Saturday, 28 December 2013

Null hypothesis

The null hypothesis (warning, the linked cartoon is satirical) is the default hypothesis of science.  Fundamentally, before considering any other hypothesis you should first prove false some formulation of the null hypothesis.

In earlier articles, like On Evidence, I’ve talked about how Christian apologists attack atheists for their presumptions.  As an example, the Shaved Chimp points out (negatively) the fact that “the starting point for the atheists is that there is no purpose out there”.

Well, yes.  That is pretty much what we all should start out with, that’s approaching a good null hypothesis.

Similarly, if you want to consider a god hypothesis you should first find some evidence to negate the relevant null hypothesis – that there is no god.

If you want to consider a claim like “God saved my cat”, you should first disprove the null hypothesis - that there was no supernatural agency involved in the on-going existence of my cat.  Once you've done that, you can try to zero in on the nature of the supernatural agency involved, given that it might have been the witches down the road rather than some sort of sky-fairy.

But until the null hypothesis is negated, there is simply no excuse for considering anything else.

A lot of atheists are, to coin a phrase, null hypotheticians.  They don’t progress past the impossibility to show that anything supernatural is required to explain the universe.  Such atheists don’t need to actively reject god because there’s no need to even consider the god hypothesis in the first place.  To establish such a need, they’d first have to reject the null hypothesis – and no-one has been able to that.

I doubt that the average theist has even tried.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Planting a Special Plea for Warrant

Putting out a Warrant for Plantinga

If William Lane Craig were the Crown Prince of Christian Apologists then Alvin Plantinga would be one of his key advisors.  A couple of times now I have found that arguments coming out of WLC’s mouth had actually originated in the brain of Plantinga.  Given the damage that could be wrought by an apologist with some intelligence and formal training, I thought that Plantinga might be worth a closer look.

This led directly to me listening to a couple of longer presentations by Plantinga, for example an Unbelievable interview hosted by Justin Brierly in which Stephen Law also took part and a “debate” between Plantinga and Daniel Dennett.   This article draws quite heavily on the latter.

The engagement between Plantinga and Dennett was titled “Debate: Science and Religion: Are they compatible?” but it was not really a debate.  It was structured like this:

·         Plantinga (43 minutes) – defence of the proposal that science and religion are compatible, consisting in the main of a basic sketch of his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism together with a reference to the Irreducible Complexity argument of Michael Behe.

·         Dennett (35 minutes) – attack on the proposal that science and religion are compatible, basically by indicating that religion can only be considered compatible with science if one accepts gratuitous claims and that any compatibility that religion has with science exists only to the extent that the claims of religion are not testable

·         Plantinga (10 minutes) – response to Dennett

·         Question and Answer session (17 minutes)

Plantinga spent a lot of time going over his probability theory, a version of which I have already addressed elsewhere, but I want to focus on two things he said.  The first is this little chunk of Christian goodness:

…if theistic belief is true then it probably doesn’t require propositional evidence for its rational acceptability.  As I argued in this book, Warranted Christian Belief, if theistic belief is true, then very likely it has both rationality and warrant in the basic way; that is not on the basis of propositional evidence.  If theistic belief is true then very likely there is a cognitive structure something like John Calvin’s sensus divinitatus, an original warranted source of theistic belief.  This way, belief in God, like belief in other minds, has its own source of rationality and warrant and doesn’t rely on arguments from other sources for these estimable qualities.  The demise of the theological argument, if indeed evolution has compromised it, is perhaps little more of a threat to rational belief in God than the demise of the argument from analogy for other minds is to rational belief in other minds.

To put this in context, you might want to know what Plantinga means by “warrant”:

According to Plantinga, warrant involves four factors:

·         the mechanisms producing the belief must be functioning properly;

·         they must be operating in a cognitive environment for which they are suited;

·         they must be operating according to a design plan or aspects of a design plan aimed at arriving at the truth; and

·         the objective probability must be high that operating in this manner will reach the truth.

Plantinga has argued for a new definition of knowledge, being warranted true belief as opposed to justified true belief (although it could be argued that Plantinga is merely arguing that “warrant” is a better form of justification to those in traditional theories of justification).  I touched on “justified true belief” when discussing my world view (when I did so, I was describing an empirical variant of coherentism, not that I would necessarily consider myself an “empirical coherentist”).  Because Plantinga wants to replace standard forms of justification with warrant, we might be justified in looking more closely at what both mean.

