I Could not have done otherwise than what I did?

By | August 4, 2011

In many discussions of the “free will” issue, the argument is made that we don’t have any freedom of choice because, with respect to any action we do, we could not have done other than what we did. For example, suppose I choose to support candidate “Tom” for some elective office I might think that I freely choose to support Tom, but others will argue that I could not have done otherwise; i.e., that I my support of Tom was determined by a causal chain of events and conditions that I did not control.

The proposition that, for any act (A) that I do, I could not have done otherwise, is supposed to follow from the fact that act A (like anything I do) is determined by prior causes, which I could not control or alter in any way. Hence, we have the conclusion that any act (A) that I do was inevitable, despite my belief that I freely chose to do A.

Many discussions then become discussions of whether it was possible that, all things being equal (i.e., conditions being the same or nearly the same), I could have done otherwise. I chose a cup of coffee to start the morning, but I could have chosen to have a cup of tea instead, couldn’t I? No, not if all conditions that led to your cup of coffee remain unchanged . . . so on an so forth, ad nauseam.

For a long time I have been skeptical about this entire line of argument purporting to show that we lack the basic freedom of choice that we think we have. The argument seems to involve an invalid move from the factual premise that many of our actions can be causally explained (e.g., you chose the teddy bear over the dump truck because not too long ago you had a very bad experience with dump trucks) to the theoretical premise that this action (like all our actions) is causally determined. This is an invalid inference. It does not follow from the fact that I can give a causal explanation of your action that your action was causally determined or inevitable. Furthermore, any viable claim that A determines B has the implication that on the basis of A we can predict (or could have accurately predicted) B. For example, knowing that you once had your puppy injured by a dump truck, I can predict that when faced with the choice — teddy bear or toy dump truck — you will select the teddy bear. But is this true? Can we make such accurate predictions about human behavior? I submit that in most cases (maybe as high as 95% of the cases) we cannot make accurate predictions. Hence, the proposition that A determines B is even more suspect.

In short, it does not follow that the action B is determined by causal chain (C) just because a causal explanation of B in terms of C is given. Causal explanation is one thing. Productive causation (sufficient causation) is another thing altogether. Productive causation applied to all human behavior is at best a theoretical or metaphysical claim that needs to be scrutinized. Hence, the whole line of argument that states that for anything we do we could not have done otherwise is not an effective strategy for demonstrating the truth of determinism.

Another implication of the “could not have done otherwise” argument is that everything we do is inevitable; i.e., could not have been avoided. Of course, nobody can sustain this view on a practical, real-world level. It is nonsense; most of what we do is not inevitable! We avoid things all the time. Had we not been avoiders, we could not have survived the first threat to our well-being. But we have and we do. However, the determinist will claim that on a theoretical level, once we understand the “science” of causal accounts for all our behavior, we shall agree that everything we do is inevitable. It seems to me that, even at a “theoretical level,” this claim is very questionable; it is not obviously true. In fact, it strikes me as the type of sophistry that too often gains a foothold in philosophy.

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