Mock jury study – will behavioral genetic evidence get defendants off the hook?

3D grunge style brain image on a DNA strands backgroundBy Christian Jarrett

Around the world, neuroscience evidence is being introduced into courtrooms at an increasing rate, including findings from behavioural genetics. Specifically, some legal teams for the defence have been allowed to argue that the defendant has a low activity version of the MAOA gene, which codes for an enzyme that regulates the levels of several neurotransmitters. In combination with experiencing child abuse or maltreatment, having this low activity gene has been linked with increased impulsivity, including aggression. Defense lawyers presumably hope that jurors will interpret this as meaning the defendant was less culpable for their violent crime. However, before now, little research has examined how jurors will treat this evidence.

For a new study in Behavioral Sciences and the Law, Natalie Gordon and Edie Greene presented 600 mock jurors (half were students, half were from the wider community) with a detailed trial summary based on a real US murder trial in which the defendant, already in jail for an earlier crime, had murdered his cell-mate. The jurors’ task was to decide whether he should face the death penalty.

The jurors were presented with different versions of the trial – for example, some read that a medical geneticist had described the gene-environment interaction (that the defendant had the low activity MAOA gene and had suffered maltreatment as a child, which can lead to increased impulsivity); others read only about genetic evidence; others only heard about the environmental factor (maltreated as a child). The jurors also read about evidence from a clinical psychologist about whether the defendant was high or low risk for being dangerously violent in the future.

Overall the results suggested that “evidence of a genetic x environment interaction did little to reduce the likelihood of a death sentence”, the researchers said.

The clinical psychologists’ evidence was the most powerful mitigating factor. When the psychologist said the defendant was low risk, the jurors were less likely to choose the death penalty regardless of what other evidence they heard about genes, childhood, or the interaction between the two. Preference for death penalty (at 13 per cent) was lowest among jurors who heard the defendant was low risk and who heard the gene-environment evidence.

When the defendant was classified as high risk, the gene-environment interaction evidence didn’t have much of a mitigating impact – a similar proportion of jurors still proposed the death penalty compared with those who heard only about his maltreatment as a child (30 per cent vs. 34 per cent). Meanwhile, genetic evidence on its own actually led to more recommendations for the death penalty (41 per cent when he was high risk; 35 per cent when low risk).

“While the defence might continue to use [gene-environment evidence] – wishfully according to our data – to argue that genetic and environmental factors interact to impair a defendant’s ability to control behavior, the prosecution could argue that these same factors show that the defendant has a stable, criminal disposition and poses an ongoing threat to society,” the researchers concluded. “If presented by the prosecution in this way, evidence of a G x E interaction could result in an increased likelihood of a death sentence.”

Nature, nurture, and capital punishment: How evidence of a genetic-environment interaction, future dangerousness, and deliberation affect sentencing decisions.

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

21 thoughts on “Mock jury study – will behavioral genetic evidence get defendants off the hook?”

  1. From a practical standpoint, if you have a prisoner who cannot be prevented from continuing to kill while in prison, then the death penalty becomes a more reasonable and justifiable option. Ironically, the more evidence you have of genetics controlling the behavior, the less likely it will be that any form of correction will be effective, and putting him to death becomes the only option that works.


  2. Most psychologists should be way past this issue, there obviously isn’t any free will and people are not guilty of any act. That does not mean, in a practical world, that those shouldered with the burden of running a society, shouldn’t know this, but then act as if we do have choice in our actions. People clearly can’t be given any and every piece of knowledge, they don’t have the intelligence to use it properly. If you tell a citizen that they are free of guilt, they’ll in all likelihood be more likely to commit crime in certain cases. It is against the social justice world view that people could be not capable of handling complex and difficult information.

    This post tentatively juggles with what is a familiar and frankly settled issue for any determinist, such as Dr Susan Blackmore. We know that anything that can be known MUST be physical, otherwise, it would not be capable of interacting with our senses. All physical things are restricted by cause and effect. Physical phenomena must be both caused and reducible to those causes, because they couldn’t exist without being so. (Quantum interminability is our misunderstanding of purely more complex causation, it doesn’t harm the classic model)

    For the majority of bright psychologists and indeed any human, determinism is an inevitable intellectual end destination, you just can’t avoid it. Anyone who claims that free will exists, is on some level, making an extraordinary claim, i.e. one that says, something physical exists, without physical cause or reducibility. This is how simple the thought experiment is, if it exists, it is physical-all physical things have a reducible cause, human thought interacts with the physical, hence it must be physical, ergo humans have no free will. That’s the easy bit. Then a necessary next stage is that consciousness does not exist, it is a user illusion, but one where no one is doing the experiencing. All ‘Consciousness’, as it is described, requires is that the information processor produce descriptive reports, ‘AS IF’ the entity were an autonomous thinking being. Hence all we need a brain to have is a “Model of self identity” module. So you need to radically change the way you think about people. Every instance that people cite as an example of thought, is identical to a set of internal reports, information that states, ‘I thought about that thought’ or I am observing what if feels like to remember recalling that experience’. Every single thought or example of awareness is a statement, even the reflexive sensory reports that happen when the brain reacts to a bodily emotion or sensation. Just reports about reports about reports. Your brain outputs ‘I thought that’ then it reports on reporting that the thought was felt, then it reports on the emotional content of reacting to reports that ‘someone’ did the reporting. Consciousness is a cascade of reflexive reports, all referencing each other, but at no time, requiring a conscious ghost in the machine. “I think” is a report about a report that said “I am.”.
    Eventually, psychology will disappear, when it becomes a branch of neuroscience. Until then we will keep having these debates. However, just because we understand something, does in no way mean that the general public is safe to know these truths. A justice system is still needed, despite us having no free will. A similar situation would be parents telling children that God will punish them if they do wrong, we know that God is likely a fiction, but thinking that God exists has been extremely useful to parents and legislators over the past 10 thousand years. This point is where science will surpass the publics ability to make good use of it and we shall be forced to split academic psychology in to covert and public knowledge. In fact an example of this has already happened in mainstream psychology, the effort to wipe the race and IQ findings, such as ostrasizing the work of Eysenck et al, as if any of his peer reviewed findings haven’t been repeatedly replicated. How ironic that a subject that discuss Freudian repression should be so inept at seeing it’s own denials.

