If we’re free, can we be determined?
Our age might be remembered as the age which chose determinism. Even as the idea faces objections in science where quantum notions like “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty” are considered, determinism seems to rise in culture (yet when determinism rose in science thanks to Newton, it was dead in culture). To obliquely reference Belonging Again, perhaps we are “choosing determining” because “givens” have faded and we want to regain a “thoughtless” source of direction so that we don’t mentally suffer? Hard to say, but perhaps a reason why determinism is appealing is because it seems to guide our moral lives in light of the loss of “givens” and “values.” Where religion is in decline and values debated, it’s hard to know what constitutes “right action” and what we ought to do (a problem discussed in “The Value Isn’t the Utility” by O.G. Rose), but if we can claim “x situation arose due to forces outside a person’s control,” then it feels like we ought to address the situation. Ethics feels like it can be guided by determinism, which means we can regain a degree of direction, which we are profoundly hungry for in this age when direction seems impossible (due to what some have called “The Meaning Crisis”).
Is it possible that the loss of sociological “givens” has contributed to us “choosing determinism” to regain a sense of “givenness,” which is for us to regain a sense of “knowing what we should do?” This is paradoxical, for where there is determinism shouldn’t we feel like “there is nothing we can do?” Indeed, it would seem that way, but in this we can see the paradoxical operations of the subject and society highlighted by thinkers like Philip Rieff and even Hegel: “freedom” and “determinism” are not opposites (as aren’t “death” and “life”), but intertwined and interrelating. Both need one another, or else neither last.
Still, it should be noted that those who have free will can choose determinism, but those who are determined cannot choose to be free, and at the same time there might be incentive to emphasize determinism over freedom versus learn to navigate a negotiation between them. A world of people with free will that chooses determinism will “appear” the same as a world that is determined, and this being the case, we must be discerning to tell the difference between what is free and choosing determinism, and what is actually determined. Today’s Promethean fire is perhaps the power to “choose determinism” (a power which “actual determinism” might deny us). Perhaps we fight suggestions of “genetic determinism” and the like precisely to protect the power to “choose determinism” for ourselves? How dreadful would it be if we didn’t have the power to decide which areas of our lives were “determined” and which were free?
Freedom and determinism are philosophical constructs that impact how people see and interpret the world, and to borrow Thomas Sowell’s phrase, today we live in the midst of “a conflict of visions.” Both determinism and freedom are hermeneutical, and as everything changes “color” when we put on red glasses (and then switch to blue), so everything changes based on whether we wear “Glasses of Freedom” (GF) or “Glasses of Determinism” (GD). To sense how profoundly the “glasses” we wear impacts how we understand a situation, consider the following:
The person is/did x.
Replace x with:
Lazy, fit, rich, poor, successful, depressed, suffering, murdered, weak…
If we choose to view/interpret the above sentence through GF, the person in the sentence can be responsible for whatever replaces x; however, if we choose GD, the person is arguably more so a victim of x, and morality will be applied to the person differently than the person responsible for x. The choice between GF and GD is a consequently one, and furthermore retrospectively changes the nature of the very act of choosing GF versus GD: upon putting on GD, a person also views the act of “putting on GD” as an act of determinism, as the person can wear GF view it as an act of freedom. The act of “choosing a view” changes how the viewer sees things “all the way down,” and to grasp a full sense of a situation, we might need to switch between GF and GD (though one might note that this very act is evidence of freedom, for it suggests a person can freely choose how he or she “sees”). However, once we put on GD, philosophically, we arguably remove from ourselves the capacity to switch to GF. In other words, switching from GF to GD seems more possible than switching from GD to GF.
