Determining Determinism

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Free will and hard materialistic determinism are polar opposite views on the very nature of our existence as conscious beings. In one camp we have personal responsibility, the importance of good life choices, and the hope that comes with “making” your life better. In the other camp we have a deconstruction of the framework for judgement, shame, and guilt, a recognition of cause and effect influencing every aspect of our lives, and a celebration of the desire to see behind the curtain at the very gears of reality which our brains interpret for action and ideas. What if these concepts aren’t so far apart after all, but instead are simply misunderstood? What if we really do have choices, but only ones that don’t matter?

Let me explain. When I studied computer science engineering at UPENN, one of things we touched on briefly was how neural networks function. To put it simply, imagine a switch which may or may not turn on depending on the input given to it and the current weight setting of the switch. Each switch impacts the input to other connected switches and so on. Neural networks can be trained by a dataset so each switch gets an initial weight setting. Each run through the system after that may adjust that setting for the next run, impacting future decisions made by the network. When dealing with probabilities and dynamic systems striving to obtain optimal performance for survival, it’s valuable to introduce some chance so it won’t get stuck in a loop where every single run looks exactly like the one before it with zero chance for improvement in the future. In this way, a decision gate weighted with a 50% / 50% chance of going either way can break the deadlock and “choose” one randomly to keep the system going.

What if what we call “choice” is more like a 50/50 decision?

I currently lean towards the hard materialistic determinism for a number of reasons. I see too many problems with the current non-materialistic view of reality. As a programmer, my entire professional life is based off of the result of cause and effect. In the world of code, everything happens for a reason. It would be absurd to think my computer would suddenly start acting differently without there being a root cause. The more I study the brain and physical systems in nature, the more I see that same stimulus/response mechanisms at work. Every input we consume from the books we read, the movies/documentaries/TV shows we watch, the online debates we engage in, the podcasts we listen to, the conversations we have, etc…they are all inputs to the neural network system of our brain. One input changes how the next input will be interpreted. If we consider any decision in our lives, we can most likely, with enough thought, come up with a number of previous inputs which impacted that “decision” and how, if those inputs had been different, we would have “chosen” a different path.

So back to the 50/50 choice idea. Sometimes when I’m looking for something to watch on YouTube, I don’t have strong feelings either way. I might narrow it down to a few possibilities, or I might trust Google’s algorithmic choice and go with what’s recommended. If I watch a mindless movie on Netflix, I’ll get the relaxation I’m looking for and enjoy it. If I watch a debate or documentary on the morality of artificial intelligence, it might more dramatically impact my neural network weighting system, further changing my desires and responses to future inputs. Even though the “choice” really didn’t matter to me at the time, the resulting change in my consciousness did matter. It wouldn’t surprise me if, someday, we understand the brain well enough to find a version of the random weighting processor which helps us through those 50/50 “meh?” decisions we don’t seem to care about.

What I find interesting is how those “decisions” end up shaping our lives. How many times has a “random choice” to watch one movie or another deeply impacted your thinking and future movie choices? What about vacationing in one spot over another? What about the people you randomly meet which turn into valuable relationships or future job positions? It’s reasonable to me to see the brain acting as a natural deterministic process which leads to decisions given all the inputs up to that point. When we narrow down our “choices” to essentially equally weighted options on the neural network, our random processor kicks in and bumps one answer to the top which keeps the cycle from gridlock.

That’s my currently theory, anyway. Maybe someday I’ll learn more about this stuff and have a better understanding. Do you have an input to share which might change my view?

For more thoughts on this topic, check out my friend Doug Smith’s blog post De We Have Free Will, or Is Free Will an Illusion? Doug and I had some fun back and forth in the comments you might enjoy.

8 thoughts on “Determining Determinism

  1. The answer is yes. Yes, everything that happens is deterministically inevitable. Yes, we are able to decide for ourselves what we will do.

