Know thyself: still excellent advice, after all these years

“gnothi seauton,” know thyself

I have been at Delphi twice already, and I plan on going back again. It is a truly magical place. No, I don’t believe in “magic,” I’m talking about real magic, the sense of awe that strikes you when you arrive there. Despite the tourist shops, the bed and breakfasts, and the restaurants, you cannot avoid been struck by the sheer beauty of the place: a green mountainous peak overlooking a deep valley, from where you can see the Aegean Sea in the distance. No wonder the ancients thought it a place privileged by the gods, as testified today by the beautiful ruins of the temples of Apollo and Athena.

It is in Delphi, of course, that the most famous Oracle of the ancient world resided. Still today you can see the omphalos (i.e., navel), the stone that allowed direct communication between the priestess and the gods. Modern science has suggested that the location is characterized by significant underground quantities of ethylene or methane, which may cause hallucinations to people exposed to them. So far, however, this is speculation, and not really germane to the psychological power of the Oracle. The advice given by the priestess of Apollo, regardless of its natural trigger, was often sound, if not necessarily amenable to an immediate interpretation.

One of my favorite stories is that of Themistocles, the Athenian general who was told that Athens will successfully defend itself from the powerful army of the Persian king Xerxes by building a wall of wood (“Though all else shall be taken, Zeus, the all seeing, grants that the wooden wall only shall not fail”). The notion, of course, is ridiculous on its face. Surely the mighty Persians would not be stopped in their tracks by mere wood. But interpret the advice more creatively, as Themistocles did, and you realize that the wood in question was that of the ships forming the formidable Athenian navy, which did, in fact, annihilate the opponent fleet at the battle of Salamis.

Temple of Athena at Delphi (Photo by the Author)

Delphi was also famous for a list of “commandments” that were allegedly assembled from the wisdom of the Seven Sages, a legendary group of philosophers, statesmen, and law-givers from the early history of Greece. Perhaps the most famous of such commandments was “know thyself,” which has since inspired countless philosophers, most famously informing Socrates’ entire career as a gadfly to the good people of Athens (who repaid him for his trouble, as we know, by putting him to death by hemlock).

Now an article published in Aeon magazine by Bence Nanay (a professor of philosophy at the University of Antwerp, Belgium) tells us not only that “know thyself” is “silly” advice, but that it’s actively dangerous. While Nanay has a point, I will argue that it is his own article that is, in fact, dangerous.

Nanay tells us that the Delphic injunction is based on an untenable picture of the self, and of how we make decisions — though I wonder how he knows which theory of mind and psychological agency was endorsed by whoever chiseled the famous phrase on the entrance to the temple of Apollo.

He invites us to consider a simple situation: “You go to the local cafe and order an espresso. Why? Just a momentary whim? Trying something new? Maybe you know that the owner is Italian and she would judge you if you ordered a cappuccino after 11am? Or are you just an espresso kind of person? I suspect that the last of these options best reflects your choices. You do much of what you do because you think it meshes with the kind of person you think you are. You order eggs Benedict because you’re an eggs Benedict kind of person. It’s part of who you are. And this goes for many of our daily choices.”

The notion is that we have somewhat stable ideas about who we are, which is practically useful, since it saves us a lot of time whenever we have to make decisions. Except if you go to Starbucks, because they have far too many choices. Then again, no self respecting Italian would go to Starbucks. Or order a cappuccino after 11am. (See what I did there? I have an image of myself as a self respecting Italian, hence my choices about where to get my coffee and when it is proper to order a cappuccino. Also, no Parmesan cheese on seafood pasta, please.)

But of course, as Nanay reminds his readers, we also change, all the time. On occasion these changes are sudden and dramatic, and therefore very noticeable. Many people feel and act differently after having had a child, for instance. Or having experienced a trauma, such as a diagnosis of cancer. Many changes, though, are subtle and slow, yet cumulative over time. It is this second kind of change that creates the major problem for the Delphic injunction, apparently: “The problem is this: if we change while our self-image remains the same, then there will be a deep abyss between who we are and who we think we are. And this leads to conflict.”

Not only that. We apparently suffer from what psychologists call the “end of history illusion,” the idea that, right now, we are final, finished products. This, and not our selves of five, ten, or twenty years ago, is who we really are, and who we will keep being until our demise. The end of history illusion is, of course, nonsense. We are never finished, as the only constant throughout our life is precisely that things, including ourselves, change. You can see why Nanay is worried.

The problem concerns much more than your choices of morning java: “Maybe you used to genuinely enjoy doing philosophy, but you no longer do. But as being a philosopher is such a stable feature of your self-image, you keep doing it. There is a huge difference between what you like and what you do. What you do is dictated not by what you like, but by what kind of person you think you are.”

Theater and temple of Apollo at Delphi (Photo by the Author)

In an interesting twist, Nanay even manages to blame our addiction to social media on this alleged incongruence between who we are and who we think we are. That incongruence not only wastes a lot of our time and efforts (because, robotically, we keep doing things we no longer enjoy or think important), it also generates a fair degree of cognitive dissonance between reality and our image of reality. And cognitive dissonance, again the psychologists helpfully remind us, is emotionally costly. “Hiding a gaping contradiction between what we like and what we do takes significant mental effort and this leaves little energy to do anything else. And if you have little mental energy left, it is so much more difficult to switch off the TV or to resist spending half an hour looking at Facebook or Instagram.” Now you tell me!

Nanay concludes that “If we take the importance of change in our lives seriously, [following the Oracle] just isn’t an option. You might be able to know what you think of yourself in this moment. But what you think of yourself is very different from who you are and what you actually like. And in a couple of days or weeks, all of this might change anyway.” He then concludes with a pseudo-profound piece of poetry from André Gide, who wrote in Autumn Leaves (1950): “A caterpillar who seeks to know himself would never become a butterfly.”

Right. Then again, caterpillars are too stupid to philosophize about themselves, not to mention that their are profoundly ignorant of their own biology. And does anyone really believe that, except (maybe) for traumatic experiences, we can change a lot in mere days or weeks?

I hope it is clear what the central flow in Nanay’s argument is: he is assuming an essentialist view of the self, the self conceived as the “true,” unchanging part of who we are, which people are supposed to “discover” in order to live authentic lives. I’m sure some Ancient Greeks did hold to a similar notion (Plato comes to mind), though they were usually far too good observers of human psychology to fall into that trap. It is not at all clear whether whoever came up with the Delphic injunction subscribed to such an untenable theory of the self. What is abundantly clear is that “know thyself” is very good advice regardless, indeed even more so if our selves are dynamic bundles of perceptions, sensations, desires, and deliberations, to paraphrase and build on David Hume.

Let’s consider the more serious of Nanay’s examples, that of the philosopher who doesn’t realize that he doesn’t believe in philosophizing anymore. I don’t know whether that example was autobiographic, but I can certainly counter it with an autobiographical anecdote of my own. Ever since I can remember I wanted to be a scientist, a dream that eventually came through when I was appointed assistant professor of botany and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, back in the distant 1995.

I had a reasonably successful career for several years in my chosen field of specialization, gene-environment interactions, rising through the ranks of associate and then full professor with tenure. My self image had been one of a scientist since I was five or six years old, and it had served me well until my late thirties and early forties.

Then a midlife crisis ensued, partly precisely because my reflections about myself began to alert me of some sort of growing gap between my mental image of me and how I was feeling while doing what I was doing. I realized that I was less and less interested in laboratory and field research, and more and more in theoretical and conceptual issues. And the step from the latter to philosophy of science wasn’t very big. Partly because such conscious reflections (the “know thyself” part), and partly because of serendipitous events, I was able to enroll as a graduate student in philosophy, publish a book and several papers in the field, and eventually switch career and become a full time philosopher.

That’s where I am now, though other adjustments have occurred in the meantime, like my increased interest in public philosophy, and my novel interest in Stoicism. These changes, too, were made actionable by the fact that I have a habit of reflecting about my feelings and experiences, trying as much as possible to keep adjusting what I actually do and what I want to do, in a never ending exercise of reflective equilibrium.

The bottom line is that my life, I can confidently assert, has been made better and better by trying to follow the Delphic commandment. I suspect the same is true of other people, who can benefit from a monitoring of the evolving “self,” coupled with the occasional redirection and adjustment of what they do or pursue. Contra Nanay, it is this process of self knowledge that reduces, or even preempts, the cognitive dissonance he refers to. And, apparently, it will also save you a lot of wasted time on Facebook and Instagram.

What is truly dangerous is not to follow the not at all “silly” advice that has served Socrates and so many others since. You may end up mispending a good chunk of your life if you ignore it. And if you have the chance, go to Delphi. You’ll thank me for it.

65 thoughts on “Know thyself: still excellent advice, after all these years

  1. C8H10 N4O2


    “the empirical observation that people behave in the same fashion whether they do or do not believe in free will”

    Yes it seems (from his notebooks) that Darwin didn’t believe in free will and it didn’t preclude him from experiencing the whole range of typical human emotions from the excruciating pain of losing a child to the warm love towards his dear Emma. He didn’t seem to think “well these are just darn automatons anyway”.

    B.Russell and Einstein didn’t believe in free will either and in spite of that were involved in the world’s matters of their time, not concluding that human affairs were nonsensical.

    I wonder how they managed to do it however. I can see how it can work for some questions about the world such as “does time really exist or not?” , or “do we live in a simulation?” or “is there any reality outside our minds?” (Cf. Berkeley) . There I can see how you can “leave the metaphysics at the door” and live your life according to a plausible working hypothesis.

    But free will seems to me so intimately connected to what makes a human life worth living that I don’t see how it’s possible to “live first, think later” on that issue…Gosh I want to know if I had a say in framing my life, doing my best with “what depends on us” or if I am just a hopeless spectator determined by causes I’m not aware of, and that nothing depended on me in any meaningful way.

    People always put forward the idea that the judicial system should be revised in light of a more modern view of free will than the contra causal one, and I agree, but there seems to be a massive asymetry here. Are people also ready to let go of their belief that they had any credit in their achievements, in how they raised their children and so on ?


  2. brodix


    “A computer is multiplying together two large numbers. We can say that it is made up of atoms obeying the laws of physics, and we can also (more usefully) say that it is responding to the settings of its logic gates, and either of these lines of reasoning lead us to conclude that the outcome is pre-determined. But we do not deny that the computer is really calculating.”

    That goes to a point I keep making, that time is not really the point of the present moving past to future, but change turning future to past and that it is the fundamental processes which do the determining.

    Alan Watts used the example of a boat and its wake as an analogy, in that the wake, as the past, doesn’t steer the boat, but the boat creates the wake.

    Events are first in the present, then in the past and since we are very much in the present, we are part of that process. The very act of willing is to determine, so as you say, it can’t be free of all the input into its decision making process, or it would be free of output, i.e. consequence.

    The whole argument falls in the not even wrong category.


  3. Massimo Post author


    Actually, for me “free will” falls into the same category as whether time exists or not. Both questions are irrelevant to much everyday life, and so the metaphysics can be left at the door, as you nicely put it.

    That said, as I mentioned above, the Stoics did have an account of “free will” (they, helpfully, did not use the term, preferring prohairesis, which translates to “volition”). And it’s the sort of compatibilist account that gets you a sense of responsibility for your own actions, and yet does not license punishment.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Robin Herbert

    Whether or not some fact about our volition is relevant to our everyday lives depends upon how you feel about it.

    If all of our decisions really were made entirely by unconscious processes then that would make me feel differently about responsibility.

    Similarly if I were to find that, when considering two choices, that at least one of them is already literally impossible for me and that I just don’t know which yet, then that would make me feel differently about responsibility.

    More practically, if I am considering two choices and know in advance that whatever I choose to do was inevitable from before I was born and there was never any possibility of preventing it happening then I will know in advance that I won’t be responsible for any of the consequences.


  5. Robin Herbert

    Most people feel worse about suffering when they feel that they were responsible for it and could have prevented it than they do about suffering for which they don’t feel responsible and which they could not possibly have prevented.

    If there was some scientific finding which put it beyond doubt that strong determinism (ie that there is always exactly one next state) was the case, then of course it would not be rational for anyone to feel responsible for anything and thus no one need feel any worse about any kind of suffering than they do about the instances of suffering for which we feel no responsibility and could not have prevented.

    Some people might continue to feel worse about suffering because they felt responsibility or continue to believe that they could have prevented it. But no rational person would.

    I don’t see how anyone could deny that would be a real life consequence if we were to discover that strong determinism was true.


  6. Thomas Jones

    I don’t really get heavily into the debates of free will and determinism. Waste of time for many reasons already suggested in some of the remarks here. That in most commonplace situations we nevertheless engage in decision making when not obliged to do so counts for something in terms of human nature, trial and error, and the process of learning from experience. No one forces anyone to engage in a shell game, for example. Of course, if one persists in doing so, one might argue that rationality has yielded to delusion. But in most cases these are localized decisions that seem pointless to over-generalize. To some extent, it renders the point of asking questions like “why” a moot point.


  7. ejwinner

    Beautiful essay.
    I recently took a couple weeks off from the Internet. I realized that my comments were getting snarkier, more volatile., and increasingly arrogant.

    I increased my daily meditations considerably, and also discussed the issue with a social worker. I realized that a lot of the hostility I developed toward an unhappy childhood and dysfunctional family was still there, still leaking into my behavior.

    I think not knowing one’s self, not seeking the source of one’s true motivations, leads one to assume a god-like status towards one’s own opinions 0 if “I” feel it, it must be right 0 as we here repeatedly from the current US head of state.

    But of course that’s living in la-la-land. Reality is a buzzing confusion. We either find do what we must to find our way – or get stung a thousand times, and wonder where the bees came from.

    They are always there; are we?

    Liked by 2 people

  8. C8H10 N4O2


    “If all of our decisions really were made entirely by unconscious processes then that would make me feel differently about responsibility.”

    That’s precisely what neuroscientists have repeatedly claimed to have demonstrated in the last few years. One of the more famous article being : “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” by Soon et al. in Nature neuroscience .

    The abstract begins :

    “There has been a long controversy as to whether subjectively ‘free’ decisions are determined by brain activity ahead of time. We found that the outcome of a decision can be encoded in brain activity of prefrontal and parietal cortex up to 10 s before it enters awareness.”

    But I think it leads us back to the nymag article :

    The interesting character being John-Dylan Haynes who states that in new experiments his team found out that : “A person’s decisions are not at the mercy of unconscious and early brain waves”. And Haynes is one of the coauthor of the Soon et al. article cited above which will inevitably be thrown at you whenever you discuss the issue of free will (as purportedly ending the argument).

    Does that mean that the jury’s still out ? I don’t know…

    Alfred Mele has written a whole book titled “Why science hasn’t disproved free will” , which was praised by D.Dennett, with the caveat that Mele’s work was founded by the Templeton foundation whose agenda we all know. Which in and of itself is not very meaningful but what troubles me is that there are also a bunch of “Why science hasn’t disproved God” or “Why science hasn’t proved climate change” out there and I’m wondering if we compatibilists are not also in denial of a truth we can’t handle…


  9. brodix


    Reductio ad absurdum.

    There are plenty of things I know I won’t do, or might do, if given the opportunity, but never will have, but that is a function of being. What limits us, also defines us and what defines us, also limits us. The fact is that every fiber of our being is part of the process of being and thus part of the input into our decisions.


  10. C8H10 N4O2

    I think that on the free will issue what neuroscience tells us has first to be clarified and distinguished from what sociology says for instance.

    In the classic studies by the sociology pioneers such as Durkheim, you learn that how you vote, or the probability that you’ll commit suicide can be correlated to measurable, objective factors such as your sex, your age, your social status and so on. In other words, your behaviour isn’t entirely free, it’s heavily influenced by your biology and your environment.

