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Everything That Happens Is Inevitable

Explains in simple language why everything that happens is inevitable, and why this doesn’t imply Fatalism, or mean that we’re mindless puppets. But acceptance of this belief does weaken the powerful grip of destructive feelings of regret, shame and guilt, of blame and bitterness, of resentment and revenge.


  • Introduction
  • WHY is Everything Inevitable?
  • Rejecting Inevitability Means Rejecting Cause and Effect
  • Inevitability and 20th Century Science
  • Accidents
    "But . . . We're Free to Act As We Wish"
  • We are not compelled to act as we do
  • Behaviour Determined By Factors Other Than What We Want to Do
  • Does Inevitability Dictate an Attitude of Fatalism and Apathy?
  • Inevitability and Commonsense
  • Does Inevitability change the meaning of the words "free to act as we wish"?
  • Do We Have to Change Our Moral Attitudes and Values?
  • The Practical Value of A Belief in Inevitability



We instinctively reject the idea that everything that happens is pre-determined and inevitable, but this essay explains the simple and compelling reasons why it's true. These reasons are easy to understand. But for many intelligent and thoughtful people the idea is at first sight so obviously inconsistent with experience and commonsense, and its consequences so distressing, that they feel sure it must be wrong. And so they find it difficult to consider the matter with an open mind. My main purpose in this brief essay is to show why these immediate reactions to the idea are mistaken, and to deal with its practical consequences for everyday life.

This belief in inevitability [philosophers call it "determinism"] is based on experience and reason; it's not the ancient mystical superstition of Fatalism. It doesn't mean that the course of our lives isn't influenced by our actions; that we're mere mindless helpless puppets, mechanically going through the motions of a playscript written by someone else.
But the idea of inevitability is so much at odds with our customary ways of thinking that its acceptance does seem to call for modifications to many of our common beliefs and feelings. Pride in our achievements, shame at our failures, and guilt for our misdeeds - some of our deepest emotions lose much of their bite if the course of our lives is inevitably pre-determined. And we re-consider our attitudes to crime and punishment when we believe that wicked deeds are inevitable long before they're committed.
But first:
WHY is Everything Inevitable? 

The idea of inevitability arises from thinking about cause and effect. In everyday life we find that nothing happens without a cause, and that (other things being equal) the same cause inevitably produces the same effect. When I drop a stone, it inevitably falls. When I put the kettle on and light the gas, it inevitably boils. If I forget to light the gas, the kettle inevitably doesn't boil. The idea of inevitability is an essential part of our idea of cause and effect; if we say that a cause produces a certain effect, we mean that it's inevitably followed by the effect, as long as nothing interferes with the process.

If the usual effect doesn't follow a given cause, we're surprised and assume that other causes have interfered with the expected result. But no-one would ever assume that the unexpected result had occurred without any cause at all, even if they were unable to discover what the actual cause had been.
Now causes are themselves the effects of prior causes, and thus causes and effects form a "chain of events" occurring in a sequence. In general, events aren't determined by a single cause but by many causes. And similarly, causes don't usually have only one effect, but many. So a sequence of causes and effects is really a complex pattern of causal inter-relationships. We can think of it as a web-like structure, the threads being causal relationships, and the joins being causes and effects. Many "cause-threads" run forward in time from several causes into a single effect following them. This effect is also a cause of several subsequent effects, and therefore many other "cause-threads" spring forward from this effect to join many subsequent effects. When we can isolate such a sequence of events from interference, the whole sequence proceeds inevitably from the initial causes to the final effects.
When interference does occur, the otherwise inevitable sequence is disturbed. But this doesn't upset our ideas of cause and effect. It's just that another cause or causes must be added to the sequence of events. With the disturbing causes included in the enlarged structure of causal relationships, the web is complete and the inevitable progression takes place from initial causes to final effects. We can broaden the web of causes and effects further and further, until we eventually include everything that happens. When we've done this, then of course no interference can occur, because all possible causes, and therefore all possible causal relationships, are included in the web. This universal structure of events and causal relationships stretches forward from all past events to all present events, and from all present events to all future events.
At any moment the world can be thought of as the sum total of all the events occurring and all the conditions existing at that moment. And the history of the world can be thought of in terms of a continuous sequence of these very complex instantaneous states, each separated by a fraction of a second. Now the events which occur in the physical world are determined by prior conditions in accordance with ascertainable physical laws. Thus, all the events and conditions at any instant are determined in accordance with these laws by the conditions existing at the previous instant. Each instantaneous state can be thought of as the complex cause of a complex effect which is the state at the next instant.
History is an inevitable progression from each state to the next, and the whole course of events is determined by the state of the world at this moment (or at any past moment in history). Every event that has ever occurred on earth, every event that ever will occur, was pre-determined by the state of the universe long before the earth came into being. The old image is appropriate: history as a book that has already been written, lying open at today's page, with a pointer moving inevitably from word to word.
So the argument for inevitability (often called "determinism") is fairly simple. The problems only arise when we start to think about how it seems to conflict with our everyday experience, and about the consequences of accepting it. The purpose of this essay is to deal with these problems.

