Do we not have free will?

I came across this from a post by Jerry Coyne (it was a few weeks ago so I’m not going to track it down again), as it is fits neatly in his own preconceptions and arguments over whether or not we have free will.   It’s a video by Sabine Hossenfelder, who is a theoretical physicist who nevertheless felt the desire to weigh in on the free will debate.  She takes aim at some philosophical positions, too, but seems rather blissfully unaware of what they actually entail while being totally dismissive of them.  More on that later, so let me examine this scientific examination of free will.

She starts by outlining why she thinks we don’t have free will:

Last week, I explained what differential equations are, and that all laws of nature which we currently know work with those differential equations. These laws have the common property that if you have an initial condition at one moment in time, for example the exact details of the particles in your brain and all your brain’s inputs, then you can calculate what happens at any other moment in time from those initial conditions. This means in a nutshell that the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the big bang. We are just watching it play out.

These deterministic laws of nature apply to you and your brain because you are made of particles, and what happens with you is a consequence of what happens with those particles.

There are a couple of problems with this.  The first one relates to a criticism that Edward Feser makes of at least some scientific positions in “Scholastic Metaphysics:  A Contemporary Introduction”, where he points out that science reduces all of its phenomena to things like differential equations, and then insists that those things describe all of reality without remainder.  But how does science know this?  If all it ever looks for and incorporates into itself are these things, and it leaves out anything that doesn’t conform, how does it know that it is really capturing all of reality.  Feser uses the analogy of the drunk looking for his keys under the street light rather than where he dropped them because the light is better there and, in the case of science, that he’s had such great luck finding things under street lights so surely he will find his keys there as well.  For Hossenfelder, things are actually even more serious, because the move she actually makes is to argue that we can represent the natural laws with differential equations which is controversial in and of itself and then attempts to argue that a feature of differential equations is reflective of reality:  that given an initial term you can always calculate what will happen at a future point of time.

The first problem with doing this is that we don’t know that everything in reality can be described with differential equations of that sort.  While it has roughly worked that way, some of those equations have been a bit messier and for the most part we’ve worked them out as models, not as definitions or identities.  Most importantly here, we don’t know that we can describe conscious decisions using them because, right now, we don’t have equations describing how those work, and especially not ones where we can plunk in an initial value and know what will happen at any future point in time.  I’m not saying that we can’t do that, but it is entirely possible that conscious decisions are something that really cannot be described in that way and using differential equations.  So she’d be jumping the gun to use that to argue that we can’t have free will.

The worse problem, though, is that as noted above she’s not actually making an empirical observation or talking about the observed behaviour of, well, pretty much anything in existence, even the ones for which it works.  No, what she’s doing is taking a property of differential equations, the things we are using to describe reality, and mapping it directly onto reality itself.  So it isn’t just an argument that those equations describe reality, but instead that they define reality.  Reality, by her argument, really is differential equations, so much so that the properties of differential equations can be considered to be properties of reality without any argument, experimentation or observation required.  Her argument for determinism is essentially that we describe reality with differential equations and differential equations by their nature would be deterministic, therefore reality is deterministic.  Even Coyne wouldn’t make such a blatantly scientistic argument, defining reality precisely by what science is currently using to model it.

The leads into the second problem:  quantum physics.  She does attempt to address an appeal to quantum mechanics later:

What about quantum mechanics? In quantum mechanics some events are truly random and cannot be predicted. Does this mean that quantum mechanics is where you can find free will? Sorry, but no, this makes no sense. These random events in quantum mechanics are not influenced by you, regardless of exactly what you mean by “you”, because they are not influenced by anything. That’s the whole point of saying they are fundamentally random. Nothing determines their outcome. There is no “will” in this. Not yours and not anybody else’s.

