Free Life 17, January 1993, A Case for Determinism, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life No 17, January 1993

A Case for Determinism
by Sean Gabb

ACCORDING to the common view of things, when I sat down at my wordprocessor, I had a real choice in whether or not I should begin this piece. Nothing compelled me. As type out the title and my name, I could as easily have chosen to go and treat the rust on my motor car. I was an entirely self-directing spirit.

Now, in my everyday reasonings, this is a view that I accept. But, when I rise to a more abstract consideration, I find myself strongly inclined to doubt its truth. I am not in the least doubting our ability to choose between alternatives, or that our choices have consequences. That is fatalism. What I do doubt is whether our choices are free insofar as a perfect knowledge of the circumstances preceding them would not allow of their being infallibly predicted. I am inclined to say that the operations of my mind – and yours – are no more spontaneous, no more capable of deviating from a predictable course, than is the movement of a pendulum along its elipse. I say that the will is not free.

Let me illustrate my claim with a personal example. Some while ago, I sat all morning in a courtroom, nearly comatose with boredom. Suddenly, into my head came the opening bars of Haydn's D Major String Quartet Opus 64 Number 5. I played out the movements as best I could remember them; and the effort of doing so, combined with the pleasure, saw me through to the short adjournment. Instead of having lunch, I went out for a walk. I came to a record shop, went in, saw the Haydn piece, and bought it. Why did I do this? What was it that made me pick up the compact disk and take it to the counter?

The obvious answer is that I was prompted by my earlier experience. Therefore, my choice in the shop cannot be described as entirely spontaneous. Moreover, back in court, I took the trouble to go through the pleadings. The case had to do with an item of computer software called the Lark! The prompting turned out itself to have been prompted.

It was their neat sequence that keeps these events fresh in my mind. But there was much else that decided me to pick up the disk instead of leaving it in the rack. There was my love of the German classics. The reasons why I love these above all other music are complicated, but not currently relevant: I take the passion as a datum. There was my complacent frame of mind. I had spent the previous evening gloating over my accounts. By many standards, my assets were pitifully small. By most standards, they were enviably solid and unencumbered. I went to bed feeling that I deserved some little treat. I thought of the Haydn. My lunchtime walk took me to the shop. The disk was on display. I bought it.

Every mood and incident that I have so far described counts as a necessary condition. In the absence of any one of them, there would have been no purchase. Doubtless, there were others that, with more effort and understanding of myself, I could produce and add to the list. But these by themselves make a very powerful determining influence on my choice in that shop. I go further, and say that they, together with the unknown but similar others, make the sufficient condition for my choice – that their happening determined my choice as surely as the dropping of a lighted match into a can of petrol determines an explosion.

Against this, it can be said that, while I have indeed described a number of necessary conditions, neither they nor they and others like them can add up to a sufficiency. The mind might instead be likened to the British Cabinet. Before taking an important decision, the Prime Minister is obliged to take the opinions of her colleagues. These may be given with unmatched eloquence and unanimity; but they are still only suggestions that he is free to accept or reject as he thinks fit.

I grant that, compared with my total income, the cost of the disk was trivial. My choice to buy it received no more than a few seconds' consideration. Perhaps, on this occasion, and on many others, I let myself be swayed by the conditions described – just as the Prime Minister might not think it worth disputing some points on which here colleagues are all agreed. Perhaps, rather than discuss my taste in music, I ought to go to something of much larger importance. Then I might see the spontaneous human will openly in action. I might see choices made that do not show the same degree of regularity that I assume for the rest of the universe.

But, if this may sound an attractive proposition, no matter what else I go to, nor what its importance, I never find anything of open spontaneity. I go to suicide. Of all decisions, this ought to be shown as an unconstrained act of will. Looked at in isolation, a single case might seem a purely free choice. Yet, when all the known cases are collected, they show a regularity so wonderfully smooth that, as with a wave breaking on the sea shore, we must remind ourselves that we are looking not at the motion of one object, but at countless similar motions. I see from a study reviewed in my daily newspaper[1] that suicide is most common in the late spring and early summer; that it is committed more often in some occupations than in others; that, when the total number of cases is broken down according to age or region, what changes can be seen from one year to the next are proceeding not in casual jumps, but continuously – and therefore predictably.

