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Determinism and Philosophical Hygiene

by Jürgen Lawrenz

Perhaps it will be granted me, provisionally, that the notion of Free Will is not an idle conceit, but reflects an insight gained from the self-contemplation in which humans engage from time to time. It is a convenient point of departure; and not least because it is actually very difficult to speak of, say, justice or responsibility unless this is granted. Eventually, we may come to re-examine this 'provisional' perspective more closely.

I would also toss into the bargain, if I may, a certain psychological disposition called 'human caprice'. It may seem capricious at first blush, but consider that human individuality is partly enshrined in it. Without it, one may have difficulty accounting for a great number of human acts which (let me be charitable) owe little to ratiocination, despite the pride we take in our reason.

Taken together, these two notions are apt to illuminate the virtues and vices of that rather quixotic 'philosophy' which goes by the name of determinism. Equally, however, they serve our interests in the philosophical hygiene to which my title alludes; though to deliver on this promise I will first have to explain why and in which respect I find it imperilled.

Here is a thought experiment of the most trivial kind. Suppose I own a bus and paint it so that it looks like a poor counterfeit of HMS Queen Mary. This task accomplished, I drive it down to the beach and straight into the water. Well-meaning friends who manage to bring me back to safety offer the jest that I must have been very drunk. I wasn't. I just took a pun the wrong way. Happens in the best families.

In fact, it happens all the time, even (heaven forbid) in science! Just a few days ago, a friend of mine — coincidentally a physiologist — wrote complaining of the historical folly of science of always comparing the brain with whatever device happens to represent the acme of technology. Once upon a time it was the pocket watch; then a steam engine; later still a telephone exchange; and now we have to contend with computers. Well!

I'm glad he didn't mention philosophy. I might have been compelled to hide my head in shame. For in the philosophy of the present day, this folly is absolutely rampant. But is that a crime, an offence against the hygiene of thinking? After all, what's wrong with a bit of harmless terminological confusion, i.e. with importing the valeurs of "hard wired", "software", "sense data", "memory bank" etc. into the philosophical vocabulary?

My friend might have said: the terms disseminate false information. We might, for example, get used to calling certain behaviour, e.g. murder, "hard wired", and end up exculpating the murderer on the assumption of the existence of something between his ears which in plain fact is not there.

On this consideration we should recognise that we have slipped into the domain of determinism. If this "ism" had truth to it, complaints of unsanitary vocabulary would hardly matter. "Hard wiring" and its terminological siblings can be false, or pernicious, only in relation to a non-deterministic, free-will-conducive doctrine. The intrinsic nature of that problem, however, is not always stated unambiguously. Therefore it is worth dwelling on for a few moments to gain a perspective on the reductionist methodology which is implicated in both determinism and the brain-as-computer suggestion.

A good initiation into these problem is provided by the ever-popular example of chess play. I'm going to give you an example which is typical, and quoted and re-quoted ad nauseam together with its little smattering of fallacies.

Suppose I reach an average type of unclear position after 32 moves.[1] Two promising lines of play suggest themselves. One, inaugurated by a bishop move, foreshadows the contours of an attack; the other, involving a pawn move, simply bides times or enhances he stability of my setup. After lengthy deliberation I decide on the bishop move.

Suppose the outcome is a draw. Am I satisfied? Well, suppose by an extraordinary chance, the identical position appears on the board in my next game.[2] Will I play the same move again? That depends on many factors, for example:

(a) My opponent is stronger than yesterday's; it's too risky.

(b) My opponent is weaker than yesterday's and I mishandled the attack. Should find something stronger.

(c) My opponent is the same as yesterday; he's obviously discovered a hidden resource.

(d) It's too hot for such exertions as yesterday. What's more, I have a headache; the cat ate my breakfast; my chance of winning a trophy is nil; and Manchester United are on TV in an hour.

On Point (d) you can play as many variations as you please. The point in all Points is that the choice of my next move is not a foregone conclusion.

What of a chess playing computer?

