Scott (magneto_evo) wrote,

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Cold, Hard Determination

Things've been weird; even since I got this permanent account I feel as if I've really wasted it. Moved yet again, which is just one excuse I've got for avoiding the LJ. Just over two weeks ago, I wrote the most mind-numbing little mini-essay for Higher Philosophy ( - let's not even touch the other Highers - ) and I figure I'll put it here in order to have it ripped to shreds by my 'base'.

So, here it is, courtesy of a fancy LJ cut. My philosophy tutor at Langside keeps forgetting to ask for it - and for some reason, this makes me glad. Please make sure you have a sick-bag close to hand if you click on the cut.

To what extent can we as human beings be considered free? This is one of the foremost metaphysical questions – and for quite obvious reasons, as the ramifications of this question reverberate through even the very simplest, most mundane actions we perform in our lives. This is a question which has been wrestled with since at least the time of the Ancients themselves. It is also one of the most problematic questions in metaphysics, for reasons which we shall see forthwith.

I would venture that we could casually dip into any dictionary for a definition of freedom and find essentially the same definitions, more or less, in each place. Allow me to illustrate the relevant definitions in my own words:


Freedom[1]        n.        1.)        The quality of being free from restraint – i.e. autonomy.

2.)        The unrestricted exercise of choice; civil or political independence – i.e. liberty.



We shall see the different perspectives on the question, stemming from two overall, diametrically opposed, metaphysical beliefs – the inexorable causation of all existence and, its antithetical belief, the free will of conscious (presumably human) beings – and progress to an examination of a total of three positions: hard determinism, libertarianism and a form of determinism known as compatibilism[2].

Hard determinism holds that everything in the universe, including human behaviour, is predetermined and inevitable due to an uninterrupted chain of cause-and-effect (presumably beginning with a causa prima[3] or ‘Unmoved Mover’). Determinism[4] is supported by Newtonian classical mechanics. Strictly speaking, it renders decisions, language and so on moot, to borrow a legal term.

Libertarianism holds that, for one reason or another[5], human affectations are autonomous of cause-and-effect, with the obvious advantage that we could still be morally responsible. Libertarianism is supported by the ancient notion of ‘clinamen’, argued by the Roman proponent of Epicureanism, Lucretius, or by modern-day quantum mechanics.

Compatibilism seeks to reconcile determination and freedom. Compatibilism is supported by the neo-Darwinism of Daniel C. Dennett and others. Whereas hard determinism and libertarianism agree on the definitions, compatibilism breaks with this agreement[6]. It agrees with determinism on the facts, but it contrives the meanings of both words to create a metaphorical kinship between them. It whispers the determinist manifesto to libertarians as sweet seductions in their own tongue; functionally, compatibilism is a convoluted attempt to win over libertarians.

Each idea has its own appeal, but they appeal more on a comforting basis than a substantive one: free will arrogates godliness to all and predetermination provides certitude[7] – the compatibility of the two is a twofold comfort.

Returning to my first observation, the extent and meaning of freedom is, for us, of paramount concern. Why? For one, the meaning of self-determination is the very nexus of humankind’s political being; furthermore, I would say that this nexus is an unfixed battlefield – as it is with anything political. However, freedom in the strictest sense is meaningless as we cannot possibly realise all choices (like reconciling the desire to fly unaided, the ‘right’ to do so, with the inability to do so); likewise, attributing everything to predetermination, also, lacks meaning in that it is futile – their is such a multiplicity of possible ‘causes’ that causal chains are nearly meaningless.

In conclusion, we cannot possibly establish the superiority of any one of these positions over the others as they are all lacking in some serious fashion; the comfort they bring matters little – it is unfounded. At this point, an observation by La Rochefoucauld springs to mind – and I find that it is the perfect note upon which to end: battles would not last so long if only one party were wrong.


[1] It is more important that we present freedom thus, rather than determination. Determination may simply be defined in terms of a ‘fixed direction’ – in this case, of causality.

[2] In the words of William James, compatibilism is ‘soft determinism’.

[3] Causa prima ‘First cause’ (Latin). I compare this term with ‘Unmoved Mover’ because of their use by Aristotle; and, also, because of the importance of predetermination, free will and the notion of their compatibility particularly to, for example, Jewish philosophers influenced by Aristotle, like Maimonides and perhaps to a lesser extent, Gersonides.

[4] As a philosophical doctrine, determinism seems to have originated with Leucippus, teacher of the famous atomist Democritus.

[5] In this we must assume a phenomenological ‘rupture’ with ordinary, inert existence. The human being is not the only phenomenon in which new and special properties arise as a result of the whole, rather than as properties of the parts thereof.

[6] In this sense, we could consider hard determinism and libertarianism as ‘incompatibilist’.

[7] Hume observes that vulgar reasoning refuses anything in which it cannot interpret a simple causation.

I know. Reading to slit your wrists by - but fear not, faithful reader, for my wholehearted work yet continues! Yes, in my literary life I keep a wide berth between myself and such banality.

The book's coming along quite well. I've covered almost everything I'd like to and there are a few finishing touches still to be made, perhaps an additional chapter to wrap things up.

Fare thee all well!


PS. No-one has been able to read Montesquieu properly since Althusser. That is something which needs to be remedied, if you ask me. It is almost as large a problem for us as not being able to properly interpret the classical texts of Antiquity properly.
Tags: langside, literature, my first book, philosophy
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