Determinism & Freewill

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    Bill Bailey
    Bill Bailey

    Determinism and Freewill

    What is Determinism?
    Determinism is the term used by Philosophers when considering matters of cause and effect.
    In the case of freewill the discussion ranges from does it actually exist, or is it a mere self delusion induced by species vanity and wishful thinking; to are we in truth pre-programmed, and is everything that happens in our lives simply pre-determined?

    OK, it’s not an issue that we will resolve today or perhaps ever. In any group there tend to be as many different opinions are there are participants, so it’s a great area for discussion.

    Importance of language

    As a topic it’s also a wonderful example of one of the great perennial difficulties in Philosophy which is language.
    Such deceptively simple problems as what, exactly, does a particular word mean?
    And, how can I be sure it means the same to me as it does to you?

    Meaning is usually straightforward when we think of simple situations and simple words. I don’t see that there is much scope for misunderstanding if we are discussing, say, chairs and tables, or cups and plates. Language developed from simple practical beginnings when our species was young, it has manifold inconsistencies, not least because it ‘grew like topsy’, and was never designed in some integrated fashion.

    Once we move on to try to express more complex abstract concepts the difficulties mount swiftly.

    I wonder how many of you remember Professor Chomsky who we listened to last year?
    He de-constructed the word ‘river’ and soon showed that in fact any sort of absolute definition of what one would think of as a fairly simple word was near impossible. He also pointed out that Dictionaries are no help. They give clues to common usages, and assistance to speakers of foreign languages, but beyond that are largely useless.
    His final position is that any word means what it means in the context in which it is used.
    The supporting words and those alone, give the subtle clues to the exact meaning at that time and place.

    Language, and especially the use of language in Philosophy, was a major pre-occupation of the early and middle 20 Century. J L Austin, Bertram Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein all spent major sections of their working lives trying to make clear sense of it. So has, more recently, Noam Chomsky.
    Perhaps not surprisingly none of them have really succeeded although we do now understand more clearly some of the major pitfalls.

    Wittgenstein in his later years went so far as to say:

    “Philosophy is just a by product of misunderstanding language”

    And so far we have not even really touched on what individual apparently simple words like ‘Freewill’ mean to individual people; let alone complex words, like ‘Determinism’.

    It’s a tricky swamp in which it’s all too easy to figuratively disappear up to the neck.

    Does Freewill mean not being under actual physical restraint?
    Or does it mean free of all outside influences of heredity, background, education and environment?
    Or does it mean acceptance of some outside influences that narrow choice but still leave some room for individual decision making?
    Perhaps it means all those things.

    Spectrum of opinion

    Those who believe we have freedom to choose to a greater or lesser extent are called ‘Libertarians’.
    Those who believe that we only delude ourselves if we believe we have that freedom are called Determinists.

    Some claim to recognise a number of different types of freedom.

    One of the main ones is ‘The liberty of indifference’ which means the freedom to act on independent choices without any influence from genetics, background or education.
    Perhaps an unrealistic view? How could we ever divest ourselves of outside influence to find out?

    Another popular position is called ‘The liberty of spontaneity’ which means the freedom to act according to ones nature but willingly accepting that the realistically available choices may well be narrowed and constrained by external shaping forces and obligations.

    Those who believe in pre-ordination are called Hard Determinists and include John Locke, Thomas Aquinas and Arthur Schopenhauer and, I think, Albert Einstein.

    Those who recognise some limited freedom of decision and take a middle position include Baruch Spinoza, Bertram Russell and our own John O’Loglen but I know he’ll speak for himself soon!

    Those who recognise a little more room for self determination are called ‘Soft’ Determinists
    And include William James and David Hume.

    Soft Determinists shade into the ‘Libertarians’ who believe in genuine freedom but recognise that decisions can be and often are influenced by external forces.

    The reality is that a ‘continuum’ of opinion exists which extends from those like the extreme ‘Libertarians’ who believe that we all have complete freedom uninfluenced by any outside consideration; to those who maintain that all was pre-ordained in the first few milliseconds after the ‘Big Bang’; and those who believe that some transcendental power has previously ordered every outcome. These are the extreme ends of the spectrum and there are, of course, all the intermediate states in between.

    There are some inferences which can to be drawn that can come as something of a jolt and one of them has far reaching practical consequences.

    The assumption which underpins our judicial system and hence the ‘Rule of Law’ depends on individuals having responsibility for their own actions. If you are a ‘Hard Determinist’ here is a major problem difficult to resolve.

    In addition, the whole School of Existentialist philosophy from Kierkegaard, and Heidegger to Camus and Sartre depends on an individual taking responsibility for the ‘Authenticity’ of his own life beyond the limitations imposed by his or her ‘Facticity’. You’ll remember that ‘facticity’ is the term Sartre coined to describe all the aspects of our life endowed by nature or circumstances quite beyond our control. Things like gender and parents.
    Clearly a large measure of personal freedom of action is implied. If this freedom of action is a myth the whole house tumbles down.

    So what do I make of all this? I generally don’t feel it’s my function as some sort of facilitator to air my views in presentations but I shall be self indulgent. No doubt many of you will tell me why I’m hopelessly wrong after coffee, starting with my friend John O’Loglen. Hopefully you will enjoy that, I know I will.

