I know that my mind is a network of neurons, where some personality resides, with emotional responses, and motivation. I know that love and friendship and fear and many other phenomena stem from ancestral instincts. This type of thinking undermines my daily existence: that all physics is governed by math. We are effectively programs governed by myriads of switches, be it collapses of wave functions, summation of signals arriving at synapses. Automatons. Parts in sheets of calculations. There may be an actual world or a simulation of it, we'd be the same, parts of the "code".

"I" is an emergent phenomenon. How do I see myself then? How do I continue existing and having some volition?

Specifically, my question is: How can the argument of free will be reconciled with the evidences of a material reality?

Given my inability to understand serious fiction and non-fiction, I know I am most probably wrong. I have a history of flawed psychosocial development and experiences. But still, could you pinpoint exactly why my reasoning is inconsistent? If you think it isn't, what are your thoughts about it? Have you had the same thoughts? What do you do?

P.S. I know that it is always current knowledge and its interpretation that informs theories. I think it was only fair to use God Almighty to explain phenomena 2,000 years ago. So there's an argument, that, come next century, physics/math/AI would give us a different model of the world. Yet, I can't just wait decades till that change comes.

P.P.S. Sorry, if my plain stupidity wasted your time.

TL;DR How do I 'normally' live knowing that everything around me and me is physics/chemistry/biology governed by math?

  • Your brain has a network of neurons. is your mind that network? Often times the mind believes it is thinking when merely passing from one metaphor to the next... In refuting Zeno's paradox, Diogenes of Sinope simply got up and walked away.
    – MmmHmm
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 1:37
  • 1
    Many people live and lived 'normally' without knowing anything about physics, chemistry, biology, or math, so why should knowing them change that? And here is a relaxing thought: neither you nor anybody else "knows" that "this is all physics governed by math", in fact this phrase is nonsensical. Some of "this" is describable by physics and math, situationally and approximately, and you need something extra already in place to connect even these flawed and partial descriptions to "this", perhaps that's your "I".
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 2:07
  • @Mr.Kennedy: Yes, I believe my mind resides somewhere in that network of neurons. One proof that's enough for me: affecting parts of a human brain affects what's going on in his or her mind. Examples: ablation of visial parts will leave one blind. Put LSD in someone's coffee and he or she will definitely feel his or her mind shift. Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 2:29
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    "Lots of current scientific knowledge point to" nothing of the sort, not even in that direction, the idea goes back to mechanical materialism of Enlightenment and is long obsolete. The irony of your question is that its own premise makes it pointless: if you are wired you face no "how", your wiring will take care of it for you. But there is even a more basic problem, "preferences are instincts" is a category error, like "electrons are green", see philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/38333/…
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 4:36
  • 1
    Physicalism is not part of the models we have, it is a philosophical interpretation that can be rejected, and broadly is. But even accepting it, "influenced" is a far cry from "determined", and mentalistic "preferences" aren't part of behavior, and hence can't "influence" it the way causalistic "instincts" can. All you need to reconcile your "witness" with physicalism is for physical laws to be indeterministic. But on the modern view indeed they are philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/30415/…
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 15, 2016 at 1:16

3 Answers 3


You don't -- there is no need to do so.

The link between moral agency and determinacy is a strange obsession in modern thought, tied back to our long romance with the notion of a divine gift of free will. This romance wants its notions of stability and freedom to be validated. But neither stability nor freedom exist, they are only to be found in language as abstractions trapped in this false dichotomy from the past:

  1. Everything is vaguely deterministic
    • whether at a basic level due to natural mechanics, or
    • statistically because of the law of large numbers.


  1. Nothing is specifically deterministic
    • whether at a basic level because of the ambiguity of observation (a la Heisenberg), or
    • statistically because outliers just happen.

So what difference does this ancient distinction between what is "God's Will" and what is "your choice" matter? You still have the effects you have, and you still don't know what those effects are going to be until you have them.

Of note, Sartre's proposes that 'freedom' is the option to take responsibility, and his conception has nothing to do with mechanical determinism or the lack thereof.

