In this discussion, we will refer to Schopenhauer’s definition of freewill stated as

that a given human being, in a given situation can act in two different ways.

and I think that definition would suffice for the purpose of the discussion we shall have this evening. We have been presented with a problem in this manner

how free will can exist in a deterministic world?

Before we proceed into examining the OP, I don’t know if those who, like me, believe we live in a deterministic universe believe also in freewill of any kind. I think this would be a contradiction of sorts, unless one who holds that the universe is deterministic while human actions are free has to explain in what way humans are exempt from the laws of nature, whatever these be. In this sense, I think the OP has started with a false dilemma.

I think therefore that this assertion that

when one has free will, one has a choice, and can make a choice without anything or anyone impeding, influencing, or forcing their volition. It is the ability to act without constraints, whether the choice is between two options or one hundred

is false. I also would need to clarify that when we say you don’t have free will, we don’t imply you have been coerced into doing something, no, far from it. We are only saying there are antecedent causes that made you act in the way you did and that all circumstances remaining the same, you will act in the same way.

We agree with observation, with reservation, that everything has a cause/ reason for its occurrence.

I realize that many people, for emotional and not rational reasons want to believe they have freewill. The author writes

I also feel very strongly that every human being has free will, and not just because I want there to be moral responsibility, but a world without free will just seems wrong and incomprehensible. Call it the human ‘superego’, but I don’t like the idea that humans are robots.

In what way would a world without freewill be incomprehensible and wrong? If this is an emotional reaction, it has no place in a philosophical debate. Maybe calling man robots seems too harsh for some, and as such I will refer to our race as biological automatons.

She says, she has come to a few conclusions on the matter. These appear under two headings

  1. The future is open and
  2. my will as a cause.

We will look at what she writes about each and explain where we disagree.

In the first instance, she writes, following Hume

that despite our tendency to link two events together and call it cause and effect, we still cannot properly conclude that A will always cause B, even if A has been causing B in every recorded and observable instance.

A point we would agree with. We cannot say effect B was caused by A. We however do not see how she jumps to the conclusion

Thus, when I make a choice, the result has not been decided for me already, and thus I am making a free and open choice.

Maybe am wrong, but I don’t think the proponents of no freewill mean to say when you act someone has decided for you. The argument here is that there are previous events A, B to whatever numeral you like that has influenced your effect Z. To say more here, we argue that due to the complexity of human actions, it is difficult to plot a chain of causes leading to the present effect and as such many people assume they are free. The future can, contrary to her claims, be predicted if we know how one behaved in a particular situation. We can be almost certain that if the circumstances remain the same, we can predict like clockwork how you will act. Many people after acting in a particular way do say I will act in a contrary manner next time. This however, is not usually the case.

Looking at the second point, yours truly doesn’t seem to understand what she means when she writes

[..]These two sentences (deciding on a flavour, and deciding that caramel tastes bad) seem to contain meaning; I am making a choice.

Our problem here being to determine whether this choice is free or not. She has already stated she has tasted caramel and didn’t like it- which to me represents a past cause and deciding on flavour is dependent favourites and motives so that if the greater motive is to try a new taste, regardless of whether she liked vanilla the previous, she will decide to try lets say strawberry.

As Schopenhauer wrote elsewhere, and I think it is persuasive that

[H]e is such and such a man, because once for all it is his will to be that man. For the will itself, and in itself, and also in so far as it is manifest in an individual, accordingly constitutes the original and fundamental desires of that individual, is independent of all knowledge, because it is antecedent to such knowledge. All that it receives from knowledge is the series of motives by which it successively develops its nature and makes itself cognisable or visible; but the will itself, as something that lies beyond time, so long as it exists at all, never changes. Therefore every man, being what he is and placed in the circumstances which for the moment obtain, but which on their part also arise by strict necessity, can absolutely never do anything else than just what at that moment he does do. Accordingly, the whole course of a man’s life, in all its incidents great and small, is as necessarily predetermined as the course of a clock.

In this case, the will is uncaused. Knowledge only comes to support the will and the phenomena of the will, that is our actions, follow like clockwork upon the laws of nature. We can go further and say and we will what we choose but we cannot choose what we will.

We would answer, tongue in cheek, yes to the question

Could we not say that it was their will that led them to their respective destinies? Could we not say that the Will was the cause?

as long as we grant that they don’t chose what to will. It must be understood that the acts of the will are not free and it is with this that the discussion o freewill is concerned. It is on the phenomena that, in my view, is the concern when we are discussing freewill and these I think are not free.

