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A Skeptical Analysis of Doyle’s Defense of Free Will

The debate on free will vs. determinism has continued unabated for roughly 2500 years and seems to have become more prolific in the last ten years. Recently, Stuart T. Doyle presented his view in support of free will, the libertarian version. I strongly encourage the reader to study that article first. My intention here, however, is to provide a skeptical analysis of his view and a defense of determinism in human decision-making at the same time. To avoid paraphrasing and the distortions which can sometimes come from it, I will be quoting liberally from Doyle’s article. And so henceforth, when I use quotation marks, I am referring exactly to what Doyle said, unless indicated otherwise.

“Novelist and Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer summed up the dilemma, ‘We must believe in free will, we have no choice.’” Well, of course we have a choice, but the choice is determined! From whatever options are presented to us we will choose only one, and this choice is the result of either prior causes or just chance. Our will is not free! It is constrained, influenced, and/or caused.

“…I argued that many of our actions are caused by our wills; that is, by our conscious desires and intentions. This is not disputed by most (what I’ll term) free will deniers.” But I am one of the “free will deniers” who does dispute this claim. Our conscious desires and intentions often precede our choices, but this hardly means that they cause them. It could be the case, and probably is the case, that both our conscious desires and intentions and our choices are caused by a third factor which precedes them both. And so, I believe the author is making a classical thinking error known as “post hoc, ergo propter hoc.” As we all learned in graduate school, correlation does not necessarily indicate causation, even when the correlation is sequential.

“They [free will deniers] more often dispute that our wills are free, not that we have wills and that our actions often follow from our wills.” Of course, we have wills in the sense that we make choices or decisions. But what do we mean by “we” here? In the singular, what do we mean by the “I” in “I choose”? I suggest that the “I” refers to a decision-making mechanism (DMM) in the brain, a hypothetical thing, but not a homunculus, for which evidence is accumulating. The best model in neuroscience and psychology at the present time seems to be that various causes, such as genetics, environment, life experiences, and their interactions are represented in some parts of our brains which provide input to the DMM which uses some currently unknown algorithm to make choices leading to behaviors.

“Sam Harris, one such determinist with a large general audience, has said that the subjectively felt intention to act is the proximate cause of acting.” Really? Has Harris said this? I don’t recall that idea from Harris’ book Free Will or from his other writings. If he said so, then it is a significant claim, and Doyle should provide the relevant quote and citation. I think it is more likely that although the subjectively felt intention does immediately precede the acting, it is not the cause of the acting. The intention is likely correlated with or representative of some actual brain process that does the real work.

“Likewise, the fact that determinists find no personal authorship or freedom in the actions of molecules shouldn’t lead them to conclude anything about the nature of the will.” Our brains do consist of molecules which follow the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. The DMM is just another part of the brain, consisting of interconnected neuronal circuits which produce our choices.

“We agree that we have wills, that we have subjectively experienced intentions that influence our actions.” We determinists agree that we have wills, but we do not agree that our intentions influence our actions. Our intentions precede our actions but probably have no influence or causal power over our actions.

“The question is whether our will is free or unfree.” Our will is certainly not free, as I have demonstrated in my own relevant essay. If our decisions were free, then they would always be unrestrained, uninfluenced, and uncaused by anything. This is simply not the case. This would make us “uncaused causes” as many gods are assumed to be. Modern science has discarded this kind of thinking.

“To look at molecules for the answer is a scale mistake.” The best scale by which to examine and talk about the decisions of the brain is probably the scale of brain circuits, areas, regions, or neuron groups. But ultimately of course, these are composed of molecules at a lower level.

“The right scale for finding answers to the question of freedom of the will is the agent scale, not the molecule scale.” I think the answers are to be found at neither of these two scales. The agent in this case is the entire human being. However, we know that the entire human being is composed of different organs, tissues, and systems. One of these systems is the nervous system, and the most prominent part of this system is the brain. The brain, and probably one particular mechanism of the brain, which I have called the DMM, is responsible for the will — making decisions.

“Expanding the timescale to include the time before the person was born renders the question [about determinism] incoherent.” We humans exist within a cause-effect nexus which includes time before we were born. There is nothing incoherent about this. However, in explaining, predicting, and controlling decisions it is more useful and practical to look at more proximate causes.

“The will emerges from the complex interactions of many small parts. It’s literally not true to say that it’s caused by any particular small part.” I disagree. I think it is literally true to say that there is a “final common pathway” and every decision is made by the DMM. This hypothesis can be tested and is beginning to be supported and will eventually be fully supported by research on brain and behavior, in my opinion.

