Monday, April 23, 2012

On Determinism

The area of philosophy that I am most concerned with is ethics and morality, but recently I have been obsessed with the idea of determinism. Determinism is not just a philosophical belief, but a metaphysical claim on the nature of the universe, and if true, has many philosophical, religious and ethical implications. Bluntly put, determinism is the idea that the movement of all physical matter, from the stars and planets, to every animal and human, has its fate already determined in the moment of the creation of our universe, the Big Bang. So just as we can predict the movement of every billiard ball on a pool table when smashed with a cue ball from a certain angle, if determinism is true, every atom in the universe behaves in much to same way.

The implications of determinism could have profound effects on the idea of free will. There are those that call themselves compatibilists who believe that determinism does not cancel the idea of free will, and that notions of free will and determinism can coexist. One example given, is the idea that you are in a long corridor lined with several doors each containing a letter of the alphabet. You can choose to open any door you like.You decide to open door A and do so. What you didn't know, is that the laws of deterministic physics made you open door A and that all the other doors would have been locked to you. So doors B through Z were unable to be opened, but you did not know that, and so from your perspective you think you were making a free choice. In other words, what ever we choose to do has already been determined for us, but since we don't know the future, we are under the impression that when we make decisions we are making them out of free choice.

If determinism is true, then the notion of fate is true. Each and every one of us would have our future known in antecedent quantum events. I've always rejected the idea of fate, because I felt that it removes my free will. I like the idea that I am making decisions with my rational brain everyday, and that these decisions are not the result of a quantum chain reaction. I am not a determinist, largely because of quantum unpredictability, like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I believe that determinism's existence in reality is largely a question of physics and not a philosophical one. And as such, if determinism were to be true, I guess I would fall among the compatibilists, who believe that we can still operate under the guise of free will existing, even though it wouldn't really exist, because we cannot know the future. But the thing about determinism is that, if enough information about the quantum world could be obtained, then every event in the future could be predicted and known, and we would therefore know the future. But I've often wondered that if we could do that, wouldn't we then be able to deviate from what the laws of physics have already determined we will do? It seems more likely that, the universe would never allow us to know such a thing because it would in a way, just like the time traveler who alters the past, open a paradox.

There are a great many famous determinists. It was the reconciliation between determinism and indeterminism that nearly drove Einstein mad toward the end of his life. I too am plagued with such a conflict as Einstein was but certainly to a much lesser extent. I sometimes wonder if I can trick nature by purposely doing something different from what I originally intended. But I know such attempts are futile in that all my actions and thoughts, no matter how much I think I can alter them from what I would have done, are all accounted for in the natural order, if determinism is true.


Along with my fascination with determinism, I've reconsidered existentialism once again after having tossed it away to the waste-bin of intellectual rubbish. Existentialism has long been the philosophy of bohemian intellectual types, often with french names. It is a philosophy I have been reluctant to embrace perhaps, because I tend to be more of an empiricist, rather than one who embraces subjectivism. Perhaps I could reconsider?

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