This post revisits arguments related to free will and complexity theory. I've recently been focused on newer arguments for self-determinism (a compatibilist explanation of free will) but an interview of Daniel Dennett, by CFI, has prompted me to revisit "emergent properties". If you're not familiar with my explanation for self-determinism, please consult my web page at for several posts on the topic.

The basic premise of hard determinism is a false dichotomy. It asserts that you can't have causality and make choices too. Too many hard determinists are stuck on this false dichotomy and won't acknowledge that it's not either/or. They won't acknowledge that there are alternative possibilities. Self-determinism is one such alternative.

Daniel Dennett, in an interview for the Center For Inquiry, uses an argument derived from complexity theory. Complexity theory, by the way, is better suited to mind/brain questions than the reductionist approaches favored by hard determinists. For your convenience, I'm including this link to an .MP3 file containing just the section of the interview dealing with free will. The following block quote comes from near the end of the .MP3 file . . .

Most people are quite happy with the idea that things can be colored even though their finest parts aren't colored. Atoms aren't colored but things can be red, blue and green -- they can really be red, blue and green -- it's not just an illusion that they're red, blue and green even though the atoms that they're made of are not any color at all. Things can be alive, like a cell, even though they're made of parts that aren't alive. In fact, if it doesn't work out that way, we're in deep trouble. So you can make something living out of parts that are not living. You can make something colored out of parts that aren't colored. You can make something conscious out of parts that are not conscious. Neurons aren't conscious . . . [and] you can make something free out of parts that aren't free.

Nature is riddled with emergent properties: especially where there is life. Life itself is an emergent property of organic molecules. Self-aware consciousness, intelligence and, yes, self-determinism, are emergent properties of mental feedback (which is, itself, an emergent property of the brain). Because the emergent property of mental feedback must exist before the emergent properties of (1) self-aware consciousness, (2) intelligence and (3) self-determinism can exist, these 3 higher-level phenomena are at least twice abstracted from the brain. They are emergent properties of an emergent property (mental feedback). You can also take the view that human intelligence includes self-aware consciousness and self-determinism but you'd still have a phenomenon twice abstracted from the brain: an emergent property from an emergent property. This feedback loop, in which we think about what we think, is where choice arises.

I believe, as I've already stated here and elsewhere, that self-aware and time-aware mental feedback is transformative: that's where the complimentary properties of causality and human intelligence interact . . . where self-determinism emerges.

Please forget about free will. It doesn't exist. Our intelligent interaction with causality produces a more subtle, nuanced, phenomenon: self-determinism. I think of it, more or less, as "direction" or "purpose". Because of feedback, we can (with varying degrees of efficacy) distinguish between a good idea and a bad idea or something in between and pursue the one we want. These are options -- yes, options dictated by causality but options nonetheless -- we choose as self-aware, intelligent, human beings. The brain deliberates. That what it does. It couldn't without feedback. If you insist on a reductionist philosophy that equates brains to rocks, you will never acknowledge the distinctly different modes of response to causality exhibited by inanimate objects and animate beings.

We suspect that abiogenesis somehow transformed inanimate matter into living cells. We haven't proved it yet. But it's the best theory we have and most of us are willing to accept it because we know life must have started somehow.

Of course . . . you could say "God did it" and leave it at that. But that's a cop-out.

In the same way, we know that we are self-aware, time-aware, intelligent human beings who bring purpose and direction to a universe that otherwise has none. Self-determinism provides a theory that uses what we all know to explain how this phenomenon is compatible with causality.

Of course . . . you could say "The Big Bang did it" and leave it at that. But that's a cop-out.

The philosophical challenge will remain unsolved if we keep trying to explain the impossible notion of the ill-named "free will". Turn your attention to what we know and can actually point to as real. The true challenge, in light of causality and reality, is to explain the goal-seeking purpose of human endeavor . . . NOT to fatalistically deny it.

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Comment by Atheist Exile on January 16, 2012 at 5:05am

Damn! My reply wouldn't even fit in to separate posts! I'll have to post it as another blog entry . . .

