Cannot stop Debating Determinists stop I Have No Free Will stop Send Help stop Make me Stop

Before I bow out of this conversation and dismiss it as futile, please allow me, most patient readers, one last attempt. Part of an ongoing conversation that has been going on since the time of Lucretius, if not longer.

A determinist writes in an says that indeterminism violates the laws of physics.

Let us see if we can break this down:

“When Shakespeare decides to write “sea” instead of “host”, he has a reason for doing that. You state that no account of his brain can tell me what that reason is; very well, let it be so. I don’t care about his reason for purposes of this discussion.”

So far, so good.

“But in addition, there is a physical movement of his fingers holding the pen, so that it moves to trace out s-e-a and not h-o-s-t. That physical movement has a series of mechanical causes: The pen is obeying physics; it moves according to the forces acting on it.”

Agreed, although with the reservation that the pen is ‘obeying’ physics only in the strict sense of the term. Shakespeare is the one writing the word, not the pen. We are deliberately ignoring everything about the event except for the physics. We can limit our investigation to the study of the immediate causes if you like, and ignore the real and remote causes: but this is like putting an ax on trial for ax murder rather than the ax murderer.

But, as you say, let it be so.

“The fingers are obeying biochemistry; they move according to the nerve impulses they receive. Given the impulses, you can use a computer to find out what the pen is going to write, although not why.”


“The nerves also obey biochemistry; the nerve impulses originate in the brain.”


“So far we have traced back the causality mechanically, by physics.”

The statement is ambiguous. What we have done is ignored all but the physics, so that we do not know why Shakespeare writes what he writes, and we do not know what it means. This is an artificial limitation on our knowledge of what constitutes ‘causality’ — but for the purposes of discussion, let it be so. Agreed.

“At some point, the nerve impulses are due to neurons firing.”

The statement is ambiguous. If we mean that the mechanical properties and only those properties of the nerves impulses are “due to” in a mechanical sense, and we ignore the other properties and the rest of reality, agreed. Again, the ax is on trial instead of the ax-murderer.

“If those firings are due only to mechanical causes, only to the laws of physics, then I can know beforehand what the pen is going to write, by sufficiently skilled application of physics.”

Beg pardon? This statement has no relation to any of the previous statements that I can grasp. I am not sure what you mean by “due only to mechanical causes”. Obviously the mechanical description of the nerve firings can be described mechanically. If you are using the word “cause” in the sentence to mean “mechanical causation” then obviously there can be no “non-mechanical cause of mechanical causation”– that would be a paradox.

So you seem to be setting up a contrast between two types of events: 1. mechanical effects mechanically caused solely by mechanical causes and 2. mechanical effects mechanically caused by some combination of mechanical and non-mechanical causes. Obviously option #2 is a paradox and cannot exist.

The contrast you are setting up is a false dichotomy. The real contrast is between 1. Descriptions of events that list mechanical effects mechanically caused by mechanical causes, which ignore all other aspects of the event, such as its purpose and 2. Descriptions of events that list mechanical effects mechanically caused by mechanical causes, which do not ignore all other aspects of the event, such as its purpose.

“Therefore, if I cannot do so – and you deny the possibility – the neuron firings cannot be purely due to the laws of physics; and therefore, the laws of physics are broken within human brains. “

I do not deny the possibility of mechanistic prediction of mechanical cause and effect, either in the brain or anywhere else. If a man has a fever caused by microbes, and you stick a thermometer in his brain, you will get a reading of the temperature, and this temperature is “caused” (in the mechanical sense of the word) by the microbes, and we may safely ignore the purposes or final causes of the microbes, since they do not concern us.

I do not understand what you mean by “the laws of physics.” I thought the “laws of physics” was the abstract summation of how bodies actually react to external forces, that is to say, a description of how bodies move. By definition, no body can move in violation of a description of how it moves. If Newton sees a balloon shaped like an apple falling up rather than falling down, he is not witnessing a violation of the laws of nature. By definition, no one can witness a violation of the laws of nature, since the ‘laws of nature’ is nothing more than an executive summary of what all witnesses have seen in nature.

And I am baffled how you leap from the idea that Shakespeare’s hand moves as Shakespeare wills it to move to the idea that Shakespeare violates the laws of nature every time he moves his hand. That does not seem to be a logical deduction from anything we have said so far. Is every motion of every living thing a violation of the laws of nature? Please clarify.

Some motions of living beings are described as purposeful. They are “caused” (final causation) by the ends sought. They are also “caused” (mechanical causation) by the mechanisms of the body and surrounding environment. One cannot understand what purposeful actions mean unless you know the ends and means the organism seeks and selects. Some motions of living beings can be described mechanically, especially the involuntary motions are a cellular level. The general final cause of organic mechanisms can be assumed to be the preservation of life and the continuation of the species. For the purposes of biology, the final cause of bodily mechanisms can be safely ignored. The mechanical causes of bodily mechanisms cannot be understood without an understanding of the molecular mechanics involved, or the environmental events, if any, that affect the result.

