views updated May 29 2018



Any doctrine positing that one kind or order of phenomena is the necessary and sufficient condition of another kind or order of phenomena is a strongly deterministic doctrine. On the other hand, if a doctrine posits that some order of phenomena is only a necessary or a sufficient condition of another, it is considered to be only weakly deterministic. Since their inception, the social sciences have been home to many such doctrines.

From Arthur de Gobineau (18161882) in the nineteenth century to J. Philippe Rushtons work in the 1990s, racist accounts of variations in character or intelligence are among the least credible and most enduring of deterministic doctrines. Psychobiological accounts of the roots of war and violence have had nearly as long a hearing. Somewhat more credibly, contemporary evolutionary psychologists of diverse disciplinary provenance are reviving the pursuit of accounts of humanly universal behavior, as well as of racially marked or ethnically distinctive behavior, as positive adaptations to or resolutions of existential or situational problems (Buss 1999).

The environmental determinism of Johannes Gottfried von Herder (17441803), who treated variations of climate and physical environment as the chief source of variations of human character, was popular in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Herders latter-day successors are more circumspect, typically treating particular conditions of climate and geography as imposing on the human populations who live with and under them a cap on the upward bounds of politico-economic complexity. A noteworthy case in point is the historian Fernand Braudels 1949 thesis that the preindustrial societies occupying the borders of the Mediterranean Sea were effectively ecologically precluded from sustaining political organization beyond the level of the city-state.

Technology, however, changes everything, or such at least has been the opinion of a long line of determinists since the heyday of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1930s Braudels elder colleague Marc Bloch traced the pivotal source of the social organization of French agriculture to the invention of the double-bladed plow. A half-century before, the cultural materialist Henry Louis Morgan had appealed more generally to technological innovation as the essential index of broader civilizational progress. The Victorian biologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer (18201903) saw in technological developmentfirst military, then economicthe lynchpin of the advance of utilitarian happiness. Though not quite a utilitarian, Talcott Parsons (19021979) is among Spencers recognizable evolutionist heirs. Less sanguine is the anthropologist Leslie White (19001975), who made the postHiroshima assessment that the increasing efficiency of the technologies of harvesting energy is the causal underpinning of collective evolutionfor better and for worse. Whites ambivalence grew darker in such seminal assessments of the harmful environmental consequences of industrial and atomic technologies as Rachel Carsons Silent Spring (1962) and Mark Harwells Nuclear Winter (1984). In The Condition of Postmodernity (1990), David Harvey argues that the far-flung reach and unprecedented speed of communicative technologies is effecting a global compression of space and time that tends to unmoor human experience from its typically local bearings. Harvey articulates (with a dark ambivalence) a specifically digital determinism.

Cultural determinism of a less material and materialist sort has two prominent installments, both traceable to the early students of Franz Boas. Ruth Benedict (18871948) and Margaret Mead (19011978) were the early champions of the cultural determination of personality. Encouraging now-discredited distillations of national character, their work also gave rise to sustained research into child rearing and other practices that remain the focus of the anthropology and sociology of childhood and education (Whiting and Child 1953; Christie 1999; Jones 1995). Edward Sapir (18841939) and Benjamin Whorf (18971941) were the eponymous champions of the speculative thesiserroneously deemed a hypothesisof the linguistic determination of what is presumed to be reality itself. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis may have had its roots in the thought of such Romantic philosophers as Wilhelm von Humboldt. As an assertion of linguistic relativism or linguistic mediationism, it has many counterparts in semiotics and semiotically grounded theories of knowledge, past and present.

Émile Durkheim began The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912) with the bold claim that social structure and organization determine the structure and organization of the basic categories of thought. His influence remains most obvious in the work of Mary Douglas. Institutionally more specific, and by far the most influential social determinist, was Karl Marx, especially when writing in collaboration with Friedrich Engels. Marx and Engelss transference of the presumptive human primacy of a finite set of material needs to that of the institution best disposed to satisfy themthe economywas the initial step in their theorization of the means and mode of economic production as determinative of the form and content of every other institutional order. Marxs Capital (1867) and his and Engelss German Ideology (1932) were the benchmarks of leftist social and political thought from the turn of the twentieth century until the 1970s. The analysis of the commodity (and its fetishization) in the former treatise stimulated Georg Lukácss inquiries in the 1920s into the broader capitalist habit of reification, the process of construing the related parts of systemic wholes as independent entities in their own right. It would later inspire Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adornos critique of the mass-produced debasement of what they called the culture industry. The problem of the relation between class interest and truth inherent in The German Ideology (1932) gave rise to a Marxist sociology of knowledge from Lenin through Antonio Gramsci and Karl Mannheim to Jürgen Habermas. Especially in its stronger expressions, Marxist determinism brings to an account of human action the same logical assets and liabilities as any other determinism. It is an attractively powerful device of intellectual focus and direction, but it runs two risks: (1) circularity, or taking for granted the very hypotheses that it is obliged to prove; and (2) a drift into the metaphysical, leaving behind any possibility of putting its hypotheses to the test at all.

SEE ALSO Benedict, Ruth; Boas, Franz; Freud, Sigmund; Gobineau, Comte de; Gramsci, Antonio; Marx, Karl; Mead, Margaret; Parsons, Talcott; Racism


Benedict, Ruth. 1934. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Bloch, Marc. 1966. French Rural History: An Essay on Its Basic Characteristics. Trans. Janet Sondheimer. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Braudel, Fernand. 1949. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Trans. Siân Reynolds. London: Collins, 1972.

Buss, David M. 1999. Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cassirer, Ernst. 19231929. The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms. Trans. Ralph Mannheim. New Haven: Yale University Press, 19551957.

Christie, Frances, ed. 1999. Pedagogy and the Shaping of Consciousness: Linguistic and Social Processes. London: Cassell.

Derrida, Jacques. 1967. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Douglas, Mary. 1970. Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Pantheon.

Douglas, Mary. 1986. How Institutions Think. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1912. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Freud, Sigmund. 1930. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. James Strachey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1961.

Gobineau, Arthur, Comte de. 1853. Essai sur linégalité des races humaines (Essay on the inequality of the Human Races). Présentation de Hubert Juin. Paris: P. Belfond, 1967.

Gramsci, Antonio. 19291935. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci, eds. and trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1971. Knowledge and Human Interests. Trans. Jeremy J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press.

Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Harwell, Mark, et al. 1984. Nuclear Winter: The Human Consequences of Nuclear War. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Herder, Johann G. 17841791. Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. Trans. T. Churchill. New York: Bergman Publishers, 1966.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor Adorno. 1947. The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments, ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr; trans. Edward Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002.

Humboldt, Wilhelm, Frieherr von. 1836. On Language: On the Diversity of Human Language Construction and Its Influence on the Mental Development of the Human Species, ed. Michael Losonsky; trans. Peter Heath. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Jones, Raya A. 1995. The Child-school Interface: Environment and Behavior. New York: Cassell.

