Do we fear determinism for the same reason we fear atheism?

A rambling post today. Fuzzy brained and foot loose!

 

  I was recently thinking about the concept of free will. It's an idea that has always bothered me, like a tickle at the back of the throat. I firmly believe in cause and effect. I firmly believe in the laws of physics and what they imply. So without an outside force, it makes sense that everything is controlled very directly by these laws. Including us. The logic behind it is fairly simple. I'm guessing it's the complexity of existence and the relative simplicity of our minds that makes choice such a plausible illusion. But an illusion is what it must be.

 

   This used to scare me. Deep down, I do not actively enjoy the idea of being so mundane and effectually predictable. Trapped. And in my mind, nothing special. Accepting that there's nothing beyond death was easy. Accepting the fact that I am a huge equation was much harder. After all, I chose what I valued and valued choice for itself.

 

  I spent a long time letting the idea sink past my emotions and into my more rational core. Eventually I decided that it didn't matter. How I make a choice, be it simply chemical predetermined or an active and separate process, matters much less than what my choice does. If my actions make the world better in some way my goal has been accomplished. And thinking back on this fear now, I can understand the desire to reject the idea of determinism altogether. Anything that removes our safety nets and makes us feel small tends to be met with the same resistance. Science gets the brunt of this reaction, but determinism falls right in with plenty of people.

 

   So with all this in mind, I wonder what other people think on the subject. Is it frightening to think of yourself as an eventuality? Has anyone come across anything contrary to the idea of determinism? Do we perhaps agree? Thoughts, please!

Views: 215

Tags: determinism, fate, free, will

Comment by Dogly on June 18, 2011 at 10:49am
My feelings are with Dr. del Toro, and Michael Edminster. I say feelings rather than thoughts, because my intellect is not up to any real grasp of either the philosophy or physics required to understand the concept of determinism. Since I don't believe in god, and therefore in any divine purpose for my existence, I have painstakingly devised a useful purpose for myself. I want to make some small changes in society's behavior that will increase fairness and happiness for the underdog. I also would like the earth to maintain a healthy skin of life. At every turn I have taken action, and made decisions, which put me outside acceptable norms of behavior. I risked beatings as a child, and jail as an adult. This is never easy. To think that all my choices are NOT choices but are predetermined, makes my life seem futile. I don't mind my death being final. I don't mind being a unknown cipher among the billions. I don't mind poverty. I can take the loneliness of being an outsider. What would make my life really miserable would be to accept that nothing I do will make any difference. That will lead to a paralyzing hopelessness, and that heavy hand of depression on my shoulder. This is not meant to add to the scientific comprehension of determinism, but rather to explain the emotions that make this philosophy unpleasant to even a godless cynic. I'll leave further expostulation to those brighter and braver minds. I still have work to do.
Comment by Atheist Exile on June 18, 2011 at 11:32am
The problem with free will, as I see it, is that people have the wrong impression of what it means.  But that we have free will is not in doubt.  It's empirically proven every time we conceive and execute a plan. I've this is hard to explain because, to me, free will isn't in conflict with causality (as most people seem to think).  Free will is a product of human intelligence INTERACTING WITH causality.  I'll try to explain . . .

We don’t have free will in the way most people think of free will. I maintain that “free will” is an awful term to express the independent agency humans possess to define purpose for themselves and pursue it. Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our experience; our identity.  Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.”  We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for.

Experience represents the past.  Experience — what we’ve learned — is all we know.  I believe it’s virtually impossible to think or act outside our experience.  Even inspiration comes from experience. Where the rubber meets the road is in the present.  This is where our human brains interact with the world around us to form the conceptual continuity of identity: our consciousness.  Experience influences us so much because it was once formed in the present and layered into our identity just as the present will be.  THAT is the self in self-determinism.

Don’t get me wrong . . . causality rules.  We might think we’re in control until that earthquake or tsunami or car accident or economic crash or newborn baby changes our lives.  Causality is the ultimate big dog.  The unfortunate among us will be pursuing successful plans or enjoying the fruits of their labors when causality rears its ugly head and wipes out their achievements.  We can make choices to maximize security but we can never be sure we’re secure.

But how do you explain the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of causality, we can still map out our own futures and achieve our plans (if they’re any good)?  How do you explain how we, for the most part, hack our own paths into the future?

Feedback.

Mental feedback is the key.  Without it, we could not have memories or analyze problems or learn or make plans.  Without it, we could not understand causality or anticipate it.  Intelligence and consciousness itself hinge on mental feedback.  Mental feedback gives us a temporal advantage over causality by allowing us to anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly.  THAT is the determinism in “self-determinism”.

It lacks the flourish and romanticism of unbridled libertarian free will but self-determinism has its own beauty revealed in the paradox of free agency in a clockwork universe. Causality determines the scope of our abilities and actions and we use those abilities and actions to hack our own paths into the future.  And we’re good at it.  We’re getting cocky. But we’re not masters of causality . . . just expressions of it.

Comment by Mo Trauen on June 18, 2011 at 11:50am

Atheist Exile wrote:  "Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our experience; our identity.  Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.”  We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for."

