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Free will Compatibilists? Help!

  1. Jun 11, 2010 #1
    Assuming materialism;

    I'm making this thread because I cannot understand the position that free will exists under materialism. There are a very large number of these philosophers and neuroscientists, I've read all (or most of) their arguments, and they've yet to show exactly where the Shroedinger equation breaks down in the brain, or where the laws of thermodynamics break down, etc.

    I cannot understand how so many of them believe in free will under physicalism? Please, someone elucidate their position and exactly where the laws of physics breaks down in a complex system, I'm starting to go insane here.

    I mean, the answer to me seems pretty straightforward:
    1) Given that we have 0 reason to suppose that a complex system leads to the breakdown in physical law, and
    2) Given that we have 0 reason to suppose that the brain can direct where the collapsed wave-particle to discrete-state "lands",
    A) If collapse is determined, future brain states if modeled alongside environment are predictable, in principle [or perhaps not, but nevertheless], with 100% accuracy (you will think what you think no matter what).
    B) If collapse is truly stochastic, the probability distribution of future brain states if modeled alongside environment is predictable, in principle [or maybe not even in principle, but this doesn't change the thought experiment], with 100% accuracy (i.e. you would have AT BEST random will).

    Q.E.D., right??? Or wrong?

    I know that there exist some people that argue against 1). How? Do they have a reason to do so? And yes, apeiron, I have considered global~local, but this doesn't lead to a breakdown in physical law! A river's flow can still be predicted by modeling every particle in the water, banks of the river, stones in the river, etc.

    Does anyone understand why there are a huge number of materialist compatibilists/libertarians, and where exactly they've found a circumvention to the above? I'm sure if I'm wrong, it'll have to do with my knowledge of physics, which makes this place a good place to post this question.

    When I'm talking about free will, I'm talking about the free will notion that the average guy has on the street, the ability to "do otherwise".
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 11, 2010 #2
    First, I think you need to understand where compatibalism comes from.

    The history of the freewill argument in a western context, is based on sin. God gives you free will so that he can blame you for sin. This is essentially what the garden of eden story tells us.

    Freewill, in this sense is a magical thing, something that exists separate from the physical world. The body, then, is just the tool for implementing the choices, which the soul endowed with freewill makes. (Many cultures don't even have a concept of freewill, what people do is governed by the whim of the gods, or fate.)

    Magic.... is problematic, especially when it comes to our more modern ideas of 'causation'. Now, if you remove the magic, then every decision one makes is caused... and for many that seems at odds with being free to choose. Some people thought that throwing in 'random chance' would solve this problem... allow for free will, but the philosopher David Hume showed why this is incorrect.

    If an event is random, then it involves no choice. It is only if a choice causes a result, that one can say it was chosen. So a choice must be caused, for it to be a choice.

    But if everything is caused, where is choice?

    This is what I like to call the fallacy of omniscience. It takes the view that complete prediction of complex systems is possible from a godlike perspective. But in order to get 100% accuracy, you would need more than just a model... you would need to recreate the system, and know every part and every state of said system.

    This would be magic.

    Another problem with freewill is the problem of counterfactuals. Some assume that for a choice to be free, one must be in a position to re-choose, or un-choose.... choose something different than what one chose.

    Again, magic.

    These concepts of freewill are logically self-contradictory, so its no wonder people have problems with them.

    The compatibalist view is both, less ambitious and less magical.
    It relies on the idea that a person has an internal system that is distinct from the external system. When one makes a decision, one is doing what one's internal system is disposed to do. If you change the circumstances, or if you are different person, you might make a different decision, but its the logic of the internal system that makes the choice.

    Think of it in terms of billiard balls. When one billiard ball hits another, only the solid nature of the balls is an issue. However, if a person punches another person in the face, the reaction will be more complex, and will depend on the internal system of the person being hit.

