What is Beautiful about Determinism?

The beauty of determinism is hidden in the tragedy and injustice of freewill.

I don’t believe in freewill (but I do believe it is one word). More importantly than that, I don’t see ‘no freewill’ (“determinism”) as a miserable or stale thing. The implicit assumption (and explicit in the full question asked: “God gave us free will and that is beautiful.  What is beautiful about determinism, or compatibilism?  How will you present your case in a favorable light?  Even if free will is illusory, it is still more beautiful, and thus more comforting.  Why take that from people?”) is that without freewill life is somehow stagnant.

I disagree. Once you are on a rollercoaster, it is exciting. That is true even though you have no say in the direction or speed. The thing you enjoy is the experience, and lacking that choice diminishes no experience. And no matter how much foresight you think you have on a rollercoaster, you’re not deciding. The idea that determinism stagnates a life that is otherwise identical doesn’t make sense to me; the experience, surely, is the point. And no one has explicitly argued the opposite.

“All the world’s a stage” scripted by physics and at no point will that diminish the drama of the show.

More poignant still is the problem of freewill. I have no intention of dwelling on the issue of believing something there isn’t good evidence for, however I’m going to make a small aside on the issue: all the evidence we have gathered so far suggests a very strong relationship between the material brain and the immaterial mind. If that is so (which evidence suggests it is) then it suggests a “mind” that is as mechanistic as the brain, and the brain is a material organ. Belief in freewill, then, is faith as I (inspired by Dr. Boghossian) like to define it: pretending to know things you don’t know. And that’s simply not reliable.

Freewill does not breed compassion, and that is its tragedy. Knowing why it does not breed compassion starts to allude to the beauty of determinism. Assuming freewill is assuming that a person could have done differently to what they did. When a person wrongs you, the belief in freewill makes you thirst for revenge and encourages a justice system that is very much reactive and retributive. You feel the other person is responsible for the experience you now have of injustice and hurt. The very assumption that the perpetrator could have done otherwise encourages you to have a knee jerk reaction and to cut off from compassion. The belief that any given person from any given background can still choose to have a reliable strong moral compass fosters contempt for the criminals and lethargy with resolving social issues.

Understanding that something about the neurological weather pattern in the person’s head makes them do what they do breeds compassion, a supportive justice system and even the want to foster a society that encourages people to be good. Understanding a person is at the whims of their neurology permits you to see what you really want to do: help or protect others’ experiences. That is true compassion.

A serial killer is a person possesses a serial killer’s brain and impulses. It may seem immediately satisfying to want to serve out capital punishment to that serial killer, but that’s not compassionate. In an ideal world I would hope we’d all agree that if we could reliably rehabilitate them, we should. The psychological and psychiatric knowledge for such a thing may not exist now, but if it ever did I hope we’d agree that really is the ideal solution. That’s not an option if we think a person freely made the decisions to be serial killer, because we will hate them and not want to help them. But if we realise it is an issue of neurology, we can want to help them.

Freewill is harmful to justice: if you believe in it you feel contempt for a person who behaves badly, call for justice to punish them for its sake and ignore the societal ills that encourage the behaviour. Determinism supports justice: if you accept it, there is value in helping those who do you wrong and curing the social issues that incubate social problems. The truly compassionate must be determinists.

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13 thoughts on “What is Beautiful about Determinism?”

  1. Or, perhaps it is not free will, but determinism that is the source of retributive justice. For example:

    The point of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is to demonstrate to the offender the harm that they have inflicted on someone else. The point of this type of penalty is (a) to provide a deterrence to those considering inflicting harm on others (because they will reap the same harm upon themselves) and (b) to teach the person what it is like to be on the receiving end. This is deterministic causation, a penalty designed to reduce harm within the community.

    We can also see determinism justifying the presumption that a small harm can justify a much harsher penalty. The penalties are listed. When the offender deterministically causes the crime he also causes the penalty.

    Ironically, many Christian leaders and organizations have been at the forefront of prison reform and as advocates of rehabilitation. And they generally believe in free will. One other thing they believe in is “redemption” (rehabilitation) of even the worst sinner.

