An Inchoate Universe: James's Probabilistic Underdeterminism

William James Studies 14 (1):54-83 (2018)
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In this paper, I challenge the traditional narrative that William James’s arguments against determinism were primarily motivated by his personal struggles with depression. I argue that James presents an alternative argument against determinism that is motivated by his commitment to sound scientific practice. James argues that determinism illegitimately extrapolates from observations of past events to predictions about future events without acknowledging the distinct metaphysical difference between them. This occupation with futurity suggests that James’s true target is better understood as logical determinism rather than causal determinism. This has consequences for James’s proposed alternative, which I call his probabilistic underdeterminism, a conception of the universe that is built on chance, choice, and a local teleology. All of this forms part of a broader criticism of the scientific practices of his day based on their widespread failure to acknowledge the distorting effects of observation on that which is observed.
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