Ted Honderich

This is a paper summing up a lot about the theory of determinism and its consequences -- for a lecture to medical students and others at University College London. The other lecturer on the same evening was the distinguished  neuroscientist Professor Patrick Haggard.


            Are there many determinists? It would be reassuring for the likes of me to think that there are an awful lot of empiricists, and so that there must be a good many determinists. But you will not be slow to ask, rightly, what I mean in speaking of empiricists. Empiricism can hardly be adequate if it is the practice of limiting oneself to propositions that are directly confirmed by sense experience -- limiting oneself to perceptual consciousness. More has to get into inquiry and judgement. Few of us are attracted to the German and other tradition of philosophical Rationalism as opposed to English and other Empiricism. But most of us must be attracted to the idea that the hope of truth must lie in both experience and what you can call the three imperatives of the ordinary logic of intelligence -- clarity, usually by analysis, and consistency and validity, and completeness (cf. Van Fraassen, 1980).  

            Empiricism can indeed reasonably be taken as experience and ordinary logic. In another description, it is what includes a marriage or kind of cohabitation or visits back and forth of science and philosophy, the latter in its main tradition as a concentration on the ordinary logic of intelligence. Most of us will be content to embrace empiricism in this sense. It is distinct from Logical Empiricism or Logical Positivism (Ayer, 1936; Carnap, 1967). Maybe it is better called reflective empiricism.

            One of its results in this present piece of informal thinking about determinism and its consequences, informal thinking that looks backward and forward, is that determinism is true or at least probable. There ought to be more determinists among us reflective empiricists. Indeed there ought not to be any of us who are not also determinists. 

           My pretty standard conception of determinism (Honderich, 1988, 71-258; 2002, 22-64) is as follows. Events, some of them long enough to be states, are things or entities having properties, and events are the only subject-matter of determinism. There is causal and other lawful connection between events, at bottom conditional connection, the existence of dependencies, connections stated in conditional statements. To speak only of causal connection, an event that is an effect is an event such that it would still have happened, if or since and after a causal circumstance happened, whatever else had happened consistently with a causal circumstance -- such a circumstance being a set of conditions including what we may designate as the cause of the effect (1998, 13-70; 2002, 8-21).

            It is important that lawfulness, for all its complexity, can in this way be made clear. This way does not rely, for a start, on what is too common, inexplicit reference to law. It does not include any speculative or theory-bound idea of causation, say that effects are no more than mere probabilities or are to be understood in terms of possible worlds. As we will be noticing, determinism is at least that essential first step nearer truth than its denial with respect to freedom and responsibility (cf. Hoefer, 2010).

            My life has been such that my reflective empiricism has never issued in doubt about the proposition that all events are effects -- or anyway are lawful, the non-causal lawful pairs being correlates other than causal circumstances and effects. As noted in previous and dogged thinking on determinism and freedom, there has been no chance event in my life, no event not lawful. No spoon has ever levitated at breakfast. No matter my inability to explain particular events, to arrive at one of its preceding sequence of causal circumstances, there has been no event of which there has been reason to take it not to be the result of such a sequence.

            I've never met anyone in ordinary thinking life, in all its parts and levels save one, who said that an ordinary event had no causal circumstance at all, nothing that made it happen, that it had no adequate explanation, whether or not found. No one thinks any car accident or even any falling out of love had no adequate cause. If you give any weight to overwhelming consensus in judgement and belief, a weighting most common in science, if you take some approximation to unanimity as being indicative of truth, that is a very large fact. The premise for an inductive inference, the inference fundamental to most science, is the greatest premise there is.

            You may not be slow to say, of course, that there is some science, some interpretation or application to the world of some mathematics, that is against me. I am not slow to reply. 

            The interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, the application of that mathematics to the world, has long been allowed to be logically a mess, and it would be called so more often except for deference to physics. I mean that the indeterminist interpretation reported to us has contradiction in it, from the two-slit experiment onward (Honderich, 1988, 304-336; 2002, 71-76; cf Earman, 1986; Bishop, 2002; Hodgson, 2002).  