“So my thoughts and actions are deterministically caused by me.” But who are you? What are you? What causes you? Doyle fails to give adequate answers to these important questions.

“Yet my mind does exist.” I agree that our minds do exist and some form of dualism must be true, but not Decartes’ version. But what is a mind? How is the mind related to the brain? Does the mind have any causal powers or is it merely an epiphenomenon? Doyle is not clear and direct on these points. However, I believe that the mind is an epiphenomenon and does not have causal powers. Many of the modern determinists seem to agree with my view.

“In order to claim that my choices are really caused by a molecule or a historical epoch, one must refer to the dynamics of a scale where I (that is, my mind) cannot be found. Eliminating the mind from the analysis is not a valid way to answer a question about the mind.” Here Dolye appears to be setting up false dichotomies. There is no good reason to eliminate the mind from the analysis, but there is a need to explicate the relationship of the mind to the brain.

“But what if we wanted to figure out whether or not I’ll have free will tomorrow? From that temporal angle, the question of the ability to do otherwise stops making sense.” No, it still makes sense. Tomorrow, for almost any given situation in which you find yourself, some options will occur to you and you will choose only one of those options. The choice will be determined or perhaps in rare circumstances will result from some random process. After you make the choice tomorrow, you still could have done otherwise yesterday, but only in a special sense — there were other options logically possible or cognitively available to you before you made the choice. I’ll speak more about this later.

“The question must ask whether or not I can do something other than what I’m expected to do, not other than what I will do.” What you are expected to do, however, depends on what we know about how brains work and what we know about your brain and your history. We may come to a point in the future of neuroscience and behavior science where what we expect you to do will be exactly what you in fact do, especially if determinism is true, as we currently believe.

“Large collections of particles obey the second law of thermodynamics, which is not time reversal invariant.” I agree. The decisions of our brains are not “time reversal invariant,” but this fact does not save free will.

“Choices are always about something, and those objects of choice always lie in the future, thus choices are always forward-looking.” I agree. Choices are about options. The options in our minds reflect options for our brains. For any given decision the set of options for our brains is probably larger than, but overlaps with, the set of options occurring to our minds.

“If my actions are in principle perfectly predictable, then I do not have the ability to do otherwise in a forward-looking sense.” Although I have made this point elsewhere, I must reiterate it here: Determinism is just not the same as predictability, although the two are related. A system may be perfectly determined, but unpredictable because we do not understand the laws of the system or we do not have the needed raw data about a particular system.

I am a psychologist and a determinist at least in regard to human decisions, but I think that determinists generally get it wrong in talking about “being able to do otherwise.” Let me explain. Suppose a young woman is a very intelligent, sociable, and high achieving senior at a major university, and in less than a year she will graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. She begins to go to interviews in order to secure a job after graduation and subsequently she gets ten offers. After collecting much information, she narrows her options down to two jobs, which I shall designate simply as X and Y. Before she makes her decision can she choose otherwise than X? Of course she can; she can also choose Y. Can she choose otherwise than Y? Of course she can; she can also choose X. She has two logically possible and cognitively available options from which to choose. Now, suppose she ends up choosing option Y. After the fact, most determinists would probably say that she could not have chosen otherwise than Y because she was caused to pick Y by prior factors. I think this is a mistake, but mostly a semantic one. Instead, I believe we should say that she could have chosen otherwise than Y; she could have chosen X. Even though she chose Y, there were still two options which were logically possible and cognitively available for her prior to the decision. This was the case even though her decision was caused by prior factors. Through some currently unknown algorithm in which many factors relevant to both her options were represented and considered, her DMM selected Y rather than X. Chance would play little or no role in a choice like this.

“If my choices are in principle not predictable, given total knowledge of the present world, then I do have the ability to do otherwise in a forward-looking sense, which is the only sense that makes any sense.” This is false because Doyle, as most free will advocates do, has confused determinism with predictability. Our choices are probably determined (except perhaps when chance plays a role), whether or not our choices are predictable either by ourselves or by other people.

“The fact that I am the relevant cause of my own actions comes with another important implication: I am a causally self-referencing entity.” Determinists like myself view it differently. The cause of your own actions is the DMM of your brain. Using the person level of analysis might be helpful in sociology, but not in neuroscience or psychology when analyzing decisions.

“Self-referential questions like these affect the choices that I make; and those choices change the self-referential questions that I ask.” This is probably false. Instead, the self-referential questions, like those mentioned by Doyle, probably reflect processes occurring in your brain but don’t affect the choices which you make. The model of the mind as epiphenomenal is just as good as and probably better than the model of the mind as causal.