    A person's ability to make a choice then, is there ability to do what they are disposed to do, in any given situation. No magic. And while general predictions can be made, the fact one can guess an outcome doesn't mean the outcome wasn't freely chosen.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  4. Jun 11, 2010 #3
    Yes, the counter-argument that a super-computer would have to be so complex to do these calculations that it wouldn't be able to be housed inside of the universe... therefore God and therefore the thought experiment doesn't apply.

    But that doesn't change anything! We still need a reason as to why a complex system would lead to a break in the physical laws that we know about now before we ponder the notion of free will that people on the street think they have.


    Yeah but... if that person was going to act that way all the time (determinism), or if that person was going to act that way a certain % of the time (and that person's probability distribution of potential future brain states/actions is dictated by laws), how is it not a misnomer to say people have free will?

    I know of the position you are talking about... That's not the definition of free will I'm talking about. I'm talking about the free will that people on the street think they have.

    Considering that we've now straightened out what definition of free will I'm talking about, what argument is there for the position that a materialistic consciousness can think in a way not fully dictated by laws? Do you agree that physical law shouldn't break down in the brain and so free will cannot exist (the definition above)?

    Magic? No. Misnomer? I think so. How are "they" (their consciousness, supposedly) doing anything?

    In a determined universe:
    They HAVE to act that way....
    In a Copenhagen universe:
    They have a probability distribution of future actions that they HAVE to adhere to....

    Would you agree that free will - the thing that people on the street think they have, ability to choose that doesn't conform to either their brain's determined fate or their brain's future probability distribution - has been utterly Q.E.D.'d?

    How would this enable free will? I thought compatibilists believed free will and materialism could be intermarried (off Stanford website)?
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  5. Jun 11, 2010 #4
    i just dont agree that the concept of free-will is necessarily based in a belief in "magic". QM offers a sound scientific rationale for the existence of free-will, depending on how one interprets it from a foundational point of view.

    The idea of any *practical* determinsim is steeped in classical physics bias and has been proven false through both qm and chaos theory (at macroscale).

    One must note that determinists hide behind two unfalsifiable conditions.

    1)In qm they *pretend* the idea that a particle does indeed have defined properties before its measured/observed, ie hidden variables.

    2) In macro scale (chaos theory) they depend on the old chestnut (if we could measure initial conditions to infinite accuracy). Well thats impossible so its quite a ridiculous statement.

    Both of those conditions are nonsensical in that neither can be shown to be true. Magic? Sounds like it to me.
  6. Jun 11, 2010 #5
    Hmm hold on..

    I'll remain modest here, because my knowledge of QM is minute.

    I was under the impression that in truly random QM interpretations, where the wave packet is a real 3D probability distribution interacting with other wave packets, you can still model probabilities, and those probabilities will eventuate as expected according to your model.

    I.e. I thought all random QM-collapse interpretations gave agents/humans was random will, but still all actions are predicted within a probability distribution, and the % chance that the agent will act in a certain way (if QM has a causal role in consciousness) is simply determined by STOCHASTIC (out of the agent's control) collapse?

    What I said prior (is this wrong?):
    For QM to offer materialist consciousness a way of free action, undecided by laws governing the physical, consciousness would have to control where the collapsed particle to discrete-state "lands", so to speak - but we have no reason to suspect this..
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  7. Jun 11, 2010 #6

    Like i said in my post, depending on one's favoured interpretation, one can take a dterminstic or non-detrminstic point of view re qm. And qm is a probabilities science so i dont understand your point.

