The Road Not Taken

A lot of people are bothered by the idea of biological determinism – the idea that given the genetic hand they’ve been dealt, and the environment they experienced, their path in life was essentially inevitable.  When you consider the fates of identical twins raised apart, particularly examples like the Jim twins, you can feel boxed in.  In a philosophical sense, that is:  you are probably thinking too hard if the the fact that your non-existent clone might have gone down much the same life path as you engenders weltschmerz.

If it does, though, there’s a way out of it.  Find a situation with at least two alternate  courses of action that are sure to lead to wildly different outcomes, and make your choice based on a truly random event, such as nuclear decay.  Even if your clone did exactly the same thing, there’s no way of predicting what path he would take*. If you’re feeling wimpy, you can restrict your paths to ones that don’t have a high likelihood of immediate crucifixion.

On the other hand, if you are truly determined, you can pick paths that are chaotic as well, so that infinitesimal difference in your initial actions will eventually lead to big differences in your trajectory.  In that case, though, all bets are off.

I’m thinking that there’s probably already an app for this.


*unless the Everett-Berra theory is correct.



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87 Responses to The Road Not Taken

  1. ursiform says:

    Of course it may be genetically predetermined if you are willing to commit your life to a chance event.

  2. little spoon says:

    If free will actually exists, that should be enough to rescue us from the despair of genetic “determinism.” After all, the real despair comes if free will is an illusion and the entirety of our actions are determined not just from genetics, but from everything we encounter.

    One way or another, something outside your free will was always going to be a determining factor i in your outcome, even if free will exists. There is nothing sensible about claiming that environment as the predominant cause of outcomes is more comforting than genetics as the predominant cause of outcomes. Either way, it’s something that you as an individual do not control.

    What we want intuitively is for the biggest determining factor to be within our personal agency- our free will- not environment or genetics. The standard human wants as much control over his destiny as possible. Most of the people despairing against genetic “determinism” were not people who believed that strongly in their own agency in the first place- rather they were environmentalists. Rationally speaking, genetic determinism is no loss to them; no loss of control at least.

    • The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

      If free will actually exists, that should be enough to rescue us from the despair of genetic “determinism.”

      If the illusion of free will exists …

  3. enemylimes says:

    I believe The Dice Man had the method pegged, even if he was after different ends.

    If there’s not a Dice Life™ app already, Rhinehart has some money to make.

  4. j says:

    It wouldnt work. One cannot cheat what one is. Born in a remote Hungarian village, after living in several countries, I ended where I am now. And discovered that the river of life settled my relatives in the neighborhood and in university environments. There is little wiggling room.

    • Your previous neighbors, my two sons from a Transylvanian village who lived in near-starvation when young and now live in Nome and Tromso making remarkable salaries, would say No. Small differences can make big differences.

      Not much freedom of the will is needed to get different outcomes. I might well have a similar life now had I gone to a different college, studied different subjects, and married a different woman. I can envision things being much the same anyway.

      Or not.

  5. So, that is the end of West Hunter. Odd, because I thought it was beginning to have an influence. Isn’t wriggling room what we are trying to deny opponents with weak arguments?

  6. JayMan says:


    No, You Don’t Have Free Will, and This is Why | JayMan’s Blog

    Well, to be fair, there are a couple of different levels here, all of which (except perhaps one) aren’t really very meaningful.

    If people feel “biology” takes away some aspect of free will (listening to some of the preachy folks on Twitter might give you the impression that this is a problem), then this is silly. Even if behavior was somehow fully environmentally determined, there would still be no free will. You’d just be a slave to your experiences. How is that any “better?”

    Then, some people like to feel that, given the same circumstances, they could have somehow chose differently. Which again is silly. Either the universe is completely determined (and no other choice was possible), or it is imbued with a fundamental level of randomness (hence any choice would be ultimately the result of the luck of the draw). No “free” thought there either.

    (Of course, some people feel that there is some sort of struggle between genes and will, as if biology represents basal urges and their thinking and deliberation is something else. The part that they miss is that meta-thoughts and behaviors (thinking about thoughts) are heritable too!)

    But that brings us to the key matter: is the universe fully determined, with one inevitable course of action, or is there some level of randomness, thanks to quantum mechanics? This boils down to whether the Everett-Berra model is correct. I would think Occam’s Razor favors it, because the “solution” to ignoring the perplexities presented by quantum effects seem more complicated than the problem.

    See this fellow on it:

    Quantum nonlocality does not exist

    Either way, no implications for “free” will for the aforementioned reasons, but still an interesting question nonetheless.

