Transcript of EP 236 – Gregg Henriques on Free Will vs Determinism

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or Gregg Henriques. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: I’m going to take a little intro today to promote a new meme I’ve put loose in the world. And you know how much I like to say fuck, right? I mean, how can you express yourself without the F-word?

Gregg: I agree.

Jim: Yeah, Gregg’s a pretty good cusser too, at least-

Gregg: Fuck yeah.

Jim: And we recently had a podcast on the history of the word fuck, and all that. But anyway, as it turns out, if you look carefully in the code of the algorithms on social media, if you say F-U-C-K, your post will be down-regulated a bit. Not necessarily a huge amount, but some. So if you want to keep your virality and still have the fun of saying fuck, what I’m proposing is people use P-H-U-Q-U-E.

Gregg: All right.

Jim: I’ve been doing it now for about three or four weeks, nobody misses what I’m trying to say, I get a lot of smiley feedbacks, and it works as fuck, fucker, fucked, fucking, et cetera. So have fun with P-H-U-Q-U-E.

Gregg: Lovely.

Jim: Brought to you by Salty Jim.

Gregg: That’s perfect, we can keep our animalistic filth and be refined and get lots of hits, so that’s a win, win, win.

Jim: Exactly. All righty, done with our promo, so let’s get on with today’s show. Today’s guest is Gregg Henriques. Gregg is professor and core faculty member at James Madison University’s Clinical and School Psychology doctoral program. He’s also the creator of the Unified Theory of Knowledge, sometimes known as UTOK, which is an audacious attempt to make sense out of the field of psychology and position it within a broader frame of human understanding. He also writes a useful blog on Psychology Today. As always, links to his various things and things we mention will be on the episode page at So, welcome Gregg.

Gregg: Thank you, Jim, so great to be back here with you.

Jim: Yes indeed, Gregg is a returning guest. Back in episodes EP 176, 177 and 179, we dove really deeply into Gregg’s, so far, magnum opus, A New Synthesis For Solving The Problem Of Psychology: Addressing the Enlightenment Gap. That was a really interesting and quite deep conversation.

Gregg: You did a great job leading us through that, Jim. I really appreciated that.

Jim: I really felt it was a good one, and it’s gotten quite a number of listens, and so if people want to learn more really deeply about Gregg’s UTOK, check those three episodes out. Earlier, in current 009, we did Gregg’s theory of metacultural transitions, and back in EP59 we had an episode titled Unifying Psychology where he dug into his book, an earlier more preliminary attempt to deliver UTOK, A New Unified Theory of Psychology. So, we’re going to have another conversation today, and that should be a good one. It’s going to basically be his take on the free will versus determinism debate.

Gregg: Oh gosh, here we go. Fasten your seatbelt.

Jim: Yeah. I participated in some of these debates for some time, and in fact we had Robert Sapolsky on, EP203, where he talked about his determined-based science of life without free will. And of course, like any good nerd, been having these debates since at least middle school, but of course most of them have been fairly nonsensical. And often these things become nonsensical, as many of us who participate in them know, because the definitions aren’t straight. So let’s start with that, why do definitions matter?

Gregg: Hey, this is great. Thank you so much, I really appreciate all of that. And yes, I’ve heard Robert Sapolsky share his take on determined, I’m not a fan, I’m quite critical of the way he’s breaking things down, and I don’t think that a simplistic approach to either free will or determinism is valuable or value added to the conversation. I think he’s guilty on both, so let’s talk about this.

You mentioned my book, A New Synthesis for Solving the Problem of Psychology, underneath that, subtitle is called The Enlightenment Gap. The enlightenment gap argues that actually on the heels of modern empirical natural science, physics in particular, we got a way of understanding the world that was powerful for material objects through a behavioral epistemological lens, meaning we are able to measure stuff, see stuff from an exterior point of view, track how things behave.

However, as we got knowledge of that, it resulted in serious confusions. There’s an ontological confusion regarding what is matter relative to mind, and there’s an epistemological confusion. So ontology is like, what’s real? Epistemology, how do we know things scientifically versus how do we know things socially and through the social construction of knowledge? I think the enlightenment gap means we’re broken in our shared understanding, and actually I think it leads to bad definitions and bad concepts, and actually I think that Robert Sapolsky’s argument for determinism is really a downstream consequence of the enlightenment gap and painful confusions about the way terms mean various things.

