Contingency, Causality, Determinism, And Free Will

In thinking about what probability means, it’s important to sort out what is contingent and what relationship contingent events have to causality. Contingency simply means that what is could have been something else. That what will happen is not logical necessary. We can imagine the contingent. As with many things, Chesterton put it best:

You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail.

A necessity chain of events is one where “we cannot conceive [one thing] occurring without the other.” Statements of logic and mathematics are examples where we start by accepting certain facts and rules which then inevitably lead to other facts, where those facts are necessarily so. Thus empirical events are contingent.

Causality is the belief that (most? all?) events have a cause or causes which precedes them. It is a belief. There is no proof of it arising from simpler axioms. In particular, we have not and could not have deduced causality for contingent events from contingent events. Hume argued that we inferred the principle of causality from inspection of correlations; from noticing this event (almost) always followed this other happening. And since all events are contingent—they could have been otherwise—then our inference of causality is not a deduction, and thus doubt remains whether causality is real, especially for all events (each and every one of them).

There is also doubt that causality operates always and in all places and in the same way. Stating this is not questioning the belief, but it does give emphasis, and properly so, that it is a belief. You might assume however, given its overwhelming support, that philosophers are solidly behind causality. You would be wrong. The Stanford Encyclopedia quotes Bertrand Russell

The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.

Because causality is not (or might not be) the same as determinism, many philosophers separate the ideas. It’s also important not to confuse predictability with determinism: all deterministic sequences are perfectly predictable given perfect knowledge of their starting points and the unbreakable and inflexible laws that govern their behavior. But we usually do not often mean necessarily flawless predictions when speaking of predictability.

If everything at some future time is a necessary consequence of the way things are now, and the way things are now are a necessary consequence of the way it was when time began (whenever that might have been, even never), then determinism rules.

Neurologists seeking publicity are often staunch determinists. We can’t hold the forlorn rule breaker accountable for his actions, says David Eagleman, for he has no free will, because each state of the criminal’s brain proceeds deterministically from each prior state. Presumably Eagleman believes that his brain has somehow escaped from determinism to bring us this news. He also implies that we his audience can also break free of determinism and modify our behavior (in a direction which acknowledges the supremacy of determinism).

Whether or not you think this is nonsense or a keen insight into the workings on the brain, it remains true that determinism has not been deduced and it too is a belief. That is, it is not certainly true given our observations of the contingent world. It is also not so that we can prove determinism, if operative, is always operative (no exceptions), or always has been, or that it applies to every imaginable kind of contingent event.

If anything observational evidence gives evidence against strict causality and determinism. We often witness events which have no apparent cause. We only believe a cause exists because we assume causality, which insists all events have a cause. Further, we often cannot say what were the relevant and exact initial conditions and unbreakable laws that led to an event—that led certainly to the event, to be clear. There is no probability in determinism. If an event is merely probable, given some evidence off initial conditions and operative laws, then the event has not been determined (not with respect to our knowledge).

So why do so many believe, and believe with all their hearts, that causality and determinism are necessary features of our universe? To ask this is not a proof of the opposite. But if you do believe, why?

Comments

Contingency, Causality, Determinism, And Free Will — 29 Comments

  1. Good question. For one, I don’t want to live in a world that is capricious. I prefer to know that when I plant seeds they will grow into plants. The observation that NOT planting the seeds leads to no crop is a bit inescapable. The last time I looked, barren land rarely produces a barrel of seed.

    As far as accountability, what ever does free will or determinism have to do with anything? If there’s a bad apple in the basket do you remove it? If so, did you hold it accountable?

    As far as deterministic human action, I think it quite plausible that humans make value assessments (cost/benefit), though not necessarily consciously, and inevitably act accordingly. We call this making a choice but if one always acts to optimize cost/benefit then Free Will is an illusion.

  2. DAV,

    Not all seeds grow into plants. But your desire that most or all should is, as you know, not proof that they should or will. We indeed observe that most seeds grow into plants, but from this we can at best infer that it is highly probably that most will continue to do so.

