freedom to do anything at all.

      Because it is an irrational concept, it cannot possibly be the meaning of free will, or any other freedom. The words “free” and “freedom” can never be taken to imply such a thing. Because that cannot, they do not.

      So, the “determinism versus free will” paradox, that philosophy has spent hundreds of years debating, is at its heart a hoax. And that’s what I go into in some detail in my post (see link above).


      1. Hi Marvin … there is so much I disagree with in your blogpost, it has inspired to start a blog reply of my own. It will be hugely long. Which I will complete over the coming weeks. We seem to agree there is a mechanism for our choices which results from a physical causality. You seem to draw an arbitrary boundary for this mechanism in or around the body somewhere. While this boundary is useful, it remains arbitrary. In actual fact that boundary extends beyond the human body. For example our distant past nutrition and recent nutrition affects the choices we make.

        Earlier you said our choices [actions] are causally inevitable. While I disagree with this as a certainty, our wills are determined (not necessarily deterministically) by our brains, bodies and environments. Ultimately our “so called” will (and bodies and brains) are shaped by our environment (past and present); this is not controversial. We confabulate, this is not controversial.

        The fact a good deal of choices are subliminal, or just built in to some degree does not augur well for free will. Using an operational definition of free will again seems to ignore this aspect of our wills.

        So my question becomes what would happen if we dropped the concept of free will al; together?


      2. Just to be clear where I’m coming from, (a) there is perfectly reliable cause and effect leading up to the point where we come to face an issue that requires a decision, (b) there is perfectly reliable cause and effect within us as we consider our options and make our choice (choosing is a deterministic process), (c) there is perfectly reliable cause and effect following our chosen action.

        My point is that “free will” is what we happen to call that deterministic choosing event, when it is us performing the choosing. It is not free of causation. it is only free of coercion and undue influence.

        Neurologically, the choosing will involve both conscious and unconscious brain activity. Both areas working together for a common purpose are called “me”.

        If you wish to defend the concept of “freedom from reliable cause and effect” as a real thing, be my guest. But if it is not a real thing, then it cannot be used as the definition of anything. That’s the basis of my argument against using it as the definition of “free will”.

        Free will has an operational meaning that everyone understands and correctly applies: “a choice made free of coercion or other undue influence”. And that is the meaning used for both moral and legal responsibility. It requires nothing supernatural. It makes no claims of being “uncaused”. It is not a “subjective experience”. It is rather an empirical distinction, between events where I choose for myself versus an event where someone or something else is controlling my choice.


  3. Yes free will has an operational definition. I have said I use it too. But the majority of people seem to use free will in a libertarian sense, so definitions are not mine to defend. But I would agree acting independently of causation is a non sequitur and yet that is how people use it. The juxtaposition that the choice of vanilla or chocolate is causally inevitable and that we can do otherwise requires semantics that I do not possess.

    The realization, if we can take it board, that we are not self made men/women and are a product of our environments is, I think, of significance which I have not seen you address.


    1. I don’t know anyone who believes they gave birth to themselves. I don’t know anyone who thinks they have not been influenced by parents, peers, schools, churches, their job, their reading, their discussions, etc. I don’t know anyone who believe that events happen without causes.

      I’m of the opinion that the people you speak of, who believe they are exempt from nature and nurture, do not really exist.

      All you have to do is ask someone “Why did you choose A instead of B?”. They will gladly give you the reasons why A was the better choice. “Were those the reasons that caused you to discard option B and choose A instead?” And they’ll say, “Yes, that’s what caused me to choose A”.

      So, why would anyone claim that their choice is “free of causation”? I’ll tell you why. Because someone has presented reliable cause and effect as a kind of boogeyman that robs us of control over our own destiny, a puppet-master pulling our strings, the driver on a bus on which we can only passively ride.

      The theist, seeking to escape the boogeyman, runs to the supernatural. And the atheist, equally frightened, seeks escape through “quantum indeterminism”.

      But the boogeyman is only an illusion. A little hoax we’ve played upon ourselves.

      Determinism doesn’t determine anything. Causation doesn’t cause anything. Only the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe can cause events to happen. And, guess what, we happen to be one of those objects.


  4. I don’t know anyone who believes they gave birth to themselves. I don’t know anyone who thinks they have not been influenced by …
    Ok you are not familiar with the waggish saying “He is a self made man, thereby relieving God of an almighty responsibility.” Of course people understand they have influences on them, but for example, in the back of their minds they might have a sense of pride in an accomplishment, not understanding that the accomplishment is a product nature, nurture and ultimately luck.

