Are my beliefs inconsistent?

After doing some reading on philosophy of mind and then on free will, I came to the conclusion that:

(a) I take a physicalist point of view…I think that the ‘mind’ as a distinct, mysterious, non-physical substance doesn’t exist and that things like thoughts, feelings, desires etc are, and will eventually be understood as, physical processes.

(b) I have always thought that we as human beings have free will, i.e. our thoughts and actions are not pre-determined in any way.

However, here is my problem as I understand it…

Position (a) says that thoughts are physical processes and so they must have causes which are also physical processes and so on, effect back to cause, ad infinitum.

This seems inconsistent with position (b), for, if our thoughts can be understood as part of a chain of cause and effect, then surely they can be argued to be determined. This means that they can’t just come out of nowhere, with no prior cause, as the concept of free will seems to suggest.

Am i missing something? Is there a way to hold these two beliefs without being inconsistent?

No. You should drop position (b).

If the mind is only a physical thing, then it’s processes cannot be self-determining.

Being conscious of our consciousness(aka self-conscious) is only another talent of the mind which is in itself a determined thing. In other words, if you realize that when you drive and have loud music on in your car it causes you to drive fast, you could then act otherwise. This is seen by some measure as free will; acting otherwise than what one would normally act under non-self-conscious circumstances. The problem with this is that it creates a false dichotomy between the self that would act according to stimuli and the self that realizes this, when in effect they are the same thing. It presupposes the mind as being immaterial and the brain as physical. But as you said, the mind is something that is not immaterial, therefore the mind and the brain are the same thing, which makes the facility of the mind that mirrors(or rather interprets) itself determined.

[size=92]A sheep that realizes it’s a sheep is still only a sheep.[/size]

I’ve been talking about something similar in another thread. Here is what I’ve presented, slightly modified for coherency:

–Extending the Neo-Confucian Tradition

I think that the concept of qi becomes increasingly more useful when one considers that it has been glossed to both matter and energy in the Western prespective because, as a concept it encompasses both. I am not claiming any special knowledge on the part of the Chinese to imply a degree of ‘truth’, but I do suggest that science has shown the distinction between matter and energy is one of human making as opposed to actuality, and the Chinese happened to draw a line that is more useful given our modern understanding than the Greeks did.

Likewise with life, as Prof. Kalton suggested, qi makes a material understanding of life intuative and easy to grasp as opposed to incredulous. Intellect arises naturally from qi’s vital ever-changing nature as opposed to representing a break from what we normally consider ‘inert’ matter.

Now, I agree that the ultimate functional change on the situation at hand is slight. Essentially, I am suggested that we simply reverse the wisdom that says that matter is dead because the more we learn from science, the more we see that life is merely matter with no special spirit driving it by saying that the spirit is the matter because qi’s vitality can be manifested as life. It takes a negative paradigm and flips it on its head, leading to a more positive outlook on life, as well as one that does better fit with our intuative understanding of the world while not contradicting our scientific one.

Take the mind/brain division, for example. Because the concept of matter isn’t generally concieved as being ‘big’ enough for the mind to be a part of it. This problem is borne out on this forum and others. However, as Kalton suggested, it is perfectly natural from a qi-perspective that the brain and the mind are the same thing . . . or at the very least the mind is the li (principle/pattern) of the brain, which is ultimately the same thing, as many have suggested, Wang Fuzhi being the most explicit and best known example.

But, we can quickly see that our intelligence is rooted in our physicality. The biggest problem I see with most modern AI work is that it relies on a non-coporeal intelligence.

If you give a robot very minimal intelligence, but give it a body it can navigate around objects much more quickly than if you give a robot incredible intelligence and have it map out a way across a room on a theoretical level and then move a dummy bot across the real terrain. Some good stuff there.

Intellect is rooted in the body. Remove the body and what you end up with is a calculator. Human intellect is an outgrowth of the intellect seen in other animals. Our intellect is rooted in our physicality.

Think about it, I could explain the way my apartment looks to you in such a way that you would have a pretty good intellectual understanding of it. If I then gave you a blind robot to navigate around the apartment, in a race a blindfolded me will win 100% of the time – and that is assuming you have a map and I don’t! Heck, a blindfolded random person who has never been to my apartment would win given much less information than you had. Alternatively, I could explain to you certain techniques that I perform at my job. While you would have a very solid intellectual understanding of what they are, you would have great difficulty doing them the first few times simply because the real knowledge of how to perform them is rooted in the physical – indeed, many things really only start to make sense once you do them because the intellectual explanation of them is far too difficult. I could explain how riding a bike works based on the theory of interia, and momentum transfer (as well as how gears and all that work), but none of that will actually help someone learn how to ride a bike.

