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Determinism Miscellany

By Bruce Barbour - Version 1.14 - July 2024 (Original October 2023)

Introduction

Just a few more idle thoughts on the subject.

The Meaning of "Determined"

A part of the problem with the determinism/free will debate is the inexactitude of the word "determined". The word is used in different contexts that have different meanings, not excessively different but still different. For example (A) Rail lines determine where the train goes and (B) the situation where what to do on a day is determined by the weather.

The rail tracks hard determine where the train goes. The weather determines some of the options that could be done on the day. If it is an overcast or windy day a person might decide not to go on a walk. However it is a softer meaning of the word determined. A person still has a choice. They could still put on a jacket and go for a walk regardless of the inclemency. The train just goes where the rail tracks go. The difference is that in the second option (weather) there is a possibility of choice. In the first option (train on rail tracks) there is no possibility of choice.

Perhaps for the second option it could be said that the weather influenced, rather than determined, what was going to be done on the day. If the weather was really bad, cold, raining and blowing a gale then determined might be the appropriate word. But if is just cold and a little bit windy then the weather is an influencing factor on the choice of whether to go for a walk or not. Some people might still decide to go on the walk and some wouldn't, so the weather is not a determining factor. As per my previous article the weather is a stimuli. And stimuli are not determining. Whether the walk occurs at all is due to a thought process, not the stimuli.

Supporters of determinism don't acknowledge any difference between the different meanings of determined. Consequently they will argue that because the rail tracks determine where the train goes therefore the weather determines what the person does. Same word but a slightly different meaning. In their argument they are both determined with no consideration of the impact of the possibility of choice in the second option.

Total Free Will

Some supporters of determinism debunk what they call "total free will" and then, as a consequence of this, go on and say any type or scope of free will has no substance. That jump cannot be supported.

I don't think people have total free will. In the extreme total free will would require the person to have god like powers to be able to bend and cancel the laws of nature. That is impossible. People don't even have total free will associated with their own bodies. They can't will their heart to stop - thank goodness - though some yogis can slow it down. They can't stop shivering when they get very cold or perspiring when they get hot. If a person stops breathing through an effort of will they will go unconscious and then start to breathe again. A lot of the time people would "run on automatic" without having to think much.

Total free will does not exist. What concerns me is any instance of free will. If an instance of free will occurs in any circumstance then free will exists and universal determinism is broken - though partial determinism would continue.

Determinism and Religion

An observation that falls out of the determinism hypothesis.

Determinism hypothesis would mean that all religion and every religious thought that has ever occurred was due to cause and effect processes in the Universe. This is from the earliest beliefs in idols and nature worship (e.g sun worship) to the current day monotheistic religions.

Under determinism religious belief must be written into the Universe. This is not so strange when you consider that all scientific belief and knowledge must also be written into the Universe.

It also means that all wars were written into the structure of the Universe at the time of the Big Bang*. In fact all of history, all of the good and evil in the world was written into the structure of the Big Bang* and the Universe, if in fact those terms have any meaning in determinism.

That is some mighty fancy billiard ball interaction.

(* In recent times I have seen science reports questioning the Big Bang hypothesis. Time will tell whether it continues to be the accepted origin story or whether another model will come to be accepted.) 

Determinism and Philosophy

According to Wikipedia philosophy has a number of branches. In summary the main branches are:
  • Aesthetics - the study of the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and the creation of personal kinds of truth.
  • Epistemology - studies the source, nature and validity of knowledge.
  • Ethics the study of values and morality.
  • Logic the systematic study of the form of valid inference and reasoning.
  • Metaphysics concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it.
(Other sources quote different branches or add additional branches.)

One of the aspects that struck me when starting to look at philosophy was that many of the branches are not applied across some of the other branches. Epistemology studies what's the nature of knowledge and how anything can be known for certain. In this branch, philosophers tie themselves into knots trying to determine what can be known with absolute certainty. However in metaphysics some (though not all) philosophers discount the rigid requirements of epistemology for determining what is true knowledge.

Some philosophers will espouse their metaphysical philosophy, many times stating it as certainty - true knowledge. While many would try, with varying levels of success, to justify their philosophy with reasoned argument, in my opinion their reasoning would never justify their philosophy being classed as Knowledge, though it may become (small k) knowledge, personal knowledge, that to the adherents is true. The proof of this is that the espoused philosophy is still being debated. If metaphysical claim had been proven as Knowledge there would be less need for debate.

Perhaps the name should have given it away. Metaphysics means "beyond physics". In other words beyond science and the scientific method. Without the proofs offered by science it is very difficult to achieve the status of knowledge. If human determinism or free will was ever scientifically proven the Knowledge would go outside the realm of metaphysics. 

Determinism* (or causality), existentialism, free will (often called libertarianism), all religions and many other philosophies are a sub-branch of metaphysics. They should not be classed as knowledge. They are a philosophy or a belief system.

*Some people may believe determinism is not metaphysics but physics - because of the ubiquity of cause and effect. However this cannot be supported as per my earlier article.

As stated religions are a sub-branch of metaphysics. However at least in some types of religion (some types of Christianity anyway - I am unsure about other religions) may admit the uncertainty of their beliefs by saying that ultimately belief in their religion requires a "leap of faith". This seems to be more than what adherents of determinism and some other philosophies seem to be prepared to admit.

The other area that I found to be particularly bad at proving their philosophical claims are the existentialists.

Give me solid repeatable scientific proof of human determinism, rather than fuzzy inconclusive philosophical reasoning that does not meet the standards of epistemological Knowledge, then I will change my mind.