You seem to be assuming that I am saying a purposeful action (writing), since it is “caused” (final cause) by the means and ends of the organism (Shakespeare) THEREFORE it is not “caused” (mechanical causation) by the biological mechanisms of nerve and muscle.  But I am not saying this.

I am saying that descriptions of the final cause and the mechanical cause of an event are two different and incompatible descriptions of one thing. If you ask me ‘why’ I did something, I answer in terms of final cause. This does not break the laws of physics. If you ask me ‘how’ I did something, I answer in terms of the biological mechanisms of mechanical cause. This does not break the laws of morality.

In fact, it is nonsense, merely gibberish, to try to define or describe final causes in mechanical terms in the same way it is nonsense, merely gibberish, to ascribe moral categories to mechanical causes.

“You appear to think I’m trying to make a complex philosophical point; I’m not.”

No: I think that you are an novice who is making a fundamentally simple mistake in your reasoning, but since this is an area where you have not studied, you do not have the training or talent to recognize the mistake.

I admit the distinction I am trying to point out is subtle and technical. I also admit that my approach overturns what every philosopher since Descartes has affirmed. Descartes believed that the choice was between determinism and indeterminism: I believe he made a categorical error, and did not recognize that all events in spacetime have both a deterministic nature and an indeterministic nature. He thought it was ‘either-or’; I think it is ‘both-and.’

“My point is utterly, trivially simple. I almost suspect that when you finally get it, you’re going to say that you couldn’t believe that was my point because it’s so obvious.”

Since you are speculating about a future event, I make no comment. We shall see.

However, I would caution you that philosophical conversations always, always, always have one dominant characteristic: each side of the argument thinks what it is saying is plain and clear, and therefore the disagreement of the other side seems perversely obtuse, perhaps even willful. This is an illusion caused by the Fall of Man.

In reality, all that is going on is that both sides are making an assumption of which they are partly or wholly unaware. Since the opposition does not make this assumption, the opponent comes to a different conclusion even if both sides agree (or appear to agree) on the same axioms. The only way to discover the buried assumption is the tedious process of narrowly defining one’s terms.

“If there is strong free will, then, when tracing the mechanical causes of Shakespeare’s pen’s movements, you will eventually come to a point where something goes one way and not the other without any physical cause.”

This appears to be a nonsense statement to me, as if you said, “If there is such a thing as a calendar, then, when discussing hydraulics, you will eventually come to a point where you can pour Tuesday out of water pipe.”

What you call “strong free will” is a paradox of words. Free will is a category used to describe the moral meaning of human action. It is a legal-moral term, not a term of physics. It has nothing to do with physics. If you were cosmoported this instant into a world where a pure chaos reigned and no physical laws could be deduced, the moral categories of human action would be unchanged. If you were cosmoported this instant to a world where all men were robots or children or beasts, or some other entities who lacked moral self-control, the category of free will would not obtain and could not be used to describe any of their actions, even if it were a world where all the laws of physics were known to the last detail. Therefore free will and physics have nothing to do with each other. They are incommensurate, in the same way that vertical and horizontal magnitudes are incommensurate: no addition of any number of vertical lengths to a line will ever give that line any width.

Free will does not “break” the laws of physics any more than the laws of perspective “breaks” the laws of harmony in music. Perspective deals with a certain type of visual representation of visible objects or scenes. The laws of harmony deal with music and only with music. Musical notation cannot express a vanishing point. A very well drawn ink drawing cannot produce chords or chromatic progressions. And so on. The two have nothing to do with each other. However, the event of a man playing a fiddle can both be captured on paper, or described, by writing down the notes he plays, and by sketching what he looks like as he plays. The two descriptions have little or nothing to do with each other. They are incommensurate and indifferent to each other.

“ At that point, the laws of physics are broken.”

Nonsense. The laws of physics cannot be broken by definition. Even if you are Mary Magdalene seeing the Messiah rise from the tomb on Easter morning, you are not seeing a violation of the laws of physics, because the laws of physics are a generalized description of what you see. The nail prints in His palm are “caused” by nails. The law of cause and effect is not broken or even disturbed by the miracle.

There is one exception, of course: the Big Bang. The creation of nature creates the laws of nature, and this cannot logically be an event that follows the laws of nature.

