The Determinism Problem


  • Both coherentism and correspondence reject the antinomy of human determinism.
  • The anomaly inspires a search for a compatibilist solution.
  • To ignore such a foundational anomaly is a blunder comparable to the attempt to reconcile agency and authority in the centuries after the Reformation, the increasing complexity of natural science and common sense in the Victorian era, or the sophistication of the human sciences with the depravity of the twentieth century.
  • A belief in the special quality of the human person would reconcile the problem, but it suffers from permissibility problems if it seeks universal acceptance.
  • A secular argument for human dignity can be made on the same general principles as religious ones founding natural law upon the possible existence of a soul.
  • If one substitutes human preferential freedom as the species-specific trait that confers rights to persons, one can find evidential support in the deterministic nature of the rest of reality that allows reason to make predictive preferences with some hope of success.
  • This tentative claim is strengthened if one accepts the Kantian categories as the means to transform sense data into a reasoning synthesis; one such capacity may be the intersubjectivity of causality, with preference being an incomplete cause-effect linkage that makes our freedom as obvious to our judgment as causality.
  • Hume demonstrated causality to be an inescapable element of experience, and Kant attempted to demonstrate that another inescapable element was natural freedom; these are phenomenological convictions rather than ontological realities and as such are intersubjectively known rather than objectively proved.
  • The effect is to locate felt human freedom in our operating system instead of in the reality it navigates in the same way that causality is found in reasoning rather than nature.
  • This effect produces a dualism that allows for a compatibilist view of determinism and freedom: we take preferential freedom seriously because the cause/effect linkage is incomplete at the moment of choosing.
  • Although this view of compatibilism reconciles our sense of freedom, it does not resolve the challenges determinists pose to its acceptance in ameliorating responsibility.
  • A more subtle issue concerns the degree of freedom persons can claim, for to avoid determinism, it is only necessary to show the least amount of natural freedom.
  • When we ponder how persons would respond to this very limited degree by posing hypothetical predictions of behavior, we find that even in the face of predominant determinism, persons will still seek to proclaim the largest degree of preferential freedom consistent with circumstance.
  • This often-convoluted proclamation of freedom implies that it is necessary in some sense to find that we have some preferential freedom, and so one wonders why.
  • This tendency reinforces the view that our sense of freedom is more epistemological than ontological and is necessary to experience.
  • Three conclusions emerge: first, that natural freedom accompanies any comprehension of an experience and imparts both the duty to choose and the responsibility for having chosen as inescapable human functions; second, that the complexity of the three degrees of human freedom implies an even deeper ontological determinism than might be imagined by a casual examination of experience; and third, that in the face of this continuing tension, we are likely to seek empirical explanations that obscure the universality of our felt freedom and the connections it implies for rights and responsibilities.

Having introduced the common anomaly that is termed the determinism problem , I hope to investigate it more thoroughly in this essay with the goal of resolving it to my own—and I hope to your —satisfaction (see “A Preface to the Determinism Problem“). Simply put, the problem is that we know we live in a contingently determinist reality, and yet we feel free to choose, granting us a liberty nothing else in the universe seems to possess. Either this sense of freedom is wrong, or our sense that the universe is contingently determined is wrong, or some means exists to reconcile the anomaly. Immanuel Kant called this problem an antinomy, the submission of two convincing but contradictory “truths” to experience. I agree with his judgment that reality is unitary and cannot be contradictory, so something must give in this antinomy.

