Determinism Versus Free Will: The Difference is Options

In the determinism versus free will debate, determinists believe causality and choice are mutually exclusive – while compatibilists believe they are intimately intertwined. I will attempt to present a rational argument for my particular brand of compatibilism. Mine is a unique (I can’t find my central tenet repeated by anybody else on the Internet) and forceful argument that explains how free will is compatible with determinism without contradicting it in any way.


Divergent Assertions:

Determinism asserts that causality is responsible for all events of the past, present and future. At the beginning of time, the Prime Mover kick-started this universal cascade of cause and effect. To most theists, the Prime Mover is God. To most atheists, the Prime Mover is the (inflationary model) Big Bang.


Compatibilism asserts that free will is compatible with determinism and that choice is its sole essential requirement. The central tenet of my particular brand of compatibilism emphasizes the observable and scientifically verifiable fact that animate beings respond to cause and effect differently than does inanimate matter. The ramifications of this fact holds the key to free will. Many determinists vehemently deny this fact because they sense it threatens their dogma. It doesn’t. Free will is compatible with determinism without undermining determinism itself. I’ll elaborate on this point, below (under, “Compatibilism – Logical Conclusions”).


Determinism – Logical Conclusions:

Determinism is all about causality: cause and effect. Causality governs the physical laws that rule the universe. Every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. Not only does effect always follow cause – the effect is always 100% predictable in every detail. In other words, for every action, there is only one possible reaction. Outside the quantum realm, causality is inerrant.


Determinism allows no uncaused effects. This means that if you could gather and understand all factors extant in a closed system (such as the universe) at a specific point in time, it would be possible to extrapolate, with absolute certainity, the state of that closed system at any other point in time (past, present or future). Not only is the state of the closed system predictable, but every factor within the system is also predictable – extending even to our acts and thoughts. Let’s take a look at what happens when we take determinism to its logical conclusion.


A Surrogate Religion


Since the dawn of civilization, mankind’s greatest, most monumental, achievements all required the planning and coordination of man-hours, brain-power, material resources, engineering and construction, etc. World Wars I and II are other examples of colossal efforts, logistics and events that (arguably) eclipse our greatest achievements. Take any of these, or all of them, and put them in a deterministic context.


In a deterministic context, the events of these achievements and wars were scripted at the beginning of time. Every last imaginable detail – even the thoughts of those involved – has always been predetermined.


Wait a minute . . . doesn’t the Old Testament and Quran make the same claims? Hmmm, just a coincidence, I guess. Not! Hell, with a 13.75 billion year-old script so detailed, specific and inerrant, you might as well say God wrote it.


With absolute determinism, we don’t have the slightest chance of exerting any influence on our own lives. We are at the mercy of destiny. Not as appealing as creating your own destiny . . . but better than no destiny at all.


May the force be with you.


Compatibilism – Logical Conclusions:

Free will and compatibilism have gotten a bum rap because of dogmatic materialism: a physical doctrine that denies the clear distinctions between inanimate matter and animate beings. For some reason, most determinists don’t (or won’t) acknowledge the differences between a living being and a lifeless rock.


Inanimate Matter Has No Options


I must confess: I was reciting determinist dogma whan I stated, earlier, that “Not only does effect always follow cause – the effect is always 100% predictable in every detail. In other words, for every action, there is only one possible reaction.” That statement is actually false. The truth is: it is only inanimate matter that has only one possible reaction to an action. Inanimate matter has NO options.


Animate beings, on the other hand, react to causality with an entirely different mode of response. For every action encountered by an animate being, there is NOT just one possible reaction: there are variable numbers of reactions. In other words, with animate beings, causality leads to options – NOT a single, immutable, reaction. Unlike inanimate matter, animate beings have options.


I’m not certain that cause and effect, as a scientific prinicple, was ever formally extended to, or meant to include, living creatures. Regardless, the animate mode of response violates no laws of nature: it was introduced by, and is part of, the phenomenon called “life” – and I think we can all agree that life is quite natural. If the prevailing view of causality includes animate beings, without recognizing the animate mode of response to cause and effect, then it’s the prevailing understanding of causality – not causality itself – that is false. Our understanding of causality needs to be expanded to acknowledge the animate mode of response to causality.


