It’s been a fun week to be a free-will-is-a-myth nerd.

Suddenly everyone’s weighing in on determinism. Massimo, Sean, Jerry, and now PZ.

Here’s the short summary: Massimo made some noise, Sean and Jerry chimed in, PZ followed up just to be part of the fun.*

As I mentioned previously, often such disagreements can be pinned on vocabulary. All four of these fellas are, after all, atheist scientists who (at least nominally…) don’t believe in magic or the soul.

So, inspired by these prominent warring bloggers, and for future reference here, these are my assumptions on the topic:

  • The universe is physical. There is no ‘supernatural.’
  • Our minds are our brains.
  • Our brains are subject to the laws of physics, just like every other damn thing in the universe.
  • The traditional view of “free will” involves, at some given moment, an individual’s ability to “decide,” regardless of the physical state of the brain/body.
  • This is nonsense.
  • If our brains are physical, any “decision” will be made in a physical manner as well.
  • The argument in Physics about determinism vs. indeterminism has absolutely no bearing on “free will.”
  • Quantum indeterminacy, whether true or not, whether macro or only micro, has absolutely no bearing on “free will.”

The last two assumptions seem to be the most contentious. But it’s pretty straightforward.

Think of it this way: if a “choice” is made by a roll of dice, it’s not really a choice (besides, the dice roll is still a physical system, just like your brain). Additionally, if the dice roll is truly random—perhaps based on the decay of a radioactive atom, which current consensus holds is indeterminate—then it is still nonsensical to describe that as “choice.”

And as always the Hooray Reality angle is to argue that none of this is bad news. The more we know about what is true, the better off we are.

Obviously how we would like the universe to work has no bearing on how the universe does work; but I can’t help but think that the rationalists who muddy the water, desperately trying to save some traditional concept of free will, are falling victim to the same traps as the theologians.


*imho, Sean and Jerry carried the day.

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5 Responses to Determingasm.

  1. Correct again. How does he do it?

  2. Tom Knots says:

    I just don’t understand it. What has physics got to do with human freedom? How do the laws of physics prevent me from learning things, having abilities, trying? I just don’t get it. Babys don’t have Free Will (a daft term), they learn it, figure it out, in all kinds of ways. What’s physics got to do with having the imagination to plot an interesting course in life? What’s it got to do with having courage? How are you able to doubt that you try, that whether you try or not is up to you?

    • Squidocto says:

      The questions you ask are, well, the questions. As you say in your post: we try, and we help our children to try. And try hard.

      Physics, and neuroscience, can (hopefully) help us understand how we try and what the limits of trying are. To help us put our effort in the right places.

      • Tom Knots says:

        Can’t we learn how to try by talking to people, looking at the history of tryers? Don’t we learn the limits of effort from people who have made supreme efforts to do amazing things?

        I know neuroscientists can help, perhaps, in some cases, but that is different to determining what goes and what doesn’t.

        • Squidocto says:

          We talk, we try, we learn; and we also have new tools to learn more. I’m not sure what your hesitation is.

          Isn’t learning more a good thing? Are you worried we might learn something you’d rather not know?