The Instigator
Pro (for)
0 Points
The Contender
Con (against)
5 Points

We have no control

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Post Voting Period
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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/24/2013 Category: Philosophy
Updated: 3 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 873 times Debate No: 35048
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (2)
Votes (1)




My premise is simple. Even though it may seem like we have control over our destinies, we do not.

My opening argument is stubbed toes. No one wants to stub their toe. We all make all the decisions that lead to us stubbing our toes, yet we still do it. If we cannot control this tiny thing in our day-to-day lives, how then, can we control much bigger things, like our level of success or course in life?


To be sure, we are not the masters over our fate that we sometimes like to pretend. When I accepted this debate, I had no idea that later in the day I would be visited by an acquaintance that was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. She’s had multiple surgeries, including a hysterectomy, but even after she begins chemotherapy, the stage 4 cancer is unlikely to be put into remission. Doctors estimate she has less than a year left to live. Clearly, she is not in complete control of her destiny, for who would choose this. But does she have any control at all? Do any of us? In this debate, we shall explore that unsettling question, and I shall argue yes. We do.

First I want to ask – how would each of us react to that news? Would we respond with anger at God’s unfairness? Appreciation for the life He has let us live, however brief? Would we taste excitement for the prospect of heaven? Perhaps fear that heaven may not really exist? Or peace that hell does not? Would we give in to the darkness of despondency? Could we still find the joy to laugh? Would we dare to hope?

Not even the thoughts which feel like our own are “chosen” by us. Perform a brief exercise by closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing. Only on your breathing. Nothing else. Go.

How long could you do this before other thoughts and ideas are popping into your head? Probably not long. And even if you are well practiced at meditation, your brain is still an idea machine, difficult to silence, and seemingly random in its generation of thoughts. Additionally, we cannot consciously choose what our next thought will be, it is a surprise. Charlie Sheen. Why did I think of Charlie, looking straight at me and saying “winning?” Who knows? By the time something enters our consciousness it is the end result of a myriad of processes we barely understand, run through places in the brain we have no conscious control over. Do we directly control our heartbeats? Do we control how much insulin gets produced and released, the speed of our metabolism, or whether mutation of a cancerous cell occurs?

But can we not also exert some influence over these impulses? I am going to need water, but isn’t it my choice to drink it before I’m thirsty, or wait until I am thirsty? Which is healthier? I can choose to research that. I don’t get to decide if I have a heart attack directly, but surely I have influence over whether I form a deliberate habit of eating pizza every night or eating salad. Habits are difficult to break, but they can be broken. We don’t get to choose thoughts, but we do seem to have some veto power over our impulses, and the ability to process those thoughts and decide what we think is most important. I can’t control whether I have a family history of cancer, but I can influence how early it is detected by regular checkups and testing.

Even the probability of a stubbed toe can be influenced, even though it can’t be directly controlled. By arranging one’s furniture properly, selecting flooring carefully, and keeping a clean house, one could minimize the possibility of a stubbed toe. If doing so is imperative, one could even choose to walk around in steel toed boots day and night. If being successful is imperative, then studying hard, working hard, networking, and taking chances are ways to improve one’s chances. True, nothing guarantees success on the level of becoming a billionaire, or world-famous, or married to a supermodel. But do we not also have the choice to determine to some extent our own definition of “success”? Another associate of mine decided to quit the job we just promoted him to, sell everything he has, and move to a cabin in the woods of Canada with his fiancé. He’ll hunt for food. Has he not influenced the course of his life with such a decision such as that? If a man defines living off the land as freedom, and freedom as success, then can’t he take measures to secure success? If a man stubs his toe in the forest, did he not decide to put himself there in the first place?

Debate Round No. 1


First and foremost, my deepest sympathies for you and your friend for the bad news. I hope whatever else happens, the outcomes for her are positive. I will keep you in my prayers, (Or, if you are of the agnostic persuasion, I'll spare you a thought the next time I do a mathematical equation.)

Your opening argument largely illustrates that while there are a great many things we obviously don't control, such as our health or thirst, there are still others which we obviously do, such as when we choose to drink.

I would submit that things in the latter category only APPEAR to be matters of choice. Perhaps you choose to drink sooner or later, but at the end of the day you may turn your faucet and have nothing come out. The fact that circumstances sometimes line up the way we want or anticipate, however frequently, does not ultimately mean we can take credit for those predictable outcomes.


First and foremost, my deepest sympathies for you and your friend for the bad news. I hope whatever else happens, the outcomes for her are positive. I will keep you in my prayers, (Or, if you are of the agnostic persuasion, I'll spare you a thought the next time I do a mathematical equation.)

Thank you for your kind sentiments, sir. I’m actually not religious, although I think she is a believer so a prayer surely couldn’t hurt. How I know her is that she is a former student of mine; I taught her math. A brief tribute over your next equation would thus ironically be more apropos than you might have guessed.

