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Determinism and Physics

November 7, 2013

One of the modern-day sources of Determinism undoubtedly comes from reflecting on the discoveries of science and, in particular, on what physics has to tell us about the world. For a start, the mere notion of cause and effect is enough to induce doubt about the existence of free human actions; the causal chain stretches back from what I do now to the very beginning of time itself. So, barring the miraculous, how can I be said to have a real influence on what happens?

Put like that, however, “cause and effect” can seem a slightly vague or abstract notion – we might, for example, become troubled by the thought that it’s a precondition of science rather than an actual scientific discovery. To really nail down the issue we want to cash things out in more concrete terms, and (happily) that doesn’t seem a particularly difficult task. The basic approach here is one of reduction: my actions can be described in terms of the physical movements of my body. In turn, my body can be described in terms of its various components: bones, organs, muscles, sinews, glands, blood – and at a slightly finer grade, cells, neurons, bacteria etc (this we might call the level of biology). The interaction of these components can itself be described in terms of the behaviour of the molecules that go to make them up (the level of chemistry). Finally, molecules are composed of atoms, and a description of the laws governing the interaction of atoms brings us to the level of physics.

There’s something pleasingly neat about this: human behaviour reduces to biology, which reduces to chemistry, which reduces to physics. Each time we seem to go down a level and get closer to the objective truth of what’s going on. What’s more, by the time we get to physics there doesn’t seem to be any room at all for human freedom. It’s all just atoms pinging about according to well-established physical laws. How could any of that produce genuine freedom? True, at the sub-atomic level, probability suddenly emerges as an inherent feature of the system. But, for one thing, that’s only significant on an unbelievably tiny scale. By the time you get to molecules (let alone you and I) the chances of anything freakish happening are so remote as to be effectively zero. And in any case, even if something freakish did happen, such behaviour would be random rather than free. There’s no escaping it: humans, like trees and planets and stars and galaxies, are made of atoms. And at the level of the atom freedom is simply not an option.

We might summarise it like this: “atoms, therefore human freedom doesn’t exist”. It’s an intuitively compelling line of thought, even if the conclusion is rather depressing. But I also think there’s something deeply incoherent about its argument. Actually, there are several possible lines of attack, You could, for example, suggest that the notion of freedom it rules out is actually a fiction which only passingly resembles the concept we actually use (and, in case you were wondering, that’s the reason I’ve resisted using the term “free will” in this post). But I want to attack it from a different angle; I want to suggest that it’s incoherent on its own terms. Without quite realising it, the argument attempts to see things from two different viewpoints at once. By adopting what might be called “the atom’s viewpoint” it declares that freedom doesn’t exist, but then it illicitly slides back to a human viewpoint and further declares that people aren’t really free. That, it seems to me, is trying to have your cake and eat it.

What am I getting at here? Well, let’s consider for a moment how we got from everyday life to the strange world of the atom. We started with the human being – that was, so to speak, a given. And, if you think about it, there are lots of things that are “given” at this level: human beings interact with each other and with various objects. We tell jokes, climb trees, eat chips, walk dogs, and so on. Some of the things we do aren’t said to be free. Blinking, for example, or digesting food. But many of our actions are categorised as “free” under normal circumstances: That too is a given at the human level. And what the determinist’s argument seeks to establish is that, unlike all the others, the “given” of human freedom is actually a fiction. To this end we broke the human down into smaller and smaller bits until we reached the level of physics. Here there was nothing remotely like freedom to be seen and so we asked “how can freedom possibly exist when physics has revealed that the world is just atoms interacting?” The problem with this, as I see it, is that you might just as well ask “how can humans possibly exist when physics has revealed that the world is just atoms interacting?” For it is one thing to start at the level of human beings and break that down into smaller and smaller bits, but it is quite another to start at a level that only contains atoms and from those alone deduce the existence of people. It is true that from the atom’s viewpoint there is no such thing as freedom, but there is no such thing as people, either. Or houses, animals, trees or stones.

At first blush this claim might seem absurd. Of course we know that such things exist and, moreover, we can explain how the interaction of various atoms brings them about. But that misses my point. We can only do that because we take it as a given that there are people, trees, etc. Our whole investigation has been from the top down. But what if you started at the bottom, without any preconceptions as to what did or didn’t exist?

Imagine a 5-second snapshot of all the atoms in a particular space. Here clusters of them are behaving in this way, over there, different clusters are behaving in that way. What gives you the right to draw a line round a particular cluster and say “those atoms form a human being”? Isn’t that a case of you imposing your preconception upon the picture rather than deriving your categorisation from it? There is nothing intrinsic to the snapshot that allows you to make such a claim. You are importing your knowledge from one level (the human level) and using it to make sense of information at another level (the atomic level). But what we were trying to do was use the atomic level alone – since that is the level which purportedly shows us what really exists – to justify the claim that human beings exist. And at that level there are no human beings. Just billions and billions of atoms pinging about. In fact, our situation is even worse than that: not only are there no human beings, there are no brains or hearts or lungs either. And no cells. No neurons. No nerves. No molecules. Just atoms.

Hopefully that clarifies what I meant when I said the determinist’s argument tries to have it both ways at once. It dives down to the atomic level, sees no freedom there, then races back to the human level so that it can claim humans are really free. But it didn’t see any humans down there either! Where have all these humans come from? Why, when we emerged back at the human level, was freedom the only thing missing? What on earth justifies the determinist in giving it such special treatment?

As I said, it’s incoherent.


From → Philosophy, Science

  1. Wow – a pretty big topic. I have a sense of what I think on these issues, but I am not sure what the right arguments to justify my view are 🙂 The first bit I don’t fully understand is the causality bit. You mention that the causal chain stretches back from what we do now to the beginning of time; and the way you put this hints at doubts about whether this claim is as straightforward as it seems. Are we really saying that if some super-advanced civilisation had had full data on the universe at Big Bang plus one zillionth of a zillionth of a second, they would have been able to predict that on Nov 8 2013 an Arsene Wenger-managed Arsenal football team would be sitting five points clear at the top of the Premium League after many years of trophy-less endeavour? Presumably, most people would hesitate to make that claim, but it is easy to feel forced to make that claim because otherwise you seem to be suggesting that somehow some aspects of the situation I described magically managed to extract themselves from the pattern of cause and effect that determines everything else. So even Miley Cyrus’s twerking must have been destined from the moment the Big Bang occurred (or possibly before).
    Clearly there is something terrible wrong here (and I don’t just mean Miley’s twerking itself) but it is not easy to clearly and compellingly capture it. The examples I have mentioned relate to a human-affected world and the reference to humans (and their decision-making) certainly highlights the absurdity of the rigid determinist’s claims, but I don’t think I am claiming that if only there were no humans (and no other living beings), everything the rigid determinist feels compelled to say would be correct. Do I think the existence of the moon (and every aspect of its existence including every microscopic indentation in the Sea of Tranquillity) was in principle predictable at the time of the Big Bang? No, I don’t. But then I get stuck because I don’t know where to draw the in-principle-predictable line. I don’t want to draw it at any specific point (I know I don’t want to say: “it might have been in principle possible to predict the moon, but not its exact size or details about it”), but then the rigid determinist will say: “if you don’t want to draw the line at some specific point before you get to everything, you must accept that perhaps the right place to draw it is at the point where it includes everything”. To which, my answer would be: “No I don’t accept that because Wittgenstein has warned me about arguments like that and I know they are fallacious even if I can’t quite formulate the knock-out response” 🙂

  2. Well, one of the things I was trying to suggest was that our descriptions of the world at an atomic level do not intrinsically sanction the introduction of concepts such as moons, stars, Arsenal and twerking. We have to provide those ourselves. So if you start from the Big Bang (or just after) you never actually produce the Sea of Tranquility or Arsène Wenger. You just get sub-atomic particles interacting in various ways. They are the given, so to speak – but it’s not clear that even that is justified from the standpoint of “complete objectivity”. Presumably the sub-atomic particles themselves have a structure of some kind and so they’re a concept that we’re imposing upon the picture (or would be if we knew what their structure was); they’re a line that we draw for a particular purpose. If we were looking at things from the viewpoint of their component parts (assuming we discovered such things) then we’d never arrive at sub-atomic particles either. It would just be (eg) strings vibrating in various ways at various positions in spacetime.

    Now, it could be that a certain amount of randomness in the laws governing these entities means that you can’t simply wind back the clock and expect it to move forward in exactly the same way as before. There might be huge discrepancies over time between the two run-throughs. That, of course, would make it impossible to predict everything from the mere starting conditions. But I think that’s an empirical question. How much randomness is actually in the system? What level of deviation might we expect it to produce? Is it genuinely inherent or is it just a feature our method of description (and therefore might be eliminated by a better method)? Philosophers can’t answer such questions.

    But randomness or no, you don’t get freedom. And that’s not an empirical matter, it’s a conceptual one. It’s not as if we discovered that freedom wasn’t there – it was ruled out in advance by the very nature of the investigation. The success of that investigation makes appear as if ruling it out was the right decision – ie,that freedom doesn’t exist. But that’s like saying that snookering doesn’t exist because chess runs very well without it.

    My argument was trying to draw attention to the absurdity of saying that freedom is a fiction because it isn’t found at an atomic level. It’s certainly not there, but neither are human beings (or anything other than atoms and the forces needed to describe their interactions). The determinist, however, uses a double standard. He says humans aren’t free because the causal approach so successfully utililised by science provides no place for it. And that’s like the chess player saying there’s no such thing as snookering your opponent in snooker because there’s no such thing as snookering your opponent in chess.

    • Quick postscript. it seems to me that one of the things lurking at the back of the determinist’s mind is the idea that scientific truth is the truth, and everything else is either a fiction or a poor approximation. That is an attitude towards science, and he’s free to take it if he wishes. But! he ought to be aware that such an attitude has far-reaching consequences when followed through rigorously. And some of those consequences render senseless the very point he’s trying to make about humans not being free.

      My argument is an attempt at the “followed through rigorously” part or, at least, a gesture in that direction. I have a similar one that claims that if the theory of determinism is correct then one of the things it proves is that the theory of determinism is an illusion. I’ll post when I get the chance – I’m not 100% sure it works, but it’s good fun. 🙂

  3. Philip –

    I’ve tried numerous times to post a comment with no success so far. The system now tells me it’s a duplicate. Please see if it’s stuck in a queue. Otherwise, perhaps I can e-mail it to you.


  4. I’m inclined to parrot back from our recent exchange at your PI blog your own emphasis on the use of language, here specifically the “agency vocabulary” of which “free will” is a member. Although as an exercise of literary license we sometimes speak of our stomachs “choosing to act up” or even inanimate objects “refusing to cooperate”, in serious discussions we limit use of that vocabulary to higher order organisms. So, in looking for “deterministic” behavior (which I’m assuming means something like “in accordance with physical laws), I don’t see why it’s necessary to go all the way down to atoms. In using the agency vocabulary we’re talking about creatures that are at a high level of integration, say, levels at which entities have something like a nervous system. At only slightly lower levels of integration, aren’t entities already assumed to function in deterministically, ie, accordance with physical laws?

