Brian Edwards Media

Lazy Blogger Has No Choice But To Re-Hash Old Column On Hard Determinism

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If you’ve followed this blog for a while you’ll have noticed that crime and punishment are predominant themes and that my position on these issues can be summarised as either pragmatic and enlightened or pie-in-the-sky wishy-washy liberalism. I’m not a great believer in punishment.

There are many reasons for this, the most important being that as a form of correction punishment is largely ineffective. We all want less crime, but putting people in prison for longer and longer doesn’t lead to less crime. It may in fact do the opposite.

Another important reason is that I’m a hard determinist, that is to say I don’t believe in free will. I’ve held this position since I was 16, long before the ever-expanding list of physical and personality traits that we now recognise as genetically determined had even been conceived.

Hard determinists have trouble with punishment, since blame can only attach to those with genuine freedom of choice.

Among my predetermined personality traits is laziness. If I weren’t so lazy, I would blog more often. But for the next few weeks I have an additional excuse. I’m on holiday. So I’ve decided to re-publish some columns I wrote for various newspapers and magazines over the years which have at least some relevance to the topics discussed on this site over the past year.   And where better to start than this piece from the Listener on why you really don’t have a choice. 

I’m What They Call ‘A Hard Determinist’

I’m what they call “a hard determinist”. It is my firm and honest conviction that what we call ‘free will’  is an illusion, that the course of our lives is determined at every stage. 

Determinism is an unpalatable philosophy which few people accept, since it appears to turn human beings into automatons and to strip us of our dignity.

Most people, however, will accept some degree of determination in their lives. Quite clearly, we don’t have any choice in whether we come to exist or not, and that is the precondition to everything that follows. Teenagers recognise the strength of this argument when they tell their harassed parents that they ‘didn’t ask to be born’.

We have no choice in the matter of our sex or sexuality. Yet being male/female, straight/gay or somewhere along the spectrum in-between has an enormous influence on the course of our lives.

We have no choice in the matter of our skin-colour or race, factors which only the most naïve would deny as being significant determinants in a person’s life.

Our innate intelligence is set down before birth and there is very little evidence to support the idea that we can significantly improve it. So if you are a person of only average intelligence, you will never be a doctor, lawyer, dentist, airline pilot, university lecturer, architect, physicist etc. All those avenues and a thousand more are barred to you before you even start.

Our state of health and life expectancy – along with the so-called ‘lifestyle choices’ we make – whether to diet, exercise, smoke, take drugs, drink to excess, eat healthy food – are largely determined by our genetic make-up. Gene replacement will be at the heart of future medicine.

Beyond our control too is the way we look, whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, attractive or unattractive. These matters, again, have a significant effect on the course of our lives.

More and more we are discovering that what we are and how we behave are the result of genetic blueprinting, laid down at conception, and over which we have absolutely no control. As a result of  his studies of identical twins, separated at birth and reunited later in life, Minnesota Psychology Professor, Thomas J. Bouchard, concluded that our genes account for our entire physical make-up and 50 percent of our psychological make-up or personality.

So what of the other 50 percent? What of environment?

Well,  just as the individual cannot control his or her genetic inheritance, so none of us can control the environment into which we are born. You don’t get to choose between Remuera and the slums of Calcutta.

If you are born in a country where there is nothing to eat and die in infancy, you clearly have no control over your destiny. Tens of  millions of human beings come into this category.

One step up is being born into grinding poverty. This significantly limits your opportunities to live a happy, healthy life and may predispose you to criminal behaviour. The common factor in prison populations internationally may well not be race but poverty. The indigenous peoples of colonised nations are universally over-represented among the poor.

And then there is the critical issue of upbringing. As a general proposition, children from warm, nurturing homes become warm, nurturing people. Children from violent, abusive homes have a more than even chance of becoming violent, abusive people.

Studies of violent offenders in this country and elsewhere reveal the most extraordinary similarities in background – large families, poverty, unemployment, poor levels of educational achievement, poor communication skills, early experience of violence or sexual abuse.

To the hard determinist the nature versus nurture debate is largely irrelevant. What matters is that the combination of the two constitutes a total denial of the possibility of free choice in anything.