    But you could see the glass half full instead of half empty by thinking : ” Gee, I’m gonna learn more about all these factors in order to become more rational in my decision making. If I’m a Catholic and I know that catholics have a statistical tendency to vote to the right side of the political spectrum, now that I’m aware of this bias, maybe I should listen more carefully to what the guy from the Left has to say, so as to make a more autonomous decision.”

    On the other hand what neuroscience says in a nutshell is that we lack free will because ‘we’re manipulated by our brains’. You thought you could be grateful when your wife cooks your favourite meal to please you, but you’re thoroughly mistaken. She really hadn’t any say in the matter, all she did was the end product of the activity of cells in her nervous system. And since she has no more control over the cells in her brain than on those of her liver, well she was completely determined to act as she did, so there’s no meaningful way in which you could thank her for anything. Enjoy your meal ! 😉

    I tend to have two reactions to that type of reasoning. On the bad days, I feel nauseated, believing that it’s the worst blow to the human condition ever made.What is left of us if even higher-order deliberative thought is not really up to us? To put things into a very practical perspective : I’m french and we tend to think highly of the allied soldiers who gave their lives to free Europe from nazism, praising them as heroes. But if there’s no such thing as a deliberate action, does that mean that I’m to look at all these white crosses above the beaches of Normandy unphased ?

    On the good days however, I think it’s merely a restatement of what everyone who is not a dualist knows i.e. that our brains have something to do with what we think and how we behave. Its hardly breaking news, is it?People have understood that since they noticed that the result of cutting their enemies head off was different than when they cut their hand for instance. So there’s a sense of “Duh! Yeah, what did you expect to find? Some little gremlin that could be identified as “you” with magical powers among which the possibility to be its own cause ? ” In other words, it’s only possible to buy the ‘you’re manipulated by your brain’ story if you distinguished yourself from your brain’s activity in the first place.

    It’s not an implausible hypothesis that we pay lip service to monism but are really dualists. We take brain enhancing drugs such as caffeine or nicotine, or antidepressants, we are afraid of brain illnesses such as Alzheimer, all of which points to a belief in monism. But when neuroscience tells us that we are just the product of brain activity, we feel bad about it.

    Likewise, we take life insurances and write wills, but when it’s time to die, few of us react by saying “oh dear that’s okay, I’ve known that it would happen for a while, doesn’t come as a surprise to me”. 😉


  11. Massimo Post author


    I’m not sure what sort of strong determinism you need, but it’s pretty darn clear, scientifically speaking, that we live in a universe where things are connected by cause and effect, and where there is no reason to believe we are exceptional. And yet nobody behaves in the “rational” way you indicate, not even people who vehemently reject free will. Those people still feel guilty when they do something wrong, still accept praise when they do something right, and never — outside of academic conferences or blog discussions — coherently with their metaphysical position. It’s probably psychologically impossible.

    That said, I have argued that a Stoic-like view does have consequences for our justice system, as well as for us as individuals. All I’m saying is that too much convoluted arguing and counter-arguing about free will quickly loses any relevance and becomes an intellectual game. That’s where the Stoics, wisely, got off the bus.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. C8H10 N4O2

    By the way, I think that ‘Inside out’ , (the Pixar Studios film) encapsulates the free will issue quite remarkably.

    It shows the development of a little girl, Riley, from the perspective of the inside of her brain. And what you find are little personifications of different emotions such as Anger, Joy, Sorrow, etc. And what the little girl does is strictly determined by which of these manages to be dominant at a certain time. There’s no overarching authority to exercise control or any type of bottom up feedback. It’s all top down determinism, and the little girl is basically a puppet.

    As I think of it, I have to check if Sam Harris contributed to the script ! 😉


  13. Robin Herbert

    C8H10 N4O2,

    “That’s precisely what neuroscientists have repeatedly claimed to have demonstrated in the last few years. One of the more famous article being : “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain” by Soon et al. in Nature neuroscience .”

    This was the study I had in mind in my earlier comment. The claim is not coherent. An entirely unconscious process cannot know what consciousness is, and so cannot make any claim about consciousness.