It is a fair reply to say that quantum mechanics, being random, doesn’t allow for the sort of free will that we want, which is “free” and yet influenced by external factors and so “sensible” given conditions.  Most Hard Determinists can use this to escape most challenges from those who use quantum mechanics to argue against determinism.  But not me, because the argument I make is that most Hard Determinists rely more or less on an argument that science has proven that all things are determined, and therefore our conscious decisions have to be as well, but even they have to admit that quantum mechanics is not determined, and so those arguments fail.  Not only has science not shown that everything is determined, it has in fact proven that statement false.  Science knows that lots of things aren’t determined at all, and so any argument based on the universality of determinism is doomed by science itself.

Now, most of the time most Hard Determinists can escape this by limiting their scope, and so for example by saying that determinism applies at the macro level and conscious decisions and brain operations are at the macro level.  But to make this argument actually even more devastating for Hossenfelder, she can’t actually go there.  First, because she repeatedly makes the mistake of talking about particles instead of things like neurons, and particles exist at the quantum level, and so she’d have to be talking about them.  But if we are charitable and grant that her phrasing there might be a little loose, she still has the problem that she’s argued that all things are describable by differential equations which has the consequence that they are deterministic, and since quantum mechanics are not deterministic then either they can’t be described by differential equations or else the initial condition property doesn’t hold.  Since her only argument is this universality based on differential equations, this would be an issue for her, and attempts to escape it by appealing to the macro level fail because we don’t have those equations for conscious decisions yet.  So science has proven that some things cannot be described by differential equations in the way she insists produces determinism, and she has no way to get to conscious decisions being things that are described that way because we haven’t done it yet.  So not only is science not supporting her case, it’s actually working against it.

So, she turns to discussions of philosophy:

A lot of people seem to think this is a philosophical position. They call it “materialism” or “reductionism” and think that giving it a name that ends on –ism is an excuse to not believe it.

This comment clearly shows that Hossenfelder does not understand philosophy.  At all.

First, materialism isn’t a relevant position here.  Well, maybe eliminative materialism is, but that’s in the same vein as reductionism and there are a host of non-reductionist,  non-eliminativist materialisms out there.  Materialism is basically the idea that all that exists is matter.  It doesn’t take a strong stance on whether all material things are deterministic.  And good thing, too, for the aforementioned quantum mechanics is generally considered to be completely material and yet not deterministic.

Second, labeling things with an “ism” is never considered an excuse to not believe it, at least not in philosophical terms.  Pretty much any consistent position in philosophy is an “ism”.  If anyone is using that as an argument against her, then they would seem to understand philosophy about as little as she does.  I suspect that no one actually is doing that — hence the bit of snark here that’s probably unworthy of me — and that instead they are classifying the views into those positions to point out the known issues with those positions, and her response here is her either not getting that or dodging those criticisms.

Third, materialism and reductionism are, in philosophy, possibly the majority positions.  So anyone assigning her position to those labels as an attempt to get them dismissed out of hand should not be replied to with a comment that the move is invalid implying that we should not call her views such, but should be replied to with the fact that those positions are far from being ones that philosophy dismisses out of hand.

Fourth, her view is, at least, reductionist.  As noted above, she thinks that what is important about reality can be completely captured in differential equations, so much so that she thinks she can use the properties of differential equations themselves to determine what reality is and must be like.  The criticisms of reductionism are all about whether we can captured everything interesting and important about reality in things like that, or in her case it’s probably more accurate to ask whether all phenomena can be reduced without remainder to differential equations of the sort she relies on.  And as noted above, we can’t … and that’s before we start talking about the really complicated things like qualia and therefore consciousness.  So rather than being an insult or an attempt to dismiss her out of hand, it is instead an accurate classification of her position and her position is indeed actually particularly vulnerable to the objections raised against reductionism.  Her response here can only indicate that she has no idea what those positions are, and doesn’t want to be bothered to figure it out, and so wants to dismiss then out of hand with an almost certainly strawman reply of them wanting to use them to dismiss her views out of hand.

Well, of course you can insist to just not believe reductionism is correct. But this is denying scientific evidence.

The scientific evidence does not demonstrate reductionism, as anyone who actually knew the positions would know.  And just to demonstrate further that she doesn’t understand them, her justification for that statement is this:

We do not guess, we know that brains are made of particles. And we do not guess, we know, that we can derive from the laws for the constituents what the whole object does.

The first statement is irrelevant:  you can believe that brains are made of particles but that not all things that are important about the brain and what it does — meaning consciousness here — is reducible to physics (see emergentism, another evil “ism”, for example).  And what the challenges to reductionism are all about is questioning whether you can do that for every relevant phenomena, and there are good reasons to think that even with the more common ones — from, say, biology to physics — that it can’t be done.   Writing laws to reduce all animal behaviour, for example, to physics tends to leave us with gaps and rather useless physical laws.  So she first doesn’t want her view to be reduced to an “ism”, then insists that the “ism” is proven by science, but then never addresses the actual philosophical objections to her position, many of which use science.  And her specific view isn’t actually scientifically valid.  This makes this statement unintentionally hilarious:

If you make a claim to the contrary, you are contradicting well-established science. I can’t prevent you from denying scientific evidence, but I can tell you that this way you will never understand how the universe really works.

I feel confident in saying that you will never understand how the universe really works by reducing it to differential equations and then using the mathematical properties of differential equations to dictate to the universe how it really works.  You’re going to have to at least do some observing to figure that out.  And, remember, this is coming from a philosopher.  If the scientist is ignoring observations and the philosopher is saying that maybe we should do some, something has gone seriously wrong.

She then takes a quick stab at a philosophical argument:

You see, that thing you call “free will” should in some sense allow you to choose what you want. But then it’s either determined by what you want, in which case it’s not free, or it’s not determined, in which case it’s not a will.

Of course, this argument equivocates on “determined”.  As will be important later, the big issue with free will is that we want our conscious decisions to be the result of our conscious decision-making processes.  So wrt wants, we want it to be the case that given the wants I have and how I believe the world works, that my decision will be what rationally follows from them as best as my capacities can do them.  So we want our choices to be “determined” by my wants in that they rationally follow from them, and if we make a poor decision we can trace back the error we made — either in considering wants or considering the world — and note where our decision-making process failed.  So it’s independent of neither our wants nor our decision-making abilities.  But the operations of those processes are what determines it.  It has to be the case that the decision is not fixed until those processes complete.  Determinism in Hossenfelder’s sense breaks this by insisting that the actual outcomes are determined well in advance, at the Big Bang in fact.  What this means is that the details of that decision-making process and our wants might not matter.  We could very well have that deterministic process produce different conscious ruminations than what is “actually” used under the hood.  If that’s possible, then how do we know that we make decisions at all?  In fact, it’s more reasonable to say that we never make decisions at all.

Yes, our wants need to be in some sense free as well, so there are issues.  But it’s hardly the case that free will simply never made sense, as she asserts.  It’s only her equivocating her notion of determined with how wants would determine decisions that allow her to even make an argument that at first glance might appear to be one that we might need to consider for more than a second.

In summary, the idea that we have a free will which gives us the possibility to select among different futures is both incompatible with the laws of nature and logically incoherent. I should add here that it’s not like I am saying something new. Look at the writing of any philosopher who understand physics, and they will acknowledge this.

I suspect that she defines “any philosopher who understands physics” as those who would agree with her.  Yes, she isn’t saying something new.  Philosophers have raised issues with free will and its relation to physics for centuries.  But for centuries other philosophers — yes, even some who understand physics — have raised issues with those issues and with Hard Determinism, and she seems blissfully unaware of any of them.

But some philosophers insist they want to have something they can call free will, and have therefore tried to redefine it. For example, you may speak of free will if no one was in practice able to predict what you would do. This is certainly presently the case, that most human behavior is unpredictable, though I can predict that some people who didn’t actually watch this video will leave a comment saying they had no other choice than leaving their comment and think they are terribly original.

