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Another Determined Effort

Roger Squires continues the debate on free will and determinism.

I misunderstood Antony Flew’s appeal to experience (Philosophy Now 1,2 and 3), but am unrepentant in challenging his Incompatibilism. He thinks it follows from the fact that we distinguish between movings and mere motions that “universal, necessitating” determinism is false. Where we act, we could have done otherwise; where physical necessity reigns, we could not. I agree with Hume that the problem lies in that notion of necessity.

The Determinist thinks that behaviour is necessitated in roughly the following sense. Given enough information about the constitution and history of an individual and the circumstances in which they are placed, there may be theories which would entitle us to conclude with certainty what their behaviour would be. That would leave the road open for physical, chemical, biological or psychological investigations into the springs of action. Prediction and explanation based on such theories may never be achieved, but they are not in principle impossible. Is this claim refuted by our everyday experience?

What is disproved by experience is the thought that everything that happens is beyond our control, that it will happen whether we do anything about it or not. That is true for the sunrise and the relentless drift downstream when both oars are lost, but not for the glass rising to our lips or our bicycle turning into the drive. We distinguish between what is inevitable and what is not by trial and error, “experiment and observation”. That is, we act and see what follows. What is impervious to our efforts we call necessary or determined.

Are our efforts determined in that sense? They could not be. That is not something we learn by experience (absurdly, by acting to see whether we could change them); it follows from the way we settle whether something happens of necessity or not. We cannot apply the test to our trials and experiments themselves. In order to learn what we can change and what we cannot, we already have to be able to do things.

How does it follow that those actions are unpredictable and inexplicable? When Determinists claim that they are necessary, they do not mean that they are unavoidable (by me, us or Danger Mouse); they mean that, given the relevant data, the conclusion that they would occur was inevitable. So a given outcome may be avoidable, even though the conclusion that it will occur is unavoidable. When we say something will necessarily occur, we may mean that it is inevitable or we may mean to draw the conclusion that it will occur. This distinction, which I hope is in the spirit of Hume, seems to me to block one main route to Incompatibilism. From the fact that (experience reveals) something is avoidable, it does not follow that whether it occurs is unpredictable or inexplicable. Nor has Flew persuaded me that grasping the unavoidability use of necessity somehow undermines the Determinist’s conclusion-drawing employment.

Incidentally, Flew quoted Locke (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Bk.II, Ch.21) three times in his original contribution to this magazine. In each case three dots replaced Locke’s claims about what we observe when we exercise ‘active powers’. These dots seem to function like those in romantic novellas when the heroine embarks on exciting things over which the author prefers to draw a veil.

Let me give the full quotation in just the first case:

“We find in ourselves a power to begin or forbear, continue or end several actions of our minds and motions of our bodies, [… in Flew] barely by a thought or preference of the mind ordering or, as it were commanding, the doing or not doing such and such a particular action.”

Later in the chapter Locke says:

“If I can, by a thought directing the motions of my finger, make it move when it was at rest, or vice versa, it is evident that in respect of that I am free.”

The censored truth seems to be that Locke thought we tell the difference between a motion and moving by whether the movement was brought about by a thought we have. How we tell whether this thought is free or not (an action proper or not) he does not say. I hope the demolition of this theory of action in Chapter 3 of Gilbert Ryle’s Concept of Mind accounts for Flew’s blue pencil. Flew claims that we learn the difference ‘ostensively’; I think this needs explanation. But my main point, for now, is that it is not the same as learning the difference between what is within our control and what is unavoidable.

© Roger Squires 1992

Roger Squires, Senior Lecturer in Logic and Metaphysics at the University of St Andrews, realises that his remarks would perhaps be more appropriate for Philosophy Then, but fears that this is in the nature of the subject.

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