The Determinist’s Dilemma

Determinism is derived from the presumption that all events are reliably determined by prior events. Ironically, this is a presumption that everybody already agrees with. When something significant happens that affects our lives, we want to know “Why did this happen?” The question itself assumes that there was some cause behind the event. And we want to know what that cause is, because if the event was good, we’d like it to happen more often. But if it was something bad, we want to prevent it from happening again, if we can.

A world of reliable cause and effect gives us some control over what happens. Knowing the causes of disease has been the key to finding ways to prevent or cure them. And everybody wants that. So, why would anyone object to determinism?

If we stopped there, and simply explained determinism as a belief in the reliable causation of events, then there would be no problem. The only objection would be “Why bother to state the obvious?”, because everyone takes reliable cause and effect for granted.

The problem is that determinists often don’t stop there. Instead they pile on a lot of extra implications that cannot be justified by the facts. They tell people that determinism means that people have no control over their own choices and actions. They tell people that they have no free will and no responsibility. They tell people that they didn’t cause what they just finished causing, because it was caused by other causes, prior to them, and that these other causes did the “real” causing.

Since none of those implications can be reasonably derived from the fact of living in a world of reliable cause and effect, determinists should stop making these claims.

For example, a woman goes into a restaurant, sits down at a table, and looks over the menu. When the waiter comes over, she orders a meal from the menu. Now, most people would say that she chose her meal from the menu. But some determinists claim that, since her choice was reliably caused by prior events dating back to the Big Bang, that she never had a choice, even though she just made a choice from a menu full of choices.

Or they may say that she only had the “illusion” of making a choice. Which would mean that we, who watched her do it, must also be having an illusion. This doesn’t make sense.

And it is precisely those types of claims, made by many determinists, that make sane people think that determinists are crazy, because those statements contradict empirical observations of objective reality.

But even worse than sounding crazy, when determinists claim that, due to reliable cause and effect, no one can ever be held responsible for their actions, determinists are rightly seen as morally irresponsible persons, who are doing real harm.

Note: For a detailed analysis of the determinism “versus” free will paradox, see my earlier post “Free Will: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It“.

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