Saturday, May 15, 2004

Destiny & Determinism

The initial dissatisfaction many people feel towards determinism may be largely due to their conflating it with a notions of pre-destination, fate, or destiny. I want to take this opportunity to highlight the differences, and so assuage some of the common concerns about freedom & determinism. The key differences are in regard to the 'overall purpose of things', and - most importantly - the impact of individual strivings & contributions to history.

First, the notion of 'purpose'. I simply want to emphasise that determinism has none. Those other quasi-religious notions are all built around the idea of events leading up to some inevitable goal which must be realised no matter what. Determinism, by contrast, has no inherent goals, it's just the way things are. Sure, it means that future states are inevitable given the past states and the laws of nature, but there is no personal driving force behind it all, no God or gods imposing their will upon us hapless mortals. I think that's an important distinction to bear in mind.

Most important of all, of course, is the question of an individual's power to contribute to the shaping of history. According to 'destiny' notions, there is a fixed (divine) goal which will be attained no matter how much we strive against it. Human actions don't make any difference - fate ensures the future will turn out the same no matter what we choose or how we act. The phrase "you can't fight fate" pretty much sums it up.

Our cultural heritage has tied 'determinism' and 'destiny' notions very closely together. This makes it a difficult link to break, though for purely psychological reasons. For hard though it may be for us to see (at first, anyway), the gulf between these notions is vast indeed.

The key difference is that while destiny excludes us from influencing the future, determinism does quite the opposite - in fact, it needs us to shape the future. This is best demonstrated hypothetically: suppose you die in a car crash tomorrow. Now, according to 'destiny' notions (e.g. suppose you are destined to die tomorrow), then even if you avoided cars altogether, fate would nevertheless contrive some way to kill you off. Maybe you'd get struck by lightning, or have a heart attack, whatever. Contrast this with determinism: if (contrary to fact) you had avoided cars altogether, then you would not have died that day at all. Your different actions would cause all sorts of different consequences - perhaps you would go on to cure cancer and live to see 100!

You may think these hypotheticals irrelevant - "what matters is reality, and in reality it's determined that I die in a car crash tomorrow and there's nothing I can do about it!". This complaint sounds plausible, because there is a sense in which it is literally true. But it's also severely mistaken due to a conceptual confusion about the nature of control.

You lack control if your actions lack causal power, i.e. if no matter how you act, the future will not be affected. Hypotheticals are thus central to the notion of control; to assess whether you have control or not, simply look at those (hypothetical) possibilities where you act differently, and see if a different state of affairs results. According to destiny, it won't. But according to determinism, it will.

Your actions determine the future. That is the way to understand determinism without making the all-too-easy mistake of conflating it with destiny notions. It is also the case that "past events determine your actions", but we are in a far worse position to understand the true nature and implications of that proposition, so if you focus on it too much (as people commonly do), then misunderstandings of determinism will inevitably result.

The heart of the matter is that destiny notions deprive us of a place in history. They imply that the same future would result with or without us - they exclude us from the causal chain. Determinism, by contrast, embeds us deeply within the causal chain. Sure, other stuff makes us happen. But then we make things happen. Without us, they would not. If we acted differently, things would turn out differently. Of course it is true that in reality we don't act differently - we act the way we do. But that doesn't mean our actions don't have consequences. It doesn't mean that we are excluded from the causal chain. It doesn't mean that we don't shape history.

It is commonly believed that determinism implies we lack control over our lives. This couldn't be further from the truth. Determinism not only co-exists with personal freedom, but indeed, by embedding us within the causal chain, it provides our freedom.


  1. [b] Sure, other stuff makes us happen. But then we make things happen. Without us, they would not.[/b]

    Your distinction between destiny and determinism is a worthwhile one but I think in the process you overemphasise how comfortable we should be inside a hard determinist framework.

    A light switch is turned on.
    Electrical current is sent to the light globe.
    The light turns on.

    Did the electrical current cause the light to go on? In one sense it did. Is it responsible for the light going on? Perhaps in one sense that is correct too.

    But does the electrical current have any control over the situation? Over the light or over itself? If it wanted to, could it not turn on the light, (given the light switch is turned from off to on)? In this sense the current has no freedom, no causal agency, no control.

    [b] You lack control if your actions lack causal power, i.e. if no matter how you act, the future will not be affected[/b].
    You lack control if you cannot determine your own actions, that is it is inevitable that you will follow one course of action. To support your thesis would grant control to just about anything. If a hammer breaks then it will affect the future of my carpentry, thus the hammer has a degree of control over itself and my future.

    What I think you are suggesting is related to personal identity, that say if the electricity was self-aware that it could be proud of itself for its actions. However if it kept watching the person flip the switch and then itself continually and inevitably travelling to the light globe, this feeling of ownership would vanish over time.

    The electricity can find no comfort in knowing that if it acted differently it would be responsible for changing the future. Because it is not the case that it in reality ‘doesn’t’ act differently, but that in reality it ‘can’t’ act differently.

    Posted by Illusive Mind

  2. Good point. I probably should have said: you lack control if your decisions lack causal power. Here one needs to be careful in their understanding of 'decision' - I intend it to apply (to us) even in a deterministic universe. But of course it doesn't apply to electric currents. The key difference, as I see it, is that our brains engage in computation of decision-procedures (cognitive algorithms) which in turn guide our actions. I think that's enough to provide a (legitimate) sense of self-ownership and responsibility. It is a tricky question though, for sure.

    P.S. Again, I highly recommend Jason's post on evil robots, which I think is extremely helpful here. 

    Posted by Richard


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