You have no choice but to read this

Your decisions are not your own

Our gut instinct, our experience, is that we make the decisions to move, to think, to eat, to steal, to lie, to punch and kick. We have constructed the entire edifice of our civilisation on this idea. But science says this free will is a delusion. According to the world’s best neuroscientists, we are brain-machines. Our brains create the sense that somewhere within them is the “you” that makes decisions. But it is an illusion; there is no ghost in the machine. What does this mean for our sense of self? And for our morality – can we prosecute people for acts over which they had no conscious control?

Or so says London Times writer Michael Brooks. Free Will is one of his 13 Unsolved scientific puzzles (linked at the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily).

The most interesting part of this story is that the Times linked back to a previous article on the question, first published in 1877:

That brilliant speaker, Professor Tyndall, lecturing at Birmingham the the other day, adopted frankly the theory of necessity, and in the name of conscience dismissed free-will henceforward from all civilized society. To the obvious remonstrance of the murderer against his punishment, that we hang him for what he could not help, the Professor answers in these words,—“We entertain no malice against you, but simply with a view for our own saftey and purification we are determined that you, and such as you, shall not enjoy liberty of evil action in our midst…You offend, because cannot help offending.

Professor Tyndall was merely stating consequences that follow from the deduction that if all things are material, and we are material, and that since all material effects have causes, all of our actions are thus materially determined. That is, we cannot have free will. We act as we do because we cannot help but act as we do.

Not much has changed since Tyndall held forth. Now we have C. M. Fisher in the journal Medical Hypotheses wondering how free will can be possible since we have neurons, which he has cleverly determined are material, and since they are material etc. He says, “This has implications for voluntary behavior and the doctrine of free will.” Doctrine?

How do neurons cause things to happen without will? A common view is provided by John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. Haynes used a magnetic phrenology machine to show that areas of the brain “light up” before people say they are aware of making a decision. Therefore free will might be an illusion.

Other scientists have also discovered material neurons: for example, Princeton’s Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen (quoted here):

…the law’s intuitive support is ultimately grounded in a metaphysically overambitious, libertarian notion of free will that is threatened by determinism and, more pointedly, by forthcoming cognitive neuroscience…. The net effect of this influx of scientific information will be a rejection of free will as it is ordinarily conceived, with important ramifications for the law…[And on crime] demonstrating that there is a brain basis for adolescents’ misdeeds allows us to blame adolescents’ brains instead of the adolescents themselves.

You get the drift by now: when people do bad things, it’s not their fault. They were made to do evil by their selfish genes (as Dawkins would say) or by their oblivious neurons (as many scientists say).

Thus, when I say C.M. Fisher is a fool, and when I suggest that Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen have unnatural relations with horses, it’s not my fault. I cannot help but write those words, just as Greene and Cohen cannot help hanging around stables.

I couldn’t even stop myself if I wanted to. Worse, there is no “I” to stop. The “I” that is typing is just a mass of tissue following a predetermined path.

Since it is not the perpetrator’s fault for raping your daughter (he had no choice), these Enlightened folks conclude we cannot punish them. It would be the same as punishing a cloud for dropping unwanted rain.

Every modern argument against free will reaches that same “progressive” conclusion: bad people should not be punished. Only our old friend Professor Tyndall was wise enough to see the flaw in that ridiculous argument. The criminal does evil because he cannot help himself, but since there is no free will, “We punish, because we cannot help but punish.” Everybody does what they do because they have no choice.

If there is no free will, we cannot change our behavior to take account of the enlightened non-punishment idea. No one can change their behavior to account for anything. Every action is set. There is no way to stand outside of our genes/neurons to direct them in an enlightened manner to do our bidding. Even college professors, even those at Princeton, are stuck in an eternal rut.

Because we cannot see how there could be free will given the implications of certain theories and beliefs only means that all or some of those theories and beliefs are wrong or incomplete. It does not mean that the observation of free will is in error.

This is not the place to say why free will is possible (please don’t mention the study of movement in discrete units). Free will is obvious. And it is even obvious to those people who say there is no free will.

If you disagree with me, pause for a moment and consider that “I” cannot help saying what I am saying, so there is no use for you to tell me I am wrong.


