Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

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Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Dark567 » Wed Aug 05, 2009 8:57 pm UTC

As someone sympathetic to strong determinism(no free will), I have a hard time believing that determinism doesn't directly lead to moral nihilism. Morality, in our usually understanding, are rules to follow in life, and guidelines for making ethical decisions. Morality seems to assume the possibility of making decisions and decisions don't exist in determinism.

This seems to cause a major conflict in both my philosophic conception of the universe and my personal actions. As someone who has values morality greatly and is confronted with this problem, it seems like I should no longer follow any morality.(Although I guess that statement is useless, because under determinism i don't have a choice to follow morality or not)

Can morality exist without moral choices?
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Yakk wrote:The question the thought experiment I posted is aimed at answering: When falling in a black hole, do you see the entire universe's future history train-car into your ass, or not?

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby General_Norris » Wed Aug 05, 2009 9:27 pm UTC

The answer is no. There's no morality without choice. Kant explains this well. If you can't choose not to kill then it is not bad, it IS but it can't be good or bad. It's like saying gravity is bad, it doesn't make sense.

I don't see how you can affirmate determinism however as it can't be proven and given doubt I would prefer to live as I had a choice.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Wed Aug 05, 2009 9:59 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:As someone sympathetic to strong determinism(no free will), I have a hard time believing that determinism doesn't directly lead to moral nihilism. Morality, in our usually understanding, are rules to follow in life, and guidelines for making ethical decisions. Morality seems to assume the possibility of making decisions and decisions don't exist in determinism.

This seems to cause a major conflict in both my philosophic conception of the universe and my personal actions. As someone who has values morality greatly and is confronted with this problem, it seems like I should no longer follow any morality.(Although I guess that statement is useless, because under determinism i don't have a choice to follow morality or not)

Can morality exist without moral choices?

I used to struggle with the notion of free will in a deterministic system. I would imagine the universe is like a billiard table, and if you hit the cue ball the exact same way, you will always get the same result. In the end I decided I couldn't have free will, but went along happily making choices. :)

Since then I've come to believe that free will exists in the randomness. Fundamentally everything is noisy, statistical randomness that only takes meaningful shape at larger levels. Our model of the world in terms of perfect information and determinism is only an approximation, albeit usually a good one, that breaks down at some level, kind of like how Newton's model of gravity is an approximation that works for most everyday experiences.

I recently heard a radio program (at 12:50) that talked about how our decision making process is kind of like a heuristic machine in the midst of random noise (I can't remember if that's exactly how the guy put it). We make a decision that's part algorithm and part randomness, and then we backfill it will a reasonable explanation (it was specifically talking about deciding what to throw in paper-rock-scissors).

Using this perspective of the universe and free will, morality very much matters if we want to get results that we like. I don't think we'll find a guidebook to life etched in the universe, or a cosmic tallier of good and evil. But I do think that we're built with certain values that guide us to do useful things. If we deny our hunger, we won't like the result; if we deny our moral senses, we won't like the result.

In a universe of perfect determinism, I don't think morality has much meaning, but I also think that world would be very different than the one we live in.

P.S. I was actually about to start a thread on how we live in a universe of imperfect information, and thus analysis tools such as logic only work when we can approximate reality with perfect information. I was going to use Newton's gravity as an analogy.

EDIT: Added seek time for podcast reference above.
Last edited by guenther on Thu Aug 06, 2009 4:07 am UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Dark567 » Wed Aug 05, 2009 10:18 pm UTC

guenther wrote:
Since then I've come to believe that free will exists in the randomness. Fundamentally everything is noisy, statistical randomness that only takes meaningful shape at larger levels. Our model of the world in terms of perfect information and determinism is only an approximation, albeit usually a good one, that breaks down at some level, kind of like how Newton's model of gravity is an approximation that works for most everyday experiences.


But doesn't that either imply that either our actions are random or that randomness causes our actions? To me neither one of those seems to be compatible with free will either.
I apologize, 90% of the time I write on the Fora I am intoxicated.


Yakk wrote:The question the thought experiment I posted is aimed at answering: When falling in a black hole, do you see the entire universe's future history train-car into your ass, or not?

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Wed Aug 05, 2009 10:36 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:But doesn't that either imply that either our actions are random or that randomness causes our actions? To me neither one of those seems to be compatible with free will either.

Well some people take random to mean a coin flip, and certainly the noise level isn't that high, but I think there's randomness involved. There's a concept of shaped noise where the noise holds information (i.e. noise samples are correlated in time, white noise holds no information). I think the field of information theory has better terminology for this stuff, but I only know the basics. Or conceptually we could think of quantum theory where everything is defined by probabilistic state functions, but they combine in very reliable ways at the macro level. Small random events combine to look deterministic just like small particles combine to look like macro objects. Our scope of observation obscures the fundamental nature.

I don't know if you want this to turn into a free will debate, but what does free will mean? I don't have a precise definition, but I imagine it in the sense of capable of making complex decisions and not being completely predictable.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby athelas » Thu Aug 06, 2009 3:03 am UTC

Just because reality is not always predictable (insert quantum stuff here) doesn't mean that it is shaped by conscious beings. And I would agree with Mr. Norris that without an element of will, a moral system is pretty meaningless, since one cannot seriously choose to affect an outcome.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby If Chickens Were Purple... » Thu Aug 06, 2009 3:57 am UTC

I'm sure that basically every question of how determinism affects humanity can be resolved by pointing out one fairly obvious fallacy in the question. In fact, while determinists usually like to believe they're taking the most scientific and logical approach, I don't think this question even works unless you think of the mind as separate from matter. Ironically, since that's the very fallacy determinists define themselves as avoiding.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the determinist argument says that our minds are "contained" in our brains, and our brains are composed of matter which is obliged to follow physical laws. Or to simplify:

My mind = the execution of inevitable physical laws

I don't think any determinist would disagree with the above statement. But in my experience, few are willing to take the change of perspective that comes with reversing the equation:

The execution of inevitable physical laws = my mind

It looks like exactly the same statement, but I think this new arrangement will allow us to realise more fully what determinism actually means. It doesn't mean "my mind is subservient to physical law". It simply means "my mind consists of physical law". To demonstrate the difference, read the following two statements and try to explain how either of them is more accurate than the other:

"What I take to be free will is NOT free will -- it is simply matter obeying laws."
"What I take to be matter obeying laws is NOT matter obeying laws -- it is my free will."


Which one's right? Clearly they're both meaningless. Compare them each to "My school is NOT a school -- it is a building." But even that's a bad analogy. Really it's more like "My school is not a school -- it's made of bricks".

The fact is, arguing that my actions are not controlled by me, but by the laws of physics, is a contradiction. I AM the laws of physics. It's completely impossible that the laws of physics will not coincide exactly with the actions I want to take. This is because, as I'm sure you'll agree, there is no mind/matter dualism. I am atoms, but those atoms are me, so the responsibility for what I do still ends up in my lap. Therefore, morality is still necessary. Or at any rate, determinism doesn't affect how necessary it is.



