Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Red Pill: Choosing Determinism

[Update: Shifted to front from 8 Aug.]

Are individuals free to make their own choices in life, or is everything that happens pre-determined? Perhaps the answer is “both”. Perhaps we’re mistaken to assume that free will and determinism are in conflict.

There’s a clear sense in which determinism enables rather than opposes freedom. Suppose you’re driving up to a red light and you want to brake, but some random indeterminacy causes you to instead step on the gas. Does that sound like a free action to you? I would actually feel much more free if I knew for sure that my actions were reliably caused (determined) by my preferences. Indeterminism doesn’t give us free will; it robs us of the ability to act on our choices.

We should take care not to confuse determinism with fatalism. Both guarantee that the future is settled – there is some fact of the matter about how things are going to turn out - but only fatalism robs us of our causal powers. It implies that the fated event would occur no matter what we did, that our actions make no difference. Determinism is not nearly so bad. It says that some event is going to happen, but only because we are going to make it happen! If we had chosen differently (perhaps because the past had also been different, and so caused us to have slightly different goals), then the future would have turned out differently too. Our actions have a huge impact: they are what cause the future to turn out as it will!

So, contrary to popular opinion, causal determinism is nothing to worry about. It is entirely compatible with our actions being caused by our own character and deliberative processes, and that – I suggest – is the sort of freedom that really matters.

Some want to further demand that our mental states be themselves uncaused, so that individuals are the ultimate causes of their actions. But this is not plausible. Surely who we are as individuals is hugely affected by external factors. You don’t get to choose your personality. Your character and values will have been influenced by the interaction of your genetic makeup and your upbringing. Your beliefs and skills will depend upon what you have been taught by others. In short: we didn’t come from nowhere.

Indeed, the very notion of pure self-creation is incoherent. Suppose you got to choose your own personality. On what basis could you make such a choice? You must base it on some prior preferences that you have. But did you ever get to choose those preferences? If so, on what basis was that choice made? We must eventually reach some foundational standards of evaluation (preferences) that you never chose to have. So “pure” freedom is impossible. Unless we want free will to be an impossible pipe dream, we’d best understand it in the previous, more modest, sense, which is consistent with determinism. What do you think? (Hopefully, reading this will cause you to make the right choice!)


  1. I am a semi-determinist. I don't believe the future is settled, but that there are certain probabilities, some quite high, others not so.

    >So, contrary to popular opinion, causal determinism is nothing to worry about. It is entirely compatible with our actions being caused by our own character and deliberative processes, and that – I suggest – is the sort of freedom that really matters.<

    Hmmm... isn't that what the Christians say when you tell them that God knowing the future is incompatible with our free choice (the kind of choice we can be held responsible for)?

    Anyways, this is all just academic games. The questions that matter are these: Are we morally responsible for what we do? Yes.
    Are there degrees of responsibility in everything we do? Yes. Next!

    I just wish professional philosophers would spend more time on practical issues and less on mind games like this one.

  2. >If I'm interested in determining whether it is just to punish someone for doing a wrongful act,<

    How about just saying "it's never just to abuse someone" period, no matter what they have done? Then you won't have to spend the time of your life worrying about determinism and fatalism. Ugh. :-)

  3. Paul, my post "destiny and determinism" goes into more detail on the difference between fatalism and determinism. But as I tried to explain in the present post, the difference is primarily counterfactual. Determinism, but not fatalism, implies that the world would have turned out differently if we had acted differently. (It just so happens that the past guarantees that we actually won't act differently.) The difference is subtle, but, I think, important.

    "the punishment would not be just because the poor guy did not choose the process of reasoning that led to his actions?"

    Compatibilists simply deny that moral responsibility requires ultimate responsibility. What matters is who we are, not how we came to be. The fact that our preferences and reasoning-processes have external causes doesn't make them any less ours. Compatibilist freedom merely requires that our actions stem from our own character and deliberations. Whether those in turn are caused by something else simply doesn't matter.

  4. That's a nice point by Derek.

    Paul, I don't see why (b) necessarily has any phenomenological implications. Perhaps the desire has greater causal strength at some sub-conscious level of processing. Cognitive science has shown us that, in general, introspection is not a very reliable indicator of how our minds actually work.

  5. Paul, in response to your latest comment, I'll just point to yet another of my old free will posts, which explains why I don't think indeterminacy is any help here.

  6. That's not a bad argument, though I think it ultimately fails.

    In an SFA, it is possible for either one of two events to result. But you don't have any control over which of these occurs. It's just random, depending upon which way the quantum fluctuations go. That's not something you get to decide for yourself.

    Freedom is about having the power to control your own decisions and actions. The mere fact that there are two possible results rather than just one, does not itself imply that you have any more control over it.

    (If a killer flips a coin to decide whether to shoot you in the head or heart, that doesn't make you any more free than if he simply determined to shoot you in the head regardless.)

    But that's what SFA's are like. They're (metaphorical) coin-flips which end up determining our personalities. The mere fact that it's indeterminate beforehand which way the coin will fall, doesn't give us any more control over it.

    That's why Kane's theory doesn't give us any more freedom than standard compatibilism does.

    What you really need is pure self-creation: where you get to decide your own character (rather than letting quantum indeterminacies decide it for you). But that notion is incoherent, as my main post showed.

    So, in the end, you really can't do better than compatibilism.

  7. Um, Paul, I don't think I've ever asked "who really wants to be in control of their mental states?" I don't see such a question anywhere in the old post you link to. It's my position (as argued above) that the notion of pure self-creation is incoherent. (You might as well ask "who wants to own a square circle?")

    Like I keep saying, we have no more control over indeterminate external causes than we do determinate ones. So it just seems to me that you're trying to redefine "self-caused" to mean something entirely different. You talk about "identity formation", but I see no reason whatsoever to prefer indeterminate external formation to determinate external formation. Either way, our identity is formed by forces over which we have no control whatsoever. The indeterminist is in no better position here. That's why I think the only plausible position is to say that what matters is that our actions are caused by our self. The further question of how the self was formed makes no difference.

  8. Supposing that it really is possible for something to come from nothing (which atheists are not necessarily committed to in any case), the appropriate description of this is that the new entity was un-caused, not self-caused.

    This is particularly clear in the case of human action: if our behaviour is determined by nothing at all (i.e. indeterminate), then nothing has control over it, and so, in particular, we do not have control over it. You're trying to reason from "X had no cause" to "X had a cause: namely, X itself." That just doesn't work.

    Anyway, note that my incoherency argument is particularly about agent self-creation (not object self-causation in general). Here it is again:

    "Suppose you got to choose your own personality. On what basis could you make such a choice? You must base it on some prior preferences that you have. But did you ever get to choose those preferences? If so, on what basis was that choice made? We must eventually reach some foundational standards of evaluation (preferences) that you never chose to have. So “pure” freedom is impossible."

  9. Richard, this is just 'for the record'.
    I think you originally somewhat mis-stated the objections of some against determinism.
    We all believe we can ‘apprehend’ what is “true” .
    Given a set of propositions and a conclusion, we can study, grasp the matter , and with utmost confidence will proclaim “ this is true”, or “this is false”.
    Arguments about everything are waged ( and sometimes settled ! ) on this basis.

    However, many people believe also that there is only physcial causation in this world, and that must therefore includes the events inside our own brains.
    It follows for a materialist, that all thoughts and conclusions are determinded in advance… are simply the inevitable result of previous causes .. it doesn’t matter what those causes are.

    We can therefore no longer claim “truth ‘ in our aguements.
    We might continue to argue because we want to, and perhaps believe that the events in my own brain just happen to coincide with reality, but even so all serious claim to ‘see’ or to ‘know’ truth absolutely must be abandoned.

    Thus the critic, goes on to say, “ Well, we all believe, and passionately, that we CAN know truth, and I propose there is ‘something’ essential to humans, which is ‘above’ physical casuality. A knowledge, not causless, ( as you suggest Richard) but caused by apprehension of truth alone.”
    This ‘something” which is to be able to see ‘truth’ is thus free in a special way, and is the basis for a true understanding of free will.
    And thus a different sort of freedom is possible than the merely “determined by the previous character “ proposition.

    I have my own way around such an argument, but even so the above deserves to be stated clearly.

    Good discuusions on this site recently I must say.

    cheers . david L.

  10. Yeah, I agree with you about the great discussions! :)

    I'm not so sure about the other arguments you describe, though. Why think that determinately caused beliefs cannot be true? If we've evolved in such a way as to be responsive to evidence and reasons, so that reality (as it impacts upon us) will cause us to have beliefs that mirror it, then there seems no problem here?

    (Sure, our cognitive processes are fallible, and evidence can be misleading, so we can't claim absolute certaintly -- but we never could in any case!)

  11. Stanley Climbfall: God's creation of the universe actually creates more problems for free will than it solves. St Thomas Aquinas was very clear on this:)

    If God knows all, then he knew what we would be doing now before we were born. In what sense then did we choose to act?

  12. vera: I don't know how you can be a semi-determinist. Either determinism is true, or indeterminism is true. One of them must be false. Therefore, 1/2 half is not an option.

    A probablistic approach is okay for sub-atomic particles (e.g. half lifes, etc) but what about the way things interact in the medium sized world?

  13. Very interesting discussion, and I'm sorry I got to it late. Not sure I would have had anything to contribute, though. On the one hand, it does seem like cheating to "move the goalposts" for freedom to include actions caused by a completely determined mental state, and it seems dubious to claim any significant distinction between this and fatalism. On the other hand, a) we certainly seem to have something that resembles freedom, and it seems hard to define what freedom would be in a way that is different from what we have, and b) even if we consider the possibility that our mental state is indeterminate (i.e. caused in part by events that are random), that doesn't really help to establish that we have any control over our actions that cannot be reduced to the influence of prior conditions.

    The gallery applauds. :)


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