 

Brilliant summation.

Comment by Chris Townsend on June 18, 2011 at 12:25pm

Reading this makes me think of the following:

 

A clock is made for a purpose.  They are all made for the same purpose.  How that looks practically is different.  Some are designed to be worn on the wrist, some are designed to hang on the wall, others to be placed at the bedside.  They are found to have an excess or a paucity of functionality, yet they all are still foundational found to have been created for the same basic purpose.  

 

It is easy for me to see human beings as being in parallel. We are all designed for the same purpose, but this manifests practically in very different ways.  We, unlike clocks, are conscious and are able to decide whether our specific design and functionality is best suited for the wrist, the wall or the bedside.

 

I am curious as to what you guys think about this perspective and how it plays into the whole free will vs determinism consideration...

Comment by JerBear on June 18, 2011 at 12:52pm
If determinism is true then why would you try to convince anyone of this? Argument or debate presupposes some level of free will.
Comment by Dr. del Toro on June 18, 2011 at 1:20pm

One thing I'd like to say is that experience is not limited to our memorable conscious experience.  There is a lot of information that is passed down through DNA.  One example is babies automatically holding their breath when submerged underwater.  Also, the subconscious is an incredible part of cognition.  There are many functions which are automatically controlled by the brain.  Take walking for instance.  There are many muscles requires to walk, but we don't usually have to concentrate on walking, we just will ourselves in the right direction and our mind makes all the calculations somewhere underneath the surface of our consciousness.

One example I liked well came from the fantasy book The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.  In this book a professor has a rock and asks his students to calculate where they should place a hand to catch the rock if he were to toss it to one of them.  They spend a few hours or so on it and are unable to come up with a solution.  The professor then calls for a messenger boy to come over.  He tells the boy to catch the rock and quickly tosses it to him.  The boy catches it and is confused.  The professor then looks to his students and asks how an eight year old was able to figure out in half a second what they could not, after several hours of trying, figure out together.

Our subconscious also picks up on many things that we do not consciously pay attention to.  Our minds may notice something that we do not, then figure out a way to let us know.  I once had a dream where I got out of bed and walked to the closet.  When I opened the closet, there were tiny black dots jumping all over the place.  When I woke up, I was curious and decided that I would go to the closet, just as I had in the dream.  When I opened it I didn't really notice anything at first.  Then I saw all the fleas hopping around.  It was crazy.  How was I able to dream exactly that just before it happened.  I had no idea.  I am glad I was able to talk to my mom about this peculiar occurence, because it was she who suggested that my subconscious had noticed something I had not and notified my conscious by creating the dream. 

Some part of our mind does more than I might imagine to prepare us for decisions we make in life.  Whether or not this is all predetermined is beyond me.  Until we can somehow go back to the moment before a decision and change our choice, we cannot know.  Even then, our prior knowledge as to what the outcome would be based on one of our choices would have an effect on the choice we made the second time around.

It's like the part in The Matrix where Neo goes to see the Oracle and knocks over the vase.

The question is whether or not he still would have done it had she told him beforehand.

 

I think that Atheist in Exile's last comment is very well put.

Comment by kris feenstra on June 18, 2011 at 3:14pm

I don't think determinism stands up scientifically.

 

Much of science still relies on causal determinism.  While it's possible that true randomness may exist at the quantum level, or that the way we have traditionally defined causality is not exactly correct, this doesn't necessarily mean that existence at the macro level is not still subject to causal determination.

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 1:12am

Hi Kris,

Much of science still relies on causal determinism.  While it's possible that true randomness may exist at the quantum level, or that the way we have traditionally defined causality is not exactly correct, this doesn't necessarily mean that existence at the macro level is not still subject to causal determination.

I agree.  Causal determination at the macro level is not to be denied.  Anybody, anywhere, any time can easily observe that all effects have causes.  Self-determinism operates within this universal constraint.

I know that idea throws people off but I really believe it's easy to understand if you take the principle of causality into consideration every step of the way . . . causality doesn't stop at the human skull.  But first, I have to lay the groundwork . . .

. . . Consciousness isn't "all in the head".  It's the interaction of the brain, sensory organs and the world around us (causality).  If you somehow had ALWAYS been missing 1 or more of these 3 fundamentals, there would be nothing to be conscious of.

So causality is an integral component of consciousness.  Now, I won't pretend to know how the brain works.  Even neuroscientists acknowledge that their specialty is in its infancy and that they're just beginning (thanks to modern imaging technologies) to investigate how the brain works.  But what I do know is that whatever the brain does, causality is behind every event and effect.

Heredity, education, culture, experience, morality: these are all artifacts of causality.  They represent the past and come into play in the present when we make decisions.  And in the present, causality has immediate (and perhaps its most powerful) influence on our decisions: it's responsible for the stimuli we detect and the electro-chemical reactions in our brains that create our consciousness.

But it doesn't stop there.  However it occurs, one of the consequences of neural activity is mental feedback.  With feedback, the influence of causality -- both past and present -- is mentally projected into the future in the form of anticipation.  Anticipation can last for half a second or half a century.  It all depends on what's being anticipated.

