Free Will vs Determinism


I used to spend a lot of time picking fights with people on forums, YouTube comment sections, Yahoo Answers, wherever I could to debate big philosophical battles like objective ethics versus moral nihilism, does reality really exist, and determinism versus free will. I considered myself a mega nihilist, a “money is evil” brand of communist, and a pan-dimensional lizard people level conspiracy theorist. I am a recovering internet troll.

I was also a determinist, which is what I want to talk about today.

I loathe determinism and most people when they argue for determinism. I’m not going to prove free will today, and it may turn out that determinism is true. I just want to explain what the debate actually is, because the free will / determinism debate tends to go in circles over and over and over again and go nowhere. I am deeply emotionally invested in free will being true, but perhaps more than that, what I care about is that people are able to talk rationally about this subject without completely losing their goddamn minds.

Mysterious foreshadowing


So, what the fuck is determinism?

We live in this causal universe in which we are composed of atoms. Atoms do not have wills of their own. Atoms don’t give a fuck. Atoms are moved around by all manner of physical forces, they bounce off each other and bind together and a whole bunch of other things, probably.

Ain’t nobody got time for research.

Determinists brazenly demand that we believe this same lack of will describes the systems in our human bodies, from the digestive system, autonomic nervous system, our vestibulo-ocular reflex, our neurology and a whole bunch of other things I know almost nothing about. And of course, our stomachs, eyes and ears don’t have free will. If there is an exception and free will exists anywhere, it has something to do with our brains.

Determinists say that the brain is a biological computer and our consciousness is either a kind of computer program or it doesn’t exist at all. Only a philosopher could come up with something as lunatic as consciousness not existing. I’m looking at you Daniel Dennett!

A determinist is a person who pretends to believe that their own immediate conscious experience of willing certain actions in the moment and choosing from different possible actions is illusory. Rather than choosing or willing things, unseen causes are sufficient to produce the effect of his or her behavior. Stimulus comes in, behavior goes out.

Me hard at work. I’m a cat.

It’s like the input and output of a function or algorithm. I write code for a living, and if I wrote a function that takes in some input and spits out inconsistent and unpredictable results, I don’t think that the function is using it’s own discretion about what it feels like outputting; what I think is that I need to debug some poorly written code. Something caused by the unintended interactions of some shared state or a global variable, or something like that.

So, at this point, determinism doesn’t sound unreasonable at all. “Leave the determinists alone, you big dumb jerk!” But I’m not sorry and perhaps it will make some sense if we understand what the debate is about and what form it takes.

The whole debate about whether or not determinism is true is if all the billiard ball causal events leading up to my chosen action are sufficient to, in a sense, make my choice for me, or if some biological phenomenon allows for conscious decision making to be causal in the way we actually experience it. I viscerally experience using conscious thought and reason to decide upon one thing among multiple options.

Causality & Science

One thing that determinists are wont to do is equate causality with determinism. This is fantastic for them because if they can just describe something as a series of causal events then they get to say that the result of those events is deterministic. But this is grade A boloney.

You can describe anything as a series of causal events. It doesn’t make anything deterministic just because it’s causal. Take this series of events:

I experience a sudden hunger which causes me to think about what I would like to eat, which causes me to notice particular cravings, which causes me to decide upon raisin bran (being the most pronounced craving), which causes me to walk into the kitchen and pour a bowl.

Feeling hunger due to digestive processes occurring in my stomach–that seems deterministic enough. Then I choose to eat and to eat cereal. We can’t say that this is deterministic unless we already assume that determinism is true. This is circular reasoning because the determinist, in order to imply that a causal description proves a deterministic account of events, has to already assume that determinism is true. So, determinism is true because determinism is true.

When I decide to lift my arm, we can describe the mechanism by which electrochemical signals travel from my brain to my arm and cause my arm to go up. There are two levels of description here. First the description of muscular and neurological processes, and second, a conscious decision resulting in an intended action. It’s not like because there are two levels of description that one is right and the other is wrong.

Not everything is physics.

This cat is making the world a better place using science. What are you doing?

I once had a guy try and tell me that the ultimate truth in this world is physics since everything is made out of atoms. Chemistry, which you could consider a step up from physics, in that sense, was a lesser truth to him. And biology is like a step up again from chemistry and psychology is a step further than that and anthropology, sociology, etc. “It’s all getting further and further away from the fundamental truth of this world.” But this is total nonsense.

There is this psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect which basically means that the worse at something a person is, the more likely they are to overestimate their own competency in that thing. And there are a lot of people who think that they know what science is and spout the craziest nonsense. It’s probably worse with philosophy, but let’s just focus on science for a second.

The reason that there are different sciences is because there exist emergent phenomena. People are not atoms and they aren’t societies, they aren’t brains, they aren’t economies. Physics doesn’t focus on the same domain that chemistry does, or biology, and so on.

This cat is tripping balls, billiard balls. Ba dum dump tss!

When people think “causal”, they tend to think of the sort of causal relationship a billiard ball has with the sides of a pool table and the pool cue.

But consider water; a water molecule is not wet, it doesn’t splash or quench thirsts. It’s not because it is too tiny that it can’t do those things, rather it is the state that the system of water molecules are in while aggregated together that produces this emergent phenomenon we call liquidity.

The configuration of water molecules causes this emergent phenomenon, but it doesn’t do so over time. It’s not like the water molecules get together and when enough of them get together, one of them calls out “okay Horace, hit the button.”

