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June 20, 2012 / compassioninpolitics

A short aside on reality which determinists inappropriately warp

Determinists take an outward appearance of reality & based on a reductionist understanding of how the world works. However, this misses a larger picture. Here are 3 commonly agreed aspects of reality which they warp or fundamentally misunderstand–which are at the basis of their argument.

1) Life is a learning experience
2) Life is additive–with one activity building on the next
3) Life has ripple effects. Life has consequences

They take a dynamic and vibrant process, which has some laws and principles guiding it–but a) overlook the above b) overdetermine the role in which the aspects they describe underlie reality or its appearances.

Do you have other ideas about the shortcomings or assumptions of determinism?


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  1. Justin Caouette / Jun 20 2012 3:19 pm

    Why can’t determinists accept all 3 of these premises? I’ve conversed witha few who have admitted all 3. And how do hey warp them? (Mind you, I think we have free will in a minimal sense).

  2. compassioninpolitics / Jun 21 2012 3:23 am

    Admittedly, this post was more of an aside. I do have a post where I take on determinism in a more robust way. Link at bottom…

    My notion is that if you accept any of these 3–you can make an argument which provides an alternative to the determinist framework. And clearly its not developed into a full argument.

    Answering Neuroscience:

    Also, I have quotes from Victor Frankl (the psychiatrist & author & Gulag survivor), Stephen Covey (leadership guru & philosopher), and John Polkinglorne (the physicist & philosopher). Also a number of psychologists have problems with determinism.

    * I may have spelled Polkinglorne incorrectly.

    Elsewhere I wrote this….(I apologize that the links to wikipedia & elsewhere are incomplete). The original also included a picture of the various schools from soft determinism to hard determinism.

    Why choose a philosophy which makes your choice irrelevant in the first place?
    Our mere ability to have this discussion suggests the importance of consciousness, choice, and the value of humans. The alternative is a deterministic worldview which treats us like billiard balls rather than the complex choice bearing individuals we appear to be based on the evidence available to us as human, philosophers, and scientists.

    The World is a Stage:
    We both act in the world and are acted upon. Ultimately, to my knowledge, we can’t verify via science either way. However, irrespective whether free will exists or not–we should act as if free will exists. (Which incidentally seems to be the larger question….at least to me….). If only because it makes life more enjoyable and fulfilling, but also because it makes ideas like responsibility a core. It give meaning to our desires to protect women and minorities from the dehumanization that others might. This resonates with the power and possibility that lies in the universe and in humanity.

    The Value of Hope
    Further, the argument for hope is compelling. That a world with hope and acting as if hope is a possibility makes more sense than acting as if there is an all controlling force in our chemistry. If we act like that, we would resemble some of the scenes from Lord of the Flies–because it would be a world of no value in humans, no responsibility, no accountability, and no justice.

    Argument Fail: Science Whether Chemistry or Biology Can’t Exclude Freewill and Choice
    The core of this question has a far, far larger burden of proof. To say that genes, biology, or chemistry shape who we are doesn’t mean they determine who we are or to what extent that is the case (its a continuum if you will). This means that 99% of the answers here simply don’t answer the question.

    For instance, chemistry wouldn’t be able to say if choice existed or not–it simply is not geared to make a determination of this philosophical query. If there is a study from chemistry or elsewhere that says otherwise, I would like to read it. The hidden or embedded premise that “chemistry can explain everything about humans and life” is a bit dubious. As such, chemistry in one sense begs the question of choice–almost in the same way that math begs the same question with respect to this answer. Chemistry isn’t a science capable of detecting human choice–which suggest using it as evidence is a bit of a fool’s errand.

    However, the unpredictability of scientific results (aka the margin of error in experiments which involve human subjects and perhaps even animal subjects) suggests some force other than chemistry is at work, which further suggest chemistry alone is a poor tool to determine the answer–and further suggests a detectable degree of indeterminacy–which might just be choice. (I recently compiled some quotes from John Polkinghorne on this issue, which I encourage you to read here Investigating Science, Quantum Mechanics, and Free Will )

    Also, I imagine despite the correlations, that many chemists and even neuro-biologists still believe in the notions of human choice. If you read the literature on soft determinism its far, far more convincing than the literature on hard determinism which relies on radical conspiracy theories which are extremely hyperbolic and lack connection to how we experience reality in our daily lives.

