Saturday, April 07, 2012

On leveling the playing field.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how we get to where we are in life.

If you've been with me for a while, you know that I tend to see life through a deterministic lens. I see the human body, including the human mind, as a glorified computer that does what its software tells it to do at any given moment, depending also on the behavioral modifications inflicted by circumstances
i.e. software updates. (But the external events are also, of course, predetermined, in my view. Every stone that sits on your lawn is in the exact position it had to be in at that moment, year-of-our-lord 2012. To riff on the chilling mini-mart coin-flip scene from No Country for Old Men, that stone has been on its journey to its place in your lawn for all the millennia. It could've ended up nowhere else. So has the nail that ended up in your tire, regardless of whether you drove over it accidentally or whether some neighborhood teen put it there.)

My deterministic leanings were a prime prime reason why I never subscribed to the "you can be/do anything you want in life" school of thought. Sometimes the variables that prevent you from doing what you want to do are physical/external: You're not going to play center for the Boston Celtics if (a) there's no such thing as basketball, (b), you're presently serving a life sentence in jail, and/or (c) you're 4-foot-11. And sometimes the variables are more "personal"/internal: You're not going to invent a way of modifying acetylcholine so that it becomes a natural vaccine against cancer if you have the approximate IQ of a breath mint. And please don't cite me exceptional cases; they just prove the rule. And those exceptional cases were predetermined, too.

By the way, the personal/internal stumbling block can also be ambiguity or confusion about what you "really want" to do, or a total misapprehension of what you thought you wanted to do. ... If you're a person of middle age, how many times in life have you pursued a goal that turned out not to be what you wanted once you got it? Those are cases where you were able to be or do "what you want," and yet it wasn't what you wanted after all, in hindsight. So you were still predetermined to fall short of "what you wanted."

I think most of us accept the examples having to do with being 4-foot-11 or having an IQ of 67...but we have a tougher time with the shortcomings that, in the consensus view, stem from flaws or vices. We'll cut someone a pass for flunking out of school if the problem really is a lack of brainpower, but we're less forgiving when the problem is perceived as laziness. Thing is, if you're lazy, you're lazy; you're going to live a phlegmatic, unambitious life. Now, it's possible that society can impose sanctions on you that will lift you out of your laziness. But sometimes those sanctions aren't going to work anyway. Some people are incorrigible. And if you're incorrigible, you're incorrigible. It's a little bit like being left-handed or blue-eyed.

Similarly, we will not cut someone a pass for being a serial killer, even though the tendency to be a serial killer may be every bit as ingrained as the tendency for a genius to do, well, the geniusy things a genius does. (Do you cause thoughts and impulses to occur. Or do they just occur?)

Seems to me that if there is no choice, no free will
if we all pretty much arrive where we simply must be at any given point in the ongoing timelines of our livesthen that realization behooves us to do what we can to understand and even help people who arrived in worse places. Through our insights, we can become part of the software updates that encourage others to be more understanding. This is also why I'm not one of those who flinches when the term redistributionist is applied to Barack Obama.

This becomes something of a paradox, a conundrum, because if you can't help being the way you are, then you might argue that you can't help feeling the way you feel about people who don't seem to deserve your sympathies, including people whom you flat-out dislike and root against. But I think there are higher odds of enlightening our friends and neighbors about determinism and getting them to be more accepting of others than there are of changing someone's mind about being a shiftless bum or a serial killer. This is why I generally feel more sensitivity to the poor, the downtrodden, and those whom life has otherwise passed by.

Of course, I can't help thinking that way.


Adrian said...

Free will seems to be on a lot of people's minds lately. It's interesting and ultimately humbling and humanizing. Once you realize that if you really could inhabit someone else's brain that you would do exactly what they did, it's hard to feel the same need for retribution and punishment. Isolation and protection absolutely, but vengeance, not so much.

Christoph said...

Your first two paragraphs are wrong, even by current scientific thinking about lack of free will.

You're forgetting stochasticm.
You're forgetting randomness.
You're forgetting quantum physics.

I am not saying that quantum physics magically gives us free will, since how would pure chance equate to will, but the uncertainty inherent therein means that the future couldn't have been predicted thousands of years out to the level of certainty that you'd have a given nail in your tire or a coin flip in a fairly entertaining movie where they underutilized Tommy Lee Jones would go a certain way: it could just as easily have been tails if some muon neutrino had been in a different mood 8 billion years ago.

Steve Salerno said...

Christoph, I'm not saying that the future could've been predicted--we never KNOW what's going to happen next--but it's ironclad nonetheless. I'll give you a very simplistic illustration. You would not have written your rebuttal if I had not written my post in the first place. I would not have written the post if I hadn't first written "SHAM." I would not have writtten SHAM if my parents hadn't imbued me with a love of reading and writing.... etc.

