There are many opponents to the concept of determinism. Whatever their motivations, they argue that freedom and responsibility, even humanity, cannot exist in a deterministic world. For the world to work as we see it, freedom must exist. I will argue that this is a simplistic framing of the concept and requires little work to explain otherwise. Perhaps the most vociferous groups are those with religious motivation. For, if God knows the world he has created, and we are defined by that world, he knows what we will do, even going so far as to forcing a destiny upon us that we cannot fight. This renders freedom inert. I will argue that religion does not require freedom to work and that a deterministic view of reality is compatible with a theistic universe.
I: Big Words.
Determinism and indeterminism are two philosophical theories of, effectively, responsibility. Determinism states that the state of the world now was determined by the state of the world before, and both of those predetermine the state of the world to be. Basically, like billiard balls, what comes before is what causes what happens, without question. This eliminates responsibility since we cannot be responsible for things over which we have no power.
Indeterminism states the opposite. The world is not determined and we can never know what will happen. This allows the wiggle room required for free-will to be an agent of cause, and be an undetermined variable in the grand scheme of cause and effect. Since, if things are not predetermined, we can act, free of previous events, and are thus responsible for our actions since we take them of our own volition.
Compatibilism asks “can’t we all just get along?” In this view, free-will, and thus responsibility, can co-exist with a deterministic universe. This is, perhaps, the most complicated of the three arguments since it tries to combine two arguments that are, ostensibly, very different. Perhaps the earliest proponent of compatibilism was Aristotle with his idea of an “un-moved mover” in Metaphysics. The world he saw was deterministic, but where did the magic of reality come from? The chain of definite causality had to have a beginning. He decided that it came from an entity that could move but was not itself moveable. This is, in a sense, the God argument that works for indeterminists as well.
A final stance that has seen some popularity with the rise of quantum mechanics is actually incompatible with all three, stating that even though indeterminacy is true on deterministic grounds, it’s totally wrong on the topic of responsibility. Essentially, the fabric of the universe is random. We can never know, we can only guess at probabilities. Thus, the universe is non-deterministic, but we cannot be held responsible for events that are the vagaries of space-time. This is seen as the “skeptical,” or defeatist stance and is ignored in this discussion.
II. Butting Heads.
Modern arguments have revealed nothing new. Many philosophers have attempted to integrate quantum indeterminacy into their theories with almost no success since randomness causes all positions to fail. In lieu of science, they continue to use the same ideas reformulated over and over again. Robert Kane, a leading philosopher in the area of free will, has formulated his concept of free will, namely “Ultimate Responsibility.” Essentially, a person is free if he is the final source of volition. The causal chain cannot be drawn back further. This is nothing more than a minor refinement of previous work by Jean Paul Sartre, and even Emanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative. While he has described what free will “is” to a finer point, he still uses the same arguments in use for hundreds of years.
Determinists and compatibilists respond with almost identical arguments formulated by Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Reid, and Baron D’Holbach. Their sometimes anti-religious bent obvious with quotes such as "If ignorance of Nature gave birth to gods, then knowledge of Nature is calculated to destroy them," as said by D’Holbach. Nothing new has been said. It’s obvious that an impasse has been reached.
III: I Just Don’t Know!
Indeterminism is perhaps the most vociferously defended position for two reasons: one, it has strong religious ramifications for western theological thought. And two, it has strong legal ramifications for jurisprudence and the concepts at its foundation.
Religion does not like the prospect of giving up their God-given free will. If determinism is true, and God exists, then we have no control over salvation and certainly no control over our actions. Only God has such power. This results in a collapse of morals since they require responsibility for an action. If we can never be responsible, how could we be so cruelly relegated to an eternity in hell?
One of the biggest failings of free will in this indeterministic and religious perspective is the basic aspect of the argument as a separation between the body and the “soul,” as it were. The source of our actions is not entirely physical. Much like Aristotle, we must be our own unmoved mover. They do not explain the nature of the connection. How does this soul know how to interact with the world, or even know about the world? How does it know how it can freely act. From where did this knowledge come? God? Then that does not make us the ultimate source of action. That source would be God. Indeterminacy requires us to be our own God, which is something the Pope would undoubtedly dislike.
