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This article is about the general notion of determinism in philosophy. For other uses of the word "deterministic" see: Deterministic (disambiguation).

Determinism is the philosophical conception which claims that every physical event, including human cognition and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. No mysterious miracles or totally random events occur.


Philosophy of determinism

The principal consequences of deterministic philosophy are that free will (except as defined in strict compatibilism) becomes an illusion, and that the outcomes of all future events have already been determined. Determinism is associated with, and relies upon, the ideas of Materialism and Causality. Some of the philosophers who have dealt with this issue are Omar Khayyam, David Hume, Thomas Hobbes, Immanuel Kant, and, more recently, John Searle.

With Earth's first Clay They did the Last Man's knead,
And then of the Last Harvest sow'd the Seed:
  Yea, the first Morning of Creation wrote
What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.
(Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, LIII, rendered into English verse by Edward Fitzgerald)

Nature of determinism

The exact meaning of the term "determinism" has historically been subject to various interpretations. Some view determinism and free will as mutually exclusive, whereas others, labelled "Compatibilists", believe that the two ideas can be coherently reconciled. Most of this disagreement is due to the fact that the definition of "free will," like determinism, varies. Some feel it refers to the metaphysical truth of independent agency, whereas others simply define it as the feeling of agency that humans experience when they act. For example, David Hume argued that while it is possible that one does not freely arrive at one's set of desires and beliefs, the only meaningful interpretation of freedom relates to one's ability to translate those desires and beliefs into voluntary action.

Determinism in the western tradition

The idea that the entire universe is a deterministic system has been articulated in both Western and non-Western religion, philosophy, and literature. In the West, determinism is often associated with Newtonian physics, which argues that the physical matter of the universe operates according to a set of fixed, knowable laws. The "billiard ball" hypothesis, a product of Newtonian physics, argues that because the initial conditions of the universe have already been established, it is theoretically possible, with complete knowledge of physical matter and the laws governing that matter, to predict the time and place of every event that will ever occur. In this sense, the basic particles of the universe operate in the same fashion as the rolling balls on a billiard table, moving and striking each other in predictable ways to produce only slightly-less predictable results.

Determinism in the eastern tradition

In the East, determinism has to a certain extent been expressed in the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination, which states that every phenomenon, exclusive of Nirvana and space-time, is conditioned by, and depends on, the phenomena that it is not. In Buddhism, this teaching is used to demonstrate that to ascribe value to any one thing is to ignore the interdependence of all things.

Arguments against Determinism

Argument from Morality

Some critics of determinism argue that if people are incapable of independent choice (free will) there can be no basis for morality, and therefore some aspects of criminal and civil jurisprudence and legislation are left without their necessary foundation.

Determinists have responded to this critique by distinguishing between normative and positive claims, arguing that statements of fact can and should be made independently of their consequences. Thus, even if determinism is inconsistent with the idea of a moral universe, that does not necessarily invalidate its conclusions.

Determinism and Quantum Mechanics

Recently, the developing field of quantum mechanics has been interpreted as being consistent with the argument that some basic events may be truly random and non-deterministic. In addition, the notion that objects move and strike each other "in predictable ways to produce only slightly-less predictable results" has been shown to be false, even in Newtonian physics. See butterfly effect.

There are two main counter-arguments to this:

  1. Quantum mechanics has been misinterpreted, and the idea of "randomness" has wrongly been interpreted to mean the occurrence of something entirely uncaused by prior events. The "random" movements of sub-atomic particles are random in the sense that no human measurement can account for or predict them. They are not random in the sense that they have no prior cause. These events occur according to probability and may have an as-of-yet-unknown cause. (However underlying causes, if they existed, would have effects that can be measured. See Bell test experiments).
  2. If non-deterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics are correct, and uncaused events occur, these events are not the products of human cognition. Rather, the actions of a person influenced by these events would be attributable to a truly independent quantum mechanism, not the person's own free will.

First Cause

Intrinsic to the debate concerning determinism is the issue of first cause. Deism, a philosophy articulated in the seventeenth century, holds that the universe has been deterministic since creation, but ascribes the creation to a metaphysical God or first cause outside of the chain of determinism. God may have begun the process, Deism argues, but God has not influenced its evolution. This perspective illustrates the puzzle underlying any conception of determinism: either the entirety of space-time came into existence at some point without any prior cause, in which case the determinist argument fails, or else space-time has always existed, leaving both sides to contemplate the problem of infinity.

Modern perspectives on determinism

Scientific determinism and first cause

Since the early twentieth century when astronomer Edwin Hubble first hypothesized that red shift shows the universe is expanding, prevailing scientific opinion has been that the universe started with a Big Bang, and therefore has a finite age. Different astrophysicists hold different views about precisely how the universe originated (Cosmogony), but a consistent viewpoint is that scientific determinism has held at the macroscopic level since the universe came into being.

Determinism and generative processes

In emergentist or generative philosophy of cognitive sciences and evolutionary psychology, free will is the generation of infinite behaviour from the interaction of finite-deterministic set of rules and parameters. Thus the unpredictability of the emerging behaviour from deterministic processes leads to a perception of free will, though free will as an ontological entity does not exist.

As an illustration, the strategy board-games chess and more so Go are probably the most rigorous and deterministic in its rules and parameters in terms of the positions of the pieces or entities in relation to other entities on the board. Yet, chess and especially Go with its extreme rigour and rules, generates more moves and unpredictable behaviour than any other games in existence. By analogy, emergentists or generativists suggest that the experience of free will emerges from the interaction of finite rules and deterministic parameters that generate infinite and unpredictable behaviour.

Dynamical-evolutionary psychology, cellular automata and the generative sciences, model emergent processes of social behaviour on this philosophy, showing the experience of free will as essentially a gift of ignorance or as a product of incomplete information.

See also

External links

Last updated: 05-07-2005 17:33:08
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04