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Determinism and Freewill

By Bruce Barbour - November 2023 (Version 2.10)


After my earlier article titled "On Not Knowing" it is clear to me that there is rarely enough evidence or irrefutable reasoning to justify many philosophies being classed as "Knowledge" - as Justified True Belief. This is part of the human condition - we are fated to not know with certainty many things about our purpose and place in the universe, nor whether the Universe and humanity has any objective meaning, at least not at present. We are left to speculate.

While I have no issues with the speculation itself, I do have issues with some people saying with conviction, but without proof, that their speculated philosophy is true and that other alternative information or ideas that contradict it in some way are therefore false. To speculate is OK but say it is speculation or opinion. If their philosophy is proven by a high level of scientific evidence then they have justification for stating the philosophy with greater certainty.

Anyway I will provide my take on the age old - and may I say, fascinating - Determinism vs Freewill debate.

The approach is to first look at how causality works in the Universe, not initially considering the special case of how causality may work in humans. Then I will discuss issues with Determinism in the Universe.

After this I will revisit causality, this time concentrating on how causality and consequently Determinism might operate in humans.

I will then look at the arguments for and against Freewill. And try to come to some conclusions.

Causality - General

Causality, in the form of cause and effect, for matter - not extending into sub-atomic sizes - is well supported scientifically and in everyday experience. The typical example is billiard balls on a billiards table. The white ball is struck with the cue. It moves and hits another ball which also then moves. After a short-while all the balls come to a halt. All this is very well defined. If the initial location, and the force and the direction the white ball is struck is known (the cause) then its movement and the other struck ball's movement can be easily and accurately predicted (the effect). I call this type of causality "simple cause and effect".

This also applies for other processes in the Universe that obey laws of nature such as electrical processes and chemical reactions.

Hard Determinism in the Universe

This excludes detailed consideration of Determinism in humans which will be addressed later.

Determinism is the philosophy that everything in the Universe is governed by causal processes, primarily cause and effect. The argument goes that all events  - other than the Big Bang itself - have a prior cause. And that cause itself had a prior cause. And so on, back to the dawn of the Universe in a causal chain. Consequently there are no first causes, other than the one at the dawn of the Universe. This is hard Determinism.

Hard Determinism extends the scientific theory of cause and effect, which is well scientifically supported by Newtonian physics and other laws of nature, into every corner of the universe from the very large to the very small (sub-atomic) and, as will be discussed later, into the realm of human consciousness.

Issues with Hard Determinism  in the Universe

Some supporters/believers in Determinism - I will call them determinists - tend to dismiss probabilistic events in the Universe(1). They argue that if knowledge of a situation is sufficiently fine grained then it will be found that cause and known effect always prevails. This hypothesis is completely unproven.

Radioactive decay of a particle is typically probabilistic. A mass of radioactive particles have a known half-life - for example it might be a year. That means that 50% of the particles will radioactively decay in the first year and 50% of the remaining 50% (25% of the original particles) in the second year. Each subsequent year the number of particles that decay decrease geometrically. However scientists don't know when a particular individual particle will decay.

If the process is actually deterministic in a simple cause and effect way then the scientists should be able to intensely study a single radioactive particle and determine everything about its location and environment, its parts, its movements and then calculate exactly when that particular particle will decay. (Overlooking that simply observing something at the sub-atomic level can impact what is observed.) But I haven't seen reported science to suggest that this can be done at present. And this is for just one particle. Not the untold trillions that are decaying.

There are other processes in the quantum realm where probability plays a part.
Quantum mechanics shows there is randomness at the sub-atomic level. Outcomes from causes may not be able to be predicted in various circumstances in the quantum realm. Also things happen completely at random.

Some determinists tend to dismiss the existence of random events in the Universe. As with probabilistic events, they argue that if knowledge of a situation is sufficiently fine grained and once we understand quantum effects better then it will be found that the apparent randomness is not random after all but predictable and that cause and effect prevails. The hypothesis that randomness does not exist is called super-determinism. Again it is an unproven and currently unprovable hypothesis.

The existence of these randomness and probability driven outcomes in the Universe means that simple cause and effect is not the only process that determines what happens in the Universe.

I will address further issues with Determinism when I look a Determinism in humans.


Causality in Humans

Causality is tricky when it comes to humans.

Take an interaction between two people. A person comes up to another person and asks them to raise their right hand. Is that person then obliged or forced to raise their right hand? No. This shows that language, the spoken word, does not directly cause or necessarily cause the action requested. It doesn't make a person raise their hand. The interaction is unlike a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball where the ball must move in the one determined manner. There are multiple possible outcomes of the request. The person could raise their hand - or not. They could also run away or ask why they should raise their hand or tell the person to get lost. Or many other possibilities.

In this interaction the request to raise the hand does cause something but it is not necessarily the raising of the hand. What it does cause is a thought or a thought process. However it does not cause the detail of what is thought. Though the thought is most likely about whether to comply or not. 

While the request to raise the hand is causative - it causes a thought - it is unlike simple cause and effect where there is a known or knowable effect from a cause. For this reason I prefer to call this type of event, e.g. a request to raise the right hand, a stimulus rather than a cause.

There are also internal stimuli. A typical example of this would be the feeling of hunger that would stimulate the person to seek out and eat food.

Another variant of stimuli occurs with information received by the person from other sources. Face to face learning, books, movies and the internet and other sources as well. And there is also all the other experiences in life. Many of these are not directly causative of action but may promote thoughts, learnings* and memories. 

Of course the body is subject to physical simple cause and effect. If a person bumps into another person then obviously that person is going to be moved or fall over in a simple cause and effect scenario. In addition to this they might also let out some expletives. They also might not.  The expletives, if they occur, are a response to a stimulus.

The genetics a person inherits from their parents may also impact their actions, thoughts and emotions. Their genetics impacts their appearance, basic bodily functions and also some behavioural and personality propensities, and mental and physical abilities.

