Free Will

A little while after James died, I got into discussions on what is sadly now the defunct AgnosticForums website. More than one of its threads touched upon free will. Initially, I thought the discussions trite, I believed I had free will, and even if I did not have free will, the whole thing was pretty much irrelevant. Now, I may have spent more time on the forum than normally would be considered healthy, but I was slowly drawn to the possibility that free will as such does not exist. Consequently, I have summarized my and other people’s thoughts on the possibility of free will being an illusion.

The definition of free will that I am using is:

The ability to act or to make choices independently of the environment or of the universe.

First to make things clear, ‘I make decisions and do stuff pretty much all the time’. I feel like I have free will, although I’m painfully aware that sometimes circumstances can limit my choices; even so, I work around these in an apparently free manner. Everyday, I think I act like an agent with free will and I will continue to do so. So what’s the problem, why would one even consider the possibility that free will is an illusion?

The thing that bothers me is, the human body and for that matter the mind is good at coping with, or even is, the source of many illusions. For example the human eye cannot see stationary objects, eg the Troxler effect; we believe we can see stationary objects, but we compensate by continuously moving our eyes ever so slightly. There are several levels we can look at the effects of the physical world on free will: the macro, genetic, chemical, and ultimately the physical. At each level there are strong arguments against free will.

A Simple Psychological Argument: Schopenhauer (1788 to 1860) said, “Man is free to do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.”  For some this is a sufficient definition for free will and soft determinists or compatibilists are happy to say his is good enough for free will. Some might argue that even the second order will (willing the will) is possible. For example I might wish that I exercised more or even that I had a stronger gumption to do so. Nevertheless if we were to have a “true” free will some would argue that this simple definition sort of implies there is a homunculus directing our thoughts, in that our will has to come from somewhere. Galen Strawson in an interview argued that ultimately this recursive assessment of our will was sufficient to dismiss free will and that we would need to be, in certain respects, ultimately responsible for who we are. In the study of psychology our actions are based on prior events or causes. If they were not then I can’t actually envisage a science of psychology.

Macro or Everyday Argument: Is there a decision I can make that has not been influenced by my parents, the society I live in, my education or a book I have read? How do I separate the experiences I have had from the choices I can make? Can I choose to go on holiday to a place I have never heard of? Yes, but then again what’s driving my wish to go to some ‘unusual’ place? Is it to impress the Jones’s? If so why do I want to impress the Jones’s? Ad infinitum! So asking the question again can I make an uninfluenced decision? and if the answer is yes, can I be sure there is not some hidden subconscious influence? The answer is no!

It’s not quite Popeye the Sailor Man’s philosophy, “I am what I am,” but I am what I have experienced. The nurture part of the old nature versus nurture debate.

Genetic Argument: The genetic argument by itself is the weakest, but it does provide support for the other arguments. The argument that genetics is “all who we are” is probably wrong. Either our will or the environment can likely trump genetics in many if not most instances. Of course in some it cannot or is very difficult, eg hereditary depression and other hereditary illnesses. Also, we are liable to dismiss free will in the animal kingdom and point to examples: eg imprinting, when a duck egg is hatched by a hen; the duckling immediately has the hen imprinted as its mother. We may have had imprinting minimized in the human species, but have we eliminated it?

Is to be human or to be “me” a reflection of our DNA? Approximately fifty percent of our so called junk DNA appears to be viral in origin. Somehow retro viruses have inserted themselves into our junk or non coding DNA. Just food for thought.

Chemical and Biochemical: Being a chemist this is one of the strongest arguments (for me) against free will. Our bodies are composed of chemicals (in this I would include charged ions, in particular potassium and calcium). In my experience and that of chemists in general, the behaviour of chemicals and chemical reactions is described by the law of mass action. When chemical reactions apparently have not been described by the law of mass action, they have shown us that we did not understand the underlying chemistry. So if all our component parts’ behaviour is described by the law how do we exert an influence on the behaviour of a chemical reaction? Take for example ‘I feel cold’, my body chemistry starts the reflex action of shivering. Alternatively, I can go and turn up the thermostat or go and put on an extra layer of clothing. But in either case it is chemical reactions that are making the decision and carrying out the action. Similarly if I have an alcohol addiction, it’s chemical reactions that are driving me to have another drink. Of course I perceive it as a need; and consequently, I choose to have another drink. There are a whole host of examples where chemicals affect the apparent decisions we make.

