Determinism is the expression used to encompass all forms of cause and effect: all of existence is subject to this process. Every occurrence is the result of prior events, and is a contributing cause of future events. Everything that is happening at this moment in the universe, is the result of an infinite number of causes, occurring over an infinite span of time; in the next moment, all that is in existence now, becomes additional causes of everything that will be occurring. In this way, everything is either cause or effect; and every effect is ultimately a cause.
The easiest way to view this concept, is to consider the universe as flowing through time, rather than as a static conglomeration. Everything that is a component of the universe is in a state of transition; and nothing remains the same, moment to moment. A stone, sitting in front of you, has changed in the most infinitesimal division of time; it now occupies a different location in the universe: the Earth has rotated about its axis, and has orbited further around the Sun; the solar system has travelled within the spiral of our galaxy, and the galaxy has moved through space. Every electron within every atom of the stone has changed position. Some mass has been converted to energy, the surface has altered in reaction to the atmosphere, and all the components of the stone are further along in their change into another form. Nothing about that stone is exactly the same as it was a moment ago.
All of this applies to humans, with the addition of elements that pertain to living things. As you move through time, your cells are in stages of death, birth, and aging; their intent is in transition, as they determine such things as whether to gain nutrients, react to changes in their environment, or send specific signals to other cells. You, as a total entity, are in a state of flux: every thought is in progress, and every sensation is affecting a change upon you, as you experience your surroundings. Experiencing existence, by itself, is sufficient to establish that you are a different person now, than you were moments ago. Simply reading these words is causing you to change: whether you are feeling interest, agreement, doubt, or anger; there is an effect, which has, no matter how insignificant it may seem, become a contributing cause of your future actions.
Let’s create an imaginary scenario to demonstrate cause and effect.
Fred went out today and bought a yellow car. He had been considering purchasing a new auto for some time, because his old vehicle was becoming expensive to maintain, and really wasn’t worth the investment. Yesterday, he ran over a piece of pipe laying on the freeway, and punctured his oilpan; this was the last straw for Fred: time for a new car...
Dave was loading the truck with scrap metal from the shop yard, while his boss hovered around him complaining about what a slow worker Dave was, and commenting that a competent employee would have cleared the yard by now. Dave squeezed the last chunk of pipe onto the truck, and headed down the freeway for the recycling depot; too angry to care about adequately securing his load...
Times had been difficult for Fred’s parents, Steve and Sarah, prior to his birth. The newlyweds were having a tough time making ends meet, and had decided to put off starting a family until they were financially stable. One morning, Sarah awoke to find that the power had went out, the alarm hadn’t gone off, and she was late for work. She frantically got ready, and rushed for the bus; there’s no way that she and Steve could afford for her to lose this job. Riding to work, she noted how crowded the bus was at this late hour; so many people who, normally, she would never see. A woman boarded the bus at the next stop, and sat down beside her. The stranger’s hands were trembling, and Sarah glanced up at her face, where the bruises riveted her attention. Sarah failed to avert her gaze in time, and the woman made eye contact, and said: “I know what you’re thinking, but you don’t understand. My husband is under a lot of stress, and sometimes I make him angry. He can’t help it, the pressure is just too much for him...”
That evening, while Sarah was preparing for bed, her thoughts drifted back to the pitiful woman on the bus. Sarah considered how lucky she was to have a husband who treated her with kindness; and thought it would be nice to show him that he was appreciated, in a very romantic way. She smiled to herself, and took the birth-control pill she had forgotten in the morning rush; “better late than never...”
Fred’s childhood had always been something he felt was best left forgotten. Hunger, poverty, and the taunting of other children due to his shabby clothing and gaunt appearance, were memories that were rarely allowed to intrude upon his present existence. His only fond recollection was of the bicycle he received on his eleventh birthday. It was only later in life that he realized what a financial sacrifice it was to his parents; making the extravagant purchase of that bright yellow toy...
This somewhat long-winded tale demonstrates how seemingly insignificant causes lead to unforeseen effects. The story is long, yet far from complete, because an infinite number of factors can be introduced. We can see that our imaginary Fred liked the colour yellow due to a psychological influence in his childhood; associating it with happiness, and a valued possession. We can deduce that Fred had resisted buying a new vehicle due to an impoverished childhood, and therefore grew into a frugal adult. If the bicycle had been red, Fred would have bought a red automobile. If he had been raised in an affluent environment, he would have been driving a better vehicle; which he would have repaired, rather than replaced. Fred would not even have existed, if the power had not gone out on that particular morning, and led to the missed birth-control pill, and chance encounter on the bus. Let’s say that the power failed on account of an electrical worker dropping a wrench onto a breaker; because he had earlier injured his hand playing basketball. We can then say “Fred bought a yellow car at 5:02 PM on September 1, 1999 because a power company employee was playing basketball at 7:24 PM, October 3, 1968.” That October 3rd event, plus innumerable others, led to the one specific outcome on September 1st.
