Reason is not the primary driver of Man (Robert Henderson)

Reason is not the primary driver of Man

Robert Henderson

Man, at least in his modern secular First World form, has the illusion of free will. That is unsurprising because he is a highly intelligent and self-conscious entity with a discrete personality and an ego and it is natural for such a being to think that the choices they make are free choices insofar as they act without overt constraints from other people, their biology or brute circumstances. In fact, free will is an illusion not as a consequence of the constraints of human biology or the nature of the universe Man inhabits, but as a consequence of the fact that the concept is a logical nonsense.

Imagine the most powerful entity which can exist: the omnipotent, omniscient god. Such a being can not have free will because it must have a discrete intelligence which is conscious of its existence, in short a conscious mind. Any such mind will require motivation otherwise it would never act, it must have desires, it must have what we would call a personality. Consequently, the omnipotent, omniscient god would be in the same general existential position as a man, that is, bound by its own mentality and conceivably, its own physicality.

Of course Man is in vastly more constrained circumstances than the omnipotent, omniscient god. Human beings live within the general constraints that apply to every other organism. We copulate, eat, drink, and sleep, fight, respond to weariness perform our bodily functions in the same way that an animal does, without any great thought. We feel desire or necessity and act on impulse.

Within our bodies a great system of checks and balances – repair mechanisms and the automatic systems needed for an organism to function – continue without our conscious control or even our awareness of the functions being accomplished. Hormones and enzymes control not only essential functions but our emotions and desires. Physical illness or wellness determines how we behave.

What we experience in our minds is a very different thing from what actually comes through our senses. All we can perceive is what our biology and experiential “programming” allows us to perceive. We can only see or hear within certain wavelengths of light and sound. Our senses change in their efficacy throughout life. All external stimuli are filtered through our brains and are the brain’s best guess at what has been perceived, hence the ease with which we mistake things either through insufficient data (for example, something seen in shadow) or through the brain matching sense data with something we already know, for example, when we see a man’s face in a cloud.

Our mental world is subject to congenital differences which affect behaviour. These range from differences in mental capacity and special talents to brain defects and injuries. Someone born with Downs Syndrome, severe epilepsy or autism perceives the world very differently to someone born without such conditions. Their capacity for rational behaviour is much reduced because their level of understanding is reduced. The most severe example of innate disablement of the rational are those people born without the development of the frontal lobes, the acephaletic. These unfortunate individuals occasionally survive and behave in a manner which seems to be entirely without conscious reason.

We also know from much experience that injuries to the brain or the effects of disease or ageing can have the same effect as innate abnormalities. Those who suffer brain injuries sometimes develop behavioural traits which are completely different from what they had before. They may become more violent or more subdued, lose their initiative or develop new talents or inclinations such as artistic impulses. Frontal lobotomies subdue behaviour. Age leads to declines in rationality ranging from loss of short term memory to full blown senile dementia.

In our brains we store a myriad of memories which act as both primers for action and the means to take action. We see someone we do not like and respond with open hostility or caution. We meet a situation which appears to be dangerous because we have previously met it or a situation which resembles a danger we have imagined and feel fear and act accordingly. We see someone we love and act favourably towards them. Of course, our memories do much more than provide immediate or particular behavioural responses for they also shape our general character within the confines of the basic, genetically determined personality.

What constitutes a learned response? Not a simple thing to define. Keeping your hand away from fire after you have been burnt is obviously such. Going from A to B along a familiar route is another. Putting a cake in an oven at a particular heat for a particular time a third. But suppose I master the philosophy of Kant. If I explain his philosophy without commentary to someone that might reasonably be described as a learned response in the sense that I am merely regurgitating what I have learnt. Yet it is also true that the act of comprehending Kant goes beyond mere memory and the effort of remembering what Kant’s philosophy is after it has first been learnt is a very different thing from recalling a piece of “inert data” such as the date of the Battle of Hastings.

Mental calculation is, of course, more than prolonged self-conscious intellectual consideration. It is what happens when someone calculates the distance to throw a ball or how to place pieces in a jigsaw or spontaneously comes up with a clever pun, as well as the sustained mental thought which led Newton and Einstein to develop their physics or Aristotle his logic.

Somewhere in between lies the great mass of considered utilitarian mental calculation such as computer programming and applied mathematical computation and the everyday ability to see contradictions and connections and to generally engage in logical reasoning.

We function as organisms at various levels. We do some things without conscious thought: we breathe, produce hormones and enzymes, and circulate the blood, digest food and so on. Our biology produces basic states of mind such as hunger, fear and sexual desire over which we have little control although we are conscious of the states of mind. Then come conscious choices which are designed to give us pleasure or at least satisfaction; we decide on an activity which we know will produce pleasant sensations or avoid unpleasant ones. Finally, we have rational thought designed to solve particular problems.

Man, or at least Man in advanced modern societies, flatters himself that he is a rational being whose behaviour is the consequence of consideration. (Even without free will, a self-conscious being could still operate rationally within the confines of its existential circumstances). In fact, most human behaviour is not rational in the sense of being self-consciously decided after having weighed the pros and cons of what to do or of trusting what we perceive to be the rational decisions of others, whether by engaging in self-decided emulation or through the suggestion or order of another.

