Monday, 11 July 2011

We are the Denizens of Determinism

Recently I've been having pretty severe panic attacks - not your ordinary run of the mill 'have I left the oven on?' anxieties, but crushing, existential outlooks on life. I suddenly, during the course of an otherwise normal day, freeze and buckle over from pain, and begin harboring these rather extreme feelings of no control, and of 'future anhedonia' - like I will never satiate my urges, ever. I call them attacks of the 'Free Willies', because that's essentially what it's about. I feel like a pebble in the ocean being buffeted about by wind, waves and fish, but never really, truly moving of my own free will. I find it quite horrifying, really, despite how I've been 'convinced' of the truth for quite some time. I think something I've learnt recently is that there's a difference between knowing something and living it - you can know, offhand, that there are untold multitudes of suffering in the world, but shrug it off like Richard Dawkins, or you can live with that suffering in mind, making each day of yours more and more morbid.

I've always said to people, from an early age, that Free Will is a myth, and that there is no basis for it in science whatsoever - in fact, the available evidence could NEVER lead to the conclusion of a magical pixie-dust core inside us, because even the notion of that goes against what science holds most dear: that things generally work in a logical, explicable and ultimately ordered way. Saying, 'people have free will' is akin to saying that of physics and psychology break down when and where we decide it to. But I have not been living like that, exactly. Now don't get me wrong, I am extremely mentally lucid when I am in a more, let's say, 'depressive' state, and often do live with my own ultimate powerlessness in mind. But when I'm not, and I'm in another foggy haze of near-baseline functioning, I generally believe (subconsciously) that I do have free will even though I am acting in such a blind haze that in retrospect I actually appeared to have less 'free will' than normal. I don't know if that's a problem or not. It makes me happier to do so, but at the same time, in being unaware of how the world actually works I'm setting myself up for a bigger crash the next time pain knocks at my door. But to incorporate Determinism into my daily life seems quite hard, really. I don't know how I could really ever stare in the face the sheer insanity that actually goes on in the world - is it better to be an actor on stage who is so into the play that they don't remember that they are just an actor following a preplanned script, or is it better to be an actor forced to act with a shotgun behind the stage? Like with most things, I think I'd like to just stick to my delusions in this case. Though if it turns out I've had one awakening too many, and can't get back to the philosophical sleep of most days, then I'm pretty much stuck on this setting for now. Yippee.


  1. I've always felt that the free will/determinism debate was one of the biggest red herrings in philosophy. Sure, from every scientific viewpoint free-will seems impossible, but whether this is the case or not, from a subjectivist/phenomenological perspective we feel like we have free-will, we act as if we have free-will and every system of morality, society and law is predicated on the existence of free-will.

    2 further points:

    A) It is practically impossible to imagine an experiment that would prove or disprove the concept of free-will. To prove I had free-will I would have to follow two choices simultaneously, an obvious impossibility. To demonstrate determinism is equally impossible.

    B) It is equally impossible to imagine any society or human collecvtive built upon the principle of determinism. Just try and you'll see what I mean. We're stuck with a functioning assumption of free-will, whether we want it or not. (Pun semi-intended.)

    Finally, it's struck me lately that, perhaps like Beckett's protagonists, the only freedom we have is in our minds. The body functions mechanically, but we can play with our reflections a little and formulate principles and conclusions. How much this impacts our physical lives is unclear, however.

  2. It is a red herring. Whatever you call them, our decisions exist, and causality exists. That's all that matters.

  3. They exist in our experience, which is an entirely relevant way to exist.

    So do sunrises . . . but I hear now they proved the sun doesn't actually rise, it just sits there while we go around it!

  4. Determinism may or may not be as impossible to prove as free will, but at least it can be imagined - it is easy to see how a system could evolve from its starting position to an end position just causal interactions with the constituents (although causality itself can't be proved, thanks David Hume). Free will not only has evidence against it (decisions being made in people's minds before they are consciously aware), but it cannot be imagined at all - it is impossible to figure out how free will could exist (because it can't). Either free will is random (not free will at all) or determinism is how the world works.
    But as for a society based on determinism, I'll see if I can address that in a later post. Thanks for your comments, guys, you always give me inspiration.

  5. Estnihil,

    We simply have to assume that we have free will! =| It will give us hope, and hence, power, however little of it.

  6. Just for anyone who happens to be reading this old post: