Determinists Strike Back, Part 3

1The following arguments should be prefaced with the fact that arguing for determinism, and thus about determinism, is irrational, in the same way that it is pointless to argue with someone who will not follow the law of noncontradiction.  This should be admitted up front in case this is not immediately clear and readers later come to feel like they have been led up the garden path. They are being led up that path. Thomas F. Bertonneau pithily described determinism as the denial of consciousness. Not having as much exposure to academic philosophy, he left it at that. In what follows, Robot Philosopher disconcertingly does write that he believes in “experience,” a concept that depends on consciousness, but it is a nightmare version with no substance to it, since there is no “I,” doing the experiencing, and the experiencer has no ability to alter anything. “His” reactions to that experience have nothing to do with “him” either. Experience in this context seems a little like a bare recording device existing in a giant stream of causation. Without agency, it can be a passive observer only. Better never to be born. There could be some interest in viewing someone else’s life, one that you had no control over, except this vicarious experience would be meaningless because the life one is observing has no conscious mediation either, just grains of sand being blown by the wind.[1]

So, why bother debating a determinist when no sane person should do so? Well, unlike Descartes, one should admit the possibility that one is insane. Be that as it may, materialism as a metaphysical theory is popular. Materialism can only imply determinism. Free will cannot possibly be defended without appeal to something nonmaterial being causally efficacious, specifically, the causeless cause: the Ungrund. While it is not possible to be a consistent living nihilist, unless fear is the only thing stopping you from killing yourself as some students of mine once claimed, nihilism and despair are permanent human temptations. So, it can be worthwhile rehearsing the arguments for why despair might be unjustified, at least on this topic. Also, professors are constantly exposing students to the theory of determinism and, generally being atheists these days, they usually embrace it themselves. As such, they provide no antidote to this despairing philosophy. Hence, the need for someone else to do so.

From The Illogicality of Determinism:

“Physical determinism is the notion that all events, including thoughts and actions, are the result of cause and effect. Each effect is the result of a prior cause. Each effect is also the cause of some new effect, creating an endless causal chain.

C→E/C→E/C  . . .

From this point of view, every event is “necessary.” Given the cause, the effect must occur. Exactly what “must” and “necessary” mean here philosophers have found it difficult to say.

Every event is thought to be unavoidable in some way and a “necessary” consequence of preceding events.

If the Big Bang is taken as the first physical cause, then all subsequent events can be regarded as the result of that first cause, when time began. Thus, according to determinism, since the beginning of time, everyone’s thoughts and actions have been pre-determined and unavoidable. No deviation from this predestination is possible on this view. The “events” referred to would seem to include thoughts, on the assumption that brains generate consciousness.

However, if physical determinism is true then the person arguing for it has no choice as to whether he believes in physical determinism or not, nor whether he argues for determinism or not. He is in the grip of physical forces beyond his control. It is as though someone pushed the cosmic “play” button and the arguer starts arguing for something he never had any choice but to believe and to argue for. He is the victim of circumstance. Why should any attention be paid to such a victim – to such a mindless and compulsive machine – to such an idiot? He has an unfortunately not so rare form of Tourette’s syndrome and should be pitied.

It is a farce. The farce gets worse when the person being blasted with this nonsense is considered. According to determinism, the interlocutor too has no choice whether he listens to the sounds the other madman makes, for he too is mad. He listens or does not listen compulsively. He agrees or does not agree with the determinist’s argument through no free will of his own. While the arguer is a cosmic tape machine playing its predetermined recording, the interlocutor is affected by blind physical forces himself. The outcome of this travesty masquerading as “reasoning” has been predetermined since the beginning of time and the exercise is pointless.

The image of two tape machines alone in a room together playing their scripted comments and responses comes to mind. Nobody and nothing is really asserting anything nor really responding. Determinism is consciousness denying. No meaningful “thinking” is occurring if the determinist is right.

Determinism has reflexive implications – it applies to the person arguing for determinism. All determinists that I have met in practice imagine that they can freely decide when and if they will argue for determinism. They imagine that it is possible to step in and out of determinism like it is a river. But determinism does not leave room for an “inside” and an “outside;” that’s the whole point. If it were possible to freely choose when to do something and when not to do something determinism would be false.

Some determinists argue that computers are deterministic machines that argue and can produce valid arguments and that proves that meaningful argument and physical determinism are compatible. This is supposed to support the notion that there is no problem imagining that arguing human beings are deterministic machines. The notion of deterministic computers is meant to provide evidence that humans might be deterministic.


However, computers are the product of human minds. They are explicitly programmed to do the things programmers want them to do. They argue as the programmers determine. As John Searle’s Chinese Room argument demonstrates, computers understand nothing – neither the input nor their own output. Computers are the physical medium by which human beings communicate with each other or derive answers to computational questions or do the things we wish. They are not the product of blind deterministic physical forces. Humans are governing what they do. If computers seem intelligent, it is because humans are.

If the determinist claims that computers are indeed the product of deterministic forces because human thought is the product of deterministic forces, then the determinist has simply assumed humans are not free in order to prove that humans are not free! Instead of using computers to prove that humans are determined, the determinist assumes humans are determined to prove that computers are determined to prove that humans are determined.

The purpose of a philosophical argument is supposed to be to provide evidence for controversial assertions. It is logically possible that determinism is true, but it is not logically possible to persuade someone that determinism is true because determinism precludes the possibility of logic and genuine persuasion in the context of controversial assertions.

Any argument that expresses skepticism about consciousness or the ability to think rationally is problematic and generates self-refuting paradoxes since the arguer is using the very thing he is arguing is untrustworthy to arrive at the conclusion that this thing is untrustworthy.

Reasoning and mindless physical forces are incompatible. If the phrase “mindless physical forces” seems question-begging, and mindful physical forces are postulated instead, then qualities of mind are being attributed to physical forces. This results in the situation where mind is thought to be affecting matter affecting mind, with matter as a simple intermediary between two aspects of mind – a cosmic mind (a giant thinking nature) and a parochial mind (human minds).” Thus, the determinist would turn into an idealist and idealism does not imply determinism since physical cause and effect disappear.”

An argument is an attempt to persuade but the concepts of “persuasion” or “rationality” make no sense in a deterministic view of things. There is simply an unstoppable causal chain, a sequence of events. Without agents, centers of consciousness, there is no one there to be persuaded or to do the persuading. “You” are not “persuading” “me.” That would be three illusions denoting no reality whatsoever. Robot Philosopher accepts as much right at the end of this very long exchange, which will be found in Part 4. He spends a long time objecting to my objections about his use of words like “you,” and “I,” “convince,” and “goals,” but then concedes this:

“Strangely, that is not as rewarding to us humans as pretending we all have agency and free will and all of that which you are clutching to your chest. Our preferences are better met with all the gooey middle parts. With pretending we have vast choices and wallowing in our ignorance of the complexity of cause and effect. With heaping meaning onto our inevitable fates. That’s why we use words like “we” and “I” and “convince” and “goals” and such. But it is nothing more than a reward system attempting to satisfy our preferences.”

When the time comes, I will explain that “rewards” and “preferences” only make sense as concepts in a world where consciousness is causally efficacious. “Incentives” only apply to sentient creatures with alternative courses of action available to them. There are no such things in determinism. You do not hold out a little carrot (gas can?) to coax your car into moving, only your donkey.

Robot Philosopher responds to Determinists Strike Back Part 2, to paraphrase a little at the beginning without, hopefully, altering any meaning:

Professor Cocks[2] believes that we cannot have preferences if determinism is true, because we are merely existing in a reality of cause and effect. We are “automatons.” In fact, you’re not allowed to use words like “I” and “you”, or have any sense of self if you are a determinist, according to him.

If that seems like an arbitrary non sequitur, that’s because it is.

  • Robot Philosopher neither explains nor defends this position here but says his position has been unfairly presented. In particular, when he said that he was unfamiliar with a claim that preferences are meaningless in a determinist universe, this was not supposed to speak in its disfavor.
  • It was someone called “Michael” who alerted me to the fact that the mode of thought appropriate to determinism is to regard all things as “sequences of events.” He wrote that it makes no sense to claim that some sequences of events are free and some determined. I pointed out that this statement itself is also a sequence of events and thus should not be credited with any particular persuasive value. What breaks up the monotony of the ”sequence of events” view, if anything is going to, is agency. An avalanche is a “sequence of events,” the actions of an agent are not. If this is denied, then the appropriate picture of reality is an endless stream of causation stretching back to the Big Bang and there is nothing distinctive about what conscious organisms do. The “actions” of an organism (there are no actions without agency, without actors) and the movement of tectonic plates are metaphysically indistinguishable.
  • Moral realism is impossible if determinism is true. A robot is not alive. It has no agency and it is not immoral to turn it off. If human beings are exactly like robots just with more complicated responses hardwired in, then they do not deserve the use of personal pronouns and to murder them would not be immoral. Since the murderer has no control over his actions, according to determinism, then he cannot be justly held responsible for his actions anyway and is not in fact a murderer. Murder requires intent and duress exonerates him. This is an example of a reductio ad absurdum. The argument fails if the “absurd” consequence is accepted. That is fine. But, it also establishes what it will be necessary to accept to go along with Robot Philosopher.

You say my robot example proves your point. Humorously, after reading your explanation, I think you’re shooting your own argument in the foot.

In your world, where determinism doesn’t exist, you still believe robots follow cause and effect, yes? – just like determinists believe humans likewise do. Robots are proof that determinism exists in the manner which determinists purport*.

  • I have already agreed that robots follow cause and effect. However, robots being deterministic does not prove that determinism exists in the manner in which determinists purport.

*The tricky part is the claim that it applies to humans as well.

  • I am disputing that this applies to humans as well.

You argue that a sense of self cannot exist in determinism. Preferences cannot exist in determinism. I’m not allowed to say “I’m not allowed” in determinism. I’m not allowed to “convince” anybody of anything in determinism.

  • It is worth pointing out that Robot Philosopher later agrees that “to convince” has no actual reality in his worldview (see above). So, either he is being disingenuous here, or he later changed his mind.
  • “You” might have a sense of self in determinism, but it would be an illusion. Someone could, perhaps, be conscious and yet trapped in a deterministic universe unable to escape in the manner of “locked-in” syndrome. Except, this sense of being trapped and robotic would itself be programmed by deterministic physical causes, so they are not “your” sense of being trapped at all. Something else is making you feel that way.
  • No one can allow or not allow if determinism is true. No one is doing anything because there is no agency. Things are simply happening as they have to happen if determinism is true.
  • The notion of “convincing” anyone is an illusion if determinism is true. Quite rightly, no one talks about “convincing” little robots following black lines on the floor. They are just following their programming. You have stated we are just like those robots but with a wider range of responses programmed in.
  • Preferences make no sense in a deterministic universe. Preferences imply the existence of choice, and also of mind as a causally efficacious nonmaterial phenomenon. The pistons of cars do not “prefer” to move in one manner rather than another. Such anthropomorphic language is inappropriate. They merely do what they have to do given the forces to which they are subjected. Under determinism, all things that happen, including human behavior, have been determined since time immemorial and “preferences,” should we imagine them to exist, will be causally inefficacious. Human beings act as they must. End of story.

Then why can we (theoretically) say this about robots, where the laws of determinism, we’d both agree, are in full effect?

  • We can’t say this about robots.
  • Robots, not being conscious, or having a soul for that matter, are merely objects obeying their programming.

It’s funny you bring up I, Robot, as I was going to as well. Obviously, the level of A.I. in that book we’ve not yet reached, but we can both agree it’s perfectly plausible, right?

  • A.I. as proposed in I, Robot, the science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, is completely impossible. The Chinese Room Argument demonstrates that. Roger Penrose, the famous mathematical physicist, comments in The Emperor’s New Mind that intelligence requires understanding. No understanding, no intelligence. Someone who merely follows an algorithm to solve an equation need not even understand the equation. Not knowing what you are doing in mathematics precludes you from being an intelligent mathematician. Some truths, like the truths of axioms, which are self-evident, and the truth of Gödelian propositions can be perceived, or “seen” by someone smart and qualified enough, but they cannot be proved. A computer cannot “see” them. Computers follow algorithms. Algorithms are step by step instructions that have been designed to answer “well-defined” questions. Once a problem has been solved, a set of instructions can be written explaining how to solve the problem. However, that is after the fact. To solve a novel difficult problem, creativity, insight, and imagination are required. Computers are neither creative nor imaginative. They simulate the activity of the left hemisphere of the brain, but not the right. Since living organisms are routinely faced with novel problems, they need to be able to improvise solutions in a goal-directed manner. Computers/robots cannot do that. To the degree that computers seem intelligent, or goal-directed, or to be improvising, this is an illusion. One cannot program common sense. Should a computer appear to be intelligent, this intelligence is really the intelligence of the programmer who wrote its code.
  • Computers work very well in tightly constrained environments like in the game of chess. Chess is a strictly rule-bound game where what moves one is allowed to make is determined in advance. In a pretend world consisting of a blue ball and a red ball, it is possible to get the computer to pick up the ball of one’s choosing. However, in a more realistic complex environment that is not rule-bound the difference between computers and general intelligence becomes more apparent.
  • Both Gödel’s Theorem and the Halting Problem are relevant here. They both prove that mathematics can never be fully formalized. Mathematics as a discipline can never be reduced to manipulating symbols; an activity not requiring minds. At some point, “truth” has to enter the picture and some truths cannot be determined by reference to rules. The truth of axioms is “self-evident” and thus not proved but “seen.” A computer could thus not choose axioms without help from humans. Other truths, like Gödelian propositions, cannot be proved by reference to the axiomatic systems from out of which they arise. And yet, they can be seen by human beings. That is also why a halting machine can never be created. In fact, to imagine that it can generates contradictions. A halting machine would be able to determine whether any algorithm of any kind is valid; that it will generate the required solution at which time it will stop (halt). A halting machine, were one to exist, would, if fed its own program, with certain modifications, halt when it continued, and continue when it halted, which is obviously impossible. Therefore, the machine is impossible. The halting problem and Gödel’s Theorem are solved and true for all time. They are not theories. They are truths proved to the same degree of certainty as verified mathematical truths. In fact, they are mathematical truths.
  • I agree that if genuine A.I. were possible, and computers could ever become conscious, then determinism would seem much more plausible. Were we able to do this, we would have some of the crucial characteristics of God Himself.


In your non-deterministic world, would you say Sunny would be disallowed from referring to themselves as “I”? Did he not try and persuade people of his views? Did that robot not have preferences, which he can accurately say he did not choose?

  • Sunny, as imagined in I, Robot would be conscious and thus could refer to himself as an “I,” and do many of the things human beings can do. Sunny exists as a counterfactual postulate.
  • If Sunny could do all the things you say he could, then he might indeed be allowed to say “I” and have that actually mean something. He could have preferences and choose, just like a human being.

Forgive me, but I will assume your answers to the above question and conclude that we probably agree on them.

  • We do not agree.

If I assume that much, then it appears you are inserting something magical which is applicable to humans only. The very epitome of arbitrary thinking, from where I’m sitting.

What is it? What will you arbitrarily invent so you can keep pretending we are different from Sunny?

A spirit? A soul?

If you believe in such things, did you choose your soul? Can you take credit for not having the soul of a psychopath, as Sam Harris has asked?

Souls are a dead-end for your side of the argument, so what else do you have?

  • We are not different from counterfactual Sunny in ways relevant to this argument. I agree that if Sunny existed, then his existence would pose a major threat to the existence of free will. Some philosophers have argued that for an engineer, to really understand something requires that he can build a model of it; he can replicate the phenomenon. If a human being could create a truly conscious creature this would be evidence that materialism and determinism is true and that there is no God.
  • The funny thing is that we often find human behavior inscrutable, so we would also not be able to understand conscious computers. They would be just as mysterious as the rest of us. It would also be immoral to use them for our own purposes.
  • Nothing I say next is to be taken as a proof of anything, merely an explanation. If free will exists, then it applies to all living organisms, not just humans. All living organisms have access to the Ungrund, the causeless cause. (This is an unprovable assertion.) If creativity and imagination are real, then freedom exists. A deterministic universe rules out creativity and imagination on the part of the individual. Free will could only apply to the creator of that universe if there were one. The Ungrund, meonic (causeless) freedom, is a postulate necessary for free will to exist. It is a mystery, like consciousness itself. Since the Ungrund predates, at least conceptually, God the Father, God the Creator, then there is a part of God which is also mysterious, even to Himself.
  • You are asking what the alternative to determinism is. I am simply explaining what it might look like. It is not so much that free will can be proved, but that arguing for determinism produces contradictions having to do with the person arguing himself being subject to deterministic forces as well as the interlocutor. Arguments are supposed to persuade, persuasion is a mind-dependent phenomenon, while causation is not. Causes cannot act on nonmaterial things. So, whatever is happening involves physical cause and effect, and physical forces do not follow “logic” and the dictates of human reasoning. If they do, then it turns out that physical things exhibit mental properties and you have introduced idealism. If idealism is true, then physical causation is false. On top of that, the Big Bang would need to have many of the characteristics of God in order to stop total chaos from ensuing, see
  • We do not choose our souls. We are the created. However, we have been imbued by God the Father with a connection to the Ungrund, and thus are free to create in our own more limited way. One key thing we cannot create is anything which has a soul; which has a connection to the Ungrund. We can have children, but that is nature working through us. We can take no real credit for that.
  • Why psychopaths exist is an interesting theological question. Societies can use them in certain military roles since they are particularly good at killing and spying without a conscience. Since a conscience is arguably a major connection to God, psychopaths suffer because they lack this. As a consequence, they experience their lives as lacking meaning. They feel hollow inside. And they tend to be profoundly bored because they are not interested in the people around them. I wouldn’t mind asking God why they exist, because I do not really know.
  • Souls would be irrelevant if Sunny could exist, but they are tremendously relevant to the existence or nonexistence of free will.


