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Determinism, Libertarianism, and The Confusion Surrounding




Determinism, Libertarianism, and The Confusion Surrounding


   The notions of Determinism and Libertarianism conflict in their approach regarding the nature of free will. The problem of free will rises out of the ability to assign cause and effect to the whole of the natural world. If such assignments enable us to predict the course of nature, they might enable us to predict human actions; if we can do that, where does human free will exist?

    Strict determinists, such as Baron Holbach, perceive the idea of free will as an illusion due to the determined outcomes that could be predicted by the right knowledge of the causes that affect us. Libertarians such as Roderick Chisholm, on the other hand, perceive our freedom as requiring a self, which intervenes in our decision-making. I shall proceed by examining the notion of Determinism, followed by an inspection of the Libertarian model. I later intend to offer a resolution in which a free self can coexist with a deterministic world.

    The Deterministic model is based on the fact that in an empirical scientific manner, we can trust the same causes to produce the same effects time after time. This wonderful ability unlocks the possibility of predicting human behavior. Holbach uses two main concepts as keys to our determined conduct: Initial conditions, and Laws of nature.

Initial conditions are the whole of the variables that make us who we are at first. That is, our genetic makeup, our intelligence, our family, and maybe our personality at its starting point. Holbach himself might see initial conditions in a more general materialistic manner; nevertheless, IC (initial conditions) refers to our biological and psychological foundation. The idea of the laws of nature is a notion that appeals towards a complete mapping of all causes and effects. Such a complete mapping that would allow us not only to predict nature, but also to infer human behavior based on the known effects of any cause.

    From the two concepts above mentioned, Holbach offers the following model:
IC + Laws Desires Actions. The model claims to be able to ascertain, and thereafter, predict, all actions as stemming directly out of desires, while our desires are a direct outcome of initial conditions and laws of nature. Based on the above modal Holbach claims that freedom of choice is an elaborate illusion, obviously annihilating the notion of responsibility in the process.

    At this point it is important to clarify another of the above concepts: desires.
By desires Holbach does not refer only to our emotions or lusts. He uses desires in a broader term, one synonymous to motives. The broad definition of desires includes what we might at first naturally perceive as judgment.

    In a deterministic world an action is a necessary outcome of a prior impulse. The impulse may be a desire that causes a reaction. The only way in which a course of action, produced by an initial desire, might take a different turn, is none other than a case in which a stronger desire takes over. Holbach therefore dismisses all reflection, experience, [and] reason as mere conductors that necessarily arrest or suspend the action of mans will (p. 52). The above reflection, experience, or reason, do not introduce a new gap in which freedom can take shape, it is rather an automatic response that merely sorts out the strongest desire.

    The Libertarian model adds a new category to the equation; that of the self. In Chisholms view, the self intervenes in between the desires and actions of the deterministic model. That is, before a desire necessitates an action, the self holds the final judgment of whether to act, or not. The idea of the self as prime mover, unmoved (p.23) is based on the notion that whenever we are about to act, there is at least a brief moment in which we can go either way.

    Chisholm proceeds deeper into two different modes of causation: that of Immanent causation, and that of Transeunt causation. The former is a direct case of a prime mover initiating an action, while the latter is a natural causation lacking initiative, such as that of the hammer causing a bullet to blow out of the barrel.

    The above distinction is crucial, in Chisholms model, to account for the idea of responsibility. That is, man as an agent has the capability of initiating an action; therefore, man is responsible for an action that he initiated (as Immanent causation) and to the natural outcomes that his action can transeuntly cause.

    To the question of whether a man is responsible for the ideas and desires that he holds, Chisholm answers yes, for there must have been at least a brief moment in time in which he could have chosen not to adopt an idea or not to yield to a desire. Chisholm uses a case in which a man is holding a gun aimed at another. The former can, at that given moment, either pull the trigger, or not. It is in this moment prior to action that Chisholm identifies the man as a free agent, responsible of his actions.

    In a Deterministic world, an agent would shoot his fellow man if his desire is set to do so. The only way in which the action might be prevented is by the interference of a greater motive (or desire). In the Libertarian world, however, an agent can reflect on a situation, and then make his judgment call. Yet a free agent acts for a reason, and a reason aims at a desired outcome; so it seems that at the point of decision all that the Libertarian agent does is to act according to the reason that yields his desired outcome. In case that the Libertarian agent decided not to shoot, despite his prior desire to do so, there
could be a few reasons: he might feel sorry for the guy, he might prefer not to mess with the police, he might even think it would be unjust to shoot.

    Yet all of the above reasoning, the Deterministic would say, is but a sorting out of the strongest desire. In other words, the desire not to harm a fellow man, the desire to avoid prison, and even the desire to remain just, all are essentially equal to strong desires, conflicting the initial desire to shoot. Call it reflecting, experience, or reasoning (as Holbach does), all that those judgmental abilities of the Libertarian self eventually do is to sort the strongest desire the agent holds, and act accordingly.

    Holbach, in his turn, makes a crucial mistake in his absolute dismissal of the abilities to reflect, learn from experience, and to reason, as sources of freedom; freedom that raises us above the status of mere desire-tanks that act automatically; freedom to choose the best action for a given outcome, an outcome we have the greatest desire for.
Therefore, it seems that in both cases we have a man acting according to his strongest desire (in the broad sense synonymous to motive). In the Deterministic model the strongest desire emerges by itself to cause an action, In a Libertarian mode there is a self that sorts out his strongest motive and acts upon it.

At this point I must agree with Chisholm on the idea that in the ability to reflect, learn from experience, or to reason, and in the ability of applying those tools in our decision-
making, the source of our freedom can be found. Yet there is no reason that a free agent would reject the fact that he is acting according to his preferred course of action; an action that leads to an outcome; and an outcome that he most strongly desires. And there is no reason that the above should cease to exist in a deterministic world. First, for as Hume claims, the alternative is petrifying and irrational: a world in which an action is not linked to an outcome. Second, for I believe that when understood properly, the notion of determinism and its implied ability to predict behavior, do not affect the agents freedom.

The notion of predictability should be understood as logical and should not be feared. It is as conceivable to say that given the initial condition of a person and complete knowledge of the laws of nature, we may be able to predict his behavior as it is conceivable to claim that a husband or wife of thirty years could, with great accuracy, predict his or hers spouses behavior in any given situation. The fact that another person or organization might know, with great to absolute certainty, how we would react to a given situation because they know our personality (or IC) and they practice logic (or Laws of nature), leaves the freedom of those personal desires untarnished; for an agent does in fact act according to its personality (and the agent should want that in order to define its will) and is bound by the laws of nature; a fact that enables prediction, yet does not terminate freedom.

    In a mere human mechanical sense, choosing according to our greatest benefit might very well be the natural boundary of our freedom by virtue of the limited power
that we assert, power that is both physically and jurisdictionally limited mostly to ourselves. A resolution should therefore consider a compatible existence of both freedom and a deterministic nature. It can hold a definition of freedom that is not about choosing in any other way then we do, but about being able to follow our desires (as well as our counter-desires). In this case the deterministic nature of the world only aids us in reasoning our actions according to a desired outcome.


Ohad Maiman