Most of what we do falls into three classes of behaviour: the repetition of rational behaviour which has previously proven successful, or at least not harmful, what our biology tells us to do, for example to drink, or as an unconsidered response which is a consequence of whatever constitutes an individual’s basic personality, for example, traits such as timidity, aggression, affection. Even when we self-consciously decide on future action, our decisions are mediated by our knowledge of what has happened before, our biology and our personality traits, both innate and developed.

Men are frequently faced with conscious decisions which they are unable to decide rationally because they lack the knowledge or intellect to do so. Sometimes they fail to make a decision because of fear. In all these circumstances the individual does one of three things: (1) he makes a decision simply to make a decision, (2) he follows the herd or (3) he allows himself to be manipulated by another individual.

Most of this (to various degrees) automated behaviour is at worst harmless and at best positively desirable – it would be an impossible world if we had to seriously consider every deliberate action before acting, not least because it would be utterly exhausting. But it can be damaging. Even when acting self consciously, humans are quite frequently in the grip of ideas which are in themselves objectively wrong or at least have no certain truth. Moreover, those afflicted with such ideas often know at some level their beliefs are suspect – the reason that believers in religions or secular ideologies are generally very keen on suppressing any questioning of their beliefs is because they know in their heart of hearts that they will not stand up to questioning. Yet men adhere to such ideas and act upon them even though their reason tells them that they are questionable or even plain wrong because they are emotionally satisfying in themselves or they are group values from which the individual gets emotional satisfaction from sharing in the group experience.

Alternatively, group pressure may produce a state of mind whereby the individual does not actually believe something but is conditioned not to question it because at some level the mind has marked such questioning as dangerous or inappropriate. In our own time political correctness produces such feelings in many.

Where a set of ideas form an ideology the effect is particularly pernicious, both because of the multiplication of error and because the tendency to adopt a religious attitude towards the ideas is heightened, for to deny one part of the ideology is to question its general veracity. (By an ideology I mean a mental construct which consists of a menu of tenets which the adherent applies without regard to their utility or truth). The observance of the ideology becomes an end in itself. All ideologies are inadequate to a lesser or greater extent, because they are menus of ideas which are (1) incompatible and/or (2) based on premises which are objectively false or at least debatable.

An example of (1) is the attitude of libertarians to immigration. On the one hand they complain of the illiberal consequences of mass immigration – political correctness, laws which discriminate against the majority, restrictions on free speech and so on – on the other they advocate an open border immigration policy. The two policies are self-evidently incompatible.

An example of (2) is Marxism, whose claims of objective truth were routinely and consistently demolished by reality, the consequences of which were ever more fanciful revisions of Marxist theory to fit the evolving non-Marxist world.

Sociological Constraints

Man is constrained by sociological laws of which he is only dimly aware. When a general election is held in Britain Members of Parliament are elected for one of 646 constituencies on the very simple basis of who gets the most votes in the constituency. There is no multiple preference voting, just a single vote for one candidate. As a platform for the study of human behaviour it is splendidly uncluttered.

Because people are voting for an individual it might be thought that the voting pattern throughout the country would vary tremendously because people would be voting on the record of the government and opposition in the previous four or five years, the parties’ stated policies if they form the next government, local interests, how the sitting MP has performed and the perceived quality of the other candidates in the constituency. In fact the voting pattern is always remarkably uniform throughout the country. If the swing from the Government is on average 5% throughout the country, there will be few if any constituencies which show a swing of less than 4% or more than 6%. This uniformity does not vary greatly with the size of turnout.

It is impossible to supply any plausible explanation for this behaviour based on the idea that Man is rational. One could see how a small population might be influenced by peer pressure and word of mouth but not a country of sixty million. Nor is it the consequence of modern mass media because the phenomenon predated television and the Internet. If I had to hazard an explanation it would be this: different personality types are distributed throughout populations in certain proportions as the consequence of natural selection working to ensure that human society functions. Each personality type will tend to behave in the same way. Hence, the aggregate societal effect in response to a particular stimulus will be relatively stable. When people vote in a General Election they produce similar voting effects because the personality types are distributed similarly throughout Britain and consequently people throughout the country respond to circumstances in a similar fashion. In other words, personality traits trump reason.

A less obvious example is the trade cycle. There is no certain explanation for why such a cycle should exist, but it is possible to provide plausible explanations for the ebb and flow of economic activity, for example, that there comes a point in the trade cycle whereby most individuals have purchased everything they want within the constraints of what they can afford and consumption lessens which in turn reduces economic activity which creates a further impetus to reduced consumption as people worry about the future. Equally, it is plausible that when the down side of the cycle has gone on for a while demand increases because goods need replacing and as consumption slowly grows confidence increases triggering further growth.

What is not so easy to provide is a plausible explanation of why the population acts uniformly enough to regularly create such a cycle. How could it be that the large majority of a population routinely respond in the same way? The answer again probably lies in a stable distribution of personality within a population.

What evidence is there for personality being so distributed throughout a population? Well, from our own everyday experience we all know that there is a range of personality types who are met in any reasonably large group, but quantifying such knowledge in an objective manner is to say the least problematical. Whether we have any “objective” statistical evidence at present largely depends how much credence is placed on psychometric tests which supposedly determine personality. Having seen them used to select people for employment I am sceptical of their predictive power, because all too often their assessment of personality fails to match the person‘s performance. More trustworthy although less focused is the information from psychological experiments. Many psychological experiments show personality differences obliquely, for example, the famous experiments of Abrahams in the 1950s on peer pressure and The Stamford prison experiment of the early 1970s. They showed recurrent patterns of obedience and disobedience and of a willingness to abuse and to accept or resist abuse.

