Determinism: What’s Wrong, and How to Fix It

If no practical difference whatever can be traced, then the alternatives mean practically the same thing, and all dispute is idle.” William James [1]

Determinism Revisited

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) article, “Causal Determinism”, describes determinism in several different ways. Some of these are good. Some are not. I hope to make those distinctions here.

“The roots of the notion of determinism surely lie in a very common philosophical idea: the idea that everything can, in principle, be explained, or that everything that is, has a sufficient reason for being and being as it is, and not otherwise.” [2] (SEP)

Determinism is based in the belief that the physical objects and forces in our universe behave in a rational and reliable fashion. By “rational” we mean that there is always an answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”. Even if we never discover that answer, we believe that every event or state is reliably caused.

This belief gives us hope that we may discover the causes of significant events that affect our lives, and, by understanding them, gain some control over them. Medical discoveries lead to the prevention and treatment of disease, agricultural advancements improve our world’s food supply, new modes of transportation expand our travel, even to the moon and back, and so forth for all the rest of our science and innovation. Everything rests upon a foundation of reliable causation.

“Causal determinism is, roughly speaking, the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.” [3] (SEP)

A logical corollary of reliable causation is causal necessity. Each cause may be viewed as an event, or prior state, that is brought about by its own causes. Each of those causes will in turn have their own causes, and so on, ad infinitum. Thus, reliable causation implies the logical fact that everything that happens is “causally necessary”. Everything that has happened, or will happen, will only turn out one way. A key issue in determinism is what to make of this logical fact.

Determinism itself is neither an object nor a force. It cannot do anything. It does not control anything. It is not in any way an actor in the real world. It is only a comment, an assertion that the behavior of objects and forces will, by their naturally occurring interactions, bring about all future events in a reliable fashion.

So, the next step is to understand the behavior of the actual objects and forces.

Explanatory Ambitions

“Determinism is deeply connected with our understanding of the physical sciences and their explanatory ambitions…” [4] (SEP)

We observe that material objects behave differently according to their level of organization as follows:

(1) Inanimate objects behave passively, responding to physical forces so reliably that it is as if they were following “unbreakable laws of Nature”. These natural laws are described by sciences like Physics and Chemistry. A ball on a slope will always roll downhill.

(2) Living organisms are animated by a biological drive to survive, thrive, and reproduce. They behave purposefully according to natural laws described by the life sciences, such as Biology, Genetics, Physiology, and so on. A squirrel on a slope will either go uphill or downhill depending upon where he expects to find the next acorn.

(3) Intelligent species have evolved a neurology capable of imagination, evaluation, and choosing. They can behave deliberately, by calculation and by choice, according to natural laws described by the social sciences, like Psychology and Sociology, as well as the social laws that they create for themselves. A child will ask permission of his mother, or his father, depending upon which is more likely to say “Yes”.

A naïve Physics professor may suggest that, “physics explains everything”. But it doesn’t. A science discovers its natural laws by observation, and Physics does not observe living organisms, much less intelligent species.

Physics, for example, cannot explain why a car stops at a red traffic light. This is because the laws governing that event are created by society. The red light is physical. The foot pressing the brake pedal is physical. But between these two physical events we find the biological need for survival and the calculation that the best way to survive is to stop at the red light.

It is impossible to explain this event without addressing the purpose and the reasons of the living object that is driving the car. This requires nothing supernatural. Both purpose and intelligence are processes running on the physical platform of the body’s neurology. But it is the process, not the platform, that causally determines what happens next.

We must conclude then, that any version of determinism that excludes purpose or reason as causes, would be invalid. There is no way to explain the behavior of intelligent species without them.

Finding Ourselves in the “Causal Chain”

So where do we find ourselves in this deterministic universe? We are physical objects, living organisms, and an intelligent species. As such we are capable of physical, purposeful, and deliberate causation. By deliberate causation, we choose what we will do. And when we act upon this chosen will, we are forces of nature.

But determinism is neither an object nor a force. It is simply the belief that our behavior can be fully explained, in terms of some combination of physical, purposeful, and deliberate causation.

We must conclude, then, that any version of determinism that bypasses or excludes human causal agency, in cases where it is clearly involved, would be invalid.

Pragmatic Insight

By convention, we call the result, of the mental process of choosing what we will do, a “freely chosen will”, or simply “free will”. The word “free” means that the choice was our own, as opposed to a choice imposed upon us by external coercion or some other undue influence.

In all cases of a freely chosen will, two facts are simultaneously true:

(A) We have made our choice according to our own purpose and our own reasons, therefore it was made of our own free will.

(B) We have made our choice according to our own purpose and our own reasons, therefore it was causally determined.