Obviously I'm leaving out millions of intersecting phenomena that helped shape this one event, but the point is, we as a species are purely mechanical. Everything happens because of something else. Tell me where "randomness" creeps in. Tell me how randomness is even possible. The concept of randomness presupposes that some things happen for no reason at all, which is flat-out absurd; if that were the case--if things happened for NO REASON--think of how insanely unpredictable life as a whole would be. There'd be evenings where'd you look outside and there would indeed be a giant hunk of cheese in the sky, instead of the moon. Instead of driving to work, you would get a canoe out of the garage, put it down on asphalt and begin paddling somewhere, not even knowing where you were going....

Everything that happens, happens because of something (or more accurately, a million other somethings) that happened first, making the present something inevitable.

When was the last time you ordered an ice cream flavor you hate?

Steve Salerno said...

p.s. The fact that we don't/can't know all of the variables doesn't mean that the variables aren't actors in the causative process.

Jenny said...

Is that coin for sale, I wonder. Maybe on eBay or in some movie memorabilia auction? Not that I would want to buy it or anything. Just curious whether the coin actually was put back into the cash register (movie prop) and perhaps back out into general circulation, or whether someone thought to memorialize it.

Nice to hear from you again, Steve. I'm kind of curious, though, how someone could say you are "wrong" simply for stating what's on your mind. What's wrong with that?

Anonymous said...

Life is insanely unpredictable, and thus keeps us interested.
Causation is always applied after the fact, a fitting of plausible reasons--as far as we can currently perceive(and convince ourselves)as plausible.

Your deterministic stance relies on human perception--or some particular humans perceptions--- as being something concrete and 'true' when it is constantly demonstrated to be anything but.

Human perception is a story, a narrative that we tell ourselves to link the insanely unpredictable events after the fact in order to give ourselves the comfort of something that makes sense and has meaning.
Nihilist, moi?

Steve Salerno said...

Human perception may be malleable and imprecise, but actual causation is as concrete as it gets.

Everything happens for a reason. Nothing happens for no reason.

Or maybe that's just my perception of things.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, not to bait you or provoke an argument or anything but I'd like to know why you have always been so steadfastly opposed to the notion of free choice. Are you that uncomfortable with your choices? ;-)

Anonymous said...

'Or maybe that's just my perception of things'

I think (perceive) it as a consistent and logical narrative, one that gives us a perception of some control and thus comfort when we glom onto it.
However, humans are always better persuaded by emotions, not logic. Most behaviours are emotionally driven, whether we admit to that or not--real change is emotionally driven, the logic is applied in retrospect to fit the circumstances and justify the emotionally driven behaviour.

We have little to no control over the extremely fast chemical reactions in the body that give rise to the emotional states. Thought (perception) is a sluggish second and thus is always applied after the event as a narrative to explain to the slower 'perception' what has already occurred.

'Everything happens for a reason. Nothing happens for no reason.'

As a writer, Steve, a professional manipulator of words and ideas, are you truly claiming that the carefully selected (by yourself alone)choice of words in a sentence corresponds in any way to reality---or is that just my approximate perception of events?

Steve Salerno said...

Anon, you need to read my prior posts on determinism/free will. In several other posts I take a lot of words to say what you say in your graph that begins "we have little control..." So there I guess I agree with you; as to the rest of it, I'm not even sure you agree with yourself. ;)

Poncho & Lefty said...

Read your book, but new to your "determinism" theory. Point 1: The stone sits, but it is a stone.. inanimate and with no conscious clue it is a stone. You are comparing the "inanimate" with human conditions. One can't convince a stone to do anything. In my mind this would exclude it from any equation involving human actions. Point 2: The most compelling evidence of human potential lies in the choices one has of what to do with the stone. Hurling it through a window sets off a chain of events does it not? The reason it does that is our connected place among others. The owner of the property whose window was broken responds, a neighbor who witnessed the act responds, the police respond, a judge responds, possibly a journalist reports the event and the community responds. What set in motion the subsequent responses? It was the human motivation to "make something happen". Point 3: The outcome may have not been what the person wanted, expected, or "willed". However, I believe within this example lies the essence of empowering oneself to put something in motion. Something which may move them one step closer to attaining a desired outcome. The individuals act was the catylyst. Acting on something and getting a desired outcome, or coming closer to getting the desired outcome, can and frequently does confirm to one's consciousness that they are succeeding. That is how I believe empowerment is a force in human achievement.

Adrian said...

What set in motion the subsequent responses? It was the human motivation to "make something happen"

But what is the source of this motivation? If it boils down to the physical structures of our brain and body plus some physical/chemical laws then despite our subjective experience of will, how are we any different than the rock which is compelled to move (or not) based on gravity, friction, heat and other forces? The best we can say is that the brain and body is very complex so the details are not yet understood, but this is a weak rail to hang our hat.

