Arguments for compatibilism (4): varieties of determinist belief

This particular entry in the present series, is composed out of re-edited comments to a two part article posted at Scientia Salon, “Free Will Skepticism and Its Implications: An Argument for Optimism,” by Gregg D. Caruso. [1]

Caruso’s argument is somewhat different than others I’ve seen on the internet, in that it is grounded largely on philosophical discussions that draw on the sciences, psychology, and social theory, rather than simply asserting the primacy of a supposed scientific position on the matter (and it is replete with citations to the literature). Nonetheless, although he calls his position ‘free will skepticism,’ I personally cannot tell the difference between his position and the incompatibilist determinist position. We begin with a brief summary of Caruso’s principle argument, that disbelief in free will is a requirement for developing arguments against the theory of retributive justice that currently holds sway in this country.

On this particular argument on this particular cause, Caruso is claiming that the choice of retributive justice arises from a belief in free will, and that retributive justice being inhumane, this raises doubts of the social usefulness of belief in free will. Some agree, some disagree, some think the argument needs better reasoning or more data to be convincing. This sort of process seems to occur in any healthy philosophic or political debate.

Although it would require a different and larger discussion, let me suggest that this debate should really begin with deciding whether retributive justice is really inhumane, since that is a basic assumption of Part 2 of Caruso’s argument. I don’t think that anyone seriously doubts that those who engage in criminal behavior are deeply influenced by parenting, social class and environment, education, psychological dispositions. The question is whether this influence is so great as to warrant reconsidering whether they ‘deserve’ a certain kind of punishment, based on any possibility of their having chosen otherwise in a given circumstance, or if social influence makes the question of ‘deserved’ punishment moot, thus suggesting not only other theories of justice, but other practices in addressing criminal behavior, directed toward rehabilitation.

On this point I refer you to the concluding arguments by Darrow and Crowe in Illinois vs. Leopold and Loeb. [2]

That was clarification. My personal sense is that assumption of a retributive justice requires a prior assumption that there can be anything such as ‘moral revenge.’ I believe that’s an oxymoron, whether meted out on behalf of individual victims or that of society as a whole.

It should be noted that I have Catholic friends who do not oppose retributive justice on any assumption that criminals could not have chosen otherwise, but because it lacks mercy – failing to account for the social influences on criminals, and the possibility of their rehabilitation, retributive justice can only be directed toward causing pain to make observers satisfied in their sense of righteous outrage. Ultimately, to say that criminals ‘deserve’ such pain is an obfuscation evading intellectual responsibility. If people want to claim enjoyment in the pain of others under the shield of righteous indignation, let them do so. But when they do so, they will have surrendered claim to any moral high ground. Enjoyment of the suffering of others can never be a moral good, however tempting at times.

However, one doesn’t need to engage the compatibilist/incompatibilist debate to agree that there are connections between retributive justice theory, a Just World mindset, and belief in libertarian free will, and that the world would be a better place were these connections broken. But such agreement would not necessarily lead one to adopt an incompatibilist position. [3]

It is nice to think that social history is a one way street, always progressing. It’s not. When I was young, the dominant theory of justice was rehabilitative. The Reagan revolution revealed that most Americans still carried the embers of vengeance in their hearts. Now we have stepped back considerably since the days when the SCOTUS seemed to reject capital punishment.

It would be nice if we lived in an efficiently working representative democracy where we could arrive at policy through reason alone. But that isn’t the case either. I find it amusing that such studies on Right Wing Authoritarian attitudes (quoted by Caruso) are undertaken when the US government has been marching steadily rightward for 35 years. I’m not sure that study can be used as part of an argument with the right wing authoritarians in the current government. I suspect their collective response would be, ‘so what?’

Both observance of reason and justice call us to continue the argument, in the hope of changing popular opinion and move elections in the preferred direction. But here’s another problem.

If my goal is simply to convince people that they should abandon free will belief, that’s one kind of argument, and the political end of just that argument is not at all clear.

