I hope to persuade hard (absolute) determinists that their position is based on a false dichotomy. Determinism does not preclude free will. It's not either/or: there are other possibilities. I am presenting, here, one of those other possibilities. It's a model based on reciprocal causality. It doesn't claim to have proof: we know too little about the brain to prove how any high-order mental process works, so I'll be appealing to your experience and reason using common ideas and concepts we all understand. As I will explain, free will does not require mind/body dualism: it doesn't have to violate causality or determinism. The question of free will is a matter of opinion, hotly debated for centuries. I find it ridiculous when hard determinists write with authority about “the illusion of free will” as if they’re discussing settled, factual, points. If they don’t know the difference between a fact and an opinion, how do they know what they know? The pretense of certainty is foolhardy when dealing with a topic nobody can back up with evidence. I believe the main stumbling block for hard determinists is their tendency to material reductionism, driven by the misguided application of physics to things biological: a tendency that obfuscates the key differences between inanimate objects and animate beings.

Before beginning in earnest, I'd like you to consider this . . .

. . . If I were Magellan, trying to convince you that the Earth is spherical, I would point out how -- no matter in which direction you look -- the horizon advances as we advance toward it and how the arc of the horizon suggests a huge, round, planet, etc. If you adhered to conventional 15th century wisdom and held a contrary opinion, you would naturally react with skepticism and be inclined to resist my evidence and arguments.

However, if you sailed around the world with me, heading inexorably westward, you would be far more willing to accept the Earth as a globe once we arrive back where we started from. You might find fault with some of my ideas or metaphors but you would agree with my conclusion and, thus, would be more prone to seek clarification than to reject the theory outright.

Sometimes, we can’t see the forest for the trees. If I had to respond to every possible objection to every interpretation of my assertions, we would get nowhere in a hurry. Let’s not get bogged down in the minutiae: let's look at the question holistically before quibbling over details: we are, after all, dealing with hypotheticals here . . . namely that reciprocal causation, as a potential key to free will (self-determinism) without mind/body dualism, demonstrates that hard determinism is a false dichotomy: there are other possibilities.

So, what IS free will? People clearly don’t agree on what it is. Philosophers can’t figure it out. No matter what our opinions of the requirements for free will, they all include choice, so let’s call choice a bare minimum requirement. But in what manner do we have choice? Certainly not the libertarian volition that denies determinism. That’s just not workable – especially for atheists with a knee-jerk reaction against mind/body dualism. And certainly not at the other end of the spectrum: hard determinism. To hard determinists, there is no free will: just the illusion of it. So, if free will really exists, it exists somewhere between these two extremes.

The way I see it, we are self-aware, intelligent, human beings, with uniquely powerful mental faculties of memory and analysis that sets us apart from all other known entities. We specialize in abstractions. We understand, or can figure out, causal relationships and their effects on us and our environment. Not only are we self-aware – we are time-aware – something so intrinsic to our intelligence that we’re inured to it, taking it for granted. To me, this time-awareness is an important key to the question of free will because it represents a temporal advantage over causality that allows us to anticipate and prepare for the future . . . whether that be 5 seconds or 50 years from now. Whether it’s preparing a grocery list; or a career path; or writing a last will and testament: we plot our own paths into the future. And that, to me, is self-determinism: my idea of what free will actually is. Self-determinism means that, within the constraints of causality, we are the architects of our own lives and are thus responsible and accountable for our own actions. To me, this is what it means to have free will.

I’m a compatibilist. I believe free will (self-determinism) is compatible with determinism – but not the absolute determinism of hard determinists. Such absolute determinism is based on linear causality; the causality of physics: cause and effect that is fixed: linear, binary and inexorable, unfolding in a precisely predictable way. Yes, the causality of physics is linear, binary and inexorable. But only with inanimate objects. Everything in the universe was an inanimate object until the advent of life. Thanks to the introduction of life, the universe now also contains animate beings.

Inanimate objects and animate beings have different modes of response (reactive versus interactive) to causality because animate beings provide potentials for causality that aren’t possible with inanimate objects.For brevity’s sake, lets stick with human beings from here on out. Anyway, instead of the linear, reactive, relationship to causality found in the inanimate realm, human beings have a reciprocal, interactive, relationship with causality. This is one of the differences that distinguishes physics from biology. Physics deals with inanimate matter: its causality is simple and linear. Biology deals with animate beings: its causality is complex and reciprocal. Life makes all the difference.