Dimension Skipper said...

Humans have no free will because of physics
By Aaron Loudenslager for The North Wind, Northern Michigan University’s independent student newspaper since 1972.

Steve Salerno said...

Damn, DimSkip, I wish I'd written that...

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, you have in the past acknowledged that you believe in God, despite your logical assessment that such a belief is probably misguided. If you do believe in a creative Source, how would you describe such a Source if He/She/It gave existence to progeny, yet imprisoned that progeny in a cage where they had no influence upon - much less, control over - their own lives? Inflicting such a rigid predestiny upon sentient beings would - IMO - be the act of a power-hungry, narcissistic sociopath, and the mere fact of humanity's continued existence pretty well counters such a notion. As per our previous discussions on the topic, I find the assertion that strict determinism is in play to be unacceptable not only from a spiritual perspective, but from a logical one, as well.

Steve Salerno said...

I hear ya, Ron. I never said it was a totally satisfying world-view.

RevRon's Rants said...

Just read the article in DimSkip's link, and IMO, the comments serve to refute the article's thesis much more effectively than the article manages to support that thesis. To paraphrase one commenter, the sole argument in support of determinism is the argument itself. Such a defense constitutes both bad science and poor debate tactics.

I happen to share the commenter's belief that science can't qualify - much less quantify - either free will or determinism. To claim, despite such limitations, that science can DISPROVE free will is the illusion, IMO.

Now... get yourself back to the keyboard, Steve. You are missed.

Adrian said...


that science can DISPROVE free will is the illusion, IMO

Is that really the standard we should be using? Is that really a standard that we use anywhere else?

If it were, we could say with equal validity that we can't disprove the existence of invisible pink unicorns, disprove that God created the universe 100 years ago (or 100 days ago) but just added the appearance of age including fake memories, or disprove gravity fairies.

What the scientific method would show is that free will is not compatible with our existing understanding and that there are no observations which require us to update our existing theories to accommodate free will. If free will does exist, its influence must be currently undetectable which places tight restrictions (and which only grow tighter).

If you want to be even more sciencey, you'd say that we cannot reject the null hypothesis, where the null hypothesis is that there is no free will.

Steve Salerno said...

I kinda go with Adrian here. It's never good to put science in the position of having to prove a negative.

RevRon's Rants said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RevRon's Rants said...

"What the scientific method would show is that free will is not compatible with our existing understanding."

Perhaps if we were to at least consider that our existing understanding might have limitations, we wouldn't feel so compelled to express a certitude that our "existing understanding" simply doesn't justify. Far from being a demand that science prove a negative, the argument is for those who hold to a near-religious devotion to that science recognize that there might be some areas where the scientific method doesn't provide clear answers. As it stands, there seems to be a rather un-scientific willingness to allow the notion of determinism to stand unchallenged, despite the fact that the most viable support for the theory is the theory itself.

RevRon's Rants said...

And just for the record, I'm not asking science to disprove the existence of anything; merely stating that there is insufficient evidence to conclusively qualify the existence of determinism, and that the subsequent claim to have refuted the existence of free will as an alternative is equally inconclusive, and thereby false. Applying the standards by which scientific arguments are measured, you just can't have it both ways, IMO.

Adrian said...


I think that the last century of physics is conclusive proof that scientists are not dogmatically stuck on determinism. Quantum uncertainty has been one of the most successful discoveries and the follow-on research permeates all of our lives today (though few of us know it). With such a strong counter-example, I think that it's not justified to imply that this is dogmatism.

As for science being uncertain and always changing, that's technically true but also very deceptive. When Einstein's General Relativity replaced Newton's Gravity, he did technically show that Newton was "wrong", but Newton was still right enough that his equations are all that's necessary to send ships around the moon, calculate the orbits of virtually all planets, asteroids and comets (except Mercury, and even then the difference is minor). The refinements that are left to unearth are getting increasingly small.

Sean Carroll has a very good post about this at:

I think the title says it all, "The Laws Underlying the Physics of Everyday Life are Completely Understood."

Steve Salerno said...

Rev and Adrian, i think the bigger danger here is in assuming that things that are correct are correct permanently. It amazes me that with all the revisionism that has taken place over the past century (or even the past 20 years), we don't exhibit greater humility about our wisdom, recognizing that it's just temporary until a superseding wisdom comes along. And then that wisdom, too, will fall in time.

Often things that seem correct and true seem that way only because we lack evidence. Unknowns are not evidence of nonexistence, but merely lack of knowledge. With respect to determinism, the fact that newer scientific constructs leave room for randomness, in my mind, does not prove that randomness is real. It merely shows that we don't yet have a handle on the causation. We may never have that handle. But I still believe that a Truth exists, whether or not we can ascertain it. And every bit of logical analysis leads me to believe that absolute determinism is truth.

