Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ayer on Free Will and Determinism

**This is from guest blogger, Patrick S.**

Ayer says that when one is constrained, they do not act freely.  When one is in such a situation that he can only make one choice, Ayer believes that this person is caused to do the one possible option because of their constraints.  While being constrained implies being caused to do something, Ayer notes that the converse does not always hold true.  When one is caused to do something, he is often caused to do it by judging the expected outcome to be better than an alternative.  Take the following example:

‘A’ is held at gunpoint and asked to disclose governmental secrets.
‘A’ discloses these secrets, and is NOT shot.

While we might say that ‘A’ was caused to disclose the secrets, via threat, it would be wrong, according to Ayer, to say that ‘A’ was constrained to the point that NOT disclosing the secrets wasn’t an option.  It is this type of situation, where one has a choice and is not constrained, where freedom is present in Ayer’s system.

While Ayer holds the opinion that this sort of freedom is not at odds with determinism, I disagree.  Determinism is the idea that causal interactions are logically such that any event in the universe is predetermined by previous events.  Those previous events, along with the static laws of nature, are such that only one outcome is possible.

Let’s return to the previous example.  If determinism holds true, then previous events have combined with the laws of nature to lead ‘A’ to having a gun at their head with the present threat that either ‘A’ divulge government secrets or be shot.  Additionally, the laws of nature are such that ‘A’ will make the decision to divulge said secrets.  This decision comes not from free will, but from chemical reactions in the brain that are triggered by the current set of events, with these reactions manifesting themselves in the form of a conscious decision.

It seems to me that freedom is absolutely at odds with determinism, and that Ayer’s attempt to make the two compatible is a trick of semantics.  Perhaps events act alongside laws of nature to deterministically affect the outcomes of future events.  However, perhaps it is also the case that SOMETIMES events are NOT determined by past events and the laws of nature.  Under this situation, it could be the case that some events are pre-determined while others are not.  If a personal decision were to fall under the latter category, it would be the case that free will applies, and determinism exists within the universe.  Nevertheless, determinism has not applied directly to the situation at hand.  Unfortunately, I currently see no reason to believe why some events would be subject to determined outcomes while others are not, but I am certainly open to suggestions and commentary on the idea.


Danny Witt said...

I agree with your evaluation of Ayer’s claims. In the example that you provided (involving the individual with a gun to their head) I find it odd when Ayer asserts that the individual under coercion was not constrained. It seems that the series of events, experiences, and other causal factors which lead the coerced individual to act are in place and will dictate some action at the present time (as you’ve described with the person’s brain state). I do agree that Ayer’s attempt to separate cause and constraint seems like a semantic move rather than a statement of metaphysical truth. Is Ayer attempting to suggest that causes are sufficient to bring about some action A, but constraints are the necessary causes that bring about that action A? If so, there should logically always be some necessary cause (and hence, some necessary constraint) on an action. Whether this is intuitive or gels with our conscious experience seems moot. We could have these necessary causes in every action, but obviously not have the conscious awareness of each necessary cause, nor have the time/perception to spell out the chain of necessary events.

I find it odd as well when Ayer suggest that his behavior has been shaped by childhood (through various causes), and yet he does not act under constraint. Ayer suggests that despite a deterministic account of behavior, and despite the fact that the behavior could be subsumed under some natural law, it does not follow that I am acting under constraint. Isn’t he (and aren’t we) acting under these set of causes and constrained by them? It might not seem like it when we are going for an apple or an orange, but it seems like we make decisions based on past experience (among many other sufficient causes).

P. Stephens said...

Thank you for your comments. Personally, I can only see Ayer's argument going one of two ways. In the first, he cannot possibly be referring to the same determinism as me. This system would be one in which determinism is true, but we still have free will. The second is more radical, as it requires some events to be determined and others not. In the second, we have to determine why some events are not. In the first, it doesn't seem to me that we really have achieved determinism at all...yet I do feel as though Ayer gets at something important when he talks about the colloquial idea of freedom. He says that being free does not necessitate an undetermined system, but simply having a choice between at least two options. I think that this type of "freedom" exists-most people certainly BELIEVE that they have choices in life. If people are wrong in believing this, why have we evolved in such a way that our intuitions suggest a freedom of the will?