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!

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Comment by Dr. del Toro on June 18, 2011 at 1:20pm

One thing I'd like to say is that experience is not limited to our memorable conscious experience.  There is a lot of information that is passed down through DNA.  One example is babies automatically holding their breath when submerged underwater.  Also, the subconscious is an incredible part of cognition.  There are many functions which are automatically controlled by the brain.  Take walking for instance.  There are many muscles requires to walk, but we don't usually have to concentrate on walking, we just will ourselves in the right direction and our mind makes all the calculations somewhere underneath the surface of our consciousness.

One example I liked well came from the fantasy book The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss.  In this book a professor has a rock and asks his students to calculate where they should place a hand to catch the rock if he were to toss it to one of them.  They spend a few hours or so on it and are unable to come up with a solution.  The professor then calls for a messenger boy to come over.  He tells the boy to catch the rock and quickly tosses it to him.  The boy catches it and is confused.  The professor then looks to his students and asks how an eight year old was able to figure out in half a second what they could not, after several hours of trying, figure out together.

Our subconscious also picks up on many things that we do not consciously pay attention to.  Our minds may notice something that we do not, then figure out a way to let us know.  I once had a dream where I got out of bed and walked to the closet.  When I opened the closet, there were tiny black dots jumping all over the place.  When I woke up, I was curious and decided that I would go to the closet, just as I had in the dream.  When I opened it I didn't really notice anything at first.  Then I saw all the fleas hopping around.  It was crazy.  How was I able to dream exactly that just before it happened.  I had no idea.  I am glad I was able to talk to my mom about this peculiar occurence, because it was she who suggested that my subconscious had noticed something I had not and notified my conscious by creating the dream. 

Some part of our mind does more than I might imagine to prepare us for decisions we make in life.  Whether or not this is all predetermined is beyond me.  Until we can somehow go back to the moment before a decision and change our choice, we cannot know.  Even then, our prior knowledge as to what the outcome would be based on one of our choices would have an effect on the choice we made the second time around.

It's like the part in The Matrix where Neo goes to see the Oracle and knocks over the vase.

The question is whether or not he still would have done it had she told him beforehand.


I think that Atheist in Exile's last comment is very well put.

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 1:12am

Hi Kris,

Much of science still relies on causal determinism.  While it's possible that true randomness may exist at the quantum level, or that the way we have traditionally defined causality is not exactly correct, this doesn't necessarily mean that existence at the macro level is not still subject to causal determination.

I agree.  Causal determination at the macro level is not to be denied.  Anybody, anywhere, any time can easily observe that all effects have causes.  Self-determinism operates within this universal constraint.

I know that idea throws people off but I really believe it's easy to understand if you take the principle of causality into consideration every step of the way . . . causality doesn't stop at the human skull.  But first, I have to lay the groundwork . . .

. . . Consciousness isn't "all in the head".  It's the interaction of the brain, sensory organs and the world around us (causality).  If you somehow had ALWAYS been missing 1 or more of these 3 fundamentals, there would be nothing to be conscious of.

So causality is an integral component of consciousness.  Now, I won't pretend to know how the brain works.  Even neuroscientists acknowledge that their specialty is in its infancy and that they're just beginning (thanks to modern imaging technologies) to investigate how the brain works.  But what I do know is that whatever the brain does, causality is behind every event and effect.

Heredity, education, culture, experience, morality: these are all artifacts of causality.  They represent the past and come into play in the present when we make decisions.  And in the present, causality has immediate (and perhaps its most powerful) influence on our decisions: it's responsible for the stimuli we detect and the electro-chemical reactions in our brains that create our consciousness.

But it doesn't stop there.  However it occurs, one of the consequences of neural activity is mental feedback.  With feedback, the influence of causality -- both past and present -- is mentally projected into the future in the form of anticipation.  Anticipation can last for half a second or half a century.  It all depends on what's being anticipated.