Reason is not the primary driver of Man is an extract from my IQ and Society


  1. If human agency (the ability to make real choices) is an “illusion” – then who is having the illusion? After all an “intelligent self conscious” being is BY DEFINITION an agent (i.e. has agency, the capacity to make real choices) – so if agency is an “illusion” there can be no “intelligent self conscious” beings – and, thus, no one to have the illusion.

    Mr Thomas Hobbes was wrong – human freedom is not the same as the “freedom” of water after a dam has been blown up, humans are BEINGS (as in “human being”) we are self aware conscious AGENTS – we have AGENCY. Human freedom is freedom of CHOICE.

    As for efforts to defend “political freedom” whilst avoiding so called “metaphysical” freedom – such efforts are absurd. If human beings do not in fact exist (if there are no agents – no such thing as making real choices, no agency) then what does it matter if government shoots or burns (or whatever) all these human-looking (but not human) flesh robots?

  2. Well, we’re back with Hume again really. Reason isn’t the driver. Our motivation comes from our feelings (or “passions” in his terminology). Reason is their slave, in that it is a strategy for figuring out how to achieve what we want to do. Reason can tell you how to kill a Jew or how to save a Jew, but whether to take the Nazi side or the Allied side comes down to one’s feelings about the killing of Jews (or anyone else) which Hume attributes (a little simplistically, but good enough for now) to our capacity for sympathy.

    So if we want to discuss agency, we see it reside in the passions, not the reason. A person of destructive passions can use his reason to murder, rape and steal. A person of constructive passions can use his reason to help, build and improve. There was equal amounts of reason on both sides of the Holocaust. Luckily, the passions of the good (eventually) won the day.

  3. If there is no agency (no capacity to make real choices – to do other than we do) then there are no agents (no human beings – or other beings) and, therefore, no one to have “illusions” – so the idea that agency is an “illusion” is self contradicting (literally “self” contradicting)

    If David Hume denied this (and I am not saying he did – I, here, express no opinion on that matter) then he was mistaken.

    As for chopping-up-the-human-mind into “will” and “reason” – I agree with Ralph Cudworth that the Scholastics may well have been mistaken in their effort to do that (and the arguments they had on the basis of it).

  4. David Hume didn’t say there is no agency. Neither did I. The point of what I said (and started with the second paragraph) is that our agency resides in our motivatiing drives; whether they be to do good or evil. We then use our reason to achieve those goals.

  5. As long as one can say that a conscious being has a choice to effect more than one outcome, it seems obvious that there is free agency. But this distinction may be moot for Mr. Henderson if he is saying that the agent effects a fairly narrow and predictable set of outcomes regardless of how freely the choice was presented.
    With this practical or consequentialist observation I think most people would agree. For example, a great number of American Neocons are Jews. Most of them are very smart people who have the free choice of whether to enlist the USA against perceived enemies of Israel or not. Yet they reflexively embrace policies that embroil the USA in conflicts with Muslims. This example is not to single out Jews, but to illustrate how reason can be trumped by religious considerations.
    For the great majority of people, I find that reason is not reason, but rather a machine for self-justification. The majority holds some (unreasoned) belief, and then manipulates words and arguments to support it.

    • “As long as one can say that a conscious being has a choice to effect more than one outcome, it seems obvious that there is free agency. But this distinction may be moot for Mr. Henderson if he is saying that the agent effects a fairly narrow and predictable set of outcomes regardless of how freely the choice was presented.”

      No Terry, I am saying something much more fundamental that that, namely that no discrete intelligence, human or godlike, can have free will because the intelligence can only operate within the parameters, physical and/or mental of their being,. , But that does not mean they can have free choice even within those limits because the physical/mental architecture which they inhabit lead them to the choices they make.

      Going even further into the nature of what is implied by the mere fact of existence , it seems to me that in any universe which is dynamic, that is one which experiences change, both the universe itself and the contents of the universe must of necessity have the nature of a machine,.

      • Mr. Henderson,
        You’re familiar no doubt with stories of the archetype “The Lady or the Tiger.” Taking this as an example, suppose a society in which the entire polity is assembled in a stadium and its future hangs on YOUR choice of one of two curtained doors. All eyes are on YOU, standing in the middle of the arena. (I hope this doesn’t give you nightmares.)

        You do not have knowledge of which door offers a reign of terror and which offers peace and prosperity, but someone in the stadium does, and that person decidedly gestures for you to choose the door on the right.

        The example illustrates the condition of incomplete knowledge and the condition of an element of chance. But most significantly, it illustrates that regardless of these conditions, which you suppose to be absolutely determinate, you are most certainly able to effect either of two wildly different outcomes. This certainly means that there is free agency.

        If you deny this, then it seems to me that you are merely looking backward from some future vantage point and saying, “You see! It [whatever ‘it’ was] did happen — therefore it HAD to happen!” And this seems to me a case of playing fast and loose with the meaning of free agency, which does not imply this omniscience at all.

        • Terry – the question of incomplete knowledge is not relevant to my position. Whether or not the intelligence has complete knowledge they will still act within the constraints of their physical/mental architecture. Does that mean everything is determined? Ultimately yes, although beings such as ourselves have the illusion of free will both in ourselves and others. We make choices but they are not free choices and cannot be for the reason that I gave at the beginning, namely, that any discrete intelligence has parameters.