Warranted True Belief
Justified True Belief
That which is known is believed
That which is known is believed
That which is known is true
That which is known is true
The belief in that which is known is warranted
The belief in that which is known is justified

Comparing warrant and justification:

Belief is generated correctly
The believer is not deluded
Belief is generated in a suitable environment
The believer is using suitably collated data
Belief generation must be operating according to a “design plan” aimed at arriving at the truth
The believer is using an appropriate method for processing available data to reach a conclusion
Objective probability that the truth will be arrived at via the belief generation mechanism is high
If the believer is not deluded, is using suitably collated data and is using an appropriate method to process available data, then the probability of the believer arriving at the truth will be high

 Plantinga doesn’t really seem to be adding anything to justification, unless his use of the term “design plan” is meant to be literal (which he denies) or if his fourth point is intended to be more than a summation of the previous three.  He does, however, seem to be taking two things away.

It’s difficult to take Plantinga at his word when he writes:

it is perhaps possible that evolution (undirected by God or anyone else) has somehow furnished us with our design plans

and also refers to “belief-forming and belief-maintaining apparatus of powers … working the way it ought to work”.  He could mean this usage to be figurative, in the sense that a materialist atheist with cancer might say “my body isn’t dealing with this problem the way it ought to” meaning “certain cells in my body are reproducing without limitation, leading to the growth of tumors which are not recognised as alien and thus not removed by my body’s defences and this state of affairs will lead to my dying earlier than otherwise would be the case – an outcome which I consider to be suboptimal”.  However, I don’t think so.  I think Plantinga means for the four factors underlying warrant to be understood (by the right audience) approximately as follows:

·         Warranted true belief is generated using a design plan which is intended to arrive at the truth, if

·         the design plan was well crafted so as to lead to a high probability that truth will be arrived at, when

·         the belief is generated according to that design plan, and

·         the belief is generated in an environment which is appropriate for the design plan

If I am correct, Plantinga’s warrant can be summed up as “Warranted true belief is a belief that God expressly designed humans to have”.  Now, iff knowledge (which is defined as warranted true belief) is defined as God given, then the existence of God is a fundamental fact, a basic truth, because without God there is no knowledge.

Note that I used “iff” deliberately, rather than “if”.  The term “iff” means “if and only if”.

This is what we atheists call a theological argument.  Plantinga, on the other hand, calls this a “philosophical” argument.

Try reading through the extract from Plantinga’s presentation again.  I’ll help by converting the phrase “if theistic belief is true” to “if God exists” (see Plantinga’s definition of naturalism as discussed in Planting a Tiger for a justification).  The word “it” becomes “belief in God” in two instances.

…if God exists then belief in God probably doesn’t require propositional evidence for its rational acceptability.  As I argued in this book, Warranted Christian Belief, if God exists, then very likely belief in God has both rationality and warrant the basic way; that is not on the basis of propositional evidence.  If God exists then very likely there is a cognitive structure something like John Calvin’s sensus divinitatus, an original warranted source of belief in God.  This way, belief in God, like belief in other minds, has its own source of rationality and warrant and doesn’t rely on arguments from other sources for these estimable qualities.  The demise of the ontological argument, if indeed evolution has compromised it, is perhaps little more of a threat to rational belief in God than the demise of the argument from analogy for other minds is to rational belief in other minds.

Now some readers might divine from this that Plantinga is saying that you don’t need evidence to believe in God and that believing in God, even in the absence of evidence, would be “very likely” rational.  Some might just read it as saying that logical arguments (resulting in propositional evidence) don’t affect the existence or non-existence of God.  The latter is of course true.

I might have a very good argument that Kim Kardashian does not exist, for example, no-one I know has ever met her.  The brilliance of this argument, however, has no effect whatsoever on the existence or otherwise of Kim (or indeed any other possible form of Kardashian).

However, I suggest that Plantinga really means the former – the very weak claim that iff God exists, then believing in such a God would be rational even in the absence of evidence.  But he goes further.  Time for the second chunk of Christian goodness from that “debate”:

And even if contrary to fact, there were scientific evidence for unguided evolution and hence for atheism, that would by no means settle the issue.  Suppose there is scientific evidence against theism, it doesn’t follow that theism is false or that theists have a defeater for their beliefs, or that theistic belief is irrational, or in some other way problematic.  Perhaps there is also scientific evidence or otherwise for theism.  But second and more important, as I mentioned, if theism is true, it is likely that it has its own intrinsic and basic source of warrant …

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Plantinga said, in a “debate” in which he was arguing that religion and science are compatible, that if there is scientific evidence against theism (noting that evidence against a hypothesis is the only scientific evidence worth having, since hypotheses only survive in their original form as long as there is no evidence against them), then the theist can just ignore that inconvenient scientific evidence and instead rely on the possibility that there might possibly be some evidence for theism or, alternatively, rely on a completely hypothetical sense (sensus divinitatis), for which there is absolutely no scientific evidence at all, as your basic source of “warrant”.  Remembering of course that a warranted true belief looks like this:

“I believe that God made me in such a way that I will believe that God exists, therefore God exists”.

