I am reading through a book on theories of the nature of the mind and I wanted to comment on an argument discussed in a chapter by William Hasker. For one thing, Hasker is a very good philosopher worth reading and reflecting upon. For another, his argument is worth discussing because it is interesting and not obviously wrong. This will provide an occasion, as well, to see how arguments against determinism can often be tied to other metaphysical theses without that being made explicit. And once so explicit, we can see that arguments against naturalistic determinism do not as easily slide over against theologically deterministic views like Calvinism.
Nancy Murphy distinguishes between ontological and causal reductionism. The former is a thesis about the the ontology of different levels (physics, chemistry, biology, sociology) and the latter is a thesis about how the fundamental parts together determine the whole. Murphy accepts the former but rejects the latter because it threatens our conception of freedom. In a comment on Murphy’s distinction, William Hasker spends a little time explaining in more detail Murphy’s worry about causal reductionism. I quote in full:
It may be helpful to spell out these objections a bit more fully. If causal reductionism is true, then everything human beings do and say is simply the consequence of the actions and reactions of the elementary particles of matter, operating according to the fundamental laws of physics. What we do is simply the result of what those particles do — there is nothing there but the particles to “do” anything. It is clear, then, we have no real choice about what we do; even if we have the “experience of choosing,” how that choice comes out is wholly determined by the actions and reactions of the fundamental particles. Under those circumstances, it does indeed seem that free will would be an illusion, as Murphy says. And if we have no free will, how can we be responsible? In particular, how can we be responsible before God, as Scripture says we are? There is also the question as to how, if this account is true, we can be rationally justified in any of the reasoning that we do. On this view, our acceptance of conclusions is not determined by the fact that those conclusions follow from known truths according to correct principles of logical inference. Rather, we accept those conclusions, and only those conclusions, that we are determined to accept by the particles that make up our brains, acting and reacting according to the fundamental laws of physics. And those physical laws do not in any way have in view the goal of leading us to true conclusions about the world — rather they are nonteological; they can be represented by mathematical formulas that have no reference whatever to any human goals or objectives. But to accept that all of our reasoning is determined in this way by nonrational factors is devastating to any reliance we might otherwise have had on our theories and belief systems — including, as Murphy points out, our theories and beliefs concerning God and our relationship with God.
–“On Behalf of Emergent Dualism”, In Search of the Soul, ed. Green & Palmer. pp. 84-85
This is a really nice argument against causal determinism given a commitment to common sense, the manifest image, the life-world, whatever. For one thing, it ties together a number of related concerns about reducing causation down to rock bottom: rational inference, a world governed by entities that have no concern for truth, what we do and believe is nothing beyond the result of the fundamental entities’ causal determinations. I see the force of that argument. But for another thing, this is a much more plausible argument than some of the very junior attempts to construct an argument for the claim that determinism threatens freedom and rationality that sometimes show up in Google Search results. One such attempt I’ve read contends that rationality itself would be impossible merely by the fact what is concluded was guaranteed by the past and the laws of nature, if it were so guaranteed. But clearly, some beliefs can be rational even if no decision was involved in forming the belief – look and you’ll see cases from perception that are relevant here. And a moment ago I described coming to hold a belief on the basis of an argument as being moved by a force. One would not say that had it been more forceful to me, my belief would have been less rational, if true. Hasker’s argument, by contrast, is at the least remotely plausible.
Freedom and Responsibility Argument
The first concern has to do with determination from the parts, or particles, to the bigger stuff like us, and how that undermines belief in responsibility and free choice. The way in which Hasker describes the implications of causal reductionism with respect to those phenomena, I believe, gives the argument its force. It also produces its weakness. Hasker uses limiting and extremity words (“wholly”, “none”, “simply”) in his case, so it appears that agents are causally superfluous, which is precisely what agents should not be. Let’s look at the first case of this:
Hasker opens, “If causal reductionism is true, then everything human beings do and say is simply the consequence of the actions and reactions of the elementary particles of matter, operating according to the fundamental laws of physics. What we do is simply the result of what those particles do — there is nothing there but the particles to ‘do’ anything.” (bolds mine) This is a nice statement of the Epicurean cosmology. But what is causal reductionism (CR) again? CR is the “view that the behavior of the parts of a system (ultimately, the parts studied by subatomic particles) is determinative of the behavior of all higher-level entities” (Murphy). CR does not say anything about whether there may or may not be causes from outside a system. It is a thesis about causal relations between wholes or collections and their parts or elements. Thus it is incorrect to infer that everything human beings do and say is simply the consequence of those particles.
This point about language is significant. It is not that there was merely one word too many. Which words are used in an argument makes a difference to the apparent plausibility of the conclusion. The force of the following arguments are not equal:
1. Everything human beings do is simply the consequence of actions and reactions of elementary particles.
∴ 2. Human beings are not responsible.
*1. Everything human beings do is the consequence of actions and reactions of elementary particles.
∴ 2. Human beings are not responsible.
Both arguments share the same conclusion; their premises differ only by the presence of the word “simply”. The inference is more convincing in the first argument. Aside, perhaps, from their order in text, the only reason for the difference in force is the presence of that word. It turns out that is so for good reason. It is part of our common conception of the world that we are engaging with our surroundings, forming beliefs from our interaction, making things happen in the world. So the common sense picture is that there is causation at the higher levels. This is consistent with CR; on CR it follows that which causal relations exist at the higher levels, what human beings do, is a function of the causal determination of the particles. This is consistent with the second but not the first argument because the word “simply” suggests that there is only bottom-up causation and no causal relations between the entities in the high levels.