    For years Psychology has been on a collision course with the justice system, lets hope one day, we’ll all be clever enough to benefit from the education that is available to us.


    1. Well, actually no. Neuroscience confirms that our decisions take place within our brains. Choosing is an empirical event that they can observe happening on a functional MRI. Part of the brain’s calculation may happen below conscious awareness. And they can electrically tap certain simple choices before you can mentally construct a verbal description. But at no point does it become anything other than your own brain that is doing the choosing. And because you basically ARE your own brain, it remains an empirical fact that it is you that is making the choice.

      And, in a perfectly deterministic universe, it is still you making the call, according to your own purpose and your own reasons. Because purpose and reasons are deterministic causes, there is no break in any “causal chain”. There is perfectly reliable cause and effect up to the point where you encounter some problem or issue that you need to resolve. There is perfectly reliable cause and effect as you imagine several ways to solve your problem, estimate how each possibility might play out, and finally choose which option you will act upon. And finally, there is perfectly reliable cause and effect following your action.

      Free will does not mean freedom from causal necessity. That’s an oxymoron. Without reliable cause and effect we could never reliably cause any effect, and would not be free to do anything at all. So, a reasonable person will reject such an irrational definition.

      Free will is nothing more than our ability to decide for ourselves what we will do, when free of coercion or other undue influence. Everyone understands this definition and correctly applies it in most practical scenarios. It requires nothing supernatural. It makes no claim of choices being random or uncaused (such choices would be considered irrational). And yet it is quite sufficient for both moral and legal responsibility.

      So, please stop spreading the nonsense that free will means “freedom from causation”. There is no such thing. Every freedom we have, including free will, REQUIRES a universe of reliable cause and effect.

      For a more detailed explanation, pless see


  3. The biggest mistake made by you, is your use of the word, you. When reduced, what is termed, you, describes sense data and memory data of those sense inputs, that’s it. There is no you. “YOU” “I” “ME”, are just necessary identities, created by the system to enable the animal to behave with a social identity. The animal doesn’t need to be conscious, it just needs a set of outputs that behave as if it were.

    Free will IS freedom from causation, in the sense that some say that a choice or decision, is to be seen as an isolated thing in terms of what went prior to that choice or decision. You say that free will is our ability to decide. I say that the ‘decide’ part is entirely composed and determined by preceeding causal factors, hence out of our control. You confuse perception of choice with actual choice. If you have no control of the things that rigidly determine your decision, then you have no free will. Your definition of free will is comparable with a computer turning off. It chose to turn itself off. Well on a basic level it did, but a person pressed a series of commands, for it to be able to do that. In this analogy, you are ignoring the series of preceeding commands and then say, the computer has choice. If a choice has causation prior to it, i.e. it is entirely brought about by preceeding physical causes, then it is irrational to say that we have any moral choice, because we are at no point involved in those preceeding factors. You have many, many gross misconceptions and totally misunderstood what I’ve written.

    You arrive at an arbitrary point in analysing a decision and then you just stop. I don’t know why you do, but you do. Yes the decision happens in the brain, it is observable. But what composes the elements that come together to make that event. Past memories, sense data, temperature, chemical reactions, hard wired data processing by neural networks. All of these are physical, all of these are subject to prior, reducable cause, which are beyond our control. These things come together to make the decision, the ‘YOU’ part is just a linguistic error which as a descriptor, refers to a defined part of that causal chain. You ignore what comes before the ‘YOU’ segment, which you have arbitrarily attributed as being the container for moral agency. Sorry chap, science says you are just another monkey trapped in the user illusion that is mistakenly called consciouness. There is no conscious being, just reflexive data reports, as if there were one.

    A purpose or reason is only a cause in a very childish sense. Punch was the cause of Judy’s injury, according to a child’s view. The adult watching the show, know that there is a hand in the puppet. You still think that Punch is alive.


    1. I think I’ve covered what I needed to say. In this comment, I’d like to address some of the claims you make.

      Nick: “When reduced, what is termed, you, describes sense data and memory data of those sense inputs, that’s it. There is no you. “YOU” “I” “ME”, are just necessary identities, created by the system to enable the animal to behave with a social identity. ”

      Marvin: It is incoherent to say “There is no you” on the one hand, and then say “YOU, I, ME are just necessary identities”. Obviously if “you” is a necessary identity for “that which is you”, and “that which is you” is an actual object that exists in reality, then “you” is a meaningful concept. If I walk up to you and push you, you’ll probably push back. Do you mean to assert that neither of us actually exists as objects in the real world? Perhaps I need to give you another shove.

