A pragmatic approach to free will

PinocchioEarlier this year I engaged in a discussion on doxastic voluntarism where a commenter stated that

“I use freewill to mean we can choose to change the physical sequence of events in our brains. … If we don’t have genuine freewill, then we can’t choose”,

to which I responded with

“Regardless of where one stands on free will, we agree that we engage in something called ‘choosing’. This phenomenon is universal whether we think it is performed by a ghost in the machine or it is just another cog in the chain of prior causes.

This thread of the discussion carried on a little longer without a mutual understanding and eventually ended with me saying that I would try to explain myself in a new post.

So here we are. I currently suspect that we do not have libertarian free will; that is, I doubt that there is an uncaused part of us which controls the act of choosing. This is not a certainty, but I am compelled by the evidence (and the lack of alternative evidence) that this is probably a correct description of reality. So, now that you have received this revelation, you may climb back in bed and curl up in a ball and wait for your death because you are just a cog in a chain of causes. You are no different than the computing device you are currently using. You are a powerless bag of molecules, a meat puppet dangling by the strings of chance. Upon believing that your choices are byproducts of everything else, you could, paradoxically, immediately succumb to a self-defeating fatalism or you could keep reading and take another path. What will you do? Is that even a meaningful question?

This post does not seek to argue whether or not we actually have libertarian free will. The point of this post is to consider the implications for our sense of freedom if we do not possess uncaused agency.

Wait. How do you explain our experience of choice?

Pinocchio_to_lifeGood question. Even though I have no intention here of making the case for an absence of libertarian free will, it is worth considering whether that situation is even possible. I would like to start by reflecting on some observations which are representative of things that we’ve all experienced at one time or another.

The other day the book I was reading included a comment that “…animals don’t seem to want to party, despite what we see in children’s cartoons like Madagascar.” About 30 minutes after reading that – I’m slightly embarrassed to admit – I found myself with the Katy Perry song “Firework” in my head. Upon recognizing this I was surprised, so I stewed on it a bit. This is not a song that I encounter frequently in my listening habits. When I stopped to think about this, a faint scene began to play in my mind. It was an animation of zoo animals performing circus acts. You see, about a week earlier, I spent a couple hours watching Madagascar 3 with my sons. Near the end of the movie, the main characters engage in an elaborate circus performance set to the music of – you guessed it – “Firework”. Unbeknownst to me, the reference to the Madagascar movie in the book I was reading had set in motion a network of activity, drawing on recent experience, that led to the production of a particular song in my head.

When I was a kid my brother would play the “made you flinch” game. It may be a stretch to call it a game, but the rules are basically this: at any time, you can go up to your sibling and act like you’re going to hit them and then stop short. If they react in a defensive way then you have license to actually hit them. Twice. By definition, a flinch is involuntary. After enough bruises you learn to remain vigilant and can suspend your reaction, but eventually you will be caught off-guard again. Control of the flinch is subject to awareness.

As a final example, we’re all well aware that repetition can train us to do things effortlessly and thoughtlessly even though these things required considerable conscious attention during the initial training. This includes actions like reading, riding a bike, driving a car, using a mouse, etc… Even simple math eventually becomes automatic. These well-trained processes seem to lie on the borderlands between the intentional and the unintentional, lying just below the level of consciousness and waffling in and out of our awareness. We sometimes catch ourselves unaware that we had done something, or are doing something.

As these examples show, it is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control. They do not run through the “free will” filter. If we acknowledge that this is possible then it seems reasonable to acknowledge the further possibility that choice itself, our apparent exercise of free will, restraint and deliberation, can also arise through causative factors outside of our awareness. Under this paradigm, we might say that choice is what happens when our brain deals with competing interests. Even choosing to get up and get a drink is in competition with a desire to conserve energy and stay where you are. We have a remarkable feedback system that can recall past experiences and forecast future experiences. These work themselves in to the choice equation and sometimes we can spend considerable time and energy in deliberation as the network keeps pulling up data on both sides of the tug-of-war and reconfiguring itself in response.

The insistence that we make choices independent of causative influence begs the question. It assumes that our identity is fully contained within a singular, unified, independent perspective; in short, a ghost in the machine. Yet, if we ask someone who has flinched whether they chose to flinch then they’re most likely going to say that it wasn’t a choice while at the same time agreeing that they acted. Likewise, we will not deny that it was us who performed automated tasks, even if we weren’t fully aware of what we were doing. So in some cases our action can come from some sort of involuntary aspect of our self. That is, we do not always disassociate our self identity from the actions which were not clearly “under our control”. If we accept that this is a part of who we are and that the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice. Instead, our conception of the “self who chooses” must be revised so that it is consistent with the fact that we already include our involuntary self in our identity. We dispose of the idea that we are a singular, unified and independent soul and find that our identity is multifaceted, distributed and interdependent. Incidentally, a rare group of split-brain patients have offered us a fascinating window into how this works, as do patients who have experienced certain brain injuries (see blindsight, visual agnosia and hemispatial neglect). It appears that this distributed view of the self is the more accurate perspective.

You should believe that you can make choices

pinocchio_donkeyAs demonstrated by the original quote at the top of this post, it is common to see claims that the rejection of libertarian free will is also the rejection of choice. I will address that claim further in the next section, but first I want to briefly review why you should believe that you – this new, complex, multifaceted you – can make choices. When we believe in free will:

  1. We are less likely to harm each other and more likely to help each other (Baumeister 2009).
  2. We are more likely to act fairly and show gratitude (Vohs 2008, MacKenzie 2014; though Zwaan failed to reproduce Vohs).
  3. We show less prejudice against predetermined group membership (Zhao 2014, and accordingly, we show more prejudice against chosen group membership – Brewer 2013).
  4. We are more likely to detect errors and invest in thought (Rigoni 2014, Rigoni 2013, Lynn 2013).
  5. We are less likely to succumb to impulses and more likely to exercise self-control (Rigoni 2012, Alquist 2013, Job 2010).

Given these results, the evidence seems to suggest that we prefer the versions of ourselves who believe in free will. The pragmatist follows by suggesting that the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom.

But I can’t just pretend for the benefits

I completely understand the objection and agree that in the short term we can’t choose our beliefs – but I’m also pretty sure that you don’t have to pretend. Even when you think you can give a reason for your choice we can always just ask why again, and keep asking why until you get to the point of saying “I don’t know”. Eventually you will get there, which means that as far as we can tell from pure introspection, there appears to be something unexplainable going on. This is where we find our “free will”.

It is possible that there actually is no prior cause at the bottom of this search but, as we have seen, it is also possible that the prior causes are simply elusive or inaccessible. If you disagree, please explain to me how this kind of experience would differ from the experience under libertarian free will. I don’t see a difference and, introspectively, we have nothing but our experience to go on. So, if our internal experience regularly lacks a fully formed understanding of causation and if we recognize that we can choose between options, why does it matter whether or not our choice is actually uncaused? Pragmatism takes over when explanations run dry and suggests that instead of looking at causes, we should look at effects. We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?

pinocchio_homeFrom a purely experiential perspective, I make choices. If there is no libertarian free will then I may end up in bed, shut off from the outside world because all prior causes led to that condition. However, it is equally true that all prior causes may lead me to fight off the melancholy and seize the day. We don’t know which is the future path of the causal chain, yet we detect an ability to direct it. The internal experience is the same; our sense of freedom is present no matter what. This is all that matters when it comes to the choices we make. You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.

If you have read this, and you find yourself agreeing with my conclusions, then it is possible that your experiences have now changed you so that you are more inclined to invoke your sense of free will. Ironically, you have just been externally caused to have a greater sense of freedom. Run with it.

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79 thoughts on “A pragmatic approach to free will

  1. Hi Travis, I am of course interested in discussing this with you, but after our last inconclusive discussion, that may not seem like a good idea to you. My thought is to set our sights lower than reaching a conclusion, and simply aim at clarifying where we both agree and disagree. If you don’t think further discussion would be worthwhile, please feel free to say so.

