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Determinism and Human Experience

by Anthony Winder

In supporting Dr. Johnson’s assertion (“We know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t”), Antony Flew claims to demonstrate that “the thesis of universal, necessitating determinism cannot even be understood except by creatures who must be in a position to know that it is false” (Human Agency and Natural Necessity, Philosophy Now, Issue 1).

Flew’s argument hinges around the concept of action and its relation to our human experience as agents. The concept of action Flew presents essentially involves choice. “An agent is a creature who … can and cannot but make choices … between alternative courses of action both or all of which are open.”

Flew argues that this concept arises from the fundamental distinction we make between our experiences of two different kinds of bodily movement: voluntary movement, which “can be either initiated or quashed at will”, and involuntary movement, such as our heartbeat, over which we have no control.

A close examination of these contrasting experiences will lead us, Flew suggests, to recognise the truth of the following principle:

(1) It is inconceivable that creatures lacking the relevant experiences (of voluntary and involuntary bodily movement) could understand the corresponding notions (including the concepts of action and choice).

From this principle Flew now moves swiftly to his final conclusion, that determinism is false. I quote him in full : “Now, if none of the key and contrasting notions could be explained, acquired or understood by creatures neither enjoying nor suffering such experiences, then that fact must constitute an objection of overwhelming and decisive force against any doctrine of universal, physically necessitating, determinism.”

For one reader at least it is not at all clear what the force of this objection is supposed to be. It is my purpose in this essay to try to construct in some detail what I take to be the implied argument which lies behind Flew’s claim. In doing so I shall expose what I think is the fatal flaw in the argument.

I propose for now to grant Flew his principle (1). To get the argument started we must also assume

(2) (Some) human beings understand the concepts (of action etc).

From (1) and (2) we can conclude

(3) (Some) human beings undergo the experiences (of action etc).

Now the concept of action we have adopted from Flew includes the essential characteristic of choosing freely between alternatives. (3) shows us that we do really undergo this experience. This leads us directly to

(4) (Some) human beings undergo the experience of choosing freely between real alternatives.

So given that the concept of action essentially involves choosing freely between alternatives, and that possessing the concept entails undergoing the experience, it follows that we really do undergo the experience of choosing freely between alternatives.

But this is not enough to establish for Flew the result he wants, namely that determinism is false. For the fact that I choose freely when I act does not preclude the possibility that whatever constituted my choosing was itself determined, and that, in identical circumstances, my choice would have been (necessarily) identical. After all, if my choosing one alternative rather than another was in turn the inevitable consequence of the state of the world at the moment when I chose, then my choice, though freely made, could not have been otherwise.

That I might have chosen otherwise remains therefore an open question; it does not follow necessarily from (4). And since the question of whether the determinism thesis is true is equivalent to the question of whether I could have chosen otherwise, the insights we may have gained about action and choice can tell us nothing about the truth or otherwise of the determinism thesis.

So to establish that determinism is false, Flew has more work to do: he must show not only that when I choose, I choose freely between alternatives, but also that, having chosen, I might have chosen otherwise. The arguments presented so far have manifestly not established that I could have chosen otherwise, and yet Flew claims to have established the falsity of determinism. So what has gone wrong?

The problem, I think, lies in the concept of action which, following Flew, we have adopted up to now. When Flew defines action, the crucial experience, as we saw, is stated to be that of making real, free, choices between alternatives. Later he reiterates that the key experiences are “those of agents able and having to choose between acting in one way or another and not being necessitated to act in this way rather than another.” Agreed. But as we have seen, this concept of action is not enough to yield the falsity of determinism.

However, Flew does provide us with a single hint that the concept of action which he in fact has in mind may be rather a different one. In the course of reviewing our human experiences of voluntary and involuntary movement, he says that we have “the most direct, and the most expugnably certain experience … of being able to do other than we do do.” Now Flew, as we saw, does not incorporate this characteristic explicitly into the concept of action which he goes on to present, and which we have adopted so far. Nevertheless, I think that when he applies the principle (1) to the concept of action, he has in mind an extended concept which includes not only the essential characteristic of choosing freely between alternatives, but also the essential characteristic of being able to do other than we do do. If this is so (3) will now yield

(4a) (Some) humans undergo the experience of being able to do other than they do do.

So given that the concept of action essentially involves the ability to do other than we do do, and that possessing the concept entails undergoing the experience, it follows that we really do undergo the experience of being able to do other than we do do.

Now our discussion of determinism and choice has already established the truth of

(5) Determinism is incompatible with the possibility that human action might, in identical circumstances, have been different.

