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Why New Year Resolutionaries Should Believe In Free Will

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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New Year’s Day is approaching, a time when we—by which I mean I–brood over past failures and vow to improve ourselves: I will be less judgmental with my kids and more romantic with my girlfriend. I will stop binging on cookies and bad TV. (Why, oh why, do I keep watching Blacklist?) I will not assume that people who disagree with me are stupid or evil.

Every time you choose one path over another, you are exercising your free will. Humanity has more freedom of choice now--and hence more free will--than in any previous era.

At this time of year, I like to hearten my fellow Resolutionaries by defending the concept of free will, which has been attacked by various scientific pundits (who are just misguided, not stupid or evil). After all, how can you believe in resolutions unless you believe in free will? Below is an edited version of an essay that I originally wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

I never really thought about free will—or rather, I just took it for granted—until 1991, when I interviewed the late, great Francis Crick, who had switched from cracking the genetic code to solving the riddle of consciousness. With unnerving cheerfulness, Crick informed me that brain research is contradicting the notion of free will. Picking up a pen from his desk, he noted that even this simple act is underpinned and preceded by complex biochemical processes taking place below the level of consciousness.

“What you’re aware of is a decision, but you’re not aware of what makes you do the decision,” Crick said. “It seems free to you, but it’s the result of things you’re not aware of.” I frowned, and Crick chuckled at my distress.

Like many other free-will deniers, he cited experiments carried out in the 1980s by psychologist Benjamin Libet. Libet asked subjects to push a button at a moment of their choosing while noting the moment of the decision as displayed on a clock. An electroencephalograph monitoring the subjects’ brain waves revealed a spike of activity almost a second before the subjects decided to push the button. This and other findings show that our conscious decisions are literally afterthoughts, according to Crick.

EEG’s are a crude measure of neural activity, but neuroscientists led by Itzhak Fried recently replicated Libet’s results with electrodes implanted inside the brain. Fried’s group inserts electrodes into epileptics’ brains to pinpoint the epicenters of their seizures, which are then surgically removed. While gathering this clinical information, Fried’s team had patients perform the Libet clock experiment. The electrodes revealed a burst of activity in the supplementary motor area of patients’ brains—which supposedly underpins the decision to act—as much as one and a half seconds before the patients actually pressed the button.

“So it turns out that there are neurons in your brain that know you are about to make a movement the better part of a second before you know it yourself,” the cognitive scientists Daniela Schiller and David Carmel commented in Scientific American. “It might be tempting to conclude that free will is an illusion.”

I feel no such temptation. Libet’s clock experiment is a poor probe of free will, because the subject has made the decision in advance to push the button; he merely chooses when to push. I would be surprised if the EEG sensors or implanted electrodes did not find neural anticipation of that choice.

I’m more impressed by implant experiments that reveal how we fool ourselves into thinking we’re in control when we’re not. Scientists can make a patient’s arm shoot into the air, for example, by electrically stimulating a spot in the motor cortex. The patient often insists that she meant to lift her arm and even invents a reason why: She was waving to that handsome doctor! In his 2002 book The Illusion of Conscious Will, psychologist Daniel Wegner calls these delusional, after-the-fact explanations “confabulations.”

We all confabulate now and then. We passively do what we’re told to do—and believe what we’re told to believe—by parents, priests and political leaders, and we convince ourselves it’s our choice. We subvert our wills by deliberating insincerely, toward a foregone conclusion, and by failing to act upon our resolutions. Sometimes we act out of compulsion—out of fear or rage—without thinking through the consequences of our actions. But just because our wills are weak doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

My view of free will resembles that of the philosopher Daniel Dennett. Dennett is sometimes too clever for his own good. You feel like he’s trying to pull a fast one on you, as when he argues, in his 1991 book Consciousness Explained, that consciousness has been, well, explained, which I doubt even Dennett really believes.

But in his 2003 book Freedom Evolves, Dennett lays out a sensible, down-to-earth view of free will. He notes, first, that free will is “not what tradition declares it to be: a God-like power to exempt oneself from the causal fabric of the physical world.” Free will is simply our ability to perceive, mull over and act upon choices; in fact, choice, or even freedom, are reasonable synonyms for free will.

Dennett calls free will “an evolved creation of human activity and beliefs,” which humanity acquired recently as a consequence of language and culture. Free will is a variable rather than binary property, which can wax and wane in both individuals and societies; the more choices we can perceive and act upon, the more free will we have. Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an “objective phenomenon” and dependent on our belief in and perception of it, “like language, music, money and other products of society.”

We, in turn, are dependent on free will. The concept of free will underpins all our ethics and morality; it forces us to take responsibility for ourselves rather than consigning our fate to our genes or a divine plan. Choices, freely made, are what make life meaningful. Try telling prisoners in Guantanamo or Syrian civilians fleeing bombs and bullets that choices are illusory. “Let’s change places,” they might respond, “since you have nothing to lose.”

Freedom, Dennett asserts, can be “studied objectively from a no-nonsense, scientific point of view.” The nonprofit organization Freedom House does just that by charting the ebb and flow of freedom around the world. Freedom House defines a nation as “free” if it meets two criteria. First, it must “elect representatives who have a decisive impact on public policies and are accountable to the electorate.” Second, the nation must allow “freedoms of expression and belief, associational and organizational rights, rule of law, and personal autonomy without interference from the state.”

According to Freedom House’s 2013 annual report, 90 of the world’s 195 nations, representing 43 percent of the global population, are free; another 58 countries are “partly free.” People are “not free” in 47 countries, home to 34 percent of the global population.

Although freedom has declined lately in certain regions of the world and scarcely exists in others, humanity is freer in our era than in any previous one. Forty years ago, only 44 countries were free, and 69 were not free. And remember that just a century ago, women still could not vote in the U.S. and other leading “democracies”!

So there you have it. Not only does free will exist. We have more of it now than ever. If we keep believing in it and insisting on our right to it, maybe someday we’ll all be free, in our own imperfect, confabulating way.

Happy New Year!

Photo by Nicholas Mutton, courtesy Wikimedia Commons,

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science, 1996, re-published with new preface 2015; and The End of War, 2012, paperback published 2014. Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. jayjacobus 11:19 am 12/27/2013

    Some scientists are “too clever for (their) own good. You feel like (they are) trying to pull a fast one on you.”

    To them the topic of free will is part of an intellectual game where they know something that I don’t. Yet, I know they are cheating even though they refuse to admit their deceit.

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  2. 2. RSchmidt 11:20 am 12/27/2013

    Free will has been defined is non-caused behavior. If behavior has a cause it is obviously not free. The onus of proof is on those that assert that there is free will, and I know of no one that has done that. None of your examples of “freedom” establishes that we actually act freely. All you have shown is that in some cases, the causes of behavior are internal rather imposed or restricted by external agents. I agree that we need to act and hold others responsible for their behaviors as if we have free will, but a need for something does not make that something exist.

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  3. 3. K.Hill 11:23 am 12/27/2013

    Have to disagree with you on a few points John:

    Dismissing the Libet experiments by saying that subjects made a choice to press a button in general, and that is what the EEG is picking up–a “neural anticipation” as you put it–still acknowledges that there are neural precursors to behavior. Precursors that we neither decide to have, are aware of, or control. Where was the deliberate decision to press the button or not?

    I agree with you that we, as organisms, can in fact make choices and reflect on them, but I don’t think that truly describes free will as we experience it. It’s a redefinition of terms that you and Dennett seem to favor. Computers also make choices between options, yet no one would give them “free will.” The experience of free will is a personal, conscious feeling of deciding between options, not the objective result. That is to say, I’d imagine that most would describe it as the act of deciding, not the decision. And if it is the act, that act is determined by a slew of prior causes, none of which we chose.

    Lastly, the fact that the idea of free will underpins much of society says nothing of the idea’s validity.

    I guess I’m just one of those free will curmudgeons. Happy holidays John!

    Kyle Hill

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  4. 4. jayjacobus 11:38 am 12/27/2013

    Mind games can be used to undermine people’s belief in the validity of their own perceptions giving the gamer superiority over the common person and his “ignorant” perceptions.

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  5. 5. David Cummings 11:47 am 12/27/2013

    Excellent article, John, and thank you for the reference to Dennett’s ideas on the subject, which I plan to read more of.

    Please keep in mind, however, that when I say “excellent article” I’m not really choosing to say that, not freely choosing, because I have no free choice to do so, and no free will, as the many geniuses here in SA and elsewhere are always quick to point out.

    What I imagine to be my “choice” to “agree” with you is nothing other than a confabulation — like the subject raising her arm to wave at the handsome doctor, when in reality she’s raising her arm in response to a direct electric stimulus.

