Regrets of the dying

August 21, 2015 • 3:30 pm

If you’re a determinist like me, it’s useless to have deathbed regrets about what you didn’t do in the past, for you couldn’t have done otherwise. However, we can, by hearing about others’ regrets, modify our behavior, for neuronal rewiring in the face of experience does not violate determinism.

Herewith is a list I found on Facebook, which turns out to come from a 2012 Guardian piece based on the experience of a terminal-care nurse:


All of these seem sensible (especially the yellow one!)—except for the one about “letting yourself be happier.” How can you let yourself be happier if you’re a determinist? The only way to do that is to somehow grasp that you want to and can be happier, and then take whatever steps you think would bring on change.

Do you have regrets not given on this list?

117 thoughts on “Regrets of the dying

  1. I take a different view from Jerry, and I think I’d say I wish I’d worked harder. Well, I can still remedy that by starting to work harder, of course. Tomorrow. Or maybe the day after…

    1. As I read your brief comment, I couldn’t help thinking of a part of Kerouac’s “On the Road”: “It was always mañana. For the next few weeks that was all I heard — mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.” I think of this part whenever I think of working harder!

    2. A saying I always remember is, “No one ever said on their death bed they wish they’d worked harder.”

    1. Sweet! Please continue in that direction.
      Maturity adds depth that youth just don’t have yet, by and large.

  2. All of these seem sensible (especially the yellow one!)—except for the one about “letting yourself be happier.” How can you let yourself be happier if you’re a determinist?

    I don’t think any of them are any more or less sensible given determinism or its contrary. Imo choice (and regrets) cash out the same on the level we inhabit, regardless of which theory is correct.

    I’m going to guess that “I wish I had let myself be happier” involves the capacity to appreciate what one has while one has it, and not be so distracted by worries and/or comparisons.

    I think the most comforting thing to think about if you’re dying is to quietly add up all the stuff you got away with after all. HA.

    (Unless you’re in prison or have just been murdered in revenge, of course.)

    1. I can entirely understand “I wish I had let myself be happier”. As Sastra said, “appreciate what you’ve got”.

      (This was first brought to my realisation by a Robert Sheckley short story, The Store of the Worlds.
      Oddly, that story has stuck with me for decades.)

      It is possible to be cynical, sceptical, and yet not miserable.

      As to #2, (translated into ‘wish I’d kept working longer before I just retired’), that will depend entirely on when I die. I might live another 2 years* or another 22. It’d be a bugger to exist on a pension when the money runs out, OTOH it’d be an even bigger bugger to retire one day and be dead 3 months later…

      * It gets damn disconcerting when people the same age as you start dropping like flies


    2. I like the Dalai Lama on worry: If there is a solution, there’s no need to worry. If there isn’t a solution, worrying won’t help.

      Of course, that could just be an Internet mem and not something that he actually said. But I’m not going to worry about that …


      1. My late wife’s version was, “Every problem has a solution; if there’s no solution, then it’s not a problem, but a fact, which you might as well accept and get on with your life”. She claimed it was from Nietzsche, but I can’t find it.

  3. Most of these regrets can be played off against the often recommended: live in the moment. Which sounds right. Living in the moment means focusing on your immediate experience, which implies you are appreciating the fact of being alive. But that might mean you are not thinking ahead much, which means you a poor planner, which means you will not change your direction once you’re in a groove, and you’ll end up with regrets like these.
    My general feeling about life is there isn’t too much you can do to change things fundamentally. People seem to be fairly consistent in the way they carry themselves throughout life. A lot of what affects happiness and satisfaction is luck, and the disposition you are born with.

        1. To be honest, every time I visit the the dentist, I feel a deep sense of appreciation. Sometimes I mention it, and sometimes I don’t. I think I should mention it more often.

  4. I had a brief fling with a friend’s wife. Always regretted it as it goes against some of my most important values: honesty, trustworthiness, friendship.

  5. The only regret I will have when I die is all of the knowledge that will be accumulated after I die that I will never know. Assuming that I am not a portal into a simulation being run by something/one, the amazing thing about human life is that you possess this consciousness to observe the universe and understand a very little about it. Which is more beautiful than saying god did it. But the knowledge we now possess is a tiny fraction of what humanity will possess after my death (assuming we do not blow the whole thing up). But I will be worm food and will never know that.

