Free-will, determinism, and the possibility of morality

Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 discussion programme “In Our Time” used its 500th edition to look at the issue of free-will. It included what I assume were eminent intellectuals in the form of Professors Blackburn, Beebee and Strawson from Cambridge, Birmingham and Reading respectively. It’s probably my lack of intellectual rigour or logical prowess, but it seemed to me that the programme was riddled with non-sequiturs and gaping logical flaws. I fear that it was Professor Beebee whom it seemed to me exhibited these failings most evidently.

The problem, and indeed even the possibility, of free-will has exercised thinkers for millennia. Its current prominence is very much a consequence of new discoveries in physics and genetics. In this sense human genetics can be seen as the way in which physics and chemistry impinge on us in the most obvious and basic way. When in previous history the issue of free-will was about philosophical choice as it were, for the first time it is now posited that the fundamental forces and mathematics that underlie the very substance of the entire universe or universes permit no space for freedom of any kind. This is a radical determinism, quite unlike the more familiar forms of determinism, such as biological or social or historical determinism. In these “lesser” determinisms outcomes are seen as the result of an interplay between some fixed points as it were on the one hand, and human freedom of action on the other. In the new determinism, there can be no such thing as “human freedom of action”. Everything that happens is the inexorable, inescapable consequence of things that have already happened, in a single, seamless chain of cause and effect stretching back to the big bang itself. This cause and effect is happening at the sub-atomic level, in the deterministic dance of the myriad of fundamental particles, whose number rises as our understanding increases. We humans might think we have free-will, we might experience our lives as if that were the case, but it is a cruel illusion. In fact, everything, every thought we’ve ever had, every action we’ve ever taken, every emotion we’ve ever experienced, every good or bad thing we’ve ever done, all of it was determined by the actions of the sub-atomic particles that make up our atoms, our molecules, our cells. Everything that happens anywhere in the entire universe, or in all the universes that may exist, is the only thing that could have happened.

What depressed me about the discussion this morning was not so much this truly barren and bleak version of reality, but the inability of those putting it forward to honestly accept its inevitable moral consequence. Watch my lips. If this radical determinism is true, there is no morality, no good, no bad (in a moral sense, rather than a utilitarian one), no responsibility, no creativity, no agency whatever. There is a ridiculous attempt at a “get out of jail free” card in the notion of compatibilism. This logical cul-de-sac proposes that within this determinist framework, it is somehow possible to create a space in which the agent has freedom to act, in the sense that they are not coerced. So what? The debate is not about coercion, but about the possibility of novel, not-previously-determined, outcomes that arise as a result of a free decision to act in one way rather than another.

An example, given in today’s discussion. Suppose I am offered £100 pounds to torture someone. I can choose to take the money and inflict the torture, or to desist and lose the chance of the payment. Apparently, according to Professor Beebee, this is an opportunity for me to have both free-will, and yet to be determined by previous events. I have no idea how one gets to be a Professor of Philosophy whilst being unable to see the utter drivel that this represents. The new determinism, to which Professor Beebee claims to subscribe, allows no such choice. The very fact that on Radio 4 this morning she articulated this postulate was in itself determined by all the sub-atomic events of the last 13.5 billion years. There is no “if” in the question, “If I am offered £100…” etc. Either I will be put in this position, or I won’t. When I discover whether or not the pattern of determinism that has been going on for all those billions of years produces this set of circumstances, I will also discover what “moral” fibre I possess. I will have no say in the matter, although I might think that I do. This is not a “compatibility” between free-will and determinism. It is the denial of the first in favour of the second.

In the determinist model, with or without the fantasy compromise of compatibilism, there can never be any such thing as morality, because morality requires agency. There can never be any iota of responsibility, since human beings have no agency. Everything is going to happen as it is going to happen. There’s not even room in this model for randomness. Randomness by definition means that an outcome cannot be predicted. Determinism, by equal definition, means that everything can be predicted in the minutest and incontrovertible detail provided that we could (which we can’t, at least not yet) know all the determining variables. It is crystal clear. All the things that have ever happened since the big bang were the only things that could have happened. Without exception. The Holocaust. Slavery. Rape. Murder. Love. Joy. Creativity. Every last damn thing.

