Varieties of Deterministic Experience

What determines the fate of our world? Depending on your views, there may be few different macro narratives:

Mimetic Determinism

There are ideas floating around with various evolutionary properties. Some of them are really good at embedding in our minds, some are really good at making their hosts spread them further. The best memes get stuck in your brain, compel you to attain a position of great prestige, credibility and power, then insist that you spread them as wide and far as possible.

There are also meme-complexes (Memeplexes) with symbiotic or parasitic relationships. For example, some people are compelled to become Venture Capitalists, but it’s useless without the corresponding meme that compels people to become startup founders.

From Nadia’s The tyranny of ideas:

Rather than viewing people as agents of change, I think of them as intermediaries, voice boxes for some persistent idea-virus that’s seized upon them and is speaking through their corporeal form. You might think of this as “great prophet theory”.

Ideas ride us into battle like warhorses. We can witness, participate in, and even lead these battles, but their true meaning eludes us. We don’t really know where ideas come from, nor how to control them.

See Also
Wikipedia – Memeplex
Dawkins – The Selfish Gene
Joe Carlsmith – The innocent gene
Bernard Beckett – Genesis
Creanza et al. – Cultural evolutionary theory

Financial / Economic Determinism

There are incentives which necessitate certain consequences. If it’s profitable, it will be built. From Scott’s Meditations on Moloch

Just as you can look at an arid terrain and determine what shape a river will one day take by assuming water will obey gravity, so you can look at a civilization and determine what shape its institutions will one day take by assuming people will obey incentives… Just as the course of a river is latent in a terrain even before the first rain falls on it – so the existence of Caesar’s Palace was latent in neurobiology, economics, and regulatory regimes even before it existed. The entrepreneur who built it was just filling in the ghostly lines with real concrete.

More specific arguments can apply in local contexts. For example:

  • There are different dating apps.
  • Ironically, the ones that fail to create stable matchings will see more repeat use and popularity.
  • Thus, the dominant dating app will inevitably be designed to alienate.

More broadly, organizations may promote certain values, scientific institutions may promote the construction of certain types of knowledge. Platforms may promote certain kinds of content.

See Also
Wikipedia – Base and superstructure
Wikipedia – Economic Determinism
Applied Divinity Studies – How Substack Became Milquetoast

Game Theoretic Determinism

A perspective frequently utilized in super long term forecasting, and reasoning about alien civilizations or superintelligent agents. For example, an argument might take the form:

  • Some civilizations will colonize the universe
  • Thus, the far future universe will be populated mainly with agents who are pro-expansion and pro-progress

Or more mundanely:

  • Some religious groups on earth promote high-fertility rates
  • Thus, the near future will be populated mainly with agents who are pro-population growth

There are more nuanced and complex arguments of this general shape. In Liu Cixin’s Three Body Problem Trilogy:

  • Civilizations can’t trust each other
  • Technological progress can proceed exponentially, such that observing that a civilization is harmless from thousands of lightyears away is no guarantee that they’ll be harmless by the time you arrive
  • Thus, any civilization that learns about the existence of another civilization will immediately act forcefully to destroy it

See also:
Scott Alexander – The Hour I First Believed
Philip Trammell – Which World Gets Saved
Ben West – An Argument for Why the Future May Be Good

Physical Determinism

There are particles in the universe (including those in our brains) subject to physical laws which determine their behavior.


This is a limited typology, there are likely many other views, both reasonable and not. Note that these views are non-exhaustive. You could say that things are determined by physics at the level of individual particles, but by memes at the level of human behavior. Or that it’s all incentives, but that those incentives are modulated by facts about human psychology.

Note as well that these views should be neither horrifying nor necessarily comforting. To take another example, evolution does provide a guarantee that agents are well-adapted to some set of circumstances, but provides no guarantee that they remain well-adapted. Or in capitalism, there is a strong likelihood that sufficiently profitable business will be created by someone, but no guarantee that profit proxies well for human values.

Finally, these views all (perhaps with the exception of physical determinism) are not really absolute. You are perhaps a slave to memes as brain-parasites, but have some control over which memes you choose to take on. Through will-power may be subjugated to habit in general, and occasional breakthroughs of will-power might allow you to, for example, delete Twitter, sign up for therapy and install a Chrome extension that blocks content recommendations.

Identifying more of these views, mapping their influence in various social spheres, and better reasoning through their consequences is a promising avenue for future work. In particular, would love to see follow-up posts:

See Also
Katja Grace – What is going on in the world?
Yudkowsky – An Alien God
Yudkowsky – Inadequate Equilibria