Determinists Strike Back Part 2

8Thank you, Robot Philosopher, for providing material with additional pro-determinism material with which to convince my students that I am not inventing strawman positions that no one believes. As will become quickly obvious, bullet point statements come from me. I hope it is clear from the context that I am often arguing against my own beliefs and just trying to get a determinist to follow his own logic.

  • “If determinism is true, there is no “you” to have preferences or not. Only agents have preferences.”

Says who? Human action, at its foundation, is no different than one of those small robots programmed to point its camera at the floor and follow the black line where it leads. Humans are simply much more complicated and have much more programming – the choices we make generally much more complex – but we follow the same sequence when determining our course. When the robot makes a “choice” to veer left to follow the line, it has done nothing but reference its programming and equations and variables to their inevitable conclusions. Humans do nothing except reference our programming (genetic, chemical, societal, etc) in order to come to also inevitable conclusions (at least, in the conscious decisions which you would claim we “freely” make).

[Robot Philosopher had claimed that there is nothing nihilistic about such a view.]

  • You pretty much make all my points and then some in your first paragraph. There is not much more to say. Utter nihilism. According to you, human beings are little robots following black lines on the floor. You literally write that we are “no different” from that. We make no choices. What appears to be choices is “nothing but” our programming. Little robots following black lines do not have “preferences.” They do what they are told. If it made any sense to refer to “preferences,” it would be the preferences of their programmers.
  • All of that follows directly from your assumptions about human beings. Iain McGilchrist calls it the philosophy of “nothing butterism.” Humans are nothing but…
  • You have no evidence for any of that and it seems a radically inadequate way of characterizing human consciousness and behavior. See

From the article:

  • 7“Sometimes I bring to class a plastic doll called the “Yes Man.” When turned on and tapped on the head, the Yes Man utters pre-recorded statements that all signify agreement. “When you’re right, you’re right.” “I couldn’t agree with you more completely.” “Say, I wish I’d thought of that.” “I’m sure whatever you’re thinking is correct.” The doll is manufactured as a parody of an ingratiating employee of a company hoping to get ahead by being agreeable and making his boss feel good. I bring it to class as a rebuttal of the computer theory of mind – the idea that human beings are mindless, algorithm-following automatons, i.e., machines. This is not what we are like is the intended implication.
  • Once I showed it to a fellow professor, explaining why I used it in class, and the person said “But that is what people are like; only more complicated.”
  • This person had once confessed to me that in a whole class of people practicing techniques used in Rogerian counseling where one “mirrors” the meaning and emotional component of what someone has just said to you, (“I’m upset that my boss doesn’t understand me” is met by “Not being understood can feel frustrating”) she had been the worst at figuring out what other people were feeling or what emotions they were expressing verbally. This lack seems likely to have contributed to her imagining that we human beings are just more complicated versions of the Yes Man.
  • 9
  • The Yes Man is literally mechanical. He is not conscious. He understands nothing. His ability to speak English exists only because an actual English-speaker had his voice recorded, someone else stuck it on a chip and someone else again put it inside the doll. This woman was telling me that this is what it is like to be her. She, apparently, experiences herself to be just like the Yes Man but with a wider repertoire of pre-recorded responses. The implication is that she is not capable of thought, understanding or feeling. She experiences herself as a mindless automaton – a plastic toy from a joke shop.”
  • If we humans are just bags of circuits, or whatever mechanical description you want to give us, then it makes no sense to talk about “you,” only “it.” There is a bunch of circuits in the corner. OK. So what? Well, there is another bunch of circuits called a computer. OK. Now there is another bunch of circuits. I’m going to call that bunch of circuits by the pronoun “you.” Why? No reason at all! Well. I’m not going to go along with that. The first bunch is an “its.” The second bunch is an “its.” And the third bunch is an “its.” Hence, there is no “you” if determinism is true. Anything you say against my position is arguing FOR my position, so have at it.

None of that programming can we honestly say we had a choice in how to interpret/perceive and therefore any outcome was likewise not freely chosen. In that sense, robots show the exact same amount of “agency” over what they do. ie: they follow their programming and nothing more. Would you agree?