    My concern was not with what you said, but the idea that free-will is based on "magic".
  8. Jun 11, 2010 #7
    Alright, come on with the determinist vs non-determinist stand-offs. Why doesn't anybody consider freewill as a continuum? Why is it always either/or? I always like to start from experience, not simply a model of phenomena that leads to a mind set that has proven to be faulty. Observing people you notice that some people are pre-disposed toward "following" and doing what everybody else does/ liking similar things etc, whereas others are more independant thinkers/livers. What is the point of your metaphysical demand based off an old deterministic model for naturalistic phenomena that everything is 100% determined from the beginning? Why bring QM into this? Do people honestly think that the brain is directly correlated with quantum effects still? It doesn't seem like you have truly considered the idea of a systematic perspective on the whole as you say you have, it seems like you briefly considered it and dismissed it, but it seeems that you did not try to truly get inside the thought process and simply looked at it from the perspective of a determinist.
    What do you know of the perspectives brought by complex mathematics, why are you insisting on some apriori notion of philosophic necessity? Is it also determined that every complex adaptive system evolved in a specific manner based off of prior conditions?
    Consider your river....as a river, not a theoretical entity. You honestly think you can predict everything "in principle?" from what boundary conditions? Did the river just get placed there and start to run, or did it form? Now you have to predict its conditions for forming. Think of systematic interactions, such as a river flowing (which is systematic and chaotic enough) mixed with the shadows and optical phenomena that appear as a result of it, is it determined that these things happen at that moment?
    Now you go back to trying to predict everything as a result of prior conditions, again to the good old all the way ack to the BB idea. You think that the initial conditions of the BB contained all of the information of not only the particles, but also the complex adaptive systems and arrangements of things that were to form?
    Finally, I dont even know what to say about your grotesque abuse of philosophic reasoning, just because you put your notions in numbered syllogistic form doesn't mean that the reasoning follows. 1) Not contesting 2) Where does this come from? sounds like a misunderstanding of QM, all this fuzzy vague talk of the brain not being able to "direct" collapse, no duh, I don't know anybody who is proposing that the brain directs collpase anyway. How do you jump to A? What makes you think that it is predictable in principle to 100% accuracy? Just because something is not quantum doesn't mean it is 100% predictable. What does "probability of future brain states" even mean? A brain state is not a well defined notion. You are reduced to "In Principle, if everything follows given a certain path, there is an absolutley enormous amount of probabilities of possible events, these probabilities exponentially increasing as the complexity of the system increases locally, therefore if you happen to end up one of these probabilities, which you must, then you have been determined and have no free will" Doesnt that smell a little odd to you? A little bit like an ill-reasoned or quite possibly pointless argument?
    Sorry for the long unorganized post.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  9. Jun 11, 2010 #8

    I sort of agree in that the truth is probably somehwere in the middle, and as with religion/atheism and other such polarised subjects, humans tend to focus on the yes/no type results.
  10. Jun 11, 2010 #9
    Ok what I gathered from the first part of your post was
    Well, I'm not approaching this from a deterministic perspective, if you read what I said carefully. As you know, we don't know if something like the deBB interpretation is correct... so we have to consider the deterministic model.

    I don't quite understand your position. I realize that it may not be possible to predict future states of an amazingly complex system. But as I said, what reason do we have to suppose that strict physical laws that govern future brain states (here I mean the assemblage of every wave packet in the brain as a result from interaction with the environment and within the brain) don't exist?

    Do you think that free will, under the definition I provided, is possible? How? How can a complex system NOT be determined by physical law (be they deterministic laws OR NOT)?

    I'm willing to accept that certain complex systems may not be able to be modelled inside a computer made by humans of the future. I'm willing to accept that it future wavefunction states of the system may not be able to be modeled.

    That's a far cry from supposing that the evolution of complex systems aren't governed by set laws, though... Which is what you seem to be proposing as a refutation to my proposition..

    Because if it were true it wouldn't allow A) or B), so I felt compelled to mention it, even though it's ludicrous.

    What do you mean "if everything follows a certain path", did I ever say something like that?

    I seriously cannot make sense of what you think is a summation of what I'm saying. If QM is truly random, you don't choose what state you end up at, the laws of physics do that for you... Therefore no free will. Or do you propose that complex systems aren't bound by set physical law?

    How? Either your actions are constrained to obey physical law no matter what, or they aren't. Mutually exclusive, right? That's the agreed definition of free will that we're discussing in this thread, at least.

