Determinism and Indeterminism

Children, beware the wine of Philosophy, because once you are hooked, there is no escaping the barb of it. Having reached a point where (or so I thought) he and I had covered all the points of the topic of materialism, Dr. Andreassen asked me once again to address the issue.

I realized to my chagrin what an honor he does me, not only taking the time to write and ask my opinion, but being willing to answer with the patience of Job. I cannot in due courtesy refuse the offer. Here we go again.

I assure all my patient readers, rightfully bored with this topic, that I will certainly post more articles in the near future about much more significant philosophical topics touching the issues of the day, such as which version of Catwoman is the best, or whether green Orion animal-women are more attractive than Princess Leia in a slavegirl bikini.

Let us start the discussion with a point of agreement.

Dr. Andreassen writes:

the charge of determinism is equally valid for a non-materialist explanation. Suppose that your character is such that given a particular set of options, you can only make one choice; or for that matter, suppose there is an omniscient god who is able to foresee all your free-willed choices. Does that make your choices less free? Not a bit of it; they are still your choices, and still morally meaningful. Whether the thing-that-chooses is material or otherwise is irrelevant to this point.”

I agree with Dr. Andreassen here: Calvinists and most pagans are determinists who believe a man’s fate is written by God or by fate or by the norns or by Karma — and these are thoroughgoing supernaturalists. The charge of determinism is equally fair against both naturalistic and supernaturalistic determinists.

My own position, which I despair of ever making clear to anyone, albeit it seems clear enough to me, is that whether or not God or Norns or the material circumstances of the universe can determine the position of each and every atom in your brain makes no difference whatsoever to the legal question of whether one has free will, which refers, not to the ontology of causality, but to the legal requirement that the decision was not made under coercion and while in a sound mind.

A reader with the fortunate name of Lucky Marty writes what I think is a most elegant summation of the antimony of determinism:

Consider the following propositions:

1. All events are either the deterministic result of prior events or else they are random.
2. Free choices are not fully determined by prior events.
3. Free choices are not random.
4. People make free choices.

All of them seem highly plausible, and in fact it’s not easy to see how any of them could be false. But they can’t all be true

Here is where a little bit of Scholastic analysis helps. This paradox is a paradox in words only. A crucial distinction is not being made.

Free choices are not determined by prior events but by posterior events, and the word “determined” is misleading when used for something that determines its own course of action.

Now, while it may be that a sufficiently finely grained analysis could establish the prior causes for a free decision, perhaps by listing every single brain atom in a man’s skull, and consulting a billiard expert, and deducing from then the location at a later time of every brain atom. But, this, of course, tells us exactly nothing about the decision of the man whose skull we are examining, unless we have a material-to-thought dictionary which lists the position of each atom group and tells us, not what the physical properties are, but what those positions MEAN. You can find out what the man meant by his actions, if he is honest, by asking him: “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.”

Eve, Mother of All Living, if we were to unpack the meaning of her terse statement, is saying that she foresaw two possible futures: in World P (P for Prelapsarian), she would remain obedient to God, and would not eat the apple, and in World F (F for Fallen), she would eat the apple, learn the experience of good and evil, become wise, and be like God. Her claim is that her image or view of World F was distorted by a falsehood uttered by the serpent, so that the results were not quite as advertised.

What is the status of World P? Is it real? Was it ever a possible option? The question is not one any empirical investigation can answer, because we cannot return to the past point of time, even in the hypothetical, to examine the status of a might have been. Even if we climb into what I will call a Harry Turtledove Machine, and fly sideways in time to World P, from the point of view of a determinist in P, this world is the only one which could arise out of the past conditions of the Creation, because every event must happen as it does happen.

Determinism, when it comes down to it  is a statement about a might have been. The Indeterminist says that the path not chosen is real, in that he could have chosen it. The determinists says that the future is like the past, and every event springs from the previous events, with no possibility of any deviation, no latitude for variance: only what did happen could have happened.