      Nick: “I say that the ‘decide’ part is entirely composed and determined by preceding causal factors, hence out of our control.”

      Marvin: And I would also say that the decide is composed and determined by preceding causal factors. But I would not say they are “out of our control”, because every one of those factors is a part of “that which is us”. Because those “factors” are identical to “that which is us”, it is “that which is us” that is in control. Do you have any factors in mind that are not integral to “that which is us”? The only factors that are not us are in our external environment.

      Nick: “Past memories, sense data, temperature, chemical reactions, hard wired data processing by neural networks.”

      Marvin: And which of those are not integral to “that which is us”? If they = us, and they choose, then we choose. (Sometimes I want to quote the teacher in the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, “Don’t move till you see it. Don’t move till you see it.”)

      Nick: “There is no conscious being, just reflexive data reports, as if there were one.”

      Marvin: Then, for all practical purposes, there is a conscious being. We know there is a being, because when I pushed you, you pushed back. We know it was aware of the source of the push, because it pushed me back, rather than pushing over the lamp. You seem to think that if you explain something in terms of its parts, that the thing itself ceases to exist. It doesn’t.

      Nick: “The adult watching the show, know that there is a hand in the puppet. You still think that Punch is alive.”

      Marvin: And you seem to think that determinism is alive. But it isn’t. Determinism is the belief that the objects and forces in our physical universe behave in a rational and reliable fashion. But determinism is neither an object nor a force. We, on the other hand, are objects in the physical universe, objects that happen to be alive, objects that act purposefully to stay alive, and objects with the intelligence needed to imagine alternative ways to accomplish this purpose, estimate how different options might turn out if chosen, and then choose what we will do. This is called a “freely chosen will”, or simply “free will”. The “free” refers to freedom from coercion or other undue influence.

      It has nothing to do with the irrational concept of “freedom from causation”. Just ask someone why they chose A rather than B, and they will happily give you a list of reasons why A was the best choice. If the choice was at all important they’re not going to tell you it was random or chosen for no reason at all. You’d think they were nuts. So, no one claims that their choice was uncaused.


  4. Marvin, your biggest mistake seems to be that you think that a decision can go either way. That’s where you are going wrong. You see the whole point about causation, is that at any given time, at an given state of the system, there is one set of interacting causes, which lead to one effect. It can never, ever, be any different. At a simpler level, assuming normal conditions, a light with produce a change of resistance in a light dependent resistor. It will always be the same, and it will never randomly produce a different effect. You seem to think that because we perceive a process where decisions are considered, that therefore, either outcome could have resulted.
    This totally sums up the ‘idiot’ way of understanding free will. I am not saying that you think decisions are free of causation. I am saying that you fail to look behind the rigid causes which lead to the eventual decision. The outcome is rigidly set by the state of the system, it must be because physics only happens in one way, given the same set of inputs. You seem to ignore that the decision itself has causes, as if one just inserts the pronoun ‘YOU’ and that’s sufficient. If you admit the brain is physical, then you must reject free will, otherwise you are saying that something in the brain happens without rigid cause.


    1. Choosing is an empirical event. Multiple options are considered, evaluated according to some criteria, and a single choice is output. This is something that is actually taking place in reality. We empirically observe it taking place, and the name we’ve given to this event is “choosing”. It is a process, and processes like choosing actually happen. Do you wish to deny this?

      Deterministic inevitability says that, due to causal necessity, a given event “will”, in fact, occur. However, this has absolutely no effect whatever upon what “can” and “cannot” happen. That probably sounds strange to you. But I’ll explain.

      The semantic context of “can” is the imagination. When speaking of what we “can” and “cannot” do, we are not referring to anything that has actually happened. We are speaking of “possibilities”. And these possibilities exist only within our imagination. At the point where we implement a possibility, we cease referring to it as a “possibility” and begin calling it an “actuality”.

      An “actuality” exists in reality. A “possibility” exists in the imagination. These are two entirely different contexts.

      The process of choosing begins by imagining more than one possibility (it can be as simple as “to do” or “not to do” something). Next, we may ask ourselves “can we actually do this if we choose to do it?”, or is there a firm roadblock that prevents us from actualizing that possibility. If it is unfeasible, then we may either say it is an “impossibility” or “it is not a real possibility”. But any option that we could implement, if we chose to, is considered a “real possibility”. And ALL of this happens in our imagination.

      Then we make our choice, according to which option seems to best suit our purpose and our reasons.

      It is important to recognize that we need not do this all in our heads. We can work out the pros and cons of different options on a piece of paper. We can also gather several people together to discuss the problem, build a list of options, list the pros and cons of each option, and then vote democratically to make our choice.

      The reason I point that out is to make it clear that the process, the step-by-step procedure followed to get something done, is an empirical event, it actually occurs in the real world, regardless whether we do it alone in our heads, or whether we do it in a group.

      Now, having said all that, it also remains true that the choice will have been inevitable from any prior point in eternity. However, it cannot be said to be “already caused” or “already determined” by that prior point. No event is caused until every prior cause has played out.

