Dilemma of determinism
The dilemma of determinism or standard argument against free will is an argument that there exists a dilemma between determinism and its negation, indeterminism, in that both are purported to undermine the possibility of free will. The argument for the dilemma combines two arguments about the relationship between the concepts of free will and determinism. One argument claims that strict determination of our actions would mean they were completely necessitated by past events beyond our present control, and that this would be logically incompatible with the concept of free will. The other argument claims that any indetermination of our actions would merely mean they were at least partly random, offering no more control, and that this would also be logically incompatible with the concept of free will.
The dilemma does not posit that only total determination and total randomness would undermine free will, nor that those are the only possibilities; but rather, that both determination and randomness, in any measure or combination, each undermine free will to their own extent, and that to the extent that one does not apply (whether to some set of events or some part of the cause of a given event), the other applies instead. The dilemma is not itself a stance on any question as to what extent which things are determined or not, but rather the argument that no matter which stance on that issue is correct, the possibility of free will faces challenges either way.
Responses to the challenge posed by the dilemma vary. The dilemma is accepted by hard incompatibilists, who conclude that free will is therefore impossible in any case. The dilemma is also compatible with, but does not entail, hard determinism, which holds that determinism is true and incompatible with free will and that free will is therefore impossible. The dilemma is rejected by metaphysical libertarians, who hold that free will exists and is incompatible with determinism, thus seeking refuge for free will in indeterminism. And the dilemma is rejected by compatibilists, who hold that free will is possible even if determinism is true, and some of whom reject that the issue of determinism vs indeterminism is even relevant to the possibility of free will at all.
History of the argument
Questions of determinism and freedom go back farther than the Stoics and Chrysippus. The dilemma faced by Chrysippus was described by Plutarch: On the one hand, Chrysippus advocated the existence of 'fate', but also argued that not everything that is fated is necessary. An unresolved debate ensued over the logical consistency of this claim. How can something not fated to happen that in fact does not happen be called 'possible'? How can one speak of alternatives or possibilities if their happening is precluded? Plutarch proposed that the 'possible' necessarily must be able to occur, and cannot be 'possible' if fate denies its occurrence. The conclusion is that if 'fate' exists, then at least it is not invincible. This division into the fated and the unfated persists to this day.
In 1739, David Hume in his A Treatise of Human Nature directed his attention to the 'dilemma of determinism'. The notion is that one must examine more closely the relation between necessity and cause.
"I myself believe that all the magnificent achievements of mathematical and physical science — our doctrines of evolution, of uniformity of law, and the rest — proceed from our indomitable desire to cast the world into a more rational shape in our minds than the shape into which it is thrown there by the crude order of our experience. The world has shown itself, to a great extent, plastic to this demand of ours for rationality. How much further it will show itself plastic no one can say...If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand of uniformity of sequence...The principle of causality, for example, — what is it but a postulate, an empty name covering a demand that the sequence of events...manifest a deeper kind of belonging of one thing with another than the mere arbitrary juxtaposition which now phenomenally appears?"—William James , The Will to Believe, p. 147
Argument still is found in the philosophical works of many current philosophers, both those who deny libertarian free will, and those who defend it. It is known under various names. Peter van Inwagen divides it into two distinct parts, the "Consequence Argument": ("If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.") and the "Mind Argument" ("By identifying indeterminism with chance...an act that occurs by chance...cannot be under the control of its alleged agent and hence cannot have been performed freely"). Galen Strawson called it the "Basic Argument" (an infinite regress in which our actions are determined by character and our character determined by prior actions). John Martin Fischer calls it the "Dilemma of Determinism." Robert Kane describes the dilemma as the "Ascent and Descent of Incompatibility Mountain."