Hopefully this post actually makes sense.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby The Utilitarian » Thu Aug 06, 2009 4:12 am UTC

A lot of the deterministic writers like Spinoza and Schopenhauer essentially wrote that one found meaning and signifigance by realizing the deterministic nature of the universe we live in. In this way it becomes more existential than nihlistic. In realizing the forces which control our actions, we gain a level of insight into our motives and infuse our (pre-determined) existence with meaning.

(Roughly, I will admit that I have only passing knowledge of the aforemantioned philosophers)

*edit* I suppose I wasn't really addressing moral nihilism so much in that respect... Unfortunately it seems more determinstis seem to answer that question with the response that while the criminal can claim he has no control of his actions (since they are determined), a moralist can respond that his determinition compels him to punish actions which he has been determined to find unethical. Ultimately it does seem to rob morality of its sting though.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby luke2 » Thu Aug 06, 2009 4:28 am UTC

No. Determinism does not necessitate moral nihilism. It is unintuitive, but that's because much of the popular talk about "morality" and "choice" takes place within the assumed traditional framework.

Given determinism, "moral choice" does mean something subtly different, but very similar in its practice. It's not as though "choice" means nothing within determinism. Exactly same process of moral evaluation still goes on within the mind of the moral agent; it is just predetermined. Their actions cannot be put down to simple physical laws, but the complex system of the mind in which the "cause" is, for want of a better word, "choice".

I say this as someone who believes people are determined by genetics and environment. I admit that I do tend not to contemn actions or individuals, in part because of this. But determinism does not preclude moral activity, and the use of moral terms within determinism is compatible with their use outside it.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Thu Aug 06, 2009 4:45 am UTC

athelas wrote:Just because reality is not always predictable (insert quantum stuff here) doesn't mean that it is shaped by conscious beings.

I'm not sure what that means, but I'm just saying that we're fundamentally non-deterministic. And after reviewing the podcast again (starting at 12:50, sorry for not referencing before), the researcher is not basing his claim on the fundamental quantum structure of nature (the handwave I would use in the past), but rather it's at the cellular level and very observable, and probably results from a evolutionary utility to not be completely predictable. He mentioned that when listening to monkey neurons firing in the brain, he heard randomness and then the click of a decision. It's like there's several competing options or paths, and suddenly one path rises above and gets selected. The decision-making process is inherently unpredictable (though we can make statistical statements of likelihood).

Ironically, I think this segment was meant to diminish our concept of free will by linking it to randomness, but I believe that's precisely where our perception of free will resides. A deterministic computer program will always be perfectly predictable, but we are not.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Twistar » Thu Aug 06, 2009 5:34 am UTC

First, Has anyone read Lila by Robert Pirsig?

So I basically spent all of my senior year debating over this issue with my deterministici borderline nihilist friend. He makes the classic deterministic claim: Everything is matter (or at least a physical object), matter is determined by the laws of physics, so everything is determined by the laws of physics and thus predictable. With my current knowledge of physics and the universe I can't really punch any holes in this theory. It seems like there is potential in quantum mechanics that the universe is not predictable and that would very much change the face of his argument, however I don't know quantum physics (damn it will soon though!)
So, that this type of classical determinism begets total nihilism is not really a question in my mind, it's a pretty sure thing if one is consistant in their beliefs. However this raises a few questions for me. The first is, what does a total nihilist look like? They still experience human emotions and thoughts even though they have a recognition that these thoughts are meaningless and as good as non-existant. Why don't all nihilist commit suicide? well it wouldn't matter right? I guess this is sort of a petty question though perhaps a case of ones intellect not being fully able to comprehend this one particular thought.

Another question, and this was solidified by Lila, Can we perhaps narrow our scope of the universe when investigating moral issues to exclude the "fact" that the universe is determined? For example if we create an axiom that humans make legitimate choices on some level, ignoring the fact that those choices are the result of physical interactions, then all of the philosophical issues once again arise in legitamacy and importance whereas determinism annihilates all philosophical questions. That was part of my problem with it, a philosophy that says nothing matters, really doesn't matter itself and might as well not have been studied but then are other philosophies worth studying? not in the framework of determinism! True nihilism just produces paradoxes that I'm not comfortable with that's why I try so hard to find holes in it.
So adding on to that last paragraph, in Lila Phaedrus talks about how there are evolutionary levels of substance (he calls it value, but that is another question I have, substance will suffice for now.) In particular the levels are inorganic, biological, social, and intellectual. atoms and molecules are inorganic, but they form together to make biological structures such as bacteria and eventually humans, which create social structures out of which intellectual values arise. The major analogy he uses for these evolutionary levels is that of flip flops and the electrical engineering of a circuit as compared to a software language that utilizes that circuit. For example, a writer may write a novel using a word processor which is compiled from some code language that is the result of other code languages until you get down to the machine language that actually tells an electrical circuit what to do and that circuit is ruled by the laws of electromagnetism and conduction and whatnot. However, that novel does not exist within the electrons of the circuit, it doesn't reside anywhere in the computer, it can easily be moved to another computer and erased completely from the first. He even talked about how surprised he was at how little the electrical engineers knew about the code that would program their chips and how little the programmers knew about the circuitry. The whole point with this is how the heirchacal structures are so very distinct from their neighboring structures.
In fact, neighboring structures seem to contradict eachother. The biological assemblage of substance seeks to overcome the laws of nature. For example gravity, or thermodynamics, While biological creatures don't necesarily contradict these laws they do act to in a way overcome them, homo-erectus.

So, I'll try to relate this all back. What does this have to do with determinism. Well it is possible that making the leap from a human deciding to save a dog or a stranger all the way down to atomic interactions may be too bold. The events are taking place in such different worlds that it is not worth it nor profitable to consider them together. This view doesn't destroy determinism, but it cripples it in my opinion. In the social and intellectual realms of substance choice does exist and has to be considered, thus morality exists.



This might be off-topic for this thread but maybe someone who has read Lila or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance can go more in depth about how Pirsig thinks that value is actually the building block of existance, and how EVERYTHING is value and everything is a moral choice.

Sorry this post is so long, this topic just raises so many questions for me and I've thought about it a lot

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SpazzyMcGee » Thu Aug 06, 2009 6:48 am UTC

Everyone seems to be completely throwing away the notion of freewill with the acceptance of determinism. I don't think that is the best course of action. We need to rethink what freewill is. All of you guys are playing around with this assumed idea that freewill is by definition supernatural.

Lets look at the most basic call sign of freewill. If an apple drops from a tree it will hit the ground. There is no choice in the matter. Now if I have an apple in my hand I can choose to drop it or not. The obvious difference between these two situations is the indicator of freewill. The falling apple is a very simple system and thus is very predictable. Me holding the apple debating whether I should drop it or not is a very very complex system as it includes my entire nervous system, neurons firing, the photons hitting the photoreceptors in the back of my eye, what I had for breakfast, damn near everything. It is so complex it is nearly impossible to predict what will happen. This is because the human mind is a chaotic system.