Jim: Oh right, yeah. And of course us complexitarians have our own take on the fact that there’s lots of things that are real besides just particles. As I like to often say, the complexity lens gives us the view of the dance, not just the dancer, which I think is quite congruent with the things that you talk about in The Enlightenment Gap. So let’s start on why is Sapolsky and other similar people’s use of the word will such a confusing term?

Gregg: Right. First off, as a psychologist, I’ll tell you, I don’t know what the concept of will really means, we don’t use that as the science of human psychology. Open up a psych 101 textbook, at least every psych 101 textbook, and I’ve studied quite a few of them, use the term will only in the free will versus determine debate. So what is will? That’s a really interesting question. How do experts in psychology define that term? Not so much. I would argue that when you look at it it closely relates to, at its core base, it relates to motive, especially motive in relationship to adversity. So something that’s strong will cuts through adversity and is arriving at a particular goal, so that could be of an animal, it could be of a person, but it really represents drive through adversity.

Now as we talk about then what that is, I’m going to immediately say, well, how does that connect to free will? And I’m going to say what you have in terms of your core drives, animalistic drives, bottom-up drives, isn’t free. I mean, can you choose to be horny? Can you choose to be hungry? Can you choose to have the energy, or if you’re depressed, can you choose not to be depressed? So to me the concept of will, to the extent that it has any validity, the base concept sits in your motivational drive session, and that’s pretty far away from things that I would be pointing to if we’re going to get into the concept of choice and freedom, I’ll have lots to say about that. So will is a good place to start as a pretty confusing term.

Jim: Yeah. Could you compare and contrast will and choice?

Gregg: Exactly. So I would say the other way, if you go back to the history of this term, and this relates to the enlightenment gap, it’s really a philosophical term, free will, and it refers to, in philosophers term, this capacity to reflect on one and have the agentic capacity or the freedom, and we’ll talk about what that means, the freedom to choose one’s actions. So it’s really, it’s a faculty that philosophers pointed to, and somebody like René Descartes would look at and relate to your capacity to have self-conscious reason, and it seems to then connect to the mind at the level of a Cartesian world of substance dualism. It seems that the mind, human mind, is this new substance, or different substance than matter, maybe it connects to God.

I’m going to make this point because actually I think free will, the way it gets framed by Robert Sapolsky, is very similar to Cartesian substance dualism, meaning the idea is that, hey, there’s this thing out there that’s magic, and Sapolsky says it controls five neurons and sits out of nowhere and it creates this magic little thing. First off, I don’t know any serious naturalistic philosopher that believes in substance dualism magically influencing the world. That seems to be a really old and mostly done idea, there are some people that try to play around with it.

For me the issue is will is the drive, we can extend, do you have any capacity to regulate the will and make choices about it? It’s choices that we’re really talking about. So I want to substitute, the first thing I want to do is actually say it’s when people are making choices that we are talking about, that’s the old term in a philosophical sense, certainly choices and decision-making is something that we psychologists talk about, I teach cognitive psychology and decision-making. If anybody knows work of Daniel Kahneman, for instance, who recently passed away, you know that decision-making in human psychology is a reasonable element. And, by the way, there are different layers of decision-making, for example, a primitive fast layer, potentially a second reflective layer. It’s second reflective layer and to the extent to which it makes conscious choices is what people are referring to philosophically when they point to free will, I think we should just say self-conscious choice as the proper referent.

Jim: Yeah, and in the history of the Jim Rutt Show, we’ve had many appearances by my friend Forrest Landry, and the philosophy of choice at the end of the day is what his philosophy is, imminent metaphysics. He’s allowed to say metaphysics because he prefaces it with imminent.

Gregg: Okay, good. I was wondering. I prefaced mine with descriptive and you allowed that on our earlier thing, so I was like, I guess as long as we qualify it we don’t get shot by the Ruttian pistol.

Jim: Yeah, the metaphysics pistol. So those who want to think about choice a little bit might go back, dig into the work of Forrest Landry. You’ve proposed reframing the discussion as the free choice versus determinism debate.

Gregg: Exactly, that’s step one, I would say, is at least let’s do that, mm-hmm.

Jim: Yeah, and so what’s wrong with determinism as used by Sapolsky?

Gregg: Well, I’ll go through some of the critiques that I think are the minimum and we’ll get to what’s wrong with determinism. But before we do that, I want to say that actually once we get clear it’s free choice versus determinism, then let’s talk about descriptions versus explanations.

