Brian Edwards on Determinism

Note: my views on free will more concisely summed up here.

Brian Edwards recently expressed his innate laziness by rehashing his views on determinism. He cites the fact that he is a “hard determinist” as support for his position on crime and punishment. Basically, because a combination of genetics and environment entirely determine a person’s actions, it makes no sense to punish them.

While I appreciate Dr Edwards’ sentiments, I take issue with various points and turns of phrase.

Firstly, the reason I have a problem with the whole post is because determinism is put up as an alternative to “free will”. This gives “free will” far too much credit. On hearing that someone believes in determinism rather than free will, one is left with the impression that “free will” is an intelligible enough position to disagree with in the first place. Mistake number one.

This may sound unfair, but imagine it from my perspective. To me, it’s like someone saying, “I believe in geometry. I’m not one of those people who believe in square circles.” At first glance, it sounds like it makes a bit of sense. But then you think, “Wait a minute. You can’ t put those two words together and pretend like they mean something.”

For example, Edwards says that he “lives as though he had free will”. What does this mean? How can one “live as though” one has a completely nonsensical contradiction in terms?

To will an action is to will it for reasons. Those reasons determine the outcome of that decision by definition. However you act, if the action was chosen, it is intelligible to ask, “Why did you do that?” Nothing else has any intelligible effect on choice.

There are those who say that what I am calling “reasons” are merely “influences” – they have some effect on choice, but are not the (ha ha) deciding factor. However, when pressed to explain what this deciding factor is, some synonym for “to choose” is thrown around. “Oh, well, one considers all of the reasons for acting one way or another, then one chooses – but one could have chosen differently!” The confusion seems to be made possible by the symantic separation of the notion “choice” and the notion “reasons”, so that the two feel like they can be considered distinct from each other.

They cannot. What we call “choice” is nothing but “choice-for-reasons” and what we call “reasons” are nothing but “reasons-for-choosing”. The two are not just related concepts – they imply one another, like up implies down and hot implies cold.

This is the problem with “free will”. I was recently rather unimpressed to learn that Schopenhauer basically said it centuries before I thought I’d come up with it:


Ironically (is it?), I realised the nonsense of “free will” back when I was a Christian. I was thinking about how God is all good, all knowing and all powerful. So God wants what’s best, knows what’s best and can do what’s best. Therefore, God will do what is best. There is no circumstance under which God will do anything less than what is best. Therefore, to say that God “will not” do wrong is as much as to say that God “cannot” do wrong. God has no free will.

And what is clearest in the extreme example of God still holds true for the more terrestrial example of man. To say that you will not do something is as much as to say that you CANNOT do that thing. If you will not do it, you cannot do it.

I’ve ranted long enough, but I want to add an unfinished note here. I also dislike Edwards saying:

Hard determinists have trouble with punishment, since blame can only attach to those with genuine freedom of choice.

If genuine “freedom of choice” – in the sense of “free will”, in the sense of “being able to choose contrary reasons for choosing” – is necessary for blame, then blame has always been as nonsensical as “free will” itself. But if the notion of “blame” has meaning, could it not be that it is based in something other than the equivalent of “square circles”? Could blame not be a condemnation of certain reasons for acting, rather than certain actions for reasons?

I’d say I’ll explain that later, but who am I kidding.

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