As discussed in “On Responsibility” by O.G. Rose, with freedom comes responsibility, altering the moral compass, and so the power to “choose determinism” is the power to change how ethics applies to a situation: it can be the power to change right and wrong. As discussed in that work (and others like “On Words and Determinism”), humans are a mixture of freedom and determinism: we are “free/determined beings,” per se. However, in what ways we are free and in what ways we are determined is a matter of “high order complexity” and often indeterminable (as elaborated on in “Experiencing Thinking” by O.G. Rose); hence, seeing as we must start from some premise, we must determine our “default hermeneutic” and “interpretive lens” (through which we understand situations). Should we start “assuming freedom” or “assuming determinism?” This is a great and consequential choice, and please note it might be human nature to freely “choose determinism” in such a way that makes us responsible for our accomplishments and not our failures, our kindness and not our sin.¹
As Bernard Hankins brilliantly argues, babies are powerful because babies are weak. They are at the mercy of their circumstances, and people will do just about anything to protect them. Yes, a king may also be similarly served, but the king rules often by force, while the weakness of a baby compels people to serve the baby freely and even happily. Though the baby doesn’t create jobs, contribute to the economy, help clean the house, create art, etc., the baby is treated with the utmost care, love, and tenderness, and anyone who willingly hurts the baby is seen as a monster (even if there is a chance that baby will grow up to be a psychopath). And all this is because the baby is completely and utterly helpless, and it’s not the baby’s fault for being such. Weakness is power.
Though not directly the same, to claim we are “determined” can be to claim that we are like a baby: helpless and hence deserving love, care, and tender treatment. As a baby is in a way a victim of his or her circumstances, so in determinism the misfortunate are victims, and “being a victim” entails being due certain moral treatments by others. Determinism transforms: it transforms the nature of situations, moral obligations, the legitimate role of the State, etc. Consider the image of a person guilty of murder with a mental problem crying in comparison to the image of a murderer crying who is perfectly sane: for whom do we feel more sympathy? For whom is it morally objectionable for the State to offer a pardon? Why?
Is the alcoholic responsible for what he or she does while drunk? Yes, we may say, but what if the person was forced to drink? Suddenly, we might have a little more sympathy. Consider also the fact that we often feel more emotion toward a child that is a victim of war than we do a grown man: the child can strike us as more helpless and unable to protect his or her self for reasons outside the child’s control. The child seems more “determined” to be helpless than a grown man, and so our emotional response to the child is profoundly different (it is images of children suffering in Syria that garner international outrage much more than images of dead adults).
In line with the thought presented in “Paradoxes of Awareness” by O.G. Rose, we exist today increasingly in a world of “Determinism-Awareness,” a world where average citizens are aware of determinism and can see themselves, governments, politics, etc. in light of deterministic frameworks (GD). This profoundly alters the moral landscape in comparison to those who see the world in terms of freedom (GF) (contributing to Pluralistic tensions), and if determinism is only “applied in spots,” those “spots” are profoundly altered, perhaps beyond recognition to those who don’t ascribe to determinism (at least in the same way). This can lead to social and political misunderstanding, posturing, and confusion. Consider:
1. We are x and it is our fault.
2. We are x and it is not our fault.
1 describes more a “personal responsibility” and/or “free society,” while 2 is a society that is more deterministic. Between 1 and 2, the justification to help, honor, blame, etc. radically changes, and if citizens are granted permission to “choose determinism,” citizens have the power to change a situation from falling under category 1 to falling under category 2. If half a society “chooses determinism” and the other doesn’t, the society will almost be composed of two different civilizations, and so radically different from one another could the two civilizations prove that it will be almost impossible for the two sides not to talk past one another. However, there is truth to determinism, so we cannot simply dismiss it out of hand: we must seemingly learn how to start with a default and yet not be forever bound to it, rigidly.
Life is a mixture of freedom and determinism, and it is often impossible to tell which force is most present. Still, everyone must have a “default mode” (hermeneutics) by which they understand and interpret situations — is freedom or determinism a better default? That seems to be the question, and perhaps it is an empirical one, following the work of someone like Deirdre McCloskey. I’m not sure. Regardless, we must learn how to “actively think,” not just think accordingly to the premises and axioms with which we start — a remarkable challenge.
The point could be debated, but arguably the world naturally “appears” more determined than not, for I primarily experience “things” and “objects,” not processes, choices, and changing. Yes, I can “see” something moving through space, but I always observe some-thing, which seems more solid than not. Now, I can study Hegel and realize that “things are not what they seem,” but I still naturally experience a world that seems more full of things and objects than processes, a phenomenological reality that might predispose me more to determinism than freedom. And once I accept a “deterministic hermeneutic,” it might be hard if not possible to escape, precisely because it is arguably is no experience that I must interpret as evidence of freedom. The choice is mine, and the very experience of objects can make it seem rational to be more deterministic than not.
