Determinism, Free Will, and Moral Responsibility


Determinism is bound to remain one of the more intriguing problems in philosophy as well as science. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “There is no agreement over whether determinism is true (or even whether it can be known true or false) and what the import for human agency would be in either case.”

The determinist position is that, in a universe governed by the strictest natural laws, all events arise naturally and inevitably from causative factors that follow these laws. Determinism thus affirms the inevitability of the actual. It is difficult to see how this can be disproved conclusively—even in theory.

As far as the physical, inanimate world is concerned, the determinist position has been seriously challenged by the discovery of indeterminacy at the level of subatomic particles. This indeterminacy exists with respect to what can be measured and what can be predicted, however what actually happens is the crucial issue. Refuting Einstein’s famous saying that God does not play dice, Stephen Hawking has this to say:

But even this limited predictability disappeared, when the effects of black holes were taken into account. The loss of particles and information down black holes meant that the particles that came out were random. One could calculate probabilities, but one could not make any definite predictions. Thus, the future of the universe is not completely determined by the laws of science and its present state, as Laplace thought. God still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

It would be rashly presumptuous of a layman to question Hawking, but it’s difficult to see how the inability to make definite predictions can affect what actually happens. Determinism is about what actually happens.

Extrapolating from the behavior of subatomic particles to the phenomena of the macro world does not seem to be justified. But extending indeterminism to mental events—and to the exercise of free will—can plausibly be justified on the grounds that all mental events involve subtle events at subatomic levels. The question of free will leads to issues of moral responsibility. And these two issues are of direct interest to humanism. There are those who believe that determinism is incompatible with free will and moral responsibility. As Immanuel Kant says: “If our will is itself determined by antecedent causes, then we are no more accountable for our actions than any other mechanical object whose movements are internally conditioned.” But David Hume, a leading proponent of the “compatibilist” position, held the view that freedom and moral responsibility can be reconciled with (causal) determinism.

Bertrand Russell’s views on determinism and moral responsibility (from his Elements of Ethics) are worth quoting at length. “The grounds in favor of determinism appear to me overwhelming, and I shall content myself with a brief indication of these grounds,” he writes. “The question I am concerned with is not the free will question itself, but the question how, if at all, morals are affected by assuming determinism.” He goes on:

Among physically possible actions, only those which we actually think of are to be regarded as possible. When several alternative actions present themselves, it is certain that we can both do which we choose, and choose which we will. In this sense all the alternatives are possible. What determinism maintains is that our will to choose this or that alternative is the effect of antecedents; but this does not prevent our will from being itself a cause of other effects. And the sense in which different decisions are possible seems sufficient to distinguish some actions as right and some as wrong, some as moral and some as immoral.

And finally:

It would seem, therefore, that the objections to determinism are mainly attributable to misunderstanding of its purport. Hence, finally it is not determinism but free will that has subversive consequences. There is therefore no reason to regret that the grounds in favor of determinism are overwhelmingly strong.

Contemporary British philosopher Galen Strawson has another view. For him, whether determinism is true or not, no one is ever ultimately responsible for his actions, morally speaking. His so-called “Basic Argument” is:

  1. You do what you do, in any given situation, because of the way you are.
  2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what you do, you have to be ultimately responsible for the way you are—at least in certain crucial mental aspects.
  3. But you cannot be ultimately responsible for the way you are in any respect at all.
  4. So you can’t be ultimately responsible for what you do.

Among humanists, opinion about determinism seems to be divided. In Corliss Lamont’s “10 Points for Humanism” listed in his book, The Philosophy of Humanism, the fourth point is: “Humanism, in opposition to all theories of universal determinism, fatalism, or predestination, believes that human beings, while conditioned by the past, possess genuine freedom of creative choice and action, and are, within certain objective limits, the shapers of their own destiny.”