    I have some specifics in this post I’d like to discuss, but I’d like to try first to see if we can map out some common thoughts. Here’s how I see freewill:

    1. Natural process work by one state of affairs leading to another according to generally predictable laws. If you have sufficient facts, you can predict the next state either deterministically or statistically.
    2. If natural processes and substances are all there is (i.e. if naturalism is true) then it is hard to see how there can be any opportunity for freewill – there is nothing but the natural to cause anything. Atheist philosopher Jaegwon Kim has said: “a physicalist must, it seems, accept some form of the principle that the physical domain is causally closed”
    3. Yet it seems to us that we have freewill. Almost everyone would believe this intuitively, it is assumed in our legal codes (diminished responsibility due to coercion or cognitive impairment is a valid legal defence), and it is almost impossible to act otherwise. Many philosophers have tried to find a way to allow freewill within naturalism, so far not successfully I think.
    4. The obvious alternative hypothesis to naturalism (or physicalism) is some form of dualism, whether of the theistic kind (like JP Moreland for example) or the non-theistic kind (like Thomas Nagel). It argues that there are things that are not physical, but exist and have meaning, and the mind is one such.
    5. Science addresses the physical world, and finds it difficult to address any hypothesis involving the non-physical. It is therefore well equipped to address the naturalistic explanation of brian/mind, but not well equipped (at present at any rate) to address the dualism hypothesis.
    6. Human experience and introspection, on the other hand, give us insight into mind and consciousness (how reliable this insight is is a moot question), but are less valuable in addressing the purely physical.
    7. Therefore the conclusion we come to about freewill will in large part be determined (sorry about that word!) by whether we believe introspection gives valid insights about ourselves and whether we believe science can rule out the non-physical and whether it can give valid insights on a non-physical matter.

    I’m wondering how many of those propositions you would agree with?

    • Eric,
      I wouldn’t have written the post if I didn’t think it was worth discussing. To your points:

      1. Agree
      2. For libertarian contra-causal free will, yes
      3. Yes, it does seem that we have some type of free will. Consideration for the type was the point of the post. The requirement that free will can only be of the contra-causal type is question begging and presumes that our self identity cannot include physical causal factors.
      4. OK
      5. Only if the immaterial has no physical effect. We could make inferences into the nature of the immaterial from its empirical effect. I think it’s more helpful to speak about science’s ability to discover regularity rather than composition. “Physical” can have a fuzzy meaning. For example, gravitons are purely hypothetical but gravity is still a firm part of science. That all may be a bit off topic though.
      6. Science is dependent on human experience (i.e., observation) and consciousness (i.e., rational inference) so there isn’t a strict dichotomy. Science is more like a framework that guides the use of these things in a way that has proven extremely useful and reliable.
      7. I doubt that we can distill our method of drawing conclusions down to a few epistemic assumptions, none of which themselves have black and white answers. It is perhaps more interesting if I instead answer the three sub-points:
        • Introspection can give us valid insights about ourselves but this should not be to the exclusion of other insights and we should consider how they might fit together (see the second section of the post for an example of how I did this).
        • I do not believe that science can rule out the non-physical, but it can inform probabilistic judgements about whether or not something is fully explained by physical causes.
        • Science can give valid insights into the non-physical if it has empirical effects, per #5 above.
  2. Hi Travis, I think there is a fair degree of agreement there. You are better read on this topic, so a little more precise, but I don’t there are substantial disagreements, but it may be useful to clarify a few things.

    #3 – My emphasis was on seems, how things appear to be before we analyse our experience. I think your clarification here is not a matter of “seems” but of further analysis. But I think we agree here.

    #5 – You say “Only if the immaterial has no physical effect. We could make inferences into the nature of the immaterial from its empirical effect.” I agree in principle, but in practice inferences like this will rarely be acceptable in science, because they don’t easily rule out other options. Take the very subjects we have been discussing, consciousness and freewill. Whether you think this or not, many neuroscientists (e.g Sam Parnia, Mario Beauregard) and philosophers (e.g. Thomas Nagel and David Chalmers) don’t believe natural science explains these human experiences, and that experience points to some non-physical origin, but naturalistic scientists are unwilling to accept their possibly dualistic conclusions because they cannot be established rigorously by experimental science. So I think we agree on the possibility you raise here, but I wonder if you agree with me that it isn’t a possibility on which there is anything near consensus?

    #6 – I agree there isn’t a strict dichotomy, but in the examples you give (observation & rational inference) we can be confident because others can do the same observations and inferences and come to the same conclusions. But when we discuss consciousness and freewill, others don’t reach the same conclusions. Do you agree then that what I said is generally correct?

    #7 – Again I agree, but I think these don’t address the conclusion I was drawing – that among the factors that influence you and I (for example) to come to different conclusions, one of the most important is that I trust human experience to give me some truth on these matters and I mistrust science to assess dualism because it has made naturalistic assumptions and many scientists (naturalists) are unwilling to consider the possibility that there might be something other than the physical. For example, Alwyn Scott in ‘Stairway to the mind’: “Although dualism cannot be disproved, the role of science is to proceed on the assumption that it is wrong and see how much progress can be made.”

    I would now like to see if I can sum up what you have said here – please correct me where I may be wrong. .

    1. Your subject is: if we assume there is no libertarian free will (or uncaused agency), what do we make of our sense of freedom?
    2. “It is possible for behavior and mental activity to arise outside of our immediate awareness and control”. Therefore what appears as choice may also arise in this way.
    3. “the line between voluntary and involuntary does not demarcate our identity, then I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice.”
    4. Nevertheless, there are good social and other reasons why it is good to believe in freewill – “the rational thing to do is to believe that we actually possess this freedom”.
    5. You may think you cannot pretend about this, but if you ask enough “why” questions, you’ll find a cause you cannot explain, and that is where you can see your free will. You cannot distinguish this experience from libertarian freewill.
    6. This is enough. Accept and live a fulfilled life.

    Again, I’ll pause and ask if that is a reasonable summary?

    • Hi Eric,
      Regarding the responses to the original comment:
      #3 – Fair enough
      #5 – I think you’re reading too much into the reasons people don’t accept dualism. You say it’s because people are unwilling to give up a naturalistic bias, but I think it’s simply that they think that’s where the evidence points. Everything else seems to work according to natural laws, and there’s this enormous wall of complexity (and to some extent, ethics) hiding the details of consciousness and free will. If there were no barriers to discovery and it truly appeared that something irregular was occurring then people would follow the evidence. But this isn’t what we have. Instead, we have a young research field of a difficult problem with emerging data showing neural correlates and a separate set of data showing how our neurology is a physical part of our biology.
      The big survey of philosophers showed that nearly 14% believe in libertarian free will. The majority (59%) are compatibilists. I couldn’t find a similar survey for neuroscientists, but anecdotally the percentage of dualists is almost certainly lower than for philosophers. So yes, there isn’t consensus but there is a clear majority. I’m not making an argument from authority, though – just answering the question.
      #6 – I think I need you to try and restate the premise before I can say whether I agree with anything. I’m not exactly sure what I’m evaluating.
      #7 – See my response to #5. Neuroscience is not distrusting human experience; in fact, they’re deeply reliant on it. To quote from my reading this morning: “The correct perspective is to think of subjective reports as raw data … the new science of consciousness makes an enormous use of purely subjective phenomena” (Consciousness and the Brain, Dehaene). Neuroscience is an integrative discipline that links data from the objective and the subjective, not an attempt to eradicate the world of the evils of dualism.

      I think your summary of the post is reasonable.

      As an aside, regarding your summary point B, I’ll note that I’m growing skeptical that it could be any other way. In other words, a sense of autonomy seems unavoidable. If we are caused, then to know how our choices arose we would have to possess another perspective which sees the causal chain, but then from whence do we have the perspective on that other perspective? The expectations that we should be fully aware of our own complete causal chain leads to an infinite regress. I need to dig into that idea further but I thought I’d throw it out here as food for thought. No need to address it directly.

  3. Hi Travis,

    I feel it has been helpful to clarify a few things here. Just to continue a little:

    #5 – the matter I was raising here was not dualism but your statement that we can infer the non-physical (if it exists) by its empirical effect. I was suggesting that no matter how much evidence scientists like Parnia and Beauregard collect for the non-material, naturalist scientists tend not to accept it or they explain it in physical terms. Even if Parnia and Beauregard are right, they will be unlikely to convince staunch naturalist neuroscientists because their evidence cannot be investigated as fully as they would need. This is reflected in the percentages you gave.

    #6 – I was saying in #5 & 6 that science addresses the external world best, but human experience addresses the internal world best. You said that science still depends on subjective experience, but I was just pointing out that it was a particular form of experience which is repeatable by other people, whereas my consciousness is not repeatable by you.

    I think we have enough understanding of these matters, though obviously not full agreement, to move onto my comments. And it is good that you feel I have understood your post sufficiently.

    My feeling is that if a person believes naturalism is true, then something like what you outline is the most reasonable way to think. Yet, you won’t be surprised to know, I feel there are some difficulties with that view. Here are a few thoughts:

    #1. Quite a few years back I read two Daniel Dennett books on choice (Elbow Room and Freedom Evolves) and I found it very difficult to grasp what he was saying. Every sentence made sense, but at the end of each chapter I felt unclear what he’d actually said. I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I felt some of it may have been using some words like “choice” with slightly different meanings in different contexts.