As I have said, I think the OP started with a case of false dilemma and so when she writes

it doesn’t seem like I’m committing any major sort of syntactical or logical error

she is blind to the dilemma she put herself in, in the very first place. I don’t think there are only two explanations available and other possibilities need also be examined.

I don’t know if this claim that

we all have the following two intuitions about ourselves and the world: (1) things are caused, and (2) we have free will.

is correct about everyone.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject. I also would like to stop here so this post doesn’t get longer than it already is.

Freewill and determinism

Freewill and determinism

About makagutu

As Onyango Makagutu I am Kenyan, as far as I am a man, I am a citizen of the world

54 thoughts on “Freewill and determinism

  1. john zande says:

    You make a very strong case. I’m with you up until a point. I would say we inhabit a mostly-determined world, an unfolding pattern, yet i’ll maintain the possibility that somewhere in very early childhood (before perhaps the frantic process of aborisation has settled in the brain) we do have genuine free will, once, and only once. Now, I don’t know if i like this idea simply because its aesthetically pleasing, or because it satisfies some other need, but it seems to resonate with me.


    • exrelayman says:

      Aborisation – dang, that’s worse than aseity! Only 3 dictionarys referenced by knew about this word. I sure as Hades didn’t 🙂

      So we get to have free will when we are small and powerless. Gee thanks 🙂

      Of course I didn’t have to read this – did I?


      • john zande says:

        I like to think we have one free will choice… Problem being, we’re not actually ever conscious of that. Sounds kinda’ poetic to me.

        Here’s how i described aborisation (insert a “z” for American English) a while ago:

        “Much unlike a Christmas tree, 23,000,000,000 cerebral neurons (85,000,000,000 throughout the entire nervous system) don’t just come online all at once. Neurologically speaking it takes ten months, give or take, for a newborn to even discover that it is separate from its environment. It takes another twenty-four months for that same infant to get a fair handle on that environment, and most importantly, themselves. Before that moment, for the first three years of our lives, our brains are busy in a process called aborization, meaning tree, where oceans of bulbous neurons and their branchlike axons spur on the growth and subdivision of an expanding universe of twiglike dendrites to make contact with up to 50,000 paths each to form a nearly unimaginably complex storage, retrieval, and sequential image processing apparatus. Before this process is complete, for those first 36 months, we do not participate in conscious life as we adults understand it. It’s rather the case that we enter it by increments; small baby steps as connection after connection is made and the brain literally hooks itself up.”


        • I’d never heard of the word before today, and I have a psych minor, but it is a legitimate word and it is spelled correctly, still, if it means tree, wouldn’t you think it would be spelled,”arbor,” rather than “abor?” Strange —


          • john zande says:

            Could be? I picked it up from Laurence McKinney’s book, Neurotheology: Virtual religion in the 21st Century. Well worth a read. I contacted him for some clarification as i was reading it and we’ve been in communication since. Interesting man. The book contends our greatest questions (where did i come from, what is this, where are we going) all stem directly from this 3-year gap separating birth and consciousness recognition of ourselves; after the process of aborisation has stopped. We, literally, have a dark spot in our existence, a mystery, an itch, and we ask questions to it.


            • No, John, you HAVE spelled it correctly, I looked it up. I was just questioning why, whoever coined the phrase, chose abor, rather than aRbor, which actually means, tree. Of course, the question was rhetorical, I wouldn’t expect anyone to actually have the answer.

              Wish I were down there sweltering with you, it’s 15 degrees F. here, not much to swelter about. Even Putin would keep his shirt on!


      • makagutu says:

        it’s a new word to yours truly too.


    • makagutu says:

      Maybe you like the idea for emotional reasons. Does the freewill that we had for that brief moment disappear?


  2. Mordanicus says:

    Excellent discussion you put op here. Though I am not a determinist (I am more inclined towards probabilistic causation) I see not much room for a free will as is usually understood by the common man. However if we define “free will” just as a will free from previous causes, then a will influenced by quantum indeterminacy would suffice in this sense. Though I don’t see how this would fit in a common sense understanding of free will, which connotes with moral responsibility.


    • makagutu says:

      I think too that if the acts are random, then I don’t see how free will would be seen to apply


      • Mordanicus says:

        Second problem with the “two-stage” model (random events followed by a deterministic phase), is that it’s superfluous. If we accept compatibilism as a valid argument for moral responsibility, we don’t need random events as the cause of “free” will.


  3. I would like to believe that among friends, differences of opinion would be encouraged – that said, I cannot believe that I do not have free will, otherwise life would be like a move or a TV show, in which my only participation would be to sit back and see what happens next.

    “We are only saying there are antecedent causes that made you act in the way you did and that all circumstances remaining the same, you will act in the same way.”