Lenin, Vladimir I. 1902. What Is To Be Done? Ed. Robert Service; trans. Joe Feinberg and George Hanna. New York: Penguin, 1988.

Lorenz, Konrad. 1966. On Aggression. Trans. Marjorie Kerr Wilson. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Lucy, John A. 1992. Language Diversity and Thought: A Reformulation of the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lukács, Georg. 1923. History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics. Trans. Rodney Livingstone. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1971.

Mannheim, Karl. 1936. Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. Trans. Louis Wirth and Edward Shils. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Marx, Karl. 1867. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Trans. Ben Fowkes. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1932. The German Ideology, Parts I and III, ed. R. Pascal. New York: International Publishers, 1947.

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow.

Mead, Margaret. 1930. Growing Up in New Guinea. New York: New American Library.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1877. Ancient Society: Researches in the Lines of Progress from Savagery through Barbarism to Civilization. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1998.

Parsons, Talcott. 1960. Structure and Process in Modern Societies. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.

Penn, Julia. 1972. Linguistic Relativity Versus Innate Ideas: The Origins of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis in German Thought. The Hague: Mouton.

Rushton, J. Philippe. 1995. Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Spencer, Herbert. 18761896. The Principles of Sociology, abridged ed., ed. Stanislav Andreski. London: Macmillan, 1969.

White, Leslie. 1949. The Science of Culture: A Study of Man and Civilization. New York: Farrar, Strauss.

Whiting, John Wesley, and Irvin I. Child. 1953. Child Training and Personality: A Cross-Cultural Study. New York: Yale University Press.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf, ed. John B. Carroll. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

James D. Faubion


views updated Jun 27 2018


DETERMINISM. Determinism is a doctrine about causes and effects, some version of which has been in contention at almost every period in Western philosophy. In logic, a thing is said to be "determined" or "determinate" (from Latin determinatus ) in its properties if, for each generic property, it has a fully specified property of that sort. A cat cannot simply be feline; it must be Siamese, slender, long-legged, raucous, and so forth. Nor can it be simply colored; it must be black, or white, or ginger, or teal. Most philosophers have held that actual concrete individuals are completely determined.

An efficient cause is said to be determined in its effects by prior causes if its action, and therefore its effects, are entirely determined by those causes. The most important case for early modern philosophers was the human will. The will in choosing can be inclined toward this or that choice by passion, sentiment, or reason: on that, almost all early modern philosophers agreed. According to some it is always determined by the totality of causes acting upon it. Others held that no combination of prior causes ever suffices: however "inclined" the will may be toward one alternative, it is never necessary that it should act thus, even given all the causes acting upon it.

Determinism, then, is the conjunction of two claims: that given the totality of causes that have combined to produce a certain effect, that effect cannot but occur (causes "necessitate" their effects), and that the action of a cause is fully determined by the prior causes that have set it in motion. The action of one billiard ball on another when colliding with it is not merely to make it move somehow, but to make it move in a precise direction with a precise speed (René Descartes [15961650] called the direction of a motion its "determination"). The word determinism was seldom used by early modern philosophers. David Hume (17111776) referred to the "doctrine of necessity" in his discussion of free will; Antoine Arnauld (16121694), objecting to Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's (16461716) version of determinism, said that it imposed a "more than fatal necessity" on human action. We may distinguish in early modern thought a theological and a physical determinism.


According to theological deteminism, everything that occurs in the world has been entirely determined by the creative act of God, the "first cause." Being omniscient, God knows timelessly all there is to know about his creation. Since (in the predominant view) God not only creates the world but continues to cooperate with every "second" cause, God knows timelessly not only what he does but also what every created thing will do. In particular the acts of the human will are, if not determined by God (here opinions differed), known to him eternally insofar as they are determined by causes acting upon the will. Since causes (including God) necessitate their effects, even what we regard as "free" choices are extrinsically determined.

Theological determinism was by no means a new doctrine. Medieval philosophers had dealt with it at length. During the Reformation it received new impetus from debates on predestination, debates renewed in the seventeenth century by the Jansenist controversy. Among early modern philosophers, some tried to limit divine knowledge, holding that before the fact God does not know what a free will chooses (Luis de Molina [15351600]). Others, including Descartes, denied that the determination implied by divine foreknowledge is inconsistent with freedom (Sixth Response). Baruch Spinoza (16321677) and Leibniz, on the other hand, held that although the will does not have the "freedom of election," which consists in being able to choose otherwise than it actually chooses, it does have the "freedom of autonomy," which consists in an agent's acts being determined by that agent's own nature rather than by extrinsic causes.

Leibniz, whose God is the traditional omniscient creator of the world, agreed that all acts, including acts of will, are determined (Leibniz uses the term "certain"). But he denied that those acts are "necessary": God could have created a different possible world, and his will in creating the actual world was only inclined, not necessitated, by the aim that it should be the best of all possible worlds. Moreover, the human mind, like every individual substance, is utterly autonomous in its acts, since no substance ever genuinely affects another.

Spinoza, who identified God with the entirety of the world, held that all things occur of necessity. In particular the will has no freedom of election: what I do I must do. The human mind may, however, aspire to freedom of autonomy by virtue of acting according to reason, which is to say, out of what belongs most properly to its nature.


Although some ancient philosophers had entertained notions of physical determinism, the predominantly Aristotelian philosophy of the sixteenth century did not seriously raise the question. Natural causesthe active powers of natureact, in the usual phrase, "always or for the most part": generally speaking, it was thought that there was a certain indeterminacy in their action; indeed, for some philosophers that indeterminacy provided an argument on behalf of divine concurrence or cooperation with natural causes, determining the precise nature of their effects.

With Galileo Galilei (15641642) and Descartes, natural philosophy began to take as fundamental the notion of a "law of nature." A law of nature admits no exceptions; causes acting according to laws of nature not only necessitate but wholly determine their effects. Physical determinism received its definitive statement in the Théorie analytique des probabilités (Analytical theory of probabilities) of Pierre-Simon de Laplace (17491827):

An intelligence which, for a given instant, knew all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings that compose it, and if it were, moreover, vast enough to submit all these data to Analysis, would embrace in one formula the movements of the largest bodies in the universe and those of the smallest atom: nothing would be uncertain for it, and the future, like the past, would be present to its eyes. (pp. viix)

A world in which all causal interactions are governed by immutable, universal laws is a world from which, it would seem, not only freedom of election but even freedom of autonomy is excluded. If physics is in principle sufficient to explain the motions and qualities of material things, and if all my acts haveeventually as one traces back the chain of causes leading up to themcauses extrinsic to me, then the will is not only determined in its acts but determined extrinsically.