In summary throughout life a person is impacted by five factors:
  1. their genetics, which are largely set from conception;
  2. the person's learnings, gained from experience in the world, both sought after and involuntary, and also from information gained from sources such as formal education or from reading and other media;
  3. internal thought and emotional processes;
  4. various external and bodily internal stimuli; and
  5. directly causal factors in the world such as injuries from accidents, and also disease which could have internal or external causes. These generally act to decrease abilities.
It may be helpful to visualise these factors and their relationships in a diagrammatic representation.
Diagrammatic representation of the mind, body and the interaction with stimuli and causation.
Diagram 1: Diagrammatic representation of the mind, body and the interaction with stimuli.
Notes related to Diagram 1:
1. The Diagram does not show direct causal factors (item 5 from the list above).
2. All information flows (the arrows) will not operate in many interactions.
3. Learnings have different parts such as information, skills, and
"personality" for want of a better word. Learnings are contained in the memory. Some aspects of “Personality” may also have a genetic aspect and may be incorporated directly in the mind. There may be inherent (genetically based) skills also incorporated in the mind.
Stepping through an interaction:
  1. The stimulus - external or internal. Perceived by the mind through the bodily senses. Causes: -
  2. Thought about how to react to the stimulus.
  3. Accesses the learnings. The learnings contains information on what the person has learnt, including their experiences and preferences.
  4. Consequent thought about what action, if any, to take.
  5. Body tries to carryout chosen action.

Stimuli causes the initial thought process to commence. In the person's mind and body it is thought that reacts to stimuli and thought that accesses the learnings and then develops a thought that may lead to action.

There are two distinct types of cause and effect, each with two sub-types. Firstly there is the external stimulus cause and effect. The first sub-type is pass through cause and effect. There is an external stimulus, a thought process then action. This happens as a sequential process usually over a short period of time. The thought process, while initiated by the external stimulus, the contents of the thought are not determined by the stimulus. The question is what determines the content of the thought. Is it set by a process demanded by Determinism - in which case you have to determine how that works, what is the causal chain - or whether it is determined by Freewill agency.

The second sub-type is when the external stimulus does not cause external action. It may either cause learning, emotion or nothing. Listening to favourite music would be an example of emotion being caused by an external stimuli. The music causes pleasure but nothing else.

The second type of cause and effect due to internal stimuli. The first sub-type is the internally directed cause and effect. The cause comes from a thought process probably in conjunction with memory and the learnings. The thought process is not initiated by an immediate external stimulus. Again the thought could cause action, learning or nothing. Whether this is determined or not depends on whether a causal chain can be found to explain the initiation of the thought process or whether the initiation of the thought is the result of the agency of the person. That is, Freewill.

I discuss this type further in the section "No External Stimuli". 

The second sub-type of internal stimuli cause and effect is associated with automatic bodily processes. For example shivering when cold is automatic, breathing is automatic, neither controlled (completely) by thought. Other essentially automated processes also occur. For example the process of walking is largely automatic. Except if impaired, a person does not have to think about lifting one leg moving it forward and then the other. However where to walk is generally not automatic and involves a thought process because it is a choice. It could be either first or second type cause and effect (the first sub-type of each).

The learnings are a database or a library of what a person has learnt throughout their life, from their education and experiences and also ideas, such as philosophies of life, they might have formed during life. Learnings may also contain aspects of the person's personality.

Learnings can be formed in the memory over minutes, days, weeks, years or decades before there may be a stimulus initiated thought that uses the learning. Unlike a library it is imperfect in that learnings can be forgotten, change over time or be overwritten by subsequent learnings.

Learnings are not causative, anymore than a library book can be causative. They impact the content of the subsequent thought.

The learnings are not formed by blind acceptance of whatever the person takes in. There is a filtering. If it doesn't conform to earlier learnings it may be completely rejected. Or only parts of the information may be taken in, modifying the earlier learnings. Occasionally, if the information is persuasive, a whole earlier learning might be discarded and replaced with a different learning.

Another aspect to recognise is that the learnings do not have to be true to have impact on the person's decision making. Also learnings are not necessarily complete.

There is another type of learnings. That is creative learnings. It is not the same as other learnings because it is not the adoption of someone else's ideas as the person's own. It is when a person comes up with an idea that is new in some way. It is creative, a creation. There may be some precursor learnings that the person has absorbed from other people or from observation. But it goes beyond that. There is a leap to something new. This process must by necessity be occurring otherwise there would have been no progress in human knowledge over the centuries.

There are a lot of examples of original ideas, e.g. Darwin, Einstein etc. The original ideas would have impact on the life of the originator both before and after publication. Darwin's life would have completely changed because of his new ideas, his new learnings,  on evolution. Controversy, public appearances, debates, etc. It is likely that many more people have original ideas. They might not go on to publish their ideas but the ideas would impact on the person's own life. The ideas would act like learnings in their subsequent decision making processes and actions. They would impact on what the person does and what the person chooses to learn more about.

If the idea is genuinely new then what is the causal process that creates it? And what therefore is the causal chain for any subsequent decisions arising from the creative idea? I discuss general creativity later on in this article in relation to artists. Many of the issues with creative ideas are the same as those discussed in that section.

The total accepted learnings (as modified) impacts on what the person does in the future in response to various stimuli.
Logical Determinism / Psychological Determinism
Determinism in humans means decisions made in response to stimuli on the basis of previous learnings. They are determined in that a person is not going to go against what their previous learnings have taught them. It is determined, not on the basis of dumb simple cause and effect, but because it is logical that the person is going to act in accordance with what their prior experience and learnings has taught them. To not do so is illogical. The exceptions are if they are impaired in some way, through drugs or injury, or are being coerced.

The word "determined" has a different meaning in simple cause and effect compared to the meaning of "determined" in human consciousness. Determinism in a human's brain and consciousness can be described as "logical Determinism"(2), Determinism based on logic, to differentiate it from the Determinism based on simple cause and effect found in the rest of the Universe. Though perhaps I should call it "reason Determinism" instead of "logical Determinism". Faulty reasoning may be more easily understood than faulty logic.

When it involves emotion, rather than reason, it could be called psychological determinism, though logical and psychological Determinism are intertwined. Emotions are also learnt from external and internal stimuli, and from genetics.

