| HOW FREE ARE
YOU? THE DETERMINISM PROBLEM
by Ted Honderich
Can attitudes like those that have seemed welded to indeterminism and free will actually go with determinism? Is it not a contradiction to suppose so? The little Oxford University Press book How Free Are You? in its first edition, much translated, was a summary of the indigestible or anyway not widely digested A Theory of Determinism: The Mind, Neuroscience and Life-Hopes. In its second edition (of which there is now a French translation), the little book is such a summary and more. The additions throughout it lead up to a new view of the state of the problem, not the same as before. If you are a philosophically responsible character, you will certainly get the 2nd edition in order to read what comes before the new last chapter. If you are like me, not so exemplary a character, you can read the new last chapter here -- and turn to a couple of other chapters on compatibilism and incompatibilism. The new chapter hangs together with but maybe is better than various other pieces (mentioned at the end here) about the need for another new start on the problem of determinism and freedom -- a new start with a glance back at the notorious stuff of Immanuel Kant.
The preceding two chapters, about the response of Affirmation to determinism in one's own life and with respect to society, have been left more or less as they were in the first edition of this book, where they were the last two chapters. So you have read what was said originally of what follows on from our having two sets of attitudes with two thoughts or notions of freedom in them, and from our two responses to determinism of Dismay and Intransigence. This was that one of the sets of attitudes is out of place and needs to be given up -- the policy of Affirmation, the solution, as it was bravely said, to the problem of the consequences of determinism.
A good reason for leaving the two chapters as they were was to have the whole view put strongly. It may well all be true, as you will read again in my last line. If it has still not become an orthodoxy, it does not need to be hesitant. Certainly it must be as confident than the tired pair of traditions it replaces, Compatibilism and Incompatibilism. There is more need for unconventionality than conventionality in philosophy.
No doubt at all has crept into my mind about the falsehood of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism as against the truth of Attitudinism, or about the reality in our lives of the related pair of responses to determinism, Dismay and Intransigence. That is not quite the case with respect to the project of giving up of one set of attitudes, the response of Affirmation. Here there are things you have just read in my two chapters of which it can be said that some resolution was needed in order to leave them on the page without qualification.
Here, since the first edition, more thoughts and questions have got hold of me. They are not along the same lines. Nor are they along good lines proposed by other philosophers convinced of the need not merely to qualify Compatibilism and Incompatibilism, but to leave it behind. (Double, Magill, Pereboom, Smilansky) It was remarked some way back that in a better world you would be reading a textbook of neuroscience rather than a chapter trying to summarize it. In a better world, you would also be giving your attention to these other departures from the cart-tracks of Hobbes and Bramhall. These various departures, akin to Attitudinism in their beginnings, are substantial and diverse enough to allow me to leave them unsummarized, and to merit your attention even in this lower world.
But for now, there is the fact that a general question can come up about the project of Affirmation. So it has happened with me at any rate. Indeed what can come up is something that can seem to be on the way to a conviction. It is the question of whether a certain sense of one's life can have to do only with origination or Free Will, and nothing else, and thus in consistency with determinism we have to try to escape from it. Can this sense of one's life rest on some other ground instead? The sense in question has to do with more than one's moral responsibility, but that is part of it, and a place to start with these reflections.
If you settle down to think of your past life, to give it reflective attention, it can seem that you cannot avoid feeling responsible in a certain way for what you have done. This is likely to be more a matter of holding yourself responsible than crediting yourself with responsibility. To engage in autobiographical thinking of a serious sort, let alone the actual writing of an autobiography (Honderich 2001a), is surely to come to feel that your life has had in it patterns, actions, feelings and so on such that you would feel a lot better if they were missing. To get the sequence of your life into focus is surely to disapprove morally of yourself in something like the way that goes with accepting Free Will. It is to find retributive impulses in yourself against yourself. To get hold of the episodes of your past is surely to fall into or to be inclined to just that guilt contemplated earlier as something from which determinism should free us. (p. 00)
That is a first point. It is close to what is maintained in a philosophical paper as important as any on determinism and freedom in the past century. (P. F. Strawson) If the paper was a kind of defence of Compatibilism, it was also on the way to Attitudinism. One burden of it was that we have no chance of giving up certain attitudes to ourselves and others, including a kind of gratitude and resentment and also moral attitudes like the one now under consideration.
