UTOK’s Take on the Free Will versus Determinism Debate

Gregg Henriques
Unified Theory of Knowledge
17 min readApr 2, 2024

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I have chosen to write a somewhat edgy essay on the so-called “Free Will versus Determinism” (FW-D) debate. My justification is that there is a tremendous amount of noise and confusion on this issue, and I wanted to take the opportunity to get clear on how the debate is framed by UTOK, the Unified Theory of Knowledge.

Definitions Matter

As I hope is made clear by the Now UTOKing blog series, UTOK is keen on defining terms with precision. This is one of the reasons I am frustrated with the FW-D debate. Both “Free Will” and “Determinism” are confusing, lousy terms that do not effectively frame the issues. Indeed, I would go so far as to claim that UTOK’s position on this debate can be summarized as follows: If you believe in either “free will” or “determinism,” simplistically defined, you are an unserious thinker. I am thinking here of positions like the one Robert Sapolsky takes in his recent work, Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will.

Grounded in UTOK, we can see that the ill-formed debate emerges from the Enlightenment Gap (EG). This, of course, is UTOK’s term for the fact that modern empirical natural science gave rise to a gap in our knowledge, such that we were unable to develop a coherent philosophical understanding that can align mind with matter (i.e., the ontological aspect of the EG) and effectively align science with subjective and social knowing (i.e., the epistemological aspect of the EG).

As such, what the FW-D debate really boils down to is a failure of the academy to generate an adequate grip on the world and our place in it.

‘Will’ is a Confusing Term

We can see the confusion when we consider the terms, starting with the concept of “will.” What is the will? As I psychologist, I can tell you we rarely use this term, and I never recall seeing it mentioned in an introductory psychology text, outside of the FW-D debate. I have examined it in a previous blog (here), and show that, although it is an ambiguous and dated term, we can frame “the will” in psychology as being akin to drive or motivation, especially in the face of adversity.

Where does the will come from? If we use UTOK’s formulation of human psychology, we can broadly frame it as coming either “from the bottom” or “from the top.” Here the bottom refers to the primate aspect of our being. Thus, an aspect of the will can be understood as representing what the core, primate self is driven toward. I am talking here of drives like hunger, sex, and sleep along with motives for status, engagement in a task, engagement with others, etc.

This bring us to an important point of confusion in the terminology. There is essentially NOTHING that is “free” about this aspect of the will. Go ahead. Try to freely generate the urge to be horny or hungry or aggressive or whatever. The nature of the bottom-up drives are such that they emerge from our organismic and animal layers, and they are not freely chosen at all. Of course, you can coax them, hope for them, regulate them, etc. But that is different from freely choosing them.

Now, as a human person, it is the case that there is a domain of your self-conscious awareness that resides “above” your minded primate. As those who are familiar with UTOK’s model of human consciousness know, this is your egoic narrator that operates on the Culture-Person plane of existence.

Consistent with Freud, we can think of this aspect of your consciousness as being akin to a rider on a horse. If we stay with the concept of the will, we can say that the rider of the will has some self-conscious desires and can certainly influence the direction of the will. Think, for example, about a rider on the horse making a decision to go down to the pasture or take the trail up the mountain. This is the domain of self-conscious choice.

So, we can consider the concept “free” to be aligned with a rider, and the concept of “the will” being a horse the rider is riding. With this metaphor, we can see that the “top down” aspect of the will does have some elements to it that relate to what people are pointing to when they use the term free will. However, the focus is on the conscious choice to direct, coax or regulate the will, rather than will per se.

Substitute ‘Will’ with ‘Choice’

This brings us to my first major issue with the FW-D, which is that the word will should be replaced with choice. In doing so, we can see why I am a bit frustrated. Mountains of ink spilled on an important issue, and one of the primary words that frame the debate is obviously mislabeled. At a minimum, the FW-D debate should be renamed the free choice versus determinism debate.

In making this shift, we can state that it is an empirical fact that human persons engage in self-conscious reflections and make choices. Of course, exactly what is the cause of such choices is an interesting question. But, as we consider this question, it becomes clear as to why it was important that we changed the name. While someone might deny that we have “free will” (whatever that might be), no one can deny that, descriptively, humans self-consciously make choices. I teach cognitive psychology, and an entire portion of the class is devoted to decision-making. That people consider options and make choices is why we are handed menus when we sit down at a restaurant. To deny that is to be blind to the basics of human mental behavior.

Descriptions and Explanations are Different Levels of Analysis

This brings us to a second key point, which is that there is a crucial difference between a description of something and an explanation of something. I will say that again. An explanation of something is a different level of analysis than a description of something. The reason I am emphasizing this point will become clear as we move to the next two concepts, because the terms suggest they deal with explaining or labeling causes, but then confuse them with descriptions of what they supposedly explain.