    So free will is getting a bum rap. After all, there is no such thing as rehabilitation without the notion of a person who can be redeemed through counseling, drug treatment, education, job training, post-release follow-up, and other rehabilitation programs. The goal of rehabilitation is a person who can autonomously make better choices in the future. And free will is a synonym of autonomy.

    1. Again, I think we are coming at the question of ‘freewill’ from very different perspectives. You seem to be assuming freewill at the neurological level, and then asking whether a person is free of overriding influence.
      I am talking about freewill not existing at the level of the brain.
      So, yes, a person with freewill at the level of the brain who is then ‘de jure’ forced to follow a strict process or set of guidelines is also a person showing no compassion (no matter how compassion they feel). But that has nothing to do with the questions I’m talking about: freewill at the level of the brain.

      But we can also apply the reasoning from this post to the legalistic handing down of mandatory harsh punishments: to assume the judge had the freedom to do otherwise makes the judge look heartless and lacking in compassion; realising his hands are tied gives us something to need to rehabilitate — in this case, the processes.

      1. To be “compassionate” means to understand someone else’s feelings (or lack of them in the case of the sociopath). The problem with misbehavior is often due to choosing the wrong way to deal with our feelings. If feels they have been treated unfairly they may lash out at others instead of seeking peaceful ways to resolve the injustice they feel. In the same way we try to teach our children to make better choices, we can seek to teach the criminal offender as well. However, the adult offender has developed habits of thinking and emotional reactions for which there is no quick and easy fix. Still, we wish to provide at least a real opportunity for the criminal offender to reform, through counseling, education, addiction treatment, job training, post-release follow-up, and other rehabilitation programs.

        Those who study criminology, psychology, and sociology are aware of specific social conditions that increase the likelihood that a person will become a criminal. And I suspect that most people who care about this issue are aware that a person growing up in one neighborhood will have more advantages than someone raised in another.

        Ironically, the person with the least advantage may require a longer prison sentence to counteract or reverse the effects of those negative influences. And, so long as prison is providing real and effective programs to redeem the prisoner, the longer sentence may be the most compassionate approach.

        I don’t think it helps rehabilitation to tell the offender that both their past and their future behavior is inevitable, predetermined during the Big Bang, and beyond their control. It seems to me that would be a hopeless and fatalistic viewpoint, and an excuse for not even trying to change.

        I don’t buy into Sam Harris’s mysticism about where thoughts come from. His explanation of thoughts just popping into your head out of nowhere and for no reason is actually indeterministic. When asked to name a city, your attention first falls onto the problem, and your brain automatically begins pulling in memories related to solving that problem (naming cities). The behavior of your mind is purposeful, even if when not deliberate (stop thinking of the pink elephant). Probably the only time when we truly have a “weather pattern” is when we’re dreaming and the brain is organizing its experiences from the day.

        The thing that hard determinists fail to recognize is that we are right there in the middle of determinism. We are a control link in the causal chain. And our control is exercised through a process of choosing. Whether this choosing is mostly unconscious or conscious is irrelevant, because both our conscious and our unconscious brain are still us. And what the brain chooses, we choose.

        1. It might not be useful to explain things in terms of determinism — but that’s not relevant as to whether it’s true.
          Harris’ ‘name a city’ experiment is supposed to bring into focus the fact that you don’t pick the cities that come to your mind; he goes on to say it’s because there is no ‘you’ in this context in a meaningful sense. It’s not mysticism.

          As for your last paragraph — if your unconscious brain makes choices, where is the freedom? My computer appears to make chioces, expect we know it’s deterministic…

        2. The freedom lies in the fact that no one put a gun to your head and whispered, “Tell Harris the city is Luxemburg, or I’ll put a bullet in your head”. Although that is very unlikely, we run into real cases all the time in the news. For example, after the Boston Marathon bombers did their dirty work in Boston, they had additional homemade bombs that they wanted to set off in New York. So they hijacked this exchange student’s car and forced him at gunpoint to assist them in their escape. The driver was not charged with “aiding and abetting” because he was not acting of his own free will, but instead was forced to help the bombers against his will.