RevRon's Rants said...

Adrian, my contention is not that scientists are "conclusively stuck on determinism." My disagreement is with those non-scientists who claim - without sufficient supporting data - that science had effectively made the case for determinism, using logic which most people who adhere to the scientific method would reject outright.

RevRon's Rants said...

Perhaps the wisdom yet to come is based in a logical analysis of which we're currently incapable. And who can say with any reasonable certainty *whose* logical analysis provides them with a better understanding of truth? Occam's Razor is a great guidepost, so long as we recognize that different people perceive different things as being the "simplest" and most logical answer. "Truth" might be universal and unwavering. We - and our perspectives - are not. Realizing that admittedly humbling reality, we each must acknowledge that we might well be wrong. The unwillingness to consider such a possibility is a clear indication that we've quit learning, while embracing it offers us the best chance at right thinking and right action.

John said...

“When was the last time you ordered an ice cream flavor you hate?”

Steve, it seems to me your argument is conflating predictability with determinism. If it were true that from a complete knowledge of all antecedent facts and conditions we could at least in theory predict all subsequent facts and conditions, all we’ve established is that our methodology of prediction holds. However, we can’t just make the leap from the truth of our methodology of prediction to the truth of metaphysical determinism. The reason is that while it’s true that determinism excludes free agency, predictability does not. So, to say that given enough information we can predict what flavor ice cream one will and will not order is not to say that one could not in principle choose otherwise. Determinism goes further. It says that we cannot even in principle choose otherwise, because there is in effect no agency of choice, at all. In other words, since predictability does not entail determinism, we can’t conclude that predictability excludes free agency. I mean, you can make the leap if you’d like, but others aren’t compelled to follow you over the chasm.

Another problem your argument has is the leap from methodological reductionism to metaphysical reductionism. In effect, you’re claiming that what is true of an organism’s parts is true of the organism as a whole. While that works fine for composites like rocks and rivers, when we’re taking into account living, dynamic organisms, one really has no logical grounds to assert that such is the case. Again, it may seem so to you, and there are plenty of scientific types who so agree with you, but at the end of the day, such a claim is just a metaphysical dictum.

John said...


You might like: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World by Ian McGilchrist.

Here’s a wiki link, with a fairly in depth overview:

Steve Salerno said...

John, the ice cream question was intended as a massively oversimplified rendering of the theory, nothing more. It was not presented as a complete ontological system! The point is that our tastes, preferences and kneejerk inclinations, taken as a whole, curtail choice before we even get to the question of the role environment and the myriad unrecognized forces play. You will not and (under ordinary circumstances) cannot choose to do things that you abhor. So where's the free will? You have the free will to do the only things you CAN do, given who you are?

During the main media rollout for SHAM back in 2005, I got into the subject of Dr. Laura, who, as you may know, is the ultimate spokesperson for personal responsibility: "We all chose the path we ended up on, we all have 100 major and minor choices a day that shape our lives, etc." What I tried to emphasize is that those choices themselves are shaped. And to prove my point, i used a very extreme and inflammatory example:

Dr. Laura has a son, Deryk, whom she adores. I told the moderator that if Dr. Laura were on the show, I would urge her to demonstrate her free will by going home and slitting Deryk's throat. Just like that. People audibly gasped (and I was not invited back on the show again), but the point I was trying to make is that so much of what we do is rooted in thoughts and feelings that are hard-wired. If you truly love your child, and you are sane, you probably can't kill your child. if you truly hate children, and/or are insane, you probably can't help killing them. It's all one and the same.

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve your examples are very odd but what else is new, right? I still don't agree with you about predestiny. I do wish you'd come back and post more. I miss the good old days of SHAMblog and from the comments I don't think I'm alone in that.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, here's a hypothetical scenario. You are far removed from anything resembling civilization, much less medical assistance, and see your child horribly injured. It is clearly obvious that the child will die, but will likely suffer incredible agony for a couple of days first. You love your child with all your heart. Assuming that you are sane, what would you do?

Having worked extensively with psych patients who would meet the legal criteria for insanity, I have known a few who despised children, yet would not harm one, opting instead to remove themselves from the irritant's presence.

Finally, all semantics aside, do you believe it would be appropriate for society to embrace determinism as the definitive human condition? To accept the idea that those who commit antisocial - and even horrifically violent - acts bear no personal responsibility for their actions? Perhaps by recognizing the factors that influence the hard wiring to the point of near-statistical certainty, we could preemptively incarcerate or even execute any individual who might be reasonably expected to commit a crime, and minority reports be damned. I would personally choose not to live in such a society.

RevRon's Rants said...

Alyssa - We just need to occasionally pee in his deterministic Cheerios and get him fired up from time to time. :-)

Anonymous said...

I don't understand this whole post/thread and especially Steve's most recent "explanations". If you don't like ice cream you don't order ice cream, how it that not a choice??