  • If everything is determined, then

    • if we do not take responsibility for our lives, they will play out mechanically with a sense of detachment and lack of empowerment, or,
    • if we do take responsibility, they will play out mechanically with some sense of power and attachment.
  • If everything is not determined, then

    • if we do not take responsibility, our lives will play out randomly with a sense of detachment and lack of empowerment, or,
    • if we do take responsibility, they will play out randomly with some sense of power and attachment.

Choice only affects the end of that phrase. Which one of the two versions of the first supposition is true really does not change anything relevant to human beings.

Lastly, along the lines of the pan-psychedelic movement, 'Choose your delusion', because sometimes the facts don't matter. In other words, you can choose to live as a cog in a machine sometimes, and as a source or conduit of real causation at other times. And whatever happens, will happen.

  • thanks for the answer. The discussion has shifted a bit towards the following question, what are your thoughts about it? "If I as a primate was wired to like certain stuff and treat something as important, how do I continue on living knowing that those preferences were just instincts that trickled through the sieve of natural selection, some evolutionary advantageous configuration?" Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 22:48
  • by the way I am not so much interested in free will (yet). It's the alienation that bothers me. Alienation that appears in me when I have one part of my that's driven by instincts and the one that is like a witness of them. Commented Nov 13, 2016 at 23:00
  • (Sorry to delete comments, but I want to put that more directly.) Exactly what changes about this argument if the determinism is genetic and not mechanical? Nothing but a couple words. You are still projecting God the Architect onto something you want to put outside yourself. Alienation is the choice of inauthenticity: an attempt not to accept responsibility for the part of ourselves we would like to blame on God/physics/genes/Satan/Error/attachment/Mommy/Capitalism/whatever...
    – user9166
    Commented Nov 14, 2016 at 0:07

How do I 'normally' live knowing that everything around me and me is physics/chemistry/biology governed by math?

Ronald, physics explains observable phenomena by citing cause. Physics makes predictions after establishing observable and demonstrable laws (constitutive laws, not regulative laws of governance). Sociology and psychology for example, also offer explanations for observable phenomena as if they cited cause, however, that an object dropped mid-air will fall to the ground (physics) is simply a different scope of explanation than the psychological conclusion that unlike psychoses (e.g., schizophrenia, etc.) neuroses are not physical conditions; they are not brain disorders; they do not have physical causes; they are purposive behavior (e.g., phobias), i.e. something you undertake, not something you undergo.

Note the terms here: physics, chemistry, bio-chemistry.

Note the terms here: biology, psychology, sociology.

Do you see a pattern?

How would you explain the difference?

Is there a significant difference between science and that which is simply a subject of study? Are there scientific means by which to study the influence of cosmological bodies upon human affairs? Sure inasmuch as science is 1)hypothesis 2)observation (and the gathering of data from what is observed) and 3)peer review of 1 and 2, then astrology can be said to be "scientific". Are the conclusions of astrology advancing knowledge claims? No, they are statements of opinion. Is astrology science? No.

Does math govern? No. Is it a means to explain and predict? Yes. You are confusing the content of a mathematical explanation (or prediction) with the object(s) explained (or predicted). Don't worry tho - that's very normal! Best.

  1. Determinism is true as far as science can tell. By determinism I mean human actions and thoughts are not above natural laws. Given sufficient knowledge of a person's past, his future is as predictable as the future positions of the planet earth.* If determinism is true, natural law is mere tautology: when you watch a movie, every time when Ali Baba says "open sesame," the mouth of the cave opens; can you conclude that the words "open sesame" causes the cave to open, or the film always arranges these two classes of events in fixed order?

  2. Free will is a relation between one's action and his desire, and is thus independent of determinism. If one's action is the outcome of his own desires, then he is free. In other words, whether one will be free or not in the future is as determined as in the past.

  3. Physics is not governed by mathematics. Mathematics is the art of saying the same thing in different ways. When a mathematical model contradicts a scientific observation, we revise the mathematical model; we do not punish the physical world for defying the law.

*If I'm not mistaken, Bertrand Russell's view is slightly different from materialism. The difference is similar to that between agnosticism and atheism. Russell holds that, although much of materialism is very likely to be true and useful, it may not cover the whole ground. It is true that psychology has become increasingly materialistic in the sense that there are laws that govern mental events, but physics has become less - matter, for example, is no longer considered as permanent substance as it used to be.

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