Determinism Isn't  

If I've asked you to read this page for an odyssey assignment, that means I think you don't understand determinism. If I've assigned this page to you as an odyssey stage, that means your previous stage contains some serious misconceptions about determinism. What I want you to do is study this page to get a clear idea about what determinism isn't, and then write a whole new paper that tackles the same question as your previous stage, but does so without any incorrect assumptions about what determinism says.

If you came here from the study guide, then you need to read carefully to make sure you get clear on what is and is not true about determinism.

General determinism (usually just "determinism") is the doctrine that everything in the universe, not just our volitions, but everything, is determined. If general determinism is true, volitional determinism (defined below) will certainly be true and quantum indeterminiacy will be false. If quantum indeterminacy is true, general determinism will be false. However, as will be noted, if general determinism is false, volitional determinism can easily still be true.

Volitional determinism is the doctrine that people's volitions, the impulses that result in them making decisions and/or taking actions, are all follow by necessity from their immediately preceeding brain states. The state of your brain at time t-0 precisely determines the decision you make at time t-1.

Volitional indeterminism is the doctrine that people's volitions, the impulses that result in them making decisions and/or taking actions, are all completely random with respect to their immediately preceeding brain states. The decision you make at time t-1 has nothing to do with state of your brain at time t-0.

One of the biggest problems with discussing determinism is that many people confuse it with programming, predetermination, predestination and other forms of external control. This is a very dangerous confusion, because it confuses determinism (which does not necessarily have anything to do with free will) with situations in which a person's actions or destiny are controlled by external forces (which situations are usually assumed to eliminate free will, or render it futile.) Let me be perfectly clear here. In this class, "determinism" only refers to determinism. It does not refer to programming, predetermination, predestination, fate, karma or any other kind of force external to the person that eliminates or negates her free will. It should also be unnecessary to add that "determinism" absolutely does not refer to nofreewillism or coercion.

Determinism is Not Nofreewillism

Determinism is the doctrine that events are determined by the immediately preceeding conditions. Nofreewillism is the doctrine that free will doesn't exist. Not only are these doctrines different, they don't have even one single solitary term in common. So it should be obvious that determinism isn't nofreewillism. In fact, saying "
determinism is not nofreewillism" is like saying "basketball is not the rejection of cheese production."

Indeterminism Is Not Freedom

If you think free willed actions cannot be determined, please write me a five page essay explaining how your "free" actions can still be your actions when they are completely random with respect to your mental state at the time you made them. (And if you think your free actions aren't random, then you do think they're determined, because random and not random are the only choices you get.)

Determinism is Nonrandomness.

If you think they're different, write a paper explaining how they're different. And then consult the definitions above to figure out where you went wrong.

"Necessity" is Determinism

Well, in this unit it is. In real life, "necessity" means something a little different from determinism, so I don't know why Palmer uses the word "necessity" since we already had the word "determinism." Still, when Palmer says "necessity," he means "determinism."

Indeterminism is Randomness

It just is. Deal with it.

Determinism Is Not Programming.

Some people interpret determinism as saying that people are presently equipped with programs that will control their future actions. It is true that some psychological theories claim that people have habitual ways of reacting to situations, called "scripts," that cause them to behave in certain ways. Couples who repeatedly enact exactly the same argument over and over again can be said to be operating on scripts. The presence of scripts in a person's mind can be said to reduce that person's free will because that person will tend to meet the same situation with the same response every time, instead of re-thinking, and possibly making a new decision with each new occurrence. If a person's script is so powerful that he cannot change the way he reacts to certain situations, then the script could well be seen as having eliminated his free will.

For instance, consider the case of a woman who has been programmed to always form relationships with arrogant men. You can make up your own story of how she got to be programmed. You can assume she was programmed by events in her childhood, or perhaps that she was the victim of a mad scientist. The one thing you cannot do is assume that she was programmed by volitional determinism, because volitional determinism cannot, and does not, program people. Anyway, assuming that this woman is programmed, we will infer that she is unable to resist overtures from arrogant men. Even if it is the case that she is well aware that all her previous relationships with arrogant men have been painful and psychologically harmful, even if she is absolutely determined to never again go out with another arrogant man, the fact that she is programmed means that she will never be able to say no if an arrogant man asks her for a date.

Determinism contradicts the view that people are programmed. Determinism says that the woman in the above example does not have to be programmed to always accept dates with arrogant men. Rather, it is a says that the next time an arrogant man asks this woman out, the decision will be determined by the conditions that exist in her brain at that time, which will include all her memories of painful experiences with arrogant man, and all her previous resolutions never to date one again. If the woman's decision is determined, rather than programmed, she will be able to resist the arrogant man's overtures, and indeed, will probably do so.

