On James’ “The Dilemma of Determinism”

Afshad Dholakia
Mar 21, 2017 · 10 min read

James’ The Dilemma of Determinism is a discussion on the nature of determinism and indeterminism in the context of rationality, experience, and theology. He begins this piece with a declaration that in general, if it is the case that there are two conceptions (i.e. possible theories about the truth of the world that are satisfactory) which are equally likely to be true, it is reasonable to presume that the more rational of the two is the truer of the two. This is a major thematic statement which acts as a supportive beam for the rest of the arguments that he makes in the piece. Though he doesn’t give any notable arguments as to why this is the position that should be taken per se, he does note that a reader of the piece that does not agree with this notion will not gain much from the arguments that he presents. The question of determinism and indeterminism is not one that can be effectively solved, and thus, this framework is required in order to instantiate debate on the subject matter.

James then begins to delve into the definitions (both denotative and functional) of determinism and indeterminism. He begins by contrasting the ideas of hard and soft determinism. Given the context that James provides of the two, it seems as though he believes that hard determinism is a more archaic form of the viewpoint. He specifically mentions that language such as “…fatality, bondage of the will, necessitation, and the like…” are features of hard determinism, which play into a strictly passive narrative of our relationship to the universe in which we reside. Soft determinism, on the other hand, is presented as something significantly more sinister, particularly in the way that it utilizes the word (and thus the connotative idea) of “freedom”. Beyond the fact that he explicitly states that he will be removing the word “freedom” from the language of his arguments due to the soft determinist’s use of the same, James presents this position as the idea that understanding need and the chains with which we are bound to it is equivalent to true freedom. James now moves to provide an explicit, but general definition for what determinism is:

“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 bidden in its womb; the part we call the present is compatible with one totality…” (59).

This is also where James uses the famous example of the iron block, which he says is static and welded with all other parts of time — each and every event that has occurred in the past has unchangeably set up what must, therefore, occur in the future. It is also important to note that he specifically mentions the idea of ambiguous possibilities in this definition. It is crucial to an argument that he makes later in this piece as he moves onto his definition of indeterminism. This contrary idea, he claims, states that “…the parts have a certain amount of loose play on one another, so that the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be…” (57). In short, James’ determinism consists of an unchanging, fixed sense of events in time, whereas indeterminism is the idea that events don’t necessitate other events after them.

Within the context of indeterminism, James brings up the idea of “chance” and the role it plays in his approach to the idea. He first removes the denotative substance from the connotative substance of the word so that it is used as a term of probability as opposed to irrationality. He views chance as more of a negative idea, something that escapes human understanding and adequately accurate predictability. The idea of chance is fundamental to James’ indeterminism due to the fact that it explains indeterminism in a more tangible manner. He explains (both in his discussions of chance and indeterminism itself) that there are a variety of things that can happen at any time, but the probability of those things occurring is different between them. For instance, after waking up in the morning, I could theoretically eat some breakfast or run into traffic and end my life. Those are both, in fact, possibilities, but one is more probable than the other. And, regardless of which one it is, there are chances of each occurring.

Other ideas that need be taken into consideration in this discussion are those of epistemic indeterminism and ontological determinism. Epistemology and ontology are the studies of the nature of knowledge and being, respectively. Ontological determinism and epistemic indeterminism are compatible with one another due to the separation of perception and reality that is caused by human capability. If the universe, in fact, resides in a deterministic framework, ontological determinism is the best explanatory phrase thereof. That being said, proponents of epistemic indeterminism advocate that even if ontological determinism is the case, we as human beings do not have the capability to accurately predict the future. Thus, within the context of our experiences, capabilities, and ignorances, we experience the world in a way that qualifies indeterminism. This is the image that James draws of the soft determinists, and the problem lies in the fact that they may conflate freedom of will and freedom of action. James tersely argues that this perspective and the conflation therein remove the idea of freedom from possible attack: in the case that this framework holds, the experience of freedom is inherently not problematic, but freedom of will is paradoxical to the ontologically deterministic universe within which it resides. This standpoint doesn’t solve any problems or answer any questions about the true nature of freedom as it absolves the concept of will from importance and relegates it to action, which is, in James’ perspective, not exactly the true nature of what freedom must be.

Now that James’ definitions have been properly structured and addressed, he begins his explanation of his argument, which he coins The Dilemma of Determinism. He begins by describing a murder and the crime therein and expounds on the guilt that people feel due to it. And though the average person does, in fact, feel a sense of regret when reviewing the tragic situation, the remorse is senseless within a deterministic universe. As a function of a fixed timeline, it was necessary for the murder to occur as it did to the slightest detail. One could lament the idea that the murder had to happen at all, but the lament then would be concerning something impossible within the scope of reality, which is nonsensical. The regret, then moves to one that centers on the innate function of the universe, which James refers to as pessimism. This is the lament that the universe is not as it should be, even though it is as it is meant to be. He proceeds to explain that the only way to escape this eternal sense of pessimism is to remove regret as a function of the human experience. This sense of optimism is flawed, though, as the judgments of regret that need to be removed are determined in and of themselves as well. What the determinist is left with, then, is a universe in which that which should be is and that which cannot be is not (just as they were when this journey began). Additionally, this problem can lead to a confusing between right and wrong, as a sense of regret or approval is a big part of understanding the nature of ethical decisions. He likens the action and the moral judgment to a see-saw; as one rises, the other falls; but, this is problematic because both are supposedly predetermined and require one another to have any meaning.