Jim: Okay.

Gregg: So this is a very important point whereby you can refer to a description of something, which is one layer of analysis. In fact, science very much is about, at times, getting a taxonomy correct, let’s describe the phenomenon of interest, and then an explanation is what’s the underlying causal processes that give rise to it? So an explanation is about the underlying causal processes, whereas a description is about the thing in of itself. This becomes important because it’s crucial to differentiate when you’re referencing a description versus a cause, and these things can be really complicated.

I’ll shift to a different topic. Depression, for instance. Depression at one level is a description, it’s a description of feeling shut down, it’s a description of not lot having energy, it’s a description of feeling a felt sense of negativity and a diminishment of positivity, and we can then say somebody is depressed when they have all of that. It’s very dangerous to then say, oh, the reason you don’t have much energy is because you’re depressed. Well, wait a minute, hold on, we just defined you as having that, and now it’s called a tautology. So you have to be very careful about what level of analysis that you’re on.

I’m going to argue that free choice, or self-conscious choice really is what I prefer, is a description of a particular kind of context, and that is self-awareness and decisions between options that you understand consequence around. That’s what I would call that. And then we can ask, well, what are the explanations for why I make the choices that I do? And I’m going to then say, well actually, when we make that differentiation, and then we ask what these terms determinism and freedom are, we can talk about them as descriptive constraints.

So for example, but not as a good explanation, and this is particularly true of freedom. So freedom is not a good explanation for why I chose what I do. Why did I come on this podcast? Well, I freely chose to. Why do I do anything? That’s a Cartesian dualism explanation. I chose to in part because I have ideas that I want to justify, I like Jim Rutt, I want critique Sapolsky. And these are states of my brain, these are contingencies, we can explain them, and then we can talk about what I think, and when I say, well, what am I choosing through myself, what’s self-determine?

And so one of the things I want to make very clear is description is different from explanation. Freedom is a good description for aspects of my choice. I don’t have the freedom to end the war in Ukraine, I don’t have that freedom. There are things that are outside of my control, there’s massive kinds of potential constraints. Freedom can say, well, how much is it coming from my agency? How much is it coming from my actor? What is the domain of elements that I can influence? That’s a description of the kinds of choices that I’m making. So I really want to say descriptions are different than explanations, freedom’s a bad characterization of explanation, it can be reasonably used to characterize the description of the contingencies of choice.

Jim: All right, now Sapolsky, and I pushed back on him a bit. I will say I didn’t do as good a job pushing back on him as I would’ve liked, but hey, he’s pretty good at what he does, and if I had him on again I’d do a better job probably. But anyway, I made responses, not quite as eloquent and well-formed as these, but of course he would just stand there like a rock and say, “Sorry, it’s all physics, all the way down.” So, what’s your response to it’s just all physics, you can’t get away from it, add all the emergent layers you want, it’s still all physics.

Gregg: Right, so my term for that is naive Newtonianism. Actually that’s, wait, I borrowed that from you, let’s make that a meme, don’t be a naive Newtonian. Okay, so the idea that there are only small things in the world that have root causes and everything else can be reduced to that I think is a completely misguided, wait for it, descriptive metaphysics for how the world works. And so the unified theory of knowledge, UTOK, is grounded in what’s called the tree of knowledge system, and we’ve talked about this. The tree of knowledge system tracks the unfolding wave of behavioral complexity, starting with an energy information implicate order prior to the Big Bang, hot inflationary Big Bang starts at some collapsed state out of which emerges space-time matter, where matters essentially frozen energy then across a differentiated space.

And then there’s a trail of complexification, we jump 10 billion years up into Earth, and say 4 billion years ago on the planet earth there’s an opportunity for chemical complexification that ultimately jumps into life, and I’m going to argue then that life then affords a particular kind of complex adaptive process. It allows information processing, communication networks, and that gives rise to a new ontological causal system. The ontological causal system, and I’ll use a Michael Levin turn, can be thought of as like a cognitive light cone here. The way cells get organized is they’re complex adaptive systems that behaving very differently than atoms.