Freedom of election is an artifact of our ignorance of the springs of human action. Spinoza and Hume agreed in this diagnosis. But Spinoza, as we have seen, held that we can aspire, as reasonless beings cannot, to freedom of autonomy insofar as knowledge of causes and effects and of our own nature renders our will independent of the usual causes acting on itthe passions, for example. Hume, writing after the enormous success of Newtonian physics, deterministic through and through, offered a different sort of freedom or "liberty," which he regarded as sufficient to the purposes of moral judgmentin particular, the attribution of responsibility for our actions. An agent is "at liberty" if not physically or mentally constrained: not, that is, in chains or drunk or hypnotized. The prior determination of the will by whatever unknown, and perhaps unknowable, causes typically act on it does not constitute constraint.

Immanuel Kant's (17241804) view of physical nature, or the "world of phenomena," much resembled that of Laplace. Like Hume, he did not seek theological backing for the necessity pertaining to the laws of nature; unlike Hume (but in certain respects in agreement with Hume's analysis of causal reasoning), Kant regarded the universality and necessity of the laws of nature as a prerequisite for understanding natural phenomena. Merely probable laws are not laws at all. The human being is, with respect to its existence in the natural world, subject to the same lawful necessity that governs all things. It is therefore determined in its motions. Whether that entails the determination of its volitions is another matter. A rational will is a will governed not by the laws of nature but by the moral law, a law which the will freely legislates for itself in accordance with reason. The result is that in considering ourselves as capable of moral action, and therefore as having freedom of autonomy (because the moral law, if it governs our will, does so according to our nature as rational agents), we must somehow think of ourselves as if we were not also things in the natural world (pp. 124125). Kant admitted that it is not easy to see how the two "standpoints" can be maintained simultaneously. What keeps the standpoint of freedom from collapsing into the natural standpoint is the distinction between "subjectivity," the self experienced as part of nature and governed by its laws, and moral "objectivity," the self considered according to its own nature, capable of choosing on the basis of reasons, independently of the natural causes that would influence it.

See also Arnauld Family ; Descartes, René ; Enlightenment ; Galileo Galilei ; Hume, David ; Jansenism ; Kant, Immanuel ; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm ; Logic ; Moral Philosophy and Ethics ; Natural Law ; Spinoza, Baruch .


Primary Sources

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Translated by H. J. Paton. New York, 1964. Translation of Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten (1785).

Laplace, Pierre Simon. Théorie analytique des probabilités. 3rd ed. Paris, 1820.

Molina, Luis de. Liberi Arbitrii cum Gratiae Donis, Divina Praescientia, Providentia, Praedestinatione, et Reprobatione Concordia. Lisbon, 1588.

Secondary Sources

Clatterbaugh, Kenneth C. The Causation Debate in Modern Philosophy, 16371739. New York, 1999.

Nadler, Steven M., ed. Causation in Early Modern Philosophy: Cartesianism, Occasionalism, and Preestablished Harmony. University Park, Pa., 1993.

Dennis Des Chene


views updated Jun 08 2018


The most general idea is that all events without exception are just effects. This idea has been associated with science since the seventeenth century, but it was put in some doubt by an interpretation of quantum theory in physics at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Events are things that happen. Roughly speaking, they are such occurrences as a chair having such a property as a particular location for a time. So determinism is not the idea that everything is an effect. There is a reasonable doubt, by the way, about the items that quantum theory is often interpreted as saying are not effects. Are these items actually events? Are they like numbers instead, say three? If so, then the interpretation of quantum theory is actually irrelevant to determinism.

As for effects, they are not just probable. They are events that had to happen or could not have been otherwise. They were settled in advance. They were, as philosophers sometimes say, necessitated. There have been different thoughts about what all this comes to.

One thought is that an effect is something that would still have happened just as it did, given certain things that preceded it, whatever else had also preceded it. That match would still have lit, since it was struck the moment before and there was oxygen present and so on, whatever else had also been true.

There is a less-general idea of determinism, of greater interest to most people and to philosophers. It is an idea of human determinism, the main subject of this article. It is that human choices and decisions and the like, and also actions that flow from them, are just effects. Deciding to move one's little finger now is just an effectas is moving it. So with buying something, getting divorced, or killing somebody. The word just in either idea of determinism is only a reminder that whatever else is true of them, the events had to happen, could not have been otherwise, and so on.

The reader may want to say at this point, reasonably enough, that there is a third idea of determinism. It is that people's choices, and so their actions, are not free. Certainly that idea exists. But it is probably better to begin with the second one, about human activities being effects. This is so for the reason that for centuries philosophers and others have disagreed about what follows logically from the second idea, about choices and actions being effectsif that is the case.

Many philosophers have of course said that if determinism in this sense is true, then people are not free. The two things seem to them obviously incompatible. Also, people are not morally responsible for their choices and actions. However, about as many philosophers have said that if this determinism is true, many of one's choices and actions are still perfectly free.

The present article will focus on the second idea of determinism. What is really important of course is not to confuse it with the third sense, the no-freedom sense, or with the first sense, or any other sense.

One large question is whether people really are subject to this determinism. Is this determinism true? A prior question, just as important, is whether this determinism is really clear. For a start, is it clear what choices and decisions and other episodes or facts of consciousness come to? One could call this the question of clarity as against the question of truth. A third question of course is the one this discussion has been noticing. What follows about one's freedom and responsibility if determinism is true?

One way of getting rid of the clarity question is by declaring that the mind is no more than the brain. Conscious events like deciding something are just events of the brain, neural events, nothing more. Deciding something is an event that has only electrochemical properties.

Certainly that makes determinism pretty clear. This old materialism from the seventeenth century can be dressed up, and it certainly is. But no matter how it is dressed up, it is impossible for anyone who gets it straight to believe it. People know, or think they know, that there is a big difference between consciousness or being conscious and any other thing or eventsay a neuron or nerve cell composed of protein and so on or a little chemical substance passing between this neuron and the next neuron.

Maybe the reader will say at this point that while consciousness is mysterious, people do have a grip on it. One may say people have a better grip on it than on anything else. One may say, a little obscurely, that it is what people actually live in. People know what it is to decide something. This subjectivity as it is called, as against the objectivity of the world, is what people know immediately and best, whatever the difficulty of analyzing it.

Let us take this line about the subject matter of human determinism, which is very common philosophically and pretty respectable. It leads to the question of whether this determinism is true.

Is Determinism True?

For about a century, this question has been tied up with what is now called neurosciencethe science of the brain and the central nervous system. If nobody or hardly anybody really believes conscious deciding and so on is just neural activity and nothing else, almost everybody who looks into the question thinks there is a close connection between brains and minds, between neural activity and conscious or mental activity.