Lets look at two different scenarios. In one scenario as a child 15 years ago I was eating an apple. The glare from the sun off the apple's skin caught my attention and caused me to take a bite out of one particular portion of the apple. This portion happened to contain a worm which traumatizes me. The memory stored up in the depths of my brain comes back to me at this one particular instant 15 years later causing me to drop the apple out of fear of another worm. Now lets look at another scenario. Lets say a passing cloud had blocked that particular glare so I had bit another portion of the apple, a portion without the worm apparent. I would have taken the bite, dropped the apple, and been on my merry way. This would 15 years later cause me to hold on to the apple longer, maybe even eat it. The slight bit of water vapor that just happen to chance across the very specific portion of the sky affecting a single persons dietary decision which was stored as a small pattern in the depths of an organic nervous system and remembered at that particular instant 15 years later caused the drop of the apple. It is such an unlikely chain of events and ridiculously dependent on the initial state of system that it is utterly unpredictable... the very definition of a chaotic system.

Now, look at a chaotic water wheel. No matter how similarly you pour water into it the wheel spins in new and erratic ways. One would say it has a mind of its own. It doesn't literally have a mind of course as its actions do not correspond to any sort of stimuli in more complex ways then stopping when you put your hand on it. Now take a computer program. You know what it will do with certain stimuli. For example I know that when my sister types her name into a program I wrote my computer will read "Hello b***h". Now combine these two polar opposites and what do you get? You get a complex system that responds to stimuli in purposeful ways... well that's the human mind right there. Purposeful like a computer but too complex to predict. One day computers will be so complex they will rival the human mind. Given an ability to grow beyond initial programming parameters we will be unable to predict what how the computer will respond to different stimuli. It would have freewill.

Now let me sum this up. Freewill is a useful term in human language because it denotes the difference between simple-purposeless systems (like the apple falling from the tree) and complex-purposeful systems (like me dropping the apple). This distinction exists no matter if we live in a deterministic world or not. You can't say determinism = "I HAVE NO FREEWILL SO I'M GOING TO HANG MYSELF!". The choices are just as existent as if they would be if the human mind was actually connected to an ethereal cloud of consciousness outside of the physical universe (the only real alternative to determinism it seems). Freewill (aka the ability to respond to stimuli in a complex fashion towards some goal) still exists in a deterministic universe.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Twistar » Thu Aug 06, 2009 7:24 am UTC

Yeah but for me Free Will doesn't mean: the ability to make an action that is really difficult to predict because there are so many chaotic variables involved
for me Free Will means something more along the lines of: the ability to make an action that changes existance and could not necessarily have been predicted by the laws of physics

Free Will is so tricky to define... what really rings true with me is what I saw on the episode of futurama where Bender is flying in space and plays God to meteorite people that landed on his body and then he meets the real God and has a conversation with him along these lines:
Bender: So do you know everything I know before I'm going to do it?
God: Yes.
Bender: But what if I do something different?
God: Then I do not know that.

Free Will is something like this...

And Free Will isn't true randomness either, because free will implies that the user has control. But if something is not determined and not random then what is it?
Ugh this all confuses me really badly, it raises so so many paradoxes free will seems ridiculous, but determinism seems too empty to be true, and just not quite right. Maybe someone with knowledge of quantum physics can enlighten on the implications that raises?

By the way, what is the philosophy that all matter has consciousness? I stumbled upon it once and it was a complicated name.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SpazzyMcGee » Thu Aug 06, 2009 7:48 am UTC

Twistar wrote:By the way, what is the philosophy that all matter has consciousness? I stumbled upon it once and it was a complicated name.

It might be Pantheism, the belief that the universe is in a way "God". I don't really understand it. Either it means what you said (that the universe is conscious) or that Pantheists have just changed the definition of God to be synonymous with universe... where then the whole thing is kind of useless.

But as for the rest of your post, using your definition it follows that freewill is dependent on stimuli from outside our own universe. There would have to be some particle(s) moving around in an unpredictable fashion completely separate from physical law influencing what we think, a kind of umbilical to another universe. Have fun trying to find it.

And who's to say this other universe that influences our minds isn't deterministic itself with the same system of cause and effect where then it would just be an extension of our universe. Furthermore, our entire minds would have to be housed in this super dimensional niche. If it is indeed just a particle bouncing around irrespective of physics then you can't really say our mind is housed in that universe. This leads to one of the heaviest hitters against this supernatural "theory", the fact that I can influence your decisions by affecting your brain. By prodding your brain in different ways I could get you to do just about anything. This would be predicted in the deterministic model but not the "supernatural-umbilical" model.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby QwertyKey » Thu Aug 06, 2009 12:07 pm UTC

I think Determinism does necessitate moral nihilism.
For me, I believe in Wiki Fatalism, its definition is there.

Anyway, the fact is that Free Will has to been absent. You are given no choice of your own to drop the apple or not. Its 1-way simulation, which fakes up your freedom. Keep running the simulation and you keep getting the same result as it is coded to.

This can apply to any other situation. The end is always the same, should the First event be the same. One event and that causes every single event in the future to occur as they will be.

"... You can't say determinism = "I HAVE NO FREEWILL SO I'M GOING TO HANG MYSELF!" ..." ~ SpazzyMcGee
Determinism isn't equal to that, it is more.
Determinism = "I have no freewill in deciding if I have freewill or not, and neither do I have a choice in deciding if I should hang myself or not." This loss of freedom, or rather the realisation of this loss of freedom, is likely able to shock someone to hang himself/herself. However, the events that have occurred have already decided his chain of thoughts, and the chain of events.

Without Free Will, how can you ever get Morality? What is right, what is wrong? How can you define killing to be wrong if he can't choose it do or not? How can you define Altruism to be right when the events that have (far) preceded a person have already caused one's inevitable attitude?

Pure Determinism demands that Free Will is non-existent, and thus takes away Morality.


The only way of Free Will is that we are still unable to calculate the future. We are, as of yet, unable to predict what our current events lead to. This disability leads to the notion of Free Will. Free Will, in this sense, is limited as much as we are unable to predict it. Once we can predict the future, this concept will be instantly shattered.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SunAvatar » Thu Aug 06, 2009 4:11 pm UTC

I'm a pessimistic incompatibilist---not only is free will incompatible with determinism, it is incompatible with indeterminism as well. The more I think about free will, the more absurd an idea it becomes.

At the conscious level, I have a simple algorithm for acting: I do whatever I want to do the most. I follow this algorithm without fail. So in order for my actions to be free, I have to choose what to want. But for the most part I can't choose what to want. I can find that I value my health more than my taste buds, so that I really do want to eat the broccoli instead of black forest cake; but I can't just, by an act of will, want broccoli more.

And suppose I could decide what to want; then this would depend on what I wanted to want. Do I decide what to want to want? Well, not really; I just choose whatever it is that I want to want to want. Unless you're ready to claim our minds are infinite in extent, there has to be a bottom somewhere, a point where actions are determined by something other than will.

So, anyway, that's me on free will. Do I think that this necessitates moral nihilism? In a word: no.

My view is that morality is an invention, and that there is nothing wrong with that. An automobile is an invention too, but that doesn't make it less real or useful. Morality (as we understand it) would never exist without the human mind to embody it. But the human mind does exist, and does embody it, so what's the problem?

