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: 591

Comment by Kirsten on June 13, 2011 at 11:59am


In reply to Philip on the first page:


   Yea, my initial feeling on this subject was a gut reaction. What, I'm not special and above the universe in some way? Just another part of it? Every single person wants to feel good and special; it's what the species bases its breeding on after all. And breeding drives us. Luckily, I am past being upset by it. Now it sits in the realm of probable fact.


  Determinism would also imply that there is only one way things can go. It seems like we have many options, but what happens would be inevitable. We simply aren't advanced enough to see that one path and can only guess, even with help from science. Thus, choice of any sort is illusory. 


Personally, I don't agree that the knowledge is useless.


   There was an excellent speaker last night for the Think Atheist podcast, Thomas W. Clark. He addressed the matter much more eloquently than I can, but here's my attempt; knowing we are the sum of our bodies and experiences allows us to trace and understand our minds better, rather than just thinking "I am this because I want to be". It removes one more supernatural element from our thoughts, "I am separate from the universe".


   It also logically follows that others are the sum of their bodies and experiences, and thus have very real reasons for thinking and believing as they do. They may be ignorant, but the portion of the world they see makes their own reasoning seem correct. If you don't understand why and how a person thinks it is very hard to talk with them on a level beyond chit-chat and. And it definitely pays to understand the whys and hows of your own thoughts. As my personal goals involve learning as much as possible (about me, about others, about anything) these are helpful to me. Empathy is a great tool for learning, oddly enough.


Dr. del Toro:


   I couldn't accept your reasoning myself. Feeling something in the face of contrary evidence just isn't enough for me. I don't accept "God is real because I feel Him in my heart" as a valid argument, and I won't be hypocritical if I can help it. Feelings are misleading; the chemical brain is glorious, but fallible. 

Comment by AntiChristianLeague on June 13, 2011 at 12:33pm

If we were capable of breaking down every influence within the world and seeing the ways in which these miniscule particles interact with one another, my guess is that the pattern would show more of a deterministic existence, as opposed to one comprised mostly of free will.

There are a wealth of characteristics which were already present within us once our bodies had formed. Out physiological makeup does, I think, determine to at least some extent our likes and dislikes, general preferences and tendencies.


But that is not to say that we are victims of our circumstances. Even if we only have the impression of free will, we are still responsible for our actions and who we are as human beings. In the words of Jean Paul Sartre.... "Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does."

Comment by Dr. del Toro on June 13, 2011 at 2:06pm



I was not positing feeling as the basis of any argument. What I meant by what I wrote is that I don't really care whether or not I am the result of an equation. The sense of control is all that matters to me when it comes to the subject of free will vs. determinism. That feeling is more substantial than any "evidence" of determinism or free will. I don't know what contrary evidence you have found, but I'd sure be interested in seeing it. Feelings may be misleading, but so are our senses. Think about our perceptions. If you take your hand and look at it while you snap your fingers your brain will synchronize the visual event with the sound when in fact the sound that you heard was processed by your brain faster than the sight of it was. This is due to the time delay between synapses. Knowing that I may be misled by my brain about other things, I personally have no problem with being misled by my feeling of self-control, if it is in fact misleading. Why would I care that I’m the result of an equation? Arguing over it seems sort of arbitrary. You may want to reexamine the meaning of hypocrisy. I don’t see how I’m being hypocritical by embracing the idea of free will. I believe in free will, if you can somehow prove that I am feigning my belief by proving that I actually believe in determinism then you may accurately paint me as a hypocrite. I know you didn’t outright accuse me of hypocrisy, but your comment on avoiding being hypocritical if you can help it made it seem that you don’t understand the concept of hypocrisy.

It seems to me that you have made the decision that free will is only possible if you believe in some sort of religion. This seems kind of narrow-minded to me. The free will vs. determinism debate has been ongoing, but seeing it as a god vs. no god argument is inaccurate. Look at the history of Christianity in America and you will find the idea of predestination (a deterministic view from within religion).

I am certainly open to the idea that we are the result of an equation (albeit a ridiculously complicated equation that I don’t think anyone could possible hope to write down in a single lifetime). This could invariably lead to dark times of worshipping the Great Mathematician who wrote the Grand Equation.

I guess it comes down to asking what type of equations? I believe that we are the result of a vastly immense amount of probabilities. Is it so hard to imagine that within this grand equation, perhaps we have become variables?

I may reject determinism at a personal level, but that does not mean that I reject its plausability.  Besides, all equations require input.  Where is the input coming from?


Comment by Michael Edminster on June 13, 2011 at 4:15pm

I'm completely with Dr. del Toro on this one. I don't have any "beliefs" on determinism either way.

