2015.40: Thinking is Not What You Think

Do I have free will? If you believe that I do, on what evidence do you believe that? The only evidence that you might have is your perception that you have free will—anything outside of that can be easily faked. If you ask me to do something and I do it, you don’t know whether that’s out of free will or some compulsion. But it seems to you that you have free will, so you believe that you have free will, and because you believe that you have free will and assume that I am the same you believe also that I have free will.

It seems to me that I have free will too. So why do I believe that I don’t have free will? Because it doesn’t make sense to me that the human brain would be any less deterministic (which is not to say “predictable”) than the rest of the universe. I could conceivably be wrong, but I count my perception that we have free will as an illusion. That just makes more sense to me.

Accepting that free will is an illusion is liberating. It opens up the possibility that our minds plays other big tricks on us, that they don’t work the way they seem to in other ways either.

One of the experiments designed to try to answer the free-will question (a question that I think no experiment will ever really answer) was the Libet Experiment, the results of which Libet interpreted to mean that the impulse to voluntary action arises before a consciousness of the impulse—that by the time we “decide” to move a finger we have already initiated the action, and only think in retrospect that we have made a conscious decision.

In other words—and I don’t think the Libet Experiment is conclusive on this point, but it is provocative—conscious decision making is an illusion. Each of us perceives himself or herself as consciously making decisions, and can justify those decisions if pressed with rational reasons. But we know that our “rational” thinking is raddled with cognitive biases that render its rationality suspect at best. We don’t, of course, recognize these biases when they are affecting us—another illusion, and more support for the premise that conscious decision making is an illusion.

That conscious decision making is an illusion is the major premise of my model of juror decision making, and of my Grand Unified Theory of Trial.

41 responses to “2015.40: Thinking is Not What You Think”

  1. Has this comment been written before I write it? Has your response? Does this exist?

    I thought of a great jury selection question the other day. Before I went to write it down, I forgot it. Now I can’t remember it. Did it exist?

    If there is no free will, is our client already guilty?

  2. I guess I don’t believe in determinism since one of my favorite movie lines is
    ” Nothing Is Written”
    Lawrence of Arabia

  3. You may not have written this of your own free will, but nobody else forced you to do it, so I’m still holding you responsible for having written it.

    Or are you claiming insanity?

    • I think it’s fair to hold a person responsible for his actions despite the lack of free will. The only sentencing factor that it seems unfair to apply is retribution, but the urge toward that fairness is not necessarily superior to the urge toward retribution. (I think Tamler Sommers has written about this.)

      • Tamler does think it’s fair to hold someone responsible despite freewill, but thinks that retribution is a legitimate punishment factor (because the intuition that someone should be punished may, and for him does, run deeper than the contrary intuition that desert is undermined by lack of control).

      • Michael, I think that’s a fair summary of Tamler’s position (except that I think you meant to say, “despite the lack of free will”).

        We had an interesting Twitter conversation today about the evolution of human behavior. Some of our programming (for example, racism or sugar cravings) has outlived its usefulness. The retributive impulse may be another outdated subroutine.

  4. I am reading Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior by Leonard Mlodinow right now, which deals with a lot of what the Libet Experiment shows (not directly citing Libet, but many other studies in the same vein, most of which are much more focused on a single type of process rather than all processes).

    I expected it to be rather dry, but it is actually a great read, and I would think a lot of it could be applied to jury trials, at least in the same way that you speak about using “non-law” training to help you impact jury’s.

    • Also, if this type of thing interests you, and you haven’t read any of his books, I think Malcom Gladwell’s books are a fascinating look into how and why we make the decisions that we make.

  5. I don’t know what you’re getting on about – it took me years and years and YEARS of feedback to train that part of my brain to think just like the rest of my brain. I want it working like the rest of my brain and starting out early (but subject to feedback and correction) to overcome communication latencies inherent to my biology.

    A computer scientist

  6. There’s an enormous scientific problem with any belief that the universe is deterministic, and that problem is called Quantum Mechanics. QM, along with special and general relativity, make up the most fundamental understanding of physics available today. It is exceedingly well tested and rigorously confirmed as a scientific theory (that is, as close as anything ever gets to fact).

