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The Spike [or Victoria University College Review 1961]


It has been said that the dispute between libertarians and determinists is not a real one — I intend to argue that this is not so. To do this I shall consider the characteristics of unreal disputes and then the nature of the disputes between the libertarian and the determinist.

When people say a dispute is unreal they are not usually clear just what they mean by this word. They mean, perhaps, that the dispute cannot be settled one way or the other, or that it is about the use of words rather than about the world, or that it is unimportant : but if we tried to accept all these criteria for unreal disputes most arguments would be seen to be both real and unreal. Disputes about how a word is in fact used can be readily settled but are not about things, and, at least sometimes, unimportant; the question of God's existence is not just about words, is important, but may be impossible to settle.

It is rather that an unreal dispute is a badly conducted one, one which cannot be settled because the opponents do not understand why they differ and so try to convince each other by inappropriate arguments — they argue as if they knew what sort of considerations would decide the argument but in fact do not allow any such considerations to decide it. Let us consider an example — suppose two people, A and B, were arguing about whether a certain publication was a book or a magazine: it might be the case that agreement can be reached once B knows a few more facts about the publication. He thought it was a book merely because he did not know that a similar publication appeared at monthly intervals. Such a dispute is a typically real one and can be settled by finding out what are the facts. But an argument may arise even when A and B know all there is to know about this publication and understand thoroughly the use of the words book and magazine. The reason for their difference of opinion is that the publication they are considering has two of the characteristics of books (stiff covers, one author), and two of the characteristics of magazines (appears every month, read by flappers).

Since the difficulty is due to this conflict of criteria it can be settled only by improving the accepted ways of distinguishing books from magazines — A may explain that the criteria for magazines should be more precisely stated. The author of this publication has, he admits, published a novel every three months for some time but he has not yet sold yearly subscriptions. If the dispute is carried on in this way, with A and B both understanding why they differ, it is likely that they will reach agreement — and such a dispute is a real one.

It is, I admit, an argument about what A and B should call this publication, about whether they should say it is a book or not, but it is also about whether it is a book or not. The difference between these two questions is over-emphasized by simpleminded seekers after truth. A dispute about what to call an object seems to them trivial, merely about words, to be decided arbitrarily. This is sometimes the case but more often it is not so. Such people may introduce unreality into the dispute by their misunderstanding of the issue. They may argue like this:

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B: Let's say it isn't a book because then it won't get an import licence and such trash shouldn't be imported.'

A: 'But it is a book and it's wrong to lie even for useful purposes.'

A fails to see that this particular publication calls for a new ruling on how to distinguish books from magazines and that it is not possible to decide how this new ruling should go simply by a closer consideration of the object and of how the word book has been used in the past. He thinks that all arguments are either about the facts or about what we shall decide to do — that since this is a factual argument it must be settled by discovering the truth and that considerations of consequence can never help us to discover the truth. B on his side exaggerates by sounding as if such a problem can be decided by considering the future only.

An argument of this conflict of criteria type must take note of all three aspects. They are :

1— The way people have till now used the words 'book' and 'magazine'.
2— The characteristics of this publication and of other publications that have appeared in the past and of those that will probably appear in the future.
3— The consequences of redrawing the distinction between books and magazines in a more precise or in a different way.

Since a classification dispute is about words and objects, 1 and 2 must be considered together. For the question to be asked under 1 and 2 is, 'Is this publication sufficiently like what people are in the habit of calling " books " to justify us in calling it a "book"?' To answer this question we must examine the use of the word 'book' and the characteristics of this publication. We must examine not only this publication, but also the characteristics of others, past, present and to come. For if we have to amend the criteria for distinguishing books from magazines in order to settle this argument it is desirable that our work should not be wasted; it should last, should be useful in resolving future disputes.

There are two kinds of consequences for us to consider, the logical and the practical. If we decide to call our publication a magazine on the grounds that its author publishes a book every three months this may mean that many publications hitherto called books should now be called magazines — or that many other publications will become borderline cases. Both these would be undesirable logical consequences. A practical consequence would be that many desirable publications will now be classified as magazines and so be subject to import restrictions.

So far I hope to have shown that a dispute of this criteria amending type is not merely about words (factor 2), and is not usually trivial (factor 3), and is not to be settled arbitrarily, since it should be settled by weighing the various factors indicated under my headings 1, 2, 3. However, some might still want to deny the reality of the dispute on the grounds that it is never possible to be sure one has found the right solution; there is no final court of reference by which A can be sure B is right — or vice versa. I thoroughly disagree with such a use of the word real'. Most of the interesting disputes have to be settled in ways such as I have outlined. Many factors have to be considered and these all influence the decision, but no facts dictate the decision.

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It is, of course, not at all clear in detail what 'real' means, but at least this much is clear — it is a pro word. A real dispute is one worth arguing — interesting disputes are also worth arguing — so it would be odd if all the interesting ones were unreal! Disputes that are definitely settle able by looking up a dictionary or turning the light on are often important but never worth arguing when quick and definite means of settling them are available.

I have examined this type of argument at length because I think the difference of opinion between the determinist and the libertarian is of this nature. It is clear that most people are in the habit of saying that they perform certain actions of their own free will. Usage is definitely on the side of the libertarian, but the determinist claims that this is no longer an appropriate way to talk. The progress of science has showed that all our actions have certain other characteristics which demonstrate that they are not freely chosen. Since we cannot deny that some of our actions also have characteristics in virtue of which we would normally say we acted freely, this famous dispute is one of the conflict-of-criteria type. It is then, if I have succeeded in making my point, a real dispute, and should be considered under the three headings I have just outlined.