    I confabulate “reasons” to agree with you, when in reality those reasons are nothing at all and there are deeper causes to my agreement, causes that I’m not aware of, unlike all the people who have it right and completely and fully understand that there is no real free will.

    Boy, I really admire them. Because while I am mired in confabulations and confused by the illusion of supposed “free will”, they all understand completely that there is no free will.

    Their understanding, after all, is based on logic and careful thinking… or wait? How can that be? Aren’t they also confabulating and coming up for reasons after-the-fact, just like I am?

    How can anyone “logically refute” free will when logic itself is a serious of mental choices that must be freely made — or in what sense are they logical?

    So all the Free Will Deniers are just like me! They are also confabulating up a storm!

    Which puts us all, really, in the same can of worms, because just like worms, we’re not really thinking at all, are we? We’re just wriggling around in our own personal comfort zones, waving at the handsome (or pretty, whatever the case may be) ideas walking by thinking that our waving is of our own choice.

    Yes. Even the Free Will Deniers themselves are under the delusion of thinking they have logically arrived at their ideas.

    Silly worms.

    All of us.

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  6. 6. David Cummings 11:51 am 12/27/2013

    typo fixed:

    How can anyone “logically refute” free will when logic itself is a series of mental choices that must be freely made — or in what sense are they logical?

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  7. 7. David Cummings 11:54 am 12/27/2013


    “Mind games can be used to undermine people’s belief in the validity of their own perceptions giving the gamer superiority over the common person and his “ignorant” perceptions.”

    The need to be on a “higher level” than the “commoners” is one of the great founding needs of the intelligentsia in Western World.

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  8. 8. j.d.troughton 12:42 pm 12/27/2013

    I wonder if this (the title’s assertion) is true, if it’s why a New Year’s Status Quarian like myself is less inclined to see free will as significant.

    My problem isn’t so much “*Am I* choosing?” as “Am *I* choosing?” Questioning not the freeness of the will, but that it’s essence is me, and not a higher order process of which I am an expression (society, culture, etc.); as well, what “automated” parts of me (ex. many actions are much more second nature through the strength of their neural pathways; many values are completely unavailable for cultural taboo, etc.) should be called me?

    TL;DR: I think it’s an excuse not to look at bigger causal links in the world than our politics or patience can comprehend, so we blame a piston for the fact of combustion engine gunk build up, so to speak.

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  9. 9. Mr.Brewer 4:01 pm 12/27/2013

    I do like the idea of treating free will as non-categorical variable and using the number of available choices as its working definition. However, it seems to me that at the basic level this article simply invites to change how we define free will to solve related problems. It is a bit of cheating, isn’t it? We only know that things can happen either because they have cause (classical physics), or else they appear to be totally random (like in quantum physics). Both scenarios are deadly for an individual free will.

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  10. 10. Uncle.Al 7:24 pm 12/27/2013

    humanity is freer in our era than in any previous one.” Tell it to Muslim wedding parties, London drivers, anybody making a phone call or mailing a letter in the US. We lack rigorous characterization of the topology and function of cluelessness. Beria would weep tears of joy at the Transportation Safety Administration.

    Hey hey TSA,
    Whom did you warrantlessly search today?

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  11. 11. basudeba 7:32 pm 12/27/2013

    The brain knows that you are about to make a movement, but how “that decision” – to make a movement – is made? The necessity for such decision comes from the external arrangements that points to some deficiency and a “knowledge” about how to make up for such deficiency. That is the free will. The external factors only guide it, as without the “knowledge” for removal of the deficiency, we do not act. This knowledge can be explicit or implicit from past experience. The effect of free will, like the knowledge about it, is again determined according to laws of Nature. That is determinism. The degree of knowledge introduces the uncertainty.

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  12. 12. Arle1950 1:09 am 12/28/2013

    My last pay check was $9500 working 12 hours a week online. My sisters friend has been averaging 15k for months now and she works about 20 hours a week. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out. This is what I do,,,,,,,,,Rush64.COM

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  13. 13. RSchmidt 1:24 am 12/28/2013

    @David Cummings, I have to take exception with your use of the term, “Free Will Deniers”. To be a denier implies that there is an established theory that validates Free Will and the deniers simply deny the theory without offering any evidence to support their position. That is not the case. There is no established theory in support of free will. There may be a hypothesis but saying that the hypothesis hasn’t been “proven” is not denial, it is an observation. I don’t deny the existence of free will but I see no evidence in support of the hypothesis and some evidence to suggest it doesn’t exist. It certainly flies in the face of causality and a deterministic universe.

    What you seem to be doing is assuming that a lack of free will somehow removes the mental state from the causal factors of behavior. Your statements about logic are examples of that. You seem to imply that without free will logic doesn’t work because people have to make logical choices and choices imply free will. But clearly not all people make logical choices so that in itself is a choice, derived from education, values, and temperament as well as mental and physical state. All those factors cause people to make the decisions they do. If it were possible to make logical decisions without any context whatsoever then the world would be a very different place. The seven deadly sins wouldn’t be so deadly.

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  14. 14. jimmywat 2:25 am 12/28/2013

    First, whether there is free will or not, we have no choice but to live our lives “as if” we had free will. Moreover, punishments and rewards have been proven to affect behavior, to change “free will”.

    However, as none of us have “free will” to fly by flapping our arms and to quote Dr. Albert Ellis: “Humans are never really totally free. They have only a limited right to their own lives, their own liberty, and their own pursuit of happiness. They are restricted by their biological heredity, which sets distinct limits on them.
    Secondly, they almost always live in a social group and have to suffer some restrictions in order to get by in that group.
    Third, under any economic system they still have to eat [, drink, wear protective clothing, etc.]; and they must frequently surrender a considerable amount of their freedom in order to eat regularly.”

    Now, on the “quantum” side (metaphor: the hidden, virtually infinitesimal reality behind our world): Cause and effect are the basics of science, proven at every level except the quantum, and even there the alleged randomness integrates out to be effectively cause and effect. No scientist contends that physical objects’ interactions are random or free will. The chemicals that formed life were thrown together not by random forces or free will, but cause and effect. The simple creatures that they formed did not have free will or randomness. The non-human creatures did not have “free will”. Our bodies were not formed by “free will”. Our super intelligence, compared with the rest of the animal world, was not created by “free will” or randomness. Our brains are a biochemical container in which chemicals and electrical impulses interact in a predictable, non-random way with a cause and effect universe. It is logically inescapable to conclude that those reactions are anything but cause and effect. Therefore the “decisions” are not in reality “free will”, but pre-determined by physics, no matter how it “feels”.

    I repeat, however, that we cannot live our lives on this knowledge, that in our lives determinism is merely a useless scientific fact. We have no choice but to live our lives as if we had free will.

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  15. 15. jimmywat 3:32 am 12/28/2013

    Two additional items. First, the threat of extreme punishment does not work – e.g., the death penalty. Skinner proved that it is the schedule of reinforcement or punishment that determines if the behavior is changed. Therefore, the death penalty and most criminal punishments are worthless while traffic citations are fairly effective. The most effective behaviorist interventions are every time. The most efficient behaviorist interventions are less than that, depending on what behavior is trying to be changed.

    Second, your thinking is a behavioristic force since it results in both pain and pleasure, reinforcement and punishment. We can offset punishments by feeling pleasure in doing the act that is punished or pleasure in just resisting the punishment. Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy and its offspring, CBT, NLP, et. al., have been proven to change behavior by changing emotions by changing your thinking about what happens.

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  16. 16. Quentin 5:11 am 12/28/2013

    Ho-hum, freewill? Professor Richard Dawkins, the distinguished modern atheist, certainly believes in freewill.

    In his ‘God Delusion’, for example, he exhorts us to agree with his disapproval of the Israelites slaughtering the locals hip and thigh in incidents such as the fall of Jericho. He asks how we can avoid sharing his condemnation if we condemn Nazi behavior to the Jews.

    To do this he must assume, first, that good and bad behavior is essentially objective and, second, that we are ultimately free either to approve or to tolerate moral behavior.

    Thus he necessarily accepts that human beings have the characteristic of rising above the constraints of cause and effect, and that a purely material explanation of the Universe is not consistent with the evidence.

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  17. 17. gfaruq 6:08 am 12/28/2013

    Imbibed too much of that Christmas spirit, eh John?

    The free will in human is a clever invention and propaganda of the believers in an omniscient deity to make only the human be responsible for any bad deeds. The deity supposedly can then say “I know nothing!” like in Sgt. Shultz in Hogan’s Heroes. How convenient!

