Determinism And Its Antecedents

     Were you aware that the hottest issue in the physical sciences today is whether there’s really such a thing as causality? Actually, it’s been the hottest issue for several decades already, ever since the codification of measurement uncertainty and quantum level indeterminacy. Physicists struggle to work with quantum systems that defy classical conceptions of causality. Their departures from the cause-and-effect world to which we’re accustomed are terrifying. It’s one of the reasons so many physicists go insane.

     Didn’t know about the plague of insanity among physicists, did you? Not to worry, Gentle Reader; I made it up. But it does make for a good intro to a thorny subject.

     No one is perfectly sure why our macroscopic existence, in which things do appear to obey cause-and-effect rules, could have emerged from the chaotic, acausal realm of fundamental particles. Indeed, no one is perfectly sure that what the Standard Model of Quantum Physics calls “fundamental” particles really are fundamental and indivisible. Our ability to probe such things is limited by our own macroscopic nature. In peering into the quantum world, we must be satisfied with what we can infer from the patterns produced by our high-energy colliders.

     At our level, we know that causality is real. When the cue ball hits the target ball with this speed and at that angle, the two will travel thence in these ways. This voltage against that resistance will produce this current. A rocket of this mass, this fuel fraction, and that maximum thrust will fail to reach orbit. And so forth.

     From the predictability of such events arises the concept of determinism: the doctrine that all events in our phenomenological world, whether great or small, have specific and irresistible causes, whether or not we know them. Determinism was bruited about with special fervor by some of the early Marxist theorists, who held that one’s “class” determines everything of importance about one’s decisions and actions. Quite a number of persons who would not suffer to be called Marxists hold to the thesis as well. It was especially popular among FDR’s “Brain Trust.”

     Now, you might think that a belief in the reliability of cause-and-effect implies determinism, wouldn’t you? Especially in a “science type” like your humble Curmudgeon. But it is not so. Determinism, which in its religious garb goes by the title predestination, is a con job. It has, and has always had, a specific purpose wholly unrelated to any arguments over macrocausality versus quantum chaos.

     The purpose is the erasure of the concept of responsibility.

     Responsibility is premised on the concept of free will. In a deterministic universe where every event is determined by causes that cannot be gainsaid, human actions would be as thoroughly predetermined as the actions of billiard balls. Any “decisions” we might claim we make would be mere illusions, forced upon us by causes we can’t even remember, much less enumerate. And of course, if our actions are as predetermined as all other events, then we cannot justly be held responsible for them. Indeed, the concept of justice itself becomes indefensible.

     Yet our wills, the aspect of our sentience that makes our decisions, are free. External conditions may urge us in one direction or another. Hunger moves us to eat. Poverty impels us to seek income. Pain makes us flinch away from what inflicts it. But we can choose to ignore such motivators. Sometimes we even “lean into them.”

     The determinists counter that “free will” is an illusion, one we cherish because we want to believe ourselves the masters of our fates. (Of course, if they’re correct, it would imply that their arguments are also predetermined.) But the prize in the game is not who wins the argument; it’s in whether we will accept responsibility for our actions.

     The determinist rejects personal responsibility. It’s inherent in his creed. How can a man be responsible for an event predetermined by causes that might chain all the way back to Creation itself? Yes, his hand might have held and aimed the gun. His finger might have pulled the trigger. But all these things and their consequences unto the heat death of the universe were predetermined. Hang a man for what he could not, in the very nature of things, have prevented his hand and finger from doing? Never! It would be unjust!

     Was that a giggle I heard from you, Gentle Reader?

     Yes, it’s a mug’s game. A con job that requires the proclamation that the whole of the universe, from Time Zero to the end of all things, is mere clockwork. But it has an important point: it denies responsibility, in all its applications and manifestations.

     Why demand freedom, when your actions are predetermined? Why demand honesty, or reliability, or decency from others, when their actions are as predetermined as yours? Why demand justice, when justice presupposes personal responsibility? Sit down. Shut up. Obey. Yes, our actions are predetermined too, so don’t hold our tyrannies and perfidies against us. We can’t help them!

     These days, determinism is seldom proclaimed explicitly. No one goes to a “protest” with a sign that says “I Had To Write This And Bring It Here, So Don’t Blame Me!” Yet it lurks behind every attempt to exculpate a man for his actions. Its own axioms safeguard it against disproof. But accepting it would empty us of all that makes us human…and perhaps that is the true goal of those who advance it, explicitly or otherwise.

     Perhaps the ultimate act of choice is to choose to believe that we really, truly choose – that we are responsible for our choices and their consequences. It’s as individual a choice as any other. No one can make it for anyone else. Even making its importance clear to others is a daunting undertaking. But there is no other route to freedom.

     “Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.” – George Bernard Shaw


Skip to comment form

  1. It is indeed astonishing to me how the atheists use the “God can’t create Himself” argument as if we were still back in the Newtonian era.  Another great essay, Francis.

  2. This is why behavioral studies like psychology and medicine have so long argued about nature vs. nurture. That is, do I have diabetes because of my diet, or are diabetes and diet merely manifestations of some other genetically predisposed disease process?

    The current science believes that the nature vs. nurture debate is solved by realizing that most of it is a combination of genetic predisposition and choices. What if that same hypothesis applies to other endeavors as well?

  3. The Lagrange formulation of Physics sort of gets around causality by things going to their lowest energy levels. That is to say things things seem to know where to go. And all Physics today is formulated in the Lagrange or Hamiltonian formulation. In classical physics this was not really any different from Newton. Only in Quantum Mechanics the results are different.

    So what I am saying is that  causality does not seem fundamental.

    • Steve Walton on May 15, 2022 at 8:18 PM

    Once a few months back I related a theory to  you about the nature of the universe, which you dismissed as silly fantasy (and I don’t know that I disagree). But this business you relate here is right in line with it.

    If you posit that moving from one instantaneous frame of reality to the next involves a selection from an infinite range of possibilities, and then look at existence as your memory of where you’ve been, it can be said that you are where you are at this instant because you apprehended a selection of frames which made logical sense. Else, you would be insane. The future is completely open, and infinity is a big goddam place.

    1. Steve, I’m as comfy in Plato’s cave as anyone, but…come out to feel the sunshine now and then, why dontcha? 😉

        • Steve Walton on May 16, 2022 at 9:24 AM

        Oh, I’m out in the sunshine! I just am cursed with a driving need to understand how (definition of “engineer”, yah?). The interplay of free will, causality, and determinism and all the paradoxes of same brought me to this concept. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying planting the garden and tear-assing around in the woods on an ATV.

        Even if there is a God that laid all this out on a table, there are methods used. “Any sufficiently advanced technology appears to be magic” (paraphrased) and I have a need to understand the physics. I don’t think you want to believe that God used magic to put all this together.

        Once a broad hypothesis has been created, now it’s on to experimentation. Like variations on the tests that seem to clearly show that concentrated thought can influence the generation of random integers…

Comments have been disabled.