What is patently clear, is that we are literally a very complex bag of chemical reactions; but what is less clear is, are we any more than that? And if so where does the “more” reside, is it measurable and if not how does it interact with the physical world I am describing?

Fundamental: Now physicists are probing the very fabric of our universe. Lets assume the majority of physicists hold sway and the universe is probabilistic in nature; though, there are dissenting voices who think our quantum based universe could actually be deterministic. Either way the probabilistic nature is very obvious at the very small and at the not quite so small eg buckyballs (molecular mass 720).

For me the question becomes does the probabilistic nature of the universe affect the way we make choices or do we somehow control the probability at the quantum level? We seem to exert some effect on quantum behaviour by observing it closely but then that behaviour becomes deterministic. And finally, what is the agent, if it exists, that is affecting the quantum aspect of our lives?

Just as an aside, the universe does not follow our laws and theories (real theories as opposed to hypotheses or worse still speculations) of science. Our laws and theories describe what we observe. Inherently, these laws and theories are wrong! But, they do allow us to make ever increasingly accurate predictions about the universe. A piece of accurate evidence can either be consistent with a law or theory or it can it can disprove that law. A scientific theory can never be proved but only disproved. I trust I don’t give any other impression.


If we don’t have free will, then some interesting questions immediately become apparent:

  • Free will in philosophy is intimately associated with morality, how can someone be held accountable if that someone has no free will?
  • What is the being (or beings) in my mind that appears to believe and behave as though I have free will? What exactly is consciousness?
  • Where exactly does the being I consider as “I” stop and the rest of the universe start?
  • Exactly what is the difference between the animate and inanimate, or being alive and not being alive?
  • Although a lack of free will does not address the grand meaning of life, it does put any personal meaning on a bit more shaky ground.


The precept that if somebody, who does not have free will, cannot be held accountable for any actions while true; for me, is totally irrelevant. Morality is a societal concept. If a person cannot take up societal mores in to their programming then they will bear the consequences.

Now a couple of questions of society, is society’s intent retribution, punishment or education? What is the difference between retribution and punishment? For me, retribution makes the plaintiff feel better and punishment makes the perpetrator feel worse. A better strategy for dealing with perpetrators might be one that enhances the society.

The concept of good and evil begins to fade if we have no free will. A person that a society labels as evil is no worse than say a hurricane which we can explain away by the action of sun on the ocean, and a person by their environment and subsequent chemical reactions.


If we don’t have free will, then what is that being that rattles around in my mind making decisions, acting independently and railing against the possibility of free will not existing? As soon as I stop thinking and stop considering the possibility of free will being an illusion, my consciousness will take over and start doing stuff all of its own accord, to all intents and purposes, independent of the rest of the universe.

Now, I can’t speak for your consciousness; but if free will does not exist, my consciousness is not quite what it seems; and I have no reason to suspect your consciousness to be any different.

My ability to speak knowledgeably about consciousness is limited, but philosophers have debated at length for at least two millennia, without agreement; so I may be in good company.

Definition of Self

When I think of me, my boundary of self is my skin, ignoring my hair or what little of it is left. So just ignoring my consciousness for the moment; is my epidermis and its contents a good definition of me? I can lose (if be it carelessly) limbs and still be me. Many parts of the body can be transplanted from other humans or pigs. Machines can supplement many bodily functions. We start getting to the crux of the matter when we come to the brain and its most important asset the mind.

Are the brain and mind separate, or is the mind an integral part of the brain? Is the mind defined by the arrangement of molecules and ions within the brain? We end up asking the same question as above. Assuming the mind is not some magical being and is subject to cause and effect; then the definition of self evaporates. Every molecule, atom and fundamental particle within my epidermis has been subject to the same forces of the universe as has those of my neighbour’s cat and the rock in my garden, ie any boundary I draw between me and the rest of the universe is arbitrary. It’s just that the perspectives are different. Don’t get me wrong, I will still defend my arbitrary bit of matter.

