January 5, 2009

Blake Ostler on Causal Determinism

Causal determinism, loosely defined, is the view that every event (including human thinking, behavior, decision and action) is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences.1 Think of dominoes. In this view, we are utterly "acted upon" to use Lehi's phrase (see 2 Nephi 2:26). If God knows every act you and I will ever commit, and He knows it infallibly, we are not actually able to make decisions; they are already determined. Buried in hundreds of comments after a post on God's foreknowledge at the New Cool Thang blog, LDS philosopher Blake Ostler outlined four reasons why he believes "determinism is a heinous view."2


1. Determinism is inconsistent with our immediate experience of choosing among genuine options.

A decision implies that in deciding we are in fact choosing among genuinely open options. There are no genuine options if determinism is true — rather, we appear to be deciding what has already been decided long before we thought about it. So there are no decisions according to determinism, only the appearance of decisions.

2. Determinsim is incompatible with rational thought and deliberation.

Consider the argument showing that they are not compatible. Think about the nature of deliberation and rational thought. If I act based upon rational thought and deliberation, then I act because I recognize that the action is a rational conclusion of my thinking and deliberation. I act for the reasons that I have considered. However, if determinism is true then I never act based solely on the reasons I have considered.

Let us suppose that human thinking is determined in the sense that every thought or belief accepted by a person is a necessary result of the prior causal events whether internal or external to the person. Is it not evident that on such a view that rational thought is impossible? It cannot be true that anyone’s thinking is guided by rational processes; rather, it is guided entirely by laws of cause and effect which proceed with no regard to whether the thought processes they generate correspond to the principles of sound reasoning. If I have a thought, it is not because it was a rational conclusion but because it was determined by prior causes. Thus, the thought I now have is the result of prior causes and I can never trace any act or thought to one that is not merely the result of prior causes, whether internal or external to me. If I have a thought and determinism is true, it is not because it is the result of rational process but because it is the upshot of the prior states of the universe. It follows that if determinism is true, no one ever thinks rationally but merely has thoughts caused by prior circumstances.

3. Determinism is incompatible with moral responsibility.

Suppose that a person,(I’ll call him Rock), desires to steal a Mars bar from a 7-Eleven. Rock has these desires, he mistakenly thinks, because he likes Mars bars and doesn’t like to part with his money. However, if determinism is true, then Rock’s desire to steal is the causal result of his brain chemistry and environment, and these in turn are the result of antecedent causal events which can be traced back, ultimately, to causal events and circumstances over which Rock had no control, for they existed long before he was born. Is Rock morally responsible for stealing the Mars bar? How could he be? The act of stealing is fully explained by events over which he had no control. It follows that he had no control over whether he desired to steal the Mars bar. Rock is no more responsible for stealing than he would be for having a congenital birth defect.

4. Determinism is inconsistent with genuine relationship.

First, deterministic choices are not genuine. If I love you because of the way the world was the day before I was born, then I don’t really love you, I merely act out the causes that make it inevitable that I will have the feelings that I do and love is reduced to mere feelings that are not really mine because I didn’t choose them. Rather, if I “love” you in a deterministic world, you were chosen for me by causes outside of my control.

That is why determinism is a heinous view.


See "Causal determinism," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Blake Ostler, comment 147, April 5, 2005. Ostler explores philosophy and Mormonism in his 3-volume Exploring Mormon Thought.


Clark Goble said...

just a note that the kind of determinism Blake is talking about here is causal determinism and not necessarily true of all kinds of determinism.

BHodges said...

Clarified. Thx!

BHodges said...

To be clear, Ostler is not an "indeterminist." He explains such in the comments on New Cool Thang, for any interested persons.

Sione said...

God being Omniscient looked me in the Eye's prior to sending me here (Earth), told me he loved me, and sent me on my way.

He would then have known whether or not I would ever make it home.

That's a very sad thought.

Your thoughts?

BHodges said...

I prefer to think of God telling you goodbye but knowing he'd never give up at offering you a genuine relationship of love. So there is always hope there.

Sione said...

I like to think that too Blair. In fact I believe his love is unending an unconditional. But I still wonder; did the Father know who would return and who would fail prior to sending us away?

Big UP!

Clark Goble said...

I should add that Blake thinks all determinism is problematic. And for similar reasons. Just that the arguments above don't logically apply to other kinds.

Sione said...

I don't understand what you mean clark. About the the ones I stated not applying to other kinds.

Could you help me understand?

Jared said...

Interesting stuff!

The bottom line for me is that Heavenly Father has promised to get us back home if we will do what it takes to acquire the gift Holy Ghost--it will show all things what ye should do.

My experience with this promise, thus far, is this means all things of consequence.

If we don't acquire this gift then we are on our own.

I agree with what Blake says, but add that the Lord, if invited, will intervene in our lives in matters of consequence.

As I youth I went to a resort with some friends, drunk (not driving) we crashed head on into a car. It was a terrible accident. I walked away even though I was thrown some distance from the vette I was in. I had a prompting telling me I had been protected and it was time to get my life in order. Why did that happen? I believe this came about because of a promise from the Lord I'd obtained before being born. He knew that I would struggle because of the family I came to and extended grace to me, I responded years later, but it wasn't a sure thing. I had my agency and could have resisted until He would have stopped leaving the 99 to rescue me.

Is what happened to me determinism as Blake described it? I don't think so, but then again I'm a beginner in philosophy.

Clark Goble said...

Consider the idea of a block universe. One state of affairs plus the laws of physics may not uniquely determine a future state of affairs. But it is the case that there is a truth about what the future state of affairs is. This isn't like dominoes since there isn't an "unbroken chain." Likewise one can't say your choices are decided earlier on in the sense Blake talks about it. Now Blake can (and has in his books) reformulated these criticisms to take into consideration the broader sense of determinism.

I also think that his (2) is problematic for other reasons I'll not get into.

Note that his (3) works with causal determinism but not a block universe since the block universe doesn't fully explain the actors actions. There is a sense of indetermination to the block universe.

BHodges said...

Interesting stuff, Clark. I hope it gets people thinking. This is one reason I also recommend Ostler's books. Whether one agrees with him, he is sincere, and I think, responsible as well.

S.Faux said...

It seems to me that the commandments work because there are regularities in behavior, such as smoking causes cancer. In order for there to be regularities there needs to be causal determinism. Without causal determinism there can be no science. This even means quantum mechanics because one needs, ironically, causal mechanisms to get at the strange world of subatomic particles.

BHodges said...

I do not believe Ostler would argue that actions do not lead to reactions, etc.

Anonymous said...

I understand that determinism would be false according to this argument if we assume relationships and rational thought to be the truth, but if determinsim is true than it would totally be compatible with what we consider rational thought, we would just be unable to comprehend it. Essentially, physical life would be illusory and based on our judgements, however preordained they might be...it's a viscious cycle, logically

BHodges said...

Yeah, this post was just me firing off a blast into space to see what I could get in return. It's interesting to think about.

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