“I can express this as a syllogism:

  1. A => B (if A then B)
  2. ~B (not B);
  3. Therefore ~A (not A)”

Your syllogism suffers from the defect of ambiguity. You are using B in one sense in your major premise and in another sense in your minor premise. The ambiguity is caused by your failure to make the Aristotelian distinction between two types of causation: effect that follow causes (mechanical causes) and effects that precede causes (final causes).

“1. If Shakespeare’s brain obeys physics, I can predict how the fingers will move
2. I cannot predict the finger movements (your assertion)
3. Therefore Shakespeare’s brain does not obey physics.”

Except, that is not my assertion. I assert that you can predict (mechanical prediction) the mechanical cause and effect of the finger movements, if you have enough information. Also, you can predict (final causation) the outcome if you know what means and ends Shakespeare has decided to employ; if you know him as intimately as a wife knows her man, you can probably know what he will decide before he knows it.

I am also puzzled as to how you can, without a blush, state that I am making an assertion that not only I did not make, but that I said and repeated and repeated the opposite whereof. Your own impatience with other readers who do not seem to notice what you say should come back to haunt you here.

(An aside: Your major premise also happens to be a misstatement. Predictability rests on many factors, none of which necessarily have anything to do with the laws of physics. Shakespeare’s brain could obey the laws of physics, and if one of the laws of physics were a Goedel or Heisenberg type law that said no observer could predict what Shakespeare’s brain would do next, it would be no violation of the laws of physics if no prediction could take place. Likewise, if Shakespeare’s brain were in some magical fairyland of chaos where nothing obeyed any discernible laws of nature, and one of the arbitrary magical events of this chaos was that you had perfect prophetic foreknowledge of what Shakespeare would do next, the absence of any known laws of physics would not hinder your predictive powers. But this is a minor objection, and does not affect your main point, nor my objection to your main point.)

“That’s all I’m saying. It’s not complicated.”

No. The error you are making is simple.

You are treating two separate things as if they are one thing. This is the informal logical fallacy of ambiguity. You are using words without attending to their precise meaning.

“If Shakespeare’s brain (meaning 1) obeys (meaning 1) physics, I can predict (meaning 1) how the fingers will move
I cannot predict (meaning 2) the finger movements (meaning 2)
Therefore Shakespeare’s brain (meaning 2) does not obey (meaning 1 again) physics.”

Meaning 1 “brain” speaks of the biological mechanisms of the brain; of the Meaning 1 “prediction” is the deduction a physicist makes when studying a formal and determined system of objects that react to external impulses and do not act on their own.

Meaning 2 “prediction” is a judgment such as a juror makes; the “finger movements” of Meaning 2 are the means selected to achieve the ends sought. Shakespeare, in this case, deliberately decides to move his pen with his finger and thumb to write the words he is trying to write to capture the vision he is trying to capture because it is easier than moving the pen with his teeth. However, please note, that if the Bard were trying to move the pen with his teeth, the nerve and muscle actions of his mouth and neck as he awkwardly slid his nose across the parchment, would indeed also be “predictable” (meaning 1) in terms of pure mechanical cause and effect. Getting the words written is the end sought.  The means selected (meaning 2) in the two cases is different; therefore the mechanics employed (meaning 1) would be different: therefore the mechanics is indifferent and has nothing to do with the end sought.

Shakespeare’s “brain” (meaning 2) refers to his mind or soul or thought process or willpower or passion or conscience or poetical genius or memories or experience or personality or ideals or whatever you want to call it.

We only call the mind “the brain” as a synecdoche, like telling your beloved that she has won your “heart”, or like commanding “all hands” to come on deck. Confusing the “brain” (nervous system) with the “brain” (mind and personality) is a pun, a play on words, akin to saying a cobbler is a confessor because he mends the “soles” of the wicked. Ha ha. It is not meant to be literal.

So, if stated unambiguously, your syllogism would read:

  1. A => B (if A then B)
  2. ~C (not C);
  3. Therefore  …  nothing follows.

If Shakespeare’s brain obeys the description of observed events, I can deduce (meaning, the way as a physicist deduces the motions of a formal and determined system) the mechanics of his finger motions.

But suppose, because I don’t know him as well as his wife, that I cannot make a judgment (meaning, the way a juror judges the intent and mental capacity of the accused) about the means and ends Shakespeare in his mind has conceived.

Therefore … nothing follows. The syllogism fails because it lacks a common middle term.



This was in the comments below, but I wanted to place it here, since it might clear up a confusion.This question is from another reader, not the one addressed above, but he is trying to cut to the pith of the question:

“In response to my question, “With only the laws of physics and a complete description of the mechanical state of Shakespeare’s brain (the location of every atom, amount of every charge, etc), can the mechanical properties of the ink-marks be determined, yes or no?” asked on behalf of Dr Andresson, you said no. That you say that the physical properties of the ink-marks CANNOT be deduced from perfect knowledge of the physical properties of Shakespeare’s brain?”

