Imagination, Desire, And Action Through Chemistry: My Theory Of Free Will

In terms of free will, I don’t think we have contra-causal free will (free will that actually interferes with and pushes around determinate matter). I think our brains are modular, governed by often contending impulses, and that sometimes–or even characteristically in some people–one part of the brain predominates over the other.

And so a person who is, by temperament, hyper-religious, may find in herself (when she introspects) a powerful will to override the sexual siren coming from the same brain. She imagines herself, in the narrative of herself, being quite righteous–and this very thought motivates her still more to hold down her sexual siren–but, as Blake, says, “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.” So one part of the modular brain dominating another part is hardly evidence of free will (let alone contra-causal free will).

I like something the novelist Don DeLillo writes in his novel White Noise:

Who knows what I want to do? Who knows what anyone wants to do? How can you be sure about something like that? Isn’t it all a question of brain chemistry, signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex? How do you know whether something is really what you want to do or just some kind of nerve impulse in the brain? Some minor little activity takes place somewhere in this unimportant place in one of the brain hemispheres and suddenly I want to go to Montana or I don’t want to go to Montana.

I would add to DeLillo’s notion of desire driven by brain chemistry the notion of imagination driven by brain chemistry (another part of our modular brains): the illusion of free will is caused by our ability to imagine logically possible futures, and to imagine how we might choose one of those futures over the others. We then notice in ourselves a desire to choose one of those imagined futures. We follow that desire. But at no point in the process have we actually violated the deterministic cosmos; the swerve of atoms. We just imagine that we have.

We therefore confuse the tight coupling of imagination, desire, and action with free will. Our lives, in other words, run on a huge correlation-causation fallacy. Imagination, desire, and action seem to be in a causal relation to one another absent chemistry, but they aren’t. They’re only coincident. We make a narrative of them. We think we’re pushing the world around–making it break our way, in accordance with our purposes. We think we’re disturbing the universe, collapsing the wave function of logically possible worlds down to our single world–the world of our choosing. Actually, we’re just being puppeted by the swerve of atoms as we dream (as we run tapes in our heads of mental images of the future) and act on the desires that come to us. In short, we’ve got going a great narrative of ourselves as existential actors because we can imagine alternative futures. But that’s all it is. A story. In terms of the actual causal processes at work, we’ve got them completely backwards.

And in the biggest picture, I think we have to think about the multiverse. There’s little doubt among physicists that our universe is essentially infinite in an inflationary sense–and it may also be infinite in the quantum sense as well (splitting in each moment into different possible futures ala Schrodinger’s Cat).

It’s also plausible that we live in a big bang cosmos that got its laws and physical constants out of a random quantum flux from a larger multiverse. But whatever is going on exactly, from all the logically possible ways that our known cosmos could have banged at the big bang, it banged in just one way. It’s how the cookie crumbled.

And each new big bang cosmos produced by the multiverse is a fresh swerve of atoms blasting forth to cool and impact one another in a novel, yet determinate, manner. Lucretius intuited this well two millennia ago:

For myriad atoms sped such myriad ways

from the All forever, pounded, pushed, propelled

by weight of their own, launched and speeding along,

joining all possible ways, trying all forms,

whatever their meeting in congress could create,

that it’s no wonder if they all tumbled

into such patterns and entered on such orbits

as those that govern our cosmos and its changes. (V 187-194)

And, again, we aren’t in any way disrupting these material atoms in their determinate courses. Each of us consists of some of those atoms, and we’re all along for the ride. There is no such thing as contra-causal free will (minds disrupting the course of causally determined atoms).

That’s my thesis. What’s yours?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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26 Responses to Imagination, Desire, And Action Through Chemistry: My Theory Of Free Will

  1. Mikels Skele says:

    Of, course, according to your thesis, that really isn’t your thesis, but just a bunch of neurons banging around. I think you’re positing a distinction without a difference. Whether or not it’s an illusion, we still look before stepping out into a busy street. If it’s all as mechanical as you imply, there is no evolutionary advantage to consciousness. Just get the sense data and act, no reason for reflection. So, yes, you could theoretically predict everything someone does, given access to all the variable inputs, but so what? Do you really think you wrote this blog out of some mechanistic chain of causation?

  2. Several times you allude to the person ‘imagining’ this or that. What modular part of the brain does the imagining?

    • Even if we don’t know exactly where the modular part of the brain that does the imagining is, does not mean that it does not exist. We do appear to ‘imagine’ things, so it suggests such a faculty exists. The author has been careful to state that such a faculty does not free us, however, but is merely just another faculty controlled by atoms on there determined paths.

      • it is important to know where that part is because of the other claims. if there is a part that does the imagining it need identification. If there is no part that does such then where does imagining come from. this is essential to the argument.

