Determinism, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility

By Narain, Vir | The Humanist, November-December 2014 | Go to article overview

Determinism, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility


Narain, Vir, The Humanist


Determinism is bound to remain one of the more intriguing problems in philosophy as well as science. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: "There is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false) and what the import for human agency would be in either case."

The determinist position is that, in a universe governed by the strictest natural laws, all events arise naturally and inevitably from causative factors that follow these laws. Determinism thus affirms the inevitability of the actual. It is difficult to see how this can be disproved conclusively--even in theory.

As far as the physical, inanimate world is concerned, the determinist position has been seriously challenged by the discovery of indeterminacy at the level of subatomic particles. This indeterminacy exists with respect to what can be measured and what can be predicted, however what actually happens is the crucial issue. Refuting Einstein's famous saying that God does not play dice, Stephen Hawking has this to say:

   But even this limited predictability disappeared,
   when the effects of black holes were taken into
   account. The loss of particles and information
   down black holes meant that the particles that
   came out were random. One could calculate probabilities,
   but one could not make any definite predictions.
   Thus, the future of the universe is not
   completely determined by the laws of science and
   its present state, as Laplace thought. God still has
   a few tricks up his sleeve.

It would be rashly presumptuous of a layman to question Hawking, but it's difficult to see how the inability to make definite predictions can affect what actually happens. Determinism is about what actually happens.

Extrapolating from the behavior of subatomic particles to the phenomena of the macro world does not seem to be justified. But extending indeterminism to mental events--and to the exercise of free will--can plausibly be justified on the grounds that all mental events involve subtle events at subatomic levels. The question of free will leads to issues of moral responsibility. And these two issues are of direct interest to humanism. There are those who believe that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. As Immanuel Kant says: "If our will is itself determined by antecedent causes, then we are no more accountable for our actions than any other mechanical object whose movements are internally conditioned." But David Hume, a leading proponent of the "compatibilist" position, held the view that freedom and moral responsibility can be reconciled with (causal) determinism.

Bertrand Russell's views on determinism and moral responsibility (from his Elements of Ethics) are worth quoting at length. "The grounds in favor of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a brief indication of these grounds," he writes. "The question I am concerned with is not the free will question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism." He goes on:

   Among physically possible actions, only those
   which we actually think of are to be regarded as
   possible. When several alternative actions present
   themselves, it is certain that we can both do
   which we choose, and choose which we will. In
   this sense all the alternatives are possible. What
   determinism maintains is that our will to choose
   this or that alternative is the effect of antecedents;
   but this does not prevent our will from being itself
   a cause of other effects. And the sense in which
   different decisions are possible seems sufficient
   to distinguish some actions as right and some as
   wrong, some as moral and some as immoral.

And finally:

   It would seem, therefore, that the objections to determinism
   are mainly attributable to misunderstanding
   of its purport. … 

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