Determinism and Free Will.

Heh, a serf thinkin’ about thinkin’ and ‘The Ascent of Man.’

On determinism or free will in human affairs, you have only to look at the illustration above of ‘The Ascent of Man,’ to recognize that descended from the gods we are not. Has to be that a large measure of what we do is determined by our genetic inheritance. Plenty of pundits out there who say ‘that’s it, that’s all there is folks, a determinist universe.’ But is that it, – is it?

Regarding our human limitations you’ve got neurobiologists like Dick Swaab writing books with titles like ‘We Are Our Brains. From The Womb To Alzheimers.’ The link below sets out some of the determinist focus of Swaab’s book.


…the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

Dr Swaab, the son of a gynecologist who devoted his working life to problems of the human reproductive system, did his own research on what shapes us in the womb, from sexual differences to conditions like Autism and Alzheimers Disease. Many defects attributed to difficult birth, genetic disorders and learning difficulties, says Dr Swaab, occurred at conception, a small minority due to lack of oxygen at birth.

Can’t argue the physical processes that shape our possibilities and limits, for some, extreme physical or mental limitations, but is the laboratory approach all that can be said of human behavior? Concerning a mind /brain connection I don’t find Dr Swaab had anything compelling to say about human consciousness, more like everything’s reduced to elementary neurons and chemical messaging of the fetus in the womb.

Irreducible complexity and Phi.

Neuroscientists Guilio Tononi and Christof Koch criticize determinist reductionism and argue the significance of our human consciousness that emerges from a process of integrated information within a system and is more than the sum of its parts, a property called Phi, Φ, the feedback between, and interdependence of different parts of a system. At issue is the reductive argument that ultimately ‘only’ atoms, or neurons, are relevant, which if this was so, would not bring any new ‘thing’ into existence.

Tononi states that according to Integrated Information Theory, what actually exists is an entire cause-effect structure, much more than the first-order cause-effect repertoires of atomic elements, its changes caused by much more than first-order causation. This view, together with the central identity of IIT that an experience is a conceptual structure that is maximally irreducible intrinsically, has several implications for the notions of free will and responsibility. Tononi argues the following points:

‘First, for a choice to be conscious, a system’s cause-effect power must be exerted intrinsically – upon itself: the conceptual structure must be ‘causa sui.’ This requirement is in line with the established notion that, to be free, a choice must be autonomous – decided from within and not imposed from without.

Second, for a choice to be highly conscious, the conceptual structures that correspond to the experience of deliberating and deciding (“willing”) must be highly irreducible – they must be composed of many concepts, including a large number of higher-order ones. In other words, a conscious choice involves a large amount of cause-effect power and is definitely not reducible to first-order causes and effects. Hence, the reductionist assumption that ultimately “my neurons made me do it” is just as definitely incorrect.

Seen this way, a system that only exists extrinsically, such as a feed-forward network, is not “free” at all, but at the mercy of external inputs. In this case nothing exists from the intrinsic perspective – there is nothing it is like to be a feed-forward network. But if intrinsically there is nothing, it cannot cause anything either. There is only extrinsic causation – a machine “going through the motions” for the benefit of an external manipulator/observer…. By contrast, a complex that specifies a rich conceptual structure of Φ is both free and has high will: its choices are determined intrinsically and they involve a large amount of cause-effect power. That is to say, to have free will, one needs to be as free as possible from external causes, and as determined as possible by internal causes – the multitude of concepts that compose an experience. In short, more consciousness, more free will.’


Philosophers Arthur Compton and Karl Popper also see the evolution of consciousness acting as a control of human behavior, evolving with the development of descriptive and critical language that enabled us to deliberate and make trial and error decisions.

