Determinists Strike Back Part 1

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16“If determinism is true, it makes no sense to speak of someone being “intelligent.” The outcomes of your thoughts and actions, generally speaking, are better than other people’s? Well, who is responsible for that? Certainly not you.” (Written by Richard Cocks)

Person 1

Woooah, I’m not a philosopher, by any stretch, but what a loaded statement….

Someone who is intelligent has “better” outcomes than other people? Or someone who thinks they are intelligent has better outcomes?

Does ‘someone’ have to be responsible for intelligence?

To me the big issue here is that we don’t have an accepted definition of intelligence. It is many things – it certainly isn’t just education …

And that’s before we get to the determinism issue – lol …

@ Person 1 Up to a point, there is likely to be some kind of survival, and socioeconomic, advantage to being intelligent – hence, “better” outcomes overall. In fact, IQ and socioeconomic status are highly correlated. If you look into it you will find there is a well-established scientifically validated body of literature on the topic. The field is called psychometrics. They study G factor.17

 @ Person 1 “General intelligence can be defined as a construct that is made up of different cognitive abilities. These abilities allow people to acquire knowledge and solve problems. This general mental ability is what underlies specific mental skills related to areas such as spatial, numerical, mechanical, and verbal abilities.” One might add that rather than being constructed out of multiple parts, G factor, general intelligence, is a unitary thing underlying these different abilities, comparable to the processing power of a computer chip. With a relatively powerful chip, nearly all processes will be accomplished faster and will be less likely to get bogged down.

@ Person 1 The faster you can solve problems, and the harder they get before you are stumped, the smarter you are. As a professor, I’m sure you can assess the intelligence of students effectively.

IQ has a good predictive value. Smarter lawyers, for instance, earn more on average.

The main point is that there is no “you,” and “me,” under determinism. So, we have no qualities at all – intelligence being just one of them. Determinism is a denial of consciousness – as being anything meaningful at all. If we are not agents – centers of decision making and choice – then we are indistinguishable ontologically or perhaps metaphysically from the surrounding environment. Chairs and tables are merely subject to physical deterministic forces and so are we. Under determinism, there are merely sequences of events stretching back to the Big Bang. I find it painful to contemplate how many people call themselves determinists without thinking through the implications.

There is also no such thing as creativity and imagination under determinism which is a bummer. Determinism postulates train tracks from which we may not deviate. How can simply traveling down those tracks be “creative,” or, “intelligent.”

  • Person 1

I teach about intelligence tests when covering A.I. – we discuss human intelligence (briefly) before jumping into artificial intelligence. I think psychometrics and the G factor are just one of many ways to measure intelligence. And sure higher IQs correlate to higher academic performance – but is that really all intelligence is? I don’t have time to write full responses here today, or read the stuff you sent (but I will) – but this stuff fascinates me …

  • Person 2

I agree with Person 1. Whatever issues we might have with determinism, it doesn’t seem to undermine the concept of intelligence. Let’s assume determinism is true for sake of discussion. Intelligence can be measured in different ways but seems to be compatible with determinism. One sense of intelligence would seem to be an organism who is more attuned to his or her environment. If you ask me what the capital of New York is and I say Albany, I am more in tune with the facts about my environment than someone who says Syracuse.

@ Person 2 There can be no sense of “attunement.” Under determinism, everything is a meaningless chain of cause and effect stretching back to the Big Bang. Organisms need to be aware of their environments in order to respond intelligently or appropriately and determinism involves the denial of consciousness – certainly consciousness as agency.

  • Person 2

To continue, this can also be cashed out in terms of nonverbal responses. Someone who recognizes that a wolf is dangerous rather than trying to pet the growling dog is acting more intelligently than the person who ultimately gets mauled. A libertarian sense of free will need not play any role in this. Similar comments might be made for the recognition of human social environments.

@ Person 2 There are no “actions” in determinism. Actions require an actor. A marionette does not act.

@ Person 2 “Recognition” is a term from folk psychology to be reduced to brain physiology and physics. If you want to give recognition any content, you will need to reintroduce meaningful consciousness on the part of an agent for it to do any work.