It’s not as if causality has to apply to everything. We already know that causality does NOT apply, at all, to the quantum realm; so it’s absolutely NOT true that causality applies to everything. Living beings, therefore, set no precedents by responding differently to causality.


Animate Mode of Response: Causal Options


The advent of life introduced motility to the universe. Motility is simply the ability to move without the influence of an external force. Even single-celled organisms can move to avoid harsh or noxious conditions. The significant difference is that the movement is NOT 100% predictable. Unlike inanimate matter, there is more than just one direction the organism can take. Nor will identical organisms move identically under identical conditions. This is an undeniable departure from the precisely predictable reactions of inanimate matter.


Motility is just one factor distinguishing animate beings from inanimate matter. Consciousness and intelligence are also factors. Their contributions introduce more variables, giving us more options to consider. And options are what it’s all about . . . because options mean choices and choices means free will. Options and choice are as natural to intelligent beings as their lack is to inanimate objects. Animate beings need not react like inanimate objects in order to qualify as natural. Think about it! A natural function of intelligence is to choose from the options that causality continually presents us. Our intelligence allows us to extrapolate causality into the future so that we can predict which option should be best to choose. This mastery of causality, combined with choice, gives us free will -- even if our choices lead us to unexpected consequences.


The advent of animate beings augmented causality with options. This is not unnatural or supernatural . . . it’s just a different mode of response to causality: an evolution of causality, if you will. Intelligence includes the ability to learn from, adapt to, and harness causality for our own purposes. The mental process for this ability is not yet understood but appears to include a feedback mechanism. Humans understand causality and use it in self-directed ways. When causality meets intelligence, determinism becomes self-determinism. That’s what free will is.

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Tags: animate, dogma, free will, inanimate, materialism, options, physical reductionism, self determinism

Comment by John Nguyen on February 8, 2010 at 10:16pm
In response to the topic of the above professed doctrine of compatabilism, I will make the case that above doctrine is false, and does not adequitely explain the nature of choice. Consequently, I will be maintaining that free will does not exist, and that our actions are determined by factors, both internal and external, which are not controlled by any conscious, undirected choice.

Determinism:

The doctrine of determinism which I am maintaining asserts that, for every action that is taken (I will, in this debate, be using the word action to refer to any physical phenomenon in which an entity, animate or inanimate, reacts to an outside stimulus), its cause is a set of circumstances which cause the specific action, or choice if you prefer.

In determinism, it is ackowledged that animated beings make decisions and choices. However, my doctrine of determinism maintains that the choice made under a specific set of circumstances is made BECAUSE of the circumstances, both internal and external. Under the EXACT same conditions, including but not limited to, environmental factors, physiological factors (including the state of the brain), and psychological factors within the consciousness.

While choices are made, I maintain that the reason which specific choices are made are entirely due to deterministic, physical forces.

Now that I have defined my position, I will proceed to answer the claims made above.

Logical Conclusions:

As to the calculability of the future from unbounded knowledge of the present, I agree that my doctrine supports this. I have nothing to add.

Regarding the argument that determinism is a "surrogate" religion, I also have nothing to say. The argument made adds nothing to the debate, and is nothing more than a rhetorical smear-shot intended to combat my position with purely emotional responses. I have nothing to respond to.

Moving on to the more substantitive stuff:

"Free will and compatibilism have gotten a bum rap because of dogmatic materialism: a physical doctrine that denies the clear distinctions between inanimate matter and animate beings. For some reason, most determinists don’t (or won’t) acknowledge the differences between a living being and a lifeless rock."

Right off the bat, you create a false dichotomy, which you do not adequitely support. I will explain exactly why it is fallacious to fundamentally separate inanimate and animate beings.

"Animate beings, on the other hand, react to causality with an entirely different mode of response. For every action encountered by an animate being, there is NOT just one possible reaction: there are variable numbers of reactions. In other words, with animate beings, causality leads to options – NOT a single, immutable, reaction. Unlike inanimate matter, animate beings have options."

Inanimate matter has options too. Suppose I take the above mentioned rock, and toss it into a lake. We expect that a certain reaction will occur, namely that the rock will sink into the water. However, there is no logical imperative to believe that this will occur, just because all other rocks we have observed have done so. I can very easily imagine the rock vanishing into thin air, or exploding into a cloud of butterflies upon impact.

The rock has these and all other options in its realm of possibility. The reason why we do not, however, fear that we will be beset by insects upon throwing the rock is that we have determined a certain set of causal laws which govern bodies such as rocks and lakes. These have been observed, to date, to be uniform in the governance of all such bodies.

Your error occurs when you attempt to artifically separate matter into different categories in terms of the natural laws which they follow, namely that of the animate and the inanimate. We have no reason to suppose that "animated" (which you have yet to clearly define) matter acts any differently than inanimate, as we shall soon see. Animated entities differ from inanimate beings only in respect to the following:

An animate being reacts not only to external stimulus, but internal stimulus as well, usually from some manner of neural system.

Why we should have to consider animated beings a different sort of matter entirely is not clear in your argument, aside from the issue of options, which I have just dealt with.

One last thing on this part:

"It’s not as if causality has to apply to everything. We already know that causality does NOT apply, at all, to the quantum realm; so it’s absolutely NOT true that causality applies to everything."

This argument falls a bit flat. Not because you're wrong, of course. It's that we don't know if you're right. Frankly, we know extremely little about the activities of the quantum universe, so to bring it up as an example of proved incausality is disingeuous, especially when the indeterministic theories of quantum theory stand alongside several deterministic theories, such as Bohm's (http://www.spaceandmotion.com/physics-quantum-bohmian-mechanics.htm). As far as has been studied so far, none of them have any more weight than the other due to the sheer unobservability of the quantum realm.

"The advent of life introduced motility to the universe. Motility is simply the ability to move without the influence of an external force. Even single-celled organisms can move to avoid harsh or noxious conditions."

What you fail to address in this statement, however, that the ability of an entity to move without external force is enabled entirely by the ability to generate an internal force. You do not describe why these internal forces should behave any differently.

"The significant difference is that the movement is NOT 100% predictable. (. . .) Nor will identical organisms move identically under identical conditions. This is an undeniable departure from the precisely predictable reactions of inanimate matter."

This is false. You have no reason to that that identical organisms will not move identically under identical conditions, and you cannot prove this. It is certainly deniable, as you have no way to prove it without the ability to turn back time to recreate the EXACT conditions of above-mentioned events.

"Unlike inanimate matter, there is more than just one direction the organism can take."

Herein lies the crux of what I percieve to be the misconceptions which you have as regards choice. You are right that there is more than one direction that an organism can go under self-induced movement. All that this means, however, is that we can imagine it taking any of these directions, in the same manner that I can imagine my rock turning into a fish as it sinks to the bottom of a lake. The direction which the organism eventually goes depends entirely on the manner and composition of the neural (if existant) or chemical signals which direct its appendages to move in a certain direction. These signals are, in turn, sent by a prosequent set of reactions somewhere else within the organism, triggered by whatever external or internal stimulas precedes that, et cetera.

In any given situation, there are many things which we imagine an entity is possible of doing. That is, we can imagine it doing anything which falls within the realm of the physical notions which we have garnered about the universe. This is nothing more, however, than pure imagining. Until an action is finally taken, we can imagine all we like about possibilities.

However, only one can be taken. And this action is taken according to the guidance of several forces, physiological and psychological. Even if we imagine that we have an infinity of choices, we can only ever make one decision. The REASONS why we make some decisions instead of others are deterministic.

Let us suppose that I am an employee of a certain company. This company has not been doing so well of late, and is in danger of failing entirely. However, it is also possible that in the near future, for various reasons, it may bounce back to greater levels of wealth.

My two main options, which I imagine I have, at this point, are to either leave the company to seek more stable employment while I still have time, or stick it out and hope for the best.

When push comes to shove, I can only make one choice, one or the other. Suppose I decide to quite and head for greener pastures. Why have I decided on this course of action, rather than the other? Clearly, my anxiety about the company's future and my desire for security have outweighed the factors exhorting me to remain. And if I take the stoic, path, remaining an employee at my company, then I have judged its probability of rebound and the potential gain from it greater than the psychological notions which declare it prudence to cut my losses and run.

None of these things, the state of the company, the possibility of re-employment, and my psychological priorities, is within my control. In the cases of the first and second, it is down to economics, which I can influence, but not bind to my will.

