Thoughts on Arguing

I have been wondering about arguing lately. How we argue, how we get set in our world view and dig in like a donkey sits back on its hind legs and won't budge. The reason this has been in my mind is because I've been trying to learn about determinism. When I first heard about it in a podcast by the Reasonable Doubts guys, I resisted and thought, this is ridiculous! Of course I have free will! I feel like I do!

But after 4 hours of them explaining it, I felt like I was getting it. Then we had our Morgantown Atheists group have a meeting on determinism and free will. A professor from WVU came and talked about it and I got it even more. Now I've tried to explain it to my husband Butch and my friend Jeff, who are both extremely resistant and argue against it. Part of that is probably because I don't understand it enough to explain it well. But part of it is because the idea of determinism is huge. It rocks your world when you hear about it.

What I'm really trying to get at, though, is how we, as humans, seem to always fight for what is most comfortable and familiar to us. We always seem to resist new ideas. And something else, we always seem to pick the other side of an argument if we're up in the air. For instance, when I was explaining determinism to my friend Jeff, he objected heartily.

But then we were talking about this topic, about how people stick to their comfort zones, and he told me that he ended up explaining determinism to his son, and found himself defending it, while his son objected.

Isn't that interesting? Why do we do this? I'd love to see some research on this. I've heard of a few studies that might apply to this, but I can't recall them clearly enough to find them for you. If I can think of how to search for them, I'll add them here. If you know of any studies please let me know!

Also, do you find this is true for you and your friends and family? Or do you see it differently?


  1. Most people seem to have a an issue with new/contradictory information. The most I can do when trying to persuade someone is to throw in a meme or two and let that person reflect on the matter later on. Of course, not coming off as a jerk assists this process. I try to be funny and personable.

  2. Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't think determinism and free will are necessarily contradictory. I followed the one link to see some of the discussion. Right off the bat, I didn't agree with their definition of free will. Maybe that is the accepted definition, but if free will is defined in such a limiting way then I think you can still make choices without it.

    On some level, I think people's minds are some kind of complex electrochemical computer that we don't fully understand. The fact that given certain inputs, I was predetermined to choose some response doesn't invalidate my choice. I am that computer that is responding to those inputs. So I call my response a choice. I don't think that is invalid just because given certain inputs I was inevitably going to make that choice.

    One of those inputs could have been a friends advice two days ago. Or maybe If I value something highly, that means the computer that is me will inevitably give that value more weight while computing its decision. The decision is still a choice even if it was inevitable that the computer that is me was going to respond that way.

    There are certain rules of chemistry that can be derived from quantum mechanics but the details are really complicated if you go into the hairy math of quantum mechanics. The end result may be a a fairly simple chemical equation. I see nothing wrong with using this higher abstract construct and treating is as real. Many of the simple high level equations were discovered long before they understood the quantum mechanics that they are actually derived from. The same way I don't see anything wrong with calling making a choice using our "will". Even if when you dig down into the gory details, it is deterministic.

  3. Having a lazy day I just stumbled in and liked the observation you made. Information per se hardly ever changes anything. People will resist, no matter what, unless they feel the new truth in their bones. So I agree with the previous speaker that using a Socratic approach can do magic.
    As for determinism, it isn't all that new. As a matter of fact, it has been the basis of science and technology for over 400 years. If science is right about the determinism of the universe, then people's behavior cannot be free as well. What's revolutionary about that idea is that we now begin to apply it on humans although in our subconscious we use to think we were exempt from the laws of nature. And maybe we think so because we *feel* that determinism might be a wrong concept.
    The Cartesian world view in public perception is very hard to kill and people skilled in rational thinking and rhetorics can talk you into believing it if you ever doubted. But since ~1900, Heisenberg, Einstein, Goedel, Turing and many others have demonstrated that we cannot be sure about anything, or even everything. Determinism is dead. We just didn't notice.
    If you feel like examining that path a little deeper, read Charles Eisenstein's "The Ascent of Humanity". It is on the web at - one of the most fascinating books ever for me.