Every counterargument from you which simply states as fact that “There is no ‘we’ to have preferences” or “There is no ‘convincing’ if determinism is true”, or simply “there is no you” is fully irrelevant to this argument.

  • My answers are predicated on the impossibility of artificial general intelligence.
  • The burden of proof is on you to prove that AGI is possible or at least plausible.
  • If materialism is true and, for instance, brains generate consciousness (this has not been established), then it would seem possible to build a machine that is conscious. If, however, consciousness is related to something spiritual and nonphysical, as in the transmission theory of mind, then AGI would be impossible, assuming all consciousness would need to be produced from similar causes.

If you want to believe that a sense of self cannot exist for something that was causally determined to exist, that’s up to you, but also entirely subjective.

  • As we saw from my quotation from you found at the end of Determinists Strike Back Part 4, you actually concede this point and say “Our preferences are better met with all the gooey middle parts. With pretending we have vast choices and wallowing in our ignorance of the complexity of cause and effect. With heaping meaning onto our inevitable fates. That’s why we use words like “we” and “I” and “convince” and “goals” and such. But it is nothing more than a reward system attempting to satisfy our preferences.” Under those conditions, any sense of “self” would be an illusion.

You’re playing with semantics and pretending you’re making a point. The character of Sunny exists. You exist. I exist. That does not preclude the possibility of us being causal “automatons”, no matter how many times you insist otherwise.

  • The character of Sunny exists in a fictional novel only and thus cannot be used to prove any points.
  • Semantics involves the meanings of words. The meanings of words are important. I do repeat that the words “you,” “I,” and “preferences” have no real meaning in a deterministic worldview. There are merely, logically, sequences of events. A train travels inexorably on its tracks. It is not a “you,” “I,” nor does it have its own “preferences.” The train is an “it,” and so is any human under determinism by force of logic. That is where the contradiction comes in. You delight in your first paragraph in Determinists Strike Back Part II in describing us as exactly like robots following the black lines on the ground, according to our programming and then take umbrage at me denying the use of personal pronouns to what is clearly merely an “it.” I am merely taking my cue from your own description and following your logic.
  • It is logically possible that we are automatons but only because anything that is not self-contradictory is logically possible. We have no evidence that I can think of that we are automatons, but would be open to suggestions. The evidence that we are not automatons would include the existence of scientific theories that require imagination, intuition, and creativity to discover, such as the theory of relativity.

It’s probably past time for me to better define what it is, exactly, that I believe.

I believe we can have free will only if 1) We can choose 2) we have choice over what we choose.

Would you agree with that assessment? I think we can do #1 but not #2, and I think it is only #2 that we’d disagree on.

  • Choice has no meaning that I can see under determinism. You write yourself: “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.”[3] No reasonable person would think that the word “choice” is appropriate in describing something that is merely referencing its programming.
  • I do think we can choose what we choose.

I believe we do not have free will because, while we can choose, we have no choice over what we choose. “Pick a number between 1 and 1”. That is human life. That is determinism.

We have no choice over what we choose because we absolutely did not, under any circumstances, choose our own preferences.

  • Since this seems to be your main argument for determinism, other than the familiar causal chain idea, I have written a separate article in response, here.

5If you think we are free to choose, then it shouldn’t be an issue for you to believe, for even an instant and with complete, genuine sincerity, that your favorite type of candy bar, whatever it is, is suddenly your least favorite candy bar.

Even better, I want you to “choose” to believe in determinism as much as I believe in it myself. You cannot do it, because you cannot choose your preferences. If you could, you really would have free will.

  • One can be free to choose without having omnipotence in that regard. I can run a few miles, but not a hundred miles. This does not prove I cannot run a few miles.
  • As argued in the separate article, we can choose our goals that in turn can affect our preferences, but we sometimes fail and our preferences remain what they were.
  • If I had reasons for choosing something as my favorite candy bar, then those reasons might change. And, if reasons exist for real as mind-dependent, logic-following things, then what is my favorite candy bar might change, and I would choose another. If it is merely based on taste, what is and is not my favorite candy bar may not be subject to change.
  • We clearly do many things that we would prefer not to. Having a preference does not mean not having a choice. If someone were to claim that someone is following his “real” preference by acting as he does, then this would be an instance of the No True Scotsman fallacy, as explained in the article. Since no counterexample would be accepted even hypothetically, then we are dealing with a tautology – defining not following preferences out of existence – rather than an empirical, factual assertion about the way the world actually works.

Your beliefs and subsequent actions are wholly dependent upon variables which you did not choose, and therefore any outcome of those beliefs you also did not choose. Would you disagree with that?

  • I disagree. There are lots of factors going into choices. The available options, culture, biology, society and one’s idiosyncratic preferences, one’s sense of artistry and beauty, and so on.

If you do disagree, then you have some heavy lifting to do to prove that any choice one can make is based, in any way, upon variables – preferences – which can be fairly said they have chosen for themselves and not by causal happenstance.

  • I give the anecdote of trying to adopt someone else’s artistic preferences and failing. In other instances, I succeeded.
  • This is a circular argument; trying to use preferences to prove the existence of determinism, while assuming that preferences are themselves determined.

If you agree and yet still disbelieve in determinism, then I would chide you for ever having claimed any reverence for logic.