    Elsewhere I have also mentioned that Hayne appeared in a BBC documentary with Marcus Du Sautoy which completely misrepresented the experiment and led to the popular misunderstanding that the experimenters could predict the subjects’ choices before they were aware of making the choices.

    The experiment itself if quite unremarkable and demonstrates nothing that is very surprising.


  14. Robin Herbert


    I’m not sure what sort of strong determinism you need,

    As I said “exactly one next state”, as Ed Lorenz puts it.

    but it’s pretty darn clear, scientifically speaking, that we live in a universe where things are connected by cause and effect,

    “Cause and effect” isn’t very specific The world envisaged by pre-scientific theists would also be connected by cause and effect, ie gods causing earthquakes, sin causing death etc.

    It is hard to imagine any kind of world in which there was no cause and effect.

    And yet nobody behaves in the “rational” way you indicate, not even people who vehemently reject free will.

    Again I am talking about the case of determinism, ie that there is exactly one next state.

    I do come across people who say that they believe hard determinism is the case and they feel guilty about things.

    I often ask people to clarify – to state explicitly that they feel guilty about things that they couldn’t possibly prevent.

    That they feel guilty about things that were already inevitable long before they were born. I find they never clarify that this is their position.

    It’s probably psychologically impossible.

    I don’t see why, if people really believed in determinism. I used to feel guilty if something bad had happened to someone and I hadn’t prayed for them. Then I realised that prayer would have been useless, so I stopped feeling guilty about not praying for people.

    It would have seemed silly for me to have continued feeling guilty about not praying for people after I stopped believing in prayer.

    If I came to believe that determinism (as I have defined it) was the case, then I don’t see why the same thing would not apply.

    …too much convoluted arguing and counter-arguing about free will…

    Nothing convoluted about what I am saying. It is very straightforward.

    If determinism (again, as I have defined it here) was the case then every single thing we do in life was already inevitable before we were born. If it is the case then there is nothing whatsoever that we do that we could possibly have prevented.

    And it makes no sense to feel guilty about something you could not possibly have prevented. It makes no sense to feel guilty about something that was already inevitable before we were born.

    If someone disagrees then I would love to hear them say in an equally straightforward fashion that, yes, they would feel guilty about something that they couldn’t possibly have prevented. Or that they would feel guilty about something that was already inevitable before they were born.


  15. Massimo Post author


    The experiment(s) (more than one) are perfectly coherent, and convincingly demonstrate what Libbet himself had intuited, that volition — under those circumstances — manifest itself as conscious veto power. Of course that type of experiment, including Libbet’s original, go nowhere near studying what we mean by conscious deliberation. It has little to do with deciding on a whim to push or not push a button.


  16. Massimo Post author


    I very clearly meant cause and effect in a materialist, scientifically informed sense. Which is how the Stoics themselves thought of it. And yes, it is sufficiently vague to leave room for when our physicist friends will finally get around to tell us whether the quantum world is deterministic or truly random. As you know, it doesn’t really matter for this debate, so cause and effect will do nicely.

    Moreover, anyone who believes in free will in the classical sense does, in fact, deny cause-effect in the specific sense discussed here. Pretty much every Christian theologian, for instance. And, oddly, Epicurus (who introduced the strange concept of the “swerve” to guarantee free will).


  17. SocraticGadfly

    I think the issue of classical, or classical-influenced, modern free will vs. the physicists is in part an issue of greedy reductionism. No other way to put it. That said, I also think greedy reductionism is akin to a Ryle-type category mistake. Just hosted Dennett on his own petard again, folks. Thank me later.


  18. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    If there was some scientific finding which put it beyond doubt that strong determinism (ie that there is always exactly one next state) was the case, then of course it would not be rational for anyone to feel responsible […] Some people might continue to feel worse about suffering […]. But no rational person would.

    Your argument is predicated on the assumption that feelings and emotions derive from reason. They don’t and can’t. Contrary to the fond hopes of some here, you cannot get emotions from facts and reason alone, nor values nor morals nor anything similar.