This is, in context, an admission that religion is fully compatible with pseudoscience, but not actual science.


Just in case anyone is in any doubt, in science if you have evidence against your hypothesis (and by that I mean proper evidence, not false evidence), then your hypothesis is false.  End of story.

You can have evidence which does not support your hypothesis which might not necessarily be a hypothesis killer, but this is usually due to poor framing of the hypothesis or difficulty with obtaining experimental data.  Years of not finding evidence for the Higgs Boson did not disprove the hypothesis that it exists because no evidence against existence of the boson was obtained either.

If you only accept evidence which supports your hypothesis and you ignore any other sort of evidence, then you have pseudoscience.  That approach puts you in the same category as the 9/11 Truthers, Alien Abduction enthusiasts, Loch Ness Monster spotters, astrologers, mediums, water dowsers, shamans, homeopathy practitioners, homotoxicologists, quantum healers, moon landing hoaxers, Holocaust deniers, millenarianists, flat earthers, Nibiru cataclysmists, rumpologists and theists.

Many of the claims of a pseudoscience are not strictly testable but sometimes theists, like the Intelligent Design crowd, make outlandish claims and these can be shown to be false:

God must exist because the eye cannot have evolved naturally – shown to be false

God must exist because irreducible complexity is impossible via evolution – shown to be false

God must exist because evolution is false since it’s ridiculous to imagine that humans evolved from monkeys – shown to be false (the subordinate claim about human descent from monkeys being ridiculous is agreed but it’s irrelevant to the evolution argument since monkeys and humans have a common ancestor – the link isn’t actually proof, per se, but an explanation)

What science can do, and does, is chip away at all the “God must exist because ...” arguments.  Eventually, the theist is left with no undefeated claim for the necessity of God.

What the average theist can then do, and obviously does, is retreat into a form of special pleading (“my hypothesis is special and has God in it, therefore it doesn’t need evidence”).

Friday, 29 November 2013

A win for the powers of generosity - Part 2

In Part 1, I mentioned an interesting article – "Generosity leads to evolutionary success" – which is largely based on a paper by Alexander Stewart and Joshua Plotkin, "From extortion to generosity, the evolution of zero-determinant strategies in theprisoner’s dilemma".  The Stewart&Plotkin paper was, again largely, a response to what strikes me as a somewhat more technical paper by William Press and Freeman Dyson, “Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent” (this latter paper certainly seems less accessible to a lay reader such as myself, irrespective of how technical it is).


Both Press&Dyson and Stewart&Plotkin make reference to evolution, but when they do so, they mean different things.

Press&Dyson are talking about the evolution of a strategy by a single “evolutionary opponent”, such that this opponent will move towards a strategy that maximises their score.  This can be equated to a situation in which I as a stock trader might modify my buy and sell strategies over a period of time until I consistently get the best possible income.  Every now and then, I could use a slightly different combination of decision parameters for a couple of sessions and compare the outcome against previous sessions, if I do better with the new combination of decision parameters then I can make this combination my new strategy, but if I do worse, I can keep my original strategy.  I’m not evolving, but my strategy will.  I would be an “evolutionary trader”, rather than an “evolving trader”.

Stewart&Plotkin, however, are talking about the evolution of a population as one strategy prevails over another.  This would be as if a group of traders were able to see how others in the group did with their strategies and were willing to adopt the more successful strategies in place or their own, or if traders with more successful strategies could employ more new junior traders who would use the same successful strategies and later employ yet more juniors.  Over time, the dominant strategies (most populous) would be those that are most successful.

I did some very simple modelling of this latter approach and discovered something that I found rather interesting.

Press&Dyson provided a “concrete example” of extortion in which the extortionist (E) responds to cooperation and defection on the part of their opponent (G) in a probabilistic way (as discussed in Part 1, p1=11/13, p2=1/2, p3=7/26 and p4=0).

To maximise her score against an extortionate strategy like this, the G strategy player must always cooperate (so q1=q2=q3=q4=1/1).  Therefore while G and E strategy players face off against each other, the E wins.

