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 14, 2011 at 4:40am


I apologize for the comment on your understanding of hypocrisy. My interpretation and use of the word differs from yours and to argue semantics is arbitrary. I would use the term "delusional" as I think it better fits the context. From my iPhone app (by far one of my favorite apps) I think the following definition for delusion fits best:

"4. Psychiatry . a fixed false belief that is resistant to reason or confrontation with actual fact: a paranoid delusion."

I can agree with you there. The avoidance of being hypocritical as well as delusional is something I aim for as well.

I just don't think that determinism is something to be feared. I think it is irrelevant. I may like to believe in free will, but that doesn't mean I won't entertain the idea of determinism: We simulate the future. We cannot explain how we can do this, but we all seem to simulate the future in our minds. Time and time again we find that our actions conflict with what we thought we would do in certain situations. Something such as a soldier going to war knowing that he may have to kill someone and accepting it and believing that he could make the decision to kill when the time came, but when that time actually comes he finds that he is unable to pull the trigger. Determinism can explain this very well.

I guess when I think of it that way, I can see how determinism is a very good explanation. I see how the understanding of determinism can be important in understanding ourselves, but the idea of free will is still just as important to learn about and understand, even if it is seen as an illusion.

So I guess the outcome for me has been that determinism is the best explanation for what is happening, but I will not disregard the role of free will, even as an "illusion." The idea of free will as a concept is something that I believe to be important. Without at least an "illusion" of free will I'm not sure we can hope to function effectively. There are many theories, some theories even combining elements from both sides. The best way I see free will vs. determinism is within psychology.  There is also the nature vs. nurture issue.

This whole discussion has me thinking about Schroedinger's Cat and the many worlds interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics, as well as the many minds interpretation which extends from MWI. I don't know if you've ever read Anathem by Neal Stephenson, but I enjoyed that book and thought that the real world theories were applied nicely to the story. You can't base everything on classical mechanics anymore. We are delving deeper and deeper into quantum mechanics and discovering that subatomic particles seem to behave erratically.

Here is an interesting article (a few years old) about two Princeton mathematicians who believe they have mathematically proven the existence of free will:

Here is another interesting article, this one about quantum biology:


It's fun to think either way about free will vs. determinism, but I don't think that free will requires "supernatural" forces as an explanation.  I guess the problem I had with the post was the assumption that free will is nothing but an illusion.  If we are equations then the equations are a vast series of probabilities. We're coming closer and closer to finding answers, but it seems that with every discovery a multitude of questions appear as well.  And it's up to us to pursue the answers, forever...


"Look at me still talking when there's science to do."


Comment by Kirsten on June 14, 2011 at 12:37pm

   Both good articles. I really enjoyed the Dicover one especially. Quantum pathing is a very interesting phenomena. I'll be keeping an eye on those two subjects over the next few years. The mathematicians have a lot of ground to cover; I personally wonder if there is an unknown physical force at work. Only time will tell.


   Thank you both for the clarifying responses. I appreciate it very much, and sorry for being unclear to begin with. 

Comment by Chris Townsend on June 14, 2011 at 9:29pm

So, just to throw a few things into the mix...


It seems there is validity in the general idea of determinism and free will (Compatabilism) in that I choose what I think about based on the reality that surrounds me at a particular time, my thoughts then are translated into actions and my actions shape my reality in that future moment which would then be the present.    


Another thing that I thought of when reading this was more related to theological determinism (predestination) though it is related in some ways to some of the other forms, is a underlying and foundational premise that most people with the predestination perspective operate on but it is often overlooked.  It is the idea that if I believe in theological determinism, then part of the reason why this seems valid to me is that I am considering that everything is created for a particular purpose i.e. - form determines function.  For example, a proton is created to have a positive charge and so the very nature by which it exists, it is predestined to be attracted to a negatively charged particle or atmosphere...thus, it's path is laid before it.  A clock is designed to track, while it may very well serve as a paperweight, it is rather predestined to be what it was created for.  A great illustration of how this applies to humans is found in the Star Wars series when we examine the role of Luke Skywalker.  "Luke, it is your destiny."  hahaha  I am not trying to say that I ascribe to theological determinism, and while I do see validity in the perspective, I also see value in the other forms of determinism and think that they are all equally valid.  