In the six or seven years I’ve known her, she has always been relentlessly cheery, despite her struggles with other challenges, including Asperger’s Syndrome and obesity. As she faces this most ominous circumstance, I can’t help but admire her defiant optimism.

Your opening argument largely illustrates that while there are a great many things we obviously don't control, such as our health or thirst, there are still others which we obviously do, such as when we choose to drink.

I would submit that things in the latter category only APPEAR to be matters of choice. Perhaps you choose to drink sooner or later, but at the end of the day you may turn your faucet and have nothing come out. The fact that circumstances sometimes line up the way we want or anticipate, however frequently, does not ultimately mean we can take credit for those predictable outcomes.

Well… why not? You’ve given no rationale or support to this position; you’ve merely made an assertion, and as it happens, there are severe problems with your assertion. A resourceful and thirsty person, upon finding the faucet dry, will hardly throw up their hands and surrender to dehydration. Maybe the outside hose works. If not, and even if it is past time for the water company to answer phones, the person can call neighbors, or if phones are down too, walk over to visit them personally. He could drive over to the market to buy water. If the individual has the foresight to possess a Life Straw [1], they need only find a suitable body of water to quench thirst. In a cold environment, bringing in ice or snow and melting it is an option. If it is raining, a plastic garbage bag can be used to collect water into a jar.

What does the concept of “credit” even mean in the context of this example? Should the thirsty man get a parade when he finds a way to drink? Of course not; his reward is to avoid the consequences of dehydration. But isn’t that all the “credit” he is likely to care about anyway? Should he not enjoy the rewards of his quest simply because he didn’t control all the variables of the world which led to the water being his to drink? I’m not sure I even understand what your argument is suggesting, let alone why you think it should hold.

We have agreed that humans do not have complete control over our circumstances. However your position, at least as far as I can tell, is that we actually have none, and that appearance of control is nothing more than an illusion. You’ve given us no argument in support of this position. I don’t see how I as Con have any burden to knock down an argument Pro hasn’t made. Even so, I will build my own case against it.

Poker is sometimes thought of as gambling, or as a game of chance where anything can happen, rather than a game of skill. Perhaps that is true – but only over the course of a small sample of hands. Because of the law of large numbers, good players, over a long enough timeline, will after enough games win out against bad players, even though the bad players may win individual hands or games. Because of this, some people are able to play poker professionally [2]. Correct bankroll (total personal funds dedicated for poker) management is to never have more than 1 or 2% of the bankroll at stake at any one table or in any one tournament. This allows them to weather the unfavorable probabilistic winds of “luck” [3]. On a larger scale, the entire Casino industry is based on the certainty that over a long enough timeline, putting the odds just slightly in one’s favor yields tremendous profits over a long timeline [4]. It isn’t control as imagined in the traditional iron-fisted, absolute sort, no. But these people exert a powerful form of control nonetheless, and reap the rewards accordingly.





Debate Round No. 2


As this is only a three-rounder, alas, I shall have to do my best to both introduce an argument you will find satisfying and refute two that you have already posited.

1. As you've noted, there are always what may be an infinite number of factors that determine whether or not an act of so-called cognition comes to fruition. Anything as small as a mental lapse that makes you forget what you were doing to as big as a meteor happening NOT to wipe the earth out at that particular moment are much bigger factors in whether or not what you attempt to assert through control transpires.

The reason this means control is illusory is because the greatest impact on anything we do is nothing more than the want or desire to do it.

And the want itself is not of our own choosing. The circumstances that lead us to thirst or ambition or suicide, be they our internal brain chemistry or external assault or distraction are not in our control, the actions we may take to attempt to meet those needs aren't in our control, and the results of those actions are not in our control. If neither our volition, action or consequences are chosen, control cannot exist.

2. It is cutting that you seize on the word "Credit" to me. The impetus of this debate for me is that I believe so many of our other great debates really hinge on the idea that we have control, so you're at the emotional core of what brought me to post this. In the thirst example, credit, I concede, is meaningless, but it is these tiny things that give us a sense of control (I can get water. I didn't stub my toe. I recycle) and that sense builds and builds to the point where we ultimately credit ourselves for the big things like our wealth or our influence.

3. And to the question of big numbers, it is irrelevant that over time things form statistical consistencies because only the outliers really matter. That I get water 9 times out of 10 when I mean only means that in those isolated instances, numerous though they may be, things have gone as I hoped they would. That tenth time when it goes wrong and I slip and break my leg on the way to the faucet, that throws the illusion that these other times mattered into sharp relief. The sense of control that brought me safely to the sink so many other times will be shown false. It is, in only the barest technical terms, possible to argue that the finite number of times you get things right against the backdrop of the infinite number of ways things may go wrong allows you to say that you have .00000000000001 amount of control, but any finite number divided by infinity is effectively null in the end. No control.


Thank you, Pro. Your conclusion was a significant improvement over your earlier rounds in this debate, and I applaud your progress. If I can manage to organize my thoughts well enough in this closing then I think it could still be too little too late, but I am pleased that you’re making me work hard for this one.

