Miscellany: on freedom and scientific determinism

I agree about the American dream; it puts us to sleep in a way. Maybe we should strive to rebrand ourselves as the culture of “American wakefulness.”


I very much appreciated this “second look” at the issue. I think there is an “aha” moment to be had in this. It will be akin to seeing the giraffe. Specifically, it will consist in a sudden recognition of the difficulty or “problem” here. Allow me to offer the scenario in Plato’s Cave as an analogy. Recall that there are figures, which are invisible to the prisoners, casting shadows, which are visible to them. Consider that the figures are the cause of the shadows. Thus anything that the shadows seem to do is an effect of what the figures are in fact doing. The shadows don’t do anything on their own.

By analogy, many experts in the fields of physics, physiology, and neurology argue that our thoughts and decisions etc. and in fact our identities themselves are like the shadows on the wall. They don’t really do anything on their own. In reality, unconscious physical processes are causing them. Thus we imagine that we make a free decision but in fact both the experience of the decision and the experience that we are the ones making it is somehow caused by physical processes in our brains and environments that we are unaware of. It is clear that some of “our” actions are this way, like metabolism and growing our fingernails and so on. But many experts argue that all of them are. If the scientific experts are correct, this would preclude the possibility of freedom. The question remains: if the experts are indeed correct, how could they be correct? After all, they are arguing that everything ultimately resolves to physical processes, it doesn’t really make sense to ask whether physical processes are “correct” or not. It would be like asking how many toes a snake has. Also, how could those same experts really know about this to begin with? After all, knowledge itself would be another shadow in the cave and not something real.

The alternative is to believe that the experts are in fact the prisoners in the Cave and that someone who thinks that physical science could account for our free decisions is mistaking causes for effects; akin to supposing that the shadows explain themselves. In this view, our thoughts would be the figures casting the shadows and their invisibility would be in respect to our eyes but not our minds. The implication of this take on the issue would be that our immaterial thoughts literally reach into the physical world (i.e. in our brains) and move matter around.

Which of these positions seems true and why?


P.S. I appreciated your quotation marks around “see.” It never ceases to astonish me how rapidly the meanings of words can shift during volatile times. Think about what “mouse” and “icon” and “tablet” meant before the computer revolution and what they mean now.


Thank you for submitting your reflection. I thought you did an exemplary job taking the bull by the horns, as it were, and confronting the problem that scientific knowledge poses to our notion of free will. I have two questions for you. 

Do you have in mind that the possibility, in principle, of predicting something preserves the possibility of free will, but only up to the point that it is actually predicted, at which point free will is forfeit? In other words, we are free now but it is a tenuous freedom and it is subject to be obviated by advances in computing technology? It is a somewhat unusual take because usually the possibility itself that a system’s actions could be predicted is sufficient evidence to establish that it is deterministic and therefore not free.

If I have understood your position, however, then it casts my second question in a very interesting light. My second question is related to your observation that there is no scientific evidence for the existence of immaterial things like souls. I want to bring in the argument from the first point above. You seem to be suggesting that knowledge per se, which is itself immaterial, has the ability to influence the physical nature of a system. Specifically, knowledge determines whether it can be free or whether it is subject to deterministic laws of physics. This seems to me to present an example of an immaterial thing exerting causal efficacy in the material world. This would seem to call into question your final point, however.

Moreover, although it is true that science provides no evidence for the existence of immaterial things like souls or knowledge, it might be argued that it could never be expected to produce such knowledge since they are like premises or conditions for science, and a line of reasoning cannot prove its own premise. Rather, the premise is that by which other things are proved. I take both the soul, as the center of agency and experience of the researcher, and knowledge, as the intelligibility of the universe rendered conscious, to be necessary conditions for the scientific endeavor as such. Do you see where I am going with this? I very much look forward to hear any thoughts you may have in response.


First, I can see why you say that desires are not necessarily a shackle that we are imprisoned to but I wonder if you can see the way in which they might be. Consider the addict, for instance. Certainly this desire is a shackle for him, and if he tells you he was free to take the next hit, he is lying or using the word without understanding its meaning. And how different, ultimately, are all of our cravings than this?

