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Do we make the choices we do because of our nature? - Determinism

Updated on May 15, 2014

Determinism is the view that everything in the world, including human action, is part of a long causal chain. This means that every event is caused by its immediately preceding event, and this includes the actions of humans. So a snooker ball is caused to move because it is impacted by another snooker ball. But this theory walks into a wide array of issues. For starters, wouldn’t it be nice to believe that humans are more than just a collection of atoms? We have rationality, we are autonomous beings, and surely we have some free will. But determinism completely undermines this idea of rationality because if everything were caused by the preceding event, then no action would be a forward thinking action and no action could have been performed otherwise. Remember Jack the Ripper? According to the determinist, he can’t hold moral responsibility for his actions since he was already predetermined to become a serial killer. So what’s to say he should have been punished? You’re right in thinking that this theory has implications.

A physical determinist might say that our character, decisions, and actions are all influenced by three things: our environment, our biological makeup, and our brainwave activity. So our class, our geographical location, family and education, peers, etc. etc. all affect our actions. As do our genes. And our actual movement is caused by neurons firing in our brain. The determinist would argue that there is nothing more to it than this. What has led to this belief is the fact that we can predict many events. We know that if we throw a brick at a window it is probably going to smash, we know that if we yell profanities at a ‘skin head’ they will probably hit us. Because we are able to predict such things, there must therefore be some underlying mechanism that holds these events together. These events must be part of the causal chain.

But human behaviour is much more difficult to understand and predict. We all know from experience that sometimes we fear what a person’s reaction might be and then get the opposite response to our expectation. This may very well be because we as humans are NOT part of the causal chain. Even if this chain of events does exist in the physical world, that doesn’t mean human beings must also be bound the laws of physics. In action maybe, yes. But in thought, we must have free will, and our unpredictability proves this. Right? Well, the determinist can answer this criticism by claiming that the only reason human action is less predictable is because we don’t have complete understanding of how the brain works or what other influences that person is under. To successfully predict a future event, we must be aware of all the causes, and though those causes are there, they don’t always present themselves so easily.

Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre argues against this determinist counter-argument by claiming that to believe we are physically determined is to have bad faith in ourselves, or as he calls it: ‘mouvais fois’. So for instance, if I was to claim that I can’t play piano because I don’t have long enough fingers and it just wasn’t meant to be, I would have bad faith. Other libertarian philosophers agree with the claim that determinism is an illusion; it is a vain attempt to detach ourselves from our actions and remove moral responsibility. But determinists argue quite the opposite. They say free will is an illusion, and that we think we are free because we don’t understand all the causes of our actions. However, Sartre has an answer to this; he takes the phenomenological approach to philosophy, meaning we should make claims based first on what we experience. This is why it would seem ridiculous to make claims about human thinking based on a concept we can’t even prove through empirical observation. That concept of cause, is causation. Hume himself (who is a compatibalist) claims that our concept of causation is simply created by our expectation for certain things to happen due to our experience of the constant conjunction of events. We don’t actually experience causation itself, but – as Sartre tells us - what we do experience is the feeling of making a free decision. The very fact that we feel free gives us reason to believe that we make the choices we do because of our rationality, our autonomy, and our free will, not our nature.

David Hume believes in free will in a different sense. He agrees that actions in the world are uniform, and so humans act with uniformity too, meaning human behaviour is reasonably predictable. But he also acknowledges that it isn’t impossible to imagine a brick hitting a window and not smashing it. So the things we experience in conjunction with each other, including human regularities, are logical but not necessary. He believes then, that we are free in the sense that we can choose whether or not to act according to our desires. So as long as there are no external influences making us unable to make a decision autonomously, we are free. However, this presents problems too. Even if we can act free from restraint, this doesn’t mean that we are free in the genuine sense. If our desires are determined then our actions that are based upon them can’t be truly free.

Another compatibalist philosopher Harry Frankfurt works around this by saying that humans have second-order desires. A good way to explain this is an example of smoking. We may have a desire to smoke, and in smoking we are not necessarily acting freely because we are acting in accordance to that desire, which is determined. But we may also have a desire not to have the desire to smoke. A desire about a desire is a second-order desire and it is these which make us free because they are created by our own rationality. Similarly, Greek philosopher Aristotle claimed that we can train our desires through habituation, another free act.

So it can be seen in the above examples that although sometimes it is true, it doesn’t always have to be the case that we make the choices we do because of our nature.

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