If you are a determinist…

…you will, by your own confession, live your whole effortless life and die your one purposeless death without ever having done anything. If determinism is true, no one an no-thing has ever done anything on and of its own; only “things have happened” as a function of blind, unsleeping Nature. You have never done and can never do anything wrong, since you cannot, by definition, do anything not already inscribed in you by an illiterate, mute Nature. Moreover, you will never have done anything good, since you can’t do anything that is better than anything else if good is just what ends up happening in Nature by means of your paralyzed bundle of atoms-on-loan––on loan, mind you, from no one.

13 Responses

  1. Umm…. doesn’t this confuse a metaphysical matter of necessary action with the phenomenal perception of effort and action, the latter being what most definitions of effort seem to refer to? I mean, nothing about “effort” excludes compatibilist interpretations, nor do they rely upon grand metaphysical doctrines so much as small-scale human perceptions.


    Not only that, but “things have happened” does not eliminate the issue of a local cause and a remote one, where people can adequately serve as local causes. After all, your post seems to suggest that we should do away with all categories if determinism is true, and just say “The big bang went boom”, but this is nonsensical, as categories exist independently of determinism, even if they are psycho-socio constructs.

    If I am within this nature, and not separate from it, as this post seems to implicitly believe, then how am I not doing something? After all, even a metaphysical determinism does not undermine the phenomenal perception of choice, and the existence of mental states known through direct perception. There are just questions on how to account for these matters.

    (this is a point made by non-philosopher Eliezer Yudkowsky) http://www.overcomingbias.com/2008/06/thou-art-physic.html

    Not only that, but your post doesn’t even address the philosophical possibility of compatibilism, much less intelligibly counter it.

    Finally, if the nature of the physical components of the brain are such that determinism is true, then even the philosophical rebuttal against determinism would be in question, even if we accepted incompatiblism(which many do not). If quantum mechanics does not account for mental indeterminacy, then the brain is almost certainly deterministic. Max Tegmark’s research on the matter seems to show that quantum physics indicates a deterministic mind. http://prola.aps.org/abstract/PRE/v61/i4/p4194_1 Therefore, it seems that determinism is true.

    Perhaps this is too long, and reasoned in a sloppy manner, but I just perceived your comment as a rant against a strawman rather than an intellectual attack against an opposing doctrine.

  2. Umm…. doesn’t this confuse a metaphysical matter of necessary action with the phenomenal perception of effort and action, the latter being what most definitions of effort seem to refer to?

    Phenomenal perception of what? By whom?

    Absent a real metaphysical distinction between an acting subject and the reality that he is perceiving, the distinction between what is perceiving and what is perceived is spurious.

    Likewise with categories. All distinctions, local or otherwise, are illusory on the compatibilist reading, because it eradicates any real distinction between the perceiver and the perceived. All distinctions are false ones; there is no such thing as separate reality.

    Metaphysically, these are trivial conclusions. Elliot’s point is that people don’t actually have the guts to bite this particular bullet (metaphorically speaking, of course). With the exception of some Buddhists, no one even seriously tries. But it’s at best perverse (and at worst deceptive) for someone unwilling to even try to argue in favor of such a position.

  3. By the perceiver, for how can perception, a mental fact, exist without a mental reality which is not the same to physical reality. Determinism is a metaphysical doctrine about how reality works(that there are causal chains that control it), it does not affect perception/mental realities at all though, only their relationship to physical realities. I still perceive something. Now, this “I” may be emergent from this collection of atoms, but this perception is specific to a certain ordering of atoms which this perception is unintelligible without.

    A “real metaphysical distinction”? Consciousness is already distinct from the rest of reality anyway, because it is a mental property, and not a physical one. And this mental property is local to a particular part of reality rather than across all areas accepted as real. So, I don’t see why it is “spurious” if we are already directly perceiving a category difference. The issue is that consciousness is not accepted by all to be the same as libertarian free will.

    As for distinctions? Well, no, they are illusory according to extreme nominalism. One could argue that universals could be upheld by the mind of God though, God being oft-considered outside of time and causality altogether, and thus immune to any metaphysical changes due to determinism. In any case, a sufficiently nominalistic perspective would undermine differences between beings anyway no matter what the basis of their will was. Free will could just be called an arbitrary spontaneously generated thing from the void, just akin to a roll of the dice.