      • Do you not imagine? Where would this imagination come from if not some faculty of the mind?

  3. Anonymous says:

    My thesis is that you can tell what a person really believes by his actions and not by what he says he believes. As Mikels Skele says if we look before we cross the street, we really don’t believe all is an illusion. The ones that are true believers are locked up, under medication, or have already been run over.

    If one actually believed in determinism, why so many posts arguing for Gay Marriage or anything else for that matter. After all, one can’t change things nor persuade anyone to do anything different. However, making outlandish statements can suddenly change the conversation when you feel things are getting a little uncomfortable.

    • “As Mikels Skele says if we look before we cross the street, we really don’t believe all is an illusion.”

      Isn’t the belief that not all is an illusion, merely an illusion? The author is claiming that atoms determine our paths, not our free will. So even thoughts like “no, I really am free” are illusionary as well.

      “If one actually believed in determinism, why so many posts arguing for Gay Marriage or anything else for that matter.”

      This is what this author’s atoms are pre-determined to do.

      • Anonymous says:


        Of course if you want to follow that course, I’ll up you one more illusion and call your call your response an illusion along with the illusion of atoms pre-determining things. If you want to continue down the rabbit hole, you’re welcome to.

        But ask yourself this: “if everything is an illusion, what exactly is having the illusion?”

        If you really believed this and behaved as if you believed it, you would behave in a way society would deem “crazy” if you survived that is.

  4. Alan says:

    You identify yourself as a teacher of writing and literature, and your philosophy carries the weight of a good yarn. Colorful prose that follow the rules of language. Gripping dialog with a powerful emotional punch.

    Just not logic or reason. Subjects as biology, chemistry or even (pardon the expression) philosophy carry additional constraints. They are supposed to make a little bit of sense. They should have a bit of logical cohesion. The claims presented should not lead to impossible or absurd conclusions. The ideas should be thought through, if even just a little. Your thinking seems to stop at how a piece feels.
    Chemistry has no ability for language, no use for imagination or emotion. Hamlet was not written in the Big Bang.

    That we can respond effectively and creatively to circumstances not available to our ancestors, we have free will.
    A determined being, on the other hand, would have the behavioral complexity of a carrot.

  5. I found this an interesting article that presents the Scientist’s version of the First Cause argument (see: Thomas Aquinas). Instead of God bringing such a neat, organized chain of causes and effects into existence, atoms take the central role. The problem with this is that God is needed to be the unassailable force that drives this cause-effect chain. Atoms, on the other hand, are not quite so unquestionable as the All Mighty.

    If atoms are the agents that determine our actions in the world, where did atoms come from? The Big Bang? What caused the Big Bang? Where lies the “First Cause” that caused all these necessary effects?

  6. Santi Tafarella says:

    Hi Mikels:

    I agree that the evolution of consciousness is a tricky and difficult issue, but I also think Michael Graziano’s new book (Consciousness and the Social Brain) on the subject is in the ballpark of tackling it. The last time you and I wrestled with this issue, I wanted free will to be true more than I do now. I’m throwing in the towel. I think that only at the most superficial level (the mere appearance level) do we have free will. Every other level–whether we think about it in terms of social and environmental influences, genetics, neurons bathed in chemicals, chemicals consisting of molecules, molecules consisting of determinate atoms, or atoms consisting of fermions and bosons under the influence of quantum probability, we aren’t driving the bus. Not really.

    I think the illusion of free will is akin to the illusions of color and solidity: we know that, say, the green color of a table is not really green; that our brains construct green from light waves actually absent of color. And we know, at bottom, that the table consists of atoms in motion and mostly empty space. Science reveals a very different reality from our phenomenological experience. Heck, the atoms that make up the table, if we zoom in to measure their speed, fuzzy up in terms of location–and fuzzy up again, in terms of speed, if we measure location.

    It’s hard to say what existence is at all–except to say that our phenomenological experience–our local experience–in the now is all we know of the whole. Our experience is partial. Science, our attempt to get beyond the local and partial insofar as we can, reveals that the larger whole possesses aspects quite counter-intuitive in relation to our local experience.

  7. Santi Tafarella says:


    Whether there is one module or area of the brain mostly responsible for imagination, dream, and creative thought, or a network of evolved brain modules without one of them dominating, I don’t know. Perhaps imagination is emergent from the interaction of the modules. In any case, no brain activity interacting with an environment, no free-floating spooks still in possession of imagination.

    Here’s an article kicking your question around (from

  8. Santi Tafarella says:


    I like your retort to Anonymous when you wrote:

    “Isn’t the belief that not all is an illusion, merely an illusion? The author is claiming that atoms determine our paths, not our free will. So even thoughts like ‘no, I really am free’ are illusionary as well. ‘If one actually believed in determinism, why so many posts arguing for Gay Marriage or anything else for that matter.’ This is what this author’s atoms are pre-determined to do.”

