Buckle up for the greatest of potential blasphemies. Here in Part I of a two-part post, you’ll be introduced to the great unthinkable. In Part II we will get to the part you really care about—what the prospect of living a giant delusion means to you, and to our world. So let’s jump in. Surely if you’ve read the blog for a while now and haven’t been compelled to your keyboard in protest, this could be the post that does it.

What if I told you that even if you are not legally or physically compelled by gunpoint or government to act or think a certain way, you are nonetheless still not free to make your own decisions? That in reality there is no such thing as human “free will,” only the delusion of complete autonomy of thought and behavior? What if I further suggested you did not randomly choose to read this article, and that in reality you could not have made any other choice but to read it—given the very specific circumstances that existed when you were introduced to the existence of this post? Indeed my assertion is that causes led to the effect of you reading this now. You did not have a free choice, and couldn’t have chosen otherwise.

Or what if I told you that neither you nor any human is a self-made person, no matter how brilliant and inspirational the narrative about the kid who came from nothing and did it all by himself or herself. What if I challenged you that even the tiniest elements of your life were “fully caused”—that they didn’t come from nowhere and nothing, but rather were the result of natural cause-and-effect forces, and thus were “determined”? I’m about to do that, and much more. Hopefully whether you agree or disagree, you’ll discover something about the way you think, and about the arrogance that comes from wholesale purchase of this problematic notion we’ve been sold: that our decisions are fully ours, are totally uncaused except in our autonomous heads, and that they originate solely from the “nothingness” that is our “free will.” You guessed it. I believed this all my life, but alas it appears I’m wrong yet again, and that this is not how the world really works.

To get you fully primed and riled up, let me further assert for a moment that your successes, your failures, your sorrows, and your victories are far less “yours” than you can probably begin to fathom! To paraphrase Jack Nicholson’s character from the movie A Few Good Men—perhaps we can’t handle that truth; but that doesn’t make it untrue. If I get my way here, you’re about to see how your delusion of “free will” destroys compassion, kills empathy, rapes peace, obliterates love, bastardizes the golden rule, and basks in your arrogance and ego-feeding self affirmations. Should be fun, eh? (Just wait until Part II.)

For me this topic is perhaps the ultimate stop along my journey of big questions. It has been among the scariest, most outlandish, potentially offensive ideas I’ve explored, and flies in the face of the very foundational assumptions of our merit- and competition-driven Western society. To utter such questions about “free will” is probably a greater heresy than questioning the existence of the most sacred of gods. But even as painful as it has at times been for me to admit, the evidence seems clear: all human action is fully caused, and thus fully determined—not by a top-down designer, and not by a god who physically moves the tectonic plates to create the tsunami or the aneurism—but by a non-designed, non-planned chain of cause-and-effect events that traces its origins to the beginning of time itself.

Of course as with anything, I remain open to arguments and new information. This is but an unexpected, unsought, and provisional estimation of truth—but it has also become a warming, comforting, and liberating worldview for me. I will comment more on this in Part II. For now, I hope you’ll try to follow along and give it a fair hearing; it is a useful metaphor for learning, even if you can’t fully accept the argument.

A Thought Experiment

Imagine for a moment the face of a newborn baby: not just any baby, but you! At the moment of your birth, and even weeks before, you were the culmination of a nearly-infinite number of interacting physical variables: mitosis, cells, neurons, maternal nutrition, chromosomes, immunities, physical defects or lack thereof, brain function, and many more. You were born into poverty or affluence, theological beliefs or non-theism, support or neglect, wellness or sickness, war or peace, plague or global wellness, and myriad other circumstances that uniquely defined your world—the world—into which you were born. These circumstances would be more powerful than you ever imagined. They would set in motion the very nature and course of the only existence you would know. In fact, between your biology and the natural makeup of your body and mind, and the circumstances into which you were born, I will argue that there would be no additional inputs—no other influences to the course of your life. You were a natural person, born into a natural world. (Even if you disagree, work with me on this. I know you’re thinking there could be a supernatural cause that determines physical-world “effects,” but more on that later.)