    There is also this faulty reasoning that discarding free will would make people less responsible. Far from it, the mechanism that “determines” which path to choose, consciously or not, is the individual’s own brain, located in his own body and therefore fully responsible for the choice. Rewarding or punishing the individual for the choice may be quite reasonable even though there is no free will.

    Any person of science stating there is some non-causal thing happening in our brain is taking a leap of faith. That’s not science. He or she should take a job at Fox News as their science pundit. They’ll lap it up.

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  18. 18. RSchmidt 12:19 pm 12/28/2013

    @Quentin, clearly you do not understand the complexities of the issues, which is no surprise. In regards to free will, the conclusions I have seen from the scientific community is that while free will may not exist, you must proceed as though it does. If you convince people that they are not responsible for their actions, they will act irresponsibly. If you convince people they have free will they will make decisions as though they have control over their emotional and mental states. That is the key.

    Secondly, good and bad behavior does not have to be objective for society to have a position on it. Good and bad exist at many levels but as a society it is a type of convention we use to guide behavior. What Dawkins is saying is that we find a certain behavior abhorrent when done by Nazis but think of it as destiny when done by ancient Israelites. We can find similar hypocrisy today in the two terms; freedom fighter and terrorist. We also see it in the justification of american foreign policy while condemning similar policies from foreign governments.

    Your conclusion is nothing more than a straw man fallacy with the sole purpose of advancing your own irrational ideology. It is because humans are a product of their genes, development and experiences that we must assure that people are provided the intellectual tools to guide their behavior in a constructive manner. Religion is antithetical to that goal as it turns people into mindless drones that can be manipulated into any sort of action regardless of social conventions and morals.

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  19. 19. citicrab 12:53 pm 12/28/2013

    RSchmidt: how does religion per se that proclaims F.W. as a god-given faculty turn people into mindless drones?
    On the other hand, without it, all those complexities do not negate the fact that morals and ethics become purely instrumental, a matter of convention. There is a difference between saying “Do not kill – life is sacred”, and “Do not kill. People do not want to be killed, it’s their biology. If you do, they will retaliate, and the social order will suffer. Etc.”

    Gfaruq: very true, just don’t let him mention, as a Fox News science pundit, things like “harm from immunizations” and GMO’s, or the Gasland “science” – lest he be laughed out of the studio.

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  20. 20. Deegeejay333 2:53 pm 12/28/2013

    Are we pretending here that there as been no scientific studies on strong emergence? Free will is inevitable due to built in infinite regress in all complex systems.

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  21. 21. gesimsek 5:16 pm 12/28/2013

    if freedom is a matter of chemical reactions, what is the formula? is it acceptable to explain freedom by reductionist scientivism as we haven’t even an explanation of what life is.

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  22. 22. KBCash 8:22 pm 12/28/2013

    Hmm. So it’s not my fault, a complex series of chemical reactions causes me to slap stupid people in the face.

    Sorry, the judge didn’t buy it…

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  23. 23. RSchmidt 8:40 pm 12/28/2013

    @citicrab, religion demands absolute subservience. It rejects evidence based reasoning in favor of blind faith. It demands followers act on every one of god’s whims regardless of how ridiculous or heinous. No one is permitted to think for themselves. What should we expect from a religion in which god punishes all living things because humanity ate from the tree of knowledge? Regardless of whether or not their is free will religion demands that you act as though you have none.

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  24. 24. hatemnajdi 4:23 am 12/29/2013

    ‘Try telling .. Syrian civilians fleeing bombs and bullets that choices are illusory’.
    Isn’t bomb fleeing an act of reflex that is independent of any form of will? If that is a free will, than there must be people who don’t flee bombs (excluding fighters of course)? Obviously, the example is not appropriate here.

    When a sperm meets and egg, does the sperm, the egg, both or “something else” make a decision to form an embryo and bring “some creature” to life? Is death a free will decision? Aren’t coming to life and death parts of life itself and both must obey laws of free will?
    If coming into life, or leaving it by death, is not your decision, how could other events of life be a result of free will?
    I am not an opponent of the idea of free will, but I am just confused.

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  25. 25. Quentin 5:23 am 12/29/2013

    @citicrab. “religion demands absolute subservience”. That is strange — it missed me by altogether.

    I am a cradle Catholic, and I received ten years of education from the Jesuits. I have been continually taught that the absolute foundation of my moral choice is my own conscience. Conscience here does not mean ‘inclination’, it means that I must do my best to think through the moral issues which I face and act on my own sincere decision. I am sure that I make mistakes from time to time, and I know that I do not invariably follow the guidance of my own conscience. But that is not the fault of my religion it is the fault of my own weakness.

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  26. 26. RSchmidt 9:01 am 12/29/2013

    @Quentin, isn’t that convenient? You are part of god’s divine creation but when you make a mistake it is entirely your fault. The concept of free will is a kluge made up by religious leaders to explain away why beings made in god’s image so often act ungodly.

    How is my statement strange when you go on to state exactly what your religion expects of you?

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  27. 27. jayjacobus 11:23 am 12/29/2013

    R. Schmidt

    No, free will is quale the way that color is a quale.

    The person who says that he hears sound does not mean that he neuro-machanically reacts to sound. He means that he consciously experiences sound.

    In a similar way when he says he has free will, he consciously experiences choice.

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  28. 28. jayjacobus 11:25 am 12/29/2013

    You can say that you don’t experience choice but you don’t know what I experience.

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  29. 29. Quentin 5:05 am 12/30/2013

    @Rschmidt. I like your argument that, since I agree with my Church’s principle that I should take ultimate responsibility for my moral decisions, I am demonstrating my subservience. Very ingenious – in a kind of Alice in Wonderland way.

    Clearly I should not have suggested that I was in some way responsible for my own misdeeds. I should have remembered that you have excluded the concept of responsibility from your ‘determined’ world. It does however make any discussion of morals rather pointless.

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  30. 30. basudeba 7:46 pm 12/30/2013

    @Rschmidt. Sir, Religion is a way of life ordained by some gifted one’s. It follows natural principles, but they are not natural laws. You are free to accept it or reject it. Thus, telling that religion demands absolute subservience may not be correct.

    It is true that “You are part of god’s divine creation but when you make a mistake it is entirely your fault”. This is because whatever is universal is God’s divine creation like the different circulatory systems – be they the galaxies or the human body. There is nothing right or wrong. It follows an evolutionary law of its own. The problem of right or wrong or fault comes when we do something unique that is not harmonious with the natural principles. Creation creates with complementary redistribution or rearrangement. If we break this law, the result will disturb the balance and lead to unnatural consequences. We must take responsibility for that, because interconnectedness and interdependence are natural laws. We have no right to adversely affect someone without facing the consequences. Why blame God for it?


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  31. 31. entsoltech 9:22 pm 12/30/2013

    Mr. Horgan:

    You should actually read critically Libet’s description of his experiment itself, if you haven’t done so already. For, in it, you will find the problem with his experiment. There may be issues with methodology. There is only an assumption that the part of brain that registers the neural activity is the activity of ‘choice’. And I can find many problems on that count.

    However, the fundamental problem with Libet is in his philosophical definition of what a willed choice is, which is indicated in his methodology. Essentially, he asks the subjects to push the button whenever they detect a thought or urge to make such a push. That thought or urge is an [internal] input, not the actual act of choice. This might be better understood if a person screamed into your ear to push the button. Just because you register the command in your senses and it is made intelligible in your consciousness, the command itself is not the act of will.

    Libet confirms this understanding (and I believe that Libet was being on the level) because he states that a person can still make a “I won’t” response to these thoughts/urges. If those thoughts/urges were actual acts of will, there wouldn’t be any possibility of a “I won’t”.

    Therefore, the Libet experiment doesn’t actually test the will. The problem is one of philosophical definitions.

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  32. 32. Quentin 5:49 am 12/31/2013

    There is another element here which we may not always consider. Here is an example:

    Suppose that I am given to making sarcastic remarks to my wife whenever I am displeased. But I come to realise that this is an unloving and hurtful thing to do. So I take pains to lose that habit and to become more constructive. It may take me many weeks to change but eventually I succeed. I have in fact improved myself as a person. (And we would suppose that that change could at least theoretically be detected in the firing patterns of my neurons.)

    So we might argue that, where the decision at any one moment is in fact a determined reaction, we do have the freedom in the longer term, to modify how we react.

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  33. 33. jayjacobus 10:00 am 12/31/2013

    I am consciously aware of making choices. I am more than an observer of action. I am a participant in life.

    Some philosophers and some scientists speculate that participation in life is an illusion. But then what is the evolutionary benefit of being consciously aware?