  9. Santi Tafarella says:


    You wrote: “A determined being…would have the behavioral complexity of a carrot.”

    Is an ant colony full of determined social ant behavior (I doubt you imagine ants really have free will) no more complex than a carrot?

    Whence the emergent complexity of ant society absent conscious design, choice, and imagination?

    Did you know that ants engage in farming without knowing what they’re doing?

    Watson (the Jeopardy computer) was designed by conscious agents, but it learns on its own from there–and has no free will. An algorithm (a procedure for getting from point A to point B) seems to be key to its success.

    Perhaps consciousness and the sense that we’re choosing among options emerges as a byproduct of a successful algorithm. I don’t know, I’m just speculating.

    And it’s possible that once we have eyes and sociality, and the tracking of eyes, and the brain modeling the intention of others based on the tracking of eyes–that the awareness attributed forward also gets attributed backward on itself. That’s part of Michael Graziano’s theory.

    No evolved sociality, no emergence of consciousness.

    What’s not especially scientific is to imagine that spooks interact with the brain.

    As for logical and conceptual cohesion across disciplines in science, it’s possible that might come with time–though I doubt it. Even within a single field it’s tricky. Do you think quantum physics, for instance, makes conventional sense? Niels Bohr: “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.” And do you think, within philosophy, one can really say when you should focus on the private realm of your aesthetic projects and family, and when you should focus on the social and political? Are there any conceptual or logical guidelines that pull these two realms coherently together?

    If Sophocles thought so, he wouldn’t have written Antigone.

    If there is ultimate and genuine metaphysical cohesion through-and-through (and not something we’ve just generated out of our creative imaginations, like Thomism), it will have to be grounded in physics–but we already see that our phenomenological experience doesn’t square with it. So we might be stuck.

    And that means either learning to live with it–or persisting, yet again, in attempting to tackle it.

    • Alan says:

      Santi Says: ‘What’s not especially scientific is to imagine that spooks interact with the brain.’
      OK, so why did you bring it up?
      So some ants’ farm? Some don’t – that is not determined by atoms, but by ants. Watson innovates. So does Google on your personal computer. Determinism cannot explain that either. Nor does determinism work for Schrödinger’s cat. There are a wide range of algorithms that are not deterministic and a wider range of phenomenon.
      With language, every human innovates, creates. The very language you use is not the language used by your ancestors. Nor is the technology you are so comfortable with. Nothing in your DNA could predict your use of or access to cell phones. Only your free will could move you to select such irrelevant examples as green or solid to try and support your case.

  10. Santi Tafarella says:

    Are we ever really free—or always in some sense caught in a (brain) chemical and environmental (atoms, chemistry, nature, and society) matrix?

  11. Santi Tafarella says:


    I bring up spooks because I don’t know how one gets to contra-causal free will absent some form of dualism. So when you write–“Only your free will could move you to select…”–I’m wondering where you locate this will and self if not in a physical brain wet with chemicals and electricity.

    Chemistry is a determinate science, and even if you insist that quantum indeterminism renders general physics ultimately indeterminate, it doesn’t help you because that indeterminacy is grounded in probability and randomness.

    So where are you making room within the material world for free will to get out in front of the course of chemical and physical systems, and disrupt them?

    Think of superman stopping, speeding up, diverting, or derailing a train. He has to get out in front of the train, add speed or energy to the back of the train, grab hold of the train to pull it in a backward direction, or move up alongside the train and knock it off.

    Show me this self which, by simply willing it, initiates a mechanism that takes over the driving of matter. If you’re not positing dualism (spooks of some sort accompanied by a mechanism of interaction), then you’ve got to conclude that the self with free will is as fanciful as superman.

    • Alan says:

      Santi Says: ‘I bring up spooks because I don’t know … ‘
      So do you rely on ‘spooks’ for all questions where you don’t know?

      Santi Says: ‘ … quantum indeterminism … doesn’t help you …’.

      Wrong. Indeterminism to include the computer algorithms you allude to render void your claims for determinism as an alternative to free will. You have no option to present for animal behavior. (And yes, I go well beyond the traditional Humans Have Free Will claim. I think it must have developed early in the evolution of brains – for want of a deterministic alternative.)

      Then Santi asks: ‘I’m wondering where you locate this will and self …’, and ‘So where are you making room within the material world for free will’,

      Those are just not the best questions to begin with. It is like asking for proof that a man can run before you are willing to believe he can crawl. Or like refusing to believe in gravity before Einstein developed General Relativity to explain it. The existence of Free Will is independent of our understanding or ability to explain it.