Indeed, We’ve already created non-organic creatures with intelligence on the level of insects (they say ‘ants’, but the robots aren’t social, so beetles might be a more appropriate description). No reason why we couldn’t take that further. This isn’t a case of intelligence from non-intelligence, but rather physicality manifesting itself in action. Intellect is action in a system with many degrees of freedom.

Yes, the notion of free-will in a metaphysical sense is kind of inconsistent in itself.

Queue tedious quixotic explanations.

I wil take a more psychologist point of view, when a person takes medication for depression the symptoms may be lessened, but only as long as they continue to take the medication. Oddly when a number of people receve psychotherapy and deal with the causing truama internally the depression often stops alltogether.

two notes on this, if the mind were entirly physical then the medication would be able to stop the depression by correcting the imbalance, but it cannot, and two if the mind were entirly physical then the psychotherapy would have little to no effect on the patient so it’s ability to work at all brings one to question.

just a thought to ponder


I’m surprised no one’s brought up quantum consciousness:

You can keep both premises. As it turns out, the physical universe is not exhaustively deterministic. This is what the field of quantum mechanics teaches us.

Yes, as others have said, premise a) is correct and well-justified. Premise b) is not, and should be abandoned.

Interestingly, there is a mathematical proof that free will (of the kind you describe) does not exist. It does not rely on any assumptions about the nature of the universe (quantum, deterministic, etc.) Worth checking out. I can link it if you’re interested, although it’s pretty dense stuff.

Quantum consciousness = crap. There may be randomness in the universe, but randomness never gave anybody free will. If your actions are determined, you have no free will, because it’s determined. If your actions are random, there is no free will because there is nothing relating the action to YOU, the person with the consistent personality.


the 2 beliefs are absolutely consistent

the concept of free will is the result of a physical process

you have a deeper understanding of free will than most


I have to say, I find your post philosophically bothersome. First, you don’t give, or offer to give, any justification for your sparsely phrased stance. Second, you assert that he has a deeper understanding of free will than most. This is highly doubtful, since he feels the need to ask whether or not his two beliefs are inconsistent. It seems more probable that you feel that YOU have a deeper understanding of free will than most, and that you wish to project this upon him so you have companionship in your minority stance.


I would think anybody who posts on this message board would have a deeper understanding of free will than most.

But perhaps ‘deeper understanding’ did not accurately reflect my sentiment. It was a comendation in that I believe that most people do not concern themselves with such philosophical questions, and I believe that intellectual curiosity about such is a good thing for man and mankind.

What is free will?

Something that among all animals, only man possesses.

How do we know that?

That statement is baseless.
It’s like me saying:
“Only man is capable of great evil and great good.”

I don’t disagree with you. I was pointing out that the proponents of free will say that only man is endowed with it. Question now becomes what is it makes us attain free will. That is will that does not predate Self. Answer given is that the body possesses an immaterial mind through evolution–which would mean the material body somehow created an immaterial thing and also that other species can also come to attain it–can be conscious of the body, and it’s reactions to stimuli, and thereby being able to act in such a way that even though all the information of the physical universe could be gathered, the correct prediction of what the mind will choose can not be attained because the mind is immaterial and the information for that is not included.

But as the opening poster stated, the mind is not immaterial, therefore the mind is something which is material, and hence it is something that was not created by Self but instead by everything and the self’s culpability in the creation of this MIND is in proportion to it’s mass of matter to everything else, therefore it’s contemplations of choices do not belong to solely to one arbitrarily inferred mass of space referred to as Self. Therefore, the opening poster’s beliefs are inconsistent. The mind cannot posses original/indeterminable/free will if it is physical.

Quantum randomness would not mean that the physical mind alone would be able to act in such a way that is not predictable. It would mean that everything, not just man, would be unpredictable in the flux of nature; but it would be determined.

There’s a difference in my opinion between determination and predictability. Predictability of events in nature rests on the subjects ability to interpret information objectively, which is off course a paradox in itself and impossible, while determination means that the past determines the future. That is, substance does not come into existence ex nihilo every unit of time.

Hi Twiffy,

Being dense, I should have no problem with your proof. I have been curious about this topic for some time, and I would appreciate your reference.

The sense of free will is undeniable, and intrinsic to our make-up. It’s evidence that position (a), materialism, is untenable.

That we have free will is part of the deal when we acquire a higher form of consciousness, compared with animals. It’s like how the ability to reproduce is part of the deal when living things came about. Denying free will is like claiming that animals don’t really reproduce, that they are just re-organising matter. If you want to understand biological reproduction, you wouldn’t use a physics textbook, which looks at how matter behaves. You’d use a biology textbook, which looks at how a higher form of matter, ie. living things, works. Rather like how the laws of physics are inadequate for explaining biological processes, a physical explanation of the experience of free will is just a pipe dream.

All I was saying was that his first premise - that all is physical and can be explained in physical terms - does not entail that everything is deterministic. Therefore (a) does not conflict with (b).