My Problems With the PEL Free Will Episode

What I think PEL got wrong

For those not familiar, PEL (The Partially Examined Life) is a philosophy podcast by a bunch of guys who were at one time set on doing philosophy for a living, but then thought better of it. They’re basically at the Ph.D level in philosophy, but don’t actually have their Ph.Ds in philosophy and work in other fields, doing the podcast on the side.

PEL is an extraordinary show in so many respects: the content is great, the participants are bright and articulate and balanced, and the format and presentation are exemplary.

I’ve been using the show to learn how little I know about philosophy. It’s the purest kind of learning, really. I’ve also been using the show to prod my stance on philosophy itself. Is it useful? Yes. But what for? And how much are other ways of learning about the world infringing on its domain? I’ve much to say on this topic, but I’ll leave that for another post.

One thing I can say is that I admire and respect the toolset with which they can analyze any particular topic. It’s like having both a satellite and electron microscope view of an object—and in both visible light as well as the rest of the spectrum. What they do, using philosophy as the mechanism, is high-resolution, multi-dimensional analysis of ideas, and that should be appreciated by anyone who values thought as a method of modeling reality.

Anyway, since becoming a listener I’ve been waiting for them to address the free will topic, and they just released their episode on it. In this post I’ll be talking about what I think they did well, and what nearly caused me to commit murder (for which I would not have been responsible).

The guest

They often have guests on the podcast, and in this case it was Tamler Sommers, a professor of philosophy at the University of Houston. He’s also a podcaster on Very Bad Wizards.

I found Tamler to be quite good at setting up the discussion, both in the episode itself and also on the precog (background material for upcoming episodes).

The reading material

The first flaw I found in the episode was the choice of what to read. PEL tends towards older texts, and I would say it’s actual a bias that hurts them. I’m not qualified to say this in sweeping terms, but on a number of occasions where I did have some knowledge of the field available to them, I had issues with their selections.

Again, not bad, just heavily biased towards early works that I think can result in too much wasted discussion. This is simply a matter of modernity, and the advantages it affords. The farther back you go the less information they had, and the more they were stabbing into the void. It’s more respectable, really, because it was harder, but if you want to get to the core of an issue I think the more modern a text (assuming similar talent in the analyst) the better.

In this case they chose two works by the Strawson father and son pair (P.F. Strawson is the father, and Galen is the son), and one by Watson. I had zero issue with the Strawson works being used. I too consider, as I think most who care about this topic, the Strawsons to be leaders on the topic even today. I actually had the privilege of having Galen Strawson use one of my essays as discussion material in his free will class, so perhaps there’s some bias there.

Anyway, my problem wasn’t that they were in, it’s that others were out. Namely, Harris and Dennett. In my mind, the most direct grappling between skepticism and compatibilism can be found between these two, and if you want to find the most effective attack on compatibilism you can do no better than Harris (although I think I come close).

Minor points, really.

A great setup

I was happy to see them get quickly to the fulcrum of the problem, i.e. moral responsibility. Everyone, lead by Tamler, was quick to state that we only care about this because we want to be able to blame and reward people. And if you’re a philosopher you want to know if it’s ok to do so.

A definition

The definition I like to use for free will, that was mentioned (although not exactly) a number of times in the show, is:

This definition points us precisely at moral responsibility, which is what makes it the purest in my opinion.

My issue(s)

My primary issues with the positions held by the participants were the following:

  • Wes walked all the way to the line (of free will and moral responsibility being ultimately impossible) and then refused to step over—for the wrong reasons. Very similar to Tamler (which I’ll talk about below), Dylan seems to be a 99% skeptic, but chooses to call our day to day experience of choice “free will”.

This is maddening to me. As Tamler tried to point out numerous times, you can’t call yourself a compatibilist if you don’t believe you can hold people morally responsible despite them not having had a choice.

I have a way to capture this that I think is quite good. People in this group are speaking of the experience of free will. They’re saying, with good reason, that the experience of free will matters. This is one of P.F. Strawson’s main arguments—that one of the reasons to be a compatibilist was that it’s simply impossible not to be as a human. This is a weak argument. And a cynical one. But again, we should allow a lot of slack here because he was writing in another time.

But I’ll leave it there for now. I’m going to address this “experience of free will” obstacle below, as it presents repeatedly in compatibilist arguments.

  • My second major frustration was that Tamler has already seen the truth clearly, but got confused by cognitive dissonance from normal human experience.. There’s that experience again.