    I’d start by following your lead and asking what uses are made of words in the agency vocabulary and whether the benefits of each use outweigh the costs, addressing (as before) use within specific communities. For example, within the community using the quotidian vocabulary (ie, all of us) it seems useful and mostly harmless to speak of people “freely choosing” a course of action. It would clearly be ridiculous to say “in the present context, I’m experiencing activation of a learned behavioral disposition to execute the actions necessary to gain immediate access to a beer” instead of “I’ve decided to go get a beer”. The former smacks of determinism, the latter of free will, but so what? What possible benefit would accrue to going all deterministic and complaining about the latter use?

    OTOH, consider the community of those involved in the criminal law. I think adherence within that community to principles in the spirit of the M’Naghten Rules (see wikipedia entry) which are couched in the agency vocabulary does have arguably adverse consequences that warrant challenging their implicit presumption of free will. However, even there I doubt that injecting “determinism” into a discussion would result in benefits that outweigh the predictable costs. And in any event, it seems that the issue could be avoided by focusing on practical accountability rather than moral responsibility. Some behaviors have to be curbed in the interest of a society’s proper functioning. How best to do that seems a more productive pursuit than fine-tuning some inevitably subjective measure of how much free will was involved in the behavior.

    I’m skeptical that the difference between someone’s thinking we do or thinking we don’t have free will is a “difference that makes a difference” – except perhaps in specialized communities like criminal law participants. Even if a person confidently asserts the latter, I can’t imagine that anyone could detect any behavior (other than the asserting) that would suggest the person’s actual position on the question. Of course, it may be that behavior is affected by the commitment, but so far there’s no way of determining that to be the case. So, how much energy is worth expending on the attempt to resolve a dispute that doesn’t seem to matter and may well be unresolvable?

    Just as a point of interest, moving your “5-second snapshot” idea from a third person view at the atomic level to a first person view at the neuronal level results in the situation faced by an infant dealing with early experiences of neurons firing. The infant has to learn to distinguish recurring patterns in those experiences – in particular, patterns the occurrence of which in time will result in the infant’s responding “mama” and “dada”. From the infant’s perspective, at that point a line has, in essence, been drawn “round particular clusters” of firings, and the lines could be said to “define” specific human beings.

    • I have a short, unpublished paper on determinism which I revised just recently after having filed it away for more than a decade. Its subject matter largely overlaps with that of this discussion. Rather than try to draft a comment, I’ll just give you a link to it:

      Very briefly: 1) I am a determinist myself, but for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with physics or natural science, which I view as an embarrassing red herring for the determinism debate. 2) I also agree that the truth or falsity of determinism has little relevance to everyday life; but I also point out a neglected way in which, if determinism is indeed true, its lack of relevance follows in a certain sense from its own truth.

      • Thanks, Tommi – I’ll certainly have a look at the paper. This determinism/free-will business is hugely complicated. And I’m wading into it claiming to have all the answers like I’m Richard Dawkins or something. Actually, it’s quite fun being Richard Dawkins. I can see now why he does it.

      • I assume it’s obvious that I am in total agreement with the essential argument in this paper. A few responses to specific statements:

        The claim that we should not hold anyone responsible implies that we are faced with a choice

        It may not have been clear, but my distinction between “moral responsibility” and “prectical accountability” is intended to address this sort of incompatibility. I take the former to imply choice but not “accountability”, which I see as merely shorthand for “actions, voluntary or otherwise, have consequences for the actor”.

        As for “should”, my distinction between the quotidian use of the agency vocabulary and its use in other contexts amounts to suggesting that it should often (always?) be avoided in the latter. Thus, I see determinism as not only “intrinsically self-referential” but also purgative.

        we might then go through the motions of forgiving the murderer

        I consider the upshot of determinism to be that we are all just “going through the motions”. This is an upsetting idea for many (most?) with its hint of our being automatons, perhaps partially owing to the traditional portrayal of robots as clunky things that move awkwardly and “talk” funny. But suppose Kurzweil is right that the time is approaching when it will be possible to produce synthetic humans behaviorally indistinguishable from “real” ones. Then from a third person perspective, whether you’re (unknowingly) dealing with one or the other won’t make a difference. The rejoinder, of course, is something like this quote (disputed in the paper):

        the first-person phenomenology of a putatively voluntary action is different from the phenomenology of an involuntary action.

        But the determinist recognizes neither the former nor, consequently, the claimed difference from a first person perspective . Again, we’re dealing with a putative difference that a determinist denies and that in any case doesn’t seem to make a difference.

        I can only hope that this little reminder causes them to be gratified without choosing.

        Ii did – thanks.

      • Tommi – I’ve read your paper now. I agree with your observation about Determinism being self-referential. However, I think that far from supporting the theory it has quite disastrous consequences for it. That’s something I want to move onto in another post. Basically, though, it seems to me that if the theory of Determinism is correct then because of its self-referential nature it proves along the way that the theory of Determinism is a fiction.

  5. @ctwii you ask: how much energy is worth expending on trying to resolve a dispute that does not seem to matter and may well be unresolvable? I think we need to be very suspicious of disputes that have the characteristics you mention, for they suggest that we are confused about what we are arguing about. The problem is not that we do not have another evidence to resolve the issue; rather we are confused and uncertain about what is at stake. For me, that makes it a philosophical matter, which (again for me) means that it is not a matter of finding the right answer but working out if there is any question here at all and what it is. If there is an issue here, then it must be possible to hold either position, and being of one view as opposed to the other must make some kind of difference. So sorting things out here would involve: 1) clarifying what is really at stake in this argument 2) making clear what you and I having different views on this issue would actually mean (and that should be something more than a preference for different slogans). There is no real dispute unless we are clear on both what believing in free will and not believing in free will mean – both positions must make sense (and be significantly different) for us to be able to disagree.

    • I read an article a while back which claimed there was some (admittedly sketchy) evidence that people who believe they have no free-will tend to act more selfishly than those who believe they have a genuine choice. Sorry, I can’t find a link to it now.