            It also has in it loose philosophy, and a dilemma having to do with micro-determinism amplifying upwards into macro-determinism or not, and an uncertainty as to whether it is really talking about events at all when it says some things are not effects. All of this is not put in doubt by the extent to which it works, but such a non-explanatory recommendation was also had by its predecessor in physics and is had by conceptions and the like elsewhere, say in medicine. With determinism applied to our human existence, further, all physics has less authority than neuroscience. In that judgement I do not overlook the very shaky neuroscience-with-philosophy of Libet (Honderich 2004b), taken as evidence for and then as a successor to the large work of Popper and Eccles on the self and its mind (1977).  

            Do you need to be reminded that affective attitude and the large and several-sided fact of subjectivity enters into or at least influences judgements as to truth? You can best divide consciousness into perceptual, cognitive, and affective, where the third part or side is at bottom a matter of diverse desire. That includes intentions, and hopes and life-hopes, and, most relevantly now, inclination to defer and conform. You are likely also to agree, maybe to say you know all too well, that our affective sides influence our cognitive sides. It is an inescapable fact. Some of affective states have to do with great practices or institutions and their history, and with consensus in them. One of those, indeed, is science.   

            There seems to me no doubt at all, despite my esteem for scientific method, no less than my esteem for ordinary logic, that affective attitudes enter into what are taken as matters of only cognition with respect to science. These attitudes, part of a certain hegemony of science owed to its great usefulness, have issued in tolerance of what cannot be tolerated, which is the mentioned contradiction and the rest. It is no good, of course, celebrating inconsistency as deep mystery. It is possible to forget that to say light is waves and also not waves is to say nothing.  

            It is my hopeful guess that the heyday of physics-inspired indeterminism is over. In this connection I also mention in passing, if not with heavy intention, renowned scepticisms having to do with what might be called fashions in science (Kuhn, 1962),and acute judgements with respect to scientific method (Godfrey-Smith, 2003). Can we toy with the idea that indeterminism with respect to our choices and decisions will one day be looked back on in the way we now look back on animism, the attribution of living souls to plants, inanimate objects and natural phenomena? 

            Do you now observe, very properly, that my proposition that a part of physics does not disprove determinism, including the rest of science, is itself in part a matter of attitude? I cannot possibly declare otherwise. We're all human, aren't we? What I can do, in passing, is note something else.

            It is not clear what significant personal satisfaction determinists are supposed to gain from their theory. Indeed, as we will be noticing, disadvantage is at least more likely. It was of course speculated (Pagels, 1983, 20-23) that Einstein's determinism was owed to some fact of personality, but that fact was never made clear. Was it a 'need' for order in the universe? Maybe something to do with his good politics? Now, with the decline of Freudianism, tied to decline in belief in Freud's veracity, I take it that the possibility of an accepted diagnosis of Einstein, let alone determinists generally, is yet more remote. It may be that this progress may have contributed to recent general and strong advocacies of determinism (e.g. Oerton, 2012).

            Is is clear, on the other hand, what personal satisfaction indeterminists get from their theory, what non-rational motivation there is. There is a lot of it. Their indeterminism goes with a pervasive morality having to do with desert, of which you will be hearing a bit more. It goes with personal impulses almost all of us have, of which you will also be hearing a bit more. It goes with having the support of consensus, also to be known less reassuringly as democracy about truth. It goes with respectability and what is taken as non-crankiness. It goes with mystery, whose allure in much human existence is clear. It goes with religion. 

Incompatibilism and Compatibilism

            But come away from the subjects of determinism itself, its truth, and certain affective attitudes. Come away towards a matter as great as the truth of determinism, which is its consequences for us in our lives and our thinking of our lives. 

