From Chaos to Free Will: Further Comments & Responses
Ellis (George F.R.), Etc
Source: Aeon, 09 - 17 June, 2020
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See "Ellis (George F.R.), Etc - From Chaos to Free Will" for the original paper and the first set of Comments and Replies

On-Line Comments & Replies (Continued1)

  1. Michael Haines, 10 June 2020
    • Notice no idea (number, form and meaning) can ‘exist’ on its own. Each idea takes its ‘meaning’ by reference to other ideas. Notice too, no idea can ever change, for if it was to change, it would be a different idea and not the idea it is. Knowing-ideas is an attribute of Consciousness along with Sensing-sensations (colours, odours, flavours, feelings and sounds). Notice you cannot feel or taste or smell or hear or see or know ‘Consciousness’. Objectively, it appears as if it is not. Subjectively, it requires no theory or belief: plainly it ‘is’… ‘self-evident’. What it ‘is’ or how it comes to be can never be Known, for only ideas are Known and Consciousness is not an ‘idea’… it is ‘Real’.
    • All scientific theories, including theories about ‘the brain’ use mathematics to describe the theoretical behaviour of theoretical objects (quantum field, sub-atomic particles, atoms, ions, proteins, molecules, cells, etc). A theory is regarded as ‘valid’ when the theoretical behaviour of the theoretical objects reliably maps or predicts the observed behaviour of observed objects apparent in and to Consciousness… that is all.
    • The mathematics that describe the theorised behaviour are contained in the design of the equipment and in the algorithms that link observed events with the theorised behaviour. They explain nothing of ‘essence’ or ‘meaning’… let alone ‘Consciousness’ :)
  2. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
    • I think I agree.
  3. Walter Collins, 7 days ago
    • Thank you, George Ellis, for your thoughtful comments responding to physicists who try to argue against free will on the basis of the alleged causal completeness of physics. Brian Greene and Sabine Hossenfelder are laughably wrong. We have agency. We can choose. Sometimes we choose rationally, sometimes irrationally. Physics has nothing to do with it, other than the absurdly trivial point that our minds and bodies are material entities that do not violate the laws of physics. Quantumness, chaos, randomness, initial conditions, they are all meaningless regarding agency. Living creatures with agency have so many conflicting paths open to us that any single choice can go a million different ways and those choices appear to us thousands of times a day. We respond to our moods, our beliefs (both always changing), our environment (all the people and things we come in contact with) in ways that physics simply cannot address. Agency is not physics, just as living creatures are not rocks.
  4. George Ellis, 6 days ago
    • Thank you. I agree 100%. But it is important to tie down the reason why physics does not indeed imply all else is froth, and I think I now have that tied down.
  5. T Clark, 7 days ago
    • Some thoughts.
    • First – you don’t need to look at quantum mechanics, chaos theory, the existence of emergent phenomena, or the fundamental randomness of the universe to conclude that the future cannot be predicted from existing conditions. Even if the universe is made up of billiard balls just moving around based on Newtonian principles, there are 10^80 atoms in the universe. Determining the existing state and calculating the future state one nanosecond in the future would take more time than the universe has existed no matter how powerful a computer you use.
    • Following up from that, I have argued with people with a sophisticated understanding of physics that if we can’t predict something in a reasonably practical way, it doesn’t make any sense to say it is determined. They, often, strongly disagree. They are fully capable of understanding my argument, they just disagree with me. They’re not wrong, they just see things differently.
    • This points to the real nature of the issue. The existence or non-existence of free will is not a matter of fact, it’s a matter of values. It’s not physics, it’s metaphysics.
  6. George Ellis, 6 days ago
    • I agree with you about indeterminism even in classical physics. Gisin has written about this, see here2: Santo & Gisin - Physics without Determinism: Alternative Interpretations of Classical Physics. Yes it’s a question of what you mean by “determined”. In my book, that means the initial gives a unique outcome. Which does not happen, for the reason you state, plus the existence of chaotic systems as for example the Lorenz attractor that relates to weather patterns. Free will is not a matter of physics inter alia because physics does not even know the difference between life and death. Neuroscience is relevant, however, in my view. The really great book about this is a book by Merlin Donald called A Mind so Rare3
  7. Cameron McKenzie, 5 days ago
    • I don’t believe we have free will, but I do believe we have free can.
    • This article sets up parameters to make argument then reaches outside those parameters to justify conclusions. e.g. “These are all mental events that take place because of the way your brain functions at the psychological level, based on some combination of past experience and innate responses. None of those qualities – sympathy, fear, guilt – occur at the ion or synapse level.” I’d question that strongly. But I’m an amateur.
  8. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • I’m happy with your first sentence.