Let’s get to anything I haven’t yet mentioned in the play by play:

“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.”

Did a philosophy professor just “I’m rubber, you’re glue” me?

What you have just argued is that “This makes no sense to me, so I will therefore pretend this is an axiomatic truth.”

  • I am merely following along with your logic, and pointing out the logical implications of your position. I am not creating a syllogism. I am saying that you have disparaged what it is to be a human being – namely, nothing more sophisticated and special than a robot following black lines on the floor. That is your prerogative. There is no reason to honor that robot with personal pronouns. If there is, you would then be arguing for my position, that human beings are in fact not the same as robots following programming given to them by someone else. You would be arguing that there is something special about human beings. We refer to robots as “its.” According to the logic of your own argument, human beings deserve no more than that. If you start referring to your Roomba robot as “you,” with “preferences,” then that’s the time when we take you off for a psychological evaluation. If we turn out to be exactly the same as Roombas just “more complicated” with “a larger set of preprogrammed responses” then I am happy to withdraw personal pronouns from human beings, and so should you.

That isn’t hyperbole or misrepresentation on my part. Try putting your above argument in formal logic form. And then, if you’re brave enough, try and argue how one of your premises isn’t “This doesn’t make sense to me”. Is that the type of philosophy you’re teaching your class? The type where that logic would be acceptable?

  • I have taught symbolic logic a dozen times and had to pass it for my PhD. I have almost never found putting arguments in formal logical form at all helpful. I have watched other professors do it, and it did not help them either. I promise you that I have engaged in no logical fallacies. Symbolic logic seems to be helpful for engineers, mathematicians, logicians, and maybe computer programmers, but not helpful for figuring out the metaphysical status of robots and human beings. Logic, yes. Symbolic or formal logic? No.
  • The idea that human beings are no different from robots makes semantic sense to me. I have been listening to such nonsense since I started formally studying philosophy in the 1980s. It just makes no philosophical sense to me. I do not find it plausible.

And really, that particular premise seems to be a large theme in your counterarguments of determinism. Forgive me but, based on your rhetoric around determinism, that follows.

  • There is some truth to your claim that part of my argument is “This doesn’t make sense to me.” Let me explain.
  • We have two hemispheres, the right and the left. The right is responsible for intuition, emotion, humor, problem-solving, creativity, and our sense of reality. The left for maps of the world, representations of the world, but not for experience of the world itself. In experiments where people have their RH temporarily deactivated they are asked:

Winter is cold in tropical countries.

Ecuador is a tropical country.

Is it cold in winter in Ecuador, or not?

In those circumstances, people will say that it is cold in winter in Ecuador because the argument is valid and that that is what it implies. Unfortunately, it is not sound. Only when their RH were activated did those same people answer that winters in Ecuador are not cold. LH can assess logic, but not truth. On as complicated a topic as determinism and the metaphysical status of human beings it is necessary to bring your whole self to the question. Analytic philosophers resemble those suffering from Aspergers and autism and fixate on the LH. The LH can analyze but it is only as good as the material it is provided with and that material is provided by the RH. People who are autistic experience themselves and others as robots, as not fully real, and it seems like all is playacting. That is not my experience of myself or of others. My intuitive sense is that you and I are perfectly real. The topic is related to consciousness and consciousness is invisible and can only be directly experienced first-hand. So, my intuitive sense of what it is like to be a human being is relevant to this discussion. I see no evidence that we are robots, even complicated robots, and so the claim “makes no sense to me” in the sense that I do not find it plausible. The claim does not fit my experience of the world. The claim is logically permissible but my actual experience of life is nothing like that. Subjective impressions are irrelevant to doing math, but they are relevant to what it is to be a human being. Since I am one, I should have a fair idea.

  • There are three reasons you might think it makes sense to compare us to robots. You are autistic or schizophrenic. Or, you are convinced that materialism is true. Materialism is an unprovable metaphysical assumption. If it were true, then determinism would logically follow. Ergo, the conclusion that we are all robots. Lastly, someone might be both autistic and a materialist which would actually be rather common.
  • Autistic people are, on average, the least religious. One theory is that being poor at empathy, they are particularly unable to feel the presence of God.

Ships are just a collection of planking, the mast, hull, etc. Yet we anthropomorphise them and give them names and call them “she” and such. Not only that, but it is not uncommon for the human mind to actually perceive these inanimate, mechanical constructs as though they were a distinct entity with their own personalities.

  • It really seems to bother you to deny there is any “you,” “I,” or “preferences.” You should just embrace it. Why fight it? Where does it advance your argument? The more cynical the better, surely? Determinism is the ultimate cynical position. Even great evil is secondary to it, since good and evil do not exist in a deterministic universe.
  • Extending animistic qualities to the inanimate world can be rather attractive and poetic. However, when discussing the metaphysical status of human beings one would not want to accidentally slip between poetry and assertions of equivalence between ships and people.

Furthermore, as discussed previously, we will most likely, one day, be presented with an actual mechanical robot who possesses a sense of self.

  • If that were ever to happen, I would regard that as a near knock down proof of determinism, assuming the sense of self was sufficiently close to our own.

The feeling of causal freedom. Whether or not it actually has it is irrelevant. Whether or not you feel as if it “makes sense” is irrelevant. The ship has no sense of self, and yet we pretend it does. If it makes you feel better to believe that we humans shouldn’t have any sense of self and yet pretend we do anyway, go for it. How we experience such things has no bearing on whether determinism exists or not.

Being a philosophy professor, I’d have thought you’d know that.