However, in a mixed population in which a player might play against either a G strategy player or an E, what Stewart&Plotkin found is that when a G strategy player meets another G (assuming they retain their always cooperate strategy), they’ll reap sufficient rewards from mutual cooperation as to mitigate the losses that follow from playing against an occasional E strategy player.  However, when an E strategy player meets another E, they are quickly locked into mutual defection and obtain a low score.  Therefore, to get a good score, an E strategy player needs to meet a G strategy player, while a G strategy player gains no benefit from an E strategy player and benefits only from meeting another G strategy player.  For this reason, a population of mostly E strategy players becomes self-limiting, while a population of mostly G strategy players will grow.

The population of E strategy players will tend to only grow well at the border with the population of G strategy players, which is part of why smaller populations favour extortion – smaller things having proportionally greater surfaces than larger things, the surface to volume ratio decreases as the size increases (this is why large creatures have problems to deal with in hot climates and small creatures tend to struggle in cold climates).

I modelled this in a spreadsheet (using the strategy adoption approach) and found that generous strategies did indeed expand at the expense of extortionate strategies, so long as a few provisos were met:

·         the population had to be largish – I used N=400

·         each pairing had to run more than two iterations of the Prisoners’ Dilemma (PD)

·         there had to be some inclination to change strategy

This last proviso might seem a bit strange, because it seems obvious that to evolve a population must have at least a little inclination to change.  What I found though was that the magnitude of the inclination to change had a huge effect not so much on the outcome, but on how rapidly the outcome manifested and to what extent.  An inclination to change of 5% with three iterations of the PD left approximately 5% of the players using the extortion strategy after 50 rounds.  With 300 iterations of the PD, with an inclination to change of 5%, there were on average slightly fewer players using the extortion strategy.  Even with 3x10^30 iterations, with all else held constant, there were still just under 5% of players being extortionate.

Make that an inclination to change of 10% with 300 iterations and after about 50 rounds almost all extortionate players are gone.  Increase the inclination to change to 20% and the extortion strategy players are gone after 30 rounds.

I’d interpret an overly high inclination to change as being bad, since it will wipe out variation in strategies where variation might be necessary to adapt to future environments which don’t favour a currently successful strategy.

The second proviso, about how many iterations of the PD are required for the generous strategy to prevail corresponds well with the idea that our morality breaks down when times are bad.  In other words, when things are peaceful and stable, then each member of a society will interact repeatedly with various other members of the society.  The iterations of interaction indicate that generous win-win exchanges will predominate.  But when each interaction may well be the last, there are no iterations to speak of, so extortion will be fostered.

I was also interested in latent tendencies, by which I meant an inclination to be extortionate or generous.  Unfortunately, I don’t have the time or resources to properly model it, but I suspect that if members in a society have a certain inclination towards extortion strategies, they will tend to predominate given occasional “bottlenecks” or periods of “bad times”.  As discussed in Part 1, the feeling that things are bad can lead people to act less generously.  Some people, when times seem bad, will flip right over from “less generous” to “outright extortionate” and in general people will have a certain amount of tolerance with respect to the difficulty of the times.  Those who have little tolerance will become extortionate when it is not appropriate (and thus become criminals) while those with too much tolerance will suffer at the hands of others when things really are tough (or at the hands of criminals even in reasonably good times).

An interesting question is how we could use this insight to better our societies.  Personally I think we need to do at least two things.  Firstly, we need to do what we are pretty sure will promote generosity – by encouraging people to see that we are in a time of plenty and that we are part of a large, inclusive population.  Secondly, we need to dissuade extortionate behaviour – by making the cost of not cooperating, of not being generous, high enough to make cooperation the best option even in one-off interactions.

Doing this without damaging ourselves in the process is the difficult part.

Friday, 22 November 2013

An Atheist Onslaught on Free Will?

In Random Will, I presented a mechanism by which some form of free will might be possible.

In that article I wrote:

If the universe is entirely deterministic, there is no free will because our actions are merely the consequence of our interactions with our environment.  Presented again with precisely the same environment, our brains would go through exactly the same processes and we would make the same decisions, take the same actions and think the same thoughts.

If the universe is entirely random (and therefore entirely indeterminate), then there is no free will either.  There would be little, if any, causal relationship between action and reaction in a random universe.  Presented again with precisely the same environment, our brains would likely react in a vastly different way.  However, integral to the concept of free will is the idea that there is some degree of constancy in our thoughts and behaviour.