It is an accepted rule of thought that no hypothesis should be larger than is needed to explain the data. When of a morning, for example, I hunt round for my spectacles, I often wonder if some malignant demon has not taken and hidden them. Always, I reject this notion. I do so not because I can prove that there is no such being as a demon. I am not able to prove this at all. I reject it because it appears to be a superfluous notion. I know from experience that I am untidy and forgetful, and take this as the reason for my lost spectacles. So long as I can explain my morning hunt in terms of this hypothesis, I have no need of any larger.

So it is with our mental operations. Few dispute in practice that the universe outside our heads is a regular place. Much of what happens inside our heads can be explained by reference to prior events or states. I go on to assert that they all can. This is my argument. It may be wrong. It may well be that our choices really are spontaneous. But, my assertion made, I at once gain the defender's advantage. I say again, that the burden of proof must fall on anyone who would frame a more complex hypothesis than mine. I need do nothing further than reply to the various objectors – telling some that I have not left any phenomena unexplained, and others that their reasoning is unsound.

The most obvious objection is on the grounds of intuition. We cannot but feel that we are free to choose one path rather than another. I feel that I need not have begun writing this piece, but gone instead out to my car. You feel that you need not have read as far as you have, or that you might have read in some other manner.

I reply that whatever we feel amounts only to a fact of psychology, not a logical argument. A man may feel many things beside that his will is free. He may feel that his walking under a ladder on the way to check his exam results was the cause of his having failed, or that he is a vampire or the reincarnation of Napoleon III, or that the Last Trump will sound next Friday lunchtime. All of these things may possibly be true – but not on account of their being felt to be true. Just because we feel that we could act, or have acted, differently in a given situation does not mean that we really could.

A second objection is raised on scientific grounds. During the present century, I am told, examples of indeterminacy have been discovered in the natural world. Most notably, the physicists are said to have found evidence for the existence of sub-atomic particles that move in an entirely random way. Undoubtedly, if any class of events could be shown not to occur with the regularity that I am supposing to exist throughout the whole universe, my position might collapse. But I doubt whether any such lack has been demonstrated. Either the physicists have been misrepresented or they are wrong. In saying that certain small objects move at random there is no contradiction. But to say this and continue claiming that the larger objects formed by these smaller have regular motions is contradictory. Either forms would have no apparent stability – and they most definitely have – or an overall stability would be attained by the regular offsetting of one random motion by another – which takes from the word "random" all its normal meaning.

A third objection is to accuse me and people who share my position of inconsistency. When I say that I am a libertarian, I am asked how I can also be a determinist. But this question derives from the natural poverty of our language. In common with others – such as "idealist", "realist" and "materialist" – "libertarian" is a word to which more than one idea is attached. It can denote a belief in the freedom of the will. It can also denote a belief in political and economic freedom. It is this second idea that I have in mind when I call myself a libertarian.

The question can be rephrased: how do I reconcile a desire for freedom of choice with a denial of its existence? This, however, derives from what is often a deliberate impoverishment of our language. To say that our desires are not spontaneous conceptions is not the same as remaining indifferent to their being deliberately frustrated. When I say that we are not free to choose other than as we do, I am not approving of any system of government in which we are robbed and driven around at gun point. Metaphysical and political freedom of choice are entirely different concepts, and there is no general benefit to be had from confusing them.

To some extent, a fourth objection can be answered in much the same way. I am sometimes asked whether I believe human beings to be mere robots. Now, this is an argument purely ad hominem. First, there is the use of the adjective "mere". It qualifies a noun most commonly by devaluing it: thus – mere truth, mere beauty, mere love, mere happiness, and so forth. Second, the idea currently attached to the word "robot" is of a clumsy machine governed by a powerful but limited information processor. Plainly, a person is more than this. But I do claim that the same type of regularities as can be seen in the operation of a mass of micro-circuitry can be seen, if in a vastly more complex form, in the operations of the human mind. It may be that we shall one day develop an artificial intelligence as conscious as ourselves and standing in creative genius even to a Beethoven or Homer as they do to an idiot child. If this is ever done, we shall almost certainly come to think differently of our being compared to robots.

