Determinism and indeterminism

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-Q025-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 14, 2024, from

1. Consensus

Over the centuries, the doctrine of determinism has been understood, and its truth or falsity assessed, in different ways. (We follow the nearly universal practice of taking ‘indeterminism’ as simply the negation of determinism; so our discussion can focus on determinism.) Since the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century, it has been commonly understood as the ‘law of universal causation’, that every event has a cause; or as the predictability, in principle, of all of the future, given full knowledge of the present.

What evidence a philosopher takes to count for or against this doctrine varies immensely from one philosopher to another, according to their philosophical project. For example, many assess determinism in the light of their opinions about such metaphysical topics as free will or God (see Free will; Omniscience §3). Others see connections between determinism and broadly logical topics about time (see Many-valued logics, philosophical issues in §1). But this entry is restricted to formulating determinism, and assessing whether it is true, by considering the deliverances of physical theory. Of course, this restriction does not mean that our discussion only applies to wholly secular philosophers: many theistic philosophers, for example Kant, have discussed determinism in terms of the physics of their day. Some have even endorsed it, as part of their philosophy of nature; again Kant provides the outstanding example (see Kant, I. §7).

Making this restriction, we can say that since the seventeenth century, philosophers have typically taken their current best physical theory as their guide to the truth of determinism. And during the second half of this period, there has been a remarkable consensus about what that best theory is, and what it indicates about determinism.

During the nineteenth century, most of the educated public took Newtonian mechanics, and especially the Newtonian theory of gravitation, to be their best physical theory. Indeed, many took it to be an unrevisable foundation for physical theorizing. At its simplest, the idea was that Newton had laid down in his mechanics a schema for the mechanical explanation of the physical world. The schema was encapsulated in Newton’s second law, that the force on a body is equal to its mass times its acceleration. Knowing the force and the mass, one could calculate the acceleration, and thus how the body moved. So to get a mechanical explanation of a given phenomenon, one had only to ‘fill in the schema’ by finding the forces involved. The paradigm case was of course gravitation; here Newton himself had discovered the nature of the force, and had calculated with stunning success how the planets and other celestial bodies move. Accordingly, many believed that Newtonian mechanics could in principle describe any phenomenon, perhaps by postulating strange forces (see Mechanics, classical §2).

They also believed that all the theories that could arise by thus filling in the schema would be deterministic; for the motion of a body would be determined by the forces on it (together with its initial position and velocity). The locus classicus for this view is a passage by Laplace, in which he not only states the doctrine that Newtonian mechanics is deterministic, but also provides formulations of determinism – first, in terms of causation, and then in terms of prediction; we shall later have reason to criticize both the doctrine and the formulations.

We ought then to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its anterior state and as the cause of the one which is to follow. Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis – it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atom; for it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes. The human mind offers, in the perfection which it has been able to give to astronomy, a feeble idea of such an intelligence.

(Laplace [1820] 1951: 4)

During the twentieth century, quantum theory and relativity theory became our best physical theories; by 1930, they had superseded classical physics. Since these theories are comparatively new and technically demanding, they have not become part of ‘educated common sense’ in the way in which Newtonian theories did (at least eventually, say by the mid-nineteenth century). But most philosophers who have addressed the topic have concluded that while relativity theory is deterministic, quantum theory is indeterministic. Indeterminism is taken to be the lesson of the much-cited uncertainty principle. This conclusion also has authority on its side: the great majority of the discoverers of quantum theory endorse it. So philosophers have typically come to the tentative conclusion that determinism is false.

Citing this article:
Butterfield, Jeremy. Consensus. Determinism and indeterminism, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q025-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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