The accurate mystery of Determinism

“Suppose there was a book of your life. In the library of all possible books, there is a book which tells the truest tale it could be told of your life from the moment of your birth to the moment of your death. But there are also uncountably many books in that library of all the books which tell perfectly true story of your life upto this moment and then diverge in billions and billions of ways for each future. One of those books is the book of your life. Which one? Who knows? Impossible to tell until afterwards which one tells the truest story of your life.”

Daniel Dennett talks about Determinism in one of his interviews where he says the above lines. Determinism is the philosophical theory that for every event, including every human action, there exists a cause which cannot cause anything else but that effect. This theory is the central idea of Paulo Coelho’s celebrated book, ‘The Alchemist’. The book revolves around Santiago, a young boy who is on a quest to meet this alchemist who knows the secret of the sorcerer’s stone. On his journey through the desert and many cities he comes across many people and omens who tell him only one thing, maqbool, which means, it’s written. The book encapsulates the theory of determinism in this one beautiful word. The book is one of the best fiction reads about the theory of determinism and explains it on a spiritual tangent when Paulo Coelho writes that the entire universe conspires to make you achieve that which is written as yours. Maqbool, essentially defines the story.

I had read The Alchemist years ago, but I picked it up again after reading about the theory of causation in Indian philosophy, because I was surprised by it’s uncanny symmetry with the theory of determinism. The theory of causation says that every effect has in roots a cause. Now the effect can either be an entirely new entity, or it can be preconceived in the cause. This similarity between these two different schools of philosophy is striking. While determinism emphasizes upon a specific cause determining a particular action, Indian philosophy theorizes causation with the essential precedence of a cause before the effect.

For Dennett, human beings are biological devices that respond to the environment with rational, desirable courses of action. He believes that even if our brains are causally determined, it does not follow that we are not morally responsible for our behavior. Dennett argues that we base our decisions on context, gradually limiting our options as the situation becomes more specific.. If this is the case, then we have a huge question to solve. Human beings are considered to be rational agents who act out of their own free will. And Dennett says that our brains are causally determined. So do we really have a free will? If all our actions are determined, then how can we say that we did something out of free will? And if we do not act out of our free will, then how can we be held morally responsible for those actions?

The very nature of life on the planet is deterministic. From the process of breathing to natural phenomena like rain pouring down from the sky to the sprouts rising from the ground, everything is determined, everything has a cause. But what if the cause of an effect is in itself an effect of some other cause? And that cause the effect of some other cause? It is inevitable to then fall into an unending series of infinite regress till we reach the ultimate cause, if there is any. How do we know which is the ultimate cause? Is there an ultimate cause? If so then what is its nature? The questions never end, and we find ourselves on a seemingly unending quest to find the answers we find the answers. The theory of determinism is one of the most fascinating philosophical theories, because of its exactness and accuracy and the mystery associated to the cycle of causation. It is indeed a mystery which is accurate, because who knows, I might be writing this article as a result of some specific cause, which might be the result of some other cause and so on, let’s leave it here, or we would fall into an infinite regress again.

-Khushi Vijayvergiya


4 responses to “The accurate mystery of Determinism

  1. Determinism implies that the current events and current state reliably bring about the next events and the next state. This chain of causation goes on for eternity.

    This interesting fact raises the question “So what?”

    Is the fact that your next choice is inevitable helpful in any way? No. Because you cannot know for certain what you will choose until you go through your mental process of evaluating your options and making the choice yourself. And if you already knew the result you would skip right to the answer. Every deliberate choice begins with uncertainty. If there is no uncertainty then there is no choosing involved.

    Suppose it were possible to see the future, and to know what would inevitably happen? Well, being the rebellious sort we are, we’d probably choose something else just for spite. So knowing the inevitable means it is no longer inevitable.

    The physician knows what will inevitably happen if she fails to treat a fatal disease, the patient will die. So she chooses to treat the disease and the patient lives. The doctor was able to chose what would become inevitable and what would remain merely a possibility.

    Inevitability itself changes nothing. Everything remains precisely as it is. In fact, it was inevitable that everything would be exactly as it is now.

    This includes free will. You are still choosing for yourself what you will do. And what you do will determine what happens next. And, as long as someone else is not forcing you to do something against your will, you are acting of your own free will. And that means you are the final responsible cause of what results from your action.

    If you commit a crime, it is useless to claim that “determinism made me do it”, because the judge can also claim a rich history of causes and effects that resulted in society creating and enforcing laws. Penalties repair the harm, correct the offender, and protect the rest of us. If there are “extenuating circumstances”, like mental incapacity, or contributing factors that were actually outside your knowledge and control, then they may be taken into account. But causality is always an assumed constant, on both sides of the equation, so it is never a “get out of jail free card”.

    If everything is inevitable, can you just sit back and wait for it to happen? Well, you should try doing that when you’ve been tossed into a swimming pool. If you remain still, totally engrossed in observing what was inevitably to happen next, you’ll likely drown. The point is that inevitability requires your active participation. And if the choice is to sink or swim, you had best take control of your own destiny. You’ll find that life often tosses you into a swimming pool.

    There is no separation between you and causality. It is not some foreign agency forcing you to comply. Causality is also you, thinking, choosing, and acting of your own free will. What becomes inevitable is in your hands. All of your reasons, feelings, beliefs, values, experience, and so on, that cause you to choose one thing rather than another, are totally impotent to cause anything without you.

    So there you have it. Determinism is a fact of life. It is a deducible characteristic of the real world we inhabit. Free will is also a fact of life. It is an objectively observable phenomena that occurs in the real world. Therefore there can be no conflict.

    To find conflict, you have to enter an irrational world, like the one proposed by the “anti-causal libertarian free willers” or the equally irrational world of the “anti-choice determinists”. Both of those worlds are trapped in the paradox. Don’t let the silly paradox trap you.


  2. Dear Mr. Edwards,
    Thank you so much for your detailed views on the article.

    Determinism also says that every event has a particular cause, which specifically causes only that event. That’s why I brought free will in the question. Because if all the events are determined by some cause, then how do we know that the action we are undertaking out of our own will, is actually an act of free will, because it might just be predetermined. And that’s why I questioned free will in context of determinism.

    I liked your perspective on the issue. The way you established both determinism and free will as facts of life is really interesting. Thank you for reading the article and reflecting on it in such great detail. Stay tuned for more posts. 🙂


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