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About this week’s feature article

In this rich article on an ancient problem, Skeptic contributor Phil Mole discusses the problem of free will. The problem is this: how can we hold people accountable for their actions if we live in a determined universe? A variety of solutions to the problems are reviewed from the ancient Greeks to modern scientists, philosophers, and even science fiction writers such as Philip K. Dick in his classic novel Minority Report. Mole finds compelling new arguments from complexity theory and cognitive neuroscience that reveal the intricate network of causes and effects at work in our conscious minds. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine volume 10 number 4 (2004).

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Zeno’s Paradox
and the Problem of Free Will

by Phil Molé

illustration copyright 2004 by Pat Linse

John Anderton, the protagonist played by Tom Cruise in Steven Spielberg’s science fiction film Minority Report, finds himself in a nightmarishly paradoxical situation. As a policeman for the futuristic Pre-Crime office, Anderton relies on an elaborate information arrangement system to see crimes before they happen, and arrest the would-be perpetrators.1 The accuracy of Pre-Crime’s predictions seems infallible, until it forecasts that Anderton himself will soon become a murderer. Anderton does not even recognize the future murder victim, so how could he possibly kill the man? How can he prove his innocence, especially since the system seems to have perfect predictive accuracy? Is it possible that the system is right, and Anderton will become a murderer for reasons beyond his own knowledge or understanding? If Anderton is to avoid his apparent destiny as a convicted murderer, he must hope that the astonishing predictive accuracy of Pre-Crime leaves some room for personal freedom. He must hope that deterministic laws do not preclude the possibility of free will.

Minority Report, based on a Philip K. Dick story, grapples with the classic philosophical problems of free will. Do human beings have free will, or do physical laws determine our destinies? How can the novelty of free choice truly exist in a universe organized with such clock-like regularity? These questions have intrigued and annoyed contemplative folks for millennia, and have provided the raw material for weighty philosophical treatises and science fiction movies alike. Yet, after centuries of debate, the definitive answers to the free will dilemma have yet to be discovered. Is this problem, as some philosophers have maintained, ultimately beyond human understanding?

Perhaps we need to take a new, closer look at the problem and its history. We may be able to identify conceptual flaws in the logic of many free-will arguments. More important, we may be able to find fruitful parallels between the apparent puzzles at the center of the free will debate and other difficult philosophical puzzles, such as the motion paradoxes of Zeno. Such an inquiry may yield insights relevant to the historical problem of free will and its possible solution.

The Problem: A Brief History

To the ancient Greeks, human destiny was subject to forces beyond our control, and tragedy resulted from the heroic but useless struggle against the dictates of destiny. After the beginning of the Christian era, theologians developed new concerns. They worshipped an all-powerful and all knowing God, but soon found that the existence of this God would have rather negative implications for human freedom. If God really knew everything, he would have to know the course of all history. But if this were true, we humans seemed to be simply going through the motions like characters in a novel. We are like the protagonists of Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, who do not fully comprehend their status as minor Hamlet characters lacking true personal freedom.2 Just as the audience attending a performance of a widely read play knows the fates of every character, God knows the future details of every human being alive, because he himself authored our destinies.

A deterministic universe also seemed to pose serious threats to morality and accountability. If we do not freely choose our actions, how can we be responsible for good or evil deeds we happen to perform? What sense could it even make to punish a criminal for breaking the law if he could not have done otherwise? Even theological doctrines, such as the rebellion of Satan and the crucifixion of Jesus, seem to become uncomfortably troublesome upon further reflection. For if Satan’s fall and Christ’s acceptance of the cross were ordained to happen exactly as they did, how could we justifiably despise the Prince of Lies or love Jesus? Sin could not truly exist, since the existence of sin depends on the existence of choice. Adam and Eve might have eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, but they could not have violated God’s will if God is omnipotent. The fall of man seems, in this light, to have been something thrust upon us by necessity, not by choice. Even worse, it becomes difficult to morally justify God’s actions in history, since He must know that some of his actions will place his most beloved creation in horrible pain and misery.3

Theologians eventually devised various compromise solutions to the free will dilemma. Religious thinkers modified their definitions of omnipotence to include the possibility that human actions could be free and simultaneously known in advance by a supreme being. Foremost among these theologians was Thomas Aquinas, who worried that too much disparagement of free will might lead people to doubt the reality of sin, and abdicate responsibility for their actions.4 These new thinkers stressed that God’s vast knowledge of reality did not imply that human actions were not free. Just as an observer in a 15th story apartment window can see that two automobiles are unwittingly driving on a collision course, God’s vantage point allows him to see the consequences of our actions, even when they are hidden from our own senses. We choose our actions based on our best available information, but simply do not know enough to accurately foresee the outcomes of our actions. Adam and Eve were responsible for their choice after all.5

Yet another, more philosophical objection to free will states that its existence is entirely dependent on the possibility of “uncaused causes.” That is, if we are honestly to consider ourselves free, then we ourselves must be the only cause of our actions. We must be able to demonstrate that we do not act the way we do because prior events compelled us. But this is not reasonable, say the objectors, because every action in the material world can be traced to prior causes, and these causes themselves originate from prior causes. All causes are part of a chain of events stretching back to the very beginning of the universe.

All right, but we are people, not material objects. An inanimate clump of minerals cannot choose what it is going to do, but we can, because of our human consciousness. The materialist is not satisfied with this rebuttal. He will state that human beings are made of matter that follows the same physical laws governing everything else in the universe. We are made of atoms, and the behavior of these atoms follows known laws and results from physical causes. When we trace the histories of all the bits of matter comprising our physical bodies, we see that the movement of this matter followed inexorably from a long series of perfectly material determinants. The thing we call our mind is merely the sum of myriad interactions of material particles following immutable natural laws. With a sufficiently intimate understanding of our minds at the material level, we could no longer imagine we are acting freely.

