Wednesday, October 12, 2005

I can't help saying this

I've always wondered why determinism is not a more widely accepted view of the world. As Talcott Parsons argues [1], determinism is the logical consequence of all positivistic theory. If we believe that human actors are rational empiricists, then either there is one right vector of actions for us to pursue (so that our actions are rationally deterministic) or our actions are pre-determined by evolutionary processes at both the genetic and social levels. In either case, choice as we like to think of it is an illusion, we think we are making our own decisions ("The red slayer think he slays" - Emerson) but these decisions are already coded into the entity we call the self, so that what appears to be a voluntary action is, in fact, simply a sort of higher order reflex. There is no choice.

Parsons (and others) don't really seem to have a good argument against this view of the world. The usual idea seems to be [2] that determinism is incompatible with the human condition because the absence of choice is a truth unacceptable to the human mind. There are three problems with this argument. First, it's not really an argument against the logic of determinism, is it? We may not like the idea that we are little more than genetically determined computer programs [3] but that doesn't make it untrue. Just because I can't stand, say, Dan Brown novels, doesn't mean that they don't exist. If anything, the fact that "Humankind cannot bear very much reality" is a good reason for why the theory has low acceptance. From an evolutionary perspective, it may be important that we not believe this if we are to continue to remain stimulated and productive, which is why we are not capable of believing it.

Second, I'm not sure that the difficulty of accepting determinism is not largely social conditioning (and especially social conditioning in the Western Protestant tradition). It's not clear to me that the inability of man to accept the absence of choice is an innate quality of human nature rather than just a sloppy intellectual habit we have let ourselves slip into.

But how can one possibly enjoy a life in which one has no choice? That is the final reason why I think the argument against determinism is flawed. It's not clear to me that we need to have choice to enjoy something. Imagine riding a roller coaster. Once you're on it, you certainly don't have any control over the ride - you're going to stick to one rigorously defined track that you've probably traced out in advance. Yet, the sensation of being whisked along on the track can still be a thrilling one [4]. In the same way, I would argue that life can be experienced even if it is not discovered. Even if you knew (as in a movie you've read the book of) how things were going to turn out and what the main character (you) was going to do at every turn, you could still enjoy the process of the truth you already know unfolding. If anything, you may be able to enjoy it more because you don't have the stress of having to make decisions about it.

Bottomline then, I think it is possible to live with a deterministic view of the world. All you need to do is think of the world as one big hostel canteen - you don't get to choose what food you get, there's no menu, but you can still spend a happy life either enjoying what you get or (even more fun) complaining about it.

P.S. I should say that there is a second and more nuanced argument against determinism that derives from the fact that determinism fails the acid test of falsifiability. After all, how do you prove that what happened could have happened differently after it has already happened (or, to take it to the second order, how do you prove that the proof of determinism being falsified was not something that had to happen!). In one sense, this is a serious problem for the theory from the perspective of scientific theory. In another sense, however, it is re-affirming - if we were ever to arrive at the real truth about the world, after all, it would almost certainly not be falsifiable.

Notes:

[1] See Structure of Social Action
[2] At least, I've never come across a better argument - I'd be interested to hear of one.
[3] There's a movie idea for you - a sort of reverse Matrix - the world is real but the human beings, the things we call the self, are just computer programs. How does a program like that recognise itself - it cannot - and therefore it defines the world as illusion and itself as fact. Welcome to Intelligent Design.
[4] At least some people seem to think so. Personally I can't stand roller coasters or rides of any sort.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

"but these decisions are already coded into the entity we call the self, so that what appears to be a voluntary action is, in fact, simply a sort of higher order reflex."

Questions follow - can this coding be undone? should it? etc. etc. I think determinism is a widely accepted view. Why else would we need God?

D

Falstaff said...

D: From a purely determinstic point of view, no. Or rather, yes, but only if the code to undo the code exists. The self (to the extent that there is such a thing) cannot choose to undo the code.

And on the contrary, the very existence of the God myth (I'm not sure we need God - iPods, Starbucks, yes. God, absolutely not) is proof that we don't believe in determinism. What's the point of believing in an abstract entity when nothing you can do will change anything in your life.

the One said...

Hmm. Falsifiability does not strike one as a particularly convincing form of reasoning either, to be honest. But there is, one feels, a scientific argument against determinism.

Scientifically, determinism says that everything is pre-ordained because it is possible to predict the future from a sufficiently thorough knowledge of the present (the quaintly-named billiard-ball hypothesis). A very Newtonian, pre-twentieth-century point of view, for modern science says otherwise. The uncertainty principle declares that it is impossible, even theoretically, to possess such thorough knowledge, especially knowledge of the precise velocities and positions of entities as microscopic, and as badly-behaved (from a classical-physics viewpoint), as the electrons in the human mind. It follows that actions cannot be "predetermined by evolutionary processes", for such predetermination would require access to perfect microscopic knowledge. One suspects, at the risk of sounding grandiose, that it is in the dark depths of chaos and uncertainty that the secrets of consciousness and of free will truly reside.

And Falstaff, you must mean iPod nanos. iPods we can do without.

meditativerose said...