To your last comment, I disagree. Right now I am watching March Madness. Many of the players are reacting intelligently to what is happening in their environment without conscious thought. The reactions need to be so fast that sometimes they do not allow for conscious thought.

@ Person 2 I think I’ll point back to “marionettes don’t act.” The implications of determinism are far more far-reaching and radical than determinists seem to think. They want a kind of “business as usual” with minimal disruption to ontological and metaphysical categories and are lulled into stupefaction and complacency by the fallacy of popularity. Other people agree, so it cannot be that crazy. In fact, it is even crazier than solipsism. At least the solipsist takes consciousness seriously. Determinism is its denial. Consciousness is the precondition of attaining knowledge of any kind, including scientific knowledge. One has to, for instance, read scientific instruments and then to trust that one’s senses are moderately reliable. Solipsism, at least, does not contradict this.

Why must recognition require conscious thought? Of course, it requires a reaction to stimuli. If you define recognition in terms of someone being able to say (for example), “Yes, I (consciously) recognize that I am looking at a church.” then recognition requires consciousness. However, a simple animal that moves away from a painful stimuli could be said to recognize that there was danger.

Richard Cocks

@ Person 2 Introducing the phrase “reaction to stimuli” most unexpectedly is unwarranted, illegitimate and in contradiction to determinism. A mindless physical causal reaction is not “reaction to stimuli.” The phrase also appeals to an outmoded psychological theory called “behaviorism” which also denies the existence and causal efficacy of consciousness and mind. See below.

@ Person 2 Before a skill is learned one must consciously think about it – a right hemisphere phenomenon. Once it has been learned it moves over to the left hemisphere and can be done relatively robotically, with a minimum of attention. Conscious awareness is required, if not much if any thought. If the animal has seen a dangerous thing before it can react relatively automatically. Otherwise, evaluation is needed.

But even reflex responses require some kind of conscious awareness. Imagine a baseball is heading for your face. Your hand whips up and catches the ball just before it strikes you. The most parsimonious explanation is that the organism is demonstrating agency. It is the organism reacting on its own accord, not the Big Bang. Determinism sets train tracks from which one must not deviate. Train tracks that were laid down 13.5 billion years ago. From a determinist point of view, catching that baseball is a miracle, since the Big Bang had no idea that human beings and baseballs were even going to exist and that human beings would have very negative attitudes towards baseballs hitting them in the face corresponding to a survival instinct.

With regard to Person 2’s example of intelligently not petting a growling wolf, for determinism to be true, the Big Bang has to know that this animal will exist and at this precise time it will encounter this threat. The animal makes no decisions of any kind. That is all an illusion if determinism true. In fact, why is the animal avoiding the threat? Self-preservation. Acting to preserve your life is to act purposefully. Purposes do not exist in determinism since they are mind dependent and goal driven. Goals do not exist yet. They exist in the future and pull us forward. Physical determinism involves pushing only. Cause and effect only. Modern science since 1600 or so has tried to eliminate teleology (end driven, goal driven behavior) from the world. Determinism most assuredly does the same thing.

@ Person 2 The time frame for all this is too short. Determinism can seem kind of plausible if you restrict your focus to an hour or two, or a few hundred million years perhaps, but not when you realize that the chain of cause and effect extends unalterably into 13.5 billion years ago. There is no “reacting to stimuli” in such a scenario.

@ Person 2 In reference to intelligent plays by basketball players in March Madness, in order to get that intelligent seeming pass, for instance, to work, the Big Bang had to line up all the hot gases in just the right way so that stars exist, then planets exist, then life exists, then humans exist, then basketball exists, then those players exist, and then that one perfect pass happens with no intervention of conscious thought. What an amazing fluke! Either that, or the Big Bang is omniscient and is basically God but without being good or moral.