  4. Sorry, Pax. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle doesn't say we can't know anything for sure. It says we can't know everything simultaneously, which is not the same thing. Specifically, we can know either the position of an object OR its velocity, just not both at the same time.
    Also, having the illusion of free will isn't a bad thing, cuz we still don't know results ahead of time, which means we still need to act.

  5. Dan, to sum up, you basically said that we are determined, but we still 'feel' we have free will. That's my point. You seemed to talk yourself into a deterministic viewpoint, but you still want to "think" you have free will. You can say your 'choice' is your will, but it's not. It's still determined, as you argued.

    No, just because you're determined doesn't mean that your choice is invalid. And you're still responsible for your actions. But you're still determined to make the 'choice' that you made.

    Quantum mechanics, by its very nature is on the quantum scale. There's no need to bring it up in this argument. It's so abused in the macro world.

  6. I would say that people resist new information unless it already agrees with their world view.

    Yes, a Socratic approach is often useful.

    No, determinism goes back to Ancient Greece, doesn't it? Yes, determinism seems very counter-intuiitive. Yes, we definitely have operated on the idea that we have free will, and the bible is a big cause of that, not to mention how it "feels" to think and reason and choose.

    I don't know how you can claim that determinism is dead. Your argument sounds very post-modernist to me, which makes no sense with actually living your life and how science actually works. But I'm no authority on such things.

  7. Thanks Angie, for explaining Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle better.
    Also, I agree, just because we're determined doesn't mean we are free of responsibility for our actions and decisions and choices.
    We still have to choose. We are still responsible for our actions. As you say, we still need to act.

  8. Thanks for responding.

    My argument is that actually it depends on how you define making a choice. The way that I see it isn't contradictory with determinism. Afterwards, I looked up Free Will in Wikipedia and found that my interpretation is the third main camp in the Free Will vs. Determinism debate. They called it Compatiblilism. Though it is probably less popular than the other two camps. They even had this nifty diagram.

    I should have left out the often abused quantum mechanics. I don't subscribe to the mystical woo ideas that quantum mechanics magic gives us free will. I think sometimes because I got a physics degree, a physics analogy is the first thing that springs to mind for me even if on second thought it might not be the best choice for making things clear. My second degree was in computer science and it can have the same effect too.

    In any case, to try and clear up how I see things. I think the "calculation/electrochemical reaction" that happens when we make up our mind one way or another is "choosing" even if it is deterministic.

    At risk of more analogies gone awry. Theoretically, predicting the weather a year from now based on the state of things today is possible; but practically speaking, it is impossible. You would need too many precise measurements of the current state and the smallest differences in the current conditions could lead to very different outcomes a year from now. I think when you have something complex with lots of feedback loops there is a certain point when it is no longer completely predictable practically speaking. On a high level you can find patterns to describe it. You know the details are deterministic, but actually nailing it down isn't possible. I think our minds are even more complex with more feedback loops and more "hard-wired" and "reprogrammable" states than the weather.

    I think many of things we intuitively "feel" are still accurate at a high level. We feel like we were influenced by our friends warning and I think if we could fully understand what happened in our brain when it worked out the decision we would see that sometimes our friend's advice tipped the balance. I think there are also random elements, like perhaps we had to get up early that morning so we were cranky and that made us choose something out of character. These ways of describing the high level are still accurate even if at a low level 20,000 dopamine neurotransmitters moved from neuron A to neuron B and voila we made the inevitable conclusion given the pre-existing state of our brain and the inputs that acted upon it.

    That being said, I don't think all the stuff that people intuitively feel about decision making are accurate. People can rationalize just about anything.

    P.S. totally off topic, but I love the LOLcats you choose for your blog.

  9. Hi Dan,
    Thanks for clarifying. That makes a hell of a lot more sense now that you've explained it more thoroughly. I can see where you're coming from and I think, at first glance, I agree with what you're saying.

