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.