Overall, determinism is hard to falsify, considering that we can’t force people to acknowledge that it is false (especially if they want it to be true, as there can be personal inventive and freedom for doing), and considering that humans don’t have total freedom, and hence there is some truth to determinism (and relative to some people, possibly a lot of truth). In line with the thought of “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment” by O.G. Rose, once I choose to see the world in terms of determinism, I make phenomena “toward” me in a manner that makes the phenomena function as evidence for determinism, while phenomena that could be evidence for freedom won’t be equally “toward” me. This is because I will hold no “case” within that could make things “toward” me as free (or at least I’ll be ascribing to the case for determinism more so than the case for freedom, causing an imbalance in the evidence).² The act of observing x in terms of determinism makes x appear as if it was always deterministic, even if x looked entirely different without the glasses (though my experience of x would give me no reason to take the glasses off). Lastly, as discussed in “Words and Determinism” by O.G. Rose, since everything is “dressed in” causality (matter) and “thing-ness,” my experience of x naturally orientates me “toward” determinism (I experience “realized potential,” not “potential(s)”: I experience “the river” I am in, not the curves in the landscape the river follows). The nature of reality already “appears” deterministic, let alone if I choose to see the world through the case/lens of determinism.
Once I wear one set of glasses, either GD or GF, I may feel that it’s absurd to try on a different pair and even impossible (though please note that if I do have control over “how I see the world,” this would suggest I should try GF). Nothing in the world can force me to see the world through GF or GD, but the very way the world “appears” might favor GD more than GF.³ Also, determinism might be more existentially easy to accept than freedom, for freedom brings with it responsibility and possibility, while determinism can relieve me of that tension. Yes, there is anxiety in believing we aren’t free, but arguably this anxiety is less than believing we are free; furthermore, determinism might bring with it a sense that we are suffering something outside of our control, which can be framed as evidence that we are noble and courageous. Given these existential incentives, determinism and GD might have an advantage over freedom and GF.
Once “incepted” into people’s mind, determinism changes how people see the world in a way that easily confirms determinism, and hence raises the probability that the “incepted,” believing the idea is true, will spread the idea and “incept” it into others (as discussed in “Inception, Discrimination, and Freedom” by O.G. Rose). Once, for example, the idea of determinism enters my mind and I claim a given person is determined, if that person cannot falsify it, this will function as evidence that the person is in fact determined, consequently creating a self-justifying cycle. Is this necessarily bad? No, but the likelihood of mistake becomes high, and if determinism is a great power, mistakes could be dire.
If we’d prefer to stay inside and write, we may like the winter more than the summer, because if we stay indoors, we are less likely to be accused of “wasting the day,” seeing as the weather is so cold. If we are presented with multiple options, we might like for other people to make the choice for us, because we don’t want to be responsible for choosing x instead of y, for even though we may want x, we don’t want to choose it, for then we open ourselves up to criticisms from people for preferring x over y. And arguably there are times when humans need to be able to ascribe to determinism, not only because it may be true, but because it just makes life easier, and none of us can handle too much of Lacan’s “The Real” at once and/or all the time.
Considering Barry Schwartz and his “paradox of choice,” too much freedom and choice can paralyze people and cause misery: there seems to be a level of “determinism” that is good for us (which means it’s good that humans are “free/determined beings,” not just one or the other). As freedom increases, so can increases anxiety, mental illness, and overall unhappiness; for Schwartz, learning to accept what we have and “what has been thrown at us” is a key to happiness. Does this mean determinism is a view that brings happiness? To a degree, but the key is to “freely choose” to accept the limits of one’s life (one’s lack of “total freedom”), and to freely conform to those limits (a move which suggests “choosing Determinations (in)to Necessities,” as I like to discuss regarding Hegel). Additionally, there’s a difference between “choosing to accept the determined limits of life” and “choosing to what determinism applies” — the second is ironically a choice, and hence can contribute to the problems Schwartz warns about. Choosing to accept limits we know are outside of our control doesn’t psychologically liberate us as does choosing to see something as outside of human control (choosing, for example, to believe that one cannot have children has a different impact on the person than does knowing that one cannot bear children). The first can lead a person to a life of trying to convince one’s self that having children is outside of the person’s control (which can cause a psychological mess) — but how can we know when we really can’t have children versus only think we cannot? That is no easy question to answer, which suggests we must be careful to judge others who ultimately must judge for themselves.
