1. Are all the decisions and desires of humans made in order to stimulate pleasure centers and avoid pain?

  2. If so, could someone/thing which is unable to feel pleasure and pain, and only had the power of reason, make any decisions or have any wants which are purely derived from logic? (I.e. is there a purely logical reason to do anything, such as reproduce as a species?)

  3. Does (1.) contradict the idea of free will, since what stimulates our pleasure centers and what causes us pain has been designed by natural selection and is in our hardware and is completely outside of our control?

Edit: These questions aren't really that good and I am in the process of formulating what I actually want to ask

  • 1
    You've hit on the fallacy of freewill, which is thinking one is acting freely when one is being blown by the winds of wants, needs and prior conditioning. It's a mistake we all make if we don't examine what is going on. .
    – user20253
    Feb 28, 2019 at 12:24
  • I understand that. After I wrote what I wrote (3.) I realized that it's just a weaker argument than determinism for the non-existence of free will...
    – user236529
    Feb 28, 2019 at 13:08
  • 1
    in my opinion.. the older one gets, the more 'vulcan' one becomes. Being a slave to hormones is a fortunate problem of youth. No matter how hatd people deny it... the human condition is in majority, primal. And yet some find the time between sexual encounters and lavish breakfasts to create symphonies, gearboxes, computer language syntax and traffic management systems. Free will.exists... and is so powerful in humans that it can.transcend the physical. Even if we have to put down the pencil periodically for a tea break.
    – Richard
    Feb 28, 2019 at 13:17
  • 1
    I can't imagine being unable to find pleasure in reason. It's my primary motivation. And freewill is not about pleasure-seeking. It's about seeking truth and reality.
    – Bread
    Mar 1, 2019 at 2:01

4 Answers 4


No. People accept pain or forgo pleasure for other reasons. You can argue that those higher reasons are about a different kind of pleasure, but you would have a hard time proving it. Even if those things are about some kind of pleasure, it is often not the kind of pleasure that is a pure, reductive decision to release dopamine and feel differently in the moment. In the simplest case it may be about future possible pleasure that most likely never occurs. Increasing the odds of feeling better later is logical, but not necessarily in a way pleasant in the moment.

Even if you include all possible future pleasures, experienced or merely planned, that produces so many dimensions of choice that you can hardly consider the person planning and arranging them to be forced onto a given trajectory. So if you want an argument about free will out of this, you can't get one unless you imagine people have a drive toward optimization or perfect reckoning that we all clearly lack. We choose sub-optimal courses at random all the time. The fact that there is no purely logical reason to act is unrelated to whether that action is freely chosen.

Besides that, why put logic and pleasure at odds. Logic itself is just another form of pleasure. The feeling of 'consilience' or settledness that arises from agreement with yourself is not in principle different from all other actions we take to avoid fear or distress and make ourselves comfortable. It is just far more subtle, and it is easier to learn to control it.

But we do not even consistently choose to pursue the pleasure of logic when other opportunities for pleasure are balanced. People balance logic against boredom, various kinds of stress and other conflicting emotions all the time. They go out of their way to do illogical things as assertions of their freedom, as sources of different perspective, or as tests of their flexibility, or their courage. They chose change for its own sake as a way of not being controlled by other people, or by situations. How much to value each of these alternatives in any given moment is not predetermined or directly dictated by their intensity.

These concepts do not cohere. Logic, freedom and goals may feed into one another in a positive way, but they are not linked up in some deterministic fashion, and the evidence is obvious in everyday life.


Hume made his 'Is-Ought' distinction exactly because he saw reason alone as unable to provide impulses to act, we must rely on our animal passions for these, our evolved need to sustain the causes of our arising.

The utilitarians proposed a strict principle of maximising pleasure or happiness or some other measurable verifiable non-subjective goal. That leads to problems like Nozick's 'utility monster' https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2012-04-03 and, well to many other problems to list.

I hope this helps, and at least points to topics that may interest.

