Thoughts on Determinism


I recently got into a discussion about determinism with a friend, and I came to realize that while it is an interesting subject, it’s seemingly useless to consider.

If you’re not clear on what I mean by determinism, think of it this way – your physical body is composed of a bunch of different elements, interacting in various different ways.  Now assume that you’re able to take ‘snapshots’ of a human, including all mass/energy contained within the boundary of their physical body as well as the localized environment.  If you effectively copy and paste a human along with their local environment using these ‘snapshots’, the human will behave identically in each of the snapshots (at least in the short term).

To some extent, this can be viewed as a reason not to get mad at people, no matter how ‘unethical’ the action they are taking appears to be.  This can also be used as a sort of ‘excuse’ for behaving in an ‘unethical’ fashion, basically arguing that it’s not really the fault of the person.  This is because the person’s actions were predetermined.  At the end of the day they are just a bunch of elements reacting, and if you took the same combinations of elements, you’d get the same result every time.  It’s basically taking the put yourself in someone else’s shoes saying to a new level… You just observed a man kill your dog?  Well you shouldn’t get mad, or have a superiority complex (like by thinking I would never kill a dog like this monster!) – if you were that guy and you had lived in a parallel universe following exactly in his footsteps from birth, you would kill your dog too.

The logic seems reasonably sound at establishing the fact that reality may actually be fully deterministic, and that humans don’t have free will.  It’s all an ‘illusion’.

[Scientific Arguments Against]

The only convincing argument I see against determinism’s existence is quantum mechanics.  It’s apparent that at a sub-atomic level there is some inherent randomness to reality.  Shoot a single photon at two slits, and when you measure it, it will land according to a random distribution.  It’s the classic “Double-slit experiment“.

What does this mean for determinism?  Assuming that nature is inherently random (and that it’s not just due to lack of understanding), then determinism does fall apart.  Given the same set of circumstances, the same set of chemical reactions – it would appear that there’s a chance for variances at the sub-atomic level.  With enough time, this seems to imply that two identical people living in otherwise identical universes could eventually ‘diverge‘ and not behave in the same way as a result of this randomness.

My understanding of quantum mechanics is limited, however, and I honestly don’t know (1) what the effects of the randomness present in quantum mechanics can/would be in the long run – and (2) whether you could really argue that this inherent randomness implies free will in any way.  After all, free will seems to have the implication of control, which seems to be in direct contradiction with things being random.  There does appear to be an important point though here: IF quantum mechanics implies the existence of true randomness, then as a result there is no possible way for someone to predict the future with 100% accuracy.  They can only, at best, give a range of possibilities.  As time goes on, the range of possibilities expands.

[Super-Being Thought Experiment]

Now lets suppose that determinism is real.  Lets suppose, additionally, that there is a super-being that has the capability to take a snapshot of the universe, and then based on simulation it’s able to view all past and future actions as a single contiguous time line.  It seems to me that it would be a contradiction to have the super-being exist within the universe, as simulating the universe in itself would require at least an equal amount of energy/mass as already exists within the universe.  The super-being would effectively create an entire new universe every time it started a new simulation.

But maybe the super-being can do localized simulations.  Maybe they can take a snapshot of just a region of the universe and then make a localized simulation of what will occur in the next few seconds, minutes, hours.  Logically, it seems that in order to get a simulation that spans over the life of the universe, the region would need to expand to the full size of the universe.  Think of it this way – there’s a dog in a house.  The super-being starts a simulation on just the region containing the house in an attempt to view the dog’s past and future actions.  First 5 seconds – in the ‘real world’, a bird enters the house region and lands on the window sill.  In the simulated world, this bird doesn’t exist because the simulation was started on a region that was not large enough to encompass the bird.  After just 10 seconds, the dog is at the window barking at the bird in the real world, but in the simulation he’s just resting on the couch.  The realities have diverged.

