Determinism, Humanism, and Existence

Reading the current issue of The Humanist, the newsletter for the American Humanist Association, I can across an article called "Toward a New Assumption in Law and Ethics,” by Michel J. Hanson (text available at site). It presents a biological and psychological deterministic view as the basis of a new humanitarian ethics. While the authors rational for presenting this view is admirable, it is based on a faulty premise, determinism.

Determinism seems to be the hot issue in philosophy right now, which is understandable since advances in scientific knowledge has led to a deep doubt about the free agency1 of mankind. This is not a new trend either, since before the modern reductionist (and materialist) account of determinism there was the theological version. I will outline these two forms of determinism below, along with the psychological, or biological quasi-determinism underlined in the Humanist article, though this form is on the same slope as pure materialistic determinism, but not taking to such an extreme degree.

In the earlier (and now less important) version of determinism, free will was questionable because of the attributes of God. Namely omnipotence. If the creator exists outside of time, meaning both at the beginning point and the end point, along with all points between, then how can humans have free will? How can one do an action freely, without God's knowledge of the action before the action was made, and without knowledge of the free range of all effects caused by the action? It is an impossible question to answer, since granting humans free agency undermines God's omnipotence, and thus perfection, but undermining human agency removes, somewhat, the point of religious existence. This latter point is clear when one looks at the reward/punishment nature of Judeo-Christian theology, how can one be punished when the creator determines ones actions? And also it makes God's handing down of moral dictates dubious, since it is in his power (via unlimited non-temporal knowledge) to just create a world free of sin.

More sophisticated attacks on free agency come from the findings of science, namely physics and chemistry, these are the materialist, or reductionalist, versions of determinism. It follows a simple logical chain:

1. Human agency is contained within the brain. (A denial of Cartesian dualism)
2. The brain operates via chemical levels and electrical potencies (a statement of materialism)
3. Chemical process reduce into physical laws. (Enter the reductionism)
4. Physical laws are deterministic.
5. Therefore, human agency is deterministic.

Granted the above is overly simplified, it does serve to illustrate the general gist of the argument. It is a very persuasive argument; I would consider this argument as persuasive as Anselm's ontological argument (explained here) of which no philosopher has yet been able to refute on logical grounds. There are two versions of this deterministic argument, the strong one outlined above, and a weaker one designed to allow enough wiggle room for free agency. While the weak argument is supposed to be read as a refutation of strong determinism I include it in the determinist camp because it also limits agency to a series of meaningless events. In the weak version, the chain remains the same until 4, where another step is added calling to quantum (probabilistic) events. This step allows human behavior not to be purely determined, but probabilistically determined, instead of free agency we are blessed with random agency, based on weighted quantum states. This is the view supported by Daniel Dennett in his book "Freedom Evolves"

The view of determinism endorsed by the article's author is a much weaker version of determinism, which basically amounts to our agency (or at least culpability qua freedom) is limited (if not eliminated) by psychological and sociological pressures and conditions. The psychological determinism also contains genetic determinism and biological determinism (in that it influences our psychological predilections). The author discusses cases of brain damage (five cases, to be exact) where trauma caused "criminal" behavioral changes, causing otherwise "good" people to do what society considers to be "bad.” He also discussed the scientific fact where decision events are recorded by brain monitoring equipment 350 milliseconds before the subject indicates that the decision was made (this is called the potential spike, but could also amount of reaction lag).

The author then goes from this view of weak determinism to create a call for a new ethical system to be applied to the term justice. In that criminals would be punished in the sense that the workings of society would be protected from aberrance, but criminals would be treated as if they had medical reasons to act out. Crime would be an issue of those with reduced agency, or those with physiological limitations, instead of those driven to bad choices. Sartrean freedom would be a thing of the past, since most criminals did not choose to do "bad", more they were directed to do bad due to diminished capacity to determine "good" from "bad". Incarceration becomes a fact of containment, and not punishment.

The author’s argument has two main weaknesses that I will address here. The first is specific to the article, that this new ethic is more harmful than good. The second is a more general attack on the modern view of determinism, be it strong, weak, or psychological. The author states this his new ethics (as based on determinism) will make the treatment of criminals respect their "human dignity". How can one be said to have "dignity" if one does not have agency, if one is not free to choose right or wrong it seems rather silly to designate dignity. I propose that dignity, as such, arises from agency. We do not assign plants or bacteria dignity, this is in part due to there lack of choice, or creativity.

There also is the problem of definition, it would prove problematic to show a criminal has reduced capacity towards agency. This approach seems to be another symptom of the current social trend of reducing personal culpability from ones actions, already we operate under the idea that we have limited culpability of our own state (hence the proliferation of spurious diagnoses, and psycho-chemical drug use), and now it is proposed that we even remove moral culpability from our society. This seems to be an episteme change akin to the changing definition of culpability underlined in Foucault's "Discipline & Punish", and not a genuine statement on the reality of human existence or culpability. To restate, it is a redefinition of what it means to be human, and not a more humane ethic, and like the revolution of prisons examined by Foucault it will lead to more demeaning, and dehumanizing treatment of prisoners.

The second main problem with the authors premise lies in the very fact that he calls to determinism. We now must turn our sights to the more important issue raised by the article, determinism itself. In the end determinism is actually a non-issue for three main reasons, the first is that it rests its primary premises on scientism, meaning it presupposes that science is complete and truthful, and that nothing of human experience can lie outside of the realm of materialistic science. This assumes that science as method can lead to certainty (which is dubious in the emergent realms of psychology and cognitive science), which is an arguable premise. This inherent scientism has the foul smell of latent positivism, a view already undermined by thinkers such as Wittgenstein.