    • As to the second, to look at this kind of thing one must very carefully sort out in one’s mind the hierarchical levels that occur in the brain. A place where this is done is Table 1 on page 5 of this paper4: Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts. They are enabled by lower levels, but take place at the psychological level. Actually they are enabled by all lower levels. If you think about it, that is how it has to work.
  9. Arjen Hiemstra, 5 days ago
    • Very nice article, but I think the author makes some fundamental mistakes - perhaps due to confirmation bias?
    • For example, arguing against free will does not mean you are automatically deterministic.
    • Also: Discovering randomness of thought does not automatically mean you discovered free will.
    • I think we are a mix of partly deterministic and partly random behavior without free will but with a particular individual will (that is not free).
    • Free will is I think an illusion that is being created by our observing, and logical reasoning brain. It observes our brain processes and interprets them logically. Instead of saying “These brains tend toward decision A, now these brains consider decision B and finally through a funny random quantum event it decided to go for B.”, our logical reasoning brain self-identifies with these brains it observes and says “I tend toward decision A, now I consider decision B and finally I feel B is the way to go”. This creates the impression of free will, where really a bunch of partly deterministic and partly random events took place.
    • The paper the author quotes is - for me - not a proof of free will. The paper does not mention a “free choice”. It mentions a “choice” that is being used on a set of randomly generated options. I think this is comparable with evolutionary learning algorithms in Artificial Intelligence: You start with a number of randomly initialized networks. Then you let them do a task (which obviously they fail at), but you use a fitness function to determine which ones failed the least / performed the best. You then randomly mutate and combine these “best” networks and repeat this process few thousand times. Eventually you will see intelligent behavior emerging (depending on how clever your fitness function was), but you cannot conclude free will was at work.
    • The fitness function poses a choice, but not a free choice.
    • What is interesting: The outcome is kind of deterministic, because it was dictated by the fitness function, although only a mix of random and deterministic processes were at work.
    • In real life, these fitness functions are implemented in our brains. Partly in its architecture coded in our DNA. Partly in it’s architecture caused by neuroplasticity. Partly in short, middle and long term memories. There are lots of pieces that implement these fitness functions and they change constantly. But there is nothing free about that: It’s determinism combined with randomness.
    • Our brains are a piece of machinery, that take external impulses, process them with some sort of “bios” dictated by how our genes implemented our brains (our genetic memory), then store memories through short, middle and long term memory implemented by neuroplasticity and perpetual brain activity and output behavior that will alter the environment and will be the input for other such brains.
    • While this results in a set of very complicated functions that both act as input as well as output for each other, one cannot conclude “free will” is at work. You may label it “my will”, but nothing is free about that. If through partly deterministic, partly neuro activity these brains come to conclude that behavior A is applicable, there is nothing else that can/will change that, apart from other partly deterministic/partly random neuro activity. There is no “free will” organ.
    • If we like it or not, I think we can only conclude that we are information processing machines relying on partly deterministic and partly random information processing. Together we are the mirror into which the universe reflects itself. Because the universe is the input and our brains, our thoughts and our memories are the mirror. Hence, collectively, we give consciousness to the universe. Conscious being: Logically discovering yourself in the model you create of your environment. Without consciousness, the universe may exist or not - it would not matter. Our consciousness gives some form of meaning to the universe, because we create its twin sister/brother with and in our minds. Even if you do not conclude that free will exists, I think this is amazing to observe.
  10. George Ellis, 5 days ago
  11. Hans van den Berg, 5 days ago
    • I am all in for Arjen Hiemstra6’s and Brian Greene’s ideas. (I am a biologist). None of you mentioned Michael S. Gazzaniga’s experiments with split brain patients. His experiments make clear that free will is not possible seen from what the brain does when making decisions. We decide (we seem to decide) after we have taken a decision what was the meaning of this decision. These experiments are so clear about this that any idea about the existence of free will is absurd. Strangely Michael S. Gazzaniga himself believes in free will as he tries to explain, in an absurd way, that emerging phenomena from our cortex cause free will. I am not sure that I am totally right about this though, his reasoning was difficult to follow.
    • Another thing is that free will should be defined before starting a discussion about this (as is mentioned here). This should be easy, seeing the comparative clarity of ‘free’, but many philosophers try to undo this by inventing other definitions. Two clear examples of this are Daniel Dennett and my countryman Herman Philipse7, both philosophers. Philipse went so far as to say that it MUST exist (I heard him say that), otherwise we could not hold people responsible for what they have done. And, this is what worries me sometimes, these kind of arguments are often used in juridicial circumstances in an ultimate attempt to keep ‘villains’ away from psychiatric hospitals.
    • It is mentioned by some here, determination of indetermination can, in my opinion, not be be used, neither to prove the existence of free will, nor the opposite.
  12. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • Well these are all neural considerations outside the physics domain I wrote about. I am surprised you did not mention Benjamin Libet. I respond by firstly saying that I find the counter arguments in the books A Mind so Rare by Merlin Donald8=3 and Did my Neurons Make me do it9=5 by Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown convincing.
    • Second I agree with Philipse10=7 not only for that reason but because effective free will is a precondition for carrying out science. If we don’t have sufficient free will to plan experiments, carry them out, and evaluate the data, then science is not possible as a human enterprise.
    • Thirdly I believe my arguments about the cosmological context should be fully convincing. It is the only way that all that deeply thought out stuff can come into existence in the real universe.
  13. Paul Torek, 5 days ago
    • The author works too hard for the conclusion, and yet in another way not quite hard enough. The explanation of how macro events are not predictable is useful, as is much of the discussion of the relationship between levels of description. The trouble is that free will skeptics will just retreat - or in some cases it’s not a retreat, it’s where they started - to the claim that the micro-level facts of the early universe cause all our actions. Thus Ugo Corda11: “if a process is deterministic at the level of physics, higher levels of description will not change that …”
    • The most direct and appropriate answer to that skeptical line of reasoning is to object that determinism is not sufficient for causality. Causality requires a *one-way* relationship between phenomena: if A causes B, the interdependence of A and B cannot be fully mutual. But at the micro-level, physics is charge/parity/time-symmetric, and the relationship between past and future is mutual. One can derive past states from future ones, just as well as derive future from past. This is why Bertrand Russell- who knew his QM and wrote the book on relativity - wrote “The law of causality, I believe … is a relic of a bygone age.” It is only when we introduce entropy, complexity, and related concepts that time acquires an “arrow”. The concept of entropy requires coarse-graining, i.e. the use of macroscopic descriptions that ignore microscopic variations. The entropy and arrow-of-time connection is nicely explained by physicist Sean Carroll in A Brief History of Time12 and by philosopher David Albert in After Physics.
    • The skeptical argument gets its intuitive force by covertly switching from physics-based conceptions of time and causality to intuitive ones. Physics is used to suggest that laws of nature plus initial conditions can explain everything, either deterministically, or with randomness mixed in. Then an intuitive understanding of causality, drawn from our experience as *macroscopic* beings, creeps back in to make such explanations seem threatening. But the idea that earlier events “force” later ones only works (to the extent it does) at macroscopic scales with coarse-graining. And if events are described strictly macroscopically, determinism disappears. There is no combination of micro- and macroscopic descriptions that yields both determinism and universal causality.
  14. George Ellis, 4 days ago
    • “The trouble is that free will skeptics will just retreat - or in some cases it’s not a retreat, it’s where they started - to the claim that the micro-level facts of the early universe cause all our actions”. And then you get into the problems I highlight at the end: how are they coded into the data in the early universe? How did they survive into the late universe, despite all the random stuff going on, particularly at the molecular level? And most important of all, Who wrote all that stuff into the initial data?
    • That is the killer question. It’s a sophisticated Intelligent Design hypothesis.
  15. George Gantz, 4 days ago
    • Thank you George for another brilliant, and controversial essay. We could have used you in the FQXi13 contest this year on the topic of Undecidability, Uncomputability and Unpredictability. In the light of what very little we know about consciousness, complexity and uncertainty, physical determinism seems increasingly untenable. But so many continue to argue for it. They are drawn, I suspect, to its exactitude, its perfection and its finality - the holy grail of a theory of everything. A goal which I argue is illusory and which, if true, would drain all purpose and meaning from life.
    • In the FQXi contest this year, I addressed the features that the physical world and mathematics share with consciousness in my essay “The Door That Has No Key14”. Self-reference, entanglement and purposeful agency are the key features of autonoetic (self-knowing) consciousness. They are also found in physical and mathematical systems and are manifest at the limits of knowledge that FQXi is exploring. These autonoetic features serve as gatekeepers limiting our understanding of the world, by invoking incompleteness, undecidability and unpredictability. But they also make living in this world so marvellously interesting and beautiful. Why is this so hard to believe?
