On the beauty of determinism


I have always been somewhat mystified by determinism: the idea that the future is fully contained in the present, and the infinite regress by which the present was determined in the past both terrifies and allures me.

Under the light of determinism every decision we ever make immediately becomes meaningless, since there was really no choice to begin with. We are nothing but the result of the interaction of multiple variables over which we have no control. In this kind of world, words like responsibility, freedom and will are devoid of meaning. And, at least to me, so is life. After all, what’s the point in doing anything if we are powerless to affect the outcomes?

Yet, as disheartening and barren a picture of the future comes to mind with this depiction of determinism, and as much as it makes me want to curl up in bed and wait for the end of the world, I can’t help but think that there’s a certain beauty to it. Before the question is raised, I’d like to state that I’m no EMO; I don’t even wear bangs. It’s not the depressing jail-like interpretation of determinism that I find beautiful, but what might be called the meant to be side of it. That is to say, a deterministic view of the world can work as an exalting factor in the happy times of our lives, and as a soothing and comforting one when we hit a rough spot. With only three words, meant to be, a good experience can be lifted to the realm of the magical. It is because we had no control over that particular positive occurrence, and because it was the result of the interplay of variables that were set in motion long before we came into this world, that we are left in awe. Every single past event, and every single future one, are subsumed into that particular experience. On a similar train of thought, even the worst imaginable incident can be found to have a meaning and a purpose, as a link in the chain of events that was determined in the past.

A few weeks ago I read Kundera’s Immortality, and among the many memorable phrases that I extracted from it, there’s one that stands out just because it encapsulates my contradictory take on determinism:

“When someone is young, he is not capable of conceiving of time as a circle, but thinks of it as a road leading forward to ever new horizons; he does not yet sense that his life contains just a single theme, he will come to realize it only when his life begins to enact its first variations.”

Beautiful? Yes, in many ways: not only aesthetically but also conceptually. There is a lei-motif to our existence, an inescapable essence that binds together what would seem to be isolated events into the harmonious whole that is our life. Disturbing? Indeed! And curiously enough, it is so because of that same inescapable quality wherein its beauty resides.

Now, I’m not one to cope with contradiction, so I’ve been toying with these ideas for some time trying to find a way to overcome this one. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to say that I want to embrace any deterministic doctrine. I’m a free will advocate at core, and just as Popper, I see determinism as an irrefutable yet false idea. However, I’m not one to easily give up on beauty either, so the problem under consideration would be: Is it possible to reconcile a free will view of the world with the ideas of meant to be and existential themes? I contend that a possible answer can be found by applying the problem of causality as seen by Hume and Popper.

According to Hume, causality is a category that the human mind imposes on the world, derived from the observation of numerous repetitions of conjoined events. In other words, the fact that we get used to witnessing one event preceding another one by the repetition of similar observations leads us to believe that there has to be a necessary link leading from the first to the second one. However, as it is beyond our power to observe every possible realization of such sequence, there are no grounds on which to ascertain that there exists a universal causal law governing it. Thus, the notion of causality is reduced to a psychological habituation. Popper takes Hume’s theory and decides to “turn the tables” upon it. It’s not repetition, he claims, that makes the observer expect regularities and suggests necessary causal relations to him, but quite the opposite: it’s the observer, with his “system of expectations, anticipations, assumptions, or interests” who finds the observations to be similar, based on his own point of view. There are no cases of perfect sameness, but of subjective similarity; repetition is meaningless unless we speak of repetition-for-the-observer. In Popper’s own words:

“Without waiting, passively, for repetitions to impress or impose regularities upon us, we actively try to impose regularities upon the world. We try to discover similarities in it, and to interpret it in terms of laws invented by us.”

So, going back to Kundera’s phrase, I find it to put forward a theory very close to that of Hume’s: in time we realize that the circumstances we go through during the course of our lives have a similar quality to them, making us believe that there is a pattern that they follow, a single theme contained in them. Now let’s play Popper for a while, and invert this reasoning. Instead of saying that we find our theme in the light of lived episodes, I suggest that it is the problem that we have in mind at the time of our retrospection  which makes us interpret the events recollected so as to make them fit the theme we have chosen as the solution to it. Hindsight is never an innocent exercise, and it most certainly doesn’t happen in a vacuum. When looking back on our lives we are always trying to solve a certain predicament, for example, the understanding of our present situation and how we got to it. And in order to choose, out of the myriad experiences that constitute a person’s history, the few instances that could serve as an explanation, we need to have developed first a selection criteria. With it, we are able to separate the relevant memories from the irrelevant ones, but the question is now obvious: relevant for what? My answer is: relevant for the support of the hypothesis we have developed to elucidate our existential query. This hypothesis is nothing but our theme.

But how does all of this help us in reconciling the notions of free will, meant to be and existential themes? I think that it is all about the development of our selection criteria, of what we abstract and what we don‘t. Seeing the world as a place of unconstrained purposive actions should not make us blind to the amazing little details that add a certain magic to our lives. Even though we might not believe in the concept of destiny, it does not follow that we shouldn’t look for regularities and coincidences around us. Knowing that there is no destiny, we should try our best to find the little singularities that could challenge that notion. Why? I’ll leave the answer to Kundera:

“it is right to chide man for being blind to such coincidences in his daily life. For he thereby deprives his life of a dimension of beauty.”

So here’s one amazing detail I discovered today: Barcelona and Shanghai are sister cities. Perhaps there is a fate after all?


The subject of determinism is too vast to be exhausted in an amateur blog post. I intend here to make explicit the material I quoted, and also to show where you can get interesting views on different related issues. Ramble on!

Quoted books

Immortality, by Milan Kundera

Interesting stuff to get lost in

Causality and Determinism in Economics, by Stavros Drakopoulos and Thomas Torrance: It’s not only an interesting historical account on the growth of determinism as the dominant paradigm in Economics (specially in econometrics) but it also presents arguments to challenge this mental frame.
The life and opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne: Here is an example of a very particular selection criteria! Read it and you’ll know what I mean (and if you’re anything like me, you’ll get a good laugh as well).
500 days of Summer, directed by Marc Webb: A beautiful movie revolving around the subject of destiny, but also the power of abstraction and selective observation. A memorable quote: “You must not have been looking.”
Subjectivity, by xkcd
Freedom, by xkcd

6 responses »

  1. Hi Lausen;
    An excellent expose’ – like this quote you used:

    “When someone is young, he is not capable of conceiving of time as a circle, but thinks of it as a road leading forward to ever new horizons; he does not yet sense that his life contains just a single theme, he will come to realize it only when his life begins to enact its first variations.”

    Keep on searchin’

    • Hi Ed!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Kundera’s books are full of interesting insights, that quote is just an example 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s