Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Argument against Determinism

Determinism is the view which states that every event, thought, action, or choice has been caused (thus rendering free will as either quite limited or nonexistent). There are compatibilist determinists (who believe one may retain a measure of free will in the face of causal determinism) and there are incompatibilist determinists (who believe one does not have free will in the face of causal determinism [both determinists and those who reject determinism may be incompatibilists]). There are also physical determinists and theological determinists. The former believe we simply act the way we do as some function of the processes of the universe. The latter believe God causes us to act the way we do. Here is an argument against determinism and an accompanying explanation.

1. If determinism is true, then its affirmation is determined.
2. If an affirmation is determined, then it has not been reasoned or rationally affirmed.
3. All acts, choices, and thoughts are determined (determinist premise).
4. Therefore, determinism is true. (analytically true from [3])
5. Therefore, its affirmation is determined. (from [1, 3])
6. Therefore, determinism is not rationally affirmed. (from [1-2, 4-5])
7. Therefore, nothing is rationally affirmed. (from [3, 1-2, 4-6])
8. But some things (namely, determinism) are rationally affirmed.
9. Therefore, some affirmations (namely, determinism) are not determined. (from [2, 8])
10. Therefore, determinism is not true. (from [1-2, 8-9])
This is your basic reductio ad absurdum type of argument, where we end up with conflicting conclusions. Only one part of these is sound. We presumed (3) was true in the argument without a rational argument. Notice what happens if you do give a rational argument for (3). If you do, you admit the truth of (8). But if you admit the truth of (8), then (9-10) follow as a necessary entailment! It's also important to note that when we mean "rationally affirmed," we don't mean we necessarily agree with the person. We mean he or she is using their rational faculties and attempting to reason and actually make inferece. So the determinist here, in order to avoid this, must instead deny one of the other premises. He may bite the bullet, and deny (8). In this case, however, we would literally have no reason to think determinism is true (and personally, if I don't have any reason to think something is true, I won't). He can't really deny (1) without denying (3), and then I'd really like to see some evidence or sound reasoning for either's denial that doesn't end up making determinism more plausibly false than true. Finally, he may choose to deny (2). But this just seems quite natural. If every thought is determined, in what way is actual inference being done? Your successive thoughts are no more performing a function of reasoning than are a successive line of falling dominoes! He cannot deny any of the other premises, since they're all entailed conclusions.
So I said all that to say this: if determinism is considered false, it's false. If we consider it true, it seems false. Determinism could be true, but it can never be rationally affirmed. I prefer to rationally affirm things!


  1. Randy,

    What do you mean by affirmation here? Are you speaking of some utterance which contains a true statement about determinism or are you referring to coming to the conclusion that determinism is true through some investigation? Or perhaps neither.

  2. Hi Mike! I would say affirmation is simply holding something as true or agreement with something as true (whether through investigation or not).

  3. Ok, so then with (1) you are saying that if determinism is true, then it is determined you will hold it as true (if you indeed do). Then, with (2), if you hold determinism as true (and it was determined you will do so), then it has not been rationally affirmed. I guess my issue is with (2). I'm not clear why a causal relationship that forces you to come to a conclusion means that you couldn't have come to it rationally.

    So, if the causal forces make you look at certain evidences and propositions and come to a valid conclusion, then how does that affect your conclusion and your thought process? It would not seem to make the conclusion invalid; as I have defined it, the conclusion is valid. It would also not necessarily make your process to reach that conclusion irrational. If determinism forces me to look at -- All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal -- and conclude it is true, did I not come to the conclusion rationally?

    To say that because a causally determined process lead to our affirmation, then that means our affirmation is not rational might commit the genetic fallacy, but I would have to know more to say for sure.

  4. Hi Mike! The genetic fallacy only is a fallacy if there is no other reason but the origin itself for rejecting a view; however, as with all informal fallacies, there are times when it is not a fallacy. For instance, if determinism entails not making rational inference, then the fact that determinism is the origin of a lack of inference is incidental.