      Like I say, the evidence in the article was hardly decisive one way or the other, but it seems to me to highlight the broader significance of this topic. It’s about how we see ourselves as human beings. What do we think we’re doing when we talk to each other, help each other, betray each other, and so on? How do we characterise those things to ourselves? I believe there is a strong tendency towards a materialistic vision of humanity in modern society of which determinism (in its various forms) is one distinct strand. Furthermore, I believe it is a corrosive vision; it helps weaken our already tenuous grip on the special nature of humanity and the moral obligations that go with it.

      Wittgenstein wrote “My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a soul”. I believe that our culture is drifting towards a position where we might be more inclined to say “My attitude towards him is an attitude towards a machine”. I think that would be a significant and deplorable change. Indeed, the extent to which we’ve already traveled down that path is deplorable in itself.

      Some caveats. First, I’m not saying we’re ever likely to reach a state where all humanity has been leeched out of our culture. That would be impossible, I think. But it’s not the point. Simply by drifting slightly in that direction we make it easier for vested interests and naked selfishness to get away with it. Look at the world around you: those vested interests are on the march!

      Also, I do not believe that this cultural drift is caused by deterministic philosophical theories. If anything, it’s the other way round: the changing culture prompts the theories. Nonetheless, they at least help facilitate the drift by giving it a respectable, rational-seeming foundation. They are like what the myth of Troy was for ancient Rome. They help persuade us to put up with things and allow murderous bastards to sleep easy at night. In all probability, the murderous bastards would still act as they do without a philosophical underpinning, but denying them the intellectual high ground is at least something.

      Finally, if determinism is correct then, of course, tough luck to me. But I don’t think this is a matter of correctness or incorrectness. Determinism (or, at least, a broad sense of life as fundamentally mechanical) is a picture which, for various reasons, it is increasingly tempting to adopt. I believe it is important that we resist the temptation.

    • Paul –

      I appreciate the distinction between failure to resolve a dispute and confusion about what the disputed positions entail, and I don’t feel at all confused about the positions. One position seems to me consistent with both logic and the little relevant science of which I’m aware, the other doesn’t. Admittedly a rather simplistic justification, but I have yet to encounter a counterargument even that credible.

      I posed a question but didn’t offer an answer. Others may answer “a lot”. My answer is usually “not much”. But since I enjoy Philip’s blogs and commenters so much, I’m happy to deem whatever time I spend here as comfortably within that upper bound.

  6. @ctwii (and to some extent @philip) I do think it is extremely unclear in this debate what the two coherent and possible alternative views are. I have a vague sense of where each side is coming from and I can construct sentences such as “the determinist thinks everything is determined” and “the believer in free will believes we make real choices”, but I cannot see two coherent views (so I cannot understand what either party is asserting or denying) let alone understand what the evidence might be for each view. (And of course all possible views are consistent with logic). My predicament is not helped by the fact (if it is a fact!) that you ctwii being a determinist and Philip being a non-determinist has as I understand it no noticeable difference in what you do or how you live your lives. So I am very tempted to conclude that actually there is no difference of opinion between you. If someone said, no one should be punished because everything is determined. And someone else said, no people should be punished. Then I can see a disagreement and then I can decide to stand with one party or the other.

    • As I understand it, the classic free-will/determinism debate takes place between Libertarians on the one hand and Determinists on the other. Libertarians tend to argue that we’re free in what you might call a “strong” sense. That is, we’re not constrained by our genes, brains, the laws of physics or… well, anything. We are “unmoved movers”. Their arguments usually focus on the first person experience of agency. When I lift my arm it’s because I spontaneously choose to; it is self-evident (they claim) that nothing is forcing me either way. Determinists point out that feeling free isn’t the same as being free and that free-will seems to require something miraculous: stepping outside the laws of nature. And so they declare that free-will is a fiction.

      Quite where this leaves notions such as personal responsibility (and all the conventions concerning praise, blame and law that seem to rely on it) is hotly debated. Some Determinists take a hard line and say the whole thing is a pointless sham. Other say that it’s a useful fiction and should be retained. Obviously, this “hollowed out” version of personal responsibility doesn’t appeal to Libertarians.

      The third party in all this are the Compatibilists, who argue that the seeming clash between free will and causality is bogus. Determinism, they claim, is a pseudo-problem. Typically, they seek to abandon the idea of free-will. The will isn’t free (they say), but freedom consists in the ability to act in accordance with the (determined) will.

      Where do I stand in all this? I think it’s easier to answer that in a negative sense than a positive one. Certainly I think that Determinism is incoherent. Ultimately it saws off the branch on which it’s sitting. There’s also something very wrong about the Libertarian argument. For a start, their focus on first-person experience makes me deeply suspicious. Finally, if Determinism is incoherent it’s hard to see how there can be much merit in Compatibilism. How can freedom be compatible with something incoherent?

      I should add that this marks a shift for me. Up until fairly recently I’d have been more or less happy to be placed in the Compatibilist camp. I still think they have a point. But I also increasingly suspect that a pretty strong notion of freedom is deeply woven into our conception of humanity – so deeply that we simply cannot make sense of the world (or ourselves) without it.

    • OK, Paul, I’ll admit that invoking “logic” is overstating the argument (attributed, as best I recall, to Einstein, Russell, or some such luminary). In any event, it goes something like this: at the atomic level, physical laws dictate behavior; at the cosmic level, physical laws dictate behavior; yet free will assumes that mid-sized creatures of relatively limited capabilities can behave capriciously. Why and how might that be? It doesn’t seem “logical”.

      As I indicated in my first comment, I take “determinism” to be the position that everything “behaves” in accordance with physical laws. I assume that no one questions this at lower levels of biochemical organization, up to and possibly including individual organs. So, I see the question of determinism as relating primarily to the level at which we have a functioning human.

