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“… as it was determined to be so.”
Kevin Heinrich follows the fate of some determined townsfolk.
The residents of the isolated community of M– were always inclined toward peculiar fads. One year they were obsessed with romance novels and open marriages. Another year, it was crime novels and abstinence. Most of the time these obsessions were harmless and faded from memory rather quickly. On the rare occasions when real harm was done, it was more likely than not that the fad was philosophical in nature.
The town’s infatuation with determinism began, perhaps unsurprisingly, in a courtroom. A man on trial for murdering his sister declared that he could not be held responsible for his action, since the murder was merely the latest in an unalterable chain of causes and effects having its origins at the very beginning of the universe. The judge, in complete agreement with the murderer’s argument, promptly sentenced the man to death, explaining that his judgement was merely the latest in an unalterable chain of causes and effects having its origin at the very beginning of the universe.
The judge’s decision was a matter of controversy. Some argued that surely the truth of determinism undermines our traditional legal judgements and practices. After all, how can we hold a man responsible for events in which he was merely a powerless participant? When someone is struck by a train, we certainly don’t hold the passengers responsible. With the proper understanding of causes, we can see that the murderer is in fact no more responsible than his victim. Therefore, now that the truth of determinism is known, we cannot in good conscience continue to pass moral judgement and assign punishment.
Nonsense, the critics replied. What are you doing if you let the criminal go free? Are you not choosing to do so? Are you not deciding to alter your practices based on what you’ve learned about the world? You purport to do these things for the very reason that determinism undermines responsibility, yet you claim that reasons don’t have any effect in how things turn out: only physical causes matter. If we change our practices, it would certainly not be in response to anything we have learned about the nature of reality, then. Rather, that would also be an unfolding of necessity.
Not true, countered the reformers. Reasons are still reasons. Just because the inevitable mechanism of nature caused these reasons to appear in our consciousness, this does not alter their binding force. We are compelled to recognize the validity of a good argument, and so our practices must change.
Their opponents responded, Haven’t you failed to consistently apply your own reasoning? For if a knowledge of determinism might provide a reason to alter our practices, then surely the guilt of the murderer provides a reason to hang him? In fact, you have presumed an inability to choose on the part of the criminal, but a power of choice on the part of the judge.
While the philosophers bickered, a kind of chaos spread slowly through the town. Someone would steal from his neighbor without a reason. The police would decline to give chase, and similarly offer no explanation beyond a gesture at immutable physical laws. Worse, the town’s insurers would decline recourse for the victim of the theft. Worst of all, victims began to abandon outrage, and even declined to take action to prevent future loss. It was not long before the town ceased to function. Across the town, people either followed the law, or they failed to; businesses either honored contracts, or they did not; people either moved out of the way of moving vehicles, or they did not – there was no apparent order or predictably to peoples’ actions. Each event, each decision, was seen as fitting into a mechanical order whose precise operation was opaque to those involved and beyond their capacity to influence. The only commonality was a professed conviction as to the inevitability of the unfolding of events. This state of affairs continued for some time. There were more than a few fatalities.
It should be of little surprise that the solution to this crisis had its origin in the very courtroom where it all began. The difference between the judge’s behavior and the rest of the town’s, was his affixing of what became known as ‘the determinant phrase’ to each of his declarations. Whenever making a decision or describing an action, he appended the phrase “as it was determined to be so” at the end of each sentence. He might say, “I sentence you to be hanged from the neck until you are dead, as it was determined to be so,” or in the bar, “I will spend the evening at home reading a crime novel, as it was determined to be so.” The use of the ‘determinant phrase’ spread quickly, and orderly life was soon restored. Whether the populace saw philosophical insight in the phrase, or whether they simply grew tired of the freedom from responsibility granted them by determinism, the practice of passive acquiescence to fate was dropped as quickly as it had begun.
Of course, the compulsively philosophical continued their debates even as the rest of the town moved on. Some argued that the determinant phrase was the only rational response to the truth of determinism; others argued it was merely a distraction for the philosophically confused. A few declared that since resuming ordinary behavior was in no way supported simply by the use of a phrase, its effect on the actions of the citizenry was rather an affirmation of the reality of choice – by irrationally choosing to alter their behavior in this way, the residents of the town were providing demonstrative proof of the falsity of determinism, through defiant acts of reasonableness. In any case, the town of M– quickly returned to ordinary life, and the infatuation with determinism was soon forgotten. Use of the determinant phrase continued for a while too, but it was soon abbreviated: the phrase “as it was determined to be so” became “as determined” which then became “as ‘twas.” Within a generation almost no one could remember what the phrase meant or why it was appended to their statements. A generation later it was dropped from common usage and forgotten completely.
© Kevin Heinrich 2016
Kevin Heinrich is a high school math teacher who once studied philosophy. He lives in Colorado, USA.