The most frequent response I get to all of this is that, if I really believed it, I might as well go sit in a corner, do nothing and wait to die.  It is, of course, a silly argument, since heredity and environment have combined to make me the sort of person who could never sit in a corner, do nothing and wait to die.

There is a paradox here of course. Though I believe I have no free will, I live as though I had. I’m that sort of person – stroppy, independent, free-thinking, wilful and responsible for my actions. I was made that way. It’s in the genes and the upbringing. I could not be otherwise.

Nonetheless, I have no doubt whatsoever that my belief is correct, that more and more scientific evidence is accumulating and will accumulate to support it, and that one day this minority position will be the view of the vast majority. 

And by the way, it’s the real reason why I agree with Nigel Latta on most of the reasons why some innocent little babes turn into violent offenders – right up to the point where he says they had a choice.

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28 Comments:

  1. good column this time dude, but too far reaching into the soft liberal undetermined choice of not guilty for anything because my mother had bad genes.
    In the end the hard determinist is the State, and soon we and other countries will introduce capital punishment for major crimes like rape and murder.

    quote from Brian
    ” I have no doubt whatsoever that my belief is correct ”
    dangerous thinking.

    • In the end the hard determinist is the State, and soon we and other countries will introduce capital punishment for major crimes like rape and murder.

      I’m not sure whether you’re recommending this or merely stating your view that it will happen. I used to think we would never return to capital punishment in New Zealand, but I’m not so sure anymore. If the hysteria whipped up by organisations like Sensible Sentencing continues – and no doubt it will – there may well be a clamour for the return of the rope or the lethal injection. Opinion on this is already divided more or less 50/50.

      I’ll re-publish a column I wrote on this in the next few days.

      On the determinism/punishment issue, if I’m correct then there can be no logical justification for punishment other than to keep society safe. I don’t object to that.

      As to ‘having no doubt whatsoever that my belief is correct’, I’m happy to rephrase that as ‘I’m reasonably confident that…’

  2. 2

    Ianmac from Abu Dhabi

    Though Brian, there are many who believe and act dumb because they have been shown this to be so by parents, siblings, and dumb teachers.Yet some of these may have top notch intelligences, and are awaiting a spark to set them alight. So to expect this person to fail because they are believed to be dumb, is only as valid as the surety that the genetic assessment is right. I’m always an optimist you see and look for the talent until proven otherwise. Some of the prison inmates who believe that they are stupid because they failed the school thing, become artists or writers or musicians or leaders, and have the brains (nearly spelt that brians!). Keep an open mind chaps!

    • Though Brian, there are many who believe and act dumb because they have been shown this to be so by parents, siblings, and dumb teachers.Yet some of these may have top notch intelligences, and are awaiting a spark to set them alight.

      I don’t disagree with any of that. But it tends, if anything, to support my argument. The good or bad influences you refer to are just part of the favourable or unfavourable environment/s your are lucky or unlucky enough to be influenced by in your life.

  3. By and large I agree with you, Brian, although I’ve probably arrived at my conclusions via a very different path.

    One of the conditions that contributes most to at least the perception of free will is the presence in society of a clear and broadly accepted set of moral values.

    These may be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or secular humanitarian values – it matters little – but their widespread acknowledgement by the population does effect the way we behave.

    Some call this effect “the still, small voice” of conscience, others the influence of the Super-Ego. Once again, it matters little.

    The effect is most dramatic when an individual is confronted with a clear choice of behaviours: to steal the wallet from the unattended bag; to swing the boot into the prone man’s head; to put the key into the ignition after too many beers.

    Now, you may say that no real choice is being made here, but if you consider the counterfactual: a society in which moral and/or religious values are, at best, attenuated; then you can see that it can make an very real difference to people’s lives.

    “Doing the right thing” – even if one does it only because one has absorbed a set of “dos” and “don’ts” from others – will generally produce better social outcomes than those that follow when a person acts in ignorance of moral precepts.

    Indeed, I seem to recall reading about a sociological study that showed that human-beings feel “rewarded” (i.e. experience a physical sensation of well-being) when they do the “right thing” – so there may even be an evolutionary bias towards behaving in a way that preserves personal self-esteem and social-cohesion.

