Freewill: the neurological weather pattern

I am a causal determinist. What this means I don’t believe you have freewill. Don’t take that too personally; I don’t believe I have freewill either. In fact, I think all atheists (in a broader sense of the word) should reject free will.

Let me first state and explain my broader definition of atheism: one that is not convinced of any supernatural claims. I make this expansion because of beliefs that are technically atheist (like spiritualism) where it still seems wrong to refer to them as atheists because they have certain supernatural beliefs (like karma or the souls).

This definition, as far as I can see, leads to rejecting freewill on the grounds that freewill requires something supernatural to deviate from the natural mechanism of cause and effect. We are the puppets of our genetics, the microstructure of our brains and our experiences. Something determines these; we don’t pick our parents, our genetic, the structure of our brain or the experiences we have.

Some atheists think they have found a loophole in quantum mechanics, but I don’t think we are so lucky. Either quantum mechanics is what most scientists describe it as—a probabilistic and fundamentally uncaused phenomenon; else quantum mechanics is what many philosophers describe it as—fundamentally caused but so far misunderstood.

On the latter description we have gotten absolutely nowhere; nature remains within the realm of cause and effect. On the earlier description, though, the best we have is that we a puppet to an unpredictable force; it does not give us conscious control of our thoughts; there is simply a new phenomenon in the neurological weather system that is our brain.

This isn’t just a dichotomy argument: the supernatural or determinism. There is physical evidence for determinism; in fMRI and EEG scanners decisions in the mind can be pinpointed in the brain before a subject is consciously aware of it. It isn’t the lag that demonstrates determinism—although it makes a case all by itself—it is that the state of the brain (a physical organ) can exactly describe the state of the mind (the abstract thing we occasionally think houses free will).

It seems the theist doesn’t get off so easily, either. The soul is the normal answer; a supernatural force that can deviate from cause and effect (by applying whatever it is supernatural means). If we take the examples of psychopaths or sociopaths, how do we square blame when we consider that they are simply the holders of psychopathic or sociopathic souls? How do we square the blame of someone who killed a person in the recognition that they have a soul that, once it has gone through whatever material life it has gone through, will be a murderous soul?

The illusion of freewill stands out as a result of our ability to look backwards and imagine making other decisions in the past. The simple ability to perceive of different universes where you chose something different to what you did chose. We accept this illusion because we do not ask what it means to relive a moment, exactly as we lived it before, but still be able to decide something different; whatever made you decide at a given moment would make you decide it again if you ever relived a moment. How could it make you decide something different?

But what if we can go one further, and say that even the illusion of free will is an illusion? What if there is a way of observing choices in your head that can illustrate to you that you have no freedom? Play along with the following thought experiment, but while you do it I want you to observe your own thought process: think of a city, any city. Pick one city. Got one? Okay…

You picked the wrong city. Now, watch your thoughts as you pick a different city. Got one? Good…

This, as Sam Harris points out in his speech on this very topic, is as free a choice as you are ever going to make; did you notice evidence of your freewill? If there’s no evidence for freewill here the idea is in big trouble. So look at what happened in your mind as you chose a city. At first you had nothing, then slowly a few options came to your mind. You don’t know why these cities and more interestingly you don’t know why other cities—Nairobi or Rome—did not occur to you as an option; you know these cities, they just didn’t occur to you. (Another example of this is when I try to name all 50 American states, I’ve heard of all of them before but many of them simply don’t occur to me if I sit down to try to name them all. I added this example to include some originality on my part, as a lot of this is directly Sam Harris’ work.) You know why some didn’t occur to you: the British City of St Albans, for example, is a city you may never have heard of. In no reasonable sense were you free to pick that.

But you did not pick the options that occurred to you, they just occurred. And from those options you probably don’t know why you picked the one you did. Maybe you picked Tokyo, and maybe because you had Japanese food last night (although people are often wrong about the associations they have made). But why did that reason not repel you in the opposite direction; I had Japanese food last night, why not go with something new?