Neuroscience has been much concerned to relate particular kinds of conscious events to particular kinds of neural events. It assigns kinds of conscious events to certain locales of the brain, if not in the simple way of early neurophysiologists. But the main point is that neuroscience has taken the brain to be subject to causation. It has taken neural events to be effects. That is, it has assumed that the most general idea of determinism, the one with which this discussion started, is true of all the events in the brain. It still does, despite thoughts brought to bear on it by a few enthusiasts for the interpretation of quantum theory also mentioned at the start.

The argument that comes out of this, in short, is that if the brain is just effects, and the mind is closely connected with the brain, intimately bound up with it, then the mind has to be just effects too. If all neural events have to happen as they do, without any other possibility, then the same is true of the conscious events that go with themdifferent events but events that cannot possibly be separated from the brain events. If the brain is a machine, then what is bound up with it must also be a sequence of cause and effect.

The argument going the other way is about all of reality, not just brains, and it is owed to taking physics as somehow the fundamental science. In particular it is owed to the interpretation of quantum theory mentioned already. Reality is divided into two levels, the very small particles and the like of what can be called the microworld, and then the larger things in the macroworld, say from ordinary neural events that go with decisions and the like up to explosions and tides. The main proposition is that in the microworld there are eventsthey really are eventsthat are not effects.

Therefore they are chance or random events. That is not to say that one is unable to find the explanations of why they finally happenas distinct from finding out that they are probable or what makes them probable. To say an event is a real chance or random event is to say there is no explanation in reality of why it finally happens. God, if he tried to explain this, could not, since there is no explanation to be found. There is no such thing in the world.

The present author does not go along with this argument. One reason is that although quantum theory is very useful indeed, the interpretation of it has never been proved in the ordinary sense of the word.

A second reason has to do with the two worlds and in particular with the two worlds in so far as they have brains in them. Conscious events like decisions, as one knows, are bound up with macroworld events in the brain, the ordinary events studied in neuroscience. And to add something left implicit so far, these larger events are of course related to or somehow consist in small microworld events in the brain.

The next thing to be said is that the ordinary events investigated by neuroscientists are like all the rest of the events in the macroworld: they certainly do not seem to be and certainly are not taken to be chance or random events. Whether a transmitter substance is released by a neuron, for example, is taken to be a matter of cause and effect. It is definitely not taken as something absolutely without an explanation. This is a reason, as one has heard, for thinking that the related conscious event is also a matter of cause and effect, but that is not the present concern.

How does the ordinary neural event relate to the micro-events down below, microevents that at least enter into the ordinary event? If the microevents are chance or random events, as people ask, does this translate upward into the ordinary events? Does it make the ordinary events indeterministic? For anyone who wants to deny determinism with respect to the ordinary events, there seems to be a certain dilemma here.

Either there is a kind of tight relation between the microevents and the ordinary events or there is not. Either there is translation upward or there is not. Well then, since the ordinary events are plainly a matter of cause and effect, there are two possibilities, both of them bad news for the antideterminist. (1) Since ordinary events are effects and there is translation up from below, then the microevents must also be effectsdespite exactly what is said of them. (2) Or given that the ordinary events are effects, it could be that the microevents are not effects but there is no translation upward. But then the fact about microevents not being effects does not matter. It is irrelevant.

But this article has to leave that and come to the main question considered by philosophers. It is not the truth of determinism but the question of what follows if it is true. What are the consequences of determinismconsequences for people's lives, for their freedom and responsibility?

Compatibilists and Incompatibilists

As indicated earlier, the history of philosophy up to the pressent moment has in it compatibilists, philosophers who say determinism is compatible with freedom and hence that determinism does not matter much. But the history also has in it incompatibilists, those who say determinism is incompatible with freedom and hence determinism matters a lot. Both of these regiments of philosophers can make a case.

Who do you yourself think is not free?

One good answer, or a start on a good answer, is a man in handcuffs. Another is a man in jail. There is also the woman facing a man with a gun or a knife who has to do what he says. There is also a whole people or nation who cannot run their own affairs because a foreign army has invaded and is in control. Then there is somebody who is not subject to actual physical constraintshandcuffs or prison bars or to threats or coercion by other peoplebut is the victim of an inner psychological compulsion. It is very natural to include as unfree at least some drug addicts and also a woman who has to wash her hands about forty times a day. Probably you will also say someone is unfree who is argued into some conclusion or into doing something that goes against his or her whole personality.

The central thought is that freedom is an absence of coercion or constraints. Or to put it positively, freedom is an ability to decide and do what one wants. Freedom is being able to decide and act in accordance with one's own desires, not something conflicting with them. Maybe this idea of freedom as voluntariness, as one can call it, can be enlarged in various ways. Thinking of the drug addict, can one allow that he or she wants the heroin, but he or she is unfree in that he or she does not want to be the victim of that desire for heroin?

This voluntariness, if one thinks about it, is perfectly consistent with determinism. This kind of freedom can certainly existlots of iteven if determinism is absolutely true. What this amounts to is that this kind of freedom is not an absence of cause and effect but rather is a matter of a certain kind of effects. One is free in this sense, so to speak, when one's decisions and actions are owed to one, come from causes that are one's own desires or certain of one's desires, not from causes that are against one's desires.

One can also see that this kind of freedom goes with a kind of moral responsibility for what one does. If the cause of the disaster is in me, so to speak, then I am responsible for the disaster. Furthermore, if you want to reduce future disasters, I am the one to disapprove of or blame or put in jail.

So that is compatibilism, the idea that determinism is no threat at all to freedom. But it is certainly not the only way of thinking about these things. Ask that question again.

Who do you think is not free?

The best general answer, probably, is that it is somebody who does not have to do what he or she does. But does not that obviously mean that he or she is left room for choice, that he or she has different possibilities in front of him or her, that he or she can do otherwise than he or she does? And to come to the crucial bit, the crunch, does that not mean that he or she is not caused or necessitated to do what he or she does?

If that is not completely obvious, think of somebody who is really subject to determinism when he or she is unfaithful to his or her partnersay when he or she decides to dial a telephone number. If determinism is true, the dialing had to happen because of certain causes, and those causes had to happen because of still earlier ones, and so on backsay to before the person was born. The dialing could only be up to the person in question if those causes before he or she was born were up to him or her, which is impossible.

So, very differently, if somebody is free and responsible in dialing a telephone number, that must be something that is just inconsistent with determinism. It must be that the dialing is not just an effect or rather that it is owed to something that is not just an effect. It must be owed to an act of will. It must come from what philosophers call originationvery roughly, causing something without being caused to do it and thus being responsible for it in a special way.

Recent Thinking

The main philosophical dispute about determinism has been presented. It began at least as early as the seventeenth century, when the great Thomas Hobbes propounded the compatibilist case and was roundly attacked by Bishop John Bramhall. In the twentieth century the Cambridge philosopher G. E. Moore said that if one says "he could have decided otherwise," one roughly means "he would have decided otherwise if he had seen the other reasons," which is perfectly consistent with determinism. The Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin said in reply, as a cautious incompatibilist, that if is a tricky word and to say X if Y is not always to say that Y is a cause or a different cause or anything like that. Think of "there's a beer in the fridge if you want one."