    Not only that, but incompatibilist determinism is what says that men are no different than atoms, compatibilism says that determinism is real, but men can still have morals. So your claim about compatibilism seems false.

    The conclusions drawn are trivial? So you are saying that compatibilists do not exist at all, or that they are mentally handicapped, or that they are ideologically blinded? Compatibilism, unless I am grossly mistaken, still exists among many intelligent philosophers(compatiblism was even suggested in a recent post on prosblogion for understanding the nature of freedom in the incarnation), and it outright rejects the conclusions put forward(it is compatible with determinism), and outright dismissing a philosophic movement so quickly, without even addressing it, just seems questionable. You are right, nobody bites this bullet, but few people consider it necessary to bite either.

    Perhaps this is too lengthy, but I do not see much more in this post than a rant that says “I think my position is right, and that people who honestly disagree are just full of nonsense”.

  4. Ryan:

    In strict determinism every particular thing is absolutely determined by the totality in which it finds itself. It’s particular causal role, therefore, is not “up to it.” The atom that was just atop your right index finger’s middle knuckle had zero causal efficacy in bringin itself there or in taking itself from that position. Therefore, there is strictly no causal power in any particular thing that is not determined by efficient causes prior to it. Therefore, a subatomic observer asking, “Why did that atom just move?” would do well (on determinism) to look at everything BUT the atom itself. There being no counterfactual possibility for that atom to have instantiated, it literally had no potential for behaving differently. A complete determinist description of reality would enable a complete (and reverisble) prediction of every particular component of that physical manifold. But since stating this or that particular’s actions would amount to stating the entire causal structure of the manifold in which they are situated, no particular could be said to have done anything to bring about that manifold. Its role within the manifold was completely determined by the manifold itself as whole. Its particular causal role, therefore, would be tautologous once the whole manifold determinate structure had been formalized. This further entails that its having happened at time t is, seen from the tail end of the whole manifold, an eternal necessity, given that its causal place in the entire spacetime manifold was necessarily what it was in order for the manifold to be as it is.

    By extension, I am saying, everything you or I “do” (even if analytically construed compatibilistically) is a non-event. Events, by definition, causes changes, but the whole point of strict determinism is that nothing but the entire determinate structure of physical reality can effect changes. Therefore, just as discrete corporeal objects “dissolve” into an inchoate fog of atoms and quantum wave functions, so particular events must “dissolve” in the larger causal “absolute givenness” of a deterministic theory of causation.

    My point is not even primararily a moral objection, though it does work that way as a legitimate ad hominem (viz., why even pretend to be good or evil when the determinist’s normative criterion is just “what happens?). My point is urging for a radical denial of the coherence of events themselves in determinism. For determinism entails that every subsequent event follows by strict necessity from the intial conditions; therefore even events that happen millions of years later can be spoken of as having already been “at work” in the entire causal structure from moment one. He who has eyes to see could have “read it off” the initial conditions in advance, such that, when some more ignorant observer remarks upon the event happening, the all-seeing one could assure him, “No, no, that event was already at work.” In the contemporary eye of the ignorant observer, the event is like a dot of red paint dribbled onto the surface of white paint in a can. But to the all-seeing, that dot simply possesses its greatest spatiotemporal “bulk” at the moment it is (superficially) observed to occur; its entire causal structure, however, in reality reaches all the way to the bottom of the can like an increasingly thin line of red. That it is called an “event” by the ignorant does not diminish the fact that it was inextricably involved as an event in the whole dterminate “can of paint” (aka, determinist cosmos).

    That your eyeballs are now moving across the screen is but one less precise way of rephrasing the intial conditions that led to their movements billions of years ago. Your eyes, therefore, are not even moving; rather, one aspect of the entire determinate causal structure is being highlighted by the intellect. Even your eyes themselves are but fictive entities abstracted from the larger atomic bloom and buzz in which they are imagined. There being no causal “gaps” between your eyes, your nerves, your environment, your environment”‘s environment, etc., all the way back to the initial conditions which determined your eye motions, it follows that there is no ontological gap between those conditons and your eye motions. Just like people in a crowded train, there is strictly no causal elbow room for atoms, ants, eyes, and aunts to “do” anything other than what the entire causal structure is already (deterministically) doing as one single determinate event.

