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Moral Moments

Taking Determinism Seriously

by Joel Marks

I am in the throes of writing another book, about which I am excited but also anxious. These emotions have the same source: the topic is timely. I am undoubtedly tapping into the Zeitgeist in a big way. I also fully acknowledge that I am standing on the shoulders of giants. But my big little ego would like to get some credit and notoriety for the ages. So I am excited because my ideas have relevance to what people are talking about today, but therefore also anxious lest somebody else beat me to the punch.

Why not, then, simply push the book into print? It is all but finished in draft form. However, the real tension for me is created by my feelings as a writer. I love to write … no, as Woody Allen would put it, I lurve to write. I’m getting a kick out of writing this essay! But I especially enjoy luxuriating in an extended project, which obliges my mind to become engrossed. The subject and scope of the current work demand all of my attention, knowledge, and recollections. I also get to employ my full powers of craftsmanship, which is another pleasure for me. But this means that I resist the pressure to publish before I am satisfied. Hence my anxiety about being trumped becomes more acute because it poses a dilemma.

Now, a philosopher and especially an ethicist ought to be able to give himself plenty of sound advice about the moral meetness of humility and the utter vanity of human affairs. I have done so and been duly assuaged. I need not bother you with any of that sage wisdom since you know it as well as I. But this experience has also been an opportunity for me to find philosophical consolation in one of the great philosophical questions. For the insight I find most helpful at this time is Spinoza’s about freedom of the will. It’s an illusion, you know.

There is endless controversy about that, of course, this being one of the so-called perennial problems. Oddly enough, there does not seem to be terribly much dispute about determinism. That is, most modern-day philosophers, at least of the analytic school to which I belong, accept that everything in the universe is governed by the laws of nature. One implication of this is that there are no miracles (except possibly the existence of the universe itself?). Another would seem to be that it was pretty much set billions of years ago that you would be reading this sentence right now.

It is true that contemporary physics allows for quantum events, which are unpredictable and even, for all we can tell, metaphysically random. But there are two standard reasons given for not worrying about that. One is that quantum events seldom have ‘macro’ effects at the level of our everyday reality, including the making of decisions by human beings. The other is that a human being who did decide or act on the basis of some random, quantum event in her brain would hardly be exercising free will. It would be more like Saint Vitus’ Dance.

The contemporary dispute about free will, therefore, has not to do with whether all of our actions were predetermined to happen by other events in the distant past – they were, are, and forever will be – but whether there is some meaningful sense in which, even so, we can control our own behavior. Those who say we can, argue that all we could ever have meant by freedom of the will is the power to do what we intended to do. Since clearly we often do this, we have free will. It does not matter that our intentions have themselves been caused by events that were mostly out of our control going all the way back to the Big Bang.

Personally I am skeptical that this is much of a ‘save’, but I acknowledge its utility. For example, it makes sense to distinguish my accidentally falling out of a window, from my jumping voluntarily. Jean-Paul Sartre would also have made a big deal out of insisting that even if someone had held a gun to my head and told me to jump, the decision would still have been mine to make. Furthermore, if I either fell or jumped and then broke my neck, I would not have been fated to break my neck. Even though this tragic event inexorably occurred because of the laws of nature, there is no law about philosophers breaking their necks, nor any laws at all about Joel Marks in particular. What happens lawfully happens under some less specific description, such as a falling body’s accelerating at 32 feet per second per second. Mine happened to be that body on that occasion.

Small consolation, but it’s all there is. Yet it can have a large influence on our feelings, which was Spinoza’s point. Thus, suppose it has ‘already’ been determined that my next book will establish my reputation. Maybe this is because I decide to hurry it along … or I don’t and somebody else publishes first, but their book goes unrecognized for whatever reason … or theirs is recognized but only paves the way for mine to be appreciated as the definitive treatment of the theme. It simply does not matter how it all comes about or what comes about – what will be will be, and in some strange but literally true sense, already is. Lindbergh thought he had lost the race across the Atlantic, but then the others crashed en route. Therefore … I can ‘relax’.

Yes, there may be the irony that drawing that conclusion loses me the laurels by convincing me I need not rush the job. But it may bring them to me instead, for let’s say that if I speeded up the process, my book would not be quite cogent enough to appeal to the critics … or the book would be good enough but come out just as the country or the world was being thrown into another paroxysm, which diverted attention just long enough to doom my book’s long-term prospects. The bottom line is: you can’t outwit the course of events but can only play your role in them.

I (can’t help but!) feel fortunate that I was predetermined to realize that and to see the glass as half full so that I experience equanimity.

© Joel Marks 2009

Joel Marks is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of New Haven in West Haven, Connecticut. More of his essays can be found at moralmoments.com.

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