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Determinism, indeterminism and free will


To: Harry D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Determinism, indeterminism and free will
Date: 28 January 2005 14:03

Dear Harry,

Thank you for your email of 21 January, with your first essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism, and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

This is a good, clear and accessible exposition of the problem of freewill and determinism with which I have few real disagreements.

It is worth making the point that when we talk of destiny and what we are 'fated' to do, this is a different concept than the concept of determinism. We will be looking at the question of fatalism in unit 9. We need, first, to distinguish two different varieties of 'fatalism'.

The 'fates' play a big role in Greek tragedy, Oedipus for example. Here, it seems that what we are 'fated' to do is out of our control because the gods have decided that this is how things are going to turn out, willy nilly. Oedipus flees the city in an attempt to prevent the events predicted by the Delphic Oracle from taking place - that he will kill has father and marry his mother. But the old man he meets on the road turns out to have been his father, the queen he marries turns out to have been his mother.

And what if he hadn't attempted to defy the prediction? Possibly the very same thing, but in a different way.

By contrast, the philosophical fatalist says that the future is the future, no matter what. If it is true that Oedipus will kill his father, then there is only one possible way - not several alternative ways - in which this can happen.

Oedipus is 'unfree' in a different way in the first version of the story, where he does ultimately have a real choice whether to stay or flee, than he does in the second version of the story, where the outcome of every process of deliberation is already decided before one makes the choice.

Philosophical fatalism is like determinism in that they each results in there being only one possible future. When we deliberate, it seems to us that there are several possible futures, which we have the power to choose between, but this is an illusion. The future is already fixed before we 'decide'.

How are they different? Wait for unit 9.

I liked the discussion of your wife Janet's decision to marry you. She was free to choose, yet her decision her character. Had her character been different, the decision might have been different.

It could be argued that we are free to 'choose' our character, inasmuch we have the power to reflect on the kind of person we have become, and seek to make ourselves better. Charles Dickens' 'Christmas Carol' is a classic example. Given the chance to see the consequences for his own life if he continues on his present path, Scrooge acquires the motivation, which he did not have before, to strive to become a generous person rather than mean. And yet, from the point of view of the minute examination of all the circumstances of each choice that Scrooge made, the determinist would argue that the very choice to act 'out of character' was itself determined by Scrooge's total character. Another individual in Scrooge's predicament might chase away the ghosts, and refuse to change.

This does seem to make it grossly unfair, from a 'cosmic' perspective that each of us has the 'total character' that we have. (The philosopher Thomas Nagel calls this 'moral luck'.)

Being predictable, acting in character, might seem like a restriction on our freedom. Here is an argument from F.H. Bradley. Suppose you find a twenty pound note, and hand it in to the Police station. A friend remarks, 'I'm surprised you did that.' You retort angrily, 'You should have known me better!'

How does Hume's view about the compatibility of determinism and free will relate to the question of the impossibility of knowing that day will follow night? I wasn't clear about what you thought here.

Hume attacks the belief in causality as 'necessary connection' on two levels. First, he denies that there is any 'connection' at all between cause and effect. If it is true that A caused B, then this truth consists in the truth of a universal proposition, of the form 'For all x, if Ax then Bx'. A universal proposition applies to all places and all times. That, and nothing else, is what 'causal necessity' consists in. However, there is one extra ingredient in this account. This is the psychological mechanism whereby we naturally come to expect B when A occurs. What happens, according to Hume, is that we somehow project this subjective feeling onto the things themselves, and this is the explanation for the erroneous belief in a 'necessary connection' between A and B.

The common sense view is that we can sometimes 'know' that A has caused B. This brings in the second level of Hume's critique. In order to know that A caused B, I have to know the truth of a universal proposition that applies to all places and all times! We can have good inductive grounds for this belief, but we can never be 100 per cent sure. But what is a 'good' inductive ground? According to Hume, it is merely a consideration which we find psychologically persuasive.

All the best,