Determinism: Tricks of the Trade

The objection that the terms ‘consciousness’ or ‘free will’ are used in too many different ways to be understandable is one of the most common arguments that I run into. I agree that it is a superficially valid objection, but on deeper consideration, it should be clear that it is a specious and ideologically driven detour.

The term free will is not as precise as a more scientific term might be (I tend to use motive, efferent participation, or private intention), but it isn’t nearly the problem that it is made to be in a debate. Any eight year old knows well enough what free will refers to. Nobody on Earth can fail to understand the difference between doing something by accident and intentionally, or between enslavement and freedom. The claim that these concepts are somehow esoteric doesn’t wash, unless you already have an expectation of a kind of verbal-logical supremacy in which nothing is allowed to exist until we can agree on a precise set of terms which give it existence. I think that this expectation is not a neutral or innocuous position, but actually contaminates the debate over free will, stacking the deck unintentionally in favor of the determinism.

It’s subtle, but ontologically, it is a bit like letting a burglar talk you into opening up the door to the house for them since breaking a window would only make a mess for you to clean up. Because the argument for hard determinism begins with an assumption that impartiality and objectivity are inherently desirable in all things, it asks that you put your king in check from the start. The argument doubles down on this leverage with the implication that subjective intuition is notoriously naive and flawed, so that not putting your king in check from the start is framed as a weak position. This is the James Randi kind of double-bind. If you don’t submit to his rules, then you are already guilty of fraud, and part of his rules are that you have no say in what his rules will be.

This is the sleight of hand which is also used by Daniel Dennett as well. What poses as a fair consideration of hard determinism is actually a stealth maneuver to create determinism – to demand that the subject submit to the forced disbelief system and become complicit in undermining their own authority. The irony is that it is only through a personal/social, political attack on subjectivity that the false perspective of objectivity can be introduced. It is accepted only by presentation pf an argument of personal insignificance so that the subject is shamed and bullied into imagining itself an object. Without knowing it, one person’s will has been voluntarily overpowered and confounded by another person’s free will into accepting that this state of affairs is not really happening. In presenting free will and consciousness as a kind of stage magic, the materialist magician performs a meta-magic trick on the audience.

Some questions for determinist thinkers:

  • Can we effectively doubt that we have free will?
    Or is the doubt a mental abstraction which denies the very capacity for intentional reasoning upon which the doubt itself is based?
  • How would an illusion of doubt be justified, either randomly or deterministically? What function would an illusion of doubt serve, even in the most blue-sky hypothetical way?
  • Why wouldn’t determinism itself be just as much of an illusion as free will or doubt under determinism?

Another common derailment is to conflate the position of recognizing the phenomenon of subjectivity as authentic with religious faith, naive realism, or soft-headed sentimentality. This also is ironic, as it is an attack on the ego of the subject, not on the legitimacy of the issue. There is no reason to presume any theistic belief is implied just because determinism can be challenged at its root rather than on technicalities. To challenge determinism at its root requires (appropriately) the freedom to question the applicability of reductive reasoning to reason itself. The whole question of free will is to what extent it is an irreducible phenomenon which arises at the level of the individual. This question is already rendered unspeakable as soon as the free will advocate agrees to the framing of the debate in terms which require that they play the role of cross-examined witness to the prosecutor of determinism.

As soon as the subject is misdirected to focus their attention on the processes of the sub-personal level, a level where the individual by definition does not exist, the debate is no longer about the experience of volition and intention, but of physiology. The ‘witness’ is then invited to give a false confession, making the same mistake that the prosecutor makes in calling the outcome of the debate before it even begins. The foregone conclusion that physiological processes define psychological experiences entirely is used to justify itself, and the deterministic ego threatens to steal from another the very power to exercise control upon which the theft relies.

It is important to keep in mind that the nature of free will is such that it is available to us without pretense of explanation. Unless paralysis interrupts the effectiveness of our will (paralysis being a condition which proves only that physiology is necessary, but not sufficient), the faculty of voluntary action is self evident. If we want to open our eyes, no set of instructions is necessary, nor will any amount of explanation help us open them if we can’t figure out how. Often the deterministic end couches free will in terms of the power to make ‘choices’, which injects another bit of unsupported bias into the debate.

We use free will to make choices, but choices imply a pre-existing set of conditions from which we choose. This makes it much easier to make the leap of faith toward the presumption that free will can be successfully reduced to a computing algorithm. Computers can ‘choose’, in the sense that they compute which branch on the logic tree must be followed. What computation does not do, which free will does, is to lead, and to lead from felt experience rather than logic. Leading means creativity and intuition, not merely selecting from strategic simulations.

The game theory approach to free will truncates morality and responsibility, reducing not only personhood to mechanism, but also the door entirely on meaningful, game changing approaches altogether. Free will allows us not only to elect a single decision from a set of fixed alternatives, but also to generate new alternatives which go beyond behaviorism. Our values stem from the quality of our experience, not just the short term advantages which our actions might deliver. The choice is up to us, not because the human body can’t function in its environment without an illusion of a decision maker, but because it isn’t just about choice, and the body’s survival alone is not enough to justify the quality of a human experience. Choice is not where free will begins, any more than opening your eyes begins with an understanding of eyelids. Experience begins with feeling, not knowing.

