What is Determinism


In the realm of Philosophy, various questions are always raised on the strength of various concepts and subjects with philosophers and scholars postulating theories by eloquently articulating ideas that are relevant to the edification of the human mind.

The concept of determinism, like many other themes, has been a vital debating issue which has contributed to building the world of knowledge. Whilst some philosophers and scholars postulate and defend the relevance of determinism, others especially the proponents of indeterminism and self-determinism contest its soundness as a theory.

This term paper examines the concept of determinism which claims that “everything in the universe is governed by causal laws” (A Modern introduction to philosophy Third edition, 1973, p2) and critically review its relevance. The objective is mainly to attract an appreciation of the notion of free will and moral responsibility as inherent feature in most human actions. The main focus here is the intellectual debate which relates to the conflict between the concepts of determinism and that of self-determinism. In reviewing the concept of determinism, an attempt was made to critically examine its strength with key questions with a view to strengthen the argument in the debate for ‘free will and moral responsibility’. One of such critical questions is ‘why should someone be held responsible for actions he/she can’t help doing?

It is my view, to completely accept the idea of the determinists would be a deliberate attempt to refuse a striking attribute of God being good. God being good would not punish someone for what he/she can’t help doing. It also questions the morality behind punitive measures and social sanctions in response to human actions that are repugnant to the laws of a state and social values. The paper concludes by subscribing to the view that the concept of self-determinism is rationally sound and accepts determinism with some degree of limitation particularly with regards to the occurrence of some natural and spontaneous events that transcends human ability to make choice or do otherwise.

1.1 Determinism: Definition and Types
In order to clearly understand what determinism is, an attempt was made to explore the views of various philosophers and writers on the subject matter. In the book ‘A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, Third edition, 1973, p2, Paul Edwards in his introductory writings with reference to determinism talked about “The theory that everything in the universe is governed by causal laws” suggesting “that whatever happens at some specific moment is the outcome of something that happened at a previous moment, i.e., that the present is always determined by the past”. According to J. Stuart Mill, determinism indicates “that all man's volitions are invariably determined by pre-existing circumstances. It may take diverse forms, some cruder, some more refined”. Determinism is further said to claim “the view that all events, including mental events, are governed by causal laws. Every event is the inevitable effect of some set of circumstances (the “cause”) that necessitate that event….”
There are two main forms of determinism viz. Naturalistic and Theistic determinism.

1.1.1. Naturalistic Determism

Naturalistic determinism is the theory which asserts “that man's behaviour can be fully explained in terms of natural causes” . Key proponents of this notion include Thomas Hobbes and B. F. Skinner. Skinner in particular asserts that human behaviour is completely influenced by man’s genetic composition and environmental factors. He however subscribes to the possibility of human choices but rejects the claim that such choices are free and that their manifestations are determined by what he referred to as “antecedent physical causes” .
1.1.2. Theistic Determinism

Unlike the philosophy of naturalistic determinism attributed to man’s behaviour, theistic determinism is another school of thought which advocates that every events including human behaviour are completely determined or caused by God. Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards are renowned advocate of this view.

1.2 Determinism; A Critical Review

The perspective of determinists that all events, including human actions, are predetermined is certainly incompatible with the concept of free will which states that human beings have freedom of choice or self-determination. Advocates of the various schools of thoughts have advanced arguments all with the objective of rendering the opposing views untenable. In relation to the claims of determinism which conflict with that of free will, I would like to present a critical review of determinism.

Another key advocate of determinism is the notable Philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to him, “The actions of men … are determined in conformity with the order of nature, by their empirical character and by the other causes which cooperate with that character; and if we could exhaustively investigate all the appearances of men’s wills, there would be not be a single human action which we could not predict with certainty… ”

The determinists claim that everything that happens results from something which transcends man’s. They maintain that human beings behave the way they do because various factors including genetics, astrology and God have so determined and that everything that man does is laid out before we do it” . They assert that what man does that no one could rightly say that a given human action could have been performed otherwise than it in fact was performed. Thus, according to determinism, someone sitting on the brown chair rather than the blue bench is not a free choice but is fully determined by previous factors.

Having examined the claims made by various deterministic theorists, I personally hold on to the view that the extreme extent to which determinism is said to consider, like all other events, human actions as being caused by some external factor is, respectfully, flawed. This indeed virtually rejects the fact of the being of free will which I believe is one of the constitutive aspects of human acts . To reject the concept is free will is basically to communicate the idea that human beings could not be morally held responsible of accountable for their actions of behaviour. On the basis of this, it is my view that to assert in absolute terms that every event under the sun has been pre-determined or governed by causal laws is false and that the philosophy of self-determination reflected in man’s ability to determine his own behaviour freely is tenable.

In order to validate my argument, I would like to set off with the premise that God being the most Supreme Being is good and that a being that is good will not will evil. The theistic determinist and Puritan Theologian Jonathan Edwards maintained that the idea of free will or self-determination contradicts the sovereignty of God. He argues that God being in control of all things no one could act contrary to his will and that God being sovereign he must cause every event, be it human or otherwise . On the basis of this statement, the determinist is supporting the fact that God caused the act of man’s disobedience by eating of the Tree of Knowledge and Good in the Garden of Eden even though He admonished against it. If the theory of determinism is plausible, then everything people do is completely caused; and on the basis of causal antecedent, nothing could happen except what does happen.

The critical questions to contend with now are why did God punish and drive Adam and Eve out of the garden when they can’t help doing what they did? Who is responsible for the act of disobedience? Can someone, after giving instructions and caused it to be disobeyed, inflict punishment on the person who disobeyed? To believe that God caused every human action is a deliberate attempt to reject the striking attribute of God being good. God being good would not punish someone for what he/she can’t help doing. The fact that punishment was meted out indicates that Adam and Eve acted on their own free will to disobey and therefore carried the moral responsibility for the wrong done. The fact that a commandment was given indicates that man had the ability and freedom to do otherwise.

Furthermore, if determinism were true, then the question arises, what is the morality behind punitive measures and social sanctions in response to human actions that are repugnant to the laws of a state and social values? It would appear absurd to hold robbers and other social deviants responsible for what they do if determinism is true. In every human society and institutions, laws and rules are made in order to regulate proper behaviour consistent with social and institutional values. These efforts would be a dissipation of people’s energies if determinism were true. The fact that such laws and rules exist suggests that man has the tendency to behave otherwise. Would determinists say all people who fail in life have so been determined to fail even with the possibility of opportunities offered them and the fact that there are numerous examples of successful people whose footprint could be emulated? It is a stubborn-fact that most people are responsible for being failures in life because of failure to wholeheartedly embrace every opportunity that knocked at their doorsteps. Hard work can certainly contribute to success and changing one’s low social status upwards.

Another issue with determinism is that its insistence on the claim that everything is determined suggests that both determinists and self-determinists have been determined to think the way they think. In trying to persuade the self-determinists to accept the view that everything is determined is self defeating and suggests that indeed man has option to reject what he believes and accept another view. With regards to this, the determinists are oblivious of the fact that freedom for man to choose “is a wonderful gift of God to His rational creatures” as supported by the biblical evidence from Proverbs 1:29 - 31; and Hebrews 11:24 - 26. Through the complementary activities of reason which is the faculty of deliberation and argument and Will, the faculty of choice and decision, man has the ability and freedom to choose from a wide range of options either for the good or bad.

1.3 Conclusion

Conclusively, whilst I subscribe to the views of self-determinist particularly with respect to man’s behaviour, I do also accede to the fact that factors such as hereditary, the environment and God do influence the occurrence certain events or things. It must be noted that man is in compliance with some laws of nature such as obedience to the physical laws of gravity, nutritional laws and the laws of instinct. All these laws influence man to respond spontaneously to his physical environment.

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