Uncommon Sense

March 27, 2018

Determinism and Free Will

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy,Science — Steve Ruis @ 12:10 pm
Tags: , , , ,


I have written more than a little about free will and this post is a supplement to that. I have been reading a little about the alternatives to free will, primarily determinism, which is a claim that every decision we make is caused by events outside of our control. I have no problem with that argument, just the driving of it home saying that Determinism Rules, Dude! I think this is yet another example of human exuberance to come up with an answer when we are not yet ready for one. This is my position of free will, too. I think most decisions are made sub- or unconsciously and we understand so little about those processes that to exclude them from discussions of free will thwarts any chance at a reasonable conclusion.

So, are all of our decisions caused? Are our behaviors ruled by the “cause and effect” that works so well in the sciences?

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s works. I just finished “Fooled by Randomness” and have started “The Black Swan.” Mr. Taleb (he has a Ph.D. but doesn’t flaunt it) got his start as a financial instruments trader. He points out over and over, that most human activities are ruled by chance, yet we stubbornly refuse to admit that, seeing systems and patterns in behaviors and numbers that we believe show underlying structures that make things like the stock market predictable. He points to daily stock market reports, an example of which is “the market tumbled 1.7 points today, reacting to the announcement that blah, blah, blah.” He says that statements like this makes financial reporters entertainers rather than journalists. The market indices fluctuate during the day and from day to day. All of them fluctuate more than 1.7 points per day, so a change in any index of 1.7 index points cannot be distinguished from noise. Yet we insist on ascribing reasons to these fluctuations. We also know that the ocean’s tides rise and fall twice a day, so measuring the height of the water depends on what time you measure it. We also know that waves create artificial highs and lows that will move a float up and down in mere seconds. No oceanographer would mistake these normal fluctuations for changes that require action (like sea level rise), but we often do in settings like the stock market.

Our brains were shaped by evolution to do some amazing things. Unfortunately some of these things are counterproductive. For example, we judge the likelihood of something happening by the frequency we encounter that thing. This worked really well when we only encountered things in real life, like when was the last time you witness a murder directly, for example? But, we see the evidence of crime after crime on the nightly news day after day and conclude crime is on the increase; it is not; crime reporting on the news is on the increase, crime itself is decreasing and has been for decades. So, it is easy to fool ourselves using our very best mental skills.

One of our strongest mental skills is pattern recognition. It is so strong we see patterns where none exists, even in sets of random dots and numbers. In the case of financial markets we are making an even bigger mistake. In science we postulated first that invisible entities controlled the behavior of natural phenomena (spirits and ghosts). We then had a bunch of people argue that natural phenomena obeyed laws (the law of gravity, conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, etc.) and that the behaviors of physical objects was predictable based upon these laws and so they were! (Damn!) So, we came to believe in physical cause and effect. Now if we apply this belief to social systems, like financial markets and free will, will it also work? Well, the physical laws have an underlying structure that supports those laws existing. Do morals and financial markets and the like have such a basis? I do not think so, but more importantly, if there is it hasn’t been demonstrated that there is. In order to prove that nature was based upon laws, a whole lot of predictions had to be made and prove out to be right before people accepted that a root foundation for physical laws existed and could be relied upon.

But financial markets, well that’s another story. After every catastrophic collapse of some market or other, the market gurus go around and find one of their kind who predicted that the collapse would happen, and hype them as someone with special knowledge. The problem is that at any point in time, every possible outcome is being predicted and no matter what happens, you can find somebody after the fact that will have predicted correctly. This is not a successful prediction. In science, once you work out the laws involved, you can teach them to others and everyone ends up making correct predictions, not just a person here or there.

Human overreach in pattern-recognition puts, I suspect, too much faith in cause and effect, the underlying mechanism of determinism. We know that quantum mechanical effects are far from cause and effect rooted. We know that a great deal is “caused” by randomness. (If you go out to dinner, you are going to eat something. If you go to an Italian restaurant, you are very likely to eat something Italian. If …). Are we ready to conclude that free will is an illusion and all things are determined by cause and effect? I do not think so.


  1. Life’s like a huge ship. It can’t stop (short of self-destructing) or turn too quickly. Determinism is true, yes, until it isn’t. If you start shaping your choices differently, the ship will slowly, very slowly start turning, which is to say the things ‘determined’ to show up will will also slowly change..