This reply, I think, deals justly with the particular form of words used in the question, but is incidental to the real question being asked; and, my answer given – that only a difference in complexity of structure divides the composer of Fidelio from my pocket calculator – we pass immediately to the fifth and most common objection, which is the moral.

If the will is unfree, I am told, the whole notion of right and wrong becomes redundant. Unless we do govern ourselves in the fullest sense, the argument goes, there is no justice in holding us responsible for our actions. Though a man may choose his actions, if his choices are in turn determined, what better point is there in punishing him for some misdeed than in blaming an apple for bruising when it falls from the tree? Once we abandon the concept of responsibility, what have we to set in its place but a view of people as irresponsible objects – objects to be kept from disapproved motions not by punishment, but by reform or therapy? Once we accept these alternatives, consider where they lead:

First, some young thief from the lower classes is brought to trial. His actions are proven, but his lawyers play up the circumstances in which he acted. They find a social worker to say how he never knew a father's authority, that his mother drank and never sent him to school, how his friends had all assured him that real men wore gold chains and never worried where they got them. He is given a lecture from the bench and a couple of hundred hours' community service.

Second, suppose a law were explicitly made, allowing someone, no matter how trifling his offence, to receive anything from a small fine to life imprisonment with the destruction of part of his brain. There would be an outcry. The authorities would be accused of inflicting "cruel and unusual" punishments. Yet, in the name of mercy and true psychology, this is what the laws of several countries already allow. Paragraph 44 of the Norwegian Criminal Code, for example, provides that "no defendant considered insane or unconscious at the time of committing [an] offence may be punished"[2]. The word "insanity" is applied to anyone considered to be suffering from a severe mental illness, and these words in turn are applied to anyone whose actions or thoughts are not as the dominant school of psychiatrists would have them. If a court can be satisfied that a defendant was, at the time of committing his offence, mentally ill, the trial is stopped and he is handed over for treatment to the doctors. His period of detention thereafter depends not on the nature of what he was charged with having done, but on how long a treatment is needed to prevent his being "dangerous to society"[3]. He can be put in a straitjacket. He can be drugged, electrocuted or surgically carved into imbecility. For his own alleged benefit, his actual wishes can be paid as much regard by the doctors as those of an animal tied down for vivisection.

Similar rules have been applied in parts of the United States. People have been arrested on quite trivial charges, judged insane on the testimony of two psychiatrists, and shut away indefinitely. In some states, unlike in Norway, a connection must be established between the alleged illness and the offence committed. But, in others, not only is no such connection required, but there need not even have been any specific offence. In 1944, the State of Minnesota arrested the mother of ten healthy children and committed her as feeble-minded – the reason for this being that the authorities thought her a sloppy housekeeper[4].

Undeniably, if we abandon the concept of responsibility, the most dreadful consequences do follow. But this is no objection to my claim that the will is unfree. If an argument ends in contradiction, something must be wrong either with its premises or with its chain of reasoning. There is no such necessity where the conclusion is only unpleasant. If the gold crowns in my mouth ever wear out, I shall have to spend a lot of money on their replacement. If Labour wins the next election, the country will surely be ruined. In no conditional statement of this kind is the likelihood of the protasis affected by any distress suggested by the apodosis. Therefore, I dismiss the sixth objection. It says nothing relevant against my claim that the will is unfree. I am not obliged to give it any further consideration.

But I will consider it further. The common belief appears to be that determinism and responsibility are incompatible concepts: we can allow one or the other, but not both. This is the belief alike of the more fashionable "social scientists" and of many of their opponents. In fact, if any belief tends to deny the concept of responsibility, it is not that the will is determined, but rather that it is free. If only those who freely choose to break the law can be punished, plainly, those whose choices can be shown as unfree ought not to be punished. Yet, just as plainly, the balance of the evidence leaves it at least in doubt whether any of our choices is free. Faced with this, anyone who believes that the will is free can respond in three ways. First, he can reject all the evidence. Second, he can accept it, yet claim that we are still somehow free in our choices. Third, he can accept it and approve of what is done in places like Norway. This first, if always possible, is difficult. The second is simply feeble. The third, even worse, is surrender.

