Is Determinism a Delusion?

Personally, I believe we live in a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect. This is a good thing. If events that affect our lives have reliable causes, then we may discover those causes and perhaps control those events. Polio used to cripple thousands of children each year until a vaccine was created to convey immunity. Knowing the virus that caused the disease and knowing that the body’s immune system could be primed to fight the virus by vaccination has made polio a rare disease.

Other events, like earthquakes and tornadoes are impossible to prevent. But knowing the causes helps us to predict when they are about to happen, so that we might at least be better prepared for them.

So, reliable causation is a good thing. Knowing the causes of events helps to put us in the driver’s seat.

We ourselves are a collaborative collection of many reliable causal mechanisms. Our heart pumps blood through our circulatory system, providing oxygen to all of our cells. Electrochemical reactions in our nervous system enable us to imagine, evaluate, and choose what we will do. When these systems are unreliable, our mental and physical health suffers. So, again, we benefit from reliable causal mechanisms.

This reliability is often conveyed by the notion of the “laws of nature”. Science observes reliable patterns of behavior that appear consistently in natural objects. When they are consistent enough to help us to predict what they will do next, like when an apple always falls toward the center of the Earth, we refer to it as a “law of nature”, in this case the “law of gravity”.

The Physical sciences, like physics and chemistry, describe the behavior of inanimate objects, that respond passively to physical forces. The Life sciences, like biology and botany, describe the behavior of living organisms that behave purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. The Social sciences, like psychology and sociology, describe the behavior of intelligent species that behave deliberately. They imagine different ways to accomplish that biological purpose, evaluate their options, and choose how they will go about meeting these biological needs. This is where morality and responsibility come into play.

And we find ourselves as specific packages of these laws of nature, as if these laws, through us, had eyes and ears and a brain to think with.

My point is that neither reliable causation, nor the laws of nature, are external to us. They are as much us as they are any other object or force in the physical universe. We have causal agency because we are constructed from reliable causal mechanisms. We are not merely subjects of the laws of nature, but we are also those laws in action. And when we choose to act, to do something for ourselves or others, we are forces of nature causing changes in the real world.

So, where is the delusion I mentioned in the title? The delusion is when we dualistically view ourselves as separate from, and thus victims of, reliable causation and the laws of nature.

Determinism to many people is the perverse viewpoint that we have no control over our lives, that we have no choices, that our destiny is already determined by things that are not us, that we have no causal agency, that we are only passive passengers on a bus driven by something that does not include us in any meaningful way. Because none of these things are true in empirical reality, such views constitute a delusion.

So, if you are one of those people who go around infecting others with this delusion, you should probably knock it off, because it is a false notion.

For a more detailed look at the topic of determinism, see “Determinism: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It“.