    None of which, as I say, disproves your basic thesis.

    I guess all I’m trying to suggest is that even if we have no free-will, both our own lives, and the lives of those around us, are made more fulfilling if we think we do. And that systems of religious and/or ethical obligation which encourage us to believe we do, indeed, have choices make for a better world than one beholden to a philosophical system which asserts that our actions are, ultimately, beyond our control.

    • By and large I agree with you, Brian, although I’ve probably arrived at my conclusions via a very different path. One of the conditions that contributes most to at least the perception of free will is the presence in society of a clear and broadly accepted set of moral values.

      I don’t disagree with any of that, Chris. My view would be that ‘conscience’ is learned and, after centuries of civilisation, may well have a genetic component. The ‘still small voice’ does not come from God. We feel uncomfortable when we go against what we have been taught is ‘good’ behaviour, and comfortable (and rewarded) when we behave in ways we have been taught are ‘good’. In general ‘good’ behaviour brings praise and ‘bad’ behaviour invites criticism. So, in a civilised society, being good is a pragmatic option, possibly even self-interested, since we discover that treating others well tends to mean that they treat us well.

      I’m not well enough informed to know whether cave man had a conscience in the sense that we mean it today. I very much doubt it. The concept of ‘political correctness’ is probably based in the idea that our moral sense has now become so refined as to render us incapable of robust decision-making or action. Instinct was probably the driving force in the cave man’s/woman’s short life, but I doubt that they’d have worried too much about smashing the skulls of rivals or predators.

      This is all relevant to the crime and punishment issue, since if conscience is learned – from our parents, teachers, church leaders etc – then it follows that it may be diminished or even absent in indivduals who are not taught or do not experience those values as children.

  4. Brian, I agree with your views regarding crime. However I believe that a lot of crime could be avoided if we restricted the size of our towns. Not possible in the main cities of course but very possible in NZ country towns like my own Cambridge. However local councils are determined to spread building even into the so called ‘Green Belt’. Not the answer for all NZ but a reduction in crime in the towns is a positive reduction.
    Unfortunately groups like the chamber/ C and their ilk have the final say.

    • Brian ,I agree with your views regarding crime. However I believe that a lot of crime could be avoided if we restricted the size of our towns.

      Interesting idea, John. Violent crime has traditionally been an urban phenomenon, though we do seem to have a lot of murders in small provincial towns. Don’t really know enough about it to comment.

  5. One could go round in circles and disappear up one’s fundamental arguing this topic; I doubt whether there is an answer that would convince one side or the other. For those of us who believe in God perhaps we may find out after we pop our clogs. For those of you who do not believe in God there may yet be a surprise in store for you!

    I like to preserve the belief that I and others have free will; without free will life appears rather pointless. It is free will that enables humanity to rise to such heights and paradoxically to sink to such depths. It is the eternal battle between good and evil; and yes we do have a choice, whether from environment, upbringing or conscience. It distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Unlike any other species we do (apart from the truly psychopathic) understand that there are consequences to our actions, and that we are capable of harming and inflicting misery on others.

    One indication of free will to me is that over the centuries most of us have grown out of smashing the skull of a rival as a means of settling a dispute. Even now children brought up in the most adverse and brutal circumstances rise above their environment and make great successes of their lives. There are also children born into loving homes who make a ‘lifestyle’ choice of crime.

    And finally to me the greatest example of free will is that given to us by our creator; we can make the conscious decision to accept or reject the existence of God. We have nothing concrete on which to base the decision; it is a matter of belief and faith.

    • One could go round in circles and disappear up one’s fundamental arguing this topic; I doubt whether there is an answer that would convince one side or the other. For those of us who believe in God perhaps we may find out after we pop our clogs. For those of you who do not believe in God there may yet be a surprise in store for you!

      It’s a rough break for us atheists, Ben. If we’re wrong, who knows what the consequences may be – perhaps meeting Rowen Atkinson’s Devil. But if we’re right, we don’t get to crow about it.

      I really don’t want to get into the God issue. But you must realise that that your example of free will – that we can make the conscious decision to accept or reject the existence of God – because God has given us free will to do so, is a rather circular argument.

