Determinism, as it is found for instance in Dennett’s work, has a significant double advantage over the idealism it critiques. The first is that it doesn’t posit a reality in itself that is somehow ‘above’ or ‘beyond’ appearances; the second is that it doesn’t posit the observer as somehow ‘detached’ or ‘outside’ reality. Insofar as the observer is, it is embedded in the reality it observes, and that reality itself is real only insofar as it is registered by an observer (in the simplest sense of the term i.e. without any need to be aware of its observation, simply to register the occurrence of the event of an entity being itself as such).
However, it has the difficulty that it is intuitively self-contradictory. While determinists insist that this intuition only occurs because we retroactively posit that we willed what we necessarily did, as is often the case intuition, because it utilizes all the means available to the self, is ahead of conceptual, subjective thinking. Interestingly, the roots of the conceptual self-contradiction that intuition senses immediately without necessarily being able to clarify can be most easily shown in the area of inquiry on which determinism most prides itself: the theory of nature as historical, more commonly referred to as evolutionary theory.
The contradiction arises from the fundamental meaning of ‘evolution’ itself as a way of describing how nature appears when viewed historically. We easily, in common parlance, distinguish between evolutionary change and random change. That we instantly understand the meaning of ‘devolution’ demonstrates this difference, since if change were merely random, there would be no difference between evolution and devolution. Precisely what makes change evolutionary is not immediately clear conceptually, although intuitively we generally do know the difference in practical determinations. It is clear from the beginning, though, that some conception of ‘more’ throughout the history of nature is intrinsic. Of course there were catastrophes in the history of nature, sometimes via the intervention of entities from outside nature seen as earthly life, sometimes by the side effects of the very activity of that life itself, but catastrophes are catastrophic in large part due to their exceptional status.
Darwin’s idea of evolution combined two types of increase: complexity and diversity. The lack of understanding of Darwin’s ideas by many current biologists and zoologists is therefore clearly visible in the argument concerning whether the ‘unit’ of evolution includes the microbial contingent in complex entities that are simultaneously necessary to those entities, yet not intuively ‘part’ of what makes that entity what it is. The unit of evolution is obviously not the individual, with or without its microbial contingent, since an individually doesn’t, in the general course of its existence, ‘evolve’. Positing the unit as the species has the same issue, since in general any substantial change does not ‘evolve’ the species, it causes a rupture by which a new species is determined as a new species. The only ‘unit’ of evolution, in Darwin’s sense, can be nature as a whole.
Nature as a whole, though, is not what we grasp when we think of an entity as more ‘evolved’ than another, since both are part of the same nature as a whole. Nor do less ‘evolved’ species of such entities necessarily disappear when nature is viewed historically. Bacteria remain the most common form of life today just as they were two billion years ago.
Going back to Darwin’s notion of complexity and diversity, we can see that he second applies primarily to nature as a whole (minor differences in individuals may be of assistance in survivability, but in terms of diversity as a concept it is primarily diversity between species and not within a species that is in view). Differences in complexity are observed in genii, species and even in individuals, as well as in nature as a whole over its history, and we primarily view complexity on those levels. Why do we view a more complex being as more evolved in some sense, even as the primary sense, if the criterion of evolution is simply survival via adaptability? Given the range of environments in which bacteria thrive, far greater than that of any more complex form of life, one would have to conclude on the basis of natural selection as the criterion of evolution that bacteria are the most evolved form of life.
This is obviously not what we generally mean by more evolved, though, since bacteria are also among the simplest forms of life, and we started with the notion that an increase in complexity (along with diversity) were the fundamental changes involved in the evolutionary nature of natural history. Since diversity, at least within a species, is at least partly a function of the species’ average complexity, its primacy becomes even more apparent.
If we start from the simplest entities, what determines any entity as such is primarily its difference from the rest of reality, and its ability to form relations with other entities that are part of the rest of reality. However, the only available entity that could determine its difference from the rest of reality is the entity itself, and since it only is that entity on the basis of that determination, it must do so retroactively.
The most basic way in which entities increase in complexity is that certain patterns of relations between simple entities form a self-coherent set of conjugates that distinguishes that pattern of simple entities as itself a more complex entity, distinguishable as itself from the rest of reality, which also must be posited retroactively.
What determines life, then, is an ability to directly replicate that pattern, making it far more likely to recur. What determines its success as a life form in the most basic way is the combination of how capable it is of making sufficiently similar forms recur, together with their ability to survive, which are of course intertwined. It is only in the latter of these that natural selection is of primary relevance (although a longer rate of survival implies a greater chance of recurrence among similar species it doesn’t necessarily do so between species with significant differences). Even then, its relevance is limited in that the environment in which a scheme of recurrence must survive is largely determined by the manner in which a given scheme interacts with other schemes of recurrence, i.e. other living and non living entities, but for the most part the former. In terms of nature as a whole, then, natural selection only has the very limited relevance of whether nature as a whole continues to survive in a historical sense. The reduction of natural selection to ‘survival of the fittest’ is demonstrably an invalid reduction since ‘fittest’ is itself determined by evolution of other entities that for the most part comprise a given entity’s environment, and therefore by the very natural selection that ‘survival of the fittest’ is supposed to encompass.
From the perspective of any given entity, including the entities we ourselves are, the ‘environment’ itself is not pre-given, which is a further invalid assumption made by many biologists, zoologists and palaeontologists. Only insofar as a given entity can be distinguished from the rest of reality can the rest of reality become an environment, since an environment is always and only an environment insofar as it is an environment for a given entity. This must always involve a certain retroactivity – insofar as a network of simpler entities somehow is subsumed as the ‘parts’ of a more complex entity via the formation of some sort of boundary, they must be posited by that entity as its precursors, as its history, not in the sense of what was but what has been and therefore in a certain sense still is, the ‘perfect’, necessary past that we use the past perfect tense to express. However this retroactive positing is itself dependent on an ability to determine the past, not as it was, but in how it still is as having been. Here we have the first hint of where the self-contradictory nature of determinism is located.
In positing its precursors as precursors, an entity simultaneously posits them as necessary, precisely in that they ensure its own existence. In so far as they simply were, they were as contingent as the entity they are now the precursors to. But in so far as they have been for that entity, they have become in the ‘perfect’ past necessary. That necessity, though, as ‘merely’ posited, requires that the entity will its history, but free will is a redundant phrase since insofar as will is properly itself, it is in some sense ‘free’ will.
What we see as more evolved precisely has greater degrees of freedom, both in forming new relations and in positing already formed relations as its necessary precursors. A bee has a greater degree of freedom than a bacteria, a dog greater than a bee, and so on. But if what makes evolution evolutionary s the degree of freedom afforded the more evolved entity, then determinism fails. It’s not the self-will that is posited retroactively in a series of necessary causal relations, but the necessity of those causal relations (and that they are causal at all) is posited retroactively by the self-will, which is as redundant as free will, since the will is always the will of an entity that posits its self as that entity, and does so freely to the degree possible for it at the generic evolutionary stage it has arrived at.
Determinism, then, is self-contradictory as an understanding of reality precisely insofar as it negates what determines a self as such, which is always the willing of its own history as necessary. Its apparent plausibility rests on a misunderstanding of necessity as always having been necessary, a posit that in itself stands or falls by the simultaneous posit of an a priori creation, since a posit of the necessary having for all time been necessary implies a pre-existing intentionality. Far from supporting the atheist standpoint, determinism is inherently a creationist stance, one that denies to reality as historical the very possibility of being an evolutionary history.