Tuesday, February 7, 2023

O Tempo, O Morae!

 On the Nature of Poetry

Had poetry no nature,
How would you know
You had written one?

And yes, the title of today's post is a pun on Cicero's famous epigram, "O tempora, o mores."

TOF once heard a member of a writers group explain that she did not wish to be confined by rules, and so her poem fell into no particular pattern, But then how do we know it was a poem rather than some perhaps pithy prose lopped into lines? That is called Advertising Copy, in whuch "Eat at Joe's. Open all night.: becomes

At Joe's
Open all night.
(Which actually does have a pattern. It is a doubling of syllables: 1-2-4.)

The Art of poetry consists not of gushing thoughts -- nothing gushy about Beowulf -- but of patterns of sounds. It is the ability of the artisan to express those thoughts, gushy or not, within constraints. Poetry without the form is like tennis without the net.The oomph depends on the thought rather than on how it is expressed. And most of our thoughts,,, Well, Faithful Reader may complete that thought. 

Pitter Pattern

If poetry is patterned sound, what are the patterns?

That depends on the sounds. Each language has its own grace and beauty, and the best forms take advantage of this. That is why haiku are so prototypically Japanese and come awkwardly to English-speaking lips. In Japanese, there is no strong stress and the pattern emerges from the rhythm of the syllables, English OTOH has very strong stresses, and the poetry come from the "beat." Think of Robert Browning's poem "How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix."

I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;

 in which the beat invokes galloping horses Or Kipling's "In the Neolithic Age"

In the Neolithic Age savage warfare did I wage
  For food and fame and woolly horses' pelt.
I was singer to my clan in that dim, red Dawn of Man,
     And I sang of all we fought and feared and felt. 

in which the rollicking, singing beat evokes the music hall, building to last lines

Here's my wisdom for your use, as I learned it when the moose
  And the reindeer roamed where Paris roars to-night:—
"There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,

which is to say that there is no one pattern for poetry. A version sung by the great Leslie Fish skips a verse or two and changes a now-obscure reference, but indicates how poetry should be sung aloud.

Different languages find oatters differently. Ancient Greek found its groove in the pattern of long and short syllables, as in the opening of the Iliad:

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος
οὐλομένην, ἣ μυρί᾽ Ἀχαιοῖς ἄλγε᾽ ἔθηκε,
πολλὰς δ᾽ ἰφθίμους ψυχὰς Ἄϊδι προΐαψεν
ἡρώων, αὐτοὺς δὲ ἑλώρια τεῦχε κύνεσσιν
5οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι,

which translates as

Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus,
destructive as it was, which gave the Achaeans much grief;
and it hurled down to Hades many strong souls
of heroes, and made them spoils for the dogs
and every bird;

It's hard to see the poetry there, because it is not the bumpity-bump of English, but the aa-a-aa of ancient Greek. The translation looks like free verse1 

I modified this as a template for the opening of In the Lion's Mouth 

Sing, O harper, the anger of Donovan buigh,
That graced us all with boundless grief,
And left brave men a prey to dogs and kites
As we foresaw upon that fateful day
When Donovan buigh and Those of Name
First fell out.

but it incorporates elements of English poetry -- note the alliterations and rhythm. 

Greek 'quantitative; poetry' was prestigious enough that when the Romans wrote their own epic, they tried the same gimmick, even though the native lilt of Latin lay elsewhere. Virgil famously opens the Aeneid with these lines

Arma virumque canō, Trōiae quī prīmus ab ōrīs
Ītaliam, fātō profugus, Lāvīniaque vēnit
lītora, multum ille et terrīs iactātus et altō
vī superum saevae memorem Iūnōnis ob īram;

I sing of arms and the man, he who, exiled by fate,
first came from the coast of Troy to Italy, and to
Lavinian shores – hurled about endlessly by land and sea,
by the will of the gods, by cruel Juno’s remorseless anger,

Latin has the property that the endings of words tell us what English tells us with prepositions and word order. Hence, the words can be arranged for poetic effect, laying out the long and short syllables to the pattern. The first line literally reads

arms-(of) man-(and) sing-(I), Troy-(of) who first from coast,

We know ab ōrīs (from coast) applies to Troy, not Italy, because Trōiae is in the genitive and Ītaliam is in the accusative. Not until we get to qui do we get the subject of the subordinate clause, which we recognize because it is in the nominative case, (The subject of the main clause =I= lurks in the suffix of cano.)