Animate and Inanimate

All the component parts of our bodies, elementary particles atoms and molecules are made up non-living matter. So exactly at what point does a being become alive? Is life just a matter of definition? Each of the component particles that make up what we call life are affected by the rest of the universe and in turn affect the universe, all be it in a minuscule manner. I have heard good arguments that a cell phone is as much alive as anything else. And by some definitions things like mules would not be alive (ie mules can’t reproduce). Viruses and prions seem to be on the cusp by definition.

At the end of the day, we have the ability to be shaped by the universe, much in the same way a rock can be smoothed by a flowing stream or graphite turned into diamond at depth. We are simply a product of the universe. Some would argue that the distinction between living and the non alive is arbitrary.

Experiments like hooking up some cultured cells, from a rat’s brain, to control a robot, show that there is a very fuzzy distinction between what is alive and what is not.

Where Do We Go From Here?

From an agnostic point of view, the conclusion I cannot come to appears to be blindingly obvious, I have free will. On the other hand, just because I cannot see a mechanism for free will, it does not mean, free will does not exist. But the absence of free will does lead us to some interesting places. I for one will bear those in mind when going about my daily life.

I can’t help wondering if it is the definition of free will that I have chosen that makes free will difficult to defend.

Dinosaur in front of some foot prints

The picture to the left is taken high in the Peruvian Andes. In the background we can see fossilized dinosaur footprints. It was a rather spiritual moment for me, realizing the analogy between the footprints, human beings and everything else. We will leave our footprints in this universe and we ourselves are footprints.


Madeleine was reluctant to read this, whether or not the real reason is my turgid prose, she said it might make for depressing reading. But for some, the prospect of having no free will is somehow disturbing. I don’t find it so, in that: 1) on a day to day basis I will ignore that possibility and 2) I would sooner have real good glimpse of the possibilities of my existence than go through life just in my own mind.

My final question; why would we want to make decisions that are in some way independent of the universe?

If the moon, in the act of completing its eternal way around the earth, were gifted with self-consciousness, it would feel thoroughly convinced that it was travelling its way of its own accord … So would a Being, endowed with higher insight and more perfect intelligence, watching man and his doings, smile about man’s illusion that he was acting according to his own free will.
Albert Einstein

This is something I wrote in late 2008, with the odd update. I still feel this is more or less reality.


21 thoughts on “Free Will

  1. rom, nice to see you put your thoughts of Free W down…I’ve done the same (though still in progress) at

    I do think your definition of FW put you out of the ball game at get go. How can any real thing exist “independently” of environ and universe? It can’t. And that is the way I took your sense of “independently” from the start, in some Absolutist way, total indep, isolation, non-influenced.

    But we don’t have to think of FW in that way. All the time we say “the child is becoming indep of his mother.” Independence is always by degree: that’s the solution. I will never be absolutely free (indep) of my mother and I am 66yrs old and she is long gone. Yet I am indep of her, in that much of her I have worked into the Design of Me. Recycling, I guess.

    The way I think of many of the perplexities you query — consciousness, life, morality, society, FW — is that they are real as Larger Contexts, larger structures that “house” and thus influence the “smaller” structures in them. Our body houses our organs. Modern society “houses’ its unique division of labor (like you “bags of chemicals” that are chemists, or those bags that are “probing the very fab of our universe”, or me a retired teacher bag —-just having fun).

    Dawkins and Dennett refer to this as Levels of Complexity. Interestingly, they also contend that the key is that the ‘lower’ level components maintain a modicum of independence even after ‘voting’ (in a sense) to join the ‘higher’ structure.
    I hope my comments are of some value to you. Thanks for your discussion..


    1. I do think your definition of FW put you out of the ball game at get go. How can any real thing exist “independently” of environ and universe?