Well, consider these two criteria: First, the computer is not a knower. Therefore (second) it has no opponent. Accordingly it not playing. None of the above Points have any meaning. There is simply an algorithm running on hardware.

In other words, a computer program is software devised by a human designer which executes numerical computations. A move is simply an introduced value, requiring a new computation, whose result represents (to the human observer!) a 'move'.[3] If the designer of the algorithm did not deliberately include a randomising factor to avoid exact repetition, the computer would indeed play the move of today on every subsequent occasion with exactly the same position.[4]

Can we learn anything from this example?

If nothing else, then this: my physiologist friend has a point. A very strong point. Vocabulary is not innocent. It posits suppositions and insinuates realities simply by being used. So a casual phrase like, "the computer between your ears", when it comes dressed up as a seriously intended statement, cannot claim membership among the resource of merely "colourful metaphors". It posits. And in philosophical vocabulary — where words and terms should be weighed as on a gold-balance — a firm discrimination between casual metaphor and determinate denotation should be mandatory.

Now if there were some hint in phrases of this ilk that they are, after all, only insider jargon, the technobabble of scientists' pub talk, even (let's be generous) the figments of Hollywood script writers, then complaints might wear a more than faintly ludicrous aspect. But no — it ain't necessarily so at all. This vocabulary is in deadly earnest. The brain-is-a-computer and the bric-a-brac of surrounding terms are becoming axiomatic, disseminable items of 'research' knowledge, bolstered by all the prestige of science.

You ask: How can this be possible? How can scientists assert the factuality of something that would be contradicted by the simplest of all methods — taking a look?

Let us try to understand this. Although baffling, this circumstance is not quite what it purports to be. We need a slightly different angle on it.

For example: You know what a fish is. You might not, at a pinch, be able to furnish a scientifically cogent explanation, but instead you can catch and eat one. Thereby you prove at least that it's an organic creature. But without going this far, you know without caviling about it that the fish on your screen saver is not a fish, and that Pisces in the sky is not a fish. The thing and its metaphor have some clearly discernible disparity.

You also know what a brain is. Again you have the option of consulting; you know that sheep and birds and fish all have brains and some of them you might eat, too. But without going this far you know there is no brain in your fax machine, motor car, thermostat or CD player. It is true that for some bizarre reason we have become used to calling certain collections of chips and wires in a computer its "brain", but again (what's in a name?) we remain pretty much aware that this is mere hyperbole.

Now I went this way simply to show that this is not the way to go for clarification of our context. Rather, the key to the dichotomy is this: if some Descartes or other held up a live fish by its tail and pronounced to you, above the flapping and lunging of the desperate creature: "This is a machine!", then we would have a severe problem on your hand.

I suggest that those people who denounced Descartes' proposition as a pernicious doctrine have more than just the bare facts on their side. They perceived readily enough — as you and I do — that its implication is of a soulless apparatus which, as a matter of logical principle, is incapable of emotion and a sense of pain. Accordingly I think the aye's have it: it is pernicious. And having said this, what shall I now say to exonerate the "brain-is-a-computer" doctrine?

I think the answer is obvious enough for me not to have to spell it out.

It is not merely that all biological facts contradict the proposition. The lame excuse that the brain is a "parallel" rather than serial computer; the claim that "in an extended sense" everything that looks like an algorithmic process might be terminologically so subsumed doesn't wash. The brain cannot, in plain biological fact, compute; its processes resemble a computer's activity less than they resemble the twitching of a frog's leg.

Determinism has swung like a drunken sailor in and out of philosophy for ages. Its denial of free will relies entirely on insubstantial arguments of the sort which Hume dismantled hundreds of years ago and accordingly have never been proved, being intrinsically unprovable. From Descartes to Laplace, from genes to computers, the substitutes for free will form a sorry roster of pretended solutions to the predicament of man. This suggests that determinism is at bottom nothing more than the inflation of a psychological problem — the persistent inferiority complex of our race, which has sought in innumerable fata morganas the security and stability that life unfortunately does not offer.