Dr. Del Toro, in his comment immediately preceding yours, spoke of an 8 year old boy who caught a rock with just a half-second lead time.  We're so inured to anticipation that we take it for granted.  But look at what catching that rock involved.  Did the boy reach out to where he saw the rock?  No.  He reached out to where the rock would be in half a second.  By the same token, when you make a plan, you're anticipating the future.  Depending on the plan, you might need to adjust it but even that is still anticipating the future.  THAT is the critical consequence of mental feedback.  It allows us to anticipate causality and meet it (hopefully) on our own terms.  Not only are we self-aware.  We're future aware.  And that is the key advantage that human intelligence gives us over causality.  When human intelligence interacts with the world around us (causality), it NECESSARILY creates awareness and anticipation of causality.  That is how our limited free agency (i.e. self-determinism) emerges from causality.

Is causality responsible for our plans?  Yes.  It forms the backdrop, the input and the evaluation of our decisions.  Is that free will?  No.  But as long as we're able to anticipate causality and plan our futures accordingly, we are hacking our own paths into the future.  Of course, causality might lead to your death by some sort of accident -- and your plans will be for naught.  But -- barring such a tragic circumstance -- if you conceive of your future, then pursue it: you're self-determined.  That's pretty much a self-explanatory truism.

Self-determinism is confined, by causality, to your heredity and experience.  That's not what most people think of when they speak of free will.  However, self-determinism is the only free will we have.  And it's wondrous.
Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 2:24am

@Chris Townsend,

It is easy for me to see human beings as being in parallel. We are all designed for the same purpose, but this manifests practically in very different ways.  We, unlike clocks, are conscious and are able to decide whether our specific design and functionality is best suited for the wrist, the wall or the bedside.
I think the human condition puts us all in the same boat.  Our similarities far outweigh our differences.  But I don't agree that we were designed for a purpose (or designed at all, for that matter).  Surely, if humanity share a common purpose we would know what it is by now.  A Christian or Muslim might say our common purpose is to obey God but a Buddhist or atheist would have a completely different perspective.  A Christian's or Muslim's purpose might be popular among like-minded adherents but that's far from a "common purpose".

I think that self-determinism means that purpose is what we make of it.  Such a personal purpose, it seems to me, is far better than a purpose we have no choice in.  If we're designed with a purpose that manifests in different ways, what do you call those different manifestations?  Realized purposes?  It seems you're combining the designed with the realized.  If you could clarify, that would help a lot.

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 3:12am

@Dr. del Toro,

I like the examples you cite.  When it comes to mental processes, I too have no clue "whether or not this is all predetermined".  But I can say that predetermination, as explained by hard determinists, is a little too "woo" for me.  Such a clockwork view of the universe is from the old-school, classical, scientific paradigm.  The modern scientific paradigm is ruled by quantum theory.  The observable (macro) universe might seem predictable but it emerges from a quantum universe that is anything but.

I'm certainly no scientist but it seems to me that if photons from the sun can exert pressure on a solar sail, then it also exerts pressure on cosmic debris.  If cosmic debris collects and self-organizes into larger and larger objects, including planets, I suppose that with enough data and a big enough computer, one could predict the progressive stages of development from debris to planet.  But what one can't predict is which photons (and other subatomic particles) will be affected by quantum fluctuations.  Since photons exert pressure on the cosmic debris that eventually collect into larger objects, we can't with ABSOLUTE accuracy predict how the pressure they exert on the debris will play out.  In other words, there's a certain amount of uncertainty or "drift" that leaks from the quantum realm into the classical realm.  In fact, quantum fluctuations are thought to be responsible for the "structure" of the universe (without them, the universe would allegedly be homogenous), so it seems there's no question that the quantum realm affects the classical realm.

Over scales of cosmic time and distance, there must be plenty of opportunity for the quantum properties of matter to affect causality at the macro level; making it less and less predetermined over greater and greater expanses of time and space.

But if one thinks that causality is absolutely, strictly, played out in clockwork fashion, then this classical view of things boils down to a fatally metaphysical model of the universe akin to religion.

Here's what I mean . . .

