Making Sense of Free Will - Transcripts
Welcome to the essential Sam Harris. This is Making Sense of Free Will. The goal of this series is to organize, compile, and juxtapose conversations hosted by Sam Harris into specific areas of interest. This is an ongoing effort to construct a coherent overview of Sam's perspectives and arguments, the various explorations and approaches to the topic, the relevant agreements and disagreements, and the pushbacks and evolving thoughts which his guests have advanced. The purpose of these compilations is not to provide a complete picture of any issue, but to entice you to go deeper into these subjects. Along the way, we'll point you to the full episodes with each featured guest. And at the conclusion, we'll offer some reading, listening, and watching suggestions, which range from fun and light to densely academic. One note to keep in mind for this series, Sam has long argued for a unity of knowledge where the barriers between fields of study are viewed as largely unhelpful artifacts of unnecessarily partitioned thought. The pursuit of wisdom and reason in one area of study naturally bleeds into and greatly affects others. You'll hear plenty of crossover into other topics as these dives into the archives unfold. And your thinking about a particular topic may shift as you realize its contingent relationships with others. In this topic, you'll hear the natural overlap with theories of consciousness, artificial intelligence, belief and unbelief, ethics, violence and pacifism, epistemology and knowledge, and more.
So, get ready. Let's make sense of free will. Free will is a topic that's notorious for its linguistic dead ends and frequent inklings that everyone might be talking past one another. There's a lot of retracing of one's steps and trying to find the snag in the line that seems to be jamming the whole thing up. The conversation can drift into helpless semantic arguments disguised as genuine differences. It's rife with charges of intentional misunderstanding and it's littered with contentions that someone is changing the subject or shifting definitions in order to rescue a, maybe psychologically necessary, but ultimately disingenuous picture of the universe. So, we'll try our best to navigate this famously thorny subject and highlight the failure points that can derail the conversation. You may not end this compilation with a perfectly clear answer to the timeless question of whether we have free will, but you will come to know which constellations of philosophical positions lead to a consistent stance. And hopefully, you'll also understand clearly how it is that when Sam connects the dots of the universe with logical argumentation and careful observation of our first-person experiences, he firmly argues that the concept of free will is incoherent and the sense that we have it is illusory. The topic of free will is so intimately related to the subject of consciousness that it would be incomplete and unwise to leave out the contingent stances that tie the two together. You can imagine many conditional statements about the nature of consciousness that act as logic gates in a conception of free will. A logic gate is an if-then statement of analytics.
If condition A is true, then the truth of condition B must follow. For example, if the Earth is spherical, then it's night on the opposite side of where it's day. It's quite possible that committing to a particular epistemological approach inevitably leads to diametric positions on consciousness and free will. The two deep ideas may be locked in a forever flip-flopping inverse relationship destined to always be fighting it out over which one is merely an illusion and which one couldn't be. The flipping of these values might occur as we move from first-person to third-person vantage points and up and down the scales of analysis of the universe. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let's first try to establish a touch point for a general notion and common feeling of free will. This is a feeling that Sam is convinced is very widely held and what the ordinary usage of the term free will refers to. So you chose to listen to this episode, right? You saw it listed as an option, thought about it, chose to click it, and here you are. But you also feel like you didn't have to, right? You could have clicked on a different topic or a song, or you could have decided to do something else entirely.
That feeling that you could have done otherwise at any point in the past is pointing towards what's called libertarian free will. Sam contends that this is what most people feel like they actually have and what most people mean when they casually claim to have free will. Sam argues that this kind of free will is an illusion that evaporates when you examine it closely. So let's see what he means. If we rewound the universe to the precise moment you clicked this podcast episode, what does it mean to say that you could have done otherwise? If by rewinding the universe, we mean resetting the physical conditions in precisely the state and position they were in a few minutes ago, keeping in mind that this would also reset your physical system, including your brain to that precise moment. Could you have done otherwise? That precise state of the universe resulted in you choosing this episode. Could it have resulted in anything other than that? It seems like the answer to that question has to be no. Each physical state of the universe gives rise to the next and the next and so on in what is called a causal chain. There is no way to break that causal chain.
You can start at any moment on the chain and move backwards to the prior link forever. These links extend back infinitely into the past towards the Big Bang and the start of the universe, where we eventually shrug at the mystery of why there is something rather than nothing in the first place. And of course, the causal chain extends into our future, even though those particular links are much harder to see. This description of things is generally called determinism. And in this view, there is clearly no place to insert libertarian free will, no place to map your feeling that you could have done otherwise onto reality. But it gets even worse for the stability of our initial feeling of freedom. If you add some randomness to our causal chain, let's say through the findings of quantum mechanics, and the next chain is impossible to calculate precisely, free will still runs into problems. If we rewind the universe again, but now add some random dice rolling to determine the precise state of the universe in the next moment, then many things could happen, and the next link in the chain might be fundamentally mysterious on some level. But still, did you choose it? You didn't even roll the dice. And the random number that comes up that determines the next state of the universe doesn't rescue free will for us anyway. Indeterminism may make the future inherently unknowable, but it still doesn't get us to a coherent description of libertarian free will.
Could anything? Sam doesn't think so. And as much as humans have longed to find this ultimate kind of freedom, it appears to be logically impossible and demands breaking the laws of physics, something that is otherwise known as performing magic. This presents some unavoidable problems for many religious philosophies that build upon the foundational truth claim of libertarian free will, and construct systems of ultimate punishment and reward for our choices with different variations of heaven and hell. Sam has pointed out that this crisis for religious philosophy is much more devastating than any uneasiness about the undignified truths of our animal evolution that offend the religious doctrines of creationism. Here's an example that Sam has written about to really drive that point home. Let's say that we exchange all of your atoms and quarks one by one with those of Jeffrey Dahmer. Dahmer did some pretty awful things, namely murdering people and eating their bodies. So after the exchange of all your atoms for his, you would be Jeffrey Dahmer and you would do exactly what he did. But if you're protesting and saying, that's not so, because you would make very different choices than he did. If you're insisting that you aren't a cannibal or a murderer, then you're insisting on the existence of a metaphysical soul, something that is not beholden to the laws of physics, but can somehow move them around. This soul would have remained intact and unchanged, even when we did the atom swapping.
Your soul would be in Dahmer's body, but it would still be you. We'll get to the problems with the metaphysical substance like soul a bit later in this compilation. But let's assume for a moment that the soul exists. Even this doesn't get us the kind of libertarian free will we wanted because you didn't choose your soul either. And apparently neither did Jeffrey Dahmer or anyone for that matter. A simple way to put it is that every choice is determined by either nature, nurture, randomness, soul, or some combination of the four. None of which you chose at any point in an infinite causal chain. Dahmer was apparently unlucky to be given the soul, nature, nurture, and randomness that he got. And presumably you've been a bit luckier than him in at least one of those four ways. Luck swallows everything at this level of analysis. So what does this imply for a God who holds you cosmically accountable for your actions? For some thinkers, it erases him entirely, or it casts him as having a very bad sense of humor at the very least.
Many thinkers have stumbled across this potentially fatal flaw in the logic of religious philosophy and have gone to great lengths to try to reconcile the issue. A bit later in the compilation, we'll read from a classic case with a famous letter exchange from the 1600s between the celebrated philosopher René Descartes and the far too unknown critic Elizabeth, Princess of Bohemia. Just a note here, Sam has pointed out that his argumentation on free will has resulted in some readers and listeners feeling that the rug has been pulled out from under them. He insists that taking on the insight that libertarian free will is an incoherent concept actually has tremendously important and beneficial impacts if ingested fully. So if you're feeling a bit off kilter psychologically, stick with this compilation as we push towards a nuanced and deep understanding. You might find that losing this cosmic notion of libertarian free will actually activates a new sense of compassion and forgiveness. You're also going to hear from some thinkers who argue that the truth of determinism does not negate the reality of free will, though they will argue that perhaps we're forced to reassess what we may have thought free will was in the first place. These thinkers are called compatibilists and Sam is entirely unconvinced by them, but we'll try to offer a good defense in this compilation and we'll revisit the idea that there could be different levels of examination of the universe where we might be able to locate and speak about a will worth calling free. We'll also hear from some thinkers who struggle with the balancing act of having to act as if we have free will for pragmatic reasons of maintaining society and possibly for psychological stability. Sam considers all of those moves to be guilty of redefining the term into something entirely different and evading the inescapable obvious truth and he might be right, but we'll do our best to air the compatibilist challenges fairly in this enduring philosophical debate which shows no signs of quieting down. One of the most glaring implications of this topic is how we ought to think about crime and punishment. This brings us to our first clip which is with Robert Sapolsky who's a professor and researcher of neurobiology at Stanford University.
In this segment, he and Sam are wrapping up a tour of the brain as they shift the discussion to the idea of moral responsibility and free will. We're going to ease our way into this minefield of a conversation with Sam's guest doing most of the talking here. As he lays out an automobile analogy which reminds us of the mechanistic nature of our biology and its emergent behaviors. This is from episode 91,
an episode titled The Biology of Good and Evil. Let's just step back and remind people of the problem here. Maybe you should make the case briefly about why this notion of free will is an incoherent idea scientifically and you might pull from your book this great description you have of what you call car free will.
Okay, okay. And much of it winds up being most relevant implicit in that metaphor for criminal justice system, how we judge people harshly. One angle I take in trying to convince people there's no free will is just to look at the sheer number of things influencing our behavior. So you do something aggressive, you do something aggressive and you're asked why you did it and you come up with a very rational explanation that's dripping with a sense of agency. And here's just some of the things that influenced how likely you were to do that behavior. If you were sitting at a room with smelly garbage, that made you more likely to do that. If you are male or female and your testosterone levels have been elevated for the last day, that's more likely to have happened. If you've been traumatized five months ago and neurons in your amygdala grew new connections, that's more likely to happen. If as a third trimester fetus, you were exposed to elevated levels of stress hormones from your mom's circulation, that is well. If your ancestors were nomadic pastoralists wandering grasslands or deserts with their herds and came up with the culture of honor and you were raised in that, you were more likely to have done that as well. Wait a second, ecosystems 500 years ago have an influence on, yeah, turns out people's cultures are greatly shaped by that and it greatly shapes how their brains develop. Okay, so if there's that realm of argument, whoa, there's a whole lot more stuff going on under the hood, a whole lot more subterranean influences than one would think.
A second style of argument is when you manipulate one of those variables, like take somebody and stick them in a room that smells of rotten garbage and your average person becomes more socially conservative on a questionnaire. And afterward, you would say, that's interesting. Last month, when you filled this out in a room that smelled like petunias, you had this or that attitude and now you've put it differently. And they'll say, well, this event that happened in like middle Peoria last month has utterly changed my mind. No, it was a sensory influence that sensitized your insular neurons. So you can manipulate people on a biologically unappreciated level and change behavior. But probably for me, sort of the most emotionally sort of salient way of getting at the free will issue is to just look historically and look at the stuff that we understand now if we're reasonably educated, reflective, thoughtful people, whatever, we know that epileptic seizures are neurological disorders. They're not because somebody has slept with Satan. We know that certain types of learning disabilities are not children being lazy and unmotivated. It turns out there's cortical malformations. We know that certain times when somebody is completely inappropriate in their behavior, it's because they've got a neurochemical disorder called schizophrenia. Most of us have gotten to the point where free will has been subtracted out of that equation.