Browbeating English   Submit ye Saxons

The Latinate grammarians of post-Renaissance England kept trying to shoehorn the feet of English into the boot of Latin. They couldn't manage it with the long and short syllables because English lengthens her vowels by ablauting, not by holding the sound for two beats [morae] instead of one as Greek and Latin did. So the classical meters were reinterpreted as heavy and light stress instead. An iamb was originally a-aa, short-long. In English, this became ba-BOOM, light stress-heavy stress.

But when we look at Old English, we see that Anglo-Saxon poetry used alliteration for its pattern-making. The line is broken in two with a pause between and the same consonants are repeated. In Beowulf, for example:

Hwæt. We Gardena    in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,    þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas    ellen fremedon.

Seamus Heaney tried to keep much of this in his English translation. [It takes an Irishman to properly translate Anglo-Saxon poetry into English!]

So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes’ heroic campaigns.

It's Time to Rhyme

Late Latin poetry turned to rhyme and therefore classicists insisted that English poetry ought to rhyme as well. This is easy to do in Latin, since standardized case endings provided ready-made rhymes.

Tantum ergo sacramentum
veneremur cernui
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui
Rhyming is much harder in English than in Latin, which is why it requires greater art to pull it off in English. Done poorly, unless for humorous effect, it becomes doggeral, especially if dome in a thumping beat. Hence, many would-be poets resort to blank verse ir even free verse, It seems easuer; but we can do those poorly as well.

The confluence of rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration provides a rich bouillabaisse, with a variety of rhyme schemes and rhythm meters. Larger forms, like ballads, sonnets, epics, and the like are also available, Then there are forms that use patterns of repeated words (sestina) or whole repeated sentences (villanelle), such as Dylan Thomas, "Do not go gentle into that good night."

.TOF once attempted a sestina and wrestled with it until it had defeated him. He failed to alter the meanings of the repeated words each time they appeared. Presented for your horror and disgust: 

Though finer points of their philosophy may prove obscure

Alas we seem alone; no other mind takes form
On this fair Earth – nor any other place
That eye can see or instruments appraise.
From distant stars no missives we receive.
As if in that vast vacuum no soul
Abides save only those we call our own.

Such life, we’re told, will be unlike our own;
That’s true for trivia: species, body, form,
Appetites and senses foreign to our soul.
(What lusts do bats endure when squeaks they place,
What pleasures due to echoes they receive?
Our minds cannot conceive what bats appraise.) 

But not unlike entire, for kinship we appraise
Beneath those accidents they call their own:
They too preserve, perfect what they receive.
(The struggle to survive is higher form
Of that by which a boulder holds its place.
Inertia is but life deprived of soul.)

They will pursue the good known to their soul,
Whatever good it is that they appraise
In foreign far-flung interstellar place.
Survival’s urge is much alike our own,
Though executed through some other form:
Those powers and appetites that they receive.

Do bats admire the echoes they receive?
Do certain sounds enrich their very soul?
What drives impel the unfamiliar form
On distant stars we do not yet appraise?
Far from and yet alike unto our own
They are, no matter where their outré place.

And what awaits, would we fare to their place
Or they to ours? What welcome to receive?
A sister mind? A tasty snack? A pet to own?
It all depends on what completes their soul
And how both good and ill they do appraise.
When seeing us, what image do they form?

