How to win an Argument with a Determinist?

Photo by Carla Oliveira on Unsplash

I think I cracked a tough philosophical problem.

Philosophical Determinism is the idea that everything that happens has a cause, as if all parts of the universe were like a giant pool table, the balls bouncing off one another according to the laws of physics. Once set in motion, nothing can change the reactions that follow. This position is a central part of scientific reductionism, which seeks to explain behaviour of complex entities by reducing them to the actions of their component (and determined) parts. For example, a reductionist looking at cells would reduce their behaviors to the actions collections of atoms and molecules. In psychology, a determinist approach proposes free will is an illusion; our behaviour is governed by entirely internal or external forces of cause and effect over which we have no control.

It’s hard to argue with determinists. They seem to have the laws of physics on their side. For any argument that certain specific events undetermined or the product of free will, the ready answer of determinists is that if science could fully understand the complexity of the situation, then it could of course be broken down into mechanical cause and effects — right down to the most minute element of human behavior. There is no way to disprove such a hypothetical stance.

So, here’s my (possibly) new approach. The whole point of determinism is that it demands everything is determined. If the Big Bang were to happen all over again, every single thing that happened would happen in exactly the same way. Every raindrop that falls would splash with the exact same pattern. Every grain of pollen would float through the air in the exact same trajectory. Every photon of light would beam out from every star on exactly the same path. Not a single human thought or whim would be different than it is in our current universe.

Do this mental exercise: pick a number between one and 100. Whatever you chose, realize that is was absolutely impossible for you to have picked the other number. Now, if you are not a determinist, you might intuitively reject this conclusion. Of course you could have chosen another. And this whole idea of a universe with no randomness may frankly be hard for you to grasp. But if you are a determinist, you can grasp it, and there is no logical reason why it is not true, not just because it’s mind boggling to some people.

Now, here is my innovation: it is impossible to scientifically test and prove whether the entire universe is deterministic or not because you can never stand outside of the system to do an objective test. We are always part of it, and our observations are a determined byproduct of the sytem. If you can’t scientifically test a hypothesis, it can never be proven true. You have to simply believe in it. (For a great discussion of this, read Spheres of Perception, by Theodore Holtzhausen). And if determinism is ultimately a matter of belief, then it’s equally possible to disbelieve it. This principle is known as Hitchens’ razor: “That which can be asserted without proof can be negated without proof.”

So, if you can believe either way, how do you decide which is the better option? One can apply Pascal’s Wager to the options. Pascal’s Wager is the logical argument that its wise to believe in God. It goes like this:

If God does not exist, and I don’t believe in God, there’s no consequence when I’m dead.

If God does not exist, and I do believe in God, there’s no consequence when I’m dead.

If God exists, and I believe in God, I go to heaven.

If God exist, and I not believe in God, I go to hell.

Therefore, I would be wise to wager that God exists — there’s only upside. If I wager that God does not exist — there’s only downside. Of course, this argument fails to convince people who intuitively and strongly believe that God — at least a God who can send you to heaven or hell — does not exist. If you rankle at the teachings of various churches, you might well not want to take Pascal’s wager. But watch what happens when you apply this same logic to determnism:

If the universe is deterministic, and I believe it is not (and incorrectly think I have free will), that delusion was predetermined. I can’t do anything about it.

If the universe is deterministic, and I believe it is, that accurate belief was predetermined. I can’t do anything about it.

If the universe is not deterministic, and I believe it is determined, then I miss the possibility of consciously exercising my free will.

If the universe is not deterministic, and I believe it is indeterminate, then I have the possibility of consciously exercising my free will.

Just like Pascal’s wager, there is no upside to believing in determinism. There is only an upside to believing the opposite —that is if you like the idea of free will. What’s more, a determinist can’t experience choosing to take the wager. They know whatever option they take has already been determined by the Big Bang. On the other hand, you can choose to believe in free will, and also tell yourself that if you are mistaken, then there’s nothing at all you can do about it. So, enjoy the illusion of free will.

In conclusion: Anyone who believes in free will can choose to argue about it with a determinist, and may hold a realistic hope of changing the other person’s mind. However, a determinist who argues with a believer in free will in an attempt to change the other’s mind is not being logically consistent. By attempting to persuade, they are in fact revealing that they actually believe in free will.

This reasoning might not change the mind of any determinists, but it will give whoever believes in free will a way of ending arguments about it with them.

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