Since then, I’ve been involved in a ranging discussion on an “atheist onslaught against the common concept of free will”.  This discussion has involved many participants, both theist and atheist as well as what appears to be the occasional quantum mystic.  Not all have been as grumpy as myself.

I’ve collected some of my contributions to the discussion below, with some minor editing, as a form of intellectual recycling.


The initiator of the discussion used the definition from a creation science web-site (creationwiki), claiming it to be the "common definition":

Free will, is the capability of agents to make one of alternative futures the present. The logic of free will has two main parts, a categorical distinction is made between all "what chooses", and all "what is chosen", referred to as the spiritual domain and the material domain respectively. This understanding in terms of two categories is named dualism.

Together with these two domains come two ways of reaching a conclusion, subjectivity and objectivity. You have to choose to identify what is in the spiritual domain, resulting in opinions (subjectivity). You have to measure to find out what is in the material domain, resulting in facts (objectivity).

This definition seems to have some major issues. First and foremost, a computer has the capability which is described as "free will" in this strange definition. A simple example being the one that controls the traffic lights at an intersection. Say the lights are flashing amber and there are two alternative futures for one set of lights, they can be red, or they can be green. The computer can make a particular future become the present (assuming the passage of time) by making the light green. The thing that falls into the category of "what chooses" is the computer and "what is chosen" is the future state of the set of lights (which can be objectively measured, either by checking that a light in a particular position is lit, or by checking the nature of the lens over the light that is lit).

I think we can safely abandon this definition, can't we?

There seems to have been an effort to define "spirit" and "freedom of opinion" but not "free will". It's bizarre that long discussions about free will (such as the one in question) are about something that is effectively undefined, either because no-one makes the effort to produce a definition, or because the operating definition is as weak as this one.

I asked that the main protagonists make clear what they mean by free will. As a start, by trying to answer the following:

By "free will", do you mean that decisions can be made without taking any cognisance of prior states? Do you mean that a person who is brought up on the wrong side of town and is taught to be a criminal makes a free decision every day to continue on with criminal behaviour? Or are you saying that free will somehow allows us to make decisions totally divorced from our experience and that it is only some weakness on the part of criminals that makes them freely choose to do what other people in their social group (i.e. other criminals) do and it would be easy for them to bring their free will to bear and choose to stop being a criminal at any time?

Or, by "free will" are we saying that in the traffic light example, we are more like the computer, making choices between more complex alternatives, rather than deciding which lights should be on at certain times? In which case, our decisions are totally determined (or pretty much determined) by antecedent causes, and our "free will" is just the ability to affect other things that are not able to interact in the same way with antecedent causes?

Sadly no-one really put forward a usable definition.

Never mind, I presented one for consideration.


To my mind there is "strong" free will and "weak" free will.

If you have "strong" free will, then you are not influenced by what came before, and you have some sort of immutable element that can make decisions unconstrained by current circumstances (i.e. an immortal soul). This presumes some sort of absolute morality, since the "right" thing to do won't be situational.

If you have "weak" free will, you can mould your decisions, you can change your mind and you don't have to follow a set rule book - but you are going to be heavily influenced by who you have become and what is going on at the time and your options will be limited by a number of factors (including what you know and what you can imagine). This presumes a more fuzzy logic approach to decision making, with multiple overlays that contribute to a sort of grid from which options can be selected. It's "sort-of-free will".

This latter form of free will is what the materialists tend to be happy with (including me). The former is the domain of magical thinkers including theists.


Later on, I returned to the idea of what free will is not:

I prefer to use a definition based on Laplace's demon. Laplace's demon knows everything there is know - all the characteristics of the most fundamental particles (or waves or probability functions or whatever is most fundamental to the universe). If the demon can tell what is going to happen in the future based on that knowledge, then there is no free will. If there is something else, something fundamentally unknowable, then that makes it impossible for the demon to predict the future and free will is a possibility.

(Note that I am assuming here that probabilistic phenomena are based on laws and forces that we humans might not be able to know about and that it is this lack of access that makes it impossible for us to identify the antecedent cause that results in the radioactive decay of particles at some precise instant and not before or later.  However, the reliability of probabilistic predictions of such decay does indicate that some regular mechanism may be at play "behind the curtain" as it were. If so, Laplace's demon would be able to see behind that curtain so long as what goes on there is natural, rather than supernatural.)