    In your question, I would say inference is not actually being done, any more than the ball thrown in the air "jumped." Even though the process and result is the same, the cause of the ball is not its jumping, but whatever physical force which throws the ball. A jump is only done upon certain intentional physical states. In the same way, you may go through a syllogism, but the subject which is determined doesn't actually infer anything from one premise to the next.

    Suppose I wish you to understand "If X is a human, X has two legs. X is a human. Therefore, X has two legs." (Forgive that the first premise is false, please) I cause you to make all three statements. Then I cause you to understand the pattern behind the statement. I then cause you to understand the pattern is valid. In fact, suppose I cause everything about the reasoning process for you. Have you done any of the reasoning? The answer is no!

  5. I don't share your intuitions here. Whether the ball jumped or was thrown seems irrelevant. That's merely the catalyst. The reasoning in question would be analagous to flying in the air toward its destination, and that would be the same in both scenarios.

    In your second example, I think the answer is "yes.". Again, the cause doesn't mean I didn't do the reasoning. You said I went through the statements, understood why they follow, etc. That is precisely like free will reasoning except for the causal aspect. And, as I've said, that doesn't seem problematic to me.

  6. Hi Mike! I can appreciate that, but clearly there is a difference between saying the ball is doing the action and the action was done for the ball!

    The point of the second example is to show that I was actually doing all of these things, not you. It helps to disambiguate cause not merely as an explanation (such as "the water is boiling because I put it in the pan on the stove") but in terms of actually bringing about the effect. But if the cause brings about the effect using a means, how did the means perform the action? The man who pushes a rock with a stick uses the stick as a secondary cause or means, but it is the man who is pushing the stick. It's not as if the stick is a sufficient cause of the rock's moving. It is only true of secondary causes that they perform the action as it relates to the truth that the primary cause did the entire action. There is a difference between going through the process of reasoning and actually reasoning. If determinism is true, you didn't independently come to that conclusion; you were determined to come to that conclusion!

  7. Hi again, Randy.

    But the ball is doing the action. The ball is flying through the air. You can pick out molecules, gravity, etc. and point to how they act on the ball, but it's the same in either case. Once the ball is in the air, what do you see as the difference?

    In your second example, I was doing the things, though. I don't see why you think you were doing them, and not me. It would seem like both of us is the answer. You cause me to think x, and you cause me to understand x. You cause me to actually do those things. Again, catalyst seems irrelevant here.

    In your stick example, all you can say is that the stick didn't freely push the rock. But the stick did actually push the rock. Consider a maze that someone successfully navigates without ever making wrong turn. Now let's wall off the possible wrong turns and send a second person through the maze. They both follow the same path. To say that under determinism we can't reason about something seems like saying the second person didn't navigate the maze. It doesn't seem important that they couldn't make a wrong turn.

    What is the difference between going through the process of reasoning and actually reasoning? What on earth is reasoning if it is not going through the process? It seems like it hinges for you on free choice, but then you're merely hiding a vital assumption for your conclusion within your premises. Free will seems to be the only difference in all these cases.

  8. Hi Mike! In these examples, the cause is the very heart of the matter! If one is not causally sufficient, how is it that he is causally responsible? You cannot respond that the stick (or ball, or person going through the process of reasoning) is a sufficient cause, for in each case without a primary cause the object does nothing.

    To me, it seems obvious that there is a difference between going through a process of reasoning and reasoning itself. If a three-year-old repeats a logically-valid syllogism, I don't suppose that child is actually reasoning. Now, a response can be made that says the if the child understand why each follows, that he has done reasoning. However, determinism not only posits the act of reasoning, but every thought also (including the thoughts about the reasoning itself). However, if one is not the sufficient cause of even these thoughts, one is not actually doing reasoning.

    The difference is actually mind-dependence. That is, most people recognize intuitively that reasoning with one's mind is done. That it results in determinism's being false is just a matter of deduction.

  9. Hi Randy. Perhaps you can clarify something. When you say reasoning is done in the mind and it is mind-dependent, are you referring specifically to a dualist view or could you also say brain-dependent? I'm trying to see where our disagreement lies.