Business can prove full of examples of people claiming that “they don’t have the product because the truck broke down,” “I wasn’t able to come in yesterday because I was sick,” and the like, and such claims protect people from judgments, potentially losing customers, and having to explain to customers why something is happening the way that it is happening (which might be too difficult for customers to grasp). People use determinism all the time, for good and for bad, and perhaps it is true that sometimes we just “can’t make the party” (for example) because of something outside of our control. Still, I think most of us know of times when we stressed the determinism of a situation to avoid explaining something which simply couldn’t be explained, which right there might suggest a justified reason to “choose determinism,” every now and then. Life is complex, and often situations arise which cannot be understood by people outside the situation (perhaps Hayekian). In these cases, it seems like a “tragic necessity” to stress a “deterministic explanation” so that outsiders withdraw their criticisms, concerns, or the like; otherwise, we invite a situation in which no one is happy, someone is hurt, and/or everyone loses. Considering this, we cannot be quick to assume that “choosing determinism” is always bad — it might be “tragically” necessary.
However, even if the ability to “choose determinism” is sometimes necessary so that we don’t encounter “The Real” to a degree we cannot handle, it should also be noted that determinism can be used in service of ideology preservation, avoiding hardship, and the like, suggesting that the power to “choose determinism” is remarkably powerful and dangerous, even if it is necessary (we must play with fire). Simply by changing glasses, I have the power to constantly redefine my situation, what is happening in the world, and what I experience.⁴ Equipped with this power, naturally inclined to preserve ideology and see myself in the best possible light, once a society allows determinism to be chosen, there is little stopping me from using this power to my benefit. After all, there are times when it’s justified to “choose determinism,” yes?
Determinism changes matters profoundly, but if matters should be so changed, so be it, but let us not be so eager (as our desire to be right, preserve ideology, and cast ourselves in the best possible light can make us). In my view, in determinism changing morality, altering social and State duties, potentially causing helplessness, cynicism, and worse, the construct should not be ascribed to unless no other option is available. It’s simply too powerful, and yet that very power is why there is incentive to wield the power constantly — as is an incentive the very fact that we can never say for sure that a person is wrong to “choose determinism,” for indeed, “determinism” might rightly apply (we cannot say for certain it doesn’t). Once a person “chooses determinism,” there is little we can do: the situation is framed in favor of the claimer’s case, unfalsifiable, and perhaps true. Hence, for whatever reason, whenever a person wants to claim determinism, the person has every incentive to do so — the power of determinism is vast. And yet we must wield it or entirely suffer “The Real.” (Let us live in “fear and trembling” so that we might live…)
But is determinism true? Wouldn’t acting otherwise be a lie? Other papers by O.G. Rose explore this question, while this paper is mostly focused on how there can be incentive to “choose determinism,” especially once a society allows and even encourages the choice. However, reviewing “There is No Such Thing as Free Will” by Stephen Cave, I will touch on the matter of determinism’s legitimacy here.
As explored by Cave, even if determinism is true, belief in freedom might still be necessary. Studies show that when people believe in determinism, they act more selfishly, and in his article, Cave describes the experiment of Kathleen Vohs and Jonathan Schooler:
‘[O]ne group of participants […] read a passage arguing that free will was an illusion, and another group […] read a passage that was neutral on the topic. Then they subjected the members of each group to a variety of temptations and observed their behavior.