Steve Salerno said...

Rev, I think the scenario you present is an illegitimate "play" on my Dr. Laura story. I'm sure Dr. Laura herself would put her beloved Deryk out of his misery if she/he were in that situation. But there you've added another layer to confuse the issue: The operative emotion would still be love, except that your love is now compelling you to do something you never could've imagined in the course of ordinary life. You know what I'm saying here, Ron. Why be sly about it? I mean, yeah, somebody could say to me, "Sure I'd eat a flavor of ice cream I hate if you put a gun to my head." Is that really responsive to the core issue we're discussing. (Actually it is--because the gun becomes the deterministic actuator.)

And why is it necessary to pee in my deterministic Cheerios anyway? I think it's an engaging topic. If nothing else we should think about it.

RevRon's Rants said...

The "peeing in Cheerios" was an admittedly crude metaphor for challenging one of your all-time favorite topics... pulling your chain, as it were. And it worked... you're back. :-)

You call the gun a "deterministic factor" because doing so fits within your world-view. I'd call it a random occurrence because doing so fits within mine. Tomatoes, toh-mah-toes...

At any rate, I'm glad to see you kicking up dust again. :-)

Adrian said...

It strikes me that many of the replies are dealing with possibilities rather than probabilities. Instead of putting forth any argument about how free will would work or even that it exists at all, most people seem content to say that we don't know everything, as if this is somehow support. I think it's more a form of wishful thinking than anything else, much the sort of thing that Steve argued so persuasively against in his book.

Rev Ron brought up something interesting though, writing:

Finally, all semantics aside, do you believe it would be appropriate for society to embrace determinism as the definitive human condition? To accept the idea that those who commit antisocial - and even horrifically violent - acts bear no personal responsibility for their actions?

My first reaction was to wonder how our desires are supposed to influence the world. I would rather live in a world where animals were designed by a benevolent creator but instead the apparent design arose from generations of bloodsport where change comes from suffering and death rather than love. But we aren't given this choice, we are only given the tools to recognize and describe the world we live in.

But I really don't see a life without free will as this bleak. Imagine that you knew that a murderer had a brain tumour which prevented his ability to make rational decision and evaluate consequences, and that after removing it he once more became a moral, upstanding person. I think few people would blame him or feel the need for vengeance. There have been cases just like this, in fact even clearer.

What if we knew more about our brains so that we could tell why one person is prone to violence and another is not. Would we blame these people? We would have to treat them and ensure that they didn't harm others so we would still have a justice system but we wouldn't have a retribution system.

That sounds like a perfectly fine society to live in.

But ultimately, whether we have free will or not is a fact. If we knew that determinism was a fact and that free will did not exist, is Ron really suggesting that some paternalistic cabal should keep that information from people, to lie to them because they believe the masses would be too stupid or violent to handle the truth? Now that is a society that I would not support!

RevRon's Rants said...

Adrian, you bring up a good point when you claim that the belief in free will is a product of "wishful thinking." I would qualify that statement by expanding its scope, declaring that presenting ANY belief for which there is no conclusive proof as being incontrovertible truth is an exercise in that same wishful thinking. Since there is not - and realistically, cannot be - such proof for either theory, the only reasonable conclusion, IMO, is that which I have espoused all along - that one choose the theory that is most consistent with their individual perspective and world view. There is anecdotal evidence to support either belief, but lacking empiric data that conclusively disproves either perspective, claims that the argument is settled are ill-advised, and not supported by a mere repetition of either side's world-view or the factors that influence that world view.

As to the question you put to me, whether I am "really suggesting that some paternalistic cabal should keep that information from people, to lie to them because they believe the masses would be too stupid or violent to handle the truth?" Of course I am suggesting no such thing. Perhaps I should have posted a large "SARCASM ALERT," so that nobody would be likely to misconstrue my meaning. I would most certainly not be in favor of a society that both preemptively prosecutes individuals who are predisposed to criminality. Nor would I be comfortable with a society that summarily relieves those who engage in criminal acts of any responsibility for their behavior. Where asocial behavior is clearly identified as being the product of an organic dysfunction which can be reversed, as in your tumor example, I can understand and support the idea of handling the situation medically, rather than via criminal prosecution. The operative phrase in such cases, however, is "clearly identified." Given the fact that our criminal justice system is based more upon the cleverness of opposing attorneys than upon the quest for justice, combined with the fact that virtually any medical opinion can be had for the right price, "clear identification" is likely to fall under the heading of that wishful thinking we've discussed.

Adrian said...


I would most certainly not be in favor of a society that both preemptively prosecutes individuals who are predisposed to criminality. Nor would I be comfortable with a society that summarily relieves those who engage in criminal acts of any responsibility for their behavior.

