. . . Free Determinism

. . .

Sharp as mud

Life decreases logical entropy while increasing thermal entropy: local hotbeds of organization become more complexly organized by expending energy into the tepidbed.

Intelligence and free will can be defined as those forces which introduce randomness into an otherwise predictable system. The number of possibilities increases, and so does apparent logical entropy.

For example, when intelligence creates a new conceptualization of a phenomenon, the existing phenomenon is not erased and continued misunderstandings of that phenomenon are not prevented. On the contrary, a new opportunity for misunderstanding is opened up: to wit, misunderstanding of the new concept.

To put it in terms of information theory: The amount of available information can only be increased by increasing the amount of possible confusion. Thus the main by-product of the evolution of intelligence is stupidity, and, as intelligence continues its work through the millennia, the gross amount of stupidity increases. Intelligence is life's little atonement for its sin against disorder, a back-door way to increase logical entropy after all.

And The Hotsy Totsy Club is proud to be part of this effort.

. . .

Everything Is True; Nothing Is Permitted

I first encountered the attempt to pit the dim light of quantum mechanics against the deepest fogs of cognitive neuroscience in a paper sponsored by the Vatican and authored by soul-searcher Sir John C. Eccles. What mostly struck me was the incongruous disproportion between the two-thousand-years-tall edifice of Catholic theology and the subparticular results on which Sir John had wasted such strenuous ingenuity. It all seemed as fascinating, hilarious, and sad as a Buster Keaton routine.

I was reminded of Sir John when I read Henry Adams's 1882 response to William James on receipt of some early essays on religious psychology and societal evolution:

  Fiend Without a Face

As I understand your Faith, your x, your reaction of the individual on the cosmos, it is the old question of Free Will over again. You choose to assume that the will is free. Good! Reason proves that the Will cannot be free. Equally good! Free or not, the mere fact that a doubt can exist, proves that x must be a very microscopic quantity. If the orthodox are grateful to you for such gifts, the world has indeed changed, and we have much to thank God for, if there is a God, that he should have left us unable to decide whether our thoughts, if we have thoughts, are our own or his'n.

Although your gift to the church seems to me a pretty darned mean one, I admire very much your manner of giving it, which magnifies the crumb into at least forty loaves and fishes. My wife is quite converted by it. She enjoyed the paper extremely. Since she read it she has talked of giving five dollars to Russell Sturgis's church for napkins. As the impression fades, she says less of the napkins.

With hero worship, I have little patience. In history heroes have neutralized each other, and the result is no more than would have been reached without them. Indeed in military heroes I suspect that the ultimate result has been retardation. Nevertheless you could doubtless at any time stop the entire progress of human thought by killing a few score of men. So far I am with you. A few hundred men represent the entire intellectual activity of the whole thirteen hundred million. What then? They drag us up the cork-screw stair of thought, but they can no more get their brains to run out of their especial convolutions than a railway train (with a free will of half an inch on three thousand miles) can run free up Mount Shasta. Not one of them has ever got so far as to tell us a single vital fact worth knowing. We can't even prove that we are.

Alas, James seems to have chosen not to pursue the correspondence at that time, although thirty years later he wrote, "I ask you whether an old man soon about to meet his Maker can hope to save himself from the consequences of his life by pointing to the wit and learning he has shown in treating a tragic subject."

. . .

Cascade Desolation
"In the muddle of my life, I became lost in a dark wood...."
  Bound and determined

When I was a kid, I tried to do what I was supposed to. In my twenties, I tried to do what I thought of. In my thirties, I tried to do what I felt like. Now I try to do what I can.

It's at least as much a shift in perception as in performance. I used to get upset over questions like "When will he finish that second volume?" or "Why does she keep writing those puky songs?" or "How dast he stop weblogging?" Instead nowadays I figure anyone who makes something probably had nothing as their only other option.

- photo by J. Clark

. . .

God told me to

"All these arguments might look as if I wanted to argue for the freedom of the will or against it. But I don't want to." -- Ludwig Wittgenstein

I wouldn't describe the syllogism

  1. All changes in the universe's state are fully and unalterably determined by already existing conditions of the universe.
  2. Civil courts should not punish lawbreakers who did not exercise free choice in their lawbreaking.
  3. Therefore crimes cannot be punished.
as flawed, exactly -- logically speaking, it seems more like the explosively hemorrhaging corpses at the end of Re-Animator. Even if we try to accept the first two unwieldy propositions, it's clearly a special case of the frequently (if silently) relied upon fallacy
  1. Humanity is deluded.
  2. I am speaking to you.
  3. Therefore I and you are not deluded.
in which the judge and the syllogist have been singled out as the ones in the know.

Much tidier then is T. P. Uschanov's:

  1. All human action is determined.
  2. Punishing criminals is a human action.
  3. Therefore civil courts are determined to punish criminals.
Still not all that engaging, though. It's not his solution's problem so much as a problem with the problem itself.

In everyday life, the will exerts a level of influence that even the willer often finds embarrassingly feeble. (E.g., "I will now sit down and write that novel.") Sure, if you asked me why I took a computer programming job, I'd say "Because I decided that I wanted money more than I wanted to starve." But if you asked me why I walked into a lamp post, I could only answer, "Because I wasn't paying attention." If you went on to ask, "Why weren't you?" I might go on to answer "Because I was trying to remember all the verses to 'Duke of Earl'," but if you continued your interrogation, I'd quickly have to rest with "Hey! Lay off! I didn't do it on purpose!" The matter might then be dropped, but note that if I had been driving a car when I struck the lamp post, the justice system would hold me responsible despite my free will's lack of exercise.

On the deterministic side, if I lent a fiscally irresponsible friend $50 and he spent it all on a bottle of armagnac which he then dropped and shattered on the way home from the liquor store, I might tell myself, "Well, that was predictable." But that would just be an attempt to redirect some of my exasperation from my friend to myself; despite my claim to prescience I would not, in fact, declare any more surprise on hearing that he had instead left the money behind in his pants after impulsively joining a parade of nudists at the Folsom Street Fair.

I can't remember early polytheists or skeptics showing much interest in free will or determinism or their influence on the justice system. If a Greek god punished you by prodding you into a lousy decision, that wouldn't spring you from the local human courts: the mortal legal system's reaction counts as part of the punishment. And when loosely deist types like Unitarians or Stoics say "You can't fight city hall," they seem to mean more "You'd be a fool to try" than "City hall controls all your thoughts and actions."

No, determinism doesn't become a pressing issue until you get to a single omnipotent omniscient 100%-morally-good creator who nevertheless judges and punishes its own creations. (I guess it's true that Edgar Bergen disciplined Charlie McCarthy once in a while, but still....)

And then it continues pressing in a slightly more rumpled way with Newtonian mechanics and its catchy "give me a snapshot and I will predict the world" approach. Since science relies on reproducible results, it naturally tends to talk about what's predictable. And who doesn't want to sound scientific?

Which has led to some odd passes in the humanities, particularly in their popularized forms.

Luckily, behaviorism is out of fashion and Newtonian mechanics is not the only role model around.

In a rare fit of sophistry, Uschanov challenged a non-determinist to show one action that happened without any cause. Although "causality" has its own problems, causality is not the issue here, a conscious decision being as valid (if not as common) a "cause" as gravity is. What's at stake in determinism is predictability. And it's not hard to find unpredictability and causality coexisting peaceably in twentieth-century physics as well as in ordinary language use.

That doesn't mean that "the soul is to be found in quantum undecidability" or any such nonsense. No, the individual actions of an individual human (or canine or feline) mind are indeterminate less because of anything one could call free will -- which usually plays a negligible role -- than because of all the other crap flying around the infinitely intermingled systems of biochemistry, anatomy, self-organizing neural nets, interdependent modular processes, human society, lamp post construction, and so on. If someone converts to Scientology, and we find that on the day of his conversion he suffered a mild stroke, we might say that the stroke caused the conversion. But even if we were told the exact location of the stroke beforehand, would we have been able to predict that conversion? Although Scientologists are undoubtedly working on the problem, I'd still say no.

Decision-making consciousness is much more a fuzzy outline of convenience than a coherent all-powerful unit, but it would be silly to deny its existence on that basis: regardless of implementation details, the bundle of events found within those shifting boundaries do take place, after all, and if a court wants to pay special attention to those events (not all courts do), it can go right ahead. (I might also note that the possibility of rational decision-making is not a particularly comforting thought unless we're all rationally free-willing from a homogeneously shared set of rules and goals. Right here on the web, for example, you can find people rationally free-willing from pretty scary premises.)

Doctrinal free will seems hubristic when not trivial, but strict determinism is about as rigorous as saying that "love draws all objects together": a truly radical skeptic wouldn't affirm something which can neither be refuted nor confirmed by evidence. As a scientific hypothesis, determinism is meaningless, being unverifiable. As an ethical aid, it's meaningless by definition. That doesn't leave anyplace from which it can derive meaning -- except maybe the rosy glow of unwarranted presumption:

"... simply because I happen to enjoy knowing things most people don't know." -- conclusion of "The Standard Misinterpretation of Determinism"

. . .


Regarding our imaginary adventure, Aaron Mandel worries us:

I think the implication of the "A in B" title scheme is not just that everything turns out okay, but that A, the sympathetic star of some extended series of episodes, comes out of B essentially unchanged. At least, that's why I found CNN's slogan unnerving: it's reversed.

And, less whimsically, it implies gently that the anthrax came from outside America, while I'm starting to hear serious mumbles to the effect that the perpetrators may have been domestic terrorists.

While, regarding our Worst Episode Ever, Lawrence L. White reassures us:

Locating predictability as the turning point is, dare I say it, Wittgenstein-like: if you can't move the rock, find a different spot for the lever. One consideration: note that the legal problem is only interested in things after the fact. Examples from law seem tainted with a particular pathology, akin to the pathology of taxation-phobic voters preferring to spend more on punishing folks than on the less expensive & more effective (crime-prevention wise) technique of educating them.

I liked the entry because I have what Wittgenstein characterized as the philosophical illness. & I felt bad to think I might have infected you. I am, in part from the Wittgenstein treatment, mostly free of such vexations. Meaning I wouldn't think to try to think about those things again. Which is another reason I find Uschanov fascinating. In his case the medicine stokes the disease.

Yes, muddling legal responsiblity with determinism seems unnecessary (except, as I indicated, in the case of an omniscent omnipotent judge). Already the central ethical problem of punitive justice is that past events can't be undone. Why make matters even more difficult for our dear caretakers by asking whether future events can be?

To retreat to ordinary English usage: Could an individual change something that's already happened? No, that doesn't seem meaningful. Could she change something that hasn't happened yet? Certainly not -- if it doesn't exist, it can't be changed. Can she be part of something happening? Certainly she can, and the only way around that is to radically redefine what "she" refers to. That's where "free will" comes in, but (unlike schools) courts can have nothing to say about the present tense (except "I object!" or such like)....

As for personal regret, the "philosophical illness" holds even less terror than anthrax. No, what really bothered me about my post was first, that it seemed misshapen as argumentative prose, and second, more damningly, that it seemed redundant: that I'd added nothing to what was already available, even if we restrict ourselves to the Web.

Referring to the Bill of Artifactual Values kept in my wallet at all times:

  1. Best is to make potentially inaccessible work accessible: to publish & to lend. (Thus the obsession with the DMCA and so forth.)

  2. Next best is to publicize relatively unknown work & ideas or actually produce (heavens!) new work & ideas.

  3. Next best after that is to show new aspects of relatively available work & ideas -- to add to their audience or to their interest or at least to what might be considered their "understanding."

  4. But utterly indefensible -- vacuous in itself and friend to future vacuity -- is to throw more of the same thing into a pool of existing same thing. Art is perfectly justifiable in the age of mechanical reproduction; cover bands less so. (Therefrom springs my antagonism towards group products ranging from "academic canons" and "postmodernism" and "doctoral programs" to "news media" and "pundits" and "awards shows.")
It's a strictly additive morality based on a loosely Kantian metaphysics: anti-consensus, aestheticizing, disputatious (albeit and alongsides welcoming correction and contradiction), potentially anti-groove, perhaps dangerously-near-solipsist. But mine own. And by its light I sinned where neither Lawrence L. White, T. P. Uschanov, nor Ludwig Wittgenstein had.

. . .


David Auerbach writes (or rather wrote, eleven days ago -- I gotta improve my turnaround time!)

Your treatment of free will as being subordinate to the predictability issue is justified (there are articles out there maintaining that chaos theory proves the existence of free will), but I think there's some cultural significance to the free will issue that you've overlooked. Free will is mostly used in ethical and political contexts. You say that regardless of your free choice, you'll be held responsible for hitting the lamppost, but I think that's only 2/3 true. Given the 3 canonical reasons for the sentence awaiting you:

  1. Let's use him as an example so people stop hitting lampposts as much.
  2. Let's make sure he never hits lampposts again.
  3. Let's give him what he deserves for hitting that lamppost.
--the first is almost never used as justification except in cases of capital punishment, where it's generally acknowledged as fallacious anyway, the second is more common for petty crime than real crime, leaving the third as the dominant rationale in the justice system today. Which would be fine, except that desert really does rely on some notion of autonomous action, separable from environmental factors, in order not to fall apart. (There's a lot of hand-wringing that can go on here over deserts being assigned within/without a being, but it's all bean-counting.) Agency survives determinism, since it was you what hit the lamppost, but a sentence that doesn't fall into the category of determent doesn't.

(I know I'm taking a Sartre-like position that inconsistency is the worst of all possible sins, but hey, that was always true in the rarefied world of philosophy.)

So, if you follow determinism, people can be assigned responsibility for actions without having any moral desert for what follows from them, and I've never seen a convincing argument linking the two. But introduce free will and the world is suddenly a much fairer place. And it's not just coincidence that

(t1) Paul Allen deserves to have 50 billion dollars.
sounds a lot better than
(t2) Paul Allen should have 50 billion dollars.
People like Robert Nozick have always been careful to couch their moral pronouncements in the first form rather than the second, and with good reason. But it's only with the presumption of some sort of free will that the statements have any meaningful difference.

It's been a few years, but I recall that Rawls uses the same desert principles to defend his social justice system, and I've never understood why, because he doesn't seem to need them. ("The poor deserve to have a decent standard of living" vs. "The poor should have a decent standard of living.", e.g.) Maybe it makes his arguments more palatable to Confucianists.

So my main point of departure from you is that I think there is a very definite use for the concept of free will beyond religion, unfortunately. The best that can be said is that free will is a far more established concept for neocons to pin their hopes on than, say, substantive due process or strict constructionism. You're probably right on the irrelevancy of the concept in classical civilizations, but that's a question for Alasdair MacIntyre to answer.

Work calls, but free will is a nice distraction from matters of importance. (I note the triumphalist tone in that piece clashing nicely with utter despondency in the privacy entry.)

I actually don't hear much about the world being a fair place, so I'll skip that debate.

Only in special circumstances (which I'll get to in a bit) does the notion of "desert" rely on the assumption of free will in the deserver. Instead, "desert" relies on the existence (tacit or explicit) of some disher of deserts, and moreover assumes that the disher has free will. It's meaningless to discuss "what reward or punishment is deserved" if there's no possibility of a rewarder or punisher. Without such an agency, all we have is "what is" or (if you're feeling ambitious) "what is caused."

It's easy for me to say that "Carol Emshwiller's books deserve front page coverage by the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement, and the New York Review of Books" not because I assume that Emshwiller's books have free will, but because it's easy for me to picture the fat-cat top-hatted stogie-chomping editors of those organs free-wilfully derelicting their duties, the cads.

On the other hand, I'm more likely to say that "I wish M. John Harrison's books were bestsellers" or "People should really be doing more to make M. John Harrison's books bestsellers" than to say that "M. John Harrison's books deserve to be bestsellers" (and even less that "M. John Harrison deserves to write bestsellers"), because the birth of a bestseller is far too confusing a process for my pretty little blond head to handle.

And what ho! here's monotheism again! A more general notion of desert (or, as the professors call it, justice) assumes (again, often tacitly) a more general notion of judge: a universal, omniscient, omnipotent, fair, righteous, and free agency. When we say, "I deserve to be happy," that's who we're appealing to; when we say "Those 6000 people didn't deserve to die" (or, conversely, "Those 6000 people deserved to die") that's who we're implicitly arguing with (or explicitly agreeing with). Similarly, when we (or more likely they) say that "Paul Allen deserves fifty billion dollars," they're imaginatively placing themselves in the role of that wise and benevolent deity called the Free (ha ha ha ha!) Market.

Consider instead the human agents of the employee benefits organization CIGNA who decided that Wilson H. Taylor deserved a $1,200,000 salary and a $3,500,000 bonus. It's hard to believe that they cared about Taylor's freedom of will any more than Microsoft cares about its programmers' freedom of will. On the contrary, I imagine that any business would prefer that its employees be as deterministic as possible. What they instead assume is their own right to hand such a large sum of money over to an individual -- and, particularly, to an individual who so resembles themselves.

The apparent justice of such judgments depends on a shared context; that is, ideally on a jury of one's peers (as opposed to a jury of the peerage -- e.g., Bush before the Republican Supreme Court as opposed to you-or-me before the Republican Supreme Court, or Steve Ballmer in front of Microsoft's board as opposed to you-or-me in front of Microsoft's board). When I bomb a building, whether I'm punished or praised depends on what context I share with judge and jury; when I do my job, whether I'm given a million-dollar bonus or laid off depends on the same.

Which finally brings us to the barely visible sliver of human existence in which the notion of "justice" and the notion of "free will" overlap. "Free will" (or "determinism") is experienced more often in introspective recollection than in action -- "It's my own fault" or "I didn't really have a choice" -- and punitive judgment is, very slightly and only after the more essential matter of deciding whether a law has been broken or a party has been injured, a matter of applying that introspective experience to someone else's past conduct. On a jury or on the bench, we assume both an unusual freedom and an unusual weightiness in our decision making, and the closer the miscreant came to our own (extremely rare) state of knowledge and power, the more culpable we consider them. *

Therein inheres the wit of T. P. Uschanov's swinging the deterministic spotlight onto the hidden-but-necessary P.O.V. courtroom characters of judge and jury.

*       Which is putting it awfully idealistically, of course: many judges and juries couldn't care less about that aspect of "justice," and those who could find it much easier to apply these strict standards externally than internally: that is, we blandly assume that the (extremely rare) mindset that we're in at the moment is the same as held in whatever external situation we're considering, and then blandly forget that mindset while going about our quotidian affairs. Thus the honestly self-righteous indignation displayed by those in power when they're declared miscreants, or by daytime talk show audience members who find themselves treated roughly on the talk show stage.

. . .

There is no ordinary language

A week in Missouri's hospitals and dying towns may have tinctured my sickbed reading of Mind and World. As was, despite many points of contact,1 I could only admire from a distance the confidence with which John McDowell liberated himself (well, all humanity [no dogs], but since he doesn't cite stats I presume we were redeemed by extension) from the "realm of law." And although his talk of "exculpation" and "justification" brushed my cracker-barrel essays on a related topic, we walked to different seats of the courtroom.

From within his context (so far as my imagination allowed me to follow), his argument ran soothingly cool and clear. Within mine, temporal binaries continue more to the point than zoological. What has occurred rests unpeaceably in the realm of law. In the realm of spontaneity and/or reason, the realm of the present tense, on those rare occasions when a conscious decision cannot be avoided, what we grab for might as often be called an "algorithm" as a "justification"— anything to slap us back into the realm of law ASAP, though it be the law of probability, the law of the jungle, or the law of SATAN HIS BAD SELF. Anything so's to be just following orders.

1   Of course I agree that the experience of human perception cannot be separated from the exercise of human thought. We possibly diverge on the priority of the converse.


If all I ever achieve is instigating essays at metameat, it will be a life well led.

. . .

Maxwell's Noodge

Much light may be thrown on some of these questions by the consideration of stability and instability. When the state of things is such that an infinitely small variation of the present state will alter only by an infinitely small quantity the state at some future time, the condition of the system, whether at rest or in motion, is said to be stable; but when an infinitely small variation in the present state may bring about a finite difference in the state of the system in a finite time, the condition of the system is said to be unstable.

It is manifest that the existence of unstable conditions renders impossible the prediction of future events, if our knowledge of the present state is only approximate, and not accurate.

It has been well pointed out by Professor Balfour Stewart that physical stability is the characteristic of those systems from the contemplation of which determinists draw their arguments, and physical stability that of those living bodies, and moral instability that of those developable souls, which furnish to consciousness the conviction of free will.

Having thus pointed out some of the relations of physical science to the question, we are the better prepared to inquire what is meant by determination and what by free will.

No one, I suppose, would assign to free will a more than infinitesimal range. No leopard can change his spots, nor can any one by merely wishing it, or, as some say, willing it, introduce discontinuity into his course of existence. Our free will at the best is like that of Lucretius's atoms,—which at quite uncertain times and places deviate in an uncertain manner from their course. In the course of this our mortal life we more or less frequently find ourselves on a physical or moral watershed, where an imperceptible deviation is sufficient to determine into which of two valleys we shall descend. The doctrine of free will asserts that in some such cases the Ego alone is the determining cause. The doctrine of Determinism asserts that in every case, without exception, the result is determined by the previous conditions of the subject, whether bodily or mental, and that Ego is mistaken in supposing himself in any way the cause of the actual result, as both what he is pleased to call decisions and the resultant action are corresponding events due to the same fixed laws. Now, when we speak of causes and effects, we always imply some person who knows the causes and deduces the effects. Who is this person? Is he a man, or is he the Deity?

If he is man,—that is to say, a person who can make observations with a certain finite degree of accuracy,—we have seen that it is only in certain cases that he can predict results with even approximate correctness.

If he is the Deity, I object to any argument founded on a supposed acquaintance with the conditions of Divine foreknowledge.

[...] But singular points are by their very nature isolated, and form no appreciable fraction of the continuous course of our existence. Hence predictions of human conduct may be made in many cases. First, with respect to those who have no character at all, especially when considered in crowds, after the statistical method. Second, with respect to individuals of confirmed character, with respect to actions of the kind for which their character is confirmed.

If, therefore, those cultivators of physical science from whom the intelligent public deduce their conception of the physicist, and whose style is recognised as marking with a scientific stamp the doctrines they promulgate, are led in pursuit of the arcane of science to the study of the singularities and instabilities, rather than the continuities and stabilities of things, the promotion of natural knowledge may tend to remove that prejudice in favour of determinism which seems to arise from assuming that the physical science of the future is a mere magnified image of that of the past.

- from "Does the progress of Physical Science tend to give any advantage to the opinion of Necessity (or Determinism) over that of the Contingency of Events and the Freedom of the Will?" as delivered by James Clerk Maxwell to the Eranus Society at Cambridge on 11th February 1873

My preferred analogy for the power of conscious agency is a single voter in a US presidential election, but I guess that wouldn't work in the U.K.


Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
Public domain work remains in the public domain.
All other material: Copyright 2015 Ray Davis.