Most decisions are logically determined regardless of whether a person has Freewill or their life is fully determined. In most cases the decision made, the course taken, will be exactly the same. Similarly for decisions undertaken primarily because of the person's emotion or psychology state. One of the determinists' favourite arguments is that they will point at virtually every decision a person makes and say, "see that decision was determined (by the person's likes or dislikes or experience or emotional state whatever). Therefore everything is determined. There is no Freewill." What determinist do not acknowledge is that a person with Freewill would probably make the exact same decision, not because it was hard determined but because it was logical to do so. The determinists cannot argue that a person with Freewill is not capable of using their logic and always has to act in a manner that proves they have Freewill even if it is against the person's best interests to do so. That argument doesn't stand up.

Once the determinists have come to this logically suspect conclusion about the decision making thought process they tend to extend it to all other thoughts and thought processes, saying that they are also fully determined.

A few more aspects to consider with logical Determinism and psychological Determinism.

The decision only has to be apparently logical to the person not absolutely logical. A person from outside might look at the decision and consider it to be illogical, and it might be. It only has to make sense to the person who is making the decision and their decision may well be influenced by their psychological state.

A person might be making the decision on the basis of wrong, faulty or incomplete learnings. It may be impacted by their emotions. Their decision is still apparently logical to them, though they may consciously recognise some lack in the completeness of the information that is the basis of their decision.

People can also choose not to be logical - perhaps in an effort to prove they have Freewill. This can apply even if the person's life is thought to be fully determined. The determinist would just say that the decision to be illogical was pre-determined. This is an illustration of how unfalsifiable the determinists' argument is.

The ability to make logical decisions is affected by the person's age.  When a person is young their mental abilities are less developed. And the learnings that they have to consult are significantly less than an older more experienced person. Their emotional range may be less. There is also a range in mental - including logical - abilities across a range of people, even if they are the same age. Gender may also play apart in how different people assess a similar problem. Different people may give some learnings higher importance than others.

Humans are complex!

* * * * *
It is clear that the causal processes in humans are radically different to simple cause and effect that predominates the rest of the Universe.

The question is does the process outlined in this section still allow Determinism(3)? Or does Freewill operate? I will go through three alternate hypotheses that address those questions: hard Determinism, Compatibilism (sometimes called soft Determinism) and Freewill.

Hard Determinism in Humans

Hard determinists say all things in people are determined by prior causes. This includes a person's actions, their thoughts and emotions and indeed their health. To hard determinists Freewill is an illusion.

Hard determinists, if they were to accept the model I outlined in the section above (and that is not known by me), would argue that what thought was generated from the stimulus was determined by the person's previous experience and their learnings. What is in the learnings and what the person has learnt from the information they obtained throughout life is determined. The person could not but learn it. Or if they failed to learn it or have forgotten it after a number of years then that was also determined - by the structure of the brain - their genetics - and /or their personality. If they learnt from a teacher, what that teacher taught, and the person and the teacher being in the classroom at the same time, was also determined. After this they would say how the person uses that learned information is also determined by the structure of the brain and other learnings.

If the person in the earlier example, the request to raise their hand, had learnt to obey reasonable demands of authority figures they will obey the authority figure in a fully determined manner. If they had learnt not to obey the commands of authority figures then they won't. The thoughts generated would be in accordance with what has been previously determined.

According to the hard determinists the person didn't have a choice either way - to raise their hand or not. Though it may seem like a choice to the person and it may seem like a choice to an outside observer.
Issue - Fatalism and Nihilism
If a person believes hard Determinism is the way the Universe and humanity operates it can lead them to think that as everything they do, think and achieve has been, and will in the future be, is predetermined by the chain of cause and effect beyond their control. Effectively their life is meaningless. They are simply a mechanism - a small cog if you like - in a gigantic machine and they cannot do anything to effect the course of their life. This is a very simplistic understanding of Determinism in humans however it is a view that can be arrived at if time is not taken to more fully grasp what Determinism in humans can mean. If a person does have this type of understanding it can lead to fatalism and nihilism - a sense of meaninglessness. If nothing a person does changes anything then this may lead some people to question the point of their life. It also creates problems with justifying the punishment of crimes if the criminal was always predetermined - outside of the criminal's control - to commit the crime. I will address this in greater detail later.

However there is a different way to look at hard Determinism that leads to a very different conclusion.
Issue - Creativity
Firstly consider the creative artist in a hard deterministic world. Let's for the sake of argument choose Mozart as that artist, but it could be another artist. In a deterministic world original music can't be created by Mozart. For Mozart to be the creator of the music would require Mozart to be a first causer and in a hard deterministic Universe the only first cause occurs at the beginning of the Universe. If this is accepted the question becomes where did what was formerly known as Mozart's music come from if not from Mozart himself?

It could be argued that Mozart was building on the musical works of others. However the works of others were not created by them either but would have also been built on the works of different others before them(4). So can the composition of the music formerly of Mozart be attributed to humanity as a whole? Perhaps. But in a deterministic world the beginning of the causal chain was not the beginning of humanity. The causal chain of the music ultimately had its origin at the start of the Universe.

This applies to not just the music of Mozart but also the music of all other composers. And all the artworks of the painters. And the sculptors. And the sonnets of Shakespeare and the works of all writers, artistic and otherwise. And all science, etc. And of course this extends beyond the artist and scientist to all other works of humanity. And to aliens if they exist.

If this worldview is accepted then the creativity does not belong to any particular human, nor indeed humanity as a whole. Instead it is the Universe that is intrinsically creative. The Universe allowed, no - demanded, the creation of Mozart's music(5). It was inevitable. Mozart was simply the means by which the music was expressed in the form we now know it.

But this is only if human action is bound by hard deterministic rules. And some hard determinists may not accept this line of reasoning, for whatever reason.
Popular Selection
Could there be another explanation for Mozart's music? There is another process in the universe that is undoubtedly creative. That is evolving life. In this case science has a very good explanation of the evolutionary processes that results in highly complex life forms developing over time. That is natural selection and survival of the fittest. However according to determinist philosophy the fact of and path of evolution must also be fully determined - see section immediately below.

Leaving aside the argument that the evolution of life is completely determined, could a natural selection process such as evolution be at work in musical creation?

Mozart grew up in an environment where there was a lot of pre-existing classical style music. There were other contemporary classical style composers working before and at the time he was born and while he was growing up. He was not living on a deserted island and found a piano washed up on the beach and suddenly started playing and composing - though it would be very interesting to hear what he would create in that circumstance.