“A system that exhibits undecidable dynamics cannot be predicted, given complete knowledge of its present state.” This claim appears to be tautological, since “undecidable” is equivalent to “not predictable.” I certainly agree that if a system is undetermined, then human beings are unlikely to be able to accurately predict its outputs. In fantasy an all-knowing god would still be able to predict its outputs. Such a god would know the future, as God is supposed to know, according to classical theism, but these notions are not taken seriously by modern science.

“It can be informally proven that humans have an infinite state-space.” I am very skeptical of this. I suspect that each individual human person has a finite state-space. That space is probably determined and constrained by one’s genetics, environment, life experience, and their interactions. But more importantly, individual decisions in real time have a finite options-space. For example, if you are going to a Baskin-Robbins store to get ice cream, your options set will probably consist of only a few specific ice creams of a few specific flavors. The young woman in the earlier example had narrowed her final decision to two job options, again a finite options-space.

“A real brain is made of neurons which are not simply on or off. Some neurons show gradations in voltage and neurotransmitter release, meaning that they have many possible states between ‘on’ and ‘off.’” Here the author is making a scale error similar to what he accuses determinists of making. The scale of neurotransmitter molecules or even individual neurons is probably not the proper scale for analyzing human decisions. But the scale of neuron circuits might be ideal.

“Negation in this context refers to the ability of a logical system to produce an output which is exactly contrary to the processing which led to the output.” But if determinism is true, then this negation would occur because the DMM received new information just before or just after it made the original choice. Determinism is not refuted if the DMM receives new input and alters its output.

Close to the end of his essay Doyle offers the following quote from a 2019 publication by Mikhail Prokopenko and his colleagues:

“As we have shown, the capacity to generate undecidable dynamics is based upon three underlying factors: (1) the program-data duality; (2) the potential to access an infinite computational medium; and (3) the ability to implement negation.”

Doyle tries to apply these factors to the situations of human persons making choices. Unfortunately, he neither defines the factors for the reader nor shows how they are manifested in choice-making situations. This does not help his free will defense.

“Viewing human agents as whole humans instead of as molecules makes it clear that humans are the cause of their own actions,…” Here Doyle presents a false dichotomy for the analysis of decision making. It pits molecules against whole humans, and neither of these levels is helpful. Decisions are made by brains, and the proper level of analysis entails looking at the relevant parts and processes of the brain.

At the end Doyle confidently declares “Neither Zeus, Bertrand Russell, nor the scientists recapitulating the latter’s [Russell’s] argument 77 years later can diminish our free wills.” I strongly disagree. Zeus is irrelevant since he doesn’t exist and never has. But Bertrand Russell, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, and Robert Sapolsky have pretty much obliterated the concept of free will. Not only is determinism for human choices probably true, assuming tentatively that it is true is likely to lead to a more fruitful research project than assuming the contrary. Any explanation of human decision making which rules out determinism cannot work. END

About the Author

Gary J. Whittenberger PhD is a freelance writer and retired psychologist, now living in North Hollywood, California. He was formerly a leader in many freethought groups in Tallahassee, Florida. He received his doctoral degree from Florida State University after which he worked for 23 years as a psychologist in prisons. He has written many published articles on science, philosophy, psychology, and religion. He is the author of two books—God Wants You to be an Atheist: The Startling Conclusion from a Rational Analysis, and God and Natural Disasters: A Debate Between an Atheist and a Christian.

  1. Prokopenko, M., Harré, M., Lizier, J., Boschetti, F., Peppas, P., & Kauffman, S. (2019). Self-Referential Basis of Undecidable Dynamics: From the Liar Paradox and the Halting Problem to the Edge of Chaos. Physics of Life Reviews, 31, 134—156.

This article was published on March 28, 2023.


5 responses to “A Skeptical Analysis of Doyle’s Defense of Free Will”

  1. Mitch Berger says:

    As I see it, the key is first to prove there is a domain of automaton that is “nonmodelable” — neither algorithmic nor random. Only once you have that, can you ask whether the human will is in that category or not. And the complication of this category is that we cannot define what an nonmodelable system is, or even that only prove that that a given system is, indeed, nonmodelable. After all, if we could describe a system in words, it could be reduced to an algorithm, and thus would be modelable.

    Here’s a paraphrase of an attempt to show nonmodelable systems exist by Dr Moshe Koppel of Bar Ilan Univ.

    A random sequence is one whose next element is not predictable given the sequence’s history so far. But it’s easy to model, simply say that each it is random. It can be done in very few bits of a programming language.

