TreesandBuildingPeople who insist that there is no such thing as free will often make an important gaff, as they dismiss – often trenchantly – the opinion of people who insist there must be something like free will. This gaff points to an important – and often overlooked – implication of the fact that we likely don’t have free will.

Here is a convenient example of the gaff:

“Given the dubious claim that rejecting free will damages society, and the undoubted benefits to our judicial system of embracing determinism, I’m still baffled by why compatibilists continue to argue that we NEED [sic] some notion of free will. […] Science tells us that our behavior is not under our conscious control ….”

Do you see it?

If there is no such thing as free will, there really is no reason to be baffled by the fact that compatibilists continue to hold their position and argue for it. It’s not like the compatibilists can freely and consciously choose to believe other than they believe, or argue other than they argue. They aren’t deciding to hold on to their view in the face of evidence to the contrary. No, they persist in their compatibilist belief and argue for it because of a complex, probably unknowable, and wholly determined process. Yes, their beliefs may change, but it won’t happen because they freely and consciously will that change. It will only happen if the necessary pieces in the deterministic puzzle fall into place. Otherwise, they will continue to be compatibilists and argue for the compatibilist position for as long as whatever wholly determined process makes it so.

And these observations, I think, point to a very important implication of the non-existence of free will that seems to be often overlooked. If there is no free will, there really is no such thing as “rationality,” “choice,” or “decision,” as we have typically understood them in modern times, because typically they are thought to involve an ability to freely choose between the true and the false, the right and the wrong, the this or the that. But, of course, if there is no such thing as free will, that can’t be correct. Instead, it must be the case that people reason, choose, and/or decide because of a wholly determined process – in all likelihood, the interactions of our brains and genes with the environment. To put it bluntly, without free will, we must discard any notion of human reason, which presumes we can freely will our way in and out of beliefs or anything else about which we might reason.   

Admittedly, for many people, that will be a difficult pill to swallow. Reason (or, if you prefer, rationality), like the enduring love of the one true God, is often thought to be the defining feature of our species. It is the secular magic wand that is often used to draw a line between us and the brutes. Without a totally free, capital-R reason, we humans don’t look very special when we compare ourselves to all the other wholly determined objects banging around the universe. For some, the prospect of having no special place in the universe might be as frightening as realizing that there is no God to answer our prayers.

To further complicate matters, on first impression, it will be very easy to think there are profound and scary consequences to this realization that human reason does not exist. While it is certainly true that we will need to rethink some of our theories about human behaviour, in practice, it won’t make a lot of difference in most people’s lives. Why? Because if it true that there are no such things as free will and human reason, it has always been true. Our description of an underlying process can change, but it doesn’t necessarily change the underlying process. To be sure, some people can be expected to act differently once the neurons in their brain realign to reflect the probably new belief that free will and reason don’t really exist, but how they respond to these changes is anyone’s guess. There is certainly no grounds to assume they will act any differently.

At the level of systematic inquiry, the biggest challenge – and opportunity – will be in the realm of moral and political theory, where it is very often assumed we humans are capable of the very kind of reasoning that is impossible in a universe of deterministic laws. As a result, I’m inclined to think many conceptions of morality and politics will need to be discarded or dramatically rethought. On the plus side, we will, I think, be able to look at old phenomenon from a fresh perspective. For example, the fact that voters often vote against their interests only seems perplexing when we think they can freely choose between the relevant candidates or policies. Instead, the fact that voters often vote against their own interests makes much more sense when we accept that those votes are determined by factors beyond the control of any one voter.

Strictly speaking, what I am proposing is not terribly radical, even if my characterization may be unsettling to some. For example, behavioural economists, primarily as a result of important and influential work in psychology, have already accepted the notion that we humans don’t reason anything like economists once thought we did. They are now adjusting their theories and research methods accordingly. Furthermore, it can be claimed, I think, that economists have always implicitly assumed that people don’t really reason freely because one of their fundamental claims has always been that the vortex of the market somehow magically makes all people freely choose to act in entirely predictable ways – which hardly seems free at all. Economists were, for a long time, perplexed by the fact that actual humans rarely act in accord with the predictions of their theories. Now, because of the historical evolution of the discipline, behavioural economists tend to talk as if we humans are poor at reasoning. However, it must be the case that we don’t reason at all, if by “reason” we mean anything that involves the exercise of one’s free will.

