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Determinism Is Not Fatalism! March 24, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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One of my pet peeves is that people, who should know better, describe determinism as if it were fatalism. Here is Roy Baumeister, Professor of Psychology at Florida State describing determinism:

To the determinist, the march of causality will make one outcome inevitable, and so it is wrong to believe that anything else was possible. The chooser does not yet know which option he or she is going to choose, hence the subjective experience of choice. Thus, the subjective choosing is simply a matter of one’s own ignorance – ignorance that those other outcomes are not really possibilities at all.

To illustrate: When you sit in the restaurant looking at the menu, it may seem that there are many things that you might order: the fish, the chicken, the steak, the onion soup. Eventually you will make a selection and eat it. To a determinist, causal processes dictated that what you ordered was inevitable. When you entered the restaurant you may not have known, yet, that you would end up ordering the chicken, but that simply reflects your ignorance of what was happening in your unconscious mind. To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish. Maybe you saw it on the menu and were tempted to get it, and maybe you even started to order it and then changed your mind. No matter. It was never remotely possible. The causal processes that ended up making you order the chicken were in motion. Your belief that you could have ordered the chicken was mistaken.

Professor Baumeister is describing fatalism, not determinism. Fatalism is the view that the future is fixed, pre-ordained, so my deliberation about what to do in a situation doesn’t matter. If I walk into a restaurant and I am already fated to choose chicken from the menu, well then I will choose chicken regardless of my deliberation. Baumeister says “To a determinist, there was never any chance at all that you could have ordered the fish.”

But this is simply a misunderstanding of determinism. Determinism asserts that my actions are caused by my psychological state and other causal influences operating when I make a decision. But that psychological state will include a deliberative process that is continually being shaped and reshaped by new information. When I walk into a restaurant, given my preferences, I may be more likely to choose some items from the menu rather than others. But what I end up choosing will depend on odors wafting from the kitchen, the conversation at the table, the recommendations of the waiter, the descriptions of dishes on the menu, and other countless details about my surroundings that influence me. And I have to deliberate to find out, in light of those influences, what my preferences are. To the extent I am open to new information and have psychological states that are responsive to my surroundings, my actions are not fated.

It is of course true that all of these influences will determine what I choose. But when I walk into the restaurant most of the options on the menu (except for those that are distasteful) are genuine options and my ultimate choice will depend on my deliberation, which in turn is dependent on complex causal influences. So there is nothing illusory about choice—it is as real as the causal processes that determine my action and is in fact part of those processes.

So when Baumeister says —

“Choice is fundamental in human life. Every day people face choices, defined by multiple possibilities. To claim that all that is illusion and mistake is to force psychological phenomena into an unrealistic strait jacket.” —

He is inventing a straw man; a position no determinist holds.

He goes on to argue:

Also, psychological causality as revealed in our labs is arguably never deterministic. Our studies show a change in the odds of one response over another. But changes in the odds entail that more than one response was possible. Our entire statistical enterprise is built on the idea of multiple possibilities. Determinism denies the reality of this. Statistics are just ways of coping with our ignorance, to a determinist – statistics do not reflect how reality actually works.

Again, simple nonsense. Changes in odds reflect changes in causal conditions. There are multiple possibilities because there are multiple causal factors and the correlations don’t reveal which causal factors are at work.

He concludes:

To believe in determinism is thus to go far beyond the observed and known facts. It could be true, I suppose. But it requires a huge leap of faith, as well as a tortuous effort to deny that what we constantly observe and experience is real.

If determinism is false, then human actions must be uncaused—mysterious events that pop into existence and are somehow under our control yet outside the causal structure of reality.

Who is making a leap of faith?

A course in philosophy should be required for all scientists before they have a license to publish.

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1. Dan - March 25, 2009

Actually, I beg to differ. Determinism (defined as “The philosophical doctrine that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecedent states of affairs”) is fatalistic whether you specify the antecedent causation as natural or supernatural.

But I suspect that you’re mistaking determinism for something else. That is, antecedent causation only constrains the possibilities for the outcomes, and that any single outcome is not inevitable. Jacques Monod wrote a book called Chance and Necessity on this topic. Others have referred to this concept as ‘contingency’, where outcomes are contingent upon antecedents but not inevitable.

2. Dan - March 25, 2009

For more, you say:

Determinism asserts that my actions are caused by my psychological state and other causal influences operating when I make a decision.

No, that’s methodological naturalism, not determinism. As I put in the first comment, the standard definition (I quoted it directly from Answers.com, but Merriam-Webster and others echo it) clearly states that determinism equals inevitability.

