Determinism is the philosophical idea that every event or act in life is inevitable, it’s something that’s been decided beforehand either by an ultimate reality or it is a necessary consequence of the laws of nature.
Certain decisions change your life completely.
It doesn’t even need to be a major decision about something life-altering like a new job or the decision to marry or to have children or a decision to move to another country.
It can be something as simple as deciding what clothes to wear, how to travel to work, what to eat or even something as mediocre as ‘let’s stay at home today’.
These decisions that – at the face of it – look minuscule, can change the whole course of your journey and either make you closer to your destiny or further away (provided that you believe in the cosmological idea of destiny).
These decisions can be something really simple such as whether to drive your car to work or use public transport. Suppose that you decide on Monday that you want to take public transport to work. And it turns out that because of an accident on the highway that you usually take when you drive, there was a lot more traffic than normal. Had you driven your car that day, you would’ve been 1 hour late to work and you would’ve missed an extremely important meeting that your supervisor spontaneously held for you with the MD of So-and-so Company, a company that ironically, you’ve been dying to work with.
A simple decision – should I drive or take public transport – changed the whole course of the next few years of your life. You bagged your dream job! Wahayy!
At this point, determinists would say that your decision of taking public transport was fueled by the necessary laws of nature working on your life or that it was already decided by an ultimate reality that you would take public transport. Therefore, your decision was made for you before you even made it.
Sounds bizarre, right?
It gets even more bizarre now.
Suppose that in another possible world, you’re deciding what to have for lunch. Something as simple as having Japanese rather than your usual choice of pasta for lunch can change the way your love life goes for an undecided period.
Unluckily, after eating Japanese you got food poisoning and so you decided to take the day off work and go home early. Normally, you get the Bakerloo line from Waterloo Station at 5.30pm. Today however, you got it at 3.30pm. Had you got on the same train at 5.30 that day, you would’ve had to run for the train and quickly cram yourself on the carriage only to bump into a girl.
Not just any girl though.
The girl of your dreams. The girl that you were destined to fall in love with.
Had you gotten on the 5.30 train as usual, you would’ve met the girl who you would’ve eventually fallen in love with and married and had children with and grown old with.
But you didn’t get on the train on time that day.
You missed your opportunity of meeting someone who could have been your potential life partner. Something as simple as deciding what to eat for lunch completely changed the course of your love life. Yikes.
But wait, what happens then?
Just because something out of the ordinary happens one day that changes the normal order of events, preventing you from meeting someone that you were originally meant to meet, doesn’t mean that you’ll never meet her. I mean she’s your future life partner. You will meet her again, right? On a different train the following week and everything will go as it’s supposed to? Or will you meet a different girl who you will fall in love with and marry instead?
All of these questions highlight the implications that even the smallest of decisions have on our life. Do we intervene in the way our life is supposed to go by making these decisions? Have we changed the course of our destiny in the process, going further away from our dream job, or our dream partner? Or are these decisions actually taking us closer to our destiny?
Of course, determinists assume that things go exactly as they’re supposed to, each decision, each choice and each event happens as it’s meant to.
Consider another possibility then, where instead of having Japanese for lunch you decided to have pasta as usual that day and you went home at the normal time and you did bump into the girl and you did fall in love.
Did things go exactly as they were supposed to?
If so, then what would a determinist say about this case where you ate Japanese instead, does this different case show that something that wasn’t meant to happen, happened? Or would a determinist say that having Japanese food that day and not meeting the girl was supposed to happen?
If that’s the case, then how can determinists say that the former case of eating pasta was supposed to happen as well as the latter case of eating Japanese food?
Two alternative things can’t be ‘meant to happen’ at the same time.
It seems impossible.
When you consider examples like this of different possible worlds, it really makes you question how important even the most minuscule decision can be. But it doesn’t mean that from now on we need to start sitting down and jotting all of the pros and cons of every small decision before we even make it.
Then what does it mean?
That’s a tricky question. I guess it just means what you want it to mean.
Thinking about it from a determinist perspective is extremely difficult. You can’t consider possibilities with a determinist viewpoint because every decision that you make is already decided and so, other possibilities don’t really exist. There’s just one life; yours, and it goes exactly as it’s supposed to.There are no other possible ways of living.
Well, that doesn’t work.
So the only way we can really think of this concept is if we just accept it. We don’t need to change our whole life around just because of the small possibility that one decision can change everything, because we don’t really know what that decision will be.
What we can do though is accept that there will be such a decision that will change everything, and we have to be open to the possibility of it.
Maybe it will change the whole course of your life for better or maybe for worse. But no matter what happens, insofar as we have a way of dealing with its consequences, we can continue to live our life normally without any hindrances.
But thinking that everything is predetermined will not go hand in hand with such openness to possibilities.
Openness to possibilities means that you accept that your life can take any course which can either take you closer to your destiny or further away.
Anything can happen.