On Free Will, Determinism, & Morality

free will

Listen to “Coffee Shop Philosophy – Episode 30 – Free Will vs. Determinism” on Spreaker.

Is there such a thing as free will? If there isn’t, what are the implications we would have to deal with? On my most recent episode of Coffee Shop Philosophy (linked above) I sat down with Vinny Marshall and we went through some of the ideas behind free will, determinism, Kant, Hume, and other entertaining and, hopefully, informative sidebars.

For the purposes of the discussion we had, we defined free will in what is known as the libertarian sense. The distinction here between normal free will and libertarian free will is that the former acknowledges the shaping of nature and nurture on the human will, while the latter considers it secondary; and assumes we have truly free and separate will.

Determinism we defined in two separate categories: soft determinism and hard determinism. The soft version allows for some forms of will, moral actions, but lays claim that the bulk of our decision making is built into our neurochemistry. Hard determinism is likely the form you are more familiar with. It declares that all actions are naught but the results of cause and effect. All action in the universe led to a chain of events that led to you sitting where you are, at that exact moment, reading this article and/or listening to the episode. With that bit of housekeeping tackled, let’s dive in.

Free Will vs. Determinism

Free will in the libertarian sense is an impossibility based on its concept alone. We already know from studies that the brain makes the decisions before the conscious mind does and that nurture, genealogy, and environmental factors impact the brain and, by natural extension, the mind. Even something as simple as a variation in diet can create mood swings as seen with those with blood sugar balance issues.

Sam Harris, a proponent of hard determinism, uses the example of a Charles Whitman, better known as the University of Texas tower shooter, to showcase the amount of control physiological factors have on our minds. Charles Whitman had asked for an autopsy after his death because he couldn’t explain his own lack of control. The result was that they, indeed, found a brain tumor. Now, while the results remain contested, Harris uses this to state that we are tumors all the way down. What he means here is that, if we had perfect knowledge of neuroscience, we could predict and foresee all aberrations of the mind.

There are some key issues with his argument on this front. The first is the notion that we will have perfect knowledge in the future being the basis of his claims now. This leaves his argument rather hollow as it’s based on the assumption of knowledge we have yet to gather. Another is what we are to do with this knowledge? Harris doesn’t suggest that we step away from morality or many of our other social judgments, but rather that we frame them with the notions of rehabilitation. You might ask, then, if all things are predetermined by this kind of overarching cause and effect, how can we be held to any of our actions? It’s on this question I find myself in disagreement with hard determinism. It becomes a self-refuting argument. To act upon this knowledge would result in a purely negative form of social decay.

Without any actionable direction to this thinking, I find, personally anyways, that directing ourselves toward more compatibilist stances like those offered by soft determinism allow us to still build and direct moral framework and active decision making. Even if hard determinism is assumed to be correct, we would need to get past the who cares then? of it and need to direct ourselves anyway; or, at least, act as if we are. With the mind being even somewhat outside of our true control, what, then happens to morality?

Bridging the IS/OUGHT divide

Hume once gave us the brilliantly simple, and excessively powerful, notion of the IS/OUGHT divide. Simply put, you cannot directly leap from what is to what OUGHT to be based solely on the merits of the IS. To frame this with a current debate look simply to the gun control advocates. Shootings happen so we should get rid of guns. The italicized section is the IS or, to make it clearer, the facts of the matter. The underlined portion is the OUGHT or course of action. A simple question here is what aspect of the former gives automatic credence to the latter? The answer is nothing. Face, on their own, do nothing to suggest a specific course of action without some form of modification. This is known as Humes Guillotine.

How do we bridge this gap? Vinny offered up a deceivingly simple answer to that question: goals. With a goal as a modifier, we can move from the is to the ought on stable grounds, and avoid the blade of the guillotine in doing so. This might seem pretty obvious in the realm of practical things, but when we turn this towards more conceptual things like morality we start to see how different this application becomes.

An issue with objective morality is that, save theological arguments for it, it usually tries to form from purely a logical area. The logical approach might seem accurate at times, but assuming the logic is sound, we are left with an IS. To get to the ought, we need to set a particular goal. So stating that committing murder is logically contradictory as we would not wish to be murdered, while that particular statement has its own issues in my mind, sets an IS that murder is contradictory. The obvious OUGHT that follows that the shouldn’t commit murder. Stating that to murder while not wanting to be killed would make one a hypocrite and, in this mindset, immoral only carries weight if one wishes to not be a hypocrite if they accept hypocrisy as a qualifier for moral action and if they have the goal of obtaining a non-contradictory moral code.

Subjectivity, also, suffers without goal setting. Simply claiming that something is moral because a person believes it leaves us without any real framework for morality, rights, etc. By setting individual or, and I know this is a dirty word but societies work like this, collective goals for how to operate then, and only then, can we establish a repeatable and upholdable framework for morality.

There are tons more covered in the episode above including a breakdown of Kant’s hypothetical and categorical imperatives if that sort of thing tickles your fancy. Overall, the most interesting thing I took away from the discussion is how much ground is shared between what we generally perceive as opposition points, and how much of it falls away when we start to bridge those gaps and remove the bad arguments that plague these discussions.

You can read more from Killian Hobbs on Think Liberty here.


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