Indeterminists thrash and claw at something, but they never say what. They only ever go so far as to argue that free will exists. Free as compared to what? They never explain how we are free from something. What is free will? In this sense it must be boiled down to an action. It cannot remain in the abstract realm or it is never cogent. We must be able to see and witness actualizations of abstract free will. What are we free to not do? Freedom requires that we be free from something. Are we free from stop lights? Can we decide whether to go left or right at a turn without regard for anything? I certainly hope you don’t do so by exercising your free will. The roadways would be chaos.
Our world is based on “because.” A person takes a left turn because the light is green. We are forced to recognize the existence of the light and then decide. True freedom must disregard this preceding thing in all cases. Why did you get up? “Because I was hungry.” Why did you put on clothes? “Because I was cold.” In both cases, if true freedom was real, the answer would be “because of no reason.” Not only does free will in this bizarre sense not exist, but it absolutely shouldn’t, or our world would be a very odd place.
The argument that free will is when an “agent” is the originating cause of its action makes no sense. As mentioned above, we must be the Ultimately Responsible one, in Kane’s words, or the unmoved mover in Aristotle’s, but that means that some part of us was born with knowledge of the world to allow this unmoved part of us to know what to think about. Even if this a priori knowledge is accepted, from where this knowledge came must be explained. There must be something to, for, against, above/below/behind which the agent can exercise this original volition. And if that’s the case, who’s to say the thing acted against isn’t the cause? If free will just came about, what would the content of these thoughts be if influence from anything isn’t allowed? It seems to me that true free will would be empty, itself. It would lack volition, knowledge, and as such would never be actualized into the real world.
I see other problems with indeterminism associated with the world that it entails. In this world, freedom is true philosophical freedom. Free of any influence both internal and external. We are entities floating in an abstract void. What a strange netherworld it would be if we were truly free from any influence. What part of us is “there,” in this world without cause and effect? What part of us exists? The “soul” must be free from any and all interactions with anything. It must know nothing of the world or itself. It must be something to which we are connected yet are unaware of it, or else its influence will merely become part of the corporeal system in which we live and thus become just another cause waiting for an effect.
Are we to say that this abstract “I” is us? I consider that an impossible idea. It must be a part that is somehow discrete since everything we are interacts with the world, for we are arguably at least part of the world. We have no choice but to act in accordance with the world and are, because of it, never free. For if we don’t react, what are we doing? If we had free-will merely spring from this nothingness, chaos would ensue. We must respond to our world and we must do so exclusively. Motivation, ideas, and inspiration must come from somewhere. It would actually be a bad thing if these things just sprang from nothingness. That would be dangerously similar to schizophrenia.
For example, one of the great questions of determinism: if we replayed the universe from some point in time, would we continue to get the same timeline? Many compatibilists hedge their bets on this question, but I proclaim from the mountaintop, Yes! And it would be bad if it were otherwise. What would cause such change? If it is randomness, then we are in less control than if we were machines. At least machines operate in a stable world. Randomness would strip even the stability of determinism from us. All things being equal, we would and should act the same. A rational creature must act this way.
IV: Morality Seen Ordering Steak!
The reports of morality’s death are greatly exaggerated. Indeterminism exists as a proposition to refute the elimination of responsibility, and with it many concepts of divine justice. As we continue to learn ever more about the workings of the world, I think it foolish to continue tilting against the windmill of determinism. We must not even take into account the complexities of quantum mechanics since humanity doesn’t exist on that level. We can only go as low as the nervous system and still maintain humanity. Thus, free-will and morals must exist on a macroscopic level. And on this level, our abilities to predict behavior do not even need science. Psychologists, doctors, and even stage magicians are able to predict behavior with only ostensible information about people. With scientific inquiry, that predictive capability will only increase.