Tamler knows that people don’t have the ablity to do otherwise (functional determinism) yet he calls himself a compatibilist because he doesn’t want to dishonor his emotions and/or be hypocritical by claiming he’s a skeptic but still wishing punishment on someone who harms a loved one.

This is admirable, of course, but it’s an unnecessary contortion. I have a better solution.

  • My third, and strongest, frustration is that Seth seems unwilling to accept the implications of determinism (with or without randomness, which has no bearing on freedom). He executes the most elegant jujitsu with the higher layer intricacies of the arguments, but fails to stand on firm ground while doing so.

The capabilities tangent

It was mentioned as an interesting side discussion that a 7-year-old is not held to the same standard as a 35-year-old, regardless of a grounding in determinism. The former does’t have more determinism than the latter, in other words.

This is weak because all we’re talking about is degrees of obviousness with respect to limitations. When someone is 7 it’s obvious that they are constrained. When they’re 35 it’s not obvious. But just because something isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there.

When you dig to the foundation of the determinist framework you hit solid rock. Every time. It’s the complete lack of the ability to have done otherwise.

When you’re 35 and picking peanut butter at the grocery store, the (likely) truth that no ACTUAL choice is involved is NOT obvious. Not at all. When a 7 year old is running at full speed with scissors and stabs his sister in the leg on accident, it’s obvious that he was in less control—because he’s 7.

The same goes for someone with mental retardation, or who is under the influence of drugs, or who has a brain tumor, or who’s insane. Those influences are obvious. Determinism isn’t.

The solution is to separate the two issues

First, we must establish that people are not able to do otherwise. Here I’ll use my own Two-lever Argument, which goes like so in deductive form:

  1. Future states of our universe are defined by two things: 1) the previous state of the universe, and 2) the laws of physics that govern how one state moves to the next

  2. Humans have not always existed and are a product of said universe

  3. Humans are therefore unable to control any previous state of the universe

  4. Humans also lack the ability to control the laws of physics

  5. Therefore, humans are unable to affect any future state of the universe

In short, the “ability to have done otherwise” requires that you can pull one of these levers (control over previous states, or control over the laws), and since we cannot pull either, we are unable to do other than what we do.

This removes, at the most basic and true level, the option for holding someone responsible for their actions.

That is the first issue, i.e. whether people are truly and ultimately responsible. They are not. Or at least there is no way outside of Libertarian hand-waving to see how they can be.

Once that move has been made, as I believe it must be, we then face the second issue: How to conduct ourselves practically given:

  1. our human limitations, and

  2. our quite obvious experience of free will

Well, for starters, the one thing we cannot do is convince ourselves to believe that people are actually deserving of blame or praise, as that would require that we reject a truth that sits plainly before us.

So we must look elsewhere.

We must look to practicality. We must look to utilitarianism. We must look for a solution that allows us to function, to conduct our societies, to maintain order and a perception of fairness, while keeping immediately available the knowledge that it’s a framework based on illusion.

Let’s dive into that. What part is really an illusion? Not the experience of freedom, surely. As Wes pointed out, you cannot go to someone who experiences making a choice and say to them,

You didn’t actually experience that. That was an illusion.

That’s incorrect, and a contradiction. They did experience it, even though it was an illusion. The problem with granting power to experience, as I believe Wes was advocating, is that it’s a dog that bites the owner as well as the assailant.

If we’re granting truth to experience then we just succeeded in proving God is real as well. Millions people genuinely feel the presence of God every day. And they use His guidance to make decisions and shape their lives in extremely tangible ways.

Just as we experience making choices.

So what are we calling “real” here? My summary of this is to capture this, in a very respectful and non-dismisive way, as the EXPERIENCE of something.

We would be just as foolish to dismiss people’s experience of making choices as we’d be to dismiss their experiences of having God in their lives. It’s not practical. It doesn’t reflect the life people live. And when I say “people”, I mean billions of people.

So, like P.F. Strawson said, discarding this reality is foolish and unproductive.

Where he made the mistake in my view, and where Wes seems to have slipped as well, is making a knight’s move from there to “compatibilism”.

Ugh. No. No. No.

As Tamler said, we can’t willy-nilly open up the definition of Compatibilism to mean,

I want to acknowledge that people cannot have chosen to do otherwise, but I also want to believe we have some kind of free will just because…well, just because it’s practical.

That’s like being an atheist who believes in Jesus’ divinity because it makes things more comfortable at dinner parties.

Remember, we already closed the door on the ability to have done otherwise, which in turn closed the door on people being morally responsible. We cannot re-open that door now that things are getting unpleasant.