This conception makes free will something magical, rather than emergent from physical phenomena and therefore it's the sort of free will that theists tend to believe in. I refer to this form of free will as "strong free will" and I think it's what Belinda calls "ontic free will". (I suspect though that "ontic" just means it's real, sort of like when the Greek Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus where creating humans and all the other creatures respectively, they are described as slotting in abilities to their creations - they'd have had a free will module on the shelf and Prometheus would have inserted that into his human. Alternatively free will might have been in a vat, with Prometheus decanting a large portion and putting it in to the human, and Epimetheus taking smaller portions for all the other creatures.)

With the notion "strong" free will comes the notion "weak" free will. For me, weak free will is a consequence of the imperfection of biological machines. We are sort of programmed, by our genetics, our upbringing and other experiences and by our culture (and also our language of course). This programming sits inside our wetware processor and reacts to stimuli - but our sensors are not perfect, nor is our brain. The huge complexity of what is going on when we respond to our environment makes how we act appear like it's driven (at times) by strong free will, but it's not - we're just reacting according to programming that we ourselves did not choose, using a processor that we did not choose on the basis of input that we did not choose via sensors that we did not choose.

To a certain extent it is true that we cannot help ourselves, but only to an extent. For example, we could choose what factors play a greater role in each decision (although that choice itself is limited), we can eat Italian if annoying our friends who don’t like Italian is the most important factor, or Greek if gastronomic pleasure on our part is primary (and we are big fans of Greek food). But not only that, we can mould our wetware processors, and our programming, by changing our behaviour to improve our outcomes in the future. We're not always successful at this (because we don't always know what we will want in the future), but it does allow for a very strong feeling that we are, at least in part, self-created beings exercising free will.


What I have noticed, both in this debate and more generally, is that the whole discussion regarding free will tends to miss a key element - what is the actual mechanism for free will? At least theists have their "souls" to point at, although they can't prove the existence of a soul (the closest they have got is via that extremely dodgy 21g experiment and surely no-one takes that seriously). So I ask, if a free will defender is not positing a soul, but is positing free will, what is their proposed mechanism?

Note that pointing to quantum uncertainty isn't going to help because fundamentally not being able to know what is going to happen in the future isn't any more helpful with respect to free will than knowing the future perfectly. Unless of course the free will defender posits a mechanism that somehow bends quantum uncertainty to their will, in which case they head into quantum mysticism and, again, they would have to explain how this mechanism works.
Note also that I am not saying that if a mechanism isn't immediately available, that the idea has to be shelved forever.  I'm just saying that if you don't have a mechanism by which free will would be possible (and you have no other evidence that free will actually exists), then you're not in much of a position to champion the existence of free will.


Unfortunately, no-one was able to present a mechanism by which free will would work – not even “weak” free will, let alone “strong” free will.


Later, I got a little hot under the collar:

Can we agree that if the universe is strongly, and ontologically, deterministic, then there is no free will - irrespective of whether the universe is epistemologically predictable?

I think we can, so I'll press on.

I struggle to see how people justify making the leap from the notion that the universe is *not* strongly (and ontologically) deterministic, that this leads inexorably to free will. As Belinda indicated, we can't truly perceive causal connections. We can only intuit them, or deduce them, or backwards engineer them - and when we do so we can only do so incompletely.

At certain levels (i.e. macroscopic levels) and within certain timeframes (i.e. shorter timeframes), we seem to be able to predict the future based on our understandings of causal connections, but only to a certain extent. If we want to be totally accurate, we can't. If we want to predict well into the future, we can't. And if we want to make discrete predictions at the subatomic level, we can't (we can only make probabilistic predictions).

Any will we might have, therefore, is somewhat frail - we can't really will a thing to happen with total certainty and what we can will to happen is predicated on pre-existing circumstances and a host of physical "laws" over which we have no influence whatsoever. Thus we cannot will ourselves to fly by flapping our arms, but we can will ourselves to drink a cup of coffee, so long as a cup of coffee can be procured.

How could such a will be justifiably described as "free" when it's so very much constrained?

But even going this far is making an unwarranted assertion. I suspect that when a free will defender implies that if the future is (ontologically) "open", then free will follows. The problem here is that the inscrutability of the future doesn't necessarily give us (humans, or any other living creature) an ability to shape it. There's no reason to think that we have any more influence over an indeterminate (and thus unpredictable) future than we have over a strongly deterministic future. From what I can tell, in a practical sense, the claims about free will centre on an ability to influence the future - not just about whether the future is fixed or not.

I suggest that the best position is to be sceptical about the existence of "strong" (or "ontic") free will until such time as evidence for its existence appears (or a mechanism by which free will would work).


