Who’s Afraid of Determinism?
Choice and Meaning in a Scientific Universe
The scientific method is based on determinism — the idea that events in our universe have causes. Things that happen, could not magically have happened otherwise. We’re happy to apply scientific determinism to everything else — just not our own choices.
People believe there’s something magical about human decision-making. “I could have decided either way.” they will say. “While being the same person at the same point in time?” I ask. “Yes,” they say. “Not by randomness, but by choice?” I ask. “Yes again,” they say.
How can we explain this paradox? People are afraid to believe in determinism. They are afraid it will destroy their motivation to work hard or do good in the world. They are afraid we would have to abandon the rules and punishments that keep us safe from crime. They are afraid they will lose the sense of meaning and purpose in their life.
There’s also a powerful, intuitive experience behind the assertion, “I could have decided either way.” In the moment before a decision, it really feels that way. And after a decision, we can confidently explain why we made the decision — even within lab experiments where the “decision” was made covertly and randomly by a computer.
This essay will explain why the fears about determinism are unfounded, and the intuitive experience of “free will” has a perfectly natural explanation.
The Intuitive Experience
Neuroscience researcher Benjamin Libet’s experiments shocked the world. He wired up subjects with an EEG cap to measure brain activity in real time. He asked subjects to notice the position of a dot on the screen at the moment they decided to press a button. The EEG cap showed that subjects’ motor cortex ramped up and they pushed the button 200 milliseconds before they consciously felt themselves “making the decision”.
What really happened? The decision happened somewhere in your brain, but not in your conscious mind. Human decisions are exactly like the decisions of other animals that don’t have a higher consciousness. That’s exactly what you would expect based on the process of evolution.
But a split-second later, the conscious mind says, “I made that decision.” Another split second, and the conscious mind can even say, “Here’s why I did that.” Researchers Daniel Wegner and Thalia Wheatley call this the Illusion of Will.
Before a decision, it’s easy to see why we consciously think, “I could decide either way.” Your conscious mind really doesn’t know what the rest of your brain is going to decide. The suspense is real. As researcher Tim Wilson puts it, we’re Strangers to Ourselves.
But could we decide differently than we did? How? There’s no evidence for it, and no coherent theory of how it would occur. It’s a non-falsifiable belief.
The reality is: a person’s brain makes a particular decision because of who they are and what they know at the time. Their 100 billion neurons are wired in a particular way at that moment, and the output of the neural net is a deterministic decision.
You can’t be the same person at the same moment in time, and make a different decision. To wish you’d decided differently is to wish you’d been a different person.
If humans make decisions in the same way other animals do, should people be held accountable under the law? I’ve been an attorney licensed to practice for more than 10 years. My answer is a clear “yes.”
The decisions are being made by the person. The rewards and penalties are assigned to the person. It would not matter if decisions were made in the conscious mind, elsewhere in the brain, or (as was once believed) in the liver.
Legal accountability is not appropriate when other people are exercising undue influence or effectively denying the person a choice. For example, we don’t enforce contracts against a minor who signs on their own behalf. Why? It’s presumed the adult on the other side of the contract was exercising undue influence. Self-defense is a defense to a charge of criminal homicide. Why? The emergency of being attacked doesn’t allow time to call for help or seek a different resolution.
Determinism isn’t like the other cases where American law exempts people from accountability. Deterministic decisions are still decisions of the person, and individual accountability is legally appropriate.
It’s worthwhile to note that we have rules that apply to animals, who are not believed to have any higher consciousness. No one argues that a bear has free will, but a bear that comes into town to forage in people’s garbage cans will be tranquilized and dropped off in a remote location.
Denying Determinism Doesn’t Help
It’s sometimes argued that a person is the product of their genetics along with everything that’s happened to them since birth. People don’t choose who they become, so how can one hold them responsible for choices that are determined by who they are at the time?
Let’s take a closer look. Conventional wisdom says the only time rewards and punishments are appropriate is in response to choices. It also says that choices arrive from nowhere. There are no prior causes, and in particular the wiring of the person’s 100 billion neurons at the moment of the decision does not determine the decision.
If human choices have no prior causes, how can you hold people responsible for something inexplicable?
If human choices have no prior causes, then there’s no reason to believe that rewards and punishments will change behavior. There’s no reason to believe that past behavior predicts future behavior. In such a world, you can’t justify a system of rewards and punishments based on the expected results.
Once you look closely, the system of rules that makes society function is much harder to justify without determinism.
Can Deterministic People Consent to the Rules?
Thomas Jefferson wrote that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. This belief in the social contract has been common since the Enlightenment, popularized by writers like John Locke. Does determinism wipe away this consent?
I don’t think so. When we ponder the rules to govern our society, or the terms and conditions of a contract, we are acting from behind what philosopher John Rawls called the Veil of Ignorance. We don’t know who will follow those rules in the future, and who will break them. We don’t know if we ourselves will be the unfortunate rule-breaker who faces punishment later.
We all have skin in the game. That’s what makes it fair. Free will is not required.
Determinism Includes Chaos Theory
The human brain obeys predictable, natural laws of cause and effect. But from the outside, it looks like magic. It’s deterministic, but it’s not a movie you can rewind and fast-forward.
Over a lifetime, the brain accumulates petabytes of data. It is wired and changed over time by an incredibly complex set of experiences. It’s an unfathomably complex machine and we have very little ability to observe what’s going on inside.
Of course we can’t predict what other people (or even ourselves) will decide. A complex set of inputs into a complex machine whose structure and workings are not observable is going to produce outputs that don’t look deterministic or predictable. It’s chaos theory, not magic.
It’s a bit like predicting the stock market. There’s no doubt that prices are set deterministically as buyers and sellers make their transactions. There’s no magician behind the curtain.
Yet the stock market still thrills investors every day with its unexpected turns, and so does human behavior. We surprise not just others, but ourselves. A deterministic, but chaotic world is full of surprise and wonder.
Why Bother Making the Effort?
If the world is deterministic, why should we put in the effort to achieve our goals? It might be pre-determined that we will fail. Why should we bother being good? It might be pre-determined that we’ll act badly and ruin all the good we’ve done.
But that approach gets the timing all wrong. At the time we decide how much effort to expend, we don’t know the outcome yet. At the time we choose to be good, we don’t know if we’ll act badly tomorrow. We have to choose, under uncertainty. We have to live in the present, without knowing the future.
Albert Bandura’s research into self-efficacy is enlightening here. The belief that you can effectively influence events that affect your life is “the foundation of human inspiration, motivation, performance accomplishments and emotional well-being”.
Much as relativistic physics measures from the vantage point of an observer, meaning and purpose are measured from the point of view of humans who don’t know the future.
Treating future outcomes as uncertain and potentially achievable has measurable, positive consequences for humans. That’s what Bandura’s research shows. And it’s not wrong — from our vantage point the outcomes are uncertain and success may be achieved. The struggle feels meaningful.
Very few people today believe human decisions are deterministic — that the wiring of your 100 billion neurons at the moment of the decision determines the outcome. It’s the obvious explanation, but it’s widely rejected based on the intuitive experience of “free will”, and a moral panic about what would happen to ourselves and our society if we believed in determinism.
To make better decisions, and build a better society, we need to start with the truth: humans make decisions like other animals do. It’s one more step in the process that started with Galileo discovering we’re not the center of the universe, and proceeded through Darwin’s discovery that humans evolved just like other animals.
We’ve created a set of rules and institutions that work for people as they really are. A better understanding of human behavior can only help us in justifying what works, and throwing out what doesn’t.