To say "It is immoral to steal someone's pet kitten," then, means something like, "If we ran this giant utility calculation implicit in our brain structure (which we are not actually going to do) on the state of the universe, and compared the result to that for the state of the universe plus one more kitten-theft, we'd just about always come out with a lower total utility in the second case."

But I think I'm getting off topic, because the real problem people have with a lack of free will isn't with morality as a whole, but with blame and credit. That is, why lay blame when someone acts immorally? Why offer credit when someone acts morally? In either case she has no choice in the matter.

Well, I could ask the question the other way too. If there is free will, why offer blame when someone acts immorally? He could just as easily have done the opposite, so it doesn't speak to his character. Why offer credit when he acts morally? Again, he was free to do anything, so there is not necessarily any permanent character trait of "goodness" that we should reward.

The answer really has nothing to do with freedom; it has more to do with being part of our own morality that "it is right and proper to reward those who do good" and "it is right and proper to punish those who do ill". I continue to follow that rule because, dammit, it is right and proper!

I'm not going to claim any of this is obvious, because I was confused for a long time myself. But it's important to maintain a certain deliberate naïveté on some matters, and morality is one of them. If you were not a human, you would forever be cut off from feeling the human moral urge. But you are a human, and you do feel it! Why hold your own values in contempt?

I know my own values only exist because they were convenient for my ancestors. I know that Nature doesn't really give a damn about them. But by the same token, I don't really give a damn what Nature thinks. I will fight for my values because, dammit, they are right!
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neque defensori dominus,
nec pater nec pater,
nihil supernum.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Twistar » Thu Aug 06, 2009 4:26 pm UTC

SpazzyMcGee wrote:But as for the rest of your post, using your definition it follows that freewill is dependent on stimuli from outside our own universe. There would have to be some particle(s) moving around in an unpredictable fashion completely separate from physical law influencing what we think, a kind of umbilical to another universe. Have fun trying to find it.

And who's to say this other universe that influences our minds isn't deterministic itself with the same system of cause and effect where then it would just be an extension of our universe. Furthermore, our entire minds would have to be housed in this super dimensional niche. If it is indeed just a particle bouncing around irrespective of physics then you can't really say our mind is housed in that universe. This leads to one of the heaviest hitters against this supernatural "theory", the fact that I can influence your decisions by affecting your brain. By prodding your brain in different ways I could get you to do just about anything. This would be predicted in the deterministic model but not the "supernatural-umbilical" model.


Yeah all of this is where I really get stuck. defining Free Will outside of the realm of determinism really just produces some goofy responses, especially if you put trust in the physical laws. The point is any theory that rejects determinism is going to have a certain level of crack-pottedness to any person of science because science (at least all of the classical science I know) dictates determinism.

However I think what QwertyKey said about us not being able to predict the future is very key. In strict determinism there is no free-will, however perhaps there is a relevant psuedo-free-will that is practically as good. My patterns of choice are so far evolutionarily removed from atomic motion that perhaps it's not that big of a sacrifice leaving the atomic motion out of the picture and concentrate more on macro-scopic entities such as objects, and ideas and leave a few variables unknown creating the entirely convincing and possibly relevant illusion of free will.
This is I suppose a more pragmatic approach to the situation. I guess my biggest problem with hard-determinism is that it is ENTIRELY non-pragmatic, nothing comes of it and that just isn't satisfying to me as a philosophy but it is so damn hard to argue against.

And the idea that all matter has mind and perhaps consciousness is Panpsychism and its more confusingly named offshoots. I found it after looking at Pantheism so thanks for that tip SpazzyMcgee.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SpazzyMcGee » Thu Aug 06, 2009 6:39 pm UTC

Twistar wrote:Yeah all of this is where I really get stuck. defining Free Will outside of the realm of determinism really just produces some goofy responses, especially if you put trust in the physical laws. The point is any theory that rejects determinism is going to have a certain level of crack-pottedness to any person of science because science (at least all of the classical science I know) dictates determinism.

However I think what QwertyKey said about us not being able to predict the future is very key. In strict determinism there is no free-will, however perhaps there is a relevant psuedo-free-will that is practically as good. My patterns of choice are so far evolutionarily removed from atomic motion that perhaps it's not that big of a sacrifice leaving the atomic motion out of the picture and concentrate more on macro-scopic entities such as objects, and ideas and leave a few variables unknown creating the entirely convincing and possibly relevant illusion of free will.
This is I suppose a more pragmatic approach to the situation. I guess my biggest problem with hard-determinism is that it is ENTIRELY non-pragmatic, nothing comes of it and that just isn't satisfying to me as a philosophy but it is so damn hard to argue against.

And the idea that all matter has mind and perhaps consciousness is Panpsychism and its more confusingly named offshoots. I found it after looking at Pantheism so thanks for that tip SpazzyMcgee.


It is because the argument is so good that I cannot be anything but a determinist (quantum mechanics throws a monkey wrench into the issue but it doesn't actually have much to do with the issue of determinism vs Free Will). What I am saying is that we need a word that details the difference between conscious complex systems and unconscious simple systems. The closest thing to this definition is free will. The bad part of using the word 'free will' is that it doesn't just describe the phenomena anymore, its definition also includes the cause. This cause has been for a very long time been defined as supernatural. We need to throw away this indefensible notion that the supernatural dictates freewill and define freewill as merely what we observe rather than what we observe AND one particular explanation for the observation.

I suppose my approach of redefining free will is a little unorthodox, but I have such problems in philosophy because the definition of words don't translate well to what we know today. For example atheism. Today the definition of God is completely unfalsifiable where in the past God was thought to play a much larger role in the universe (some thought angels were pushing the seemingly erratic stars around the sky) and thus falsifiable. Today we have a naturalistic explanation for all those phenomena and thus God has passed out of the realm of falsifiability. Now to say one is an atheist (believing God doesn't exist) is utterly illogical. Today it is more useful to define atheism as simply not believing in God.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Thu Aug 06, 2009 9:20 pm UTC

Twistar wrote:This is I suppose a more pragmatic approach to the situation. I guess my biggest problem with hard-determinism is that it is ENTIRELY non-pragmatic, nothing comes of it and that just isn't satisfying to me as a philosophy but it is so damn hard to argue against.

I don't know why it's so hard to argue against. In light of advances in quantum mechanics and chaos theory, I think it's hard to argue for. Chaotic systems are highly sensitive to very small changes, and I think this is how the randomness of quantum mechanics bubbles up to higher levels. (I haven't actually studied either of those beyond reading pop articles, but this is my non-expert theory. :))

I think if we ever tried to study why we get a particular result from a complex system (like competing neuron paths mentioned above), we'll always run into limits of our ability to measure. We can only ever predict up to finite precision, because infinite precision requires an ability to measure at levels deemed impossible by our best scientific theories (i.e. the uncertainty principle).

Someone can claim that everything is predictable and deterministic, but I think they'll have a challenge ever demonstrating it's true. Rather I think it's demonstratably false and we can see that it's merely a good approximation, like Newtonian mechanics.

