The Grand Illusion

By Ron Patterson

When it comes to the determinism – free will debate, I like to divide the world into two camps, the determinists and those who do not understand what the debate is all about.  I say this half in jest and half out of sheer exasperation.

Almost every argument I have ever encountered about determinism and free will actually come down to a debate over semantics. If there is anything I do not wish to debate here, it is semantics. So before we can even begin, we must first nail down exactly what we are talking about. And, I believe, if I can do that, the entire argument will simply vanish in the ecstasy of understanding and we can, like Archimedes, run through the streets shouting “Eureka”.

Alas, that is not likely to happen because the illusion of free will is I believe, innate and nothing taxes my powers of explanation, as does this difficult subject. But if I am successful, I can promise you that you will never see the world in the same light again.  More on that later but now let’s deal with the semantics.

The term “free will” has two meanings; the first as it is used in everyday language and the second as it is used philosophically.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: 

free will:

1. Voluntary choice or decision.  “I do this of my own free will.”

2. Freedom of human beings to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.

Now you can see where the confusion arises. The first definition is correct but only as it is used in everyday language. It is not correct in the philosophical sense, only the second definition is philosophically correct. Unfortunately, it is the first definition which the vast majority wish to use, even when debating the existence of free will in the philosophical sense.

That we have free will, as described in Mr. Webster’s first definition, is self-evident. Only a fool would argue against free will in that usage. The second definition is an entirely different matter. This definition specifies that free will implies choices that are not determined by prior causes. The last four words of the definition, “or by divine intervention” are redundant because divine intervention would be a prior cause. We can, therefore, shorten our definition of free will to, “freedom of human beings to make choices that are not determined by prior causes”.

 Henceforth when I use the term “free will” I will always be using it in the second usage, “choices that are not determined by prior causes”.

 The philosophical theory that human beings have no such freedom is called determinism.

 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary:


a theory or doctrine that acts of the will, occurrence in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws.

 Before we go further I would like to clear up one point of confusion about determinism. It is often argued that quantum physics proves the theory of determinism wrong. Because the random decay of a radioactive isotope is truly random and cannot possibly be predicted, future events cannot be determined. This may very well be true but it has absolutely nothing to do with our debate here. We are not talking about predictability or determining future events we are discussing only causes, that is, the why behind acts of the human will. If an atom of carbon-14 decays in a neuron of your brain, causing you to choose one act over another, that is still a cause. Such an analogy really strengthens our argument rather than weakening it.

 Spinoza, in his essay on ethics, put it beautifully short and exactly to the point:

“There is no such thing as free will.  The mind is induced to wish this or that by some cause and that cause is determined by another cause, and so back to infinity”.

 Notice that Spinoza uses the word wish. We are induced to wish this or that. This is a very important point. It is not what we do but why we wish to do what we do. It is not the choices we make but our reasons for making those choices. In other words, exactly why do we wish to do this or that? Exactly what kind of cause is Spinoza referring to here?

Let’s get to the meat of the matter. There are two kinds of determinism, there is biological determinism and there is environmental determinism. Simply put, biological determinism means your genetic makeup that was determined at conception and environmental determinism means everything that has happened to you since. Your heredity and your environment are who, or what, you are and that is absolutely all you are.

I do not wish to debate the weight of genes over environment or vice versa. I only wish here to point out that determinism, without a qualifier, implies the sum total of both your heredity and environment And, I might add, it implies absolutely nothing else. That is enough however because there is nothing else to add.

Now one could argue with this point. One might say, “No, there is something else, something other than genes or environment. But what would this something be, what would it look like and what properties would it contain? Robert Wright in “The Moral Animal” put it this way:

“Of course, you can argue with the proposition that all we are is knobs and turnings, genes and environment. You can insist that there’s something…something MORE. But if you try to visualize the form this something would take, or articulate it clearly, you’ll find the task impossible, for any force that is not in the genes or the environment is outside of physical reality as we perceive it. It’s beyond scientific discourse.”

Now one may ask, so what? So we are the sum total of our genes and our environment, does this really mean anything profound to us? Well, yes…it does. The implications are absolutely enormous. Dwell on this for a second; all your decisions, everything you choose to do or say, will be determined by the person you have become which was determined by your heredity and environment. That is the entire essence of the determinism – free will debate.

I have often debated this subject with others who hotly contest the idea that their every action, their every thought is determined by their heredity and environment. The debate invariably goes something like this:

“Okay, if you do not believe that your heredity and environment is the determining factor in your every action, then just tell me what else there is?”

They wrinkle their brow, purse their lips, then they raise their index finger as if to make a very important point. Their next words are as predictable as tomorrow’s sunrise.

“But still………..”

 What is meant by the “but still” is; “I realize that everything I am was created, either by my genetic makeup or by my past environment, but I still have free will. I cannot explain it, I just do that’s all”.

Or, perhaps just as often it goes something like this; “while it must be true that we are the product of our heredity and environment we still have a sense of right and wrong, that much is self-evident”.

Well, yes and no. A sense of right and wrong is a relative thing but that is not the point of contention. Even how you became the person you are can no longer be disputed. Unless one chooses to believe in something else, something nebulous, something outside of the domain of science, then it must be accepted that one is the product of one’s heredity and environment.  But what does this say about responsibility, about culpability, about just rewards or punishment, and more than anything else, what does this say about fairness? Well, I shall say more about these very profound questions a bit later, but now let me digress a little.

French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre’s famous maxim is existence before essence. That is, we had to exist before our nature could be revealed. Existence had to come before anything else. Sartre felt, and I agree, that this was a self-evident truth. To that, I would like to add my not so famous maxim, essence before action. It must be our nature to do something before we do it.

Essence before action or, the evil a man is must precede the evil a man does. Likewise, the good a man is must precede the good a man does. For a person to purposefully commit any act, then that person must already possess the qualities that predisposed him to commit that act. That is the entire determinism – free will debate in a nutshell.

So what, you may ask, an evil man commits an evil act, what has this to do determinism? Well, the question is, how did he get to be evil? The man could not make himself evil because that would be an evil act and a man must already be evil to commit an evil act. The answer is simple; the evil man was created from his heredity and environment.

Okay, I can hear you screaming your objections, but allow me a few more lines. You have heard of the words “psychopath” and “sociopath”. Both words mean exactly the same thing, “without conscience”.  Those who believe that a lack of conscience is genetic favor the word “psychopath”. Those who believe the abnormality is caused by one’s environment tend to use the word “sociopath”. The latter believe it is a socially induced abnormality. It really makes no difference whatsoever, the point is, the person did not deliberately destroy their own conscience, they simply found themselves without one.

A good analogy is a blind man, a man who was either born blind or lost his sight in a childhood accident. A psychopath can no more be blamed for the loss of his conscience than the blind man can be blamed for his loss of sight.

But in a psychopath, we are dealing with the extremes. What about evil people who are not psychopaths you ask? What about ordinary people? Ordinary people are subject to the same genetic and environmental as a sociopath. Just because one was born with the genetic material for a normal conscience does not mean that extreme forces in the environment cannot numb it.

But the fact that our environment often molds us should come as a surprise to no one. Moralists have for centuries been preaching that children should be brought up morally straight in order that they become morally straight adults. “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it”, Proverbs, 22,6. Or the priest’s adage, “Give me a boy until he is seven and I will give you the man”.

Likewise, where a good and moral upbringing most often leads to a good and moral adult, a child brought up in a pernicious environment very often leads to a wasted, ruinous and villainous life. The ghetto child, with a single mother who is often a dope using prostitute, and is brought up in the streets where murder, thievery and illegal trafficking in narcotics is a way of life, cannot be expected to develop into a model citizen. The verse from Proverbs could be rewritten, “Train up a child in the ways of the ghetto and when he is old, he will not depart from it”.