  12. Anonymous says:

    When a person says they don’t believe there is such a thing as objective reality or truth, anything is possible. One can take a snippet of science here, combine it with a bit of rhetoric there and create one’s own story. Why in the world would it have to pass logical muster since logic is just a tool to be employed when useful but jettisoned when it ruins the story. Please don’t ruin the story. That would be mean.

    So proclaiming truth and logic are only tools to be used to keep the story in play, but if the audience dwells too long on that part of the story, the storyteller has to redirect the audience’s attention to something like empathy so the story won’t be ruined. Maybe the storyteller convinces others that he actually believes the story himself.

    But if we look closely, we can see that the author must actually believe in reason and truth despite protests to the contrary. The story has a goal to motivate the audience to a particular conclusion. The plan uses reason to accomplish the goal and believes in the truth of the goal. Let’s appeal to science for the scientists and empathy for those who are not mean. Let’s accuse those who try to follow the logic of our argument and disagree with lack of empathy. Let’s proclaim empathy for all (but not really). It may be cynical, but it certainly uses reason.

    Let’s take the present case, determinism.
    If true determinism would mean that we can’t carry out scientific experiments since experimentation assumes that we can control some variables related to an experiment. If we can’t count on experimental results, we can’t count on science. If we can’t count on science, we can’t count on having discovered determinism through science.

    However, determinism means that people aren’t responsible for their actions (except of course those nasty Thomists). If people aren’t responsible for their actions then we should be empathetic. So determinism is true at the expense of science.

    Since we know what we want the conclusion to be, it must be true no matter how we get there. We still believe in truth even if we have to deny it to reach the truth.

  13. Santi Tafarella says:

    Alan and Anonymous:

    If I were to adjust my view of free will, I’d guess it would have to have something to do with emergence. In other words, a structure emerges out of the interplay of smaller parts that then, in a feedback loop, channels those smaller parts in certain constrained directions so long as that structure exists.

    Maybe, in other words, it’s best to say that atoms in a certain arrangement and mind are a mutually spontaneous arising in key circumstances. Just as you get the form of a star when certain conditions are met, and then that form channels the probability of where the atoms it consists of are likely to be in the next moment, so it might be with the form (structure) of mind.

    Put another way, you can have matter without mind, but you might sometimes get mind when matter arranges in a particular sort of way (as when a social species evolves and the brain starts to model social behavior, both outside itself and within itself). Like ant hills emerging out of the clueless behavior of ants, maybe the key to resolving the paradoxes of determinism v. free will and matter v. mind has to do with the evolutionary emergence of very particular structures or forms that loop back upon atoms in each instant, influencing them just by the nature of their presence.

    So you really can’t separate “you” and what “you want to do” from the direction the atoms are going because the direction the atoms are going is into the form that makes you, well, you. You’re an emergent structure that can offer a mental explanation for your behavior because that explanation tracks and channels atoms in their quantum or determinate courses. You are one of the constraining structures of those atomic courses (akin to a flock of birds)–an emergent form. I think Aristotle might like this.

    Maybe as Thomist sympathizers, you might agree with this sort of compromise position?

    And maybe Alan Watts helps here.

    • Alan says:

      No. This is the same clueless incoherence represented in all arguments against free will. It is only your free will, in all its wondrous glory, that allows you to form an argument in your mind. It is only your free will that allows you to transcribe that thought into your computer. Determinism is quite simply a self-defeating claim. All and every argument is an exercise of free will. Only free will allows science to be practiced, or philosophy or human society for that mater.
      There is no paradox of determinism v. free will. The question of where it comes from has no bearing on whether we possess it or not. Your fixation with atoms is similarly pointless in this context.

    • Brian Donohue says:

      Unlike you, I haven’t quite thrown in the towel on free will yet (which is quite a funny sentence) – I suspect it’s just the way I’m made.

      Anyway, Daniel Dennett wrote a book about the idea of emergent free will that sounds similar to what you’re angling at. I love Dennett, but found this his least compelling effort.

      Alan Watts thing is great. Kinda reminds me of Dawkins’ Extemded Phenotype idea. That’s what mind gives you. Pretty cool.

  14. Alan says:

    Santi: As much as Anonymous and I challenge this and other posts of yours, they are well written in terms of form and composition. You have a command of prose suited to your position as an educator. You have a talent for storytelling as well. All of this follows very specific rules of language formed of convention and mastered through years of study and practice. Language is not some evolutionary emergence of very particular structures or forms that loop back upon atoms in each instant, influencing them just by the nature of their presence. Language is a deliberate, willful craft.
    Your atoms have no need for you, no plans for you, no direction for you. You mean nothing to them. And your atoms mean nothing to the stories you tell or the decisions you make for yourself or for others. All of this nonsense about determinism is just people confusing themselves with their own cleverness and conflating slick rhetoric with logic and reason.

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