This particular kind of moral disapproval owed to autobiographical reflection, the special guilt, must at least at first seem to carry with it and depend on the image or idea of the initiation of actions inconsistent with determinism. It seems to carry with it what there is so much reason to despair of, an image of origination.
You cannot rescue yourself from the moral disapproval and guilt by the thought that you are merely wanting rather than discovering your past to have been inconsistent with determinism. You cannot readily pass off the moral disapproval as having to do with a desire rather than a truth. You are not wanting the credit of moral responsibility for past actions. To be of an ordinarily self-critical personality or culture, at any rate in the privacy of your own reflections, is to find yourself something like accused, not at all so agreeable as the promise of moral self-congratulation.
The situation is different, then, from the one in which philosophers of Free Will find themselves. They are desirous of a certain dignity for themselves as well as others, essentially a moral dignity, and some of them honestly admit it their desire. (Kane, Ekstrom) It must place some question-mark over their conclusions, as remarked before. (p. 00) The situation of self-accusation and guilt now under consideration is certainly different.
Will it be said that really to think about your past life, to try to engage in it again, and as a result to find yourself in a state of self-doubt or worse, is merely to give evidence of being a certain kind of personality? An insecure personality? 'Neurotic', which is to say in that category most useful to the various plumbers of the depths of our minds? Putting aside the category from the plumbers, as I am inclined to do, it may still need to be admitted that an insecure reaction to one's past life is not a universal fact, not a law of human nature. That does not give me much pause. If all philosophy rested on laws of human nature, as distinct from facts of reasonably generality, there would be little philosophy of interest. It is my assumption that you, reader, can join me in my present troubled line of reflection. A habit of philosophical scepticism may help you, even if we do not often bring it to bear on our own lives.
That is not the end of the story about autobiographical reflection, but only half of it. Our dealings with our pasts are not all judgemental, not all concerned with moral disapproval or approval. Often, if you get started on reflection about your past life, what you want is just to understand. How did it come about? How were those person-stages connected? How did I get where I got and become what I am? The aim is explanation, not judgement.
And, to come towards the second point, the terrible fact is that you can deal with your past life in this way and fall into no uncertainty whatever about the proposition that everything that happened did have an explanation in the ordinary and indeed the only real sense. That is, it was an ordinary effect. Indeed you can increase your conviction of the truth of determinism. This has been my experience. Has it been owed to nothing arcane, but just to more knowledge of a subject-matter, recovery of a subject-matter? Has it been owed instead to a deeper fact -- that there is no other way of understanding, of getting a subject-matter into conceptual good order, no other way than the way of real causes and effects?
At any rate, we have in these reflections come to a seeming contradiction. It is near to the one announced by the great Kant, also as a result of something about morality. Kant embraced determinism, in his way, but did not react to it in the Compatibilist way, by giving up indeterminism and restricting freedom to voluntariness. Far from it. Rather, he announced that he would have both determinism and indeterminism, both determinism and origination, by putting them in different places. Determinism in or for the phenomenal world or the world of our ordinary experience, indeterminism in the noumenal world, a world beyond and under our experience. (Cf. Schopenhauer, Hannan)
This Higher Compatibilism, entirely at odds with ordinary or mundane Compatibilism, must be hopeless. A distinction between two worlds is of course possible, and has a number of philosophical versions, several of them less metaphysical than Kant's. But there seems no hope whatever of locating indeterminism and freedom significantly in only one of them, and certainly no hope for taking it out of the experienced world entirely. In any case, since what is undetermined and free must in some sense turn up in both worlds, it is impossible to see that the contradiction is actually escaped. Certainly there can be no good sense in the sort of philosophical speculation that supposes there can be two ways of seeing the same things, two perspectives on them, such that what is true about these same things in one perspective can safely be contradicted in the other perspective.
Is it conceivable, to come towards a third and the main point in these reflections, in fact a question, that some philosophical idea as radical as Kant's can have a better hope of dealing with the seeming contradiction? Is it conceivable that some entire departure from our philosophical habits can make it possible to persist with determinism and yet also to persist in a moral attitude that has been taken as needing the support of indeterminism and origination? In particular, is it conceivable that we can by some idea or other persist in certain attitudes, which do indeed seem tied up with the obscure and factitious machinery of origination -- persist in these attitudes without recourse to the machinery of origination and in all ways consistently with determinism?
