The Determinist strawman

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I have mentioned being a determinist before on this site. I have received several questions, both online and in real life about that.

I am a determinist. Not the sort of philosophical determinism that says everything happens in virtue of some necessity, but the more straightforward version that only claims that everything that happens is the consequence of what happened before it, and the cause of what will happen after. I believe that every single event is part of this huge cause-consequence chain. I don’t believe in free will, and I don’t think that anyone, or anything, has any power to actually change anything. This also means that I don’t believe in randomness.

At the moment, there are two types of randomness in our lives. The first is the “fake” randomness. It is a chain of events that is too complicated to be quickly and easily predicted by a witness, therefore nobody knows what will happen. Throwing a die or drawing cards are good examples. If you stopped time when the die leaves the hand, and calculated its direction, momentum, and future collisions and friction, you would know which number will come up. If you watched cards being shuffled in slow motion and had great memory, you would know their exact order. It’s commonly accepted as randomness because almost nobody can reliably do this in real-time, but it’s not. The other kind is “true” randomness, which is simply every event that we are completely unable to predict no matter the resources, because we have no idea what factors decide the outcome. Like radioactive decay or some quantum mechanics. A couple thousand years ago, weather and eclipses were probably in that category too. At some point, we figured out the factors, and it became fake random, which is totally predictable if we try hard enough. I truly believe that one day, maybe soon, we’ll figure out the factors in radioactive decay and the others, and it will become fake random, like everything else.


I have no scientific evidence for this. This is something that I started believing by thinking about patterns. I think that there has to be something that chooses which atom decays, and I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to eventually find it. It is still a belief, or maybe an hypothesis at best.

But this post is not about determinism. It’s pretty cool and all, but today I want to talk about a specific strawman that I have heard dozens of times from people when I mention being one.

“If there is no free will, then punishments are unfair since criminals couldn’t choose to not commit crimes, so we should abolish prisons, and then society obviously won’t work”

Duh. How did I not think of that? Sorry, I was wrong, I guess it’s all god’s will in that case. It makes so much more sense.

I will say this twice for emphasis. Determinism is not a magical fate power that prevents people from doing what they want. Determinism is not a magical fate power that prevents people from doing what they want.

Determinism simply means that what you want and are able to do are both decided by every single event that had any impact whatsoever on your life. It means that your desire to commit a crime is because of your past experiences, and your decision to not actually do the crime is also because of those. The past experiences include obviously your DNA, your mood, your parents, your friends, your country, your religion, your gender, your height, everything. It’s a huge calculation with millions of variables, and provided enough resources, we could predict your every action and thoughts. And the factors also includes any perceived future unhappiness from punishments for the crime you could commit right now. For some people, being scared of the punishment is enough to make them act right. For some, it’s not. For some, being a nice person, going to heaven, or simply not needing the stolen goods is enough to make you an honest citizen. Also, for some people, having revenge through the justice system on criminals that did nasty things to you is enough to prevent them from taking uncontrolled wild revenge themselves.

Some people will say that punishments do not actually reduce crime. Let’s skip the obvious problem with that logic, and think about some things you all experienced. Internet trolls. Why are people so much more obnoxious online than they are in real life? Why can’t you play a single game of a nice board game with friends you know in Tabletop Simulator without someone messing up stuff while you can easily play the same game with the same people in real life? Because the internet gives a false sense of being anonymous and exempt from consequences. If real life didn’t have consequences, people would do the same thing. Without any laws or law enforcement, more people would shoplift, beat up others, skip stop signs, etc. Not all of them. Probably not even a majority, except in a slippery slope case where society falls into a dystopia. But even a minority would be a lot higher than the current minority commiting crimes.

So basically, it doesn’t matter one bit if a punishment is deserved or fair. I still think they are, mostly because I’m an irrational human being who is disgusted by rapists and pedophiles and want them to be punished as hard as possible. The only thing that matters is that the majority of society believes that our justice system is fair, or at least that crimes don’t go unpunished too often. This is artificially creating extra factors towards the no-crime path, in order to reduce crime. It’s not perfect, and probably not even very efficient, but that’s the best we have as of today, so we’re doing it. And still, this is not magic. I believe that we didn’t choose to have a justice system like that out of free will either. People and their predictable brain patterns noticed predictable crime patterns and predictably created factors that, following the noticed patterns, will make their collective lives better. Then they can enjoy a little bit more predictable happiness before their predictable death. Just because nobody predicted something doesn’t mean that it wasn’t predictable. Just like eclipses were predictable in the jurassic era, but nobody was around to bother to make them into a calendar, we are a carbon-based organism living on a planet, and we are moving according to the laws of physics, even if we might be completely wrong as to what those laws are.


credit: Dilbert

So yes, criminals are basically the scapegoats of society. They get punished, and depending on where in the world they are, might get hurt or killed, in order to satisfy the needs of the honest citizens, and indirectly prevent some other crimes. It’s totally necessary, at least until we find a better alternative, no matter how fair or unfair you might think it is. But it’s okay, because they chose to commit crimes even if they knew they would become this scapegoat. Or they had no choice in the matter, but believe they did, which is exactly the same from their perspective.

