The recent history of humanity can generally be summarised as the gradual abandonment of religious belief and its replacement with the infallibility of science. Humans now understand far more about how the world works, how we work and how the cosmos works. However, science appears to be coming full circle and occupying the same space religion used to.
Theological determinism – this refers to the belief that all events that occur are preordained by God and were always going to happen. Christians refer to this as divine providence. It is the idea that anything that happens to us is not just a random occurrence but is part of a larger plan that we cannot begin to fathom. All major monotheistic religions – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – subscribe to some form of theological determinism. The extent, temperature and severity of determinism in different religious sects vary and determinism can be further sub-divided into even more specific categories but it is undeniable that, since the death of Christ, determinism has been a significant feature of human life.
In recent centuries a number of phenomena ended determinism’s hold on the human race: the scientific revolution, and the rise of free will and rational thought. The scientific revolution loosened the hold religion had on humanity, particularly in the West. Through a better understanding of the intricacies of life and the enormity of the universe, humans have come to accept the overwhelming randomness of our existence. Indeed, in the Western world, free will is enshrined in many a constitution, it makes up the very fabric of Western society.
Science, however, has a tendency to develop quickly and without restraint. Whilst the main monotheistic religions imposed tradition and consistency for many a century, science seeks and indeed, thrives off the next big development. The product of this is a point in scientific development where science comes to resemble religion so closely it is uncanny.
Causal determinism in science relates to the process by which every physical process, is related to and caused by the step before. This means that any human reaction to any stimulus will inevitably have a reaction that is explainable by science and therefore, since the start of time, each reaction has been the opposite of random. Furthermore, most mathematical systems are deterministic, and indeed, mathematics form the backbone of the existence of the universe.
Perhaps, more interestingly, is the appearance of simulation theory in public discourse. Simulation theory, championed by philosopher Nick Bostrom, has captivated the minds of many great innovators such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates. The beauty of simulation theory is that it is very difficult to argue against. It begins with a question: do you believe that in the future (near or far), humanity will have developed technology that is advanced enough to simulate human life so closely that it is indistinguishable from real life? Many people living in this day and age would struggle to say no, considering the pace of human development. So, if you believe that future human populations will have developed this technology then you cannot feasibly argue that we are not simply living in a simulation right now, a simulation run by future generations.
So, what can explain the human tendency to return to a belief in determinism? What social benefits does determinism have that make it favourable to the randomness of free will and cosmological chaos? Perhaps the answer lies in many of the social ills which plague Western society today: depression, anxiety, even anorexia which, many argue, stems from a loss or absence of control. These conditions are a product of a lack of determinism, anxiety in particular. What is there to be anxious about in a world where everyone knows that their future is pre-ordained and that all events, good or bad, are part of a master plan that we cannot begin to fathom? There is safety and comfort in the idea that my free will is subservient to something much larger and much wiser.
It is no surprise that people often find refuge in religion, a refuge from the trials and tribulations of daily life. I argue that the very nature of this refuge is a belief that, although things are bad now, they are part of a superior master plan which must be intrinsically good.
Written by Claire Harris