SpazzyMcGee wrote:It is because the argument is so good that I cannot be anything but a determinist (quantum mechanics throws a monkey wrench into the issue but it doesn't actually have much to do with the issue of determinism vs Free Will). What I am saying is that we need a word that details the difference between conscious complex systems and unconscious simple systems. The closest thing to this definition is free will. The bad part of using the word 'free will' is that it doesn't just describe the phenomena anymore, its definition also includes the cause. This cause has been for a very long time been defined as supernatural. We need to throw away this indefensible notion that the supernatural dictates freewill and define freewill as merely what we observe rather than what we observe AND one particular explanation for the observation.

First, for the reasons I described above, I would lump determinism in the supernatural realm since it goes against our best scientific models for how the natural world works.

Second, earlier I put forward this criteria for free will: (a) making sufficiently complex decisions and (b) not perfectly predictable. Certainly there's the issue of where to place thresholds to give us results that match intuition (though we might find it's a sliding scale). It also seems like there must be something else such as (c) able to define goals.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Technical Ben » Thu Aug 06, 2009 9:43 pm UTC

May I mention Chess theory? You can "predict" all possible moves (as the moves are finite) in a chess game. So, if one player takes a move, the next could in theory predict all possible outcomes. The second player does not know what the next step will be, but can calculate the outcome of each step. (knowing all possible steps in between etc)
Would this not allow a predictable system to also have choices?
However, there could possible be no physical description of "choice" or "free will". Only a psychological description?
Also the idea of "I think, therefore I am" might have some relevance? You cannot prove to someone else your point of view in the universe. Only yourself/own mind can.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Dark567 » Thu Aug 06, 2009 10:05 pm UTC

guenther wrote:I don't know why it's so hard to argue against. In light of advances in quantum mechanics and chaos theory, I think it's hard to argue for. Chaotic systems are highly sensitive to very small changes, and I think this is how the randomness of quantum mechanics bubbles up to higher levels. (I haven't actually studied either of those beyond reading pop articles, but this is my non-expert theory. :))


This all makes sense but if quantum mechanics implies randomness, and it bubbles up, doesn't that imply that our actions are random? Random, meaning there is no free will. Indeterminate quantum mechanics still implies a lack of free will.


One could also argue for determinism on a higher level. What is "choice"? A "choice" is using my previous experiences and my a priori knowledge to decide something. In order for that to really be a choice(that is something that could have had a different outcome than the one I choose) I have to have a choice in either my a priori knowledge or my experiences as my original "choice" was caused by those two things. I might have had a choice in my previous experiences, but what caused that choice. Ultimately it seems as if every "choice" of mine comes down to the experiences early on in my life or my genetics, neither of which I have control over. This seems to prevent real "free will" from every existing.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Thu Aug 06, 2009 10:16 pm UTC

Technical Ben wrote:May I mention Chess theory? You can "predict" all possible moves (as the moves are finite) in a chess game. So, if one player takes a move, the next could in theory predict all possible outcomes. The second player does not know what the next step will be, but can calculate the outcome of each step. (knowing all possible steps in between etc)
Would this not allow a predictable system to also have choices?
However, there could possible be no physical description of "choice" or "free will". Only a psychological description?

Are you thinking of software programs playing chess? Predicting the results of all possible outcomes doesn't do any good unless you know the likelihood of each outcome. With a perfectly deterministic piece of software, you could in theory predict with perfect precision what decsion it will make given a certain external conditions. The software would be powerless to make a choice that wasn't dictated by the environment.

The software could have an internal state machine which would make prediction challenging if we don't have access to the state, but since someone wrote it, the state does exist in a form with is precisely measurable (assuming there's a finite number of states), and thus it is precisely predictable. If there were an infinite number of states (i.e. a continuum of states rather than discrete), then we would be limited in our ability to measure and thus limited in out ability to predict. Our mind is like this where states can only be measured with finite precision.

Dark567 wrote:This all makes sense but if quantum mechanics implies randomness, and it bubbles up, doesn't that imply that our actions are random? Random, meaning there is no free will. Indeterminate quantum mechanics still implies a lack of free will.

I'd say this just means that free will is different than what we thought it was. I think of the experiment where someone has to choose between pushing a red button or a green button. If we can perfectly predict what the subject will choose, then that's a result that doesn't jive with my sense of free will since they would be powerless to decide differently than the prediction. To me, the inability to predict is key to free will. This has to come from a random process.

Dark567 wrote:One could also argue for determinism on a higher level. What is "choice"? A "choice" is using my previous experiences and my a priori knowledge to decide something. In order for that to really be a choice(that is something that could have had a different outcome than the one I choose) I have to have a choice in either my a priori knowledge or my experiences as my original "choice" was caused by those two things. I might have had a choice in my previous experiences, but what caused that choice. Ultimately it seems as if every "choice" of mine comes down to the experiences early on in my life or my genetics, neither of which I have control over. This seems to prevent real "free will" from every existing.

What is real "free will"? It looks like your searching for a source of decision making that exists beyond our physical world. I agree with SpazzyMcGee that this concept has to change if we want to base the notion of free will in science.

The fact that our "will" is shaped by genetics and the past (and I'd say present environemnt as well) doesn't mean it's not free. If it weren't shaped, we would be pretty ineffective people. But there's no clear mapping of the past + present + genetics to a decision now. There's certainly strong tendancies for certain types of actions, but there's nothing we're bound to, at least as far as functions controlled by us consciously. I think this gives us something solid to work with when framing out a concept of free will.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SpazzyMcGee » Fri Aug 07, 2009 1:29 am UTC

guenther wrote:I don't know why it's so hard to argue against. In light of advances in quantum mechanics and chaos theory, I think it's hard to argue for. Chaotic systems are highly sensitive to very small changes, and I think this is how the randomness of quantum mechanics bubbles up to higher levels. (I haven't actually studied either of those beyond reading pop articles, but this is my non-expert theory. :))

1) Quantum mechanics doesn't say anything about randomness and there is discussion going on in the scientific community as I understand it whether the odd aspects of quantum mechanics are indeed immutable law or merely apparent effects of a deeper mechanism.
2) Chaos theory has nothing to do with determinism. Chaos theory simply states some systems are highly dependent on their initial conditions. Most people know it as the butterfly effect.

guenther wrote:I think if we ever tried to study why we get a particular result from a complex system (like competing neuron paths mentioned above), we'll always run into limits of our ability to measure. We can only ever predict up to finite precision, because infinite precision requires an ability to measure at levels deemed impossible by our best scientific theories (i.e. the uncertainty principle).

Our ability to take measurements has nothing to do with determinism. Determinism in respects to free will is the view that the human mind is just as natural any particle. There is nothing supernatural about the human mind, it is just as causally bound as any other grouping of particles. The alternative position holds the human mind is somehow above physical laws, that the human mind's specific configuration makes it above all forms of causation instead of merely a complex computer.

guenther wrote:Someone can claim that everything is predictable and deterministic, but I think they'll have a challenge ever demonstrating it's true. Rather I think it's demonstratably false and we can see that it's merely a good approximation, like Newtonian mechanics.

First, for the reasons I described above, I would lump determinism in the supernatural realm since it goes against our best scientific models for how the natural world works.

Second, earlier I put forward this criteria for free will: (a) making sufficiently complex decisions and (b) not perfectly predictable. Certainly there's the issue of where to place thresholds to give us results that match intuition (though we might find it's a sliding scale). It also seems like there must be something else such as (c) able to define goals.