It was about this time that the initiator of the discussion revealed himself to be crazier than had previously been apparent – singing the praises of the Tea Party, claiming that people who deny his definition free will were spiralling into depravity, accusing me of a being a filthy cursed liar (when I’m so obviously clean) and using a website like as a reference.

Syamsu had been claiming that a Professor Walter Schempp had used a freedom based theory to produce the functional MRI and I responded that there was no indication that Schempp had any involvement in the development of the fMRI.  It was at this time he called me a filthy cursed liar and provided the following link and quote as counterevidence:

"You have studied and come to understand the complement of this concept. You created mathematical models which are used for constructing functional MRI devices, by which now even separate nerve strands can now be made visible in the body, thanks to your work."

I put a bit of effort into my response (tinged with an element of anti-quantum mystic grumpiness) so I’ll share it with you:


Where to start?

Ok, firstly this is a useless reference because it does not support your claim, i.e. that Schempp developed the fMRI (expressed when you asked in a previous post "How can anybody accept the machine Schempp produced, but reject the basic theory Schempp used to produce the machine, as pseudoscience?") The quote only claims that Schempp has created mathematical models that "are used for constructing functional MRI devices". At best he may have contributed to the improvement of fMRIs.

Secondly, the nature of the quote makes it useless. It's taken from an open letter to Professor Schempp, inviting him to contribute to a book "Science of Life". There is no indication that Schempp has responded.

The only person from the list of people Otto von Oddball has invited to contribute whose name I recognise is Matti Pikanen and that's only because I've had a similar discussion to this about his TGD theory. It's interesting to note the comment on the page that lists Matti's work: "These materials are made available online because TGD publications are not yet accepted in so-called ‘respected’ physics journals." 

A search of Matti's eye-strainingwebsite indicated that he is actually linked to Science of Life.  For example Matti makes reference to a document on Crop Circles ... yes, that's right, he's talking about crop circles being "messages providing biological information (including genetic codes) about some unknown life forms". As a keen watcher of the television show QI, I've seen some of the guys who have created a number of these crop circles as a bit of a lark, including one with a QI logo.

No wonder, if Walter Schempp is a half-way reputable scientist, that he wants nothing to do with Science of Life.

Finally, as I've already presaged, the website from which you've taken a quote that doesn't support your claim (and would be useless even if it seemed to do so) is hardly reputable. It's a treasure trove of dead ends, there's no indication that "Science of Life" is linked to any reputable academic body, he talks about a Science of Life Symposium in 2011 that never happened and when you look at Otto von Oddball's writings, one quickly sees that there's something seriously wrong. For example, look at this article on something close to your heart "Freedom of Choice" - I'll post a bit here so people can see without having to soil themselves by visiting the site:

Freedom of choice is a change in dimensional organisation.
This can be represented by Dimensional Operators.
The Vortex is a well known Dimensional Operator.
A vortex unifies Point, Line, Plane and Volume.
Although we can define this, we cannot describe this.
The reason is that Dimensional Operations involve involvement.
In changing our involvement, we also change the Dimensions.
This requires a notation addressing multiple logic.
Presently, scientific notation offers this option.
Classical, Relativistic, Probabilistic and Unified theories complement each other.
Each pertains to a different mode, degree, in participation in creation.
The shift from one theory to another is executed by a scientist, using choice.
In changing our involvement, we change our participation in creation.
At the same time, we change our realisation in/of/for creation.
But we also create a realisation of change.
We need to realise that WE create that change.
The realisation of creation of change is known as awareness.
The realisation of change of creation is known as consciousness.
The realisation of consciousness of change in creation is called life.
The realisation of awareness of change in creation is response-ability.

The rant just keeps going. Pretty much the whole thing (and the text on other pages) is written in four line blank verse.

In sooth I do know why it makes me sad, Syamsu, but a quote from this website unwisely ripped does not me a liar make. (Thanks and apologies to Shakespeare.)

Your challenge now, Mr Syamsu, is to produce authoritative evidence that Schempp supports a theory that even remotely supports your creationwiki definition of free will and that he applied that theory in the development of the fMRI.

Please note that I am not ridiculing Professor Schempp, I'm ridiculing your misuse of Professor Schempp's work (and the misuse by other mystics). Unless of course, Professor Schempp is a willing participant in this nonsense, in which case I'll ridicule him too, but so far there's no real evidence that he is, other than his name appearing at the site (a site dedicated to what appears to be quantum nonsense).


My expectations with regard to a response were not high and Syamsu managed to live down to them.