    Free will does not mean freedom from causation. It only means freedom from coercion or undue influence. When the Boston Marathon bombers were escaping, they hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to assist in their escape. Because the driver was forced to act against his will, he was not charged with “aiding and abetting” the bombers. His will was not free, but subjugated to the will of the bombers by the threat of violence.

    Note that there is nothing supernatural about this distinction, between what we do of our own free will and what we are forced to do against our will.

    Nor is there any suggestion that we are free of causation. In both cases, our choices are caused. When acting freely the causes of our choices are our own purpose and our own reasons. When acting under coercion, our choices serve the purpose and reasons of the guy holding the gun.

    The notion of freedom from causation is irrational. And determinism is not so much a matter of the physical nature of the universe as it is of its rational nature.

    We cannot even imagine a universe of indeterminism. But it might be fun to try. Suppose we had a dial that let us adjust the balance of determinism vs indeterminism. When turned all the way to determinism, I can pick an apple from a tree and have an apple in my hand. But when we turn the dial a little bit toward indeterminism, I may pick an apple and find a watermelon or banana or some other fruit in my hand. If we turn it a little more toward indeterminism, when I pick an apple I end up with a kitten, or a pair of slippers, or a pickup truck in my hand. Dare we turn it a little further toward indeterminism? Okay. Now when I pick an apple, gravity reverses!

    So, the idea of being free from reliable cause and effect is actually irrational.

    Without reliable cause and effect (determinism) I cannot reliably do anything! In fact, ALL of our freedoms require a deterministic universe, one that lets us reliably cause effects.

    Whenever we use the word “free” we are referencing some meaningful constraint. Free speech is the ability to say what we want without getting arrested. Freedom of religion is the ability to choose your own church rather than everyone being forced to attend the same one. And free will is us deciding for ourselves what we WILL do, FREE of external coercion.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marvin! Sorry I didn’t notice it sooner. You make a lot of great points here and your indeterminism reminded me of the “Infinite Improbability Drive” in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. 🙂

      The part I get confused on a little is this:

      Yes, we are able to decide for ourselves what we will do.

      At some point in the future, I think, we’ll better understand the inputs leading up to our “decisions” and how our brains work to better understand the deterministic processes in place. I think that will lead to more empathy and rehabilitation for those who make poor “decisions” in our society today.

      1. I had an insight when I was a teenager reading about this in the public library. I don’t know if it was my own or one of the Pragmatists I was reading. But, anyway, I was trying to think through what it means to me personally that everything is inevitable.

        First, there is nothing I can do to escape inevitability. If I try to counter it by choosing something that I would not have chosen, then that motive would still have made that choice inevitable! So you’d have to go back to the original choice now to escape inevitability. But that choice also would have been motivationally caused by the desire to escape. So you could go back and forth in an endless, and rather pointless loop forever.

        Second, it turns out that inevitability doesn’t really make any difference. Because all it really means is that whatever I think and feel and choose to do, THAT will turn out to be inevitable! So inevitability is nothing more and nothing less than me being myself, doing what I do, and choosing what I choose.

        Inevitability cannot constrain me, because it IS me.

        Third, someone suggested in one of these discussions that it depends upon how you draw the circle around “that which is you”. All of the material and rational aspects of “that which is me” would include my genetic dispositions, my life experiences, my thoughts and feelings, my beliefs and values, and anything else that makes me uniquely me.

        None of these things can compel me against my will, because the ARE me. They are not external causes. They are, again, just me being myself.

        All practical uses of the word “free” reference some meaningful constraint. A bird may be set free (of its cage). A slave may be freed (from servitude). We may enjoy freedom of speech (free of censorship). And a person may decide for themselves what they WILL do, FREE of coercion or undue influence. And that’s what free will is. And luckily, except for some rather silly philosophers and theologians, that’s what most people understand free will to be.

        The other “free will”, the one that insists upon “freedom from causation”, as if reliable causation were something separate from us, that could compel us against our will, is an irrational concept. Without reliable causation no one is free to do anything, because he cannot reliably cause any effect.

