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How to approach the absurd

“There’s no need to stress over which candidate we’ll vote for next week,” a friend and fellow undecided voter named Isaac assured me as we sat down for drinks this past Tuesday. “The election was decided a long time ago.”
“Polls are not conclusive,” I protested as we placed our orders. “With the number of undecided voters, the outcome of the election hangs in the balance.”
“We’ve been over this before,” he replied. “There are conditions that must be satisfied for an event to occur. Given these conditions, nothing else could have happened.”
“Go on,” I said, wanting him to connect this maxim with our conversation.
“Each voter ‘chooses’ their candidate because, given the voter’s genetic makeup and past experiences, he or she could not have chosen otherwise.
“Each voter is ‘free’ to do what he or she desires, but it is nature who determines the desires that determine our behavior,” he said. (Isaac, a hard determinist, negates the notion that human actions are free, positing that all such actions are subject to the same law of cause and effect as the rest of the universe.)
“Remind me how determinists do not become fatalistic,” I said as our waitress happened to stumble over to our table, spilling our drinks on Isaac and soaking his clothes.
“For example,” he began, “Given the conditions that led to this waitress spilling these drinks, she had no choice but to spill them on me at this moment. All I can do is curse the laws of nature for putting her in such a position and ask that she be more attentive, causing her to be more alert in the future.”
After a good, long, blank stare, the waitress apologized and moved on, but I continued: “How then should we view the actions of Ross Barnett and James Meredith? If determinism holds true, the former had no choice but to show his haughtiness and the latter no choice but to show his courage.”
“Though I’m committed to the notion that these events were determined to happen, the moment the universe was set in motion billions of years ago; from a personal standpoint I view events that represent the triumph of reason over a tradition of ignorance to be quite meaningful,” he said.
When I pressed him about the implications of the deterministic worldview in light of a topic such as World War II, Isaac stuck to his guns and said that, as unfortunate as it might seem in retrospect, both the Axis and Allied Powers were powerless to act otherwise in the face of a determined universe.
Our waitress had returned with new drinks and overheard our last exchange. “This kind of conversation is a causal factor for problems with the opposite sex,” she said.
Now that I’ve staged this conversation to discuss determinism, I have an opinion to give, too. From the pragmatic point of view to which I subscribe, I am determined to behave as if our will is free because I find this position more useful for human interaction than its alternative on a regular basis.
Even if free will is indeed an illusion, this notion is about as useful as “the devil made me do it” in the court of public opinion when explaining the causes of our actions; true or not, “it happened how it had to have happened” will register as a hollow excuse for most Americans when it is used to account for our actions.
Determinism in its current form also fails to make useful predictions regarding the future of individual human behavior. While the determinist can claim that the results of next week’s election have been predetermined, he cannot tell us who will win the election using this information.
Determinism is a difficult proposition to refute; however, we live in an age and culture that puts most of the onus on the individual for perceived wrongs, so I recommend that readers presume that each person is in charge of his or her own life for the time being.
Of course, this absurd notion — that our will might not be free even though we must continue to behave as if it were — is a massive headache waiting to happen. I would suggest forgetting it ASAP and finding a place to lie down and despise me for even bringing it up.

Andrew Dickson is a religious studies senior from Terry. Follow him on Twitter @addoxfordms.