A place within each soul
Receives and does appraise
Its own and other’s form.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Ode to the Hog of Grounding


On Groundhog Day, the rodent sees
His shadow on the ground then flees
Back to his burrow, safe and sound,
And so Winter hangs around.
(Or is it SHE? Die Deitsche say
GrundSAUsdag all on that day.)
Hence, the paradox. O'ercast skies
Cast no shadows when rodents rise;
And so announce the coming spring
With all the pleasures rodents bring.
Burma Shave!

Thursday, January 19, 2023


 Recently, TOF happened upon the following list of words to avoid in one's scrivening and thought to share it with his Faithful Reader. The original YouTuber was unbearably chatty and triggers one of TOF's Pet Peeves [vide infra], so he will not actually link it here. However, a few comments may be in order. 

First, at the risk of falling into the Spanish Barber Paradox, TOF will state the First Unbreakable Law of Writing; viz., There are no unbreakable laws. IOW, each of these shunwords may find a seat at your verbal table, "if God be willing and the creeks don't rise." Foremost among these occasions is dialogue, where any sort of verbal infelicity may be allowable as a means of characterization.

Second, you should shun these words because they usually weaken or distance your prose or add bulk without adding value. The OP kept saying "passive vice," which was TOF's Peeve. She meant passivity as such, not specifically the passive voice. The latter is a particular grammatical form in the conjugation of verbs. It should indeed be eschewed, save in scientific papers, where it has been customary, and in TOF's blog, for its arch flavor.

Third, the list is neither magical nor proprietary. TOF is neither the first nor will he be the last to take note of them. Nor is the list epistemically closed. The Reader may append other words should he be so inclined.

The List [in order alphabetical]

  • definitely 

You should definitely shun this word. (See what I did there? Nyuk-nyuk.) Nothing is lost were TOF to have written instead "You should shun this word." It is one of a family of shunwords that includes actually, really, very, and similar general intensifiers (vide infra). In the sentence

Betsy was definitely worried.
omitting the intensifier loses nothing:
Betsy was worried
  •  is/was
But it's still not quite there. The OP called this "passive voice," but the criminal act here is telling rather than showing. Dropping the word "definitely" still  leaves the sentence flaccid.  Is/was is a colorless word. Other verbs may serve. Instead, the writer should show us Betsy being worried:

Betsy fiddled with the bottles on the sideboard, casting quick glances over her shoulder toward the door. Once, hearing footsteps in the hallway, she muffled the clinking of the bottles and held her breath until the footsteps continued on their way.
  • just
This word is just unnecessary in most cases. It is the literary equivalence of filler, adding bulk without adding value.
  • seem
"Seem" is a wimpy word.
The dark corridor seemed ominous.
First, to whom does it seem so? Second, is the corridor ominous or not. This is like "was." It doesn't say anything. "Seem" might be okay to use in portraying a POV for a character, but there are usually better ways to make the point. Show the corridor in such a way as to make the Reader feel it, 
The corridor loomed dark before her. A draft wafted through it coaxing a low moan from the walls. Somewhere in the darkness a door creaked.
  • somehow
Another wimpy word. Don't tell us a thing somehow happened. Show us how it did happen. Or else in POV how it reflects the character's ignorance. 
Somehow, Betsy found herself walking down that corridor. 
Really? I bet
Summoning her last scrap of courage, Betsy walked down the corridor.
  • somewhat/slightly 
More wimpery! Compare:
Betsy was slightly afraid.
Betsy was afraid.
Betsy's trembling diminished with each step, but never ceased entirely.
  • start
 Do not start doing something; just do it, Compare:
Betsy started to walk down the dark corridor.
Betsy walked down the dark corridor.
  • then
Betsy took a deep breath then stepped into the darkened hallway.
The Reader is no doubt already familiar with the usual passage of time. There is no need to tell him that after one thing happens, then another happens. 
Taking a deep breath Betsy stepped into the darkened hallway.
  • very/really
These words fall into the family of general intensifiers (cf. definitely, supra). It is almost always better to find a more intense word simpliciter. For example, change:
The vampire's teeth were very sharp.
The vampire's teeth were nails piercing her neck,
Or change
Gareth spoke in a really loud voice.
What, compared to a fake loud voice? Try
Gareth shouted.