When I think about Free Will and determinism, I try to remind myself that if there is no free will and everything is deterministic, then it has always been this way. The same persuasion, training, reinforcement, and enforced segregation (eg: jail) which have worked will continue to work. Just because a person couldn't have made any other decisions that what they did doesn't mean that we can't improve things in the future. It also doesn't mean that we have a Pre-crime Unit or Thought Police since recognizing that a system is deterministic and precisely predicting its behaviour are two completely different things!

The operative phrase in such cases, however, is "clearly identified." Given the fact that our criminal justice system is based more upon the cleverness of opposing attorneys than upon the quest for justice, combined with the fact that virtually any medical opinion can be had for the right price, "clear identification" is likely to fall under the heading of that wishful thinking we've discussed.

You could be right there - money does buy a better class of justice. However just looking at how the majority of people are treated, I still think the world would be a better place if we discard the idea that criminal acts arise because people had free will, chose freely to sin and so must be punished.

You do have a point though. It does also raise very difficult questions about how to handle individuals who, due to their biological makeup, may be very likely to commit violent crimes. Think of violent psychopaths. If we can identify them, do we restrain or isolate them even if they haven't harmed anyone? Maybe that's getting into your pre-crime scenario. It brings our values of individual liberty and protecting people from harm into conflict so I don't have any easy answers.

Still, I'd take those sorts of tough questions if it meant treating others with more compassion.

RevRon's Rants said...

Adrian, would compassion even be a factor - much less, a desired quality - in a deterministic universe? Inasmuch as determinism is based upon a wholly logical sequence of events and factors, compassion would be rendered essentially meaningless, since every reaction, both benevolent and malevolent alike, would be inevitable.

I fear we're both spiraling rapidly into the realm of arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, your question--to me--presupposes a basic misunderstanding of determinism that is quite common. Compassion will be present in a deterministic worldview, if it was predetermined to be there. If you're not a compassionate person, you're probably not going to have much compassion. Just like, if you hate vanilla ice cream, you're probably not going to eat much of it.

Cosmic Connie said...

Kind of off topic, but on-topic in a larger way: Steve, you were mentioned in this piece in The Verge. Yay!

RevRon's Rants said...

Sent a comment yesterday, but it apparently didn't make it through...

Steve, I don't think I misunderstood, but it is possible I didn't communicate very clearly. IF we lived in a deterministic universe, compassion would be as admirable a human quality as sociopathy would be despicable. If you cannot blame the murderer, it follows that you cannot admire the caretaker. The notion of praising one individual who commits acts of kindness would be hypocritical if we simultaneously refuse to condemn another individual who commits heinous acts. Thus, compassion - like sociopathy - is rendered irrelevant in the observations and analysis of human behavior. We'd all go our merry (albeit somewhat lobotomized) way, saying things like, "Live long and prosper."

Adrian said...


We still feel gratitude and admiration, and we are still motivated by rewards and avoid punishments (like rebuke, social stigma or shunning). We also know that it does take hard work - physical and mental - to accomplish things. None of that will change.

Sure, doing an act of kindness has a cause but then even if there was free will there would still be a cause (or do you imagine that under free will everything would be random?). I'm at a loss. Why would this change either our feelings or our motivations to praise others?

Jenny said...

I clicked over here today thinking, "please let there be a new blog post," and almost surfed away until I scrolled down and noticed 42 comments. Yay! Something must be happening. Little did I know it involved spoiling Steve's breakfast cereal. Of course, we all know he's been eating omelets all along. That cracked egg with bandages across it on the SHAM book jacket blows his cover completely!

Welcome back, Steve, and thanks for renewing this conversation. It reminds me of something we talked about one time, inspired by a story my mother tells and that I repeated here, about when my father was in the hospital and she had been consulting with his doctors about his condition. One of them made the comment that a decision is only good until another decision needs to be made. This seems to follow the logic of what you say in one of your comments here about wisdom? Perhaps. I'm not quite sure what you had in mind.

I see many of us exercising our free will to take part in this conversation because it is lively and engaging. Otherwise, what's the point?

RevRon's Rants said...

Allow me to once again attempt to get past semantics her. Imagine for a moment that you're a little kid, playing with your favorite toy. Your mother walks up and says, "You need to give that toy to your cousin, because he doesn't have any toys." You comply, and give the toy to your cousin, not because you feel compassion for the child, but because you were compelled to do so. While you have admittedly been taught a lesson in compassion, it was not your compassion that led to the act.

Another scenario has you seeing your cousin's poverty and choosing on your own to give him the toy. Not because you were compelled to do so, but because you chose to act out of kindness.

Implicit in the assertion of predestiny is the compulsion to act, based upon influences and forces beyond yourself. On the other hand, implicit in the assertion of free will is the choice to act, based upon your own reasoning and priorities. Which act is of greater inherent value, and which speaks more to the magnanimous nature of the individual? I choose to believe that our ultimate objective as human beings is to strive to act well, rather than merely to comply with some pre-established external directive. I have experienced both scenarios described above, and felt angry and diminished by the first, and enriched and empowered by the second.

