Determinism is not a thing you can trick.

Determinism is defeated again!

When we talk about determinism, there are some things that people say that don’t make much sense but are hard to understand. After a while, you start to get the idea that people operate under a strange mental model which leads to incorrect reasoning about determinism.

From what I can tell, there is this notion that determinism is an actual thing that can be defeated or broken if you “go against it.” They seem to think that determinism is something external to the individual that controls them and that they can challenge it for supremacy over their “choices.” They think determinism literally is Jasmine from the show Angel and that we could fight against her in some way. In short, they confuse the metaphor for the reality.

Determinism is not an actual thing that you can defeat, break, challenge, fight or trick. It’s a way to modelize reality. The same is true of free will. We do imagine free will as being a soul or a spark or some other concrete thing, but all that the term “free will” actually means is that we can make choices (that if you turned back the clock, you could end up doing something different). And all that “determinism” means is that you really can’t.

What we’re basically arguing about is what it means for a human being to do something. But the action exists whether you agree or disagree on what it means. The issue of meaning supervenes upon the issue of what is actually happening. The concept of choice is a superfluous, cancerous growth which sprouted off of our language. There really is no actual thing called a “choice,” whether you believe it exists or not: at best, it is only an interpretation of reality.

Just to be clear, I am not saying here that the determinism/free will issue is not important. Exposing the fallacies of free will proponents and demanding that society be structured in accordance with deterministic principles is very important (and will probably be one of the greatest human rights issues of the 21st century). But it’s important to keep in mind the level at which this debate is taking place, so people stop thinking determinism or free will are something more than just models of reality. Likewise, atheism and anarchism are just models of reality, but they are still important to the individual.

There is a common misconception that determinism is defined by being predictive. This leads both to the belief that determinism cannot be true if you can’t predict the future, and to the belief that you can “beat” determinism by refusing to follow the prediction. But determinism has nothing to do with predictions, except to imply as a corollary that they are not logically impossible.

Again, determinism and free will are not about what our actions will be but about what our actions mean. Determinism does imply that human exceptionalism is delusional, that blame is invalid, that revenge is pointless, that inequality and punishment are unjust. But it does not imply that we can predict, or even that our level of technology will ever be sufficient to do so (especially given the feedback loop problem). Determinism and free will are mental models of reality which are true or false regardless of the possibility of prediction. Indeed, any apparatus used to predict the future would itself exist within the framework of determinism or free will.

There is no way to “trick” determinism by “choosing” to do something else, because determinism does not have a “predicted future.” There is no way to “choose” something you won’t “choose.” Just to express this is to demonstrate why it is fallacious. Events unfold according to causal laws, and you can’t “break” causality.

So stating that “determinism means we can’t change the future” is true but irrelevant, since whatever happens will happen. There are no actions that are “supposed to happen” or actions that are “not supposed to happen”; “supposed to happen” implies a plan or expectation, and all that determinists expect is that future events will follow causally from past events. No event is dictated by some outside source.

The law of gravity provides a simpler but still relevant example. When we release a ball, we expect it to fall to the ground. This is due to the law of gravity as applied to the ball and the Earth. We expect that releasing the ball from being held up will cause it to travel towards the center of Earth’s gravitational field unless it is stopped by some other force (e.g. normal force, buoyancy, etc). If the ball stopped in mid-air for no apparent reason, we would not thereby deduce that the ball has “chosen” to stop. We would instead look for other deterministic causes such as an air vent, an invisible surface, or some property of the ball (perhaps it is filled with helium?).

Some may argue that the ball cannot “choose” but that humans can because they have brains. But there is nothing particular about brains that makes them immune to the laws of causality. Like everything else we see, they are made of matter and subject to material causes.

An error similar to the “cannot change the future” is to claim that determinists are fatalists, that they have no reason to do anything, or that social change is impossible. And yet this is clearly false. We live in a deterministic universe, and yet we do have reasons to act, social change is possible, and most of us are not fatalists. This is because under determinism nothing is “supposed to happen.”

Indeed, the belief in fatalism cannot be compatible with determinism, but can only be compatible with free will. This may seem like a surprising statement, but think about it: to be a fatalist means to exclude oneself from causality, and a person who believes that they are part of causality could never be a fatalist because they would clearly see that they themselves are part of the system which produces future events. What I say and do affects the people around me, which affects the people around them, and so on and so forth.

You might say this is just common sense. But from the free will perspective, the story changes; by definition free will describes the human being’s “choices” as being a break in causality. If this is true, then what I say and do may not affect anyone else at all, because that would be an instance of cause and effect. If other people’s decisions are not based on material causes, then they may not be based on anything I say or do. You might say that this is absurd, but this is a direct consequence of free will.

So just from a basic analysis, we can conclude that a belief in free will is logically more compatible with fatalism than a belief in determinism.

Again, I think the accusation of fatalism makes some sense if people are thinking of determinism as this thing that is guiding and dictating events from an outside perspective. It seems pretty similar to the belief in God, and Christians are subject to accusations of fatalism for the same reason. If God is somehow in control of everything, then how are we active agents of our own destiny? But the obvious difference is that determinism is not a being that controls everything for some mysterious purpose, it is not dictating anything, and there is no script somewhere in another dimension written by some eldritch abomination that says we are “supposed to” do this or that.

This whole concept of “tricking” determinism also reminds me of folkloric stories about the Devil. Quebec, as well as many other cultures, has a tradition of stories about people meeting and outwitting Satan, who is often portrayed as a bumbling fool. I can’t help but think that perhaps people instinctively think of determinism in an anthropomorphic way like they do the Devil.

5 thoughts on “Determinism is not a thing you can trick.

  1. Cammy April 27, 2014 at 17:53 Reply

    Does that mean “self-determination” is a contradiction in terms, then?

    I am also not very clear on exactly what determinism IS, here – this post describes mostly what determinism is NOT. But I see you’ve written other posts on determinism and free will so I’ll read those.

    • Francois Tremblay April 27, 2014 at 18:11 Reply

      To me, being “self-determined” has to do with your motivations coming from your own beliefs or values. Although I don’t believe in the “self,” I treat it more as a metaphor for internal motivations.

  2. Cammy April 27, 2014 at 18:50 Reply

    Ah, ok – thanks! I’ll keep it in mind as I rethink this topic.

  3. cyanidecupcake April 27, 2014 at 21:37 Reply

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