Scientific Determinism and Cause and Effect, and Ethics: an in-depth conversation with a determinist

The following is a conversation I had last week with an apologist for scientific determinism in the comments section of a Sam Harris YouTube video entitled “Free Will“. The first comment is my intitial contribution to the thread where I am addressing not Philip, the person with whom I will eventually have the conversation, but simply the video itself. The “you” in this comment refers to Sam Harris, as well as anyone who would assert, specifically, the fallacy that there can be ethics despite an utter lack of any free will, and this due to the monolithic and infinite deterministic power of “cause and effect”.

This is a complicated issue…well…no…the issue qua the issue isn’t actually that complicated. That is, the complication and complexity which indubitably arises in these kinds of discussions isn’t so much a function of the relatively simple and arrantly true claim that “A man who has no agency (cannot act according to himself) cannot actually do anything, because he qua he doesn’t act; and so by definition he cannot act ethically, so why the fuck are we bringing ethics into a conversation about determinism?”, but rather due to the fact that an advocate for determinism and an advocate for individual agency are going to interpret reality according to entirely separate and mutually exclusive metaphysical premises. This means that the conversation, in order for it to not be a collosal waste of time will trend towards…that’s right, metaphysics.  And that’s where the shit gets real. It is there, and only there, that you can really make the relevant case for your position. Like…if you are going to say that man is Self (that is, an Agent who functions from a position of Self-awareness, which implies the actually reality of Self and thus an efficacious distinction between Self and Other (environment)), or that man is Determined (a direct function of Cause and Effect, and thus has no efficacious ontological autonomy), then you must necessarily answer the question “What IS man?”. And that’s why metaphysics is always a part of these discussions, and why they go the way they go when the two conversants are fully committed to their completely different ideas, and also to the conversation (a combination which is unfortunately a lot rarer than you might think). Getting to the metaphysics is involved, and requires a careful and voluminous and painstaking dissection of any number of tertiary and ancillary assumptions. Obviously a YouTube comments thread isn’t the most ideal setting for this dialectic, which is why you’ll undoubtedly notice that the conversation is a bit clumsy and opaque in places.  Nevertheless I think that this conversation has, overall, a lot of value. For example, two of the more salient topics I address is:

1. How determinism contradicts the plurality of existence (the distinction (independence)) of existant objects, which is an implicit prerequisite for cause and effect according to the determinist’s own definition of this mechanism; and:

2. The paradox of: the necessity of the absolute-ness of objects (objects being infinitely themselves…that is infinite existential singularity) + the necessity of absolute relationship between a given object and any number of other distinct objects (infinite existential plurality)…which, as I said, scientific determinism contradicts.

The non-italicized comments are mine, the italicized, his. Thanks so much for reading; I hope you enjoy it.

-Zach

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Laughable. You can deny the existence of will and choice, which, drawn out to its logical conclusion, means that the Agent who is said to Will and to Choose (the autonomous Self) is entirely irrelevant, which practically speaking is the equivalent of non-existence, and yet still argue for ethics! Absurd. How do you have morality [or ethics] absent moral [or ethical] agency? How do you have intelligence absent intellectual agency? Scientific determinism is proof that scientists shouldn’t be within a thousand miles of philosophy. Once Sam can provide a metaphysic which does not collapse under the weight of its own contradictions then maybe I’ll consider him more than just another articulate pseudo-intellectual turned polemic.

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I think you’re confusing ethics with moral accountability. Even without free will, it makes sense to want people to have a good experience in life. You can accept you aren’t in control of your thoughts and actions, but you still have a conscious experience. So we have an ethical obligation, regardless of the existence of free will, to increase well being wherever we can. That means potentially stopping someone from doing something that decreases well being. Whether or not they were in control is besides the point.

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Without moral accountability, ethics are irrelevant. Meaning, you cannot argue for rational ethics if no one is actually able to act ethically, because choice (and thus will; and thus consciousness) is precluded by your scientific determinism. The irony is that this destruction of ethics (by making “Determinism” the metaphysic) is exactly what the Protestant church teaches. Man is fallen, and thus pervasively depraved, and so cannot choose good or know Truth. Sam is just another mystic without the funny clothes, I’m afraid.

