Saturday, December 12, 2009

Why I considered determinism unnatural

What did I have in mind when I said that determinism is an unnatural belief? . Looking at what I was trying to say when I said it, it looks to me as if I wasn't thinking about naive student attitudes toward free will, but simply the fact that in the course of decision-making there are different possibilities that are open to us, one of which we select. Further, it does seem that we consider both choices that we make to be genuine possibilities. But if determinism is true, then the alternative possibility wasn't a real possibility after all. What we did was determined. It's hard to imagine making a difficult decision and asking "Hmmm. What was I predestined to do in this situation?"

I was thinking about the idea we seem to presume that there are possible futures depending on how we act, that become more or less likely depending on what we do. If God has predestined everything, and is determined to do so based on his own nature, then it looks as if there are no possible worlds except alpha.

There does seem to be an at least an illusion of free will when we deliberate and decide. It could be just that, an illusion.


Anonymous said...

I've often wondered about this belief that the future, in order to be known, MUST be static. Can it not be similar to a computer chess game? In a game such as that, moves can be made which alter the possible endings of the game but the computer KNOWS all of the possible endings based on each move made. Does this scenario maintain Free Will while allowing knowledge of the future?

Doctor Logic said...


When I encounter a decision, but before I have considered the choices, I do not know how I will decide. Epistemically, my choice is undetermined.

However, it seems that I could always say in advance of my reasoned consideration that I will choose to act in accord with whatever choice I rationally judge to be superior.

Now, assuming I don't receive any more information during my period of consideration, I already possess all the information and reasons upon which my decision will be based. Those reasons will be of the form "whenever in situation X, Y obtains." This kind of reason is timeless, and was just as true a billion years ago.

Therefore, it must be contradictory for me to think all of the above AND to think that all possible choices are open to me as actualities. All the ingredients of the reasoned choice are already present, and I just don't know how the consideration turns out until I actually consider the choices.

Of course, if I make my choice without having reason for that choice, i.e., without consideration, then the contradiction fades.

This fading doesn't help the libertarian because it means that decisions are either reasoned and deterministic or unreasoned and random.

Tom Clark said...


"...we seem to presume that there are possible futures depending on how we act, that become more or less likely depending on what we do."

As DL says, the future is epistemically open, but according to the block universe view of four dimensional spacetime, it's metaphysically closed: all events past, present and future all equally exist. This seems to obviate any sense of agency and control, since we're simply traversing what "already" exists from the (illusory) time-bound perspective of consciousness. But it isn't clear we'd have more control if the future *weren't* fixed, since episodes of successful control, from the block universe perspective, just *are* certain sorts of static patterns in spacetime. I speculate about this in Scripting the future: spacetime and the nature of control.

Blue Devil Knight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Blue Devil Knight said...

Let's denote as (A) the phenomenology of free will. It includes the experience of the openness of the future when considering different options (e.g., should I buy the Snickers or Mounds bar?).

Let's denote as (B) the underlying neurocomputational process going on. The brain represents the two possibilities, weighs them by doing something like calculating likely futures. The outcome of this process yields the decision and command to action (tell clerk I want Mounds bar).

How are (A) and (B) related? I hypothesize that (B) provides the content to (A). This would be analogous to the way the activity in our visual system provides the specific content to our visual experience (e.g., when you see a dog, this is partly because of activity in your visual system providing the information that a dog is present). In the vision case, anyway, this should be something even a dualist would agree with (i.e., dualists don't think that content of experience is untethered from neuronal activity or the world: even if ultimately the raw experience is nonphysical this nonphysical process must get inputs from the brain which tell it a dog is out in the world).

Implications for Victor's argument. If my argument is right,
then (A) depends on (B), the experience of an open future, of many possibilities (e.g., Mounds/Snickers) gets its content from the underlying neurocomputational processes that guide decision-making. Does this picture of the relation between (A) and (B) imply that "determinism" (or more accurately nomic-ism that includes QM indeterminism) is false? Clearly not.

However, does it follow as Victor claims, that " the alternative possibility wasn't a real possibility after all"? No, not in the scenario I drew up. Sure, I ended up choosing a Mounds bar, but that doesn't imply that the Snickers wasn't a real possibility. The brain held up the Snickers bar as a real possibility, and via some dynamical process rejected that possibility. If the calculated future, based on that Snickers possibility, had been different, then I would have chosen differently.

So yes, you could have done differently, and that feeling is valid, but this doesn't imply that humans violate the nomic regularities from neuroscience or physics. How will decision-making be enhanced or improved by adding an additional ingredient that violates said regularities?

Edwardtbabinski said...

Vic, If thoughts lack sufficient causation and libertarian free will is true, then your mind is a wheel of fortune. But a mind CONNECTED with sensations and raised in a particular culture IS determined by everything it encounters everyday, thank heavens for that. LIBERTARIAN FREE WILL is the REAL NIGHTMARE.