    Yes people can give reasons why they choose A over B. This is where I disagree with Jerry’s semantics regarding “no choice”. We have a choice but that choice is not independent, as you readily concede. I could set up a spreadsheet, with a whole bunch of Boolean logic and it too could be programmed to let us know why it chose A over B. So choosing in of itself is not a reflection of free will.

    Well if the interaction of forces is not causation then I don’t know the meaning of the word cause … something that gives rise to an action? And that you seem to see free will as a boogey man seems strange to me as for I am happy to discard, god, an afterlife and free will. It is not a boogeyman to keep or to discard. Frankly that it is a bit of unnecessary rhetoric. It would be like me speculating out aloud why people want to hang on to a concept of free will. But if we are going to use that particular metaphor then not believing in free will is embracing the boogeyman.

    Your puppet master analogy again, I think, is missing the point. And we quite often find this rhetorical device in the defence of a concept of free will. When one looses their belief they understand there is no puppet and no master.


    1. LOL. Loved that “self made man” quote.

      Note that praise and blame are deterministic tools used to alter someone’s behavior. Praise encourages someone to continue to do something good. We expect them to feel proud as a reward. Blame discourages them from continuing to do something bad. We expect them to feel guilt to motivate them to set things right.

      No, I did not say that free will is a boogeyman. I said that causal inevitability has been described as if it were a boogeyman that deprives us of control.

      The objects and the forces that exist between them cause the events. I’m not sure what you mean by “forces interacting”. I presume you mean with their respective objects. You probably know the 4 forces better than I.

      The concept of “causation” is not itself a cause. It associates the specific objects and events in one state (cause) with the objects and events in the next state (effect). It is the respective mass and gravity of the Sun and the Earth that causes the Earth to travel around the Sun each year. Causation doesn’t do this. The two objects and the gravity between them is doing (“causing”) it.

      Causation itself is neither an object or a force. It can’t do anything. To cast it into the role of an entity that goes around causing things is a “reification fallacy”. Thus, causal inevitability is not a “thing” that can remove control from us. It is in fact us, and all the other natural objects, that are doing the causing.

      The thrust of the hard determinist’s argument is that causal inevitability is doing the causing rather than us. And that is a false narrative.

      The operational definition of free will is the reason we hold onto the terminology. Of course, if people keep contaminating the phrase “free will” with the “philosophical definition”, then we’ll have to come up with an equivalent phrase that conveys exactly the same meaning as the operational definition.


  5. The thrust of the hard determinist’s argument is that causal inevitability is doing the causing rather than us. And that is a false narrative.

    No … this is a total misrepresentation hard determinist’s position (at least my understanding of it). It is the interaction of forces that lead HDs to accept outcomes are inevitable. The dimensional units of force are mass divided by (distance x time squared), so by definition matter (mass) is always present in force. And you are yet to explain how something being inevitable is compatible with doing otherwise.

    Causation is the description of the behaviour (or outcomes) of these “forces”, so you are right in a sense causation does not do anything, in the same way physics does not do anything. But of course physics is a really good description of what is going on and the description is being continually improved. Be careful though, concepts are writ large in the material world, whether it be on a piece of paper, a monitor screen, in the modulation of air waves, or in the brain matter of a person they have an effect. So ultimately your … The concept of “causation” is not itself a cause. is potentially false.

    So when you refer to “we”, you are referring to a select group of compatibilists. I suspect the majority of people are not even aware of the discussion between compatibilists and incompatibilists, regarding free will. The vast majority (at least in the west) unthinkingly believe they have free will.

    So it is believers in free will that describe inevitability as a boogeyman.

    You mistake a free will believer’s misunderstanding of how control actually works with “no control”. I don’t believe in free will and yet I go about my daily life more or less indistinguishably from believers (of both sorts). I can dump the baggage of morality, I am still susceptible to bouts pride and guilt, but eventually I can shrug them off too.


    1. Thanks for the help on my physics homework. Gravity is something we all take for granted. But a child raised in outer space would have a rude awakening upon landing on a planet. If we were not so familiar with it, it too could be described as “spooky action at a distance”. Two large objects like the Earth and the Sun behave as if there were a tether between them, keeping the planets from flying off into space. And keeping us on the surface of the Earth. In the absence of physical “gravitons” the location of the force is within the objects, within the Earth and within the Sun. Although neither the Earth nor the Sun is acting “intentionally”, they are both the causes of the interdependent trajectory.