        1. I wonder how many people think of “free will” in terms of “freedom from causation.” I’d imagine most rational people reject this, but in doing so, what do they replace it with? Dualism maybe?

          Maybe some value in the deterministic circling of “me” leads to being more interested in the inputs we allow ourselves, the books we read, the people we spend time with, the conversations we engage in. For me, when we don’t really care how we spend our time and it’s essentially a 50/50 chance we might do one thing or another, that’s when “choice” comes into play (even if might just be a random firing of the neurons). Or maybe we can active re-weight our own neurons through concentration.

          Either way, I feel like we’re stumbling around in Plato’s cave until we better understand how the mind works on a detailed level so as to better understand consciousness and how it interacts with the rest of the world.

          Thanks again for your thoughtful comments.

          1. I think it is mostly philosophers and theologians who have an issue with freedom from causation. You’ll find two definitions of free will in most dictionaries.

            The first is the ordinary one that everyone understands: the ability to decide for ourselves what we will do, free of any undue influence. (SOED: “Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.”) People understand this distinction between a choice we make for ourselves versus a choice forced upon us against our will (gunpoint, hypnosis, suggestion in unequal power situations like doctor/patient, adult/child, etc).

            The second definition implies freedom from reliable cause and effect (SOED: “the power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.”) In the Wictionary definition they actually prefix this second entry with “(philosophy)”.

            I find it simplest to presume perfect determinism, where there are no uncaused events. I assume that eventually we will even discover at least a reasonable theory as to the causes of quantum events.

            So I start from the theoretical fact that everything that happens is indeed inevitable. But we are purposeful causal agents that, by our own choices, bring about what will inevitably happen.

            Every choice we make of our own free will is also inevitable. The fact of autonomy and the fact of inevitability are both simultaneously true in every decision we make for ourselves.

            The fact that it was us is the most relevant and meaningful fact. The fact of inevitability, on the other hand, is a spectacularly useless fact, with no relevance to any practical issue, least of all free will.

            This is a little over the heads of most people discussing this issue. I go into it in more detail in my last blog post, if you’re curious.

  2. Thank you for another thought provoking post, Luke. Thank you for also linking back to our discussion on my blog.

    I think that your initial comparison between free will and determinism is a little weighted towards your position, as if the positive things you list under determinism are only found there. A Christian worldview has a very strong framework for elimination of shame and guilt. Recognition of cause and effect is also clear under free will: our free choices are causes, and we experience them as such in the real world. And I certainly share a celebration of the desire to “see behind the curtain at the very gears of reality,” but find that embracing not only free will, but a Christian worldview, lines up much closer to reality.

    Your description of neural networks is interesting and relevant to how we are modeling them in computers. However, none of it describes how the brain actually works. It seems to be all speculation to me, based on models we’ve constructed of how the brain might work. Neuroscience can observe the firing of neurons and how sections of the brain light up under various inputs, but it does not “know” how it all actually works.

    So, you present a speculative idea of how determinism might work if the brain actually functions that way, but since we don’t know, I don’t see how this is a helpful foundation of a worldview. Why would I base my life on this view when it is purely speculative?

    It also doesn’t address the fundamental concern I was trying to raise in my post, where on determinism, we have no basis for rationality. Without a foundation for rational thought, we have no basis for thinking that we’re even having a rational discussion right now (though I think we are, thankfully). And without rational thought, what are we doing trying to prove anything?

    I definitely share your view that the inputs we allow into our brains affect how we think and the decisions we make. This discussion is proof of that: the inputs you have accepted have led you in one direction, mine another.

    I see too many problems with a materialistic view of reality, primarily because it is fundamentally illogical and self-refuting. The very statement: “all reality can be traced back to a material cause” is self-refuting, because the statement itself is non-material. It’s as self-contradictory as the claim: “this statement is a lie.” An immaterial truth-claim in support of materialism is no truth-claim at all.

