Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Determinism and Making Choices


**This is from guest blogger, Erik V.**
Say I’m walking home from Ethics one day and a strange old man appears from behind a bush by Science Hall. He has a 10x10 grid of identical red squares and tells me “Pick the correct square and you win $50!” Imagine I don’t get scared and punch the strange old man or ignore him and keep walking or anything like that. Whichever one I pick, I am picking because I think it is the winning square. What’s the reason I think that the one I pick is the one that will win? For the determinist, is it really just as simple as “that’s the way you’re neurons in your brain were firing then” or “your experience with grids and spatial proximity of squares makes you pick that one given the circumstances leading up to it”?  There doesn’t seem to be a good reason as to why I think that any particular square is more likely the winning square than any other, yet I still “pick” one because I want to get something. I guess the second explanation the determinist gives me, the “experience with squares one” I’m likely to buy; even though I doubt most of us have a robust experience with squares and grids, unless you have a stamp collection, but it still feels kind of funny to me. Maybe I’m not even really choosing, there doesn’t seem to be anything dire at stake, it’s not like I’m wrong and he chops my arm off. How does this then translate to moral choices?

At any given point I have a lot of things I could be doing, yet I’m not because the thing I am doing will yield a result I am expecting. If I had more complete knowledge of my actions and their results, wouldn’t I then be more likely to then repeat them (or not)? Back to the strange old man, if I pick a square and it’s wrong, let’s say he removes it and lets me try again the next day. After a few days of getting it wrong, he starts giving me hints too. I eventually pick it and get $50. After a week I see him pulling the same stunt with another student, I walk up, and pick the winning square (one of his hints was that he doesn’t ever change the square/board). Since I have a complete knowledge of how the game works, and I want $50, I keep hunting him down so I can keep obtaining the result I want. If I were to extend this to the choices we make, it seems to follow that the more we know about choices and what follows, the more likely we are to make that choice again.  If it didn’t, we wouldn’t choose it because the result doesn’t agree with our value system (ex: I don’t drink bleach because it wouldn’t make me happy because I’m a hedonist).  So does this mean even if we have a free will, we could potentially fall into a deterministic lifestyle given knowledge of our actions and their results? Any input would be great. I feel very lost and confused. 

2 comments:

Nathan Thompson said...

Erik, I think that most people who think about this issue of free will feel very lost and confused, myself included :)

Do we want to say that if we do something for no reason, that we have free will? Maybe. Do we want to say that all free actions are without a reason? That seems ridiculous and implausible. For us to have notions of moral accountability and responsibility tied to our free will, it seems we need to have reasons or motives for what we do rather than just spontaneously bursting out in erratic behavior. So maybe our free will is compatible with determinism, as we are rational beings who do things for reasons.

You bring up an interesting case with the squares in asking whether there's any discerning factor between the squares, and you seem to question whether there is. A medieval philosopher named Buridan said that if there were a donkey placed at an equal distance between two identical stacks of hay, both of which the donkey wants, the donkey will be unable to make a decision between them and starve. (It's weird, I know- but I didn't come up with it :) Buridan thought that our free will came from being able to "discern between indiscernables" - that we can come up with a reason for picking one of the hundred squares even if there is no reason.

However, I think there always is a reason. Think about going to a grocery store and picking out one of the many identical jars of Nutella on the shelf. It seems that there's some reason you pick one- maybe the light hit in a more appealing manner, or it's simply closer to reach, or it's the first one your eye fell on. I agree that all of these reasons are very slight and easily overridden by other facts; if you thought that the Nutella was expired, you'd probably instinctively pick another one. However, even though the motives are easily defeasible, I think they're still motivating reasons. So, maybe the reasons you give for picking one of the squares are like this- they exist and give a reason for you to pick one square over another, but they're not very strong.

What do you think?

Nathan T said...

Erik, I think that most people who think about this issue of free will feel very lost and confused, myself included :)

Do we want to say that if we do something for no reason, that we have free will? Maybe. Do we want to say that all free actions are without a reason? That seems ridiculous and implausible. For us to have notions of moral accountability and responsibility tied to our free will, it seems we need to have reasons or motives for what we do rather than just spontaneously bursting out in erratic behavior. So maybe our free will is compatible with determinism, as we are rational beings who do things for reasons.

You bring up an interesting case with the squares in asking whether there's any discerning factor between the squares, and you seem to question whether there is. A medieval philosopher named Buridan said that if there were a donkey placed at an equal distance between two identical stacks of hay, both of which the donkey wants, the donkey will be unable to make a decision between them and starve. (It's weird, I know- but I didn't come up with it :) Buridan thought that our free will came from being able to "discern between indiscernables" - that we can come up with a reason for picking one of the hundred squares even if there is no reason.

However, I think there always is a reason. Think about going to a grocery store and picking out one of the many identical jars of Nutella on the shelf. It seems that there's some reason you pick one- maybe the light hit in a more appealing manner, or it's simply closer to reach, or it's the first one your eye fell on. I agree that all of these reasons are very slight and easily overridden by other facts; if you thought that the Nutella was expired, you'd probably instinctively pick another one. However, even though the motives are easily defeasible, I think they're still motivating reasons. So, maybe the reasons you give for picking one of the squares are like this- they exist and give a reason for you to pick one square over another, but they're not very strong.

What do you think?