Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Scott Carson on the Death of Determinism

Scott Carson of An Examined Life has a good post up on the increasing untenability of determinism, inspired in part by a recent First Things article by Stephen Barr:
There is another way to interpret probabilities, however, and it is much more congenial to both quantum mechanics and evolutionary theory. We may call this the metaphysical interpretation, because it posits that probabilities reflect, not limitations in our own knowledge of the physical universe, but the stochastic properties of a non-deterministic universe. That is, on the metaphysical interpretation of probabilities, we say that there is a certain chance that something will happen not because we do not know for sure what all of the variable are that will lead to one outcome rather than another, but because it is genuinely undetermined, at the time of our prediction, which outcome is going to take place.

Although he does not say much about this in his article, Professor Barr notes that this view of probability is congenial not only for quantum theory, but also for those who endorse the idea that the human will is free. As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts in this series, if the universe is a purely deterministic place, where materialism is the only correct metaphysics, then our wills cannot be free. So if you happen to believe that your will is free, it seems that you have to abandon either materialism or determinism. Some will want to abandon both, of course: the Christian must, in my view. But even if you are wedded to your materialism it might be time to dump that dinosaur, determinism.

For those who don't find a way to work philosophical terminology into their daily routine often enough ("Oh but mommy, don't be angry, the crayon is only accidental to the wall's nature."): Determinism is the belief that with sufficient knowledge of a situation, you can invariably predict the outcome. When applied to human beings, determinism states that we are entirely the products of our genetic makeup, past experiences and current stimuli, while free will is essentially an illusion.

Determinism (in its less explicit, more popular forms) is perhaps the most pervasive remaining relic of the clockwork universe model which gained such during the two centuries after Newton.


Anonymous said...

Religion hasn't got anything to do with probabilities and miracles. Its about the soul. See

Roland said...

Why is randomness any more compatible with free will than determinism is?

Scott Carson said...


To say that the human will is not part of a deterministic system is not to say that it is therefore part of a random or stochastic system, so the point is not that randomness is more campatible with free will than determinism is. Rather the soul is nether determined by external forces nor is it random: it is free in the sense that it can genuinely choose one course of action over another without that choice being either random or determined by forces extraneous to it.

Roland said...

Let me put it differently: Whether you are in the world of Newtonian mechanics (deterministic) or of quantum mechanics (probabilistic), you are in a mechanistic world. If free will is inconsistent with the former, then it is also inconsistent with the latter.

Personally, I'm not convinced it is inconsistent with either. But if Newtonian mechanics presented an obstacle to belief in free will, I don't see how quantum mechanics overcomes that obstacle.

Darwin said...

Perhaps I introduced confusion here: I do not thing that Netwonian physics in any way necessitated absolute determinism, nor that it was an obstacle to belief, but I do think that many people were inspired by Netwonian physics to believe in a deist/clockwork universe model of the supernatural, and also to accept determinism at a metaphysical as well as a material level.

I would hold that absolute (as in metaphysical as well as physical) determinism was never a supportable belief, but it certainly _appeared_ more supportable before the advent of quantum physics.