One of the most worrisome aspects of determinism, in many people’s minds, is that it means that our deliberation — all our agonizing about the choices we must make in our lives — is a sham. In Daniel Dennett’s excellent book Elbow Room, which I think is one of the best expositions of the “compatibilist” view of free will that I am attempting to defend in this series of posts (and which I have drawn upon liberally all along), he offers three common opinions (pp. 102-103) about this problem. I will paraphrase and summarize them here.
One might point out that living in a deterministic world means that, for any state of the world at time t, only one state is possible at time t + 1. This, in turn, means that any deliberation on our part — the point of which is to select between available futures — is an illusion, because only one future was ever possible. Deliberation and determinism are simply incompatible.
But how can that be so? After all, we plainly do deliberate, all the time. So this is obviously reading too much into the pernicious effect of determinism.
Refining the objection somewhat: OK, fine, we “deliberate”, but it is not effective deliberation; it makes no difference to the outcome. Dennett gives an example of some truly ineffective deliberation:
The prisoner who spends his days and nights concocting vengeful schemes but dies in his chains has engaged in deliberations whose only effects are, let us say, to deepen the furrows in his brow and exacerbate his high blood pressure.
But then he offers a contrasting instance:
His cellmate engages in similar deliberations, and acting on them, escapes his cell and puts all his plans into tumultuous effect. If this is what “making a difference” comes to, then some of the deliberation in a deterministic world will make a big difference and some of it will not. There will be cases of premeditated murder, for instance, of which one can truly say: had the premeditation not occurred, the victim would still be alive.
So the effect of deliberation is not nullified by determinism; after all, we have no reason to doubt that if that if we decide to do X we will do X, and if we decide to do Y we will do Y.
So already we have moved some distance from the original, naive concept that in a deterministic world all deliberation is pointless; indeed, it is hard to imagine how we would react to such a revelation even if it were true. How could we not deliberate? (Dennett quotes Peter van Inwagen as suggesting that we would “either move about in random jerks or scuttles, or would withdraw into catatonia.”)
So, a further refinement: well, OK, our deliberation is indeed effective, in that it plays a necessary role in determining the future. But our deliberation is itself determined, no? That’s not real deliberation.
But is this so? As Dennett asks:
…isn’t a determined thunderstorm a real thunderstorm? Isn’t a determined traffic accident a real traffic accident? It begs the question to declare, without support, that determined deliberation is not real deliberation. But — comes the reply — in real deliberation there is a genuine opportunity for the agent, with both branches “open to the agent”. The agent’s deliberation closes off one of these as it selects the other. If the outcome of the deliberation were itself determined, then it would have been determined “all along” — so there wouldn’t have been a real opportunity in the first place, just an apparent opportunity.
This is a more substantial objection, and one to which we must return. For now, though, I hope we can agree that it is clear that our deliberation is no illusion, and that our acting as the deliberators we so obviously are plays an essential causal role in what actually happens. But before we can understand whether it actually matters in any meaningful or perceptible way if our deliberation is deterministic or not — in other words, whether we have any good reason to care one way or the other — there is more work to do.