Slumdog's Lockstep Vision: Determinism

The idea that the future is fixed and can in principle be predicted with unerring precision has a long history and exerts a continuing fascination for the human mind. Ancients consulted seers and shared stories about prophecies that came true. It's hard to know what became of prophets whose predictions were disconfirmed, but most likely they lost individual credibility and were suspected of error or bias rather than being blithely forgiven because the future was inherently unknowable, after all.

Early views did not work out the details and can best be understood as what is called "fatalism," the belief that the future will turn out the same no matter what you do. For example, the famous story of Oedipus is fatalistic. Confronted with the prophecy that he would commit terrible crimes, in particular murdering his father and marrying his mother, he did his best to prevent that outcome by going far away. But because of a case of mistaken identity, he ended up fulfilling his fate.

Christian theology struggled with questions of whether the future was determined in advance or not. Certain future events were definitely considered inevitable, such as the Apocalypse (and seers have been spotting signs of the supposedly imminent end of days ever since, although so far, they have not gotten it right). But humans supposedly were given free will so that they could choose how to act, implying that each person might really end up in either heaven or hell, depending on how the person acted. John Calvin took the extreme view, which is that because God knows everything and knows in advance what each person's eternal fate would be, and so only one future is possible for each person. Many early American settlers were Puritans, who espoused Calvin's views, and so they may linger in the background of American collective consciousness, but relatively few people today accept Calvin's understanding of predestination.

A scientific version of this idea was articulated by the French mathematician Pierre Simon LaPlace (1749-1827) and has come to be known as determinism. He proposed that if a superhuman mind were to know the exact state of the universe at any one time plus all the laws of nature, it would be possible to calculate precisely the complete state of the universe at any past or future time.

Determinism continues to exert a fascination on sophomoric minds and scientific fellow travelers. It implies that the laws of nature permit no exceptions and can account for everything. Nothing in the future is possible other than what actually happens. Determinists gleefully claim that all our impressions of making choices among genuine alternatives, of being able to change what will happen, are illusory. Indeed, some psychology professors assert in print and teach their students that to be a scientist, it is necessary to embrace determinism. This is a bit ironic, because in our informal surveys, we have not been able to find any deterministic principles in psychology, and nearly all the thousands and thousands of published reports on empirical studies use statistics that are based on the assumptions of probability theory. All science as far as we know is statistical.

Determinism differs from fatalism slightly. With fatalism, as with Christian predestination, the particular future outcome will happen regardless of what one does. In determinism, the person's actions are a vital part of the causal chain bringing about the future, and so if the person were able to do something different, the result would be different. But, of course, the determinist also insists that the person could not really do something different. To some, that distinction is a matter of splitting hairs, while others find it meaningful. It is not highly relevant to our theory of prospection, however. What matters is the view, common to determinism and to fatalism, that the future is already unalterable. Determinism is simply a more rigid view than fatalism or religious predestination, because it says that not only is the outcome inevitable, but each momentary step along the way is also the only possible one.

The determinist, thus, lives in a kind of shadowy world. You cannot change the future, so there is no point in trying. The fatalist believes that the outcome is inevitable, so all we can do is accept it and prepare for it. The determinist takes even that away, because you cannot change whether you are going to accept it or not, and whatever preparations you make have also been inevitable since the Big Bang. You are much like a character in a movie: Your actions move the plot along, but you really do not have any power to change the ending. You may think you are pondering different options that are all genuinely possible and deciding to do one thing rather than another, but just like the movie character who agonizes over what to do and then takes a particular action, the impression of other possible actions is illusory.

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