  7. JayMan says:

    “If it does, though, there’s a way out of it. Find a situation with at least two alternate courses of action that are sure to lead to wildly different outcomes, and make your choice based on a truly random event, such as nuclear decay.”

    Additionally, when biology is involved, there is also the matter of times when all roads lead to the same place. This is a big component when it comes to biological prediction of behavior: folks find ways of making certain things happen, regardless of the path to get there.

    It’s also worth noting that being “bothered” by the prospect of biological determinism is itself heritable. Folks like me can be aware of this fact and not lose a moment’s sleep over it. Others, not so much.

    Also related:

    “Squid Ink” | JayMan’s Blog

  8. Jim says:

    Is the “Autonomous Self” representation or reality?

  9. Jim says:

    Only representation is knowable. Reality is unknowable. “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darueber muss man schweigen.”

  10. Jim says:

    Illusion is all we have.

  11. Jim says:

    Death ends illusion.

  12. JayMan says:

    Nothing like shitting on free will to bring out the crazies…

  13. Sean says:

    Not separated at birth

    “Nothing like shitting on free will to bring out the crazies…”.

    “Suppose the pursuers know that the fugitive is likely to resort to location A with the highest probability (his home, say), B with less probability (his family perhaps), or C with less likelihood still (for example, acquaintances), and so on, with decreasing probability for each subsequent suspected place of refuge. If the fugitive thinks for a moment, he immediately realizes that the pursuers will think this. In other words, he becomes conscious of what they might do, and in practice exercises normal mind-reading skills […] In practice, we have little choice but to believe in free will because the alternatives—thinking that people are pre-determined robots or that their behavior is totally random—would put us at a severe disadvantage in situations like this

  14. roystgnr says:

    I’m happy with free will in the “compatibilist” sense – I can choose between decisions based on my expectations of the hypothetical futures they lead to, and this still counts as my choice whether the algorithm I’m using to choose turns out to be deterministic or stochastic under the hood.

    Abdicating to a pure random chance feels even less like “free will” than a deterministic decision does, and nobody’s ever clearly defined a third option.

    On a less serious note, running your life based on remedial chaos theory could backfire horribly.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Unitas multiplex (Nilkas Luhmann) – Einheit durch Vielheit. From a system theory view one could argue that biological systems are structually bound to cognitive systems – but these sytems can only irritate each other. One should try to link evolutionary theory with Luhmann’s System Theory – maybe gainful.

  16. candid_observer says:

    Look, the thing that makes genetic determinism so depressing is just how much it restricts the possible paths our lives, and the lives of others, might take.

    Insofar as our outcomes can manipulated by environmental interventions, then we have a feeling of control as to what the future might bring. Yes, of course, in some larger sense even environment is deterministic. But we feel we exert control over the environment. That’s the feeling of control we want and which makes us feel more content with our situation. If we can, say, by a force of will, make ourselves study 10,000 hours at a craft or discipline, and know that doing so will put us in the upper ranks of practitioners, then that is a heady feeling, and an inspiring feeling. We’re far more likely to try if we see a good prospect of a big payoff. Knowing instead that our prospects are very poor no matter how hard we try is inherently discouraging.

    There’s little point in pretending it’s no big deal if genes play a huge part in our outcomes. We can adjust to the idea, of course, and in the end we’re far better off if we do. But let’s not imagine that the world wouldn’t be a far more agreeable place to live in if it were otherwise.

    A lot of life is just about coming to terms with limitations and grim realities. Let’s not look ridiculous by pretending those are good things.

    • JayMan says:


      Control: that’s what it all comes down to.

      Razib Khan makes a good case why betting on the environment to feel “control” is a bad idea:

      But I find it more interesting that some are spinning this as a support for the low heritability of IQ, and the importance of environment. Personally I wish for my children that environment was less important, not more. The reason is simple: in a behaviour genetic sense we really don’t know what we’re talking about when we say “environment.” The Invisible Gorilla has a lot of illustrations on how tools and techniques which make us “smarter” really don’t work (or, their efficacy has not been scientifically validated). The same for infants and children. Obviously malnutrition and abuse are going to cause problems in relation to development, but the sort of “enriching” activities and practices de rigueur among upper middle class parents probably are irrelevant to the final outcome of the trait in question (this is clear when you look at the high level of variation cross-culturally, with some “best practices” being contradictory, but the results are the same nonetheless).

      The best way to think about it is that “environment” is just noise in your model. It is the genetic component you can control, or at least use to predict. Though heritability is a population wide statistic, it has some relevance for individuals.