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — March 27, 2018 @ 3:28 pm | Reply

    • Was this system created by Republicans? Sounds like it. The Party of the Moving Goal Posts!

      On Tue, Mar 27, 2018 at 3:28 PM, Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — March 30, 2018 @ 11:02 am | Reply

  2. You know, this “paradox” is easily resolved. Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. Reliable cause and effect is neither a form of coercion nor is it undue. Determinism poses no threat to free will. And on the other side of the coin, we find that the choices we make of our own free will are reliably caused by our purpose and our reasons, so free will poses no threat to determinism.

    And it doesn’t really matter whether a person’s choice is calculated subconsciously. He or she will still have to answer for the consequences of their action. And that will require a conscious explanation. So, we’d best hope that our conscious and unconscious brain functions are working together as we go about deciding what we will do next.


    Comment by Marvin Edwards — March 29, 2018 @ 2:14 pm | Reply

    • The assumption of free will is built into our criminal justice system, so that is the pragmatic side. The rest of the argument is on the philosophical side. Being pragmatic, I like your will, “free of coercion or other undue influence” approach, but I don’t think that will assuage the interests of the philosophers who are gnawing on this particular bone. They, I suspect, will start with what will “coersion and undue influence” be and can someone’s will be manipulated by supplying the unseen causes thus making a choice unfree?


      Comment by Steve Ruis — March 30, 2018 @ 7:29 am | Reply

      • Right, and the pragmatics of free will in law will have a history of precedents addressing most of the details of which influences are “undue” and which influences do not remove control of the choice from the person who made it.

        Philosophy has managed to shoot itself in the foot on this issue. Basically, the paradox arises from a “reification fallacy”. This happens when we start taking our own metaphors literally. Carl Hoefer, who wrote the article on “Causal Determinism” for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, put it like this:

        “In the physical sciences, the assumption that there are fundamental, exceptionless laws of nature, and that they have some strong sort of modal force, usually goes unquestioned. Indeed, talk of laws “governing” and so on is so commonplace that it takes an effort of will to see it as metaphorical.”
        (See https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ section 2.4 Laws of Nature).

        I love the irony when he says “it takes an effort of will to see it as metaphorical”. But it is common in human nature to anthropomorphize our concepts, and treat them as if they were “things” that go around causing things to happen.

        There are no “laws of nature” going around making things happen. And “causation” itself never causes anything. All of the actual causing that happens is by the actual objects and forces that make up the physical universe. Our concepts are descriptive, not causative.

        We happen to be one of those physical objects that goes around causing stuff. The empirical truth is that “that which is us” is identical to “that which chooses”. And the final responsible cause of our deliberate actions is the mental process of deliberation by which we made the choice to do the act.

        Now, if someone else held a gun to our head, then it was his mental process of deliberation, rather than our own, that was the responsible cause of our action.

        Other things that may wrest control from our hands would be mental illness or injury, hypnosis, authoritative command (e.g., parent to child), and so on.


        Comment by Marvin Edwards — March 30, 2018 @ 8:22 am | Reply

        • Well, I do not know how we could be any closer on this topic. (Maybe we need a 12-Step Program?)

          Another of my pet peeves is that in science we presume there are underlying laws for scientific behaviors and provisionally accept them as such because they work. It is very … very … pragmatic. yet the general public insists that scientist prove things and this couldn’t be farther from the truth. They think theories are just guesses rather than explanatory frameworks with extensive track records of success (They say “I have a theory about why Pres. Trump …”.– when actually they mean “I have a guess about why Pres. Trump …”) They think the Theory of Evolution is just an hypothesis, etc. And even academicians use scientific tools (for the prestige?) on topics that hardly meet the basic requirements, e.g. economists and sociologists. Economic market watchers keep looking for the underlying “laws” of the markets that make them predictable. I wish them luck with that as markets are social constructs whose only laws are those designed into them.

          Sorry, for the rant. I minored in philosophy in college and I remember one of my professors commenting that in over 4000 years, philosophers hadn’t answered one single question. My conclusion was that the entire field was just a playground in which one could address such problems to see whether they made any sense and how they affected us as individuals, not as a solution-seeking enterprise. Possibly natural philosophy (aka science) was the branch of philosophy (the only branch?) that was designed to produce useful answers to questions.

          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — March 30, 2018 @ 8:35 am | Reply

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