Thursday, June 7, 2012

Thinking with a deterministic perspective

One thing I’ve noticed is that people like to feel that they have control over their situation. People love to feel like they have correctly assessed their lives and have taken the necessary steps to make beneficial decisions. I sometimes sense an attitude of complacency, even arrogance from some people.  Some of us like to pat ourselves on the back, realizing that we’ve avoided the pit-falls that the unsuccessful masses have succumbed to.  “If only these losers would make better choices.” we readily lament with an air of judgmental ostentation.  “Just World Phenomenon” comes out in our thinking.

 I do accept determinism. Well, to a degree, I guess. It is true that we don’t yet know how much quantum randomness would effect the deterministic prospect. While I do think that for the most part choice is an illusion—I still believe that education opens the door to improved decision making. Furthermore, when a person is given the opportunity to experience motivation, their outlook may change which might increase their perception of options which they could then pursue. This succession of events might end up benefitting their lives—taking their lives down another pathway that they wouldn’t have come down otherwise. I don’t think the free-will vs. determinism debate is even roughly solved, but I do lean more on the side of determinism.

The reason I’m even spouting this half-baked response is because I’ve seen an abundance of information claiming that “If only people pulled up their pants and slapped on a positive attitude, if only they would make the effort to seek a higher paying job, by all means, they could attain it”. We commonly hear, “It’s all in the attitude. It’s all about keeping a positive outlook.”  Also, there seems to be an unbridled obsession with “Karma”.  Books like “The Secret” abound. There seems to be so much emphasis on the personal choices of the individual as if such choices and “positive energy” would decrease the expansion of the Sahara.

While such “positive thinking” advice might have its place, it certainly does seem like these hackneyed phrases prevail. Simplistic, black and white thinking emerges. Empowered by these platitudes, financially successful, healthy people can smugly think that they are better than other people. They might look at other people through the lens of their own circumstances and simply assume “the poor masses make bad decisions intentionally and therefore deserve their plight of poverty and a destitute life”.

Let us never forget the fact that our financial success as a human being first and foremost depends upon which geographical location on planet earth we were born—a factor we had absolutely no choice or influence upon in the first place.

Another factor that you had no control of was the family that you were born into and whether they were wealthy, poor or middle class. These factors would influence how you were raised—whether your nutritional needs were met and whether your basic physical development was healthy. Of course, we are not even addressing psychological and intellectual development here—which are taken for granted by those privileged to be born with parents who have psychological health and have had the opportunity to obtain a college degree (education).

There are so many variables to the quality and experience of your life of which you have absolutely no control of. It seems simplistic, limited thinking that takes for granted this enormous number of variables that exist outside one’s control—that exist outside the ambit of one’s sphere of choice. Only a cocky, arrogant person would attribute the successes in their lives to their own doing, to the appropriate choices they’ve made “independently”—I hate that word because really, we are interdependent.

We all like to analyze the choices someone else has made and think, “If only so and so would have done X instead of Y they would have gotten so much farther along, they wouldn’t have made this or that blunder (which would have been presumably worse than another blunder that they also could have made had they made another decision).

I think it is extremely critical to have a modest level of self confidence in oneself and one’s achievements. Too high—but rarely, too low—throws you off balance and gives you an inaccurate representation of yourself and of the world you actually live in.  It is easy to inflate the self and the self’s accomplishments, but never forget the litany of assistance you had.

Did your parents go to college and achieve degrees so they had more knowledge to dispense into your brain as you grew up —especially during those formative childhood years? Mine didn’t and I remember feeling—quite often actually—like  I had to struggle to learn so much on my own and that I missed out on information that could have been sealed in my brain years I had so many gaps in my understanding compared to the other children. Speaking of ignorance, I had to explain to my Mother this evening what "R & B" music stands for.