As a general rule, there are 4 rounds, and new arguments are not to be introduced past the 3rd. However, since this debate is only 3 rounds, I ask that voters not penalize my opponent even if they consider him to have raised new arguments. It is by the strength of our arguments alone that I wish us to be judged, I do not wish to prevail by any technicalities.

1) You may enjoy reading the work of prominent New Atheist and neuroscientist Dr. Sam Harris. His ideas about free will seem fairly close to your own, as he also views free will as an illusion [5]. However, his theories have been slow to gain widespread traction for a variety of reasons. Here is an excerpt from Eddy Nahmias that I enjoyed [6]:

We should be wary of defining things out of existence. Define Earth as the planet at the center of the universe and it turns out there is no Earth. Define what’s moral as whatever your God mandates and suddenly most people become immoral. Define marriage as a union only for procreation, and you thereby annul many marriages.

The sciences of the mind do give us good reasons to think that our minds are made of matter. But to conclude that consciousness or free will is thereby an illusion is too quick. It is like inferring from discoveries in organic chemistry that life is an illusion just because living organisms are made up of non-living stuff. Much of the progress in science comes precisely from understanding wholes in terms of their parts, without this suggesting the disappearance of the wholes. There’s no reason to define the mind or free will in a way that begins by cutting off this possibility for progress.


People are threatened by a possibility I call “bypassing” — the idea that our actions are caused in ways that bypass our conscious deliberations and decisions. So, if people mistakenly take causal determinism to mean that everything that happens is inevitable no matter what you think or try to do, then they conclude that we have no free will. Or if determinism is presented in a way that suggests all our decisions are just chemical reactions, they take that to mean that our conscious thinking is bypassed in such a way that we lack free will.

Even if neuroscience and psychology were in a position to establish the truth of determinism — a job better left for physics — this would not establish bypassing. As long as people understand that discoveries about how our brains work do not mean that what we think or try to do makes no difference to what happens, then their belief in free will is preserved. What matters to people is that we have the capacities for conscious deliberation and self-control that I’ve suggested we identify with free will.

I submit to the readers that the case made by Pro in item 1 that control is an illusion has by no means shown to be a solid one.

2) I’m not exactly sure what Pro’s contention here was, or what impact it has on the resolution. Should we refrain from feeling any joy or sense of accomplishment because in Pro’s view, we don’t really deserve it? I wonder if he wins this debate if he would feel any sense of satisfaction, and if so, if it would be hypocritical. But one thing I will say is that he may enjoy Malcom Gladwell’s popular book Outliers [7], which notes that our understanding of success and many other things is lacking because we focus too much on the individual. No one actually “pulls themselves up by their bootstraps” – the success we eventually see is only the tip of an invisible iceberg of events and causes which lead to a person being successful. Still, it is a long way getting from there to being able to say “we have no control”.

3) I don’t really get what Pro was trying to say here, except possibly that he is very clumsy and breaks his leg 1 out of 10 times he tries to get water. I’m sorry everyone, I just couldn’t resist a touch of humor at his expense. The statistical impossibility of things going right is really an illusion, and common sense should reveal this to any reader even without my knowledge of statistics coming into play.

But as it is, statistics is part of what I do for a living. Here’s how things work. The number of things that could go wrong for you may be long, but it isn’t infinite first of all, and for ease of modeling it can be sorted into categories. I’ll give an example which I don’t claim is accurate or exhaustive, but it will at least give readers an idea of where the flaw is in Pro’s thinking.


  1. You get to the sink and drink your water.................................0.99989
  2. The faucet doesn’t work ......................................................0.00010
  3. A meteor crashes into your house killing you...........................0.0000000000000000000001
  4. A criminal breaks in and kills you...........................................0.0000001
  5. You are swallowed by an earthquake......................................0.00000000000000001

5267. Pro shoots lighting out of his eyes to kill you............................0.0000000000000000000000001

You get the idea. Resolution negated. Thanks for reading, and Vote Con!





Debate Round No. 3
2 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Posted by calculatedr1sk 3 years ago
I also recently lost a debate by trying to carve out too ambitious a position to defend. You may enjoy reading:
Posted by voxprojectus 3 years ago
Well played, Calculatedr1sk.

I have learned a valuable lesson about not staking claims indefensible in their absolutism.
1 votes has been placed for this debate.
Vote Placed by THElittleRISK 3 years ago
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Total points awarded:05 
Reasons for voting decision: Con brought in real life examples of control, such as poker, disease detection, and his adventurous ex-colleague who moved to Canada. Pro also brought in hypothetical examples such as a meteor shower, however this example was effectively countered. Pro's statistical argument was also refuted. Con gets the source points since Pro didn't use any. To summarize, Pro was arguing that we have no real control over our destinies, and Con successfully argued that we do have at least some control. A very interesting and enlightening debate, thanks to both Pro and Con for contributing their efforts.