Determinism’s Central Ideas- Putting Science To The Test

I’ve posted here before on the issue of whether or not determinism theory is actual science. And by determinism we’re referring more to the theoretical kind, known as predeterminism, with its implications that “Free Will”- a set of options, whatever they may be, are not really options, nor are they choices, but are predetermined outcomes of the physical laws. And these are “physical laws”  working cohesively in some way, or if you’d prefer, nature. But this notion does not really apply just to free will per se, in theory it would apply to any system. Realistically, however, most of predeterminism’s traction, naturally comes from its application to the free will debate, that’s where the heat is, as most people do not normally consider if a ball “knows” where it’s going or makes a choice in colliding with a wall, but the idea that we might not decide what we’re doing does make people stop.

Well, a prominent neuroscientist has recently raised the bar. He’s so confident of his scientific position that he’s issued a challenge to the science community to prove him wrong, and if he’s reversed on his position? He will recant and pay out $20,000 cash to the winner. If you merely wrote something close, a good argument, but not enough to change his opinion, the prize would be $2,000. Still not bad haul for a 1000 word essay.

Here is the Moral Landscape Challenge statement from Sam Harris (below)

“Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that  fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.”

The statement above purports to describe a system, “conscious mind” and something about that system having “states” and exhibiting “natural phenomena.” But other than that is highly vague in terms of actually describing something that can be physically understood as a theory. [And by theory we mean really in the scientific sense of something that is not at the whim of someone’s opinion, but has hard structure that is verifiable.] Ultimately, the neuroscientists’ “Moral Landscape Challenge” premise rests on and is essentially a rewording of, the theory of determinism which I responded to before. It gets all of its power from the premise that “natural laws” are dictating actions. (Crucially, the proof of an alternative force or system, proving something outside nature, is not critical in arguing against it!)

But is determinism science? And again, this is regarding the non-free will form or predeterminism, not determinism as applied to falling bodies in gravitational fields. (Though they are used interchangeably, pre-determinism is the version of the theory we’re speaking of since it is the theory which purports to make a prediction, i.e. that all events or states are somehow set in advance.) If we agree that such a theory would probably apply not only on earth, but “cosmically”, it has rather broad implications. And is this question not more broadly applicable to what science is, or isn’t? How is science doing in this case? In my view, it is in a way a litmus test. Consider it this way. Theories don’t just come about by themselves. They are championed by people. Determinism, true or false, is a paradigm, a product of the system and so are the proponents of it. Their positions are the products of curricula purportedly based in determinism.

It’s their choice to take stock in this theory of determinism and to support its aims and conclusions. Not anyone else’s. It’s their choice to claim or to not claim that it is science, and yet take care to not be too specific about ever actually describing a scientific claim such that it can be formally tested. If it’s not possible to prove it, or any other physical theory, that means there isn’t science to back it. It doesn’t imply that it might be true. Evidence against is in some cases, no evidence FOR. That was to some degree, the basis of my “Hypothesis Test” objection which I already submitted to another Determinist on his web site. It is also their choice to reject evidence against their theories and to ignore them. But is this in the best interest of science?

The determinists claim is essentially that you or I do not cause our actions, “we” don’t make our selections, whatever they might be, these choices are somehow made elsewhere. And the supposed experimental examples they provide for the source of this causality are by necessity (of their hypothesis), outside the body. One determinist I challenged on his own web site, claims that neurological studies prove that this is true, because individuals, subjects/patients can be “manipulated” by the researchers to do things against their will. Does this really sound ethical?

Here is  Tuft’s professor Daniel Dennet’s review of Harris’ book “Free Will” which is very long so I’ve quoted a good paragraph that not only sums up the central aspect of debate, it sums up the causality aspect of the science argument, that can be made for and against determinism:

“The first parting of opinion on free will is between compatibilists and incompatibilists. The latter say (with “common sense” and a tradition going back more than two millennia) that free will is incompatible with determinism, the scientific thesis that there are causes for everything that happens. Incompatibilists hold that unless there are “random swerves”[1] that disrupt the iron chains of physical causation, none of our decisions or choices can be truly free. Being caused means not being free—what could be more obvious?  The compatibilists deny this; they have argued, for centuries if not millennia, that once you understand what free will really is (and must be, to sustain our sense of moral responsibility), you will see that free will can live comfortably with determinism—if determinism is what science eventually settles on.”

