Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have to: Free Will

As we’ve seen, Molyneux has a confused conception of truth, a confident but incoherent conception of reality and a evangelical Christian’s dislike of his own chosen position on god i.e. atheism. To be fair to Molyneux, those first two subjects are challenging ones that have bamboozled thinkers for millennia. In most circumstances judging the quality of somebody’s writing on the basis that they don’t have a solid and clear conception of the nature of truth and reality would be unfairly harsh. However, in a book purporting to be an introduction to philosophy a minimum requirement would be for the author to at least acknowledge that they are struggling to get their thoughts together.

Molyneux’s next trick is to combine all three issues into one topic: his lack of clarity on the nature of truth, his confusion about reality and his desire to nominally take an atheist position while remaining unthreatening to the religious right. Added to this blended smoothie of wrongness is Molyneux’s staggering capacity to discuss a topic without ever examining his own ideas and assertions. So, without further ado, let’s look at Molyneux on the topic of free will.

You won’t be surprised to discover that he never actually explains what he thinks free will is. This makes it difficult to précise his position on free will.

“Without free will, there is no such thing as philosophy. We do not attempt to cultivate wisdom in inanimate objects.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1040-1042). Kindle Edition.

Inanimate objects? He will eventually get on to the topic of animals and robots but it’s an odd place to start. The question about free will is one about beings that can think, that appear to respond to their environment at a level that we could call informational. We don’t try to convince unthinking things about anything because they can’t think. We might even try to deceive things that merely have some semblance of thinking by feeding them false information (like a former coworker who would position a fan heater near a thermostat to trick the office air-con into blowing colder).

Molyneux’s main objective is to try and defend the existence of free will against a materialist position that says that free will doesn’t exist while accepting (to some degree) materialism. In other words Molyneux wants free will but rejects the idea of a soul as an explanation of it.

“These arguments certainly have the ring of consistency to them. How could it be rational to create an exception to the universal laws of physics just for the human brain? We do not see or experience even the idea of free will among animals, among nature, among inanimate objects – how are we so different? The answer that we possess a soul is not satisfying to those who reject immaterial explanations for material causes. If a child denies stealing a cookie and claims that his imaginary friend ate it instead, few parents would accept such an explanation.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1063-1068). Kindle Edition.

This is a task that is far beyond his ability. For a start, as we’ve already seen, he’s unable to distinguish between thinking and free will as concepts. I should add, it’s not making an argument that cognition and free will are the same that I have an issue but rather that Molyneux doesn’t MAKE that argument. Instead he just gets the two ideas confused and rambles around and then says that he’s done.

His first argument is one based on a principle that he describes as:

“Testing the hypothesis of an argument against the methodology of communicating the argument is a powerful method for rejecting irrational arguments.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1087-1088). Kindle Edition.

An example of which is:

“If a man sends me an email containing the argument that emails never get delivered, I do not need to know anything about how emails are delivered in order to reject his hypothesis.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1073-1075). Kindle Edition.

And which he generalises with more examples:

“You cannot use logical arguments to disprove the value of logic. You cannot use empirical arguments to disprove the value of empiricism.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1090-1092). Kindle Edition.

Of course, you can actually do both of those things. The past 150+ years of philosophy have involved some very clever people beating up logic with its own weapons. Demonstrating that something doesn’t live up to its own rules is an effective method of argumentation. Of course, we already knew that Molyneux does not have a decent grasp of logic, truth or argumentation.

Molyneux belabours this point for several pages. The essence of his argument is that if a determinist (i.e. the people who are rejecting free will) are trying to convince you that free will exists then they are tacitly accepting that free will exists because why else would they try and change your mind?

The errors here are manifold.

  1. Changing some one’s mind with new information does not imply free will by itself. Somebody who does not believe in free will can easily argue that whether you do or do not change your mind when presented with an argument is something pre-determined. That pre-determination doesn’t change that it was the argument that changed your mind.
  2. Accepting that there was no point to making an argument because everything is pre-determined is itself pointless if EVERYTHING IS PRE-DETERMINED. Molyneux assumes the disbeliever in free will is using their free will to make their argument but struggles to remember that the disbeliever in free will doesn’t actually believe in free will.