To determinists, our perception of personal freedom is a side effect of consciousness that, ironically, developed from a combination of natural laws and prior constraints in the pathway of human evolution. This consciousness gives each of us a sense of personal identity that allows us to perceive that we are somehow separate and independent from the rest of the world. We seem to be free agents, exempt from external constraints. But as Leo Tolstoy observed in War and Peace, we cannot easily consider ourselves free when we recall prior sequences of events that limited our choices and compelled us toward certain courses of action.6 The military generals in Tolstoy’s epic imagine they are controlling the fates of entire armies and even nations, but countless historical contingencies they are unable or unwilling to consider rigidly determine their every action. What it all comes down to, as philosophers from Friedrich Nietzsche to Galen Strawson have argued, is that we cannot be a causa sui, or the ultimate cause of ourselves. We had no say in the forces that produced us, and so we cannot be free in any ultimate sense of the word.7

Free will is simply an illusion conjured by our ignorance of the causes affecting our behavior. This is what Baruch Spinoza meant when he quipped that if a rock possessed consciousness, it would believe that it fell of its own free will.8 The deeper we look at the various determinants bearing upon our actions, the more free will seems to be an abstraction without meaning in the real world. This seems to be true even if, as philosopher P. F. Strawson argued in a celebrated paper, belief in free will is a deeply ingrained component of human ethical reflection — we believe in free will because denying freedom undercuts the health of our social relationships.9 Someone who could know the myriad effects impacting our behavior would see that our every action is completely determined and predictable. As the mathematician Laplace famously argued,

An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom: for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain, and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.10

The Search for Solutions

Undeterred, champions of free will continue to defend their theory from the clutch of determinism. One common approach is to cite the importance of non-material factors on human behavior, such as culture. We are more than mere collections of atoms or genes. We are also social creatures capable of adapting to a wide range of cultural habitats. Hasn’t anthropology taught us that human nature is remarkably malleable?

Determinists object that culture has no relevance to the question of free will. They argue, quite correctly, that all choices ultimately stem from cognitive activity in the brain, which remains a material entity subject to material laws. Furthermore, it wouldn’t even matter if culture allowed us to bypass our material structures altogether. If our behavior results from cultural factors, it is still determined by external factors, and we still do not freely choose our actions.

Modern opponents of determinism invoke quantum mechanics as proof that chance events have their place in nature. In quantum mechanics, we can only cite probabilities for finding particles in a particular place, and cannot determine the position of a particle in advance. Might quantum mechanics provide a means of escape from a determined existence? According to physicist Roger Penrose, in his popular book The Emperor’s New Mind,11 quantum mechanics enables us to escape from a completely knowable and determined existence by injecting randomness into the very nature of consciousness.

Determinists respond that not every scientist thinks that quantum mechanics is a truly nondeterministic theory. Some physicists maintain that quantum mechanics equations contain hidden variables that cause determinism to prevail, despite the seeming randomness in experimental results. And even if quantum mechanics is random, how does that help the case for free will? To most people, freedom involves more than performing random actions or responding randomly to stimuli. We want to be able to choose our actions, not simply behave haphazardly. A life completely subject to the whims of quantum chance is just as unattractive as a life governed by predictability.

Free Will and Zeno’s Paradox

The arguments for and against free will have circulated through the intellectual world for millennia, with minor variations. We may sympathize with André Gide, who once mused that all the arguments about free will have already been made, but we must continue repeating them because nobody listens.12 Indeed, although some of the terms used in the debate may vary, the basic arguments continue to center on the likelihood of uncaused causes and the possibility of autonomy from natural laws. Whether the movements of atoms or the influence of genes and cultural conditioning control us, we are not the ultimate cause of our actions, and cannot truly be free. The existence of free will seems to depend on a logically impossible reconciliation of incompatible concepts. As Martin Gardner quips, “A free will act cannot be fully predetermined. Nor can it be the outcome of pure chance. Somehow it is both. Somehow it is neither… My own view, which is Kant’s, is that there is no way to go between the thorns. The best we can do (we who are not gods) is, Kant wrote, comprehend its incomprehensibility.”13

But are we really looking at the problem correctly? Perhaps we need to escape from the cycle of rehashed arguments and take a new look at our approaches to the problem. One way to do this may be to look for analogous dilemmas encountered during the long history of philosophy, and see if we can gain insights relevant to discussions of free will.

To my mind, some important aspects of the free will debate invite comparison to another celebrated philosophical puzzle — the motion paradoxes of the Greek philosopher Zeno. Living in the fifth century BCE, Zeno was a disciple of the great thinker Parmenides, who famously argued that change in the physical world is impossible. We cannot speak of what is not, Parmenides said, since that would involve the contradiction of speaking of things that don’t exist.14 Change is therefore impossible because it involves something becoming what it is not, which plainly involves an impassable contradiction.

Zeno defended the rather paradoxical conclusions of his mentor by developing a number of paradoxes of his own. In one of his most famous examples, Zeno describes a race between the swift runner Achilles and a tortoise.15 Since Achilles runs much faster than the tortoise, we give the tortoise a fair head start. Everyone knows Achilles will outrun the slow, heavy tortoise, right? Don’t be so sure, Zeno answers. Suppose the tortoise has a ten-meter head start. Achilles catches up that distance, but in that time, the tortoise has moved a small distance ahead. Achilles must now catch up the new distance, but meanwhile the tortoise has made further small progress. It turns out that Achilles can never overtake his slower opponent, because each time he moves the tortoise has trudged another tiny increment ahead.

illustration depicts Zeno’s famous paradox

Figure 1: This illustration depicts Zeno’s famous paradox of the race between Achilles and the tortoise. Achilles cannot win the race because each time he tries to catch up, the tortoise has moved another small distance ahead. Redrawn from The Philosopher’s Magazine.16

This paradox also implies that Achilles not only fails to outrun the tortoise, but neither Achilles nor anything else can truly move at all. Before I can move from one side of the room to the opposite side, I first have to travel half the total distance. But before I can reach the center of the room, I have to travel half of that distance, or one-quarter of the total. We can still divide the quarter distance by two again, and continue this operation until we have added an infinite number of small distances to our journey. This same argument applies if, instead of wishing to cross the room, we merely want to move a tiny fraction of an inch forward. Any potential distance, no matter how great or small, is divisible into an infinite number of smaller distances. We can never move anywhere, because we would have to travel across an infinitely large number of distances just to move a vanishingly small distance.

