Sunday, June 15, 2014

Exploring The Implications Of Determinism


It took me about 2 years, but I eventually made my way from being a naive believer in free will to a determinist. The road was paved with many bumps along the way and I found myself desperately clinging to the last thread of free will before I finally and inevitably had to let go. Like most people, it is hard to come to grips with the idea that there is no free will. We have this intuitive sense that our thoughts and actions are of our own volition. And a few years ago, if you were to have asked me whether or not I thought I had free will I would have cited that subjective intuition as my primary evidence. Perhaps I also would have thrown up the apparent indeterminacy of quantum mechanics as some scientific scientific evidence for free will. But all in all, I really didn't know what I was talking about.

What lead me to determinism was a greater understanding of quantum mechanics, which is deterministic, coupled with the data from neuroscience that our brain states occur before and determine our conscious mental states. Furthermore, when the very concept of free will is critically examined it doesn't really make sense. How can my mind have free will and disrupt the atoms in my body without a physical trace? How can my mind "choose" to have certain thoughts over others? My "free will" would have to spontaneously arise with no prior causal antecedents and without any explanation, because if there is an explanation, then it's determined. It also seems that if one must retain the belief in free will, then they must accept some kind of substance dualism. Free will must therefore be believed on faith - there is no evidence that we have it.

These questions and more make free will to me seem like something incoherent and unexplainable. So given that determinism is better supported by the evidence, it is not immune from from its own tough questions. If we all are determined beings, then how can we be held morally and legally accountable for our actions? How can anyone take credit for the good they do? And why do we feel so strongly as if we have free will?

Sometimes when I am in the midst of the throngs of commuters on my way to work I reflect with amazement on the idea that they are all determined - every single one of them, and that this drama was to be played out since the very first nanosecond of the big bang. It is mind boggling to think of the world in such a way. I also struggle to cope with the idea that all suffering was also determined. The holocaust, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, every war and disaster, all the suffering endured by every sentient being - it was all determined to happen and could not have been avoided. And I think to myself, why does the universe have to be so cruel? Why couldn't it have been a place with a little less suffering? But of course the answer is that the universe just is; one shouldn't expect it to be one way or the other when it comes to the suffering of sentient life.

I attend a group for people exploring free will and determinism and I hear some interesting implications coming from some of them. I've heard that determinism should lead to total socialism because no one, no matter how successful, can claim any kind of responsibility for their hard work and ideas. I've also heard that it can make us more compassionate when dealing with those who have committed acts of violence, since they cannot be blamed for their actions and are the victim of circumstance. I think this makes sense because under determinism we are all either the victim, or benefactor, of circumstances beyond our control. However, the socialist conclusions I've heard don't make sense to me. A fair capitalism rewards and punishes those who work hard, and can provide an incentive to innovate. It's as foolish to say that the inventor of a piece of technology is not responsible for their invention as it is as foolish to say that the rock that rolled down the hill on to you is not responsible for cracking your head open - even though they're both following the determined laws of physics. The hard working among us are just as entitled to their fair earnings as they would if determinism weren't true. We just recognize that they got lucky in the genetic lottery.

I want to address a few of the tougher questions determinists face that deal with the practical implications of there being no free will.

How can we be held morally and legally accountable for our actions if we are determined?

With determinism, we should look at moral responsibility in much the same way we might look at moral responsibility of the mentally hill or of children. The person who has committed a heinous crime had no "choice" given all of the previous causes that came before them committing the act. People who commit crimes should be put away mostly to prevent them from harming society again, and to deter others from committing the same acts. I personally struggle with my desire for revenge once someone has wronged me. The lack of that other person's free will gives me reason to be compassionate and try to make the best of the situation without getting them back, but it is very difficult for me.

How can anyone take credit for the good they do if we are determined?

In a deterministic world, some of us are lucky, and some of us are not. Some of us are born with good genes, to good homes and have wonderful opportunities. Others are born sickly, poor, and with few opportunities. It's all a genetic lottery and none of us can take any credit or any blame for the people and situations we are born into. The genius cannot really take anymore credit than the psychopath can be blamed. The genius got lucky. The psychopath got unlucky. I cannot take any credit for not being born with the brain of a psychopath. I'm simply lucky that I wasn't. This doesn't mean that we should live in a world without praise and without blame. I have all kinds of heroes who I highly admire, but I simply recognize that they are the vehicles who got lucky in the genetic lottery, and even if their hard work was all determined, they still deserve praise for being that person who endured all those long hours of study to achieve their works. Likewise, those unfortunate to have been determined to be poor, disease ridden and victims of other harmful circumstances, should be shown compassion, for they had no say in the genetic lottery.

Why do we feel so strongly as if we have free will?

If determinism is true, what would we expect it to look like? Would we expect to be overcome by powerful forces external to us? No! This is a common misconception of what determinism is. The very desires that we have and that we act on are the external forces that act on our brains and bodies, they aren't separate from it. What we desire and do is what is determined. In other words, in a deterministic world, we would feel as if we had free will, and that's why the belief in free will persists so strongly to this day.

Even if determinism is true, are we consigned to live as if we have free will as a matter of practicality?

In some ways, yes. Now I'm no longer a compatibilist as I once was, but I recognize that there is a certain practicality in assuming a kind of compatibilistic free will in order for us to operate in our day to day functions. Some determinists do in fact act as if we have free will. Some don't. I'm kind of in between. Determinism certainly guides some of my attitudes towards moral and legal considerations, but sometimes I do act as if we are "free" even though I fully recognize that we aren't. I'm not sure how far we should pretend that we have free will. The compatibilist view basically distinguishes the source of one's actions on whether it was determined by the laws of physics, or whether it was determined by another human agent into whether they regard the act as "free" (in the compatibilistic sense of free.) So a person who acts seemingly under their own volition has made a "free" act, and a person acting under the control or coercion of another agent has not made a "free" act. The hard determinist and compatibilist both recognize that none of these acts are truly "free" in the libertarian sense, but the compatibilist recognizes a kind of freedom - if the source of the thought or action does not originate from the control or coercion from another agent, and I think this is an important distinction to make.

The more I think about determinism the more it becomes clear to me that there are a lot of challenges ahead, and that determinism is one of the most difficult aspects of materialism to come to grips with. I will continue to explore the implications of determinism in future posts.


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