Thursday, April 4, 2013

Determinism and Free Will

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

I just have a few quarrels with some of the things we discussed in class today in regards to determinism. The first of which is just a general claim about determinism. We should acknowledge that there is a distinction between causal determinism and causal necessitarianism. Determinism is the view that the past, along with the laws of nature, determines a unique future. Necessitarianism, on the other hand, is the view that the past, which has necessarily occurred, along with the laws of nature, will necessarily determine a unique future. Doesn’t seem like much of a distinction at first, but the distinction lies in possible worlds. For determinism, possible worlds are imaginable in which things could have been otherwise. This, for instance, is Leibniz’s view. God is the ultimate perfect being, and has the knowledge of an infinite set of possible worlds, and being that God is perfect, God chooses the most perfect possible world with the greatest plethora of life. For Leibniz, God could have chosen otherwise (Although arguably I’m not quite sure if Leibniz’s God really could have). Necessitarianism rejects the possibility of any possible worlds, and the world could not be any different than what it currently is. Many believe that this is Spinoza’s view, insofar that everything necessarily follows from Nature’s power. I'll still refer to both determinism and necessitarianism from here on out as just determinism, since my other quarrels don't require the distinction. This just bugged me is all.

Here’s my second quarrel, we seem to be making a mistake by jumping right into an argument for causal determinism. Determinism is a universal concept about the how world works, and how it has worked since the beginning of time. Jumping into a discussion on determinism without first considering its inception seems intuitively time wasting. All that seems to result from arguing that determinism is false is a response by the determinist who digs farther and farther back in time to come up with different causes for each, seemingly, free willed event we throw at them. To me, it seems that the only constructive argument against determinism, and for the matter for determinism as well, is to examine it at its inception within some theological system. In this sense, the determinist cannot dig farther back without acknowledging the existence of some higher powered influence, whether it be God or Nature. The consequent discussion then seems to rely on attempting to prove some kind of theological system to be true.

And onto my last quarrel. In class we had an example that was raised which examined moral accountability given that determinism is true. If someone murders someone, and determinism is true, then are they responsible that action, given that it couldn’t have been otherwise. One of the responses to this was that we are just as causally determined to apprehend the suspect as the person was to commit murder. Both the murder and the apprehension were determined. We were then presented with the question as to whether or not it is morally right to apprehend the murderer. Here’s my line of thought. In a deterministic system, as in any system which involves morality, there are morally responsible and morally irresponsible people. Even though, if free will does not exist, we cannot say that what the murderer did was wrong because he didn’t have a choice, we still, as morally responsible people, have an obligation to do whatever we can to prevent morally irresponsible people from committing immoral acts. In this way, morality is very important in a deterministic system, because those who are determined to cross morality, such as we have crossed morality in our ethics courses and other experiences, will become morally responsible people (hopefully). Thus, even though we may not be able to say that a person is entirely responsible for their actions, we can still influence people to become morally responsible through our actions, legislation, and education.


Heirron said...

The distinction between determinism and necessitarianism is an interesting one that I have not encountered before, and I am not sure that I entirely understand necessitarianism. Is the thesis that there are no physically possible worlds other than the world we inhabit? It seems that I can easily consider possible worlds in which, for instance, the laws of nature are different, and then it seems perfectly clear that very little, if anything would be shared in common between this world and that. So if you could expand on the distinction, that would be great.

I also don't quite follow you when you say the determinist must ground determinism in theology. Couldn't the determinist say, for instance, that the universe suddenly came into existence out of nowhere? After all, before the laws of nature existed, there was no need to observe conservation of matter, conservation of energy, or any of the rest. This is probably a poor rout for determinists to take, but surely they have ways of getting avoiding an infinite regress of causes without appealing to God (otherwise, I suspect, there would be far fewer determinists).

I am not sure what you mean when you refer to people who are "morally responsible," versus those who are, "morally irresponsible." It seems like the phrase, "So-and-so is morally responsible," could either mean that the person's actions can be morally assessed, or that the person frequently acts morally. Similarly, "morally irresponsible," could mean either that the person's actions cannot be morally assessed, or that the person frequently acts immorally. In particular, if a person is morally irresponsible in the first sense, he or she cannot be morally irresponsible in the second sense. Reading your post, I was not sure what sense of "morally responsible" and "morally irresponsible" you were using, and I took the discussion to be asking whether people are answerable to moral considerations, i.e., whether or not their actions are morally assessable.

Dan S said...

Sorry for the grammatical mistakes and the really awkward sentences. I wrote this entirely on my phone during my 30 minute break while at work. -.-'

Dan S said...

