Free Will Or Determinism Essay

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Free Will and Determinism

Michael Norwitz examines the current state of play in this long-running debate, by comparing the views of Dennett and van Inwagen.

 Since the ancient Greeks, one of the most provocative and oft-discussed questions in philosophy has been whether we have free will in determining the course of our actions, or whether our actions are determined by forces beyond our control. Before the advent of secular thought, those forces might have been identified as the whims of the gods, though the tradition of naturalism in Western thought goes back at least as far as the Milesian School of Greek Philosophy, in the 6th century B.C. In more recent times as the cognitive sciences have developed, it has seemed increasingly likely that our brains work along deterministic lines (or, if quantum effects are non-negligible, at the very least along mechanical lines). So a new debate has arisen: are the concepts of determinism (or naturalism or mechanism) when applied to the brain sciences logically compatible with free will? So some of the attention has shifted from the debate between the “determinists” and the “anti-determinists”, to that between the “compatibilists” and the “anticompatibilists”.

Two declared opponents in this debate are Peter van Inwagen (author of An Essay on Free Will, Oxford University Press, 1983) and Daniel C. Dennett (author of several books including Elbow Room, MIT Press, 1984, which I will be referencing here). Each argues for his conclusion from premises he regards as antecedently plausible, with van Inwagen taking the anti-compatibilist line and Dennett the compatibilist. As van Inwagen is the more precise arguer of the two, I will use his work as the starting point for this discussion. Like Dennett, whose book is subtitled “The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting”, he is arguing that we do have free will.Where they differ is on the nature of its relationship to determinism. Van Inwagen presents three premises in his main argument : that free will is in fact incompatible with determinism, that moral responsibility is incompatible with determinism, and that (since we have moral responsibility) determinism is false. Hence, he concludes, we have free will.

The argument for the first premise runs as follows [p.56]: “If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.”

The argument for the second premise [p. 181]: “If (i) no one is morally responsible for having failed to perform any act, and (ii) no one is morally responsible for any event, and (iii) no one is morally responsible for any state of affairs, then there is no such thing as moral responsibility.”

For the third premise van Inwagen does not present a concise summary of his line of argument. He takes it as being self-evident that we have moral responsibility, as we do, after all, continue to hold people morally responsible for their actions.

Dennett would not fault the validity of van Inwagen’s main argument; he does argue with the truth of its premises however. His approach is to reformulate the concepts of “up to us” (in the sense of the argument for the first premise) and “responsibility”. Before I expand on that, however, I want to discuss what I think is the difference in the philosophers’ starting points that causes the divergence of opinion.

Descartes viewed the mind as a pure ego: a permanent, spiritual substance untouched by physical processes. It could be influenced by them through the senses but there was no other manner in which it was influenced by the mechanistic events going on outside in the world. It could influence those events indirectly however through the manipulation of its host body (via the pineal gland).

As modern science advanced in its understanding of the way the brain works, this image of the mind was undermined. It began to look more and more as if the mind is a purely physical entity, as if there is no “person” or “pure ego” outside the realm of physical causation. Some philosophers (like the Churchlands) now go so far as to say that the mind does not exist at all.

In the face of this, the philosopher of metaphysics has two options: retrenchment and retreat.

Dennett’s strategy of retrenchment is to build a second line of defence for the concept of free will, by reformulating the concept so that it is not in conflict with current theories in the brain sciences. There is a sacrifice in that he loses track of our ordinary, common-sense views of what mind and free will are. Dennett claims he is doing ordinary language philosophy but I suspect he has been an academic so long he has forgotten what “ordinary people” are concerned with.

