Hard determinism and negative emotions

Goal: Effectively describe how becoming a hard determinist has improved the quality of my lived experience.

Stretch goal: Convince readers that internalizing the implications of determinism can relieve mental suffering.

Caveat: This article only discusses negative emotions. But I hope to soon write about the effects being a determinist has (or doesn’t have) on positive emotions, too.

Internalizing the implications of hard determinism has led me to a series of conclusions that have reshaped the final form my negative emotions take. Here’s Sam Harris writing how just one of those emotions, hate, struggles to persist in a hard determinist’s mind:

I haven’t been noticeably harmed, and I believe I have benefited, from knowing that the next thought that unfurls in my mind will arise and become effective (or not) due to conditions that I cannot know and did not bring into being. The negative effects that people worry about — a lack of motivation, a plunge into nihilism — are simply not evident in my life. And the positive effects have been obvious. Seeing through the illusion of free will has lessened my feelings of hatred for bad people. I’m still capable of feeling hatred, of course, but when I think about the actual causes of a person’s behavior, the feeling falls away. It is a relief to put down this burden, and I think nothing would be lost if we all put it down together.

While I agree with every word in Sam’s quote, I believe leaving it there would severely undersell the psychological benefits of internalizing hard determinism’s implications. There’s more to gain than losing hate.

No doubt the reason why Sam’s feeling of hatred falls away after thinking of the actual causes of a person’s behavior is because he — along with all who view reality this way — acknowledge that it is impossible to be responsible for one’s behavior. And so whatever behavior the person exhibited that led to you to hate them must not be directed towards them. A person’s behavior is slave to genetic and environmental causes, and genetic and environmental causes are slaves to the initial conditions of the universe and its physical laws. When a determinist tries to hate a person, they soon realize their only beef is with what we may call for simplicity’s sake, nature.

Importantly, that last paragraph may just as well be applied to any negative emotion; not just hate. Take inadequacy as one example. Feelings of inadequacy may arise for many reasons. Consider the feeling one gets after coming out on the wrong side of a comparison: That person is better looking than me; that person has more prestige than me; that person is happier than me. In any of these cases, what ultimately decides whether one loses (or wins) the comparison are certain facts of one’s life. And the facts of one’s life — just like the facts of any other’s — are subject to the same forces already described. Only nature can claim responsibility.

Whether it’s hatred, inadequacy, anxiety, frustration … or any other negative emotion, a determinist must acknowledge that all of the facts which cause any one emotion to rise, are wholly caused by vast and nebulous forces: the initial conditions of the universe, the physical laws that govern the universe, and the unending change that matter has undergone since the universe’s formation. (Quantum mechanics has shown that some of this unending change may truly be random. But whether or not that turns out to be the case, there’s no room for human free will.)

If the lifetime trajectory of all matter is determined, then it is impossible for me to be anything other than exactly what I am as I type this sentence. I can of course notice myself feeling indignant about one or more aspect of my life, but the only available target for my indignation is nature.

Just as Sam cannot hate after thinking through the actual causes of a person’s behavior, determinists may find it equally difficult to sit with any negative emotion after internalizing their ultimate cause.