Mike asked:

Hello, this question is about things that have happened in the past, experiences we have had and how we think about them.

Does it make any sense to say this: Regardless of whether or not humans have free will, regardless of anything else, the universe unfolded the way it did until this second and it could not have happened any other way, therefore it is pointless and unhelpful to regret the bad experiences we have had.

Someone makes a decision that turns out to be a bad one, and you can say well if you made a better decision of course the universe would have unfolded differently and you would have had a better experience, a better life, but is that true? Is it possible to argue that whatever has happened, good or bad, had to happen because it actually did happen, and that’s all the proof you need. It doesn’t matter if the Determinists or Libertarians are right or wrong, it has nothing to do with a belief in fate, something happened in the past therefore it had to happen. The world wars happened, now we can look back with hindsight and see how they could have been avoided, but when you take into account all of the many and varied factors at the time that contributed to them isn’t it possible to say that they had to happen, how couldn’t they?

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

Let me recommend to you first, that you stop your indiscriminate jumbling of ‘the universe’ and ‘someone’. These things are not compatible. The universe is a big place and ‘someone’ a pretty puny speck of dust in the middle of nowhere. So let’s leave the universe alone, as none of us specks of dust genuinely know what is the case with it, and stick to what we can reasonably know in the context of your question.

Then the first item to be considered is a differentiation between things or events that are necessary, and those that are contingent. Now as you are speaking of humans, you are speaking of contingent things. Every act of every person is contingent, as ultimately only death removes choice (I’m not speaking of ethical or survival choices here). Therefore your claim that ‘it could not have happened any other way’ is false. If you had not written your question, I would not have written this reply. If you wish to claim that you were forced to write it, I don’t believe you. You weren’t dead when you wrote. QED.

Although this is ‘the short answer’, I don’t feel the necessity for a longer one, since only death terminates the process of learning. I believe you are confusing the unwillingness of humans to learn ‘better decisions’ with something else — maybe with our instinctual estate which frequently dominates our decisions and clouds our judgement. So the fact that something happened in the past is no argument for or against either determinism nor libertarianism. It is simply the contingent outcome of contingent occurrences; and each of these was a choice or a clutch of choices at the time.

For example, once you are in possession of certain facts, you would not fall for the easy trap you laid for yourself concerning the World Wars. Thus on the day before the outbreak of World War I, the Austrian High Command received three conflicting instructions from three government instrumentalities, two of which supported them in their intention of going to war, while one refused the support. The Austrians chose (repeat: chose) the supportive advice, whereupon they left the German government with egg on their collective faces. And now, in this contingency, the Germans felt they could not back out of supporting the Austrians who were already mobilising, without looking like idiots. So you can see in this example plenty of choices on both sides that were certainly not forced on anyone without a door standing open to retreat!

But I also want to give an example of choices which overturned the legal murder of hundreds of women in our civilisation, not all that long ago. These women were called ‘witches’ and supposed to be consorting with the devil. But when Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy gained its dominant standing in the latter half of the 17th century, it was gradually recognised that the commonly believed practises of witches (i.e. riding on a broomstick through the air) were physically impossible. In the outcome, by the choice of relevant authorities, witch burning was phased out quickly, after it had reached its unsalutary peak in Descartes’ own lifetime.

I hope you can see now that hammering away at the contingent facts of history as if they were pre-determined, is not a conclusion, but a fallacy.