  10. I think you are trying to force something into the definition of reasoning other than simply the acts that make up reasoning. Causes should not matter, in my opinion. I looked up a variety of definitions of reasoning, and this doesn't seem to be a problem for any of those general understandings of the term.

    In your ball example, I would not claim that the ball jumped, and I wouldn't need to; rather, I'm saying the ball is moving through the air either way and that's the part of the analogy that is "reasoning."

    In your child example, I would say the same thing. If the child understands why the premises follow, etc., then I don't need to say he is causally responsible. In fact, throughout this whole argument I have admitted there is no causal responsibility. What I want to know is why is that required?

    Imagine two mazes - one poorly designed and the other well designed. The first is unimaginative and only has one path right through the middle. The person in the maze has no choice but to cross that way. the other is a normal, complex maze. Both people would do the act of going through the maze. The only difference would be the possibilities. But I don't think you've made it at all clear why having other possibilities is required for reasoning or why the cause should be so important.

  11. My point is simply this: if one is not causally responsible, then he is not the one performing the act. Just as the GI Joe is not responsible for moving across the floor, or the domino is not responsible for falling. I do not require alternative possibilities, but rather that in order to be responsible, then originator of the action must be the party itself.

  12. Computers can make inferences and reasoning could easily be a mechanical process. (2) is false. I agree with Gage. Thanks for allowing us to read your conversation.

    -just some internetizen who stumbled in.

  13. I normally don't allow fully-anonymous concepts, but I think that assertion has to be defended! Why think computers "make inferences"? They can act according to whatever logic has been placed in them, but *they* aren't doing the reasoning; it's merely the function of a code. Whatever *our* reasoning is, if it is to be actual reasoning, it cannot be this. If it were this, it wouldn't differ from the person who merely repeats a set of rules.

  14. I agree with Randy. Simply put.. I believe in determinism because I have no choice in what I believe to be true.

    Once this is acknowledged there is absolutely no starting point for any discussion - even this one.

    This puts us in quite a predicament.

  15. A good way to understand the universe and the idea of determinism is to think of the universe as a giant rhubegoldberg project. The first ball hits a domino that hits two dominos and exponentially expands to trillions and trillions of dominos that continue to hit each other to the point of expansion that is the entirity of the current universe. And you can consider the first ball and each of the dominos as indipendant objects that are seperate from each other and yet interconnected, affecting each other and a part of the whole that is the universe. Human beings are simply factors "controlled" by prior factors.

  16. Good points, Randy. I especially like your example of a child reciting a syllogism. And contra the first Anonymous, a computer does not reason; it merely follows a preset program. Indeed, I can read this entire post into a recorder. The fact that the player reproduces the words flawlessly does not mean that it is reasoning.

  17. Not sure if i can respond here, but i figured i would try after reading everything above!

    Just in response to Bill, i think the point that the anonymous person was making(that i too believe) is that just like the computer is following instructions, we are too.

    We are both results and causes of this giant rube goldberg machine, we were merely the chain before them.

    Our mind has a certain way it processes data, much the same as a computer. If we assume for a moment God does not exist and we exist purely from evolution, then we are not designed right?

    How can we then possibly "design" a computer with set rules.

    The computer is just another extension of our evolved mind, so it is too in a way just a result of our evolution.

    Our mind may be a lot more complex than our current day computers are, but we function in the EXACT same way.

    we reason as much as a computer does, (not at all).
    I would argue reasoning is just as much of an illusion as free will is.

    Either everything has the capability of reasoning, or nothing does. I feel both make the term rather useless.

    Since everyone likes mazes so much ill use it in an example.

    Say a person is walking through a maze, and eventually finds the exit.
    Is it not the case that the person had just as much reasoning and free will or really "input" exhibited as the finish line, or the walls surrounding them, or the floor they walked on?

    What is the line dividing us from everything else that makes up the world.

    If someone wants to respond, please be clear what exactly the difference is, i feel people always get hung up over definitions when having philosophic arguments, so i want to set the definitions immediately.

    Thanks for any response!


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