Determinism - Explanation and Examples

Is there really not that much you can do? (cue existential dread)


What is Determinism?

How much say do you really have over your actions? Have you ever had that feeling that no matter what you do, the situation was always gonna end up the way it did?

Determinism is the idea that everything that happens in the world is determined completely by previously existing causes. We all know that the world runs on cause-and-effect. Imagine a shot in snooker (or “pool” for you Americans). You hit the cue ball which then strikes another, and the movement of the balls is determined by the laws of physics.

But once you’ve hit the ball, neither you or the balls have any say in which way things turn out! Once the initial cause (you hitting the cue ball) is set in place, everything just follows along through the laws of physics.

But let’s generalise from this snooker example; if the world really does run on fixed laws of cause-and-effect, then it seems that once the initial conditions of the universe have been set up, then every event that follows in history follows inevitably through cause-and-effect. The beginning of the universe, the big bang, is the first cause (the cue ball) and all of history to this day (to you reading this email) has just followed inevitably like balls moving across a table.

Now it sure does seem like we don’t know what will happen in the future. So we might think that the future isn’t decided. However our uncertainty isn’t due to the future being open, but instead is due to our limited human knowledge of the webs of cause-and-effect that run our world. If you had perfect knowledge about absolutely everything and knew exactly how every tiny atom in the world was configured, you’d be able to completely predict the future.

Other sorts of determinism

What we’ve been discussing above is the notion of ‘causal determinism’ where everything is completely predetermined by pre-existing chains of cause-and-effect. However, there are other interesting ways you can view the world with a more determinist-bent.

Environmental determinism

Environmental determinism is the study of how the physical environment affects the development of societies. The idea is that physical geography can set societies on particular trajectories of political and economic development. Environmental determinism was revived in the late 20th century by social scientists such as Jared Diamond. In his book Guns, Germs, and Steel , Diamond attempts to explain how geographic factors offered advantages to Eurasian and North African civilisations, rather than any innate racial superiority, that allowed them to defeat other societies.

For example, how can we explain Europe’s initial head-start in technological development over the Americas? Well, the spread and development of agriculture was faster in Europe because of Eurasia’s East-West orientation.

How? Well, places on similar latitudes have similar climates. Since Eurasia has similar climates over its vast expanse, this meant that animal and plant domestication techniques developed for one area could spread easily across the continent.

But the Americas are North-South oriented. The climate changes a lot as you move from the North down to the South. This meant that civilisations in the Americas struggled with adapting crops domesticated at one latitude for use at another different latitude. This slowed the spread and development of their agriculture.

In turn, a head-start in agriculture led to a larger supply of food and denser populations which meant people could explore non-farming jobs. The rise of non-farmer specialists sped up technological development which further sped the economic development of the society in a positive feedback loop. In this way, initial geographic conditions can have a profound influence in determining a society’s development.

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