Living with the belief of the existence of the brute metaphysical thesis of determinism – irrespective of whether it is compatible or incompatible with moral responsibility (and whether it is a type of free-will worth wanting) – as contrasted to the metaphysical thesis of free-will, appears at times to be a difficult and unnatural burden to bear when dealing with the practical realties of living. A topic that the impressive Dr Kevin Murtagh (and his splendid wife, Kim) discussed with me and fellow philosophers at an Indian restaurant in Aberdeen. Trying to reconcile our philosophical beliefs with how we live our lives.
I think its best to illustrate this discussion by an example in the first person. Previously, I went to a job interview in which I had to undertake a written assessment. Now, during the assessment I obviously attempted to complete the assessment to the best of my ability, and due to the strict and pressuring timed element of the examination, I did not have too long to ruminate and use practical deliberation to inform my written response. So, on the way back home by train I, naturally, (and it has to be natural, since I did in fact react in this fashion – as I guess most of us do) thought of ways that I could have performed the written exercise differently: “I should have written about this aspect in more detail” or “I should have emphasised that relation and been more concise in my wording.” I compounded my misery by continually berating myself for not completing the assessment in this post-hoc manner, whipping myself into a self-loathing frenzy that I could have done otherwise than that which I did. Always in a manner better than which I completed it.
Yet given the (assumed) truth of determinism this is crazy! The belief that I could have done otherwise in that situation is an abhorrent illusion. And furthermore, given my philosophical belief in Hard Determinism (which I will not philosophically justify here) I am not even morally responsible for my actions! Yet my natural pre-theoretical thought-patterns is to believe that I could have done otherwise, and done things differently in those exact same circumstances at that exact same time. These possibilities however are really just vagaries of imagination.
However, we naturally forget that this intuitive, pre-theoretical thinking is devoid of the conditions that modified our behaviour in the first place. When I was thinking of what I should have done, and berating myself for not writing down what I imagined I could have done in the examination, I had the luxury to think through my answers, to try and understand what they were asking of me, and what they wanted for me to demonstrate, away from the pressure cooker atmosphere of the examination room and absent the oppressive timing of the clock.
But I think what we are really engaged in within these moments is a type of profound misunderstanding in ascribing our thought processes as a type of free-will. I think we are guilty of conflating between believing that we could have done otherwise and actually just suggesting improvements to our own actions. Our own vanity though is then to transcribe those suggested improvements and believe that we have the power and ability to manifest those improvements in the previous scenario.
Let’s test this out in a real famous example. 1994 world cup final, Italy are playing Brazil and it has gone to a penalty shoot-out. Roberto Baggio, probably the best player at the world cup and one of the best players in the world at that time, has the chance to level the penalty shoot-out, but inexplicably puts the football over the bar. Italy lose to Brazil on penalties, and Brazil win the world cup.
Now, whenever Baggio thinks about the penalty kick he probably blames himself for missing, “I could have just side footed it in the corner of the net”, and has probably went through intense personal sessions of self-loathing and sadism that he didn’t just choose to put the football into the corner of the net. It seems so natural and understandable to do so. Yet, given determinism, such possibilities are just fantasises of the imagination. Yet, given determinism, he’s received collective social abuse and personal guilty for what is merely the unfolding of factors beyond his control in missing that fateful penalty (and adulation for his special gift at being a wonderful footballer) But really, to say that he should have just passed the ball into the net is merely to suggest an improvement on his previous behaviour, and then to believe it was possible in the actual scenario. It is not to say, he could have actually done otherwise in that precise situation as it unfolded, but rather rational deliberation has informed him that the situation could have turned out otherwise. It is not too hard to imagine the following counterfactual: Baggio stepping up and scoring that penalty by sidefooting it into the corner. But these “could have done otherwise improvements” are disconnected from the real world factors and stresses of the actual scenario: the pressure, tiredness, fatigue, mental instability, thought processes, strain, nervousness, expectation and burden placed on Baggio’s shoulders as he took that penalty. Given the assumption of determinism, with those multitude of factors, at that exact moment, Baggio will miss again and again, and ultimately he is not morally responsible for it whatsoever.
To think that Baggio could have scored is to believe in free-will. Free-will, the belief that we can transcend circumstances (Smilansky).
The moral of the story is for philosophical determinist to start thinking like a determinist and not to fall back into incoherent notions of free-will. Remember that when you’re staring at the ceiling thinking “you could have done otherwise”, that in fact you really couldn’t have, and despite when the majority are losing their heads, you are not to blame. Thinking you “could have done otherwise” is simply suggesting future improvements to your actions should you become engaged into a similar scenario in the future.
Update: These are just speculative thoughts I had recently on our thought processes when we ruminate on what we “could have done otherwise” on a psychological level. The actual metaphysical thesis of free-will has nothing to do with suggesting improvements to one’s actions post hoc and then believing we had the ability to manifest them in the original scenario. Although I certainly believe we delve into this incoherent notion daily within our lives for the reasons mentioned above, and for reasons of control and ego which I will speak about in the future.