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you didn’t really reply to what I said. I said suffering and well being still matter if free will doesn’t exist. and there’s no reason to think consciousness wouldn’t exist without free will. People can act ethically and also accept that they are not in control. determinism does not argue that we are depraved and evil, it argues that we are what we are for reasons beyond our control. To some, recognizing this make morality clearer. You are able to forgive others and think in terms of how they can be helped. if there’s no cause behind their action then there’s no way to change it. Belief in determinism also keeps you cognizant of what is affecting you and the things you do. you may not be in control, but in a sense you gain perspective from recognizing this.

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I did reply. You are arguing that ethics is possible absent moral agency. That is, absent the ability to choose right from wrong. If choice between right and wrong is impossible, then what you know to be good or bad with respect to anything is irrelevant. Which makes ethics irrelevant. And that which is irrelevant cannot by definition be effectively applied. Further, I notice that you make the implicit argument that you can know what is true or false and good or bad without actually being able to choose to pursue or apply one over the other. This is a rational impossibility. To be able to define a thing and yet be unable to apply it to a paradigm (like your existence) referenced to You (You, the Observer, as distinct from what you observe), makes the definition irrelevant. And it is impossible to generate an irrelevant definition. You cannot create meaning which doesn’t actually mean anything.

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Ethics is a function of epistemology. It is the rational (True, and thus appropriate, or Good) application of what you know. If you are unable to apply what you know, because free will and thus choice is impossible, then ethics does not exist. And if there is no application of what you know, then what you know is irrelevant; and if what you know is irrelevant, then you cannot actually know yourself. Which makes “yourself” impossible to define. Which means you cannot define others.. And all of this means that “Sam Harris” doesn’t actually exist to make this argument. And neither do you or I. So who is typing then?

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maybe we have a different definition of ethics. to me, an ethical action or event is one that results in someone feeling good rather than suffering. it’s true that if your definition of ethics requires moral agency, then yes, ethics don’t exist within determinism. all I am saying is that people have experiences regardless of control and it makes sense to want those experiences to be good even if you can’t truly control them. the thing is, we can apply our knowledge of right and wrong without control over the factors that led to the knowledge. it doesn’t make sense to make a decision of right or wrong that is not based on factors you don’t control. what would that even look like? which brings up the other point of the self. it’s true, under determinism the self is just an amalgamation of genes and experience. this solidifies the definition of the self more than a belief that there is some un-quantifiable 3rd factor. or you could just look at the self as the result of a configuration of matter that happens to result in consciousness, which also makes sense. you and I and Sam Harris exist as vessels for experience with predispositions. so yes, I’d say you are typing, but you are your genes and environment.

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Okay…well, leaving aside ethics for now, wrt your last comment I would ask how it is possible under the scientific determinism argument to get consciousness from unconsciousness? That is, determinism, I submit by definition, is the absolute antithesis of consciousness. It renders it completely (infinitely) irrelevant–lacking any degree of efficacy whatsoever, which means that if determinism is true, consciousness could not possibly exist. The empirical and rational proof of consciousness is that which gives it efficacy–the ability to apply the awareness of Self to a given existential context (the Self in Its Environment). If choice is impossible, then awareness is meaningless, because man cannot apply what he knows, including the knowledge of him Self. Which brings us back to the lack of any rational efficacy to consciousness within the determinist model. And we can assert that consciousness is an illusion, but this merely begs the question “An illusion of what?”. How can there be an illusion of that which determinism makes impossible by making it utterly antithetical to determinism?

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I’m not sure I see why consciousness has to be connected to free will. we don’t know how consciousness arose, but it seems rational to assume it comes from the brain. it may be my lack of philosophical training, but I’m not sure what you mean by the proof of consciousness being the ability to apply the self to an existential context. the only evidence I see is ones own experience. I know I am conscious, but I don’t know you are conscious. there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of free will. the two seem mutually exclusive. it’s not that choice is impossible, it’s just that all the factors that go into a decision can be, in theory, accounted for, given enough data. I don’t really see consciousness as an illusion because of what you said: an illusion of what? it’s a space for us to process information, but we know it’s not the only way we process info. the info we process, both conscious and unconscious, gives rise to our feelings, emotions, personality, views, and everything that we imagine makes up the self. I would say the self is an illusion if you believe we are just vessels for experience. but, consciousness itself is the tool we use to experience the world. my answer to your question is that I don’t think consciousness, free will, or even ethics really depend on each other. I like this conversation. if you can, I’d like to hear how you reach the idea that consciousness is antithetical to free will.