No, sir, it is not correct. That was not my answer.

My answer was that the question contains an ambiguity: if you are asking whether the end result can be deduced just from the proximate cause without taking into account the remote causes, my answer is no. If you are asking whether the end result can be judged taking in account both the remote and the proximate causes, my answer is yes. I then left if up to you to tell me whether the crucial fact “what word does Shakespeare intend to write” count as a remote cause. If you say it is not, I respectfully disagree. If you say it is, I call upon you to notice that this remote cause has two components, a mental component, which describes its meaning and intent, and a physical component, which describes its mass and velocity and position. I invite you to question your unspoken assumption that these two components are mutually exclusive. I assume they are two different ways of describing two different and mutually incommensurate aspects of one underlying reality.

The analogy I used was that of a chessplaying computer. If you program in all the rules of chess but do not program in the rule telling the computer the goal of the game, i.e. you do not define ‘checkmate’, then your computer cannot predict the best moves in a chessgame. This is the case of looking at the proximate causes and ignoring the remote causes. If you think a chess computer can play the game without taking checkmate into account, I respectfully disagree.

If you do program in the rule concerning ‘checkmate’, I call upon you to notice that this rule has two components, a mental component, which describes checkmate as the final cause of the game, and a physical component, which is whatever clockwork gears or punch-cards or electronic pulses the programmer used as the medium to write down the rules defining checkmate.

I invite you to question your unspoken assumption that these two components are mutually exclusive. I assume they are two different ways of describing two different and mutually incommensurate aspects of one underlying reality: one is the rule defining the final cause of the game, and the other is the medium in which this rule is written.

“If this is what you are saying, then mustn’t the ordinary chain of mechanical cause-and-effect be broken in the brain?”

Well, no, of course not. That conclusion does not follow. In fact, it does not seem to have any relation, even analogous to the proceeding sentence: to me it looks like an arbitrary assertion that falls from a clear blue sky. The sentence surprises me.

To grasp my degree of surprise, let us return to my analogy. Suppose I said that in order to make a chessplaying computer, I had to program in the final cause or the goal of the game, which is, I had to define “checkmate.”

I write down the rule: “RULE 42: A chessman that threatens a king with capture checks the king; the next move must either move the king away from the threatened square, capture the threatening chessman, or (if the threatening chessman is not a knight) must interpose a chessman to block the threat. It is not a legal move to do otherwise. If the king cannot move out of check, it is checkmate. If your king is in checkmate, the other player wins, and the game ends.”

Now, suppose that a philosopher of chess were to walk up to you and announce: “The rule called RULE 42 defies the rules of chess and breaks the rules of chess.” Would you not be at least a little puzzled?

So, no, not only do I not agree that a complete as opposed to a partial description of reality breaks the laws of physics, I do not even understand how someone could make the statement, unless you are assuming that nothing in reality exists or can exist aside from the type of inanimate reactions to external forces that the laws of physics predicts and examines.

I also do not see any logical relation between the idea that an act is predictable and the idea that an act is obedient to the laws of physics. I can predict that a song starting on C will return to C, because this is one of laws of music. I can predict that any chessgame not a draw, not a stalemate, will end in checkmate, because this is one of the rules of chess. I cannot use the laws of physics to predict the outcome of a song, because music is not physics and is not described by its rules. I cannot use the laws of physics to predict the outcome of a chessgame because chess is not physics and is not described by its rules.

Does chess “break” the laws of physics? Does music “break” the laws of physics? Of course not.

Can you predict the last couplet of a sonnet from the first 1o lines? Well, sonnets have certain laws concerning meter and rhyme, so I suppose those could be predicted. But physics is not the tool we would use to make the prediction.

In this hypothetical, we are restricting our attention only to the physical properties of the ink marks on the page, such as the color of the ink, and its evaporation point. The shape of the letters can be predicted if we know enough to predict the motion of the fingers, and the finger motions can be predicted from the motions of muscles in nerves in the arm. In theory, the motion of muscles and nerves in the arm can be predicted from motions of elements in the brain.

But you do not know if Shakespeare is going to make an ink mark shaped like the goalpost of a football game unless you know whether he is going to write “HOST” and you do not know if Shakespeare is going to write an ink mark shaped like a snake unless you know whether he is going to write “SEA.”

In order to know that, in the same way your chess computer cannot play the game without knowing RULE 42 (the oldest rule in the book) defining checkmate, you must know what Shakespeare means and intends to write.

If you want hypothetically to exclude yourself from knowing the crucial bit of information without which the prediction cannot take place, well, yes, obviously you will not know what to predict.

This no more “breaks the rules of physics” than a checkmate “breaks the rules of chess.”

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