The other argument against a creature of 'pure reason' is the Private Language argument, developed from Wittgenstein's ideas. It devastates Decartes' idea of a pure subject able to reason without the implicit assumption of reason users to share the symbol use required for abstract reasoning with. Increasingly cognitive science is pointing to the intelligence of emotions, see for instance the book Thinking Fast And Slow, whuch outlines reasoning as for slow 'safe' situations, emotion and intuition as best guess and 'dangerous' situations. In this view emotions relate to the wider frame, including survival, whereas reasoning can choose to put all kinds of wider considerations on hold - but in terms of understanding the future the wider context will hold. Pure reasoning could arguably get there or choose to, but would perhaps need to regenerate emotiins for heurustic rules-of-thumb.

If the motivations of a human were completely known from a system or framing, they would be recursively enumerable, or Godel-complete. That is, fundamentally unable to adapt beyond a certain point and recognise new truths. We observe that this is characteristic of all known synthetic intelligences, but not of human minds. It seems 'free will' is exactly the ability to act irrationally within any known system, by stepping outside of it and creating a new system with the old one as a part. So recursion, self- conceptualising, or more colloquially: are self-conscious.

I hope this helps, and at least points to reading that may interest. Welcome to SE-Philisophy.


Regarding 1. I imagine some religions and philosophies of duality reject this argument out of hand. It is believable that a person might put themselves through bodily harm for the benefit of others, although you could argue this is because their pleasure pathways are such as to support what appears to be altruism over bodily harm.

Regarding 2. I would argue that by taking away pleasure and pain you are removing agency from the equation. Such things do exist already in the form of any machine and possibly other forms of life (depending on how you define pleasure and pain). Mechanical actions are logical actions. I also point out that if 1. were true, the "someone/thing" mentioned in 2. could not be a human.

Regarding 3. This would not necessarily be the case. It would satisfy 1. if a human still had the agency to choose between two actions that cause pleasure; alternately it would still be free will if the human had agency to choose how to avoid pain. The problem with free will and determinism, like many other philosophical questions, rests upon your exact definitions.

If you were to make the assertions:

  • the world is nothing but hardware
  • the hardware is not subject to external forces

Then ask: is the world subject to external forces?

The answer would be "no". People who disagree would disagree with either the assertions or the rule of inference.


Ok, let's take these point by point:

  1. Pleasure and Pain.

The idea that human motivations are rooted in pleasure and pain is excessively reductionistic. People get their motivations from emotion — note that the two words share a common root — but emotions are far more complex and subtle than a simple 'seek pleasure and avoid pain' dichotomy. Keep in mind that pleasure/pain dichotomy you're referring to owes a lot to BF Skinner and his operant conditioning paradigm, but Skinner's strong experimental results usually began by reducing the test rat's body weight by a full third. An organism in dire biological stress (starvation, in this case) is highly motivated to ease that distress and avoid further stress. That result is problematical to generalize to non-distressed humans.

  1. Pure Reason.

Pure reason does not by itself produce motivation. Even obviously rational conclusions — doing X will make one happy or doing Y is self-destructive — are not motivations for doing X or not doing Y without some emotional valence attached to 'happiness' or 'self-destruction'. If I think happiness is good I might be motivated to do X; if I think happiness is bad I might be motivated to avoid doing X. The function of reason is to clarify, modify, inhibit or implement the motivations that arise from our emotions. We might have a desire to be warm, and your our power of reason to build a fire; we might have a desire for sex and use our powers of reason to inhibit antisocial and counterproductive urges while developing more constructive and productive behaviors.

  1. Contradiction of Free Will

The fact that our motivations are rooted in deep emotions no more contradicts free will than the fact that a sailing ship is powered by wind means the ship can only go in exactly the direction the wind is blowing. Sailing ships have control surfaces (rudders and keels and specialized sails) that allow them to travel at odds with the wind; the nature of the mind ostensibly allows us redirect, mute, and/or transform the urges and motivations we feel. Whether or not we do have free will is a separate question, mind you. I'm only saying that biological imperatives do not force us to take particular actions. Men still do throw themselves on hand grenades (a painful, self-destructive act) because they have reoriented their emotions so that honor or duty or friendship become the more powerful motivation.

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