The Determinist's Dilemma

“There is no such thing as free will,” Max mumbled to no one in particular.

“What did you say?”

“I said that there is no such thing as free will.”

Lowering his newspaper, Justin replied, “Why do you say that?”

“It’s obvious isn’t it? We’re all just machines – people, animals, plants, everything. And machines don’t have free will.”

“Well, we don’t look much like machines,” Justin responded.

“It’s not what things look like or what they are made of that is important, but rather, it’s what the fundamental nature of matter is – what the fundamental nature of the universe is – that counts.”

“Okay, but we know that it’s people who make machines such as cars and computers, so if people are machines too, who made people?”

“Nobody made people. Matter came into existence with the Big Bang and over the aeons since then stars and planets have formed, life has come into being, and eventually homo sapiens have just happened to evolve.”

“So it all happened by itself?” queried Justin.

“Yes, given the nature of matter and the laws of physics everything simply mechanically unfolded: given the initial conditions, things could not be different to the way they have worked out. Matter determines everything because matter is all that there is.”

“Let me get this straight then: when you say that humans have no free will, that is because the nature of physical matter rigidly predetermines all that takes place?”

“Yes, we human beings, like everything else, are made of nothing but atoms. So nothing else exists that could override the essentially clockwork mechanism of the universe.”

“I take it that this applies to what people do, but does it also apply to what we say and think?”

“Of course: our speech and thoughts are just as much the end-products of a vastly long chain of molecular interactions as are the movements of our legs and arms,” Max stated emphatically.

“Are you saying then that we are effectively puppets of the universe?”

“In a very real sense, yes. But there is no conscious puppeteer pulling the strings and there is no script to follow – things just happen.”

“So can our words and thoughts cause anything to happen?”

“Well, certainly our thoughts cannot since they are just non-physical emanations that happen to be thrown up by our brains. Being non-physical, thoughts cannot have any causative impact upon a physical universe. As far as our spoken words go, our voice-box generates soundwaves which interact physically with other matter. But once again any ideas or other information contained in our words, being non-physical, cannot have any causative affect.”

“So we don’t have any control over what happens?”

“None at all. The things that are done, said, or thought are, like I said before, just the inevitable outcome of the physical matter in the universe interacting mechanically with our brain matter.”

“Wow. But human beings seem to have free will don’t you think? I mean I really feel like I do most of the time.”

“I agree that it does appear as though we do but in fact free will is just an illusion,” Max said with finality as he leant back in his chair.

With that, Justin dropped the newspaper to the floor. Stepping behind Max, he wrapped his left arm tightly around Max’s neck and with his right hand he snatched up a vegetable knife that had been lying on the table. He then pressed the knife blade firmly against Max’s right cheek.

“Hey! What do you think you’re doing?!” Max struggled to shout.

In the ensuing scuffle the point of the knife broke the skin on Max’s cheek and a trickle of blood ran down to his chin. Justin simply tightened his grip around Max’s neck and after a few more seconds the struggle ceased.

“You’re choking me you idiot – what are you doing!?”

Justin eased off the pressure with his left arm a little but kept the knife firmly in place.

“Huh? What sort of question is that Max? You know as much about what is going on here now as I do.”

“You are an idiot and I’ll see you go to jail for assault unless you let me go immediately!”

“But Max I think I would like to stop doing this but it just seems that I can’t.”

“Ow! Ow! You’ve cut me again with the knife. I will be calling the police! Let me go!!”

“Now calm down Max. Let’s have a bit more of a talk.”

“You let me go first and then I’ll talk.”

“No. Maybe if we stay like this it will help focus our thoughts better. This is a very sharp knife isn’t it?”

“What’s with you Justin, one second we are having a calm discussion and then the next thing I know you’re trying to kill me! What do you think you are doing?”

Again Justin tightened his arm around Max’s neck and whispered, “Obviously I just couldn’t help it, could I, Max? Now, could I?”

“Yes, yes, I know what you are getting at, but are you willing to end up on a murder charge in order to try and make a point?”

“Did I hear the word point?”

“Ow!! Put that knife down!”

“I want to Max, I want to, but you seem to have forgotten what was said just a minute ago – we have no control over what happens. My mind is screaming at me to stop hurting you but being non-physical, my thoughts are having no impact on my physical arms!! What are we going to do?”

“You’re not just an idiot you are insane!”

“What is it that defines someone as being insane I wonder? Is it that such people are unable to control themselves so as to behave in a manner that is acceptable to others? But none of us can control what we say and do – so it would appear that we are all lunatics!”

“Listen Justin, I’ve obviously upset you and I’m sorry about that, but please, put the knife down and let’s go back to just talking rationally about this.”

“Talk rationally? How can any words or thoughts be recognised as being rational in this universe? After all, the things we think and say are not the product of good reasoning – all our thoughts, including the feeling that we have good reasons, are just emanations that happen to be thrown up by the interaction of non-rational, mindless molecules. How can we assume then that what happens to get thrown up by that is true or makes sense?”

“But we’ve got to assume that we can communicate rationally or else nothing makes sense! OWW! Stop doing that!”

“You still seem to be unable to appreciate the depth of the dilemma that we are facing here Max. I can’t ‘choose’ to assume something any more than I can ‘choose’ to stop hurting you. The problem does not lie with ‘me’ (whatever that is). You said it yourself, freewill is just an incredible illusion. It is the nature of physical matter that is rigidly predetermining all that is taking place here and now: you are mistaken to say that it is me choosing to harm you.”

“So you stupid, raving idiot do you propose sitting here all day choking me and cutting my face until I die or something?”

“The name-calling does not help Max, but then I must remind myself that you cannot help saying those things any more than I can help hurting you. As for letting you go, it seems to me that we have no option but to wait until the molecules of my brain and the molecules of the rest of the world happen to interact in such a way so as to cause my arms to release you. Hopefully that will happen rather than the molecules interacting in such a way so as to cause me to cut your throat or something!”

“Shut up you maniac!!”

“No, no Max, not a maniac so much as, ‘a puppet of the universe.’ La–de-da-de-da.”