The Free Will Argument


Right-wing bloggers and pundits churn out a steady stream of cookie-cutter articles insisting on the “impossibility” of moral atheism, and presenting the false dichotomy of godless chaos vs. theistic morality. I’ve covered most of these arguments over the years. They include assaults on the supposed personality flaws of atheists, (selfishness, nihilism, desperation, lack of charity, libertinism, lack of purpose) and historical guilt-by-association (invoking ghosts of Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot). They typically cite the necessity of rigid and unchanging “values,” and decry “moral relativism.” Most take the form of “arguments from ignorance” or personal incredulity: “How can anyone be good without God?” or the old chestnut misattributed to Dostoevsky “if there is no God, anything is permitted.”

Recently I ran across a not completely novel, but less common type of slur on the subject of free will, called Why Atheism is Morally Bankrupt. It was written by Ben Shapiro of CNS, apparently in response to the American Humanist Association’s bus-side campaign. CNS is run by attack-dog L. Brent Bozell III, who also founded the nipplegate-fueled complaint mill the Parents Television Council (previous article). It’s no surprise that CNS is running this type of slanderous editorial. It’s intellectually vacuous, and it’s wholesale bigotry.

Imagine any other minority group getting this treatment. Even the second most hated subculture in America wouldn’t stand for a headline which read Why Islam is Morally Bankrupt (even if the case could be made). CAIR would be out in force, as would the ACLU and any other defender of minority rights. When most atheists write articles about religion, we attack specific irrational beliefs and specific immoral behavior, not an entire race or culture. And that’s the all-important difference. Yet Bozell’s attack site can slam atheism with nary a peep from the mainstream media.

Shapiro begins:

If you walk around Washington, D.C., on a regular basis, you’re likely to see some rather peculiar posters. But you won’t see anything more peculiar than the ads put out by the American Humanist Association. "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake," say the signs, in Christmas-colored red and green.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just be good for goodness’ sake. You don’t need some Big Man in the Sky telling you what to do. You can be a wonderful person simply by doing the right thing.

There’s only one problem: without God, there can be no moral choice. Without God, there is no capacity for free will.

Who taught this man to think? I’m about to demonstrate that his claim is logically preposterous.

The inanimate universe–stars, rocks, planets, trees–exists with complete moral neutrality. If a star were to explode in a supernova, it would not be a moral event. Yet all life in its star system (and possibly nearby systems) would be immediately snuffed out. The Indian Ocean Tsunami of 2004 was a completely amoral occurrence, yet it killed over 200,000 people. What creates morality in the face of nature’s implacable violence and ruthless competition? A society of self-aware individuals. With sentience comes agency and choice, or free will. Even in pre-civilized times, there was widespread morality. It was, for want of a better term, “the law of the jungle.” Johnny-come-lately conservatives use that phrase to ominously describe what happens when the startlingly recent structures humans have created in the name of God and government break down.

But this is a gross mischaracterization. Modern law has at least some basis in the “law of the jungle,” which, aside from rewarding the powerful, also ties cooperation to fairness and reciprocation. Recent studies on both chimpanzees and dogs have shown that they have a strong moral sense. They respond negatively to perceived unfairness as all intelligent life forms do–by refusing to cooperate. Packs, prides, and tribes are all bound together by this same tension between cooperation and competition. Cheaters and free-riders are punished and cooperators rewarded. Behavior, like other traits, has an evolutionary component, and humans only have self-reflection to separate us from animals. For both, it’s a constant tension between short and long-term self-interest, between the good of the one and the good of the many. Any part of this equation that’s not innate is learned socially. Social animals and humans have always been forced by circumstances to learn to work together and reciprocate. Morality is the inevitable outcome of the interplay between individuals and the groups to which they belong.

With his clumsy statement, Shapiro has waded into a whole other debate for which he’s woefully unmatched–the nature of consciousness:

That’s because a Godless world is a soulless world. Virtually all faiths hold that God endows human beings with the unique ability to choose their actions—the ability to transcend biology and environment in order to do good. Transcending biology and our environment requires a higher power—a spark of the supernatural. As philosopher Rene Descartes, put it, "Although … I possess a body with which I am very intimately conjoined … [my soul] is entirely and absolutely distinct from my body and can exist without it."

Gilbert Pyle, the atheistic philosopher, derogatorily labeled the idea of soul/body dualism, "the ghost in the machine." Nonetheless, our entire legal and moral system is based on the ghost in the machine—the presupposition that we can choose to do otherwise. We can only condemn or praise individuals if they are responsible for their actions. We don’t jail squirrels for garden theft or dogs for assaulting cats—they aren’t responsible for their actions. But we routinely lock up kleptomaniacs and violent felons.