But still, one may say, a good child will often turn badly and a ghetto child will often become the perfect moral citizen. Granted this sometimes happens but it never happens without a cause. The cause could be genetic, as is the case of the psychopath, or it could the child suffered a traumatic experience.  More often, however, it is caused by the influence of others. Peer pressure has far more effect on children than most people imagine. But also there is often the influence of a powerful adult personality in the child’s life. A neighbor, a relative, or even some role model that the child only knows from a distance can be the trigger effect that starts him or her down the wrong path or turns the child to the right one.

But still….. Notice how we keep coming back to that objection. But still, first the child, then the adult knows right from wrong and this makes him morally culpable. Well, not exactly. Such knowledge is a relative thing. Knowing what conduct society expects of them and what they perceive is a right and proper course for themselves is often two different things. Any act of the will, regardless of the moral consequences of that act, is always based upon prior data absorbed from one’s environment.

In 1997 there was a great chess match. Both opponents were near evenly matched. When one player would make a move, the other would weigh all of his possible moves before deciding on his next choice. Each choice was made only after deep consideration of the possible consequences of that move. The match lasted for six games before a winner was determined. The winner was a computer called Deep Blue and the loser was the world’s champion, Garry Kasparov.

Those who would attribute Kasparov’s every move to free will would surely deny the same to Deep Blue. But why? Kasparov’s hardware was made of DNA while that of Deep Blue was made of silicone. Deep Blue’s programming consisted of massive amounts of instructions and data received from programming experts, chess experts, and past histories of other games. Ditto for Kasparov.

It is not my intention in the above example, to suggest that people are like dispassionate computers. My only intention is to show that freedom of choice does not automatically infer free will. That is, the choices one makes are caused by past experiences. Past experiences and genetic makeup are the molding forces that created the will, which determined the action. Choice and action do not automatically spring from nothingness. Your choices and action are determined…..determined by the person you are which was determined by your heredity and environment.

Hypothetically, suppose there exists a man who was born with none of his five senses. Suppose this man had a normal brain, except there were no possible inputs to this brain whatsoever. Now we are dealing hypothetically here, so we are supposing the man survived until adulthood via a feeding tube and other medical devices that kept him alive. But here is my question, what would the man think about? What philosophical questions might this man contemplate?

The answer is, of course, the man would contemplate nothing, he would not have a thought in his head. A man could not possibly think about anything until he had something to think about. Since nothing had ever entered his head, nothing could be thought about. The man’s mind would exist in a void of nothingness and, in this case, at least, nothingness begets nothing.

Before I go further, I must state that I am not of the tabula rasa school. That is, I do not believe that we are born with a mind, which is a blank slate, to be molded entirely by our environment. No, we are born with a plethora of instinctive tendencies. All of us have some instincts in common, the suckling instinct for instance. But other instincts such as jealousy, are not shared equally by all. Some are more prone to violence, which I believe, is at least partially instinctive. Of course, it goes without saying that such genetic traits as a propensity to violence are never distributed equally among those unfortunate enough to inherit them. And, I believe emphatically that many are born more or less genetically endowed with a thing that can loosely be called general intelligence than others are.

But ideas and concepts are not instincts. I have heard it argued that spirituality is a genetic trait. Perhaps so but Catholicism is not. If one is genetically bent toward religiosity, one is still likely to be religious only in the religion of their early environment. One is not born with preconceived ideas on politics or religion. All such concepts are usually drummed into our heads as children. They can, however, be absorbed from our general environment if we were fortunate enough to have parents who were not determined to mold our malleable little minds in the shape of their own particular dogma.

Parental influence should never be underestimated. Psychologists have known for decades that abusive parents were themselves, in the vast majority of cases, abused as children. Their abused children will in turn, very likely become child abusers themselves. It is ironic that the children, while they are being abused, are the recipients of our overwhelming love and pity. But the moment that they take their turn on the abusive cycle, they are the targets of the deepest and vilest hatred we can muster. Never a thought is given as to how they arrived at this loathsome point in their lives. Any excuse they may offer falls on deaf ears and we sanctimoniously declare that they will get the punishment that they so richly deserve.

Monsters can be created. Any child raised by parents who are incapable of love, who never show the child any affection, never caress or hold the child and give them kind and soothing words, will be incapable of expressing love as an adult. Then if you beat that child severely, usually for little or no reason at all, then that child will likely do likewise when he or she becomes an adult. Some monsters are created. Others, like the psychopath, are born that way.

In every measure, you are who you are and behave the way you behave because of genetic and environmental happenstance. Your moral code, your entire philosophy of life was built using bricks and mortar of your genes and environmental fortune. Any moral quality that you now possess had to first find its way into you by happenstance before it could become part of your moral philosophy. That, in a nutshell, is genetic and environmental determinism.

Okay, now that we have settled that, what does it mean? What does this say about culpability, about how we should treat criminals? What does this say about our belief system?

That is a very deep and complex subject of which I can only offer a few hints. First, if you can grasp the full implications of the illusion of free will, it will probably dramatically change the way you think about other people’s behavior. It should not, however, change the way you behave. That may sound startling at first, that we should continue to treat the illusion as if it were real, but that is really absolutely necessary for a society to function properly.

First, moral training works. We should, as the proverb goes, train up a child in the way he should go. A great deal of tribal dogma is bound to slip through with all the good training but is an unfortunate side effect of the system. Second, because the proper training often is not received or does not work, a system of rewards and punishments is necessary. Remember that our environment influences us all and when quick retribution is seen as a probable consequence of improper behavior, it effectively alters behavior.

I know, if we are not ultimately responsible for our actions, retribution is unfair, it is blaming the victim. Yes, this is absolutely correct, it is unfair but nothing in life is fair. It is not fair that some are born far more genetically fit than others are. It is not fair that some are born into riches and some are born into abject poverty. In some places of dire poverty, many children are dumped on the streets to fend for themselves while still in their pre-teens. They are forced to steal for their daily bread. Even to those whom life has dealt such cruel and unfair blows, we still must heap on more unfairness. No, it is not fair, only necessary. Without the threat of punishment for improper behavior, society could not function.

The retributive urge is a Darwinian adaptation that goes back to our animal ancestors. The fear of retribution has kept both man and beast behaving in a manner that contributes to the proper function of their respective societies. Without this fear, without a system of rewards and punishment, anarchy would reign. In an anarchical society, there would be no order, only chaos. Retribution, therefore, has a practical foundation though it is totally without intellectual foundation.

Though some aspects of the blameless criminal have worked its way into our justice system, the insanity defense, for instance, it is not likely to go much further. I believe, however, that our justice system should look at the criminal differently. Instead of focusing on the just desserts of the criminal, it should focus entirely on society instead.

Since nothing is truly fair, there is no such thing as “just desserts”. What the system should ask itself in every instance is this question, “In sentencing the convicted criminal, what course of action would have the greatest positive effect on society, on possible future criminals, and on the future behavior of the convicted man himself”? First, the sentence should remove the man from society if he still poses a threat to the public. Second, the sentence should be sufficient to hopefully deter others from committing the same or similar crimes. And third, the sentence should emphasize rehabilitation rather than retribution.

It should also be recognized that some criminals could never be rehabilitated. The psychopath, for instance, was born without a conscience and no amount of training will ever create one for him. The homicidal psychopath or pedophile should therefore never be released into society as long as they are physically capable of committing such crimes, as is their nature to do so.

As evolutionary psychologists come to realize the true implications of the illusion of free will, one might think this would have some effect on our criminal justice system. This is not likely to be the case. The vast majority of judges, jurors, prosecutors and especially victims, will continue to push for retribution. The illusion of culpability is embedded into our psyche by thousands of years of evolution and will not be removed by a few academics saying “but it’s not really their fault”.

