NOTES on Richard Taylor (1919-2003): Freedom and Determinism


One philosophical problem that has personally given me fits is that of freedom and determinism. One way to define determinism is that according to determinism, all events are caused. The American philosopher Brand Blanshard defines it more precisely as saying that every “event is so connected with some preceding event that unless the latter had occurred the former would not have occurred.” In other words, the deterministic model is this, “If A, then B.” For every event B, there is a preceding event A that caused it.

Initially, determinism is a very plausible theory. We are all aware of events that fit the deterministic model. Every event involving the movement of astronomical bodies such as the sun, the moon, and the planet Earth fit the deterministic model. That’s why we can predict solar and lunar eclipses. Certainly, many events involving human bodies also fit the deterministic model. I was born a male. Why? Because the sperm cell that united with my mother’s egg contained a Y chromosome. And whenever I get a cavity in a tooth, I believe that the cavity was caused — perhaps by inadequate brushing and flossing.

Of course, the theory of determinism does have problems. If determinism is true, then morality is an illusion. To behave in a way that is morally praiseworthy or morally blameworthy, human beings must have freedom to choose between two acts, both of which are really possible. According to determinism, the only events that happen are those that are caused, and one can trace the series of causes that resulted in them back to the beginning of the universe, if it had a beginning. If the universe does not have a beginning, then the series of causes forms an infinite chain.

Another problem with determinism is that it is not in accord with our lived experience. I have a feeling of freedom, but determinism states that this feeling of freedom is illusory. However, plausible theories in general should agree with lived experience. A theorist ought not to ignore data that does not fit his theory. Instead, the best theory is one that accounts for all the available data.

Richard Taylor

One very good philosopher who starts with the available data, then comes up with a theory that is consistent with that data is Richard Taylor, author of Metaphysics. Mr. Taylor starts by writing about two things that are very common in the experience of Humankind:

The first is that I sometimes deliberate, with the view to making a decision; a decision, namely, to do this thing or that. And the second is that whether or not I deliberate about what to do, it is sometimes up to me what I do. This might all be an illusion, of course; but so also any philosophical theory, such as the theory of determinism, might be false. The point remains that it is far more difficult for me to doubt that I sometimes deliberate, and that it is sometimes up to me what to do, than to doubt any philosophical theory whatever, including the theory of determinism. We must, accordingly, if we ever hope to be wiser, adjust our theories to our data and not try to adjust our data to our theories.

  1. Deliberation

About deliberation, the first datum, Mr. Taylor points out that we make certain assumptions — assumptions without which it is impossible to deliberate:

1) I deliberate about my own behavior and not about the behavior of another person. Deliberation involves my making up my own mind. I may wonder, guess, or speculate what another person will do, but I deliberate about what I will do.

2) I can deliberate only about what I will do in the future; I cannot deliberate about events that are in the past.

3) When I deliberate, I assume that it is up to me what I will do. For example, if a mad scientist kidnaps me and implants an electrode in my brain, thus turning me into a body that must obey his bidding, I cannot deliberate about what I ought to do — I can only wait and see what the mad scientist will make me do.

  1. “It is Up to Me”

The second datum is the feeling that it is up to me what I will do. For example, I feel that at this moment I can move my finger in various ways. I can move it to the right and I can move it to the left. I feel that however I choose to move my finger, it is up to me what I will do. I can choose to move my finger to the left, if I wish, and I can choose to move my finger to the right, if I wish. It is up to me.

Is the Theory of Determinism Consistent with These Data?

The next thing to ask is whether the theory of determinism is consistent with these data: 1) “my behavior is sometimes the outcome of my deliberation,” and 2) “in these and other cases it is sometimes up to me what I do.” Of course, the theory of determinism is not consistent with these data. According to determinism, all my behavior is caused by a chain of events that started long before I was born. In such a case, all I can do is to wait and see what I will be forced to do; thus, deliberation is impossible. Determinism is also not consistent with the second datum, because in everything that I do, that is the only thing I could have done. In order for me for decide what I will do, I must have at least two possible alternatives to choose from.