Did you see your consciousness doing anything other than being handed a list of options? This post doesn’t necessarily make sense because in an earlier post I implored you to choose love. How can I ask you to make a certain decision in the same blog that I tell you you are not free to choose anything? The answer is that new information is a new environmental cause in the neurological weather pattern that is your brain. You are not free to choose which decision you pick, but I hope to influence the result.

49 thoughts on “Freewill: the neurological weather pattern”

  1. I just finished watching the video from which you wrote this article. I must commend Harris for being one of the most consistent naturalists I’ve ever heard. You may remember commenting on my blog at where I made the argument that natural determinism applied to human thought is the “finest argument against atheism” since it invalidates rational inference and thus scientific inquiry (and indeed all functions of free-agency). Your main objection was that I was committing the fallacy of composition. But, Harris states the precise conclusions found in my article, using the precise argument: free-will has no place in a world of natural determinism; our thoughts are the result of natural cause and effect and not free-agency. I’m curious if you believe Harris is guilty of the same logical fallacy?

    1. Scientific inquiry is not synonymous with atheism, so I think an attack on the scientific method cannot equate to an attack on atheism (although it would be an attack on part of my reasoning that got me to atheism).
      Our thoughts may well be (and I argue that they are) the result of natural cause and effect and not free-agency. The step you then make to thoughts then being unreliable in terms of tracking reality rationally, that step is the bit that commits the fallacy of composition.
      Nothing about being composed of non-sentient and non-rational elements necessarily means the product is non-rational.
      Evolution is a process where by reality tracking minds could be selectively picked for.

      1. Actually, my point was that an attack on rational inference is an attack on the very foundation of scientific inquiry. If scientists are not making inferences based on the evidence they study – i.e. if their thoughts are simply the result of natural determinism – then they infer nothing. They only experienced an inference that “happened in their brain” via mechanical process of natural cause and effect.

        Harris actually states my point brilliantly when he said, “What I do next remains a mystery that is FULLY determined by a prior state of the universe.”

        If all the conclusions drawn from scientific study are FULLY determined by a prior state of the universe then they could only track reality by coincidence since there is no free-agent making the conclusion.

        Think of it in legal terms: you have two attorneys presenting different cases using the same body of evidence. They turn the decision over to the judge and the judge, via rational inference, makes his judgement. If we follow Harris down his path, not veering right or left, we must concede that the judge’s conclusion is fully explainable by mechanical processes happening in his physical brain with no necessary relation to truth or reality. He simply concluded whatever he was programmed to conclude.

        If a scientist’s conclusions are based wholly on a prior state of the universe, i.e. something acting on him rather than him acting freely, we’re in big trouble. Naturalism slits its own throat.

        But I’m open to your criticism. Where is my logic faulty?

      2. We’re talking past each other at the moment, and it’s not very useful.
        There is a process whereby the ability of a brain to accurately track reality is selected for, and ones that cannot accurately track reality are removed. The ones that are selected for are then disproportionately passed down to the next generation, where the selection process is slightly higher. This repeats (and has repeated for millions of year). We might not be at our best, but evolution means we’re not wildly stabbing in the dark.
        But we’ve also invented tools to help us do the job. Where are our minds seems happy to believe stories about people removing headaches by rubbing cats on their heads or by drinking water that used to have something dissolved in it, medical science is a method that is not -entirely- dependent on one mind.
        The same is true of maths. Maths is a tools that we can apply to evidence and at many stages bypass our minds.

  2. Harris has it wrong, as you do, and for the same reasons. You both seem unable to see the self as an emergent property of many processes working together and worse than that, when you do see them as separate you assume that the consciousness process has no free will because it relies on other parts of the brain and processes which are not part of the consciousnes, the very things that give it existence. That is very much like presuming that we cannot decide where we want to go because we do not consciously control every muscle of our legs which carry us there.

    1. Although I see your point, my point is that “freewill” (i.e. something not mechanically influenced by external factors) relies entirely on a deviation from natural processes.
      Ponder the question of how a person that lives the exact same moment twice can make different decisions in the two identical moments.
      I am not doubting self (the “self” is the consciousness that experiences what happens). I am curious as to how you make sense of there being a force that itself is independent of the other forces of nature.