    1. There is a saying, but I don’t know the source which basically states, with every death a library burns down. It is perhaps the saddest aspect of death. If I were to regret anything, it is not asking enough questions of my grandparents and parents. As the generations of WWII and Korea and now Vietnam begin to fade – we lose so much personal history. Perhaps sadder is that people don’t write letters any longer… we email… and all of that history will be lost. History – especially that of ordinary people – may no longer exist because we have embraced the quickly jotted email or the abbreviated texts. How do we capture the feelings of a generation when communication is quick and transient?

      1. Yes, I get that feeling of loss of information. What I will regret most is all the stuff I know (not exclusive to me, just facts I happen to know – but I *like* knowing things) – just stopping, like a hard drive crashed with no backups. The fact that if I live long enough half of it will have leaked away with Alzeimers etc is no consolation.


  6. I wish I had had deeper insight into how women see other women and men all along. (FYI, I’m cis hetero male). Although I don’t see how I could have done better, given my accumulated experience at any particular time. I might have had an advantage, given my experience with my older sisters, but I didn’t appreciate that until later. Still, some things might have worked out differently, missed opportunities and such, but even so, at present things are pretty OK, maybe could be even better.
    It’s always something to be learning and gaining appreciation and committing to action without enough information, but maturity does bring perspective.

  7. I wish I’d worked on being more outgoing. I developed a reticent personality from youth, which it would make me socially anxious to try to change at this point. But when I see how much good gregarious people do, just in getting others to open up, I think, yeah, it would have been better to be like that.

  8. Actually, I have no regrets.
    Regret is just worry about things in the past and as we say here in Oz, ‘No worries’.

  9. Methinks Methuselah’s dying regret was that
    he never got to see his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren. But maybe he did.

    Two admirable attitudes to one’s approaching death are those evinced by Jimmy Carter, and Clive James who says ‘I’m dying, I just look remarkably cheerful’.

  10. I only really have one regret, which I’m not telling, but I’m not sure how I could have changed it with my personality and without foreknowledge.

      1. Nah. 🙂

        But there is one regret I will tell about – not sure why I didn’t remember it when I wrote the above, because I remember it all the time.

        When I was seven I bullied a classmate. I still feel sick about it every time I remember it. I feel sick now. I don’t know why I did it, and it’s something I can never forgive myself for. Like everybody I’ve done lot’s of stuff I shouldn’t have in my life, but I can put everything else down to determinism. There’s no excuse for what I said to that girl – I was just plain mean. It’s something I’ll never get over.

        1. You were only seven. Your regret means that your conscience was already very well developed for that age. I think you can forgive yourself now.

          I remember doing a few mean things myself when young; perhaps it’s a sort of experimentation kids do because it’s important to learn how bad it makes the perpetrator herself feel; not just her victim. It could be just part of the process of instilling empathy.

  11. I’m surprised (and a bit suspicious) that there are no regrets about the behavior that led them to their early demise. I wish I never started smoking, I should have got more exercise, I should have watched my weight, etc.

  12. How can one have regrets over choosing A over B without knowing what would have happened if B had been chosen?

    I don’t have a good enough model of life, the universe and everything to know how things would have turned out had I done otherwise than I did. Comparing my current situation with ill-defined mush seems a waste of effort.

    1. “How can one have regrets over choosing A over B without knowing what would have happened if B had been chosen?”

      That’s like saying “How can I think A might have a better result than B if I don’t know what has happened yet?”

      Probabilities. The same inductive reasoning you use every day to decide probabilities applies. Just as you can predict that your water will freeze when you put it in the freezer, you could say afterward “the water would have frozen had I put it in the freezer.”

      Similarly, if you had allowed yourself to be lazy or incautious in cooking your hamburger to a safe temperature and therefore given yourself food poisoning, it’s completely valid if you understand the science to think “IF I had cooked the meat to over 165F I would have avoided this food poisoning.”

      1. Are you sure that anyone can predict the outcome of the path not taken for even a minor life-changing event?

        Its easy to talk of probabilities, but for events without many replicates I don’t see how to estimate them. I know what will happen if I put an ice cube tray filled with water in the freezer. Also what will happen if the tray is filled with 70% ethanol. How can I know what would have happened if I hadn’t come across a Mexican cookbook that entranced me so much that I decided to translate it and the rest of the series into English?

        1. “Are you sure that anyone can predict the outcome of the path not taken for even a minor life-changing event?”

          It depends. If you are talking about being able to predict ALL the things that happen in one person’s life after any particular decision, then of course that’s generally being asked too much. But it seemed you reduced the question to knowing *in any case* what would happen if different options were followed, and I gave examples for how
          you could reasonably “know” what would have happened had you made a different decision.

          All our empirical inferences of what would have or will happened are, of course, in the form of likelihoods. I don’t know for a fact that if I drive my car to work today that I’ll get there faster than if I would have walked the 10 miles to get there (I could have a car accident, for instance). But it is reasonable to think it a much more likely outcome that I’ll get there faster.

          My point is that we apply the same reasoning to “what likely would have happened if I chose A over B” to “what likely WILL happen if I choose A over B.” There are certainly some consequences that are harder to predict over others, some much easier to predict.
          (In fact, predicting what would have happened in the past actually puts you in a better position, since you can be aware of factors now you weren’t aware of when you made your decision).

          In other words, if you are baffled by how you could make reasonable predictions about what (likely) would have happened in the past, you should be equally baffled all day long in trying to decide which actions will make which results more likely.

          But, you make reasonable, successful predictions all day long, meaning it isn’t as mysterious as you seem to make the issue 🙂

    2. I think it is possible because of perspective. You have already lived in the past and know how you felt then. You know how you feel now as well. You can evaluate what things in the past made you feel best, and that now you wish you saw that as an opportunity to do more of that. Of course you as of right now and of course in the future, can do more of the stuff that you have determined made you feel good or that you have determined was better in the past.

      Live the now based on the past preparing for the future you sense to be your best option whatever that may be.

      1. Excuse me? What does your reply have to do with evaluating a counterfactual conditional?

        I’m ashamed of some of the things I’ve done, certainly wish I hadn’t done them but have no idea what would have become of me if I hadn’t done them. How can I work that out?

        Wishful thinking is fun but doesn’t really count.

  13. Professor Takkatten seems determined to be a determinist while I choose to believe in free will. 🙂

    That said, I am currently taking care of one possible regret by spending a lot more time going on nature hikes in the abundance of wilderness open space preserves in the Bay Area, escalating it from what was a bi-monthly activity to a weekly one.

    Many of these wilderness preserves are widely publicized, but oddly quite a lot of them are little known, and just as interesting.

  14. A bit off track – but my only regret is that I have to die. I want to live forever so I can see what happens.

  15. I realized a while ago that I will never be satisfied with life in a general sense because the nature of reality as I see it makes it impossible. So I’ve stopped worrying about happiness. Happiness too is an illusion. Some brains are more capable of getting there, I don’t think I really have that talent. I can’t ignore what’s really going on.

    To me existence really is depressing. I’m not worried about death, it’s more the fact that I realize that it’s not going to get better. This is it. Life is absurd and terrifying, even more so because society is set up to ignore this fact. We are meant to run the wheel as if it all made sense and had some end purpose when it doesn’t.

    And yet most people find a place in that machine and are satisfied with it. I guess I am the one who’s sick when I can’t.

    All I want want is to record an album’s worth of music. Honestly. Might as well be the only artistic thing I’ll ever create, but it’s really the only thing in my life I’m interested in at this point. After that, I don’t give a crap.

    If I die before I release my own music, yeah, that will be the biggest regret of my life. And it’ll be just as pointless as these other regrets.

    1. “To me existence really is depressing. I’m not worried about death, it’s more the fact that I realize that it’s not going to get better.”

      Wait till you start aging. You have to realize that it’s all downhill from then on.

      I identify with your outlook.

  16. I have all of these regrets. What is Determinism, and what distinguishes it from any other ism?
    I suppose I’m an atheist, but I still believe in the little small daily gods.
    WEIT is one of them.
    What is determinism?

    1. Determinism is the notion that physical laws of the universe are all that there are with regards to allowing the dynamics of particles and fields. This may seem trivial if you think about electrons or photons, but it implies that humans who are made only of stable structures of baryonic matter (atoms) are determined as well. Therefore all of your actions are determined in the same way that sack of water is.

