Determinism and Free Will 1 of 4

Let's talk about Free Will versus Determinism. I first learned about this philosophical and practical debate while listening to the Reasonable Doubts podcast, which I've recommended to you in the past. They have done four episodes, plus one bonus interview with a christian apologist radio show that is too painful to sit through, on this topic. It is so interesting and important that I am going to transcribe the relevant sections of all four episodes for you. (I don't transcribe the other topics of the episode, and skip half thoughts, etc. I recommend listening to them in full)

They all build on each other. The first episode (below) was the hardest for me to grasp. I had never heard of Determinism before, and had always assumed we have free will. So if you're new to it, it seems harsh and unnatural. But stick with it. The following 3 episodes clear up a lot of the questions raised in this one. Unfortunately it takes quite some time to type them out so try to be patient with me.

Reasonable Doubts, Episode 29: Free Willy vs The Determinator

Starts at 21:16

Definition of Free Will (24:30): This is the definition that christian apologist and philosopher J.P. Moreland would take: He calls it Libertarian Agency. You are a free agent. Your actions do not have prior causes. You are the unmoved mover if you have free will. You choose to do something. You could have chosen otherwise. Not only can you initiate actions, you can also stop actions, or choose not to act. Basically we're all little gods, in a way.

26:25 Determinism in a nutshell is the opposite of that. There are external and internal forces that influence your behavior. Commonly people think of determinism as you couldn't have done otherwise. You're standing there with the gun pointed at somebody and you're forced to pull the trigger. But really it means simply that there are reasons for your behavior, forces and factors at play, external and internal prior causes. When you are making choices those choices are not uncaused. There is a chain of causes. Your choice is the effect of prior causes.

A free will person (the more sophisticated ones) wouldn't deny that there are influences, but the difference would be that they think the chain of cause and effect stops, and then you decide on an action, whereas the determinist would say that causal chain includes the choices and your behavior as well. With free will you could go with those influences that are working upon you from culture and everything else, but that is a choice, you've chosen to do that. You could have abstained from those actions.

It's like the presidential cabinet gets together and recommends "this is what we think you should do", then the president makes the decision. You're the executive agent.

27:42 This is why they're idea of libertarian agency works really well with a soul. Because that kind of answers the question of who is making the decision. That idea of a little god in your head, a little unmoved mover that makes its own choices, if there is some sort of spirit that is the agent, then we could see how perhaps that's possible. So it necessitates a certain kind of dualism. You need to believe there is some sort of nonphysical entity.

28:12 Now for us naturalists who believe this is all material; consciousness, the sense of you, the sense of self, all of it ultimately reduces to physical matter. So what is often held as a problem for naturalists, is that we are not allowed that free agency view. How can we be free? If your very thoughts and beliefs that might motivate you to make some choice or another, if it all comes down to neurons firing in the head, that's deterministic stuff. That's atoms, billiard balls. The outcome of any event has to be determined by its prior causes.

29:01 So let's set up a situation where you make an ordinary choice, say between diet coke and regular coke. You're at the counter, you have to make that choice. Whatever choice you finally make, let's say you go for the sugar, that choice was determined by whatever the total physical state your brain was in at the moment exactly prior to that choice. Whatever was going into that; perhaps you have a lot of pressure from your environment to watch your figure, but perhaps from your genetics you have a sweet tooth, or you have low blood sugar that day, perhaps the information that you've heard about the dangers of saccharin or something like that, all of this stuff goes together in your brain and it computes out, whatever the end result of all of that stuff is, that was your action. But it's hard to say that your action was freely chosen, like you could have done anything. Rather it was the totality of your life experience, your genetics, and really it all boils down to the physical state of the world. Wherever those neurons and atoms are right before it takes place, whatever is going on right there, there's one outcome that has to follow from that.

[another example of the cereal aisle]

31:38 The free will people will say, "but hold on, I have a subjective sense, though, of stopping, pausing, looking around and choosing the coke or the cereal or whatever", the question I always ask people in the classroom is, "but what caused that? And what caused that?" It's an infinite regress.

This gets into willpower, "well you could have chosen otherwise", but your internal state of your blood sugar, your environmental priming, because we've all heard of studies where you can influence people subliminally through the context; you don't have access, often, to the reasons. They are unconscious, to some extent, of why you do things as well.

