Ladies and Gentlemen, Choose Your Definitions

We have two definitions of free will. One is meaningful and relevant. The other is meaningless and irrelevant. The real question is, “Why would anyone choose the meaningless and irrelevant definition?”

In operation, “free will” refers to a person deciding for themselves what they “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence.

This is meaningful because it distinguishes between a deliberate act, versus an act that someone was forced to commit against their will. In matters of moral and legal responsibility, we hold the person accountable if they acted deliberately, but if they were coerced, then we hold accountable the guy who held a gun to their head.

And it is relevant because coercion or undue influence may be present or absent. Either you made the choice or someone else forced the choice upon you.

Okay, so what about the other definition of “free will” the one where it is defined as “freedom from causal necessity/inevitability”? Well, if we presume perfectly reliable cause and effect, then every event that ever happens is always causally necessary or causally inevitable. And, of course, this would include all the events in our mind as well.

But is that meaningful? Actually, no. Because it turns out that what we will inevitably do is exactly the same as what we would have done anyway. It is just us, being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

Yet perhaps it is still relevant? Afraid not. Reliable cause and effect is not something that can be either present or absent. It is a background fact of all existence. It is not something which we can in any sense be “free of”.

So, what are the grounds for replacing a meaningful, relevant operational definition of free will, with a meaningless, irrelevant one?

It appears that many philosophers and scientists, people who really should know better,  have somehow managed to play a big joke on themselves. But I think it has ceased to be funny.

24 thoughts on “Ladies and Gentlemen, Choose Your Definitions

  1. “And it is relevant because coercion or undue influence may be present or absent. Either you made the choice or someone else forced the choice upon you.” This can be challenged by pointing out that even a person with a gun to their head is still making the choice to obey the gunman.

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    • That would depend, John, on what the guy with the gun is telling them to do. If the guy with the gun is telling them, “Eat your spinach”, then it would be unreasonable to choose to die instead. But if the guy with the gun is saying, “Strangle that person to death”, then it would be reasonable to choose to disobey. The person using coercion, if it is to work, must ask the victim to do something that is less harmful than losing his life. As long as it is less harmful, then it is morally reasonable to choose to obey. And I believe that is the test that most people would apply.

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      • The person is still choosing to obey (or disobey) the gunman which indicates that they are still in control and thus responsible for their choice and resulting behaviour?

        The “free will skeptics” make this point consider a few different types of offenders.

        1. A person who is suffering from an irresistible impulse to commit violent and criminal acts (let’s say a tumour in the pre frontal cortex is later discovered).
        2. A gunman such as John Hinckley who doesn’t suffer from an irresistible impulse to kill but has a specific target and makes choices in an attempt to succeed killing that target. But later it is discovered he was motivating by a delusional fantasy.
        3. A serial killer such as Ted Bundy who carefully plans and chooses his victims motivated by his sexual paraphernalia’s. He doesn’t suffer from any delusion and has a normal social life etc. But he clearly suffers from a disorder as other people’s wellbeing are simply not a part of his thinking processes (he has an anti social personality disorder).
        4. A person with a neurotypical brain whose choice to commit crimes is motivated by the necessity to survive or at least because crime is the easiest and thus “best” option for this person to survive and thrive.

        Now we agree that all of these different types of offenders behaviour was causally inevitable. The only difference is that their harmful behaviour has different causes and thus how we treat the cause and rehabilitate the offender is different? And given that all behaviour is causally inevitably (could not have done otherwise in the circumstance) a normal person motivated by basic survival is no more responsible or ultimately responsible than a paranoid schizophrenic. Do you agree?

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        • Operationally, HOW we go about “holding” someone or something “responsible” must fit the specific cause of the behavior. What is required to CORRECT the harmful behavior or, if the behavior cannot be corrected, then what is required to PROTECT the public from future harm, will be different with DIFFERENT CAUSES.

          And that’s the distinction that the concept of “free will” makes. If the person committed the criminal act because someone was holding a gun to his head, then how do we correct his future behavior? Simple, we arrest the guy holding the gun, and remove the threat that caused him to commit the act. (That’s all that was required to correct the behavior of the exchange student who the Tsarnaev brothers hijacked and forced him to assist their escape after the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013).