      • candid_observer says:

        Well, mostly I agree with Rhazib that even most of what gets lumped into the grab bag called “environment” in these contexts does not actually confer on us “control”. Only a subset — and probably only a very small subset — of that category actually might come under the heading of something we or others can effectively manipulate.

        But that is just another grim reality we need to come to terms with. The sliver of “environment” that we might control and makes a difference is all we have that can give us the inspiring feeling of choice over our outcomes.

        Again, it’s no use pretending that’s a good thing. And I don’t get Rhazib’s argument that he’d prefer genetic factors over the noise of environment. Both seem equally barren as sources of a sense of freedom or control.

        • JayMan says:

          He explains what he means. You can manipulate genes, like the genes that go into your child, in good part, by your choice of mate.

          By contrast, there’s little to nothing in the “environmental” term that you can control.

          “Again, it’s no use pretending that’s a good thing.”

          It’s not a good thing, it’s not a bad thing, it is what it is, and always was. The world could be a better place if we acknowledged this because could actually use this information to make a better world, in time (i.e., eugenics).

          • candid_observer says:

            “You can manipulate genes, like the genes that go into your child, in good part, by your choice of mate.”

            That’s a strange, very limited, and not very satisfying, sense of “control”.

            You can’t exactly inspire yourself or anyone else currently in existence by the observation that they might have been different people with different outcomes had they had different parents.

            By all means, choose your mate with genes in mind, among other things. But for each child you actually have, for the most part, the jig is already up.

          • JayMan says:

            “You can’t exactly inspire yourself or anyone else currently in existence by the observation that they might have been different people with different outcomes had they had different parents.”

            Well, they would be different people, by definition.

            “By all means, choose your mate with genes in mind, among other things. But for each child you actually have, for the most part, the jig is already up.”

            More or less. But you’re missing another of Razib’s points: what if what you’re expecting in your children is good? Why would you want random or otherwise uncontrollable forces coming in and fucking that up?

          • John says:

            If there’s no free will, how could there be such things as mate choices or implementations of eugenics, both of which imply non-determinism?

  17. karch_buttreau says:

    I think that one’s genes are kind of like a paper analysis of a sports team. You can make some educated guesses, but ultimately, you still gotta play the game.

  18. Jacobite says:


    “But that brings us to the key matter: is the universe fully determined, with one inevitable course of action, or is there some level of randomness, thanks to quantum mechanics? This boils down to whether the Everett-Berra model is correct. I would think Occam’s Razor favors it, because the “solution” to ignoring the perplexities presented by quantum effects seem more complicated than the problem.”

    Even if quantum randomness exists, at the grossly higher level of bio-chemical reactions in the human brain there are so many random states involved that the law of averages totally overwhelms the individual states.

  19. Greying Wanderer says:

    Humans can evolve themselves – so there is free will.

    For example a population who are naturally corrupt but who are intelligent enough to realise this is sub-optimal for a group might decide to elect someone who says they will impose ultra strict anti-corruption laws. If the strict anti-corruption laws work and confer a disadvantage on those who can’t control their nature then over time the population would become less naturally corrupt.

    Intelligent people stop themselves doing what they want 90% of the time if what they want short-term is harmful to what they want long-term.

    • JayMan says:

      Agency ≠ free will.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        i’m just messing as i don’t really know what the specific definitions are.

        i find the idea of multi-generational self evolution interesting as an idea though. people aren’t really trapped by their evolutionary history – not over generations – so in the longer term although biological determinism may be fixed which biological determinism isn’t i.e. will they be biologically determined to be naturally corrupt or biologically determined to view even the hint of being offered a bribe as grounds for justifiable homicide.

        choices, choices

  20. The fourth doorman of the apocalypse says:

    Maybe one of the twins produced cave art and one didn’t.

  21. Jason B says:

    I put “Everett-Berra” into Google, Bing, and Wikipedia, and I’m not really coming up with anything. Could someone please help a layman and provide a good link?

  22. kai says:

    Free will or not is not a big deal in practice, imho. What matters is predictability of human behavior, especially at the individual level (It matters also at societal level, working psychohistory would be a big deal). What bother most is hints of high predictability, that’s why the nature/gene side is not politically correct (not even when everything shows it is scientifically correct). That’s whats disturbing in Gattaca or Minority Report: the fact that either with a high probability (or certainty) one can predict what some guy will do/become from factual data (genetic code in Gatacca, precogs in Minority report), with such a degree of certainty that pre-emptive actions are possible or even desirable.
    Problem is that it is indeed the case already, à la gattaca, just that the probability is debatably not so high at the moment. How high will it be in the future, and how high does it need to be for a majority of people to push for pre-emptive action (aka discrimination) instead of resisting it, that’s the practical question behind “free will”.

