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So Many Choices

by Kirsten Sanford, Oct 31 2008

As I sit here on my couch I am struck by the wealth of choices available to me. I can write about whatever I choose. I can choose to wear any costume or none on this holiday of spookiness. I can choose to participate in our country’s political Olympics. I even get to choose what I believe. I can choose these things thanks to all the events and people that came before me and ended up landing me here on my couch.

However, I do wonder how much of what I choose is actually free-will as opposed to programmed responses. We know that there are intrinsic neural responses within the brain. They are present from even before birth. The brain goes through a period of incredible growth when you are young. During which time new synapses are being formed at the fastest rate of your life.

Information enters the brain through your sensory system, and is checked against internal signals. Neural pathways are strengthened and weakened accordingly. The immense branching system is pruned according to what the brain receives from the outside world.

We know that there are sensitive periods within the development of the brain that if missed result in the loss or impairment of function. Speech and vision are but two of the available examples. We also know that the human brain and the neurons within it function in much the same way as those belonging to the organisms we employ for study; albeit with more neurons and exponentially greater complexity of connectivity.

We know that neurons respond reliably to given inputs. We can predict the behavior of many organisms because of basic neural principles like conditioning and habituation. And, I’m not denigrating the complexity of the human mind here, but we can also predict the behavior of people in certain situations. It’s because of basic neural principles that create behaviors.

So, what I learned, what my brain learned, while I was young and oh so impressionable has a HUGE impact on the choices I make. How do I know how much of my daily repertoire of behaviors are simply programmed reactions to environmental stimuli? Does it even matter? As long as everything works, should I care if it is real free will?

Well, where it bothers me is in the application of measures to take advantage of what we know about the brain and peoples’ behavior, namely in marketing. I’ve been reading George Lakoff’s recent book, The Political Mind, and while I have some issues with the overall tone of the book and some of his assumptions, I do think that he is onto something.

He poses the idea that people repond to what they hear, read, watch in the media with programmed predictability because of the associations we learn while we are young, and that the conservative Republican party has been immensely better at making use of these subconscious linkages than other parties (specifically the pesky progressive Democrats). I think he’s right. The Republican party has done an excellent job of using marketing tactics to their advantage.

Good marketing works, but where will it stop? As we learn more and more about our brains there will be more and more fodder for manipulation. More opportunities to make peoples’ choices for them.

And, on that frightful note, I leave you on this scariest of days prior to one of the most nationally important days (at least until the next election or something major happens) to ponder the choices you are to make and why you are making them.

36 Responses to “So Many Choices”

  1. So we are doomed to be lead by sheeple? :(

    While reading your entry here, I can’t help but to (once again) feel rather outside normal humanity… You and I seem to be fully aware of the fallibility of our brains, and take steps to temper our reactions and actions with that knowledge. Being a skeptic and thoughtful human being isn’t easy, but it sure is a lot more rewarding than being a simple animal just responding to external stimulus. I guess the REAL challenge is to encourage other people to do their own thinking as well.

  2. ejdalise says:

    The comment about conservative Republicans being better at marketing than liberal Democrats belies the fact there are rabid “believers” in both camps, and they appear to be evenly split. For thinking beings (a surprisingly small number) marketing can only do so much, and past that there has to be some substance to what is being sold. Not so for the extremes. Worse yet, neither side can claim a moral high ground.

    At the extremes people support everything one party does and denigrates everything the other party does. Call them the non-thinkers, and neither party has a monopoly in them, and sadly there are a vast number of them out there as the centrists seem to be migrating to one side or the other.

    I believe the last few national elections have highlighted this, and if anything it seems to be getting worse with the current race. We have stopped looking at the individuals who are running for office, and just base our approval on what party they are on. And the candidates are no better; they echo party lines even when it does not make sense. In a way, it is a feedback system that is heading toward a very ugly and limiting political landscape. One that apparently many people are happy with.

    Me? . . . I’m still hoping for some passing spaceship to come take me off this rock.


  3. BillDarryl says:

    Why stop at childhood influences? After reading David Sloan Wilson’s “Evolution for Everyone,” my brain has been churning about how much of our “free will” is pre-programmed evolutionary behavior.

    How can we honestly believe we’re making free will decisions solely based on tenets of reason (a recent human development) when you stack it against almost 400,000 years of learned human experiences and decision making?