So, causality describes a lot more than simply balls bouncing around. A causal description of events has to take into consideration what the objects acting and being acted upon are.

A rock’s behavior is all determined by its composition and outside forces. A rabbit is the same, except it can behave in ways that are volitional (it can move without being pushed). A human is like the rabbit, except it’s own capacity for volitional action can be reasoned through. A causal account of each of these entities must take into consideration the features of these entities. The causal nature of a rock is different from a rabbit, which is different again from a human.

Human Consciousness

If free will exists, it’s a product of consciousness, and most likely unique to human consciousness. If it exists, it is a natural phenomenon like other biological phenomena (digestion, photosynthesis, etc).

Talking about consciousness as if it were a computer program is bullshit. A computer program is just a syntactic representation of a thing. A computer just moves ones and zeroes around; it cannot in any way produce mental states (thoughts, feelings, desires, perceptions, etc).

Consider the following thought experiment. It’s not my own, but I am paraphrasing and condensing it quite a bit. (It’s called the Chinese Room Argument if you want to look it up).

This cat dreamt up this thought experiment back in the 80’s and waiting for the world to catch up.
Imagine that you are in an enclosed room. There are no windows or doors; it’s just you, four walls, a manual and a slit in the wall through which messages written on paper slide in and out of the room. The slips of paper are unintelligible to you. It’s just alien looking scribbles as far as you can tell.
You are tasked with taking any slips of paper that come into the room and using the manual to match those particular alien scribbles with another set of scribbles, and you send that back out the room through the slit in the wall.
Unbeknownst to you, outside the room a native reader of this alien language is writing questions on the paper and he’s receiving answers back out the room. He believes he are carrying on a conversation with the person inside the room, but in reality, it’s just a damn good set of instructions being carried out by you. At no point do get the meaning of the symbols, you aren’t even aware that a conversation is taking place, much less what it’s about.
Understand this crucial point, you will.

In this analogy, you and the room are the computer and instructions are the computer program. A conversation has been simulated, but no actual conversation has occurred. It’s just an alien duped by a book. No matter how good the instructions are or how fast you move, you don’t suddenly gain any kind of awareness of the conversation. Likewise, a faster and better programmed computer cannot become intelligent; it can only simulate intelligence. A lot of people will equate the simulation of intelligence with intelligence itself.

In the philosophy of mind, there is this term epiphenomenalism. Basically, the idea is that consciousness is not itself causal. Your desire to eat ice cream doesn’t cause you in any way to get up and walk over to the freezer. Your perception that a ball is flying at your face doesn’t cause you in any way to duck out of its path. Your realization that the band the B-52s reunited doesn’t in any way cause you to see if they have any new music out. No, rather there are common causes for both things, according to these bozos.

This cat started 4chan for the lulz

Some yet unknown neurological process produced both the subjective experience of your desires, thoughts and perceptions and also independently produced the behavior associated with those mental states. Consciousness is just superfluous fluff doing nothing but tricking you into thinking that you are really acting as a conscious agent. It’s one big trolololol.

This is just another flavor of determinism, and there are a few different reasons why this doesn’t make sense. The first being that we devote a huge amount of resources to consciousness in the brain only for it to have little or no functional utility. It’s not causal, so they say.

The real problem though, and why I really hate determinism is because if you accept that mental states are not themselves causal, then you cannot say that reasons brought you to the conclusion that determinism is true. You can only say that you have a subjective experience of having the belief that determinism is true.

As soon as you begin to argue the determinist position, you must necessarily imply that thought, and reason specifically, are going to cause you in some way to consider determinism and maybe come to the same conclusion yourself. In other words, they are using thought and reason to say that thought and reason will not change your mind. It is the logical equivalent of screaming in your ear to say that sound does not exist. It is lunatic.

When you point this out, most determinists are not phased even a tiny bit. They say that they could contradicting themselves through their actions, but their conclusion that determinism is true could still be true. They can accept that arguing the determinist position cannot be done without resulting in a contradiction and not be bothered by that fact in the slightest. I’ve found it absolutely and completely impossible to reason with determinists.

Why it Matters

Some people say that it doesn’t matter if determinism is true, because we’ll keep on experiencing life as if we have free will anyway. But it does matter because without free will, there is no responsibility, moral or otherwise. If someone has no control over their actions, they cannot be responsible for those actions. That has gigantic implications because it makes every accusation unjust.

Other people say that we will never know the answer, so let’s just stop debating it. But that also is false. If we discovered the mechanisms by which decisions are made and reasoning occurs using neuroscience and cognitive science and it turns out that something other than mental states sufficiently accounted for the decisions I make, then determinism would be proven true.

Alternately, when cognitive science matures out of the infant stage it’s in now, we can learn the exact ways in which mental states are causal and thus prove free will.

It also matters because beliefs have consequences, even if we aren’t aware of what they are. If someone believes that their behavior is fundamentally outside their control, then they have a way to excuse anyone they want. whether they use it or not. And determinism is fatalism no matter how much they might want to deny it. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. And fatalism is impotence, helplessness, depression.

It also matters to me because I have been condescended to repeatedly by determinists who love to portray me as engaging in religious thinking, believing in souls and of being ignorant of science. Smug bastards!


It may turn out that determinism is true. I don’t believe it is even for a single second, and not just because it’s literally impossible to believe it in a sustained way, but it may be true.

I have given up trying to convince determinists, but maybe if I can reach someone who’s on the fence, then that would be enormously satisfying to me.