Barbara Smoker, on the other hand, believes that most humanists are determinists. In her book, Humanism, she writes:

Believers in a good and almighty god generally believe in human freedom of will, for how otherwise could human beings be given total blame for their “sins,” let alone for the evils of the world? Most humanists, however, insofar as the old “free will/ determinism” argument lingers on, are determinists. This does not mean that they deny all human freedom and responsibility, but it does mean that we are less free than we feel we are, since our actions are determined (caused) by the genes we were born with (heredity) and the things that have happened to us in life (environment), for what else is there to cause them? 

What do we mean by free will? Is there any action that can demonstrate the existence of free will? All creatures act to follow an impulse. Is a moth circling a flame acting freely? “Spinoza compares the feeling of free will,” we are told by Will Durant in The Story of Philosophy, “to a stone’s thinking as it travels through space that it determines its own trajectory and selects the place and time of its fall.” One has to accept

Strawson’s contention that there is a “fundamental sense” in which free will is impossible. By this he probably means that it is impossible to establish free will by objective criteria.

The important thing is to recognize the essential subjectivity of free will. A person is convinced that his actions follow his own decisions and impulses; he is not aware of any forces (inside or outside) pushing him. In instances where he acts “in spite of himself”—as in cases of compulsive disorders—he cannot be said to be exercising his free will.

Lastly, no serious discussion of determinism can be complete without taking a view about the nature of time. As per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on causal determinism, “Physics, particularly twentieth-century physics, does have one lesson to impart to the free will debate: a lesson about the relationship between time and determinism.” Newtonian time, the time of our everyday experience, has been superseded, but no universally accepted model seems to have emerged so far. Einstein says to a friend: “People like us … know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In this picture of the universe—Einstein and Minkowski’s block universe—the past, present, and future, as perceived by us, exist together in another dimension. In Einstein’s words: “From a ‘happening’ in three-dimensional space, physics becomes … an ‘existence’ in the four-dimensional world.” Like the frames in a celluloid film, the past, present, and future already (if that is the appropriate word) exist. Each observer’s “now” travels along the film to create his particular experience of time. Our universe is inescapably indexical.

This picture of time is highly repugnant to those who see it as negating free will. “And if I am going to be told that my idea that I make choices, take action, interfere, possibly change the future, is all an illusion,” protests the novelist J.B. Priestley in his nonfiction work, Man and Time,  “then I shall want to know how this block universe, this frozen history, came into existence, who colored it, and what is the point of this vast, idiotic conjuring trick. A consciousness that is no more than a policeman’s lantern moving along a back alley—and indeed much less, because no action can follow from it—is not worth having.” Maybe there is no point—or it is up to us to see the point.

Humanists, as rationalists, believe in the sovereignty of fact. But where facts are not ascertainable, rational and constructive assumptions have to be made. One might call it the regency of assumptions. Since neither determinism nor free will can be proved to be a fact, pragmatic humanism must assume that every person bears moral responsibility for his or her actions. Any other course is bound to have disastrous social consequences.

  • Arjen Bootsma

    This is typically one of those areas where philosophy bumps into psychology. ‘Philosophy’ likes to state that people act rationally, but in many cases people tend to act emotionally. It is my contention that psychology would be a better vehicle to address questions of free will and determinism that philosophy.

    • George Ortega

      It’s not just psychology that makes free will impossible, (see Wegner’s 2002 The Illusion of Conscious Will, and Bargh’s priming experiments) physics (yes, also quantum mechanics) renders the notion impossible as well.

  • George Ortega

    Refuting free will is straightforward:

    (a) Everything is caused; (b) Human thoughts are caused; (c) The antecedent causes to human thoughts regress to before the person’s birth; (d) Therefore human thoughts are not fundamentally attributable to a human free will.

    Some free will defenses assume that demonstrating that human behavior is not fundamentally deterministic might provide an opening for free will, however, choices arising from indeterministic, or uncaused, processes cannot rationally be attributed to anything, including humans. The prospect has emerged that other mechanisms that are described as neither deterministic nor indeterministic, and can be labeled causa sui, (self-caused) or ex nihilo, (out of nothing) may be where a free will resides. However, as Strawson (1994) ex-plains, it has not been shown how a self-caused mechanism allows for free will, and the same can be said for free will arising ex nihilo.

