Determinism 9 – The Real Oedipus Complex: Moral Responsibility Without Free Will

[This post is a part of a series on determinism. The previous one is here. The first one of the series is here.]

If Dr. Freud hadn’t named his particular complex after him, Oedipus might have become famous for the way he exemplified the relationship of human beings with their predetermined lives rather than just for that matter of killing his father and marrying his mother.

For Oedipus the force of determinism is expressed by oracles. Even at the time of his birth, his father Laius receives the prophecy that he will die by the hands of the newborn son. And it is precisely because Laius aims to avoid that fate by having the baby killed that a course of events is set in train that leads to the fulfilment of that prophecy. The baby isn’t killed but abandoned in the mountains and adopted by a couple. He kills his father in a chance meeting, not knowing who he is, in an early example of road rage. And, of course, as presaged, he marries his mother, Jocasta, not knowing that she is his mother either. In the course of events he also becomes king of Thebes. The abandoned baby, Oedipus, grows up and goes through life like a human wrecking ball, or an avalanche wreaking havoc. The people of Thebes are suffering from the plague visited upon the city in punishment for the terrible deeds its king has committed. Jocasta ends up hanging herself and Oedipus, when it all comes to lights, puts his lights out, gouging out his eyes in self-punishment.

It is only then that Oedipus accepts his further oracle that he would die in a place consecrated to the Furies, and finally be a blessing, not a curse, to the land where his life ends.

One of the many points about the myth of Oedipus has been made by the Czech writer Milan Kundera. In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes:

“The story of Oedipus is well known: Abandoned as an infant, he was taken to King Polybos, who raised him. One day when he was grown into a youth, he came upon a dignitary riding along a mountain path. A quarrel arose, and Oedipus killed the dignitary. Later he became the husband of Queen Jocasta and ruler of Thebes. Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilence. When Oedipus realised that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

Anyone who thinks that the Communist regimes of Central Europe are exclusively the work of criminals is overlooking a basic truth: the criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people. Later, it became clear that there was no paradise, that the enthusiasts wree therefore murderers.

Then everyone took to shouting at the Communists: You’re the ones responsible for our country’s misfortune (it had grown poor and desolate), for its loss of independence (it had fallen into the hand of the Russians), for its judicial murders!

And the accused responded: We didn’t know! We were deceived! We were true believers! Deep in our hearts we are innocent!

In the end, the dispute narrowed down to a single question: Did they really not know or were they merely making believe? (…)

But (…) whether they knew or didn’t know is not the main issue; the main issue is whether a man is innocent because he didn’t know. Is a fool on the throne relieved of all responsibility merely because he is a fool? (…)

Oedipus did not know he was sleeping with his own mother, yet when he realised what had happened, he did not feel innocent. Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by ‘not knowing,’ he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.”

The case Kundera makes is that a lack of knowledge concerning one’s actions does not absolve you from responsibility for them. The same case though can also be made about the freedom with which one chooses to perform one’s actions.

If anyone could have argued that he was not free to choose his actions, it was Oedipus. After all, his misdeeds – killing his father and marrying his mother – were predicted by a powerful oracle at birth. And despite actions taken to avoid them, they come to pass. But Oedipus recognises that it is he who has carried out the crimes, even if it was all predetermined and presaged.

Why did Oedipus feel that he needed to take responsibility for his actions even though they were foretold before he knew anything and all steps were taken to avoid them? The point is that it was still he, Oedipus as a person, who had done these acts and so they would be with him until atoned. As the king of Thebes he was in danger of continuing to bring the wrath of the Gods onto innocent citizens due to the person he had become. As the king of Thebes, he felt responsible for the welfare of his subjects. Oedipus’ strict self-punishment leads him to be redeemed, averts the plague from Thebes. Ultimately, having taken responsibility and accepted his predetermined fate, he is sought out as a person who could bring blessing to the land.

We have to make do without oracles, seers and divine punishments. Nonetheless, the things we do are strongly associated with us as individuals. If we harm others by acting on faulty reasons, we are the ones who hadn’t developed sufficient rationality to see the better reasons. We can be criticised for that and it can be hoped that we can correct and better ourselves. Taking responsibility for our actions, owning them, even if they were determined by factors outside ourselves, could be a first step to that kind of improvement and development of greater insight.

