Morning Links: XKCD and Free Will

Checking my morning links, I saw two reactions to hearing that the mind is the result of physical matter in a deterministic world:


(Alt-text: “Socrates could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble if he’d just brought a flashlight, tranquilizer gun, and a bunch of rescue harnesses.”)

Or this article from the NYTimes finding that subjects who were reminded of deterministic arguments about free will were more likely to cheat on a test:

In a follow-up experiment, the psychologists gave another test in which people were promised $1 for every correct answer — and got to compile their own scores. Just as Dr. Vohs and Dr. Schooler feared, people were more likely to cheat after being exposed beforehand to arguments against free will. These people went home with more unearned cash than did the other people.

This behavior in the lab, the researchers noted, squares with studies in recent decades showing an increase in the number of college students who admit to cheating. During this same period, other studies have shown a weakening in the popular belief in free will (although it’s still widely held).

Or you could go with Daniel Dennett’s approach in Freedom Evolves – No need to panic; we still have the important types of free will even in a deterministic universe. Of course, I can’t exactly imagine Dennett panicking in any context.

9 Responses to Morning Links: XKCD and Free Will

  1. Darren says:

    Nice little post. I’m a huge Dennett fan and I agree with his stance but not his position (i.e., compatibilism). I also thought Elbow Room was a better treatment than Freedom Evolves.

  2. Jesse Galef says:

    Thanks Darren! I haven’t read Elbow Room, though I’ve started Consciousness Explained (and will likely go through it in chunks when I’m in the mood).

  3. Henry Shevlin says:

    Although I enjoyed this xkcd a lot, I should point out there’s nothing here about determinism, only physicalism. The two don’t have to go together. Determinism, broadly construed, is the view that any event is causally determined by past events. You could be a dualist and a determinist, or a physicalist and a libertarian (the term as used in metaphysics is very different from its use in political thought, of course).

    Note that physicalism arguably requires the causal completeness of the physical (i.e., a complete specification of the causal history of any physical event will not have to make reference to non-physical causes). But this is compatible with the existence of genuine physical indeterminism – all it specifies is that nothing except physical events can feature in causal histories, not that past physical events fully determine present ones.

    There is one problem with physicalism and mental action, but it’s not the problem of free will – it’s the problem of mental causation. Most physicalists these days are token identity theorists, who think that mental states supervene on physical states. This creates a problem because it suddenly seems like it’s physical states, not mental states, that are causally responsible for actions. As Jerry Fodor puts it, “If it isn’t literally true that my wanting is causally responsible for my reaching, and my itching is causally responsible for my scratching, and my believing is causally responsible for my saying … if none of that is literally true, then practically everything I belief about anything is false and it’s the end of the world.” But notice here that the easiest answer to the problem of reconciling physicalism with genuine mental causation is to adopt a radical form of physicalism called identity theory, according to which mental states and physical states are literally the same thing (as opposed to being related via a supervenience relation), so there’s no question of my mental states not being causally efficacious.

  4. Woozle says:

    I’ve never understood why people think that free will is required for morality. Whether or not our wills are entirely deterministic, we — well, some of us, anyway — basically don’t want to be seen as honest people because we value our credibility to others, and we’re aware that we might be held accountable for cheating even when the situation would seem to be penalty-free.

    Maybe the cheaters just haven’t thought it through very carefully… or maybe they saw the arguments against free will as being a social signal of greater tolerance towards antisocial behavior. (In my observation, people who talk about free will and determinism often seem to ignore social signaling.)

    Also, a Mandelbrot set is deterministic — but can you tell what color any given point is going to be before you actually do the calculations? It seems to me that this is what is really meant by “free will”: I can’t know what answer I’ll come up with until I actually do the thinking, and you can’t predict what answer I’ll come up with unless you have all the same information I’m working with (including internal states).

    • David Schreier says:

      Good post, Woozle. You point out that an observer brings something to a deterministic table, and this adds some texture to the free will argument.

      Harry, agreed – xkcd focused on physicalism. While determinism seems to be the way to go, it does not take into account backwords time flow, or reverse determinism. The relative influence of both flows is what MAY conspire to create what seem like choices to us, but in the end, well, one should be able to calculate which flow wins, so determinism is back in the driver’s seat, only it is operating on two cylinders, not one.

      This identity theory sounds neat, but it is too old-fashioned for my taste. Chalmers might like it, doubt Kripke would. Physicalism implies that there is an “out there” or stuff that is not “physical”. But I don’t even know what ”physical ‘ means. Composed of particles? Particles that choose to be or not to be?

      Will stick to my comfortable and well-worn idea of information:that everything – what others would call either physical or non-physical – is information, sent to and from other entities. Via what we think of as consciousness, these entities reduce to a very small point. If I understand what others mean when they say ‘centered worlds”, then I think this point is the same as their center i.e. it shifts according to the context at hand. The entities can be microbes, computer systems, societies of people, gods, anything you like. I think this is the direction things are going in, too based on, my armchair scouring of the ramblings of those much more experienced in quantum physics.

      How communication between entities works is for science to figure out next 100 years or so.

      • woozle says:

        And of course what I *meant* to type was “we .. DO want to be seen as honest people” or “…don’t want to be seen as DIShonest people”…

        (This is why I wish WordPress had a preview mode; that’s where I generally catch my typos.)

      • woozle says:

        As for the “well-worn idea of information”: I think I agree. The physical world is a well-tested, proven theory — but it’s still “just a theory” (like evolution!); it can’t be *rigorously* proven in the mathematical sense, only proven in the sense of repeated testing by experiment and observation of (sensory) data.

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  6. Owen_Richardson says:

    Now they need to do a study on people who do NOT believe in a mysterious “free will”, would call it “obvious” that such a concept isn’t even meaningful, are always quite aware of this, and yet are MORE dedicated than average to “taking responsibility” for their actions and trying to be as moral as possible.

    I’d love to seem some scientific studies on what makes US tick, and how we react under various cleverly controlled experimental conditions. =]

    …Although honestly I probably WOULD cheat to the max in the context of a psych experiment. But I would openly admit it afterwards and ask if they wanted the money back. 😛

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