Questions on hard determinism

Greg asked:

Is hard determinism consistent with knowledge; that is, is it consistent with justified true belief? It’s the ‘justified’ condition that strikes me as problematic. If hard determinism is true, then wouldn’t my thoughts (including my belief in the truth of hard determinism) be the predetermined outcome of physical events in my brain? It may well be that natural selection favors my having certain (predetermined) thoughts in various circumstances, but the survival value of those thoughts is not necessarily the same as their truth value.

As a boy, when I first came across the stock syllogism, ‘All human beings are mortal, etc.’ it took a second or two for me to grasp its logic. My mental effort and subsequent understanding felt like the opposite of experiencing an automatic brain process; e.g., a startled reaction. And how would the ability to grasp a chain of formal logical reasoning have favored survival among the prehistoric environments under which such thinking would have presumably evolved?

In addition to your answer, I’d appreciate any recommended books or articles for further exploration of these topics. Thanks!

Greg also asked:

Hi, here’s one more question related to hard determinism: Is hard determinism utterly futile?

Here’s what I mean: Take the often heard argument that criminals should be treated leniently because (certainly under hard determinism) they aren’t morally responsible for their crimes. But, if we are to apply hard determinism consistently, a censorious judge can no more help being censorious than a criminal can help being antisocial. And the ‘bleeding hearts’ can’t do otherwise than bleed, and those who are moved can’t do otherwise than heed.

Like some vast Punch and Judy show set into motion, everyone does what the bouncing atoms bid them do. Our impact on each other is essentially the same as that of colliding billiard balls.

And if I despair that free choice is an illusion, even that despair is not my own, but just another predetermined swerve of the synapses.

And if I despair that even my despair is determined even THAT despair is not freely chosen.

Under hard determinism, I have no agency whatsoever. Contra the compatibilists, being a hand puppet is hardly an improvement over being a marionette.

A final irony: In the discussions of hard determinism that I’ve run across, the writers often lapse into addressing the reader as if they have a choice of how to react to their exhortations but I suppose the writers can’t help themselves.

Answer by Helier Robinson

First of all, the survival value of your thoughts IS the same as their truth value. False thoughts have no survival value except coincidently, such as: you avoid walking under a ladder, believing that this averts bad luck, and then do not get shot in a street shootout immediately after; but such coincidences cannot be relied upon. Whereas if you believe that learning to swim has survival value, so you learn to swim and one day fall overboard and manage to swim ashore, then your true belief did have survival value. More accurately, all thoughts that do have survival value have to be true, but not all true thoughts have survival value; if you prove to your own satisfaction what is the only value of n that satisfies the equation n plus n equals n times n, the result is true but is unlikely to have survival value.

Second, free choice almost certainly IS an illusion. A supposedly free choice is either caused, or else it is not caused. If it is caused then it is not free. If it is not caused then it is a chance event and so not willed, so not a free choice. Putting this another way, causal chains of events stretch into the past and into the future. A free choice is the start of a new chain, having no past antecedents; but how can that be?

So if determinism is true then you have no free choice. Tough. And if determinism is false then there are chance events but you still have no free will. Tough.


Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

There are some conditions in which hard determinism is consistent with human knowledge, and other conditions where it is not. An example would be driving on a single-lane bridge, which gives you no option of turning. A counter-example is your last-minute decision to eat a fish burger instead of a steak sandwich, although you were hungry for a steak. Assuming this is a spontaneous decision, there is no possible knowledge of the momentary states of your various organs (including the brain) that facilitates a comprehensive explanation, so that claims on behalf of hard determinism are not consistent with knowledge.

To settle your concern about any such claims being ‘justified’, you have the simple expedient of demanding proof from any proponent. Thus anyone who tries to persuade you that the change of mind from steak to fish was brought on by the momentary state of the total chemical configuration of your body (which is of course determined by the immediate preceding states etc. etc.), is doing nothing better than illicitly extrapolating our relatively meagre understanding of causal chemical mechanics on organic processes where in the main they don’t pertain. Indeed many arguments in favour of hard determinism use intuition pumps as a preferred means of persuasion. Yet all conjectures about ‘momentary states’ (whether brain or body) ignore the fundamental fact that it is literally impossible to cut a temporal cross-section through a human body, or the human brain, with a view to ‘freezing’ the moment when a physical, chemical or mental configuration exists to justify the proposition. Moreover, it is impossible to say whether there is such a totality, nor can it legitimately be asserted that the claim itself makes any sense whatever – not to mention the time increments from one state to another.

I don’t wish to overstress another aspect, though it is relevant to the subject: Namely, that the source of this thinking is predominantly religious. I’m sure you can work this out for yourself.

In short, hard determinism, as applied to human intentionality, is a mere supposition, and often highly dogmatic in default of evidence in its favour. It may have its uses in some areas of intellectual and scientific effort, but on the whole it appears to me as a philosophically defective attitude, substituting conjectures (here a polite expression for sleight of hand) for the rigours of accounting for the interplay of spontaneity in living processes, which elude its grasp effortlessly.

Accordingly your gambit on evolution doesn’t work either. Thinking has very little to do with survival, as is shown by the fact that all creatures other than humans do no thinking at all about survival. Indeed, you might like to reflect on how many of your own thoughts are engaged in survival strategy; yet even if your answer is a (very high) ‘1%’, you would then have to wonder about the external conditions with which you are coping and how they and your survival thoughts managed to come together at the same moment in the small space you occupy. This is not discounting the probability that human survival may have been facilitated sometime in the pleistocene by an enlargement of the brain, though again it is more likely to have benefited our sensory and perceptive faculties than thinking.

As for writings on these matters, not knowing your level of expertise, it is difficult. But if you are patient and not exclusively sold on the latest gimmicks of this branch of philosophy, you could try Leibniz’s New Essays on Human Understanding. In my opinion, understanding is precisely the absentee on many pages written in favour of hard determinism – and this goes right back to the Bible!


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