How might evolutionary like processes work with music? A new composer would learn how to compose by being taught by an experienced teacher and listening to the existing classical style works. Learnings would play a part. In a composer's early learning stage the teacher would critique the work of the composer who would then go away and improve it or bin it. In the next stage of the composer's development they would do the critique phase themselves. Work that the composer considered not up to standard would be binned - or improved. The third stage would be public performance. The public would assess a new work by a composer on hearing it. They might applaud rapturously or mild polite applause or, in the extreme, boo or walk out. The music that received the rapturous applause would likely go on to be played again - and again. The music that received a less enthusiastic response would likely be rewritten to improve it, or else shelved or binned, and unlikely to be heard again. The composer of the music that received the rapturous applause is likely to go on and compose further similar music. And possibly improve on it again. The improvement may well be locked in to an extent as the composer would have learnt the rules for composing that type and standard of music. Other composers may also learn from the successful composition style and incorporate it into their own music. If the composer's works continually receive lukewarm, or worse, reviews it is likely that that composer would start looking for alternate employment.

This process is like natural selection. However instead of survival of the fittest it is survival of the most popular music. Popular selection rather than natural selection.

Does popular selection completely explain the music of Mozart? Mozart was a prodigy, performing and composing from a very early age. Mozart's genetics are also important for his abilities. The natural human variation so necessary for Darwinian evolution would also play a part in explaining the genius of Mozart.

The flaw in the argument is that some artists create works throughout their life while never being publicly recognised for their creativity. They might continue to create in the face of derision - unpopularity! Sometimes it is only after their death, and sometimes a long time after their death, that the artist's creativity is acknowledged and acclaimed. And in some cases it is never acknowledged or acclaimed. In both these cases popular selection would not contribute to driving their creativity forward through out life, yet they still create. The genetic factors would still be in play and they may have learnings in their earlier years as a student that would go to develop their creativity. Could it be that these artists are compelled to create by something within themselves? Perhaps for some people all they need is their genetics and learnings.

Popular selection, genetics and learnings can offer a possible explanation for the process and manifestations of creativity. But still ultimately in a deterministic Universe the music cannot be attributed to Mozart and must be attributed to universal causality. As does evolution itself - see section immediately below.
Issue - Evolution
Determinism insists on the primacy cause and effect in all processes. This means that, as with human creativity, the evolution of humanity and other life is due solely to the cause and effect processes in the Universe. And not just any cause and effect processes. The cause and effect processes must be exactly the ones that took place from the time of the Big Bang, with no variation possible, from the formation of all galaxies and planets, down to the first single cell organism on Earth and every specific individual organism that has ever existed.

Universal cause and effect would mean that evolution of humanity and all other life was locked into the Universe. It couldn't have not occurred. Humans, and all specific humans alive today, looking, thinking, feeling and behaving exactly as we do were always going to evolve. Humans are just the inevitable result of this process - nothing special!. At least not according to the Determinism hypothesis.(5)
Issue - Praiseworthiness
Hard determinists say that because it was outside the control of the person as to whether they produced or did not produce any creative or even any non-creative work, the person is not deserving of praise for producing the work. Creativity is just the result of universal cause and effect. Mozart was just lucky to be the one that manifests it.

While, as suggested in the section on "Popular Selection", popular selection is not the complete explanation for human creativity it does play a part for some artists. There are benefits in people being praised for their creative work, even if it is thought - by the hard determinists - they are not ultimately responsible for the work. The popular selection process leads to improved creativity. If people are not praised for their work then the process of popular selection will be less effective. There will be less "evolution" of musical forms and musical creativity.

The usefulness of praise, of course, applies to other fields as well. Literature, research, scientific study, etc.
Issue - Crime
In a world where everything, including human action, is governed by Determinism it can be quite logically argued that a criminal is not responsible for the crime they commit and therefore does not deserve to be punished for the crime.

However punishment of criminals can be justified, even if the world is governed by hard Determinism. The reasons are as follows:

As discussed in the section "Causality in Humans" a person learns how they will respond to later situations over a long period of time - from birth - by experiences and learnt information. If society has rules, which become laws against crimes, these rules will be learnt by a lot of people and included in their way of acting and reacting to situations. There will be some that do not, for whatever reason, heed the information available, and the learnings from it, and go on to commit crimes. A determinist might say that as they were always going to commit the crime they therefore can't be held responsible and punished for it.

However there are very real reasons why the punishment needs to proceed. Firstly the lesser argument is that the criminal would have learnt that what they are contemplating doing is a crime. And when committing the crime they know there is punishment if caught. They have taken on board the risk and effectively have agreed to the consequences if caught even though they undoubtedly don't like it. It is a form of social contract - the criminal knows before they do the crime there is a real risk they could do the time. They have accepted this - there is less reason for not enforcing the punishment. This holds even while, in the hard determinist's view, they are not to blame for their crime.

The main argument why the criminal must be punished is that to not do so makes a mockery of the societal rules, the laws, put in place. If the criminal is let off after the crime then the law might as well not exist. Therefore when other people are learning and absorbing information that will impact on how they will act in society and react in the future to various situations where crime is a possibility they will no longer take into account the possibility of being punished because they see other criminals being let off. Effectively the law doesn't exist, even if the law is still on paper. The outcome is that more people as they are growing up will not learn that crime is bad and has consequences for them if they commit a crime. Undeniably more people will commit crimes, and society will be less civil and a less desirable place to live for the law abiding citizens.

People also have a right to protect themselves. Locking up a criminal will protect society from that criminal for a while. Ideally incarceration for the criminal should not be primarily about punishment but about providing the criminal with new learnings to supplant their earlier learnings which allowed, or indeed forced, them to commit the crime. Rehabilitation, not punishment, is ideally what prison and other social or physical restraints should be about - regardless of the Determinism/Freewill debate.

For these reasons crimes and therefore criminals must be punished(6).

Further issues with Determinism will be discussed later in this article.

* * * * * * *
There are other versions of Determinism. The main alternate version is called Compatibilism or soft Determinism.


