Causal determinism

Causal determinism is the notion that all events are necessitated by antecedents (previous events and conditions), together with the laws of nature. Determinism can take different forms: Epistemic (foreknowledge of an omniscient God), theistic (pre-destination by an omnipotent God), mechanistic (the inflexible paths of atoms) and behaviourist (determination by psychological and environmental conditioning). However, due to the fact that determinism appears to reject the possibility of free human action, it is often difficult to swallow. While many philosophers, David Hume for example1, argue that determinism is a necessary condition for freedom, it still remains hard to see how the state of the world 100 years ago determines everything I do during my life. Since I have neither the power to change the laws of nature, nor to change the past, in what sense can I think of myself as having freedom in choice of action?

If determinism is false, am I really free in writing this essay? The most basic argument against determinism is to show the apparent conflict between freedom and determinism. Common sense leads us to think that our freedom is simply incompatible with causal determinism. Surely, if an action ‘A’ is the result of a deterministic chain of events, then we have no choice but to take action ‘A’. One can go further than this and say that one does not take action ‘A’ above others possible alternative actions, but that ‘A’ is the only possible action in the situation. ‘A’ is the necessary result of preceding causes, and the causes of ‘A’ themselves are determined by preceding causes.

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This apparent conflict is traditionally shown through four beliefs which form an inconsistent set:

(1) We sometimes act freely

(2) Free action requires alternative possibilities in action

(3) If an action is the result of a deterministic chain of causes, then it cannot allow for alternative possibilities in action

(4) Every human action is the result of a deterministic chain of causes

Not all four of these beliefs can be true at the same time, and on first consideration it seems easiest to try and deny belief (4) when trying to deny determinism. But on what grounds can one so easily deny (4)? One strategy for denying (4) is to argue that all physical occurrences except for human actions are the result of causal determinism. A tractor, for example, cannot reach the top of a steep hill without several physical necessities having been fulfilled – enough petrol, sufficient grip on its tires etc… In short, several causes are required for the tractor to reach the top of the hill – The argument follows that, while a tractor is reliant on a chain of causes, humans do not rely of a deterministic chain. But on what grounds can one make this claim? It does not seem plausible to make the claim that every physical occurrence apart from human actions is the result of a deterministic chain of events. One may try and explain an extra ‘something’ which makes humans fundamentally different in nature from a tractor – a mind, for example, and the capability of reason and rationality – but still it seems to me that humans are just as physical in action as any other physical object.

Those who deny determinism, as well as not being easily able to explain why humans are exempt from determinism, face the dilemma of chance and determinism. Firstly, if our actions are not the result of a deterministic chain of events then might my actions be purely the result of chance? Our actions may be random events dictated by chance rather than true free will. I would argue that this poses just as great a threat to free will as determinism seems to.

Libertarianism is the notion that, not only are freedom and determinism incompatible (incompatibilism), but that we really are free. But libertarians face many problems, and one of the most difficult to provide counterarguments for is this dilemma of chance and determinism. A traditional libertarian conception of freedom seems to require that: (i) a free action is the result of a free choice, (ii) when I make a free choice I determine my choice and (iii) when I make my free choice, nothing determines me. For a libertarian I am an ‘undertermined determiner’ of my free choices.

But consider the following situation. There are two possible actions that I could choose while sitting next to Kylie Minogue. I could either speak to her (DS) or I could feel to shy and remain silent (DQ). For sake of argument, say that I do speak to her. How does the libertarian explain the occurrence of DS – according to the libertarian my decision was not a deterministic result of the previous state of the world, but neither is it a chance happening either. It seems that the libertarian must hold that I determine that DS comes about (agent causation), but also that my determining that DS comes about is not a matter of my involvement in the events that determine that DS comes about.

In short, I cause a result without being involved in the events that cause that result. Is this possible? This notion seems to be clearly fallacious, or at least to contradict itself. How can my choice to do this essay be a free choice, in the libertarian sense, but also be completely detached from previous events and also not occur by chance – events which may cause me to choose this essay. For example, I may have had a really good night’s sleep before the lecture which allowed me to succinctly write this essay. It is clear that libertarians and incompatibilists in general, encounter problems with their beliefs about the relationship between freedom and determinism. From a compatibilist standpoint, however, this relationship is just as problematic.

Compatibilism is the notion that freedom is compatible with determinism. Compatibilists believe that freedom is ‘being able to do what you want to do’ and that free choice or free action is the exercise of this ability. Problems arise when one considers the question, ‘Can I have free action if my actions are also dictated by causal determinism?’ Blatchford, in his article The Delusion of Free Will, argues that “man is free to act as he chooses to act.” His argument follows, however, by asking “what causes him to choose?” He writes that, “There is a cause for every wish, a cause for every choice; and every wish and choices arise from heredity, or from environment.” His argument proposes that although we are free in action, “…heredity and environment have decided the action of the will, before the time has com for the will to act.”2 This argument is a major problem for compatibilism. Freedom surely requires the ability to choose what to want, as well as the ability to do the things that we want to do. A counterargument may claim that it is a mistake to think that to have freely chosen to do this essay and that I must have chosen to want to do this essay. A compatibilist would say that we never have free choice about what to want – we just want!

It seems that both compatibilism and incompatibilism encounter problems, but the arguments with the most weight are those that modify the ‘basic form’ of compatibilism. Perhaps we should not think of our actions being determined and that our choices are determined, but that our choices are guided. Reason and rationality are an important part of this argument. Rationality, for example, is a problem for libertarianism for how can choices be both free and rational? Rational choices are choices made from reasons and events from the previous state of the world. However, a perfectly rational person would always act in the most rational way in any given situation: surely this amounts to just as little freedom as causal determinism seems to allow us? However, humans are not perfectly rational, and therefore our actions may have the degree of determinism that Hume argues in a necessary condition for freedom.

Philosophers such as Blatchford argue in support of causal determinism with the assertion that free will is an illusion – that people are ultimately ‘unaware’ of the antecedents the compel them to choose one action over another. But as Ayer argues, “…the fact that someone feels free to do, or not to do, a certain action does not prove that he really is so…”3 and thus questions the usefulness of Blatchford’s argument. Ayer later doubts that a kleptomaniac is a free agent, because he goes through no decision process about deciding whether to steal: he acts compulsively. Both arguments assert that our minds and our environments are conditions through which our choices are determined. It is interesting to consider whether the illusion of freedom, when really the past heavily influences our choices, or the compulsive actions of the kleptomaniac are ‘more free’ than the other. Smilansky writes that free choices are ‘avoidable but necessary illusions’4 and argues that the moral implications of punishments in a deterministic world are awful – people are punished for immoral actions that they could not avoid doing.

It is clear to see that philosophers differ widely in opinion as to whether I was really free in my choice to do this essay instead of another, whether or not determinism is true. While Smilansky argues that the illusion of freedom has to be a fundamental part of our lives, others assert that our choices are crafted by environmental experiences. Whichever view is correct, it seems to me that even if there are conditions which determine our choices and actions, we are still free. I agree with Hume that determinism is a necessary condition for freedom – determinism provides a framework of experience, reason and rationality through which we can act freely. Therefore, the most important question may not be about whether man is free and instead to ask ‘how free is man.’