Saturday, November 10, 2007


Recently I've been thinking about the concept of determinism. I guess the idea really first intrigued me back in a Computer Science class. But now I tend to find it more interesting in a philosophical context, specifically about the question of free will.

Personally, I believe in the existence of free will (or agency). It makes sense to me. Most people believe that they have choices, and I agree. Not to say that there are no deterministic events... I guess that makes me a compatibilist. For example, I find that computers and programming are very deterministic (although the systems are very complex and that can lead to apparent inconsistency).

A while back I read some interesting arguments against free will. They were mostly based on scientific studies about the brain. For example, science has found that the brain and body react to stimuli before we actively comprehend it, and arguably before we can make a true choice. Another interesting study involved stimulating the brain in such a way that it seemed the person controlling the stimuli could choose for that person which hand they would raise.

These people argue that we are "moist robots" to borrow Scott Adams' phrase. We are a complex system and we react in specific, deterministic ways. We don't really have any choice over what we do. I disagree with this.

I think that we do have free will but that agency can be compromised. We can limit our own agency or others can take it from us. For example, take the idea of being pricked with a pin. Science says we react to the pin before we have made a decision. This may be true. But this does not necessitate a lack of free will. Our bodies may react instinctually, but we can also condition ourselves. If we have conditioned ourselves for violence, perhaps we flail out at the sudden attack. If we have conditioned ourselves for peace, we may just move away from the pain.

I imagine that the brain stimuli experiment could be likened to addiction. We can be so influenced by certain stimuli such that we lose options. Our agency is restricted. A simple illustration would involve a man who has committed a crime and is now in jail. By committing the crime, the eventual consequence was that his agency was reduced. He can no longer choose to go outside, for he lacks the means to do so.

This leads into the idea of moral responsibility. I believe that people should be held responsible for their actions. Being a religious person, I believe that God will hold people responsible. There is right and wrong. There is good and evil.

In any case, these are just some of my thoughts on the subject. This post is not meant to be a detailed treatise on the subject -- I'm not really a philosopher! But it is interesting food for thought.