          • Robert Henderson “everything is determined” (meaning PRE determined – an important point), and yet you go on to say “beings like ourselves” – when the whole point of the idea that everything is PREdetermined is that there are no such thing as “beings” (i.e. no such things as agents).

            You also repeat the line “the illusion of free will” – if agency is an “illusion” then there are no beings (agents) to have illusions. Your position is self contradictory (literally – as it contradicts the existence of the self).

            There is no “ourselves” in the philosophy you are pushing – no distinction between subjects (agents) and just objects.

            This “philosophy” is simply the justification for tyranny – as it claims that human BEINGS do not exist, and that (therefore) their slavery is not a moral concern.

            Indeed that there is no such thing as a “moral concern” – for the very concept of morality (of moral responsibility) rests upon choice, On the capacity of human beings (or other beings) to make REAL choices – our capacity to choose to do otherwise.

            If we have no real choice (no capacity for choice – if we are NOT agents) then there is no such thing as moral responsibility, indeed no such thing as morality.

            This “philosophy” is perfect for tyrants and their tyranny.

            • Paul Marks – although everything is determined, the individual does not have perfect knowledge of the past or any certain knowledge of the future. This means that individual has the illusion of free will because they are constantly being faced with unanticipated choices. This is perhaps the primary mask which covers the logically necessary determined nature of existence and produces the illusion of free will.

              The fact that we are primarily driven by our emotions dovetails with the sham exercise of free will and completes the illusion of free will.

              • Mr Henderson “everything is determined”.

                Some things are random (see QM in physics) and (a fundamentally different point) some things are indeed “determined” but they are determined by human agents (human beings), they are not PRE determined (the self is a “determiner” – it determines some things).

                Some things are random (chaos), some things are determined (in a predetermined way), and some things are CHOSEN (determined by the “I” the self).

                “The individual does not have perfect knowledge of the future or the past” – nothing to do with what we are talking about (totally beside the point – an effort to change the subject).

                And, according to your false theory, “the individual” does not exist anyway.

                A clockwork mouse is not “an individual” – and your clockwork view of human beings (which holds that we are not “beings” at all) would mean that we are not individuals either.

                By the way – you are repeating your error of talking about the “illusion of free will”.

                If agency (what you call “free will”) is an “illusion” then there are no agents (no human, or other, beings) to have “illusions”.

                Please do not use the word “illusion” in future – as this word is not open for legitimate use to those who believe that human agents do not exist.

                If we do not exist we can not, by definition, be subject to “illusions”.

  6. Ian I did not say in my comment that Hume said we were not agents (I expressed no opinion on whether he held that opinion or not – and said I was expressing no opinion on that question).

    As for “motivating drives” – the whole point is that we can resist them. Even for an alcoholic – “every drink is a choice”. To say (or imply) that we can not resist such “drives” is false – and it is harmful (as it gives people an excuse not to resist). To try and explain-away human choices in terms of “motivating drives” is both wrong and harmful. It is, de facto, telling people that there is no point in resisting evil – the evil within themselves (ourselves – myself).

    Terry – the United States has been in conflict (on and off) with Islamist terrorists (such as the Barbary Pirates) since the time of Jefferson – the Jews are not to blame.

    And the West has been under attack by the forces of Islam since the 7th century.- Europe was subjected to invasions and raids from the 8th to the 19th centuries (and there were the wars of the early 20th century also – the Balkans and elsewhere). Again the Jews were not to blame.

    If all six million Jews in Israel and all Jews everywhere were killed – the West would still be in state of conflict with Islam.

    This is because Islam (meaning “submission to the will of God”) has since the time of Mohammed himself claimed the world as its just dominion – and has held that any means are just in making this claim a reality.

    Blaming stuff on the Jews is just sticking your head in the stand.

    By the way – those Neocons who were Jews did not tend to be religious.

    And most American Jews (at least non religious ones) tend to be on the left politically – and have little or nothing in common with most Israelis (who tend to be conservative in their general attitudes – placing faith, family and military service at the centre of their lives) something that both Israeli Jews and American “Jews” increasingly understand. Even many atheist Israelis have social attitudes that have more in common with Americans of the 1950s than they have with many modern American “Jews” (such as the Marxoid crowd in so many universities).

    This is not to say that neocons (including Jewish ones) do not tend to be overeducated idiots – in fact they are.

    This was proved not just on the grand scale (the Iraq War) but on a more intimate scale – by simple tests of their Common Sense.

    For example just before the 2004 election Vanity Faire magazine contacted various neocons saying “do you have any negative to say about how things are going, any criticisms of policy to offer, do not worry – we will not publish anything till after the election”.

    It was an obvious trap – of course the magazine planned to publish the stuff before the election (that was the point).

    Yet only Frank Gaffney (of all the neocons contacted) had the practical wisdom (the Common Sense) to see the trap as a trap – all the rest fell for it.

    Thus proving themselves to be (in the words of the late Enoch Powell) not men one would “go tiger hunting with”.

  7. Paul,
    as I mentioned, my “example is not to single out Jews, but to illustrate how reason can be trumped by religious considerations.” The intent was not to assess blame for conflict between the West and the Mussulman.

    However, I am cautioned against using Jews to illustrate any point of discussion: It is a very centrifuge for discursive commentary.

    For the centripetal issue, would you agree “that reason is not reason, but rather a machine for self-justification”?

