‘Hard’ determinism revisited

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 startle 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!

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

Here’s what I mean: Take the oftenheard 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 determinedeven THAT despair is not freely chosen.

Under hard determinism, I have no agency whatsoever. Contra the compatiblists, 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 exhortationsbut 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 believe 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.


One thought on “‘Hard’ determinism revisited

  1. Hello Heiler,

    I disagree that the survival value of our thoughts is the same as their truth value. Consider this example: A hominid flees at hearing a sudden sound or a shadow. It may be that neither the sound nor the shadow was from a predator; none the less, the hominid’s reaction has survival value. Put another way, early reasoning that “played it safe” would often have Type I errors (false alarms) but avoid Type II errors (failure to heed danger.) This is at least one way in which evolution may select for a survival-oriented thought that is distinct from the thought’s truth value.

    Like you, I’m an incompatibilist, albeit one on the libertarian side of the divide. And I’m well aware of the conceptual difficulty of distinguishing free will from both hard determinism and chance. BTW, the second half of my question didn’t assert that hard determinism is false. Rather, I was making the point that IF hard determinism is true it casts a pall of futility–which motivates some of us to refute hard determinism.

    If you think that’s a foolish endeavor, remember, that if hard determinism is true, I can’t help myself! (But then, you can’t help feeling the way you do either.)

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