Simple Indeterminism

So should we simply deny determinism and advocate a theory known as simple indeterminism? According to simple indeterminism, many things that we do happen at random. However, this has the effect of reducing Humankind to a puppet. For example, if the things you do happen at random, you could go up to a friend and either pat him on the shoulder or hit him in the face — and you wouldn’t know what you were going to do until it happened. Of course, simple indeterminism is not consistent with our two data either. I cannot deliberate about actions that are not caused by anything and thus are not caused by me. And if I don’t cause an action, that action is not up to me.

The Theory of Agency

So, if determinism and simple indeterminism are not consistent with our data, what kind of theory will be? According to Taylor, “The only conception of action that accords with our data is one according to which people — and perhaps some other things too — are sometimes, but of course not always, self-determining beings; that is, beings that are sometimes the causes of their own behavior.”

The strength of this theory of agency is that it is consistent with our two data, something that determinism and simple indeterminism are not. Mr. Taylor continues, “Now, this conception fits what people take themselves to be; namely, beings who act, or who are agents, rather than beings that are merely acted upon, and whose behavior is simply the causal consequence of conditions that they have not wrought.”

Mr. Taylor’s theory of agency is different from the theory of simple indeterminism, of course, because our actions do not occur at random. Instead, we deliberate about which action to do and then decide what to do. Mr. Taylor’s theory is also different from the theory of determinism in that when we deliberate and then decide what to do, the chain of causes that results originates with us only. For example, if you pick up a stone and throw it through the window, you are originating a chain of causes that results in the window being broken and the stone falling to the ground outside. In contrast to the theory of determinism, however, the theory of agency says that the chain of causes originated with you — the chain of causes cannot be traced back to events that occurred well before you were born.

Two Metaphysical Notions

Mr. Taylor’s theory of agency involves two “metaphysical notions that are never applied elsewhere in nature.” The first metaphysical notion is of “a self or person — for example, a man — who is not merely a collection of things or events, but a self-moving being.” This metaphysical notion is required if we are to have a being that is “the cause of his own activity.”

The other metaphysical notion required by the data is a “conception of causation according to which an agent, which is a substance and not an event, can nevertheless be the cause of an event. Indeed, if he is a free agent then he can on this conception, cause an event to occur — namely, some act of his own — without anything else causing him to do so.”

So, we have a being that is a self or person who can originate events. This self or person is not itself caused to originate these events. Instead, this self or person is able to deliberate about future events, then choose to perform one action among several possible actions. In addition, this self or person is not subject, when it acts freely, to the causation that occurs elsewhere in the universe. When a self or person originates an action, it is not like a deterministic cause (an antecedent sufficient condition fitting the model “If A, then B”) because under the condition A, the self or person can choose to do B, or choose to do an event other than B.

Mr. Taylor writes, “This conception of the causation of events by things that are not events [that is, by a self or person] is, in fact, so different from the usual philosophic conception of a cause that it should not even bear the same name, for ‘being a cause’ ordinarily just means ‘being an antecedent sufficient condition or set of conditions.’ Instead, then, of speaking of agents as causing their own acts, it would perhaps be better to use another word entirely, and say, for instance, that they originate them, initiate them, or simply that they perform them.”

In conclusion, Mr. Taylor’s theory of agency provides a way to avoid both the randomness of simple indeterminism and the lack of freedom of determinism. In addition, Mr. Taylor’s theory accounts for two data — deliberation, and the feeling that sometimes it’s up to me what I do — that the other two theories cannot account for. Therefore, since Mr. Taylor’s theory accounts for all the available data, it appears to be the best choice among these three theories.

Note: The quotations by Richard Taylor that appear in this essay are from his book Metaphysics (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1992). 4th edition.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved



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