We all have that sense of free will. We all have the sense that we are making a choice in situations. But that's because what is most readily available in my mind, what my conscious experience is most close to, is that inner dialogue. I see that going on. What I don't see is all the other myriad of causes that are going on [in and] around me. This is the Availability Heuristic, where you judge on just what is immediately in your experience.

Schopenhauer said, "Any man can do as he wills, but you can't will as you will." Meaning that you're not in charge of the feeling of wanting to make a certain choice. What determined the state of your will?

33:40 So Free Willers tend to focus on the subjective sense of "you could have exercised control" or "that person's lazy", but what they're ignoring though is all the components that go into making up that. Self control is affected by things like genetics and your brain state.

We can see this, for example, when patients confabulate their reasons, research that's gone into  split brain patients.  Some people had seizures so they cut the communication between the two hemispheres of the brain to stop the seizures. In ordinary situations you wouldn't know that that person is unusual in any way. But in tests, they were fighting with themselves sometimes, over actions, the right and the left parts of the body. But then if stimuli was sent to one part of the brain, so most people know that your right hemisphere is not as verbal as your left hemisphere. So when messages were sent to the right hemisphere the parts of the body would do things, and then it would be explained away by the other part of the body. That is, it was after the fact explanations, "why did I just reach for that?" and they would come up with some other reason, not knowing that they were stimulated on the other side of the body. So they would flash words on the screen like "get up", to the right hemisphere. And when the person got up, the experimenter would ask, "why did you get up?" and they'd say, "oh I just wanted to get a coke" or something like that. So in essence the left hemisphere was interpreting the behavior, they knew the body had gotten up for some reason, and they created a reason for why that happened.

35:44 Normally, we don't notice that because we're not split brain people, but think of all the things you do that it has implications for. There's other research on normal people (not split brain patients) that they confabulate all the time. If you prime somebody by flashing something very quickly, it's a lot like subliminal advertising, people will engage in actions and then they will offer up some explanation that's totally not the real reason, but it does seem like that from observing their body.

So those conscious deliberations that we have in our minds when we are making a choice, our own rationales, might be caused by forces we might be completely unaware of, that we're not in touch with.

36:22 Benjamin LeBay (sp?) set his patients in a chair and he had them to just spontaneously decide to flick their wrist at some point. What the experiment was trying to do was match up the time the person made a conscious decision to flick their wrist, and when was the actual action potential; that signal that's going from the brain down to the wrist to actually flick it. How did those line up? And what he found was that there was a 300-500 millisecond gap between the action and the choice. In other words, the stream of energy, you could say, was already going down towards the arm, already heading towards the wrist to make it flick 300-500 milliseconds before the person consciously made a decision.

Which is again compatible with the fact that that is a result, the conscious part of it, is a result of something else, the impulse, rather than the cause of the action. If that's the case, then the conscious feeling of the choice being made was an epiphenomenon. In other words it was the consciousness was just making a self-report of what the brain had already decided to do. But you perceive it as being your choice.

37:52 The more recent experiments that really drive this home are now that we have the ability to actually affect the brain through trans-cortical magnetic stimulation. So you can form paddles outside somebody's skull and have a tight magnetic field in some areas and when you put those over the motor cortex of the brain, you can actually affect the decisions somebody makes as to right or left. Most right-handed subjects, most of the time when you flick a wrist you move your right wrist. But what they did is they turned on these magnets unbeknownst to the subject, they didn't know what side they were on, but the experimenters could alter what side the person made the movement on, the right or left, and the person wasn't aware of that. Again, their conscious thing was that, "oh I just decided to do my left this time". In essence that's what they were saying. But actually they were being manipulated by the magnetic fields of the experimenter. Again, they were not aware of that manipulation, they just felt that it was self-initiated. We are meat puppets.

38:55 There were good philosophical reasons to believe in determinism before we had all that psychological data. Logical arguments for establishing determinism go all the way back to Democritus, Plato, and Aristotle. People were debating these things in Ancient Greece. And in fact even people like William James, in many ways, the father of psychology. James and Freud both wrestled with the deterministic implications of psychology itself. They realized going into this field that if they were going to be studying the brain and psychological behavior scientifically and naturalistically, they are going to almost be adopting determinism as their starting assumption. Otherwise the brain wouldn't be able to be studied. If it was just a ghost in the machine that was making all the decisions, and none of these relationships were deterministic, none of them were cause and effect, you couldn't build any sort of scientific psychology. It would all be random.