But if my goal is to move collectively to an end of retributive justice policies, that’s not only an entirely different argument, but in the process, I will have to make alliance with people who share that goal, but not my particular philosophic grounds for having that goal.

My Catholic friends are socially and politically active in efforts to reform both the prison system and the justice system as a whole, out from the retributive dark ages. Should I tell them that unless they abandon any residual belief in free will, they are enacting their politics in bad faith?

Several issues are getting confused here. The philosophical debate concerning free will is just that. Arguments drawn from it can be used in political debates, but when they are, the political interest must override the philosophical. The same is true of sociological or psychological analyses of cultural or political trends. This has long been a problem for theorists in various fields having political commitments, and there is no easy solution to it.

But politics is not a science, it’s an art, directed at accomplishing social goals. The question one begins with is not ‘how can I convince others my cause is right,’ but ‘how do we persuade others to award us our desired goals.’

I for one would rather give the term ‘free will’ entirely over to libertarians, since many compatibilist positions are really about the problem of choice as an event rather than ‘ensouled’ decision-making. As a social determinist I am impelled to compatibilism because social interaction heavily weights our choices, but in a manner so complex as to be sometimes unpredictable. (Predictability is an important factor in evaluating any determinist position, and a problem that has to be accounted for in the theory itself. I haven’t seen that discussion from incompatibilists yet.)

Incompatibilists are clearly making the demand, ‘accept determinism to get rid of retributive justice, ‘ and that is a false necessity. The question concerning choice and determinism involves issues of ontology, epistemology, and psychology; I don’t see ethics necessarily implicated whatsoever. Can we imagine a hard determinist denying a need for any “humanizing effect on our practices and policies?” Easily.

Where did this “humanizing” come from, by the way? When did we choose to “humanize” anything, and why? This is political rhetoric within a liberal democracy; it could be useless in another culture. “If we want to promote effective attention to the causes and correction of mistakes and the developments of more effective behavior and more reliable systems (…)” (Bruce Waller, quoted by Caruso [4]) – as a social determinist, it sounds to me that all Waller is saying is that we need more advanced methods of social control, eliminating stochastic variance of behavior and random response to social events. That may be right, but I would need to see that argument. And I might disagree; John Dewey was a social determinist and argued that we needed tolerance for experimentation to allow for greater randomness of social response, in order to develop a healthy democracy.

It’s interesting that Caruso effectively holds libertarianism and compatibilism as two sides of the same coin (as most incompatibilists do) while (quite effectively) delineating subtle differences between incompatibilist positions. But there are profound differences in the compatibilist positions espoused by such as Marx, Dewey, Foucault, or as we find it in Jesuit education theory, or even in Stoicism or Buddhism – not only concerning analysis, but methodology of usefulness and possible desired results.

I know some incompatibilists would prefer compatibilism would just go away. Thus we hear the claim that we compatibilitsts are arguing in bad faith or are closet libertarians. One reason I prefer a compatibilist position is that it allows me openness to the possibility I might be wrong. Ideological conformity and rigidity close off too many interesting possibilities.


As follow up, I include an exchange between myself the commentator imzasirf. This began with my reply to a remark by commentator Joel McKinnon that included: “Our choices are just neural pathways that have been conditioned to be the path of least resistance at the moment of the particular thought process that leads to them.”
My reply: “The problem is that the sciences needed to describe this process convincingly is nowhere near the level of completeness to describe this process. The hypothetical model you give us is just as readily described by behaviorist psychology not requiring neuroscience – or incompatibilism. “

imzasirf: “What exactly would be convincing scientific evidence that would adequately describe the process for you?”

My reply:
The science would have to be precise and complete enough to assure us that there are no unpredictable choice events, and that a subject’s own efforts to intervene in choice events are themselves equally predictable. Technically, while we speak in common language that we ‘change our minds,’ this would need to be shown to be false, that even changes of mind are wholly predictable given the subject, the situation, and the stimuli.

