Determinism Is Ugly (June 2007)
In the previous blog I celebrated the beautiful non-necessity of things. If you haven’t read it yet, you might want to before reading this one. Because in this blog I want to talk about a major objection some people have to what I wrote there.
Determinists argue that the spontaneity we observe throughout nature and in our own lives is only apparent. They argue that everything is predetermined, despite all appearances to the contrary.
Perhaps the most common argument given in defense of determinism is that it’s implied in the nature of causation. Every event has a cause, and this cause accounts for the event being the way it is. This cause must itself have had a cause that accounts for it, and so on ad infinitum. Hence, everything must have been predetermined from the beginning (if there was a beginning), and so there is no room for spontaneity.
Now, I don’t think anyone can dispute the claim that every contingent event must have a cause. The idea of a completely uncaused contingent event is absurd. (Notice, I say every contingent event must have a cause, since I see nothing unintelligible in the concept of a necessary being, such as God, being uncaused. That’s what it means to be necessary, in contrast to being contingent). What is disputable, however, is the claim that every cause necessitates one, and only one, effect.
It’s one thing to say, (a) “ X is the cause of Y,” and another thing to say that (b) “Given X, Y had to happen” and/or (c) “Given X, only Y could happen.” There is no good reason to assume (b) and (c) are universally true. This is nothing more than a philosophical dogma. It’s the dogma of determinism.
The fact is that, as David Hume argued centuries ago, we don’t even know what a “cause” is. It is simply a word we use to say “When we observe X, we observe Y after it.” But there’s nothing in the nature of causation itself that says Y must always follow X. So there’s no basis for the assumption that “Given X, Y had to happen, and only Y could happen.”
If we look at the world as a work of art instead of a deterministic mechanism – as western science up until recently has been imagining it – we can see this more clearly. Imagine that we are all artists invited to paint a segment of a grand mosaic, and we paint with our free decisions. Now let’s think about causation in this context.
Imagine Van Gogh’s famous hallucinogenic painting, “Starry Night.” We’d all agree that every riveting detail of this work is explainable by referencing the aesthetic vision that was inspiring Van Gogh to paint this painting. Nothing in the painting is capricious (that is, without a cause). Yet, can’t we imagine a slightly different painting being explainable by referencing this same aesthetic vision?
If the church steeple in the painting had been a centimeter taller or shorter, for example, would it alter the aesthetic achievement of the painting? If it had been a centimeter to the left or right, would it have been inconsistent with the vision that was behind this painting? If one particular stroke of yellow or purple or black had been a centimeter longer or shorter, couldn’t we explain it by appealing to the same aesthetic vision we would appeal to now to explain the shades that are presently in the painting? And so for a trillion other details in this painting.
My point is that a given cause can explain more effects than one, as artist works illustrate. But our own free decisions reveal this as well. So do quantum particles. And so does every aspect of creation! There’s causation everywhere, but there’s also an element (however slight) of spontaneity everywhere.
This dance of order and freedom, structure and spontaneity, is what makes the creation beautiful and an adventure.
So, determinism rests on an unwarranted assumption about causation. It runs against our experience of free decision making, of creating works of art and many other things. And it’s inconsistent with some recent advances in science (as my book The Cosmic Dance will attempt to prove).
But perhaps the best argument against determinism is that it’s just plain ugly.