Free Will and Tabula Rasa is Dead; But So Is Materialism. Connecting Dots.

The Enlightenment idea of Free Will, or Tabula Rasa, is one in which humans are deemed to have been born clean slate, no intrinsic behavioral programming. It’s often juxtaposed with the observed unlearned behavior of animals, called instinct.

On the other end are the materialists, who essentially hold that we’re merely a product of genetics that call forth certain cellular chemical processes that effect brain processes, and everyone is just a product of an evolved genetic code—blameless—and it’s for us to select enlightened leaders to socially engineer things so as to minimize carnage.

I regard Free Will as a means by which humans can be made to feel unearned guilt. I regard Materialism as a means by which humans can rationalize any behavior, along with regarding guilt as social construction. Metaphorically, it’s a philosophical battle between Angels and African Cats. …Angels have free will, if you’ve ever heard of Lucifer.

Moreover, I regard the former as a crutch for religion—the idea of sin or Original Sin—and the latter as a crutch for socialism, as everyone is an innocent, blameless victim of their programming.

For many, many years, I’ve not been an allie of either—though I now believe I was still mistaken, had not connected all the dots. It’s the classic sort of dispute…in which, one must pick a side. But I hate picking sides—because all sides are obsessed with a side and thus, always wrong. So, for a long time, I’ve called myself a materialist, except for free will (I wasn’t trying to be funny).

And now, that changes.

Animal Behavior and the Microbiome

But humans are not the only animals with microbiomes, and microbiomes do not just impact health. Recent research is revealing surprising roles for microbiomes in shaping behaviors across many animal taxa—shedding light on how behaviors from diet to social interactions affect the composition of host-associated microbial communities and how microbes in turn influence host behavior in dramatic ways.

…Just wait until you read the bit on the lifecycle of the liver fluke in our upcoming book; which reminds me…I’ve got to get back to work, or Tim is going to have my ass.

So, here’s where I’m at now. Humans have neither free will where they’re necessarily culpable in all action, nor are they materialist-blameless and guilt free for any deed. It’s a complex combination where humans are 10% of the total cells of a human body, 500-1,000th the combined species of a human body, and 100-150th of the genome.

There is perhaps an alien mind control aspect to it but perhaps the reconciliation I seek is to be found in a simple distinction: It’s not free will, but it is the power to exercise conscious will and it’s something that almost everyone has experienced, regardless of the makeup of their mocrobiota. That only means it’s easier for some, but not entirely out of the reach of anyone I’ve ever experienced. Easy for some, fucking difficult for others.

So, to my mind, we have the potential of a new philosophy where you’re neither all guilty, nor all blameless. But, you still have some power.

It’s complicated.

I think this notion has the potential to revolutionize philosophy, and everything human ultimately flows from human philosophy over the questions of why. It’s why so many of you health/diet bloggers don’t have the readership you may deserve on the 1+2 merits of your work. You have to connect it all to deep contemplation.

Consider that the idea I’ve just put forth has the potential to unite free will, materialism, and even the observed instinct in animals. Is instinct in lower animals simply a far lower resolution of human-like intelligence, where there’s no extant power of will that by definition in this context, is the power to override the chemical-signal influence of the microbiota, because they don’t deal in intellectual conceptualization and metaphor?

Is the human power of will a double-edged sword, essentially—literally—what makes us human when called for, but a noisy signal when we ought to relax and go with the flow?

I can’t begin to sort out all the possibilities, so I’ll leave it to comment contributors at this point.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Christoph Dollis on April 14, 2014 at 13:09
  2. Cencio on April 14, 2014 at 12:41

    This is essentially how the Buddha framed karma. Basically, your circumstance is in part the result of cause and effect you have no control over, and in part the result of the conscious choices you make.

  3. Woodchuck Pirate on April 14, 2014 at 13:31

    I am not my body.

    I am no”thing”.

    Life, existence, is not form.

    There is no separateness.

    I simply “am”.

    That is the original state.

    The human life-form is over-rated.