This may involve more than science can deliver; it would have to crack the code if there is one, that genes use to determine behavior – if they do. Then adequate description of precise neuronal activity in the brain during behavior would be useful – adequate, for instance, to explain while two seemingly conflicting neuronal events lead to either one dominating, or a third emerging to efface the conflict.

Behavioral analysis is strongly deterministic, but not completely so, that hope seems to have collapsed under the weight of random variables, especially the disjunction between clinical situations and actual social situations.

Finally, and this is the hardest part I should think, a description of social activity – which forms the greater part of our external stimuli and response – would need to be provided to account for its complexity, indeterminacy of particular events, and historic change, especially rapid change. (It is interesting to note that most Western social determinist theories begin in analysis of some social or political revolution – in other words, with analysis of collective event choices that transgress the social stability that should be the norm if social behavioral controls are in place and working normatively. But given a breakdown of such social controls, revolutions should be completely predictable – but they’re not, their occurrence and their outcomes are probabilistic. One of the problems for any determinism is that socially, every individual a given subject interacts with is a new variable presenting a host of stimuli, sometimes leading to unpredictable, or only loosely predictable, response. Yet any determinism tends to concentrate on the behavioral predictability of the individual just as such. Social determinism thus begins with this as a problem, rather than as background noise, and thus must admit the occasional unpredictable choice event in a social context, and allow this to require theoretical explanation.

Again, I think we should probably abandon the term ‘free will’ to libertarians; my problem is not one of finding a place for free will, my problem is finding explanations for events hard determinism cannot account for – and I’m willing to add ‘yet’ to that, since I’m aware that the research continues.

imzarif: “That seems like a tall (and still vague) order, one that I don’t think physicists or any other scientist are held up to when trying to demonstrate functional relationships between variables. You can get very high precision in psychology and neuroscience for simple cases where adequate experimental control is present so I don’t see why you would doubt that human behavior is the function of genes/environment.”

My reply:
Two dogs meet on the street; one complains of not finding enough to eat. The other says, “oh, that’s easy; you just go down to the Pavlov Institute, let them ring a bell, salivate, and they give you food.” (By way of Umberto Eco.)

I was talking about classical Behaviorism, Pavlov, Watson, Skinner. I know that more recent behavioral analysis has gotten more complex and subtle, and precisely because more variables are needing to be accounted for than in the classical models. But as it grows more complex, potential unpredictable response still seems to be a problem for it. I could be wrong.

As noted, I like holding a position that allows the possibility of my being wrong until all the data are in and a well-realized model is in place accounting for it.

The standard for realization of such a model of human behavior has to be higher than for the physical and biological sciences, first because the relationship between the organism and the social environment seems to me far more complex and contingent than relationships studied in physics and biology, and secondly because the stakes are considerably higher, since they ultimately have to do with our own behavior, from how we dress, to how we raise children, to the very language we speak.

“In other words, you’re asking behavioral scientists the equivalent of asking a physicist to predict the behavior of clouds perfectly.” – I’ve never asked any clouds out on a date, and my opposition to the death penalty doesn’t effect the weather. I’m not trying to be glib; the sense of choice may be an illusion, and probably that’s true in most choice events. But the very fact that we have such a sense itself presents a problem that isn’t easily dismissed, and I think it needs fuller accounting than it currently does. I don’t think I’m moving any goal posts, they have always been there, which is why such debates have been going on for 3000+ years. They look to be simple 3 dimensional posts we can at least punt over, but they may be N-dimensional, because of the social and historical contingencies involved. While I know that the probabilities of human behavior can be calculated to a large extent similarly to those in physics and biology, I would argue that they are of a different order, if not in their analysis, then certainly in their application, and that makes all the difference in the world. (One argument against the death penalty is that we do not know, at the moment of conviction, the kind of personality the convicted will develop, say, 20 years from now, other than it will be different; whereas classical personality theory – going back to Aristotle – always assumed that character was fixed at an early age.)

Again, I am not suggesting there is no determinism; on the contrary. I am merely holding unto a compatibilist position because I believe there are issues incompatibilism has not yet fully addressed.