But maybe we’re wrong. We take it as a given that the principle of non-contradiction cannot be violated in our conceptions of either truth or of goodness. To a correspondentist in pursuit of truth, a firm axiom is that reality cannot be self-contradictory but must instead constitute a single unity whose components can be fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces by rational analysis. Indeed, the model of the interlocking scientific paradigms of the natural sciences is both a metaphor for and a piece of that unity. The existence of anomaly is thus prima facie evidence of our error in constructing it. To a coherentist who creates her own virtual circle from whatever elements she finds most useful, the principle of non-contradiction serves an even more vital function, for in her invention, the coherentist has only that principle against which to test her personalized truth and goodness claims (see “What Is the Virtual Circle?“). The existence of an antinomy as crucial as the free will/determinism problem poses challenges to both models of justification, correspondence and coherence, not to mention to the core constituents of science, logic, and mathematics (see “What Counts as Justification?“). The “science” with the most to lose in this issue is human science, which entirely depends on the predictability of human responses to experience in order to achieve the predictability that is science’s minimal requirement. So the first relevant question to ask is this: can we live with fundamental antinomies like the determinism problem or do they require rational resolution (see “The Tyranny of Rationality)?

We have seen the impact of powerful antinomies in the past, and it isn’t pretty. The two great knowledge crises that have destroyed consensus and led to long-term societal disruption were each rooted in such anomalies. These are the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the postmodern revolt of the twentieth. The Reformation pitted traditional authorities against each other, revealing in the process the structural weakness of authority challenged (see “The Fragility of Religious Authority”)). A nearly identical question was posed to authority’s successors as warrant, universal reason and experience, over the course of the next half-millennium. It was charged that these warrants could not reveal reliable truths about reality but instead must produce anomaly in truth claims and hypocrisy in moral ones (see “Modernism and Its Discontents). For example, one cause of the postmodern deconstruction of modernism after World War I was the seeming irrationality of new discoveries in physics, which presented to the world an empirical explanation at odds with what had been thought the plain evidence of reasoned experience (see “Postmodernism Is Its Discontents). Another continuing problem that resulted from challenges to modernism was the remnant power of institutional authority and its appeals to the forfeiture of moral agency that such a surrender requires. And this too was an axiomatic antinomy, for it rejected the hard-won individual agency that was a fundamental modernist axiom of rational commitment. Indeed, the twentieth century seemed to consist of a volley of assaults on what the Victorians called  “common sense.” (For the epitome of this kind of attack,  see “One Postmodern Sentence). The anomie inspired by Freud’s theory of the unconscious, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems in mathematics, and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics are other examples; the last made even Einstein a little queasy, but not as queasy as general relativity made all of Western culture.

It is informative to think of these kinds of assaults on reasoning — all profoundly rational analyses that called old constructs into question — as contrasts to the most influential theoretical efforts of the Victorians–Darwin, Marx, Hegel, Toynbee– all attempts at rational synthesizing on the largest scale. The rawest anomaly of all though was the specter of the most civilized world powers engaged in the senseless butchery of World War I. It illustrated in the most gruesome terms the crises that modernism had attempted to suppress, and it was followed by a century of further outrages that made them plain to the dullest sense.

In the face of these knowledge crises and the central role  of antinomies in them, we might be more concerned about the free will/determinism issue than we are, particularly since it is of such longstanding dispute. While its present cultural influences can be traced to the Romantic excess of existentialism and to postmodernism with all its baggage of received identity as a reply, not to mention the alienating and ironic tone of modern aesthetic media, I think its impact has been somewhat muted by the undeniable universal response that we seem to accept the deterministic nature of reality while still feeling free (see “Freedom, Antihero, and Zeitgeist“).

Only sincerely religious people should feel comfortable about this anomaly. One reconciliation many persons find convincing is religious belief, the conviction that our free will is simply a product of human uniqueness. We are free because of our special place in creation, as persons with souls rather than things that are caused, and that explains all. We feel free and struggle over our moral duties because we are free and responsible. Our defining quality is precisely that natural freedom to recognize choices in the maelstrom of experience and to choose from among them, a freedom instilled by the creator but one that exacts its price of moral responsibility. This kind of compatibilism resolves the anomaly in a manner closed to the hard determinist who can find no empirical evidence of soul, creator, or freedom in material reality yet who could never deny the awareness of choice that underlies not only her own nature but also the scientific enterprise itself.

