Harris and Free Will

Sep 4, 2013


Discussion by: Red Dog

I finally had a chance to read Sam Harris’s book on Free Will and to my surprise I agreed with most of it. This opening paragraph summarizes his view:

 

“If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. Without free will, sinners and criminals would be nothing more than poorly calibrated clockwork, and any conception of justice that emphasized punishing them (rather than deterring, rehabilitating, or merely containing them) would appear utterly incongruous. And those of us who work hard and follow the rules would not “deserve” our success in any deep sense.“

 

I agree with everything he says there. He spends a good deal of the book talking about how there is no such thing as sin and that criminals should be punished for the sake of deterrence and rehabilitation not for revenge or some abstract notion of justice. I agree with all of that.

 

The one area where I disagree with Harris is on his theory of mind. He seems to believe that the eventual theory of psychology that will emerge will be something like behaviorism, a theory where human intentions aren’t objects of study. Harris claims that any scientific theory of psychology must prove two things to be false:

 

“1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and 2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present” (p. 6)

 

Refuting the first point is simply a necessary conclusion of the fact that humans are part of the natural universe. Refuting the second point however, makes an assumption about the future of psychology that is far from a given. Harris assumes that human internal cognitive states have no significant causative role in human behavior.

 

One of his main arguments, which is implicit in the book, he never justifies it he simply assumes it to be true, is that human cognition must be 100% responsible for every possible aspect of behavior or it must play no role at all. The possibility that goals and plans may be partially responsible for human behavior (along with environment, learning, genetics, etc.) doesn’t seem to be a viable option for him.

 

For example, when describing how his theory of free will works even with a soul concept he says: “The unconscious operations of a soul would grant you no more freedom than the unconscious physiology of your brain does. If you don’t know what your soul is going to do next you are not in control” (p. 12) and then later he says: “Consider what it would take to actually have free will. You would need to be aware of all the factors that determine your thoughts and actions, and you would need to have complete control over those factors” (p. 13)

 

In several other sections he talks about various physical and experiential causes that can negate free will and always draws the conclusion that lack of total free will means no free will at all. This is a very simplistic theory of psychology. No theory that I’m aware of from Freud onward, claims that humans are the one and only source of their intentions. Indeed Freud’s biggest (some might claim only significant) accomplishment was to demonstrate that human actions can be caused by beliefs and intentions that the individual is not completely aware or in control of. It is a huge unsubstantiated leap however to jump from that to saying that therefor human intentions play no role whatever in human behavior.

 

Harris doesn’t go into much detail about his ideas on psychology but to the extent that he does he focuses on neurophysiological explanations. His psychology seems to be a very reductionist version of neurophysiology:  “It is one thing to bicker with your wife because you are in a bad mood, its another to realize that your mood and behavior have been caused by low blood sugar. This understanding reveals you to be a biochemical puppet of course” (p. 47)

 

Harris’s psychology relegates conscious thoughts and intentions to incidental epiphenomena. That is one possible view of psychology that would be supported for example by B. F. Skinner. Neurophysiology is of course essential to psychology but there are potential paradigms where human behavior isn’t explained simply by reducing it to neurophysiology. For example, the modular model described by Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works:  

 

“the mind is a complex system of neural information processing that builds mental models of the physical and social world and pursues goals which are ultimately related to survival and reproduction in a pre-modern environment.”

 

The goals that Pinker refers to are human intentions, the things that Harris dismisses as irrelevant to the cause of human behavior. For Pinker and many other cognitive scientists such as Dan Dennett and Scott Atran these intentions are worthy of study and almost certainly play some causal role in human behavior. Unlike Harris, I think this is still an open question. I don’t think any theory of mind we currently have is mature enough for anyone to say with certainty in what manner and to what degree human intentions cause human behavior. However, I think it is a totally unjustified leap to assume them away and in fact doing so would be a barrier to some very interesting cognitive science research currently in progress.

 

80 comments on “Harris and Free Will

  • 1
    WMcEnaney says:

    If hard determinism is true, then why should I trust my judgment, Harris’s judgment or anyone else’s? That determinism would ensure that we would draw the conclusions we did draw, even if they were always false. Maybe every truth we seem to discover is actually a falsehood and the other way around?



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  • 2
    Simon Tuffen says:

    The goals that Pinker refers to are human intentions, the things that Harris dismisses as irrelevant to the cause of human behavior.

    Of course our actions reflect our intentions. What Harris is arguing is that our conscious minds do not determine our intentions. Intentions arise in our conscious minds but it’s an illusion that the conscious mind forms those intentions.



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  • 3
    justinesaracen says:

    I have concluded that, given the unconscious factors to which we have no access on the one side, and the planning and calculating capability we have on the other, we have free-ish will. Or perhaps that is the conclusion you have drawn yourself in a more round-about, philosophical way.

    At the micro-level, I am certain I can choose what I will have for breakfast this morning. My fridge is full, so I have lots of choice. And since I have lots of clean laundry, I can choose what to wear today. I’ve got a dinner party coming up and about 20 acquaintances from whom I will chose about eight to invite. And so on…going back to my career decisions, places of residence, and subjects of study at university. While I am certain that my subconscious urges, genetic make up, and hormones played/play a role, my hormones will be equally satisfied today with Muesli with strawberries or fried egg with toast.



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  • 4
    OHooligan says:

    I find myself in complete agreement with Red Dog on this one. Harris from what I’ve read does seem a little prone to unjustified leaps, but then, I suppose, he can’t help it.

    Only two references to add: Asimov’s Foundation series (which imagines human behavior to be predictable statistically, in the large, but not individually – just like atoms and their components), and Conway’s Free Will Theorem.



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  • Back in the 1970s I wrote a computer program that designed high voltage transmission lines. The odd thing was engineers watching it described its behaviours in terms of intents, and other psychology. There not a single line of code to correspond to any of this. It was all just a great mass of trigonometry testing if a candidate design would fall down.

    I presume that humans are similar. It all works on a low level, but you can describe the overall activity with the kind of language we use to explain fellow humans to each other. There is not necessarily anything inside to correspond. For example, emotions are language features for making generalisations.



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  • In a view where everyone is a puppet with no control over their behaviour, you don’t abandon the justice system.

    For example, if George’s mum sold him as a sex slave to the local priest to fund her cocaine habit. He was born of rape. He was kept locked up with only a rat for company. He now likes torturing people with army surplus banned weapons. We can hardly blame George for being antisocial, but we can’t let him loose.

    Further we have to punish crimes to provide an incentive to people who will behave with the incentive, but who will not behave without it. We might end up pretty much back where we started.



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  • 7
    steve_hopker says:

    It may well be that it’s my discomfort at the idea of not having free will that it driving my thoughts, but Harris seems to have a very narrow view of the mind.

    I do agree with him that both reflection and experiment strongly suggest that actions are already under way before we are aware of a decision, so clearly actions are not the immediate result of conscious and free will.

    However, this is to ignore what happens before the action. It seems plausible that the pre-conscious mental processes leading to an action (and to the subjective myth of ‘making a choice’) were themselves influenced, ie came from somewhere and that could well include conscious thoughts.

    I’d suggest there could be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ forms of free will. In the ‘hard’, all thoughts of conscious choice are illusory, in that consciousness follows the key mental events: but, those mental events arise from experience and reasoning, which is pre-conscious. Thus, we in our minds do make choices, even if that means we see ourselves as greater than out consciousness.

    In the ‘soft’ form of free will, preconscious processes still influence decisions, but conscious processing before an action can also influence subsequent pre-conscious mental processes that lead to an action. Thus, in ‘soft’ free will, conscious reflection can lead to or shape actions, even of the mental events eventually actuating the actions are effected prior to reaching consciousness (such as is seen in brain scan studies etc).

    However, all of the above, indeed I suggest any case for free will, relies on some kind of indeterminism in mental and probably all events: physical indeterminism for materialists (such as myself) or, if one holds such beliefs, a degree of indeterminism in spiritual realms.



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  • It seems to me that this is a (very slight!) misunderstanding of Harris’s point.

    We do not choose what our goals and priorities are in life, we do not consciously “intend” for things to be a certain way, our goals and intentions are completely under the governance of biology and the sum of our past experiences.

    We did not “intend” on being atheists, we did not consciously decide that debating such points on the internet with an aim to changing someone’s mind is valuable.

    The motivation behind our current behaviour arises from a completely unconscious source, as Harris puts it “Choices, efforts, intentions and reasoning influences our behaviour- hut they are themselves part of a chain of causes that precede conscious awareness and over which we exert no ultimate control. My choices matter-and there are paths toward making wiser ones-but I cannot choose what I choose.”

    I think the mistake here is thinking that he means our choices are not valuable, or effective. However, because we can learn from our mistakes we can change how we behave in future, so our past and reasoning influences future choices. Our “will” does not.