  8. Yes Terry – people can misuse clever argument (“reasoning”) to try and justify their wicked deeds (even, perhaps, to themselves). But that does not mean that there is not a right use of reason – if people “Sincerely What To Be Right”.

    Although there is still the ancient debate between the “Moral Sense” philosophers and the “Moral Rationalists” – with the former holding that morality is not just a matter of reasoning, but is based upon a special sense of what is right and wrong (good and evil).

    It should be stressed that neither side in this argument were moral relativists.

  9. Mr Henderson if there is no agency (what you call “free will”) then there is no intelligence, no reason. And you do not exist – not as a being.

    Nor is this just a “metaphysical” question – as if there are no human beings (if there are no human agents – because there is no agency) then talking of political freedom would be absurd.

    Mr Hobbes was wrong – the freedom of human beings is fundamentally different from just lack of external restraint, like blowing up a dam so the water can explode out.

    If Mr Hobbes had been correct about his definition of what human freedom is – then he would have been correct in his position is that human freedom is a BAD THING (who wants human shaped flesh robots exploding all over the place).

    However, Mr Hobbes was not correct – for humans are in fact beings (agents), human freedom is freedom of choice (agency). We have the ability (if we try) to choose good and reject evil.

    What you are doing is pushing the “philosophy” of tyrants – their excuse for tyranny.

  10. Paul Marks – You are making the mistake of thinking that consciousness and free will are necessary companions. They are not. One can be conscious but have no free will (the reverse is obvious impossible)

    Think of the most advanced AI systems today. They do not yet have what we deem to be consciousness, but within ten or fifteen years they almost certainly will have something which looks very like our consciousness because to function at the level humans want they will have to possess similar qualities to the human mind. For example, suppose an AI system is designed to write novels. To do so convincingly the AI system will have to do more than simply follow a formulaic construct. The system will have to have awareness of human emotions and the effect they produce in humans both individually and in the mass.

    Would you claim that once such systems develop consciousness, which is likely to be an emergent quality rather than something deliberately designed by Man, they will have free will?

    The fact that we have the illusion of free will, at least within our physical and mental limits, and emotions allows homo sapiens to accommodate the logically necessary fact of our determined existence and to function as though this fact was not a fact.

    • Mr Henderson “consciousness” and being an “agent” are just different ways of saying the same thing – you deny this, and you are wrong.

      Whether one chooses to call agency “free will” or not is irrelevant.

      “Everything is determined” meaning everything is PRE determined.


      There are actually three categories.

      Predetermined things – theories of “fate” or things being “predestined” by a series of (clock-work like) causes-and-effects from the start of the universe.

      This includes the predestination theory of Islam and of John Calvin (although James McCosh denied this) as is clear from the writings of the contemptible J. Edwards (who specialised in upsetting children by telling them, in detail, how they were predestined for the torments of Hell and that nothing they could do would change this – and when the parents complained said that his own actions, such as the gloating story telling, were also predestined from the start of the universe so he had no choice about the matter…….).

      Random things – such as QM in physics.

      And chosen things, which are – NEITHER OF THE ABOVE.

      You try and put everything into one box “everything is determined” (meaning PRE determined) – when, in reality, there are three boxes (predetermined, random, and CHOSEN) not one box.

      This reductionism (trying to reduce the three categories into one category) is a mistake.

      As for child abusers (such as Mr Edwards) who (when challenged) say they can not stop doing what they do because they “have no free will”.

      The best response is to THRASH them.

      And, if they complain about being thrashed, reply as follows…..

      “I am sorry, but we can not stop thrashing you – because we have no free will, we do not have the ability to stop our predetermined actions”.

      A hollow response certainly – but the hollow denial of agency (the pathetic excuse for child abuse) deserves no better response.

  11. The problem is that “free will” is never defined in a meaningful sense; it is always declared as a negative (claiming that humans are not deterministic). So these arguments just go round in circles.

    The reality is that all that we are describing is that complex systems can act in a goal directed manner. Machines do this already. We just think of them as not having free will because we know how they work.

    The brain is a deterministic machine. It is a very complicated one. We do not understand hot it works in any detail. But that is all it is. And that is all the agency it has.

  12. Ian B The problem with the concept of free will is very simple: it is a logical impossibility for the reason I have given, namely, to exercise a will there has to be a discrete personality. That personality will have behavioural triggers, likes and dislikes, fears and joys.

    • The problem with the concept of free will is that nobody ever defines what it means in concrete terms. So it isn’t so much impossible as meaningless.

      • Ian – agency is the ability to make real choices, to choose between good and evil. To do otherwise than we do – for example for a mugger to choose NOT to attack the person (this is called “moral responsibility” and it is why, for example, deliberately shoving someone in front of a car, is different from accidentally bumping into someone and knocking them in front of a car).

        Whether agency (freedom of choice – the ability to do otherwise than we do) is called “free will” or not, does not interest me (banish the term “free will” for all I care). But those who deny agency (who deny the existence of human beings) are bad citizens (as would have been said before the Roman Republic collapsed into the Empire) and their “philosophy” (the “philosophy”W of Frederick the Great and so on – the philosophy of “I could not have done otherwise”) deserves nothing but contempt.

        I repeat – whether agency (freedom of choice) is called “free will” or not does not fundamentally interest me. Indeed I do not like talk which “chops up” the human mind (the human self, the human “I”) into “reason”, “will” and so on.