    That leaves no room for such adages as, “Once burned, twice cautious.” One would expect a burn victim to continue to burn himself, over and over, and never learn from the experience.

    “…we still cannot properly conclude that A will always cause B, even if A has been causing B in every recorded and observable instance.”

    “A point we would agree with.”

    While I must agree that there is an absolute truth enclosed in the simple formula, [N+1], i.e., that no matter how many times an event is repeated, no one knows with certainty what may be the outcome of the next repetition, I’ve yet to see any of the formula’s adherents leaping from tall buildings on the off chance that that will be the one time that the law of gravity fails.

    I act. I make mistakes. And like a self-correcting missile never flies in a straight line, but rather, via its gyroscope, makes a continuous sequence of minute corrections, so too, I correct my own mistakes, via my own will – if not, whose else – and will not to repeat my mistake.


    • makagutu says:

      You know too well that here first and foremost you are allowed to disagree with the host. With that behind us, I don’t think the example of the burn victim in any way contradicts my post. I don’t deny that experience leads us to act differently, but in that the circumstances have changed, knowledge has come to the aid of the will and as such you may because it’s not always that with similar circumstances people act differently.
      you correct your mistakes, that accept, what I disagree with is that this choice is free.


  4. paarsurrey says:

    I think free-will started with life as destined and determined by the One-True-God.


    • As long as it contains the phrase, “One-True-God,” I don’t think any of us really cares what you think.

      Have you put those proofs together yet, demonstrating that there is no other god but allah?


      • paarsurrey says:

        If there is another god except the One-True-God; do you believe in it?
        If so give you evidences.


        • Do you believe there’s not? If so give you evidences.


        • makagutu says:

          You really are being silly. You have sidestepped this question now for as long as I can recall. Is it impossible for you to demonstrate the existence of this god of yours or you are taught never to give a direct answer


          • He has been taught to so arrange the topic as to force us to provide the evidence, not him – I reversed his position, using the Muslim phrase, “there is no other god but allah,” but he ignores his obligation to prove the validity of that statement, while still demanding proof from us. He’s out of his league and just hasn’t figured it out yet.

            I really think that it’s mostly about the attention, he must not be able to get any, anywhere else.


      • makagutu says:

        I think it’s a waste of time engaging this fellow. We have asked him enough times for answer which hasn’t been forthcoming and he even lacks the fortitude to say I don’t know. He repeats the same crap on every post.


    • makagutu says:

      Does this one true god have freewill? Are you being intentionally silly? You have been asked on several posts evidence for this one true god and the best you have done is to give pages of Koran or insist that you believe naturally as you believe in your parents. That, my friend, is not how to engage with others. So you better give us reasons to support this supposed truth or you keep quiet and say you have nothing to offer in way of explanation.


      • paarsurrey says:

        “Does this one true god have freewill?”

        Who could change a thing He has willed?


        • “Who could change a thing He has willed?

          Maybe one of the other gods, that you haven’t proved don’t exist – say, Odin, or Zeus – unless you can prove they don’t exist —

          Seriously, go ask your Imam what to say!


          • paarsurrey says:

            The One-True-God raises the sun from the East and sets it in the West. Please implore “Odin, or Zeus” to do the opposite.


            • The sun rises in the east and sets in the west because the earth rotates on its axis – I thought even Muslims would have figured that out by now, what kind of science do they teach in your schools, anyway? Or do they?

              The planet Venus, on the other hand, due to a collisions in space billions of years ago, rotates in the opposite direction from earth, with the sun rising in its west and setting in its east – let’s see your allah change that, to make all of the planets the same. Why don’t you pray really hard, and see if you can’t get him to do that, then I would believe anything else you say – and while your head is down there on the floor, why don’t you bang it three or four times? It might knock some sense into it, but I doubt it.

              Learn a few facts about the world that are not in your Qur’an, then come back and talk to us grown ups.


              • makagutu says:

                Archy my friend, I think discussion is over with this fellow. Who in this day and age believes a god carries the sun around? I mean this is a new low of ignorance, even my grandmother with her little education would blush at this!


              • paarsurrey says:

                @ archaeopteryx1
                “The sun rises in the east and sets in the west because the earth rotates on its axis ”

                That is because the One-True-God has fixed this principle for the sun and the earth; nobody has been able to change it. This shows that there is only One-True-God (Allah Yahweh Ahura Mazda Parameshwara Eshawara) and none other than him:

                [6:75] And remember the time when Abraham said to his father, Azar: ‘Dost thou take idols for gods? Surely, I see thee and thy people in manifest error.’
                [6:76] And thus did We show Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he might be rightly guided and that he might be of those who have certainty of faith.
                [6:77] And when the night darkened upon him, he saw a star. He said: ‘This is my Lord!’ But when it set, he said: ‘I like not those that set.’
                [6:78] And when he saw the moon rise with spreading light, he said: ‘This is my Lord.’ But when it set, he said, ‘If my Lord guide me not, I shall surely be of the people who go astray.’
                [6:79] And when he saw the sun rise with spreading light, he said: ‘This is my Lord, this is the greatest.’ But when it set, he said, ‘O my people, surely I am clear of that which you associate with God.
                [6:80] ‘I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, being ever inclined to God, and I am not of those who associate gods with God.’



                • archaeopteryx1 says:

                  “That is because the One-True-God has fixed this principle for the sun and the earth; nobody has been able to change it.”

                  It has nothing to do with a god, Paarsurrey – learn a little about cosmology and astrophysics, for crying out loud! It has to do with the conservation of motion, the cloud of gas that ultimately coalesced into the sun and planets, was rotating in one direction, and eddies within that cloud rotated in the same direction. Newton stated that in a vacuum, an object in motion continues to remain in motion until acted upon by an outside force. A collision with Venus by a large object, reversed the direction of its rotation.

                  LEARN something, Paarsurrey, instead of believing everything you read in that book! Don’t be a victim of self-imposed ignorance!


  5. aguywithoutboxers says:

    A very compelling argument, my Nairobi brother, as evidenced by the lively discussions above. I tend to reject the idea of free will as it is often based on the supposition of belief systems and a predetermination of the universe.

    Nice work, buddy! 🙂 Be safe and have a good day!


  6. If we ask someone “What made you choose A instead of B?”, they will gladly give us their reasons (especially if A and B are two political candidates). Therefore, we know that most people do not actually believe that their choices are “uncaused”.

    The issue then, is not whether the choice was caused, but rather, “What was the cause?” And it is here that we find the only meaningful definition of “free will”.

    Free will is when we choose for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion (for example, a “gun to the head”) or other undue influence (hypnosis, mental injury or illness, authoritative command, et cetera).

    As physical objects, we passively obey the laws of physics. If you drop one of us and a bowling ball from the leaning tower of Pisa, both will hit the ground at the same time.

    As living organisms, we behave purposefully, driven by a “biological will” to survive, thrive, and reproduce. The laws of physics are no longer sufficient to predict our behavior. Now we must add the natural laws of the life sciences like biology, physiology, and genetics.

    As an intelligent species, we behave deliberately, employing imagination, evaluation, and choosing to determine what we will do. To predict our behavior now will also involve the social sciences like psychology, sociology, ethology.

    It is not that the laws of physics are ever broken. It is just that they do not cover everything. Physics cannot explain why a car stopped at a red light. The cause was a law created by the nature of society, not a physical law.

    There is a lot of confusion caused by a misunderstanding of determinism. Determinism is NOT a cause. It is simply the assertion that objects and forces in our universe behave in a reliable and thus theoretically predictable fashion.

    We happen to be one of those objects that actually cause stuff. And we get to choose what we will do. Choosing is a physical process that occurs within our neurology. It is not an illusion.

    It is a deterministic process, of course. Given the same person, the same issue, and the same circumstances we will get the same choice.

    However, there is no conflict between (a) the fact that it was us that made the choice (free will) and (b) the fact that our choice might be predicted by anyone with sufficient knowledge of how we think and feel (determinism). Both facts are simultaneously true.


  7. As you wish. But someone needs to address the compatibilist view, and the secular definition of free will.


    • makagutu says:

      I leave the addressing compatibilism to Daniel Dennett. I guess you know him.
      Definition of freewill, I will leave to you. I think that’s fair, you must agree?


      • The ordinary definition of free will would be when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. This seems to be the definition that everyone operationally applies to nearly all practical scenarios.

        For example, everyone would say that the driver who was hijacked at gunpoint by the Marathon bombers was not acting of his own free will. That’s why the driver wasn’t charged with “aiding and abetting”.

        A more common example would be a child being forced against his will to wear his winter coat before he goes out to play. And everyone would also agree that the person given a post-hypnotic suggestion was being manipulated to do the hypnotist’s will rather than his own.

        Reliable causation, on the other hand, is not an “undue” influence. It is expected that the person I am at the moment is a product of my physical self, my environment, and the interactions and choices made up to this point.

        The initial error, the one that causes the paradox, is the anthropomorphic view that Determinism is some kind a causal agent, and that causal necessity (inevitability) is something we need to be free of in the first place. It’s not, of course. What we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint. It is not something we can or should be “free of”.


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