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 claim that 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 tech’s 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.

There’s only one problem with our scientistic satisfaction, one footnote to the open book of nature. 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 the freedom to see choices, to evaluate and select from among them, and to act on those choices. 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 test 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 two centuries. As in all intractable philosophical problems, we have seen a multitude of attempts to resolve the apparent contradiction, falling into three discrete categories: complete determinism, complete free will, and some sort of compromise closing the gap between the two.

Empiricists typically embrace a hard determinism 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. Free will advocacy regards human beings as an exception to material determinism, and think our sense of freedom reflects ontological reality. Prominent among them are the religious absolutists, who 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. They argue for the existence of the soul, the spark of the divine in each person, that elevates humans above the material and the determinism that molds it, lifting us to share in the creation, 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 senses 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 that I link to at the end of this one.

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. The twentieth century, for instance, gave us a microscopic possibility for material freedom. 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. Rather, subatomic indeterminacy strikes physics as just another puzzle to be solved by probing deeper into the layers of energy and matter that we manipulate in the illusion that it is we, not contingency, that controls our world.

But human freedom offers a catch that might make science’s task well-nigh impossible. Consider for a moment what we now know about the brain chemistry of our emotions, of 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. We grab pharmaceuticals by the handful to feel differently, and we seldom care about the mechanics of the fix we desire. Anti-depressants are the most prescribed drug in the U.S. today and the search for aphrodisiacs has driven the rhinoceros almost to extinction. If natural science can change our emotions or improve our health, we are all over its products. Now consider what it would mean if neuroscience discovered the genetics of felt freedom or the neurotransmitters of self-consciousness. That would undoubtedly please science, but if science cannot change us, what do we care? Should the determinists scope out the mental self-delusions that produce the universally human sense of 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 you 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. My point is not only that we would not give up the “delusion” of our freedom, we could not give it up. The freedom to choose is as fundamental to human existence as mass is to physical reality (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument).

So 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 to be a purely physical process. Perhaps I should say that we like to embrace our freedom when it opens options to the future, but not when we wish to escape the consequences of choosing. 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.

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 by simply asking them to answer this question: 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. Consider this: 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. 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 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 knowledge 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. It made sense to him 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 choosing truth and desiring goodness from a very limited menu of options. 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. Can we call choosing itself a kind of freedom? Imagine a prisoner chained in a dungeon who can still think of his mother. Deprived of all action, he is still free to think. His mind offers choices. That is one kind of freedom, natural freedom, and so long as persons can think, they cannot be deprived of it. In seeing options, even the prisoner in chains may select the better or less worse among them (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance“). That is another kind of freedom, preferential freedom. Granted, the prisoner cannot act on this preference, since he lacks the circumstantial freedom to gratify this desire. These three varieties of freedom, natural, preferential, and circumstantial, can be abstracted from moral theorists.

We are all too aware of the limitations experience has placed in the way of our circumstantial freedom, but we have to ask if similar limits obstruct our natural and preferential freedoms as well. The strongest argument that these freedoms are also limited have been proferred by the human sciences. Indeed, it is necessary that they make this argument in order to be considered sciences at all.

Natural scientists require contingent determinism to rule physical reality so that they can construct, test, and choose among hypotheses, laws, theories, and paradigms. Applied science requires contingent determinism to make technology that works. The anomaly natural scientists face in their work is their own humanity, the natural and preferential freedom to interrogate physical reality. As noted above, they seem remarkably oblivious to the absurdity of arguing in favor of determinism.

Now consider a far greater absurdity. The molecular biologist denies the cells he studies the same freedom he takes for granted in his experiment. The human scientist, be she psychologist, anthropologist, economist or any of scores of other disciplines, has but one object of study. Human choice is the sole subject of the human sciences that must examine free will from the same stance of contingent determinism but whose success has from the beginning depended upon making it as predictable as the periodic table. The antinomy of human choice operating in a determinist world is a puzzle for natural science but a disaster for human science, which has found preferential freedom a near-fatal obstacle to its success and prestige. One only need to compare the progress of, say, materials science to, say, criminology to see the problem.

It has dogged “the science of man” from its beginnings in seventeenth century epistemology. Over time, the human sciences have narrowed their theoretical approach to a search for some phantom border where freedom ends and environment or genetics enters. 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 determinist iceberg upon which delusions of free will will founder and that continued empirical effort will excavate other directive forces. But the effort to isolate degrees of freedom — and the responsibility it imposes — from the determinist forces that human science can investigate as causal has utterly failed. Ask any jury member how to evaluate the exculpatory testimony of a psychiatrist in a criminal trial or an educator facing a class from differing socioeconomic levels. We know, or think we know, that environment and heredity affect persons’ freedom to choose, but to what degree? And if we are honest, even while listening soberly to expert attestation in support of that effect, we think ourselves free of it. We imagine ourselves our own masters, undoubtedly recognizing that the trend in this sort of human sciences 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.

It intrigues me that we are not more bothered by the anomaly. Its historical effect and the downstream issues of our continuing to ignore it have plagued us for three centuries. After all, the greatest intellectual revolutions of recent memory — fascism, Marxism, and Freudianism — were rooted in determinism of race, class, or mental function. In the nineteenth century.

Predictably, these human science-inspired mass movements were opposed vehemently by others in Western socieities eager to preserve their freedoms. Political libertarians argued, and continue to argue against a political science of conformism and contractarianis. Their battle cry is that freedom is a sacred right  Romantics protested the Frankenstein monster of emerging natural science that sought to “murder to dissect” the natural world. In the twentieth century, their rebellion became a mass movement against determinism itself, and particularly against the poorly differentiated human sciences that promised to free humanity of the delusion that it is free (see “The Victorian Rift“).

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 and human science expertise in favor of individual will and freedom (see “Expertise“). 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 buttoned-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 natural 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 th at critique(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 are now thought to be 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 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. Despite their manifold and obvious failures, human sciences have failed to learn that lesson even as they have been enfeebled by advances in neurosciences and artificial intelligence. In this century, soft science continues to flirt with spirituality, and pastors seem happy to return the gesture. In contemporary literate cultures, human science has merged with postmodern thinking.  Their mutual incoherence portends further social disruption because their studies must try to subject human will to deterministic predictability as a precondition of their claim to be predictive of human behavior  (see “The Calamity of the Human Sciences”). Despite their confusions, contemporary humanities, arts, and religion all find it therapeutic to bask in the reflected warmth of determinist predictability just as the human sciences have always sought the reflected glory of the natural 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 their determinist axioms refute. Blame replaces responsibility when one thinks identity to be a passive inheritance rather than a product of moral construction, though how blame can be deserved with such a presumption is just another point to ignore. Despite its incoherence, the blame game is as much a staple of identity politics as the postmodernist 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 of freedom is in history and as eagerly as our contemporaries embrace a 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 we become.

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 (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Morality’?”). 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 and human 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. This is a process that seems to be underway at the moment. Accepting this option requires us also to accept disturbing implications for 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 option requires us to accept 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 next (see “The Determinism Problem”).

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