Something else needs attention before we look at this main question.1 Something else, in fact, changes the question significantly. At the start, it was said that autobiographical reflection can raise a question about a basis of a sense of one's life. An idea of oneself as morally responsible is a part of this sense of a life, but only a part. This sense of one's life has to do at least as much or maybe more with a thing different from morality.
It is my idea and feeling that in my life I have been my own man. What I mean, by this somewhat different use of a common piece of English, is that I have been one with very many others, almost all of us in what is called Western culture. And it is not political correctness that makes it necessary to add that being one's own man in this sense is no different from being your own woman. The piece of English in my use of it of catches hold of more lives than particularly characterful or brave ones. In that better world remarked on several times before, there would be time to try to elaborate what it is to be one's own man or woman. Use might be made of talk of autonomy, where that is taken to be something somehow different from freedom.
To come to another plainer summary of this self-perception, let me quickly say only that there has been some individuality about my life. There has been a uniqueness that can seem to be in conflict with my life's having been a sequence of causal circumstances. This individuality is certainly not a matter of my being significantly different from others in terms of character or personality. Each of at least many of us, paradoxically, is individual in this way. It is not too much to say that each of us stands apart from others and from everything else.
So -- I can have a sense of my life that consists in a certain feeling of moral responsibility and also an idea, separate from morality, of an individuality or uniqueness. Does it have other sides? These two will be enough for our reflections. This sense of my life, to continue, suggests a source that it cannot really have, a source in the murky machinery of origination, once characterized as panicky metaphysics. (P. F. Strawson) Can it be that there is another ground, very different, for this sense? It would be agreeable to have a confident and developed idea of such a ground to report to you, but I do not have that.
What can be done, first, is to indicate how radical a departure from our habits I have in mind in our looking for such a ground. An example will help. Something clear is needed, since recent philosophers of Free Will have also been inclined to call for new thinking, and been humanly inclined to suppose that they have done some. (Kane) This new thinking, from a perspective outside of their struggle, is more of the same. This is not the sort of thing I have in mind. The departure that may be needed in connection with determinism and freedom, and in particular in connection with determinism and a sense of a life as individual, is in fact a kind of change of subject.
My example will be an alteration in thinking on the nature of consciousness, or at least perceptual consciousness. This idea of mine, for such it is, may be followed by a like alteration with respect to reflective and affective consciousness. (p.00) These, you may remember, roughly have to do not with seeing and the like but with kinds of thinking and desiring.
There may also be better reason for attending to this idea. It is that it seems possible that the new thinking that is needed with determinism and our senses of our lives will actually have to do with the nature of consciousness. It may have to do, yet more fundamentally, with consciousness and the nature of reality. It may be that the true resolution of the problem of determinism and our senses of our lives is to be found not in moral philosophy, and not in the philosophy of mind narrowly understood, but in metaphysics and epistemology, these being understood as philosophical concerns with the nature of reality and our part of it and our role in it. It may be, even, that the particular new thinking on consciousness will do something to resolve the problem of our senses of our lives.
To go back before we go forward, the nature of consciousness first had our attention when we were concerned with a first part of the theory of determinism. We supposed that consciousness is a reality, and that conscious or mental events take up space and time, and that consciousness is distinguished from all else by the character referred to as its subjectivity, the most fundamental fact about it. To these secure suppositions were added others as secure. There is a necessary connection of some kind between our events of consciousness and our neural events -- psychoneural intimacy is a fact. There is also the fact of causal connections between mental events and earlier and later non-mental events -- the events of the glass of wine being on the waiter's tray before me and the movement of my arm towards it. These later connections give rise to the mind-body problem. (Ch. 3)
As a result of more or less attention to one or more of these considerations, philosophers and others have come to a small number of kinds of answers to the question of the nature of consciousness. Their many answers can be reduced, in my opinion, to these few kinds.
Some philosophers, including many concerned above all with the mind-body problem, at bottom the problem of how non-mental events of neurons can be in causal connection with mental events, have persisted with the materialist answer that the mental events are the same. They have only the properties of neural events. Hobbes in the 17th Century was right in taking consciousness to be cells.
A second lot of philosophers and fellow-workers, much larger, have coated the pill of this materialism by concentrating on the aforementioned relations between mental events and earlier and later events -- here we have Functionalism, a philosophically speculative kind of Cognitive Science or Artificial Intelligence. (p. 00) These labourers, as I see it, have left the materialism as unswallowable as it has always been.
