“Free Will” and “Determinism”

I was thinking about the “determinism versus free will” debate yesterday, and I had a couple of thoughts that I thought might help in this debate. I am aiming my thoughts at people who are generally secularists and who look for naturalistic explanations for all phenomena.

First, I think it’s useful to think about things that clearly *are* determined. These are all non-living things, some of which are man-made and some of which are not. Examples include: billiard balls on a pool table that bounce when struck by other billiard balls, water reacting to a pebble being thrown in it with waves, the planets moving in orbit around the sun, a mouse trap when it is set and then sprung by a mouse, a basket ball that is dropped from a height and then repeatedly bounces -but less and less until it comes to a stop, and a rube goldberg machine. Both a proponent of determinism and an opponent of determinism will agree that all of these things are completely “determined”. These things possess no “internal will” that causes them to act as they do.

Second, it is also useful to look at the human mind to see if all of our mental actions are the same in terms of “level of choice”. Internal introspection of your own mind is the only way to really do this. There are certain “mental behaviors” or “mental actions” that seem less “chosen” than others. Normally, your emotions typically just react to external stimuli with very little or no ability on your part to avoid feeling those emotions. You feel anger, hatred, sadness, or happiness in reaction to certain perceived events seemingly “automatically”, like a mousetrap going off. At any given moment, your emotions seem closer to the examples of non-living things that are determined. If you are a man interested in women, and you see a woman with a certain body shape, size, and age-range, who behaves in a certain way, you feel a certain amount of romantic desire for her. If you are a woman with a child, you will normally feel fear if you see your child facing some sort of danger -or you will feel hatred or anger for the source of the danger towards your child. If someone tries to rob you with a gun, you will feel fear or anger. If someone you care about dies, you feel sadness. In all cases, you have little choice about the feelings that you feel at that moment. Your actions with respect to those feelings appear to be more under your control, but not the feelings themselves. Over time, your emotional reactions to certain things seem like they change. If you see someone you were romantically involved with several years after you broke up, you may no longer have the same romantic feelings you once had for them, or not to the same degree, but this happens over time. At any given time, one’s emotions are more fixed. (Some psychological schools seem to be based on the assumption that your thoughts can change your emotions over time, so if you change your thinking, which is under your control, then you will eventually change your emotions, but that is beyond the point here.)

But, when it comes to certain tasks, your ability to mentally solve problems seem less “automatic” than your emotions. For instance, if you are a physicist trying to solve a complex math problem, you actually have to sit down and work on the math problems. If you are a doctor trying to diagnose a patient’s illness, you actually have to draw on your store of knowledge and try to come up with a diagnosis. If you are a computer programmer, you actually have to sit down and try to figure out what data structures and if-then-else statements will solve the problem you are trying to solve. If you are a lawyer, you have to think about the facts of the case, and then go research the law and try to determine what legal precedents the facts of your case fit into. If you are a structural engineer, you have to decide what are the requirements of your building, such as: What will it be used for? How many people will use it? etc. Then you actually pick construction materials, work out the load requirements, etc. This applies equally to “blue collar” occupations. If you are a taxi cab driver, and your fare wants to get to the airport from downtown in less than 30 minutes, you have to consider the time of day, the traffic conditions, which roads are under construction, possibly consult maps, and mentally devise a route. In all of these cases, the mental activity involved is not nearly as “automatic” as when you feel an emotion. They all involve thinking to solve the problem of human survival.

Now, I think that a dedicated determinist is just going to say that all of these examples of thinking are “illusory” examples of choice because at some “lower level”, we are all just made up of some substance(s) that appears wholly determined. For instance, he will say on the molecular level, an atomic level, or a subatomic level, you are actually determined. He says this with the following reasoning: Your brain is made of nothing but molecules (or atoms). Molecules are entirely determined. Therefore, your brain is entirely determined. In other words, your mind is actually just a more complicated example of things like the mousetrap discussed above. My concern with that sort of reasoning is that it basically says: what you perceive as reality is not really reality at all. “Reality” is the molecular level, and the world that you perceive is nothing but an illusion. But, if you cannot count on what you perceive, including your perception of the choice to think, then I am not sure that any sort of knowledge of the molecular level, or any other level, is actually possible. Without knowledge, life would seem to be, as Hobbes said in another context, “nasty brutish and short”.