By Daniel Tarade
A base ideology that greatly influences how one perceives the world is whether one believes in free will or determinism. Are humans truly able to do whatever they want? Or does a combination of genetics, environment, and random chance constrain, determine even, their possibilities in life? I have come to see the latter as the most likely model. But for many, the idea of determinism is troubling. I can see why. So instead people grasp at observations that refute determinism on a cosmological scale; Black holes disrupt causal chains, quantum events are random, and recursive thought allows for rational action. These concepts can provide comfort but none challenge determinism. Instead, I argue that it is important to accept determinism and view it not as a curse but a model useful for understanding the world and oneself.
My earliest introduction to determinism dragged me into an existential funk for quite some time. My friends and I would speak about the ramifications of a determined universe in hushed tones at restaurants, careful not to spread harmful ideas to the other patrons. My eventual clamber out of despair was possible due to a two-step process. First, I had to reset by ignoring determinism. Second, I had to accept determinism. In between, a step 1b if you will, I feverishly attempted to deny determinism. Two friends walk into a bar. One asks the other, “do you really believe in determinism?” The second replies, “I think I have to.” That is the mindset I occupy today.
I have progressed to even seeing some benefits to a deterministic ideology. From such a viewpoint, compassion for others comes easier. To understand even the most heinous actions, one needs only to trace the historical thread. Was the evil-doer indoctrinated from a young age? Perhaps abused? Mentally ill? This compassion extends to myself. I am less self-critical. I am also tethered to our collective past. I too exist on parallel tracks of time.
Not everyone has had the same experience with determinism. Others employ alternative strategies to cope with the distressing idea of determinism. Many instead look for descriptions of non-deterministic behaviour in physics and extrapolate to our day-to-day lives. Randomness is a principle of quantum theory and has been demonstrated experimentally in 2018.[i] If quantum events are random, surely this should percolate upwards! Others point to black holes. It is believed that physical information can be permanently lost within a black hole, another mechanism by which causal chains can be severed on a cosmological scale. However, I do not find these arguments soothing. Why should I find any comfort in my possible autonomy arising from a black hole gobbling up light and gas. If events are not determined, would they not be random? If quantum uncertainty held sway at the macroscopic level, would not the motivation for our actions also be uncertain? If so, is randomness really more comforting than determinism? That the direction of every step, or even the decision to take a step, is random? That every time you opened your mouth, a random combination of syllables would emerge? To break the determined chain necessitates randomness.
Dissatisfaction with determinism must emerge from a dissatisfaction with the course of our lives. If we are determined, life is a curse of an insistent mediocrity and pain. Even if our lives are enjoyable, determinism strips us of our autonomy, our role in the joy. We want for the mere possibility of control. In Alan Lightman’s collection of short historical fictions on Albert Einstein, called Einstein’s Dreams, one particular story focuses on a world where everyone is aware that their lives are determined, a world I contend is only different from our own in the knowledge its inhabitants possess about the nature of their (and our) existence;
In a world of fixed future, life is an infinite corridor of rooms, one room lit at each moment, the next room dark but prepared. We walk from room to room, look into the room that is lit, the present moment, then walk on. We do not know the rooms ahead, but we know we cannot change them. We are spectators of our lives.
Even if our world is constrained by law and hierarchy, we want to believe in multiple possible futures for ourselves. What makes it possible for humans to believe that they are free, as opposed to other animals, is that we are capable of recursive thought, of examining the motivations behind our actions and potentially act differently. Recursive thought is a black hole, where all previous causes can be destroyed, allowing for the emergence of free action. The parallel tracks of our lives arrive at a roundhouse, where multiple directions to be pursued. Of course, this is merely a coping strategy. Thinking recursively in the first place is determined. Secondly, the additional considerations taken into the mind when thinking introspectively are determined as well. What one does is ultimately linked to exactly who you are, in that moment, in that space. Recursive thought is simply determinism with extra steps; It is unfathomable to be anything other than what you are. Might as well accept it. Or not. Acceptance is also determined.
All possible thoughts are bent towards the obelisk of determinism. This is another way in which determinism functions like a black hole. Circling the drain, my entire life seems meaningless. That everything I do is determined. Even paralysis in the face of determinism. That there is no right or wrong. How can you hold someone accountable for an action that was always meant to be? Easy. Accountability is also preordained. With determinism, simultaneously omnipotent and relativistic, everything goes. Before too long, I am residing only in my thoughts, the physical world ebbing away. I need to grab for support. Any physical structure will do; my sheets, a nightstand, a glass of water. Physical sensation to ground and remind me that determinism is a model for the universe. I am reminded by a quote from Bernardo Castrup, discussing information realism;
The world measured, modeled and ultimately predicted by physics is the world of perceptions, a category of mentation. The phantasms and abstractions reside merely in our descriptions of the behavior of that world, not in the world itself.
Any physics theory or model is unnerving in their attribution of phantasmic qualities to the everyday. The act of explaining my day-to-day routine, or my entire life, from the lens of determinism can be distressing but also provide useful insight. We call these the disciplines of psychology and biology and history. But to focus exceedingly on the model is to reduce the self to a bundle of physical interactions, chemical reactions, and biological processes. What is most distressing about determinism, as a model, is its frank callousness. Determinism treats all humans the same, paints us with the same brush. That the only character trait worthy of discussion is our autonomy (or the lack thereof). By instead trying to understand who you are, as a complex being, determinism becomes a useful tool. It can be leveraged for advocacy; to fight for those who are discriminated against in our societies. And determinism can help come to a better understanding of yourself.
[i] Bierhorst, P., Knill, E., Glancy, S., Zhang, Y., Mink, A., Jordan, S., ... & Stevens, M. J. (2018). Experimentally generated randomness certified by the impossibility of superluminal signals. Nature, 556(7700), 223.