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Determinist in William James Works

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The Dilemma of Determinism, by William James, is a discussion about the concepts of indeterminism and determinism that tries to show us which one of them is the better option and how these contextually play into our experiences and rationality. He begins this piece with an important statement, that if a situation comes up where there are two possible conceptions or outcomes (possible theories of truth) that have an equal chance of being true, there is a simple solution. He claims that the reasonable thing to do here is to accept the more rational answer as the ‘truest’ truth of the two available options. Basically, this is his version of Occam’s Razor just in terms of truth. This framework is important because it becomes the foundation of James’s argument throughout his paper. The question of determinism versus indeterminism is not a question that can be solved acceptably, so establishing the previous framework creates a platform in which it is possible to debate this subject openly. James believes that Indeterminism is the right choice, and makes an extremely compelling argument against Determinism.

Before properly defining Indeterminism/Determinism, it is important to understand two terms that James gives us which will help us understand later concepts. These terms are Hard and Soft Determinism. Hard Determinism, by James’s account, is a much more archaic style than Soft. Partially because it tends to use old-style language with terms such as fatality, a bondage of the will, and necessitation. When using this thought process, the universe is entirely deterministic, meaning one thing is responsible for the thing that comes next and so on. Imagine the universe working like a set of dominos, where each domino that falls has done so explicitly because of the previous domino falling and so on. In addition, this view is inflexible regarding the idea of free will putting their faith in the fact that it cannot and does not exist. Free Will has no place in a universe that is deterministic as it would result in a paradox. Continuing to Soft determinism, James believes that between the two concepts, soft is a much more sinister option. His reasoning behind this is how (contextually) it uses the idea/word ‘freedom’. When using soft determinism, people believe that while the universe is deterministic, humans have free will in said universe. A tricky situation that arises when using this methodology is that there may be confusion regarding the freedom of will and the freedom of action. Freedom of Action just means that while the universe is deterministic, people have a minor say in the minute actions that happen on a day-to-day basis. Free Will implies that the universe it takes place in would have to be Indeterministic or it once again would create a paradox. Considering James doesn’t agree with the way soft determinists use the word freedom, he removes it from his vocabulary in regards to the language used throughout. Building off this, James presents this idea that understanding this need and how it goes hand in hand with his definition of true freedom. From here, James moves on giving us a definitive view of what determinism is.

Determinism is the idea that events are all caused by previous events, meaning the universe consists of an unchanging fixed sense of events in time (Like a set of Dominos). It is a universe that is made up of an unchanging fixed sense of events in time. Every event that has occurred in the past has been directly responsible for the next and unchangeably has set up the future. James gives us this helpful passage that spells it out simply, ‘it professes that those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be…the future has no ambiguous possibilities in its womb; the part we call the present is compatible with one totality'(James). This definition, basically telling us that previous parts of the universe already in place (from the past) have an absolute say in whatever actions take place after. The future is set up by the actions of the past, and James tells us that our future is not full of endless possibilities, but in fact the opposite. On the other hand, we have Indeterminism; The idea that events don’t necessitate the other events that take place after them

Indeterminism is the opposite, the concept in which previous events aren’t entirely responsible for the events that happen afterward. A critical component of Indeterminism is the idea of “chance” and how it works with James’ approach in terms of making sense of it. James uses chance in a way that most people would use the word probability, and he doesn’t believe it is something beneficial. Chance/Probability is something he believes to be negative, due to the fact it’s nearly impossible to predict with 100% certainty and that it is a concept which escapes our understanding. Using this, James can explain Indeterminism more simply. At any time there are a nearly endless amount of things that could happen, but between each of those events, there is a different probability on how likely it is that they occur. For example, when I go walk my dogs there is (theoretically) a chance I could get eaten by bears or make it home safe and sound. While confusing, think of this as the probability of any number of events taking place. Both of those events are possibilities, but clearly one of them is more likely to happen than the other. No matter how much more probable one is than the other, the important thing is that there is still a chance of me getting eaten by a bear, or any other event occurring.

James introduces two final terms before finally getting to his Dilemma. These two concepts are called Epistemic Indeterminism (EI) and Ontological Indeterminism (OI), and while initially seeming like opposites, they’re highly compatible with each other. E.I. is the study of nature, and if our universe does take place in a deterministic framework this is the option that James believes is the best at explaining what is going on. They share a commonality mostly in part to a human shortcoming. Humans subconsciously separate reality and perception into different parts because of human capability. The next concept is O.I., which is the study of knowledge. People who support this concept instead put more value in a person’s experiences which gives them a way in which to experience the world in an indeterministic fashion. By placing more inherent value in a person’s experiences, it helps make sense of an indeterministic universe as each person’s experiences are unique and in this view seem tailored to the individual. James draws a comparison to the Soft Determinist, and again shows us the potential problems they may have concerning Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action. According to James, from this perspective, the idea of freedom is safe from being debated because of multiple reasons. The first one being, assuming the universe’s deterministic framework is still in place, the experience of freedom is not naturally problematic. He draws a line between freedom (not a problem) and freedom of will (problematic), as having freedom of will completely contradicts being in the framework of an ontologically deterministic universe. Having the freedom of will in a deterministic universe is a complete paradox as the two are nearly opposites. By introducing Freedom of Action, James uses the ideas to get rid of the concept of free will, as he sees it as unimportant and not precisely what he thinks that the absolute true nature of freedom should look like.

