A Preface to the Determinism Problem


  • The contingent determinism of science seems contradicted by our felt human freedom, and there seems no way to reconcile these two central truths.
  • Philosophers have failed to resolve the contradiction by means of limiting human freedom or finding some means to make it compatible with a predictable universe.
  • Medical science is attempting to resolve it by neurological research on brain science to prove that felt freedom is a delusion.
  • If research on neuro-transmitters is predictive, an empirical explanation will make no difference to our commitment to our own felt freedom.
  • One minor empirical effort attempts to prove indeterminism as the grounds for our freedom, but the Uncertainty Principle is also unlikely to ground our natural freedom.
  • Religious apologists make a strong case that human freedom is proof that persons are not things; this stance assaults the claims of the human sciences most clearly.
  • Religious “proofs” of the roots of human freedom are properly seen as beliefs rather than knowledge; all rely upon our felt sense of freedom, which is indisputable yet inexplicable.
  • The question is clarified by a closer examination of what we mean by “freedom.”
  • Epistemologists offer an intriguing case for a compatibilism based upon a distinction between our ontological and phenomenological state reliant upon the Kantian categories.
  • It is surprising that the question is infrequently faced squarely if only because the great mass movements of our age have been rooted in human determinism based on conflicting theories.
  • Postmodernism prizes existential freedom, partially as a response to empirical determinism.
  • The human science origins of postmodernism by the 1980’s shifted theories toward various kinds of cultural determinism.
  • Despite the theoretical difficulties, we all act as though our freedom is indubitable.

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. Skeptics might object that what we call laws are merely statistical probabilities, but no one who has ever started a car or turned on a cell phone has ever let that impede her confidence that the thousands of natural laws necessary for their proper operation will apply in this instance as in nearly all others, and if they don’t, that the same predictability that let them work can also explain why they do not. The only mysteries in the material universe left are the ones we haven’t figured out yet. The exception 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 on them (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 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 its 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 .

Maybe 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. Of course, you don’t have to imagine. Anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug in the U.S. today and the search for aphrodisiacs as driven the rhinoceros almost to extinction. But should the determinists scope out the mental self-delusions that produce our sense of moral freedom, what would they do with that information? 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 some sense of responsibility for that freedom even if it could be shown that we are not. Perhaps I should say that we like to embrace it when it opens options to the future, but I must quickly add that the triumph of determinism has also offered us plenty of reasons to deny responsibility when we wish to, just one of the manifold harms the human sciences of psychology, social anthropology, economics, and sociology have perpetrated on contemporary life.

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 one has argued convincingly that their unpredictable randomness constitutes real freedom as humans define it.

We might embrace the position opposing determinism 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 religious authorities 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?”). 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 most 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. This disjunction has plagued the human sciences who center their studies on human will, but because real empiricists can claim determinism true for their objects of study, they have been given a pass. Why is that? While what they view through their microscopes may not be free to decide on hypotheses, the viewers certainly can, and their preferential freedom is as central to the scientific process as determinism itself, and it opens intriguing possibilities of human uniqueness (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument). Why don’t religionists use this argument more insistently?

Persons of faith would have to admit that 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 (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 or to make our freedom some epiphenomenal ghost in the brain 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 allowed the human sciences to define some phantom border where freedom ends and environment or genetics enters. 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, and these issues touch on our justifications for our truth and goodness claims.

It intrigues me that we are not more bothered by the anomaly. After all, the greatest intellectual revolutions of recent memory — fascism, Marxism, and Freudianism — were rooted in determinism. It is only the mildest of compliments to credit the early postmodernists with recognizing the threat of social pressures and scientistic omniscience and responding with an existential protest against mass society in favor of individual will and freedom. Between the end of World War I and the 1980’s, postmodernism pitched a relentless critique favoring authentic rebellion, particularly through alienist criticism of bourgeois complacency and materialism (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents“). The quest for freedom from societal conformism was modeled in narrative media, music, and the arts as the duty of every authentic moral agent (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“). Indeed, aesthetics in twentieth century cultures became the means of inculcating an ersatz morality perhaps more compelling than the real thing because its artificiality could falsely clarify preference (see “Tall Tales“). The implicit axiom of such a protest was that the individual was free to engage in it. She could choose to be a Stepford wife or a button-down corporate drone, in Sartre’s words to live in bad faith, or she could resist. Granted, that resistance was futile against the powers of mass culture, but still it was championed by postmodernists as the ideal.

A little-noticed shift in postmodern messaging began circulating in the 1980’s and in the age of the Internet is more relentlessly pitched now, and it is profoundly affected by the twentieth century triumphs of science. It tells us that we are indeed determined, that identity is a bequest of race, gender, class, religion, country, or tribe, and that resistance to its force is impossible. Why and how did such a reversal in a dominant strain of social messaging take place, seemingly without being widely observed? It signals the triumph of the postmodern messaging machine, for the mass culture that once was seen as threat to the movement’s deconstruction of institutional authority and universal reasoning has now thoroughly assimilated it (see “The Axioms of Moral Systems”). We are all antiheroes now, all partakers of mass cultures so dominated by postmodernist axioms that the social forces once viewed as society’s greatest threat is now its source of redemptive grace (see “One Postmodern Sentence“). The impact of postmodern versions of determinism are far more destructive than earlier threats posed by empirical science, for empiricism’s long adolescence has taught it to recognize at least some of its limits (see “The Limits of Empirical Science”). One of them that hard science is very well aware of is its inability to prescribe any kind of goodness beyond simple utility, a lack of capacity that forces today’s empiricist to turn a blind eye to moral preference, though this healthy modesty is admittedly recent. But postmodernism’s moral prescriptions, if such incoherence can be dignified by such a term, recognize no such guardrails, and its roots in the human sciences portend further social disruption because such studies must try to subject human will to deterministic predictability as a precondition of their claim to be empirical at all  (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). One example is the identity theory of character, which by its nature must shred social consensus and obscure common pursuit of contributive justice, replacing them with an endless chorus of competitive claims and blames that the deterministic axioms of identity that prompt them must by their nature refute. Blame replaces responsibility when one thinks identity to be a passive inheritance rather than a product of moral construction. Such is the origin of the postmodern hatred of disparities of power and its utopian dreams of an equality of degree (see “The Riddle of Equality”).

Yet as deeply intertwined as the issue is in the history of the last century and as eagerly as today’s pragmatists embrace their received identity, we all still act as if our freedom is indubitable, at least when it bids fair to open opportunities to preference. But despite the claims of social scientists like Skinner, there can be no freedom without responsibility. no moral agency without the burden of self-construction  (see “Our Freedom Fetish”). We can attempt to avoid blame for our condition, but as persons we cannot avoid responsibility for what comes of them. 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 and our moral responsibility  that inspires. Such a choice must steer us to seek an absolutist moral stance. Our moral preferences then must be formed in accord with divine will. Alternatively, we can at least claim to 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 us of the responsibility that must always accompany preference. This involves some ambiguity about when and how freedom operates and might steer us toward specious and futile efforts to meter out the percentage of freedom we exercise in the thousands of preferences we engage every day. 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 and the resulting implications for moral responsibility. It seems to me the wisest course is to pursue this third option, which I will pursue in a second essay (see “The Determinism Problem”).

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