            The matter is best got into view by way of thumbnail sketches of the historical responses to what has been, for philosophers, the principal problem with respect to determinism. What follows for us from determinism? What follows with respect to our freedom and responsibility? That has been or maybe was the principal philosophical dispute about determinsm from at least as far back as before Hume's flying the flag of the regiment that followed him thereafter (1963 [1748], 95), and Kant's insulting him for it (1949 [1788], 99) and raising another flag.

            Kant's regiment is now not standing so firmly, except perhaps in more remote and backward states of America and counties of England and like places. Still, the regiment defends a proposition about our being free in the primary ordinary sense, the sense that matters. It is that our being free, and hence our being held responsible and credited with responsibility for our actions, not to mention our prospect of heaven, is our being free in a way logically incompatible with determinism.

            This is so since free and responsible action, as we are all supposed to know and obliged to know, is action owed to choice or decision that is uncaused and yet within the control of the actor. It is random in the first and clear sense -- being uncaused -- but not in the obscure second sense. Speaking of action being in control of an actor may come to little more than that it is action such that the actor is open to affective attitudes of holding him responsible or crediting him with responsibility -- but that is to say something (cf. Strawson, 2002). 

            So much for Kant's regiment of Incompatibilism. It defends freedom that is best named as origination, maybe what is most commonly meant by talk of free will as against just freedom.

            The other regiment, more on parade still, defends the proposition that our being free and responsible, as we are all supposed to know, is our being free in a way perfectly logically compatible with determinism. This is so since, as we all know or should know, free action is action owed not to no causation but to one kind of causation. Free action is owed to self-determination, inner causation, say embraced desire (Honderich, 1988, 394; 2002, 95), rather than compulsion or constraint. This is Compatibilism.

            These two tired traditions (Honderich, 1988, 451-487; 2002, 105-21) have been elaborated and refurbished over time, and to some lesser extent continue to be. Arguments of ingenuity have been offered, mostly on the incompatibilist side (van Inwagen, 1983). I respect them, but respect more the attraction of many philosophers to the clarity of the idea of voluntariness. It is at least an aid to truth, something hard to say for the tolerance of their opponents. That is a tolerance of at least the relative obscurity, the exceedingly general and thus thin content of the idea of origination -- decisions and choices not caused, not explained in that obvious way, but still gestured at as in the control or the like of the actor. Self-causation is the worst of this story.

            Incompatibilism in its assertion of the freedom of origination cannot be true or probable for the reason, a first reason, that determinism is true or probable. What of the idea shared by Incompatibilism and Compatibilism that we have but one idea of freedom -- the idea about which the two regiments disagree as as to what it is?

            I myself cannot take at all seriously this shared proposition that we have only one idea of freedom, anyway one idea worth attending to. Incompatibilists say our only idea of freedom and of responsibility in a primary ordinary sense is the idea of origination and the responsibility based on it. Compatibilists say say our only idea of freedom and responsibility has to do with voluntariness. If there are now Incompatibilists and Compatibilists who have retreated to safer positions, who say that their idea of freedom and responsibility is the one that matters, or the one favoured by a better class of thinkers, that does not save them.

            I cannot but put aside in passing a recent third contention, semi-compatibilism, original but to me factitious. It is that our single idea of freedom and our single attitude and practice of responsibility are such that one is a concern with origination and the other is a concern with voluntariness (Fischer, 2002). This ecumenicalism seems to me to face an indubitable obstacle.

            Prior to all theorizing, all dispute between the two regiments, it is clear that any attitude and practice having to do with responsibility is inseparable from a conception and belief having to do with freedom. The attitude and practice simply has a content that in one of its two main parts is a matter of freedom -- the other part having to do with action being right or wrong (Honderich, 1988, 379-450; 2002, 91-104). And, to come to the main point, it is to me inconceivable that if, as supposed, we have one principal and fundamental idea of freedom, and one principal and fundamental attitude and practice of responsibility, the second does not have the first intrinsic or integral to to it. Semi-compatibilism, I suspect, collapses into the truth that we have two ideas of freedom going with two attitudes and practices of responsibility (Honderich, 2002, 120).

