Monday, October 2, 2023

New Sapolsky Book on Determinism

I write too much about free will, as it is an ancient philosophical issue that may never be resolved. However, I believe opinions about free will are extremely revealing, about one's scientific and political outlooks.

There are three main camps: libertarians who believe in free will, determinists who believe we are all pre-programmed, and compatibilists who argue that these are not contradictory.

Evolutionary biology professor Jerry Coyne writes:

The good news is that now when someone wants to understand determinism, I can just shut up and say, “Read Sapolsky’s book,” for I see no divergence between his views and mine (I’d also add Free Will by Sam Harris.) In the end — and I’ll get in trouble for this — I think compatibilists are semantic grifters. They’re really all determinists who want to find some way to convince people that they have a form of free will, even though they couldn’t have behaved other than how they did. This is the “little people’s” argument, not for religion but for philosophy. But in the end it’s the same: “People need religion/the notion of free will because without it, society could not flourish.” That, of course, is bogus. As long as we feel we make choices, even if intellectually we know we couldn’t have chosen otherwise, society will go on.  After all, I’m a hard determinist and yet I’m still alive, getting out of bed each morning. I don’t know what I’ll pick when I go to a restaurant, even though I know it’s determined right before I look at the menu. ...

Even compatibilists reject libertarian free will, and Sean Carroll has written extensively about why we know enough about the laws of physics to reject the idea of some “will” that is nonphysical. And free will has to be nonphysical if it’s to be totally libertarian. ...

When I say “determinism”, I mean “naturalism” because of the possibility of fundamental quantum unpredictability. Physical laws may not imply determinism, but they do imply NO LIBERTARIAN FREE WILL.

Physics is more important than biology when discussing the issue of libertarian free will.

Maybe Coyne should stick to biology, where his work is excellent. Saying that the laws of physics reject anything nonphysical does not help. I as might as well say that the laws of biology reject anything nonbiological.

On biology, Coyne points out that a professor was blackballed for saying that human sex can be reliably determined from bones:

No bones about it: skeletons are binary; people may not be. Sex identification – whether an individual was male or female – using the skeleton is one of the most fundamental components in bioarchaeology and forensic anthropology. Anthropologists have improved their ability to determine sex since their initial studies on skeletal remains, which depended on subjective assessment of skeletal robusticity to say whether someone was male or female. An understanding of physical differences in the pelvis related to childbirth, hormonal impacts on bones, and extensive comparative studies have provided anthropologists with an array of traits, such as those in the Phenice Method, to determine sex using just bones. The use of DNA to identify sex in skeletons by their 23rd chromosomes enables anthropologists to say whether infants are male or female for use in both criminal abuse cases and archaeological cases, such as in recognizing infanticide practices. Anthropologists’ ability to determine whether a skeleton is male or female is not dependent on time or culture; the same traits can be used to make a sex estimate in a forensic case in Canada, or to estimate sex in a Paleoindian dated around 11,500 years ago in Brazil.
This all correct, but was rejected "in the spirit of respect for our values, the safety and dignity of our members, and the scientific integrity of the program". In other words, it offends the transgendered to say that sex can be objectively determined. See also Coyne's followup.

A comment refers to another new book, with a contrary view, as summarized by Bing Chat:

Based on the information I found, Kevin J. Mitchell does not believe in libertarian free will, which is the idea that human actions are not determined by prior causes or natural laws, but by the exercise of an agent’s free and independent will. Rather, he believes in a form of compatibilism, which is the view that human actions are compatible with both determinism and free will, as long as free will is understood in a different way.

In his book Free Agents: How Evolution Gave Us Free Will1, Mitchell argues that free will is not a metaphysical property or a supernatural gift, but a natural phenomenon that emerged from the evolution of nervous systems and brains. He claims that free will is the ability to act according to one’s own reasons, preferences, and goals, which are shaped by one’s genes, environment, and experiences. He also claims that free will is the ability to imagine, plan, and choose among different possible courses of action, which are constrained by physical and biological laws, but not predetermined by them. He says that free will is not a binary concept, but a matter of degree, and that it varies among different species and individuals.