      I think in addressing some aspects of human behavior one needs to have some familiarity with the functionality one organizational level down, in particular with that of the brain. Based on the limited extent to which I’ve read about (and understood) his views, I would say I have a more or less Quinean perspective on the role of the brain. I assume that we arrive on the scene with a certain genetic makeup and a highly malleable brain (AKA plasticity). Through an initially slow and laborious learning process, our experiences result in the formation of neuronal structures that can be viewed as implementing context-dependent dispositions to respond to stimuli with actions that are “determined” by such neuronal structures. Individual neurons behave deterministically, the structures behave deterministically, therefore we behave deterministically. Of course, this is a very high level view held by one with no particular expertise in the relevant specialty areas, but in my reading I’ve encountered several people with undeniable expertise who elaborate the general view in various ways.

      My predicament is not helped by the fact (if it is a fact!) that you ctwii being a determinist and Philip being a non-determinist has as I understand it no noticeable difference in what you do or how you live your lives.

      What kind of behavior do you think would be indicative of being a determinist? My brand of determinism is simply the belief that a person is a physical system that operates in accordance with physical laws. By itself, that belief is not a program for action. Were I a psychologist studying behavior, the belief might affect my research. But contrary to Philip’s concerns, I doubt that it has much if any affect on my day-to-day existence. I also believe that life is, in any cosmic or even global sense, utterly purposeless – a belief that might be thought to have a dramatic effect on behavior. It can but doesn’t necessarily. You have to kill the time or yourself. Pursuing phil of mind provides a local purpose and seems a lot more fun than suicide!

  7. Well, I suppose I should come clean. I don’t think there is a coherent determinist position. But that does not mean that I think the advocate of free will is right or that the determinist is wrong. It means that I am not aware of any determinist who has set out a view that I can make sense of and then either agree or disagree with. (And when I look at what the determinist says and what the free will advocate responds, both sets of statements seem equally confused).
    I also do think you can tell a real dispute by the fact that those who strongly disagree come into conflict (although not necessarily physical conflict!). If I think animals are just as important as humans and you don’t, then we will disagree about badger culling, bull fighting and lots of other things. We won’t just say that we are in fundamental disagreement but that somehow this does not have any implications. So if you and Phil disagree on determinism, but this has no (or virtually) implications, then at the very least there is nothing (or virtually nothing) at stake between you.

  8. A lighthearted dialogue – definitely meant just for fun:
    Philip: ctwii believes there is no real difference between you and your laptop. All laptop-related events and all you-related events are determined by physical laws. Whether your laptop will malfunction in the course of the next two years and whether you will get cancer or commit suicide in that period, it’s all determined by natural laws.
    ctwii: Nonsense. Of course, I am not saying that there are no differences between people and machines. But you are trying to suggest that there is some huge difference that does not make any sense. You accept that there are physically determined events going on in people’s brain, but then you want to claim that there is a continuous stream of miracles that constitute people’s free choices.
    Philip: Nonsense. I am not arguing for constant miraculous interventions in the complex network of causal interactions that science is helping us understand. I am just saying that we do actually make real choices and that the future is not rigidly determined by the present. We can do (or not do) things that will determine how much hotter our planet will get in the next fifty years.
    ctwii: Well, I am not denying any of that. I don’t treat my laptop breaking and someone deliberately pouring water into my laptop as essentially similar events just governed by somewhat different physical laws. And just because I am a determinist, this doesn’t mean I don’t try to right some of the wrongs I see going on in the world around me. I also think that I have a real choice which restaurant I go to at lunchtime – not just an illusion of choice!
    Me: I am confused. Whenever you two get to anything specific you seem to agree and when either of you tries to pinpoint the mistaken claim the other is making, the other person denies that he is making that claim. So I am still not convinced that you really disagree.

    • Paul,

      You’re right, of course, that one of the striking features of the argument is that it doesn’t seem to have any direct practical consequences. But I’m not sure that means the whole thing is pointless. For me the argument is not so much about what we should or shouldn’t do tomorrow; it is concerned with the general background against which such choices are made.

      As I sad before, I regard Determinism as part of Materialism. Indeed in some ways it is Materialism at its most rigorous and uncompromising. It seems to follow fairly naturally from the claim that there is just one type of truth, which is (broadly speaking) scientific truth. The incoherence of Determinism therefore casts considerable doubt upon the whole Materialist enterprise.

      So now we’re led to wonder if Materialism itself has any real significance or is it just another philosophical position that leaves our lives serenely untouched? I think the significance is very real but at the same time very diffuse. It is,so to speak, the theological underpinning for a whole way of life which sees people as essentially cogs in a machine. It is one small part of the attempt to make that way of life acceptable to us and to get us to accept as unavoidable (or natural) the unpleasant consequences that follow when we fail in our duty to be efficient cogs.

      So while it’s true that nothing much would change if we all became Determinists tomorrow that is actually part of the reason to argue against it. For it would represent a tightening of the grip of the status quo. The struggle against Determinism is a small but hopefully not insignificant part of the struggle against what Wittgenstein called “the spirit of our age”.

    • Cute, Paul! The reason you don’t see a difference is that you either didn’t read or didn’t believe Tommi’s paper. The determinist position you ascribe to me is the wishy-washy position Tommi is attacking. Like him, I’m a “hard” determinist. So, the dialog would really go like this:

      Philip: Charles believes there is no real difference between you and your laptop. All laptop-related events and all you-related events are determined by physical laws. Whether your laptop will malfunction in the course of the next two years and whether you will get cancer or commit suicide in that period, it’s all determined by natural laws.

      Charles : Yes.

      Philip: Nonsense. I am not arguing for constant miraculous interventions in the complex network of causal interactions that science is helping us understand. I am just saying that we do actually make real choices and that the future is not rigidly determined by the present. We can do (or not do) things that will determine how much hotter our planet will get in the next fifty years.