Rejecting Inevitability Means Rejecting Cause and Effect
What would be the implication of rejecting this argument? It would mean that an event could take place without a cause or causes, or that it was only partly, but not completely, pre-determined by prior causes. The question which immediately springs to our minds here is this: "If the event wasn't completely determined by prior causes, why did it happen - what did cause it? Or if it were partly, but not completely pre-determined, what tipped the balance in the direction of what actually happened?" Now this is of course a meaningless question, for if it could have an answer, the answer would be some kind of prior cause. But if causes are ruled out, then the actual outcome would have to have occurred purely "at random". But as we have already discussed, the idea that a specific event has occurred purely at random, i.e. without a cause, is something we reject on the basis of experience. We simply attribute unexpected events to unknown or unexpected causes. 


Inevitability and 20th Century Science


The learned occasionally object that twentieth century Physics has revealed that many events on a sub-atomic scale can only be understood on the hypothesis that an event can occur without a cause. They think that this must undermine the basis of determinism. I remind them that Physics doesn't suggest that this hypothesis ever affects events on the scale of everyday human experience.


Some people wonder whether determinism is undermined by Chaos Theory [a topic in mathematics dealing with some processes which are too complex to enable accurate prediction to be practicable].  It does not.  The processes being considered are completely determined by the causal laws applicable to them.  Future situations and occurrences in those processes are predetermined.  It's just that actual prediction of those outcomes is not practicable.


Now many events in everyday life are unexpected and they often seem purely accidental. These accidental events sometimes affect the courses of our lives, or indeed of human history, very significantly. And this is one of the main reasons why we instinctively reject the idea of determinism. But if we could carefully examine, in detail, all the events leading up to the unexpected occurrence, we could then see the inevitable chains of cause and effect converging upon the eventual outcome. We don't usually do this, and therefore we mistakenly feel that accidents are real determinants of the course of events. But very occasionally we do examine the prior causes of an unexpected event in this way, and then our initial reaction of surprise is seen to have been a mistaken response due to ignorance of the full facts.