Passive Voice

Sometimes more than a word ought be shunned, but a construction. Passive Voice is an example. In fiction, the passive voice wimps out because it evicts the actor from the subject slot and replaces it with the recipient. In the active voice, an actor does a thing. In the passive voice, a thing is done (by an actor). The actor is oft omitted, too. Compare:
Active voice:  The parched vampire drained Betsy's blood. 
Here, the vampire is the actor and the subject of the sentence.
Passive voice: Betsy's blood was drained [by the parched vampire] 
In this version, the recipient of the act [Betsy's blood] is made the subject of the sentence, and the actor [the vampire] is exiled to a modifying phrase, to cower behind a preposition.
Passive voice is not mere passivity. Betsy is inactive in the blood-draining. It is the structure of the sentence that distances the Reader from the narrative.

Overkill sentences

Another macroshun is the extra sentence at the end of a paragraph.
The frigate rotated slowly on her long axis as she orbited the Moon. The melted rent down her side marked where a laser cannon had opened her interior to the vacuum. A debris cloud surrounded the wreck, and fitful sparks flashed in the oxygen outgassing from her fittings. No one answered our hails.  The ship was utterly destroyed.
Oh, was she now? No fooling? You mean Faithful Reader couldn't pick up on that from the description? The last sentence in that passage should be utterly destroyed.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Secret of Western Dominance

 What do the New York Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Dodgers, a steel mill, and a chapel of Benedictine nuns have in common? 

Nothing more or less than the rise of the West from a backwater to a formerly dominant position in the world -- as well as her later decay. 

There are any number of factors that contributed. For example, the specific shoreline of Western Europe, her broad continental shelf, the winds and currents of the Atlantic, the freedom of women, etc. No big thing in history has a single causal factor. 

But what of the Philharmonic, Dodgers , et al.?

The playing of a symphony [or similar work] requires 1st and 2nd Violins, Violas, Cellos, Double Basses, Flutes, Clarinets, Oboes, Bassoons, French Horns, Trumpets, Trombones, and others each  playing a different line of music and yet producing a coordinated whole. The Dodgers require pitchers, catchers, 1st basemen, 2nd basemen, shortstops, third basemen, and sundry outfielders each doing his own thing, yet playing together toward a harmonious outcome. The same can be said of the crane operators, puddlers, millwrights, chemists, metallurgists, inspectors, mechanics, accountants, salesmen, managers, et al. who comprise the steel mill; not to mention the sundry voices that comprise a choir. 


A key invention of medieval Christendom was polyphony, in which several voices in a choir sang different lines which combined harmoniously and contrapuntally into a whole. This mentality informed the newfangled "corporate persons," like universities and guilds, which also featured different people doing different things that combined into a whole. The modern corporation is an example of such communal enterprise. So s an orchestra or a team sport. Teamwork and coordinated disparate roles were a key factor in the rise of the West. It's one of the reasons, the West entered the middle ages a follower but emerged as a leader.


Other cultures were quite adept at top-down, not so accomplished at bottom-up. An Indian raga played on the sitar is a masterpiece of virtuosity. The melodic lines are complex and the development subtle and intricate; but the only second voice is that of the rhythm beat of the tabla, and that is more like an accompanist than a colleague. There were no orchestras in India -- or in China, Japan, or the House of Submission. There were no corporations. Team sports like polo were more like a bunch of guys all trying to do the same thing than a variety of different roles all trying to do different things, but in a coordinated manner. Likewise, communal singing is not polyphonic if everyone is trying to sing the same melody.

As the rest of the world picked up on corporate effort, they began also to excel. One finds orchestras everywhere. Japan fields excellent baseball teams; India, outstanding cricket teams. Japan organized world-class industrial corporations; India has begun to do so now that the "red tape Raj" has been trimmed back.