Unfalsifiability

Both determinism and free will are currently unfalsifiable.

Unfalsifiable does not mean that because a hypothesis can't be proven false it is consequently correct. It means the hypothesis can't be shown to be either false or correct - there is no way of presently knowing with certainty. The philosopher is left with arguments from reason.

Some scientists say that a hypothesis that is unfalsifiable is not a valid scientific hypothesis because there is no experiment that can be done to prove or disprove the hypothesis. I do not go that far. To my mind free will and determinism should still be classed as scientific hypothesis. They need to be subject to scientific and other research investigation.

While the hypotheses are not falsifiable at present, and this should be acknowledged, they may be in the future. Researchers have to be looking for proof one way or the other, otherwise the hypotheses will never get past being unfalsifiable.

I am agnostic on both free will and human determinism but currently lean (significantly) towards free will due to the many factors stated in this article and the other articles I have written on the subject.

Culture

Another favourite argument of the some of the supporters of determinism is that a lot of people's decisions and actions are due to the country and the culture the people are brought up in - and they had no choice in this. I agree culture does impact on the decision making of a person regardless of whether they are fully determined or have free will. It is still only one factor that is considered in decision making.

However some people can and do reject their cultural upbringing. Youth can rebel against their upbringing. People can reject the religion that they were brought up in or reject the culture in total. A person can go overseas and decide to fully adopt much of the culture of their adopted country, adopting the new language and even to the extent of changing their religious beliefs. Cultural beliefs are not set in stone.

Culture is a factor in decision making. But a person's inculturation is not set over a lifetime. It can change during a person's life and therefore its impact on decision making will also change.

The Problem with Over Extrapolation

An example of an instance where over extrapolation of a concept has proven to be problematic is where Newtonian mechanics was extrapolated into the sub-atomic.

The first model of the atom that was taught to me in school was pure Newtonian. It was the classic solar system style model. That is a nucleus, consisting of little balls of matter called protons and neutrons at the centre of the atom with little electrons (different little balls of matter) orbiting, on nice simple circular paths the much larger nucleus, like little planets in a solar system.

Needless to say it was wrong. Atoms are not structured like that. We were subsequently taught the non-Newtonian model later in secondary college (high school).

This is an example where extrapolation into the very small did not work. Yet determinism in humans requires that cause and effect be extrapolated into the very small, into the very complex (the brain - the most densely complex structure in the known Universe containing over 80 billion neurons) and into the consciousness (a process which is undoubtedly complex and is not presently fully explained or understood).

Maybe the extrapolation is true. Maybe it is not. I want proof, scientific proof, before I commit to a hypothesis like human determinism which would have far reaching significance for humanity and which goes against lived experience.

Causality Revisited

Not a Law of Nature

In my opinion universal cause and effect (causality) is not a law of nature, but rather a concept that describes the observed relationship between two consecutive interacting events. Some references disagree and include cause and effect in the list of the laws of nature. But this list is somewhat like the list of the 7 (or is it 8) wonders of the ancient world - they vary depending on which source is consulted. It is not like the ten commandments handed down on stone tablets from God - according to some religions. And even the ten commandments vary depending on the translation, the source and the time.*

I claim this because in most instances cause leading to effect is derivative. Most often if describing the actions in a system cause and effect need not be considered. Instead all the information on what happens in the system can be fully described using the laws of nature. For example the billiard ball interaction. A ball strikes another ball and it moves. This interaction can more than adequately be explained by considering the energy and momentum transfer process in which some of the energy and momentum of the first ball is transferred to the second ball. The total amount of energy of the two balls is the same as the total energy of the first ball before it struck (discounting frictional and other losses). This is the principle of conservation of energy. Momentum (which also considers the vectors - or directions - of the motion) is also conserved in the system. These two laws, conservation of energy and momentum, tell you so much more than what a causality "law" tells you. Causality just tells you that when a billiard ball is hit by another billiard ball it will cause the hit ball to move. It doesn't say by how much or in what direction. Neither does it say what happens to the causing ball. In fact in reality it doesn't even tell you that. If it is a bowling ball being hit by a billiard ball then it is quite possible that the bowling ball will not move or barely move. The effect might be just the sound of the collision.

If a billiard ball was to suddenly shoot off by itself that would violate the laws of conservation of energy. Where did the energy necessary to accelerate the ball to speed come from? Consequently this doesn't happen. Cause and effect would have also been violated but this is a secondary consideration.

The causality observation does not just apply to mechanical interactions but also electrical and chemical. Put a voltage across a light bulb (cause) and the light bulb shines (effect). Mix two chemicals together and apply heat if necessary (cause) and provided the chemicals are reactive a chemical reaction will occur and new molecules formed (effect). Laws of nature do not generally cross boundaries like the causality observation.

Causality - including mechanical, electrical and chemical - can't be expressed in a mathematical formula, unless other laws of nature are invoked. Causality is just a general observation about what usually happens in normal space time. It is like observing that the Sun rises in the East in the morning, goes across the sky during the day and sets in the West. On the surface it might appear to indicate that the Sun goes around the Earth but deeper investigation reveals that the answer is more complicated.

Whether causality is a law of nature or not is important. If it is not a law of nature then if causality happens to be broken it is not a law that is being broken but an observation on how things usually behave in "normal" space time.

* As an interesting aside while investigating causality I asked the Bing search engine, which runs a version of the ChatGPT AI, "Is causality a law of nature?" the answer came back as No. Some time later I thought I should actually read the reference sites the AI consulted to come up with the answer so I went back and asked the same question. And the answer I got was - Yes causality is a law of nature.