  1. Luis Dias

    Well, mr Briggs, I cannot also help to say that you are wrong, and also that probably I even might change your mind, which can be also a consequence from a chemical interaction inside your own brain by reading these exact same words. Likewise, I can, or should I say, I do, for I have really no choice but to, have to tell you that the only thing that these people have said is that the past is fixed. That the chemical interactions of both the criminals and judges have already happened and thus we can not but make our own judgements over those people.

    I am obviously joking, but as Hitchens would reply to the question, do you believe in free will?, he hilariously replied I have no choice!

    Or, more seriously, how really different would be our world from what we see if there is really no free will? Assuming, obviously, monism.

    I’m not suggesting they are right. Just that normally, what is apparent is not true, and that we have no evidence either way, just clues. I’m quite agnostic at this question.

  2. Luis Dias

    PS: Lets face it, albeit “free will”, we will either do one thing or the other. We will always choose one thing over the other, so what’s really “free will”? The freedom of choosing A or B? But that’s a given. A person that hasn’t free will and is nothing but a sum of chemical reactions reacting to given inputs from his surroundings, will also be free to choose between A or B, and will also choose one of them.

    How can you tell that this person isn’t “human”? Perhaps we are talking about the Turing test.

    I think you laugh too early at these questions, Mr Briggs, where a more cautious and introspective analysis to the problem would be more appropriate. This is a serious scientific question, and given the trend on the abilities for us to see what happens “up here”, it will be a question that may have an answer before the half of this century.

    And I think the findings will be so revolutionary as Darwin’s Natural Selection was in the middle of the 19th century.

  3. Briggs


    I cannot help but laugh too early, or to criticize, dismiss, or ridicule.

    Anyway, I’m speaking of absolutes, not limits. Nobody has ever disputed that our actions are to some extent prescribed. But that they are entirely so is ridiculous.

  4. Luis Dias

    I’m sorry to press on this point though. Why are they “ridiculous”?

  5. Luis Dias

    PS, I’m not implying that the notion that the people are not responsible for what their brain’s up to is non-ridiculous, I completely agree on that point. But the error on their part is to simply not see the obvious thing, the “brain” is (at the very least) part of the person!!, so if the brain is responsible, so is the person who happens to be using it!!

    I don’t think that the idea of lack of free will is at fault here. It’s the simplistic moronic thinking of these crackpot philosophers that arrive at non-sequitur conclusions, when they assume non-ridiculous assumptions.

  6. John

    Judicial inventors had no free will. It was inevitible that they would create the court system.

    Judges and juries have no free will to aquit or convict. They are pre-programmed to come up with their verdict.

  7. Kevin B

    It’s at times like these that I’m glad I’m an agnostic.

  8. PaulD

    Those who say we have no free will can only argue that they were compelled to believe this, not that it is objectively true that we have no free will. This creates the paradox that when one argues that it is objectively true that we have no free will, one refutes his own argument. Without free will, it is impossible to argue that something is true.

  9. Luis Dias

    Without free will, it is impossible to argue that something is true.

    Not at all. If you haven’t free will, and somehow have a program (amongst many others) that states “find the truth”, then one has no choice but to try and find it! And if there is something true to this world, and he has the ability and the tools to find it, then find it he will. I can’t really understand how you can reach your conclusion.

    Think of it like this. Imagine a computer program that is programmed to find the best solution for a given problem. It isn’t necessary for it to have “free will” to find it, now is it? It also doesn’t need to have free will to call it “the solution”, or truth.

    Another question I’d like to pose, to confuse the hell out of the forum. How can you best describe the term “Free Will”?

  10. Luis Dias

    It’s at times like these that I’m glad I’m an agnostic.

    As the other would say. “Ignorance is bliss”.

  11. lo

    Accidentally stumbled upon our blog. Yuck! The more you learn, the more you understand how much there is to learn and know; and if you truly understand something will you be able to appreciate it. I think it’s at least fair to try to understand something before you ridicule it.

  12. Joe Triscari

    One day I may read the words emanating from the popular press, “But science says …” and it will be followed by a falsifiable statement.