  17. OK… here’s my real regret. I regret never being able to have a conversation with my father (especially) at the same age as me. I would truly like to have spoken with him as, say, a 60 year old to another 60 year old.

    1. I think that’s very weird! (Hope we cyber-know each other well enough that I can get away with saying that.)

  18. Prof CC wrote: “If you’re a determinist like me, it’s useless to have deathbed regrets about what you didn’t do in the past, for you couldn’t have done otherwise.”

    Jerry, this echoes the sentiment you expressed in the previous video of your talk on Free Will, where you said determinism offered solace against self recrimination, regret – e.g. your example of an earlier relationship that didn’t work out. You explained as a determinist you could comfort yourself by saying you had no real choice, (paraphrasing) “Why am I beating myself up about this? There’s no way it could have worked out because the laws of physics determined that.” You said it takes away some of the guilt feeling “I should have done this, I should have done that.”

    But this still leaves me confused about how far you can take this idea. Ought someone avoid recrimination and regret and other such negative associations only in some cases and not in others, and if so, how do you draw the line and why?

    For instance, what if someone had done something truly terrible in his last relationship, for instance beat his partner
    very badly. The same determinist logic is then available “Why allow myself feel bad about what I did to her? I can avoid these bad feelings about myself, thinking why did I beat her when I could have refrained, since I realize I didn’t really have a choice – the laws of physics determined I beat her up!”

    The logic is the same you seem to be using, so I’m not sure how you avoid endorsing this as well.

    But don’t we think it’s a GOOD thing to feel bad about having done bad things? Humans aren’t Vulcans, emotions are part of what drive us and it’s feeling bad, a sense of shame, guilt, responsibility that are so often what compels people to change their behavior. If they can rationalize away the feelings of self-recrimination, it’s all the more easy to continue doing bad, evil or self-destructive actions.

    Further, the logic of determinism, as always, applies to any future action and therefore the woman-beater feeling he might beat another woman could say “IF I beat this woman there won’t be any reason for self-recrimination, given I wouldn’t really have had a choice, it was determined by physics.”

    Which would certainly seem to reduce some of the mental obstacles in the way of beating another woman. This does not sound good.

    If a man who beat a woman was contemplating doing it again, don’t we want to be able to say to this man “Choose not to do so?” Doesn’t it seem pretty much essential that we talk of his really having a choice to take the benevolent route over the violent one, that he believes he REALLY does have such options? If not, how do we motivate and reason with him to change his course of action, coherently?

    But then, if we DO adopt “this is something you should not feel good about and you DO have a choice to do otherwise” to reason with this man, the same logic applies to his past – that he DID have a choice when he beat the woman in the past. Hence falling back on the “I shouldn’t make myself feel bad about it because I couldn’t have done otherwise” mode of thinking is no longer really valid. But then, it wouldn’t really be valid in the case of you or me using it about our past relationships either.

    So, in summary, if this appeal to determinism to absolve yourself of guilt/self-recrimination/self-disapproval
    is valid for the mere disappointments one may have in the past, why would it not appeal to anything in the past like having done bad things?

    And if it does apply to anything one could have done in the past, as in the example above, how does this all play out? How does suggesting people feel less responsible, less self-disapproval about their bad behavior work in favor of reducing their tendency for evil acts? And how do you reason with such people – coherently! – in terms of pushing them in directions of better behavior?

    1. If you push it to the ultimate conclusion, the deterministic laws apply to thoughts as well – all thoughts, even about free will. We all have no choice except to have the thoughts we are currently having, and do the things we are currently doing. Prof CC had no choice but think the thoughts he did, specifically selecting the yellow one to disagree with (which he had no choice in). And then he had no choice to type the email he did, in accordance with the unfolding of deterministic laws. You had no choice but to think about your reaction and type your response. And I had no choice but to react to your response and type mine.

      I think I’ll sleep on all that. (I mean, the thought about sleeping on all that came into my head through no choice of my own :-)).

    2. Agreed, and good point. In this case, though, I was talking about one’s regrets on one’s deathbed, when you simply can’t do anything to improve the rest of your life. You can learn, if you’re not dying, from your own feelings, though whether you do that is also determined. And, anyway, you can’t control whether or not you feel regret. But by reading stuff like what I’ve written before, you might rewire your neurons in a way that avoids so much self recrimination

      1. mitchej and Prof CC,

        Everything discussed in my previous post assumes determinism and so it’s a question of how to make sense of all those questions *given determinism*.

