Freedom to Choose

The Big Picture

Greg on his blog has added a defence for free will and it is based Sean Carroll’s book The Big Picture. Now it’s almost three years since I read the book, I thought it a really interesting book. Not that I took everything as gospel, and I did not agree with Carroll’s take on compatibilist free will. Of course, compatibilists can and do define free will into existence. In a way I have no problem with this, the whole thing becomes a quibble for the semantic high ground. Nevertheless, I recommend highly Carrol’s book for a view on the possible ways the universe might tick,

I recall, Carroll did not clearly define what he meant by free will. But a quote or two from Carroll. He notes:

Quantum mechanics predicts our future in terms of probabilities rather than certainties, but those probabilities themselves are absolutely fixed by the state of the universe right now. A quantum version of Laplace’s Demon could say with confidence what the probability of every future history will be, and no amount of human volition would be able to change it.

According to Carroll, although this statement is true it does not necessarily mean we don’t have free will and whether the concept is useful in human affairs. Carroll seems muddled to me when he suggests when free will skeptics suggest “the concept of choice doesn’t exist”. Well the concept does exist. I have heard skeptics suggest choice does not really exist. Well this is one those semantic quibbles, I think. Sure, I think I choose; in the same way Google chooses adverts that it thinks I might be interested in. AlphaGo chose moves to beat world champion players. It chose new strategies to win.

Carroll goes on to define ambiguously free will:

We have incomplete information; we know about the rough configuration of our bodies and we have some idea of our mental states. Given only that incomplete information – the information we have – it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.

Personally, I don’t find this convincing. Carroll recognizes that skeptics will say the stance is not really free will and he plays the sympathy card in that some skeptics might think of him has cowardly. And to be clear, let me admonish the skeptics who reflexively suggest compatibilists are cowardly. What bothers me is that Carroll seems to be saying is because we have incomplete information, we can have free will. Well, let me play the same rhetorical game that Carroll has used; this boils down to a slogan that Orwell would have been proud of:

Ignorance is freedom

The argument continues that the concept of free will is useful. I agree wholeheartedly. As a rule of thumb, it has served us well. But, is it an accurate rule of thumb and are there better (more accurate) ones? And if so, what are these more accurate models?

And the blog post itself

Greg starts off with a ho hum:

… my claim that interesting and more complex objects “emerge” from the quantum fields and sub-atomic particles

Why ho hum? It’s not saying anything spectacular, is it? If weak emergence is being claimed then it is effectively business as usual, nothing to see here folks. This can be seen in the difference between the questions, what are the properties of a hydrogen atom and what are the emergent properties of a hydrogen atom? Adding the word emergent does nothing for us. I suggest those that claim emergence is something should reread my emergence blog post.

It is argued that some free will skeptics eg Jerry Coyne and indeed myself think we should jettison the concept of morality. Other skeptics like Sam Harris and Trick Slattery argue for the concept of morality. Indeed Harris wrote a book called The Moral Landscape. Speaking personally, I have tried to be completely amoral over the last ten years or so. Not saying I was successful, but I cannot help but think, there has not been any major change in the output. It reminds me of this very apocryphal quote regarding Darwin:

When, in the 1880s, the Bishop of Birmingham’s wife received information that Charles Darwin was claiming that human beings were descended from monkeys, she is reported to have said to her husband, ‘My dear, let us hope it is not true; but, if it is true, let us hope it will not become generally known.

Dennett Big Think

I can’t help thinking compatibilists and even some free will skeptics can’t quite let go when it comes to morality. Even Dennett has quoted the not-reproducible 2008 Vohs and Schooler paper. To be fair Dennett did not know at the time that Vohs and Schooler paper was done with thirty psychology students from the University of Utah, about half of whom were practicing Mormons. I can’t help but wonder what would induce Dennett to put forth an argument from consequences?

Greg also plays hard and fast with Sam Harris’s Free Will book cover. In the caption he points out to the reader: “Note each letter suspended from a puppeteer’s string“. What he fails to note there is no puppeteer. While I recall Harris not being happy with the cover, I happen to think it is not so bad. What Greg failed to explain to his readers, is that each letter is not just suspended from the frames, the letters are connected to the frame. Each letter affects the frames and the frames affect the letters. In the same way we are connected to our environment we are shaped by that unfolding environment and in turn we shape that environment. This is the basis of Buddhism’s dependent origination world view. This is, for those of us inclined that way, a really spiritual way of seeing the world and our interaction with it. We are not some independent agent as compatibilists would like us to believe.

