A Preface to the Determinism Problem

I am bothered by an anomaly in my moral universe and hope to investigate it here. At issue is a contradiction between the central pillar of science—the material universe is contingently deterministic — and what I take to be a universal human orientation to that universe: we are free to choose. On the one hand you have to weigh recent history’s most impressive human achievement: the glorious accomplishments of natural science, all based on the predictability of its objects of study. Empiricism is nothing without the laws of causality that produce testable predictions about everything from subatomic particles to the background radiation from the Big Bang. Causality…hypothesis… confirmation… determinism. Everything we see around us operates according to laws of nature that have been discovered, deepened, and linked over the last five hundred years. In essence, these laws (with an exception or two I will discuss below) forbid freedom to their objects of study. But then there is the bothersome problem of….us. Our free will is the essence of the human experience, so much so that our species is called “wise man,” for our ability to discern choices, weigh them, and choose the best from among them. We are choice-making machines programmed with natural freedom to see choices, preferential freedom to choose, and circumstantial freedom to act (for more on the nature and temptations of freedom, see “Our Freedom Fetish.”). Since the Enlightenment the human sciences have been stymied by that freedom, and it has crippled their fevered attempts to be taken as valid empirical studies on a par with the natural sciences. So you can see my dilemma. It seems I must embrace two contradictory positions. This violates the most basic of the tests of logic, the principle of non-contradiction. I dislike discovering anomaly, but I dislike ignoring it more.

The free will/determinism question is an old issue in philosophy dating back to the pre-Socratics, but the triumphs of natural science have cast it in a particularly harsh light over the last century or so. As in all intractable philosophical problems, we have seen a multitude of attempts to resolve the apparent contradiction, falling into three basic categories. Empiricists typically embrace a determinist outlook that regards our sense of freedom as a delusion. Despite the spectacular failure of the human sciences to crack the nut of free will, determinists assume that advances in neurology, genetics, and other medical sciences will one day lay to rest the antique notion that we are free to choose and will reveal not only the mechanisms that compel our behavior but also those that deceive us into thinking we control it. Those who argue that our freedom is real rather than delusional are called libertarians, but I will try to avoid that term because of its political associations. Among the free will advocates, religious absolutists argue as they have since the time of Zoroaster: that the reason humans act differently from all other things in creation is that they are different. The existence of the soul, the spark of the divine in each person, elevates humans above the material and the determinism that molds it, lifting us to share in the divine, lending us a bit of the uncaused cause that moves itself without determinism. The third position attempts to reconcile these contrarities and is called compatibilism, arguing that we are in some way both determined and free. My real purpose in this investigation is to delve into what I take to be a convincing argument for a certain kind of compatibilism and to look into the implications for issues of warrant, but these waters are deep, so in this essay, I will set up the issue and explore some of the complications the issues imply for a true grasp of the unity that is reality. I will return to the nub of the issue in another essay (see “The Determinism Problem”).

It may well be that empiricists have got it right, that one day we will look back on this controversy with the same smug superiority with which we now view Egyptian astronomy or the humors theory of medicine. Certainly, the odds are on science’s side, for it has rolled back the mysteries of the material universe with metronomic regularity. But this particular issue has a catch that might make science’s task well-nigh impossible. Consider for a moment what we now know about the brain chemistry of strong emotion, say depression or falling in love. Does it make the slightest bit of difference to those in either emotional state to speak of neurotransmitters or serotonin? Does anyone really care if science maps out the brain structures of parental love or criminality? Yes, we care enormously if these propensities can be affected. Imagine taking anti-depressants or aphrodisiacs to resolve emotional or psychological issues. You don’t have to imagine. Anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug in the U.S. today. But should the determinists scope out the mental self-delusions that produce our sense of moral freedom, what would they do with that information? Note that I am not discussing the pragmatist response to such discoveries, only the truth issues involved. Brave New World solutions would hardly seem improvements over the self-deception that we are free, would they? Imagine for a moment that you could be convinced that your freedom and the responsibility that comes of it are the result of this or that mental error or process, and that you actually act like every other thing that exists, only now you know why and how. What would happen to your vaunted moral freedom and responsibility then? Would anyone willingly give up the one thing that makes us most human? Give it up for what? To be a thing rather than a person? I wager you would instantly choose a response contrary to empirical prediction, and if that was the real prediction and you were told of it, you would choose a third response, and so on. We are cussed characters, aren’t we?

For these reasons, I am most skeptical that empirical science will ever resolve the free will debate as it has so many others. We are blessed or doomed always to feel free and always to feel responsibility for that freedom even if it could be shown that we are not. I must mention one exception to the exclusivity of human free will in the material universe. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle seems to offer to subatomic particles the freedom which physics denies to the things these particles constitute. Though arguments have been proffered by physicists that the indeterminability of subatomic particles might somehow conduce to human freedom, no real connection has been made, nor has anyone argued convincingly that their unpredictable randomness constitutes real freedom as humans define it.