Mitchell’s view of free will is different from libertarian free will, because he does not deny that human actions are influenced by causal factors, such as genetics, neurobiology, psychology, and social context. He also does not assert that human actions are uncaused or random, or that humans have an immaterial soul or a non-physical source of agency. He does not appeal to any form of indeterminism or quantum mechanics to explain human behavior. Instead, he accepts that human actions are part of the natural world, and that they can be explained by scientific methods and principles. However, he also maintains that human actions are not completely determined by external forces, and that humans have some degree of autonomy, creativity, and responsibility for their actions. He argues that human actions are the result of complex interactions between multiple levels of causation, from the molecular to the social, and that human actions are not predictable or reducible to any single level of explanation. He also argues that human actions are influenced by internal factors, such as beliefs, desires, emotions, and values, which are not fixed or given, but can be changed and developed by learning and reflection. He suggests that human actions are the expression of one’s unique personality, identity, and character, which are not static or predetermined, but can be shaped and modified by one’s choices and actions.

Therefore, Kevin J. Mitchell does not believe in libertarian free will, but in a form of compatibilism that reconciles free will with determinism, naturalism, and evolution. He believes that free will is a natural and evolved capacity that allows humans to act with purpose, reason, and agency, within the limits and possibilities of the physical and biological world. He believes that free will is a matter of degree and variation, and that it depends on the development and functioning of the nervous system and the brain. He believes that free will is a source of human dignity, creativity, and morality, and that it requires respect, protection, and enhancement. You can find more information about his book and his views by using the links provided in the results of my search tool.

It is not clear to me whether Mitchell believes in libertarian free will or compatibilism. Perhaps he does not like the definitions, and avoids those terms. This description says compatibilism, but it is really more accurately describing libertarian free will. Coyne, Sapolsky, and Harris would not agree with it. Not sure about Carroll.

This is a philosophical issue, so believe what you want. I am mainly puzzled how any intellectual can believe that his restaurant order is determined before he looks at the menu, and that a scientific outlook requires determinism. How can you do a scientific experiment, if you cannot choose the parameters? How can you strive towards a better life, if you cannot make choices? Why would you try to persuade anyone of anything, if no one can make a decision? The determinists and compatibilists make no sense to me.

And if science somehow showed free will to be impossible, who published that scientific paper? Who got the Nobel Prize for that discovery? Where is the textbook that details the argument?

Yes, I believe in libertarian free will, and reject arguments claiming that it is contrary to science.

SciAm has an article on a panpsychism conference. It does not mention free will, but addresses the issue of how a conscious mind could be reduced to inanimate parts.

Part of the appeal of panpsychism is that it appears to provide a workaround to the question posed by Chalmers: we no longer have to worry about how inanimate matter forms minds because mindedness was there all along, residing in the fabric of the universe. Chalmers himself has embraced a form of panpsychism and even suggested that individual particles might be somehow aware. He said in a TED Talk that a photon “might have some element of raw, subjective feeling, some primitive precursor to consciousness.” Also on board with the idea is neuroscientist Christof Koch, who noted in his 2012 book Consciousness that if one accepts consciousness as a real phenomenon that’s not dependent on any particular material—that it’s “substrate-independent,” as philosophers put it—then “it is a simple step to conclude that the entire cosmos is suffused with sentience.”

Yet panpsychism runs counter to the majority view in both the physical sciences and in philosophy that treats consciousness as an emergent phenomenon, something that arises in certain complex systems, such as human brains. In this view, individual neurons are not conscious, but thanks to the collective properties of some 86 billion neurons and their interactions — which, admittedly, are still only poorly understood — brains (along with bodies, perhaps) are conscious. Surveys suggest that slightly more than half of academic philosophers hold this view, known as “physicalism” or “emergentism,” whereas about one third reject physicalism and lean toward some alternative, of which panpsychism is one of several possibilities.

Sean M. Carroll was there arguing that panpsychism must be wrong because it suggests that there is something more to reality that what we can measure, and that violates the laws of physics. Not online, but a Carroll debate on panpsychism was just released. Except:
Even Carroll, however, admits that there’s more to reality than meets the eye. He’s a strong supporter of the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, which holds that our universe is just one facet of a vast quantum multiverse.
Neither camp has a good explanation of consciousness, and I am not sure who has the better argument. If your brain is conscious and you believe in reductionism, then it makes sense to say a neuron has a little bit of consciousness, like an electron has a little bit of electricity or a transistor has a little bit of computational ability. I used to think that panpsychism was crackpot stuff, but now I am not sure. As it does not make any useful predictions, I don't know how to say it is right or wrong.

