In A Deterministic Universe, Ctd


by Patrick Appel

A reader writes:

Your reader writes:
First, in a deterministic universe, it does not make sense to use words like "should" or "ought". In order to say that someone should have done something in a certain situation, then it follows that she could have done something else instead. But in a deterministic universe, by definition, the person could not have done something else, because her actions, thoughts, and feelings were determined by the environment. Second, in a deterministic universe, values are completely arbitrary. Any values we possess would be by definition merely a result of our environmental programming.
I have always felt that individuals arguing from Free Will on the grounds that morality is subjective and arbitrary in a Deterministic Universe are missing the point about what the Determinist world view is basically espousing about human action.
First, your reader makes the most common oversight made by proponents of Free Will by arguing that Free Will is necessary for morality: they equate Determinism with arbitrary morality. In other words, morality is basically meaningless in a Determinist universe because our actions are predetermined. Your reader isn't thinking big enough, though, and therefore reaches the wrong conclusion about the effect that Determinism has on morality. Your reader is also not thinking hard enough about what happens when you make a choice. Morality is not arbitrary in a Determinist world. In fact, it is inevitable.

Imagine for a moment, a six-sided dice. Since time immemorial, dice have been used in games of "chance" to simulate randomness. Yet consider the fact that if we knew every minuscule factor that could possibly affect the outcome of a die roll, from the angle that it falls from your hand, to the barometric pressure of the room, to the hardness of the surface it hits, to the moisture or trace skin oil reside left on the die by the palm of your hand (and so on), we could predict with 100% accuracy what the outcome of that roll would be. Everytime. We could measure velocity, acceleration, centripetal force, friction, run parametric equations, find vectors, etc. But there is such an unimaginably large amount of physical variables involved in the possible outcome of that dice roll, that attempting to measure them all for purposes of a 100% accurate prediction would require a meticulous and painstaking effort so monumental in its scope that the effort becomes practically impossible for human beings to undertake fruitfully. So for all intensive purposes, we tend to accept the outcome of any die roll as a random event, because the immense difficulty involved in trying to predict its outcome is for all practical purposes, impossible given the extreme number of metrics and near infinite number of variables involved in predicting its outcome.

And yet despite this, we can accept the fact that the final results of dice rolls ARE in fact pre-determined by the laws of physics. Despite the fact that we have no practical way to predict their outcomes, we know that, technically, if we knew all the factors affecting the movement of that dice through space, we could predict it. They abide by the same laws of physics that affect all objects with mass in the universe. We know that there are forces at work on a die that make it move, and those forces are constant and measurable. We can therefore appreciate the fact that the result of a die roll is a pre-determined outcome due to the laws of our universe, but the immense difficulty involved in measuring its result leads us to treat it, for practical purposes, as a primitive random number generator.

I believe it is appropriate to view human action the same way. Our actions are foreseeable if we know all the variables involved in our decisions. But human beings simply don't understand ourselves or the universe well enough to be able to measure those factors accurately. Consider the fact that you are a product of your nature and your nurture: that is to say, you have certain in-born traits that result from your genetic code, and you have certain traits that were garnered via your experiences and your environment. These two things combined result in the practical unpredictability of human action, because human beings do not as yet have the immense number of conceptual metrics necessary to begin to even think about such a complex measurement. And yet, much like the dice roll, we are merely products of our nature and our nurture. We are constituted of a finite set of physical parameters (i.e. our bodies) as well as a personality that is shaped by our experiences and our DNA.

With this in mind, consider what happens when you make a choice. You are presented with 2 or more possible actions, and you have to decide which action is the "best" action. This is where Determinism's strongest card is played: everytime you choose a path of action, you are making what you believe to be the "best" action available to you. In other words, you take the action you believe to be in your best interest at that very moment. In this way, you create a pattern of "Best Actions" which suggest predictability and inevitability in human action.

