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How to live your life in a determined world: A philosophical guide.

I believe that we do not have free will. Yet, I believe that this is both completely neutral and actively bad. This article explain this somewhat paradoxical position. To offer a hint: the term determinism describes not one but several concepts, that all have very different implications for how we should lead our lives. The goal of this piece is to disentangle two of these concepts, namely that of causal and that of structural determinism. I will show why I believe both of them to be true, compare their implications, and describe how to adequately respond to these very implications. A couple definitions, so you know where we’re starting from:

  • Free will has many different definitions, of which I chose one: “An entity has free will if they could have chosen differently”. This condition is not already satisfied through having multiple options but necessitates a theoretical possibility of choosing something else. My definition is far from perfect, but I believe it suffices for the purposes of this essay.

  • Causal determinism has been defined as “the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” (see here). This view has gained increasing popularity in recent years, as our modern, rational world leaves arguably little room for something like free will.

  • Structural determinism can be defined as the thought that society is fundamentally structured by systems of power that influence different groups differently and to some extent determine the range of possible outcomes in their lives. Unlike the individual focus of causal determinism, structural determinism adopts a macro-level stance, implying that for entire groups of people their life outcomes are determined.


To sum it up shortly: According to causal determinism you are reading this article because the exact conditions of the big bang led you hear through an inescapable causal chain. According to structural determinism you are an engaged university student with a certain interest in philosophy and thus were very likely to read this article.

 


Do you believe you have free will?

  • Yes!

  • No!

  • Maybe?


What Concepts Do These Determinisms Describe? Why Believe In Them?

Causal Determinism

Causal determinism posits that every event, including human actions, is the inevitable result of preceding events and natural laws, creating a continuous chain of cause and effect. This perspective is deeply rooted in the empirical successes of the physical sciences. For instance, classical mechanics presents a universe governed by predictable laws, where objects follow specific paths determined by initial conditions. This scientific materialist lens which many people understand the world through, necessarily is a deterministic one. One may illustrate this type of deterministic view by the hypothetical scenario of rewinding time: if we were to turn back the clock to the universe’s inception, the idea is, the same set of laws and initial conditions would lead to an identical unfolding of events. Everything would have to be the exact same – else, at some point, we would find the causal chain broken. This thought experiment underscores what is meant by the belief that the laws of nature govern all phenomena, and why this leaves no room for events to occur differently.

One common objection to determinism is the feeling of personal agency – “but I can do whatever I want.” Determinism contradicts this claim instead positing that this feeling is just an illusion because while one may act according to one’s desires, these desires are themselves shaped by a prior sequence of causes, i.e., “one can do what one wants, but not want what one wants”, to paraphrase Schopenhauer (quoted from here). I will illustrate this more at a later point.


Should the reader take these arguments to be convincing, they must concede that the notion of free will is at least substantially undermined, if not an impossibility all together.


Structural Determinism

At the heart of structural determinism is the recognition of complex, often deeply ingrained systems of power and hierarchy that operate within societies. These systems – be they economic, legal, political, or cultural – create a framework within which individuals and groups interact. The nature of these interactions and the distribution of power and resources within these structures can profoundly influence life trajectories, shaping everything from educational opportunities to professional success, social mobility, and even health outcomes.


One of the arguably most fundamental structures of our modern society is capitalism. It will partly be the angle of analysis in this essay. Capitalism, as an economic system, not only structures the distribution of resources and opportunities but also cultivates a specific culture that emphasises values such as competition, efficiency, and productivity.


Yet capitalism does not maintain its influence solely through material and institutional control but also wields significant influence on the cultural and ideological levels, as argued by Antonio Gramsci. This process of “intellectual and moral leadership” is what he calls cultural hegemony (source). This influence manifests in the collective consciousness, subtly embedding the capitalist ethos as the natural order of things. The result is a societal landscape where values aligned with capitalist interests – such as relentless productivity, competition, and material success – are not only normalised but admired. The capitalist influence on culture transcends the boundaries of work, permeating various aspects of life and shaping the societal narrative about what is desirable, attainable, and worthwhile. It is this cultural aspect that I will focus on most.


