The following is an essay I wrote in 2001 while a student at Cornell University. It was for my class on extraterrestrial biology and the search for life.


Bill Pottle




Consequences of Determinism


What does the future hold? Certainly, such a question has been pondered ever since our ancestors evolved an understanding of the concept of time.  It seems as though the human consciousness is moving through the mysterious fourth dimension, creating a present (that soon becomes a history) out of an unknowable future where anything can happen. But is this true? Or has the future already been determined? The concept of determinism refers to the idea that the entire future of the universe can be deduced from a perfect knowledge of only its present state and the rules that govern it.  For example, the information now exists to determine who you will marry, how you will die, the future of the human race, even the precise path that a snowflake will take a million years from now.  Because the particular observation time does not matter, the deterministic theory further holds that all this information is present at all times, from the moment of the big bang to the moment where the universe will end (if it does). The situation works backwards as well. Knowing the precise state of the universe now and all of the laws that govern it, it would be possible to reconstruct history atom by atom. A deterministic view holds that there is no such thing as randomness and that there is no such thing as free will.

I. History of Deterministic Thought

Although scientific determinism (where the movement of every atom can be precisely known) and the justification for it is a relatively recent idea, humans have held deterministic ideas throughout history. Earlier determinism specified only that certain aspects of human lives were already worked out and fated to happen, not that the whole universe was operating like clockwork. In Greek mythology, the three sisters of the fates controlled various aspects of life. Clotho “the spinner” controlled the hour of birth, Lachesis “the apportioner” controlled the events of human life, and Atropos “the inevitable” cut the thread and controlled the hour of death. Even gods could not escape their decisions.1 John Calvin, a fiery leader of the Protestant reformation in Geneva developed the doctrine of predestination, whereby God had already chosen those of His people whom he wished to bring to eternal salvation.2 Modern deterministic thinking tends to disregard the idea of the free will of a human soul, but neither of these earlier philosophies did so. Calvin’s Predestination specifically was a predestination only of the spiritual realm, and did not concern itself with the physical realm. Now there are many forms of determinism used in various scientific disciplines. For example, genetic determinism seeks to show that an individual’s genetic code specifies many aspects in his life.3 Some psychologists use this idea to argue that people should not feel guilt for their actions. How can one feel guilty for acting along with one’s genes?

The new scientific determinism encompasses all of these theories that deal with the physical world, and it is this form of complete atomic determinism that is the subject of this paper. It was for the French mathematician Laplace to fully enumerate the new scientific determinism in the early eighteen hundreds:

An intelligence that, at a given instant, could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings that make it up, if moreover it were vast enough to submit these data to analysis, would encompass in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atoms. For such an intelligence nothing would be uncertain, and the future, like the past, would be open to its eyes.4

With the development of quantum mechanics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, this rigid Laplacian Determinism was softened.   Now, it was recognized that it was not possible to know the precise positions and velocities of every particle. Was determinism defeated? Certainly not- just because a particle’s position and velocity could not be known did not mean that the particle didn’t have a specific position and velocity. Quantum mechanics lent itself well to statistical mathematics- Schrödinger’s equation accurately describes the probability that an electron will occupy a certain point in space. But the probabilities were still well known and defined by the laws of physics. This led to the concept of Quantum Determinism, which is still held by many scientists today.


II. Provability

The earlier deterministic theories were all well and good, but could neither be proved or disproved. Science can only deal with that which is provable, that which can be resolved by experiment. We see this problem today with superstring theory. It seems to be a very good theory, but it will not gain widespread acceptance until it receives some experimental verification. Does the theory of determinism suffer from this same problem? To some degree it does. In order to prove indeterminism, one need only to find an example of one of the following processes:

A random process

A process where information is irretrievably destroyed

Everyday experience would suggest that there are many examples of random phenomena. However, on closer evaluation, the randomness tends to disappear. Take the movement of molecules in a gas, for example. Is their motion really random? Each molecule moves with a particular velocity and kinetic energy, and when it strikes others it collides according to the laws of physics. A key difficulty is that many people confuse randomness with complexity. Is anything random then? If we have a process that appears random, the determinist can simply say that we do not understand the process well enough. Therein lies the problem in proving randomness. It is possible to prove something non-random, but not currently possible to prove something random. Can this change? Perhaps, when we have a ‘theory of everything’ that can explain all of the basic facts of the universe and certain processes still exist which appear to be random, we may be able to argue strongly that something is random. Still, however, the determinist may be able to argue that we only have a ‘theory of almost everything’ because he does not believe that randomness should exist. When (or if) we can completely understand everything and eliminate all sources of randomness, then we will have a much stronger case for determinism.

