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. The purpose of this essay is to present three difficulties that analysts have noted determinism present one with.
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 it is true 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 considered 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 environmental components.
To use an example, imagine if two friends, John and 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. This analogy applies to human 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, 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 noted 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. But determinism, many have noted, denies these aspects of the human experience. In fact, it is hard to imagine that one 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. For many, it is hard to imagine life having any objective meaning or objective moral significance if one is not really free to make decisions.
The determinist’s every day experience would seem to affirm that these “illusions” actually exist. However, he is aware that to be consistent with his philosophical convictions he must resort to denying them. As some have noted, this raises a consistency issue for determinists. The claimed inconsistency points at the determinist’s futile attempt 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. Sam Harris would be an example for as a public intellectual he writes books, engages in political, scientific and religious debates, has a career as a scientist, and claims to hate intolerance and bigotry. There is much more to Harris than this but it is clear that he has his moral, philosophical, and theological convictions about certain things. But many wonder how he marries with his deterministic philosophy when they seem irreconcilable.
The Difficulty of Rational Affirmation
The third, and perhaps most significant, difficulty that has been observed is that although determinism might be true it would seem difficult for the determinist to provide a rational affirmation that this is the case. Even the determinist’s choice (an illusion for free choices do not exist) to believe in the truth of determinism would itself be determined which means that at no stage was he or she ever able to weigh arguments and evidence in order to freely make up his or her mind that determinism is true.
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.