Choose Determinism

dilbert_determinismContrary to the depressing implications of Dilbert’s soul-destroying cubicle, there is a comfort in believing in only one possibility. If the universe is a clock, why should anyone wonder what might have been if it had ticked in another way, because it cannot tick in another way. It is a logical basis for Buddhist serenity to believe that what is is all that ever could have been. What would or could be, will be, or it never would or could have been.

I feel like determinism serves for me as a kind of atheist equivalent to the all-powerful-god of other religions. Rather than saying “It’s God’s will,” or “God does everything for a reason,” I say “this was always to be,” secure in knowing that I did everything I could  because according to determinism I cannot do what I do not do.

Determinism can help us to forgive those who have hurt us. If we understand their actions are the result of their genetics and upbringing (nature and nurture), how can we blame them for where they ended up, even if that place brought us harm? Without free will, we free ourselves from the notion of evildoers. We can simplify our moral code to focus on the future – helping all people instead of worrying about who does and does not deserve our help due to notions of the choices they did or did not make themselves.

These choices people make are based on their understanding of the world, which necessarily comes from the world that they have lived in. Instead of sitting in judgement of people, we should work to make a world where the next generation can make better choices than we did. If you can do that while still keeping your notions of personal blame, then please, go ahead and do it. And tell me how you did.


4 thoughts on “Choose Determinism”

  1. I think you need to draw a distinction between the concept of sitting in judgement and the concept of accountability. I think our capacity for blame or guilt is an evolved reaction, like our reaction to physical pain, and I think we discard it at our own peril.

  2. Sam, I know you are not apathetic and you do good things. Like bringing up ethical issues and encouraging us all to think about them. Which I don’t believe you had to do. I choose to give you credit for choosing to do that.

    Nevertheless, I fundamentally disagree with you. I think you are wrong about determinism, and more importantly, I think a belief in determinism can be quite harmful when extended beyond the realm of compassion for others that you write about here. There are other, and I believe more constructive, ways to be compassionate.

    Determinism for many of us would put us on the slippery slope of not caring about trying to make the world a better place and to do our best to strive to be better human beings, whatever that means to us (hopefully that has something to do with helping others and contributing to society). If we have no choice, why should we try?

    I don’t believe in determinism, but I do believe that life is not an equal playing ground. Someone who seems to be an abominable excuse for a human being may actually be trying harder to help themselves and their fellow human beings than I am. That’s how I try to look at the world to encourage myself to be less judgmental. My views are distinct from determinism since I believe we all have choices. They are just different for different people.

    Actions should, however, be judged. Since the world is not deterministic, we should strive to encourage those actions that are constructive and helpful and discourage destructive, harmful actions. Nevertheless, we should treat our fellow human beings with compassion, even those that commit terrible offenses. And we should always keep in mind that sometimes there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, both for positive and negative actions.

    I also believe that everyone has the capacity for good, indifference and harm. Positive actions should be encouraged and harmful ones discourages. Even in my own case, where I know my whole life story, judging myself (rather than my actions) does not help me do good things (judging myself is probably also inaccurate, but for simplicity let’s go for the stronger test of my theory that it is accurate). Judging myself denies my capacity for either good, evil, or indifference, depending on my judgement. Judging my actions allows me to see areas in which I can improve or situations I might want to avoid so as to prevent poor behavior. It also lets me see my strengths.

    So, in short, I do not believe the universe is deterministic. I do believe that we should strive to improve our selves and the world around us. All while having compassion for the people we meet.

  3. I hardly consider disagreement from my peers the same as “getting beaten up.” Nevertheless, now that I have started a conversation this is a terrific opportunity to reply to the concerns raised in the above comments.

    Greg: no one is saying we shouldn’t take measures to encourage people to act in such a way as benefits others. I am saying that we should keep in mind that if we do decide that a person needs to be punished, we should do it for the purpose of a greater good rather than to satisfy some notion that those who cause suffering should suffer themselves. I can’t respond to vague omens of things being discarded “at our own peril,” except that the emotions guided and protected our ancestors who did not have the cognitive capacity to run their lives on logic have become less important as we have grown more knowledgeable about ourselves and the world around us.

    Alice: I contend that the phenomenon of decision-making can and does exist without free will. It takes only a casual understanding of the world to see that people make decisions based on circumstances around them, and that an agent powerful enough to change circumstances will be able to change people’s decisions, whether for society’s benefit or otherwise. The existence or nonexistence of free will is irrelevant to this fact. I hope that this clarification helps put to rest the notion that in a deterministic universe there would be no point in trying to influence human culture and society.

    This next point is more subtle. It is in response to your suggestion that in the absence of free will there is no reason to try to improve ourselves or help others. Here again I point to a clear fact of life that does not rely on the existence of free will: The sense of free will. Our consciousness gives us the ability to make decisions. Regardless of whether or not these decisions come from some special part of ourselves or are governed by the immutable laws of nature, they appear to us as under our control, and so, and now I’m getting into Existentialism, in each of our realities we do have responsibility to ourselves and others. So, we should strive to improve ourselves and if we are able improve the lives of others and encourage them to take actions that will improve everyone’s lives as a whole. All of this remains the same whether or not one chooses to believe in free will, just as a person can have compassion without believing in God.

    The benefit of not believing in free will is that one does not have to wonder why someone makes a decision to do something terrible. A brain fires electrons and a person satisfies some combination of the desires and fears bred into him or her by evolution and those taught to him or her through his or her life experience. Perhaps this notion makes the world lose its magic for some people. Determinism, like many realms of philosophy and theology, is, and may always be, inherently unprovable and undisprovable, and people will choose to believe what the synapses in their brains want to believe.

    Greg and Alice, as long as your synapses lead you to live a compassionate life in which you try to be a net benefit to those around you, I hope that those synapses lead you to choose the philosophy that best activates the happiness centers of your brains. In any case, I won’t judge.

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