We don’t lock up cats and dogs for their transgressions with other cats and dogs, because we are not a society of cats and dogs. We don’t lock up cats and dogs for their general free will choices such as chewing up our shoes, because we dominate them and they do not severely threaten us. Any misbehavior is tolerated the same way we tolerate misbehavior from toddlers–they don’t know any better. Toddlers grow up, dogs don’t. When animals threaten human stability or safety, such as going rabid or stray, or Pit Bulls who attack children, we sure as hell do lock them up. I can’t believe Shapiro used this inane argument–has he no shame? But there you have it.

Steven Pinker also spent a third of his epic work The Blank Slate debunking the “ghost in the machine.” Still, the fiction persists. Theists commonly assert that without the “divine spark” all interactions of matter are deterministic. Therefore without ostensible “transmissions” or imposition of “divine order” from “on high,” no one can have free will. It’s a preposterous and counterintuitive idea, and always propounded without evidence. By this notion, without an external controller, the actions of everyone, down to when they pick their noses would be predetermined through the “random” interactions of matter. Charitably, I’d attribute this mistake to bad intuition, which extrapolates the rules of cause and effect from simple events like a row of dominoes falling to the hundred trillion neural connections which make up a human mind. I’m saying “mind” because I’m going to set aside Descartes’ statement and the ancient mind-body dualism debate. Descartes was speaking before we had arrived at the modern understanding of the neural correlates of consciousness.

The mind is not a row of dominoes falling, but rather a sea of chemistry and impulses which, like a computer, provides variable output based on input. The output depends on the mind’s structure, modified by its inputs. Consciousness researchers debate whether the structure of the mind forces a certain limitation on the range of human actions. From the tagline of the Philosophy of Genetics site, “What you want is who you can become. You’re free to do what you want, but you can’t choose your wants themselves (desires and motivations), which are innate and vary from person to person.” So if we think of “choice space” as being a multi-dimensional range of all possible actions an agent could choose, the structure of our brain maps out a well-defined section in “choice space” to which we are limited. This has variation across the population, but consistently maps to those actions which promote individual survival and robust competition with others. Over at least a hundred thousand years of human evolution, the best strategy for individuals has been to find tribes to belong to and cooperate with. So that’s what we do. We’re not free to do otherwise, because it would lessen the chances for survival of the organism. But within the cooperation/competition paradigm, it is self-evident there is still a broad range of free will choice to be had.

Shapiro might counter with assertions that “God’s input” has been there all along, so we don’t know what it would be like to live without Him. If that were the case, then belief would not seem to be necessary, since moral evolution predated modern religion. Other theists, particularly in “new thought” and CUT, have developed elaborate systems of personification in the natural world. They would insist that animals’ volition and sense of fairness comes from “elementals” or “devas” which “ensoul” the animal. Again, the direct tie to the divine.

But this is a ruse. Let’s assume for a second that “elementals” and “souls” permeate the natural world. Would their incorporeal actions and desires depend on our awareness or worship? Are elementals and souls independently volitional, or would they just simply exist to support living systems? If the former, then there is no human or animal free will, since it would stem from either the “will of God” or the ensouling elemental. If the latter, we could safely ignore the spirit’s existence and just study the behavioral system. If elementals don’t possess their own free-will, giving them personalities changes nothing. If they existed, they would simply duplicate the functions of known structures in biology. So their presence or absence cannot be observed and doesn’t affect outcomes.

If we have free will in any meaningful sense, neither humans nor animals could be simultaneously marionettes with invisible strings pulled by gods or “elementals.” The only conclusion is therefore that we are free biological agents limited by our innate desires, and we live and die by our choices. “Elementals” and “souls” are therefore only coherent concepts if taken as metaphors for natural awareness, desires, and instincts.

It’s not only our criminal justice system that presupposes a Creator. It’s our entire notion of freedom and equality. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," wrote Thomas Jefferson, supposed atheist, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Human equality must spring from a Creator, because the presence of a soul is all that makes man human and equal. Biology suggests inherent inequality—who would call Arnold Schwarzenegger and Stephen Hawking equal in any way? Biology suggests the sort of Hegelian social Darwinism embraced by totalitarian dictators, not the principles of equality articulated by the Founding Fathers.

Now Shapiro’s arguing from consequence: “If that were true…” It’s never a valid tactic. But he’s also what I would call “not even wrong.” He’s caught by his own careless usage “presupposes a Creator” [with a capital C] in that circular and self-justifying netherworld. Wake-up call: Here’s what we can summarize about crime from human history.

