02 October 2007

Determinisms: Hard and Soft?

William James once drew a distinction between hard and soft determinism, in an essay often cited these days in discussions of what is nowadays called compatibilism. But I'll get to that.

Let's first understand James on his own terms. Early in an essay on the human will, on whether and to what extent its expressions are all fated, determined since forever ... early on he addresses the question of terminology. The word "freedom" is such a nice word, used so ringingly in anthems and in the course of orations on patriotic holidays, that everybody on every side of an argument will want to be standing up for "freedom rightly understood."

Old-fashioned determinism is the sort that disdains such nice words. Hard determinists don't shrink "from such words as fatality, bondage of the will, neccessitation, and the like. Nowadays, we have a soft determinism, which abhors harsh words...." The word both sorts of determinists abhor is "chance," which stands for the simple notion that the parts of the universe "have a certain amount of loose play on one another, so that the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be."

James is writing in order to defend indeterminism, not to take sides between the two sorts of determinists, so he accepts the word "chance" as a statement of what he believes in, and abandons the word "freedom" to the grubbers after nice words.

The issue of things (as distinct from the issue of words) is between determinists and indeterminists, between believers in chance and believers in fate.

Now, the debate as James understood it has gone the way of all flesh. On the one hand, quantum mechanics, Godel's theorem, chaos theory and such developments have acclimated everybody to the reality of chance in the world. On the other hand, the fact that everybody now believes in chance makes chance seem less important.

Debate does continue over compatibilism. This is the view that moral responsibility and human autonomy in some valuable sense is consistent with a mechanical/materialistic theory of the universe and of our place in it.

The contrary of compatibilism of course is incompatibilism, which comes in two varieties. Incompatibilists can either say, "No, such a view is incompatible with moral responsibility, which is a good reasons for looking for flaws in such a view, because we ought to work to keep the idea of moral responsibility." We can call this the II position (incompatible, thus immaterialism)!

Another set of incompatibilists can say, "No, such a view is incompatible with moral responsibility. So much the worse for our notions of moral responsibility though -- we're going to have to learn to live without them." Call that the IA position (incompatible, thus amorality)!

James' words on the different sorts of determinists with whom he was contending have been shanghied into this debate, so that "soft determinism" is sometimes used to describe compatibilism (we can have materialism and morality too). "Hard determinist" is used to describe the IA position. This implicitly equates James' sort of indeterminism with the II position.

I don't think that's fair to him, though. Were he alive today, and up to date on contemporary science and philosophic debates, my own suspicion is that he'd still believe in immaterial aspects of the cosmos, as he did, but he wouldn't link that notion tightly to the foundations of morality. Just as he didn't want to chase after exclusive title to the word "freedom" and was happy to grant it to the determinists if they wanted it.

He would likely be a compatibilist, but he probably wouldn't regard compatibilism as all that important a point to make, because the reasons/motives that would impel him to keep looking for the immaterial would be quite different from those to which the II position appeals.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.