  1. June 28, 2017 at 12:58 am

    Free will refers to the mental process of deciding for ourselves what we WILL do, FREE of coercion or other undue influence.

    Determinism is the belief that objects and forces within our universe behave in a reliable fashion, such that any event is, in theory, 100% predictable.

    But determinism can’t do or cause anything. Only the objects and forces can actually do stuff. The hard determinist’s mental error is in anthropomorphizing determinism into some kind of force that can cause us to act against our will. This is properly called a “delusion”.

    We happen to be one of those objects that actually causes stuff. As physical objects, we behave passively according to the natural laws of physics. That is, if you drop one of us off the leaning tower of Pisa at the same time as a bowling ball, we’ll both hit the ground at the same time. But we are more than just physical objects.

    As living organisms, we behave purposefully, to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This is not a conscious purpose, but a built-in biological drive. Living organism can defy gravity by walking up the hill to get to MacDonald’s. To understand the natural laws of living organisms we must go beyond physics and into the life sciences like biology, genetics, physiology, etc.

    As an intelligent species, we can also behave deliberately. At this level of organization we have acquired imagination, evaluation, and choosing. To predict our behavior now requires more than physics and more than biology. Now we need to add the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, ethology.

    So we have three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. And I presume that cause and effect are reliable at each level, such that, in theory, any event could be predicted either by one of them or some combination of these types of causation.

    However, there is no conflict between (a) the fact that I authentically decide for myself according to my own purpose and my own reasons (free will) and (b) the fact that my decision is the deterministic result of my own purpose and my own reasons (determinism), such that it is 100% predictable by anyone with sufficient knowledge of how I think and feel.

  2. May 24, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    I don’t know why I’m only now just seeing this two years later, but maybe the timing is right?

    “But determinism can’t do or cause anything. Only the objects and forces can actually do stuff. ”

    Agree. Good point.

    “We happen to be one of those objects that actually causes stuff.”

    I think we are a spectrum of subjective+objective stuff that can voluntarily cause changes in certain ranges of that spectrum. We can, for example, change our (intangible) visual attention to inspect our own peripheral vision, even while keeping our eyes focused on a central point.

    So there’s a nesting of participation layers for our will. We can change our brain (a tangible object or process) directly by manipulating our attention, and we can also use that manipulation to make our brain change the other tangible systems in the body. The movement of our eyeballs and the focusing of the lens are tangible changes. The changes to the brain have a tangible aspect, but it is relatively subtle and almost meaningless without the perceptual-participatory aspect.

    “That is, if you drop one of us off the leaning tower of Pisa at the same time as a bowling ball, we’ll both hit the ground at the same time. But we are more than just physical objects. ”
    Yes, we are more than just physical objects. If we are under general anesthesia when being dropped, it isn’t really happening to ‘us’, just to a body that we identify with when we wake up. This is not an assertion of dualism, because I think that is an inaccurate polarization of what I understand to be a spectrum-continuum of aesthetic-participatory phenomena, but it would be delusional IMO to assign non-geometric properties such as feeling and participation to an object. In my view, if we allow objects to have undefined, irrationally conjured non-geometric powers, then we are committing a philosophical error – sort of the opposite of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

    “As living organisms, we behave purposefully, to survive, thrive, and reproduce. This is not a conscious purpose, but a built-in biological drive. ”

    Yes, agree, but the term ‘drive’ begins to allow non-physical properties to leak into our physical model. If we go with pure Darwinian natural selection, there need be no biological ‘drive’ at all. There are simply random mutations and statistical filters on them. To us, an amoeba looks like it is driven to chase food, but the amoeba’s body is simply moving in the way that it’s genetics make it move, following a chain of physical causes and effects that rely on chemical laws rather than teleological desires.

    I do think that there are likely low level, microphenomenal ‘drives’, which are sensory-motive but are ultimately a form of ‘consciousness’ – an aesthetic-participatory phenomenon rather than an anesthetic, unconscious chain reaction of material shapes colliding in space.

    “As an intelligent species, we can also behave deliberately. At this level of organization, we have acquired imagination, evaluation, and choosing. To predict our behavior now requires more than physics and more than biology. Now we need to add the social sciences, like psychology, sociology, ethology.”

    Sure, yes, but I would not say that these are qualities of the species’ bodies. Bodies are objects – tangible 3d shapes that change their shape according to (tangible or abstract) physical forces. It violates parsimony to assign objects extra-geometric ’emergent’ properties.

    “So we have three levels of causation: physical, biological, and rational. And I presume that cause and effect are reliable at each level, such that, in theory, any event could be predicted either by one of them or some combination of these types of causation. ”

    Agree.

    “However, there is no conflict between (a) the fact that I authentically decide for myself according to my own purpose and my own reasons (free will) and (b) the fact that my decision is the deterministic result of my own purpose and my own reasons (determinism), such that it is 100% predictable by anyone with sufficient knowledge of how I think and feel.”

    Nicely said. Yes, agree..almost. If I also had sufficient knowledge of the other person’s knowledge of how I think and feel, I could decide whether to defy their prediction or not. I still participate personally in changing my mind.

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