The doctrine of scripts is not the doctrine of determinism. Determinism says nothing about whether or not people are programmed. The theory of determinism says nothing about future behavior, and in fact says nothing specific about human beings at all. It just says that things do not operate randomly Although some people assume that determinism means that people are programmed, and illegitimately and confusingly refer to this theory as "psychological determinism," it is absolutely wrong to assume that the doctrine of volitional determinism is the same as this doctrine of psychological "determinism."

If you think that volitional determinism implies that people are programmed, then you will have to show how the mere fact that the volitional system does not operate randomly creates programs that prevents people from ever changing how they react to things. If you cannot show that nonrandomness in the brain creates programs that act on the volitional system as a kind of external control, then you rationally should conclude that it does not, and that determinism does not imply that people are programmed.

Determinism Is Not Predetermination.

Sometimes I see students write things like "determinism rules out free will because, if our actions are predetermined, then they are not chosen by us." The problem with this is that determinism does not say actions are predetermined. Determinism just says that actions are determined, which is a very different thing. If an action is predetermined, that means that some external agency decides what you are going to do for you have had a chance to make up your own mind about what you are going to do. Determinism does not say that your actions are predetermined because it does not say that there is any external agency that can decide your actions for you before you make up your mind. It just says that, when you do make up your mind, do so in a nonrandom manner. Volitional determinism just says that your decisions are determined by the conditions that exist inside your brain at the time immediately preceding your decision. No external force is involved, and the determination is made only at that point in time where you make the decision.

For example of predetermination, consider the example of a man who has been predetermined to buy a doughnut with his morning coffee tomorrow. (Again, you can make up your own story about how he became predetermined to buy that doughnut. Whatever story you tell, make sure you remember that whatever it is has nothing whatsoever to do with determinism.) If the man is predetermined to buy that doughnut, then his brain state at the time he makes the decision will have nothing whatsoever to do with what he does. He is going to buy that doughnut, no matter what. Even if he is absolutely determined to lose weight, even if he has come to hate donuts, even if he has decided absolutely not to buy that doughnut, he will buy it. That's what "predetermined" means. And it is also the opposite of determinism. Determinism says that his brain state, which includes all his desires and decisions, will determine whether or not he buys the doughnut. Volitional determinism implies that decisions are not predetermined, because it clearly implies that decisions are only determined at the time that they are made, and not before.

Remember, determinism just says that our decisions are not random with respect do what is going on in our brains at the time we make them. If the man's desire to lose weight is stronger than his hunger and his craving for sugar, he will decline the doughnut. If hunger and craving are stronger, he will buy the doughnut. You may think that a condition in which a person's decisions are not random with respect to his present brain state is not a state of free will, but you cannot legitimately say that the nonrandomness of this person's decisions means they are predetermined.

Predetermination is not determinism. Determinism not only says nothing about whether or not people's decisions can be determined for them in advance, it actually contradicts this idea by saying that people's decisions are determined by their brain states of hope, fear, desire, determination and conscious thought at the time of the decision.

If you want to think that determinism implies that decisions are predetermined as well as determined, you have to prove two things. First, you would have to show how a person's decision can be both determined by the conditions that exist at the time of the decision and by some different set of conditions that existed at some previous time. Second, you would have to show how determinism creates the conditions in the human brain that allow previous conditions to determine present decisions. Good luck with that.

Determinism Is Not Predestination.

Sometimes, students write things like "determinism rules out free will because, if our fate is already decided for us, and there is nothing we can do to alter it, then we have no free will." There are two things wrong with this. First, it misunderstands determinism. Second, it misunderstands free will.

Predestination is best illustrated by the story of the Appointment in Samarra. A man has a servant. This servant came in one day in a state of extreme distress. He tells his master that he was just in the marketplace and he saw Death there too. He would not have been scared, except that Death gave him a funny look, and that panicked him. The servant begged his master to lend him a horse, so he could go and stay with relatives in the distant town of Samarra. The master agreed, but after the man had ridden away, he became very angry and decided to give Death a piece of his mind. So the master hurried to the marketplace and confronted Death. "Why did you give my servant that funny look," he demanded. "I'm sorry," Death replied, "but I was very surprised to see him here. You see, I have an appointment with him tonight in the distant town of Samarra."

Predestination is the claim that our fate is already marked out as, and that there is nothing we can do to avoid ending up there. However, predestination does not rule out free will. The man in the story went to Samarra of his own free will. He was not coerced. Nobody dragged him there. He struggled to avoid his fate, but his fate caught up with him anyway. Notice that the story does not say that he did not have a choice in what he did. The story just said that he did not have a choice in what eventually happened to him.

Secondly, and more importantly, predestination is enormously different from determinism. Determinism simply does not say that there is any inevitable fate picked out for us in advance. If anything, determinism contradicts predestination because it says that events are determined by present conditions, not by arbitrarily assigned destinies.

