Free Will (excluding taxes and postage)

I just came across this paper on free will and consciousness by Stuart Kauffman. I think it’s nonsense, but I can’t be bothered to raise a counterargument; it would just take too long. There are so many linguistic slippages to contend with in physics and life’s too short. But I’m posting it because I know some of you will be interested and may wish to take the matter up.

Basically Kauffman looks to a handy loophole, which is claimed to lie between classical and quantum physics, that is neither “lawful” nor random, and he thinks he can take advantage of this to permit the free will and conscious self-determination he so desperately wants. If you ask me, this desperation is easily seen in the following quotes (the italics are mine):

 “If mind does not act on matter, is mind a mere epiphenomenon?”

“The response to this apparent impasse is a retreat to epiphenomenonalism: Mind does nothing, in fact, it does not act on brain, it is an epiphenomena (sic) of brain. It is fair to say that no one likes this view

Oh, well, it’s the duty of every scientist to find some loopholes that might plausibly help us avoid finding out something we simply don’t like very much. I can see that. It works for Intelligent Design proponents.

Why “mere”? It doesn’t bother me in the slightest if I’m an epiphenomenon. I don’t feel “mere”; I’m proud of what I am. Maybe a hurricane feels it is making a conscious decision to make landfall over southern Florida, too. So what? I cannot possibly know my future and nor can anyone else (classical theory is enough for that; we don’t need to invoke QM), so I look forward to finding out what is actually going to happen to me. It’s a consequence of my biology that I feel like I’m choosing it, and that I’m somehow making things happen, and if that’s how it feels to me then what do I care if it’s an illusion at the level of physics? I happen to live in a moderately successful social organization, which therefore has evolved a system of belief in culpability and justice; if it hadn’t then I wouldn’t be here, because society would have collapsed. As a consequence, I’m an organism that interprets what happens to me and others as something that was within our control. Sometimes I even have to hold people responsible for “their” actions, because that’s how this society thrives (I don’t have to choose to do it, it’s just the way my thoughts turn out). At the level of description in which “I” live, it makes sense to talk about responsibility, choices and morals. So what if that wouldn’t make sense to an atom? I’m not an atom. I really don’t mind being a lawful consequence of my past and my environment. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. How else can I even justify my so-called choices? “I did it because…” I don’t feel a need to seek out quantum loopholes that could just plausibly allow the way that the world seems to be, actually to be “true.”

But if this sort of thing bothers you and you’re desperate to escape the feeling that you’re trapped by causality, then this is a paper you should read.


About stevegrand
I'm an independent AI and artificial life researcher, interested in oodles and oodles of things but especially the brain. And chocolate. I like chocolate too.

14 Responses to Free Will (excluding taxes and postage)

  1. Graham Glass says:

    Hi Steve,

    I agree with you, this paper seems really bogus to me.

    Brains make decisions based on their previous experience, their emotional state, their current environment, their overall architecture, etc. Nothing forces a brain to make a particular decision; it’s up to the brain. Therefore a brain has free will, even though its operations are ultimately a result of a huge chain of cause-and-effect.


    • stevegrand says:

      Yeah, I think that’s the closest we can allow ourselves to the kind of free will people desperately want to believe in. But it really doesn’t make any difference to our lives as long as we come to terms with it – the fact that the script is already written and recorded never stops us from wanting to watch a movie, after all.

      I think maybe I can feel a book coming on…

  2. Ian says:

    I can kind of understand where the sentiment comes from… people see the free will we have on a practical level (and use that as the basis for many of their decisions and beliefs) and want that “middle world” interpretation (to steal a phrase from Richard Dawkins) of brain behaviour to be somehow written into the laws of physics to support the intuitive interpretation they have. After all, we hate it when our intuition is wrong about things!

    It’s still incredibly annoying to me how far people will go to try and justify their intuitions and preconceptions regardless of the evidence. Sometimes our intuitions only hold up on a day-to-day, practical level, if that, we can’t expect that just because the abstractions we use to understand the world around us make sense that they actually represent the way the world works.

  3. thezeus18 says:

    We can do what we want, but we can’t want what we want. Is that free will?

  4. spleeness says:

    I still feel like I am wrapping my head around this concept. But what you said about not feeling “mere” I really liked. It’s one of the reasons that for me, I cannot make myself believe in a deity. I can’t fool myself into feeling comforted simply because I need/want to, the facts are that I do not know and thus it just can’t be a part of my life.

    For some reason I thought I had subscribed to your blog a few weeks ago but I see there are many entries here I haven’t seen, so I’ll have to try again and make sure the subscription “takes” this time. This way I can keep up!

    • stevegrand says:

      Hopefully you’re subscribed now – I tracked it down to a change in email address. You ceased to be a spleen!