Quite simply, I do not accept that we exist merely to follow external directives, whether those directives originate with a parent (or Supreme Being) or a preordained, mathematically-fixed narrative. I choose what I find to be a more logical (and more benevolent) world-view. Others are welcome to accept the existence of predestiny as they will (or as they believe they have been preordained to do so). Ultimately, neither can "prove" the other wrong or themselves right, if only because the two perspectives depend primarily upon the perspectives themselves for validation of their own existence. That's why they're more appropriately called beliefs than truths.

Steve Salerno said...

I think you're making a wholly artificial distinction, Ron. What difference does it make if the wind blows you across the street or if you walk across the street on your own to get a destination you know you need to get to. You still cross the you had to.

RevRon's Rants said...

The only "distinction" I see here Steve is that you believe the wind is the deciding factor, and I believe it is the walker who decides. And as I've already stated, since neither of us can provide definitive proof to support either side, we are left to choose (or have the choice made for us, as I suspect you'd posit) according to our personal perspective. I can live with that.

RevRon's Rants said...

There is also the distinction between an actual accomplishment and a fulfillment of some preordained event. I happen to believe we are capable of such accomplishments of our own volition, instigated by our own volition. The wind plays its part ion our lives, but need not be the ultimate voice that dictates the course our lives take, in my opinion.

Adrian said...


I'm trying to look at how things are, now how I wish them to be, and I think that's also what motivated Steve's post. It sounds like you aren't interested in this and are deciding your beliefs based on what you perceive to be desirable. To that extent I think we're talking at cross purposes. I have a hard time relating to that since, in my experience, my wish for how the world should be is a poor guide to how the world actually is.

However, I would ask that you consider whether your decisions are really as free as you imagine. If I see a girl struggling to swim in a lake, I can either jump in to save it or keep walking and possibly let her die. Some people would let the child die. Maybe they're sociopaths, maybe they've learned that men are accused of pedophilia and they've learned to avoid embarrassing situations, maybe they're late for an interview and convince themselves the girl is okay. Other people might be so overcome with emotion that they immediately leap into the lake and swim to help her. Are they free to chose otherwise? When interviewed, people who do heroic things say they didn't have any choice and perhaps this is the literal truth.

As Sam Harris puts it, the illusion of free will is itself an illusion. We may be able to do what we want but we can't chose what to want. We know that some actions are consistent with our character, our upbringing, our past behaviour. All of these things (which are ultimately encoded as patterns in our brain) which entirely decide how we will decide, and it is this which we are not free to change.

Jenny said...

Another significant point in this whole free will vs. determinism debate (if that is indeed what it is, and I'm not entirely sure) is the role communication plays. A person can choose how to receive what another person says or does. I've been looking again at Marshall Rosenberg's teachings on nonviolent or compassionate communication. One of the principles is that we take responsibility for our feelings. He says we have four options for receiving negative messages: blaming ourselves (which can result in guilt, shame, and depression), blaming others (which can lead to anger), sensing our own feelings and needs (leading to being conscious of which need the current feeling derives from), or sensing others' feelings and needs (same thing, but directed toward other not self).

All of this seems to indicate a brain process that is initiated by a person's free will to try it out. Then again, maybe it is just another thing that was bound to happen, and people attempting to practice this way of responding are merely following a predetermined plan to do so.

Also, please allow me to say that I don't tend to put a lot of faith or trust in anything with an "ism" attached. Doesn't classifying something that way tend to institutionalize or put a box around it, isolate it from the possibility of new meanings being attached to it?

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny: Can a person really choose how to receive what another person says? Aren't there so many personality and contextual variables that ultimately force that "choice"?

RevRon's Rants said...

Adrian, so long as you insist upon dismissing a different perspective as being indicative of a lack of interest in "look [ing] at how things are, [as opposed to] now how I wish them to be," you are probably correct in stating that we are at cross purposes.

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve- What proof do you have that a choice - any choice - is forced?

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, so you're telling me that some things happen for NO reason? That is the logical end-point of asserting that nothing is forced--that at least some things "just happen." Then why don't cows ever fall from the sky instead of rain, and why doesn't my alarm clock sometimes ring at 4 p.m., even though I set it for 6:30 a.m.? Why don't you wake up in bed sometimes next to a woman named Jane, instead of Connie?

That would be a world where some things aren't forced.

Steve Salerno said...

And where a woman named Connie had "no choice" but to be very, very angry.

Kathryn Price said...