The harsh retribution dealt by our criminal justice system is really not a tragic consequence of the illusion of culpability. As I pointed out earlier, a system of rewards and punishment is absolutely necessary for the proper function of a civilized society. Full enlightenment by the general public of the illusion of free will should not change our system in principle, only in degrees. The insanity defense would disappear because, after all, everyone would have that same defense. Criminals, convicted of very serious crimes, would be sentenced because such people must be removed from society until they are rehabilitated if they can be rehabilitated. The sentence should also be meted out with an eye on the effect such sentencing will have on others who might be inclined to commit such crimes. The word “retribution” would be totally absent from any and all proceedings. 

People often ask me, “If you do not believe in free will, why do you always behave as if you do”? I find this question most strange. How am I supposed to behave? Free will is an illusion but it is an illusion I cherish. You and I, regardless of our insight into the matter, must behave as if free will was not an illusion. Free will, or rather the illusion of free will, is the meat and potatoes of everyday life. We go about our daily lives seldom realizing the causes of our actions but always on guard as to the consequences of them.

There is one place, however, where realizing that free will is just an illusion has made a dramatic change that is in my belief system. I no longer believe in anything remotely resembling divine retribution. So-called divine retribution was never anything but a hammer, a tool used to frighten and coerce credulous people to follow one particular religious dogma or another.

I know not what if anything follows this life. I think it very possible that something does survive the death of our physical bodies. Perhaps, perhaps not. I have seen a few things in my lifetime that have planted lingering doubts in my mind. But that is another story for another time. There are two things, however, that I believe with every fiber of my being.

Life is terribly unfair. No two people on earth are created equal or are born into equal circumstances with equal opportunities or have an equal chance for happiness in this life. This makes life so desperately unfair. And the unfairness only ends at death.

Ronny Orman Patterson   

April, 2001

Addendum, February 12, 2017

Two statements that cannot be denied:

  1. Every Choice you make is determined by who you are.
  2. Who you are is determined by your genetic makeup and everything that has ever happened to you since conception.


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47 Responses to The Grand Illusion

  1. RalphW says:

    Here is my take. Is the world deterministic? No. Do we have free will ? No.

    At the quantum level, events are random. Or at least, if there is any predetermined mechanism that triggers a given atomic nucleus to fission at any given moment, it is as far beyond our scientific knowledge as to be effectively random. We have well defined statistical models of quantum behaviour, but the world does not run on clockwork. Events are truly random, the world is not deterministic.

    Free will can only mean that something – some model in our brain’s interconnections and quantum interactions, constitutes the ‘me’ that analyses data and makes decisions based on that data, ‘my’ analysis of it, and my memory (stored pattern of quantum levels) that ‘I’ refer to before ‘deciding’ on one course of action or another. However, that decision must ultimately boil down to a single quantum transition which cascades in one direction or another , and leads to me saying yes or no. But we know that all quantum transitions are ultimately random. There can be no choice because all choices are the result of random events. ‘We’ do not exist.

    • Ralph, I agree and disagree with parts of your argument. First, we do exist. I agree with Descartes on that point, “I think therefore I exist”. Whether or not we are the result of random events, we still exist.

      Second I think you are giving way too much weight to quantum events. My essay was not about a deterministic universe but about human choices and actions, or “acts of the human will”. There may be occasions when a random thought pops into your head because of the decay of some carbon-14 atom somewhere in your brain. I doubt it but it may be possible. And to say that we do not “choose” is a bit misleading, especially to those who are not familiar with the free will argument.

      Yes we do choose but our choices are determined by our genes and our past experiences, our environment, even our prenatal environment. Or as Robert Wright so aptly put it: “knobs and turnings”. That is what the word “determinism” means in this argument. It does not mean that the path of every atomic particle in the universe is determined, it means that acts of the human will are determined by our genes and our environment, or what we were born with and everything that has happened to us since then.

      It is my very strong opinion that we do not need to resort to quantum physics to explain the free will-determinism argument.

      • youngpeaker says:

        I have had this debate with friends and fellow students at my University. I tend to take the Hegelian argument with this “debate.” Hegel sees this as a classic dialectic where you have two things that seem incompatible but also both have truth in terms of our perceptive reality. They are really the same thing just described differently by different people. For example, growing up in the US in an upper-middle class family, you are, if all things hold constant, most likely “pre-determined” to go to college if one follows all the general rules of that environment (not go to jail, not flunk classes, not have an epiphany where you want to travel and live in India, etc…), and I would agree that much of this is out of the kids control. You get to the point of graduation of High School, and and you have a choice between three schools that share some similarity that causes you to think of only this set of schools as viable. But, if I’m that student and I pick school A instead of school B, then I think that I made a choice, a free choice, between those three, and indeed you did when looking at the choice in a vacuum. A determinist would say that the choice was already made for you by the culmination of your experiences (influences by parents, counselors, teachers, friends, environment, etc…), but this logic is also found in a vacuum. Let’s say school B sees that you are interested in going there, but you have already decided on school A. Now school B has 3 scholarships left and they have 5 students that qualify with the exact same credentials. School B RANDOMLY picks you for one of those scholarships, sends you the good news in the mail, and all of a sudden School B looks much more appealing than school A, the choice you originally made “freely.” Now you “freely” pick school B, but we know this was a result of the random event. Now was the choice by school B to pick you pre-determined? Yes and no. The five students that were left to choose form was indeed pre-determined, but the completely random choice of picking from five identical students (by the way, this often happens with admissions) was not pre-determined. In this case, a random event changed the determination of a choice that was supposedly already made.

        Look, I agree that it is very harmful for a society to believe that all the choices they make are solely due to their free-will because this leads to separation/alienation/ignorance to cause and effect relationships in science etc… But I would also say that relying, solely, on cause and effect relationships such as determinism requires results in a contrived view of the world, where control of one’s life is impossible because everything I did, am doing, and will do is a result of some “force” putting the matter of my body and mind into motion. This logic, although not identical, seems similar to the “divine plan” logic of judeo-christian belief systems, which can stifle revolutionary thought by simply thinking that the problems of my world have already been put in motion so I should just stop fighting to change them and just react/adapt to whatever happens.

        My take is that everything starts with choice. There are literally an infinite amount of choices one can make at any time in any place, but a combination of our environment and genes have caused people to only see some choices as possible. With each choice, a set of effects are set in motion that reproduce new choices, in large and smaller quantities, that are a result of that choice a person made combined with the choices billions of other people made and environmental changes, that can only be described as semi-organized randomness (what we are realizing is occurring at the quantum level understood in the new fields of chaos math and the like). Science is the bridge between pure determinism and pure free-will. It tries to make sense of the randomness by finding patterns and relationships. We will never truly understand the randomness of the Universe, nor should we be afraid of the complexity of that randomness and instead believe that “everything I do is solely a result of me.”

        The brilliance of Hegel was not just recognizing dialectical contradictions, but understanding that in order to escape them, one must “zoom-out” and assign these two categories into one larger determined category to be found through speculation. In other words, neither is entirely right because you can’t define one without the other, but you can begin to make sense of the distinction if you assume both as given “moments” in a new conception I would describe as organized randomness.

        • I find it really frustrating when people confuse the randomness of nature with the determinism of the human will. The two are totally unrelated. And determinism does not mean pre-determined. All it means is that your choices are determined by a combination of your genes and your environment. If you decide to partake in a crap game the roll of the dice has absolutely nothing to do with determinism. How you bet does. How the dice roll may, or may not be, completely random. But how you bet will be determined by how much money you have, how lucky you feel, how much you love gambling and a host of other factors that affect how you think. But the freewill-determinism debate has absolutely nothing to do with which spots come up on the face of each die.

