Saturday, November 13, 2004

A Note on 'Determinism'

I keep intending to continue the series on why I believe there's free choice in a fairly robust sense. I'll get around to it. But a post at Clark's Mormon Metaphysics gives me a chance to clarify what I'm doing.

Essentially there has been a movement in recent years to bring the use of the term 'determinism' more in line with the way scientists had begun to use it. (Scientists began to use it by borrowing from philosophers; they changed the meaning.) I'm actually fairly in favor of this, generally speaking, because the scientific usage is complicating the philosophical discussion unnecessarily, and 'determinism' was never a particularly useful term, anyway. And we philosophers should be used to this sort of thing, anyway; it isn't the first time we've had to accommodate a re-definition by scientists of a technical philosophical term, and it won't be the last. The danger in all this, however, is thinking that the re-definition was because scientists had some special interest in the original philosophical dispute rather than its being what it really was: they just needed a term for something else, and that term seemed close enough for their purposes. (I'm not sure when it was borrowed; the online OED is not helpful - it doesn't have any citations relevant to the newer meaning. I suspect it occurred in German physics circles around the turn of the twentieth century, since their interest in Kant and Hume would explain why the word was put to the new service it was - Kant and Hume make a transition from talk about causes to talk about laws very easy. But that is just a guess.)

The original use of the term 'determinism' was for a thesis about causes; it was originally just called 'the doctrine of Necessity' (people started using 'determinism' as a synonym for this around the 1840s, I think). It's now more fashionable to reserve 'determinism' for talk about laws, and to distinguish it from talk about causes; doing this has a lot of advantages for discussions in philosophy of science. I don't really have any interest in most of the philosophical issues associated with this more recent usage of the term; they appear to be related to the original free will dispute only when certain assumptions are made about the relation between laws and causes. And in those cases, it is usually the causes that are the real issue anyway. Such is my view, at least. We really don't have any helpful terms for these issues, though; they've all been taken over for other purposes. I wouldn't mind going back to 'the doctrine of Necessity', but people wouldn't know what I was talking about. So I'll still use the term 'determinism' for the causal issues until I can think of a better word (or until I get 'doctrine of Necessity' to catch on!).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.