    I think your ideas may have a little of this (if I’m right, then you’re in good company!). “Choice” in normal everyday usage means the opportunity, freedom and ability to take one of several options – i.e. close to libertarian freewill. I think the word carries those overtones even if we rigorously say “choice” isn’t necessarily libertarian. So when you say “I see no reason why the abolition of libertarian free will should be seen to annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice.” I think the proverbial ‘man in the street’ would feel he had been conned – loss of libertarian freewill would be seen by most people as loss of choice period. I think the abolition of libertarian free will really does annihilate the self and render us incapable of choice, it is just blurring of meanings that enable us to escape this melancholy conclusion.

    I think this blurring of concepts, and the overtones of choice, allow compatibilists to feel better without actually being any better off than incompatibilist determinists.

    At the same time as I read the Dennett books, I read about half a dozen books by neuroscientists (people like James Trefil, Alwyn Scott, Todd Feinberg, Richard Restak & Susan Greenfield), and while they presented neuroscience in such a way as left me in no doubt that if they were right, we had no freewill, none of them really addressed the question, and they still used free will and moral responsibility words and concepts.

    Again I think you do a little of the same when you say “You needn’t sacrifice your freedom on the alter of fatalism. You have a choice.”

    #2. I find it very interesting that, in the end, one of your main points is that we don’t really need any more than to feel like we have choice. “We feel a sense of control and operate with the experience of control and this results in outcomes which accord with our choice. Is this not sufficient?” So evolution has led us to the point where we function best, as individuals and as a society, if we believe something that is false? (This is perhaps parallel to the view of some evolutionary psychologists that religion also evolved because it confers survival advantages.)

    This is interesting in two ways. First, in the discussions between atheists and christians, we christians are often told we should get by without our crutch of belief in our sky daddy and base our life on the evidence, and yet here we have fundamental facts about ourselves (if you are right) that we cannot and should not (if “should” means anything) live with. It is at the very least ironic.

    But secondly, replies to the argument from reason (that natural selection selects on survival, not truth, so how can a naturalist believe our cognitive faculties are reliable in determining truth?), naturalists argue that natural selection ensures that our brains do indeed generally reason reliably, otherwise we wouldn’t survive. But here at the core of naturalism is the strong conviction that we need to think falsely to survive, and we cannot really make ourselves do otherwise. So if your post is right, the argument from reason becomes very powerful.

    #3. I know you weren’t discussing whether libertarian freewill was true or false, but these points bear strongly on that argument. As I said in my initial 7 points (and which you haven’t necessarily agreed with), our conclusion on this matter may depend largely on how we value the relative merits of introspection vs external observation. It seems to me that the matters I have discussed here give good reason to doubt the conclusions you draw, for they undercut our ability to draw such conclusions. If we lack libertarian freewill we have little reason to trust our conclusions on the matter. I could develop this thought further, but I’ll stop there for now.

    Thanks again.

    • Hi Eric,
      I’ll just briefly touch on the continued points because I think the other comments are more relevant.

      Regarding #5 – There’s no mashing words here. I think you’re just plain wrong. The scientific acceptance of quantum mechanics is a perfect example of how science moves with the evidence even when it goes against existing paradigms. If there was substantial evidence of something intangible and irregular (i.e., not law-like) then it would be incorporated into the scientific understanding of the world.

      Regarding #6 – I agree that we cannot step into other people’s conscious experience, but that is far from the conclusion that science can say nothing about it.

      I can sympathize with your intuitive sense that compatibilist explanations are just word games on top of incompatibilism. This is why the second section of the post was so important. The point there was to show through relatable examples that the perception of self which accompanies the libertarian perspective is actually inconsistent with the self we know. If we come to grips with this and include our “involuntary self” as part of our identity then the compatibilist position comes into focus. The conception of self is paramount to the discussion of free will.

      Your second point is largely dependent on the acceptance of the first point and the denial that we have a choice. I have already stated that I do not agree with this, so I’m not sure what to say about #2 except to say that I also do not agree with Clifford’s Principle. I am a pragmatist at heart.

      Your last paragraphs are raising the evolutionary argument against naturalism, which I’ve briefly discussed before and engaged on multiple occasions elsewhere, most recently at this blog. I think it is a very interesting argument but I think that it relies on accepting a type of dualism before it is successful. I suspect that some day I will address it more rigorously, but if you want to pursue it further then you’re welcome to start a new comment thread on the post that I linked above.

  4. Hi Travis, I think I’ll stop here – I’m pretty busy right now and I think further discussion would probably repeat.

    I think your comment on #5 shows how far apart we are on this – I think there is “substantial evidence of something intangible and irregular” in our daily experience and which science cannot address, and I think your comment shows that, and yet obviously you still think very differently to me here.

    So thanks again, it has been interesting, though a little frustrating that we seem so irrevocably far apart. 🙁

    • Hey Eric, that’s fine. It seems to me that the gap between our perspectives is somewhat illuminated when you say that “science cannot address” consciousness and free will. I see complexity and inaccessibility as a reasonable and justifiable explanation for the current state of affairs, whereas you see a need for a fundamentally different descriptive paradigm. Sometimes paradigm shifts are necessary, but usually we don’t do that until its clear that the current paradigm, which has extensive inductive support, has failed. I don’t see evidence that neuroscience is ignoring data (e.g., subjective experience) or has failed in its efforts, nor do I see any indication that it is moving in the wrong direction. So we will simply have to agree to disagree. Thanks for the discussion.

  5. Hi Travis, yes I agree with you that this is a key issue, and I think the frustration (for me at any rate) comes not just from the divergence of our views, but from the feeling that we each think the other doesn’t understand our views and therefore doesn’t fully connect with them. I would be interested to see you research and post on “How science addresses the subjective, in relation to consciousness and freewill” – or something like that.

    To give you something to write against or about, my thought, which like I said I don’t feel you’ve fully engaged with yet, is that science deals very well with the objective – whether it be stars, quarks, brains or ornithology – by observing, measuring, doing statistics, etc. But when it comes to the subjective – my consciousness and what it’s like to be a bat – observational science has a difficulty – how does it measure? It seems to me there are two ways in principle ….

    #1. Measure and observe objectively what it can and hope that’s enough. But that way misses the subjective almost totally and tends to end in reductionism where the problem is explained away.

    #2. Collate and analyse subjective reports and hope something comes out of this – e.g. by correlating objective measurement with the subjective reports. This is for example how I understand NDEs are addressed. The problem with this is that these results are generally not accorded the same scientific status, and many people revert back to #1.

    So I think those are the questions worth discussing in greater detail. You may like to post on it, or I may have a go some time. I am heading off tomorrow to your part of the world, so I’ll be in the air, jet-lagged, busy or off the air for a fair bit of the next few days, which is one reason why I thought I’d close off this discussion for now, but hopefully we can address some of these questions some more some time. Thanks and best wishes to you.

    • Eric,
      Maybe I’ll write up something as a follow-on to the book I’m reading. So far, he has addressed that topic quite a bit. The current section has focused on how subliminal cues are used to explore the edge between that which is conscious and that which is unconscious. You’re right that NDE studies aren’t well received but I think that has more to do with the extreme physiological conditions and the dearth of clearly correlated objective data. Anyway, hope you have a fun and safe trip. Pack something warm – just about the whole country is getting blasted with an arctic front.

  6. My position of the whole free will debate comes down to a sort of prisoners dilemma. In that if I have no free will then my refusal to believe in it was forced anyway. There was nothing I could do so why worry about?

    This sort of leaves having a free will as the only live option. The fact that studies show believing in it benefit me is sort of icing on the cake.

    But an interesting question would be what if those studies came in different. What if they redo them in 10 years and the results are the opposite? Should I then adopt the view that I have no free will?

    • if I have no free will then my refusal to believe in it was forced anyway

      This is interesting language. It both assumes that our beliefs are choices (i.e., something which could be refused), and that those choices can be forced (i.e., as if in opposition to some sort of resistance). Are those assumptions you hold or was it just an accident of your phrasing?

      But an interesting question would be what if those studies came in different. What if they redo them in 10 years and the results are the opposite? Should I then adopt the view that I have no free will?

      All else being equal, I would say “yes” with the caveat that I’m not sure we can “adopt the view” in an instant. I see it as more of adopting an attitude about the acceptability of a view, which may eventually lead to actual acceptance of that view by virtue of the processes which shape our beliefs.

      • Hi Travis
        I missed this response. I do think our beliefs involve some volition.

        Can our our choices be forced? Perhaps that is sort of a oxymoron. It might be better to say our choices are illusory.

        My issue is that denying free will seems a dead option. We , I suppose would have no options if there is no free will. But how does one really incorporate that belief into there life?

      • That was sort of the point of the post – to suggest that a disbelief in full libertarian free will is attainable through a pragmatic approach and a new perspective on what it is that defines our self identity.