So philosophically we've been aware of this for awhile, but with all this research, it's just kind of scandalous that the average person, and I'm guessing even the average naturalist, doesn't know about a lot of this research. But what's different about this, before we had all this scientific research showing that we confabulate, showing just how much unconscious processes determine our behavior, not just our conscious state of mind, before we had that, you could do the armchair philosopher's thing, like a lot of these apologists try to do, and just set it up as a clash of worldviews. Kind of like J.P. Moreland and other christian apologists try to do, they try to say "ok, well if you accept naturalism, then you have to accept determinism, and there's no chance for free will in all of that. But if you accept theism, and if you accept a soul, if you accept a ghost in the machine, well then, we can have free agency."

41:08 The thing is, they live in the same world that we do, presumably, and how do they make sense of all of that psychological research with their theological views? How do they justify their dualism in the face of it? They'd have to ignore multiple fields like genetics which would be a form of determinism, your biology, your hormones, environmental priming, subliminal things, etc. And even some of the religious responses I find are increasingly contradictory, in the same way that free will was contradictory with things like original sin.

If free will is true, and we have original sin, how can I be responsible for it if I was given bad Adam and Eve genes that makes me want to go smash my brother's head with a rock. If I'm making a free choice and I'm wicked, that's one thing, but if original sin came from Adam and Eve, that doesn't make any sense either.

And it's the same thing now. If you have a gene for a certain quality, how would a christian respond to that? Let's say you have a gene for antisocial behavior. How would they respond to that as being chosen? Well that soul must make the choice? All that influence comes up to the point right before your action and then the soul kicks in because it works in a causal vacuum. This is why some people don't believe in contracausal free will. Because the soul operates in a vacuum, it can make a choice that isn't determined. So all that goes up to informing the choice but this other entity kicks in. But that just can't be maintained. That dualism has to collapse.

42:53 A great example of illustrating this is the famous story of Phineas Gage. He was a railway foreman working back in the middle 1800's and his job was to place explosives and blow rock apart. There was a bar that you tamp down the dynamite stick and he tapped the steel bar down on the gunpowder. The blast blew the bar up through his eye socket and out through the top of his head, which was a devastating wound. The size of the rod is just incredible. You can see the hole in his skull, they still have that. He survived the blast. But it was a very specific injury, it was very localized. To everyone's amazement, the guy just stands up after this. He was bleeding, and he walked it off. He survived the infection, but the behavioral problems weren't immediately known.

At first people thought this was championing that idea of free will because look, his brain was damaged and he was just normal Phineas, his grand old self. But what they noticed was after he healed from the accident, whereas beforehand Phineas Gage was known to be responsible and somewhat sober, he became profane and impulsive, couldn't keep a job and would fly into rages. The behavioral part was he couldn't inhibit his impulses anymore. He became much more coarse and not able to plan for the future, which is now what we know with the frontal lobe in the brain, that's the job of executive planning; "I'm going to do this, maybe I should do that". Everything else was working just fine but his executive planning was knocked out.

44:42 Now from a dualist's account, let's imagine if you, who you are, yourself, is a soul inside of your brain, and you're influenced by all this biology, how would the dualist possibly account for this? Is Phineas Gage's soul in there, inside somewhere, saying, "no, don't be crass, don't be rude, do some planning here, I want to choose this", but the brain, because it's damaged can't do that? The soul can't interface with its biological mechanism and he's just trapped in there? Or is it like the Matrix. Neo gets a roundhouse kick to the face in the Matrix and then he starts bleeding in the real world. So if you get brain damage in the real world, will your soul get damaged? Will that get restored when you go into heaven?

The dualism, when we start looking at it in the light of what we know about psychology, just falls apart. It becomes riddled with all of these difficulties and contradictions. If you're Phineas, where's the you? If its spread throughout the brain, the areas that make decisions like "don’t say that, don't insult this person", are distributed through various areas, there's no one of which is any one part.

So when you talk about, "oh he could act morally, he could have done the right thing", how is that tenable in the face of the fact that it's localized in different parts of the brain?

[reference to NPR story about lobotomy]

A soul makes no sense. Core personality attributes can be altered by a physical change to the brain. Phineas Gage was not the same person after the accident. He was like a different person. So this mind/soul duality does not make sense. It doesn't work. And that's a hard thing to deal with.

