A short(ish) post on determinism


Da podcast!

I was just listening to a great philosophical podcast about moral responsibility (see link to the podcast above, and link to the blog featuring the podcast below), where I was introduced to the following pseudo-syllogism related to determinism:

1st Premise: What you do is determined by who you are.

2nd P: If you can’t control who you are, you can’t control what you do.

3rd P: You can’t control who you are.

Conclusion: Therefore, you can’t control what you do.

I’m not sure whether this is an entirely accurate quote, because I’m too lazy to go back and check, but I do believe I’ve got the gist of it (it certainly works, at least in my head). I just wanted to put this up because I like how concisely it outlines the theory put forth by determinism. As an example, imagine a person who is brought up in a devout Christian community by Christian parents, who later on in life starts writing an anti-LGBT blog (in this example, I’m thinking of a traditional, slightly extremist Christian community – there are of course many Christians today who fully accept non-heterosexual people). Now, we might say that this person had bad moral character. But, really, a reasonable person would have to admit that the individual in question is opposed to the LGBT lifestyle not because hse (sic) is evil, but because hse’s been raised in a particular way.

So there are two things I’d like to talk about related to this. First of all; if we accept determinism (which, of course, we don’t necessarily have to do), then what conclusions can we make regarding ethics? If people aren’t really in control of what they do, then surely there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral action? For someone to be considered a moral agent, they need to have free will – the ability, in the case of ethics, to choose between right and wrong. Here’s what I think; on some level, we can say that an action is wrong even if we do accept determinism, by applying certain tests/moral theories such as utilitarianism. Just because people can’t really choose between right and wrong doesn’t mean that the distinction doesn’t exist. However, what we can’t do is judge people because of their actions.

The second thing I’d like to talk about, quite briefly, is the idea that determinism is somehow an unpleasant theory. Generally, whenever determinism pops up (as in the aforementioned podcast), the discussion immediately turns to how horrible it would be if it were true. No free will! We’d be slaves to fate, incapable of making choices, shackled to causal chains that we have no control over whatsoever. People tend to shy away from this. It’s intimidating. We don’t want it to be true. However (and this is my point), freedom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, it’s a wonderful concept. On paper, it sounds terrific. But if you look at the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (who thought that we were all most definitely free), you’ll find that he was kinda fond of saying that we’re all condemned to be free. He saw freedom as something that was, in a way, unpleasant. His reason for this was, essentially, that with freedom comes responsibility. If we’re free, we have to take responsibility for every conscious action that we take. That can be pretty heavy at times, especially if we’re unsuccessful or unhappy. If life doesn’t go the way we want it to, it’s our fault. In a way, if determinism is true, we have another kind of freedom. In a deterministic world, we’re free of freedom (or responsibility, if you wish). It’s the sort of freedom an animal, plant, or mineral has. The freedom to simply be, and “go with the flow”.

The above may be interpreted in such a way as to promote anarchy. But sometimes we have to ignore “deeper” truths for the greater good of ourselves and society (in other words, it’s all fine and dandy to not believe in personal responsibility, but it’s probably best if you pretend that you do). And, of course, we can’t be sure; determinism may well be incorrect.

Also, I have to admit that I didn’t listen to the entire podcast, so I might be repeating some of the things that were said  towards the end of it. I’ll probably finish listening to it soon (it was very interesting), and if I find this to be the case, I’ll come back and edit what I’ve written here – probably.

Hse: he/she. Pronounced like “see” but with a really husky voice. The Finnish have a word for man/woman (hen), why shouldn’t we? Makes life easier.


11 responses »

  1. Very interesting thoughts. Mostly I do agree with you, especially where you mentioned Sartre and the philosophy of existentialism, but I must disagree with the 1st Premise: What you do is determined by who you are. I personally believe it is the other way around. I believe it is not the action that it is determined by who we are (although I partly agree with this), but it is the variety of ones actions that can partly determine ones person. And I say partly, because one can never be determined completely. People change with every moment, with every new experience. What they are now, they have never been and they will never be. Moreover, as you mentioned freedom and free will, I do not know if nowadays these two words really are expressed in their fullest meaning. I believe, people aren’t free at all, not until they find the source inside them who made them become who they are in this present moment and change it, forget about how they were brought up, everything society thought them and start from scratch, with no fear. When we are brought up, we are already losing our freedom, because we are being molded, by different pattrens of behaviour and thinking. So one needs to find this source that made him act or think like he did and than change it. OK, so thats pretty much it, hope it is not to big of a mess for you to read (and I say read instead of understand, because if you understood my thoughts you would understood me and me noone can understand, except me :).) Have a lovely day and keep sharing your thoughts ( but only if you want) with whoever whats to read them.