I have no problem with people being radical, new determinists. I do have a problem with lazy and fuzzy head games. If you are a derterminist in this sense, accept and live by its consequences. Don’t rant on about the Coalition government and its cuts to science spending. You’re wasting your breath and simultaneously displaying your hypocrisy. Don’t witter on about child abuse or on-line exploitation. These things are happening because they must. Vote for doing away with the entire edifice of criminal justice as it’s merely a fig-leaf of a delusion to cover up the ghastly truth that bad things happen. Accept all that. Or shut the fuck up.

8 thoughts on “Free-will, determinism, and the possibility of morality

  1. Pingback: Stem Cell » Free-will, determinism, and the possibility of morality « The At …

  2. just a couple of points.
    the possibility of randomness can be predicted,
    therefore a random outcome can be predicted. it doesn’t mean it will happen.
    knowing all the variables does not mean you can know an outcome , a prediction is a guess ( well informed or not ).
    if you don’t allow for determinism , then every thing in the universe is nothing but coincidence, including human development.
    which ever line you follow don’t abuse people for their beliefs,we are what we are. if you don’t like it , take your own advice .
    having said that, it’s your blog ,your free to say what you want,as have i .

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment. I personally wouldn’t accept that I’ve abused people: rather I’ve robustly attacked a position I believe to be illogical and poorly argued. It’s only personal abuse if you feel that the cap fits!

      Talking of poorly argued, I think you have not understood what determinism is. It is the notion that the possible outcomes are totally contained within the immediately preceding state. An identical set of circumstances will produce an identical outcome. This is not a guess – on the contrary it’s a certainty given the pre-existing conditions. If you want guesses, with the possibility that any of your different guesses could happen, you can’t have determinism. A guess is simply another way of saying that you don’t have enough information to know what the pre-determined outcome is. That does not stop it being pre-determined, does it?

      I don’t follow your argument that determinism is the alternative to coincidence. A coincidence is when events which might be understood or considered to be causally related are in fact not so related. For example, I’m thinking of my mum and, hey presto, the phone rings and it’s her. I would call that a coincidence, unless someone could demonstrate the chain of cause and effect that related the two events. Determinism is clearly working in parallel because lots of things are happening at the same time, and only some of them are causally related. A determinist would insist that each of these independent events is caused by something preceding it, but that doesn’t mean that everything is simultaneously determined by everything else. So you can have determinism and coincidence. They are not mutually exclusive.

      I personally do accept some element of determinism (those “lesser” determinisms I wrote about in the article) – for example severe emotional deprivation is likely to cause damage that can’t be undone, and to have inevitable consequences. But that’s not the determinism at issue here. The new, physics-based idea of determinism is much, much more radical than that.

      • i think you have misunderstood determinism . it’s not the immediately preceding events that do the determining . they where determined by the events that precede them . the big bang event is the event that determines .events aren’t causally related to each other , they are all the result of an original cause.
        predictions are guesses ,they may be informed, but are still guesses .we can’t foresee the future ,we assume or guess.
        you say with determination ,you can’t have morality , but what if the deterministic universe has determined that we ,as humans have morality.
        my talk of coincidence was refering to the universe and it’s creation and subsequent formation , including the developement of the solar system , earth and life on this planet.
        coincindence or determination?
        finally , a given set of circumstance ,will not always produce the same result,this because you cannot always re-produce the original circumstances accurately enough,life would be a damn sight easier if we could