          The random pick of the of school B is not remotely related to the freewill-determinism debate. Random events happen all around you hundreds of times a day. Your reaction to these random events is what the debate is all about, not the events themselves. Your reaction to an event, any event random or otherwise, will be determined by your genetic makeup and everything that has ever happened to you in your lifetime.

          There is a variety of determinism that says that all physical events are determined. I don’t know about and don’t really care about that debate. I am only concerned with with the deterministic nature of the human will.

    • Tamber says:

      Wow! Great to find a post with such a clear mesgsae!

  2. Pete says:

    I think both Ralph and Ron make valid comments. Any analogy can be taken too far and so let’s not get hung up about quantum theory. You are right I think to not believe in divine retribution as we are what we are and we do what we do. We know in our heart what is right and wrong may be but it is only our conscience, that some believe is something of a common consciousness. Descartes has a point too but it is not all about thinking from our genes and growing up environment. We can raise ourselves above this and make a choice of true freewill if we are open to all we are from the past, be present in the and feel what comes intuitively inside, from a position of the heart rather than from the gut. Love is the thing that heals those who have been abused and can take us to a new and different future over-riding our past. This cannot be thought through in a Cartesian way alone but needs that spark of humanity. I hope you can maintain your illusion of freewill or accept it might be there if we allow it to arise from a right sense of being, the choice is yours!

  3. youngpeaker says:


    Let me lead off by saying that I really enjoyed what you wrote and I visit the site often. I was so glad to finally read about someone that understands the issues and talks about the issues of punishment in this society. Most people put way to much blame on people who start off their life in environments that deteriorate their physical and emotional health. This is a result of heredity and environment. All I’m saying is the environment and genetics are not only causes, but they are also effects.

    “My only intention is to show that freedom of choice does not automatically infer free will. That is, the choices one makes are caused by past experiences. Past experiences and genetic makeup are the molding forces that created the will, which determined the action. Choice and action do not automatically spring from nothingness. Your choices and action are determined…..determined by the person you are which was determined by your heredity and environment.”

    The problem is people don’t have freedom of choice. It may seem like we do with all the meaningless choices we make everyday. But the big choices… those are made certain people. Farmers up in North Dakota don’t get to decide if a fracking well near them releases deadly chemicals, or where that oil goes. Neither do the workers on the rig. But there are choices being made by the board members of BP. This is determined by your evironment… or its determined by the board member of BP. I just don’t want this to turn into giving up to retribution as a “necessary” consequence. The people that are dying in Africa in genocides and civil wars are not the people that need to be punished by retribution. They arn’t some Darwinian adaptation failure because they couldn’t adapt to their societal demands. The people who make the most important choices in this world society known as capitalism make sure they are continuing to reproduce the effect of capitalism that causes so much despair.

    Let me just ask you, would you justify the notion of private property?

    I know I wouldn’t because everything I’ve ever learned, experienced and every choice I have made and am going to make was caused by the actions of billions of people before me as well as billions of years of evolutionary biology. If I made a chair for instance, after chopping down the tree with an axe I made myself I could not call it solely mine. That would be ignoring all the people in my life that taught me to make a chair. Without them that chair wouldn’t exist in front of me. The same goes for the money I pay the funiture store when I bring one home. Money is just a symbolic form of social labor as exchange value. In fact, the reason people are starving in Africa is becuase the social labor they are using is not resulting in any kind of physical, emotional, or symbolic form of value for themselves. Not to any fault of theirs. That is a result of SOME human will determining another humans will. This shit is organized randomness, at least to me, but often I don’t find myself being able to organize anything of importance.

    • Farmers up in North Dakota don’t get to decide if a fracking well near them releases deadly chemicals, or where that oil goes. Neither do the workers on the rig. But there are choices being made by the board members of BP.”

      Youngpeaker, freedom of choice does not imply that people can choose what other people do to them or that they can simply “choose” to change their environment. Nothing of sorts is implicit in freedom of choice. People can only choose what they do, not what other people do. Your politics is admirable but politics has nothing to do with the free will-determinism debate.

      Freedom of choice, just like free will, is an illusion. People’s choices are determined by their genes and their environment. That is the whole crux of my argument. What other people do to them is part of their environment. Fracking or private property is part of their environment. Your environment is part of what controls you, part of what determines your choices, not the other way around.

  4. Mark, your post coved several subjects, some of them totally unrelated. This blog is about peak oil and non-renewable energy resources but this page of this blog is not. So I will not respond to any peak oil or related subjects here but will be glad to if you post on one of the posts of which I post every couple of weeks.

    Now to the subject of my above essay, what it is about and what it is not about. It is not about determinism or randomness in the physical universe. There are some who believe that physical events in the universe are all pre-determined by what is happening right now. They argue that if we had a computer powerful enough to track every particle and sub atomic particle in the universe that we could determine where they are headed and what will happen next.
    Others argue that many things in the universe are truly random, especially on the atomic and sub-atomic scale, and because of these random events nothing can be truly determined to any great extent.

    I don’t know which of these positions are correct and I really don’t give a damn. My essay and my position on the subject has absolutely nothing to do random events in the universe.
    My essay and my debate is about human behavior and has nothing to do with physical events. The question is, and it is the only question, is human behavior determined entirely by genes and environment or is there “something else”. Random events, even the decay of radioactive isotopes, fall under “environment”.

    That is the debate is about the human will. The physical universe has no will and certainly is not human therefore it has nothing to do with this debate.

    I used the Carbon 14 example in an attempt to show why randomness has nothing to do with the debate. Apparently I failed. Perhaps I should rewrite part of the essay in a further attempt to explain that randomness is not something apart from genes or environment. Random mutations may indeed be responsible for genetic changes but that is still in your genes. You do not control your genes. And random events may indeed change your behavior but random events are part of your environment.

    You do not control random events, whether they are random DNA mutations or random events outside your body. Therefore randomness of any type or fashion cannot give you free will. Something that is beyond your control cannot give you control.

    It is my contention that your every wish, and therefore your every action, is determined by a combination of your genetic makeup and events, past or present, in your environment.

    It is your contention that there is “something else”. Yet you did not explain what this something else in, where it might exist or where it came from. Something that is in neither in the genes or in the environment is, as Robert Wright put it, “beyond scientific discourse.” You just “believe” there is something else. Therefore it is a matter of faith on your part.

    Faith, or belief is something unproven, or as in this case unprovable, basically describes a religious position. I do not argue religious positions.

    Now about your doubt of evolution. Though this page is not about evolution any more than it is about peak oil, I will give a quick critique of your position.

    You say that random mutation cannot create new genes. Random mutation does not create “new” genes it creates “different” genes. That is it changes genes. That is something every dog breeder knows. A Chihuahua is nothing but a genetically modified wolf. Both are the same species, the canine species. There is nothing genetically that keeps them from interbreeding, only physical size and perhaps temperament prevents that.

    So it should be obvious that genetic mutation can create great changes in phenotype. But what creates a different species. Different species cannot interbreed.

    On the island of Madagascar there are over 50 different species of lemurs. Some of them are as small as a mouse and some are as large as dogs. And some different species of lemurs look almost exactly like other species yet they cannot interbreed. There is a very good reason for this.

    Many times in the past the sea level has risen to the point where Madagascar was two islands. For many thousands of years lemurs of the same species were separated. They were separated for so long that, due to genetic drift, they were not capable of interbreeding whenever the waters receded and the Madagascar became one island again.

    Bottom line, natural selection created differences in phenotypes but it took tens of thousands of years of separation to create the inability to interbreed and a new species.

    The phenotype can change so drastically that an entirely new type of animal is created. And after tens of thousands of years of separation they can no longer interbreed and become a totally different species.