    Luis: This is not any kind of scientific question at all. It’s a metaphysical question that these guys have injected themselves into by claiming they have a scientific answer and then convincing some moron in the press to publish their childish observations. They are not first scientists to do this.

    As you point out, what definition do they use for free will? How do they measure its absence? Weight? Voltage on an o-scope? Suppose, in this universe without free will, it were to suddenly appear. How would we know? If their definition of free will doesn’t include the possibility for its existence then we’re just playing an idiotic word game.

    A scientific question can be subjected to experiment. When someone says, “Science tells us…” and follows it with a statement that can’t be falsified. He’s actually saying, “I have faith that…”

  13. Greg

    I’m guessing that intelegence has no effect on this lack of free will ?

    Or learning for that matter, a tribal African does what he does because that’s all he can do? And Robert Mugabe does what he does because he has to, and not because he wants to.

  14. I think you may have misread Professor Tyndall. He suggests to the murderer:

    1. You can’t help what you are

    2. Therefore you can’t change

    3. Therefore we must execute you through self protection.

    The no-free-will crowd should either come up with a ‘cure’ for the murderer, or stand aside while we imprison him for ever, or execute him.

    Their reasoning changes grounds half way through. The action by the criminal is viewed mechanistically: that’s how he is built. Their prescription is moral: he isn’t responsible because he didn’t choose to do it so he shouldn’t be punished.

    But morality is a concept that only has existence in the presence of choice. A lion cannot be immoral in killing an antelope. It truly is mechanistic (ie. instinctual). A human can choose not to kill the antelope, say on the grounds that the antelope deserves life, and therefore may make a moral choice (good or bad is a question for debate).

    If human action is mechanistic, then the response should be mechanical, not moral (since morality can’t exist if that is the case). If you grant Professor Tyndall’s premises, then you should accept his prescription.

  15. Guilt-free at last! I’ll have another brewski, thank you very much, and don’t blame me. The neurons made me do it.

  16. Briggs


    Yeah, but don’t forget, if there is no free will, I had no choice when I ridiculed the idea of no free will! It was not my fault. I was made to do it. I couldn’t stop myself if I wanted to. Yuck!

  17. Rich

    How do neurons cause things to happen without will? A common view is provided by John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Germany. Haynes used a magnetic phrenology machine to show that areas of the brain “light up” before people say they are aware of making a decision. Therefore free will might be an illusion. – They chose to identify the person with that person’s verbal response not their brain response. Why?

    “…important ramifications for the law…[And on crime] demonstrating that there is a brain basis for adolescents’ misdeeds allows us to blame adolescents’ brains instead of the adolescents themselves.” – They choose to identify the adolescent with something other than their own brain. Why? Or, indeed, how?

    All this is just a long, complicated – and no doubt publicly funded – version of solipsism. I am a real person. I know this by direct experience. You are a machine. I know this by observation. “Hubris” and “arrogance” should be in there somewhere.

    “Yuck” indeed.

  18. Luis Dias

    Luis: This is not any kind of scientific question at all. It’s a metaphysical question

    Joe, how so? How can you claim that this question exists “beyond” the natural world? How do you even verify that position? As you eloquently put, it’s an “unfalsifiable claim”, that one of yours ;).

    Now, if one posits “free will” as in the rational self that sits (and commands) above the dark, impulsive, mechanistical animal that is below, I can’t see how this can’t be tested.

    I suspect, the lay man that I am, that conscience is an emergent property of an enough complex brain structure, where a rational “free will” emerges as a very efficient brain program that can make choices, delay instincts when needed, plan for the future, communicate with other human beings, etc..

    But if the structure of the brain is inherently mechanical, I can’t see how it escapes the obvious conclusion that we are merely “machines” that “compute” choices, actions, words and thoughts. To say “merely” however understates completely the huge complexity of our brain.

    The other thing escaping the thoughts of Briggs himself and some commenters here, is that, even if “free will” is deterministic, Briggs is still responsible for his own actions, as are the murderers that are judged. This is because his and their brains are at least part of them!!

    Byte it. “Free will” is compulsory. You are, by the very nature of your own brain, obliged to choose one or the other. And you will choose one or the other. In the “free will model”, you see the problem, and “decide” what’s the best option. There is practically no difference whatsoever to the “non-free will model” to that, where you see the problem, discern possible solutions, make “probabilistic” assessments of it, and compute the best solution to it.