      • Ok I may not understand the terminology that well. Are you saying if you reject “full libertarian free will” then we have no options? It seems you were saying the opposite. Can we have choices if flfw is false? You seem to indicate we do.

        I guess I am wondering if rejection of flfw is a rejection of the possibility of any free will at all.

      • Are you saying if you reject “full libertarian free will” then we have no options? It seems you were saying the opposite.

        Yes, I was saying the opposite.

        Can we have choices if flfw is false? You seem to indicate we do.

        Correct, I am advocating that we can still make choices.

        I guess I am wondering if rejection of flfw is a rejection of the possibility of any free will at all.

        I suggest that rejection of LFW is not the rejection of the possibility of any free will at all, but that is largely semantic – which is why I prefer to phrase it as “the ability to choose” or something of the sort.

  7. Ok I am trying to get a handle on this.

    I thought you responded to this comment from me:

    “My issue is that denying free will seems a dead option. We , I suppose would have no options if there is no free will. But how does one really incorporate that belief into there life?”

    You said (I think this was a response to this comment but it may have been a different comment):
    “That was sort of the point of the post – to suggest that a disbelief in full libertarian free will is attainable through a pragmatic approach and a new perspective on what it is that defines our self identity.”

    But you see I thought and you now confirm that rejecting FLFW does not mean we have no options and no choices. In other words I thought your blog was a defense of a limited form of free will that is short of FLFW. I was agreeing that it makes sense to support free will in some capacity because if you completely eliminate the notion of choice it seems hard to know how to incorporate that into your life.

    You say:
    “I suggest that rejection of LFW is not the rejection of the possibility of any free will at all, but that is largely semantic – which is why I prefer to phrase it as “the ability to choose” or something of the sort.”

    Again I might not be familiar with the vocabulary here and that might be the root of the problem. But it seems to me that if we have the ability to choose then we have free will. Isn’t that what it means? How is this a semantic issue?

    I realize we may have diminished capacity to choose. And my notion of identity and who I am that is choosing might not be accurate. But at some level there is some ability to choose going on with an entity that we can loosely identify as Joe. Does that make sense?

    • Hey Joe,
      Here’s where the semantics come into play. I want to say that free will = subjective experience of choosing regardless of causation. Determinists and libertarians want to say that free will = uncaused agency performing choice. This makes me a compatibilist, who are criticized by libertarians and determinists for “playing word games” but I think it is just a matter of adopting the appropriate perspective for the situation. From an objective standpoint it is possible to evaluate the nature of reality and conclude that the activity in people’s brains which corresponds with the act of choosing is due to a massive web of causal influences while, at the same time, recognizing that from a subjective perspective we have the experience of choice. Since our choices are only made and known from the subjective perspective then it makes sense to adopt that context, which means we can believe that we have the ability to choose and that we have free will regardless of whether we believe there is an uncaused agent within us or that there was a massive web of causal influences that led to the choice. Forcing myself to adopt the objective perspective to define my subjective experience seems unnecessary, if not impossible. And as noted in the post, it probably doesn’t give us the result we want.

      • Thanks for the explanation. That makes sense to me.

        “Since our choices are only made and known from the subjective perspective then it makes sense to adopt that context, which means we can believe that we have the ability to choose and that we have free will regardless of whether we believe there is an uncaused agent within us or that there was a massive web of causal influences that led to the choice.”

        The question is whether there would be a contradiction in your beliefs that can be teased out here. If there is it would be illogical to hold both beliefs.

        I am not the one who would be able to tease out a contradiction though.

  8. Haven’t read the comments yet, but I thought this was a great post, Travis! The whole free will thing is such a difficult subject, and you did a really nice job making your arguments clear and uncluttered. Loved the Pinnochio references, too. 🙂

    • Thanks Nate! I’m encouraged to hear that you thought this was clear because you’re definitely right that the whole free will discussion is difficult and often becomes bogged down in misunderstandings and semantic disagreements.

  9. Hi Travis,

    Have you found that the benefits of believing in libertarian free will also apply to compatibilists who believe in free will?

    • I think the research has stuck with priming on “free will” without trying to separate between libertarian and compatibilist views. I wouldn’t expect to see a difference, but that’s just a hunch.

      • I have defined free will in a way that makes me a hard determinist, but I think I will try to adopt a compatibilist definition in the hopes of reaping the benefits of believing in free will.

      • As noted in the post, I think the compatibilist view on “free will” is highly related to the definition of “self” that we’re willing to adopt. In my opinion, once you’re willing to accept that “you” includes the pre-conscious \ subconscious causal activities of your brain, compatibilism seems like a natural fit. Then it’s just a matter of figuring out where the self actually ends. I think we tend to use our moral intuitions to make that judgement. If a brain injury leads us to self-destructive proclivities then we would tend to disassociate from that, but if it was a fortuitous injury that improved our behavior we would probably be happy to incorporate it into our sense of self. I think I recall seeing some recent research that supports this stance.

      • I agree that we tend to use our moral intuitions to determine what the “self” is. What do you think of Derek Parfit’s no-further-fact view of personal identity?

      • I think it is correct, although saying it is correct and truly believing it are two different things. I doubt I would go in the teletransporter, even if I was told that the person who will wake up on Mars will be way happier than me.

      • Even if you somehow had 100% assurance that nothing would go wrong, and witnessed others do it with self report that it was no different than going to sleep and waking back up? I’d do it, but I admit even then I would have reservations.

      • That’s a tough one. I think it would depend on how well my life was going at the time. Right now I’m very happy, so I wouldn’t want to risk it. But I may be more open to it if my life got worse. My religious family and friends would not want me to do it, so I’d have to take that into account. And I’m still open to the possibility that there’s a god who has given me a non-teleportable soul. But with all that being said, maybe I would do it anyway. Have you read Reasons and Persons?

      • No, Parfit’s books are a fairly substantial undertaking – but I’ve encountered various other forms of his work over the years. He was a solid thinker and I respect what he’s done.

      • Yes, they are a fairly substantial undertaking. I bought Reasons and Persons just for Part 3. I’ve read part 3, and I’m currently reading Part 4. I’m going to change the topic of my senior seminar paper to Parfit’s repugnant conclusion; I just have to make it mathematical enough.

        I checked out your books on Goodreads, and I saw that you gave The Big Picture by Sean Carroll 5 stars. I read the chapter of The Big Picture on the PSR in Barnes and Noble, and I thought it was good. However, I then read Matt’s post on the PSR and discussed it with him, and I ended up feeling that Carrol had not done enough to address the arguments for the PSR. But maybe I’d find the rest of The Big Picture to be more helpful. Would you recommend it?

      • It’s been a while, but yes, I thought he did a good job with the book. His Mindscape podcast is also worth a subscription if you haven’t already. He’s not afraid to tackle philosophical issues, unlike some physicists.

      • I know that regarding the laws of nature, Carroll subscribes to regularity theory. Did he discuss regularity theory in the book?

      • OK cool. I would like to learn more about regularity theory. Are you a regularist or a necessitarian?

      • I lean toward the regularist side, but I haven’t spent a ton of time trying to resolve that. I do favor interpreting our current ‘laws’ as merely our best attempts to model reality, but that is primarily an epistemic position. My pragmatism, however, leads me to accept that pragmatic limitation for what it is without committing myself to some inscrutable claim about the underlying reality (i.e. there may actually be some fundamental necessary laws, but we probably won’t ever really know).

      • I find the difference between regularity theory and necessitarian theory confusing. In the IEP article below, the author, Norman Swartz, claims that what differentiates regularity theory and necessitarian theory is that regularity theory claims that the laws of nature are not physically necessary, while necessitarian theory claims that the laws of nature are physically necessary.

        https://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

        I would normally interpret the term “physically necessary” in this context as meaning it was impossible for the laws of nature to have been different. However, I think this physical necessity is just referring to it being necessary for the universe to “obey” the laws of nature, regardless of whether the laws of nature themselves are necessary or contingent. I think some necessitarians would say the laws of nature could have been different. These necessitarians would say that the laws of nature are contingent, but since the laws of nature are the way they are, it is necessary for the universe to “obey” these laws of nature, even though the laws of nature themselves are contingent.

        In the article, Swartz also gives five conditions that regularists and necessitarians agree are necessary for a statement to be a law of nature. Swartz says regularists claim these five conditions are jointly sufficient for a statement to be a law of nature, while necessitarians claim these five conditions are not jointly sufficient for a statement to be a law of nature.

        Since you lean toward the regularist side, would you say the laws of nature describe the world rather than govern the world?

