What Motivates a Person to Believe in Determinism?

Wire digital human face representing determinism
What's the appeal?

This is not an argument for free will.

You can already find volumes of literature on free will vs. determinism. That debate has been raging for a long time.

This is an exploration of what makes determinism appealing, and why someone would choose to believe in and defend to the death their lack of freedom.

The Kind of Determinism I’m Talking About

Here’s the Oxford definition of Determinism:

The doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

All matter in the universe obeys laws.

Say you’re a physicist, and you throw a ball. If you know every metric of the throw (velocity, trajectory, weight of the ball, the coefficient of gravity), you can predict exactly where that ball will land. Those metrics determine where it ends up.

When the Big Bang happened, matter started moving. It was the cue ball that set all other matter in motion on the pool table of reality.

Billiard ball after billiard ball, things smashed together and started forming everything we know.

A few billion years go by and eventually, you get to humanity. The stars and the gas and the quarks all hit in just the right way for chimps to get made, and then it all lead to you.

The thinking of determinism is this: because you are made of all the stuff in the universe that obeys laws and is predictable, your actions are predictable too. If you bring up the uncertain quantum realm (you can’t predict the behavior of particles that are ultra-tiny), then determinists provide other explanations.

More nuanced determinists will say that your evolutionary instincts determine your actions, or maybe your brain chemistry, or your wiring, or memes, or societal programming. If you feel like this isn’t the case, they’ll say your feelings are just an illusion created by your brain.

Hard materialism is believing that everything is reducible to the behavior of matter. It goes hand in hand with determinism, which is meant to be the most empirical, objective way of looking at the universe. People argue for it fiercely, and often arrogantly.

To me, this always felt…bizarre.

Why Would Determinism Appeal To Someone?

I’m going to look at some possible reasons for this. To some, determinism is abhorrent. To others, it is the hill they die on.

So why might someone want to die on that hill?

1. Freedom From Responsibility

In the book, The True Believer, by Eric Hoffer, Hoffer describes the mindset of a person who chooses to become fanatically involved in mass movements like Nazism or Communism.

A major theme throughout the book is that the True Believer feels themselves to be irredeemably spoiled. Their self-esteem is in the toilet, and they feel they are beyond saving.

A mass movement is a means for them, not to redeem themselves, but to become something that isn’t them.

They believe that if they can dissolve their identity into a movement, they can permanently escape their individual existence and all the burdens that come with personal responsibility.

Hoffer writes:

“Faith in a holy cause is to a considerable extent a substitute for a lost faith in ourselves.”

Determinism is not a mass movement or a holy cause. It is, however, a means of dissolution.

If you hate yourself, and everything you’ve done, and a brilliant scientist explains to you in a youtube video why your actions are not your own, and that you never really had a choice, what are you going to feel?

You’re going to feel relieved. You aren’t going to fear the implications of determinism; it will be your salvation. You escape yourself by attributing everything you are to universal laws and matter.

You never hurt anyone. You never failed to act. You never fucked up. You never shirked your responsibilities. It wasn’t your fault. You are wonderfully nothing. Praise science!

Responsibility is a heavy burden. For some, it might be too much to handle.

2. A Religious Devotion to Science and Empiricism

What motivates a person to believe in determinism? An answer you might get from a determinist is: “Um, because it’s scientific fact?”

As religion has shuffled out over the decades, science has, in a way, come to take its place.

Granted, science is one of the greatest inventions of man. Miraculous technologies, medicines, and everything that’s extended our lives and made them more convenient is the work of science. When something is that powerful, it becomes difficult to question.

Science is about skepticism, but can you be skeptical of the conclusions made by scientists? Can a scientific worldview be wrong? If it can’t, and there’s no questioning it, then it starts to move into the realm of dogma.

A philosopher named Mary Midgely spent much of her career looking at science as if it were a religion. She argued that science has become the thing we believe will lead us to salvation and answer all our questions.

She pointed out something interesting about determinists in her book, Are You an Illusion?:

If, for instance, they lose an important document, they do not refuse to think where they left it, on the grounds that their mental efforts can never affect the world. Nor do they complain when it is assumed that the winners of Nobel prizes ought to work to deserve them, or that plagiarists ought not to steal other people’s results.