The second case may be more provable. Since the laws of physics are time-symmetric, if information is destroyed then an all-knowing intelligence would essentially be slightly shortchanged. Similarly, starting from a time in the future it would be impossible to ‘work backwards,’ since information would be missing. What would be an example of such a process? Say you have a book on a table, and move it along a particular path and then back to its original position. This information has not been destroyed because there is a minute trace left by the friction along the particular path. In normal physical and chemical processes, all information is retained in the system and its surroundings. However, black holes may provide an interesting situation.


III. The case for Determinism

The basic case for determinism states that in our observable universe every effect proceeds from some cause. Newton’s first law states that objects prefer to maintain their current state (at rest or moving with constant velocity) and will not change state unless acted on by a force. Effects become causes, which in turn lead to new effects. This system leads backwards and forwards, and we have an unbroken series of events. The only problem lies in determining the first cause. Interestingly enough, St. Thomas of Aquinas recognized this pattern in the 13th century, and used it to ‘prove’ the existence of God as a ‘first cause.’5 Modern scientists would replace the first cause with a non-uniformity within the original super-dense, super-hot region that exploded into the big bang.

Since there is no logical way in which metaphysical desires of individuals could translate into measurable physical forces, the determinist would tend to argue against free will. The determinist makes the critical assumption that randomness is really only a measure of our ignorance. Again, another key point is that complexity must not be confused with randomness. Computer simulations have shown that when many objects act together and influence each other under the same laws, the system behaves in a deterministic manner, i.e., every run produces the same result.

Chaos Theory

Chaos theory refers to the fact that complex systems can show large perturbations in output for small changes in initial conditions.  Thus the infamous butterfly flaps its wings over Tokyo and causes a snowstorm in the Rocky Mountains.  Many people mistakenly see this as evidence for indeterminism. This is another case of people mistaking complexity for randomness. Indeed, if the system is solved with the exact same initial conditions, the exact same result will be obtained.  Although chaos theory does not help us decide about the nature of the universe, it does provide important clues about the practical applications of determinism. For example, if we could produce a computer that could serve as Laplace’s vast intelligence, the mistake of the position and velocity of even a few atoms could make our future predictions wildly inaccurate.


IV. The Case for Indeterminism

We already have dealt with the fact that randomness is not provable without a definitive ‘theory of everything.’ Thus the present state of physics knowledge noticeably handicaps the indeterminist’s case, but does not stop it. He can still appeal to processes where information is lost, and this may very well occur in black holes.

The basic problem is a lack of understanding of what exactly happens in a black hole. Science and science fiction have provided many possible explanations, but as photons cannot escape, it is very difficult for us to test any of these predictions. One thing we do know is that matter floating past the event horizon will get sucked in. In 1976 Steven Hawking showed that this will lead to the loss of wave functions of atoms and therefore information will be lost.6 In many senses, a black hole can be completely described by its radius and mass, and therefore two different pasts could produce one future.

The recent discovery that black holes radiate led to another quandary. What if the radiation coming out of the black hole can be used to reconstruct the information that was sucked in? Strominger and Vafa have recently argued that if string theory is correct then there may be a way in which information could be recovered from the constituent banes.7 As of yet there is no consensus among physicists: Steven Hawking has a bet with John Preskill of Caltech over which side will come out on top. 8

All in all, it does not sit well with physicists to have a ‘mostly’ determinate universe. Physicists believe that the rules that govern the cosmos should be simple and elegant, and that principles like the conservation of mass-energy, directionality of time, perpetual increase in entropy, and possibly determinism should be uniformly applied throughout the universe. However, there is nothing that says that this must be so.   Physicists must be careful not to see evidence for the way that they want the universe to be when it is not there.

