Appeal to consequences fallacy in understanding Bell’s theorem

Joan Vaccaro (2018, p. 11) on arguments against superdeterminism:

“An argument that has been advocated by leading physicists is that humans are necessarily independent of the universe that surrounds them because the practice of science requires the independence of the experimenter from the subject of study. For example, Bell et al. state that unless the experimenter and subject are independent, we would need to abandon ‘…the whole enterprise of discovering the laws of nature by experimentation’, and Zeilinger claims that if the experimenter and subject were not independent ‘…such a position would completely pull the rug out from underneath science.’ However, this argument contains a logical fallacy called an appeal to consequences. Specifically, arguing for experimenter–subject independence on the basis that the alternative has undesirable consequences does not prove that experimenters are independent of their subjects. Rather, the alternative may well be true, in which case we would need to deal with the consequences.”


Vaccaro, J. A. (2018). The quantum theory of time, the block universe, and human experience. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 376(2123).

An attempt to diagram the tension between determinism and belief in causa sui

My understanding of the story so far, following lengthy and ongoing discussions with I, L, P and others (see also the free will tag on this site, stretching back to 2007):

  1. Nothing can be a cause of itself, causa sui.
  2. To be truly, really, wholly responsible for your actions, you would have to be causa sui (the self-determination thesis).
  3. Your choices depend on who you are (e.g., your personality, values, beliefs, desires, powers) and where and when you are (linked to your opportunities). Who, where, and when in turn depend on billions of complex causal chains that precede your existence and stretch back to the beginning of time.
  4. Therefore, you are not truly, really, wholly responsible for your actions.
  5. However, you can still change: your personality, values, beliefs, powers, etc. – your nature is not fixed. You clearly don’t stay still in time or space either.
  6. You can also carry out actions and have an effect on the world as an active participant in cause-effect chains.
  7. Moreover, praise and blame and other common attributions people bestow upon one another, though difficult to comprehend in light of conclusion 4 above, are example causes of actions since they have an effect on people.

Here is an attempt to diagram the above, assuming that determinism holds (though that need not be the case for the self-determinism thesis to fail). Instead of a complex web of billions of cause-effect chains stretching back to the beginning of time, I have embodied that long history all in a cat that has a grand unplan (I’m not sure how the conversation arrived there), borrowed from the interweb.

The arrows above are intended to be wholly determining and not the statistical associations common in social science that explain 5% of the variance in outcomes. All the variance is explained here: 100%.

Below is the cat, viewing the outcomes. Determinism does not imply that it is possible to predict outcomes from starting states. Prediction is tricky even for simple cellular automata let alone something as messy as a universe. You have to “wait” (actively, moving) and see what happens and enjoy the phenomenology that goes along for the ride, including the intense illusion of causa sui. (“You should go on living – if only to satisfy your curiosity” – from a Yiddish proverb, which can also have a causal effect on its readers under determinism.) Unpredictability does not challenge the impossibility of causa sui, though.

Nietzsche on causa sui

‘The causa sui is the best self-contradiction that has yet been conceived, it is a sort of logical violation and unnaturalness; but the extravagant pride of man has managed to entangle itself profoundly and frightfully with this very folly. The desire for “freedom of will” in the superlative, metaphysical sense, such as still holds sway, unfortunately, in the minds of the half-educated, the desire to bear the entire and ultimate responsibility for one’s actions oneself, and to absolve God, the world, ancestors, chance, and society therefrom, involves nothing less than to be precisely this causa sui, and, with more than Munchausen daring, to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the slough of nothingness.’
– Friedrich Nietzsche (written 1886), Beyond Good and Evil, translated from German by Helen Zimmern, upper case lowered again and italicised

Doings and deliberations can change things

“Naive fatalism holds that there is no point in doing anything because everything is predetermined (or is the will of God, for example), hence nothing you can do can change how things will be. It is false, because one’s doings and deliberations can change things, being themselves real parts of the (possibly deterministic) causal process.”
– Strawson (2010, p. 247, footnote 22) [Freedom and Belief, Revised Edition.]