Compatibilism is often called soft Determinism. It argues that Determinism in the Universe is compatible with human Freewill. Supporters of Combatibilism - I will call them compatibilists - agree with the hard determinists on the deterministic nature of processes in the Universe at large but refine it for humans. While they see human action as still being determined it is a different form of Determinism to simple cause and effect seen in the rest of the Universe.

Compatibilists -  if they accept the Diagram 1 model above (again I would not know for certain whether they would or would not) - see a person that has life long learnings contained in their brain or mind. They see a person responding to a stimulus in the present by judging what to do based on these life long learnings and genetics. And indeed these learnings  also guide what they will seek to learn in the future. If any action (effect) occurs, the cause of that action is due to a thought originating in the brain/mind. Every "voluntary" action is due to internal brain processes, not directly from an external cause or stimulus. Because it is coming from the person's brain that contains learnings that to an extent the person has "chosen" they say this is equivalent to the person having Freewill. They consider their choices free in that there is no external force or effect outside of their brain stopping them from making a different choice to the one they made. They were "entirely free" to make the choice they did make.

However ultimately the compatabilist still considers that the learnings, thoughts and subsequent actions (effects) are all determined.

The crossover between "compatibilist freewill" and "full Freewill" depends on what the impact of consciousness is. Compatibilists might describe the "self" of the person, if they had such a concept, as the sum of the person's genetics and their lifelong experience and Learnings, all of which are determined. A supporter of full Freewill might describe the "self" as the sum of the person's genetics, lifelong experience, learnings and their consciousness. Compatibilist may discount consciousness as just another determined brain effect. Supporters of Freewill may see consciousness as an emergent property that is something more than a mere determined brain effect. (Not all Compatibilists or supporters of Freewill would agree with these distinctions.)  
Compatibilism, Creativity and Crime
Compatibilists would say that it is appropriate to attribute Mozart's music to Mozart. After all, it is his learning and experience over years that has made the music. And his genetics as well. Similarly for the creative works of other creators. And the science published by scientists. Etc. They can, at least superficially, all be attributed as the creators of their works. However Compatibilists still see everything as being determined at its core so they still have the same problem as the hard determinists as to what is ultimately the source of creativity.

Compatibilists see a person as being responsible for his or her actions because how the person reacts depends on the person's prior learning and experience over many years or decades.  Compatibilists believe that people should be held responsible for the crimes they commit and therefore can be punished for those crimes.

Decision Making and Determinism

As discussed in the section on "Logical Determinism", regardless of whether Determinism or Freewill prevails in the human mind most decisions are "determined" by a person's learnings and genetics. Not necessarily simply determined but logically determined. Even if a person has Freewill, a person is not going to go against what their previous learnings have taught them (except in the case of coercion). That would be illogical. And if it is all hard determined then they will still act in accordance with their learnings (or the coercion), because (1) that is what is logical to do, and (2) in accordance with the ideas of determinism, they did not actually have a choice.

To differentiate whether decisions are governed by Freewill or governed by Determination it is necessary to investigate decision making at the periphery. These are the areas of decision making where there are no definitive reasons for the decisions and where the outcome of the decisions are less certain. Two types of decisions that meet this criteria are: some types of decisions that are not initiated by external stimuli; and the 50/50 decisions.
No External Stimuli
Firstly decisions and actions where there is no external stimuli. This is second type cause and effect (sub-type 1), as referred to in the section "Causality in Humans".

A person wakes up. They have nothing planned for the day. There are a number of actions they do because they do them every day: prepare and eat food; have a shower; get dressed; etc. All could be said to be determined by prior learnings. But then what to do for the rest of the day? They could go shopping, mow the lawn, see a film, do house work, write a post for the internet; etc. There is no or less external stimuli to guide that choice, though something like the weather might rule out a few options. The stimuli is most likely internal. The stimuli would be in the form of a thought or thoughts. But what is that thought.

Everyone would have had this experience. Nothing to do. As always there would have been a stream of thoughts in their head. Some of those thoughts might be along the lines of "what shall I do now?". Where did this thought come from?

One possibility is that the brain/mind has learnt to ask the question "what shall I do now?". Perhaps the brain is frequently asking this question. When doing a more complex task the question would guide the person to the next stage of the task. When there is no task, nothing to do, it prompts the person to find a new task. It would find the new task by consulting the learnings.

Can this questioning "what shall I do now?" be considered to be determined? If it is coming from the learnings then perhaps yes. Just like other learnings are thought of as being determined by hard determinists.

An alternative is that the person becomes aware of nothing to do and is stimulated to ask "what shall I do?". A different type of stimulus. Nothing as a stimulus! It is unlike other stimuli or causal thoughts(7). It is only a stimulus because the thought processes in the brain makes it a stimulus. Thinking about it a bit more, isn't that the way all stimuli work? A person shouting "raise your right hand" in the middle of the desert to no-one, stimulates no-one.

People who support the Freewill hypothesis will see the question "what shall I do now?" as being part of the functioning of a free mind. The free mind sees nothing to do and generates the thought "what shall I do now?"

The question "what shall I do now?", regardless of how or why that thought is generated, could then cause a secondary thought process listing what could be done.

This has so far addressed how an internal stimulus thought occurs. The learnings that are consulted could also be decades old. Or they could be relatively recent. The causative thought arising from consulting the learnings would rely on the person's preferences, choosing an option out of the list of what could be done.

Another variant of "nothing to do now" situation is a passive environmental situation. For example, a person gets out of bed in the morning and goes into the kitchen. It is a mess. So they decide to tidy up. It could be argued that the stimulus is the state of the kitchen. However, if it is a stimulus, it is a stimulus that is just sitting there, not actively requesting action, not requesting to be tidied up. It is up to the person's thought processes as to whether it stimulates any thought or action. To that extent it could be considered that the stimulus is from the thought process. In other words, internal.

Another example of second type cause and effect is when someone has a (seemingly) spontaneous thought and decides to act on it. This could be regardless of any external stimuli occurring at the time, external stimuli that could have lead to other action if the person had not decided to ignore it and react to the spontaneous thought. There was no immediate external stimulus related to the action taken. Again most people would have experienced this. Where did that spontaneous thought come from? Determinists would have to find a causal chain. Freewill supporters would say it is just a spontaneous thought without a cause which are occurring all the time (most of which do not result in action).
50/50 Decisions
Decisions where there are no clear answers are also interesting.  This could apply in a internal self stimulus, nothing to do type situation, or in the a typical external stimulus situation.

