181. Can a Determinist Coherently Assert the Truth of Determinism?

Determinism is the view that, given the laws of nature, all events are the necessary effects of previous events. When applying this to systems, one can say that a system is deterministic if there is only one way the system could evolve given its initial conditions and the laws governing it. If determinism in some form is true then free will, or the ability to choose from among real alternatives or possibilities, is false.

In an earlier post (go here) I argued determinism may be incoherent insofar as (1) the view implies a set of prescriptions that tell what we should maintain and (2) these prescriptions are meaningless if determinism is true. After all, according to determinism there is only one way things can unfold at any particular moment and prescriptions plausibly presuppose there are more than one. That is why it makes sense to connect prescribing x to the ability to choose or not choose x. This argument is closely tied to the view that critical thinking, or the rational consideration of competing justifications of truth claims, presupposes free will as well (for an argument in defense of that view go here). These efforts to undermine determinism are powerful since they start from the seemingly uncontroversial facts that a determinist prescribes a position to adopt and argues in defense of that position. As a result they presuppose very little and have a better chance at avoiding begging the question. Nonetheless, these arguments are not convincing to many determinists and remain controversial.

In this post I would like to present an even leaner argument against determinism that builds not from acts of prescribing or arguing but from the very fact that the determinist asserts the truth determinism. Of course, the nature of truth is a controversial topic. And this threatens to make this argument controversial as well. But to move forward with the argument all we need to accept is that an assertion of truth (1) makes a claim about what really is the case and (2) in doing so implicitly or explicitly makes a statement about what is not the case, that is, it implies the reality of negation. Hans Jonas, in an appendix to his essay “Image Making and the Freedom of Man” (see his book The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology), explains:

“The sense in which one can speak of an experience of truth may be illustrated by the situation in which one feels moved to exclaim “So this is what it really is!” – such exclamation containing a submerged, if not explicit, “and not this!” The illustration is to convey the at once emphatic and antithetical character of the truth-experience, i.e., that it stands out from the normal flow of acceptance of phenomena and against the backdrop of error and falsehood: this backdrop being itself and “experience” only realized in the act of supersede by its opposite….In short, we wish to indicate that the experience of truth, as simultaneous exposure of untruth, includes an element of negation. Hence follows, as a first proposition, that the capacity for truth presupposes the capacity to negate, and that therefore only a being that can entertain negativity, that can say “no,” can entertain truth. And since the power of negation is a part of freedom, indeed a defining ingredient of it, the proposition is that freedom is a prerequisite of truth, and that the experience of truth itself is the evidence and exercise of a certain kind of freedom.” (175)

He elaborates on the nature of this freedom:

“The distinction between truth and falsehood, and therefore the idea of knowledge, arises only where the “wrong” perception is not simply supplanted by the “right” one but survives to be confronted as falsified with the right one; or more generally, where two terms are available for comparison, and one of them is accepted as the standard by which the other is judged….For this to happen, the past must stay available in the strangely noncommittal way which not memory as such, but only the detachment of appearance from reality in conjunction with memory provides: we then can compare without being alternately captives to the phenomenal presences as they jostle each other in our mental beholding.” (178).

Here we see the freedom of negation presupposed by truth is really a freedom from being captive to, or determined by, our experience. In his book Being and Nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre argued this kind of freedom allows for negation-presupposing actions such as imagining, doubting, interrogating, and questioning. David Detmer, in his book Freedom as a Value (Open Court, 1986), explains:

“Were I completely engulfed in the world, bound by the chains of a thorough-going causal determinism, it would be quite impossible for me to effect that degree of separation from the world which is necessary if I am to call that world into question. It is only because I am not the world, and because I am free from the world, that I am able to effect that nihilating withdrawal from being that is involved in doubt. For this discovery Sartre credits Descartes: “no one before Descartes had stressed the connection between free will and negativity. No one had shown that freedom does not come from man as he is …, but rather from man as he is not.” (27; for my post on doubt in Sartre and Descartes go here)

If these arguments are persuasive then a determinist who claims determinism is true would only be able to make such a claim by negation; and the ability to negate would grant the determinist the freedom to suspend judgment, doubt, question, and interrogate. Indeed, the ability to negate would grant the determinist the freedom to be a determinist or not. Thus the incoherence: determinists, in affirming their position as true, need a form of freedom their thesis appears to deny.

Of course a determinist can affirm that even negation and its related activities are necessitated by internal and/or external factors. But can negation be explained deterministically? Perhaps. But someone who accepts the above argument will, as Ian Craig points out with reference to Sartre, see the affirmation that negation can be deterministically explained as “an example of freedom in the sense that Sartre uses the word: it nihilates the present state of what we call ‘knowledge’, where the freedom/determinism argument is unsettled and posits a state in which it is settled…” And this would show that the affirmation, in introducing negation and thus freedom, “is in fact itself proof that [Sartre’s] argument is correct.” (Detmer, 29)

But, as I mentioned above, the conception of truth upon which this argument relies is bound to be controversial to some. Those who don’t accept it will certainly find the argument unpersuasive despite its ability to avoid assuming accessive metaphysical baggage.

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