Molyneux has obviously encountered arguments about robots:

“Referring to a mechanical device such as a robot in lieu of a person does not solve the problem of human consciousness and choice because it takes a human being to create a robot. It’s like saying I have superhero hearing because I can hear someone talking from thousands of miles away – when all I have done is use a phone.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1215-1219). Kindle Edition.

Which misses the point about robots and again confuses cognition with free will. A robot can respond to information in a purely deterministic manner. Regardless of who or how a robot was created and even if they are otherwise utterly different to human thinking, a robot demonstrates that responding to verbal information does not show the existence of free will.

He’s also enchanted arguments about dogs:

“Regarding the dog example – yes, a dog can come when you call him, but that does not support the determinist position. A dog’s brain is more complex than a worm’s brain, and we can expect a dog to come when we call him, but not a worm. We can train a dog, but not a worm. Thus this argument supports the concept of free will, since a more advanced and complex brain is used as an example,”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1239-1242). Kindle Edition.

Again, Molyneux misses the point and again gets confused between cognition and free will. Yes, these are closely related concepts and you can’t talk about free will without getting into thinking but Molyneux can’t distinguish.

After much rambling, Molyneux promises us a section entitled “What Is Free Will?”

‘The definition of free will is challenging and complicated, because it must be something unique to the human mind – therefore, it cannot be anything as simple and tautological as “choice.”’

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1299-1301). Kindle Edition.

In this section he wanders between free will and ethics and eventually says:

“If we understand this definition of free will – our human capacity to compare proposed actions to ideal standards – then the debate between determinism and choice becomes much easier to resolve.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1422-1424). Kindle Edition.

How comparing our behaviour to ideal standards is different to regular thinking is unclear or what is undetermined by it is also unclear. That humans have the capacity to think about abstract concepts (including abstract standards) is true. I’d also agree that whatever we believe free-will to be the phenomenon (whether it is an illusion or real) must rest in our capacity to deal with abstraction. However, Molyneux has not joined any dots or refuted any positions. In particular the straw-determinist Molyneux has been arguing with has no reason to reject the idea that humans can reason about abstract concepts.

We are back to the problem that Molyneux has not adequately attempted to describe the phenomenon he is trying to explain. He hasn’t adequately listed a set of features that we expect of the thing called “free will” so that he can show that his “definition” meets those features. He’ simply taken one concept and decided to label that concept “free will”. The relabelling doesn’t deal with the straw-determinist’s objections to free will.

But what if maybe we don’t have free will? Or rather, what if most people who aren’t Stefan Molyneux don’t have free will:

“You are programmed – as I was programmed – to serve the needs of those who rule us. You are raised by the government to praise the government, and to fear freedom. Government schools teach you that the danger in your life comes from your peers, not the school itself, even though you are generally forced to be there. If you are unjustly put in a dangerous prison, the true source of the danger is the corrupt legal system, not your fellow inmates; they are a side effect, not the first cause.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1719-1723). Kindle Edition.

Having belaboured the point that people aren’t robots, Molyneux now contends we are robots or at least programmed like robots.

“You are little more than a useful robot running around in preprogrammed spirals, spewing polysyllabic nonsense designed to prop up the gallows of power.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1746-1748). Kindle Edition.

In what is not a shocking twist in the narrative it turns out the anarchy-capitalist thinks we are all mindless sheep, unlike him.

“True free will must be earned, because it has been stolen. When someone says you have free will, but you know you have not done the necessary work to escape your programmed delusions, what they say often seems both outlandish and humiliating to you. It seems outlandish because you know it is not true for you. And it feels humiliating because you know deep down that you should have done that work, the work needed to become free, the work to undo your programming, the work to shatter delusions, and to move from livestock to human, from robot to free mind. Also, if you become free, what happens to your relationships with your surrounding slaves?”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1777-1784). Kindle Edition.