In the case of the latter, however, it is just as beyond any sort of choice. My set of priorities is determined by the culture I live in, the experiences I have gone through, and my genetic pre-disposition in reaction to the above two. All three of these things are those which determine my choice, and none of them involves anything independent of forces either internal or external.

There is really nothing destructive in determinism as I have presented it. We, as organisms fighting for our survival, have a certain (and in the case of humans very large) set of reactions which we use in response to stimuli, external or internal. One of these reactions is the ability of higher-order creatures to think and consider. As all other reactions, however, it follows deterministic principles, and leads to a certain conclusion based upon its starting point, and the environmental and psychological factors present. This certain reaction is what have caused the whole canvas of humankind's intellectual and secular achievements.
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 9, 2010 at 2:30am
Hi John,

Right off the bat, you’re mixing inanimate and animate modes of response.

The doctrine of determinism which I am maintaining asserts that, for every action that is taken . . . its cause is a set of circumstances which cause the specific action, or choice if you prefer.

You use “specific action” and “choice” interchangably. Which is it: a specific action or a choice?

If it’s a choice, then you’re NOT including inanimate matter/objects. They have NO choice. Is this your intent? If it’s choice and you’re speaking only of animate beings, then I agree: choices are limited to a variable range of responses to causality. This is thoroughly covered in my essay.

You may think that determinism acknowledges choices, but the majority of determinists I’ve run across absolutely deny it. Either way, the important thing is to acknowledge that animate beings have options: choices necessarily follow (at least with intelligent beings).

Next you use the old determinist standby argument:

While choices are made, I maintain that the reason which specific choices are made are entirely due to deterministic, physical forces.

Aside from illustrating that "what can be said of everything can be said of nothing", that argument is also recursive reasoning. It's circular logic that begs the question by paraphrasing it's conclusion as its premise -- "Our choices are (i.e. "Everything is") due to deterministic forces, therefore our choices are (i.e. "everything is") beyond our control." No matter how you word it, it’s a meaningless and all too convenient non-argument. It’s not going to fly here.

What this means is that the position you’ve defined is not workable because it’s invalid. It needs to be clarified and worded without "personal definitions" and circular logic. You expended a lot of effort to write your response and I hate to disqualify it but you’ve simply defined a logically invalid position. All that follows must necessarily be tainted and a waste of time to debate.
Comment by John Nguyen on February 9, 2010 at 3:09pm
Very well. How's this. I'll write it shortly.

The actions which entities perform (whether animate or inanimate) are performed in lieu of all other possible actions because of the specific state of the variables which are involved. How's that?
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 9, 2010 at 7:50pm
Come on, John!

You're saying the same thing with different words; making the same recursive argument. Because you're a smart guy, I think you know when you're playing semantic games.

I'll indulge your ciruclar logic with a question: why would natural processes (life) produce causal options for animate beings (the animate response mode) when, as you claim, the options are unnecessary because reactions are predetermined and choice an illusion?

Another way to think of the difference between inanimate matter and animate beings is in terms of nonlinear dynamics and linear dynamics, respectively. Living beings maximize their opportunities inherent in the options (multiplicity of futures) available to it. It's determinism that's really the illusion: caused by the ignorance of the external observer, who's external perspective denies him the direct experience in question. The subject, who has full knowledge of his own state, and can readily adjust, respond and act in the most appropriate manner, executes his actions for his own purposes. In a very real sense, he is free to decide his own fate because he is a sentient being who has real-time, up-to-date knowledge of his own internal milieu as well as the external environment. That's something an external observer might forget to consider.
Comment by John Nguyen on February 9, 2010 at 9:18pm
You still have yet to address one very important aspect of the living subject's experience.
"In a very real sense, he is free to decide his own fate because he is a sentient being who has real-time, up-to-date knowledge of his own internal milieu as well as the external environment."

You're on the right track here, but you mistakenly make the assumption that, just because an entity is aware of its own internal state, as well as the external conditions, that it frees itself from deterministic forces. You've failed completely to explain why this follows.

Let's return to my example in my initial comment of the employee who is contemplating leaving his ailing company. He is certainly aware of both his internal feelings and experiences, as well as what he experiences from the external world. Subsequently, he will act upon them. You seem to fail to recognize that consideration does not equal free will.

You seem to be misinterpreting determinism in a rather gross degree. From your arguments so far, it seems as if you imagine that I am proposing that everything we do is a blind, primal reflex wholly unconnected with thought. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Returning to the example again, I will take another stab at explaining.