  • I’m a different kind of philosophy professor. My right hemisphere is functional and I write and think like it. Consciousness is experienced on the inside. Determinism is the denial of effectual consciousness. My feelings are entirely relevant. Much of what we are as human beings can only be observed directly from the inside. Determinism makes a particular claim about those facts. Autistic people, as mentioned, tend to actually experience themselves and others as robots. This will in fact make determinism seem much more plausible to them. And, in actuality, it is precisely such people who are most attracted to the robot theory of humanity. It is much less likely to make sense to normies who can access their feelings and intuit the feelings of others.
  • A well-functioning brain is dominated by the right hemisphere and direct experience of the world. LH is responsible for theories and abstractions. Determinism is a theory that does not match the experience of subjective freedom. The LH will go with theory, as we saw before, at the expense of truth if necessary.
  • In order for beliefs to result in actions they must be attached to our feelings. It is only when this is the case that one can be said to really believe something. This is explained at length here. A bare intellectual assent is frequently insufficient to really believe something. Someone with a fear of flying is likely to know rationally that planes are safe, but their feelings are not in accord with this. A student may know he would be better off studying than playing on his X-Box, but keep playing anyway. His heart is not cooperating with his head. Someone might claim to believe in determinism but not live his life in accordance with this idea. His heart simply refuses to play ball. Hence, he does not actually believe his own theory in practice.

“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.”

This answer is really strange to me. I’m not sure if there is something just deeper in this argument that we’re talking past or if I’m misinterpreting your words or something.

If you agree that both humans and robots’ actions are guided wholly by their programming, and that neither robots or humans choose their programming, then what are we doing here?

  • I don’t agree. Hence, I prefaced the comment with “following your assumptions.”

I’m assuming that this isn’t exactly what you’re arguing, so I’ll preemptively give you a challenge. A “choice” of challenges, even.

  1. Give me a human action that wasn’t guided wholly by their programming6


  1. Give me an explanation how someone who can’t take credit for any of their programming somehow gains ownership over the resulting actions of said programming.
  • The problem with this challenge is that “programming” here is metaphorical, unless you think God actually writes lines of code. I do not know what “guided wholly by their programming” might mean in this context. I would like to see some evidence that anyone ever “follows their programming.” Perhaps I could then try to identify exceptions. Right at this moment we need to define “programming.”
  • I would like to see an incontrovertible instance of someone following his programming.
  • Is “programming” DNA? Some proportion of our abilities and propensities will be genetic, some environmental, and some is just up to us. We might read a book, discuss things with friends, then make up our minds on some topic.

#2 would be like handing someone a giant equation, asking them to “solve for x”, and when they do, they naively proselytize to anyone who will listen about their “wise decision” that x should be “42”, or whatever. It’s childish. Desperate.

  • Sam Harris makes exactly the same mistake you just made. He thinks that rationality necessarily forces and compels people to arrive at definitive conclusions. The dreadful example is just like yours, namely, 1 + 1 = 2. He chose an example where the answer is indeed definitive. He seems to be unfamiliar with areas like philosophy where the topics are not as cut and dried and perfectly rational people can arrive at different conclusions. I expect to disagree with myself at some point in the future about philosophical matters, so that would be the same rational person disagreeing with himself.
  • It is also fascinating that Harris chose 1 + 1 = 2 because Gödel’s Theorem only applies to axiomatic systems at a certain level of complexity. It does not apply to simple addition, but it does apply to multiplication and above. And Gödel’s Theorem proves that there are mathematical truths that can be seen but not proved and cannot be identified by a machine.
  • In choosing which college to go to, for instance, rational people can arrive at different conclusions. There might be pros and cons of each. There is far more in life that resembles this state of affairs than 1 + 1 = 2.

You didn’t choose the equation, you didn’t choose the variables, and hence, logically, you cannot claim responsibility for the resulting, inevitable answer.

  • Hence, it is a poor choice as an example.

I’m assuming you know that, and so I’ll guess you’ll opt for option #1. If so, explain the decision, and the mental mechanics involved in that person making that decision. What are they referencing to decide? What variables do they weigh? And most importantly: Where do those variables come from?

  • There are biological, interobjective, intersubjective, and subjective sources of the variables.

“So, the “we are all robots” people literally tend to be suffering from a mental disorder and should be pitied.”

Again with the ‘least charitable view’ thing. You reduce all determinists to solipsists because it makes their arguments far easier to pretend you’ve beaten. Yes, that was an ad hominem, and regardless of your pithy trigger warning, it doesn’t make it acceptable to do.

  • Ad hominems are relevant with regard to testimony. Autistic people, and schizophrenics who resemble them in many regards, are poor testifiers as to what it is like to be a human being; on the nature of being human because they have little access to their own or other people’s interiors, states of mind, and emotions.

Ironically, you just argued that determinists have no choice but to be determinists because of variables outside of their control. Welcome to the club, mate!

  • They have a choice, but the dysfunction of their brains will make them more receptive to the siren call of determinism.

“There is no “you” to choose anything. Everything is a sequence of events put in place by the Big Bang according to your own metaphysical beliefs.”

No, that is according to your nutpicked belief about my beliefs. Even if the universe were entirely causally determined (which I’ve already informed you, most determinists don’t actually believe based on quantum mechanics), we still have experiences. The experiences I have are different than the ones you have. It, therefore, makes sense to refer to two distinct entities. “I” and “you”.