    What QM predicts and experiments show is that the lowest-level phenomena that can be observed in the universe obey rules that follow not any kind of preset outcome, but rather a probability distribution. For example, if you search for the location of an electron bound to an atom, there is a localized region where you are likely to find it. (Due to its bound state, the chance of finding it elsewhere in the universe is close to zero.) However, it’s infeasible to pin down or otherwise cleanly predict exactly where the electron will be when you scan for it. Repeat the search many times and you find that it basically behaves like a randomly appearing object inside a probability cloud occupying a particular space.

    The same sorts of apparent behaviors are found in every other property fundamental particles have. You can talk about momentum, energy, or spin in very similar ways. The governing equations are all conspicuously similar in their statistical nature. The type of particle doesn’t matter much to this, either. A photon never exceeds the speed of light, but that doesn’t mean you can confirm its location or frequency to infinite accuracy.

    This is barely even scratching the surface, by the way. Talking about quantum mechanical objects as “particles” obscures and glosses over the significant issues with their wave-like behaviors. It also doesn’t properly address the Heisenburg Uncertainty Principle, which shows that you cannot simultaneously measure multiple properties of an electron, photon, and so forth to high accuracy — the more information about one you gather the more you are instantaneously losing about the other property.

    Determinism is one of those very old ideas from Western philosophy that just won’t die. In its stubbornness and irrationality it is very much like the concept of absolute free will, where a being can make a choice completely independent of its environment. For some people, it seems a bridge too far for them to accept that there is no clear, simple, all-encompassing answer and things are not so easily isolated or understood out of context.

    What’s truly awful about determinism, though, is that it’s unfalsifiable. Absolute free will has been repeatedly disproven, and it’s almost trivial to do so — merely show any effect of the environment on actor behavior. Genetics alone has shattered that idea, without needing to get into any other fields. With absolute determinism, however, there is no possible evidence which can ever actually disprove it *. It is an inherently anti-empirical concept. No matter what truthful information you bring to the table, someone will always be able to respond that it was simply composed exactly that way — had to be that way — from the start for whatever bizarre reason they feel like presenting. Such a response seems ridiculous, yet it is nonetheless logically consistent. In that sense, I regard belief in determinism as remarkably similar to religious belief.

    * If QM can’t do it — and it hasn’t — really, nothing can. Formal logic can be truly unhinged from reality, sealed in its own wholly self-contained mathematical playground from which no truth can escape.

    TL;DR : Thinking is not what you think, but that doesn’t make determinism true. The two statements have no rational connection whatsoever.

    • You don’t have to go as small as electrons to “disprove” determinism. Just flip a coin, and voila! proof that the universe is random, and therefore not predetermined. Except that it isn’t proof, because the landing of the coin depends on factors within our measurement and control. That the position of an electron depends on factors beyond our understanding doesn’t prove that it is random, but just that it is unpredictable to us.

      Distinguishing the random from the pseudorandom (deterministic-but-unpredictable) depends on the limits of our understanding. It is hubris to think that our understanding is so complete that “unpredictable” is the same as “random.”

      In the end, though, it doesn’t matter to human behavior whether the universe is pseudorandom or random. Whether the universe is pseudorandom or random makes no practical difference. When people speak of free will (and you may still be married to the also-unfalsifiable idea that there is some free will that is less than “absolute”), they aren’t talking about random processes. The illusion of free will is not that our actions are determined by the random spin of an electron, but that ultimately they are determined by something other than physics. Talk about old ideas that just won’t die.

      • I did not “comment and run”. It it merely the case that I have higher priorities than reading and commenting on blogs.

        Your counter-example misunderstands the profound nature of the questions and answers that were generated by Quantum Mechanics in the 1920s. Scientists never had any issue with the “problem” of a coin flip. It hadn’t been conceived of as genuinely random event; it was merely that it wasn’t feasible to gather enough information about the system to do the calculations that would predict the outcome with certainty. QM has permanently changed this understanding in many informed physics circles. Now it is widely believed that actual random events exist.

        The key difference is that a true random occurrence is one that can never be predicted — even in principle — regardless of how much information you have. To put it as bluntly as possible, not even God can predict true randomness. (Taking it one step farther would be to say that there is no such thing as omniscience in a universe of random chance. Do you see why many, including Einstein himself, saw QM as such a huge challenge to worldviews?)

