Monthly Archives: May 2006

Convincing the Determinist

A being whose thoughts and actions are “determined” in the sense discussed previously, has no control over those thoughts. The very process of “reasoning” is therefore not under the being’s control. Logic, being the art of proper reasoning, therefore has no meaning to this entity, as it cannot willingly apply the practice to its thinking process.

I will use the term “determinist” to indicate a person who claims a belief in determinism, though I maintain that a person who truly “believes” determinism and has therefore integrated all of his knowledge and actions with this fundamental belief, embodies a contradiction, and therefore cannot truly exist. Such a person would not feel that decision making, no matter how trivial, is necessary as a conscious effort – indeed no “willful” effort can exist. In the attempt to be internally consistent to determinism, the individual will see every action and thought as “instinct”, and will be reduced to acting on instinct alone. In human form, such an individual will not long exist. Nonetheless, I will adapt the use of the term “determinist” as indicated above, although those who typically call themselves “determinists” are far from consistent in their actions and thoughts, and therefore would not be represented by this label. Specifically, most of the engineers and scientists who claim to believe determinism are not worthy of this label.

The determinist sees no meaning in Logic. Hence, logical arguments, such as I have been describing, will have no interest to him. In his opinion, I am pre-determined to make this argument, and he is pre-determined to reject it. He need not think about it logically, indeed that action would be non-sensical. The entire discussion, then, would be reduced to a series of meaningless sounds exchanged between individuals. This is clearly what the nominalist philosophers concluded – the “meaning” of a word is arbitrary and deeply subjective. Humans build their internal representations of the World in a determined manner. Two such knowledge systems may or may not share elements in common. Hence, the meaning of specific words may not be assumed to be consistent between any two individuals. True communication of ideas is consequently impossible to verify for the participants in a conversation. And that which cannot be verified (according to this school of thought) cannot constitute knowledge.

Hence, the determinist is left on his own to experience the truth or fallacy of his beliefs. In daily life, the very presence of free will permits him to evade focusing thought on the evidence presented to him by his perceptions. He, of course, fails to see this. Should he engage his rational faculty, and should it draw the conclusion that his actions are not and need not be arbitrary, he will reject this conclusion as the product of Logic, and resume his unfocussed “belief” in determinism. There would appear to be no way out of the determinist’s contradictions.

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To “believe in determinism” entails a fundamental contradiction.

By “determinism” is meant a hypothesis that all of the actions, perceptions and – most importantly – thoughts of any living being are caused by physical processes. This is a generalization of the proper notion of causality as applied to all physical entities in the Universe, and is a commonly accepted tenet among scientists and engineers who have been educated in the fields of physics and mathematics. When confronted with the phenomena of the human mind, these individuals who have been intellectually reared upon the strict use of logic feel a compelling need to explain its observed functionality. In the absence of an accepted explanatory theory for the human mind, generally this results in either an appeal to religion (God, the all-powerful, need not require the action of physics to create a mind), or physics itself – the mind is formed by a machine which rigidly obeys the law of causality, and whose actions must therefore be determined.

I myself have struggled with understanding the necessary invalidity of determinism, and the axiomatic nature of its opposite – free will. Although I have “internalized” an acceptance of the axiom some years ago, I had forgotten the logical arguments proving the self-evident nature of human free will. It is the purpose of this post to present and expound upon this very simple argument, and to investigate its use in attempting to refute determinism to its adherents.

I must give credit to our discussion group [visitors to this blog can read notes from various meetings at the bottom of this page] for raising this perennial issue again last week, after which there ensued a lively discussion, part of which is paraphrased here.

The argument against determinism is actually quite simple to state. If all thoughts are determined, one can never be certain of one’s “knowledge” – for all that one apparently “knows” has also been pre-determined. Reflexively applying this to the assumed knowledge of determinism, one cannot be certain that determinism is an accurate hypothesis.

Expanding this argument further, a being whose “thoughts” are exclusively determined through mechanical actions of physical processes can have no personal control over the content of his “mind”. In particular, what he feels he knows of the real world is not under his personal control, and therefore cannot be validated by him independent of yet more determined actions and thoughts. Under no circumstances can this being attain certainty in knowledge, and therefore cannot be properly said to have knowledge of anything. This being’s sense of certainty or uncertainty with respect to any proposed truth is in itself determined, and may therefore be at odds with reality. Specifically, then, the validity of the hypothesis of determinism must itself be in question, despite the most adamant statements from the being that he “knows” or “believes” it to be true.

This then is the argument that leads to the declaration that free will is axiomatic and inescapable. Every statement of certainty invokes the necessity of free will. This is the meaning of the statement heard in Objectivist literature that in asking the question itself, one invokes free will. A determined being is incapable of actually questioning his reality – the question he asks cannot be validated as an honest question (he is determined to ask the question whether he cares to have it answered or not), and the answer he accepts is arbitrary with respect to the Truth, as he is determined accept it as True.

Going further, he who claims a belief in determinism must reject the concept of learning, and with it the validity of Logic. Logic is the art of correct thinking; however, if one’s thoughts are pre-determined, there is no right or wrong manner of thinking – there is merely the action of a machine over which one has no personal control.

There will be more on this topic to follow…

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