But (4a) asserts that some humans really experience for themselves this possibility that human action, in identical circumstances, might have been different. And this, in conjunction with (5) at last yields

(6) Determinism is false.

Having thus made explicit what I think must be the structure of the argument Flew has in mind, it is not difficult to see what is wrong with it.

The problem lies in what I think is the obvious absurdity of (4a). This, we recall, simply restates Flew’s forthright assertion that we have “expugnably certain experience … of being able to do other than we do do.”

But this cannot be right. We have no such experience, nor could we have. For to have the experience of being able to do something surely means no more than to have the experience, at least sometimes, of doing that thing. In the case at issue this would require that we have the experience of doing ‘other than we do do’, which is clearly absurd. (It is absurd because it involves a contradiction: the things I experience are precisely the things which I do; and the things which are other than the ones I do, I do not experience, for the simple reason that I do not do them.)

Now it is (1), not (4a) which Flew cites as constituting “an objection of overwhelming and decisive force” to the thesis of determinism. But (1) alone tells us nothing about determinism. The function of (1) in the argument is to establish that the possession of certain concepts guarantees that their possessors undergo certain experiences. (Feed in a concept: out pops a guaranteed experience.) Now the experience which Flew needs to guarantee in order to establish the falsity of determinism is just the experience asserted in (4a), and this will be guaranteed by (1) provided that the concept of action which we feed in is the extended one.

But (4a) we have seen is false. And since it is derived by a valid argument from (1) and (2) I conclude that either (1) or (2) is false. But (2) seems to be true (I offer Flew as an example of a human being who understands the concept of action in question): so we are led inevitably to conclude that (1) is false.

Now this should come as no surprise if we consider what is really meant by (1). (1) encapsulates the truth that we as human beings possess certain concepts which we recognise as being dependent on our experiences, and which we are certain could not be possessed by creatures which lack those experiences. Now it is clear that concepts, or components of concepts, which fall into this category must be essentially experiential. Consider as an example the concept ‘red’. It contains an experiential component (the visual quality of redness) which it is inconceivable might be possessed by a creature incapable of experiencing it, and a non-experiential component (the theory that red light is electromagnetic radiation of a certain wavelength) whose possession does not depend on any such experience.

Similarly with the extended concept of action on which Flew’s argument has been seen to depend. It contains an experiential component (the experience of choosing freely between alternatives) which it is inconceivable might be possessed by a creature incapable of undergoing the corresponding experience; and a nonexperiential component (the assumption that the choice so made might, in identical circumstances, have been different), whose possession does not (because logically it cannot) depend on experience.

(1), then, is wrong as it stands: it could be reexpressed to show that it applies only to experiential concepts, but for our present purposes all that matters is to note that it cannot be applied with equal legitimacy to both components of the extended concept of action. By using it, as I suspect he is, to move from the essentially non-experiential concept of ‘being able to do other than we do do’ to the assumption that we really do experience ‘doing other than we do’, Flew is making (1) do work which it is logically quite unable to do.

What I hope to have shown is that our experiences as agents able to choose freely do not disprove the determinism thesis. I must emphasise that this does not amount to a claim that determinism is true. Our experience, it seems, is powerless to answer the question one way or the other. The only evidence which would provide an answer, evidence that under identical circumstances I might have chosen otherwise, is necessarily beyond our grasp, since, without reversing the flow of time, identical circumstances are not to be obtained. So if the irreversibly forward flow of time is a law of nature, the truth or falsity of determinism will be necessarily hidden from us.

If Johnson’s “we know our will is free” is interpreted to mean only that he has certain knowledge that he has the experience of choosing, then his assertion is indeed justified, since he is entitled to claim certain knowledge of his own experiences. But if he means (as I suppose he does) that he has certain knowledge that when he chooses, his choice is not determined, then he is not justified, because this claim involves going beyond experience, and making a purely theoretical assumption.

It is ironic that the argument which Flew provides to support Johnson’s assertion succeeds in justifying no more than Johnson can claim without justification anyway. For Flew’s argument succeeds only in showing that we have free will, but this conclusion tells us nothing about the truth or falsity of determinism. On the matter of determinism it is wise (and perhaps necessary) to remain agnostic.

© Anthony Winder, 1991

Do You Feel Free?

The next two articles continue a debate begun in Issues1 and 2 of Philosophy Now, concerning the old philosophical problem of free will and determinism. Determinism is the theory that (as we are all part of the physical universe) all our actions and choices are determined by our past histories and by outside forces. In Issue 1 Professor Antony Flew tried to show that this theory must be wrong. Anthony Winder replies to that article here, and in the note that follows Antony Flew answers an earlier critic, Roger Squires. (see the letters page as well).

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