Determinism and meaningfulness in lives
AffiliationThe School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Faculty of Arts
Document TypePhD thesis
CitationsPisciotta, T. J. T. (2013). Determinism and meaningfulness in lives. PhD thesis, The School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne.
Access StatusOpen Access
© 2013 Dr. Trevor John Trifonio Pisciotta
If determinism – roughly the thesis that at any instant there is exactly one possible future – were true, then we appear to be simply cogs in a larger causal machine. We would invest nothing of ourselves in our actions and our lives. As such, the potential truth of determinism seems to threaten strongly held conceptions about the nature and values of our lives. This problem – the problem of determinism – has come to be dominated by two groups of disputants: compatibilists and incompatibilists. Importantly, while compatibilists and incompatibilists disagree fundamentally about the impact that the truth of determinism would have, they broadly agree about how the problem should be framed. According to the traditional dialectic, the key question is whether, if determinism were true, an agent could be free or morally responsible with respect to particular actions. But we care about so much more than whether we are free or morally responsible for individual instances of action. In taking such a narrow focus, the traditional dialectic fails to respond to important aspects of our pre-philosophical concern regarding the problem of determinism. In particular, the traditional dialectic fails to adequately respond to our concern that the truth of determinism would be a threat to our conception of our value and place in the universe, including, I argue, our conception of our lives as potentially meaningful. It might be thought that there is little connection between the issues of freedom, responsibility and agency on the one hand, and meaningfulness on the other. I argue that this is not the case. In particular, I argue that when we examine plausible accounts of meaningfulness, we realise that they must assume that an agent is relevantly active with respect to the meaning-conferring features of their life. Further, I argue that a range of compatibilist accounts of agency lack the theoretical resources to provide for the requisite connection between an agent and the potentially meaning-conferring features of their life. By shifting focus away from the traditional dialectic, my discussion of agency and meaningfulness helps illustrate what is at stake in the problem of determinism. I do not argue that compatibilists fail in any task that they set for themselves, but I do argue that their accounts do not do all the work that is required. We care not only about whether we are morally responsible or free with respect to individual actions, but also about the kind of people we are, the kind of lives we lead, and the difference that each of us will make, in our own finite way. The truth of determinism would seem to undermine this concern, and compatibilists have not done enough to show us why it should not.
Keywordsphilosophy; determinism; free will; meaning of life; agency
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