47:00 Work your way out from the extreme cases like his, though, to normal cases. Are there genes that affect your brain? Do you have a different biochemistry than I do? Work your way, so that instead of blowing rods through peoples' heads you have a gene that makes the frontal lobe weaker. Does that mean that if you're a criminal or you're less able to exert willpower or control yourself that you're to blame? There's a you that made the decision, if you have a gene that forms your brain to be more impulsive?

47:35 Here's a study. This one, probably more than any of them, tends to bother people. Research on bonding infants with their mothers. The oxytocin of pregnant women was sampled throughout the pregnancy and after, and interactions with infants were observed and mothers interviewed. Oxytocin predicted maternal bonding including gaze length, vocalizations, affectionate touch, attachment related thoughts and frequent checking. By measuring the levels of oxytocin they could predict the amount of time, the distance the mother would hold the child away from her face, all these things.

The most fundamental things that people hold are like oogy baby gooey thoughts of "surely you're attachment to your child is not mediated in any way through a biological mechanism or something as coarse as that. It's me, it's the soul, we've bonded." If we could score a little bit more oxytocin or take a little bit out and you could be different in how you show affection to your children.

48:50 They're studying the genes of animals where they can knock out the gene for oxytocin-producing genes and in the animals it correlates with bonding behavior when their rats are going to give birth to pups they will lick them more with the oxytocin. People will say that's interesting with the rats. Or there's this species of vole that is very monogamous, like after they have sex the male and female bond and they have extremely high levels of oxytocin. So people read the animal studies and think "that's kind of cute, but not me".

But no, even you, when there are hormones and peptides and things like that in your brain predict certain behaviors, that mediate certain affectionate behaviors, that's disconcerting to people, since we have the impression that "my love relationships are initiated from my emotions. It's me that's doing it". It's such an emotional thing, it's hard to reduce it to chemicals.

49:45 As a result, I think even hardcore Naturalists are going to struggle with this research. What are the implications of this? How do we, then, think about morality and even our self conception, our self identity? Who are we? Where are we in the brain? What defines the borders of you? We can clearly see how this is a problem for the theologians. They can try to bank on the idea that their particular metaphysics will allow them free will, but I'm sorry, the data on how everybody behaves, presumably there are a handful of christians in some of these studies, and really the way that everybody behaves shows these marks of determinism. So I think it's pretty clear what problems the theologians will have with this.

50:35 But it doesn't mean that we get off scott-free. Naturalists have to deal with this too. Is J.P. Moreland right when he says, "If moral and intellectual responsibility has freedom as a necessary condition, then reconciling the natural and the ethical perspectives is problematic." In other words, what sense do we make of the whole enterprise of morality, of ethics, of law? Punishing people and sending them to jail for certain actions? If we do accept this determinism unflinchingly, where does that leave us?

Stay tuned for the next transcript of Reasonable Doubts' Episode 30 where they bring up these points and much more.

All 4 episodes:

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 29 – Free Willy vs The Determinator: For this episode, the doubtcasters draw upon arguments from philosophy and psychology to make the case for determinism. But if a naturalistic outlook rules out freedom of the will is morality still possible?

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 30 – FWvD2: Judgment Day with Guest Tom Clark: Having argued for determinism, the doubtcasters now turn to its implications. Is moral responsibility possible in a deterministic universe? Could justice and self-knowledge still be achieved if free will is just an illusion?

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 34: Determinism… One Last Time: for this episode the doubtcasters, as promised, respond to our listeners emails (and elaborate and explain everything in more detail)

  • RD Extra: Jeremy on the Don Johnson Radio Show: This is incredibly painful to listen to. The Don Johnson Radio Show is a Christian apologetics show. You can safely skip this episode and not miss anything (except a headache and a brain embolism) and still understand what’s going on.

  • Reasonable Doubts: Episode 69: Determinator 4 – Rise of the Machines: Through billions of years of evolution, small molecular machines have acquired an amazing range of abilities including the capacity to think, feel and change. For this episode the doubtcasters once again return to the subject of determinism–answering questions from our listeners about Jeremy’s debate with Don Johnson. (They also explain things even better, adding onto all the rest of the information)

You can download the podcasts directly from their site at the links above or from iTunes. I highly recommend listening to all of the RD episodes.


  1. If you're interested in the topic, I recommend Daniel Dennett's "Freedom Evolves".

  2. Thanks Matt. Is that his new book on determinism? My friend is reading that. He says it's pretty heavy. Have you read it?

  3. [...] I wrote about Determinism and Free Will. It was basically an introduction and consisted of a transcript of the Reasonable Doubts guys. [...]