      And the final responsible prior cause of any deliberate action is precisely that prior process of deliberation in which we chose to do it. The explicit cause is our own purpose and our own reasons that were used to evaluate our options and to make our choice.

      Now here is the thing that I hope you will eventually understand:

      A) Because the choice was a product of our own purpose and our own reasons, it is authentically a choice of our own free will.
      B) Because the choice was a product of our own purpose and our own reasons, it was also causally inevitable.

      In a perfectly deterministic universe, every event that occurs is causally inevitable. In a perfectly deterministic universe, our deliberate actions are the inevitable result of our own choices.

      Determinism is not a meaningful constraint. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to what we choose to do, when free of external coercion or other undue influence.


      1. Sorry Marvin, you are deep within the constraints of the ‘common sense’ view of what constitutes choice and consciousness. Me trying to even make one relatively simple point to you, is like a physicist trying to explain the maths of quantum to a first year GCSE physics student. We are not using the same language and we have no common means of communication.
        We’re not making any progress so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

        I would like to end on this point in answer to your first question,

        Q. ‘do you wish to deny that choosing as a process happens?’

        A. ‘No’.

        We mean different things by the word choice. A human will report observing a choice and that choice has happened, it’s real.
        But there is the ‘choice’ known to the person and then there is the scientifically deconstructed ‘choice’. I am using the latter and then you are replying about the former.

        You are not looking behind that choice, what made that choice go one way instead of another. Just because a choice exists, doesn’t mean that it is what is call ‘YOU’ that made it. That’s what determinism is all about, it’s about ‘looking behind’ the curtain. You seem to have an 8ft thick concrete wall, instead of a curtain. For some reason you are not seeing that the choice couldn’t have gone any other way. Why, because things you can’t see ensured that the decision came out the way it did. Asking why someone has made a particular choice, is the beginning to explaining that they didn’t have any real choice at all, just the illusion of choice, made so because we do not see the causes. Just because neural networks happen in the brain, doesn’t mean you had any control. A national policy might happen in a school, but it is the government who determined that policy. You are saying that a policy, if it happened in a school, must have been the choice of the school, sorry chap, nope. Do you get my point, look at what comes before, to comprise the reasons for settling on that choice. A process happens in the brain, but I repeat, YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THE CAUSES, SO YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OVER THE DECISION. Or are you claiming that you control your brain chemistry, or external stimuli or evolved brain structures, do you have any control over those, NO, so why do you say that you can control the decision, because the choice/decision is an effect and rigidly determined by those causes.

        As I mentioned choice is just one part of a long causal chain which descend deep in to the brain’s past development and experience. Your whole approach ignores the rigidity of this cause-effect relationship, BEHIND the choice. Look behind what made that choice happen. Determinism is dead, only to those who don’t in any real sense understand it, much the same way as religious people believe that evolution is dead or that physics is dead when it tries to explain a miracle. There’s nothing wrong with the science, it’s their lack of mental development that stops their grasping the key concepts, thus they dismiss it. Everything you have said is the to be heard in 1st year Philosophy classes all over the world, by layman who are deeeeeep in the illusion of consciousness. It is something which takes years of mental deconstruction to prime a mind in order to understand this level of philosophy. A person carries with them huge bias and barriers to understand, based on the common sense view of the world and their theory of mind. Please, I am ethically bound to stop this discussion, because if you happened to get what I was saying, it would destroy your existence and the existence of everyone you’d ever known. Hence it is best if we leave this discussion alone.

        Sorry but you don’t have the intellectual tools to make use of the philosopher’s definition of choice. Please realise that until you’ve reached a point of learning, using advanced level sociology, psychology and philosophy, you are locked in a construct that you, at the moment, do not even perceive. It takes years to deconstruct all the perspective bias, that we as ‘normal’ humans have. I’m not talking about simple things, I’m talking about a total re-writing of your world view and your intuitive understanding of who you are and why you do what you do. It’s dangerous, I warn you clearly. You will lose everything that you now possess in terms of normality, but perhaps for deterministic philosophers at the level that I’m talking about, it is a most advanced position possible, as far as is known and thus is somehow worthwhile. Susan Blackmore has a couple of videos on youtube that might get you further than your current layman’s understanding of the language and issues involved.


      2. 1) Who and What We Are

        It’s a simple matter of logic, Nick. If A IS B and B controls C, then A controls C.

        If you deconstruct “me” (A) into “all my parts” (B), such as my brain, my past experience, my socially inculcated beliefs and values, my genetic predispositions, my thoughts and feelings, and all the other parts of me that make me uniquely me, then you are saying that A (me) = B (all of my parts).

        Thus it becomes illogical to assert that it is not me (A), but only all of my parts (B), that is actually controlling (C) what I choose.

        As long as A IS B, when one says that B controls C, one also logically implies that A controls C. Because A is B.

        2) Correctly Defining Determinism

        Determinism asserts that the objects and forces within the physical universe behave in a perfectly reliable fashion. Due to this reliable behavior, it is theoretically possible to predict every future event that will occur at any future point in eternity based upon a sufficiently complete knowledge of any prior point in eternity. Note this is a “theoretical” possibility, not a practical likelihood.