          If the offender was under the extraordinary (undue) influence of a brain tumor, then we remove the brain tumor.

          If the offender had one of a variety of psychiatric conditions that was severe enough to cause him to unknowingly commit a crime due to hallucinations or delusions requiring medical treatment, then we provide that treatment, usually in a secure medical facility.

          On the other hand, if the offender shot someone while demanding their wallet during a mugging, because he thought it was okay to rob people as long as he didn’t get caught, then we need to correct his behavior by changing how he thinks about these things. This relies upon his willingness to change. And the penalty of imprisonment may help induce that willingness to participate in counseling, addiction treatment, skills training, education, and other rehabilitative measures.

          The “free will skeptic”, by insisting that there is NO DISTINCTION to be made based upon different causes, and suggesting that somehow the MEANS of holding people responsible must be the same, is ignoring the facts on the ground.

          It DOES make a difference whether the criminal offender chose the behavior of his own free will versus being compelled by someone with a gun, or by mental illness, or by other undue influence. Each distinct category of causation requires its own mechanism of correction.

          In all four of your cases, we “hold responsible” the most meaningful cause of the behavior, and correct that cause, whether it be a tumor (1), or a delusion (2), or a deliberate choice (3 and 4).

          If the cause cannot be corrected, then the public must still be protected. So, the incorrigible offender would be secured either in a medical, psychiatric, or prison facility as appropriate.

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          • “Each distinct category of causation requires its own mechanism of correction.” I think the free will skeptics agree that different causes require there own mechanism of correction. They say that the person with a healthy brain/mind whose harmful behaviour was the result of a deliberate choice is no more responsible – in the strong or “just deserts” sense -than the person whose harmful behaviour was the result of a tumour “deserved” to get that tumour.

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            • If the free will skeptics ever understand how justice actually operates they’d stop bandying around terms like “just deserts” or “responsibility in the strong sense”. There is only one operational sense of “holding responsible”, it means to identify the specific cause that ought to be corrected or prevented from doing further harm. You can do it, and do it right. Or, you can not do it at all, or do it ineffectively. But there’s no such thing as a “strong” or “weak” “sense” of “responsibility”.

              Similar problem with “just deserts”. The term is a shortened version of “what one justly deserves”. And everyone should be in favor of that! The problem is not in the concept of just deserts, but rather in figuring out what someone justly deserves when they have committed a deliberate criminal act.

              Because a system of justice operates to protect and restore everyone’s rights, a just penalty would naturally include (a) repairing the harm to the victim if possible, (b) correcting the offenders future behavior, (c) protecting the public from further harm by the offender until his behavior is corrected, and (d) doing no more harm to the offender and his rights than is reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

              That is what “just deserts” should entail. It is what everyone justly deserves. But the free will skeptics throw confusion into the process by suggesting we use some abstraction of responsibility without first understanding how the concept is supposed to operate.

              The proper correction is through a better understanding of the concepts and what they ought to mean. Instead, the free will skeptics just gripe about how some people use the terms, and suggest that the solution is to discard “free will”, “responsibility”, and a number of other concepts, leading to a constantly shrinking dictionary and a loss of meaningful distinctions.

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              • “There is only one operational sense of “holding responsible”, it means to identify the specific cause that ought to be corrected or prevented from doing further harm. You can do it, and do it right. Or, you can not do it at all, or do it ineffectively.”

                “But there’s no such thing as a “strong” or “weak” “sense” of “responsibility”.” Well the “weak sense” is how you defined it above for example in that sense mosquitos are “responsible” for spreading malaria. The “strong sense” of responsibility is the one employed in retributive concepts of justice as opposed to restorative justice which seeks to simply correct the offender and minimise harm.