V. Consequences of Determinism

Supposing that the universe is determinate, what consequences can we infer? Can we change our actions to understand the world for the better? Theoretically, we could determine our entire history and future. Instead of researching dinosaurs by digging them up, why not just go backwards in history and see what they were really like? We could learn much more this way then by the current research methods. Why not go into the future and see if humans will ever have contact with extraterrestrials? Severe roadblocks exist to taking full advantage of a determinate universe.

The first problem is that we need an exact understanding of all of the laws of physics and the location of every atom in the universe. This is obviously far beyond our current knowledge level. However, assuming we can completely understand the universe and that we can somehow build our computer to get around the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, we will need a computer with formidable abilities.

The accuracy of the computer must be extremely high due to the ideas embraced by chaos theory. With a mildly accurate computer we can reasonably do simulations into the near future and past. In fact, this is what many of our computer systems do now. We work on a macroscopic level and make many simplifying assumptions. For example, you can reasonably calculate the trajectory of a 1 kg iron ball thrown from a certain angle with a certain velocity. However, in order to completely and accurately determine the trajectory, we would need to know the exact specifications of every atom in the ball and in the air that it was traveling through.

What exactly would be required to construct an intelligence so vast that it could fulfill LaPlace’s dream? Some theologians would contend that God alone can completely know the world on such a sub-atomic level. But dealing solely with the physical world, we would have to construct a computer. The computer would not have to be like modern computers, for the rest of this paper the term computer is understood to mean any physical entity capable of storing data and performing analysis.

This computer would have to be incredibly powerful and accurate. At a minimum it would have to keep information about the velocity and position of every subatomic particle. It might also have to keep other information, such as that particle’s spin. Whenever an analog signal (most natural information) is sampled into digital form information is lost. Increasing the sampling frequency can reduce the loss of information to negligible levels, however. CD sound is sampled at 44,000 Hz, because humans cannot distinguish tones sampled at higher frequencies. Yet chaos theory shows a small error in sampling frequency could become magnified as we extend our analysis away from the present. At 100 bits/sample we have an accuracy near 1 part in 10^30. Let us assume that this would be reasonable. The information has to be encoded at only one precise point in time, and this aids the construction of the super-computer greatly. Spin requires only 1 bit to store, and is negligible. The main disk of the computer will need 200 bits/particle to account for position and velocity.

The RAM of the computer will certainly need to be much bigger than this in order to perform calculations on the particles and their interactions with each other. In order to save space, the computer could push most of the simulated universe into the background, and only focus on one part at a time. That way, it could perform computations within the abilities of its processor.

Will it be fast enough? Recently processors have been improving according to Moore’s Law, doubling in speed every 18 months. No possible processor can work fast enough to predict the future, however. The processor can work no faster than the speed of light, and this is the speed with which the universe is changing. Therefore, only for a perfectly optimized system could the computer even break even with time. In any real system, the computer will predict the complete future slower than the future actually develops. This does not prevent it from deciphering the past, however.

Now, assuming we wanted to do some sort of analysis with this machine, we would need to store more information such as which particles go together to make a particular object. This could be inferred simply by the positions and velocities of each particle, but would make much more efficient use of the storage equipment if it were stored as an object.

So in order to do real analysis we would need a storage device that could store thousands of bits per sub-atomic particle in the universe. The most efficient storage of information that we know on earth is DNA, which can fit 3 Giga-bytes in one molecule. However, this is not nearly enough. It is not possible to store more than one bit per smallest particle. The entire mass of the known universe is thousands of times too small to construct such a device.

Based on the above conclusions, it is readily apparent that to completely predict the future or decipher the past through use of a physically constructed object is impossible because:

a)      the mass of the universe is far too small to construct such an object

b)      the object would process data slower than the physical world changed, thus making future prediction unusable


c) the input information that such an object would need is impossible to obtain.


