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determinism, philosophical thesis that every event is the inevitable result of antecedent causes. Applied to ethics and psychology, determinism usually involves a denial of free will, although many philosophers have attempted to reconcile the two concepts. Thomas Hobbes, identifying the will with appetites and defining freedom as the absence of impediments, concluded that free will exists where nothing prevents a person from satisfying his prevailing appetite. David Hume argued that a person's willful conduct counts as freely chosen even though his will has itself been determined by his motives. William James called such attempts to fit notions of free will into determinist systems “soft” determinism; “hard” determinism excludes the possibility of free will altogether. The doctrine of determinism is opposed by the principle of emergence, which states that truly novel and unpredictable events may occur out of the composite forces of nature.
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The principle that nature follows exact laws, so that what will happen in the future is a necessary consequence of the state of the world at any given moment in the past. This view, if fully adopted, implies that events which seem to occur by chance would be fully understood if more was known about them, and that apparently free thoughts and choices are explainable and in principle predictable in terms of neuroscience. In a looser sense, determinism refers to claims that mental freedom is much more restricted than people are inclined to suppose.

The question of determinism in physical science cannot be considered apart from the philosophical problem; this gives it added importance and forces its consideration in a very critical spirit.

The idea that the world is composed of atoms moving under the influence of certain forces according to certain laws can be traced back to the Greek philosopher Leucippus. Deterministic philosophy was prominent in the work of the seventeenth-century thinker René Descartes, and became widely known through his influence. Isaac Newton carried out a large part of the cartesian program. His theory explained so many natural processes that it began to appear that the universe since the time of Creation might actually have run its course in a deterministic fashion like a machine, without divine intervention. A century after Newton, Pierre Simon de Laplace argued that an Omniscient Calculator, provided with exact knowledge of the state of the universe at present, would be able to predict the entire future. See Classical mechanics, Newton's laws of motion

The quantum mechanics of the 1920s introduced the paradox of particles which are, at the same time, waves. A wave of length λ was supposed to accompany, or describe, a particle of momentum p = h/λ, where h is Planck's constant. The probability of finding a free particle is expressed by a (complex) wave packet (see illustration), and the particle has appreciable probability of being found only where the wave function is large; that is, within a region of size roughly Δx on each side of x0 in the illustration. A theorem of Fourier analysis shows that Δp, the range of momenta present in the wave packet, is related to Δx as shown below.

This means that the more precisely the specification of a particle's position x is attempted by means of a localized wave function, the less precisely can its momentum be specified. W. Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, or indeterminacy, states that it is impossible to measure, and therefore to know, x and p any more accurately than is allowed by this relation, and there are also other pairs of dynamical variables similarly related.

A wave packet—of wavelength approximately λ, and produced perhaps by opening and closing a shutter—traveling through spaceenlarge picture
A wave packet—of wavelength approximately λ, and produced perhaps by opening and closing a shutter—traveling through space

There remains the question as to whether Heisenberg's principle is merely an unfortunate limitation on an experimenter's ability to know or whether it goes deeper. The general opinion of physicists is that of N. Bohr: the principle expresses a limitation of the precision with which concepts such as position and momentum can be applied at all. Therefore Laplace's Omniscient Calculator cannot predict the future. See Quantum mechanics, Uncertainty principle

Perceptive mathematicians have warned that determinism is not as obvious a consequence of newtonian physics as it might appear. A series of mathematical results have been proven whose general effect is that for the vast majority of dynamical systems any error in the initial conditions, however small, will be amplified, in general exponentially, and so quickly that the predicted result will soon bear no relation to reality. Thus unless it is assumed that initial conditions are known with perfect accuracy, and perfectly accurate computation takes place thereafter, the Omniscient Calculator will wind up getting everything wrong. See Chaos

Very few people now think that all events in the natural world are exactly determined. Experiments suggest that some human and animal behavior can reliably be predicted and controlled, but nobody knows the limits within which this can be done.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


  1. the assumption that a hypothetical omniscient observer would be in a position to predict outcomes at a time t + 1,… t+ k, etc, from knowledge at time t. Early classical sociology (e.g. COMTE's) can be seen as often adopting such a deterministic view of social structures, so that future social systems could be predicted, at least in principle, from present system states.
  2. the less rigorous assumption that nothing occurs without it being caused (see also CAUSE, CAUSALITY AND CAUSAL RELATIONSHIP). However, since in social science, SOCIAL ACTORS may either have uncertain or unstable preferences which may alter social outcomes, a conception of universal causation which includes preferences (motives, reasons, etc.) as ‘causes’ cannot automatically assume predictability even in principle.
Even within the physical sciences (e.g. so-called indeterminism in quantum mechanics) predictability cannot always be assumed. More straightforwardly, even such superficially simple phenomena as a leaf falling, although predictable in principle, cannot in practice be predicted, given the large number of variables involved.