    Watching marketers from this perspective, of exploiting our evolutionary history (fear of the “other,” the need to eat, the drive to procreate), was at first facinating, but turned to feelings of dread when I realized that I am inextricably in that pack as well, driven by forces so huge I don’t stand a chance against them.

    So I may think I’m “choosing”… but am I really?

    (side note – how interesting the debates on “free will” can move from the purely religious sphere to a purely scientific one and still be no less thorny!)

  4. Skepdude says:

    Honestly I think that sometimes people worry way to much about this notion of free will. Why does it matter if free will is completely free or if some (emphasis on the word some) things are preprogrameed in our brains? I know we humans possess some degree of free will. As long as we are free to make choices, as long as the choice has not been made for us, no one can deny that free will exists. The degree is debatable.

    I can choose to read the Skepticblog and I can choose not to. And that has not been preprogrammed. When a pretty woman crosses my path on the street, I will glance quite involuntarily. That is one of those preprogrammed things, but I can choose if I will approach her or not. That’s free will to me, the ability to make a choice and I categorically deny that all choices have been made for me (as some people may assert, although not the author of this blog entry thankfully!)

    It is easy to get carried away with this and take a very extreme positions, but as with most things the true answer lies somewhere in the middle. Absolute free will? Absolutely not! Absolutely no free will? Absolutely not. We have control over some things but not others and that should be more than enough for anyone really.

  5. Max says:

    “Free will” is full of supernatural overtones. Here, it stands for “rational” or “conscious” thinking, since it was contrasted with subconscious. Anyways, we mostly just rationalize our irrational beliefs.

    And don’t tell me that Democrats don’t have predictable knee-jerk reactions to triggers like “multinational corporation”, SUV, green, progressive, etc. Heck, just mentioning Bush can reduce smart people into wailing babies. You know, “progressive” is a dirty word in Eastern Europe, after the Communists abused it.

  6. ejdalise says:

    I can’t even guess at the number of discussion I’ve had with other skeptics arguing for the complete mastery of evolution over reason. I maintain reason should be able to overcome evolutionary programming. If not, than there is no difference between animals and ourselves. “There isn’t!!” they respond.

    And yet they, for instance, argue against the death penalty on the grounds that it diminishes us as humans.

    Which is it grass-hopper? Are we humans with reasoning skills which allow us to eschew our evolutionary impulses, fears, and conditioning, or are we animals bound by responses ingrained into our psyche? In my book the differentiation between the two is that capacity for reason to trump evolution. That is not to say I consider all hominids “human”.

  7. BillDarryl says:


    Good post, get your point. I think you hit a crucial difference in specifying the “capacity for reason” vs. reason. If we have the capacity to reason, but still don’t, are we not then bound to our evolutionary past?

    Reason dictates that we shouldn’t overeat, and that excessive junk food leads to an early grave. Yet the world is obese and keeps eating the worst foods. Our ingrained need for food to survive is running wild over reason.

    Reason would minimize or remove the figure of God as described in ancient texts. Yet religious fervor for ancient Gods continues in all cultures.

    Reason would conclude that tribal warfare will lead to dead tribesmen and enormous expenses of resources, while cooperation would lead to greater long term success. Yet we continue to turn to war for resolving tribal (national) conflicts.

    These are oversimplified examples, but you get my gist – just because we can reason doesn’t seem to hold much sway in whether we actually have the ability to use that reason to short-circuit our programming. So… are we making choices through reasoning, or are we really just thinking about reason while making choices based on programming?

  8. Phil says:

    The good old free will talk. An inevitable discussion amongst skeptics.

    A few of you bring up the “programming” analogy with regards to the human brain, and I’m glad you have. Skepticism leads to a materialist outlook on the world. The mind is most certainly a result of the physical processes going on in the brain.

    Now the very idea that humans have “free will” is sort of ridiculous coming from a materialist stand point. Humans have no more power in their reasoning than a computer does. Free will implies that we have some sort of supernatural power to overcome the natural processes of the material in our brain.

    So as a skeptic, I must say that the idea of “free will” is not based in reality. Just because something is too complicated for us to understand (yet), doesn’t mean there is any lack of order in nature (roughly quoted from Einstein).

    Now the common rebuttal to this is that, “I can choose to wear red or blue shoes today, there is no programming for that.” Well actually, there is. Responses to stimuli are all based on past experience, and predictable behavior is the result of that experience.