One will find new arguments, or anyway new versions of old arguments, in good new textbooks on determinism and freedom. Most philosophers and others who write about the subject are either compatibilists or incompatibilists. It may seem a person has to be one or the other. Either determinism is compatible with freedom or it is not. Many compatibilists are of a scientific outlook, many incompatibilists more traditional and maybe inclined to religious belief or an elevated kind of humanism.

Still, one does not actually have to join either of those regiments. A few philosophers think the idea of freedom as origination is so vague or confused that determinism can be true without there being any consequence that a serious person has to worry about. This can be distinguished, maybe, from compatibilism.

Go back to that question that was asked twice, "Who do you think is not free?" The reader may have liked both answers, the compatibilist one and the incompatibilist one. In fact if one spent some time thinking, one might have come up with both answers oneself. After all, they are not surprising or novel answers, are they? People in jail are not free, and people who do not really have two choices are not free.

Now think of what compatibilism and incompatibilism have in common. They have in common the proposition that people have one idea of freedom or maybe one important idea. Compatibilists say it is voluntariness, and incompatibilists say it is origination. But surely it is just a mistake that peoplethe reader and the present author and the rest of the human race, or anyway those in Western culturehave only the one idea.

The truth of the matter is that people have both and that both are important. So compatibilism and incompatibilism are both mistaken. One does not have to be either a compatibilist or an incompatibilist if it just is not true that a person has only one idea of freedom.

That gets rid of one problem but certainly not all the problems about determinism and freedom. It does not get rid of what seems the real problem. It is a kind of practical problem. If one thinks determinism is true, how is he or she to deal with the fact that he or she also wants one of his or her ideas of freedom to be trueand it can not be if determinism is true?

There is something else too, not the same. A person can believe, and not just want, that his or her life has been up to him or her in some important sense even if that person is convinced of determinism, even if he or she believes his or her life was all just effects. One can still blame himself or herself for things in something like the way that involves what he or she does not accept, freedom as origination.

Could it be that what people need to do is really go back to the beginning and think about the nature of a conscious life, think about consciousness itself? Subjectivity? Was your life up to you, and do you have to have certain feelings about it, because it involves a kind of unique world in a way dependent on you?

See also Causation ; Consciousness ; Free Will, Determinism, and Predestination ; Subjectivism .


Berofsky, Bernard, ed. Free Will and Determinism. New York: Harper and Row, 1966. A strong selection of papers representing mainly twentieth-century thinking.

Dennett, Daniel. Freedom Evolves. New York and London: Penguin, 2003. A robust and individual defense of compatibilism by a well-known philosopher.

Double, Richard. The Non-Reality of Free Will. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. A radical dissolution of the whole problem.

Honderich, Ted. How Free Are You? The Determinism Problem. 2nd ed. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. A fuller expression of the views in the entry above. Like all the books above, it contains a full bibliography on determinism and freedom.

Honderich, Ted, ed. Essays on Freedom of Action. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973. Papers by good analytic philosophers on compatibilism and incompatibilism.

Hook, Sidney, ed. Determinism and Freedom in the Age of Modern Science: A Philosophical Symposium. New York: New York University Press, 1958. Another good selection of twentieth-century papers with more attention to the question of the truth of determinism.

Kane, Robert. The Significance of Free Will. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A realistic discussion of both incompatibilism and freedom of origination.

Kane, Robert, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. A large, excellent, and up-to-date survey of the problem through the writings of contemporary philosophers.

Magill, Kevin. Freedom and Experience: Self-Determination without Illusions. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. Excellent and novel arguments for compatibilism.

Mele, Alfred R. Autonomous Agents: From Self-Control to Autonomy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Neither compatibilist or incompatibilist.

Morgenbesser, Sidney, and James Walsh, eds. Free Will. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Historical introduction to the problem. Twelve selections from across the centuries.

Pereboom, Derk. Living without Free Will. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Strong nonstandard rejection of origination.

Strawson, Galen. Freedom and Belief. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986. The argument that the idea of origination is so confused that there is no opposition to determinism.

Van Inwagen, Peter. An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon, 1983. A much discussed defense of incompatibilism, including the argument about past causes not being up to us.

Ted Honderich


views updated Jun 08 2018


Philosophical questions about determinism involve the nature of the causal structure of the world. Given the occurrence of some factor or factors C that cause an effect E, could E have turned out otherwise than it did? Determinists answer no: In a strictly deterministic world all things happen by necessity, as a direct function of their causal antecedents. Indeterminists hold that E might not have occurred, even with exactly the same initial conditions, because of the possibility of true randomness or free will.

General Forms of Determinism

Early religious versions of determinism were based on the belief that people's lives are supernaturally ordained. As exemplified in the tale of Oedipus, even actions taken to try to avoid what the gods have in store turn out to be the means of sealing that destiny. Predestinarianism, a view held by some Christian sects, states that God controls and foreordains the events of human lives so that it is determined in advance whether one will go to heaven or hell. A related view holds that determinism follows from God's omniscience; if the future is undetermined, God cannot be said to be all-knowing. Modern forms of determinism dispense with supernatural beings and hold that invariable laws of nature fix events.

Determinism sometimes is defined in terms of predictability. The philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994) called this "scientific" determinism. In a commonly performed thought experiment one imagines a Cartesian demon who knows all the laws of nature and the complete, precise state of the world at some time T; if the world is strictly determined, the demon can use that information to predict any future or past event with any degree of accuracy. Real scientists lack perfect theories and perfect data, and so imperfect prediction in practice does not by itself speak against predictability in principle. (Prediction is still possible in an indeterministic world, but only probabilistically.) Classical Newtonian physics typically is thought to describe a deterministic world—though John Earman (b. 1942) identifies a possible exception) as does relativistic Einsteinian physics.

How is determinism relevant to ethics? Some philosophers argue that if universal determinism is the case, morality is impossible because personal ethical responsibility requires the possibility of free action: One cannot be blamed or praised for doing something if one could not have done otherwise. Such incompatibilists hold that morality requires undetermined free will. Compatibilists argue that morality is possible even in a deterministic world. Some go further and hold that the kind of free will that is essential to morality actually requires determinism. If the world is indeterministic and people's actions result from mere chance, people are no more moral than a flipped coin.

Specific Forms of Determinism

Even if one sets aside such global issues, questions about determinism remain ethically significant at other levels of explanation. Various specific forms of determinism posit one or another causal factor as the driving force of change in human life and can be considered separately.