Van Inwagen’s strategy of retreat is to dismiss current trends in science and maintain belief in “agent causation”, that is, the view that people can cause things to happen in the world outside of the normal, mechanistic, physical causation. He complains that many philosophers are overawed by current science and make exaggerated assumptions about the degree to which it will eventually be able to explain how the brain (and the mind) works. However, for various reasons, chief among them being the empirical success of quantum physics, it is highly unlikely that such a complete explanation will ever come about. Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle, if it can be applied to the brain, would mean that even if we knew everything about the physical state of a brain at a given instant, we still could not predict its state in the next instant with absolute accuracy. This would imply that the brain was not deterministic in the strictest sense of the term. Nevertheless, as van Inwagen correctly points out, even were determinism false there would still be no guarantee that we have free will. First, if our hopes turned on quantum effects being able to affect brain chemistry, it is still conceivable that they might turn out to be too small to be significant. Second, even if they did have an effect which was non-negligible we could still turn out to be strictly mechanical, and that does not seem to be the type of free will that van Inwagen wants, if he wants a “person” making responsible decisions free from causal restraints (at least physical causal restraints, as he accepts psychological causation).

Ultimately, van Inwagen states that we know we have free will because free will is entailed by moral responsibility, and we know that people are morally responsible for their actions. The rationale for this entailment is van Inwagen’s conception of moral responsibility [p.162]: “a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise” (his final version of moral responsibility is more baroque to deal with various styles of counterexamples, but this much simpler version is sufficient for our purposes).

Dennett claims there are cases of responsible action when one could not have done otherwise. That is the purpose of a moral education, to make one incapable of, say, torturing an innocent person in exchange for a thousand pounds. We may have been trained since birth to consider such an offer unacceptable, yet most of us would not claim when we rejected the offer we were not doing so freely. Dennett asks, what is it we want to know of a person when we wonder, could he have done otherwise in a particular situation? Are we asking, given the exact brain states he had and the exact state of the universe as it was at the time of the act, could the person have done otherwise? Dennett rejects this formulation of the question as unanswerable, and even if answerable as unhelpful in determining responsibility. Unanswerable because it is impossible for us to duplicate a model of such complexity; unhelpful because even could we by some stretch of the imagination lay out such a model, we will never naturally find ourselves in such a state – even were the external condition the same the cognitive conditions would not be (at best we might experience some sense of déja vu). So we are left with the problem of how to interpret the question so that it does illuminate [p.142]:

We ask [the question] because something has happened that we wish to interpret … we want to know what conclusions to draw from it about the future. Does it tell us anything about the agent’s character, for instance? Does it suggest a criticism of the agent that might, if presented properly, lead the agent to improve his ways in some regard? Can we learn from this incident that this is or is not an agent who can be trusted to behave similarly on similar occasions in the future? If one held his character constant, but changed the circumstances in minor – or even major – ways, would he almost always do the same lamentable sort of thing? Was what we have just observed a “fluke”, or was it a manifestation of a “robust”trend – a trend that persists, or is constant, over an increasingly wide variety of conditions?

Thus, Dennett argues, we would still hold people morally responsible whether we accepted van Inwagen’s concept of free will or not, because the considerations we have in mind when we ask whether someone “could have done otherwise” are irrelevant to issues of free will and determinism.

I doubt van Inwagen would be satisfied with Dennett’s approach. Despite its ingenuity it comes off like a verbal trick; it “solves the problem“ but at the cost of not really approaching what we worry about when we worry whether we have free will, or responsibility. Of course, Dennett would respond that these worries are bugbears.

That, I think, is a manifestation of the fundamental disagreement. Resolving this disagreement would help resolve the issue between them about free will, but I have my doubts over whether any such resolution is possible. Their disagreement is based on a fundamental judgment each of the two has made about how philosophy should respond to the other disciplines around it.

I agree with van Inwagen’s observation that, given the current state of science, it is premature to claim that determinism (neurologically if not cosmologically) is true; however,it is certainly premature to claim that it is false as well. I see no reason to be convinced by van Inwagen’s arguments unless he is able to give some vague picture of how he thinks agent causation might physically work. I don’t expect it to be exact, but he ought to at least be able to tell a convincing story. The compatibilists can tell a very interesting story, though we might not care so much for their conclusions. Without some kind of workable story, so far as I can tell, van Inwagen is tacitly accepting Cartesian egos as the source of our free will. He is well aware of this shortcoming but is not overly bothered by it. I think that falling back on the Cartesian model and trying to operate outside the realm of empirical science is not a sacrifice worth making. Dennett’s recommendations are worth taking seriously, despite his apparent lack of awareness of the sacrifice he makes in abandoning our ordinary concept of free will – I think this is a sacrifice worth making.

