Determinism

This is a topic I’ve tried to understand for some time: probably, along with other philosophy of mind topics, the source of my interest in Philosophy. There is nothing in the universe but the substance of the universe and the laws that control that substance: ie, no supernatural entities or forces or whatever.

This means that the universe is determined. Whatever happens is caused by what is in the universe: the current state of the universe was caused by the previous state or the universe and the nature of the laws that govern the universe. So, does that mean that there is no choice in what we do: all our actions are caused by what has gone before and, so, predetermined. I would have to say, yes. I certainly don’t agree with those who try to force choice into the gaps in our knowledge of quantum physics, or to avoid determinism in that way. It may well be that determinism has some inbuilt randomness at the subatomic level but it is not going to affect the issue of choice.

My previous thoughts have tended towards the difference between determined and determinable. Yes, the future is determined but, no, the future is not determinable. We cannot predict the future because it would be impossible to take into account the state of every particle in the universe and the laws governing each in the time between now and the future state we are trying to predict. I cannot prove it but I suspect this is mathematically provable. Even if we were to take a single person facing a choice he has to make in the next five seconds, I suspect it is mathematically and physically impossible to compute the movement of every particle and energy packet in the universe within five light seconds of that person within those five seconds. Ie, the future is not and never can be predictable. A person’s actions might be determined but never determinable.

Let us say that a person is in a situation and facing a choice of three actions. Action A is one which will bring him some benefit but is illegal and, within the prevailing marality, immoral. Action B will bring no benefits and, while not morally reprehensible, would not be considered a morally good choice. Action C will cost the person something but is morally the ‘right’ choice to make. Now we are at some future time and the person has been committed to trial for committing Action A: his defence is that his actions were determined and so he is not responsible for them. I wouold contend that this is not a valid defence. At the time, he could not know what action was determined since, as I’ve asserted above, no action is determinable. Since he could not know, at that time, which action was predetermined and he knew that all three actions were open to him, then we have to say that he chose Action A: there is no other way to put the case. And since he made that choice then he is responsible for the choice. We define responsibility in that way: if a person knows they have a choice open to them, knows the choices and their consequences, then they are responsible for the choice they make.

So it might be said that it was predetermined that he would make the choice of A. That is true. The universe is determined so the choice he made was determined. But we can only say this after the event: the choice was not determinable. We would say the same if he chose B or C as his action: that they were determined. So, the choice of action may be determined, but it was determined by his choosing that action.

But we might look back on his choice of A and calculate all the particles and energies that led up to his action and determine that he could not have chosen anything but A. That too is true: that is what determinism means. So, he might claim that it was as if he were hypnotised. He went into the situation, recognised the choices open to him, believed that he could make a choice, but, in fact, he could not have chosen anything but Action A. In that case, he cannot be held responsible.

Hmm – have to think more about this aspect…

Posted on May 4, 2009, in Philosophy, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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