Determinism and Free Choice
Introduction to Philosophy
Prof. Alan Hausman
The term "determinism" is a crucial one for understanding many issues, e.g., the move
toward materialism, the issue of human freedom and responsibility (in your college
career you will probably run across it many times).
The following will give you a basic
understanding of the concept of determinism.
The discussion incorporates two classic
views of determinism, namely universal determinism and scientific determinism that
have been used in most debates since the scientific revolution of the 17
(1) Universal determinism says that every event has a cause.
To say a system is
deterministic is to say that (a) it is
, and (b)
that the characteristics of all the objects and events (which characteristics are called
) in it at a given moment of time (a given moment of time is called a
) are functions of the characteristics and properties of events and objects in it
at any other time.
All these terms are defined below.
Now, (2) is obviously a special case of (1), but (1) and (2)
are not the same at all
is the cause of all events, as some believe, then universal determinism is true, but (2) may
not be true.
., laws of nature,
may not act regularly (think of miracles, which go against the laws of nature!), even if He
is the cause of everything that happens.
The characterization in (2) is most important for us and needs explanation, of course, so
here it is, with meanings of the key terms explained.
The meaning of the phrase "relevant variable":
is a property (or
characteristic) of an object or event that may change (
) over a period of time.
example--and this is the example I will use throughout--the position of a planet in the
solar system varies from moment to moment.
To say the variable is
is to say that
it makes a difference to the
those events and objects are going to have at a
given time; the relevant variable is involved in a causal relationship with other properties.
Thus the position of Mars right now is relevant to its position tomorrow morning at 6:00
Of course there are other variables relevant to where Mars will be tomorrow
morning at 6:00 A.M. besides its own position right now, e.g., its velocity right now is
relevant to its position tomorrow.
For our example of the solar system, the relevant
variables are mass, position, and velocity, and we have to know what they are for every
body in the system before we can tell where Mars will be tomorrow at 6:00 A.M.
In the physical sciences, variables like mass and position are given numerical expression;
but not all sciences can do this with their relevant variables (though all would like to).
Thus the position of a planet at a given moment is given by a set of coordinates in a three