Determinism and Free Will: A Reply to Shore

(Editor’s Note: This is a response to Mike Shore’s Evolve essay, “Against Free Will.”)

In a recent essay, Mike Shore argues against the existence of free will. This is a very old debate in philosophical literature that has recently gained much more attention in the public consciousness, thanks, in part, to popular writers like Sam Harris (a writer Shore cites as an influence). The topic might also be enjoying greater consideration in progressive Jewish spheres. See, for example, this recent interview with author Robert Sapolsky in Tikkun.

I’m pleased to see Shore raise this issue, since I, too, am generally sympathetic to the theory of determinism. But I think there is room for further discussion, and in this brief response, I challenge Shore to dig a little deeper. Shore does a great job explaining the basic reasoning behind determinism. However, I argue below that the philosophical implications of this concept are not necessarily as game-changing or desirable as he presents.

Causality, agency and justice

Shore brings up the Whitman mass murder case in an attempt to demonstrate that a physical malady (a brain tumor on the amygdala, here) can cause immoral behavior, and so we might lessen our feelings of moral indignation towards a mass murderer if we learn they are suffering from one. This is intended to demonstrate how some would grant more leniency and empathy to a wrong-doer if their wrong-doing is “not their fault.” The further implication is that if there is no free will for anyone, then nothing is anyone’s “fault,” and so we should be compassionate to everyone. This sounds good at first. But there are some troubling implications to this position with which we must grapple, such as how this could play into support for traditional eugenics.

Personally, I’m not convinced that Whitman is even a compelling case of someone obviously out of control. However, that is not the point. Shore raises the case to argue that our biology rules equally and totally over us all, brain tumors or no. It’s just that for those of us who are otherwise healthy, our complex biological motivation is more “hidden” or more complicated to assess.

Therefore, according to Shore’s position, Whitman has behaved no better or worse than any other person on the planet, since it’s not his fault that he was afflicted by the tumor (and the rest of his predetermined traits). This means even “normal” mass murderers are not at fault in the sense that they didn’t have the free will to do what they did. This is an expression of a philosophically necessary implication of determinism: that if everything is predetermined, then we could theoretically predict human behavior accurately. All it takes is gaining a better scientific understanding of what Shore describes as the “causal matrix.” We already do this to a certain extent through study of psychology and the like. Determinism, however, implies that this could be done with scientific precision.

Perhaps human behavior can be predicted and perhaps it can’t. We don’t know yet for sure. But on the road to figuring it out, we must be very careful, for arguments that tie subjective notions of morality to the measure of brain function are fraught with pitfalls.

Now, I do not perceive that Shore means that there should be no justice, and that murderers should simply be let back onto the street after being told “it’s not your fault, it’s just your biology.” I believe he is mostly arguing that we shouldn’t attach any malice to the pursuit of justice (an admirable goal, to be sure).

However, for justice to function, we need to engage in the messy task of figuring out moral values as a society and then acting on those values by enforcing them through law.

On the other hand, I can make an argument why the deterministic worldview could motivate major injustices.

Love, hate and nihilism

Shore suggests that there is an asymmetry between love and hate that interacts with determinism in a desirable way. He argues that love remains as good to determinists as it ever was, while hate is diminished. On those points, I am not the slightest bit convinced.

Let’s first consider hate. Shore writes, “Hating someone depends on the assumption that the person could have done otherwise. It is for this reason that hate is generally reserved for other human beings, with their purported capacity for free will.”

I am confused by this statement, since it unfortunately seems there are significant types of hate in our world which don’t conform to this definition. Here’s a big one: racism.

Racism is an all-too-familiar type of deep hatred that functions precisely opposite to the way that Shore suggests. It involves stripping the agency and individuality from those discriminated against, reducing them to a biological attribute (skin color, in this case), which is obviously beyond their control. Even those who have never considered the possibility of determinism know that people did not choose to be born a certain race, and yet, they may be hated for it anyway.

I’m likewise unimpressed by the Sam Harris example of reimagining a Nazi as a wild bear. Harris’s argument operates by suggesting that if we understand murderers such as the Nazis as bears — and thus as mere forces of nature rather than free-willed beings — we would hate them less. Many may feel that for a bear, attacking is “just their nature.” Maybe so. But there is a particular irony in this point in that the Nazis also compared Jews to non-human entities, such as rats, poisonous mushrooms and diseases. And they did this for the opposite reason than the one that Harris suggests: to instruct the German people that Jews were “subhuman” and thus deserving of some of the most hateful violence ever committed.

Whether or not I am in control of myself in the realest, truest scientific sense, I still have to experience it that way, and that makes it real enough.

So, what about love? Does it really function as well or better through a deterministic lens? One of the reasons I’m skeptical is because it seems there is a bit of a paradox here. Shore advocates that we give up illusions so that we may live more examined lives, but isn’t love just an illusion, too? Shore asserts that love exists and is desirable, but the evidence that love exists is actually similar to the evidence (or lack of evidence) for free will. Neither can currently be measured scientifically. Rather, they are things we subjectively experience, often greatly valuing them, despite their lack of physical tangibility. So why hold onto love then? Because it is a “valuable” illusion? In that case, why not also believe in free will if one values it?

