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Thinking About Thinking About the Future

Determinism appeals to many because of its intellectual rigor. But it is hopeless as a basis for constructing a theory about the future. To construct a psychological theory about how people imagine and use the future, it is necessary to recognize that the future looms as unsettled, undetermined. The future consists of possibilities, only some of which will come true.

Determinists might say that the multiplicity of possibilities is purely epistemic, that is, it is an illusion born of our ignorance, not a reality. When you watch the start of a movie, the ending is already preordained, but you do not know what it is. Multiple possible endings loom, in terms of which characters might die or marry or get caught or find happiness. To a determinist, life is much the same way: We do not know what will happen, but it is preordained. The only difference is that in life, oneself is one of the characters whose actions help bring about the particular ending (unlike a movie, obviously). But one's actions are also preordained and inevitable.

The key point, however, is that determinism is profoundly unhelpful. A woman struggles with an unplanned pregnancy and must decide whether to abort, have the baby and give it up for adoption, or become a mother, and these point her along very different life paths. How does it help her understand her situation and make these hard choices for a determinist to tell her that whatever she eventually decides has been inevitable since the Big Bang? A man's honor is impugned by enemies and he must decide whether to engage in a risky fight or to back down and accept the humiliation, leaving his social status reduced and perhaps inviting others to take advantage of him. The determinist's claim that whatever he chooses to do was always inevitable is of no use, neither to him in his choosing nor to the psychologist seeking to understand how he chooses. Slumdog's vision is elegant but bankrupt.

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