Archive for July 11th, 2011

July 11, 2011

Determinism and scientific laws

by Neil Rickert

This is a followup to my earlier post on free will.  The debates around free will usually relate it to determinism.  And some people seem to believe that science shows that we are in a deterministic universe.  As one of the comments to Jerry Coyne’s post suggests, if we are scientists, then we should be devising experiment tests to help us determine whether our universe is deterministic.  And, much like that commenter, I am unable to conceive of how it could be tested.  That ought to suggest that “determinism” itself is not a well defined idea.

Determinists seem to base their determinism on the fact that our scientific laws are deterministic.  But that is surely a mistake.  We prefer deterministic laws, because those are the most useful for making predictions.  If the deterministic law is slightly off, then our predictions will be slightly off.  Being able to make predictions that are close, but not quite exact, is already quite useful.  So we should prefer deterministic laws that are slightly off, over indeterministic laws that are completely correct but that cannot make predictions because of their indeterminism.

As an illustration, consider the gas laws from physics.  These are deterministic, and very useful for making predictions.  The physicists actually call them the “ideal gas laws,” for they are completely correct only about an imaginary ideal gas.  They are not quite correct about real gases.  Philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright has argued that many of the laws of physics are idealizations, rather than correct descriptions.  And if the deterministic laws of physics are actually idealizations, then they do not constitute actual evidence for the belief that the universe itself is deterministic.

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July 11, 2011

That free will thingie

by Neil Rickert

I’m not sure what it is about the concept of “free will”, but discussions of it always seem to bring out more heat than light.  Recently, Jerry Coyne, over at the Why Evolution Is True site (he doesn’t like it being called a blog), has made several posts on the topic of free will.  Then he promised no more, at least for a month.  His post today, Why your concept of “free will” is important is the second one that breaks the promise (as Jerry admits).

I remember reading a book, several years ago, on the question of free will and determinism.  The author was a determinist and incompatibilist, meaning that he held the view that we live in a deterministic world in which there is no free will.  After presenting his thesis that denies free will, the author had a chapter which amounted a discussion of what you could do about the fact that you now know that you do not have free will.  Or, as I like to describe it, that was a chapter about how you can use the free will that you do not have so as to make changes in your life that accommodate you to the fact that you do not have free will.

Well, that makes no sense at all.

Looking at Jerry Coyne’s latest post, I note that he says:

But that doesn’t end the discussion of determinism versus nondeterminism of human behavior, because one’s view on that question has profound implications for whether and how we punish people.

In effect, Jerry is saying that now that you know that the criminals did not have the free will to avoid committing the crime, you must use the free will that you do not have, in order to change how society deals with criminals.

Sorry, but that does not make sense either.