And we need to describe those structures and think deeply about the kind of causes that give rise to that, the tree of knowledge says, well, that was one jump, we can actually fast-forward through multicellular creatures, they’re gaining all sorts of complexification, but there’s another key jump with the nervous system, and what I call minded animals, that’s a whole nother recursive loop. And then finally, there are self-conscious creatures through language, culture, person justification. And so my view of the behavioral complexification is that there are ontological jumps, not through magic but through the causal, generative, complexity building feedback loops that give rise to novel information process and communication networks, that informational content plays a causal role in the world and you can’t reduce that to its particular physical parts.

Jim: Just to be clear, the word ontology, the way you use it, basically means it’s a real thing in the universe approximately. And again, that’s the complexity lens as well, that you can’t just say the dancers, you have to also say the dance. And they’re both real, the dance is every bit as real as the dancers, and the tree of knowledge basically lays out, as do other people, like Harold Morowitz, a stack of emergence from the Big Bang all the way up to why is it that Ukraine and Russia are fighting each other? There’s a stack of real things that actually exist in the universe.

And naive Newtonianism, and I should also say that I did agree, and we actually had a pretty interesting conversation with Sapolsky, that if you want to be a naive Newtonianist of that sort, you can also do so even in the quantum realm. It actually does not provide a loophole, but it’s irrelevant nonetheless because it ignores the fact that all this real complexification, it’s been going on for 13.6 billion years, is really the interesting stuff in our universe today.

Gregg: Yeah, totally. And I believe that cells and animals and persons are information processing units and they’re taken off epistemic gestalts of the, so people are hearing this and they have categories for it, these categories then are top-down processes that are then impacting them that can’t be broken down into the parts. So our justifications are being processed as justifications, they aren’t being processed as a function of wobbling atoms. I would argue you can’t do that. I tend to be more on the indeterministic side, but I totally appreciate that there are viable deterministic quantum frameworks especially.

Jim: This is the interesting thing, this is totally an aside, but I’m such a nerd on quantum foundations, it turns out even if we’re in the non-deterministic realm, you can still make the Sapolsky argument if you want.

Gregg: Oh, totally. Fascinating relations between that, but they’re not relevant. For me what’s relevant here, I’ll put it this way, my first key insight that led to justification was the ontology of justification, which is the argument that as we talk and generate propositions we generate question-answer dynamics, and to live in the world and navigate the world means that you build systems of justification. And that social construction of reality is a reality that we humans need to navigate, and a little stop sign that then says stop is actually then part of what we’re responding to in the world, and that informational complexification is what we’re set up to do. Now, that’s not freedom in the sense that it’s uncaused, but it’s a novel level of causation at a new level of informational complexity.

Jim: Yeah, that’s great. But let’s take one step back from human level justification, and what was earlier in the stack, it’s also very important, I think, to this discussion, is the concept of agency, which goes much further back.

Gregg: Absolutely. So an agent is an entity that has a capacity to regulate its control. You’ve certainly heard of cybernetics probably. Cybernetics actually technically means governance, and then we can think about the way in which an agent is operating through a cybernetic hierarchical control to navigate and regulate its relationship to the environment. And you can think about the agent as having a sphere of potential control, which basically means it can direct its energy, particular kinds of things, it often will have goal states, I believe that along with somebody like Michael Levin, I think that we have to think about the emergent ontology of goal states, that direct its behavior in particular ways, and then navigates its investment pathways. I think you can utilize cells and describe them in this particular kind of way, certainly plants like trees you can describe in this sort of way.

And I think about the concept of my final point that I make is that we clearly need a concept of layered agency. A rock has essentially zero agency, a cell has a small amount of agency, a rat making a choice point in a maze has another level. A self-conscious human deciding where they go to graduate school is yet another level of agency. We can talk about what the ingredients are, but basically it’s capacity to govern behavior. Interesting questions about the agency of AI kinds of entities. But fundamentally, agency is a very, very important component, and I think we can see agency through the leveled stack of behavioral complexification.

Jim: In the living realm, clearly there’s agency in even quite primitive life forms. Many bacteria, for instance, will navigate towards sugar and away from acid, for instance.

Gregg: Totally, absolutely. They approach a void, it’s an approach avoidance, is the basic response set of a free living creature, and free just I mean having agency.

Jim: On the other hand, again, this is also an important distinction, there is nothing like a cognitive state in a bacterium. There is a chemical set of cyclical reactions which cause this behavior to occur, so there is nothing like, at least I would argue, the IIT people might disagree, that there’s nothing like a consciousness involved in the decision.

