As a mile marker of sorts in my journey to find ever-elusive truth about how the world really works (I’m not even close), here are my leading contenders for the “The Top 11 Lies That Americans Tell Themselves”:

11) People at the “ideal weight” are healthier than people who are ten to twenty pounds overweight; and people who lose weight assume the health characteristics of thinner people—even if they just lose a few pounds.

(Reality check: They aren’t, and they don’t.)

10)  There is a God and he will never give you more than you can handle.

(Reality check: With detailed critical analysis we can determine that it is extremely unlikely that any anthropomorphic version of “god” exists, and if he did we can’t disregard the suicides, mental meltdowns, and the mass fatalities that he doles out daily—so he can give you more than you can handle.)

9)  There is a Mr. or Mrs. “Right” out there for each of us. Once we meet him or her we will want no others; and if we do—or certainly if we love another—we were mistaken about the first person, and we are probably also bad and sinful.

(Reality check: By and large we are serial monogamists by culture, who discard priors and very, very, very rarely pair off and live maximized lives “happily ever after.”)

8) People are more moral if they believe in God, and conversely are more immoral if they don’t.

(Reality check: Empirically not true; proverbially speaking, prisons aren’t filled with atheists.)

7)  Money and competition are effective, long-term motivators.

(Reality check: For most they are not.)

6) There is a biological difference between the races.

(Reality check: There is no such biological distinction.)

5)  The health care system in United States of America is the envy of the world, and it provides the best care at a reasonable cost; there is nowhere you’d rather be sick.

(Reality check: By so-called “hard endpoint” measurements, we Americans spend the most of any other first-world economy, and are nowhere near the top in what we get for it.)

4) We live in a world where merit matters far more than luck; as in a multi-level soap company, nearly everyone who works really hard in our capitalist system can—and likely will—succeed and be able to achieve “financial independence” (a.k.a. retirement), as well as social mobility.

(Reality check: starting with the family you are born into, the deck is stacked. No one is a bigger advocate for this myth than wealthy thin people who got lucky and worked hard, yet erroneously attribute their “successes” in all things to only the latter; lots of people work very hard, and the overwhelming majority never advance classes from that into which they are born. Cycles of poverty or wealth are the rule.)

3)  We have complete “contra-causal free will,” and we each have choices, outcomes, thoughts, and reactions in life that are completely uncaused and without antecedence; we are our own “demi-gods,” capable of acting completely apart from any and all causal influences—environmental and biochemical, known and unknown. We can truly be “self made.”

(Reality check: There are no uncaused effects; contra-causal “free will” is an incoherent human construct, even if determinism is false and randomness rules.)

2) Given adequate access to modern medicine we live and age painlessly; are able to safely give birth to babies beyond our late thirties; prevent or fix just about every malady; defy and mitigate (or ameliorate) the ravages and diseases of aging; live past our late seventies; cure many cancers; prevent most heart attacks; and mostly can achieve “a clean bill of health” at any given time in our lives.

(Reality check: Good nutrition and gains in infant mortality have extended life expectancy from it’s giant dip one hundred years ago, but parts wear out at a predictable rate, episodes of serious back pain befall most of us by middle age; often painful degradation of mind and body ensues with continued aging; we all get some forms of cancer and/or heart disease—and eventually die from it by 75 years of age, 80 if we are lucky. On average, we have “cured” FAR fewer diseases and extended life far less than we believe, particularly in the fields of cardiology and oncology—though we find and “treat” many more cases, at outlandish costs.)

1)  “God did it.”

(Reality check: She had nothing to do with it.)

Please keep in mind that I remain open to new evidence on all matters, including these, and never claim to have any sort of exclusive lock on truth. I could easily be wrong. In my mind, almost everything I do is actually in the form of a question. It gets tiresome and wordy though when I muddily introduce consciousness-raising thoughts like those above, full of prefaces: “I’ve pondered this for years and wonder if these might not be common untruths. What do you think?” It’s just so wishy-washy, especially if the pile of evidence is substantial. It’s also less provocative and attention-grabbing.

You see, dialogue is how we humans learn. Truth-Driven Thinking has not been about the destination, as if Truth could ever be one; it’s been about the methods of learning—namely how we are often fallible in our emotion-driven thinking, and how we are often better served by taking action based upon evidence, reason, and the naturalistic methods of science. By asserting something and then learning from how it is challenged, I regularly grow and refine my own estimations of truth. The fact is that I can’t do it without you. I need you. So make no mistake, I am open to being wrong, and do not wish to sound arrogant here, in my Facebook posts, or anywhere.

That said, I do like to be provocative at times because a vital step in encouraging others to open their minds and recognize the possibility that they too might be flawed, and might not have 100% perfect knowledge of the how the world really works—is standing up and saying “this just might be wrong.” Sometimes calling “balderdash” when all of the current evidence suggests fundamental misunderstandings of how the world really works—is necessary.

Yes, ultimately it is a question: So, “Do you think these things are balderdash?” So how about it? Will you help educate me, and others around you, by asking provocative questions—or politely calling “balderdash”—when your evidences suggests something is?

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  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. © 2011, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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In Part One of this exploration of “Our Greatest Delusions: Free Will” I made a rudimentary case for a determinist worldview—which if true would mean that we humans don’t actually have the “free will” to choose or decide anything for ourselves, but rather exist as pawns in a big cause-and-effect game where everything that happens is fully caused by prior events. Now whether or not you buy this argument, my goal is to raise consciousness about the profound impact that genetics, life circumstances, environment, and thousands of external variables have in shaping and defining every individual life. It is also my hope that you’ll see we are not “created equal,” do not have equal opportunity, nor are we the self-made, self-actualized people think we are. Lastly, perhaps you’ll join me in pondering the role that our merit- and competition-driven delusion of “free will” plays in helping us to ignore human suffering and inequity.

In Part One I suggested we are entirely the result of a cause-and-effect chain of events, and that our successes, failures, and every “decision” we have ever made could not have been made other than exactly the way they were. “Free will” is a delusion, and we are fully caused to make every “choice” and execute every single action and behavior—by our brain chemistry, life experience, environment, biology, knowledge or lack thereof, access to role models, brain power or lack thereof, and billions of other factors. But what if our delusion of free will is actually an increasingly obsolete, evolved trait that prevents us from dwelling on our own humanness, encourages us to detach from other living things, and helps rationalize away our need to attend to human suffering and the inherent inequities of life? Should we not try to transcend that part of our nature in the interest of self improvement, as we do so many others?

One of the bedrock notions of American and Western thinking is the ideal, and the illusion, that we live in a meritocracy, where those who achieve do so from a level playing field and anyone can win if they work hard enough. We believe in competition and survival of the fittest—in what I might argue has become a perverse religion. Unfortunately, this appears to be a bastardization of the very natural process of Darwinian evolution. While I am no biologist, it seems that Darwinian evolution by natural selection is better described as “survival of the luckiest”—those with certain random mutations that favor survival over cumulative generations—than it is the “survival of the fittest,” which we have come to interpret as a forward-looking, solution-seeking, conscious and willful intent on the part of living things to change and make things better. The moths don’t say “Gee, some spots would sure help camouflage me from predators. I sure hope my kids and grandkids will help grow some.” That is not what evolution is, or how it works.

Very contrary to true evolution—descent with modification via natural selection—our Western and American ways of worshiping achievement tend in the direction of Hitler-like misunderstanding of evolution, and a eugenics-like idea of willing our way to an elect, chosen, superior status. We thusly prioritize competition over cooperation through what has become a perverse, self-rationalizing, self-aggrandizing, self-deifying vehicle that allows us to ignore those who suffer and are quite literally “less lucky.” Essentially these are the effects of free will, self determination, and to some degree libertarian capitalism.

We believe in competition at work; we regularly use primitive phrases like “fighting for” something; we want students to compete for their fair share in the world, not build bridges toward mutual benefit. And we do it all under the guise of ensuring victory via merit, by “choosing forward” in order to be on top, in a strategic position of power over someone else.

We view those who “fail” and those whom we callously chastise as “mental midgets” as less worthy beings. If only they had done it our way, we tell ourselves; if only they had worked as hard as I have; if only they were as smart as I am; if only they weren’t lazy; if only they weren’t fat; if only they could be like me, what a world it would be. But what if you didn’t really do it?

You can dismiss this argument against free will all day long, but let me ask you a pivotal question: What if I’m mostly wrong, but we still aren’t completely autonomous and self actualized? What if I’m right only to the extent that strict free will and the freedom to make uncaused choices does not fully exist, and Ron’s life as a drug dealer was merely the most likely outcome of events, rather than the only possibility. What if at every pivotal circumstance and decision point in Ron’s life he had a “free will” magical ability to make uncaused thoughts and uncaused decisions, but he was still extremely likely to make the choices he did, given the circumstances, brain chemistry, lack of role models, lack of education—which carried him through his world of abject poverty? What if I’m wrong and these weren’t “determined” choices that couldn’t have been made otherwise, but were nonetheless the most rational choices given what Ron knew and his circumstances at the time? In other words, fine, I’ll give you back your delusion of free will, but you still must see that Ron deserves some compassion and sympathy, and cannot be solely, wholly, 100% responsible for his plight!

Surely you see, however, that even this simple recognition flies in the face of the positive, self-affirming pep talk that nature has programmed us to give ourselves. We are programmed to dismiss those who don’t compete well or achieve—perhaps by nature, but perhaps also by modern culture, social structure, and the worship of the gods of achievement that I would argue have become institutionalized only in the last few centuries here in the West—since Adam Smith and Charles Darwin’s great works became widely known, and also widely distorted.

In his groundbreaking book “Outliers,” Malcom Gladwell—knowingly or not—made one of the best real-word cases for determinism that I have seen in mainstream literature. In my opinion, he blows the lid off the  greatest lie in America: work hard and work smart and you too can accomplish what Bill Gates has. That lie fuels management books galore about how we can be the next Jack Welch, or the next Steve Jobs, or the next Bill Joy, or the next Rockefeller or Carnegie from the prior century. But this book explains very precisely the unique circumstances that gave these people an amazing, exclusive advantage, and why they were in the exact right place, at precisely the right point in time, to do exactly what they did. You can read all the books you want, but you’ll never get the chance these people got. It’s that simple, and this reality is but a piece of a complex puzzle that makes us far less self determined than we can even begin to imagine.

Gladwell also explains in detail why one of the greatest supposed meritocracies in North America, Canadian Hockey, also turns out to heavily favor only kids who are born in the first quarter of the calendar year. Read his book and find out why. The point is that supposedly nobody gets to high levels in Canadian hockey unless they’ve earned it. You can’t buy your way in, you can’t cajole your way in. At least that’s what we thought. But it turns out there are factors beyond the control of even the best athletes, that make it extremely unlikely that someone healthy, fit, and super-capable, if born in November, can EVER succeed as a great hockey player in Canada. Who’d have thunk? Another meritocracy that isn’t.

What about the self-made kid who came from nothing and became a millionaire after vowing that he’d never, ever be poor again? He surely did it all by himself didn’t he? Actually, no. To begin with, he had the brains. He also had the circumstances and wiring that caused him to be driven—perhaps a natural hyperactivity that was helpful. But he was also exposed to ideas and knowledge at key times in his life. He didn’t just make up the idea that he could succeed beyond his social class, as if out of thin air! He built on the knowledge to which he was exposed—and stood on the shoulders of all those humans who lived before him and contributed to collective wisdom. He had access to television; he happened to hear stories of people achieving their dreams; he had a teacher who cared and inspired him; he was once in the right place at the right time and impressed someone who lent him a hand, because he had been taught certain manners and saw on TV how to impress people. He did NOT just make up all these brilliant insights from nothingness. He had the brain power to assimilate and correlate, and each circumstance allowed the next; but much was still luck—as was his genetics, and the fact that he was healthy and was not a Down’s Syndrome sufferer. Every decision and snapshot of his life was fully caused by many prior events, beginning before birth! (Thus it would seem we should be very careful with arrogance and pride.)

The Ramifications of Arrogance

Ever notice how people who are naturally thin have their noses highest in the air about physical fitness? Never mind that studies prove the average person is less than 5 pounds different in their fit states than in their most out-of-shape states. Five pounds!!! That is a fact! The truth is that we LOVE to think everything we have, and everything we accomplish, and everything we are, is because we are so bright, brilliant, fit, hard-working, “together,” resilient, loving, or tenacious (and those who don’t have what we do are not these things). But what if NONE of it is our doing? Most people simply cannot live with that idea. But if we truly care about truth, and if we truly care about the plight of others, we must charge on.

Our Western school of thought tends to say that the “have-nots” do not “have” because they haven’t played the game correctly. They’ve made bad decisions. They’ve done the wrong things. They’ve adopted the wrong morals. They’ve been stupid. They’ve been careless. But must not we set aside our arrogant addiction to our own greatness, our own self-made status, and ask the simple question: “What if there is even a shred of truth to this argument of determinism?” Would that not change everything about how we view compassion, safety nets, education, social institutions, and government?

What moral obligation would we have to end our rule as the last 1st-world nation on earth that bankrupts the “dumb shits” for failing to purchase health insurance when they lose their jobs—and delegating them to the bankrupt status of indentured servant for the rest of their lives (as if they weren’t already)? How might we view our dismal rate of social class mobility? How might we view the fact that “The top 1 percent of earners took home 23.5 percent of income, up from 9 percent three decades earlier” (NYT, Aug. 20, 2009), as those in power buy themselves ever greater advantages and corporate welfare—and now Wall Street bailouts. How might we view the massively increasing concentration of wealth among the rich in the last 20 years, despite oodles and oodles of self-help books like the Secret, or Joel Olstein’s “prosperity gospel” that tell us we are all actually determined to get anything we want just by believing and asking? (Obviously those books and sermons aren’t working—or are working for only the super rich.)

It Matters

From the healthcare debate to economic theory and religion, the degree to which we really have “free will” is a vitally important question. I will continue to argue that our culture of competition and our delusion of free will is the true opiate of the people, one that numbs us to human suffering and unnecessary inequities, and far too often oversells personal power while it blames the victims. If we can continue to feed ourselves laundry lists of reasons the “lazy” people—those dirt bags we see on TV in the food lines, the fat people, or the third-world crazies who just can’t manage a decent constitution because they’re too stupid—just don’t deserve our sympathy, then we can continue to tell ourselves it is their choice. We should lock them in prison, bomb them to oblivion, and wipe them off the pages of our newspapers. That seems easier than truly understanding the complex causes of why things are the way they are. After all, wouldn’t we really rather read entertainment “news,” and continue living in our mentally gated fantasy community, where we leave all the important concerns in the hands of the individual?

What might it do for us if we paused and realized the degree of suffering in the world? If we realized that many people work harder than I ever have, and are smarter than I’ll ever be, and die at young ages due to poor drinking water, or die of cancer, or have bad backs, or autism, or psychological illness? What if I realized I’m not “all that and a bag of chips”? What if I realized that hundreds of thousands of people never experience true love, suffer horrible and debilitating diseases, or they go uneducated or unfed because we buy into this nearly Karmic idea that they suffer because they deserve to suffer; they suffer because they did it wrong, and we prosper because we did it right? We rationalize that capitalism/freedom requires us to be able to choose incorrectly, and thus requires a large group of failures over which we need not bother or fret. “Just look away, there is nothing we can do, that’s how it has to be if we have freedom,” we tell ourselves.

Even Thomas Jefferson knew that his artistic and visionary platitude was false: all men and women aren’t really created equal. There is a broad and cruel spectrum of physical and cognitive ability built into the human condition, from those in a permanent vegetative state, to those with severe mental and emotional impairments, to those in the middle, to those Mensa members, geniuses and autistic savants. There are adults who can read and understand this post, and even more who cannot.

What’s in it for you

“But this deterministic worldview is empty, dark, and can lead you nowhere,” you might say in final protest. “So what’s the point? What good comes from making me feel out of control and sad?” This is an understandable concern, but here is the crux of these many pages: at least for me, determinism has brought a beautiful inner peace that I have a difficult time explaining. I will nonetheless briefly try.

Remember Ron, the fictional drug dealer from Part I? We all encounter Ron in the real world. Ron might have been on the playground with our kids; it might have been our child whom Ron kicked in the head to earn his status as an alpha. Or we might have been flipped off by Ron in traffic today. Or you might work with a Ron. Clearly there is no excusing Ron’s meanness. It is not okay. Still, when someone wrongs me I can only take responsibility for my own emotional response to that wrong; and for me, seeing the underlying causes (determinants) that got Ron to the point where he flipped me off, or attacked my kid, totally changes my emotional response. I understand. I can start to see the answer to the great question “why?”—and it makes so much sense. I can often completely skip the wasted energy of anger and hate.

So now I see death differently, I see life differently, and can better celebrate the non-cruel moments—with full knowledge that much of life is unfair, and that much of it is suffering. I don’t have to like Ron. I can even still advocate for removing him from society. But I can move beyond forgiveness by skipping hate altogether, and avoid the carrying of all that anger. I can see the horrifying and glorious symphony of cause and effect that more satisfyingly explains Ron—and the world; and it gives me a sense of connectedness to the universe, agency in it, and a greater sense of inner peace as a result. I hope that makes sense. We are not outside of cause-and-effect events; we are participants in them, even if our thoughts and actions are fully caused.

I’m convinced that whether pure determinism is true or not, I must dedicate my life to better understanding the “gifts” that nature, luck, and circumstances have given me—and thereby dedicate myself to treating the rest of humanity without harsh judgment, with an eye on figuring a way to reduce the suffering of others.

Once we admit that the world is governed by natural processes of cause and effect, and that even mental “choices” are heavily or totally influenced by brain chemistry, culture, education, and exposure to prior ideas and knowledge, we can then cease our habit of abdicating responsibility for the plight of others to some afterlife, or simply looking away because it is just some sad byproduct of “free will” or freedom.

It seems to me we are morally corrupt when we view the world that way, and when we arrogantly delude ourselves into buying that we all have equal opportunity. We don’t. We are not created equal, nor can we expect great things from people who are given no education, no family, no books, no love, no stimulation, and no way to meet even the most basic of Maslow’s needs. These causes that create the effects that are the lives of real people—are our failures, and they are nothing short of abhorrent abdications of our obligations to humanity. I for one am going to stop looking the other way, and I am going to abandon the rationalization of eugenics-like notions like “survival of the fittest,” fighting for market share, and competition—since they rob me of empathy and compassion. Won’t you join me?

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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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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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