In mathematics, the axiom of equality states that a number is always equal to itself. This axiom is derived from the mathematician Euclid’s notion that “things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to each other.” To put it in even simpler terms, x equals x.
Among the infinitely more complex rules that dominate the math world, this axiom inevitably stands out with its dualistic nature: it’s incredibly self-explanatory and elusive all at once. It strikes me as a concept that allows intrinsic balance in life, to the point of almost being reassuring. It proves that some things share a fixed uniqueness that can explain the greater idea of causality.
In “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara, the main character Jude St. Francis perceives his life as the embodiment of this axiom. No matter how drastically he changes his surroundings, the demons — or, as he calls them, hyenas — of his past haunt him forever, reminding him that since he was raised amid suffering, suffering is all he will ever know.
This excruciating thought is his explanation for further painful episodes in his life, which he has no choice but to welcome as they represent that something’s “very elementalness can never be altered.” Yanagihara decided to never prove him wrong: unlike many other tragic heroes, Jude never recovers from his childhood trauma, and his life ends before he can get a taste of normalcy.
The character’s interpretation of algebra’s first axiom brings about the philosophical debate about determinism. According to this philosophical theory, every event is inevitably and necessarily determined by preexisting causes. Hence, the life we live follows a script we have no control over.
Similar to Jude and his surrender, we might be able to decide our individual actions, but never our destiny.
People who are particularly prone to guilt and anxiety could be relieved by the idea that somehow their life is not just a series of random events, but everything is going according to a greater scheme that watches over them. On the other hand, determinism also forwards the suffocating idea that having only one choice diminishes the importance of people’s actions. The step that immediately follows would be fatalism: humans are to simply resign to powerlessness.
Whether we believe in free will or determinism greatly affects the course of our own life.
Several scholars have conducted experiments and research about it. In a 2002 study, psychologist Kathleen Vohs from the University of Utah observed that day laborers who believe more strongly in free will perform better at their job. Contrarily, determinism-oriented individuals often behaved more instinctively and struggled to see themselves as blameworthy.
Free will is the foundation of today’s Western society, and people have inevitably internalized this perspective. A popular example of this would be the American Dream, which posits that success is an open door for anyone — regardless of the social status they were born into.
Although having such a mindset can be inspiring to those who benefit from seeing themselves in the privileged position of being the only masters of their existence, I encourage them not to reject determinism altogether.
I agree with Vohs’s finding that accepting our life as essentially meaningless can cause problems in society, as it may weaken our motivation and increase our self-interest. Neuroscientist and writer Sam Harris, however, offers an insight we could all benefit from.
Harris observes that it would be advantageous to society to see other people’s behaviors from the same perspective. Namely, accepting determinism to a certain extent can increase empathy among men and discourage blindly hating humans who fail to conform to laws. According to Harris in a 2016 interview The Atlantic, “losing belief in free will undercuts the rationale for ever hating anyone.”
The deterministic theory enhances a deeper understanding of the human brain, which could potentially solve some deeply rooted issues of society. For instance, instead of considering criminals inherently evil people, we must acknowledge that luck, or rather the lack thereof, contributed to them becoming a danger to society.
No one picked their own brain, and yet it determines all of our actions. Moreover, other societal factors at play, such as the racism of the criminal justice system, also play a deterministic effect in curtailing someone’s access to free will.
If the justice system accounted for convicts’ backgrounds, perhaps it would do a better job at rehabilitating them and eventually reduce the scale of crimes.
Even though it might be a particularly hard pill to swallow, I think it’s time for us to grow out of the illusions offered by free will and accept a certain degree of determinism because, for better or worse, we’re not the only ones in charge of our own destiny.