  3. What is borne of the natural world and natural processes can itself not help but be of the natural world. The emergent properties of the brains of living creatures on this planet are of the natural world.

    What force are you talking about?

    There is a lot more to this that Harris leaves out completely. He does not treat the subject with a scientific mind. Are you doing the same? What then of viruses? All animal life on this planet is affected by viruses – we might as well say they are doing our thinking for us? Chemicals are known to affect how we think – perhaps it is the water molecules which control our thought processes?

    His entire argument breaks down when we consider comas, the mentally ill, and other failures of a human to be ‘normal’ or something similar to it. Yes, you might claim that it is merely the deficiency of the brain in some the interferes with the controlling whatever it is, but then if something external to the brain is in control, why have a brain. When the brain is removed life stops or is impaired so as to leave no doubt that will is generated within and operated by the brain. No, if there is an external control, you can’t tell the difference between an empty shell of a human and one that has no driver, but why add that level of complexity when it is not required to explain things.

    1. I’m not talking about a force. I’m saying that freewill, if it is real, must be a force independent of the other forces of nature. If the mind is the result of electrical impulses from sense data (as I say it is) then every decision you make is the -only- decision you could have made. Even if I let you relive the moments leading up to when you hit “reply” to leave that message 1000 times, you couldn’t not hit “reply”. All of the same influences would have been acting on you, and so they must culminate in the same result.
      If you believe in freewill you must believe in a separate force that has a potential to behave differently under identical influences. Nothing in all of science behaves like that.
      Viruses are an influence on our thoughts, so are chemicals. That is why illness and alcohol and other drugs affect the way we think. They are not the sole cause of our thoughts, but they are an influence. I’m not doubting that the complete picture of the influences is a complex picture, but the influences are the whole picture.
      Mental illnesses and comas in no way make this argument fall apart. Coma patients and the mentally ill give different EEG and fMRI readouts. Certain behavioural illnesses show associations in the brain differ wildly. Deviating from the mean (or not being “normal”) is about how certain experiences continue to influence our thoughts, or how the structure of the brain is wildly different (or subtly different in significant ways) in some individuals.

      1. And there it is… a fallacy. There is no method of the material world wherein the exact same circumstances can reoccur. It is not a valid thought experiment, and thus not a valid test. It is not used anywhere else that I know of. Nature repeats itself quite a bit, but nowhere do we expect it will recreate itself the exact same way. For example: we know how chemicals react and can even predict under given circumstances how the reaction will go but we work in generalities because identical circumstance will not repeat. Our individual value systems are ways for us to make decisions and given that we use them, it is predicted that we would make the same choices under exactly the same circumstances. This is what value systems are for – self imposed regulators. Being self imposed we need not hold to them in all circumstances. The movie ‘Groundhog Day’ is an example of how human nature would not by definition always choose the same decision every time.

        That might seem cheesy, but consider this: if it were possible that the same circumstances could happen in every detail for more than one person it would be noticed. Whenever this kind of situation is generally true, we investigate and find a reason. This generally is called science. It is therefore impossible to state that we could not have and would not make a different choice given the same circumstances. Each measure of time happens only once and no more. The exact same circumstances cannot happen twice.

        Without pushing this to deterministic automatons, it cannot be said that we do not have free will. That begs the question that if we have no free will, who is deciding that we should construct things like we do, that we should explore a we do, that we should war as we do?

        The accumulation of knowledge is both a natural process of our brains and an act of will. If it is that my desire to learn is not my will, why then are there stupid people on this planet? Why is there war? Why is there famine? If Harris’ definition of not having free will looks exactly like we have free will what is the purpose of adding a layer of complexity that is not needed? It is an untestable theory – no different than gods. It attributes that which is explainable with nature to something that is not in nature. This is, correct me if I’m wrong, exactly what faith in a deity is. That Harris does not name the ‘deity’ in this case does not make it different. He is making the argument that something outside of nature controls all that happens in nature, or at least the parts that are not lifeless. That is a theistic argument without basis in fact, nor is it testable or falsifiable.