            To return to Incompatibilism and Compatibilism, Incompatibilism is false both because of determinism and the only-one-idea proposition, and Compatibilism is false because of the only-one-idea proposition. As far as I know, recent Incompatibilists and Compatibilists,  have not set out explicitly to argue, let alone succeeded in arguing, that we do not also have the idea of freedom and responsibility to which they are not inclined. They would have had a job. to do so, for at least two large sorts of reason.

            I myself am not and never have been a member of a party that no longer exists, that of Oxford ordinary-language philosophy associated with J. L. Austin (Warnock, 1989). But I have no hesitation about citing the best repositories of our concepts and conceptions, these repositories being dictionaries, and in particular the best shorter dictionary I know. The New Oxford Dictionary of of English. It defines freedom in the primary or core sense as 'the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint'. It then gives the two relevant subsenses -- being free is (i) 'having the power of self-determination attributed to the will, the quality of being independent of fate or necessity', and being free is (ii) not being subject to enumerated kinds of compulsion, constraint, and domination.

            In the face just of this evidence, both Incompatibilism and Compatibilism are nonsense. Moritz Schlick, the Logical Positivist of Vienna, said Incompatibilism as against Compatibilism is the greatest scandal of philosophy (1956, 143-4). He should have added into his declaration its assumption of there being only one conception of freedom and responsibility. But you may have more reservations about lexicographers and Logical Positivists than I. So consider some other evidence, some other stuff of reflective empiricism. Consider two examples or rather large cases, certainly not the only cases.

            We hear much, rightly, of human rights, and of denials of them. They are rights to an array of things, from enough food to sustain life to education to a lot else. To have such a right, plainly, is to have a freedom. To claim such a right is to claim a freedom. What freedom? What kind of freedom?

            In this case of human rights it would be mad to say it is origination. It would be mad to say people who want a freedom from hunger and starvation or from invasion of their indigenous homeland want an alteration of their human natures so that they can originate actions, become mysteriously in control of their uncaused actions. They are not under the influence of mediaeval or Kentucky or Dorset theologians. What they want is a change in things outside of themselves, not in themselves. What they want, obviously, is the freedom which is not being compelled by a lack of food, or more particularly by others or an economic and social system, to be hungry or to be ignorant.

            Now the other case, our yet more personal and sometimes private lives. We also hear a lot in both covert and overt ways with respect to what purports to be another many-sided fact. The fact, so to speak, includes what people deserve in terms or punishment or income or respect or whatever. If I give this paper as a talk in Kentucky or Dorset, and a clever fellow manages really to insult me effectively in public, call in question my intelligence, I am unlikely to be able to respond only by thinking and feeling that his insult was voluntary. I shall feel an impulse of retribution that presupposes that as things had been in his life and were then, he could then have done otherwise. He could have done otherwise in the sense not that his insult was not compelled or constrained but in the sense that he could have done what his power of origination or free will allowed.

            If we cannot for this second reason alone respond to determinism in the single-minded Incompatibilist way or in the Compatibilist way, by way of their shared mistake, how are we to respond to it? Evidently we have to give up on the idea of origination and the responsibility attached to it. What of the obvious alternative of responding by means of voluntariness alone? The alternative of taking it that we need to live with only the idea of voluntariness and the responsibility attached to it?

            It remains my view that part of the answer must be neither what was called Dismay or Intransigence, but rather something called Affirmation (Honderich, 1988, 488-540; 2002, 122-132). You can also think about the reassurance of being your own man, being your own woman (Honderich, 2002, 142-147). But there is more to be said, more to be thought about and worked on. Consider a proposition of the foremost contemporary philosopher of Incompatibilism, Robert Kane (1998). He has the great recommendation of explaining that not only Incompatibilists but also the rest of us want something of a general kind that Incompatibilism and in particular origination would give us. This is distinct from the motivationsof Incompatibilism already mentioned. It is standing.