If you have somebody with treatment-resistant epilepsy and they have occasional seizures, they can't drive a car. But you don't feel like justice has been served and they're getting their due punishment when their driver's license is inactivated for a while. You say it's not them, it's their disease. There's a biological explanation that sidesteps notions of agency or free will. And at that point, all you have to do is look at how much of the stuff we've learned in the last century, in the last 50 years, in the last 10 years, in the last five years, we never heard of Von Economo neurons more than 20 years ago. And either you've got to conclude, that's it, tonight at midnight, we're never going to get a new scientific fact again. Or you're going to conclude that the March of Sciences could continue exactly as is. And the number of ways in which we say, oh, it's not him, it's his brain, it's this weird quirk of it, it's just going to grow more and more until we're not talking about them and their diseases or them and their weird quirks. But we're talking about every one of our individualities and their biological ones. And when it's in the realm of inappropriate human behavior, criminal activity, somebody does something violent, you know, that's a biological phenomenon. That's not to say you don't do anything where you forgive everything, forgive isn't a relevant word. If a car's brakes are faulty, you don't let it out on the street, it's going to kill somebody.
You fix them if you can, and if you can't fix them, you put the car in a garage for the rest of time, but no one would sit there and say, the car has a rotten soul, or it's deserving the punishment by putting in seclusion in the garage there. It's a mechanical problem. And if somebody says, wow, that's so dehumanizing to view us as just biological machines, that's a hell of a lot better than sermonizing us
into having bad souls. Sapolsky's analogy drives us towards a mindset of how to think about punishment and retribution in a universe without free will. The implications are similar to a stance that is sometimes called the quarantine model of justice. The analogy presents a quarantine, not as a punishment, but a necessary measure to ensure a level of societal safety while we work on a cure. This quarantine analogy is something far too familiar to all of us since the year 2020, but it's a useful metaphor to keep in mind because it casts every dangerous or otherwise destructive behavior as a sort of infection or disease, which, of course, ought to motivate a sympathetic response that recognizes the bad luck of being a victim of the universe and urge us to find the remedy for those destructive behaviors. If we keep in mind Sam's argument that contra-causal free will is incoherent and couldn't possibly exist, then we really do have to drain a deep existential and cosmic moral responsibility from a masked intruder who breaks down the door and threatens to kill our family. But this act of noticing that neither he nor anyone else is the true author of his own actions doesn't make the problem and emergency of this person in our presence go away. We're definitely still in danger, so let's pause this moment and consider three different ways of dealing with it. Let's say this masked man has just busted the hinges off your front door, barged into your room, and pointed a gun in your direction. You look at the table in front of you and see three different pieces of technology that you could use to deal with this problem. Let's allow our minds to invent some new sci-fi gadgets here. On the left is a normal gun with lethal bullets.
Let's also say that it has perfect aim and will always hit its target right between the eyes. If you pick this one up and use it, you're sure to kill the intruder. To the right of the gun is our next option. It's a button that, if pressed, will drop an inescapable and impenetrable cage down over the intruder, rendering him stuck and harmless to anyone outside of the enclosure. In essence, it will create a perfect quarantine zone with a population of one. If you press this button, you will be safe, the threat will be neutralized, the intruder will be caged, and presumably could be transported away to be dealt with elsewhere. And to the right of that button is our last option. This is a very special kind of laser beam device that rearranges the brain of its target and takes out any murderous ideas in it. And it does even more than that. It turns its target into a genuinely happy person on a path to objective fulfillment and contentment. It can instantly transform the most frustrated, angry, distressed, and homicidal person into a paragon of moral behavior with the temperament of a contented yogi. Let's call this fancy laser beam device a cure gun.
Keeping in mind that this intruder is not ultimately responsible for his actions, how could we ever morally justify using the gun on the left that would kill him? And is there any moral argument against using the device on the right, the cure gun? If you're raising some mental objections that using the kill gun would be justified because it would act as a sort of social deterrence and prompt many other would-be intruders to rethink their life choices, that line of reasoning can be debated. And we will get to some of Sam's conversations which deal with that response. But it becomes very difficult to see how choosing the kill gun and thereby foregoing the opportunity to use the quarantine cage or the cure gun because the intruder deserves to be killed would be defensible. Now, we certainly don't have a cure gun at this point. And the very notion of the thing raises important discussions about what a cure gun would actually do. And if there are such things as dangerous moral states that are well described as pathogens, but that is a debate for another compilation about ethics and Sam's argument in favor of an objective notion of morality. The quarantine button has closer analogies to our current technologies that can temporarily paralyze, which might be easier to imagine like tasers or lassos. And of course, if the intruder is then picked up and taken to an institution that is focused on offering all kinds of therapy, psychological rehabilitation, or even medicinal intervention, all of those efforts can be thought of as amounting to an elaborate cure gun. The erasure of free will results in a view of the intruder and his actions as a dangerous and malfunctioning physical system, which could be altered or at least isolated if we had no fix. If we could disarm a hurricane, we would.
If we could quarantine a hurricane, we would. But it feels ridiculous to punish a hurricane for the damage it caused. And if people are ultimately just particularly complex storms of physics, then this same attitude towards crime and punishment of humans starts to feel illuminating and informative. Okay, so with that in mind, we're going to jump right into Sam's conversation with the philosopher Dan Dennett, who has long been the thorn in Sam's side on the topic of free will. You should know that Sam and Dennett have a close personal and professional relationship. They were two of the four horsemen of New Atheism, along with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. All four men were staunch critics of religion and collaborated in many popular discussions on that topic after 9-11. Sam and Dennett's alliance on that issue may be ultimately rooted in this very topic because of the religious reliance on the incoherent notion of libertarian free will. In this exchange, you'll hear both men agree that that idea is irrational and jumbled to the point where it is barely worth talking about. But you'll also hear very stark disagreements as Dennett attempts to find what he calls the free will worth wanting. Dennett goes on a search for what could provide a foundation to build a real, workable form of moral responsibility. And he finds that at an admittedly arbitrary social level, a level that he has analogized elsewhere as a person having the kind of physical and biological system that grants him entrance into the moral agents club.
Also note that Sam recorded this conversation at a bar with one microphone after a conference in the early days of the Making Sense podcast.
This is Dan Dennett from episode 39, Free Will Revisited. I don't want to fight over who gets to define the term free will. As I see it, there are two completely intention themes out there about what free will is. One is that it's incompatible with determinism, and the other is that it's the basis of moral responsibility. I think it's the second one that's the important one. That's the variety of free will worth wanting. And I think the other one's a throwaway. And I agree with you. Indeterminist free will, libertarian free will is a philosopher's fantasy. It is not worth it. It is just a fantasy. So we agree on so much.
We have no love for libertarian indeterminism, for agent causation, for all of that metaphysical gobbledygook. We're both good naturalists. And we both agree that the truths of neuroscience, and the truths of physics, physics doesn't have much to do with it actually, are compatible with most of our understanding, our everyday understanding of responsibility, taking responsibility, being morally responsible enough to be held to our word. I mean, you and I both agree that you are competent to sign a contract. Me too. You know, if you go and sign a deed or a mortgage, very often if it's notarized, the notary public will say, are you signing this of your own free will? And I recently did. I said, yeah, I am. That's the sense of free will that I think is important. I have it. There are a lot of people that don't have that free will, and it has nothing to do with indeterminism. It has to do with their being disabled in some way.
They don't have a well-running nervous system, which you need if you're gonna be a responsible agent.
I think you agree with all of that. So I certainly agree with most of that. I think there's some interesting points of disagreement on the moral responsibility issue, which we should talk about. And I guess I want you to also express what compatibilism means to you. And if you recall the way in which I got that wrong, feel free to say that,
I'll then react to your version of compatibilism. My view of compatibilism is pretty much what I just said, and you were nodding. And you were not considering that a serious view about free will. One of the abiding themes in my work is there are these tactical or diplomatic choice points. You can say, oh, consciousness exists. It just isn't what you think it is. Or you can say, no, consciousness doesn't exist. Well, if you've got one view of consciousness, if it's this mysterious, magical, ultimately insoluble problem, then I agree consciousness in that sense doesn't exist. But there's another sense, much more presentable I think, which of course consciousness exists. It just isn't what you think it is. That was a central theme in Elbow Room with regard to free will, and in consciousness explained with regard to consciousness. My view, my tactic.
And notice, those two views, they look as if they're doctrinally opposed. They're not. They're two different ways of dealing with the same issue. Does free will really exist? Well, if free will means what Dennett says it means, yes. And you agree. If it means what some people think, then the answer is no.
Yeah, I understand that. But I would put to you the question, there is a difference between explaining something and changing the subject. So this is my gripe about compatibleism. And this is something we'll get into. So, but I assume you will admit that there is a difference between purifying a real phenomenon of its folk psychological baggage, which I think this is what you think compatibleism is doing, and actually failing to interact with some core features that are just inelimitable from the concept itself.
Let me surprise you by saying, I don't think there's a sharp line between those two. And I think that's quite obvious that whether I'm changing the subject, I'm so used to that retort about any line along this. So no, I think that's just a debater's point. We should just set that aside. Saying you're just changing the subject is a way of declaring a whole manifold, a whole variety spectrum of clarificatory views, which you're not accepting because you're clinging to some core part of what free will is. You want to claim that free will, the core of free will is its denial of determinism. And I've made a career saying that's not the core. In fact, let me try a new line on you because I would think why doesn't he see this the way I see it? And I think that the big source, the likely big source of confusion about this is that when people think about freedom in the context of free will, they're ignoring a very good and legitimate notion of freedom, which is basically the engineering notion of freedom when you talk about degrees of freedom. My arms, my wrist, and my shoulder, my elbow, those joints, there's three degrees of freedom right there. And in control theory, it's all about how you control the degrees of freedom. And if we look around the world, we can see that some things have basically no degrees of freedom, that rock over there.
And some things like you and me have uncountably many degrees of freedom because of the versatility of our minds, the capacity that we are, we can be moved by reasons on any topic at all. This gives us a complexity from the point of view of control theory, which is completely absent in any other creature. And that kind of freedom is actually, I claim, at the heart of our understanding of free will, because it's that complexity, which is not just complexity, but it's the competence to control that complexity. That's what free will is. I mean, let me ask you a question about what would be ideal from the point of view of responsibility. What does an ideal responsible agent have? Mainly true beliefs, a well-ordered set of desires, cognitive adroitness to change one's attention, to change one's mind, to be moved by reasons, the capacity to listen to reasons, the capacity for some self-control. These things all come in degrees, but our model of a responsible adult, someone you would trust, someone you would make a promise to, or you would accept a promise from, is somebody with all those degrees of freedom and control of them. Now, what removes freedom from somebody is if either the degrees of freedom don't exist, they're blocked mechanically, or some other agent has usurped them and has taken over control. A marionette and a puppeteer. And so I think that our model of a free agent, so there's nothing at all about indeterminism. We can distinguish free agents from unfree agents in a deterministic world or in an indeterministic world.
Determinism and indeterminism make no difference to that categorization. And it's that categorization which makes the moral difference.