My second question is related to this but it includes your comment about “chemical reactions in our brains that allow us to govern whether or not these concepts, desires, freedoms, beliefs, moral obligations, identity, that these concepts are healthy for us.” Can you help me understand what you have in mind here? Are the chemical reactions themselves governing the concepts, etc.? How do they do this? Do the chemical reaction even understand concepts? If yes, how? If no, how could they govern them? I look forward to hear your thoughts.


It is an extremely profound and multifaceted topic that we are addressing and so I think it is unreasonable to expect that we could consider every aspect of it in one go. For that reason, I wish to focus on connecting two specific comments you made to show their relation. 

I posed the question of whether “doing what I want” is an expression of freedom if I am not able to choose what I want. In other words, my wants just spring upon me, as it were, and indenture me to carry out their biddings. You seemed confused by my formulation of the distinction of “doing what I want” versus “wanting what I want” and it is, admittedly, very ambiguous. But it is not always easy to express these intangible dynamics of the soul.

Can you see the connection here? Is there more that you would wish to add?


It was evident that you brought your critical thinking to bear on the question because most people naively equate freedom with liberty. I especially appreciated the distinction you made between these concepts. Another way to think about it is that while liberty can be inherited or conferred by an outer authority, freedom is something that each individual must accomplish on her own terms. Though each of us appears to bear the potential for freedom within us, we only realize this potential in the performance of it. It is comparable to the Hawking quote you shared, since if we fail to recognize this potential—which largely consists in distinguishing freedom from liberty—then it remains unreal and it doesn’t do us any good so we may as well not have it in the first place.

I have a specific question for you. You observed, rightly I believe, that freedom is not the same thing as being able to act on one’s desires. Suppose, as a sort of limiting case, that someone had achieved total liberation from her desires so that every one of her actions originated in complete freedom. What kind of person would this be? What kind of motives and reasons would she act upon?


I appreciated your analysis of freedom but I would like you to consider what is at stake in respect to reconciling freedom with modern scientific theories. For instance, are we really free if our decisions are determined by survival utility and natural selection (as Darwinian biology would tell us)? Are we really free if our bodies are made of the same subatomic particles that follow the deterministic laws of physics?

I appreciated your description of freedom from the point of view of your son. You may recommend certain behaviors to him but he remains free to accept or reject them. The question would remain—and I believe only he could answer this—as to what degree his decision were conditioned by factors outside of his knowledge. I think this points to a fundamental element of freedom: we cannot be free in respect to something we are ignorant of. Do you see what I mean here?


I very much appreciated your critical reflection on all of the freedoms that we today are wont to take as a matter of course but which, in fact, were only won by the immense sacrifice and perseverance of our forebears. I would like you to reflect a little bit further, however, on whether the potential for freedom is the same thing as its reality.

For example, consider a person who is addicted to smoking cigarettes: certainly he is free to not smoke. But at the same time, he is not free from not smoking. All of your examples of freedom fall into the first category: freedoms to. I wonder if you would say a little bit more about freedoms from. These are not something that can be conferred or inherited, but rather they must be won by each of us on an individual basis and they are won by becoming masters and mistresses over our own inclinations. Do you see what I mean?


I especially appreciated the way you acknowledged the gravity of these apparent objections to freedom in the last paragraph but also expressed some wish to salvage freedom from the jaws of scientific theory. I think the example you gave about stress eating is very revealing as to what is at “steak” (forgive the stupid pun) with this question. I also appreciated your observation that, though it might seem like this would obviate our freedom, in fact we can make other decisions to change the conditions and context of our lives and ultimately preempt this situation from arising in the first place.


You wanted to know my opinion and here is what I think: eating, together with sex and yoga and hot baths and so on are all means by which we seek connection and communion with “the Good” (Plato), “the One” (Plotinus), “the Father” (Jesus), “the Christ” (St. Paul) or whatever we wish to call it. Love is the power of longing that draws us to seek this communion, whose ultimate object is always transcendent and divine but because we are living in Plato’s Cave, we regard various surrogates or substitutes as though they could provide us with the true connection and communion which can only be found in God. That is why some saints and mystics don’t need food or sex or hot baths and why we can say, analogously, “I love winter squash,” “I love Led Zeppelin,” “I love my partner,” and St. John can say (in his first letter):

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God.  He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.”

