The Indeterminacy Of Determinism In Western And African Traditional Thought


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The first set of philosophers that could be said to have anticipated determinism were the Ancient Greek atomists Leucippus and Democritus. Socrates and Plato in their theory of immortality of the soul also advocated it. According to Leucippus and Democritus, all processes in the world were due to the mechanical interplay of atoms. This theory was not so much supported in their time. Socrates through his disciple, Plato theorized with the myth of Er, the son of Odysseus that an individual soul chooses his destiny at the pre-embodied state.

The concept of Ayanmo (destiny or fate) a popular belief among the Yoruba speaking people in the sub-sahara Africa is strikingly parallel to the foregoing Western conception of desterminism. Roughly speaking, the myth of Ayanmo translates ori-inu (inner head) which is the unconscious element in the human body that explains the choice of whatever a person becomes. In some respect, ayanmo/ori concept seems to picture Freudian ‘unconscious’. Both the Western and African conceptions of determinism as we shall see in this paper concur that the principal consequence of determinism is the entailment that all future events have already been determined and will necessarily happen.

It can also be argued that both cultures associate determinism with, and rely upon, the ideas of materialism and causality.

Unfortunately, the two belief system about determinism is fundamentally vitiated by a seeming contradiction that man is a responsible moral agent. The concepts of punishment and moral responsibility are natural to man. Man naturally desires freedom to choose by preference. Added to this is the fact that intelligence sets man apart from animals and robots. This very point makes the concept of determinism to suffer some internal tension as man’s existential significance sounds contradictory to the Western and African assumptions of determinism.

Worse still is the African, particularly, the Yoruba strong conviction that sacrifice can alter or obviate the choice of one’s destiny (Gbadebo Dosumu, 1949). These problems almost reduce the concept of determinism to mere absurdity, thereby making it indeterminable. These problems form the thrust of this paper.

Determinism In Western and African Thought The idea that man and in fact the entire universe is a deterministic system has been espoused in both Western and African thought system. The theory of atomism traceable to Leucippus and Democritus (Russell, 1975, pp 82ff) and in fact, as later expounded by Newtonian physics depicts that the physical matter of the universe operate in fixed, knowable laws. Indeed, man and the entire universe obey the cosmic law of flux and are subject to laws external to them or outside their control. The atoms constitute the smallest particles that form the constituents of any solid body.

According to Leucippus (Russell, p. 87), the full solid or body or matter requires emptiness in order to safeguard movement and multiplicity. Solid bodies fill the vacuum through a mechanical movement outside their control. The atoms that constitute matters are called ‘forms’, ‘natures’, ‘beings’ or the “un-cuttables”. These entities (atoms) have the Eleatic properties of eternity (in time), infinity of number, indestructibility and non-generability in their relation to the qualities, to which they are effectively not susceptible. Man is nothing but a mass of atoms.

In reality, the atomists opine that everything is atoms. Nature itself is merely a perennial and causal play of atoms. The basis of the teaching of Leucippus and Democritus is the deterministic principle that “nothing happens without reason, but everything happens through a reason of necessity and the principle of universal causality” (D. Composta, 1998, p. 87). The earth rests at the center of the universe and does not fall because it is causally and necessarily so determined. Russell (1975, p. 83) sums up the atomists’ argument in the following words: “… everything is composed of atoms, which are physically, but not geometrically, indivisible; that between the atoms there is empty space; that atoms are indestructible; that they always have been, and always will be, in motion … and their movements are determined outside them” What we can infer from the foregoing is that the movement of atoms and any matter (Emphasis mine) are determined as they float in motion unconsciously without the ability to control their own movement. This explains man’s action too, since man is an aggregate of atomic particles, his behaviour and actions are not subject to his own personal determination, whims and caprices.

From another perspective, Socrates, a contemporary of Leucippus and Democritus also taught through Plato that the soul of man makes unconscious choice in the pre-existence, at the disembodied state before birth. This thesis is the central theme of his theory of “immortality of the soul”. In many of his Dialogues (Gorgias, Phaedrus, Phaedo) Plato elucidates the destiny of the soul before and after death. Plato’s myth of Er, the son of Odysseus or Armenius explains the procedure through which man’s existence or what he would become is determined by the choice he makes for his next cycle of life. Er died in a battle but his body did not decay several days after his death. His soul sojourned to the supersensible realm where he was made to see how the cycle of life of man is determined by the activities of the three daughters of Necessity, namely, Lauchesis, Clotho and Atropos. Because of its relevance what Er witnessed can be better explained in the words of Plato as follows:

Er saw the soul that had been Orpheus, selecting the life of a swan, because from hatred of the tribe of women, owing to his death at their hands, it was unwilling to be conceived and born of a woman. He saw the soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale, and he saw a swan changing to the choice of the life of man, and similarly other musical animals. The soul that drew the twentieth lot choose the life of a lion; it was the soul of Ajax, the son of Telemia, which, because it remembered the adjudication of the arms of Achilles, was unwilling to become a man, the next, the soul of Agamemnon, likewise from hatred of the human race because of its sufferings, substituted the life of an eagle. Drawing one of the middle lots the soul of Atlanta caught sight of the great honours attached to an athlete’s life and could not pass them by but snatched at them.