See above.

There seems to be a major discrepancy between our definitions of determinism. You seem to think determinism is only true if it were possible and if we had the method to predict the outcome of everything while I hold that determinism is the view that the human mind is just as causally bound as any other grouping of particles in the universe.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby qbg » Fri Aug 07, 2009 3:03 am UTC

SunAvatar wrote:To say "It is immoral to steal someone's pet kitten," then, means something like, "If we ran this giant utility calculation implicit in our brain structure (which we are not actually going to do) on the state of the universe, and compared the result to that for the state of the universe plus one more kitten-theft, we'd just about always come out with a lower total utility in the second case."

But I think I'm getting off topic, because the real problem people have with a lack of free will isn't with morality as a whole, but with blame and credit. That is, why lay blame when someone acts immorally? Why offer credit when someone acts morally? In either case she has no choice in the matter.

That is basically my solution to the problem. By giving blame and credit, we create the circumstances that the individual must consider when making the choice of whether or not to do an (im)moral act, and when they do the (im)moral act, we give the blame/credit because that is what must happen for the system be stable; the choice of us giving blame/credit is just as determined as their choice to act.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Twistar » Fri Aug 07, 2009 3:53 am UTC

SpazzyMcGee wrote:There seems to be a major discrepancy between our definitions of determinism. You seem to think determinism is only true if it were possible and if we had the method to predict the outcome of everything while I hold that determinism is the view that the human mind is just as causally bound as any other grouping of particles in the universe.


I think this is an important distinction. What are the implications of a deterministic system that is non-predictable?
A deterministic system that IS predictable leaves no questions, it is totaly unambigious. All that is left to do in this meaningless world is strive towards creating the ultimate predicting computer, Laplace's demon. Then what? who knows it doesn't really matter anyways.

However, when the system is unpredictable humans are left with unanswerable questions: what will happen in the future? What should I do right now? Even though they may know these questions already have an answer that is determined they can't know the answer. Perhaps it is these types of questions that create moral structures that possibly have relevence in a deterministic system.

I'm just thinking this now so its not all clear...
But to explain my thoughts behind that last paragraph:
Back before this whole issue was debated there was no problem with people accepting that they have free will, They simply didn't hold to the idea that our bodies are governed by the laws of physics the same way a rock is, Their perspective of the universe was limited, and thus the delusion of free will appeared. Now we consider the possibility that we are all just masterpeices of clockwork ticking with the laws of physics. We appear to have an infinitely broad perspective on the universe. What I mean by this is like the characters in cinnamon toast crunch commercials "we see everything" We totally understand all the laws of nature and see that that "free will" is really the result of causal events and that it is not really free. However, I just said that in this universe we inherently cannot predict EVERYTHING, this means that our perspective in in fact not infinite, it is necesarily limited thus delusions of free will can and perhaps will linger. This means that no matter how much information I have about the position of the particles in the universe I cannot necessarily predict if that guy will save his dog or the stranger...
This is where my mind is sort of trailing off so let me try to continue.
At this point the man is about to take a deterministic action, because as I said this universe IS determined, but it appears to be a choice that he is making because no one (whether this includes the man or not I'm not sure) knows what he will do. Therefore, perhaps value can be attached to the possible outcomes and value begets morals.

To ask another question, What are the implications of a being the knows its own future because it has predicted the entire universe by examing the deterministic laws, i.e. Laplace's demon. Is this a paradox?

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Fri Aug 07, 2009 4:13 am UTC

SpazzyMcGee wrote:1) Quantum mechanics doesn't say anything about randomness and there is discussion going on in the scientific community as I understand it whether the odd aspects of quantum mechanics are indeed immutable law or merely apparent effects of a deeper mechanism.
2) Chaos theory has nothing to do with determinism. Chaos theory simply states some systems are highly dependent on their initial conditions. Most people know it as the butterfly effect.

The point is that quantum mechanics gives us unpredictable outcomes, and chaos theory gives a mechanic to see this unpredictability at the macro level. Simply put, I think the world is strictly non-deterministic such that we cannot predict with perfect accuracy the future, and arbitrarily small errors in measurements can produce arbitrarily large errors in results.

SpazzyMcGee wrote:There seems to be a major discrepancy between our definitions of determinism. You seem to think determinism is only true if it were possible and if we had the method to predict the outcome of everything while I hold that determinism is the view that the human mind is just as causally bound as any other grouping of particles in the universe.

I sometimes make bad guesses about philosophy terms based on their name because I've never studied them. I did make the assumption that determinism meant the universe is deterministic or perhaps predetermined. I think neither are true. I do believe it's causal though. If there is an entity that can know the future, there's no evidence that it affects the way our universe works.

(Causality itself might be one of those "good approximations" that holds almost always but gets violated under certain conditions. I've read about time machines that seemingly work perfectly fine in theory though would be hard to build. Also I've heard about how objects can relativistically rotate from time to space, and since spacial dimensions don't have a causal relationship, perhaps under extreme conditions this can be violated. Anyway, that's speculation by a non-expert; I haven't heard any professionals in the field posit this.)
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SpazzyMcGee » Fri Aug 07, 2009 4:25 am UTC

guenther wrote:I sometimes make bad guesses about philosophy terms based on their name because I've never studied them. I did make the assumption that determinism meant the universe is deterministic or perhaps predetermined. I think neither are true. I do believe it's causal though. If there is an entity that can know the future, there's no evidence that it affects the way our universe works.

Well hell, I think we agree on everything. We both see the human mind as being just as causally bound as any other system and we both feel there are serious limitations to actually making air tight predictions that aren't mere approximations.

Oh, and I don't have any formal education on the matter either. I spent some time on Yahoo! Answers in the Astronomy section and then kind of drifted over the the Religion and Spirituality section where I through my answering and asking picked up on a lot of philosophy. From my interweb travelings it would seem I can almost go toe to toe with smarter philosophy majors.

One thing though, I don't know who mentioned it earlier but Pragmatism... I just can't understand the wikipedia article on it. Do you know what it is?

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Fri Aug 07, 2009 5:06 am UTC

SpazzyMcGee wrote:Well hell, I think we agree on everything. We both see the human mind as being just as causally bound as any other system and we both feel there are serious limitations to actually making air tight predictions that aren't mere approximations.

Oh, and I don't have any formal education on the matter either. I spent some time on Yahoo! Answers in the Astronomy section and then kind of drifted over the the Religion and Spirituality section where I through my answering and asking picked up on a lot of philosophy. From my interweb travelings it would seem I can almost go toe to toe with smarter philosophy majors.

The internet is great! :)

SpazzyMcGee wrote:One thing though, I don't know who mentioned it earlier but Pragmatism... I just can't understand the wikipedia article on it. Do you know what it is?

