Years ago I decided that the issue of "free will vs. determinism" is irrelevant to questions of ethics, and untestable with respect to matters of science. Since then I have tried to avoid wasting time on it. But it comes up every now and then in Freethinker circles, and many people are lured into arguing at length over it.

Our ordinary practice is to ascribe "free will" to beings which are conscious and intelligent. "Conscious" meaning that they have an internal ("mental") model of the external world, which they use to anticipate the consequences of different "imagined" courses of action. "Intelligent" meaning that their model is complex and sophisticated, and their imagination likewise, so they can find courses of action that will serve their purposes even in novel situations. "Free will" in such cases means that the great bulk of the IMMEDIATE causes of their actions lie inside their "skin" rather than outside, AND that their actions are not easily or reliably predictable by an outside observer.

This use of the term "free will" does not require denying the hypothesis of "universal causation", nor does it depend in any way on whether "causation" is always a single-valued function (i.e. whether the same inputs always produce the same output, or whether instead the output may be any of several values with some statistical probability for each.) In other words, this use of the term "free will" is fully compatible with "determinism". Beings with "minds" sufficiently sophisticated to have "free will" may operate their "minds" deterministically.

We assign "moral responsibility" to beings with "free will", we assign praise and blame, rewards and punishments, to such beings, because that is the easiest (often the only) way we know to intervene in the causal chain. We want them to behave in one way rather than another, so we initiate some causes that we hope will have the effect of modifying their behavior. We hope they will include in their "mental" model that we will respond to their actions with praise/blame, reward/penalty, and that they will therefore "choose" a different course of action. The hypothesis of "universal causation" is irrelevant to this.

If we gain some ACTUAL KNOWLEDGE of the causal chain affecting their actions, then we may intervene at a different place. For example, if we find that childhood exposure to high levels of lead in the environment leads to neurological damage that results in a lack of ability to control impulses, i.e. their ability to control their own behavior by "rationality" is impaired, then we may seek to reduce crime by banning leaded gasoline, lead-based paint, lead solder in water pipes, and so forth. But this is not the same as "determinism", considered as a philosophical hypothesis.

"Determinism", the hypothesis of Universal Causation, says that "all events have causes; there are no uncaused events". This is a universal claim. The critic may offer as a counterexample some event with no apparent cause. The believer in Determinism will reply "the cause may be unknown at present, but there must be one". This is not something that can ever be proved or disproved, by any amount of evidence, short of complete examination of the entire Universe throughout all of Time. It is a starting assumption, a working hypothesis. Some have claimed that it is a NECESSARY assumption for the practice of science, but I don't think so. Science can be practiced perfectly well under the assumption that many/most events have causes.

So: I see no reason to spend one more second debating the question of "free will versus determinism".

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Tags: determinism, ethics, free, will

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Comment by Fabio on July 8, 2010 at 3:31am
You think that can apply to the human population at its present stage of development?
Comment by John B Hodges on July 8, 2010 at 12:25am
Reply to Fabio- I don't think you got my point... Personal accountability does NOT depend on free agency. My position is a "compatibleist" one- beings with minds sufficiently complex to have what we normally call "free will" may operate their minds deterministically. We hold them accountable because that is the best way we know to intervene in the causal chain. By changing their expectations of what consequences will follow their action, we hope to cause them to take different actions.
Comment by Fabio on July 7, 2010 at 5:13pm
The entire debate on the subject of free will and its existence is of greatest interest when we deal with the notion of justice and its enforcement in society. Even if we concede the point that strict determinism rules the universe and that free will is nothing but abstraction, we still cannot abandon the notion of free will for our society cannot function without it. Even if free will were proven to contradict our knowledge of physics, our consciousness - I use the term to define the strictly neurological correlate of the phenomenon we commonly call consciousness - has evolved to incorporate the illusion of being free agents. The notion of free will, even if illusory, is a necessary assumption for our psychological well-being as well as for the functioning of our society. Our society relies on the notion of personal accountability which, in its turn, relies on the assumption of free agency. Free will will never be abandoned unless we find a way to successfully and accurately predict future events by analysing a system's current conditions. If you ask me, that is something we will never achieve to a reliable enough level.

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