The criminal justice system is a proxy for tribal discipline. It is only as moral as the tribal (or governmental) leaders. We have taken away the traditional power of individuals and families to mete out retributive justice and given it to the state. This “civilizing” influence has had mixed results. It only works to the extent that the state adheres to its own ethical principles. When the state begins to act pathologically, it bears outrageous ironies:  For example, with the death penalty, we “kill people to teach people that killing people is wrong.” Or we lock people up for non-violent consensual behavior. The former comes from Old Testament traditions of “an eye-for-an-eye” the latter from the mistaken notion of the divine right of kings, “Dieu et mon droit.”

Equality is a quaint fiction. No one actually believes in it. Not even America’s Founding Fathers. When they said “all men are created equal” it’s an ideal, a sense that we are all equal in dignity and have the right to live free from force and fraud. But that’s a recent development. The weak and vulnerable used to be quietly eliminated, most of the time by their own tribes. People couldn’t afford to care for those who couldn’t pull their weight. It wasn’t worth risking the well-being of everyone else. The social ideal of equality of the weak is a recent development which was initially enabled by the establishment of agriculture, and later supported by the Magna Carta and other charters of human rights. Human “rights” were “granted” to the extent that there was enough food to go around. The concept of “rights” became valued once it became less painful for a society to feed a weak person than to slaughter them or leave them to die. It was in a very real sense the beginning of our transition from brute force to empathy and valuing aesthetics.

Whatever “equality” does exist today (which is not to say very much) has been fostered by modern technology and prosperity. The soul has absolutely nothing to do with it. Social Darwinism was the norm before modern democracy, and is alive and well even within it. We’ve only succeeded in slightly blunting its most inhumane excesses. Still, it’s always been every man for himself, even and especially now. Shapiro should ask the victims of Bernard Madoff how they feel about being financial roadkill, and whether Madoff’s religion or supposed “soul” kept his investors safe. On the contrary, Madoff recruited clients for his scheme from within his religious circle.

Without a soul, freedom too is impossible—we are all slaves to our biology. According to atheists, human beings are intensely complex machines. Our actions are determined by our genetics and our environment. According to atheists, if we could somehow determine all the constituent material parts of the universe, we would be able to predict all human action, down to the exact moment at which Vice President-elect Joe Biden will pick his nose. Freedom is generically defined as "the power to determine action without restraint" (Random House). But if action without restraint is impossible, how can we fight for freedom?

As I already covered, we are free to act within the “choice space” determined by our biology. We may experience freedom from external limits, but internal limits can only be stretched, not broken. I’ve never been able to understand what’s so hard about this concept. We all have our limitations. Some people excel, others waste their talents.

Only simple and macroscopic cause-and-effect chains are practically deterministic. Beyond that, causality is governed by chaos theory. It means that small changes in initial conditions have a huge effect on outcomes. So even though we make choices, they’re often not very informed. Nor can we control the reactions of others or the weight of circumstances. God and the “soul” can’t help us out of the “choice” conundrum. We are on our own.

Shapiro concludes:

Atheism may work for individuals. There are moral atheists and there are immoral religious people. But as a system of thought, atheism cannot be the basis for any functional state. If we wish to protect freedom and equality, we must understand the value of recognizing God. We must recognize the flame of divinity—free will—He implanted within each of us.

I don’t have to recognize any such thing. As William G. McAdoo said, “it is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument.” Neither UCLA nor Harvard Law School (!) seemed to have sharpened 23-year-old Shapiro’s logical faculties, which were no doubt corrupted by a severe religious brainwashing and strong social disincentives for critical thinking during his childhood.

Should we accept Shapiro’s conflicted concession at the end that “individual atheists can be moral,” but still take his word for it that atheism could never co-exist with a functional or ethical society? What kind of twisted logic is that?

Let’s be clear what he’s really after: To be sure that knowledge and secular principles make no inroads on what’s left of religious privilege. The entire exercise is an intellectually naive and highly tortuous apologetics Shapiro uses to justify at the very least a powerful Judeo-Christian preference in society, and if he could get away with it, a theocracy.

Comments (22 comments)

Tommykey / December 24th, 2008, 1:55 am / #1

Ben Shapiro is such a twerp!

For a short while, our favorite Harvard law school grad was working for the firm of Goodwin Proctor, but he is no longer there, and the last time I checked his California state bar profile, he has not indicated a new place of employment. Guess he is just stuck sucking from the wingnut welfare nipple.

Shapiro is also a chickenhawk who would rather cheer wars in which other people are sent off to fight and die rather than volunteer for himself. My nickname for him is "Private" Benjamin.