And allow me to add one more counterintuitive argument in favor of the absolutist cause. This argument not only demands that we have free will to choose as a condition of our moral responsibility; it also requires that the rest of creation be determined. In order for us to exercise that responsibility for our choices, it is necessary for us to be able to project their likely outcomes, a condition assured by the determinism that has made scientific progress possible. Now a reality in which many things are free is one in which outcomes could not be predicted, so our survival, not to mention our salvation, depends on the very determinism that empirical science has revealed to be at the core of creation itself (see “Religionists Fighting the Wrong Battle). It is this predictability of cause and effect that gives weight to our moral choices. Religionists thus can not only point to what Kant called “the moral law within me” but also to the orderliness of the cosmos (the etymology of which is “order”) in Kant’s words, “the starry sky above me” to resolve the anomaly. Though this resolution lies beyond the realm of knowledge and its justifications, and therefore beyond the bounds of my efforts in these essays (see “Can Belief Be Knowledge?), I find this resolution of the free will/determinism conundrum very persuasive.

Of course, there are others. Recent philosophers of science frequently find themselves tipping toward the hard determinism that underlies all scientific efforts while modernist ethicists often fall on the theological side of the debate discussed above. Having investigated twentieth century compatibilist efforts as well as earlier modernist approaches, I think I have found a view that accomplishes three objectives. First, it resolves my own discomfort while still falling within the realm of knowledge. Second, it is consistent with the absolutist religionist arguments listed above, though it does not rely on them. Third, the resolution it offers is also consistent with correspondence proofs of judgment, among them empiricism and undistilled experience, therefore violating neither my own knowledge nor my beliefs, though I must also confess that it cannot justify any beliefs, for these claims must always lie beyond the frontier where knowledge ends and possibilities multiply. It merely permits them as a reasoned possibility (see “Knowledge, Trust, and Belief“).

My compatibilist position is framed by Immanuel Kant’s fundamental argument that free will is a rational concept that cannot be proved by our subjective perceptions of it in experience. This dualism is fundamental to Kantian epistemology, the notion that we can never know pure concepts, noumena, but only their application in experience, phenomena. Since experience is sure to be partial, subjective, and contextual, Kant thought it inadequate to serve as the base for a claim to certain knowledge of a concept as powerful as free will. So though we certainly feel free, we cannot know that we are free. On the contrary, we know that the phenomenological world we observe is not free but is determined.

Our notions of determinism invariably depend on the validity of the cause-effect relationship, the overwhelming conviction that all events are effects of prior causes and causes of subsequent effects. But David Hume makes clear in his sense-data perceptual theories that this crucial temporal relationship is not ontologically demonstrable, meaning that we can never perceive causes or effects in nature. Our minds must add them to events. The relationships are purely rational rather than material. This argument so rattled Kant that he was moved to theorize a range of rational operations that operate pre-consciously to assemble sense data into a coherent picture of reality and present it to our minds as reality itself. This is why we can only know phenomena. Our minds have already added their rationalizing ingredients to reality before allowing us to perceive it, so we are unable to disentangle the noumena of reality from the rational reconstruction that our mind assembles from sense data. And a key ingredient of that recipe is cause-effect. Reality is full of causes and effects because we highlight them in the data stream that is the phenomenological reality we experience. Or rather, we see them as already highlighted thanks to the sifting actions of the Kantian categories. Of course, it is the empirical enterprise to test and make explicit the pre-conscious connections we form among the objects of experience. Whatever tests we cook up to do that—and the scientific method is the crown jewel of such efforts–Kant argued that the fundamental objects of perception that we manipulate in such preconscious operations are not open to dispute, are in fact the products of a common human operating system that grants us common access to phenomena. All of these pre- and post-conscious operations are fundamentally rational. Our sense of freedom, and particularly moral freedom, derives from this distinctive human rationality.

Note that this arrangement allows for just the kind of dualism the free will/determinism problem poses for any compatibilist solution. We may be determined or we may be free. That is an ontological question beyond the scope of rational investigation. But our categorical response is always to feel free, to identify choice that is as fundamental to our framing of experience as is the principle of causation. When a ball rolls into the room, my cat’s eyes follow the ball. Mine turn to see who tossed it.