What does the person do when making a decision between two alternatives where their learnings do not point to a clear preference. Or perhaps what is in the learnings is not useful. Perhaps the person's logic or reasoning does not help. This could be the situation if the person is asked to call a head or a tail on a flip of a coin. The only guidance their learnings can provide is to make the person aware that there is a 50/50 chance of either outcome.

However a decision has to be made and will be made. Where does that decision come from? Does the mind flip a mental coin?

The hard determinist would answer these questions by saying while a person may not be consciously aware  of the cause, never-the-less there is a cause that has been determined from the learnings and genetics of the person. For the coin toss scenario they would say that what the person calls was determined, not just from the start of the person's life but from the start of time. As was the result of the physical coin toss.

People who believe in Freewill will say the person just makes a random choice because logically they know either result is just as likely.

The answers to both of these questions are the nub of the Freewill/Determinism debate. 


I will adopt a two pronged approach:
  • arguments in support of Freewill.
  • arguments about why cause and effect may not be universally applicable to conscious life. This then opens up the possibility for Freewill.

Common Sense Experience of Freewill

One of the main arguments for Freewill is the ubiquity of the common sense experience. People feel they are free to choose. Everyone can think of everyday experiences which seem to indicate the presence of Freewill. A person goes into a cafe and faced with a choice from say 6 coffee types - and they choose, seemingly freely - what coffee type and indeed whether or not to go to the cafe in the first place. For something like the coffee choice there most likely would be prior learnings as to why a cappuccino was chosen over a flat white. The person's experience/learnings may be that, for whatever reason, they like cappuccino over flat white.

Even though a person has the learnings that say they prefer cappuccino, they can always choose a flat white if they want to. But why would they when they prefer cappuccino? That would be illogical. If the person did choose the flat white this choice would be made based on further thought processes. However the possibility that they can choose differently, even though such a choice might be illogical in some respects, is a reasonable case for at least a form of Freewill, apparent or otherwise. They are not a slave to logic nor to their prior learnings - though they may choose to act in accordance with logic and their prior learnings for most of the time.

Another example. A person is going for a walk in the afternoon. They have no particular destination. It is a lovely day, good to be outside in the sun and fresh air. They come to an intersection and can't decide which way to go. They get out a coin, spin it into the air and let it fall to the ground. Heads they go left, tails they go right. Its a head so they go left, continue on with their walk, returning to their house in an hour.

A determinist will say all this is predetermined. And to maintain the determinist hypothesis it must be. For in my example if the person had turned right instead of left they would have met a beautiful woman walking her dog, commenced a conversation, a relationship and had a marriage and kids - the whole catastrophe as Zorba might have pessimistically surmised. The person's whole life would have been different to what it was because they had turned left instead of right - possibly to a different type of catastrophe - as I pessimistically surmise.

For the determinist's view to prevail the coin flip must be determined. Once the coin is in the air, it speed, spin and location are all set. When it hits the pavement how it bounces can be known. Whether it will be head or tail can be known. But what about the coin flip itself? That is affected by how the thumb, hand, arm and body of the person move. Can this also be predetermined? This would require that the person's bodily movements that caused the coin flip and spin on this day, at this time, at this location on a small planet in one of the billions of solar systems and billions of galaxies in the Universe, were set in a continuous causal chain from the commencement of the Universe 13 plus billion years ago.

The Freewill explanation is that the person decided to flip a coin. As a result the person turned left instead of right. And unfortunately for him missed meeting the beautiful woman.

What immediately springs to my mind is Ockham's Razor - which approximates to "the simplest explanation is usually the best one". The Freewill explanation is a lot simpler than the determinist explanation - not just for this example but in many other situations as well, such as creativity and crime - see the "Hard Determinism in Humans" section. However Ockham's Razor is in no way a proof. And I am sure there have been many instances where Ockham's Razor did not apply for the correct answer.

The everyday experience of apparent Freewill cannot be, and should not be, readily dismissed without substantive scientific proof and/or evidence to the contrary. While it is true that there is no scientific experiment that can definitively rule out that our apparent Freewill choices are not free due to prior causes, there is also no scientific proof that Freewill does not exist and that Determinism rules.

Because of the ubiquity of the everyday experience of Freewill and the relative simplicity of the Freewill explanation, the burden of proof against the Freewill experience should be on the determinists.

However it is likely that the determinists would counter argue that because of the ubiquity of cause and effect in the Universe as a whole the burden of proof should be on the believers in Freewill to show that cause and effect is not the only process in operation in the special case of human consciousness.

Decision Making and Consciousness

As I said at the end of the section "Decision Making and Determinism" the nub of the question of whether Freewill exists is, firstly, how decisions are made and actions occur when there is no external stimuli, and secondly, how decisions are made and actions occur where there no clear response, the 50/50 decision. I addressed how determinists might view this in the "Decision Making and Determinism" section.

Freewill advocates will contend in both cases it is the person's free choice.

What is meant by free choice? To have a free choice implies that the person, by him or her self, has thoughts as a result of stimuli which may then leads onto actions and other effects. This is agency.

Determinists reject the possibility that a person could have agency. That a person could cause something new. Some determinists think that a person supporting Freewill is necessarily advocating for mind body dualism or the existence of a soul or even requiring the existence of a god. None of those is necessary for Freewill agency. They are different ideas. Just as dualism or soul is not necessary for human consciousness, neither is it necessary for Freewill agency.
It seems that some determinists have a belief system that says there is only one new cause in the Universe and that is the First Cause, the Big Bang. Anything else violates an inviolable law of the Universe. That thought process has similarities to religious thought. It is an ideology. It is not scientifically proven as much as they may like to think it is.

The trouble is while it seems that cause and effect is a reasonable explanation of most non-sub-atomic processes (setting aside the quantum realm) in the Universe it can't be extrapolated into the consciousness without proof. As I hope I have shown the consciousness is complex, as far as we know, along with the brain, they are the most complex things in the Universe. Extrapolation of simple concepts is risky. It has already been shown not to work in the case of quantum mechanics. 

