Sunday, March 05, 2006


Free Will Isn't Free or Can Libertarianism Survive In A Determinitic World?

Allow me to start this post with a story to ignite our moral intuition engines. Two people, Jack and Jill, fall down a hill through no fault of their own. Jack falls down the hill and based on the wind, the moisture of the ground, and his uncontrollable tumbling path he breaks his crown and bleeds to death. Jill, on the other hand, rolls softly into a meadow of clovers based on the same combination of events. Did Jack "deserve" to die? Did Jill "deserve" to live? According to my moral intuition, it is hard to say either "deserved" their fates. It was all luck--an unfortunate accident.

But how is this different from everyday life? Are any of the rewards we receive any different than Jill luckily rolling into a meadow? Can we truly accept credit for anything? Not if we accept a few basic assumptions about the way the world works.

1. Every physical event is the outcome of a set of causes.
2. The brain is physical.
3. A choice is a physical "brain event".

From these assumptions it is hard to not make the following deductive conclusion:
4. Therefore, every choice is the outcome of a set of cause.

In other words: If our lives are just the sum of our choices, and our choices are just a sum of the causes that are out of our control, then it is hard to see how our lives are not just the accidental snowballing of events we couldn't control.

This seems to be a very hard conclusion for libertarians to swollow, whose arguments against government intervention are usually couched in the rhetoric of "choice". Would libertarian arguments really hold much weight in a world where we have no control?

There are several ways libertarians can respond to this problem. First, they could argue that the mind isn't seated in the physical brain and therefore not subject to deterministic laws. But this would require rejecting almost the whole of cognitive and neurological science, which assumes the physicality of the mind. That's a very high price to pay for ideaology.

Second, they could reject the notion that every event has a cause. After all, some subatomic particles seem to behave in very indeterminist ways. But would this argument really yield the desired outcome of placing us in control of our lives or would it just put us at the mercy of random forces instead of deterministic ones?

The last, and probably best, option would be to accept our deterministic world and re-conceptualize our philosophy accordingly. But have there been any libertarian philosophers up to the task?

My question in a nutshell is: Can Libertarianism Survive in a Deterministic World?If so, how?

PS* I apologize for my amateurish philosophizing. :P

When I was writing this post, I accidently hit "post" instead of "save as draft".

So you might want to re-read the post before you comment, just in case you were reading the old one.
I would like a little more help on what you mean by causes in "Every physical event is the outcome of a set of causes".

Our very existence, it is true, is not our choice. It is because our parents acted and caused our very being, but after some period of time when we became aware of our own existence, it then was our choice whether to continue to exist or not.

So initially our very existence is the outcome of a set of causes, but beyond a certain point in time, it is not just this collection of causes that pushes us forward. Individual choices are mixed with coercion from all sides, parental influence, peer pressure, and everything else. So, either way, Jack and Jill chose to go up the hill, whether or not they were aware of the risk, they still chose to lead that path and one was worse for it. But beyond the retelling of the nursery rhyme, I do not see how there “choice” is no longer their own.

And I think since there is never full information and since there is more involved that just our choice alone that does not necessarily make it a deterministic world. Determinism disregards any individual choice, which I think is always present, although sometimes more constrained than other times. Their philosophy does appeal to me under the notion that everything happens for a reason and how we are all intertwined.

To answer your question though: I do not think that Libertarianism could exist/survive in a deterministic world. But I do not think we live in one, at least not a fully deterministic world.

Honestly, the amateurish philosophy is the best. That way, more people can theoretically contribute to the “group learning”.
Well, think of it this way.

Why did Jack decide to go up the hill? Because a collection of factors (past experience, the state of his brain, etc.) combined to make him go up the hill. Given this collection of factors ("causes") there is no other way Jack would have acted.

But what do you mean by choice? To tell you the truth, I don't understand most free-will arguments.
I'd like to merely point out that not only libertarianism, but all of morality, justice, and virtue are doomed as well in the scenario you posit. People can't be responsible for their actions if everything is "just a physical event." We can't be good to others if we have no choice in the matter.

As for why free-will exists, the simplest answer I can give is that I know it exists through introspection, and to be honest I trust my introspection a lot more than I trust what I read on the internet.

