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"Choice", and related concepts such as "Freedom" and "Autonomy" are amongst the most important of political ideas.  In Parts II and III of this series, I shall consider, respectively, how choices (e.g. in public services or in wider economic competition) can be of benefit to those that do not choose as well as those that do; and the place of choice in wider society (and its constitutional implications).

However, before we proceed to consider what to do with choices, we need first, in Part I, to counter the main objection to the existence of choices: namely that the world is deterministic.


First, we should rapidly dispose of the particularly aggressive form of determinism known as "compatibilism" – namely the claim that the existence of choice is compatible with determinism, that we can both be determinists and believe in choice.  Why that is just plain wrong can be seen by understanding that when we have a choice we can do more than one thing, and when we had a choice we could have done otherwise than we did.  But according to determinists – whether of the metaphysical, materialist or religious kind – all truths already exist, all of history is already mapped out, from beginning to end.  So it is already the case, for example, that when next week I choose at the sandwich shop between a BLT and a cheese sandwich, I shall choose the BLT.  Since that is already true, it is not true that, after I have made the choice, I could have done otherwise than I did.

What compatibilists claim is that a choice was a situation in which I could have done otherwise if I had wanted to.  But what they mean by "wanted to" here is nothing more than that I would have chosen to.  (They don't, for example, mean that I might have lusted after the BLT but considered the cheese more healthy, so chosen the healthy option despite wanting the unhealthy one.)  So their claim is that a choice is a situation in which I could have done otherwise if I had chosen to.  But that is an uninformative tautology, not a definition of a concept.

No.  If we have choices, then our future actions are not yet determined.  Determinism is incompatible with choice.  Lined up against the determinists are the (again, metaphysical, materialist or religious) anti-determinists or indeterminists, who believe in some (or all) of chance, miracle or choice.  A chance event is something that could truly have turned out otherwise (it doesn't merely appear that way); a miracle is something that diverts the evolution of the state of nature from what would otherwise have been its quasi-deterministic path, changing the world's destiny (at least in some small way); a choice is a situation in which what the agent will do is not determined before the choice is made.

It is worth observing that distinctions between chances, miracles and choices are far from clear – one might really simply be referring to the same thing by different names.  That is particularly clear in the cases of chance and miracles.  Saying that something was the result of "chance" or Fate or (to use an older name for Fate) to the Moirae as opposed to being a "miracle" of the Moirae or of Fate is very clearly a matter of taste for descriptors.  Those that want to assert that miracles are not "chance" are claiming that the miraculous interventions of the gods reflect purpose, will, mind and those claiming that "chance" is not a miracle are denying purpose, will, mind to "chance".  There is obviously an important discussion to be had about the purposiveness or otherwise of the gods, but it's orthogonal to our purposes here, so I'm mainly going to assume that miracles and chances are much the same thing.

Of course, it is not obvious that a choice is either a miracle or a chance.  But that does not matter much for our discussion, because we are interested in whether the world isn't deterministic, since the claim that it is deterministic is the main objection to the existence of true choice.

Lastly, we don't have space to produce the definitive argument against determinism.  Instead, I wish merely to set out two famous debates about deterministic ideas, showing that the orthodox position, in each case, is to reject determinism.  Since it is commonly asserted by those that know a little that orthodox thought is deterministic and all choice is an illusion, let us dwell for a moment on these two debates: the question of whether the laws of physics involve true chance; and whether the variety of life reflects variety that is inbuilt from the beginning and merely selected to appear or whether there is true fundamental change in species.

Let us first consider the laws of physics.  The classic articulation of physical determinism is that of Laplace:

"We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes."

With unchanging laws of the universe and an initial state, all other physical truths would be set.  Whether my hand went to pick up that BLT or cheese sandwich was already set at the outset of the universe.  So the sense that I had a choice, that I could have done otherwise than I did, is nothing more than an illusion.

