Determinism as a Fairy Tale for Philosophers

I was recently speaking with a friend of mine who’s a Franciscan friar and retired philosophy professor. During a discussion of Spinoza he mentioned that he tends to take determinism in philosophers not literally but as a metaphor for the limits of philosophical argumentation. This is a very interesting idea.

The basic problem with determinism (other than it being false) is that, if taken seriously, it would result in complete paralysis, or at least complete philosophical paralysis. If determinism is true, there is no purpose in telling anybody anything because there is nothing he can do with it. His thoughts are all predetermined. There isn’t even a point in telling him that there is no point, because even that cannot change what he will do—even to help him to make peace with being a slave. Of course, the same applies to the philosopher himself, so he can always say that he’s engaging in pointlessly telling people they are not free because he is predetermined to do so. Determinism means never having to say you’re sorry. Unless you have to.

Even so, determinist philosophers do not, as a rule, tend to acknowledge that everything that they write is pointless. Why is that? The utter pointlessness of telling a man that he has no more choice than does a rock is obvious. So obvious that we instinctively know it about rocks. Never yet has a man preached to the rocks that they cannot do other than what their nature and circumstances foreordain them to do. Not even to rocks which someone has carved ears into. Why, then, if one’s philosophy dictates that men are no more free than rocks will the philosopher preach this bad news to men?

(If it be objected that they do not preach to rocks because rocks cannot hear, I answer that this is irrelevant. There is no practical difference between something that cannot hear and something that, though it can hear, can do nothing with the words spoken to it. A man who speaks only Russian can still hear English, but we do not waste our time preaching to him in English. To object that he cannot understand changes nothing; we do not preach things a man cannot do even to men who understand. No one walks around in their native language telling men that it would be exhilarating to jump to the moon or very convenient if they were to grow thirty feet tall. It is the usefulness of the words which governs whether they leave our lips, not the intelligibility of them.)

So why on earth do determinist philosophers preach determinism? The answer, suggests my friend, and I suspect he’s right, is that they don’t mean it. What they actually mean is a metaphor for how little philosophical argumentation sways people, even the philosopher himself. As Saint Paul complained, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Determinism is, thus, a metaphor for the fallen state of humanity. And, in practice, it does seem to be a popular idea more with men who have difficulty restraining their passions. I can’t think of any extremely virtuous men who were determinists.

That said, this probably is more about how little philosophical argumentation sways the masses than about the philosopher himself. When the philosopher sees things clearly which seem to him momentous and the ordinary man shrugs his shoulders if he takes note at all—this requires some sort of explanation. There are better explanations than determinism but determinism does have a sort of superficial appeal. “Men do not care about the thoughts of the gods because they are mere beasts” is an explanation that does, to some degree, explain. That’s an important quality in an explanation—one that is missing in far more explanations than it should be.

Speaking of explanations which explain, I think that this idea makes sense of determinism, and especially why it is that its proponents never seem to take the idea seriously. They do take it seriously, just as a fairy tale to comfort them for why no one listens to them.

(I should note that I think this works synergistically with what has seemed to me to be the primary motivator of determinism: it simplifies the world. If one has to take into account many origins of causation, the world will not fit inside of one’s head. Determinism is appealing, then, because it eliminates a great deal of complexity. Even where the determinist is not an atheist, I think it functions as a sort of vicarious solipsism.)