            We want a human standing that separates us from what used to be called nature, or anway the rest of nature, in some sense puts us apart from or even above the objective physical world or the rest of that world, which origination would have done. Or, to state a better and more respectable requirement, we want an explanation of what there is reason to call a truth, that we have such a standing, at least that we are somehow different from the rest of nature. We have a true sense of our lives such that determinism and voluntariness do not satisfy it.

Actual Consciousness and Subjective Physical  Worlds

            What can be added as quickly is that the subject of freedom and responsibility has never been separable from the subject of consciousness. It is not just that there is no question at all of freedom and responsibility with respect to what is unconscious. It is that consciousness gives to any species, and in a special way to our species, a kind of distinction different from, say, the distinction between the living and the non-living, a distinction that is bound up with freedom and responsibility.

            Is it the case that any conception of our consciousness serves this argument? If the answer is not easy, it is still no. It is clear enough that a really flattening objective physicalism about consciousness, say a physicalism that makes no effective distinction between consciousness in the or a primary ordinary sense and the rest of the mental, no effective distinction between such consciousness in seeing, thinking and wanting as against the rest of mentality, will not provide a distinction that is useful. So with Block's two ideas of consciousness, phenomenal and access consciousness (1997, 2007). The situation is not much complicated by the fact that all of what I am calling flattening physicalisms do of course maintain they are not such. Dennett's is a fortitudinous exemplar (1984, 1991).

            Is it the case that any conception of consciousness other than flattening physicalism will serve the end in question as well? The short answer must again be no. It is no for the reason that the couple of dozen existing theories of consciousness contain so many that are open to serious objections that make them of at least limited use in the way we are considering (cf. Caruso, 2012). Abstract functionalism, which is standard functionalism, and such associated lines of life as a kind of cognitive science, as against a conceivably physical functionalism, share the disability of traditional dualism or spiritualism. I myself have reservations not much less serious against the Higher Order Theory of consciousness (Rosenthal, 2005) and various others. They include strong doctrines of supervenience (Kim, 2005), general representationalisms (Dretske, 1995), and biological naturalism (Searle, 1992).

            I end with anticipation of a very different theory of consciousness and then with a hope, a grand hope, what you can properly call a hope of mankind.

            The speculation attached to the different theory is that there are different facts on which we can rest, facts that gives us a standing or standings that may leave us content despite the loss attendant on giving up origination. Certainly it is a speculation that makes us different in several related ways from the rest of nature. If its beginnings (Freeman, 2006) include nothing whatever about freedom and responsibility, but much about an adequate initial clarification of consciousness in the ordinary sense, it does give to us a standing given to us by no other theory.

            Let me say quickly that it is in part an externalism or anti-cranialism different in kind from those of Putnam (1975), Burge (2007), Noe (2009), and Clark (2011). It is an externalism with respect only to perceptual consciousness as against cognitive and affective consciousness -- the latter consisting in representations having to do with truth and desire.

            A first thing to be said or promised with respect to this theory of consciousness (Honderich, 2013), is that an arguable account of consciousness in the primary ordinary sense is open to summary in a certain way. This consciousness, in accordance with a lot of data we have, is something's being actual. In the present speedy report, I add no more to that than the following general proposition. It is possible to give an account of what can be called actual consciousness that separates it from the rest of what there is, not by a retreat to dualism as against physicalism, but to a recognition of a fundamental kind of physicality, as fundamental as any.

            If a sentence of anticipation is worth anything, the theory is to the effect that for you to be perceptually conscious now is for there to be a subjective physical world external to you, a world of space outside you, in causal relations, and so on. This world, say this room, whose particular physicality cannot be in doubt, is dependent on the objective physical world. It is also dependent, crucially, on you neurally. You have this standing lacked by anything that lacks perceptual consciousness. On this theory, as someone else might give in to the temptation to say, and I do not, you have standing of being a little demigod, if one among very many indeed.