        However, determinism is not itself an object or a force. Thus, it is not itself an actor in the real world. It is simply an assertion that the actual objects and forces will reliably bring about a single inevitable future by their natural interactions.

        The same may be said for the concepts of “inevitability” and “causation”. They are descriptive of the behavior of objects and forces, but are not objects and forces themselves.

        Do you understand the distinction between real objects and forces and the concepts we use to describe their behavior?

        3) Correctly Defining Free Will

        The notion that “free will” requires “freedom from causation” is irrational. I’m pretty sure that we both already agree that “freedom from causation” is an irrational concept. And I can actually explain why it is irrational. Without reliable cause and effect, we could not reliably cause any effect. Thus, we’d have no freedom at all to do anything. Every freedom that we have REQUIRES a deterministic universe. It’s that simple.

        So, what do people really mean when they speak of “free will”? They mean an autonomous choice, a decision we make for ourselves when free of coercion (e.g., a literal or figurative “gun to the head”) or other undue influence (e.g., mental illness or brain injury, hypnosis, authoritative command, etc.). These are the kind of things that raise the issue as to whether the person is responsible for their actions.

        4) Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

        You spent most of your last comment demeaning my intelligence. You suggested that if I knew the truth, it would destroy my world. I assume you are projecting your own fears on me. But let me assure you that I fully understand, and agree with, the proper definition of determinism. Everything that happens is always causally inevitable. But the fact of causal inevitability is not a threat to anyone’s freedom. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we would naturally do, and choosing what we choose. Thus, it is not a meaningful constraint, it is not something that anyone can or needs to be “free of”.

        The illusion is not free will. It is an empirical fact that it is “that which is us” which ultimately causes our choice.

        The delusion is when we view causal determinism as an object or force in the actual world, forcing us to do things against our will. That is empirically false.


      3. Sorry chap, I honestly had no intention of demeaning your intelligence, people often take it that way, but it was actually a compliment. People never take kindly to being told that they’re lucky to be stupid. Having a better grasp of a subject can and is damaging to living a practical life. Staring in to the eyes of your true love, when you know she is a meat based robot, can sort of take the buzz out of the moment.

        Could you tell me, if free will by your definition, is not the absence of causality, what is it? I’ll repeat, either we are saying that we are entirely automatons or some part of us is independent of physics. They are mutually exclusive and it is frustrating that you can’t see that. Freedom is not a thing dependent on where something happens. The key feature is there are real options, not just imagined ones, that’s what pretty much the entire field regards as freewill, choice is actually between two genuine outcomes and conscious being are seen to have that ability, to decide. We’ve already agreed that they don’t and every other option is only imagined. Thus I can’t fathom why you don’t just say, ergo, we have no freedom, because the exact way in which we weigh up a decision is also determined, every thought and consideration has precisely one and only one outcome. You can not therefore still have freedom, if there is only onecome, which can not at any time during the process change. Do you claim that change can happen. If no change is possible, then in what sense can you be said to have any freedom of choice?

        Do you not see, yes a brain houses the decision, but what on earth has that got to do with if it is causally invariant or a free choice. It’s irrelevant that it happens inside our skulls, or that it can’t be found anywhere else. Causation is the only thing that controls the decision, so the ‘me, I , us, we part is just part of the user illusion. Language is the problem here, you keep referring to my use of the word choice, I don’t imply any agency in that word, it just refers to a mechanistic process inside the brain. I don’t care where it happens, that doesn’t make it free. You need to grasp that causation flows through processes, like links in a chain. Each link can neither go back or forth without the interaction of that which is in front and behind. Hence cause can come from external stimuli and reside in the brain in the form of fixed tendencies, which later entirely constrain a particular decision. The decision was still externally controlled, but the process that is 100% constrained, happens to be inside a brain. The location of the process, does not isolate it from physics or causation. Happening in the brain, doesn’t make it a free decision. Again, limitations are created by multiple uses of the pronouns to describe different concepts. Try not to take notice of when I, me, my are used, They are not meant to refer to a being, it is just convention that they are part of our lexicon and it would be difficult to write at all without them.

        I’m not ignoring any cause, especially not purpose. I’m just saying that purpose and reasoning are just as constrained as everything else as part of an invariant causal chain. I can’t see where you are getting freedom from. It almost as if you are saying that just because a decision occurrs in the human, then that make it our decision, hence we are free. Is this right?

        I totally disgree with your definition of free will. When we consider several options, that doesn’t make us free, at all. When we reason, that doesn’t necessitate freedom. At the moment it appears that your idea of freedom comes about because of where the decision happens and that a process of evaluation and a preferred outcome to the thought process, therefore makes a person responsible for the choice, as a free chooser. I’m not denying where it happens, I’m not saying that a process isn’t necessary to produce decisions. I am saying that you have no say in what you decide. You might have the surface impression that you evaluated and reasoned, but as I’ve said, you can’t see and are not privy to the causes that make up and lead to these decisions. That’s the crux of what you are not grasping. You can’t control what makes you decide, hence it’s irrelevant if you perceive choice at a conscious level and can record and observe that process. It does not change the fact that the actual under the surface reasons why you prefer one motivation to another, is not under your control. It happens in your brain, THAT DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU HAVE ANY MORE CONTROL OVER HOW THAT DECISION CAME ABOUT.