Zeno’s paradox is one of those philosophical arguments that is obviously wrong, but resists attempts to find the error. His argument baffled generations of philosophers who struggled unsuccessfully to locate the fallacies in his thinking. We needed new developments in mathematics to clearly understand where Zeno’s reasoning goes astray. The mathematical concept of series convergence allows us to see that an infinite series of small increments can comprise a finite sum. An infinite number of increments does not necessarily produce an infinite number, but may converge on a finite number.17 This can be expressed mathematically as


For instance, suppose we sum an infinite series beginning with ___, and each new term is exactly ___ of the previous term. We are adding an infinite number of terms, but do not obtain an infinite sum, because our series converges to one:


Thus, the mathematics of convergence shows that an infinite series does not necessarily imply an infinite sum. The seeming paradox in Zeno’s argument arises because of our mistaken tendency to see the concepts of “infinite” and “finite” as mutually exclusive. Zeno’s rigid rationalism convinces us that an infinite series of small increments prevents a finite increase in distance, but the narrow focus and hidden assumptions in Zeno’s argument have tricked us into believing a fallacy. We can cross the room after all, and Achilles really does outrun the tortoise.

Paradox Lost: Rethinking Free Will Arguments

I would like to hypothesize that free will arguments contain common misunderstandings of the concepts of “cause” and “will,” and these misunderstandings are analogous to Zeno’s erroneous assumptions about the concepts of “infinite” and “finite.” Just as Zeno agonized about infinite numbers of small distances and convinced himself that all movement was impossible, most participants in the free will debate devote so much attention to the causes affecting us that they feel compelled to deny free will. Indeed, many philosophers believe the case against free will to be rock solid. Every effect has a cause, and humans cannot be the causes of their own consciousness, so we may as well just admit that free will is illusory. A few of these philosophers even smugly claim that anyone can see the logical impossibility of free will by reflecting on the relevant arguments from the comfort of his own couch.18

However, Zeno also thought he used flawless logic in his demonstration of the impossibility of motion. Just as modern determinists intimidate us by speaking of infinite chains of causes precluding our freedom, Zeno intimidated his audience by showing how infinite numbers of small increments rendered motion impossible. What if, just as in Zeno’s paradox, there is nothing truly paradoxical going on in the realm of free will after all? What if our actions could remain genuine acts of will and outcomes of a complex chain of causality, just as we could have an infinite series of small increments converge on a finite sum?

These possibilities are similar in many ways to other counterintuitive conclusions rendered understandable through careful mathematical reasoning. For instance, we tend to think that the concepts of “randomness” and “symmetry” are at odds with each other. A symmetrical pattern seems to be the very antithesis of randomness. But as physicist Taner Edis shows in his remarkable book The Ghost in the Universe, order and chance are closely linked. A long series of fair coin tosses likely results in random sequences of heads and tails, but the resulting randomness follows directly from the symmetry in the probabilities of obtaining two possible outcomes for each coin flip. Similarly, we observe magnets to be rotationally symmetric at high temperatures, meaning that they align themselves in every possible direction. The overall magnetization of this system is zero, because the magnets do not favor any particular direction and cancel each other out. Ironically, if the equations describing magnetism were not symmetrical, the directions of these magnets could not be random, because non-symmetrical equations would result in a non-zero net magnetization of the system, dictating that the magnets align themselves along a single direction.19 Symmetry and randomness are not antagonists. They are inseparable elements of a universe in which mathematically elegant laws create opportunities for contingencies.

Free will certainly poses vexing philosophical problems, but many of these problems appear to result from conceptual confusions. When we talk about free will and determinism, we immediately confront a series of conflicts between seemingly contradictory terms. When we ask if a deterministic universe implies the absence of freedom, we seem to encounter a conflict between the concepts of cause and choice. We stumble upon another impasse when we ask if quantum indeterminacy somehow enables us to have free will, because we see randomness and rational choice as complete antagonists. But we’ve fooled ourselves as much by our framing of our questions as Zeno fooled himself, and many others, by the framing of his paradoxes. We do not have to choose between complete determinacy and complete chance, or believe that free choice necessitates complete isolation from the world of causes and effects.20 Instead, we can explore the ways that chance and order combine in physical laws to allow free will to exist.

The first thing we need to do is clarify what “free will” really means. It clearly cannot imply total freedom to do whatever we want, because few people worry about their inability to suddenly become lighter than air. Most people willingly accept that the nature of our human bodies imposes limits on our actions. To claim we have free will, then, is merely to claim that we have some range of possible choices. The mere presence of limits on our choice does not negate our freedom as long as real choices still exist.

To see why, consider an example provided by philosopher Daniel Dennett in his interesting book Elbow Room. If we see an animal at the zoo in a tiny cage restricting even the smallest movement, we deplore the poor beast’s condition, because he seems to lack freedom to do anything at all. But now imagine seeing the same animal in a spacious zoo habitat. The animal still faces limits on his freedom, but he can roam around in his quarters and “choose” to be in one place rather than another.21 This is the kind of freedom we would probably consider sufficient. We are mostly comfortable with the idea of limits on our choices, as long as we truly have a variety of options.

If the tradeoff between freedom and limitations is not all or nothing, neither is the tradeoff between freedom and deterministic predictability. Recall that traditional determinists argue that an omniscient being seeing all of the causes affecting us would be able to perfectly predict our actions. This hypothetical being would be able to see that we do not actually act freely, but act under the compulsion of countless causes undetected by our limited mortal senses. This is a nice argument, but it suffers from the serious deficiencies that no one knows if such a being exists, and no one certainly knows how such a being would perceive reality. It may very well be the case that a being capable of seeing all of the causes acting on us would have more difficulty predicting our behavior. After all, the simpler of two competing scientific models often allows us to make the most accurate predictions. Predictive accuracy often decreases, not increases, with the number of parameters we include in our model!22 An all-knowing being may very well wind up with all-powerful headaches.

