The Hubris of Scientific Determinism


Scientific determinists make the most outrageous claims to certainty. Take the article No, You Don’t Have Free Will, and This is Why. This article is a critique of scientist Roy F. Baumeister’s argument for free will. In the refutation, the following is stated as fact:

Life is completely explained by the “facts about carbon atoms”, “gravity and electromagnetic charges” (and the other fundamental forces).

Is it really? Are you certain this isn’t, like thousands of similar claims that have come before it, false, or only a partial truth? Here are some possibilities:

  1. There are things completely outside the natural universe that we don’t yet understand. Today, we call these supernatural. Before relativity, time dilation would have been considered such.
  2. There are facts or fundamental forces that we don’t yet know about. In other words, completely natural things that have yet to be discovered. We continue to learn new things about the natural world, including some fairly odd effects like quantum tunneling, where a particle disappears on one side of a solid barrier and instantaneously appears on the other side.

The hubris of stating as fact that we understand everything about atoms, fundamental forces, and all emergent properties caused by them, is staggering.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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18 Responses to The Hubris of Scientific Determinism

  1. JayMan says:

    Life is completely explained by the “facts about carbon atoms”, “gravity and electromagnetic charges” (and the other fundamental forces).

    • jimbelton says:

      If you don’t believe that we fully understand all fundamental forces, then you are admitting that determinism is a hypothesis, but are claiming it as fact. If you do believe that we fully understand all fundamental forces, you are exhibiting exactly the hubris I’m pointing out. I believe that we have freedom of choice, but I don’t claim certainty. If we learn more about the origin and makeup of the universe and nothing contradicts the deterministic view of the universe, I may become convinced that compatibilism (what I would term “the illusion of free will”) is true.

      • JayMan says:

        Either human actions are caused by the forces of nature – known and presently unknown – or they are caused by forever incomprehensible forces. In the former case, free will can not exist. In the latter case, we know nothing about anything in the universe, so science itself is futile.

        On a more basic level, even in the most limited sense, free will can’t exist because behavior is predictable. The “ghost” is bounded. There is just no wiggling around that.

      • Keep in mind though that we ARE forces of nature. Every living organism is a purposeful causal agent. The main distinction between life and inanimate matter is that a living organism is organized around a purpose: to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As such it has properties that other organizations of matter, for example, a bowling ball, will lack (such as purpose, drives, etc). And those living organisms with advanced intelligence have additional properties, such as the ability to imagine many different ways to survive and to choose among them.

        As a physical object, if you drop me and the bowling ball off the tower of Pisa, we’ll both hit the ground at the same time.

        But as a living organism, I will walk uphill, defying gravity, to get to MacDonald’s. And as an intelligent species, I can choose between the Big Mac and the Chicken MacNuggets.

        To put it another way, physics can explain the apple falling on Newton’s head, but it cannot explain how the apple ends up in Johnny’s lunchbox, 50 miles from the tree. For that you need the life sciences and social sciences.

      • JayMan says:

        You apparently glanced over the part in my post where I say that life and social sciences are just applied physics. Human actions are completely the result of physical forces, it would just be cumbersome to explain it in terms of interactions between the constituent particles.

      • Sorry, but life and social sciences are not “applied physics”. They are not physics at all. Biology certainly employs physics, but it cannot be reduced to physics. As to intelligent species, Michael Gazzaniga in “Who’s in Charge?” puts it this way, “Although we both have automatic responses, we humans have cognition and beliefs of all kinds, and the possession of a belief trumps all the automatic biological process and hardware, honed by evolution, that got us to this place.” Gazzaniga, Michael S.. Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain (p. 2). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

      • JayMan says:

        My apologies I didn’t realize you weren’t the author of this post. I would suggest seeing the post this post responds to.

      • Okay. I read your article. You are arguing against free will from the practical standpoint of genetic dispositions (esp. twin studies) and social influences. You feel that these are sufficiently constraining to eliminate freedom of the will. I’m unclear whether you think that determinism is a problem for free will or not.

        Most people understand and correctly use this definition of “free will”: when we decide for ourselves what we “will” do, “free” of coercion or other undue influence.

        Generally speaking, genetic and social influences are “due” influences. Everyone experiences them in their normal course of life. An undue influence would be manipulation by hypnosis, or a brain abnormality affecting our ability to form a moral will.

        All uses of the term “free” reference some meaningful constraint. A bird can be set free (from its cage). A slave can be emancipated (from his owner). We may enjoy “free speech” (free of political censorship). A new bank may offer us a free toaster (free of charge) for opening an account.

