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Determinism Is Not Fatalism! March 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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One of my pet peeves is that people, who should know better, describe determinism as if it were fatalism. Here is Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State describing determinism:

To the determinist, the march of causality will make one outcome inevitable, and so it is wrong to believe that anything else was possible. The chooser does not yet know which option he or she is going to choose, hence the subjective experience of choice. Thus, the subjective choosing is simply a matter of one’s own ignorance – ignorance that those other outcomes are not really possibilities at all.

To illustrate: When you sit in the restaurant looking at the menu, it may seem that there are many things that you might order: the fish, the chicken, the steak, the onion soup. Eventually you will make a selection and eat it. To a determinist, causal processes dictated that what you ordered was inevitable. When you entered the restaurant you may not have known, yet, that you would end up ordering the chicken, but that simply reflects your ignorance of what was happening in your unconscious mind. To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish. Maybe you saw it on the menu and were tempted to get it, and maybe you even started to order it and then changed your mind. No matter. It was never remotely possible. The causal processes that ended up making you order the chicken were in motion. Your belief that you could have ordered the chicken was mistaken.

Professor Baumeister is describing fatalism, not determinism. Fatalism is the view that the future is fixed, pre-ordained, so my deliberation about what to do in a situation doesn’t matter. If I walk into a restaurant and I am already fated to choose chicken from the menu, well then I will choose chicken regardless of my deliberation. Baumeister says “To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish.”

But this is simply a misunderstanding of determinism. Determinism asserts that my actions are caused by my psychological state and other causal influences operating when I make a decision. But that psychological state will include a deliberative process that is continually being shaped and reshaped by new information. When I walk into a restaurant, given my preferences, I may be more likely to choose some items from the menu rather than others. But what I end up choosing will depend on odors wafting from the kitchen, the conversation at the table, the recommendations of the waiter, the descriptions of dishes on the menu, and other countless details about my surroundings that influence me. And I have to deliberate to find out, in light of those influences, what my preferences are. To the extent I am open to new information and have psychological states that are responsive to my surroundings, my actions are not fated.

It is of course true that all of these influences will determine what I choose. But when I walk into the restaurant most of the options on the menu (except for those that are distasteful) are genuine options and my ultimate choice will depend on my deliberation, which in turn is dependent on complex causal influences. So there is nothing illusory about choice—it is as real as the causal processes that determine my action and is in fact part of those processes.

So when Baumeister says —

“Choice is fundamental in human life. Every day people face choices, defined by multiple possibilities. To claim that all that is illusion and mistake is to force psychological phenomena into an unrealistic strait jacket.” —

He is inventing a straw man; a position no determinist holds.

He goes on to argue:

Also, psychological causality as revealed in our labs is arguably never deterministic. Our studies show a change in the odds of one response over another. But changes in the odds entail that more than one response was possible. Our entire statistical enterprise is built on the idea of multiple possibilities. Determinism denies the reality of this. Statistics are just ways of coping with our ignorance, to a determinist – statistics do not reflect how reality actually works.

Again, simple nonsense. Changes in odds reflect changes in causal conditions. There are multiple possibilities because there are multiple causal factors and the correlations don’t reveal which causal factors are at work.

He concludes:

To believe in determinism is thus to go far beyond the observed and known facts. It could be true, I suppose. But it requires a huge leap of faith, as well as a tortuous effort to deny that what we constantly observe and experience is real.

If determinism is false, then human actions must be uncaused—mysterious events that pop into existence and are somehow under our control yet outside the causal structure of reality.

Who is making a leap of faith?

A course in philosophy should be required for all scientists before they have a license to publish.

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