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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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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.