Friday, June 17, 2011

Ease as mark of truth…

"I decided to be a determinist because it's just easier. I can stop analyzing "why" I did this or that and simply accept the fact that my willing at any moment is the confluence of countless prior influences, conscious and unconscious. In a clip of Christopher Hitchens discussing global warming, notice how the phrasing of the question––"missing the boat"––leads to him using the word "boat" in his reply (or should I say leads him to using the word?). If challenged about his lack of rhetorical ingenuity, Hitchens would probably just shrug and say, "Well, there's determinism for you." Determinism, therefore, is true because it allows us to mesh most naturally with our environment."

Class, discuss.

I will suggest the following, though: the above comments make what I think is the deepest ontological error in determinism, namely, the claim that there is some puny, passive subject, which is constantly influenced by its environment, yet which does not add anything to that environment. The "self" in determinism is like the beam of light reflected in a mirror: a reality which allegedly only exists at its entry and exit points in the visible spectrum.

Also, while there is some truth (!) in the pragmatic thesis that "the true is the workable", since goodness is an analogue of being and both are unified in truth (and vice versa in all three directions), the very difficulty of "working out" certain interrelated claims is a sign of their truth (quantum mechanics, trinitarian theology, the "place" of the will [as if it were a spatiotemporal entity to begin with!], etc.). Further, the harmony, the functional resonance, which we experience in grasping the true does not mean the true is the useful; for some things are known to be true by their beauty, a beauty which of itself preempts pragmatic lechery. What is "it" good for? Shut up, philistine, and accept that its pragmatic vacuity is precisely the sign of its alethic dignity. A remaining snag is how to meet the utilitarian claim that even the "purely beautiful" is 'useful' in the utilitarian sense. Then again, that seems to be so much a concession to the classical view of beauty qua truth qua goodness as to be more a surrender than a challenge to metaphysics.

P.S. A clue that pragmatic success does not amount to truth: doping in the 1980 Olmypics.


djr said...

You characterize determinism as involving "the claim that there is some puny, passive subject, which is constantly influenced by its environment, yet which does not add anything to that environment." Two questions:

1. Isn't that claim absurd even when applied to things to which hardly anybody would dream of ascribing 'free will'? Is my computer an entirely passive object continually influenced by its environment but adding nothing to it? Is my car? Is a snail? A tree? A dog? A dolphin?

2. Isn't that claim explicitly rejected by self-styled determinists who are also compatibilists? "Sure," the compatibilist might say, "all mental events are caused, but some of them are also causes, and some of them are caused by other mental events. I drink a glass of milk because I'm thirsty, I write out a check because I want to keep my apartment but know that I'll be evicted if I don't pay the rent, my heart rate increases because I believe there is an axe murderer outside my window, I donate money to St. Jude's Children's Hospital because I pity children with cancer," and so on. My beliefs and desires all have their own causal explanations, but that doesn't render them unreal or causally ineffective.

Say what you will about whether a compatibilist can coherently believe in moral responsibility (I have my doubts, but I'm notoriously flip-floppy on this issue). Even if libertarians have a monopoly on moral responsibility, can't compatibilists still reject the claim you lay out above? And don't they?

I'm in complete sympathy with your negative judgment of the kind of determinism you're discussing here. But is it really the only kind? Is it even the most prominent kind?

I can't tell you how glad I am to read a new post of yours and spend a few minutes ignoring my dissertation and all of life's other problems to respond to it. Free choice, caused choice, or both -- it's certainly not one that I regret.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...


I'm glad I can provide some relief from the torpor of everyday life.

I think the species of determinism I target in this post is more orthodox than you think, or at least it was in determinism's naive heyday a century or two ago. Even now, though, there are significant advocates of "real" determinism the likes of which I target here (e.g. Ted Honderich, the head of the American Naturalism Society [?], et al.).

You are a compatibilist at heart, so you might cringe at such a crude notion of "determinism", but the point stands: if the patient contributes anything organic to the causal nexus in which it is found, determinism is false, and since the patients in question, we humans, do indeed contribute to such causal nexi [?] in an organic way, namely by rational agency, determinism is false. The reason I then proceed to say compatibilism is false, is that the manner of our organic contribution to an otherwise deterministic world is not reducible to a determinist analysis, namely, because it is a semiosis of rational ends (cf. Reimers, Pierce, Melser, Aquinas, Braine, Lewis, et al.).
But I might be wrong. Good to hear from you.

djr said...

I'm not sure I understand what is involved in contributing something organic to the causal nexus. Intuitively, I would interpret that phrase in a way that makes it true of dogs and dolphins, if not computers and trees, that they do so contribute. After all, the behavior of a dog or a dolphin is complex, goal-oriented, and depends on the animal's perception of its environment. In a different way, plants and computers have vastly different causal powers from each other and from most other things in the world. Since I don't think anything except a neurotic fear of ghosts makes a reductionist view of objects, properties, and causal powers seem remotely plausible, I'm not inclined to see these things as unreal, and they (except the computer) certainly seem organic.

Now, I don't underestimate the vast differences between rational agency and the cognitive powers even of an animal as sophisticated as a dolphin (though I find even Thomistic dualism difficult to accept). But whatever that difference is, you seem to suppose that it's only when we get to rationality that determinism fails to apply. So I guess I have two questions:

1. If only rational agents contribute anything organic to the causal nexus, what on earth is going on with dolphins and computers?

2. Is the determinism you claim applies everywhere except to rational agency the "real" Honderich kind, or my weak-sauce compatibilist version?

For what it's worth, I'm very uncommitted on the libertarian/compatibilist issue. As you can see, old school mechanico-reductionist determinism strikes me as a complete non-starter. But my only real commitment is to whatever turns out to be necessary in order to make sense of rational agency. Since the basic integrity of rational agency is a necessary condition on the reliability of any knowledge-claims, I don't think we can conceivably have any reasons to accept any metaphysical view that makes our agency impossible, illusory, or merely epiphenomenal. If it turned out that only a wicked weird substance dualism could make sense of rational agency, I'd probably buy it.

The plural of nexus should be nexus (but with a long -u instead of a short one). Fourth declension. There is a second declension nexum with a plural nexi, from the same root, but it was used specifically for a kind of debt bondage, and not for any old kind of binding or connecting.

At least I know something, eh?