Tamler’s dilema

Tamler had the most advanced viewpoint on the subject, in my opinion, which I suppose makes sense. But his fallback position to a nebulous compatibilism on account of cognitive dissonance was disappointing.

He basically said he couldn’t call himself a skeptic if he thought it would be inappropriate of him to NOT want to punish, or even harm, someone who hurt a loved one.

I respect both his courage and his clarity of thought in articulating this. It’s the most honest and transparent justification of a compatibilist position I’ve ever heard.

But it’s unnecessary.

The Practical Scaffolding solution

My way of handling his problem (our positions are identical when it comes to skepticism) is to simultaneously hold both views, and to pivot to each when necessary.

Importantly, however, I am not disbelieving one while believing the other. I am simply placing emphasis and priority on it.

I think examples would be helpful…

Using Tamler’s situation, let’s say I have a daughter and she is hurt by someone. I, like Tamler, would be simultaneously struck from two directions.

  1. I’d want to reduce the attacker to a smoldering pile of previously-human

  2. I’d know that everything that happened was simply a configuration of the universe, and that none of the configurations had any say in the matter

Now, if I chose (giggle) to take action against the attacker, I would be doing so under the banner of emotional justification. Nobody would fault me for it (except maybe the law), but it’d still be wrong.

If I was clear-minded I’d know that it was so, and I wouldn’t take action. I would instead pour my force into correcting the problems that caused it (a lack of mental health focus in this country, a lack of education, etc.).

I can think of no situation where my logical self wouldn’t have a better solution than my emotional self. And to the extent that my emotional self won out, and I took retributive action against him, that would be a failure.

Every. Time.

So I don’t mind being prompted by my intuitions and my instincts to do the wrong thing morally. It’s part of being human. But I won’t use that to reject free will skepticism.

Those who believe absurdities can be made to commit atrocities.


Indeed, and there is nothing so absurd as thinking “they” DESERVE something bad. It’s the worst possible untruth that can be told, and it has cause unspeakable amounts of suffering in the world.

The idea should die, and as soon as possible. And that will only happen once the educated in the world know that choice, like their perception of color or simultaneity, or countless other things, is an illusion.

Just because the idea cannot die in the midst of emotion, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t die. We are human after all, and that’s ok. But when it’s time for the sentence to be given, and the policy to be made, that’s when we need to remember our education and base our decisions in the offender’s lack of the ability to have done otherwise. That’s when we need to be skeptics. That’s when we make a purely consequentialist ruling.

Pivoting works elsewhere as well

I use the same pivoting for other emotion-based things in life: Romance, Wonder, etc. I know love and friendship and accomplishment are all configurations of particles. I am with Camus in knowing there is no ultimate meaning, and I also agree that it’s cowardly to inject some sort of false meaning and call it real.

But I avoid doing that by maintaining both views simultaneously. I never deny that life is without meaning. I am simply operating within a practical scaffolding, because we are human. As P.F. Strawson said, we cannot simply shed this legacy from ourselves, and nor can we ask that others do so.

So I live within the illusion, being bounced from cloud to cloud, smelling the joy and tears and happiness that carbon-based life has to offer. But I do so with one hand ready to reach out of the illusion and touch the unmoving brick wall that’s there when I need it.

I enjoy life tremendously, even knowing what it is. Even knowing I’m a silly moist robot with no alternatives for action. So what? Embrace it. Enjoy the coffee. Hug your woman. Laugh with your friends.

But when it comes time to make important decisions on policy, like the structure of the criminal justice system. Or taxation of the rich. Or giving help to the poor—I do these things wearing the lens of free will skepticism. You can have both, and you should. Pivot as necessary.

The answer to Tamler’s dilemma is to say,

Yes, I know free will is false, but I usually function from within a practical framework which sometimes contradicts that belief, because I’m human and there are things in this life that I care about on a deep emotional level. I wish it were otherwise, but I don’t see how it can be. But the one thing I will not do is reject the truth that moral responsibility is ultimately a vacuous concept.

So we have nested frameworks. We live inside the Practical, all the while knowing that it’s just that…practical.


All said, I really enjoyed the episode. Many thanks to the PEL crew for putting together another great one.


  1. I do information security for a living, not philosophy.

  2. If I confused the voice matching of any of the PEL participants, and thus misattributed quotes or stances, then I apologize.

  3. I recommend my piece called Disambiguating Freedom as a statement of my position on Compatibilism vs. Skepticism.

Related posts: