You know, with most factual matters, rational people are satisfied with the facts and draw the conclusions those facts lead to simply because facts are facts. However, what if the facts lead to a disturbing conclusion?

Then people can be less rational.

That's the problem with the determinism vs. free will discussion. The facts inexorably lead to the conclusion that we are not really free and that every behavior of ours, conscious or not, has its physical causes. We don't don't like this, so a lot of needless energy has been devoted over the years to finding creative but intellectually bankrupt ways around the unpleasant truth.

One member has several times now gone out of his way to basically call me a dope who's out of touch with contemporary philosophy on the matter of free will, and especially in terms of what is called "compatibilism." He tells me I need to read some books about compatibilism. He's too lazy to explain it for the benefit of not just me, but you as well, so this discussion is a challenge to him to explain his view clearly and let us discuss it.

Actually, compatibilism was discussed even back in the 1970's when I was an undergraduate and graduate student. It's not new to me at all and its roots go way back to the Greeks. If you'll take a look at Sam Harris's discussion of compatibilism below, you'll see that his problem with it is basically the same as mine: It depends upon creating a new problem and refuting that (which is basically a kind of strawman argument) and also upon not looking behind the curtain to see how behavior is produced in the brain. It's a game of "let's pretend."

As a general rule, this is how discussion groups work: You present an idea or ideas and the discussion starts. Sending people off to read books isn't discussion. It's bailing on a discussion.

So let me restate the problem for this person I have not named.

In a nutshell, it's that everything that happens (at least above the subatomic level) is constrained by the laws of Nature as revealed by first Newton and then expanded upon by Einstein.


Whatever happens happens due to antecedent conditions and events governed by immutable and ever-present natural laws.


In the case of humans, the locus of all conscious actions happens to be the brain. The brain is part of the universe and so far as we know, nothing happens in it that doesn't happen deterministically following antecedent conditions and circumstances in conformity with natural law.

Is there room for doubt? In science, I suppose there's always room for at least cartesian doubt. However, we accept evolution based on the preponderance of evidence rather than conclusive evidence and yet the determinism of physical laws goes far deeper than that. It's actually a necessary precondition for making sense of the world around us. If physical laws weren't deterministic, then we'd live in a chaotic universe where things can sometimes fall up rather than down in defiance of gravity and where light can slow down to freeway speeds or even hold still.

We believe in deterministic natural law because there really is no rational alternative. If the world weren't so ordered and determined by laws, why bother trying to understand a world you couldn't trust to behave predictably?

But not to worry: we don't live in that alternative chaotic universe. In this one, everything happens because of a chain of events and circumstances leading up to it and obeying immutable and deterministic natural laws.

However, compatibilists, who believe that determinism and free will aren't mutually exclusive beg to differ. I'm sure we'd all like to know how that can be.

Compatibilist, the lectern is now yours. 

(The brief Sam Harris video on compatibilism referred to above follows. There is a bit of an audio delay, for which I apologize, but try to follow his train of thought nonetheless. If anyone wants to present a pro-compatibilist video, fine, but follow my lead and find one that's brief enough for busy people to get the basic idea without having to devote a large portion of an hour, or more, to it, because they probably won't.)

Oh, and here's another one where Harris talks about how compatibilists approach the problem by first changing the subject and trying to discuss something else.

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The "chemical cocktail" as some self-defense experts call it.


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