Is Determinism Superstitious Nonsense?

Control

Freedom is the ability to do what we want. At the moment, I simply want to type my thoughts into this document. But suppose my keyboard were unreliable. Suppose that whenever I pressed a key, some random, unpredictable letter appeared. I could no longer control what I typed, and my freedom to type what I want would be gone.

My freedom, to do anything at all, requires reliable cause and effect. Without reliable causation, the effects of my actions are unpredictable. If the effects of my actions are unpredictable, I cannot control what I do. If I cannot control what I do, I have no freedom to do anything.

Reliable causation gives us predictability. Predictability gives us control. Control gives us the ability to do what we choose. So, imagine our surprise when the hard determinist tells us that reliable causation removes our control and eliminates our freedom.

“Determinism” versus “Fatalism”

The term “fatalism” refers to a belief that events in our lives are beyond our control. Which raises the question: If we are not in control, then who or what is? In ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the goddesses of Fate and Fortune controlled the destinies of mortals, who were at the mercy of their whims and connivances. This, of course, is superstitious nonsense.

However, the term “determinism” may also refer to a belief that events in our lives are beyond our control. And it raises the same question: If we are not in control of our own choices and actions, then who, or what is? In the case of determinism, the control is supposedly vested in the past and in the laws of nature.

But, just like the goddesses of Fate and Fortune, neither the past nor the laws of nature exist as entities that conspire to control us against our will. The past and the laws of nature have no interests, no whims, no desires. So, when determinism is presented as something that controls us then that too is superstitious nonsense.

What is the Past?

The past is a history of the present, recorded in memories, diaries, and history books.

From the day we are born, each of us participates in the creation of our own past. New parents, awakened at 2AM by their infant’s cry for food, learn quickly that Junior is a unique individual who negotiates for control with his physical (crib) and social (parents) environment.

Control happens here and now, in the present. From the present our memory recalls past events. From the present we imagine possible futures and make plans. The past “exists” only in our memory and the future “exists” only in our imagination. Only the present exists in empirical reality.

So, the notion that the past is some external entity, with its own interests and desires, conspiring to control what you think and do, is superstitious nonsense.

What are the Laws of Nature?

The physical universe consists of objects and the forces between them. The natural interactions of these objects and forces cause events.

Science looks for consistent patterns of behavior. When patterns are reliable enough to predict behavior, science describes them metaphorically as “laws”, “rules”, or “principles”. For example, we have the “laws of physics” and the “principles of psychology”.

Objects behave differently according to how they are organized. Hydrogen and oxygen are two separate gases, but when organized into molecules of H2O they become water. The rules describing the behavior of gases no longer apply, and the rules describing the behavior of fluids must be used.

There are three levels of organization by which new causal mechanisms with new rules have emerged.

1. Inanimate objects behave passively in response to physical forces. Place a ball on a slope and it will always roll downhill, governed by the law of gravity.

2. Living organisms are biologically driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Place a squirrel on that same slope and he may go up, down, or in any other direction where he expects to find his next acorn. His behavior is affected by gravity but is no longer governed by it. It is instead governed by his biological need to find food and a mate.

3. Intelligent species have evolved a brain capable of imagining, planning, and choosing. They can behave deliberately, by calculation and reason. While still affected by physical forces and biological drives, they are no longer governed by them. They can choose for themselves not just what they will do, but also when, where and how they will do it. And whenever someone chooses for themselves what they will do, while free of coercion and undue influence, it is called “free will”. The opposite of free will is a choice imposed upon them by someone or something else.

So, we have three distinct causal mechanisms: physical, biological, and rational. Objects of each type, whether inanimate, living, or intelligent, operate according to a set of rules unique to its level of organization, and having a different dominant causal mechanism.

Control, in each case, is located in the causal mechanism itself. With inanimate objects, the control is located in the objects and in the physical forces between them. With living organisms, the control is located in the biological mechanisms. With intelligent species, the control is located in the reasoning mechanism.

The “laws of nature” describe these mechanisms and help us to understand and use them to predict behavior. But the “laws of nature” are not themselves a causal mechanism. Nor are these laws entities that conspire to manipulate us against our will. That too is superstitious nonsense.

The Domain of Human Influence

We are three things. We are physical objects that can interact with other physical objects. We are living organisms biologically driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. And we are an intelligent species, with a brain capable of imagining possibilities, evaluating the likely outcomes of our options, and choosing for ourselves what we will do.

We cause things to happen in the world in order to satisfy our own needs and our own interests, for ourselves, for our society, and for our species.

A lot of what happens in the world is beyond our control. Earthquakes, tornados, droughts and floods, are not things we can directly control. But understanding the causes of these events helps us to predict them and control our reactions to them.

But a lot of what happens in the world is controlled by us, by our choices and our actions. The causal mechanisms behind these choices are found within us and are integral to who and what we are.

Each of us, in the here and now, decides what will become our past and causally determines what will become our future. 

The notion that this control is somehow external to us, that it exists not in us but in some other entity, is superstitious nonsense.