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.

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