  • I would agree absolutely. Following your assumptions, robots and humans have the same degree of agency. None. Feel free to prove that humans and robots are the same at any point.
  • 10I am part way through reading The Matter With Things by Iain McGilchrist. He is both a psychiatrist and a philosopher. His main interest is right and left hemisphere functional differences. What I am about to say is an ad hominem. Schizophrenics and sufferers from autism do not have the lateralization that other humans have, namely, a well-differentiated role for the right and left hemisphere. The right hemisphere is the one that is in charge of well-functioning, normal human beings. The RH is responsible for Gestalts, our sense of living organisms, emotions, time as flow, intuition, and it connects us with reality rather than theories, concepts, and maps. The left hemisphere (LH) is merely there for logic, reason, and representations of the lived world. Delusional people, psychiatrists tell us, suffer from an excess of reason, not a deficiency. They are often perfectly logical, but, operating from faulty assumptions and an inadequate connection to reality, they draw the wrong conclusions. For people where the RH is not dominant, they have a sense that other people, and themselves, are not real: that, in fact, they are robots or actors playing a part. Everything seems to be merely a simulation. This is literally how schizophrenic people experience the world. So, the “we are all robots” people literally tend to be suffering from a mental disorder and should be pitied. Analytic philosophy, neurologists, and many others often strangely resemble these dysfunctional people. Some of them are actually autistic. I had one such colleague. His facial expression never changed; a telltale sign.
  • “and your beliefs and preferences are irrelevant have no effect on anything.”

I see I was correct that you think the ultimate end of determinism must be nihilism.

This, I believe, is patently untrue and it ignores entirely my argument I made previously. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t choose to possess the belief that I want a good life.

  • There is no “you” to choose anything. Everything is a sequence of events put in place by the Big11 Bang according to your own metaphysical beliefs.
  • What on earth would “a good life” mean for a mindless automaton with no free will? Or, if it has a mind, a mind that is trapped within the automaton with no ability to alter a single thing about its life?
  • If you did not choose a good life, why should it worry you if you are denied a good life? I have no choice about how I argue, or what I do, and neither do you. What does “you” are “worried” mean in this context anyway? Automatons are neither “you” nor “worried.” The illogicality of determinists is one of the most abhorrent and repulsive aspects of determinism. As a fan of logic, properly applied, I admit I find this distressing.

Yet, I have that preference.

  • There is no “I.” “You” are bunch of circuits. You are an it. You think we are all machines, and thus, inanimate. If you do not. Have at it.
  • “Preferences” are irrelevant. Who gave you those preferences? You are a slave, a mechanism, and a nullity. Its do not have meaningful preferences. You cannot act on those preferences, since only agents act. You, unfortunately, are caught up in a meaningless charade. You are not enough of a determinist. Get with the program!

If I make good choices – regardless of whether I freely chose them – my life will be more pleasant to experience.


  • There is no you. There are no choices. Every single determinist will back me on that one. Choice is a pure illusion. It does not exist! You already said so in your opening statement. You are doing what you are programmed to do by genes and environment, but really, the Big Bang. Please make up your mind if you really want to be a determinist or not.
  • In what sense is it “my life?” Its life?
  • “You” do not exist. All that exists is a sequence of events. How can the possessive “my” possibly apply? Somehow, determinists never seem to go far enough. Go big or go home. There is no “you,” and “I,” just meaningless events.
  • So, you have “preferences.” What does that even mean in this context? Who cares? Does a computer have “preferences?” No. You are a computer. Nothing more.
  • What is “life?” As one determinist I know states, “life” is a poorly defined concept. No one has ever been able to supply the necessary and sufficient conditions to define “life.” Every attempt has failed. And, as we all know, anything we do not understand, “life,” “freedom,” “beauty,” obviously does not exist. That would be, not incidentally, the left hemisphere tendency of thought.

 *Whether or not my choices are free, I can still perceive experiences as good or bad.*

  • There is no “I.” Just circuits. So, no there is no “I” perceiving anything.13
  • What exactly is “experience?” I do not believe that is well-defined. That would require consciousness and an “I.”
  • At this point in the argument, you are describing a horror show. You admit you have no control over anything. Events are simply happening. You cannot change them. You cannot change even how you react to them. You chuckle, you cry, you moan. “You” are not doing anything. You have no agency. Therefore, there is no “you.” The Big Bang determined what you would do 13.5 billion years ago. At most you are a puppet. A marionette with someone else pulling the strings. “Your” “preferences” are a joke.
  • In this mixed up way of thinking, “you” are somehow conscious, but trapped. “You” have “experiences,” whatever those are, since they have not been scientifically defined, and you think some are “good” and some “bad.” But, someone/something decided that for you.
  • Your opinion (again there is no you, but let’s just run with it) that something is “good” or “bad” has been assigned by someone or something else. They could have assigned you to think something else. Perhaps “bad” is really “good.” It makes no difference what your preferences are anyway. There is nothing you and I can do about it. Neither of us have agency.