      Believe me, I’m still trying to get my head around it too. Doubtless I’ll have another bash in a book soon. I can see no way out of the fact that everything that happens to us is a consequence of atoms bumping into each other according to regular “laws” (which may or may not be definable mathematically). One can invoke quantum uncertainty, but that would merely add randomness at best. There’s always a “because”. Every event has a cause. Now, if the mind is some metaphysical goo then we could plead for that to be able to influence matter and cause it to break the laws of physics. But quite apart from the other problems of Dualism, what are the rules that govern how this mental ectoplasm interacts with matter? Either there are some, in which case we’re back to determinism again, or there aren’t, in which case we’re back to randomness. The most you can hope for is an infinite regress. Which incidentally messes up God’s freedom as well – either he does what he does for a reason, in which case he’s lawful, or he doesn’t, in which case he’s random. It just doesn’t work.

      So I think we have to accept that we are just actors in a play, whose script isn’t written yet cannot be changed. But firstly I don’t feel bad about that, because chaos theory shows that not only can I never predict my own future except in its broadest outlines, but neither can anyone else in this universe (and adding extra universes doesn’t get us anywhere either). So if my future is inevitable but completely unknowable, even in principle, and it only *looks* like I’m making choices, then how is that any different from *actually* making choices? How could you tell whether a choice was made freely or was inevitable? You can’t compare what actually happened to what “should” have happened because that’s unknowable, so therefore it really doesn’t matter. Just enjoy finding out what your life is going to consist of. Play a part in the great dance and hope that you do it well. Very Buddhist of me, I suspect!

      Secondly, the human mind exists at a different level of description from the atoms that (momentarily) make it up. When we say “war causes poverty” we’re using the verb in a different way than when we say “force causes motion”. Whenever there’s a change in level of description (shifting up a level from the parts to the emergent whole) we mean different things by the same words. We only have one vocabulary, so this can cause confusion. At the level of description where a mind is a real thing (if you read my 1st book you’ll see what I mean by that) words like “cause” suddenly have a different meaning and so we can fairly say that someone’s negligence caused an accident. It was still a zillion atoms bumping into each other, but that’s irrelevant at our new level of description so we can safely ignore it. The only time I’d say we should take account of it is when we consider compassion – recognizing that we are really all victims of our circumstances ought to make us more compassionate, I think. Sometime we still have to mete out punishment, but we should hope to do it without anger. “Blame” and “responsibility” are different things – we can hold someone responsible for their actions but shouldn’t blame them. That’s the closest I can come to a reconciliation of freedom with lawfulness, anyway!

  5. Graham Glass says:

    Hi Steve,

    I agree that our brains are a consequence of a long chain of cause-and-effect, and that chaos theory prevents us from predicting the future.

    That being said, our brains do make choices which affect the future. Those choices are made based on chains of cause-and-effect, including our experiences, history, etc. Personally, I like the fact that my brain operates based on past experience, its architecture, etc. What would be the alternative – having random thoughts that pop out of some mysterious ether?

    So it seems that free will (i.e. our brains are not forced to think in particular ways by an outside agency) and determinism are not mutually exclusive. I think this is a better way to look at it than saying we are acting out a script that has already been written, because this makes it sound like our brains are not thinking or making choices. They are.

    Hope this makes sense,


    p.s. I recently wrote a multi-part blog series on free will just in case you’re interested:

    • stevegrand says:

      I’ll have a read. Thanks.

      It’s a level of description thing again. You’ve redefined “choice” to make it a mechanistic concept. I’m happy with that but I think many people would still find that equally upsetting.

      Brains make “autonomous” decisions, but then so do thermostats. In both cases there is no breakdown of cause and effect and no explicit outside control of their choices. Both employ memory (internal state) to “think” what to do. Does a thermostat have free will? All of this is a question of semantics, and maybe your redefinition of “choice” would help some people. I’ll have to read your blog posts and see.

  6. Zola says:

    “I’m not aware of too many things, I know what I know if you know what I mean…”

    Okay, maybe an Edie Brickell and the new Bohemians lyric isn’t quite as serious a reply as is required, but I tend to be pretty pragmatic, and not so worried about underlying causes.

    Mr. Grand, I’ve had your Growing up with Lucy book for quite some time and I am delighted to find your blog. 🙂

    • stevegrand says:


      “Good times, bad times; gimme some of that”, eh? Whatever’s gonna happen is gonna happen, so we might as well just go with the flow and enjoy it!

      I’m delighted to meet you too, Zola!

      • Zola says:

        LOL yeah, it’s not that I don’t think that these debates aren’t interesting and important and have value, it’s just that when you get to that level of complexity, I think that it doesn’t matter.

        It’s kind of like rocks. We know that rocks aren’t really solid on an atomic level, but you can still sit down on one when you’re tired from hiking, and you can’t put your hand through it, and it’s a handy tool for clobbering someone/something if you are attacked. Effectively, it’s solid.

        Whether we actually have free will or such a good illusion of free will that we can’t tell the difference, we can use it just as readily as our rock, so for all practical purposes, it’s free will.

        The investigation may yield important information, so I don’t say the debate is pointless, just that it’s not my thing–that’s why I was so fascinated by Lucy, she isn’t just theory, she is a practical application.

      • stevegrand says:

        Very nicely put! And so now I feel bad about sitting on my ass pontificating! Hand me that wrench immediately! 😉

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