Determinism and Will

I believe in a deterministic universe, one where the future is pre-set, laid out. If the past exists for certainty, the future must exist too. If time is a dimension, then the future is no less real than a distant location. If time is a dimension, then the universe is necessarily one, multi-dimensional sculpture, and we, as beings, appear to be flying through time from past to future (although this feeling of motion is illusory, I've written on this briefly before).

This creates problems for will, our sense that we are doing something by choice; that we can change the future, make decisions, and are responsible for our actions. I postulate that all aspects of will can be explained in terms of ego, our sense of self-importance; that when things happen, we sometimes attribute these actions to us, and we consider those actions wilful, but that those actions, in reality, occur irrespective of us: the aspect of will is an ego-driven belief which occurs after the act, not a cause to the effect of the action.

We act in many ways. Some things we do are considered wilful, conscious choices. Some things we do are not wilful: unconscious movements, autonomic functions beyond our control (eg. our heart beating), acting without thinking, or doing things without thinking about the consequences. It seems that some actions are considered more wilful than others. We might carefully consider doing something before doing it, or make a quick choice, or do something without the notion that we are choosing to do it. Importantly, everything we do changes the universe, but only a small number of our actions are considered wilful by us; choices or activities that we, ourselves, have chosen to do and have done.

In a deterministic universe, every action is inevitable, so I postulate that for willed actions, things that we think 'we do', we consider that we have made that thing happen after, or during, the effect. Crucially, we haven't caused the action at all, but we egotistically consider that we have. We like to feel in control, empowered, and that empowerment is not a fundamental attribute of the universe; no one part of the universe has more power or control than another, we merely feel powerful as an egotistical and social construct. We might feel others are powerful too, but there is no intrinsic power over any action. Power is a belief.

Consider an example. We might want to raise our right hand, and then do so. Firstly; the desire to raise a hand was first implanted. We might see, from that initial suggestion, that we are already going to raise a hand. We might internally argue that it was our choice to raise it, or that we are otherwise happy to do so. We don't consider the hand, or the concept of its raising, or the person or faculty who suggested that we raise it, our master. We feel in control. When it raises, we consider that we did this.

In a deterministic universe, the hand was always going to raise. We, as people, use complex arguments to convince ourselves that we were responsible and in control of this act. If we did not raise our hand, this again was inevitable, and we would convince ourselves that it was our free choice. Every wilful act is one of self-deception.

There are other types of will. We might feel that we are pressured into doing something. This social action might have no direct physical link. 'He made me do it' in a moral argument is considered weak because we are considered to have more personal will than social will, but I would argue that this social will is identical to our personal will. We are composite beings ourselves, and we consider some of our actions more wilful than others. Our feeling of being coerced might genuinely be stronger than our own will to do something.

We feel in control of certain things, such as the ability to raise our hand, and less in control of others. We might feel free to change job, or move to a new country, but perhaps this feeling of control is less strong than the feeling of our ability to raise our hand; we are less confident (confidence is a social construct of relative empowerment). We might feel able to complete a complex task, perhaps with help from friends. We rarely feel able to cause the sun to rise, but if it did rise, we are able to feel that we caused it, if our ego and feeling of empowerment were large enough. Events can happen that we feel that we have caused which we did not, or had no influence on or ability to cause; this itself might be the origin of mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress, or a guilt complex. Events might also occur which we are unaware of, but which a third party might think we have caused in some part. One could say that a new exhibition of van Gogh paintings was caused, in part, by Vincent van Gogh, even though he would, in his life, could never have been aware of causing this exhibition.

To reiterate; things occur as they always would. For some events, we consider that we made them happen, we attach our will, our egotistical credit, to these. Perhaps this is a factor of humanity, that we like to feel powerful, and will itself is an expression of this. Our importance is relative to our feelings of being in control, of feeling powerful, of feeling wilful, yet this is all illusory, as we can attach or detach our will to any action; even raising our hand. If someone else should take our hand and raise it, we might feel that we are letting them, but that we remain in control, or we might feel that they are in control of the situation. The action is identical even though the feelings of will are different.

What of choice? We are sometimes faced with a choice, perhaps a life-choice such as what to subject to study in school. The choice, I would argue, is always destined, and we convince ourselves that we willingly made it. Each micro-argument along the long path of a complex decision like this is made and set, a winding path of arguments and conclusions, each bend of this path is self-credited to our will, even though its course was inevitable.

Of course, there are many implications to this.

In morality, free will is of paramount importance. The difference between a murder and an accidental death is only one of will; a murderer wants to kill someone, a person responsible for an accidental death didn't. Consider a criminal, who in court argues that his crime was inevitable, that he had no free will, that his fate was to become a criminal, and thus deny responsibility. This might be a valid argument, but the court itself is a unit of ego and social power, and, believing itself to have power over the universe (in particular over the criminal, and the whole populace), its social arguments would defeat the criminal's wider philosophical ones. If the court should accept the criminal's argument that determinism exists, then it would also have to accept that its own free will does not exist, and so a judgement either way is unimportant, and that the criminal justice system itself is pointless.

The court, however, is part of human society, a social construct, so its actions are socially made; not based on physics or the fundamentals of universal truth. Court decisions are social decisions based on social truth, which are ultimately the feelings of morality in a population.

These same feelings are inherent in us, which is why we feel guilty, responsible for our actions, and empowered, even if in actuality, these feelings are not a reflection of reality.

Our feeling of being in control of any aspect of our actions is simply a feeling. We feel that other people have more or less power than ourselves; also mere feelings. If we wish to ascribe the rising of the sun to our will, we may. This is no different from the belief that we can raise our hand, as can be illustrated by the burden of proof: can anyone prove that any act is due to will? This very question has never been answered and has mystified philosophers, yet here, I argue that its lack of proof proves that will does not exist except as a social, egotistical construct.

Let's consider another of the many implications; on physics and multiple universes. In a deterministic universe, everything can be calculated, yet quantum events are fundamentally unpredictable. There are theories of multiple universe, each of which represents a different possibility. For me, the universe has a solipsistic element; if time is relative to the observer, then space is also, knowledge is also, and reality is also. If we could travel through time then the universe experienced by us would be necessarily unique to us. Every viewpoint is necessarily unique, so each viewpoint must necessarily depict a new universe, of sorts, but, crucially, this is different from a universe of possible actions; each of these universes of viewpoint would be deterministic, total, pre-set, and finite in quantity. This view is not in conflict with a universe devoid of will.

Mark Sheeky, 18 June 2020