This all doesn’t mean I was disadvantaged. I still lived in America with plenty of access to libraries and I had the opportunity to attend a public school for free (primary and secondary education costs money in Africa). ! Did your parents pay for your college tuition?    My parents did not pay for mine or my brother’s college education but that still doesn’t mean that I’m not privileged. Again, I was born in America—a first world nation with extraordinary opportunity and access to loans, grants, and scholarships (and jobs to pay off our debt) compared to other developing nations.   

While we might be relishing in our achievements, we really should be thinking how lucky we are that the natural order of events unraveled so remarkably well for us. We should find ways to extend a hand to others.


  1. It's what you do with what you have that makes you a hero or a bum or just another joe. The environment only sets boundary and initial conditions, the will defines the path...I think.

  2. Yes! Exactly! While I do believe in the power of positive thinking to a point, luck has a lot to do with it, too. I'd also like to add that the sad fact is that we're leaning toward particular "soft skill" sets that can't be necessarily taught, or that people struggle with, and our system penalizes those without them regardless of whether or not they can do the job. It also doesn't help that the system is gamed so that power protects itself, and very rarely do people, even in America, move up in economic class.

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  4. Thank you for more food for thought.

    Cleanthes, the Stoic, used the simile that a man is like a dog tied to a cart; while the cart is travelling in the direction he wishes to go, he may wander and feel genuinely free, but should the cart change direction and the leash go tight, he has no choice but to follow.

    Given that, over the last century, our own great grand-, grand-parents and parents would have witnessed, and perhaps been overwhelmed, as the cart turned through the Great Depression, world wars and the threat of nuclear annihilation, don't these simplistic proclamations that having a positive mental attitude will improve your position seem silly and trite by comparison!

    PS. No book recommendations this time! Don't wish to be known as 'the book dude'!

    1. :) Yes, they really do!

      I went to the library to find that book you had suggested but they didn't have it. since then I encountered someone else who randomly suggested that I read the *SAME* book you suggested. He plans to lend me it the next time I see him.

    2. That's great news. When you do read it, I really hope that you enjoy it; it certainly made a big impression on my own outlook on life, especially this counterpoint between freedom and living life with 'responsibleness'.

      Looking forward to your next blog!

  5. A friend of mine from my home town has had a hard time trying to get a job of any kind. He even has training in machine work but no one is hiring him. It is also hard for him to move out since you need money to get a place to live. it seems no matter how much he tries he has no such luck. Every job he finds has always been temporary or they let him go. That was a few months ago and I have not heard from him sense. It may not help that he has becoem cynical over the years but he does what he can to help his parents out. All I can do is give him encouragement. Last time I met him he says that there are some job opportunities for him at some center.

    I believe that life is a combination of personal interaction with outside interactions that can work for or agianst you. As you say everyone is interdependent on each other. Some more time remove from you then others. When people tell me for example that nature/fate/god etc will give me a girlfriend it bothers me. Does't this take away any meaning for either of us to interact for good and for ill? Sure this may sound comforting at first but if we met on fate what is the point? Sorry if my rant makes no sense. I'll clarify for those who ask.

  6. Happily, determinism only works if time is linear, and unidirectional. If it isn't, all bets are off. For instance, if all time exists at the same time, and our perception is the only thing that is actually linear, then all choices/decisions were made at the same time, and therefore have no particular causal relationship, except in our minds. This allows each choice/decision to be a free choice/decision as it is not merely produced by what went before. This might even allow infinite choice.

    One way that this might work would be for time to actually be a multi-dimensional entity, of which we are only capable of viewing one, or more, dimensions. We would be equivalent to flatlanders, except our lack of perception would concern time. Our lack of perception would also be what makes some of us determinists, not being able to believe in time events that we cannot perceive.

    This circumstance could, if it is actually true, be one of the reasons that religious people believe. We might be living in what they perceive, subconsciously, as the mind of god. Omnipresent, omniscient, but not omnipotent, in our linear perception, because no change is ever possible. Because all changes, choices, and decisions, happened at the same time, our view of time is the only thing that changes.