          The word “free”, if it is to be meaningful, must reference some meaningful and relevant constraint. For example: a bird may be set free (from its cage), a slave may be set free (from his master), the new bank may offer you a free toaster (free of charge) for opening an account, and a person may decide for themselves what they WILL do (FREE of coercion or other undue influence).

          Everyone understands and correctly applies this definition of free will in most scenarios. It is a question of whether you made the choice for yourself, or whether the choice was made by someone or something else and you were forced or manipulated to act on that choice that was not your own.

          Reliable causation is NOT a meaningful constraint. What you do by causal necessity is what you would have done anyway. What you inevitably do is exactly identical to you just being you, doing what you do, and choosing what you choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

          A gun to the head, on the other hand, is a meaningful constraint upon your will, effectively subjugating your will to the will of the guy holding the gun.

          A less dramatic example would be when Johnny wants to go out and play, but his mother insists he wear his winter coat, which is heavy and interferes with his outdoor games. Johnny puts on the coat, against his will. Anyone asked would say that Johnny was not acting of his own free will when he put on the coat.

          In the normal brain, conscious awareness works hand in hand with unconscious processes to accomplish a task. For students, there is a test-taking technique called “prime and wait”. If you get to a question that you feel you should know, but the answer doesn’t come to mind, then think about it for a moment (prime) and go on to the other questions (wait). When you finish and go back to the question, the answer will often pop into your mind.

          The question of free will is “Who or what is controlling the choice?”. Whether you made the choice unconsciously and then let your conscious mind know after the fact, is irrelevant, because both are you. “That which is you” is the same as “that which chooses”.

        3. We’re not talking about the same thing.

          “Reliable causation is NOT a meaningful constraint. What you do by causal necessity is what you would have done anyway. What you inevitably do is exactly identical to you just being you”
          – Okay, but ‘just being you’ is not identical to having any sort of ‘freedom’. A computer is not doing anything other than being a computer — but when I try to retrieve a webpage it would be just as meaningful to say the request will ‘lag’ for as long as my computer decides it will lag as it is to say the human mind ‘decides’ things.

          But we know, at a deeper level, the webpage lagging is due to a number of other factors we don’t understand fully or don’t know the specifics of… it’s not really the computer’s ‘decision’, even though nothing is holding a (proverbial) gun to its (proverbial) head either.

        4. Then you are looking for some kind of “absolute” freedom that does not exist. There is no such thing as “freedom from reliable causation”. It is an oxymoron (a self-contradiction). Without reliable causation we cannot reliably cause anything to happen, and we’d have no freedom to do anything at all.

        5. Well, I think we can agree that there is no freedom from reliable causation. Since we both agree that is impossible, the question is whether “free will” might actually refer to something else. Perhaps it could mean “a decision we make for ourselves, free from coercion (e.g., a gun to the head) or other undue influence (e.g., hypnosis, brain tumor)”. I’m pretty sure that this is the ordinary meaning of “free will” for most people.

        6. “a decision we make for ourselves” is the bit I am taking issue with — not the ‘lack of coercion’ bit.

        7. “A decision we make for ourselves” refers to the fact that it is within our own brains that the decision takes place. You can watch the different areas of the brain light up on a functional MRI. This is also confirmed empirically by everyday experiences like a person sitting down in the restaurant, reading the menu, and making a choice. How much of this calculation occurs consciously and how much is unconscious is irrelevant, because both are us.

          Determinism is not some mystical creature with a mind of its own, pulling our strings. Determinism simply asserts that our choice will be theoretically 100% predictable according to some combination of physical, biological, and rational causes.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. Well reasoned.

    “A serial killer is a person possesses a serial killer’s brain and impulses. It may seem immediately satisfying to want to serve out capital punishment to that serial killer, but that’s not compassionate. In an ideal world I would hope we’d all agree that if we could reliably rehabilitate them, we should. The psychological and psychiatric knowledge for such a thing may not exist now, but if it ever did I hope we’d agree that really is the ideal solution. That’s not an option if we think a person freely made the decisions to be serial killer, because we will hate them and not want to help them. But if we realise it is an issue of neurology, we can want to help them.”

    I have made this argument so many times. It’s nice to find someone out there who agrees with me!!

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