3. James Gray - March 25, 2009

First, what a dictionary says is irrelevant. There is a group of philosophers who have been discussing this for a long time and whatever they mean is what the word means within a philosophical context.

I have taken multiple classes discussing determinism and free will and determinism is not fatalism. Fatalism says that your decisions make no difference. Yes, the outcome is inevitable, but your decision-making process is also inevitable, and causally necessary.

Second, the first quote is fine, but the second quote is a problem. He assumes for some reason that our unconscious mind would have complete control in a deterministic world. Of course conscious thoughts can also be causally effective.

Third, I agree that people tend to see determinism as fatalistic. I think to some extent John Searle even sees it this way. There is a strange assumption that the mind itself will be causally ineffective unless we have free will. Why can’t the mind also be determined and causally effective?

4. Dan - March 25, 2009

Hey, I’m just saying that philosophers can’t go around making their own meanings for words up, which seems to be what you’re defending.

Sardonicus - August 5, 2014

Philosophers invented determinism, I’m pretty sure they can define what it means. Furthermore, a dictionary doesn’t give you the meaning of a word, it gives you a very basic working understanding of the word.

Determinism is a lot more than it’s over-simplified definition.

5. Dan - March 25, 2009

Also (and sorry for the double comments again):

Why can’t the mind also be determined and causally effective?

I don’t know whether the mind can or cannot be determined and causally effective, but how about starting with the question “Is it pre-determined?” As a biologist, I’d say no, based on the simple observation that the neural circuitry is constantly being remodeled throughout a person’s lifetime. IOW, the connections a neuron attempts to make are totally random, and while the subset of neuronal connections that are formed and strengthened is non-random, there’s no empirical basis for claiming an inevitable outcome of circuit patterns.

That is, it operates by methodologically natural patterns, but is not pre-determined (deterministic) in any way. Surely you disagree though, because as I said above, I think you are confusing methodological naturalism with determinism (at least as scientists and dictionaries define the terms).

6. Determinism Again, Again « Philosophy On The Mesa - March 26, 2009

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7. Xiao - March 26, 2009

I think there is some confusion in Professor Baumeister’s arguments.

First, the word “choice” can be defined in different ways: when determinists denies the exsitence of choices, what they mean by the word “choice” is different from what we mean when we talk about choices in our everyday life. But Baumeister seems to confuse the two definitions. When determinists say we don’t have choices, they are saying that there are no alternatives that could otherwise be chosen, given the fact that our choices are the functions(a very important mathematical term) of all the external and internal factors. However, when we talk about choices in our everyday life, we are refering to the processes of reasoning, of comparing, of evaluating pros and cons, etc. Of course, determinism is not denying that we can be engaged in these processes. And in fact, these processes are possible only with causality. If causal relations didn’t exist, what goes on in my brain this second would be totally irrelavant with what will go on next second. Obviously, I wouldn’t be able to do anything thinking, much less make any decisions or choices like this.

Second, that everything has a cause doesn’t mean everything is predictable. As the chaos theory implies, only an infinite quantity of information can provide a perfectly precise desciption of the current status of the world and only a perfectly precise desciption of the current status of the world can lead to a perfect prediction of the future. But, not only practically, but also theoretically, is such an infinite amount of information impossible to acquire, Therefore, it is inevitable that there is always something missing in the prediction of the future. However, this doesn’t mean that what will be is not determined by what is. In the last two paragraphs of Baumeister’s essay, he seems to say that because not everything is predictable, not everything has a cause. The conclusion is certainly not correct given the true premises.

8. James Gray - March 27, 2009


You think I would disagree with you because you are defining the word differently? That is just a problem of semantics. I don’t see why determinism has anything to do with what is pre-determined. (I suppose people who think that God has pre-determined the world are also dealing with determinism, but even they insist that our intentions/choices do matter.)

Randomness is an important point. The question is, are we dealing with randomness in the sense of unpredictability or are we dealing with metaphysical randomness? (If I time travel to the past, would people on the other side of the galaxy have a chance to make different decisions, even though I have no causal effect on them, due to random factors that will be different?)

I’m not sure if I like the idea that I am somehow controlled by random stuff in my body. That seems pretty problematic for my life’s choices.

Yes, philosophers can create their own definitions. That is sometimes necessary for clarification in order to avoid ambiguity and vagueness problems.

