Determinism and Its Moral Implications

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Drew Lewis
11/13/11
Philosophy

Determinism and its Moral Implications

Q: There are powerful arguments that there is no such thing as free will. But people in ordinary life tend to presuppose there is free will when they talk about people deserving good or bad treatment, rewards and punishments. Some kinds of rewards and punishments encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior, so those make sense even if there is no free will. But what about punishments for crimes that are impossible to deter (like crimes of passion) or rewarding talents people can’t choose to have (like Olympic medals or Nobel prizes for science)? Do these practices still make sense if there is no free will? If not, how would it make sense to change our institutions? 

Our entire mental state is a product of the chemical and physical properties of our neurons at any given time, and changes are produced directly by communications within the central nervous system and between the peripheral and central nervous system. To be astonished at this fact is to underestimate the design complexity and sheer number of neurons present in the body. To assert there is a magical force called free will is unfounded and illogical. Your mind is governed by the same laws which govern all other matter of which you have no control. Free will, however, remains a popular belief mainly because of its connections to religion and the perception of introspection. When we introspect it is easy to convince ourselves that there is something spiritual inside; our mind is spontaneous, indecisive, creative, and often irrational. These qualities are, for the most part, absent in robotics, which supports a widely held belief that they can’t be synthesized. Determinism simply says that the mind can be predicted like a chemical reaction can be predicted; there is nothing special about our minds which hold them above physical laws. The mind is a complicated construct, and its vast number of interactions with the environment makes it impossible to predict. The simplest computer able to accurately model exactly what will occur in the human mind would be as complex as the universe itself. Because one does not have control over the functions inside one’s own brain, and because the functions in the brain determine thought process, no one has control of their thoughts. Determinism raises a number of interesting moral questions.

Determinism is an unpopular theory mostly because its conclusion is misunderstood. Determinists can agree on a type of free will, which is simply defined on an individual acting or thinking in a healthy mental state and without influence. Given this situation an individual can be said to be thinking independently. The individual, according to determinists, has no control over his thought process, but he is, by popular definition, using his free will and judgment. Even if it is intangible, the concept is none the less incredibly important. The complete rejection of free will would have devastating consequences. Without free will humans lose responsibility, and without responsibility humans lose justice, which is the purest and most righteous human construct.

The theory of determinism uses logic not based on speculation, and as theories come, it is one of the most foolproof. The important question to me is how to go about recognizing the truth of determinism without allowing it to affect life negatively. No one can say for sure whether complete recognition of determinism would be a good or bad, but I believe there is an overwhelming argument that the rejection of the concept of free will would have disastrous consequences. It brings up the interesting question if it is better to know the truth about something if it has negative consequences. Though I believe strongly in determinism, I treat my actions like I have control of them. This attitude is important for my well-being for numerous reasons.

If one does not have control one’s thoughts or actions,...
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