Freewill supporters will accept that a human decision and then action is possibly a new cause that might instigate a new causal chain, which may continue or may peter out. They would not see this as a big issue.

Determinists need to explain why there can't be more than one first cause in the Universe with out referring to their creed that there is only one first cause.

Incompleteness of Scientific Knowledge

The huge gaps in knowledge that currently exists in a number of areas introduce a lot of uncertainty into the hypothesis that causality solely govern the operations of the mind and human consciousness.
The ability to freely choose, if it exists, is part of the consciousness and related processes and to being self aware. It is also related to the property of intelligence. However no scientist or philosopher or anyone else knows (in terms of justified true belief) what consciousness is. Nor how it works. Freewill, if it exists, is inextricably bound to all of these properties. Human Determinism, if it exists, also has to be able to work in conjunction with (or maybe despite) these properties. 

The hypothesis I like the best is that the experience of human consciousness and intelligence arises with the increased complexity of information handling capability of the brain. This hypothesis is unproven, but then so are all other hypothesis about the nature of consciousness. I contend that human consciousness is bound to the functioning of the brain. This is also contested, however observe what happens to people with acquired brain injury. While they may be conscious their cognitive abilities may be significantly impaired. With catastrophic brain injury consciousness can be completely lost. People can have catastrophic injuries to other parts of their body and, provided they survive, their consciousness will be intact.

Consciousness and intelligence is important in determining whether a person has Freewill. Consciousness and intelligence are properties that are emergent. They are new. Until complex life arose on Earth consciousness had not been present in the Universe. (Except for the probability of conscious alien life somewhere else in the cosmos.)(8) Why is this? Prior to complex life and consciousness arising Determinism and cause and effect was only dealing with dumb matter all behaving in manners that can be described by Newtonian mathematical formulas or other laws of nature. However with conscious life a person can now observe cause and effect on motion, say billiard balls moving on a table top. And if the person wants to they can grab one or more of the billiard balls and stop the previous seemingly determined effect. Conscious intervention has not been observed prior to life. The causal process in humans of logical Determinism was not around.

Another emergent property of conscious life, not seen elsewhere in the Universe, is the ability to foresee or imagine future options of various likelihood and plan ahead to ensure the option occurs or to change what is thought to be going to occur in the future. An astronomer could observe an asteroid in space and predict that it is on a course that would see it collide with Earth in say 6 months. They can then, in conjunction with others, work to stop that collision, directly intervening in the outcome that would have otherwise occurred. Prior to the rise of consciousness and intelligence the asteroid collision with the Earth would have been certain - witness the extinction of the dinosaurs.

While scientists have investigated the wiring of the brain with highly complex scans it is still not fully understood. Information goes in and is processed in a manner that is not understood. The information/thought can lead to learnings stored for future use and/or can lead to action or inaction.

My conclusion is that no one can make a definitive statement that humans are governed by Determinism, or indeed Freewill, until consciousness is fully explained and understood.
Quantum Mechanics
There are two aspects of quantum mechanic that I will discuss. The first is the effect observation can have in the quantum realm and the second is the existence of both random outcomes and outcomes based on probability in the quantum realm.

It is well known that observation can have an effect in the quantum realm. Electromagnetic radiation has properties that cause the radiation to behave in the manner of waves in some circumstances and in the manner of a stream of particles in other circumstances. What causes this "collapse of the wave function" is observation and/or measurement. Observation is a function of consciousness, though animals that may not be conscious may also be able to do this. It is not known whether this wave function collapse by itself is significant in terms of Freewill/Determinism argument.

As discussed earlier, quantum mechanics shows there is randomness at the sub-atomic level. Outcomes from causes may not be able to be predicted in various circumstances in the quantum realm. It has been postulated that this may impact on how consciousness works. To what extent, if any, nobody knows. However determinists have a valid argument that a person that is responding purely randomly to a situation is not the same as a person making a freewill choice. Freewill proponents would agree with them.

The reason why I still bring this up as an issue is that one of the main arguments of the determinists against the existence of Freewill is that every action (effect) in the Universe from macro to sub-micro has a prior cause. In other words everything is governed by causality, cause and effect - period. If randomness and probability are working along side of cause and effect it shows that this is not the case.

While the existence of the processes the impact of observation and randomness. does not imply that Freewill exists it does open up the possibility that another as yet unknown process may also operate in the Universe, or more specifically in the consciousness, that could allow Freewill to exist. What this process is is not known.(9)

There are many aspects of quantum mechanics that are not understood. Further advances in knowledge are made each year but the project is in no way complete. It may only become complete when there is an agreed Grand Unified Theory - maybe decades away, if ever. Objects in the quantum realm (sub-atomic) do not behave in the same way as they do in the Newtonian realm (larger than sub-atomic). Probability and uncertainty come into play whereas the Newtonian realm is less uncertain.

It is not known with certainty to what extent the processes of the consciousness and the mind operate sub-atomically.
Other Gaps in Scientific Knowledge
There are other huge gaps in scientific knowledge.

Scientists don't know what dark energy and dark matter is and even definitively whether it actual exists rather than being a hypothesis that falls out of observations and mathematical models. The possible presence of dark matter is suggested by the way solar systems and galaxies move in the universe. There are also some indirect observations that suggest the existence of dark matter - for example observed gravitational lensing that could be explained by the presence of dark matter. However no dark matter particle has been captured in nature or created in an atomic collider. Dark matter is a hypothesis still awaiting proof. Dark matter and dark energy may make up 85% of the Universe if it is subsequently proven to exist. If it doesn't exist there has to be other unknown processes or forces occurring in the Universe which would provide an explanation of the movement of solar systems and galaxies in the Universe that the dark matter hypothesis is currently used to explain.

Supporters of Determinism dismiss the massive holes in scientific knowledge as inconsequential. Regardless of what they say and the apparent certainty with which they say it, their hypothesis is unproven. Cause and effect can't be extrapolated with confidence to operate in the sphere of the very small and into the sphere of consciousness while there are so many gaps in knowledge. The certainty is well below the confidence levels needed for it to be classed as knowledge.


Supporters of Freewill have no issues with human creativity, including both the works of artists and creative thought. It is the work of the person themself, a person with the agency due to Freewill.