I think that’s what you’re ignoring. And convincing others has an effect, regardless of whether either of us can fairly claim responsibility for such effect.

  • There is no “convincing” if determinism is true. There are merely sequences of events. You move that way. I move this way. You feel X. I feel Y. There is no real conscious human there to convince in the first place. And there is no “you” doing any convincing, nor can you convince a bunch of circuits. There is neither covincer, nor convincee.
  • You wrote: “When the robot makes a “choice” to veer left to follow the line, it has done nothing but reference its programming and equations and variables to their inevitable conclusions.”
  • Just face the consequences of your own line of reasoning. Please? Just for once?

I’ve never heard that before – that we cannot have preferences if true.

  • I was told that by a determinist twenty years ago: “I’ve never heard that before.” Not having heard of something before is a most puzzling and redundant rejoinder. I have never heard of all sorts of things that happen to be true. The statement seems to assume that not having heard of something is evidence that it is deficient in some way.
  • There is no “we” to have preferences. Just circuits and programming.
  • A preference implies goals and purposes. I prefer wine to sewer water. I prefer pleasure to pain. I intend to strive for one rather than the other. There are no goals and purposes in determinism. Determinism is predicated on cause and effect, not goal-driven behavior. If you happen to have a preference it was assigned by something else. The fact that you prefer something has nothing to do with you, just your programming. You might prefer to kill little old ladies than to help them cross the street. That does not make your preference good. It gives no reason for thinking your preferences should be satisfied. And, incidentally, there are no “shoulds” in determinism.

Nothing in determinism necessitates that end or even hints at it.

A computer can be programmed to attempt to convince people of things too, and I’m assuming we’d both agree that computers do not yet have consciousness.

  • Computers cannot “attempt” anything. That is a word borrowed from the language, metaphysics, and ontology of agency. That is intentional language involving goals. The same person who wrote that he had “never heard that before” all those years ago also suggested that computers argue. That is a hopelessly anthropomorphic conception of computers. If you respond that “to argue” means exactly the same thing for computers as it does for human beings, then human beings do not argue either and you cannot make your point.
  • Nobody can be convinced of anything if free will does not exist. “You” can cause “me” to alter my programming, but “you” are not actually “doing” anything and neither am “I.” A sequence of events has occurred. End of story.


And yet I’m also assuming we’d both agree that computers are nothing but causally determined physics in motion, yes?

  • Yes. Computers are causally determined physics in motion. Fortunately, capable of being programmed by us.

And as far as I know, most determinists (including myself) don’t necessarily believe everything that happened since the big bang was causally necessary, as quantum physics seems to have credibly shown that there is true randomness within reality.

  • Randomness is a problem for physical determinists. It is does not contribute to agency. Some sequences of events are random (let’s say). And some are determined.

But determinism is comfortably maintained without Laplace’s Demon. I think that confusion is mostly semantics, based on far outdated theories of determinism.

The best definition I’ve yet found on determinism (and I believe most popular, as it’s #1 on Google) is “the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will.”

  • That is fine with me.

As long as we have no choice over what our preferences are, free will is impossible in my view, and 100% of our preferences are governed by that which is out of our control. ie: “A man can do as he wills, but he cannot will as he wills.”

16 thoughts on “Determinists Strike Back Part 2

  1. Here are two things that I believe are reasons why people have a hard time believing in free will, the intuition and psychology behind the arguments, so to speak:

    There are all sorts of ways to model deterministic or random system because we cannot model free will. The idea that if something is real, we can model it. Since we cannot model free will, it must not be real. But of course that assumption is highly questionable.

    Also there is the idea that because free will is so important, a successful anti-determinist argument must be overwhelming in its force. But no such argument is forthcoming, whereas the materialistic world we live in provides substantial psychological force for a belief in determinism. The very way that we have to act and think to interact with the world and the concepts that are “in the air” add a subliminal weight to determinism.