To summarize our analysis so far: Our first key point is that the concept of the will is ambiguous and should be replaced with choice, defined in this context as self-conscious decisions. We can then state that, descriptively, it is an empirical fact that people make such choices. That is, they self-consciously reflect on their options and make decisions (i.e., they decide what meal they would like from a menu) and those decisions have future consequences (i.e., what they choose influences what meal is brought out). This is a descriptive fact about the world, and the second key point is that it is descriptively true, but there is a difference between description and explanation, and we should not get the two levels of inquiry confused.

These two points point to where we are headed, which is to argue that the other concepts in the debate, i.e., “free” and “determinism,” are lousy terms that try, ineffectively, to explain the cause of our choices. To get a sense of this, see if you believe in either of these admittedly extreme statements:

1. You are completely free to choose to do whatever you want to do, regardless of your history, past identity, context, physics, or the state of your brain.

2. You never make choices and have never made any choices; choices are an illusion, and everything is determined by the laws of physics.

Both of these are laughable claims that no serious thinker would endorse. And yet, this is essentially how the FW-D ends up framing the debate.

Freedom Can Describe the Conditions of Choice, But It is Not an Explanation

What does “free” mean in the FW-D debate? It is ambiguous. Before we dive into it, let’s note there are some important potential meanings of the term. To start, we can see where the concept of freedom shows up in UTOK. Along with power and love, freedom appears as one of the names of the relational process dimensions on the Influence Matrix. Specifically, freedom is the name for the “green line,” which is marked by the poles of autonomy and dependency. It refers to the degree one is free from involvement or obligation or control in their actions and decisions.

The Green Line on the Matrix Represents Freedom From Influence and it is Posited to be a Key Dimension People Track in their Relations with Others

Staying at the level of description, we can say that people vary in the kind of constraints they face in their choices. Slaves, employees, and children generally have less autonomy than masters, bosses, and parents. To round out this picture, we can add concepts of agency and influence. Agency refers to a goal-directed entity that has certain capacities to act on the environment. Influence refers to the resources one has and the sphere in which one can make changes. And, as we noted, autonomy can be framed as freedom from potential constraints, controls, or obligations.

Such concepts are necessary because to understand agentic behavior we need to consider things like constraints and the potential for influence. For example, it is not within my agentic influence to end the war between Russia and Ukraine. However, it is within my potential agentic sphere of influence to decide to not publish this blog.

The levels of agency and degrees of freedom one has to influence the world or the freedom from constraints are generally not what folks usually mean when they are emphasizing the freedom to make choices in the FW-D debate. Instead, the key point of contention has to do with the ultimate cause of what is driving the choice. Specifically, there is the question of whether the self has the “freedom to cause events” independent of the past and the “freedom to do otherwise” given the exactly same circumstances and physical conditions.

This one of the major issues that professional philosophers get hung up on. I think it is a poorly framed, non-issue. I will sidestep it for a simple reason; to get into it requires a dive into one’s metaphysical picture of the world. And the reason so much ink has been spilled on this issue by philosophers and scientists like Sapolsky is because the Enlightenment Gap results in confusion about the right way to think about matter and mind, and in this case mental causation. Thankfully, UTOK can readily deal with these issues and demonstrate why it is a red herring that has confused folks in the past.

From a UTOK perspective, claims that one is completely free to choose what one wants regardless of the history, one’s brain, the current situation etc. basically translate into a type of metaphysical substance dualism, whereby there is a “soul-self force” that somehow sits outside the normal forces and then magically injects causation into the process and is free to cause things to happen in various ways. This is not the way the world or the self works. It does not bottom out into some magical substance that causes things independently of context, biology, or history. The world is physically closed in that sense. Freedom in this extreme, causal sense is basically akin to believing in a supernatural god.

Instead of being an explanation for why someone chooses something, the concept of freedom more appropriately frames the description of the context in which the choice is made. This gets us back to issues of autonomy, agency, influence, and constrains. Let’s return to the menu example. When we say a customer is free to choose, we usually mean there are no significant constraints, and the customer could have either gone with the steak or the fish, and decided to go with the steak. If we added to this the fact that someone held a gun to her head and told her to pick the steak or die, or if she was deathly allergic to fish, then we would be much more hesitant to describe this situation as one of “free” choice.