In order to avoid this situation, the super being would have to expand the simulation to a larger region.  In order to accurately simulate an entire person’s life span, guaranteeing 100% accuracy – it seems like with the laws of physics, the size of the region of the simulation would have to be based on the person’s expected life span.  Lets just simplify by saying that the person will live for 100 years.  The region would have to be a sphere (with the person at the center of the sphere) that has a radius of 100 light-years to be fully accurate.  This way even if an object sitting at the edge of the region (comparable to the bird in the previous simulation) was moving at the speed of light heading towards the person, it would not reach the person in time to have an effect on the outcome of their life.

I probably over-simplified that example.  But regardless, it doesn’t sound likely (due to the sheer amount of mass/energy that would go into one such simulation) – but perhaps it is feasible.  Or perhaps the super-being simply just exists outside of the universe, outside of time – and can see the universe’s entire time-line as just a single, many-dimensional object.  Some sort of “Flat Land”-esque voodoo magic.  More or less it sounds like we’re supposing that a god exists.  A small note I’d like to make at the end of this section here is that if you suppose such a god exists, then it would imply that there is not any inherent randomness in the universe.  So when considering options in the section(s) below, I will not be considering an option where there is both a god and inherent randomness co-existing.

[Alternate Universe Thought Experiment]

So, lets examine these two simplified options:

  • (U1) A deterministic universe where a god exists, as described above.
  • (U2) A universe where free will exists.

There will be four actors in the universes:

  • Alex – a standard human adult.  He many or may not have free will – it switches based on the universe he resides in.  If Alex resides in (U1), he is 100% deterministic.  If Alex resides in (U2) he has free will.
  • Bobo – a special baby.  Bobo is 100% innocent, perfect, and increases the relative happiness of all beings in the universe significantly while living.  Bobo will continue to remain innocent, perfect, and increase the relative happiness of all beings in the universe throughout the span of his life, however short or long it may be.  Bobo dying would be an undeniably bad occurrence from the perspective of overall human happiness.
  • Calvin – a robot that was spawned by nature.  Calvin is programmed to kill humans.
  • Deity – a super-being that exists outside of the universe with the capability to see all past and future occurrences in the universe at all times.

Now lets look at a few possibilities:

  1. Alex stands in front of Bobo in universe (U2).  Alex, who believes he has free will, eventually comes to the conclusion that he has to kill Bobo.  Alex kills Bobo of his own free will.  Alex has performed an undeniably bad act, as he could have chosen not to kill Bobo using his free will.  There was both a malicious intent here (he willed to kill Bobo) and a negative consequence (Bobo is dead).
  2. The same exact events from #1 occur, except that Alex believes (incorrectly) that the universe is fully deterministic.  Alex has, once again, performed an undeniably bad act.
  3. Deity sits in a tower of observation outside of universe (U1).  Deity observes Alex as a single, multi-dimensional object and sees that at some point in his life, Alex kills Bobo.  Deity is disturbed by this, but is helpless to act because the universe (including Alex) is an immutable object that is fully deterministic.  Alex, who incorrectly believes he has free will, kills Bobo.  Can individual events within a fully deterministic universe be considered bad?  Does perspective matter?
  4. The same exact events from #3 occur, except that Alex believes that the universe is fully deterministic.  He, of course, still kills Bobo.  The same questions as above applies here as well.

Lets change the story now just a little bit, just to see what happens:

  1. Calvin stands in front of Bobo in universe (U2).  Calvin kills Bobo, because that’s what he was programmed to do.  There was a negative consequence here (in that Bobo is dead), but it’s hard to really speak to ‘intent’ with Calvin being a robot.  Has Calvin performed a bad action?
  2. Deity sits his tower of observation outside of universe (U1).  Deity observes Calvin as a single, four dimensional object and sees that at some point in his life, Calvin kills Bobo.  Deity is disturbed by this, but is helpless to act because the universe (including Calvin) is an immutable object that is fully deterministic.  Calvin kills Bobo.  There was a negative consequence here (in that Bobo is dead), but it’s hard to really speak to ‘intent’ if everything is fully deterministic.  Can individual events within a fully deterministic universe be considered bad?  Does perspective matter?