In The Tree John Fowler writes: "Ordinary experience, from waking second to second, is in fact highly synthetic (in the sense of combinative or constructive), and made of a complexity of strands, past memories and present perceptions, times and places, private and public history, hopelessly beyond science's powers to analyse." He's talking about experience, not choice, but it is in such syntheses of memories, perceptions and influences that we make choices. If our responses are going to be merely mechanical, there's no need to have the kind of brains that we have, which compare, contrast, imagine, remember, etc. Steve, in your reply to Christoph you said, "Everything happens because of something else," and you note that you leave out the millions of intersecting phenomena that helped shape this one event. You presume, I would guess, that these millions of intersections are mechanical in nature. The fact that one event precedes another doesn't prove a mechanical response. You're only citing a chronology. I would say that making a choice is a highly synthetic experience in the manner that Fowlers describes (combinative and constructive), not merely determined by a mechanical response that I had to make to the event which preceded it.

RevRon's Rants said...

Lots of reasons, Steve... including - and ultimately determined by - choices made by the individual. Gravity, as you point out in your example, is a fact. It is a physical law that, among other things, prevents the flying cows you describe. Yet it doesn't compel the suicidal individual to jump out of a window. Nor do the events in that person's life. Nor even the chemistry in his brain. All are contributory influences, but I think that it's a profound leap in logic to describe them as being capable of overpowering the human capacity to choose our actions.

You have children. Given the power and opportunity, would you have plotted every instance of their lives, even before they were born, or would you attempt to teach them, but allow them to make their own choices once they had matured? Would such rigid pre-planning allow them to grow and mature, or would it essentially be a cage of your design?

I think you know where I'm going with this, so I won't belabor the point. I'll just accept that we perceive existence in different ways. And who told you about Jane, anyway? :-)

RevRon's Rants said...

BTW - You haven't yet answered my request for actual proof that a choice is forced.

RevRon's Rants said...

Good points, Kathryn. IMO, the demand that everything is predetermined is based upon a confusion in the relationship between cause and effect, which is, ironically, the same false leap in logic most frequently put forth by the believers in woo. All we really have to go on is a given, observable event and other observable events, all of which may or may not be interrelated. In the absence of clearly demonstrable relationships between the events, we simply cannot state that a rigid cause/effect relationship exists with anything resembling logical certainty. We are left, for the time being, at least, with only our BELIEFS as to those relationships. And that is the point I've been trying repeatedly to make.

Jenny said...

Steve, you ask: "Can a person really choose how to receive what another person says? Aren't there so many personality and contextual variables that ultimately force that 'choice'?"

First, let me say this is very personal and yet universal, too. These questions affect all of us in ways that come right down to our individual lives and our specific roles in them. By the same token, the questions are so general they can almost seem dispassionate or even unimportant. What if I decided to just ignore them and assume the other people who come here and read SHAMblog could pick up the slack, speak their minds, say their piece, and it wouldn't make any difference whether "Jenny" answered the questions directed specifically at her or whether someone else answered them.

So what, someone might argue. "Steve" asked the questions, but they could just as well have been posed by someone else on some other blog. Right? Maybe. The point here is they weren't asked by someone else, and they were in fact directed specifically toward me; the questions actually had my name attached to them.

We've never met in person, Steve, but you do strike me as someone with whom I'd feel comfortable confiding personal or even "intimate" information. Let's try on this bit of confidential tidbit, for example:

Currently, I'm in the process of ditching what appeared to be a mid-life career change. I went back to school, got a second degree, then set out to become licensed by the state where we currently reside. There came a point, and I can't quite identify exactly when it happened but it definitely did happen, when I decided to stop pursuing the license. I made up my mind I'd be sending the state licensing people no more money and that I'd be reporting no more information to them. Why? Because it would be pointless; I'm not pursuing that career "path" anymore, so there is no need to pour any more money or time into it.

This was a very personal decision, right? It's also a universal thing that people sometimes do: abandon original plans. Did I know I'd be doing this when I forked over money for the temporary license? No. I fully intended to go through with it. At some point, however, I changed my mind.

Now, I have a question for you: What does this story have to do with free will? I would like to hear your thoughts about that, if you care to share them.

Oh, yes. I almost forgot. Short answer to your questions to me: yes to the first question, no to the second.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, I don't want to blow off the very compelling points you make in a brief reply, which is all I have time for at the moment. So consider this a placeholder till we talk again.

(Now, see: If my schedule didn't make the inflexible demands it makes, I'd be answering your excellent questions right now...) ;)

Rational Thinking said...

I see I completely forgot to post a comment on this post, which occurred to me at the time - said comment being that the opposite of free will is not determinism - it's coercion. That may, on the face of it, appear to be merely semantics - but I'm still thinking about it. I don't think this is an either/or scenario - it's more like a continuum.

Just lobbing that into the discussion :-)

Jenny said...

A placeholder sounds good, Steve! I like the topic and look forward to hearing more from you and your fan base. :)