    And why do these people engage in philosophical discussions as if philosophical discussions have a neurological value?

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  34. 34. rshoff2 1:04 pm 12/31/2013

    I look at ‘will’ like a freeway. We are ‘free’ in which lane we choose drive, we are free to speed or go slow, we are free to drive well or poorly, however, the path of the freeway is outside of our influence once it is built.

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  35. 35. rshoff2 1:31 pm 12/31/2013

    It’s an extreme lack of common sense to believe we have true free will. At the very least, we have Jungian style limitations of shared environment and experience. Up is up and down is down for each and everyone of us. One mere commonality dictates many things throughout our lives. Multiply that and it creates a reality where we are all running around doing basically the same thing, yet perceiving ourselves as ‘unique’.

    Furthermore, the very brain function introduces limitation. Our brains (each relatively around the same size and structured similarly) are a bunch of cells linked in signaling. And those signals are very rudimentary.

    So how on god’s green earth can that lead to free will? Simply put, it can’t. Not much science needed there. Use your head, instead.

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  36. 36. jayjacobus 3:02 pm 12/31/2013

    “Use your head” sounds like free will. “Ignore your choices” might be a determinant’s suggestion although ignoring would still be a conscious choice.

    It is actually hard to imagine what thoughts would be appropriate for a deterministic mind.

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  37. 37. rshoff2 5:08 pm 12/31/2013

    Use your head… to observe reality around you and how it envelopes and molds you, but never did I imply that you can actually change what the organism called ‘you’ is compelled to do. As I mentioned, we can drive on the freeway, with limited freewill, be we cannot change the path of the roadway. I’m not deterministic, not at all. But the reality of how things work in the physical world leads to predictability. A rock falls! Is it deterministic? No! It’s simply a fact that gravity works that way.

    In other words, those that believe in freewill need to look upstream to the factors that lead up to the moment. Those factors determine what happens next. Does the future exist? Probably not, but the building blocks of the past will determine the future each step of the way.

    Perhaps I could be a physicist today. Not due to education or study, but simply because I ‘choose’ to. That’s the farce of freewill.

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  38. 38. Quentin 6:34 pm 12/31/2013

    I don’t think anyone would want to deny that there are limitations on the exercise of free will. But any act of choice, however small, poses the same problem because, by definition,it is not determined by cause. It is up to those who believe that everything which exists is material to show how this can be.

    Now if we were discussing legal culpability, and not philosophy, we would all agree that the culpability of a law breaker can be mitigated or indeed dismissed through various circumstances – internal or external. But we would still accept the possibility of culpability.

    I am often bemused by those who attack religious faith on the grounds of lack of evidence, while cheerfully disregarding the evidence which continually stares them in the face. Such people are as fundamentalist as the barmiest of religious believers.

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  39. 39. rshoff2 7:41 pm 12/31/2013

    Being a physicalist (my word, don’t take it literally from the dictionary or take it to mean I belong to a philosophical group), I think it’s up to those that want to advance any philosophy or religion beyond our physical realm to accept the burden of proof.

    Our physical bodies (including our minds) are adapted and grounded to the physical realm. Any ideas beyond that are extrapolations derived from within our minds. And as such, are also rooted in the physical realm. That grounding in the physical realm is what drives predictability. Predictability can easily be mistaken for determinism. But they are not the same thing.

    I don’t think our future is determined, however, I think our physical existence does dictate what happens next. The nuances people refer to are so subtle, only a human being would be able to discern the difference.

    To an alien, any two humans on this earth would look and behave exactly the same. Don’t ask me how I know, it’s just obvious to me.

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  40. 40. rshoff2 7:49 pm 12/31/2013

    The limitations of our physical nature in a physical world are the tenant of all religions and philosophies. Therefore, it can’t be argued that I must prove our physical nature and our existence in a physical world. We all agree already on that. If anyone wants to demonstrate that there is ‘more’, then go for it. The burden of proof is on them.

    Tick-toc. Where the second has was last dictates where it will be next. Even before it arrives.

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  41. 41. rshoff2 7:53 pm 12/31/2013

    …the second hand was….

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  42. 42. rshoff2 8:12 pm 12/31/2013

    Through the comments I see a lot of references that carve reward and punishment out of the ‘free will’ argument. Reward and punishment are part of the physical reality (pleasure and pain) that influences the current state which then dictates the next. I think the referenced reward/punishment research supports the notion that we do not have free will. We don’t even have ‘to live as though we do’. We simply have to live. As far as BF Skinner, his problem inherently is that his formulas were incomplete.

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  43. 43. jayjacobus 11:18 pm 12/31/2013


    If I don’t respond, you won’t write again. But since I am responding, you will write again to prove your point. Nevertheless, whatever you do, will actually prove my point.

    Your actions are obvious proof of your free will.

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  44. 44. rshoff2 4:04 am 01/1/2014

    lol, I’m doing what I’m programmed to do. Reply out of compulsiveness even though I would prefer not to! Happy New Year!

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  45. 45. Quentin 6:42 am 01/1/2014

    “I don’t think our future is determined, however, I think our physical existence does dictate what happens next.” I wonder if you could recast this sentence; I am sure you do not intend a contradiction in terms.

    I take it that we are all agreed that we need to start with the evidence – which we must approach with an open mind. It follows from this that we cannot start by arbitrarily restricting evidence to the physical. (If we do that, we have started with our conclusion. That would be the same as claiming that, since a violin sonata is the outcome of the violin, the violinist is an unnecessary hypothesis.)

    Our evidence must take into account our consciousness that we can make at least some free decisions. And that our recognition of free will is shown by the way that we approve or disapprove the moral decisions of others, and may indeed similarly judge our own actions. Since we are aware of such phenomena, it is up to the ‘physicalist’ to show that our perceptions are illusory.

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  46. 46. rshoff2 1:12 pm 01/1/2014

    @quenttin, I appreciate you pulling out that sentence. It is not a condradiction in terms. There is a subtle difference between predictability and determination. The second hand doesn’t have to click to the next spot. What if it breaks? We may have overlooked factors that were leading to it’s malfunction. Therein lies the difference between determination and predictability. Subtle, but powerful difference in explaining how we don’t have free will, but the future doesn’t yet exist.

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  47. 47. jayjacobus 5:05 pm 01/1/2014

    I like lemon. He likes lime. I like green. He likes yellow.

    When preferences involve many people and many choices, the results are neither predictable nor deterministic.

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  48. 48. Quentin 6:10 pm 01/1/2014

    I appreciate your subtle distinction but I don’t see how it helps. Suppose that you are serving against me at tennis. Watching you very carefully I can judge the speed of your service, its angle, its spin. And so I position myself according to my prediction and whack it back. But I miss in fact because there are too many variables (wind speed for instance). However I know that if I could really measure the effects of all the variables, my prediction would be spot on – because the flight of the ball is determined by the causality of the combined variables. Since we are hypothesing that this is a purely physical phenomenon, the distinction between predictability and determination is irrelevant.

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  49. 49. Quentin 6:26 pm 01/1/2014

    Now let’s look at this in another context. Let’s say that I am in a position to pinch your wallet. There are a myriad different variables which may influence my decision. It is certainly possible that the set of variables might be such that I do not in practice have any freedom. (I might for example be a kleptomaniac) But I am confident that in many circumstances I would have a free choice to pinch your wallet, or to refrain from pinching it. My motive for not doing so would be my recognition it would be contrary to the justice which I owe you as another human being, and thus wrong.

    I also strongly expect that you would make the same decision, and for the same reason.

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  50. 50. rshoff2 8:50 pm 01/1/2014

    @haycubus, yes they are predictable. You’d have to ask ‘why’. Why does he like lemon? Why do I like lime?

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  51. 51. rshoff2 8:51 pm 01/1/2014

    @ jayjacubus above, that is….

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  52. 52. rshoff2 9:00 pm 01/1/2014

    @Quentin – The predictability is not irrelevant. Take milestone along the freeway for example. Say your car is halfway between two milestones. One milestone is half a mile ahead, the other a half of a mile behind. Sounds the same right? You could say you are a half mile from either. For all practical purposes, it is the same.

    Now draw a circle around each of the two milestone with a one mile diameter and one milestone in the center of each. You will see that the two circles connect at location of the car. But the rest of each circle is independent of the other circle.

    Therefore, prediction is one circle while determination is the other. We see in our daily lives where circles connect, but that point does not define the full circumference of either circle.

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  53. 53. rshoff2 9:04 pm 01/1/2014

    @Quentin, whatever drives your motivation to pinch, or not pinch, my wallet is what makes your final decision predictable. So if you figure out what your motivations are, and the consequences you perceive, you will be able to predict the outcome.