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Well, I think studying philosophy would be something you might do…not to sound pejorative or patronizing, of course. I find that the lack of rational consistency which is, again with respect, profound amongst scientists has precisely to do with their ignorance with respect to philosophy. Scientists are great at mathematically categorizing what they observe, but have no real plumb line for actually defining it in an ontological sense, which is absolutely necessary before one can make a philosophical assertion like “free will is an illusion”. Indeed, in order for science to be in any way meangingful, one must assume an ontological distinction between the observer and what he observes. Scientists like Harris obliterate this distinction by making the observer a DIRECT function of what he observes, which wrecks the dichotomy that gives science any practical application or indeed any meaning by wrecking the ability of the observer to actually apply any of the knowledge he gathers about his environment through observation because choice, which is rooted in the knowledge of what is true or false, becomes impossible. And this because the observer–the moral and intellectual agent whose existence provides the rationally necessary context for knowledge gained through observation–is concluded to not actually exist. Consciousness I submit is merely the ability of the Self–the individual Observer, of you will–to conceptualize what he observes and the apply it to his life: the manifestation of the ability of oneto make a distinction between himself and his environment. It’s not a “state”. It’s merely the awareness of self, which is merely the ability to conceptualize self, which implies the conceptualization of that which is not self. Once this dichotomy is realized, free will I think is self evident.

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I must be missing it, but I don’t see how a lack of agency leads to nonexistence. You can put info into a calculator and it gives you an answer. That does not make it free. Similarly, we can take in info and then apply the knowledge we gained from it. The process is much more complicated for us, but at no point do I see the opportunity to insert free will. I don’t see how Harris wrecks the distinction between observer and what he observes or, if he does, how that makes choice impossible. Unless by “choice” you mean free choice. We make choices all the time with the inputs I’ve already mentioned. Your talk of an ontological argument seems to muddy the waters. The logic seems simple to me: If the material brain is all that is responsible for consciousness, then consciousness arises out of states of matter. If we live in a universe that follows cause and effect, then all states of matter arise out of previous states of matter. I’m sure it can be put more eloquently, but that’s how I think of it. Your last paragraph makes sense to me until the end. I don’t see how the conceptualization of self and that which isn’t the self leads to free will. I previously talked about the self being an illusion in that it is merely how genetics and experience manifest in consciousness. So in some sense, I think the dichotomy is false. The self is unavoidably connected to everything else because it is a product of everything else. I see what you mean about destroying the distinction now. It seems unavoidable. I guess I’d like to know if you think the logical argument I gave above makes sense. We can argue about the truth of the “ifs” if you’d like, but it’d be a weird and probably fruitless argument.

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I’m loquacious…that sometimes makes my arguments less accessible than I’d like them to be. My apologies. What I am trying to convey is that when you destroy the distinction between observer and observed, you cannot speak of Self, which means you QUA you cannot possibly make the arguments you (or Harris) are making. The very fact that you claim a truth is the proof that you concede that you can know the difference between truth and falsehood and can act in service to this knowledge. * If all things are determined, then there is no difference between this idea or that. Sam Harris is no more correct in his asssertions with respect to will than one who asserts the exact opposite. Everything by his own definition is merely the necessary and unavoidable effect of the Great All Determining Cause. So Harris makes an argument whilst at the same rendering his argument moot. Your agreement or disagreement is as determined as his assertion. Of what value then is consciousness? Of what value is knowledge? Of what value is science? None at all. And this further undermines his argument. As far as a “cause and effect” universe–I really don’t understand what that means. In order for “cause and effect” to have any practical value, there must be a difference between those things which are cause and effected, I would think.. Are you saying that “cause and effect” is a force which actually causes the things (material objects) upon which it acts? And if so, how do you quantify or even qualify cause and effect since nothing actually exists to be caused or effected because every object is a DIRECT and absolute function of “cause and effect”. Or are you saying that cause and effect is a force which is distinct from the things upon which it acts? In which case those things, ontologically speaking, are their own root “causes” if you will. I myself submit that cause and effect is simply one of many ways man conceptualizes the relative movement of objects he observes. Cause and effect is not ACTUALLY causal in the ontological sense. Meaning that cause and effect can describe relative movement but it cannot explain how a thing exists.