    Woodchuck Pirate
    aka Ramond J Raupers Jr USA

  4. Michael Tew on April 14, 2014 at 16:44

    I’m drawn to the idea that consciousness is emergent. It can’t be reduced to the laws of biology, chemistry, or physics, even while being wholly dependent upon these systems. If you believe the idea of emergence, laws arise from complexity in a way that is unpredictable, irreducible, and wholly new. Emergence also says that dependence works in both directions: systems co-evolve, where human consciousness relies on its underlying biology and vice versa. You can extend this idea as far as you like, and some people do. Systems with underlying complexity like the economy and chemistry could be emergent and not reducible to the laws of physics. Emergence, it seems, might even be the way to resolve the debate over materialism and free will.

    Here’s a good article on emergence you might find interesting:

    • Christoph Dollis (@ChristophDollis) on April 15, 2014 at 04:10

      I’m drawn to that idea too.

      I think it’s wrong, though (although nodes of intelligence may accumulate, and in that sense be emergent).

    • Woodchuck Pirate on April 15, 2014 at 06:29

      Michael Tew,

      Thanks for the link which I assumed you shared with homogenous intent to all. The underlying premises of the article glaringly limit what is postured as an inquiry of what is infinite. I’m not an altruist and so do not seek the conversion of others including yourself. I’m stating the obvious (to me) so it’s clear what I’ve moved beyond.

      As every writer is a propagandist, even those that write dictionaries, dialogue, as a net-sum-difference, depends upon free will exercised. True self arises as ego dies. Ego blames science for dysfunction, but ego is always dysfunctional. What ego calls “sacred” may simply be “infinite truth”. One thing I am sure of is that ego will never know. Ego can only appear to want to know, because ego isn’t real. The only thing more dysfunctional than ego, is collective ego. Collective ego is always right (at least it says so). Form is simply the art of living. Ego is manifest of the human life-form. This says nothing of true self.

      Economics is faith not science. Mathematics is based in science, and returns perception toward reality as mankind hurtles deeper into infinite truth, no matter bouncing between the rails in rejection of free will.

      Woodchuck Pirate
      aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

  5. Gina on April 14, 2014 at 18:47

    Isn’t the power to exercise conscious will just another way of saying that some of us – presumably, the better adjusted – have a more solid illusion of free will than others? For example, addicts, the mentally ill and people with violent tempers will likely more readily admit that they have no free will, at least at times.

    Social experiments tell us again and again that so many things outside our control (e.g. being smiled at or bumped into before an interaction) influence our behaviors in major ways without our knowing it. I’ve always said that sanity is the ability to predict one’s own behavior. Is that what you mean by “conscious will”?

  6. Gina on April 14, 2014 at 18:58

    Sorry for the double comment, but this is just interesting as hell…

    Would Yeshua (if he existed) or Buddha or Krishna, etc. have experienced less serenity after a round of antibiotics? Do the brain changes in long-time meditators override the problems that occur with gut dysbiosis? What does the gut biome have to do with neuroplasticity?

    Sorry, Richard, but this opens up a whole new (fucking awesome) bag of worms.

    • Chim on April 15, 2014 at 04:44

      Its all a question of how well said visionaries could maintain their serene composure when needing to rip a huge one. Buddha managed a cheeky smile while apparently Jeshua had such good sphincter control that he could float above water. The record on Krishna is unclear.

  7. marie on April 14, 2014 at 21:49

    Nice! I like where you’ve gone with this.
    My comment when I posted that paper was something like “I’m jealous of the mice, they get L.rhamnosus to decrease their anxiety, what do we get?”

    But it’s larger even than that. It’s not just that these foreign creatures affect ‘our’ mental state, it’s that in driving that state they cause behavior by us that is geared to Their survival and expansion, their benefit. Whose mental state is it then?
    That thing we call our consciousness, the ‘who’ who has a mental state, is not necessarily human or not only human? Materialism, either way. But “I” have an over-ride, if I ‘choose’ to exercise it, with great difficulty for some, as you say.
    If there’s an “I”, there’s free will.
    Except….why postulate such over-ride?

  8. Richard Nikoley on April 14, 2014 at 22:03

    “Except….why postulate such over-ride?”

    In case it turns out that what we generally regard as _true humanity_ is only found at the margins and everything else is just the material of a complex organism.

    I’m referring to extreme acts of heroism, compassion, daring, “superhuman” productivity that pushes through every tendency to laziness or complacency to accomplish great things.