  16. Guillaume Thierry, 4 days ago
    • Beautiful and amazingly clear. I am fascinated by the way in which you gently curved my convictions about determinism, and in so few words! I have been a determinist – not by choice, ha-ha – for a long time and I have questioned the idea of determinism over and over again because, despite the concept imposing itself as self-evident to me, I hate the idea that our mental life might be defined by initial conditions and that there may be no place for freedom. I have always held randomness as our chance out of determinism, as a glow of hope in the grim landscape offered by a predictable Universe. Over the years, I have tried my father and my brother, both of them artists, during hours of passionate discussion, opposing them with tenacious arguments which I have repeatedly claimed to demonstrate the impossibility of free will. This being said, I have also claimed with the same consistency that events (mental or otherwise) are not predictable, because randomness is omnipresent and exists at every level of reality’s structure. So in my representation of mental life, there are initial states, deterministic interactions between forces and constraints, and randomness, which is a good recipe for killing free will. But then, I have also always experienced this discomfort when we somewhat inevitably come to consider the issue of responsibility. Is the President (whoever that is) responsible of his or her decisions and actions and should he or she be accountable? After reading your article, I am mesmerized to discover that during all these years I may have missed a critical concept, which may indeed lead to the true possibility of mental freedom. Shall I call this multi-level choice interaction? Your idea (if I understood this correctly) that randomness existing at every level of reality structure provides an opportunity for systems at different scales to choose a way forward amongst possibilities offered by it. My mistake then was to conceive of free choice, if it existed, as only occurring at the level of thought, not at lower levels (neuronal, molecular or atomic) or higher in the scale of system complexity (societies, galaxies). Indeed, if choice is only conceived at the level of thought and all other cogs in the system at different levels or scales were to operate in a purely deterministic fashion, then it is difficult to imagine how thought could be anything else than determined by initial states, deterministic interactions between forces and constraints, and randomness. But the idea of choice between options offered at random at every level of complexity based on constraints defined by higher levels! This changes everything. For my own sake (and at the risk of shocking you, an eminent Physicist), I summarise this epiphany with the equation: randomness to the power of n = freedom.
  17. Andrew Goldstein, 3 days ago
    • I like to take deeper dives into discussing emergence, where complexity increases (for a time) from simplicity. When I think of the increasingly complex, macro world emerging from the quantum micro world, I think about how and when there is recognition of new attributes that necessitate new ways of describing and thinking about the world. It’s like slowly stepping away from a big screen TV where you first see one pixel, then multiple pixels that at some point perceive images, followed by seeing the TV itself and so on. It all seems quite discontinuous as emergence is perceived.
  18. jeff Richardson, 9 June 2020
    • Isn’t this a scientifically based version of Hume’s argument against cause-and-effect being a tautology? I think Hume makes the case well, philosophically, and defends free will effectively in that sense.
  19. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
    • Indeed so, but many people more recently think that scientific arguments based in the alleged causal completeness of physics undermine Hume’s argument. That is why one needs an argument that takes the physics and molecular biology seriously.
  20. Anthony Cusano
    • 9 June 2020
    • This argument boils down to the definition of causation. If causation is a fixed constraint on all that follows from it, then determinism holds, regardless of how the information about events is encoded. If, on the other hand, causation can occur with random outcomes based on constraints, then encoding information to determine all future events is impossible.
    • I don’t think we have evidence to support either theory yet, and based on Godel’s uncertainty theory, I’m not sure that we ever could.
  21. George Ellis, 10 June 2020
  22. Ian Wardell, 10 June 2020
    • This essay, like almost all essays on “free will”, is a waste of time. Talking about science simply has NO RELEVANCE to whether we have free will or not.
      So the actual question is: does the Schrödinger equation, together with the initial state of the wave function describing everything that existed in the early Universe, determine everything I think today because it determines the states of all the biomolecules in my body?
      What does this question *mean*? By “determines” presumably it’s intimating that something is *making* us and everything else behave in a given way. What is this thing? Physical laws? The actions of the four fundamental forces such physical laws describe? I guess the latter, but how do we know such forces actually exist? How do we know any physical causality exists?
    • All these essays are chock-a-block with these implicit metaphysical assumptions about how the world is, and as a consequence they are always a confused mess. On such philosophical topics, why doesn’t aeon and others ever employ someone who has any sort of understanding of the underlying issues? Granted such people are very rare.
    • Google my essay: A Causal Consciousness, Free Will, and Dualism16
  23. George Ellis, 7 days ago
  24. Stephen Lawrence, 6 days ago
    • The trouble is free will incompatible with determinism is an illogical concept. Any free will it’s possible to have could not be restricted by determinism. And so how ever correct the article is on the matters discussed in it, it can’t make any difference regarding free will. The mistake was, as is so often the case, not to define free will in the first place.
    • The first question to ask is why would determinism seem to restrict free will? The beginning of an answer is because we could not have done otherwise with exactly the same distant past and laws of nature. But as philosophers point out we could have done otherwise in the would have if… sense. So why isn’t that good enough for free will? I believe if we think it through, the answer is clear. It’s because circumstances we did not choose would have had to have been different in order for us to have done otherwise. And once that’s clear it’s soon apparent that indeterminism can’t help and indeed has nothing to do with choice making in the first place.
  25. George Ellis, 6 days ago
    • “The beginning of an answer is because we could not have done otherwise with exactly the same distant past and laws of nature.” This is the standard assumption that all causation is bottom up, determined by the laws of nature. And that is what I dispute. Emergent laws also have causal power. See17=4 Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts for technical details.
