Saturday, July 23, 2016

Determinism and Responsibility

Many Christians are confused about determinism as it relates to morality.  They seem to think that if determinism is true, then people are at the mercy of the winds.  There is no moral responsibility and no point in even trying to decide what you should do.  After all, everything is just molecules in motion.  People have no choice about what they do, and no way to change the course of events, which is all determined beforehand.  They confuse determinism with fatalism, which is the incoherent notion that our deliberative processes play no causal role in the outcome of events.

According to Christians, the correct way to view it is that God gives us free will, which is the ability to choose what we will do, and the moral responsibility to do the right thing, which is determined by God.  But this Christian view of free will and morality is hopelessly incoherent, as I shall demonstrate.  And furthermore, the Christian view of determinism is hopelessly naive.  They simply don't account for reality.

Christians like to point out that science hasn't proven that there is no free will.  That may be the case, since science isn't really about proving things.  Science is about following where the evidence leads, and postulating the best explanation.  Christians always postulate God as the explanation for everything, regardless of any evidence they may encounter, and everything they encounter is evidence for what they believe.  In the face of science and our improved powers of observation in the modern era, God has long since ceased to be the best explanation, but Christians have no choice in the matter.  They must believe in their God and everything that goes along with it, regardless of the evidence.  That's the way they have been conditioned.

But the failings of science aside, it is simply illogical to think that there can be genuinely free will.  Why?  Because it implies that things happen without a cause.  And Christians often argue that nothing happens without a cause.  The Argument from Motion says that everything is ultimately moved by the one and only unmoved mover, which is at the start of every chain of causality.  But the concept of free will directly contradicts that.  People supposedly have the option of doing action A or action B, and the chain of causality extends no further than the the human soul.  These two things are at odds.  They are not logically compatible.  A human decision is a movement, and it should not be uncaused, according to Christian belief.  Human decisions made by free will violate this rule of causality.  If they try to claim that God is still the thing that spurs people to act, then they really have no basis to say that the actions of people are made by free will.  If they try to claim that there is free will, then the Argument from Motion has no basis, and God is not the ultimate cause of all motion..

Actually, science has given us good reason to think that determinism is true.  Everything that happens at a macroscopic scale is determined by the preceding state of affairs.  That includes neural activity that accounts or the function of the brain.  Human decisions are made by neural activity, which is caused by physical conditions that include memories, learned behaviors, preferences, goals, etc.  These things are all part of the brain state that leads to a particular choice of actions.  And that brain state being what it is causes the choice to be made.  A different choice could be made only if the brain state is different.  But the brain state is constantly in flux.  It changes from one moment to the next, which makes it seem as if we could choose B just as easily as we could choose A.  That may be true, but at any one instant in time, the brain can only choose one of those things, as determined by its state at that instant.  If a moment later some factor becomes more prominent in the brain's deliberation that would alter the decision, then so be it.  Thus, it may well be possible to choose B instead of A, even under determinism.  What matters are the conditions in play and the state of the brain at the particular moment the decision is made.

Does this mean we have no moral responsibility?  That really depends on what is meant by moral responsibility.  The Christian view is that we are responsible to God for our actions, and whether those actions are good or bad is for God to decide.  The materialistic view is that there is no God to which we must answer, but that doesn't imply that we have no responsibility for what we do.  We have evolved a sense of responsibility by virtue of being social creatures that depend on one another for survival.  This sense of responsibility is what we call conscience.  It is also what Christians call morality.  So we are responsible to our fellow humans for what we do.  If we do something that is harmful to our society, we are not acting in the best interest of survival, and our conscience tends to inhibit such behaviors.  On top of our innate sense of conscience, there are many other learned behaviors that may be imposed by various external influences (especially religion).  They may enhance, degrade, or confuse our fundamental sense of right and wrong.

Of course, not everyone has an equally developed conscience, and not everyone has the same external influences.  For those with a degraded sense of right and wring, the tendency may be to act in their own self-interest, at the cost of socially beneficial behavior.  These people violate the mutual cooperation that the rest of us are inclined to.  In light of our understanding of determinism, should we simply excuse their actions?  Most people feel that it wouldn't be right to let them off the hook under the assumption that they have no choice in their own actions.  And determinism doesn't change our feelings about people who behave badly.  We feel that they are still responsible to society for what they do.  If they do the wrong thing, it's because there's something in them that makes them do it.  We can't just let them get away with it.  We still want to stop their bad behavior.  That often involves teaching them a lesson of some kind, but some people can't easily be taught to behave well.  It may well be the case that putting someone in prison is the best way to stop the bad behavior.  It may just as well be the case that some other form of behavior modification would be most effective in a particular situation.  Whatever means we use to stop the bad behavior, we are changing something in the brain states of the individual that will affect the choices he makes.

What we should do about someone's bad behavior is what's most beneficial for everyone.  If we can make someone see the error of his ways without physical or mental punishment, that would be best.  If we insist that we must exact retribution for their bad behavior, then we may not be doing what is best.  It may only lead to more bad behavior.  One thing is clear.  Whether be believe in God or not, unless our understanding of behavior under determinism is naive, we all believe that people are responsible for what they do.  And even if we think that God is the arbiter of right and wrong, we should never take retributive action against bad behavior.  "Vengeance is mine", saith the Lord.  What we should do instead is take corrective measures - preferably whatever works with the least negative consequences.  Then we can all get back to making the most of the one and only life we have on this earth.


  1. it is simply illogical to think that there can be genuinely free will. Why? Because it implies that things happen without a cause.