    But this is the fulcral point, pay atention.

    Regard the sheer idiocy of the following statement:

    …demonstrating that there is a brain basis for adolescents’ misdeeds allows us to blame adolescents’ brains instead of the adolescents themselves.

    Basically, what these people say is that they base themselves on a scientific monist hypothesis (I’d say more a “theory”, for it has been bringing alredy many fruits) where everything you do is a computation of your brain, to therefore conclude that the person holding the brain isn’t responsible for its mechanics, as if you could be outside your own brain, an inherent dualist position!!

    Two weights, two measures! This is the real point of ridicule.

  19. It’s amazing, this Back To The Future mentality whereby scientific advances somehow place us back to the start of the cosmic Monopoly board with a couple of hundred bucks and a ‘Get Out of Consequences Free’ card. Apparently, we’re supposed to keep trying it again, from roughly the end of the 19th century until as a society we’ve followed the ideological path so bravely staked out by progressives from that time and forward that show us clearly and unequivocally the path to Utopia. Now we have neuroscience on board to help us immanentize the Eschaton.

    This line of reasoning follows very well the reasoning of physics in pre-quantum days, when it was accepted as given that if you knew the position and movement of everything in the universe, the future could be predicted with exactitude. This argument seems to say that once an appropriate brain-scanning device is created and the states of all our neurons mapped, the outcomes of our lives are all but determined. At least, that’s what it suggests to me. All that stands between us and complete knowledge is some bit of tech that William Gibson or Spider Robinson have probably already written about.

    The problem with this physics-based construct of ideology is that not even physicists seem to believe it anymore. Right after the political idea that we could programmatically control society took hold, first in Germany and here in the Wilson years, physicists found out about quantum mechanics and how improbable things kept dropping into reality with alarming frequency. This ideology might work in a Newtonian world, but we haven’t been in that world since the 1920s.

    To my mind, this completely unravels the idea that as chemo-electrical machines our lives are determinate, because followed to its logical conclusion we’re nothing but physical machines no matter how small the machines get. Once you get small enough, though, the world gets pretty weird and improbable things have a way of happening, meaning that the entire house of cards is built on a rather unstable substrate where probability is all you have. If the base operating unit is quantum mechanical (and it pretty much has to be if they physical is all there is) then you can give a range of outcomes but you can’t specifically determine THE outcome in any situation — at least, that is my back-of-the-envelope understanding.

    There is a fundamental worldview difference between conservatives and liberals — liberals see mankind as basically good and societal constructs make some of us evil. Societal constructs like banks, derivative contracts and defense contractors. Conservatives tend to see people as Michael Sharra’s “Killer Angels” with capacity for great evil and great good. This ideological divide will continue, bad science notwithstanding.

  20. I meant to add that when you’re starting from nothing more than quantum probabilities at the subatomic level, the range of error would seem to increase the larger the functional unit and compound as you go from the inner workings of a neuron to the neuron itself to the pathways and the interactions between neurons. Seems to me like the accumulated and magnified error would make prediction of complex behavior, um, difficult.

  21. Luis Dias

    Darren, yes and no. While Quantum Mechanics are indeed a problem within a very small scale, namely at the atom scale, the neuron scale is entirely a different thing. Remember that even the computer we are using is using QMs. That doesn’t stop us from understanding the computer as a finite turing machine.

    That also is besides the point. Even if the brain is using QM as a random function call, so that it doesn’t always gives the exact same answer given the same input, it is intelligible. Meaning, we’ll know how it works.

    The corollary is, even if the brain is not using QM, and is able to operate above this sea of randomness (just like the computers are), it’s sheer complexity, the total randomness of the kind and quality of inputs, etc., is just too large for anyone to predict the “full” outcome of it. In that we agree.

    But I have to disagree with you on the notion that a physics-based construct of ideology is “impossible”. Difficult, yes. The order of magnitude of the brain function calls have been estimated to be on par with the total amount of function calls that exist in this very same year (2009) on every computer (summed) on this planet.