BlackSun / December 24th, 2008, 4:25 am / #2

Tommykey, yeah, that's sure not where I'd want to be starting my career as a commentator. I mean where do you go from there?

bipolar2 / December 24th, 2008, 7:26 am / #3

** Michel Onfray, dissolving theistic pseudo-problems **

The de-deification culture — including the sciences — will modify every aspect of how life gets lived in geographic areas laid waste by the zoroastrian-judeo-xian-islamic moralized worldview.

We still can learn from Homer, Herodotus, Democritus, Thycidides, Sophocles, Epicurus . . . they are our direct ancestors, yet unaffected because unafflicted by xianity.

In Atheist Manifesto (2006) French philosopher Michel Onfray conducts two succinct thought experiments: one on Western ideology about persons (body, "the flesh") and the other on the Western legal conception of punishment. (These are contained in chapter 3, sections 3 and 4.)

Essentially, Onfray asks two questions.

1. What happens to our concept of a person when we reject the pseudo-hierarchy running from "matter" (filth) to "spirit" (purity)?

2. What happens to the concept of punishment when we reject the judicial presupposition of "always being able to choose to do otherwise" (complete free-will)?

Part of the meaning of Nietzsche’s infamous sentence “God is dead” resides in following out the “logic” of concepts altered according to a worldview which is “anti-supernatural” through and through.

bipolar2 ©2008

Misha Vargas / December 24th, 2008, 4:49 am / #4

Wow, this is the first time I disagree with so much of a BlackSun post. Mostly the “choice space” concept. I actually agree with Shapiro about the non-existence of personal responsibility under a free-will-lacking world.

But it changes nothing about the need to HOLD people responsible, even when they couldn’t have done otherwise. The only responsible duties of the justice system are to provide incentives against harming others, and to directly prevent quite dangerous people from having the ability to hurt others.

It’s *retributive* justice that can’t coexist with no free will. The idea that “getting back at” a criminal is, in itself and by itself, a moral thing, *that* is what cannot stand. It’s simply a misunderstanding of justice based upon the strong feelings of justice provided to us by that clumsy toolmaker called evolution. Our desire to punish is there to provide social incentives, but we aren't necessarily aware of that, or need to be aware of that. We just want to punish the “bad” person. Because it works. We say to ourselves “He could have done otherwise” because we live in a rich world of incentives and meaningful choices, each one designed to be pondered in the brain of members of our society, but I see no reason to think that any person could have actually made a different choice than the one he or she ultimately did make.

If the idea of holding people responsible for what they couldn't have not done makes you uncomfortable, well, tough titties. It's not "fair", but it's how the world works.

I doubt I’ve made myself at all clear, but I’m off. I myself am proud and happy to be a human, an ape, an animal, and a robot replicator.

BlackSun / December 25th, 2008, 12:37 pm / #5

Misha, do you disagree that we make choices from a constrained set of possible actions? Or are you just saying that if we didn't make choices then we wouldn't be responsible.

I agree with you that some people have questioned the nature of free will, but it defies reason to think we don't have at least a measure of it. When you get up in the morning, you can choose what shirt to wear, but only from those you have within your closet. If you wanted to wear a shirt you didn't have, you could also go out of your house without a shirt on and buy a new one. There might be consequences to your reputation if you showed up at a store or at work half naked, however. This is what I'm saying: The vast majority of people will pick a shirt they already have from their closet (choose actions within a constrained limit of possible or likely actions). This is what I mean by choice space.

We're constrained by money, strength, ability to travel, schedules, any many rules and regulations. We're also constrained by our biological programming to want certain things. For example, the vast majority of women desire monogamy, though theoretically they could choose otherwise, and some do. This is what I mean by choice space. Desires are essentially traits of an individual. Across the population, they would be defined by a bell curve like many other phenotypes.

For crime, there's always a choice. Take murder. It could be planned, and until the last minute there's a choice to be made.

Maybe I'm not understanding your objection?

Misha Vargas / December 27th, 2008, 11:34 am / #6

Obviously we don't have the sort of freedom as described by The Secret, where wishing makes something real, with no constraints of reality. That's not what I mean by free will.

But where I think you would say that our actions are constrained by our corporeal inheritance and experiences, I would say that our actions are absolutely controlled by those things. To say otherwise raises the question, what made the difference between one decision and another? What was the cause of the effect?

There are clearly decisions made inside our head, using a mushy outcome probability calculator, overlaid on our basic desires. Many people who believe in free will think, after a decision is made, that a different decision could have been made, and that before a decision is made, that it could somehow go either way. Perhaps this confusion is caused by our inability to determine which decision will be made, but that is entirely separate from determinism.

Now, even if one doesn't accept that this universe is entirely deterministic, it must be largely so. And even if a decision was determined by something other than a deterministic chain of causes, it still wouldn't be "free", it would just be an action with no reason behind it at all. Reasons are deterministic.