One reason that determinism does not imply an absence of alternatives is the role of emergent phenomena in complex systems. An emergent phenomenon is neither a property of any individual component of a system, nor simply the result of summing the properties of all components. Emergent phenomena are novel, and unpredicted by our knowledge of the system.23 There are many examples of emergent phenomena at all levels. For instance, the atomic properties of hydrogen and oxygen do not convey all possible information about the properties of water, which is simply a molecule made from the combination of the two elements. Water has distinct properties, such as its surface tension and heating capacity, that belong neither to hydrogen nor oxygen and do not arise from simply combining the known properties of each. Some evolutionary biologists think that stable reproductive species in evolutionary history are emergent phenomena, which changed the whole course of natural selection.24 This illustrates another important feature of emergent phenomena — their tendency to affect other parts of the system that produced them. Genes control the inheritable traits of species, but species take the evolutionary game to a completely new level, and affect the distribution of genes themselves in complex ways. This is a feature of complex systems often overlooked by strict determinist deniers of free will. Emergent phenomenon themselves are not merely affected by their surroundings, but interact dynamically with other parts of the system.

By almost anyone’s definition, the human mind is a complex system. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of the billions of neuron interactions in our brains, and seems to be able to influence the behavior of these neurons in novel ways. Some of this novelty may also be linked to quantum level uncertainty in the states of the neurons involved.25 Determinist opponents of free will, hearing this, may reiterate their objection that quantum uncertainty cannot provide a foundation for the kind of rationally considered choices we associate with free will. But as we have already seen, this objection is unwarranted, because randomness and order are not incompatible concepts. As Taner Edis’ magnetic field example showed, randomness is an inherent characteristic of deterministic laws. Quantum mechanics may supply more variety for these laws to act upon, and the neurons of our brain may be close enough to the quantum size level for this variability to be considerable.

How, then, does free will work? We do not completely understand, but we have clues. And just as we needed the mathematical development of calculus to clearly resolve Zeno’s paradox, we may find that the burgeoning mathematics of complexity theory will finally help us dispel our conceptual confusions about free will. Currently, it seems probable that complexity theory, together with our growing understanding of cognitive neuroscience, will throw much light on the process of making willed decisions. We will better understand how the complex arrangement of neurons in our brains leads to emergent states of conscious awareness, and the conscious mind feeds back on its neural networks to place itself in alternate conscious states. With time, we will also better comprehend how the brain converts sensory stimuli and knowledge of our environment into neural impulses and becomes part of the intricate network of causes and effects at work in our conscious minds. Finally, we will realize the conceptual confusions that cause us to see determinism and rational choice as incompatible, and will renounce our error. We will live in a deterministic world without fear, for we will no longer see determinism as a threat to the free will we cherish.

  1. “Minority Report” screenplay. Dick, Philip K. 2002. Minority Report and Other Classic Stories. New York: Citadel Press.
  2. Stoppard, Tom. 1967. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. London: Faber and Faber.
  3. This issue is central to the problem of theodicy, or how to reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God. One of the classic examples is Leibniz, Gottfried William, 1988, Theodicy, Chicago: Open Court. Hicks, John Mark, 1999. Yet I Will Trust Him: Understanding God in a Suffering World, College Press Publishing Company is worth reading, and Davis, Stephen T., 1995. Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy, Westminster John Knox Press provides useful summaries of various theodicies used by contemporary theologians. For a brilliant and provocative literary exploration of the implications of divine omnipotence on concepts of God’s goodness, read Saramago, Jose, 1994. The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, New York: Har vest Books. In addition to its relevance to issues discussed here, Saramago’s book is also one of the most passionately imagined and beautifully written novels of recent years.
  4. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas argues that “man has free-will: otherwise counsels, exhortations, commands, prohibitions, rewards, and punishments would be in vain.” See Aquinas, Thomas. 1920. The Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas: Second and Revised Edition. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Online Edition prepared by Knight, Kevin. 2003.
  5. See, for example, Milton’s similar solution in Paradise Lost. Milton, John. 1993. (1674). Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources and Criticism. New York: W.W. Nor ton & Company. One of the many fascinating things about Milton’s masterpiece is the way it responds to some of the growing rational criticisms of Biblical Christianity in Milton’s time.
  6. Tolstoy, Leo. 1996. (1869). War and Peace: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Sources and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  7. Strawson, Galen. 1986. Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  8. Spinoza, Baruch. 1992. (1677). Ethics. Translated by Samuel Shirley and Seymour Feldman. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.
  9. Strawson, P.F. 1962. “Freedom and Resentment.” Reprinted in Strawson, P.F. (ed.) 1968. Studies in the Philosophy of Thought and Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  10. La Place, Pierre-Simon. 1951. (1814). A Philosophical Essay on Probability. Translated by F.W. Truscott and F.L. Emory. New York: Dover Books.
  11. Penrose, Roger. 2002. The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  12. Gide, Andre. 1891. Le Traite du Narcisse. In Littlejohn, David (ed.) 1971. The Andre Gide Reader. New York: Knopf.
  13. Gardner, Martin. 1999. (1983). The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.
  14. Gottlieb, Anthony. 2000. The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  15. Ibid. For a more technical discussion of Zeno’s paradox, see Barnes, Jonathan. 1982. The Presocratic Philosophers. London: Routledge Books.
  16. Illustration from The Philsopher’s Magazine website. See Moorcoft, Francis. The Philosopher’s Magazine on the Internet. Downloaded March 24, 2003 from
  17. For a technical discussion of series convergence, see Knopp, Konrad. 1956. Infinite Sequences and Series. New York: Dover. Readers seeking more general treatments of series convergence may consult the relevant sections of Whitehead, Alfred North. 1948. (1911). An Introduction to Mathematics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, and Maor, Eli. 1987. To Infinity and Beyond: A Cultural History of the Infinite. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
  18. For instance, Galen Strawson recently proclaimed that the impossibility of being a causa sui negates the potential for being a free moral agent “whether determinism is true or false. It’s a completely a priori argument, as philosophers like to say. That means you can see it is true just by lying on your couch. You don’t have to get up off your couch and go outside and examine the way things are in the physical world.” This interview is available in “Interview with Galen Strawson.” 2003, The Believer, Volume 1(1), 78–86.
  19. Edis, Taner. 2002. The Ghost in the Universe: God in the Light of Modern Science. Buffalo:Prometheus Books.
  20. For valuable discussions of the fallacies of “slippery slope” arguments, consult Walton, Douglas. 1994. Slippery Slope Arguments: Studies in Critical Thinking and Informal Logic Number 4. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  21. Dennett, Daniel C. 1984. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. MIT Press. Dennett has recently expanded his arguments about free will in Dennett, Daniel C. 2003. Freedom Evolves. Oxford: Oxford University Press. I agree with Dennett’s conclusion that determinism is compatible with free will, and his argument that free will and consciousness are complex products of an evolutionary pathway. However, I do not share his aversion to indeterminacy as a contributor to free will, and I am quite skeptical of the value of memes for explaining human thought and actions.
  22. An excellent discussion of the inverse relationship often observed between the complexity of a scientific model and its predictive abilities is found in Sober, Elliot. “Instrumentalism, Parsimony and the Akaike Framework.” 2000. Proceedings of the Philosophy of Science Association. Available online at This issue is also addressed in Mole, Phil. 2003. “Ockham’s Razor Cuts Both Ways: The Uses and Abuses of Simplicity in Scientific Theories.” Skeptic, 10(1).
  23. See Morowitz, Harold J. 2002. The Emergence of Everything: How the World Became Complex. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  24. For instance, Stephen Jay Gould and other evolutionary theorists often argued that selection at the species level, instead of the individual level, is a driving force of evolution. See Gould, Stephen. 1997. “Self-help for a hedgehog stuck on a mole-hill. Review of Richard Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable.” Evolution, 51(3), 1020–1023.
  25. An interesting explanation along these lines is available in Stickgold, Robert. “Tricking Heisenberg: Free will as an emergent property of attentional and emotional subsystems.” Unpublished draft paper.

Skeptical perspectives on free will and determinism…
cover The The Science of Good & Evil
by Michael Shermer

Offer an original model of the bio-cultural evolution of morality and a new theory of provisional ethics that challenges the reader to confront these timeless issues from a new perspective — one that suggests that both morality and immorality evolved in human biological and cultural evolution, that we can make free moral choices in a determined universe, that moral principles can have a sound rational basis supported by empirical evidence (without being dogmatically absolutist or dependent on an external source of validation), and that we can be good without God. READ more and order the book.

cover Freedom Evolves: Free Will, Determinism,
and Evolution

by Dr. Daniel C. Dennett

Renowned philosopher and public intellectual, Dr. Dennett, drawing on evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, economics and philosophy, demonstrates that free will exists in a deterministic world for humans only, and that this gives us morality, meaning, and moral culpability. This is the sequel to his bestseller Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. READ more and order the lecture.

cover From Particles to People: The Laws of Nature
and the Meaning of Life

Dr. Sean M. Carroll

The progress of modern science has reached a point where the laws underlying everyday life are completely understood. This understanding lets us draw strong conclusions about the milieu in which we live. There is no telekinesis, astrology, or life after death. What does this mean for our understanding of consciousness, free will, and the meaning of life? Taking the laws of nature seriously opens a vista of possibility, freeing us from outmoded ideas about what it means to be human. READ more and order the lecture.

Lecture this Sunday at Caltech

Tim Flannery
Here on Earth:
A Natural History of the Planet

with Dr. Tim Flannery
Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 2 pm

TIM FLANNERY IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST INFLUENTIAL SCIENTISTS. In Here on Earth Flannery presents a captivating and dramatic narrative about the origins of life and the history of our planet. Beginning at the moment of creation with the Big Bang, Flannery explores the evolution of Earth from a galactic cloud of dust and gas to a planet with a metallic core and early signs of life within a billion years of being created. He describes the formation of the Earth’s crust and atmosphere, as well as the transformation of the planet’s oceans from toxic brews of metals to life-sustaining bodies covering 70 percent of the planet’s surface. Life first appeared in these oceans in the form of microscopic plants and bacteria, and these metals served as catalysts for the earliest biological processes known to exist. From this starting point, Flannery tells the fascinating story of the evolution of our own species. Order the book on which this lecture is based from

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Mystery Photo

This week’s Mystery Photo:
What mythic creature is this and to what did she give birth in history? (Click to enlarge)

Solution to last week’s photo

The Mystery Photo from April 20th is of David Irving, at a June 2008 event in Orange County, California, where he spoke for the Institute for Historical Review, the primary organization behind so-called “Holocaust revisionism.” The posters of Hitler and his cronies were available for sale at the lecture, along with most of Irving’s books, along with many other gems, such as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, Henry Ford’s The International Jew, and of course the perennial favorite Mein Kampf.

Click the words in the sentences above to see more photos. We will reveal the answer to this week’s Mystery Photo in next week’s eSkeptic.



  1. Alan Harris says:

    Mystery photo: Capitoline Wolf, in Rome, with figures of infants Romulus and Remus (legendary founders of Rome);

  2. Andy Germain says:

    I think I can demonstrate that the “only possibly correct choice” is to believe that free will does exist…

    First, there are only four cases: either free will exists, or it doesn’t. And one either believes it exists, or doesn’t. These 4 cases can be considered individually.

    If free will exists, and we believe it exists, we have made a correct choice.

    If free will exists, but we believe it does not exist, we have made an incorrect choice.

    If free will does not exist, we have no choice as to our belief — we have not made a choice.

    • Oozoid says:

      Neat logic, but ‘belief’ is an indeterminate and therefore inconsequential artefact of reality.

    • Martin Thistle says:

      I don’t accept the idea of free will, at least partly for semantic reasons. “Free”? I can only think of a handful of things in life that can be considered truly free (as in available to everyone at all times, without the condition of needing to ask for it); solar energy and air are the two most important free ‘things’ that come to mind. If a decision comes from a human being, then, with very few exceptions, there is some level of cognitive bias that enters into the decision-making process. This bias is a product of considering the predicted consequences of one decision or the other, and determining which of the various decisions available will satisfy my needs and desires the best. And since human beings are often conflicted about what it is that they desire and feel they need, whatever need or desire is the strongest at the moment is the one that wins out.

      That is not ‘free’ will.

  3. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    “How can we hold people accountable for their actions if we live in a determined universe?”
    This debate is not about reality, it’s about our concepts of a “deterministic universe” and our “free will”, as well as our concepts of “cause” and “effect”, and “laws of nature”.

    When it comes to responsibility of actions, the legal system has no difficulties. Human actions are caused by human choices, and it is clear and evident in our phenomenological world, that is in the natural environment of our perception. Achilles has no problem with the tortoise. He simply runs away and easily overtakes it.

    When we switch to abstract concepts developed in our understanding, that is in our imaginary vision of the universe, then the problems abound. Zeno gets entangled with his imaginary division of space into infinitely smaller segments, and never finishes his division. While he is so occupied, Achilles has already overtaken the tortoise.

    Same thing with Laplace. “An intellect which at any given moment knew all the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that comprise it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit its data to analysis, could condense into a single formula…”
    His imagination assumes a mechanistic universe of particles of matter subject to Newton’s simple laws of motion.

    The “vast enough intellect” is again an exercise in conjuring up infinity: Laplace (reluctant to invoke a concept of “God”) imagines an infinitely vast intellect as embracing all interactions of all particles in the universe and “condensing them into a single formula.”
    No computer, even as large as the total universe, could ever do that. And this computer, if it could spew out the “single formula” would have to include the data describing the computer’s workings in its final output.
    On top of that this vast intellect, as imagined by Laplace, is endowed with natural vision, so that, once the equation of all infinite interreactions was “condensed” (on some imaginary paper) “the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”

    This debate between full determinism and free will makes sense only on the premises of such mental assumptions. It’s all in the region of definition of our concepts and imagination.

    The reality of our knowledge develops at a different level. We start with the foundations of our perceptions of the environment and we refine it with the progress of experiments and science.
    We can boldly assume that a full determinism in nature and the universe will never be demonstrated, no more than our inability to make choices.
    “Emergence” is one way of accepting this conceptually, another is in recognizing “limits to our certainty,” and the fact that our abstractions are derived from “approximations” in our attempts to explain whatever regularity we can perceive in the real world.

  4. Dave Rockwell says:

    Free will can be considered as a purely subjective phenomenon, too basic and fundamental to consciousness to be amenable to scientific analysis. If I am convinced that I have free will, and you cannot seem to make me believe otherwise, how will you prove that I am wrong? If you believe that free will does not exist in yourself, how will you be able to prove it without willing yourself to work on the problem?

    Free will is not a property of the universe as a whole (though we often imagine it is.) It is a component of consciousness, no less important than reason or emotion. It is just as ‘real’ as numbers. The ‘actual’ chain of causation has nothing to do with it. Philosophers are unsatisfied with any explanation that is less than universal and absolute; and so they remain unsatisfied.

    I think I’ll go get some coffee. Hmm – what made me decide that? We’ll never know. I used my free will, though. Is this really an important question? I did enjoy the essay, though.

  5. stanley marcus says:

    It seems to me that Zeno’s paradox is seemingly a problem only in a world without time. Measure each distance in time and the tortoise is easily overtaken.

  6. Emilio (from Rome) says:

    Photo: Yes.. Alan Harris is right: the image depicts the Capitoline Wolf ( “Lupa Capitolina”, in italian and latin) with Romulus and Remus. The sculpture is housed
    in the Capitoline Museums (“Musei Capitolini”, in italian) on top of the Capitoline Hill in Rome.

  7. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    Rereading the article, it is obvious that the “problem” again lies not with the reality of our minds and of the natural world, but with the definition of our abstracts concepts. And mostly the concept of “free” in “free will”. Free from what?

    Schopenhauer rightly claimed that we never experienced “free will” as such. What we do experience is “will”, as volition, desire, intention. Husserl claimed that any conscious act was marked by “intentionality”. So any manifestation of will is never empty, but has an intentional object.

    We can hesitate, and compare options, bringing into play our frontal cortex, and thus, have experience of choices. So we cannot choose in an empty mental state, but always in the complex context of the reality of our desires, preferences, likes and dislikes — the panoply of feelings and emotions competing for influence on our decisions. The mechanistic model of prior cause – following effect, good enough for billiards balls, is incapable of analyzing the reality of our decisions.

    A good review of the controversy is presented in Wikipedia’s article on “Free Will”.
    David Hume thought the discussion about “free will” was a purely verbal issue, that is, a matter of defining linguistic concepts, a pure exercise in logic.
    John Locke felt that the concept of “free will” was meaningless. And the abstract concept of determinism was irrelevant to the attribution of responsibility for our actions in our social world. We have choices, and we are responsible for them.

    So the discussion about “free will” in metaphysical terms is endless. To make real headway, it is necessary to get back to the study of the brain, of neurophysiology, and of the scientific theories that we accept as “laws of nature” of our deterministic world.

  8. Oozoid says:

    It is not the randomness of an individual toss but rather the non-random result of multiple tosses which follows from the symmetry of the coin. This apparent non-randomness creates the illusion of simple predictability, whereas in fact it is the too-complex predictability which creates the illusion of randomness.

    If a coin could be tossed in an entirely predictable way, applying the same force at the same point and subjecting the coin to identical air currents and temperatures and thus getting it to land at exactly the same point on the receiving surface, it would, I suggest, always end up on the same face. The coin has as much free will as do we.

  9. Roo.Bookaroo says:

    Finally, with all due respect to Phil Molé, it is not easy to see the relevance of Zeno’s paradox to the dilemma of “free will” versus “determinism”. The comparison seems a bit forced and far-fetched.

    Molé first focuses on the concept of causality — interpreted as “every effect has a cause” — which, for instance, leads to the conclusion that “humans cannot be the causes of their own consciousness.” (As if “human” could be a “cause” and “consciousness” an “effect” in this simplistic “chain”.)

    Then comes the direct comparison with Zeno’s paradox: “What if our actions could remain genuine acts of will and outcomes of a complex chain of causality, just as we could have an infinite series of small increments converge on a finite sum?”
    A complex chain of small causes, nearly infinite in number, would thus lead to a finite result, one of “our (visible) actions”, the product of a genuine act of “will”. We could never analyze the infinite complex “chain of causes” but still observe the end result as a finite, willed action.

    First, it is not clear at all that an observed “genuine act of will” presupposes the existence of “free will”.
    Further, is not clear either that we are justified to consider “a genuine act of will” as an effect, to which we could apply the concept of a “chain of causality” leading to its production.

    Our brain has about 100 billion neurons, forming chemical and electrical synaptic connections estimated at 100 to 500 trillions working as an integrated system at all times.
    In this universe, no “chain of causality” can be isolated and identified as leading to “a genuine act of will”.
    And it is equally impossible to identify a “prior cause” and a “subsequent effect” for that specific purpose. Our feelings and thoughts emerge from this global brain activity.

    Even Laplace’s “vast enough intellect” could never “know all the forces that animate” all the neurons of one single brain, nor their “mutual positions”, and even less “submit its data to analysis” and “condense them into a single formula.”

    So, no, in no way can we use a Zeno-like concept of a “complex chain of causality” to analyze the synaptic communications of the neurons of a brain in the hope to ever arrive at the production of “a genuine act of will”.
    And even less so to identify the existence of “free will”.
    Much simpler to watch Achilles race after the tortoise, whenever he is up to it.

    • Oozoid says:

      Like the writings of B.F. Skinner and Thomas Clark, Phil’s hypothesis is eloquent but exhibits a degree of desperation akin to that of religionists who try to make sense of Jesus or Mohammed or Yahweh or whatever irrational thing they believe in. Those of us who reject supernaturalism must accept our deterministic nature. The question becomes an elitist/democratic issue of whether we trust others with the freedom of no free will – a challenge the Pope knows full well is foolish to confront.

  10. Chris Morris says:

    The spectator is continually dividing the units of time being measured in the tortoise’s progress, thus reducing the accumulation of distance being crawled by it. Achilles is not aware of, involved in or affected by the spectator’s self-created hypothetical infinity/ eternity / space/ time problem and simply jogs past the struggling tortoise and the pondering spectator. Achilles and tortoise are as chalk & cheese; different domains.
    I find reading articles such as that about free will, and the responses to it, as spiritual and as uplifting as religious practices are to religious people.

  11. ken says:

    Phil Mole’s article was clearly written, cleverly conceived and insightful. Thank you!

    • Roo.Bookaroo says:

      But totally erroneous. You can divide space into smaller and smaller distances, mentally at least, but not physically, in the real world. This does not prove that you can analyze an act of will into a chain of causality in the brain. The concept of “chain” does not even apply when billions of synapses are firing simultaneously.
      And the fact that I can will many actions says nothing about “free will”. Free from what? What is free will?
      When I have choices, I make mentally a rough list of pros and cons, with very undefined weights, but I never come across an instance of “free will”. The assumption that the brain works on the model of a mechanical chain of causality, however complex one may imagine it, is pure fiction. Phil Molé appears convincing only to people who have no professional training in science, calculus, and philosophy and are easily snowed.
      I appreciate his effort, but it throws no light on the problem.

  12. Hari Seldon says:

    Zeno’s paradox provides an intriguing analogy, but an unsatisfactory explanation. Perhaps the existence of free will is akin to Godel statements that can be true (one way or another) but unprovable, given a set of axioms. This might also be unsatisfying to some, but satisfaction seems rare enough when it comes to pondering free will that I choose not to worry about it.

  13. Peter LePort says:

    I enjoyed your article on freewill and have a comment.

    In working out Zeno’s paradox one first has to note that it is possible to cross a room and so it is no paradox in the end. It implies we don’t know something. If no one was able to cross a room then no one would look for an explanation to the paradox, again it would not be a paradox. (You show knowing calculus give us the final proof.) To believe that we don’t move because everything we know does not show us how it is possible to move is to ignore the obvious, we move.

    The same goes for freewill. We don’t now all the scientific reasons how freewill works but to ignore that it does is to ignore the obvious. Just ask a class to raise there right arm and see if they choose to do it or not. Or ask them to raise their right arm if they want to. Or better ask yourself to raise your right arm and introspect that you choose to do it or not.

    What I am saying is that freewill is a primary, is self-evident, the same way you know that a glass sits on a table, you see it, you touch it, you pick it up and drink from it. (By saying more then you see it I am trying get rid of illusions which can also be explained.) To know there is freewill is to see it operate on all levels. You can only doubt it by doubting it is possible to know anything. In which case you need to not say anything, not have discourse, do nothing, i.e., not to exist. (I can’t remember the Greek philosopher who decided that was the thing to do because you couldn’t know anything and tried it.

    I suggest you read Ayn Rand’s position on freewill. She shows why it is a primary and somewhere states no matter what science discovers about its operation, how it functions, how it relates to consciousness, how it relates to matter, it cannot be denied without using the fact that it exists. If you have to use a fact in order to deny it you have an obvious contradiction as well as having identified a primary; something for which nothing comes before (existence, identity, consciousness for examples; each of which you have to use in order to utter anything, including denying them; they are the primaries at the base of all knowledge).

  14. Kevin says:

    So when I first read it I was skeptical but initially did not know how to respond. He seemed to represent the opposing sides very well and his argument generally avoids the standard objections I’m so used to giving. So I decided to look closer at the details of his argument and the steps it takes to see if there was any assumptions or jumps that didn’t flow. Here is what I’ve noticed, and definitely let me know if I am making any assumptions or jumps in my points.

    1) I am unsure how valid or useful the analogy between the free will paradox and Zeno’s paradox turns out to be. If it is supposed to be a direct and applicable analogy, then I have to take issue with it. Zeno’s paradox led to a demonstrably false conclusion, simply highlighting the limit of our mathematical understanding at that time. On the other hand, the free will paradox merely leads to a conclusion against our intuitions, and at best is the result of a linguistic misunderstanding of our own term and what it implies by the term “freedom” (If you think this is actually a mathematical issue via “complexity theory”, see my third point).

    Now if the analogy is not supposed to be directly applicable, I don’t see how useful it is. If all it is supposed to do is show us that sometimes we have been completely sure of the validity of our reasoning and yet still been wrong, then point taken, but it’s not doing very much work in the actual paper because (as I will show below) he doesn’t show that free will is an example of this.

    2) This is a very important point because his argument seems to hinge upon this one conditional statement. It comes when he is trying to prove his conclusion, “We do not have to… believe that free choice necessitates complete isolation from the world of causes and effects”. He starts by discussing how “freedom” cannot mean freedom to do anything, because no one thinks free will requires that we be able to make ourselves “lighter than air”. Likewise, seeing animals in a zoo exhibit, we still think of them as having freedom of will because they can walk around and engage in voluntary activities. I clearly agree with this, therefore I agree with his assertion that “limitations” do not forgo freedom of will. Now here is his highly important step:

    “If the tradeoff between freedom and limitations is not all or nothing, neither is the tradeoff between freedom and deterministic predictability.”

    This statement is of the logical form -(Tfl=A) > -(Tfd = A). In order to derive the second half of the conditional, it is clear that “l” (limitations), and “d” (deterministic predictability) must share an identity relation (at least in the relevant sense) because it is a direct substitution. However, it is very clear that the “limitations” he discusses and “deterministic predictability” are not the same. The “limitations” are limitations on freedom of action because they are focused on not being able to do anything whatsoever (e.g. be lighter than air). On the other hand, the “deterministic predictability” he is referring to are limitations on freedom of choice, in that we can see a causal story as to why you couldn’t have chosen to commit other actions. Thus we can see that this substitution does not work because freedom of choice and freedom of action are distinct. The second half of the conditional is not derivable (at least directly) from the first.

    Looking at this statement further allows us to understand why it sounds good on a surface level. The reason we accept the first half of the statement (“the tradeoff between freedom and limitations is not all or nothing”) is because he has done some hand-waving to distract us from the meaning of his evidence. The whole part about proving that limitations on action do not forgo free will is obvious, because free will never implies freedom of action. Instead, omnipotence implies freedom of action, and it is clear that these sorts of limitations do forgo omnipotence. On the other hand, free will implies freedom of choice, which is quite distinct. What he has really done amounts to saying, “Since limitations on action do not forgo free will, neither do limitations on choice”. This is very blatantly a false statement because these two types of limitations are not equal. If, on the other hand he could show us that limitations on action do not forgo omnipotence, then he would have a very strong analogical argument for the case that limitations on choice do not forgo free will. As it stands, he has proven a trivial truth (free will does not imply freedom of action) in order to analogically prove a contradiction (free will does not imply freedom of choice).

    His entire argument seems to stem from this point that limitations on choice do not forgo freedom of will. I think I have shown that he fails to prove his point with the above demonstration, however I think it is worth addressing is point about emergent phenomena and complexity theory.

    3) I clearly accept that emergent phenomena exist. However, what he tries to prove is that the emergent phenomenon of consciousness can have top-down causation upon the brain itself. This is because he says that consciousness can allow the brain to affect its own processes (this is obviously true, because I can consciously override my brain to get it to focus heavily on analyzing the pen sitting to my right). However, this is not an example of top-down causation, nor could it possibly be an example of “free will”.

    Consciousness (at least in the level we possess it) is an emergent property, however it is still dependent on and composed of the smaller processes of the brain. Even though it can affect the system of the brain, it is still made up of said system and thus is deterministically (or probabilistically) determined by the makeup of the system. Thus there is no way consciousness can exhibit “free will” from the physical processes of brain, because it is made up of these physical processes. This example may give a clear definition of what we mean by the term “will”, in that it is the emergent phenomenon of consciousness directing the processes of the brain. However, invoking emergent phenomena can in no way solve the problem of “free will”, because in order to do so it must be free of the very processes it is composed of.

    Therefore, even though quantum randomness may allow several possible options of what a person will do, we can still see that this will not solve the problem. This is because (1) limitations on choice do forgo freedom of choice, and (2) emergent phenomena cannot “choose” among these options because they are themselves composed and determined by the random outcomes of said options.

    If, on the other hand, complexity theory can show that top-down causation is possible, then perhaps I need to reconsider my position. Until that happens though, I stand firm in my denial of free will.

  15. Lawrence Boyce says:

    “To claim we have free will, then, is merely to claim that we have some range of possible choices. The mere presence of limits on our choice does not negate our freedom as long as real choices still exist.”

    I enjoyed your article; however, your common sense resolution (above), simply redefines what is essentially an historically absurd concept, as you repeatedly demonstrated.

    Unfortunately, the classic western idea of free will has become so much apart of our heritage that it has seeped into our common ways of thinking. If we want to continue to use the term, by revising the definition, then we also will need to redefine the common definition of God as understood by all of Judeo-Christian & Islamic theology, and I don’t think that is in the cards quite yet.

  16. William Nelson says:

    News flash – there is no “burgeoning mathematics of complexity theory”. This buzzword lived out its time around 1990 and has long since proved to be infertile.

    Rather than complexity “theory”, what one has is complexity simulations. Unless we’re willing to grant that a large computer simulation could acquire free will, then the idea isn’t going to be supported by any scientific study of “complexity”.

    Indeed, all that complexity does is conceal the lack of free will, by preventing prediction from the outside perspective. In other words, nobody from outside can really predict what we will do. Of course, we ourselves also cannot predict what we will do very accurately – and in fact the outsider who knows our “personality” may actually predict our actions better than we ourselves can. Complexity does not make our actions more free, it just makes them less predictable.

  17. John Jacob says:

    “Determinism” never existed in the first place – so why is it still being debated?

    Newtonian determinism was a mistake that has since been caught and is no longer seriously considered by physicists. Certainly quantum mechanics is not deterministic, but as it turns out, neither was Newtonian mechanics! If a perfectly classical system without any hint of stochastic driving contains even a small amount of complexity, long term detailed predictions about the system will be meaningless. The more complexity, the shorter the predictable horizon. Even embarrassingly simple systems have this trait:

    Since individual actions are not predictable by physical law, and their long-term outcomes are not constrained by physical law, then why are we having this conversation? Whose idea was it to hypothesize the non-existence of individual will – an astonishing proposition for which little evidence exists? Making such a hypothesis on the flimsy basis of Newtonian mechanics was clearly an error made in ignorance and the whole shebang should be reconsidered now that we have much more information about the character of physical law.

  18. naga says:

    It all depends on your mind, not soul or spirit. Both ‘free’ and ‘bound’ states are thoughts in your mind. The world of outcome is the effect of ’causes’ due partly to ones own action that has left imprints in his mind, partly to the environment providing sensory inputs and the rest due to imponderables (divine intervention?), cumulative effects of all the past actions of every other being constituting the world.

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