  5. Doug Leighton says:


    Consciousness reflects our place in the universe, the nature of our existence. Did consciousness evolve from complex computations among brain neurons or has consciousness, in some sense, been here all along, as spiritual approaches maintain? This seems to be part of the free will question but I would add one more parameter, memory. Who (what) are we separated from what we remember? And how much of what we remember reflects other people’s reality. What is reality? And, if we remember something it actually becomes our reality. If I remember going to the store yesterday to buy eggs then, assuming I did, this reflects my reality. But even if I didn’t but think I did this is still my reality. OK, 50 years ago I went to New Zealand on a working holiday and had experiences and the ones I remember became my reality and are reflected in the decisions that I make – consciously or subconsciously. Last year I met a friend, Ian, with whom I spent three months in NZ. Comparing notes, our memories of shared experiences differ, sometimes completely. Now we’re both reasonably honest chaps and I have no reason to think Ian’s recollection of event X is less accurate than mine but the way he remembers it affects his behaviour today as the way I remember it affects my actions. I would argue that with no memory of anything we have no consciousness and no basis to make rational decisions. I would further suggest that the decisions we do make, think we make, are based on what we recall and recall reflects memory which is our reality. I’m not talking about instinct: breathing, reacting to being burnt, etc. These are hard wired in all species. In my opinion belief in God or the Tooth Fiery, is strictly a survival consequence of consciousness and therefore, in a sense our curse. Awareness of mortality, perhaps, generates a “universal requirement” for an afterlife – which the brain happily accommodates. It doesn’t have a choice it becomes reality. Nor do we have a choice as to whether we help a drunk in a ditch. This decision comes from moral teachings, survival instincts and memories of analogous events. Memories again. A friend of mine was a pilot in the first Iraqi war. Before flying they used to prepare by doing “missions” in a flight simulator. Virtual reality! He claimed that the next day he actually didn’t know if he had flown in combat or just done a simulation. So what is his reality? What is my reality? Decisions I make are a function of my “reality” not my choice. There is no free will!

    PS. The above could (should) have been written with half as many words. It was “penned” late and with the help of two glasses of Scotch whiskey. I don’t take it all that seriously!



  6. Boddah says:

    You are attempting to ‘prove a negative’. You are supposing, via the data x and y than FW does not exist. It is a neat trick, and its also why I gave up philosophizin after my degree, its too easy to fall into semantics, or watch arguments turn over and over onto themselves.

    Frankly I agree with you in many cases. In fact probably 99+%. Personally I am a Buddhist, and I carry out your argument much farther. As you posit a beginning, your argument that “it all needs causes” is necessarily flawed. You also seem to just assume that whatever you can’t explain by ‘prior history’ is therefore genetic make up. And while its an acceptable argument, it is by no means necessarily true, and it is certainly not currently provable.

    So if you ask me, which you didn’t but lets suppose, I will tell you free will it the ability of humans and perhaps other species, to rebel against their nature, circumstance, and anything else that might dictate their actions. It is my belief that ALMOST no one actually does this, but that everyone is capable of it. Its basically the difference between auto-drive and active driving. Most people are content letting their brain do all the work at hand and sitting back. Some people can reach deep down into their consciousness and touch existence in a different way.

    In the end I think the yogi pulling the scorpion out of the river over and over and the scorpion biting him over and over, both, because it is their nature, are using their free will to do so, (or perhaps only the yogi). To say the yogi can’t stop pulling him out, (unless he does,) because it is his nature, is semantics. And then what if he did, and the scorpion died, and you went ahead and said, oh well you had to do that because your prior experiences and genetic make make you want to prove people like me wrong… and meanwhile for all the semantics we only got a dead scorpion. You didn’t want to get into semantics, but thats what philosophy is, unfortunately.

    Philosophy, eh.

    • Boddah, you are simply wrong. You are trying to make it an argument on semantics when in fact it has nothing to do with semantics. That is your error. You turned to semantics because that is the straw man you can slay when you could not really counter the true argument.

      Heredity and environment, that is all there is. You were made, you did not make yourself. That is the argument you did not touch. That is the argument no one can touch.

  7. Boddah says:

    Oh and btw i think your example of deep blue and kasparov is a poor example. Again its probably semantics, but, if i remember correctly kasparov made an error of his own free will! to lose the match. I do think it cuts to the heart of the semantics you want to avoid. Kasparov made a move he knew was wrong, because he thought it would be in his best interest. It was his understanding that the modern programing for the computer wouldn’t allow it to sacrifice a piece without a foreseeable way to regain it. So kasparov had a decision to make, he chose to set the computer up, and it put him into a bind. The point being was he decided to go against his training and knowledge to outwit an entity which would not have the power to go outside its training and knowledge. Unfortunately for him the computer was programed to do this. But was kasparov programmed to do this? Where in his training of years and year against the best grand masters did, “play the wrong move” come in handy? And if it did, is that sufficient reason for the man to decide in one of the most embarrassing defeats of mankind ever to play the wrong move? I think to say yes, he learned in his life to take the easy way out, and paid for it is naive.

    Humanity is littered with examples of finely honed human machines that go against their training and upbringing. To simply say that it still has to be genes and experience is just words. It doesn’t mean anything, because its unprovable. On the flip side, do we think something as TRULY deterministic as a computer might play against its best interest? No and its not because of genes and training thats for sure.

    I know you can make the above fit your reasoning, just as I can make it fit mine. My point is that you have neglected the soul, or the consciousness itself, in favor of the object. You can’t have the object without the subject. You qualified everything in the beginning saying ‘fit in science’. And I guess thats the rub. Some people just believe there are things science can’t explain.

    • Boddah, the chess match is a perfect example and you proved that point. You tried to make in an argument about the free will of Kasparov. No, it was about Deep Blue. Deep Blue did not have free will. It was made up of hardware (genes) and programmed by man (environment). So was Kasparov.

      You say I neglected soul or consciousness. Soul is a religious concept and when you bring religion into the debate you have lost already. And consciousness is controlled by your genes and everything that has ever happened to you in the past, genes and environment.

      “Of course, you can argue with the proposition that all we are is knobs and turnings, genes and environment. You can insist that there’s something…something MORE. But if you try to visualize the form this something would take, or articulate it clearly, you’ll find the task impossible, for any force that is not in the genes or the environment is outside of physical reality as we perceive it. It’s beyond scientific discourse.” (Robert Wright: The Moral Animal)

      Try, if you can Boddah, try to articulate clearly, that “something else”. If you can then you have countered my argument. If you cannot then you have failed. Just mouthing the words “soul” or “consciousness” articulates absolutely nothing.

  8. robin morrison says:

    It’s really a silly debate in the first place. “Free will” is far too absolute a concept to mean much in the swarming multiplicities of life. So we are derived from the past and move forward into the future. This is nothing new. So we do not invent things out of the blue but rather synthesize from what already is. This is also old news. So we exercise our will within a (theoretically) finite range of whatever this, that, and the third thing are.

    It’s not a useful distinction.

    What is useful is to help people realize that they move from one thing to another, and the former tends to influence the latter. Buddha worked really hard on teaching this concept so that we might learn to actually enjoy some moments of freedom by not thinking about much of anything, insodoing giving us a moment of detachment from the cause-and-effect deterministic sequence.

    Really, the idea that we can’t pull entirely new realities from our ass is no surprise to anyone. The fact that we consistently strive to do so, and in the process often create wild new syntheses from what exists, is far from deterministic: can you predict what humanity will do next except in very broad terms?

    As for that “something else”, here’s one: your firm belief that Deep Blue experiences no volition within its programmed parameters. Fact: you have no idea what Deep Blue does or doesn’t think. You only know what it was programmed to think. Who knows?

    All this determinism stuff comes down to the fact that experience derives from reality (or vice-versa if you prefer). All this proves is that experience happens within a limited range. So? It would take longer than your lifetime to count the items in that limited range, so it is in effect infinite compared to your ability to comprehend it. And yet you claim to be able to do so.