So I agree with almost all of that. I just need to put a few more pieces in play here. I think there is an important different, nevertheless. I agree that there is no bright line between changing the subject and actually purifying a concept of illusions and actually explaining something scientifically about the world. But in this case, the durability of free will as a problem for philosophers and now scientists is based on people's first person experience of something they think they have. People feel like they are the authors of their thoughts and intentions and actions. And so there's a first person description of this problem and there's a third person description of this problem. And I think if we bounce between the two without knowing that we're bouncing between the two, we are losing sight of important details. So people feel that they have libertarian free will. And when I get emails from people who are psychologically destabilized by my argument that free will doesn't exist, these are people who feel like something integral to their psychological life and wellbeing is being put in jeopardy. People feel that if they rewound the movie of their lives, they could do differently in each moment. And that feeling is the thing that is what people find so interesting about this notion that free will doesn't exist because it is so counterintuitive psychologically.
Now, I can tell you that I no longer feel that. Subjectively, my experience of myself, I'm aware of the fact that it is a subjective mystery to me how these words come out of my mouth. It's like, I'm hearing these words as you're hearing these words. I'm thinking out loud right now. I haven't thought this thought before I thought it. It's just coming. And I am subjectively aware of the fact that this is all coming out of the darkness of my unconscious mind in some sense. There's this fear of my mind that is illuminated by consciousness for lack of a better word. And I can be subjectively identified with it. But then there's all the stuff that is simply just arriving, appearing in consciousness, the contents of consciousness, which I can't notice until I notice them. And I can't think the thought before I think it. And my direct experience is compatible with a purely deterministic world, right?
Now, most people's isn't, or they don't think it is. And so that's where, when you change the subject, so the analogy I used in my article that responded to your review is the notion of Atlantis. So people are infatuated with this idea of Atlantis. I say actually Atlantis doesn't exist. It's a myth. There's nothing in the world that answers to the name of Atlantis. There was no underwater kingdom with advanced technology and all the rest. And whoever it was, Plato was confused on this topic or just spinning a yarn. And you, compatibleism, your variant and perhaps every variant takes another approach. It says, no, no, actually, there is something that conserves much of what people are concerned with about Atlantis. And in fact, it may be the historical and geographical antecedent to the first stirrings of this idea of Atlantis. And there's this island of Sicily, the biggest island in the Mediterranean, which answers to much of what people care about with Atlantis.
And I say, well, but actually what people really care about is the underwater kingdom with the advanced technology, and that is a fiction. So you and I are going to agree about Sicily. 99% of our truth claims about Sicily are gonna converge. But I'm saying the whole reason why we're talking about Atlantis in the first place is there's this other piece that people are attached to, which by you purifying the subject, you're actually just no longer interacting
with that subjective piece. Yeah, that's well put. Your position is that you can see very clearly that what people really care about is that free will should be something sort of magical. And you're right, a lot of people, that's what they, if you don't think free will is magical, then you don't believe in free will. And that's what I confront them and say, well, I got something which isn't magical, which is perfectly consistent with naturalism and gives us moral responsibility, justification for the way we treat each other, the distinctions that matter to us, like who do we hold responsible and who don't? Who do we excuse because they don't have free will? It gives us all of the landmarks of our daily lives and explains why these are what matters. And indeed, though, if the mystery, if the magic is that important to people, I agree with you, that magic doesn't exist. And if we're gonna tie free will to that, then I would say, no, free will doesn't exist. Now, you said something very interesting. You said that the reason people believe in this is because they feel it, or they think they do. They sort of intuit.
They could have done something different in exactly the same situation. I agree with you that they, that's what they think. But I don't think that it is a forlorn task to show them that that's not really what they should think about this, about the very feelings they have. Let's talk about control. One of the things you said is, yeah, you can't control your genes, you can't control your environment. That's right. And, as a sailor, I can't control the properties of the water, I can't control the wind, but I can control the boat. I can't control how hard the wind blows, but given how the wind blows, I can control the boat. Now, maybe you couldn't control the boat because you don't know about how to control a boat. But I do, and I can control the boat. And your argument is trying to remove the very idea
of control from the world. Well, again, I agree there is this practical distinction and an important one between people we can treat
as responsible agents who can behave. We're going to let that one fade out as the derailment of disagreement starts to get underway. But it's worth your time to listen to the whole two hours of that conversation. Both Sam and Dennett have written extensively on this topic, as well as consciousness, and we'll be sure to point you to some of their best work at the end of this compilation. But before we continue on with the clips and hear some thinkers who align fully with Sam and some others who don't, let's see if we can figure out what might be behind this sometimes bewildering breakdown between Sam and Dennett. Sam flagged a concern that this debate can slip between first-person and third-person accounts of the world. Sam guesses that this is a major source of confusion. Let's take a closer look at that with a simple scene. We'll start with the first-person view. Put yourself in a seat on an airplane. You're a bit thirsty, and the beverage cart is making its way down the aisle to you. The flight attendant asks you what you'd like to drink.
You see the choices on the cart, apple juice, orange juice, soda, water. You ponder things for a moment, make up your mind, and you ask for orange juice. After a few satisfying sips, you go for another and suddenly experience a muscle spasm in your arm. The movement causes some juice to spill on your neighbor's pant leg. Okay, let's isolate two separate actions to consider in this scenario. One action is the choice of the orange juice, and the other is the arm twitch and the unfortunate spill. From your first-person perspective, do these two actions feel any different? You may instinctively claim that they do. The first action, the selection of the orange juice, feels intentional and of your authorship, an act of freedom, an act of choice. The second action, the muscle spasm, feels alien and co-opted. It's like you were just innocently watching the world when a puppeteer yanked an invisible string fastened to your elbow. From the first-person perspective, the spasm felt like that action happened to you, but it didn't feel like it really came from you, meaning from a deep, intentional, subjective place.
But let's go back and look at the choice of the orange juice more closely and see if it really did feel any different than that. When the flight attendant asked you what you would like to drink, what happened to you? Very likely you just wanted the orange juice more than any of the other beverages, but did you create that preference? Or was it merely yet another fact about you that you did not choose? But perhaps more went into the decision than that. Maybe you had a flash of memory of your grandmother's home. She had an orange tree in the backyard. Nostalgia is why you chose the orange juice over the apple juice. Subjectively speaking, does this really seem like an example of free will? Even the contents of that story are filled with things you didn't choose, like your grandparents, where their house was, the fact that they had an orange tree, or the fact that your parents took you there when it was fruiting, and so on. And in any case, as Sam points out, you can't account for why this memory occurred to you in the very moment the flight attendant came by. Those neurons happened to be online and ready to fire at that moment.
And apparently the neurons that could have fired that would have delivered the catchy slogan of your favorite apple juice advertisement and pushed you in that direction didn't fire. And more importantly, you can't account for why this grandmother's story moved you to choose orange juice rather than, say, be bored by orange juice because you had it so much as a kid and led you to a desire to change it up and choose soda. And if the apple juice advertisement had also quickly flashed in your mind, you wouldn't be able to account for why it lost out to your orange juice memory in the end. It seems that when we pay attention, we notice that things just happened when the beverage cart came by. Some of the things that happened had stories and histories that handcuffed themselves along with the actions. The concomitant stories serve as the generators of what we decide are reasons for our choices. And this might give us a feeling of agency. But that feeling dissolves the moment you go hunting for it. When you realize you aren't responsible for the appearance, effect, or content of those stories, you will fail to find the feeling of freedom and true agency if you pay close attention. The involuntary twitch of a muscle didn't come along with any stories and reasons. It just happened out of nowhere. But really, so did the orange juice choice.
The ordering of the juice and the twitch both happened in the darkness. One of them simply contains a post hoc rationalizing story while the other has nothing of the sort. But in either instance, free will can't be found. Staying at this first person perspective, the one thing that can always be found is the feeling of awareness and subjective experience itself. The orange juice tastes like something to you. And the memory of your grandmother's orange tree feels like something to you. This is the lens, the first person lens, that Sam uses to argue that consciousness can't be an illusion while free will doesn't exist. But let's now move to the third person perspective. Let's replay the scene, but picture the next seat over where Daniel Dennett is sitting and watching everything play out. Let's also give him a fancy brain imaging device and all kinds of real time detailed biometric data of you. He tracks your physical system as you see the beverage cart approaching. He can see the patterns of information and electricity pulsing through it as you scan the drink options.
He recognizes these brain patterns as the kinds of correlative data of first person accounts of deliberation or weighing of options. He surmises from the data that you must be pondering the choices in front of you. Maybe he can even tell you are going through specific memories and counterfactuals. He sees you select the orange juice and he tracks that brain activity. He assumes that you've processed some information and landed on a preference. As you go to take a sip, he tracks your brain activity and sees a particular pattern of data flare up as your elbow twitches and you spill some orange juice on his leg. He knows that the particular data pattern he observed in your brain correlates with what people describe as involuntary muscle spasms. He concludes that you must have just suffered from something like this as he asks for a napkin. From this third-person perspective, Dennett has the information he needs to draw a meaningful distinction between the two actions and declare the first one to be an act of free will in that the physical system of your brain in the moment of deliberation displayed the kind of physical competency to be considered socially responsible for its choice. And Dennett would declare the second act to be an act absent of free will because of the particular malfunction of your hardware in that moment, which would drain it of the describable competency to be considered responsible for that action. Let's stay at this third person perspective and really put our finger on the issue that Dennett has with Sam's lens. Let's say Dennett has just explained to you that he was tracking your brain activity and he describes that your choice of the orange juice was an act of free will and your tWitch wasn't.
But you respond and tell them that you paid close attention to what was happening when you were making the orange juice choice. You tell them that the story just came to you and you can't find the feeling of free will in any of it because you didn't choose to remember it. You didn't choose any of the contents of it. And you can't be held responsible for the fact that it moved you in the way that it did in any case. Danett would embark on the task of trying to explain to you that free will just wasn't what you first thought it was, he would argue that it's best thought of not as a subjective feeling of genuine authorship, but instead you can notice a different kind of feeling. Something like a sense of personal involvement with the process of choosing the orange juice. A sense of involvement that was absent when your muscle twitched. That difference, while not authorship, proves something like a kind of competency, control, and social responsibility. And that's the kind of will you actually have. Enjoy it. You may respond to Dennett that that really doesn't sound anything like free will to you. If Sam was in that seat next to Dan, he may even contend that after paying close attention, he doesn't even feel that sense of involvement with the first choice at all.
The only thing that really feels solid and unshakable when you go looking for it is the fact of subjective awareness. A subjective vantage that simply gets to watch the universe go by. The actions that are observed, whether describable from Dennett's third-person perspective as voluntary or involuntary, just appear within consciousness. As a matter of experience, there is no agent who possesses free will standing upstream of these events, causing them. This pivot from first person to third person and back might, in part, be the source of their disagreement. But let's also underline the non-contentious, strong agreement between them. The magical, cosmic, ultimate, true authorship notion of free will that most people walk around thinking they have is incoherent and, as Dennett said, is a fantasy that's just not worth it. Both men can shake hands over that pronouncement while they continue to wrestle over the best epistemological platform from which to do philosophy. So we'll continue with our clips and listen in on Sam's conversation with the author and theoretical physicist, Sean Carroll. Carroll has written several fantastic books on quantum mechanics and cosmology. In this clip, you'll hear him discussing his conception of free will, which is quite similar to Dennett's. In his responses, Carroll deploys a famous thought experiment, which comes to us from the 18th-century mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace.
