What is Determinism?
Determinism is the belief in the reliability of cause and effect. We are so used to living in a deterministic universe that it would be difficult to imagine anything else.
But let’s try. Suppose we had a dial that let us adjust the determinism/indeterminism of our universe. When we turn it all the way to deteminism, I pick an apple from the tree and I have an apple in my hand. We turn the dial a little bit toward indeterminism and now if I pick an apple, I might find an orange or banana or some other random fruit in my hand. Turn the dial again, and when I try to pick an apple I find a kitten in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or a glass of milk. One more adjustment toward indeterminism — when I pick an apple gravity reverses!
We need a deterministic universe. In fact, determinism is at the root of all our freedoms, because without it we could never reliably do anything, like pick an apple.
All of science presumes there is a rationality to how things work. By observation we discover reliable patterns of behavior, like the effects of gravity and how specific germs cause certain diseases. This knowledge gives us greater control of ourselves and our environment. We can create vaccines to prevent illness. We engineer buildings that resist earthquakes. We rotate our crops to keep the soil productive. All of our knowledge and all of our control rests upon the reliability of causes and their effects.
But there is another side to determinism that really bothers people. If cause and effect are perfectly reliable, then the future can only unfold in a single way. This bothers us because it makes us feel like the future is out of our control.
But that is an illusion. To be true, determinism must include all causes, and one of those causes is us. The 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.
What Are We?
We are purposeful causal agents in a deterministic universe. Like any other biological organism, we come into this world with a built-in purpose: to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And, more so than most biological organisms, we have evolved a complex brain that helps us adapt our behavior to our environment and to adapt our environment to our own needs.
We learn, we plan, we imagine, we evaluate and, most importantly, we choose.
Modern neuroscience helps us understand how our brains operate. Specialized areas automatically convert sensory data into our experience of sight and sound. Other areas store emotional values associated with judgment. Still others provide conscious awareness of our thoughts and movements. A lot of what happens in the brain happens beneath our conscious awareness. But however we “slice and dice” the underlying functions, it will always be the case that “that which is us” is also “that which chooses”.
As a living species, we humans hunt, fish, and clear ground to 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.
In short, we cause stuff, we make stuff happen. And we do these things for a purpose: to survive and thrive as individuals, as societies, and as a species.
What is Free Will?
Within a deterministic universe, we decide what we will do. Choosing is a mental process that takes place within us. We begin with several options, evaluate them, and choose the one we feel is best. The choice is our will at that moment. We call this ability to make choices for ourselves “free will”.
The “free” distinguishes our own decisions from cases where someone forces us to do what they want, against our will. In those cases, our will is not free, but subordinate to theirs.
When forced against our will, we are not held responsible for our actions. A dramatic example occurred after the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013. The bombers hijacked a car and forced the driver at gunpoint to aid them in their escape. Because the driver was not acting of his own free will, he was not charged with “aiding and abetting” the criminals.
This ordinary distinction, between a decision we make for ourselves and a choice forced upon us, is the meaning of “free will” that everyone understands.
Free Will Is Deterministic
The mental process of choosing is deterministic. If we have two options, and one of them seems better to us than the other, then that’s the one we choose. And if someone knew us well enough, they might even predict our choice in advance. But we cannot know for certain what we will choose until we’ve considered our options and made our choice. (If we are already certain at the outset, then no choosing takes place).
Our choices are the product of our own reasons and feeling, our own beliefs and values, our own genetic dispositions, and our own prior experience. These are things that make us uniquely us. The influences that we’ve acquired over the years have been incorporated into who we are in the present. And it is who we are that makes the choice.
Our choice is clearly determined, and, absent external coercion, it is determined by us.
Determinism Includes Free Will
Ordinary free will is compatible with ordinary determinism. We can map this out explicitly: (1) Our prior experiences and our prior choices determine who we are at the time we make a new choice. (2) When choosing, it is who we are, our own reasons and our own values, that determine our choice. (3) When we act upon that choice our actions determine what happens next.
As you can see, the “chain of reliable causation” is never broken, even as we decide for ourselves what we will do.
Ordinary determinism and ordinary free will coexist naturally. Every decision we make of our own free will is both autonomous and deterministic. It is authentically made by us, for our own purpose and reasons. And our own purpose and reasons, as they are at the time of our decision, reliably determine which option we choose.
Myths of Incompatibility
The myths of incompatibility arise from the logical deduction that, if everything is reliably caused, then the future can unfold only one way. Thinking of the future as something already determined creates the illusion that we are not in control. And this spooky spectre scares some people into jumping to irrational conclusions.
But just keep in mind that in a deterministic universe we remain the deciders and choosers of what we will do. There is nothing other than “that which is us” that is making our choices (unless, of course, it is “that which is someone else” holding a gun to our head).
Back to the ghost stories. When we dualistically view ourselves as “victims” of reliable causation, determinism no longer seems so friendly. The threat of being “enslaved” by causation itself leads some people to seek an escape. And that leads to a menagerie of odd viewpoints.
The religious dualists invoke the soul, an eternal spiritual essence, a gift from God, that is supernaturally immune to cause and effect.
The secular dualists, on the other hand, appeal to some form of randomness or quantum mechanics, thinking that adding a little indeterminism into the mix might help.
The fatalists, who call themselves “hard determinists”, bitterly embrace the “truth” that they “lack any control over their lives”. And like the guy who recently quit smoking, they go about evangelizing their despair, trying to gain comfort by making everyone else as miserable as they are.
New to the scene are the “soft-hearted” fatalists (“free will skeptics”) who claim to bring salvation from guilt and moral responsibility. Since everything is inevitable they assert that no one can be blamed or held responsible for anything they do.
What all of these theories share is a presumption that we must be free of reliable cause and effect before we can be said to be “truly” free. They all insert this requirement into their definition of “free will”. This forces them to either hold to free will at the expense of determinism or hold to determinism at the expense of free will.
Meanwhile, most of us ordinary folk use the ordinary meaning of free will and the ordinary meaning of determinism without the illusion of conflict.