        Therefore, replies that simply re-assert determinism – that our thoughts and everything else would be determined – fail to answer the dilemmas I’d raised.

        Again: Given determinism…

        1. Is the appeal to “couldn’t have done otherwise” used by the wife beater to mollify his conscience valid or not?

        If it isn’t, why isn’t it valid for him, but remains valid for applying to regrets about our behavior in the past like the examples Jerry gave?

        And if the reasoning IS just as valid for the wife beater, for doing terrible things in our past vs less terrible things….

        2. How do you deal with all the implications I raised if that is the case?
        It seems to allow for people to lower the types of guilt, remorse and re-thinking “what they could have done,” and hence lower
        an offender’s personal motivations for altering his behavior. And it seems to remove tools for coherently reasoning with someone to change his ways (since doing so would seem to require the person is presented with real options for alternatives)

        To me these are just big, wall-of-china sized problems that I can’t get over when I read incompatibilist reasoning, and remain so until I encounter good answers.

  19. On the subject of dying and regrets:

    I feel fortunate in that (at 51) I don’t have any major regrets thus far. Some disappointment to a degree yes (e.g. not precisely the career I’d envisioned when I was young…but close enough).

    But otherwise, I’m generally good at enjoying life, smelling the roses. I’ve always valued time, people and experiences over money. So I am in touch with most of my friends, close with family, work from home so I see my children all the time, freelancing means enough down time not to feel overworked, I find things to truly appreciate most days.

    A short while ago I found what looked very much like skin cancer on my leg. Jumping immediately to self-diagnosis (a failing of mine to be sure) I thought “Well, if it’s cancer, fair enough. I’ve had a good run, dealt a far better hand in life than many other people.”

    Turned out to be a bruise that went away. Whew. 🙂

  20. I regret that I haven’t known where I wanted to be in life, and really haven’t known how to get there, and so I’ve made wrong choice after wrong choice. (Fortunately, I’ve ended up pretty close to where I’d like to be in spite of myself.

    I regret that I spend most of my life really not being able to understand other people well enough to get along with them.

    I regret that I still don’t spend enough time with friends and relatives.

    I regret that I didn’t talk more with my parents about their lives.

    It takes a lifetime to master the intricate details of my field (plant taxonomy) and I’m sad that I’m seeing the elders — each a vast library — passing away now. I regret that I haven’t learned enough to fully replace them.

    I am sad that my dying will remove yet another useful library of information. (Though that’s better than not being useful now.)

    I am sad that I won’t get to see what comes next. It’s likely to be tragic, but I’d like to know.

    1. “sad that I won’t get to see what comes next.”
      That’s a biggie for me too. I want to see humans on mars, a cure for cancers, an end to religion, an end to war, the earth return to ecological balance, and another star wars series.

    2. Very nicely articulated, sedgequeen. I can identify with most of it, except, of course, the professional bits.

  21. I suppose the child molester or wife beater can have regret every time they do the terrible thing they do, but that does not stop them from doing it again. The environment and genetics made them what they are so new environmental factors must come into play before the behavior is changed. Regret is just regret but it’s not a cure. The rate of success in AA at curing alcoholism is very low, I think something like 10 percent. Regret and apologizing to all the people you may have offended is right in there but does little good.

  22. I would say I’m 4 out of 5 in those categories, with expressing myself being the missing element. If I could bring myself to convey my unbelief to my parents and sibling, I think I could check off all 5, which I feel quite fortunate to do before reaching the age of 40.

  23. “Letting yourself be happier” no more violates determinism than letting yourself eat another slice of cheesecake. The phrase isn’t meant to mean “flip a switch in your head and decide, I am now happy”; it already means more or less what you pose as an alternative, i.e., examine your mind for neuroses and things that are preventing you from enjoying life and being happy.

    I also think that this idea that you shouldn’t regret the past because it couldn’t have been otherwise is also a little nutty, even granting determinism. Regret is another of those physically determined, evolutionarily valuable emotions: It helps you avoid repeating bad choices, and it also seems morally appropriate under the right conditions. I really wouldn’t want a rapist to console himself with the knowledge that he couldn’t have acted differently; I would hope that his regret would compel him to hate his action and never to repeat it.