All of the issues created by the Determinism model fall away. Mozart did compose his music.


Both Determinism and Freewill are hypotheses that can’t be proven or disproven as yet. They are both scientifically unfalsifiable. Neither hypothesis can be stated with certainty. Therefore the best that can be done is to try to decide which hypothesis is more likely. This decision has to be based on reasoned argument.

I find the following arguments to be persuasive for Freewill: 
  • the ubiquity of the Freewill experience in humans; and
  • the differences in the processes of causality in humans and simple cause and effect in the rest of the Universe. In humans there is a logical decision making process. There is no decision making process in simple cause and effect. Just dumb matter acting in accord with various laws of nature.
The following are issues for both Freewill and Determinism in humans:
  • the large gaps in scientific knowledge (experimentally proven scientific theory) on how consciousness works and consequently the workings of Freewill or Determinism - as stated; and
  • The large gaps in other areas of science and knowledge, such as dark matter and quantum mechanics, which may or may not impact on the Freewill/Determinism debate.

The following are issues for Determinism in humans:

  • The extrapolation of the scientific theory of cause and effect, that is well justified in most areas of the Universe, it into the realm of the brain, the most complex structure that is known in the Universe, and into consciousness, without scientific proof;
  • The elimination or the lessening of the justification of the punishment of people who commit crime. It also creates issues about whether people deserve to be praised for the works they create;
  • the existence of creativity, such as that of Mozart and many other artists, and the lack of adequate explanation for it from the determinist camp; and 
  • the existence of a person's own creative ideas (creative learnings) and their impact on decision making and the issues that creates for argument that all human thought and other mental processes are governed by cause and effect.
As Freewill and Determinism are the only two options for the processes that governs human decision making, unresolved issues with Determinism makes the Freewill option more likely. Similarly unresolved issues with Freewill makes the Determinism option more likely.

The following argument is persuasive for Determinism:
  • the claimed ubiquity of cause and effect in laws of nature in most Universal processes. (However cause and effect hasn't been scientifically shown to be the sole process to operate in human consciousness and randomness and probability shows that cause and effect may not be as ubiquitous as argued);
  • the apparent logic of the causal chain argument "for every effect there is a cause which itself has a cause"; and
  • If cause and effect doesn't govern consciousness and human decision making there needs to be a fuller scientific explanation for how consciousness works.


When more is known about the Universe there is a possibility it could be discovered that cause and effect governs the human mind and everything else in the Universe, leading to a completely deterministic Universe.

However the reverse could also be discovered to be the case - that is Freewill plays an important role in the lives of humanity.

Simple cause and effect is an important process in the Universe - with probability and randomness also playing a part. However the causal processes in the human brain and consciousness are significantly more complex than simple cause and effect in the rest of the Universe. My opinion is that it is reasonably likely (say 80%) that humans do have Freewill(10).

This is not Knowledge - justified true belief. It is based on a series of arguments from reason, as expressed in this article.


(1). Not all determinists dismiss probability and randomness in the Universe, but certainly deny that it has any impact on the possibility of Freewill.
(2). This is a different use of the term "logical Determinism" than has been previously defined.
(3). When responding to something painful often the response is immediate and automatic. And not conscious. This is most likely due to genetics but may have a learnings component. And also uncontrollable automatic bodily responses, such as shivering when it is cold, may have their origins in genetics.
(4). While it can be imagined that the causal chain of music creativity could be propagated through a chain of humans back through history it becomes harder to see how the process might work prior to humanity and indeed prior to life itself. This would somehow require the music to be contained in the matter generated shortly after the Big Bang. However this seems to be what Determinism requires. I have read arguments about "quantum information" from the time of the Big Bang being preserved, but to me that just seems to raise more questions than it answers.
My opinion is that it is absurd to think that each piece of Mozart's music was somehow contained in the early matter of the Universe. Instead the rules necessary for the creation of music and indeed of life itself (the rules of particle interaction, molecule formation, that allowed life and guided subsequently evolution) was created at the start of the Universe, just as all of the other laws of nature were created at the start of the Universe - rules that governed the unfolding of the Universe as it did. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik itself was not around at the start of the Universe but the rules that allowed it were. These rules were learnt by Mozart and thus the music created. So was Mozart the creator of his music? I am sure the supporters of Determinism and Freewill will still disagree even if they accepted the hypothesis of rules.
(5). The development and diversity of all life and the creativity of that life intrinsically arises from the cause and effect processes occurring from the beginnings of the Universe. The Universe itself is the ultimate cause and the source of everything that occurs in the Universe. For a person that believes in this form of Determinism it is a short step to pantheism.
I could envisage a highly deterministic Universe where some variability was allowed due to quantum indeterminacy, probability and randomness. If this Universe was re-run from the start, from the Big Bang, it would not turn out exactly the same as the current Universe though it may be quite close - or not? Perhaps in this Universe human Freewill would still not exist - though perhaps some randomness of actions and outcome (not due to Freewill) could exist. I haven't read many determinists making this argument so I assume invariable hard Determinism is the most favoured version. The hard Determinism invariable Universe is what I have used in this article.
(6). Of course the severity of the punishment needs to be tempered by the person's circumstances and history, as I hope it is under our current punishment system.
(7). For comparison, a robot with artificial intelligence if in the position of having nothing to do would most likely do nothing. Humans are not like that.
(8). There is a hypothesis that all matter in the Universe has the property of consciousness. For something like a rock that property would be at a very minute level compared to the consciousness of a person. Again unproven speculation - but who knows.
(9) The determinists would probably dismiss this out of hand and even if they considered the possibility would undoubtedly argue that consciousness is an illusion that is deterministically driven anyway, so any outcome would also be deterministic.
(10). Logically if you don't accept the Freewill hypothesis then Determinism (possibly in conjunction with probabilistic effects) is the alternative - and I would opt for the Compatibilism version. Even if Freewill is ruled out by future scientific work a person would be well advised to "forget" this and to live as though they have Freewill, the same as they did before they learnt about Determinism. If they don't they could risk Nihilism, which some people find difficult to live with.
Neither Determinism nor Freewill rule out pantheism or many other theistic beliefs.

On Not Knowing
Determinism Miscellany
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