Much to the contrary of the question posed in this title, I would "fear" determinism for the same reasons I "fear" religion: a person who acts with the belief that their life is pre-determined has the same potential for depravity as a religious person who acts under the banner of "destiny."

As a non-theistic humanist who obtained his undergraduate degree from a small Christian University, I've always had a very negative reaction to anyone who invokes "destiny" or the phrase "everything happens for a reason."

I understand that determinism is far removed from the "everything has a reason" belief, but the potential for misuse of the idea is very similar.

As a humanist I'm interested in the idea of personal responsibility as a path to improving society, and any tenet which posits that personal decisions don't matter or are just an illusion is detrimental to that progress.

Atheists should be interested in the here and now, the life that we have on this Earth, and how we can improve it. Logical speculation and metaphysical musings are fun and interesting, but unfortunately atheists have an uphill battle to fight against those who say that they are just as religious in their atheism as others are in their religion.

Any speculative philosophy, like determinism, which puts much of its thesis in "faith," even if it's faith in science, works against the most important aspect of atheism: accept the here and now and work with what you have.

This life is important. It seems that we have free-will. Whether we actually do or don't is irrelevant, and, at the moment, just as impossible to prove true or false as, say, Bokononism.

To invoke Bertrand Russell: I could say that there is a teapot orbiting the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Does it actually matter if it's true?

Comment by Kirsten on June 13, 2011 at 5:33pm

A reply to Dr. Del Toro and Michael Edminster

The manner in which I am discussing this seems to be pretty far from where both of you have gotten.

The first question: Is determinism factual? (I gave my reasons and asked for ideas/contrary arguments)

The second question: Is this idea frightening? (The idea of no god scares some people and that affects their ability to understand the scientific arguments/views from atheists. I'm wondering if this idea does the same to the rationally minded people here.)

If all evidence shows that everything has a physical (not supernatural or otherwise outside-the-laws-of-physics) cause, and cause and effect is true, than I am also a product and continuation of these laws. And thus, in the ultimate sense, it is chemistry that dictates my life. Not "will". This is a theory, not a belief. If evidence comes to light showing determinism to be false I'll be glad to review and accept it.

“ I couldn't accept your reasoning myself. Feeling something in the face of contrary evidence just isn't enough for me. I don't accept "God is real because I feel Him in my heart" as a valid argument, and I won't be hypocritical if I can help it. Feelings are misleading; the chemical brain is glorious, but fallible.

Technically, my definition of hypocrisy fits perfectly with what I said. I was speaking about myself and my standards and how simply feeling something doesn't matter to me in my search for truth.

hypocrisy [hɪˈpɒkrəsɪ]
n pl -sies
1. the practice of professing standards, beliefs, etc., contrary to one's real character or actual behaviour, esp the pretence of virtue and piety

As to this, “Atheists should be interested in the here and now, the life that we have on this Earth, and how we can improve it. Logical speculation and metaphysical musings are fun and interesting, but unfortunately atheists have an uphill battle to fight against those who say that they are just as religious in their atheism as others are in their religion. “

Atheists are people. We have different goals. We are not an army. We share a disbelief in gods and ~usually~ a certain level of rationality. If you don't know the truth about your species and yourself, how the heck can you hope to survive long term? Short term thinking is bunk and fighting other people doesn't do anything but get hackles raised. We don't need a freaking war, we need education and a rational understanding to be the norm. The most progressive and atheistic countries didn't get there by getting angry. They made education a priority and held schools to high standards.

If you want other people to follow you, not hate you, you must be informed and lead with example. Otherwise you'll be turned into a ridiculous caricature or internet meme. Dirty fighting at its best, and most prevalent.

Comment by Kirsten on June 13, 2011 at 5:35pm
Also: Open Office Writer + taking from the blog here = really odd formatting.  Pardon me!
Comment by Mo Trauen on June 13, 2011 at 10:35pm
I don't fear determinism; I am resigned to it.
Comment by Derek on June 14, 2011 at 12:43am

@Mo Trauen


That reminds me of "Condemned to be free" - Sartre

Comment by Mo Trauen on June 14, 2011 at 1:30am


That's quite a compliment.  Thank you. 

Comment by Michael Edminster on June 14, 2011 at 3:22am

Loving this discussion, Kirsten... everybody. It's great to find such an active community on the web.

Also... gonna take some time to look through the responses and come up with a response deserving of the debate.

@Kirsten, apologies if I took the discussion in a different direction. I ramble when I'm stoned on the internet late at night.

I don't have any problems with determinism as an explanation of consciousness and choice. It's the best one we've got so far.

To quickly answer the two points of discussion you reiterated: I'm trained as a linguist, so I'm not sure I can answer the question "Is determinism factual?" because I'm not even sure what the word "factual" means. The second question, on the other hand, seems to have been answered by the significant response in this here comment section.



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