A third kind of answer to the question of the nature of consciousness, perhaps presupposed in much of neuroscience, is the idea that mental events have physical properties, but physical properties as yet unknown. They have properties not yet part of neuroscience and not around the corner either. It is not only the obscurity of this view that makes it as hopeless.
These three kinds of answers to the question of the nature of consciousness are to me and others hopeless because they can give no adequate account of subjectivity. That is close to saying they give no adequate account of the very nature of consciousness. There is that great difference between your your consciousness and the existence of cells, coated cells and future cells. A fourth kind of answer, associated historically with Descartes but close to all ordinary unreflective thinking about consciousness, is at first more promising. It transpires, however, that is is mainly promising in its mystery. This is Immaterialism, often misleadingly called Mind-Body Dualism.
What it comes to at bottom is that consciousness is stuff that is out of space. It exists, and is had by persons, but takes up no space. It is a matter of a substance or thing, a substantial self or subject, and is absolutely different from the rest of what exists, which is matter. An overwhelming problem for Immaterialism is of course the mind-body problem. It is hard to dissent from the consensus that Immaterialism is destroyed by it. How can something without any dimensions, or perhaps even locality, cause my arm to move?
Our look at the nature of consciousness in connection with Mind-Brain Determinism in Chapter 3 did not try to do better than these four kinds of answer to the question of the nature of consciousness. As recalled a moment ago, we came only to the proposition that conscious or mental events, whatever their nature, are in nomic connection with our neural events. That was sufficient to our needs. Now we have reasons to look at another answer to the question of the nature of consciousness, anyway an answer to the question of the nature of perceptual consciousness.
What is it for you now to be aware of the room you are in? It is for the room in a way to exist. That answer can be shown not to be merely a rhetorical way of saying that you are aware of the room. It is not a non-analysis. Rather, the claim that your perceptual consciousness consists in a kind of existence of a world consists in the claim that there is a certain state of affairs, certainly not in your head.
It is a particular state of affairs consisting of things, reasonably called chairs and the like, being in space and time and being dependent on other facts. It is dependent on another world, roughly speaking the relevant atoms, and it also has another dependency, on your neurons in particular. The world in question is anterior to the perceived physical world as we define it. That public world is the one dependent both on atoms and crucially on no individual in particular but on all of us, above all on our shared perceptual apparatus and our shared conceptual scheme. That we make such a contribution to this reality has been plain since the 17th Century. (Honderich 1999, 2001d)
In this analysis of perceptual consciousness, a general physicalism is in a way held onto, or not far departed from, and the mystery of non-physical stuff somehow in the head is absolutely abandoned. But what has attracted so many to this stuff, its vanishing recommendation, is delivered to us by something else. What we get, above all, in the idea of Perceptual Consciousness as Existence, is the fact of subjectivity made real and clear.
What is subjective about perceptual consciousness is that for each of us our perceptual consciousness is a personal world different from the perceived part of the physical world and other worlds, a world ordinarily open to and dependent on just one subject. Your perceptual world's dependency, putting aside its dependency on the world underneath, the world of atoms and the like, is not a dependency on subjects generally but a dependency only on your neural existence. That is not to say, to repeat, that we have got far from physicalism. Your world, it can be argued, is no less 'real' than the perceived part of the physical world. If the latter is not to be made into mysterious stuff in the head by its dependency on persons generally, why should your world of perceptual consciousness be degraded into such stuff by its dependency on you?
You are not likely to be persuaded of this doctrine, Consciousness as Existence, or rather Perceptual Consciousness as Existence, by a few words delivered on the wing. In any case, as remarked, it needs to have added to it related accounts of reflective and affective consciousness, perhaps in terms of the existence of possible worlds. The lesser of my two lesser aims in stating it baldly, to recall it, is to indicate something of the order of differentness of thought that may be needed if we are to make a better escape than that of Attitudinism and Affirmation from three centuries of impasse in the philosophy of determinism and freedom. We need to get as far from origination as Consciousness as Existence is from the four standard kinds of answer to the question of the nature of consciousness.
with the nature of consciousness. The doctrine of Perceptual Consciousness as Existence is also apposite in this connection.