When you ask "[A]re you just saying that if we didn't make choices then we wouldn't be responsible", my answer is that we do make choices, we just can't make choices other than the choices we ultimately make (but we can be influenced prior to the decision).

So I understand and agree with Shapiro about free will and responsibility, I just don't think God helps at all. In fact, it just makes it worse.

Shapiro says that the legal system is based on the idea that we can choose to do otherwise. I say the legal system is actually based on the fact that enforced incentives will force people to choose as we wish them to.

I have ideas about the evolution of internal reflection and the feeling of personal responsibility, but I've blathered for far too long already.

How much do we disagree?

BlackSun / December 27th, 2008, 7:54 am / #7

Now, even if one doesn't accept that this universe is entirely deterministic, it must be largely so.

I think this is a huge assumption and a huge leap. You are including a conclusion in your premise. There are systems and probabilities. Each set of actions or choices may serve to constrain later actions. But that's not the same as saying it's deterministic (depending on how you define that word). I take your meaning to be that outcomes could be essentially known beforehand.

This may be a semantic difference. I say there is choice within constrained limits. You seem to say two different things when you say:

we do make choices, we just can't make choices other than the choices we ultimately make (but we can be influenced prior to the decision).

Isn't that kind of close to my idea of "choice space," of choice within limits? Most people will predictably choose actions that are self-serving in some way. But each person has a slightly different idea of what that means. So the game of predicting what people will do is still a game of chance. But the more you understand their "choice constellation" of hopes, dreams, responsibilities, pressures, resentments, hatreds, the more you can predict what they will do. That takes insight, but it doesn't mean it's deterministic. You could think you know what someone will do from careful study, and they often will surprise you.

Dennett talks about this being higher-order intentionality: e.g. third-order "I know that she thinks that he doesn't know that I want Lynnette to go to the shopping mall with me." If "she" was wrong, and "he" did actually know, and "he" happened to be Lynnette's boyfriend, I could be in trouble.

By such understandings, we many times react in advance to our perception of other people's desires and choices. An awful lot of social interaction is based on such calculations.

Our discussion seems to largely be about hard and soft determinism. I say that minds and particularly human minds provide the option of choice to a far greater degree than other physical systems. Hence my admittedly not very well defined concept of "choice space."

A game of chess has solid and simple rules, yet no one can predict the sequence of moves or the outcome.

Here's a snip from Wikipedia which I think encapsulates what you are talking about: "…emergentists or generativists suggest that the experience of free will emerges from the interaction of finite rules and deterministic parameters that generate infinite and unpredictable behaviour. Yet, if all these events were accounted for, and there were a known way to evaluate these events, the seemingly unpredictable behaviour would become predictable."

What this fails to take into account is the complex algorithmic nature of thought. This may be an unsolvable conundrum. We may find that very complex computers, which should be deterministic, begin to exhibit more unpredictability, the closer they come to human cognition. I expect AI research to shed a lot of light on this dilemma in the future.

Misha Vargas / December 30th, 2008, 2:50 am / #8

Lordy, I need to sit down with you for a few hours to hash all this out, I think. Unless you're comin' to Seattle, I'll try to just respond to a few things.

My statement that this universe is largely deterministic was sloppily made. Thanks for the correction. It's not what I meant, and I'll clear that up below. I'd like to mention that if you think, after choosing a shirt from your closet, that you could have chosen another one, I think the onus is on YOU to demonstrate that. I'd think that even in low-consequence decisions like that, there are reasons (desires which you cannot choose) which force your decision.

I've noticed how when people want to demonstrate free will, they almost always use an example of almost no consequence. Red tie or blue? Chocolate or vanilla? Sit or stand? As if free will is only good for weakly nudging tossup decisions this way or that! I'm not trying to pick on you, it's just something I've noticed. Moving on.

My argument has nothing whatsoever to do with the ability (even hypothetical) to know beforehand what choices will be made.

My position is that only the deterministic causes of our decisions can be called meaningful or useful. When a decision is made by instinct, or for a desired outcome, we can imagine back through time the causes, the evolution of the underlying desires. Either a decision is made for a reason or it isn't. If the deciding factor is random, arising suddenly in the brain or something — and I accept that possibility — that would not be anything worth calling "free will", in my mind, as YOU cannot control it, even if you could, any reasons for doing so would again arise out of evolutionary and cultural factors.

Reasonlessness cannot create free will.

Now I'll answer your only direct question. I said "[W]e do make choices, we just can't make choices other than the choices we ultimately make (but we can be influenced prior to the decision)."

To which you replied "Isn't that kind of close to my idea of "choice space," of choice within limits?"

