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Hume's fork

  1. Dec 22, 2005 #1


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    Hume's fork: "Either our actions our determined, in which case we are not responsible for them, or the result of random events, in which case we are not responsible for them."

    Is there any philosophy that suggests we are in control of our own actions?
  2. jcsd
  3. Dec 22, 2005 #2
    Control is a choice; responsibility is not. Our actions are determined by our choices. Randomness is how we describe events resulting from causes we have not yet determined.

    I believe the philosophy of Objectivism may show the relationship between ones actions and responsibility, however it must be understood in its entirety to be of substantial benefit; it is not developed around truisms.
    Last edited: Dec 22, 2005
  4. Dec 23, 2005 #3
    With apologies to Hume, but why should a determined action be exempted from responsibility? This seems to presume a meaning of responsibility that exceeds practical purpose.

    For example, let's presume the law says anyone responsible for killing another person must be imprisoned. There is no question that John killed Paul with a knife. Therefore John must be imprisoned. John can argue that he was predetermined by God to kill Paul, that it wasn't his fault but it was societies fault, that he was ordered to do it by his general, or that he was tricked into doing it. Those considerations are outside the law as the law is stated. As long as in fact John is known to have killed Paul, he's responsible for it (though possibly others were as well, such as said general) as must be imprisoned. The law may be overly stringent, but that's a problem with the law, not with John's responsibility.

    I don't believe in free will. I think our actions are predetermined (barring quantum acausality), but the determining causes are so complex as to be unpredictable. No matter -- responsibility still exists and other issues are immaterial.

    Likewise if our actions are random events. If it's my action, then I'm responsible for it, all questions of intent (or intentional) aside.
  5. Dec 24, 2005 #4


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    I looked up Hume's Fork:
    http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/distance/hume/images/comment1.html [Broken]

    Not sure I understand yet. Perhaps you can provide a better reference.

    DB - Regarding your question, is that something Hume wrote and if not who?

    You asked:
    I think the point of the original statement:
    Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I think the point to this statement is to examine dualism more so than to suggest how people might interpret responsibility.

    First, it is suggesting that if causal determinism is correct, if our actions are nothing more than the result of causally deterministic interactions of matter and energy, then people can't be held responsible for what they do because their actions are predetermined.

    Second, it is suggesting that if our actions are nothing more than random interactions of matter and energy (as opposed to causally deterministic) then people similarly can't be held responsible for their actions since their actions are the result of random interactions over which they have no control.

    In each case, the pre-existing assumption - that "we" are somehow different from the body we govern - is being tested. This isn't about responsibility as much as it's about dualism. The statement you've quoted uses "we are/are not responsible" as a tool to examine dualism, to examine the pre-existing assumption that we are somehow different from the body we inhabit.

    The real question I think this is examining is not "are we responsible for our own actions?" It is about, "does the mind have any causal affect on our brain/body?" If there is no mind that has a causal affect on our brain and hence on our actions, if the action of our brain is merely the interaction of either causally deterministic OR random interactions of matter and energy, then there is no reason to suggest the mind exists as anything more than an observer of a history that unfolds. In other words, if the mind has no causal affect on our actions, then we are only an observer in this body. If our actions are deterministic, our mind has no control over our actions. If our actions are random, our mind has no control over our actions. In either case our mind is only watching what happens.

    I'm not sure, but it sounds as if the person whom you're quoting is suggesting that dualism is real, that the mind is distinct from the body, and this mind has a causal affect on our brain/body.

    Obviously there are those who might argue with that. Thoughts?
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  6. Dec 25, 2005 #5


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    Hi. I'm a new member. My own view of freedom/free-will is based on Kant but modified somewhat. Kant's notion of the nature of a law was too intuitive and he didn't have an explicit model as to what constitutes a law. For him, a law just somehow necessitated states or events.

    My own, rather unscientific view is that a law is a 'bounded field of possibilities.' So it's not merely a field of possibilites but a 'bounded' one.
    For me, that dissolves Hume's Fork. Pure randomness doesn't exist IMHO.
    Yes, there's quantum indeterminacy between measuring 'position' and momentum of subatomic particles but whatever becomes of the particle once the superposition is lost, does not seem to result from pure randomness. There are limitations on how the particle evolves (See Schroedinger's equation).