      • I would say that the world is the way it is, and the “laws of nature” are descriptions of the way it is, and I don’t see reason to assume anything beyond that. I think the “accidental truths” argument is readily addressed by incorporating reduction into the equation. Maybe the table could add a 6th condition that says Laws of Nature “are not apparently reducible to other laws”. Then pretty much everything in the case for necessitarianism would go away. And this 6th condition does nothing to infer that the irreducible laws of nature are governing. They can still be descriptions.

      • I’ve always had trouble understanding regularity theory. If I hold an apple above the ground and let go of it, would you say there is a reason that the apple falls to the ground? If so, what is this reason? If the reason is “That’s the way the world is,” then I’m confused about how this is different than a law of nature governing the world.

      • The difference, to me, lies in the link between metaphysics and epistemology. A theory \ model \ description of nature is pretty much just an epistemic claim that “observations of type X can be predicted by theory Y” and there are no further metaphysical claims. We have no access beyond Y (for now) and so make no claims about what it is. It exists only at the level of a description. The step of assigning a particular metaphysical status to Y is a step I don’t want to make because I don’t know how to support any further claims beyond the description itself. My understanding is that the necessitarian is taking that step (this is noted as one of the objections in the IEP article).

      • So using the apple example, would you say “Our observation of the behavior of the apple can be predicted by the law of universal gravitation”? You wouldn’t go a step further and say that gravity is “real”? If gravity is not real, then why does the apple fall to the ground? Would you say “There may be something that causes the apple to fall to the ground, but there is no way to know what this thing is”?

      • Would you say “There may be something that causes the apple to fall to the ground, but there is no way to know what this thing is”?

        Yes, with the addendum of “… what this thing is beyond our description \ model \ theory“.

      • OK. In Matt’s post on the PSR, he argued that if the PSR if false, then this invalidates inductive and abductive reasoning. How would you respond to this argument?

      • Justifying induction by induction is circular, but I’m not sure why that’s a problem. When a model has historically been an excellent predictor to date, it’s reasonable to think it will continue as such regardless of any assumptions about the ultimate reality behind the model. I don’t feel the need to commit to some metaphysic as further justification. What is the justification for that metaphysic? Because it provides an explanation? That’s also circular because the justification is the very problem it aims to address. So there’s two competing circularities and one of them throws in an additional assumption (a metaphysical claim). For the time being, I prefer the one with fewer assumptions.

      • OK. Going back to the apple example, would you say it is possible that nothing causes dropped apples to fall to the ground? If there is nothing that causes apples to fall to the ground, then is it just a coincidence that all dropped apples fall to the ground?

      • it is possible that nothing causes dropped apples to fall to the ground?

        Keeping my reduction clarification in mind (apple dropping descriptions can be reduced to a gravity description), the question is whether it is possible that nothing causes gravity. Yes. It’s possible that gravity is a brute fact. But that does not mean it is prescriptive rather than descriptive. It’s possible that our notion of causation is inaccurate or incomplete. For example, it could be that a block universe in its entirety is a brute fact with no explanation, and the causation we observe within the universe is an artifact of our relationship to the time dimension. In that case, you can take a God’s eye view of the block and see gravity manifest everywhere that spacetime warps in proportion to mass, and from that perspective gravity is not dictating reality but is rather just a feature of the block universe that requires a relatively small information burden to achieve a (nearly?) universal description. I’m not saying that this is how it is, but it is a possibility.

        Then there’s also the consideration that our descriptions are dependent on our epistemic position, and our models are not identical to the things they’re modeling (unless you’re Max Tegmark). So there’s a relational gap between description \ model \ theory and reality. That same gap applies to the notion of ‘explanation’. Every explanation is not identical to the thing being explained. It is, at best, a cognitive approximation of some aspect of reality. We don’t know what exactly it is approximating, and possibly cannot “know” in the most complete sense. This is part of why I am drawn to pragmatic theories of truth.

        Both of these considerations are intended to capture facets of our uncertain epistemic relation to the fundamental nature of reality. It seems to me that this epistemic humility is more at home in the regularist camp than in the necessitarian camp.

      • I think it’s possible that the universe is a block universe, and that gravity is a brute fact. However, I think we still need to answer the following questions:

        Why is the law of gravity an effective description/model/theory?
        Will all objects continue to behave according to the law of gravity?
        If the answer to (2) is “Yes,” why is the answer “Yes”?

        It is possible that our universe is a block universe and that our understanding of causation is wrong, but even if both of these possibilities are the case, it is still the case that the law of gravity is effective at telling us what certain parts of the block universe will be like. It seems to me that the only way for gravity to be an effective dmt is if there is a reason that all objects have behaved, currently behave, and will behave according to the law of gravity. This reason may be the law of gravity itself, or something else. It seems to me that any answer to (1) will make the answer to (2) “Yes.” If the answer to (2) is “Yes,” then I can’t think of an answer to (3) that does not entail what I understand as necessitarian theory. But I’m still having trouble understanding regularity theory and necessitarian theory.

        I saw an interview on Closer to Truth where Tegmark said something along the lines of “Mathematics caused the universe to exist,” and when the interviewer asked him how an abstract thing can have causal powers, he didn’t seem to know what to say.

      • Why is the law of gravity an effective description/model/theory?

        Because its predictions match observations.

        Will all objects continue to behave according to the law of gravity?

        Key word is all. I don’t know. Nearly all objects will.

        If the answer to (2) is “Yes,” why is the answer “Yes”?

        Because historically it has seemed to consistently hold for circumstances similar to those under which the model has been derived. Edge cases may reveal issues (we’re already postulating dark matter to address some observations). This justification is the circular induction I previously noted. But if we had a God’s eye view of a block universe the answer would be “because I can see that it does”.

      • Why do the predictions of gravity continue to match observations? I know that at some point, we’re going to arrive at a brute fact, but I think the law of gravity itself is the brute fact. I think the reason the predictions of gravity match observations is that gravity causes objects to behave a certain way. If we ask why someone was shot, then the fact that there is a bullet in his head explains how we know he was shot, but it does not explain why he was shot. I meant to ask a question similar to “Why the man was shot?”, not “How do we know he was shot?”

      • Why do you assume that the brute fact is the causative law? Put yourself in that God’s eye view of a block universe. It is static. There is no causation. Gravity is just a consistent pattern in the block. If this (and possibly other non-causative accounts) is a possibly correct interpretation and we have no way to adjudicate between interpretations, then it seems premature to just assume that the causative version is correct. I’m not ruling it out. I’m just not taking that extra step of making that assumption.

      • Based on my understanding of necessitarian theory, it seems to me that even if the universe is static and there is no causation, the necessitarian theory is still a better fit. It would still be the case that gravity is a consistent pattern in the block. Why is gravity a consistent pattern? The answer to that may be a brute fact. However, it is still the case that objects will behave according to the law of gravity in the “future.” It seems to me that the best explanation for this is that gravity is real, rather than just a description of a consistent pattern. Even if gravity is not real, there would still be a consistent pattern. The consistent pattern may be a brute fact, but the fact that there is a consistent pattern makes me lean toward necessitarian theory.

      • Hmm. The IEP article says that for both views a law is “true for every time and every place in the universe”. Call this criteria 2. In the block universe example, this is the consistent pattern that you think favors necessitarian theory, but by Criteria 2 the existence of the pattern does not favor one or the other. I have therefore interpreted the necessitarian position as requiring an additional inviolable controlling power which is responsible for the structure of the universe, such that it is not even possible that the block universe actualized a deviation to the pattern anywhere (which, under regularity, would “downgrade” it from law status, because Criteria 2 is not met). Would you agree with that interpretation of the distinction? If so, what additional information do you think you have that supports the necessitarian claim to the existence of the controlling power? If not, how would you distinguish between the two views?

      • When you refer to “an additional inviolable controlling power which is responsible for the structure of the universe,” which of the following would this be?

        1. A power that explains why the universe has a certain set of laws of nature and not a different set of laws of nature
        2. A power that explains why everything obeys the laws of nature

        If necessitarian theory requires (1), then I am not a necessitarian, but if necessitarian only requires (2), then I am a necessitarian.

      • I think the block universe is possible. I am claiming that the two following propositions are not equivalent:

        (1) It is a brute fact that things obey certain laws of nature.
        (2) At no point in time was it necessary that things will continue to obey the laws of nature (the real laws of nature, not our possibly wrong understanding of the laws of nature).

        I think (1) is likely. I think that if (2) is true, then a remarkable number of coincidences have occurred in order for things to have obeyed the law of gravity in every observable scenario. My understanding of necessitarian theory is that if (2) is false, then necessitarian theory is true. I think the most likely scenario is that the laws of nature of our universe did not have to be the laws of nature of our universe, but since they are the laws of nature of our universe, going forward, everything has to obey these laws of nature.

        Are you a scientific realist?