We may further investigate what constitutes this sense of freedom. The classical free will argument posits “forking paths.” One framing is that one is free if she can do otherwise, if she can take either path. But this rather blurs the issue because how we respond to choice is the last step in a three-step process, each step of which allows for a different kind of freedom. Merely identifying choice is both uniquely human and demonstrably rational. It constitutes the natural freedom that is as central to framing experience as causality (see “Our Freedom Fetish). Try to not recognize your options in any situation for even a moment. The inevitable forking path that the phenomenal world brings to our attention vivifies the essence of any claim to freedom–choice — and begs us for analysis, and this peering each way constitutes a second level of freedom, preferential freedom, the rational choosing from among options which is good, better, best, or bad, worse, or worst by whatever standard of goodness we choose to employ. This preferential freedom to recognize the relative good in our options concerns issues of utility, quality, or morality (see “What Do We Mean by ‘Good’?” and “What Do We Mean By ‘Morality’?“). When we have picked the path we think best for whatever reason about whatever choice, we then must choose to go down it. This circumstantial freedom is the visible sign of choice, for it is observable in action.

So in the antimony of determinism/free will, which of the three kinds of freedom are we postulating? Which is necessary for us to be free? Let us begin an answer by demanding everything. Let us suppose freedom means doing what one wills: total circumstantial freedom. But that cannot be, for all of us might will to fly, be invisible, never grow old. If we cannot be free unless we have total freedom of action, we can never claim to be free, so our standard of freedom must accept limitation. At the other extreme is the case of the prisoner in chains who can still think of his mother. Here we see no circumstantial freedom at all, only a preferential freedom of quality. And in the case of a foundering ship whose passengers face the choice of drowning or jettisoning their baggage, does their natural freedom to recognize even a painful choice grant them freedom, even if they dither and fail to prefer one to another, never mind actually getting around to acting on their preferences?

In disentangling what is required for us to be free, we face a grounding question: is choice an ontological reality? From our objective perception as observers in a passing hot air balloon, we see their ship approaching the shallows and hear the passengers’ cries of terror and calculate the ship’s draft, only a bit deeper than the trough of the waves crashing over the reef. But in this presentation of reality, where is the choice presented but in their minds? Surely, this is Kant’s phenomenological reality of choice, to see experience in terms of possible goods, of forking paths. And though some paths are identified as a result of conscious reasoning that expands options—else what’s an education for?—some choices will always present themselves with the same irresistibility as those waves threatening those passengers, inevitable products of experience. Sartre was correct in according persons freedom regardless of how desperate their circumstance. There is always the forking path. No matter how awful and bleak the future appears, one can never offer the plaintive cry, “I had no choice” because a working mind will always present options to her awareness. And once choices are preconciously brought to the reality we face, whatever we do with them will engage that most important of human capacities: felt preferential freedom (see “The Essential Transcendental Argument). One always has the option of choosing not to act on a preference. Or as Sartre also reminds us, one always may choose suicide.

It is true that what we actually prefer and actually do with this natural freedom may be determined by mind or matter, biology or physics. But we are not dealing with the ontology of freedom but with its epistemology now, so we must ask not about the realities we face but our capacity to know them. We are told in an endless loop in popular culture that identity is molded by some group characteristic, but who really concedes that point, who doesn’t labor over choice, who doesn’t spend her waking hours confronting, exulting, or regretting them? Are we deceiving ourselves in the lifetime of effort we devote to pursuing our own goals? We are likely to think persons are indeed determined by psychology or sociology or some identity they inherit, but we think this “scientific” truth applies to other people, not us. We feel free. Governments, advertisers, or psychologists can never deprive us of the natural freedom that is our birthright as reasoning creatures and though the power to choose can be broadened by experience and our reasoning on it, it bursts from consciousness as a simple product of our rational human nature as it goes about constructing reality from sense data. We can no more fail to see choice than we can fail to see dimensionality in space or unity and number.