  9. marie on April 14, 2014 at 22:25

    Mmmm, that’s a Very comforting thought for ‘humans’, to be able to ‘take credit’ for the best of ‘humanity’.
    Except that the definition of human and humanity just went by the way side.
    I’m going to sleep on this now …. I hope! 🙂

  10. LeonRover on April 15, 2014 at 02:12

    Tabula rasa.
    The chalkboard has been cleaned, and the moving finger may again write & move on.

    It is Holy Week.
    And the beginning of the end is noted with the words: “Not my will, but Thine be done”.

    Divine Will vs Personal Will or Free Will.
    Many believe that Free Will turns into Free Willie, is that so bad? Shouldn’t Willie be given his head ?

    In modern terms Socialised Behaviour vs Private Behaviour.

    Free Will – the notion behind it is Individual Freedom of Choice. But individuals choose in a social context: Rousseau’s Philosophy gave the middle 18th century a Platonic ideal of the General Will, a rationalised reconstruction of Divine Will – by 1791 this became the howling of les tricoteuses as the tumbrils rumbled toward the Calvary of the Guillotine.

    General Will become the Will to Kill, and required the Will of the General to restore humanity.

    I am intrigued with the notion of the Will of the Microbiome. I would oppose to that the idea of the Will of the Hordes of the Mitochondrion.

    Methinks Astória Ataraxia should comment.

    Yesterday I had a 3 hour walk in the hills. I saw plant with little red buds. Suddenly I recognised the Spring Fuchsia. It seems that Richard has been trickin’ with a Rénardine not a Lucifera.

    An Easter ditty from le jingleur manque:


  11. Chim on April 15, 2014 at 04:38

    Chris Hitchens famously said “Of course we have Free Will – we have no choice!” meaning of course that deterministic theories don’t help much when you have a decision to make, right there in front of your face. You can always claim in hindsight that the choice was predetermined by other factors, but that means F-all looking forwards.

    And I always held that if a person thinks he is responsible, that is how he behaves, whereas a person who thinks he is not is more likely to just follow the path of least resistance. So its a paradox where a belief that you are free to choose makes it so, or makes you act that way, and its a Good Thing whether its metaphysically true or not.

    Sometimes “no free will” is used as an excuse for leniency in punishment. I totally disagree. Even if we are not free, half the point of punishment is to make people think twice about transgressing in the first place. You can see that as free will or as another “variable” in the deterministic equation of how they will act when the threat of punishment is palpable.

    So the whole issue is philosophical masturbation and reasoning in hindsight. I do not know if I “really” have free will, all I know is that the only thing I can do is make the best possible decisions going forward, and as Hitch said, there is no way out of that!

  12. Ataraxia on April 15, 2014 at 06:41

    “Methinks Astória Ataraxia should comment.”
    An invitation one cannot refuse. A hundred trillion, however, may have other ideas.
    Well, no, they won’t, because they cannot.

    Richard, here’s may be another perspective, though I suspect it’s what you’re heading towards from the fact that your compromise has essentially given the human consciousness the overarching executive function for the superorganism :

    In the context of influence on the brain/mind, there is no difference when considering the cells of the microbiome compared to any other cells in the body. None.
    My ‘own’ cells, like those of the biome, have no purpose/will/consciousness, but their needs are communicated biochemically and the body is driven to behaviors to satisfy those needs. The active verbs in these discussions can be misleading but they are a handy shortcut. My body’s cells are further specialized into organs which ‘communicate’ with my brain constantly to ‘drive’ behaviors that are to their benefit.
    The conscious “I”, the construct of my mind (which mind is itself the construct of a neural network of the brain) is not consciously aware of that communication, usually.
    Just like “I” have no clue if the secretions of L.plantarum are driving kissy-kissy behavior towards my spouse. Neither do “I” have a clue if the secretion of oxytocin from ‘my’ cells is driving that behavior nor what stimulus caused that secretion (o.k., I Might have a clue on the ‘stimulus’ :-))

    Accordingly, I don’t see what existential difference the DNA signature of a cell makes. Yes, the microbes are ‘other’ to me, biologically, but existentially, so are my cells to my brain/mind/consciousness.

    So ‘we’ are a superorganism. Fine, that organism still only has the single consciousness, from the single neural network that it has.
    If all questions of free will come back to the consciousness, then unless some other consciousness is introduced into the mix, there is no difference in the original materialistic debate :
    Is ‘my’ behavior a mindless reaction to physical stimuli, stimuli that also over time shaped that very mind itself? Or is there a consciousness that can exercise control over the behavior and the mind, and how much control?