    We have to do more on Eagleton.

  3. At the elemental level physics world does acknowledge two kinds of indeterminacy- quantum & chaotic (the second due to the fact that one can not have ‘full’ knowledge of the universe or even an isolated system at a given state). But that still gives room to macro level determinacy.

    So claims about discounting the free will at fundamental level might be overblown, but why be critical of them when they are meant to better inform law & policy as Eagleman advocates.

  4. Ankur,

    If E. wants to tell us that we don’t have as much control as perfect control, well, that’s something the law already knows. But if wants to tell us that a person’s actions are fully determined, and thus that the person cannot be held accountable, then that’s something different. Of course, the punisher’s actions are just as fully determined, so we can’t hold him accountable either.

  5. Antony Flew (British philosopher) has argued that even if, in some ultimate sense, there is no free will, free will certainly exists in the sense that a person who does something at the direction of someone holding a gun to his head does it less freely than one who does it in some other circumstance, such as having been nicely asked, or having thought of doing it without being asked, or anything like this.

    (I don’t think this is original with Flew; he just talks about in a general discussion in one of his books, such as “Introduction to Western Philosophy”(?).)

    To me, this suggests that what we really mean by “free will” is the cause of those of our acts whose “deterministic” causes, IF ANY, would be remote from us, i.e., with causal chains too long and too numerous to make any statement about the causes of an act meaningful. If someone holds a gun to my head and tells me to give him my money, I have no problem with saying later that I did not act of my own free will. The same is not true of countless other acts of mine.

  6. So why do so many believe, and believe with all their hearts, that causality and determinism are necessary features of our universe? To ask this is not a proof of the opposite. But if you do believe, why?

    I suspect they’re rationalizing their own habitual or compulsive behavior. To explain this type of behavior, there is no need of believing that determinism is true. To be sure, it’s troubling, to the person who suffers from it, but by itself it does not make for an argument that free will does not exist.

  7. Determinism — that things occur due to preceding events…that “free will” is an illusion — is easily, perhaps ‘better,’ assessed from the perspective of “what benefits result to those than can achieve the belief in this?’

    In that perspective the answer is very clear: personal accountability falls by the wayside. It reinforces & excuses one’s errors, laziness, failures, etc. This is exactly the common theme of the extreme left-wing liberal victim mindset, by the way.

    Its also observed in many of thier publications that continually re-emphasize Darwinian themes centered on natural selection & evolution…that these are wholly accountable for a given situation, and then by extenstion that situation is deterministic (though they don’t assert this so overtly). The reality is that evolution/natural selection have created a brain that is very very malleable in response to external circumstances & how the individual works to adapt, etc.

    We now know — KNOW, as in with certainty — that the brain is continually “re-wiring” itself inresponse to various stimulus. This was studied, as just one of many examples, in London cabbies–with a 1-2 year certification program their brains were observed to physically change consistent with the types of visual & geographic requirements of their jobs. Ditto for many other situations.

    Thus, the courtroom drama that presents information that a person’s brain is showning different patterns than the average…and therefore that person is not accountable for their actions is deeply flawed. That might be true, but chances are more likely their behaviors & focus & so forth combined with time to “re-wire” their brain accordingly. This is now known as:

    NEUROPLASTICITY — there’s a lot on-line available via just that search term.

    A decent book showing how dramatic this ability is, associated with stroke victims making amazing recovories is: “The Brain that Changes Itself,” by Dr. Norman Doidge; http://www.amazon.com/Brain-That-Changes-Itself-Frontiers/dp/067003830X

    However, trying to assert that one has no “free will” and/or any related viewpoint is utterly negated by what we KNOW regarding neuroplasticity.

  8. Universal determinism is a fundamentally simpler model of the universe so, other things being equal, it is a reasonable null hypothesis.

    What about quantum indeterminism? I take that to mean that we do not know of any causal agent responsible for a measurement or result. In my opinion not knowing is not grounds for claiming to have discovered true indeterminism. I’m not satisfied that we have ruled out all possible chaotic causes.

    Miracles such as “genuinely could have done otherwise free will” seem to be little more than wishful thinking.

    I think that compatibilist “free will” has most of the attributes we would look for in more romantic definitions of free will. Given all the noise caused by molecular collisions, electromagnetic radiation, cosmic rays, and everything else, I’m not sure how quantum indeterminacy adds to freedom in any reasonable sense.

    “So why do so many believe, and believe with all their hearts, that causality and determinism are necessary features of our universe? To ask this is not a proof of the opposite. But if you do believe, why?”

    I would not say that determinism is a necessary feature of the natural world but to answer the question; simpler model, same results.

    Why choose a more complicated model? Which of the more complicated models should we prefer? Largely deterministic with miracles, or largely deterministic with truly random quantum inputs? If the second, does this differentiate your view of free will from the compatibilist view with it’s dozens of pseudo-random inputs?

    I think that these views are roughly equivalent to those of Daniel C. Dennet in Freedom Evolves. I’m not sure whether I finished the reading book but found myself in complete agreement, except from how I would define some words.

  9. Does free will mean making decisions without cause? Is our experience the reason that we don’t necessarily make the same decision and handle things differently?

    What is the will free of? God? Chemicals in the brain? Controlling spouse? Do our young children have free will?

    I really want to have ice cream for breakfast every day, but I choose not to. Has so-called “free will” made the choice for me?

    Anyway, I don’t know if neuroscience can define exactly what “free will” is, but I find the science of how the brain works fascinating.

  10. Determined outcomes are derivative of initial conditions. A question to ask is: are the derivations novel? Or are they just variations on a theme? Judeo-Christian theology is firmly attached to creativity as well as derivation. “Let there be light” was new; “Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob” required a chain of prior causes happening before the next could be true.

    Maybe determinism and creativity both exist in parallel, each with a domain that is impossible to separate from the other by we who are embedded within them.

  11. Some smart folks (e.g., physicist Paul Davies) argue that perhaps on a larger scale of space and time, causality itself does not work. This allows for a universe that somehow loops self consistently back on itself to create the conditions conducive to life … and ultimately self contemplation. See for example John Wheeler’s “Delayed Choice Experiment,” which seems to show that a photon makes up its mind whether to act like a particle or a wave before it needs to.

    So if even causality is up for grabs, determinism is having a bad day.

  12. Briggs says:
    14 November 2011 at 9:11 am

    Ankur,

    If E. wants to tell us that we don’t have as much control as perfect control, well, that’s something the law already knows. But if wants to tell us that a person’s actions are fully determined, and thus that the person cannot be held accountable, then that’s something different. Of course, the punisher’s actions are just as fully determined, so we can’t hold him accountable either.

    I agree. If the universe is deterministic, then isn’t the future (all of the future) just following an unchangeable path? This implies the only moral judgments we should and will make (like this one) are those prescribed by the deterministic future. So if Eagleman is correct, we’re all just along for the ride. He may be right; but if he is, individuals will give the matter thought if and only if the deterministic future says they will.

  13. The discussion re neuroscientific bases of free will amplified by David Engleman has its beginning in experiments conducted by Libet quite a few years ago. In a nutshell: it is possible to show that the neuronal activity related to some action precedes the moment in which the individual signals the willingness to undertake that action. It has been shown in many configurations and it is a fact. The finding invigorated somewhat simplistic discussion on the subject of the absence of free will. Admittedly the neuronal activity leading to some action occurs earlier than I realize that. So I “unconscious” start to contemplate something before I “conscious” realize it. But I “conscious”have the ability to CENSOR that unconscious activity. And thus execute my “free will”.
    Engleman compiles a lot of interesting examples from the field of neurophysiology and neurology, but creates a very shaky argument when he extends it into social context / conclusions. The bibliography of that subject is huge. One may start with Sophocles, go through great theologians, philosophers and end with Wittgenstein.
    The school of thought in neuroscience represented by Engleman should be contrasted with more probabilistic approach represented for example by P. Glimcher.