On close inspection, some of these claims of determinists or non-compatibilists are eye openers. “What? We don’t control ourselves?” There is no “I”?! That is probably why “Free Will” has garnered so much interest as a book. That, and the fact that it is claimed to be an outcome or non-outcome of strict scientific review. But the above paragraph, supposedly a critique of Harris’ thesis, also contains in it some loaded wording. Notice how free will is defined in a moralistic sense- not phyiscally, so it’s getting away from a causal definition of it. Certainly from any experimentally testable definition of it. And if you call a determinist on some of these claims, be prepared for a ready onslaught of counter examples, to your examples, which rapidly turns into a battle of words. And begs the question: How were battles of words ever settled? In philosophy, maybe never. But in science, you are supposed to present a valid model, either theoretical or actual, that can be evaluated independently. The invention of real science was the day when pure argument no longer had as much weight. Recall the story of the youth who listened the philosophers argue about the number of teeth in a horses mouth, and suggested alternatively, that they actually go and find a horse and count them? You have to watch the arguments of the people who flog this theory, they throw the book of argumentive tricks at you. But you can get around those, in theory, by asking for evidence. And science, our fact finding tool, should normally necessitate this evidence.

So what determinists are essentially saying is that the causes of our thoughts are ultimately outside the body, thus we are not truly in control of our choices but are marionettes to certain physical laws, those would be the “iron chains of physical causation” referenced above. The claim that causation of behavior is outside the body is fundamental to the rejection of “free will.” But this claim defies rationality.

Establishing causation, the causative source of something- say a behavior in nature, is a central aspect of science. But aside from saying that there are “laws of physics” or “natural phenomenon”at work,  there aren’t any specifics given in the scientist’s “Moral Landscape Challenge” statement above, for the supposed alternative causes of human behaviors. Sure, environment gives us inputs, it must, but is going down a list of each of these examples going to provide evidence of causation, the rock solid kind that is proof? How do we know which ones are the ones? And there’s something else we’ll notice in the listing of explanations for determinism, they’re all, every single one, in past tense. Why would they be all mentioned in the past tense? It’s good question I’ll leave you for discussion. You can’t seem to get a Determinist to put his money down, Las Vegas style, about a future prediction.

The real irony is that determinism theory is centered around causality, explaining how one thing leads to another, and  yet the causality issue is entirely overlooked. Causality, in the scientific sense of it, is not just about looking back and saying “So, that’s how it happened.” It can’t be. It is about looking forwards. Or ideally, it is looking both forwards and backwards. Since it must be true both in a hypothetical case ( in the past or a thought experiment, or in a real test case). So there are basic problems with the methodology here that Determinists base their papers and books upon, either by choice or possibly the lack thereof, maybe they didn’t have a choice in it? Causality is not established, (nor is mechanism for action) which is yet another basis of any scientific theory. That is the basis of a hypothesis, even ones that haven’t been confirmed. So first and foremost, it is science methodology that is at issue here, not the specifics of any interpretation of any specific outcomes or specific experiments. And I’ll say it again, evidence against, and very strong evidence, sometimes takes the form of no evidence, FOR. The challenge should be to the theorist, to come up with a valid theory that meets the criteria of science, not to issue “challenges” to the public to vote and “prove” it by popular opinion.

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One response to “Determinism’s Central Ideas- Putting Science To The Test

  1. Science at the quantum level works on probabilities rather than absolutes. So in the scientific world the days of determinism are over. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle put an end to exactitude. Newton was ousted from his solid throne and a new order took over.

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