    But it is also estimated that in the year 2030, the total amount of computer function calls summed on the planet will be on par with 6.000.000 people.

    Those will be also interesting times, indeed.

  22. I briefly read a concept in neuroscience that with a little Googling I now see is referred to as ‘Orchestrated Objective Reduction’ that would put the functional unit of consciousness below the neuron and in the cytoskeleton of the neuron itself. I do understand that this is a rather controversial assertion, but if true it would make the interaction of the brain and consciousness much, much more complex than we now understand. It would at least put back the 2030 number a bit.

    I didn’t say it was impossible, but solving metaphysical problems with physics does seem to be using the wrong tool. Determinism for particles is a physics problem, determinism for people is a metaphysical problem. It’s possible that they’re related, but we’re not really there yet.

    I’m sure some portion of the Stimulus has been set aside to address just this problem. I can only hope that Al Gore’s crowd doesn’t get hold of this issue and declare the issue decided too early.

  23. There’s also the issue of intent and design when you’re comparing a computer to a nervous system. Intelligent Design of computers is a fact, we exploit QM behavior to make them work and are increasingly having to deal with QM effects as the circuits get smaller and smaller. They work because we designed them to work, if they didn’t work then the design would be changed until they did. From that standpoint there is a degree of un-natural selection that has constrained the development of integrated circuits along a pathway to produce a functional Intel Core i7 today, or whatever the newest/best chip is. We know why the chips exist — because we made them.

    It’s not unreasonable to look at something like the human cerebral cortex and, knowing what we know about QM, conclude that QM effects had to be taken into account in the natural selection that led to the current model of human brain. But it seems to be hard to find the human cortex version of the Intel 8088, that kind of small-scale structure would seem to be difficult to find from our ancestors, and consciousness being and emergent thing (IMO) it’s not something that can be obtained from even a recently-dead person, much less the fossil record.

    I guess one can go with ‘cogito ergo sum’ and take the brain as a given — it exists to do what it does, and it does what it does because it exists. But that does seem to be a bit of a scientific dead end.

  24. Luis Dias

    Yes, indeed, and scientific dead ends are only barriers to be passed through with hammers of thought and hard, hard work.

    Now, of course it isn’t unreasonable what you say. I’ve said it myself. But what you’re suggesting is that due to the natural selection nature, pardon the pun, intelligence is unintelligible itself, and that the way the brain works will remain an unsolved mystery. Well, I might have believed in that some ten years ago, but not today. Neuro science is in fact figuring out many “I/O” areas of the brain, as in how the hearing system works, the vision system, etc. There have been discoveries that have directly translated to enormous increases of performance in electronic synthethizers, for instance.

    These areas are hugely simple, compared to the more complex areas of thought, emotion, etc. And are only now being mapped and understood. But they are also composed of neurons, and it seems that any “hidden” function of neurons haven’t really stopped scientists figuring out how many things work.

    Now, there can be many emergent patterns that may escape the analysis of scientists and computers in the decades to come in these more complex arenas. Nevertheless, if they exist, they are discoverable, if there’s such a word.

    I didn’t say it was impossible, but solving metaphysical problems with physics does seem to be using the wrong tool. Determinism for particles is a physics problem, determinism for people is a metaphysical problem. It’s possible that they’re related, but we’re not really there yet.

    I don’t exactly understand how you are using “metaphysics” here, I’d go with simple philosophy, but I do agree with you. Until we figure out how it really works, it’s quite irrelevant if there is free will or not. We must always act as if there is free will. So even if it is an illusion, any attempt to reform Justice based on these theories is an abomination, and the perpetrators of it should be exposed to massive ridicule.

  25. I don’t exactly understand how you are using “metaphysics” here, I’d go with simple philosophy, but I do agree with you. Until we figure out how it really works, it’s quite irrelevant if there is free will or not. We must always act as if there is free will. So even if it is an illusion, any attempt to reform Justice based on these theories is an abomination, and the perpetrators of it should be exposed to massive ridicule.

    Agreed, completely. This is social engineering attempting to use a tiny bud of neuroscience as justification for a policy. You bring the feathers, I’ll warm the tar. 🙂

    Perhaps if I had used ‘moral’ in place of ‘metaphysical’ I would have been clearer. My main understanding of metaphysics comes from the old Woody Allen joke: “I got kicked out of college because I cheated on a metaphysics test. I looked within the soul of the boy next to me.”