      I hope you’re not a praying man, because the doctrine of free will also means that God cannot interfere by answering your prayers. But that’s another topic.

  6. Sorry Brian
    All the good gene and environment people who screwed up through choices and the bad genes and environment people who did well out of their choices blow your position away.

    In the context of 6 billion people and what’s good and bad in any situation in any environment on culture or earth, I’m very surprised at your position as it is untenable.

    Personally I tend towards the hardware/software theory with software being able to overcome the environment to a large degree.
    But hardware is just that but we have choice even in our hardware and against our design.

    The issue of Homosexuality is so socially political now that the fact that it was considered hardwired by most of the psycho community thought before the activists highjacked it and now because of the visciousness of the secular liberal set those who still hold to that are villified or scorned.

    Free choice is just that, as has been proven by the many thousands of people again and again who have pulled themselves out of dark holes their environment or genes have put them in.
    That is the human spirit that we can all exult in.

    That’s why Latta still says choice, as he knows not to give someone an excuse to not try or not take responsibility for their choices.

    • Sorry Brian All the good gene and environment people who screwed up through choices and the bad genes and environment people who did well out of their choices blow your position away.

      Not much hope of changing your mind, Mike, with that level of certainty. However, the evidence of genetic and environmental patterning is simply overwhelming. And yes, there are numerous apparent exceptions. But the genetic and environmental influences on any one person are so complex and so difficult to analyse that it’s rash to say, this particular example totally undermines the general argument.

      A classic case of this approach is people who say: There were 3 children in that family. They were all brought up in exactly the same way and yet they all turned out differently. So this business of environmental determinism is obviously crap. But the 3 children weren’t and couldn’t have been brought up in exactly the same way. They were of different ages; their ranking in the family was different; each had two different siblings; one was a first-born, one a last-born, one in the middle; it’s probable that each parent liked one more than the olthers… And of course, they had different genes.

      But if you really don’t think any of the specific things I mentioned have a significant bearing on how people turn out, then we’ll have to leave it at that. But you could perhaps make a start by considering just the one proposition – that if you have an average or below average IQ, the professions and a great many other jobs are closed to you. And, at the other extreme, if you’re a tall man, you’re likely (I only said likely) to be more successful than if you aren’t.

      And by the way, who are ‘all the good gene and environment people who screwed up through choices and the bad genes and environment people who did well out of their choices’? And if, unlike Professor Bouchard, the study of such people has not been your life’s work, what do you know about their genes anyway?

  7. I think hard determinism is complete bosh, I think we have a combination of certain fixed factors, such as personality and where one was born AND I think we can choose to act or not freely as well. The most important factor for me about free will is that it offers us hope. People are redeemable, good choices can be made.

    But aside from that issue, I agree about small towns. I think communities do better in an environment where everyone knows everyone else. It creates bonds which make us conform to behaviours which are best for groups of people living together.

    For example, people are less likely to vandalise local properties if they know the people who live there. And if you do vandalise you are likely to be seen or caught and reported to your immediate family or someone who will exact private retribution.

    Of course there will always be exceptions, people who refuse to bow to unspoken peer pressure to conform to the standards of good citizenship. And of course there will always be people who snap and act violently.

    When I was at university we had a very tight knit social group. We spent our free time together during weekdays in the student union and we partied at each other’s flats on the weekends. One of our group stole some money from a uni club we were all involved with and duly he was taken to court. But what really hurt this person was not the legal censure, but the fact that we cold shouldered him. For several years we banned him from parties and refused to spend time with him.

    It was this private justice that was effective as he realised that he had hurt his friends by his actions. After some years he was slowly taken back by the group and he was genuinely sorry for what he had done.

    Close communities monitor their own.

    • I think hard determinism is complete bosh, I think we have a combination of certain fixed factors, such as personality and where one was born AND I think we can choose to act or not freely as well. The most important factor for me about free will is that it offers us hope. People are redeemable, good choices can be made.

