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Philosophy of Determinism

For centuries, there has been a hugely important philosophical debate going on, and in the minds of many it is still unresolved today. It is the debate of determinism versus free will. As an introduction, let’s define those terms so you know what I’m talking about.

Free Will = The power of acting without the constraint of necessity or fate; The ability  to have freely chosen differently than you did at any moment, regardless of your beliefs.

Determinism = The idea that for every event there first existed conditions which could have caused no other event; The future can only unfold the one way it is going to go due to everything that plays a role in how it goes that way.

On one side, we have those arguing that universe operates via cause and effect. This means that for every event that takes place, there was a string of prior events which caused that event to take place, and made it inevitable. The reason people believe the world is governed by cause and effect is that when observing the unfolding of activity around us, we have learnt there are certain relationships between events. For example, it’s quite clear that if I stick my hand on a hot metal plate, I will get a burn. And so the whole of scientific enquiry was born out of trying to understanding these relationships better, which is to understand why and how something takes place. We try to find the reason or explanation for how something came into existence, because we acknowledge there is always a process of cause and effect which led to it’s creation.

So, why is there a debate? Why do people disagree with this view? Well, the thing is, if nothing can happen without something having caused it, then every thing that will ever happen in the future is already determined and set in motion. And this idea is completely incompatitable with the very popular and beloved concept of “free will”. The only reason to doubt that cause and effect reigns supreme lies with this notion that humans have free choice.  And thankfully, this concept is oh so testable. But in this article, I want to argue a case for determinism in a completely different way, without even resorting to the standard cause and effect argument. I want to answer this question: Is it possible for life to unfold any other way than it is going to?

As I said, we don’t even need to consider the concept of causality to answer this – it is a completely different topic altogether. Let’s instead consider the word possible. When we say something is possible, what do we mean? Well, for something to be possible, really means that we believe it could or can occur in reality. If it’s possible to catch a fish it means hey,  we think people can/could do that in reality. So then, the question “is it possible for life to unfold any other way than it’s going to?” really means “can the events in reality unfold in a way that is different to the way the events in reality unfold?”  Wow, what a confusing contradiction! I think that has answered the question! But let’s continue:

Did the past unfold differently to the way that the past did unfold?

Is the present unfolding differently to the way the present is unfolding?

Can the future unfold differently to the way the future will unfold?

Well to say things like “this event could be different right now” or “that past event could have been different” or “that event in the future could go differently to how it’s going to (it’s not fixed)” is quite ridiculous if you ask me. You are really stating that something is possible, not realising that the only way to measure whether something is possible or not is to see whether it occurs in reality or not. If an event does not occur at a given time, it was obviously never a possibility for that event to occur at that time. The concept of uncertainty and chance only exists within our own minds. Because we do not know what will happen next, it feels like anything could happen. But in reality, the only things that can happen are the things that do end up happening. To say that the events could have gone differently than they did is really saying that you believe your own imagination is a better measure of what is possible than reality itself is. It’s like saying you know more about reality than the universe itself does! Where does this line of thinking lead? Well, let’s say you come across another person, and they say to you in no joking manner “I am a dragon, and you are stealing my dragon eggs. I must burn you with my fiery breath!” Then they proceed to blow on you. What would you think? Well you would most likely think they are a bit crazy, since you know the things they are saying are not possible. How do you know they are not possible? Because the event of being burnt by fiery dragon breath did not occur in reality at that time (or anytime obviously). But if you were to instead adopt the line of thinking where reality does not determine what represents a possibility, you would have no choice but to admit that the dragon man could indeed be correct, because you would be measuring a possibility only by your imagination. Of course we can imagine and predict what the possibilities are for the future, but we won’t know for sure until it arrives!! When we are dealing with the subject of possibilities we are really dealing with the subject of “probability”. We are assessing the likelihood or “chances” something has of actually occurring in reality. But once something has actually occurred in reality, such measures are useless because it is a fact that the event always had a 100% chance of coming about.

