Determinism: Do Untutored Intuitions Feed the Bugbears?

By Dhar, Sharmistha | International Journal on Humanistic Ideology, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Determinism: Do Untutored Intuitions Feed the Bugbears?


Dhar, Sharmistha, International Journal on Humanistic Ideology


Something is inevitable for y ou if there is nothing you can do about it. If an undetermined bolt of lightning strikes you dead, then we can truly say, in retrospect, that there was nothing you could have done about it. You had no advance warning. In fact, if you are faced with the prospect of running across an open field in which lightning bolts are going to be a problem, you are much better off if their timing and location are determined by something, since then they may be predictable by you, and hence avoidable. Determinism is the friend, not the foe, of those who dislike inevitability.1

1. Determinism: The Prelims

There seems to be a subliminal fear among the philosophic fraternity, concerning the question whether the laws that govern the world of atoms and molecules may wreak a havoc on our free will and moral responsibility, if we ever discover that our acts are not as belief and desiredriven as we suppose them to be. Such undercurrent of apprehension forms the crux of the Problem of Free Will and Moral Responsibility. Daniel Dennett refers to this fear as a much-hyped "bugbear"2, a "nonexistent evil", and a raison d'être of all the polemic and misgiving surrounding human agency. What exacerbates the issue of free will, that is, that whether free will is subjugated to the principle of determinism, is a lack of unanimity regarding the interpretation of determinism itself. In its traditional formulation, determinism has come to be known as the "thesis that the past and the laws of nature jointly determine a unique one among the possible or internally consistent futures to be the future, the actual future".3 Many philosophers have taken this definition of determinism to be suggesting that nothing could have been averted; nothing could have been done otherwise. Thus, if determinism is true, we are not left with any alternate possibilities and are therefore not free to choose, as on the deteiminist principle, all human actions are reduced to inevitable outcomes of the prior states of the world and the Laws of Nature that we seem to have no control over. Libertarians, for instance, believe that determinism comes intertwined with this implication. They make the claim that a choice or a decision can be rightly claimed untrammeled only if the agent in question can aver that "I could have done otherwise" (the famous CDO principle that has for long invited a skein of arguments both for and against it) and therefore, raise objection to determinism construed this way. The apprehension that seems to drive them is that the sphere of human agency involving choices and decisions is not amenable to any inevitability which determinism conspicuously demands or so they think. However, such apprehension may emerge as a result of conflating determinism with fatalism,4 often called the logical determinism. Eddy Nahmias seeks to allay what; according to him is a misconception about determinism- the conception that determinism invites prede stinarianism or necessitarianism, so to speak. He is rather in favor of highlighting the causative factor of determinism. He writes something to this effect:

Determinism entails that [(Po & L) z> P] - i.e., necessarily, given the actual past state of affairs (Po) and the actual laws of nature (L), there is only one possible present state of affairs (P). But determinism does not entail (fatalism) that d P (or that dPo or dL) - i.e., that the actual state of affairs (or the actual past or laws) are necessary (could not be otherwise).5

Again, Dennett suggests that determinism gives us a predictive power that may not ride on inevitability. The citation from Dennett (1984) used at the beginning of this chapter reflects this view. He notes that it may not be within our capacity to turn back the repercussions of an undetermined event, say, a thunderbolt striking me, which really comes across as a bolt from the blue, as it were. Nevertheless, we can certainly avert the event in question, if, for example, we have the knowledge about the exact location where and the exact timing when the thunderbolt would strike (which are something determined by physical laws and conditions) and thereby may turn the results. …

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