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  • Another quote: “To declare my ‘freedom’ is tantamount to saying, ‘I don’t know why I did it, but it’s the sort of thing I tend to do, and I don’t mind doing it.'”

    Other ways people explain why they chose what they had for breakfast, “oh I had cereal every other day this week so I decided to have a banana today”, or who to bring to a dinner party, “well Dan was rude to me the other day so I chose using my free will to not invite him tonight”

    We regularly rationalize our past decisions, lots of the time rightly so, but we should not confuse this with genuine freedom of Will, these rationalizations only indicate an awareness of the workings of our unconscious mind.



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  • 10
    OHooligan says:

    It all seems to come back to determinism or not. I thought that was settled, in terms of the physics of the very small. It’s not deterministic, except in a statistical sense.

    Having gotten rid of the absolutely deterministic clockwork Newtonian version of the universe, we’re left with uncaused events. In principle unpredictable events. That can include what exactly an individual animal does at any instant. So, you’re off the hook. You can decide – on a whim – to make a choice that could not – in principle, knowing all that had gone before – be predicted. Even if en masse we behave predictably, as individuals, we have at least the capability of making a choice. Even if we mostly don’t exercise it.

    Sam appears not to be getting much exercise though.



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  • In reply to #10 by OHooligan:

    It all seems to come back to determinism or not. I thought that was settled, in terms of the physics of the very small. It’s not deterministic, except in a statistical sense.

    Having gotten rid of the absolutely deterministic clockwork Newtonian version of the universe, we’re left with uncaused eve…

    If the behaviour of particles in the brain is random at any level relevant to the function of the brain, it still doesn’t mean that you freely caused something to happen using your will, it just happened in a probabilistic manner without your conscious input.

    You are claiming in your comment that you use free will to cause uncaused events.

    You should read the book before critiquing what you imagine his viewpoint to be, free will is a concept that simply does not bear out sustained logical reasoning and it has only stuck around due to false intuitions and consensus. Sam’s writing is beautiful and witty, worth reading for that alone, ignoring the software upgrade to your brain…



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  • 12
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #1 by WMcEnaney:

    If hard determinism is true, then why should I trust my judgment, Harris’s judgment or anyone else’s? That determinism would ensure that we would draw the conclusions we did draw, even if they were always false. Maybe every truth we seem to discover is actually a falsehood and the other way around?

    By “Hard Determinism” I assume you mean the kind of psychological determinism that I think he advocates in his book on Free Will. The theory that our human goals actually are meaningless when it comes to understanding our behavior. That is a common critique — If you believe that why get out of bed? — but even though I disagree with Harris’s psychology I don’t think his point of view is inherently wrong or self contradictory or undermines our faith in our own judgement.

    This kind of thing happens in science all the time actually, we realize that the brains and behaviors that evolved to help us survive as hunter-gatherers break down in serious ways when we step back from our common sense views and every day lives. It seems to me quite possible that humans simply require a belief in free will in order to function even if that belief is shown by science to be totally groundless. I’m just not convinced by the evidence Harris offers that it is groundless in this particular case and I’m advocating that on the contrary there are research and theories coming out of Cognitive Science where human goals do play a significant (but not unique, not the only cause but a cause) for human behavior.



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  • 13
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #3 by justinesaracen:

    I have concluded that, given the unconscious factors to which we have no access on the one side, and the planning and calculating capability we have on the other, we have free-ish will. Or perhaps that is the conclusion you have drawn yourself in a more round-about, philosophical way.

    At the micro-…

    I don’t see why the need to qualify it though. If by “free-ish will” you mean we don’t have complete control or full knowledge of all our desires, beliefs, etc. then of course I agree. I would be shocked if you could find many serious scientists who claim to be psychologists and think otherwise. That is why It think Harris is attacking a strawman. He shows with many examples something that he could have just stated as a given and I would have been fine with it, that humans aren’t in complete control of all our internal states. The big and unsubstantiated leap is to go from that to assume it means that those inner states don’t play any causal role at all in our behavior.



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  • 14
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #5 by Roedy:

    Back in the 1970s I wrote a computer program that designed high voltage transmission lines. The odd thing was engineers watching it described its behaviours in terms of intents, and other psychology. There not a single line of code to correspond to any of this. It was all just a great mass of trigo…

    I do that also. It can even be a program I wrote myself and I’ll be thinking “why is it doing that?… oh, it thinks I meant to do X so its trying to do Y…”

    So the fact that we do that shows that humans have a tendency to ascribe agency to things that don’t actually have it. That however does not prove that every time we ascribe agency to something that its a mistake. My hypothesis is that it does make sense to talk about humans (and probably other animals such as primates and dogs) in terms of agency in many situations and that Harris hasn’t proven otherwise. All he’s done is shown the much weaker argument that humans are not totally aware of or in control of all our intentions and other internal states.



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  • 15
    WMcEnaney says:

    Red Dog, Harris is talking about hard determinism. But I don’t know of any good reason to agree with him. Hard determinism could prevent us from knowing anything about the natural world, since it could guarantee that every scientific conclusion we draw is false except, maybe, one. Maybe it could guarantee that we would believe that determinism is true. But then we’d still believe it, even if experiments seemed to disprove it conclusively. If we have no way to know whether determinism is true, it’s a good idea to reserve judgment about it. But it might guarantee that we’ll reserve that judgment. If hard determinism is true, how can anyone know whether he knows anything? If determines that every conclusion we draw will be false, we’ll be unable to gain any knowledge. Truth is a necessary condition for knowledge, not a sufficient one.In reply to #12 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #1 by WMcEnaney:

    If hard determinism is true, then why should I trust my judgment, Harris’s judgment or anyone else’s? That determinism would ensure that we would draw the conclusions we did draw, even if they were always false. Maybe every truth we seem to discover is actually a false…



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  • 16
    phil rimmer says:

    1.) The Moral Samscape is pretty dire in a number of key respects. Like most American “moral philosophers” free will is given far too much shrift by Harris as an important moral concept. By having a firm belief in the concept of “free will” you risk unconsciously deflecting attention from the myriad ways in which your decision making is indeed affected by others and not always subject to the highest quality internal processes of logical review of which you are capable. Your behaviours will fall below the best you are capable of.

    People build (well or poorly) an integrity of tenets and behaviours and (well or poorly) reduce the myriad instances of hypocrisy. Forever policing this integrity is my idea of an improving morality. High integrity is only achieved by a clear perception of the utterly porous nature of your own cognitions how those can be wittingly or unwittingly manipulated by others and circumstance and how they can diverge from your accumulation of honed and tweaked tenets. I firmly believe that my cognitions are not only embodied but also “situated”, in part a response to my cultural context.

    2.) The US possesses the most punitive culture on the planet incarcerating a quarter of the world’s prisoners. I have no love of a concept that underwrites this treatment of others. Scandewegia gets it more nearly right. A recent (Texan?!) proposal to drastically reduce incarceration for drug related crimes with strong evidence from trials showing better outcomes and huge cost savings has of course been rounded on as not morally right. But unequal societies, for stability, need more visible punishment than others. The immorality here is vested in the inequity of society and visited on the doubly undeserving, a sad (but still arguable as a least bad in the circumstances) price for cohesion. My point here is that punishment without classical free will is still arguable for as that needed by a large unequal population for social cohesion (a greater good.)

    (It is notable that the US is also champion of whatever rewards an individual can achieve for himself. This source of inequity is profound. The lack of acknowledgement of the enabling and necessary support provided by your own culture is more or less outrageous when contrasted with say Germany or Japan.)

    3.) Morality is a description of social and legal behavioural expectations expected from psychopath, aspie and super-empath alike. Making it a concept dependent on “free will” hamstrings things right from the start. This is the site of a very necessary philosophical repair job. For me moral behaviour will not flow from some idealised ex nihilo mind output, but from some internal process, some due diligence, regarding an integrity(sic) of thought and action.

    4.) Intentions are study-able mental artifacts, they just need to be properly defined. I would have them as those groups of future-actions-modelling most frequently simulated. Intentions, however, will necessarily have an evolutionary path.



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  • 17
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #16 by phil rimmer:

    Like most American “moral philosophers” free will is given far too much shrift by Harris as an important moral concept

    I think Sam would agree that most American “moral philosophers” give “free will” far too much shrift, that’s why he went to so much trouble to debunk it. This is like saying Dawkins shouldn’t have written The God Delusion because people already waste way too much time on religion.

    My point here is that punishment without classical free will is still arguable for as that needed by a large unequal population for social cohesion (a greater good.)

    Any good consequentialist would agree.



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  • 18
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #10 by OHooligan:

    It all seems to come back to determinism or not. I thought that was settled, in terms of the physics of the very small. It’s not deterministic, except in a statistical sense.

