Determinism and decision-making

I’m still having trouble wrapping my mind around determinism. If all of our choices are determined by pre-existing conditions, then how can any choice be accredited to anyone? For example, if I see a person who is hungry and without food, and I choose to give him/her my lunch, can you give me credit for what I did? Apparently I could in no way enjoy my lunch while seeing someone else hungry, so what choice did I have?

This also ties into good and evil. If someone is inherently good, aren’t their good tendencies just a result of pre-existing conditions that they have no control over? I just beat an old woman with a twig, but what choice did I have? Etc. etc. you get my point.

Turn it around. If your choices aren’t the result of “pre-existing conditions”, then why should any responsibility or credit or blame go to you for them? Words like “responsibility”, “credit” and “blame” imply that there’s some pre-existing cause in your mind for your actions to deserve such words. Why would you deserve credit or blame for something that “just happened”?

If you are really into determinism, then choice can’t be accredited to anyone, and that’s it. Cognition too would be determined. Maybe there still could be self-awareness, like Leibniz’s Monads, but any sense of control would be an illusion.

So, good and evil could not be attributed to actions or behavior. Perhaps not to thoughts either. Maybe not to anything at all, besides the Prime Mover Itself.

IOW, no, you don’t get credit for giving away your lunch under determinism. Nor would you be to blame for evil.

I just don’t know why you’re saying any of this. Can you explain? There can’t be good and evil in a deterministic universe? Why? Why can’t we give people credit? I guess I already see things as deterministic, so I don’t understand why anything would have to be different.

People make choices. Just because those choices are caused by something else (like the state of their brain, which is caused by their past influences, which is caused by… et cetera) doesn’t mean they didn’t make those choices or can’t be held responsible. Murderers are evil whether they could have made another choice or not (whatever that even means).

Good question. In Dr. Cube’s post, he shows that he’s somehow drawn a line between “people” and “something else (like the state of their brain, which is caused by their past influences, which is caused by… et cetera)”. But if it were actually true that the state of Bob’s brain totally and uniquely determines his every action, that what is the “person” Bob that you’re referring to?

Common sense has always dictated that a human being is an entity with decision-making capability. If I see a homeless person, I can choose to give him lunch, or I have the alternative of giving him nothing. Both possibilities are open until the moment when I make my decision. That’s why most people know that determinism is incorrect.

Sure the possibilities are open, but for anything short of some deus ex machina interference, ultimately I will give him my lunch because I am in a state of mind that would not allow any other choice. Sorry if I’m being unclear, it’s just a strange subject.

Determinism as I understand it is not predetermined events, but events that cannot be avoid because certain conditions have been met. For example, if we were having this discussion in person, and I told you you have no choice as to how you will respond to this sentence given your current state of mind, and you slap me as a sort of sarcastic refutation, you will have slapped me no matter what. That’s where my question of choice comes in.

The other responses are all good too, I just wanted to address this one.

Except you are assuming your premise. How do you know the choice is open? You believe it to be, but you have no proof. I don’t accept determinism, but your rebuttal falls a little short. Common sense is often wrong. Our brains do not work how we feel they do. When presented with a choice, most people believe they make a rational consideration and then choose. But brain studies have shown that in most cases there is an emotional response, an action, and then rational consideration. If an individual is completely unaware of why a choice is made, how can he or she ever be sure there was a choice in the first place.

As to the OP, determinism is both unprovable, and useless. If it were true, then what? The only people who would accept are those who have no choice and therefore even discussing it is useless. So, it is only worth discussing if it is untrue. Like predetermination, I find it offers nothing but justification for lack of empathy and responsibility. Besides, as long as anything that occurs on the macro level is affected by quantum probabilities, true determinism would not be valid because there is some level of randomness in all conditions.

But what’s the alternative to determinism? Free will? There was a topic a while back where I asked about free will and got several responses that amounted to it being a nonsensical concept.

I agree with Chakra - the brain is a machine. Determinism has to be our default assumption until there’s a very good reason to abandon it. The idea that you have a separate, non-deterministic choice can’t even be described sensibly.

Here is an analogy. You have a pitcher throwing a ball to a catcher. Is the exact path of that ball deterministic? In one sense it is, since if you went back in time and measured every wind current and muscle movement of the pitcher, you could explain the ball’s path exactly. In one sense it isn’t, since practically speaking you will have a statistical distribution of landing points which is affected by the pitcher’s skill, tiredness, the wind, etc.

In decision making it is even trickier, because not only do we have the external influence the ball faces, we have internal feedback also. Is a decision strongly affected by this feedback deterministic in the clockwork sense?

Maybe I have a different kind of determinism in mind than you guys do. I think if you accept causality at all, you have to believe in determinism. Otherwise you’re saying some events don’t have causes! If you make a choice and say it could have been the other way, you’re ignoring the facts, because in fact the choice went this way. I don’t know, to me determinism is just a different way of saying the probability of past events is always one.