We might embrace the opposite conclusion with more success, and here is one of those rare moments in our culture when the arguments of religious absolutists will carry more water than that of the hardest of natural scientists. For the life of me, I cannot understand why religionists don’t go to this well more often. For five centuries they have given ground to the empirical sciences, so much so that they are left with very little ground on which to stand (see “The Latest Creationism Debate” and “Must Religion Retreat?” for more on this). When I was young, religionists challenged science to explain the origin of life. They don’t do that anymore, and that question has joined Zeus’s thunderbolts, Paley’s watch, and Thoreau’s Mother Nature on the discard pile of arguments for religion. In our own day, we are seeing cosmologists challenge the “first cause” argument, postulating a “universe from nothing” that removes the divine from the act of material creation. Yet in the face of defeats that began with the trial of Galileo in 1633, religious absolutists have this trump card to play: why are we free? Every argument of religion versus science can swing on the simple truth that there is an argument with the attendant implication that we are free to decide in favor of one view or the other. And that very freedom constitutes a convincing argument that we are unlike everything else that science studies, as the woes of the human sciences have repeatedly revealed. There is nothing anomalous about claiming that we are the only free things in the universe precisely because we are not merely things, and every scientist knows in his heart of hearts that his free will invalidates the very foundation of the scientific enterprise, at least in regard to himself as an object of study. Why don’t religionists use this argument more insistently?

Granted, their position entails a belief that extends knowledge as all proper beliefs do, in this case the knowledge is that we alone seem free in ways like nothing else we know of. Should the reason for that sense of moral freedom implicate God, it would take us not only beyond the proper sphere of science but also beyond the limits of knowledge and into that corona of beliefs that project knowledge’s light into the misty distances we cannot know (for more on that issue, see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?“). In consideration of permissibility of beliefs, there may be much more to think about in this matter, but the quest for correspondence truth must stop our inquiry here (see “Religious Knowledge as Mobius Strip“).

But correspondence offers no impedance to investigating the third option, compatibilism. We have seen a number of attempts to square this particular circle, to find some way for us to be both determined and free. Some of these efforts recall Descartes’ solution to the mind/body problem. In answer to how spirit can interact with matter, Descartes chose the brain’s pineal gland as the organ that transfers our will to our body. Somehow, he thought that a small material thing would be more responsive than a large one to what he took to be the whispers of spirit impulse, though why soul should have such weakling power was never explained. Perhaps a closer parallel is Luther’s notion of unearned grace that offers salvation, yet we must still choose to accept it, an act in conflict with his anti-Pelagian notions of human depravity. It seems to me that all such efforts to imbue us with just a touch of freedom only diminish the scale of the problem rather than resolve it. If we have any freedom at all to choose, we are not determined, even if that freedom involves only our natural and not our circumstantial freedom. When Thomas Hobbes questioned whether passengers on a sinking ship facing the choice to jettison their baggage to keep her afloat could be called free, he answered that the ability to choose among even coerced choices constitutes freedom. Others imagine a prisoner chained in a dungeon who can still think of his mother. Deprived of all action, he is still free to think. It seems to me the human sciences have been pitching this kind of limited and hybrid freedom since Locke’s tabula rasa, and the influences of genetics and environment have been of continuing interest to sociologists and psychologists. But the unspoken assumption underlying these kinds of investigations, indeed all attempts at compatibilism from the empirical side, is that the kinds of influences we can see—the sinking ship, the chains, economic class, gender, race, nationality, culture—are only the tip of the iceberg and that continued empirical effort will excavate other directive forces. The trend in this sort of compatibilism is toward more determinism conducing to the extinguishing of free will itself.

As part of their rear-guard efforts to maintain relevance in the face of science’s triumphs, philosophers have come at the issue of compatibilism from a different direction, insisting that our sense of freedom may be a phenomenological quirk in the human psyche rather than an ontological reality. In this view they may be taken to be less sanguine about an eventual resolution than the empiricists and less comfortable about the distinction between person and thing than religionists, arguing that all we can hope for is a clearer understanding of the mental operations that somehow submerge this contradiction in our consciousness rather than highlight it. The issue has pragmatic and legal implications, for the criminal justice system struggles with allocating responsibility in its deliberations on guilt or innocence, but to my mind the most important connections touch on our justifications for our truth and goodness claims.

It does intrigue me that we are not more bothered by the anomaly, though. After all, the greatest intellectual revolutions of recent memory, Marxism and Freudianism, were rooted in determinism, and the postmodern deconstructionism that sought to raze modernism since World War I is built upon a foundation of contingent determinism and anti-rationalism. Our freedom fetish is a backlash against that postmodern charge of determinism, so the issue certainly has contemporary and pragmatist resonance. Yet as deeply intertwined as the issue is in the history of the last century, we all still act as though our freedom and the responsibility it entails are indubitable. So our choices seem to boil down to these three. We can openly embrace our freedom and boldly proclaim ourselves the only free things in the universe with all the implications for theology that inspires. We can bow to the triumphal march of empirical science in its quest to bring free will into the sphere of determinism while still doubting that success in the endeavor will disabuse us of the sense that we are free, a process that seems to be underway at the moment, but one with disturbing implications for our orientation toward science, religion, and literally all the warrants we use to justify our claims to truth and goodness because it robs of the responsibility that must always accompany preference. Or we can investigate some philosophical explanations for the anomaly while keeping our eyes wide open to what those explanations mean for our declarations of value. It seems to me the wisest course is to pursue this third option .


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