Of clouds and clocks…

Giving the Arthur Holly Compton Memorial Lecture at Washington University in 1965, Karl Popper, speaking on determinism and free will, includes the subject of one of Arthur Compton’s books, ‘The Freedom of Man,’ in the title of his lecture, ‘Of Clouds and Clocks. An Approach to the Problem of Rationality and the Freedom of Man.’ You may wish, (choose?) to read the complete lecture here, which also includes a critique of the philosophical arguments of David Hume and Moritz Schlick concerning indeterminism in human behavior.


The ‘Clouds and Clocks’ in the title of Popper’s lecture represent a schema of physical systems in nature. We speak of clockwork systems like the motions of planets that are regular, orderly and highly predictable, which Popper places on the right in his schema. What Popper calls ‘clouds,’ are more irregular systems and phenomena, such as gasses, which are disorderly and largely unpredictable, that Popper places on the left. In between are natural systems and phenomena like the changing seasons that are somewhat unpredictable, plants, somewhat nearer clocks, and animals, closer to clouds in his arrangement.

Popper observes that his arrangement is now quite acceptable to common sense and lately to physical science, but once it was not. It was not so during the two hundred and fifty years following the Newtonian Revolution when the established view was that ‘all clouds are clocks, even the most cloudy of clouds,’ a formulation of the determinist universe, no room here for schema with clouds on the left and in between phenomena.

But with the rise of the new quantum theory, physicists began to abandon classical physics and the physical determinism of ‘all clouds are clocks.’ Popper observes that Arthur Holly Compton was among the first to welcome the new quantum theory. As a physicist, Compton’s experimental tests had played a crucial role in its development,(p 206.) and as a philosopher, he welcomed its implications for indeterminism in human action, (p 217.) recognizing that ‘ if the atoms of our bodies follow physical laws as immutable as the motions of the planets … our actions are already predetermined by mechanical laws.’ In such a physically complete or physically closed system, where systems or physical entities interact in accordance with definite laws of interaction and without any interference from outside that closed system, then man himself is merely an automan.

Enter Chance or…

As an alternative to determinism in the physical universe, quantum theory introduces uncertainty or chance acting by way of quantum jumps. Indeterminism exists but it is chance that plays the significant role. Popper questions whether the preparation of his lecture on ‘Clouds and Clocks,’ can adequately be explained either by determinism or chance. While the quantum jump model might be an appropriate model for the snap decisions we sometimes make, snap decision-making is not characteristic of all human behavior.

Enter purpose, deliberation, theories and plans. Compton himself describes, relating to one of his own lectures, how purposes, rules and agreements brought him back from Italy to Yale University on a given date and at a given time to deliver a lecture to an audience who were there because they knew Compton’s purpose and as a consequence turned up to hear the lecture.

Popper identifies two problems to be discussed in Compton’s story. Popper calls the first ‘Compton’s problem,’ and the second ‘Descartes’ problem.’ Compton describes this first problem as a problem of the ‘universe of meanings’ upon human behavior, promises, aims, various kinds of rules, rules of logic, polite behavior etc, and also such things as scientific publications. Popper formulates Descartes’ problem, the mind-body problem as how such things as states of mind, feelings, expectations etc, influence or control the movements of our limbs.

Any attempt to solve these problems, says Popper, following Compton, must conform to the idea of combining freedom and control, to what Compton describes as plastic control, in contradiction to cast-iron control in human behavior. Contra master switch theories of snap decisions that are almost reflexes, Popper argues that our decisions frequently conform to a process of deliberation, Deliberation works by a mechanism of trial and error which Popper applies to Compton’s problem.

Bird song it aint…

He begins by arguing the evolution of human language on human behavior, from the two lower functions of animal language that we share with animals, the expressive and signaling functions, to the descriptive function, and most importantly, an argumentative or critical function. Like the two lower functions of language ‘the art of critical argument has developed by the method of trial and error elimination, and it has had the most decisive influence on the human ability to think rationally.’ ( p237.) The descriptive and argumentative functions of language have led to the evolution of ideal standards of control; for descriptive language this main regulative idea is ‘truth,’ for critical language it is ‘validity.’ And the development of the argumentative function of language has led to our most powerful biological adaptation, the evolution of science.