    This doesn't have anything to do with this discussion. I made the definition of free will we're discussion abundantly clear:

    If conscious humans can think something that is not governed in all totality by physical law, they will have free will (under this definition). If they can't, they don't have free will - either they were going to think what they were going to think no matter what (say, de Broglie-Bohm interpretation), or what they were going to think was going to happen a certain % of the time and a God-like figure could calculate this probability distribution (say, Copenhagen interpretation).

    That's the opposite of true. In fact, I made this very thread because of this point. I want people to tell me exactly how a complex system can lead to a breakdown in physical law and thus enable free will (under the definition I clearly laid out), which some people seem intent on believing (such as yourself).


    JDStupi, you're saying free will could be a continuum.

    Are you seriously proposing that neural processes aren't governed in all totality by well defined, known or at present unknown, physical laws? Or are you proposing that there's some special physical law that can be broken by materialistic consciousness, and therefore free will becomes possible?

    What am I missing.

    Maybe you're proposing that the brain can somehow circumvent the laws that are governing it?

    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  11. Jun 11, 2010 #10
    My question isn't that hard...

    Is there a way that the brain, as a complex system, can do something not governed by physical law (DETERMINISTIC OR NOT[I'm not claiming the former!!]!!!!), which would then allow free will under the definition I provided?

    If the answer is no, which it seems to be (you haven't said why not if it isn't), my question has been answered.

    Thanks :)


    Nor did I state that QM processes play a causal role in consciousness, which you seem to think I was doing.

    I wasn't. Many people bring up QM as a circumvention that allows free will, though, which is why I brought it up.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  12. Jun 11, 2010 #11

    "How? Either your actions are constrained to obey physical law no matter what, or they aren't. Mutually exclusive, right? That's the definition of free will we're discussing, at least."

    well we already exist in an in-between of the two extremes. ie> our determinstic theories of science are not able to be tested. We cant measure initial conditions to inifnite accuracy so there is no way to prove "your actions are constrained to obey physical law".

    Or what about randomness, which is a sort of in between, in that it inputs chance into the equation.

    Perhaps the universe is determinstic and non-determinstic depending on different scales, or emergent properties. Were all laws perfectly formed at the BB or did some emerge during the evolution of the universe?

    Does maths perfectly describe the physcial universe? I mean perfectly. No it doesnt; hence we have oddities such as singularities come up. If the universe is non computational at the most fundamental level then there might not be any simple answers to such questions.
  13. Jun 11, 2010 #12
    Yes, of course... but free will (the definition I'm talking about) certainly can't be inferred. Nor can semi-free will (a continuum?) be inferred, which I think you and JDStupi wanted.

    I don't see how this is relevant. A law is a law, my brain has to follow those laws, right?l It shouldn't matter if those laws are fundamentally random or determined. My brain follows them.

    I can fully accept that we may not discover all the laws of physics, there may be things that seem anomalous, we may only have approximations etc. Where can free will (under my definition) be inferred?

    Still, enlighten me please >.<

    What is a reason for us to think our brains are capable of decision making outside of bound laws, deterministic or otherwise?

    I still have not gotten an answer to this question. I'm not saying such a feat is impossible, but can someone provide a reason to even consider this as a possibility?

    I concede that the feat of computing future "states" (yes, that's probably a misnomer in this context :))of a super-duper complex physical system may not be possible, even in principle! (although it may become possible in the future).

    But nowhere can free will be inferred from this. [remember the definition of free will I'm referring to].
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  14. Jun 11, 2010 #13

    Nothing about QM's indeterminism has anything to do with Free Will. In fact, free will isn't in any way whatsoever related to randomness. I am certain you don't think your thoughts are completely random, do you?

    It is very apparent that Free Will is much too complex and no human mind can comprehend it at this time. I'd dare say that materialism/reductionism has reached its ends on this issue, and if we stick to their ideas, we either are zombies and are unconscious(i.e. we are forced to accept that we don't really exist), or if we are more moderate we have to say that free will is something 'emergent'(which would be a cop out, a sweep under the rug).