A week or so later I went to the direct ChatGPT 3.5 website and had a "conversation" on causality and the laws of nature. This time ChatGPT agreed with me. "Cause and Effect" is NOT a law of nature. ChatGPT also listed the laws of nature relevant to physics. (ChatGPT indicated the list was not exhaustive and that there are also other Laws that are not related to physics.) It is interesting that it said "scientific understanding evolves, and new laws or revisions to existing ones may occur as research progresses." As with all science even the so called "Laws" are open to potential review if knowledge changes. This is one of the things that make science so great - in pure science there is no dogma, though this might not be the case in the science practiced by some.

It is a pity that religions don't also openly have the provision of being able to change beliefs when knowledge advances. Although some religions aren't completely set in stone. In some versions of a religion they may quietly "forget" to read and incorporate aspects of their holy writings, or they radically change the interpretation (e.g. "Its not meant to be taken literally. Its allegorical") when it too much offends modern logic. And there have been significant reformations in the past. See transcript of "conversation" here.

Double Slit Experiment

In not "normal size" space time, i.e. this sub atomic space, causality seems to be broken a number of times in quantum mechanics. One example is the famous double slit experiment.(1 & 2) Monochromatic light shone through a barrier with a double slit in it will show through on the other side of the barrier as, not two discrete points of light but, an interference pattern. This indicates the wave property of light. However when equipment is set up to measure the light as it passes through the slits the pattern of light now becomes two discrete points (or bands) of light which indicates that the light is now behaving like a stream of particles instead of waves. The act of measurement changes what is observed! (This also works with electrons and atoms fired at the double slits provided the slits are of the right size and spacing.) So what does this mean for cause and effect?

A partial explanation of this is that photons of light are effectively timeless or only have one instance of time. Because they travel at the speed of light no time passes for them. Their time is still the same as the time at which they were generated. There is no before and no after, there is no future nor past - and because cause and effect relies on things at an earlier time affecting things at a later time - cause and effect may not apply in certain circumstances with electromagnetic radiation. Though lasers can burn and scientists propose innovations like electromagnetic "sails" for space ship propulsion which does indicate effects.

Still what can be made of the astonishing outcome of the double slit experiment? What is observed is changed by an act of measurement! Humans can measure. Perhaps other life on Earth can measure in a more rudimentary way. Aliens may be able to measure but we don't know whether aliens exist. What else in the Universe can measure? I know of nothing. For something to be able measure surely by definition it needs to be conscious to some degree - a rock or a tree can't measure. Measurement and observation are part of consciousness. To me it indicates consciousness is a distinct property and not just an illusory artifact of complex cause and effect. It also shows that measurement (part of observation and consciousness) can itself be a cause of an effect. Observation can cause the quantum wave function to collapse. There is no known physical contact (including electromagnetic radiation) between the cause and the effect. So what is the mechanism that links the effect to the cause? No body knows. But I hesitate to draw further conclusions from this experiment. Such conclusions would be highly speculative. However what this does show is how much science is yet to work out. The project of science is a work in progress that may take a long time to conclude, if ever.

The other comment that I will make is that some scientists researching in the field of the brain/mind/consciousness investigation may argue that this and other quantum indeterminacy and frankly quantum weirdness should not affect how the mind works as the brains neurons are not working at the quantum level. While I am not qualified to judge that, it is still an unproven claim.

Quantum Mechanics

Random action, that is action that is not caused by an effect, is found at the quantum level frequently. Some free will advocates argue that this quantum randomness leads to free will. Supporters of determinism will argue that it is unlikely that quantum effects come into play in human action and even if they did it would cause random actions. A person exhibiting random actions is not acting in accordance with their decisions and is therefore not acting in accordance with their free will.

However what random action at the quantum level does show is that case and effect does not rule supreme in all areas of the Universe. Therefore it may be possible for cause and effect to be circumvented in other areas of the Universe, giving rise to the possibility of free will. As pure speculation perhaps the apparent quantum randomness may be able to be interfered with by some unknown human process, probably related to consciousness, whereby the quantum action effect is no longer random but directed. But as I said - speculation.

Supporters of determinism seem to suggest that quantum effects can have no impact on systems at larger scale. It seems they are suggesting that there is some type of barrier between the quantum scale and larger realms that quantum effects can't cross, that quantum randomness can only have impact in the quantum realm. I don't know whether this is the scientific view of quantum physicists or whether it is just the assumptions of some philosophers thinking about free will/determinism. A simple thought experiment - which I anticipate could actually be done to confirm it - would show that there is no such barrier. Consider the double slit experiment discussed in the previous section. When the light through the slot is measured it forms two lines, when it is not measured it forms an interference pattern with multiple lines of less intensity. Clearly quantum effects are in play. The proposed thought  experiment is simple. The light shines onto a sheet which is flammable at a certain intensity of light. Say that flammability is chosen so that it bursts into flame when the light is measured and forms two lines. When not measured the intensity of the light in the interference pattern lines does not get to the level necessary to cause the paper to burn. That shows an impact. If you don't want flames you may be able to use a switch that changes when the intensity of the light gets to the right level but otherwise doesn't (unless that could be thought of as some form of measurement). This switch could switch on any piece of equipment you wish to nominate. A large effect due to quantum processes! And as I have said in other sections, measurement is a consciousness process.