    It is, basically, Manichean nonsense, the essence of a false dichotomy. We are sort of determinist and sort of free; we are neither one nor the other.

    • Christy says:

      I’m not easily imepessrd. . . but that’s impressing me! 🙂

    • Fact: you have no idea what Deep Blue does or doesn’t think. You only know what it was programmed to think. Who knows?

      Fact: I spent my entire career, beginning in 2065, in computers, before retiring in 2004. I know how computer software works. And far more important, I know how computer hardware works. I know exactly what Deep Blue thinks: Absolutely nothing!

      You only show your ignorance when you imply that computers actually think.

  9. DAN says:

    Boddah ,

    I don’t think the chess game was a bad example at all. Kasparov lost the game because of him basing his decision on a wrong piece of information. The question here is how did he come to acquire that wrong understanding of the programming of the modern computer . Could he have avoided forming such a view or better yet could he have prevented his view from affecting his game. And as far as I am concerned he definitely couldn’t have.

    As for the fact that the argument against free will cannot stand if you include metaphysical entities like soul also does not hold true. Even if such kind of entity exists, how on earth can you still hold me responsible for having a soul of a psychopath.

  10. Kishore says:

    I’ll provide a different points on this issue. I will qualify that I happen to be an academic physician and have a fairly robust understanding of the nature of nature.

    1. Free will is not only an illusion, it is easy to prove it does not exist. I am not even sure why I structured my last sentence the way that I did. I am not sure why I even decided to respond to this blog post vs all the others that I skipped over. I am not entirely sure what I will say next. I can predict approximately what I will say based on my past thoughts and experiences. I am pretty sure (with a high degree of certainty) that I am not going to write in Swahili with a high degree of precision. Incidentally, I am not sure why I picked Swahili out of all the various languages that I have ever heard about.

    2. There are extreme psycho-social consequences to being pointed out that free will is an illusion. I think about the free will illusion a LOT. It is best described with the allegory of Adam and the apple of knowledge in the garden. Once you know that free will is an illusion, you cannot return to the naïveté before this knowledge. It will affect EVERYTHING about your life. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the Apple allegory could be understood as SPECIFICALLY speaking about the issue of free will. The Jewish population is among the smartest IQ populations to have ever been known to exist and this likely held true 4000+ years ago as it does now. Notice from point 1. above that no understanding of the broader universe, the inner workings of the brain, nor quantum physics is needed to understand some facts about free will.

    3. A sufficiently high amount of abstraction intellect is required to notice the free will illusion. This would be the likely reason that it is discussed among so people . I do find that it is essential information to people that might work in the CIA advanced interrogation, marketing, or in any area in life where you have to convince other people of something. With free will being an illusion, the words “convince” and “manipulate” essentially mean the same thing.

    4. Almost the entirety of human language has contextual clues to space and time. You would typically say something like: “Meet me at Burger King on Main street at 5pm”. If you left out the information about the location or the time (implicit or implied), the phrase would be somewhat useless. This is an example of how the evolution of the language centers of our brain and the evolution of language in society has emerged based on the basic physical properties of the universe. When you look at “free will”, you can also notice how most of human language and culture has been formed around the idea that free will exists. A person is a “coward” or a “hero” and we celebrate one but often not the other. We assume that the coward had a “choice” about a cowardly decision and therefore is less deserving of accolades. Remember evolution of biological organisms is nature’s way of dealing with the unpredictability of the environment. Many traits such as cowardice and heroism both clearly have a place in the potential survival of the species. On a gaussian distribution of behaviors and environments, there may be some benefit to serial killers or pedophiles that we simply don’t understand the teliology of. A person willing to kill others can be called “murder” in one context and “war” in another. Defined norms for human behavior are necessary for our “hive” to function properly and for us to propagate our species. The absence of free will therefore is unlikely to allow us to have a pedophile run free amongst our children. Nobody EVER said that there are no consequences to your actions… quite the opposite really. A deterministic universe implies that your actions DO have consequences.

    5. In a strange universe, if free will did exist, and determinism did not affect your brain… your behavior would likely seem totally random and unpredictable. It would not even be possible for you to have a “personality” if none of your behaviors followed patterns based on past experiences and your DNA.

    6. Consider your consciousness in this way: A constant simulation of future sensory input. You can imagine seeing an explosion before it occurs. You can imagine feeling the pain of stepping on a nail without having stepped on a nail. You can hear a song in your head before you write it down. Our unconscious thoughts simply result from the inner workings of our brain responding to the external environment. This is true of an amoeba as much as it is true for us. The conscious mind (which we have and the amoeba does not) is like a “sixth sense” that allows us to feel many potential sensory inputs as if they were otherwise real. The parts of our unconscious mind that are injected temporarily into consciousness allow a feedback loop between conscious thoughts and unconscious thoughts. This loop is not much different than the feedback loop of actually stepping on a nail or smelling coffee. In fact you can notice that the sympathetic nervous system (increased heart rate, sweating, etc) can be illicited by a fictional conscious thought as much as an actual threat. Conscious thoughts during the day (basically day dreams) can be primarily differentiated from dreams at night in some simple ways. During the day, conscious thought is being influenced by all of your physical sensory inputs in addition to your subconscious brain activity. Dreaming at night could be seen simply as your subconscious still at work as usual but the subjective experience of the dream is not mixed with much outside world sensory inputs. You “feel” subjectively less in control of night dreams. The truth is that you are not in control of your conscious dreams either, they just feel subjectively less constrained because your body has the ability to act on them more easily.

    7. The absence of free will does not imply that our brain does not have “choices” to make. It just implies that our choices are made by a brain that is controlled by unconscious thoughts which originate from our genetics and experiences which helped form the structure of our current brain. Even the thoughts brought into our “conscious simulator” by our unconscious mind are not really “chosen” individually. They simply occur.

    8. The reason why our dreams seem random to us is likely that we don’t understand what our mind is analyzing in terms of biofeedback from our body. Even dreams clearly have deterministic underpinnings however and are not totally random in the their nature. That’s not to say that there are not random interactions in the universe such as quantum mechanics, entropy, or turbulent motions. What we dream about probably says something about who we are, but why we are dreaming those specific thoughts can never be fully understood.. by ANYONE… EVER. I will never be able to fully understand every particle that ever moved in the universe in order to describe why it rained yesterday either. Our brain functions within the strange constraints of our current universe and our brain evolved within these constraints in order to keep us alive. Of this we can be certain, because after billions of years of evolution… here we are. The universe can be described in its most pure form as “math” or “information” which is a constant debate in theoretical physics. The current position of our mind can be mapped out onto this hologram at the edge of space-time.

    9. I apologize if my ability to explain these issues is not very good. I understand the nature of nature in many ways intuitively but nevertheless find some of these issues difficult to explain since I am not a particularly great writer. I am trying to organize these thoughts as much for myself as for whoever is reading this.

    10. A good read would be “Superintelligence”, a book essentially about the perils of super-human artificial intelligence. No artificial intelligent robot/computer could be designed that would be disconnected from the deterministic universe. No artificial intelligence would have “free will” any more than we do. The robot for example, would always be “stuck” having started out a product of humans… unless it could go back in time and change that fact… in which case it would cease to exist (paradox). An artificial intelligence would be a slave to its sensors and its environment and the particles that makeup its body and mind the same way we would. I really see no point in artificial intelligence since it would most certainly supplant us in every way. You get back to the stories of Adam and the Apple again or perhaps Pandora’s box.