But of late, Western music has been subsiding into noise. After a polyphonic heyday that gave us the Mmas and the Papas in popular tunes, the blending of multiple voices has shed first counterpoint, then harmony, and finally melody, so that we are left with mere rhythm. The coordination of disparate voices in parliaments and congresses has faded into a search for a Leader who, like the One Man of China, the rajah or the emir, or the Emperor of Rome, can guide us out of our troubles. We have begun to put our faith into autocracy rather than group effort.

Monday, December 19, 2022

De libero arbitrio

A perennial issue has come up again elsewhere. Yes, Tofians, another physicist has strayed from the pasture. Sabine Hossenfelder posted a YouTube video a while back which the Algorithm presented to TOF's oculars for sober consideration. In it, Dr Hossenfelder provides her insight as a physicist on the philosophical concept of Free Will. She doesn't buy it. (But then, she was forced to say so by vast impersonal forces, wasn't she?) Her objections remind TOF of Mary Midgley's dictum that those who spurn philosophy are usually in thrall to obsolete forms of it; in this case, to 18th/19th century mechanistic philosophies. Most of her objections were considered by T. Aquinas a millennium and a half more than half a millennium ago. In fact, Tommy raised a great many more than she does, but she undoubtedly believes hers are new and Modern. She has at least framed them in a Modern Way and presumes that Science! (a method for investigating the metrical properties of material bodies) is somehow apropos for investigating the ontology of philosophical concepts! Had her only tool been a hammer, I am sure that Free Will would have possessed sterling, nail-like qualities.

But, TOF (I hear you say), you cogent codger of cogitation, if the mind's outputs are the product of mere external forces, should we pay any more attention to S. Hossenfelder's brain-outputs than to the whisperings of trees rustled by the wind? 

Answer: TOF is retired and has just delivered myself of a novel; so there is nothing urgent on his plate.

Let the games begin! 

Nota bene: For those unfamiliar with the Questions genre, the format lays out

  1. the Question to be determined

  2. the Principle Objections against it

  3. A single supperting statement (Sed contra = but on the other hand...0

  4. The determination of the writer (Respondeo - I answer that...)

  5. Responses to each of the initial objections

Quaestio: Whether the Will be Free

Objection 1. It would seem that the Will is not free because the brain is physical matter, composed of atoms, and therefore its acts are determined by the physical forces acting upon it.  If we knew all the forces acting on a person, we would see that he had no choice but to to do as he did. [Hossenfelder 2020]

Objection 2. Furthermore, physical Laws are expressed in differential equations and given the initial conditions, all future states can be thereby calculated. As Hossenfelder's brain atoms put out, "the whole story of the universe in every single detail was determined already at the Big Bang. We are just watching it play out.” [Hoss., op cit]

Objection 3. It would seem that the Will is not free because no one chooses that which he deems repugnant, but always chooses that which seems best. The Big Bang resulted in Sabine Hossenfelder's brain atoms emitting, “your choice is determined by what you want.” Therefore, the Will is not free to choose otherwise. [Hoss.,op cit]

Objection 4. Psychologist Benjamin Libet conducted experiments that showed that the brain “registers” the decision to make movements before a person consciously decides to move. And psychologist Daniel Wegner’s brain state declared, “The experience of willing an act arises from interpreting one’s thought as the cause of the act.” Our sense of making choices or decisions is just an awareness of what the brain has already decided for us." Therefore, decisions are made subconsciously by the brain and not by the Will.

Objection 5. According to law professor Barbara H. Fried, "our worldviews, aspirations, temperaments, conduct, and achievements...are in significant part determined by accidents of biology and circumstance.” Therefore, the will is not free and we should not hold malefactors blameworthy. [Fried 2013]

Sed contra. Mathematician and physicist Alfred North Whitehead said, “Scientists animated by the purpose of proving themselves purposeless constitute an interesting subject for study.” [The Function of Reason (1929), Beacon Books, 1958, p. 16]

Respondeo. First let us clarify what is meant by a motion of the Will;then of what is meant by its freedom.  