    Libet Experiments Don’t Provide Answers:
    Tim Bayne from Oxford in Free Will and Modern Science points out that the Libet experiments are really looking at issues of indifference rather than deliberation (two separate categories of wills or intents), so the experiments aren’t the “ideal exemplars of free will that Libet takes them to be”:
    But although Libet-actions involve an act of will they do not involve deliberation—at least, not immediately prior to the action. In my terms, they are examples of disinterested agency, for the agent has no reason to flex their wrist at one particular time rather than the other, or to flex it in one way rather than another. Indeed, Libet experiments are explicitly constructed so as to minimize the rational constraints under which the subject acts. We might think of Libet-actions as manifesting the liberty of indifference.

    He continues by noting Libets assessment of the type II readiness potential is misguided and flawed:
    As Mele (2009) and Roskies (2011) have observed, we simply do not know. Our ignorance on this point derives from the fact that the RP is measured by a process known as ‘backaveraging.’ Because the RP on any one trial is obscured by neural noise, what is presented as ‘the RP data’ is determined by averaging the data collected on a large number of trials. In order to compute this average, the EEG recordings on different trials need to be aligned, and this requires some fixed point—such as the onset of muscle activity or some other observable behaviour on the part of the subject—that can be identified across trials. Any RPs that are not followed by an action simply won’t be measured, and so we don’t know how robust the correlation between the RP and Libet-actions is.15

    As such, the conclusions from the Libet’s studies as well as those papers influenced by the conclusions must be viewed in a very critical light.

    When picking your worldview on this question–it just makes sense to err
    on the side of choice. Determinism requires humans to act like robots,
    but the experience of life isn’t robotic, despite patterns of behavior
    (realize I’m carving out distinctive middle ground here). Infinite regresses on other possibilities don’t seem particularly constructive–except to say that we have amazing imaginations which tremendously powerful and flexible engines.

    Moreover, the experiences of situations of lack of control versus situations of relative freedom are vastly different. Often the internal feelings and calculations as well as the external demeanor of people who have good self-concept and self-control versus those who are addicted is vastly different (and there is a broad continuum of steps between one situation and the other). In the case of drug addicts we literally know much of what chemical influence does to control, but by contrast the experience of human existence is in sharp contrast to those experiences (Frankfurt seems to make a similar argument). *

    Further, psychologists say that our brains decision-making resembles a man on top of a elephant (metaphorically). In that sense, we are still in control, just the ways in which humans can exercise that control are limited to 1. self-control 2. will and determination 3. self-motivation 4. accountability. Moreover, neuro-biologists talk about two systems of thought–one more intuitive and instinctual, the other more reflective. The act and experience of reflection isn’t really captured by the determinists.

    The human experience of choice and deliberation includes focus, attention, degree of will (volition or intention), among other deeply complex and intertwined experiences of human conciousness. To deny these forces seems to belie reality. Mele highlights some of those experiences:
    Such agents are capable of modifying the strengths of their desires in the service of their normative judgments, of bringing their emotions into line with relevant judgments, and of mastering motivation that threatens (sometimes via the biasing of practical or theoretical reasoning) to produce or sustain beliefs in ways that would violate their principles for belief-acquisition and retention. They are capable, moreover, of rationally assessing and revising their values and principles, of identifying with values of theirs on the basis of informed, critical reflection, and of intentionally fostering new values and pro-attitudes in themselves in accordance with their considered evaluative judgments. Presumably, most readers of this essay have each of these capacities in some measure. All such capacities are bypassed in cases of pro-attitude engineering of the sort at issue. In such cases, new pro-attitudes are not generated via an exercise or an activation of agents’ capacities for control over their mental lives; rather, they are generated despite the agents’ capacities for this.

    Earlie in the essay, Mele calls attention to the metaphor of driving a car, which I think is apt for contrast:
    Control is a topic of much discussion in the literature on autonomy. Sometimes it is claimed that agents have no control at all if determinism is true. That claim is false. When I drive my car (under normal conditions), I am in control of the turns it makes, even if our world happens to be deterministic. I certainly am in control of my car’s movements in a way in which my passengers and others are not.

    In the same way, the experience of being in control of decisions and our lives mirrors this position (the alternative would be the life of a television across which visuals and energy were flashed, but someone else was in control of the remote). This isn’t how we experience reality. In fact, were humans to take this perspective it would only lead to regression, irresponsibility, and isolation. Such a shift would only re-ify the truth claim that we control and need to control our behaviors.

    Category Mistake/Faulty Assumptions:
    To examine human conciousness based on causality is itself a category mistake, according to an astute reviewer:

    The feeling of free will is so completely different from the feeling
    attending perception of ordinary cause-effect phenomena, that to apply
    the word “cause” to the former might well be due to some inept attempt
    to articulate something distinct from all other experiences, but using
    words appropriate only to those other experiences. Perhaps the feeling
    of free will is inherently incapable of articulation. A philosophical
    writer would at least consider that a scientific study of free will in
    terms of cause-effect relations is inherently misguided.

