Change and Determinism

Change and Determinism November 28, 2018

I was reminded recently of the notion of change in the paradigm of determinism. We often talk, even hard determinists, in terms of “change”: If you changed this and that variable in this child’s life, then it would change their outcome so as to bring out this particular outcome. Of course, this is kind of nonsensical under a deterministic framework. You can’t “change” anything when the universe is unalterably determined.

Language is a difficult thing to shake off when it is so embedded in one’s life.

To take this one conceptual step further, this also means that you can’t change the future. This can potentially lead to a sort of psychological fatalism where we might feel unable to affect the future in any meaningful way.

As this Quora question puts it:

Does determinism state that there is no way you can change the future? If so, does this mean it is pointless to do things in the hope that it will make the future better?

I think this answer stated it the best:

Yes, the future is determined.  But since we generally don’t know what that future will be until it arrives, it will always seem spontaneous to our “everyday” mentalities.  It is only when we stop our normal daily affairs to contemplate the deeper issues of human motivation that we are given to parting the curtain on our ostensible freedom.

Now, you can go ahead and try to live your life from this moment forward while immersed in a deep awareness that you are a puppet on strings.  In fact, I once tried to do that very thing.  What I found was this: a deep paralysis of my will set in as I watched seep away my motivation for anything but base needs and desires; I watched my personality shrivel; I became something like a zombie.  This did not last long, however, as dissatisfaction welled up within me and – not by my own doing –  I was pulled out of my trance and impelled to accept that the illusion of free choice is a necessary aspect of a healthy human psyche.

To put it straight, it is psychologically impossible to fully assimilate into our day-to-day lives the implications of our deterministic nature.

So my advice to you is to come to understand not just the truth of determinism per se, but moreover its truth as it relates specifically to our peculiar psychological makeup.  Once you’ve done this, the future is given back to you.

This is advocating for a pragmatic, illusionist approach to free will: it’s actually pretty difficult to lead a day-to-day life with a fully strict belief in determinism because it can lead to psychological fatalism. Of course, this says nothing of the actual truth or falsity of free will/determinism. How we deal with the reality of determinism is a different thing, especially given that there is technically no such thing as change.

See my chapters on free will in 13 Reasons to Doubt and Christianity in the Light of Science.

 


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