        • In determinism there is an uninterrupted chain of causality. Of course, it is true that each of the events is caused by the preceding state of the universe, in turn caused by the state before that, right back to the big bang. In that sense, you can say that there is one single ultimate cause, but that cause is mediated by the mind-bogglingly large number of intermediate sub-atomic events that have so far taken 13.5 billion years to unfold. In fact there is little, if anything, between us on this. I entirely agree that there is an ultimate cause. It’s a bit like a car crashing into a line of parked cars. Each of the cars in turn crash into the one in front, until all the energy of the initial crash is dissipated. If you’re the owner of the last car in the line, then the damage to the rear of your car is caused in the most direct sense by the impact of the front of the car next in the line. It’s perfectly possible to say both that the cause of the damage to your car is the car that actually hit it, and the car that started the chain of events in the first place. The distinction is merely between first and intermediate causes. To labour the point, if you wanted to know the severity of the damage to your car not by looking at your car directly, but by looking at the cause of the damage, you would be better off looking at the car that actually damaged your car, rather than trying to deduce it from the damage to the first car that started the whole thing off. Cause is a relative term.

          The whole point of determinism is that if we could know every single state of every single sub-atomic particle in the universe at a given moment then we would be able to predict with absolute certainty what would happen next. No guess-work. No uncertainty. Not all predictions are guesses.

          My point is that we do not in fact know if this is true or not. Some physicists believe it is. Some philosophers have latched onto their ideas, and have posited the radical determinism I’ve described. Personally I have no idea whether they are correct or incorrect. All I’m saying is that if they are correct, and it’s a big if, then morality is impossible. Yet none of the philosophers touting this absolute determinism live as if their own ideas were true. That’s what makes me cross. To use a Biblical phrase, “By their fruits will you know them”, or in a less Biblical one, “Actions speak louder than words.”

          • i think you mistake the idea , rather than a series of cars crashing into each other , consider it like a book. start , middle,end .
            i agree you wouldn’t have much joy assessing damage by looking at the cause, but you would know why the damage was caused.
            ignore the countless atomic events , their number is irrelevant, as is the term 13.5 billion. a number based on how long it takes for the earth to orbit the sun.
            a prediction is always a guess until the event predicted occurs .
            however both free will and determinism are both concepts , indeed it was only in ancient greece that the concept of free will was born
            , before that people assumed things happened because that was what was fated or had been decided by the gods.
            if determinism dictates that as “human beings ” we have morality ( which is a social agreement )or the illusion of such , then it is very possible, as for philosophers , they seldom live their lives according to the their teachings ,this does not mean their theories are wrong . philosophers had posited this theory long before scientists,for who this is a recent idea

            • I cannot agree that “a prediction is always a guess until the event predicted occurs.” One might almost posit that determinism is actually defined by the notion that this is not true. If there is determinism, then guesses don’t exist. We only have to guess whilst we don’t understand all the determinants, but in theory determinism is stating explicitly that no uncertainty really exists: the only uncertainty is the direct result of the imperfections in our knowledge.

              Of course the absolute number of atomic events is irrelevant, as is the measurement of the length of time that those events have been occurring. I’ve never argued differently.

              Finally, the issue is no longer about what philosophers or ordinary citizens think. I agree that fatalism has always been a strong strand in our understanding of the world. The point my posts explore is that for the first time some scientists are proposing absolute determinism as an absolute, objective statement about how the universe(s) work(s). In this view there is no longer any possibility of argument, and we have to accept it in the same way we now have to accept a spherical earth orbiting the sun instead of a flat earth being orbited by the sun. Morality as a concept may be a “social agreement” as you describe it, but personal responsibility for actions and behaviour is a different entity. Morality in your sense of the term depends on social norms. Responsibility depends on free-will, on individual human agency. My argument is not about right and wrong, but about whether or not we have real (as opposed to illusory) ability to decide what and how to act.

              • on the contrary,guess’s are just that , if the prediction comes true , that changes it to a statement of fact.this is the mutable universe in action.i agree that
                determinism states that events are already fixed from start to finish ,uncertainty is a human condition brought about by our inability to know everything, but free will or not , any decision a person makes , is the decision they will make . yes. there is (apparent) choice but a decision will be reached and that is the decision you where always going to make .this must be true because it is the decision you made.
                in the human mindset personal responsibilities are set by the broader social morals ( agreements)

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