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Determinism Again, Again March 26, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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3 comments

This started out as a comment to Dwight’s piece on Determinism Is Not Fatalism!, but it grew and grew, so I thought I might as well add it as a separate post. I read Baumeister’s piece, and for one thing, I find it frightening if a scientist doesn’t believe in mechanistic determinism—are we then back to old rags spontaneously generating mice and fleas? I suspect he assumes that “determinism” equals hard determinism. Precision is always a good thing. But hard determinism doesn’t say that everything has been laid out from Day One, in a locked pattern (which would be fatalism, if we assume that the pattern is predetermined by an intelligent power). The “butterfly effect” can also be advanced as an argument within hard determinism: the world is too complex for us to predict, but guess what? Everything is caused, even so, including your decisions. Micro-causes (like Dwight’s restaurant example) can alter the direction of events, in the external as well as the internal world, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t predictable effects, in principle. So hard determinism is a theory about de jure predictability and causality, not about predetermination.

 

Another disturbing aspect is Baumeister’s advocacy of indeterminacy. As Dwight points out, this leads to utter unpredictability, and the illusion of control will be shattered more effectively than under hard determinism. The indeterminist will find that, had the theory been true, we could no more count on our decision to order that chicken at the restaurant to result in us actually ordering it, or our decision to eat it actually resulting in putting a piece of chicken in our mouth—if causality is not a factor, internally or externally, then we’re lost in a world of random effects. No, the real problem with hard determinism isn’t that it can’t be proved, as Baumeister assumes; the problem is that it isn’t falsifiable. According to hard determinism, if I behave predictably (due to my heredity or environment), then it’s because of antecedent causes. If I behave unpredictably, it is also because of antecedent causes–even subconscious causes. As the determinist often argues, we do make choices, but the choices aren’t “free,” they are determined by events in our background. They only seem free to us. But if every decision is “caused,” and thus nullifying our free will, even by some far-fetched, forgotten past event or neural quirk, then the theory is getting so broad that it is fundamentally useless.

 

However, “Caused” is not the same as “unfree” or involuntary. That’s, essentially, what we call compatibilism. It is not, as Baumeister assumes, a watered-down version of determinism. It is making choices based on an array of possible consequences, recognizing that we decide, rationally and emotionally, from a limited spectrum of personal, social and physical possibilities, all providing causes/reasons for our choices (and determinists tend to confuse causes with reasons). And that is what we call having a free will, not an uncaused will. So what if there are causal factors behind every decision we make–I should hope so! I want to make my free choices based on evidence and good reasoning, not on some ridiculous notion of randomness. I’d like to see results! Because if the decision is uncaused, so, too, will be the effects of the decision: random.   

 

And, to top it off: People who truly can’t help what they’re doing are usually not held accountable. We recognize, and have always recognized, truly un-free/involuntary actions: due to mental illness, overwhelming emotional turmoil, some physical constraint or imminent threat (which Sartre would of course say is no excuse at all). We clearly and intuitively recognize a fundamental difference between free and unfree decisions (and Aristotle said it first: involuntary decisions are due to ignorance and compulsion). Sometimes we mistake one for the other, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know the difference. So what do we do with a theory that says we are mistaken, that all actions are fundamentally involuntary (if indeed that’s what hard determinism says)? We ask (with the good old polar concept argument, or “fallacy of the suppressed correlative”), then what is “involuntary,” if there is no “voluntary”? “Involuntary” is now devoid of meaning. Now ask the determinist, what about actions that seem “freer” than others? Being kidnapped and missing the midterm would generally be considered within the realm of involuntary acts. Choosing from a menu at a restaurant you’ve selected is usually considered a lot less involuntary. If the determinist is willing to concede that ordinary human intuition can’t be completely disregarded on this issue, we can proceed: What is implied by “less involuntary” is what the compatibilists among us call free will.  So if we can imagine an act, done with informed consent,  by a reasonably sane adult, with only the slightest level of constraint and hereditary impulses, then we have just reinvented the concept of “free will.”

 

But in a practical sense of course hard determinism doesn’t matter.  What matters in this Lebenswelt of ours, existentially, ethically, and certainly also legally (the Twinkies defense and Minority Report notwithstanding), is our human experience  of free (not uncaused) choices within the limits of our horizon, choices with consequences–consequences we can and will be held accountable for.

 

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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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20 comments

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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