Such determinism initially resisted the introduction of quantum mechanics into physics.  According to the so-called "Copenhagen" interpretation of quantum mechanics, certain physical variables do not have a defined value (there is no truth about them) until they are measured, and the more precisely certain variables are observed, the less precisely other variables are defined.  In a Copenhagen world, there is true chance and not all truths about the future are defined from the beginning.

Einstein, famously, rejected this idea.  He said that God does not play dice with the universe (literally, he said "I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice").  Instead, Einstein claimed that the problem was a fundamental one of measurement – in measuring, particularly very small, entities, we disturb their properties – but that does not mean that they don't have properties until they are measured!  We now know that Einstein was wrong.  Bell's Theorem (which has been described as "the most profound discovery of science") demonstrated that there would be empirically-testable physical consequences if Einstein, as opposed to the Copenhagen advocates, were right.  Experiments have subsequently been conducted.  Further to those experiments, the standard view is now that Einstein was wrong.  (There remains some controversy about the precise implications for determinism, but we've said enough for now.)

Turning to the variety of life, in some mid-nineteenth century evolutionary theories (included one way Darwin was interpreted, for example), all of the variety and complexity of life was already, in some sense, present as life began, just as all of the complexity of pigeons (sizes, colours, head-shapes, crests and so on) is present but then is selected for by breeders.  What happens, according to this theory, is that particular characteristics of creatures become emphasized through natural selection – but there is no fundamental change in the world; nothing new arises; there is merely an emphasizing of something already there.  This concept was, of course, very much like the Laplacean determinism in physics, in which all the truths of physical history are already there in the laws and initial state.  It would appeal to all those that imagine their gods starting up the universe and then leaving it wind down uninterfered-with, like a clock.

Now of course, just as there certainly do appear to be the regularities pointed to by the physical determinist (e.g. apples consistently drop to earth when released), there certainly are other cases than pigeons in which there is selection from a pre-existing menu.  For example, until the introduction of alien species in the 1950s, 90% of the fish in Lake Victoria were Haplochromis chichlids, a fish that reacts to the availability of environmental niches by producing enormous variance in its shape, size, colouration, and diet.

But this form of no-true-change natural selection was disputed – as will not surprise us – by those that claimed that the world really did change, through chance or miracle.  The two most famous advocates of true change were Hugo de Vries and Charles Lyell (in Lyell's case somewhat incongruously, as Lyell was the main proponent of uniformitarianism, the doctrine that laws and substances today are the same as those in the past – it is worth observing that Lyell's work on geology was amongst the most authoritative in establishing the great age of the earth).  De Vries developed the mutation theory of natural selection, according to which new species arose by chance mutation.  In Lyell's theory, as classes of creature became exhausted they died out and new creatures were created through miracles of God (Lyell vigorously denied that it made sense to believe that species could somehow "change themselves").  Again, the distinction between "chance" and "miracle" here was largely a matter of taste for descriptors – we might well be describing the same thing by different names.

The orthodox scientific position now accepts the true change concept, rejecting the idea that all variety is to be explained through natural selection.  Though – as with the laws of physics and the grace of God, determinism is often regarded as providing a useful model and explaining a large number of cases, what we might (perhaps contentiously) call "Darwinian" evolution is now regarded as incomplete.

A great deal more could be said on each of these topics – and we have not even explored metaphysical or religious determinism.  But for our purposes it is enough to recognise the following key conclusions:

  • A choice is a situation in which we could have done otherwise than we did.
  • The existence of choice is incompatible with metaphysical, religious or physical determinism.
  • Physical determinism is standardly rejected in two of the most famous scientific debates: that concerning the interpretation of quantum mechanics; and that concerning the variety of life.
  • With the rejection of determinism, little stands in the way of our accepting that there are choices.

Next time we shall move on to consider how choices can be deployed, and in particular how they have significance for those that do not make choices, as well as those that do.

12 comments for: Andrew Lilico: On Choices: Part I – Against Determinism

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