    That the stimuli come from a variety of cells or internal as well as external sources does not change that debate.

    On the other hand, ‘my bacteria made me do it’ has a certain ring to it…

  13. Woodchuck Pirate on April 15, 2014 at 07:01

    It’s always a curiosity to observe mankind’s displays of collective pain-body in seeking out only the “un-real” as source for infinite truth. Civilization remains largely insane. What will emerge when most of it is erased? What will emerge if it is never erased? There is great comfort to be found in the promise of an inevitable rescue by death.

    “I am for the living, let the dying bury the dead.” – Amebix

    Woodchuck Pirate
    aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

  14. Woodchuck Pirate on April 15, 2014 at 07:09


    I don’t know what side you’re on, but let it be real.

    Woodchuck Pirate
    aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

  15. Woodchuck Pirate on April 15, 2014 at 07:38

    Belgium holdings of Treasurys are soaring, and Ukraine military storms “pro-Russian separatist” occupied Slavyansk (and other east Ukraine towns).

    Blame the bacteria?

    Woodchuck Pirate
    aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

    • Steve G on April 15, 2014 at 11:20

      Bacteria wage war for territory and resources. Some are more passive while others are more aggressive. Some bacteria sacrifice themselves, thereby helping the community, albeit unconsciously. Maybe individual and collective human actions are just a magnification of microorganism behaviors. We are all trying to survive, carving out our own little piece of life, some aggressively, some passively, and some in between.

      Matter itself can be described in the same way, stable elements that interact weakly with other matter, explosive antagonistic elements, unstable elements, elements that combine fairly easily, and anti-matter.

      Is it anthropomorphism, or are we just emulating the basic interactions of the universe?

    • Woodchuck Pirate on April 15, 2014 at 11:34

      Steve G,

      The “Vikings” tv series makes it perfectly clear that mankind has never changed, except for the bravery of being out of range.

      Cowardice knows no bounds. This says nothing of true self.

      Woodchuck Pirate
      aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

  16. Kelly J. on April 15, 2014 at 12:13

    Tonight, I watched a stranger choke my 9 year old son nearly to death. His face and lips turned blue. His neck showed all the signs of strangulation. He gagged in the brief way he could with no air.

    Then, briefly, he could breathe agan. Choking on his tongue (which was twisting and spasming into his throat). Then he threw up.

    Then we started over.

    This stranger who is strangling my son is not someone I can stop. It is an inborn, genetic failure – similar to Parkinson’s (or Huntington’s or Alzheimer’s or …). He will die – not from his disease but from that stranger in our life who insists on strangling him one muscle (or many) at a time. (Imagine a Charlie Horse in your leg, then in many parts of your leg, then other parts of your body – arms, finger, eyes, lips, tongue, eyes, neck, etc). but being unable to move from your current position while that happens to you.

    Is this all the result of our microbiome trying to give us a message? Because I have tried ketogenic diets (helped!), no wheat (helped!), resistant starch (no noticeable positive or negative difference), no carbs, some carbs, high carbs, you-name-it…..

    And yes – I tried them for some period of time. With a journal. Tracking every single symptom, including pulse, blood sugar, blood pressure, color, ability to retain foods, ability to poo, poo type, and lastly, spasm level.

    I think that the resistant starch, microbiome is on the right track. With a feeding tube and a child dying, I am following along. But – the idea that it is all down to his biome. Well – god help us (laugh out loud – because if there is a god and he did this to my child I will KILL him when I find him) – let us hope there is some way to help him here. Even if he dies, let him die in peace – not choking to death from dystonia the muscles in his neck and chest.

    Thank you Richard, Dr BG and Tatortot, we are following along feeding tube feeding by feeding tube feeding…..!

    • Woodchuck Pirate on April 15, 2014 at 14:08

      If one chooses to reject faith, to let go of the concept of God, one may realize that all things will happen, because all things can happen, in an infinite reality. If to be done with the existence of God is an end to hate, then what motivates those whom advocate suffering through faith and denial? Fear.

      There is nothing fair about living. I can not fathom your suffering. If the medical monopolies were aligned with truth rather than government monopoly on force, perhaps medicine would be characterized by enlightenment rather than the imminent collapse of civilization. Such is the price paid for gods and masters. Do not be ashamed to unleash your anger upon them one and all.

