Notes on Determinism and Indeterminism
is freedom possible vis-a-vis natural laws?
can we know if we are free?
are there degrees of freedom and ways of increasing or threatening it?
does it matter whether or not we are really free?
Determinism: whatever happens happens necessarily. Every event
has a cause(s).
Note: Determinism should be distinguished from fatalism. Fatalism refers
to the belief that whatever happens had to happen as a result of fate:
whatever we choose to do or actually do is already determined by fate.
By contrast, determinism allows for many causes; however, it does not permit
the possibility that something happens as a result of no cause. [Objection:
if people really did believe that fate determined their lives, what reason
would there be to do anything; fatalism seems to invite resignation and
Ancient and modern versions: Leucippus and Democritus:
everything moves in exactly the way it does out of necessity; free will
is an illusion. Baron Henri d'Holbach: the material
brain is determined by physical laws, so thought itself is determined;
Pierre-Simon Laplace: if we knew all the laws of nature and
had a complete description of the universe at one moment, we could predict
and retrodict all events.
Hard Determinism: Since everything (including human action) has
a cause or causes that determine it to be what it is, there is no real
freedom, only the illusion of freedom. People are not morally responsible
for their actions (as if they could have done otherwise). Besides,
we assume that training people to act in certain ways will influence (determine)
Scientific determinism: since every event in nature has a cause
or causes that account for its occurrence, and since human beings exist
in nature, human acts and choices are as determined as anything else in
the world. Behavior may be determined by many things (e.g., heredity,
environment), but it certainly can be explained in terms of such causal
Though deterministic behaviorism can make predictions about unreflective
(un-thought-out) responses to stimuli, it cannot predict how people will
choose or act when they have had a chance to think through their decision.
Furthermore, it cannot account for our ability to challenge and change
the attitudes and desires that we have learned.
Though many things we do are explainable in terms of causes, some things
we do can be explained only by appealing to reasons: that is, our
decisions are often intelligible only by knowing what purposes or goals
we had in mind when acting. Determinism assumes that there is only
one way to explain behavior (viz., causes), when in fact there is another
way of explaining behavior (viz., reasons) which is just as good.
B. F. Skinner: the predictability of human behavior indicates that
human beings are determined to act in certain law-like ways. This
means thinking of human actions as events described or explained in terms
of causes (efficient) rather than in terms of reasons, intentions, or purposes
(teleological). At issue here is what kind of account will constitute
an explanation that makes behavior intelligible. From a legal or
moral standpoint, we hold people responsible for their intentional acts
(acts done freely or which could have been done differently or not at all).
Concepts of freedom and moral worth (dignity) rely on a teleological, intentionalist
account. Once we substitute a causal account, we move beyond freedom
and dignity talk.
Note: do not confuse being responsible for one's free actions with
being held responsible for one's actions. Though someone might not
be free to act, that does not automatically mean that the person cannot
justifiably be held responsible for the act--for example, to fulfill some
social or political purpose. Punishment or reward might still be
used even if there is no real freedom as further causal determinants of
Freud: behavior is determined by anti-social urges, painful childhood
memories, unresolved emotional conflicts, desires and fears repressed into
the unconscious. Determined through conflict between the animalistic
id and the social, conscientious restrictions of the super-ego, the self
(ego) is nothing more than an accommodation of unconscious wishes, frustrations,
and defenses. We are free only when our actions are not motivated
unconsciously, which never happens. However, we can be made aware
of how these unconscious drives affect our actions, and thus try to change
our circumstances. [Of course, most of our "normal" consciously chosen
behavior can be explained rationally. When it seems that something drives
us to act for no obvious reason, then the act is explained as an unconsciously
Summary: According to hard determinism, environment, heredity,
and other influences determine people to act the way they do and make them
not responsible for their actions. So why punish or reward people
if they cannot do otherwise? Proposed answers:
Soft Determinism (also called Compatibilism): determinism
is compatible with freedom and responsibility. Also called Self-Determinism:
When we ourselves are the causes of actions, our actions are free.
Passive self-determinism: freedom means being able to do what we
want. What we want (as expressed by personality or character) is
determined by external events (e.g., genetics, culture, upbringing), but
as long as we are able to act consistent with our choices, we are free.
This position is called compatibilism or soft determinism because it acknowledges
that all events, including human actions, have causes, but it allows for
free actions when the actions are caused by one's choices rather than external
Augustine: Though our actions are predetermined by God, they are
still free because (from our perspective) our decisions to act one way
or another are up to us. Freedom refers to being able to do what
one chooses to do (even if God knows beforehand what one is going to do).
Here freedom refers to freedom to act. When my act is caused by external
forces it is not free. When it is caused by my choice, it is free.
Stoics, Spinoza: The knowledge that our acts are determined frees
us from the anxiety of not being sure about whether our choices or actions
are correct. Freedom is the active acknowledgment and affirmation
of one's determination (fate).
Hume: To the extent that our actions are determined by our choices,
they are done freely. To say that something causes something else means
that, in our experience, the occurrence of the first thing is customarily
followed by the occurrence of the second. To say that someone acts
"freely" means simply that a person's action follows from his/her choice
or act of will.
Indeterminism: Certain decisions and acts (namely, "free" ones)
have nothing that causes them to occur; they are pure chance events; they
simply happen, having nothing to do with the person doing the act.
Indeterminism as a philosophical theory: The scientific assumption
that all events in nature are determined is unwarranted; indeed, chance
events are perhaps even necessary to account for the diversity of things
in the universe. Besides, current theoretical physics recognizes
that subatomic events occur in completely random and (in principle) unpredictable
ways. A completely caused (determined) event is one that is predictable.
But since not every event is completely predictable, not every event is
caused. Such indeterminacy opens up the possibility that we can really
affect the future; and in this way we can be free and morally responsible.
Indeterminism reduces the whole scientific effort to explain nature and
human beings to mere probability, and it makes such an effort a waste of
time insofar as it does not guarantee that understanding human behavior
will allow us to improve it.
If choices and actions are not determined even by one's personality or
character, then a so-called "free" act would be one that occurs spontaneously
and unpredictably (even to the person doing it); thus no one could justifiably
be held responsible for doing an action which not even he/she could have
predicted would occur. Pure chance is thus not freedom in any sense
that we would ordinarily recognize.