We’re evolved to recognize, analyze, understand and anticipate causality in highly complex ways. Think about it for a second. What are the properties of causality that make it so predictable in the inanimate realm?

  • It unfolds in lockstep with the unidirectional arrow of time.
  • It’s binary: cause and effect. Fundamentally simple.
  • It’s highly repeatable and consistent. A fact that science relies upon.

Causality underpins all of nature. It’s a basic assumption of physics. It’s the first thing we need to master in order to understand the world around us. Intelligence can’t develop – much less, evolve – without causality as its foundation. The properties of causality are the seeds of intelligence. Without causality, there is only chaos.

So causality is at the core of both determinism and intelligence. And when causality and intelligence interact, we have self-determinism. The key to that interaction is feedback. How do you have interaction without feedback? Feedback is common to emergent phenomena such as consciousness and intelligence, both of which are intimately bound up with free will (self-determinism). In contrast, inanimate matter is insensate. It has no memory, no intentions, no alternatives. It has no feedback: it is reactive, not interactive.

Although human intelligence endows us with a temporal advantage over causality that allows us to anticipate, prepare for and harness causality for our own purposes, that doesn't mean we’re not subject to great influence from causality. We can do nothing about much of causality’s influence over us. We have no causal control over our own genetics and very little over our physiology. We have no control over the weather or natural disasters. In the midst of a car crash, we have no control over the forces that violently toss us around. But we’re not absolutely at the mercy of causality . . . we can drive defensively and use seat belts, air bags, padded dashboards, laminated windshields, crumple zone designs and side impact protection beams as well as systems for: collision avoidance, anti-lock braking, traction control, tire pressure monitoring, electronic stability control and obstacle detection. With self-determinism, feedback allows us to recursively modify our surroundings or even our own behavior to guarantee more beneficial consequences than would otherwise occur.

Feedback occurs between our brains and stimuli from our surroundings (causality). I think this feedback loop is where emergent phenomena such as intelligence and consciousness form. But how can free will (self-determinism) emerge from feedback? Well, of course, I don't really know. But when I think in terms of reciprocal causality, it’s not difficult to explain how self-determinism could emerge from the feedback of reciprocal causation. It’s easy to see how the human brain creates huge potentials for (reciprocal) causality that are way beyond anything possible in the inanimate realm. Here's just one way in which that could happen, explained with ideas and concepts we're all familiar with . . .

. . . Cause and effect from the past (experience) is stored in the brain as memories. Cause and effect are also projected into the future (anticipation) when we analyze or plan. As mental feedback, our brains integrate experience and anticipation with cause and effect in the present moment to synthesize perceptions, ideas, conclusions and decisions . . . which, in turn, are also stored in the brain. Now tell me, which of these causes and effects are important to this process?

I say all of them. This synthesis of multiple causal factors is impossible with the linear causality of inanimate objects. With human intelligence, causality has more "temporal potentials", thanks to memory (past) and the anticipation and projection of imagination (future). To us, causality isn't limited to the present. It's stored in the form of memories we can recall and is predicted in the form of anticipation and projection. Memory and imagination, as mental abstractions, are virtualized forms (past and future) of causality. Their synthesis with real-time causality (the present) is transformative and might well be integral to the emergence of  free will (self-determinism).

So, if you're hung up on "uncaused causes", consider the mental synthesis of multiple causal factors and its implications for emergence. We don't operate on just the unfolding linear causality of the present. The past, present and future are homogenized and simultaneously incorporated into our thoughts and deeds.There is no "uncaused cause" -- no violation of determinism -- because there is no single cause but, rather, a synthesis of causal factors past, present and (virtual) future. I think this synthesis is exactly what is needed for the emergence of intelligence and free will (self-determinism) without mind/body dualism. When you stop to think about it, the human capacity for analysis is amazing. It's an exercise in abstraction. We draw feedback from experience (past) and imagination (future) to mentally evaluate hypothetical scenarios. They're not even real: just mental constructs! Reciprocal causation seems to have almost limitless potential. If reciprocal causation isn't the key to free will (self-determinism) as an emergent property of the brain, what else could be?