  26. Luis Dias

    That’s a very interesting theory, David. If true, it kills God as anything as I’ve ever seen so far. Wow.

    According to Jaynes, ancient people in the bicameral state would function in a manner similar to that of a modern-day schizophrenic. Rather than making conscious evaluations in novel or unexpected situations, the person would hallucinate a voice or “god” giving admonitory advice or commands, and obey these voices without question; one would not be at all conscious of one’s own thought processes per se. Others have argued that this state of mind is recreated in members of cults.

    Dang, religion explained.

    Yeah, yeah, “if” true. But I’m an optimist 😉

  27. Joy

    So sure, and you haven’t even made up your mind yet!
    David C,
    Jaynes wasn’t even there. No one understands psychology of modern man!!
    And modern Men understand less and less what their psychology is supposed to be evidently,
    So what hope was there for the cave men? And what hope of someone who doesn’t understand himself understanding someone who may or may not have a sense of self to understand himself, let alone understanding the man that didn’t have a sense of self in the first place, apparently, according to some fellow called Jane!

  28. Luis Dias

    Joy, stop. You’re running in circles, and you’ll be dizzy.

  29. David C.

    “If true, it kills God as anything as I’ve ever seen so far. Wow.”

    I think it may challenge the reality of “gods” (lower case) but I am not sure what it implies for a monotheistic all powerful deity shared across large numbers of people.

    I think if we were to go farther along this direction, it might be helpful if we all read the book. It’s been more than 30 years for me.

    David C.

  30. Luis Dias

    It implies that the notion of “God” is nothing but the remnants of a reification of a brain’s subset that deals with moral commands. And if morality is a social phenomenon, then it is no wonder that religions are what constituted the “standards” of such moral systems.

    Of course, I’m speculating at high degree here. It’s just one more evidence I’ll pile up against the high man in the clouds.

    I won’t read the book any time soon though. I’ve barely the time to comment on blogs ;).

  31. Joe Triscari


    You say, ‘one posits “free will” is … I can’t see how this can’t be tested.’ I’m assuming that’s a typo and you meant ‘I can’t see how this can be tested.’ And neither do I. How does one test it?

    No test = no science. That, Luis, is the central point whenever discussing whether or not an idea is science. Clever arguments have been around for a long, long time. My guess is that they appeared with the second caveman.

    Science is powerful not because of the clever argument. It’s the validation by experiment that gives science its power.

    That makes free-will a question for something other scientists to answer. I would be willing to allow tests where you go to different universes, time machines, travel to the centers of stars but I can think of no test because in the end I can’t think of a non-silly definition of free-will which reduces it to energy, mass, momentum, iron content, etc… Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination.

    I don’t think Brooks, et al. have a usable definition and test either. Maybe I’m wrong. But given the history of scientists injecting themselves in to metaphysics it’s very, very probable that they don’t. If they do have a real test (as opposed to a personal belief that comes from a firm belief in a mechanistic model of the human mind), that’s much bigger than the London Times.

    One the other hand, using scientific jargon to make plausible but untestable arguments about how the universe functions is, in fact, metaphysics.

    And that’s what bugs me the most here. These public clowns put on funny wigs, climbed on tricycles, drove in figure eights and honked their noses in front of a journalist who squealed with childish delight while claiming to tell us what “science says.”

    I see skimming the rest of the thread that it may be degenerating into what science says about ‘God.’ You should step back and think long and hard about whether or not the existence of God is a falsifiable hypothesis. And if not, I hope you can recognize that science tells us nothing about whether or not God exists. Just like free will.

  32. Ed Snack

    I think I follow Daniel Dennett on this one (Freedom Evolves, Peguin 2003), we may (or may not) have absolute free will in a purist sense, but what we do have acts awfully like what we imagine free will should look like. In a mechanical sense our responses are, crudely put, the sum of the inputs to that date, but the computational complexity of that summing process is immense that it gives the essential appearance of free will.