    But that’s just not how arguments generally work. We do experience free will but because we always experience it, we usually take it for granted. So, the assumption that we should be overwhelmed by the truth of free will is an unfounded assumption.

      • Free will is incompatible with theism, for reasons that are kind of similar to those that you think make it incompatible with materialism.

        Consider: If God is omnipotent and omniscient, that is simply conceptually incompatible with man having agency and freedom, it simply makes no sense, in much the same way that mechanical determinism and agency are incompatible. If God has eternal knowledge of your entire life from birth to death, then at no point in that life are you free to choose any other course of action. Even if you feel you are free, you obviously are not, your actions have been determined from the foundation of the world.

        In both cases, the personal experience one has of being free is an illusion. Something else is in control, not us – mechanical forces or the will of the creator.

      • There is no contradiction between divine omniscience and creaturely freedom (whether temporal or aeviternal). That God knows everything eternally does not mean that he knows what we shall do before we do it. “Before” is a concept that pertains only to temporal things. In eternity, and to the Eternal One, there is no before. So, to say that God knows what we do from all eternity means only that he knows what we do as we do it.

        After all, until we have done what we do, our doing is not out there to be known in the first place, by any mind.

    • @NLR: Agreed. Absolutely everything hinges on free will, yet its existence is unprovable. So is determinism unprovable, but the scientism taught in schools primes us to find it plausible. It is very much a case of theory versus experience, left hemisphere versus right hemisphere. In this case, it is important to remember that it is the RH that is responsible for our sense of reality. The LH can follow validity, but not soundness. Soundness adds the extra requirement of truth. Validity is not enough to establish truth.

  2. The concept of “no self” relates to the fact that we experience our thoughts but we don’t know where they come from. If we don’t know where they come from and they seem to appear outside of our control much of the time, how can we take credit for them or assert free will (at least based on thought)? This is difficult to square because you run into an infinite regression. I decide to do something. Do I decide to decide to do it? Do I decide to decide to decide? Clearly there’s a point where things just happen without a preceding thought to make it happen.

    • Creativity is necessarily inexplicable. If we had an algorithm, it would not exist. Creative thoughts are a combination of the divine: the Ungrund, the causeless cause and our own temperament, personality, preferences, and life experiences reaching into the unknown and pulling out a result. Consciousness is ultimately a mystery with its basis in the spiritual, not physical, realm. See “Does the Concept of Metaphysical Freedom Make Sense?”

      • Yes agreed. I don’t think the mystery of it all negates free will or verifies determinism. At best it makes it unknowable from a logic perspective. But determinism feels incorrect to me.

      • Every single thing I care about would be negated if determinism were true so I am very motivated to find an alternative!

        When I came across the causeless cause idea l realized I had been looking for such a concept.

  3. Pingback: Re: Is This Philosophy Professor Strawmanning Determinism? – Robot Philosopher

  4. “Every single thing I care about would be negated if determinism were true so I am very motivated to find an alternative!”
    I wish I had read that before finishing my response. :p

    Thanks, again, Richard. I have enjoyed this conversation and would be fully interested in continuing the discussion, if you so choose.

    My response post is here:

  5. “Assuming materialism is true, free will is impossible.”

    I don’t see what this has got to do with materialism or immaterialism. If a thing can make different choices starting with exactly the same circumstances, then it is making random choices. It doesn’t make any difference whether the thing making the choices is made of material gearwheels and pulleys, or immaterial spirit.

    • I’m not sure this comment is worth posting, but here it is. I’m simply going to deny that making different choices in exactly the same circumstances means the choices are random.

  6. “But determinism feels incorrect to me.”

    Yes, Winston I think that is basically the strongest argument I have seen for free will. We know what it’s like to have multiple options and to choose one. We experience free will, so why not just take that experience seriously?

    Science and philosophy begins and ends within human consciousness, via the experience of the senses and reasoning. For that reason, our basic experience of life is on the same footing and actually should even be given more weight than any particular scientific or philosophical theory. And we experience free will.

    Even if we can’t say exactly why any particular determinist argument is wrong, we have the positive evidence of the experience of free will. A doctor doesn’t need to prove that his patient can’t possibly have any other disease to be confident in his diagnosis.

  7. Pingback: Determinists Strike Back, Part 3 – The Orthosphere


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.