We stay responsible for the actions we take, even if we can point to factors that have caused us to take them. We took the actions that had that effect and by doing so set in train an other series of cause and effect. Being the cause of something just gives us responsibility for the impacts. There doesn’t need to be a further concept of moral responsibility that comes from having freely chosen to do it.



Determinism 8 – The Knowledge of Determinism

[This post is a part of a series on free will and determinism. It starts here. The previous post is here.]

The thought experiment suggested not only that it comes natural to us to think of ourselves as exercising free will in our decision-making and in our actions, but also that we find it practically impossible to imagine a life in which we don’t exercise free will. Even if we became intellectually convinced that everything is predetermined, we wouldn’t know what it would mean to just lay back and allow ourselves to do what we are predetermined to do.

We then looked at the role of our rationality, our ability to perceive and act on reasons, as the mechanism that makes determinism work for human beings and that provides the feeling of exercising free will. In this way of looking at it, our ability to perceive certain things as reasons for actions, our sensitivity to certain kinds of reasons for action, our capability to act on them and the reasons themselves are always already given.

Seeing our rationality as that mechanism explains an important phenomenon: the idea that knowing or coming to believe that determinism is a fact of our life can be in some way helpful to us.

At a first glance, it is hard to see how that idea would make sense. If we believe in determinism or know it to be true, it is hard to see how we could use that belief or knowledge to influence the course our life takes. After all, we are intellectually committed to the idea that we have no control over the way our lives turn out. And yet a number of philosophers and schools of thought teach something along the lines of: given determinism, we should live in such-and-such a way.

This makes better sense if rationality is involved in the way in which the predetermined course of events unfolds with human beings. Then the knowledge or belief in determinism can itself become a reason for certain actions or to act in certain ways for those human beings who come to believe in it.

So, for example, a human being who has become convinced that determinism runs his or her life, can take that as a reason not to get too upset if things don’t go his or her way. Or if I think that determinism is at the foundation of other people’s behaviours, that knowledge can become a reason for me not to react too strongly to any perceived slights, bad behaviour or unpleasantness from others.


Determinism 7 – What Do We Do When We Do Something?

[This is a part of series of posts on free will and determinism. It starts here. The immediately preceding post is here.]

So the search is on for the mechanism that creates the experience of exercising free will in a determinist universe populated by predetermined creatures.

That elusive mechanism would have to be such that it could account for a number of seemingly contradictory features:

  1. It would have to be involved in all our actions.
  2. It would have to fit with the determinist sequence of causes and effects.
  3. But at the same time it would also have to be such that – from the inner perspective of a human being with a bit of cognitive bias – it could feel like freely choosing and willing to do or think things.
  4. It would further have to be of a nature that it could explain events when we appear not to be in full control of our actions, like when our actions are driven by an addiction or phobia.
  5. At the same time it would have to be able to explain when we feel fully in control.

I believe that there is such a mechanism. I would argue that it is the relatively unglamorous process of taking actions based on reasons. There is nothing overly complex about taking actions for reasons. It’s as simple as, for example, feeling thirsty, and therefore drinking from the glass of water before me. Or I see something that could be dangerous to me, so I run away. Feeling thirsty and the presence of a glass of water are reasons for me to drink. Perceiving a danger to me is a reason for me to run.

Let’s see then whether it has the features we set out:

  1. Reasoning and then acting on reasons is a feature of all our actions. It is important here to recognise that even acting on bad or faulty reasons is still acting for reasons. So I may be thirsty and might see the presence of a glass of water as a reason to drink from it. The fact that it was gin instead of water doesn’t mean that I didn’t act on a reason. Or I may be acting under the influence of paranoid delusions, but I still act on reasons when I do so. Equally, we don’t need to be particularly conscious of the reasons we’re acting on. The reasons that motivate us to do certain things might be very different from the reasons we would give if asked to justify what we did.
  2. Does it fit with the determinist sequence of cause and effect? I would argue that there is a good fit. We perceive a reason (cause), we act on it (effect). When we take actions based on reasons, all the relevant factors are given in advance. These are factors about us as people who take actions (factors about what kind of reason for action we are particularly aware of, or about the kinds of actions we are able to take) but also factors about the world (the presence of reasons).
  3. Could it give rise to a feeling of acting based on free will, especially with a bit of cognitive bias mixed in? Yes. The fact that we can look for, investigate, mull over, in some situations weigh up against each other and act on only one out of several reasons that present themselves, certainly could give us the impression that we are very active in this process. If we were to de-emphasise in our mind the fact that everything about us and everything about the reasons that present themselves is already given in such a way that it drives us towards an action, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are acting on the basis of free will.
  4. Can it explain the situations where we are not in full control of ourselves, such as when we’re acting based on addiction, phobia or auto-pilot. Yes, it can. The addiction and the phobia generate their own special sensitivity to certain reasons for action. In giving in to an addictive impulse to eat, drink, smoke, consume whatever substance it is, we are still acting on reasons, though they may be bad reasons. Even when we are acting on auto-pilot, we are acting on reasons (e. g. the reason “I’m doing this because this is what I always do”). As we said before, we don’t even have to be fully aware of the reasons for our actions.
  5. Does it equally account for times when we feel fully in control of what we do? Again I would say that it does. Clearly there are times when we actively run through an intense process of reasoning before we act. We weigh up pros and cons and eventually come to a conclusion. We would expect this to feel different from times when we are not even fully aware of the reasons we are acting on. Again, a bit of cognitive bias could easily make us mistake the heat, the inner back-and-forth, and the mental energy of a process when we compare different reasons as an achievement of ours when it ends in resolution. But in fact all the reasons and all our sensitivities to reasons or propensities to act on them are already given in advance.

The interplay between our rationality (in the sense of our ability to perceive and act on reasons) and the world in which reasons occur is the key mechanism that drives the actions of human beings in a determinist universe while also giving rise to a perception that we are exercising free will.



Determinism 6 – The Mechanism of Determinism

[This is a part of a series of posts on determinism. The first one is here. The previous one is here.]

Going back to the thought experiment for a moment, it is striking that while we might accept the idea of determinism, we can’t imagine that we would stop deciding what to do. So one of the things that might be interesting to look at further is how exactly the predetermined course of events takes place so that, it engenders, in human beings at least, an inner perspective of exercising free will.

There is a related phenomenon worth looking at too: That is the idea – present in several schools of thought – that accepting determinism to be true can somehow make our life better.

I have quoted before, for example, the Stoic philosopher who compared our human life with regard to pre-determined destiny to that of a dog pulling a cart. The dog’s master will make the dog pull the cart from A to B. The dog’s attitude could be that it doesn’t want to pull the cart from A to B. It may try to go elsewhere, or it may try to shake off the cart. It may get agitated angry and upset as it does so. Then the master will beat the dog all the way from A to B. It will be an unpleasant experience for the dog but the outcome will be that it pulls the cart from A to B. Or it can willingly get on with the task and get from A to B without being beaten – a smooth journey.

The Stoic’s advice would be that we accept that determined fate will make us go from A to B anyway. We should therefore go along willingly, rather than be upset about our fate and rage against it. That will ensure a smoother ride in life and prevent additional pointless mental and physical aggravation.

Modern proponents of determinism tend to focus on the idea of responsibility. If I am predetermined to do something bad, or if it is predetermined that my action will be unsuccessful, then I should not be so judgemental about myself or others. We should all stop giving ourselves and other such a hard time. Some even suggest that the acceptance of determinism should lead us to overhaul the criminal justice system. Why put people in prison for things that they have no control over?

There is something odd about this idea that the acceptance of determinism can have beneficial effect for our lives. Surely our attitude towards the vagaries of our lives would be as predetermined as everything else that happens. Surely our tendency to judge and criticise ourselves and others would be as little a matter of free will as everything else?

One thought which may lead people to think that the acceptance of determinism could lead us to live our lives differently – more calmly, less judgementally – may be the assumption that the realm of the mind is in some ways unaffected by determinism. So, one may think, while I am predetermined as a physical body in a physical universe, my mind, my attitudes and thoughts are – at least to some extent – free. That would allow me to choose at least my mental attitude towards predetermined events.

