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Is Determinism True?, Compatibilists And Incompatibilists, Recent Thinking, Bibliography

The most general idea is that all events without exception are just effects. This idea has been associated with science since the seventeenth century, but it was put in some doubt by an interpretation of quantum theory in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Events are things that happen. Roughly speaking, they are such occurrences as a chair having such a property as a particular location for a time. So determinism is not the idea that everything is an effect. There is a reasonable doubt, by the way, about the items that quantum theory is often interpreted as saying are not effects. Are these items actually events? Are they like numbers instead, say three? If so, then the interpretation of quantum theory is actually irrelevant to determinism.

As for effects, they are not just probable. They are events that had to happen or could not have been otherwise. They were settled in advance. They were, as philosophers sometimes say, necessitated. There have been different thoughts about what all this comes to.

One thought is that an effect is something that would still have happened just as it did, given certain things that preceded it, whatever else had also preceded it. That match would still have lit, since it was struck the moment before and there was oxygen present and so on, whatever else had also been true.

There is a less-general idea of determinism, of greater interest to most people and to philosophers. It is an idea of human determinism, the main subject of this article. It is that human choices and decisions and the like, and also actions that flow from them, are just effects. Deciding to move one's little finger now is just an effect—as is moving it. So with buying something, getting divorced, or killing somebody. The word just in either idea of determinism is only a reminder that whatever else is true of them, the events had to happen, could not have been otherwise, and so on.

The reader may want to say at this point, reasonably enough, that there is a third idea of determinism. It is that people's choices, and so their actions, are not free. Certainly that idea exists. But it is probably better to begin with the second one, about human activities being effects. This is so for the reason that for centuries philosophers and others have disagreed about what follows logically from the second idea, about choices and actions being effects—if that is the case.

Many philosophers have of course said that if determinism in this sense is true, then people are not free. The two things seem to them obviously incompatible. Also, people are not morally responsible for their choices and actions. However, about as many philosophers have said that if this determinism is true, many of one's choices and actions are still perfectly free.

The present article will focus on the second idea of determinism. What is really important of course is not to confuse it with the third sense, the no-freedom sense, or with the first sense, or any other sense.

One large question is whether people really are subject to this determinism. Is this determinism true? A prior question, just as important, is whether this determinism is really clear. For a start, is it clear what choices and decisions and other episodes or facts of consciousness come to? One could call this the question of clarity as against the question of truth. A third question of course is the one this discussion has been noticing. What follows about one's freedom and responsibility if determinism is true?

One way of getting rid of the clarity question is by declaring that the mind is no more than the brain. Conscious events like deciding something are just events of the brain, neural events, nothing more. Deciding something is an event that has only electrochemical properties.

Certainly that makes determinism pretty clear. This old materialism from the seventeenth century can be dressed up, and it certainly is. But no matter how it is dressed up, it is impossible for anyone who gets it straight to believe it. People know, or think they know, that there is a big difference between consciousness or being conscious and any other thing or event—say a neuron or nerve cell composed of protein and so on or a little chemical substance passing between this neuron and the next neuron.

Maybe the reader will say at this point that while consciousness is mysterious, people do have a grip on it. One may say people have a better grip on it than on anything else. One may say, a little obscurely, that it is what people actually live in. People know what it is to decide something. This subjectivity as it is called, as against the objectivity of the world, is what people know immediately and best, whatever the difficulty of analyzing it.

Let us take this line about the subject matter of human determinism, which is very common philosophically and pretty respectable. It leads to the question of whether this determinism is true.

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