  9. Danny McCaslin says:

    I think you’re overthinking free will. It does not necessarily have supernatural overtones. At least, free will in the sense that I am making decisions based on external stimuli. It’s a difficult think, because, like Robert Frost, you can never go back and take the other road, so it’s difficult to see where these decisions are coming from. But people make changes. People start and stop using drugs. People fall in and out of love. And don’t we eschew a number of our evolutionarily heredited behaviors for the sake of morals and ethics?

    I think it’s fairlt safe to say that we’re programmed, and it’s not just childhood or evolution; it’s everyday. We can see it in our response to marketing, our response to trends, etc. We make decisions based on this programming. If you must argue that all behavior is preprogrammed, you have to recognize that the programming is malleable.

    Essentially, Phil, when you say that response to stimuli is based on past experience, I could easily say that response to stimuli is based on learning theory, and learning more about the world allows us to make more informed decisions.

    In short; sure we’re all preprogrammed, but we can very easily change the programming when we take in new information. The information that we are likely to take in is preprogrammed, unless it is forced on us. People are predictable, but they don’t have to be.

  10. Dr. T says:

    Isn’t this blog supposed to be written by skeptics? So, where’s the skepticism about this far-fetched theory? Don’t extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs?

    I see no evidence that Republican politicians have taken great advantage of the “programmed predictability” established in our childhoods. We don’t grow up like chicks or ducklings that imprint on a parent (who has the limited, predictable behavior pattern of a bird). We grow up in vastly different environments and have diverse behavior patterns and beliefs.

    I read studies ~10 years ago showing that peer influences are greater than inborn, parental, or school influences. And, to some extent, we chose our childhood peer groups. Therefore, even if adult behaviors are prone to “programmed reactions,” there would be too many different programs for politicians to manipulate.

  11. Andrew says:

    Not only is “Free Will” the ultimate argument from ignorance, it is the holiest of sacred cows, among skeptics and non-skeptics alike.

    To think that a choice could have different outcomes if repeated in exactly the same physical conditions is absurd.

    Both consciousness and choices are real phenomena. They are incredibly complex physiological processes involving memory, external stimuli and the structure neurological condition of the brain at the time. I think everyone can agree this is well established, so from where do people get the idea of free will? One function of the brain, consciousness, influences another ,decision making, and the effect is bidirectional. This happens all the time. When people back up the notion of free will by claiming “I make choices,” they seem to forget that “I” is a neurological process.

    Obviously the structure of the brain has been “pre-programmed” by evolution; the way a creature perceives itself and the decisions it makes are essential to its survival. But in a way this is besides the point. Both consciousness and choice are physical processes, which interact with other physical processes and are bound by the physical constraints by the universe. The structure of the brain is a physical factor in a physical process.

  12. Danny McCaslin says:


    The fact that “I” is a neurological process is exactly what makes free will free. If you make a substitution between your sentences, essentially you have just said “My neurological processes make choices.” That is the very definition of free will.

    We know that people can make changes, and we know that the impetus for change is internal rather than external. We know that choices made for internal reasons (i.e., because I want to do it) are more likely to remain longer than choices made for external reasons (i.e., my wife/girlfriend/mother wants me to do it). “Choice” i a physiological process, and that is exactly why free will exists. You make the choice, your neurology makes the choice, it’s all the same. At least, I tend to walk around thinking I own my brain.

    Arguing that free will doesn’t exist because we are limited by the neural pathways, memory, and sensory input would have to involve arguing that neural pathways, memory, and sensory input have some sort of sentience beyond the individual,and that this sentience is controllin you. The difference between free will and determinism is the difference between “I can make choices” and “Everything has already been planned out for me by something else and I have no real control overthe direction of my life.” In order for someting else to be controlling your destiny, there has to be a something else. The only problem is that there IS no “something else.”

  13. gzur says:

    The question of free will, when it boils down to it presents you with a simple choice. Either reject free will or reject causality. The two are essentially mutually exclusive.

    Either all “choices” stem from a network of prior causes and anything that happens is inevitable, given causes that precedes it, or we have some “magical” ability to transcend cause-and-effect and suddenly make hermetically spontaneous “choices” with little more than a passing glance to what came before.

    Free-will is actually a very handy cognitive illusion, since it abstracts away the ridiculously complex mechanisms that underly anything we do, but like most comforting illusions it comes at a price. And that price is that most of the time we have no idea why we do the stuff we do.