      2. I’m not entirely following your argument. In Ground Hog Day Bill Murray wakes up everyday in non-identical circumstances; he remembers all the repeated days he’s lived.
        If we are not deciding our actions, I don’t understand why something else would be. We go to war and build things etc, but we no more “decide” to do that a retrovirus “decides” to enter a hosts cells and multiply.
        Determinism is not the extra layer. Everything is controlled by physical principles: the way a ball rolls, the way the universe expands, the way a light turns on, how planets are coalesced. Freewill is a layer on top, and that layer is one of something not following the physical principles.
        Our brains are physical, they are controlled by physical principles. What mechanism is there by which the mind, something that depends on the brain (remember, it is only theists that normally believe in a disembodied mind) can deviate away from those physical principles?
        People used to think God was intuitively obvious, but now it seems that it all boils down to physics.
        Freewill seems to be intuitively obvious, but it is one layer that one could not demonstrate.
        And having a thought represent itself as a brain state before the consciousness is aware of it suggests these things that are “free” actually occur in the material organ.

      3. The difference, the part that seems to be missing is memory. Our memories present themselves as if they were live sensory data – adding layers of sensory data which have the same or similar effect of real time data. We react not only to the current physical world, but physical worlds modelled in our brains.

        This ability to model the real physical world inside our brains allows us to essentially live in millions of universes at once, at least as far as how we might react to any given situation. This extensive ability to predict real world elements allows us to modify our behaviors and seek pleasure/rewards. Free will is nothing more than this. Advanced modelling of the real world in order to seek reward/pleasure. Yes, we can choose from millions of possible circumstances to narrow possible outcomes to what is most likely to give us rewards. This is far more complex than a plant turning to face the sun but is no more significant. That is to say that it is not something outside the physical world, much to the contrary. It very much follows physical processes. Rewards like being the first man on the moon is a huge reward. Climbing the north face is a huge reward. Building homes for the homeless is a huge reward. We can break down all we do to pleasure and pain. A single process: avoid pain, seek pleasure.

        It gets infinitely complex due to the complexity of our brains. Nonetheless, it is a simple process which all life on this planet follows. For those species which found no pleasure in reproduction we have no records – they didn’t make the grade unless they have a built-in mechanism for which they have no way to avoid.

        The Groundhog Day example shows that we will never have a repeat circumstance and the thought experiment is not valid. Harris also fails to discuss why we choose the city we do with efficacy. He could have lead the audience deftly to choose Chicago for the most part and he knows this. We are not only reacting to the physical world around us but also to the millions of possible universes being modelled in our heads at any given moment.

        We choose our actions based on one or more of those universes. Harris mistakenly presumes that we only have one to deal with, among his other presumptions.

      4. Read your comment again as if you, like me, have not been convinced regarding freewill and highlight the bits that are actually incompatible with determinism.
        You have desires and they influence what you do. But could you not have those desires?
        Each desire and fear is another thing that influences what it is you do. But all of this part of the picture of determinism.
        You describe freewill very well, but you don’t explain what an element of our brains can be independent of cause and effect.

      5. It is not independent of cause and effect. For a given situation (someone making a statement to you) we model several universes in our heads. These models differ from the one our senses give us only on the aspects relevant to the reason for the model. So the models for this situation all include the sun being the same etc. Now we model one universe where the statement is true at face value. One where it is not. Several where the speaker is lying so that we can consider the reasons and outcomes of the lying. Then we choose the universe model which will give us the best reward and assume that universe to be the actual physical universe. Thus we have chosen a modelled cause – and reacted appropriately to it. Cause and effect. The ’cause’ in any given situation for our brains need not be presently detectable by our senses. We can actually create causes which do not relate to the physical world (our senses) in our modelled universes.

        It is the ability to choose a cause that leads to the best reward that gives us free will. By substituting values for unknowns in any given universe presentation/model we can have free will. We substitute values which we think are applicable and on occassion values which we feel are probably wrong. This is how creativity happens. Watch children, they do this ALL the time. With experience we get better at figuring out what values we will be most successful with if we use them – another cause and effect. Memory makes it complex.