“If what you are saying is true,” the unsympathetic reader might ask, “why do you even bother sharing your ideas?” The answer, of course, is simple. I am one instance of a species that has reproduced successfully because a critical mass of us have always done something pretty much like what I am doing now – sharing ideas that cause people to take on those ideas as their own. Moreover, the part of me that thinks it is freely choosing to think and write in the way that I do can also point to research that suggests that mere exposure to an idea can cause people to judge it to be true, whether they realize it or not. So, if you’ve come this far, you’re already more susceptible to believing the claim that there is no such thing as free will and, for the part of me that thinks it is in control, that is as good a reason as any to share an idea. 

I also happen to think the idea that there is no such thing as a free will can lead to positive and practical outcomes in one’s life. In my own case, as my neurons have rewired themselves in whatever way is required for my conscious mind to take seriously the notion we don’t have a free will, I’ve discovered I am much less likely to get frustrated and angry with myself and others. From this new perspective, for example, people who disagree with me aren’t willfully ignoring the facts or failing to reason properly, they are simply following a wholly determined path over which they and I have no control. On the other hand, if I am the one who is wrong and not aware of it, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it, other than put myself into situations and environments that might stimulate correct belief and then wait for the cognitive miracle to come. Similarly, along those lines, if I make mistakes in my day-to-day life or fail to live up to some personal ideal, I am also much less likely to get angry with myself. Instead of punishing myself for a failure of will, I focus instead on the mental gymnastics that will keeping me moving towards my goal or ideal, which – not surprisingly – is exactly what the best teachers do.

Coming full circle, the main claim I’m advancing is, I think, straightforward. If you accept the view that there is no free will, expressing bafflement, frustration or even anger about other people’s unwillingness to share your view on free will (or any view, really) doesn’t make much sense. Admittedly, even if you agree with me, accepting and acting on my observation is not likely to be automatic. It will take time for your neurons to rewire themselves in whatever way will produce in you a new habit or behaviour. Of course, there is also a good chance that you disagree with me (and, I’d enjoy hearing why in the comments section below), but, please remember, whether or not we agree — or come to agree — is ultimately beyond our control.




18 thoughts on “No Reason, No Cry: Determinism May Be Good For Your Health

  1. All freedoms subsume a deterministic universe, especially free will. If there were no reliable cause and effect then we could no longer reliably cause any effect — we couldn’t do anything. And if we can’t do anything we have no freedom. So free will requires determinism.

    Free will is our natural ability to make choices for ourselves. A choice is our will at that moment. And if it is authentically our own choice, free from any external coercion (for example, someone with a gun to our head forcing us to do his will instead of our own), then we call that free will.

    Determinism is not about the physicality of our universe. It is about the rational behavior that we rely upon to get around in it. If I pick an apple from the apple tree I expect to have an apple in my hand. That’s determinism. If I pick an apple and I have some random object in my hand, like a kitten or a pair of slippers, then that would be irrational and indeterministic. In fact, an “indeterministic universe” is an oxymoron, because no structures or forms or behaviors would be reliable.

    Even God, who the Bible suggests acts according to his own purpose and reasons, can be said to be deterministic, because his purpose and reasons cause him to make this choice rather than that. Otherwise he would be irrational — and nobody would want that.

    So free will is not about avoiding determinism. Free will is about us authentically choosing for ourselves, for our own purpose and our own reasons, what we will do. If you believe in God, then this would be the nature of his free will as well.

    Like all biological organisms, we come into the world with a built-in purpose to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce. That’s just part of what makes us “us”. We also have minds with which we can imagine alternative ways to accomplish our purpose, learn from experience, and choose what seems best to us. And this ability is called free will.

    The process of choosing is deterministic. If one option seems clearly better to us than the other, we choose that. Why would we do anything else?

    1. Thanks for your reply, Marvin!

      You write, “Free will is about us authentically choosing for ourselves, for our own purpose and our own reasons, what we will do.”