        I labelled the two propositions in my last comment, but for some reason the numbers didn’t show up. [Travis: Fixed it]

      • Sorry if this is getting old, but I’m going to stick with talking about the block universe example because I think that’s the easiest way to examine the point I’m trying to make. You say the block universe is possible. To be clear, the block universe is a brute fact 4-dimensional entity that is not explained. It does not come into existence. It just is. So let me restate your two propositions for this scenario:
        (1) It is a brute fact that [the universe is consistently structured such that, from a temporal perspective,] things [appear to] obey certain laws of nature.
        (2) At no point in [the] time [dimension] was it necessary that [the structure be consistent with other points in the time dimension].

        In the block universe scenario, these propositions are effectively equivalent because (1) precludes explanation for the consistent structure by labeling it a brute fact, and (2) precludes explanation for the consistent structure by excluding a controlling power that made it necessary.

        Maybe it would help to put my position into a syllogism and you can tell me where you think something is wrong. This will also distinguish between a strong and weak regularist to help explain why I say that I “lean” toward regularity theory.

        Definitions
        D1: A necessitarian claims that the actual state of affairs includes a controlling power which dictates the structure of the universe.
        D2: A strong regularist claims that the actual state of affairs DOES NOT include a controlling power which dictates the structure of the universe.
        D3: A weak regularist claims that there is not evidence for a controlling power which dictates the structure of the universe.
        D4: A brute fact is a fact that does not have explanation.

        Syllogism
        P1: We should only judge that state of affairs S0 is possibly the actual state of affairs if we can see that S0 is compatible with our evidence about the universe.
        P2: The brute fact block universe is compatible with our evidence about the universe.
        P3: The brute fact block universe, by D4, does not entail a controlling power which dictates the structure of the universe.
        C1: If the brute fact block universe is possible, then it is also possible that there is not a controlling power which dictates the structure of the universe.

        If you accept C1 then, by definition D3, you are at least a weak regularist. I accept C1 but do not assent to the claim of D2, so I count myself a weak regularist. My suspicion is that you actually agree with this, but would adopt an additional definition.
        D5: A weak necessitarian claims that the structure of the universe is more probably attributed to a controlling power than to brute fact.

        We possibly diverge in that I’m not sure why I should accept the claim of D5. Assuming I’ve accurately stated our positions, do you think there are reasons for the claim of D5, or is it just intuition?

      • Thanks for explaining that to me. Sorry if I’m slow to understand; I started to read about the laws of nature pretty recently.

        I’m not sure I fully understand what it means for there to be a controlling power. I think the best way for me to demonstrate my current understanding is with elementary cellular automaton.

        http://mathworld.wolfram.com/ElementaryCellularAutomaton.html

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_cellular_automaton

        I imagine the block universe as having four dimensions, although maybe it would have more if string theory is true. We can imagine a universe with only one spatial dimension, as well as one temporal dimension. We can call this universe the square universe. In order to make the square universe as simple as possible, suppose there is only one type of particle in this universe. Also, suppose that space is discrete and is made up of distinct units. Each unit of space (cell) either has a particle in it or it does not, and each particle fills up one full cell. The universe is spatially finite, so each row has a finite number of cells. Also, all rows will have the same number of cells.

        Suppose each row represents the spatial configuration of the universe at one point in the time dimension. Suppose moving down means moving “forward” one Planck second.

        Suppose that in this universe, particles do not move. Particles pop into existence, but they do not pop out of existence. Particles stay in existence forever once they pop into existence.

        Suppose this universe only has one law of nature. This law of nature allows one to predict the configuration of a row if one knows the configuration of any row that is above the row (any row that is “before,” although this is assuming B-theory of time). Suppose the law of nature in this universe is rule 222. Since rule 222 is deterministic, the universe is deterministic. Rule 222 allows one to know the configuration of all rows of the universe if one knows the configuration of the first row.

        What I’m asking is if we’re dealing with a situation where something makes it so that whichever rule that applies to one row applies to all other rows, or if it is just a coincidence that whichever rule applies to one row applies to all other rows. Are you saying it is possible it is a coincidence that rule 222 applies to the second row, to the third row, and to all other rows? It seems to me that it is probably the case that something makes it so that whichever rule applies to one row applies to all other rows. My understanding is that this entails the necessitarian view.

        Suppose the universe is only 100 spatial units wide, and will only last for 100 Planck seconds. This means that there are 10,000 cells in the universe. Thus, there are 2^10,000 possible configurations of the entire square. You can say it is a brute fact that the configuration of the square is what it is. However, it is very unlikely that whichever rule applies to one row applies to all 99 other rows.

      • Please don’t feel the need to apologize. The back and forth is just the nature of these kinds of discussions. I think we’ve made good progress on clarifying our positions and everything you’ve said is completely reasonable. Maybe you can even persuade me that it is the way to go.

        First, I’m reading you as agreeing to my previous comment, wherein you’re saying that a brute fact universe is possible, but it is highly improbable that it would have a consistent pattern, so you associate with the necessetarian view (what I called a “weak necessitarian”) rather than the regularist view. Is that fair?

        Second, your discussion of the ECA universe suggests that the cell states can only be random or rule based. I have several questions on this:
        1) Is the intended implication that regularity theory is an ECA universe where a rule can be derived to predict all cell states even though the states were randomly specified, and necessitariansim is an ECA universe where all cell states are actually specified by a rule (and an initial condition)? What do we call a universe where the cells are 0.1% random and 99.9% rule based? Or a universe that is 100% rule based, but the rule includes a randomizing factor?
        2) What is the definition that distinguishes between random and rule based? This will be useful in clarifying what I mean by “controlling power”. It is also a very open ended question and I see several different directions it could go. One example is:
        2a) Is there a limit on the complexity of the rule which governs the universe? If so, what is the limit? For example, does it count as a rule if it prescribes the state of each cell without any dependencies on other cells – or is that the same being random?
        3) Assuming that the actual universe is either regularist or necessitarian, does this entail that the actual universe can be described by a formal system in the same way that a regularist or necessitarian ECA universe can? Is it possible that we are imposing that structure?

        That’s a lot of questions and I could probably keep going, but it’s relevant because I’m finding myself revisiting the epistemic concerns that I have with a necessitarian view. Recall that my “weak regularist” definition was simply “that there is not evidence for a controlling power which dictates the structure of the universe”. These questions are working toward establishing what that evidence would look like.

      • I just realized the particles would be able to pop out of existence as well based on the way ECA works. I will respond to your comment after I get some sleep.

      • “First, I’m reading you as agreeing to my previous comment, wherein you’re saying that a brute fact universe is possible, but it is highly improbable that it would have a consistent pattern, so you associate with the necessetarian view (what I called a “weak necessitarian”) rather than the regularist view. Is that fair?”

        Yes, that is fair. I think the necessitarian view is the better explanation of the consistent pattern.

        “1) Is the intended implication that regularity theory is an ECA universe where a rule can be derived to predict all cell states even though the states were randomly specified, and necessitariansim is an ECA universe where all cell states are actually specified by a rule (and an initial condition)? What do we call a universe where the cells are 0.1% random and 99.9% rule based? Or a universe that is 100% rule based, but the rule includes a randomizing factor?

        “2) What is the definition that distinguishes between random and rule based? This will be useful in clarifying what I mean by “controlling power”. It is also a very open ended question and I see several different directions it could go. One example is:

        “2a) Is there a limit on the complexity of the rule which governs the universe? If so, what is the limit? For example, does it count as a rule if it prescribes the state of each cell without any dependencies on other cells – or is that the same being random?”

        I am defining a rule as something that made it so that for any given cell, there was actually an x% chance of the cell being filled. The value of x can be 100 or less than 100. The value of x may or may not be the same for each cell. The value of x may be affected by the states of other cells, as in rule 222.

        I am defining a brute fact such that a cell’s state was a brute fact if and only if nothing made it so that there was actually an x% chance of the cell being filled.

        The implication is that regularity theory is an ECA universe where at least one cell state is a brute fact, and a rule might happen to be applicable to all rows. Necessitarianism is an ECA universe where for each cell, a rule actually determined the probability of the cell being filled.

        What we would call a universe where the cells are 0.1% random and 99.9% rule based would depend on if any of the cell’s states are brute facts. My understanding is that if any of the cell’s states are brute facts, then that is regularity theory. This would mean there is at least one cell where no rule made it so that there was an x% chance of the cell being filled.

        If a universe is 100% rule based, but the rule includes a randomizing factor, then whether the universe is necessitarian depends on what it means for there to be a randomizing factor. The universe is necessitarian so long as the randomizing factor does not allow any of the cell’s states to be a brute fact.

        “3) Assuming that the actual universe is either regularist or necessitarian, does this entail that the actual universe can be described by a formal system in the same way that a regularist or necessitarian ECA universe can? Is it possible that we are imposing that structure?”

