Monday 12 December 2022

Determinism and Accountability

Dominos falling

By Keith Tidman

People assume that free will and moral responsibility are mutually and inextricably interwoven. That is, the default belief tends to be that people make decisions and act on them freely. On the grounds of that conviction, society condemns and punishes, or lauds and rewards, people on the basis of their actions’ supposed morality. It’s how accountability for behaviour intersects with matters like retributive and distributive justice. 


But what if decisions and actions are already decided – predetermined? Such that if an event has transpired, it is impossible it could not have happened. Might society still need to parse people’s deeds on the basis of some arbitrary construct — a community’s self-prescribed code of right and wrong — in order for society to function in an orderly fashion?


With the objective, then, of preserving social orderliness, all the while holding people responsible, doesn’t society have no option but to submit to at least the pretense of free will? Where even that pretense is itself predetermined. That is, to make-believe — for the sake of convenience, pragmatic expediency, and the evasion of disorder — that people enjoy unfettered decisions, choices, and deeds.


Okay, so far I’ve summarised what free will means by way of libertarian agency in choosing and behaving in particular ways, with the presumption, however faulty, that people could have acted otherwise. But what about its counterpoint, determinism: especially what in academic circles is often referred to as ‘hard determinism’, where determinism and freedom unreservedly conflict (called incompatibilism)?


According to determinism, for example, acting benevolently rather than selfishly (or the reverse) may be no more the exercise of unconstrained free agency than naturally having brunette hair or 20/20 vision. We may not really be ‘free’ to decide which job candidate to hire, which book to read, which model car to buy, which investment to make, which country to visit — or which political candidate to vote for.


Rather, the argument states that all decisions and deeds are predicated on the laws of nature, which inform, describe, and animate the stuff of our universe. The proposition is that people’s choices and actions are shaped (are predetermined) by all that has happened over the course of the cosmos’s entire lifespan. The basis is an unremitting regress of successive causes and outcomes recursively branching and branching in incalculable directions, nonstop. A causal determinism, sourced all the way back to the beginning of the universe.


That is, decisions and deeds inescapably result from a timeless accretion of precedents. The tumbling buildup, over far-ranging generations, of influences: like culture, genetic makeup, experiences, parenting, evolution, intelligence, identity, emotions, disposition, surroundings. As well as, every bit crucially, what naturally occurred throughout the entirety of history and prehistory.


Such factors, among others, have powerful, compelling influences, canceling out moral agency — our ability to make choices based on our sense of right and wrong. After all, in the deterministic model, the events that occurred as antecedents of current and future events did so necessarily. Indeed, we might imagine that if fissures were ever to show up in determinism’s cause-and-effect procession of happenings, the laws of nature and of human behaviour would pitch toward systemic failure — the undoing of events’ inevitability. We thus justify judging and punishing people who behave antisocially, on grounds induced by predetermination, where there is only one possible course of events.


If, however, because of the absence of free agency and volitional intent, people cannot be regarded as morally accountable, ought they be held responsible anyway, subject to legal or other kinds of sanction? To go through the motions — despite determinism dangling menacingly over systems of criminal justice everywhere. And similarly, ought people be lauded and rewarded for things deemed to have been done right? With implications for assigned guilt, sin, and evil, and other verdicts pertinent to actions freely chosen.


One answer to the two preceding questions about responsibility has been ‘yes’, on the basis of a belief system referred to as compatibilism. This asserts that free will and determinism can compatibly coexist. But this is a challenging — arguably impossible — needle to thread, short of arbitrarily warping definitions, assumptions, and preconceived conditions.


My position goes in a different, even simpler, direction from compatibilism. It is that accountability is necessitated by society having to prescribe ethical norms, no matter how contrived — and attempt to force human behaviour to fit those engineered norms — in order to avoid society alternatively sinking into chaos. In this manner, society learns, perhaps kicking and screaming, to cope with a deterministic world — a world where people cannot act otherwise than they do, and events are inevitable.


It’s difficult for us to shake intuitively favouring free will, despite its illusory naturePeople feel as if in control; they zealously covet being in control; they recoil unsettlingly at the prospect of not being in control. Fundamentally, they sense that personal agency and volitional intent define humanity. They can’t easily discard the pretense that only freely willed actions meet the criterion of warranting tribute, on the one hand, or fault, on the other. 


But even if they’re not in control, and determinism routed free will from the start, society must behave otherwise: it must hold people responsible, both to deter and punish — censure — and to reward — validate — decisions and actions as if free choice had indeed sparked them. 



Martin Cohen said...

Here's a possible "counter example" for you. Suppose I am wondering whether to go out for a walk or a swim, and I 'think" I don't know what to choose. Now whichever I do choose, the piece says it was really 'predetermined' and the impression I have or mulling the alternatives is illusory. But suppose I decide to take the decision by a coin toss? Would that escape the cage of predetermined cause and effect?

Keith said...

According to ‘hard determinism’, the act of wondering whether to go for a walk or swim, and deciding to resort to a coin toss to settle the matter, are themselves predetermined choices. Further, given that natural law includes the laws of probability — the kind of probability associated with coin tosses — the outcome of the toss is likewise thus predetermined. I suggest that the scenario doesn’t result in ‘escaping the cage of predetermined cause and effect’.

Martin Cohen said...