    So my point is that it s not a choice between pure randomness and strict determinism but a 'bounded field of indeterminate possibilities,' where we act under the 'idea' of freedom and duty according the the 'form' of a law; The boundary of the law is the determinate feature where positive duty lies; the field within the boundary is the realm of 'choice' and rights; this is the region where we assume free choices from an indeterminate field of strategies. Thus, to act according to the 'form of the law,' is to act under the ideal assumption (unproven of course) of freedom with the parallel assumption that there is a determining boundary (determining where our positive duties lie). We assume the 'idea' of freedom within those bounds but it is a limited or bounded one.

    Kant assumed a deterministic universe. Again, IMO, both determinism and freedom are 'ideals.' Once we understand the ideal nature of both those premises, the seeming problems of choosing between strict determnism and randomness dissolve. We 'will' the idea of a deterministic boundary (but only as an idea) and consequently, we will, within that determinate boundary, our free choices. We can never however locate or measure absolute determinism or randomness, including it's practical analog, free-will.
    Sincerely, mrj
  7. Dec 26, 2005 #6


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    Hi mrj, welcome to the board.

    Regarding whether the possible outcome of some interaction is deterministic, random or "bounded" as you suggest seems quite reasonable and I'd agree we could go along with a 'bounded' outcome but that isn't really what the OP is about. It doesn't matter if we assume the result is determinate, indeterminate or 'bounded', the question regards one of responsibility and the assumption that there is a 'we' that can be responsible or is the entire outcome out of our hands?

    From Oregon State University:
    Ref: http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl302/distance/hume/images/comment1.html [Broken]

    I think the question is asking about the antecedent impression, that there is a 'we' that governs our actions. Is there a 'we' that is responsible, or has some causal influence on, the body.

    I believe the author of that statement was challenging the antecedent impression. I think they are either suggesting that the antecedent impression that there is a 'we' that has an influence on our body is incorrect and hence an illusion, or they are suggesting that duality is correct and the universe is not simply governed by either deterministic or random events (or bounded as you suggest). Looking again at the issue, I now think they may be arguing the former.
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  8. Dec 27, 2005 #7


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    Hume's Fork and responsibility

    Hi Q_Goest
    Thanks for your reply. My understanding of Hume's Fork is that if we as living beings are merely part of the causal chain and thus determined, then we are not responsible, which really means morally responsible, for our actions. If randomness inheres, then the same applies.

    So the question is: Is there a 'self' which interposes within the causal chain and thus to paraphrase Paul Feyerabend, 'initiate our own causal chains.' And that seems to be what we're asking. Is there a 'self' which intitiates its own causal chains and does that self have 'freedom?' Because without the assumption of freedom, morality is meaningless as far as i see. Or rather, if we are determined, morality becomes meaningless. The problem is, to what are we referring when we speak of the self. I didnt make myself clear in the first post but i believe, and agree with Kant, that we must 'assume' a self. But it's an ideal assumption, not one that we can locate empirically but one which is required if we're also going to assume freedom and subsequently, moral responsibility.

    So part of the statement, to quote the DB "Either are actions are determined, in which case we are not responsible for them..." is questioning whether or not we can assume a causal and thus 'free' self. But freedom cannot here be equated with randomness otherwise we're left with the same problem. That's why the assumption of a causal self is necessary. When I spoke of 'bounded freedom' above this is the range through which the self acts. That boundary is reason itself. What i mean is that we act (this is my own theory) from a field of potential reasons. The boundary for that field is un-reason or irrationality which in practical terms means we act through a range of possible strategies based upon (ideally) our best judgements in such a way as 'not-to-diminish' our field of reasons. A field of reasons can also be restated as a field of 'potential strategies.' In other words, we are behaving rationally if we maintain the integrity and scope of our field of potential strategies. If our field of reasons is dimininshed, i would refer to that as 'displacement.' It can be diminished through our own irrational behaviour or from outside influence, possibly from other agents. Actually, i'm getting too much into my own pet theory so I'll stop there.

    But yes, i do believe we are responsible, morally that is. And that responsibility is assumed by the supposition of a free self, interposed into the so-called causal chain. But again, i would like to stresst that it is my belief that both 'determinism and freedom' are ideal assumptions and both are unprovable. The synthesis of determinism and randomness, the practical analogue of which is to be found in the 'self,' that is the free but rationally bounded self, disposes with that fork. At least, that's the way i see it.
    Sincerely, mrj
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