Some brief thoughts on the psychological aspects of being a determinist

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.


11 thoughts on “Some brief thoughts on the psychological aspects of being a determinist

  1. We really shouldn’t need a degree in philosophy to distinguish between what we should have done and what we actually did. No one really expects to travel back in time to fix a mistake. But when things go wrong it may be helpful to consider “what we could have done differently”. That’s how we hope to learn from our mistakes and perhaps will make fewer mistakes in the future.

    Therefore, trying to pre-empt this self-review by taking the phrase “what we could have done differently” too literally (as people tend to do in philosophical discussions) may not always be productive.

    On the other hand, beating ourselves up over spilled milk also becomes impractical and unproductive at some point.

    The lesson to be learned is to learn what you can from your mistakes and when you’ve done that, let it go.

    I don’t see how trying to drag this into a debate about determinism and free will is going to be helpful in counseling. It is likely to cause even more confusion.


    1. Marvin, of course nobody expects “to travel back in time to fix a mistake” and also, of course we try to understand our past mistakes in order not to make them again in the future. However, these trivial points are not in issue. The emphasis in the article is that we naturally adopt a free-will perspective in which we think we could have done otherwise in that moment; just as Baggio, probably till this day, does not believe it was determined by antecedent events and conditions together with the natural laws that he was meant to miss the infamous penalty. This is the free-will aspect – that we could have transcended the circumstances we found ourselves in and the action we conducted at that moment, and thus are morally responsible for it. Unless you are denying that we have the experience of free-will? Which I’m sure you do not. Although your reply did not discuss the free-will aspect whatsoever, which is surprising since it is one of the main themes of the post.

      Your reply: “But when things go wrong it may be helpful to consider “what we could have done differently”. That’s how we hope to learn from our mistakes and perhaps will make fewer mistakes in the future” fails to distinguish between the two following scenarios, –

      (a) I went on a diet 10 years ago but failed to lose any weight, I think its because I ate too many carbohydrates. This time on my diet, I’ll try to learn from my mistakes of the past, and reduce the carbohydrates.

      (b) Roberto Baggio, in the penalty shootout, hit the football over the bar. He could have done otherwise by sidefooting the football into the corner of the net.

      In (a) which follows your point of view – a trivial point that nobody would disagree with – we try to improve our future actions by looking at our past mistakes. Also notice that it does not discuss the free-will aspect.

      In (b) Baggio is NOT thinking that he should sidefoot the football when he gets his next penalty in a match because otherwise he might hit it over the bar, which is what (a) amounts to. Rather, he is thinking that in the actual scenario “he could have done otherwise” than hit it over the bar, he could have sidefooted the ball it in the corner of the net.

      However, once we adopt the philosophical perspective of determinism, we realise that such free-will thinking is incoherent and not actually true, it is an illusion. We are conflating the notions of “could have done otherwise” with something else: improvements to our actions just undertaken in those scenarios.

      Marvin, you state “I don’t see how trying to drag this into a debate about determinism and free will is going to be helpful in counselling”. I get the impression that you haven’t understood the point. Determinism, in this sense, is helpful in counselling! Assuming Hard Determinism, Baggio is not morally responsible for missing the infamous penalty, he could not have done otherwise! So, when he thinks that he should have just sidefooted the football into the corner of the net, he realises this is just an aspect of his imagination. Not a real alternative possibility of action that he could have manifested in the actual scenario. Baggio does not have to hold himself morally responsible for missing the penalty, he is not to blame.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “Also notice that it does not discuss the free-will aspect.”

        In the real world, the fact of free will is assumed whenever you make a deliberate choice. There are exceptions, of course, for the mentally handicapped, for underage minors, and for those being coerced to act against their will by someone else.

        In the real world, “anti-causal free will” and “anti-choice determinism” are only concerns of philosophy and theology students. And frankly, I’d like to keep the real world real. Letting Spinoza trap you into a stupid paradox that requires a pragmatist like William James to get you out should not be on the plate of some kid trying to get through his depression about making a simple mistake.