Freedom under determinism

“Behind the whole compatibilist enterprise lies the valid and important insight that, from one centrally important point of view, freedom is nothing more than a matter of being able to do what one wants or chooses or decides or thinks right or best to do, given one’s character, desires, values, beliefs (moral or otherwise), circumstances, and so on. Generally speaking, we have this freedom. Determinism does not affect it at all, and it has nothing whatever to do with any supposed sort of ultimate self-determination, or any particular power to determine what one’s character, desires, and so on will be.”
– Strawson (2010, p. 94) [Freedom and Belief, Revised Edition.]

The Basic Argument

“There is an argument, which I will call the Basic Argument, which appears to prove that we cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions. According to the Basic Argument, it makes no difference whether determinism is true or false. We cannot be truly or ultimately morally responsible for our actions in either case.

“The Basic Argument has various expressions in the literature of free will, and its central idea can be quickly conveyed. (1) Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself. (2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects. (3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.”

– Strawson, G. (1994, p. 5) [The impossibility of moral responsibility. Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition75, 5-24.]

Ludicrously-large sense-of-self as a way to have free will

Galen Strawson (1994) succinctly explains why we can’t be truly morally responsible for any action. The argument also speaks to why we don’t have free will. It goes:

(1) Nothing can be causa sui – nothing can be the cause of itself.

(2) In order to be truly morally responsible for one’s actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in certain crucial mental respects.

(3) Therefore nothing can be truly morally responsible.

This impossibility thesis holds regardless of whether determinism holds, i.e., whether everything we do “has a cause, and hence an explanation; even if the explanation is inaccessible to us” (Strawson, 1989/2008, p.338).

Under determinism we and all the actions we take are caused by something outside of us and consequently causa sui fails. Under indeterminism, some randomness – inside or outside our bodies – contributes to an event happening, which doesn’t feel like we are in control either.

This makes a lot of sense to me, and taking it seriously leads to interesting ways of thinking about – coming to terms with! – the reality in which we find ourselves. If we need to find meaning in this existence then we need to do so without relying on us being the originator of our actions. We aren’t the #MainCharacter of our existence. Concepts like meritocracy and punishment need a rethink too.

Deep curiosity about what happens next seems to be one attribute that runs deep – hence why we watch films even though we know the ending has been predetermined. I’ve recently discovered a Yiddish proverb which goes along these lines: “You should go on living – if only to satisfy your curiosity.” Not that you could do otherwise if everything is determined; however, the proverb itself offers a causal nudge.

Also if you experience or do something pleasant or important or desirable, accepting that you did not cause it to happen but rather that a universe-old causal chain led inevitably to it happening makes the event more meaningful, if anything.

But recently I have been wondering what exactly this something that supposedly cannot be a cause of itself actually is. Intuitively, when I think about whether or not I have free will I think of my Self as encased in a body. The aspects of me of which I am consciously aware feel like me, as do unconscious aspects which I cannot experience but which I know are there: all the gory bodily processes which keep me running like my bladder’s internal sphincter. Outside the bounds of me is not me; it seems so obvious it’s tautology. However, everything that comprises my Self comes from outside me. My genes came from my parents. My experiences come from the world around me. Each of the cause-effect chains stretching back to the beginning of time is clearly outside my body.

There is a tradition of pondering where Self begins and ends, for instance as popularised in The Extended Mind by Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Consider how much we rely on things in our environment to get things done. Clark and Chalmers discuss Otto, a fictional someone who, like factual us, has dispositional beliefs that lurk somewhere in memory until called upon in context. Otto supplements his skull-encased memory with external notes, which lurk on a page until re-read when needed. And like his dispositional beliefs, they have a deep impact on who he is:

“Most of us already accept that the self outstrips the boundaries of consciousness; my dispositional beliefs, for example, constitute in some deep sense part of who I am. If so, then these boundaries may also fall beyond the skin. The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Otto himself is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources.”