    Luis, you are, I believe, incorrect where above you claim “Without free will, it is impossible to argue that something is true.

    Not at all. If you haven’t free will, and somehow have a program (amongst many others) that states “find the truth”, then one has no choice but to try and find it! And if there is something true to this world, and he has the ability and the tools to find it, then find it he will. I can’t really understand how you can reach your conclusion.” You are playing fast (and loose) with “the truth”.

    The program is finding what it has been told to find, no more, no less, and that is not the truth, but “the truth”. You indeed cannot argue for truth without something that at least looks a lot like free will, otherwise you are simply arguing for what you are pre-programmed to argue for. If you are in fact arguing for untruth, you couldn’t tell the difference.

  33. Luis Dias

    No, Joe, it isn’t a typo. So our disagreement is great. I really can’t see how this can’t be tested, a priori, that is, by definition. I’m not saying that we have the tools now to do such a test, and I agree that we still haven’t, and so all hypothesis should be regarded entirely as that: hypothesis.

    They still have place in science, you know.

    Ed. Good first paragraph. Awful last one.

    I didn’t argue that it wasn’t possible to imagine a scenario where free will does not exist and “truth” isn’t found out, due to the pre-programming problem you pose. I am arguing against the notion that it is “impossible to argue that something is true” without free will. Entirely different thing.

    Notice two things. First, how can you even state that we are capable of finding “the truth”? I’ve yet to find anyone in possession of such knowledge! The Newton – Einstein gravitation story gives a potent lesson between what is “truth” and what is “search for truth”, which is completely different.

    I don’t imagine a “machine” capable of finding “the truth”, but if you posit a machine that is capable of detecting patterns on its surroundings, and try to model them in simplified reasoning, as in “it rains when there are clouds”, and add a learning and memorizing function, and if you also add a social environment where very good simple reasonings are spread and taught, while bad reasonings are criticized and forgotten (mainly), you’d get such a system that is, by a gradual and intermittent process, closing on what you call “the truth”.

    If you are in fact arguing for untruth, you couldn’t tell the difference.

    But the fact is, many times we can’t! That’s why empiricism is so important. That’s why both nature feedback and “peer review” (in the wider sense) is so important. If we were as flawless as you imply, we would have reached the “theory of everything” since the dawn of man.

  34. Joe Triscari

    Fair enough Luis. I’m can’t imagine what you could test for but when that experiment is done I will certainly admit I was wrong.

    I will agree with you that hypothesis has a place in science. It also has a place in theology, philosophy, parapsychology and post-modern literary criticism. Science distinguishes itself by requiring that all its hypotheses be subjected to tests that can be reproduced. So I will maintain a hypothesis that can’t be subjected to test is not something science is telling us.

  35. Stefan

    When you look at a rock you don’t see any free will. It is just a lump of stuff subject to physical laws. When you look at a brain you will never see free will. It is also a lump of stuff. the sentient being is not visible in the brain. You don’t cut open a brain and find a little man in there. And even if you did, you’d cut his brain open and need to find another little man in there controlling him, and so on to infinity. Matter is not sentient.

    And yet here I am, existing, feeling, experiencing, being. I can’t look inside your head and find a being, I only find grey spungy soup. And yet you too are a being, thinking, existing, smelling the flowers and feeling the rain on your face, and you say to yourself, “What shall I do today?”

    Our sentient experience and our material bodies are certainly related, when I feel fear my heart rate quickens. But the two aspects, consciousness and matter, are not reducible one to the other. Nobody has ever managed to reduce one to the other without leaving something out. In this instance, they left out Will. They couldn’t see it. Well you won’t see love or care or envy in that spongy soup either. All you’ll see is little cells and electricity. You won’t see consciousness because consciousness is what is doing the looking, ie. the sentient existence of the scientists looking at the equipment and object of study.

    There is certainly a vast debate about the nature of will, as experienced. There is a question about when and how I make a choice. How deep do I have to go into my own mind to feel into that which is making choices. But even if I have no free will, I am still sentient–again, science will never see that sentience, only shadows of it in matter. I exist, that is the plainest undoubtable fact.

    When a famous philosopher asked, what can I be sure of? There was only one thing he could be completely sure of, and that was that he existed. He had to exist to be able to even ask the question.