    I would love to hear them say in an equally straightforward fashion that, yes, they would feel guilty about something that they couldn’t possibly have prevented.

    I consider that the world is sufficiently deterministic for your argument to hold (i.e. that any quantum indeterminacy averages out by the point where we get to brain decision making), and still feel guilty (and indeed the full range of human emotions) about things that are consequences of the prior state and which thus are, in that sense, inevitable.

    Your argument employs a dualistic commentary about how our brains work (a dualistic analysis that is false) and assumes that we have emotions as a result of rational reflection guided by that commentary. I reject that analysis.

    There is no inconsistency between the ideas that: (1) evolution has programmed us with emotions, and: (2) the world is sufficiently deterministic.

    In the same way, there is no inconsistency between the world being deterministic and evolution having programmed us to feel pain. We don’t think: the fact that my hand is on the hot plate is a consequence of the prior state, therefore I don’t or shouldn’t feel pain.

    And in the same way there’s no reason why we should think: my actions are the consequence of prior states, therefore I don’t or shouldn’t feel guilt.

    Again, if you think that determinism changes whether you should feel guilt, then you are making that analysis on the basis of a dualistic commentary, and that commentary is wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. C8H10 N4O2


    I don’t think that the claim made in these studies was that one is unconscious, but that the conscious part of a human being is not the initiator of its actions, but rather a spectator of them long after they were set in motion in parts of the brain inaccessible to introspection.

    On determinism, I think Dennett’s point still stands : we can’t have it both ways : once we make a choice, we very much want to live in a deterministic universe.

    Making the distinction with fatalism the way Calvin envisioned things is also worth doing.

    In passing, there are two great episodes of Rationally Speaking about free will. 🙂


  20. Thomas Jones

    LOL, how serendipitous. The 7th game of the World Series in US professional baseball is tonight, and the swerve ball pitch is considered illegal. Now I learn that Epicurus was pitching “swerve” centuries ago!

    Liked by 1 person

  21. SocraticGadfly

    A Libreto is my operatic song about something beyond the old free will-vs-determinism polarities. And, Enprofylline, I know I commented on those Rationally Speaking stories.


  22. couvent2104


    then of course it would not be rational for anyone to feel responsible for anything and thus no one need feel any worse about any kind of suffering than they do about the instances of suffering for which we feel no responsibility and could not have prevented.

    Well, if you cause a traffic accident and the judge sends you to jail, it would be pre-determined too. Actually, whatever the judge does would be pre-determined. Now, if I were the judge, I would say to myself: “whatever I do is pre-determined, so I might as well have a look at the case and check if there are mitigating circumstances. Perhaps Robin really couldn’t avoid hitting that guy when he crossed the street while he was looking at his smartphone.”

    Of course, there would be no reason for me to do so – everything is pre-determined – but then, there would be no reason to send you to jail either.


  23. brodix

    What is the alternative to determined? Random, or more precisely, probabilistic.

    Unless you live in some Everett multiworlds, the past is pretty conclusively determined, so the issue is the future. Yet any test we could conceive would require making it the past.

    The basic premise of determinism is that if the position and momentum of everything was precisely known, then everything following from it would be equally precisely determined.

    The logical flaw is the “momentum.” We would have to allow the process to proceed, in order for following effects to be determined. Pre-determined is not pre-existing, unless you believe in strong block time.

    Which goes to the question of whether the future is truly determined, or just probabilistic. Which gets back to the fact that in order for any event to be determined, it has to happen, because if it hasn’t happened, there is nothing determined.


  24. Robin Herbert


    Your argument is predicated on the assumption that feelings and emotions derive from reason. They don’t and can’t.

    Not so. As I pointed out I used to feel responsible when something bad happened to someone and I hadn’t prayed for them.

    According to your claim I should have continued to feel guilty about not praying for people even after I stopped believing in prayer.

    I can assure you that I no longer felt guilty about not praying for people after I realised that the entire concept was nonsense.

    If reason can change how I feel in this case I am not sure why you think that reason couldn’t change how we feel in other areas.


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