Any system of criminal justice in which serious thought is given to the question of whether the will is free is in danger of following the Norwegian example. If, by comparison with many others, the English system has so far avoided this course, it is a result largely of the determinist psychology that underlies the common law. It is implicitly accepted that crime is caused by the force of circumstances – but also that circumstances can be manipulated. A love of display and aversion to honest work may be very powerful reasons for crime. But so, as a counterweight in the balance of the passions, is a well-founded fear of punishment. It acts as a deterrent to crime. Even if the observed incidence of recedivism shows that many of those punished are not deterred, there is still the effect on us of their example. No studies need be cited in support of this. Common sense alone tells us of its general truth. Who doubts that there would be fewer cars parked illegally if their owners faced a death sentence? or that more murders would be committed if the penalty were reduced to a £10 fine?

Suppose I were to walk up and slash your face with a razor. I should be arrested and eventually brought to trial, charged under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. It would be for the Crown to prove the facts of the assault, together with hostile intention on my part. These proven, and a verdict of guilty secured, I should face a possible sentence of life imprisonment. That is all. Mine would be a straightforward case of deterrence.

Suppose, however, that, in the course of the trial, I had a psychiatrist go into the witness box and claim that I was mentally ill. Would this help me? Had I killed you, I might be able, under section 2(1) of the Homicide Act 1957, to raise a plea of "diminished responsibility". If it could be shown that my act was prompted by an "abnormality of mind" that prevented me from controlling myself, the jury would be advised to convict me not of murder – carrying a mandatory life sentence – but of manslaughter – carrying a maximum life sentence. But this defence is confined to cases of homicide. Otherwise, the common law doctrine prevails. Unless I had killed you, I could hope for an acquittal on the grounds of insanity only by pleading under the celebrated "McNaughton Rules". These are summarised thus:

a) Everyone is presumed sane until the contrary is proved.

b) It is a defence to a criminal prosecution for the accused to show that he was labouring under such a defect of reason, due to disease of the mind, as either not to know the nature and quality of his act or, if he did know this, not to know that he was doing wrong[5].

No allowance here is made for the pressure of environment or of "psychopathic personality disorder". One is made only where it can be shown that there could have been no prospect of deterrence, whatever its nature or degree. If I had attacked you under an impulse too strong to be resisted, I might have all the psychiatrists alive troop throught the witness box and say that I was mentally ill. But, unless they could show that I was unable to know that I was breaking the law, I should still be held responsible. The example of my punishment would tend to frighten others like me to greater efforts of continence.

If, on the other hand, it could be shown that I were so mentally defective as not to understand the nature of what I was doing, it would be unwise to hold me responsible. The law might fall dangerously into contempt by reason of its severity. Instead, the public would be just as well pro- tected – and the example might still deter the more responsible slashers – by my committal to an asylum.

Suppose, again, that I were to attack you under a delusion as to some matter of fact. Would this help me? It might – though it would depend not on the strength of my delusion, or the terror inspired, but on my response to it. In every case, it being decided that I really was deluded, the court would proceed on the facts as if they were true. I might have believed that you were about to kill me, and that only a preemptive first strike could stop you. Where my life is threatened, the law recognises my right to self-defence. The question here would simply be whether, on the basis of my belief, I had exercised that right in a reasonable manner. If I had, I should be acquitted, though not necessarily released. I might, on the other hand, have believed that you were a Communist. If so, I should certainly have believed you to be a dangerous nuisance. But the law gives no one the right to go about assaulting nuisances, however dangerous they might be. Here, it would be for the defence to prove not that my actions stemmed from a delusion, but, as above, that I was unaware of their nature.

I say, then, that not only can determinism and responsibility be combined, but, for the latter to have any practical meaning, the two must be combined. This is not, however, to say that our commonest thoughts and words concerning morality are to be set pedantically aside. It is one thing to state a truth, but something else to apply it consistently. When stating the law, the judges may assume the will to be unfree. Yet, in their more general comments, they often speak as if it were free. Convicted criminals are forever being told that it was open to them to choose other than as they did. Strictly speaking, this is nonsense. The real justification for punishment is deterrence. But the language of moral condemnation, for all its lack of clear meaning, remains too useful to be set aside.