(Note, the quotes from Joel McKinnon and imzarif are not their complete comments.)


Finally some (re-edited) notes from comments I posted responding to the article “Free will and psychological determinism” by Steve Snyder. [5]

1. The free will/determinism debate is very old; I find it amusing that some think today the matter can be settled simply because we have better machines. My point is not against all forms of determinism, but incompatibilist determinism. For incompatibilism to strengthen its argument, it would have to provide a discrete description of the physical process by which innovative thinking occurs – a Libet experiment [6]targeted at mapping and measuring brain processes occurring in a physicist like Einstein prior to his elucidation of the theory of relativity would be a good start.

2. One of the problems has to do with a matter of definition. Scientists have to presume definitions in order to construct models and experiments; but these definitions have to be developed in social and philosophical discourse, because the nature of the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘determinism’ – personal or otherwise – tends to change in historically contingent social contexts.

3. Some contemporary atheists have adopted a strict determinist position partly because they feel that this may be used as a body blow to theism. That’s not true; the debate among theists over the problem of free will vs. determinism (and its related notion of pre-destination) has been going on since the Church Fathers. There are Christian libertarians, yes; but fundamentalism is actually deterministic at its roots (only god’s grace can release individuals from it), and mainstream Catholicism has long been compatibilist. Anti-dualism certainly attacks the notion of the ‘soul,’ but determinism just in itself is not going to be a major game changer here.

4. A major problem is that we experience our being in the world both deterministically, as felt impulses (‘jeez, could I use a drink right now!’), and as a series of choices to be freely determined (‘Scotch or bourbon?’ ‘Actually, I’d like a shot of rye’). Any strong position in this debate must account for our very real empirical experience, or it will seem to be an imposition.

5. Any convincing theory of mind has to account for two things: innovation, i.e., how we formulate new ideas, and radical changes in thinking – i.e., how we change are minds. Only compatibilist thinkers have come up with reasonable arguments on these processes. The determinist position is especially weak here: simply to say that Einstein came up with the theory of relativity because physical forces led him to this explains nothing. Libertarian arguments seem stronger, but their basic premises are impoverished, since not accounting for the sometimes chaos in which we live, nor for the sometimes chaos of our own thoughts.

Another problem has to do with the processes leading to our change of mind. In much incompatibilist discussions I have seen (and I admit not widely read in the technical literature, only more common discussions), I find that incompatibilist advocates fall back on what are really social determinist arguments – how the human organism adapts to its social environment. I have no problem with this, being a social determinist myself, but I would like acknowledgement that this is where the discussion is going. However, it should be noted that social determinist theories have a different claim over our ability to think against the determinant factors, and thus are more adaptable to compatabilism.

Rather than build a strong argument about that here, let me just point out that Dewey’s experimentalism is actually dependent on the rigorous social determinism of George Herbert Mead. Social conditioning fractures at the point of what we now call ‘cognitive dissonance’ – confronting moments where the explanatory power of prior conditioning falls apart. Dewey has larger argument is for construction of a society (and its philosophical underpinnings) that maximizes the possibility of innovative thought and changes of mind.

The point is that – without denying some level of biological or physical determinism – social determinism, and its implicit compatibilism, seems the safer course here.




[3] I understand the claim of incompatibilists that not only free will but compatibilism are basically efforts to find blame for socially unacceptable behavior; unfortunately, this claim is based on humanistic principles that cannot originate in incompatibilist claims – they actually derive from much older debates; and furthermore, need not depend on incompatibilism. It is entirely possible to deny blame-based responsibility theory without recourse to incompatibilism. Indeed, clearly much compatibilist social determinist theory of justice has engaged in this argument against retributive justice theory for quite some time.

[4] Waller, Bruce. 2011. Against moral responsibility. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.


The Libet experiments really have extremely limited use; beyond demonstrating against dualism, they don’t say much. The notion that the brain acts before conscious decision making is hardly new. It was James who famously posited that when I meet a bear in the woods, I first run, and only then feel fear. And any theory of unconscious brain activity assumes that the brain operates independently of conscious decision making. It should be noted in passing that such a notion occurred to theorists of psychology in the Buddhist schools long ago.