If a determinist published a study demonstrating how determinism was true, and someone won the Nobel prize by stealing their results, the determinist would still be pissed.

A human being with their own intentions and motivations doesn’t make sense in a purely deterministic worldview. Instead, you have to flatten everything and look at it as a map of cause and effect — a succession of billiard balls hitting each other.

To a determinist, science is the one true, sterile, objective thing. And the colder and more objective the conclusions scientists make about human behavior, then the more true they must be.

If you want to, as Alan Watts said, “be on the side of the big battalions” and know that your beliefs are justified and that you are more intelligent than a layperson, then determinism is what you must believe. It’s an easy way to feel superior, and safe from judgment.

Science proved it. How dare you think otherwise.

3. They Think Determinism Will Make the World a Better Place

Sam Harris used to argue that determinism would lead to more understanding in the world. To sum up this point of view:

If we all came to terms with determinism and accepted that we are not in control of our own actions, then we would cease to hate one another. Instead of seeing criminals, we would see a series of bad events that lead to their behavior, not a person acting out.

In recognizing the helplessness of a person against whatever forced their hand, then no matter the crime, we would find it in our hearts to forgive them.

How could you not have compassion? The whole universe conspired to make that person do what they did. Accepting this scientific worldview would ironically make us all more Christlike.

Let me make a point here.

Determinism makes humans out to be, not conscious agents making decisions, but a series of events that lead to predictable results. People become more like a process — machines with inputs and outputs.

Say we all agreed determinism was true. If a person committed a crime, it could be said that they were just a broken machine.

Subjectively, we would relate to them as people, but that would need to be dismissed as an illusion. What they really would be, are broken machines. That’s what everyone would be. Don’t forget that.

If my blender breaks and stops making my protein shakes, then I throw it out. I know it’s not a person, but with determinism, why view a person as anything more than a really complex blender?

Because people feel pain. But there’s no real person in this scenario, just a pathetic series of unfortunate events. Just stuff happening. The human being you would normally empathize with gets taken out of the equation with determinism — that is if you really force yourself to believe it.

I can only have empathy for a struggling person, not a broken machine.

If we all believed in determinism, we would all feel like people, but know that we weren’t. We would have to hold both “truths” at the same time, like doublethink in 1984.

A person, with their traumas and parents and genes, is greatly influenced by these things. Past influences can be overwhelming. But the second we see people as complete and utter products of their environment, what do they become?

How could we believe in growth, change, redemption, or responsibility? Taking away a person’s capacity to choose excuses their bad decisions as much as it negates their great ones.

Looking at each other like we’re broken robots would not make us more empathic. If anything, it would make us less. It would go against every inclination to see people as people.

And it definitely wouldn’t make us Christlike. Seeing each other as human beings would make us Christlike. Determinism would just make us insane. Or worse…

4. Pessimism and Hatred

Determinism is the perfect way for a pessimist to argue for the worthlessness of people, and of everything.

  • Reduce everything to chemical reactions, and people are just slime.
  • Reduce everything to evolutionary drives, and people are just pleasure monkeys.
  • Reduce everything to particles smashing together, and that person’s accomplishments don’t count.
  • Reduce everything to memes, and people are just laboring under illusions.
  • Reduce everything to programming, and people are just warmongers that will never stop destroying.

When you hate yourself, and the world, you want to knock every instance of human greatness into the ground. You want to say it was due to something that wasn’t the individual. You want to find every reason why people are not really great.

Determinism can easily lead to dehumanization. If a group of people, or all people, can be said to be determined, then harming others could be justified.

Why should I care? I’m not responsible for anything. It’s the will of the universe. It’s nature happening. And a determinist would be forced to agree.

In the most rotten, tortured hearts, determinism gives a blanket reason to hate. It’s a wonderful way to justify someone’s resentful feelings.

There Are Other Ways of Looking at the World

Determinism is fairly common. People will defend it with enthusiasm.

But don’t forget that there are plenty of philosophers who argue against determinism. They just aren’t very sexy on the internet.

Maybe a determinist should consider trusting the input of their subjective experience for once. That wouldn’t make them stupid, or religious, or unscientific. It would make them introspective.

Maybe they should examine their own experience of being human before they take someone else’s word for it.