  36. Joy

    Wow, profoundly written. You managed to come close to something that has fascinated me all my life; the essence of what I’ve pondered.
    “I think therefore I am” was poor. Five words was not enough. Guess he couldn’t express it either. Hence poetry was born. It is irony itself that we need expressions of experience to explain and give meaning to our experience; in order that we can relate to our world in a way that will always be different from the digital world of robots or computers. In order for experience or in this case, free will to be explained, indirect words are needed because direct ones such as shown above in some of the comments, are nowhere near capturing the reality of what we all know to be true. That is irony.
    In my experience those that think this way are at least agnostic; those that do not are atheists.
    Never the twain shall meet unless the robots are self aware, at which time they will be alive.
    Anyone who does not claim to possess free will must be a robot. Perhaps they are the aliens that are living amongst us that some of the other droids have been looking for.

  37. Stefan


    Thanks 🙂 I try to gather what I can from reading Ken Wilber, an American philosopher. Wilber tries to provide some basic orienting generalisations to help disentangle complex issues. Free will is a complex issue as are many other things. One of Wilber’s basic generalisations is that in language we have 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person categories. First person is how I see things, second person is how we together communicating share things, and third person is an impartial observer watching both of us.

    These three basic categories are also summarised as I, WE and IT. These can also be called Subjective, Inter-subjective, and Objective, which in turn correspond to Art, Morals, and Science. Or the Beautiful, the Good, and the True.

    I – 1st person – Subjective – Art – the Beautiful
    We – 2nd person – Inter-subjective – Morals – the Good
    It – 3rd person – Objective – Science – the True

    These are thought to be basic patterns or aspects or domains of life, so basic that language itself has these structures, but also so extensive that whole fields of human endeavor can be found to correspond to them. Often a field may subtly privilege one category over another, leading to interminable arguments.

    I mention all this because as you say, “I think therefore I am” is not enough to convey existence, and so as you say “poetry was born”. You’ve just matched up perfectly and summarized exactly the same thing that comes from Wilber’s model, namely that personal subjective, as-felt existence, needs expression through poetry, which is art and aesthetics. It is all that domain of the I, the Subjective, Art, domain of the Beautiful.

    Meanwhile the neuroscientists are only interested in the domain of the objective ITs, things and stuff which can be observed and measured, like electrical impulses. So when they don’t find free will, they claim it doesn’t exist. Well, that’s kinda true, it doesn’t exist in the IT domain; rather, it is felt in the I domain. But because good scientists value objectivity, they only consider the IT domain, they are only interested in material stuff. To them, only matter matters.

    It is like asking a scientist to tell you the meaning of Hamlet. It takes a person (I) to read and feel and interpret the book. It also takes a culture of shared meanings (WE) to create the language to express the aesthetics. Meanwhile the scientist focussed on the IT domain could tell you what the ink on the page was made of. But he wouldn’t find any “meaning” there. It is just chemicals. But that doesn’t mean that Hamlet has no meaning. And likewise it doesn’t imply we don’t have free will just because a scientist can’t directly measure the will as subjectively felt.

    Something else, from a footnote I think, Wilber found in his own research is that there is a researcher who identified “I think therefore I am” as a mis-translation. The more accurate translation should have been “Existence, therefore being”. This also seems to match your feeling that the well known version doesn’t express it adequately. Before I even think of anything, there is a simple feeling of being, of existing, and that is quite poetic. Also kinda Zen. And Zen has a long tradition of poetry.

    Wilber extends the implications of I, We, and It, as basic domains, to many fields, in an effort to disentangle and integrate and honor as many insights and truths as possible, and avoid these odd conclusions where scientists decide that we don’t have free will. In the scientific (I – objective) endeavors to understand the brain, the mind-body problem was swung towards the body, so much so that some researchers dismiss the mind altogether, which as you say, is ironic given what we all already know instinctively to be true. Wilber’s comments on this basically try to honor the authenticity of the mind along with the truth of the brain, without reducing either one to the other.

  38. Joy

    I’ll search for Ken Wilber, thank you again.
    For someone so interested in philosophy I really ought to read a book on it. This might be a good start.

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