I just realised that I left out one of my longer attempts to get a cogent response from Syamsu (slightly edited):

Ok, if the only definition of free will you will accept is that which is closely linked to a peculiar fantasy regarding the origins of the universe, then of course you're going to find that atheists don't think much of "free will". I don't think that atheists are attacking the "common concept of free will", nor do I think that your definition is anywhere close to the common conception of "free will" (except in the sense that it is "base" or "simple", as in "simple-minded"). I think you'll find that most atheists will just ignore it, because it's silly. I will do you the honour, however, of trying to take you seriously.

You seem to think that atheists, and others who disagree with your "common concept of free will" are ignorant of or don't understand how choosing works. This is a curious claim.

Let me try to give a real example of what goes on inside the mind of real live atheist.

Earlier today I was playing a computer game, Need for Speed. One could say that I chose to play it. I certainly did choose to purchase the game, from a range of many other options (so I made "neopolitan owns a copy of Need for Speed" the present, in accordance with your creationist definition of free will).

However, I'm a bit of an achievement junkie, so I have become conditioned to play this game (and games like it) for the thrill I get from, for example, learning how a particular car handles and using it to beat one of the harder races. A win, particularly if it required some effort, releases a rush of endorphins and it is often the case that I "choose" to immediately start a new race after a sweet victory. But do I really choose?

Sometimes it doesn't feel like it.  Sometimes I know that I should be doing something else, and I might have previously thought "This has to be the last race, then I really must go and see what else Syamsu has written", but I nevertheless find myself clicking on the right combination of buttons to start a new race anyway.

Even within the race scenario, my "choices" are not entirely my own. While there's some fiddling going on with the computer program with regards to the steering (I suspect that the game cheats and makes me drive into walls at the most inconvenient times... until it takes pity on me after a few soul destroying failed attempts), but there is also some autonomous control on my part.

For example, taking a hint from something that the cricketer Don Bradman used to say, I adopted the principle of not looking at cars and structures that I needed to drive past but rather I looked at the gaps that I needed to drive through.  As a consequence I found that I crashed into such obstructions far less frequently. I didn't previously "choose" to crash into civilian traffic, or into annoyingly placed buildings, but the simple act of not focussing on them seemed to result in me hitting them less often.

With regard to that element of my experience, I didn't feel like I had much free will at all - I was responding at an unconscious level and when I tried to exert a free will of a kind by controlling my driving in order to avoid obstructions, it actually brought about what I didn't want (ie crashing into those obstructions at high speed).

Anyway, I eventually did stop playing the game to take my dogs for a walk.

Now, was that my choice? Was it a free choice? It certainly felt like it, more so than my compulsion to keep playing, but really, I was just responding to a more subtle mix of stimuli and motivations.

One section of my brain wanted more endorphins in the quick rush from winning a race, while another wanted the slower release of endorphins and health benefit of a walk, plus there was an avoidance of the guilt that would have ensued if I had failed to walk my poor dogs. But walking the dogs is something that has been foisted on me by my earlier self (the one who bought the dogs in the first place), and really I only get a little window of choice in respect to exactly when I walk. I further get a bit of a choice as to where I walk, limited by the distance we walk and the weather, and where we walked the day before, and so on. In reality, I just follow a pattern, if I remember to do so.

Now, Syamsu thinks that I don't know about making choices, but with regard to the walk, I made a whole host of choices ... when to walk, where to walk, what to wear when I walked, what music to listen to while I walked, who to stop and talk to while out walking, who to ignore and hurry past, when to stop to let traffic past, when to walk across the road, when to check my phone for messages, when to scratch my nose and so on. I managed to do all of this, despite being an atheist (or more specifically a non-theist)!

Each one of these choices (choosings?) presented me with alternative options, and I acted to make one of those options become the present (they became "the present" at the time, sadly they are now all in the past, except for my ongoing health resulting from the walk and the relative happiness of my dogs). So, in in the Syamsu world, was I exercising "free will" as he defines it, or was I somehow getting it wrong? If so, could Syamsu explain how I was getting it wrong.

Please note that it is possible to scientifically explain all of my behaviour as described above (even my suicidal crashes during the game), none of it is particularly mystical. I'm not seeking therapy with respect to it, I just want Syamsu to explain how this "choosing" thing is differently to the choosing that I've been doing pretty much every day of my life.

Syamsu's response?  Well, he only responded to the first paragraph, with this:

That's great but taking the common concept seriously means to disregard all other concepts. Go ahead, apply the common concept.