      How do I know, if I have authentically chosen for myself, for my own purpose and our my reasons?

      1. If no one else is around, then what you do is presumably for your own purposes. If someone else forces you to do what they want, then it is their purposes.

        From childhood we’re used to hearing the question, “Why did you do that?” So if I asked you, “Why did you reply to my comment?”, you could probably give me your purpose or reasons.

        In Michael Gazzaniga’s book “Who’s In Charge?” he explains there is an area in the left hemisphere of the brain that he calls the “interpreter” that basically explains us to ourselves and to others. It writes the storyline and looks for rational explanations for what we do. If it has the facts then it will give the actual reasons. If it runs into something it can’t explain, like when a person acts on a post-hypnotic suggestion that the hypnotist has instructed the person to forget, it will confabulate a reason.

        1. As it happens, it’s Gazzaniga, who forced me to take seriously the “no free will” proposition. For example, the interpreter module does its work after the fact. It also takes credit for decisions it couldn’t possibly have made. So, the feeling that I made a choice, whether I am alone or not, is an illusion. Here is a quote from page 129: “Conscious volition, the idea that you are willing an action to happen, is an illusion.”

          1. But can you say it is merely “the feeling that I made a choice” when you have actually made a choice? The waiter gives you a menu containing several main courses you like. You pick the one that you think you will enjoy the most and give the waiter your order.

            Where is the “illusion”?

            1) Empirically, multiple options were reduced to a single selection. By definition that is choosing. So we can know with certainty that a choice was made.

            2) Science would tell us that the mental process that took the options as inputs, evaluated them, and output the order to the waiter all happened within you, and by you.

            Any objective observer, who saw the waiter give you a menu, and saw you taking time to read your options, and then give the order to the waiter would have to conclude that you had in fact made a choice.

            So there is no “illusion” in the usual sense of something appearing to happen, but not actually happening. It actually happened.

            And if free will is nothing more than the ability to make a decision for ourselves, free from external coercion, then in what possible way can what we saw be called an “illusion”?

            My impression is that philosophers misuse the term “illusion”. I suspect it is like the physics professor who does a flashy experiment to wow the classroom. The philosophy prof makes things disappear, by magic!, just by calling what we experience an “illusion”.

            One of the funniest examples is Gazzaniga’s statement on page 175 of “Who’s in Charge?” where he says: “The lingering conviction that we humans have a “self” making all the decisions about our actions is not dampened. It is a powerful and overwhelming illusion that is almost impossible to shake. In fact, there is little or no reason to shake it, for it has served us well.”

            Question: If the “self” is only an illusion, then what is it that is actually having the illusion? It’s an oxymoron.

            You also run into the odd position of both Gazzaniga and Einstein. Einstein says free will is an illusion, but also says it is necessary. And Gazzania makes this statement on page 105: “The simple truth is that even the most strident determinists and fatalists at the personal psychological level do not actually believe they are pawns in the brain’s chess game.” (Which is another oxymoron, because your brain is you, so you are what, a pawn of yourself?)

            1. Focusing on the word “illusion” is useful.

              For example, Bruce Hood, a psychologist, embraces the word in his book The Self Illusion. For Hood, it is correct to describe the self as an illusion because it is real in the same way that an illusion is real. The experience of an illusion is real. It only seems less real when we learn that it is caused by mechanisms other than those we expected. The magicians really appears to walk on air in the same way that human really seems to be freely choose fries over salad. When we dig deeper into the mechanics, however, we realize that our experience of the air-walking magician and of free will don’t match up with how it actually comes about (invisible wires, in one case, and factors well beyond the control of the conscious mind in the other).

              Hood writes on pg. 294 of the book: “the brain hallucinates the experience of “you” by stimulating its own neural circuits to create the impression. It may be an illusion, but it is real as far as the brain is concerned. It’s not magic — it’s just basic neurophysiology describing how the pattern-seeking structures of the brain prefer order and create explanations.”

              Now, I should say, he is talking about “the self” and I can’t recall what he says about “free will” in particular (although, it is hard to imagine a free will without a self to exercise it), but I think his understanding of the word “illusion” works as well for “free will” as it does the “self”.