    I don’t agree that the physics is “settled” in the sense that because of quantum uncertainty it means things aren’t determined. Those quantum uncertainties cancel each other out — I’m probably saying this a bit wrong from the physics standpoint but the point is unless you are talking about entangled electrons things in the human world, everything from billiard balls to planets still behaves in a deterministic fashion. And in any case I agree with Harris here, even if the quantum randomness can be seen in the macro world at times so what? Is randomness really any better than determined behavior?

    In the sense that we don’t have “free will” where our behavior is somehow independent of the normal causal chains that govern the rest of the universe I think its obvious that type of free will doesn’t exist and can’t exist unless you believe in God(s) or some spirit world that operates independent from the physical universe. In fact I would go so far as to say (and this is just speculation, people like Pinker probably would disagree with me on this one) that the only reason we ever came up with such a crazy idea that humans had this kind of free will is because we had the crazy idea that some perfectly loving and all powerful God made the Universe and made us in His image. Reconciling that idea with the fact that life sucks lots of time requires some logical gymnastics such as the idea of metaphysical free will, that humans are the cause of evil by their magic free will which operates independent of the rest of the laws of the universe.

    I agree with Harris completely that this definition of free will makes no sense and that we can still have decent laws and justice without it. Indeed I think when we move past the idea of retributive justice, where we are somehow balancing the cosmic scales of good and evil and move to a system based on consequentialism, on wanting to prevent future crimes and if possible rehabilitate criminals, that is a very positive step to a better society in general.



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  • 19
    phil rimmer says:

    In reply to #17 by Peter Grant:

    In reply to #16 by phil rimmer:

    I think Sam would agree that most American “moral philosophers” give “free will” far too much shrift, that’s why he went to so much trouble to debunk it.

    Sorry. I wasn’t clear. I know he thinks it doesn’t exist but like Dennett, he is far too anxious to “not frighten the horses” about its phantom nature….

    “If the scientific community were to declare free will an illusion, it would precipitate a culture war far more belligerent than the one that has been waged on the subject of evolution. “

    My point, a little lost perhaps, is that a “more moral” than “free will” argument exists, but only if we actually celebrate “free will’s” demise and move on to the new discoveries this brings. Hand wringing is no help. I’m objecting to the defensive tone (Dennett is worse, though.)

    This is Dawkins saying God probably doesn’t exist but don’t worry, it makes the universe a more amazing, beautiful and knowable place.



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  • 20
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #19 by phil rimmer:

    I’m objecting to the defensive tone

    Fair enough, suppose I do too. Call it part of his “cultural context”.

    Dennett is worse, though.

    So much worse!



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  • 22
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #15 by WMcEnaney:

    Red Dog, Harris is talking about hard determinism. But I don’t know of any good reason to agree with him. Hard determinism could prevent us from knowing anything about the natural world, since it could guarantee that every scientific conclusion we draw is false except, maybe, one.

    You lost me there. I don’t see what determinism of any kind has to do with our knowledge of the natural world. I also don’t see what one conclusion is that might not be false (nor why determinism would imply that the others are false).

    Maybe it could guarantee that we would believe that determinism is true. But then we’d still believe it, even if experiments seemed to disprove it conclusively. If we have no way to know whether determinism is true, it’s a good idea to reserve judgment about it. But it might guarantee that we’ll reserve that judgment. If hard determinism is true, how can anyone know whether he knows anything? If determines that every conclusion we draw will be false, we’ll be unable to gain any knowledge. Truth is a necessary condition for knowledge, not a sufficient one

    You seem to be implying that determinism means we can’t rely on things being true because we were determined to believe them regardless of whether they really are true or not. I don’t think that’s a valid conclusion. The theory of relativity is still true even if it was determined that Einstein would think of it. The truth of the theory rests on its ability to explain the existing data and predict future results which the theory has done with amazing accuracy and the same for evolution, etc.



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  • 23
    Skeptic says:

    In reply to #1 by WMcEnaney:

    If hard determinism is true, then why should I trust my judgment, Harris’s judgment or anyone else’s? That determinism would ensure that we would draw the conclusions we did draw, even if they were always false. Maybe every truth we seem to discover is actually a falsehood and the other way around?

    It’s been awhile since I read Harris on this, but I never took him as a hard determinist. There’s a quote I can’t seem to kind at the moment where he gives a possibility of randomness to our will. The only disagreement with the compatabalists seems to be defining that will as free.



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  • 24
    Pauly01 says:

    Well I personally believe that if I had to do it all over again , I’d do it differently. So how does that sit?

    I find the arguments about free will as largely irrelevant. The concept of recovered addicts and recovered mental illness sufferers is well established.

    Neuroplasticity in brain injuries is a matter of fact. What more do we need to know?

    If my comments represents ignorance , then so be it , I confess that I can not fully understand these theories , yet have heard them before πŸ™‚ , I do not honestly understand why this dissemination is necessary.

    I picked up a book on philosophy the other day and there was a philosopher who said that motion was an illusion. And he gave what seemed to be a pseudo-rational explanation for it. And that was to get from Point A to Point B that we must first complete a regressively infantile amount of distances , thus making movement impossible.

    That’s what the Free Will is an illusion argument sounds like to me.



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  • 25
    Skeptic says:

    In reply to #24 by Pauly01:

    Well I personally believe that if I had to do it all over again , I’d do it differently. So how does that sit?

    If you went back without the subsequent memories and experiences you wouldn’t have, which I think is the point.



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  • 26
    Pauly01 says:

    Red Dog,

    Can I ask you why your interest in this. What can the discussion and research on the Free Will argument ever hope to achieve? I’m genuinely interested.

    Could it for example ever offer a way of interacting and remodelling the unconscious mind via neuro-manipulation. Helping us to get rid of phobias, etc. Can you tell me why this is a hot topic and what the discussion can establish in a practical sense.

    Genuinely interested.



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  • 27
    WMcEnaney says:

    Red Dog, your point about Einstein and relativity convinces me that I committed the genetic fallacy. The origin of a belief is irrelevant to whether that belief is true. The truth or falsehood of a belief is irrelevant to whether I was determined to hold that belief.

    I don’t understand when you tell us that the truth of a theory rests on our ability to predict accurately with that theory. I’m sure you already know that, even if a theory has helped us make millions of accurate predictions, it can still be false. When we reason inductively, accurate prediction isn’t a sufficient condition for the theory’s truth.

    In reply to #22 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #15 by WMcEnaney:

    Red Dog, Harris is talking about hard determinism. But I don’t know of any good reason to agree with him. Hard determinism could prevent us from knowing anything about the natural world, since it could guarantee that every scientific conclusion we draw is false except,…



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  • 28
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    I think this question is flawed. I don’t see satisfactory conditions set. What is the self/homunculus/mind? Both sides beg the question that there is a self with which to have free-will, assume the ludicrous model of a Cartersian Theater. For instance, experiments demonstrating motor-control parts of the brain activate prior to another part are cool, but make bold, unproven assumptions about the nature of mind. If the mind is as Susan Blackmore describes, a kind of gestalt illusion, then free-will speculation is like pondering the edge of the Earth.



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  • 29
    WMcEnaney says:

    The self is the referent of the word “I.” : )In reply to #28 by This Is Not A Meme:

    I think this question is flawed. I don’t see satisfactory conditions set. What is the self/homunculus/mind? Both sides beg the question that there is a self with which to have free-will, assume the ludicrous model of a Cartersian Theater. For instance, experiments demonstrating motor-control parts o…



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  • 30
    shortpolock says:

    Although I can agree that radical behaviorism is the best thing psychology has going for it, I cannot agree that theory of mind breaks down into sad reductionism. If Harris is saying that environment and learning have naught to do with behaviorism, I would say he sounds confused, though I haven’t read his book (hence “if”). Behavior cannot happen in a vacuum.

    Does he get into theory of mind with autism? What would he say drives a severely autistic person, who is making therapeutic progress, to seek social engagement, if not intention? The core deficit of autism is aversion to social/emotional stimulation.
    How does he explain typical individuals finding satisfaction in emotion sharing?



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  • 31
    Skeptic says:

    In reply to #30 by shortpolock:

    Although I can agree that radical behaviorism is the best thing psychology has going for it, I cannot agree that theory of mind breaks down into sad reductionism. If Harris is saying that environment and learning have naught to do with behaviorism, I would say he sounds confused, though I haven’t re…

    Why not read the book instead of relying on another’s interpretation to form your opinion?



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  • 32
    shortpolock says:

    In reply to #24 by Pauly01:

    Well I personally believe that if I had to do it all over again , I’d do it differently. So how does that sit?

    I find the arguments about free will as largely irrelevant. The concept of recovered addicts and recovered mental illness sufferers is well established.

    Neuroplasticity in brain injuries…

    Add to that, behavior is simply movement in space through time. If we only cover regressive amounts of distance in motion, it is no wonder why nobody ever feels like they’ve “arrived”!