Greg asks:

How can the particles and forces that compose us at the most basic level behave as physically predicted, yet, not be all that is worth saying?  What more can be added that does not fall into silliness and superstition?

To my knowledge, and I keep repeating this is, no one is suggesting that we should try and explain things solely at the most fundamental basis. There are things that can and must be tackled at an appropriate scale. In my field of expertise, trying to devise methods of recovering metals from ores using quantum mechanics would be a complete waste of time, but there is a place for it at the university level. But it is necessary to remember that there are cause and effect before, during and after the ore processing. Human beings are not immune to cause and effect at any scale.

There follows a defence of the concept of emergence. Again, I suggest for those enamoured with the concept of emergence read my post on the matter. Or if people think there is something significant in the phrase the emergence of proton from the combination two up quarks and a down quark, simply read it as the combination two up quarks and a down quark result in a proton.

The argument continues that the understanding of meso and macro objects provides an understanding for that particular scale. You will get no argument from me here; but I will remind readers that cause and effect have not gone away. They don’t go away at any scale, but the effects of causes do vary at different scales. We are reminded that Carroll suggests we can talk in different ways about the world. So what? We can talk about cause and effect with different models of quantum phenomena, Newtonian mechanics, general and special relativity … each has its place. Take biology for instance … it is not independent of the underlying biochemistry. Take the role of oxytocin and vasopressin in the bonding behaviour of voles. We can look at the behaviours externally or dig a little deeper to a more illuminating aspect of behaviour. And I would agree, for most studies the quantum behaviour of the biochemistry of vole behaviour is not useful. It does not mean quantum phenomena do not underpin the behaviour.

Greg in his conclusion goes on to say:

We have strong evidence that the course of our world is predetermined.  Its course is physically necessary, BUT we do not have practical access to knowledge of that. 

This to me seems extremely muddled. Firstly, I don’t get a sense that Carroll was arguing for a “predetermined” world. I am far from convinced the world is predetermined. But if it was any sensible concepts of free will would flyout of the window. I suspect the “not” in the sentence should not be there. The argument carries on to the effect that humans have been designed to act as if the future is open. Apparently our “cultural contexts” are designed to facilitate our choices. The actual sentence that this comes from does not make sense grammatically.

Greg goes on to flog his strawman, “As pure and sublimely abstract as is physics, it only tells us part of the story for limited real human knowers and actors, including the scientists who act within that tradition.” The free will skeptic simply recognizes that there is an underlying physics and that physics when found in a textbook is simply a description of the cause and effect. This is not scientism and this is not reductionism; it is simply the acceptance of a deeper reality.

4 thoughts on “Freedom to Choose

  1. A reply to some of Greg’s comments from

    Greg … can you try reponding to the points I make. The fact that Carroll might think I am verging on nonsense, does not negate the points I am making.

    You seem to have missed the point of several of my sections. Carroll thinks Emergence is important and obvious. That is his statement that the world is not given, apparent, to us as physics describes it. We don’t see quarks, or protons or even molecules. We see solid desks, liquid oceans, trees and people. Those things are the emergent properties of ‘the deeper’ objects and forces of physics. In the same sense, when people choose, we don’t see or feel the mechanics of the “choice”, we have the cultural contexts that frames the situation for us as choice and the “contemplation” of it.

    But again emergence is nothing magical … it is just gussied up cause and effect.

    We only secondarily have an awareness of the contentions of physics: practically, as choosers, we have no access to the information that “Laplace’s Demon” would have and need to accurately predict the future, nor do we have the demon’s calculating abilities.

    And this helps us have free will exactly how? Waffling on about new structures and emergence does not really address the free will issue.

    Yes, as actors we are ignorant. We don not know what physics knows Theoretically. Its a traditional distinction made by many philosophers: theoretical and practical reasoning. As we live and make choices, we do not have access to the information nor the ability to calculate that Laplace’s Demon would have. We are inside the system to be known, not outside it and looking at it from afar. So, it is more than ignorance, it is an inherent epistemological disadvantage. As Carroll puts it, a lack of ‘epistemic access’.