        I think it is possible that we are imposing this structure. It was really just a way for me to demonstrate my understanding of regularity theory and necessitarian theory.

      • This is good. It’s very helpful to have these more precise definitions.

        First, some clarifications:

        I am defining a rule as something that made it so that for any given cell, there was actually an x% chance of the cell being filled. … I am defining a brute fact such that a cell’s state was a brute fact if and only if nothing made it so that there was actually an x% chance of the cell being filled.

        OK, so even a prescription with a perfectly flat probability distribution across all possible states counts as a rule. A brute fact is truly non-probabilistic; we can derive an a posteriori probability distribution of states, but a cell state is NOT in any way dependent on something which prescribes that distribution. That is consistent with my understanding of what is meant by a brute fact. I think we’re on the same page here.

        regularity theory is … where at least one cell state is a brute fact … Necessitarianism is … where for each cell, a rule actually determined the probability of the cell being filled

        I need further clarification. Given that a cell state can only either be rule based or brute fact, are you saying:
        a) Necessitarianism is true if the state of every cell in the universe is prescribed by the same rule.
        b) Regularity theory is true if the state of at least one cell in the universe is a brute fact.
        c) Neither necessitarianism nor regularity theory are true if every cell in the universe is prescribed by a rule, but not all by the same rule.
        … or are you saying something different? An example analog of (c) is a universe where MOND is true.

        And then some follow-up questions:
        1) At the end of the comment where you introduced the ECA universe, you explained your preference for necessitarianism by saying that “it is very unlikely that whichever rule applies to one row applies to all 99 other rows.” Given the clarifications above, this would now be something like “if even one cell is a brute fact then it is very unlikely that its state would fit the rule used by all other cells”. Of course, in the ECA universe this is actually 50% likely, so there must be some other factor behind your preference that isn’t being captured by the ECA universe example. Can you identify what that factor is? If it is simply that actual universe’s set of possible states is far more numerous than the 1 and 0 of ECA, how does that solution fit with the definition of a brute fact being non-probabilistic? Isn’t the claim treating the brute fact as a flat probability distribution rule?
        2) The ECA rules are neighbor dependent, and so are like laws of physics which have input variables. In order for these rules to work, there must an initial state which is itself either a brute fact or prescribed by some different rule that doesn’t have inputs. How does this fit into the necessitarianism paradigm?

      • “OK, so even a prescription with a perfectly flat probability distribution across all possible states counts as a rule. A brute fact is truly non-probabilistic; we can derive an a posteriori probability distribution of states, but a cell state is NOT in any way dependent on something which prescribes that distribution. That is consistent with my understanding of what is meant by a brute fact. I think we’re on the same page here.”

        Right, I think we’re on the same page too.

        “I need further clarification. Given that a cell state can only either be rule based or brute fact, are you saying:
        a) Necessitarianism is true if the state of every cell in the universe is prescribed by the same rule.
        b) Regularity theory is true if the state of at least one cell in the universe is a brute fact.
        c) Neither necessitarianism nor regularity theory are true if every cell in the universe is prescribed by a rule, but not all by the same rule.
        … or are you saying something different? An example analog of (c) is a universe where MOND is true.”

        I was saying (b); regularity theory is true if and only if the state of at least one cell in the universe is a brute fact. Necessitarianism does not require that the state of every cell in the universe is prescribed by the same rule.

        Adopting (b) may not be the best representation of the difference between regularity theory and necessitarian theory. My main point is that we seem to be dealing with a situation where a rule like rule 222 applies to every cell. Using the theory of gravity as an example, it seems that every time an object is dropped above the Earth’s surface, it falls to the Earth’s surface. There may be exceptions to the our theory of gravity. It is possible that our theory of gravity is inaccurate and needs to be modified to resolve these exceptions. However, it still seems to be the case that gravity always apply to objects that are dropped above the Earth’s surface. If gravity always applies to these objects, then I think we are dealing with a situation where rule 222 always applies. Even if there are times when gravity does not apply to dropped objects, the fact that gravity applies to dropped objects in all or most observable cases suggests to me that there is rule that makes it so that gravity always or almost always applies to dropped objects. My understanding of regularity theory is that if regularity theory is true, then when an object is dropped, there is nothing that makes it so that the object must fall to the ground. This seems unlikely to me. But I think it’s more likely than not that my understanding of regularity theory is incorrect.

        “1) At the end of the comment where you introduced the ECA universe, you explained your preference for necessitarianism by saying that “it is very unlikely that whichever rule applies to one row applies to all 99 other rows.” Given the clarifications above, this would now be something like “if even one cell is a brute fact then it is very unlikely that its state would fit the rule used by all other cells”. Of course, in the ECA universe this is actually 50% likely, so there must be some other factor behind your preference that isn’t being captured by the ECA universe example. Can you identify what that factor is? If it is simply that actual universe’s set of possible states is far more numerous than the 1 and 0 of ECA, how does that solution fit with the definition of a brute fact being non-probabilistic? Isn’t the claim treating the brute fact as a flat probability distribution rule?
        “2) The ECA rules are neighbor dependent, and so are like laws of physics which have input variables. In order for these rules to work, there must an initial state which is itself either a brute fact or prescribed by some different rule that doesn’t have inputs. How does this fit into the necessitarianism paradigm?”

        Assuming the universe does not have an infinite past, I imagine that the initial state of the universe was a brute fact. We can imagine that the first row of the ECA universe has only one cell filled as its brute fact initial state. In the 10×10 square universe, this means there are only 90 cells that have to be determined. If we imagine that rule 222 applies to 89 of these cells, and if the state of the last cell is a brute fact, then there is a 50% chance that rule 222 would apply to the last cell. However, I think we are dealing with a situation where a rule like rule 222 applies to an extremely high number of cells. I think the best explanation of the fact that the same rule applies to every or nearly every cell is that there is something that makes it so that this rule will apply to every or nearly every cell.

        If you had to guess, do you think the universe has an infinite or a finite past?

      • Liam,
        Sorry for the slow response. I’m fairly busy right now and this dialogue was temporarily sacrificed.

        Just to make sure we’re on the same page with the latest clarifications:
        1) A rule is something which dictates the probability of actualizing a cell state. A brute fact is a cell state that is not explained by a rule, even if it fits the pattern prescribed by a rule. Rule based cell states and brute fact cell states exhaust all possible types of cell states.
        2) Necessitarianism is true if the state of every cell in the universe, except an initial state, is prescribed by a rule (but not necessicarily all by the same rule).
        3) Regularity theory is true if any cell in the universe, except an initial state, is a brute fact.

        My understanding of regularity theory is that if regularity theory is true, then when an object is dropped, there is nothing that makes it so that the object must fall to the ground. This seems unlikely to me. But I think it’s more likely than not that my understanding of regularity theory is incorrect.

        The understanding of regularity theory you give here is what I labeled as “strong regularist”. I came into this with the understanding that I labeled as “weak regularist”. From my perspective, the goal of the current dialogue is to examine whether there is reason to prefer what I labeled “weak necessitarisn” over the “weak regularist” view.

        I think we are dealing with a situation where a rule like rule 222 applies to an extremely high number of cells. I think the best explanation of the fact that the same rule applies to every or nearly every cell is that there is something that makes it so that this rule will apply to every or nearly every cell.

        In the previous comment I noted that this seems to treat brute facts as if they are a rule with a flat probability distribution. If we were comparing rule 222 to the flat distribution rule, then it would be clear that rule 222 is the better explanation. But the definition of ‘brute fact’ defies that kind of analysis.

        The allowance of brute facts to support the initial state further muddies the water:
        a) Is there a difference between a non-initial state brute fact cell and an initial state brute fact cell? If there is no difference then the theories should swap – necessitarianism becomes “if the state of at least one cell is prescribed by a rule” and regularity theory becomes “if every cell is a brute fact” – which is just the block universe case.
        b) What is the appropriate scope of the brute fact cells before it starts to look improbable? Presumably the brute fact block universe wouldn’t seem improbable in a 1 or 2 cell universe. At what point does it start to look improbable if we’re not treating ‘brute fact’ as if it were a flat probability distribution? If the difficulty of evaluating a non-probabilitistic brute fact possibility is itself the reason to discount it, why is that reason not equally applicable to the universe with a “smaller” brute fact initial state? Seems like that objection leads to an infinite regress.

        If you had to guess, do you think the universe has an infinite or a finite past?

        I used to doubt the existence of actual infinites, but I’m now agnostic on that. So I’d flip a coin.