Determinism and the Arrow of time

The second law of thermodynamics (namely, that the entropy of an isolated system increases in all processes) is intimately connected with the arrow of time. That is to say, as time goes forwards, entropy gets higher. Does time always move in one way? Why is that so? Some people believe that the arrow of time is defined by the direction of expansion of the universe.9

So if the universe is deterministic and if the universe is also closed, we may have a rather interesting situation on our hands. We will live out our lives on earth, eventually dying. Our sun will explode, and the universe will keep expanding until it reaches a critical point, whereupon it will stop, and begin to rush inwards as gravity overcomes kinetic energy. If at this point time starts moving backwards and the laws of physics otherwise remain the same, the universe will start to move backwards in exactly the same way that it moved forward. Eventually, you will rise up from your deathbed and begin to walk around the house backwards, exactly as if watching a video being rewound.

What would you think? Would you notice? Certainly not. You would live for the present and only in the present, much as we do now. At this exact point in your life you would be pondering exactly what you are pondering now, except that the future would not come- instead, you would keep living your life into the past, as your dreams of a bright future got stronger and stronger, and then you would start shrinking until you separated and only your mother’s egg and father’s sperm were left.


Determinism and the Supernatural

The idea that the universe is determinate does not necessarily negate the idea of the supernatural, but does argue strongly against it.  If every single observable phenomenon can be explained only as the result of other observable phenomenon, then supernatural forces or entities may exist, but are completely powerless to effect even the smallest atom in the physical world. If that is the case, then they might as well not exist. What good is a soul if it can never influence any action? Indeed, how would my soul be any different from your soul? And why would the particular collection of atoms that makes up my body have an attached soul and the particular collection of atoms that makes up this computer not have a soul? When cells slough off my fingers and onto the keyboard, do they stop having a soul attached?


Innocent by Determinism?

There are several other important implications of the idea that life is only ‘an interesting property of matter’ which behaves according to normal physical laws.  What does this mean for the ideas of guilt and innocence? If someone is forced to commit a murder, should they be punished? The vast majority of people would certainly think so. There is a famous story of a disciple of Zeno stealing bread and in his defense pleading that he was ‘fated’ to take the bread. Zeno replied that he understood, but that he was fated to punish the disciple.

It is important to separate guilt from punishment. Even so, this is difficult for members of our society to understand. The idea of sending an ‘innocent’ man to prison is abhorrent to the American legal system. However, if ‘you’ are forced to do your actions, how can you be guilty? Dr. Peter Cargill states that there is “no healthy basis for guilt, shame, pride, or contempt. It means that we are all innocent, both in terms of what we are and what we do.” This puts us in a difficult position. Can we punish innocent people? Dr. Cargill notes that the fact that “we must face and accept the consequences of what we are and what we do negates not at all our very basic and enduring innocence.”10 However, he also states that “there are no bad persons, only persons more or less healthy or more or less sick. It means that punishment is never appropriate.”11  Here he misses the point. Punishment is appropriate, as long as you separate whether one is innocent or guilty from whether one deserves to be punished.

Perhaps a new definition of innocence is in order. One can be physically guilty of some crime, but be looked on mercifully because they were determined to commit the crime. The idea of ‘innocence by determinism’ is better applied to the social realm. A mother might not deride her son for being below average in school, a coach might not make fun of his player for being clumsy, or a teacher might not fail students for cheating on an exam.

Is this kind of social theory beneficial or not? Should we try to push for its acceptance or argue against it? The short answer is that it does not matter- if it is fated to happen it will, otherwise it will not. Determinism does not say that we cannot change the future, only that it is already determined whether we will or not and to what extent.

There are many points to consider. If the public understands determinism then perhaps people will be kinder to each other. Perhaps racial and class strife will be sharply reduced. Perhaps people will feel sympathy towards the homeless and give them a hand up. Then again, perhaps not. If you knew someone was determined to be homeless, why give them money? No matter how you help them, they’re going to end up being homeless again, right?

