Do we fear determinism for the same reason we fear atheism?

A rambling post today. Fuzzy brained and foot loose!


  I was recently thinking about the concept of free will. It's an idea that has always bothered me, like a tickle at the back of the throat. I firmly believe in cause and effect. I firmly believe in the laws of physics and what they imply. So without an outside force, it makes sense that everything is controlled very directly by these laws. Including us. The logic behind it is fairly simple. I'm guessing it's the complexity of existence and the relative simplicity of our minds that makes choice such a plausible illusion. But an illusion is what it must be.


   This used to scare me. Deep down, I do not actively enjoy the idea of being so mundane and effectually predictable. Trapped. And in my mind, nothing special. Accepting that there's nothing beyond death was easy. Accepting the fact that I am a huge equation was much harder. After all, I chose what I valued and valued choice for itself.


  I spent a long time letting the idea sink past my emotions and into my more rational core. Eventually I decided that it didn't matter. How I make a choice, be it simply chemical predetermined or an active and separate process, matters much less than what my choice does. If my actions make the world better in some way my goal has been accomplished. And thinking back on this fear now, I can understand the desire to reject the idea of determinism altogether. Anything that removes our safety nets and makes us feel small tends to be met with the same resistance. Science gets the brunt of this reaction, but determinism falls right in with plenty of people.


   So with all this in mind, I wonder what other people think on the subject. Is it frightening to think of yourself as an eventuality? Has anyone come across anything contrary to the idea of determinism? Do we perhaps agree? Thoughts, please!

Views: 304

Tags: determinism, fate, free, will

Comment by Ron V on June 12, 2011 at 5:22pm

This is a very complex question that has volumes of philosophical discussion (as a start,

With that said, I have occasionally considered our behavior with respect to probabilistic mathematics- refer to

Personally, whether I think free will exists or whether it is an illusion, the implications of no free will frighten me no more than the implications of no god.

Comment by Philip Jarrett on June 12, 2011 at 6:23pm

I am reminded of Joe Pantoliano's character in The Matrix.  The steak still tastes the same. 

Comment by Kirsten on June 12, 2011 at 6:34pm

Thanks for the tip Greg, and good comments from all else as well.


Reading into the Stanford article was a little dry, though I know what they're talking about at the least. Probability may be the closest we can get to real modeling of human behavior though.


And reading up on compatibilism, I seem to fall into that category as well. 

Comment by Doug Reardon on June 12, 2011 at 6:49pm
I don't think it's an either/or choice, I think we are asking the wrong question and there is a "piece of the puzzle" of which we are unaware. For example physicists argued for decades whether light was a particle or a wave, but it was something else altogether.
Comment by Trevor Siemens on June 12, 2011 at 7:40pm
Nothing is going to change how small we are in the universe, and our brains are built to ignore such things so that we may do what we are programed to do.
Really the only way I see this as scary is if you are so absorbed with the notion that we are in fact actually important, that this contradict it.

Sometimes when I'm having issues, I think about how insignificant it is on the grand universal scale, but quickly return to the reality that my brain is making me think that it is important, and there's not much I can do about it. Honestly I don't think anyone has true "free will". Though breaking free from unacceptable social practices is a step in that direction. But we would not be subject to control emotion has over us if we really had free will, which isn't such a good thing.
Comment by Michael Edminster on June 12, 2011 at 8:52pm

I find it interesting that atheists still like to make their own decisions about the metaphysical nature of things.


As a non-theist and humanist I find discussions on things like determinism to be quite useless. It is just as much rooted in speculation and faith as the religions which I reject.

Comment by Philip Jarrett on June 12, 2011 at 10:17pm

"Deep down, I do not actively enjoy the idea of being so mundane and effectually predictable."


Determinism posits so many potentialities and outcomes that predictability is impossible.  

Both theism and determinism claim that 'everything happens for a reason.'  Theism places that reason in the future and is in the hands of God...flipping cause and effect so that the effect precedes the cause.  Determinism places the reason in the past...cause leads to effect...and does not require validation through superstition and thus is the more rational of the two approaches.  It is better to be rational than irrational, of course.  However, I would suggest that individual identity pre-existing life is quite similar to the theist belief that the soul (whatever that means) exists from the moment of union between egg and sperm.  Existence precedes Essence.

Physics does not make good philosophy, quantum physics does not even make good sense.  In spite of an ego much, much larger than my penis, I'm still humble enough to admit that there are people who know more than I do on every subject.  I limit myself to the best minds in a given field as determined by education (doctorate level) , publication (in peer reviewed journals) and vocation (tenure at the best universities).  Newtonian Physics is still a mystery to me and quantum physics is so far beyond me I don't even claim a good layman's knowledge of the subject. 

I'm reminded of Sherlock Holmes, when informed by Watson that the earth moves around the sun.  His response was, since this information could not have any bearing on his work, he would do his best to forget it instead of wasting space in his brain with useless information.  To suggest that individual identity is predetermined by physics, even if it is true, is not only useless, it is a distraction from life.  With luck, I may have twenty or more years left to me.  Still, I am acutely aware of the ticking off of each second and the work I have left to do.  

The question is where do we live?   I would propose that identity is a product of the interaction between the individual and the culture in which he lives.  Man is a shallow creature by nature, easily distracted by bright, shiny things.   We are, also, a social creature.  Our accomplishments and our follies result from collective effort over a long period of time.  We live in the flow of history.  Or, as someone once put it, our lives are the hypen on our tombstones between the date of our birth and the date of our dying.

Comment by Walter Maki on June 13, 2011 at 12:53am

"our lives are the hypen on our tombstones between the date of our birth and the date of our dying."


I like that statement.

Comment by Radu Andreiu on June 13, 2011 at 4:18am

Wonderful post, Kirsten. I agree with almost everything you say, but, and it seems there's always a "but", I don't feel small or intimidated at all by the fact that I'm merely an equation. That's because being an equation is more than my humble mind could have ever imagined, were it not for other, not so humble minds before me. But on top of it all lies the marvelous beauty of... well, beauty. What I mean by that is what philosophers like to call "qualia", which are the unique and personal sensations and feelings we get even if we're only a big bundle of elementary particles. The fact that we can feel happiness, see colors and hear music is something that is of the greatest importance for me, one that could not be equaled by any other sort of existence. I may not be in control, but I'm sure as hell enjoying the ride and that's more than my analytic brain can encompass.

I don't know how important we ultimately are in the grand scheme of things, but when you watch a glorious sunset, feel the warm breeze of the ocean and the soft sand between your toes, or when you see a child, be it your own or not, running, laughing and otherwise enjoying life at its full, you can't say it's not important, at least for here and now.

I guess that concludes my apologetic ode to life, though it barely scratched the surface of my thoughts about it. To say one last thing, more to the point, I'd like to remark that determinism doesn't bother me in the least because it doesn't really have an alternative. The concept of free will as something which transcends, not only physics, but mathematics is something that has never been anything more than a fantasy of men wanting to be like gods, powerful beyond logic.

Comment by Derek on June 13, 2011 at 5:11am

I think of the concept of free will as I think of the concept of "God" or "the soul".  Without precise definitions it is very hard to get off the ground with an argument. A lot of the free will debate is semantic games mixed up with a lot of philosobabble and a nice sprinkling of nonsense language.


For example, I find Sam Harris' latest statement to be absurd: You cannot choose what you choose


If I cannot choose what I choose, I may as well choose not to choose, ergo, let the circular semantics begin.


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