"But . . . We're Free to Act As We Wish"
One reason for our instinctive rejection of determinism is the fact that we're always free to act in any one of many alternative ways, whereas determinism implies that only one action is a real possibility for each of us at any given time. Furthermore, since each alternative action of ours could produce a different outcome, our freedom of action seems to imply an indeterminacy for all the future events which depend on our present actions or the actions of others. If our actions, and the events affected by them, are pre-determined and inevitable, then this seems to imply that we're compelled to do what we in fact do. And clearly our behaviour is not compelled in this way.
However, human behaviour is determined by laws of cause and effect just exactly as are all other events. We eat because we're hungry and rest because we're tired. We put the heater on because it's cold and put up an umbrella because it's raining. As we've already discussed, the idea that we'd do anything without any cause, just doesn't occur to us. And although we still have much to learn about the laws determining human behaviour, there's a very great deal we do know and take for granted in our daily lives. We call upon this knowledge to understand and explain our own actions and those of others. And much of our behaviour is based on our expectations of how others will respond to certain actions and situations; these rough "predictions" are made on the basis of our experience of the laws of human behaviour. For example, we expect people to try to escape from danger, to eat when they're hungry, to be annoyed when they're frustrated. And we expect people we know to behave "in character". 
At any given moment we're usually motivated by many different forces. And when these motives conflict, the strongest combination of forces wins, and causes us to act accordingly. Perhaps physical desires dominate, perhaps emotional needs, perhaps duty or pity or love. What determines which one? Is it sheer chance? Of course not. Sometimes it may feel like it, but of course the combination of motives that wins is simply the strongest, that's all. It's strongest immediately before we act, and that's why we act in accordance with it. We inevitably behave in accordance with the causes, i.e. the motivational forces, existing outside us and within us, at that moment. The complex pattern of external and internal motivation does imply only one possible response. Our conviction that at any given moment several alternative actions are all real possibilities is mistaken.


We are not compelled to act as we do

When faced with the above argument we insist that we don't feel compelled to act as we do. Our actions just don't feel inevitably determined by motivational forces within us and outside us. On the contrary, we feel free to decide what we're going to do and to act as we choose.
Just what do we mean by this? What would it feel like, what do we expect it would feel like, if our actions were  inevitably determined? We expect it to feel as if we were somehow irresistibly compelled to act as we do. We think it would feel like being locked inside a robot remotely controlled by someone else, a robot which is moving irresistibly and forcing us to move with it. Perhaps we think it would feel like being subject to irresistible post-hypnotic suggestion against our own wishes, or to the dictates of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I want to explain just why these expectations are wrong. 
Firstly, being "compelled" to act is being made to do something by forces outside ourselves. But if I'm very hungry and someone places a delicious roast chicken in front of me, it doesn't make much sense to say I'm "compelled" to eat. If an attractive woman suggests huskily that a quiet evening at her flat would be more enjoyable than dinner and a show, a man wouldn't feel compelled to accept her suggestion. The point is that a great deal of our motivation at any moment springs from forces within us, and acting in accordance with our own conscious desires is not compulsion. Our thoughts, feelings and actions are "being controlled", but the major controlling forces are our own desires, thoughts and feelings. We're not mindless puppets controlled by someone elseWe are doing the controlling. 
We know exactly what it feels like to be motivated to do something. We've all been hungry or tired and have acted to satisfy these needs. Being aware of what we want to do is simply our experience of the complex of motivational forces we're subject to (at least, those we're aware of). And the experience of doing what we want to do is precisely what it feels like to behave in accordance with these motivational forces controlling our behaviour. Or putting it the other way round, acting in response to the motivational forces which inevitably determine our behaviour does not , as we expected, feel like being compelled to act as we do. On the contrary, it feels like, is in fact what we call, complete freedom to act exactly as we want to act.
So we are free to act as we choose. That's just saying we're free to act as we're motivated to act. But this is simply the freedom to do what it's inevitable we will do. So the freedom to do whatever we want to do isn't inconsistent with the fact that there's only one action which is a real possibility for us at any particular time.

Of course, we could always have acted differently if we had wanted to do so. But this is irrelevant to the issue. Determinism doesn't imply that we couldn't have acted differently if we'd wanted to do so. It implies that what we want to do is inevitably determined, by prior causes. We couldn't have wanted to do otherwise. 


Behaviour Determined By Factors Other Than What We Want to Do

It's incidental, but perhaps we should here remind ourselves that much of our everyday behaviour isn't a result of conscious consideration and deliberate choice. It happens without us thinking about it. Our attention is elsewhere. The question of freedom of choice is in fact irrelevant to nearly all our actions. The inevitable cause-and-effect processes of motivation and response often occur "automatically" outside our awareness. And even when we are (often only vaguely) aware of them, often it's almost as outside observers of a process going on without our intervention. 

