Determinism Versus Free Will: The Difference is Options

In the determinism versus free will debate, determinists believe causality and choice are mutually exclusive – while compatibilists believe they are intimately intertwined. I will attempt to present a rational argument for my particular brand of compatibilism. Mine is a unique (I can’t find my central tenet repeated by anybody else on the Internet) and forceful argument that explains how free will is compatible with determinism without contradicting it in any way.

Divergent Assertions:

Determinism asserts that causality is responsible for all events of the past, present and future. At the beginning of time, the Prime Mover kick-started this universal cascade of cause and effect. To most theists, the Prime Mover is God. To most atheists, the Prime Mover is the (inflationary model) Big Bang.


Compatibilism asserts that free will is compatible with determinism and that choice is its sole essential requirement. The central tenet of my particular brand of compatibilism emphasizes the observable and scientifically verifiable fact that animate beings respond to cause and effect differently than does inanimate matter. The ramifications of this fact holds the key to free will. Many determinists vehemently deny this fact because they sense it threatens their dogma. It doesn’t. Free will is compatible with determinism without undermining determinism itself. I’ll elaborate on this point, below (under, “Compatibilism – Logical Conclusions”).

Determinism – Logical Conclusions:

Determinism is all about causality: cause and effect. Causality governs the physical laws that rule the universe. Every material effect must have an adequate antecedent cause. Not only does effect always follow cause – the effect is always 100% predictable in every detail. In other words, for every action, there is only one possible reaction. Outside the quantum realm, causality is inerrant.


Determinism allows no uncaused effects. This means that if you could gather and understand all factors extant in a closed system (such as the universe) at a specific point in time, it would be possible to extrapolate, with absolute certainity, the state of that closed system at any other point in time (past, present or future). Not only is the state of the closed system predictable, but every factor within the system is also predictable – extending even to our acts and thoughts. Let’s take a look at what happens when we take determinism to its logical conclusion.


A Surrogate Religion


Since the dawn of civilization, mankind’s greatest, most monumental, achievements all required the planning and coordination of man-hours, brain-power, material resources, engineering and construction, etc. World Wars I and II are other examples of colossal efforts, logistics and events that (arguably) eclipse our greatest achievements. Take any of these, or all of them, and put them in a deterministic context.


In a deterministic context, the events of these achievements and wars were scripted at the beginning of time. Every last imaginable detail – even the thoughts of those involved – has always been predetermined.


Wait a minute . . . doesn’t the Old Testament and Quran make the same claims? Hmmm, just a coincidence, I guess. Not! Hell, with a 13.75 billion year-old script so detailed, specific and inerrant, you might as well say God wrote it.


With absolute determinism, we don’t have the slightest chance of exerting any influence on our own lives. We are at the mercy of destiny. Not as appealing as creating your own destiny . . . but better than no destiny at all.

May the force be with you.

Compatibilism – Logical Conclusions:

Free will and compatibilism have gotten a bum rap because of dogmatic materialism: a physical doctrine that denies the clear distinctions between inanimate matter and animate beings. For some reason, most determinists don’t (or won’t) acknowledge the differences between a living being and a lifeless rock.


Inanimate Matter Has No Options


I must confess: I was reciting determinist dogma whan I stated, earlier, that “Not only does effect always follow cause – the effect is always 100% predictable in every detail. In other words, for every action, there is only one possible reaction.” That statement is actually false. The truth is: it is only inanimate matter that has only one possible reaction to an action. Inanimate matter has NO options.


Animate beings react to causality with an entirely different mode of response. For every action encountered by an animate being, there is NOT just one possible reaction: there are variable numbers of reactions. In other words, with animate beings, causality leads to options – NOT a single, immutable, reaction. Unlike inanimate matter, animate beings have options.


I’m not certain that cause and effect, as a scientific prinicple, was ever formally extended to, or meant to include, living creatures. Regardless, the animate mode of response violates no laws of nature: it was introduced by, and is part of, the phenomenon called “life” – and I think we can all agree that life is quite natural. If the prevailing view of causality includes animate beings, without recognizing the animate mode of response to cause and effect, then it’s the prevailing understanding of causality – not causality itself – that is false. Our understanding of causality needs to be expanded to acknowledge the animate mode of response to causality.


It’s not as if causality has to apply to everything. We already know that causality does NOT apply, at all, to the quantum realm; so it’s absolutely NOT true that causality applies to everything. Living beings, therefore, set no precedents by responding differently to causality.


Animate Mode of Response: Causal Options


The advent of life introduced motility to the universe. Motility is simply the ability to move without the influence of an external force. Even single-celled organisms can move to avoid harsh or noxious conditions. The significant difference is that the movement is NOT 100% predictable. Unlike inanimate matter, there is more than just one direction the organism can take. Nor will identical organisms move identically under identical conditions. This is an undeniable departure from the precisely predictable reactions of inanimate matter.