1. The Will is the appetite for the products of conception, i.e., for concepts

As such, it is analogous to the Emotions, which are appetites for percepts, that is, for concrete objects directly perceived [or recalled] by the senses. The Will may supervene over the Emotions. This can be seen by comparing the animal emotion to eat when it is hungry versus the human decision to forego the food for the sake of a diet or a holy fast. 

We can diagram the human psyche as below [Fig 1] . It incorporates the basic stimulus-response loop common to all animals; viz.,

  • Sensation. Stimuli [photons, compression waves, pheromones, ...] spray like a fire hose on the outer senses, the organs of sight, hearing, smell, et al. The neural impulses thus triggered arrive in different areas of the brain at different instants.
  • Perception. The inner senses select and unite these sensations via the common sense and form an whole-istic "image" via the imagination. The Image can later be recalled by memory.The Image is less detailed than the immediate Sensation, and the Memory, less detailed still. The estimative power of the imagination deems the percept desirable or obnoxious. This re-cognition may be hard-wired or learned.
  • Emotions. This engenders an appetite for [or revulsion to] the perceived concrete particular.
  • Motion. This triggers the animal to approach or retreat from the perceived object.  Motion may also be triggered without emotion via the autonomic nervous system: hearts beat, stomachs digest, and struck knees jerk without any particular desires.

Fig 1. Schematic of sensitive and rational psyche

Thus far, all animals. For rational animals, i.e., for creatures able to give reasons for their acts, two additional powers are appended; viz., 

  • Intellect reflects on the percepts and "pulls out" [abstracts] concepts. Like the estimative power of the imagination, the deliberative power of the intellect deems the concept desirable or not.
  • Volition then wants the desired concept [or rejects an undesireable one]. This wanting/not wanting supervenes on any parallel visceral emotion raised by direct perception [incl. memory] of the concrete particular, such as a pleasant taste of this apricot or gentle touch of that silk scarf. For example:

Adam perceives a barking Rottweiler and abstracts a concept of dog that he finds frightening. His Will produces a fear of dogs in general, and thereafter wants avoid all canines. This is quite different from the direct and immediate fear-reaction to the actual Rottweiler. 

Bertha encounters a rampaging mob smashing store windows and looting, and she feels in the moment an instinctive fear and desires to avoid it. But then her intellect apprehends that the mob is rioting for social justice, a concept of which her Will approves. She overrides her fears and either approves or even joins in to get her fair share of the loot.

In humans, every act of the Intellect is accompanied by an act of the Imagination. Try  conceiving of triangularity without imagining a specific triangle: perhaps an equilateral triangle, a scalene triangle or the musical instrument, or even a love triangle. Try to conceive of "dog" without imagining a specific dog: perhaps a scruffy mutt or a French-groomed poodle. Since the Imagination involves Sensory memories, a neural pattern will appear in the brain.

It is easy to mistake imaginative behavior for the intellective. The former permits at least some animals to be trained. A bear can be taught to dance because he esteems the dance as good due to the rewards he is given for doing it; but few bruins take up ballet on their own. Cathy OTOH conceives of ballet in the abstract after perceiving instances of it in particular and deems it a good, and so takes lessons and rehearses. Debbie with the same perceptionsdeems it a waste of her time,

2. What do we mean by freedom of the Will? 

Freedom is the absence of compulsion. (Chastek, 2014a). So the Will is free to the extent that it is not compelled [or determined] toward any one particular decision or blocked in its natural movement toward the Good. Think free fall. 

 In college, TOF and his classmates noted that when the armed robber sticks a gun in your ribs and says, "Your money or your life!" the choice is not free, but compelled, We raised this objection with the spirit that no one in history before the evolution of the college sophomore had ever thought of it. Then what is that word OR doing in the sentence? But everyone would choose to relinquish the money rather than the life! Maybe so, but no one says that a free choice is necessarily the stupid one, or that it is not arrived at by weighing the pros and cons in the chooser's value system. For example, Frank is trained in hand-to-hand combat and notices that the robber's gun has the safety engaged. Having more facts at his disposal, he reaches a determination to grapple with the robber, rather than hand over his hard-earned cash. 

