Determinism

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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