I looked at it, and I find it funny to formally define a practical way to look at the world, since I don't see what practical benefit there is in formally defining all this stuff. But perhaps I just don't get it either. :) I like to do thought experiments about the world in a pragmatic way by think about results (hence my utility of religion thread), and fundamentally I think life is about behavior and the results that follow (as opposed to the pursuit of truth, enlightenment, happiness, etc.). But in practice I'm not convinced that this is the best method of making good decisions in one's life.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SunAvatar » Fri Aug 07, 2009 3:06 pm UTC

If you try to use quantum uncertainty as evidence for free will, you are saying people have conscious libertarian control over individual goddamn quarks.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Dark567 » Fri Aug 07, 2009 3:23 pm UTC

SunAvatar wrote:If you try to use quantum uncertainty as evidence for free will, you are saying people have conscious libertarian control over individual goddamn quarks.


Yes, this is what I was trying to explain before, but, unfortunately couldn't put nearly as ... eloquently.... as you have.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby QwertyKey » Fri Aug 07, 2009 7:11 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:
SunAvatar wrote:If you try to use quantum uncertainty as evidence for free will, you are saying people have conscious libertarian control over individual goddamn quarks.


Yes, this is what I was trying to explain before, but, unfortunately couldn't put nearly as ... eloquently.... as you have.


I would not say it is evidence for free will, but evidence that uncertainty exists. And because of uncertainty, we get free will. If Determinism says causality causes future events, Heisenberg uncertainty says you can't ever see the future.

Think about Radiation, it could somehow indirectly affect you, exactly which particle(s) is going to decay, will you ever know? You will only know which decays when it already has decayed.

(Just a note: I do not know any connection between Half-life and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle but anyway, this is not Science and both include things about the future you will never know)

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SunAvatar » Sat Aug 08, 2009 12:56 am UTC

QwertyKey wrote:
Dark567 wrote:
SunAvatar wrote:If you try to use quantum uncertainty as evidence for free will, you are saying people have conscious libertarian control over individual goddamn quarks.


Yes, this is what I was trying to explain before, but, unfortunately couldn't put nearly as ... eloquently.... as you have.


I would not say it is evidence for free will, but evidence that uncertainty exists. And because of uncertainty, we get free will.


I don't see how free will follows from uncertainty. If you said "Because of free will, there is uncertainty," that would make sense. But will implies purpose or direction. Uncertainty does not.

Think about Radiation, it could somehow indirectly affect you, exactly which particle(s) is going to decay, will you ever know? You will only know which decays when it already has decayed.


That's true, radioactive decay is apparently completely random. Does this mean radioactive particles have free will?

The funny thing, to me, is that free will supposedly means the ability to choose any action at all, within the realms of physical capability; and yet, if a person strays too far from ordinary, typical, predictable behavior, we pronounce that person mentally ill and consider her not to be in control of herself; i.e. to have less free will. A person who behaved in a totally unpredictable manner would hardly be considered human, let alone free.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Sat Aug 08, 2009 1:04 am UTC

SunAvatar wrote:If you try to use quantum uncertainty as evidence for free will, you are saying people have conscious libertarian control over individual goddamn quarks.

If you are looking for a metaphysical source of free will, then sure why not. We can really settle on any mechanism we want since there's no way to verify it.

If we want a physical source of free will, we'll likely have to change how we think about it. Science often makes us change our preconceived paradigms in light of new evidence (e.g. heliocentrism, natural selection, relativity). In the end, the "free will" defined in philosophies will likely go extinct like the notion of absolute time. They were thought up and ingrained in our culture before we had good physical models to describe them in a more evidence consistent manner. But that just means those terms should represent new concepts rather than being thrown away.

SunAvatar wrote:The funny thing, to me, is that free will supposedly means the ability to choose any action at all, within the realms of physical capability; and yet, if a person strays too far from ordinary, typical, predictable behavior, we pronounce that person mentally ill and consider her not to be in control of herself; i.e. to have less free will. A person who behaved in a totally unpredictable manner would hardly be considered human, let alone free.

This is funny to me too. I think unpredictable is part of "free will", but not equivalent. It's a bigger concept than that.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby QwertyKey » Sat Aug 08, 2009 12:07 pm UTC

SunAvatar wrote:The funny thing, to me, is that free will supposedly means the ability to choose any action at all, within the realms of physical capability; and yet, if a person strays too far from ordinary, typical, predictable behavior, we pronounce that person mentally ill and consider her not to be in control of herself; i.e. to have less free will. A person who behaved in a totally unpredictable manner would hardly be considered human, let alone free.


What is a human in Philosophy?

Determinism says that the future is caused by past events. Current sciences say the future is impossible to predict.

I equate current sciences with humans, tables, chairs and anything. What happens to the humans, tables, chairs and anything is impossible to know.

Let's say you have a kidnapper. We have a random coin. If the coin lands as heads, the kidnapper kills his victim, if the coin lands as tails, the kidnapper lets his victim go. This uncertainty creates free will as the kidnapper can 'decide' whether to spare the victim or not: he has a gun. Expand the coin to everything that has happened until the kidnapping. That uncertainty will let the kidnapper decide to kill the victim or not.

With pure determinism, the coin's result is constant. The kidnapper will kill the victim, like an undeniable fact.
With current sciences, the coin's result is unknown. The kidnapper will kill the victim based on unknown results, which will eventually be known when they have happened.

That is why free will can be derived from uncertainty. You can, and will, decide in the future, but what can you say about the future with current events? Nothing.

However, I still have to ask you the first question in this post. I care not if it is a human, I think you do.

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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SunAvatar » Sat Aug 08, 2009 2:53 pm UTC

The "hardly human" line was just a bit of rhetoric. The point to take home is that this person's actions are less bound and so arguably more free, and yet we (at least legally) consider her not to be acting via free will.

QwertyKey, I suspect that your understanding of what "free will" means is drastically different from mine, in which case maybe we ought to avoid the term.
  • I do accept that quantum indeterminism is real, and thus the future is not strictly determined, even if certain outcomes are profoundly more likely than others. (I'm pretty sure the past is not strictly determined either, but that's a discussion for another thread.)
  • I know that the human brain can't emulate itself faster than it actually runs, and so can't predict its own decisions in advance.
  • I assert that a conscious agent (such as a human) cannot be the ultimate cause of its actions---all our actions are ultimately either caused by outside physical forces (therefore not caused by us), or uncaused (therefore not caused by us).
  • In addition, neurons are pretty large by quantum standards, so although the human nervous system is not 100% in-theory-predictable, it is probably something like 99.5% in-theory-predictable. That is, a sufficiently intelligent being could probably predict 99.5% of our behavior. I suppose an agent could deliberately introduce elements of chance into his behavior (such as basing actions on random numbers generated by radioactive decay) to reduce his predictability.
I know we agree on (1) and (2). I suspect we disagree on (3) and (4), but I'd like you to confirm this before I continue arguing with you.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby guenther » Sat Aug 08, 2009 3:43 pm UTC

I know that was meant for QwertyKey, but I'll chime in if you don't mind. I agree with 1 and 2.

On 3, what does uncaused mean? I'd say that our actions are caused by our current environment plus our current state. Our state is essentially our genetics, memory and anything else that we carry around with us. Thus our state could be considered us, and I'd say it's a big piece of the decision-making puzzle.