The determinists must be understood to include the decision-making process with all its hesitations and uncertainties and mental anguish and weighing of options as part of the inevitable process. His claim is that if you rewound the film of life and played the scene again where Hamlet decides not to commit suicide, Hamlet will come to the same conclusion because all the same (historical, mechanical, material) factors are present.

The indeterminist accuses the determinist of saying that all men are robots; the determinist accuses the indeterminist of saying things happen for no reason, which is impossible. Neither side is quite addressing the ideas of the other.

The discussion between determinism and indeterminism is actually a discussion of ontology: the two sides are discussing how “real” a “might have been” or counterfactual might be. Do things that may have been but are not actually exist? Or are they illusion?

If everything that is presently must be and could not have been any other way, how could any might have been be a might have been?

Myself, I am a determinist when it comes to the discussion, in the metaphor of physics, of the inanimate reactions of inanimate objects to external forces. Once you have told me the M (Mass), L (Length), T (Time), Q (Temperature), N (Moles of Substance), I (Current), and J (Candlepower) you have told me everything possible to say about the inanimate properties of any inanimate object.

However, when talking of self-directed actions of animate or inanimate beings, stepping outside the metaphor of physics, one must speak of the motive, purpose, or final cause which causes the behavior.

These behaviors are premised on the fact that might have beens could have been: every action of a self-moved or living being is because he fears a might-be that will be if he fails to act, or he longs for a might-be that will not be if he does not act. Unlike our determinist, the living being making the decision does not regard the decision making process to be part of the circumstances of the inevitable universe: the acting and living being, be it man or beast, has control over his own actions.

“The dog attacked because the mailman stepped on his territory” is a sensible sentence, and if reduced to a long strings of descriptions of the mass and durations of the atoms in the dog’s body, the chemicals associated with aggression, and so on, it would become a nonsense sentence, and not convey the crucial information of why the dog attacked.

“Why” is not one of the seven dimensions physical descriptions of the physical world deal with. “Why” is not and cannot be reduced to a statement about the mass, length, duration, temperature, substance, current or candlepower of inanimate objected reacting to external pressures. Physics deliberately, for the sake of simplification, ignores all questions of “why.” No physicist investigates the motive for which two masses of different weights fall at the same rate. The concept is one their metaphor, which is a deliberately artificial metaphor, refuses to examine. (The reason why I call it a metaphor and not a model, is that, like a metaphor, it leaves something out on purpose. In this case, purpose.)

“The dog attacked because he was improperly trained; the dog’s owner is liable for the injuries to the mailman.” is also a perfectly sensible sentence. The dog owner, merely by owning a dog, had a duty to train it to be safe enough to dwell in society, and his failure to train the dog to allow the mailman onto the property is a breach of that duty; and due to that breach, the mailman was injured: the legal responsibility attaches to the dog owner, since the dog is a dumb beast. Beasts can be habituated, but cannot be reasoned, into domesticated or civilized behavior.

Attempting to force such concepts as liability and foreseeable consequences of negligence and so on into the pigeonhole of describing everything in terms of mass, length, duration, temperature, substance, current and candlepower is madness. Not only can it not be done, it ought not be done, because then the crucial information, the one thing we humans need to know to act sanely and justly in the world, namely, questions of liability and responsibility, drop out of the equation.

Basically, the determinist takes a metaphor from the physical sciences and attempts to apply it to legal, philosophical, and theological concepts, where it neither agrees nor disagrees: it simply makes no difference whatsoever.

There are two (or more) dimensions to the action of the dog attacking the mailman. One dimension is the physical: A sufficiently patient “dogologist”, equipped with a science fictional scanner that might tell him the position of every atom in the dog’s body, could indeed describe the attack launched by the dog to a nicety. He might, let us suppose, be able to detect not only the amounts of chemicals in the dog’s bloodstream and nervous system, let us say he can make a model of the dog’s brain to a sufficiently fine level of detail that he can deduce the presence or absence of certain states of mind in the dog. With a help of a dictionary that translated from a list of material data to a list of meanings, he could make such guesses.

(Of course, if that dictionary exists, our patient dogologist is no longer a strict materialist: the second list, the one saying what each combination of atoms “means” is itself referring to a dimension of the universe, the meaning, which cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional recitation of data about matter in motion.)

