May 072015
 

pie-ultimate-scratch-free-willAn article in Psychology Today titled “Free Will à la Mode? Do you have free will? Can you bake a pie “from scratch”?”, philosopher Jim Stone used a blurb from Cosmos by Carl Sagan that says:

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

…in order to address two popular philosopher’s semantic positions on the topic of free will: Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.

To get the full context, please click here and read the article before moving on. Don’t worry, it’s not too long.  I’ll wait for you to come back.

La la la la la la la…la la la…err…welcome back.

As you see the article uses this “bake a pie from ultimate scratch” analogy to illustrate the differences between Dennett’s compatibilist definition of free will, and Harris’s incompatibilist definition of free will. At first read it may seem like the analogy works. Let’s, however, get to the vegan meat and potatoes where he makes the connection between Sagan’s blurb and the two definitions of these two very popular philosophers, and see if the connection truly can be made.

“Sam Harris claims that, in order to have free will, we must, so to speak, bake our actions from ULTIMATE scratch. In order to be the ULTIMATE authors of our actions, we must be the authors of, not only our choices, but also all the preconditions of our choices, and the preconditions of those preconditions, and so forth. And, since no one is the ULTIMATE author of his or her actions like this, Sam concludes that free will is an illusion.”

Is this really analogous to what Sam Harris is saying? Let’s look at how Harris defines “Free Will” to find out. Taken from his book “Free Will” this is how he defines such:

“The popular conception of free will seems to rest on two assumptions: (1) that each of us could have behaved differently than we did in the past, and (2) that we are the conscious source of most of our thoughts and actions in the present.”

Keep in mind that this is tantamount to my own definition: “The ability to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise“.

Now lets go back to this “Sam Harris claims that, in order to have free will, we must, so to speak, bake our actions from ULTIMATE scratch” idea. Would “baking from ultimate scratch” lead to us being able to have “behaved differently” per #1 of Harris’s definition?

The short answer is no. Per the “ultimate scratch” definition we could describe “the ultimate universe” as having “free will”, even if the playout could not have been otherwise. Of course no incompatibilist is making such a claim.

No doubt it’s #2 of Harris’s definition that is creating the confusion here, but keep in mind that #2 is put in place to address that we could not be the source of an acausal event (an uncaused event). It’s only to address the more libertarian (not to be confused with the political position) notion that indeterminism can help free will. It’s similar to the reason I add in “of one’s own accord” to “the ability to have done otherwise”. That #2 is an important extension that addresses more.

It’s, however, this idea that we couldn’t have, of our own accord (be the conscious source that), done otherwise (behaved differently), that is the definition of great concern.  The “behaved differently” (#1) is something that cannot simply be glossed over by focusing entirely on #2. Again, even if we were somehow the “ultimate source” it doesn’t follow from such that we could have behaved differently (we couldn’t by the way). Even if we “baked our actions from ULTIMATE scratch”, per how Harris and most hard determinists or hard incompatibilists define free will, we still wouldn’t have this form of free will. That’s because if #2 of Harris’s definition is fulfilled, such absolutely prevents #1 from happening.

The only way we could have behaved differently is if an uncaused event pushes such to that difference. And of course we cannot be the source of an uncaused event, hence the ONLY point for #2. If we take #2 as a standalone definition, sure, the “ultimate scratch” analogy works. As soon as we put it in context of #1, which is the more important point, the analogy fails entirely. Baking from scratch becomes irrelevant to the definition.

Relating it to Harris’s semantic is frankly the worst offense for the analogy, but it’s an important one that crystallizes how some compatibilists truly don’t get the incompatibilist definition of free will. Rather, a better analogy is that the pie couldn’t have been baked, of one’s own accord, differently. A decision that was “up to the person” couldn’t have been made, for example, to bake the pie one minute less, preventing the burned crust…or couldn’t have been made to bake a lemon pie instead of the apple that was made…or couldn’t have been made to not bake the pie at all! Those were never viable options that would have been “up to the chooser”. This is a crucial part of the free will semantic.

For Stone’s position on Dennett’s compatibilism, the analogy doesn’t offend as much:

“Uncle Dan, on the other hand, wants to defend Aunt Betty’s claim that she baked her pie from scratch. He wants to say that, even though none of us is the ULTIMATE author of our choices, we can still author our choices to a SUBSTANTIAL degree. We can be responsible for some of the preconditions for our choices, even though, if you press back far enough, we are not responsible for the preconditions of the preconditions of the preconditions, ad infinitum. And Dennett claims that this SUBSTANTIAL kind of free will, though not ULTIMATE, is still valuable and worth wanting.”