    11. The free will illusion provides a strong defense against the problem of nihilism. Unfortunately once the illusion of free will is broken, you quickly realize empirically that NOTHING MATTERS. I can appreciate that some folks including the author of this blog want to reshape the human justice system based on the knowledge of the free will illusion, however I think the reality is not so rosy. Once the average IQ of the human population is 150-180+, the free will illusion will be OBVIOUS to almost anyone without formal education. Language, culture, and society will automatically adjust accordingly. Most things about human culture that we recognize as normal today will seem VERY unusual in that future. Science in general provides no “hope” of any “purpose” to human existence besides our DNA information propagating until the universe is no more or until a black hole sucked us all in or whatever. The existence of “free will” was the only hope we ever had that we we did mattered outside the context of dominos falling in a deterministic universe. Evolutionarily, religion and our predisposition towards it, is a conscious remedy for the problem of nihilism. Our conscious simulator has to extrapolate for our sensory input beyond death… and voila religion is born. You can come up with any number of permutations for an “afterlife” … all of which are likely to be false. Another problem with nihilism is that it would still exist even if you could live “forever” or if free will were not an illusion and we had the power to shape the universe any way we wanted. There is no obvious purpose to our existence as a whole and even if there were, we wouldn’t know the purpose for that purpose. “Well then who made God?” is the typical question that emerges.

    12. A deterministic universe does not automatically imply a fatalistic universe. This is a common mistake made by amateurs studying this issue. There is very much a difference between the two.

    13. If there was a God, and he lives in a deterministic universe… then he is stuck the same way we are. If there is a God and he lives in an indeterministic universe, we would NEVER be able to understand this creature based on our deterministic context. Nowhere in the spectrum of our existence does God seem to help us solve the problem of giving us the mystical power of free will nor does God work in giving us an ultimate purpose that eliminates the issue of nihilism.

    In the end, your life would be likely better off not biting the Apple of the free will illusion… If you have read this far however, it is really too late already. The genie is out of the bottle for you.

    Some closing thoughts come to mind:
    “Ignorance is bliss”
    “Don’t worry be happy”

    The blog should also include the issue of Superintelligence, a problem that is also “huge” like the free will illusion and the issue of Peak Oil or peak resources. Technology will NOT “save” us.

    • forbin says:

      I see that Kishore does agree with you

      take item 5

      5. In a strange universe, if free will did exist, and determinism did not affect your brain… your behavior would likely seem totally random and unpredictable. It would not even be possible for you to have a “personality” if none of your behaviors followed patterns based on past experiences and your DNA.

      and to my mind , determined by what I’ve just read and everything that I am up to this point , reads

      5. if free will did exist, and determinism did not affect you your behavior would likely seem totally random and unpredictable. It would not even be possible for you to have a “personality” if none of your behaviors followed patterns based on past experiences and your DNA.*

      * this should be genetic make up as we have determined DNA is not all that makes us ( biological sense )

      facinating that the evolution of a self replicating biological “unit” to be more successful ( ie leave more offspring than those who did not ) with a series of pattern recognition traits that allowed the development of self recognition has such trouble understanding the concept of why it thinks the way it does…..


    • Fred Magyar says:

      Free will is not only an illusion, it is easy to prove it does not exist.

      Yes, that is indeed a true statement. However, for all practical purposes as far as we are concerned our turgid little existences proceed as if we did indeed have free will, illusion of such, notwithstanding.

      So basically, I chose to write these words!

      Daniel Dennett – What is Free Will?

  11. james says:

    Hi Ron,

    better to think of free will as a variable than as a binary, with most people in a deterministic mode of thinking and lost in the matrix however free will can be increased by changing your conscious perspective.

  12. forbin says:


    lost in the matrix ? that was just a film you know

    “the free will of Gaia is mainly related to the collective consciousness”

    Gaia is a concept that so far I have seen no proof for , neither has the concept of collective consciousness been proved.

    One could point out that collective consciousness is deterministic as Ron stated , if it does exist then its free will is from its genetic make up ( the life that it includes) and everything that has ever happened to the collective in the past, genetics and environment.

    I gave up on reading the line “Fifth-Dimensional Spirit” as Ron has already countered that argument , sorry it appears to be a posit !


  13. james says:

    Hi Forbin,

    Its not that complicated.

    Decide if you are a conscious entity. Is this consciousness a variable or is it fixed. If it is a variable then there are steps you can take to increase your level of consciousness and your free will.

    Your human mind system in obviously a very advanced quantum computer and therefore is subject not only to the past but also the future in the form of reverse causality.

    This process of reverse causality changes the thought of individuals who then share their thoughts over an increasingly connected internet so as the planet becomes increasingly connected it also becomes less deterministic.


  14. Bill M says:

    “Voluntary choice or decision. “I do this of my own free will.”

    “That we have free will, as described in Mr. Webster’s first definition, is self evident. Only a fool would argue against free will in that usage.”

    I beg your pardon. You don’t know me and here you are calling me names!

    If your proof of the second definition is correct, which it is, then the first must be, on the face of it, also true.

  15. Don Wharton says:

    Ron, It was a delightful surprise to see your excellent essay on this topic. I have been fighting the same war for rational understanding that you are pursuing. We could probably talk for hours about the problems in getting people to understand that which should be obvious. Much of your comment stream above shows the layers of confusion that people can bring to this topic. Keep up the good work.

    I do have a modest quibble with one point that you made. You said, “I think it very unlikely that anything will exist of our consciousness after death. But of course I cannot prove that as no one can prove a negative.”
    There is a distinction between logical proof and logical proof based on empirical evidence. There is nothing about the real world that can be proven with absolute certainty because pure logic applies only to axiomatic mathematical propositions. I would argue that we have adequate scientific proof that all of sensation, memory and cognition is a property of the brain. When the brain dies consciousness dies and we can consider the empirical evidence as adequate proof.

    There are many negatives that can in fact be proven. For many years there was an assumption that ESP and related phenomenon existed using a category of energy that was not yet known. For many people the assumption that an immaterial soul existed and acted by use of this “spiritual” energy. Careful methodology demonstrated that all categories of evidence supporting this phenomenon could not be replicated. Again not “logical” proof but adequate as scientific proof debunking the nonsense. Of course, a very complex book could be pulled together documenting the philosophy of science that I am touching on with this paragraph. It is vastly harder to establish scientific reality than it is to spin a fantasy world that is attractive to the armies of the gullible.

  16. ron says:

    So basically you are saying that being equal genetics and environment two individuals would choose the same action?

    • No, I am not saying that at all. Identical twins have the same genes but no two people on earth have the exact same environment. Even the prenatal environment of identical twins is often different. Often a twisted umbilical cord will cause physical or even mental differences in identical twins. And after birth no two people ever has the exact same environment. Environment is everything that happens to an individual after conception. Every incident, every word they hear, every thing they see influences them and that is never the same for any two individuals on earth.

      And I never “basically” say anything. Either I say it or I do not.

      • Don Wharton says:

        Identical twins often do not have perfectly identical genes. There are flaws in the replication and expression of genetic material that can now be inexpensively detected. Yes, the identical twins are the result of a single fertilized ovum. However, that does not mean that identical genetic information continues.

  17. Ron says:

    OK but I was speaking hypothetically.. So hypothetically speaking could be right what I’m saying, right?
    You know what you have made me understand with this? That the “I” doesn’t exist, that’s the real grand illusion that you are speaking about. Indeed if everything is preordinated by genetics and the accumulation of informations in my mind (=the environment), what’s left for me and you to be? Of course I’m not my mind beacuse it’s just an accumulation of informations depending on the circumstances I happened to live and neither I’m my body that it’s just something that I have inherited and accumulated as well.. So what am I? Who am I? Have you never heard of Spiritual Enlightenment? I think it’s a very correlated topic.. Anyway I hope I’m wrong. Thanks and sorry for my english

    • Okay, I want to make it clear that the “Ron” that wrote the above comment is not the Ron Patterson who wrote the article. And the conclusions that Ron comes to are not necessarily the same conclusions I would would arrive at.

  18. Joseph Neri says:

    How we describe the World determines how we act in it.