      Charles : The problem is “real choices”. Of course when faced with, say, a forced binary option, I select one. But which one is determined by my life history up to that point and the present context. However, the fact that it’s determined makes no difference because no one can predict with certainty what it will be. It will appear to all to be a “real choice”, and that’s all that’s required.

      The difference between how I treat an inanimate object vs a person is a separate issue. I’m in an implicit social contract with persons, and that relationship involves various social and legal obligations and privileges. My relationship with my laptop is different. Of course, there are practical limits to how badly I can treat it, but in general I have no obligations to it. In particular, I don’t adhere to the Golden Rule in dealing with it as I try to do in dealing with persons.

      Paul: Brilliant! Now I understand and concede.

      • Charles,

        Human behaviour is determined, but you have an implicit social contract with persons. Isn’t that a bit like having an implicit contract with the Sun to rise in the morning?

      • After posting my last comment, I had a thought along those lines. Only instead of taking it to an extreme case like the sun – to “whom” I have no obligations, I decided that I owed my laptop an apology. We do have an implicit contract – I agree not to physically abuse it, it “agrees” in return to perform more or less reliably for a long time.

        It also occurred to me that I had not sufficiently emphasized the importance of “context” in “context-dependent behavioral dispositions”. Here, part of context is the entity with which one is interacting. Hence, the different behaviors vis-a-vis one or another. It is also important in that context contributes to the variety of responses to similar sensory excitation. That’s oart of why responsive behavior is unpredictable. Except in highly controlled environments like a test lab, context will be highly variable. Hence, responses can be as well.

  9. @Charles. I love the response you attribute to me. Definitely brilliant 🙂

  10. Charles,

    There’s a contract between you and your laptop? It’s a pleasant idea, but I can’t help thinking it stretches the notion of “contract” well beyond breaking-point. How exactly did your laptop agree to this arrangement? How will it seek reparation if you don’t keep your side of the bargain? And does your laptop have a similar contract with your printer?

    If you want to deny volition in humans it’s probably best not to extend it to machines in order to preserve ideas like “contract”, “agreement” and so on.

  11. Well, Philip, I think the inappropriate-extension-to-machines train left the station with your sun comment. Persons can, and do, enter into agreements with one another, but inanimate and most animate entities can’t enter into agreements at all – neither explicitly nor implicitly. But I don’t see why the ability to do so is relevant to the free will question. The ability to enter into agreements clearly isn’t a litmus test for free will.

    My bit about the laptop was intended to be an exploration of obligation, and I was just playing with the idea that if I want my laptop to “behave” properly I have an “obligation” not to damage it. Framing that in terms of an agreement was perhaps a bridge too far, but I assumed that putting “agree” in quotes would have flagged that I was indeed “stretching the notion of contract” beyond the limits of normal use.

    It appears that we’re all about ready to close this off, but I’d like to ask one last question, somewhat along the lines of Paul’s observation that he doesn’t see any real difference between our positions. I assume we agree that inanimate objects don’t have free will. Where in the progression from inanimate objects to humans do you think free will makes its appearance, and what change or addition accounts for it? Playing devil’s advocate, I’d argue that it has something to do with complexity of brain structure and the consequent variety of potential actions. But as a determinist, I still wouldn’t see how the transition from behaving in accordance with physical laws to not doing so happens. And putting it that way, I begin to suspect that Paul may be right that the disagreement is largely a matter of how the supposedly different positions are defined.

    • Charles

      The point of the discussion about agreements is this: I can’t enter into an agreement with the Sun over its movement because its movement is completely fixed. Likewise, I couldn’t contract a man who’d already jumped off a cliff to fall towards the ground. I could go through the motions of agreeing a contract (time permitting) but it would be an obvious sham.

      For the Determinist we are all essentially in the same position as the man who has jumped off the cliff. So are the agreements we enter into sham-agreements? If they are then I think the coherence of Determinism is called into question because it’s not just agreements that become a sham under this description – it’s pretty much all human interaction including the theory of Determinism itself.

      But if agreements aren’t a sham then the Determinist owes us an account of their genuineness.

      • In my last comment I claimed that the sun can’t enter into an “agreement” because that would violate the normal use of that word – inanimate entities obviously aren’t able to execute the required actions. The fact that the sun’s rising is governed by physical laws – and therefore is essentially inevitable in the near term – has nothing to do with it’s inability to enter into an agreement to rise. Even if I were to agree that the sun has free will in deciding whether or not to rise, it still would suffer that inability. Are you using “agreement” in a way that conflicts with that claim?

        OTOH, nothing prevents the man who jumps off the cliff from agreeing informally – either before or after jumping – to fall, or not to fall, to the ground. That his falling to the ground after jumping is inevitable doesn’t preclude his entering into such agreements. As far as I know, inevitability of performance doesn’t invalidate even a formal agreement (ie, legal contract); I can agree that a caretaker benefit from my death even though my death is inevitable. Of course, in the case of the jumper agreeing not to fall, he would inevitably violate the agreement. But I don’t see why that makes the agreement a “sham” other than possibly in the legal sense that impossibility of performance can in some cases invalidate a contract. You seem to be arguing that entering into an agreement requires free will. Of course, the parties must enter into the agreement “freely”, but that addresses only coercion, not determinism. Again, I’m not clear on what you are assuming “entering into an agreement” requires.

        For the Determinist we are all essentially in the same position as the man who has jumped off the cliff.

        Not at all – this confuses inevitability and predictability. The sun will inevitably – therefore predictably – rise, and a man jumping off a cliff will inevitably – therefore predictably – fall. The predictability is due to both of those specific behaviors being in accordance with known physical laws. The physical laws governing our detailed behavior in general are not currently known and may even turn out to be too complex ever to be known well enough to predict all behavioral details. But that doesn’t preclude the existence of such laws, ie, determinism.