Is it relevant that we don't always do what we "want" to do, because we're often motivated by what we think of as other external or internal forces? The external forces may include the desires and demands of others, and the social pressures of customs and laws and other rules and practices. The internal pressures may include those of conscience and the internalised dictates of our society or our social groups. 
And many of the most powerful elements of our motivation are unconscious. We're unaware of them or of their intensity. When we speak of "what we want to do", we're referring only to those motives we know about. Our customary concept of ourselves and our motives includes only the ideas and feelings we're aware of. The unconscious ideas and feelings are outside what we normally think of as "ourselves".
We act in accordance with the net result of all the motivational forces acting on us, external and internal, conscious and unconscious, not just those we think of as "what we want to do". It's this net result which inevitably determines what we in fact do.


Does Inevitably Dictate an Attitude of Fatalism and Apathy?

As I said at the outset, Fatalism is the mystical superstition that what happens in human lives is pre-determined and inescapable no matter what we do or fail to do. This implies that we might as well give up any effort to achieve private or community goals; because the future is inevitably determined, any exertion or self-denial on our part is pointless and unnecessary.

The differences between this belief and Determinism will now be clear. Determinism is a reasoned belief not a mystical superstition. We've seen why we're free to act as we choose despite the fact that everything that happens is inevitable.  And these choices and actions are major determinants of the course of our lives and sometimes of the lives of others. We are to this extent in control of our future lives. 
For example, if I give up work, then my income will certainly fall. If I persistently give way to a craving for chocolate and cream cakes, I'll certainly put on weight. Whether or not I grow poor or plump are inevitably pre-determined. But they aren't pre-determined independently of prior causes, i.e. independently of my actions, and I'd be ill-advised to act as if they were. On the contrary, these outcomes are determined by my actions. They are inevitably pre-determined only because what I want to do, what I decide to do, and what I actually do - my future industry and will-power (or lack of them), the prior causes which determine future outcomes, are also inevitable.
The fact of the inevitability of our actions and their outcomes is simply irrelevant to any decision on what to do. The fact that what we are about to do is in fact pre-determined, JUST DOESN'T MAKE ANY DIFFERENCE. 
So determinism doesn't dictate a fatalistic attitude to the future. But it does dictate a fatalistic attitude to the past. If by next year I am poor or overweight, it'll then make sense to shrug and say: "It could not have been otherwise."


Inevitability and Commonsense

Faced with the above discussion, intelligent people may feel: "No matter what you say, my commonsense tells me you're wrong"

How are we to cope with this reaction? The idea of inevitability is so unfamiliar that even the most convincing explanation still leaves us feeling uncomfortable. 
We have to face the fact that our intuitive commonsense and our understanding of our experience may not be infallible. I hesitate to even suggest this, because when we deviate from commonsense and experience we're in danger of straying into irrational mysticism, pseudo-science or quackery, or into self-deception. So if ever we consider this course we must be extremely cautious and sceptical. But in some areas we do find compelling reasons to modify our accepted notions. 
For example, commonsense tells us that that the familiar objects of our everyday experience are as real and solid as they appear, whereas experimental observations show that on the contrary they consist almost entirely of a vacuum containing a sparse scattering of sub-microscopic entities. Commonsense tells us that if that was what solid objects were like, they wouldn't look and feel and behave as they do, but commonsense is wrong here. We have found equally good reasons to modify commonsense ideas about inevitability.
Commonsense is fairly inflexible. It's very difficult to modify our commonsense beliefs. But it's not impossible. Before Copernicus and Galileo it was intuitive commonsense that the earth was the centre of the solar system. But they said this was wrong; the sun was the centre of the Solar System. At first this idea seemed absurd and disturbing (because of its apparent implications for religion and Man's place in the universe). Copernicus didn't dare publish his theory until the year he died; Galileo was forced to recant under threat of torture. But the idea has gradually become generally accepted. In our own day, New Age beliefs and cults are proof that commonsense beliefs can be amended even more completely.
Any new idea which is greatly at odds with our customary ways of thinking takes a lot of getting used to. If the reasons for accepting it are compelling, we may think about it a good deal. The more we think about it, the more it becomes familiar. As it becomes more familiar, as we get used to it, it becomes less shocking; it produces less anxiety; we become more comfortable with it. We become more and more able to consider it on its merits, and after a while we just take it for granted. That's what happens with the idea of inevitability. 