I looked up Methological Naturalism, and it looks like it is some kind of a method. A reliable source of philosophy information is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and it has some information on it here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/naturalism/#MetNat

It says that “Methodological naturalists see philosophy and science as engaged in essentially the same enterprise, pursuing similar ends and using similar methods.” Where could I find information about methodological naturalism related to some kind of metaphysical determinism?

9. Dan - March 27, 2009

Yeah, I’ve been looking up various definitions of determinism as well, and it would appear that I’m working on a different definition of the term than you are.

Re: Methodological naturalism, I think Wikipedia has a better description for quick reference (I know, Wikis are superficial though). But it says:

Naturalism is a philosophical position that all phenomena can be explained in terms of natural causes and laws… methodological naturalism, is an epistemological method of proofing hypotheses.

That sounds fairly equivalent to the way that you’ve been using the term determinism, I think. I could be wrong however, maybe you mean metaphysical or philosophical naturalism, which goes further than methodologically natural explanations of cause and effect in the immediate experiment/observation/phenomena to claim that supernatural causes do not exist.

I hope that helps. Interesting discussion, regardless.

10. tricksmeme - April 20, 2011

Hi there.

Though I totally agree with your contentions against this professor, and I agree with almost everything you have said in your post, determinism does (categorically) fall under the umbrella of fatalism. Fatalism is a broader term – as any system in which the future is inevitable is fated, regardless of causality. That being said, causal determinism is equally as fated (inevitable future). In a deterministic universe, you truly cannot have chosen steak, even though the thought of steak helped causally determine the outcome of chicken. You seem to agree with this so it is semantics regarding how you define “fatalism”.

I 100% agree with your statement that belief in acausal events is not any less of a leap of faith (due to the issues of not having temporal or spatial determinacy and what it means, etc). And even if we accept that acausal events happen, they would be entirely out of the person’s control as well. They certainly would be a larger detriment to the will.


11. Miles - August 21, 2013

Actually, Baumeister is right… Determinism means that every event within the physical universe is dictated by causes outside the will.

Which means everything that will happen within this universe is a result of a chain of causality, that means us too, everything we do, and every choice we make will be entirely due to what the causes will dictate, always, forever, doesn’t matter.

Thanks for playing though…

Chris Linde - August 26, 2013

Pre-frontal cortex

12. Liam Scott - October 13, 2013

fatalism and determinism are the same thing, both have no free will so therefor everything abides by the laws on nature, physics etc. unless some supernatural power exerts itself on the world then everything is predetermined and everything is fate.

13. Quinn Martin - October 13, 2013

omg liam you are so right, succinct and to the point, i love it

Liam Scott (Self Appointed Philisopher) - October 13, 2013

Thankyou sir, I appreciate the feedback, I should become a philosopher.

14. Tony - May 23, 2014

Not if you believe all your conclusions are produced by your brain which is a biological machine programmed by physical events…

15. joe dart - March 7, 2015

This reply is pretty late in coming, but I just stumbled onto this site. Perhaps the distinction between the “official” definitions of determinism and fatalism are distinct, but certainly they are inextricably intertwined. Determinism as you describe it ignores the fact that even what seems to be whimsical is in fact predetermined. Your entire choreography of the restaurant, while purporting to break the determinism from the fatalism only confirmed the two are one and the same. All of the ‘incidental’ events that led to a ‘choice’ were in fact preprogrammed by cause and effect and his reaction was too. I think you are trying to slip some kind of mystical notion into what is not mystical at all.

16. Ben - April 9, 2015

The universe is a causal chain, from its beginning (big bang or crunch or whatever) to now. So you decisions are determined, in effect, by the beginning of the universe. But that also includes everyone else, and how they also determine your actions as well.

So the waiters input on what you should order is determined, and the effect of his suggestions is also determined. The effect of the aromas from the chicken was determined, even the existence of the aromas was also determined. So “new information” is irrelevant. As is this idea that the neural circuitry changing ever so often changes things because surely how your circuitry changes is based upon your DNA, which is determined by our ultimate causal chain.

Am I not correct here?

I do struggle with this though (fatalism vs determinism) as I am a determinist, but do not believe that the the future is “fated” per se – maybe erroneously. I’m just not sure that there’s one determined outcome for a situation – which is presupposed in fatalism – and that I the future is in a quantum flux until there this “creative act” which determines the state of the future – through collapsing of the wave function. This might be determined, but I guess fatalism would take the strong view that it WILL maybe, not that I probably will happen. I think, for me, the key distinction is that determinism is often retrospective, fatalism is always prospective.

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