No, I don't think so. That our choices are limited is obvious. I've NEVER thought of that as the main question of free will. Look at bipolar2's definition below: "always being able to choose to do otherwise". Otherwise, meaning other, in a controlled way, than the decision that will be, is being, or was made.

And by "influence", I mean "force". If, for example, I were to convince you that free will was impossible, or that Allah was real, or any idea, I wouldn't be giving you the choice to believe or not, I would be making you believe. In some ways, I see no difference between convincing someone rationally, and brainwashing them. 'Cept you don't need do the latter if you have the truth on your side.

Alright, I'm almost done. I'll end with something very short I wrote about free will many months ago. My opinions may have changed since then. They may yet change.

We do what we want.
But we cannot choose what we want.
So we cannot choose what we do.

BlackSun / December 30th, 2008, 4:39 am / #9

Hi Misha, hashing this out sounds fun. There's nothing better than discussing and clarifying ideas.

The quote you finished up with is exactly what is stated on the Philosophy of Genetics site that I quoted to begin with–so we agree.

Let's take some non-trivial examples. We choose to go to one college or another. We choose to get married or not. We choose to buy a particular home. We choose to make an investment of our life savings in one thing or another.

All of these have huge ramifications on our future. All are made with nowhere near sufficient evidence to make a rational choice. A person we marry could be a pathological liar. A home we buy could be built on a toxic dump. An investment of our life savings could be reinvested by a broker into a Ponzi scheme. Or we could have made the right decisions and life could turn out well. The point is, either way, we choose, then we live with the results. You cannot say that our biological programming forces our choice one way or the other. We have to go on the best information we have and exercise free will.

In the same way, a person can choose to work hard and honestly–or turn to a life of crime. I often think the criminal mind has its basis in a combination of hubris and inability to delay gratification. "I'm not going to be like all the other schmucks, when it's so much easier and more lucrative to take shortcuts." This is as much true with corporate crime as street crime. Murder often is committed to cover lesser or property crimes. True crimes of passion are more rare.

Then there's mental illness. Which impinges on anyone's ability to make rational choices.

You mention influence or brainwashing. No one can "make" anyone believe. Belief is a fundamental component of subjectivity. It is a state of blocking out information that conflicts with it, and privileging information that supports it. This requires a mind capable of decision-making. In exchange for giving up their autonomy and critical thinking, the brainwashee or believer gets something in return–reduction in anxiety. Again, a free will choice. One that can be, and often is reversed–upon "conversion" to a different set of beliefs or "de-conversion."

Some choices, by their very nature, limit future choices. This is what I mean by "choice space." It is the set of available actions defined by the genes or circumstances which we are born into, and changes as we adopt new beliefs or find ourselves in new circumstances–or free ourselves from them.

Misha Vargas / January 29th, 2009, 4:38 pm / #10

Please forgive the extreme lateness of my reply; I suffer from PNP (Paradoxical Nervous Procrastination), a condition I just made up. I'm worried that I won't be at all convincing in a condensed letter, or that by going on too long, I'll be tiresome. As I said earlier, I feel I'd need hours of quick back-and-forth with you to do anything except harm my own case.

"You cannot say that our biological programming forces our choice one way or the other."

Oh yes I can, Sean. Just add to those desires and instincts the influences of our physical growth and experiences, which built our processes for decision-making, plus the circumstances of the choice, and whatever randomness there is in this universe, and I WILL go out on a limb and say that our choices are forced one way or the other. Any other influence I would happily consider, but would require a demonstration of this "freedom" (as opposed to my "forces"). I don't have to actively believe that those are all there is to it, but I certainly can't believe in this undemonstrated thing either.

You discussed in an earlier response that I made an assumption, including a conclusion in my premise. I think you are doing something similar in your last message. You simply state that we have free will:

"We have to go on the best information we have and exercise free will."

"In exchange . . . the brainwashee . . . gets something in return. Again, a free will choice."

I found it very odd. The existence of free will is the very point we're arguing! Simply stating the commonly held belief that it exists won't do much good. I'm just not sure you understand my position at all, which is my failing. I thought of a little thought experiment as I fell asleep last night. I'm making it up as I go along:

My position is that it is unreasonable to believe, upon seeing someone's decision, that they could have done otherwise. If they could have done otherwise, then — and I think this is a fair question — in what circumstances? If in different circumstances, then it is the circumstances which made the difference, not the person.

If in the same circumstances, then if we were to recreate the circumstances exactly, should we not expect — if we repeat the experiment enough times — to get a different result, a different decision? This is after all, what "could happen" means, isn't it, that there is a probability, in circumstances indiscernible from this one, that a thing will happen. If a probability of something is 1 in 20, and we go a thousand times, we should expect about 50 of the something. So, back to our experiment. Where is this different result coming from? Usually a probability comes from our inability to discern the minute differences of the situation. But here, we recreated the situation exactly. And what's the freedom in predictably making a different decision 1 out of 20 times?