    In other words, it’s futile to attempt to defend free will by questioning determinism, since all other possible action mechanisms render free will equally impossible. Game over for free will.

    • Huh?

      That really doesn’t make any sense. If causa sui cannot explain free will then the words are meaningless, because that’s exactly what free will is.

  • DavePH

    Since we actually have multiple brains coming up with many possible actions, with quantum effects influencing the sub brain conclusions (adding a probablistic result which might be different with identical stimulus), but with a higher level brain function choosing between these conclusions for subsequent action, perhaps that would allow for some consideration?

    Adding to the variations of possible actions, even the rules that the higher
    level decisions are made by are subtly changing from quantum effects on brain chemistry .

    It seems like choosing to ignore gut impulse or other sub-brain conclusions bubbling around, and sometime changing, at least subtly, by the second, in order to do something else, may be pretty close to free will. At least it sure seems like it when I spend minutes (if not hours) fighting with myself on a choice.

    But I guess different possible outcomes with the same inputs doesn’t actually describe free will.

    Even the influence on the “me, meta-mind” through a huge number of choices, conscious or unconscious, since my conception doesn’t seem to allow for it. Though, certainly, a person with exactly the same DNA and life experiences can still end up with a substantially different meta-mind due to, at the least, quantum effects and most certainly epigenetics. Sort of a butterfly effect.

    While the “me” that lands on an action, amongst all the
    variables, seems to have some element of self determinism or free will (at best), but it is apparently an illusion.

    To me, the question comes down to how much determinism is in a continuously changing meta-mind that is probablistic and envronmentalistic in its creation.

    Is there a higher level “me” in there that can rise above chemistry, brain architecture, environmental, and quantum influences? Is there any way I started creating myself to allow for the free will (or more likely self determinism) in decision making?

    Religion makes it convenient by introducing a soul from outside the physical world; an extra-dimensional entity that our bodies are essentially linked to. I expect It would only take a very small one that has the essence of free will to grant free will to the meta mind. The soul can be held accountable for actions.

    Being an atheist complicates this a lot, though. Personally I hope that we exist with links to scientifically undetected dimensions that are not tied to the rules that our known universe works in. Freed from the seemingly irrefutable logic that our universe is ultimately bound to a quantum-influenced determinism, that seems to be the only place free will can exist. Way too close to magical thinking, but I sure like the idea of having free will.

    Perhaps my musings will trigger some genius to “choose??” to come at the challenge a little differently and solve the question with a verifiable test for free will.

    Wish I could credit some of these ideas to specific people. Likely I’m not the first to come up with some of this, but I’m not a student of any particular school or author (actually I’m an engineer), so I’m not sure how I might have picked up some of this. If it is flawed ramblings, then I’ll claim it all so as not to impinge any fellow traveler.

  • Carey Carlson

    It is comical that so many people cling to determinism after a century of indeterminism in physics. The bias seems to be a desire for “freedom from freedom,” in spite of physics. The only argument left is that we lack the imagination to make sense of free will. But Whitehead had the imagination, so free will is an integral part of his philosophy of science. Pick up a clue in his Adventures of Ideas, if you wish to expand the issue to include a positive conception of free will and its place in natural science. For further incentive, that book proposed the reduction of physics to sheer temporal succession, which predates today’s causal set theory by 60 years. Recently I noticed that causal sets form frequency ratios, serving to define energy ratios in accord with E=hf. It was then quite simple to construct the manifold and the common particles as causal sets. Whitehead was far ahead of his time.

    • Vir Narain

      Is it not surprising that Russell, a contemporary of Whitehead’s, was unable to “pick up a clue in his Adventure of Ideas”?