        “Assuming Hard Determinism … Baggio does not have to hold himself morally responsible for missing the penalty, he is not to blame.”

        That depends entirely upon whether blaming produces any positive results. If Baggio or his trainer or coach can learn something useful from what happen, some new fact to consider the next time he is kicking a penalty shot that will significantly improve his odds of success, then let’s have sufficient blame to accomplish that. And as soon as that new fact is known, the blame can be dismissed, and the whole thing becomes a positive learning experience.

        But if the blame cannot produce any positive results, if instead it is simply used for self-flagellation and depression, then it should be promptly discarded as useless (just like the idea of universal inevitability is useless and should be simply acknowledged but then ignored).

        The functional justification for “blaming” and “holding responsible” for a moral harm is only to identify what causes might reasonably be corrected to prevent a future harm.

        The functional justification for penalty is to (a) repair the harm if feasible, (b) correct the behavior of the offender if amenable to correction, and (c) protect the rest of us from harm until the offender’s future behavior is corrected.


  2. Marvin thanks for your replies – but you clearly do not understand the issues raised and the dialogue between each other is a waste of each others time, so I will not be accepting any more replies from yourself (unless they make sense in the future). You have completely misunderstood the notion of blame in relation to Baggio and his penalty miss.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have come to the same conclusions as you regarding debating Marvin on Free-Will.

    A quote from Kant springs to mind:

    ” Immanuel Kant called it a “wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery.” ” I couldn’t find the quote so I took that from wikipedia – but the gist of the quote was that compatibilism is just hard-determinism in disguise.

    Oh and I saw this from William James; about whom Marvin said “Letting Spinoza trap you into a stupid paradox that requires a pragmatist like William James to get you out”:

    “Compatibilists are sometimes called “soft determinists” pejoratively (William James’ term). James accused them of creating a “quagmire of evasion” by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism.”

    Anyway enough of this “wretched subterfuge” and “word Jugglery”!

    What do you think of this positive view of hard determinism:


    1. That was a pretty cool discussion.

      Let me try putting it this way. The phrase “free will” is easily defined by using “free” in precisely the same way that we use it when we set a prisoner “free” from jail. In jail, the prisoner is “not free” due to (a) he cannot leave of his own choice, (b) he cannot eat when or what he chooses, but only at the time, place, and meals chosen by someone else.

      When he is released from jail, we have no problem saying that he is “FREE!” Do we mean by this that he is now free from “causation”? No. Do we mean by this that he is now free from his prior experiences, his genetic dispositions, his acquired beliefs and values, and his own functioning brain? No.

      All that is required to validly use the word “free” is one single constraint that previously applied and that you are now free from (such as prison, or flu symptoms, etc.).

      So by whose definition does “free will” become “freedom from causality”? Spinoza. He is clearly out to lunch. But he sees this rabbit, and decides he must pursue, and has kindly invited a lot of otherwise intelligent people to come along with him down the black hole.

      To insist that one’s will must be free from causality or it cannot be free at all is to create a paradox of impossible choice between determinism and free will. The solution to the paradox is that no choice is required. Both can be chosen once you cut the gordian knot and realize this paradox was created with the same kind of double speak as every other paradox.

      Freedom has never, and never could be required to imply freedom from causality. Nothing can be free from causality. But then again, causality imprisons nothing. It just is. And it is neutral to our purposes while at the same time being essential to every purpose.


      1. Marvin, I’m going to keep it short because I can’t be bothered to keep repeating what the issues are. However, hard determinists and compatibilists believe that our psychological and neural processes that underlay are choices and actions are determined. Both of us agree that we are not exempt from causality.


      2. Correct. I like to think that my determinism is as “hard” as it can get. I believe universal inevitability is a fact. I just disagree about it’s practical implications. People are drawing mistaken implications in my view.