In my mind, the discussion of humans being deterministic vs. humans having free will really boils down to these questions:

  1. Is it intent that makes an action bad, or is it the outcome? (e.g.: Consequentialism vs. Deontologicalism)
  2. Does perspective matter when it comes to judgments of “good” vs “bad”?
  3. Do bad actions make the actors themselves “bad”?

The answer to #1 is a philosophical debate that could just spiral into an endless discussion.  I personally believe that when Calvin killed Bobo, that was bad, so I’d say that it’s the outcome that makes an action bad.  Even if Calvin was programmed to sincerely desire not to kill Bobo, but still kills Bobo because he has no ability to control his actions due to his programming – I’d qualify the event of Bobo’s death as bad.  Even if the universe as a whole was fully deterministic and immutable, the assumption here is that if you created an alternative universe where Calvin didn’t kill Bobo, Bobo would have more time to increase the overall happiness in the universe.  From a strictly human perspective, overall happiness seems to be an important measure.  This is why I would qualify Calvin killing Bobo as a bad action/event.  Since happiness in itself could be easily argued as simply a meaningless chemical reaction (yay for dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins…), my judgment here doesn’t hold much weight since it’s strictly based on my human perspective that places value on that sort of thing.  I think most people would agree, however, that more happiness > less happiness.  Anyways, this brings us to question #2

The answer to #2 is also a philosophical debate that could just spiral into an endless discussion.  My primary point here was to get you to look at the so-called super-beings.  When the super-being sees the universe, it sees the entire timespan of the universe as a single immutable object; in a similar fashion to a person picking up and observing a rock.  The super-being can see events that occur over the life of the universe (including things like human births and deaths), just as a person could make measurements of density, abrasiveness, weight, etc. on the rock.

Lets say, additionally, that the super-beings have the ability to run experiments where they can alter a universe to add/remove components.  The super-being could create two otherwise-identical universes: one with Calvin and one without (or one with Alex and one without).  One could draw a parallel with humans doing chemistry experiments, adding and removing different compounds and observing the reactions.  After creating the two universes, the super-being could now make some measurements against both universes and presumably make some judgments or hypothesis about the effect of Calvin on the universe.  Depending on what the super-being’s priorities are, they could make their own judgments on whether or not the presence of Calvin (or Alex) created a relatively “better” or “worse” universe.  Due to the significant differences between super-beings and humans, however, I’d say that the super-being’s measurements and judgments against the universe wont be meaningful and/or comprehensible to humans.

The answer to #3 (surprise surprise), is also a point of seemingly endless philosophical discussion.  I’d say that only a super-being could really make a meaningful judgment over whether or not a human as a whole was “bad” or “good” (in the fashion described in the previous paragraph), because it can observe a human from their birth to their death as a single entity, and it can run experiments to determine whether or not that human has an overall “positive” or “negative” effect on the universe as a whole by some objective or subjective measure.  That being said, I still stand by my statement above in that a super-beings judgments aren’t likely to be meaningful and/or comprehensible to humans.

To provide a TL;DR of my purely subjective answers to the questions above:

  1. Is it intent that makes an action bad, or is it the outcome? The outcome, and hence it doesn’t really matter if a human has free will or if they are fully deterministic. It’s an interesting topic for discussion and thought experiments, but that’s about all it is.
  2. Does perspective matter when it comes to judgments of “good” vs “bad”? Yes.
  3. Do bad actions make the actors themselves “bad”? No, not from the perspective of a human judging another human.  I think humans can only make meaningful (although subjective) judgments on individual actions performed by other humans.

And that’s about all I’ve got to say about that…



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