                “The problem is not in the concept of just deserts, but rather in figuring out what someone justly deserves when they have committed a deliberate criminal act.” From Wikipedia (Desert (philosophy))

                “One of the most controversial rejections of the concept of desert was made by the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, writing in the mid to late twentieth century, claimed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments (such as superior intelligence or athletic abilities), as it is purely the result of the ‘natural lottery’. Therefore, that person does not morally deserve the fruits of his or her talents and/or efforts, such as a good job or a high salary. However, Rawls was careful to explain that, even though he dismissed the concept of moral Desert, people can still legitimately expect to receive the benefits of their efforts and/or talents. The distinction here lies between Desert and, in Rawls’ own words, ‘Legitimate Expectations”

                So we can still have “legitimate expectations” for example we can expect a civilised society to protect the rights of both the offender and society and do no more harm than necessary- while getting rid of the concept of “just deserts”.

                “Because a system of justice operates to protect and restore everyone’s rights, a just penalty would naturally include (a) repairing the harm to the victim if possible, (b) correcting the offenders future behavior, (c) protecting the public from further harm by the offender until his behavior is corrected, and (d) doing no more harm to the offender and his rights than is reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).
                “That is what “just deserts” should entail. It is what everyone justly deserves.” Does a mentally ill offender “justly deserve” to be locked up?

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                • Retribution is literally “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life”. It would, at least in theory, cause someone to think twice before harming someone else, because he could end up suffering the same harm himself. ALL systems of penalty serve the deterministic purpose of discouraging socially harmful behavior.

                  The problem with retribution is that the harm to the offender is often more than is reasonably necessary to achieve the ends of justice, which are to repair the harm to the victim, correct the offender’s future behavior, and protect others from similar harm by the offender until his behavior is corrected. Justice requires the minimal harm necessary to accomplish its ends, else it defeats its own purpose of dealing with harmful behavior in the least harmful way.

                  Everyone deserves justice (the individual rights consistent with the rights of others).

                  You ask, “Does a mentally ill offender “justly deserve” to be locked up?”. The answer requires a second question, “Do other persons justly deserve to be harmed by the violent behavior of someone who is mentally ill?”

                  The answers become simpler once you understand what terms like “justice” actually mean.

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  2. “It would, at least in theory, cause someone to think twice before harming someone else, because he could end up suffering the same harm himself.” 1)That theory is doubtful (to say the least). 2) Under this theory chopping the hand for petty theft or stoning to death for adultery would be a just Penalty.

    “ALL systems of penalty serve the deterministic purpose of discouraging socially harmful behavior.” Not in retributive justice no. (From Wikipedia). “Prevention of future crimes (deterrence) or rehabilitation of the offender are not considered in determining such punishments. The theory holds that when an offender breaks the law, justice requires that he or she suffer in return.”

    “The problem with retribution is that the harm to the offender is often more than is reasonably necessary to achieve the ends of justice,” The problem with retribution is that it is motivated by sadism.

    “Justice requires the minimal harm necessary to accomplish its ends, else it defeats its own purpose of dealing with harmful behavior in the least harmful way.” Retributive theories don’t do that and therefore shouldn’t play a part in the criminal justice system of civilised societies.

    “The answer requires a second question, “Do other persons justly deserve to be harmed by the violent behavior of someone who is mentally ill?” No but neither does the mentally ill person “deserve” to have a mental illness. The mentally ill person is as unlucky as people harmed by a mentally ill person

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    • Well, sadism doesn’t require a crime to inflict harm. However, every action that is “justified” by someone harming someone else by a wrongful act does require that the person committed a wrongful act. Wikipedia’s article is incorrect when it suggests that retribution does not seek to protect us from further criminal harm by the offender.

      It is built into the species to react to injustice. The point of the action is to put an end to that injustice. A hungry kid at the table sees you grabbing for his dinner roll and you may get a fork stuck in your hand. The point of his behavior is to protect his right to his food. You alter your behavior to respect his rights or to keep from getting a fork stuck in your hand again. Either way, he has secured his right to his dinner roll. It’s that simple.

      Now, to avoid unnecessary harm, and bring peace to the dinner table, the parent provides an alternate method of securing everyone’s right to their own dinner roll. “If Johnny grabs for you dinner roll, don’t stab him with your fork, but tell me instead. I’ll discipline Johnny and make sure you get your roll back.”