Humian Causality

It is interesting that in Humian causality (the form of causality considered by philosopher David Hume) one of Hume's requirements for causality was "the cause and effect must be contiguous in space and time". In humans the cause of an event would often not meet that requirement. Often learnings are used which can be decades old to decide on which event the human decides to carry out after a stimulus - which, as discussed, is not itself causative. If the cause is the learnings the event could not be described as contiguous in time to the cause. And a stimulus itself may not be contiguous with the effect. For example an advertisement comes on the internet urging the purchase of a certain item (the stimulus). A person may not act on that at all or they may decide to act on it days later - not contiguous in time. As I have mentioned in other articles this shows how different causality in humans would have to be compared to causality in the rest of the Universe - if causality were to exist in human decision making.

If the cause is not the external stimulus nor the learnings then what is the cause? It must be the self. For the supporters of hard human determinism the "self" is merely a brain mechanism which gives the illusion of a self and an illusion of the free will of the self. But I can't see how this mechanism in deciding the effect is easily explainable by prior cause. And certainly not a cause which is contiguous in time. For an autonomous self the issue does not exist.

Some of the other Humian causality requirements are also suspect. However there are other definitions of causality which may not have this issue.

In any case Hume was skeptical about what we can know for certain about causation.

Is the Subconscious Free?

There have been various experiments (e.g. the Libet experiments) that seem to suggest that some decisions are made in the subconscious and it is only after the decision has been made that the conscious mind becomes aware of the decision. The argument is therefore made that the subconscious decision was not free because it was not a conscious choice. On the surface this sounds a persuasive argument. Is it or is there another possible explanation?

This hinges on the questions of firstly whether there is a "self" and secondly what constitutes that "self".

Supporters of determinism would deny the existence of the self, arguing that like free will it is just an illusion. People are simply highly complex mechanisms behaving solely in accord with cause and effect.

Most supporters of free will would argue that there is something like a "Self" that is responsible for making free will decisions. Some may believe in dualism but others would say that the Self is due to the complexity of the brain and the emergent property of the mind which has been called consciousness. It is part of the person - not separate. I am in the second camp.

Let us consider what this "Self" might be. Freud proposed a model of the mind that was composed of the conscious, pre-conscious and subconscious. Often an analogy to an iceberg is used - the conscious being the part above the "water", the part that is people are aware of, and the other two parts submerged, not easily visible beyond simple awareness, but still playing a vital part of what makes up a person. The "Self", if it exists, would comprise all three parts.

Next I would like to propose that if free will exists in the conscious mind then it may well exist in the other parts of the mind as well. I propose this because some of the other parts of the mind are structured the same way as the conscious part of the mind. Much of the conscious and pre-conscious would co-exist in the same parts of the mind. I would propose that as well as the conscious mind having the structures that allow free will perhaps either the subconscious or pre-conscious (or both) also have the structures that allow free will. However of course this would require a rethink of what free will means when there is not a choice being made by the conscious mind. It sound contradictory. In this case "free will" would have to be redefined. The "free" part of free will is OK. It is free in that it is not bound by cause and effect. The "will" part would be defined as comprising both conscious and unconscious aspects both also not being bound by cause and effect. These aspects are expressions of the Self. In this view of free will, "will" can not be thought of as simply a conscious thought process.

(If supporters of determinism are able to define "will" as solely a conscious thought process then their arguments, such as expressed in the cascading thought explanation - see below - would probably win. But it would be an empty win based on semantics and a wrong understanding.)

An alternative way of thinking about this that the pre-conscious and subconscious were formed by two aspects - genetics and earlier learnings. Genetics are largely determined from conception and these would impact on the processes of the pre and sub conscious. However many of the learnings aren't determined. They are formed from conscious thought processes over time. Sure some early learnings are very influenced by parents (who are behaving in some part in accordance with their free will choices) and other unchosen environmental factors. But many subsequent learnings aren't. As a supporter of free will I argue that the later learnings are largely free. Therefore the contents of the sub and pre conscious might in some ways be considered determined by those earlier learnings, those learnings themselves are as a result of the free will choices of the person choosing the learnings to undertake and adopt at an earlier time. So subsequent choices of the sub and pre conscious (even if not consciously undertaken) may also be considered the outcome of free will processes and an expression of the Self.

In summary, the self is comprised of elements from the whole mind - conscious, pre-conscious and subconscious. This is what makes up what we are or what the self is. It is fundamental. The self is more than solely the conscious mind. Decisions made in the subconscious are still decisions of the Self. And these decisions are guided by who we are in total. And because as I argue these other parts of the mind are also not bound by cause and effect they are also choices which are free. Free from the absolute binds of cause and effect. Decisions guided by the true Self.

Is this just speculation or hypothesis which is not proven by science? Absolutely. But at least I acknowledge this.

One final point I will make about the Libet and associated experiments is that they take a supposed explanation of a simple inconsequential decision - when to press a button or which button to press - and try to extrapolate it into an explanation of how all human decisions are made. The way human decisions of consequence and / or complexity are made are fundamentally different to the experimental set-up. In these types of decisions consciousness processes do play a significant part.

Human Determinism Argument Flaws

Supporter of determinism often used flawed arguments to support their cause. I have already highlighted some in this article. The following are a few additional examples.

Argument 1

In the article "Determinism and Freewill" I mentioned that one of the methods used was to not acknowledge that the decisions of a hypothetical person that has free will (a free agent if you like), will on most occasions, be exactly the same as a hypothetical person without free will. A person with free will on most occasions will use their free reasoning to make the decision which is most advantageous to themself. This will most likely be the same choice a determined person would make. 

A person making a decision for a reason is in no way an indicator that the person does not have free will. A free agent makes a decision which is not bound by cause and effect. A believer in determinism will reject this interpretation and will say the person was acting for a reason which was determined by their prior experience, learnings and their current situation. A supporter of free will will say that while the prior experience, learnings and current situation was taken into account by using their conscious reasoning there was another element included in the process which was their unbound free agent choice.