Inspired by Isaac Newton's discoveries, Laplace imagined a being who could know the exact physical state of the entire universe down to every last atom at a given moment. Laplace surmised that with this information, this being would also know the entire history and future of the universe by simply doing the math to calculate the previous moment and the next moment and the next and so on. This thought experiment came to be known as Laplace's demon. We're going to jump in with Carroll answering a question from Sam about the arrow of time, and you'll hear how he slides into the concept of free will. This comes from a live event that Sam did with Carroll in Portland in 2018. This is from episode 124,
an episode entitled, In Search of Reality. Okay, so then why does time seem to flow the way it does, and how do you think about the future
being different from the past? Yeah, so that's a good question. We don't know the entire answer to that. Half of the answer is, the physical answer as to why the past seems different from the future is because of entropy, right? Entropy is physicists' way of talking about the messiness, the disorderliness, the disorganization of a physical system, and entropy tends to increase in closed systems over time. So if you take cream and coffee, mix them together, they become higher entropy as time goes on. It's very easy to mix them together. It's very hard to unmix them. If you have cream mixed in with coffee, it'd be very, very difficult to lower their entropy. It can be done, but only by increasing the entropy of the universe somewhere else. So the amazing thing is that this simple definite feature of the universe, which is enshrined in the second law of thermodynamics, entropy increases, we would claim that underlies every single difference that we notice between the past and future. So the fact that we were born as little babies and we'll die as older people, the fact that we remember what happened yesterday but do not remember tomorrow, the fact that we have free will about making choices today that can affect what happens tomorrow, the way that I put it sometimes is, you all could choose right now to get up and leave, right?
That is something you could do because in some sense to you the future is open. You could not choose to not have come here already. Where does that asymmetry come from? There's a long song and dance, but ultimately the answer is because entropy was lower in the past. How that works psychologically is more of a neuroscience problem, actually, than a physics problem. We carry around in our brain little memories of what just happened, as well as little projections of what will happen. And we're constantly updating these on the basis of new information. And that gives us this sense of an impulse or a flow, even though all the, to a physicist,
all of those moments of time are equally real. Right, well so you mentioned free will, which is getting us closer to areas of interest and potential disagreement. Although I don't think we- Have you talked about that? Yes, a little bit. Yeah. But actually, I don't think we disagree about the core claim, which is the free will that most people think they have.
This notion that you could have done otherwise.
Yes, a little bit. Neither of us believe in that. There's the physics of things. if you could rewind the universe to precisely the state it was in when everyone decided to come here, everyone would still decide to come here helplessly a trillion times in a row, for better or worse.
Yeah, they might be rethinking it out. I would put a little footnote, because whenever you say could not have been different, you have to say given what? So if you were Laplace's demon, if you were, like you correctly said, if you absolutely knew everything about the physical state of the universe, then it would have given the uncertainties due to quantum mechanics for putting that aside for a second, but otherwise, yes, it would have, according to the laws of physics, played out in exactly the same way. But as we've noted before, there are other ways of describing the universe, emergent higher level ways where you're not Laplace's demon, where you can say given what we actually know about the physical situation at some earlier time, what could have happened? And there you still might get some probability distribution over what could have happened,
and the answers might have been different. Well, sir, you're saying that it's a lack of information that carves out of space for free will? Yeah, absolutely. So, but is it, it's that a puppet is free as long as it can't see its strings? What would it mean to actually see the proximate cause
of the thing that is effective in each one? Well, I think that it would mean that you would have to be Laplace's demon, that you would really have to, so the idea of these emergent theories is you throw away a lot of the information that Laplace's demon would have, yet you still retain some of the predictive power. And in fact, like I really like to emphasize, this is a very unusual, special quasi-magical situation when that happens. Typically in physics, if you give me some information about the air in this room, if you give me the position and velocity of every molecule of air, and you pick out one molecule and say, how is it gonna move? So Laplace's demon has no trouble telling you exactly what it's gonna do. But if then you say, okay, I only tell you the position and velocity of half of the air molecules, Laplace's demon has no idea where this one's gonna go, because it's gonna be hit by the ones you don't know about. Use, that's the generic case in physics. You throw away a little bit of the data, you lose all predictive power. Emergence is this wonderful exception to that rule where you throw away almost all of the data and keep an amazing amount of predictive power. So if you wanna talk about the motion of the Earth around the sun, you don't need to talk about the position and velocity of every atom in the Earth, right? You just need to know the center of mass. And that is an enormous saving of information and you still get quite good predictive power.
So when it comes to things like human beings, the best emergent theory that we have necessarily has probabilities built into it. We don't have a deterministic way of talking about human beings given the information we have about them. That's why I would argue it's useful
to talk about free will. Well, the thing is, but adding probability to it or chance or randomness doesn't give people the freedom they think they have either. So if I told you that you might have done differently had someone roll the dice in your head and it would have produced a different synaptic outcome, that's not what people feel they have as the authors of their actions. So the libertarian sense is there's no upstream proximate cause of my decision, but for me making the decision. The fact that it gets made by a deterministic universe or deterministic universe plus probabilities that I didn't have a hand in either, that isn't the feeling that gets carried forward in consciousness in each moment.
Yeah, so I don't wanna get too bogged down in this because this is the sort of the definitional morass that becomes less interesting. So I think people think different things about what they have in terms of free will. Neither one of us believes in libertarian free will in any possible sense. If you were Laplace's demon, you would be determined 100%. The way that I like to put it is if you didn't believe that, if you believe that even if we knew everything about your atoms and molecules, there's still something extra that makes me able to affect my motions over and above that, then here's a simple experiment. Jump out of the window of a tall building and use your freewill to change the motion of your center of mass. No one thinks they can do that, right? They think they can use their libertarian free will to change their hands, but not their center of mass.
But the truth is you don't even have to engage any kind of suicidal experiment like that. You can just, I mean, I invite you all to just try not to hear the sound of my voice right now, use your free will not to hear me say these words, Use your free will not to understand them. Like you speak English, you're helplessly decoding the meaning of these sounds. There's not a person in this room who can stop doing this right now, right? So if your freedom doesn't extend to even that.
Sure, that's right, sure, that's right. Happily, no one has taken me up on the dare that I suggested to them. But there are other aspects to free will, and this is why I don't even like using the term free will. As a compatibilist, I'm sort of regretful that free will is the label that has been given to the thing we argue about. Because neither you nor I nor Daniel Dennett or any of our friends at this level think that there is some magical spark that lets us overcome the law of physics, right? The question is, is there, the question to me is can we describe, what is the best possible way we have of describing how human beings behave? That's the question. As far as I can tell, the best emergent effective theory we have of human beings is one that inevitably involves them being agents that make choices. Certainly, I think, and we can argue about this too, if we want to discuss things in a vocabulary of morals and odds and responsibilities, we need to imagine that human beings make choices. And also empirically, I think that when I go to the restaurant, I do make choices. So if someday we come up with a better description, a description of human beings that, given the same data we have about them, lets us describe what they will do with better accuracy, then I will totally give up on any connection or commitment I have to the idea of free will.
I just don't see that theory yet. Practically speaking, it's not that the best way to order food in a restaurant will be to scan your brain to figure out what you're gonna order. It would be, the easier thing is just to order. But the order still comes from somewhere, which we know that if we were paying attention to what's happening at the level of the brain, it is happening there and is determining the choice you make even while you still think you're making up your mind, the you, the conscious witness of your experience. And we know that's the case. And that is undermining of what people feel they have. And the reason why I think this is important and not just a merely academic conversation is that I think this does begin to have ethical implications when you think about the possibility of just understanding the human mind more and more deeply. So we have this category of human misbehavior that we call evil now. So we have this evil people in the world that they do terrible things that we have to figure out some way to prevent. But the physicist in you must see them, I presume on some level as malfunctioning robots, right? I mean, they're part of this concatenation of events that's ultimately describable in terms of physics. And if there was some way of understanding evil at the level of the brain, there would be more complete description of it there.
And if there were a way to remedy it, right? If there were a cure for evil, if there were a pill that could cure psychopathy, say, I mean, to just take one band on the spectrum of evil. So we have these people who we diagnose with psychopathy and that's we sort of dimly understand anomalies in the brain that correlate with that condition, conditions of low empathy and all the rest, and a disposition to use instrumental violence. If we understood that perfectly and could intrude in the brain in a way that was harmless and just change them, and so every time you gave a psychopath this pill, he promptly apologized for everything he had done and said, it's such a relief, I was such a bad person and now I'm just horrified and thank you for this cure. And then he lived every day of his life as morally healthy as any normal person. We would cease to have this category of evil. We would just cure people. We certainly wouldn't have a retributive justice system that punished people because they were the true, deserving authors of their actions who deserve to suffer for all that they had done. On some level, we would recognize them to be casualties of bad biology, which we now have a remedy for. Short of getting that remedy, the door is already open to viewing even evil people as on some basic level, unlucky inheritors of bad biology or a bad mixture of biology and environment, just whatever concatenation of causes
makes them how they are. So now we're hearing from a mix of thinkers who have ways of speaking where something like free will can be talked about coherently. But you're also hearing Sam's skepticism and you're hearing him doubt that those ways of speaking are actually rescuing the kind of free will that people think they have and the kind that really matters to them existentially. To try to flesh out Sam's skepticism further, we're going to stay in the area of causality for our next clip, which is with the computer scientist and philosopher, Judea Pearl. This part of the conversation will remind you of our earlier practice of zooming in and out of the ocean wave and the bunny rabbit's ear. Sam and Pearl bat around the idea of something like top-down causality when it comes to emergence. Sam wonders if there is some way where the ocean wave itself could really cause the wiggling of the H2O molecules which constitute it. Does speaking in those terms with that direction of causality make any sense and actually describe the way things work at all? Or is this the illegitimate move that he thinks free will defenders are making? At the very least, you'll hear Pearl be fascinated by the clash between these two levels of description. Ultimately, the two men agree that at a deeper level, there is only physics and one trajectory of the universe and free will could not possibly exist. But Pearl still uses the term free will at the higher level of description and finds it useful.
He invokes a hardware software analogy to get at the problem, which is no surprise given his field of study. We're going to jump right into a moment where Pearl has his finger hovering above a table that he and Sam are sitting at. Will he decide to touch it or not? You can perform an experiment like this with yourself right now. You can decide to tap the pause button right now or not. You have the choice, don't you? Here is Sam speaking with Judea Pearl
from episode 164, cause and effect. Am I going to touch this table or not? I don't know. I don't know. But I don't know. I do have a very, very vivid sensation that I have the option, correct? And you too. Yes. Of deciding whether to touch or not. Look at my finger.
I don't know in one world.
I know you too.
If you have the option of look at my finger. I'm not sure you have the option but I'm pretty sure I have the option.
I'm pretty sure I have the option. I know that this vivid sensation is illusion. I don't have the option. Eventually my neuron system will dictate
if I do or don't touch it. But now we seem to be talking about possibility and free will as though they were synonyms. And so free will, the area of the set of all assertions and concerns that fall into the free will then is a subset of counterfactual thinking and possibility, right? So we can talk about possibility, like had the constants of nature been slightly different, the universe would have had a different character, right? Obviously that doesn't have any direct connection of free will, but we're still talking about a possibility.
It has very strong connection.
Well, ultimately, but like that could be a universe
without creatures like ourselves that would have free will, elves that would have free will. I'll give you the connection. We do have equations of physics for the world, so we can figure out how it would behave if I change Planck constant by a factor of two, okay? I do have a model of myself, and because I have it stored in some symbolic form in my mind, I have the invitation to change few parameters. So I'll tell you what would happen had I not touched the table. The similarity between the two is having a symbolic representation of the world, not only about what happened in the world,
but also the ropes behind the data by a factor of two.
