Thursday, February 19, 2009

Episode 34 Determinism...One Last Time

Never before in the history of the show, have we received such a strong and mixed response from our listeners as we did with our two part series on the subject of free will and determinism. So for this episode the doubtcasters, as promised, respond to our listeners emails. Also, we take a look at "Ten Books that Screwed Up the World" and explain why President Obama is once again on Reasonable Doubts shitlist.

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Jeremy said...

So just wanted to say real quick, this should have been a better episode than it turned out to be. We had arranged to interview Owen J. Flanagan author of "The Problem of the Soul." He was going to share with us his argument for neo-compatibilism, which articulates what kinds of "freedom" we do have, even if we accept determinism. Unfortunately shortly after finishing the interview, my computer crashed and the entire thing was lost. This was truly frustrating for me because I am a big admirer of Flanagan and his work. So our response is admittedly lacking of a good robust defense of compatibilism. If you are interested though I would strongly suggest checking out Flanagan's writings on the subject.

Jean-Michel Abrassart said...


Just wanted to say that I enjoyed you're Free Will Trilogy. Those were great episodes!

Keep up the good work. We want more!

Take care,

David said...

Naturalism, or determinism does not necessarily exculde free will. The book "My Neurons made me do it" discusses an argument against strict reductionism, the concept that we are only a sum of our parts and their capabilities. System theory and top down control is discussed. This allows free will without dualism. Check out the podcast: Brain Science Podcast, episode 53 for a summary of this book. A pdf transcript can be downloaded for a quick read.


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Benjamin Mueller-Heaslip said...

Thumbs up to David (posting earlier) with his reference to "Did My Neurons...". This is an ongoing debate, and your presentation of it as a closed issue comes off as very dogmatic, defensive, and pathetically insecure.

Hopefully this latest episode restores some degree of intellectual integrity to the program.

Jeremy said...

David and Benjamin, you are arguing against a straw man... though that is not meant as a shot at your character, as I take the blame because we were not very clear on defining our terms (as conceded in this show). When we say "free will" we mean Cartesian free will, the type of freedom where the agent operates in a causal vacuum as "an unmoved mover" (remember our "little God inside your head" comments)... this is how philosophers and theologians have used the term for centuries. Thats what we are arguing against...and thats all we're arguing against. Every single response we've seen that has taken issue with our determinism episodes (including yours recommending "my neurons made me do it")has argued back with some form of compatibilism or another...which you then declare to be "free will." What you mean is that we can self-consciously deliberate and make choices and direct our own behavior. I mostly agree with this position, though I think it is more limited then most would think or want. And I see why you take this to be "freedom", but understand that for hundreds of years now in philosophy (Descartes, Locke, Reid, James, etc.) and theology when people say "free will" they mean something more than that. They mean libertarian freedom...a ghost in the machine or some other form of agent causation where choices are entirely un-caused. Granted many authors (especially in psychology) throw this term "free will" around loosely and this adds to the confusion. But unless you have some information about how our decisions are made irregardless of the state of the physical world, unconstrained by the limitations of ones brain or environment...then your position would not be accurately described as the "free will" position. I don't know how many times we need to say it but we are not saying that choices do not exist, we are saying that there is no such thing as a unconstrained choice without physical or psychological antecedents (So if we sound "defensive" its because people keep on accusing us of holding a position that we do not hold). Benjamin, I don't think we would actually disagree on this, I just think you haven't understood our position...part of that, again, is our fault. But anyone who read "My Neurons Made me do it" and somehow thinks that disproves our central claims...hasn't really understood the position of either our show, or that article (yes I know its a podcast, I'm referring to the transcript). Instead they are (understandably) getting confused by definitions. Read up, just a little, on the history of this debate and I think it will bring a great deal of clarity to the issue.

Benjamin Mueller-Heaslip said...

Of course you're right that few people would disagree with your statement "there is no such thing as a unconstrained choice without physical or psychological antecedents"; nor do I think you're getting any criticism in support of the Cartesian view of free will.

But you've little right to be surprised that you've received some negative comments coming from a compatibilist perspective - you did an extremely poor job of presenting that position and, in all honesty, come across as being very absolutist in your views from the start.

So while you've made it clear in your last post that this isn't your position at all, it's a surprise and a disappointment that you guys didn't find a way to project your ideas clearly in any of the three shows you gave to the subject (including the last show, which seems to have been done expressly for that very purpose).

Now, regarding your ad hominem:

"Read up, just a little, on the history of this debate and I think it will bring a great deal of clarity to the issue."

Yes, that's completely true: after listening to your podcast just about anything else would add clarity to this issue.

I find it disappointing that, having presented your position in a manner so grossly flawed, confused, and self-contradictory that even people who agree your ideas take issue with them, you'd have the nerve to assume that I'm wholly ignorant of these concepts rather than shoulder the responsibility for presenting your ideas clearly.

Out of regard for your usually excellent work, I'm going to limit myself to calling that tactic 'presumptive', and the self-deferential lines you've couched it in 'cheap'.

Of course you must be frustrated by being so thoroughly misunderstood, but you really have earned it.

Jeremy said...


