Monday, June 27, 2011


You just couldn't help it, could you?  Did you even try to resist?  It doesn't matter.  You couldn't have stopped yourself even if you wanted to.  You are a product of your environment and your choices have all been set for you.  It's like someone wound you up like a kid's toy when you were born and set you on a set path of which you can never waiver.

For all my Intro to Philosophy students, this position is known as causal determinism.  We are but mere products of our causal environments (material, social, cultural...).  Ultimately, it all boils down to the fact that we are all a part of the physical universe that runs according to concrete natural laws.  When you throw a rock, that rock's trajectory and destination can be calculated without error given that we know all of the laws and conditions surrounding that throw.  Pure physics.  For us, no different.  Pure physics.

But we think that we are somehow more special than rocks, right?  We have minds.  We have reasons.  Alas, they are but smoke and mirrors.  When we act, we always act according to some desire, that desire that is highest in us at that moment.  And that desire is one not forged within the depths of our own being.  It is nurtured in us by the environments we find ourselves (again, material, social, cultural...).  Why am I writing this post?  It is time for a new post to surface and I've wanted to write this post for some time.  I am desiring to write this post, and it just so happens that that is the desire that won out tonight among my other desires.  Thus, I acted on it.  Could I have done otherwise given the exact same causal conditions.  No.  Under the same conditions I would have done exactly the same thing.

Just think about that.  Think back to dinner this evening.  Given the same exact causal conditions, you would have eaten the same dinner.  Now think to this very moment.  Given the exact causal conditions you find yourself, there is a precise action that is determined for you.  And it is determined for you not because there is some force hovering over you making you do what you do.  You will do that action because that is what the myriad of causes will have you do.

What I find so interesting about this topic is that it makes so much sense and yet it is quite disconcerting, no?  We so love to think that we are above causal determinism, that we are such a people that enjoy a freedom that nothing else does.  But might that desire itself be a function of the society we find ourselves??


  1. Whatever. Anyone can make the argument that we are causally determined, because we feel that observed things in the universe are causally determined (like the rock you mentioned). But that's just because we feel like we must point to this thing called a "cause" whenever something happens a certain way. What if that idea of a "cause" in itself means nothing really, because we just made it up in the first place, and this just makes us feel we can apply the idea of "cause" to EVERYTHING in the universe, including ourselves?
    Can't we make our own "causes"? Or does EVERYTHING we do HAVE to have a cause that we did not create for ourselves?
    I can go hiking today, or I can choose not to. My reasons I am going to hike are because it is beautiful outside, I enjoy spending time in nature, I like being active, and I have no other obligations to fulfill.
    Even if there were a series of events/causes leading up to my decision that I am going to go hiking today (a series totally out of my control), it is not like I could realistically figure out the physical laws that have governed this series, to make me choose to go hiking, and in theory, then figure out the physical laws that could govern a future series. The variables are INFINITE, and could trace back to the other side of the world, and to the top of the highest mountain, and across the country for all we know. These variables are infinitely woven and intertwined with each other so much that the complexity of EVERY MOMENT is so intense and thick, that it would be impossible to figure out "what will happen next" or whatever.
    Besides, who cares? So what if something is causing me to do what I'm doing? I'm still going to enjoy it and not fret about silly ideas like, "what if we could, over time, uncover an entire set of physical laws that can tell us exactly what's going to happen in the future, and PROVE we have no free will, because everything is causally determined???????". What a pointless endeavor this would be!

  2. The point of discussing determinism is to know ourselves better. We believe that we are free in some absolute sense to do whatever we want. Many would want to believe that reading this very comment was purely a matter of their choices without the deterministic influences of all things external. Causal determinism says that that is all wrong. There are definite causes that make us do what we do all the time, and that no amount of wishful thinking can undo that.

    Will we ever know all these precise causes that make me do what I do? No, but that was never the point. The point is to get a better sense of our reality, to get a better sense of ourselves. Causal determinism says that we should give up on the ridiculous notion of absolute freedom (kind of like freedom equated with randomness).

    To put it another way, causal determinism suggests taking the well-worn saying, "Everything happens for a reason," to the nth degree.

  3. You have to move away from philosophy in order to understand the world, the same way Galileo had to break from the common sense philosophy of Aristotle to understand motion. Marx had to stand Hegel right side up in order to understand the real world. Harvey had to break from Galen to understand the circulation of blood. You have to break from crude determinism to understand how reality works. Read those who are pioneers in this field (Einstein, Dirac, Feynman, Hawkins, and Newton). Brain Greene has several excellent books on the subject of reality. They have much more profound things to say about reality. Stay away from making broad general absolute statements, especially those you cannot confirm.

  4. Confirmation is not quite relevant when it comes to the big questions. Try explanatory value or best possible explanation given what we know.

  5. Yes, that would be acceptable.

    Let me go in a different direction about determinism, into the secret world of the brain. There is nothing on earth more complicated that the three pound brain.

    Consciousness exist but we do not know exactly our brain cells produce consciousness it exists. One brain cell by itself is relatively insignificant but together the 100 billion nerve cells produce you.

    Furthermore, vision, hearing and our sense of time are nothing more than mental constructions created by the brain. For example, when you snap your fingers, your eyes and ears register different information about the snap and send these signals directly to the brain for processing but the visual and auditory signals travel at distinctly different speeds, but the brain makes the appropriate adjustments to make it appear as though it is happening right now when the event is actually over and in the past. Think about thunder and lighting, same even, but you see the lighting before you hear the thunder. Light simply travels too fast for the brain to make the appropriate mental adjustments.

    Based on the above, causality requires a temporal order judgment, and this is the work of the brain, which keeps the expectations of time signals appropriately calibrated. To conclude, we are aware of very little of what is out there in the world.

    A good pilot, except under specific circumstances, always relies on the instruments never on the senses! Trust the instruments!

  6. Ok after all these comments, I don't understand why we should even care.
    So it is about knowing ourselves better, and getting a better understanding of reality.... ok??
    How does believing we are causally determined or not actually impact our lives?
    If I choose to believe that every desire/thought/action of mine is causally determined, what am I going to do? Probably sit back and let the ride go, since everything is clearly out of my own control.
    If I choose to NOT believe that my desires/thoughts/actions are causally determined, am I going to go sit in a corner and suck my thumb, out of sheer fright of being completely in control of my destiny? No. I am just going to sit back, and continue my life.
    When one mentioned something about "everything happens for a reason", what kind of reason is meant? For instance, in the past when thinking "this happened for a reason", I'm thinking of a reason that I just haven't discovered yet, as in, perhaps this sad event will lead to a happy event, where the happy event is the "reason". It is backwards I know, but when this idea is applied to unfortunate circumstances, it can be calming for one to know that bad things happen so good things can happen later, or something like that. Anyway, I realize now that it was all a silly notion of mine that meant nothing more to me than my own personal mental comfort.
    The other way around however - one can say "Event B happened because Event A", or "I tripped on my shoelace today because of The Big Bang (which many believe is the start of everything in the universe)". So... what are the consequences of this? Who really cares? What difference does it make? So I might feel a little better knowing I had no control over a bad situation... and I might owe all of my good fortune to pure chance of circumstances.
    Whatever! We are going to live the way we live, and we are going to believe what we want to believe, as long as we ourselves feel good and can continue living a functional life as a human, causally determined or not.