              For a long time, it was perfectly self-evident that the world was at the center of the universe. Then, we learned more about the universe. We realized our conviction about the earth’s place in the universe was an illusion. The same has happened with our notion of free will.

              1. Whatever is experiencing the hallucination would be the actual self. If the brain is hallucinating an illusion of “self” then the brain must be the “real” self. Something which is not an illusion must exist in physical reality in order to experience an illusion. Something real is having the experience.

                The problem is that we confuse the two definitions of “illusion”. One definition is that an “illusion” is the appearance of something which does not actually exist in reality. The other is that something real exists but our understanding of it is different than how it actually works.

                To suggest that individual people (“selves”) do not actually exist in reality, but are only fictional illusions, clearly distorts the truth. The actual truth is that we are learning more every day about how our “selves” are constructed neurologically. But this only means that our imagined picture of ourselves is becoming more realistic. It does not in any way make the “self” itself an illusion, any more than understanding how an automobile is produced makes the “car” itself an illusion.

                The same applies to “free will”. The fact is that these selves are able to make decisions for themselves which suit their own purpose and reasons (free will), or one may be forced to make a choice against his will by someone else (subjugated will).

                There are some “freedoms” which are irrational, and thus impossible. It is impossible to be free from reliable causation. It is impossible to be free from one’s own self. It is impossible to be free from reality. Because these are impossible, it would be irrational to presume “free” ever implies any of them. If it can’t, then it doesn’t.

                The paradox of free will “versus” determinism only occurs when someone insists upon one of these impossible freedoms in order to be “truly” free. All practical uses of the word “free” must relate to specific, realistic constraints.

                In the case of “free will”, the word “free” refers to freedom from coercion, not from causation.

                1. The good news that we are probably living at a time when this question will be resolved once and for all.

                  1. I believe that both “free will” and “self” are issues of definition, rather than science. It’s like William James’ example in Lecture 2, “What is Pragmatism?”. He walked into a group of philosophy students outdoors arguing whether it was possible to “go round” a squirrel that was in a tree, and always moved whenever you did, so that he was always facing you. If you walk around the tree then have you gone round the squirrel? James pointed out that if you define “go round” one way (“walked in a circle encompassing the squirrel”) then the issue was resolve favoring those arguing it was only necessary to go round the tree. But if you define “go round” the other way (“walked so as to see the front, back and sides of the squirrel”) then you have not “gone round” the squirrel. Science cannot resolve it, only the semanticist can.

                    James pointed out that the “cash value” of a concept was its actual utility in operation. All of the practical value of “free will” for moral and responsibility is satisfied by “freedom from coercion” — a concept easily understood without any appeal to the supernatural. The bank robber with the gun is guilty of the robbery, but not the bank clerk who filled the bag with the bank’s money against his will. There is nothing supernatural in this ordinary example.

                    The words “hallucination” and “illusion” require a “someone” to experience them, or they do not exist. The magician, who knows the trick, suffers from no illusions about what is going on. It is only when there is someone unknowing who watches and experiences the illusion that we can say an “illusion” has occurred.

                    So…some real self must exist as a prerequisite to any “illusion” of self. It’s a matter of logic rather than of science.

                    1. My takeaway from James and the other pragmatists is that arguments about definitions are interminable and should be avoided. As you characterize the squirrel story, both points of view are correct based on the definition of terms. So, the argument is pointless. James’ point is to avoid such arguments not embrace them.

                      Remember also, logical arguments are often valid but not true.

                    2. Do you really think that the free will debate is pointless when you see people arguing that no one has any moral responsibility because no one has any choice over what they do? And there have been a series of scientific papers showing that people who are fed that idea that we have no free will “cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively”. (see Eddy Nahmias at )

                      So this is not merely an academic debate. It is about human values.

                    3. There was a recent effort to replicate a number of studies in psychology. The results of the study you cite could not be replicated, which calls into question the validity of its results.

                      For a long time, it was thought humans would descend into amorality if they didn’t believe in an all-powerful law-giving God. We have learned that is not true. The same will be true of “free will.”

                      Moreover, we can continue to correct and contain people’s actions, even if we don’t hold them “responsible” for those actions.