© Michael Norwitz 1991

Free Will and Determinism

Oh Thou, who didst with Pitfall and with Gin
Beset the Road I was to wander in,
Thou will not with Predestination round
Enmesh me, and impute my Fall to Sin?
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

If it is possible even in theory to predict all that will happen in the future, does this mean that we are not free? Could we look at a child and by considering all the forces and influences which we knew would act upon him over the years, predict accurately that the child would grow up to be a serial killer? And if, in principle, we could, does this mean that the serial-killer-to-be is not responsible for his actions?

The debate about free will and determinism has been going on for centuries. It affects all our ideas about morality and human actions. This issue of Philosophy Now contains two articles on the topic. The first, by Michael Norwitz, sets the scene by examining the ideas of two current participants in the debate. The article which follows is an original contribution to the debate by Professor Antony Flew.

by Tim Harding

The idea that the future is already determined is known in philosophy as determinism.  There are various definitions of determinism available; but in this essay, I shall use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition, which is ‘the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future’ (McKenna, 2009:1.3).

This idea presents a difficult problem for the concept of free will: how can we make free choices if all our actions are determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature?  A related but distinct question is: how can we be held morally responsible for our actions if we have no choices? Undesirable consequences like these are not sufficient reasons for declaring determinism to be false; but they can act (and have influenced many philosophers) as a powerful motivator towards resolving the apparent conflict between determinism and free will. 

Some philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen have gone as far as arguing that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will (Iredale 2012: 8).[1] There are various other philosophical arguments in favour of free will – one of these is an apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass. Some scientists, such as Sam Harris argue in favour of determinism and claim that free will is an illusion. Leading contemporary philosopher John Searle thinks that the issue has still not been resolved, despite two centuries of philosophical and scientific debate. 

Most people who are neither philosophers nor scientists seem to intuitively feel that they have free will and so when presented with this dilemma are more likely to choose free will over determinism (Iredale 2012:13).  On the other hand, in my personal experience, scientists who think in terms of causes and effects are more likely to side with a determinist view.  In this essay, I intend to argue that a solution to this dilemma lies not in choosing free will over determinism, nor vice versa; but in the theory that determinism and free will are compatible – known as compatibilism.

Before going on, let us be clear about what we mean by the term free will.  Clarke & Capes (2013:1) have provided a useful definition:

‘To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely. When an agent acts freely—when she exercises her free will—it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action’.

So what does it take to act freely?  Taylor (2012: 40) states that there are three essential characteristics to free actions.  One is able to act freely only if:

(1) there is no obstacle that prevents you from doing A, and

(2) there is nothing that constrains or forces you to do A, and

(3) you could have done otherwise.

There is a diversity of philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will; but the higher-level taxonomy of these views may be summarised as follows.  Those who hold that determinism and free will cannot both be true are known as incompatibilists.  Within this category, those who claim that determinism is true – and therefore free will is impossible – are known as hard determinists.  Those who claim that determinism is false and therefore that free will is at least possible are known as metaphysical libertarians (not necessarily related to political libertarians).  Those who think that determinism and free will are compatible are known as compatibilistsThere is also a range of sub-categories within the compatibilist camp; but I will only discuss a couple of them in this essay.  This higher-level taxonomy can be visually described by the following diagram.

To be more specific, the following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5) as the Classical Formulation of the free will problem:

1)      ‘Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.

2)      Actions are events.

3)      Every event has a cause.

4)      If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.

5)      If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.

This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox.  How can these inconsistencies be reconciled?  Compatibilists would deny proposition 5).  Incompatibilists, on the other hand, might move in a number of different directions, including the denial of propositions 1), 3) or 4) (McKenna, 2009:1.5).

According to Taylor (2012: 40), all versions of compatibilism (which he calls ‘soft determinism’) have three claims in common:

(i) Determinism is true.

(ii) We are free to perform an action A to the extent there are no obstacles that would prevent us from doing A, and we are not externally constrained (not forced by external causes) to do A.