Good pt re God - God is more relevant in a probabilistic view of the world. God could fit into a deterministic view - if we think that the initial creation of the universe was an act of God, and everything was set in motion from that point - but he becomes irrelevant from then on. i.e. you could believe in him, but he couldn't do anything for you, so what's the point.

Re humans being rational emppiricists - are we really? If we can't understand empirical evidence and what causes the world and events to unfold as they do, our actions may not be completely rational, right?

Re enjoying a life where one does not have choice, I think a stronger argument would be if you were to say that a. even if everything is determined, we still don't know what it is .. so we don't just enjoy the process of watching life unfold, but also truly discover it as we go along. b. It could possibly lead you to enjoy it more in a hedonistic sense - freedom from responsibility can be v liberating, so you would enjoy pleasures more because you don't need to worry about consequences. (though you'd feel less satisfaction at achievements etc.)

Alok said...

Daniel Dennett in his Freedom Evolves gives a good summary of the debate in the light of Darwinian theory.

The basic point is that, yes, we live in a cage but the cage is sufficiently big and for all practical purposes (like making moral decisions and being responsible for them) the freedom in the cage can be called "free will"!!

Neela said...

Hmmm falstaff, that's an idea. Perhaps there is research to show that people enjoy things more when they think it is in their control. Shall plumb the depths of the JCRs and emerge with The Answer (as we marketing types always do).

Or else we could all wail cheerfully like the Vicomte de Valmont, "Its beyond my control".

n!

ozymandiaz said...

Here is my issue with determinism (other than the fact that though humans may be loosely empiricist, we are far more loosely rational), existence itself is indeterministic. If there was such a thing as the Big Bang it proves the point by being a random quantum fluctuation. How can there be a predetermined event in a timeless void? This also, though, may be falsifiablility needed for determination. I don’t like any of it, though. It all flies in the face of my general theory of existence relying on ME being GOD (or at least A god, don’t go blaming me for everything).
Honestly, though, I don’t buy into the underlying sense of order that would be required for determinism. I also don’t buy into an underlying truth (or reality if you will). Then again, all I can afford to buy is cheap beer which may construe my overall perception of things.

Awesome post, btw.

Falstaff said...

The One: Good point - except that still doesn't leave you with any space for human agency. I'm quite willing to include chaos and uncertainty in the discussion, but as long as we have no control over the 'choices' we make, the only thing that changes is that relinquishing control and going along for the ride is probably more fun. Essentially even if the world were pre-determined it would not be predictable - so whether the black box that drives our actions is deterministic or probabilistic is irrelevant.

And no, I can't do without my iPod. Try fitting 26 GB of music on a nano.

MR: Completely agree - mostly because I'm not sure how what you're saying is substantially different from what I said in the post. The idea that lack of agency may be liberating was part of what I was saying in the post anyway (though I don't agree that you don't need to worry about consequences - only that you don't need to take responsibility for them).

About human beings not being rational empiricists. Evolutionary determinism (what Parsons calls anti-rationalistic positivism) is kind of an answer to that - you don't figure things out, but evolution does it for you. Of course, Parsons own argument is that we operate on shared norms rather than on pure logic.

Alok: Thanks for the reference. Will look it up.

Neela: Great! Everyone finds a thesis topic but me. You do realise that I'm going to automatically disbelieve anything you say if you tell me it's in a Marketing journal? I may not believe in being fact-based, but that doesn't mean I have to deal in the ridiculous :-).

Falstaff said...

Oz: Sorry, just saw your comment. I guess my answer is pretty much the same as the answer I gave to the One's comment. I'm not concerned with how ordered the universe is - as long as there's no human agency the uncertainty of the universe doesn't matter.

ozymandiaz said...

I don’t differentiate the human from the universe beyond degrees of consciousness. And Does adaptation necessarily figure things out, or is it more of a crap shoot? I see it like this. You have a square peg in a square hole. The hole becomes round. The square peg no longer fits. Now if the evolution is predetermined, the round hole is recognized and the peg is changed to fit it. What I understand to happen is there are many offshoots to the square peg, with many failing, until a peg comes along that fits the round whole. The peg is not necessarily round, but is of a shape and size that fits. If the evolution was a predetermined, why then have most species died out? That would seem to be counter intuitive to the process being the reason for evolution would logically entail the continuation of life. Why would evolution design life to fail?

Neela said...

well, at least we run experiments on REAL HUMAN BEINGS (guess this makes me sound like mengele, no?) instead of taking a bunch of data, regressing it to death and implying causality to prove that mergers and acquisitions create value!!

n!

Falstaff said...

Neela: You're defending marketing now? There may be hope for you yet.

J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Whew. Doesn't anybody post about reelly reelly cool things any more? Like the WWF? Or sex? Or froot loops? Or purple Mustangs? Or, well, sex? Determinism schmeterminism.

I refuse to believe that somebody who can lucidly expound the basic logical anomaly in determinism can also like Starbucks coffee. There's a little green alien computer program (sic) in there somewhere.

J.A.P.

Falstaff said...

JAP: Actually, now that I think about it, WWF is a wonderful illustrations of the point that you don't need to believe in choice or chance to enjoy something. Everyone knows these things are fixed, but they still watch them.

And sex - well there's another good example of an action where you more or less know how it's going to turn out but you still enjoy it, even without the suspense.

Anonymous said...

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