Supporters of determinism have attempted to co-opt the act of reasoning as a justification of their cause.

Argument 2

Another example in the same vein is the unquestioned assumption by supporters of determinism that thoughts cannot be a initiated without further cause. A person has a thought (T1 we will call it) which seems to come out of nowhere. The supporter of determinism then says that person did not have conscious control of what that thought (T1) was. Therefore they argue the person did not chose that thought. Therefore that thought was not consciously controlled by the person. Therefore that thought was not free.

This is an example from Sam Harris (made in the video time zone 1 minute to 1 minute 30 seconds). If that is the requirement it definitionally, though not actually, rules out free will. If there is a requirement for the person to have a thought (we will call it T0) to control the subsequent thought (T1) then the supporter of determinism would argue that the initiating thought (T0) was also not free because the person would need to have a thought (T negative 1) to control the thought (T0). And so on back. The logic is fundamentally flawed.

In contrast supporters of free will say that the thought (T1) was initiated by (or caused by, if you like) the autonomous Self. There is no need for prior thought or prior cause beyond the Self. The thought (T1) is initiated by the Self and is the expression of the choice of the Self. The supporters of determinism do not explain or provide any arguments as to why this is not a viable explanation of what happens. Except for their mantras of "the self is an illusion" and "all effects have a cause". These mantras are not sufficiently proven for the human mind and consciousness.

The other issue with this argument is that it creates just as many issues for the supporters of determinism. They claim it is all dumb cause and effect. So in the supporters of determinism view what caused thought T1? They have rejected the idea that it is an earlier thought. And anyway that would just lead to the same cascading thought issue as previously discussed - what was the cause of thought T0 and then thought T negative 1 - and so on. In either argument, determinism or free will, a some point you are going to have non-thought cause of a thought. Why can't that non-thought leading to thought be initiated (caused) by the free willed (not bound by cause and effect) self instead of being initiated by an unconscious (unthought) cause from an infinite cause and effect chain?

The supporters of determinism's other approach could be to say that all thought is secondary. That is, unconscious cause and effect causes the action and then thought basically follows along to explain the action. The first issue with that is often (I would say on most occasions) thought clearly comes before the action (sometimes a longtime before action) so a thought can't be in response to the action on all occasions. The second issue is that they are allowing determinism cause and effect to be a sub-thought process but reject that the free willed self (not bound by cause and effect) may be able to instigate a non-thought cause (also not bound by cause and effect) leading to thought and to action.

Argument 3

Another argument in the same vein as Argument 1 is that supporters of determinism will cite an example of a person developing a brain tumor and their personality changes radically. An example they may cite is that someone develops a brain tumor and suddenly becomes a fire bug* where previously they had no such tendencies. Then the brain tumor is surgically removed and lo and behold they cease to have any urge to light fires. This is meant to show that people do not have conscious control over their thoughts and actions. Again this seems to be a strong argument for determinism. But is it?

Supporters of free will (some anyway) may accept that human decision making and the "self" is impacted by:
  • genetics and brain structure which, while are largely determined**, do allow the emergent property of consciousness and free will;
  • learnings which are in part:
    • determined by the general environment - at least some of which may be chosen by another agent working with free will - e.g. a parent;
    • determined by other people who are to an extent operating as free will agents themselves - parents, teachers, etc. - and can therefore also be considered part of the total human free will realm; and
    • chosen by the person's own free will.
As noted in the first dot point in the list above free will depends on structures in the brain. If some structures in the brain are damaged from a brain tumor or from an accident then this can effect a person's ability to make free will choices. It can also effect their personality - also formed under the processes in the dot points listed above.

It is unreasonable for supporters of determinism to demand that for a person to prove they have free will they have to be able to somehow dismiss massive brain damage as if nothing happened and continue to have the same level of free will functionality as they did before the damage. Supporters of determinism do not demand that other impaired functions, physical and mental, should not have been impaired due to the brain damage from any source. As I said, free will depends on structures of the brain, which can be damaged and can be functionally impaired. (The argument may be more challenging for the dualism view of free will - but I don't support that hypothesized mechanism for free will anyway.)

The fire bug example is extreme. We don't know what the person's proclivities were before the brain tumor. Perhaps they had fire bugging tendencies that were being kept in check by the undamaged brain and mind. The damage from the brain tumor may have been sufficient to remove the ability to keep the urges in check. This applies whether the brain is fully determined or has free will.

Another way of looking at the issue is that I admit that some of the aspects that are considered in the human decision making process may be determined. Refer to the dot point list in this section (above). This is not a new position for me. Genetics and brain structure are determined. Some aspects of learnings may be determined. In normal decision making these may be balanced against or counteracted or perhaps overridden by the aspects that are not determined. The free agent takes account of all factors, including proclivities driven largely by their genetics and brain structure. If a brain tumor develops that changes these brain structure based proclivities then this change will be incorporated into decision making and could result in changed decisions from previous situations. And if structures supporting free will are also damaged this will doubly impact.

While I am speculating here it would not surprise me that there could also be cases in the past where a brain tumor develops in a person and they might start to feel an interest in lighting fires. However this changed interest could be resisted by the person. Perhaps by their free will agency. They then have the operation and the changed interest disappears. Even if they had reported this to their doctors and surgeons it is unlikely that this would end up in medical journals. It is not noteworthy enough compared to an actual fire bug.

Also remember that, as stated previously, for free will to exist there only has to be instances of free will - not total or continuous free will. Perhaps the fire bug could still display free will in other circumstances - who knows. It would depend on the extent of the brain damage.