        Avoid pain, seek reward.

      6. But if you are free to have chosen one of those models of the universe it is not a clear case of cause an effect.
        There is a group of reasons that you picked one universe and not another. Those reasons are all true (or at least perceived to be true), how could those reasons make you pick another universe?

      7. We look at cause and effect and are able to model the causes to see/predict an outcome. When we analyze multiple models, we can choose the one most likely to give us the best reward. In this case, figuring out what is most likely to be true which is a reward better than not knowing what the future will hold. Being able to better predict the future events is a reward.

        There is no guarantee than any of the models are correct. We ‘say’ they are, but there is no guarantee. It is not a case that we could not have chosen differently. Faulty memory or a misunderstanding of a given aspect lead to a faulty model, and so our choice is not the all true model or maybe we didn’t even model an all true universe possibility. My version of reward is not yours. Cause and effect is dependent on our ability to model and how we model the universe. We have free will to choose and to model. We may choose to always use models where we predict the speaker is telling the truth. The process of substitution of values is not subject to rules outside our head, or does not have to be. It can be randomness.

      8. Once you have visualised a series of options, the option you do pick is identifiable in the brain using fMRI scanners and EEGs. There are a series of factors and variables that push you towards a certain decision. How can all of the influences that make you make one decision make you decide something different?

        The decision is not free, you “choose” what ever the variables influence you to. Those same variables couldn’t influence you to another decision, and without extra influences how could you go against those influences?

      9. Because I usually do things alphabetically, today I’ll do it differently for this substitution. I choose the substitutes from available options and I can choose one at random, or ignore it altogether if today it does not seem important to me. I get it that you’re saying the options we have are not of our making so we cannot make any other choice. Random noise from our senses, from others, from our own brains can affect what we give importance to when choosing the model for cause. We might have decided just moments ago that our preference for green is too strong, so we decide differently on the next decision made. You will obviously call that cause and not free will but you can’t explain how the choice to de-emphasize green will affect the next model choice, for that is contained wholly in our own little brain. If you wish to push everything backwards in a butterfly effect, then everything we do appears to be caused by the big bang. I hold that this is not true… Each deciion we make affects how we will make the next decision independent of the external physical world. We control the models we create even if they are influenced by the external world at some point. Dreams are an example of this.

  4. Not sure if this has been mentioned yet, but I see three serious flaws in Harris’ city choosing experiment:

    1) He posits that free-will is already a bust since we don’t know of all the cities available for choosing. This is essentially Harris determining that if we are not omniscient then we cannot have free-will. I see no logical necessity to know all possible cities to make my choice one of free-will.

    2) Since we only choose from the cities which occur to us at the moment then true choice did not take place. This is the same a demanding a full spectrum of instant mental recall for the possibility of free-will.

    3) Since the cities were populated in our consciousness without our direct control we could not have truly chosen a city based on free-will. Again, Harris demands we experience full control over our mental processes before free-will can be considered viable.

    In short, unless we a God, there can be no free-will. Is there a logical fallacy category called “stacking the deck”?

    1. There should be a clear different between picking something and having something occur to you. If they appear to be exactly the same, the Occam’s razor answer is that what actually happened was the result of mechanical processes, and not to posit a “will” that supersedes them.
      What you’ve done is argue “freewill of the gaps”. Although there is no evidence for freewill in the thought experiment, what you’re saying is that the experiment doesn’t conclusively exclude it.
      My point is that in the absence of evidence you are making a difficult claim to support.

      1. I disagree. What I am saying is Harris arbitrarily creates a version of free will which suits his presupposition of natural determinism. Granted, he had no choice in the matter since his version is the one that “occurred” to him, and since he does not have access to all philosophical truth dealing with free will.

  5. To your point above: “There is a process whereby the ability of a brain to accurately track reality is selected for, and ones that cannot accurately track reality are removed.”

    But, who is the arbiter of which thought process is accurately tracking reality since our thought processes result in a myriad of different conclusions?