  • Person 2

No, no, no! The time frame is not too short! Evolution has finely tuned us to reacting to our environments. (Those who were not finely attuned perished!) Here is my last word on this. I think the determinist would be happy to acknowledge that human beings typically live under the illusion of free will. This means that we will need to revise our understanding of concepts that we have originally come to understand under this illusion. Imagine the following situation: I am CONSCIOUSLY CONTEMPLATING where to vacation, Buffalo or Albany. (No one could blame me for being conflicted as both are glamorous vacation spots that draw travelers the world over.) I then DECIDE to vacation in Buffalo because the beautiful Niagara rivers runs through it. My contemplating though is simply a matter of my not immediately being drawn to one or the other. (If the two options had been Buffalo and Paris, there would have been no conflict. Paris, ick!) My “decision” is simply something that appears in my conscious mind. If I need to explain this to myself I fixate on the Niagara river as that which made me DECIDE to go to Buffalo instead of Albany. But this was all determined.

@ Person 2 Yes. Under determinism, you are not an agent, but an automaton. There is in effect no “you” at all. All that exists is a constant stream of cause and effect moving from the past and into the future with nothing to distinguish you from all the rest. Consciousness that actually does anything is denied. So, you are no different from any nonsentient being in that regard. Evolution requires purposes and goals, therefore, for the determinist, evolution is an illusion too. All is mechanical and inexorable. Back in the real world, since the world is unpredictable, organisms need to be able to improvise. Having agency is the simplest explanation following Ockham’s Razor. Without mind being causally efficacious, all must have been foreseen by the Big Bang in order to get the “right” result.

Evolution is far far far too short a time frame. The Big Bang had to organize even evolution. You’re just making things harder, not easier.

Of course, Person 2 cannot “consciously contemplate” something, or if he does, it will be causally inefficacious. He then self-contradictorily claims that he will decide something while admitting he is deciding nothing. There is a very long list of concepts and phenomena to which a determinist cannot appeal because he denies their existence. Consciousness, purpose, decision-making, and so on are on that list. Why does Person 2 refer to “decision” and even shout it by capitalizing it? He does it because unconsciously, in what is in effect an act of bad faith, he knows, or should know that for him, decisions do not exist.

A determinist cannot admit that consciousness exists because that would mess up his determinism. In Person 2’s example of the holiday, he has consciousness as a passive spectator only. What philosophers call an epiphenomenon. Consciousness in this case can be compared to the smoke from a combustion engine. It is there, but it does nothing productive and it does not and cannot turn around and effect the engine. The image that comes to mind is of the antihero of A Clockwork Orange who is forced to watch18 violent images and listen to his favorite composer whether he likes it or not, and is powerless to stop or change anything. It is the kind of consciousness experienced by someone with “Locked-in syndrome.” This is a thankfully rare condition where someone has normal intelligence but cannot move their bodies to communicate in any way other than their eyes. One poor man was considered a vegetable and spent years watching Barney play on TV as a result; a fate worse than death.

It is significant that Person 2 suddenly and unexpectedly introduces the terms “stimuli and response.” Those concepts were introduced by the psychological school called behaviorism and behaviorism attempted to explain all human interaction with the world, human and environmental, in terms of rigid, law-driven rules. Given this stimulus, you get this response. In the beginning, behaviorism explicitly simply bracketed out “mind,” from the equation because minds are invisible and too difficult to study. This then progressed to rejecting the concept of “minds” all together, and replaced it with stimulus/response pairings. Unfortunately, after fifty years of flogging a dead horse, behaviorism as an all-encompassing theory of psychology, was abandoned. Cognitive behaviorism, which is something quite different since it takes cognition seriously, does not pretend to be an explanation for everything, and it can be quite useful. It involves consciously thinking different thoughts rather than the ones that appear spontaneously. Instead of thinking “This is scary. I’m going to fail,” you say to yourself, “Everything is manageable. I’m going to be fine.” And, you do that consciously in an attempt to override pathological tendencies and self-fulfilling prophecies. Repetitive prayer too can be seen as washing your mind in purifying and uplifting thoughts.