Right, so yeah, I think we're saying the same thing. In order to think about free will, you have to think about possibility and counterfactuals, and yet we can think about possibility and counterfactuals with respect to the constants of nature prior to any beings like ourselves that may or may not have had the illusion of free will. But let me add one more piece here, and then we'll see if there's more to say. So there's another phenomenon that is related here, which is the notion of emergence. It's widely alleged in science that there are emergent properties of complex systems, right? So you have atoms, and then you have atoms arranged in various molecular structures and you can have certain molecules that find themselves in living systems. And those systems, you can have nervous systems and process information in various ways and minds emerge as it was at some level of that complexity and minds do things and direct behavior in the world. And at each level of emergence, you get phenomenon that conceptually can't be reduced to their lower level constituents. I mean, so you can't really talk about economic systems at the level of atoms, right? And yet anything you're going to point to in the world that is an economic system, at least in our world, is made of atoms. And we're talking about the behavior of atoms, but it's much easier to summarize their behavior if you say, well, the stock market crashed that day and everyone went home early. We're never gonna get there merely talking about atoms and the high level description gives a very easy summary of what happened.
Why did all those atoms move in the way that they did? Merely understanding the electromagnetic forces involved is gonna be a very long route to understanding the behavior of all those atoms on that day. So many people draw the conclusion from this picture of emergence that there really is a disconnect from the lower level and the higher level. And the higher level things, whether they're minds or economic systems, have a reality that not only is not best explained in terms of its lower level constituents or defined in those terms, but it has a kind of top down causal power so that minds do things to atoms that can never be explained at the level of atoms themselves. And this is where I've always felt that something spooky is sneaking into the conversation. So take consciousness as a simple case or take the idea that we should meet here for this conversation today, at least in our world. Now on one level, this is a higher level abstraction and it's a linguistic phenomenon, it's a cognitive phenomenon. It's a phenomenon we can talk about, we can't really talk about at the level of neurotransmitters and their effects. We talk about it in terms of buildings on a university campus and the time of day we're supposed to meet and the reasons why we wanted to speak. And many people would jump from that disconnect and say, well, there's this reality of reasons and ideas about buildings and abstract concepts that has top down consequences for the behavior of living beings, in this case, ourselves. But I would say that in that case, whatever the physical neural instantiation is of all of these ideas, that is the level at which it has causal efficacy, right? So my idea that I'm running 15 minutes late, I better send Judea an email telling him I'm gonna be late.
I experience it on the level of emails and the experience of looking at my watch, that's the phenomenology, but it only has causal power at the level of neurotransmitters and signals to motor neurons and all the rest, right? So there really isn't, at the level of causation, the cache value of experience has to be run at the level of the physics of things. So there is no, it's not true to say that there's ever top down causation in that sense. Neurologically there's top down causation because there's frontal lobe influence on the so-called lower structures in the brain, but we're still just talking about the physics. There's no top down causation from some other layer of a so-called emergent phenomenon.
I wonder if you have any opinion on that. I never thought about the top down thing. I was more intrigued by the clash between the layers, like the possible world is a clash. We know that on an atomic level, there is no possible world, just one trajectory, but in our mind, I could have done things differently. So there are possible worlds, okay? I look at the clash of, for instance, symmetry of time. The equation of physics are symmetrical in time. Whatever, if you run a picture forward or backward of the atomic motions, you would not be able to tell which is the correct picture, okay? Because both of them are compatible with the equation of Schrodinger equation, okay? So on the other hand, you rarely see the smoke going back into chimney. It's a macroscopic level. So here you have a clash between the atomic description of things, which says everything is symmetrical in time.
And here the macroscopic tells you no, time has direction, okay? This is a typical clash. The other clash is we're talking about causation, okay? We know that neurons act, there is causation in our neural system, which means there is no possible world. The world could not have been different in my action. And still, we send people to prison for not knowing better, for doing things that you shouldn't have done. And the prisoner claims, but you may be that way, okay? I was born that way. You programmed me that way. This is a clash between two level of description. One is the level of our software. Where we talk about free will, and we talk about responsibility and regret, and the level of neural connection,
where there's no regret, there's only one trajectory. Our possible world, okay? For doing it?
Yeah. So that's the right analogy to use, perhaps, the software-hardware analogy. So we can't understand a specific program in terms of just its machine code or just the electrical changes in the hardware. There's a higher level description of this is a word processing program or this is an internet browser. And then, we can have, we can understand what's happening. But its actual causal efficacy is happening at the level of the machine code or beneath that the actual physical changes in the hardware. That there's a level of abstraction and there's a level of actual instantiation. But the level of abstraction does have power because these things are platform-independent. And minds could be, minds like our own even, could be substrate-independent if we could actually run them on an artificial platform.
So if in fact there's no top-down influence. Well, there is a top-down.
Abstract, abstraction is an influence from above the layer of the physics of things, right? Because that's the only thing that allows for platform-independence in the case of like
the software-hardware distinction. So the abstraction tells me you have an option to act one way or the other. And the physics tells me you don't have an option. It's a clash, you know? If I follow my abstraction and I act according to some normal rules, it's a normal protocol. As if I have an option, I may or may not go to prison. And in prison, I may fall and break my head which will affect my neural architecture, okay? So of course there is some top-down and bottom-up. I'm talking about only the logical conflict between the two level of abstraction. And I think this idea that we have options and we have a will and regret and so forth, it occurs in the level of abstraction of our normal communication. Which means do we have a model of ourselves, of our software, of a different level of detail, okay? And this interaction between the level of description
gives us the illusion that we have free will, okay? Yeah, so I think I'm still confused but I'm not confused about that. I think you and I are going to agree about free will almost entirely. I guess I'm confused. I managed to confuse myself on this notion of top-down influence because, and to close the loop here, it is often the intellectual claim that is underwriting a very smart and educated person's belief in free will. As you know, as I would imagine you know, there are many scientists and philosophers who will defend apparently to the death or at least the death of their logic, the notion of free will in a way that you and I would challenge in the sense that it really does exist on some level. Even there are people who think, who believe in libertarian free will, like you really could have done otherwise even if the universe were exactly the way it had been a moment ago. There are other people, as you know, who call themselves compatibilists. Compatibilists. My friend Dan Dennett is one. I'm one. Yeah, you're one but you're different than Dan.
I can already tell, yes, because I'm agreeing with you and I'm fighting with Dan. So this notion that an emergent property, kind of a higher level of abstraction, can have downward causal power. Now, most of the other examples I entertain seem to be unconvincing for me on this front because I have, if you're gonna talk about my desire to drink a cup of coffee, having causal power being the proximate cause of my actually going to get coffee, it's not at the level of the phenomenology that it has, the experience that has causal power, it's at the level of whatever that desire is at the level of my brain that is linked to my arms and legs sending me to the coffee machine. So it still is at the level of the physics that it is causally efficacious. I happen to experience it at another level or at least my experience is this other component. But when you talk about software and the power of abstraction, there seems to be another element, which is here we have the logical structure of a computer program, which can only be talked about at the level of the language in which it's written here and it's logical structure. And it is in principle irreducible to what any specific machine is doing with it because it can be run on many different machines and highly non-analogous machines. It can be run on machines that presumably don't use any form of electricity. And so how do you deal with the fact that there is this layer of abstraction that where the causal power seems to be best placed? You would never...
What I can possibly... I can already tell, yes, because I'm a... You would never... What I don't get from you is the interpretation of the word. How do you deal? How do you deal? What do I have to deal with? Right. I don't see any clash, I don't have to deal. It's fine. I see clash in interpreting.
But how do you deal with it?
What do I have to deal with? But how is that not top-down...
Fine, let's call it up-down. Fine, let's call it up-down. Causal power. Call it up-down. I'm an engineer. I want to design a robot that has a certain characteristics, has a certain behavior, okay? Right now, I see a clash here. I want a robot to tell me that he wants to do something. I don't know how to program wants. So I have an engineering problem. Once I understand how you and I... What you and I mean by I want...
Or I made it out of free will. If I understand that, I can program it. This is my dealing, okay? Yeah. It's an engineering problem. It's in terms of free will and regret. I have this notion that I have a sketch that all it is is one level of software looking at a blueprint of a layer below it and changing it, changing priorities. That's what I mean by next time, don't spill your miracle. Next time, don't rob a bank.
There's a certain behavior.
Yeah, yeah. Next time, don't rob a bank, yeah.
Yeah, put it in prison. Yeah.
Yeah, put it in prison. So when you get free, next time you think twice. What I mean, you're going to change the priority that governs the software layer below the one we are talking about, okay? Because you have a blueprint of the layer below you and you can change parameters of it. And you don't have a total description of your software because that will violate the halting problem. But you have a blueprint, okay? And you have parameters. So you have the power to change your own software by changing a few parameters. That means next time I'm going to remember my punishment and go to another bank.
Put it for it. And go to another bank. Put it for it, yes, put it for it.
So now we're going to someone who strongly echoes Sam's frustration with the recent clips we've played. Some thinkers accuse compatibilists like Pearl, Dennett and Carroll of overcomplicating or evading the real issue because everyone seems to accept the truth of determinism. And everyone seems to understand that accepting this truth crumbles the foundation of the common magical notion of could have done otherwise libertarian free will. And collapsing with it is the support of cosmic reward and punishment. For Sam and this next thinker, all of that is the easy part. And now the more interesting thing to do is to focus on how we can rethink reward and punishment on a societal level and reassess the notion of self that we identify with. This is a conversation with the author and biologist Jerry Coyne. Coyne is very much speaking about the could have done otherwise libertarian kind of free will in this clip. And he considers making room for other definitions of free will to be playing semantic games which divert us from the real problem. He charges compatibilists with being guilty of dualism in this exchange. Let's take a moment to understand what's meant by this. Dualism is a view which asserts that there must be two substances at play in the universe, the physical stuff and the metaphysical stuff.
This is another instance where the questions of consciousness overlap fully with free will debates. Because another way to come at the free will quandary is to ask the question, does consciousness do anything? For free will to be defended, it seems that consciousness would need to be somehow doing the choosing, deliberating and preferring the free will stuff. But if consciousness is simply an emergent property of the determined physical operations of atoms and energy, then how could it do anything to those atoms? Is it just like asking how an ocean wave itself could be moving the H2O molecules that constitute it to rescue free will from this picture? It seems that we have to contend that the consciousness stuff is actually metaphysical and of a completely separate structure than the physical world, neither emergent nor illusory. In religious terms, we would call this soul stuff. The rules and laws governing soul stuff would have to be so entirely foreign to us that our language would fail to even point at it. Because as you heard earlier, noticing that we or Jeffrey Dahmer didn't choose our particular soul stuff is still a fatal flaw for libertarian free will defenders and the religious systems of cosmic reward and punishment. Many religious philosophies seem to notice this glaring vulnerability and erect strong philosophical barriers to declare that we just can't know the mind of God. Or they say that God's ways are not our ways. Or they insist that everything happens for a reason and that's only for God to understand.