We can now summarize the third UTOK point: “Freedom” is a reasonable description and relates to things like agency, autonomy and influence; however, it is not a meaningful concept to explain why we make the choices we make. The reason is simple: It is a nonsensical explanation. We can put it this way: Why did the person choose the steak rather than the fish on the menu? As any psychological scientist will tell you, giving the answer, “because she has free will” is not an explanation at all. Rather than being an explanation, freedom can be an important way to describe the nature of choice, and we can use concepts like agency, autonomy, and influence to characterize the degrees of freedom an agent has in a choice in a particular context.

Determinism is Ambiguous and Our Choices are Not Reducible to Physics

Finally, we come to determinism. This is another poorly defined word. In the FW-D debate, it is contrasted “freedom,” such that it frames the explanation for why people make the choices that they do. As we saw, the idea of freedom as an explanation for a conscious choice is lame. So, if we take the most broad and general definition of determined, we get the rather bland assertion that there are causes underlying the choices we make. This should come as no surprise from a UTOK vantage point because everything is part of an unfolding wave of cause-effect relations.

However, go read Sapolsky’s book. Determinism does not just imply a loose concept that points to the unfolding of cause-effect relations. Rather, it is a deeply problematic term that suggests fixed, singular, material mechanical causes as the true explanations. If we put this in common language, it ends up something like: “Well, you think you make choices, but in reality, other things are causing you behavior at the physical level.”

With this comment, we come to the silliness of determinism. There are several things wrong with the claim. First, it implies a naïve Newtonian materialism, whereby the “real” world is caused by little atomic balls bouncing into each other, such that every moment is lawfully and perfectly and mechanically (i.e., based on force and momentum) determined by what preceded it. Naïve Newtonian materialism is precisely that, naïve and flawed.

Second, via UTOK, we can place this kind of thinking in the context of the Enlightenment Gap and see that the worldview that emerges basically is an incoherent quasi-dualism between matter and mind. The result is that reductive materialists conclude that “mind” can’t really be effectively framed or defined, and so, everything is, at bottom, just matter and thus material explanations must rule. That is why Sapolsky ultimately thinks his argument has relevance for things like praise and blame and the concept of personal responsibility. Such things are empty misguided concepts because, according to Sapolsky, everything reduces to energy, matter, and biology.

Third, we can return to the point about the difference between description and explanation and say that the deterministic explanation has now been twisted so that it seems to even challenge the basic descriptive assertion that human beings make self-conscious choices. And this is completely ridiculous.

UTOK’s ToK System gives us a new map of Big History that helps us see why this is deeply flawed because it allows us to see these ontological planes and understand why they have the dynamics that they do. The Life-Organism plane, Mind-Animal Plane, and Culture-Person plane all emerge as novel complex adaptive planes because of novel information processing systems and communication networks. It is this map, rather than the matter versus mind confusion from the Enlightenment Gap that we need to frame the issues.

The ToK shows that, scientifically, we can understand the universe as an unfolding wave of energy information that has emergent vectors that give rise to ontological layering and causation that is happening at multiple, different levels simultaneously, across nested domains of space, time, and behavioral complexification.

In addition, it gives us the vision logic for why semantic information processing is an emergent, causal force. Such processes do not violate the laws of physics, but, as the different planes of existence make clear, nor are they reducible to physics. What is an example of semantic information having causal powers? You reading this blog! As you read this blog, you are engaged in symbolic syntactical information processing. And the semantic content is interacting with your pre-existing system of justification with causal consequences.

Determinism Needs to Be Seen Through the Lens of the Tree of Knowledge System

This brings us to our fourth point. Determinism potentially means many different things; however, when placed in the old-school Enlightenment formulation, it often ends up being framed as a negating claim of mental causation, asserting that everything, in reality, is just matter and energy and nothing more.

This is obviously misguided, and we can use UTOK’s ToK to ask where one is locating one’s causal explanations. Let’s return to the restaurant example. Clearly, if we were to develop a causal explanation of the decision to choose fish or steak, we would need consider events happening at the Matter-Object, Life-Organism, Mind-Animal, and Culture-Person dimensions. If we just situate our focus on the woman herself, we can state that there are many basic physical and chemical processes that must be in place or else she would not exhibit the behavioral complexity she does. It is also crucial to understand that she is a human organism in a particular socio-cultural context.

More proximally, her system of behavioral investment will be primed when given the choice and she will, as a minded primate, engage in a subtle cost-benefit analysis that will yield valence qualia associations to one or the other options that will orient her to invest in a particular pathway. She does not have the self-conscious freedom to decide which to be more positively inclined. And these associations will trigger simulations based on past experiences, and she will have an inclination. This is her “will” and it is basically operating at the level of a mammal, like a horse.