Those accustomed to dealing with inanimate matter may be inclined to call such things 'forces' rather than 'information,' but their Weltanschauung was formed in the era of dead machines, well before the development of software, so they are inclined to conceive the mind as full of gears, levers, and billiard balls,

In particular, there are many things that free will is not.

  • Free Will is not random . 
  • Free Will is not unpredictable . 
  • Free Will is not unreasoned. 
  • Free Will is not unmotivated. 
Quite the contrary. As the appetite of the Intellect, the Will is a rational power. It moves in accordance with the judgements of the Intellect and so always has reasons for its motions. Compare this to the Modern, Nietzschean Triumph of the Will, which elevates Wanting over Thinking.

3. That the Will is free can be easily seen. 

  • a) It is impossible to want what we do not know.
  • b) Our knowledge is often imperfect or lacking. 
  • c) Therefore, our wants have "slack" or "degrees of freedom."

Suppose Edgar deems World Peace a good thing and therefore desires it. But of what does this Peace consist? By what means might it be achieved? Edgar may be uncertain or unclear on the best course to take and decides to 

  • join the World Peace Association and participate in street theater. OR 
  • write stern letters to the New York Times in support of Peace. OR  
  • conquer all his rivals, as Caesar Augustus did. OR...

The Will is free to the extent that is it not determined to a particular course of action.

When knowledge is complete, the Will cannot withhold consent. For example, the Intellect apprehends proposition "1+1=2," as those symbols are normally understood, as a true statement and therefore the Will necessarily chooses, "Yes." 

This may not be the Late Modern's notion of Free Will, but it is not "changing the definition." It is how the freedom of the Will was defined by the people who first discussed it; e.g.., Thomas Aquinas. In fact, he listed twenty-four objections to the Question, including most of those raised again by Late Moderns.

4. Not all acts of a human are free. Some are autonomic, like the knee jerk, others can be ascribed to genetic factors, to habits, to training, and so on. Aquinas gave the example of a scholar unwittingly stroking his beard while deep in thought. A trained musician does not deliberate over each note before he plays it, but has practiced the piece so thoroughly that it has become muscle memory and he plays without thinking about bodily movement. Free choice entered into the decision to learn the piece in the first place -- to engage in the behavior that through repetition became a habit. Note the distinction between the abstract, concept of deciding to learn the piece and the physical acts of moving the fingers. It may well be the case that most acts fall into this latter category, which is why Aquinas  distinguished between "acts of a human" in general and specifically "human acts," i.e., rational acts. 

Chastek noted that "the difference between a Relativistic and Newtonian view of the world is negligible in everyday practical units. In the same way the free actions of human beings are a negligible amount of the total actions in a single human body) and so the difference between a universe of complete determinism and one with free human action is negligible. Nevertheless, the great scientific revolutions turned on seeing the significance in things that were negligible within their context."  [Chastek 2013]

Reply to Objection 1. This objection begs the question. It presumes as an act of faith that a host of “hidden variables” are there whether discoverable or not.

Furthermore, since under this objection our thoughts are simply brain states determined at the Big Bang and our thinking is just as much an illusion as our willing. Yet, this is never mentioned by deniers of free will.

Indeed, if actions are determined by outside factors=, all action is an illusion, since there are no factors outside the universe, the universe cannot act [Chastek, 2014b], and we are back to Parmenides and Zeno's paradoxes.

Reply to Objection 2. This objection is Calvinism in fancy dress. The math approximates certain metrical properties of empirical reality, and as the great physicist Henri Poincare noted, these calculations grow increasingly uncertain as we extend their range or increase their precision t0 "the whole story of the universe in every single detail." Whether wittingly or not, he cast doubt on the very idea that quantitative models could be used to predict the future (Ekeland, 1988: 35). 

