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If we accept that molecular biology largely explains cognitive function deterministically, how can we be accountable?

Is determinism not inherently nihilist in that a person is a victim of circumstances and his urges so his own struggles come to nothing?

I am setting the issue of determinism being nihilist.

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    What do you mean by "held accountable?" I ask because we're raising the bar on the definition of cognition to the highest levels supported by biology, and accountability is a rather trivial concept to use if we hoist it up in the same way. – Cort Ammon Mar 29 at 22:18
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    I would hold people accountable for dangerous behaviors, regardless of what is causing it (for reasons of practicality and survival). – Bread Mar 29 at 22:22
  • Accountability (excuse me for the grammar mistake) would be the capacity to be held responsible. If you are accountable, you can be held responsible. – George Ntoulos Mar 29 at 22:22
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    @George Ntoulos That may be true legally in some states, but ethically and realistically speaking (i.e. philosophically), there is nothing that can prevent any employee from obeying their own conscience rather than their "boss". – Bread Mar 29 at 22:40
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What do you mean by "accountable"?

If you believe in a Christian god, then you probably believe that everyone is responsible for their actions and will be held accountable for those actions by God when they die. If, on the other hand, you subscribe to determinism, you might believe, as you suggest, that we are not responsible for our actions.

On a practical level, however, people are sometimes punished (held accountable) for things they might not even be responsible for. The argument is that the state needs to make an example out of people in order to discourage other people from engaging in illegal or reckless behavior.

According to this argument, people are expected to follow laws, molecular biology be damned. If you break the laws, the state holds you accountable.

People may also be punished in order to placate victims, or give them a sense of closure.

Taking it to an extreme, we also have scapegoating, where people who may be completely innocent are punished in order to divert attention from the real culprits.

So it boils down to a tug of war between morality and utilitarianism.

Then again, you asked "How," while I essentially answered "Why," so maybe I missed the gist of your question.

  • I subscribe neither to any deity nor to determinism. I can't understand what is God, theology deeply troubles me philosophically. What is God? How is He predisposed? etc. etc. etc. I am not atheist simply because of fashion. I am an agnosticist. Nonetheless I don't believe either we have enough knowledge to affirm everything is absolutely determined by its causes. If we were chemically programmed we would not have free will. – George Ntoulos Mar 29 at 22:58
  • I definitely agree with your next-to-last sentence. I do believe that our actions are influenced to an great, maybe overwhelming, degree by heredity, our environment, etc. However, I haven't heard any arguments that convince me that the universe is or is not deterministic. Though I personally hope it is not, it's hard to know which would actually be better. ;) – David Blomstrom Mar 29 at 23:08
  • If we were chemically programmed it would be nihilist. – George Ntoulos Mar 29 at 23:35
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Andrew Eshleman provides an answer to the first question: given determinism can we be accountable, that is, have moral responsibility.

In keeping with this focus on the ramifications of causal determinism for moral responsibility, thinkers may be classified as being one of two types: 1) an incompatibilist about causal determinism and moral responsibility—one who maintains that if causal determinism is true, then there is nothing for which one can be morally responsible; or 2) a compatibilist—one who holds that a person can be morally responsible for some things, even if both who she is and what she does is causally determined. In Ancient Greece, these positions were exemplified in the thought of Epicurus (341–270 BCE) and the Stoics, respectively.

The second question is whether causal determinism is nihilistic.

If causal determinism is true whether one is a nihilist or not, and how one feels about that, has also been causally determined. If causal determinism is true any argument for or against causal determinism or nihilism has been causally determined.

There doesn't seem to be much point in arguing given such a view of reality which may be an empirical justification to doubt that such views of reality are true.

An alternative might be indeterminism. See The Information Philosopher for one view on that position.


Eshleman, Andrew, "Moral Responsibility", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/moral-responsibility/.

  • What does causal determinism mean and the verb to be causally determined? Determinism is the school of philosophy that argues that everything that exists or happens is absolutely determined by its' causes. Deterministic as opposed to stochastic. Something stochastic can't be predicted other than being assigned a probability. If any input produces a certain output with 0 uncertainty our struggles would be fruitless. So we have no reason to actively try or drive our feelings somewhere. – George Ntoulos Mar 30 at 1:50
  • @GeorgeNtoulos Look at causal determinism as determinism. The "causal" part means that it comes from "secondary causation", that is, God, the first cause, was not involved in creating it or sustaining it that way. The Information Philosopher also uses words like "adequate determinism" which is not determinism. Things just happen regularly enough to make predictions. – Frank Hubeny Mar 30 at 11:30
  • @GeorgeNtoulos You wrote " So we have no reason to actively try or drive our feelings somewhere." But if determinism is true, it's not just that we have no reason--we also have no ability to actively try or drive our feelings somewhere. – Chelonian Mar 30 at 13:11
  • @Chelonian we Actually can try even if we are unable to. Struggles are just an illusion, a "pyrrhic" struggle (as in pyrrhic victory). This thought deppresses me. – George Ntoulos Mar 30 at 21:25
  • @GeorgeNtoulos It depends on what you mean by "we can try". I mean, we can't to do anything, including trying, if we are unable to do that thing. So, either we can try or we can't. But if what you mean by "we can try" is "some of us may engage in behavior in which we think we are trying", yes that happens. – Chelonian Mar 31 at 23:20

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