    • JayMan says:

      Good point.

      That human behavior is predictable implies that humans are physical systems subject to physical laws just like everything else. Some people want humans to be outside of science?

  23. kai says:

    Oh, and of course how easy and direct is it to gather the facts allowing for an accurate prediction. A full genome map is getting easier and cheaper to get.
    Maybe it will be a matter of dropping a hair in a automated sequencer, pay 5 dollars and wait 5 minutes, again like in Gattaca.
    Maybe it will be a 3 second glance telling you which race and sex the person is (aka discrimination). This last one is, currently and officially, has been judged not accurate enough. Of course, it is accurate enough…else laws punishing inferences based on this information would not be needed.

    • JayMan says:

      For the record, ever more accurate predictions of human behavior may prove to be like forecasting the stock market: the thing being forecasted responds to forecasts. In a world where genetic potential is more easily ascertainable, it may alter the outcomes, if only somewhat.

      • kai says:

        it can go both ways. For stock, there is a negative feedback through the sell/buy price equilibrium. So predictability is almost garanteed to go down, at least regarding evolution of stock prices.
        For human behavior, not so sure. If you believe PC worldview, there is an opposite effect, where a priori bias reinforce themselves. Negative predictions discourage people knowing about them and makes them even less performing, while the establishment use the information to discriminate them, making their environment worse than it was before the prediction.

        This has some validity too, there are such things as self-realising prophecies. Just not always, it depends on the predicted traits, feedback can be positive, negative or nill.

        But the point is, for very high predictability, it would not matter….Right now there is a kind of equivalent to jury system, preventing to use the predictability we have (better to let more criminals unpunished than to punish an innocent). At some point, it breaks…like for a jury. It’s interesting to know where the point is, and when we will cross it…I guess it depends on the trait and the type of society we live in….But there is always a crossing point….

  24. Dr. Michio Kaku addresses the question of Free Will, positing that due to recent discoveries in physics the argument has been settled: Humans have free Hill:

    Dr. Kaku tells us that Newtonian Mechanics gave us determinism which says the Universe runs like a clock. What you’re going to have for your dinner tonight was predetermined at the time of the Big Bang. All behavior is predetermined according to determinism. Einstein himself was a determinist. However, Heisenberg comes along with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle introducing uncertainty into all behavior. The position of atoms is uncertain and in fact can be in many places simultaneously. So, what you’re going to have for diner tonight may not actually be predetermined. Einstein hated this. The uncertainty of the new physics that is. But, this new physics or Quantum Mechanics seems to give us a certain amount of free will.

    Furthermore, Sir Roger Penrose makes a number of (convincing) arguments that Turing machines could never be self-aware or posses free will as we know it. At a simplistic level, this is because Turing machines are ultimately deterministic, even when fed ‘random’ external stimuli (e.g. eyes, ears, a good email box), and a determinisitic device can never have free will. This is the basic argument of the ‘Chinese Room’. Penrose makes stronger arguments, though: the strongest of these are the arguments about reasoning about the Godel paradox and reasoning about mathematics in general. The gestalt is that no Turing machine can reason about Turing machines in general, for if they could, then paradoxes arise. Penrose concludes that humans can solve problems and have visionary intuitions into mathematics that no machine could have.

    In the Penrose view, quantum superpositions (e.g. two alternate states or locations of an object existing simultaneously) are actually slight separations (‘bubbles’ in the underlying make-up of reality (space-time geometry). If isolated and thus able to persist, the separations become unstable and eventually reach a threshold for collapse (this instability in space-time separation is the link to quantum gravity). At the instant of collapse each space-time bubble reduces to a definite, unseparated state as an OR event occurs. In each event the choice of state is selected, non-computably, to reflect some influence that is neither random nor completely deterministic, but due to hidden propensities embedded in fundamental space-time. A series of such events may be seen as a pattern of bubbles and ripples at the smallest scale in the make-up of reality.

    • JayMan says:

      Not fond of “hidden variables” solutions to quantum indeterminacy.

      In any case, quantum randomness ≠ free will. To paraphrase Steven Pinker, either our actions are the result of fully determined sequences (in which case we’re not responsible for them) or random events (in which case we’re not responsible for them). “You” have no more control whether an electron ends up going right instead of left than you would if the outcome was completely fixes.

