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It can be strange how things gel. I seem to have come across a lot of instances recently of the idea known as “determinism”.

Of course the idea that everything is a matter of fate goes back down the millenia. What we have today, though, is a number of different versions that seem to correspond with different aspects of how we see things. For example, there are those who look at the scientific explanation of reality and declare that everything is utterly determined by what went before. This is a ‘hard determinism’. The softer version tries to find some area of indeterminacy, probably nestled down there in the quantum world, so that even though there is much that is fixed there is still a little wiggle room. Unfortunately this is a difficult idea to explore, and I cannot claim to understand the maths, so I just note that wiser minds think it might be so.

With Darwin, or at least with neo-Darwinism, another kind of determinism emerges. If the physics and chemistry are determined, then it is hard to see how the progress of evolution is not. There might seem to be trillions of chance occurrences, but ultimately they all had to happen. Again, we can see how there might be hard and soft versions of this, depending on how we view the underlying physics and chemistry.

In the twentieth century, psychological and social determinism had their share of the limelight, and are still with us. We may think we make choices, but once more that could be an illusion. Perhaps everything is determined by the physics and chemistry of the brain. Or maybe the environment with which we are surrounded, particularly the social environment. It seems to me that the notion of ‘memes’ is an attempt to draw the two together, although there is very little evidence or support for the theory.

My understanding here may be superficial, but even so it seems important to grapple with this issue. After all, our whole civilisation has developed on the basis that we make free choices, even if constrained within certain limits. Was that all a big mistake?

I don’t think it was all a big mistake, because belief in determinism always involves a vicious circle. Those who believe they are determined by outside forces are bound to lose belief in their own free will. After all, if everything is determined what’s the point of trying to change it? On the psychological level at least, it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and a major contributor to neurosis.

A more logical problem, as pointed out equally by those polar opposites, C S Lewis and J B S Haldane, is that if we are purely material and everything is determined by brain anatomy and physiology, then that would apply equally to all our ideas. Nothing could be regarded as true, including the belief in determinism. Determinism is often thought to destroy morality and religion, but ultimately it also destroys science.

Why, then, is determinism so attractive to some? My suggestion is that we often like the idea that we are not responsible, despite the logical problem of thinking that. There is no doubt that the forces of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology have their effects. But they do not amount to the fickle finger of fate. Perhaps it is our wish to avoid responsibility that makes us feel they do.

 

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