Student Question

Is there a valid reason to believe in determinism, and how does it impact our moral lives? Could understanding the brain lead us to conclude we lack free will?

Quick answer:

The basic rules of Newtonian physics supply evidence that a form of determinism could be true. If people believe their lives are predetermined, it may affect whether they feel responsible for their own moral choices.

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This question is subjective. Different people are likely to give wildly different responses depending on their background, religious beliefs, and/or basic worldviews.

Determinism is a philosophical theory that says that all events are 100% determined by previously existing events and/or causes. Determinism will often include moral choices and does indicate that humans have no free will. We simply act the way we do because of events that have happened previously, and future events will happen no matter what based on current events/causes. If you take this idea far enough, a human essentially has the ability to predict the future. Complete knowledge of a situation guarantees knowledge of the future of that situation. The Persian poet Omar Khayyman described this notion in one of his poems:

And the first Morning of Creation wrote

What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.

In some ways, determinism makes a lot of sense. Newtonian physics is a good example. The motion and interaction of everything is dependent on masses, distances, speeds, etc. Things are governed by physical laws; therefore, their current places in space and time determine their future places and interactions in space and time.

Regarding morality and free will, I do not personally think determinism can or should be applied. Complete determinism seems to remove any concept of moral responsibility from humanity. Determinism would say that a person can't choose to do right, wrong, good, or evil because the choice never really existed in the first place. It was already determined.

Some proponents of determinism do believe that the philosophy can affect our moral lives. Determinism says that past and present events/causes determine what will happen; therefore, with that ability to "see" the future, a moral responsibility is applied to humanity to seek out actions that will determine a "better" or "more moral" future outcome.

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Do we have good reason to believe that any form of determinism is true? If so, how does this affect our moral lives? Could we come to know so much about the brain that we would have to conclude that we really have no choice whenever we act?

Do we have good reason to believe that any form of determinism is true? Significant scientific advances in neurobiology and medical advances attempt to answer if heredity and environmental forces conspire to create situations whereby humans no longer have free will or choice. An influential group of respected professionals ascribes to the theory humans are products of their heredity and environment. Several psychologists promote the notion that heredity and environment supersede humans' ability to rationalize choices and make decisions they perceive are in their best interests. Others find a correlation between heredity, environment, and decision making. However, members in this group of experts believe humans have a greater capacity to overcome heredity or environment to make decisions from the position of free will, despite the influence of factors beyond their control. There is no consensus in the fields studying how human biology affects human psychology. It is accurate to say there is enough scientific evidence to suggest heredity and environment play a significant role in influencing decision making.

If so, how does this affect our moral lives? If one assumes determinism as absolute truth, then humans have no responsibility for the decisions they make. An absolute morality does not exist as humans have no control over their actions. Humans are no different from animals in nature, responding instinctively or adapting to their immediate natural environment changes. Rejecting determinism entirely is equally extreme. This position requires humans to adhere to the same moral and ethical standards, thus negating everyday experiences that influence how humans behave (peer pressure, for example). Daily experience and observations of humans interacting with others demonstrate this notion to be inaccurate. There are some universal moral and ethical standards humans adhere.

Compassion, understanding, and human experience require a certain level of empathetic response to situations meaning humans look to find answers to moral dilemmas accepting the idea that while we have free will, factors beyond our direct control lead to violations of moral and ethical standards. One may not condone a person's choice but understand why they chose to respond the way they responded. There is always a "grey area" in the tension between absolute morality and absolute abandonment of moral or ethical values.

Could we come to know so much about the brain that we would have to conclude that we really have no choice whenever we act? Attributing human interaction and responses to automation and completely dismissing free will has no benefit to society. Humans have free will. Society is built upon recognizing sometimes free will leads to poor choices, but free will is a necessary component for humans to survive. Do we want to live in a world where there are no universal standards, and all we choose is the result of heredity or environment? Innovation, aspiration, and creativity all depend upon free will and choice.

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