If the supporters of determinism are claiming that the fire bug's actions are determined it means they are claiming that the whole process, the whole causal chain, is determined. The person is born grows up "normal", gets a brain tumor, becomes a fire bug, tumor removed by a highly skilled brain surgeon whose scalpel did not slip, reverts back to not being a fire bug - all determined not just from the start of the person's life but right back to the Big Bang, 13.7 billion years ago. I find this explanation a stretch.

* some quote cases of people becoming pedσfiles (sic) instead of fire bugs. I use the fire bug example.
** while I concede they may be determined over the short term I am not conceding that they are determined from the Big Bang. There is a significant possibility that quantum effects, probability, chaos and free will interventions could change something over the course of 13.7 billion years.

Pantheism

In the article "Determinism and Freewill" at note 5 I wrote that according to the determinism hypothesis:

"The development and diversity of all life and the creativity of that life intrinsically arises from the cause and effect processes occurring from the beginnings of the Universe. The Universe itself is the ultimate cause and the source of everything that occurs in the Universe."

Then as nearly a throwaway line I wrote: "For a person that believes in this form of Determinism it is a short step to pantheism."

How short a step it is to pantheism is the question?

A supporter of pantheism sees the Universe as god.

The sentence "The Universe being the ultimate cause and the source of everything that occurs in the Universe" does sound very god like. A religiously inclined person could very easily swap out the first use of the words "The Universe" with "God" and the sentence becomes a religious statement.

However I am sure many supporters of determinism would reject the notion that the Universe is god. Is this reasonable?

The difference between the Universe as just a material entity or a god may be whether the Universe was in some way conscious or not. A second factor may be intentionality. People in the past (and perhaps currently as well) have worshiped wooden and stone idols. It is not because of the material they are made out of. They would general ascribe a number of additional non-material properties to the idol. One of those properties would be a form of consciousness as well as other metaphysical powers. Consciousness would be a fairly universal requirement of a god.

People in the past have also worshiped natural entities such as the sun. It is easy to understand why. The sun is the "giver of life". Life would not be possible without the sun. If it stopped shining life would die out shortly afterwards. Without having asked any sun worshipers why I would speculate that they would ascribe some form of consciousness to the sun. They would worship the sun to beseech it to keep shining, as if it had a choice.

Could there be a concept of a god which does not have consciousness? It would be different to other gods but the concept of the Universe as a whole as god would not be the worse thing to pick. The Universe has many god like properties. Everything comes from the processes, the rules, the laws of nature, the materials and the energy of the Universe. As discussed in my article on "Determinism and Freewill" these laws of nature make a Universe which is creative or at least allows or demands the subsequent creativity of the evolution of life and all of the creativity made by humanity (but not, according to determinism, ascribed to humanity). The Universe will inspire awe, its size and magnificence, if a person cares to think about it enough. This may be the type of god that even an atheist could live with. However this would be a very particular interpretation or belief. As discussed usually consciousness is a required property of a god.

Some philosophers have suggested, as a hypothesis, that all material has a property of consciousness. For a rock the amount of consciousness (or qualia) would be very small. The amount in a human would be very much larger. And life in between would have varying levels of consciousness. Unprovable of course. But people need to be able to suggest speculative ideas as hypotheses (but not fact). The idea may seem outrageous or ridiculous but it may prompt others to investigate further - to prove or disprove the hypothesis - and thus advance total human knowledge.

Another argument that is used by some supporters of pantheism is that the the Universe is conscious because we humans are conscious and we are part of the Universe. However human consciousness has only been around for, say, 100,000 years, a mere nothing compared to the 13 billion years plus of the universe. The processes of creation by the Universe were occurring long before humanity's existence. Even if you consider the consciousness of other animals or the consciousness of ancient aliens, if they existed, it does not address whether the Universe was conscious in some form from the beginning or early on in the Universe's development. Nor does it address how the spark of consciousness on one small planet could have significance in a Universe with billions of galaxies and trillions of planets - unless alien consciousness is also pervasive through out the Universe.

The implications of a conscious Universe would be far ranging. What it could mean, in what manner was it conscious, is a topic far too large to cover in this short section. The models possible would probably be as many and as varied as there are currently religions in the World.

A material entity Universe (whether it is considered a god or not) behaves in accordance with the laws of nature somehow embedded into it. It just happened, as a matter of brute fact and chance, that these rules lead inevitably, in accordance with cause and effect, to a small planet called Earth in a seemingly insignificant galaxy which spawned life which was capable of looking out into the Universe and question how and why.

So when I wrote that a belief in universal determinism is but a "short step" to pantheism that was probably an over simplification - except if a non-conscious god is considered. For a god with the property of consciousness the step may be a bit bigger and more significant than might have been implied.

Existentialism and Determinism

Can a person be an Existentialist and a believer in human determinism at the same time?

Existentialists believe people have full freedom and choice, and have responsibility for their choices. Determinism says people have neither freedom, choice nor responsibility.

Sartre said (though he may not be the first) "Existence precedes Essence". Determinism says a lot of your "essence" come from your genes and the rest is determined by the processes of cause and effect though out your life - which, according to determinism, are not free.

Logically it would be difficult to hold both views at the same time. However there are a couple of possibilities to try to reconcile the two philosophies.

Some supporters of determinism say that even if it is accepted that everything is determined a person should still live their life as though this was not the case and that the person did have free will. In which case one approach to living life is the adoption of an existentialist approach. A bit of mental gymnastics but it might work.