    Rationality Transcends Causality

    J.F. Johnston highlights:
    As Steven Pinker observes, morality, consciousness and free will are “deep enigmas” and “elusive quantities [sic] whose origins still remain wrapped in
    substantial mystery….” (28) This honest admission tells us that we have reached the limit of science and have crossed over into philosophy–specifically, into what Ernst Cassirer called “the philosophy of symbolic forms.” (29) A creature constituted solely by the physical flux of nature could not stand outside of, and bring order and meaning to, that flux. Mind cannot be identical with the matter it describes. To be conscious of natural forces, we must be to some extent independent of those forces through a reasoning faculty that transcends the matter it seeks to understand. Reason is the creative power that brings intelligible order to the raw material of the experienced world. The practice of science itself is evidence of conscious choice.

    Johnston continues:
    The world we live in is quirky, mysterious, and dangerous. Although
    we live in a hostile environment, we are sometimes able, with conscious
    effort, to transcend it. In doing so, we become aware that we are part
    of an order of being which transcends the bare struggle for existence.
    Consciousness is a fundamental component of reality, like mass and
    electromagnetism. It is in some respects even more fundamental, since we could not understand physical forces without it. Consciousness
    formulates the mathematical systems that make physical reality
    intelligible. It may be a mystery to scientists and a scandal to
    materialists, but it is a fact of human life. Consciousness, in turn,
    brings choice and responsibility. These are the characteristics that
    separate us from robots. They are worth defending.

    As such, there is a strong reason for maintaining our current legal and ethical ideas around free will, responsibility, and dignity. Changing course without 100% proof across the board would sacrifice much that we as humans hold meaningful to ourselves as well as to our friends and our families.

    End Notes:
    I believe this later concept is in Isaiah Berlins Four Essays on Liberty–but I’m not honestly sure.
    I’m curious if Rene Descartes would have also proclaimed–I experience life as a choosing being–therefore I am.

    (picture omitted)
    Source: http://www.informationphilosophe

    * Source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

    ** Professor of Philosophy Alfred Mele at Florida State University

    ***J.F. Johnston, Jr., Human freedom and the limitations of scientific determinism, Modern Age, retired partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm and author of The Limits of Government.

  3. ivonprefontaine / Jun 22 2012 12:28 am

    Reblogged this on Teacher as Transformer and commented:
    This post provides excellent advice in a short and understandable manner. Great wisdom takes few words.

    • Nathan Ketsdever / Jun 23 2012 8:29 pm


      I hope the update I added to my original post provides a bit more clarity.

      By the way, interesting thoughts on your blog–there’s certainly an overlap in our philosophical leanings. Look forward to reading more.

      ***One argument or line of thought related to the initial post which stems from the “ripple in a pond” or cause and effect in the universe–is the way in which good and evil operate as forces. Although this may be a little harder to prove via formal logic–but most every story ever written seems to suggest good and evil (even those written by skeptics).

      • ivonprefontaine / Jun 23 2012 10:20 pm

        It looks like there is overlap when I go back and read some of the previous posts. I have read some of Viktor Frankl and appreciate his stance on hope. I struggle with Steven Covey, but it is a personal/professional issue in terms of my employer choosing his canned 7 Habits programming.

        One thing I increasingly see in proving something is that there are things that cannot be proven with ‘formal science’ and we need to turn inwards as part of the proof.

        Take care and look forward to more great posts on your part.

  4. compassioninpolitics / Jun 26 2012 4:33 pm


    Interesting. Yeah, I haven’t gone through the Covey training.

    In terms of overlap, I assume you are referring to the cut & paste article in the comments section or just that thematically my refutations of determinism conflict?

    I just ran across these two quotes which I guess in some ways gets to your point (but I think your statement is particularly interesting):

    If we present man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present him as an automation of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instincts, heredity, and environment, we feed the despair to which man is, in any case, already prone. I became acquainted with the last stages of corruption in my second concentration camp in Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazis liked to say, of ‘Blood and Soil.’ I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.
    —Viktor E. Frankl, Holocaust survivor and Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry, University of Vienna Medical School; from his book, The Doctor and the Soul

    It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere ‘natural object’ and his judgments of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. . . . The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners. . . . A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.
    —C. S. Lewis, Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English, Cambridge University; from his book, The Abolition of Man


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