After her, he said, lie the soul of Epeus, the son of Panopeus, entering into the nature of an arts and crafts woman. Far off in the rear he saw the soul of the buffoon Thersites clothing itself in the body of an ape. And it fell out that the soul of Odysseus drew the last lot of all and came to make its choice, and from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business, and with difficulty found it lying in some corner disregarded by the others… and in like manner, the unjust into wild creatures, the just transformed to tame, and there was every kind of mixture and combination. ” (Plato, 1964, Bk x).

The passage adds that after making a choice, an individual soul is made to drink from the water of forgetfulness. This is to zeal or prevent man from knowing what has been determined for him by the lot he has chosen. Essentially, Plato’s theory attributes the choice of human action to his own choice of the lot or luck that had already been determined for him. In that wise, man is free to choose yet, his existence has already been determined by the choice of his lot; implying that man’s lot or choice of what he becomes in the next life stands outside him because he cannot in anyway influence the lot that had already been decided for him.

It seems difficult to reconcile the sentence: ‘man is free to choose from any lot’ and the entailment: the lot of a man determines whatever he will become in life. Since man is ignorant of the content of his lot, then man does not operate within the modicum of free-choice, meaning that ‘man’ is not a party to his own destiny since it has been determined for him. Closely related to the Western thought is the Yoruba myth of Ayanmo/Akunleyan determinism, a myth that is usually associated with a verse of the Odu-Ifa literature among the Yoruba. Ipin (allotment) translates Ayanmo or destiny in Yoruba thought. Ayanmo concept derives from Odu, Ika-Ofun. This has been published by Gbadebo Dosumu. As reported by Olufemi Morakinyo (1983, p. 69), I quote this verse of Odu:

Akunleyan eda

Oun ladayeba;

A d’aye tan, oju nkan gbogbo wa

Sugbon eda na ko see pada lo yan omiran;

A fi etutu lo ku.

What was choosen kneeling down,

Is what we find on arrival in this world,

On arrival in this world, we become too impatient,

(too much in a hurry to achieve our potentials)

But it is impossible to go back and choose another;

To prevent deterioration of things is the only course of action left.

This verse explains the act of choice by man of his own “ori” which is necessitated by bending or kneeling down. The choice of ‘ori’ that is made at this point is significant for an individual’s choice of later life. It also explains that once a choice has been made, it becomes irrevocable. As earlier published by Wande Abimbola (1975, pp. 178 – 207), the myth of Ayanmo like the myth of “Eri” argues that before coming to this life (aye) from heaven (orun) an individual has the privilege of choosing an “ori” from the store-house of Ajala, an appointed servant of Olodumare (God) who is sadled with the responsibility of building “ori”. No individual is competent to know the content of “ori” he has choosen. It is Ajala, a senior orisa (deity) who knows all and he moulds ori daily as that is his main assignment. It is evident from the myth of Ayanmo/ “ipin” that the choice of an individual’s ori plays critical role in the series of events in each person’s life.

The following features seem to be common to both the Western and African conception of determinism, albeit: that the foundation for many of the events that would occur in an individual life has already been laid before him; that an individual is responsible for the choice of his own destiny and once a choice has been made, it is irrevocably zealed. It is pertinent to ask at this juncture – is man a free moral agent? Since his actions have been determined can it be said that man is a responsible being? If man is not responsible for his actions, what is the relevance of the concept of ‘responsibility’, ‘punishment’ and ‘reward’? Such questions would continue to swell if we consider the implications of the concept of determinism in both Western and African thought as espoused in this paper. However, of more challenging and indeterminable is the puzzle of determining determinism within the context of the very nature of man.

Naturally, certain traits of man makes the very concept of determinism preposterous and absurd. Without recourse to the theory of ‘free-will’ or ‘incompatibilism’, ‘man’ seems to be naturally endowed with freedom in his nature as an intelligent existent. To have such natural capacity is to act freely and to have what it takes to act freely. Consequently, what a man does is up to himself. He has a plurality of alternatives and he determines which course of action to pursue. If this argument holds, then, determinism in whatever version is false as it contradicts the very essence of man. The danger of emphasizing determinism in any thought system is a repudiation of chance events and of course, indeterminism. The determinists’ argument is strictly that everything has a cause, and something happening uncaused to them is impossible. My claim boils down to this fact, namely, if the future was imbedded in the past, no new information would be introduced into the world and man would not be classified as being capable of any creative or imaginative thought.

As a matter of fact, the discovery of Edward Lorenz (1961) of the theory of ‘chaos’ and ‘probability’ serves as a logical polemic against Newtonian physics in considering the behaviour of atomic systems. In what follows, I consider it relevant to assess determinism from the point of the theory of ‘chaos’ and ‘probability’.