It is the same with saying any event could have been different to how it was at a given time. If it could have unfolded differently, why the hell didn’t it? If there is a large range of possible options that the future may take, why does only one set of outcomes only ever come into existence at a given time? Let’s do another example. Say you have two young brothers at home, playing video games. The younger brother says the older  “I think I’m gonna win this time!!!”. The older says “nope not possible”. So both brothers are making predictions about a certain point in time, in the future, when the game they are playing has finished. They both think they have a good idea about what is possible at that moment. But, when the time comes, and the game finishes, only one of the brothers will be correct. So, let’s say the game finishes and the younger brother wins. He was correct, and he now has a definitive answer on what could, and could not, occur in that moment in time!! This is why predictions are called predictions and not facts, because they must pass the test of reality first!

So, to answer the question, no it is not possible for life to unfold any other way than it going to! We live in a completely deterministic world, and this is such an awesome thing! We live in a world where everything that happens was meant to happen!

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Cause and Effect

I have explained on this blog that psychological stress is built upon an incorrect framework of understanding life. This incorrect framework includes the  “If you are good, you will get” method of developing or controlling people, which sets up the “achievement model” for measuring personal development. But to really understand stress, we have to go deeper. We will have to cover the subject of cause and effect,  and see where this takes us.

One of the most obvious things about the universe is that it is that it operates via a system of cause and effect. There is a process of action and reaction which we can witness everyday in the unfolding of our lives, and it is only by this process which events come to take place. Meaning if you believe you need some food, you must try and set in motion a chain of reactions (events) which would lead to you getting some food. Better go to the shop and buy some! So now, say you are at the shopping centre, and you start pondering this question: “How did I get here?” (we’ll pretend you’re not in any rush). Well the most obvious answer might be “I drove here”. But you start thinking that maybe that’s not all there is to it. How many other things played a role in how you got there?

I drove here because I believed I needed more food”. But how did you come to have a car in the first place? “I have a car because I bought one, which was because I believed having a car was necessary for my work and hobbies”. But how did you get the money to buy the car? And why did you drive to this particular grocery store? “It was the closest big supermarket with cheap prices”. Closest to where? “My home”. But how did you come to live there? “I moved here because the lease ran out it the flat I was living in, and I wanted to live in a house. I found this place through an online advert”. But how did the place come to be available at that time? “Who knows”. And how did you come to live in this city anyway? And why did you believe you needed food? “The kitchen was empty when I was looking for something to eat”. Why was that? “I’ve been too busy to go shopping the last few weeks. I’ve been eating takeaway”. Why don’t you keep eating takeaway? “It’s too expensive”. Why is that only a priority now? “I have some spare time now”. Etc Etc.

I could go on forever, but I think you get the point. Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing and whatever event takes place, you can be sure that there have been trillions of factors have all come together to have caused it. You could trace the causal factors involved in any event or decision making process you find yourself in. If you really wanted you could trace it all back to “how did you come to be conceived anyway?” And you could trace that back to hundreds and thousands of  years of cause and effect in action. How did you get to be at the shopping centre? You got to be there due to everything that played a role in how you came to be there. And so, let’s say you are so perplexed by this discovery that you start to ponder a different question. “Why am I not currently somewhere else? Hmmm.

Well, after some thought, you might realise that this question has the SAME ANSWER! The reason you are not currently somewhere else is because of everything which played a role in how you came to be where you currently are!  Nothing can happen, without something playing a role in how it comes into existence. And, for everything that does happen, there first existed conditions that could have caused no other event.

But let’s say while you are pondering this, you receive a phone call from a family member saying they had an accident and are in hospital, and also receive a text from your boss asking you to come to work. And, as your mind considers these two things, you think “I believe it is more important to go to hospital and check up on the family member than it is to go to work. And so you drove to the hospital. The point I am making here is that even though there were different options to consider, the eventual action you took was governed by certain beliefs you held. There was a reason you went to the hospital, and it was the same reason you didn’t go to work. This is what it means to live in a world of cause and effect. You could even start thinking about WHY you believed going to the hospital was more important. There is really no end to it, and you won’t ever be in a position to have all the answers on how and why things unfold the way they do, but you can be sure that there is always a process of cause and effect governing it.