  26. Theodore Hoppe, 6 days ago
    • I enjoyed the article very much and learned a great deal and that is always the goal.
    • Sir Roger Penrose has speculated that someday, when asked about the concept of consciousness, we might say, ‘Oh, that’s what people wasted their time on in the 20th century.’ ” Why wouldn’t this apply to the concept of free will as well? Penrose observes, “If it’s something we use for our conscious understanding, it’s going to be a lot deeper than even straightforward, non-computable deterministic physics. It’s a kind of delicate borderline between completely deterministic behavior and something which is completely free.”
    • But I still favor Robert Sapolsky’s take on free will18. Sapolsky - Your Brain, Free Will and the Law
  27. F W, 6 days ago
    • Well, as far as we know at the moment, at a fundamental level nature is described by quantum mechanics which is indeed non-deterministic. But we also know that when the transition to macroscopic objects gradually happens, the quantum randomness is lost and the resulting physics is essentially deterministic. In the macroscopic world, most systems may display deterministic chaos and be de facto unpredictable; but that doesn’t mean they’re non-deterministic. According to our present knowledge, it seems the only way authentic non-determinism could be present in the macroscopic level is if quantum randomness somehow reached up to that level through some mechanism. If advocates of “free will” can’t explain such a mechanism (they can’t) there’s no point in “free will theory”.
    • About downwards causality, I have no idea what it is. This is essentially because I have no idea what causality – tout court – is.
  28. George Ellis, 5 days ago
  29. Stephen Cliffe, 5 days ago
    • Very disappointed by the article. It really had nothing to say about the neurological requirements for free will. Chaos and molecular uncertainty cannot explain free will. It is fascinating because free will is something that we all feel we have, even if we know that our choices are constrained by external events and/or by our previous experiences. Free will is obviously an emergent phenomena, the problem with emergence being that it can be used to “explain” almost anything without any testable predictions. Are there any updates on the Benjamin Libet experiments ?
  30. George Ellis, 5 days ago
  31. Otakar Horák, 5 days ago
  32. George Ellis, 5 days ago
    • Thank you for those useful links. As stated in the reply above, I was simply making the case that physics does not deny free will, as some claim. The neuroscience argument is different, see Murphy and Brown22=5 I quote above.
    • I can’t get the logic of the last paragraph. You do not believe in free will but believe you can make choices as a moral being. But if you don’t have freedom of will, you can’t make any choices whatever, whether moral or not. What am I getting wrong?
  33. Robert Gordon-Smith, 5 days ago
    • This argument is like someone who bases all their decisions on a coin toss, to avoid being influenced by their past and inherited neurobiology; saying they now have free will. Causation and initial conditions probably do account for a lot of our individual behaviour, opportunities and personality. But this isn’t the only thing problematic with free will, it comes down to what you mean by free in the end.
    • I also don’t think it has to be a bad position to hold, it allows you to have compassion for people and recognise that they didn’t necessarily choose to be who they are or where they are. That doesn’t mean you can’t then also optimise the system to achieve the best outcome and greatest wellbeing. If that means holding people accountable for things or having punishments in place to prevent harmful behaviour then I suppose that is what would be necessary; I’m not making an argument either way for that, I just think it’s a separate issue.
  34. George Ellis, 4 days ago
  35. M. Canada, 4 days ago
    • When you say ‘free will skeptics” — you lump them all together. In the comment responses, you are more specific about your target, but in the article I feel you are intentionally misleading. You also don’t define free will in any meaningful way. The discussion points on downward causation vs initial conditions are interesting and appreciated. However, it’s not explained sufficiently in this article. I am confused when you say: “physics … didn’t determine it”.
    • I think your conclusion summarizes some of the misleading points:
      1. I see arguments against determinism instead of free-will skeptics in general (disproving determinism instead of proving free-will), but you still insist on free-will’s existence (without any good arguments).
      2. “Psychological to the physical” causation does not explain anything about the source or origin (determination) of the psychology. You state that it emerges from interactions within the brain. This explanation, while potentially disproving determinism, does not solve the ‘problem of determinism’. The ‘problem of determinism’ does not actually require determinism to be completely true. It is a problem of causality, which you did not solve as far as I can tell.
      3. Mixing up concepts at different levels like “choosing the outcomes” and “no logical thinking by a human played a causal role”. I do not believe a competent determinist said that humans do not play a role.
      4. The article has “aside for now” twice when referring to quantum uncertainty. Why are you setting it aside so many times :) …. It is confusing IMO.
      5. When you mention morality and responsibility, I think it does not present the counter position fairly. Physics is what creates the conditions for responsibility to exist. There is no reason we can’t be accountable. Someone can make a moral choice, but what made them the person that willed a certain choice? Free-will then becomes both necessary and impossible.
    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Overall, the topic of ‘emergence’ is interesting, and I would like to learn more about it, but I am still a ‘free-will’ skeptic in the sense that I have no idea what it means. Though I make ‘choices’, they are only free in so far as I am not being compelled externally to do something. But when I seriously mediate on a choice I’ve made, I have little understanding of the source of my desires or feelings.
  36. George Ellis, 3 days ago
    • Thanks for that.
      1. You still insist on free-will’s existence (without any good arguments).” No I said my intention was to clear the way for such arguments. And I refer to Murphy and Brown23=5 where the actual arguments are given, see Oxford Scholarship: Murphy & Brown - Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?.
      2. As for causality, I claim, like Denis Noble, that it is real at every emergent level. The detailed argument is here24=4: Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts
      3. “I do not believe a competent determinist said that humans do not play a role.” If the physics determines the outcomes, what role are the human beings playing? By the way, something I did not go into is that there are at least six arguments against free will:
        1. fate/karma/God,
        2. society/social conditioning,
        3. macro neuroscience: Benjamin Libet and all that,
        4. micro neuroscience Francis Crick and neurons,
        5. genetics: your genes made you do it,
        6. the physics one: Brian Greene et al.
        So on might think wow, the case is obviously irrefutable with so many arguments against it, until you realise they contradict each other. If any one of them is THE thing that denies free will, then all the others are false. So which is it? And then why are the others all wrong? My position is that all except the first are indeed genuine partial explanations, none of them is the total explanation because causality is multi-dimensional. And the final feature at work is
        1. genuinely effective causation at the mental level, for example the reasoning that led you to ask those questions.
      4. Quantum uncertainty I set aside because there are a group of physicists who use the many worlds theory to deny its existence. That is another whole huge discussion.
      5. “Physics is what creates the conditions for responsibility to exist” My argument is that it is really the biology that creates those conditions, the physics allows the biology to do so. “Someone can make a moral choice” - well my simple-minded view is that if free will does not exist in an effective way, i.e. you could have chosen to do otherwise, then morality has no meaning.
    • Thanks for the thoughtful questions.
  37. Zsofia Berke, 3 days ago
    • Thank you all for a great discussion. Three questions/comments from a biologist.
      1. Firstly, what is the definition of “free will” - i.e. how can you address it in a scientific manner if you aren’t exactly clear on what you are chasing.
      2. Second, are we sure that this free will has an underlying and specific physical/biological determinant? Isn’t our socialising more important in our preferences and decisions? I would think that the human and cultural context we are living in has a huge impact on how we think, what we believe in, and how and why we make the choices we do. Morals and ethics cannot be dismissed in this discussion either (even if these may have a physical/biological determinant?), still without these there is no society and no research.
      3. Thirdly, among my friends and colleagues there are more or less two opinions about our knowledge/understanding in terms of limits. One camp says that the human brain and intellect can be a “know-it-all”, i.e. that with diligent scientific research we can truly and wholly describe and understand the world around us, including the human brain. The other camp says that our brain is even if a sophisticated system, no system cannot truly understand something that is more complicated and complex than itself, i.e. the human brain and intellect are not “know-it-all”, because we are only a tiny part of it all.
      Thanks once again :)
  38. George Ellis, 3 days ago
    • Thanks for that.
      1. Again I say that I did not define free will, just argued that the physicists who say physics denies it are wrong. As I have said above, for the full discussion please see Murphy and Brown25=5. What I do is clear the foundations for their persuasive discussion.
      2. Second, absolutely true: the mind is situated in a social context, and that acts down to influence our thinking in crucial ways as emphasized for example by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their book The Social Construction of Reality and by many others. I deal with this in my paper on causal closure, see here26=4 Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts, - causal closure of biology (and the underlying physics) only takes place when you take society into account. The underlying nature of morality and ethics is a whole other discussion; for the record, I am a moral realist.
      3. Finally “no system cannot truly understand something that is more complicated and complex than itself” - indeed that is the view of many. We understand by making models. You end up with the following problem: to really understand something n full detail you need a model that incorporates all the details of the system you are modelling. But then the model is the system! I personally don’t believe we will ever understand the hard problem of consciousness - i.e. how qualia come into existence. But then I have a friend who believes he has solved it!
  39. Edward S, 3 days ago
    • Why does the universe not being predictable to our maths and computers mean there is free will?
    • Where is the mechanism for thought changing the shape of biomolecules: if it’s two way traffic what is to say mental pressures ‘pushing’ or ‘reaching down’ or whatever metaphor are the majority flow at any given time?
    • It may be wishful think that there is free will, and free will exists in that our sensations of them exist but that doesn’t mean it’s determined. Humans seem pretty determined to believe they do but not ascribe the free will downward causation to, say, a jellyfish.