Now the first thing people immediately say in response to this is "that's silly, people make choices that aren't in their best interest all the time." This is a misunderstanding of the terminology being used. To act "in your best interest" here means to act in a way that pleases you most. So for example, a smoker who desires to quit smoking, but chooses to light up anyway day after day, is acting predictably. Not because it makes sense for an addict to light up, but because in his mind, he is making what he believes to be the choice that is in his best interest at the time of the choice. Based on the information informing his decision, (among which is the fact of the physical pain of his addiction), he is making a choice that tells us he values satisfying his addiction, in the moment the choice is made, more than quitting. Now, we have no way of measuring the variables involved in his actions to predict whether he would ever quit, or whether one day, the "best choice" he chooses will be to not smoke. But that doesn't mean that we couldn't if we could somehow know all the variables involved in his decision, just like we could've predicted a dice roll if we knew all the variables involved in its "rolling." Because human beings are currently unable to measure each others' decision-making processes, or identify the variables involved with that degree of accuracy, our Smoker in this example is, for all intensive purposes, acting unpredictability, or rather, practically speaking, with Free Will; or more appropriately, the illusion thereof.

This is how morality is developed in a Deterministic Universe: Moral codes are the result of a self-perpetuating process of "Best choices" being made by every human being every second of existence. The process is dynamic and complex. I am 25 years old, and there are moral codes in existence that pre-date my existence by many, many magnitudes of age. But yet again, when I encounter these moral codes, I make a choice to accept them or reject them based on how the combination of my Nature and Nurture causes me to think. For example: I think that Ayn Rand's Objectivism is a silly moral philosophy that would lead to a terrible existence for human beings if it was carried out to its fullest extent.* Why do I think that? Did I make the "choice" to think that? Well yes, but only because an infinite number of variables, comprising my nature and nurture (i.e. real life experiences) caused me to come to that conclusion. I can understand this about myself from a metaphysical perspective without forfeiting my ability to make decisions that I feel are right or wrong. Acknowledging the inevitability of the actions I take doesn't mean that I have any idea how I'm going to act before I am faced with a choice, because I can't possibly know how I would act in a given situation until I am in that situation and actually make a decision. The inability to predict human action based on the infinite number of variables involved includes one's self.

We therefore come to what I believe is the true model of human action, and therefore also Morality: Limited Determinism. Limited Determinism is a philosophical doctrine that espouses that all human beings have the illusion of Free Will: the illusion of Free Will is necessary in order to make any choice at all. The implication that our choices are "predetermined" leads most people to feel like they can just throw their hands up in the air, sit in a chair, and wait for life to happen. But that action, like all actions, is once again, a reaction that could be predicted by the combination of your nature and your nurture, if we understood all the variables comprising them completely. But we don't, so what we call Free Will is in fact simply practical unpredictability in human action that stems from our own ignorance/inability to measure and observe all the variables involved in said human action.

How does this affect morality? Quite simple: the development of moral codes, and people's decisions to follow them or break them, or to even have opinions on them at all, is inevitable, but practically unpredictable. Is the world as it stands right now inevitable? When you consider that every human being on earth, at every point in their lives, from the smallest, most trivial task to the largest, most monumental decisions, is always making the "Best" choice they believe available to them at all points in time, yes. It is. Could we have predicted it based on the limits of human understanding? No. We can't even predict our own actions with 100% certainty. Which is why the illusion of Free Will persists. Because without the ability to confidently predict human action by knowing all the factors involved, then much like the roll of a dice, our actions might as well be unpredictable, and therefore, constitute a "free" action. In much the same way a dice seems to fall where it pleases when it leaves your hand, despite being a completely predictable event.

*I understand that my example of Ayn Rand's objectivism seems to run counter to my assertion that "best choices" are made out of a seemingly inevitable pattern of self interest. But this contradiction is easily dispatched by observing that I believe that it is in my self-interest to sometimes sacrifice my immediate self-interest for the interest of others, in the hope that others will be willing to do so for me, i.e. I believe that what is good for the gander is good for the goose. For example: I don't mind paying higher taxes for welfare programs because I know I may one day need their services. self-interest is still at work here, just on a larger, more forward thinking scale.

Another reader:

I do not understand the parameters of the determinst debate you are publishing. The arguments indicate that free will is required to alleviate moral ambiguity and, therefor, must exist. They remind me of the Theists' arguments that if there were no God, hedonism would rule. The solution could be a matter of cultural evolution. Those societies that have practiced what we consider morally "good" had advantages that allowed them to survive. Now, I am not claiming that morality is the key to survival (though I am sure not killing your neighbor and coveting his wife helps social cohesion); I am saying what we consider morally good may be a product of who survived. And maybe, in most circumstances, similar behaviors lead to successful cultures, which is why most cultures have similar moral codes. There is no absolute here. That we consider something moral is only a matter of conditioning and education. Even our willingness to challenge dominant social conventions with alternate moral paradigm (e.g. extreme pacifists) results from how we were taught to consider obedience in relation to other moral factors (in this example: non-violence).