      And that’s one of the points I try to make, that the objects are the causes of the events. We, like the Sun and the Earth, are also natural objects. We cause stuff. Causation, not being an object or a force, doesn’t actually cause anything. It is a concept we use to describe the interaction of objects as they reliably bring about events.

      From my experience, the “hard” determinist is attempting to prove to us that we are not in control of our choices or our actions. In response, I point out that we are the natural object that is actually imagining possibilities, evaluating them, and choosing what we WILL do. Because they claim it is not us, I typically challenge them to name the object, other than us, that is doing the causing. This forces us back into the perspective of reality, of the actual objects and what they do. It cannot be said that we are not the object that is performing the choosing operation that causally determines what happens next. That is the empirical reality of the matter.

      I recognize what you are saying about the concept of “causation” showing up as a cause in the mind of the decider. As Michael Gazzaniga said in “Who’s in Charge?”, “… we humans have cognition and beliefs of all kinds, and the possession of a belief trumps all the automatic biological process and hardware, honed by evolution, that got us to this place.” So, the ideas we hold to do have causal implications.

      Most ordinary people, who have not been exposed to the perverse version of reliable cause and effect, are compatibilists. They recognize reliable cause and effect, because they experience and use it every day. They also recognize the difference between a decision they make for themselves (free will) versus a choice imposed upon them by someone else (their will subjugated by the will of another). These were investigated by several studies including this one: http://www.brown.uk.com/brownlibrary/nahmias.pdf

      The presumption of free will is not based upon an “unthinking” belief. It is based upon a definition that does not require “freedom from reliable causation”. For most of us, free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion (e.g., “a gun to the head”) or other undue influence (hypnosis, mental illness, etc.).

      The only “believers in free will that describe inevitability as a boogeyman” are the ones whom the hard determinists have convinced that reliable causation is indeed a boogeyman that robs them of any control over their own destiny. These are your “libertarians”. The rest of us ordinary people, who have not been brainwashed into seeing reliable causation as a boogeyman that robs us of control, simply go about our business using the operational and rational definition of free will, instead of the “philosophical” definition.

      My point is that the “philosophical” definition is B.S. There is no such thing as “freedom from reliable cause and effect”, because that concept is self-contradictory, an “oxymoron”. Reliable cause and effect is the very mechanism of every freedom that we have to do anything at all.

      To change the very source of our freedom into something that removes all our freedom is a perverse interpretation of the facts on the ground. And that’s the case I’m making.


      1. My point is that the “philosophical” definition is B.S. There is no such thing as “freedom from reliable cause and effect”

        And again I have agreed with you here, it is a non sequitur to believe we are free from cause reliable or otherwise. Nonetheless, the majority of people believe in libertarian free will, ie believe they could have done otherwise.

        And this is my objection to compatibilism, it redefines somewhere along the line could have done otherwise.


  6. We both accept cause and effect, and the causally inevitable. I read that as I could not have done otherwise. I still cannot see how you read this as being able to otherwise, other than imagining before and after the fact, you could have done otherwise. The choices you imagined, you could not have imagined otherwise (if you claim you can, then we can regress that statement), and the choice that you picked you could not have picked otherwise.

    But there is nothing scary in this, other than letting go of believing people could do otherwise.


    1. But people “can do otherwise”. It is a logical requirement at the beginning of the choosing operation. It is essential to the operation that there be more than one option, and that we are able to choose either one.

      Note that the meaning of “can” and “ability” are both operationally defined by the operation of choosing. That is the context in which “can” and “ability” and “possibility” all derive their operational meanings.

      I suspect that it is inappropriate to attempt to use them outside that context. Choosing is a deterministic and logical operation that inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and base on that evaluation outputs a single choice. The choice is an intent to do something in the immediate or distant future.

      To say that “we can choose chocolate or vanilla” means that we have the ability to choose either option at the beginning of the choosing operation. If it were the case that “we cannot choose chocolate”, then we would never begin the choosing operation in the first place.

      If it is causally inevitable that we will choose vanilla, and we know that, then the choosing operation never happens. It is only because we have no idea which option is causally inevitable that we begin the operation.

      The choosing operation actually resolves the issue as to which choice is causally inevitable. But we cannot know the resolution until we perform the operation. The fact that we know that the outcome will have been causally inevitable, from any prior point in eternity, does nothing to enlighten our choice. It applies equally to either option.

