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Basic Deterministic Rules

Basic Deterministic Rules

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Basic Deterministic Rules
Causal Determinism
 First published Thu Jan 23, 2003; substantive revision Tue Apr 1, 2008
Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent eventsand conditions together with the laws of nature. The idea is ancient, but first became subject toclarification and mathematical analysis in the eighteenth century. Determinism is deeply connectedwith our understanding of the physical sciences and their explanatory ambitions, on the one hand, andwith our views about human free action on the other. In both of these general areas there is noagreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false), and whatthe import for human agency would be in either case.
1. Introduction
In most of what follows, I will speak simply of 
determinism
, rather than of 
causal determinism
. Thisfollows recent philosophical practice of sharply distinguishing views and theories of what causation isfrom any conclusions about the success or failure of determinism (cf. Earman, 1986; an exception isMellor 1994). For the most part this disengagement of the two concepts is appropriate. But as we willsee later, the notion of cause/effect is not so easily disengaged from much of what matters to us aboutdeterminism.Traditionally determinism has been given various, usually imprecise definitions. This is only
 
 problematic if one is investigating determinism in a specific, well-defined theoretical context; but it isimportant to avoid certain major errors of definition. In order to get started we can begin with a looseand (nearly) all-encompassing definition as follows:
 Determinism:
The
world 
is
 governed by
(or is
under the sway of 
) determinism if and onlyif, given a specified
way things are at a time t 
, the way things go
thereafter 
is
 fixed 
as amatter of 
natural law
.The italicized phrases are elements that require further explanation and investigation, in order for us togain a clear understanding of the concept of determinism.The roots of the notion of determinism surely lie in a very common philosophical idea: the idea that
everything can, in principle, be explained 
, or that
everything that is, has a sufficient reason for being and being as it is, and not otherwise
. In other words, the roots of determinism lie in what Leibniznamed the Principle of Sufficient Reason. But since precise physical theories began to be formulatedwith apparently deterministic character, the notion has become separable from these roots. Philosophersof science are frequently interested in the determinism or indeterminism of various theories, withoutnecessarily starting from a view about Leibniz' Principle.Since the first clear articulations of the concept, there has been a tendency among philosophers to believe in the truth of some sort of determinist doctrine. There has also been a tendency, however, toconfuse determinism proper with two related notions:
 predictability
and
 fate.
Fatalism is easily disentangled from determinism, to the extent that one can disentangle mystical forcesand gods' wills and foreknowledge (about
 specific
matters) from the notion of natural/causal law. Notevery metaphysical picture makes this disentanglement possible, of course. As a general matter, we canimagine that certain things are fated to happen, without this being the result of deterministic naturallaws alone; and we can imagine the world being governed by deterministic laws, without anything atall being
 fated 
to occur (perhaps because there are no gods, nor mystical forces deserving the titles
 fate
or 
destiny
, and in particular no intentional determination of the “initial conditions” of the world). In alooser sense, however, it is true that under the assumption of determinism, one might say that
 given
theway things have gone in the past, all future events that will in fact happen are already
destined 
to occur.Prediction and determinism are also easy to disentangle, barring certain strong theologicalcommitments. As the following famous expression of determinism by Laplace shows, however, the twoare also easy to commingle:We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state andas the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting innature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe,would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies aswell as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerfulto subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the pastwould be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give toastronomy affords but a feeble outline of such an intelligence. (Laplace 1820)In this century,Karl Popper defined determinism in terms of predictability also.Laplace probably had God in mind as the powerful intelligence to whose gaze the whole future is open.If not, he should have: 19
th
and 20
th
century mathematical studies have shown convincingly thatneither a finite, nor an infinite but embedded-in-the-world intelligence can have the computing power necessary to predict the actual future, in any world remotely like ours. “Predictability” is therefore a
 
 façon de parler 
that at best makes vivid what is at stake in determinism; in rigorous discussions itshould be eschewed. The world could be highly predictable, in some senses, and yet not deterministic;and it could be deterministic yet highly unpredictable, as many studies of chaos (sensitive dependenceon initial conditions) show.Predictability does however make vivid what is at stake in determinism: our fears about our own statusas free agents in the world. In Laplace's story, a sufficiently bright demon who knew how things stoodin the world 100 years before my birth could predict every action, every emotion, every belief in thecourse of my life. Were she then to watch me live through it, she might smile condescendingly, as onewho watches a marionette dance to the tugs of strings that it knows nothing about. We can't stand thethought that we are (in some sense) marionettes. Nor does it matter whether any demon (or even God)can, or cares to, actually predict what we will do: the existence of the strings of 
 physical necessity,
linked to far-past states of the world and determining our current every move, is what alarms us.Whether such alarm is actually warranted is a question well outside the scope of this article (see theentries onfree willand incompatibilist theories of freedom). But a clear understanding of what determinism is, and how we might be able to decide its truth or falsity, is surely a useful starting pointfor any attempt to grapple with this issue. We return to the issue of freedom inDeterminism andHuman Actionbelow.
2. Conceptual Issues in Determinism
Recall that we loosely defined causal determinism as follows, with terms in need of clarificationitalicized:
Causal determinism:
The
world 
is
 governed by
(or is
under the sway of 
) determinism if andonly if, given a specified
way things are at a time t 
, the way things go
thereafter 
is fixed asa matter of 
natural law
.
2.1 The World
Why should we start so globally, speaking of the
world 
, with all its myriad events, as deterministic?One might have thought that a focus on individual events is more appropriate: an event
 E 
is causallydetermined if and only if there exists a set of prior events {
 A
,
 B
,
…} that constitute a (jointly)sufficient cause of 
 E 
. Then if all — or even just
most 
— events
 E 
that are our human actions arecausally determined, the problem that matters to us, namely the challenge to free will, is in force. Nothing so global as states of the whole world need be invoked, nor even a
complete
determinism thatclaims
all 
events to be causally determined.For a variety of reasons this approach is fraught with problems, and the reasons explain why philosophers of science mostly prefer to drop the word “causal” from their discussions of determinism.Generally, as John Earman quipped (1986), to go this route is to “… seek to explain a vague concept — determinism — in terms of a truly obscure one — causation.” More specifically, neither philosophers'nor laymen's conceptions of 
events
have any correlate in any modern physical theory.
[1]
The same goesfor the notions of 
cause
and
 sufficient cause
. A further problem is posed by the fact that, as is nowwidely recognized, a set of events {
 A
,
 B
,
…} can only be genuinely
 sufficient 
to produce an effect-event if the set includes an open-ended
ceteris paribus
clause excluding the presence of potentialdisruptors that could intervene to prevent
 E 
. For example, the start of a football game on TV on anormal Saturday afternoon may be sufficient
ceteris paribus
to launch Ted toward the fridge to grab a beer; but not if a million-ton asteroid is approaching his house at .75
c
from a few thousand miles away,

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