      • Hi Travis,

        “Just to make sure we’re on the same page with the latest clarifications:
        1) A rule is something which dictates the probability of actualizing a cell state. A brute fact is a cell state that is not explained by a rule, even if it fits the pattern prescribed by a rule. Rule based cell states and brute fact cell states exhaust all possible types of cell states.
        2) Necessitarianism is true if the state of every cell in the universe, except an initial state, is prescribed by a rule (but not necessicarily all by the same rule).
        3) Regularity theory is true if any cell in the universe, except an initial state, is a brute fact.”

        Yes, I think we are on the same page.

        “The understanding of regularity theory you give here is what I labeled as “strong regularist”. I came into this with the understanding that I labeled as “weak regularist”. From my perspective, the goal of the current dialogue is to examine whether there is reason to prefer what I labeled “weak necessitarisn” over the “weak regularist” view.”

        Yes, that is also the goal of the dialogue for me.

        “In the previous comment I noted that this seems to treat brute facts as if they are a rule with a flat probability distribution. If we were comparing rule 222 to the flat distribution rule, then it would be clear that rule 222 is the better explanation. But the definition of ‘brute fact’ defies that kind of analysis.”

        If the state of a cell is a brute fact, then there cannot be something that makes one cell state more likely than the other. Thus, I think we have to treat brute facts as a flat probability distribution rule.

        “a) Is there a difference between a non-initial state brute fact cell and an initial state brute fact cell? If there is no difference then the theories should swap – necessitarianism becomes “if the state of at least one cell is prescribed by a rule” and regularity theory becomes “if every cell is a brute fact” – which is just the block universe case.”

        I think there is a difference between a non-initial state brute fact cell and an initial state brute fact cell. Each row is meant to represent the configuration of the universe at a certain point in time. The states of the cells in the first row cannot be determined by the states of the cells in any temporally-prior rows, so the state of each cell in the first row will either be a brute fact, determined by a probabilistic rule, or determined by one or more cells of future rows, in which case there is backwards causation.

        “b) What is the appropriate scope of the brute fact cells before it starts to look improbable? Presumably the brute fact block universe wouldn’t seem improbable in a 1 or 2 cell universe. At what point does it start to look improbable if we’re not treating ‘brute fact’ as if it were a flat probability distribution? If the difficulty of evaluating a non-probabilitistic brute fact possibility is itself the reason to discount it, why is that reason not equally applicable to the universe with a “smaller” brute fact initial state? Seems like that objection leads to an infinite regress.”

        I forgot to say in my previous comment that I would treat brute facts as if they are a flat probability distribution rule.

        “I used to doubt the existence of actual infinites, but I’m now agnostic on that. So I’d flip a coin.”

        Do you think there can be an infinite past without the cyclic model being correct? Do you think the second law of thermodynamics would not necessarily apply to previous cycles of the universe?

      • If the state of a cell is a brute fact, then there cannot be something that makes one cell state more likely than the other. Thus, I think we have to treat brute facts as a flat probability distribution rule.

        If we were predicting that state of a brute fact cell, then I agree we would have no choice but to apply the principle of indifference. But the scenario we’re interested in is an a posterior assessment of brute fact vs rule based accountings of observed states. If we favor the rule based option because it is a better match to the prediction, that result is merely due to the fact that the brute fact condition is uninformative and the rule based condition is informative. But that disparity is erased once the observations are in place, because the principle of indifference no longer applies to the brute fact scenario. At that point it seems to me that neither scenario can be judged as more probable.

        Do you think there can be an infinite past without the cyclic model being correct? Do you think the second law of thermodynamics would not necessarily apply to previous cycles of the universe?

        Yes, but mostly just because the theoretical landscape on cosmic origins is so diverse and unsettled that just about any explanation is possible.

      • I’m still trying to figure out how brute facts should be treated. Suppose you are given a coin and are told that one of the following is the case:

        Every time you flip the coin, the outcome will be a brute fact.
        There is something that makes it so that the coin will always land on heads.

        Suppose you flip the coin 100 times, and all 100 flips are heads. Are you saying that the second scenario cannot be judged as more probable than the first?

      • Brute facts have no predictive information content. By definition, the fact “just is” without any causal or explanatory attachments. The flat probability distribution that is applied, per the principle of indifference, when attempting to make a prediction is purely epistemic and is due to the absence of information – it is not representative of the brute fact itself. If your example was instead:

        1. Every time you flip the coin, it is a brute fact that the outcome will be heads.
        2. There is something that makes it so that the coin will always land on heads.

        Then there would no longer be any reason to judge the second scenario more probable, but the only thing that has changed is that you’ve moved the point in time at which the additional information about the brute fact is available. We could also change the example to reverse the intuition:

        1. Every time you flip the coin, it is a brute fact that the outcome will be heads.
        2. The coin operates according to a rule.

        Now it seems like the brute fact option is more probable upon seeing 100 heads because we’ve excluded predictive information from the rule based scenario. We have to infer that the rule might be “always lands on heads”, and that is less certain than the explicit brute fact scenario.

      • I think there is a difference between the two following statements:

        C. Every time you flip the coin, it will be a brute fact that the outcome is heads.
        D. It is a brute fact that every time you flip the coin, the outcome will be heads.

        I interpret (C) as a scenario where there is a flat probability distribution, and the odds of all flips being heads is 1/(2^n), where n is the number of flips. I interpret (D) as a scenario where there is a rule whose existence is a brute fact. Thus, I interpret (C) as being representative of regularity theory, and I interpret (D) as being representative of a variant of necessitarian theory. Would you treat (A) as being equivalent to (C) or to (D)?

      • OK. I think you’re saying that in (C) the brute fact is only the result, not the process, and there’s a flat probability distribution because there is nothing which drives the result. Correct? We can go ahead and equate that to (A) and as being representative of regularity theory. Why do you interpret this as having a flat probability distribution when it explicitly says that the outcome is heads?

      • Yes, that is correct.

        I think I should have expressed C as follows:

        C. Every time you flip the coin, there is nothing that drives the result. However, it keeps happening to be a brute fact that the outcome is heads.

        I would interpret this as having a flat probability distribution.

        I think there are brute facts, but I still find the idea of brute facts to be mind-boggling. I can see the appeal of the PSR.

      • Hmm. I’m not sure how to reconcile our views on that. If a brute fact exhibits a particular distribution then that is the distribution. I don’t see why we would treat it as if we were unaware of that distribution and assume a flat distribution. In fact, it seems to me that the assumption of a flat distribution defies the definition of a brute fact by imposing a rule on it.

      • I think we’re approaching it differently. Suppose someone flips a coin 100 times. Your approach seems to be that the conjunction of all of the outcomes is a brute fact, whereas I’m thinking of it as each individual outcome is a brute fact. Perhaps my understanding of brute facts is causing me to take the wrong approach.

      • Why do you think it is more likely than not that there is a consistent pattern at all or most parts of the block universe? What makes you assign a low probability to the possibility that although there has been a consistent pattern in observed locations in the block universe, there will not be a consistent pattern at locations in the “near future” of the block universe?

      • It’s purely inductive. The assumption has worked at every point in time thus far, so it looks to be a good bet to continue. From a Bayesian perspective, you’re taking everything that is known to date and using it to build a prior without including a rule as part of the prior. The prior is still ridiculously high.

      • I think the reason induction works is that something causes the laws of nature to be consistent. It seems incredibly unlikely to me that the laws of nature would be consistent if there was nothing that caused them to be consistent. Maybe that means there’s some sort of meta law of nature.

        I think the point I’m trying to make is similar to what Matt was getting at when he said that the falsity of the PSR would invalidate inductive and abductive reasoning. I don’t agree that the falsity of the PSR invalidates inductive and abductive reasoning, but I do think regularity theory does. Matt would probably be able to defend necessitarian theory better than I can.

      • Or induction could work because the universe has a consistent structure from which we derive the laws – but that just goes back to where the conversation starts. I’m inclined to think that we hit the root cause when we differed on whether brute facts should be treated as having a flat probability distribution.

        I discovered a sort of middle option that may be worth exploring. I’ve only read the first part of the dissertation linked below, but I am intrigued by the proposal of laws emerging from symmetry principles: “What we have now are mathematically
        grounded principles, so logically necessary truths, that suffice to constrain the time evolution of every elementary field or entity.
        Given the ubiquitous far-reaching role of symmetries, we could now
        explain what grounds the non-accidental regularities and the very
        notion of law.”

        The author is sympathetic to your preference for a flat distribution and even has a forthcoming paper arguing that case, but still places himself in the deflationary camp with the above emergence proposal.

        https://philarchive.org/rec/FILSRW-3

      • The dissertation looks interesting; I’ll try to read it. I like the idea of a middle option.

      • Noting that the IEP article infers that regularists are non-reductive. That might be the root of the problem. I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization and I don’t see how it relates to the descriptive vs prescriptive debate.

What do you think?

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