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  54. 54. jayjacobus 10:50 pm 01/1/2014


    Preference adds a wrinkle. And preference does not exist in physics. You can predict what I will do if you know my preferences, but economics (for one element) may prove you wrong.

    After I act you can explain my actions in terms of determinants, but no matter how vehemently you insist you are right, you are just a historian, not a forecaster.

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  55. 55. jayjacobus 11:03 pm 01/1/2014

    So, the Earth exists is not a great discovery. That the Earth had to exist based on determinants is not necessarily true. The actual existence of the Earth precludes any other conclusion. So, the clever person who says that the Earth was inevitable is explaining nothing.

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  56. 56. rshoff2 1:56 am 01/2/2014

    @jay, preference isn’t a wrinkle, it also has a cause. you would need to go upstream to identify causes of all variables, including a preference for lemon or lime.

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  57. 57. Quentin 4:58 am 01/2/2014

    You can put it down to my stupidity, but I cannot follow the relevance of your geometrical example. But perhaps a little linguistic analysis will help us.

    Predictability tells us from its etymology that we can say (or know) the outcome of causes in advance. Theoretically, if we know all the causes, and how they interact, we can predict the outcome with certainty. But that contains an assumption that the outcome is wholly dependent on its causes. We could correctly re-phrase that by saying that the causes determine the outcome. Since both predictability and determination require this same assumption, the ‘subtle difference’ to which you refer above is not relevant to the point at issue.

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  58. 58. jayjacobus 11:39 am 01/2/2014

    A tire which is flat has a cause. A tire which is not flat has many future possibilities.

    The past has determinants. The future has potentials.

    Before the first tire went flat, its potentials were not known yet.

    Potentials don’t become determined until they are no longer potentials.

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  59. 59. rshoff2 12:57 pm 01/2/2014

    Quentin, thanks for trying to follow my explanation. I was hoping it would make sense. It’s how I see the world around me and has no bering on intelligence of yours or mine. You are far from stupid. As for your explanation, it does clarify your perspectve for me and I truly cannot explain why we come to different conclusions. To me, both of our perspectves make sense. I’m stumped by that. Perhaps it’s because you are using words as a tool of thought and I’m using symbolism of the phisical world. I don’t mind if I’m wrong.

    Can I ask you to relook at my example and consider the circumference of each circle as the other probabilities. My point being, we only experience the point where predictability and determination meet. Predictability and determination are otherwise unleashed from each other. That’s why I believe we can absolutely predict an otherwise nonexistent future.

    Thanks for spending time to explain your perspectve and reading mine.

    In any case, I don’t mind if you decide I’m wrong as long as I’m not misunderstood. Being correct presents a burden of it’s own anyway.

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  60. 60. rshoff2 1:00 pm 01/2/2014

    jay, a tire that is not flat also has causes. It didn’t pop into existence.

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  61. 61. berserkerscientist 3:37 pm 01/2/2014

    Free will and determinism can be contrasted like this: if we rewind time and replay an event, determinists believe they couldn’t have made another choice, and free willers believe they could have. This is far thinner a difference than most free willers would have you believe. Not to mention, they are functionally identical.

    Free will is the hypothesis that needs proof. Free will posits the existence of a substance that can influence the world, but itself is not influenced. The religious would call it a soul, and it is a requirement for judgement, but not justice.

    For some strange reason, but best argument against determinism is that it would lead to no justice. This is false. Justice can be use for prevention, deterrence, and retribution. Only retribution requires free will. We kill bears that kill humans, right? Bears have no free will, so why punish them? Prevention. Same for humans. I find it strange this spurious argument does not die.

    One reason we feel like determinism isn’t true is because the future is unpredictable. If we ignore quantum mechanics, then the future _is_ predictable, but the calculations are intractable (due to chaos, e.g., the weather). But quantum mechanics likely includes a hard-wired randomness that even God can’t see past. So both ways make it effectively unpredictable.

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  62. 62. Quentin 6:24 pm 01/2/2014

    “whatever drives your motivation to pinch, or not pinch…”.

    You are right to hold that I act on motivation. In fact two motivations are involved: one is a selfish motivation, the other is an unselfish motivation. Since these are directly opposed I have to choose one or the other.

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  63. 63. rshoff2 6:48 pm 01/2/2014

    Quentin, but I don’t believe you are doing the choosing…. You only think that you are making the choice. We can go in circles on that topic! Chicken or the egg.

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  64. 64. jayjacobus 9:23 pm 01/2/2014

    I have potential. My potential is realized by my constructive actions or my potential is not realized. My constructive actions are not set by the past but emerge as a result of will.

    The future is not set but comes from past conditions, choices and probabilities. The present is active, the past is set and the future is potential (but not fixed).

    It is possible I will someday agree with you but, if I do, I will have proved you wrong. In other words my mind is not entirely determined by the past.

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  65. 65. rshoff2 11:14 am 01/3/2014

    Jayjacobus – I’ll have to say that I don’t come to the same conclusion. It’s kind of the chicken and the egg all over again. But I get where you’re coming from. Thanks for explaining it. Who knows what eventually will be found to be correct.

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  66. 66. rshoff2 11:27 am 01/3/2014

    Berserkerscientist – Thanks for introducing a good explanation of the distinction between Free Will and Determinism. Sure helped me get out of that spiral!

    I do agree with you that the future is effectively unpredictable. However, technically speaking, it could be (although we would never achieve it).

    But, if we had to somehow use this concept in evaluation of other concepts, I would have to say the future is absolutely predictable.

    omg, it’s spinning again! ; )

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  67. 67. jayjacobus 3:30 pm 01/3/2014


    As someone who has free will I am master of my own destiny. It is all up to me.

    If I identify the best opportunities, work hard and make myself valuable to other people, then I will succeed.

    If I don’t make an effort, keep to myself and only please myself I will fail.

    Justice, predictability and influence may be rationale that determinists choose for my arguments, but those arguments are someone else’s will.

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  68. 68. Quentin 5:44 pm 01/3/2014

    Chicken and egg, eh? If we both accept that, we might be prepared to accept that there is no copper-bottomed truth either way. That at least would prevent us from fundamentalist certainties.

    Bur since the positions are mutually exclusive it might be good to see what follows:

    You physicalist position tells us that existence is simply a matter of chance – consequently there is no meaning to be sought in it.
    There is no such thing as human rights because a physical object can have no rights.
    There is no such thing as moral responsibility since we cannot be required to answer for choices over which we have no control.
    The conclusions of human reasoning have no validity because they are an outcome of an irrational sequence of chance.

    Of course I could go on – and the net result would always be sterility, sterility and more sterility.

    My vision of a world, which contains an integration of the physical and the spiritual, invites us to the opposite of yours. Here we do have a sense of meaning for which we search. We accept that we do have a mission which is to be the best and most loving things we can be. Human beings with their capacity to reach out towards the truth are unique, marvelous and valuable. And the world, as seen through science, is a matter of awed wonder (and evolution not the least of its wonders).

    Can you guess which I prefer?

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  69. 69. rshoff2 10:42 am 01/6/2014

    Your vision of the world is not opposite of mine. You simply arrived to from a different direction. You say ‘you physicalists’ as though I’m part of a crowd. I speak to no one about these things and there is no membership club. Any ideas I share in common with others is derived by our physical form and shared environment.

    There are many things we haven’t discussed. Many layers to humanity, morality, society, and civilization.

    Just because our existence is that of physical nature, does not mean that we cannot agree to work together to create a kind and beautiful world full of love and acceptance. In fact, I believe, the best way to do that is to accept who we are, face reality, and work together. Just because we are cogs on a wheel doesn’t mean we have to live life without enjoying and appreciating the benefits and helping other people enjoy and appreciate the benefits.

    But to think we have free will, naw. It ain’t so.

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  70. 70. rshoff2 10:45 am 01/6/2014

    And it’s not my ‘free will’ saying that! There is no other position I could hold at this moment in time based on my physical nature and the physical environment around me today, and the physical environment and the humans interacting with it since the dawn of time. Everything leads up to this moment, and what happens next is determined by what happened last. Period.

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  71. 71. rshoff2 11:49 am 01/6/2014

    And to get any further in this discussion, we would first have to come to agreement on definitions of words. For example, Environment, Physical, Life, Past, Future, Free-will, You, Me, Humanity, etc, etc, etc.

    For words eventually fail us. Math is another and more efficient language, but one in which most of us are not fluent to the necessary extent.