Where social systems are highly structured, and the outcome of any one actor's individual behaviour can be shown to have little or no independent influence on the macro-structure of a system, relatively deterministic 'S tructural’ accounts of social reality may be advanced, e.g. Marx's account of the working of competition in ‘perfect markets’. On the other hand, where both actors’ choices and social outcomes appear behaviourally and structurally ‘undetermined’, models which assume a degree ofactual indeterminism are often proposed, i.e. explanatory accounts in sense

rather than in sense i . Accounts of this latter sort need not be regarded as ‘unscientific’ – rather they can be seen as providing EXPLANATIONS. See also FREE WILL, HISTORICISM, CHANCE, CONTINGENCY, UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES OF SOCIAL ACTION, EVOLUTIONARY THEORY, FUNCTIONALISM. Compare OVERDETERMINACY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a philosophical doctrine maintaining the objective law-governed interdependence and interconditionality of the phenomena of the material and spiritual world. The central nucleus of determinism is the thesis of the existence of causality, that is, a relationship of phenomena such that one phenomena, the cause, necessarily gives rise to or produces, under definite conditions, a second phenomenon, the effect.

Contemporary determinism posits the existence of various objectively existing forms of interdependence of phenomena, many of which manifest themselves in correlations that have no directly causal nature; they do not contain the moment of production of one by the other. Among these are spatial and temporal correlations, functional dependencies, and relations of symmetry. Very important for contemporary science are probability correlations, formulated in the language of statistical distributions and statistical laws. However, all forms of real interrelations of phenomena arise on the basis of a universally acting causality, outside of which no phenomena of reality exist, even those events (the so-called accidental) that, in their totality, are governed by statistical laws. In the different fields of knowledge the general principles of determinism are given specific application; such terms as “physical determinism,” “organic determinism,” and “social determinism” are often used.

The principal shortcoming of former, pre-Marxist, determinism lay in its restriction of the concept to one directly acting causality, interpreted, in addition, in a purely mechanistic fashion; this theory rejected the objective nature of chance and excluded probability from the concept of determinism, opposing in principle statistical relations to the materialist determination of phenomena. Since it was linked with the metaphysical materialism, the former determinism could not be applied consistently in many important areas of the sciences of nature, particularly biology, and was powerless to explain social life and the phenomena of consciousness. The effective application of the ideas of determinism in this field was made possible by dialectical and historical materialism. The nucleus of the Marxist conception of social determinism is the recognition of the lawlike regularity of social life. This does not mean, however, that the course of history is predetermined and is realized with an iron necessity. Sociohistorical laws, while determining the basic line of historical development, at the same time do not predetermine the diversity of each individual’s activities. In social life various possibilities constantly arise, their realization depends on conscious activity of men. Determinism, therefore, not only does not deny freedom but, on the contrary, assumes man’s ability to choose the motives and the goals of his activity.

Determinism stands in opposition to indeterminism, which denies causality in general, or at least its universality. Another negation of determinism is idealistic teleology, which proclaims the predetermination of the course of all processes by the action of a nonmaterial “goal-positing principle.”; The stimulus for the revival of indeterminist views in the first quarter of the 20th century was the growth in physics of the role of statistical regularities, whose existence was held to refute causality. However, the dialectical-materialist interpretation of the interrelation between chance and necessity and of the categories of causality and law, and the development of quantum mechanics, which revealed new forms of an objective causal interdependence among phenomena on the subatomic level, demonstrated the unfoundedness of attempts to use the existence of probabilistic processes on the subatomic level for the refutation of determinism.

Darwin’s theory of evolution, which provided a materialist explanation of the purposiveness of living nature, and the development of cybernetics, which created the study of self-regulating and self-governing systems, have shattered idealistic teleology, fatalism, and doctrines of predetermination and confirmed the accuracy of all the principal premises of con-temporary dialectical-materialist determinism.

The principle of determinism serves as the leading principle in all fields of scientific knowledge and is an effective instrument for the attainment of the truth.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. the philosophical doctrine that all events including human actions and choices are fully determined by preceding events and states of affairs, and so that freedom of choice is illusory
2. the scientific doctrine that all occurrences in nature take place in accordance with natural laws
3. the principle in classical mechanics that the values of dynamic variables of a system and of the forces acting on the system at a given time, completely determine the values of the variables at any later time
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005