Another dimension is the legal and moral: the dog owner should have known the dog was dangerous and kept the beast on a leash.

No examination, in any level of detail, will discover, lodged somewhere in the brains of dogowners or lawgivers, a macromolecular lump called “Duty of Reasonable Care” made of smaller particles called “dutons” which magnetically imprinted into the lawgiver’s brain stem from the source of all duties beyond Arcturus, a cloud of dark matter ninety lightyears wide, where dutons are produced by the fission of logic particles, logons, and ethical particles, ethons.

Duties are not physical, even if the brain atoms that see the duties are physical, or even if the ink marks used in law books to defined and describe duties are physical. The map is not the territory: the word is not the thing it represents. Brain atom motions that write up little electron-sentences about duties are not themselves duties, any more than a cat is in my skull when I think the word “cat”. The thoughts are about something. In this case, something with no necessary physical properties: a duty of reasonable care.

Let us suppose again that there are two worlds: one in which the dogologist can account for each and every nervous and muscular motion of the dog, based on all prior motions of atoms and electrons in the universe, and one where he (for whatever reason) cannot. The first is World D (D for Determinist) and the second is World I (I for Indeterminst).

Now, when the trial for the tort of negligence comes, that patient dogologist will never be called as a witness, not in either world, D nor I: because his testimony simply does not mean anything that pertains to the question at hand, which is whether or not the owner took reasonable steps to train the dog to be domesticated so as not to pose a danger to the innocent; whether the dogowner had a duty, and whether that duty was breached, and whether that breach caused an injury.

The jury will be looking, not at the prior states of the universe which gave rise in a mechanistic way to the current state of the universe on the day of the dog attack in question, but will be looking (in so far as possible) at the future states of the universe as they would have appeared to a reasonable man the moment the defendant had the opportunity to train the dog and decided not to, and also at the future states of the universe as it actually appeared to the defendant during the period in question.

When I say “the future states of the universe” all of physicists and dogologists in my readership are certain to foam at the mouth and explain the paradoxical impossibility of a chain of cause and effect reaching from future into the past. No particle travels back in time; no information can escape its “light cone” and move from future to past.

The foaming-mouthed dogologists, of course, merely forget that mechanical causation is but one of several modes of causation.

I may be truly said to duck my head from a wild baseball “because” nerve impulses of such and such as amperage contracted my neck muscles and so on. That is mechanical cause. it goes from past to future.

Likewise, I may be truly said to duck a wild baseball “because” I foresaw that failing to duck would result in a painfully mashed nose, and, preferring World A to World B, selected the action thought best to achieve the world preferred.

No account, legal or theological or philosophical or commonsensical, of the actions of man can be made without reference being made to his ability to foresee the future and react to fears and hopes (both real and unreal) concerning worlds not yet in existence.

Determinism ignores this most basic and most obvious dimension of human existence.  It treats acting man as if he is a reacting machine, a thing moved, like a clockwork, by external pressures, not a thing that moves itself.

As a metaphor, determinism is useless to the understanding. It makes nothing clear; it has no explanatory power; it produces no insight; it does not produce a model that makes more powerful at producing better predictions of the universe than other models; it imposes no additional moral duties on man to ennoble him. If anything, it serves as a cheap makeshift excuse to avoid criticism for behaviors for which a man is and must be held responsible.

Is determinism therefore false? Not when kept within its proper scope, as a description for how inanimate objects react to external forces, it is a useful and powerful tool. Determinism says that everything happens for a reason. The alternate time lines, the paths not chosen, the doors not opened, can be likened to purely imaginary doors painted on the walls of a corridor that has no branches.

Indeterminism says that every happens for a reason, but the reasons are final cause, due to the will of man, or the lesser minds of beasts, or, to a degree, plants. The doors on the corridor there are real: when they open, an new corridor, a branch taken, appears to view, and the branch not taken must be real for that decision to be meaningful.

But in what sense can an event, or a world, that might have been, but now is not and never will be, be said to be “real”?


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