Heroes come in all shapes and sizes. There is the tragic hero for whom there is the fall from grace. There is the classical hero who, spirited away at birth, returns to conquer some evil archetype of the society he left behind. There is the renaissance hero where wisdom and courage are used to overcome obstacles that appear impenetrable. There is the people’s heroes – ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture), for example, ranks among the highest of my personal contemporary heroes (Tiggers rule btw).

There is yet another type of contemporary hero and that is the one who embraces the idea of deterministic nihilism. That is, the idea that there are certain constants in the universe that will play out in a deterministic way unless otherwise acted upon by free will. While the concept is similar to that of compatibilism the fundamental difference is one where our perception influences our reality.  The compatibility’s view is aptly summed up by Arthur Schopenhauer, an 18th century German philosopher, who said “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills”. In contrast, the deterministic nihilist would understand that it is precisely through the application of free will that Man can influence the outcome of reality itself, forever changing its substance, direction, and course.

This may seem like a minor difference but in fact when considered from a scientific perspective has very real and radical implication for the substance of space and time.

Consider if you will clockwork that is the universe. Classical and quantum mechanics describe the interaction of things, albeit not perfectly, at both the very large and very small range. Atoms form molecules through strong and weak nuclear interaction.  Atoms coalesce to form stars and galaxies by extension of gravitational forces. Molecules form out of star stuff by extension of electromagnetic forces until the universe is one big chaotic soup of substance without form.

Chaos theory predicts that complex systems of chaotic matter are capable of self-organization and complexity (See Stuart Kauffman).  Such self-organization takes a long time to develop but as Kauffman pointed out, once sufficient critical mass has developed self-organization becomes almost instantaneous. It also produces some very surprising results. The structure of alga for example are as much dictated by the molecular biological principles in the way molecule physically hold together as they are by DNA that encode the starting conditions of those processes (See Roger Lewin). Even specialized biological systems such as eyes are explainable through molecular processes one the complexities of how tissues develop after the initial starting conditions are understood. Natural selection weeds out biologically unfit candidates from the pool of potential new adaptations leading to more competitive associations of those adaptations.

In short, the process leading up to the first application of free will on the university is initially driven through cyclical processes that essentially are both predictable and deterministic on a large scale. Mob mechanics if you will. Any sufficiently complex and sustainable biological system knows how to eat, sleep, procreate, compete for resources, and flee from danger.  As has been shown in various computer simulations, even a very small sub-set of rules can lead to sustainable self-organization without the need to retain neither a memory of past events nor an application of that memory to influence future events.

Fast forward to the age of modern man. Three aspects are required for free will to exist; memory, or pattern recognition, of past events and their outcomes; associative rationalization of those patterns and outcomes to future events which have not yet happened; and the application of that knowledge to influence an outcome. This is not the same as arguments by Wegner and Pronin who have shown a propensity for attribution of free will to unconstrained events which doesn’t exist. Rather, it is the conscious application of knowledge to effect an outcome that would, under normal circumstances, be different. This is in effect shaping reality towards a pre-determined outcome.

In defining deterministic nihilism, we are not talking about shaping the physical laws of reality. If an apply falls from a tree it’s still going to hurt just as much when it hits your head whether you try to bend reality to your view of the future or not. What we are talking about here is cycles of behaviour for which decisions are usually marginally based. That is, at the point in time at which they occur. Such behaviours may include pride, envy, gluttony, lust, wrath, greed, extravagance, and sloth among others.  In the absence of free will, such behaviours may represent a fatal flaw in modern society.

The body is to some extent a symbiotic relationship between the sub-conscious need for deterministic auto-response mechanisms to our environment, and the conscious mind’s ability to influence control over those deterministic tendencies. The contemporary hero of today is one who can recognize those faults and, through free will, redefines the way in which they approach those challenges in their lives. Not just in a way to temporarily overcome those shortcomings, but to change their own personal reality such that healthier cycles of behaviour become ingrained in the sub-conscious.

It is the difference between a smoker that chooses to quit smoking but resumes the habit after 10 years (the tragic hero) compared to the one that remains smoke-free the rest of their lives (the contemporary hero).  It is the nihilation of behavioural determinism for which we have physical control to influence. It is a power that everyone has but few choose to initiate in their lives. It is also why the process of overcoming adversary is so hard until people are willing to choose to challenge their root beliefs in a way that leads to real change.

Those people who make it – those are my heroes.

– Kevin Feenan

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