      • theconnectedrepublic permalink

        Charles – if I ask you to meet me for a drink on Friday, I expect you to made a decision about whether you want to do this, agree or not agree to meeting up and then if you agree, make every reasonable effort to get there. So even this simple agreement involves all sorts of agency-related concepts that seem to carry a suggestion of choice. Presumably as a determinist you would argue that this hint of choice is either unnecessary or being misinterpreted (by me). What will happen will happen – its inevitable but unpredictable and our everyday conversations and interactions just happen within that context and particularly the unpredictability aspect.
        But I think Philip and I would question how sustainable this way of thinking about things really is. When I agree to meet someone for a drink, I see myself as making a commitment that I will then try to keep. But for the determinist it is a bit different. Shouldn’t he really say: “I am happy to agree to meet you for a drink, but of course whether or not I turn up on the day will entirely depend on what my dispositions cause me to do at the time”? If, however, that statement captures his position, then surely he should take a further step and say: “Making an agreement in good will implies a commitment to try to meet the agreement. Ultimately I don’t believe in the idea of trying (since it involves choice) so let’s just say that I have noted your offer of a chance to meet up and I will either be there or not be there depending on how I am caused to act at the time”. Wouldn’t that be a more clear-minded way of talking and relating to each other?
        Of course, it may seem a bit harsh that this argument pushes the determinist to say different things from the free will advocate, but this is the price of his clear-mindedness. The free will advocate may waffle on about trying his very best to make it or after the event apologise for not trying hard enough to get there or irresponsibly taking on too many other commitments etc, but these are just words that mask the fact that whether or not he was going to make the meeting was inevitably but unpredictably determined. Of course, the reality is exactly the same for the determinist and the free will advocate – neither know whether they will in fact do what they say they will do and the actions of both are determined by their dispositions in exactly the same way, but in our everyday statements we ignore or reject these points and surely the determinist should stop doing this?
        The problem here is that if the determinist changes the way he speaks, this seems to change his own relation to his own actions (and his relation to the actions of others). The determinist who dwells on his determinist views will start to sound like an observer of his own actions – he no longer has the illusion that he is writing his own narrative, so attitudes like curiosity, impatience and aesthetic approval/disapproval will seem more in place. Why should the determinist worry about what is going on in his marriage – only time will tell what will happen and from an observer’s point of view, a divorce plot line might be more interesting than a different narrative. For the determinist, the difference between his friend going through a divorce and this happening to him is that in the latter case he has a permanent front row seat (but at least unlike his friend he does not make the mistake of thinking he is an actor on the stage!). This is handy for watching what is going on, but unfortunately since you are nailed to your seat, it means you cannot leave if you don’t like what is going on. (Nor of course can you really try to change what is going on).
        To go back to my initial example, if you don’t turn up for the agreed drink, what is the point in my asking you why you didn’t turn up – how the hell should you know? Of course, you can spew out lots of waffle about what you thought and intended etc, but why should I (or you) see that as giving an indication of what really happened in terms of the dispositions that caused your behaviour?
        I imagine you will say that the determinist can reinterpret everything we say and do in line with his view of the reality of the situation, so it is just a matter of correctly understanding these concepts and then everything can go on as before. But that does seem to be where we disagree.

      • tcr –

        Thanks for the comment. Your first paragraph captures my perspective pretty well, so I just have a few clarifications:

        Presumably as a determinist you would argue that this hint of choice is either unnecessary or being misinterpreted.

        My position isn’t that the appearance of choice is being misinterpreted – a person confronted by a forced choice among options obviously selects one. It’s that the outcome of such a situation is “conditional” in the sense that it’s determined by one’s “life history up to that point and the present context”. The selection of, say, option A isn’t “free” in the sense that there is a non-zero probability that any of the options available at the time of choice will be selected. Rather, it’s “determined” in the sense that the conditional probability of option A given the state of the world at that moment is 1. Put that way, it’s hard for me to understand why anyone would disagree since It seems a rather vacuous observation – what else could possibly influence the outcome? Philip and Paul contend that determinism is incoherent. I’d say instead that it’s trivially true but largely irrelevant.

        Wouldn’t that be a more clear-minded way of talking and relating to each other?

        I address the issue of community-dependent vocabularies in this comment (and a couple of follow ups) on Philip’s other fine blog:

        In short, for every day conversation the every day agency-infused vocabulary is fine. Unfortunately, for discussions among specialists, the awkward speech you suggest is, IMO, necessary for clarity.

        The determinist who dwells on his determinist views will start to sound like an observer of his own actions

        Again, this depends on context. I’ve been a committed determinist for decades yet rarely give it a thought – never mind “dwelling on it” – except in discussions like this. In reflecting on a really bad decision, I sometimes do try to suspend the self flagellation by making the determinist argument to myself. And it seems to help.

        if you don’t turn up for the agreed drink, what is the point in my asking you why you didn’t turn up

        Related to your point here is the idea that trying to influence people is futile because their behavior is determined. But being a determinist doesn’t preclude actions taken to influence another person’s context-dependent behavior since such actions become part of the other person’s context. Of course, whether or not one chooses to take such actions is determined by his or her context. Etc, etc, etc.

  12. I’m preparing a second post on Determinism which I hope will set out some of its problems more clearly (I’m taking Tommi’s paper as a starting point). Much of what we’ve been discussing here will be relevant to what I intend to say. So it might be best to continue the debate when I’ve put the post up. Thanks, obviously, for all your comments so far.

  13. I was recently reminded of this article that I read a couple of years ago:

    Since it presents in much more detail essentially the determinist position I advocate, I have to assume that it had a significant – perhaps determinative – impact on me re the current topic. So, a belated attribution. In any event, others might find it interesting.

