Determinism 8 – The Knowledge of Determinism

[This post is a part of a series on free will and determinism. It starts here. The previous post is here.]

The thought experiment suggested not only that it comes natural to us to think of ourselves as exercising free will in our decision-making and in our actions, but also that we find it practically impossible to imagine a life in which we don’t exercise free will. Even if we became intellectually convinced that everything is predetermined, we wouldn’t know what it would mean to just lay back and allow ourselves to do what we are predetermined to do.

We then looked at the role of our rationality, our ability to perceive and act on reasons, as the mechanism that makes determinism work for human beings and that provides the feeling of exercising free will. In this way of looking at it, our ability to perceive certain things as reasons for actions, our sensitivity to certain kinds of reasons for action, our capability to act on them and the reasons themselves are always already given.

Seeing our rationality as that mechanism explains an important phenomenon: the idea that knowing or coming to believe that determinism is a fact of our life can be in some way helpful to us.

At a first glance, it is hard to see how that idea would make sense. If we believe in determinism or know it to be true, it is hard to see how we could use that belief or knowledge to influence the course our life takes. After all, we are intellectually committed to the idea that we have no control over the way our lives turn out. And yet a number of philosophers and schools of thought teach something along the lines of: given determinism, we should live in such-and-such a way.

This makes better sense if rationality is involved in the way in which the predetermined course of events unfolds with human beings. Then the knowledge or belief in determinism can itself become a reason for certain actions or to act in certain ways for those human beings who come to believe in it.

So, for example, a human being who has become convinced that determinism runs his or her life, can take that as a reason not to get too upset if things don’t go his or her way. Or if I think that determinism is at the foundation of other people’s behaviours, that knowledge can become a reason for me not to react too strongly to any perceived slights, bad behaviour or unpleasantness from others.



  1. Sorry to say because I don’t want to hurt your sensitive feelings, but your whole line of reasoning on determinism is just rationalization. Rationalization, meaning determinism is a concept where you act a certain way and then you think up reasons why you had to act the way that you did. Only with determinism, the reasons are even more simple in that you are justified in your actions because the world is already “determined”, and therefore you could not have acted in any other manner. It was foretold by the physics of the world that everything is determined, and thus you had no other choice than to do as I did.

    I remember several years ago some military police men saying they would sometimes go out on their off duty in the evenings and look for gay men to beat up. They enjoyed beating up these “queer” men. At the time I thought this wrong for them to do, but now, if I accept a deterministic outlook, I can see that their actions are perfectly rational. They had no choice but to do exactly as they did because all their thoughts and actions had been predetermined, and they could not have acted otherwise. But I cannot accept this gloomy outlook on human life and capacity.

    How should we think of ourselves? As mindless robots programmed by a deterministic past, or as powerful rational beings, with the ability to choose to dream about and built a better future?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment and don’t worry, my feelings aren’t that sensitive.

      I guess it’s my turn to apologise: by developing thoughts over a number of blog posts I must have given you the impression that I hold a number of views that I don’t hold. I definitely don’t think that determinism does away with moral responsibility, or our ability to hold people accountable for what they do. I will write about this in later posts.

      From what I’ve written so far, you can see that I believe that rationality is involved in the way determinism unfolds in human beings. From that point of view, it is clear that we can criticise and abhor the way the military policemen in your example behave. We can reject whatever faulty and bad reasons they may give for doing what they are doing and we have, in turn, every reason to want to see their deeds condemned and punished. It is also clear that we can find their character defective for not having a sensitivity to the kinds of reasons that would prevent a human being from behaving in the way they behave. We could further want them to improve to the point where they see that their actions were wrong and where they can improve their character. We might even find ways of helping them to do so.

      And I agree with you also that we should not think of ourselves as mindless robots. We do – even in a deterministic universe – have the ability to dream of a better future and go about building it.

I'd love to know what you think about this!