Is biology destiny? Explaining the social roles and behavior of men and women by reference to their sex, for example, is a common form of biological determinism. To specify further that genes are the ultimate biological determinant is genetic determinism. Are all human behaviors, thoughts, and feelings determined by basic characteristics of human nature and individual past experiences? Psychological determinism was a basic assumption of the psychologist Sigmund Freud's (1856–1939) psychoanalytic theory, which held that nothing that human beings do is ever accidental but instead is the result of the forces of the unconscious. The nature versus nurture debate (e.g., regarding the cause of sexual orientation) often is couched in terms of a choice between biological determinism and social determinism.

Other forms of social determinism include economic determinism: the view that economic forces are the fundamental determinants of social and political change. This thesis commonly is attributed to the political philosophers Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), though their thesis was more focused, stating that the mode of production determines social consciousness. They argued that because the material forces of production are given at a certain stage in history and people have no choice about whether to enter into such relations of production, the broad structure of people's social, political, and intellectual life is set by forces beyond their control.

Technological determinism tries to explain human history in terms of tools and machines. In a classic example a simple advance in cavalry technology—the stirrup—changed military and political history. However, many people consider this to be too narrow a conception, arguing that technology properly includes the entirety of material culture or even nonmaterial technologies such as knowledge and processes. In reaction against this view advocates of cultural determinism or the related view of social constructivism emphasize that technology itself is human-made and carries the imprint of the social and historical circumstances that formed it.

One could extend this list of midlevel determinist theses, with each thesis being distinguished by a claim that some causal factor determines some general, social effect. All such determinist theses come in stronger or weaker versions, depending on the claimed autonomy of the cause. A hard technological determinist, for example, would argue that technology develops by its own internal laws with a one-way effect on social structures, whereas a soft technological determinist would allow that the development and influence of technology could be mediated by other factors.

This issue sometimes is conflated with questions about reduction. Strictly speaking, reduction is the explanation of one thing in terms of another (typically though not necessarily its components) with no implication of exclusivity. However, one sometimes speaks derogatorily of an explanation as being "reductionistic" when a factor is claimed to determine something without acknowledging other causes.


With the accumulation of scientific evidence and the advance of technology it is possible to modify assessments of particular determinist theses. For instance, it is not a foregone conclusion that the world is fully deterministic. Indeed, evidence from quantum mechanics indicates that chance processes are a part of the causal structure of the world. Some ethicists, such as Robert Kane (b. 1938), have argued that quantum indeterminacy is what allows the possibility of human free will. By contrast, evidence from biology, psychology, and cognitive science that reveals causes of behavior, thoughts, and feelings may be taken to weaken the plausibility of free will. Even these very general issues can play a role in discussions of practical ethical matters, such as penal policy.

Midlevel determinist theses may have other ethical implications. For instance, as science identifies some causal factor as a determinant of social change or another ethically salient effect, people acquire (or lose) moral responsibility for such effects to the degree that they can control (or not control) the cause. Thus, to the degree that in (re)making technology people (re)make the world, people bear a responsibility to make ethical choices about what forms of technology to pursue or reject. The philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), for instance, argued that technology dominates all other forms of control and that although people designed machines to free themselves, those machines often determine people's lives for the worse. If this is the case, their value should be reexamined. Similarly, people may have a responsibility to pursue technologies that would improve their lives. The debate over genetic engineering and other biotechnologies involves all these issues. If it is possible to reengineer human nature, should that be done?

The global questions about the relationship between universal determinism, indeterminism, free will, and morality remain paradoxical. However, advances in science and philosophy can help resolve questions about midlevel determinist hypotheses. For instance, one can sort out many issues by moving from a simple two-place parsing of the causal relation C causes E to a four-place analysis: C causes E in situation S, relative to some alternative a (CaSE). This analysis recognizes that there are always multiple causal factors that produce a given effect and places that people choose not to focus on for a particular question—a pragmatic matter—in "situation S." (The specified alternative does not contribute to the effect but provides a baseline against which to measure whether C's effect is positive or negative and to what degree.)

This model makes it clear that no single factor determines an effect by itself and that an effect can have multiple explanations, all equally legitimate and objective, depending on the (pragmatically delimited) situation. For instance, it is reasonable to say that a trait is determined by a gene only if specific environmental factors are taken as given. Thus, the thesis of genetic determinism is seen to be incorrect if it is taken in an exclusive reductionistic sense, though it can be correct in particular cases (that is, if scientific evidence shows that a particular gene causes effect E in a given environmental situation) in the same way that the environment can be said to determine the effect (if science shows that it is an explanatory causal factor of E, given a set genetic situation). This more fine-grained causal analysis allows a more precise assessment of determinist theses and thus a better moral evaluation.


SEE ALSO Autonomous Technology;Evolutionary Ethics;Freedom;Free Will.


Dennett, Daniel C. (2003). Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.

Earman, John. (1986). A Primer on Determinism. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, and Boston: D. Reidel.

Libet, Benjamin; Anthony Freeman; and Keith Sutherland, eds. (1999). The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will. Thorverton, UK: Imprint Academic.

Kane, Robert. (1996). The Significance of Free Will. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.

Marcuse, Herbert. (2000). "The Problem of Social Change in the Technological Society." In Towards a Critical Theory of Society: Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Vol. 2, ed. Douglas Kellner. New York: Routledge.

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels. (1948 [1848]). The Communist Manifesto, ed. and annotated by Frederick Engels. New York Labor News Co.

Obhi, Sukhvinder S., and Patrick Haggard. (2004). "Free Will and Free Won't." American Scientist 92(4): 334–341.

Popper, Karl. (1991). The Open Universe: An Argument for Indeterminism. London: Routledge.


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The concept of determinism conveys the idea that everything that happens could not have happened in a different way than it actually did. Or alternatively, everything that happens, happens by necessity. However, as simple as this may sound, the concept of determinism is one of the most difficult and controversial concepts in Western philosophy.

Philosophers often distinguish different kinds of determinism. First, there is scientific determinism, which was inspired by classical physics. One interpretation entails that everything in the universe is governed by universal laws. Universal in this context means that the laws are the same everywhere in the universe and at all times, and that they apply to all events and objects. A second interpretation of scientific determinism holds that every event has a sufficient cause. These two interpretations of scientific determinism combined can yield an argument for Laplacian determinism : If every event has a sufficient cause, and if every event is governed by universal laws, then one could in principle predict exactly the subsequent evolution of the universe if one had knowledge of all the initial conditions of all objects in the universe combined with knowledge of all the laws of nature.