Fischer has raised an interesting 'out' to Plutarch's argument that an act cannot be determined not to occur and yet be possible. He imagines a form of mind control of one individual by another - the controlled individual is free to decide anything, but the controller can intervene to prevent unwanted actions. So the individual is 'free' to do whatever things the controller allows, because such choices are not interfered with. In other words, the controlled person can make responsible choices, provided the controller lets them do it. Implications of this formulation are discussed by Derk Pereboom. One might view addiction as an example of a control of a persons actions despite their choices: an addicted individual can choose to break their addiction, but their dopamine production is compromised so they do not exercise this choice. According to Pereboom's 'Condition (3)' for responsibility (derived in response to Fischer's proposal), whether such an addict is responsible for their continued addiction depends upon whether one judges the matter to be within the agent's control. As our understanding of addiction shows, whether an agent has control is complex, depending upon many factors including long-term environmental influences such as rehabilitation programs and the agent's social milieu.
Free will is generally impossible
The scientific mode of explanation cannot accommodate the notion of uncaused causation that underlies the will... A random event does not fit the concept of free will any more than a lawful one does, and could not serve as the long-sought locus of moral responsibility.
Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are the product of chance and we are not responsible for them. If a man's choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity, which is in turn the product of prior causes—perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood, lost sleep, and a cosmic-ray bombardment—what can it possibly mean to say that his will is "free"? No one has ever described a way in which mental and physical processes could arise that would attest to the existence of such freedom.
Let us now consider the libertarians, who claim that we have a capacity for indeterministically free action, and that we are thereby morally responsible. According to one libertarian view, what makes actions free is just their being constituted (partially) of indeterministic natural events. Lucretius, for example, maintains that actions are free just in virtue of being made up partially of random swerves in the downward paths of atoms. These swerves, and the actions they underlie, are random (at least) in the sense that they are not determined by any prior state of the universe.
If quantum theory is true, the position and momentum of micro-particles exhibit randomness in this same sense, and natural indeterminacy of this sort might also be conceived as the metaphysical foundation of indeterministically free action. But natural indeterminacies of these types cannot, by themselves, account for freedom of the sort required for moral responsibility.
As has often been pointed out, such random physical events are no more within our control than are causally determined physical events, and thus, we can no more be morally responsible for them than, in the indeterminist opinion, we can be for events that are causally determined.
The argument is exceedingly familiar, and runs as follows. Either determinism is true or it is not. If it is true, then all our chosen actions are uniquely necessitated by prior states of the world, just like every other event. But then it cannot be the case that we could have acted otherwise, since this would require a possibility determinism rules out. Once the initial conditions are set and the laws fixed, causality excludes genuine freedom.
On the other hand, if indeterminism is true, then, though things could have happened otherwise, it is not the case that we could have chosen otherwise, since a merely random event is no kind of free choice. That some events occur causelessly, or are not subject to law, or only to probabilistic law, is not sufficient for those events to be free choices.
Thus one horn of the dilemma represents choices as predetermined happenings in a predictable causal sequence, while the other construes them as inexplicable lurches to which the universe is randomly prone. Neither alternative supplies what the notion of free will requires, and no other alternative suggests itself. Therefore freedom is not possible in any kind of possible world. The concept contains the seeds of its own destruction.
...the well-known dilemma of determinism. One horn of this dilemma is the argument that if an action was caused or necessitated, then it could not have been done freely, and hence the agent is not responsible for it. The other horn is the argument that if the action was not caused, then it is inexplicable and random, and thus it cannot be attributed to the agent, and hence, again, the agent cannot be responsible for it. In other words, if our actions are caused, then we cannot be responsible for them; if they are not caused, we cannot be responsible for them. Whether we affirm or deny necessity and determinism, it is impossible to make any coherent sense of moral freedom and responsibility.
Randolph Clarke's version
Accounts of free will purport to tell us what is required if we are to be free agents, individuals who, at least sometimes when we act, act freely. Libertarian accounts, of course, include a requirement of indeterminism of one sort or another somewhere in the processes leading to free actions. But while proponents of such views take determinism to preclude free will, indeterminism is widely held to be no more hospitable. An undetermined action, It is said would be random or arbitrary. It could not be rational or rationally explicable. The agent would lack control over her behavior. At best, indeterminism in the processes leading to our actions would be superfluous, adding nothing of value even if it did not detract from what we want.