    As for where this “free intellect,” with its mysterious powers of abstraction, comes from, well, you can either be a neuro-reductionist (in which case even your thought is as determined and non-existent as the movements of your eyenalls), or you can be an immaterialist and admit a completely anomalous immaterial principle of causation, and kiss materialism goodbye. I am basically urging for the acceptance of a Friedmann block universe as the only consistent determinism, and, in turn, for the rejection of consistent determinism as patently ridiculous.

  5. (Ain’t it funny? Jonathan got to, and then passed over, my implicit metaphysical points in answering Ryan and honed in on my more obvious moral point, whereas I spent the bulk of my reply to Ryan on the metaphysical underpinnings of the moral point, which I then passed over. Nice, unwitting tag team, Jonathan!)

    To reiterate: There is nothing intrinsic to any component in a determinist schema which might determine the schema (nor to any sub-component in a determined component); its causal “worth” in the schema is fully determined by its spatiotemporally surrounding efficient causes. It is literally incoherent to ask, “Why did X do Y?” since nothing about X was essential to Y: everything impinging on X is the reason for Y. Therefore, no component can be said to do anything to the whole schema. A fortiori, no person––construed materialistically, at least––can be said to do anything if even his atoms (and their epiphenomenal perceptions of their alleged actions) cannot do anything.

    The moral point is that if I could “convince” a determinist of this “hard truth,” I could then “urge” him to “man up” and deny every hint of the pious humanist illusion that he has anything whatsoever to do with the way the world is. But, of course, if determinism is true, convincing, urging, resolving to, etc., are meaningless concepts. Such a sad spectacle to have seen Latin American “freedom fighters” planning revolts in the name of materialist theories that deny freedom even exists. Just as sad a spectacle is that of “brave” determinist thinkers trying to alter people’s minds against libertarianism with arguments that deny not only the reality of the mind but also the reality of the freedom to accept or reject the non-material consequences of their arguments.

  6. I want to head off the objection that my denial that X is essential to Y falters in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions. An objector might say, “But of course X is essential to Y, since it is just one of the necessary elements involved in Y’s coming about. If you removed it, Y would not occur.”

    But I must clarify that my denial of X’s causal essentiality has to do with what X is, rather than how it is abstracted in the Y-event. X is the sheer sum of all physical interactions prior to its existence (call them Xp). Therefore, everything “in” or “about” it in Y is an illusion superimposed over Xp. X is literally nothing else than Xp in theoretical connection with Y at time tx (call this theoretically considered connection YtX). X adds nothing to Xp and its causal role in Y; therefore, while Xp is essential to Y, X is not.

    The meta-point is that determinism renders all local explanations obsolete. Any local X is just a (formalizable) consideration of Xp and the causal schema (call it Xn) after X at YtX. Everything we might say about Xp is simply a redundancy given Xp. X is not “there” to cause Y; Xp is. X has no ontological autonomy for effecting anything; Xp completely pervades it and displaces it as some thing. X adds nothing, theoretically or metaphysically, to Xp. X is a superfluous fiction; every aspect of its being is holographically reduced to and explicable by the boundary conditions which instantiate it. If something does not properly exist, it cannot properly act.

    (I fear the above will have some icky html problems when I submit it, but my fingers are crossed…)

  7. (Well, my html did not come out like I’d hoped, but at least it’s not mangled.)

    ERROR: “Everything we might say about Xp X is simply a redundancy given Xp.”

  8. Ok, now your rebuttal is something I appreciate. If that had been the original post, then I probably would have never commented, but rather just read it, appreciated it, mulled it over, etc.

    As for “causal role”, well, under a deterministic scheme, it seems valid to both look at a local cause, and a grand cause. The location of the atom is a result of local forces and the nature of the atom, but one could also describe it as a result of grander causes.