Another closely related possibility is if the person believes in Compatibilism. Under Compatibilism, while still accepting full determinism, a person believes they have apparent free will and therefore apparent choice and responsibility. Perhaps they could then consider themselves to be a Compatibilist Existentialist! Though I have never heard anyone call themself that.

As for other philosophies, only those philosophies compatible with determinism would be seen as having the potential to be valid.

The Science of Human Determinism

For free will to exist there needs to be something that is causing the free will effects that itself is not caused. That something is the "self". However science has great difficulty with fitting the "self" into its scientific World view.

Part of the reason why science has been so effective is that it reduces all processes and matter down to smaller and smaller parts. This is known as reductionism. Science is then very effective in explaining how the small parts operate and interact with each other. A big part of that explanation is cause and effect. Science then takes those small parts and builds systems back up to their real size. In carrying out this process there is no way of fitting a "self" and consciousness into this World view. 

If there is no "self" to cause the actions that humans carry out then the only other possible process is non-conscious cause and effect. In other words human determinism. No free will because there is no "self" to be free or to have a will.

This is an error in over extrapolation. It is also an error because the science project is far from complete.

It is an error because science believes the negative - there is no self - does not have to be proven to be able to accept the negative as true. As I have written in another article there is virtually no difference between the requirement to prove a negative claim and the requirement to prove a positive claim.

There is also the claim that it is incumbent upon the maker of the claim to prove the claim. I accept this. But I have also said that if the claim is not proven it cannot necessarily then be said that the claim is false. Rather it falls into the category of the unknown. And in any case because the subjective experience of the self and consciousness and the existence of free will is so wide spread if supporters of determinism want to prove there is no self or free will and that consciousness is an illusion* it is incumbent upon them to do so. It is not incumbent on the supporters of free will  and the self to prove they exist - though they can if they want to. And the proof provided by the supporters of determinism has to be more than providing a unproven hypothesis formulated from the extrapolation of their reductionist hypotheses.

The emergent property and processes of life and the associated evolutionary processes, are accepted as real because science thinks they can explain them within their reductionist model. They are saying that if they knew the position, property and velocities of all particles and radiation soon after the Big Bang it would be possible to predict with certainty that life would emerge and the processes of evolution would occur on a little planet to be known as Earth 13 billion years latter. This is doubtful to me but maybe possible. Anyway, it is just another unprovable hypothesis among many thrown up by science and supporters of determinism.

Can a Machine Have an Illusion?

Just a little thought problem for the supporters of determinism to ponder - if consciousness, the self and free will is an illusion then who or what is having those illusions? As determinism posits that humans are complex machines are they saying that a machine can have an illusion?

If a machine such as a computer was having an illusion (whatever that would mean) we would think that machine was defective and would either try to fix it or throw the machine away. It would not be functioning properly and its output would not be able to be used. This is not what we do with most humans. No machine that man has made can have an illusion. Therefore the machine analogy breaks down. Or to put it another way the machine analogy is an over extrapolation. In terms of how humans process and interpret data and interacts with the environment humans are so far different from machines that they are in fact in a different class for this function - something beyond a machine as we know it.

The output of recent AI developments is occasionally called illusory when the AI basically makes something up if it can't find the information. However this description is just what is used to describe erroneous output. It is not analogous to the way humans would have an illusion. Human consciousness (or illusion as supporters of determinism would say) is largely an internal process and is not comparable. The meaning of the word "illusion" used in relation to AI or other machines is different to its meaning in humans.

The experience of consciousness and associated free will is entirely an internal process (at least according to non-dualists) and is subjective, though objective evidence of it occurring - but not what the experience is - may be able to be seen in brain scans. Being a subjective experience consciousness cannot be determined scientifically to be an illusion. It is another one of these unproven hypothesis that the argument for human determinism entirely relies.

What happens when humans do have an illusion. It could be called a dream, a day dream, or imagination. Or a trick of our senses. Or if beyond the bounds of "normal" then a psychosis. No normal functioning machine can have any of these.

One final point. In order to explain our experience of consciousness, the self and free will, supporters of determinism argue that the "human machine" can have illusions. This is something non human machines can't have. Thus supporters of determinism recognise that the "human machine" is very different to a non human machine. It is so much more complex than even the most complex non human machines. What other functions can this highly complex human machine have that are not functions of non human machines?

Complex Decision Making

As argued in my earlier article on free will and determinism, supporters of determinism have co-opted the act of reasoning as an argument for their cause. Any decision that arises out of an act of reasoning is thought by the supporters of determinism to be determined. They would say "See, you admit there is a reason you did that. It was therefore determined."

Reasoning uses learnings, current and old, to solve problems, come to conclusions and make decisions. If the problem is simple then I can see why it could be argued to be determined. However consider a complex problem. There are a large numbers of learnings and facts to be taken into account. Some learnings would be newly acquired through research and some may be decades old. Some of those learnings and new facts researched might contradict. There might be parts of the problem where the facts and learnings are incomplete. If the problem is urgent sometimes a decision still needs to be made as there isn't time to get more complete information. There are choices to be made about what weighting or credence to give to different pieces of information which may contradict and what to do about missing information. Sometimes the decision process could take days or months or longer as various options are thought through. Two people looking at the same set of facts might come up with different decisions. Sometimes decisions are made by a group of people, each working through the issues, researching  and discussing possible solutions and other options with their colleagues.

While I am sure the supporters of determinism would still argue that the decision was determined it is less than clear to me. It is another case of the unfalsifiability of determinism. Supporters just claim its all determined without offering further proof. If they are further pressed they might mention the ubiquity of cause and effect in the Universe at large without entertaining the possibility that extrapolation of cause and effect into the complexity human consciousness and brain is risky without substantial proof.