. . . If causality rules absolutely, then all you have to do is take cause and effect backward one step at a time until, ultimately, you arrive at the Prime Mover -- ostensibly either God or the Big Bang.  The problem here comes when you try to assert that the minutiae of reality 13 billion years later is predetermined FROM THE BEGINNING.  This smacks of God and design.  May the force be with you.  It's a fatalistic view of the universe based on an idea (cause and effect) so simple, it's binary.  That's just a little too simplistic and too woo for me.

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 19, 2011 at 4:16am
My previous post strayed into questionable territory.  I just thought of a (perhaps) less speculative analogy comparing life and evolution with the universe and causality.

As far as we know, life in the universe (even if it's relatively abundant) must be fairly dispersed.  The universe probably existed for billions of years before life ever came along.  If Earth is the only (or first) planet with life, then the universe was almost 10 billion years old before life made an appearance.  The point being that life is a very small part of the universe as a whole.

Yet it was only 150 years ago that Darwin gave us the theory of evolution by natural selection.  There was a perfectly logical explanation for life that didn't require design or God at all.  We just didn't know what it was until Darwin figured it out.

I think the questions surrounding determinism and causality are essentially an expression of a similar scenario in which an answer lies in waiting.  An answer that doesn't require design or God.  It could be that the macro universe is tweaked ever so slightly by its underlying quantum foundation, introducing enough uncertainty to obscure destiny.

I really don't know what to believe about predeterminism but I do know I don't like it for aesthetic and philosophical reasons . . . none of which make a difference to self-determinism, which emerges from causality whether or not it's absolute.
Comment by Chris Townsend on June 19, 2011 at 3:06pm

Remember, that usually when it comes to our current understanding of any scientific observation at a given time that is initially contributed to "randomness" (ie- sub-quantum fluctuations) is later learned to have not truly been random at all.  We eventually learn that the assignment of randomness to a process is limited to the infancy of the idea and is later determined that the seeming randomness in the initial observation was truly our lack of understanding of the process.  It seems random at first because there are, at the time, unmeasurable forces at work that give the facade of randomness, however, they are deeper forces that once quantified are just as predictable as any other and no longer causing the "random" effects we observe.  


Kind-of like coincidence, we can brush it off as random "coincidence" or we can search deeper until we do see the underlying causality that was in fact not random at all and thus proves that it truly was not random.  This makes me think of the "Butterfly Effect".  


Theological determinism (predetermination) seems to have validity and strength in the understanding of the holder of this perspective because one admits that although I do not personally understand every currently unknown force, the collective consciousness of the universe does understand even the most minute details of it's own existence and is therefor not restricted by time as we are...thus everything is already determined from beginning to end in it's own understanding.  (Not saying I personally ascribe to this view, I just understand this perspective and can see value in it as well as all of the others :)


Ultimately, my point is simply that we must be careful not to dismiss an apparent randomness as such since there is so much that we admittedly have yet to learn on the quantum level and beyond.   And that an acceptance of randomness = acceptance of ignorance if, in fact, true randomness does not exist...which it may, or may not.

Comment by Atheist Exile on June 20, 2011 at 1:10am
Hi Chris,

Would you cite your source for your assertion that the randomness in quantum physics was "later learned to have not truly been random at all" please?  That's news to me.

It doesn't matter to self-determinism if randomness does or does not exist.
Comment by Atheist Exile on June 20, 2011 at 3:01am

I've been Googling around for something to validate your assertion . . . no such luck.

I can recall reading prominent scientists (Feynman and Greene) stating that it appears that quantum randomness truly exists and is not just an artifact of quantum models.
Comment by Mo Trauen on June 20, 2011 at 10:30am

@Atheist Exile,


Chris, like most theists, is intellectually dishonest.

Comment by Arcus on June 20, 2011 at 11:51am

I wouldn't search physics alone for answers to the question of free will/determinism. Neuroscience will probably provide better answers since it's also within the realm of behavioral sciences.

My thought is that "life" can possibly be defined as the ability to consciously manipulate the laws of physics. We are physically constrained by them, but not our consciousness.


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