‘[…] When asked to take a math test, with cheating made easy, the group primed to see free will as illusory proved more likely to take an illicit peek at the answers. When given an opportunity to steal — to take more money than they were due from an envelope of $1 coins — those whose belief in free will had been undermined pilfered more. On a range of measures, Vohs [claimed], she and Schooler found that ‘people who are induced to believe less in free will are more likely to behave immorally.’ ’⁵
Reasons for this are hard to say: when people believe they are responsible for what they do, perhaps immoral acts make them feel like bad people; when not, perhaps there is a disconnect between what a person “does” and who a person “is?” Cave writes:
‘It seems that when people stop believing they are free agents, they stop seeing themselves as blameworthy for their actions. Consequently, they act less responsibly and give in to their baser instincts. Vohs emphasized that this result is not limited to the contrived conditions of a lab experiment.’⁶
Cave proceeds to list a slew of other studies on the connection between belief in determinism and immorality, and he concludes that:
‘Believing that free will is an illusion [and that life is merely ‘an unfolding of the given’, to use Smilansky’s phrase,] has been shown to make people less creative, more likely to conform, less willing to learn from their mistakes, and less grateful toward one another [it can also undermine praise]. In every regard, it seems, when we embrace determinism, we indulge our dark side.’⁷
After expounding on these studies and the evidence for determinism, Cave then explores the work of Smilansky and discusses the view of ‘illusionism,’ which is ‘the belief that free will is indeed an illusion, but one that society must defend’ (Sam Harris on the other hand, author of Free Will, believes belief in determinism will be good for us).⁸ ⁹ For Smilansky, ‘[t]he idea of determinism, and the facts supporting it, must be kept confined within the ivory tower […] if the choice is between the true and the good, then for the sake of society, the true must go.’¹⁰ Helping Smilanksy sleep at night is the conviction that ‘[b]elif in free will comes naturally to us’ (and though there is truth to this, Smilansky might be missing how “choosing determinism” in a way that puts ourselves in the best possible light also comes naturally).¹¹
All this raises a question: if determinism is to some degree true, how can knowing about determinism change how we act? In my opinion, to discuss the consequences of believing in freedom versus “true” determinism means that humans must have a will that can change based on what humans know and believe. This being the case, we cannot be entirely determined, unless that is we don’t have control over what we know. But if that is the case, why bother trying to keep people believing in freedom (and why bother writing “educational” articles in the first place)? Whether people are doomed to ultimately believe in freedom or determinism, there is nothing we can do. If determinism is true, none of us can make a difference. To these objections, Cave writes:
‘Smilansky’s arguments may sound odd at first, given his contention that the world is devoid of free will: If we are not really deciding anything, who cares what information is let loose? But new information, of course, is a sensory input like any other; it can change our behavior, even if we are not the conscious agents of that change. In the language of cause and effect, a belief in free will may not inspire us to make the best of ourselves, but it does stimulate us to do so.’¹²
If it’s the case that sensory data can change us, don’t we have freedom in so much as we have influence over what sensory data we experience? Don’t we have influence over what stimulates us against what inspires us? And if this is the case, don’t we have some degree of control over what inspires us, seeing as ultimately we are inspired to some degree by what we sense? Indeed, as discussed in “On Responsibility” by O.G. Rose, humans don’t have “total freedom,” but don’t thy have “free will” relative to what they are “thrown” into (to use Heidegger’s language)?
According to Sam Harris, author of Free Will, “determinism” and “fatalism” are not similes: though we are determined, we aren’t powerless; the fact we are stuck in causality doesn’t mean what we do doesn’t matter. There is value in fighting against causality, with wrestling with truth even if the wrestling won’t change how we think. But against this, we might ask if we’re really fighting against causality or if that fighting is just part of causality, if our supposed “revolution” is rather just another mechanism to keep us controlled (like in the movie Snowpiercer). If determinism is true, it is hard to see how it is possible for us to actually wrestle against determinism, versus only appear to wrestle against it. I believe Harris dislikes Smilansky’s “illusionism,” but it’s hard for me to see how any belief that separates “determinism” and “fatalism” isn’t itself a kind of “illusionism”; in fact, it’s so much an illusion that it doesn’t even realize it’s illusionism (it’s superior to Smilansky’s, “illusion-ing away the illusion”).
Harris believes that when people understand the distinction between “fatalism” and “determinism,” ‘the consequences of losing faith in free will would be much less negative than Vohs’s and Baumeister’s experiments suggest.’¹³ Perhaps this is true, at least for a time, but when people realize that those distinctions might ultimately be illusions themselves, it’s hard to see how the admonishments of those experiments won’t ultimately play out (though perhaps people will never wake up). Articulating the ideas of Harris, Cave writes:
‘When people hear there is no free will, they wrongly become fatalistic; they think their efforts will make no difference. But this is a mistake. People are not moving toward an inevitable destiny; given a different stimulus (like a different idea about free will), they will behave differently and so have different lives.’¹⁴
Personally, I don’t see how “determinism” can avoid being a simile for “fatalism,” unless that is the word “determinism” means something so incredibly different from what it is traditionally used to signify that the word should be discarded, prone to cause too much confusion (Harris may very well agree with me). If “determinism” and “fatalism” are uncoupled, then the debate about “determinism versus freedom” seems to me to ultimately be about emphasis — whether we should emphasis human freedom or human determinism — and considering the studies of Vohs and others, I think we have reason to emphasis freedom over determinism (as we have reason to “assume freedom” as a default).¹⁵
Toward the end of his article, Cave proceeds to map out a “middle ground” between free will and determinism, one that I find to be very similar to my own perspective. He writes:
‘Philosophers and theologians are used to talking about free will as if it is either on or off; as if our consciousness floats, like a ghost, entirely above the causal chain, or as if we roll through life like a rock down a hill. But there might be another way of looking at human agency.