Structural determinism suggests that while individuals may make technically free choices, the context in which these choices are made is heavily influenced by overarching societal constructs. This does not imply that individual agency is non-existent, but rather that the agency is exercised within a set of possibilities that are pre-structured and often limited by these larger forces, including the pervasive cultural norms shaped by dominant economic systems like capitalism. For further reading on this, I would suggest looking up Foucault’s panopticon (I unfortunately have neither the space nor the expertise to go in-depth here).


A simple analogy to make matters clear:

Suppose you decide to save money in a bank account. Did you ever choose to want to save that money? A structural determinist might argue that one’s cultural and socio-economic background create such behaviours. Causal determinists would go further. After all, could you, if you so pleased, choose to want to waste it? And even if you could choose to want to waste it, you would have to want to want to do that. All choices, though felt as free, are ultimately the end product of a long causal chain of preceding events. Every effect must originate from a preceding cause – following the principle of causality*. This idea is crucial to the causal determinist position.


 

*... if there was somehow no preceding cause, as some advocates for free will might assume, how could one then ever affect anything?

 

 

What Does That Mean for Us?

Causal determinism is neutral and removes agency.

In the contemplation of determinism’s impact on our lives, it becomes essential to discern how these underlying forces shape our existence and the scope of our freedom. Causal determinism, by its nature, presents a neutral force in the universe. Being neutral means that causal determinism does not inherently guide human actions towards any particular end or value; it simply posits that every event is the result of preceding events in accordance with the laws of nature. This framework suggests that while our actions are determined, they are not predetermined by any teleological, purposeful force.


This understanding allows for the pursuit of happiness within the deterministic framework. The previously introduced notion that one can still “do what one wants to” remains valid under causal determinism. This is because the perception of choice and the pursuit of desires are not negated by the deterministic nature of the universe; they are simply understood to be the result of prior causes. We can of course not save human agency and omit the already mentioned and quite impactful subclause attached to it (“... but not want what one wants”). Importantly, the introduction of determinism only challenges the notion of meaning if one presupposes that meaning is derived exclusively from unfettered agency. This notion is, however, quite an unusual one – most people would likely rather say the derive meaning from the pursuit of happiness. However, even if agency is deemed essential for meaning, the subjective experience of making choices and pursuing desires – the feeling of agency – remains intact; we still very much feel like we have control over what we are doing in life. So while causal determinism does take away agency, this does not have to inherently be a problem for us. Indeed, this control that the laws of nature have about us are not directed towards any direction. They are neither inherently harmful nor beneficial paths; rather, it presents life as an amazingly engaging movie, that makes us experience it as if we are active participants. This perception does not diminish the quality of our lives but is instead a neutral force.


Structural determinism is not neutral (right now even harmful) but allows some agency.

Contrastingly, structural determinism operates on a different plane, embodying a directional force that significantly influences our collective and individual lives. Unlike causal determinism, structural determinism does not strip away our agency in the straightforward manner of causal determinism. Instead, it channels our decisions and actions within a pre-defined framework of societal and systemic constraints. This structure is not neutral; it is imbued with the values, inequalities, and power dynamics of the systems that constitute it, such as capitalism. Let us examine this in detail.


In structural determinism, individual agency remains intact, but it is exercised within a constrained set of possibilities. Thereby its main influence on agency happens on a macro level, shaping the actions of the collective and over a long period of time. While we might be initially relieved to hear that we can keep our individual agency, reality is much harsher. In contrast to the strong controlling grip of causal determinism, structural determinism has softer touch but indeed pushes us persistently toward direction.


I believe this direction of structural determinism is currently a harmful one, especially within the capitalist framework. Capitalism, by design, encourages certain behaviours and lifestyles, pushing individuals towards relentless productivity and overwork (I wrote an article about this some time ago!). The system values economic success and material accumulation above all, often at the expense of personal well-being, societal health and community. Thus, the capitalist imperative drives us as a society toward a direction that is actively harmful to us.


