A musing on determinism, a.k.a. my brain can't turn off sometimes

Last night I could hardly sleep, and for the most nerd-tastic of reasons. One of the contentions William Lane Craig made in his debate with Sam Harris is that determinism, which Sam Harris apparently adheres to (I still haven't read The Moral Landscape), renders free will and, by extension, moral responsibility, moot. And in case he was taking liberties with Harris' position, Craig could just be associating determinism with naturalism, since most naturalists are indeed determinists of one kind or another.

Determinism isn't something I've spent a lot of time thinking about. I know the premise. The idea is simply that all events are subject to cause and effect. Taken to its logical extreme, it would seem to suggest that all the neurological activity in our brains is simply a complex series of cause and effect, thus rendering free will a mere illusion. Even if you accept what is sometimes referred to as the "epistemic horizon" – the idea that we cannot possibly predict the outcomes of such a vast multitude of causal chains – it still suggests that free will is merely an illusion.


On its face, the argument seems logical enough. But something about it has never sat right with me; part of it, I suppose, is due to our newfound knowledge of the quantum world, which deals in probabilities rather than a Newtonian chain of cause and effect. But I think the greater part of it that's made me unsatisfied with it is what seems to me to be a rather large leap from simple, easily described events of causality to something on a vastly greater scale of complexity, like the mind. We know from the distinction between quantum mechanics and classical physics that our understanding of the world varies based on our frame of reference.

At the same time, I am a staunch naturalist. Substance dualism, which seeks to preserve free will by suggesting that the brain does not produce consciousness, but rather acts as a conduit for it, has always been unsatisfying for a variety of reasons that are too long for me to get into here (suffice to say that this video sums it up nicely). Since I reject dualism, this means that if hard determinism is true, I would have to accept that free will is an illusion.


I couldn't sleep because although something felt incomplete about the standard causal arguments for determinism, I could not articulate why – and that really bothered me. To that end, I'm taking it upon myself to brush up on the subject. Tonight I'll be watching a lecture by Dan Dennett (I'm also reading Darwin's Dangerous Idea, so it seems fitting), and I'm bouncing around various philosophical websites to get a grasp on the various different versions of determinism, of which there are several. In the meantime, what I have mustered up in my own brain, in response to my own cognitive dissonance, is this:

A conscious mind is not merely the sum of its parts. Determinist reductionism is sort of like saying that a videogames is just a bunch of 1s and 0s; while that's true at a compositional level, what emerges from those components is something with far more distinctive properties and abilities. The mind is not merely a sum of linear causal events, but a complex web of causal interactions. While a conscious mind may be mechanistic in composition, the emergent construct allows us to reflect on past events, ponder possible futures, and think in abstraction – all of which allow us to alter our decisions based on available information.

At the same time, I think we must accept that free will isn't quite as free as we'd like it to be. Just as we cannot choose our desires or our thoughts, we cannot choose the situations which exert influence over us, nor can we choose how our personalities are shaped by the peculiarities of our individual minds. The web of consciousness gives us free will in most of the ways we've come to value, but a naturalistic view of the mind must recognize that just as a sociopath simply lacks the higher brain function that is responsible for empathy, changes to our biology ultimately go a long way toward shaping our desires and abilities – thus allowing free will to operate only within a limited deterministic framework.

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