Running in parallel, like a rider is a self-conscious portion of her being that knows she is in a restaurant, knows what is justifiable, and will regulate herself accordingly. Part of the choice she makes is that she validates it; meaning her rider will take responsibility for her order. This is what it means to be a person. She is self-consciously aware and knows how to make choices and take responsibility for her actions. For example, if she is concerned about eating meat in general and mammals in particular, then she is more likely to choose the fish.

Finally, There are Different Levels of Agency in the World

This brings us to our final point, which is that we should be describing behavior related to choice in terms of levels of agency. As suggested by the discussion, we can use the planes of existence on the ToK as representing broad classes of agency, such that inanimate material objects have essentially zero agency in that they demonstrate no goal orientation and do not act on their environment at all. Living organisms, from bacteria to trees and fungi, clearly have some agency. They metabolize energy and respond to stimuli toward goals. Michael Levin frames these as cognitive light cones, and the ToK’s cone of life can be thought of as representing these dynamics. (For more, see this conversation I had with John Vervaeke and Michael Levin).

Animals, especially those with brains and complex active bodies, have a whole additional layer of agency that emerges with whole body movement. This second level of agency gets extended further with animals that have the capacity to simulate possible outcomes across time. In Levin’s frame, the radius of their light cone would grow. This relates to the radius of the Mind dimension of complexification.

Finally, at the third level of agency, we have human beings, who are animals who are also persons who have the recursive capacity to generate reasons for our actions, determine what is justifiable and who should be held accountable and why. Thus, self-conscious humans act on the Culture Person plane. Behaving as a person in the socially constructed space of justifiable conduct means one understands that actions have consequences, and one must regulate one’s actions accordingly. As one does that, one engages in self-conscious choices. And not only do we make choices, but those choices make a difference, and we know that we live in a group where we are held accountable.

And some human acts are much more prototypically self-consciously agentic than others. The act of writing this blog for example, is a prototypically, self-conscious agentic act. We can contrast it to partially agentic acts or events that are outside human agency. For example, consider the recent Baltimore Bridge collapse tragedy. That was an accident, meaning that the disastrous consequence happened in spite of human agency rather than because of it. However, the fact that the bridge was closed off a minute before the disaster so as to prevent cars from being on it because people were warned about the impending disaster, that was an act of human agency.

This brings us to one of the silliest consequences of folks who end up down the deterministic rabbit hole, like Sapolsky. In his world, there really is no such thing as an accident, because all there is in the world are physical forces. Think about how lame of picture that is for understanding the human condition. No real difference between crashing the boat into the bridge on accident versus driving it into the pole on purpose because, at bottom, everything is just physics.

Conclusion

We can now summarize the basic insights UTOK gives us for understanding the FW-D debate.

First, we need to shift our terminology, starting with changing ‘will’ to ‘choice,’ thus we are talking about the Free Choice Versus Determinism debate.

Second, we need to be clear that there is a difference between describing events and explaining them, and if you explain them, that doesn’t mean you negate their description. It is an empirical fact that humans make choices and that those choices make a difference, and that those choices take place with varying degrees of freedom and constraint. This is important because both ‘free’ and ‘determinism’ relate to how we explain the cause of the choice. In addition, they are defined in opposition, and the extremes of both are obviously wrong.

Third, freedom is an important consideration when describing the context of a choice; however, it is not a good explanation for why a choice is made and we are not free simply to choose what we want, irrespective of history, contingency, context, biology and the like. That is not how a human self works.

Fourth, determinism is confusing because it implies that even the description of choices are basically an illusion and that, at bottom, everything is just caused by the laws of physics, as if the force of gravity is a good explanation for why a woman chooses steak rather than fish at a restaurant.

Fifth, the causes of human behavior are multifaceted, and UTOK’s ToK System helps us divide human behavior into the relevant dimensions of existence. It suggests that different entities will exhibit different degrees of agency. Inanimate material objects (excluding technological inventions) show essentially no agency, living organisms show some agency (i.e., Level 1), minded animals show a whole additional layer of agency (Level 2) and human persons show yet another layer of agency (Level 3).

Exploring the nature of that agency and the causes of choices and how human persons, with their self-conscious reflective capacities, can engaged in determining future actions of themselves and others is a fascinating question. Indeed, it is here, rather than the lame dichotomy that the FW-D debate should start.

Thus, to be sure, I am not arguing that there is nothing to debate. Rather, I am arguing that it is time we transcend the old FW-D debate, which often yields unserious arguments and silly conclusions, as we see in Determined. Instead, with the right framework in place, as supplied by UTOK, we might actually advance both our understanding of human agency, and how we choose to direct it in the world to impact future events to achieve our desired outcomes. I, for one, am happy to say I am determined to move in this direction.

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Gregg Henriques
Unified Theory of Knowledge

Professor Henriques is a scholar, clinician and theorist at James Madison University.