The Self Refutation of Determinism

In this post, I will expand on my earlier posts “Free Will” and “The Experience of Free Will.” Those posts presented positive arguments for the existence of free will, and this post will present a negative argument against determinism.

Let’s first think about the claim that the determinist is making. The determinist typically claims that our minds operate by means of mechanical cause and effect relationships, like any other chemical process. One way of spelling this out is to say, with Daniel Dennett, that the mind is a collection of different, basically independent neurological processes including reason, memory, and perception. These processes in turn reduce to yet simpler processes, which reduce yet more until we reach neurological reactions so simple that they are not recognizable as being conscious. There is no one “in charge” of your mind, on this view, just billions of neurons operating according to the blind laws of physics and chemistry.

Suppose this were true. Clearly, in that case, all of our beliefs would be the product of deterministic chemical and neurological reactions. I would just believe that I enjoy programming computers because the chemical reactions going on in my brain had percolated in that belief. But if that is true, then there is no reason to trust any of my beliefs.

Suppose I want to know what book is on my desk, and I decide that since the book looks blue, it must be my book on John Stuart Mill. The problem with this strategy is that I also have a number of other blue books in my possession, so the fact that the book is blue doesn’t prove that it is my book on John Stuart Mill. The evidence I have under-determines my conclusion. This is the position that the determinist is in with respect to his beliefs – there is a very real possibility that he is being tricked by his brain into holding beliefs that are false, and he has no way of finding out whether or not this possibility is actually the case. He might hold his beliefs if they were true, granted, but he might also hold them if they were not true. But this would also apply to his belief in determinism, so his belief in determinism is self refuting.

If we have free will, then we don’t get into this trouble, because we have direct control over our belief forming process and can make sure that it is based on evidence and logic at every step. If I am solving a problem for my math class, I can be confident of my conclusion because I have done a number of examples of the same type of problem before and I have consciously guided my thought processes in such a way that I applied the rules of inference correctly. This doesn’t mean that I’m infallible, but it means that my mind is generally pretty reliable. By contrast, if determinism is true, there is no reason to think that an argument that seems reasonable to me is any more likely to be true than one that doesn’t seem reasonable.

Now, the determinist might say that he can escape my argument by asserting that his belief forming process is guided by reason. This overlooks the fact that the belief that the determinist’s belief forming process is guided by reason is itself subject to the skepticism that determinism entails. If determinism is true, it’s quite possible that the determinist is deceived about his belief that his belief forming process is guided by reason, for the reasons I have given.

That concludes my argument that determinism is self refuting. I have another negative argument against determinism, which I may give in another post.

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3 thoughts on “The Self Refutation of Determinism

  1. dstamps2173

    Perhaps you should find a way to discuss your view with Sam Harris, who, I believe, holds an opposing view. I do strongly disagree with your implication that all that Man is is within the physical realm.

    I do not equate the brain and mind as one and the same. The brain is merely a tool of the mind, functioning as a direct interface with the physical realm and a storage medium for things related to the physical realm during the short time we use it.

    The purpose of that short period of time is for Man to take unordered life (living water) and order it into ordered life serving an eternal function in a higher order of life. When that short period of time is over, the ordered life separates from the physical body; and the stored information related to the physical realm returns to the dust from where it came.

    Since ordered life consists of what we love, that life must be chosen through freewill–the only way love can exist. Ordered life becomes a lifestyle for producing desired results in the physical realm we can sense. Each person, over time, gives birth and matures many livestyles. Some have eternal value and others do not, but their summation expresses our Soul and what we manifest in the physical realm. After our physical body dies, our lifestyles are either accepted or returned to unordered life. Depending on the level of their contribution to our Soul, the loss of lifestyles not having eternal value can result in the loss of our Soul.

    Therefore, during existence in the physical realm, limited freewill prevails; but in the end only the desired life remains. Therefore, the end of time result is predetermined.

    Reply
  2. johnsonav

    It seems that the main part of your argument is found here:

    “This is the position that the determinist is in with respect to his beliefs – there is a very real possibility that he is being tricked by his brain into holding beliefs that are false, and he has no way of finding out whether or not this possibility is actually the case. He might hold his beliefs if they were true, granted, but he might also hold them if they were not true. But this would also apply to his belief in determinism, so his belief in determinism is self refuting.”

    I wonder if you could flesh that out more, as the reasoning seems awfully thin here. What is it about determinism specifically that renders fallibilism fatal to it?

    Reply
    1. William Post author

      As we usually think of ourselves, we are free agents with control over our mental processes. There is no way for an agent like that to get an elementary truth of arithmetic like 1+1=2 wrong, provided they aren’t mentally ill or anything like that, are thinking about the problem clearly, etc.

      Under determinism, however, this freedom is an illusion, and the agency we think we have is actually just the outcome of billions of deterministic chemical reactions going on in the brain. We are not privy to these chemical reactions, and we have no way of knowing whether they have had a favorable or unfavorable outcome. All we know is that after they are done, we feel inclined toward a particular answer regarding the sum of 1 and 1, and we feel inclined toward this answer for reasons that, themselves, seem plausible to us as the result of these chemical reactions.

      So, I think it’s clear that there’s a serious form of skepticism that is entailed by determinism which is distinct from, and much more realistic than, the “I can imagine you being a brain in a vat!” argument.

      Reply

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