Val Dusek, Freedom and determinism

Whether one thinks that humans are enmeshed in a deterministic technological system that controls their actions, or whether one thinks that humans freely construct their technology and society, implicit positions on the problem of freedom versus determinism are assumed.

One of the traditional philosophical problems is that of freedom versus determinism. In the Middle Ages the conflict was formulated in relation to the idea that God, who was omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all knowing), could foresee and control all, but let Adam sin. If God knew that Adam and Eve would fall when they were created, were they really free? Predestination (the doctrine that God predetermined at creation who will be saved or damned) also conflicts with freedom. Figures such as St Augustine (354–430) and the mathematician/philosopher Gottfried Leibniz (1646–1716) claimed to have reconciled these conflicts.

With the rise of scientific laws and determinist ideas the conflict with freedom took a new form. If everything we do is physically causally determined, can we be free? In this dispute determinists say no, while so-called libertarians, who are believers in metaphysically free will (not the same as political libertarians, who support minimal government), say yes, we really are free. There are two senses of freedom here. One is the contra-causal sense, the one that conflicts with determinism. In this sense of freedom, acts of free will counter physical causes. That is, acts of free will are said to somehow break or go against the chains of physical, causal determinism. The other is the sense of freedom as responsibility, which need not conflict with physical determinism.

Compatibilists attempt to reconcile freedom and determinism. A way to accomplish this is to say that we are responsible for our acts even though we are determined. One can try to claim that responsibility has nothing to do with the contra-causal sense of freedom. One way of claiming that freedom and determinism are compatible is to say that free acts are simply the ones that issue from us in some sense. Even though all acts are ultimately determined, we can distinguish between acts that, in some sense, issue from us, and acts that are produced by external physical causes (such as being blown off a roof and falling on someone) or external human coercion (such as being threatened at gunpoint). This is an approach commonly taken in various forms by British empiricist philosophers such as John Locke (1632–1704) and John Stuart Mill (1806–73).

Another way to combine freedom and determinism is to claim that the physical world is completely deterministic, but that the mind or soul is a different sort of non-physical stuff and is free. This is the dualism of the seventeenth-century philosopher-mathematician René Descartes (1596– 1650). This is a substance dualism, in that Descartes claimed that there are two kinds of entities (substances), material substance and mental substance. That is, matter or physical stuff and mind or mental stuff are totally distinct from one another. The problem that arises from this is: if these substances are so different in nature, how can one affect the other, how can the non-physical mind affect the body? This is called the mind–body problem.

Because of its difficulties few philosophers hold this Cartesian dualism or causal interactionism today. Nevertheless, several Nobel Prize winning brain scientists, including Sir Charles Sherrington (1857–1952), Sir John Eccles of Australia (1903–97), Wilder Penfield of Canada (1891– 1976), and Richard Sperry of the USA (1913–94), held this position in the late twentieth century. Their dualism cannot be dismissed as based on ignorance of brain science, since they were its leaders. It arose from the mystery of how experienced consciousness is related to the physical brain. (As mentioned concerning the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Sir John Eccles, like the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington (1934, pp. 88–9, 302– 3), appealed to the effect of quantum indeterminacy on the brain cells. However, even if this could yield random actions, we wouldn’t necessarily consider them freely chosen actions.) Another, and somewhat less problematical, way of reconciling freedom and determinism is in terms of two standpoints theory, the solution of the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant claims each individual has a dignity that is of infinite worth. Kant believes that we are genuinely free. He also claims that the world is completely deterministic. From the point of view of knowledge and science we structure the world in terms of deterministic laws, and can only understand it in these terms. We search for laws and see things in terms of causal laws.

However, from the point of view of morality we consider ourselves as free. Moral acts are based on a moral law that we freely legislate to ourselves. Acting in terms of the moral law, we freely choose. Thus Kant reconciles freedom and determinism by a kind of dualism of standpoints or perspectives, rather than a dualism of soul and body. That is, we can describe human behavior from the standpoint of science and causal laws, and we can describe human behavior in terms of moral responsibility for our acts. These two approaches are different but do not conflict. They are mutually applicable. In the twentieth century there have been variations on this sort of reconciliation of freedom and determinism based on different uses of language that have been popular. One such approach distinguishes principled rational reasons for acting from causes of acting and claims that the language of human reasons and the language of physical causes are quite distinct. Other philosophers disagree with this and claim that reasons do function as causes of action, thus undermining the two languages approach to reconciling freedom and determinism.

The conflict of the claims of determinism and freedom has been one of the great issues of philosophy since the Christian writers of the Roman Empire. The development of the concept of laws of nature set the problem within a new framework, but did not eliminate most of the traditional issues. The interplay of freedom and determinism occurs within society and throughout the history of technology. Some attempt reconciliation of the competing claims in terms of a “soft determinism.” Others found their accounts on the total freedom of the active subject in social constructivism. Still others eliminate the role of freedom for the impact of events on the passive subject in some forms of structuralism. Yet others claim to solve the dilemma by eliminating the subject altogether, as in some forms of post-modernism. Various positions on freedom and determinism lie in the background of debates about the nature of humans in a technological society.


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