Also it ignores the more essential fact of freedom, as it exists within experience. In our day to day being we exist as free agents, nowhere in our experience do we find the constraint of determinism, we only butt our heads against the wall of determinism when we enter deeper layers of abstraction, but in our actual experiential lives we encounter nothing but action determined, not by physical, psychological, or genetic law, but by our experience of agency. It is this subjective (or existential) agency that fills our reality. This is important since it is impossible for one to act as if one was not essentially free, this determinacy does not make either existential or pragmatic sense, in other words. Even if determinism turns out to be a truth, it still cannot ever possibly matter in our actual experience of the word or our actions, since we must experience the both as a Sartrean freedom.

This above formulation, of what I call the existential argument against determinism, draws a distinction between subjective determinism, and objective determinism that some people would object to. In western analytic philosophy the objective has taken primacy over the subjective in that the objective causes the subjective. While this focus on causal relationships is a valid one (albeit more problematic than one would think), it ignores the fact that this "objective" view is merely an abstraction to the actual World in which we live, the world of experiences. The realms of knowledge where science exist are mere abstractions on the more real modes of being.

I'm moving beyond sound philosophy here, but in my opinion science and philosophy are limited in vocabulary, to the point where I think that neither can make meaningful statements about the self, agency, or God. The former two are too close to our experiential sphere to fully escape enough to make statements about them. They fall into an odd twist of Gödel's theorem. Language is inextricably tied to being, which is rooted in the (sense of) self and its experience of freedom, meaning they exist within the very structure of language, they are unspoken atoms of language and being. With all three of the "unspeakable" we, too, run into the problem of falsification, where we run into statements that are unfalsifiable within these areas (or vocabularies or Wittgensteinian "language-games"). In other words there exists statements that cannot be falsified (or verified) within these areas, making their epistemic value doubtful.

In the end I think the very proposition of determinism is problematic, and perhaps unsolvable. In this I think it is a philosophical problem, and not a scientific one. Outside of the flippant side of this comment, it shows a more and more common problem, science reaching outside its purview, and trying to solve un-scientific problems with its reductionalist methodologies. Science has no concept of transcendens (ala Heidegger or Kant) because of its elemental premise of base materialism, the transcendental will always be unspeakable within the game of science.


1 By agency I mean the overly philosophical term. According to the "The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy" (under the entry "agent causation"): "... an action (or event) is caused by an exertion of power by some agent endowed with will and understanding" So agency is the state of being able to influence events via will.

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Beth said...

You are my hero.

I miss ya, you really should come visit...

Bob said...


You argue that the premises on which determinism rests are scientistic (as opposed to scientific), by which you mean that "it presupposes that science is complete and truthful, and that nothing of human experience can lie outside of the realm of materialistic science." I don't think that the determinist needs to make this mistake. He need only assume that that which is relevant to causation is part of the 'causally closed' universe. And this need only be an assumption. You state: "This assumes that science as method can lead to certainty (which is dubious in the emergent realms of psychology and cognitive science), which is an arguable premise. This inherent scientism has the foul smell of latent positivism, a view already undermined by thinkers such as Wittgenstein." Of course the idea that scientific merit implies certainty is long dead! But I believe it is you that seems to be requiring certainty of the premises, and that is the positivistic mistake, even if you are making it as a requirement rather than believing it possible!

In other words, the premises of the determinism that you describe need only be the best available conjectures in order to make determinism the best available theory. Until your hypothetical extra-scientific theories that have a bearing on causation are meanginfully proposed, it's not "scientistic" to assent to the best available theories about scientific causation in a universe which, we can assume with good reason, is nomologically closed.

I do like your distinctions between strong and weak determinism, and between subjective and objective determinism, though. Even if your Wittgensteinian idea that neither science nor philosophy can make "meaningful statements about the self, agency, or God" seems like massive overkill to me! It's proposotions about "transcendence" itself that I might say make unmeaningful statements!

But yes, I like the idea of subjective indeterminism. Just as there is no colour as such in the "things themselves", but it is nevertheless an experiential reality, perhaps freedom is the same. :-)

Omestes said...

You are right, there is a bit of postivism remaining in my premise, but I think with issues such as the self, and agency a higher degree of depth is needed from our sceintific world view, since these the denial of these are seemingly against our own experience (lets call it folk empiricism).

When these conclusions against agency and the self are based on pure empericism (fact collecting) and weaker logical theory building, while agency and the self are everyday experiencial reality to all of us, it seems the onus is on science to prove the observations of folk empericism wrong, and that is a heavy onus, needing a higher degree of proof (whatever that means) to concrete its point. I think pure reductionist science is missing the mark of truth, because of the problematic nature of the boundary between scale of knowledge. It also ignores facts such as emergance (as chaotic system).

bob said...

If you agree there's a bit of positivism remaining in your premise, or rather, in your requirement that science prove its claims, this need is not one of "a higher degree of depth" but a higher degree of certainty. You say for example "pure reductionist science is missing hte mark of truth" but truth and certainty of truth are very different. We could possess a true theory even if no one ever assented to it and thought it very uncertain.

I agree the onus is on science -- not to prove that agency is an illusion or whatever -- but to provide a consilient explanation as to how 'folk empiricism' says one thing while well-corroborated scientific theory says another thing.