Determinism and Free Will

My first reading in Introduction to Philosophy comes from Galen Strawson’s article for The Stone, Your Move: The Maze of Free Will.

Determinism is the theory that everything that occurs in the world has a cause, all the way back to the beginning of the universe. As an illustration, the reason that you’re reading this now is that somehow you chanced upon a link to my blog/already know about my blog/happen to be beside a friend reading my blog, etc., which in turn happened because you were either randomly surfing the net/feeling bored and decided to see if my blog is still alive, etc, which in turn happened because … of a whole causal chain of events that can be traced back to your birth, your ancestors’ births, your ancestors’ ancestors’ births… so on and so forth. The corollary to this theory is that if we know all the causal laws governing the world, we can predict exactly all future events in the universe. This was the idea conceived by the French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, the idea which we now know as Laplace’s demon.

At first glance, determinism sounds a little outlandish. But no – in fact the opposite would be completely inconceivable. Suppose your door creaks open all of a sudden. What would you think made it happen? It could be a gust of wind. No, maybe someone is trying to play a prank on you. No, there’s no one at home. Maybe it’s gravity – the door isn’t hung level. Wait, the door is dead level. So why exactly did the door creak?

Notice something: you need a reason for why the door creaked open. Whatever it may be, a ghost, the wind, a prank, gravity… whatever it is, you feel the need to attribute this to some cause. Would you accept that the creaking of the door “just happened”? This was the 18th century philosopher David Hume’s argument: that whether or not we admit to believing in the idea of determinism, we do in fact believe in it, that there is a sufficient cause for everything.*

So why do we care whether determinism is true or not? For us to have free will, we must be in ultimate control of what we do. We do what we do because of who we are, which is a product of prior causes over which we have no control, such as upbringing, genetics, etc. If we do not have control over such factors, we cannot claim to have ultimate control over what we do. Therefore: we do not have free will.

You may or may not buy this argument, but the implications are huge. If you do, the next time somebody upsets you (say by talking very loudly in the library or barging into the MRT before you can get out, causing you to miss your stop), you have to remind yourself that he did not choose to do so freely; rather, his actions were caused by factors beyond his control, and had you been in his situation, with the exact same upbringing, genetics, etc., you would have done exactly the same.

Alternatively, even if you do (I do), you can choose to be illogical and hold that person morally responsible (I do too).

*Example taken from Bruce N. Waller’s Consider Philosophy.

Through It All

You are forever in my life
You see me through the seasons
Cover me with Your hand
And lead me in Your righteousness

And I look to You
And I wait on You

I’ll sing to You Lord
A hymn of Love
For Your faithfulness to me
I’m carried in everlasting arms
You’ll never let me go
Through it all

Memory as a Process of Reconstruction

One of the most important findings in cognitive psychology relates to memory. Often, we think of memory as storing information in a hard drive within our brain, retrieving it wholesale when we need to. But this is in fact far from the truth: experiments have shown that we don’t quite store information in its entirety; instead, we only distill and then store the gist of it. When we need this information afterward, we reconstruct (as opposed to retrieve) the memory.

Here’s a common trick from Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, a truly wonderful read on how we often fail to predict what makes us happy:

Read the list of words below, and when you’ve finished, quickly cover the list with your hand. Then I will trick you.
















Here’s the trick. Which of the following words was not on the list? Bed, doze, sleep, or gasoline? The right answer is gasoline, of course. But the other right answer is also sleep, and if you don’t believe me, you should lift your hand from the page. If you’re like most people, you knew gasoline was not on the list, but you mistakenly remembered reading the word sleep. Because all the words on the list are so closely related, your brain stored the gist of what you read (a bunch of words about sleeping) rather than storing every one of those words. Normally this would be a clever and economical strategy for remembering, The gist would serve as an instruction that enabled your brain to reweave the tapestry of your experience and allow you to ‘remember’ reading the words you saw. But in this case, your brain was tricked by the fact that the gist word – the key word, the essential word – was not actually on the list. When your brain rewove the tapestry of your experience, it mistakenly included a word that was implied by the gist but had not actually appeared.

As for me, I’d seen this trick before; but when I read the book, I fell for it once again.

Awfully Chocolate

I’ve always wondered about the lack of dark chocolate ice cream. If you too are a dark chocolate fan, please try Awfully Chocolate’s Dark Chocolate Ice Cream. It’s heavenly! Because it’s really really good dark chocolate, I rate this over Ben & Jerry’s and Häagen-Dazs.

A single scoop is only $3.80 and they are really generous with the servings. Here’s the picture and description on the website (take note of the very important last line):

Awfully Chocolate is our super premium dark chocolate ice cream made with natural ingredients.

It contains a blend of our own chocolate and Belgian dark chocolate (min. 70% cocoa solids), real eggs, fresh milk and pure cream. The low air content makes the ice cream very rich and dense, and it has less sugar than most other premium ice creams.

is manufactured by us in Singapore and in certain territories, for us by carefully selected contract manufacturers. It is full of flavour and is perhaps the darkest chocolate ice cream around.