Paul Torek is the author of this blog.
The first post here explains the name noghostnomachine.
Thank you for starting this wonderful blog. It might seem like there aren’t a lot of people reading it, but I want you to know that at least I am!
I was wondering if you would be willing to talk to me about free will? I have spend a lot of time thinking about this and I must say the whole issue confuses and frustrates me to no end. So I thought that it might help for me to bounce my thoughts off of someone who is more well versed on this subject.
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Sure, ask questions and make comments right here
I am also adding to eds’ voices here, and have become a new subscriber to your blog.
I would like to offer more and resonate with the important points contained in your posts in your posts entitled “Arrow Dynamics of time” and “Causation: what is it?”, insofar as I have touched on many issues in my multipronged discussions on process philosophy (also known as processism, philosophy of organism, or ontology of becoming) in relation to change, causality, (in)determinism, metaphysical reality, stoic philosophy as well as the philosophy of space and time, in the concluding section of an extensive post called “Conclusion: Change Rules and Moment Matters” at https://soundeagle.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/soundeagle-in-best-moment-award-from-moment-matters/#Conclusion
Given that the said post is very expansive, please be informed that you might need to use a desktop or laptop computer with a large screen to view the rich multimedia contents available for heightening your multisensory enjoyment at my websites, some of which could be too powerful and feature-rich for iPad, iPhone, tablet or other portable devices to handle properly or adequately. A fast broadband connection is also helpful. 🙂
Considering the relevance and quality of what you have discussed in your posts, I have also hyperlinked those posts to my said post. Thank you for including the many references in your post entitled “Arrow Dynamics of time”.
You are welcome to join the discussion at the said post and offer your insight, doubt, opinion or the like.
Thank you Paul.
I think it’s a difficult subject and as of yet I haven’t formed a coherent opinion, so bear with me!
I guess I would like to hear your opinion. Do we have free will? If not, how are we able to map this to moral responsibility?
To give a little more context: when hard incompatibilists say that determinism and indeterminism are incompatible with free will and hence moral responsibility, they argue that there is no justifiable way to assign moral responsibility to an action performed by an individual, because the cause of that action has its origin in an event outside of the individual’s control. Either the event was causally determined by a chain of causation going all the way back to the big bang, or it originated indeterministically – in either scenario the individual had no control over the event and therefore the action.
And here is my issue:
Assuming hard incompatibilism; if nothing can originate from the individual, then how can there be a person? How can there be an individual? How can there be a self from which absolutely nothing originates? Then where do our thoughts come from? Do these thoughts not belong to the self? Is the self just an illusion? But how can there be illusions if there are no selfs to be under these illusions? I feel like this is in some way contradictory.
But assuming free will, the causes of our actions must originate from the self. Hence they must have origins that are neither deterministic nor random. These origins must be indeterministic in a very specific way, they must be volitional without being affected by anything from the outside of the self, while at the same time being able to take into account things from the outside. This is also contradictory.
I just find it completely impossible to map my subjective experience to objective reality, it seems to me that there is a gap between the two that I just can’t seem to bridge.
Am I completely missing the point? Is there something that I’m not seeing? I have tried to phrase this as coherently as possible, but I’m not sure if I have succeeded. In fact, I’m really struggling with it.
Anyways, thank you for taking the time to respond to me, I really appreciate it.
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We have free will, AND there are causal chains that extend all the way back to the Big Bang. This is not a contradiction once you realize how causality works in the physical world, which is different from how we ordinarily conceive of it.
Our ordinary idea of causation is primarily based on our own experience of literally pushing things around. We hit the cue-ball with a stick, which then knocks into the 8-ball, sending it into a pocket. This is a one-way street in time: first we move the stick, then that forces the cue ball to move, then that forces the 8-ball. We often don’t know in advance which way the 8-ball will move, but we typically do know (at least in our local neighborhood) what just happened in the past. So the past seems “fixed” and the future seems “open”. Nobody thinks about the possibility that if the 8-ball didn’t move, or moved in a different way, then the cue-ball couldn’t have moved in the way that it did.
Nobody except physicists and philosophers of physics, that is. Because they know that the fundamental laws of physics are time-symmetric. If you know enough about any one time-slice (in a given reference frame – time is relative, after all) across a physical system, you can in principle derive the past behavior, just as well as the future, relative to that time. There is no valid physical sense in which one time is the “boss” and the other time is the “slave”. Also, physicists know that logically, nothing is determined by the laws of nature alone. Logical consequences only follow from laws plus boundary conditions – conditions at particular times and/or places. And since no direction of time is inherently physically preferred, you can pick any time and place you want, as the starting point of your analysis. And to be pragmatic and sensible about that, picking here and now – with yourself – is the most natural place to begin.
Even though the fundamental laws of physics are time-symmetric, at large size scales, thanks to the entropy gradient from the Big Bang (low entropy) through the far future (high), there are statistical differences between forward and reverse macroscopic processes. You can scramble an egg, but (barring events far less likely than winning the lottery) you can’t unscramble an egg. So it seems that we can’t affect the past, but only the future.
But that’s wrong; we can and do affect the past, but mainly on a microscopic level, which we never notice. On the other hand, if you’re worried about the myriad microscopic events in the past that correspond to your choosing option A or B now – and you’re only concerned about that correspondence to your action, it’s not like you care about whether a top quark or a bottom quark was near Alpha Centauri four years ago – then you can set those quite easily. Just choose the option you like. The past events are guaranteed to come along for the ride.
Making choices about those aspects of the past – the aspects causally related to your choice – is like panel one of this XKCD cartoon on steroids. No matter how you fill in the pie chart, it will correctly portray itself as being this much this color, that much that color. Again, the idea that a real physical “causality” is a one-way force between events, is an illusion. Causality can be thought of as a pragmatic roadmap for agents – showing how to get what we want by manipulating nearby events in spacetime to arrange further ones. Or it can be thought of as an objectively real, but two-way, relationship between microscopic events, and consequential probabilistic, and largely one-way, relationships among macroscopic events. Or I guess some might say that if nothing exactly matches our prescientific notion of causality, then there is no such thing as causality, although that strikes me as a poor response. Either way, no threat to free will lurks there.
As for moral responsibility, I’d say what Daniel Dennett says. Freedom evolves, and so does moral responsibility. A fetus has none, a 5 year old has a little, a 10 year old more, and a 15 year old still more. By the age of 20 a typical person has gradually acquired enough responsibility and flexibility that it makes sense to hold them to the same standards as all mature adults. It’s not true that the moral responsibility level of a person cannot increase due to causes outside of themselves. Lack-of-responsibility does not transmit down causal paths; only responsibility does that (and then only if the effects were foreseeable). When parents train their children to think of the consequences of their actions, that increases the child’s responsibility, even though the child had no choice about getting so instructed.
I’ve been meaning to correct this comment for a while, but forgot where I made it. I mis-spoke when I wrote “there are causal chains that extend all the way back to the Big Bang.” That’s misleading because most people think of “causality” as a one-way street: if A causes B, then B does not also cause A. But the physical relationships that do extend all the way back to the Big Bang are two-way streets, because they depend on micro-physics. (For example, if even one photon had been in a different location in the Big Bang, there would probably be no person named Paul Torek.) Because the physical relationships are two-way streets, they do not count as “causation” the way most people think of it.
I think the least misleading way to use the word “causality” is to respect the requirement of one-way-ness and then point out that such causality only applies to processes to which entropy meaningfully applies (and increases between cause and effect). So it turns out that (A) all causality in the real world involves large numbers of micro-interactions, and (B) all causality in the real world is in principle probabilistic, although the probabilities are often extremely close to 1.
Thank you for getting back to me with such a thorough answer.
“We have free will, AND there are causal chains that extend all the way back to the Big Bang.”
This is really the part that I don’t get and I think I might lack the required foundational knowledge to understand the physics involved in this argument. So you are saying that the contradictions I provided are irrelevant with regards to whether we have free will or not? Well I’m glad to hear it! Because I could not seem to find a way around it, though I clearly do not as of yet understand this way around it. In an attempt better understand your point of view, I read the paper you linked to by Jenann Ismael. I’m also gonna check out the video you link to in your “Arrow Dynamics of time”, I hope that might clear things up for me.
“When parents train their children to think of the consequences of their actions, that increases the child’s responsibility, even though the child had no choice about getting so instructed.”
I have seen quite a few of Dennett’s lectures online and I really like him. He’s a wonderful speaker and he argues his case very well. Though in the case with the child I think that a hard incompatibilist would say that IF the child then acted irresponsibly, even IF the child had been instructed in such a way, then the child couldn’t possibly be morally responsible, because the child couldn’t possibly have acted in another way given the situation. Then I suppose Dennett would argue that the irresponsible action on the part of the child should be followed by a consequence that would cause the child to act differently in the future. But the hard incombatibilists would say the same thing wouldn’t they? They don’t deny that incentives are ineffective, they just deny moral responsibility. I think I’m just unsure about what the disagreement is?
I actually found your blog when I read a post by ‘Trick Slattery, to which you responded and I thought you did so quite eloquently. ‘Trick is the kind of guy who’s entirely sure about his own position, even when the majority of academic philosophers seem to believe that free will exists. This is very apparent in how dismissive he is if Dennett’s views and if you point this out to him I’m sure he’ll just respond by referencing the appeal to authority fallacy. In fact he is so sure of his position that he refuses to release comments that contain “misinformation”, unless he himself has responded to the given comment. However he doesn’t realize that if he is wrong and doesn’t realize it, his mistake will never be fixed and his readers won’t be able to make up their minds on their own. I think this is an absolutely horrible approach to public debate, nevertheless I’m still unsure about whether ‘Trick is wrong about free will. So maybe you could elaborate on the nature of your disagreement with him? Since your view is that free will actually does exist.
Also thank you for taking the time to respond to me. I appreciate it a lot.
I think in addition to calling for incentivizing bad actors to act better in the future, Dennett would point out that when people join the Moral Agent Club, they submit themselves to certain rules. The rules call for punishment of certain violations, and they are (with some exceptions) legitimate rules. It’s the legitimacy of the rules, not just the effect on one particular bad actor, that justifies punishing the bad actor. The last sentence is my take, but I’d hope Dennett would agree. Note, the rules themselves are backward-looking: you do the time if you did the crime. The justification of the rules involves forward looking considerations, but the rules themselves need not.
I think the disagreement between hard incompatibilists and compatibilists about responsibility, comes down to moral philosophy and what morality *is*. I think that morality is inherently social and dialogical – that humans reason together about rules and goals and virtues, and that often a consensus or near consensus emerges that is pretty well justified, i.e. no errors of reasoning can be identified that led there, nor were any voices silenced in the process. And that in that case, doing whatever we have thus endorsed just is what it is to be moral. Whereas, hard incompatibilists believe … something else, I suspect. They might be act-consequentialists (Google that if it’s not familiar), with act consequentialism itself being justified by … I don’t know, ask them.
The physics is just plain hard to understand at a gut level. Relativity theory says that time isn’t separate from space, but it’s hard to give up thinking of time as if it were absolute. Similarly with causal laws being bidirectional in time. Here’s physicist Sean Carroll with a 10 minute video which is a good intro.
There is clearly a lot to think about here. I will check out all the resources you have linked to here, and even though I am far from understanding your point about time on more than just a superficial level, your explanations here have given me reason to believe that there is more to the issue of free will than I thought.
Thank you Paul and have a great day.
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