    So, here we are, stuck in our physical selves, in a physical world, barely able to communicate with other physical beings. Most of whom attribute that deficit to a greater meaning or a higher power. We are simply lumps of clay that know we are clay, but can do nothing about it. We are molded of course, but is is out of our influence as to how or when that occurs. Are you even sure that you are not the only being in existence and the rest of this is conjecture?

    I’m not trying to persuade anyone, but I’m looking for evidence to integrate into my perspective. Yet, like religion, I find evidence of free will severely lacking.

    Again, I don’t need to prove the physical realm. Does anyone disagree with it’s existence? But the ethereal realm, now that needs some evidence because many of us do not agree.

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  72. 72. jayjacobus 1:40 pm 01/6/2014

    You start with a premise and then restate the premise in different forms.

    For example, you don’t prove that I am not master of my own destiny. Instead you say that my destiny is tied to the past.

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  73. 73. rshoff2 2:38 pm 01/6/2014

    Jay, I don’t have to prove that I am not the master of my own destiny. You have to prove that I am!

    We agree that we are physical beings that live in a physical world, in a physical universe. That is where I am at. I accept that knowledge. I know of no one that has postulated or theorized that we are not physical beings.

    For those what want to demonstrate that there is anything more than the physical aspect of our existence, please go ahead. But the burden is on you to prove there is more. I do not need to prove what we already know: we are physical. I am not arguing that we are less than what you believe, I am simply saying that we only know that we are physical. As such, it is unavoidable to conclude that the physical state of the present and future is the result of the physical state of the past. The only way to draw other conclusions is to prove that there is more to the universe than physics. So, feel free to prove it if you can. But don’t ask me to prove what we already know. We are physical and so is the world around us.

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  74. 74. rshoff2 2:45 pm 01/6/2014

    Let me say it another way. The physical present does affect the future. If I drop a heavy stone on my foot at this moment, the future is predictable and unavoidable. A sore foot.

    A leads to B

    If you want to believe that there is some other factor involved in the future, then you need to prove it. Until then, it’s a big question mark.

    ? leads to B

    Fill in that question mark please!

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  75. 75. jayjacobus 5:12 pm 01/6/2014

    The present(B)is a active. The past(C) is fixed. The future(A) leads to the present. This is true because the arrow of time points in one direction.

    Not only does the future lead to the present but the past no longer exists. What exists are memories. Memories exist in the present.

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  76. 76. rshoff2 8:14 pm 01/6/2014

    Okay, Jayjacobus, I agree that the present is active and the past is fixed, but the future does not lead to the present. The present is the present. The future will result in future presents, and this present will recede into the past, but this present will always be this present. The future has no impact on the present whereas the past does have an impact on the future. Regarding free will, the argument is ‘how much’ impact does the past (and present) have on the future.

    The past exists. Whether we remember our past *presents* or not is unimportant to their existence.

    It’s like a masonry wall. You start building it at the foundation, by the time you get to the roof line, the foundation still exists! It doesn’t cease to exist.

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  77. 77. Quentin 8:53 am 01/7/2014

    “Just because our existence is that of physical nature, does not mean that we cannot agree to work together to create a kind and beautiful world full of love and acceptance.”

    Were we of just a physical nature we couldn’t do any of these things. Neither love nor acceptance can be properties of physical objects as such. But because we are both physical and spiritual (I do not necessarily mean in a religious sense) we can. And I am truly glad that you can recognise this.

    The problem is an old one. In the 18th century, philosophers like Hume found that they could not demonstrate that sense impressions corresponded to an external reality. They still can’t. If anyone took this seriously it would be unfortunate for science since it would mean that we can have no certainty about even the existence of material objects. Luckily they concluded that they would just have to settle for common sense.

    Free will presents a similar dilemma; it is always possible to argue an alternative, deterministic explanation. Luckily, again, we have to use common sense. We do all act on the assumption that we are (at least to a relevant extent) responsible for our actions. We do believe in right and wrong. We do admire the selflessness which love requires.

    Just as Hume did not allow his belief that causality was an illusion to interfere with his response to causality in real life, nor should we.

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  78. 78. rshoff2 12:38 pm 01/7/2014

    Quentin – “Were we of just a physical nature we couldn’t do any of these things. Neither love nor acceptance can be properties of physical objects as such. ”

    Physical beings are made up of components we consider to be alive. Those components include things like organ systems, cells, and other molecular components including neurotransmitters. However, those very components are comprised of smaller building blocks that we would not consider to be ‘alive’. E.g. electrons, protons, and neutrons, the same stuff that makes up objects like rocks.

    So back to the neurotransmitters. The cells in our brain and muscles (and many others) can communicate (another word for cascading events) making it appear that we are the masters of our lives, but in fact, our lives are simply the observation of that very physical interplay between these physical components within our bodies and how they interact with the very physical components outside of our body. At any given moment the action occurs from a physical state that has been put into position by the previous physical state. A ‘choice’, as you call it, is simply a cascading of electrochemical processes happening within and between certain cells of the body. To carry out that ‘choice’ is simply the same electrochemical process invoking additional systems (muscle for one) in that process. However, everything about that process is physical in nature.

    Can you describe what parts of the world or process are not based in the physical world? Can you identify anything that is not resultant of a physical phenomenon be it an object as big as a mountain or as small as an atom? Are the bits and pieces of atoms not physical?

    We are getting closer with the Higgs field theories, but really, what else is there that you can demonstrate that is not physical? Even our thoughts and deeds are the result of a physical process. They are illusions to us.

    Anything based in the physical world must be affected by the physical world. At the very least anything based in the physical world must observe its limitations.

    As far as the concept of working together. It depends upon which layer or tier of the phenomena of humanity that we observe. From your perspective, you believe that we can control and direct. From my perspective we can observe the events as they role forward and enjoy the illusion that we are in the drivers seat. Who knows what’s in store for us. It might play out to Utopia, or may lead to Hell. But you think we can navigate, I say “we” are along for the ride.

    Our role in events is very limited to our own ability that has been granted or not by our physical nature. Philosophically, I would say that we are in the midst -or part- of an explosion which has been barreling forward, unfolding as explosions do, since the inception of the Universe at the Big Bang.

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  79. 79. rshoff2 12:57 pm 01/7/2014

    Quentin – “We do all act on the assumption that we are (at least to a relevant extent) responsible for our actions. We do believe in right and wrong. We do admire the selflessness which love requires.”

    I don’t know that everyone believes that we are responsible for our actions. I do think everyone believes that we must suffer the consequences of our actions. As for right and wrong. What is right and wrong. Right for who or what? Is it really wrong to kill? How about Algae? A fern? A tree? A cornstalk? A snake? A mouse? A rabbit? A cow? A horse? A whale? A gorilla? A human?! You see, our perception of right and wrong is solely based on the human animal and our perception of how we fit into the world. The closer you get to the core of your identity, the stronger right and wrong becomes and the more clearly defined you will find the rules. Yes, we agree to some standards. That is part of who we are and how we are hardwired for civilization. But don’t think that it is a lofty ideal. It pertains to humans. Take global warming for example. Why is it wrong? We may die as a result, but who knows what species will be evolved to follow? We are not destroying the earth, we are destroying ourselves. That is why everyone is in such a tizzy about global warming. Oh, and that and the cute polar bears.

    Unfortunately, you still believe I’m arguing against your point of view. I am not. I am supporting mine because it is based in a physical world and you’ve yet to show me how it’s not. You, by supporting the notion of free will, are asking me to expand my view of the world. I am more than happy to do that when I see evidence.

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  80. 80. rshoff2 1:23 pm 01/7/2014

    “Try telling prisoners in Guantanamo or Syrian civilians fleeing bombs and bullets that choices are illusory. “Let’s change places,” they might respond, “since you have nothing to lose.”

    I take the exact opposite interpretation of this example! If they had free will why the heck would they have rationally chosen to be in Guantanamo or in the middle of a Syrian conflict? No one would! Even if there are a few outliers that would most of the billions alive today would choose to live a better life. Therefore, this example, to me, supports the notion that we do not have free will.

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  81. 81. rshoff2 1:26 pm 01/7/2014

    I think one thing missing in the conversation of free will is how communication between us affects choice manifests itself.

    Within my physical being, I may not ‘choose’ to drink coffee, I may ‘choose’ tea. However, as the result of physiological process in your being (thinking) and the cascade of action (communicating) with my physiological processes (listening and thinking), I may be converted to the notion of drinking coffee in lieu of tea.

    But again, that is solely physically based. Your physiology is introduced into my environment which then changes my physiology.

    I was a tea drinker and now I’m a coffee drinker. Was it free will? Naw.