So yes, determinism is completely compatible with justice systems, death penalty, lack of death penalty, and playing cards. This is not just some hippie mantra about going with the flow or being one with the world around us.

  • I am fine with a deterministic universe or with a random universe, because neither would be particularly impactful on the idea of free will. “You did that by random probability” doesn’t sound much more free willish than “You were predetermined to do that”. I personally think the solution is by defining free will differently.

    Perhaps we call it Moral Free Will. MFW is whether or not you acted with conscious consent. The mechanics of consent are irrelevant.

    • if you kill me because you wanted to you acted with MFW.
    • If an an alien parasite crawled into your ear (Yeerks) and made you kill me, you acted without MFW.
    • If kill me under orders of another holding your mom at gunpoint, that’s a limited about of MFW
    • If you kill me in a fit of rage, that is yet another limited amount of MFW

    MFW works because it is just. You could argue that all MFW is *somewhat* limited, and I would agree. This is why I believe in at least the theoretical redemption of any given criminal. However, for many cases, it’s too difficult to measure and dangerous to guess.

  • Kingfisher12

    This is pretty off topic, but this has got me thinking about determinism.

    In debates about determinism, I think there is too much emphasis put on predictability, and not enough on spontaneity. A sequence of events may be entirely predictable, but the start of a given sequence may rely on a cause that is fundamentally unobservable.

    In quantum mechanics the most common example is spontaneous emission (as opposed to stimulated emission). In this an electron drops to a lower energy state, and a photon is emitted, the drop and the emission are considered equivalent (they are the same event), and neither is the cause – both are the effect. One current theory is that the emission is triggered by ripples in the quantum foam – an event that is not measurable, but it could be some other unmeasurable event just as well. Or it could be that the electron simply ‘decides’ to drop as a prime mover. Further complicating things is that there is such a thing a stimulated emission – it can be forced by a measurable cause instead of waiting for it to happen spontaneously.

    When it comes to humans, we feel like at least some of our motivations are spontaneous, and it seems that at least some of our decisions have no measurable cause. Whether this simply means that there are unmeasurable forces triggering ‘spontaneous’ thoughts, or whether thoughts themselves are prime movers is simply unknown.

  • I think determinism, free will, randomness etc are yet more of these concepts that – while being enormous fun to think about – are virtually impossible to resolve one way or the other, at least at our present state of scientific knowledge. I quite agree about the “really random” versus “too complex to predict random” distinction, that’s rather neatly argued.

    But right now, we don’t know if “really random” phenomena exist, although quantum mechanics certainly suggests that they do, and outside the quantum world, simple radioactive decay is thought to be truly random. Similarly, we don’t know whether the universe is deterministic, or not. And similarly, we don’t know whether we have free will or not. These are open questions at present, so saying “we don’t know” is perfectly respectable. Of course, future science may uncover more information about any of these issues, so one day we really may know for sure.

    Personally, I like to think of myself as having free will, because that’s how it seems to me, and hence I assume that we do not live in a deterministic universe. However, in one of our earlier Scott Adams or Hypothica discussions (sorry, can’t remember which), someone did mention a powerful piece of evidence against free will – that someone encountered at a party, who was in a strange mental state (either injured or on drugs, I forget which), essentially “rebooted” and replayed exactly the same conversation out, word for word, a second time. That is spooky, and makes even robust free will-ers like me think that sounds like an algorithm running with the same inputs:-) Of course, simpler organisms exhibit such fixed behaviour, eg. various experiments on burrowing wasps and their prey showed that an experimenter could remove a piece of food from a wasp’s burrow and place it near the burrow entrance, and have the wasp “discover” it and drag it back inside – any number of times. At no point did the wasp realise that it was being fooled! So that seems pretty deterministic algorithmic behaviour!

  • Kingfisher12

    I see the point that it is nonsense to conclude that our modern concept of justice is incompatible with hard determinism. But i think the real strawman is something else.

    To hard determinism a criminal claiming that they had no choice because of their nature is deserving of condemnation, rather than exculpation, because the criminal admits that they can’t not be a criminal.

    I’m more of a compatablist, but I think I combine several flavors of thought. I think there are stochastic events, not because they are truly random, but because the causes are impossible to measure. Likewise, there is something like ‘free will’, which is not random, but is similarly defiant of measurement or prediction. That of the underpinnings of reality, there are potentially infinite chains of causality, but only a finite portion of them can be measured, insufficient to glean any real knowledge of the bigger picture.

    At this point, the debate between determinism and libertarianism becomes rather agnostic, because whether everything is causal or not becomes moot when the causes are considered invisible. Then when I start to doubt the necessary arrow of time, even causality becomes too complex a problem to deal with in my limited mental space. God may or may not play dice with the universe, but he definitely keeps the dice hidden.