RD Blog Post 4 – Free Will vs. Determinism

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I think I can agree with pretty much everything you’ve said.

First, the free will defense is a philosophical defense. i.e., it starts with the problem of whether a powerful/loving god would allow suffering and concludes that, postulating free will, it IS plausible to assume that such a god would allow suffering under certain circumstances. It takes free will for granted and does not attempt to prove it.

Next, let me just address a few points regarding the RD series on free will. Like I said, it’s been a while so I don’t remember everything they said, except that it took my head on a roller-coaster ride for several weeks, though some aspects of those shows did seem a bit silly to me.

I agree that determinism or free-will is a false dichotomy. One major alternative to them both is probabilism. In fact, going by the latest scientific understanding, if there is one aspect we can just about rule out, it is not free will but determinism. Or, to say it more accurately, the inanimate world at least is probably to a large degree deterministic with just enough randomness mixed in so that true, complete determinism is very likely not the case. If you had to do it over, the universe would most likely turn out differently.

I agree that we don’t have a mechanism for free will (we don’t have a mechanism for quantum randomness for that matter) nor have I yet been able to think of a test to prove or disprove free will.

I wasn’t personally very impressed with the studies that were cited by RD as far as their value in proving or disproving anything on the subject. Basically, some part of the brain was stimulated and the person reacted accordingly; maybe raised their right arm instead of the left. To me this disproves free will about as much as me, grabbing your right arm and raising it by force disproves free will.

But more than that, the person whose brain was stimulated felt the need to then provide an explanation for why they actually INTENDED to do the stimulated action. But, while that was an interesting find, it cannot be applied to situations where a person sits down and thinks through a decision, evaluates possible outcomes, confers with friends etc. and then goes with the best option available. I consider it a more likely explanation that the brain sees the need to create a back-story for the purpose of maintaining regularity rather than that all our decisions are determined and we just THINK we’re choosing freely.

Also, I don’t think it is a good idea to judge whether we have free will based on less than ideal situations: brain damage, Alzheimers, substance abuse etc. Just because free-will can be impaired or lost does not mean it doesn’t exist at all.

So this is my reasoning through the process:

First, I already mentioned that as far as inanimate matter is concerned there are chains of cause and effect interrupted by random events. Imagine long lines of dominoes that every now and then come to a fork and the chain reaction randomly goes right or left after that fork.

This process applies to early life as well until first the ability to sense the environment and later memory develop. Once this happens, you no longer have only determined/random causes.

For example, say an organism goes in search of food. First, it might choose to go right instead of left because it is inclined to go that way for deterministic reasons. But then, it might occasionally randomly choose to go left. But, at some point, if it develops an ability to sense the environment, it will choose to go left not for determined/random reasons but because it senses food there. Once memory develops, it will choose left even if the benefit is not immediately apparent.

Add to that the ability to reason as well as to imagine (reason in spite of incomplete information) and we’re already a long way from the determined/random universe we started with. I understand that there might still be several steps from here to Free Will, but I think we’re closer to that than to either determinism or probabilism.

So coming back to the philosophy, I think it is simply a matter of free will being an acceptable postulate since, as of now, free will can not be ruled out.

Now coming back to your interest in dispelling the free-will model of behavior, I don’t think you need to disprove free will for that to work. What you really need is results. If you can set up a test where, using a large enough sample size, you can show a consistent benefit to working under one premise versus another, then you have succeeded regardless of whether free will does or does not exist. After all, there is no reason why, if free will is true, working under the assumption it is not could still produce better results or, if it is not true, assuming it is might produce better results, at least as far as behavior modification goes.


But here is another question for you to think through. The assumption of free will is very deeply ingrained in our psyche. Holding people responsible for their actions seems like an universal human reaction. Even people who are convinced free will does not exist still instinctively assign blame if a human harms their child as opposed to an animal. My question for you then is, why would evolution select so heavily for a mindset that assumes free will as opposed to one that doesn’t? And, consequently, is it safe to mess with nature by trying to now reeducate ourselves on the subject?


Let me address one more point here. Someone will say that I don’t understand determinism because, like in the example I used of the organism going left because it sensed there was food there, the food was determined to be there so the organism was determined as well in a round about way.

However, in my opinion, this type of determinism is very different from the original sense of the word as applied to inanimate matter. So it does not serve the conversation well to use the same terminology for both. The more mental attributes an organism has, the more unlike inanimate matter it behaves when it comes to the reasons why it does one thing over another. And, as humans have progressed and learned to incorporate things like the scientific method into our decision making process, the more we can say that we made a choice because it was the RIGHT choice rather than that it was determined.



  1. jonP  February 1, 2014

    If you don’t mind, I would like to read all your posts and comment. I won’t address things I brought up in my first post to try to keep the discussion a little organized. But I do have a philosophical position on free will as well as the biological.

    I agree that we don’t have a mechanism for free will (we don’t have a mechanism for quantum randomness for that matter).

    I am kind of using free will here as an example of randomness. I think these arguments will apply there as well.

    The question that I have is, how would god (third person omniscient observer with knowledge of the future) know* if we had free will? He would need to NOT know the outcomes of our decisions. That violates omniscience, at least his knowledge of the future.

    This is actually a tricky logical problem that sort of leads to determinism. God would have needed to intentionally make the universe in which we are eventually presented with the decisions that we are to make. There is no room for deviation on our part because that would change the course of events and lead to other decisions, which god would not have known about**. God could perceive the set of all universes for all possible decisions. But that would just be determinism with a multiverse.

    * Incidentally, he would also need to know the we DO have free will, because otherwise would violate omniscience; therefore, it’s possible to conclude that god can know we have free will, just because he knows everything, but this is tautological.
    ** I think this is a second violation of the omniscience assumption. Before god did not know the outcome of a single decision. Here he does not know what the future decisions even will be.

    The answer changes when we consider things from our perspective. How would we (third person observer without knowledge of the future) know if someone else had free will? If we could find all the factors that led to a decision then we would end up with determinism. I think you started down this path with a slippery slope. However, with strict determinism in which we CAN find all the factors, then WE end up as third person observers with knowledge of the future. We would be very low potency gods (not impotent). We also would not know that we have free will for the same reasons as omnipotent god. If we knew all the factors that leads to a decision, but the person makes an unexpected decision that we could not predict anyway, violates our ability to know ALL the factors that led to the decision. Obviously we missed something.

    I conclude, somewhat tentatively, that god knows that we do not have free will, and that we do not know if we do.


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