Why should the above-mentioned subject choose one option over another? I have already outlined (though roughly) the relevant variables in his decision: namely, his desire for job security versus his faith in the company's rebound. If the former is greater than the latter, he will make a certain decision, and vice-versa. Neither of these things is a variable which he can consciously control. They are shaped through numerous external forces, such as the family he come from and lives with, his choice of profession, the culture he finds himself in, his genetic pre-dispositions, etc. The employee in mention will reflect, likely at great length, on the problem before him. However, the variables have already been defined, and he is already set to take one action or the other before he even considers the problem.

You will likely attempt to argue, now, that his ability to consider the options is a proof of his possession of free will. This is also false. After all, an individual's sense of priorities, as well as their faculties of reason are just two more variables in the situation. If the employee named is possessed of high intelligence and capable reasoning abilities, then they will make a certain decision based on their reactions to certain other variables, such as information on the current state of the job market and knowledge on economics. If our employee's mental capabilities are not quite so stellar, however, he will be set to make a certain other decision based on other factors, such as lemming mentality or blind trust.

"The subject, who has full knowledge of his own state, and can readily adjust, respond and act in the most appropriate manner, executes his actions for his own purposes."

I agree completely. However, he cannot BUT "adjust, respond, and act in the most appropriate manner," as his intellectual faculties, which have been endowed upon him by cultural and physiological forces beyond his control, will cause him to do so. To say that a person has free will because they consider their own state of affairs is like saying that a rock must be alive because it will eventually stop rolling, and just as to the point. As an argument, this falls flat.
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 10, 2010 at 9:08am
Hi John,

I was not making "the assumption that, just because an entity is aware of its own internal state, as well as the external conditions, that it frees itself from deterministic forces". I was actually contrasting the perspective of the subject versus that of the observer. You might have recognized this if you hadn't taken my statement out of context with the statement that followed it: "It's determinism that's really the illusion: caused by the ignorance of the external observer, who's external perspective denies him the direct experience in question."

The observer can only speculate what the subject is thinking. In the same way that a devout Christian would be presumptuous to claim to know what's on God's mind; it would be presumptuous of an observer to claim knowledge of his subject's mind. In either case, it's pure speculation.

We can (or, at least, I can) exercise judgment and conclude that none of the apparent alternatives are acceptable. An intelligent person will delay a decision while he focuses his attention on more creative solutions and weigh their viability based on how likely they will be to succeed. This intelligent ability to take the future into account, by extrapolating causal potentials, is what gives us free will. Such intelligence empowers decisions with mastery over causality by keeping ahead of it and adjusting our plans as developments warrant. In this sense, free will is intelligent mastery over causality. That's how it works. That's what it is. When causality meets intelligence, determinism becomes self determinism.
Comment by John Nguyen on February 10, 2010 at 2:56pm
"That's how it works. That's what it is. When causality meets intelligence, determinism becomes self determinism."

This in no way answers my argument. All you have done is nitpick at a line you have found in the first few sentences of my post, without addressing the objections I have brought up in my example. I'm tiring very quickly of this pattern of response.

You have not addressed how being able to "extrapolate causal potential" in any way frees us from deterministic causes for our actions. You have not refuted my examples and explanations of the deterministic nature of the causes of our own intelligence. You have also not addressed why this mysterious experience which only you seem to have means that there is some part of you which does not follow physical laws.

I grow tired of this discussion, and in light of this, I am taking my leave of it.

Good day, and I wish you luck in your parallel debate on debate.org. You've got quite an opponent.
Comment by Atheist Exile on February 11, 2010 at 1:29am
Jesus, John,

We are freed from causality by our mastery over it. That mastery comes from our self-aware ability to keep ahead of causality by projecting it into the future. This is otherwise known as planning and adjusting our plan.

By understanding causality we can estimate what should happen in the future. This is a huge advantage over causality and explains how we've mastered it in our day to day lives.

It's not complicated.

The absolute causality/determinism you advocate allows no exceptions for our actions. That makes absolute determinism scientifically unfalsifiable. Logically, what can be said of everything can be said of nothing.

You're too enamored with your pat answer to see it for the dogma and heads-I-win-tails-you-lose farce that it is.

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