  • You are being inconsistent about the causal chain argument. You advance the causal chain argument here after you made the above point. I can’t argue with a contradiction. If you are allowed to assume the truth of two incompatible theories, then when I appeal to the idea that the universe is entirely causally determined, you will bring up quantum mechanics. If I go with quantum mechanics and assume the universe is not entirely causally determined, you can go back to the causal chain argument. For the sake of consistency, my arguments are based on disputing the causal chain theory of determinism.
  • It is interesting that you introduce experiences as a key part of being human. Robots following black lines on the floor presumably do not have experiences. Since, as you claimed, we are just like them, we in fact seem to differ significantly from them.
  • Reading a determinist taking experience seriously is a little like hearing a prostitute expound on the beauty of true love.
  • To take experience seriously we have to reject your idea that human beings are exactly like robots so that significantly changes the parameters of the discussion and I admit I am having trouble accommodating this alteration in this dialectic.
  • If we take experience as a fundamental aspect of being human, as I have said before under a determinist’s picture of reality, what is it about my experiences that make them mine? Agents are centers of consciousness and they make decisions about what they attend to. Automatons do not. They are not responsible for what they attend to. They could have experiences in a purely passive capacity. It all sounds very nightmarish.7
  • On that view, the passive center of consciousness would be kicking and screaming in his predicament. If, however, he has no awareness of any of that and he thinks he is acting and deciding and choosing when he is doing nothing of the sort but really the Big Bang or quantum randomness is really responsible for all that then he is a robot who mistakenly thinks he is conscious like The Truman Show. Truman’s life is really an elaborate charade. It is hard to say what metaphysical status the “you” in this scenario should have. Are they really your experiences when you have no choice in what you do or, most especially, even how you react to those experiences? What is the “you” in that scenario? A kind of nullity.
  • If experiences are not significantly tied to individuals, then the most we could say is that “experiences are happening” as a part of a sequence of events.

Ostensibly, you are arguing that it takes free will to come to that conclusion – to see that dichotomy between two or more entities – but I don’t think it a leap at all that any sufficiently connected network of synapses will come to this same conclusion – causally necessary or not. It makes sense to do in the context of our experience of reality.

  • It’s not so much to see the dichotomy as for there to be two distinct entities having different experiences. It seems more like little blips in the endless flow of events which is completely impersonal.
  • Let’s concede that there would be different sets of experience and we could label one “Set 1” and the other “Set 2” perhaps differentiated by being associated with different bodies, though they would not be “mine” and “yours.”
  • However, I am uncomfortable conceding the notion of “experience” given your earlier comments about how we are just more complexly programmed robots. It seems you are introducing non-permitted metaphysical entities. Again, not permitted by your earlier claims.

And while we’re at it, it makes sense for me to try and express my experiences from “I” to “you”, if my programming outputs more pros than cons. That I’m not allowed to try and convince you within my worldview is also a puzzlingly stupid argument.

  • You are not allowed to help yourself to metaphysical entities not permitted by your metaphysical worldview. That is entirely a matter of logic and not stupid. If we give up on consistency then we cannot proceed.
  • In the passage from you quoted near the beginning of the article you concede that “convince” is a bit of phony language we use to make us feel better about being deterministic robots, so we are both “stupid” in this regard.
  • I once said to Thomas F. Bertonneau that what I liked about John Dewey was his experiential realism. He saw experience as contributing to reality and not merely being a response to it. Dewey saw all experience, including its emotional aspects, as simply part of a wider reality, so the world would have emotional, moral, physical, whimsical, and poetic components. Human beings would be seen as inside reality which then includes both its mental and physical aspects. Tom commented that as a materialist and thus atheist, Dewey had no right to assert any of that. He was correct. Dewey’s metaphysical assumptions do not permit experiential realism, despite Dewey advocating that position. It can be compared to saying, “There are no ghosts.” And you say, “Why do you think that?” And I say, “A ghost told me.”

I really don’t know why you’re treating this bad argument as though it’s a deus ex machina. Out of all the arguments you’ve made, this is your weakest, and it takes up the majority of your responses to me. It’s nothing more than semantics.

  • It’s about the meanings of words; specifically, the words “human being” and what it means to be one. And when it is and when it is not appropriate to use personal pronouns. And if you do use them about ships, not to attribute actual human qualities to those ships.

You telling me that I’m not allowed to use certain words to convey an idea – even though it conveys the idea perfectly – because you have pedantic qualms with it, or perhaps think that I should have pedantic qualms with it. I don’t. Nor does it endanger the concept of determinism in the slightest.

  • The rules of the game – rationality – are that you are only allowed to help yourself to concepts that are permitted by your own (not my) metaphysical claims. You have said we are robots following black lines on the floor only more complicated. I do not regard those robots as less complicated human beings. If you do start using personal pronouns on robots you are just muddying the waters when we should be aiming for clarity. I deny that line following robots are “you,” or “I” or have “preferences.” If human beings are “nothing but” these robots but with more complicated programming they do not deserve these pronouns either. If you want to attribute these pronouns to humans you will have to justify it. The more you justify it, the closer we get to my conception of human beings, namely, that we are not “more complicated” robots. The more you insist that we are “nothing but” robots, the less justified your use of those pronouns is. Heads I win, tails you lose.
  • What happens with determinists is that they start out taking a hard line, and then, inevitably, they slip back into their discussion entities or ideas that they are not permitted by their own worldview. For instance, Daniel Dennett thinks we should have prisons to deter criminals from acting badly. This assumes that we have any choice about whether to have prisons or not. It assumes that the concept of “deterrence” makes sense in that context. “Deterrence” entails a choice. “Deterrence” is also a mental quality involving evaluations and not mere cause and effect. Determinism is implied by a material universe ruled by physical cause and effect. Deterrence is not a physical cause. If a surgeon removes a tumor, that is physical cause and effect. The surgeon does not say he has “deterred” the tumor. It is simply a matter of A physically causing B. If we introduce purely mental categories and claim that they are causally efficacious then we have escaped physical determinism by making the mind independent of purely physical causes.
  • There are no “shoulds” in determinism. If determinism is true, then we do not have a choice. Sam Harris and his wife debated when they should tell their kids that determinism is true. That assumes they have any choice about when to tell them. Physical determinism operates by physical cause and effect, not rationality and persuasion.

[1] All pictures in this article come from a painting, The Maze, by a person, William Kurelek, who was hospitalized for schizophrenia. Schizophrenics and people with autism fail to have their right hemisphere dominate brain activity with the result that the left hemisphere becomes too prominent. This first picture, for instance, of people as puppets on strings with mask or skull-like faces, matches very well the similarly theory driven LH perspective of determinists. It is the RH that is responsible for a felt sense of reality and the reality of other people. Schizophrenics experience others as robots and imposters, having replaced the real person.

