Determinism: proposed and answered

Some ideas are like mosquitoes in the summer. You swat them, wave your arms, burn Citronella candles, and still their annoying buzzing and bites persist. They don’t go away, even if they seem to retreat a bit on some days when the temperature isn’t just right.

Similarly, one idea that keeps reappearing regularly is determinism, the notion that free will is an illusion and that all we do, say, and think are merely determined so we couldn’t have done, said, or thought differently. Even if we thought we could, which thought itself was also merely determined. And so, it goes. Endlessly—or annoyingly—depending on your patience with such things.

In the November 13, 2023, issue of The New Yorker, philosophy professor Nikhil Krishnan (Cambridge) reviews Determined: A Science of Life Without Free Will (Penguin) by Stanford neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky. In the spirit of transparency I should add that I likely will not read the book. Over the decades, I’ve read enough defenses of determinism by Naturalists and Hyper-Calvinists to kill my desire to read more. And please don’t say it is simply determined that I not read more.

Krishnan’s review, however, is a fascinating read. For two reasons. First, he’s clear on what the debate is about. And second, which I will circle around to later, he apparently thinks he has a way out of the dilemma.

Krishnan defines determinism succinctly: “everything that happens is the inevitable consequence of the laws of nature and what the universe was like once upon a time. We’re bound to do what in fact we do. ‘Causal determinism,’ the philosopher’s unlovely term for that unsettling hypothesis, is the default assumption of most modern science.”

It appears that Sapolsky embraces determinism fully, arguing that “we have no free will at all.” And he argues we need to accept the logical conclusions of this scientific worldview—including recognizing “no one’s to blame for anything”—even if we are uncomfortable with these social and personal conclusions.

The same week I read this review, I watched the movie, The Killer (2023) on Netflix, directed by David Fincher. Staring Michael Fassbender as an assassin for hire, it is a dark, honest, chilling portrayal of what life and morality consists of if determinism is the final reading of reality. There is little dialogue in the film, but in voiceover we listen in on the Killer’s relentlessly logical thinking.

Consider yourself lucky if our paths never cross. Except, luck isn’t real. Nor is karma. Or sadly, justice. As much as I’d like to pretend these concepts exist, they just don’t.

One is born, lives their life, and eventually, one dies. In the meantime, do what thou wilt, shall be the whole of the law. To quote… someone. Can’t remember who.

Popeye the Sailor probably said it best: “I am what I am.” I’m not exceptional. I’m just… apart.

Skepticism is often mistaken for cynicism. Most people refuse to believe that the Great Beyond is no more than a cold, infinite void. But I accept it, along with the freedom that comes from acknowledging that truth.

It is often the case that propositions that sound reasonable in the comfortable wordiness of academic settings can be best revealed as wanting by artists. I have no idea what Fincher had in mind when he directed The Killer. But I’m glad he made the film. It speaks truth to power.

I mentioned that Krishnan was optimistic about the debate over determinism and free will. He ends his review with these words:

The traditional project of compatibilist philosophers has been to treat determinism, free will, and moral responsibility as fixed parts of a triad and to search for ways to reconcile them. The skeptics, seeing an irresolvable contradiction, have concluded that the whole idea of moral responsibility has to go. But there are other ways of reconciling scientific and moral inquiry. It may be that we need a suppler and more humane approach to holding one another responsible, an approach that takes more seriously what our best scientific accounts tell us about ourselves. We needn’t follow the skeptics to the conclusion that the best morality would be no morality at all to recognize that our current morality remains a work in progress.

I am not a philosopher, and I certainly don’t mean to be simplistic or dismissive. These topics are important, and as I mentioned, keep showing up so being willing to discuss them thoughtfully is part of faithfulness for followers of Jesus. Still, I would say that if you find Krishnan’s conclusion to be hopeful, I recommend you watch The Killer a second time.

Photo credit: Movie poster.