I Had to Write This: The Psychology of Determinism

By Michael Baker

A new study by University of Pennsylvania psychologists sheds light on how the brain links one thought to another, thus bringing us one step closer to developing methods of mind reading.  I’m not too freaked out about that; the kind of mind reading in question, while intellectually fascinating, probably wouldn’t be all that illuminating in practice.  I imagine reading a person’s thoughts wouldn’t be much more stimulating than simply having a conversation with them – most people are willing to honestly tell you what’s on their mind if they think you’re actually listening.

But the implications about how we think in general are really interesting.  Studies like this tend to validate the philosophical theory of determinism – the theory that we are predetermined to act in certain ways and thus that certain results are inevitable.  It’s like fate, but based on an understanding of human action that is at least semi-scientific and non-metaphysical.

If the brain always functions a certain way in conjuring up our thoughts, and if those thoughts determine our actions, then it stands to reason that given a certain set of circumstances, one must always react a certain way.  And since one set of circumstances leads to another and then to another, it stands to reason that if you understand everything about how an individual’s mind works you could make accurate predictions about literally everything that person will do from a given point in time on.  That’s probably too theoretical to ever be useful, and the number of variables at play is likely more than a man-made system of prediction could realistically take into account.

But the general premise – that you might have a choice about the things you do, but how you choose is the result of how you think and thus not really up to you in the first place – might be something to consider.  If you really are predetermined to make certain decisions, how should that affect our system of criminal sentencing, for example?  It’s probably far too speculative to be taken seriously in making policy decisions (after all, our policy makers never rely on whims or speculation), but interesting nonetheless, I think.

So if you think this post sucked, don’t get too upset – I had no choice but to write it and you had no choice but to read it.