On 4, I know you just picked a reasonable-sounding number, but I'd say it depends on how we define predictable. Does it mean in a controlled environment, 99.5% of the time the subject behaved on script? A chaotic system is highly sensitive to certain things, and for a certain duration one might get 99.5% predictability, but that error would compound and grow to the point where we have virtually no ability to predict. So the time scale is really important. Also the controlled environment matters a lot. We could predict with very high precision what a starving person would do when shown a buffet, but what about when there's no strong emotional pull, or when there's two or more very strong pulls? I'd say these are cases where the chaotic system is most sensitive to very small factors in the environment.

Free Will Test (I don't know if this should qualify for it's own thread. I'm happy to discuss it here, but I'll let the thread owner and moderator decide.)
I've wondered about a "free will test" sort of like the Turing Test. I envision a set up where the subject has to either push a red or green button (which could be expanded to any sort of controlled environment). Can we predict what button the subject will push? But then I thought that it must be more than predictable, "free will" should mean that the subject is free to go off script if he chooses. So the test must involve showing the subject the script and then be able to make a different choice.

But we could probably find people who are very compulsive and couldn't avoid pushing say the green button first even if we tell them that. So I might say that they don't have freedom on this test, but it seems like we'd need a more robust test to take away their free will all together.

The other part I pondered is whether we could take any completely deterministic system, calculate a script, show it to them, and they will be unable to avoid it. I suspect this is true, but I'm not sure.

The other kink in this is that if we allow the subject to see the script, then our calculations for prediction must take this into account. This means we feed the output back to the input and we could get results that don't converge to a solution. Is this a problem with the test? Or does it mean that as the results get harder and harder to calculate, we are closer to declaring free will?
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SunAvatar » Sat Aug 08, 2009 4:10 pm UTC

Posting again to add a synopsis of people's initial responses to the original question, as I understand them. Do let me know if you feel your position is misrepresented; my goal is to make sure we understand each other properly.

  • Dark567: There is no free will, and this seems not to allow for morality.
  • General_Norris: Morality requires libertarian free will. It is preferable to believe that free will exists.
  • guenther: Determinism is incompatible with free will or morality, but free will and morality exist.
  • athelas: Morality requires free will.
  • If Chickens Were Purple...: Determinism is compatible with free will and morality.
  • luke2: Psychological determinism holds. This is compatible with morality.
  • Twistar: If the universe is deterministic, we can "ignore" that fact for the sake of investigating morality.
  • Spazzy McGee: Determinism is compatible with free will and morality. "Free will" does not necessarily mean libertarian free will.
  • QwertyKey: Free will and morality require indeterminism; the universe is indeterministic, and free will and morality exist.
  • SunAvatar: Free will is impossible regardless of determinism, but morality does not require free will.
  • Technical Ben: Perhaps "free will" is not reducible to physical terms, and has only psychological meaning.
  • qbg: Moral blame and credit exist as useful inventions.

Interestingly, many of us agree that libertarian free will does not exist, and many others agree that morality is impossible without libertarian free will, but no one seems to believe both except possibly the OP. Twistar seems to be the closest (by admitting that we need to avoid acknowledging the reality of determinism for the sake of thinking morally). There are three mechanisms I can think of to explain this: either
  • determinists and almost-determinists cling to moral compatibilism because they are afraid of losing morality;
  • moral incompatibilists cling to free will because they are afraid of losing morality; or
  • it is prima facie obvious that morality exists in some sense, so we will not accept a model that forbids it.
It's also worth noting that a few other conceivable positions have gone unclaimed:
  • "Libertarian free will exists, but even if it didn't, morality would be possible"
  • "Morality is incoherent even if we do have free will
  • "Morality is impossible in an indeterministic universe, but possible in a deterministic one"
  • probably some others I haven't thought of
It makes sense from a signalling perspective that someone would not espouse a philosophical position that marked her as immoral. The OP came the closest, but emphasized that the implications disturbed zir and zie was not quite ready to accept them.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SunAvatar » Sat Aug 08, 2009 4:41 pm UTC

guenther wrote:On 3, what does uncaused mean? I'd say that our actions are caused by our current environment plus our current state.

By "ultimately uncaused" I mean originating in a truly random occurence, such as a quantum tunneling event or atomic decay. If the universe is indeterministic than all events are probably ultimately uncaused in this sense, but they are still usually predictable in broad strokes.

guenther wrote:On 4, I know you just picked a reasonable-sounding number, but I'd say it depends on how we define predictable. Does it mean in a controlled environment, 99.5% of the time the subject behaved on script? A chaotic system is highly sensitive to certain things, and for a certain duration one might get 99.5% predictability, but that error would compound and grow to the point where we have virtually no ability to predict.

This is equally true of any real-world system. The difference between organism unpredictability and billiard table unpredictability is simply a matter of degree. Some of this unpredictability is caused by genuine randomness, but most of it is simply caused by incomplete information about the initial configuration. You can't predict human behavior with reliability that high because it is caused partially by his current state, which you know nearly nothing about.

That said, you can predict people's behavior with a fairly high level of reliability, when you know them. This is what "knowing a person" means, arguably.

"Well, of course he's angry! Wouldn't anyone be?"

"Of course he's trying to rip you off, that's just what he does."

"I saw this at the store and I knew you would just love it!"

"Isn't it great how we finish each other's sentences?"

"I knew you'd be late again, so I planned for it."

When you say we can predict "virtually nothing" about someone, say, a year from now, I think you're overstating your case. We can predict that he'll still get mad if we punch him in the nose. We can predict that he'll enjoy eating fats and sweets more than aluminum cans. We can predict that he will not have suddenly developed a major, debilitating psychiatric disturbance in the absence of some acute trauma. We can predict that he will engage in activities likely to improve his status, and avoid activities likely to decrease it. We can predict all sorts of ordinary, mundane facts that we disregard precisely because they are so predictable that they are not worth mentioning.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby Technical Ben » Sat Aug 08, 2009 10:54 pm UTC

You do seem to "assume a spherical cow" for the calculations here. While science may form predictions, and we can make reasonably accurate predictions, it does not necessarily follow that the universe is predictable. Just noting that this thread seems bias to the "the universe MUST be predetermined". Entropy and the uncertainty principles hint at the limitations of making such a claim.
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Re: Does Determinism necessitate moral nihilism?[Philosophy]

Postby SunAvatar » Sun Aug 09, 2009 3:22 am UTC

Ben, I can't find anyone in this thread who defends pure causal determinism. In fact, I can't even find any real claims of logical determinism. The primary disagreement seems to be between people saying, "There is fundamental randomness, and that allows for free will," and people saying, "There is fundamental randomness, but that does not allow for free will." There is a secondary disagreement between people saying, "Human behavior is mostly predictable-in-theory," and people saying, "Human behavior is only slightly predictable-in-theory."

Technical Ben wrote:While science may form predictions, and we can make reasonably accurate predictions, it does not necessarily follow that the universe is predictable.

This sentence makes no sense to me. We can do something, but that doesn't mean it is possible to do?

Edited to add: When I say human behavior is predictable by a "sufficiently intelligent being", I think people may be picturing a team of brilliant psychologists and neurologists, whereas I'm thinking more along the lines of a matryoshka brain.
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