        Choosing is about free will because we can deliberately choose what we “will” do. The choice IS our will at that moment. So when we make this choice for ourselves, it is said to be a freely formed will.

        Coercion is a meaningful constraint upon the will because it substitutes their will for your own. In the classic “gun to the head” scenario your will is subjugated by force to their will, and no longer free.

        The point of criminal responsibility is to identify the cause of the crime so that we know what needs to be corrected. When the cause of the crime is a deliberate choice, then that deliberation process is what needs to be corrected.

        A just penalty would seek to (a) repair the harm to the victim if possible, (b) correct the offender’s future choices, (c) protect the public until the behavior is corrected, and (d) do no more harm to the offender than is reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

        Rehabilitation requires free will. The goal of rehabilitation is to release to society a person who will now make better choices of his own free will. Thus rehabilitation may involve counseling, education, skills training, addiction treatment, supervised release, and other programs designed to give the offender better choices in the future.

      • JayMan says:

        Rehabilitation requires free will. The goal of rehabilitation is to release to society a person who will now make better choices of his own free will.

        That’s internally contradictory. If you can influence his choices his will is not free.

        You keep talking about free will means we are free to make choices. Here’s the problem: where do choices come from?

      • Some choices come from a menu in a restaurant. Some choices come from our imagination as we consider a new question or problem we hadn’t thought much about before. Some choices come from a combination of internal and external options we plan where to go and what to do on our vacation.

        In the case of the criminal offender, his choices are limited, because he has made some bad ones on his own. If appropriate, we can offer him early parole to induce him to take advantage of the rehabilitation programs we’re offering him. But we can’t force him to do so.

        So, to answer your question, choices come from both our imagination and from external offers (e.g., menus).

      • JayMan says:

        So basically choices come from internal brain states which are impinged upon by external stimuli. Exactly where in there does the “free” come in?

      • As I mentioned above, the term “free” must reference some meaningful constraint. Now there are three things that people sometimes view as constraints but that we can never actually be free from: freedom from reality, freedom from causation, and freedom from oneself. Because these are impossible freedoms, it would be irrational to infer that “free” ever implies any one of them.

        For example, if we say that one is not “truly” free unless they are free from reliable causation, then nothing could ever be called “free”. The bird could no longer be set “free” by releasing him from his cage. It would have to be called something else.

        And suppose the bird were actually free from causation. What would happen when he flapped his wings?

        It turns out that reliable cause and effect are logically required if we are to be free to do anything, because without it, we could never reliably cause any effect! (We would no longer be free to do anything!)

        So, put that one to bed. All freedoms REQUIRE reliable cause and effect.

        Obviously, “free will” cannot imply freedom from reliable cause and effect, because “freedom from causation” is an oxymoron, a self-contradictory term.

        Free will is what we call the empirical phenomenon where we decide for ourselves what we will do, “free of” coercion or other undue influence. When we are forced to act against our will, then someone else has forced their choice upon us, subjugating our will to theirs.

  2. jimbelton says:

    “[If[ human actions are caused by the forces of nature – known and presently unknown… free will can not exist.” Couldn’t disagree more. If there are forces of nature that are presently unknown, how can you possibly say that free will cannot exist? I’m not saying that a yet to be discovered force of nature that mediates free will is probable, but saying its impossible is claiming knowledge that we don’t have.

  3. The argument over free will is a matter of definition rather than science. Most people understand that if you are forced to do something against your will, then your will is not free. But if you decide for yourself what you will do then your will is freely chosen by you. This would remain true, by definition, even in a perfectly deterministic universe.

    • jimbelton says:

      I agree that if the universe is deterministic, that from our own points of view, our free will will still exist. This is the compatibilist view. You seem to agree with my point. i.e. that the deterministic universe is currently a hypothesis, rather than established fact. Maybe one day, we’ll have enough evidence to convince me it is fact.

      • I presume the universe is perfectly deterministic and that we, according to our own choices, are the final prior cause of our own actions. If I choose to eat an apple, there is no cause prior to me that has any INTEREST in me eating the apple. For all practical purposes, I am the only meaningful cause of that apple-eating event.

      • Well, there is that little -ism at the end, that indicates determinism is a belief. 🙂

      • jimbelton says:

        And that little distinction, between belief the claim of knowledge, is what separates scientists from professors, atheists from naturalists, and philosophers from theologians.

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