Supporters of free will would say it is just another example of a human free agent doing what a human does. And yes - again without further proof. And supporters of free will will also say that they use reason and it in no way impinges on their free will. In fact reason enhances their free will experience because it allows them to make logical choices rather than random choices. It allows them to control the direction of their life, to decide on goals, instead of just being tossed around in the sea of life.

Minimal Likes, Desires and Goals

A couple of days ago (actually in January 2024) I went out for a walk. It was a lovely day. Temperature of 22 or 23 degrees, blue skies with the a few small white cloud dotted around. There was the faintest of breeze. The walk was through a large parkland area, mainly native Australian bush land. Halfway through the walk I sat on the seat thoughtfully provided by the parks authority. I just sat there for say ten minutes, enjoying the sun and the environment. Then I got up and continued the walk, returning home.

The supporters of determinism would tell me that this is all determined. The initial decision to go on the walk, the decision to sit and then to get up and continue the walk after 10 minutes, not 9 minutes or 11 minutes but 10 minutes. I just can't see it. I had the feeling that I could have sat there for half an hour at least, but didn't. What is the determined causality. I made the decisions regarding the walk. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day. I could have watched TV or read a book. On the walk, just before I got up from the seat to continue I would have had the thought that I will get up now. Just having that thought is sufficient for the supporters of determinism to say the action was determined by that thought. But what determined that thought? As a supporter of free will hypothesis I say that I initiated that thought. There was no prior cause to that. Even though supporters of determinism can not tell me exactly, or even inexactly, what the prior cause of that thought was they will still say there was a cause for the thought, initiated somewhere deep in the brain, uncontrollable by me. That thought mandated my action. The idea that the thought could have been initiated by free will agency is heretical to them.

A person with free will will utilise reasoning to decide on actions to be taken. A person that is leading a fully determined life will also act in accordance with reason. For a lot of the time how they act would be exactly the same. It is in situations like that outlined in this section where free will, through the process of self direction, may be seen more clearly to operate. There are many of these types of situations in life.

For example a person browsing a book shop without any clear idea of the book they are after, though they may have a genre or subject matter in mind. They pick a book after browsing a few from the hundreds that were of the right genre. That book could change their life - it has happened. The life change could be massive or small. This is self direction. The supporter of determinism's explanation is that the choice and ultimately that the particular life changing book was even in the store and found by the person was all prior determined.

Self direction can arguably also be seen in complex decision making - as discussed in the previous Section.

The Scourge of Nihilism

If people believe that they have no free will this opens up the possibility of nihilism. If people believe that everything is predetermined then they also believe it does not matter how they will act on a day to day basis. They can have no impact on how their life will turn out in the longer term. It is then very easy for them to fall into a way of thinking that basically says "Why bother trying?". This can lead to nihilism - the idea that life is meaningless and therefore worthless.  Depression will often follow.

It takes a lot of sophisticated thinking to be able to work through the issues associated with a perceived lack of free will and to come out the other side thinking that life is still worth living. Living in the face of a perceived lack if objective meaning and the possibility of associated nihilism is what the entire existentialist movement addresses. Unfortunately the determinism and anti free will hypotheses are usually not accompanied by the information that may allowed the person who first learns of these hypotheses to work through and overcome the nihilism and associated depression. It can be disastrous if the person hears and takes on board the hypotheses when they are already depressed.

This reason is sufficient in itself for philosophers and others to not promote these potentially harmful ideas as facts - which many of the believers in their ranks openly do. If they must present the hypotheses then present them as what they are - unproven. And give a bit of nuance by at least indicating the free will hypothesis is not dead and buried. It may well be proven in the future that we have free will, in which case all the angst and tremendous damage that can be caused by believing in the human determinism / no free will hypotheses will have been for no reason. If human determinism is proven in the future then humanity will have to handle it rationally - most likely with a compatibilism framing.

The recently (2024) deceased noted philosopher and "cognitive scientist" Daniel Dennett has urged his colleagues to not go around telling people they have no free will. He, along with many other philosophers, can see the many social and personal problems - not just nihilism - that arise from that approach.

My Best Guess at How Free Will Operates

Scientists do not know what consciousness is let alone how it operates. However by common experience human consciousness / conscious thought can cause action. To demonstrate this make a conscious decision to do a physical action. For example you might decide you are going to raise your hand - though don't use that action as the supporters of determinism will say that it has been caused by my writings - as if I had magical powers to compel you to do anything. So any physical action of your choosing - and then do it. The supporters of determinism would say my writings have caused an action - I reject that too - what I did was to provide a stimulus for an action - but I will have had no input into what that action was. It could have been one of a hundred things. The action you took came from your consciousness.

My best guess is that consciousness is not bound by cause and effect. Consciousness can initiate an action seemingly without prior cause beyond the consciousness - though supporters of determinism would dispute this. If you have adopted the dualist position this raises the question how can something which is not material effect what is material - but that is a different philosophical question and besides I am not a dualist.
 
I contend that consciousness is not bound by cause and effect because consciousness is not matter and it is only matter (and to a degree electromagnetic radiation) that may be impacted by cause and effect.

However consciousness does use reasoning, incorporating past learnings and current circumstances in helping to decide what actions to take. Because it is going to take actions which are in its best interests. It would be illogical to do anything else. This can give the appearance that the action was caused by something beyond consciousness. It can give the appearance of determinism if you have that mindset but it is only the appearance. 

* * * * * * *

On Not Knowing
Determinism and Freewill
Oversite Home Page.





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