Now that we have all the concepts and terms needed, James begins to explain his Dilemma of Determinism. This concept comes from this worldwide belief that ‘fate’ determines a person’s entire life. In turn, this gives humans no option to make choices about their conduct and by doing so, giving them immunity and not making them responsible for their conduct or actions. If fate is real and works as James stated then a murderer wouldn’t really be guilty of his crime would he? James acknowledges the potential for disaster in this viewpoint, and this is one of the main parts of his Dilemma regarding determinism. Beginning with an example regarding a crime involving murder, James focuses on the guilt that many people feel because of it. While people will feel remorse, regret, and other emotions because of this, James thinks that since this scene takes place within a deterministic universe, all regret/remorse that anyone feels is pointless. Since this universe is on a fixed timeline, that murder was something that had to happen exactly the way that it did and nothing could or would have changed that. These regrets, pointless or not, eventually bring us to James definition of pessimism, the concept that the universe is not and does not act as it should, and even in this case, is as it is meant to be (meaning the universe, while seemingly doing the wrong thing is still a properly functioning universe). James thinks he finds one way to deal with this condition, with it being the removal of regret in its entirety from the whole human experience. Removing regret from our experience doesn’t come without a downside. By taking that out of this ‘equation’ the determinist in question is left with a slightly altered and different version than we started with. It seems that we are left with a universe not capable of regret, which once again points society in the wrong direction as nobody would be responsible for their actions beneficial or not. This problem has far-reaching consequences, a big one being confusion between right and wrong. Regret is a major part of understanding ethical decisions that are being made, and by lacking that understanding people would be undermining themselves. Without regret, humans might as well be programmed machines making these ethical decisions as it strips us of our humanity. James thinks of it as a traditional see-saw in the sense that as one rises the other will fall. Which is fine for a playground attraction, but not when they are both supposed to be predetermined and search for meaning in each other.

The second part of the Dilemma gives us another term to unpack when he begins to talk about the idea of subjectivity. His concept of this, roughly, is that the experience of something is much more important than the actual events that did happen. Going back to the murderer example, the literal experience for people involved is more important than the actual event that took place because of how it affects them all. If people did not have the ability to feel remorse or regret, they would not have a full understanding of the horrible nature of the crime. By leaving people with regret/remorse, it provides the only true way of understanding just how bad what happened is. While it is possible to use subjectivity to escape pessimism according to James, it’s something that we probably shouldn’t do because it can be dangerous and problematic. James says it gives us ‘corrupt curiosity’ by altering the way that people view experiences. This leads down a dark path as it becomes confusing deciphering good/bad and right/wrong properly. This makes up a large piece of James’s dilemma, the closer someone moves to a pessimistic perspective the further they get from a subjective perspective. This poses a massive issue, because not only are these answers not good enough for James but they are totally problematic. In theory, this may seem like the obvious choice, James even admits this but moves on to make an important distinction regarding sensibility and conduct in terms of people. This could be the ultimate factor for his dilemma because of the direct conflict it creates with the subjective perspective. By emphasizing conduct, James strips it down forcing any distinctions and context to be removed so that proper analyzing can happen. Taking into consideration that a Subjectivist’s entire argument is based on the concept of experience, how can we remove experience from our evaluation of that conduct?

At this point, James begins to give us a summary of his argument, and why it works well with the framework he has set up throughout this piece. His first point is that is there a reason to conduct a positive action if there isn’t the choice or the option to do a negative one instead? Worse than this is that people could commit negative actions and have no idea they were negative because they felt no remorse or regret. Looking at the bigger picture with this in mind, how/why could a person feel regret or remorse over these actions when that action was determined by the overall structure of the universe in the first place! Personally, his last point is the one I agree with the most because if we truly do live in a deterministic universe then any emotions we get as a response to something are irrelevant since we can’t do anything about it and have to just go with the flow. James presents these three points as fundamental parts of the concept of indeterminism, mostly because it helps people rationalize the concept. Using the Deterministic perspective removes the feeling of moral reality, and for James this is unacceptable. Removing the moral reality from the process of creating these moral judgments regarding experience would do nothing but create people who feel no regret about any action, leading society down a dark road where actions happen without any remorse or regret. Using the murder example, James says that there’s no way he could say that it isn’t an awful outcome (someone dying) even though it was the actions of an already determined universe. Instead, if our world even has the chance of being ‘good’ (even if it goes unrecognized) that idea is infinitely better than the other option. James believes that an optimistic perspective in this regard is truly the only way that we can live a life that he says has ‘Interest, zest, and excitement (James). James adds in one more caveat for the religious people who believe his theory sort of seems like God doesn’t exist or is not real. However, James created an alternative framework in which God is not in an either/or situation with indeterminism. This allowed him access to a larger potential body of readers who would end up following this perspective and ideology. Personally, I found the way that James used God in his theory to be brilliant. Explaining and showing God as this master chess player of the universe who knows every move anyone can make in addition to knowing all of the potential chances essentially makes his argument bulletproof to the people who dismissed it for his lack of consideration for a God-like figure.

James makes one final claim before the paper ends and it’s arguably his greatest one. The ability to make moral judgments definitely exists and James has shown us that idea is completely paradoxical when thinking about hard and soft determinism. I agree with James, as I think he has shown more than enough proof as to why people should be anti-determinist. Even excluding the paradox just mentioned, an anti-deterministic view should be the norm, or else our society is destined to fall.  

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Determinist In William James Works. (2021, May 31). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 5, 2022, from
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