‘Some scholars argue that we should think about freedom of choice in terms of our very real and sophisticated abilities to map out multiple potential responses to a particular situation. One of these is Bruce Waller, a philosophy professor at Youngstown State University. In his new book, Restorative Free Will, he writes that we should focus on our ability, in any given setting, to generate a wide range of options for ourselves, and to decide among them without external constraint.
‘For Waller, it simply doesn’t matter that these processes are underpinned by a causal chain of firing neurons. In his view, free will and determinism are not the opposites they are often taken to be; they simply describe our behavior at different levels.’¹⁶
Cave’s article is an excellent read, and I basically believe this “practical view” of free will is correct (and according to the article, it’s how most people think of “free will” anyway, suggesting that everyday people might be better at philosophy sometimes than are professional philosophers, a point with which Hume would agree).¹⁷ Perhaps the confusion is all about the phrase “free will : if by this one means “a will free of influence and restriction,” there’s no such thing as free will. However, if by “free will” one means “a will that is (often/sometimes) able to overcome (unwilled) circumstances,” then “free will” exists.
Perhaps we should stop using the phrase ‘free will,” as we should stop using the phrase “determinism,” and instead just say that “humans have wills” versus “humans have free wills” (for it is hard sometimes to define the difference between “free will” and “will”). Perhaps an entirely new phrase is needed, such as “shaped will” (or “shaped shaper”) over “free will.” I don’t know, but it should be noted that this entire debate might be a product of language and emphasis.
Please note that if the “practical view” of freedom is basically correct, then there this no hope of ever living in a world where people cannot “choose determinism” and forever prevent the consequences that follow from that choice: the only option is for people to take deep, personal responsibility to not “choose determinism” except when absolutely necessary. If reality is a mixture of determinism and freedom, there will always be evidence sown into the fabric of reality that “determinism is true,” and hence valid ground upon which to ascent to and choose (the idea of) determinism (like scientists presenting theories). And indeed, the fact reality consists of deterministic elements should be acknowledged, but the danger is that every person has the power to choose what those elements are, rightly or wrongly, causing social chaos and isolation. The more we know reality, the more we find ourselves before fire — that which can keep us alive and that which can burn us alive — requiring ever-higher levels of responsibility (of which “choosing determinism” can help us avoid).
Can’t people “choose freedom” just as much as they can “choose determinism,” and isn’t the construct of freedom just as consequential as determinism? Indeed, people can choose freedom to preserve ideology, as people can choose to see a situation in terms of liberty that is actually deterministic. However, the consequences of choosing freedom aren’t like the consequences of choosing determinism. While the construct of freedom makes each individual morally responsible for his or her life circumstance, determinism can make everyone morally responsible for everyone else’s life circumstance (and so it’s not clear who should be the savior): freedom favors decentralization, while determinism favors centralization. The ethic of freedom is liberty, but the ethic of determinism is often obligation: everyone is obligated by morality to everyone else. Isn’t that good? In one way, yes, but it also risks an ethical form of slavery, though the danger of freedom is a lack of moral responsibility for those around us.
“Choosing liberty” doesn’t readily obligate the State to act (risking problematic power dynamics and “Big Brother’), while “choosing determinism” often does so, but the problem of “choosing liberty” might precisely be that the State is inactive (and/or that it frames citizens as “(freely) responsible” for troubles caused on them by the system). Basically, this means that whether we “choose freedom” or “choose determinism,” we are responsible, and thus we should take seriously the choice and work to be better at discernment and judgment so that we choose well. Determinism might obligate people to do something, while liberality more so obliges that people be left alone. There are benefits and negatives to both, and we all must assume some axioms by which to understand the world in concordance to, and likewise we must start with some axioms to have a “ground” upon which we can start investigating the world, moving to a different “ground” if we find it appropriate. There is no other way to think and live but by starting from somewhere.