Okay, she has a point that the last comment isn’t original.  However, one of the issues with that is that there is a potential contradiction here, with Hard Determinists in various ways exhorting people to change their views or positions and take responsibility for their views in a way that isn’t compatible with Hard Determinism.  By her own views, Hossenfelder can talk and talk and talk at me about there being no free will but if the Big Bang did not deign to permit me to be convinced by her words then I won’t be, so I can’t bear any responsibility for my views.  And any attempts to move the relevant processes into the decision-making processes themselves and so retain that sort of responsibility lead one to some form of compatiblism, which is the view she is denigrating with the comment on redefining the term (they see it as coming to a proper understanding of it, not redefining it).  There’s another issue where many Hard Determinists talk as if they make choices and bear responsibility — usually positive — for their ideas and the like, when they are no more free than anyone else.

This leads to the underlying issue around those responses to Hard Determinists:  their views, if treated consistently and taken to their logical conclusion, so thoroughly contradict our actual experiences that it is almost impossible for us for actually talk and act as if Hard Determinism is true.  That it’s so foreign to our experience is prima facie reason to at least be skeptical of the position, and most Hard Determinists only have “Science says all things are determined” as an argument, which as we’ve seen is quite inadequate.

Others have tried to argue that free will means some of your decisions are dominated by processes internal to your brain and not by external influences. But of course your decision was still determined or random, regardless of whether it was dominated by internal or external influences. I find it silly to speak of “free will” in these cases.

That she finds it silly doesn’t make it, well, actually silly or not useful.  As noted above, we want our actions to be determined by our internal processes.  Given that, if they were able to show that the internal processes mattered more then that would be important and would flatly contradict her own stated position at the beginning of the post.  She might be able to quibble over whether we should call it “free will” but her view would still be wrong.  That’s hardly inconsequential.

What is really going on if you are making a decision is that your brain is running a calculation, and while it is doing that, you do not know what the outcome of the calculation will be. Because if you did, you wouldn’t have to do the calculation. So, the impression of free will comes from our self-awareness, that we think about what to do, combined with our inability to predict the result of that thinking before we’re done.

If the outcome of the calculation is already determined before it starts, then what is the calculation itself specifically doing?  Is it even doing the calculation that it purports to be doing?  The issue is one that we see with neural nets.  The actual calculation, at the hardware level, isn’t content-aware.  You can use that same neural net for a different purpose and given its input it will spit out an answer.  I remarked once that you could use a neural net trained to solve differential equations to play chess and it would work, which is probably a bit facetious, but perhaps what will drive the point home is that I could train a neural net to solve differential equations and then use it to play chess and it is possible that it would be better at playing chess than it would be at solving differential equations.  At the level of the hardware, content does not matter.

Which leads to that self-awareness.  See, the self-awareness isn’t us looking at the brain doing the calculation and thinking that it isn’t done yet so I don’t know what the answer will be.  It is us working through the calculation consciously.  When I am revamping my schedule while going for my daily constitutional, it’s not that my brain is calculating what will be best on which day and just not telling me what the answer is but that my conscious reasoning is walking through the options and ultimately deciding what works best on each day.  If we cut those processes out and place the ultimate responsibility on the Big Bang then all of that might be epiphenomenal.  Those considerations need not be what the brain itself is actually considering.  But if they aren’t, then are my decisions rational?  Even if they come to the conclusion that a rational analysis hints should be the decision?  What is the point of conscious deliberation if it doesn’t do anything?  But what could it possibly do under Hossenfelder’s view?

Suppose you have a computer that evaluates whether an equation has a real-valued root. The answer is yes or no. You can predict the answer. But now you can change the algorithm so that if you input the correct answer, the code will output the exact opposite answer, ie “yes” if you predicted “no” and “no” if you predicted “yes”. As a consequence, your prediction will never be correct. Clearly, this has nothing to do with free will but with the fact that the system you make a prediction for gets input which the prediction didn’t account for. There’s nothing interesting going on in this argument.

This highlights the issue here, as she proposes messing with the decision-making processes to produce wrong answers to make it unpredictable, and then says that that wouldn’t be free will.  All of those who advocate free will — even those who make the predictability argument — accept this.  What they argue is that we can’t predict the answer until the decision-making processes do their job because the answer is determined by those processes.  Hossenfelder thinks that’s not the case, so there’s still a difference in argument there that she doesn’t acknowledge.