    I see materialism as a worldview that cannot account for reality. On materialism, the world “appears” designed, but it’s not. Our sense of free will is an “illusion”. Materialism deconstructs fundamental realities and leaves us only with faith in the scientists themselves as our lone bedrock. It seems like a very weak foundation to build a worldview upon to me.

    I much prefer to accept the world as we perceive it: the world appears designed because it was designed, we experience ourselves as having free will because we actually have free will, and we have the capacity for rational thought because we have been created by a rational Creator who wanted to give us everything needed to know Him, if we should want to do so.

    I don’t know that I have more input beyond what I’ve already shared that will cause you to change your mind. However, I did just run across a new book that looks intriguing, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on it: How To Be an Atheist, Why Many Skeptics Aren’t Skeptical Enough by Mitch Stokes. I’ve not read it yet, but I’ve listened to a couple of Dr. Stokes’ talks, and find them relevant.

    Important issues, Luke, with consequences that matter. Thank you for being willing to discuss them!

    1. Thanks Doug! Not sure why or how, but it seems your comment was stuck in a moderation queue (maybe the Amazon link triggered a filter?) and I missed a notification about it. So sorry about that!

      where on determinism, we have no basis for rationality

      That’s the part I never quite understood from what you were saying. From my perspective, it’s rationality which brought me to my current conclusions.

      The very statement: “all reality can be traced back to a material cause” is self-refuting, because the statement itself is non-material.

      I’m confused by this example as well. The statement is a series of words expressed in the English language which represent ideas. In this particular case, it exists as characters on a screen, displayed on a blog comment, hosted on a server, stored in digital format as 1’s and 0’s on a disk. How is that non-material? What criteria are you using here for “material”? Also, just because we don’t fully understand the mechanisms that lead to human communication, conversation, idea formation, etc within the human brain doesn’t mean there aren’t rational, material based explanations for those things. I’d argue the opposite, actually. If certain parts of the brain are damaged, we can clearly see these actions are impaired. It’s not perfect knowledge of how things work, but it’s demonstrable evidence (unlike faith which requires no evidence).

      Some things in reality are very counter intuitive (like that fact that we’re traveling through space at thousands of miles per hour right now, etc). I prefer not to go with our perceptions because I’ve learned about the human brain and been convinced about its failures of perception, and I look to the scientific method as a more reliable approach to validating and testing our faulty perceptions to find something closer to “real.”

      That book by Mitch Stokes looks interesting, but it also seems a bit like solipsism which I have no interest in.

      1. No worries about the delay! I appreciate your willingness to host this ongoing dialog.

        That’s the part [under determinism, we have no basis for rationality] I never quite understood from what you were saying. From my perspective, it’s rationality which brought me to my current conclusions.

        Thank you for saying this; it helps to know where I’m being unclear. I’ll try another turn at bat (though I was terrible in little league).

        I recently watched a debate between atheist A.C. Grayling and Rabbi Daniel Rowe. ( In the debate (~17:50), Grayling defines rationality as “proportioning the evidence you have to the conclusion you draw or the action you take.” On his definition, we look at evidence, we evaluate it, and we draw a conclusion or take an action.

        Under materialistic determinism, everything that is happening now is a result of cause-and-effect from a single event (big bang or TBD) in the distant past. That booted up physics, chemistry, and Darwinian mechanisms, leading to living cells, to the evolutionary tree of life, and finally to humans.

        The deterministic selection process only selects for survival and reproduction. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the Darwinian mechanism is ignorant of right-ness, accuracy, or truth. If believing that “up is down” or “2+2=5” made something more likely to reproduce, it would, regardless of the veracity of the belief.

        If this is correct, materialistic determinism offers no foundation for the rationality of our faculties. We can no longer trust our ability to look at evidence and evaluate it, because our minds weren’t made for rationality. Our brains act on cause and effect for survival, not truth-seeking. That’s why I say there is no basis for rationality under determinism. It seems like you’ve rationally defined rationality out of existence.

