Does Determinism Make Us Robots?

As we’ve talked about before, we humans have the funny tendency to be “too rocked” by world-rocking revelations.

In other words, proposals that dramatically shift our way of thinking can prompt us to — accidentally — go too far and conclude things that are vaguely related, and seemingly entailed by the new revelation, but not actually entailed by the new revelation.

We called this Kochab’s Error, and Kochab’s story helps us beware his Error.

Determinism

Determinism is the idea that everything that happens is the definite result of a set of causes. Given a single set of causes, a single effect must emerge — unless and only unless sheer randomness intervenes.

This is a rather benign position. Imagine watching the universe from the outside, and Maurice chooses apple pie over chocolate pie. Then, imagine rewinding the universe, including everything within Maurice, to seconds before that decision.

He’ll make the apple pie decision again, of course.

“Of course” proceeds from the rhetorical question, “Why wouldn’t he?,” entailing the fact that if nothing about Maurice were altered on the second go, then he likewise wouldn’t decide differently.

Our decisions are products of our constitutions — “who we are” — at the moment of decision. So unless randomness intervenes, Maurice will always choose apple pie on each “repeat.”

And thank goodness! The prospect of Maurice choosing differently from one go to the next would be horrifying — it would mean that our decisions were not dependable products of our constitutional “factories.”

(The prevalent interpretation of quantum mechanics has there being intervening randomness at very tiny scales. Behavioral determinism under this interpretation is sometimes called “adequate determinism,” since it isn’t perfect determinism.)

A Common Response to Determinism

The very common response to hearing about determinism, however, is that of revulsion. That’s because we have several “default” perceptions:

  • Others surprise us, and we even surprise ourselves, and we have a hard time predicting any individual’s behavior with accuracy. Thus, decisionmaking seems very “spontaneous.”
  • We lack a sensation of the emergence of our thoughts from that of which they’re caused (if indeed they’re caused, and not random).
  • The way in which most of us contemplate our available avenues — by imagining multiple prospective “worlds” sitting just ahead in time — gives us the sense that there really are multiple prospective “worlds” floating out there, like an array of multiple roads from a single junction.

Determinism exchanges that feeling of spontaneity for the recognition of a “hidden” non-spontaneity, and seems to bulldoze all but one of those “multiple roads.”

And thus, we see the following very common reductio ad absurdum: “If determinism were true, we’d all be robots!”

Being a Robot

Being a robot entails all sorts of unsavory things:

  • The lack of consciousness.
  • The inability to have emotions.
  • The inability to love.
  • The inability to express interests and values.
  • The inability to find meaning in things.
  • The inability to creatively express one’s self.
  • The inability to come up with novel inventions and innovations.
  • The conformity to simple rules.
  • The inability to vividly imagine multiple prospects and choose between them according to feelings, intuition, and reason developed from a lifetime of experience.

Notice that each of the above are not things that could describe us, even under determinism.

As such, “We’d all be robots” is a Kochab’s Error. Calling us “robots” under determinism is absurd, trampling on all sorts of real, true things about ourselves that we enjoy and express.

To put it simply, if we ask “Could a robot make poetry/artwork/symphonies/etc.?” and the answer is “No,” then we’re not robots under determinism.

balloons

A Common Christian Response to Divine Determinism

When God’s involved, determinism has an extra complication: Everything ultimately traces back, through the domino-chain of causes and effects, to things God set up.

Thus, rather than calling us “robots,” a common response is, “If divine determinism were true, we’d all be puppets!”

Clear Non-Puppets Under Determinism

Most who say that humans have “libertarian free will” — a kind of “true spontaneity of decision” that precludes prior causes somehow (the “somehow” is never positively articulated) — do not apply the same quality to lesser animals.

And yet, our experience with lesser animals is not that they’re “God’s puppets.” Particularly when we think of our mammalian pets, we observe creatures with unique dispositions, desires, decisionmaking faculties, methods of contemplation and projection, feelings, and surprising (almost spontaneous!) behaviors.

Those aren’t the actions of puppets.

The story of Christian the lion is of genuine love, not an illusory veneer atop puppetry:

Further, even if someone says libertarian free will extends to lesser animals, would they apply the same to water against rock?

Imagine a cliff face being eroded by crashing waves over thousands of years. With each beat of the ocean, the face is slightly altered.

cliff

Does the deterministic procession of those water molecules against the molecules in the rock mean that each alteration — every nook and cranny throughout its history — is the hand of God in studious, meticulous action?

Such would be an extra conclusion beyond mere determinism.

Though under determinism God instantiated the universe — and each emergent item in the universe owes itself ultimately to that instantiation (and any subsequent intervention) — this doesn’t mean that God is consciously micromanaging absolutely everything.

Just as we don’t consider every cliff face at every moment God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism, nor the behavior of every Fido and Mittens in households around the world God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism, we aren’t burdened to consider the behavior of humans God’s deliberate and micromanaged puppetry under determinism.

The Gardener

The Gardener set the borders and rules and seeds of his garden from the get-go.

He also knew precisely how it would turn out in the end.

As the garden grew, there were blossoms and fruit, but also some thorns and weeds. But the Gardener was pleased to allow some such things to emerge.

Why?

Because although he didn’t have a taste for thorns and weeds, he did have a taste for letting his garden bloom chaotically — orderly, but messily and naturally — without constant intervention.

Did he intervene on occasion? Of course. Sometimes the thorns and weeds would be too much, and sometimes he wanted certain plants to know his personal care.

The degree to which he “let grow,” and the degree to which he intervened, proceeded from his total interest set expressing itself in action and inaction through time. And the deterministic chaos emergent from “letting grow” means that even under determinism, God is not a micromanager.

But if he knew precisely how it would turn out in the end, why do it at all?

meadow

Because it was in the Gardener’s taste to actualize his garden, not merely imagine it.

He really did want plants to grow.

He really did want shapes, forms, and stories to emerge.

He wanted to create a garden, and so he did so.

Conclusion

Christians who are libertarian free will incompatibilists — those who think there’s no sense of free will under determinism — have a typical answer when we ask them about whether God specifically micromanages the needles of each pine tree (a deterministic procession) or the thoughts and behaviors of my dog, Kirby (a deterministic procession): “No, he doesn’t.”

They’re ready to answer this for non-humans; they generally find it cogent, sensible, and satisfying.

This should likewise satisfy for human thoughts and behaviors under Christian determinism.

  • Because we each have a “natural will” — a will wrought, knitted, and cobbled from an incalculably large and unique causal recipe — and
  • because we can talk about the degree to which that will is free from gross intrusions, oppressions, and manipulations, and
  • because that will yields obedience and rebellion, horror and symphony,

we are in no meaningful sense robots.


For more about how Biblical compatibilism solves the age-old puzzle of freedom vs. sovereignty, see “Freedom & Sovereignty: The Heterophroneo.”

For more about the authorship of evil under divine determinism, see “Is God the Author of Evil? Semantics of ‘Want/Will.'”

For more about how determinism does nothing to preclude “genuine love,” see “‘Genuineness’ by Association.”

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About stanrock

Husband, father. Professional game developer, software engineer, & social product analyst. Armchair theology debugger. Fun theology exercises and games at http://StanRock.net

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