        You find it “hubris” to think that our understanding is complete enough to say that random events exist. Please consider that scientists, some of them with genius intellect well beyond either of us, have been looking for exactly this distinguishing method that could show that the apparently random QM events actually can be predicted in some fashion. They have searched for it for the last 80 years in vain. That 80 years has very probably been the most populous, prosperous, industrious, and scientifically adventurous of any time in history. When do you expect this new deterministic science to be found?

        One fundamental flaw in your reasoning is that good science is practically never actually overturned; it is merely refined. Over the course of history in all sciences, but perhaps even more-so for physics than any other, each new revolution of understanding actually further *codified* the laws of the previous one. When we discovered relativity and QM, they did not disprove Newton’s laws of motion, optics, thermodynamics, Maxwell’s equations … none of it was affected in the least. They all still work just as well as they ever did today. All that happened was we uncovered certain special cases where those laws are *modestly inaccurate*; that is, the prediction should be slightly different than what it is. That inaccuracy lead us to more sophisticated descriptions of nature that can cover even the edge cases.

        Your last paragraph is actually in complete agreement with my core thesis. Any absolute concept of Determinism and Free Will are philosophy, not science. The only meaningful difference at all between the two is that Determinism is anti-empirical by its very nature. Environment-Independent Free Will can be countered to some degree and thus often doesn’t survive strict scrutiny. Determinism, on the other hand, may very well survive to the end of time. It is literally unfalsifiable. You can probably guess that I see no use whatsoever for an unfalsifiable principle. It merely serves as a crutch for whatever pre-existing notions one wishes to support.

        In case you doubt the closed-logic nature of determinism, there is one simply way to end the argument permanently. Find the test that disproves determinism. What is the means? How do we conduct the experiment? What are the expected results (one way or the other)? As I said, QM has not killed this idea. If anything could have, that would have been it.

        Addressing the philosophy side for a moment, I’d like to note that the false dichotomy between Determinism and Free Will is bad philosophy. It’s a kind of mind game that goes nowhere and settles nothing. All good philosophy should lead to robust conclusions that have some key insight and differentiate themselves from the other possibilities. These concepts do none of that. Worse, science makes it obvious that neither of these absolute concepts resemble the real world. If philosophers are to at least pretend to have some connection to reality, they cannot take such absolute concepts seriously as anything more than mere mental games.

        Once you draw away the curtain, discarding false dichotomies and absolutes, life becomes a lot easier and much more meaningful. It doesn’t matter at all that we don’t have “free will” in the hard philosophical sense of the term. We still have “will” regardless, and that’s what we actually care about. People have this strange idea that wills become less meaningful if the environment has influence on them. That’s ridiculous; it has always been that way from the very beginning of humanity. Indeed, it has even been argued before that resisting external influences is a key part of what defines humanity.

        TL;DR Do better philosophy (and science) by disregarding useless concepts.

        • I reject your academic definition of good philosophy. Good philosophy is coherent (internally and with science), is elegant, rejects illusion, and helps people to live well.

          For all of human history, thinkers about the world’s underpinnings—shamans, then priests, then alchemists, then natural philosophers, then scientists—have tended to widely believe things that have turned out to be false. (The word we use to describe the smallest unit of an element is a monument to this tendency.) So I think it’s cute that you think that 80 years of geniuses searching for and not finding ways to predict quantum-mechanical events is persuasive evidence—”makes it obvious”—that these events are random rather than pseudorandom.

          But you can keep your faith in randomness; it doesn’t matter, for purposes of what really matters (how we treat each other) whether quantum-mechanical events are random or pseudorandom if they are unpredictable.

          If in place of the determinism-or-free-will dichotomy you would like a trichotomy—(determinism or randomness) or free will—I’ll accept that: neither determinism nor randomness is free will, and it makes no difference to human behavior whether the universe is predetermined or random.

          “Will” without freedom means nothing; it’s not “what we actually care about.” Free will, where it makes a difference to how we treat each other, is typically formulated, “if I were that guy, I’d have behaved differently”; it’s a justification for treating harshly those who behave differently than us. The realization that it’s physics all the way down (and I guess you’d agree that it’s physics all the way down) calls into question the validity of the retributive impulse, and helps people to live well by being more forgiving and treating others with more kindness.