Note first that this interpretation denies the existence of chance or probabilistic laws. Since the second half of the twentieth century, however, more and more scientists argue that not all natural laws are deterministic, but that some of these laws may be inherently statistical in nature. This line of argument could constitute an argument for indeterminism, and is explored further by Karl Popper (19021994). Note furthermore that, though Laplacian determinism is an ontological view, it is mostly formulated in epistemic terms, relating to knowledge and predictive capabilities. Hence, as John Earman argues, one must keep in mind that scientific determinism is first of all a claim about how the world is constituted. As such one must distinguish this ontological claim from the epistemological claim to predictability, even though both often go together. That determinism does not always entail predictability is testified by chaotic systems, which display deterministic though unpredictable behavior.

If scientific determinism is taken seriously, it can result in a worldview that affirms the concept of metaphysical determinism. Metaphysical determinism conveys the idea that if everything in the universe is governed by universal laws, and if every event has a sufficient cause, then there is only one history possible. One can clarify this idea by using possible-world semantics. If a possible world starts off with exactly the same initial conditions as the actual world and with exactly the same universal laws, its evolution would look the same in every detail. As such, metaphysical determinism entails scientific determinism, but not necessarily vice versa, even though scientific determinism could be used to defend metaphysical determinism.

Both metaphysical and scientific determinism are threatened by the indeterminism of quantum mechanics, when interpreted as an ontological feature of the world. If at the quantum level there is genuine indeterminism, then, it might be argued, not everything has a sufficient cause, so that the histories of two possible worlds with exactly the same initial conditions, but with quantum indeterminism, might develop in completely different ways. However, scientists like David Bohm (19171992) have tried to restore determinism at the quantum level by invoking hidden variables, though this proposal is not uncontroversial. Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that quantum theory might not be the final theory, but might in the future be replaced by an alternative theory that forces its philosophical interpretation to affirm either determinism or indeterminism.

A third kind of determinism, closely related to scientific determinism, is mathematical determinism. Mathematical determinism is the "logical" complement of scientific determinism, and has become increasingly important in chaos theory. In mathematical determinism the initial conditions are numerical inputs, and a mathematical function takes the place of the universal law. Mathematical determinism now entails that, given an arbitrary value of the initial conditions, calculating the mathematical function will yield one and only one outcome. In other words, given an arbitrary value of the initial conditions and a mathematical function, there is only one outcome possible. In the case of mathematical chaotic systems, problems arise with specifying the initial value. Because knowledge of the initial conditions is limited, the outcome of a chaotic evolution cannot be predicted, yet as a mathematical system it is deterministic, which means that the outcome of the calculation, given the initial conditions, could not be other than it actually is.

A fourth kind of determinism is logical determinism. Logical determinism is about propositions, and entails that any proposition about the past, present, or future of the world is either true or false. As such, logical determinism is grounded in Aristotle's law of the excluded middle, which holds that a proposition cannot be both true and false at the same time. Developments in so-called "fuzzy logic" have challenged this kind of determinism.

Theological determinism constitutes a fifth kind of determinism. There are two types of theological determinism, both compatible with scientific and metaphysical determinism. In the first, God determines everything that happens, either in one all-determining single act at the initial creation of the universe or through continuous divine interactions with the world. Either way, the consequence is that everything that happens becomes God's action, and determinism is closely linked to divine action and God's omnipotence. According to the second type of theological determinism, God has perfect knowledge of everything in the universe because God is omniscient. And, as some say, because God is outside of time, God has the capacity of knowing past, present, and future in one instance. This means that God knows what will happen in the future. And because God's omniscience is perfect, what God knows about the future will inevitably happen, which means, consequently, that the future is already fixed.

All forms of determinism (except perhaps mathematical determinism) challenge the idea of free will. Or rather, they render the experience of free will an illusion. Theological determinism moreover raises big problems for the idea that God is perfectly good. For, if everything is God's action, the evil and suffering that happens is also due to God's actions. Or, alternatively, if God already knows what evil will happen, why does God not prevent it from happening? Some theologians have argued for divine self-limitation (kenosis ) of God's omniscience and omnipotence to warrant human freedom.

See also Causality, Primary and Secondary; Chance; Chaos theory; Clockwork Universe; Contingency; Divine Action; Freedom; Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle; Indeterminism; Kenosis; Omnipotence; Open Universe; Physics, Classical; Physics, Quantum


berofsky, bernard. determinism. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press 1971.

earman, john. a primer on determinism. dordrecht, netherlands: d. reidel, 1986.

laplace, pierre simon marquis de. a philosophical essay on probabilities, trans. from the 6th edition by frederick wilson truscott and frederick lincoln emory. new york: dover, 1952.

polkinghorne, john, ed. the work of love: creation as kenosis. grand rapids, mich.: eerdmans; london: spck, 2001.

popper, karl. the open universe: an argument for indeterminism. london: routledge 1982.

weatherford, roy. the implications of determinism. london and new york: routledge 1991.

taede a. smedes


views updated May 08 2018


The most general meaning of "determinism," one applicable in most contexts, is the condition of being determined. If we understand determinateness to be a qualification of an object, determinism sees this determinateness initially as identification of the object (by several processes) and then as a causal response to a request for an explanation of why. All scientific or theoretical research thus necessarily presupposes determinism, but not in the sense of merely naming or the other operations of contemporary language, since the conditions for the initial application of language are not determinant. The meaning customarily given to determinism is determination, through the principle of causality, of the objective conditions for a phenomenon to occur.

Initially, the concept of determinism (Determinismus ) arose within German theological and moral thinking, where it served narrow requirements related to predestination and was used to provide dogmatic answers; it did not have an objective theoretical meaning as such. Then in nineteenth-century scientific positivism, the "condition of determination" became associated with an empirical or descriptive principle of causality based on the primacy of observation, and not on explanation in the strict sense. Subsequently, for experimental science, determinism came to be considered a condition for the conduct of science itself, that is, as the epistemological principle of scientific knowledge. In this way determinism became normative. For example, physiological determinism claims to decide between the normal and the pathological in medicine, as shown by Georges Canguilhem.

Determinism, without being explicitly referred to, has been the ideal of mechanics since the seventeenth century. Projected onto objects made to satisfy the demand for causality, determinism ended up requiring that all phenomena satisfy the principle of ontological objectivity assumed in nature. Quantum physics, however, led to a retrenchment of this principle of establishing the conditions of determination, at least on the microphysical scale. Chaos theory has accentuated this point of view. In the sphere of the psyche, when Sigmund Freud attempted to explain dreams by psychoanalysis, he assumed a notion of psychic determinism in his theory of intentionality. He thus shifted the doctrine of causality in the direction of a theory of intentionality that assumed the existence of a subjective causality beyond or alongside objective causality, as shown by Pierre-Henri Castel in his introduction to Freud's Interpretation of Dreams.

