Chris and I were talking this past weekend about how so strange and incredibly disorienting it is to think — to really sit and think — about the fact that everything is determined. As in, when you look at the macro world with its natural laws and causal connections forming each moment in its completion, there is simply no room for free will, or no need to add free will in as part of the causal explanation in order to make full sense of each occurrence (Occam’s razor). Which means, when you roll it all the way back… there is no way the world could have turned out differently. Every single little moment was going to happen from the moment the universe as we know it began. Every historical event had to have happened. Every tiny thought or neurological flicker was determined to happen from the moment of the Big Bang. There is no way anything in our past could have turned out any differently, even our past mental states, thoughts, and feelings. Does this make anyone else’s brain hurt?!

I mean, even the fact that Chris and I were having that conversation, was determined! Our coming to the realization that everything was determined, was inevitable and set from the moment the universe big-banged itself into existence! My crazy emotions of “WHAAAT” and deep, squirming unease were inevitable and determined, and there was no way they weren’t going to happen then!!

It is too freakish to stay in a state that mind-blown so I immediately drank a big beer and wolfed down a hamburger. Existential crisis appeased.

And yet… the “what is determined” is only something we can know in hindsight. We cannot predict the macro future in any way that matters, because there are simply too many factors beyond our ability to track that contribute to each moment. Each of these factors (or inputs) is itself the result of a causal chain that is, in theory, traceable back to the Big Bang. But that kind of contact tracing (COVID RIM SHOT) is not possible for us mere mortals.

Yet, even with that, it does us no good to move through our lives with the guiding principle that all is determined and free will is meaningless. (Even though if we did that would be determined?!) We have to pretend (though even our choice to pretend and our pretending are determined SOMEONE GET ME OFF THIS RIDE!!!!!!) that we have free will and have a free choice in how things go from here.

Aka, we have to lie to ourselves that determinism isn’t real and that we have free will and have a free say in how the future goes.

Plato’s lie was, ironically, far less noble than the lie I advocate for.

(And even that lie is determined. Our thoughts about the lie and the need to lie to ourselves are all predetermined. I need another, bigger beer.)

The lie of free will and that people can have a “free” say in their own future is the basis of our laws and our general ethics, and even the basis of our sense of “obligation” that undergirds the relationships we form with each other. Yet I wonder if we could actually replace that sense of “free will” expectation with a sense of hope. But that’s a post for another time…

In general, it has been called dangerous for people to embrace determinism because it seems like it could lead to nihilism or hopelessness (ironic, considering my previous comment) or even a dehumanizing cruelty. But maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe our concept of “human” needs to be revised. In fact, I would argue that it does. Being “free” in the sense of “could have done differently” is no more a part of being human than having wings or being able to see through walls. I’d love to fly and I’d love to have free will. Neither are possible.

I think embracing the reality of determinism (as the current best understanding we have of how reality operates, anyway) can actually make us more compassionate to each other. People and actions are the result, the product, of a near-infinite series of events and forces beyond their control. They could not have done anything other than that harmful thing. Now, this doesn’t mean that they don’t need some form of punishment, corrective, or isolation, but it does ask us to consider anew the kind of consequence they deserve.

Our prison system is oppressive, racist, and damn near torturous. No one deserves the horrible conditions we put people in for any variety of minor-to-major crimes. Not to mention, these conditions are not rehabilitative in the slightest. They are purely cruel. The cruelty is the point. We heap harm onto harm and justify it by saying “the guilty could have and should have done better.”

Yes, we wish they could have and wish they had. But they couldn’t and they didn’t. So our consequence system damn sure better be more humanitarian than it currently is. Our prison system desperately needs revising. Our police system needs to be defunded, torn down, and rebuilt from the inside out. The murders of George Floyd and Daunte Wright demonstrate this all-too painfully.

And yes, I think we should treat Derek Chauvin and the cop who murdered Daunte Wright with humanity — with the humanity they did not offer George Floyd and Daunte Wright. Those cops need punishment and isolation and whatever strong consequences MUST follow their rightful conviction. But they do not need cruelty. We may have to lie to ourselves that we are choosing strong consequences with any sort of “could have done it differently” freedom, but we can do that while embracing the humanity and compassion that determinism, rightly understood, requires.

A lot of philosophy has been done on the problem of determinism, with much more intricate and smart thoughts than I have offered above. I simply find the fact that determinism and our ethical “duty” are best understood as a need to lie to ourselves that we are acting freely to be the most fascinating part of it all. It may be the most fascinating, couldn’t-be-any-other-way part of being human. The fact that we need the lie is, itself, demonstrative of the compassion we all deserve to have ourselves and to offer to others.

3 thoughts on “When we have to lie to ourselves

  1. Jana, if you want to email me, I can send you a few short PDFs on philosophy of science (subjectivity and objectivity) and Vedic literature (particularly Nyaya – the science of logic and reasoning) from courses I teach if you’re interested in such things. I’m not sure how to send them another way.

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