Update: I started watching the Carroll debate. He admits that he does not understand consciousness, but he does claim to understand the fundamental nature of reality, and is confident that hard science underlies everything.

I appreciate the hard-nosed scientist who only accepted established science. But his idea of reality is many-worlds theory! The many worlds are much more outlandish than panpsychism.


  1. Sean Carroll is a more a science populizer than a good scientist.
    He sways with the winds of popular left wing Californian convention, and fears the humiliation of being cancelled more than being found mediocre or incompetent.

    Sean's sense of scientific skepticism is politically selective. He simply can not think outside of his very little box.

  2. A floating car hums as it floats down the road past an engineer and a physicist.

    The physicist smugly says: 'The laws of physics allow for that car to move, so I'm sure I could understand it, ...if I wanted to.'

    The engineer says: 'Sure you do. How in the heck does it even do that? I wonder what powers it, and how it stays up like that, I didn't see any signs of propulsion and there was no reactive ground effects from downward thrust other than the humming sound, how do they even steer?'

    Humility, wonder, close scrutiny, critical curiosity, and healthy skepticism, are the hallmarks of a true scientist, not a PhD in imaginary high energy particles.

    If I take a coffee cup, and drop it on the floor, shattering it, and then pick up one tiny piece, can I say that the piece has a little bit of coffee cup-ism in it? A certain percentage of the cup? Or do I have to admit that a little separated piece of something can not carry the function of a whole coffee cup?

    If you cut a baby in half, you don't get two half babies. You get one dead one. Reductionism always has a limit.

  3. Dear Roger,

    With my knowledge of/about theirs, my prediction with respect to the reception of this issue of Free Will by the Hindu^3 types globally is the following:

    They *shalt* summarily ignore this issue, for they have these this-worldly fears, including in the abstract, of *basically* losing *all* their
    grabbed positions of powers in *this* world.

    Ignoring the issue and/or maintaing the Stoic silence is a simple, easy, and small price ro pay.

    They are "rich" enough, in that regard. Have always been. Through generations. Often, and especially in your country: also materially.


    The premise of the Free Will stands, in Existence, against that of the preachings by Manu, including those about Casteism. (Manu explucitly identified the caste with caste by birth.)


    1. Correction:

      "The premise of the Free Will stands, in Existence, against..."


      "The premise of the Free Will stands by itself, in Existence, as against"

      Other typos etc. are minor/excusable. For example, a missing "the" in the last parenthetical statement. ... Ummm... Regretted. What else?


  4. If someone is looking for scientific truth, the ugly, messy thing that it often is, I would ask an engineer, not a scientist. An engineer has to reveal their uncertainty in their work (as opposed to hiding it) as it is essential in doing their jobs.

    A scientist of any stripe may easily hide behind anything from their own incompetence, to their lack of humility, to their political narratives they pander to for a paycheck, to just being full of good old fashioned bullshit.

    An engineer may not do any of these things, as an engineer must perform, they have to actually make something work reliably and measurably, not just talk, lecture, write, cite, and then publish their bombastic memoirs about things that may or may not be remotely true. If an engineer makes something up, or makes a miscalculation, or forgets an important variable, and then what they built doesn't work, blows up, falls down, or gets folks killed, it gets noticed, unlike scientists who can hide their culpability behind 'academic pressures and politics' and say 'oh well, I needed a paycheck'. Engineers must deal with the actual world on a regular basis, they are intimate with the claims of Science PR and theory, but know the actuality is often far more uncertain and murky, and so they are prepared to manage it.

    The only way to fix this disconnection between scientists living in 'narratives' and reality is to FORCE scientists to become involved in experimentation again, take away their ivory tower isolation from actual practice, make their work dependent not on publishing, but performance of their ideas in tested actuality before they are allowed to publish anything. They need to learn to get their hands dirty again before they are rewarded.