Determinism and Freewill
By Bruce Barbour - September 2023 (Version 2.4)
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
Anyway I will provide my take on the age old Determinism vs
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
natural laws 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 natural laws, into every corner of the universe from the very
large to the very small (sub-atomic) and into the realm of human
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
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. It has been postulated that this may impact on how
consciousness works. To what extent, if any, nobody knows.
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 superdeterminism. Again it is an unproven
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. 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 is working along side of cause and effect it shows that
this is not the case.
While the existence of these processes 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.
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
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:
It may be helpful to visualise these factors and their relationships
in a diagrammatic representation.
- their genetics, which are largely set from conception;
- 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
- internal thought and emotional processes;
- various external and bodily internal stimuli; and
- 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.
Stepping through an interaction:
Diagram 1: Diagrammatic
representation of the mind, body and the interaction with
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
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.
- The stimulus - external or internal. Perceived by the mind
through the bodily senses. Causes: -
- Thought about how to react to the stimulus.
- Accesses the learnings. The learnings contains information on
what the person has learnt, including their experiences and
- Consequent thought about what action, if any, to take.
- 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
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,
I discuss this type further in the section "No External
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
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.
The 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.
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
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
A few more aspects to consider with logical Determinism and
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 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)
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
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
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 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
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.
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. Could a similar process be at work in musical
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
Popular selection, genetics and learnings can offer a possible
explanation for the manifestations of creativity. But still
ultimately in a deterministic Universe the music cannot be
attributed to Mozart and must be attributed to universal causality.
The popular selection process, if in operation, would work
regardless whether humans are governed by hard Determinism, soft
Determinism or Freewill. As would the impact genetics and learnings
on musical creation.
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
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
* * * * * * *
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
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
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
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
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
However there are two types of decisions where the outcome of the
decision is less certain. These decision types are worthy of further
consideration: decisions that are (seemingly) not initiated by
external stimuli; and 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
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
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).
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
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
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
The answers to both of these questions are the nub of the
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
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
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
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
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
Freewill advocates will contend in both cases it is the person's
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
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
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 natural laws. 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.
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 is significant in terms of Freewill/Determinism
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
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. It is a
hypothesis awaiting proof. Dark matter 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
All of the issues created by the determinist model fall away. Mozart
did compose his music.
I find the following arguments to be persuasive for Freewill:
The following are issues for both Freewill and Determinism:
- the ubiquity of the Freewill experience in humans;
- 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 natural laws;
- the existence of creativity, such as that of Mozart, and the
lack of adequate explanation of it from the determinist camp.
- 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; and
- The other problems with the Determinism explanation as
discussed in this article.
The following argument is persuasive for Determinism:
- the large gaps in scientific knowledge (experimentally proven
scientific theory) on how consciousness works and consequently
the workings of Freewill or Determinism; and
- The large gaps in other areas of science and knowledge which
may or may not impact on the Freewill/Determinism debate.
No definitive claim can be made as to whether humans have Freewill
or whether human decision making and actions are governed by
Determinism. Both Freewill and Determinism are currently
unfalsifiable. That does not mean people should stop trying.
- the ubiquity of cause and effect in natural laws in most
Universal processes. However cause and effect hasn't been
scientifically shown to operate in humanity.
- 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 another as yet unknown
scientific explanation for the process of how consciousness
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
However the reverse could also be discovered to be the case - that
is Freewill plays an important role in the lives of humanity.
Until that time, Determinism and Freewill are both unproven
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(9).
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
(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 dumb matter. However
this seems to be what Determinism requires. I have read arguments
about "quantum information" but to me that just seems to raise
more questions than it answers.
(5). As well as music this argument
can be extended to all life. The development and diversity of all
life intrinsically arises from the cause and effect processes
occurring from the beginnings of the Universe. Evolution was built
into the processes of the Universe. Arguably this could lead a
person that believes in this form of Determinism to form a view
that the Universe is pantheistic.
(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
(9). 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 needs to live as though they have
Freewill. If they don't they risk Nihilism.
Neither Determinism nor Freewill rule out pantheism or many other
*A note on "learnings". All my spell checkers tell me
that "learnings" is not a word. Which is strange because
"learning" is a word. And it is a noun. It should follow the
pattern of other nouns for pluralisation - one apple, two
apples. If you can gain one learning you should then be able to
gain a second learning to become two learnings. It doesn't sound
right to say two learning. As you would with two sheep.
Regardless I am going to stick with learnings because I can't
find another word that covers what I want. I perhaps could have
used the term "learnt knowledge" or " learnt information". But
knowledge implies "justified true belief" and "information" also
implies a certain veracity of that information. Learnings need
not be that. They are just what a person learns. What a person
learns could be true but possibly could be wrong or incomplete.
Oversite Home Page.