Yes, but this pseudo-science. Dates back to the 17th century. We know that at a deep level the universe is chaotic - unpredictable. The coin-toss cannot be predicted if you now the movements of every atom etc. And "the laws of probability" only say that given a large number of coin-tosses you get a 50/50 distribution. They say nothing about the outcome of one toss.

Keith said...

As to the ‘outcome of one toss’, Martin, I think it’s reasonable, and hopefully not ‘pseudo-science’, to assume the outcome depends on many variables and constants that impinge on the event, in standard cause-and-effect ways. Just one of those many being the force with which the thumb flips the coin into the air — the list of such factors being both discernible and long.

I’d hesitate to fix the 17th century as the marker for ‘pseudo-science’, given there’s an awful lot of knowledge, spanning the expanse of science and humanities, that predates that marker by a millennium or two, which warrants a moniker a whole lot more indicative of truth-value than the word ‘pseudo’ implies. Whereas some of what we think we know today doesn’t.

The effects of entropy notwithstanding, I do think the word ‘chaos’ can equate to little more than ‘not (or poorly) understood’. The reasons for ‘not being understood’ include the unknown and unknowable initial conditions, the myriad branching paths along which dynamical conditions unfold, the forces that impinge on how events unfold — and so forth. But, to my mind, the complexity of such factors doesn’t diminish them, nor equate to the absence of determinism.

Karla McDuffie said...

Re: "unknown and unknowable," there appear to be many mystic phenomena in the universe that would fall into that category. At one time gravity was not understood, except intuitively, perhaps as a result of falling off rocks or whatever. So, we would need to assume there are many things we do not currently fathom -- but that doesn't mean we can't. What is required is a deeper awareness of the laws of the universe. Dare I say, that is precisely why you chose to pursue so intensely the line of intellectual inquiry that you have; with a deeper understanding, comes the creative ability to ease the “sufferings” of humanity, meaning it’s not purely just an intellectual exercise? Anyway… it seems to me there exists an elegant melange of cause and effect relationships, and what you call predetermination, but that there is more than one possible course of events. There is a fluidity where actions and randomness intersect and it can be driven by human intent, determination and the energy we humans have to influence the environment around us including both sentient and insentient beings. I once asked a Buddhist scholar if he’d seen old black and white film footage made by the Marine Corps of a small, elderly Chinese man walking through a room of Marines intent on attacking him. Using his art of Tai Chi, he was able to navigate gracefully through the room and you could see these buff-looking guys flying backwards, away from the old guy - but he never touched a’one of them. It was explained that he simply “redirected their force-fields.” My question was, is this an example of the power we have that lies mostly dormant? The Buddhist answered: It is just the tip of the iceberg; when we develop our innate wisdom and power to single-mindedly determine to change our destiny, we also change the destiny of all humankind.

Perhaps that is part of what you refer to as “compatibilism.” Social accountability is only capable of creating value for the people when it is paired with an enlightened compassion. Perhaps that begins when we try to put ourselves into the shoes of “the other” (victim or perpetrator) then, the prescriptions of ethical norms requires a great deal of imagination to come up with solutions that have sustainable outcomes. In the evolution of the justice systems, we can see clear examples, backed by scientific studies of policies and protocols that are effective and policies that are ineffective (in stopping behaviors that are injurious to society or individuals.) I think, where we run into trouble is when the ethical values of those imposing policy is counter to creating value because they are based on a fallacy or a belief-system that is not “in accord” (I guess I’ll say) to the laws of the universe. It’s definitely an onion with many layers, tissue thin and completely different from the previous layer that encloses it.

I enjoyed reading the essay, Keith, and musing on the thoughts you shared! I hope the randomness of my ideas fit into the scheme… somewhere!

Keith said...

Thank you, Karla, for your thoughtful comments. There’s much to digest here and reflect on. I would agree, for example, that “we would need to assume there are many things we do not currently fathom — but that doesn’t mean we can’t.”

You give an example of the preceding point from science: gravity. Two others from science include confirming evidence of the currently elusive “dark matter” and “dark energy.” As well as overcoming the seemingly head-scratching irreconcilability of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Those and other challenges may well fit under the rubric of “unknown but knowable.” Or may be refutable.

The so-called “theory of everything” might also be knowable, discoverable through the right elegant mathematics, though such an all-encompassing theory might instead best fit under the rubric of “unknowable.” After all, any supposed encompassing theory might well lead to the realization there’s actually still more to the story. We’ll see; that tale remains to play out.

A bit more clearly, at least to people who hold onto a secular philosophy, is that firm proof of the existence of a god will remain, eternally, “unknowable” — which is a wholly different epistemological category, pointing to limits of our understanding. Faith isn’t proof. There have been many attempts (unsuccessful, in my view) at such an irrefutable proof of a transcendental being through the centuries.

Also possibly unknowable is a body of universally objective ethics. As is certainty in predictions regarding the entirety of humankind’s future. As might be the ideal social model for greatest human thriving, in whatever manner we might venture to define “greatest human thriving.” As might be any kind of eureka moment where we declare a hold on “objective reality.”

So, to the bottom line, what we assume is knowable is reason for humanity’s continued search for answers, not just from science but from many other fields, too. There are many ways to slice truth. And, to my way of thinking, what we assume is “unknowable” doesn’t mean (shouldn’t mean) quitting that quest, for there may well be, nonetheless, much else to mine and discover.

Our species is curious, imaginative, creative, inventive, irrepressible, and ravenous for understanding.

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