Comment by John Camilli on January 1, 2012 at 6:16am

I did not know you had classes. I just assumed that everyone has plenty of time, like me, to come argue incessently online. Apparently I was wrong, lol.


I will attempt to refrain from repeating my arguments, but on the occassions that I do, please assume that I am doing so because there us some key aspect of it that I feel you are missing. I do not waste my time with strawmen or other easily refuted arguments. Many people here are excedingly familiar with philosophy, so I would be a fool to attempt simple dishonesty of that kind. If I'm going to be dishonest, I'll be very, very sneaky about it :-). Actually, I loathe the idea of intentional dishonesty. Reality is difficult enough to sort out without throwing wrenches in the gears. You may not believe me, but I will never intentionally fudge logic to seem correct, or for any reason, except maybe if someone is holding a gun to my head, in which case I don't mind lying to them.

I did not substitute "self-determinism" for causality. You clearly assume self-determinism is a fact of reality when you say "Self-aware consciousness, intelligence and, yes, self-determinism, are emergent properties of mental feedback..." You do this before providing any logic for why this might be the case, and you also fail to do so afterward. Keep in mind, I have been reading your other posts as well, and I have not seen an explanation anywhere for how self-determinism could arise from a causal reality. Causailty entails determinism because it assumes that every effect is the result of a prior cause, thus effects are determined by causes (you essentially say the same thing in your response). How does something that determines itself arise from things that are determined by prior causes? At what point does the "self" become separated from the causal chain and become responsible for its own causes? I have been asking this every time you post the topic, but have yet to hear an answer. You hint at the idea that existence allows for incredible complexity, and that self-determinism seems to be one of those complexities, but how? If it's not magic, then there must be a process, and if you are going to assert self-determinism, you must explain that process, or all you have is a belief. Dennett has flat out admitted that he simply believes in self-determinism. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he can't explain the process, but simply assumes it as the preferable alternative. If that's what you're doing then fine, I have no problem with people's beliefs because I can't disprove them anymore than they can prove them, but you seem to be asserting your case with the kind of certainty that normally accompanies a proof.


"I believe, as I've already stated here and elsewhere, that self-aware and time-aware mental feedback is transformative: that's where the complimentary properties of causality and human intelligence interact . . . where self-determinism emerges."

HOW HOW HOW??? How are they interacting to produce self-determinism? Describe the interaction.


"But human intelligence introduces new and unique causal factors not found in particle physics..."

I've never heard this. I'm familiar with complexity theory, chaos theory, quantum theory, relativity, even a bit of superstring theory and I have never heard this asserted anywhere but here, by you. What are these new causal factors that could allow determined things to create self-determined things?

Comment by Frankie Dapper on December 31, 2011 at 9:57am


Perhaps other animals should not hold adult humans responsible for killing. Animals cant hold a straw to humans when it comes to killing. And if you bother to read about animal behavior instead of fixating on preexisting assumptions you will learn that great apes engage in all of the characteristics of intelligence that are in your equation.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 31, 2011 at 7:52am

Hmmm . . . the last part of my post was cut off.  Here it is:

And the proof of this is our human purpose and direction -- because causality has none. It comes from somewhere . . . and that somewhere is the self-aware, time-aware, mental feedback loop of intelligent human beings.

Comment by Atheist Exile on December 31, 2011 at 7:47am

@John Camilli,

As you know, I have classes to attend and other priorities. Additionally, you (and some others) reply with strawman arguments that twist my words. I've already asked that you cite the relevant text if you're going to challenge my words . . . the purpose of this request is to avoid strawman arguments. In your defense, I do appreciate those times when you actually do address what I've written. But when you don't, I'm not highly motivated to take time from my other responsibilities to reply.

For those unfamiliar with the strawman fallacy, it basically pretends to rephrase what has been said but slips in a weak point which is then argued as if it was there all along. Since the strawman is the only person to raise the weak point, he/she is essentially arguing with himself/herself. I'm sick of this dishonest tactic. If you want to argue my words, argue my words: cite them.