    Anyway, QM has nothing to do with free will, and determinism has never been sucessful in explaining neither self-awareness nor free choice either. We basically have no idea what free will is, it's still a very deep mystery and probably a result of the intruments we use to reach conclusions. If we REALLY have free will, we will never be able to explain free will. That'd be like God explaining his free will or his existence(assuming God exists).
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  15. Jun 11, 2010 #14
    I'm asking you this when I presumably have much less physics knowledge than you, so be nice to me, please.

    If this occurred - the feeling of free will is real and not illusory (emergent will do) - wouldn't the consequence of this be that there aren't laws (random or determined..) governing brain processes? Or if that wasn't the consequence, the consequence would be that there are laws governing brain processes, but the emergent mind can somehow change/surpass them?

    [As an aside, Jaegwon Kim has a "disproof" - he claims - of supervenience free will in his 2005 book]

    What a magnificent answer.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  16. Jun 11, 2010 #15
    We still have no idea what the "I" is that makes the decisions or how decisions are formed. .

    Something is clearly missing from the tools we use. Those tools have been very successful in 99% of the cases, however free will and self-awareness aren't such. Reality is likely holistic, reductionism and materialism are very inefficient at such issues. I am not totally sure the Mind is 'emergent'. Emergent denotes simply that we cannot use reductionistic approaches here, so "emergent" is just a label for something we don't understand because our human logic is deeply rooted in reductionism. If we assume that Mind is different from Matter, we will have to find a new approach to understand hard emergence(which now seems like magic).
  17. Jun 11, 2010 #16
    If we assume mind doesn't come from the brain, I'm absolutely happy with speculating that free will is possible. (or were you talking about property dualism?)

    I'm specifically talking about the materialistic model.

    There's still one question I really want answered from a physicist's perspective, though. If the mind does come from the brain - reducible or not directly reducible (supervenience? emergence?, multiple realizability?, etc) - and that mind can have free will in accordance with the definition I provided and what you were speculating on - wouldn't it mean that:
    1. there aren't set laws governing the extremely complex system that is our brain, OR
    2. there are these laws on the physical level, but the emergent mind somehow can break/loophole them and exert a downwards causal influence?

    Those seem to be the only options that make JDStupi's and ColdCall's position a possibility.

    I think JDStupi was saying #1 hasn't been ruled out...

    Thanks for this :-)
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  18. Jun 11, 2010 #17

    When I said "assuming Mind is different from matter" i really meant to say "assuming matter is different from Mind".

    As for the rest of your questions - Free will is at least as mind boggling as the existence itself. There is nothing meaningful that can be stated with certainty about it except that it resembles a god-like ability(assuming that it exists and we are not dreaming up everything in a zombie-like, pre-determined state). The existence of a self-aware "I" is probably the greatest mystery there is. I want to have the answers you are looking for too, right now all we have are clues, hints and random pieces of information that add up to nothing meaningful. I don't think free will is logically consistent with materialism/reductionism and i don't consider those 2 approaches the ultimate in explaining reality in its fulness. There is range of phenomena that cannot be explained within the materialistic framework - self-awareness, free will, the existence of an "I", so it seems to me we are missing something truly fundamental or we are simply deficient in our ability to comprehend absolutely everything, incl. ourselves. I don't want to kill this thread, but free will is the thing we know least about, i.e. we don't know anything about it.