Read the first post on this episode. I've admitted our presentation wasnt as good as it should have been and was deferential in this regard in my response to you. Thanks for kicking me in the balls while I was down. Now as far as the "read up just a little..." comment goes...that was insulting and I apologize. No qualification. Please have compassion towards me, because if we were to run the event again I could not have done otherwise, even if I wish I could. Prehaps it will have an impact on future behavior. Now lets all move to another subject shall we.

Anonymous said...


So you assume it was Jeremy's poor communication that caused your misunderstanding rather than a factor personal, say, that perhaps you may be ideologically opposed to the word determinism?

I myself reject the word determinism as being inaccurate. However from the very beginning Jeremy stated very clearly that what he was arguing for was that we have caused will, and what he was arguing against was we have uncaused will, that our consciosness operates in a causal vacuum. He said this clearly and as such I understand what he was talking about with misunderstanding.

That he went on to label the position he was arguing for determinism and the position he was arguing against free will does not render him a bad communicator. If you take issue with the labels he used say it, don't insult his ability to communicate.

That he is taking responsibility for his ad hominem and for partly causing your misunderstanding by using the word determinism is more evidence to the fact that he hold many of the intellectual traits (such as intellectual integrity, intellectual perserverance, and intellectual courage) characteristic of a critical thinker. He represented a concept you agree with, with a word you disagree with and in your eyes that makes his recent podcasts of lower quality?

Forgive me for thinking your position as I understand it petty, and know it is likely I am not the only one.

And please if I have unconsciously made a strawman of your position elucidate me, it would be most welcome.

Ben Mueller-Heaslip said...


I think this is a bit of a misunderstanding:

The concept which both Jeremy and I seem to agree on is a limited form of compatibilism. My criticism of the series is based on:

a) the near-complete absence of reference to the compatibilist perspective and the resulting impression of absolute determinism. As Jeremy pointed out in his post, that wasn't his intention. The question of how successful or unsuccessful the show was at presenting these concepts is subjective, of course, and you may disagree. But I don't think my statement is in any way ungrounded.

b) what I, again subjectively, found to be a surplus of overly-generalized and ill-considered statements that only contribute to the confusion (e.g. "we're all meat puppets", "art is like a sunset", and so on). This is atypical of the show and, I think, a slip from the level of intellectual thoroughness that I admire in the hosts.

So, to answer your question: yes, these things do lower the value of the podcast in my eyes. Clear and honest expression of ideas is much more important than whether I agree with the perspective being presented or not.

Of course you have every right to disagree with me, and I appreciate your standing up for Jeremy and Reasonable Doubts. It's an excellent show and I'm glad you're willing to care enough to support them against my criticism. But I also hope you see some value in criticizing in hopes that, as Jeremy said: "perhaps it will have an impact on future behavior" ...which is a very clever comeback.

...and no, I didn't see the post about the computer crash / lost interview. Sorry about that, Jeremy, had I known I'd not have been so critical.

Lance said...

It sounds like Ben wants an honours thesis rather than a podcast. Unclench those butt cheeks a little, my friend.

gatogreensleeves said...

It sounds like Ben was just having a bad day and (should) probably regret the quality of his comments, as overblown as they were. I have never heard such a cogent podcast series in my life (okay, POI was pretty great) from any major media source (and I am working my way through them all now). I keep expecting to disagree... yet am only shockingly surprised at my concurrence with your arguments. I felt like I was in the company of family every minute of this (and every) podcast.

Basically, the criticism to determinism seems to come down to two rejoinders IMO: 1) the Miller/Trevena study 2) Martin Heisenberg's (and some others') notions of quantum fluctuations in the brain being a basis for libertarian agency (concerning the release of synaptic vesicles and the opening and closing of ion channels). The first does not posit any real threat to determinism, as the Libet study is really just a cherry on the cake for determinists- we don't even need it (and of course I shouldn't have to say that EVERY position is defeasible anyway); the philosophical challenges to contra-causal free will (e.g. that no action/thought can be independent of some influence), as well as the existence of other cognitive biases, will still stand in their relevance to free will, responsibility, and identity. I WOULD like to hear my fave podcasters address the Miller/Trevena study though (if they haven't already done so in Determinism 4, which I haven't got to yet!).

Last, as Sam Harris notes about Martin Heisenberg's notions of quantum fluctuations in the brain (bolstered by my own opinion): were we to even accept such a notion as not being a category error and/or a non sequitur that can still evade all of the kinds of precognitive biases, such as are available in the psychological evidence, at best, it would still have to apply to every being with even a crude neural network: even a chicken would have free will equal to humans in this regard (personally, I have no problem with this). Also, many of the same contextual arguments made by Vic Stenger in his book Quantum Gods against theists trying to appropriate New Age quantum god clay for theistic leg room could be made against Heisenberg when trying to apply the same random impetus for superautomomous wiggle room. No random generator could EVER elude our cognitive biases, because they come AFTERWARDS. Considering the infinite regress of influences coming together to make an overall impression of every object or idea during choice- how does one escape these influences even just *in access to their definitions* in order to have contra-causal free choice? Can't be done. If you acknowledge any thing or idea, you acknowledge the determinism that defines it. said...

So, I do not really believe it will have effect.