Behaviorism failed because there are no lawlike regularities between stimuli and responses, or rather, the smarter and more complex an organism is, the fewer such regularities exist. Very simple and relatively dumb animals like pigeons, with minds of low complexity have more predictable behavior, but dealing with human beings who have all sorts of complicated and sometimes ambivalent feelings and motivations, not so much. The reason that responses vary is because of mind; thoughts, feelings, motivations, desires, worldviews, culture, hormones, and all the rest. Any reasonable explanation and/or prediction concerning human behavior will need to take into account facets of mind. The existence of consciousness is why we sometimes respond one way, and sometimes another. Better predictions of human behavior can be made if mind is acknowledged than if it is not.

20David Chalmers posited the hypothetical existence of his doppelganger David Chalmers Prime who resembled him in every way except qualia – an inner life or subjective experience – what was known as the zombie theory. Part of the zombie theory is that there is nothing self-contradictory about imagining that someone could do everything he does right now without being conscious. He could talk, write, smile, and navigate the world as a completely unconscious automaton.  Since it is consciousness that allows us to do all those things, the zombie theory seems tantamount to saying you could drive a car without a car. There are in fact amusing stop action films of people sitting on the ground in a driving position doing just that but no attempt is being made to pretend this is real. David Chalmers Prime seems to be merely impossible rather than logically impossible. Determinism involves David Chalmers Prime or at least consciousness with locked-in syndrome – powerless to causally influence the world around him.

Evolution 2.0 shows that evolution, contrary to the logical implications of determinism, is very much real15 and some of it, at least, involves incredible acts of intelligence, problem-solving, and thus agency. Horizontal gene transfer and transposition are the most incredible instances of this. The former involves cells choosing abilities of other cells and then replicating them within themselves by copying strands of the relevant DNA in other cells. Transposition involves cells editing their own genes in real time in order to, for instance, join up broken bits of DNA – broken by radiation – in order to regain the ability to reproduce. Maize cells can do this. The ways the radiation harms DNA cannot be predicted, so the maize has to be very intelligent at fixing the problem. Even evolution requires agency. And it certainly requires teleology, something no determinist can countenance without subverting his own metaphysical commitments.

26 thoughts on “Determinists Strike Back Part 1

  1. It is often said that we haven’t defined intelligence clearly because there is some fuzziness at the margins, but intelligence is one of the most clearly-defined concepts in psychology. Maybe you could say that we haven’t defined “smarts” or some vague idea that includes gumption, getting ahead, canniness, hard work, or the other side-stories, but we have defined intelligence for a hundred years, people just don’t like to think so. It hurts their widdle feewings. Pick what you think you would like to see included. Start measuring it. Spend some time refining the concept talking with others and speaking with people who design tests. After twenty years, roll out your results with a press conference. The next day Greg Cochrane or whoever will point out that your new test has virtually identical results to the WAIS, the S-B. the SAT’s, whatever you like. Or it is measuring something that is not really intelligence, but some social outcome that people like. The college and graduate school application ones are a bit weak on Spatial intelligence, true. If you are looking for engineers you may want to account for that.

    The counter-arguments to my premise – and i have been in these discussions for decades – will be anecdotes that people knew a guy who supposedly had a high IQ (they seldom have any scores to go with this) but was a prize a-hole, so there. I know many obnoxious people with High-Q’s. So what? There are plenty of talented athletes, singers, artists, or speakers who are obnoxious as well. It doesn’t mean that they didn’t really clear 7-6 in the high jump.

    Sorry to be obnoxious myself here. I’m just tired of the discussion and expected better over here.

    • It is hard to find you to be obnoxious when you are agreeing with me. Sorry you’re not happy with it, AVI. I completely agree that intelligence as a concept is one of the best verified thought out things in all social science. You know that it is not me who is raising doubts about it, right? “Person 1” is.

      The purpose of the post is to let determinists speak for themselves for a change. My students, for instance, wonder how anyone can be so stupid as to believe in determinism and might even wonder if it is a strawman position, so there seems to be some advantage in letting them speak for themselves. Person 1 not only does not understand why people cannot be intelligent in determinism, he even thinks there is something vague and ill-defined about intelligence itself. If you can find me some smarter determinists to interact with then that would be fine. This one is a computer scientist with interests in AGI and intelligence. IMO, “smart” and determinism don’t go together.