    Yes you are reinforcing the battle cry … ignorance is freedom. It is so much more catchy than a lack of ‘epistemic access’ is free will. And Carroll’s reformulation of Laplace’s demon [a vast enough intellect] points to the fact we can at best only point to a probability does not give even a free will enthusiast much succor. Unless we refine free will into something else. For example my will is a result of a cosmic dice shaker, I don’t know how my will was formed and therefore it is free.

    And I do not get that stuff about cowardice. I am not cowardly, I prove that fairly often.

    On the pages you quoted, Carroll suggested he might be accused of cowardice. I don’t agree he should be accused of cowardice.


  2. That’s nice about the cowardice. And the other day on your site I had a two inch by one inch box to leave a reply in, this is more like it.

    Rom (can I capitalize that?), I keep trying to say to you that you cannot just pick and choose among the concepts that we use to talk about Persons, for example. It’s a package deal. The entire vocabulary of Agency sinks or swims together. Carroll’s point about “nonsense” is not name-calling, it’s the idea that emergent vocabularies (and the vocab of physics too though not emergent) are self-enclosed, self-referential, like a net—the words hold each other Meaningfully.

    When you disqualify a central concept like Free Will then a bunch of other concepts we use all the time lose their sense. For example, “I like both deep dish and thin style pizza; both are GOOD pizza.” If we take out from use the meanings of Responsibility, Free Choice and Cultured Taste, then why would anyone debate “best pizza”? What’s the point of it in that case? If you live on beans and hot dogs and I dine on filet mignon and sauteed vegetables, neither is ‘Better’. “It all just is what it is.” Right?

    That’s why Compatiblists want to jimmy the meaning of Free Will, hang on to its best aspects and dump some of its interpretations that are anachronistic.

    The meaningfulness of words is not caused by neurons. That is a category mistake. Words as meaningful are Associated with neuron activity but not caused by it. Other word made words meaningful, along with the social coordination “held” vocabularies facilitate.

    This is it, please clarify to me how words work when spoken between us.


  3. I keep trying to say to you that you cannot just pick and choose among the concepts that we use to talk about Persons, for example. It’s a package deal. The entire vocabulary of Agency sinks or swims together.

    Nobody is choosing amongst concepts. Cause and effect are as true in psychology, biology, chemistry or physics. My point remains … the descriptions (theories) become increasingly accurate as we move towards the fundamental. But we do have to have to clarify what we mean by agency. If it is simply the experience of doing stuff fair enough.

    What’s this about emergent vocabularies. If you are trying to say vocabularies change … well duh!

    For example, “I like both deep dish and thin style pizza; both are GOOD pizza.” If we take out from use the meanings of Responsibility, Free Choice and Cultured Taste, then why would anyone debate “best pizza”? What’s the point of it in that case?

    I see little point in this discussion other than humour. When say a pizza is good, we simply mean we like it. If we say a pizza is bad we might mean we don’t like it or perhaps a component of it might be unhealthy or has gone mouldy.

    That’s why Compatiblists want to jimmy the meaning of Free Will, hang on to its best aspects and dump some of its interpretations that are anachronistic.

    Where does the desire to hold onto the best bits come from? And clearly its not hanging on, more like foisting on.

    The problem with this foisting on is that it sweeps the true nature of the universe and our place in it under the carpet for the benefit of some illusory good.

    The meaningfulness of words is not caused by neurons.

    This, I can’t help thinking, is shoddy thought. Show me ‘a meaning’ that has not been formed by neurons. My neurons are working overtime to try and cause some useful meaning in your words.

    Our neurons find patterns in the sights and sounds that form electrical signals that are fed to the brains. Some of those patterns our neurons identify as “meaningful words”. Of course our neurons are programmed to identify these patterns (society, teaching, etc). Meaning is a meme and a meme has a meaning.

    Where do you think meaningful words come from?.


  4. Just a comment on “rom” … Romans is my middle name … and my first internet presence, I identified my self as romansh … (Romans was taken and inadvertently forgot to capitalize the first letter). I quickly grew to understand there is no intrinsic self, so the lower case “r” was totally appropriate.

    Funnily enough all my sub components don’t need upper cases either … elements, or the more fundamental particles.

    R or r does not matter.


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