Let’s look at what Dennett calls “free will” in his book “Elbow Room”:

“…the power to be active agents, biological devices that respond to our environment with rational, desirable courses of action.”

This seems like it aligns a little better with the analogy. Dennett is basically saying that us “biological devices”, even though we had no say in how we came about, respond in rational, desirable courses of action. This can be seen as a type of “authoring our choices to a SUBSTANTIAL degree”. But again, the defense that “ultimate scratch” isn’t needed isn’t a defense against anything substantial for the free will debate. This is important, the compatibilist idea might be substantial if we are addressing how we do make decisions, and how to causally interact with such, but it’s insubstantial to the question of whether we could have, of our own accord, done otherwise.

And that is the main difference between hard determinism/incompatibilism and compatibilist definitions of free will. The first is the definition of great importance for so many other topics and is a commonly held intuitive belief, the latter works to bypass those important topics through a definition that doesn’t look at the fact that the majority of the population thinks they could have done otherwise. To see why, read here:

The rest of the article simply goes into the authors preference for compatibilist notions of some things having more “freedom” than others (including robots), which in typical compatibilist fashion glosses over the question of if such could have done otherwise at any given moment.  It basically suggests we can learn, think, and reflect, therefore I’ll call such as being more free than not being able to do these things, even though it’s not really, …so I’ll place a disclaimer that I’m using scare quotes around the word “free” so I won’t have to deal with the criticism of this notion of freedom. 

This brings me to this statement at the bottom of the article:

Scratch that.  I don’t want to put it in terms of winner and loser.  What I’d like to say is that, given their agreement that no one is free “all the way down”, I prefer Dan Dennett’s approach. (And I’d like to see more evidence that Sam Harris actually understands Dan Dennett’s approach).

Of course what the author “prefers” is all fine-n-dandy. I’d, however,  like to see more evidence that he actually understands the way Harris and most hard determinists and  incompatibilists define free will, and why most see Dennett’s approach as one that simply avoids the intuitive feeling a large majority of people feel they possess and that such also bypasses some extremely important topics.

And finally:

At the end of the day, I don’t really care whether we use the term “free will” or not when we talk about those capacities, as long as the capacities, and their moral relevance, don’t get left out of the discussion.

Seems to me we can simply address morality and assess those capacities within such, rather than label them as “free will”. And more importantly, we need to understand what the implications of not having the “Harris/ my / hard incompatibilist” definition of free will has for “moral relevance”. We certainly wouldn’t want that to be left out, because it’s actually an important base understanding for any moral system that ties into 1) in what sense we mean if we use the words “moral responsibility”, 2) our notions of equality and fairness when one person is never more deserving than another, 3) our attitudes over those who fail to act morally when they are not truly blameworthy, 4) how morality is to be enforced – for example, rehabilitatively over retributively, 5) how value in the moral sense is to be distributed, and on and on. I’m more concerned about the moral relevance of not having the free will ability that ties into these as well as various top level moral topics.

When a compatibilist has concern that certain capacities and their moral relevance don’t get left out of the discussion, I agree with them. It’s the reason I make it perfectly clear that consciousness is part of the causal process and that fatalistic ideas over not having free will are incorrect. But it’s just as important that our non-capacities and their moral relevance aren’t left out of the discussion, especially when a large majority of people think those non-capacities are capacities. I find more often than not that  compatibilist re-definitions try to blindside this extremely important aspect of the discussion. And doing so is a much larger problem than clarifying these other points are.


Jim Stone Ph.D. 2015. Free Will à la Mode? Do you have free will? Can you bake a pie “from scratch”? -Psychology Today

Nahmias, E., S. Morris, T. Nadelhoffer, and J. turner. 2006. Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility.Philosophical Psychology 18:561-584.

Daniel C. Dennet. 1984. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting & 2004. Freedom Evolves

Sam Harris. 2012. Free Will 


Note: The book I’m currently in the process of writing is on ethics (which I use interchangeably with the word morality even if I prefer ethics for various reasons), and the lack of free will is an important foundational understanding that is required. If you don’t have that foundational understanding, please check out my first book Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. Also don’t forget to subscribe to this “free will” focused blog.

Here are some more articles addressing Harris and Dennett:

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'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

  One Response to “Baking Pies from Ultimate Scratch – A Poor Free Will Analogy”

  1. I think baking the pie from ultimate scratch is comparable to people believing that they are the first cause of their choices. Both concepts are impossible. No one can invent the universe in which they are caused to exist only after they have a universe.

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