Motility is just one factor distinguishing animate beings from inanimate matter. Consciousness and intelligence are also factors. Their contributions introduce more variables, giving us more options to consider. And options are what it’s all about . . . because options mean choices and choices means free will. Options and choice are as natural to intelligent beings as their lack is to inanimate objects. Animate beings need not react like inanimate objects in order to qualify as natural. Think about it! A natural function of intelligence is to choose from the options that causality continually presents us. Our intelligence allows us to extrapolate causality into the future so that we can predict which option should be best to choose. This mastery of causality, combined with choice, gives us free will -- even if our choices lead us to unexpected consequences.


The advent of animate beings augmented causality with options. This is not unnatural or supernatural . . . it’s just a different mode of response to causality: an evolution of causality, if you will. Intelligence includes the ability to learn from, adapt to, and harness causality for our own purposes. The mental process for this ability is not yet understood but appears to include a feedback mechanism. Humans understand causality and use it in self-directed ways. When causality meets intelligence, determinism becomes self-determinism. That’s what free will is.

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Tags: animate, dogma, free will, inanimate, materialism, options, physical reductionism, self determinism

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Comment by Atheist Exile on February 7, 2010 at 1:32am
Hi Howard,

Free will is existential in as much as it is held to be subjective. My assertion is that free will is objective, axiomatic and natural. I agree with your point about absoluteness: what can be said of everything can be said of nothing.

Although experience is subjective, we all experience free will. Empirically, observationally and experimentally, we can confirm free will if we accept that causality produces options for animate beings.

Free will, in this context is not some do-as-you-please notion that disregards causality. Free will comes from the limited options causality presents us. Die-hard determinists will claim that the options are an illusion because we're forced, every time, to pick specific options. My answer to that is: intelligence. Intelligence makes us masters of causality . . . not the other way around. We can extrapolate causality into the future and make an intelligent choice accordingly. If you're intelligent enough, you can even extrapolate your extrapolations many "moves" ahead, like a chess player, and guide your potentials to a specific goal. If you've ever out-maneuvered an opponent or executed a plan or adjusted a strategy, then you've got empirical evidence of free will.

The determinist claim that our choices are predictable is unsubstantiated. It's easy to, with hindsight, claim that circumstance always dictate our choices . . . so easy, in fact, that I reinvoke the axiom that "what can be said of everything can be said of nothing". In other words, their argument is too easy and convenient and completely meaningless. It's a dogma.

Determinists like to invoke science to support their position. But they won't invoke quantum theory, phase transitions, state shifts and emergent properties, because these scientific concepts compromise the absolute position of determinists. They just want to keep it simple -- cause and effect -- and ignore those parts of physics that admit variance and change.

One of the biggest hurdles is to convey how little it takes to exercise free will. Yes, causality presents us with (variably) limited options, but the choices we make stamp our identity on life and directs the course of unfolding events. The dynamic force of humanity exercising free will writes our history and determines our destiny. The destiny of the inanimate universe will unfold as fixed and foretold 13.75 billion years ago. The destiny of humanity is dynamic and subject to change. We are, individually and collectively, self-determined.
Comment by Howard S. Dunn on February 6, 2010 at 1:00pm
First - well stated.

In my day to day, no matter how this train of thought leads here, I remain an existentialists in that, I'm with you because, even if all our choices are deterministically arrived at as the causal gestalt (the hyper-complex, non-linear chain of cause and effect) operates inside our minds as assuredly as it operates externally, it still means that everything is predictable as long as you know everything. That kind of conditional principle, that may be true, but only at an absolute level, elicits a 'so what?'

I think what happens here is that the word 'free' is so often taken as an absolute. For some reason, and mostly in this context, it is not accepted as a component element. Therefore, since it can be shown that your choices are limited and often the choice you make is predictable, there is no freedom whatsoever involved.

But human beings, when given real life choices, are far more unpredictable than the weather. I know, I am in marketing. In large groups, as Asimov asserted in his Foundation series, and any actuary will tell you, human beings may turn out to be reasonably predictable. But how many times in your life will you say to a family member or very close friend, 'I thought I knew who you were!'

At the end of the day, we operate with mental models (virtual reality) and there are just too many variables that affect our choices that are distorted, incomplete, or wrong for them to be predictable. You see, a stone does nothing based on inaccurate information. If it is kicked, it operates under the strictest accuracy as to the forces applied and the rules of its behavior - to the last detail. It doesn't 'misread' how much gravity is pulling on it or the vector of the initial force applied.

But if you kick a human, they will most certainly misread the specifics of your intent in doing so, and react as much to their perception as to anything else.

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