For instance, John, you have substituted your word, "determinism", for my word, "causality" . . .

You are assuming self-determinism is true before you have proved it. Also, the dichotomy between choice and determinism is not a false one, it's very valid. Determinism means everything that happens is determined. Choice means not everything that happens is determined. Can't have both.

. . . then arguing a philosophical assertion instead of the physical law I actually used.

Causality is a physical law: "for every physical effect there is an adequate antecedent cause". It is an observationally and experimentally supported assumption about the nature of the universe that is woven throughout all of classical science and logic.

Hard determinism (which is the version of determinism I always take care to specify in my writing) is a philosophical assertion that, if causality explains all physical events, then future events can be extrapolated from past events. Hard determinism asserts inevitability: that there can be no choice.

Aside from the strawman tactic, you're simply ignoring what I've written and making false claims. I am NOT assuming self-determinism is true. I specifically stated, in our past discussions, that I'm not saying self-determinism is the reality of human life as we know it but, rather, a compatibilist explanation of how we can have a limited form of free will (i.e. purpose or direction) without violating causality. My final 2 paragraphs in the OP of this discussion hammers that point home. Yet you ignore it. Boooooooo!

I asserted NO "dichotomy between choice and determinism". I asserted a false dichotomy between choice and causality. If you DON'T assert that causality and choice are mutually exclusive, then I'm not addressing you. If you do, then I am.

In this particular post, I'm focused on complexity theory's "emergent properties" because it's the basis of a valid response to myopic reductionist arguments against choice. Too many hard determinists take the simple hammer of reductionism and treat complex issues as nails. Great tool, wrong job. Physical reductionism works great for particle physics. But human intelligence introduces new and unique causal factors not found in particle physics -- or the rest of nature, for that matter.

And Glen, forget about trying to equate the intelligence of other animals to humans. We don't hold animals responsible for killing for the same reason we don't hold young children responsible for killing: they don't adequately understand consequences. No comparison. Get over it.

Which raises a critical point about causality: it's what consequences, reason, logic, intelligence, creativity, morality, philosophy and science is all about. Higher level intelligence is all about recognizing, understanding, anticipating and using causality for our own purposes. We routinely, interact with causality. We're inured to it. It's not a one-way street: not simple reaction. It's intelligent interaction. A

Comment by John Camilli on December 31, 2011 at 3:39am

I hate that he keeps posting this same topics and then not responding to anything anyone says. Methinks he's just out here to preach, and is already convinced he is right without bothering to engage in debate. BOOOOOO! HISSS!

Comment by Frankie Dapper on December 30, 2011 at 10:17pm

Exile, there is an article in, GREAT APES MAKE SOPHISTICATED DECISIONS. "The researchers found that the apes' choices were regulated by their uncertainty and the probability of success for the risky choice, suggesting sophisticated decision-making.

Does your theory of self-determinism or emergent properties of the human brain apply to our cousins? All mammals?

Comment by Jedi Wanderer on December 30, 2011 at 7:05am

Thanks John, I appreciate it!

Comment by John Camilli on December 30, 2011 at 2:34am

Nicely written, Wanderer.


Exile, your comments on this subject are full of logical fallacies. You are assuming self-determinism is true before you have proved it. Also, the dichotomy between choice and determinism is not a false one, it's very valid. Determinism means everything that happens is determined. Choice means not everything that happens is determined. Can't have both. Valid dichotomy. If something is entirely determined, then there are no other possibilities that it could have become, while choice is predicated on the idea that multiple possibilities exist and that humans have some ability to select between them.


Btw, it has been proved that life emerges from what is traditionally called "non-living" matter. Several experiments in the last few years have succeeded at creating simple life from proteins. It's all a mechanistic process, bro, there's nothing "transformative" going on in "life" that isn't already inherent in "non-life." More complexity, in some cases, but everything "life" can do is already enabled by "non-life," which means it really doesn't make sense to distinguish between the two. That's a false dichotomy.

Comment by Ruth Anthony-Gardner on December 29, 2011 at 6:31pm

Thanks for the concise description of emergence on this topic.



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