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  • 33
    shortpolock says:

    Sounds like you don’t know either. Unfortunately, the author might conclude that my neurophysiology has determined that I have the sort of intellect that predetermines my cyclical poverty, thus perhaps I am too poor to waste money on pointless drivel. So, out of a need for social or intellectual reinforcement, I hang out in internet cafes writing random turds to a unique person with a unique handle like Skeptic πŸ™‚

    In reply to #31 by Skeptic:

    In reply to #30 by shortpolock:

    Although I can agree that radical behaviorism is the best thing psychology has going for it, I cannot agree that theory of mind breaks down into sad reductionism. If Harris is saying that environment and learning have naught to do with behaviorism, I would say he sou…



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  • 34
    stuhillman says:

    I saw the session on free will at the BHA conference in Leeds a few months ago. Very interesting in that the lady gave the same old arguments about movement being initiated not in the conscious mind but from a “preconsidered”part of the brain. The trouble I have with this view is not that it is a demonstration of the lack of free will – the results are clear as to what happens – but that it is irrelevant. We deal with the world as though we have free will the same way we deal with the effects of gravity. I rather go along with Dawkins’ view of Theology and apply it to the study of free will. They are both non-subjects.



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  • 35
    utopia says:

    If anyone reading through this thinks that Sam Harris might be wrong about Free Will, I would advise you to look up his lectures on it on YouTube, or download the book.

    His arguments are air-tight, any seeming disagreement you see will relate to matters of opinion (e.g. he says that even if we have souls free will is non-sensical) or else to things he did not cover in the book, or misinterpretations of what he did say. There are no flaws in this work, whereas in other works there were genuine points of contention.

    Hear him out before deciding that he is wrong!



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  • 36
    steve_hopker says:

    In reply to #35 by utopia:

    If anyone reading through this thinks that Sam Harris might be wrong about Free Will, I would advise you to look up his lectures on it on YouTube, or download the book.

    His arguments are air-tight, any seeming disagreement you see will relate to matters of opinion (e.g. he says that even if we have…

    Without knowing the details, I think Daniel Dennett amongst others disagree with Harris on Free Will (while of course agreeing on many other things. I am not able to say more at this point – maybe in about 7 months when I’ll have finished a foundation course in philosophy I’ll have a better grasp of the debates.



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  • In reply to #36 by steve_hopker:

    In reply to #35 by utopia:

    If anyone reading through this thinks that Sam Harris might be wrong about Free Will, I would advise you to look up his lectures on it on YouTube, or download the book.

    His arguments are air-tight, any seeming disagreement you see will relate to matters of opinion (e.g….

    Again I’d say to read his book, he specifically talks about what exactly he and Dennett disagree on, and basically Dennett says we have free will constrained by our brain and previous experience in a way that is just like a decision-making part of our brain, whereas Harris says this isn’t what people mean when they use the phrase free will and so is confusing the issue. It’s basically semantics (disputing the meaning of words)



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  • 38
    Zeuglodon says:

    Harris assumes that human internal cognitive states have no significant causative role in human behavior.

    Isn’t Harris just saying that our thoughts and intentions are unconsciously directed by, say, inner drives that are themselves part of the brain? I don’t see it necessarily competing with Pinker’s point about modular minds or Freud’s notion of the unconscious.

    In reply to #18 by Red Dog:

    From what I can tell, quantum mechanics merely replaces physical determinism – i.e. Newton’s clockwork universe – with something I’d call mathematical and stochastic determinism. That’s probably too loose a way to use the word determinism, but I think it emphasizes the point that it isn’t that different in its fundamental premise: that you can use regularities to make astonishingly accurate predictions using laws, in this case expressed via numbers.

    The first thing that stands out to you when looking at quantum mechanics is how it relies solely on mathematics and probability to tell you what’s going on, and to an astonishing degree of accuracy. Granted, there are many interpretations of the results, but it is so utterly, ruthlessly mathematical that it amuses me how some people still try to derive free will from it. How bizarre and ironic it is to watch people pinning their vague and moralistic mysticism on the sort of cold, complex, and unforgivingly brutal mathematical systems that not only are as far away from wishy-washy fantasia as you can get, but would be nearly incomprehensible to them if they gave it more than a passing glance.



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  • 39
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #24 by Pauly01:

    Well I personally believe that if I had to do it all over again , I’d do it differently. So how does that sit?

    Its totally irrelevant. All you are saying is that determinism isn’t consistent with your common sense view of the world. There are lots of scientific theories that go against our “common sense”. In fact some of the cognitive science that I refer to in my original post are starting to really flesh out what kind of beliefs that may be built into our genetic code, i.e., they show up in really young infants, Piaget was the first scientist that I know of who started to demonstrate this but its an active area for research right now and the results more and more are showing that we have built in ways of understanding the world that are (as we would expect) “designed” to help primitive hunter gatherers thrive and reproduce but may not be consistent with science.

    I find the arguments about free will as largely irrelevant. The concept of recovered addicts and recovered mental illness sufferers is well established.

    Well, I agree with your conclusion but not with your reasoning. I believe from the standpoint of a psychologist it is wrong, in fact wrong in a really fundamental way, to say (as Skinner did and Harris does) that human goals and plans are irrelevant to human behavior. But the fact that drug addicts change their behavior is IMO not an argument for free will. It is completely possible that just as the addicts were determined to be addicts they were also determined to eventually get clean.



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  • 40
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #26 by Pauly01:

    Red Dog,

    Can I ask you why your interest in this. What can the discussion and research on the Free Will argument ever hope to achieve? I’m genuinely interested.

    Could it for example ever offer a way of interacting and remodelling the unconscious mind via neuro-manipulation. Helping us to get rid o…

    Actually, you have hit on something I was going to include in my original post but I wanted to keep the original post from going on for too long. There are two reasons I think this matters and they are related to each other and they are I think essentially what you asked about in the comment:

    1) It’s important for a complete and accurate definition of psychology. The history of psychology as a science hasn’t been great compared to say physics. It started with Freud who as I’ve argued in previous comments I think was a brilliant intellectual and is worth reading but was as they say “not even wrong” in most of his theorizing, it was all pseudoscience. And then, as often happens, the reaction against Freud went to the other extreme, people like Skinner who wanted to completely banish internal states as being legitimate for scientific analysis. Chomsky essentially destroyed hard behaviorism as a legitimate theory. Which is not to say that Skinner’s books should be just thrown in the trash. Unlike Freud I think he did excellent work and real science. Things like Operant Conditioning explain a lot of animal behavior including human animals. But Chomsky showed that it was impossible to offer a complete description of human behavior (e.g. language) with a pure behaviorist approach. And since then there has been a great deal of progress in Cognitive Science with people like Pinker and Atran. IMO Harris’s point of view represents a step backwards to what Pinker called (I may be getting this a bit wrong I don’t have The Blank Slate in front of me) radical physicalism, the view that everything can be explained only as firings of various neurons with no need or validity to higher order constructs such as logic, language, goals, and plans.

    2) Its important for human mental health. I agree very much with Harris that as we understand more about the science of psychology our definition of what counts as free will vs. what counts as not free will change, probably radically. I think if you accept Harris’s view then things like introspection, reflection, making concrete goals and seeing how you progress against these goals — if Harris is right all those things are pointless. I have to admit I’m contradicting myself a bit here based on another reply I made to you but I think there is a subtle difference. I recognize that my strong intuition that all these things make a great deal of difference in my own behavior is anecdotal evidence and can’t count as a scientific argument. But now I’m answering “why its important to me” as opposed to why I think one theory is right and for a “why it matters to me” argument I think this is valid. I’ve seen in my own life that as I learn more about the science behind human psychology it helps me understand and control my own behavior better. Reading Robert Trivers’ book The Folly of Fools really helped me understand my own BS a bit bit better and hence to BS myself a bit less I think. So I think from a mental health standpoint its important to not just assume science makes all that stuff irrelevant.



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  • 41
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #27 by WMcEnaney:

    I don’t understand when you tell us that the truth of a theory rests on our ability to predict accurately with that theory. I’m sure you already know that, even if a theory has helped us make millions of accurate predictions, it can still be false. When we reason inductively, accurate prediction isn’t a sufficient condition for the theory’s truth.

    There are two kinds of knowledge: deductive and inductive. Deductive is math and logic. Inductive is everything else. Of course the boundaries aren’t fixed, you can have mathematical formulas in any science and once you have two or more formulas you can start proving things about them. But most of the things we learn in physics, biology, and psychology are inductive knowledge.