Does inevitability change the meaning of the words "free to act as we wish"?

Part of the very essence of our notion of "being free to act as we wish" is the idea that at any moment, many alternative actions (with their alternative future consequences) are all REAL possibilities. It's understood that if we're free to act as we wish, our actions are not inevitably predetermined.

But we now have to accept the unaccustomed fact that although we are free to act as we wish, although we are not compelled to act as we in fact do act, only one of the many alternative actions is a REAL possibility. 

When we accept determinism, this changes part of what we mean when we use the phrase "free to act as we choose" and what we understand when we hear and read it. The phrase doesn't become meaningless, it still means that we are free to act as we wish, and that we're not compelled to act as we in fact do act. But it no longer means (to us) that many alternative actions are all REAL possibilities. 

Acceptance of determinism similarly changes what the words "accident" and "responsible" mean to us.  An "accident" becomes an event which, though inevitable, was unexpected.   The word "responsible" retains the idea of being one of the causes of an event, but its moral associations are changed.  I deal with this in more detail in the following section and in my essay on morality.
There's nothing unusual about these changes in meaning. As our beliefs and attitudes change there is always a (gradual) corresponding change in the meanings of words associated with those beliefs and attitudes.


Do We Have to Change Our Moral Attitudes and Values?

Feelings of pride, shame or guilt, feelings of gratitude or resentment towards others, the desire to reward or punish, to praise or blame, all lose their bite if we believe that actions and their consequences are inevitably pre-determined. 

But acceptance of determinism doesn't mean that we completely abandon our customary moral concepts and feelings, including our ideas about Law and Justice.
Socialisation, education and personal development can't be achieved without rewards and sanctions to teach and reinforce values and rules (including those of law). Social life, in groups ranging from the family to the state, would be unimaginably poorer, and probably impossible, without them. Even animals need them and use them for these purposes. 
So although our customary moral attitudes and beliefs are inconsistent with inevitability, the use of rewards and sanctions must continue. And these rewards and sanctions generate our moral feelings such as pride and guilt and shame, and the moral concepts of right and wrong which accompany them. These customary ideas and feelings motivate or inhibit actions to produce desirable results, even though they begin to break down under careful scrutiny.
Acceptance of determinism does weaken this structure of ideas and feelings. But for most of us, the structure is very firmly rooted. Such well established mental structures don't automatically change just because our beliefs change. [Freud misled us there.] We're emotional animals as well as rational animals - irrational feelings are an essential part of being human. 
What about our attitudes to Criminal Law? Isn't it unjust, or even wrong, to punish a criminal if his crime was inevitable? I suggest that because of the ideas we've been discussing, the idea of justice is confused and unhelpful. As we've already noted, society can't work without rewards and sanctions. And the Criminal Law can be based upon practical objectives such as protection of the public, deterrence, rehabilitation and reparation. There's simply no need for it to be based upon notions of punishment and revenge, which are very human, but in great part counter- productive. 


The Practical Value of A Belief in Inevitability

Determinism has great practical value in everyday life. These benefits derive from the way real understanding and acceptance of this belief can help us to weaken the grip of self-destructive thoughts and feelings. Counsellors and self-help books wisely advise us to try to put away corrosive thoughts and feelings of regret, shame and guilt, of blame and bitterness, of resentment and revenge. We all know how these thoughts and feelings can destroy our peace of mind. When things have gone wrong, and especially when they've gone tragically wrong, the knowledge that what happened was inevitable really helps us to bear the pain. It weakens the powerful grip of destructive feelings. This makes it easier to accept what's happened and resign oneself to the consequences. And acceptance and resignation can bring solace and serenity. We can then make the best of it and go on from there.


© Barry Simons 2011
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