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  82. 82. rshoff2 1:40 pm 01/7/2014

    But it’s emotionally easier to believe you have free will. And it’s comforting to believe in a god to explain why you make such bad choices or are victimized. So go ahead and accept your future physical state as freewill and funnel your fear and emptiness into faith. It sounds so much more cushy than reality.

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  83. 83. Quentin 1:47 pm 01/8/2014

    I am surprised that you should think that taking responsibility is emotionally easier than simply holding that it’s all beyond my control.

    I infer from you last remark that religious belief is a response to fear. No it isn’t, it’s a response to hope.

    And, yes, I agree that I cannot demonstrate incontrovertibly that free will exists, just as I cannot demonstrate that any external object corresponding to my sense impressions exists. Nor can you. Nor can I demonstrate that free will is an illusion, nor can you.

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  84. 84. rshoff2 3:16 pm 01/8/2014

    Quentin – “Nor can I demonstrate that free will is an illusion, nor can you.”

    There is no reason to demonstrate that free will is an illusion. It simply doesn’t exist. One does not have to prove something doesn’t exist. One only has to prove it does.

    I’ll take your word on religion. That was a cheap shot on my part, my apologies for that.

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  85. 85. Quentin 6:16 pm 01/8/2014

    Free will is perceived by most of the human race. And I am continually coming across non-believers who resent the fact that religious people suggest that they have no moral sense. (In fact this is not true: the Catholic Church, at least, teaches specifically that every human who has the use of reason has a moral sense.)

    If this perception does not correspond to reality then it is an illusion; if it does not, then it isn’t.

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  86. 86. Quentin 6:19 pm 01/8/2014

    my last clause should have read; ‘if it does, then it isn’t.’

    The weather here is filthy, but not, I think, as cold as yours.

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  87. 87. rshoff2 8:40 pm 01/8/2014

    Quentin, Well said.

    btw, for clarity, you were surprised that I think it’s easier to believe in free will and have faith than not. In my view, reality is a very tough and bitter pill to swallow. It’s accepting that the things we hold highest as humans are insignificant and we are but a small and meaningless happenstance in the evolution of the universe itself. The universe is not aware of us and does not need us. Only humans need humans. It’s hard as a human living in such a cold place. To accept reality is very difficult and few are willing. In fact, people will join forces to deny reality. They will prop up each others illusions in order to protect their sense of self. I guess, as a human, I don’t want to take that away from them, as long as they stop trying to manipulate science to interpret things with no substance and as long as they don’t use their otherworldly illusions and ideas of human superiority as a basis for government.

    If we could all truly accepted the hard cold facts of the cold dark iron cage in which we live, we would be much, much kinder to each other. Then wars would cease to exist. We would make peace with each other from empathy if nothing else.

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  88. 88. Quentin 5:07 am 01/9/2014

    “Only humans need humans”. That, as a truth, has poetic depth. From the very first chapters of Genesis, in the Judaeo/Christian tradition, it is clear that humans have an obligation to bring order into the world.

    In the same chapters we are told how humans, through their pride and perversity, have deep inclinations to do exactly the opposite. So the end term of this tradition is that meeting the needs of other humans is our true vocation.

    It is a matter of firm teaching that a human who belongs to a religion, and perhaps spends his days in prayer and penance, but does not meet the needs of humans, has missed the mark. But a non-believer who attempts in the best ways he knows, to meet human needs, hits the mark.

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  89. 89. jayjacobus 3:43 pm 01/9/2014

    I stopped writing when you contradicted yourself about the future resulting in future presents.

    Now you are writing about needs, wants and obligations as though these internal drivers are somehow fixed when they are not fixed at all.

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  90. 90. rshoff2 7:38 pm 01/9/2014

    jay – Not sure who you’re referring to, but possibly my comments. It’s no contradiction at all from my perspective. Is it a contradiction that it snows when it’s above freezing? No, it’s just that there is more to the story.

    As far as future presents, there is no contradiction. If you see one, then perhaps this forums too limited to be able to explain my full perspective or a previous comment.

    The internal drivers are not fixed, but they are honed and directed by interactions between ourselves and the environment. But again, there is no contradiction in that perspective.

    I see this all so clearly, and I have yet to to understand where you perceive a contradiction. Words fail.

    I guess another comparison is the weather. The overall global trend can be for unprecedented warming, yet we can have record freezing locally. How is that? Isn’t it a contradiction? Not really. It’s looking at it from two different perspectives.

    Talking in terms of the humans carrying about our lives at ground level you cannot avoid concepts like needs, obligations, and wants. But to look at those from issues from a mile high changes perspective and you would see that we just have an illusion of free will.

    Although the future doesn’t yet exist, our path to it will be determined by the cascading of physical events in our lives. From the big things to the tiniest of them. When we get to that future moment in reference, that will be a new present. Not this one moved forward, but an entirely new present, while this present will be relegated to the past.

    Another commenter did point out that philosophically I am inadvertently separating the human race from the Universe. I kinda agree that I need to resolve that issue.

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  91. 91. rshoff2 7:42 pm 01/9/2014

    It’s been really nice chatting with you guys jayjacubus, quentin, and others in the comment section. thx!

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  92. 92. rshoff2 7:54 pm 01/9/2014

    Years ago, I was in a minor car accident in a city intersection. I was driving to the store and had the illusion that my future was in my control. The other driver was heading home and she had the same illusions. We both had absolutely no anticipation about the future pathway. However, the people looking out the window of the building on the corner saw exactly what our futures held. They saw the collision from above (fortunately no one was hurt). But you see. That is an example of how my (human) beliefs of control were an illusion because the physical environment was dictating something different. Even if I unwound the clock there was nothing I could have done to avoid that situation. Pull out of the driveway 10 seconds later? Earlier? If I had, there would have had to have been something to cause me to do that.

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  93. 93. rshoff2 7:56 pm 01/9/2014

    Other than that, I really can’t describe my perspective any better as to why I subscribe to the notion that free will is an illusion. I’ll leave it to the humanists, the theologians, scientists, and mathematicians to duke it out.

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  94. 94. Quentin 6:19 pm 01/10/2014

    goodbye then. If we have not agreed, at least we understand better each other’s point of view. And that’s what debate is about.

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  95. 95. jayjacobus 9:36 am 01/11/2014

    Not resolved but I will leave you to your own perspective.

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  96. 96. Albert Fonda 1:06 pm 01/13/2014

    C:\Users\AGFonda\Documents\Philosophy\Determinism v Freewill\Agf comment on Resolutionaries Should Believe In Free Will.wpd
    Agf comment on Resolutionaries Should Believe In Free Will

    Free will versus determinism is a debate of long standing. If the likes of Schopenhauer and Pinker have said it is insoluble – giving up – it is no wonder we now argue back and forth.

    The basic problem as I see it is that while we see the world as regular and repeatable, we do not so see ourselves. The task is then to make the silk purse of irregularity from the sow’s ear of regularity. Bear with me as I (purportedly) solve this puzzler.

    I’ll work with the Top 10 remarks culled from the comments to date on this thread, with a comment on each.