When we study quantum mechanics and subjects like cellular molecular biology, we see many processes and behold many observations that we peculate and theorize on, but have yet to prove or come to full agreement on within the scientific community.  These forces and possibilities of dimensions unknown and such are all beyond our current understanding and beyond natural explanation i.e. - supernatural.  I don't suggest the word supernatural in a mystical theological sense, but rather in it's more proper and basic sense in that there are forces at work that we have yet to qualify much less quantify.  I think one thing that most quantum physicists and scientists in general can agree on is that there is much more to our reality that science can explain at this point in time.  I say that really more-so in response to Kristen's statement, "I personally wonder if there is an unknown physical force at work."  Since it seems to be fairly obvious to me and the scientific community at large that there is most assuredly not only one unknown physical force at work, but most likely, many physical forces at work that are as of yet, unknown.  This is also reflected in Dr. del Toro's statement, "We're coming closer and closer to finding answers, but it seems that with every discovery a multitude of questions appear as well." to which I fully agree :)

Comment by Kirsten on June 14, 2011 at 9:48pm

"I choose what I think about based on the reality that surrounds me at a particular time" - This is the part I don't agree with. Thought is a physical process and thus bound in with the rest. It may be very, very complex, but it would also be completely predetermined. You could not think anything other than what you thought, because your thought is the sum of your life and the universe you have existed in till that point, which is the sum of how ever many other particles and events in sequence happening before and leading to that point. 


I think I need some physicists to sit down and chat with. Maybe some people in cognitive neurology. I've philosophied it to death in my own mind a dozen times over.


Also, Chris? You may want to break your paragraphs down. They tend to be pretty huge and it makes reading a little bit difficult at times. Just an observation!

Comment by Joseph COulter on June 17, 2011 at 5:39am
"Is determinism factual?"

When you're getting into things this close to epistemology, I think it's important return to the basic truths that only rational knowledge can be interpreted as truely and surely factual, while empirical truths are things we just call true because they're very probably true. So what I would say is that as of now, it really only makes since to think that determinism is probably true, and cannot be proven to be true. It's kind of like how when someone asks me what my religion is, I tell them I'm an atheist, even though technically I'm agnostic, because there's no way to prove that god doesn't exit, but there's no reason to think that he does exist. So here are the following undetermined things that would need to be proven in order for it to be conclusively known that the future is set in stone and "free will" doesn't exist.

1. The phylosophy of naturalism is on the rite track(non-physical things do not exist)
2. Human cognition comes from our physical make-up
3.There are no random events in physics, all can be mathematically calculated.

So while I'm pretty sure that all three of these are true, and that therefor the future is probably set in stone, they aren't proven yet, and more importantly that point number 1 cannot be proven or disproven, unfortunately.

"Is this idea frightening?"

No, not at all to me. First of all I think I should emphasize that I'm really not sure if I interpret determinism as a lack of free will. By some peoples interpretation, we do make decisions on our own, it's just that our decisions are in the future, and the future is set in stone. People also seem to habitually think that a lack of free will or deviation in future mean that nothing we do matters, however I believe that no matter how scripted our actions are, it's an incredible adventure. We also live in an incredible time which just so happens to be the only time in the history of the world where we can expect that the previously mentioned questions 2 and 3 may be answered.

Anthropologists generally say that what separates us from other species is culture, however I think that this is a grossly inadequate statement. What separates us from other species is our ability to render long term pattern recognition, and take that long term pattern recognition into account to augment our environment. Pattern recognition and future telling are really the same thing. I believe that what makes us unique is our ability to manipulate the world with our knowledge of determinism, and we will only come out with more exciting things.