        • Mr. Henderson,
          I would have thought that my “Lady or the Tiger” would have made this clear, but here’s another go at it, from a different direction.

          You deny free will. Very well, do you deny the randomness of any events?

          If you do admit randomness, then let’s say that the man faced with opening one of two doors, one of which brings peace and prosperity, the other of which brings a reign of terror, makes his decision on a throw of the dice: Odd, the door on the left; even, the door on the right. But then at the last minute he ponders swapping odd for right, even for left. Now clearly, a universe wound up like a clock does not admit of both choices; it is the man who decides the single outcome. Certainly, he is influenced by passions; certainly his reason is not the arbiter; but most certainly still his choice is not determined by a concatenation of synaptic firings whose sequence was wound up at the beginning of time. The man makes one choice, but he just as easily could have made the other. Call it free agency, call it the self, call it a consciousness that is aware of its own thinking, anything you like. But the common sense, short-hand term for this is free will.

          If you deny randomness, then it seems to me that you’re in a real pickle. Without wading into the cosmological argument, you are nonetheless stuck with an infinite sequence of causes that, considering they are infinite, ultimately never had a cause. If you deny this infinite sequence of causes, then you’re stuck with telling us all about the First Cause that you’ve discovered.

          Whichever way you go — randomness or none — it seems to me that in both instances you are guilty of a very facile anachronism: You are simply rewinding the tape that has recorded a jumble of determined, random, and freely willed events, and saying, “Aha! You see, ALL the events are determined, else they wouldn’t have been on the tape!”

          • Terry,

            You’re not making sense. Firstly, most proponents of Free Will describe it as neither deterministic nor random. The reason for this is that the proponent wants cause to the responsibility of the human, and argues that one is not responsible if your actions are predetermined (deterministic) nor if they are just random. You cannot be responsible for a dice roll (inside your head) either.

            And this is where free will becomes a logical impossibility. So then you say this-

            Call it free agency, call it the self, call it a consciousness that is aware of its own thinking, anything you like. But the common sense, short-hand term for this is free will.

            Listing synonyms doesn’t help you. You need to describe how a physical system- a brain- can proceed from some state A to some state B such that state B is neither caused by state A nor random. You need to show this “other process”. But, as I’ve got quite tired of pointing out in numerous threads like this, you can’t. Nobody can. Because such a process is literally inconceivable.

            I can show you any number of mechanisms that make choices. The thermostat on my wall chooses when to turn the heating on. We do not ascribe a fanciful “free will” to it for the simple reason that its mechanism is simple enough to understand. But the observation of some assemblage of parts- be it a thermostat, some device too complex to understand, or a human brain- which could imaginably do more than one thing, but is observed to do one particular one- which we call “making a choice”- does not tell us that a third option- “free will” exists. It just tells us that mechanisms exist. Which we knew already.

    • Mr Henderson “logic” is a tool of the human mind – and, according to you, the human mind DOES NOT EXIST.

      According to your, reductionist, “philosophy” there are only “behavioural triggers” “likes and dislikes, fears and joys” with no PERSON (no human BEING) being present.

      In your hollow (literally hollow – as no self is present under these “behavioural triggers”) “philosophy” there is no reason not to enslave (or exterminate) human beings – as according to you, human beings do not exist.

    • Mr Henderson, the reductionist (indeed Logical Positivist) effort to reduce good and evil (right and wrong) to “likes and dislikes” is also vile – utterly vile.

  13. Paul Marks – No, again you misunderstand my position. I do not say the mind does not exist, merely that free will is logically impossible – please note the logically impossible.

    As for the emotional response to the reality of existence, that is of course the province of each individual. .

  14. Robert, Paul and I went extensively around this mulberry bush a few weeks ago, and the argument is insoluble. Believers in “free will” do not have a functional model of what it is, indeed denying that there is one, instead basing the argument for it on a philosophical position that determinism denies the existence of human agency. So if you try discussing this from a “what Free Will actually is” position, you’ll just talk straight past each other.

    You two can go at each other for a hundred posts and you won’t even agree what you’re specifically arguing about.

    • Ian B – but that is precisely what I avoid . I cut off at the pass all attempts to introduce free will by showing whatever definition is given – and necessarily any definition must require free agency of some sort – it is logically impossible. Hence, the precise definition of free will becomes irrelevant.

  15. Ian I have said (repeatedly) what agency is (and you already knew what it was – before I said anything) – it is the ability to choose between good and evil. It is also the ability the make non moral choices – such as whether or not to wear a coat.

    Your effort to “explain” choices is really a reductionist effort to “explain away” choices – to pretend that the “I” can be reduced to something else.

    There is no difficulty about the definition of agency – other than ones that its foes pretend exist (and it is a pretence – for example J. Edwards did not really believe that he was “unable” to stop telling little children horrible things, he was just using “determinism” as an excuse for his own wicked choices).

    This is not really an argument about atheism and materialism – for example Ayn Rand was an atheist, this did not commit this lady to claiming that human BEINGS did not exist.

    Agency (“free will” – if you insist on trying to “chop up” the human mind into different bits “reason”, “will” and so on – a probably unhelpful enterprise) exists – and efforts to explain it away are both false and harmful.

    Consciousness and agency are just different ways of talking about the same thing – any contrary claim is nonsense (literally – non-sense, the claim that the mind, the “I”, does not exist).