    You're right about the weather. If we had about a quadrillion (or much more) times more data points, we should be able to predict the weather. But we don't have that information so the weather is quite unpredictable to us. That doesn't mean that it isn't determined by factors, right? It's just that there are so many factors, over so much time and space. I'm sure factors as a non-meteorologist I don't even know about.

    But what I gather from what you're saying is that sure, we could totally predict someone's behavior and yes, they are determined, but there are so many factors and data points that it's not predictable.

    I'm still not sure about if we have free will at all or not. I guess at the moment, with my limited understanding, I am a hard determinist. But I'll have to read up on compatibilism. How you explained it does make sense though.

    Yes, your mention of quantum mechanics sounded very woo woo. It's good you cleared that up.

    Thanks for telling me you like the lolcats. They make me smile. I'm glad they are appreciated by at least one person besides me. :)

  10. >> unless it already agrees with their world view.

    Sure, that happens very often. Still, I had experiences, when something from outside, that didn't fit into my world view, hit me in a way I couldn't help but accept it.

    I don't know in how far Greek philosophers dealt with determinism. Our word has a latin stem and the principle got introduced into modern science with Descartes and Newton. That's what I was referring to. After all it is just a concept, another ideological (or religious, if you prefer) world view. People have come up with others, like eastern religions, buddhism, animism, chaotic organisation, chaotic non-organisation and so on. Both science and religion have their use in a certain area; both determinism and free will work within a certain frame, but then they fail due to applying a rigid method to a living process. That is what the scientists I mentioned proved with their methods, and what e.g. Buddhists agree with for 2500 years now after having applied their own methods, and why I say that determinism is yesterday's jam.
    Of course that is only my view, no more valid than anyone else's view. I see no objective reality "out there", truth being the same for everyone when in fact it isn't. So I hope I didn't bother you. My words weren't meant for making you feel wrong.

    Personally, I (in short) think of an interdependent system of self-organizing complex subsystems, in which each element has options within a given frame, but each action changes the context by causing feedback, so we evolve while, and by, adapting to the constantly changing world we created and that created us. We are both free and bound. That's pretty much what I see around me and inside myself - which results in active participation in the world without desperately clinging to my ideas and wishes.

  11. Sorry if I didn't make myself clear here. I didn't intend to say that Heisenberg alone declared that we cannot know anything for sure, but that he, the persons I mentioned, and others like Schrödinger *together* paint the picture of a science different from the deterministic ideology of pre-20th century science. Taken as a whole their work unintendedly shows that science as such fails with explaining reality, especially in complex systems, and therefor will never be able to make true precise longterm predictions.
    Why is it that the laws which science finds don't fit reality and have to get redefined over and over again? Besides the complicated one (represented by Gödel &co.) there's two easy parts:
    a) The nature of a law is generalization. You have to reduce individual things with infinite properties each to categories of similar things with a finite set of properties to which the law applies. There are two problems with that:
    - The set of properties is of arbitrary choice. Look at the definition of "planet". Look at any map.
    - The rest which we discard as irrelevant but which represents an infinitely higher number of properties has a significance. Think of it when you listen to the weather forecast or when you drink a vitamins shake instead of eating an apple.
    The categories we make up along with the limited-properties things create a picture that may follow the laws of science within a given frame set, but only if you don't look too close. Taking that picture for real hence trying to apply the laws universally results in chaotic, unexpected response. Always.

    b) Even if we do not look for rules and do not gain our knowledge from books, we can rely on our senses and say, "I see that thing. I measured some of its properties." Still people disagree for a vast amount of reasons, one of which is that we cannot handle infinite amounts of properties. What then is reality if not that what we choose? Isn't it different for each person? What can we actually *know* for sure if we cannot completely know at least one single thing?

    If I get it right, you do not believe your life is unalterably fixed, past, present, and future? For, no matter if we are able to predict what's to come, that is what determined means. Otherwise I didn't get your reason for acting as responsible individuals. If I'd ask a person in a deterministic world why s/he is doing something, the answer I'd expect would be, "Because I cannot help but to follow the laws of the universe. There is no choice"; like a planet cannot willingly resist the gravity of its star.