    • Thank you for challenging what I say – you’re the first person who’s ever tried to discuss one of my posts with me rather than just “commenting” on it!

      I agree with what you’re saying, though I do have a few counters to it. With regards to your disagreement with the first premise, I agree that people are constantly changing, but I would say that the alternative view that you have proposed doesn’t actually disprove the one I’ve written down. In the syllogism, when it’s said that “what you do is determined by who you are” the point is that, depending on who you are as a person at any given moment, you will act accordingly. When, however, you say that one’s actions determine one’s personality, you’re talking about something slightly different. You’re saying that the choices a person makes shapes them. While it might seem like it, the two aren’t mutually exclusive: if we take the example of the Christian above, who he is leads him to write his blog, but in the act of writing it he will also be changing himself (perhaps becoming more firmly convinced of his ideas, or maybe less so as he starts to look at them more objectively). After he starts writing the blog, he’s a different person – a person who writes a blog – but he started to write the blog because of who he was before he started writing it. So while it is true that our actions and choices shape us as people, it can still be true that who we are makes us do what we do (in a sense implying that who we are at the time of our death is already predetermined when we’re in the womb, which is exactly what the determinists believe). So you’re right, in a sense, but your argument doesn’t actually disprove mine 🙂

      As far as what you said about free will, I agree whole heartedly with the first bit. We aren’t free, or at least it seems very unlikely that we are. However, I don’t think people can become free – I don’t think it’s possible to fully move beyond the things that make us who we are (our biology and circumstances). Certainly, I can come to recognize where my prejudices come from and accept that they’re not actually logical but a mere product of nature and nurture, but there will be subtle factors affecting how I think and feel that I won’t be able to get a hold of. In a sense, I can become more “free” in the way people generally think of freedom, being able to look at things without major prejudices and intellectual constraints, but on another level I’d be just as free of freedom as everyone else. After all, if we substitute my extremist Christian with a “radical critical thinker” (the sort of free person you’re describing), the argument still works; everything they do is determined by their clear, unprejudiced and critical personality and firm grasp of logic.

      Please, if you disagree with my counters, re-counter, and I’ll see what I can come up with! I don’t think I’ll be posting as regularly in future but I’ll definitely try to keep sharing my thoughts. You have a lovely day too, and thank you for swinging by ^^

      • Hehe, I wouldn’t really call it a challenge, perhaps an exchange of opinios or a debate. And if I may say, I find the contents of your previous posts very very interesting indeed, remarkable ideas and thoughts. Well I’m very honored to be the first, hopefully I won’t be he last.
        I have to disagree, but this time it won’t be with you, but with determinists. I find it hard to believe that our future is predetermined, although sometimes I do get this strange feeling like no matter what I did, I would still end up here, where I am right now. I do not know about you, but sometimes I start thinking, what if there is a “big plan” every single persone is a part of and no matter how you conduct your life, no matter what decisions you make, you end up in the same place (and by this place I do not mean death). But people are supposed to have free will, so does that mean that our so called “free will” it’s actually not free at all? Ok,i wandered off the topic a littlebit (like I usually do, when there are too many thoughts in my head) anyway, predetermined destiny,future or whatever you may call it, is not something I believe in. I fancy more the “tabula rasa” ideology, as nurture to me has a more powerfull meaning that nature, although nature mustn’t be completely forgoten.
        Yes, I very much agree with what you have said about free will. At this point I wonder if the use of the phrase “free will” is actually possible, as each persones choices are affected by a large number of exterior and interior factors. I think human freedom or free will has it’s own deffinition, which mustn’t be confused with the pure meaning of the word freedom. But even if we are not free inside our freedom, the emotions that the thought of being free evokes in us is priceless and living this so called freedom is what life should be like, (according to me ofc).