    For example, my cosmological worldview is teleological, yours is strictly mechanical – who will decide which is correct? Since we are both operating under the same rules, according to your theory, both of our brains should be sending us the same conclusions (Think beyond natural, scientific observation and apply this to existential concerns – our philosophical ideas of ontology, for example). But, of course, they don’t. Are naturalists just simply further down the evolutionary trail than theists? That would be a fine thesis, but impossible to prove and we’re back to square one.

    1. We do not have the same brains, so when we operate out side the world we actually operate in we can come up with wildly different ideas.
      So we both think similar things about how we interact with gravity or about what 2 hours feels like. But once the conversation moves to quantum models of gravity or time at high energy (relativity) we (as people I am assuming are mostly unversed in the issues) intuitively think very differently. Evolution doesn’t pick at that level of comprehension.
      But that’s why we have the tools of science and maths.

      1. You answered a question, just not mine. I asked you to apply the theory to existential concerns but you applied them again to basic natural observations. I’ll assume there is simply no answer to my question posted above, I mean, the previous state of the universe will cause me to assume, etc, etc. Enjoyed the banter. Cheers.

      1. That is clearer. I wasn’t sure what the blog was when I first got here. I thought you were just re-posting stuff to encourage a debate.

      2. Cool. I’m not good at fleshing out a concept altogether before getting started with it. I have to see it to realize where the ambiguities lie. Hopefully, I can get it tightened up before too many people see it.

      3. I know a lot of people disagree. So I thought I’d put my ideas into the arena.
        I mean to do exactly this with my blog, so actually, all of my posts are fair game for “Defend Your Post” (if you feel you found a particularly controversial one).

      4. oh, cool, thanks. Hopefully it will help drive traffic here, too.

        I appreciate your interest & suggestions. I added some menu items which may clear things up even more.

  6. There is a lot here, and I may have the wrong impression, but it appears that “freewill” is being considered to be a “thing” or a “force”, which some people claim exists and others claim does not exist.

    I see free will as the ABSENCE of prevention or forced compliance, and claim that we intrinsically have that as part of our nature. The only way to not have free will is to have some agency which can force you to do something or make it impossible to do something. The God concept is theorized to have the power to do that, but often the claim is that He does not do that.

    There are agencies which can remove some degree of a person’s free will, but make sure to note the absence of choice implied. Some people might think that laws can remove your free will, but they do not. They may ENCOURAGE you to do/not do something, but you can still chose to do/not do it by accepting the risk of not complying. On the other hand, physics does put some bounds on our free will. I really want to walk through this solid wall, or float over it, or transport to the other side of it, but physics (so far) says “sorry charlie, that is not happening”. My free will has been bounded, but by no means eliminated.

    Note that lack of free will demands there be NO choice. If I am walking down the street and a van pulls up and someone points a gun at me and says “get in the van”. This is not force sufficient to remove choice. I can choose to comply or chose to not comply. If someone sneaks up behind me and succeeds in rendering me unconscious and then loads me into the van, that is a bound on my free will, but does not remove it. They would have to continue to take action to remove every choice I might have in order to be able to claim that I no longer had free will.

    The going back in time concept is a new one to me. Not the going back in time to change things, but going back to the exact same circumstances, version of me and level of knowledge. That would be useless. Of course I would make the same decisions; the only variable which might change things would be any aspect which was totally random. But this has nothing to do with free will. It is just that circumstances may POINT us at a choice, but unless the competing choice is forced on us or impossible for us, our will to choose in not impaired. Of course we will usually try to make the choice which we think is best for us, or at least seems the most desirable at the moment. To do otherwise would be self destructive. As long as we still have the “bad” choice available to us as well, we still have free will.

    1. The key points are this:
      (1) the thing we subjectively experience, and refer to, as “choice” emerges in the mind.
      (2) the mind is defined by the brain
      (3) the brain is a physical entity
      (4) the action of physical entities are defined by physics
      Therefore, the thing we subjectively refer to as choice is defined by physics.

      Am i right in saying you are positing ‘freewill exists’ as a default position?

      Also, i am curious of your conception of freewill if you suspect you will make the same choices if you are returned to the same circumstances. What is the difference between that and ‘no freewill’?

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