      I agree this is fairly broad. But nevertheless there “deep” consequences when we recognize that everything is a result of cause and effect … whether the causes and effects are deterministic, indeterministic or most likely probabilistic. We can play around with our definitions to our heart’s content but that does not change the reality of the underlying fabric of reality. So I am glad you recognize “it can’t”.

      So rather than arm wrestling over more acceptable definitions can we explore the consequences of everything being a result of cause and effect?

      Because I agree we can define free will into and out of existence … but there is an underlying reality to the fabric of our existence.

      Welcome to the rom’s corner Greg.


      1. thanks, rom; didn’t I talk to you at WEIT?

        I suggest that your definition is not too broad, it’s too narrow. It automatically makes Free Will mystical. It auto disqualifies Compatibilist (Dennett’s) attempts at Free W and Determinism. Being free to a limited extent certainly must include being influenced by the universe! I think Dennett ends up defining Free W as “our ability to do more.”


    2. The compatibilist argument can be very simple though. Here is my “In a Nutshell” argument:

      “Free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.

      “Determinism” asserts that the behavior of objects and forces in our universe provides perfectly reliable cause and effect, and thus, at least in theory, is perfectly predictable.

      Because reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue, it poses no threat to free will. A meaningful constraint would be a man holding a gun to our head, forcing us to do his will. But reliable causation is not such a force. It is simply how we operate as we go about being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

      Because our decisions are reliably caused by our own purpose, our own reasons, and our own interests, our deliberate choosing poses no threat to determinism. Choosing is a deterministic process. And this process is authentically performed by us, according to our own purpose, reasons, and interests.

      As it turns out, every choice we make for ourselves is both freely chosen and reliably caused. Thus, the concepts of free will and determinism are naturally compatible.

      The illusion of conflict is created by a logic error called the “reification fallacy“. This happens when we mistakenly treat the concept of “reliable cause and effect” as if it were an external force controlling our choices, as if it were not actually us, simply being us and doing what we do.

      But concepts are not “things” that cause. Only the actual objects themselves, and the forces they naturally exert upon other objects, can cause events to happen.

      When empirically observed, we find that we exist in reality as physical objects, living organisms, and an intelligent species. As living organisms, we act purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As an intelligent species, we act deliberately by imagination, evaluation, and choosing. And, when we act upon our choices, we are forces of nature.

      Reliable cause and effect is not an external force. It is us, and the rest of the physical universe, just doing what we do. Those who try to turn it into a boogeyman robbing us of our choices are empirically mistaken.


  2. Yes we did have a discussion at WEIT until Jerry suggested we get a room of our own … so to speak.

    My definition, broad or narrow, is at what is at the heart of the discussion. Sure Dennett defines free will as to what he thinks it means. But again we agree that everything is a result of cause and effect. We may even agree we could not have done otherwise in a given situation. Dennett plays games here, for example his with missing a short put story. The golfer retaking the put ten times and making the put nine times and the golfer then saying see I could do otherwise (or more in this case).

    When one says being free to a limited extent, to me, seems to hide the fact we could not have done otherwise and that my actions were determined by cause and effect … and ultimately the universe.

    Now in a legal sense or perhaps in a vernacular way, I am happy to accept a free will concept ie there was no gun to my head, I am not a minor, or suffering from delusions and such like. But philosophically free will is a dead end. (I think)

    I also can’t help but think we miss out on a really interesting reality where free will is an illusion. We end up defending certain concepts or citing authorities at one another. Letting go of the concept of free will is really hard.


  3. The Compatibilist position is difficult to argue; you’re right, it sounds like squaring a circle, Dennett admit this. And I do agree with you that a “no free will” reality is staggering, I don’t even know how to start to think of myself without FW! That is one of the problems I have with Coyne’s Hard D; it seems to me he talks about a few implications for criminal justice and that’s all! You agree that No Free W would necessitate a Major revision in our thinking.

