Dilemma of Determinism
part decrees part. This is a universe of necessity and impossibility
Indeterminism takes the view, instead, that the possibilities outnumber
The decision between determinism and indeterminism cannot be made
on the basis of fact. It s not an issue of fact. [That is, neither can be
proved in any scientific way.] In making the decision, we are depending
on what feels most rational to us, after careful consideration that is,
we are depending on “the sentiment [i.e. feeling] of rationality.”
To some people, indeterminism feels irrational, but James says
indeterminate, as being irrational, and that feels negative. But James
“X occurs by chance” is to say “X occurs as a gift.”
Of course, some people may be afraid to admit to the realityof chance,
James begins with a fact: Some events happen which we feel are bad,
even atrocious, horrible, and we react with feelings of “regret.” For
all of which James would include in the term “regret.”
Suppose that murder was determined i.e. that it happened necessarily;
there s no way it could have not happened. This is likely to lead to pessimism,
. . . Or course “Candide” may come along and claim that this is really the
“best of all possible worlds,” and that the things we had been regretting
are really for the best in the end, so we should not regret them any longer.
Pessimism would, if we accept this, turn to blithe optimism and we would
regret having regretted the existence of murder and such. . . . But, oops!
Since we did in fact regret them, we must have been determined to regret them.
And now we plunge back into pessimism: “why must the world be a world in
after all, they are ultimately for the best?”
In this way, determinism leads to a waffling between pessimism,
which saps the will and keeps us from acting, and optimism, which
confounds thought by leading directly back into the contradiction
outlined above (the idea that I should regret having regretted the
murder, and yet I was determined to regret the murder and I
shouldn t regret regretting something I couldn t help doing).
James now considers whether “gnosticism” or “subjectivism”
might be the path to take. Perhaps it is like this: the evil deed
and yet it is good that we know good and evil. That is, the murder itself
is not good; but knowledge of evil things, deepening our theoretical
consciousness of good and evil, is good.
James says subjectivism has an advantage over pessimism in that it
does make moral judgments the main thing (murder is bad, but it is good
that I have knowledge of it because I need that knowledge in order to
make moral judgments). Nonetheless, he rejects subjectivism,
on practical grounds (162):
James says subjectivism leads to “nerveless sentimentalism”
(”Let me sin like David that I may repent like David”), or to
generally, with its tendency to want to experience everything
chooses, instead, to follow Carlyle, who reacted to the romantic
movement by saying: Act! Action, objective conduct is the thing
not the self-indulgence of going out to experience every possible
feeling a human being can have.
But again, what s essential here, in deciding between determinism
and chance? If determinism leads either to pessimism or to subjectivism,
and if we reject both of those, what is our alternative? It s indeterminism,
of course but what does indeterminism (belief in chance) lead to?
Again James repeats: the essential difference between determinism
and indeterminism is that determinism says we know that all is determined,
while indeterminism admits limits to our understanding. That is to say:
Indeterminism sees the universe as a plurality of semi-independent forces,
each of which may help or hinder the rest. That is what indeterminism amounts to.
This view the universe as a plurality of semi-independent forces, each of
which may help or hinder the rest is, James says, the only one he has found
that can make sense out of the fact of regret, by admitting that there are real,
Granted, to choose indeterminism over determinism because belief in chance
is the only way to make sense out of the fact that we feel regret when things like
cruelty occur, is not to choose on the basis of a scientifically coercive argument.
But James never pretended he could give such an argument in fact, he has
been saying all along that he cannot, that belief in chance rather than
determinism (or vice versa) cannot be treated as a factual matter.
Repeating again the indeterminist picture: a universe inclusive of
view can take in the whole scene.”
Now James reviews again what objections can be raised to the
Objection to indeterminism: it violates the absolutism of my intellect
Objection to determinism: it violates my sense of moral reality
Objection to romanticism: it “falsifies the simple objectivity of my
moral reactions”; it corrupts our “moral sense”
Reviewing the three cases, James opts for indeterminism.
Again, what is chance?
The only sort of chance we have motive for supposing to exist is
“the chance of a better future.”
Why not speak of belief in “freedom” rather than belief in “chance,”
then? Because chance” is better able to convey to sense that we are
giving up total control; we are admitting there is no total control anywhere.
But then, is indeterminism incompatible with the idea of a divine
Providence controlling everything in the universe? Not really, James says.
To explain, he uses the analogy between an indeterminate (chance) universe
and a chess game between an expert and a novice. We can imagine a situation
in which the expert sees all possibilities from the start, and also where he
determines some rigorously from the start. Others he might determine
contingently (”this is the move I ll make if the other player makes move X”).
them open to be decided later by himself or to be decided later by the
other player (the point is they are genuinely open now, at the start of the game).