Determinism essentially informs all theoretical or scientific research. So how can we explain the fact that modern philosophical thought, at least since Kant and Fichte, is so strongly opposed to it? Natural determinism, after serving as the principle of Spinoza's immanent metaphysics, has come to dominate science. This domination reveals that the term has undergone both a confinement and an unwarranted extension in twentieth-century thinking. The confinement of the term to natural science constrains philosophers of freedom from examining the conditions that determine what they say. In the nonclassical sciences, confinement of the term to well-behaved natural sciences subjects intellectuals to indeterminacy complexes that seriously inhibit their theoretical inventiveness and subjects them to denigration. Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, is denigrated by positivist psychology and the various forms of psychological, organicist, and physicalist reductionism. As a result, Freudian psychoanalysis continues to search for an epistemological legitimacy based on theoretical models of the natural sciences, as was shown by Paul-Laurent Assoun. In physics, Max Planck and Werner Heisenberg created a quantum physics that was indeterminate from the point of view of classical determinism (as formulated by Pierre Simon Laplace). Because they were under the ideological spell of the old determinism, they could not completely accept their own discoveries as good science. There were two reasons for this situation: first, the concept of determinism arose not in the minimalist causal sense given above but in a theological sense, and second, ever since classical mechanics, the degree of determination that scientific objectivism has achieved has delimited the meaning and norm of determinism. Because they exclude identity and assume the differential nature of the symbolic, the status of the psyche and, even more so, the structuralist approach to the subject as taken by Jacques Lacan show that objective legality and causality could not serve as paradigms for everything we talk about. This is especially so for the unconscious, which, although "structured like a language," is not structured as a determining cause.

A robust determinism must renounce naturalist metaphysics, which has continued to control its principles. A new philosophy of "determined" freedom can be developed without indeterminism. Freud's determined freedom led Jean-Paul Sartre, probably wrongly, to reject the Freudian unconscious and to confront a "natural determinism". All of Freud's efforts, contrary to Jung's, clearly attempted to establish a paradoxical materialism that went beyond philosophical idealism and the old materialisms, dialectic or otherwise.

Dominique Auffret

See also: Instinct; Neurosis, choice of the; Psychic causality; Psychogenesis/organogenesis; Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The ; Complementary series.


Assoun, Paul-Laurent. (1981). Introduction à l'épistémologie freudienne. Paris: Payot.

Castel, Pierre-Henri. (1998). Introductionà "L'interprétation du rêve" de Freud. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Canguilhem, Georges. (1989). The normal and the pathological (Carolyn R. Fawcett, Trans.). New York: Zone Books.

Kojève, Alexandre. (1990). L'idée du déterminisme dans la physique classique et dans la physique moderne. Paris: Hachette. (Original work published 1932.)

Koyré, Alexandre. (1957). From the closed world to the infinite universe. New York: Harper.

Lacan, Jacques. (1966).Écrits. Paris: Seuil.


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A scientific perspective which specifies that events occur in completely predictable ways as a result of natural and physical laws.

Since ancient times, the origins of human behavior have been attributed to hidden or mystical forces. The Greek philosopher Democritus speculated, for example, that objects in our world consist of atoms; included among these "objects" was the soul, which was made of finer, smoother, and more spherical atoms than other physical objects. He rejected the concept of free will and claimed that all human behavior results from prior events. Some philosophers have advanced the argument that human behavior is deterministic, although most have resisted the idea that human beings merely react to external events and do not voluntarily select behaviors.

There is a clear dilemma in explaining human behavior through psychological principles. On the one hand, if psychology is a science of behavior, then there should be laws allowing the prediction of behavior, just as there are gravitational laws to predict the behavior of a falling object. On the other hand, objections have been raised by individuals who believe that humans control their own behaviors and possess free will. Part of the controversy relates to the concept of the mind and body as separate entities. In this view, the mind may not be subject to the same laws as the body. Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) attempted to make the distinction between determinism and indeterminism by suggesting that psychological processes could be creative and free, whereas the physiological processes in the brain were deterministic. This argument does not solve the problem for psychology, however, because psychologists consider mental processes appropriate for study within a scientific framework, thus subject to scientific laws.

Other psychologists like William James , who was interested in religion and believed in free will, recognized this conflict but was reluctant to abandon the concept that behaviors were not free. At one point, he suggested that mind and body operated in tandem, whereas on another occasion he concluded that they interacted. Clearly, James struggled with the issue and, like others, was unable to resolve it. The behaviorists were the most obvious proponents of determinism, dating back to John B. Watson , who claimed that environment was the single cause of behavior, and who made one of the most famous deterministic assertions ever: "Give me a dozen healthy infants and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take anyone at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might selectdoctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and, yes, even beggar man and thief."

The psychologist with the greatest influence in this area, however, was B. F. Skinner . He adopted a stance called radical behaviorism , which disregarded free will and the internal causes of behavior. All behavior, Skinner maintained, was determined through reinforcement contingencies, that is, the pattern of reinforcements and punishments in an individual's life. Although critics have claimed that Skinner's concept of determinism denied people of their humanity, he maintained that his approach could actually lead to more humane societies. For example, if people were not responsible for negative behaviors, they should not be punished, for they had no control over their behaviors. Instead, the environment that reinforced the unwanted behaviors should be changed so that desirable behaviors receive reinforcement and increase in frequency.

Sigmund Freud defined determinism in terms of the unconscious and contended that behavior is caused by internal, mental mechanisms. In some ways, Freud was more extreme than Skinner, who acknowledged that some behaviors are not predictable. The main difference between Freud and Skinner involved the origin of causation; Freud believed in underlying physiological processes while Skinner opted to focus on external causes. Thus, even though Freudians and Skinnerians differ on almost every conceivable dimension, they have at least one commonality in their reliance on determinism.

Those scientists who believe that behaviors are determined have recognized the difficulty in making explicit predictions. Thus, they have developed the concept of statistical determinism. This means that, even though behaviors are determined by fixed laws, predictions will never be perfect because so many different factors, most of them unknown, affect actions, which result in generally accurate predictions. The recently developed theory of chaos relates to making predictions about complex events such as behaviors. This theory suggests that in a cause-effect situation, small differences in initial conditions may lead to very different outcomes. This theory supports the notion that behaviors may not be completely predictable even though they may be dictated by fixed natural laws.

Further Reading

Doob, Leonard William. Inevitability: Determinism, Fatalism, and Destiny. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988.


views updated May 29 2018

de·ter·min·ism / diˈtərməˌnizəm/ • n. Philos. the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. Some philosophers have taken determinism to imply that individual human beings have no free will and cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.DERIVATIVES: de·ter·min·ist n. &·ter·min·is·tic / -ˌtərməˈnistik/·ter·min·is·ti·cal·ly / -ˌtərməˈnistik(ə)lē/ adv.


views updated May 09 2018

Determinism. The view that events and behaviours are determined before they occur, by the laws of the universe or by God. In religions, determinism takes different forms: in Christianity, see Augustine and Calvin; in Islam, qadar and kasb, Allāh; in Hinduism et al., karma. See also PREDESTINATION.


views updated May 29 2018