The Unfalsifiability of All Forms of Determinism

So, when I say that my choice between apple pie and pumpkin pie is determined, what I mean to say is that whatever choice I end up making is the choice I was going to make, ceteris paribus.

Oracle: I’d ask you to sit down, but, you’re not going to anyway. And don’t worry about the vase.
Neo:       What vase?
[Neo turns to look for a vase, and as he does, he knocks over a vase of flowers, which shatters on the floor]
Oracle: That vase.
Neo:       I’m sorry…
Oracle: I said don’t worry about it. I’ll get one of my kids to fix it.
Neo:       How did you know?
Oracle: Ohh, what’s really going to bake your noodle later on is, would you still have broken it if I hadn’t said anything?1

In my search for materials on another matter, I bumped against this post, which even if I am of the opinion of the blogger’s  error; he, at least, exhibits a rational clarity and coherence while expressing that error. In a world exuding with muddleheaded thinking; clarity of thought, which often requires pinpointing the central crux of the argument while dismissing all the superfluous flak, is a gift to the beholder.

This has been a matter, I have meant to be give expression to, for some time; having relevance in the Arminian-Calvinist controversies as well as in the physicalist (materialist) conceptions of determinism (i.e. physiological / medical model of mind). It is one, in which I had to sink deep into madness to comprehend. And I have known a few, in this day and days gone by, who have stumbled into this intellectual labyrinth, causing great psychological distress, over issues related to deterministic thought.

One ought to first divorce the principle of determinism from its theistic or naturalist underpinnings to clarify the argument. For, the determinism, which this blogger (Jared) upholds in defense of Sam Harris’ “Free Will” (2012) sophomoric exposition, is a mirror image of at least, a milder form of HyperCalvinism.

The analogy that Jared uses above, seeks to refute a misunderstanding of Sam Harris’ determinism. That misunderstanding questions the utility of morality and moral persuasion if the underlying physiological (neurochemical) brain state determines our conduct. Jared (and presumably Sam Harris) suggests that external phenomena (i.e. other people’s moral arguments) have causal effect on our inner subjective consciousness (qualia) and the neurochemical interactions that undergird that consciousness. Thus, we ‘change’ our mind in accordance to the changes in our “mind state/brain state”, which are consequent to these external inputs and their processing within the mind.

Jared summarizes this. “The state of the universe at any given moment contributes to the state of the universe in the very next moment by way of a set of causal relationships.” And thus while a person actually feels that he/she is willing the conduct on the basis of his/her thoughts, feelings, desires and motives etc, those underlying subjective faculties are subject to impetuses beyond the individual’s control.

I am, admittedly, simplifying the dynamic; which might suggest that this process reduces to Skinner’s knee-jerk behaviorism, which has long been officially discredited within neuroscience and psychiatry; although modified forms of it are still essentially practice (i.e. exposure therapy). The prevailing wisdom amongst adherents of philosophy of mind and neuroscience sees the mind as a Functionalist mediator between sensory inputs and behavioral outputs. However, this mediating mind processor, in the credentialed opinions within these disciplines, acts too much like a set of algorithmic (mechanistically logical) subroutines. Having been a computer programmer and having to become an in-depth introspective journalist of my own motions of mind and heart, I can attest that the logical (psychological) level of the mind and the logic level of the computer are little alike (a later project).

However, setting aside all the incoherence and absurdities of the physiological (medical) model of mind, any perceptive Calvinist will recognize this description of Harris’ determinism as “free agency”. One has free will to the extent that one acts according to the mental state to which one is accorded at the present moment. In this, the will is directly connected and subject to these other subjective faculties. This idea is inherent in one variant of Divine Command Theory. Jehovah cannot do evil because His nature will not allow His will to countenance it. And thereby, such proponents have created a philosophical god of the algorithm; more akin to Plato’s “The One” than that of the Jews.

However, my argument is that this formulation of determinism is not falsifiable at a rational, empirical and experiential level. Indeed, any concerted attempt to prove it will “bake your noodle” as I found out in the depths of mental distress. The opening citation of this blog entry was rightly criticized by a commentator as being a tautology or circularity of logic. I bumped against this when I was ‘tempted’ to defy the “irresistible grace” of God.

One has a decision to make. There are a myriad of overwhelmingly persuasive reasons to do A, and absolutely no rational or self-interested reason to do non-A. And there are strong emotive and psychological impulses to do A as well. However, in order to prove that I am not determined (in this case by ‘free agency’, ultimately directed by a Sovereign God; although the subjective conscious faculties and their neurochemical underpinnings can equally apply), I consider to do non-A. There are absolutely no other reasons to do non-A than to prove my independence of will. Will I have broken the spell of that “irresistible grace” or irresistible neurochemically-induced psychological impulse?

The problem is that if I did perform non-A, it can equally be suggested that my irrational decision was predicated on another and prevailing set of internal impulses or reasons. And thus whether I chose A or non-A, my decision can be construed as having been determined. I have no criteria to prove it otherwise. For as Jared said above “what I mean to say is that whatever choice I end up making is the choice I was going to make. And thus as Karl Popper complained about the proponents of ‘scientific’ socialism and ‘psychoanalysis’, determinism is not a falsifiable proposition. It is dogma.

From the perspective of the Calvinist, it is fundamental to understand that even if we believe in the tenets of The Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God, we cannot and are never to operate at the level of.

Endnotes:

  1.  Andy and Lana Wachowski, “The Matrix”, 1999
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