And the people talking about quantum indeterminacy – do you really think that effects your decision-making? And your evidence is that you considered the other side before ultimately making your decision? At any given time, a frog can jump left, right or any other direction. It may even choose to stand still. Are frogs governed by quantum mechanics? What about rolling the dice? Do you think quantum effects would cause the wind the blow and the dice to roll differently if you replayed the tape of time? I think the aggregate effects of quantum probabilities still add up to a deterministic world on a macro level.

If you don’t buy quantum indeterminacy, how about chaos theory? Outputs may vary wildly based on very small changed to inputs. Would you consider it a deterministic situation if two almost identical input conditions resulted in wildly varying results, given a gigantic set of inputs? Strictly speaking it might be, but for all practical purposes it isn’t. Since computing the response is impossible to do, and even understanding the cause of an action which has happened is impossible in practices, we may be living in a deterministic world which is an excellent simulation of a non-deterministic one.

I still call that a deterministic system. In fact, I think that the idea of chaos explains why people tend to naturally think they have free will, when in fact they don’t.

About quantum indeterminacy, I can accept that some quantum events have effects on the macro world, and that quantum effects in brain chemistry can sometimes give different results in identical situations. Probably not very often, but sometimes.

The thing is, this quantum indeterminacy is completely different from the idea of free will. OK, so our brains are machines which sometimes have small amounts of quantum randomness thrown in. If the debate is free will vs. determinism, then quantum effects do not, at all, support the free will side. They just put a slightly different spin (heh) on the determinism explanation.

On the contrary, empathy and responsibility both implicitly assume determinism. Neither make any sense unless you assume a predictable connection between stimulation and response, between memory and action. If the past doesn’t affect the present then how can we hold anyone responsible for their actions, since their past actions tell you nothing about their present and future ones. What’s the point of empathy if you can’t even tell if someone is suffering or not?

Of course in reality we CAN feel empathy and hold people responsible, because we DO live in a deterministic world. A world where if someone is screaming for help I can deduce that they don’t like what is happening because there’s a predictable correlation between screaming for help and needing help. A world where stab wounds predictably hurt. A world where if someone tortured someone yesterday he’s much more likely to torture someone else today than some random person would be.

People make speeches about free will, but we act on and build our society on the implicit assumption that decision making is deterministic. That stimulus affects response, that the past affects the present.

In that case, the giving credit (or not) would, itself, be determined.

If determinism is true, then whether or not we believe that determinism is true is determined. Whether or not we believe in good and evil, or what we believe about them, is determined. If determinism is true, I had no choice but to post this exact response to the thread.

Just because you got several responses that amounted to it being a nonsensical concept doesn’t mean that it actually is a nonsensical concept. Free will is a perfectly sensible concept. In fact, it is merely a matter of accepting the information that comes to us. When I go home tonight I will look in the freezer and find a frozen lasagna and some frozen fish. At that point I will have the option of either eating the fish for dinner or the lasagna. Then I will choose one of the two. That’s free will. That’s all there is to it.

I don’t think that the concept you’re calling “state of mind” is well-defined. Even if you knew everything there was to know about my mind in the above situation, you still would not know beforehand whether I would slap you or not.

Of course you had a choice; the choice was just achieved using deterministic processes.

No, that’s just a deterministic decision making system, your brain, deciding between options. Computers make decisions all the time after all, it doesn’t require some mystical “free will”.

Free will IS a nonsensical concept. It’s not determinism, it’s not random, it’s some undefined thing.

No, he’d know before you did, plenty of studies show that decisions are made before the conscious mind is aware of them.

It may be nonsensical from a scientific point of view—the point of view that takes a phenomenon and asks “How does it work?” or “What causes it?” or “What are the laws governing it?”—because if you could describe what causes it, it wouldn’t be free will.

And many people are starting from the assumption that human beings are meat-machines, whose output/actions are completely determined by the input + their current internal state. “Free will,” or at least “libertarian free will,” doesn’t make sense within such a framework.

I, personally, reject such a framework and believe in free will, but I don’t know how to resolve the issue or to convince anyone else. For more on the issue from myself and other philosophical-minded Dopers, see this old thread:

Free Will - Does it exist?

Free will and determinism are two different things. We are provably captive to our brain and body chemistry, which pretty much rules out strict free will. In fact free will must assume a mind unaffected by the body, and no such mind has ever been shown to exist.
However there are certain levels of freedom. Some guy addicted to something, or psychotic, is clearly less free than the person who has a wider range of choices, still constrained by other factors but less so.

As for determinism, while our actions may be deterministic in the philosophical sense, in all practical ways they are not, either in the sense of predicting an action or fully explaining the cause of a past action. So, giving a yes or no answer is more a matter of semantics than anything useful.

Sorry, didn’t catch this thread, which is asking almost the same thing.

The more I think about it the more I realize it’s not worth thinking about. Whether or not I arrive at a certain conclusion (and whether or not I have any choice in the matter), nothing will change.