Here’s how determinists hang themselves …

So, Jerry Coyne is pretty much a determinist about free will, which at the extreme can be summarized as “We don’t really have it”.  He talks about it here, summarizing someone else’s ideas of what it means:

Now, normally as you all know I tend to quote a lot from posts I comment on, but this time I’m not going to include any quotes at all.  But if you read it, you’ll see that it basically boils down to this:

  1. Due to evidence x, y and z, we don’t seem to have meaningul choices or free will.
  2. Therefore, we should act differently because of the fact that we don’t have free will.

The problem with this is obvious, and is a common one stretching all the way back to at least B.F. Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” — which, yes, I have read — and probably long before that.  In “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”, Skinner claims that we don’t have free will and all our actions are basically determined by environment and history, reports that we see that positive reinforcement works better than negative reinforcement … and then advocates that we condition others with positive reinforcement as opposed to negative reinforcement.   The problem?  How in the world can we be “free” enough to “choose” to change how we condition people so that they react appropriately without any of us having the ability to choose?

That’s the common issue that determinists always run into.  They’re trying to convince us to accept their view that there is no free will, and that we don’t have meaningful choices.  But to do that, we have to be able to have choices, or else we have to accept that it was determined long before they open their mouths whether or not we’d accept their recommendations, either on free will or how we have to act with respect to this lovely information about free will.  And if we don’t have free will, neither do they, and so they will keep making this mistake just because they do; they can’t, in fact, meaningfully choose otherwise.  If determinists are right, there are no meaningful choices all the way down … but then attempts to change behaviour are equally determined.

That’s the issue they face:  they want to promote the lack of free will when our entire mindset and way of speaking presumes that we have free will.  This should certainly put them behind the 8-ball, no matter what science says.



4 Responses to “Here’s how determinists hang themselves …”

  1. n Says:

    the purpose of this comment is two-fold: first, you gained a reader. I can’t tell whether nobody comments or my cell has trouble again with interpreting javascript, so my belief that you are not widely read might be unjustified. In any way, your reader count just incremented.

    you don’t have to presuppose choice to think that someone’s mind can be changed. The fact that we behave as if there were free will is due to the illusion of it, i.e. the illusion of choice is either necessary for or a side-effect of self-awareness. I am a “relaxed” determinist, and i am loathe to defend a position i don’t hold, but your criticism doesn’t seem trivially valid. I will think on that more. But on this topic, how do you answer the common criticism that one can either choose based on, for the lack of a better word, a priori information or deriveable information (everything happening up to now and future predictions being part of that), in which case choice isn’t free, or without such, in which case it is free, but describeable as choice only in the same way as schroedinger’s cat describes an act of choosing? If you propose an agent that does the choosing, how is that agent free of this constraint?


    • verbosestoic Says:


      First, thanks for becoming a reader. I’ll try to provide interesting posts so that you stay one. And your cell isn’t having a problem; there aren’t a lot of comments or as far as I can tell dedicated readers for this blog, at least not yet. I’m hoping moving to a more regular schedule will fix that.

      As for the second part, my argument that “someone changing their mind” is kinda meaningless if there’s no free will, since it isn’t something they choose to do, but something that just happens, so at least asking people to change their minds presume them choosing to which really doesn’t work if we don’t have free will. So, to summarize, trying to convince someone to change their behaviour implies that they can choose to maintain or change their behaviour, but the deterministic position presumes they can’t make any choices, even about their minds. The Stoic view of determinism, however, pretty much made mental choices the only things you did control, so would avoid this objection (but was vulnerable to an objection of “But why should we try al all?”).

      I reply to that objection by saying that I don’t think constraints cause us to not have free choices — and, in fact, that they are required for us to have free will — but that our decisions can’t be determined solely by the constraints. It’s hard to see precisely how this can work but for me it seems reasonable — close to an interpretation I made of Kant a while ago — that everyone always acts on their beliefs and desires — which would support a deterministic view — but that what we believe and desire are themselves not determinant. What I mean by that last part is that you couldn’t take the same person with the same history and necessarily get the same desires; our desire formation faculties are in some way free.

      But I admit this is a bit vague, but free will is a complicated subject so I think I’m excused, at least for now [grin].

  2. M Says:

    Hm.. my knee-jerk objection to this would be that your answer that “… believe and desire are themselves not determinant.” is not solving the problem, as it essentially just moves the problem into some kind of superset of the original context. In other words, where do those desires come from, how are they caused? This may be trivial; I lack any formal philosophical education.

    I will have to think on that a bit more. For what it is worth, your blog is plenty interesting without you jumping through any hoops to make it so.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, that is the problem, but it also seems to make sense. We have a very hard time finding any factors that determine what someone wants, but once we know what they want and believe we can predict their behaviour really, really well. But no, it isn’t trivial; in fact, quite the opposite. It’s exceptionally complicated. But I’ve found that most philosophical positions depend on which set of complications you’re willing to accept.

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