An Argument Against Determinism

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Definitions and Goal

Determinism is the notion that all events, including those pertaining to and initiated by conscious beings, are the necessary and inevitable consequences of prior events. This doesn’t necessarily entail materialism, the belief that matter is the fundamental substance in the universe and all phenomena, including mental phenomena, are the result of material interactions, nor does it necessarily entail physicalism, the idea that the real is the physical (that which is composed of physical matter), although the three principles tend to come as a package in our modern, scientific age.

My position on each of these is as follows:

  • I reject determinism in favour of freewill (I am a libertarian)
  • Strictly speaking, I am a materialist. By this, I mean that I am not a substance dualist (like Descartes, probably the most famous substance dualist); i.e. I don’t believe in any mysterious “Mind stuff” or “Spirit” or any other esoteric improbability.
  • I disagree with physicalism. I reject the idea that reality can be reduced to and fully accounted for by a complete physical description of a situation

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Freewill – Brain Tumours all the Way Down

This is an argument for determinism I first heard made by Sam Harris. In a conversation he had with Dan Dennett, he discussed the mass shooting in 1966 by Charles Whitman where he murdered 17 people, including his mother and wife, and wounded 31 others. Whitman wrote a suicide note in which he claimed not to understand exactly why he had just murdered his mother and wife and that he had recently been the “victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.” He also requested that an autopsy be performed on his body and wanted his life insurance policy to go to a mental health foundation to “prevent further tragedies of this type.” The autopsy revealed that Whitman had a brain tumour in the hypothalamus region of his brain.

Harris’ point is not just that Whitman was in fact a victim of his brain tumour and is less morally responsible for his actions as a result, but also that everybody is similarly a victim of their brains. In Whitman’s case, his brain tumour caused him to act the way he did, but this only drives home the point that we are all at the mercy of our brain wiring, development, and functioning. It’s, as Harris quips, “brain tumours all the way down.”

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Arrival – The Short Story and the Movie

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The recent movie, Arrival, is another interesting and thoughtful science fiction story for those who like to think a little outside the box. Hollywood can’t take all the credit for this one however, because it was based on a short story written in 1998 by Ted Chiang called “Story of Your Life”. This article will be divided into two sections. In the first, I will discuss the four main points of the movie (what I think are the ‘take home’ ideas), and the second will outline some of the bigger differences between it and the short story.

Note: this article is full of spoilers.

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The Self and Enlightenment in Buddhism

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I have been fairly generous to Buddhism in my writings thus far, for good reason I think, but there are some problems with Buddhism which the book, Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, has helpfully given me scope to address. In this article, I will examine the way the self and enlightenment are presented in Siddhartha and offer a critical discussion of Buddhist attitudes towards, and interpretations of, both.

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A Few Problems with Utilitarianism

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In this article I am going to outline a few problems with utilitarianism that occurred to me after a discussion with a friend. Of course, there is a vast philosophical literature on this subject but I am going to restrict myself to a few comments that relate directly to what my utilitarian friend had to say on the topic.

I will define “utilitarianism” as the ethical principle that one ought to act so as to maximise happiness (or minimise the suffering) of sentient or ‘semi-sentient’ beings (i.e. including most animals).

Some of the arguments you will encounter might strike you as somewhat pedantic; calculating happiness, giving away half of your salary to those in greater need, etc., and it is a perfectly reasonable response to claim that utilitarianism is useful as a guide but ought not to be taken to a literal extreme. Indeed, that is a position I would also endorse. I have addressed this article to the moral agent who takes utilitarianism seriously and believes happiness/suffering really is the only, or at least, the best, way to assess moral problems. Note that this category also includes the person who claims to be using utilitarianism as a guide only but then turns around and advocates a suspicious ethical position purely based on utilitarian grounds, such as; claiming it is unethical to bring children into the world, or arguing that we ought to push one fat man in front of a trolley to save six others (why were they standing on the railway tracks in the first place?)[1].

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