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The problem with determinism Essay

The traditional view is that of the compatibilists which states that freedom is the ability to act, or not to act, according to the determinations of the will. It is so defined to make it compatible with the theory of determinism, which essentially states that all actions have a causal explanation due to the state of the world in the moment previous. However, the definition is clearly inadequate due to the fundamental flaws of determinism and its failure to account for deliberation or personal choice.

A superior alternative is offered by what Taylor calls the theory of agency, but is more commonly known as libertarianism. In discussing a theory one must start with some data in order to prove the validity of the theory, and in discussing determinism this is no different. Two suitable criteria dealing with the decision making process are: firstly that we at times deliberate with the view of making a decision , and secondly regardless of whether I deliberate I sometimes have a personal choice in the decision making process.

These criteria are ideal because they are both things that we as individuals are fairly certain of so any acceptable theory must account for them in some way. For common sense, a virtue in argumentation, suggests that it is easier to accept the veracity of partial self-determination in the decision making process than an abstract philosophical theory. To asses the applicability of the data to determinism a more in depth examination of determinism is needed, which Taylor defines as having three tenets: Firstly, that the theory of determinism is true.

Secondly, that voluntary behaviour is free unless constrained, and finally that causes of voluntary behaviour are certain states, condition, decisions, and desires. The principle problem of determinism is precisely this last tenet, for what are the causes of the inner states that cause my actions? Where do they come from? Are they under my control? If determinism is true then the problem of infinite causality arises for the causes of the actions must themselves have causes. When applied to the two original data the infinite causality of determinism renders these data false.

Take deliberation as an example. I can deliberate only about future actions, but there are always causes to everything I do making the outcome of the deliberation inevitable and the process itself irrelevant. The incompatibility of determinism and deliberation does not bode well for the second datum, as if I am to have a personal choice in an action then I must be able to concretely execute any of the options associated with the action. But if determinism is true there can again only be one option due to the chain of causes thus negating the option of personal choice.

A better theory, one that incorporates these two essential data is what Taylor calls the theory of agency, but is more commonly known as libertarianism, which postulates that human beings are frequently, but not always, self-determining beings. To further understand the theory of agency and thus its advantages it is first necessary to examine how it deals with the causation of actions. If an individual is relatively free in his decision making it follows that the individual agent can be considered a cause for the resulting action.

For example, if I move my hand then the obvious cause of the motion is me and not some infinite series of causes. The lack of such a sequence of causes, unlike the one put forward by determinism, is an advantage for it allows the theory of agency to be rid of the problems of determinism discussed above. Moreover this allows libertarianism to incorporate the two criteria originally put forth. Under libertarianism deliberation becomes not just possible, but quite logical as it makes sense to ponder a matter over which I have control of the outcome.

Then obviously, if I am at least a partially self-determining entity then I have a fair amount of personal choice in what course of action I should pursue. Aside from avoiding the problems of determinism, perhaps libertarianism’s greatest advantage is its common sense appeal. For example, if I am considering whether to order a Big Mac for lunch or a McChicken, it makes much more sense to me that through deliberation I can choose which sandwich I would like to eat, rather than the existence of some infinite chain of events that pre-determines that I will eat a Big Mac.

It is of course necessary to acknowledge that common sense and simplicity are not absolute truths, but as Bertrand Russell wrote, in support of common sense, in The Problems of Philosophy, “Since this belief [in the existence of physical objects] does not lead to any difficulties, but on the contrary tends to simplify and systemize our account of our experiences, there seems no good reason for rejecting it. ” (Russell, 24) While Russell was addressing another problem the logic of common sense he applied most definitely applies to the case at hand as well.

As a concluding argument in favour of libertarianism consider, the very fact of reading and grading this essay. If determinism were true then this essay’s grade would have long been pre-determined by a series of causes stretching back to before its very creation thus rendering useless the whole process. Texts Cited Russell, B. Problems of Philosophy. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1997. Taylor, R. Metaphysics. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993.


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