Determinism: Is this fate?

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Above: 📷 via Wikipedia

By contributor Dallas Bezaire

Have you ever felt as if something was meant to happen? That your whole life had led up to this moment? That you are fated to do or become something in life?

If that is the case, then you believe in determinism. Determinism is the belief that the future is set in stone and every single thing that happens was meant to happen. Stated differently, it is the belief that if you know everything about the current moment, the speed and energy and position of every single particle, then you can determine exactly what will happen 100 years from now, or any point in the future.

It’s an interesting thought, and one that pervades almost every field, including philosophy, physics, psychology, and religion. In some respects it is a very attractive idea. If we believe that the universe obeys specific laws and principles, then it seems almost natural that the universe proceeds like a complex and intricate mechanism. Each part playing its role towards an ultimate end that was set the moment the whole thing began with the big bang.

We reject determinism on a basic and fundamental level. We feel quite strongly that we have free will, this ability to choose our own future and our own fate. We feel that there are different paths we can take and different options available. Strangely enough, science seems to refute that.

For one, the idea that actions we take are made consciously is not quite true. In his book, Mind Time, the neuroscientist Benjamin Libet showed, in order for a stimulus to become conscious (that is, for us to become aware that we are sensing something), it takes 500 milliseconds of continuous stimulation of the cortex. If there is less than 500 milliseconds of stimulation, our brains are still able to use that information in meaningful and useful ways, but we will have no conscious experience of any sensation.

So, why does it seem as if everything is happening to us in real time? When we feel something, there is an initial pulse of neural activity that marks the time point. If stimulation of the cortex continues for over 500 milliseconds, the conscious experience is retroactively dated to that initial pulse.

This isn’t just our sensory experiences, though; this also occurs for our motor movements and actions. Our brain is getting ready to perform an action about 400 milliseconds before we ever become aware we are about to do anything. These initial impulses to act can be stopped. In those last few hundred milliseconds before we act, the conscious mind can veto the action, and stop it before it becomes more than a cascade of neural signals.

This would almost seem to support determinism. We don’t actually choose our actions consciously; rather they are created spontaneously by unconscious processes shaped by past experience. This is easy to test. Just read a book that uses vocabulary different than what you normally read—some Shakespeare or Dumas—and watch as the vocabulary you tend to use in real life changes to match what you’ve been reading. Or, start spending time with someone new and pay attention as you pick up some of their mannerisms or sayings. There is even an entire field of psychology—behaviourism—which attempts to catalogue and understand the ways in which individuals influence and change each other.

Of course, there is still that conscious veto. The conscious process that seems to be able to say, “No, don’t do that,” or, “Yes, do that.” It must surely put the nail in the coffin of psychological determinism, right? Well, not quite.

Even the unconscious veto process is influenced quite heavily by past experience and current circumstances, as the field of addictions research has made abundantly clear. In their paper, Liking, Wanting, and the Incentive-Sensitization Theory of Addiction, behavioural neuroscientists Kent Berridge and Terry Robinson found that the processes of “liking” something, and the process of “wanting” something are entirely different circuits operating independently. Because of this, you can consciously dislike something, even hate it, but if the neural circuitry of “want” is strong enough, it can easily overpower those dislikes and cause you to act against your wishes, such as when you are exposed to visual cues like a pipe or bong. This process of wanting is especially sensitized after exposure to highly rewarding stimuli, such as drugs and other addictive substances, or addictive activities like sex or gambling.

While many, like the AA community, argue that these processes are altered past the point of being natural during addiction, others argue that these processes are just extreme forms of very natural learning processes. Marc Lewis, a developmental neuroscientist, says in his paper “Addiction and the Brain: Development, Not Disease,” that the changes in the brain under addiction are the same as any other learning condition, except that they are especially influential due to the quick learning cycle, the relatively short time between the initial reward, and the loss of reward.

If this is the case, then it would seem that we are not entirely in control of these veto processes. It’s as if we have some parliament in our heads voting “yes” or “no” to the options they are given, and at any time many of them will be voting along “party lines” of sorts, based on behavioral cues, motivators, and stimuli that you may not even be conscious of. When it comes to determinism, the question becomes how much can you influence those votes based on your “will” or “desires”? Unfortunately, those questions have yet to be answered. But that doesn’t mean determinism is otherwise bulletproof.

Here is where chaos theory comes in. In short, it is the idea that in a complex system, tiny changes to starting variables can result in drastically different outcomes. The more complex the system, the greater the possible differences can be. In the entire known universe there is no system more complex than the human brain. The human brain influences and  is influenced by, events from the scale of molecules to the scale of populations and societies, all of which exponentially increases the level of complexity and the ways in which small changes can result in different outcomes.

Take, for example, quantum effects. The most common and widespread is Brownian motion, or the random movements of small particles as they bounce into each other on the tiniest of scales. In the brain, it directly influences diffusion, say, of hormones or drugs; energetics, as particles transfer energy to each other this way resulting in some being much more, or less, energetic than others; and biochemistry, as the orientation of a molecule makes the difference between it bonding and reacting with an enzyme or not, just to name a few.

However, we don’t even need to stay in the brain for quantum effects to influence our lives. That same Brownian motion is going on in the sun, as photons bounce around, sometimes for thousands of years, before finally escaping the core. When it finally does escape it can fly towards earth and, hopefully, avoid the atmospheric particles in order for it to make it all the way down to us. If it is a high enough energy photon, say, in the UV spectrum, it can potentially hit a piece of DNA causing damage. As far as we know, many parts of this process are random, and any small change in circumstances can result in failure. Perhaps the UV light hits a different cell, or is absorbed in the atmosphere, or misses you entirely.

If it does happen, the DNA damage will result in cascades of cellular mechanisms that will repair it, hopefully correctly. If this process is messed up, perhaps the cell repaired it incorrectly, it can result in the neuron killing itself, or, if things go very badly, in things like cancer. While the death of a single neuron is, for the most part, trivial, we are dealing with an incredibly complex system. Other neurons will have to rewire and adapt to the loss of that neuron and, over time, these tiny changes can result in different things happening. Perhaps they result in a change in behaviour that results in wildly different circumstances, say kissing the girl or not, and as a result your future is completely changed.

So, in this tiny way, determinism may be defeated. Strangely, not through the almost natural idea of free will and conscious decisions, but rather through the randomness of the universe itself. Of course, it could turn out that the universe is less random than we think it is. It could turn out that the brain utilizes this randomness in deliberate and significant ways, or there may be some other variables that we have yet to even discover. In the end, it would seem that the question of determinism is still a question worth debating.

Now, this may all seem rather depressing, that your life is set the way it is and there is nothing you can do to change it. This is true, except that our future has yet to be determined. Maybe life is just us discovering what the universe has in store for us. Or, perhaps, we have some tiny but significant level of control over it.

Try, for a moment, to imagine the life and future that you want to have. Imagine the way in which you would act or how you would be in order to live that future. If you can imagine that, then your brain can create that; and, if you can keep that motivating future in mind, you might influence that internal “parliament” enough to create it in every moment.

As that way of being becomes habit, it will be more likely to come up as a possible action to take and easier to approve that action. This may be the secret to free will, not that we have the ability to choose our actions in the moment, but rather we have the ability to let the future influence the present. Who knows, it just might work. This alone might make you think free will is real and that determinism has been proven false. Perhaps you are right. Or, perhaps, you were meant to read this. You’ll have to figure that out for yourself.