      The practice, in some ancient cultures, of cutting off the hand of the thief, has pretty clear value as a deterrent to further thefts by that thief. One can argue that it is unjust, because it is more than what is necessary, but one cannot argue that it’s purpose is something other than to reduce cut down on crime, by cutting down the number of hands engaged in theft.

      We should not be unclear as to the purpose of punishment. ALL punishments are responses to criminal behavior specifically designed to reduce that behavior within that society (whether it be a nation, state, or family dinner table).

      The question for those of us seeking justice is this: How can we effectively accomplish the protection of the rights of individuals from criminal harm while doing the minimum necessary harm to the offender.

      In cases where the offender has a rational mind and deliberately chose to commit the crime for his own personal benefit, the penalty must accomplish two things: (A) firmly communicate to the offender that his action will not be tolerated and (B) offer the opportunity for him to learn to do better through rehabilitation.

      If the offender has been getting away with his crime, then he will be motivated to continue repeating the same behavior, because it is self-rewarding. The behavior has high rewards and low costs. So, (A) is just as important as (B) in getting him to change his behavior. He needs to understand that the costs of his criminal behavior is high.

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      • “Wikipedia’s article is incorrect when it suggests that retribution does not seek to protect us from further criminal harm by the offender.” No the definition on Wikipedia is correct – retribution is to inflict suffering on the offender for the specific offence he committed – it is NOT about rehabilitating him or even deterring others. Otherwise it would be restorative justice or a deterrence theory – which it is not.

        “It is built into the species to react to injustice.” A lot of primitive instincts are “built into” human beings.

        1)There is no evidence that brutal, cruel and unusual punishments deter hardened “Career” criminals – those who typically commit the most violent and serious offences.
        2. In medieval Europe (for instance) brutal punishments was inflicted even for minor offences yet those societies had a lot more crime and violence than today’s modern civilised societies.

        “He needs to understand that the costs of his criminal behavior is high.”

        Hypothetically scenario imagine a society inflicts horrific torture and a gory death for even committing minor offences. Now let’s say a offender with a rational mind in this hypothetical society still freely chooses to shop lift or go drink driving or speed outside a school. Now why is knocking out his teeth or shooting out his kneecaps or beheading him in the town square more effective and useful than simply giving him a fine or community service or a prison sentence?

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        • So, my solution to the problem of retributive justice is simple. Clarify the goal, and provide a more effective means of accomplishing it without injuring justice by doing more harm than is reasonably necessary to accomplish the desired result. Any harm beyond what is reasonably required is an injustice.

          I believe that is the correct approach to solving this problem.

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          • “Clarify the goal, and provide a more effective means of accomplishing it without injuring justice by doing more harm than is reasonably necessary to accomplish the desired result.” The goal or primary goal of retributive justice is to inflict suffering on the offender for the offence he committed. So we don’t need to clarify retributive justice but simply get rid of this primitive notion of justice.

            “Any harm beyond what is reasonably required is an injustice.” There is no requirement to inflict suffering on the offender the only requirements are (as you yourself say) 1)Restore the harm to the victim (if possible) 2) Rehabilitate the offender 3) If the offender still poses a risk to society then do no more harm to him than is necessary to prevent the offender from committing more crimes in the future.

            The goal or primary goal of any theory of justice should never be to be inflict suffering on the offender. And retributive theories should not be the basis of the justice system in any civilised country do you agree?

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            • As I’ve been saying, “inflicting suffering” is never the goal of justice, not even of retributive justice. The goal of justice is to protect and restore the rights we’ve agreed to respect and protect for each other through the laws/rules we’ve installed.

              As a practical matter, it is often essential that the community strongly conveys its disapproval of the wrongful behavior to the offender. The negative aspects of punishment, such as restricting the offender’s liberties through prison time, serve that purpose.

              An offender with a history of monetary rewards for conning people or mugging them has no reason to change this behavior. Why would he choose to participate in rehabilitation programs, when he can pick up where he left off when released?

