Depression and Determinism – can we Change our Mind?

Depression and determinism: can we influence our moods, can we “change our mind”? We don’t know. There are many opinions but no answers.

Melancholy has been with us since the beginning and has been written about over many millennia.  Hippocrates of Kos and Galen of Pergamon had much to say on the subject. Closer to our own time, Samuel Johnson wrote of the “Black Dog” in the 18th Century and Winston Churchill popularised the term in the 20th.

There is no better introduction to the science of animal behaviour than the lucid, entertaining and informative lectures of Dr Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neuroscience at Stanford University.

Sapolsky believes we do not have free will:

For me, the single most important question is how to construct a society that is just, safe, peaceful – all those good things – when people finally accept that there is no free will.

Many scientists, the recent and much loved Stephen Hawking included, believe that we live in a deterministic universe where all unravels in accordance with cause and effect (karma perhaps).

Is there no cure then? Can we not “change our minds”?

Much has been made of meditation and awareness in recent years as a coping mechanism – and indeed an awareness and acceptance of the condition are crucial.

Much has been written of the importance of diet and exercise.

Drugs companies have struggled for years to find chemicals that work effectively.  The latest research has veered back towards hallucinogenic drugs found in the natural world such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and DMT ( ayahuasca ).

Those suffering from depression would be wise to avoid the question of determinism altogether: we do not know whether we can truly “change our minds”.

Perhaps a cure will eventually be found, but in the meantime a portfolio of remedies may perhaps alleviate the symptoms.


  1. So…how does one go about changing society if no one has free will? The Sapolsky quote presents us with an oxymoron. His conclusion has no basis in logic or empirical reality. Unfortunately, free will skepticism seems to be the popular cult of our day.

    Here’s how I resolve the paradox, in a nutshell, at my blog.

    “Free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.

    “Determinism” asserts that the behavior of objects and forces in our universe provides perfectly reliable cause and effect, and thus, at least in theory, is perfectly predictable.

    Because reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue, it poses no threat to free will. A meaningful constraint would be a man holding a gun to our head, forcing us to do his will. But reliable causation is not such a force. It is simply how we operate as we go about being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose.

    Because our decisions are reliably caused by our own purpose, our own reasons, and our own interests, our deliberate choosing poses no threat to determinism. Choosing is a deterministic process. And this process is authentically performed by us, according to our own purpose, reasons, and interests.

    As it turns out, every choice we make for ourselves is both freely chosen and reliably caused. Thus, the concepts of free will and determinism are naturally compatible.


    1. I would very much LIKE to believe that we have free will. It certainly FEELS as though we have. I have no idea as to the truth of the matter and sadly I suspect no one else does at this point in time either.

      I would very much like to see change in society: the economic model as currently practiced is, in my view a sad continuation of Darwinism and the struggle for survival. Business is sublimated violence.

      I quite agree that if we have no free will there is nothing we can do to influence events – they will proceed in a pre-ordained fashion. If Frank Tipler and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin are correct that direction may be a good one. If not…then who knows.

      Sadly many leading scientists of our day believe in pure strict determinism. Many also believe that time itself is an illusion and thus no “change” possible. Stephen Hawkings is on record as stating that we are mere robots.

      Max Tegmark and David Deutsch have an amusing twist on randomness and determinism – the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics: randomness is an illusion caused by a constant splitting of the universe as each decision point is reached. In one universe Frank Tipler’s Omega Point will happen in another it won’t.

      Regardless of all this it can only be “belief” at present. As some believe in a god others believe in…..determinism or randomness even though we have no proof or disproof of either.

      My own answer is to act as if we have free will regardless of the truth of the situation. I will thus do my best to improve my own behaviour regardless of whether that is possible or not.


      1. Submit, Anthony, just submit and hang on, LOL!

        Humans have no lessons for Reality (aka determinism, fate, karma, free will etc ad infinitum – ego, ego, all is ego!).

        Ask the mystics, they can’t help in the human sense, but they can point to your Real answers from personal EXPERIENCE.

        We can’t evade our humaness but we can avoid it!



    2. Actually to tell the truth I am embarking on what I hope will prove to be quantitative research into qualia and consciousness. While I do not have 1/00th of your skills in computing I have nonetheless spent some years coding algorithmic trading systems (incorporating machine learning in some instances). I note these guys with interest:
      Qualia Computing
      Qualia Research
      and I intend to become involved in some shape or form.


      1. You may have already read it, but I found Michael Graziano’s “Consciousness and the Social Brain” to be very enlightening. He describes awareness as the information “schema” by which we model the brain’s physical process of attention. Cool stuff.


      2. Hmm….sounds good. Consciousness is about the only thing which truly interests me these days although whether we will understand it in my lifetime is doubtful!