I hope I make sense. I've had a lot to drink.
Comment by Artor on June 17, 2011 at 9:02pm
I don't think determinism stands up scientifically. Quantum physics suggests that there is a random element built into the universe. One can make educated predictions about probabilities, but to imagine that we are merely clockwork robots that follow a predetermined path with only the illusion of decisions is absurd as believing in sky faeries. As for the title of your post, why exactly do "we" fear atheism? I don't.
Comment by Dogly on June 18, 2011 at 10:49am
My feelings are with Dr. del Toro, and Michael Edminster. I say feelings rather than thoughts, because my intellect is not up to any real grasp of either the philosophy or physics required to understand the concept of determinism. Since I don't believe in god, and therefore in any divine purpose for my existence, I have painstakingly devised a useful purpose for myself. I want to make some small changes in society's behavior that will increase fairness and happiness for the underdog. I also would like the earth to maintain a healthy skin of life. At every turn I have taken action, and made decisions, which put me outside acceptable norms of behavior. I risked beatings as a child, and jail as an adult. This is never easy. To think that all my choices are NOT choices but are predetermined, makes my life seem futile. I don't mind my death being final. I don't mind being a unknown cipher among the billions. I don't mind poverty. I can take the loneliness of being an outsider. What would make my life really miserable would be to accept that nothing I do will make any difference. That will lead to a paralyzing hopelessness, and that heavy hand of depression on my shoulder. This is not meant to add to the scientific comprehension of determinism, but rather to explain the emotions that make this philosophy unpleasant to even a godless cynic. I'll leave further expostulation to those brighter and braver minds. I still have work to do.
Comment by Atheist Exile on June 18, 2011 at 11:32am
The problem with free will, as I see it, is that people have the wrong impression of what it means.  But that we have free will is not in doubt.  It's empirically proven every time we conceive and execute a plan. I've this is hard to explain because, to me, free will isn't in conflict with causality (as most people seem to think).  Free will is a product of human intelligence INTERACTING WITH causality.  I'll try to explain . . .

We don’t have free will in the way most people think of free will. I maintain that “free will” is an awful term to express the independent agency humans possess to define purpose for themselves and pursue it. Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our experience; our identity.  Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.”  We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for.

Experience represents the past.  Experience — what we’ve learned — is all we know.  I believe it’s virtually impossible to think or act outside our experience.  Even inspiration comes from experience. Where the rubber meets the road is in the present.  This is where our human brains interact with the world around us to form the conceptual continuity of identity: our consciousness.  Experience influences us so much because it was once formed in the present and layered into our identity just as the present will be.  THAT is the self in self-determinism.

Don’t get me wrong . . . causality rules.  We might think we’re in control until that earthquake or tsunami or car accident or economic crash or newborn baby changes our lives.  Causality is the ultimate big dog.  The unfortunate among us will be pursuing successful plans or enjoying the fruits of their labors when causality rears its ugly head and wipes out their achievements.  We can make choices to maximize security but we can never be sure we’re secure.

But how do you explain the fact that, despite the pervasiveness of causality, we can still map out our own futures and achieve our plans (if they’re any good)?  How do you explain how we, for the most part, hack our own paths into the future?


Mental feedback is the key.  Without it, we could not have memories or analyze problems or learn or make plans.  Without it, we could not understand causality or anticipate it.  Intelligence and consciousness itself hinge on mental feedback.  Mental feedback gives us a temporal advantage over causality by allowing us to anticipate it and plan for the future accordingly.  THAT is the determinism in “self-determinism”.

It lacks the flourish and romanticism of unbridled libertarian free will but self-determinism has its own beauty revealed in the paradox of free agency in a clockwork universe. Causality determines the scope of our abilities and actions and we use those abilities and actions to hack our own paths into the future.  And we’re good at it.  We’re getting cocky. But we’re not masters of causality . . . just expressions of it.

Comment by Mo Trauen on June 18, 2011 at 11:50am

Atheist Exile wrote:  "Our choices aren’t free in a libertarian sense: they’re free within the constraints of our experience; our identity.  Perhaps Arthur Schopenhauer summed it up best: “Man can do what he wills but he can not will what he wills.”  We can do, in the present, whatever our experience has prepared us for."


Brilliant summation.

Comment by Chris Townsend on June 18, 2011 at 12:25pm

Reading this makes me think of the following:


A clock is made for a purpose.  They are all made for the same purpose.  How that looks practically is different.  Some are designed to be worn on the wrist, some are designed to hang on the wall, others to be placed at the bedside.  They are found to have an excess or a paucity of functionality, yet they all are still foundational found to have been created for the same basic purpose.  


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 am curious as to what you guys think about this perspective and how it plays into the whole free will vs determinism consideration...


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