    EDIT: It always seemed to me "free will" emerged in its full form around 35 000 BC, when the first cave paintings were carved. It is considered the beginning of art that could also be interpreted as the beginning of being fully aware of your own existence(i.e. the emergence of an autonomous "I" that consciously did the paintings). The rest of our history could all be down to pure animal instincts, but the paintings and art - I don't think so. This imo is where the animal could be said to have become a human being.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  19. Jun 11, 2010 #18
    Ok, as a quick reply because I do not have the time right now...If you are defining free-will on the basis that mind does not break physical law, then yes we agree. If you go further to "every single action we have or ever could make has been completely determined" then no we do not agree. If your question is that given the assumption that mind does not break physical law, how could we NOT be determined, which I believe it is and was all along, I am not claiming I KNOW WE ARE ABSOLUTLEY FREE. I simply do not like the connotations of ABSOLUTLEY DETERMINED and quite frankly think we are jumping to a pre-emptive judgement regarding the issue, I do not necessarily endorse the position that we are free, nor the opposite. I simply do not think that at our present understanding of phenomena we can jump to the conclusion that there is no wiggle room in the debate. By continuum, I am essentially speaking of constraints in behaviour, I am not saying that some people break more physical laws or such nonsense I am saying that by observation some people in their behaviors do not have the free activity to not be swayed by social factors that play a role in their "freedom" of thought of perception. There are intricasies within perceptual experience that I do not think we should try to at this point in our understanding of physical law pen to being absolutley determined as is based off of the understanding provided to us by our current physical theories. (Moreover I think some people may be able to make a strong argument even including physical theories about a non-direct determinism non-direct meaning "not everything in your past and future has been completely determined")

    * I noticed that much of what I think has been stated better by Cantor, I am just saying that he put much of what I was saying in a better manner, moreover I will apologize for my ambiguous terminology the "path" bit, this just referred to even after a specific quantum state collapses from uncertainty to a specific state, it doesn't follow that everything is %100 determined. I do agree that the question is very complex which is why I was not advocating a position simply stating why I do not believe it warranted to jump to the conclusion that if we believe in physical laws then we must give up free-will. Essentially saying that if we start from perceptual experience and look at the wide range of human experience, there are many things which i believe cannot be accounted for by a strict-reductionist perspective on reality. That is not saying I am saying everything we know is wrong, siply that it is not the full picture and that there is more to reality then simply our models. I will allow that possibly there is a huge probability of possible scenarios and in the process of adapting to our environment we choose one of them, but I'm simply not willing to take the jump of strict everything has been determined determinism.
    Last edited: Jun 11, 2010
  20. Jun 11, 2010 #19
    Compatibilism is not about the freewill that people on the street think they have.
    You are conflating determinism with prediction. A person, based on their internal system, acts certain ways at certain times. There is no, 'all the time'.

    The fact that I know I went to work yesterday, doesn't limit the choice I made to go to work yesterday. Knowledge of an act doesn't limit freedom. Similarly, my reaction to an event will be based on my nature and how I view the situation.
    Most people believe in a magical type of freewill that is self-contradictory. This is not the freewill that compatibalists believe in.
    In a determined universe, they choose to act that way, because you can't both choose and not choose.
    People are not quantum particles, they are complex systems. You can't really equate the two.
    Freewill for compatibalists is not magical.
  21. Jun 12, 2010 #20
    We are in total agreement.

    Although, would you disagree with me that if something like de broglie-bohm QM interp. is correct, which purports that everything is determined to the fullest extent, that whatever people think are only thinking that because of physical laws and nothing else? [This position seems, to me, to follow nicely off your first sentence in the quote above].

    I'm not going to dispute this view.

    Although I do have a question that follows. Wouldn't the antecedent of this perspective require us to consider physical laws that don't exist on the fundamental level but only 'kick in' in higher levels?


    I agree with your former statement, and after reading that latter sentence it makes so much sense... I couldn't understand how their arguments allowed free will but I was thinking about a different definition to what they were arguing.

    Yep I just brought up QM to preempt the argument that "QM allows free will [the definition I was talking about]", which crops up a lot.

    Very much satisfied with this answer.

    When you say "can't be explained within materialism", does supervenience or emergence come under your definition of materialism?

    Thanks guys.
    Last edited: Jun 12, 2010
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