The whole point here is to show that hard determinism is a false dichotomy. It's not either/or. There are other possibilities. Emergence from reciprocal causation is one of those possibilities.

I believe that free will (self-determinism) is a prerequisite component of human intelligence in as much as it seems impossible to have human intelligence without it. What is human intelligence? Can we have it without the ability to make choices? Not to my way of thinking.

The ability to make choices, to me, implies an ability to anticipate causality. We make decisions based on expectations and pursue plans to usher those decisions to fruition. Planning would not work if choices were ephemeral. Clearly, we plan all the time, so part of intelligence must include keeping track of choices relative to our plans. This means that, at many points along the way, our choices are re-entrant or recursive; otherwise we could accomplish nothing.

If so, feedback is part of the causal stream of stimuli we’re constantly responding to. It's internal instead of external but it joins the stream of stimuli by looping with it. After all, causality doesn't stop at the skull. If we interact with causality, then feedback must be the mechanism by which we direct that interaction. Feedback informs our decisions.

We’re very good at analysis and executing plans. Sometimes we fail but usually, we’re confident in the outcomes. The fact that we can make plans and execute them is proof that we anticipate the future and factor causality into every step along the way. We can engineer moon missions and scramble to avert disasters and land our astronauts back on Earth safe and sound.

If that isn’t self-determinism . . . then what is it? I think it’s the only form of free will we really have.

Reciprocal causation becomes easier to understand once you acknowledge that animate beings, through feedback, offer causality more potentials than can occur with inanimate matter. Thanks to our advanced intelligence, we virtually dance with causality. Innovation, invention, creativity . . . these all indicate that causality is a plaything to us.

The reductionist mindset of hard (absolute) determinism doesn't take reciprocal causation into consideration . . . and as long as you’re dealing with inanimate matter, that shortcoming doesn't matter. The biggest mistake hard determinists make is treating animate beings like inanimate objects: applying linear causation instead of reciprocal causation. The brain is more than a collection of atoms: it's the most complex object in the known universe. Life, consciousness and intelligence are emergent phenomena. Why not free will (self-determinism)?

I find it curious that so many intelligent people are so quick to surrender their identity on the altar of ABSOLUTE determinism. Here's a few quotes that sum these folk up for me . . .

  • “A belief which leaves no place for doubt is not a belief; it is a superstition.” ~José Bergamín
  • “Knowledge is a relatively safe addiction; that is, until it becomes idolatry.” ~Anonymous
  • “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” ~Albert Einstein

The Bergamin quote reminds us that certainty is a fool’s game. Absolutism is the pretense of certainty. The anonymous quote reminds us that what we think we know is subject to new paradigms. The Einstein quote encapsulates hard determinism perfectly. By applying the linear causality of inanimate objects to animate beings – as if there’s no difference between them – hard determinists are making things simpler than possible. Free will (self-determinism) is probably not even possible without the feedback of reciprocal causation: it's certainly unimaginable with just linear causation. Life, consciousness, intelligence and, yes, free will (self-determinism) are unthinkable without reciprocal causality.

We all live as if we have free will (self-determinism). Jurisprudence, competition, incentives, rewards, praise, blame, loyalty, betrayal . . . these all pay lip service to free will (self-determinism). We ponder our futures and evaluate our options for the best available opportunities that fit our priorities and abilities – then we set about to achieve them. There are constantly choices to be made. Free will (self-determinism) seems to be a fact of life.

The challenge is to explain it: NOT deny it.


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Comment by Matt--Lukin on October 28, 2013 at 5:02am

You only avoided responding in any sincere fashion as you did in your previous post, and yet you've done it once again. I only see your post as pure circumlocutory with an added insult (to allow yourself to maintain a sense of superiority?) I'm really not sure. I'm sorry, but I don't think you knew how to respond to any pivotal points that people have come up with.

Comment by Atheist Exile on October 28, 2013 at 4:25am


I give up. It seems that every time you reply, you get more and more ridiculous. This latest post of your is the culmination of that decline. I'll let the readers take it for what it's worth.

Sorry, Matt. I don't know how else to respond to that one.

Comment by Matt--Lukin on October 28, 2013 at 4:13am

There's too many assumptions in your model. First of all, 'inanimate object' and 'inanimate matter' are complete misnomers, since there is no such thing as an 'inanimate object' or 'inanimate matter.' All matter is in flux.