    3. “So…how does one go about changing society if no one has free will?”

      Who says we have to?

      Isn’t this anthropomorphic hubris at the very heart of all human misery, historically and to this day?

      Best wishes,



  2. I do have a problem in assuming we have free will in a purely deterministic universe. We are mere matter – a collection of atoms -the same atoms as forms everything in our universe. Our brain is a particularly complex arrangement of atoms but does that free us from causality? Does it allow some mysterious entity (consciousness) to choose what will happen next to this particular group pf atoms? If so, Cartesian dualism is presumably correct and we are indeed more than the sum of our arts. Consciousness is some specific and separate part of the physical universe with its own physical laws. If that is not the case then we must surely be mere “observers” with the ability to notice what happens around us without being able to direct it?

    But again who knows.


    1. I’m pretty sure that all of the objects that actually exist in the universe are composed of atoms. But I’m also pretty sure that every atom is composed of smaller parts, like electrons, protons, etc. One of the problems with reductionism is that we never get down to the “smallest part of the smallest part”. If we wish to imagine that “everything is just physics”, then we have to face up to the fact that physics itself is an arbitrary macro viewpoint that rests upon a lower level of causation. So what we probably should be saying is, “Gee, I sure wish physics were the smallest level we’d ever have to deal with”.

      Both of the neuroscientists I rely on, Michael Graziano (“Consciousness and the Social Brain”) and Michael Gazzaniga (“Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain”), assert that the operation of the brain involves both top-down as well as bottom-up causation.

      Consider the computer processor chip used to fly a drone. It is a collection of silicon switches organized to perform certain basic logic and arithmetic operations. An organized series of instructions and sensors allow the computer to sense the drone’s altitude and attitude and make adjustments that allow the drone to fly.

      The program/process begins when you switch on the power. The process then animates the drone to hover at the altitude you select, automatically increasing or decreasing the speed of each rotor to accomplish your purpose, for example, taking aerial photos of your house and neighborhood.

      If you switch off the power while it’s up there, it falls to the ground, like any other inanimate object. The physical parts themselves, the atoms of which the drone is constructed, cannot “cause” the drone to fly. The drone can only fly while the process is up and running.

      So, what is the “nature” of this “process”? The process itself is not a physical object, even though the steps of the program are recorded in physical memory. We can take the same program and run it on any number of microprocessors. The same microprocessor can also be used to run many other specific and unique processes, like balancing your checkbook or tracking your diet. So there is a distinction between the nature of the “software” and the nature of the “hardware”.

      I’m not sure how to answer that question. The running process is certainly not a ghost or spirit. And yet it appears to be “different in nature” from the hardware upon which it is running.

      There seems to me to be at least three distinct levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. Each is studied by its own collection of sciences: the Physical Sciences (e.g., Physics and Chemistry), the Life Sciences (e.g., Biology), and the Social Sciences (e.g., Psychology and Sociology).

      If “everything is just physics” then we’d only need the one science.


      1. “So, what is the “nature” of this “process”?” The process seems to be just a combination of matter and energy which are equivalent anyway. The software is perhaps the maths part and information itself has to be conceptual I guess rather than “physical” as such. Information so far as we know needs to be recorded in some physical substrata but perhaps the knowledge its self is something else. Perhaps maths is something else. Or there again perhaps both are merely “something” which it is possible to describe or encode in physical substrata. I like the analogy of the helicopter to the human and consciousness and believe it to be a correct description (intuitively of course). The human is hardware and software run by energy through mitochondria. Switch off the energy source and that particular collection of atoms becomes something else as the body disintegrates. I MOST certainly do not believe in ghosts or spirits. But we are probably very far at present from knowing what miraculous “things” might be obtained by arranging “stuff” (atoms and sub particles) in different ways.

        Most important to me is the question of how to use this to improve the lives of sentient beings.


      2. Personally, I think one way we could improve the lives of sentient beings is by correctly and appropriately utilizing the conceptual tools we have evolved over … well, however long we’ve been around. We need to recognize that all human concepts have evolved within a deterministic universe. And we can therefore presume that every concept we use already subsumes reliable cause and effect.

        This would include the concepts of “free will”, “responsibility”, and “self”. Free will does not imply freedom from reliable causation, because there is no such thing as “freedom” without reliable cause and effect. Without reliable causation, the will could never implement any intent.

        Therefore, casting “free will” and “determinism” as mutual enemies is not only empirically false, but produces unnecessary confusion and damage to human rationality.

        So, it is about time that serious philosophers put a stop to this nonsense. Most normal people go about their lives correctly using the term “free will” to refer to a person deciding what they “will” do, when “free” of coercion or undue influence. And these same people also know that their choices are reliably determined by their interests, their purpose, and their reasons, which they’ll happily list for you if asked.


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