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Determinism: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 Definition of Determinism
  • 0:52 Determinism and Causality
  • 2:04 Example of Determinism…
  • 3:23 Determinism vs. Fatalism
  • 4:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson goes over the philosophical concept of determinism, which argues that our lives are determined by a set of preexisting conditions that we have little control over. At the end, test your newfound knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Determinism

Why do things happen? Why do people make certain decisions? How did you end up in the position you're in right now? How much personal choice or free will is involved in our decisions?

For some, the answer to these questions is that a series of preconditions dictates the outcome of our lives. This is what is known as determinism, and it's a concept used in many different fields, including philosophy and psychology. Determinists believe that much of what happens to us is outside of our control. In other words, a specific set of circumstances shapes each and every one of our actions, which in turn determines what happens to us.

Determinism and Causality

Determinism is related to the idea of causality, which is the relationship between cause and effect. Under certain conditions, an event will cause an outcome. Let's take a human example. Let's say you're driving down the road, and a person in a car coming toward you is texting on a cell phone. The driver doesn't see you, and you swerve to miss the car but hit a neighbor's mailbox. The cause of the accident was not that you swerved but that another driver was on a cell phone while driving. The effect was hitting the mailbox but avoiding hitting the other driver.

Now, let's say you have a bucket of water and you put it outside on a below-freezing day. What will happen? The water will freeze. Under these conditions, this is the only possible outcome. These examples are quite different, but determinists believe that the exact same outcome would have happened no matter who was driving the car or who was putting the bucket of water outside. The outcomes of both of these very different scenarios are predetermined.

Example of Determinism vs. Free Will

Determinism is perhaps easier to understand when we're thinking about the natural world. We know that water will freeze at a certain temperature; but what about in our social world, when we're talking about humans? Determinists tend not to believe in the concept of free will, or our ability to make our own choices and guide the course of our lives. With free will, we can choose outcomes. Determinists, however, believe that this is not possible because our outcomes and circumstances are already decided for us.

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