So, since denying determinism seems silly, and if it is indeed true, what of morals? I think we’re fine. I have yet to run into the streets on a homicidal spree, and the many others who have thought about this have yet to do any killing, as well. Morals do not require that I be ultimately responsible for my actions; only that I be responsible on grounds that I can discern. I am responsible if I decide to do something, even if esoteric, microscopic variables a quintillion strong actually dictated that action. I decided, and that decision exists on the same level as responsibility, and thus I am responsible. Many moral philosophers would disagree with me, going back to Kant. As previously mentioned, Kant’s Categorical Imperative was about the duty to do right. He argued that a moral action done without the intent is without merit. Determinism strips us of not only salvation, in this sense, but the very ability to be good people! Again, I think the arguments fail on semantics. They fail to define intent. Intent only exists on a human level; a level above the quantum universe. It is a word connected to an idea that is an abstract entity of the macroscopic world in the same way we are corporeal entities of the macroscopic world. It can only exist with us.
Furthermore, moral responsibility itself is difficult to use as an arguing point since we still don’t know what morals are. Many great philosophers have tried and have yet to reach universal acceptance for a definition of morality. Moral responsibility must now be defined before we can say someone is morally responsible. I do not think we can safely define morals, for this or any other endeavor. Morals have proven time and again to differ from person to person. The very sense of right and wrong is subjective and, since I am attempting to achieve objectivity, I must leave it behind. So, at this point, all that must be determined is responsibility apart from morals. And responsibility is something that I think can be defined objectively.
Before I go on, I want to clarify my position on morals. Even though it sounds like I mock the moral aspect of this endeavor, I actually consider it the most important part. Right and wrong is the gray area; the area of discussion. It is so critically important because everyone’s views, discussed openly, can allow a sort of subjective consensus. But that is an entirely other matter that cannot be addressed here. Still, indirect importance to right and wrong permeates this discussion, for in more secular matters, the law and its fundamental logic and beliefs obviously have much to do with right and wrong. And the law has quite an effect on all of us.
Whether people know it or not, certain basic ideas about freedom form the structure upon which our incredibly complex legal system is formed. One of these basic ideas is free will. This pops up regularly in cases. A mentally challenged man is not held responsible for a murder because he has the mind of a nine-year-old, while another man is held responsible. A woman who, so enraged at the sight of her husband’s infidelity, runs up and shoots him, is not held as responsible as a woman who coolly calculates the murder of her lascivious mate. The very fluid and abstract concept of free will, which seems so concrete until one tries to define it, is at the root of both these examples. The retarded man and the enraged woman did not have as much free will as the normal man and the calm woman.
Why do the latter have more free will? If it is truly something that arises from the very fabric of the universe, why do some people have it and others don’t? Where is the dividing line? These are questions that never get answered. If it is something that arises from the universe, and an enraged woman has less of it than a calm woman, that means we have the ability to block our own free will, whether it be with emotions or otherwise. Perhaps, you think, that anger does not absolve someone in a moral sense, only in a legal sense. But if raw legality were concerned, an enraged woman would simply be set free since the likelihood of her doing this again is low. Morals must come into play. The concept of justice arises from right and wrong. Justice, law, and morals are intertwined. So a declaration of legal responsibility is inherently moral in the same way morals are inherently just.
Moreover, I can’t think of a single person, philosopher or not, who would say that a retarded man is as responsible as a fully-functional man for a crime. Then it must mean a retarded person or an enraged person actually ceases being human. Thus, they lose contact with the source of free will in the same way a dog or an insect is not free. We are reduced to an animal. I think the difference between these two groups of people illustrates very well the human nature of free will. It is something of people, by people, and for people. It is a construct that exists only so far as it is human and does not leave the realm.