Or even more directly, that reason is the enemy of faith. Or perhaps they use more creative narrative tactics and warn us from even attempting to poke around with these questions with well-known biblical stories of forbidden fruit in the garden and ancient myths that remind us not to fly too close to those godly inquiries lest our wings be melted off. The collision of philosophies on this point is politically volatile stuff and is likely the deeply planted seed that gives root to the inherent tension between science and religion. With this in mind, it's the right time to revisit a famous chapter in philosophical discourse when René Descartes found himself on the edge of these heretical ideas but attempted to find refuge in dualism. Forgive our history class atmosphere, but this is a lot of fun and it underscores how timeless this entire debate really is. Descartes had just published Meditations, one of his more acclaimed works in which he wrote about an immaterial soul, something which allowed him to stay in the good graces of religious institutions and make room for ultimate moral responsibility coherently. It's impossible, of course, to decipher his intentions, biases, and apprehensions from our vantage point now, but there was an avid reader of his work who noticed some obvious contradictions with his idea of dualism and the immaterial soul. The reader was Elizabeth, the princess of Bohemia. She began her letter exchange with René Descartes in the year 1643. Here is her direct question and challenge to him in her first foray. I have overcome my inhibitions and come right out with the question, namely, given that the soul of a human being is only a thinking substance, how can it affect the bodily spirits in order to bring about voluntary actions? The question arises because it seems that how a thing moves depends solely on, one, how much it is pushed, two, the manner in which it is pushed, or three, the surface texture and shape of the thing that pushes it.
The first two of those require contact between the two things, and the third requires that the causally active thing be extended. Your notion of the soul entirely excludes extension, and it appears to me that an immaterial thing can't possibly touch anything else. Here, Elizabeth is noting the apparent contradiction with the claim that a substance is immaterial but affects the material world, which by definition would make it material. Descartes responded to her challenge and tried to explain the mechanism of how an immaterial object would nudge a material object at all. After a flirtatious preamble, he analogized the situation to the mysterious and invisible force of gravity moving a rock. He writes, take for example what happens when we suppose that weight is a real quality about which we know nothing, except that it has the power to move the body that has it toward the center of the earth. How do we think that the weight of a rock moves the rock downwards? We don't think that this happens through a real contact of one surface against another as though the weight was a hand pushing the rock downwards. But we have no difficulty in conceiving how it moves the body, nor how the weight and the rock are connected, because we find from our own inner experience that we already have a notion that provides just such a connection. But I believe we are misusing this notion when we apply it to weight, which is not a thing distinct from the body that has it. For I believe that this notion was given to us for conceiving how the soul moves the body. Perhaps Elizabeth would sound a bit like Sam Harris today and rightfully contest that Descartes is changing the subject from her initial question.
In her response, she protested forcefully, again asserting that, I've never been able to conceive of what is immaterial in any way except as the bare negative, what is not material. And that can't enter into causal relations with matter. Her letters are littered with exasperated exclamation points aimed at Descartes. Descartes continued to avoid this glaring hole in his thesis and contended that the knowledge of the soul must be understood only through the senses and not the intellect. He coaxed her in a possibly condescending response, I believe that it is very necessary to have properly understood the principles of metaphysics because they are what give us knowledge of God and of our soul. I also think that someone's frequently focusing his intellect on them would be very harmful because it would unfit him for handling well the functions of the imagination and the senses. The best course, I think, is to settle for keeping in one's memory and one's belief system, the conclusions that one did once drawn from metaphysical principles and then employ the rest of one's study time to thoughts in which the intellect cooperates with the imagination and the senses. There, Descartes seems to be giving Elizabeth some advice that she ought to start with the conclusion that free will, the soul, and God exist and move backwards to support it through her senses rather than dissolve it with her intellect. By now, you might be correctly anticipating that Elizabeth did not let Descartes off the hook and she responded by insisting, I find from your letter that the senses show me that the soul moves the body. But as for how it does so, the senses tell me nothing about that any more than the intellect and the imagination do. It sounds like she's calling a bit of bullshit on Descartes and maybe his mildly patronizing request that she not think too hard about it so as not to harm her health. Elizabeth goes on in a subsequent letter to deliver one of the loveliest examples of an existential crisis and her tepid disillusionment with religious philosophy that resulted from noticing the illusory nature of libertarian free will.
She writes, if you who single-handedly can keep me from being a skeptic, don't clear away this doubt to which my first reasoning carried me. I'll lose hope of ever being certain of anything. Okay, we'll lose the cheesy music and the history lesson now. But their letters are a fun read, especially when you remember that she was only 25 years old when she challenged the venerated 47-year-old philosopher, stuck to her argument, and skillfully exposed a critical flaw in his ideas, which continued to flummox and embarrass his philosophy. Their exchanges would continue for a few more months. And despite Descartes' failure to ever really address her challenge with anything satisfying, their friendship was strong and Descartes even dedicated his book, Principia, to her, a year after their first correspondence. So let's listen to Sam speak with Jerry Coyne and see if we can hear some echoes of this famous exchange in the tenor and tone of the guest. This is from one of the very first episodes of Making Sense, episode 10.
It was called Faith vs. Fact. I want to touch one other issue, which the issue of free will and whether it makes sense scientifically or philosophically. To my continued surprise, the topic of free will is incredibly interesting to people and in some cases unnerving to them when you begin to deny its existence and it's something that really goes to the core of what they find relevant philosophically and scientifically. So tell me what you think about the notion of free will or its illusoryness in scientific terms.
First, you have to define free will if you want to talk about it. And my definition is basically that you have free will if your decisions reflects anything more than the laws of physics that impinge on your mind as reflected through your genetic endowment and the environments you've experienced. In other words, I consider free will as a form of dualistic free will and that I reject. So I'm a determinist. I basically believe, and I think you agree with me because I've read your book, that at any one point in time, it's completely the configuration of molecules in the universe and in particular in your brain that mandates what you do and that you could not have done anything other than you did. In other words, you don't have any choices. You think you do and it looks like you do, but you don't really. And so I'm a determinist in that sense. And so are people like Dan Dennett who nevertheless maintain there is free will. They do that by a semantic trick by redefining what free will is and you know those tricks. They're called compatibilists. My view is that it's purely a semantic game that those people do it largely because, from what you said, that the notion of, that we don't have free will, that we're more or less wet robots, it's frightening to people.
It's as frightening as the idea that we're gonna die. Now we have to accept death because we see it all around us, but it's harder for people to accept that your brains are reflecting the laws of physics.
And so they reject it. It's interesting, I now notice an unhappy analogy and really symmetry between the compatibilism versus our version of determinism on the one hand and accommodationism, which we've been talking about for an hour, and the recognition that there is a zero sum contest between faith and reason or religion and science. There is a, they have a non-overlapping magisteria idea.
That's right, that's right. I see people like, let me say, because Dan's gonna hear this probably. And so let me say Dan, I love you and I'd hug you if you were here, but I don't agree with your views on compatibilism at all. I think that compatibilist who redefined free will to mean things like free will means doing something without a gun to your head or without being locked in prison or various or that humans are complex, and so we have a lot more inputs that go into our outputs and that constitutes the redefinition of free will. To me, the real important issue is not how you define free will. It's the issue of determinism, which is the really important one and every philosopher practically is a determinist. they know you could not behave other than you do at any one time. And yet, some people will say, well, that's still okay, we have a form of fruit. I think as you say in your book that you could construe that as saying we're puppets
that love our strings. So there are some aspects of this that I find surprising when I've tried to unpack what I think are the moral implications of believing what we believe about determinism and therefore a person's ability to do other than what they do. And one thing is that I was considering what a person's actions says about him and the example I use was of a missed putt. So you have someone, you have a golfer who's three feet from the hole and he tries to make his putt and he misses it and the idea that he could not do otherwise because the universe was precisely the configuration it was including every charge in his nervous system. That doesn't tell you anything of interest about what sort of golfer he is, what you want. And this is Dan's arguing against me now. What you want to know is just what he would do in general in that circumstance. That's how you understand his responsibility as a golfer and his likely future behavior. And that's fine as far as I'm concerned. It's true that you wanna be able to generalize over many similar instances, though different in their microstructure what a golfer is capable of. But one thing I found interesting when I thought about this example is that when you take a golfer like Tiger Woods and he misses a three foot putt and given the reality of determinism he would miss that putt a trillion times in a row. Whatever went wrong went wrong and it would keep going wrong every time you rewind the universe to its exact state.
It reveals that there are two things you seem to have to hold in mind at the same time. One is if anyone should have made that putt it's Tiger Woods. He is more responsible in the conventional sense of responsibility for missing that putt than any other golfer. Certainly he's more responsible than I would be because I'm the kind of golfer who misses putts of that length all the time. So we expected him to make it. He missed it and therefore the opprobrium attached to that error should be highest in his case. So on the one hand it's a greater failure for him because he really should have made it. On the other, his missing it says the least about him because he's gonna make that putt 900 times in a row. It just, I don't actually have a strong conclusion based on that, but it seems kind of a paradox where the closer you get to this notion of responsibility in the micro instance of something happening
the more it seems undeserved. Yeah, especially there. I mean, you gotta wonder, I mean, what is the use of opprobrium to somebody like Tiger Woods anyway, criticizing him because he messed up putt? Is that gonna make him a better golfer or not? Or is that just some instinctive feeling we have? I mean, all this, I mean, that argument to me just finesses the whole really important issue of moral responsibility. I mean, I don't think we have moral responsibility but I think we have responsibility in a way that has to be adjudicated in society through opprobrium and punishment. And this is what bothers me about all of these compatibilists and people who talk about free will because they're all determinist. And instead of concentrating on the really important issue for society which is that we could not behave other than we do and what are the implications of that for our system of punishment and reward? They play a semantic game. Just endless debate about how these hypotheticals and examples about how we can construe free will or not when the real issue is what do we do about the criminal justice system? How do we deal with people that transgress and are dangerous to society?
Knowing now that that's the only thing they could have done.
Turns out when they're done. Right, and just to be clear here to say that we could not to otherwise is not to say that certain punishments don't deter certain classes of crime or that people can't learn to behave better than they have in the past or that rehabilitation of certain criminals is possible or not or the cure of certain psychological problems is possible or not. I mean these are, it still matters what a person does or is done to him and people can be discouraged successfully, in many cases, from misbehaving based on the kinds of laws we enact and the kinds of punishments we lay down for them. But it's not, in any specific instance, a person does exactly what he, in fact, does based on a concatenation of causes that precede his agency. His agency is just an expression of everything that has made him what he is in that moment. And we recognize that when, in specific cases, where you find a brain tumor in the brain of some criminal that is in the right place to have influenced his behavior, then you think, well, as in the case of Charles Whitman, this person was unlucky. Whereas you don't find a brain tumor, but you have the bewildering complexity of neurophysiology as yet, ununderstood, that is, as I've argued elsewhere, just a glorified brain tumor in that case. It's just, that is just as causal in his case. But that doesn't mean that if people are responsive to certain punishments, we can't use punishments to get them to respond in certain ways. If you can, if a behavior is voluntary, the nature of its being voluntary is that it can be discouraged by punishments. If you're gonna find me $1,000 every time I stay, you know, five minutes too long at a parking meter,
I will change my relationship to parking meters. Yeah, I don't understand, I mean, this is the greatest misconception we have about determinism amongst the public, is that you can't, if determinism is true, you can't influence people's behavior by your behavior. I mean, that's probably false. And I would use the example, if you kick a dog every time it comes near you, it's gonna stop coming near you. That, you know, I mean, the dog learns and people can learn. I actually say the same thing you do, that all criminals, in a sense, have brain tumors. But you can't say anything that will piss people off more than saying that. It's right, if it hasn't, people have a visceral reaction to that. Because their sense of agency is so great, they can't believe that they have the mental equivalent of a brain tumor if they do something wrong. But I mean, what I like about determinism, and why I think people like Dan should be really talking about that, rather than this playing a semantic game, is because it puts the whole system of punishment rewards, especially criminal punishment rewards, on a scientific basis. I mean, now we can figure out, okay, how do we rehabilitate somebody? What are the actions that we can take that will affect somebody in such a way that they aren't recidivists?