But the existence of a mental realm that is unaffected by the forces of determinism in an otherwise predetermined universe seems an odd thing to assume in this way of thinking. First of all, it is then questionable whether this mental realm wouldn’t be sufficient to bring back some element of free will into this deterministic world-view. In other words, if I can choose my attitude towards pre-determined events, how can I be sure that my choice of attitude wouldn’t influence events in such a way that it is meaningless to speak of a fully pre-determined course of events?

More generally, we know that at least some of our mental events are clearly closely connected with physical events in the world. I could, for example, form an intention in my mind to kick a ball. I kick it, it smashes a window, and that sets a whole other series of actions in motion. In order to have any relevance, our mental events would have to be able to translate into physical actions or engage somehow with the predetermined course of events in the physical world. Otherwise they would just be a kind of dream that couldn’t even influence our own actions in any way.

So, if, in my mind, I could use my new-found knowledge about determinism and free will to maintain a calm attitude in the face of adversity, then presumably that is relevant because I could then react differently to events than I would have done without that knowledge. And my different mental reactions could ultimately result in a different course of events following on from there. So the mental realm stays connected with the physical. If it is free enough to allow me to choose my mental attitude, it will influence physical events. And that would go against the picture of determinism we were advised to accept in the first place.

And yet, the people who advocated the acceptance of determinism as a means to a better life, presumably did that from a perspective of reaping those benefits for themselves. It is likely that Stoics through the ages, and other determinist schools of thought actually felt that it worked for them.

So the search is on, for a “mechanism of determinism” that has these two characteristics:

  1. From the inner perspective of a human being it feels like an exercise of free will.
  2. It’s acceptance somehow influences the way we live our lives and could even lead to a better life.

[The next post in this series on free will and determinism is here.]


Determinism 5 – The Split Second of Freedom?

[This is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. The first post is here.]

In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet performed some experiments relating to the free will. He sat people down in front of a kind of clock face with a dot moving around it very fast. They could stop the dot with a flick of the wrist. Libet asked them to note where the dot was when they formed the intention to move their wrist in order to make the dot stop. He also measured via an electrode on their head when the “specific electrical change in the brain (the ‘readiness potential’)” that “precedes freely voluntary acts” occurred.

He found that the electrical change in the brain occurs more than half a second before the action is taken. And that the human subject becomes aware of the intention to act 350-400 milliseconds after the electrical change but still around 200 milliseconds before the action is taken.

This research was pounced on by those arguing that we have no free will. How can we be said to choose freely to act when the evidence for the action about to be taken is there before we are even consciously aware of it?

But Libet himself wasn’t quite as categorical about his findings. He clearly took the view that we should assume that we have free will. He suggested that his experiment showed that free will might consist in being able to veto actions that the brain proposes to undertake. In the 200 or so milliseconds between our awareness of our intention to act and the action itself, we can stop ourselves from acting. He says that sometimes the electrode showed a readiness potential in some of his experimental subjects and they became aware of an intention to act but didn’t ultimately take the required action to stop the dot moving. His conclusion is:

“The role of conscious free will would be, then, not to initiate a voluntary act, but rather to control whether the act takes place. We may view the unconscious initiatives for voluntary actions as ‘bubbling up’ in the brain. The conscious-will then selects which of these initiatives may go forward to an action or which ones to veto and abort, with no act appearing.”

The  ethical conclusion Libet reaches is that guilt and the attribution of moral wrong-doing should relate only to actions taken, not to thoughts about actions. Specifically, he rejects the kind of doctrine expressed in the Sermon of the Mount:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart”’ (Matthew, 5.27–8).”

But those who see Libet’s experiments as proof of the absence of free will, have to force themselves to overlook the fact that Libet quotes – at the end of his article published in a scientific journal – the author Isaac Bashevis Singer who said:

“The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself life is worthwhile living.”

