Can one reconcile determinism with free will

Determinism is bound to remain one of the more intriguing problems in philosophy as well as science. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “There is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false) and what the import for human agency would be in either case.”

The determinist position is that, in a universe governed by the strictest natural laws, all events arise naturally and inevitably from causative factors that follow these laws. Determinism thus affirms the inevitability of the actual. It is difficult to see how this can be disproved conclusively—even in theory.

As far as the physical, inanimate world is concerned, the determinist position has been seriously challenged by the discovery of indeterminacy at the level of subatomic particles. This indeterminacy exists with respect to what can be measured and what can be predicted, however what actually happens is the crucial issue. Refuting Einstein’s famous saying that God does not play dice, Stephen Hawking has this to say:

But even this limited predictability disappeared, when the effects of black holes were taken into account. The loss of particles and information down black holes meant that the particles that came out were random. One could calculate probabilities, but one could not make any definite predictions. Thus, the future of the universe is not completely determined by the laws of science and its present state, as Laplace thought. God still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

It would be rashly presumptuous of a layman to question Hawking, but it’s difficult to see how the inability to make definite predictions can affect what actually happens. Determinism is about what actually happens.

Extrapolating from the behavior of subatomic particles to the phenomena of the macro world does not seem to be justified. But extending indeterminism to mental events—and to the exercise of free will—can plausibly be justified on the grounds that all mental events involve subtle events at subatomic levels. The question of free will leads to issues of moral responsibility. And these two issues are of direct interest to humanism. There are those who believe that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. As Immanuel Kant says: “If our will is itself determined by antecedent causes, then we are no more accountable for our actions than any other mechanical object whose movements are internally conditioned.” But David Hume, a leading proponent of the “compatibilist” position, held the view that freedom and moral responsibility can be reconciled with (causal) determinism.

Bertrand Russell’s views on determinism and moral responsibility (from his Elements of Ethics) are worth quoting at length. “The grounds in favor of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a brief indication of these grounds,” he writes. “The question I am concerned with is not the free will question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism.” He goes on:

Among physically possible actions, only those which we actually think of are to be regarded as possible. When several alternative actions present themselves, it is certain that we can both do which we choose, and choose which we will. In this sense all the alternatives are possible. What determinism maintains is that our will to choose this or that alternative is the effect of antecedents; but this does not prevent our will from being itself a cause of other effects. And the sense in which different decisions are possible seems sufficient to distinguish some actions as right and some as wrong, some as moral and some as immoral.

And finally:

It would seem, therefore, that the objections to determinism are mainly attributable to misunderstanding of its purport. Hence, finally it is not determinism but free will that has subversive consequences. There is therefore no reason to regret that the grounds in favor of determinism are overwhelmingly strong.

Contemporary British philosopher Galen Strawson has another view. For him, whether determinism is true or not, no one is ever ultimately responsible for his actions, morally speaking. His so-called “Basic Argument” is:

  1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
  2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental aspects.
  3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
  4. So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Among humanists, opinion about determinism seems to be divided. In Corliss Lamont’s “10 Points for Humanism” listed in his book, The Philosophy of Humanism, the fourth point is: “Humanism, in opposition to all theories of universal determinism, fatalism, or predestination, believes that human beings, while conditioned by the past, possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are, within certain objective limits, the shapers of their own destiny.”

Barbara Smoker, on the other hand, believes that most humanists are determinists. In her book, Humanism, she writes:

Believers in a good and almighty god generally believe in human freedom of will, for how otherwise could human beings be given total blame for their “sins,” let alone for the evils of the world? Most humanists, however, insofar as the old “free will/ determinism” argument lingers on, are determinists. This does not mean that they deny all human freedom and responsibility, but it does mean that we are less free than we feel we are, since our actions are determined (caused) by the genes we were born with (heredity) and the things that have happened to us in life (environment), for what else is there to cause them? 

What do we mean by free will? Is there any action that can demonstrate the existence of free will? All creatures act to follow an impulse. Is a moth circling a flame acting freely? “Spinoza compares the feeling of free will,” we are told by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy, “to a stone’s thinking as it travels through space that it determines its own trajectory and selects the place and time of its fall.” One has to accept

Strawson’s contention that there is a “fundamental sense” in which free will is impossible. By this he probably means that it is impossible to establish free will by objective criteria.

The important thing is to recognize the essential subjectivity of free will. A person is convinced that his actions follow his own decisions and impulses; he is not aware of any forces (inside or outside) pushing him. In instances where he acts “in spite of himself”—as in cases of compulsive disorders—he cannot be said to be exercising his free will.

Lastly, no serious discussion of determinism can be complete without taking a view about the nature of time. As per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on causal determinism, “Physics, particularly twentieth-century physics, does have one lesson to impart to the free will debate: a lesson about the relationship between time and determinism.” Newtonian time, the time of our everyday experience, has been superseded, but no universally accepted model seems to have emerged so far. Einstein says to a friend: “People like us … know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In this picture of the universe—Einstein and Minkowski’s block universe—the past, present, and future, as perceived by us, exist together in another dimension. In Einstein’s words: “From a ‘happening’ in three-dimensional space, physics becomes … an ‘existence’ in the four-dimensional world.” Like the frames in a celluloid film, the past, present, and future already (if that is the appropriate word) exist. Each observer’s “now” travels along the film to create his particular experience of time. Our universe is inescapably indexical.

This picture of time is highly repugnant to those who see it as negating free will. “And if I am going to be told that my idea that I make choices, take action, interfere, possibly change the future, is all an illusion,” protests the novelist J.B. Priestley in his nonfiction work, Man and Time,  “then I shall want to know how this block universe, this frozen history, came into existence, who colored it, and what is the point of this vast, idiotic conjuring trick. A consciousness that is no more than a policeman’s lantern moving along a back alley—and indeed much less, because no action can follow from it—is not worth having.” Maybe there is no point—or it is up to us to see the point.

Humanists, as rationalists, believe in the sovereignty of fact. But where facts are not ascertainable, rational and constructive assumptions have to be made. One might call it the regency of assumptions. Since neither determinism nor free will can be proved to be a fact, pragmatic humanism must assume that every person bears moral responsibility for his or her actions. Any other course is bound to have disastrous social consequences.

Published in the November / December 2014 Humanist

Vir Narain is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force, chairman of the Indian Humanist Union, and the editor of the quarterly Humanist Outlook.