    And if this all sounds fatalistic, it’s just the social conditioning that stems from the idea of Free Will, for it’s an idea so enmeshed into western thought and language, that if you try having a conversation without copping out to phrases that imply free will, it will tend to get pretty convoluted pretty fast.

  14. Andrew says:

    Great post Gzur, I agree with you completely.


    You make a sound argument for the existence of will (we make choices and we are conscious of making them), but I don’t see how you tie this into freedom.

    If you agree that consciousness and decision making are complex physiological processes, that if you hypothetically replayed rewound the clock of time and replayed a decision over and over again with the same starting conditions the outcome would be the same, then I have no idea what we are arguing over.

    Semantics. That’s all it is. I’m not willing to argue over whether or not free is the right word to describe it because I know I’m not going to change any minds.

  15. Danny McCaslin says:


    First, let us both admit that we’re arguing from an untestable premise because we can’t rewind time.

    The freedom doesn’t come in what you choose or what you don’t choose. The freedom is in the fact that we do have a choice. The mind, consciousness, etc., is not come autonomous “other” that is controlling us; it IS us. That is the very definition of free will, that you are making the decisions, and that there is not someone else making them for you.

    I could concede most of your point buy hypothesize that if we could replay situations with the same variables, a small few would change. Think of restaurant behavior; do I want the chicken or the steak? It’s up in the air, the waitress is waiting, and make a decision based on nothing more than the fact that a decision is made. What’s to say I wouldn’t choose the other if we replayed the event? Again, it’s untestable, so we could never know the answer, but it makes for a good thought experiment.

  16. Peter says:

    In my opinion, someone who has the ability to manipulate the human mind should get my vote come election day. It just shows that they have a higher degree of intelligence in the field of marketing, and I will subconsciously congratulate them for it.

    To me it really doesn’t matter what is free will and what is subconsciously controlled, because to tell you the truth I trust my subconscious over my own thoughts any day of the week.

  17. wakethedead says:

    I often think how much of my decisions are based off predetermined mindsets that have already been created. We all think we really have a choice in our decisions but how much of that is predictable or probable?.

  18. Andrew says:


    Thanks for your reply, and for clarifying your position. Obviously this is more than just semantics. For the record, I agree that turning back time is completely unrealistic, but as you pointed out it is a useful thought experiment.

    Back to the restaurant scenario. To say that a physical event could have different outcomes, and that these different outcomes stem not from different starting conditions or the differences that could occur at the quantum level, but from human consciousness seems borderline dualism. It goes contrary to every scientific theory I’ve heard of except the perhaps the crud suggested by the pseudo-scientific documentary “what the bleep do we know.”

    Now not for a second do I think you endorse such rubbish. You just hold a common misconception which I’ll try to clear up. Physical processes beyond the quantum level are causal; they have one outcome. Only with quantum indeterminacy are there really multiple possible outcomes. Chance and probability are tools used by scientists to predict an outcome where not all the data is available. When flipping a coin, there’s not really a 50/50 chance the coin will land on heads or tails; it’s pseudo-chance. If a scientist had access to the enough data, they could determine the result of a coin toss every time. The result isn’t really random at all. Now here comes the interesting part. Even if the result was random, even if there were multiple outcomes, it leaves no more room for consciousness to affect the result then a causal coin toss does. In other words, even if quantum indeterminacy affected the macro world it wouldn’t affect free will.

    A coin toss is a complex physical process, and brain function is far more complicated again. Just because scientists don’t have all the data doesn’t mean its not causal.

    I have a feeling you already understand this and I’m misrepresenting what you think. Something I should we should have done earlier is define what we mean when we use the phrase “fee will.” For me, free will is the doctrine that humans are able to choose their actions without being caused to do so by external forces. It is this definition I find nonsensical, if you’re arguing for something else please clarify it so we’re on the same page.

    All brain function is causal. If external forces shape our will, how can it be free?

  19. sonic says:

    What does science say about the nature of reality-
    In the paper ‘An experimental test of non-local realism’ (Nature, April 2007), Gröblacher et al.

    “Most working scientists hold fast to the concept of ‘realism’—a viewpoint according to which an external reality exists independent of observation….
    Maintaining realism as a fundamental concept would therefore necessitate the introduction of ‘spooky’ actions that defy locality…
    Our result suggests that giving up the concept of locality is not sufficient to be consistent with quantum experiments, unless certain intuitive features of realism are abandoned.”

