Some people find determinism scary. If cause and effect are perfectly reliable, then the future can only unfold in a single inevitable way. It makes us feel as if the future is already written and that we are no longer in control of our lives. But this is only an illusion.
The illusion occurs when we view ourselves as somehow separate from causation, as if we were its victims, with no will of our own, as if the forces of nature were predetermining what we must do. And no one wants to feel like a passive actor following a script, like puppets forced to act against our will, or like robots controlled by someone or something else.
But don’t lose heart. It is only an illusion. There is no separation between us and causation. The physical laws of nature don’t just hold atoms together and keep the planets in orbit. They also keep our blood running, give power to our muscles, and provide the neurological framework in which we think and feel.
Those mental processes, by which we learn and plan and imagine and evaluate and choose, well, that’s all us. Like all biological organisms, we come into this world with a purpose, to survive and thrive. And to that end we change ourselves and our environment as needed. We acquire new skills. We hunt, fish, clear ground and grow crops. We build roads and bridges. We join to form communities, states, and nations. We set our foot on the moon and even raise the temperature of our planet. We cause stuff. We make stuff happen.
You’ve probably heard about causal chains. Well, all of the prior causes in the chain bump into us and stop. We are not passive conduits of prior causes. We bend prior causes to our own purposes and choose for ourselves what comes next.
Are our decisions inevitable? Sure. If we have two options, and one of them seems better to us than the other, then we will choose the better option. Why would we do otherwise? Our process of choosing involves our own reasons and feeling, beliefs and values, genetic disposition and personal history. These things do not force us against our will, they are us. Choosing is a deterministic mental process by which we reduce multiple options to a single choice. And that choice is our own will, our intent for the future.
Now that we have a better idea of what inevitability is about, how shall we put the idea of inevitability to practical use?
Well, here’s the thing, because deterministic inevitability is pretty much everywhere and in every thing, its own ubiquity makes it irrelevant. It cannot come down on one side or another of any practical issue. And there is no scenario where the fact of inevitability helps us to make any decision. So the wisest thing we can do about inevitability is to acknowledge it and then ignore it.
There are no helpful implications that can be drawn from the fact of inevitability. And the implications some people wish to draw are usually falsely derived by mental errors.
1) Knowing that our choice will be inevitable cannot help us make any decision. If we knew which choice was inevitable, we wouldn’t have to choose in the first place. But we never know what our decision will be until we make it. After our decision, if we reflect upon our thinking, we may see how our reasons and feelings inevitably led us to this choice. But we still had to go through that evaluation of our options to get there. The fact of inevitability is never helpful.
2) There is nothing we can do about inevitability. If we’re choosing between A and B, and it starts to look like A will be our inevitable choice, can we decide, in spite, to choose option B instead? Well, if we do then our spite causes option B to be inevitable. So now we have to choose option A again to spite inevitability, but then … etc. It’s an infinite loop. We can’t do anything to avoid inevitability, because whatever we do will have been inevitable.
3) Some people mistakenly think that deterministic inevitability removes free will. But, here we are, thinking and choosing what we will do next. We cannot simply sit back and watch the inevitable happen, because our choices cause what happens next, and choosing to sit and wait is also a choice that changes what happens next! What becomes inevitable is unavoidably still in our own hands. Free will does not mean “freedom from causation”. It just means that we make our own decisions for ourselves. If someone forces us to choose or to act against our will, then our will is subjugated by theirs, and is not free. That is all that “acting of our own free will” really means, that it is truly us making the call.
4) Some people think that inevitability means that no one should be held responsible for what they do. But that would be crazy. If everything is inevitable, then inevitability will come down equally on both sides of every issue — again, inevitability is useless by its ubiquity. If the crime was inevitable then so would be the penalty. We hold people responsible for criminal acts because their actions harm others. To prevent further harm we apply a just penalty. A just penalty seeks to (a) repair the harm done to the victim, (b) correct the offender’s future behavior, (c) protect society from further harm until the behavior is corrected, and (d) do no more than is reasonably necessary to accomplish (a), (b), and (c). Anything beyond that cannot be justified.
5) The false belief that inevitability is an external force in control of our destiny is called “fatalism”. It preaches that we have no control, that all of our choices are already made for us, and that our will is only a rider on the bus being driven by inevitability. Fatalism encourages apathy, destroys morale, discourages autonomy, and undermines moral responsibility. Fatalism is morally corrupting. Unfortunately, there are many determinists who, intentionally or unintentionally, spread such a philosophy. To recognize it, keep in mind that in order to be valid, determinism must include ALL sources of causation, and one of them is us. Any determinism that excludes or minimizes human agency is fatalistic.
The belief in the reliability of cause and effect underlies all of the practical sciences. These sciences bring us knowledge of specific causes of specific effects. And that knowledge gives us greater control of ourselves and our environment.
But the fact of inevitability is not useful knowledge. It is like a constant that always appears on both sides of every equation, that can be safely subtracted from both sides without affecting the results. The wisest thing we can do is just acknowledge it and then ignore it. At best it is a useless fact. At worst it’s misuse causes false conclusions and confusion, even in the most intelligent minds.