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this is getting into territory that departs from practicality. how is any science able to be done without breaking the dichotomy? I think youre judging the value of an assertion based on whether or not it was made freely rather than whether or not it reflects a truth about reality. and if we’re going to regress into claiming to not know anything about reality, then we can’t really get anywhere. my agreement or disagreement still matters without freedom of choice because it is still either right or wrong and it has consequences in the world. your deconstruction of cause and effect has left me perplexed and no closer to understanding you. I’m using cause and effect in the simple way people use it normally. as in, one thing causes another thing. a thing cannot come from no cause. I don’t know about you, I’ve experienced enough to believe all things are caused. what would it look like to see something that wasn’t caused? I don’t get your definition of existence. does something have to be separate from cause and effect to prove cause and effect? that simply makes no sense, and also doesn’t seem like a rational argument against it. if cause and effect can’t explain how something exists, then I don’t know what can. science makes basic assumptions about reality to function, but anyone who would honestly dispute those assumptions would not be able to function in reality themselves. philosophy and pure logic has its uses, but it seems one can use word games to get somewhere that doesn’t truly make any sense. we could blame this on my ignorance, but I have confidence that I would understand what you are saying if it truly made sense. I can tell you are very intelligent, but your ideas just aren’t clicking with me

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Quick reply: If everything is a direct function of something else, how can anything actually exist? If cause and effect is monolithic and infinite, how are objects actually independent of each other?

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I just do not see why interconnectedness makes things non-existent. Object aren’t really independent of each other? there’s no situation where an object isn’t being affected by another objects, even if it’s just gravity. can you give me one example of a thing that is not a direct function of something else?

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But it’s not interconnected-ness you are asserting. It’s a lack of any distinction whatsoever. You are making one thing an absolute function of another. “Absolute” means that there is no actual difference between the cause and the effect. This is not interconnectedness. This is the assertion that no “thing” (an object qua itself) actually exists. It makes your empirical perception of distinct objects actually impossible. To answer your question, I guess I would ask: does the apple fall from the tree because of gravity first, or because it is able, as a function of its own independent existence, to be “caused upon” by gravity? Unless the apple IS actually the apple, first, then it cannot be caused upon by gravity…there can be no real relationship.. Gravity then requires a true dichotomy. A true distinction. An apple qua an apple. Determinism makes this impossible.

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yes but you wouldn’t attribute free will to the apple simply because it exists right? gravity may cause it’s movement, but it’s existence is not of its own doing. it came from an apple tree, which came from a seed, and on back the causes go. how can cause and effect be separate when each effect then becomes a cause? what I am saying is that an object can’t exist without a cause. an effect cannot be removed from its cause so the apple can’t just ‘exist’ independently. gravity’s effect on the apple requires the apple to exist, but the apples existence is predicated on prior cause as well.

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Naturally I wasn’t asserting that the apple had free willl. I was asserting that before an apple can fall, it must BE an apple. It needs to possess a distinct identity before it can be said to be caused upon (effected), and before it can be said to cause something else. The point of my initial comment on this video was to point out the inherent rational contradiction which undermines the whole determinist argument. Since “cause and effect”, or the “laws which govern nature” are absolute and monolithic, there can be no such thing as distinct objects, because no object is “itself”–it is entirely a direct and absolute function of something else. There are no such thing as “things” which cause and effect acts upon, or cause and effect other things, because everything is merely an extension of cause and effect. Nothing has any actual identity. The apple is an absolute function of what caused it, which means the apple does not actually exist as such, which means it couldn’t have been caused, which means that that which caused it isn’t actually a cause, because it produced no effect, since the apple doesn’t actually exist. This is why YOU, if indeed you are a direct and utter extension of something else, don’t actually exist. Which means you can’t have a sense or awareness of “you” because you qua you is impossible. Now, if you’d like me to address how think the contradiction can be resolved with a better explanation of how to interpret reality, I can do that. But the fact that I’ve offered no resolution to your determinist fallacy doesn’t mean it’s not a fallacy. With respect, the determinist model colllapses under the weight of its own massive contradiction. You need a new model. Saying “this is the only model science supports” doesn’t make the model rational or true. It merely means that science as of now has failed to provide a rational interpretation and model of reality. So, re-evaluate your premises and start again.