    So the experiments seem to indicate that nature is both ‘non-real’ and ‘non-local’. (As was predicted by the ‘orthodox’ interpretation of QM)

    Does that sound like pseudoscience to you? It might be time to reconsider that notion.

  20. sonic says:

    Regarding ‘free will’
    One of my favorite things to do is to work with golfers. To play her best the golfer must get her mind on the right things before each shot. There are lots of distractions and the nature of the game is to get the person’s mind off the right things.
    We often start with the notion of ‘free will’ by which I mean ‘you can by conscious choice get your mind on the right things’.
    This works very well. (My students do things like end up at the world championships…)
    So if working matters, then free will exists in the sense that you have some control over your thoughts.

  21. James says:

    This is a fascinating discussion. Thanks to all the posters (nd Kirsten too).

    sonic quoted:

    Maintaining realism as a fundamental concept would therefore necessitate the introduction of ’spooky’ actions that defy locality…

    Sorry, but I require some remedial help here. What are ‘spooky’ actions that are necessitated by realism and how do they ‘defy locality?’

  22. This has been a favorite and frightening subject for me for some time now. I think what ultimately matters is that the processes while technically predictable (like a very complex physics problem) feel as though I have some choice in the matter. Knowing just how little free will we actually do have makes a lot of sense. Speaking as someone with experience in drug addiction (the using side) the notion of free will is pretty nebulous. You often feel as though the choices you make are of your own free will, but ultimately are designated by committee (I think Dr. Novella described the decision making process within the brain like that; if that wasn’t you, Steven, I’m sorry.). In the case of intense reward we continue to rationalize, and even feel rational, the getting and using of drugs (‘reward’ type drugs primarily like cocaine, opiates, and methamphetamine like drugs are the main problems).

  23. Andrew says:


    Sorry but I don’t know what your trying to address with that first comment. I didn’t criticise quantum mechanics as being pseudo-scientific, and its not; it’s yielded better predictions than any other scientific theory to date. I said the film “What the bleep do we know” is pseudo-scientific because it posits that consciousness affects quantum mechanics and that through this human beings have the power to manipulate reality.

    Misinterpreted on the internet, ah well it happens all the time :P.

    About your second comment,

    You might find the book Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett interesting. His definition of free will does not involve behavioural choice, but instead control. I accept definition of free will, but it is so different to the common meaning of the phrase that I think to use it in everyday speech would be misleading.

  24. Max says:

    Can’t we discuss brand loyalty without philosophizing over free will?

    So, where are kids being brainwashed by Republicans? Church, professional wrestling, and Boy Scouts? Or Sesame Street, Family Guy, YouTube, video games, rock and hip hop music, Hollywood celebrities, and public schools?

  25. ejdalise says:

    I am always amazed, and amused, when discussions of free will get into quantum theory and the nature of reality. Assuming for a moment we exist (in the famous words of Nellie, “start with assuming we don’t exist, and see how far that gets you”), we are then consider interaction with our surroundings. Again, let’s make another giant mental leap and buy into the fact we interact with out environment in a very real and immediate way (i.e. if you hit your finger with a hammer, you will experience and immediate and vivid reaction).

    My simple explanation of free will is we have the capacity for examining potential outcomes to a given action (ignoring for a moment emotions like anger and love) based on our past experiences and things we have read/heard/reasoned with respect to life as we know it. Choices are then made based on our understanding of the consequences of our actions. Some may choose short term gains for a possible long term risk, while others opt for short term sacrifice for long term gains. Those are just two of a myriad of possible actions with respect to an almost infinite amount of choices we face every day.

    Most of the time the majority of choices are not worth pondering (breathing, the exact placement of our feet as we walk, the food we eat, or even what we think about at any given time) as they are inconsequential to our immediate future. But sometimes even those are of extreme importance (i.e. if you are walking a narrow ledge you might plan each step very carefully).

    So, let’s assume free will really comes into play when a measure of importance is involved in the decision to be made. I will grant there are a number of actions one might take that can be classified as “automatic” based on what has worked before, and sometimes emotions override reason, and even honor, duty, and loyalty can affect particular decisions. But in even all those instances a decision is being made that often will counter what would be dictated by “evolutionary training”. Free will then can be viewed as the capacity to assign differing import to certain particulars when considering a course of action. The criteria we use are uniquely human, and changes with each individual as we understand more of ourselves and the world around us.