If the truth of determinism would preclude free will, it is far from obvious how indeterminism would help.
Thomas Pink's version
There are but these two alternatives. Either an action is causally determined. Or, to the extent that it is causally undetermined, its occurrence depends on chance. But chance alone does not constitute freedom. On its own, chance comes to nothing more than randomness. And one thing does seem to be clear. Randomness, the operation of mere chance, clearly excludes control.
Among the grandest of philosophical puzzles is a riddle about moral responsibility. Almost all of us believe that each one of us is, has been, or will be responsible for at least some of our behavior. But how can this be so if determinism is true and all our thoughts, decisions, choices, and actions are simply droplets in a river of deterministic events that began its flow long, long before we were ever born? The specter of determinism, as it were, devours agents, for if determinism is true, then arguably we never initiate or control our actions; there is no driver in the driver's seat; we are simply one transitional link in an extended deterministic chain originating long before our time. The puzzle is tantalizingly gripping and ever so perplexing — because even if determinism is false, responsibility seems impossible: how can we be morally accountable for behavior that issues from an "actional pathway" in which there is an indeterministic break? Such a break might free us from domination or regulation by the past, but how can it possibly help to ensure that the reins of control are now in our hands?
Either causal determinism is true, or it is not. If it is true, then we would lack freedom (in the alternative-possibilities and source senses). If it is false, then we would lack freedom in that we would not select the path into the future — we would not be the source of our behavior. Indeterminism appears to entail that it is not the agent who is the locus of control.
Smart states two definitions - one for determinism and one for randomness and declares them to be exhaustive of all possibilities.
Dl. I shall state the view that there is "unbroken causal continuity" in the universe as follows. It is in principle possible to make a sufficiently precise determination of the state of a sufficiently wide region of the universe at time to, and sufficient laws of nature are in principle ascertainable to enable a superhuman calculator to be able to predict any event occurring within that region at an already given time t'.
D2. I shall define the view that "pure chance" reigns to some extent within the universe as follows. There are some events that even a superhuman calculator could not predict, however precise his knowledge of however wide a region of the universe at some previous time.
For the believer in free will holds that no theory of a deterministic sort or of a pure chance sort will apply to everything in the universe: he must therefore envisage a theory of a type which is neither deterministic nor indeterministic in the senses of these words which I have specified by the two definitions DI and D2; and I shall argue that no such theory is possible.
There is another opinion which is less frequently voiced: the opinion, it might be said, of the genuine moral sceptic. the notions of moral guilt, of blame, of moral responsibility are inherently confused and that we can see this to be so if we consider the consequences either of the truth of determinism or of its falsity. The holders of this opinion agree with the pessimists that these notions lack application if determinism is true, and add simply that they also lack it if determinism is false.
Galen Strawson's version Strawson notes the argument is familiar and cites Henry Sidgwick's 1874 Methods of Ethics. Actually Sidgwick, who accepted the 19th-century view that freedom is metaphysical, is a firm determinist and only cites the Determinism Objection to free will.
It is a compelling objection. Surely we cannot be free agents, in the ordinary, strong, true-responsibility-entailing sense, if determinism is true and we and our actions are ultimately wholly determined by "causes anterior to [our] personal existence"* And surely we can no more be free if determinism is false and it is, ultimately, either wholly or partly a matter of chance or random outcome that we and our actions are as they are?
H. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 66. This familiar objection to the claim that we can be truly responsible agents is of course disputed (and indeed scorned) by compatibilists, but it is entirely sufficient for establishing the structure of the present discussion.
Thomas W. Clark:
Without free will, we at first seem diminished, merely the playthings of external forces. But really, determinism hardly makes us the playthings of external forces. Rather we ARE the forces themselves, concentrated and directed in patterns whose regularities we are just beginning to discern.