Now imagine another child, this time a child born into abject poverty in urban America—in this case an African-American infant we’ll call Ronald, born in 1982 into the country where “all men are created equal,” and we delude ourselves with the notion that there is equal opportunity for all. Ron was born to a crack-addicted mother in Detroit, with a relatively high IQ of 123. He was born into a Christian household, but with very little education or guidance of any kind. Drugs were the norm and survival was the game in the culture into which Ronald was born—at a very low birth weight it is worth adding. And while the circumstances of this child’s birth might be very different from those of your own, with both birth stories—yours and Ron’s—a series of cause-and-effect events progressed forward from an infinitely complex chain of these prior, “background events”—events that entailed the variables we’ve mentioned, and trillions more. But the chain progressed exactly from those births to this moment in time, didn’t it? Just as a butterfly’s wings flapping in South America has been said to be capable of creating a hurricane on the other side of the earth, the tiniest of events change the course of history—as did you and Ron; cause-and-effect is a funny thing. You changed the world as you were shaped by it, as was Ron. But still, there is more to the story.

Ron was smart, as we’ve said. Ron figured out that when he cried loudly enough, someone would feed him. That was his brain working—quite rationally, actually, even though he didn’t really know he was doing it. But as he aged, he made many billions of decisions that brought him to precisely where he is today. He learned to manipulate his parents. As he grew to pre-adolescence, he learned how to get what he wanted from others too, by intimidating his peers—even kids twice his age. Ron watched the pimps and drug dealers in the neighborhood, and saw the nerds in school getting nowhere. Ron made some pretty wise decisions if you think objectively—like the one to deal drugs. Ron got pretty rich. Ron prayed to his God, and Ron followed social norms and rules of conduct that applied to his world, not some “Leave it to Beaver” fantasy of another time and place. All-in-all, given his biology, his brain, the events and circumstances of every second of every minute of his life, Ron made very “wise” and predictable decisions at every step—at least to Ron’s mind.

Could It Have Happened Differently?

But let me push you a bit further. If we view Ron’s life—even from before birth—as series of decisions made by his cells, and then his larger brain, we see something interesting. Picture for a moment a snapshot of Ron at the point of any decision in his existence, no matter how momentous or how insignificant. You might picture his decision to cry or not to cry in order to get attention or get food; his decision to first smoke that crack pipe; or his decision to kick his neighborhood friend in the face—an act that established him soundly as the alpha in his peer group. As you envision a particular snapshot, understand how infinitely complex were the factors that led Ron to act or “choose” as he did at that split second in time: his biology, the amount of testosterone in his blood, the color of the paint on the walls, his hunger, his fear, his entire brain condition and chemistry, the weather, his genes, and so forth. Billions of variables existed in a very, very specific state at that snapshot in time.

Here is the essential argument: given all of those specific circumstances that comprise the picture at this single decision point in Ron’s life, there is essentially a ZERO probability that Ron’s “decision” to think or act as he did could have been made contrary to the way Ron made it. That “decision” was the culmination of an extremely complex chain of cause-and-effect events—all very “of this earth”—that led to Ron’s behavior and decision. Ron’s actions, in other words, were determined by myriad and complex causes. They were not uncaused. Ron did not, therefore, have the ability to “choose” in any conventional sense of the word—as we delude ourselves into believing he did. And here is the shocker: neither do you!

A “free will” worldview tells us that Ron has made a set of poor decisions. Ron is a loser. Ron deserves everything he’s getting in life. He may even deserve to die, versus the cost of housing Ron in prison and protecting us from him. But what if, in reality, Ron made the perfect set of “decisions” for Ron’s brain, given the circumstances into which he existed from before his birth, until this very day? What if looking back there was, in practice, no real alternative to how Ron’s body and brain could have interacted with his environment at any of the trillions of decision points that led from one to the other through the complex decision tree of his life?

But are we gods?