My second reason for turning attention to Perceptual Consciousness as Existence was that new thinking that seems needed with determinism and our senses of our lives may well have to do with the nature of consciousness. Given what has been said of the subjectivity of perceptual consciousness, according to our doctrine, little needs to be said of its recommendation. It promises to see all of consciousness in such a way that it is something that really may explain your sense of your life, without aid from indeterminism.
It explains your sense of your life as a sense of something for which you are accountable and also something that is individual and indeed unique in another way or ways. For you to be conscious is for much more to exist than something or other in your head. (It always was at least uncomfortable to think of consciousness as something literally in a head.) For you to be conscious is for a unique world in a way to exist. It can be added that it is on such worlds that the physical world in its two parts rests. We get to the physical world by way of our unique worlds.
You are excused if you say that this is no longer English philosophy, no longer the dominant philosophy in the language of the English-speaking world. It is high reasoning or deep thinking, assigned earlier to French and German philosophy. (p.00) Well, as I have been saying, it may be time for another change, whether or not in the French or German direction. You can arrive by English steps at the need for another kind of progress.
Not to be faint-hearted, let me leave you, particularly the one or two open-minded postgraduate students of the age, with one other thought. It is another indication of the extent to which we may need to abandon the philosophy of determinism and freedom as we have and have had it and start up again in this new millenium. It may also actually be of use with the problem of determinism and freedom, and in particular our senses of our lives.
A causal circumstance, you may remember, is a set of events that necessitated an effect. We typically isolate and elevate one of those events and say it caused the effect, or indeed was the cause of the effect -- as against another mere condition of the effect, another event in the causal circumstance. This cause may be the human action in the set, and will hardly ever be so ordinary as the presence of oxygen. In general it is the event that most interests us or the event that it is in our interests to isolate. (Ch. 2)
Suppose you set about explaining something in a life, perhaps a pattern of it or a culmination of it. You take the pattern or culmination to be the effect of a causal sequence, this being a sequence or past array of causal circumstances. You can now do the further thing of isolating a cause in each of the causal circumstances or maybe just some of them. This gives you what can be called a causal line within and from the beginning of the sequence to the the pattern or culmination. It may be that this is much of what is had in mind by philosophers who speak of a narrative in connection with a life. (MacIntyre)
There is a problem about isolating a single condition in a causal circumstance and dignifying it as the cause. The problem, a paradox if you will, is that in a clear sense this cause is no more explanatory of the effect than any other condition in the causal circumstance. All are required or necessary conditions. But the cause seems to be exactly that -- more explanatory. That is exactly what is conveyed by calling it the cause. Evidently there is the very same problem about a causal line. In one clear sense it cannot be more explanatory than any other chosen succession of items or states, say presences of oxygen. But it is more explanatory, isn't it?
What this comes to is that the culmination of a life, say, is a matter of plain determinism, but there seems also to be the possibility of some kind of explanation of it that is different in kind. Some kind of departure from determinism, or unexpected addition to it. At any rate there is a problem or paradox here. The putative explanation would be consistent with determinism, indeed within it, but different in kind from ordinary causal explanation -- ordinary explanation of an event by a causal circumstance. I have wondered, unsuccessfully so far, if the thing is worth reflection in connection with determinism and the attitudes in which we can find ourselves persisting -- determinism and a sense of one's life.
It may be that we shall get nowhere. It may be, despite what has been said, that there is no need to try. Your sense of your life as individual, if you too have one, may be a kind of illusion. You may be no more than a victim of that process of acculturation mentioned earlier, that one that has much to do with Western religions and begins with our mothers. You may have had both an ungrounded feeling of moral respnsibility imposed on you and also a mistakenly enlarged sense of your existence and your importance. It could be that there is no truth that gives us what I have been calling our senses of our lives. We are just giving in to mother.
If it comes to seem so to me, I will pass beyond Compatibilism and Incompatibilism only to the security of the attitudinal doctrine and our two ideas and to the hope of the project of affirmation. They may be truth and reason, if not perfect contentment.
1. This main question is put mistakenly, I see, on pp. 398-9 of my autobiographical book Philosopher: A Kind of Life . What is needed by way of a new idea is certainly not a new conception of origination as we have been understanding it.
The line of thought of this chapter is related to those in three papers on this website:
(1) After Compatibilism and Incompatibilism
(2) Determinism as True, Compatibilism and Incompatilism as False, and the Real Problem
(3) Determinism's Consequences, the Mistakes of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism, and What Is To Be Done Now
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