Molyneux is close to self parody by this point and in danger of becoming an extra in that XKCD cartoon. It’s necessary step for him that he can’t avoid because it is a lead into his own brand of ethics. I’ll cover his theory of ethics next time (which will be either the last part or the penultimate part). In the meantime, here is a quote from the book that I really feel needs to be shared but doesn’t fit anywhere in my posts:

“There was an old video recording and playback technology called the VCR – you can still buy the machines online. Imagine getting ahold of a very early VCR – and then learning how it had been programmed. It might be possible to either get the source code – sitting on some dusty 5¼-inch  floppy disk somewhere – or reverse-engineer the VCR code. Then imagine spending months learning that code, studying the hardware specifications and capacities of the machine, and finding some way to improve its speed, efficiency or responsiveness. Then perhaps you could find some way to inject that new code into an existing ancient VCR and watch it perform better. I can’t fathom why anyone would ever pursue that goal, because it would be a dismal and useless waste of time, for many obvious reasons.”

Molyneux, Stefan. Essential Philosophy: How to know what on earth is going on (Kindle Locations 1944-1950). Kindle Edition.

Stefan Molyneux is 52.

31 thoughts on “Reading Molyneux So You Don’t Have to: Free Will

  1. So what is the VCR’s relevance? Is Molyneux saying it’s just pointless to argue with his inferiors?
    And jeez, taking “Our personalities and thoughts are shaped by the environment we live in” as an argument that therefore most people don’t have free will is nonsensical. Even for this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A question. Were the original VCRs programmed? I.e. did they have embedded computers, or were they just domain specific electronics?


    1. They were hard-wired, and in fact it was an analog format. That doesn’t really detract from his point, as his point doesn’t really make any sense at any level, but it does indicate that he doesn’t really know engineering.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s what I thought. (And I wouldn’t have thought that 52 was young enough to have grown up with the idea that anything electronic has a computer in it.)

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Engineers do learn about obsolete technologies, as part of their professional education and as a hobby. In part, learning old technologies helps you understand new technologies, to know why quirks have persisted in formats or to understand basic principles in a simpler form. In part, because clever old tricks that are no longer necessary now may be useful in future technologies. And last of all, there is stuff on old VHS tapes that will be lost forever if we don’t transfer it, and there is money to be made redesigning old technologies with modern parts to make that practical. For example, there’s actually a lot of old NASA experimental data that was tossed into storage and forgotten about. Modern rocketry has to reinvent that crap if we are going to, say, return to the moon.

      Does this guy ever make up examples that don’t have weird caveats when you think about it?

      Liked by 2 people

    3. They didn’t have embedded computers–they were just electronics. The only “programming” you could do was to set the time on the VCR or the time at which you wanted the VCR to start recording.

      Liked by 2 people

    4. And what does it mean to reprogram a VCR to “improve its speed, efficiency”? Does it play movies faster?

      I think the most charitable interpretation of that argument is that he originally named some other gadget, then swapped in VCR because the original thingie was too obscure or something, but forgot to consider the implications.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. “You cannot use empirical arguments to disprove the value of empiricism.”
    In principle at least it’s obvious that you CAN you empirical arguments to disprove the value of empiricism. If empiricism doesn’t work you can’t raise this as an objection to valorising empiricism. Perhaps mathematicians could argue for rigorous deductive logic pointing to instances when empiricism has led them astray.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I wonder what would happen if someone explained to him that right now we are living in the golden age of fountain pen ink, with companies from around the world offering inks in a wide range of colors and properties.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I can’t make any damn sense of what he’s trying to achieve with that garble. If he’s arguing *for* free will then he should absolutely be *for* people tinkering with obsolete technologies for their own enjoyment instead of poo-pooing the idea that other people have their own interests that don’t align with his own. I’m a rock climber and a martial artist, and I’m aware that both are essentially pointless except for building my own confidence and fitness.

    I’m also annoyed by this particular line: “We do not see or experience even the idea of free will among animals, among nature, among inanimate objects”

    I mean. we understand very little about the inner life of animals. We are beginning to make some very minor inroads into understanding others’ consciousness but there are vast barriers to understanding (I mean, look at how little we understand of our *own* intelligence) and very little research into it. The things we are learning about with animals, though, point to many of them having much more complex and rich inner lives and intelligences than we’ve given them credit for in the past. I certainly wouldn’t rule out free will in animals just yet.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My teenage son installed Windows 3.1 on his iPod, for no apparent reason other than that it amused him to do so.