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I think you’re reading too much into the importance of objects being identifiable. a determinist could describe reality as the process of matter continuously shifting into different forms. the distinction of when an object becomes what it is and stops being what it is is not clear. in this way, cause and effect is more like a continuous process rather than a series of stages because whatever stages you draw are arbitrary. however, it makes no sense to conclude that because stages of matter are ill defined, objects themselves don’t exist. hurricane Matthew is on the way. there is what Matthew is right now, but there is also the process of Matthew’s development. these two concepts cannot be separated, yet we can’t deny the existence of Matthew. I simply do not see this fallacy of determinism. i would like to hear another way to interpret reality that allows things to exist without a cause, but I understand if you are getting tired of this conversation.

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I would say that determinism actually makes cause and effect impossible because there are no independent “things” possible. Everything is merely an extension of determinism. There is no First Cause. Like…the first cause MUST have happened; it could not have NOT happened. In other words, it was determined. It had a cause; and that cause had a cause, and so on and so forth. Cause and effect is subordinated to the infinity of Determinism. Determinism is absolute and monolithic. It doesn’t actually allow for any distinct objects to cause or to be caused upon. Cause and effect is only rational when it becomes merely a cognitive means by which man organizes the relative movement of what he observes. But here’s the bigger issue: I think you are hinting at an implicit root paradox, and I think you are on to something. This is how I define the paradox to which I think you are alluding: object X must be defined according to its observable relationship with object Y; it cannot exist in a vacuum of itself, because in a vacuum of itself it is infinite, and what is infinite cannot be valued and thus cannot be defined. And I am saying that there can be no relationship between objects X and Y unless each object is ACTUALLY itself-with a distinct and separate ontological essence whereby it can have a unique identity and thus it can be said that object X IS ACTUALLY object X, and thus can have a relationship (like “cause and effect”) with object Y. And that is the big question. We need a metaphysic (an irreducible…an axiom of reality; that explains how what is, IS) that resolves this paradox. And it’s not been done yet. Well…I think I’ve done it 🙂 But I don’t think anyone else has. Anyway, I think you’ve definitely identified the paradox. It’s needs to be resolved, but determinism can’t do it.

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I’m still hesitant to accept that cause and effect requires independently defined causes and effects. but I see what you are saying. first cause is obviously a problem, but we can’t expect to know everything, or even that we are capable of understanding first cause, or that the question even makes sense because of the connection of time and space. but you think you have discovered an alternative to the apparent paradox? I’d love to hear it. unless it’s a secret.

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Well, at this point I think I will leave you with the paradox. The explication of the metaphysics, while not complex or hard to understand, necessarily, will likely lead to an even longer and more tedious conversation than this one. And I’m just not up for that right now.:-) I appreciate your time, and this was fun. Thanks for sharing you ideas with me; I always learn just a little bit more by these kinds of engagements, and I discover more of my own weaknesses, which is exceedingly beneficial in refining my ideas and, importantly, how I deliver them. Take care, man. And thanks again.

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Thank you too. I can’t say ive changed my mind but I feel that I need to read more philosophy. It’s a very difficult question. Take care.

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3 thoughts on “Scientific Determinism and Cause and Effect, and Ethics: an in-depth conversation with a determinist

  1. I’m sure you understand that your discussion here relies upon a common and unitive reality. Have you considered the possibility that reality is not common nor unitive?

  2. … or rather that the idea of reality refers the only one manner of appropriating the situation at hand. The truth of the matter if someone indeed investigates honestly is that their ultimately determined in their activity while making choices that are not determined. Where the contradiction inherent in the statement reduces to something that’s absurd reveals only ones faith in the matter it does not reduce to some actual reality that is common between us. It’s specifically points to the faith involved in the assertion that it is absurd.

  3. Actually, Philip and I disagree on the fundamental metaphysics. Philip asserts Determinism as the “mechanism” by which everything is, while I assert Ability as the Power enabling the ontological, intellectual, and moral “is” of everything. So, our definitions of reality are then by necessity entirely different. Philip doesn’t actually believe man qua man exists, which is why he thinks man’s free will is an illusion (of what exactly I have no idea). I believe that man does in fact exist in his own capacity, and therefore is necessarily possessing a will. So again, our interpretive lenses for what is real and what isn’t are of totally different shades.

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