    The effort to destroy the philosophical foundations of liberalism (the moral agent – “free will”) is a rather odd thing for a libertarian to be engaged in.

    At least David Hume did not claim to care about freedom (privately he may well have cared about freedom – but considered freedom so secure that he could safely play with it, actually it is NEVER safe to play these games) – hence his indifference to the “euthanasia of the constitution” (if we have an absolute monarchy, like that of the Sun King, so what……….),but people who claim to care about political freedom (limiting government power) should not play these “determinist” games (and a game is, after all, all this “philosophy” is).

    Humans are beings – we are not just “the passions, the propensities and an assorted bundle of perceptions” (as Heinrich Rommen summed up what Hume claimed to believe [although such a creature as the one Hume describes could not, properly speaking, can be said to be capable of “beliefs”] whilst opposing a regime that really did believe this). That is not a “definition” of a person – it is a definition of some creature of no moral worth whatever.

    “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them” is exactly the sort of doctrine that a decent person will fight (if need be to the death) against. It is the utter extermination of all that is worthwhile in liberalism (and conservatism also). It destroys the dignity (the moral worth) of individual human beings (it denies their very existence as beings) – leaving nothing but THE STATE.

    One might as well ask humans (no longer beings) to crawl on all fours like beasts (“blond beast” or otherwise) than to follow such a doctrine.

    Nor is virtue “whatever mental action or quality gives to a spectator the pleasing sentiment of approbation; and vice the contrary”.

    That is NOT what the Moral Sense school (in which the article you presented a link to claimed Hume belonged to) held at all, Moral Sense school people held (contrary to the Moral Rationalists) that we had a special sense of right and wrong (which was fundamentally different from normal reasoning) the voice of conscience – if we choose to listen to it.

    The above quote (especially the flippant language in which it is expressed) implies that there is no such thing as good and evil (right and wrong) at all, that these are just names for arbitrary whims (no wonder the Logical Positivists loved the quote).

    What does it matter if we are not agents (if “free will” – the ability to choose between good and evil, does not exist) if good and evil ALSO do not exist.

    Thus it does not matter if tens of millions of human beings are enslaved or exterminated, because – they are not really “beings” (agents) at all. Besides if spectators are given the “pleasing sentiment of approbation” by the sight of the torture and murder of millions of humans (human beings no longer – according to this false and evil doctrine) then the acts of enslaving or exterminating millions of people are acts of “virtue”.

    Besides we have no choice about whether or not we exterminate or enslave millions of people anyway – as Robert Henderson has “proved” that “free will” (moral choice) is “logically impossible”.

    • Paul Marks – “Besides we have no choice about whether or not we exterminate or enslave millions of people anyway – as Robert Henderson has “proved” that “free will” (moral choice) is “logically impossible”

      OK. Show me where my logic is wrong or my premises unsound… RH

  16. An example of the depiction of an act of virtue is the action of the character played by Michael Caine at the start of the film “The Eagle Has Landed”.

    Any effort by a determinist to “explain” away such moral choices is both intellectually wrong – and morally evil.

  17. This is what I mean.

    A scientific view would be to study nature and see what actually it is, then draw conclusions from that. Instead, Paul, you start with what you want it to be (the conclusion) then work backwards to declare what nature needs to be in order to reach that conclusion. So you want to conclude that human decision making is somehow “uncaused”, so therefore deny the possibility of any causal mechanism involved. Hence the appeal to a never-defined “free will” or “agency” of a magical kind.

    Scientifically, what do we know? We know that the brain is a physical system the operates according to physical laws ie. the way the rest of nature operates. We know that nature operates deterministically (and also possibly randomly if Quantum Mechanics is correct). We know anyway that logically the only two possible ways any system can operate are deterministically and randomly because, as I’ve said many times, these cover the entire gamut of conceivable possibilities. There simply isn’t any room in reality for a third option.

    But you just won’t have it, because it’s not compatible with the conclusion you want to draw- which is that you want human action to be somehow “uncaused” so the individual can be held entirely responsible for their actions. You’re entitled to believe that. But it makes no sense.

    • No Ian – I start from the objective fact of my own existence (the fact of the “I”) this fact you deny, and as your chain of reasoning is based on a false assumption (the assumption that the “I” does not exist) your conclusions are likely to be false.

      Take a chain of mathematical reasoning – a very elaborate one (a very impressive piece of work), that starts with the assumption that 1+1=3.

      As 1+1=2 (this is an objective fact – a starting point) then any chain of reasoning (no matter how elaborate and complex) that denies that 1+1=2 is going to be wrong.

      You (and Mr Henderson) seem to be working under the false assumption that human agency (the capacity to choose, to do otherwise than we have done – for example to decide not to murder people any more) is a “conclusion” – it is nothing of the kind. Human agency (“free will” – the existence of the human mind, the “I”) is the starting point (the A – not the Z). It is pointless to discuss human beings if human beings do not (indeed can not) exist.

      It makes no sense to condemn someone for an evil action if they had no choice about the matter (if they could not have done otherwise) – especially if they do not exist (if they are not an agent – a reasoning “I”).

      The denial of the existence of agents (the mind – the “I”, “free will”) means that there is no such thing as right conduct or wrong conduct – as the (non-existent) people have no choice over their actions.