    As for non-event, being an event has nothing to do with causality, unless we are using term event differently. For an event is just what happens at a specific point in time:
    That is definition 2 given, and none of the definitions mention cause. Because of that, your argument about events does not seem to hold water. Even if it was determined from the beginning of the world to happen, an explosion at location range X, time range t, is still an event. Even though nothing was going to stop this bomb from going off, even if this bomb was placed there since the beginning of time in a location that no human mind could ever discover.

    My eyeballs are moving across the screen, is not less precise. To say precision is to say that there is a necessary viewpoint we must take for describing the nature of an event. I can easily describe in complete detail every event by either referring to pre-existent states at time T, and interacting forces past time T, in order to describe the workings of an eyeball, and there is no loss in precision.

    Thoughts aren’t non-existent because eyeballs aren’t non-existent. Causation does not have anything to do with category theory. It isn’t as if we say that asteroids do not exist, or that planets do not exist, even though the existence of planets is determined, rather than spontaneous. Frankly, the existence of categories is pretty basic, even if we can argue it is possible to describe things without specified categories, but that does not mean that universals do not exist(a metaphysical point that I pointed out as being unrelated to determinism) nor does it mean that phenomenal labels are incorrect to use by beings that are seeking local definitions, as your distinction between the eye and the fool is erroneous based upon a problematic definition of “event”.

    Not only that, but thoughts are different than eye movements, as the place where many philosophers are is property dualism, not reductive materialism OR substance dualism, and I do not see how determinism refutes property dualism. This demarcates thoughts quite well, as they respond to mental properties.

  9. In any case, you are trying to say that you’ve already refuted the determinist without even engaging him, as you’ve had to do in the comments. Not only that, but really, I don’t see your moral point as being that great, as some people reject libertarian free will because it makes man into this arbitrary whim and denies him the virtue of having a nature. This is seen in Hume’s statement:
    “Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil.”

    I think Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology made a similar point to that as well(if I remember correctly). So both sides consider the other to be absurd.

    In any case, your metapoints can be disputed. (I looked at them last) I don’t see why Xp and X aren’t substitutable, or why one point of reference is absolutely more valid than another point of reference. Especially since we can say that X has emergent properties that nothing in Xp has, making Xp less valid for describing a situation from a point of view where these emergent properties are more important. Not only that, but even in situations where X cannot have additional properties, we still prefer it over Xp, so I do not see your point. Nor do I see the point of ontological autonomy as being valid for saying what should or should not be considered. After all, saying that X has no ontological autonomy does not seem to indicate that X does not exist.

    In any case, you’ve put forward your argument, and that’s all I cared for. I think I’m done here, as philosophy is not a discipline I have any formal background in, and I am too busy to carry an ongoing debate with a grad student.

  10. So you are saying that compatibilists do not exist at all, or that they are mentally handicapped, or that they are ideologically blinded?

    No, I think they are thoughtless about what they claim, and that is hardly a rare trait even among intelligent people. It’s not that they have thought things through and come to the opposite conclusion so much as that they haven’t thought about it at all. For example, asserting the difference between physical and mental existence as if it were self-evident regardless of the metaphysical quality of one’s existence as acting subject strikes me as a failure to see the question.

    Nice, unwitting tag team, Jonathan!

    I thought I knew what you had in mind anyway. Fast forwarding to the conclusion was just forced by time constraints. 🙂

  11. Ryan:

    You are too kind. I am not a grad student (yet).

    1) If you deny an intrinsic link between causation and events, do you then admit there are uncaused events? Or events that do not issue in effects (i.e., are not causes)? I doubt it. Philosophy by dictionary goes only so far, if that.

    2) Libertarian free will need not, and classically, does not, deny human nature. Rather, it builds upon the nature of sentient nature itself and points to a higher “level” or capacity in humans, namely, the level of rational action. Free will ensures that we can (or, then again, might not) make rational decisions in accord with our own nature. Free will makes no sense apart from the nature in which it is rooted, and towards whose good it is (normatively) aimed.