      Can’t really argue with ‘complete bosh’, Tess, since it isn’t an argument. And the fact that something ‘offers us hope’ should not be confused with that hope having any real basis. Belief in a supreme being and an afterlife offers millions of people hope but there is really no evidence for either. We should not reject unpalatable ideas merely because they are unpalatable. The fact of the matter is that most people will accept the idea that some things are predetermined – our genetic make-up, including our IQ, the social and familial circumstances into which we are born and many others. What people find unpalatable is the idea that everything may be determined. That idea should be rejected if it cannot be sustained, but not because it is unpalatable or denies us hope. I’d much prefer to have a religious belief than to be an atheist, but I don’t believe the evidence supports such a belief.

  8. I disagree with determinism. I feel we are born with various traits, the possession of which may determine our reactions to some situations, but we are able to engineer (to some degree) the situations that we encounter.

    It has already been shown that someone with psychopathic tendencies can make an excellent businessman, or a terrible criminal.

    Thus, in my opinion, it’s the situation that determines the worthiness of the traits, not the traits themselves.

    And therein lies the free choice an individual has, do they choose the path that allows their traits to be rewarded, or do they choose the path that causes their traits to be punished.

    • And therein lies the free choice an individual has, do they choose the path that allows their traits to be rewarded, or do they choose the path that causes their traits to be punished

      Sounds pretty reasonable. But what determines (in the loosest sense) how they make that choice? It the answer, as one might expect, is their genetically/environmentally determined personality, then you’re really back to square one, aren’t you?

      I should add that this isn’t a crusade on my part. It’s simply my belief. If you believe, or perhaps choose to believe that we have free will, nothing will be lost by sticking to that belief. You may well be happier. My interest in determinism really is as it affects the way we treat offenders. The determinist has to be less judgmental.

  9. One of your pre determined personality traits is laziness. In spite of that you are successful both academically and professionaly (no false modesty please). You recognised that you were lazy and at some point in your life made a conscious decision to fight against that laziness. Had you not done so you would have remained a slob. Was that not an expression of free will or was it an expression of a clout round the ear from a loving father?

    It is also an expression of free will that rather than relax on holiday, as any sensible person would do, you choose to enter into this debate with a bunch of opinionated nutters – and I include myself in the definition. Take JC out to dinner and talk to her instead.

    • Take JC out to dinner and talk to her instead.

      Good idea, Ben

    • It is also an expression of free will that rather than relax on holiday, as any sensible person would do, you choose to enter into this debate with a bunch of opinionated nutters – and I include myself in the definition. Take JC out to dinner and talk to her instead.

      Excellent idea, Ben. Thank you. Determinism will be off the conversation menu, though – it leads to raging arguments!

  10. I totally agree with you BE. And I can’t believe how many people who don’t think they are religious nevertheless believe in free will. Sometimes it is because it suits their ideological positions (i.e. they want to punish criminals but they don’t think they can justify it without free will) other times because it is just their gut feeling and they haven’t really thought about it properly. But – without even going into genes etc – I can’t see how anyone can explain where this free will comes from except from some supernatural source. If you think human beings have free will then you think we are not subject to the same laws of physics as other matters. You may as well believe that people can levitate. Of course maybe people can levitate – but most rational people should conclude that the evidence for this is pretty slim.

    On the punishment issue, I wish people could agree with you on determinism. Then we could focus on what really matters, that is, does the punishment work as a deterrent? If it does, then it is possibly justified. Are the free-will true believers so worried that they cannot justify punishment on a deterrance basis that they feel they need to invoke free-will superstition? Surely they shouldn’t be so defensive. Punishment must surely work to some extent, depending on how it is done and under what circusmtances.

  11. “Can’t really argue with ‘complete bosh’, Tess, since it isn’t an argument.”

    Well I wasn’t trying to provide an argument, I was merely stating my position. I was really chatting about the idea of small communities. But since you brought it up…

    There is no irrefutable evidence for God, likewise there is no irrefutable evidence for a lack of God. I personally believe that God exists and that I have a relationship with Him, but that’s very personal and not something I can prove to others.

    For me, hard determinism goes against God’s perfect goodness. It would mean that some souls are destined to damnation and I refuse to believe that a good God would allow that. I think that all souls can attain salvation, should they choose it.

    It’s vital for souls to choose freely and that God’s goodness allows souls the freedom to reject Him, because freedom is a central part of human dignity. So for me, my belief in free will is theologically based, rather than philosophical.