Or how long do we need to put somebody away before it will reform them? So we still can have punishment for deterrence, to sequester people from society and for reformation. But now we can investigate scientifically, what are the best ways to intercede to do that? And we can do all that without saying these people are bad, that they're morally responsible, which I don't think they are. The only thing we get rid of is what we don't want anyway, which is punishment out of vindictiveness, for retribution. We don't, nobody likes that. No enlightened person likes that. And that's the one thing that automatically goes away
when you start believing that free will is an illusion. It would be irresponsible not to point out that Daniel Dennett is certain that he is not committing the errors of René Descartes in his brand of compatibilism. In fact, Dennett is one of Descartes' harshest critics and has delivered some of the best takedowns of his self-defeating dualist ideas in much the way that Princess Elizabeth did. Even further, Dennett contends that Coyne and Sam are unknowingly reproducing the folly of dualism by describing consciousness in such a way that would discount a naturalistic count of it built on correlative physical processes, even if they might argue that consciousness is powerless and only gets to observe deterministic physics. But that debate won't be settled here. In that exchange, you also heard one of the most psychologically powerful implications, which comes from understanding free will to be an illusion. And that is that pride, shame, and hatred tend to disintegrate. And those things weren't so healthy in the first place. Now, out of fairness to the compatibilists, we'd have to attach a qualifier before those terms and express it as ultimate pride and ultimate shame, or absolute pride and absolute shame. But perhaps those qualifying words still allow us to perform the right kind of therapy. As Coyne goes on to suggest, this shift can focus our interventions in the world to be more forward-focused, meaning that if a tumor was the variable that was causing someone's destructive and dangerous behavior and then that tumor is surgically removed, it makes no moral sense to continue to imprison him as he no longer poses a danger and cannot be held morally responsible for his actions before the surgery. Or, in an even clearer case, it would make no moral sense to refuse to perform surgery to remove the tumor as a punishment for the behaviors it was causing.
And if everything can be thought of as ultimately accidental and beyond one's absolute control, as we can easily intuit in the case of the tumor, then a system of behavioral corrections can adopt this same attitude and shift themselves away from punitiveness and punishment and move towards compassion and rehabilitation. This important shift is something that compatibilists like Dennett and incompatibilists like Sam tend to agree on. Now, we're going to another exchange of great minds that will surely go down in the annals of the history of philosophy, right along with the famous distinguished letters of Princess Elizabeth and Renee Descartes. It's a phone call from a man who had just stepped out of a bath with a nagging question about the meaning of life. It's the one and only comedian, producer, and performer, Ricky Gervais, giving Sam Harris a ring to discuss free will. Ricky was in a head-scratching mood and gave Sam the opportunity to clarify why this entire debate matters at all. This is from episode 239, yet another call from Ricky Gervais.
I suppose my question is, then, what it comes down to is, why in this illusion of free will, is it the same as if it wasn't an illusion? What's the difference? That's my question. I totally accept it, but so what? We are what we are. What does it matter? What does it matter that there isn't free will?
What does it matter? I mean, the reason why it's important is that so much of our psychological suffering, personally, and so much of our social suffering, in terms of the ethical and legal decisions we make, is anchored to this illusion. The feeling that you are you and really responsible for you, it's not that it's never useful. It's useful in certain cases. But the fact that we put people in prison for the rest of their lives, or even give them the death penalty in certain states in my country, and feel totally justified in doing it as a matter of punishment, not as a matter of social necessity that we have to just keep certain dangerous people off the streets, which obviously we do. Well, that's the difference.
Well, that's the difference, and I think that's... Quite different. Yeah, it is different. I know you're not saying this, but to say no one has free will, so no one should be punished is a nonsense. Rather like, if a machine breaks down in a factory, you don't go, well, it didn't mean to break down, we keep it on. You get rid of it and get a new one. It's not a punishment. It's, well, we got to still protect the innocent. I get that, and I think, yeah, definitely it's something else. There's loads of...
Yeah, the punishment certainly makes sense still in many cases, but retribution doesn't, or the vengeance part of it doesn't morally.
Yes, and with the death penalty, you can't go back and say we were wrong. We know the worries about that. My point is, even if everyone understood free will is an illusion, we're hard to put... I don't think it should make any difference, because we're not saying, oh, we came from a tough background, or it was a crime of passion. We're just saying we're all robots. Let's do what we like, which we know isn't acceptable. That's why I mean that it doesn't make a difference. All the other caveats would still be in place. You know, a sympathetic judicial system and act utilitarian, as opposed to rural utilitarianism. All those things would still be in place. But what I can never accept is that the people that say, if hard determinism is true, no one is responsible for their actions on a societal level. That's the difference I'm making.
Once you view people in this vein as akin to malfunctioning robots, so evil people, if we built an evil robot, it would reliably produce evil. Nature has built evil robots for us as psychopaths, and other people who just reliably create a lot of harm for everyone else. The question is, how should we feel about that, and whether hatred is the right emotional response? Now, it's a totally natural response, certainly if you've been victimized by such a person.
But I think we should treat it like any other force that isn't our fault. You don't go into morality of an angry bear trying to attack you in the woods. You don't go, the boy came from a bar. He came from a tough background. I love animals. But if a bear is attacking me, I don't care about his home problem.
But he did come from a, he might shoot the bear. But he did come from a tough background. He came from the background of being a bear. What else was he going to do? And I don't care.
And I don't care when it's whether, should I rehabilitate this bear? I get out, if I can't get out of there, I try and stop him. It's not a moral issue. It's the fact that I don't deserve to die by a bear yet. That's what it comes down to.
That's what it comes down to. That's what it comes down to.
To conclude, we're going to let Sam have the floor by himself, because free will is a topic on which he has spoken and written extensively. Hopefully, by this point of the compilation, you've located the phrases, terms, and concepts that could be drifting a bit between different thinkers, resulting in surprisingly harsh sounding riffs. Hopefully, you've also been able to track how Sam uses phrases like, free will, illusion, and consciousness to be able to tie his thesis together into a consistent picture. But there's another word that we haven't looked too closely at yet, which often lurks behind these debates, and that is this one, matters. As in, does anything matter? Given this erasure of free will, could anything matter? If determinism is true, what's the point of doing anything anyway? Sam identifies this as fatalism, which he contends is not the inevitable or rational position given the truth of determinism. In fact, he makes an argument that determinism itself defeats an attitude of fatalism. So we'll let Sam answer this question directly. This is from episode 241. Final thoughts on free will.
If there's no free will, how do we do anything? And why do anything? Why not just wait around to see what happens? There is no free will, but choices matter. And this isn't a paradox. Your desires, intentions, and decisions arise out of the present state of the universe, which includes your brain and your soul, if such a thing exists, along with all of their influences. Your mental states are part of a causal framework. So your choices matter whether or not they're products of a brain or a soul, because they're often the proximate cause of your actions. Imagine that I want to learn to speak Mandarin. How is that going to happen? It's not going to happen by accident. I'll need to attend classes or hire a native speaking tutor or travel to China.
I'll need to study and practice, and this will entail a lot of effort. I'll get frustrated and embarrassed by my failures, and I'll have to overcome my frustration and embarrassment and keep learning. My decision to learn Mandarin, and all of the efforts that follow, if they persist long enough, will be the cause of my speaking Mandarin at some point in the future. Badly, I am sure. It's not that I was destined to speak Mandarin, regardless of my thoughts and actions. Determinism isn't fatalism. Choices, reasoning, discipline, all of these things play obvious roles in our lives. Despite the fact that they're determined by prior causes, and again, adding randomness to this machinery doesn't change anything. But the reality is that I show no signs of making an effort to learn Mandarin. It simply isn't a priority for me. Am I free to make it a priority? Well, in some ways, yes, but not in the crucial way that the common notion of free will requires.
I can't account for why I don't want to speak Mandarin more than I do. I can't decide to make learning this language my top priority when it simply isn't my top priority. And if it suddenly became the most important thing in my life, I wouldn't have created this change in myself. I would be a mere witness to this change. It would come over me like a virus. If I read an article tomorrow that convinces me that the best use of the next few years of my life is to become competent in Mandarin, I will not be able to account for why this article had the effect that it did. I've already read articles like that, and they haven't moved me. If the next one does, where is the freedom in that? It would be like being pushed off a cliff and then claiming that I'm free to fall. The fact that I might enjoy the feeling of the wind in my hair doesn't change this situation. And so it is with any other influence. A conversation with another person, or indeed a conversation with oneself, simply has the effect that it has, and not some other effect.
You are free to do an almost infinite number of things today. Free in the sense that no one will try to stop you from doing these things or put you in prison if you do them. But you're not free to want what you don't in fact want. Or to want what you want more than you want it. You're not free to notice what you won't notice, or to remember what you've truly forgotten. Again, consider your experience in this moment. Are you going to spend the rest of the day and tomorrow and the day after that and onward for days uncountable, struggling to master a skill that you don't happen to care about? Are you going to learn Mandarin or the violin or fencing? Are you going to take up rock collecting? Why aren't you more interested in rocks? There are people who are all in for rocks. Why aren't you one of these people?
If you suddenly became one of these people and began spending all of your free time looking for interesting rocks, freely doing what you most want to do, you're now rock collecting to your heart's content. Where is the freedom in that? And if your interest suddenly dissipates such that you no longer care about rocks, where is the freedom in that? You are being played by the universe. But choices still matter because causes matter, change matters, and a capacity to make change matters. Biological evolution and cultural progress have increased our ability to get what we want out of life and to avoid what we don't want. A person who can reason effectively and plan for the future and choose his words carefully and regulate his negative emotions and play fair with strangers and participate in various cultural institutions is very different from a person who can do none of those things. But these abilities do not lend credence to the traditional notion of free will. People sometimes ask, well, if there's no free will, then why are you trying to convince anyone of anything? People are just going to believe whatever they believe. Your very effort to convince them that they don't have free will is proof that you think they have it. Again, this is confusion between determinism and fatalism.
Reasoning is possible. Reasoning not because you're free to think however you want, but because you are not free. Reason makes slaves of us all. To be convinced by an argument is to be subjugated by it. It's to be forced to believe it, regardless of your preferences. Think about what it's like not to know something and then to know it. To learn something despite your prior ignorance or presuppositions to the contrary. To be placed in the grip of an argument that is valid and true. To be led step by step over foreign ground without spotting an error, without seeing any place to put a foot or a hand to arrest your progress. To then be delivered to the necessary conclusion is the antithesis of freedom. You're about as free as any prisoner who has ever led to the gallows. It's the lack of freedom that makes reasoning possible.
The antithesis, that's why I know an argument that worked on me should also work on you. And if it shouldn't work on you, it shouldn't have worked on me either. Reasoning is all about constraints. 2 plus 2 equals 4. Where is the freedom in that. It matters that 2 plus 2 equals 4. And it matters that we each can be made to understand that by being forced to think under the same logical constraints. Are you free not to understand the 2 plus 2 equals 4? Not if you do in fact understand it. Are you free to understand if you don't understand it? Again, no, not until the understanding itself dawns in your mind. So, whether you understand something or not isn't under your control.