If you want to say that determinism implies predestination, you are going to have to come up with how determinism can arrange for someone's destiny to be picked out in advance, and then you're going to have to give an argument that shows that the mere fact that people's decisions are non-random with respect to their present brain states inevitably creates the arbitrarily chosen destinies necessary for predestination to be true. Again, good luck with that.

Determinism does not mean everything about a person's volitional process is known to that person.

Volitional determinism just says that a person's volitional system, however it works, works in a non-random manner. It absolutely does not imply that anyone will know anything.

If you want to say that determinism implies knowledge, you have to prove how the mere fact that an internal brain process is deterministic will make a full description of that process available to the person's consciousness.

Determinism does not imply predictability. It does not mean that nothing unexpected happens.

"Random" and "unexpected" are two very different concepts. While it is true that all random events are unexpected, not all unexpected events are random. (In fact, very few unexpected events are random.) For instance, if you decide on the spur of the moment to do something that you did not expect to do, that is not necessarily a random action. A random act would not only be unexpected, it would be totally unrelated to your needs and desires. If you think you dislike Nike sneakers and then unexpectedly find yourself liking some particular pair of Nikes in a shop window, that is not necessarily a random event. It could simply be the result of a deterministic causal process that contains elements you are not aware of.

An event would only be provably random if it was more than just unexpected, it made absolutely no sense to anyone. If, instead of ordering icecream as you had originally decided to, you suddenly and without discernable reason, and without changing your mind before acting, spit at the server. An action is only provably random if there is no way that it could have been the result of any process whatsoever.

Determinism does not mean people can't change their minds

Some people believe that if our brains are deterministic, that means we can never change out minds. This is absolutely not true. Determinism does not say anything about not changing one's mind. All volitional determinism says is that changing ones mind is a non-random process. For instance, say you are intending to buy chocolate ice cream and at the last second find yourself getting vanilla instead, that is perfectly compatible with determinism even if the change makes no apparant sense to you. This is because deterministic processes can work below the level of consciousness to produce results that are unexpected even to us. Of course, if the change does make sense to you, that means it was determined, because random stuff cannot make sense. To put this another way, if the change was undetermined, then it won't make sense to you since being undetermined means it had nothing to do with anything that might matter to you.


Remember, determinisim is a condition of non-randomness. A system is deterministic to the extent that it's behavior at any given instant is not random with respect to it's state in the immediately preceeding instant. To put it another way, determinism is a condition such that whatever happens at a given instant is fully controlled by the exact state of the universe in the immediately preceeding instant. It is important to remember that this is the whole definition of determinism. Determined just means non-random. Random just means undetermined.

Determinism sometimes allows predictability, if the system is simple enough that all the important variables can be known with sufficient precision. However, most deterministic systems are much too complicated for this to be possible, so vast majority of deterministic systems are highly unpredictible. For this reason, determinism does not imply predictibility.

Randomness does not allow predictability. If a system is operating without determinism, then it's behavior at any given instant does not depend on it's state at any preceeding instant, so knowing it's state at any given time will not tell us anything about it's state at any later time. Since a system can only be predictible to the extent it is deterministic, predictibility implies determinism.

For instance, say that Pierre is a very regular churchgoer, and we know that there is absolutely nothing unusual about this Sunday moring for Pierre. He is not sick, his family is fine, he has not had a crisis of faith. In fact, for Pierre, this Sunday is exactly like last Sunday. (When I say exactly, I mean exactly. Don't be saying to yourself, "there could be something different." In this case, there isn't anything different.) Given that this Sunday is exactly like last Sunday, determinism says that Pierre will go to church, so if it turns out that he actually does go to church, that is evidence that determinism is true, at least for Pierre.

Of course, in real life, we never get the exact same conditions over again, and we also never know enough about any situation to make accurate predictions, so most deterministic systems are unpredictible. Still, it is a fact that predictibility is only ever possible with deterministic systems, so the fact you can make accurate predictions about some systems implies that at least those systems are deterministic.

Indeterminsim Makes Control Impossible

Imagine that your car's steering wheel is not deterministically connected to your car's front wheel. If the connection isn't deterministic, then a slight turn to the left won't necessarily cause the car to make a slight turn to the left. It might make the car turn hard left instead. It might even make a slight right turn. You just don't know. And whatever it does this time, it won't necessarily do the same thing the next time you turn the wheel the same way. In fact, an indeterministic connection is just like having the steering disconnected and the car's wheels moving randomly as you desperately try to regain control over your vehicle. Don't try this at home.

Indeterminsim Makes Prediction Impossible

Say your car's wheels move randomly. Can you predict which way they'll move next? How would you do it?

If you still don't see how determinism is different from programming, predetermination, self-preknowledge, predictability, and robotism, read Escape From Hell Mountain.

When you try to write about determinism, try to get the definition right. If you don't, then you won't really be writing about determinism.

Copyright © 2009 by Martin C. Young

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