A Futile Controversy

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Everything that exists or happens results from earlier conditions or events. Only chance loosens causality. Everything that a person is or does or thinks is determined by his biology, experiences, and good or bad luck. This is the determinist doctrine. It denies that people have any scope to make decisions that are genuinely their own.

Controversialists on both sides agree that chance operates on both subatomic and human levels. One cannot say that everything since the Big Bang was fated to happen. Frederick III, briefly German emperor in 1888, was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria and imbued with classical liberalism. He met an early death and was succeeded by his authoritarian and militaristic son William II. In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York. In February 1933 an assassin’s bullet narrowly missed President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events? Anyway, chance no more establishes a person’s free will than freedom from causation would.

James B. Miles (The Free Will Delusion, 2015) finds the free-will doctrine false but appealing, not only because it seems to describe what people themselves feel but also because it lets fortunate people congratulate themselves on their own characters and accomplishments while blaming others’ poverty or criminality or even handicaps on avoidable weakness of their wills. The doctrine excuses indifference to the fate of the less fortunate. It encourages archconservatives, anyway, to rejoice in blaming the poor for their plight. Thus, Miles continues, it is a profoundly immoral doctrine. It also appeals to many because it absolves God of responsibility for human nastiness. (But what about earthquakes and hurricanes and disease?) God himself, if he exists, cannot have free will (Miles, p. 223).

In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York.

But determinists hold no monopoly on morality. Free-will adherents also recognize that biological inheritance, physical and human environments, events, reading, preachments, earlier thoughts — all profoundly influence major and minor choices. But not totally. They and determinists alike can sympathize with offenders whose unfortunate biological inheritance and early upbringing have led to a life of crime. Despite this sympathy, determinists and free-will adherents alike can agree that protecting the public may require locking the most dangerous criminals up, even for life (and, arguably, deterring others by even crueler punishment for the worst crimes).

Could a man who shoots his uncle to inherit his money have refrained from this act? No, says a consistent determinist, because the murderer was driven by biology and circumstances and so forth, over none of which he had control. Agreed, history cannot be undone; but future wickedness can be made rarer by greater attention to morality in private and public life and by dependably imposed legal penalties.

The concept of responsibility goes along with the concept of freedom. The question of holding someone responsible for something concerns reward or punishment. We do not hold an insane person responsible, for he offers no point for applying a motive (Moritz Schlick, Problems of Ethics, trans. 1930, chapter VII).

How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events?

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position. Argument presupposes that listeners or readers, although free to accept or reject it, ought to accept it without being fated or compelled to do so. In academic controversy, is every book and article, every reply, and every rejoinder predetermined in detail, except as loosened by chance? Why take part in such a charade?

In reply each controversialist might think that he is contributing to a sound intellectual environment for his fellows. Or he might recognize that he is helplessly predetermined to think and write as he does. Similarly, if Clarence Darrow argues against convicting a criminal because he could not help what he did, the jurors might respond that they had no freedom to acquit him.

James Miles emphatically condemns blaming unfortunate people for their plight. Yet he repeatedly and with gusto heaps blame on philosophers unfortunate enough to propagate erroneous doctrines. He comes close, at least, to denigrating the personal characters and morality of philosophers whom he names, especially Daniel Dennett. Is there some inconsistency here?

The determinist doctrine is irrefutable in the bad sense explained by Karl Popper: it carries built-in immunity to any adverse evidence. Whatever anyone says or does, however astonishing, is explained as the consequence of biology, experiences, and chance. The free-will position is better, though not much, regarding built-in immunity to contrary evidence. If a large random sample of persons who had thought that they had freely willed some action could be shown in convincing detail just how their action had been totally predetermined, the free-will doctrine would indeed be shaken. Conceivably, also, free will might have “emerged” from other conditions, rather as human consciousness evolved from the more primitive brain or even as life itself emerged from inanimate matter. This possibility supports the free-will doctrine, but not much without evidence.

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position.

The rival doctrines do not contradict each other on moral principles, on how anyone should live his life, or on public policy. Any difference between them is not operational. Sometimes I think that my choice is mine, free from total compulsion. My will is mine, just as my tastes in food, music, clothing, cars, or houses are mine and just as I can choose accordingly, regardless of how my will and tastes themselves may have been shaped by external causes. (On consumers’ tastes, see F.A. Hayek, “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,’” Southern Economic Journal, April 1961.) Anyway, my decisions still take place, along with their moral and practical justification, if any.

The history of philosophy has left us stuck with the two terms “free will” and “determinism.” People drift into thinking that if a term is in use, it must have a referent, some thing, event, arrangement, attitude, argument, or whatever that it refers to. (This confusion of labels with things is called “hypostatization” or “conceptual realism.”) Sometimes, further, we drift into seeking knowledge of the essence of the referent by brooding over its label: what is Virtue, Honor, Democracy, Truth—whatever? Karl Popper condemned such a style of investigation or argument as “essentialism.” Joseph Schumpeter (History of Economic Analysis, 1954, p. 898) also identified “the deplorable ‘method’ of trying to solve problems by means of hunting for the meaning of words.” The terms “free will” and “determinism” exemplify these errors, and in contexts suggesting that they label opposite states of affairs.

Over the centuries philosophers have failed to specify what observations could distinguish between the states of affairs labeled “free will” and “determinism.” Both doctrines have built-in immunity to counterevidence, which, as Karl Popper might say, deprives them of scientific status. We therefore should not let their labels cloud how we perceive or describe reality. We perceive that biological and environmental conditions, along with luck, strongly affect our choices and behavior. No one denies that. Still, we have a strong sense of weighing some decisions and making choices. Even the determinist philosophers among us, to judge from their polemical writings, also have such a sense. The prevalence of two contradictory terms does not indicate that one or the other of two distinct states of affairs exists.

We might better discard those terms and describe what we actually observe. This conclusion is not some compromise (called “compatibilism”) between distinct doctrines. If we can invent a new word that aptly labels perceived reality, fine. If not, we will have to continue using a string of words. But let us not persist in empty controversies.

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