      So, we enter the choosing operation with no knowledge as to which option will be the single inevitable outcome. And that means that we “can” choose A and we “can” choose B must both be true at the outset. This ability to choose either A or B is “the ability to do otherwise” in the present tense. Tomorrow, after we choose A, and it turns out to be nothing like what we expected, we will mentally revisit the beginning of our choosing operation, and say to ourselves, “I could have chosen B instead”.

      The concept of causal inevitability does not change this. Although A was causally inevitable, “we could have chosen B instead” remains a true statement, because it is returning to the context of the beginning of the operation.

      To put it simply, if today I “can” choose A or I “can” choose B, then tomorrow it will be true that “I could have chosen A” and “I could have chosen B” .

      That’s what “can” and “could have” actually mean in operation.

      The fact that A was causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity does not contradict the fact that I could have chosen B. What I “will” do is a different concept from what I “can” do.

      This is a subtle distinction that is all too often overlooked. But to say that “I could not have chosen B” would be false.


  7. To put it simply, if today I “can” choose A or I “can” choose B, then tomorrow it will be true that “I could have chosen A” and “I could have chosen B”.

    But this is not necessarily true Marvin. Closer to the truth would be: I think I can choose A or I think I can choose B. One of those two thoughts/choices is inevitably false. It simply means I cannot see the constraints that are stopping the choice that I see as possible coming to fruit.

    I suggest we leave it here for now, Marvin. I will slowly plow my way through your blog and post a rebuttal. 🙂


    1. rom—–nice to see your blog! thanks for reading mine. I have some new stuff you will be interested in. I am finally working my way to the end on Freedom. I believe in it. It is rather shocking to read how easily people dismiss it! After all, WE ALL ACT LIKE WE GOT IT! sorry for the all caps, but to say we don’t have it is a very Artificial position. I get it that these folks, and you, are into Science, but talk about “cutting your nose off in spite of your face”! That is what is happening, especially on WIET.

      So, here is the point from above and from your current post that is first worth making:
      You present Rational Arguments for Science Knowledge, but the world Physics presents is without any basis for you or me being rational! And that is the answer to your very first “So What” Question.

      Yes, people are molecules and people act differently than molecules. That is Emergence, more like Strong Sense except take out the “magic” description of it, and emphasize the “almost” in the “almost inexplicable”. How we talk about molecules gives no basis for them ever presenting rational arguments or being ‘convinced’ by rat arguments, that is the ‘cutting your own nose off’ part.
      If you want to convince me that you are right, then give me a picture of the universe where CONVINCING has a place. All I see in the Hard Determinist position is a bunch of Billiard Balls bumping or attracting each other everywhere and always! No Rat Convincing, only causing. Explain to me How all this discussion makes any sense if it’s all about being FORCED “to say”,” to believe”, “to do”, and to shit (now excreting IS a strictly causal process!). When I present Rat Arguments to you, I believe it is different than when I dump a load of crap in the toilet. Sorry for getting so graphic, but it is “fun”, another thing that Molecules don’t do—“have Fun”. That is a very basic argument for “emergence”, but you are right, it must avoid Dualism, I agree.
      “Funny” how Dr Coyne wants to drop Free Will and Responsibility talk, but doesn’t seem to realize all the other basic concepts that go along with it. Though I do believe he did say talk of “being rational” was hooey. So lets give it up and just Force people to agree with us?
      That is enough for now. Hope you see this. Please give me a comment on my blog when you read it. Nothing elaborate is necessary. Just nice to know SomeOne is caring.

      I’ll pass on some more specific comments on Emergence later. GregWW


      1. Hi Greg

        After all, WE ALL ACT LIKE WE GOT IT! sorry for the all caps …

        Do we? … I don’t find that. We are constantly being bombarded with subliminal influences which we react to and are unaware. We have wives … those are certainly constraints on freedom … in a good way.

        I don’t need to convince you Greg, your interacting molecules will either take it on board or not.

        But are you angling for a libertarian form of free will or just a subtle change in definitions? Ultimately compatibilists like Dennett and Carroll believe in cause and effect. Complexity in the hope of emergent properties does not help other than relaying “higher” level concepts.

        Using “FORCE” is a misnomer. Our chemical reactions are no more forced than is evolution or a sliced golf shot. They all have the same underlying mechanism as do our thoughts. The vast majority of our thought process appears to be unconscious, yet we put our consciousness on a pedestal. Here we can have fun, grief, pleasure et al.. But interestingly, appropriate chemical modification can modify all these emotions. Anyway … Being “forced” is a bit of rhetorical method of [over] stating a position. But it also exemplifies how strong the concept of dualism in us.

