A Common Thread

One string to rule them all, if you will.

Woven into a chain that rules the world.  What is it? Causality. The relationship between ’cause’ and ‘effect’ and how it applies to our daily (or comprehensive) lives.  It’s been discussed by Western philosophers for millennia, in some form or another, but I’m more interested in how it relates to daily life.

I should note here that, as of now, I don’t think life has any inherent meaning to it.  I don’t think I believe in an objective morality, and I find it gratifying to argue from the standpoint of a soft determinist.  I think that humans are not inherently good or evil (in the absence of an objective morality), but that they are inherently selfish.  We cannot know for sure, in a quasi-Cartesian sense, if anyone else thinks or feels in the same way that we do.  Even in acknowledging their humanity, their human experience is wholly different from anything we can conceive of, simply in virtue of not being our own. Our ‘selfless’ actions are simply our actions in the interest of self-gratification through helping others, as that which pleases us is different in everyone.  I take after my grandfather in thoroughly enjoying performing charity work and philanthropy; however, as much as I would like to tell myself it’s purely for the good of other people, I must understand that this desire is a result of my own causal past.  I have been raised (or influenced by hereditary chains or any other sort of cause) to receive some sense of gratification or feeling that I’ve done something ‘right’ when helping others.  In this, I think that every action, emotion, and thought that we, as humans, experience is simply a drive to achieve purpose in the manner of our choosing; or, rather, the manner that we were molded to choose.

I’ve always wondered about how free will, or lack thereof, ties into reality.  I will preface this by noting that I am a compatibilist, or soft determinist, as of now (always open to change beliefs according to reason).  What this means is that I subscribe to the idea that  environment, heredity, unconscious impulses, defense mechanisms, and other influences determine people to act the way they do, but that we retain freedom and responsibility.  We are determined, but still free; if an individual is the cause of his or her own actions, without coercion, it is to be considered a free action and treated as such, even if the causes or influences on this action exist (possibly subconsciously).  That is to say, the decision is freely made, even though it could not possibly have been made any other way.  The only compelling argument against physical hard determinism that I have encountered (though the mind-body problem composed a definite ) is the argument from the nature of quantum interactions, which is, to the best of modern understanding, completely unpredictable. True chance.  However, this feeds into the concept of indeterminism, which would claim that completely uncontrollable interactions do not contribute to free will or responsibility by their very nature, and thus does not detract from my argument against free will. Rebecca Massey-Chase, after a bit of a search, puts this better than I possibly could:

“[o]ur actions form part of a causal chain that operates ultimately on a sub-molecular level. At this level events are in fact deemed undetermined, i.e. purely random (at a submolecular level, quanta adopting one state rather than another is indeed undetermined, truly random): but this makes them no more free than if they were determined. Yet above the level of quantum pure randomness, every event has a cause. Every act is an event, and thus has a cause. These causes exist independently of the choosing agent and so cannot be influenced by the agent. Hence, the acts of each agent are caused (determined) by something beyond the agent’s control.”

Several figures that embody compatibilism have been interesting to read, even if they approach the subject from different angles.  Augustine, Spinoza, Hume, and Aristotle each hold their own views of compatibilism, though Aristotle’s is substantially different (active, rather than passive).  Spinoza’s view holds the most optimistic and perhaps practical view (as detailed in an essay by Martin Lenz here, also detailing his naturalization of ethics and how this comes into play), but I find issue with certain aspects of it.

Spinoza advises that we free ourselves from the burdens that are our hopes and fears because anything that happens a certain way could not possibly happen any other way.  This, in my experience, is a common idea associated with determinism – the “Just let go, it’s all gonna happen how it happens anyway” concept – an enticing idea, by any account.  Ignore your fears? Live life in the moment? Seize the day? After all, we’ll all float on!

Except..not exactly.  Our hopes and fears are part of the great chain that is causality; just as something implanted those feelings in each of us at some point in the past, so reading and understanding Spinoza’s words might change the way those feelings interact with our future actions.  Perhaps some individuals will actually live life with less fear after hearing that, but it is not because it is true; it is because they have come to believe it is true and changed the nature of those fears and hopes.  I hope this makes sense, because it’s quite annoying to wrestle with causal chains under the constraints of comprehensibility.

To put it concretely: Just as Jimmy Joe was causally determined to have hopes and dreams, he is determined to pick up a book on Spinoza, and then determined to change his beliefs somewhat.  Everything, down to his mood and disposition at the time of reading, was decided for him since the origin of the universe, and everything in the future is also determined (as far as quantum interaction does not disturb it).  Max Planck puts this into words in Where is Science Going? (1933, Ox Bow Press):

“Let us ask for a moment whether the human will is free or whether it is determined in a strictly causal way. These two alternatives seem definitely to exclude one another. And as the former has obviously to be answered in the affirmative, so the assumption of a law of strict causality operating in the universe seems to be reduced to an absurdity in at least this one instance. In other words, if we assume the law of strict dynamic causality as existing throughout the universe, how can we logically exclude the human will from its operation?”

With this in mind, how can I justify retaining responsibility for determined actions?  Well, I suppose in a moral sense, I can’t.  But in the absence of an objective morality and in the context of modern society, there is a practical need for responsibility.  Individuals who, to use a real-world example, commit a heinous crime, are clearly subject to some sort of influence that would lead to those actions; punishments and responsibility are societally-constructed methods for controlling people under those sorts of influences.  Ideally, in a world with a perfect penal system and 100% effective psychiatry, criminals would all go to some sort of therapy for rehabilitation instead of prison.  As-is, though, it is simply the best we can do (arguably) to hold people responsible and punish them accordingly to dissuade future actions that are detrimental to society overall.  Positive and negative reinforcement become links in their own causal chains, which determine how their future will play out.  So, while it may seem unfair to punish someone over something they ultimately had no direct hand in, it’s really the most fair thing we can possibly do.  Also, we have no choice but to punish them exactly the way we do, by virtue of the great puppeteer that is causality.

The primary problem I find with my own system of beliefs is that it is very hard to disprove. The only possible way of arguing against determinism (with acknowledged indeterminism) is by proving that something that happened could have happened another way.  This is impossible, because at no point can we be completely aware of every single cause for a given effect.  A counterargument of “Well, you could just as easily have chosen to wear a green shirt instead of blue today” can be too easily dismissed as an illusion born of ignorance of the totality of the influence behind the decision.

I don’t can’t change the way I act as a result of these convictions, naturally, nor can I suggest any sort of change to others.  Does that matter? Not really, I suppose. I just find ethics to be the most fulfilling school of thought thus far in my experience, and hoped to share the way I see things.


3 thoughts on “A Common Thread

  1. Very nice writing and nice format of the blog. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” – I remember having a similar conversation (as your introductory paragraphs) with a philosophy/theology major in college. Our discourse was not as eloquent or developed as yours, but good to hear the spirit of challenge and critical introspection are alive and well.


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