[2] In reality, Robot Philosopher refers to me by my Christian name repeatedly and redundantly. I’ll let the reader figure out why someone might do that.

[3] Determinists Strike Back, Part 2

9 thoughts on “Determinists Strike Back, Part 3

    • Thanks, Max. That’s very much appreciated. Coming from someone I respect and admire, that is also reassuring that I’m on track.

  1. pbw, for some reason, was unable to post. He writes:

    Robot Philosopher’s arguments, it seems to me, imply naturalism. They make sense only for human machines; only if mind, and the impressions that mind is continually throwing up, are pure functions of the brain in its interaction with the body and the body’s complex sensory apparatus. While it is conceivable that human beings comprised of a body and super- or extra-natural soul or spirit could also behave deterministically, such an apperception would be entirely independent of both the physical and the mental reality of human existence. On such a multi-modal (and in my view realistic) anthropological base, all of the examples that you, Richard, cite here and elsewhere of the unpredictability of the deliberate, conscious human actor are direct evidence of the unpredictable non-material foundations of human beings. Such conclusions are empirically based; to extract determinism from this evidence is to eschew empiricism for terminally attenuated dogma.

    This suppression of empirical evidence in favour of dogma is just as true of Robot Philosopher. The evidence of experience counts for nothing.

    Is the actor, who enacts conscious decisions of human will, purely materialistic or extra-materialistic? If materialistic, where do degrees of freedom come from? They can only arise in the material of which the “decider” is comprised. This is the engine of determinism. Determinism as a Grand Unified Theory of human behaviour is a side-effect of materialism as a Grand Unified Theory of Everything. It is also, and usefully, an admission that experienced human reality is inexplicable in materialist terms. So it must simply be denied any epistemological validity.

  2. Hi Richard,

    I know I told you I’d hoped to have my reply finished by Thursday evening. Unfortunately, my mind stayed addled a bit longer than I anticipated after my procedure yesterday. I got some done yesterday, but not much. Today, however, I did “finish” it, though not yet edited. I just don’t have the energy. Plus, my wife was giving me looks because I’ve been on the computer all night. lol. I think I can finish sometime tomorrow.

  3. Pingback: Response #3: Determinism Is Not Comforting – Robot Philosopher

  4. Couple of quick notes:
    • Philosophy is not love of knowledge, but love of wisdom. It would be good to get that bit right.
    • The “definition” of knowledge is not justified, true, belief. Philosophers have never been able to define knowledge. JTF is notorious for its problems and no one accepts it because too many scenarios can be imagined where it does not hold.
    • There is no philosophy if determinism is true, so arguing against determinism is the least you can do if you love philosophy. There is no “you” to argue, just mindless deterministic physical forces. You are a puppet with physic’s hand up your butt. At most, it would be universe arguing with itself. Sound and fury signifying nothing.
    • Taking dictionary definitions and trying to use them to score philosophical points will get you laughed out of graduate school. Try it!
    • If determinism is true, consent in any genuine sense does not exist. So, all sex would be rape. Robot guy says this is an illegitimate appeal to emotion.?? Just logic, mate! More reductio on my part.
    • Robot man (good choice of name) admits at one point (it is quoted in the text) that “convince” means nothing, but is a simple palliative to make our dreadful existential position seem less awful, and then proceeds to take me to task for rejecting his use of the term “convince” as a determinist. The following his paragraph where he admits this: “Strangely, that is not as rewarding to us humans as pretending we all have agency and free will and all of that which you are clutching to your chest. Our preferences are better met with all the gooey middle parts. With pretending we have vast choices and wallowing in our ignorance of the complexity of cause and effect. With heaping meaning onto our inevitable fates. That’s why we use words like “we” and “I” and “convince” and “goals” and such. But it is nothing more than a reward system attempting to satisfy our preferences.” Arguing with people who contradict themselves is another reason to question my sanity. On the other hand, I never knew he would do that.
    • The axioms of determinism are unprovable, like all axioms.
    • So, if your axioms lead you to obnoxious, undesirable, conclusions, find new axioms if you can.
    • Nearly all my arguments are reductio ad absurdum in structure. Robot man accepts all the “absurd” conclusions and regards them as “truth,” though ALL genuine philosophical debates involve controversial topics. And “proof” applies to mathematics, not philosophy, except where philosophy, logic, and math overlap.
    • I once asked an optometrist, “Should I get glasses?” He said, “Do you WANT glasses?” I said, “No.” If you don’t like nihilistic conclusions in philosophy that suggest you should kill yourself now, see if you can find new axioms. If you can’t, I guess you should go ahead. Bye, Robot man!
    Traditionally, goodness, truth, and beauty are three sides of the same thing. Good philosophy requires a functioning right hemisphere that includes emotion, intuition, humor, metaphor, creativity, imagination, the animate, and problem-solving. The left hemisphere is theory, not experience. It evinces certainty where no certainty exists. It will accept valid arguments, which is pitiful because only sound arguments should be accepted. And, it has no theory of mind. Schizophrenics and autistic people think people are robots and imposters and do not accept the reality of other people. Robot man fits this description rather well.
    I am not claiming certainty; just faith and hope.
    Materialists cannot do philosophy since all their assertions are mired in the banal.
    For the materialist:
    Does life have meaning for? No.
    Does God exist? No.
    Is consciousness a significant phenomenon? No.
    Do we have any choice about what we believe? No.
    Thus, does it even make sense to debate something about which you have no choice whether you accept the conclusion, or whether you debate or not? No.
    Only theists can do philosophy, unless the materialist is just rabidly inconsistent.
    Those of us who believe in God have an endless amount of thinking and debating to do. Not so for the determinist and materialist. The materialist has no choice anyway about his determinist beliefs, which is as it should be.


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