For me, at least, the argument over determinism rests on the most basic scientific principle: cause and effect. Never has anyone been able to show me how the brain could possible take the incoming data (sensory experience) and alter their courses through the brain's circuitry in a way that could defy the simple principle: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. All incoming data would have to take an established route through the brain, directed only by the brain's capabilities and experiences, before reaching the point the data start causing reactions that affect us externally, i.e. we react or make a choice. I imagine most people consider the brain acting as a single through point in which a plug with all the incoming data is plugged into one side and on the other side there is a plug carrying all of our outgoing choices and behaviors. In between would be a fog where the laws of physics are moot and all data swirl until a nearly random choice is made. Then the brain takes that choice and feeds it into the outgoing pipe, at which point, physics returns. Now, I understand Quantum theory raises the issue of probabilities, but I have yet to see an external force weigh on those probabilities (please correct me if I am wrong).

A secondary qualm I have with a non-determinist existence comes in the rhetorical query: Why would the brain choose the sub-optimal? This is a little harder to explain, but basically hinges on the fact that, like a computer playing chess, a brain must pick the best choice. A lack of information and/or time or any number of other factors will probably mean the brain will not make the optimal choice, but when the moment comes to decide, the idea that the brain, if it had free will, would think, "Well, based on my values and beliefs and all of the information I have available (A) is the best choice, therefore, I choose (B)." That seems absurd. Therefore, in any given instance, an individual only has a single option. While an argument that even making that choice, and that others in a similar circumstance would have made a different one, represents free will, I do not believe that's how most people perceive it.

One more:

I am a determinist and I use the words "should" and "ought" every bit as often as anyone else. Here's an example: I think your reader ought to read the classic philosophical determinists before making arguments such as the above. Baruch Spinoza is probably more closely associated with classic philosophical determinism than any other thinker. He called his greatest work The Ethics, and he didn't think he was being incoherent.

When I say your reader ought to have read Spinoza, am I saying that he could have done otherwise before E-mailing you? Of course not. All of your readers have had different experiences and opportunities. Some of your readers have never had an occasion to read Spinoza. Others have read Spinoza and misunderstood him. (His writing is not easy to follow.) I don't consider anyone sinful or blameworthy for not having read Spinoza, but I still think people ought to read him before claiming to understand deterministic ethics.

Consider a simple example: A wolf steps onto a seemingly frozen pond. The ice cracks. She withdraws her paw, because she now knows that she ought not step on it. Could she have done otherwise? No. She didn't know the ice was thin. She might not have much prior experience with winter weather. This all might be very new to her. I don't blame her for her mistake, but I still think she ought to be more careful in the future.

Consider another example: My son tells a lie. If he experiences a negative consequence, he now knows that he ought not to lie (or at least, that he ought not tell lies so easily exposed as such). He's learned something. He can learn this from me rather than making all his own mistakes, but only if he has been conditioned by his life experiences to believe that other people have things to teach him. If his ethical instruction has been crude and ineffective, he will refuse to consider anyone else's counsel and will have to learn all of life's lessons on his own. He can't be blamed either way, but I can still try to influence him by telling him what I think he ought to do, and hoping (sometimes against hope) that he might be receptive to my suggestions.

But note this: Life's lessons are not "completely arbitrary" like your reader suggests. Societies where everyone lies, steals, and cheats are objectively unpleasant places to live. Societies can learn over time to avoid certain pitfalls, just like the wolf can learn to avoid thin ice. This process is slowed by the fact that new people are born all the time who have to learn all these lessons over again, but a well-functioning society can accelerate the transference of its collective experience through well-considered educational systems.

Is it really so hard to understand the scientific underpinnings of the Golden Rule? Really? Again, it surprises me that your reader writes such a thing without considering whether anyone has tried. My son has told lies, but he doesn't like it AT ALL when other people lie to him. Communication and trust are important; without them, all collaborative effort is jeopardized; without collaborative effort, society collapses into anarchy, and so do all good things. My son cannot demand the truth while telling lies to others. No one will take him seriously. And if he is not taken seriously, his effectiveness in achieving his own goals will be seriously undermined.

Now your reader doesn't have to agree with any of this. And as a determinist, I cannot blame him or her for disagreeing. But I can at least hope to be an influence on your reader's future conditioning. My hope may be misplaced, but it isn't logically incoherent.
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