In the first place, it is in itself a deterrent. What holds many people from crime is fear less of the punishment imposed by law than the shame of being known as a criminal. The stronger this fear of shame, other things being equal, the milder need be the punishment. I see no objection in principle to inflicting the most horrible deaths where necessary, and to their being inflicted in public. If the rate of murder could be depressed to what I thought reasonable only by braiding those convicted of it on the wheel, I should certainly hope for the law to be changed. But extreme punishments – however necessary they might sometimes be – do give justice a very severe face. They deter the mild and humane, and attract the hardened sadist into its administration. How much better if all the pain required could comprise a few hard looks and a newspaper article. Why, then, hold from using words simply because they can be traced back to no distinct idea?

In the second place, though the idea of moral condemnation may be confused, it does appeal to the passions, whereas that of deterrence does not. The former we embrace with a ready enthusiasm that prompts us to action. The latter we accept as a valid conclusion. Its talk of long term consequences leaves us cold. So long as the actions prompted by it are on the whole sound, why not prefer an enthusiastic belief in falsehood to a languid acceptance based on demonstration?

This may strike as an entirely paradoxical way of reasoning. I begin with an argument against the common objection to determinism. I end by deriving from it what appears to be a good objection to any presenting of that argument. But there is no paradox, since I am not suggesting that belief in the freedom of the will should be made into a "noble lie". Perhaps there have been times when one class could knowingly deceive another into passivity – though I suspect that the whole notion of doing so has always been more flattering to philosophic vanity than of practical value. But the present age is quite unlike any other before it. Western societies no longer comprise an ignorant and illiterate mass presided over by a more or less homogeneous lite. There is today no certainty as to who is a member of the lite and who of the mass. There are no means today of confining information, but everyone is free – and most are able – to write and read as he will on questions of moral philosophy. Anyone who believes that he is in possession of the truth on any matter, and holds from publishing it on the grounds of its supposed danger, simply condemns himself to watching others fill the public mind with dangerous falsehoods.

What I am suggesting is that people should learn in this matter, as in many others, that there are two kinds of philosophy. The first, though divided into a multitude of mutually hostile schools, reveals itself by its taste for a flatulent rhetoric to hide its true poverty, and often for exalting us into beings that we are not nor ever can be. The second is both more modest and more severe. It confines its operations strictly within the narrow bounds of our under- standing, and tells us only what appears to be probable.

Yet I suggest also that we should, so far as we are able, ignore what this philosophy tells us. We are to follow neither Philip Larkin or Raskolnikov in our response to the likely emptiness of our traditional moral concepts. Instead, we are to invest in them the greatest continued belief of which we are capable. If there is to be a "noble lie", it is also to involve the willful self-deception of the liars.

Thus I explain my statement at the beginning of this piece. In my everyday reasonings, I take the will as free; but, as a philosopher, I take it as unfree. If in a more extreme fashion, I behave like any sane astronomer. He knows that the Earth is an oblate sphere, rotating on its axis. He never runs about in the morning and evening, cautioning everyone against the use of the words "sunrise" and "sunset". Nor does he take them out of his own vocabulary.

But, interesting as these considerations may be, they are wholly beside my main point. I have stated a minimal hypothesis, according to which the will is unfree. Until anyone can show that my hypothesis does not contain all the available data, I shall continue to assume it to be the correct one.


1. Reported in The Daily Telegraph, May 19th, 1990.

2. Quoted in Peter Clyne, Guilty but Insane, Anglo- American Attitudes to Insanity and Criminal Guilt, Nelson, London, 1973, p. 164.

3. Ibid, p. 165.

4. Ibid, pp. 139-41.

5. Cross Jones and Card, Introduction to Criminal Law, Butterworth & Co, London, 1988, p. 150. For the trial of Daniel McNaughton (1843) and the consequent proceedings in the House of Lords, where these rules were first clearly stated, see State Trials (New Series), Volume VI. On the spelling of his name, there appears to be no agreement. I have seen McNaghten, M'Naughten, Macnaughton, etc. My own variant is simply the first that I recall having read. 

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