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  3. There is no point in making persuasive arguments if determinism is true, therefote every time they try ti persaude you they admit they don’t really believe in determinism. Period.

    • I disagree. Whether or not determinism exists, we have to live in this world and experience consequences of the knowledge of those around us. You seem to be under the illusion that the only outcome of determinism is nihilism, but it’s not.
      Whether or not I chose the preference to not be tortured or murdered is irrelevant. The fact is that I DO possess those preferences and therefore would try and convince a psychopath from doing those things to me. Likewise I believe that my unchosen preferences in life will be better met if those around me have a more accurate view of reality, and thus I try to convince them.

      Or, is your argument that attempts at persuasion is pointless because determinism would mean nobody could be convinced?

      • If determinism is true, there is no “you” to have preferences or not. Only agents have preferences. Chairs and lamps don’t have preferences. Under determinism, there are only sequences of events. At core, determinism is a denial of consciousness.

        “You” are not trying to convince anyone of anything. That is an illusion if determinism is true. The Big Bang, assuming that as the first cause of all other events, determined what would happen 13.5 billion years ago. Both “you” and the other person are part of a causal chain and your beliefs and preferences are irrelevant have no effect on anything.

        If determinism is true, persuasion is an illusion. Physical determinism posits all events, including your thoughts and speech, as causally determined. Persuasion, however, relies on logic and reason, both of which are illusions under determinism. If you say, “You are begging the question. Mere physical events have mental properties.” Then you are an idealist where mind is the fundamental reality, not physics. And mind is in fact controlling events, not mindless cause and effect. Mind exhibits intentionality, goals, and purposes. Physics posits no such thing.

      • Sorry – It won’t let me reply to your comment directly. Only my previous one.

        “If determinism is true, there is no “you” to have preferences or not. Only agents have preferences.”
        Says who? Human action, at its foundation, is no different than one of those small robots programmed to point its camera at the floor and follow the black line where it leads. Humans are simply much more complicated and have much more programming – the choices we make generally much more complex – but we follow the same sequence when determining our course. When the robot makes a “choice” to veer left to follow the line, it has done nothing but reference its programming and equations and variables to their inevitable conclusions. Humans do nothing except reference our programming (genetic, chemical, societal, etc) in order to come to also inevitable conclusions (at least, in the conscious decisions which you would claim we “freely” make). None of that programming can we honestly say we had a choice in how to interpret/perceive and therefore any outcome was likewise not freely chosen. In that sense, robots show the exact same amount of “agency” over what they do. ie: They follow their programming and nothing more. Would you agree?

        “and your beliefs and preferences are irrelevant have no effect on anything.”
        I see I was correct that you think the ultimate end of determinism must be nihilism. This, I believe, is patently untrue and it ignores entirely my argument I made previously. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t choose to possess the belief that I want a good life. Yet, I have that preference. If I make good choices – regardless of whether I freely chose them – my life will be more pleasant to experience. *Whether or not my choices are free, I can still perceive experiences as good or bad.* I think that’s what you’re ignoring. And convincing others has an effect, regardless of whether either of us can fairly claim responsibility for such effect.

        I’ve never heard that before – that we cannot have preferences if true. Nothing in determinism necessitates that end or even hints at it. A computer can be programmed to attempt to convince people of things too, and I’m assuming we’d both agree that computers do not yet have consciousness. And yet I’m also assuming we’d both agree that computers are nothing but causally determined physics in motion, yes?

        And as far as I know, most determinists (including myself) don’t necessarily believe everything that happened since the big bang was causally necessary, as quantum physics seems to have credibly shown that there is true randomness within reality. But determinism is comfortably maintained without Laplace’s Demon. I think that confusion is mostly semantics, based on far outdated theories of determinism.

        The best definition I’ve yet found on determinism (and I believe most popular, as it’s #1 on Google) is “the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes regarded as external to the will.” As long as we have no choice over what our preferences are, free will is impossible in my view, and 100% of our preferences are governed by that which is out of our control. ie: “A man can do as he wills, but he cannot will as he wills.”