Kusch (1999/2005, p. 262) also illustrates how stuff going on outside us can get under our skin and become part of our Self:

“It is because culture shapes our bodies that it shapes our brains; and it is because culture shapes our brains – literally causing some areas to grow more, others less […] – that at least some states of the brain might well be called social states. They are social because they are real artefacts of our culture […]”

Here is where the Ludicrously-Large Self (LLS) Thesis comes in. Under LLS, whether or not determinism holds, everything causally implicated in who we are and what we do becomes part of the Self. We certainly cannot be consciously aware of the vast majority of this since it extends spatially and temporally back to the beginning of time (hence Ludicrously Large). The consciously aware bit does not bother me – I feel quite attached to my bladder’s internal sphincter, even though I have no awareness of it.

Now Strawson’s first proposition, “Nothing can be causa sui“, melts away. With the neatly encased model of Self, external cause-effect chains lead to who we are and what we do, whereas now under LLS we take each of those events as part of us – hence we are causes of ourselves.

LLS is a radical challenge to our sense of identity; e.g., “even the phrase ‘each other’ doesn’t make any sense” (Rumi). However, our conscious experiences of the world do seem to be distinct, even if they are wholly determined. My experience of the world seems to be over here, now, and not dispersed across spacetime.

Haven’t mentioned free will for a while…

In an introduction to psychodynamic ideas, Jonathan Shedler writes (p. 42):

“If behavior were unavoidably determined, there would be no reason to practice psychoanalytic therapy or, for that matter, any form of therapy.”

Although I’m not sure about free will, I don’t think this is a necessary consequence of having no free will. And it’s important that there is a reason for clients who reject free will.

Suppose we have no free will. Two claims are difficult to refute:

(1) We experience stuff, some of it fun, some of it not. The phenomenological feeling which goes along for the ride doesn’t seem to care about free will. Related to this, I think it’s interesting that we still go to the cinema and read books even though we know the ending has already been decided: we seem to derive great pleasure from finding out what happens next. “You should go on living – if only to satisfy your curiosity” – Yiddish proverb.

(2) Chatting to people partially determines our future experience (sometimes positive!) and behaviour.

So, therapy may just be another link in the big causal network in the universe. Hopefully it’s more likely to improve someone’s life than other links, however unavoidable and predetermined going to see the therapist and its consequences might be.

Freedom Evolves?

Here are some quotations from Freedom Evolves which may help you decide whether you want to bother reading it (I enjoyed it).

“To say that if determinism is true, your future is fixed, is to say… nothing interesting. To say that if determinism is true, your nature is fixed, is to say something false. […] The confusion arises when one tries to maintain two perspectives on the universe at once: the ‘God’s eye’ perspective that sees past and future all laid out before it, and the engaged perspective of an agent within the universe.” (p. 93)

Another on different viewpoints:

“Population geneticists tend to shun all discussions of bodies, structures, and real-world events that somehow compose selection events and instead just talk about the effects on the gene pool of one hypothesized change or another. […] Imagine a tennis tournament in which contestants just strip to the buff and get carefully examined, pairwise, by sports doctors and coaches who vote on which of each pair advances to the next round, until a winner is declared. Population geneticists would appreciate the point of such strange practice, but would acknowledge that since the judges’ criteria ought to be grounded in the rough-and-tumble of actual play, it is better to let the players go at it and let their actual contests decide the winners. Still, they would insist, you don’t have to watch. [… W]e can stand back and just tabulate eventual winners and losers, but we mustn’t forget that the contests do go on. Thinking happens, and how thinking happens affects which memes do well.” (p. 188)

On Dennett’s choice of tactics:

“I see him [Daniel Wegner] as the killjoy scientist who shows that Cupid doesn’t shoot arrows and then insists on entitling his book The Illusion of Romanic Love. […] Wegner and I agree on the bottom line; what we disagree on is tactics. […] I prefer to make the same points by saying that no, free will is not an illusion; all the varieties of free will worth wanting are, or can be, ours—but you have to give up a bit of false and outdated ideology to understand how this can be so. Romantic love minus Cupid’s arrow is still worth yearning for. It is still, indeed, romantic love, real romantic love.” (pp. 224-225)

And this is lovely, from Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will:

“A voluntary action is something a person can do when asked.”

I’m not sure Dennett likes it, but it’s a hell of a lot better than some of the BS I’ve heard recently in a conference and read.