    I get that there’s no point in wasting the final moments of your life on regret, since its function as a mistake-deterrent no longer is necessary. Hey, if you’ve lived a life full of things to regret, i.e., if you’ve lived a life of dim self-awareness, and you’re suddenly able to find some mindfulness at the very end and be at peace with yourself, more power to you. I doubt that that will happen all that much, and there’s also something to be said for the social value of emotions: Even if an unfulfilled person’s life is coming to an end and their regret serves no purpose for that person, if they can share their story, if they can share their emotions with young people who still have a chance to live their life right, then that is a positive thing and the emotion has served its purpose. I’d rather there be a way to share this information between old and young in a viscerally compelling way that doesn’t involve the suffering of the person near death, but it does seem like the mammalian brain really can’t get its act together unless some kind of pain is involved. It’s one of the more awful realities about our animal existence.

  24. The blue circle, especially, and to a slightly lesser degree, the purple.

    But my real regret is wasting a quarter of a century, including what should have been the most productive part of my life, on religion.

  25. Hopefully I’m a long way off dying, so I’m looking at it from the other end. I may have 4-5 decades left on the earth – how best should I spend my time? The answer I came to on that recently is not working anywhere near as much as I do already. Maybe then I can start working on the other 4 options, because at this stage my weekends are largely recovering from the work week and life has taken on a dull monotony.

    There’s got to be more top love than this…

      1. I’m hoping to get a job where I can work 4 days a week, or at least ask my company to drop me down. The OH thinks it a risky move on my part to even ask, but the alternatives aren’t much better. I can’t keep having to need the weekends to recover from the week. The opening narration from Ikiru keeps going on in my head…

  26. UK Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman, at the age of 78, in an interview for a 1983 television documentary was asked whether he had any regrets.

    His reply: “Yes, I haven’t had enough sex.”

  27. I have no regrets, at least in the sense that the more I age the less I want to go back in time and change the past.

    When I was a kid I used to want to go back and change things, but as I get older and older, I have found that I do not want to give up anything that I have experienced. It is all good stuff.

    Alas, “for neuronal rewiring in the face of experience does not violate determinism”. This is functionally indistinguishable from a universe that has free will. It is therefore not a valid argument for or against determinism. However, given that naturalism is coherent, it is a more reasonable argument that suggesting any alternative, i.e., a soul accomplished the same action. This is because there is no evidence for souls.

    1. I regret not seeing this topic earlier.

      But following on what Kevin wrote, I used to have deep regrets and wished I could change my past actions. Then I heard the old school comedian Phyllis Diller being interviewed. The reporter asked her if she had any regrets, and she replied, “of course I do; if you don’t regret doing stupid things, it means you’re stupid.”

  28. I don’t think about deathbed regrets, but I do think of health and age-related declining capacity to do the things I love. In my case that largely means being active in the natural world, with my focus mostly but not entirely on plants. This often requires hard work and new physical challenges. But I am rewarded with ever deeper connections(meaning growing knowledge about the world) and memories of beautiful bogs, marshes, islands, alpine areas. If I am cognizant at that future (but maybe not at all distant) time of diminished capacity, I want to say I’m glad I did x, y, and z. Not oh I wish I had done that when I had the chance.

  29. “Can modify our behavior?” That implies free will! If you “can” modify your behavior, then presumably you can choose not to as well.

    Assuming you have free will is the most rational default position in any case. If you’re wrong, there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s pointless for anyone to disagree with me, because if I have no free will, I can’t consciously alter my opinions. Of course, I won’t mind if anyone disagrees with me. Why should I be upset by the pre-programmed noises of automatons?

    1. You cannot choose that which is not prepared by every aspect contributing to your existence unfolding in time. You have no control over the coming together of every little detail that makes up “you”. “Choice” as you experience it has nothing to do with free will: you can only choose between the options that have placed themselves in front of you at any given moment. Which “option” you choose, be it in what you may think of as thought or action, is again nothing to do with free will: you will choose that which is inevitable for you at that particular moment. I can not choose whether or not to have free will. There is no shame in accepting that we are not “superhuman”. But there is a humility to be gained from realizing that no human is responsible for being inherently better or worse than any other. Thus we can all help each other trying to improve and making this world a better place.

