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Is determinism dogma?

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Although the free will vs. determinism question is often cited as an example of a philosophical problem, it is rare to see contemporary philosophers give much of a defense of free will.  But has determinism one the day?  I don’t think so.  I think this issue offers a good example of an unknown, unknown where very smart people have repeated the same fallacy for long enough that it has become engrained.  A pretty standard defense of determinism is offered by Galen Strawson in recent NYT blog:

Strawson gives the following argument:

(1) You do what you do — in the circumstances in which you find yourself—because of the way you then are.

(2) So if you’re going to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you’re going to have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are — at least in certain mental respects.

(3) But you can’t be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.

(4) So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Strawson is a very smart person and well respected philosopher.   However I can’t figure out why he or anyone else thinks this is a compelling argument against free will.  As Strawson acknowledges the crux of the arugment is 3.  He elaborates on that claim as follows:

Why can’t you be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all? In answer, consider an expanded version of the argument.

(a) It’s undeniable that the way you are initially is a result of your genetic inheritance and early experience [italics mine]0.

Let’s stop here for a moment.  My experience is that when looking for dogmatic assumptions start with what the philosopher takes to be “undeniable.”  Why should we think that it is undeniable that the way we are is [ENTIRELY] the result of our genetic inheritance and early experience?  Of course these factors clearly play a very large causal role in our actions, but the very question we are trying to answer is whether there is anything more than genetic inheritance and early experience.  Strawson’s argument begs the question.   Said another way, if free will does exist then who we are now would not be the result of genetic inheritance and early experience, it would also be the result of the free will.

An aid to obscuring truth is repeating the dogma and so it is no surprise that we see the same fallacy crop up twice more:

(b) It’s undeniable that these are things for which you can’t be held to be in any way responsible (morally or otherwise).

(c) But you can’t at any later stage of life hope to acquire true or ultimate moral responsibility for the way you are by trying to change the way you already are as a result of genetic inheritance and previous experience.

(d) Why not? Because both the particular ways in which you try to change yourself, and the amount of success you have when trying to change yourself, will be determined by how you already are as a result of your genetic inheritance and previous experience

(e) And any further changes that you may become able to bring about after you have brought about certain initial changes will in turn be determined, via the initial changes, by your genetic inheritance and previous experience [italics mine].

In 3(d) and 3(e) Strawson once again asserts, but does not argue for the claim that any change we attempt to make now will also be the result of genetic inheritance and previous experience. Of course that is what the determinist believes, but what argument do we have for believing this is true?   You might think that I am being overly selective and confusing Strawson’s outline for his argument, but you can read the post yourself.  The important question I want to consider in this blog post is not whether determinism is true but why is it so easy for philosophers to confuse asserting the truth of determinism for arguing for it?

I suspect that Strawson’s assertion passes for argument because of a dogma that all causal powers must be reducible to some basic hard rules of science (hereafter reductionism).  The determinism story is that since the first stages the universe has been ticking like an ordered clock and that each successive stage determines the next.  So for most determinists all causation  boils down to an ultimate reduction to the laws of physics.  So if we say that that x causes y (I caused myself to buy a loaf of bread) then this explanation must be resolvable into some more basic story about particles interacting with one another.  For Strawson it seems that he would like to include some hard basic biological rules about genetic inheritance as well.

The story of the universe acting like a ticking clock is plausible, but not obviously or necessarily true.  However, I think reductionism passes for truth because because it seems like the alternatives are either chance (no better for free will) or miracles (even worse).  But why should we think that those are the only alternatives?

It’s embarrassing how little I know about either physics or biology, however I’ll attempt to make a virtue out of this ignorance.  I know that even most determinists are willing to admit that post-Newtonian laws of physics don’t seem determined and I know that genetic inheritance is not iron clad either.  If the laws of physics and biology are indeterminate and so perhaps not laws in the strong sense then it could be that free will is a casual power that operates consistently with possibilities given but is not reducible to a single set of them.  I cannot freely will myself to fly, because that is not consistently with the range of possibilities.   Of course making rooms for the will as a causal power seems to make the universe a little messier place, but if Strawson is willing to include genetic inheritance along with the laws of physics as independently lawlike, then the lack of a simple single unified causal theory would seem to apply to his account of the universe as well.

So what do you think?  Is determinism (and more specifically reductionism) a belief like Descartes dualism that kept him from recognizing animal pain (see previous post)?  Do we have a good reason for thinking that universe must be a ticking clock?  What are the other problems of admitting multiple kinds of causes in the universe?


Written by sturgis

September 28, 2010 at 10:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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