Free will is as obvious as the blue of the sky and the sour taste on your tongue; as obvious as the inspiration of the 9th Symphony and the passion for climbing Mount Everest. Under scientific scrutiny, these colours, tastes, inspiration and passion reduce to the gambolling of atoms, to magnetism, radiation and chemical balance. What of it? Can't determinists see that their very arguments reduce to infinite regress? I mean: are atoms, radiation etc. not also determined? Where does this lead us? Not perchance to a self-defeating circulosus?

Plainly so. — I found a sentence in Dennett's books once with which I could agree: "We see colour, therefore there is colour in the universe." We enjoy free will. Fill the rest in yourself. If you prefer, you might even write, "free will is an emergent property of complex brain states."

The outcome of a deterministic frame of mind, as much as of the human-machine doctrine, is an unphilosophical fatalism with the effect of demeaning and diminishing the human agent. But the whole idea of philosophy is to put a concept of value into the universe, which appertains to humans, and by extension to all life forms. Thus philosophical hygiene also refers to the fact that Free Will is manifest and omnipresent in all living things, whereas determinism is an unproved supposition that lacks even the quality of being rationally demonstrable.

In the Bible, the phrase "it is written" denotes the inscrutable design of God. Yet this vengeful divinity had no compunction punishing departures from his 'omniscient' plan. You see the conceptual predicament. It doesn't add up. It still doesn't today, millions of words later and despite the transparent subterfuge of 'concessions' by the divinity or (today) the concessionary prose of compatibilists. The latter have merely enthroned quantum events on the seat of God, where their forerunners had placed first Freudian, later Skinnerian psychology and eventually genes, each with as little transparency as the burning bush itself; though trumpeting forth with the same high pretensions as the dormitory principle and cognate forms of humbug. Very unhygienic.

In the final analysis, the presuppositions of determinism, in whichever form it presents itself to us, can be collapsed into a single prejudice: that the hot, throbbing, vivacious, multifarious, individualistic and anentropic characteristics of creature life offend and discomfit by their incalculability, unpredictability and therefore unreliability and should be replaced by the closed-circle, mechanistic teleology of cause-and-effect mechanisms, though it be at the cost of the freedom of mind that is the essence of philosophical striving. Yet in that same final analysis we can't get away from the fact that free will is manifest, an inalienable attribute of creature life; whereas of the book in which "all is written" as well as the centuries-long pseudo-scientific clatter of determinism, it has yet to be shown why we should not regard them all as fictions.


1. The number of moves already played is usually omitted. That's a first, very serious defect. The argument in the text does not work unless the players have gone past the point where openings textbooks may still be consulted.

2. I call it extraordinary because this would be the equivalent of two consecutive royal flushes. Chess literature does not record any such duplications except in a few cases which, as below, urge deliberate contrivance.

3. It is useful in this context to recall James Mason's definition of a move as "the certification of a judgement" and contrast this with the computer's "result of a computation".

4. This 'randomisation' is especially needful in the opening phase, where a 'best move' is not attainable by any manner of evaluation or calculation (unless the opponent blunders). — Parenthetically it may be noted that computer chess was originally introduced with the desire to study the process of human decision making. So much for good intentions. For that simple and legitimate target has long been lost sight of, when the desire to compete animated programmers, in part obviously to attract attention and research funds. In the outcome, computers became cheats: they were loaded with more and more memory of the best games by the strongest masters and thus infringe the rules which prevent human masters from playing with an open chess book at their elbow. The objective of assessing judgement formation in humans is, under those circumstances, a self-evident irrelevance: humans don't think that way; and therefore nothing can be learnt from chess programs, least of all anything of pertinence to free will. The situation is the same as if one were to introduce a crane into Olympic weight lifting. I think the athletes would quietly point to their temples; and that's about the only useful response today to the idea of a computer "playing" chess.

© Jürgen Lawrenz

E-mail: Jü