      1. Yes, and we can all resist each other and try to make the lives of others miserable as we work to make this world a hell hole. It all depends on how we were programmed at the time of the big bang. Under the circumstances, humility and shame are emotions that apparently exist, but are completely pointless, in that they can’t possibly alter things one way or the other. You can’t have your predestined cake and eat it too.

        My default, however, is set to “belief in free will.” I therefore request that you alter your behavior to conform to your lack of belief in free will and refrain from arguing with me. Only you believe you can’t do it. I believe you can.

        1. “… Under the circumstances, humility and shame are emotions that apparently exist, but are completely pointless, in that they can’t possibly alter things one way or the other. …”

          How do you come to the judgment that if something were not to have any influence on anything else (an observation which I don’t think I would be able to make), that it is thereby pointless?

          1. These emotions are pointless in the sense that they can never result in anyone making a conscious decision that alters the predetermined path of the universe. They are subjective phenomena that may have observable results, but they lack the power to confer free will if there is no such thing as free will.

  30. I have to do more research on this free will thing.

    How can we accept determinism and then in the next breath prefer one course of action over another?

    Both Jerry Coyne and Sam Harris tell me I have no free will while simultaneously writing books that seek to change my behavior.

    I’m perfectly willing (free or not) to accept the disconnect and I will start by assuming the disconnect is mine.

    I’ll get back to you.

    1. I have been asking about the same disconnect for quite.

      To me, compatibilism is a coherent way of speaking about “choice” and prescriptions to change behaviors in a way that is not in conflict with determinism being true.

    2. Reading the book is part of the environment that can influence your behavior, in the absence of free will. Neither Jerry nor Sam Harris is claiming the humans are impervious to outside influences. We are learning apes.

      1. jblilie,

        That common response, as always, completely misses the point.

        No one is saying: “Prof Coyne’s argument couldn’t influence someone.

        Rather we are saying: “Prof Coyne’s argument contains internal contradictions that render the statements illogical.

        Prof Coyne and Harris start with informing us “we could not do otherwise” and then they proceed to “suggest we do otherwise.” (E.g. choose an alternative course of action in criminal justice).

        This is an internal contradiction in their argument, making it illogical or unsound. It is this contradiction “Anonymous” has noticed and commented on, just like many others including me. I’ve yet to see a cogent reply to the problem.

        Remember: people can be influenced by good arguments and bad (internally contradictory) arguments. Therefore replying that people can be influenced by what Prof Coyne or anyone else writes is already a given. So that reply does not address whether the argument ITSELF is coherent.

  31. When we “change our mind” about something, we are influenced by all the recent experience since the earlier frame of mind was set. This includes both active and passive experiences. Our previous values and motives are continuously being reprioritized by current values in a network of interactions. Determinism does not imply that we are only passive.
    “My brain made me do it!” Yes, and now the rest of us are going to throw your brain in the slammer, along with the rest of your body, or maybe give it an award, because that is what we think we need to do to you and your brain for our own sake collectively. So, you’re responsible, not someone else.
    This goes on all the time, no surprise, no violation of determinism nor responsibility. It’s no mystery, but talking about it may make it seem so, because words don’t really capture reality.

  32. Apart from thinking, speaking, spear throwing, and sweating, humans are also great at exaggerating.

    I think the best thing to do is to take regrets not too seriously. Their just feelings and likely not that important as they might seem.

  33. Regrets are like staring at the ashes of a fire, it is spent.. why bother? well I’m a daydreamer and in hindsight it is possible to make a happy ending for yourself but of course, would it be that way?
    I do think you can use it as motivation ah la I don’t hug my friends enough, make a note to oneself. But angst regret? that is like a twinge in your cognitive process and not unlike an itch in a hard to reach place and probably not as gratifying after you scratch it.

  34. No regrets.

    I work for a company that makes medical devices. We often see interviews with (and actually get to meet occasionally) patients who have our devices.

    They frequently had been facing death.

    I’ve never heard one, ever, say they wished they had spent more time at work.

    They always say: I wish I’d spent more time with my family. (I just want to spend time with my family.) I wish I had taken that special vacation with my spouse. I wish I had spent more time on my hobby.

    Life is short. Memento mori.

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