The Consequences of Determinism

By Jeff Laird

Does it matter if you think your choices matter? Leaving aside whether or not we really have free will, does a person's opinion on free will affect how they behave? Common sense says it does; what we believe obviously affects what we do. History says it does; as cultures adopt different philosophical outlooks, their moral and social values change. And scripture says it does; the Bible speaks of changed behaviors being connected to a changed perspective (Romans 1:21, Romans 12:2). According to a recent article by the BBC, secular science is catching up through studies which demonstrate something we should already know: disbelief in free will has a negative impact on behavior.

Determinism is the belief that everything we say, do, or think is just a function of physics and chemistry. Consider a robot programmed to walk around obstacles. No matter how sophisticated that robot's programming is, everything it does is "determined", in that whoever wrote its program has already made the robot's choices for it. If the robot has to do A when it sees B, then it cannot "choose" A, or anything else, for that matter. The robot isn't choosing, because the choice is programmed!

"Determinism" typically refers to a naturalistic view, where the determining source is mindless physics. However, the same basic principles can apply within Christianity to certain versions of predestination. I've long contended that everyone generally lives as though free will exists. Theologically, socially, morally, we all act in our day-to-day lives as though we have legitimate choice and control. At most, all one can do is selectively claim a lack of free will in order to excuse some behavior, or attitude, or doctrine, or philosophy.

The article in question was published last fall, around the same time I was posting here about neuroscience and free will. The studies examined how exposure to deterministic thinking affects a person's behavior. Participants were assessed for moral reasoning before and after being inundated with pro-determinism ideas, as opposed to those who were not so indoctrinated. Not surprisingly, as people were more exposed to deterministic thinking, they became more likely to justify things like cheating and less likely to participate in charity. Likewise, when peppered with deterministic propaganda, participants were significantly more likely to do things they knew full well that others didn't like: a reduction in altruism. They also recorded slower reaction times and a greater tendency to choose passivity over action.

In a nutshell, the referenced studies are early and not terribly conclusive, but they do support the conclusion that deterministic thinking is detrimental to altruism, moral reasoning, and motivation. The article even makes implicit note of works by atheists such as Daniel Dennett, where the same basic idea is put forth: one has to believe in some kind of personal control — free will — or your behavior will be negatively affected.

Not to beat a dead horse, but all of this should be common sense. If nothing I think matters, why think? If I'm not in control of my own actions, why feel guilty about them? If I can't really choose, why put any effort into choosing? I can't even pretend to choose to care, since even the choice to pretend to think that I'm choosing isn't really my choice…or something like that.

The consequences of deterministic thinking could be severe. The base intention might be to excuse one's own preferences, or to justify one's vices. But belief in determinism is inextricably tied to how we value human beings. And seeing people as meat machines most definitely impacts how we view their essential worth. Not only in that it de-humanizes them, but that it leads to philosophical nihilism, another topic about which I've written here at Blogos.

The eventual result of a slide towards philosophical determinism and nihilism could be tying a noose around our own necks. The most vivid historical example of this is Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, a nation of educated, cultured people who perpetrated some of the worst atrocities in history — all lubricated by the idea that man is just a determined clump of flesh. As holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl put it:
If we present a man with a concept of man which is not true, we may well corrupt him. When we present man as an automaton of reflexes, as a mind-machine, as a bundle of instincts, as a pawn of drives and reactions, as a mere product of instinct, heredity and environment, we feed the nihilism to which modern man is, in any case, prone. I became acquainted with the last stage of that corruption in my second concentration camp, Auschwitz. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment—or, as the Nazi liked to say, of "Blood and Soil." I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Maidanek were ultimately prepared not in some Ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.
Any time we present people with a falsehood, rather than the truth, it's going to have negative consequences. Even more so when the idea itself lends nothing positive to human experience, but only serves an excuse for lack of humanity. Determinism is not only false, but dangerous, and we ought to oppose those who promote it, on both scientific and moral grounds.

Image credit: Louish Pixel; Creative Commons

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Published 3-6-2014