Are we responsible for our actions in all circumstances ?



Topic: "Are we responsible for our actions in all circumstances. Is there any time we are not. Do we have free will or is everything predetermined? Does anything happen randomly?"



Thor May

20 April 2013



This debate topic could take many directions . The notes here were prepared for a Brisbane discussion group.


  • The first part comprises random points for discussion only. They do not amount to an article.
  • The second part is a collection of some background points to introduce the idea of formal complexity theory to the group, since I believe that comlexity phenomena bear strongly on issues of responsibility. However, the outline points are not structured as an argument for the debate proposition. Content mostly reflects my personal viewpoint. The purpose is to give rise to questions and ideas. 


General Notes


- Responsibility is a matter of belief, culture, circumstance and courage.


1a) PNG – minivan of men kill neighbouring tribe’s decendants with axes : cultural belief – responsible for actions, or controlled by custom?

1b) PNG – students in wars – outcasts if don’t participate

1c) PNG – 22yo woman burnt as a witch to pacify evil spirits

2a) Vietnam war induction - lottery selection – responsible to resist, or participating as a citizen? (WW1,II – conscientious objectors)

2b) Until about 17 th Century most Europeans believed their actions were controlled by “God”, and that individual action “against the will of God” was futile.

2c) It has been said that governments have all of the vices of individuals, with none of the restraints of conscience. What is true of governments is true of organizations in general. We have daily examples of predatory behaviour by companies and organizations. All organizations are manifested by their human agents, yet those human agents put aside their personal code and act in the name of the company, just as their ancestors acted in the name of God.

2d) For an individual within an organization or government to defy or expose the actions of that organization requires courage. The hero of the football field becomes a mouse when he has a family and a mortgage and a career. How responsible are we for our cowardice?

2e) Bradley Manning is a person of high intelligence with a personal code of values which rebelled against the barbarous behaviour of the organization in which he was (and is) entrapped. That required extraordinary courage, for which he will be jailed and reviled, while the people around him who failed to speak are awarded medals of honour and promotions. At what point does our own cowardice absolve us from responsibility?




Complex Systems – notes



Olaf Sporns (2007), Scholarpedia, 2(10):1623.

[for complex systems from a dynamical perspective see Nicolis (2007) at ]




  1. no unified theory of complex systems yet
    1. many partial analyses in different fields


  1. first studied as a research field by Herbert Simon (1981)



  1. Simons:  Complex systems are …



  1. made up of a large number of parts that have many interactions.”


  1. in such systems the whole is more than the sum of the parts..”


  1. “..given the properties of the parts and the laws of their interaction, it is not a trivial matter to infer the properties of the whole.”


  1. complex systems may can contain components that can function independently


  1. the components of complex systems may be complex systems themselves


  1. complex system sets may comprise hierarchies of organization that are partly but not wholly independent in operation.


10.                       relations between multiple complex systems will be mediated by systems of communication


  1. the systems of communication may be strong or weak


  1. the systems of communication may be sparse or dense over time


13.                       such systems of communication between complex systems are critical to the behaviour of the whole


14.                       interactions between complex systems often result in the emergence of functions that are properties of the whole, not the parts.


15.                       dissection of complex systems into components will result in the lost of emergent properties.


16.                       complex systems when studied require the observation both of states and transitions between states.


17.                       there is a strong link between complexity and the nature of network structures


  1. complex systems are sensitive to the topology of networks


19.                       complex networks can integrate separate and heterogeneous components, and accommodate specialized components


20.                       the existence and behaviour of complex systems may be central to what “Nature” actually is.








May, Thor (2001) (2013) “The Probable Language Brain” 


Nicolis, Gregoire and Catherine Rouvas-Nicolis (2007) "Complex Systems". Scholarpedia, 2(11):1473 online @


Sporns, Olaf (2007), Scholarpedia, 2(10):1623. online @




Professional bio: Thor May's PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of drifting through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia in 1972).  


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All opinions expressed in this paper are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument.



"No Man is an Island " © copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2013