From here, James begins to move into the second part of his argument, starting with a discussion of subjectivity. He explains that the concept of subjectivism, generally speaking, is the idea that experience is more important than the actual events that occur. The example he uses here, as a continuation of the murder case that he mentions earlier, states that “Crime justifies its criminality by awakening our intelligence of that criminality and eventually our remorses and regrets…” (67). Ergo, we can only truly understand the reprehensible nature of the crime due to the fact that it invokes feelings of regret and remorse as a result. One can use subjectivism to escape the feelings that come with universal pessimism, but this is highly problematic and “…ends with the corruptest curiosity” (70) because it skews the perspective with which we view our experiences, further confusing ideas of good/bad and right/wrong. This is the substance of the dilemma; as one moves farther away from the pessimistic perspective, one moves deeper into the subjective perspective, and vice versa. This in innately problematic because both of these horns of the dilemma are immensely problematic and by no means sufficient for James. He concedes, though, that this perspective seems like an obvious choice in theory. He rejects that some duties are known to be innately good and that we are designed to do them regardless of our feelings about them, and further continues to rely on contemporary anecdotes in religiosity and romanticism as examples of bad implementations of the subjective perspective. James believes that the distinction between conduct and sensibility is the ultimate factor, in this regard, that conflicts with the subjectivist perspective. An emphasis on conduct leaves out the distinctions and context with which that conduct is, in fact, conducted. The subjectivist argument relies on experience, so how can experience be removed from the evaluation of said conduct?

James now begins to summarize his argument and explain why it works well within the framework that he sets up at the beginning of this piece. He asks what “…interest, zest, or excitement…” there can be in conducting a positive action if there is no possibility or choice to conduct a negative action? Furthermore, how can one know that a negative action is indeed negative if it does not stir feelings of regret and remorse as a result? Finally, how can one rationally feel regret or remorse as a result of an action if that action was determined by the structure of the universe in the first place? James believes that these three questions are fundamental in making the concept of indeterminism seem more rational due to the fact that the determinist perspective removes people from their sense of moral reality. It is nonsensical, for James, to remove that moral reality from the process of creating moral judgments about the experiences that one has. Rationally speaking, he cannot state with good conscience that the aforementioned murder case is not vile solely due to the fact that it could be a function of a predetermined universe. If, instead, the world has a chance of being good, even if the chance is never realized, this idea of the world is better than the alternative. An optimistic (or even ameliorative) perspective in this regard is the only chance that we have at living a life that has James’ “…interest, zest, [and] excitement”.

As his argument wraps up, James adds one last clause for those that may not agree with him because his argument may come off as one that presupposes that God (Providence) does not exist. Given the time period in which James delivered this piece, this is an important aspect the recipient’s psyche and James’ creation of an alternative framework in which God is not incompatible with indeterminism is valuable in getting a larger number of people to adopt the perspective and ideology. His explanation of God as a master chess player who knows each move the novice can make and the likelihood of each chance therein is a powerful way for him to explain this alternative perspective to his audience. It is evident that he tries to empathize with traditional perspectives of God’s role in the creation and active continuation of the universe, as James does not specify whether he believes the possibilities of chance are chosen by people or God working through them. Still, his greatest point in the last section of this piece is that no matter the case, the ability to make moral judgments still exists, and as James has presented, this is fundamentally paradoxical with both hard and soft determinism.

For the most part, I agree with the bulk of James’ arguments. For me, his postulates that lead from the rationality of feeling regret, to understanding right/wrong, and finally the ability to make moral judgments seems sound within the context of what is the more rational answer to an unsolvable problem. That being said, my primary complaint is that his standard for why this perspective is valuable is somewhat weak in comparison to the other links in the chain of his argument. This is a highly debatable segment of philosophy, but James doesn’t provide any rationale for his advocacy of the “zestiness” of life being closer to the nature of reality per se (i.e., he does not explain to the reader why this is the way people are, as a function of the universe, meant to experience life). I understand that this is partially due to the fact that there is much missing from our understanding of the universe and the way we are supposed to interpret it; that’s where the determinism vs. indeterminism argument stems from in the first place. I believe my issue here is that I understand and identify with James’ value criterion, but I don’t understand why his value is innately more valid than the alternative (beyond the fact that it aligns better with what the experience of life, in his opinion, ought to be). Additionally, I found his take on God to be interesting. It certainly challenges my perception of God, one that is built by notions of divinity from an Abrahamic perspective. At the same time, I believe that James gives too much leeway to the theists that he is presenting to. This is the only point at which his argument feels like it is pandering more than it is logically or rationally explaining the truth of the universe or experience. It satisfies my theist sensibilities, but it feels like something that is more of a backwards construction of thought — one that relies on the truth of the idea that God exists and creates a narrative to fulfill that truth within the context of his indeterminist argument. I don’t have a problem, as a theist, adjusting my perspective of what God is to that which James presents, but my problem is that he doesn’t address the existence of God within the context of the indeterminist framework; his argument presumes that if God exists, the “master chess player” role is the one he must take. This is primarily why it feels like James added this clause solely in order to satisfy theists, which isn’t enough for it to be seen as a valuable argument in my opinion. I suppose its addition in James’ piece has done more favors than not in the pursuit of convincing the public to adopt an indeterministic framework, but I am not satisfied with it at all.

Afshad Dholakia

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Texas '17. Attempting to re-learn some things.