  7. I’m with you that several factors outside our will contribute to the composition of a single voluntary act—biology, outside physical factors, emotions, environment, upbringing, etc.

    But what about conscious deliberation? It makes sense to me that a self, or a bona fide will, exists somewhere in between the predetermined factors in our consciousness and manages our thoughts that lead up to an act or decision. Does the libet experiment take deliberation into the final account? If so, can the experiment distinguish between the subconscious thought at the beginning of deliberation and the subconscious thought immediately preceding the tested act? I think a will may be working in that space sorting things out and contributing to the final result in an act or decision.

    Of course, that self could be the result of a web of predetermined impulses of the conscience. But I think that is the place where, as you said, probably no test can deliver a conclusive result.

    I think you can arrive at the same result on sentencing using a free will view as a using a deterministic view so long as some measure of determinism is present in the equation. I think free will matters as a concept to preserve meaning outside of existential philosophy. It may not matter to everyone, but that’s why I make the distinction.

  8. As a non-scientific experiment, does one perceive the results in one’s life as better when acting as if our lives are deterministic or as if we have free will? Can we actually perform such an experiment or do we just perceive that we do?

    Since I believe that my actions might have some impact and that I have a choice in the matter, I will prepare for trial after all. Even if I have no control over the outcome. Is there a semi-deterministic model that encompasses the Serenity Prayer?

    • People—at least those who believe that they have free will—tend to attribute success to internal factors and failure to external factors. (I consider that an aesthetic justification for believing in determinism.)

      I don’t believe I’d act any differently if I believed that my free will was not an illusion. I want to win the trial, and I prepare for trial. “Prepare for trial” is a step along the predetermined path to “win trial.” If I didn’t want to win the trial, I might not embark on that path at all, and instead would take a path that didn’t include “prepare for trial” and led to “lose trial.”

      I don’t choose whether I want to win the trial. I do or I do not. If I do, I know that one step along the path to that goal is to prepare. And I do.

      • Sociology actually shows that nearly everyone tends to have the selfish worldview of attributing their success to skill/merit and their failures to other people or external barriers. It has nothing to do with an abstract philosophical world view like the FW/DTM debate.

        If your assertion were true (it’s laughably false), one would expect to see that Monotheistic religious devotees have much less attribution bias. An omnipotent, omniscient God does imply determinism, after all, and they believe in Him. The results of studies show that the highly devout suffer from pretty much all the same psychological failures as the rest of us, including this particular tendency toward misattribution.

        Likewise, one would expect this kind of causal linkage to show up in believers of determinism (if there was any merit to such a line of thought). Determinists should be prone to nihilism, lack of self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors. We don’t see any such thing.

        Of course, Determinism explains why we don’t see that. It explains everything. Unfortunately, any concept which explains every possibility equally well actually explains nothing at all.

        • It appears that you’re more out of your depth with regard to religion than I am with regard to quantum physics. “Nearly everyone”—including the vast majority of monotheists (Calvinists being a noteworthy exception)—accepts the illusion of free will as reality: God could determine everything, but doesn’t. So of course “nearly everyone” attributes success to internal factors and failure to external factors. But if it’s physics all the way down (and here, randomists and determinists must find themselves in the same boat with regard to free will), then everything—including “internal factors”—is attributable to external factors. There are no truly internal factors to which to attribute success. Ultimately it’s all luck.

          Your assumption that those who believe free will to be an illusion “should be prone to nihilism, lack of self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors” is akin to the religious person’s obnoxious assumption that atheists behave immorally, and is equally fallacious: “X makes me do Y, so someone who disbelieves X will not do Y.”

          To the contrary: one has to be high on Maslow’s pyramid, with all other needs satisfied, to dedicate energy to the question whether the things we all perceive, such as free will, are in fact illusions; nihilism, lack of self-esteem, and self-destructive behaviors won’t get you there in the first place.

          People born beautiful or brilliant don’t have to take credit for their own looks or intelligence to have high self-esteem. If everything I am, have, and have done is attributable to luck, why would you think that is reason to disesteem or squander it?

