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Determinism and the Meaning of Life

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Perhaps the toughest pill to swallow attendant to accepting hard determinism is the resulting lack of free will. The next largest, by my estimation, is the loss of moral responsibility. Finally, and not to be forgotten, is the oft-cited loss of any meaning life might hold, presumably due to the loss of these first two, freedom and moral responsibility. In Living Without Free Will, Derk Pereboom concludes his book defending  hard incompatibilism against criticisms that it requires too much of a sacrifice, and he argues that we do not lose as much as we might think in accepting an incompatibilist view. First to be salvaged is the meaning life could have if we accept such a position. While I generally agree with Pereboom, I do think his defense necessarily suffers from the nature of the position he advocates.

Pereboom’s first appeal is to the Stoic tradition:

The Stoics argued that affirming determinism while taking a broader perspective can result in a profound sort of equanimity. If determinism is true, everything that happens in one’s life can be attributed to God or the universe, and then through one’s identification with this entity one can attain an acceptance of anything that happens.

Pereboom proposes that such a view can easily be adopted by hard determinists and might lead to a general calming of negative emotions, such as anger and dissatisfaction. While emotional stability is certainly a plus, I am not sure this constitutes any robust sense of “meaning” that opponents and proponents of determinism alike can latch on to. Such a view can certainly bring a sense of fulfillment at being a piece of the whole, a subject of God, a being in the universe, etc. but fulfillment does not seem to be the same as meaning. If I imagine I am a leaf floating on the river whose actions directly impact whether I float into rocks, get caught on one bank or another, am pulled under water, etc. then such a view certainly brings a level of ownership: this life as a leaf is my own, and more than this I am responsible for the fate that lies ahead of me. Now, if I am a leaf who is PURELY at the mercy of the river and every seeming motion I make is an unseen current, a gust of wind, a branch blocking my way, etc. then ownership seems to be fairly low. In fact, such an example clarifies the hopelessness with which life might be viewed when you  are not the author of your actions, and that whatever you feel you have chosen to do was not up to you.

Now, I would like to offer a bit of clarification that I think is often lost when discussions turn to determinism and free will. Except in extreme theories, it is rarely the case that a determinist will say that a person does not ever choose, and that no choice is up to that person. Rather, what is being said is that all choices we make do not stem from a deliberation free of any influence. To the contrary, though deliberation might occur, there is only one outcome that will obtain (and it is the only outcome that could have obtained given the circumstances leading to the decision), and sufficient knowledge of the universe would allow a person, God, or neuroscientist to predict with 100% certainty what outcome will obtain.

Pereboom believes that the existential concept of a “life project” is in compatible with hard incompatibilism. He says,

 “For example, suppose one discovered that one’s career choices was determined by a deep interest, produced by the circumstances of one’s upbringing. Or that the choice of one’s spouse is explained by the salutary features of one’s childhood environment, which one was determined to replicate because of the happiness it produced. These discoveries might well enhance the fulfillment provided by these projects.”

While I believe Pereboom has a point, I do not think he goes far enough. This is very different from saying that we do not make choices, or that we do not consider the reasons for our acting in such and such a way. It is simply that these choices are not ex nihilo in the way that we are accustomed to viewing them. However, a portion of the set of factors that determine our behavior seems to be intimately connected to who we consider ourselves to be: isn’t it natural that our behavior be at least partially governed by our genes? Isn’t it natural that our vocation might be influenced in part by the vocations of our parents, the part of the world in which we were born? In what instance shouldn’t the current social norms influence our behavior? Through this line it would seem that, whether we had the ability to choose otherwise or not, why should we have chosen otherwise? Rather than viewing such a theory as alienating who we think we are from our actions, determinism can serve to underscore our identity as being more deeply rooted in who we are than we ever conceived possible. Is isn’t that you are being made to do something that you might not do otherwise, as Frankfurt’s counterfactuals entail. Instead you are merely doing what you would have done because of who you are, where you are, and the type of person you are. Rather than being life denying I see this as life affirming, and highly conducive to embracing robust and rich accounts of identity. Too much time is spent focusing on the aspect of determinism that states things cannot be otherwise, and not enough time is spent looking at why they would be otherwise.

Alternately, I do not think the move can be made to say that we are somehow trapped in meaningless lives if they have negative outcomes, since there is nothing we could have done to avoid such outcomes. Rather, as treated above, such is the life you were born to have due to the person you are at your core. While this does not make you responsible for those outcomes in the traditional aspect, they are nevertheless your own. Remember, the world need not be “fair” in a deterministic picture; as with any worldview, the lives of some hold great meaning, and the lives of some hold none at all from the subjective view. But, to reiterate, all of these outcomes stem directly from who we are in the deepest sense of identity. Sure, according to determinism there are no alternate possibilities – but if you are who you are, why would you have chosen differently in the first place? Following this, why does it even matter if you had the power to choose otherwise?

