People familiar with Objectivism will remember an old article by Nathaniel Branden titled, “The Contradiction of Determinism,” (Objectivist Newsletter, May 1963). In it, he argues, not that the doctrine of free will is true, nor that determinism is false. Rather, he argues that if determinism is true, we cannot know it. And the reason we can’t know it is that, if determinism is true, no knowledge is possible at all.
The argument is that knowledge must be validated by a process of reason. Our suppositions about the world are not self-certifying. The mere presence of an idea in your mind does not establish that it is true. Therefore, we have to evaluate our suppositions about the world by means of sensory evidence and other tests, such as coherence. This must be done by a process of reason. But the process of reason cannot be realized by merely mechanical causation of the sort that is expressed by causal laws. Causal laws determine that a certain sort of event results in consequence of a certain sort of prior event, and this sort of determination is entirely different from that of seeing reasons or recognizing logical connections.
It has taken me a while to get around to reading Aaron Smith’s piece on Stoicism at the Ayn Rand Institute, which Roderick Long posted about already, but now that I’ve done so, I want to make a few comments.
What interests me particularly is Smith’s treatment of free will and determinism. It seems to me that Smith makes some common errors with regard to these, and it will help me to refine my own thinking on them a bit to comment on his remarks. I also think he somewhat misconstrues the impact of the Stoics’ determinism on their ethical philosophy. I should say that this is not hard to do. For the past several years, I have taught Stoicism every semester as part of my moral philosophy class, and when I started out, my interpretation was not so very different from Smith’s. But over time I have come to see—or so it seems to me—that their determinism has actually rather little impact on their ethics. It certainly is not the dominating influence that Smith makes it out to be. Or so I shall argue. Continue reading
I’ve often thought that the classic debates about free will suffer from a conflation of causation and necessitation. More generally, it’s often seemed to me that without a generally satisfying theory of causation, we have no reason to be worried that free will is a mere illusion. Since the reality of rational agency — where ‘reality’ is a matter of our reasoning controlling what we do in a way that cannot be explained entirely in terms of non-rational antecedent causes — seems like a necessary condition of our being able to formulate scientific and philosophical theories that stand a decent chance of being true, we would seem to have powerful reason to be skeptical at best of any philosophical or scientific theory that denies the reality of rational agency (this may be the one thing I think Kant got roughly right). When we notice, in addition to this consideration, that philosophers and scientists have arrived at no generally accepted theory of causation, and that many have even gone so far as to deny that science has any need for the concept of a cause at all, it seems even less sensible to get worked up about the possibility that maybe everything each of us does is determined entirely by antecedent causal factors over which our reasoning has no influence whatsoever. Continue reading