Apart from the evolution of language, argues Popper, there is another evolution distinct from physical evolution that is significant in the development of human rationality and that is our exosomatic evolution of tools, machines, weapons and buildings. Instead of growing better memories and brains, we grow pens and paper, books and printing presses, libraries and computers. By these means we develop meanings and theories that partly control us and which we, in part, control in a kind of feedback loop in the light of critical discussion.

Without saying what ‘the mind’ is, Popper poses a theory regarding Descartes’ problem, that our mental states control (some of ) our physical states and there is some interaction and feedback between mental and other functions of the human organism. Popper argues that it is the evolution of consciousness that acts as a system of control on behavior, consciousness partly controlled by the exosomatic linguistic systems that may be said to be produced by consciousness, like libraries and legal systems, for example, and other exosomatic developments that we have evolved. Our conscious states act as a probe on our behavior says Popper, ‘They anticipate our behavior, working out, by trial and error, its likely consequences; thus they not only control but they try out, they deliberate.‘ (p 251.)

Jumping to conclusions…

Not enough careful deliberation, argues psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book about human cognitive illusions, ‘Thinking Fast and Slow.’ Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who turned psychology into a quantitative investigation, subjecting human responses to calculations and measurement. A large part of his book is made up of studies indicating the various illusions which supposedly rational people demonstrate when confronted with choices under controlled conditions.

In his book Kahneman argues the existence in our brains of two independent systems for organizing knowledge, one he labels System One, a fight or flight survival mechanism which probably evolved with our mammalian ancestors, a fast thinking system making judgements and taking action without waiting for our conscious awareness to catch up. Making use of memories and heuristics linked with strong emotions like fear and pain, its judgements are often wrong, though the fast thinking system probably worked well for survival in a jungle. Our System Two is the slow process of forming judgements based on conscious thinking that checks the actions of System One and allows us to correct our mistakes. Human art and science have been created by System Two.

Says Kahneman, bottom line, we’re machines for jumping to conclusions, prone to associative bias. For System One, the measure of success is coherence of a story, it’s consistency that matters most, not completeness of evidence… ‘what you see is all that there is.’ There’s a grab-bag of simple heuristics we adopt to make adequate but often wrong answers to difficult questions like ‘the availability heuristic, what comes readily from memory, first in line. There’s also a ‘law of small numbers’ bias whereby small samples closely resemble populations from which they are drawn – and more. And the bad news is, as Kahneman first discovered, working with Israeli Defence Forces in the 1950’s, that your System Two thinkers are also prone to similar thinking errors and heuristics, more apologist than critical of the emotions of System One. If you happen to have heard of Philip Tetlock’s well known study of failed predictions by experts, that shows experts are no better than anyone else in successfully predicting future events, you’ll recognize this problem. (Ref. Nassim Taleb’s,The Black Swan,’ Chapter 10.)

While Kahneman’s System Two sometimes lets us down, there’s another built in system that acts as a corrective to our mechanical or lazy behavior and that is human laughter. There’s an analytical, and I’d say convincing essay on the subject by Henri Bergson that is worth reading, ‘Laughter: An essay on the Meaning of Comic.’


Laughter and Absent-mindedness.


Bergson’s essay, while not imprisoning comedy within a tight definition, finds that the comic spirit has a lot to tell us about human behavior. Bergson argues in his essay that only humans laugh and that mainly why we laugh is because we detect some specifically human absent minded expression or observation that triggers laughter. If we laugh at a hat, for example, it is because of the shape man has given it and if we laugh at an animal, says Bergson, it is because of some expression or action that we see as human like.