    1. “Free will is the hypothesis that needs proof.”
    a. It’s the hypothesis most in doubt, but it is not the only one. Regularity, also called repeatability, causality or determination, once called Fate and later Necessity, is also a hypothesis, hence open to doubt. To say that from each observed (antecedent) cause “somehow” flows time and again a given observed (subsequent) effect, always and forever, is a generalization which can only be induced from repetitious experience. Its mechanism if any is hidden, so it can never be proven, as Hume noted. It is at best a record of past events. If it is a prediction as to the future, remember that until it arrives the future is unknowable.
    b. Absent the causal assumption, however reasonable, we would be turtles on our backs. What we have here is a case of “consilience,” which is inference to the **best** induction. The next best inference is in this case abject surrender to incompetence.
    c. The choice seems not only easy but safe, as it can be tested and reversed as the future unrolls. We can just wait and see.
    d. Meanwhile, “free will” is indeed a postulated departure from regularity/repeatability/causality/determination/fate/necessity.
    e. As a quite extraordinary claim it requires quite extraordinary evidence.
    f. Do we have that? Although as Dennett has noted (see #4 below) we have 2 kinds of evidence, both kinds are rather subjective. Hold that thought.
    2. “Free will posits the existence of a substance that can influence the world, but itself is not influenced.”
    a. Perhaps. Religion does claims to answer the mystery of human exceptionalism, but only by recourse to another mystery. As to God’s power over the physical, even over the neurological mind, a 5-year conference at the Vatican failed to settle that issue (Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action, Vatican Observatory and Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 2001).
    b. More generally, the problem is whether mind and body, or (as one might infer) God and the material world, are able to interact. How could they do that? Are they not each intangible to the other? In the alternative, if they are mutually tangible, are they not mutually physical? If they are, does it not seem that by sheer imagination we have “heightened” the “higher powers” to unreachability? Nice job, fellas. Built the uncrossable gap.
    c. The problem of mind and body has always been the supposed intangibility of thought, despite its seeming reality. John Locke spoke to this in tracing the transition from a sensory excitation of nerve endings to a consequent mental construct, which upon repetition and induction became an abstraction. Several roses must all differ, but oh so slightly, so that they all seem quite interchangeable. The result is the abstraction, “Rose,” which unfortunately exists only as a thought – a neural pattern – in the mind of the beholder.
    d. To regard the class Rose as real is the (convenient) error of reification, or hypostatization. We need it as a tool, but it is a mere tool. To regard Thought, and specifically Free Will, as real is to reify the abstract. Only by means of intervening motor neurons can neurally instantiated thoughts of willing actually influence the world.
    3. “Any person of science stating there is some non-causal thing happening in our brain is taking a leap of faith. That’s not science.”
    a. Indeed it is not. A subsequent with no antecedent violates our fundamental premise (1a) of causality. During your own infancy you yourself learned of repeatability. In your maturity are you now to contradict that? Consider your evidence carefully before you decide this issue.
    4. “Dennett’s most subtle, profound point is that free will is both an ‘objective phenomenon’ and dependent on our [‘subjective’] belief in and perception of it, ‘like language, music, money and other products of society.’” So says Horgan.
    a. Quite so. But first note that **the very idea of objectivity is subjective.** It is an abstraction from a certain type of regular experience, namely the sensory experience of communication by language with other persons who claim to replicate from inside themselves what you experience from within yourself. Even to refer to having read a digital display as having been “objective” is a convenient elision of the experience, purportedly subjective for others and clearly subjective for yourself. Only as a constructed and subjective abstraction can we can say that we live in an “objective” world. To dispute this is the view known as “naive realism.”
    b. Dennett is correct to note our (so-called) “objective” observation of free will. We choose to wiggle a toe in the crib, and it wiggles obediently. The debate, however, is, **why did you choose?** Dennett does not to my knowledge address this.
    c. Dennett is also correct to note our (so-called) “subjective” experience of willing. We have the feeling of intending, of desiring, and (soon) of taking action. The feeling is undisputed. The debate remains, however, as to the functional role of that feeling. Is it a difference which makes a difference?
    d. Dennett’s “most subtle, profound point” is no explanation at all as to the implicitly existing mechanism necessary for acting independently of antecedents. To accept as Truth our feelings about freedom is not to render them credible.
    5. “Are we pretending here that there as been no scientific studies on strong emergence?”
    a. Here we have our sole mention of an interesting view in the matter. Its main proponents seem to be philosopher David Chalmers (though perhaps only tentatively) and Nancey Murphy (seminarian author of Did My Neurons Make Me Do It?). Sparing you some very lengthy details, it is a wheel rediscovered, and renamed as well. Its key term, “top-down causation,” is a true but misrepresented recapitulation of feedback systems control theory (see #6).
    b. To illustrate by analogy, suppose that a shepard trains his sheep dog to herd his sheep. What causes the production of the wool? Is it useful to call the shepherd the “top-down cause” of the kinky fibers? **I don’t think so.** Ignore “strong emergence.”
    6. “Free will is inevitable due to built in infinite regress in all complex systems.”
    a. Ah, now we have it. Provided we understand “infinite regress” to mean here not the futile spinning of wheels of a circular proof, but the useful refinement of ongoing feedback in pursuit of a goal. The sheep dog persistently rounds up strays. The shepherd persistently finds new pastures, and persistently tends the birthing ewes. The market persistently buys the wool. As a system the farm “willfully” produces wool, always driven by antecedents. Simple feedback systems control theory. New to some, old to others.
    7. “I received ten years of education from the Jesuits. I have been continually taught that the absolute foundation of my moral choice is my own conscience. Conscience here does not mean ‘inclination’, it means that I must do my best to think through the moral issues which I face and act on my own sincere decision.”
    a. Yes indeed. And so wise men, sometimes calling it “character” instead of “conscience,” have long taught.
    b. Most notably in 250 BCE, when the Stoics embraced a deterministic picture of the world. No exceptions. People are by no means exempt from the causal order – just a string of dominoes.
    c. But nevertheless, said Chrysippus, their own **characters** play a critical role in how the causal order unfolds. He said in effect that by self- and observer-identification of the person with the deterministic process, we can feel and be felt responsible for our own actions. Or, **as the chain of causality flows through my mind it becomes my own.**
    d. This is a great attitude because it solves the philosophical problem — there isn’t one! The components we took to be opposed were actually team-mates, a means and its end. Determinism was the means to an end, and the end was the act of willing.
    e. In thinking that we could step aside from all the chains of causality and create a new one, we had been imagining a hidden homunculus, a watcher who directed the person — demanding in turn another watcher directing the first. This entire train of thought is futile (see 6a).
    f. What Chrysippus saw instead was that originality lies in how we personalize the causal chains already available to us. **We ARE each the captain of our ship.** Just grant us a moment while we apply helm — and another while we read our compasses.
    8. “Free will is quale the way that color is a quale. The person who says that he hears sound does not mean that he neuro-mechanically reacts to sound. He means that he consciously experiences sound. In a similar way when he says he has free will, he consciously experiences choice.”
    a. Yes, with the understanding that the process (of free will) remains neuro-mechanical. **My neurons indeed make me do it,** Nancey Murphy’s title to the contrary.
    9. “We might argue that, where the decision at any one moment is in fact a determined reaction, we do have the freedom in the longer term, to modify how we react.”
    a. I think you’ve got it.
    10. “If we could all truly accepted the hard cold facts of the cold dark iron cage in which we live, we would be much, much kinder to each other. Then wars would cease to exist. We would make peace with each other from empathy if nothing else.”
    a. Hey, get used to it and it’s a nice warm home. Forget the delusion that it came ready-made. You built it yourself, from materials on hand. Didn’t you do a nice job of it? I think you did.
    b. And Yes, everyone else lives in just such a (normally) pleasant place. Just allow them to get on with it, while you do the same.
    c. You might even give them some help. Try it, you might like it.
    d. And, no turf wars. There is no turf. Got it?

    PS to Horgan: This is how Freud saw it, in private. His public treatment was far more (!) conventional.

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  97. 97. jayjacobus 4:00 pm 01/13/2014

    A homunculus is a term used to cartoon the inner self.

    Naive realism is the perception used by most people to relate to the world.

    The neuro-mechanical brain evolved to support naive realism.

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  98. 98. rshoff2 12:49 am 01/14/2014

    Quentin- I don’t want to debate, I want to understand and be understood. I want to really understand things through others’ eyes that I cannot see myself. Sometimes you have to shake me to connect the dots. My brain isn’t big enough or smart enough to see all of life. But I also want to be understood because I believe that my little view of the world has value too. If we can walk away meeting that goal, then magic has happened. We do not need to agree, nor do I ask that of you.

    Jayjacobus, I’m not asking you to believe it to be resolved. I’m not ending the conversation for others. I simply don’t have anything else to contribute after exhausting my point to the extent of commenting far too much.

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  99. 99. Albert Fonda 11:18 am 01/18/2014

    jayjacobus, we agree, if I correctly understand you to be saying that
    1. “A homunculus is a term used to **lampoon** the idea of having an inner self.” Horgan touched on this under the heading of “confabulation.” The idea of thinking about yourself from some position within yourself is a confabulation – lampooned as a homunculus – which is unworkable because there is no end to the inward layers. It is logically more tenable to say that I am a functioning biomechanism **being** itself – whereas **“being aware of itself”** is a convenient confabulation.
    2. “Naive realism is the perception **imaginatively** used by most people to relate to the world.” In addition to John Locke, according to Alan Watts in Happiness and How to Live with Presence (1951), “The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the ‘I’ out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate ‘I’ or mind can be found. To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, ‘I am listening to this music,’ you are not listening.”
    3. “The neuro-mechanical brain evolved **in a manner tending** to support naive realism.” There is never purpose in evolution; there is only unsurvival of the unfittest, leaving the more fit more likely to survive. If the brain is more fit which imagines naive realism, the confabulation becomes common. Whether naive realism is “true” or clearly (as in this case) not, it is at least useful.

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  100. 100. jayjacobus 12:59 pm 01/19/2014

    I am the person in the first person perspective. The neuro-mechanical perspective is a third person perspective.

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