  14. Smoking Frog,

    Re: Flew’s example of less or more freely. If strict determinism holds (everywhere, always), then there cannot be actions “more” or “less” free, because everything is determined. A billiard ball that is struck a glancing blow (it’s always billiard balls in these discussions) careers just as deterministically as that struck face on.

    That we even have words to label things like coercion, unimpeded choice, preference, tendency, etc. suggests a flaw in the deterministic theory.

    genemachine,

    Interesting as always, especially re: compatiblism. And we’re back on topic: what evidence do we have for (constant, pervasive) determinism/causality? Yours is that it these are simpler theories than alternatives. Maybe. But simpler than what? And why is simpler better? Well, because we have often—but not always—found simpler theories to be better. But that is not a deduction; hence, not a proof.

    And here is is not clear that determinism is simpler anyway.

    Again, the main question is why? I’ve often found it risible to hear some of these guys (not you) argue against their own free will (they never find the humor). They do so because they’ve accepted strict determinism. The argument is “Ok, determinism rules. Therefore I had no choice but to say, ‘determinism rules.’ Now I must convince everybody else to say the same.” What is the “I” in that sentence? If another doesn’t believe in determinism, they don’t believe because they have no choice not to believe.

    But let’s focus: why do we believe determinism/causality holds everywhere and all time? We have no empirical evidence that this is so. So why do we believe this?

  15. Briggs…very glad you separated Causality and Determinism. It is an important distinction that is often lost on most people.

    A couple of points…I hold to causality of the material universe, but not to determinism, based on a transcendental intelligence argument.

    I would argue against determinism, on the basis that if determinism were true, knowledge itself is impossible.

    I would argue for causality, because to argue against it is nonsensical. To argue that causality breaks down is to argue that ‘nothing causes something’ which an impossibility.

  16. Lets throw a little Calvism into this… John Calvin believed something along these lines.

    God is omnicient. He knows what you are going to do before you know what you are going to do. And so, while you toil over your decision, God already knows the outcome. Everything is predestined. However, just because fate governs your life, you do not get an excuse to not think long and hard about your decisions. God gave you a brain and he does expect you to use it. To not use it would be an insult to God.

    I don’t go for the whole predestination arguement. But, as a philosophy, it holds the criminal responsible for his crimes even if it was fate that he would do them.

  17. Briggs,

    Re: Flew’s example of less or more freely. If strict determinism holds (everywhere, always), then there cannot be actions “more” or “less” free, because everything is determined. A billiard ball that is struck a glancing blow (it’s always billiard balls in these discussions) careers just as deterministically as that struck face on.

    Yes, there can. A less free act would be one with nearer and fewer causes. A more free act would be one with more distant and numerous causes. This is compatible with strict determinism. You’re merely insisting that “free” excludes strict determinism. I see no reason why it should.

    That we even have words to label things like coercion, unimpeded choice, preference, tendency, etc. suggests a flaw in the deterministic theory.

    I’m not sure I understand. It seems to suggest my argument.

  18. Smoking Frog,

    Let’s put it this way, for act A there are 5 necessary and sufficient causes, for act B there is only one. If determinism were true, then the best we could say was that act A had more requirements than B. But if A and B happen, both were caused to have happened independently of volition. It would only remain true that A is less likely if and only if the chance that the conjunction of the 5 causes is less than the chance of the one cause for B. But there is still no room—no elbow room, Dennett’s phrase—for a mind to line up circumstances such that the conjunction of causes or cause is made to occur. Infinite regress strikes.

    Anyway, let’s remind ourselves—thanks Alan!—of the big question. What proof have you that determinism and causality are everywhere operative? Alan says—and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with him—that nothing causing something is an “impossibility”. Why?

  19. Briggs…
    To answer your question
    “Alan says—and I’m not necessarily disagreeing with him—that nothing causing something is an “impossibility”. Why?”

    Let me go back to your original post
    “Chesterton put it best:

    You cannot IMAGINE two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. ”

    To say that nothing can cause something (or that something can happen without cause…a poor rephrasing common these days to hide the absurdity) is to say that:
    0+1=3

    Or, to put things another way…
    If nothing could cause something, then we would see things pop into being (e.g. a unicorn
    appearing in your room).
    You would not have the first or second laws of thermodynamics.
    You could not place limitations on what could or could not happen for no cause (as limitations imply it is rules based). Saying that nothing can only cause tiny effects, or that nothing only causes effects at a certain rate, is a doubly non-sensical statement.

    Anyways, that is my two cents.

  20. Alan,

    Your example doesn’t work. There is no basis to write “0+1=3″, for instance. You haven’t demonstrated the impossibility of an event without a cause.

    Also, the your use of the word “law” is curious. If you mean an absolute deduction starting from true premises to a certain conclusion, then it’s ok. But if it merely means a set of formula with have been found to work in most instances, then you have in induction, which means the law isn’t necessarily true.

  21. Re Tallis: Scientists, philosophers and quite a few toilers in the humanities believe—and would have the rest of us believe—that nothing fundamental separates humanity from animality.

    I can understand the sentiment but why is the separation of humans from the rest of the animal world so important to people?

    Back to determinism. Even if all action is deterministic, why does the notion upset so many? Is it that We’re-Far-More-Important-Than-Animals concept? I’m still curious why it’s necessary to find fault when dealing with criminals. Does it really matter why the serial killer get his kicks? Even if he has no choice, he’s still a danger and needs to be dealt with. Certain actions have consequences. Catching cancer has consequences, too. Coming down with cancer is not a ‘choice’ but the consequences must still be suffered. If the serial killer has no choice (because of blah blah blah) he still should suffer the consequences. It’s one of those ain’t-it-a-shame things.

    This doesn’t include those who say, kill in self-defense. They were (presumably) placed in an unusual situation and reacted. As such they aren’t really a danger to the rest of us.

    Somebody brought up Calvin. I’ll be damned.

  22. Briggs,

    “what evidence do we have for (constant, pervasive) determinism/causality?”

    I hope we can agree that the seemingly indeterministic processes are at the very edge of observable physics and that there is a possibility that these events may have causes we cannot observe. I am not making a claim that determinism is proven, rather I am claiming that we do not know.

    “But let’s focus: why do we believe determinism/causality holds everywhere and all time? We have no empirical evidence that this is so. So why do we believe this?”

    I said that determinism is a preferable due to theretical simplicity but it is also true that I like a good minority opinion. If you are telling me that this is no longer a minority opinion I may have to reconsider :)

    Regarding compatibilism; it is hard to discuss compatibilism without having a settled definition of freedom. Let’s try to eke this out with a though experiment:

    Let us assume the existance of a deterministic universe that is different from ours in that the subatomic quantum processes in it are actually deterministic by some pseudo random process. And the same for any other seemingly indeterministic processes. Life is possible and an ape like creature evolves. It has a nervous system, instincts, love, fear, hunger etc. It makes decisions based on imperfect information passed through it’s nervous system and the outcome itself will depend on the initial state of it’s body and brain.

    Is it less free than a monkey in our universe? Could we make it more free by replacing the pseudo random processes in it’s universe with truly random ones? By some definitions of freedom, intelligence itself grants more freedom – a chimpanzee is thought to be more free than a worm. Would a worm in our universe have more freedom than a chimpanzeeoid or humanoid from a deterministic universe?

    If you answer yes to these questions then I suspect that your definition is either mistaken or facetious. I put it to you that this thought experiment demonstrates that, by a reasonable definition, freedom is not dependant on indeterminism.

