What is Philosophical Determinism?
According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, determinism is the “doctrine that human action is not free but determined by motives regarded as external forces acting on the will” (1). Or as philosopher Carl Hoefer explains, determinism is “the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” (2). Determinism is a view that is held by some scientists and psychologists and one that, if true, would have significant implications for how us human beings are to understand life and the universe. As we will see, one sure implication of determinism is the denial of free will.
The Difficulty of Moral Responsibility
Being responsible for one’s own decisions (moral responsibility) is dependent on whether or not one was really free to perform a certain action or choose a specific path. This suggests that even though an individual decided to perform one action she could have decided to perform another for she was not bound to perform the one. Rather she freely chose to perform the action that she performed. If this is true in that human beings actually possess free will then it can be argued that the notions of moral praise, blame, reward, and punishment actually mean something.
Free will is a necessary condition for moral responsibility. Determinism, however, denies moral responsibility for it rejects that an individual is really in control of her decisions, and that the way she behaves and the choices she makes are wholly determined by other factors such as genetics, biochemical processes, and environment components.
To use an example, imagine if two friends, John & Tom, are mountain climbing and a sudden gust of wind blows John into Tom which results in Tom falling to his death. It would be unreasonable to hold John morally responsible for Tom’s death for Tom’s demise was a result of external factors beyond John’s control that resulted in John knocking Tom off of the rock. I believe this analogy applies to our decisions on determinism. If an individual’s decisions have been determined by factors other than herself then she cannot be held morally responsible for them. This is not a conclusion that I have merely drawn myself but rather an implication admitted by hard determinists themselves. A leading proponent of this view is the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris reasons that on determinism “we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility… You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise” (3).
The Difficulty of Experience
A second difficulty stems from every day human experience. As human beings we really think that we are making decisions that are not only free but that also have moral significance. Determinism denies these aspects to our human experience. In fact, it is hard to imagine that we could really live as though all of our thoughts and actions are determined by causes outside of ourselves. Rather, the determinist lives with what one might refer to as the “illusions” of freewill, meaning, and morality. Meaning, it can be argued, is directly linked to free will, and free will is directly linked to morality. It is hard to imagine life having any objective meaning or objective moral significance if we are not really free to make decisions.
Nonetheless, the determinist’s every day experience would seem to overwhelmingly affirm that these “illusions” actually exist. However, if he is to be consistent with his philosophy then he must resort to denying them. Thus, this raises a severe consistency issue for determinists. Why? Because it is impossible to live as if life has no meaning. Even those who assert that life is meaningless still make a number of what they perceive to be meaningful decisions. They still make decisions that they feel they are freely making, as well as decision which are motivated on moral grounds. Take Sam Harris as an example. He writes books, engages in political, scientific and religious debates, has a career as a scientist, and claims to hate intolerance and bigotry (especially those as a result religious and theological doctrines). There is much more to Harris than this but he nonetheless lives a life that fails to be consistent with his deterministic philosophy.
The Difficulty of Rational Affirmation
The third, and perhaps most significant, difficulty is that although determinism might well be true it would seem difficult for the determinist to provide a rational affirmation that this is the case.
Why? Because even the determinist’s “choice” (an illusion for free choices do not exist) to believe in the truth of determinism would itself be determined. At no stage was the determinist able to weigh arguments and evidence in order to freely make up his mind that determinism is true. I argued this in one of my psychology essays earlier this year. According to behaviourists (behavourism was an early 20th century approach in psychology seeking to understand human behaviour and learning) such as John Watson the human being can be conditioned into performing certain behaviours (even regarding his or her future professions and roles). Watson went as far as to say that “Give me a dozen healthy infants” and he could turn then into anything he wanted (a beggar, lawyer, artist, doctor, thief etc.) given the powerful influence of conditioning (by which he meant exposing the infant to a specified world of his invention). Thus, conditioning is believed to be the determining and overriding factor of behaviour thus undermining one’s ability to exercise the freedom of the will. B.F. Skinner reasoned similarly in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) stating that free will is illusory given that any change to human behaviour is dependent on his or her response to events that occur in the environment.
Now, I asked in my essay as to why we should trust the conclusions and views of Watson and Skinner. After all, if all behaviour is conditioned into human beings then that must go for Watson and Skinner too. So, if Skinner’s own views and conclusions are likewise conditioned by environment then how could he have evaluated evidence and arguments to come to the conclusion that such a view of conditioning is really true? He might have thought he did, but if his philosophy is to be followed to its logical end then he could not have. Thus, it seems incredibly difficult to provide a rational justification for determinism.
1. Concise Oxford Dictionary. p. 261.
2. Hoefer, C. 2008. “Causal Determinism” in Edward Zalta’s The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
3. Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. p. 44.