      An interesting factoid I came across recently is that chimpanzees cannot keep time to music. They can get close, but if you listen closely it becomes apparent that they are always just slightly behind. That is, they are always reacting to what they hear, not anticipating what comes next. Anticipating the future seems like it might be a key component of free will. Of course, this lack of anticipation may just relate to quite abstract things like musical rhythms. I am sure there are plenty of examples of animals anticipating more concrete events such as being fed or milked or so on.


      1. With climbing you literally find the most difficult possible way up a cliff for no reason other than to challenge yourself.

        So on a related-ish note, there’s evidence that caching birds (particularly blue jays, of the corvid family, for instance) will take precautions against thieving behaviour. If a blue jay sees that it’s being watched by another while it caches food, it might just pretend to cache and fly off, or it will cache it, but return later and re-cache it elsewhere. Importantly, though, it seems that only blue jays who’ve previously thieved food this way can anticipate that behaviour, so it seems there’s some sense of self and understanding of motivation for particular behaviours, and it can understand that others may be similarly motivated, too. (All this and so much more in The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman)

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Has Molyneux never had a pet? Anyone who as ever met a cat or dog (or ferret or horse or insert your animal of choice) has certainly seen them exercise something that looks very much like free will, frequently to the amusement or annoyance of the local shaved ape population. Understand, I’m not necessarily claiming it as fact that animals have “free will” (whatever that is) in the same sense we do (although I suspect they do); KasaObake is right that we still know little about the inner workings of animal or human minds, but one thing we do know about ours is that just because we see or experience something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s really there. But to claim that “We do not see or experience even the idea of free will among animals” is just plain looney.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Is he claiming animals can’t have free will as a way of creating/establishing human exceptionalism?

      Humans are special, in other words, because we have free will — which is a mystical sort of thing, apparently, very different from making choices (which obviously any mutt or corvid can do)?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I was going to comment on similar lines – the apparently unexamined assumption that non-human animals don’t have free will struck me as rooted in human exceptionalism.

        Liked by 3 people

  7. The para just below the XKCD set off my cult alarms like whoa.

    And not only is the VCR discussion pointless, it’s incorrect*, and he’s old enough to have partly grown up with the things. Hardly “ancient”. “How do you do, fellow young people?” indeed.

    Anyone who says your average dog or cat doesn’t have free will (assuming that people do, that it’s possible) is also dumb and hasn’t ever observed any non-human critters. Cats are so good at free will that not only do they have it, they can suppress yours with theirs.

    *Don’t make me quote that “no points, dumber, God’s mercy” speech again, Molyneux. Even if it is the best summary of your work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hell I’m only 30 and my family had VCRs for *at least* a third of my life. I’m pretty sure my 10 year old self had a better grasp on how they worked than Molyneux does now.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. I still own one. Just in case. There’s a lot of stuff not on DVD/BR, so we keep one on hand (though not in the main circuit).

        Although there was that time all the DVR tuners/slots were full up and so we recorded one OTA program — the least important — on the VCR, because it was on some channel that didn’t stream stuff online.


      2. I still have a VCR, too, for the same reason as Lurkertype, namely to play the movies/TV shows that are not on DVD or online, at least not in my region. And there are quite a lot of those, particularly more obscure movies you love for some reason. So if I want to rewatch Jake Speed or Slaughter of the Innocents or Direct Hit, I have to break out the good old VCR. I’m pretty sure I could still persuade it to record a TV program, too.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Whenever I see pop philosophy free will discussions I vacillate between being glad I didn’t study philosophy because it’s obviously a waste of time, and thinking that everyone ought to study philosophy because actual philosophers must be better at this and if everyone studied philosophy the world would be saved from this popularized babble.

    And then I spend too much time thinking up my own take on free will. Which is mainly that “it’s all about definitions, but for all practical purposes we have free will by any meaningful definition.”

    Liked by 1 person

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