Obviously there is a relation between these uses of the word “love” but it is isomorphic to the relation that the light in the bottom of Plato’s Cave, cast by the fire, relates to the light from the sun, which was the source of the light in the bottom of the cave. The sunlight was bound into carbon-bonds by photosynthesizing greenery and it finally provides fuel for the fire in the bottom of the cave. I think it is a form of idolatry to treat sex or food as the objects of love without recognizing God as the cause and origin of all of the love that we may experience in respect to apparently discreet objects. And ultimately, nothing is discreet in the way that physical objects in space appear to be, as I have hinted at on numerous occasions. Have you ever read Plato’s Symposium? I find myself paraphrasing it in what I have written. I did not assign it this semester though last year, before Corona, we read it for a Critical Thinking class and had a very engaging discussion about it.


Thank you for submitting your reflection. I share your disappointment that we still lack closure on the election. At the same time, I could not really have imagined it going any other way given that evidently neither party was managing to address the fundamental issues for voters across the partisan divide in the leadup. I think it is supremely important that Americans respect the process of democratic election because it provides for a peaceful transfer of power. By the same token, any doubts that people have in the fidelity of this process need to be addressed because otherwise it will fail to function for what it is designed for and we will no longer be able to rely on it to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

I would like you to explore what is at stake with this question much more thoroughly. I have described critical thinking as “thinking twice” or “taking a second look” and that is what I would like you to do with this topic, as with everything else in the class. I think this is related to you comment about the anxiety you felt when the discussion approaches challenging issues. If you can manage to become interested in discovering something through the questions themselves instead of considering the way someone might offend you, I think it would transform your experience of the discussions. As I have indicated on numerous occasions, this can be very challenging and it is a skill we have to develop through practice rather than an “inalienable right” that we are born with.

So please think about this more. Take the question of freedom versus physiological processes: if processes in my brain determine how I will respond to someone, then I am not really responding to them any more than an answering machine is responding to a caller. It might sound like I am responding but in fact one physiological process is merely following the next one in a deterministic concatenation of causes and effects. Where does my own freedom to think come into play here? There seems no place for it. On top of this, any neurosurgeon could tell you that you will not find thoughts inside a brain even if you cut it up into very small bits. These processes cannot be the same thing as thoughts, for that reason. If they are not the same thing as thoughts and I have no idea what is going on inside my brain in respect to neurons and synapses etc. when I think, and yet I believe that these processes are causing my thinking, then I do not really understand my own thinking. A fortiori, I cannot possibly understand anything else because it is by thinking that I believe myself able to understand things and this same thinking was revealed to be merely the result of processes that I don’t understand.

I look forward to hear where you will take these thoughts. When I say this, is it really possible that I could be referring to physiological processes? I don’t know how I could look forward to their result then because I don’t have a clear idea of what their condition is to begin with. Moreover, it is precisely a response that is not predetermined that I wish to hear from you and I could not get this, in principle, from physiology.


I appreciated your take on this question because you did not try to fit all of our existence into the conceptual flatland of science, which does not study the human spirit and therefore finds no evidence for it.

You wrote: We are not slaves to our desires. I agree with you that we need not be slaves to our desires but this freedom strikes me as a condition that has to be won by each of us on an individual basis rather than something that is merely granted. Unlike more superficial notions of freedom that we find when we try to frame the concept in political or sociological terms, this interior freedom has been given to us only in potential but it remains our responsibility to actualize it. What do you think of this?

I have a question. You gave the example of the alcoholic who is a servant to his cravings. You also noted that he does not have to be bound in this way but that he is. There is a line from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans and I wonder how you think it relates to the example that you gave. St. Paul wrote:

But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life.

On the one hand, we can remain servants to our desires and on the other hand we can become servants of God. Paul says this is freedom. How can we understand this seeming paradox? I look forward to any thoughts you may have.

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