But it doesn’t end there. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach discusses the Libet experiment and quotes with approval another Tara (Bennett-Goleman) who calls the milli-seconds between our awareness of an intention forming and the physical movement to implement it, the “magical quarter-second.” Tara Brach concludes that:

“By catching our thoughts in the magic quarter-second, we are able to act from a wiser place, interrupting the circling of compulsive thinking that fuels anxiety and other painful emotions. If our child asks us to play a game and we automatically think “I’m too busy,” we might pause and choose to spend some time with her. If we’ve been caught up in composing an angry e-mail, we might pause and decide not to press the send button. The basic mindfulness tools for working with compulsive thinking are “coming back” and “being here.”

It’s time to disentangle some thoughts. Here’s what I think:

  1. Libet’s experiment is interesting but it doesn’t necessarily show any of the things he or others claimed. It could simply be a case of brain-hand-eye co-ordination takes certain amounts of time. Also, if we believe that we have free will, as Libet does, then how can we tell that the electrical charge in the brain isn’t just something we generate when we exercise our free will?
  2. The ability to say no to things that bubble up in the brain an unconvincing and unsatisfying version of free will. Surely we would want the ability to choose positively what actions to take, rather than just a power of veto.
  3. I don’t think Libet’s moral conclusions would follow from his interpretation of free will as a power of veto. In a later blog I’ll aim to argue for moral responsibility even for predetermined, not just for freely willed actions.
  4. Even if Libet’s and Bennett-Goleman’s magic quarter-second doesn’t follow from the experiments, there is clearly the possibility of a reflective space before any action. I think making use of it, and practising the ability to extend it, can make our actions better, even if not necessarily freer. This is again something I’ll want to discuss in a future blog.


Determinism 4 – Marginalising the Forces of Determinism

[This is a part of a series of posts on determinism. It starts here.]

A bit of cognitive bias can’t fully explain our strong experience of free will on its own though. The other move that we tend to make is down-playing the extent to which determinism is a force in our lives.

Sometimes the rejection of “nature” (“it’s in our genes”) as a determining factor in favour of “nurture” (“it’s in our upbringing”) is presented as a rejection of biological determinism in favour of choices we make about the way we organise society, support we give parents and children, educational policies and so on. But the point, as far as we’re concerned, is that we can’t chose what kind of home, society, socio-economic context we’re born into. We don’t choose our parents or the time and space we’re born into. Nature and nurture are forces of determinism influencing the way we are.

How is it that we reject the idea of determinism due to our lived experience of exercising free will in our every day life, but we don’t reject the idea of free will due to the influence of deterministic forces in our lives. Do we systematically avoid thinking about what it means for us that over a lot of our lives we exercise no control and have no choices to make. We do this not only by forgetting how much about is given by the circumstances of our birth, but when we don’t admit to ourselves that we perform many actions without choosing what we do.

We do this by pretending that exercising a deliberate choice is the paradigm case of action for us. We pretend that consciously deciding to do one thing after another is the normal way in which our daily life develops. Here are some of the things we need to ignore or play down in order to maintain that pretence:

Addictions: The addict does things because the addiction forces him to do so. By definition, he doesn’t chose to do them but is subject to forces outside of his control. We can blame the addict for not having got over his addiction. In doing so, we can refer to former addicts who have learned to control their addiction. “If he really tried,” we can tell ourselves, “the addict could exercise control over his life.” But in the moment where the addict is an addict, as opposed to a former addict, the addiction controls his actions. At that point, whatever happens later in his biography, the actions relating to his addiction are determined by forces outside of his control.

Phobias: The arachnophobe should be able to walk near the tiny little spider in the room to do what she needs to do. The person who is scared of heights should be able to walk up the mountain to enjoy the view. The agoraphobic should be able to leave her house like any other person. But they can’t. From a non-phobic perspective, we pretend that they’d have a choice if only they pulled themselves together. But that is a simplistic view of their condition. The phobia determines the action or inaction in this case. There is no choice.

Reactivity, Habit, Auto-pilot: But much as the forces of determinism can take obvious and strong forms, it’s just also the case, that often we act without thinking much. The science and meditative discipline of mindfulness show us that we don’t control the thoughts going through our minds which often are the basis for actions we take.