    So where to start? It might be reasonable to take another look at what makes us distinctively human. We generally accept that, as individual members of our species, we are an amalgam of our inherited characteristics and our environment. It’s probable that the proportions of which of these two factors has major influence in any particular situation is variable.

    Our genetic inheritance is what it is and an important and unique part of this makeup is our ‘nature’ or ‘temperament’ which determines how we interpret things which happen in our respective worlds. I think we now widely accept that what matters to human beings is the perception, or interpretation, of what happens not the actual events. Is the world an exciting and interesting place to be explored, or is it full of nameless threats and dangers to be avoided at all costs? My experience as a parent and grandparent suggests to me our temperaments are largely formed by birth and while they may develop a little they don’t change in any fundament fashion.

    Environment in this context covers not just nurture, education and culture but everything which has happened to us since our first breath. None of us here are the same people we were before Christmas because things have happened to us since then which have added to our stock of experiences. While we are still alive this is in escapable truth.
    As we travel through life, and as we are social animals that only thrive in the company of others of our species, most of us make alliances and incur obligations. Obligations which must be honoured if we expect others to honour theirs to us, and that most do is a major part of the cement that holds society together. It may be that it is impossible to lead a rich and truly successful life without considering the effect of our decisions on others. Many of these are ‘velvet bonds’ but that sort can be stronger than steel chains.

    All these factors and interactions must have an effect on our practical freedom of action.
    Maybe these constraints make our decisions very predictable to those who know us best but this is not quite the same as pre-destination. Perhaps it’s a confusion of language but I think I see a subtle difference.

    So I think that leaves me somewhere among the ‘Soft Determinists’, or perhaps among the ‘Spontaneous Libertarians’. That’s all: now it’s over to you.

    Bill Bailey
    Bill Bailey
      Some thoughts from Keith Bullock posted on his behalf by Bill Bailey

    Free Will & Determinism
    Science has reached a point where it knows what it doesn’t know. What is uncertain is how much of what it doesn’t know may become knowable and how much will remain unknowable.
    It knows from Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle for example, that I cannot know both the position and the momentum of an electron at the same time. At the sub-atomic level, beyond a certain scale, known as the Planck length, there is an inbuilt limit to how far I can probe Nature. Is the electron’s behaviour random or determined? We don’t know.
    It knows too that by definition, there are indeterminacies in our knowledge, made implicit by Chaos Theory. Neither the weather, or population dynamics or even evolutionary paths are entirely predictable – as W.S.Franklin put it, as far back as 1898: ” The flight of a grasshopper in Montana may turn a storm aside from Philadelphia to New York.” Chaos Theory seems to get in the way of a verification methodology for determining Determinism?
    To put Quantum Theory, Chaos Theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle to one side for a moment: we do know however, that Determinism rules for most physical phenomena, including Mankind via genes, natural selection and environmental influences. The way we are wired determines most of our behaviour, emotional and intellectual responses. We can even see which neurons in the brain fire to specific stimulae i.e. one individual will have an entirely specific ‘Elvis Presley’ synaptic chain of neuronal activity- another will have an entirely specific ‘strawberries’ chain – now easily identifiable on EEG and MRI scanners. Millions of these synapses fire simultaneously to form networks of encoded responses which within one individual are identifiable – suggesting a programmed response. Therefore is not all of our mental activity merely clusters of deterministic response – or is there still a tiny space for Free Will?
    Well… a computer responds with similar programmed responses from encoded bites that form information networks when we input stimulae. The distinction is that the computer uses intelligence in a similar way to ourselves but its networks have never equalled the brain’s complexity of neural networks that are required to meet the ‘critical mass’ of consciousness. Tononi at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests this ‘critical mass’ in a new Integrated Information Theory. The more wired and integrated the machine, the closer it comes to phi – the Greek letter denoting the consciousness threshold.
    Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft has founded ‘The Allen Institute for Brain Science’ with a donation of $500M and one of their key aims is to pursue Tononi’s theory. A second project known as ‘The Human Brain Project’ is funded to the tune of one billion Euros by the European Commission – it’s aim is to produce a completely-wired model of the human brain – a kind of brain genome project – within ten years. Surprisingly perhaps, it’s director does not believe that the model will achieve consciousness. Intelligence is not consciousness, however we wrap it up, and it seems highly unlikely that empirically we will ever be able to simulate consciousness, or to share our own, either artificially or biologically.
    So have we found the uniquely human quality that sets our minds outside the yoke of Determinism? I believe so. Within our consciousness lies an even more externally impenetrable property: our imagination. Our imagination affords us, via Literature, Art, Music, ecstatic religious experience and pure fantasy, to catch glimpses of what Kant would have called a reality beyond everyday reality and certainly beyond Science. Science can tell us everything about how a cello produces its sound-waves and how they are received by the human ear, but it can tell us nothing about music.
    To argue that imagination lies within the remit of Determinism seems to me as circular as to argue that Determinism governs the random behaviour of sub-atomic particles.

    Keith Bullock. January 2017.
    (In huge debt to Marcus du Sautoy’s What We Cannot Know)

    • This reply was modified 1 year, 1 month ago by Bill Bailey Bill Bailey.
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