    • It’s not just physicists who think there is no free will but biologists and neuroscientists who deal with the causation in brains yet you say physicists lack knowledge therein to correctly get free will thought constraints on biomolecules.
  40. George Ellis, 3 days ago
    • It means it opens up the way for free will. The different levels in the brain interact with each other: the mental level indeed supervening on the action potential level, but also determining that level in a process of circular causation, because otherwise one simply could not account for logical results such as the proof that the square root of 2 is irrational being developed by the brain. There is no way that the neurons by themselves could determine that - its a logical argument. They develop it in a feedback loop between that level and the psychological level. Or can you explain it in any other way?
    • Yes there are biologists and neuroscientists who deny free will. They however want you to believe that their arguments are meaningful. How can that be if they did not have sufficient freedom of choice to allow them to develop alternative explanations and select the one they think is best?
  41. Jacob Lynch, 3 days ago
    • You make the assertion:
    • “So what determines which messages are conveyed to your synapses by signalling molecules? They are signals determined by thinking processes that can’t be described at any lower level because they involve concepts, cognition and emotions in an essential way. Psychological experiences drive what happens. Your thoughts and feelings reach ‘down’ to shape lower-level processes in the brain by altering the constraints on ion and electron flows in a way that changes with time.”
    • What proof is there that Psychological events are “irreducible”? Is it possible that they have not been described yet? What could cause them to come into existence if not molecular processes? It seems there are one of three possibilities:
      1. The same phenomenon underly psychological events but it is not understood how yet.
      2. There is some phenomenon that produces “psychological” events that are not understood but are independent of anything we have measured before
      3. Psychology is independent of the system of the universe
    • I think you are arguing for (ii), but I’m not sure (i) has been sufficiently disproven.
  42. George Ellis, 3 days ago
    • Action potential spike chains in neuron dendrites and axons underlie thoughts but the thoughts have a logic of their own which is at an independent level than that of the spike chains in the sense that if you look at the Hodgkin-Huxley equations that underlie action potential propagation, there is nothing in them for example about the square root of 2. They are simply completely incommensurate kinds of causation going on at those two levels. To see it in a less loaded context, look at the case of digital computers that Iink to. Take an algorithm for sorting change in a vending machine. The electron flows through transistor gates implement the algorithm, but don’t “know” they are doing so - that logical process is carried out at a completely different emergent level (e.g. the level at which a Java program is coded) but chains down to machine code (that’s the downward causation part) which then controls the flow of electrons. Something like that is happening on the case of the brain. In the computer case it is the algorithm that decides what is happening but the electron level that makes it happen. I suppose this is somewhere between your 1. and 2. We have measured the action potential spike chains but have no idea how they code for thoughts.
  43. jethro heelby, 3 days ago
    • “If you seriously believe that fundamental forces leave no space for free will, then it’s impossible for us to genuinely make choices as moral beings.”
    • Seriously and genuinely, there’s the rub. and the fallacy. and the templeton $27, all confounded by smoke and mirrors. Ligand-gated ion channel you say!
  44. George Ellis, 2 days ago
    • I have no idea what the second sentence is supposed to mean, except that it sure has no serious argument in it, and for good measure makes a remark that is supposed to impugn my integrity.
    • Let me comment on the second issue first. It is quite remarkable how strong reductionists resort so often to ad hominem personal attack. This is a sure sign they are losing an academic debate, and have no better resources to use than demeaning those who disagree with them and questioning their motivation. This characterises a mind closed to any viewpoint except their own: nothing else is acceptable. There must be a psychological/sociological explanation for this kind of behaviour: something to do with feeling threatened by viewpoints other than their own, perhaps. Why else do they feel the need to so often resort to such attacks? What has happened to the idea of civilised rational discourse the respects the viewpoint of the other person, whether you agree or not?
    • Second, if one want to look at these issues seriously, one must be analytically very clear, and carefully analyse the different causal levels in operation and how they interact with each other. I do this very carefully in my causal closure paper28=4 Ellis - The Causal Closure of Physics in Real World Contexts. The point then is that, as Denis Noble points out so well in his book Dance to the Tune of Life29, causation is real at every level in this emergent hierarchy. It is real at the electron level in terms of interactions between electrons and protons; at the molecular level in terms of interactions between biomolecules, including between ligands and ligand gated ion channels. It is real at the genetic level: genes make a difference! It is clear at the neural level: neurons underlie thoughts. It is clear at the systems level: neural networks also underlie thoughts. And it is clear at the psychological/mental level: thoughts have a logic of their own, for example the arguments I am presenting here, that results in the way thoughts and arguments develop at that level. These levels all work in harmony with each other because of the confluence of upwards and downwards causation, the latter enabled by time dependent constraints on lower level dynamics, as I explain in my article; and both upward and downward causation are indeed causation as defined by Judea Pearl30=19.