There is an available move from 1* to 1, and hence from 1* to 2. The argument is that the determination by the elementary particles makes the higher level causes superfluous, and so they should not be admitted into our ontology. The causes of the particles fully explain the motion of the composing whole, and so the arm’s motion is fully explained by the particles that compose it. This argument circumscribes an argument for nihilism about composition, such that there are no arms. But set that aside. What does it mean to say that the part’s causes fully explain the reaction of the whole? If it means that there are no other causes, that would be blatantly question-begging as a premise in the move from 1* to 1. More plausibly, it means that for any region of space to be described, every truth can in principle be derived from a collection of truths about the parts. However, even that claim may be false. Facts about particles in a region may be contingently causally related to the whole in that region rather than to a whole in another region. And so facts about the particles themselves would not be sufficient if that is true. And even if that were false, there is a sense in which the facts would not fully explain that relation between parts and wholes.
Note as well that even if CR is false, there may still be determination at the higher levels (neurophysiological determination, for example).
I have been focusing on Hasker’s first argument related to responsibility and freedom. What I’ve argued so far is that Hasker’s argument get its appeal from some loaded language. Notice how this continues in what he infers:
“It is clear, then, we have no real choice about what we do; even if we have the ‘experience of choosing,‘ how that choice comes out is wholly determined by the actions and reactions of the fundamental particles.”
That might be right: that if our choices are “simply the consequence of the actions and reactions of the elementary particles of matter, operating according to the fundamental laws of physics,” then we have no real choice. And if no real choice then not free. And if not free then not responsible. The only potential flaw here is about what counts as “real choice”, and experimental studies about the concept of choice are mixed about the need for alternatives. But to say all this follows from CR, that the behavior of the parts of a system is determinative of the behavior of all higher-level entities, is implausible for the reasons sketched. (By the way, I do not accept CR. More on that shortly.)
Argument from Reason
The second argument Hasker raises to causal reductionism is a version of the argument from reason. You can see this sort of argument showing up in the work of Victor Reppert, who, I believe, would be pretty happy with Hasker’s arguments against causal reductionism. If the fundamental causes of all that we do and think are nonrational, not in any way aimed at truth, then one may be skeptical about whether our beliefs are justified and whether the inferences are rational. It is not that the inferences are irrational because they are determined – that was the point of the more junior version of the argument dismissed above – but rather because they are determined by things that are not, in virtue of their nature, aimed at truth.
Suppose this is a convincing argument against causal reductionism. On the face of it, the argument is pretty good in my opinion. If so, what follows is that we might lack justification for believing causal reductionism, for that belief is inferred from other beliefs. It wouldn’t follow that no belief is rational since basic beliefs might be properly basic and so rational.
The argument is flawed. Recall that Hasker writes, “we are determined to accept by the particles that make up our brains, acting and reacting according to the fundamental laws of physics. And those physical laws do not in any way have in view the goal of leading us to true conclusions about the world — rather they are nonteological; they can be represented by mathematical formulas that have no reference whatever to any human goals or objectives.” Is this a description of causal reductionism or is it a description of particles, namely that their nomological properties and and behaviors can be described nonteleologically? The latter, of course. Causal reductionism is consistent with a Newtonian designer who set things up – he so arranged and moved the particles – so that we would form rational inferences and true beliefs. This is consistent with parts of a system determining higher levels because the higher levels are part of the system, whereas the designer is not, or need not be, part of the system. A case where a designer is part of the system may be the demiurge of the Timaeus.
What Hasker has to have in mind is something like, how we make inferences and form true beliefs is wholly a matter of how the particles behave. But for that to be plausible, I think, requires (maybe) ontological reduction and also no deity, both of which Hasker and I reject; neither of us is a reductionist and we are both theists. So it seems that this argument against causal reductionism is not convincing because it ties metaphysical baggage to reductionism that it is no part of causal reducitonism. An interesting consequence here is that Hasker may have a plausible argument to be raised against a naturalist, but he has an unsuccessful argument against a theistic determinist.
Although I have defended causal reductionism here, I am not a causal reductionist. Causal reductionism seems to leave no room for miracles being injected into the system where the entry point of divine causality does not start at the particles. I know of no good reason God could not do this, and without very compelling reasons to think God does not limit himself to injecting causation starting at the bottom, it is better to not rule that out without evidence. So for that reason I do not endorse causal reductionism (although this leaves open its truth).
The other reason I am not a causal reductionist suggests that causal reductionism is false. Causal reductionism entails at least that physical determinism is true. But whether physical determinism is true is partly a scientific question. As best as I can tell, the science does not indicate that physical determinism is true; it is probably false. The laws do not narrow down a single possible future.
Although I think physical determinism is false, I don’t think that all kinds of determinism are the same. Physical determinism does not entail theological determinism and vice versa; but they are compatible with each other. And when compatible with each other, there may be an order of dependence. For theism in the case where both obtain, physical determinism depends on theological determinism: God causes the world to be physically deterministic. In the case that God’s activity depends on physical determinism: the world causes God to be a certain way, although it is not clear what causal role God would have. You might think that Hasker’s argument is a powerful argument against deterministic naturalists. It turns out to be weak against Calvinists.
One would not be successful, then, in arguing against determinism in general from these arguments. For either the arguments commit causal reductionists (determinists) to more than they are in fact committed, or there are versions of determinism that are not committed to causal reductionism.