Gregg: Right. Here’s what I say to folks that say that, okay, a bacteria is. First off, you want to define it. It is functionally aware, responsive, let’s make sure we don’t mean consciousness as behavioral functional awareness and responsivity, you’re going to say, oh, there is a subjective experience of being. And I’m like, so what would it be like if there were bacteria to be unconscious? We know what we’re like when we’re unconscious, I think the concept of unconsciousness breaks down completely when you’re at that level, and therefore the discrimination of, we’re call it conscious, as in what is it like to be or to have a subjective experience of being. As I think you may recall, I have a concept called Mind2 which says animals, that subject of conscious experience of being, at least as far as I’m concerned, emerges with brains.

Jim: Interesting, yeah. So now let’s go up the stack towards humans. When you talk about the bacteria reacting to sugar or acid, one can relatively straightforwardly track that through chemical flows and the metabolism inside the cells. Very, very, very complex, but it is at a relatively low level of abstraction from biochemistry. What happens as we go up the stack towards the human?

Gregg: Actually, let’s just track animal mindedness, so then I would argue you basically get an early sensory motor looping structure, and then you get a perception action loop on the sensory motor looping structure at the level of animals. So we go into insects, we’ll just say, and then climb our way up into fish. And what you’re getting is increasing hierarchies where an entity can extend its potential through simulation, simulate different behavioral investment patterns, and then, quote unquote, “choose accordingly.”

So to me, when you get into this capacity to, again, gauge in working memory, you get a rat at a choice point in a maze, if you look at certain computational cognitive neuroscience, behavioral neuroscience, we can look at a rat and actually track its imagery and basically say, hey, it is simulating right versus left. As it sits there now it’s holding different behavioral possibilities through a working memory structure. It’s still embedded in its environment contingently, but we’re seeing that structure capacity to extend into different possibilities. To me, then you’re really clearly at a point of animal decision making, an animal is extending beyond its current environment, looking at potentials that can really be delineated, you can track a frontal lobe activity in a mammal and explore where it’s going.

Then we can climb up, that’s mammal, we can climb up the complexification in frontal lobes in social interaction and see further and further potentialities to use, again, a cognitive light cone term from Michael Levin, you’re extending across different possibilities, affording different avenues to get there. And by the way, this is before we are explicitly self-conscious creatures, you may have some self-other representation, almost certainly, but not even self-explicit, which then gets us in the level of the capacity of personhood, and I’m going to be arguing the capacity of personhood is really key, and that’s where we see the apex of self-conscious choice making.

Jim: So far.

Gregg: So far. All I want to do is get to the basics of the debate is that there’s a level of agency we can see in the world that has ontological capacities and we get to a place where there are decision-making entities at a descriptive level. We don’t want to lose that, that’s my whole point.

Jim: Yeah, yeah. So let’s go back one step, would you say that the rat has the capacity for free choice, and if no, why not?

Gregg: Okay, no at the level of… Let’s be clear about freedom. I don’t believe in magic and I don’t believe in substance dualism, okay? The higher order free is an explicit self-recursive awareness that I am making the choice and I can take responsibility for my actions. That’s where I would call a higher order where we should put free. So I would say the rat’s making a choice, but it’s not a self-conscious choice because I don’t know that there’s any good evidence to say the rat knows, hey, I like going left, this time I’m going to go right, I want to be the kind of rat that shows creative expression and reflects my own agency. So it’s more painful on the right-hand side, but I’m going to show my individuality and go right. I do not think a rat has a capacity for that kind of recursion, and as a consequence I would not say that a rat has free choice, whereby freedom doesn’t mean magic, it means recursive self-awareness.

Jim: I love this, because this is now a quite sharp line. I think most modern neurocognitive scientists would say that rats are certainly conscious, right? Unlike, say, Descartes.

Gregg: Right, rats clearly have Mind2 consciousness, that’s the experience of being, they can extend their imagery in a particular sort of way almost certainly, I’m a big believer that that would be the case. But self-conscious explicit awareness, that’s another layer.

Jim: Yeah, and it appears that humans, possibly chimps to a limited degree, possibly elephants, maybe some of the smaller whales, like orcas, may have a little bit of self-consciousness, we’re not sure. But in big dollops, so far we know only humans have that really strong self model. And of course we also have, and probably one of the reasons why it’s manifested in humans so much more than in elephants or orcas, is we’ve got language. So we can talk to ourselves constantly, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter, chatter about this shit, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to build a self-image and relate to it and argue with yourself, etc, if you have language than if you don’t.