In response to Heirron:
The necessitarian will say that there are no possible worlds. There is no way in which the world, as we know it, could have been otherwise. Our ability to think of a possible world which entails different laws of nature is just our imagination, and just because we can imagine a possible world doesn't entail its existence.
Secondly, I didn't quite say that the determinist must ground determinism in theology, but rather that, when we consider the world at its inception, the most constructive argument would be to view it in a theological system. Remember, a theological system doesn't necessarily have to involve the common conception of a christian god, but rather, could be whatever you think that god is. For instance, Spinoza thought that God was Nature, which would line up similarly with what you suggested. Nature necessarily had to exist, and thus we could say that the universe "popped out of nowhere". Also, I don't think that the determinist can get away with just saying that the universe popped out of nowhere, because it just begs the question "What caused the universe to pop out of nowhere?". Again, it seems as though the most constructive argument would result from an explanation of determinism in a theological system.
I take a morally responsible person to be someone who not only understands the purpose of morality, but also lives their lives according to moral standards. This rules out the single kid that takes 1 ethics class, thinks that he understands morality, but still acts immorally.

Chelsea R. said...

I disagree with your second point. Causal determinism does not require any higher power. Imagine that every action exists within an infinite series of events. This series includes all past, present and future events. It could be the case that some part of the cosmos has always existed; changes in this part gave rise to the big bang and life on earth. Natural laws on earth dictate how its inhabitants behave. This type of determinism is causal (event ! caused even B), with out a higher power.

David C. said...

Thanks for this interesting post Dan. Here’s my response to your three quarrels:

1. You made a helpful distinction between determinism and necessitarianism in your first quarrel. From what I understood, it sounds like necessitarianim is almost like a stronger version of determinism. On the one hand, determinism is saying: a certain past “P” + the laws of nature “L” ⇒ determines a unique future “F”. For Leibniz, it is possible that God could have chosen a different P, or a different L, which might then generate a different F. On the other hand, necessitariansim seemed to me as a stronger version of determinism in the sense that, it not only requires: a certain past “P” + the laws of nature “L” ⇒ determines a unique future “F”, necessitariansim also requires that it could only be this past, “P0” and this set of laws of nature, “L0”, and therefore, there is only one possible “F0” that is determined. Is this understanding correct? If it is correct, I am curious about, if necessitariansim is true, what impact would it have on ethical debates?

2. I also like your second quarrel where you point out that we seem to be making a mistake when jumping directly into arguments against determinism in class. I agree with you that in order to come up with a constructive argument against determinism we would probably need to switch strategy and aim at the inception of determinism. However, in developing such a strategy I was thinking about a different route, which follows the Humean skepticism on causation. Your route is completely new to me, and I’m very curious about how you might develop your argument, which result from an explanation of determinism in a theological system.

3. For your third quarrel, I had trouble understanding your strategy of how to make determinism and moral responsibilities compatible. It seems to me that once determinism is granted, it became meaningless to talk about “whatever we can do” and “prevent”. Because there is only “one path”, and one determined script of what we can and will do. And how could we “prevent” or “influence” anything at all since everything is all determined? Can you further expand on this?

Dan S said...

In response to Chelsea: Why couldn't the higher power just be nature?

In response to David C: I'll try to answer the question you had with the third quarrel. I'm a big fan of deterministic influence, as strange of a term as that may be. What I mean by this is that I believe that, in a deterministic system, that beings will influence each others determined future (even if this future, and this present experience of influence have already been determined). For instance, by writing this blog post, I have influenced you to write a response and consequently to wonder if we can deterministically prevent things, have I not? If I had been determined NOT to write this post, then you would have been determined NOT to write a response. Now, if this influence is true in this small sense of influencing you to write a response, then couldn't it also be true in the larger sense in that we can influence people to act morally? Perhaps after reading this response you'll create a company called Ethics Inc, where you go around to major businesses/schools and teach morality classes. I personally want to believe that those being educated to act morally responsible will be more likely to have a morally responsible determined future. Remember the definition of determinism. It is the view that your past events, combined with the laws of nature, will determine a unique future. It seems almost as though it should be our duty as morally responsible philosophers to make sure that as many people as possible have a "past event" that helps to educate them in ethics.

Eric Bumbaca said...

I have a (slightly off topic) question that I hope some of you may be able to answer. While attempting to wrap my head around the idea of determinism, I try to think of ways to disprove it. In this case I am wondering why we feel motivated to do anything at all. For example I have a major paper due tomorrow and I havent even started it yet. Past experiences have told me that I have never turned in a paper late, and past mind states have told me that I never want to turn in a paper late. What is motivating me to actually write this paper then? If I know (or I think I know) that due to my past experiences and mind states that the paper will be written, why should I actually bother with writing it. I hope this comment makes sense and I would love to hear all your feedback on this idea.

Erik V said...

Erik to Eric time,

I think you write it because you have a free will. Given all the factors you have stated and given your own value system, I think you have plenty of reasons to write it. For example, say you're a hedonist. You know that if you do not write the paper, you will get a bad grade, which will (probably) make you unhappy. In order to avoid unhappiness, you write the paper. From past experiences of paper writing, you know you must be present and active to write the paper (unfortunately, it won't write itself). Your past experiences cause your will to be compelled to write it or else you will be lead to be unhappy. This is my interpretation of it, but I'm a compatibilist so I think determinism is true. Maybe you think something completely different, which would be cool to hear.