            Coming on now to the grand if faint hope, it has something to do with what has been mentioned already, that we are all, or all save a very few of us, inclined to impulses of retribution, what can as well be called impulses of desert, impulses that have within them an idea or anyway something like an image of origination. The grand hope, however, has much more to do with something much larger -- practices and institutions of retribution and desert that are fundamental to our societies. Punishment will come back to your mind immediately. So should our systems of reward by desert, systems having to do in one part with income and wealth.

            These systems in our societies, the hierarchic democracies of Britain and United States and those others along similar lines, are of course open to classification and theorizing of many kinds. To my mind, they are most generally classified as being systems of Conservatism. This includes at least much Liberalism, such as that of the Liberal Democrat party in the coalition government of the United Kingdom as of now. You ask what Conservatism is, and I must reply with outrageous brevity.

            It is the self-interest, a self-interest of individuals and classes, that has no arguable principle of right and wrong to defend itself (Honderich, 2005). It has, for a start, on account of the truth of determinism and the non-existence of origination, no general principle of desert to defend itself. There is also the difficulty, not so particular to this conversation, that it can be argued that no principle of desert succeeds in understanding propositions of the form X is deserved in such a way to distinguish them from X is right -- with the upshot that every principle of desert is fundamentally of the circular form  X is right because it is right.

            Conservatism is different, to say the least, from what I shall call the Left in politics, a tradition of as much self-interest but with a principle of right and wrong that defends it in pursuing that self-interest. That is the Principle of Humanity. It is, in a sentence, that what is right is what is rational, only what is rational, with respect to the end of getting and keepin people out of bad lives, these being lives to different extents deprived of the great human goods, frustrated in the great desires of human nature. These goods and desires have to do with length of conscious life, bodily well-being, freedoms and powers, respect and self-respect, goods of relationship, and the goods of culture. 

            The practices and institutions of desert in our societies are owed less to any intrinsic or genetic or ordinarily evolved human attributes than to something else. They are owed to the tradition of Conservatism, the self-interest incapable of justifying itself. My great hope, a hope in which I invite you to join, is the grand if faint hope of the Left in morals and politics. My invitation, in the context of this moment, has to do with determinism, freedom, the non-existence of origination, and wrong and right.

            It is that the abandoning of Incompatibilism, Compatibilism, ordinary belief and inclination with respect to origination, and the politics of desert that is a main source of the belief and inclination, has the recommendation of serving the end of the great principle of right and wrong, the Principle of Humanity. We can have the support of that principle, so to speak, in living with what follows from the falsehood of the proposition of origination. 

            It is not only that we can, in truth, see that our standing is greater by reflection on perceptual consciousness as conceived in the theory of Actual Consciousness. We can hope for our human successors an escape from at least the temptation to an attitude that is a means of those of us who are wrongly defending our societies as they are.

            One more thought. You will agree, maybe, that there is at least the possibility of consolation having to do with perceptual consciousness in the necessary escape from the stuff about origination. With respect to the great hope, you are less likely to agree, maybe, in what you may call my intruding of morals and politics into our inquiry.

            I make no apology at all. I merely remind or inform you of something. The very best account of the whole history of the questions of determinism and freedom is that one by Mortimer J. Adler and what was The Institute for Philosophical Research. This account, The Idea of Freedom: A Dialectical Examination of the Conceptions of Freedom (1958), divides the history into thinking about origination, voluntariness, and a third way -- what is called self-perfection. I reduce the latter idea by remarking that it has to do with the freedom that is the circumstance of the good man, and I reduce it horribly by saying that it has to do with, in its very least persuasive conception, the freedom of he or she who is free from sin.

            You will note the consonance between this tradition of thinking on freedom and my remarks about the Principle of Humanity and the hope. I add, finally, that the part of Adler's history that considers the thinking of freedom that is thinking of origination and voluntariness, rather than self-perfection, adds in an extensive consideration of those bodies of thinking in so far as their content is social and political. A large part of the thinking on voluntariness, a part given separate attention, is on political freedom.          



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