Determinism, Chaos and Probability
The word ‘chaos’ according to Houghton (Houghton, 1994, p. 77) is used as a technical term to describe a system whose behaviour is extremely “dependent on the initial conditions from which the system started – so dependent in fact, that after a short time it becomes essentially unpredictable. The point Houghton seems to make by his claim can better be understood by the illustration with a ‘simple pendulum’. For example, for a bob swinging around in a circle at the end of a string, the frequency of a natural oscillation (the frequency with which the bob swings when allow to swing freely) is given by a simple expression, namely, that the behaviour of the pendulum is regular and predictable and not dependent on the precise way the driving force is applied. But at other periods close to resonance (when the forcing frequency equals the natural frequency of oscillation), the pedullum behaves in a chaotic way; it is then extremely sensitive to minute variations in the driving force.

Suppose that at some stage of the motion very precise details are available of the motion of the bob and the forcing motion, can the bob subsequent motion be predicted? To begin with, there would be good correspondence between predictability and observation. But as time goes on, the predictability and the observation will diverge, the time before substantial divergence occurs being called the predictability horizon. If the initial conditions are more accurately defined, the predictability horizon will move away. Roughly speaking, the predictability horizon increases proportionally to the number of decimal places in the definition of the initial conditions. It is instructive to note here that the foregoing allusion to the theory of chaos has serious implications for determinism, particularly, Newtonian determinism. If quantum mechanics is also included in our description of events, as soon as the specification of the initial conditions required for prediction involves details, say, of the movement of individual electrons, the Heisenberg (1989, p. 220) ‘uncertainty principle’ becomes relevant. We come up against an inability not only in practice but in principle to specify with adequate precision the initial conditions. This means that prediction of the future behaviour of very many large scale systems, even for a relatively short time ahead, also becomes impossible in principle.

In sum, it has been argued that chaos and probability play a large part in our modern scientific description, be it in physics or biology, and our daily lives are filled with chance occurrences. We are bombarded with statistics about the probabilities of being born with various defects, of particular sorts of crimes, of death from various causes and so forth. In fact, Richard Dawkins’ hunch strengthens the above claim that chance processes have provided a firm basis for Darwinian evolution (Dawkins, 1986, p. 78). In a similar vein, Donald Mackay (1978, pp 110 – 117) and Arthur Peacocks (1979, pp. 74 – 79) submit that chance and probability, although properly part of a scientific description, are not causes of events any more than any other scientific descriptions or laws can be said to have causal properties. Chaos too does not make things happen.

It can be safely concluded that the scientist’s capacity to predict the future is very much more limited than we think.

The theory of chaos, I consider to be a reasonable interpolation to our discussion of the indeterminacy of determinism as the theory provides a mechanism that allows for free will within a world seems to be governed by deterministic laws. Thus, inherent in determinism itself is freedom that cannot be detarched from it. And more importantly, it can be said that there are events which do not correspond with determinism and therefore have no cause. The point is in contradistinction to the determinist’s assumption that every event, including human cognition and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences since no mysterious miracles or wholly random events occur. But this is not the case. Taken at face value, determinism is saying that man is an irresponsible moral agent.

Among philosophers and psychologists even across cultures, determinism is a re-current topic and has faced a spate of criticisms. Debates about this subject-matter will remain open-ended. It is expedient to add that indeterminism is a fundamental quality of nature. As the existentialist philosophers would argue, man finds himself thrown into this world, and throughout his life, is nothing else but what he makes of himself. As his destiny lies in his hands, he is free to live his life in whatever way he chooses (Satre, J. P. 1948). This very nature of man is incompatible with the central teaching of determinism, whatever its form. Therefore, Western and African conceptions of determinism is beset by the problem of reconciling the nature and essence of man with the central theme of determinism. References

Abimbola, W. , Ifa, An Exposition of Ifa Literary Corpus, Ibadan O. U. . 1976. Composta, D. History of Ancient Philosophy, Urbania University Press, Vatican, Italy, 1988.

Dawkins, R. The Blind Watchmaker, Longman, London, 1986.

Dosunmu, G. (C. 1949) Typescript, n. d.

Gleick, J. , Chaos Heinemann, London, 1988. Houghton, J. Global Warning: The Complete Briefing, Lion Publishing, London, 1994.

Lozenz, E. N. The Essence of Chaos, University of Washington Press, 1993. Mackay, D. Science, Chance and Providence, Oxford University Press, London, 1978.

Makinde, M. A. “Immortality of The Soul and The Yoruba Theory of Seven Heavens” in Journal of Cultures and Ideas, Vol. 1. , No. 1. , Dec. 1983. Morakinyo, O. A. Methodological Consideration of Cross-Cultural Research: The Problems and Implications of Ethnographic Translation (African J. Behav. Sc. 1:P 41 – 49.

Plato, The Republic, Book x. See also F. M. Conford: The Republic of Plato, New York, Oxford University Press, 1966.

Russell, B. History of Western Philosophy, George Allen and Unwin Ltd. , 1975. Satre, J. P. Existentialism and Humanism (Translated with Introduction by Philip Mairet) London, Methuen Ltd. , 1978, First Published in English in 1948. Tritton, D. “Chaos in The Swing of Pendulum” in New Scientists, Lion Publ. , London, 1986.



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