        Atheist John Gray articulates this in a 2014 New Republic article about Richard Dawkins’ memoir ( Gray says, “If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess.” He quotes Victorian statesman Arthur Balfour, who said this in 1895: “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.”

        Whatever the nature of the way our minds work, it won’t be proven by undercutting the foundation of our ability to evaluate truth. There must be a better explanation for why we have the ability to rationally evaluate, reason about the world, and make free choices, other than claiming the fundamental faculties we all share are illusory.

        At least Marvin’s approach to carving out a place for free will in his atheistic system leaves our free will and ability to evaluate evidence reasonably intact, although not in an entirely self-consistent way. (

        I’m confused by this example as well [that “all reality can be traced back to a material cause” is self-refuting, because the statement itself is non-material]. The statement is a series of words expressed in the English language which represent ideas.

        Exactly! The ideas are immaterial. The fact that the idea expressed by the statement can be written in any language, spoken, stored or encrypted on various media, all while retaining the same meaning, shows that it is information, a distinct entity apart from matter. Just like the mathematical concepts: 2+2=4 is an immaterial idea. Whether or not it is etched in stone or written in the clouds, the truth of it remains.

        Therefore, when you make a truth-claim, you state an abstract idea. Yes, that idea can be materialized in a blog post, a speech, or brain cells, but the claim itself is the same and exists regardless of its material form.

        The reason the statement that “all reality can be traced back to a material cause” is self-refuting is that the idea is immaterial: materialism can’t explain the origin of the idea, nor validate it’s veracity. It’s a truth-claim for which there is no material evidence. Where is the physical stuff that proves this claim?

        If you’re open to something a little outside of materialist orthodoxy, you might consider “Being As Communion: a Metaphysics of Information” by William Dembsky. I won’t put the Amazon link here in case it puts me in comment purgatory again. 😉

        It’s not perfect knowledge of how things work, but it’s demonstrable evidence (unlike faith which requires no evidence).

        We are learning more about the brain, for sure, but a story just posted today suggests scientific findings about brain function may be inaccurate because of software issues ( Strong conclusions based on these studies may be called into question.

        It’s interesting that you say faith requires no evidence. I don’t look at it like that. One definition of faith is believing something based on trusted testimony. On that definition, we all exercise faith, based on how much we trust the source of the information we’re considering. When we read a science paper and embrace its findings, we exercise faith in the author, not the facts or the evidence, because we’ve seen neither firsthand. We weigh the report in light of other things we think we know, and decide whether to change our minds based on the reasoning of the author, their ability to soundly argue their case. We then take a step of “faith” and accept or reject it, and live our lives accordingly.

        I prefer not to go with our perceptions because I’ve learned about the human brain and been convinced about its failures of perception, and I look to the scientific method as a more reliable approach to validating and testing our faulty perceptions to find something closer to “real.”

        Now I’m confused. Your learning about the brain has convinced you that you can’t trust its perceptions, but you trust it to correctly evaluate the use of the scientific method? How can you know you’re executing and evaluating the scientific method correctly? What about all the tests you don’t do yourself?

        To learn anything, we have to trust our ability to evaluate the methods, motives, the integrity of the people we read, and whether to accept their testimony (by faith) about the things they’ve studied. If your ability to perceive is broken, and you can’t test every scientific truth yourself with an objective scale that overcomes your broken ability to perceive, where does that leave you?

        “Hi, I’m a scientist, so you can trust me, by definition. Don’t trust your mind, don’t trust your ability to make free choices, but trust me.” That takes too much “faith”. How does one follow the truth wherever it leads if at the core, our hardware necessary to seek truth is fatally flawed?

        Dr. Stokes doesn’t advocate solipsism, but he does challenge evidentialism, I think on pretty solid philosophical grounds. May be worth a second look.

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