Gregg: Totally. And the inside of you talk is actually, it’s not that we then talk to ourselves, it’s that other people talk to us, and the information highway that is language, and the capacity to ask questions then, why did you do that? Who are you? What kind of person are you that takes responsibility for this? This opens up complex adaptive design space that then reinforces, and I argue the human consciousness system has a persona and an ego. The self-conscious system, it’s got an equilibrium of within myself, this is what I tell myself, and then a persona, this is what I need to share with other people, and these are dynamically different, and they reflect the problem of social justification versus personal justification, which emerges with propositional language and question-and-answer dynamics.

Jim: That takes us even further, but I suspect all you need is the first, you only need the internal one

Gregg: Right. If you have the internal, all I’m saying is that actually a problem of language, if there’s an internal one, and there’s certainly other animals I do think have proto self-awareness, recognition tasks all the way back to Gallup can show that certain animals pass that, so they have certain kinds of capacities. But when you get language and you get question-and-answer dynamics, you’ve entered into a totally different generative ballgame whereby the self now needs to be regulated and held accountable in a socially constructed dimension. And that’s really, we’re going to get the emergence of personhood, and I would argue that personhood is definition the capacity to be self-recursively aware and take responsibility for one’s actions.

Jim: Yeah, that’s interesting, and probably a very nice line to apply once we start to want to build machine consciousnesses that we could say have free will. We could build them, I’ve already built a very simple animal consciousness, a simulation of course, and it’s a very simple behavioral model for white-tailed deer, actually.

Gregg: Mm-hmm, yes, I remember you mentioned that.

Jim: And it has most of the structural components of what we think of as how our consciousness works, but nothing at all like a self-model and self-consciousness.

Gregg: Right. And that’s what I want, explicit self-consciousness with awareness of consequence that one takes responsibility for. That is the network of what it is to be a person, and that is descriptively what we do, and that has causal consequence in a self-determining world of human self-reflection.

Jim: All right, let’s now go back to your critique of Sapolsky’s determinism.

Gregg: Right, I think this is a very complicated word. So. First off, from a UTOK and naturalistic perspective, we’re all part of an unfolding web of cause and effect. So I don’t believe in free causation, independent. There’s angular momentum in physics, something’s got to interact, there’s action, reaction, and free basically says, no, that doesn’t exist, and therefore you have to go against what I would call the reasonable constraints of physics.

Constraints of physics are not determined. So the things are I do not believe in reductive determinism, I don’t think that we had an infinite computational capacity, we’d be able to say exactly what’s going to happen in the next moment or 100 years out. So, that’s a quantum kind of dynamic. But fundamentally what I will say is that I believe there are novel information processing causal structures at the level of life-minded culture, these have to be taken into consideration, and they impact. So if you’re using the word determinism, I think it’s an ambiguous word and I’m asking, well, what are you actually saying? And if you’re using a reductive Newtonian determinism where everything’s billiard balls and this conversation is really only causal at the level of atoms, well then you and I have a very different metaphysics and I actually don’t think the idea that you could reduce this conversation to the bouncing around of atoms is philosophically defendable.

Jim: And though yet, it is bouncing around of atoms.

Gregg: Right, of course.

Jim: I think that is just an important force to always remember, and this is where, at least from my perspective, Sapolsky goes wrong, because this is certainly a both-and type situation. Nothing, as you said, no magic, right? No substance dualism, anything that happens is absolutely constrained by the laws of physics, but it’s not all that happens,

Gregg: Right. Here’s one way to think about it, when you look up and you see somebody, you activate a schema of that person and then that schema has causal impact on your entire system, so now you represent that person. You have abstracted off of all the microphysics in there and have created an informational entity. That informational entity then has causal elements that impact you that now are separated from the reductive element. When you have information processing in, you have epistemic concepts that are then creating causal patterns that are then divorced from the underlying microphysics. And that’s all you need for top-down causation, you gave some examples of top-down causation in your interview with him, I think he went along with some of them.

To me, if you have top-down causation in your structure, then we can ask what are those things? My argument is that they can be well-characterized as information process and communication networks. This conversation is part of a top-down causation, we’re debating justificatory aspects about how we think about the world, where we position ourselves makes a difference about where, if we were having it at a dinner we could sign people up and half of them would go over to one side of the room and the other half would go to the other, because of the justificatory political dynamics as opposed to the physics. Even though all of those are emerging out of a physical, biological minded animal and cultural context, it’s not divorced from its history and contingency, but they’re novel forces that have causal impact.

