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The Free Will vs. Determinism Fallacy

Robert Dimuro

Posted on May 17, 2020 19:25

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The debate shouldn’t be framed as free will vs. determinism but rather indeterminism vs. determinism.

In this three-part article, I want to clarify and modify the age-old argument over free will vs. determinism. In fact, these are loaded terms, which carry with them certain assumptions that can derail a conversation or debate. The reality is that the distinction between these concepts isn't black and white. Free will itself has two competing positions that contribute to the concept of indeterminism, which can either support or reject the notion of free will.

As such, the debate shouldn't be framed as free will vs. determinism but rather indeterminism vs. determinism. Indeterminism can then be broken down into subcategories, which include (but aren't limited to): libertarian free will (LFW), causal free will (CFW), and probabilism. 

LFW is the basic, long-standing, dogmatic, and most commonly-referenced conception of free will. Therefore, it's often used as a red herring when making seemingly iron-clad arguments for determinism. LFW is a noncausal philosophy of mind, in which agents have a nonphysical mind (or soul) that supersedes physical causality.

To many, LFW is a self-evident truth and a necessary premise of Abrahamic morality. It's also the underlying premise of a punitive, rather than reformative, legal system. Arguably, based on our growing understanding of neuroscience and the relationship among our minds, brains, and our environment, LFW is becoming an increasingly outdated philosophy of mind. Furthermore, for many who regularly engage in the practice of meditation, simply observing the nature of one's consciousness easily undercuts the self-evident notion that a metaphysical self solely authors our thoughts and actions. 

However, the determinist position, although fashioned by many intellectuals as the most scientifically-literate philosophy of mind, is equally as dogmatic and simplistic. It's self-evident to determinists that, if you replayed a stretch of time with every variable and prior cause exactly the same, the resulting world would be exactly the same as it is now. The problem with this claim is that, because it's based on an unknowable hypothetical, it's unfalsifiable. Moreover, there's no reason to believe that determinism is more self-evident than mere chance, as I'll uncover in part two of this article.

In fact, a staple argument for determinism is actually a complete non sequitur. The argument rests on a series of experiments that measured brain activity prior to voluntary muscle movements. The results of these experiments indicate that our brain makes decisions for us before we are aware of them, at least at this very basic level of cognition. These experiments, if completely flawless and trustworthy, are small steps in the direction of disproving LFW. However, they certainly don't prove that brain activity is determined as opposed to random or probabilistic. 

In summary, determinism, when juxtaposed with LFW, seems to be yet another example of science shining a light on a dogmatic worldview. However, they're really just two sides of the same coin. Moreover, disproving one position doesn't prove the other, as will become clear when addressing the other positions in this debate.

Robert Dimuro

Posted on May 17, 2020 19:25

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