Determinism and Stephen Hawking

“I have noticed that even those who assert that everything is predestined and that we can change nothing about it still look both ways before they cross the street”

― Stephen Hawking

I wish to challenge this quote. Why could it not be predetermined that we would look both ways before crossing the street? Are we supposed to choose not to look both ways before crossing? We don’t have such a power in a deterministic universe. If a car was predetermined to come flying down the road, then the individual who was predetermined to look both ways is very fortunate.

If everything is predetermined, then everything is just a reaction. We determinists still have impulses we are helpless to control. Whether I look both ways or not, my course of action is dictated by my mental state at the moment. You can’t choose to remember to look both ways. You also don’t choose how your mind will react to realizing everything is predetermined.

Hawking’s quote is a thought provoking one, and it opens the door to many interesting conversations, but it doesn’t address the problems of free will. If I am predisposed to look both ways before crossing the street, I will, regardless of whether I am a determinist or not.





  22 comments for “Determinism and Stephen Hawking

  1. August 10, 2014 at 12:55 am

    Here’s a thought experiment. Really, think it, DON’T DO THIS.

    Try closing your eyes and stepping off the curb of Hawking St. Instinct will prevent most people fun doing that.

    Some will is free, other will is required.

  2. August 10, 2014 at 1:00 am

    Why must choosing to look be pre determined? It can be determined at that point, w/ normal causality still in place. The credit of determination goes to the person, which still keeps the flow if determinism going… This would be known as compatibalism.

    • August 10, 2014 at 1:25 am

      Thank you for reading!

      I disagree with compatabilism. As a physicalist, I see everything as part of the same system. Even human thoughts and actions are the result of neurophysiology, a physical system. The physical, the material, the natural, theses synonymous words speak of what makes up the universe. Everything is abiding by the laws of nature. It then follows that there are no agents either inside our outside the system messing up what has been determined.

      Choices are reactions, and thoughts are impulses.

      • August 10, 2014 at 1:29 am

        But determinism requires points of determination to be made depending on how the flow of “information” reacts to other “information” and so forth. Say a ball hits a pond of water, is the ripple determined by the ball, or water?

      • August 10, 2014 at 1:30 am

        Both are essential to the event

      • August 10, 2014 at 1:35 am

        Agreed. But what if the water is ice? My point being now the ice determines what happens to the ball. This of course being simplistic to the nature of determinism of course, but I see constant points of how information is determined, based on the qualities and properties of that which with the information reacts. Does that make sense?

      • August 10, 2014 at 2:30 am

        Yes. But I don’t see how this separates compatibilism and determinism.

        And if the the water is ice, the ice isn’t the only factor

      • August 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm

        Well, compatibilism isn’t separate from determinism, they coincide with will. I see it as this: its simply identifying the point of determination that occurs more precisely. When the ball hits the water (ice or liquid) the determination occurs at that point of what happens to the ball and water. Stating it was predetermined well, is somewhat of a half truth in my eyes. I see no reason to give more credit to prior factors, than to the moment the factors create a new “effect”.

      • August 10, 2014 at 5:56 pm

        I see it as a chain of cause and effect, with every factor being equal in the sense that they are all essential.

      • August 10, 2014 at 10:20 pm

        Yes, agreed. I think it all comes down to a subjective choice of how we want to perceive it. Neither is wrong really. I find it disempowering to chalk up all of our choices to something beyond our control. I find it is, within our control, based on our unconscious thought processes, experience, our entire biological make up. All of that is who we are & as such, we affect, and cause, ourselves, just like all things.

      • August 10, 2014 at 10:55 pm

        I look at it as we are essential to the system. The universe needs me to will this so that I’ll choose that in order for something to happen. I am essential to that event, as well as every other factor, but I am within the system, I am not outside it. Even my choices are reactions to the string of events that came before my choice. This choice is “my” choice yes, but again I am within the system, so I have acted upon my will, but I have not chosen my will. It is my will that dictates my choices, and it is my will that obeys the laws of nature.

        An analogy I have made; You are not the author of your own life. Yes you choose to act and affect the things around you, but this is not up to your volition. Instead, think of yourself as the pen to your own life, with the laws of nature being the actual author.

        To claim free will is to claim that the molecules which make up your brain matter obey you and not the laws of nature. Choices are neurons flying here and there, the activity of the subconscious, etc. The brain is immensely complex, but even a computer of immense complexity is still following the code.

        I find determinism to be humbling. I believe we should be kind to all, because people cannot help but do what they do. A consideration for this might lead to rehabilitation as opposed to punishment for people who need help. I don’t believe in evil. I believe bad people are the result of bad conditioning, and that everyone has the potential to be led down a set of events that can lead to them becoming both a moral and happy being.

      • August 10, 2014 at 11:07 pm

        It seems we agree, but may not use the same definition for free will. I utilize this, in a pragmatic way, not in a way that disobeys cause and effect.

        Free will noun
        : the ability to choose how to act

        : the ability to make choices that are not controlled by fate or God

        Full Definition of FREE WILL

        : voluntary choice or decision
        : freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention
        See free will defined for English-language learners »
        See free will defined for kids »

      • August 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm

        Oh yeah for practical purposes, in every conversation excluding a philosophical one, I would use your definition of free will. People make choices and think, thus exercising ‘free will’. I agree.

        But those claims are much different than the claims of some free will advocates. Some people understand free will as the ability to disrupt the flow of events, thus making a theoretical prediction of human affairs impossible, here is where I would disagree and this where we saw all the different definitions of free will clash.

        I look at it like this; When a rock falls we call it physics. When a person’s brain follows those same laws we call it free will.

    • August 10, 2014 at 11:19 pm

      Free will is a useless concept outside of the definition provided. We do things voluntarily, or we don’t, such as sleepwalk. That is all I need to consider myself a compatibilist. Thanks for the discussion!

      • August 10, 2014 at 11:26 pm

        Hmm I would still call you a determinist but that is yet another matter of definitions. Haha

        No problem! Kindest regards

  3. August 10, 2014 at 1:46 am

    My approach to determinism is that if it is true, then there is nothing that I (or anyone else) can do about it. Therefore I might as well behave as I have free will and not concern myself with the possibility that it is an illusion.

  4. August 10, 2014 at 2:40 am

    Here’s a thought: I have free will. I don’t have a choice 😉

  5. andre
    December 9, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    Here’s a thought: READ THE FULL QUOTE. Hawking goes on to explain why it’s perfectly reasonable to look both ways despite the fact that everything is predetermined. He’s a proponent for determinism.

    • December 9, 2014 at 11:24 pm

      I have. Steven Hawking is not a determinist. He has changed his mind recently about the subject of free will itself. I have read statements where he says there is none and others where he says there is. As for the subject of determinism itself, to my current knowledge he is not a proponent. His views on quantum mechanics and blackholes show this explicitly.


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