Many have argued that a rejection of responsibility on any level, even the microscopic, and embracing of determinism knocks the proverbial floor out from under the law. As I’ve shown, I think this is incorrect. Unlike previous arguments of Gods and movers, the law is a very real concept. It’s much more tangible. As such, the law remains in a less hypothetical realm than the philosophical arguments of determination. It must live in the real world and deal with applications. Since it cannot ever leave the human realm, even in a philosophical sense, we can safely use the ostensible definitions of freedom and responsibility. The concept of philosophically free and legally free can remain, as near as I can tell, separate without any danger. And since laws and morals are tied so intimately, being legally free has weight to argue morally free. And if legal freedom does not extend past human perception, why should moral freedom? Morality is as much a construct as legality. They must obey the same boundaries.
V: The Yellow Brick Road.
I generally consider compatibilism to be on the right track. I believe this insofar as it recognizes that free will must not die at the hands of determinism. Unfortunately, most compatibilist work ends at that thought and falls into some major ruts that I will explain.
I consider semantics to be one of the major roadblocks in the work of free will. We use vaguely defined words repeatedly in these arguments and the person doing the arguing invariably adds their own interpretation and bias. Compatibilists hedge their bets and come out with a weaker position than if they stuck to one side or the other. For example, in Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennet argues a compatibilist stance saying that free will only makes sense in relation to “expectations.” But what is an expectation? Can a person touch an expectation? Or in Elbow Room, Dennet argues that even if we are influenced by outside variables, it doesn’t matter because we want what the variables direct us towards anyhow. Again, the usage of abstract words like “desire” weakens the position. As with freedom, justice, and legality, I see it all as words that only make sense in a human context.
A position must be made separate from such human words before a reconnection with humanity can be made. This is where compatibilists remain connected to indeterminism. This position fails because proponents insist on referring to “agents” with vaguely defined characteristics. They insist on raising them on a metaphysical platform above the rest of the world and referring to abstract strangeness as “desire” and “intent.” Arguments against indeterminism and determinism alike will fall apart if humans are referred to in magical terms. Separated from the world semantically, it will of course sound strange when compatibilists then try to argue that agents are inherently connected to it, as well. This “magic of consciousness” argument, as I like to call it, subtly implies a soul. More concrete words must be used.
VI: Welcome to the Machine.
All wide-spread stances on free-will, be it determinism, compatibilism, hard-determinism or whatnot, are wrong since they all use the idea of free will in the human sense. A sense that, I think, because of its inescapable abstractness, must be discarded. Its very humanity makes it impossible to apply to non-human systems, such as the functioning of the universe. I propose looking at the concept of free will from a semantically different point. While the basic ideas remain the same, I think a mere re-framing of the argument alleviates most problems, while also leaving religion and determinism intact.
Instead of trying to look at people as magically sentient, or as merely the result of countless atomic interactions, I think a systemic view is more accurate. A view that the world is a machine and the definitions of words must be framed within that machine to make any sense at all. Human words only make sense in relation to the “gears” that make us up, or the part of the machine that is us. While the machine that is a person would be dead without being impinged upon by other parts of the machine, it would kick into high gear upon being activated. It will then go about doing what it does best, absorbing results from other parts of the machine and then producing something which would then have an effect greater than all the variables that impinged upon the person. Humans in this sense are an amplifier of possibility. The light from the philandering man and his mistress would have merely traveled on ad infinitum, but instead it was absorbed by the machine of the wife and amplified into an explosion of murderous rage.
We can now look at all of reality as a giant system of gears. We can separate the set of gears that constitutes a human sufficiently without raising the human onto a metaphysical platform. Responsibility is the metaphysical event of external parts of the machine being impinged upon by the human and thus altering them. What may have triggered the human to do that is immaterial. While the image of the infidelity impinged upon the woman by activating the eye, it then went through the infinite complexities of the brain, and the woman then did something, the cause was not the image. It was part of an infinity of variables converging on that point in space and time and coalescing into a person’s action. Responsibility is still there, since that coalescence was only possible by the presence of the human machine. As with the image, it would have gone on flying, but the human absorbed it and did something with it.