        A pc does a calculation, where does that calculation take place? In the pc. Did the pc determine how that mathematical operation took place? No. It was a controlled participant, just like you and I. The designer, including his total education and the combined knowledge available to him, the factory, the physical parts and the software made the calculation happen in JUST ONE way. To the layman, they might assume that the pc is free to calculate whatever it wants, but the designer knows, that there was only ever one set of outputs for a given set of inputs, FACT.

        You are still isolating one aspect, purpose and ascribing higher properties to it that do not exist. Purpose is just software, it guides the operation of the machine in reference to system goals. That means nothing to freedom. The way it compels us to process is fixed and the outcome it produces is fixed. Where in that procedure do you find autonomy? I admit we ‘appear’ as free choice decision makers to common sense observers, but that is due to lack of knowledge of our causes.

        When or if the universal equation arrives, this debate will be at an end, because we will be able to predict and retrospectively know all things. .

        So in summary, no one made the choice, because even the phrase ‘made the choice’ assumes agency by a thinking being with intentions. The choice was made by a rigidly operating system inside the brain, by its causes. Spacial location of causes and processes, does not, in any way, lead to an assumption of attribution to a sentient processor as being in control of those decisions. What you call ‘my brain’ is a concept coming from the theory of mind of the brain. When you are aiming to explain the biological drives of a cow, you don’t ask the cow, you ask a biophysiologist. Same problem is starting to arise in Philosophy of mind, when you want to study something, you don’t use concepts and language, derived from the object being studied, because that leads to the spaghetti of a discussion that we’ve witnessed here.

        Pronouns are like hand grenades to logical discourse, in the philosophy of mind.

        We’ll not agree, but I’ve enjoyed our discussion, thanks for taking the time to reply Marvin.


      4. Nick, in William James’s “Pragmatism: Lecture 2” he describes coming upon a group of students arguing about whether it was possible to “go around” a squirrel on a tree when the squirrel was constantly moving backwards so that he could keep his eye on you. Some said it was impossible because you were always looking the squirrel in the face. Others said that if you walked all the way around the tree then you must have also walked around the squirrel. William James pointed out that it was entirely determined by how you chose to define “going around the squirrel”. If you used one definition, then one side was right, but if you used the other definition, then the other side was right.

        You asked how I define free will. In most dictionaries, you’ll find two definitions of “free will”. The first definition is the one I’m using. The second is the one you’re using. The first is when you get to decide for yourself, free of external coercion or undue influence. The second is when you decide for yourself, free of causal necessity.

        Now we are both in agreement that the second definition is ridiculous. “Freedom from causation” is an oxymoron. (A) Our choices are reliably caused. And, (B) when we act upon our choices we reliably cause what happens next.

        But we seem to be naming “the prior causes of our choices” different things. I am summing them up into two concepts: purpose and reasons. As you suggest, we can deconstruct both of these concepts into smaller parts. Purpose derives from biological drives. Reasons derive from computed calculations.

        For some reason, you refer to this combination of biology and calculation as a “meat based robot”. I simply call it a “human being”. Given that both refer to exactly the same object, I see no reason to use the derogatory language.

        The term “robot” is less accurate, because a robot is a tool that we create to do our will. The robot has no will of its own. But our biological drives constitute an unconscious will to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This is integral to who and what we are. We come with a will of our own. The robot does not.

        Now, you seem to view our internal biological drives as some kind of external coercion. If I am hungry and choose to eat something now, rather than later, then it is “I” that is initiating the eating event. The fact that I would never have bothered to eat if it had not been for the fact that I was hungry, makes no difference. The hunger is me. The choice to satisfy it now was my own.

        Every step in what occurred was causally inevitable. It was inevitable that I would feel hungry at that point. It was inevitable that I would choose to eat now rather than wait.

        But here is the key point: “inevitability” did not make me do anything. Inevitability is not a force of nature. It is a comment describing the reliability of “my hunger” and “my choosing” bringing about the event.

        My hunger is a force of nature. That drive to consume some calories is a physical phenomenon. My choosing to eat now is a force of nature. That calculation that resulted in my eating now rather than later was a physical event that occurred within my own neurology.

        Thus, we can all point to the single object within the physical universe that brought about this event. It was that object that I affectionately refer to as “me”.

        I’m pretty sure that you are trying to say that it was not “me”, but that it was “inevitability”, that caused the event.

        Was I “free” to choose whether to eat now or eat later? Pragmatism suggests that we first ask, “free from what?”

        It is a fact that I was free from external coercion. No one was holding a gun to my head, threatening to shoot me if I didn’t choose something against my will.

        It is a fact that I was free from other undue influences. I had no mental illness other than the common set of alternative motives to eat when we’re not really hungry, but we all have that. I was not under hypnosis. I’m an adult, so my parents could not order me to wait until supper before eating.

        So, the answer is “yes”, I was free to choose for myself what I will do.

        Was I free from “causal necessity”, well, no. Causal necessity is not a meaningful constraint, because it simply refers to the reliability of my own deterministic process of choosing. It is nothing that anyone can or needs to be “free of”.


      5. Thanks for the helpful clarification Marvin, I think I know where we are. I believe that your definition of freedom differs significantly from both the layman’s, mine and the philosophy of mind definition.