        Regarding Jerry, I find he does not practice what he preaches. But in a sense I agree with you, there are a few things we should drop if free will is false … the concept of morality is the prime one.


  8. rom, you were not Convinced by my attempt at rational persuasion, or ‘your interacting molecules just didn’t Take It On’ ? I have a traditional idea of the meaning of the first part of the above, but not a clue what the second can even mean. All this “talk” is just chemical reaction? I think it is chemical reaction AND language-use as a way humans are together. The second is not logically derived from the first. Its’s an historically emergent property.

    I admit Compatibilist position is hard to describe, but Hard Det is even harder. (it’s indescribable because ‘descripion’ isn’t something molecules do—-to repeat my initial comment). Please check my blog for some detail and Pictures too!.


    1. rom, you were not Convinced by my attempt at rational persuasion, or ‘your interacting molecules just didn’t Take It On’

      The answers are yes and yes.

      All this “talk” is just chemical reaction? I think it is chemical reaction AND language-use as a way humans are together.

      Well it’s physics, biology, psychology etc as well. (note I just use chemistry as a vehicle for a description) Unless you are pointing to something we don’t understand yet. Is this “something” that is libertarian or is it just another aspect of a deterministic world. Remember, if you claim to be a compatibilist, as you appear to do, then you accept determinism as much as I do.

      While the “second” may or may not be logically derived from the first; physically it is or appears to be. I can addle my “talk” and thought quite easily with ethanol. So, I would be checking my axioms to see where the problem is. Ultimately you are claiming our molecules could have done otherwise; or, you are changing the definition of free will. The latter is OK, but we should stick up our hands if we are in fact doing this.


    1. Funnily enough I addressed this very subject in this Emergence essay..

      You have a model for what simple arrangements of molecules can and cannot do. You are applying that model to extremely complex arrangements of molecules and seeing a difference in the outcomes and calling that “freedom”. If you had an accurate model for the brain outcomes, then would we still have freedom?


  9. I have a concern that it makes no sense, is meaningless, is a category mistake to say that the objects of physics ’cause’ thoughts. Or that the molecules of chemistry ’cause’ thoughts. Thoughts are part of the realm, level, ontology of persons, not of physics or chemistry

    Have you considered the possibility that if “free will” is an illusion, then so are “thoughts”? I’m rereading Carroll’s “Big Picture” and he drives pretty hard the point that different “vocabularies, stories, theories” about this world exist for good reason And their vocabularies are inconsistent and are mixed Usually with great confusion.

    If we had an accurate model of brain outcomes, why would we want to keep using mental terms? It seems to me that for Hard Determinists, the most consistent position is Elimination. Don’t just try to get rid of talk of Free Will and Morality, I think your position should ask for the elimination of a lot more.

    For example, on WEIT a while back, there was an enjoyable back and forth about Chicago pizza vs New York pizza. Great, but why discuss it? The Point in arguing about what we like is that it implies that what we like is a matter of choice and quality and discernment of value, and personal prided. If we have no kind of Free Will I think a lot of those concepts just used are in danger, get seriously shifted about, or maybe just eliminated.

    May be I’m wrong.


  10. … to say that the objects of physics ’cause’ thoughts. Or that the molecules of chemistry ’cause’ thoughts. Thoughts are part of the realm, level, ontology of persons, not of physics or chemistry

    At this point we start to leave the materialist world/physicalist world … we begin to deny determinism with this kind of statement. Dualism is what you are pointing to here.

    Have you considered the possibility that if “free will” is an illusion, then so are “thoughts”?

    Yes of course I have. This is what the whole debate is about. Do our thoughts actually do anything? Do they cause anything and are they caused? How does this thought interact with our bodies etc. Just because a vocabulary has “good reason” does not make it accurate. There are “good reasons” for a flat Earth or phlogiston … it does not make them accurate!

    If we had an accurate model of brain outcomes, why would we want to keep using mental terms?

    Because we don’t have a good model!. Our mental terms I would argue are a useful approximation … a short cut. It’s like people with principles. Working everything out from scratch is extremely tedious; principles allow us to function effectively in this universe. A question would be can we have rules of thumb that are based on a more accurate description of cause and effect? But you are right … much (if not all) of what we experience is illusory … so as a rule of thumb we might tread carefully.

    Why discuss pizza? I am sure we can all confabulate reasons. If you are talking about purpose, then you might want to look at this video:


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