[Comments in the footnotes are also re-edited from comments on the two articles.]


4 thoughts on “Arguments for compatibilism (4): varieties of determinist belief

  1. When I was young, the dominant theory of justice was rehabilitative. The Reagan revolution revealed that most Americans still carried the embers of vengeance in their hearts.

    I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

    The fact is, that rehabilitation was seen to not be working. Maybe that’s because it was being done on the cheap. Still, vengeance wasn’t the only motivation for the change.


    • Well, as an essayist, I allow myself a certain rhetorical flourish which of course in turn allows generalities that are not logically precise. But did rehabilitation prove to be ‘not working’? No. Unfortunately the system of justice, including the subset prison system, has never been univocally administered. The fact that the prison system is now perceived as essentially a business, capable of being relegated to private concerns, is itself indicative that the foundation of our theories of incarceration are not primarily directed by any larger theory other than removal of the convicted from society. Thus any theory of justice – in practice – now reduces to how we process the accused and convicted criminals. We always have to talk about ‘tendencies’ and ‘trends’ in such complicated histories – except of course when we write rhetorically, in which case it is up to the reader to think critically about any claim, as you have. Vengeance has not been the only motivation, but it fits well in the compatibilist/incompatibilist debate, since it allows incompatibilists their assumption of retributive justice as ‘blame’ focused, while maintaining claim to the moral ground of a justice that includes some sense of mercy (which can not be articulated strongly from the incompatibilist position). (The importance of rhetoric in such discussions is a fundamental assumption of mine, implicated both in my previous writings, and in writing I am working on right now.)


  2. Determinism and Responsibility

    Determinism is nothing more than the belief in cause and effect. Every change, every event, every action, every phenomenon in the real world can, at least in theory, be accounted for in terms of one or more specific causes that made it happen. And each of these specific causes is itself a change, event, action, or phenomena in the real world, with its own specific causes. These chains of causes reach back to the beginning of time and will reach forward to its end.

    Everything that happens is, in theory, inevitable. This was never a big deal until some dumb philosopher suggested that, if everything is inevitable, then (1) everything is beyond our control, and, (2) we cannot be held responsible for anything we do.

    Both assumptions are false.

    The first assumption is false because, although many things are beyond our control, we are actually the relevant causes of a great deal of what happens in this world. And these events are only inevitable because of choices we deliberately made.

    Are our choices also inevitable? Of course. When we make a deliberate choice, we consider alternatives, we estimate the outcomes of one option over another, and then we choose what we think or feel would be best. Given sufficient knowledge of the decider and the situation, even the amateur could predict the outcome with reasonable reliability. But the decider himself will not know for sure until he has actually made the decision. Knowledge that the decision is theoretically inevitable and predictable is completely useless to the decider.

    The second assumption is false because it misrepresents the meaning of “holding responsible”. In all practical matters, to “hold” someone or something “responsible” actually means to identify who or what needs to be corrected.

    Suppose a person decides that he can “hold his liquor” and drive safely home after a party. He may do this successfully many times. But then his inebriation causes him to lose attention and hit a pedestrian crossing the street.

    His conscious decision to drink and drive caused a fatal accident. And it also was the relevant cause of his arrest, conviction, and punishment.

    He cannot claim exemption from punishment due to the “inevitability” of his choice to drink and drive. There is nothing we can do to rewrite the offender’s personal history. The practical problem at this point is how we might influence his future behavior. Therefore, the person as he is now is the “point of correction” rather than his past, and it is the person as he is now that is “held responsible” for the pedestrian’s death.

    So, determinism does nothing to release anyone from being held responsible for their choices. We may, though, by studying those early influences, design educational programs to reduce the likelihood that others will make the same bad choice.

    There is nothing in determinism that diminishes personal responsibility or the impact of the decisions we make of our own free will. And free will itself exists quite comfortably within the context of a deterministic universe.


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