    A sequence that can be reduced to a shorter one is the product of algorithm. For example:

    You don’t need to have every bit listed in order to reproduce the sequence. One need only have a set of bits that mean “10, repeat” in some programming language.

    For example:

    Looks like it’s the old “10, repeat”. Until we get to:

    Now it looks like
    if not a multiple of 5
    – if odd 1
    – if even 0
    if a multiple of 5 – 0

    But then we get some more items:

    So we theorize:
    if not a multiple of 5
    – if odd 1
    – if even 0
    if a multiple of 5
    – if odd 0
    – if even 1

    But later on we learn:

    The 25th item didn’t obey this rule… and so our model gets ever more complex as we have more data to work with. We can always explain the sequence in less space than the sequence itself. So it isn’t random. However, the description of an infinite expansion of this sequence would be infinite. It’s not an algorithm because no finite model exists. They are “non-modelable”, since neither a coin tosser (or any other random variable) nor an algorithm will model the resulting output.

    Getting back to the topic: if human will is nonmodelable, it is free in the sense of neither compelled by an algorithm nor a random variable. And thus, we would not be able to describe how it works for the rest of the discussion assumed here to proceed.

  2. Julian W. Haydon says:

    This was a great discussion, far better than in person debates which are mostly performances.

    The Free Will they are talking about is not the same FW that some 4.6 billions Christians and Muslims are taught.
    There was no mention that because we have it – St. Augustine (354-430 CE): “God’s precepts would be of no use to a man unless he had free choice of will, so that by performing them he might obtain the promised rewards.”

    God cannot be thought of as unjust for banishing the many to eternal suffering and rewarding the few with eternal happiness.

    In other words, FW legitimates the moral abomination of hell.

    Fine, this religious version has no place in this scientific discussion. But does it not deserve the outraged attention from our best intellects somewhere?

    Please don’t say philosophy, where it be drowned in a sea of mystification which will not reach the likes of me, an interested layman.

    Julian W. Haydon
    [email protected]

    • Mitch Berger says:

      What about religions that do not teach that God “banish[es] the many to eternal suffering and rewarding the few with eternal happiness.”

      Such as Judaism, the source of free will in Christian and Muslim beliefs. Almost everyone gets into heaven. Most pay time in gehennom (which doesn’t work the same way “hell” does, so I am not translating) to fix the personal imperfections they were supposed to in life. But it is only a rare few — the Talmud lists four such cases in all of humanity “from Adam” to the 3rd century or so — so internalize evil that it doesn’t get worked out. People who made it impossible to separate them from their wickedness without being someone fundamentally different.

      Then there are religions that have reincarnation rather than hell, and a law of karma rather than a god, and still believe in free will.

      I just don’t think the topic you raise is inherent to free will as a whole, and therefore is a new discussion.

  3. George Faulkner says:

    Belief in free will, as it is typically argued, is the belief in uncaused causers, entities that stands outside the causal chain of physical laws (including possibly randon indeterminism at a quantum level). It’s often called “contra-causal free will.” But if one accepts evolution — the long chain of random mutation and natural selection leading from hydrogen atoms to complex molecules, like proteins, to single-celled life to multicellular life and eventually to humans — then the free will proponent has to explain when and how the ability to jump outside this evolutionary causal chain occurred. Claiming that humans (and perhaps some other animals have contra-causal free will is a form of metaphysical dualism, equivalent to a belief in souls and some kind of divine magic. A far more coherent view is that the evolution of nervous systems, subjectivity, and predictive processing (see Anil Seth’s recent book) led to the ability of brains to imagine options based on past experiences and decide on the best option. But this just occurs in “system 2” thinking (Kahneman), while most behavior is the more automatic “system 1” type of gut reactions. Conscious choice is essentially a learning experience: discovering your options, your criteria and needs, and then learning which option is the most optimum. As Sam Harris has said, you should be making decisions based on reasons, not on whims or coin flips. And reasons are based on what you consciously and unconsciously know from past experience and innate needs.

  4. I have been itching to see a response to Doyle’s article ever since it appeared on the Skeptic website. Although I remain a determinist who has yet to see even a coherent definition of free will (much less a defense of the existence of free will), Doyle’s article is the most spirited proposal of free will I have read. I don’t want to take space here to thoroughly reflect on where Whittenberg’s response (and Doyle’s response to Whittenberg’s response) is on the mark or falls short. I simply want to say that I very much appreciate this discussion. And, I wish that Sam Harris would chime in here.

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