    Ah, some will say, but assigning importance is a process governed by evolution, or even scarier, chemical imbalances in one’s brain.

    . . . fine, there’s no arguing with some people. Ultimately I rather live with even the illusion of control rather than contemplate what I do is anything more than the inevitable result of the Big Bang. So, I’ll continue to rigorously self examine my thinking and my actions based on what I learn every day, and those who don’t believe in free will can live their lives as no more than weeds in the evolutionary stream.

    p.s. I was once chastised about making long comments on blogs. It’s good to see I am not the only one. I tend to write a lot because I find people tend to pick apart arguments based on implied rather than specifically stated ideas. That way, when I bet a rebuttal, it has a greater chance of actually relating to what I wrote.

  26. Andrew says:


    Many people argue that the existence of quantum indeterminacy is somehow evidence for free will. That line of reasoning doesn’t make sense, and I thought I’d deal with that before someone criticised me for ignoring it.

    None of your arguments address anything at the scientific level; in other words they’re just useless opinion statements. Personally I’m amazed and amused me that you think you can argue for the existence of free will by only looking at a simplistic non-scientific level.

    It’s really saddens me when true believers tell me that my lack of belief will result in a sub-par life. You really need to get this into your head: your belief does not make you special and my lack of belief does not make me inferior. Don’t assume that your colourful belief does enriches your life in a way I’ll never understand. Ad-Hominem attacks don’t make up for lack of scientific evidence.

    Lack of belief in free will doesn’t inevitably lead to fatalism. My experiences are no less real than yours and neither are my choices. I am as “free” and in “control” as any sentient being in the universe can be. As a result of everything before me, I am a creature which makes choices based on logic, reason, and self-interest. This is not free will; it’s better than free will.

  27. Free will vs. determinism. I choose both. I figure my body is going to do whatever it is going to do before my brain is fully aware of it (I know, faulty Cartesian dualism). But the fun free will part is where I get to come up with neat explanations for my behavior like I was drunk or I’m a Democrat or my mom dropped me on my head when I was little or God/evolution/advertisements made me do it or I ate a Twinky.

    As long as you know you are making it up with no reference to actual causality, it can be great sport. I wrote this post because my new born son urinated on my shirt … no, really, just happened, what other explanation could there be?

  28. ejdalise says:


    1) ad-hominem attacks against whom? If you feel I attacked you or your views, please accept my apologies. I was merely expressing an opinion. For the record, I’m also amused by people who profess political affiliations, loyalty to sports teams, and an emotional attachment to their alma mater. I’m sure you would be amused by my interest in guns, salami sandwiches, and comfortable underwear (not in that order). The fact we hold differing opinions does not per se imply a hierarchical relationship between us; perhaps we are both wrong, and thus inferior in the eyes of a third. (BTW, should I consider your response an attack, self-defense for a perceived attack, or just an opinion among many?)

    2) you want me to address free will (a philosophical construct)in terms of science? Sorry, nothing to test. At best it is a mental exercise, something I thought I was doing. Perhaps no one is interested in my views, and that’s fine. I’m was merely pondering what the relationship of an individual’s actions are relative to what one might call free will. If my arguments seem simplistic, it’s because said relationship in my view is simplistic; we think, hence we make conscious, reasoned choices. Hence my arguments along those lines. One could argue on the degree individuals choose to exercise such ability, but that’s a different argument.

    3)You say: “As a result of everything before me, I am a creature which makes choices based on logic, reason, and self-interest.” I thought that is very nearly what I said. Perhaps I was too verbose; obtuse, even. The only deviation I had from your view is allowing the possibility that self-interest (and even the fabled “survival instinct”) sometimes takes a back seat to other (arguably) uniquely human considerations.

    Regardless, in a discussion on free will each individual’s view and understanding of it will guide their arguments. Your statement roughly matches my view of free will, but whether you want to label it as such, or not, is totally up to you. Suffice it to say we agree in general terms. Perhaps we should call it “response to external stimuli based on reason as opposed to instinct”. I’m sure some would disagree with that as well.


  29. Andrew says:

    Sorry ejd!

    I mistook the whole “weeds in the evolutionary stream” thing as an insult and I went way over the top. You’re right, free will is just a philosophical construct and I’m beginning to realise that for the majority of critically thinking skeptics the issue is semantic more than anything else.

