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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > D > Determinism

Determinism

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Determinism is a name employed by writers, especially since J. Stuart Mill, to denote the philosophical theory which holds — in opposition to the doctrine of free will — that all man's volitions are invariably determined by pre-existing circumstances. It may take diverse forms, some cruder, some more refined. Biological and materialistic Determinism maintains that each of our voluntary acts finds its sufficient and complete cause in the physiological conditions of the organism. Psychological Determinism ascribes efficiency to the psychical antecedents. In this view each volition or act of choice is determined by the character of the agent plus the motives acting on him at the time. Advocates of this theory, since Mill, usually object to the names, Necessarianism and Fatalism, on the ground that these words seem to imply some form of external compulsion, whilst they affirm only the fact of invariable sequence or uniform causal connectedness between motives and volition. Opposed to this view is the doctrine of Indeterminism, or what perhaps may more accurately be called Anti-determinism, which denies that man is thus invariably determined in all his acts of choice. This doctrine has been stigmatized by some of its opponents as the theory of "causeless volition", or "motiveless choice"; and the name Indeterminism, is possibly not the best selection to meet the imputation. The objection is, however, not justified. The Anti-determinists, while denying that the act of choice is always merely the resultant of the assemblage of motives playing on the mind, teach positively that the Ego, or Self, is the cause of our volitions; and they describe it as a "free" or "self-determining" cause. The presence of some reason or motive, they ordinarily hold, is a necessary condition for every act of free choice, but they insist that the Ego can decide between motives. Choice is not, they maintain, uniformly determined by the pleasantest or the worthiest motive or collection of motives. Nor is it the inevitable consequent of the strongest motive, except in that tautological sense in which the word strongest simply signifies that motive which as a matter of fact prevails. Determinism and the denial of free will seem to be a logical consequence of all monistic hypotheses. They are obviously involved in all materialistic theories. For Materialism of every type necessarily holds that every incident in the history of the universe is the inevitable outcome of the mechanical and physical movements and changes which have gone before. But Determinism seems to be an equally necessary consequence of monistic Idealism. Indeed the main argument against monistic and pantheistic systems will always be the fact of free will. Self-determination implies separateness of individuality and independence in each free agent, and thus entails a pluralistic conception of the universe. (See DUALISM; MONISM.) In spite of the assertions of Determinists, no true logical distinction can be made between their view and that of Fatalism. In both systems each of my volitions is as inexorably fated, or pre-determined, in the past conditions of the universe as the movements of the planets or the tides. The opponents of Determinism usually insist on two lines of argument, the one based on the consciousness of freedom in the act of deliberate choice, the other on the incompatibility of Determinism with our fundamental moral convictions. The notions of responsibility, moral obligation, merit, and the like, as ordinarily understood, would be illusory if Determinism were true. The theory is in fact fatal to ethics, as well as to the notion of sin and the fundamental Christian belief that we can merit both reward and punishment. (See FREE WILL; ETHICS; FATALISM.)


About this page

APA citation. Maher, M. (1908). Determinism. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04756c.htm

MLA citation. Maher, Michael. "Determinism." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04756c.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Rick McCarty.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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