DETERMINISM: the principle that all events are planned and unavoidable

In the realm of philosophy there are two opposing principles which pop up in our lives on a regular basis:  determinism and free will. Just yesterday a very fine article by John Tierney, entitled “Do You Have Free Will? Yes, It’s the Only Choice” appeared in the Science Times section of the NYT. Tierney traces the formation of the arguments for and against the concept of determinism, which states that all events in our lives are pre-planned and are stimulated by facts from our previous life.

Tierney also points out the characteristics of Free Will, however, indicating that most of society depends upon the validity of it, especially when relating it to the law and one’s culpability in legal situations.   The point being made is that ultimately, regardless of the stimuli that precede an action, a person must be held responsible for the actions (he) undertakes, they having been a product of choice, or free will. One’s knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, and one’s strength in maintaining the boundary between them, determines whether a person chooses to undertake an action.  Culpability cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of pre-determined factors.

This, however, is not a clear case of black and white distinctions.   A person’s choices are affected by the environment in which (he) is raised, the influence of impressionable adults during the formative years, and mental and emotional stability, which either allow or disallow an action which is immoral or illegal.

Theologically, this discussion was particularly relevant in the formation of contemporary American Protestant thinking.   The Presbyterian Church, to be specific, held that predestination prevailed, the belief that all our lives were ordered and pre-planned.    The individual had little, if any, control over the outcome of  (his) life; God had taken care of that.   Opposing theological premises held that God had invested humankind with free will, forcing a Christian to choose between or among varying options, exercising (his) best judgment, based upon knowledge of the teachings of the Church, the wisdom of the Bible, and one’s inspiration by the Holy Spirit.   To be truthful, contemporary Protestant thinking comes down someplace between these two vying beliefs, edging toward the free will end of this .  Even well-disciplined Presbyterians are hesitant to play the predestination card these days.

Determinism tends to allow the individual some leeway in moral and ethical decisions, considering that those decisions are, pretty much, decided in advance.    Free Will, however, places a huge obligation upon the individual, acknowledging that the choices made are “freely” made without dependence upon prior determinations.

There is a great deal of speculation these days regarding the influence of environment, family influence, such issues as drugs and alcohol, and newly-acknowledged issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   These, it is felt, can be deterministic, trumping one’s free will. The jury is out on the final decision, and the decisions tend to be treated in a case-by-case manner, rejecting (for now) precedence as a final factor.

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