Another objection that I’ve heard is that I should not say free will does not exist because that would erode people’s moral behavior. The concern is, you see, that if people knew free will does not exist, then they would think it doesn’t matter what they do. This is of course nonsense. If you act in ways that harm other people, then these other people will take steps to prevent that from happening again. This has nothing to do with free will. We are all just running software that is trying to optimize our well-being. If you caused harm, you are responsible, not because you had “free will” but because you embody the problem and locking you up will solve it.

Well, a number of Hard Determinsts, like Jerry Coyne, argue that understanding that we have free will should change how we treat people since they aren’t responsible for their actions.  So we should treat them more like we treat people who right now we consider are clearly not responsible for their actions, by trying to cure them and not considering them morally responsible for their actions.  So surely saying that people aren’t morally responsible for their actions and having us treat them as such will erode anything that depended solely on morality, as it would eliminate morality as such.  I also find it interesting that she rather blythly talks about locking people up on the basis of maximizing well-being, since morality tends to preclude us doing that.  Essentially, she rejects the idea of Coyne that we should cure or rehabilitate offenders since they have no choice and only solve the problem by locking them up if there is no way to do that and accepts the idea of locking people up because they are “bad”, in that they challenge her well-being.

Why am I telling you this? Because I think that people who do not understand that free will is an illusion underestimate how much their decisions are influenced by the information they are exposed to. After watching this video, I hope, some of you will realize that to make the best of your thinking apparatus, you need to understand how it works, and pay more attention to cognitive biases and logical fallacies.

Even Libertarians about free will believe that our decisions are influenced by the information we have, and exhort us to pay attention to errors in our decision-making processes.  If her Hard Determinism is true, though, our decision-making processes will just do what they do and there is no reason for us to attempt to correct them, especially since we will likely be unable to.  And so, at the end, we see Hossenfelder creep back towards compatibilism while trying to convince us that only Hard Determinism is the right answer, as so often happens in these discussions.


4 Responses to “Do we not have free will?”

  1. Dhay Says:

    Thank you. You see the various arguments so much more clearly than I do.

    That first quote’s “This means in a nutshell that the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the big bang” echoes a Sunday Morning Breakfast Cereal comic strip:

    Question 19: Cite two causes of the first world war.

    1) The universal wavefunction.
    2) The boundary conditions of the universe.

    (“Physicists are no longer allowed in history class.”)

  2. Tom Says:

    “What is really going on if you are making a decision is that your brain is running a calculation, and while it is doing that, you do not know what the outcome of the calculation will be. Because if you did, you wouldn’t have to do the calculation. So, the impression of free will comes from our self-awareness, that we think about what to do, combined with our inability to predict the result of that thinking before we’re done.”

    This is typical of neuroscientific pronouncements. Instead of speaking of the whole person doing some activity, like thinking, musing, calculating and so on, the problem is worded as if it were the brain (or parts of the brain) doing these things. The tendency of neurobabble is to talk as if we really were these brains in vats. I recall a psychology class I was in once where the professor was talking about the occipital cortex in the back of the brain, and how if it was damaged or affected it would impact your vision. “So people think they see with their eyes but they “really” see with their brains!” We in class stared blankly back at him.

    I was just reading a debate between BF Skinner and Brand Blanshard. It’s eye-opening how the same debates get hashed over again and again decade after decade. There is this dissatisfaction with the mental, to think it can’t be a true explanation of anything, and to insist on the physical as the only real causal story. These people aren’t necessarily idiots, but they genuinely do not seem to understand the full implications of their worldview.

  3. Could We Be Living in a Simulation? | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] in one.  He is forming his opinion based on a video by Sabine Hossenfelder.  As it turns out, I’ve taken on a video of hers before, talking about free will that was referenced by Jerry Coyne (so the two of them at least have her in […]

  4. Free Will, Reductionism, Materialism, Emergence, and the Transporter | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] haven’t examined Greene’s work, but as it turns out I have examined Hossenfelder’s, and she doesn’t seem to be simply saying that (and so opposing dualists).  She pretty […]

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