Now, if the person does not make a different decision, but makes the same one, over and over, in what way could they have made a different one?

Misha Vargas / January 29th, 2009, 4:40 pm / #11

I don't disagree with anything else in your 4th or 5th paragraphs, except possibly that I would say that the criminal is not responsible for his hubris or his inability to delay gratification. We may attempt to reduce hubris and increase impulse control in him, ourselves, or in society generally, and we may succeed, but I would not blame him for his qualities. We may need to punish those who do bad things, but when this is done, we cannot comfort ourselves by saying they deserved it, for they didn't, but we must do it anyways, to provide incentives in future decisions. The punished person, (and the punishment could even take the form of a scolding or teasing) is a sacrifice to the society.

You mentioned mental illness; that it "impinges on anyone's ability to make rational choices". Mental illness is a very general term, and might include people with a physically difference in the brain which leaves them incapable of empathy or remorse, though still capable of rational choices. It seems to me that this is exactly the kind of person one would want to have punishment incentives for; empathetic people tend to fit in and do good naturally. And yet clearly the cause of their states of mind is not their own fault. Are we to let them off the hook for all their minor to moderate bad deeds, as they are not responsible? No. We "hold them responsible". And this is just a case where the physical cause of bad behavior is known. I think they all have physical causes, the only alternative being a non-physical cause. (Thoughts: all this makes me wonder, is the only difference between responsible and not responsible the ability to be affected by incentives? Yes, I think it is. Good grief.)

"You mention influence or brainwashing. No one can "make" anyone believe."

We might just have to agree to disagree on this one. I think we do it every time we tip the balance and convince anyone of anything, every time we spur someone to work something out for themselves. Or in the other way, where we confuse someone into a belief, or lie convincingly, just as an optical illusion can make you believe false things. I don't really believe we choose our beliefs. Reminds me of when at a bus transit center, I asked a lovely older woman with a daughter with Down's syndrome why she believed in a heaven and a god, and she replied that it makes her happy. Surely she was lying, her belief nothing more than hope. But what is wrong with our society that she could say that aloud?

I've tried to figure out what some of the biggest stumbling blocks are to coming around about free will, and I think one of them is this: When making a decision, we imagine the results of various different hypothetical choices. (And we know that we WOULD choose them if our desires were different, or our situation was different.) And because we can imagine what WOULD happen if we made those alternate decisions, we think that they COULD HAVE happened, without considering the possibility that perhaps, in these specific situations, those alternatives were bound to be dismissed as soon as they were thought up and compared to the choice we actually were going to make.

Well, I'm off—to bed, to sleep. To sleep, perchance to dream. I can only hope that this post will be anything more than an annoyance. I could have gone into the evolution of the feeling of personal responsibility and how it relates to vampire bats.


BlackSun / February 2nd, 2009, 2:37 am / #12


I think your problem with free will revolves around your trouble resolving physical determinism with the idea of choice.

Compatibilists such as Daniel Dennett have argued that the two are not mutually exclusive. I tend to agree with him. There is no supernatural metaphysics of free will. Our minds are physical and operate deterministically on a particle level. But their structure is one of controllable logic, kind of like computer software.

John Searle has attempted to circumvent this by claiming that quantum mechanics eliminates the limits of determinism and reasserts libertarianism. I think he's wrong. The substrate of the brain can be fully deterministic and the software of our awareness can still allow us to make choices.

Take an inert computer, and you've got deterministic particle motion with no intelligence. A dead lump of silicon and metal. Turn the computer on, and a program begins to run, where the computer can evaluate external conditions and react to stimuli by making logical choices based on input. Does the computer have free will? Within the limits of its program, yes. Does it have any subjective experience as we do? Whole other discussion.

It seems you are willing to accept that people make choices. You just deny that they could have chosen differently. This just doesn't make any sense. I mean, really. Spectacular fail. It's just your intuition with nothing to back it up.

I can disprove it to you now by first typing one word: choice. Now I'm going to type it backwards: eciohc. Are you trying to tell me that if I'd wanted to type the backwards word first and the foreward one second, I'm incapable of making that choice? Well I can prove you wrong right now: 1st: eciohc, 2nd: choice. Also, before I typed it the way I did, I first typed it the other way, then change it to the way it is now. All choices.

Same thing with any other action. The girl who gave me her card at the party? Am I going to call her back or not? Am I going to Hawaii or Mexico for vacation. Am I going to work for Fox? Warner Bros.? Maybe both? Am I going to hire an employee, take a particular assignment? All choices, rationally made and with free will.