    So now to get to your question, when you say “accurate prediction isn’t a sufficient condition for the theory’s truth” I agree in the sense that accurate predictions don’t give you certainty. Its always possible for another theory to come along and be even a bit more accurate or to resolve some outstanding issues that the previous theory couldn’t. But the thing is in virtually all scientific work you never get certainty. The best you can get is a very high probability of truth. BTW, I think this even comes out a bit in The God Delusion because Dawkins wants to treat “God” as an empirical hypothesis but he is clear that once he does that he has to be honest and say he can never have certain knowledge that God doesn’t exist, just knowledge with very strong probability.

    But getting back to your point, I acknowledge that accurate predictions don’t give you certainty but I think certainty is something you almost never get in science anyway and as a result accurate predictions are one of the best metrics we have for evaluating a theory.



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  • 42
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #30 by shortpolock:

    Although I can agree that radical behaviorism is the best thing psychology has going for it,

    I totally disagree. I have to admit its been a long time since I’ve been in a psych department but from my readings radical behaviorism (the kind that Skinner advocated where you can’t even consider beliefs, goals, language as legitimate theoretical constructs) is in disrepute and the vast majority of current psychologists have gone beyond it. Now that doesn’t mean there are no more behaviorist or that behaviorism as a theory is useless, far from it. It explains a lot. Its just that it breaks down when you are trying to explain things like language. Read Steven Pinker’s books The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate and he goes into some of the complex problems you have to explain with language and why an approach based only on stimulus and response simply can’t work.

    Here is a review of Skinner’s Book Verbal Behavior by Chomsky that many people consider a watershed in the death of radical behaviorism

    Does he get into theory of mind with autism? What would he say drives a severely autistic person, who is making therapeutic progress, to seek social engagement, if not intention? The core deficit of autism is aversion to social/emotional stimulation. How does he explain typical individuals finding satisfaction in emotion sharing?

    One of the things I found surprising about his Free Will book is that there is almost no detail about his theory of psychology. Its odd when you think about it because essentially his whole argument breaks down to saying: “In the future a scientific theory of psychology will prove that free will is completely an illusion” Now one would think that if you believe that you would want to spend at least a little time sketching out what you think that theory looks like but he never really does.

    I think your point about Autism is a good one, and one I’ve never seen Harris address. Any researcher who took Harris’s arguments to heart would have to radically alter the way she researches Autism and in a way that I think would stand in the way of potential progress.



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  • 43
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #38 by Zeuglodon:

    Harris assumes that human internal cognitive states have no significant causative role in human behavior.

    Isn’t Harris just saying that our thoughts and intentions are unconsciously directed by, say, inner drives that are themselves part of the brain? I don’t see it necessarily competing with Pinke…

    IMO Harris is a bit inconsistent in Free Will when he describes his position and there are times when I was thinking more or less what you wrote above. But for the most part I don’t think he is saying that (sorry to be vague I no longer have the book, if I did I would quote some passages to give you examples). I agree with other commenters that this is an issue where a lot of the discussion is just about semantics. That is why I tried to push it down into a more concrete question, not just about free will in general but about the kind of theory of psychology Harris thinks is worth investigating. And on that I think he is clearly not in agreement with the cognitive science approach of Pinker and Dennett. Pinker and Dennett are pretty much in total agreement on this issue from what I’ve seen and Harris by his own admission (his recent post on the topic) disagrees with Dennett.

    From what I can tell, quantum mechanics merely replaces physical determinism – i.e. Newton’s clockwork universe – with something I’d call mathematical and stochastic determinism. That’s probably too loose a way to use the word determinism, but I think it emphasizes the point that it isn’t that different in its fundamental premise: that you can use regularities to make astonishingly accurate predictions using laws, in this case expressed via numbers.

    The first thing that stands out to you when looking at quantum mechanics is how it relies solely on mathematics and probability to tell you what’s going on, and to an astonishing degree of accuracy. Granted, there are many interpretations of the results, but it is so utterly, ruthlessly mathematical that it amuses me how some people still try to derive free will from it. How bizarre and ironic it is to watch people pinning their vague and moralistic mysticism on the sort of cold, complex, and unforgivingly brutal mathematical systems that not only are as far away from wishy-washy fantasia as you can get, but would be nearly incomprehensible to them if they gave it more than a passing glance.

    Well said, and I agree absolutely.



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  • 44
    Peter Grant says:

    In reply to #43 by Red Dog:

    (sorry to be vague I no longer have the book, if I did I would quote some passages to give you examples)

    FFS break the law if you must. Understanding supersedes everything!



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  • 45
    utopia says:

    In reply to #40 by Red Dog:

    I don’t understand your objection to what Harris says.

    Harris’s point of view represents a step backwards to what Pinker called… radical physicalism, the view that everything can be explained only as firings of various neurons with no need or validity to higher order constructs such as logic, language, goals, and plans

    Having reread Free Will a couple of times, I am not aware of any point in which Harris even implies that logic, language, goals and plans are not important aspects of cognition, in fact I left a quote earlier in which he overtly stated that intentions, etc., are important.

    Why does explaining the mind as being completely a construction of physical processes occurring in the brain devalue any aspect of humanity? He says that we do not have conscious control over intentions, goals, etc., that they are the result of automatic processes arising in the brain, but that does not imply that they are meaningless or invalid, just that they are not consciously controlled (we cannot choose what we choose).

    This is confusing, but essentially it is that thoughts arise into our conscious mind without our prompting and our conscious mind just reacts to them, whereas people seem to be under the impression that we consciously intend things and that our plans for the future arise through conscious thought. The fact is that each step of the way in thinking of what our goals are arises from unconscious thoughts just popping into our conscious awareness, so it is logical to say that we do not consciously control these things.



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  • 46
    shortpolock says:

    I agree with your point about language. Chomsky destroyed Skinner’s theories about verbal behavior. There is not enough reinforcement present in the environment of a toddler to account for the exponential increase in language in those years. 2 weeks ago my daughter had emergent imaginary play skills with 4 word sentences. Today she is pretending, again, that paper is ice cream and stringing together 6 word sentences, labeling colors appropriately, etc. LAD is just the beginning.

    Yet, it is my feeling that the deeper we tinker inside a person’s mind using aqueous theories, the more damage we are able to cause. We just don’t have the tools to grasp private events, just as I could not work on the warp drive on the starship enterprise. It has always been much easier for me to assess a person’s desires (reinforcers/punishers) by analyzing their behavior (including verbal behavior) as a function in space through time. Besides that, I feel that what healing does occur in other methods does not proportionately reflect the client’s efforts, but the Psych’s, or the effects of medication. Teaching people to manipulate their environment seems, to me, to plant the seeds of what others call insight, and I leave their private thought life to themselves. I feel the success or failure of their consults are split evenly between myself and that person. In the states, many states are actually in the process of enshrining Board Certified Behavior Analysts on par with Psy.D’s. Granted that does not seem fair or just in light of what hours and studies are required, but that’s what’s up.

    That said, other branches of psychology have worked, and will continue to work. But their application seems to work for homogenous populations (e.g. Psychoanalysis works best when the client is well educated). Behaviorism is broader and can support most models of treatment.

    Yes, autism is a strange issue. How one acquires a theory of mind when allegedly born without the capacity for one is amazing. Perhaps it is due to the plasticity of the brain.

    Stephen Shore is an interesting case study.

    I have seen some very severe problematic behaviors remarkably improved by correct use of ABA methods. But the client’s areas of improvement were as fragmented as the disorder.

    The best results were using ABA in conjunction with eclectic models, most notably Stephen Gutstein’s Relation Development Intervention.

    In reply to #42 by Red Dog:



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  • 47
    WMcEnaney says:

    Red Dog, I think I agree with you on most points you make in the post I’m answering, but I’d like to share a few other thoughts. First, my points about deduction, induction and certainty are more general than the scientific subjects we’re talking about, because those points are about the natures of induction and deduction. The points about counterexamples, certainty, uncertainty and conclusive disproof from a counter example are about the logical relations among premises, conclusions, induction and deduction. I’m not a scientist. I’m a logician and maybe an amateur philosopher. So I usually think about generalities when other posters here think about particulars. I’m thinking about principles that science and other fields presuppose.

    Second, you can deduce conclusions from inductively justified premises. Sure, you may be unsure whether a deductive argument’s premises are true. But that uncertainty doesn’t affect the essential nature of deductive arguments. In any valid deductive argument, an argument where the premises entail the conclusion, you contradict yourself when you affirm the premises and deny the conclusion. And that’s true about deduction, even if one or more premises of a deductive argument are false. A sound deductive argument is a deductively valid one where each premise true. Logically, a sound deductive argument is a proof, even when that argument is non-mathematical. I think I can show that the first-cause argument for theism is a proof in the deductive sense of the word “proof.” Sadly, I’ve been doing a lousy job explaining why I believe that.