              To be effective, programs designed to help a person to change usually require that the person has a desire to change. One inducement to desire to change is the discomfort of his current position. So, inflicting some minimal suffering may be a reasonably necessary component of changing his behavior.

              I’ve often heard from “free will skeptics” that they wish to abolish blame. But what if blame is the minimal suffering that is sufficient to bring about a desire to change? What if that possibility of being blamed is the key deterrent?

              In the 1964 study by William Bowers of “Student Dishonesty and its Control in College”, he found that the factor that had the highest correlation with a student’s decision not to cheat was “perceived peer disapproval”. If the student felt that his friends and others didn’t care about cheating, he would be more likely to cheat. But if he felt like his fellow students felt strongly that cheating was wrong, he would be less likely to cheat.

              The key deterrent was the possibility of a form of blame.

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  3. “The key deterrent was the possibility of a form of blame.” But that is before a person actually has decided to commit a crime – not after. If a person knew what they was doing, knew it was wrong and knew their friends – and wider community – thought it was wrong and condemned it and then despite all this still decided to do it anyway then what is the rationale in inflicting “minimal suffering” on him?

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    • So, there was this man who had a donkey that could do math. He’d show off his donkey by hitting him in the head and telling him to add five plus two. The donkey would stomp his foot seven times. He’d hit the donkey again and tell him to add three plus three. The donkey stomped six times. One of the onlookers asked, why do you keep hitting the donkey in the head? Well, the man said, he’s a pretty smart donkey, and will do whatever you say, but first you gotta get his attention.

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      • 1)harsher incarceration leads to re-enforcing of bad behaviors and repeat offense. It doesn’t work. In fact the harsher the sentence (such as in supermax), the more it reinforces negative behaviours. Non-punitive and comfortable environments that allow inmates to learn, not fear for their own existence, have various educational programs, etc. work best and this is borne out by a hundred years of evidence

        2)The more important point is that no person deserves punishment if they could not have done, of their own accord, otherwise (which they could not have).

        “Well, the man said, he’s a pretty smart donkey, and will do whatever you say, but first you gotta get his attention” And if the donkey doesn’t respond to being hit in the head – presumable just enough (“minimal suffering”) to get his attention – does he deserve to have much more brutal force used against him and severe suffering to be inflicted upon him when we know (as contra causal free will doesn’t exist) the donkey couldn’t have done otherwise in that circumstance? Only if you believe in contra causal free will and retributive theories of justice can you attempt to justify it.

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        • John Nutt: “The more important point is that no person deserves punishment if they could not have done, of their own accord, otherwise (which they could not have).”

          Do they “deserve” an opportunity for redemption? If they do, then it may be that their only path to redemption lies through some personal re-examination, which they may find unpleasant. That unpleasantness is punishing, but it may very well be required if they are to improve.

          We should always keep in mind the scientific question, “Will this work?” and “Is this working for this person?” and “What is the prognosis if we adopt this versus that form of correction/treatment?”

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          • “Do they “deserve” an opportunity for redemption? If they do, then it may be that their only path to redemption lies through some personal re-examination, which they may find unpleasant. That unpleasantness is punishing, but it may very well be required if they are to improve.”

            How is putting violent mentally disturbed men together in a harsh “dog eat dog” environment conducive to invoking a desire for personal re examination in them?

            “We should always keep in mind the scientific question, “Will this work?” and “Is this working for this person?” and “What is the prognosis if we adopt this versus that form of correction/treatment?”” Yes and harsh prison environments are not effective at reforming offenders while treating prisoners as human beings does . https://www.dailyscandinavian.com/prison-life-in-scandinavia/

            “But when criminals in Scandinavia leave prison, they stay out. Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The US has one of the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.”

            “Based on figures, it’s safe to assume Norway’s criminal justice system is doing something right. Few citizens there go to prison, and those who do usually go only once. So how does Scandinavia accomplish this feat? The countries rely on a concept called “restorative justice,” which aims to repair the harm caused by crime rather than punish people.”

