Deterministic Freedom Explained
by Christian Y. Cardall
In a comment and in an email Blake Ostler suggested I might benefit from reading his Mormonism and Determinism (Dialogue, Winter 1999, p. 43), in which he responds to Determinist Mansions in the Mormon House? by L. Rex Sears (Dialogue, Winter 1998, p. 115). (These articles can be found at the Dialogue website by searching on the author name and article title.) I made an immediate response to Ostler, but now I respond (with only a modest attempt to make my response self-contained) after a first reading of both Sears’ and Ostler’s articles, and provide my own inkling as to why our deterministic behavior nevertheless feels ‘free.’
I do not believe in absolute foreknowledge. This makes some of Sears’ arguments for determinism, and I think even more of Ostler’s arguments against determinism, irrelevant for me. (Though I note with regret that what strike me as two of the most interesting Mormon scriptures relating to the question of God’s foreknowledge—the prophecies of Joseph Jr. and Sr.’s names, and the complex of Book of Mormon and D&C scriptures associated with the loss of the 116 Book of Mormon manuscript pages—were not mentioned by either Ostler or Sears.)
Pervading the arguments of Ostler and to some extent Sears is the false assumption that determinism necessarily entails predictability of human behavior. Unfortunately, this commonly-held but false notion appears to lead Ostler (and perhaps certain authorities he cites) to the dubious conclusion that the unpredictability associated with the sensitive dependence on initial conditions exhibited by some nonlinear systems (i.e. chaos) negates determinism on scales relevant to human cognition. In fact, the practical limitations on our knowledge of initial conditions that result in our inability to predict in practice in no way imply that a chaotic system is doing anything other than following precisely the nonlinear equations governing it—that is, that the system is behaving deterministically—starting from particular (albeit unknown to us) initial conditions. It is perfectly consistent to believe or assume that determinism reigns even if neither God nor mortals are capable of predicting individuals’ behavior.
It seems to me that this severing of the connection between determinism and predictability/foreknowledge disables most of Ostler’s arguments against determinism (as well as one of Sears’ major arguments for determinism). All Ostler has left are arguments based on what he considers palatable notions of responsibility and on the apparent immediate experiences of “rational thought” and “free will.” I confess I find descriptions and definitions of these phenomena along the lines of Sears’ self-determination, mutual responsibility, etc. more satisfying than Ostler’s arguments from common sense. In Sears’ formulation,
to be a free agent with respect to a particular individual is to be possessed of a deterministically operative power of self-determination; to have been instructed by that individual to do or not do certain things; and to have the ability to determine, by choosing to obey or disobey the admonitions received by that individual, the nature of one’s future relationship with her. Having the relevant expectations held of us by her, in turn, makes us responsible to her, and to be a free agent with regard to a particular individual is just to be responsible to her.To explain the key point further in my own words, the uniquely human capacity to imagine the future allows for the uniquely human experience of free will and capacity for responsibility, in a context that is nevertheless deterministic: our imagination and expectation of future consequences is an important causal feed entering (along with other causes) into our decision-making, and this is what makes us responsible—literally, ‘able to respond’—‘freely.’
How, then, to account for our immediate experience of ‘freedom’? I strongly suspect that our (often subconscious) assessments involve the probabilistic weighing of multiple imagined, as-yet unrealized future scenarios—which our brain may know, handle, and experience differently than knowledge of past events and associations stored in memory—and that this perceived difference between the accomplished past and the imperfectly ascertainable future accounts, particularly when the assessment is subconscious, for the powerful psychological perception of libertarian-style free will in the process of decision-making. (Note that this proposed existence of a qualitative difference between reflections on the future and the past could be tested with real-time functional brain imaging of conscious subjects.)
Aside from the manifest elegance of my utterly compelling explanation ;->, another reason I find deterministic formulations of agency and responsibility more satisfying is that I think Ostler has failed, as he claims, to have a third option breaking a dichotomy between causal determinism and random indeterminacy. According to Ostler,
A libertarian could adopt a process view of freedom where a free act is a creative synthesis of the prior states of the world. Thus, there are causal relations or nexus from which a free act flows; however, there are several different outcomes for which the causal conditions are adequate but not sufficient…But this appeal to a synthetic human creative input begs the question: in a given instance, how does a particular creative input emerge? If it necessarily follows from the nature of one’s eternal, uncreated individual intelligence—or, in my naturalistic formulation above, ‘under the hood’ it is simply a (conscious, subconscious, or both) mechanical best estimate by the brain of which is the most likely among imagined future scenarios—then we have in the end necessary determinism (though partially of an internal or self-determined variety). Otherwise, the appearance of a particular creative input arises with some component of randomness.
Human freedom consists of a synthetic unity of experience not present in the stimuli or causes from which consciousness arises. Human creativity is the additional element which must be added to the totality of past causes necessary to explain human choices.
Hence it seems to me there is in fact no third option; and in the absence of a viable alternative, and assuming the existence of eternal uncreated intelligences, I prefer to think that the input from my intelligence would be causal rather than random—especially since this is the component upon which I ultimately would be judged!