Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Alternatives in a Deterministic Universe

Over at Russell's blog, I was asked why I would call something an "alternative" if it was never physically possible. If this is a deterministic universe, how could anything ever rightly be called an alternative?

My answer: It is represented to us as an alternative which we evaluate according to (often flexible) standards. The process of deliberation may be completely deterministic, but there's plenty of evidence that such processes occur. They occur frequently in plain sight, in public discourse.

A comparison to natural selection might help. Darwin's use of the term "natural selection" might seem metaphorical, as if natural selection were fundamentally unlike artificial selection. I don't think that's the case.

Perhaps you think determinism means that there is neither natural nor artificial selection--that the term is inappropriate in a deterministic universe. I don't think that makes much sense. As I wrote in my last post, postulating an uncaused event would not make our decisions any more real. It would only make them utterly arbitrary.

Back to Darwin . . . Natural selection occurs when genotypes dominate their competitors in a population. They are differentially selected, which means that they dominate because they satisfy certain conditions better than their competitors. The same happens in artificial selection. The only difference is that, in artificial selection, the process has a new, unnecessary element: plans. The conditions which must be satisfied in artificial selection are part of breeding plans.

So, in both artificial and natural selection, the process can be completely deterministic, and yet the term "selection" has a precise and appropriate meaning, and this meaning is not so different from what we normally mean when we talk about decisions and choices. The main differences are that (1) in the latter case, we are selecting plans themselves, and not genotypes, and (2) the outcome of the process of selection is not the prevalence of a genotype in a population, but the adoption of an intention (represented plan of action) in human behavior.

Just as genotypes can be selected in a deterministic universe, so too can plans. We call the former sort of selection "speciation" and "breeding," and the latter sort "making a decision."