Determinism

A far-reaching term, which most widely states that all events in the world are the result of some previous event, or events. In this view, all of reality is already in a sense pre-determined or pre-existent and, therefore, nothing new can come into existence. This closed view of the universe sees all events in the world simply as effects of other prior effects, and has particular implications for morality, science, and religion. Ultimately, if determinism is correct, then all events in the future are as unalterable as are all events in the past. Consequently, human freedom is simply an illusion.

One area of contemporary discourse in science that relates to the issue of human freedom is the notion of genetic determinism. Here, the concept of determinism is linked directly to the genes in the DNA of a person. Because we already know that aberrations in certain genes can lead to various forms of physical and mental disease in humans, we can say with some certainty that people are physically determined by their genes. But genetic determinists want to extend this further, by claiming that even our behavior is determined by our genes. In this line of thinking, we are but victims of our genetic makeup, and any effort to change our moral nature or behavioral patterns is useless. This is sometimes termed "puppet determinism," meaning metaphorically that we dance on the strings of our genes.

Since we can now establish a scientific connection between one's genes and one's actual and/or potential physical traits (hair and eye color, disease susceptibility, etc.), it is thought that we should use this knowledge to restructure the genetic makeup of certain individuals. In other words, genetic determinism does not just show us how we are victims of our genes; it also shows us how we can use the knowledge of our genes in order to change them and, therefore, change ourselves. This understanding of genetics and human freedom, or unfreedom as it were, illustrates the extent to which genetic determinists place the influence of nature (biology and genetics) over nurture (society and family). The fundamental premises of genetic determinism are, therefore, 1) that we are victims of our genes and have no ultimate freedom, and 2) that with proper knowledge, we can take charge of our genes so that we are no longer their victim, but rather, are their architect. This latter premise has been termed "Promethean determinism," meaning that with the proper knowledge we can take charge of our genetic and, therefore, moral/ behavioral makeup.

Though a fascinating and long-debated theory, determinism raises serious difficulties regarding the nature of human knowledge and its bearing on our understanding of morality. For example, if one adheres to the idea of determinism and believes that one's life is simply the mechanical and unchangeable outplay of forces beyond one's control, then how does this affect one's relationship to the world and other people. Does adherence to determinism not lead one into a sense of meaninglessness and impotence regarding one's fate and actions? Does determinism not also lead one into the belief that whatever one does is morally acceptable, by virtue of the fact that whatever one does is already pre-determined, and therefore, meant to be?

If determinism is in fact true, then our whole conception of morality is a pointless illusion. Since everything in existence is the result of necessary and pre-determined causes, then even something like murder can be considered normal. Here, determinism fails to take into account human freedom and choice. The majority of humans would choose not to be killed, just as most humans would choose not to kill another human. Determinists can claim that our choice to be killed or not to kill is itself already a determined effect, but this is only of theoretical interest since the issue of one's life or death is of extreme existential significance. In other words, in relation to issues of morality, determinism is an interesting theory, but in practice it is quite untenable. In essence, the acceptance of determinism makes one into a mere thing, a mechanical and non-autonomous entity without the power to deliberate or change one's direction in life.

The deterministic view is expressed religiously in the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, wherein those elected to a divine eternity and those condemned to an eternal hell are already established prior to birth. A counter doctrine to this view is that humans are co-creators with God, helping to bring about a new and just divine order, symbolically represented by the Kingdom of God. The further theological implication of this nondeterministic view is that of the nature of God. If humans are co-creators and the world's potential is unfolding and open, then the nature of God can also be seen as changing and open to the new.

This is also defined in Microsoft's Encarta Concise Encyclopedia. To look up that definition, switch to an Encarta window.

Encarta Concise Edition

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