                      David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, provides a good summary of the science which leads to that conclusion.


                    4. No, the results were not invalidated but only showed a weaker correlation in subsequent tests (as I recall the magazine article, but I don’t have it in hand … do you have the link to the write-up?) They would only be invalidated if subsequent tests showed an insignificant correlation.

                      There is no “freedom from causation” in free will. There is only freedom from coercion. Reliable cause and effect are ALWAYS at work in EVERYTHING that happens.

                      If a person deliberately chooses to commit a crime, he is held responsible. If a person is forced at gunpoint to commit a crime (less than murder) then he is not held responsible.

                      Both of these scenarios are caused. But the final responsible cause in the first case is someone acting freely upon their own deliberate will, and the final responsible cause in the second case is the guy holding the gun.

                      There is nothing supernatural in either case. Nor is there anything supernatural in the ordinary meaning of free will.

                      But “free will” is what we call the distinction between the two cases. And this is a necessary and relevant distinction.

                    5. One more thing. The David Eagleman article discusses a variety of special cases, where people with abnormal brain function, unsurprisingly, behaved abnormally. Legal responsibility takes this into account. If the person, due to a brain abnormality, is considered unable to formulate a moral will, then they are said to not have “free will”. When we speak of free will we normally take these exclusions for granted.

                      Rehabilitation in these cases may require neurosurgical repair (if feasible) to correct the disability, or special psychiatric treatments and medications, et cetera. And some cases will turn out to be incurable.

                      But rehabilitation of a normal adult with a normal brain relies upon the belief that the person can become autonomously capable of making better choices in the future. That is, that the person will deliberately choose legal behavior options of his own free will. Without free will there is no rehabilitation, but only constant surveillance or imprisonment.

                    6. The article discusses much more than abnormal brain function. In particular, he discusses the role of our genes and the environment. It is a long article, but well worth reading.

                      He writes, “Free will may exist (it may simply be beyond our current science), but one thing seems clear: if free will does exist, it has little room in which to operate. It can at best be a small factor riding on top of vast neural networks shaped by genes and environment. In fact, free will may end up being so small that we eventually think about bad decision-making in the same way we think about any physical process, such as diabetes or lung disease.”

                    7. A person can be coerced into acting against his will. Or a person may be free to decide for himself what he will do. These are two empirical facts. They are not issues for science to resolve at some future point. They are not issues open to philosophical debate. They are simply facts that we observe.

                      No one has ever observed causal indeterminism. There are certainly many effects for which we have yet to determine (know) how they are in fact determined (caused). But causal determinism itself is a belief (-ism) that there are no uncaused events (except perhaps for existence itself).

                      Without a deterministic universe we cannot reliably cause any effect, that is, we are not free to actually do anything.

                      It is within the context of a deterministic universe that we have evolved. I think it is fair to say that every human concept, including freedom, has always subsumed reliable cause and effect.

                      Even those who believe in the supernatural presume reliable causation. Those who believe there is a God also believe that this God acts according to his own purpose and for his own reasons. In other words, even God behaves deterministically.

                      Free will is a totally deterministic phenomenon. It does not operate outside of causation. Nothing does.

                      The supposed “debate” between freedom and determinism is a fraud. Those suggesting “free will may or may not exist” are deluded. It’s just a matter of choosing the rational definition of “free will” (the will, free from coercion) over the irrational one (the will, “free from causation”).

  2. I have also been pondering free will and how it relates to homo economicus (I am reading Misbehaving by Thaler and he makes a lot more sense than anything I have read by Friedman or Keynes); but I am not sure where I fall on the Determinism-Free Will debate as my conclusion is it is not actually the result of acting on a perceived ‘free will’ that makes us human but rather the DESIRE to do so- the sense that we have autonomy to make our own decisions or to put it in the context of the above, it is the ASPIRATION to act on ones own idea/concept of free-will that is embedded within human nature, regardless if this concept is really free or not…

    1. Rob! Welcome to the blog. Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      You raise a very interesting distinction and claim about human nature. It sounds like you are falling on the “no free will” side of the debate, with the caveat that a desire for free will is, nevertheless, significant for an understanding of human nature.

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