    For example, all these words you and I are now exchanging, are they “proximate causes” of each others responses? They work like a loud noise that makes us each jump? WE CURRENTLY HAVE AN IMPORTANT DISTINCTION HERE BETWEEN LOUD NOISES AND REASONED ARGUMENTS, BUT THAT DISTINCTION DOES NOT HOLD UP IN A HARD D WORLD, but Compatibilism is all about making it hold up in a Deterministic world. (All caps are only for emphasis, not yelling at you! sorry) Granted, Dennett’s version of the point of logic, evidence, persuasion is different from Idealist versions in philosophy. Dennett tries to argue for levels of complexity that logically are composed of parts that are defined and Function in relation to each other and Not strictly understood as caused by what preceded them in time, and Not strictly caused (in any clear and immediate sense) by gravity, space-time, subatomic particles.

    Think of Organisms and their anatomies, please. We understand them as interconnected in a “timeless”, logical way. Hearts are Essentially a relation to Veins, Livers, Lungs. Brains. This Holistic interrelation is the basis of science and medicine we do concerning them, and this may REDUCE them into chemical interactions and maybe eventually clumps of atoms, BUT the initial organic whole is what gave the chemical and atomic situation the Significance to investigate and the value to ability to learn about.

    The most consistent Hard Determinists are the few that just bite the bullet and say stuff like Pain, Color. Fear, Love, Truth, Goodness, Taste, and much more, just does not exist. Of course=, they should go on to say that Freedom, Justice, Logic and Reasoning are in that group too.

    I think you are on to something, that it is an “interesting” world without Free W, but I don’t think interesting is the right word. What I’m arguing is that it is an incoherent position. You have to give up too much of what you do as you make the argument itself. It kills me, Jerry on there arguing about how “good” Chicago pizza tastes. For the Hard Determinist, ‘taste’ is just a bunch of gravity and “good” is even less.

    Sorry for being so emphatic, I’m not being personal about it. I get the motivation for Hard D, I just think it throws the baby out with the bath water.

    I’ll get back to you on the Austin’s putt point. I think I “can” make a reasonable case, SOMEWHAT like Austin thought he “could have” holed that putt.

    Thanks for the listen. (I hope not toomany typoes, I’m not rereadi9ng this)


    1. Hi Greg … you have a lot here can I suggest we go to for a better discussion as I find wordpress formatting replies clunky. But I will pick up on a few points quickly here.

      What exactly is that distinction? My reasoned argument is not moving you. This time twelve years ago I, like you, believed in free will. But a reasoned argument moved me. What’s the difference?

      Compatibilism (I think) is about putting aside the fact everything that happens is actually a result of cause and effect. Avoiding taking this observation to its reasoned conclusion. I am happy to concede there are definitions that define free will into existence. But will you examine the logical consequences that all is a result of cause and effect?

      I sort of agree with you on most hard determinists. Take Jerry for example, I find although he claims he is a hard determinist he behaves like a compatibilist. Of course fear, colour, pain, love, truth, evil etc exist. But they are not as they seem. They are illusions (not delusions). Colour is a classic example. The redness of my kitchen chair exists in my brain. Explain to me how a photochemical reaction in my brain can be red and in turn that makes the chair actually red?

      Without free will? We are both determinists. Again I find you avoid going through the reasoning and actually put into words what are the consequences of living in a determined world. Yet you find my position incoherent, when I readily admit we can define free will into existence. Some people might say making a reasoned choice is free will. Fair enough. But how free was our reasoning? It has the same constraints as a choice on impulse. Regarding reasoning and logic … my uncertainty of them makes me agnostically inclined. But note our reasoning is equally determined (we have the same fundamental forces shaping our actions and brain states).

      Also why do hard determinists say taste is just “gravity” (I presume meant chemical reactions). It plainly is chemical reactions. Why the “just”? I find it amazing that took a universe to shape us so that we can discuss the goodness of Chicago pizza.

      There’s no motivation for hard determinism, quite the opposite I was very motivated to hang on to it. I just could not justify the reasoning of the soft determinist.

      I suspect you are looking for a spiritual dimension to all this and life and more. I would argue determinism has that and hard determinism has it in spades.


  4. rom, sorry for writing so much but I’m on a role. My wife, a long-time Kindergarten/preschool teacher, is late at a school event, so When the cat is away…

    I was thinking about what I wrote earlier and figured you would have at least two objections to it.