    • Finally if fundamental forces leave no space for free will, as Brian Greene claims, then we can’t make any choices at all, let alone moral choices. I would have thought that was undeniable.
  45. Alan Cooper, 1 day ago
    • I have two comments.
      1. The first is that the top down effect of my thought processes on subsequent mental activities and actions does not preclude the possibility of purely causal and/or random dependence of those thought processes on earlier purely physical factors. (Even if perhaps through a long chicken and egg sequence of immediately prior physical brain factors depending on earlier thoughts depending on earlier physical factors back to the moment of my first awakening - but never with any need to introduce anything other than purely causal and/or random explanations)
      2. The second, and in my opinion more important objection is to your pessimistic conclusion that without something other than deterministic causality and pure randomness “We wouldn’t be accountable in any meaningful way” and “responsibility wouldn’t enter into the picture”. Since you have not established with any certainty that there is anything other than deterministic causality and pure randomness, that would indeed be a devastating conclusion. But fortunately we can be grateful that it is false. Not because we are not largely deterministic, but rather because we are.
    • The key is in the word “responsibility” which, interpreted on the basis of its structure, suggests ability to respond to a correction. This justifies censure and even maybe punishment, not on the basis of some abstract divine judgement, but because they work. And they work because we do respond to stimuli in some at least partly predictable way.
  46. George Ellis, 1 day ago
    • Thanks for that. Psychological explanations are causal explanations, reaching back to when we were born, and including top down social effects. But they are not physical explanations, because they involve purpose. Nobel Prize winning biologist Leland H. Hartwell puts it this way: ““Although living systems obey the laws of physics and chemistry, the notion of function or purpose differentiates biology from other natural sciences. Organisms exist to reproduce, whereas, outside religious belief, rocks and stars have no purpose. Selection for function has produced the living cell, with a unique set of properties that distinguish it from inanimate systems of interacting molecules. Cells exist far from thermal equilibrium by harvesting energy from their environment. They are composed of thousands of different types of molecule. They contain information for their survival and reproduction, in the form of their DNA. Their interactions with the environment depend in a byzantine fashion on this information, and the information and the machinery that interprets it are replicated by reproducing the cell” see31 Hartwell, Etc - From molecular to modular cell biology At the psychological level we are indeed pretty deterministic. I largely agree with your last paragraph. The key point is that we have left the physics level far behind.
  47. Jeffrey Knepper, 11 hours ago
    • Great article....”molecular randomness gives cellular mechanisms the option of choosing the outcomes they want, and discarding those they don’t.” Doesn’t that admit that there really is no choice because what you want and what you don’t want exist in the same instant? Basically, everything already is, you’re not choosing you’re “desiring”. Also was he or you mentioning the heart and brain literally (them being conscious of their choice) or figuratively?
  48. George Ellis, 5 hours ago
    • Well the point is firstly that that is a top down effect: what you want imposes order on the lower level by deleting the unwanted outcomes. It applies across biology from the level of an amoeba to systems such as the heart to an entire human being. What the selection criterion is depends on level. At the lower levels it has been inbuilt by evolution, in essence. At the level of the heart it is determined by physical necessity at the physiology level (‘she’s running, I need more oxygen’). At the mental level it changes over time as we cogitate possibilities and make choices amongst them, by the processes described by Nancey Murphy and Warren Brown in their book Did my Neurons Make me do it32=5.
  49. George Ellis, 3 hours ago
    • Dear respondents, thank you for your comments, enabling us to debate the issue in a civilised way, even if we disagree. I am going to duck out now, with three final comments.
    • Thanks to Sally Davies for her fine editorial work. It has been a pleasure working with you.
    • Thanks to Aeon for having community standards that ensure the debate enables alternative views to be presented and discussed in a rational way, so readers can evaluate the different views for themselves.
    • Finally, you may have noticed my response to a link to Jerry Coyne’s blog, where this article has come under heavy attack. I said that I declined to take part in the interchange on that blog. I want to make clear here that this decision is not because I have no answer to those comments, which I certainly do (indeed I did respond to the key item where Coyne claims I am in error), but because that blog does not have respectful community standards like Aeon does. On the contrary, it is characterised by ad hominem insulting and demeaning personal attacks. This is precisely what the Aeon community standards are there to exclude. Some of my fellow anti-reductionists have also been subject to such personal attacks on that blog, despite the scientific validity of their arguments. That is the reason I am keeping well clear of that discussion.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnotes 3, 8, 21: Footnotes 4, 15, 17, 24, 26, 28: Footnotes 5, 9, 20, 22, 23, 25, 32: Footnote 6: Footnotes 7, 10: Footnote 11: Footnote 12: Footnote 13: Footnote 14: Footnote 16: Footnote 18: Footnotes 19, 30: Footnote 27: Footnote 29: Footnote 31:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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