This section of Pereboom’s book addresses a slew of theories and issues facing determinists and incompatibilists, not the least is P.F. Strawson’s criticism that such positions mean other-directed reactive attitudes and self-directed attitudes would be meaningless. I encourage anyone interested in these topics to pick up Pereboom’s book, as he is one of the chief proponents of determinism and incompatibilism.

  1. March 2, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    Also, for readers, check out Pereboom’s essay from the Oxford Handbook of Free Will, “Living Without Free Will: The Case for Hard Incompatibilism”.

    • March 6, 2011 at 8:04 PM

      Hey Nick,

      Sorry for the delay in approving this comment – for some reason WordPress thought it was Spam (maybe the hyperlink, I’m not sure.) Thanks for the link! Pereboom’s got a lot of good shorter articles, one of my favorites being “Determinism al Dente.”

  2. March 2, 2011 at 4:14 PM

    Jared: I totally agree that deliberation ex nihilo is an unlikely picture of decision theory, but I still wonder if there is more than ‘one’ option that could ultimately obtain.

    By this I mean, I wonder if people could not be influenced by certain things during deliberation that could cause them to consider, say, two items. Sometimes the person leans toward the one option and sometimes to the other; at times he is very close to acting on both. Whatever he chooses, he might choose via determined influence, but he still considered two things seriously.

    Or, what about the person who, after much deliberation, submits himself to behavioral-cognitive therapy to overcome some tendency or habit (some determined feature about his personality which strongly influences his decisions). In the event the therapy is successful and the desired change is actualized, then his future decisions would be changed as well. In this case, would you say the person is responsible for taking a necessary step to change his future decisions?

    • March 2, 2011 at 7:03 PM


      I modified your original comment to show the changes in your second comment; I hope it is accurate.

      As for more than one possible outcome that could obtain, I think what your criticism points to is the possibility of some sort of Compatibilism. While I am not nearly as well versed as I should be on a large group of contemporary compatibilist accounts, there is one in particular (which I have probably mentioned far too much) that I have been working on respondng to, viz. Timothy O’Connor’s theory of agent causation via an emergent agent causal power. I believe this theory allows for many of your objections, specifically: (1) the ability for reasons to inform but not cause our decisions and actions, (2) genuine freedom of action on the part of the agent under certain circumstances. There are a number of other elements that come with his theory, chiefly the avoidance of the traditional problems of substance dualism, as well as what he believes is a theory that is not inconsistent with modern scientific research. Hopefully soon I will have a more polished product I can post up here with the meat of my criticisms against O’Connor. It should suffice to say that, by invoking emergence in his theory, O’Connor commits himself to a number of properties that agent causal powers must possess, even though his own does not appear to display them.

      By my understanding, compatibilist accounts must make at least one of two moves. The first is to redefine what freedom of will/action entails in a way that it becomes congruent, or at least unproblematic, with determinism. This can be done by the classic compatibilist technique of claiming that freedom of action is simply that the agent either acts in a way that s/he is not constrained, or that the agent acts in accordance with his/her desires. This latter option is certainly consistent with determinism, but I am not sure that it allows the robust freedom that many agency theorists seek, since even if I act in accordance with my desires, I seemingly have little to no control over what desires become effective, etc. The second move that can be made is to redefine or soften deterministic laws, sometimes by adding a probabilistic element to the universe/agent action, or sometimes claiming that agents are so complex they cannot be governed by regular laws and instead might be governed by quantum laws. Again, O’Connor has made this move in the past, but Derk Pereboom highlights in the aforementioned book that even if agents are governed by quantum laws, we would expect that if they are as free as O’Connor claims there would be a divergence between our predictions of agent action using quantum laws and the actual outcomes. O’Connor’s response, that this need not be the case, does little in my mind to resolve Pereboom’s point.

      It is for these reasons that I am wary of compatibilist accounts, since they must weaken one of the two components in a way that does not truly seem to resolve the issue in order to show congruence. The type of account that your comment indicates presupposes free agent action to choose between options without being determined, and the classic response to this is: “How might you define an agent such that this is possible?” Also, if I seriously deliberate between two choices but could only ever have chosen one, or I only would have ever chosen one, then this does not seem to be true deliberation, as Richard Taylor points out in Metaphysics.

      As for the person who submits himself to therapy, etc. the answer to your question is: it depends on whether the motivations for the person to seek therapy stemmed from determined or free reasons/motivations. If the agent is free in the way your comment proposes, then yes, but again I wonder how this might be possible. If the agent was moved to seek therapy by determined factors then his seeking therapy is just as determined as his former issues for which he sought therapy.

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