Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Towards An Optimistic Determinism

The Gilded Cage, Morgan (1919)
In debates over free will, the determinist position, even when accepted, is often met with a sense of begrudging despair, as if, upon seeing the wizard behind the curtain of reality, life suddenly loses much of its luster and charm.

(For those unfamiliar with the debate: libertarian free will posits we are the original cause of our choices', and thus ultimately responsible; compatibilists and determinists acknowledge that we make choices, and feel as though we are free in doing so, we cannot actually "choose to choose" our choices, thus our will not originating within our consciousness.)

In a recent review of Sam Harris', Free Will, the reviewer - having largely ceded the determinist case - expresses an all-too common sentiment.
Couldn’t it be that we need the experience of what Wegner and others call “perceived control,” at least as a model of voluntary behavior, to get on with our lives and to have our achievements recognized and to be instructed by our failures? (Doesn’t Harris enjoy his success? I bet he does.) Finally, what happens to traditional qualities of character like courage, villainy, leadership? Poof! However correct Harris’s position may be — and I believe that his basic thesis must indeed be correct — it seems to me a sadder truth than he wants to realize.

So, why all the pessimism?

Rather than seeing determinism as a cold, subtractive, fatalism, I would argue the opposite – that current society is generally opposed to a determinist model, with some terrible policy implications. For starters, our criminal justice system is highly retributionist, terrorizing hundreds of thousands (with not only moral but practical implications – the almost complete lack of rehabilitative thinking). Understanding people as fully-caused would promote not only compassion, but an embrace of the science behind rehabilitation measures.

Income inequality is another. Too many currently feel that people are responsible, original causes of their successes or failures, leading to an acceptance of dire poverty and decadent wealth. Accepting determinism means acknowledging that biological and social privilege, combined with extant social structures are the original causes. This makes a moral case against inequality, as opposed to the notion of free will that apologizes for it.
At the very least, the notion of contra-causal free will overstates the case for reward and punishment. For while determinists much acknowledge the positive import of behavioral triggers like deterrence and success, they are in the end not only limited in their ability to drive behavior – only one factor among many others – but to the extent that they contribute to inequality, are immoral.

Finally, in terms of personal interactions and conscious development of self, determinism provides an enormous amount of grace and forgiveness. The more we are able to see one another as caused, the more we are able to accept each other as we are, not who we pretend to be, over-imagining agency where it does not exist. Often, the mere remembering of determinism is enough to occasion a soothing sigh and reminder to be compassionate and empathetic.

In the end, it seems much more liberating, if we must live caged, to do so fully aware of our humble position, rather than pretending to enjoy freedoms that do not exist.


  1. "Living caged"- yes! This must also apply to our commitments to our spouses and children. Stable society is founded on stable family units. Agree?

  2. I'm not sure I see what you mean by the connection between determinism and family commitment. Could you flesh it out a bit more?

  3. Living 'fully caused', should apply not only to our social responses but our personal family relationships as well. Stable societies are founded on stable building blocks (here families). Yet, we often do not set the goal of working hard on our family commitments. A wrong in the fundamental structuring becomes difficult to correct on the top layers. Knowing this we must act deterministically and relinquish our freedom to put our needs before those of our children. If people commit themselves completely to their spouses and children it will lead to upliftment of society as a whole.