    “Response to external stimuli based on reason as opposed to instinct” is certainly a great definition of that murky concept we’ve been talking about. I still think that any label which contains the word “free” is a poor one. The decisions we make may be reasoned and run contrary to our biological instincts, but they’re still constrained by causality.

    I wonder what alternative phrases we could use instead?

  30. ejdalise says:

    No need to apologize. It’s a discussion about complex issues, using imperfect language, and devoid of the all-important face to face.

    As far as cause and effect, I see them a step toward wisdom, which in turn goes a long way toward aiding the decision-making process. A self-regulating process, if you will. I would agree that as humans in a social and commercial environment (and with ever increasing numbers of fellow humans) our choices are increasingly constrained by conventions. Violating them often exact consequences best avoided, so in effect we can’t always do/act as we might want, or even think is right. Still, within the framework of our environment I think we have a fair amount of latitude as to individuality of action. Then again, those large number of people mean on a macro scale there will be many others acting like us . . . perhaps that is more a statement about individualism than with regards to free will.


  31. Danny McCaslin says:

    Okay, I’m back after Saturday’s night of wild drinking, and apparently a calm debate has turned into a bit of a fight. Let me clarify my point:

    Andrew, I never said that I believed any of the garbage from the [bleep] movie, and frankly I don’t know how you jumped to that conclusion. I didn’t say anything about quantum indeterminacy. I argued that in situations where the subject is “on the fence” and has no major vested interest in the outcome, a repeat performance may yield different results. In a repeat performance of the “chicken or steak” example, I may glance around for a second longer, see someone eating a steak, and say steak instead of chicken. I don’t have any serious beliefs about either option, and in the end I don’t care, as long as I get fed.

    I would say that we would have to at least concede that the math is nonlinear. Tiny variations in the data affect thought. But I will say this again. You and your brain are one of the same. The argument for free will is that you make choices. If your choices are made by your brain, they are still being made by you. Andrew’s argument above, that we are not free because we are limited by the causality of our brains, reeks of dualism. Your brain is part of you, therefore, you are making the decisions.

  32. sonic says:

    Andrew, Danny,
    If you want to base your thinking in what our best science has to say, consider investigating this–
    Apr 20, 2007
    Quantum physics says goodbye to reality
    …physicists from Austria claim to have performed an experiment that rules out a broad class of hidden-variables theories that focus on realism — giving the uneasy consequence that reality does not exist when we are not observing it (Nature 446 871).

    That’s a description of the experiments I referenced earlier. The movie you refer to was an entertainment. The idea that they presented is a part of the best physics around, supported by experiment, promoted by some of the greatest minds in history. If you have some way of knowing it’s wrong, a Nobel Prize awaits.

    Mark, locality, and realism are technical terms that are not hard to understand. Start with an explanation of ‘Bell’s theorem’ that you can understand. (There are a bunch on the web.)

    The bigger picture- the notion that there is some fact from science that rules out free will is a mistaken idea.

  33. Andrew says:


    I read the article sometime last year, I’m still don’t understand how this links to either consciousness or free will.

    The majority of physicists reject consciousness-dependant interpretations of quantum mechanics as being the least plausible. I’m not sure where this quote comes from, but it’s a good one:

    “Was the wave function waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer for some highly qualified measurer – with a PhD?” In other words, what happened in the billions of years before beings sufficiently intelligent to make conscious measurements of wave functions evolved?

    About the movie – the idea they presented is definitely not part of the best physics around, and most of the material in that movie is not supported by experiment.!%3F#Reception

    You may want to read the academic reaction section.


    I’m sorry I misrepresented you, I knew you didn’t endorse the movie and I said as much, I just thought that your views bordered on dualism. Obviously they don’t.

    In regards to repeating the restaurant performance, how could glance for any longer if the duration of your glance is constrained by causality? The crux of my argument is that everything that happens on the macro level is causal, and therefore “free” is a poor label.

    I didn’t mean to cause as much argument as I have. I know from experience debates are a lousy form of communication that serve only to polarise debaters. With this in mind I’ll stop commentating on this particular entry.

  34. Andrew says:

    Sorry for misrepresenting anyone, or for aggravating useless argument. Debates such as this serve only to polarise those arguing and with that in mind I think I’ll stop commenting on this particular blog entry.

  35. Mahala says:

    I enjoyed very much reading all of your thoughts and premises. I have the same thoughts but not the background or language to express them.

  36. sonic says:

    I hope I didn’t have anything to do with your decision.