    2. Philososophia – I’ll give a reply to back on your blog since its your post and I think its only fair if others want to chime in with their views regarding the issues that they do it at your place. It may take a few days though for me to reply since I’m going to “kill two birds with one stone” by doing so: I’m going to take a few days to think about the topic seriously and come back with my fully reflected thoughts on the issue. In that way, you get a proper response, and I get to acquaint myself on what I really think about regarding those issues. That’s the great thing about blogging, getting to read other people’s views, which you can discuss, which in turn mediates your own thoughts on issues that are relevant but have been in the back of your mind for various reasons.

      I have thought about these issues before semi-seriously, and my views are semi-aligned with yours – I do think your views are impressive (and from conversations with my brother he thinks the same as you) – although I personally am not totally convinced that determinism is totally liberating, although I do think they are liberating in the way that you suggest. We shall see what I come up with in a few days.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We are free in the sense Marvin means – – – but he is trying to appropriate the term free-will from its christian metaphysical definition – which is what most people think when they think that term. He is trying to trick people. Most people won’t look into the definition of free-will that he is setting up – even if it were to become the dictionary definition. He is essentially trying to trick people into feeling morally responsible for their actions by using the term free-will in a dishonest and manipulative fashion.

        Oh check out these blogs of mine:

        These two are a direct response to Marvin:

        Oh and this is a poem/essay (i was kinda copying the pre-socratic philosophers in writing this way)

        and my updated about page:

        See I believe we make choices I also believe in freedom but by that I mean freedom to be me – to express myself as myself – – – it is a freedom that is compatible with determinism

        Sorry for bombarding you I just thought that you may be interested – – you may bombard me if you wish – – – maybe their are paths along the road of determinism you’ve noticed that I haven’t and vice versa. What do you go to by the way?


      2. “… I believe we make choices I also believe in freedom but by that I mean freedom to be me – to express myself as myself – – – it is a freedom that is compatible with determinism”

        And that sounds very similar to what I was saying!

        “Most people won’t look into the definition of free-will that he is setting up – even if it were to become the dictionary definition.”

        I believe the dictionaries already agree with me. Here are three dictionary definitions. In each case the first definition, which is the more common or preferred definition, appears to be speaking of free will in the ordinary, non-academic sense. The more esoteric definition found in theology or philosophy runs only in second place:

        Free Will
        Mirriam-Webster on-line:
        1: voluntary choice or decision ‘I do this of my own free will’
        2: freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention

        Short Oxford English Dictionary:
        1 Spontaneous will, inclination to act without suggestion from others.
        2 The power of directing one’s own actions unconstrained by necessity or fate.

        1. A person’s natural inclination; unforced choice.
        2. (philosophy) The ability to choose one’s actions, or determine what reasons are acceptable motivation for actions, without predestination, fate etc.

        My concern is that, while you attack the second definition, ordinary people are hearing you attack the ordinary version. And Dr. Nahmias’s article on “Willusionism” seems to back me up on this.

        “He is essentially trying to trick people into feeling morally responsible for their actions by using the term free-will in a dishonest and manipulative fashion.”

        Really? There is no trick here. The human race, for purely secular and practical reasons, does in fact hold people morally and legally responsible for their actions. Among adults this is done through our justice system. Within families, children are praised or rewarded for good behavior and censored or punished for deliberate bad choices. The goal in both cases is independent, responsible persons who are able to make good choices on their own.

        Although the underlying presumption is that we make deliberate choices, there are notable exceptions. There are mental handicaps like severe autism, schizophrenia, and other conditions that interfere with a person’s normal ability to deliberately choose appropriate behavior. There are also environmental and social factors that might similarly dominate a person’s choices. Correction and rehabilitation may need tailoring to the individual’s special circumstances. I believe high school dropouts can earn a general equivalency diploma (GED) while in most prisons as well as take other courses.

        This presumption, that a person can normally choose deliberately to behave well or commit a bad act, is what I would call “ordinary” free will. It is secular and practical. No magic or metaphysics is involved.


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