How Should We Deal With This?

In navigating the complexities of determinism, our responses to causal and structural determinism must diverge to address the distinct challenges each presents. Acceptance and action become the dual paths forward, each tailored to the nature of the determinism we confront.


Accepting Causal Determinism

Causal determinism, rooted in the immutable laws of nature, dictates a course of acceptance. The inexorable chain of cause and effect that governs the universe leaves us with little choice but to acknowledge our position within it. This acceptance does not imply passivity or resignation but rather an acknowledgment of the reality that shapes our existence. As we “navigate” life’s complexities, understanding that our desires, choices, and actions are part of a larger causal chain may bring a form of peace. Thereby, it can make us feel freed from the burden of trying to assert an impossible autonomy against the fundamental laws of nature.


This perspective aligns with Albert Camus’ exploration of absurdity in “The Myth of Sisyphus”. Camus argues that recognising the absurdity of seeking meaning in a meaningless world does not lead to despair, but rather to a liberated state of mind. In accepting causal determinism, we encounter a similar form of liberation. The absurdity here lies in mankind’s refusal to accept the all-encompassing natural order that surrounds us. Embracing the absurd, then, means accepting our place within this deterministic framework and finding meaning within the limitations it presents, much like Sisyphus finds resolve in his eternal task.


Revolting Against the Current Structural Determinism

Conversely, structural determinism presents a scenario where acceptance morphs into complacency, and action becomes necessary. The harmful effect of the capitalist system is not an inevitable outcome of human nature but a consequence of specific societal structures of governance; however, unlike the laws of nature that dictate our lives elsewhere, the structures that define our societies are mutable. They are the result of human actions, decisions, and they can be restructured to prioritise different values and outcomes.


It follows that revolt is our duty. What is needed for that is a collective will to reimagine and reconstruct the societal frameworks that bind us. It is not just about resisting or reforming certain aspects of the system; it is about envisioning and working towards a fundamentally different society that prioritises human welfare and nature over economic gain. How exactly such a society would look like and whether it can forcefully be acquired or must be the result of a process of evolution (or indeed is unattainable at all) these are questions part of a different debate. It rests with me to solely emphasises our collective ability of evoking change.


For the individual structural revolt is not the only hope. As agency, as earlier explained, stays intact on the individual level, we can aim to free us from the structural influence of capitalism, at least to the extent that this is theoretically possible. Capitalisms influence is manifold. For one, it affects the economic opportunities of different groups to flourish in life. This is to some extent “a hard fact” which individual from such a group cannot feasibly escape from. Other effects are more cultural though. They shape the choices we make, the types of desires we have, and thereby also the lives we live. These cultural binds of capitalism are not less powerful than the economic ones, but they are more within our realm of influence. We can do so by first questioning the origins of our desires and then evaluating which are healthy and which are not. Of course, causal determinism restricts who will ever truly want to (want to, want to, ...) free themselves from these binds, yet a reader of this essay might have relatively decent chances to be on the right path.


Conclusion

It would be ironic, were I to end this piece with a call to action; a call about “freeing yourself from the capitalist chains that bind you”. Though it may be epic, it would also no doubt be foolish. Of course, in a very real sense this text (like any other entity, be it even the most insignificant) will necessarily shape the world. One might think that, therefore, I would very well be in the right, was I to attempt and persuade the reader. After all, even if our actions (including the writing of this text) are predetermined, a text that was predetermined to be very persuasive would indeed still be very persuasive, even if the reader never choses to be persuaded. Having now almost finished writing it, I hope this rather abstract and unusual conclusion is indeed a persuasive one. If only one reader were to believe my argument, critically examine their life, and alter this life’s path to its always predestined path (on the way, maybe even tell another person about it) – if only one reader were to do so – then this might indeed result in collective action that changes the world.


“Is this Utopian? A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” (Oscar Wilde in "The Soul of Man")






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