It is likely that preferential and circumstantial freedom can never be shown to be as intuitive as natural freedom, and their exercise will always be alloyed by determinist factors and perhaps one day shown to be entirely determined. That is certainly the view of the hard determinists who wish to resolve this issue by projecting the eventual triumph of empirical science. Even now, we can always find determinist features in any preferential or circumstantial choice. The child was spoiled and screamed when she wasn’t given ice cream. The genius was home-schooled. But influences alone are not enough to show a total lack of freedom that is the requirement for determinism to triumph.

Even if determinists denigrate natural freedom because it doesn’t require an active commitment of the will, they face serious difficulties in allocating influences over preferential choosing. The factors that influence us to prefer one fork to another are complex in three elements: number, interrelatedness, and intensity. Now some of these are determinist by virtue of ontological past structures and events. Others are indeterminant as causative factors until brought into consideration of preference once the forking path is isolated through the use of natural freedom. Still others are indeterminant as causative factors and operate beneath the threshold of consciousness. Without a doubt, we can find some room in this mélange of influences for preferential freedom, particularly since the human science of psychology has so entrenched its theories into contemporary society.

It is reasonable to think we have some control over at least some of these factors, so if we have any control whatsoever over even one of them, we may be considered preferentially free because our preference cannot be determined in advance. That may not seem like much in comparison to the total freedom we so desire, but remember that the bar for freedom here is very low, particularly when you remember that the determinist camp includes everything else in existence, all of which according to empirical science are contingently determined in their entirety, with the exception of subatomic particles operating according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

It might be worth thinking about whether the single little free agency we are now contemplating is analogous to a Heisenberg particle in terms of being a tiny part of a much more complex whole and even more so in that its influences seem not only undetermined but also indeterminable. Given the complexity of the determinative influences on preferential freedom, can the moral agent really say she has any control if only a tiny part of her choice, a part whose power she may not be able to judge or control, is free? On the other hand, that one preferential Heisenberg particle is enough to disprove determinism since its influence cannot be predicted. If true, we are neither free nor determined. So the result of what has become a common rearguard action to isolate a speck of freedom in a sea of determinism, the effort called soft determinism, fails to support preferential freedom even if it succeeds in disproving determinism. Instead, it stakes out an indeterminist option, which stands in relation to freedom as decidedly unsatisfactory.To my mind, this invalidates the “ratio theory” of limited free will and responsibility. Perhaps this explains why compatibilists with scientific leanings assume determinism will one day carry the day, for they share with soft determinists doubts about the viability of free will in preferential choice. So let us test their predictions.

We can envision what these determinists might predict: a computer whose algorithms factor in all the influences on my choice mentioned above, performing its calculations at the same speed as the human mind and arriving at the same outcome. Now suppose that program spits out its completely accurate prediction the moment before, the moment of, or the moment after my mind does. Imagine it is also able to print out all the factors it considered in its analysis for my review. None of this is too far beyond even present-day predictions of artificial intelligence’s capacities. Now, I would like for you to consider what you would do with these pronouncements.

If a moment before you choose and your mind is informed of the computer’s determined choice, this information becomes a new input that changes the forking paths of natural freedom, offering you other choices to consider, other paths to prefer, and other actions to pursue. And so the mind and the computer continue their game perhaps to infinity, the “deterministic” analysis reduced to one more forking path natural freedom brings to consciousness. If the computerized prediction is delivered simultaneously to your forming a preference, the “illusion” of free will goes on as before, and the deterministic success of the computer is viewed as a kind of parlor game. “Look! The computer knew what I was going to chose!” Granted, if the decision is distasteful, the forking paths trailing off into the gloom, you might bow to the computer’s predictive power, but that too would constitute a preference, a presentation of natural freedom to reason that you must factor into my preferences. If the computer’s prediction is delivered in a sealed envelope after you have chosen and the prediction proven accurate, you might examine the printout explaining your choices and shrug and say, “I knew all that.” Or upon reviewing it, you might find fascinating insights into your own decision processes that might affect future choosing. No scenario would in the slightest deprive you of the “illusion” that you are free to choose and the existence of the determining factor would simply add to the landscape of choice that makes up your natural freedom.

