Existentialism and Determinism: Why Free Will is an Illusion, Too (and Why It Still Matters)

During class for the last few days, we’ve analyzed existentialism, a theory that purports that every concept humans use to justify “meaning” in their lives is actually a social construct — an illusion that is more likely to make us unhappy in the long run when it cracks apart. Rather, the only thing that can give meaning to life is life itself and the choices we make while living it.

I’d like to talk about another philosophical argument, determinism. While existentialism says that the freedom to make your own life is the most important thing you can possess, determinism argues that the idea of freedom or choice on a cosmic level is absurd. To be clear, I’m specifically speaking about secular determinism, not predestination: not the idea that a god or some other being wrote our fates for us, but that events are set in stone simply because of everything that has happened before.

The universe is made up of fundamental particles that act in mostly predictable interactions with each other based on mathematical principles. We humans, as well as everything else in the universe, are made up of these particles and act accordingly. Everything we do can be reduced to a set of interactions between the quarks and electrons that form our atoms that form our molecules that produce our chemical compounds that bond to each other in set ways. We don’t understand those interactions fully, but if someone magically knew the location and properties of every particle in the universe, it only stands to reason that they would be able to predict every interaction they would have, and thus every single event in the future.

Every action we take is guided by neurons in our brain attempting to make the optimal decision to perpetuate itself based on evolved tendencies and patterns memorized from our lives, and those cells exist because macromolecules tend to organize into cells, which is simply because cells are better at preserving themselves, which means they survive more often to pass on their behavior. Those molecules are combinations of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, et cetera bonding in predictable manners, which act that way because of their mathematical properties in certain fields that emerged at the universe’s creation.

Does this mean we don’t have free will? Well, it depends on what you define that as. Yes, we are essentially predictable beings. Yes, our actions are founded on small-scale interactions that we have no knowledge of or control over. In that sense, you are not in control of your own life, nor could you ever be.

On the other hand, secular determinism (or determinist existentialism) is one of the profoundest affirmations of free will — even if it’s “fake”. So what if your decisions are based on mathematical principles beyond any of our full understanding? They’re still your decisions. That collection of protons, neutrons, and electrons is you, and no one else. Take ownership of that existence and use it to chase your dreams. After all, those dreams are part of you, too — physically.

In this way, determinism isn’t so different from existentialism. The world’s events are already determined, but they’re also fundamentally absurd. It’s important not to confuse inevitability with meaning. None of these interactions inherently mean anything — which is important, because it means it isn’t someone writing your story for you. It’s just you.

Every decision is fundamentally predictable, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t make it. You were always going to act a certain way, but you were only ever going to act that way because of what makes you you. If someone else were inserted into the picture, they would act completely differently, because they’re not made of the same assemblage of matter that you are. (And how would they get inserted, anyway? You were always destined to be there.)

Your existence is unique. It’s a predefined moment in time and space that belongs to you and nobody else. So make it count.

One thought on “Existentialism and Determinism: Why Free Will is an Illusion, Too (and Why It Still Matters)

  1. Connor D

    I really like this. I’ve often found determinism much more depressing than existentialism; this take is one I’ve never heard before. I think you’re right that determinism and existentialism can go hand in hand depending on your view. The idea of your decisions, even if you have no real influence on them, are still decisions that you get to make and play out…that’s almost gratifying. I still am a bit uncomfortable with determinism, but reading this has made me realize that determinism has gotten just as bad a reputation as existentialism and that I should rethink my initial conceptions of it.


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