            “The thing is, in the Scandinavian countries, the inmates will be treated as “normal” as possible in an attempt to make them suitable for life outside prison once they have served their sentence.”

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            • Exactly. The goal of correction is to return to society a person who will choose to behave legally of “his own free will”. That is the goal of rehabilitation. If the offender lacks the education and skills required to open up the “alternate possibilities” for his life, then rehab programs must provide this training. If the offender’s way of thinking has been set one way by the social conditions in which he was raised, then counseling and therapy are needed to give him the “ability to do otherwise”. The same applies to treating his addictions and medical treatment for mental illness.

              But there is no possibility of rehabilitation if the offender is being told that not just his past actions, but all his future actions, are being determined by some external force over which he has no control. And this is the crime committed by the free will skeptics.

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              • “But there is no possibility of rehabilitation if the offender is being told that not just his past actions, but all his future actions, are being determined by some external force over which he has no control. And this is the crime committed by the free will skeptics.” Indeed the “free will skeptics” often preach fatalistic views – which leads people to further confuse causality with fatalism. Sam Harris for example says all our choices spring out of a mysterious void of prior causes and us choosing an option is “completely mysterious” to us and the chain of prior causes is simply moving us along. That is fatalism but yet at other times Harris says our choices,thoughts, reasoning and intentions are the primary cause of our behaviour (for example Harris’s says his decision to write his book was the primary cause of his writing it- and that decision didn’t just spring mysteriously out the void into his mind.) So Harris and other “free will” skeptics need to clear up this confusion.

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                • It’s easy to clear up the confusion. Stop insisting that free will requires freedom from reliable cause and effect! All our freedoms operate via reliable causation. All our discoveries and inventions require that things operate in a predictable fashion. Free will REQUIRES a deterministic universe in order to implement any intention.

                  As to Harris, I’ve gone through his book twice during Dr. Richard Carrier’s courses on free will. Carrier takes a very critical view of Harris’s book “Free Will”. So do I. Here are some notes I took while studying chapter 4:

                  Harris appears to be waffling back and forth in chapter 4, Choices, Efforts, Intentions.

                  From the beginning of the chapter he asserts (a) the importance of distinguishing voluntary from involuntary actions, and then (b) erases that distinction by convincing you that you are not really in control of anything, but that it only “feels” or “seems” like you are. Instead he suggests we are pawns being controlled by dark (page 34) and mysterious (page 43) forces.

                  On page 32, he speaks of the “apparent reality of choices, freely made” and then suggests that “from a deeper perspective” our “thoughts simply arise unauthored and yet author our actions.” (italics mine).

                  Then he comes back offering us free will again in the next sentence, “This is not to say that conscious awareness and deliberative thinking serve no purpose. Indeed, much of our behavior depends on them.”

                  And then he takes it away again when he says, “This process of conscious deliberation, while different from unconscious reflex, offers no foundation for freedom of will.” (page 33)

                  And then gives it back in the discussion of fatalism when he says, “To sit back and see what happens is itself a choice that will produce its own consequences.” (page 33-34)

                  And he claims to be the “primary cause” of writing his own book (page 34), affirming that “Decisions, intentions, efforts, goals, willpower, etc., are causal states of the brain, leading to specific behaviors, and behaviors lead to outcomes in the world.” In other words, we, ourselves really do cause stuff.

                  But attempts to take it all back in the next sentence when speaking of you, “But the next choice you make will come out of the darkness of prior causes that you, the conscious witness of your experience, did not bring into being.”

                  It’s enough to make you dizzy — which is probably a nice state to increase suggestibility in the reader.

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  4. “It’s easy to clear up the confusion. Stop insisting that free will requires freedom from reliable cause and effect!” Perhaps they should take your advice and call their debate “freedom from causation”. That way the “free will skeptics” can address the problems with contra causal notions of “free will” while staying clear of fatalism and not tangling it up with determinism – and undermining our autonomy and our freedom to choose how we live our lives in the process.

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    • And they should call themselves “freedom from causal necessity skeptics”. 🙂
      There is no conflict between the two facts that (a) my choice is reliably caused and (b) it is reliably caused by me.

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