      Someone (although there is no “one” – so it is some THING) who really believes this (I make no claim that David Hume really believed it) will indeed by logically indifferent to the establishment of tyranny (whether that of the “Sun King” or in some other form), as they hold that human freedom (the ability to choose – to do otherwise) does not exist, the stamping out of something that does not exist (something that is “logically impossible”) is not a major matter……

  18. The “freedom not to be free” the freedom to deny everything – even one’s own existence as a moral (choosing) agent, is not the “logical development of liberalism” – it is the utter destruction of the foundations of liberalism.

    The philosophy of David Hume (if he really believed it) and John Stuart Mill does not lead to a very nice place. Not a place they would want to live in.

    Nor (in the end) can philosophy and politics be kept in different boxes.

    If human beings do not really exist (if we have no choice over our actions – if we could do otherwise) then there can be no logical objection to political tyranny. As freedom is “logically impossible”.

    One can not (logically) be a political libertarian without being a philosophical libertarian.

  19. Nobody- neither me, nor Robert Henderson, nor David Hume, nor anyone else- has claimed that either you or human beings in general do not exist Paul. Don’t be ridiculous. We are discussing what the nature of human beings is. Not whether they exist.

  20. Robert and Ian.

    There can be no reasoning (no philosophy) if there are no reasoners (no apologies for bad spelling or whatever). There can be no philosophy if philosophers are “logically impossible”.

    You ARE denying the existence of human beings – as you claim (and have claimed repeatedly) that humans are not beings. As you put it that “free will is an illusion” (although who is having the illusion, if no subjects [only objects] exist, is never explained).

    By denying agency (the reasoning “I” – the capacity of humans, or other beings [if there are any in the universe], to choose to do other than they do) you deny your own existence as human beings, indeed you claim that human beings (or any other beings) are “logically impossible”.

    I am not interested in flesh robots who have no capacity to choose any of their actions (to do other than they do) – such creatures would have no moral importance (indeed if they were all the universe contained there would be no such thing as morality).

    Such creatures are certainly not human beings – or any form of being.

    A being is a reasoning “I” – an agent that can choose to do other than they do.

    The acceptance of the reasoning “I” (the agent – the self aware, chooser) is the STARTING POINT.

    Anything that rejects this starting point is false – by definition.

    As the denier is denying their own existence as a rational being – an agent.

    I repeat….

    The acceptance of the “I” (the agent – the self aware chooser) is the starting point – it is not a “conclusion”, it is the starting point for any sound reasoning – the existence of the reasoner.

    No honest reading of Mr Henderson’s article can come to the conclusion that he regards the freedom of human beings as important – indeed he says that human freedom is “logically impossible”.

    There we have the philosophical collapse of liberalism.

    The “euthanasia of the constitution”.

    After all if humans are not beings (are not agents – if “free will is an illusion”) then the enslavement of these non-beings is a matter of no importance (as their freedom is an “illusion” anyway) indeed their extermination would also be a matter of no moral importance (as they are just objects – not subjects).

  21. He says reason is not the primary driver of man and tries to prove it by means of science and reasoned arguments. Hilarious.

  22. GC – quite so. The effort to use reason to prove the nonexistence of the reasoner.

    Philosophy without philosophers.

    Science without scientists.

    Would such a person (who denies the existence of persons) really be “indifferent” to the destruction of the “illusion” of freedom (the “euthanasia of the constitution”), if it was their own personal freedom that was being crushed? Or is it just other humans who are not beings?

  23. Okay, one last time.

    The point here is whether “reason” is the “driver” of man. The answer is no. This does not question whether reason exists, let alone whether man himself exists. It’s the question of why we act.

    Animals, surely everyone here agrees, have little or no reason. A mouse does not read Aristotle, consider Aquinas, ponder philosophical texts, debate and discuss with other mice, or study Boolean logic. Yet a mouse quite clearly performs actions. The same is true of every living thing; even bacteria, even plants. Yet they do not reason.

    Reason is a tool which enables man as an an advanced organism to achieve his goals. But it is not the source of his goals. Nobody thinks falling in love is caused by reason, for instance. To say, “I am in love with Jane after careful logical consideration would sound variously “cold” and bizarre. Love is a sentiment. Once we feel love, we can use reason to pursue it (“I will ask her out to dinner, that will improve my chances”). But reason does not cause it.

  24. Paul Marks – I’ll have one last go as well. Your mistake is very simple: you are seemingly unable to grasp the idea of a self-conscious being which does not either have free will nor operates primarily by reason.

    Think of the conscious mind as being able to understand that it exists and the context in which it exists in relation to the external world. That consciousness and its ongoing existence can be pre-determined simply enough. We have the thoughts which give us our consciousness because these are a consequence of our interaction with the external world and the internal workings of our biology. We see a fly and our mind directs us to swat it; we see a great painting and it works on our aesthetic mechanism and so on.

    As for reason not being the primary driver of homo sapiens that is an objective fact because of the constraints of our biology and the fact that if every act or even a small percentage of our daily acts was an act of reason it would drive us mad.

  25. Robert Henderson – a “self conscious being” is (by definition) an agent, someone (not JUST something), something that has the capacity to choose (i.e. is also a “someone”) – which has the very thing you claim to be an “illusion” (the ability to make real choices – which are not “illusions”).

    You deny that self consciousness means that one is an agent (someone not just something) – and you are wrong.

    Ian – do you accept that humans are beings (that we can choose to otherwise than we do – for example that a murderer has the choice to stop murdering people) or not?

    If your answer is not a clear “yes” – then please do not reply.

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