      • I believe I have a free will, and I tend to attribute failure to internal factors as much as I do success. If the anecdote was true that people who believe in free will tend to attribute failure to external factors, then retribution wouldn’t make much sense in anyone’s paradigm would it? If it only refers to an individual’s disposition toward blaming others, then the anecdote still hasn’t demonstrated any determinism. It’s only demonstrated someone’s desperation in maintaining a pure free will.

        For me, external factors can soften the attribution in a positive or negative direction. If I do something great, I have family, God, friends, social status, [name other external thing] to reduce the amount of credit that my free will can take. If I commit a crime, (first, I’ll call you) I’ll blame myself and then soften it by thinking of how I couldn’t have made a different choice under the circumstances. The function of external factors don’t negate a free will; it just makes a free will limited.

        I can arrive at the same or similar result as a determinist on retributive punishments because I think external factors such as a person’s culture, community, and chemistry significantly limit a person’s free will such that they should be accounted for.

        (On religion, I’d argue that it’s split about 50/50 on FW and DTM. Christianity has been debating the issue a lot longer than Calvin’s time–see Aquinas, Molina, Augustine–and Calvin’s followers only make up one protestant sect of determinists that came from the reformation–see Luther, Zwingli, and most major protestant confessions of faith. Islam has had the same basic splits with similar arguments. Ancient Chinese religion has an all-controlling God. But, admittedly, I’m not as sure about Judaism, Hinduism, or Buddhism.)

      • The attribution of failure to external factors does not apply to others’ failures.

        It seems to me that you are a soft randomist in the model of the soft determinists, reconceptualizing “free will” in order to hold on to it.

        I will concede that we have free will, for sufficiently small values of “free,” but I’ll stick with my concept, which is more useful for my purposes (explaining the behavior of jurors, and improving the behavior of potential jurors) and which I think is more coherent with non-philosophers’ view of the matter.

      • Bennett, it seems that you mostly get it, but not entirely. Yes, most monotheistic followers of religions regard free will as an illusion of one sort of another. That was part of my point. It’s true that some of them don’t see this as then implying determinism, which is good philosophy as far as it goes (fighting the false dichotomy). However, there’s still a critical philosophical error in simultaneously believing in an Omniscient God and anything other than a hardline deterministic world view.

        Omniscience is generally defined as “knowing everything”, and by that we do mean literally everything. The failure is in not following this through. Everything includes the future. You can’t truly fully know a future that contains any degree of genuine chance (no matter how subtle or limited). Thus the universe must be deterministic (preset) so that even the very future itself can be known with absolute precision. That is the logical paradox produced by simultaneous belief in non-determinism and omniscience.

        Some philosophers have hand-waved away this argument by claiming that God knowing the future is no different than us knowing the past. This is an obviously flawed response. First, the past is known precisely because it is the past. You can’t interchange past and future without radically changing the very nature of the statement (again, unless determinism). Second, the past is only known imperfectly. We are interested in perfect advance knowledge here, and nothing less than that would do.

        With determinism, one can conceive of all of space-time as single enormous four dimensional object. It is completely fixed (static) and never changes at all. There is no divergence (alternate timelines/paths/possibilities) at all.

        God cannot “allow things to play out” and still perfectly know what the future actually will be. The other problem for God is that either he can influence the full system (the universe), and thus is technically a part of it, or he can’t, and thus isn’t. Assuming the former, his presence in the system necessarily influences the outcomes (this is one of those useful insights that first appeared in Eastern philosophy). This would be true even if he only interacted at the very boundaries, such as if he started the Big Bang and then walked away. The Deist God is really quite an incomplete concept in this way.

        This actually connects back to the previously described deterministic understanding of space-time as a static 4D container. Is God inside that container, or outside? If inside, it implies that God is deterministic, too. That’s a big problem for believers who conceive of Him as being interventionist (that is, changing outcomes, for example in response to prayer). With even God being deterministic, no outcome could ever change in the slightest. On the other hand, if God is outside the container, we encounter a problem relating to the previous paragraph. How does God influence a system with which he has no contact? Any influence necessarily disturbs the system, and then He becomes a part of it. If God has no influence at all, then we are left wondering what God is actually meant to be in the first place, and indeed whether he can be said to exist (how would we know?).