If you are like most, you are already coming out of your chair in protest. “We do have free will,” you want to scream. I know, I know; and I’ve been there. But as you ponder things further you’ll see it’s difficult to escape cause-and-effect, and indeed this philosophical debate has raged for over 2,000 years, so try to hang in there.

If in fact we can make uncaused decisions, as you might suggest, where do they come from? If we could defy our life experience, our specific biology at the time of decision, our training, our culture, our mental state, our heritage, defy everything we ARE and everything we know, and every biochemical signal at the time of a decision, at the risk of a false dichotomy it seems only one of two things can allow that: one, we behave randomly; or two, we are essentially our own “god” and exist outside of nature and all known reality, and we can overcome it in some magical way.

But clearly we do not behave randomly, as if there were no causes or reasons behind every one of our actions—no matter how wacky any single action may seem. If that were true, then there would be no predictability to anything you or I do. I might be carving pumpkins one minute, axe-murdering the next, singing lullabies the next, ad infinitum. But we are predictable, and we do not randomly make uncaused choices (again, “caused” being complex interactions of biochemistry, memory, experience, new stimulus, etc.).

But are we gods? Can we truly just change our minds, in an uncaused way, or behave contrary to all those things that define us in that snapshot of a decision? Clearly to do so requires a supernatural element or ability. It requires that we overcome nature itself, or have a non-natural input somehow cause us to behave outside all earthly causes and constraints. But both of these options put us on a supernatural level. If you argue a “non-natural” input that is an external deity—a god—in that case we are still not in control; we are mere puppets, determined by God. And if it is not an external supernatural god, then it is we who are the supernatural, magic-wielding gods, is it not? ([note added 11/3, 10:52 a.m.–there was a somewhat snide, passing Calvin reference here with a question mark indicating my lack of knowledge but suggesting Calvinist predetermination asserts that all things are predetermined, which is not what Calvinism teaches; I stand corrected. Indeed most Christians believe some things are determined by god but not others–a problematic assertion of “partial determinism” that we’ll cover later]).

So these are the two main choices: a supernatural god who leads us in a world without free will; or it is we who are supernatural gods, capable of operating outside all cause-and-effect. Of these, only the latter leaves us in with free will, but it’s a pretty vacuous explanation—that we are gods who magically transcend all laws of nature. Not very satisfying, eh.

For me, even though science cannot today—and may never be able to—identify all these natural elements of any given decision, the natural solution that all behaviors and thoughts are the effect of causes, makes the most sense of all to me. If this reasoning holds (and I am open to being wrong—though right for the wrong reasons would be preferable:-), the personal problem for us then becomes how we can accept this  deterministic reality, and why it might change everything about how we live, love, learn, and even govern our society.

One quick additional note: Many try to use quantum mechanics to argue against determinism, quite unsuccessfully from what I can tell. Unfortunately for them, it seems even quantum mechanics favors either a determined universe or a random one, but certainly not a partially determined universe where we control “some” things, but not all. If new understandings of the quantum world hold consistent, it still does not bode well for free will and the notion that we can initiate uncaused effects with our supernatural minds (otherwise known as contra-causal free will).

For now I will leave you with this. Whether you buy this determinism philosophy or not, modern science is showing that we are far less “self made” than we would think. Psychologists like John John Bargh are studying situational causes of psychological phenomena, and finding we have very little choice in how we react to many situations (see his book “Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes”. It appears we are programmed by nature, quite literally, and decisions we make can often not be made otherwise under our biological, cultural, and environmental constraints.

In Part II of this post, we will move on to the meatier and more entertaining questions of what this argument means to you—and to our understanding of how the world works. I hope you will then see that whether you ultimately agree or disagree that we are fully determined—as the effects of causes—we can all do better when it comes to expressing compassion and understanding for those who have made some “bad choices” in their lives. Unfortunately for us, the unanticipated consequences of our compassionate understanding may be a need to rethink our worship at the alter of competition, and a new understanding of what “survival of the fittest” really means to nature.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of Truth-Driven Thinking, and A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog; © 2009, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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