The second-simplest answer I can give is that determinism is self-contradictory: If you conclude you are determined, then there is no logical way for you to continue arguing. You "choose" to continue reasoning. You expect me to hear your argument and be persuaded; in other words, to decide that you are right and I am wrong. I could be mistaken here, but it's hard for me to see why you would even be talking to me if you thought I could never choose to believe you.
1) Accepting determinism might not lead to the dire consequences you suggest. One Philosopher that would disagree with you is Owen Flanagan. Check out his book "The Problem of the Soul."

2) I am not asking you to trust me, I am asking you to trust your reasoning. I don't see how one could believe in free will and a physical mind at the same time. And if you want to argue in favor or an "unphysical mind" or a "soul", then you will not only have to give up the whole of cognitive science, but you will be left trying to explain how non-physical objects (the "mind" or "soul") effect physical objects (the body).

3) Introspection doesn't count for much in my book. Just because something SEEMS to be one way, doesn't mean it is. If there is anything a quick review of psychology should tell you, it's that we sometimes don't know ourselves as well as we think and that we can experience things that just aren't real.
Determinism implies that one is unable to make a choice of one’s own, since “every event, including human cognition and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences”. I agree with the notion that we are all intertwined, but I don’t buy into the idea that this world is wholly deterministic, i.e. we are unable to freely make decisions independent of the “flow” of the stream of causes. Otherwise, what would separate determinism from fatalism or pre-destination?

Dr. Norman Swartz states that to have free will at least two conditions must be obtained:
1. We must have two or more possibilities 'genuinely open' to us when we face a choice; and
2. our choice must not be 'forced'.

Since everything is the product of something else, no one could ever take fault for anything at all since no action is independent of any other action. Let’s just say that even though I do not work in the post office, one day I go postal and shoot and kill a full baker’s dozen of people. In a deterministic world this would neither be my fault nor my responsibility since there were forces beyond my control influencing my actions, and my “choices” that day.

Personally I don’t buy into that line of thought. Perhaps I just like the idea of holding on to my ideology, but I don’t see it.

A free choice is the ability for an individual to make a decision on something, anything without previous events causally influencing or forcing a particular action. In the example above, what caused me to act that way? Was I forced to? Who knows exactly, but I do not think that I was not ‘given a choice’ to kill and so previous actions coerced me into acting that way. On that day, I had alternatives -- perhaps never fully free, but never really forced.

So a choice exists independently of forced causes from the deterministic world, where one has no control over life. Personally, I find the notions of a fully deterministic world comical, because what action of my parents, ancestors, or neighbors caused me to eat out at lunch time, or go to McDonalds for dinner – was someone else forcing me to drive my car in that direction. Can I blame those fast food cravings on my folks or officemates? My free will allows me to make a decision on what to eat at lunch time, and yes it depends on a budget constraint, mobility, ability and a variety of other constraint, but all decisions do.

So, after that rant, I might be able to agree with you that there is not a wholly free will in this world, but there is surely not a wholly deterministic world. All actions and choices in life are constrained in some way, but that does not take away the free will to choose.
But do you really have options?

Yes, in a different world you might have left the gun at home that day, but in this world (given all the present factor and prior causes) there is no way you COULD have left the gun.

Now if we want to believe otherwise, we have to explain how one can make a choice independents "of one's causes".

I don't see how that is possible if the mind is physical. But if the mind is supernatural (like a soul), then it might be a causer without cause. But then are left trying to to explain how a non-phsyical object (our soul) is able to effect a physical object (our body).

A very difficult question to answer and one that rejects the insights of cognitive and neurological science. That's a very high price to be left with no answers.


Now, I should point out again that it might be possible to retain much of what we enjoy about free will. But it requires a re-organization of what consider responcibility and morality. A re-organiztion I'm still not sure works well with traditional libertarian arguments.

One recomendation is given by Owen Flanagan in his book "The Problem of the Soul". I am still reading to find other solutions to the problem of determinisim and morality, but that's been a good start for me. If you want to check it out.
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I first heard about determinism when I was in high school and it really bothered me. It seemed impossible to refute since there's no counterfactual evidence, i.e., no way to know what would have happened if I made a different choice, or even whether or not I could have made a different choice.

This is not the alternate 1985 and no one I know has a flux capacitor or a De Lorean, let alone both. So the fact that we deal in one time-space continuum precludes any experiments about whether choices can change reality.

I prefer to place the burden of proof on Determinists to disprove free will. I think they will find the same difficulties as those who try to disprove determinism.
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