  23. “Here I stand, I can do no other” – Martin Luther.

    Sometimes when you most feel the force of your will, you have no choice.

  24. William
    .
    There is indeed an important difference between determinism and causality.
    If I make a statement F=k.Q/R² (F force, Q electrical charge , R distance from the charge to the point where force is observed and k is some constant) I am making a statement that is both deterministic and causal.
    .
    It is causal because it is the existence of Q that creates F. Just take an empty space and put a charge somewhere. It doesn’t move hence no force acts on it. And now it begins to accelerate – you deduce therefore that at a distance R there must be some Q. You look there and find it well enough.
    But it is also deterministic because F determines Q and vice versa.
    Determinismus is weaker than causality. It just means that y=f(x).
    But as I can always (at least piecewise) also write that x=f^(-1) (y) which is as deterministic as y=f(x) I cannot conclude anything about causality which might be x->y or y->x.
    .
    Causality always implies a sequence in time while determinism merely states that that if I know/measure some {Xi} then I have enough equations to determine some {Yi} and vice versa.
    Determinism is a technicality – not a matter of belief but of acknowledgment if I can or cannot compute something.
    Are there cases where I can compute some Yi and not some others, e.g some Yi are deterministic and some other are not? You bet!
    (ih/2 π) d l Ψ>/dt = Hl Ψ >
    Ψ ist here perfectly deterministic – give me H and I will determine Ψ.
    However only allows to compute the probability of X, e.g X cannot be determined even if its probability can.
    .
    Why do I believe in causality? Only two words – Emmy Noether.
    Noether had proven that if physical laws are invariant for translations in time and in space then it is equivalent to say that energy and momentum are conserved.
    I do believe that if I do the same physical measure today or tomorrow, in Paris or in Berlin, I will get the same result. I admit that this part is indeed a belief.
    This I know is then equivalent to say that energy and momentum are conserved.
    From there I then simply go (through deduction) into Hamiltonian mechanics, thermodynamics etc where causality appears an emergent property of this Universe.
    .
    Last to predictability.
    Predictability is the weakest of the 3 – Causality, Determinism, Predictability.
    Where Determinism says that I can compute in principle some y from y=f(x), predictability deals with the question whether I can always do this computation in practice
    Here the answer is a resounding NO.
    Just an example : X(n+1) = 4.X(n).[1-X(n)]
    This statement is both causal (X(n+1) has for cause X(n)) and deterministic (given X(n) I can compute X(n+1) in principle).
    Now the question : given X(0) = e/3 can I predict X(30)?
    The answer is no – if everybody here tried to give his prediction, you would see that they are all over the place even all are using the same and very simple deterministic rule :)
    .
    For summary :
    - I believe in causality for reasons given above
    - for determinism and predictability which are connected by the logical relation
    Predictability => Determinism all 3 cases are possible (TT, FT, FF)

  25. Ah, the use of brackets made part of a sentence disappear thus making it incomprehensible.
    .
    Instead of :
    “However only allows to compute the probability of X, e.g X cannot be determined even if its probability can.”
    One should read:
    “However [Ψ*.X.Ψ] only allows to compute the probability of X, e.g X cannot be determined even if its probability can.”

  26. Briggs,

    Let’s put it this way, for act A there are 5 necessary and sufficient causes, for act B there is only one. If determinism were true, then the best we could say was that act A had more requirements than B. But if A and B happen, both were caused to have happened independently of volition. It would only remain true that A is less likely if and only if the chance that the conjunction of the 5 causes is less than the chance of the one cause for B. But there is still no room—no elbow room, Dennett’s phrase—for a mind to line up circumstances such that the conjunction of causes or cause is made to occur. Infinite regress strikes.

    I am not claiming that strict determinism leaves room for free will as a matter of ontology. I am claiming that, even if strict determinism is true, an act which cannot be shown to have been determined can only be ascribed to free will, because the only explanation of the act that is available to us is that the actor caused it.