Before anyone can be a determinist they need to start by being a materialist. So they believe that all life and consciousness is the result of natural physical laws, the laws of nature. There is no dualism allowed, no free spirit or soul in the machine. Consciousness is simply the outcome of biological processes where senses feed information to the brain, which creates a kind of model of the world with an “I” in it (the self). The “I” is something implied by the model and the model is something made entirely of matter and experienced as thought.

A determinist believes people have no free will because every thought or action is ultimately the result of a pervious cause. For the determinists there are no uncaused causes. They believe the process of cause and effect starts way before anyone is even born, so people cannot be unmoved movers. Even when someone makes a choice they are not ever making a choice free of prior influences and prior circumstances, so the choice a person makes is, in a determinist sense, not really a free choice at all.

I have encountered endless difficulties when discussing determinism because it revolves around the concept of free will and free will means different things to different people. Fortunately for me however Magnus Vinding has encountered the same difficulties and has defined free will when discussing determinism in his book Free Will: An Examination of Human Freedom. Vinding defines free will as the ability to choose one’s own intentions independently of any prior causes. This definition is easy to understand if we spend a little time on it. After all, if an intention has been caused by a prior cause (say for example from a person’s biology or from interaction with society) it then has a cause outside of that person’s creation and therefore cannot be regarded as a first cause, an uncaused cause, a free intention, or free will. So if we understand free will in this way we can see that no intentions are without a cause and so no intentions can ever be regarded as free will. If someone intends to do something like marry someone who is beautiful, then they have freedom of action to pursue that intention. Freedom of action is not being disputed or denied, it is simply that the intention in the first place must have come from causes that were outside of that person’s control, like the genes they were born with, the society they were born into etc. In fact everybody is in every way the product of prior causes.

Determinism does not imply that somebody or something knows what is going to happen in the future. It only means that the future is determined by the current state of the universe and the natural laws of cause and effect that are part of the universe.

Determinism is not fatalistic. The actions of people do make the world a better or worse place. If a politician were to negotiate a lasting peace in the Middle East it would be a wonderful thing for the lives of many Arabs and Israelis. Our applauding the achievement would support political moves for peace in other parts of the world. Peace clearly will not come about if politicians sit back and say whatever will be, will be. Determinism does not require or even expect them to do so. Politicians like everyone else have intentions but let’s not pretend those intentions come from nowhere.

When it comes to crime and punishment if people are bound to think what they think and to do what they do, how can we possibly punish criminals for doing what they were always bound to do from the dawn of time because of prior causes? The answer lies in understanding why we punish criminals. We punish criminals because it discourages future crime. If someone commits murder we punish them because the punishment will act as a deterrent to other potential murderers (we know this because of prior causes in our thinking). In one way punishment only for the reason that it deters potential criminals makes more sense than punishment for retribution, as it shows a little compassion or at least understanding to the criminal.

The case for determinisms rests on the idea that the universe is governed by natural laws. The future is determined by these natural laws and their actions upon the current state of the universe. But there are intermediate steps in the process. For example let’s just consider the moment when a person makes a choice, and let’s make it a simple choice; ‘press the left button or the right button’. So the sequence of events goes like this; the mind chooses a button, the brain sends a message to the finger and the finger presses the button. That is in fact completely and utterly wrong. In truth the unconscious brain chooses the button and, believe it or not, it may do so up to six seconds before the conscious mind knows about it and the finger presses the button. The decision is already made before the person starts consciously thinking about the decision! Clearly the decision is completely determined, the choice cannot go any other way but the way it did. Consciousness had no influence on the choice.  This all seems very weird and confusing so I would like you to take a look at this short video that actually shows this experiment being carried out in a brain scanner. After that it will all make sense I promise. The video is: The Brain Knows Before You Do. By Stephen Davis.

Determinism as I have said is a materialist philosophical approach. If we try to sweep away determinism by bringing God into the picture it would change things far less than most people expect. After all, if God created the universe and everything in it she pretty much determined all possible events. So why she added the Ten Commandments beats me!

Mark Leonard is an experienced Hypnotherapist and Counsellor at Cherry Tree Therapy Centre in Buckhurst Hill.  For further information on his services, please contact him on 07825 412 620 orcontact the centre.