    There’s plenty of uncertainty in inductive reasoning, too. But a counterexample to a theory would still prove that the theory is false. Thousands of red marbles in a jar may convince you inductively that every marble in there is red. But if you find a green one in there, you’ve discover a counterexample to your red-marble theory. Why do you get certainty when you find a non-red in there? Because you contradict you say that, although all the marbles in the jar are red, some marbles there are not red. We can go on and on about what it means to say that something is essentially marble or about whether a green-looking marble only looks green. But none of those debatable questions will change an important truth into a falsehood. “All objects have property P” is still the contradictory of “Some objects don’t have property P.”

    Another point seems very important when I think of induction. However many true predictions confirm a theory, it may still be false because there could still be a counterexample to the conclusion. Inductive reasoning may convince us that we know that a theory is true when it’s actually false. Even before anyone tests a theory, it’s already true or else false, because its truth or its falsehood depends on a state of affairs that causes the theory to conform to reality or else not to conform to it. The sad news is that, even the most predictively successful scientific theories may not be examples of knowledge. It’s at least logically possible that scientists only think any proposition that induction has “proved” to them. That’s partly why I say that, although we can know that a belief is false, we can’t know that it’s true while it’s actually false.
    #41 by Red Dog:*

    In reply to #27 by WMcEnaney:

    I don’t understand when you tell us that the truth of a theory rests on our ability to predict accurately with that theory. I’m sure you already know that, even if a theory has helped us make millions of accurate predictions, it can still be false. When we reason induc…



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  • 48
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #47 by WMcEnaney:

    But a counterexample to a theory would still prove that the theory is false. Thousands of red marbles in a jar may convince you inductively that every marble in there is red. But if you find a green one in there, you’ve discover a counterexample to your red-marble theory. Why do you get certainty when you find a non-red in there?

    It depends on the theory and the counterexample though. So sure if your hypothesis is that all the marbles are red and you find one green one you have proved the hypothesis to be false. But for more complex theories one counterexample is not necessarily conclusive.

    For example, a theory that I think is true although its still an open question is Chomsky’s theory of Universal Grammar, that all humans are born with an innate capability to understand language. If we found one person who was never able to learn language the way a normal infant does that wouldn’t IMO disprove the theory at all. In fact it might eventually support the theory because by studying that one person we might discover what it was about her that was different and that might lead to clues about how Universal Grammar works (e.g., the person in question had a childhood disease that messed up a part of their brain in a very specific way).



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  • 49
    shortpolock says:

    BTW, thanks for the link. Very nice. Hey, uh, you wouldn’t happen t know where
    i could download free copies of Vygotsky’s works…? ve been in a psych department but from my readings radical behaviorism (the kind that Skinner advocated wher…



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  • 50
    WMcEnaney says:

    People with autism are supposedly mindless? A 14-year-old friend of mine has Asperger’s Syndrome, a kind of Autism, but he’s already in college and clearly much smarter than me.In reply to #46 by shortpolock:

    I agree with your point about language. Chomsky destroyed Skinner’s theories about verbal behavior. There is not enough reinforcement present in the environment of a toddler to account for the exponential increase in language in those years. 2 weeks ago my daughter had emergent imaginary play skills…



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  • 51
    shortpolock says:

    Sorry about the piece meal posts.

    Just thought it’d be interesting to add that, quite ironically, I’ve found the application of Radical Behaviorism to work immensely well with fundamentalist Christian living. Not only in regards to myself, but also in regards to others. There is always something we can do to manage our environment more effectively.

    In reply to #42 by Red Dog:*

    In reply to #30 by shortpolock:

    Although I can agree that radical behaviorism is the best thing psychology has going for it,

    I totally disagree. I have to admit its been a long time since I’ve been in a psych department but from my readings radical behaviorism (the kind that Skinner advocated wher…



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  • 52
    shortpolock says:

    Good grief NO!

    People with autism have trouble assessing the mindset of others. Inability to understand metaphors, social cues, non-verbal communication (such as facial cues). Did I specifically say something that said that? That is not my intention.

    On that note, how do mistakes figure into freewill?

    In reply to #50 by WMcEnaney:

    People with autism are supposedly mindless? A 14-year-old friend of mine has Asperger’s Syndrome, a kind of Autism, but he’s already in college and clearly much smarter than me.In reply to #46 by shortpolock:

    I agree with your point about language. Chomsky destroyed Skinner’s theories about verbal…



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  • 53
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    In reply to #29 by WMcEnaney:

    The self is the referent of the word “I.” : )In reply to #28 by This Is Not A Meme:

    I think this question is flawed. I don’t see satisfactory conditions set. What is the self/homunculus/mind? Both sides beg the question that there is a self with which to have free-will, assume the ludicrous model o…

    As an ontological matter, the self exits differently than a table. God does not exist, though there is a word for it. Two does not exist either, but it has an absolute value.

    There are many ways in which a thing can exist. I wanna say Hume came up with this thought experiment for the nature of mind (correction very welcome), ‘show me the University.’ The person is taken on a tour of the facilities, shown the faculty, but has not observed a discreet entity called University. They are shown the commons, the cafeteria, admin office, etc, still no entity called University. It is the aggregation of these elements. Show me technology. Show me science. Show me communism. Show me god. Show me self.

    Ontology is a weird issue for reconciling science and philosophy, because science is pure of metaphysical assertions, but science always comes back to the basic issue of metaphysics (what exists and what is its nature?). This makes ontology a hot spot for error and misconception, which I argue is the case with both sides of the free-will argument. Without resolving self, I don’t see how determinism can be applied. What entity is predetermined in its behavior? Can a University have different outputs in identical, parallel universes, or is it like billiard balls? If there is a difference, can this be due to the non-determination of non-human agents (market forces?). At which point I find it all silly and assert the question is flawed and based on false assumptions.



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  • 54
    steve_hopker says:

    In reply to #37 by utopia:

    In reply to #36 by steve_hopker:

    In reply to #35 by utopia:
    Again I’d say to read his book, he specifically talks about what exactly he and Dennett disagree on, and basically Dennett says we have free will constrained by our brain and previous experience in a way that is just like a decision-making part of our brain, whereas Harris says this isn’t what people mean when they use the phrase free will and so is confusing the issue. It’s basically semantics (disputing the meaning of words)

    I confess to having read Harris’ book and not recalling the details (I’ve not read Dennett on this) . However, Harris says that Dennett asserts that …” we are more than [our conscious minds] – we are coterminous with everything that goes on in our bodies. Harris disputes this and goes says that our bodily organs make countless ‘decisions’ which we are not responsible for.

    Perhaps my dissension from Harris is that, maybe wrongly, I think he argues for a kind of dualism, a ‘self’ that is consciousness, that is functionally separate from the rest of our selves. Of course, it is possible to identify consciousness, in the parts of the brain involved with conscious thought. But surely scans underlie the integration of consciousness with the rest of the mind. So I don’t get the importance of pre-conscious as opposed to conscious thought. Indeed, I’d suggest that even without scans a few moments reflection on our mental life shows a constant interplay – which Harris himself ably demonstrates.

    All that said, it may be that I don’t disagree with Harris’s conclusion that free will is an illusion. I’d even agree that the illusion arises from our conscious experience. However, I don’t think the real roots for the lack of free will lie in a separation between the pre conscious and conscious, but rather the determinism that pervades the material world. Perhaps I should re-read Harris again, maybe also look up Dennett, and I’d understand better.



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  • 55
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #53 by This Is Not A Meme:

    As an ontological matter, the self exits differently than a table. God does not exist, though there is a word for it. Two does not exist either, but it has an absolute value.

    I recommend the book How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker. Chapter 5 Good Ideas is all about how humans form concepts. And while I think there are several interesting questions about this capability (e.g. are some concepts like animal and vegetable hard wired in from birth?) I don’t quite see the point you are making.

    There is a difference between an abstract concept like Table and an actual table like the one my computer is sitting on right now. Its true that there are some instances that have amorphous boundaries but I don’t see anything all that mysterious about it, IMO its just a question of properly defining your terms. So for the university example if you are talking from the standpoint of someone interpreting or writing laws what matters are the boundaries of the university’s property and public property. If you are talking as someone who is evaluating where to advise your daughter to go to school the definition of university comes down to things like who the professors currently teaching there are, the reputation the school has in the business and academic community, etc.

    Yes, its true that what we mean by the university or Stanford University isn’t always obvious and may sometimes need clarification but I don’t see any big philosophical problem there.

    And the same goes for the concept of self. Do we mean the current state of the person’s brain? But what about other parts of the nervous system? We know for example that a fair amount of computing that could be considered interpretation goes on in the visual system even before the information gets to the brain. I agree that is an interesting question but I see it more as a scientific issue than a philosophical puzzle.



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  • 56
    Seraphor says:

    I see this as a false dichotomy with reality being a somewhat grey area in between.