    One of my favourite books is “Silence” by Shusaku Endo. One theme in the book is how faith is affected by circumstance. One character says that he was born weak, too weak to be a martyr. The priest realises that this man, had there been no persecution, would have lived out his days as a good Christian, rather than betraying him to be tortured by the authorities.

    How many of us good Christians would be apostates is we were persecuted? But because we live in times where we are free to believe the question is never met by us. On the other hand, how many of us are agnostics because circumstances have never pushed us to pray in despair?

    Therefore I don’t discount circumstance but I don’t believe it is all. I think that each of us is given the ability to make a free choice.

    • There is no irrefutable evidence for God, likewise there is no irrefutable evidence for a lack of God. I personally believe that God exists and that I have a relationship with Him, but that’s very personal and not something I can prove to others.

      Quite agree. One can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. My own view is that there is no evidence for the existence of God. But, like the ad on the buses says, ‘There is probably no God.’ So we agree on the logic at least.

      I can’t really comment on the rest of what you say since that is based on faith in God, which I do not possess.

  12. Hmm, sorry to go on, but I feel I need to expand on my post. My disagreement with determinism isn’t about punishment, as has been portrayed.

    If Joe Bloggs is destined to be a criminal, why not lock him up now, before he has a chance to hurt people. Why not ensure that John Doe has access to all the best education, and resources, after all it has been determined that he will be a great leader one day. It’s a slippery path toward something nasty, like eugenics, or that which is portrayed in ‘Gattaca’, from there.

    I think that’s one reason why this subject brings with it so much feeling.

    Also, for some of us mere mortals, taking away the chance we have to be anyone, do anything, no matter how slim, is a little more than we can cope with.

    • Hmm, sorry to go on, but I feel I need to expand on my post. My disagreement with determinism isn’t about punishment, as has been portrayed.

      Well, as I responded to someone else, we can only make broad picture generalisations about how someone will turn out. The determining factors in any given case are far too complex for any sure prediction. So you really can’t ‘lock John Doe up now before he has a chance to hurt people’. You could attempt to give John Doe all the positive environmental support you can, in the hope of redressing the balance in his conditioning. Determinism doesn’t mean not trying to change things. Our life experience is cumulative and the direction in which it goes is clearly determined in part by ongoing external environmental influences. It’s not as if your future were written in stone from the beginning.

  13. Do you remember a couple of young ‘intelligent’ mothers explain to Paul Henry how they were financially handicapped for childbearing when they should be encouraged to procreate, as opposed to the ‘unintelligent’ who breed like rabbits? Professor Jim Flynn then strongly asserted that intelligence is never a fixed measurement, how it develops with opportunity and can be significantly improved across the lifespan.

    A recent argument has seen criticism of medical professionals social skills, that they are too remote and intellectualised to employ compassion or empathy. Medicine is no longer a vocation, more a status symbol and socio-economic elevator. In short, cherry picking by the privileged middle classes. This is supported by the Poulton et al. longitudinal study of deprivation.

    While ‘incubus’ states that the “psychopath” uses free choice to become an “excellent businessman or a terrible criminal”, I would argue that learnt (or not) social skills and propinquity are the major determinants of lifestyle ‘choices’, even for the “psychopath”.

    I would argue that the concept of ‘free will’ is determined by a combination of opportunity and awareness, and always limited by environment. I would also assert that the concept of ‘free will’ is a backlash against the authoritarian paternalistic regimes of the World Wars, and an individualistic ideal rather than a reality. Let the privileged middle classes exercise their ‘free will’, the rest of us do what we can to survive within the limitations of our life experience and opportunities.

    Laziness (a much admired male quality) is often overridden by cultural expectations – working to afford social rewards. Cultural constructs determine what qualifies as ‘attractiveness’ with genetics held responsible for the accepted ‘norm of the day’. Tomorrow, even I may be in fashion!

    Small towns can be the most oppressive of environments given to limitations of every kind (incl. inbreeding) … I wonder perhaps if your writers yearn more for a sense of ‘community’?
    “The antidote for ignorance is experience”… the missing factor is opportunity.

  14. I’ve been looking all over for this!

    Thanks.