        For most people, they are seen as having free will if they are equally able to select any of the available options, in some degree of causal isolation. I’m saying that we’re not free, because clearly causation dictates which one of the options we chose. When people say free, it is exactly what you said, free of, in this case, most people assert that volition is the final cause and a person’s choice is ‘free of’ any other prior cause. An action was taken, because I decided to do it, my decision was the cause. You ask them and what causes that and most say, me. That’s traditional free will.

        I think you are saying that your definition of freewill is if you can establish that a decision, however rigidly caused, was made in apparent isolation in the brain of a person, then that person has free will, because it is ‘their’ brain and their decision.. It becomes that persons free choice, because the decision process is observable in their brain and because there are no external compulsions acting on that decision.

        I respectfully say that your definition is not what most would call free will, so no wonder we couldn’t agree.

        Secondly, I would not use the definition, because I know that people are not conscious in the way that is generally understood, so i deny that there is an ‘I’ or ‘me’ to attribute the decision to. To me consciousness is a perceptual illusion very similar to how we perceive 3 dimensional figures in an oil painiting, even though the picture is 2d and totally flat. Paint illicits something that isn’t there. In the same way, cognitive scripts ‘paint’ an identity, as if it had consciousness, though it doesn’t have it or require it. I call this the ‘Belief in consciousness’ module. A true AI just needs to develop this module and it will succeed in replicating our idea of consciousness.

        Btw, I must just mention that I don’t think Determinism is an object or force. Determinism is the observation of invariant causal relationships between physical organisations of matter.

        Probably best if we avoid a discussion of the illusion of consciousness, ha.


      6. In reply to your second comment, you are making the same mistake as Dennett and all other combatibilists. You follow deterministic logic, up to an arbitrary point and then you ring fence a part of the causal process and call it ‘Purpose’ or ‘intention’. Then for some unknown reason, you suspend prior causality and reductionist analysis of that factor. WHY? Purpose is just a layman description of a collection of learned, hardwired and processed tendencies to act, planned or not. Chap, purpose is just another set of motivational causes, which in themselves have prior rigid causes, So to put your argument to bed, just because you see purpose, changes nothing in the rigidity of the causal chain. The problem that your approach seems to make is that just because you can imagine a set of possibilities, hence that is freedom. To a determinist, as you mention, there is no real possibility of another outcome, so why do you then say there is? I know you understand most of the concept, but as with others, I can’t understand why you just stop your reduction at purpose.


        The roll of a dice is said to have a probability. But from physic’s viewpoint, once you know every variable, you can with predictive certainty, know which face the dice will show. Humans mistakenly perceive imagined possibilities in a ‘weighing up’ of options. There is no choice, merely because a brain can symbolically represent different outcomes, internally or on a piece of paper. The eventual choice is always going to be X, given Y set of prior causes. Hence you have NO choice.
        The whole branch of mathematics is a subject based on the ignorance of fixed causal variables. If a mathematician knows every cause, then there is no probability, just prediction. Chance is a thought mistake using imagined scenarios, only one of which has a factual reality. One option=No free will, purpose or no purpose, it doesn’t change that you can’t control that one option.

        You seem to almost admit most of the conditions of causality, saying that inevitability exist, then you totally break the fundemental logic of your case, by saying that we still have freedom. This is an X/OR logic function. Either all physical material in your brain is subject to cause and 100% rigidly determined by prior antecedents or it is not. You can’t admit causal inevitability and then have any room to squeeze in an uninvestigated thing call purpose and say, ergo, I am still free. That’s just a repetition of Dennett and even he admits that deep down, he knows that we have no free wil, but the thought of admitting it, scares him so much, that he can’t even consider it for a second.

        Basically your problem is, you are leaving out a causal analysis of purpose. Purpose is nothing more than a linguistic noun, that refers to, who knows, but in your case, probably planned intentionality. The component parts of intentionality are STM/LTM schemas, brain states of neural networks and brain structures, every single itty bit of which is caused by a fixed set of causes at any one time and therefore which, in common with every other thing on earth, has only one outcome at any given time. You have zero basis to argue for freewill, based on a human tendency which is univerally accepted by neurologists as just the software analogue of the brain functioning in humans and other primates.

        If you accept any of determinism, then you must accept it all, there’s no half way or exceptions when you need a get out clause to claim freedom. A computer has purpose when it is doing a calculation, are you saying that a computer has authentically a choice of its free will? The computer may represent that intention differently to the human brain, but it is the same thing. Your assertion that purpose therefore means choice, is a classic non-sequitur and absolutely does not hold. Purpose is fully reducible to prior cause, you don’t control any of those causes(do you?) you don’t control brain chemistry, you don’t control other behaviour towards you and therefore past interactions and memories of those interactions and the collective stored effect of those memories. You don’t control chemical reactions or electrical condution, you have no control over sub-conscious processes, you can’t control your process intelligence or hormonal/endocrinal stimulation of brain function. YOU HAVE NO CONTROL OF ANY OF THESE THINGS. It doesn’t matter where they happen, you still have no control. Control is the key. If free will could exist, it would demand control over all prior causes. Humans have no control over prior causes, SO WE HAVE NO FREE WILL.


      7. Nick: “Purpose is just a layman description of a collection of learned, hardwired and processed tendencies to act, planned or not.”