The point of the exercise is to think of the antinomy of freedom and determinism as an epistemological rather than an ontological problem: one of knowledge rather than of being. We may well be determined, but even if we are shown to be, we will continue to act as though we are free to choose. Our feeling free may be a simple knowledge gap: we think of our preferential freedom as the present cause of a future effect, but because we cannot see the consequence at the moment of preference, we are held in limbo, victims of an incomplete rational operation, in which case our sense of freedom is simply a quirk of the human operating system, rather like seeing the world in three dimensions or detecting patterns in random shapes. We repeatedly have to remind ourselves that correlation is not causation precisely because our minds are structured to see patterns in random events as well. We seek to find causes even where there are none to be found (see “Correlation, Causation, Motivation”). So we seem determined to feel free to choose and also to see physical reality as determined so that we can choose. That odd epistemological connection offers some tantalizing options to belief that must carry it well beyond the frontier that knowledge can warrant.

So it seems a non-religious solution to the determinism problem involves three logical conclusions. It must be mentioned that accepting these in no way diminishes the charm of religious solutions and may add to them by virtue of applying universality to issues of moral freedom, a prerequisite for absolute morality. (see “Must Religion Retreat?).

(1) When speaking of freedom, we are talking about three modes of choice: natural, preferential, and circumstantial. Natural freedom is inviolable – and by the way is the foundation of any claim to natural rights (see “Where Do Rights Originate?). It also is the most intuitive, for options to choice present themselves as soon as we think we comprehend the truth of an experience (see “Truth and Goodness Do a Dance”). I hope it is clear why determining the truth of an experience ought to precede the presentation of potential goods: we cannot know what our options are until we know what our situation is. Only after comprehending the experience can we consider options. Our most important human function involves choosing the goods that experience offers us. Preferential freedom is the prerequisite for any moral freedom and the responsibility for having chosen is as inescapable as preference itself. It is this responsibility that gives gravitas to morality, for when we exercise a preference, we inevitably are choosing what we consider to be a good, with all the implications for ends and means and all the weight of responsibility it entails. It is preferential freedom that stakes a claim to human dignity: we are entitled as human beings to seek to satisfy our own needs (see “Needs Anchor Morality“). Preferential freedom is the flashpoint of human rights that view the satisfaction of needs as both the birthright and the moral duty of every person (see “Functional Natural Law and the Legality of Human Rights”). The last step in the dance of freedom involves the circumstantial freedom to activate a preference. It is both the most visible and the most determined by external forces and is the focus of legal responsibility. Our sense of outrage over slavery, for instance, is due to its denial of circumstantial freedom to its victims. While this liberty to act is the focus of much of our conversation about the determinism problem, it is important to note that the other two freedoms are predecessors to action and so should claim more of our attention.

(2) Our sense of moral responsibility derives from the natural freedom to recognize choice and from the preferential freedom to act upon choice, so at this level, we are both free and determined. The influences that shape our preferences are pre-conscious, unconscious, and conscious, and involve complexities of sense-data perception not open to analysis, so it is unlikely that we will either recognize or submit to a determinist solution even if such a solution is ontologically demonstrable.

(3) Though determinism cannot be shown to be total, it certainly can be and has been shown to be influential in preferential and circumstantial freedom, so an alloyed view of the antinomy is likely to continue. So long as scientism remains a temptation in our culture and the human sciences seek to unlock the mysteries of human consciousness, we are likely to overestimate the empirical means of investigating the composite nature of freedom and determinism and mistakenly minimize the rational bases of natural and preferential freedom. The result will be to obscure the origin of the nature of human rights and attempt to disconnect the possession of rights from the responsibility to exercise them capably, to minimize the role of conscious reasoning in judgments of quality and morality, and to focus exclusively — and wrongly — on circumstantial freedom as the only freedom that matters in questions of human action.

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