    Free-will doesn’t exist in it’s truest sense, but neither are we slaves to the cold mechanisms of our brains. Rather I see it as our minds are the processors of information and use that information to generate impulses, thoughts, and beliefs. In one sense, yes, these are entirely reliant on a combination of external imputs and a fundamental, unalterable functionality of our brains on a quantum level, but through this process new creations are made, new thoughts are generated and have their root in our minds, not purely in any external forces.
    In the sense that a factory that creates a product is deemed the creator of that product, we can reduce it further to individual suppliers of components that product is made up of, or the natural processes that formed the materials, or the big bang that formed all material in the universe, but the creator of that specific product is still the factory process and is still responsible for the end result, even if it was inevitable that those materials would wind their way into the factory and become that product.

    While the process is unknown, and thus creates this illusion of free-will, I would take it one step further and claim that these processes are not just unknown but unknowable, as per the heisenburg principle. Therefore the concept of free-will can never be obliterated entirely, the illusion can never be entirely destroyed, and so it cannot be asserted that the reality of non-free-will exists.
    The illusion exists, and is undoubtably an illusion to a degree, but there is no cold, hard reality beneath the illusion, the illusion is the reality.



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  • 57
    shortpolock says:

    “‘Really’, for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to survive.”

    Richard Dawkins

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inherent in naturalistic philosophies. If man has intuitions such as GOD which cannot be learned by sense data, thus cannot be conceived by sentience, then “reality” falls under the same laws of decay as fossils. Dawkins speculates in this same lecture that though we feel like the same developing person we have always remembered, atomically speaking, we may actually not be, our molecules and atoms having been traded and swapped with the middle-world environment we exist in. This is fascinating, for then our lives are simply resemblances, are no more real than the 2D pictures and letters on my computer; I am alive nanosecond to nanosecond, the road before me looks solid enough, and the road behind me looks worn, but is “really” shrouded in oblivion.

    This agrees with the Bible I have read.

    In reply to #56 by Seraphor:

    I see this as a false dichotomy with reality being a somewhat grey area in between.

    Free-will doesn’t exist in it’s truest sense, but neither are we slaves to the cold mechanisms of our brains. Rather I see it as our minds are the processors of information and use that information to generate impul…



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  • 58
    shortpolock says:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    “‘Really’, for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to survive.”

    Richard Dawkins

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inherent in naturalistic philosophies. If man has intuitions such as GOD which cannot be learned by sense data,…

    and I meant to say, …”but is in fact not real…”

    and

    oblivion. An atheist’s reality is as tenuous as a Christian’s, but perhaps more so. The Christian reads that their lives “are like vapor” (Ecclesiastes), but trusts in the reality of an inconceivable GOD. The majority of atheists, by necessarily having to place trust in the conclusions of others (due to time space limitations) trusts that there is nothing but material existence, that the beauty of randomness is the beauty of life.

    Both ideas have been around for time immemorial. And the important question to each is,

    What if you’re wrong?



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  • 59
    Marktony says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZlWzMlA3yw

    In reply to #58 by shortpolock:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    “‘Really’, for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to survive.”

    Richard Dawkins

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inherent in naturalistic philosophies. If man has intuitions such as GOD which…



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  • 60
    Red Dog says:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inherent in naturalistic philosophies. If man has intuitions such as GOD which cannot be learned by sense data, thus cannot be conceived by sentience,

    I don’t agree that the concept of “God” can’t be “learned by sense data”. In fact if you think about a primitive human trying to ponder out how the world works it seems a very natural conclusion to look at your social environment and then project that upwards into nature. You live in a tribe with one chief who is powerful and kind of a dick. So you imagine that the ruler of the universe is even more powerful and even more of a dick. I’ve read a fair amount of anthropological work on the history of religion that say it with a lot more words but I think that hypothesis is at least highly plausible to explain books like the Koran and Bible.



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  • 62
    utopia says:

    In reply to #58 by shortpolock:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    “‘Really’, for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to survive.”

    Richard Dawkins

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inherent in naturalistic philosophies. If man has intuitions such as GOD

    You asked the wrong question. The question is not “What if you’re wrong?”

    The question is “How would you know if you were wrong?”



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  • 63
    Marktony says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMGu-55sKJs

    In reply to #60 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inherent in naturalistic philosophies. If man has intuitions such as GOD which cannot be learned by sense data, thus cannot be conceived by sentience,

    I don’t agree that the concept o…



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  • 64
    Marktony says:

    “The Christian reads that their lives “are like vapor” (Ecclesiastes), but trusts in the reality of an inconceivable GOD.”

    If you are keen that people believe in the existence of your God then you need to provide them with your concept of this entity in order for them to judge for themselves. If you can’t even conceive of it yourself then convincing others is going to be a struggle.

    “The majority of atheists, by necessarily having to place trust in the conclusions of others (due to time space limitations) trusts that there is nothing but material existence, that the beauty of randomness is the beauty of life.”

    Surely the definition of an atheist is that they have explicitly not trusted in the conclusions of others regarding the existence of a God. They ask for evidence for such an extraordinary claim.

    At what age did you first come to trust in the reality of this inconceivable God and how was the idea communicated to you at that time?

    In reply to #58 by shortpolock:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    “‘Really’, for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to survive.”

    Richard Dawkins

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inherent in naturalistic philosophies. If man has intuitions such as GOD which…



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  • 65
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    In reply to #55 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #53 by This Is Not A Meme:

    And the same goes for the concept of self. Do we mean the current state of the person’s brain? But what about other parts of the nervous system? We know for example that a fair amount of computing that could be considered interpretation goes on in the visual system even before the information gets to the brain. I agree that is an interesting question but I see it more as a scientific issue than a philosophical puzzle.

    Chopping off an arm doesn’t resolve the question of free will. How about the pineal gland? Pre-frontal cortex? The heart? Where/what is this entity that we question? For instance, a soul would answer the question, but that would violate the restrictions against dualism. John Searle takes it to the quantum level, defining free will as an event without antecedent (quantum randomness) but I am advised by physicists that his assertions are deeply mistaken. Personally, I question Searle’s definition (I would be satisfied with less amitious definitions, such as a creative potential), but it is interesting and avoids the need to specify a discreet entity, allowing for free will to emerge with consciousness.

    I want certain question resolved first, like is free will something we are aware of, or is it subconscious? It it local to a region of the brain? Surely we are talking about the mind, right? What then is the nature of mind? Hard Question/Tuscon Conference? Do zombies feel love? What is up with Chalmer’s mullet? I don’t see any definitions or experiments that satisfy these kinds of questions, and to be a scientific matter they must be resolved, brought into physical or logical terms so we know what we are talking about. I will concede that my argument comes closer to denying free will through implication, but making that leap would be in error, like saying science denies the most abstract notions of god.

    Confident in my views, this is above my pay grade and I wish I had something more concise than this hour lecture by Blackmore at the 2005 Skeptics conference, asserting the mind does not exist but is rather a persistent illusion. If that’s the case, again free will becomes a flawed question to begin with.



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  • 66
    This Is Not A Meme says:

    In reply to #58 by shortpolock:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    oblivion. An atheist’s reality is as tenuous as a Christian’s, but perhaps more so. The Christian reads that their lives “are like vapor” (Ecclesiastes), but trusts in the reality of an inconceivable GOD. The majority of atheists, by necessarily having to place trust in the conclusions of others (due to time space limitations) trusts that there is nothing but material existence, that the beauty of randomness is the beauty of life.

    That doesn’t describe my experience as an atheist at all, nor any atheist I know. There are those cartoon nihilists, but what you describe the typical existential crisis of a recovering theist, how a theist first comes to perceive an atheistic worldview. That’s not at all the beauty espoused by prominent atheistic thinkers and spiritualists (Sagan, Buddha, Spinoza, etc etc). You say the “majority” of atheists. That’s a statistical claim… careful. That’s the kind of thing one can certainly be wrong about.

    No one believes in a thing which is inconceivable. That’s what inconceivable means. Yet, somehow we conceive it doesn’t want us to suffer a witch to live… it’s totally arbitrary what people say is conceivable about god, including that it is inconceivable.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch The Princess Bride.



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  • 67
    shortpolock says:

    I stopped at “I definitely feel something in my chest area-“

    “Maybe you should see a doctor”

    I feel nothing in my chest area, I know how the brain works (well enough). The Hebrew words are nephesh, or leg, and speak of the seat of emotion, being, thought. We know today that it is our mind/brain interactions. Maybe that lady was Mormon…

    The host seems very uneducated for a pastoral student:

    He hammers on Jesus some for breaking the Law of the Pharisees. This was Talmudic or Rabbinic law, not Mosaic. Talmudic Judaism is not a biblical form of Judaism. It is imported from Israelite captivity in Babylon. This form of Judaism was foretold in Jeremiah 2. These were oral traditions and interpretations of those traditions, and were based on the supposed sayings of Moses allegedly delivered to the seventy elders of Israel at the base of Mt. Sinai after the Exodus from Egypt. (Matthew 15)

    The problem here is, (1) Mosaic law died out with the destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar, and (2) Mosaic Law specifically states that the Laws of God were written by Him through prophets, not oral tradition expounded upon hundreds of years later in captivity among goyim. The majority of “laws” Jesus supposedly broke were indeed Rabbinic, not Mosaic, and based upon the traditions of men. Mosaic laws were never broken, but fulfilled, because the Messiah, the fulfillment of those laws, was in the presence of Israel.