      Woodchuck Pirate
      aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

  17. Resurgent on April 15, 2014 at 21:08

    Bravo Richard.! I love the way your blog explores so much more. I take a bow.

    The power of will is not really a power at all, because will depends on the ego – a very tiny phenomenon, it cannot create much power. When we are ‘will-less’, then we are powerful, because only then we are one with the whole.

    Deep down, willpower is a sort of impotence. To hide the fact that we are impotent we create will. We create the opposite to deceive ourselves and others.
    People who feel they are foolish try to show that they are wise. They are constantly alert that they are foolish so they do everything to look wise.
    People who are ugly or feel they are ugly always try to beautify themselves – even a painted beauty, just a face, a mask.
    People who are weak always try to look strong. The opposite is created; that is the only way to hide the reality within.
    Hitler was a weakling; that’s why he creates so much willpower around him, just to hide the fact.
    A person who is really strong will be unaware that he is strong. Strength will be flowing, it will be there, but he will not even be conscious of it.
    The Chinese Mystic Lao Tzu says: “A man of real virtue never knows that he is virtuous.”
    A man who is really moral is never aware that he is moral. But a man who is aware that he is moral has immorality hidden deep down.
    A man who thinks he is good, saintly, a sage, is a sinner – and he knows it. And just to hide the fact he creates the opposite.
    Willpower is not really power but weakness. A really powerful man has no will of his own – the whole existence, the whole universe is his will.
    He floats like a white cloud, one with the existence, in tune with it.
    Your will will always create conflict. It will shrink you, make you an island, and then the struggle starts.

    • Woodchuck Pirate on April 16, 2014 at 05:10


      I suspect a complete disclosure of your cash flow would reveal the motivations for your pontification.

      Woodchuck Pirate
      aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

    • Richard Nikoley on April 16, 2014 at 08:17


      Some decent points I agree with.

      Also, willpower may not be the right concept to denote what I’m really thinking and “deep sense of personal character” might be a more apt description.

    • Michael on April 19, 2014 at 22:07

      ‘Essential’ character perhaps…?

  18. RobertVE on April 16, 2014 at 00:52

    It is funny that you have basically not changed your views on this in all the time I visited your blog. You Richard, like many people, just do not like the idea of determinism and come up with convoluted theories to explain it away. I learned my lesson debating this with people so I won’t try to change your mind! I will say this, if people would have even a little bit of free will (through whatever means), why is their life not much better? Certainly this would be the key to paradise for people living in fortunately circumstances, like most of us.

    • Richard Nikoley on April 16, 2014 at 08:19


      The essential reason I’m not a determinist is because believing that one has free will, willpower, deep personal character, etc., is indistinguishable from free will, willpower, deep personal character, etc.

  19. Woodchuck Pirate on April 16, 2014 at 04:58

    99.99% of humans are pure scum by choice, not determinism.

    Woodchuck Pirate
    aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

  20. Travis on April 16, 2014 at 05:35

    There is no argument here against determinism. Are there any un-caused effects? Are we somehow free from the laws of physics because we are human? The exercise of our will is merely the determination of what we want. We evaluate what we think will be good for us based on past experience, emotions, addictions, ability to try to predict the outcomes of our choices, etc. Sure, our gut biome affects the brain, etc. but that’s just another input.

    The “free” in free will seems to imply that given all of the same inputs that we can make a different choice. We have a will and the ability to act on it but it is not free in the sense that we are still bound 100% to our desire. If you think you have “free” will, then go to a 50 story building and jump off with the intention of landing on the ground like a bug and being dead. I say that odds are you can’t do it, because you don’t want to. For the vast majority of people the choice to jump to their death is an impossibility and no amount of “free” will baloney will change that.

    There’s no ground-breaking idea here.

    • Woodchuck Pirate on April 16, 2014 at 05:47

      If it’s “ground-breaking” you desire as benchmark, try using the word “I” when you post.

      Woodchuck Pirate
      aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

    • Travis on April 16, 2014 at 06:09

      Sorry, I don’t remember saying that I desire “ground-breaking” as a benchmark.

  21. Woodchuck Pirate on April 16, 2014 at 06:21



    Woodchuck Pirate
    aka Raymond J Raupers Jr USA

  22. Travis on April 16, 2014 at 06:56

    You may want to have your physician adjust your medications. Or start some.

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