      • I will reply more later. With your opening comments about robots you are making my point for me. Yes. No you. Just a bunch of circuits on wheels. You guys can’t make your mind what you want!

      • Also, apologies – I read this on my phone at first and missed the vast majority of your actual post. Or maybe my phone just displayed a broken version of it.
        In any case, I’ve now read the whole thing. I could say more, but I’ll give you time for my last response. Sorry for the length.

      • No problem. I’ve had other people misread this post and, for instance, not realize that I am including comments by determinists with which I disagree. My students sometimes feel like I have have somehow underrepresented what determinists have to say. My response is there is not much to say if you are a determinist. Everything is material. All material things operate by cause and effect. We humans are nothing but material. We operate by cause and effect. What else is there to say? Nothing. Except all the horrendous consequences of those unproven assumptions.

      • I will eagerly await your response.
        But I will leave you with the thought that “you guys” also can’t simply make up your own arbitrary definitions and rules and pretend they’ve solved determinism. I’m not the foremost authority on determinism, but I know and have read/seen quite a lot. The only people I’ve ever known to make these arbitrary claims, such as “there is no ‘you’ to have preferences” and “only agents can have preferences” and that persuasion is somehow an “illusion”, are people who seem desperate to disbelieve determinism. I think we need to define our terms.
        In any case, it’s been a while since I’ve talked to an intellect on the subject. I appreciate the discussion. Cheers.

      • I’ve written maybe four articles on this topic, so, I promise I’m not making up arbitrary rules and definitions. But, I really really am trying to get determinists to stick to their own rules and definitions. Man, do they like jumping in and out of determinism when it suits them and ignoring the implications of what they are saying!

        There is a reason that free will vs determinism is perennial philosophical topic. It cannot be proved one way or the other. But, there are certain horrendous implications of determinism, such as nihilism, and there is illogicality in arguing for determinism. First, you are an automaton and there is no reason to pay attention to such. Second, “persuasion” does not exist for determinists. Thirdly, causes, not logic, determines the outcome for determinists so the whole “argument” thing is a charade and as meaningful as sticking someone with a screwdriver and saying “I won the argument!”

        I will admit up front that my defense of free will appeals to weird stuff like “the Ungrund” from Jacob Boehme. Believe me, I wish I didn’t have to! Typically, cynics have the easier time of it. Prove it! Give me your definition! I can only appeal to intuitions and logic. But, at least, I am involved in no performative contradiction in arguing for free will since I believe I am an agent and so are you and we both have free will and reasons, not merely causes, can change opinions.

      • I can peruse the above linked articles at some point, but, forgive me, are you saying you will post a separate reply? And will that be in the comments here or a new article? Or are the 3 separate links the aforementioned reply that you had mentioned?

      • I appreciate your friendly manner. In that regard, you will be the better man because my reply is a too belligerent, which might mean that agonism has got the better of me. The nice thing about online stuff is that it can be revised. So, I will post my three page reply and I will of course make sure you get a chance to respond.

    • One of Turing’s outcomes was helping to solve the Enigma Machine code. That was quite a remarkable achievement. Overall, intelligence tends to be an advantage in life and it would be counterintuitive if it did not. Charles Murray in The Bell Curve has done a good job providing the irrefutable scientific evidence that being high IQ is correlated with better socioeconomic outcomes. And then, being high IQ relative to other lawyers or physicists, tends to be correlated with higher attainment within those occupations.

      Something generally conferring an advantage, however, does not mean that every smart person will have a better outcome than every stupid person. It’s one of those “on average” things like the house winning 52% of the time in casinos.

      There are some pathologies associated with intelligence, however. Intelligence can help to override instincts, including the instinct to have children. Intelligent people are more environmentally sensitive and better at self-brainwashing in order to convince themself of beliefs which it is in their career interests to have. So, smart people are more likely to be Machiavellian schemers than some relatively dumb guy just trying to get by in life.

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  5. Pingback: Re: Is This Philosophy Professor Strawmanning Determinism? – Robot Philosopher


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