    The second outstanding flaw in his “anti-theology” concerns the above latter statement about fulfillment; his statements to the caller about stoning, and that God declares He is an unchanging God. What is good for the Old Testament should be good for the New. Here He is right. What is foolish to an unbeliever is that God seems to say I’ll destroy you if you step out of line, but I love you!

    I cannot argue you into faith, but I can present the case more clearly. God has always been a God of love.

    Jesus as fulfillment: You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. (John 5:39) Jesus is on every single page of the Old Testament.

    When the woman was caught in adultery in John 8, Jesus simply said, β€œLet him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her… ” and a few minutes later “β€œWoman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, β€œNo one, Lord.” And Jesus said, β€œNeither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

    The Psalmist says, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
    whose sin is covered.
    2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity,
    and in whose spirit there is no deceit.

    finally:

    John 3:17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.

    Logic would say that the perfect One who would soon die for our transgressions of His Law, placed in our minds, (Jeremiah 31:33) could not let the greater iniquity of the leaders triumph over the lesser iniquity of this woman. Jesus already knew what Maszlow would tell us thousands of years later.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eZlWzMlA3yw

    In reply to #58 by shortpolock:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    “‘Really’, for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be, in order to survive.”

    Richard Dawkins

    This universe is so inscrutable. I think the quote above really nails the problems inh…



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  • 68
    shortpolock says:

    Correction, Mosaic law died in 70 AD under the destruction of Herod’s temple.

    In reply to #67 by shortpolock:

    I stopped at “I definitely feel something in my chest area-“

    “Maybe you should see a doctor”

    I feel nothing in my chest area, I know how the brain works (well enough). The Hebrew words are nephesh, or leg, and speak of the seat of emotion, being, thought. We know today that it is our mind/brain in…



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  • 69
    Moderator says:

    Moderators’ message

    Our Terms and Conditions require comments to be on the topic of the OP and to avoid preaching. We have removed several posts that were in breach of these rules. There are plenty of other threads where arguments for and against the existence of a god would be on topic, so do feel free to continue on one of those (but remembering the ‘no preaching’ rule). Please keep this thread for a discussion of free will.

    Thank you.

    The mods



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  • 70
    WMcEnaney says:

    Some infant like that may only seem to be a counterexample to Chomsky’s theory. It’s one thing to have an innate ability. It’s another thing to have, say, a medical problem that prevents you from using that ability. So induction may still have the essential nature I think it has. Helen Keller was born blind and deaf. But she still learned how read brail, use sign language and talk. She just didn’t learn any language the way babies usually do.In reply to #48 by Red Dog:

    In reply to #47 by WMcEnaney:

    But a counterexample to a theory would still prove that the theory is false. Thousands of red marbles in a jar may convince you inductively that every marble in there is red. But if you find a green one in there, you’ve discover a counterexample to your red-marble the…



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  • 71
    canadian_right says:

    The tricky part of all these free will discussion is what is meant by words like “you”, “me”, and “I”. For a very long time people have assumed that we have a mind that is independent of our brain and that is the real “I”. Then we said consciousness arises from brain function, but this high level consciousness that we experience is the real “I”. Sam is arguing that the consciousness we experience is not the final arbiter of our actions, that in fact, it simply reflects what various unconscious parts of your brain decide. The “I” we experience is not the whole, or even main “I”.

    Given what we know about the brain this makes sense. We can detect decisions being made in the brain and predict them seconds before the person being studied is consciously aware of their decision.

    So,what does that do to the classical idea of free will where you are an independent agent that can make any decision at at any time? It forces us to closely examine our ideas on free will, and at a minimum greatly modify what we mean by free will.

    Sam then goes on to argue that in practise this doesn’t affect morality, as we should not be punishing bad thought, just harmful actions. And you are still the agent of your actions, just not using classical free will.



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  • 72
    canadian_right says:

    In reply to #1 by WMcEnaney:

    If hard determinism is true, then why should I trust my judgment, Harris’s judgment or anyone else’s? That determinism would ensure that we would draw the conclusions we did draw, even if they were always false. Maybe every truth we seem to discover is actually a falsehood and the other way around?

    Hard determinism doesn’t affect truth, it only changes our understanding of how our brains process information and come to decisions.Did you stop trusting your brain when you found out it wasn’t a supernatural soul, but a physical brain responsible for your mind?



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  • 73
    WMcEnaney says:

    I never said that hard determinism affected truth. But I did imply that it could prevent us from discovering it. Then again, it’s important to remember the difference between truth and the way things are in the world. For a belief to be true, some actual state of affairs needs to cause it to be true. If it’s true that there’s a pine tree in my front yard, which there is, by the way, then my belief is true because there is a pine tree there. But if some deterministic factors forced me to believe that it wasn’t a pine tree, my belief would be false. Maybe there are some states of affairs that hard determinism about the human mind wouldn’t change. But truth consists of the conformity between thought and the thing we think about. If determinism “convinces” me that the tree in my yard is a maple tree when it’s actually a pine tree, my belief doesn’t conform to the thing I’m thinking about.

    Sometimes I have good reasons to doubt what my brain tells me. For example, I had tunnel vision when I was a boy and lousy depth perception. Unfortunately, nobody discovered them until my driving instructor noticed that I unknowingly let the car drift into a lane for oncoming traffic. Today I can drive because an optometrist put me through vision training. But I’m never sure that I’m always perceiving accurately.In reply to #72 by canadian_right:

    In reply to #1 by WMcEnaney:

    If hard determinism is true, then why should I trust my judgment, Harris’s judgment or anyone else’s? That determinism would ensure that we would draw the conclusions we did draw, even if they were always false. Maybe every truth we seem to discover is actually a false…



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  • 74
    shortpolock says:

    Ha! Love it. Was hoping no one would remember that movie

    In reply to #66 by This Is Not A Meme:

    In reply to #58 by shortpolock:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    oblivion. An atheist’s reality is as tenuous as a Christian’s, but perhaps more so. The Christian reads that their lives “are like vapor” (Ecclesiastes), but trusts in the reality of an inconceivable GOD. The majority of atheists, by…



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  • 75
    WMcEnaney says:

    The vapor metaphor is probably about the shortness of earthly life. In reply to #74 by shortpolock:

    Ha! Love it. Was hoping no one would remember that movie

    In reply to #66 by This Is Not A Meme:

    In reply to #58 by shortpolock:

    In reply to #57 by shortpolock:

    oblivion. An atheist’s reality is as tenuous as a Christian’s, but perhaps more so. The Christian reads that their lives “are like vapor…



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  • 76
    Tearman says:

    Maybe the problem stems from the confusion between intentions as an instrument and intentions as a cause.

    I think it’s like looking at a row of standing dominoes tipping over, and saying that a domino in the middle has no purpose because it isn’t the cause of the whole shebang… it still has a function and influences future events.



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  • 77
    Verticalling says:

    There is no future for psychology. It is blatant pseudoscience. As for us being the source of our thoughts – we’re not, unless we’re engaged in true thinking, which is is the creation of original thoughts. Our thoughts are far from original.



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  • 78
    Spikeygrrl says:

    OF COURSE free will is subject to constraints, e.g. I can’t simply “will myself” to have brown eyes if I was born with blue ones. But neither is human will restricted to trivialities such as what I choose to eat for breakfast tomorrow. We can and do choose things which are of extreme importance to our own lives, e.g. whom to marry, whether or not to persist in an irrational prejudice one was raised with, which political party to support, and how far to pursue one’s education beyond statutory minimums. If every human action were really set in stone since the Big Bang, what is the purpose of living? Human life without any purpose at all is existentially even bleaker than life spent in thrall to religionism; even “God” “grants” us the free will to either accept or reject “His” design for living! As I have stated elsewhere, the day I come to truly and sincerely believe in determinism will be the day I kill myself.

    [Edited by moderator to bring within Terms of Use.]



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  • 79
    Spikeygrrl says:

    Since the conclusion of my prior post (#78) got moderated out of existence, let me restate it in what I hope will be more acceptable terms: The day I come to believe in determinism will be the day I kill myself…AND the determinists here would doubtless argue that my suicide was predetermined too. TO ME such a conclusion seems both unwarranted and emotionally callous…but of course even that callousness was predetermined, so here we go around the park yet again, Alphonse.

    (Better?)



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