    1) What can something like pain or taste or justice or truth come to, if not some puffy melodramatic illusion? (For that matter what is “an illusion”, except the same thing as you call the other ‘illusions’? it now occurs to me.)

    2) Am I contending that these Ideas (or memes) change or control brain patterns, and maybe they do as a child is growing and being acculturated, but they absolutely don’t change the physics of the universe! So what can they be or do?

    First answer: These memes are Social Practices. Yes, I am revising what is normally thought of them, as ‘thoughts’—some wispy immaterial things. That is a bad theory of them. A better theory is to see them as Ways that a Human Community has become Organized to Function as a Unit and to maximize their interests in their interaction with the physical environment. Even “truth” is not so much correspondence to reality as it is a Unified Community Action to what we experience. This even goes for “pain” — it is of varied sorts and degrees, which we describe with all kinds of language for varied situations—from migraines to stubbed toes. And “pain” is itself contrasted to “pleasure” of which they too are described voluminously and in all kind of situations. My point is, its like the way we describe “an organism”—holistically. These memes create a network of contrasts that give each a MEANING or Significance in relation to the others. It is a structure, a design, that necessitates a different kind of explanation than simple causation as a sequence of billiard balls bumping in time. A holistic thing happens, that I will not attribute to God as the creator of designs, but to Evolution. Evolution is an attempt to Naturalisticly explain design in the world.

    second answer: Memes or Ideas don’t change or bend the laws of physics, those incoming forces. Like Natural Selection itself and through it, they are the results of a process that searched for the opportunities that existed among those forces and cycles and regularities, and stumbled upon a more high-grade cycle, regularity—-human persons organized around memes.

    I’m stopping there. Does any of this make sense? I will still get to the putt, next. I won’t be offended if you are done.
    But the point is, Hard D misses those ‘lateral’, logical, ‘all at once designs’, holistic structures that exist so prominently in our experience. They are not illusion, but often are interpreted “wooey” but don’t have to be. These structures cast an important ‘light’ on causes that Hard D misses.
    Thanks, Greg


    1. First of all the laws of physics are descriptions of what we observe, these descriptions are powerful in the sense that they allow predictions to be made. If the predictions don’t fit, the descriptions are in need of a serious fix. So whether memes bend or change laws of physics or not is a misunderstanding of what scientific laws are. So I don’t find this relevant to the discussion about free will.

      But the point is, Hard D misses those ‘lateral’, logical, ‘all at once designs’, holistic structures that exist so prominently in our experience. They are not illusion, but often are interpreted “wooey” but don’t have to be. These structures cast an important ‘light’ on causes that Hard D misses.

      This I don’t understand at all. Hard determinism accepts that everything is as a result of cause as does soft determinism.

      Answer me this please … do you believe in a past situation that you could have done otherwise? A simple yes or no and a simple clarification if required will suffice.


      1. In past situations, we could not have done other than we did. In future situations that are very similar, we can do something different than in the past situation. Socialized humans —-persons—- are never in the exact same situation twice. We are fine tuned to pick out differences that are significant to us and “take it into our programming” (your words).

        Other creatures are not as ‘finely tuned’. Are you familiar with the famous Digger wasp demonstration? It gets repeatedly manipulated by ‘small’ interruptions in its nesting routine and repeatedly starts over again. It never notices the ‘minor’ (to us) alterations and never takes it into its program. It does the same thing over and over in a situation it ‘thinks’ is the same.


    1. Hi Greg this is in response to your post here:

      In future situations that are very similar, we can do something different than in the past situation.

      OK I have come across the digger wasp … it clearly demonstrates cause and effect. In the case of human beings, other creatures and even items it is a bit more complicated. Nevertheless, cause and effect are still in play.

      You are simply pointing to the fact that it is more difficult to identify the proximate causes and predict the outcomes. I have come across women (and men I suppose) that have gone into several relationships with what can be seen as a negative outcome.

      Just because an outcome is different under similar conditions in no way indicates that someone (thing) could have done differently. It’s like putting a seed number into a random number generator say 3.0 versus 3.000001 and we get a difficult to predict different outcome. Of course I can put in 3.000001 again and get the same number. But then to all intents and purposes it is not similar but identical. Similarly for the digger wasp.