You also say matter is insensate. That completely denies the possibility of panexperientialism.

And by the way, I never said that you claimed it as proven fact, I simply was pointing out that you're basing your entire model on the conjecture that consciousness is an emergent property of physical activity of the brain. So, you're basically piling a conjecture on a conjecture by saying that free will is also an 'emergent phenomena.' 

So, c'mon, Atheist Exile! Obviously, your model doesn't work. You know, I bet if you were to post this at, you'd get tons of dissenting reciprocal causation... I mean, feedback. Perhaps you need to rethink this entire model. If 'free will' cannot even be defined by philosophers, have you ever considered that maybe it's not there?

Comment by Atheist Exile on October 26, 2013 at 2:00pm

Thanks, guys, for your replies. I've updated the OP to address some of your concerns. Specifically, I've detailed how reciprocal causation might lead to emergence and I've added arguments in support of free will (self-determinism) as an emergent property of the brain.

Comment by Atheist Exile on October 26, 2013 at 12:06pm

Come on, Matt!

How many times and ways do I have to say that I'm NOT claiming any of this HYPOTHESIS as a proven fact? It's a model dealing with questions we don't have answers to: WE DON'T HAVE THE FACTS. The brain is a near-total mystery. I can't provide scientific evidence that doesn't exist.

What I can do, though, is appeal to your experience and reason.

I've summarized the major themes of my thesis for you. If you're stuck on causality in its fixed, linear, form (i.e. its inanimate mode), then you CAN'T appreciate the potentials of reciprocal causality.

Okay, once again, I'll try to present some of the potentials of reciprocal causality as it relates to free will as an emergent property of the brain (which is what I believe it is).

The fixed, linear, causality of the inanimate realm, as I've pointed out, unfolds in lockstep with the unidirectional arrow of time. But the human brain creates potentials for causality that are way beyond anything possible in the inanimate realm. HUGE potentials. Here's just one way in which that could happen: explained with ideas and concepts we're all familiar with . . .

. . . Cause and effect from the past (experience) is stored in the brain as memories. Analysis projects cause and effect into the future. Our brains combine these with cause and effect in the present to synthesizes ideas, conclusions and decisions . . . which, in turn, are also stored in the brain. Now tell me, which of these causes and effects are important to this process?

I say ALL of them. This "causal synthesis" can't happen with inanimate objects. If you're too attached to causality as a linear process, you CAN'T appreciate reciprocal causality. Linear causality unfolds in the moment, in lockstep with the unidirectional arrow of time. With human intelligence, causality has more "temporal potentials", thanks to memory (past) and the anticipation and projection of imagination (future). To us, causality isn't limited to the present. It's stored in the form of memories we can recall and is predicted in the form of anticipation and projection. This is huge. You can't reasonably think of causality the same way with humans as you do with inanimate objects.

So, if you're hung up on "uncaused causes", consider how we're not limited to linear causality. We don't operate on just the unfolding causality of the present. The past, present and future are homogenized and simultaneously incorporated into our thoughts and deeds. THERE IS NO SINGLE CAUSE. I see this synthesis as ripe for the emergence of intelligence and free will. Don't ask me to prove it. We all know I can't.

We're different than inanimate matter. You have to recognize that before you can appreciate the potential of reciprocal causation.

The whole point here, as I initially expressed in my OP, is to show that hard determinism is a false dichotomy. It's not either/or. There are other possibilities. Emergence from reciprocal causation is just one of those possibilities.

Comment by Matt--Lukin on October 25, 2013 at 5:47pm

You failed to to realize the point, and yet you still say I lack discernment! I think you've got that backwards. You asked me in what way are "inanimate beings" the ultimate strawman for free will? Well, the answer is as I said before, the notion that "consciousness" is an emergent property of a complex brain functioning is a conjecture of neuroscience, NOT a proven fact, and yet you base your entire model of free will on this speculative notion. 

In asking "Why not free will?" you obviously are trying to suggest that free will is an epiphenomenon. This isn't simply an ASKED question. Even if you do not include this fact in your model, the fact that you're implying this from the model is begging the question, because it's still based on the conjecture of consciousness being an "emergent property" from the physical activity of the brain.