        Let’s go back to quantum mechanics. One of the things you’re still misunderstanding is that random events at the microscopic level do *not* imply that macroscopic events are random. This is difficult to wholly grasp even for the scientists who study this regularly. Think of it this way : even though you can’t predict the single next roll of the dice, you still know that a fair die comes up with each side 1/6 of the time in a very large number of rolls. The probability distribution has profound non-random effects on the macroscopic outcomes regardless of how the underlying phenomena work at the lowest level.

        Thus, “randomist” philosophy as you put it is very different than what you seem to conceive it as. (Non-determinism doesn’t imply pure chance, either, just like it doesn’t imply the absolute control of individual agents. Changing the dichotomy into a trichotomy isn’t much of an improvement.)

        On the mischaracterization of others based on their philosophical worldviews … you’re actually restating my point. As I said, the presumed negative attributes of those holding to determinism do *not* actually show up in sociological study. Remember that this was in response to your several statements that people holding to some strong concept of free will would be especially prone to certain psychological and/or reasoning errors.

        There’s really not enough time in the week to discuss all the details and implications of this topic, unfortunately. I’ll have to leave it at this.

        • I wish you’d left it earlier, before you lost the thread completely.

          “Nearly everyone accepts the illusion of free will as reality” means that nearly everyone thinks that free will is not an illusion, which is obvious from the context and the contrast with Calvinism.

          I’ll be the last one to argue that religions are rational: folks think that God is omniscient and omnipotent and yet gave them free will to make mistakes or not; they mostly don’t look at that too closely.

          If quantum randomness doesn’t make macro events random, then it’s irrelevant to the discussion. If macro events aren’t random and aren’t predetermined, what are they? If macro events are predetermined, then free will as it is generally understood (“If I were him, I’d’ve done differently”) does not exist.

          If there were more people who believed free will to be an illusion, we might get a better read on whether they attribute success internally or (as I do) both success and failure externally. But I am in a very small minority because most people want to believe that their free will is not an illusion. So educated people are left with an attempt to rectify a physical universe and a physical brain governed by physical laws through chemistry and biology with this illusion that we can, by force of will, overcome that chemistry, that biology, and those physics, which they know we can’t do, so they try to weasel out with a weak concept of free will—not “absolute” free will, but limited free will, so that we can overcome the laws of physics a little bit but not a lot.

          No, either free will exists or it does not. Either I can say that in your shoes I would do differently than you, or I cannot. I cannot.

  9. Oops. In the second to last sentence of the first paragraph, I meant “If it only refers to an individual’s disposition toward blaming [oneself] . . . ” I bet that was confusing to read. But thanks for the clarification despite what was almost incomprehensible gibberish.

    I appreciate the feedback. That’s a new way for me to think about my idea of free will. I will reflect on that.

    I’m all for whatever gets jurors to understand that everyone does not have an equal range of choices. I can get behind a determinist on that.

  10. how do you square the idea of Determinism with another of your recent posts saying there are "moral truths"?


  11. P.S, now I cant find where you said that, but I'm pretty sure you did somewhere. Anyway, would be interested in hearing your response if you did say that, and also I enjoy your blog. 🙂


  12. My own view is that if determinism is true (something neuroscience might show soon), then we basically have to abandon the idea of criminal law.

    • I doubt that neuroscience will ever show that free will is an illusion. Ultimately it’s asking a device (the human brain) to determine its own internal functioning.

      But even though free will is an illusion, there’s still plenty of room for the criminal law—human behavior can be influenced by environment, so it makes sense to create the environment that leads to the most good behavior. What’s scary to me is that by removing the notion of desert from the criminal law we might justify anticipatory punishment—if punishment isn’t about what we deserve, but only serves to reprogram the human computer, why not punish people for the crimes they will likely commit if not punished?

  13. Free will, I choose this. If that's not the case then we still have to have a law that protects society, and gets dangerous people off the streets, but we shouldn't call it Criminal law we should call it administrative law or something like that.

  14. And then we could require the same due process for "administrative confinement." First requirement being the person committed an offense.

  15. You could do that and keep the due process rights intact, only "administratively detaining" people who acted out and committed anti-social acts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.