Causal Determinism

Prompted by the group’s discussion, I did some brief reading about determinism and free will. We were trying to remember the various types of determinism, i.e., scientific determinism and theological determinism. So, according to the “Free Will” article at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, here is what I’ve found.

First, there are other types of determinism–logical determinism, for instance, maintains that truth being contingent on premises is “determined” in a sense. We mentioned theological determinism, which is the idea that everything is determined by an all-powerful, all-present, all-controlling God. But for the most part, our conversation centered around causal determinism, which posits that in conjunction with certain laws, i.e., the laws of nature, the existence of the past means that the future is entirely determined.

According to the Encyclopedia, most philosophers agree that given what we know, there is no way for us to discover if determinism is necessarily true or false–we don’t know the future.

At the physical level, there is currently a debate in science involving quantum mechanics. At the quantum level, matter seems to behave in a probabilistic manner, not a deterministic one. But larger systems do seem to operate in a predictable, deterministic manner. So we haven’t figured out if the actual stuff of the universe seems to indicate if it’s determined or not. (The encyclopedia did not mention superdeterminism, the idea that while quantum physics generates probabilistic results, all experiments necessarily assume the free will of the experimenter–and if the experimenter is not free, but in fact determined, then the outcomes of the experiments were therefore also deterministic. Obviously, this doesn’t help scientists any to believe this… but it’s one solution to the problem.)

From what I can tell, there are at least three schools of thought on causal determinism:

  1. Compatibilism states that even if determinism is true, free will is still possible.
  2. Incompatibilism denies that determinism and free will can coexist.
    • Hard determinists believe that the universe is determined and deny that any agent in the real world has free will.
    • Libertarians believe that the universe is undetermined, and that some agents could exercise free will.
  3. Pessimism says that even if indeterminism is true, free will is not necessarily true.

Most interesting to me is the pessimistic view. Pessimists point out that if indeterminism is true, it raises the question of where and when the indeterminacy happens, and actually makes the issue more problematic.

But if determinism is false, then there will be indeterminacy at some point prior to her action. Exactly where one locates this indeterminacy will depend on one’s particular view of the nature of free will. Let us assume that that indeterminacy is located in which reasons occur to Allison. It is hard to see, the pessimist argues, how this indeterminacy could enhance Allison’s free will, for the occurrence of her reasons is indeterministic, then having those reasons is not within Allison’s control. But if Allison decides on the basis of whatever reasons she does have, then her volition is based upon something outside of her control. It is based instead on chance. Thus, pessimists think that the addition of indeterminism actually makes agents lack the kind of control needed for free will. … Not only do agents lack free will, there is no way that they could have it [see G. Strawson (1994)]. The only way to preserve moral responsibility, for the pessimist, is thus to deny that free will is a necessary condition for moral responsibility.

I find this last view very compelling. It reminds me of the problems posed by Thomas Nagel in Moral Luck: if the moral outcomes of events are outside of our control, to what extent should we be held responsible?


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