    • Fred Magyar says:

      That is absolutely correct. If you talk about the mountains and rivers and forests with all their fauna as sacred places where you ancestors go to dwell after they have lived fruitful lives you end up with a very different relationship to the the land than someone who thinks of a forest as a place to grow and exploit a commodity such as lumber… World views matter greatly!

    • Elly says:

      Ric, many thanks for that – indeed we verify everything immieeatdly after we have made it up and also check carefully anything told to us by our readers as you really can’t be too careful these days.You may have heard of the case of John Daley allegedly coming to play with Tee Set recently; quite disgraceful and certainly not the sort of thing we will ever fall for!!

  19. Nsamwe says:

    I would hate to have a conversation with you about this as it would be quite boring. …… as I agree with you entirely.

    Spot on. All of it. Especially “essence before action.” Spot on.

    Now where was I… oh yes, peak oil..

  20. Chris says:

    Let me rephrase the 2. definition as “human beings are able to make choices that are not determined by prior causes” (if free will is not an illusion)
    If you really believe that free will is an absolute illusion than: “human beings are able to make choices that are not determined by prior causes” would become
    “human beings are not able to make choices that are not determined by prior causes”
    So if we could rewind a day, every human would always make the same decisions every time. Is that what you think would happen?
    I know this is a very hypothetical scenario, because the universe is not deterministic. But can we assume, for the sake of this thought experiment, that day would play out exactly the same way down to the mollecular level except for the brains of the involved humans? Do you think the decisions would be repeated 100% of the time?

    I think that we have a very deterministic “framework” given through the environment and our genes. But on this framework we have (however small it might be) a portion that is left, that is not deterministic. Concious decisions fill that space and only if you were to completly remove the possibility of concious decisions changing outcomes from the whole equasion, free will would become an absolute illusion.
    So while I wholeheartedly agree, that a very large portion of our decision making processes is deterministic… if you acknowledge even to a small degree, that people are able to change outcomes conciously, I think the whole arguement fails.

  21. David F says:

    interesting thoughts… I enjoyed the essay… but still…

    sometimes I’m in a bad mood and if I see an ant on my deck I step on it

    and sometimes I’m in a good mood and if I see an ant on my deck I leave it alone


    but still…

    sometimes I’m in a good mood and I step on ants… gleefully

    and sometimes I’m in a bad mood and I leave the ants alone

    no determinism!

    I was going to write this yesterday but I didn’t…

    I was going to put this off until tomorrow but I didn’t

    no determinism!

    of course, you are “free” to disagree

    I think it has something to do with the fact that human “thoughts” are emergent phenomena

    not part of the physical universe

    therefore “thoughts” are free from causality

    so there is no determinism

    peace out

  22. David F says:


    a few more random thoughts:

    determinism must be 100% of the time and could be falsified by even minor issues

    I think it’s easily falsifiable, in my experience

    and statements about humans equaling only their genes and their environment smells reductionist

    ie human thought is not an emergent phenomenon, it’s just brain activity

    and life is not an emergent phenomenon, it’s just organized molecules

    so then all human choices are just molecules interacting

    some may agree with that, but I don’t

    and I don’t know much about the nuances of reductionist ideas

    but still…

    I contend that human thought has emerged as a layer of reality above life itself

    and this layer is not subject to causality

    so no determinism

  23. David F says:


    after some reading about emergence:

    life emerged from the physical universe
    animal brains emerged and this is where free will emerged
    human consciousness emerged (co-evolved with language)
    and then cultures and societies emerged with arts and sciences etc

    what is the better explanation for the reality that has emerged on the Earth?

    free will or determinism?

    the radical change in the reality on the surface of the Earth shows something more than cause and effect at work

    with free will in human brains, actions were disconnected from the past chain of cause and effect

    action on Earth was now beginning with human choices

    sure, heredity and environment still influence choices, but often are overridden by free will

    we think our thoughts

    we act on some of these thoughts

    free will

  24. Nestorian says:

    On the contrary, there is no semantic problem at all. Nor is there any illusion. Free will as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and as intuitively grasped by the pre-philosophical common sense of mankind, requires that the exercise of free will entail an event that is uncaused by any prior event – i.e., that is self-caused. Human beings, in virtue of their freedom, have this capacity to create new causal chains in the fabric of reality ex nihilo.

    Again, there is neither a semantic problem nor an illusion. Many philosophers in the Western tradition have clearly understood and affirmed that this is what freedom entails. Roderick Chisholm springs to mind as a prominent contemporary example.

    If you want to assert that freedom is an illusion, then the burden of proof is on you to demonstrate in a rigorously empirical fashion that human beings do NOT initiate new causal chains ex nihilo in some of their actions. Simply to assume this to be true, as you do, is thoroughly unscientific.

    • Nestorian, you so very obviously know nothing about the free will debate.

      Human beings, in virtue of their freedom, have this capacity to create new causal chains in the fabric of reality ex nihilo.

      Yes but human beings do not have the capacity to create themselves. You were built from your genes and environment. You make hundreds of choices every day but every choice you make was determined by your genes and your past environment. You were made, you did not make yourself. Every choice you make, every action you take is determined by who you are. And you are the sum total of your genes and everything that ever happened to you in the past. That’s who you are. You were made, you did not make yourself.

      • David F says:

        In my opinion…

        I question the validity of this line of reasoning. Both sides surely agree that we did not make ourselves. That is settled, I think.

        In this line of reasoning, the issue can be restated: were we made with free will or not?

        From the side that views humans as having free will, we clearly think that we were made with free will.

        The other issue that seems unaddressed is about the timeliness of determinism.

        If determinism is valid, then every action in the universe is cause and effect, to the exact nanosecond for each action. I think this is unlikely.

        The complex network of activity on the surface of the Earth convinces me that humans have free will.

        • were we made with free will or not?

          We were not made, we evolved. We were constructed by our genes and our environment. That’s all we are, nothing more.

          If determinism is valid, then every action in the universe is cause and effect, to the exact nanosecond for each action.

          You are confusing acts of the human will with the laws of physics that govern the physical universe, the orbits of the planets and lives of the galaxies and stars, etc. They are two different things… entirely! Surely that is something that anyone with the ability to reason can understand.

          Your every choice is determined by who you are… that’s all I am saying. And who you are was determined by your genes and evrything that has happened to you since conception.

  25. Tim says:

    This is wonderful. Thanks for writing it. I only think that rather than “punishment” for unacceptable deeds there should be “consequence”. If you jump off a tall bridge you die, end of story. Dying is the consequence of jumping off the bridge. Wherever we can make the justice system behave in that manner, we should. If punishment really worked we wouldn’t have any crime.

  26. Ceci LaDuca says:

    I love your article and believe absolutely everything you said, except for the last paragraph about life being unfair. I think of “fairness” as a human trait or virtue. People can be fair, but life itself is just a series of events, cause and effect. Thinking it should be fair just leads to self-pity in my humble opinion.

    Funny thing, as I was driving home from a counseling group tonight, I was thinking about something the counselor said about guilt which really resonated with me. “If we could’ve done something differently we would have.” And then I get home and the first thing I see in my in-box is this article of yours my son sent me. Coincidence? Maybe that’s a topic for another article!

    • Thinking it should be fair just leads to self-pity in my humble opinion.

      Nothing in my essay stated that life should be fair. I was stating how life is, not how it should be. The weather should always be nice but it is often terrible.

      I could have said that life is “unequal” but that somehow just doesn’t get the message across. Some people are born into privilege and health while others are born into poverty, misery and sickness and die in that condition. That’s just the way life is. There is no equalizer in nature. But the unequalness ends at death, that was my point. (Unequalness is not a correct word but you don’t like unfairness.) 😉

      I was trying to get across the absurdity of a philosophy, religion or world view that carries that unfairness beyond death.

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