When we make a statement, such as “Fred would not have purchased an automobile at 5:02 PM on September 1, 1999, if a piece of pipe had not been laying on the freeway;” we are only performing a mental exercise. In reality, the situation could be no other way, due to the fact that the causes behind the pipe falling to the road have been perpetually in motion; with an infinite number of events leading to that specific occurrence, at that moment in time. We cannot actually change any predestined effect for two reasons. For one, it is impossible to know all of the causes of an event, nor what event an infinite number of causes are leading toward. Secondly, we are subject to the law of cause and effect, so our actions are also predestined.
Think of a roof collapsing under the weight of a heavy snowfall. Logically, there is a moment in time when the roof is one snowflake away from collapse. You may be observing this, and actually see one last flake drift down onto the building, see the resulting effect, and conclude that it caused the failure. However, each one of the billion snowflakes on the roof contributed to the event; and each one is equally important to the ultimate result. The snowflake that arrived a day earlier, is as significant a cause as the one that arrived at the moment of collapse. Every flake came to be at its destination via a different route, each one is composed of a different arrangement of water molecules, and every molecule is at that particular point in time and space due to a different reason. A day earlier, none of the snowflakes even existed in their present form. Perhaps one of the water molecules that composed that final flake was exhaled by you days before, while miles away: and you unknowingly, were a contributing cause of the observed effect. Obviously, it is impossible for any mind to be able to determine that the roof of this particular building would fail at this particular moment, because even calculating how many snowflakes it would take to collapse a roof, will not tell you how many will arrive at that specific location, at any given time.
We as individuals, are the result of an infinite number of causes; and your every thought and action is predetermined by your experiences and genetic pattern. This in no way precludes the perception of free will. Although you will follow the pattern set by cause and effect; you cannot fathom all of the contributing factors that determine your response to any situation. Determinism is not a simple process of ‘A’ causing ‘B’ which causes ‘C’; but a complex interaction of numerous events: ‘A’ is a contributing cause of ‘B’; but ‘A1’, ‘A2’, and ‘A999+’ are acting upon ‘B’, which is also only a contributing cause of ‘C’. A decision you make may be influenced by a genetic cause established two million years in the past, and the condition of a single brain cell one nanosecond ago. It is possible to determine sufficient cause, in order to make calculated assumptions on potential effects: this process is the basis for such disciplines as psychology, philosophy, and economics; but it is not possible to guarantee a given result, because all of the contributing factors cannot be known.
In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas realized that the perception of the “god of Abraham” was clashing with the logic within Christian doctrine. The principle god of the Abrahamic religions had always been somewhat fallible; and was portrayed as more of a “superhuman”, than an all-powerful entity. Late Judeo-Christian beliefs had relied upon determinism to attribute omniscient, and consequently omnipotent, properties to their god; while allowing for a human perception of free will. To know all of the causes of all the effects over the infinite span of time, makes one all-knowing. To know everything that will ever occur in the future due to a complete knowledge of cause and effect, and having the ability to act upon this knowledge, makes one all-powerful. The problem was that determinism is based upon an infinite universe; and Western religions wished to portray their god as the creator of the universe. St. Aquinas established a modern theistic variation of determinism, which has since been adopted by many forms of religion; concluding that God is infinite, but the universe is not. Since every effect must have a cause, God is the “first cause” (or “first mover”) of all that exists, yet God himself is separate from this logic, and has no cause. Thomas Aquinas basically took ancient Greek polytheistic beliefs, and adapted them to the monotheistic system the Abrahamic religions had evolved into. Aside from the apparent paradox created by removing a cause for God; Aristotle’s original doctrine does not transfer well, from a community of deities, to a singular form.
The first deterministic problem with an infinite creator God, is the question: if God is all-knowing, why did it take an infinite amount of time for him to decide to create the universe? God having a thought, is cause and effect; what led God to suddenly think of creating a universe, rather than just “sitting around” in nothingness? Expanding this notion leads to a greater paradox: God, being omnipotent and omniscient, would come to a conclusion immediately; therefore, if he wished to create a universe, it would be a “first thought” or the “first cause” of the universe: if God is infinite, all that was created would consequently be infinite as well. Any justification used to try and resolve this paradox removes, in some way, the perfect attributes of God; and places him back as the fallible anthropomorphic entity of the biblical writings: such as the Islamic “trial and error” belief about creationism.
Setting aside past religious attempts to modify determinism, the basic concept is purely logical, and quite simple to comprehend. It has governed, and will continue to govern, existence for all eternity. Every event or action is ultimately perpetual; in that every cause contributes to an effect, and each effect becomes a contributing cause of future events; this sequence carrying on forever. Mankind will always have the perception of free will, because we cannot know the intricacies of the past, nor the other events occurring throughout the universe: the closest we can come to using our knowledge of determinism, is to come to general conclusions about past causes of major events, learn from them, and try to project what actions will lead to future effects. If you take time to contemplate it, you will realize that understanding determinism plays a very important role in the destiny of humanity.