The metaphysical problem of human freedom might be summarized in the following way: "Human beings are responsible agents; but this fact appears to conflict with a deterministic view of human action (the view that every event that is involved in an act is caused by some other event); and it also appears to conflict with an indeterministic view of human action (the view that the act, or some event. that is essential to the act, is not caused at all)." To solve the problem, I believe, we must make somewhat far-reaching assumptions about the self of the agent — about the man who performs the act.
If determinism is true, as the theory of soft determinism holds it to be, all those inner states which cause my body to behave in what ever ways it behaves must arise from circumstances that existed before I was born; for the chain of causes and effects is infinite, and none could have been the least different, given those that preceded.
Both determinism and simple indeterminism are loaded with difficulties, and no one who has thought much on them can affirm either of them without some embarrassment. Simple indeterminism has nothing whatever to be said for it, except that it appears to remove the grossest difficulties of determinism, only, however, to imply perfect absurdities of its own.
Determinism, on the other hand, is at least initially plausible. Men seem to have a natural inclination to believe in it; it is, indeed, almost required for the very exercise of practical intelligence. And beyond this, our experience appears always to confirm it, so long as we are dealing with everyday facts of common experience, as distinguished from the esoteric researches of theoretical physics. But determinism, as applied to human behavior, has implications which few men can casually accept, and they appear to be implications which no modification of the theory can efface.
Without free will, we seem diminished, merely the playthings of external forces. How, then, can we maintain an exalted view of ourselves? Determinism seems to undercut human dignity, it seems to undermine our value.
Some would deny what this question accepts as given, and save free will by denying determinism of (some) actions. Yet if an uncaused action is a random happening, then this no more comports with human value than does determinism. Random acts and caused acts alike seem to leave us not as the valuable originators of action but as an arena, a place where things happen, whether through earlier causes or spontaneously.
Peter van Inwagen's version
Here is an argument that I think is obvious (I don't mean it's obviously right; I mean it's one that should occur pretty quickly to any philosopher who asked himself what arguments could be found to support incompatibilism):
If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us. I shall call this argument the Consequence Argument.
[A variant argument van Inwagen called the Mind Argument] proceeds by identifying indeterminism with chance and by arguing that an act that occurs by chance, if an event that occurs by chance can be called an act, cannot be under the control of its alleged agent and hence cannot have been performed freely. Proponents of [this argument] conclude, therefore, that free will is not only compatible with determinism but entails determinism.
Van Inwagen dramatized his understanding of non-random but indeterministic agent causation by imagining God "replaying" a situation to create exactly the same circumstances and then arguing that decisions would reflect the indeterministic probabilities. (William James had also imagined rewinding the universe and having an alternative possibility occur.)
If God caused Marie's decision to be replayed a very large number of times, sometimes (in thirty percent of the replays, let us say) Marie would have agent-caused the crucial brain event and sometimes (in seventy percent of the replays, let us say) she would not have... I conclude that even if an episode of agent causation is among the causal antecedents of every voluntary human action, these episodes do nothing to undermine the prima facie impossibility of an undetermined free act.
Kane offers a version of this argument against free will with a diagram. He describes the usual determinism and randomness objections (the two horns of the Libertarian Dilemma) as the ascent and descent of what he calls "Incompatibilism Mountain."
Let us call this the "Libertarian Dilemma." Events that are undetermined, such as quantum jumps in atoms, happen merely by chance. So if free actions must be undetermined, as libertarians claim, it seems that they too would happen by chance. But how can chance events be free and responsible actions? To solve the Libertarian Dilemma, libertarians must not only show that free will is incompatible with determinism, they must also show how free will can be compatible with indeterminism.
Imagine that the task for libertarians in solving this dilemma is to ascend to the top of a mountain and get down the other side. (Call the mountain "Incompatibilist Mountain": figure 4.1). Getting to the top consists in showing that free will is incompatible with determinism. (Call it the Ascent Problem.) Getting down the other side (call it the Descent Problem) involves showing how one can make sense of a free will that requires indeterminism.
