NOTES on Brand Blanshard (1892-1987): A Determinist


Brand Blanshard is a determinist. Of the two kinds of determinists, he is a soft determinist. According to the determinists, everything is caused, with no exceptions. Hard determinists will not allow us to speak of free will; however, soft determinists take some of the causes working on us and call them free will.

Key Definitions

At the beginning of his essay (“The Case for Determinism,” in Determinism and Freedom in the Age of Modern Science, edited by Sidney Hook), Blanshard does what many good philosophers do: He defines his terms.

The simple definition of determinism is “All things are caused,” while a precise definition of determinism states, “Every event A is so connected with a later event B, that given A, B must occur.”

On the other hand, the precise definition of indeterminism is “There is some event B that is not so connected with any previous event A that, given A, it must occur.”

In simpler words, determinism means “If A, then B,” while indeterminism means “If A, then not necessarily B.”

Three Objections to Determinism

Blanshard then does what many good philosophers do: He outlines the objections to his position and replies to them. Indeterminists frequently make three objections to determinism. Blanshard states each objection, then criticizes it.

The First Objection: We have stubborn feelings of freedom.

There is no doubt that human beings have stubborn feelings of freedom. When we have an important decision, often we wrestle with it. We don’t ask, What are my heredity and environment determining that I must do? Instead, we ask, What ought I to do? Very often, we must make important decisions, and we believe that what we decide is up to us, not up to our heredity and environment.

Blanshard believes that if we examine our decisions later, we will see why we were caused to make that particular decision. For example, high school students often must decide which university they will attend. This is an important decision, and making the decision is frequently agonizing. However, Blanshard says that if these students examine their decision later, they will see why they were caused to make whatever decision they made. For example, let’s say that one student decides to attend a university close to home. That student may later examine that decision and discover that he is not yet sufficiently independent of his parents to move far from home. He still needs the security of being able to come home on the weekends.

I am not convinced by Blanshard’s reasoning. What about our less important decisions? Determinism states that every event is caused, but suppose that I need to decide whether to walk down this street or another street to reach a destination. Both streets are about the same, and both streets will get me to my destination, so what causes me to choose to walk on this street rather than another street?

The Second Objection: Science has embraced indeterminism.

One interpretation of quantum physics states that quantum particles behave randomly; that is, they are not caused to act as they do. Since determinism claims that all events are caused, all the indeterminists need in order to refute determinism is one uncaused event. This the indeterminists claim to have discovered with quantum physics.

Blanshard’s reply to this criticism is that the scientific debate is still on. Scientists such as Einstein believe that “God does not play dice with the universe” — that is, God has made the universe deterministic and orderly. Other scientists disagree. When scientists have not made up their mind, philosophers should not encroach on their territory.

In addition, Blanshard says, even if indeterminism exists on the micro-level (that is, the quantum level), this does not necessarily mean that indeterminism exists on the macro-level (that is, on the level of human beings). In other words, quantum particles could behave randomly, yet human beings could still be determined.

In my opinion, if quantum particles do indeed behave randomly, then determinism (which says that everything is caused) has been refuted. However, we would still need to investigate whether human beings are capable of free will.

The Third Objection: Determinism makes a mess of morality.

The third objection is that determinism makes a mess of morality. After all, one of the assumptions behind morality is that we are free to chose between acts and that we ought to choose to do the act that is good. But if we have no choice in what we do, we are incapable of acting morally.

By the way, this is an assumption of our legal system. If we are not free to choose our actions (say because of insanity), then we will be found not guilty even if we did in fact perform a criminal act.

Blanshard says that this objection has already been answered by other philosophers (but he doesn’t tell us which philosophers). He also says that the real objection is to a view of Humankind as a kind of mechanical puppet, blindly following the forces acting on him. Blanshard says that he also objects to this view of Humankind.

In this case, Blanshard has sidestepped the question, and indeed has substituted a different question. This is not fair on Blanshard’s part.

Causality in the Psychological Domain

Blanshard states that more than one level of causality is working on human beings.

Law of Association

In the first level, we have a law of association. For example, we step on a tack and we feel pain. We go without food for a long time and we feel hungry. This first level is very basic and is mechanistic.

Causality of the Highest Level

But things are different at the highest level, where we are under constraint by an ideal. This ideal can be aesthetic, logical, or moral. When we surrender ourselves to that aesthetic, logical, or moral ideal, then we are shaped by that ideal. We are determined, but Blanshard says that being determined by an ideal is what we call “freedom.” (As a soft determinist, Blanshard allows us to talk about freedom, but that “freedom” has been determined.)

When we follow an ideal, we are not free to do anything we want. If someone follows an aesthetic ideal — for example, an artist attempts to paint a masterpiece — the artist is not free to slap paint any which way on the canvas. Instead, the artist may add a daub of yellow to one corner of the painting because it is needed to create a harmony in the painting.

Similarly, if someone follows a logical ideal — for example, a logician attempts to create a new logic system — that logician is not free to create any logic he wants. Instead, he will create his assumptions, but then he must follow the rules he has created and apply them systematically.

Again, if someone follows a moral ideal — for example, a utilitarian tries to bring about the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people — that person is not free to do whatever she wants. Instead, she has a rule she must follow: She must do what will bring about the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. For example, this may lead her to become active in civil rights.

I think we can criticize Blanshard on his view of causality of the highest level. Blanshard believes constraint by an ideal is determined; however, I don’t believe that it fits the deterministic model of “If A, then B.”

Instead, I believe that the ideal is a future possibility that we can choose or not choose to attempt to make actual. The painter may choose to try to make his conception of a masterpiece an actual work of art; the logician may choose to try to create a new logic; the utilitarian may choose to try to create a society in which all are happy. However, in each case, the person may choose not to attempt to do these things.

To me, constraint by an ideal fits the indeterministic model of “If A, then not necessarily B.” Yes, I do have an idea of a masterpiece, but it is up to me whether I try to actually create a masterpiece. Yes, I do have an idea of a new logic, but it is up to me whether I try to actually create a new logic. Yes, I do have an idea of a happy society, but it is up to me whether I try to actually create a happy society.

By the way, according to many religions, human beings have free will. According to the Babylonian Niddah 16b, whenever a baby is to be conceived, the Lailah (angel in charge of contraception) takes the drop of semen that will result in the conception and asks God, “Sovereign of the Universe, what is going to be the fate of this drop? Will it develop into a robust or into a weak person? An intelligent or a stupid person? A wealthy or a poor person?” The Lailah asks all these questions, but it does not ask, “Will it develop into a righteous or a wicked person?” The answer to that question lies in the decisions to be freely made by the human being that is the result of the conception. (Source: Jakob J. Petuchowski, translator and editor, Our Masters Taught (New York: Crossroad, 1982), p. 19.)

Note: The quotations by Brand Blanshard that appear in this essay are from his essay “The Case for Determinism,” which appears in Determinism and Freedom in the Age of Modern Science (New York: New York University Press, 1958), edited by Sidney Hook.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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