Bergson observes that laughter has evolved as a survival mechanism, that what we laugh at is some mechanical elasticity or lack of attention to the world around us by a person or by some character in fiction. Laughter is an objective response to the carelessness of a person who slips on a banana skin or walks awkwardly, like Monsieur Hulot in Jacques Tati movies. Laughter is a response to the rigid, repetitive behaviors of people incapable of insight, like Jane Austin’s comic characters or the actors in Moliere’s plays. We laugh at lapses of attention in language itself, ‘Only God has the right to kill his fellow creatures,’ malaprop connections and word definitions, inversions of meaning. Comic anatomies in cartoons, faces that have acquired the rigid grimaces of settled behavior-patterns, all these are the System One objects of the laughter that is a means of correcting our inattentiveness when we should be shaping our conduct in accordance with a present reality.


And a reminder of where we make our greatest steps in discovering that reality … why, that’s in science of course, our outstanding achievement in the evolution of knowledge, a trial and error process that Popper describes as posing falsifiable hypotheses about how something works and testing those hypotheses, of knowledge held provisionally and failed hypotheses replaced by better ones. From the theories of Copernicus to Galileo, from Newton to Einstein, in many fields of enquiry, these theories that we create influence us in ways unforeseen by their creators, taking on a life of their own, an objective reality.

And exosomatic tools and machines that we create may also lead to unforeseen consequences. Here’s a nice example and example of deliberative thinking with lots of Φ too. James Watt, the Scottish instrument maker, out walking in the city of Glascow, one unusually fine afternoon in 1765. For months Watt had been working on Newcomben’s steam engine trying to solve the problem of inefficiency from wasted steam. Watt opens the gate at the foot of Charlotte Street and walks past the old washing house:

‘I was thinking upon the engine at the time,’ he wrote later, ‘when the idea came into my mind that as steam was an elastic body it would rush into a vacuum, and if a communication were made between the cylinder and an exhausted vessel, it would rush into it and thereby be condensed without cooling the cylinder … I had not walked further than the golf-house when the whole thing was strong in my mind.’ (In ‘The Scottish Enlightenment.’ Arthur Herman. Chapter 12.)

And that leads me to my last argument concerning indeterminism in human thinking concerning those other great achievement of human creation, the visual arts, drama, literature and music.

Context’s the thing.

Art historian Ernst Gombrich, in his essays relating to expression and communication, ‘Meditations on a Hobby Horse and Other Essays on the Theory of Art,’ is critical of the expressionist theory that art and music are the natural language of emotion.

According to this theory, the resonance theory, a natural equivalence exists between emotional states and sensations, sights and sounds. We experience, for example, sensations such as ‘warm, light, bright, fast, high,’ as ‘friendly’ or ‘happy,’ while sensations such as ‘cold, dark, blue, slow, deep,’ are experienced as ‘hostile’ or ‘sad.’ Gombrich uses an analogy from wireless to describe the resonance theory, ‘the artist as transmitter, the work as medium, and the spectator as receiver,’ the artist broadcasting his message in the hope of reaching a mind that will vibrate in unison with his own. Say, sounds romantic don’t it?

While Gombrich accepts that there is some disposition in all of us to equate certain sensations with certain feeling tones, he argues that whatever message an unstructured canvas of blue paint may convey to an applauding critic is not inherent in the blue paint itself but relies on its meaning within a context. Expression and communication do not function in a void but take place within an evolving traditional art form and genre. Without such shaping, messages would die on route from transmitter to receiver, ‘not because we fail to be ‘attuned’, but simply because there is nothing to relate them to.’In his famous history analysis of western art, ‘Art and Illusion,’ Gombrich argues that all art involves problem solving, trial and error image making dependent on function, from Egyptian conceptual funerary art of the typical and timeless event to the illusionary and particular art of the Greek Revolution and the Renaissance, a trial and error process of schema and correction involving 3D illusion.

A dark, inscrutable workmanship.

In literature the process of problem solving trial and error is clearly demonstrated by Elizabethan dramatists experimenting with metre, no one more so than the bard. Because Shakespearean tragedy is about the fall of an otherwise noble hero from a lofty state due to some fatal flaw in character, this heroic character must therefore reveal, through his language, his exceptional character and also the weakness that brings about his tragic fall. Before the development of the iambic pentameter and blank verse, playwrights were hampered by available metrical forms like the fourteen syllable line that tended to split in two and create a monotonous effect. They were also restricted by the requirements of an often forced rhyming pattern that could give an impression of naivete as well as monotony.

The flexible possibilities of the iambic pentameter, a ten syllable metrical measure with an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, were first explored by Christopher Marlow and developed by Shakespeare to create the extraordinary individual voice of his tragic hero by way of subtle changes in rhythm and stress that suggest intense emotion or other changes in mood. The following line from Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy, shows the standard iambic pentameter: ‘For in that sleep of death what dreams may come.’ Note in the quote below, the rhythmic subtleties, enjambments and elisions that modify the smooth sweep of the iambic pentameter:


Another development in drama is examined by Harold Bloom in his book, ‘The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages’. Bloom places Shakespeare at the centre of his Canon because Shakespeare excels all other Western writers in cognitive acuity, linguistic energy and power of invention.’ (p43.) Bloom makes the case that Shakespeare gives us most of our representations of cognition and that Shakespeare’s originality has been so assimilated by us that we cease to see it as strange. Bloom goes further, observing that Shakespeare largely invented what we think of as cognition, that most of what we know about how to represent cognition and personality in language was permanently altered by Shakespeare. There isn’t anyone before Shakespeare, who actually gives you this representation of characters or human figures speaking out loud, whether to themselves or to others, and then brooding out loud, whether to themselves or to others, on what they themselves have said, and then, in the course of pondering, undergoing a serious or vital change, becoming a different kind of character or personality and even a different kind of mind.

Where Shakespeare took the hint, says Bloom, – is from Chaucer, Shakespeare’s only precursor in reflective character; the self aware revelations in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ of the Wife of Bath that gets into Falstaff, and of the Pardoner, that gets into figures like Edmund and Iago. But Chaucer does it only in fits and starts, and in small degree. Shakespeare does it all the time. It’s his common stock. The ability to do that and to persuade one that this is a natural mode of representation is purely Shakespearean and we are now so contained by it that we don’t see its originality.

That irreducible complexity… La Musique.


Scored for violin, flute with string orchestra and harpsichord. Added complexity, the performers’ practiced response. Evolution, from Gregorian chants to Medieval court music to the Baroque … Bach’s 5th Brandenburg Concerto and Karl Richter. Encapsulates …

… So what d’ya think?



  1. Bravo! So much to chew on here that I will have to reread it again to have your points absorbed at a deeper level.

    This is great writing and a fantastic scholastic feast. Thank you.

  2. Very learned stuff from a serf. I shall be referring back till understanding dawns.

    Hard for a toff to take on abstraction or strenuous thought (not really our thing)…but I know a good Brandenburg when I hear it.

  3. “Second, for a choice to be highly conscious, the conceptual structures that correspond to the experience of deliberating and deciding (“willing”) must be highly irreducible – they must be composed of many concepts, including a large number of higher-order ones. In other words, a conscious choice involves a large amount of cause-effect power and is definitely not reducible to first-order causes and effects. Hence, the reductionist assumption that ultimately “my neurons made me do it” is just as definitely incorrect.”

    That is a very handy way to discuss free will as opposed to the behaviorist-type systems.

    The main problem with the deterministic, closed system attempts to describe human actions is that it is yet another self-fulfilling prophecy masquerading as a scientific theory. For example, reductionist theories lead to a certain approach to education, which in turn actually destroys self-motivation and self-organized learning. The student is only required to show up and fulfill small incremental tasks — for twelve years straight.

    Thank you for taking the time to write up your reading and reflections. There’s good fun in every paragraph here! (:

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