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Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hazard. - Mallarmé

“One throw of the dice will never get rid of chance”.

 Somebody rattled my cage again and raised the hoary old opposition between Determinism and Free Will. This dispute used to exercise the brains of the religious. It was not simply a Calvinist versus Roman Catholic controversy. It became a Jansenist versus Ultramontane controversy within the Church of Rome. One might have thought that the decay of religion would have flushed the argument away. But no! It seems that Oxford University recently had a salaried philosopher who called himself a Determinist. I suppose I might have been one too if they had paid me enough, though if it were left to me I should have consigned such a person to the B Ark.

 Actually that one line of Mallarmé, with its lumpy thirteen syllables, says all that needs to be said on the subject.

 Determinism had a renewed lease of life after Newton's Principia. The universe was seen to be analogous to a clockwork mechanism. God was the Supreme Clockmaker, who wound up the spring, and intelligent enquirers could work out the rules by which the mechanism was constructed. Nowadays we tend to think not of the universe, but of our own brains, as being analogous with electronic computers. Once quantum computing becomes an everyday reality, then we shall choose a different analogy with which to explain the workings of the brain in ordinary language. So I am not criticising Newton's immediate followers. It followed, though, that if you could understand the rules of God's clockwork, you could argue from First Principles and understand all that followed from them in a deterministic manner. Working from First Principles to inevitable consequences was called Reason. During the French Revolution an altar was set up in Notre Dame to the Goddess of Reason. How moronic! How oxymoronic!

 Not everyone was overjoyed by this. William Blake constructed a personal set of deities for metaphorical purposes in which Urizen (Your Reason) was chief. Humanity was represented by Los (male) and Enitharmon (female). These are not captivated by reason, but are free spirits.

 Nowadays you would have thought that modern biology would have been sufficient to eliminate Determinism once and for all. Complicated mechanisms have evolved to make sure that reproduction is randomised at cellular level. Also, fractal geometry has shown that one very small modification in one part of a system can influence the outcome on a global scale. The usual illustration of that point is the butterfly flapping its wings in Amazonia and tipping the balance as to whether a hurricane grows to maturity or peters out.

 At a personal level, if my father had been evacuated from St Nazaire on the Lancastrian, as he was supposed to have done, he would have been killed. As it was, he was evacuated on the Georgic and survived to reproduce. If I had not broken my arm at the age of eight, I would not have been unofficially excluded from PE lessons, so I would not have spent the time hiding in the library cupboard reading French literature, so I would not have been accepted into Oxford University (and if the Senior Tutor had not had a good night's sleep and a good breakfast). Therefore I would not have met Valerie. And Valerie would not have been in Oxford if her school had not built a new science block and bullied some of the more malleable girls into studying chemistry instead of her preferred English Literature. Everybody's life experience is a sequence of accidents. A sequence of accidents creates subsequent fact.

 If you argue backwards in time, you may be able to find explanations for every choice, for every accident. Arguing backwards is Determinism. But arguing forwards is Free Will. At least, it requires recognition that chance operates. The age-old controversy can be simply resolved into which way you turn your head. Academic Marxists have tried to be deterministic. But they gave rise to the Soviet joke that in the Soviet Union it was the past that was unpredictable; the future was certain. I think it is time to wrap up this controversy once and for all, and let Mallarmé have the last word.


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