    • Esso says:

      OTOH, Scott Aaronson argues in “The Ghost in the Quantum Turing Machine” (can be found on his blog) that a quantum process (e.g., a simulation of the cat in a box on a quantum computer) might not be conscious when things are kept reversible and nothing is evaluated.

      The dead and live cats are connected by a unitary transformation at all times: reverse, flip the poison bit, forward. I wonder if one could just flip the semantics and call it a dead cat instead of a live one, with no computations.

      Anyway, I wouldn’t worry about this free will thing. You can’t look at yourself like you would look at billiard balls and other, somewhat predictable things.

    • melendwyr says:

      “Furthermore, Sir Roger Penrose makes a number of (convincing) arguments that Turing machines could never be self-aware or posses free will as we know it.”
      – I’ve read “The Emperor’s New Mind”, and it contains gaping holes in its logic. I feel confident in assuming that the fault is systemic – that is, that the problem lies within Sir Penrose himself, and will reveal itself in a multitude of forms whenever he addresses the basic issue.
      – We don’t ‘know’ free will. Some of us assume and assert that we have it. It is not true that deterministic systems are especially predictable, although of course some are. Some deterministic systems are inherently unpredictable, no matter how much computation we devote to the analysis.

  25. IC says:

    According to astrophysiccs, our future events had been there waiting for us. In that sence, you really are not change any thing about your life.

    • IC says:

      To help you understand this, just imagine that you live in planet which is million light years away from my planet. But your planet is also travelling toward my planet at some speed slower than light. Then what I see you is actually your future event before what happens to you since your future events arrive to my planet first.

  26. Michael says:

    Although it might not be able to be proved, it is very likely that the Everett interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct. In this case, all possible outcomes of every quantum ‘choice’ actually exist in superposition. It is also clear that time does not flow in just one direction. Individual particles and molecules appear to have no preferred time directon, and there is no reason to assume that macroscopic objects are any different at a fundamental level. We just sense an arrow of time because of an entropy imbalance. Numerous biological experiments also show that your mind decides before you are consciously aware of the decision.

    So, at multiple levels humans have no actual free will. But, you will usually find yourself at some kind of ‘statistically average’ position, ultimately based on the Born Rule. This is the real question to be answered. If all possibilities actually do occur, then why are some possibilities appearing to occur more often than other possibilities? The answer probably also is based on the entropy imbalance allowing different numbers of possibilities in the forward and reverse time directions.

    Ultimately, our entire existence (along with our lack of free will) is because of entropy. And we have no clue why.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      “We just sense an arrow of time because of an entropy imbalance.”

      That made my head hurt – falling through time.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      Thank you, I think I will. The real philosophers don’t interest me very much. Now what us low brow folks like is short cuts through all the verbosity that proves nothing and to look at the actual evidence. Kind of like “Genetics and Education” by Arthur Jensen which looked long and hard at identical twins reared apart and available at amazon books for the steep price of 24 pennies. I’ll bet none of those real philosophers ever concluded that IQ is about 80% inherited, like Jensen did. They may be intellectually brilliant but time moves on and many of their musings are rendered outdated by men of science who have found ingenious ways to look at the real world besides thinking long and hard. Identical twins reared apart have shown time and again astounding similarities like the Jim twins Cochran has referred to.

    • Jim says:

      I guess we’ve come a long way from Plato’s Dialogues if philosophy is now off-limits to non-professionals.

  27. kai says:

    Thinking of those twins raised apart, and human behavior predictability, just had an idea about a possible reason why people get nervous about cloning…twins are interesting and somewhat spooky if you think about it…but they are born at the same time so offer few insight about the future evolution of one looking at the other…clones on the other hand… In fact, you would know an awful lot about your clone, and not only about which illness he probably get when aging. One always remind that the clone would be an individual and not inherit the memories or though of the original, it will be a be person….it’s true, but far from the full picture. Contrary to blank state theory, your clone really will be a younger version of yourself both physically and mentally. So much that it would be a while new class of relation between clone and cloned…Identical twins of different age seems innocent at first, but given what we know about heritability and twins raised apart, it’s not…

    • Ears Thyrel says:

      Of course there’s free will but only in the sense that a prisoner is free to roam wherever he wants in his cell.

      • melendwyr says:

        There’s no cell and no prisoner. We can’t even truly say that we’re constrained by our nature – that idiom presupposes an essential something that’s being limited by our identities.

        We are what we are.

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