      • Carey Carlson

        Interesting you should ask that, Dr. Varain. I could have said “Russell” instead of “Whitehead,” because the two men came to share the event ontology around the time of The Analysis of Matter and Process and Reality, 1927. From his early days, Russell is known as a skeptic of “causation,” but Russell left all that behind when he embraced “space-time as causal structure.” My advisor was Grover Maxwell, who promoted Russell’s viewpoint as set forth in Human Knowledge: that the scientific method can at best obtain the “causal skeleton of the universe.” Grover also promoted Russell’s self-described solution to the mind-body problem, which puts human mental events among the other primitive events situated in the scheme of the “causal web of events.” Russell refrained from Whitehead’s generalization to panpsychism, but he did stress that if the non-human events of the causal web are NOT conceived as mental events, there is no alternative conception that we can form.
        My belated thesis for Grover, written long after Grover had passed away, is a study of Russell and Whitehead’s event ontology, “The Mind-Body Problem and Its Solution.” Because the convergence of the two men’s worldview to a common ontology is entirely overlooked in today’s literature, I invite you to have a look. That book, and the TOE booklet that followed it, are now available as ebooks. — Carey

        • Vir Narain

          Impressive academic background. But the bottom line is: Is free-will a fact? Or is determinism a fact? Opinions abound. But is there proof?

          • Carey Carlson

            As you may know, Whitehead promoted the view of natural laws as “habits of nature,” which evolve in conjunction with the evolution of the physical entities that exhibit those habits. That view accompanies a theory such as string theory, which has no equations, and thus, no imposed laws. You just build up everything that you can from strings, which are considered to be actual entities, and fundamental. The reduction to temporal succession, or to causal sets, is that type of theory. Is there proof of the reduction to time? There is proof, I would say, from the standpoint of philosophy of science. It’s the best kind of proof there is, in the domain of the contingent facts of science. The most fundamental features of physics, starting with the definition of energy and its quantum, and continuing to the construction of the manifold and the common particles, is obtained from the simplest patterns that temporal succession affords. That reduces to a minimum the scientific burden of explanation for the existence of the physical world. In this reduction, causation is effected by a democracy of causal agents, which are the primitive events of the theory. Human mental events are such primitive events. The mystery of “mind and its place in nature” is resolved. That is vital for the humanistic outlook. The “forces” of traditional physics are replaced entirely by the symmetries of causal sets, which frames a “gentle” sort of causal determination, leaving room for the breaking of symmetry, spontaneity, and degrees of freedom. It is the coherence of the scheme that confirms human freedom. But until the reduction to time is acknowledged as the solution to physics, the proof of free will must remain unacknowledged as well.

          • Guest

            The question was:

            The bottom line is: Is free-will a fact? Or is determinism a fact? Opinions abound. But is there proof?

            Somewhere in all that, did you ever actually answer?

          • Carey Carlson

            My answer is yes to free will and yes to the proof of it, but let me clarify the last two sentences of the previous entry, which contain my answer. To repeat: ” It is the coherence of the scheme that confirms human freedom. But until the reduction to time is acknowledged as the solution to physics, the proof of free will must remain unacknowledged as well.” “The coherence of the scheme” refers to a synoptic solution to physics and the mind-body problem. This is practically beyond credibility among today’s philosophers and physicists. The philosophers have “lost their legacy” by ignoring the convergence in thought (embrace of the event ontology,) of the two greatest philosophers of recent times. On the other hand, the physicists are all “physicalists,” who find no place for sentient mentality in the world, and thus no place for “will,” much less “free will.” Thus the mind-body problem stands in the way of meaningful dialog between physics and philosophy, with both spinning their wheels. In this context, no, there is no proof giving universal assent to free will. In the context of the reduction of physics to time (causal sets, the event ontology,) yes, there is such proof. Realistically, the solution to physics must come first, since it is simple, purely formal, self-evident, and incontrovertible, and hey, physics impresses people. Then Russell and Whitehead’s scheme of momentary monads is automatically confirmed, startling the philosophers awake from their slumbers.
            I want to apologize for the snarky phrase I used in my first entry, which was to “get a clue” from Whitehead about free will. I meant it literally, but there was a rudeness in it too, born out of frustration. I’m just thankful for the dialog that followed it, and the forbearance of the participants.

  • Guest

    Richard Feynman said “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics” and “if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

    While quantum mechanics may apply at the atomic and subatomic levels, I don’t know that it carries over to classical mechanics the atomic and subatomic levels