        You are most welcome. 🙂

      • I like the way you think, Skyla ^^

        You seem to be quite interested in the determinist debate. It is a very important one, in my opinion; are we really free? Of course that question needs an answer. The “big plan” you’re talking about sounds very much like the theory of causality that determinism revolves around. I actually find myself agreeing quite a lot with the hard determinists out there these days, but I used to be very convinced that there must be some kind of free will in existence. If you look at science, there is some evidence supporting the idea in the Heisenberg principle, but that’s on a very minute level. On the other hand, and this is the thing that’s starting to convince me of our lack of freedom, there’s the eternalism that most quantum physicists are convinced of (the idea that time doesn’t actually move; that the past and the future are as real as the present – and of course if the future’s already out there, fully formed, that implies we can’t do anything to change it).

        I really like what you’re saying about the emotions we feel in conjunction with freedom, though. The subjective experience of freedom is very much a real thing, even if actual “freedom” isn’t, and as such it’s precious. I’m thinking I might start looking into all this a little more deeply now; thanks for inspiring me 🙂

      • Thank you very much. I can say the same thing for you. I feel like I should tell you my real name is not Skyla, it’s Hana.

        It’s a very interesting topic to talk about, there are so many possible explanations, answears, and in my opinion, this sort of discussion might never come to an end. It’s the use of imagination that I like about it, all those different ideas interweaving between each other, making you think of new possibilities, creating new realities, seeing everything in a new different pespective, developing your mind and thoughts due to all new information. It’s pretty intriguing, if you ask me.
        If what you say about future, being already fully formed, is to be true, noone knows what this future holds in store for us. In my opinion, this is the beauty of it, knowing but at the same time not knowing, if what you say is to be true. The adventure of discovering somethnig unknown that already exists, but the greatest part of it is that only you can discover your future, noone can do it for you, giving everything to life so there is nothing left to give up on. Sounds like fun. 🙂
        All you said about physics and science got me thinking. When you reduce every single creature, human being, thing to atoms and molecules, even protons, neutrons and electrones, you discover that we are actually made of same particles. And all these particles are connected, formig a world wide stream of life, where every single human or creature or thing is connected to everything else. So when an action is done or a word is said or something happens, this sends a stimulus into this great stream of life and consequently affects whoever or whatever comes in conection with. So if someone sends a negative stimulus the consequences will be negative and the same goes for everything else. This is just something that took over my thoughts, after reading you previous post.

        You’re very welcome and thank you too, for inspiring my imagination. You’ve got no idea how wonderful it is for me and my artistic side having such discussions with you.

      • I’m digging what you’re saying here! I think I’ve been losing track of the subjective side of things lately, looking at stale, objective facts (or possible facts), and you’re reminding me that the interpretation of such truths is just as important as the truths themselves. Discovering the future, even if it has already been fully mapped out, does indeed sound like fun ^^
        The whole interconnectedness thing is definitely true, and I seem to remember watching documentaries with physicists saying similar stuff (in relation to things like Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance”).
        I’m glad to hear that you and your artistic side have been having a good time 🙂

      • Subjectivness to me is key. All these theories and ideas we were talking about are good and everything, but if they lack a “human point of view,” like they are being interpreted by a scientist conducting an experiment, they are like a human body missing its soul. I try to imagine how would people and their emotions change, if some of the theories mentioned above were, let say publicly recognized as the only truth. For example, today many people believe in God and their lives are kind of adjusted to it. But what if people were to believe that time doesn’t move, that the past and the future are just as real as the present, like you said. How would they live, how would they feel, what would they think about, how would their lifes change etc. This is all pretty interesting stuff for me to think about, to put myself in an unknown position and just go with it wherever my imagination may take me.

      • You’re sounding like a proper existentialist; I like it! Indeed, people’s potential reactions to philosophical theories need to be considered, especially when you’re dealing with “subversive” or “radical” subjects.

  2. I like the philosophy of existentialism and also Jean-Paul Sartre is one of my favoutire writers, so his influence on me is quite strong. Although, I was developing a similar way of thinking before I started reading Sartre, his work only inspired me to think about it even more.
    Indeed, I fully agree with you.

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