Therefore, love, as I see it, does not remain any more “real” than it did before, and hatred does not depend on free will. There’s no asymmetry and certainly no “natural asymmetry.” That claim, like Sam Harris’s claim that “science can determine our morality,” is merely aspirational.

And as with Harris, these arguments ultimately return to questions of first principles: of what is.

Shore argues that instead, “The freed-up energy previously consumed by our neurotic, futile attempts to maintain control of our lives can now be funneled towards projects, activities and people we love.”

But wait, why should I value projects, activities or people in the first place? Why should I care about things like beauty or meaning? These are philosophical questions that are just as difficult to answer in a world without free will as they are in a world with it. I don’t see why disbelief in free will would make me care about those things any more freely, and I’d be interested to see Shore expand on the idea.

Conclusion:

To be clear, I’m open to the idea that free will doesn’t exist. I merely think that even if it could be proven one way or another, it wouldn’t change our present reality all that much, especially while we can’t use it to predict the future. Whether or not I am in control of myself in the realest, truest scientific sense, I still have to experience it that way, and that makes it real enough.

Even if I am not in control of my actions, I am still going to act as if I am.

2 Responses

  1. This was a thoughtful, well-written piece, which I enjoyed even as I found myself disagreeing with it.

    Below are a few points that came to mind while reading it:

    “Therefore, according to Shore’s position, Whitman has behaved no better or worse than any other person on the planet, since it’s not his fault that he was afflicted by the tumor (and the rest of his predetermined traits).” – I don’t think Shore argued that Whitman behaved no better or worse than any other person on the planet. Whether or not Whitman had free will, his behaviour was objectively bad. Even if ultimate moral responsibility does not exist, it is still bad to cause harm to others (just as it is bad to allow people to die in natural disasters).

    “…but isn’t love just an illusion, too?” – Love is a felt experience, whereas free will is an idea. Experiences exist, by their very nature (but once we start conceptualizing what a given experience means, then we may be falling for illusions). To argue that love is an illusion seems not all that dissimilar from arguing that tasting is an illusion. Ideas, on the other hand, can be, and often are, illusory–not in the sense of experiencing them, but in the sense of what they mean.

    “Whether or not I am in control of myself in the realest, truest scientific sense, I still have to experience it that way, and that makes it real enough.” — You actually don’t have to experience it that way, and if you meditate enough you can’t help but see, repeatedly and unambiguously, that everything in experience simply happens, of its own accord (including the motivations that precede thinking, speaking, and doing; and including the thought that you are the cause of your actions).

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Tristan. As with Shore’s original article, I think your points here are mostly valid, and I suspect our divergence is one of minor degree. I can offer a couple quick replies to your 3 points.

      1. On this point, I believe we actually don’t disagree. I believe you are correct that Shore didn’t intend the Whitman case to demonstrate that a person cannot do “bad” things, and your statement that ” Even if ultimate moral responsibility does not exist, it is still bad to cause harm to others” is well put. However, my point is that when we grant that people are not in control of their actions in the traditional sense, we equalize everyone’s potential to be the cause of good and bad actions and therefore (at least inasmuch as we can hold anyone blameless) the behaviors of those who do evil are no better or worse than those who do good. Judgements about consequences aside, all actions are merely uncontrollable expressions of our nature (which is Shore’s argument, per the Nazi/bear example).

      2. I am not so sure you can dismiss the notion that free will be felt as an experience, and I am likewise skeptical that love cannot be described as an idea. Additionally, if you are committed to that line of argument, you should also accept the main point I made in that section–that hate at least is also a felt experience, and so there is no asymmetry which makes letting go of free will an advantage.

      3. I agree with the first part of your statement here, that I do not *have* to experience it a certain way. I could have softened the language in my piece to say something like, “I largely experience it that way.” But the rest of your comment suggests I didn’t express myself clearly enough. I already agree with you that everything in experience simply happens, but having made that leap, I can still treat the experience similarly to free will.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Resources

February 27, 2024
Posted in Ethics
Our call for a ceasefire is not a betrayal of Jewish values but an authentic expression of them.
February 27, 2024
Israel's Declaration of Independence envisions a state founded on the values of democracy, pluralism and equal rights for all its citizens, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
July 27, 2022
Posted in Ethics
Honesty about the legacies of those who have caused unrepaired harm is the first step in tending to our communal responsibility to repair the world.
March 2, 2022
Posted in Community, Ethics
Evolve continues to publish essays discussing the practice of brit milah (ritual circumcision. They are gathered here.
February 19, 2022
Posted in Ethics, Justice
Esther moments ask the question: When does one choose to show up and take on the leadership needed, risks included, in order to move forward a critical, sometimes life-and-death conversation, policy or initiative?
November 26, 2021
Posted in Ethics
Jewish ethics demands that we invest in producing and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine to the developing world.

The Reconstructionist Network

Serving as central organization of the Reconstructionist movement

Training the next generation of groundbreaking rabbis

Modeling respectful conversations on pressing Jewish issues

Curating original, Jewish rituals, and convening Jewish creatives

Get the latest from Evolve delivered to your inbox.

The Reconstructionist Network