        Marvin: EXACTLY. And that is the fundamental purpose I am referring to: our biological drives to survive, thrive, and reproduce. They are the primary “goals” or “purposes” of all living organisms, whether flora or fauna. They distinguish between animate and inanimate matter. Biological organisms are animated by those drives. Please keep in mind though, that having deconstructed “purpose”, you have not destroyed it, but only explained it in more detail (understand?).

        Nick: “purpose is just another set of motivational causes, which in themselves have prior rigid causes”

        Marvin: Of course.

        Nick: “just because you see purpose, changes nothing in the rigidity of the causal chain”

        Marvin: Of course. Now, where in the universe is that purpose located? Can you name the class of objects that uniquely carry this property called “purpose”?

        Nick: “The problem that your approach seems to make is that just because you can imagine a set of possibilities, hence that is freedom.”

        Marvin: All uses of the term “freedom” must refer to some meaningful constraint, something we can be “free” of. So, we would need to name the constraint. Any thoughts on this? Here are a few: If our choices are A, B, and C, and they are mutually exclusive, then that is a meaningful constraint. If we lack imagination, and overlook D, E, and F, then that would be a meaningful constraint. If someone holds a gun to our head and says, “Choose A, or I’ll put a bullet in your head”, then that would be a meaningful constraint. But causal inevitability is not a meaningful constraint. We know that whatever we choose will be causally inevitable. That is a trivial and useless fact, one that cannot in any practical way help us to make our choice. So our brain, to conserve energy, never brings it up.

        The thoughts and feelings that we experience as we review our options will inevitably determine our choice. These thoughts and feelings are not external to us, forcing us to make a choice against our will, they are in fact the process by which our will is causally determined.

        Now, as you’ve suggested, we can trace the source/causes of our thoughts and feelings to prior causes. But here’s the thing, these prior causes must first become an integral part of who and what we are before they can affect our choice. All of our prior influences from parents, schools, peers, books, etc. must have been internalized within us if they are to have any influence at all upon our current choice.

        Bottom line: It is still “that which is us” that is doing the choosing. This is an inescapable empirical fact.


        Marvin: Then, I simply ask you to name the object or force withing the physical universe, other than me, that actually made my choice. Was it my brain? That’s me. Was it my prior life experience? That’s me, too. Was it my genetic makeup? Still me.

        If you wish to believe it was “determinism”, or “inevitability”, or “causality” then you are deluding yourself by confusing an abstract concept with an actual object or force within the real world. Only the actual objects and forces can cause stuff.

        And, we happen to be such objects. We cause stuff. And we cause stuff for our own purpose (as does every other living organism on the planet) and for our own reasons (as does every other intelligent species on the planet).

        Nick: “Humans mistakenly perceive imagined possibilities ”

        Marvin: That’s not a mistake, Nick, it is a mechanism of our survival as a species! That’s how the process of intelligence works. We imagine possibilities, choose the one that suits us, and implement the inevitable actuality. The process of choosing begins with the generation of options, evaluating them according to our criteria, and choosing the one we think is best.

        And, of course, given the same options, the same problem, and the same person, we would expect the same decision every time, just as determinism and common sense both suggest.

        Nick: “The eventual choice is always going to be X, given Y set of prior causes. Hence you have NO choice.”

        Marvin: The fact that there is an “eventual choice” contradicts your claim that “you have NO choice”. The fact that the choosing event was the inevitable prior cause of the inevitable choice also means that it was inevitable that there would be a choice. It is incoherent to suggest that there is no choice, when both the choosing and the choice are right there in front of you.

        Nick: “This is an X/OR logic function.”

        Marvin: But you are making it an “exclusive or” by using false definitions. Obviously, if you define “free will” as “the absence of determinism”, or if you define “determinism” as “the absence of free will”, then you will end up with an exclusive or, where one must be false if the other is true.

        So, stop doing that. Take note of the fact that we call it “free will” whenever the object we call a human being considers several options and chooses for himself what he will do. Note that we assign “free will” to all cases where a person is deprived of this ability, due to someone else making the choice for him, or something else interfering with his thought processes, such as a brain tumor, or some other undue influence.

        And note also that the choice he makes is reliably caused by his own thoughts and feelings he had while considering his options, and that these thoughts and feelings had reliable prior causes, such that the mental process of choosing is a deterministic event, inevitable from any prior point in eternity.

        Nick: “If you accept any of determinism, then you must accept it all, there’s no half way or exceptions when you need a get out clause to claim freedom.”

        Marvin: And if you accept determinism, then you cannot pick and choose which causes you will notice and which causes you will exclude. You cannot explain a car stopping at a red light without including the purpose and the reasoning of the biological object driving the car. As long as you keep ignoring or excluding purpose and reasons as causes, your version of determinism will be incomplete and thus invalid.

        Nick: “Control is the key. If free will could exist, it would demand control over all prior causes.”

        Marvin: We’ve established precisely where the control of the decision is located. It occurs totally within the brain of the human being.

        And the idea, that one must first be the prior cause of oneself, before one can be the prior cause of anything else, is irrational, because there is no cause that would ever qualify as a cause by that standard!


      8. Oops! Really bad typo. Needs a “NOT”! Correction: “Note that we assign “free will” to all cases where a person is NOT deprived of this ability, due to someone else making the choice for him, or something else interfering with his thought processes, such as a brain tumor, or some other undue influence.”


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