Kane says that if free will is not compatible with determinism, it does not seem to be compatible with indeterminism either.
- Metaphysical naturalism
- Nomological determinism
- Physical determinism
Varieties of determinism
- Biological determinism
- Cultural determinism
- Economic determinism
- Environmental determinism
- Genetic determinism
- Geographic determinism
- Susanne Bobzien (1998). "Introduction". Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford University Press. pp. 11 ff. ISBN 0198237944.
- Susanne Bobzien (1998). "Introduction". Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford University Press. pp. 123 ff. ISBN 0198237944.
- Paul Russell (1995). Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume's Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. Oxford University Press. p. 51. ISBN 0198025548. "one aspect of Hume's strategy is to reveal that the dilemma of determinism, presented as an alternative between horns A [chance] and C [metaphysical necessity] is a false dilemma...[based upon] confusion about the nature of necessity."
- An address to Harvard Divinity School students in Divinity Hall on March 13, 1884: William James (1886). "The dilemma of determinism". The Will to Believe: And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Reprint ed.). Longmans, Green, and Company. pp. 145 ff. On-line text here
- Peter van Inwagen (1999). An Essay on Free Will (Paperback ed.). Oxford University Press. p. 16. ISBN 0198249241.
- Galen Strawson,Freedom and Belief, Oxford (1986) p.25
- John Martin Fischer, Free Will:Critical Concepts in Philosophy, Routledge, 2005, vol. I, p. xxix
- Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, 2005, p.34
- J. M. Fischer (2006). "Chapter 2: Responsibility and and alternative responsibilities; Frankfurt-type examples". My Way : Essays on Moral Responsibility. Oxford University Press. pp. 38 ff. ISBN 0195346289.
- Derk Pereboom (2001). Living without free will. Cambridge University Press. pp. 2 ff. ISBN 0 521 79198 7.
- Nora D Volkow, Joanna S Fowler, and Gene-Jack Wang (2007). "The addicted human brain: insights from imaging studies". In Andrew R Marks and Ushma S Neill, eds. Science In Medicine: The JCI Textbook Of Molecular Medicine. Jones & Bartlett Learning. pp. 1061 ff. ISBN 0763750832.
- Steven Pinker (2009). How The Mind Works. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 54–55. ISBN 0393069737.
- Sam Harris,Free Will, 2012, p. 5
- Noûs 29, 1995, reprinted inFree Will, ed. D. Pereboom, 1997, p.252
- Colin McGinn,Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, 1993, p.80
- Paul Russell, Freedom and Moral Sentiment, 1995, p.14
- Randolph Clarke, Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. Oxford, 2003, p. xiii
- Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will.Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 2008
- Thomas Pink, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2004, p. 16
- Ishtiyaque Haji, Moral Appraisability, 1998, p.vii
- "Free-Will, Praise and Blame," Mind, July 1961, reprinted in Gerald Dworkin, Determinism, Free Will and Moral Responsibility, Prentice-Hall (1970). p.196
- "Freedom and Resentment," 1962, reprinted in Gary Watson (ed.), Free Will, Oxford (2003) p.72, read online
- Determinism Objection to Free Will
- Naturalism.org, "Free Will and Naturalism: A Reply to Corliss Lamont"
- "Freedom and Action," 1964, in Freedom and Determinism, ed. Keith Lehrer, 1966, p.11
- Richard Taylor, Metaphysics, 1963, p.46
- "Free Will", chapter 4 of Philosophical Explanations, 1981, p.291-2
- James, William. 1884 “The Dilemma of Determinism,” Unitarian Review, September, 1884. Reprinted in The Will to Believe, Dover, 1956, p.155
- "Van Inwagen on Free Will," in Freedom and Determinism, 2004, ed. Joseph Keim Campbell, et al., p.227