How we think the world works is bound to be influenced to some extent by our origin story, I believe.  What we assume about our own nature will influence all our logic and natural philosophy. A dramatic change in origin story will throw into doubt all existing concepts. That’s what I believe happened a couple of centuries ago with the discovery that we, along with all other living creatures, evolved. I think we need to reconsider all our existing systems of logic and philosophy from scratch.

OK, I know that’s partly just a romantic phantasy. But let me give you an illustration. Let me suggest how the discovery of evolution throws light on the logic behind physical determinism.

There’s an admirable consistency in believing in both determinism and the modern synthesis -- that all our behavior is entirely subject to physical laws, and that evolution is driven by purely physical causes.

Suppose, instead, you reject determinism. Suppose you believe an evolved creature like us comes with a consciousness not entirely subject to physical laws. Then you open the door to evolution similarly not being entirely subject to physical laws, and the possibility of intelligent design.

In other words, a belief in the possibility of intelligent design is consistent with a belief in consciousness not being entirely subject to physical determinism. And a denial of the possibility of intelligent design is consistent with a belief in physical determinism.

Of the two issues, I’d have thought the issue of intelligent design was the dog—the primary concern--and determinism was the tail. If so, often the tail is found to be wagging the dog. Should things be that way round?

It’s notoriously hard to resolve this issue through logical argument. How about resorting to parables, instead? I offer two examples.

Are we free to choose to save endangered species?
I’m a determinist: I believe all my behavior is driven by my brain chemistry which, like everything else that’s purely physical, operates precisely in accordance with physical laws and so is completely determined. When I walk into a room, how I react to what happens next, and what happens after that, is bound to be determined by the state of my chemistry as I walk in. And ditto for every situation since I was born. I can’t conceive of any other source of influence that could alter that destiny. I’m proud of being tough-minded enough to acknowledge that.

I’ve always been very competitive. When I became convinced it was my destiny to save endangered living creatures that automatically meant that, if I was going to save them, I was bound to go all out to save more of them than anyone else. Whatever I do, it’s always to either save an endangered creature or to prevent someone else from saving one. That’s just my nature, I don’t have to question it. It’s built into my chemistry.

Me and Jeff are neck and neck. Sometimes he’s saved more from extinction, sometimes it’s me. He’s crazy though. He says he saves animals from extinction by conscious choice, which is not determined. But I showed him that can’t be true. If he saved a living creature through his conscious choice, and it wasn’t determined, that would mean that consciousness—his consciousness, in this case—would have affected the course of evolution.

See where that leads, I said. If your consciousness could change the course of evolution of a living creature, then some kind of consciousness in that creature could change its evolution, too. That’s logically impossible. Consciousness can’t have evolved: because it isn’t physical it can’t have any effect on the physical environment; if it has no effect then mutation and natural selection couldn’t detect it and evolve it into existence. Look, I said, if creatures’ being conscious could drive their own behavior then you’d have to include consciousness along with mutation and natural selection in your evolutionary theory. Do that and you may find you don’t need mutation and natural selection and you’d end up with no evolutionary theory at all.

He said humans are exceptions; only humans are conscious. But didn’t we evolve, too, I asked him. Since evolution can’t create consciousness, either we’re conscious but we can’t be evolved, or we can’t be conscious. Take your choice. So I won, as usual.

Are you a determinist of your own free will, he asked, or were you bound to be one, whether it’s true or not? Always good for a laugh, is Jeff.

A modern-day Abraham depends on a divine intervention to save his son
My father was very ambitious for me, always hoping I was going to make myself the success he never was. I was a big disappointment. “Look Dad,” I said. “I am what I am. All my decisions are made for me in my brain chemistry. I can’t will myself to be anything special. I’m just one more arrangement of the existing human genes. I’m not likely to do or be anything more than they prescribe.”

But I’ve realized recently, I have the potential to make my children the success my father could never make of me. My work involves radioactive products. By skipping a few safety procedures I could expose myself to a dangerous level of radioactivity and induce a higher level of mutation in my germ cells. Purely by chance, one of those mutations might be beneficial and natural selection would favor it and implant it into one of my children. That child then would then grow up with at least the possibility of being able to express that mutation to the full, becoming more than any human being ever was. Passing on that possibility may not be much, but it’s more than my father did for me.

It’s a tough decision. Any particular mutation is much more likely to be harmful than beneficial, and a child with a harmful mutation is going to inherit even less potential than a child without any mutation at all. On the other hand, if harmful mutations were more likely to be inherited than beneficial mutations, there’d be more harm than benefit inherited in each generation and evolution wouldn’t be possible. But evolution obviously works. So logic tells me my children are more likely to inherit occasional favorable mutations, and I should go ahead and expose myself.

But then, what makes me even consider that I have the choice? Isn’t it already determined that I will expose myself, or I won’t? If I do have the choice of whether I induce those mutations or not, and I’m evolved, that means evolution can produce creatures capable of making choices that aren’t determined. Then evolution isn’t limited to processes that are purely physical, like mutation and natural selection. And if it isn’t, if natural selection isn’t capable of turning a majority of harmful mutations into a majority of beneficial mutations, then mutations I deliberately induce in my germ cells might pass to my children in the proportion of harm to benefit the radiations induce, much more likely to be harmful than beneficial.

It’s a hard decision for a father to make.


Such parables function by working on our emotions. That may be thought illicit in a debate on issues of natural philosophy. I’d agree, except that I believe the two positions are already supported more by emotions than logic. If so, then parables may merely help level the playing field.

If behind these parables lie genuine paradoxes, that may indicate that we’re lacking some essential concepts in our thinking about determinism and free will.