Long ago, an infamously idealized demon crawled out of the fiery infernos of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s mind and set up shop in philosophy texts and thought experiments for years to come, prodding us with its pitchfork of ambiguity to consider whether our reality is deterministic in nature or whether we each have the ability to exercise unimpeded free will.
Centuries passed and, as science progressed and as religion regressed, the tug of war between determinism and free will tensed on. New insights into the brain provided some with convincing new forms of determinism, whilst new trends in spirituality solidified the idea of free will for many.
So where are we today? Surely, in the midst of a technological revolution like no other, of new ontological and existential understandings, and of new paradigms of metaphysical intellect, we must be ready to ditch the demon’s deterministic dominion over our self-perceived existence and spread our own wings of free will.
But first, it may be necessary to rewind a bit, as this particular debate has smoldered for ages and is in no position to stop anytime soon, as it only seems to be advancing and evolving with us happily stoking its coals.
“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
― Arthur Schopenhauer
Midway through the 17th century, Sir Isaac Newton spurred a new future of understanding into motion when he developed calculus, along with the laws of classical mechanics.
His breakthroughs can’t be overstated, as they allowed humanity to view nature from a drastically different perspective and, more importantly, equip itself with an effective method of prediction to studying our natural world in a way unlike any we’ve had before.
For the first time in history, Newtonian physics made it a real possibility for scientists to approach questions with pre-determined expectations made by simple equations, and this changed everything.
“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.”
— Isaac Newton
Two centuries later, French physicist Pierre-Simon Laplace put a philosophical spin on Newton’s work by idealizing what has, today, become one of the most iconic thought experiments relating to determinism — Laplace’s Demon.
“We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at any given moment knew all of the forces that animate nature and the mutual positions of the beings that compose it, if this intellect were vast enough to submit the data to analysis, could condense into a single formula the movement of the greatest bodies of the universe and that of the lightest atom; for such an intellect nothing could be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.”
— Marquis Pierre Simon de Laplace
Laplace had aspired to convince us that the past can completely determine the future; in truth, this has been a fascination of both science and philosophy for eons (Socrates had long grappled with the concept of determinism). For Laplace, everything could be pre-determined — there was no chance, no choice, and no uncertainty.
Fast forward to today, where attempts at predicting outcomes (the meaningful ones, anyway) are very few and far between. While the field of quantum physics ravages the foundations of sense and logic, individuals themselves are more empowered than ever to be the center of their own universe.
Scientifically, we’ve been brought to our knees by the old adage: the more we learn, the less we know. Personally, however, things are a bit different. It could be argued that we should be embracing the notion of free will more than ever before, as we’re enjoying a liberation of ourselves like none experienced throughout our recorded history.
In a way, it’s a version of Laplace’s demon not previously considered; while we may not be able to see the future or boil down all chains of events to a single, effectuating equation, we enjoy a vast amount of freedom today that had been unfathomable yesterday.
This includes physical freedom as much as it does financial or spiritual; freedom to think and speak and believe however we’re inspired to. Freedom to communicate ideas, learn, or effectuate some measure of change. While the limits themselves are arguable, and while such freedom(s) can’t be enjoyed by virtually everyone, we exist in a time like none before with respect to our ability to do whatever it is we’d like to do.
So, does our current sense of freedom, in its multitude of shapes and capacities, actually have any bearing on the question of free will versus determinism? Do most of us still believe in some kind of fateful determinism or are we increasingly finding ourselves to be the heroes of our own fate, able to bend circumstance to our will and forge our own destinies?
With the ability to migrate, to believe whatever we want to believe with all knowledge recorded and accessible for us — surely, we must feel more free than ever before, right?
To cultivate some modern insight, Borealism asked 30 different people their thoughts on whether or not they feel that fate is determined outside of their influence.
“Not really, and also yes”; The results? Mostly undecided.
Of those asked, about a third had been sure that they’re the masters of their own fate; six indicated that they believe everything is already determined (mostly by some form of a higher power) and the remaining half happened to all straddle the fence in uncertainty.
Overall results indicated that just over half of respondents leaned more towards free will than determinism.
Some notable responses, which encapsulate the most common, ambiguously-framed thought:
“I wonder if we’re just blissfully unaware that we have no choice, even though it seems like we’re the ones in control”
“I think it’s up to us to determine if we even want our futures determined for us or by us”
“Fate is most certainly determined outside of our influence, but that’s not the end of it. Our influence responds in kind”
“Free will can be an illusion, sure, but it’s also a choice”
Many perceptions had been found to contain this theme of empowerment, and of choice, which consisted of allowing us to believe what we want to believe. In itself, this initially seems to make it abundantly clear — we do have free will. So why the hesitation to state, with utmost certainty, that we run the show?
It could be that the question over free will isn’t an easy one to answer, particularly because there are so many nuances that come into play. Are we being led by our cerebral impulses or by a higher power? Are we trapped in a time warp or are we living out every possible opportunity in only one of countless dimensions?
The fact is that determinism comes in countless forms, and this may be the reason that we’re not necessarily quick to say, with utmost certainly, that free will prevails. We have historical determinism, political, social and economic determinism, genetic or psychological determinism.
“Life calls the tune, we dance.”
― John Galsworthy
All the wrinkles point towards a funny thing that seemed to have happened: ironically, as much as rebellious individualism has proliferated since the 50’s, we’ve also willed countless idealized methods and concepts of determinism into being.
And so we spin ourselves back to the usual circles of deciphering the true fundamentals of this problem, asking questions like those asked by Ludwig Wittgenstein — how we don’t even know what it means to call something an action in the first place or why some of our actions are classified as such and others not. We begin to spiral into semantics and unanswerable quandaries.
Then, there are the more paced, classical arguments that stem from the likes of Thomas Reid, Immanuel Kant and Aristotle — concerning causation, fatalism, predestination; hard and soft determinism, psychological or materialistic determinism, divine power and moral obligation.
You see — the determinism debate has burned on, bifurcating rampantly without end. Today, we’re looking at the entire debate through a technological lens, as simulation theory is a hot topic amongst most contemporary determinist thinkers.
So what does this say about us? Maybe it means that, no matter how free we may actually be socially, materialistically, geographically, or psychologically, we still don’t feel it in our core; we still feel the need to entertain the idea of a divine power crafting our destinies — be it a deity or a higher consciousness; perhaps living under the idea that we’re just part of a simulation, or that we’re slaves to the neurological firings of our brains or subatomic-level happenstance.
In a much more comprehensive survey conducted by Scientific American, 59% of 4,672 respondents from around the world indicated that they believe in free will, with the other 41% voting in favor of determinism.
These results reveal that roughly 3 out of every 5 people feel that they’re in control of their fate; a figure that seems to have remained the same throughout history.
Ultimately, it seems that Laplace’s demon may get the last laugh, simply because we don’t seem to want free will, and maybe we’re just determined to find ways around being the masters of our own fate.
Maybe it makes things easier for us, or maybe it’s intrinsically coded in us to assume the existence of some sort of fate beyond our control.
Whatever it is, it seems that even if we had free will — or if we’d like to assume that we do have free will — we’ve destined ourselves to consider determinism as a major likelihood in our ontological understanding.