The critical problem here is a misapplication of the theory. Our inability to conceive of a computer or other object that can predict the future shows that the future cannot be predicted with sufficient accuracy to determine the future of an individual human. You simply can not know whether or not someone is determined to be homeless (or have any other trait.) Prediction can come closer by looking at a person’s genes, but there is no gene that says a person will have a particular trait. The only real exception is those genes or combination of genes that cause an individual to die shortly after conception, i.e. genes coding for severe fetal abnormalities. Although some genes may lead to a very strong correlation with physical traits, environmental factors play huge roles. One cannot even argue that a Y chromosome means that a fetus is determined to be male; surgical procedures may alter even this fact.

Many people may make another critical misinterpretation of this theory.  The mother might stop exhorting her son to do well in school, and teachers might stop trying to get their students not to cheat on their exams. What if the coach making fun of a player caused that player to go home and practice twice as hard as the rest of the team? Once again, determinism does not say that the future cannot be changed, only that the change is already determined by the present state of the universe. People may fail to understand this point, and in many cases sympathy can hurt. Although it is nice, it may be what a person does not need to make them better. This does not mean that mothers should be mean to their sons, or that they should be nice. It means that they should follow the most effective way (determined by other scientists) of getting their student to do better. Maintaining compassion for the basic innocence of a person while having them acknowledge their mistakes in a way that they can work to change them is a formidable challenge. If determinism becomes more widely accepted, we may see many things like school shootings. Students can say, “It’s not my fault, it had to happen this way.” Again, the problem is not the theory itself, but the way that people may misinterpret it. Students who may already have emotional and psychological problems will see this as a way out, a way to avoid the reflexive feeling of guilt. The problem is separating guilt from responsibility for one’s actions. You can maintain a basic innocence while still being responsible for your actions according to current moral and ethical customs.

Should a theory that could correctly explain much of the physical world be suppressed simply because many people may misinterpret it with dire consequences? Certainly not- but it is important to make distinctions about what determinism does and does not imply, namely:

  • Supernatural forces do not influence the physical world.
  • All of the information to construct the entire history and future of the universe is present at all times.
  • To use this information and actually construct the exact history or future of the universe requires more resources than present in the universe, violation of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and faster than light travel.

The main points of importance to social aspects of the human race are:

  • The course that people will take throughout their lives is already determined.
  • Everyone has a basic innocence, however, this innocence does not mean that people are not responsible for their actions.
  • People are not good or evil, they just are. Furthermore, no person is more evil or good than another person.


VI. Consequences of Indeterminism

There are no specific consequences of the universe being indeterminate. An indeterminate universe does not say whether or not we have free will.  In fact, if the universe is mostly determinate, then most of the consequences of determinism will still hold. However, we will now definitely not be able to predict the future precisely, because it has not been determined yet.


VII. Conclusions

The idea that the entire history and future of the universe is already determined is disquieting to many humans and relieving to others. There is strong experimental evidence for a deterministic universe, but armed only with the rules of logic and our current knowledge of physics it is not possible to prove whether the universe is determinate or not. Also, the theory of determinism has many practical applications in society, but engineers cannot really use this theory to construct helpful devices, as their accuracy is limited according to chaos theory.

As science progresses, especially with respect to black holes, we will gain a greater understanding of what the future holds- at least whether or not it is already determined.






  1. Characters of Greek Mythology
  2. Readings in Christianity Robert E. Van Voorst. Pg 195
  3. “Genes, Electrotransmitters, and Free Will, in D. Wasserman and R. Wachbroit (eds.), Genetics and Criminal Behavior: Methods, Meanings, and Morals (New York: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).


  1. Laplace Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, trans. Andrew I.Dale (New York Springer-Verlag, 1995)
  2. Christianity- A Social and Cultural History  Kee, et. al. pg. 249  Prentice Hall, 1998
  3. The Elegant Universe Brian Greene W.W. Norton and Co. 1999 pg. 342
  4. The Elegant Universe Brian Greene W.W. Norton and Co. 1999 pg. 343
  5. The Elegant Universe Brian Greene W.W. Norton and Co. 1999 pg. 343
  6. Metaphysical Reflections
  7. Dr. Peter Gill’s Essay
  8. Dr. Peter Gill’s Essay