Responsibility is a concept restricted only to the human entity. The image may have been an indirect cause, but indirect causes do not responsibility make. Responsibility and cause are entirely different things. I may have caused something, for example, a death, but not be responsible based on the context. This semantic fluidity reveals the very human level on which these ideas operate. The human is not robbed of responsibility since its very meaning is a human one. The image of the philandering is not responsible for the death, but the murderer who saw it is. The murder sprang forth from the machine freely even though the image may have had a hand in triggering that response. We may be dumb machines responding to stimulus, but we are very, very advanced dumb machines able to create definitions for their own responses without seeing the causes of those responses.
This is not compatibilism. I’m saying free will exists. I’m all for it, but it must be redefined. We’ve learned so much about the working of the world, such archaic and thoroughly abstract concepts like free will must be redefined, and they can be. I’m not a compatibilist because free will is part of the world, whether it’s deterministic or not. In fact, free will requires that we be deterministic. We need things to impinge upon us so we can then act against them. Even our very minds need objects, be they abstract or real, on which to focus. Free will and determinism aren’t compatible because that implies them to be separate. I see them as the same thing.
I also consider this as alleviating the religious argument of moral responsibility. I think the concept of God is entirely compatible with this formulation. God may fully understand what is happening on a quantum level and know the path of everything, but he would have created humans on a plane higher than quantum interactions. He created humans on a macroscopic, human level. What we do and how we act is only important on this level. God may also inject subtle alterations to the fabric of space-time to see how things will be altered on the human level. Upon changing reality, being omniscient, he would instantly be aware of the changes that would result. The universe is still deterministic, and God can still maintain control, but how people respond to these non-deterministic changes reveals how good of a people we actually are. Free will, even in my definition, can exist, defined by our responses to novel variables.
As I said, the only aspect which takes a hit in my formulation is moral and legal responsibility. Again, this is problematic in regards to acceptance by the religiously and morally minded, but the problems with merely defining morals makes any attempt to shoehorn them into my theory suspect. Still, I think an honorable effort can be made. First, we assume morals to mean right/wrong, and define those words by face value. Moral responsibility can now be attributed to an entity if that entity has been impinged upon by the ideas of right and wrong, continues to receive these ideas, and then when action takes place it acts in accordance with other received variables, for example, greed. Why the entity did this is irrelevant, since the entity has amplified previous variables thus rendering those long past events no more responsible for the entity’s moral transgression than the light from the philandering man causing his own murder. Thus, I see moral responsibility as a higher-level concept bolted on after the event by the very entities involved. Responsibility has nothing to do with the cause and effect below that level.
On legal subject matter, the discrete concept of moral responsibility is no longer involved, but the hybrid concept of legal responsibility comes into play. Again, as with other aspects of my theory, the line of demarcation between the human entity and the external causes and effects applies. Legal responsibility exists on the same level as moral and generic responsibility; the human level. It exists one level up from generic responsibility, since a mentally challenged man is, in my system, responsible for a murder, but he is not legally responsible. Legal responsibility is, like with morality, bolted on after the event. For at a lower level, the mentally challenged person does not exist, only a giant machine of interactions. A legal definition of responsibility in this system is a human entity that is capable of receiving variables from the greater system associated with legal rights and wrongs, and processing them in such a way as to effectively amplify those variables back into the system. If those variables are then disregarded by a functioning entity, the degree to which they are disregarded determines the degree of punishment. Any part of the variable transfer, be it reception, amplification, or application, renders the entity innocent of responsibility. The retarded man cannot receive the variables and the enraged woman is unable to effectively amplify the already received variables.
VII: Good Night, and Good Luck.
I feel that I have taken an effective crack at breaking the stalemate between the determinists and the indeterminists. While the ideas presented are not perfectly formulated, they are certainly different from the ideas currently being bandied about. I have attempted to combine compatibilism, determinism, and indeterminism into one overarching idea of reality. I feel confident that, even if my reframing proves non-cogent, the reframing and redefining of the words and problems at the root of this argument is what will lead to an eventual resolution. We must stop being prisoners of our own words. Only then will we be truly free.