Given that freedom entails “the freedom to move from GF to GD” while determinism doesn’t, it would seem to me that it’s best to always “start” in GF (in addition to the fact that GF is less centralized). Considering its power, I personally think determinism should be earned through profound skepticism, and when it is earned, it must only be applied to the singular instance, event, and/or occurrence relative to which it has been justified (otherwise, we might unbind Prometheus). Might this caution bright about misjudgment? Yes, but life is tragic, risk unavoidable, and it would seem to me that it is better to assume that we are free so that we might determine the best balance between “determinism” and “freedom” versus think we are “determined” to determine this balance (which doesn’t seem like it could be much of a determination at all).
As discussed in The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, belief in free will profoundly improved the life of William James, the famous psychologist (who coined the valuable distinction between “hard determinism” and “soft determinism”). James wrote that ‘[m]y first act of free will shall be to believe in free will,’ and from there he ‘spen[t] twelve months believing that he had control over himself and his destiny […] he [freed] himself to believe, all evidence to the contrary, that change was possible.’¹⁸ Consequently, he experienced ‘a rebirth of the moral life’, and came to assert that ‘the will to believe is the most important ingredient in creating belief in change. And that one of the most important methods for creating that belief [is] habits.’¹⁹ ‘If you believe you can change — if you make it a habit — the change becomes real.’²⁰ But what if determinism is actually true? Then there is nothing we can do. So why not try to mess it up?
¹If Deirdre McCloskey is right about the importance of “bourgeois virtues,” the choice for determinism might be the choice to unleash mass poverty.
²This hints at why we all have “confirmation bias”: I can only hold one case at a time, and the case I hold must be what I believe is true. Hence, I must necessarily see more of “what I believe” than what I don’t, even if I want to be utterly self-critical (a seemingly impossible ideal). “Confirmation bias” seems sown into our very hermeneutical structure of understanding.
³“Glasses” in this sentence might be exchangeable with “ideology.”
⁴If I can choose how I see the world, I am arguably responsible for seeing the world through one set of glasses versus another. If I choose to view my situation as deterministic, I am responsible for that choice (and the following action which can make that choice seem valid), perhaps even if I am in fact determined.
⁹As argued by Sam Harris, I do believe there is truth to the idea that determinism can help us be compassionate, and indeed we should be careful to assume that everything a person does is that person’s total fault (even the terrorist). However, just because a person’s actions aren’t totally his or her responsibility, it doesn’t follow that a person isn’t responsible at all for what the person does. Furthermore, though a murderer perhaps isn’t totally responsible for murdering a person, if we believe a human life is infinitely valuable, then to even be 10% responsible for a murder is to be guilty of an infinite crime (even if the “infinite crime” is smaller than the infinite violation of a person who is 100% responsible for murder). Now that doesn’t mean there can’t be room in the law for distinctions between “intentional manslaughter” and “unintentional” (though we must be careful to walk this tightrope, as discussed in “On Responsibility” by O.G. Rose), but it does mean that the law isn’t necessarily immoral to sentence someone to the death penalty who is 30% responsible for a murder versus 100%. Furthermore, following the line of thought of those who don’t believe “determinism” and “fatalism” are similes, if sensory data can influence how a person acts, then the knowledge that murder can lead to the death penalty can stimulate a person not to murder, even if it cannot inspire the person not to murder (to use language from “There is No Such Thing as Free Will” by Stephen Cave), and hence the death penalty can be moral. Perhaps not, but we should not be quick to assume “the death penalty” as part of a person’s environment cannot stimulate that person to act one way versus another.
¹⁷Cave rightly notes that this “practical” understanding of free will has significant implications for society, economics, and the court system — issues taken up in “On Responsibility” by O.G. Rose.
¹⁸Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. New York, NY. Random House, 2012: 272.
¹⁹Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. New York, NY. Random House, 2012: 273.
²⁰Duhigg, Charles. The Power of Habit. New York, NY. Random House, 2012: 273.