    Not so. There is no physical cause, to be sure. The cause for "things" happening (we're speaking of human actions here) is the Will. That is very much a cause, yet not a material one.

    It only seems illogical to the materialist, who denies the existence of non-material entities. But materialism has itself been demonstrated to be illogical multiple times.

    A human decision is a movement, and it should not be uncaused

    Absolutely correct. And the cause for that movement is the Will.

    1. The cause for "things" happening (we're speaking of human actions here) is the Will.

      You don't get this thing we call logic. What moves the Will?


  2. I think that a great deal of the difficulty that people have with the determinism/free will/responsibility issue is that our languages don't frame the question very well. In English, we use a Subject, Verb, Object structure. This structure puts the object and the subject into different logical categories - which is fine for most purposes. However, in this case, it is a mistake to think that mental deliberations and decision are in a different category than that physical processes. We humans, in order to understand things, have created these categories (mental states, biological states, chemical states, etc.) but from,to borrow Sean Carrol's term, a poetic naturalistic view, these are all just different ways of talking about the same underlying reality. It is fine to use the language and concepts for a particular level but it is a mistake to mix these levels.

    This mixing of categories is common: whenever, someone makes a dichotomy between the physical world and a person ("you") they have made this error. A person - their thoughts and dreams - ARE part of the physical world, not a dualistically separate thing. Whenever, someone uses the word "you" or "your" in a philosophical discussion, look at it carefully to see if it is sneaking in the implicit assumption of dualism (I think the AFR does this).

    It is wrong to say that our thoughts and actions are caused by physical processes - our thoughts and actions ARE the physical processes.

    1. I shouldn't have said "logical" categories, I meant to say "conceptual" categories. Mea Culpa.

    2. It is wrong to say that our thoughts and actions are caused by physical processes - our thoughts and actions ARE the physical processes.

      Of course they are physical processes. Still, they are caused by the antecedent physical states that lead to them.

      I agree that language plays a major role in the way we think of things, sometimes leading us down the wrong path by shaping our conceptions. The word "mind" is a good example of this. We think of it as an entity that has the property of being in its own right, but it is more of a process, or a function of the brain.

  3. I have to disagree, jd. It doesn't require dualism to say that not all things are physical.

    You say: A person - their thoughts and dreams - ARE part of the physical world, not a dualistically separate thing.

    I would say: A person - their thoughts and dreams - ARE part of the world, which is made up of both physical and non-physical things (or, as the Nicene Creed puts it, "things visible and invisible"). There is no separation, but at the same time one must not confuse one thing for the other.

    1. No answer on what moves the Will?

    2. So, what do these supposed non-physical things do and how do they do it, exactly?

      We know that when people think that there is a correlate with the physical brain. So, if there is a non-physical impact on the thinking process, then this non-physical thing has to some how change the physical process. How does it do this? If this non-physical thing has no impact on the thought processes, what is the point of carrying around that thing?

      These are not new questions. Elisabeth, the Princess of Bohemia, put them to Descartes without a good answer.

    3. I think it's a shame that we don't see a reasonable answer to a straight-forward question: What moves the Will? If the Christian concept of libertarian free will is to be considered coherent, then even though it may be immaterial, the will cannot move itself - at least not without undermining the Argument from Motion. A free will that can act without anything acting upon it is supposed to be equivalent to God. But there is only one God. On the other hand, if the will is acted upon by something outside itself, then its decisions are caused, and the will is not free. This contradiction should be regarded as a serious stumbling block to anyone who accepts the notion of free will. Yet I have never heard a cogent answer for it.

      I suppose if they just keep telling materialists that their concept of mind is irrational, they can pretend this problem doesn't exist. Don't worry, planks. You're in good company.

  4. Let me throw an idea out for discussion. I was trying to come up with a good analogy or metaphor that might illuminate the relationship between what we call mental processes and physical processes. I'm toying with the idea that it is like those optical illusions where you see one image and then the image flips and you see something else. Like the Necker cube ( There is only a single set of lines that define the qube but we can interpret them in two different ways. Similarly, there is only a single underlying reality for our mind/brain but we can interpret it in two different ways the mind or the brain. It is only an inherent limitation of ours that prevents us from seeing that the two things are not two things but one.

    1. The Necker cube and other things, like the old hag/young beauty are examples of the way the mind models the world we see. It takes sensory input and produces a perceptual model that attempts to make sense of the input information. The model basically makes a best guess representation of what we're looking at. If that sensory information is ambiguous, the model can "flip" to something different that makes sense in a different way. But the mind only produces one perceptual model at a time. So we can perceive a cube as seen from from one angle or from another another, but only one at a time, because we only have one perceptual model.

      I think the mind/brain dichotomy is somewhat similar, not so much as an issue of perception, but one of conception. We have a concept of mind that is embedded in our thinking, and it becomes difficult to abandon that conception and think of it in a different way.

  5. "I think the mind/brain dichotomy is somewhat similar, not so much as an issue of perception, but one of conception."

    Exactly. Although, the analogy can't be pushed very far because it breaks down quickly. It's only meant to be suggestive, not definitive.

    Another, analogy that comes to mind is that of a slide rule (if you are old enough to remember those things). Here you have the physical movement of the rulers at one level, and at another level you have the mathematical addition and subtraction of logarithms, and then at still another level you have the same physical operation expressed as multiplication and division. It's not the case the physical movement of the slides "produces" a mathematical result (even though that's how we would say it), but that because of the construction of the slide rule the physical movement and the mathematical processes are just different ways of expressing the underlying reality.