      Ultimately, you seem to be pointing to the uncertainty here and claiming that is the ‘free’ in free will. Or at least that is how I read it.


  5. In Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain”, he posits conscious awareness as a data set that tracks attention. As a computer programmer, that makes sense to me. Because to add a “consciousness routine” to provide “self-awareness” to a computer we’d need to add new logic that records what the other logic is doing.

    When a decision is being made, this new function would keep notes on the process, and it could report on that process, like we do when asked “Why did you decide to do that?”

    “Well, based on my notes, I considered A and felt this way, and then I considered B and felt that way, and since A felt more right than B, I chose A.”

    My impression is that the mind is a process running upon the hardware of the brain’s neurology. The tricky thing about a process is that it is not itself a material thing, but rather a series of rapid changes happening within the material thing. So, when we die, the process stops, as it does when we turn off our computer. We still have the hardware, the brain, but it is now inert matter. The hardware and the process are interdependent. Without the process, the brain is useless. Without the brain, the process cannot run.

    Inert matter behaves passively in response to physical forces. A living organism is animated by a “biological will” to survive, thrive, and reproduce. It exhibits “purposeful” behavior. An intelligent species has evolved a mind capable of imagination, evaluation, and choosing. It exhibits “deliberate” behavior.

    The computer in our head models reality and, based upon knowledge acquired by prior experience, calculates how different options might play out if chosen. Based on that calculation it chooses what we will do.

    So we have physical, biological, and rational mechanisms involved in causing us to do what we do. It’s not just chemistry, it is the biology using chemistry to help it to survive, and it is the biology kicking decisions up to the mental calculator to decide what actions will best accomplish its purposes.

    But there is a subtle mistake in this statement: “we have physical, biological, and rational mechanisms involved in causing us to do what we do”. And that mistake leads to some mental errors. These mechanisms are not “causing us to do”. They are “us” doing.


    1. It’s not just chemistry

      See what I mean 🙂
      It was never claimed it is just chemistry.

      I would argue mechanisms guide energy flow. For example the cogs etc in a clock guide the energy that we put into the spring into moving the hands. The spring is a mechanism for storing that energy and the cogs a mechanism for delivering that energy. So in what sense do mechanisms not cause anything? The cogs cause energy to be delivered to the hands.

      Biology is an agglomerated property of biochemistry and too complicated to describe in terms of biochemistry.


  6. These mechanisms are not “causing us to do”. They are “us” doing.

    And I think having an arbitrary divide between “us” and our environment is a mental error.

    We exist because our environment exists. Having an “us” and everything else makes sense of the illusion of free will in an evolutionary setting, and while evolution is still true there are other forces at work now.

    Anyway despite being retired, I still go into work and will be mostly incommunicado till Saturday. I blogged about your blog post. Hope it did not come across as too harsh.


    1. The correct term is “model”. The brain builds a model of reality. Thinking manipulates this model, sort of like an algebra of objects, sensations, and concepts. When the model is accurate enough to be useful, it is called “reality”, because the model is our only access to reality. When the model is inaccurate, then, and only then, is it appropriate to call the phenomenon an “illusion”.


      1. What the brain does is model, how it is done is the mechanism, of course we have models for the mechanism. Of course, how the brain does it at the most fundamental levels is physics and chemistry. But the computational power that would be needed to have an explanation of going from mechanism to model is not just worth effort at the moment.

        This I thought was amazing:

        It is simply a correlation between a proxy for blood flow through the brain and previously recorded patterns of flow (for known images).


  7. Rom. I’m going way back here, but I like the work you have done on this post. It looks nice, and I can’t wait to read it in this new form. I’m a firm believer in “99% perspiration.”

    Curiously, as I have continued to Reflect on these issues, I am going to question a very initial premise of yours. Will explain tomorrow.

    Like the new format!


  8. Hi Greg … not sure what you mean by the new form … but thanks anyway.

    Look forward to you questioning my initial premise.

    All the best


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s