But the difference matters, absolutely. And knowledge on all fronts matters absolutely. It's every bit as important as we imagine it to be. In fact, it's probably more important than most people imagine it to be. The physicist David Deutsch has argued that knowledge can produce any change in the universe compatible with its laws, because if a change can't be accomplished with sufficient knowledge, that could only mean that some law of nature prevents it. Think about that for a moment. The claim is that anything that is possible can be accomplished by the right understanding, otherwise it's not possible. According to Deutsch, given the requisite knowledge, you could take any arbitrary region of space, sweep together its stray hydrogen atoms, transmute them into heavier elements through the process of nuclear fusion, use those elements to assemble the smallest possible machine capable of building all other structures, and then produce intelligent creatures vastly more intelligent and sensitive than ourselves, atom by atom. All that is lacking at every stage along the way is an understanding of how to do these things, which is to say that all that is lacking is knowledge. So, what our minds do, potentially has cosmic significance. We could destroy ourselves in the next century, or we could live for millions of years and populate the rest of the galaxy. The only difference will be what we do with our minds in the meantime.
But again, none of this causality requires,
or even admits of, freedom of will. So, there you have it. The free will debate tiptoes in the background of so many important aspects and features of life. The nature of consciousness, the utility of pride, the dynamics of relationships, the heaviness of shame, the sting of regret, the proper role of prisons, the stability of motivation, the hollowness of guilt, the truth claims of religion, the logic of heaven and hell, the foundations of political and legal philosophies, and the list goes on. It's no easy task to think deeply about free will and keep your footing while traversing a consistent path through words like illusion, emergence, mattering, responsibility, punishment, and God. Sam has outlined his best effort to do this in his short book simply titled, Free Will, which is, of course, recommended reading. As you go down this rabbit hole, you'll run into many efforts to locate a free will worth wanting, or the kind of free will we've had all along, or a way of speaking where emergent free will is coherent. And you will also encounter some religious arguments based purely on blind faith in an unknowable and indescribable free will that forever eludes our human intellect. It's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between all of these lines of argumentation. Many people encountering Sam's case against free will for the first time go through a process of disorientation when they discover that they're previously unexamined and assumed notion of free will is merely a mirage. There may be some necessary work and philosophical needle-threading as we tried to execute by exploring the subtle differences between shifting between first and third-person accounts of phenomena. We may have to go deeper to discover the language and levels of analysis where important truths about our psychological reality come back online.
One way to do this is to consider an emotion in the third person. If absolute pride is a concept that doesn't hold any water because no one is absolutely responsible for existing in the first place, maybe we can try to find a non-absolute pride that might be useful. Consider observing a loved one in the world. Maybe your young daughter is interacting with her friends at a playground. They're all playing a game of tag when one of her friends trips and scrapes his knee. You watch as she stops running and is tagged, becoming the dreaded it of the game. But she doesn't mind that. She goes over to her friend, bends down, and asks if he's okay. Maybe you watch her hold his hand and escort him over to the water fountain to wash his wound before they both go back and rejoin the game. Later, you're at the dinner table and you want to let your daughter know that you saw what she did for her friend at the playground. You privately think about what to say. You could say, you should be proud of yourself.
This probably sounds nice and natural to you on a normal day, but you've just listened to this episode about free will. And now you notice that this sentence is doing a lot of strange things when you look closely at it. You should be proud of yourself. Who is the you and the yourself in that sentiment? Are they identical? Is the commonly used word yourself, a bit of dualism sneaking its way into our common grammar? The word might be tacit acknowledgement of the impossible notion of free will that we all seem to carry around with us. Can you really be proud of the self that you merely possess, yourself? Given what we've learned about free will, the immaterial you didn't ultimately create yourself. You ultimately possess a self and much the way you possess an eye color. You did not absolutely choose it. It was a result of deterministic forces of nature, nurture, randomness, or a lucky soul.
And therefore you cannot be held ultimately responsible for it. So being proud of it seems rather strange, unless of course you accept a diluted version of pride where you have some control over it, where yourself might be something more akin to your strength or skill, something that you can train, improve, and craft. That's the kind of control that Dennett, Carol, or Pearl might say qualifies as free will. But recall Sam's counter that even that sense of control dissolves upon careful first-person attention. But who is the you at the beginning of that sentence? You should be proud of yourself. Is that you just an observer? Is it just the consciousness sitting on the sidelines of physics? What is this you that watches yourself doing what it's going to do in the world? Is it relegated to an observational position where it can either be pleased or disappointed to witness each moment, but it never ultimately causes anything or intervenes? Is that you in the sentence, the immaterial soul stuff that Elizabeth pointed out to Descartes was an impotent and empty idea? So perhaps the more accurate expression to your daughter would be to say, you should be happy with yourself.
Or maybe it's even more accurate to say, your illusory sense of self is lucky to be linked to a physical system that behaves in such a way. But none of that sounds all that romantic, encouraging, or even sane. And given what we might reason about psychology and familial relationships, maybe a child being told that a parent is proud of her has its own consequentially good outcomes. Does that tip the scales of our language? Are we now in the realm of moral philosophy rather than epistemology of reality when we're deciding what to say? While all of these paralyzing thoughts race through your head, you might start to agree that language does often fail us in existential puzzles. You're beginning to fear you're going crazy, the dinner is getting cold, and you wanna say something. So, I'm proud of you is what comes out. And given all the philosophical knots that we could tie with what the pronouns in that sentence might really be pointing at, it sounds nice to you in the moment. And your daughter probably smiled in response. The challenge of removing the absoluteness from our feelings of guilt, shame, and pride for ourselves and others, while retaining a sense that it really matters what happens in the universe, seems to kick the hornet's nest of a maybe even deeper philosophical question concerning the nature of morality and religion. If a watchful parent sitting on the sidelines of a playground delivering a judgmental expression of approval of his child's actions sounds like a familiar religious myth to you, that's no mistake.
Our most common religious allegories are born directly out of these deep existential questions involving free will. If Sam's thinking on this is right, then at best those stories are imperfect, consequentially defended expressions of encouragement and deterrence, just like our parents' words at the dinner table. Or at worst, they are incoherent edicts of the magical absoluteness of moral responsibility, which serve to justify brutal timeouts reserved for the misbehaved daughters and amazing amusement park rewards for the good ones. Sam, of course, argues that we don't need these stories in order to find meaning and mattering at all. And that's a good thing, because the stories themselves are unstable and don't map onto reality and the way that realizing the illusory nature of ultimate free will exposes. And they seem to know it by discouraging their patrons from examining this subject. But the controversial questions about the debatable necessity of a religious free will myth is a topic for another compilation in our series regarding morality and the good life. One thing is for certain. This old debate strikes at some very deep issues, and it won't be going away anytime soon. The 19th century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, once summarized his thoughts on this subject like this. Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills. If you take that to mean that man has some freedom couched within the limits of determinism, then you may be attracted to Dennett's line that a sailor cannot control the wind, but he can adjust the sails.
Or if you take Schopenhauer to mean that the phenomena of man is a downstream slave to his unchosen wills at every moment, then you will understand Sam's view that we're more like puppets on that sailboat as we can't account for why we adjust our sails. And the storm pushing the boat is no different than the storm pushing our actions. And we must acknowledge our strings and reorient ourselves to what matters. All we can say is that we're very happy you listened to this episode. After all, you never had a choice. What, you didn't think we'd make it through this entire episode without making that joke, did you? So here is suggested reading, listening, and watching on the subject of free will. The episodes of Making Sense featured in this compilation were episodes 91, 39, 124, 164, 10, 239, and 241. The full conversations are well worth going through and cover much more than free will. Sapolsky will teach you a ton about the functions of the brain. Carol knows quantum mechanics inside and out. And as you can imagine, Ricky Gervais takes his mind to some pretty imaginative places in his frequent and fun conversations with Sam.
Sam's book entitled Free Will lays out his argument concisely. He's also delivered several talks on free will that you can find on YouTube, which are worth your time. And many of them, he skillfully leads you through the process of paying attention to simple prompts like choosing any city on earth or selecting your favorite meal. He effectively helps you search for and fail to find your sense of free will. Sam's free will opponent, Dan Dennett, has written plenty on this subject. He recently entered into a dialogue with Greg Caruso and they published their debate in a book called Just Desserts, which as the name suggests, gets very deep into the practical implications for the criminal justice system. Armed with the nuances of this compilation, perhaps you can pinpoint the phrases which nearly derailed their dialogue at several points. If you wish to go even deeper into the Dennett and Sam disagreements, you should also pick up Waking Up by Sam for his related views on consciousness and Dennett's books Elbow Room and Consciousness Explained for his. Judea Pearl's Book of Why is a terrific examination of causality with plenty of fascinating stories about the history of mathematics and causation. Sean Carroll writes about theoretical physics and wonderful books like Something Deeply Hidden and The Particle at the End of the Universe. But his earlier book entitled The Big Picture may have more relevant chapters to the subject of free will. Jerry Coyne has a wonderful blog and book by the same title, which is Why Evolution is True.
Thomas Pink's Free Will, A Very Short Introduction, is also a great starting point to get into this subject. We didn't include any mention of Benjamin Lebet's experiments in the 1980s where he tried to anticipate people's decisions to choose certain numbers by monitoring their brain activity through EEG imaging. His results suggested that he, as the experimenter, could know what the subject would do before they consciously knew what they would do. He even claimed to be able to predict this up to a few seconds before the action. The experiment itself has been scrutinized, and none of the philosophical arguments for or against free will included in this compilation depend on its findings anyway. But it is an interesting experiment that you may want to investigate. Lebet wrote about this and other experiments he performed in a book called Mind Time in 2004. In Sam's final clip, he mentions David Deutsch and a powerful and optimistic conception of human knowledge that comes from his book, The Beginning of Infinity. We recommended that book in another compilation already, but it's worthy of multiple plugs. We mentioned a few classic philosophy works in this one, Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will, the correspondence between Princess Elizabeth and René Descartes, and Pierre-Simon Leplace's philosophical essay on probabilities. Those are all recommended. You'll also find plenty of value in going through well-known works by great thinkers like Heidegger, Husserl, and Nietzsche.
Free will is a topic which nearly every philosopher has touched. Ricky Gervais has not written a philosophy book on free will, but his television series, Afterlife, is not afraid to delve into serious philosophical territory. Much of our recommended film and television watch list overlaps with the recommendations from our artificial intelligence and consciousness compilations. But let's add Minority Report and Being John Malkovich to the list for this one. And we can even add films about puppets and mind control spells like Pinocchio and The Manchurian Candidate. At the risk of a very mild spoiler, if you rewatch The Truman Show, you'll notice how it exhibits Dennett's analogy about controlling the boat's sails, but not the wind, rather literally in the climactic third act. There is also an incredible episode in the original Twilight Zone catalog from season one called A Nice Place to Visit, which lays out a haunting vision that shows the psychological peril of free will on the human condition. Robert Lawrence produces an interview show called Closer to Truth, which is packed full of excellent interviews on a ton of great topics. They have a compilation on free will, which includes a few of the voices you heard here. William Shakespeare has provided readers and theater goers with endless fodder for philosophical debate on fatalism, determinism, and free will. He often uses the motifs of witches, spells, ghosts, and fate. So you'll find plenty of essays about the philosophy underlying Macbeth and Hamlet, which might prompt a critical revisit.
This episode was edited, compiled, and written by Jay Shapiro and read by me, Megan Phelps-Roper.