There are some choices I cannot make. I cannot now go to the Super Bowl. It's too late. But I can still watch the last few minutes on TV. I can't afford to buy a trip to the Space Station, or a house in Malibu.

But I have many other options. Who knows? I might even decide to quit everything and move to a different country. Once I was a minister, I decided to resign and switch to television. I might have stayed in CUT and then I'd be living in Montana right now and there would be no Black Sun Journal. You see what I mean? I chose to answer your comment, when I could have easily ignored it.

My original premise of "choice space," or choice within limits stands.

NatMc / June 3rd, 2009, 8:05 pm / #13

I have to go with Misha on this one: just as you cannot go back and go to the super bowl, you cannot go back and write eciohc first. it's already happened and it cannot happen in two ways. The second time you wrote it was not in fact an instance of choosing differently. no, it was a completely new instance.

i think misha is getting at the fact the "happening" and "choice" are really two words for the same thing. a choice is an occurrence. it can only occur because of reasons or because of randomness, neither of which are free.

BlackSun / June 3rd, 2009, 8:22 pm / #14


How do you have agency without choice? It's fundamental to personhood. If there is no choice, there can be no response to changing circumstances. I just don't really get what you both are saying. Makes no sense at all.

Take the job, don't take the job. Marry this person, don't marry this person. Stop at Starbucks or McDonalds. All choices. Don't try to tell me we can't choose. It's utterly absurd.

Can you stop at a non-existent coffee shop? No. You have to choose between the available options. Hence my statement about "choice space." How is this even a matter of debate?

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Valhar2000 / December 26th, 2008, 12:12 pm / #16

Frankly, without an understanding of what "free will" actually is, any arguments based on it are pointless. Free Will use to be defined as "the ability to choose", or somesuch, but a greater understanding of physics and lately of neurology makes that definition inadequate. Not wrong, but inadequate.

Unless somebody came come up with a good definition for it, that we can all agree on and not equivocate about, talking about it and its implications seems rather useless, since the meaning of those two words is so fluid that a conclusion arrived at by argument can never properly stand.

BlackSun / December 26th, 2008, 1:52 am / #17


My major point was that our "ability to choose" did not require supernatural intervention, that the actions of humans and how we choose them was a natural function of a physically-based mind.

I'm reading a book right now called "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique" by Michael Gazzaniga that discusses exactly what is different between the brains of humans and animals. Turns out I was wrong about humans being the only species that engages in self-reflective thinking. Other animals do it too, but to a lesser degree.

I'm not far enough in the book to reach any conclusion, but let's just say conventional wisdom is not doing very well so far. It's true we don't understand free will sufficiently. But maybe sufficiently enough to eliminate a supernatural component? If we can't even talk about it from a scientific perspective, people like Shapiro are even more hopelessly lost.

Valhar2000 / December 29th, 2008, 10:25 am / #18

I am inclined to agree with you. What I was talking about is how easy it is to equivocate when using the words "free will", because the definition is so vague.

You and I would say that the ability to choose exists, since it is put into effect all the time. However, a theist could say (and I suspect this is exactly what Shapiro thinks) that free will requires the existence of a soul independent from material objects, or else it is not free will. People who hold this view are unlikely to articulate it in so many words (if they do, they get bombarded with requests for evidence of the existence of such a thing); it seems they just take that as a given and then wonder why others don't "get it".

Therefore, whenever a discussion like this comes up, it is likely that everyone will take the expression "free will" to mean something different, and thus reaching a conclusion is impossible, since a conclusion that follows from certain premises to one person will be seen as fallacious to another person who asigns a different meaning to "free will".

Tufty / December 28th, 2008, 10:00 am / #19

"if there is no God, anything is permitted."

One book, the Oxford Very Short Introduction to Atheism, states that Ivan obviously hadn't tried parking in Central London :-)

(see my blog against atheophobia)

Amaterasu / December 29th, 2008, 9:52 am / #20

Yes, and if there is a God, rape and plunder is permitted.
For example, from the bible, in Numbers 31: "And they warred against the Midianites, as the LORD commanded Moses; and they slew all the males.
And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."

This is an example of how this God notion, in all it's forms of religious adherence, permits, encourages and demands behaviors that are the most socially reprehensible expressions of free will.

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Hambydammit / February 17th, 2009, 2:57 am / #22

Very interesting article. I wrote an article about free will that I think you might enjoy reading. Check it out here:

I also wrote a sort of combination piece about the flip side of the argument — where Christians get their morality:

I'd love to hear what you have to say about either or both of these. In any case, I've just discovered your blog through Planet Atheism, and will be a consistent reader.

Take care.


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