    3) The bold claims of strict determinism as a theory of causation do impinge upon ontology, since Ockham’s much vaunted razor (though, historically, it isn’t really Ockham’s!) in the hands of determinists (more often naturalists than not) demands that we trim away excess entities once they have been reduced to their sheer causal base. Hence, our habit of ascribing causal power to planets, molecules, etc. is an empirical deficit, not a metaphysical principle. If we could reach a sufficiently formalized level of computation (say, linked with a massive neural processor), we would stop seeing clunky, outdated “things” like planets and fish, and would only see the bare vectors of the base elements responsible for strict determinism all the way up (or down) the line. There is no principled reason, then, for a determinist to admit planets are substantial objects; they are just ontological holdouts in the face of our lowly empirical insight.

    4) As for property dualism, I’ll grant a determinist could be a property dualist and thus admit “the mental” into his picture, but I think doing so would be metaphysically very costly. For if our mental constructs are strictly determined by their neural-material base, then whatever theory is currently held about, say, planetary motion, would be logically inevitable in that deterministic matrix. It would be a strictly determined outcome of the initial conditions which issue in the material base for those thoughts. Hence, either the universe itself is rationally expounding on itself by way of us, or our theories, assertions, etc., are blind effluvia of irrational matter at work. Once an old theory or claim is refuted, however, its allegedly necessary status (as a determined outcome of the entire causal schema) would vanish. If it was rationally necessary (as the mental aspect of the materially determined conditions of its promoters) a hundred years ago, but then is shown to be false, then there is no way to say the latest theory is itself not an illusory set of transient “mental burps” made by matter. Determinism thus seems much inclined to lead to scientific irrationalism.

    Perhaps others would like to pick up the torch here?
    (I feel I have typed too quickly, so pardon my undoubted lack of clarity.)

  12. Also, it’s too easy to say events (qua “whatever happens at some time”) have a real ontological status on determinism, since the way we define just what happens at just what time is a mental superimposition on the otherwise causally seamless fabric that determinism demands. For it demands that effects could not have been anything other than what they in fact are. There is no potential variability between causes and their effects. So, it is up to us abstractly to “cut up” phenomena as this or that event involving these or those objects. But nature can be carved up this way indefinitely. Nothing intrinsic to the mathematical physical structure of some event (that we pick out) dictates that it begins “here, now” and ends “there, then”. Determinism says Xp’s effects will be exactly what they are at XtY, but it offers no account of just what those effects ARE determinately.

    Karl Popper made this points numerous times. How do we decide, in purely physical terms, just when the event “John saw a bright red light through the window” began and ended? Is there really some one photon that marks the precise, and therefore precisely determined, beginning of John’s vision? What about the antecedent causes that bring that photon to his retina? Where does it begin and end? Since determinism is almost always based on a Newtonian mechanist view of the world, and denies the potency of formal structures with intrinsic ends (e.g., natural cycles, natural events, rational actions, etc.), it has no way of carving up the world, other than by sheer fiat.

    An Aristhomist natural scientist may not be able to find the exact atom by which John’s sight of the light began, but he doesn’t need to: it’s not about the particular matter anyway. A formal event’s matter can vary as long as it issues in nomologically predictable effects as one KIND of nature substance performing one KIND of cause. Things are formally determined, yes, for an Aristhomist, since forms require a certain determinate wholeness, but this intelligible wholeness finds no root in bare deterministic mechanics. Natural forms are basically but not strictly deterministic. But determinism denies nature can ever “go wrong,” since nature just IS what nature does by deterministic necessity. By contrast, Aristhomism admits nature can “go wrong”––but only because other “metaphysically competitive” forms interfere (or ‘unnaturally’ augment) a thing’s formal behavior.

  13. Perhaps quantum mechanics affords contemporary metaphysics a sort of “cushion of indeterminacy” to free us from the bane of determinism without leaving us in the dark about physical causation. I mean, Schrödinger’s wave equation does describe a wave function as a deterministic event, but only affords a probabilistic, indeterminist account of just what wave position will be determined. So, perhaps, as formal structures dynamically interact and dematerialize (i.e., actualize) the froth of quantum potentiality around it, there is an allowable margin of material indeterminism that does not negate a natural event’s formal reality on the whole.

    I used “perhaps” as the first word in this comment, since I am far too ignorant about QM to assert this “quantum cushion.”

    What do my betters think?

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