Paleontologist S. J. Gould once wrote that if the “tape of evolution” were rerun, we would not expect the same species to emerge. And if a purely mechanical process like natural selection is not deterministic, why should we nail the human Will to the doors of the Big Bang? If the extinction of various species today was written already into the Big Bang, it is hard to see how any selection at all is possible, whether natural selection or free will. 

Reply to Objection 3.  The Will is determined to the Good as its final cause just as the Intellect is determined to the True. But the generic desire for Good includes many diverse specific goods and does not compel the Will to any specific one. “If there is only one possible way to achieve the end, then the reason for willing the end and the reason for willing the means are the same. But such is not the case in the matter under discussion, since there are many ways to achieve happiness. And so human beings, although they necessarily will happiness, do not necessarily will any of the things leading to happiness [Aquinas 2003: Q.VI]. That the Will always chooses the apparently best alternative does not coerce the Will, since it is the deliberation as to the best is up to the individual. A free choice is not random or unmotivated. Hossenfelder's version of Nietzsche’s Triumph of the Will – “what you want determines what you choose” -- is akin to "wet streets cause rain." It gets things precisely backward since what you want just is the product of the will.

Reply to Objection 4.  "All contemporary neuroscience-informed arguments against free choice confuse Buridan’s Ass Decisions with rational-moral ones" (Chastek 2018). Libet's experiment did not address desires for abstracted concepts, and so did not address the Will's freedom. It involved only simple physical movements, such as flexing the wrist, and these might well have only physical causes or inclinations.They do not seem to advance the Will's motion toward the Good.

Participants in Libet's experiment were asked to note the moment at which they were consciously aware of the decision to move, while EEG electrodes attached to their head monitored their brain activity. Activity in the supplementary motor area (SMA) was designated a "readiness potential" and defined as the real "moment of decision." Aside from the imprecision of self-reporting the moment of conscious awareness or the somewhat arbitrary designation of  the brain activity as the actual decision point, the SMA is usually associated with imagining movements rather than actually performing them. So, it is not implausible that the SMA activity would precede the subject's self-reporting of decision. None of this lays a glove on Free Will. Even if the decision to move was made by Freud's imagined "subconscious," that subconscious is part of the person. 

Reply to Objection 5. Our habits, inclinations, abilities and such are among those factors which we consider when making a deliberate choice. A free choice is not an unmotivated one. And if malefactors should not be fined or imprisoned because they were not responsible for their decisions, why should physicists be given Nobel prizes for theirs?


  1. Aristotle (350 BC). Nicomachean Ethics, tr. W.D. Ross
  2. Chastek, James (2009), Free will and electrodes (Just Thomism, December 30, 2009)
  3. ______  (2013) "Free will as negligible." (Just Thomism, January 12, 2013) 
  4. _______ (2014a) "The free will defense" (Just Thomism, June 4, 2014) 
  5. ______ (2014b) "The necessity of soul from the reality of action." (Just Thomism,June 24, 2014)
  6. ______ (2018) "Free will and final causality" (Just Thomism, January 26, 2018).
  7. Ekeland, Ivar (1988). Mathematics and the Unexpected. (Univ of Chicago Press)
  8. Flynn, Michael (2016). In Psearch of Psyche: Let's Get Moving. The TOFSpot.
  9. Fried, Barbara H. (2013). "Beyond Blame" (Boston Review. June 28, 2013)
  10. Hossenfelder, Sabine (2020)  "You don't have free will, but don't worry." (YouTube Oct 10, 2020)
  11. Searle, John R. (1990) "Is the Brain a Digital Computer?" in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 64, No. 3 (Nov., 1990), pp. 21-37 (American Philosophical Association)
  12. Thomas Aquinas (2003). Quaestiones Disputatae de Malo (On Evil). tr. Richard Regan (Oxford University Press)

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