    My one quibble is that the author suggests that stochastic contributions to behavior negate determinism, which seems implicitly to assume that determinism implies predictability. One can, of course, define “determinism” as requiring predictability, but I see no obvious reason to do so.

  14. Charles – I read the Lucretian swerve article and basically the argument seems to be: everything is caused; free will would involve some things not being caused; therefore free will is a fallacy. This seems a valid argument, but it is rather question-begging 🙂 The real issue is the premise. On what basis do we claim that everything is caused? I assume you would want to argue that this claim is based on evidence and if so, it would be interesting to know at what date you think the balance of evidence moved from unlikely to likely to overwhelmingly probable.
    It is interesting also that the author of the article argues that recognising that free will is a fallacy has consequences – he focusses on the implications for the criminal justice system. Apart from the paradoxes embedded in the fact that the author seems to be trying to use reason to encourage us to adopt certain beliefs and take certain actions (i.e. to make specific choices!), it is odd that he focusses on the implications for society rather than the implications for the individual. One gets the impression that like you he would tend to deny that dropping the fallacy of free will will necessarily have any impact on how someone behaves – and yet if the author thinks society should not hold people responsible, surely the author should draw the same conclusion in his own life?
    Of course, you may reply that he is just programmed to want to discharge his negative (and positive) feelings only on the person who “was responsible” for what happened to him. He knows that no one was really responsible, but out of habit he can’t stop himself going through the cumbersome and often annoying process of trying to work out who was really to blame. But this does not quite work. If I am furious because someone has broken my laptop, I can kick the cat if I want to vent some of my anger but I can’t do what I used to do and seek to focus my action on the person responsible if I no longer believe that it makes sense to see anyone as responsible.
    At the very least the determinist is going to be in a slightly uncomfortable position because what you would see as his clear-headed intellectual assessment of the situation is often going to jar with what you would see as his genetically/environmentally caused dispositions. Here the question arises: what really are the implications of not believing in free will? (a.k.a what does not believing in free will look like?) Your answer to this question seems slightly ambiguous – you seem to want to say that not believing in free will makes no difference, but then you seem to add that this is only because 99% of the time you do not think about (i.e. forget) your disbelief in free will and that when you do focus on it, it changes your perspective significantly.
    What I found odd about the Lucretian Swerve article is that the author does not seem to have any appreciation of why this might be a difficult debate, whereas for me the reason there is a debate is that both views have problems. Belief in free will seems in total contradiction to the scientific view of the world that we are all deeply committed to, while rejection of free will seem to undermine or call into question lots of aspects of our lives that mean an awful lot to us. So it is easy to feel trapped between a rock and a hard place. Or (as the author of the article seems to do) one can avoid the dilemma by ignoring any of the difficulties of the determinist view and seeing it as self-evidently true (and totally or largely implication-less).

    • Paul –

      at what date [do] you think the balance of evidence [for everything’s being caused] moved from unlikely to likely to overwhelmingly probable

      I’m inclined to say that the relevant evidence has been available for centuries but that each individual assesses that subset of the evidence of which they are aware and forms a belief based on the assessment (using “assess” in a very generous sense). Eg, I was reared in a family that didn’t believe in supernatural events, so as best I can recall I adopted belief in determinism at about the time I acquired some scientific knowledge and became vaguely aware of the concept of causality. However, the transition from belief to knowledge (in the Sellarsian sense of “being able to justify what one says”) has slowly evolved over the intervening decades, especially the last few years, and is still in process.

      the author seems to be trying to use reason to encourage us to adopt certain beliefs and take certain actions (i.e. to make specific choices!)

      As explained here (, I see this as a misunderstanding of the determinist position. Yes, the author presumably is trying to affect a reader’s behavioral dispositions. And yes, if successful, the reader will (for some period of time) respond to certain future stimuli in ways consistent with the author’s intentions. But how does that imply that the reader is making “choices”, other than in the trivial sense that at every instant one must instantiate some behavioral disposition? The determinist (as I define the term) merely argues that at every instant, the disposition instantiated is a function solely of the biological state of the reader. however that state arose. Again I ask: if that isn’t the case, what is the nature of the mechanism by which the causal link between biological state and instantiated behavioral disposition is broken?

      One gets the impression that like you [the author] would tend to deny that dropping the fallacy of free will will necessarily have any impact on how someone behaves

      In addressing that issue here (, I perhaps understated the difference subscribing to any “X-ism” might make on behavioral dispositions. At the very least, in some contexts such a subscriber is disposed to utter “I am an X-ist”. But I remain skeptical that subscribing to determinism has anything like the adverse consequences Philip assumes. Of course, I can imagine (and I emphasize “imagine”) becoming convinced that society-wide belief in determinism could have adverse consequences sufficient to warrant not actively proselytizing for it. However, that by itself shouldn’t affect my belief in the position.

      Re Cashmore’s take on responsibility: although I infer from his discussion that he would substantially agree with my distinction between “moral responsibility” and “practical accountability” (see the comment referenced in the previous paragraph), he doesn’t make the distinction explicit. He also uses language like “punish” that suggests moral responsibility in a sense that I think a determinist should reject.

  15. I’m still working on my next post about this, but I’m also grappling with Wittgenstein and understanding. And, actually, the two topics are kind of running together – specifically they’re both leading me to Wittgenstein’s rather gnomic and off-hand comments in §158 (which I think Paul glances towards in his comment above).

    Anyway, a quick thought about Determinism. What kind of theory is it that (a) seems to be necessarily true and yet (b) equally necessarily changes nothing at all about our attitude towards the world? Doesn’t that seem to be not so much a genuine theory as the ghost of a theory? A useless idea, which nevertheless is connected with a certain play of the imagination (to misquote §216).

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