Jim: Okay, where do you want to go next with this? What do you think is the best thing to say next?

Gregg: Well, I mean, it really depends a lot. To me, what I’m trying to say is, listen, there are a lot of interesting questions to be asked about what is actually freedom? What is determinism? I think, what I want to say, there are fundamentally minimal elements that should be present in relationship to this debate before the debate gets started. And that is we need to be clear about our definitions, we’re actually talking about choices, choices need to be described. Freedom is a bad description, naive determinism is a bad description for how we make choices. Levels of agency are necessary for us to think about the basic concepts about what we’re debating. And to me, that’s what’s missing in this entire debate, it just jumped across, gave naive explanations for what free will was, and then reduced that and said, arguing against that gives you a determinism, that’s pretty sad. That is not where our knowledge of human psychology should be.

We can then get into, well, what do we really think? What do we mean by these issues of agency? I’m open to that, that’s not where my heart lies at the level of my own work. My heart lies is in getting the basic grip, and that’s what I certainly wanted to convey and communicate that I think is profoundly missing. And I think it’s kind of sad that it’s missing because here’s the issue, Jim, so why I find this to be really disturbing, quite frankly, and that is after this framework he then goes on and starts arguing that we can’t hold people accountable for things, that we have to change the entire structure of human justification around placing blame, which by the way, could certainly use some updates.

But then the conclusion that he draws is, to me, quite striking and dangerous. It would be like saying, well, we no longer need penalties in hockey and football because actually nobody’s responsible for anything. I was like, no, penalties sit in hockey and football to serve all sorts of constraints. Holding people accountable, requiring justification is part of the fundamental glue of human society. Now, maybe we’re doing aspects of that wrong, that’s one thing, but what I heard him say sometimes is like, well, we need to get rid of responsibility, accountability, and all forms of blame and praise and the world will be better off. I think that’s painfully naive. That’s like, oh my God, that is not just good. So that’s another point I certainly wanted to make, is that I think it’s a faulty argument and a painful conclusion that’s actually quite dangerous.

Jim: Yeah, I have to admit bit, I paid very little attention, we didn’t even talk about it very much on the podcast, I just thought it was so patently absurd. Because if you took his argument seriously, even murderers should be let off the hook. Oh, just dancing atoms, not their fault.

Gregg: Right. Think about the implication of the glue of what it is, and as a parent, as a friend, I mean, the issue about how we hold people accountable, and whether or not holding them accountable has contingency, of course it does. Laws and penalties in hockey have obviously all sorts of causal force implications. How we do, that’s a great question, the idea that he’s deduced that we should get rid of the entire process of accountability, responsibility, praise and blame was also quite disturbing to me in relationship to like, this is now an implication from a faulty argument that if taken seriously would be dramatic beyond belief, and I think quite catastrophic.

Jim: It is so obviously insane. Who would want to live in a society like that?

Gregg: I don’t know how we’d even live. The whole dimension of justification is like, okay, let’s just be mute. Well, wait a minute, let’s even behave, let’s just sit here as rocks, because that’s all we are. Like, nah.

Jim: No, yeah, because even dogs discipline each other when they violate the social contract, right? Probably rats do too, I don’t know that much about rat behavior.

Gregg: Oh, absolutely. They play, they actually even dance, to socialize them big rats will lose intentionally to bring little rats into their play group and allow the little rats to win in fights to get them. There’s an entire socialization process about which people are rewarded and punished for at the level of investment and influence at the level of social panels, we add to that levels of justification, but it’s absolutely essential for our transactional and trans-directive way of knowing, throw some sort of philosophical terms in there and some interactive terms in there that I think are completely missing from his analysis.

Jim: All right, I don’t see us needing to go anywhere else today, I think we did a very good closed form discussion of Gregg’s very interesting essay, UTOK’s take on the free will versus determinism debate. And as always, you can find that and all the other links we talked about at the episode page at

Gregg: Been a phuque of a great time, Jim.

Jim: Now how did you spell that?

Gregg: Spelled with a P-H.

Jim: P-H-U-Q-U-E.

Gregg: U-Q-U-E.

Jim: Yeah. All right, that was great.