(iii) The causes of free actions are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent himself, e.g., an agent’s own acts of will or volitions, or decisions, or desires, and so on.

Claim (i) is made in common with hard determinism.  Claims (ii) and (iii) are where the compatibilists part company with the hard determinists and attempt to explain how free will can be compatible with determinism.

Taylor’s objection to compatibilism is essentially a challenge to Claim (iii); that is, that the certain states, events, or conditions within the agent herself are themselves caused by external factors, consistent with determinism.

My response to Taylor’s objection is that the certain states or conditions within the agent could include the person’s values, ethics, loyalties, priorities, and so on.  Let us call these states or conditions within the agent ‘values’.  These values may have external causes accumulated over the agent’s lifetime.  The important point is that an agent’s values could give rise to more than one possible action by the agent, all of which are consistent with the agent’s values.  Let us call these possible consistent actions ‘options’.  When faced with a decision to make, a rational agent would be likely to consider the options available to her and choose the best option.  In this way, the options available to the agent stem from causes but the agent is making a free choice within the range of options available.

A simple way of modelling this limited version of free will has been referred to by some philosophers as a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ after the novel of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges (McKenna 2009:2.1; Iredale 2012: 14).  In other words, there are alternative paths an agent could choose to take, but the paths available have been predetermined.  Within this model, the agent meets the criterion of acting of her own free will, because she could have acted otherwise.  Her ability to have acted otherwise is underwritten by her ability to have selected amongst, or chosen between, alternative courses of action (McKenna 2009:2.1).

Garden with forked path (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind.  Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness.  Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists.  If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.

Daniel Dennett (2003) has proposed a more elegant version of compatibilism with an evolutionary basis.  Although in the strict physical sense our actions might be determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved.  Seen this way, free will is the freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself.  To clarify this distinction, he coins the term ‘evitability’ as the opposite of ‘inevitability’, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones (Dennett 2003:56).  Evitability is entirely compatible with, and actually requires, determinism; because without it, an agent cannot anticipate likely consequences and avoid them.  Dennett provides us with the following explicit argument:

‘In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms. Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided. Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable.  Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable. Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability’ (Dennett 2003:56).

Dennett (2003:58) also argues that there is a concept of chance that is compatible with determinism, which has been invoked to explain evolution via natural selection.  Through these means, he endeavours to unyoke determinism from inevitability (Dennett 2003:60) [2].

In conclusion, I have offered two accounts of how free will may be compatible with determinism – my own and Daniel Dennett’s.  However, I do not claim that either of these accounts has solved the dilemma.  There are also, of course, many other accounts of compatibilism as well as objections to them, plus alternative theories such as hard determinism and metaphysical libertarianism.  Indeed, resolving the dilemma between free will and determinism is very complicated and may be ‘one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy’ (Nichols and Knobe 2007:1).


[1] Peter van Inwagen’s argument that free will is required for moral judgments  is:

  1. The moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X implies that you should have done something else instead.
  2. That you should have done something else instead implies that there was something else for you to do.
  3. That there was something else for you to do implies that you could have done something else.
  4. That you could have done something else implies that you have free will.
  5. If you don’t have free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X (van Inwagen 2009).

[2] For those who would like to read more on this topic, there is an interesting online debate between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett critiques Harris’ book on Free Will in a review titled Reflections on Free Will. Then Harris responds to Dennett’s critique in a rejoinder entitled The Marionette’s Lament.


Clarke, Randolph & Capes, Justin, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Dennett, Daniel. 2003 Freedom Evolves. London, Penguin.

Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

Nichols, S. & Knobe, 2007 ‘Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous 41(4):663-85 in Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

Taylor, Richard. (1976) ‘Freedom, Determinism and Fate’; printed in Time, Self and Mind Study Guide, Monash, 2012:40-47.

van Inwagen, Peter (2009). The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will. Oxford.

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Tagged as compatibilism, Dennett, determinism, free will, Inwagen, Iredale, John Searle, Paradox, philosophy, rationality, Sam Harris, Tim Harding

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