Comment by Michael Penn on October 25, 2013 at 1:04pm

My viewpoint is that each individual will make choices according to every single incident that has happened to him in his lifetime, and therefore the choices are predetermined to degrees,making such choices different for every person. The choices of someone in my generation will be different than someone of another generation, My choices today will be different than they would have been at age 20, and my choices tomorrow might change as well. Th choices we will make are already there inside of us according to our current placement along our informational journey of life, so you might say we select a choice or we reject all but one. This is what our free will is, and it's also an example of why the will is not free.

Kick this idea around within different circles of our society, different cultures and time frames within societies as a whole, and it would seem impossible to build a model to explain this. Ad dualism into explaining free will and you end up with a complex design that would appear to grant free will only as coming from a benevolent creator god. Ask yourself how in the hell that could possibly be correct that you  get something from an imaginary being, but yet Augustine and others believed it. Some believe it to this day.

The choices we make daily are already there, built into us along our journey. Yet, if we go backward or forward in time, the choices change. Goodluck to anyone who presents something close to a model on explaining this.

Comment by Atheist Exile on October 25, 2013 at 12:19pm

@ Dennis Michael Pennington and GOD'aye,

You both, from your replies, seem to agree that we make choices. But otherwise, neither of you are really addressing points from the OP specifically.

Comment by Atheist Exile on October 25, 2013 at 11:43am

Jesus, Matt-Luken, you seem discerning enough in the other thread about free will . . . why so undiscerning in this one? Okay, here we go . . .

For instance, the distinction between 'fiction' and 'theory' or 'hypothesis'. Don't forget, I'm presenting a model of how free will can occur without mind-body dualism or violating causality or determinism. I'm not proclaiming to know what free will is or how it operates. It's just a model to explain free will.

Another example of your lack of discernment in this thread would be your citing of the following sentence . . .

Life, consciousness and intelligence are emergent phenomena. Why not free will?

. . . as a quote in which I referred to free will as "an epiphenomenon of consciousness", as you erroneously claimed I did. Hello? The quote shows I claimed consciousness and intelligence are epiphenomenal but I only ASKED why free will shouldn't also be.

But, if the truth be known, I actually DO think free will is epiphenomenal. But I didn't state so outright BECAUSE THE OP WAS ABOUT PRESENTING A MODEL -- it was not about claiming I KNOW how free will operates or even what, exactly, it is. It would have been inconsistent of me to claim that free will is epiphenomenal. How would I or anybody else know that when we're not even sure what free will IS? Instead, I asked the reader to consider the question.

Which raises an interesting point. My model of free will has some major themes and concepts that I would have thought would drawn more attention. Here's the main themes:

  1. Causality is simple and linear in physics (inanimate realm) but is complex and reciprocal in biology (animate realm).
  2. Causality has more potentials with animate beings than with inanimate objects. Or, to put it another way, Inanimate objects have a reactive relationship to causality, whereas animate beings have an interactive relationship to causality.
  3. Causality is at the core of both determinism and human intelligence.
  4. Feedback is the operative mechanism of reciprocal causation and of emergence.
  5. The human brain operates on feedback from both internal (mental) and external (causal) stimuli.
  6. The emergence of free will (self-determinism) could occur in feedback loops.

That last one (#6) is, of course, the biggie. I didn't explain how this emergence in feedback loops happens because I don't really know. But I do have some ideas about that process might work without producing "uncaused causes".

The many simultaneous external streams of feedback between us and the environment (the present) is augmented by internal mental feedback from our memories and experience (the past) in a non-linear process known as "reciprocal causation‘‘. Causes and effects — internal and external, past and present — combine in our brains to produce a “homogenized” mental abstraction we call perception. Our decisions (choices) are then based on those perceptions. In effect, causes and effects integrate and lose their meaning. The resulting choices we make are simultaneously causes and effects.

We know that emergent phenomena like consciousness and intelligence arise somehow: what mechanism explains it better than feedback?

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on October 24, 2013 at 4:56pm

My whole point is that We Truly Are Completely Individual.

Firstly Our Guidance System: The Brain is Wired Differently for Every Individual.

Our Environment, Personal Experiences, Influences and Perceptions all thus Differ.

Choices made "Free Will or Free Won't" whichever you prefer: Simply Reflect or Highlight Those Differences.

Basically That Sums It Up.



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