thinking makes it so

There is grandeur in this view of life…

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #4

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Having distinguished between two different senses of the word ‘cause’ (as in eg ‘cause of an explosion’ and ‘cause to celebrate’: see Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3), Antony Flew next introduces two corresponding kinds of determinism.

Fourth in a series responding to Antony Flew’s There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind.1

See also:

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #1

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #2

Another Flew over the cuckoo’s nest #3


Antony Flew: There is a God

Antony Flew: There is a God

Because of these two fundamentally different senses of the word ‘cause’, Flew believes we can distinguish two correspondingly different senses of ‘determinism’. One is determination by physical causes and the other is determination by moral causes.

If an action is fully determined by physical causes, then the agent did not choose to act as he or she did, and, at the time the action happened, could not have prevented it from happening.

But explaining an action by reference to moral causes presupposes the agent could have acted differently:

Desires and wants are certainly not irresistible conclusions as such. Most of us are sufficiently disciplined sometimes to refrain from doing things we very much want to do.2

Failing to make this ‘fundamental and crucial’ distinction between physical and moral determination is what misleads

many people… into concluding that all explanations of conduct in terms of any kind of cause, physical or moral, supports an all-excusing doctrine of universal physical necessitation. This would mean that it was physically impossible for any to have behaved in any way other than the way they did.

To avoid errors like this takes

a logical analysis… of the three intimately associated notions of being an agent, having a choice, and being able to do something other than what we actually do.

He then distinguishes between a ‘moving’ and a ‘motion’:

A moving is a movement that can be initiated or quashed at will; a motion is a movement that cannot. The power of moving is an attribute peculiar to people, whereas entities incapable of consciousness or intention can only manifest motion.

An agent is a creature who

can and cannot but make… real choices between genuine alternative possibilities.

Whereas ‘motions’ constitute physically necessitated behaviour, an action by an agent involves one or more ‘movings’:

…the sense, the direction, and the character of actions… are that, as a matter of logic, they necessarily cannot be physically necessitated (and as a matter of brute fact, they are not). It therefore becomes impossible to maintain the doctrine of universal physically necessitating determinism… [Emphasis added.]

I have read this passage several times (from the chapter entitled WHERE THE EVIDENCE LEADS) and each time I am baffled by what seems to be an assumption that determinism can be refuted by an examination of how words are used. But that is the gist of the argument.

Let me try a thought experiment. Imagine that scientists have discovered the mechanism underlying voluntary action in humans. Conscious choice is explained as a function which evolved to provide optimal behavioural flexibility in a complex environment while minimising the survival risk of procrastination. Choice between options is effectively competition between strategies. Because it is a competition, there is generally a winner: the winner is the strategy which is chosen. But the ‘winning’ takes place in a context of self-consciousness, and that is just what conscious choice is – no more and no less.

If some respond by saying that free will is therefore an illusion, so be it. Others might say it is a matter of different levels. At the level of the conscious subject, that conscious subject is exercising free will, because this is just what free will is. At the level of neurological events, what happens is physically caused in ways that fit known scientific laws.

I am not suggesting that the explanation contained in this thought experiment is either true or false. Nor am I suggesting that if it did turn out to be true, I would take it in my stride as if it changed nothing. But I do not understand how any examination of how we familiarly describe our voluntary actions can possibly prove that an explanation like the one in the thought experiment will never ever be discovered. After all, it is not as if there is any alternative explanation of voluntary action available which avoids the perhaps regrettable consequence that free will could be described as an illusion.

The assertions in the passage quoted above, with their ‘as a matter of logic’ and ‘as a matter of brute fact’, are just assertions – that free will is not an illusion and therefore cannot be described as such. Even if they assert what we want to believe, they are still armchair philosophy of the worst kind.

Read on for more monkey business


1 Antony Flew (with Roy Abraham Varghese), There is a god: How the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind, HarperCollins, 2007.

2 Antony Flew, 2007: 1 above.

© Chris Lawrence 2009.


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