What proportion of our actions would we be want to perform after full deliberation, intentionally and conscious of all the facts having weighed up the pros and cons carefully in order to say that we are exercising free will in a meaningful way in our lives? What proportion would we be happy to cede to the forces of determinism? Is it enough to be able to say that for the things that really count, for the big life decisions and when it really matters we exercise free  will? And can we really say that? Is it enough to tell ourselves that even when we don’t, we could if we tried?

[The next post in this series is here.]

Determinism 3 – Who Is The Illusionist?

[This is a part of a series of posts on free will and determinism. It starts here.]

So assuming for a moment that we are determined creatures in a determinist universe, why would we persist in the assumption that we have free will? As the thought experiment suggests, clearly it wouldn’t be enough for us to just become convinced by the weight of evidence that we can’t have free will. We would still have the same experience of ourselves as people who have choices and make choices. Anything that would count as evidence for determinism, any argument that would have a chance of leading to a proof that we don’t have free will, would still be something that we would grasp only intellectually. I doubt that it could overturn our felt subjective experience in a moment. Any argument about free will and determinism – to be meaningful – would have to make sense of the way it feels to us to live our lives.

There is a slogan that free will is an illusion. But how does it come about? Who is the evil illusionist? If there is an illusion, then I’d say that we are each our own illusionist.

There are a number of faulty modes of thinking that are apparently systemic in the way we think. They are not the matter of anecdotal slip-ups but of series scientific study and behaviourist economics. They are the subjects of recent best-sellers, for example Thinking, Fast and Slow by Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman or The Art of Clear Thinking by Swiss author Rolf Dobelli (to whom I owe the descriptions below). There is not just one, but there are three such systemic patterns of faulty thinking that could be involved in creating the free will illusion:

  • Overconfidence Effect: This is the tendency to overestimate our knowledge, our understanding of a situation and our abilities. Economics experts massively over-estimate their ability to forecast market performance. According to Dobelli, 84% of French men say that they are better than average lovers (the relevant interpretation of average would only allow for 50% to be better than average) and the same effect can be observed if you ask people to rate themselves as drivers. Why is this relevant to free will? We may be systematically over-rating the extent to which we know what has contributed to our behaviour and our actions. We may also be over-confident in our ability to choose what goes on in our life? (Do you think you are more in contol of your actions than the average person, or less?)
  • Illusion of Control: This is the tendency to believe that we exercise control or influence over things over which we have no power whatsoever. It was observed in experiments where people were in a room with two light switches and a lamp that was either on or off. The experimenters decided to what extent the light was correlated to the switches. But people thought that they were influencing the lamp by manipulating the switches even where it switched on or off completely randomly. If this illusion is in place in our lives generally, it is quite easy to see how it could add up to giving us the feeling that we are in control of things that are really just happening while we are just flicking unconnected switches.
  • Fundamental Attribution Error: This is the tendency to look for a person behind events. A chief executive gets blamed for the bad performance of a business, or praised for its success, when in fact there are macro-economic forces and wider trends in place. The manager gets sacked if a football team doesn’t do well. Dobelli also gets upset when, as an author of novels, he gets asked to what extent his work is autobiographical. Why would readers assume that it has to be at all, when it is really about plot and language? (Though as far as I can tell, Donelli wrote a book called Thirty-five – a midlife story at the age of thirty-five which to be fair could lead his readers to think that it was a little bit autobiographical). Dobelli explains our tendency to look for people in charge of events from our evolutionary history where we are quite simply completely reliant on other people and therefore have to understand who is up to what. And so, he says, we think about people for about 90% of the time and only spend 10% thinking about the situational context. Freedom of the will could then be the fundamental attribution error of fundamental attribution errors. It could cause us to see ourselves as the people behind events in our lives, when in fact the wider environment is far more of a causal factor. It could also lead us to judge others to be more in charge of what they are doing and how it impacts on us than they really are.

When it comes to really difficult problems like free will and determinism it is helpful to be a like the fox and not too much of a hedgehog. We shouldn’t look for a single big explanation, but for a number of factors and perspectives that might contribute. Our cognitive biasses might just be some of the pieces of this puzzle.

[The next post in this series is here.]