Dr. Del Toro, in his comment immediately preceding yours, spoke of an 8 year old boy who caught a rock with just a half-second lead time.  We're so inured to anticipation that we take it for granted.  But look at what catching that rock involved.  Did the boy reach out to where he saw the rock?  No.  He reached out to where the rock would be in half a second.  By the same token, when you make a plan, you're anticipating the future.  Depending on the plan, you might need to adjust it but even that is still anticipating the future.  THAT is the critical consequence of mental feedback.  It allows us to anticipate causality and meet it (hopefully) on our own terms.  Not only are we self-aware.  We're future aware.  And that is the key advantage that human intelligence gives us over causality.  When human intelligence interacts with the world around us (causality), it NECESSARILY creates awareness and anticipation of causality.  That is how our limited free agency (i.e. self-determinism) emerges from causality.

Is causality responsible for our plans?  Yes.  It forms the backdrop, the input and the evaluation of our decisions.  Is that free will?  No.  But as long as we're able to anticipate causality and plan our futures accordingly, we are hacking our own paths into the future.  Of course, causality might lead to your death by some sort of accident -- and your plans will be for naught.  But -- barring such a tragic circumstance -- if you conceive of your future, then pursue it: you're self-determined.  That's pretty much a self-explanatory truism.

Self-determinism is confined, by causality, to your heredity and experience.  That's not what most people think of when they speak of free will.  However, self-determinism is the only free will we have.  And it's wondrous.
Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 2:24am

@Chris Townsend,

It is easy for me to see human beings as being in parallel. We are all designed for the same purpose, but this manifests practically in very different ways.  We, unlike clocks, are conscious and are able to decide whether our specific design and functionality is best suited for the wrist, the wall or the bedside.
I think the human condition puts us all in the same boat.  Our similarities far outweigh our differences.  But I don't agree that we were designed for a purpose (or designed at all, for that matter).  Surely, if humanity share a common purpose we would know what it is by now.  A Christian or Muslim might say our common purpose is to obey God but a Buddhist or atheist would have a completely different perspective.  A Christian's or Muslim's purpose might be popular among like-minded adherents but that's far from a "common purpose".

I think that self-determinism means that purpose is what we make of it.  Such a personal purpose, it seems to me, is far better than a purpose we have no choice in.  If we're designed with a purpose that manifests in different ways, what do you call those different manifestations?  Realized purposes?  It seems you're combining the designed with the realized.  If you could clarify, that would help a lot.




Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 3:12am

@Dr. del Toro,

I like the examples you cite.  When it comes to mental processes, I too have no clue "whether or not this is all predetermined".  But I can say that predetermination, as explained by hard determinists, is a little too "woo" for me.  Such a clockwork view of the universe is from the old-school, classical, scientific paradigm.  The modern scientific paradigm is ruled by quantum theory.  The observable (macro) universe might seem predictable but it emerges from a quantum universe that is anything but.

I'm certainly no scientist but it seems to me that if photons from the sun can exert pressure on a solar sail, then it also exerts pressure on cosmic debris.  If cosmic debris collects and self-organizes into larger and larger objects, including planets, I suppose that with enough data and a big enough computer, one could predict the progressive stages of development from debris to planet.  But what one can't predict is which photons (and other subatomic particles) will be affected by quantum fluctuations.  Since photons exert pressure on the cosmic debris that eventually collect into larger objects, we can't with ABSOLUTE accuracy predict how the pressure they exert on the debris will play out.  In other words, there's a certain amount of uncertainty or "drift" that leaks from the quantum realm into the classical realm.  In fact, quantum fluctuations are thought to be responsible for the "structure" of the universe (without them, the universe would allegedly be homogenous), so it seems there's no question that the quantum realm affects the classical realm.

Over scales of cosmic time and distance, there must be plenty of opportunity for the quantum properties of matter to affect causality at the macro level; making it less and less predetermined over greater and greater expanses of time and space.

But if one thinks that causality is absolutely, strictly, played out in clockwork fashion, then this classical view of things boils down to a fatally metaphysical model of the universe akin to religion.

Here's what I mean . . .

. . . If causality rules absolutely, then all you have to do is take cause and effect backward one step at a time until, ultimately, you arrive at the Prime Mover -- ostensibly either God or the Big Bang.  The problem here comes when you try to assert that the minutiae of reality 13 billion years later is predetermined FROM THE BEGINNING.  This smacks of God and design.  May the force be with you.  It's a fatalistic view of the universe based on an idea (cause and effect) so simple, it's binary.  That's just a little too simplistic and too woo for me.

Comment

You need to be a member of Think Atheist to add comments!

Join Think Atheist

Blog Posts

The tale of the twelve officers

Posted by Davis Goodman on August 27, 2014 at 3:04am 0 Comments

Birthday Present

Posted by Caila Rowe on August 26, 2014 at 1:29am 3 Comments

Services we love!

We are in love with our Amazon

Book Store!

Gadget Nerd? Check out Giz Gad!

Advertise with ThinkAtheist.com

In need a of a professional web site? Check out the good folks at Clear Space Media

© 2014   Created by umar.

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service