The Problem with Determinism

Suppose that people are members of the universe and of the same type as all other things that are members of the universe.  In that case, we should be able to deal with people in the same manner as we deal with all other things in the universe.  If the cue ball hits the eight ball with just the proper spin and force, the eight ball will doubtlessly go into the pocket.  I know that because I generally can rely on causation to act in this universe in a predictable manner.  If I know of person X all antecedent conditions, would I then not also know what person X will do at time T?  And if person X is so predictable, can I really assert that person X is responsible for act Y at time T?  Might it not seem as though forces were acting through person X, rather than person X's being a responsible agent?   Here is something to puzzle over for a goodly while, and I am not suggesting that this problem has been solved or even that it is soluble.  However, if you want to consider ethics and codes of ethics, you must make the assumption that, while all of nature follows laws of some sort of causality, human beings in contrast can act also in a way that is not entirely predictable, and thus they appear to have a choice in matters of what they do.

Of course, some people are more convinced of a modified form of determinism.  Do you believe that, while everyone can be anything he or she wants to be, it's a whole heck of a lot more difficult for a person who grew up in the inner city to achieve greatness than a person who grew up with wealthy parents paying for all kinds of special schooling and resources?  If you believe that the person from the inner city has a much harder time than the person born to wealth, you might be a soft determinist, one who believes that, while we do have some measure of free will that is available to us through self-reflection and learning and experience, there are forces beyond our control that sway us in certain directions also.  For ethics and moral responsibility, this reflection clearly indicates that, in some measure, we cannot hold people responsible for what they do.  So, severity of punishment is not appropriate where people either could not do otherwise or where people are strongly influenced not to do otherwise.  Only if we believe in an unrestricted free will can we truly punish people for wrongdoing.  

You might also believe that, because of indeterminacy's being the basic nature of the universe, events are too random for us to believe in causality.  In that case, you cannot predict from one state of the universe the next state of the universe.  In that case, moral responsibility also falls by the wayside.  If all actions are random, then not even we know what our next action will be and so cannot be held responsible for what our next action will bring about.  In fact, we wouldn't even know whether our action caused anything whatsoever, because the entire universe is stuck in indeterminacy.

We must can claim  full responsibility for our actions only if we indeed have free will.  Reflect about that when you make your next moral decision.  What forces were affecting you as you decided?  Or were there no forces whatsoever and were you  truly FREE when you made the decision?  Perhaps your brain works consistent with all the rules of the universe, rules which we see as causality.  And yet, you may have some limited responsibility nonetheless.  If your parents nudged you to school first, you began to educate your mind so as to be able to see variant behavior patterns as possible responses to certain events that had an impact on you.  Ask  yourself whether you would expect, say, physical violence more likely from a person with a limited IQ and a fourth-grade education or from a person with a very high IQ and several Ph.D.'s.  Which one of the two would be more likely to swing fists at you?  I suspect that you will probably expect the relatively uneducated person to have a limited imagination of the kind of responses that are possible for him or her. And so s/he will resort to violence more quickly.  The consequences that you imagine in your brain figure into the set of antecedent causes that can move you.  The more widely the options of your anticipated consequence, the more likely you are to sublimate the more primitive urges.  So, without throwing away determinism or our scientific view of the universe, you can envision yourself nonetheless of processing options in a fully developed mind, the entire process nonetheless proceeding in an orderly manner of cause and effect.  That kind of view might move us to greater compassion of persons who have been deprived of educational opportunities or educational potential.  That kind of view might also be a mental image that spurs us on to continued evolving of intellectual options since it, too, will be a cause in our development--all without challenging the basic deterministic universe.  By the way, this view is what many philosophers might refer to as "compatibilist"--the view, in other words, that determinism and moral responsibility are compatible with each other.

Here are some basic questions that relate to these issue from Robert Kane's book "A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will," published by Oxford University Press in 2005.  On pp. 173/4, Kane writes:  "To determine which side is right in this complex debate, many other questions must also be addressed, . . . :  Do free will and responsibility require the power to do otherwise or alternative possibilities . . . ?  Is determinism compatible with the power to do otherwise . . . ?  Is determinism compatible with ultimate responsibility . . .?  Can we make sense of a free will that is incompatible with determinism . . .?  Does such a free will require mind-body dualism or special kinds of causation . . .?  Is such a free will consistent [with] the modern scientific knowledge of the cosmos and of human beings . . .?  What kind of free will is consistent with religious belief in an all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing God . . .?  If ultimate responsibility and free will require the power of self-formation or self-creation, as incompatibilists [philosophers who believe that free will is not compatible with determinism], is it really possible for creatures like us to have free will, or is free will "the best self-contradiction conceived so far," as Nietzsche claimed?  And if free will in the sense required for ultimate responsibility is impossible, can we live without belief in free will . . .?  Answering these questions has much to do with how we view ourselves, our place in the universe, and the meaning of our lives.  These are the issues that the free will problem--like all the great problems of philosophy--ultimately addresses.



Reinhold Schlieper
January 1, 2005