Okay, now that we find free will and determinism to be logically compatible, let’s see how can we mess this up …

Error, By Tradition

“Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.” [5] (SEP)

In this formal definition from the SEP article, we now have determinism anthropomorphically appearing as an actor in the real world. And not just any actor, but one with the power to “govern” everything that happens. Even less attractive is the suggestion that we might also view determinism as a Svengali, holding everything “under its sway”.

In either case, we are given the impression that our destiny is no longer chosen by us, but is controlled by some power that is external to us. And that viewpoint is functionally equivalent to this:

“Fatalism is the thesis that all events (or in some versions, at least some events) are destined to occur no matter what we do. The source of the guarantee that those events will happen is located in the will of the gods, or their divine foreknowledge, or some intrinsic teleological aspect of the universe…” [6] (SEP)

The SEP article attempts to draw a distinction between determinism and fatalism, by attributing the external control in determinism to “natural/causal law” rather than “the will of the gods”. But so long as the cause remains a force that is external to us, it is only “a distinction without a difference”.

Delusion, By Metaphor

The SEP article seems to be aware of the metaphorical nature of their definition:

“In the loose statement of determinism we are working from, metaphors such as ‘govern’ and ‘under the sway of’ are used to indicate the strong force being attributed to the laws of nature.” [7] (SEP)

“In the physical sciences, the assumption that there are fundamental, exceptionless laws of nature, and that they have some strong sort of modal force, usually goes unquestioned. Indeed, talk of laws ‘governing’ and so on is so commonplace that it takes an effort of will to see it as metaphorical.” [8] (SEP)

Take a moment to appreciate the irony.

It is the fashion these days to refer to free will as an “illusion” while imparting causal powers to determinism. But, in the real world, the opposite is true. Determinism, being neither an object nor a force, causes nothing in the real world. However, the object we call a “human being”, estimates the best choice and acts upon it, physically bringing about the future, in a causally reliable way.

The process of making a decision is not an illusion. It is an empirical event. A neuroscientist, performing a functional MRI, can point to the activity monitor, and say, “Look, there, he’s doing it right now.” So, there is no illusion as to who is doing what. And it will also be an empirical fact as to whether a person made the decision for themselves, or whether the choice was imposed upon him by someone else, against his will, either through coercion or some other undue influence.

The view that determinism is an object or a force of nature, acting to bring about events in the real world, is a delusion we create when we take the metaphorical expressions literally.

Why We Need to Get This Right

(1) Truth: Determinism does not cause objects to behave reliably. Objects and forces are already behaving in a rational and reliable fashion, and determinism simply takes note of this fact. We observe the Earth reliably circling the Sun every 365.25 days. We observe people reliably steering their cars away from the edge of a cliff, rather than driving off it. Determinism asserts that both events are reliably explained by some form (or combination) of physical, biological, or rational causes.

(2) Coherence: Once we get our facts straight, we can avoid making incoherent statements, like these from Albert Einstein during an interview in 1929:

“In a sense, we can hold no one responsible. I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will. … Practically, I am, nevertheless, compelled to act as if freedom of the will existed. If I wish to live in a civilized community, I must act as if man is a responsible being.” [9]

Knowing the facts correctly, we are no longer put in Einstein’s dilemma of believing in something that is untrue. Free will is when we choose for ourselves what we will do, when free from external coercion or other undue influence. This is not a question of belief, but one of empirical fact.

(3) Definition: “Free will” never has, nor ever could mean “freedom from causation”. The SEP notes that David Hume made this point:

“Hume went so far as to argue that determinism is a necessary condition for freedom—or at least, he argued that some causality principle along the lines of ‘same cause, same effect’ is required.” [10] (SEP)

To put it succinctly, “freedom from causation” is an oxymoron. Without reliable cause and effect, we could not reliably cause any effect, and would thus lack the freedom to do anything at all.

(4) Justice: In the context of moral and legal responsibility, there is a reasonable “no free will” exception. When someone is forced against their will to participate in a crime, we assign responsibility for his actions to the person holding the gun to his head. But when a crime is the result of a deliberate decision to profit at the expense of someone else, then we must address that cause through correction and rehabilitation. The suggestion that no one is ever responsible for anything, because no one has free will, is both empirically false and morally corrupting.

(5) Psychology: We need to end the “hard” determinist’s nihilistic ramblings about people having no control over their lives, being merely “puppets on a string”, just another “falling domino”, or a “passenger on a bus” being driven by a fate over which they have no control. The reality is that people begin actively negotiating their destiny as soon as they are born. Ask any parent awakened at 2AM by their newborn’s cries to be fed. Or observe the toddler learning to walk, both accommodating and overcoming the force of gravity.

(6) Freedom: Determinism is not an external force acting upon us. Determinism is simply us being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. That is not a meaningful constraint. It is nothing that we can or need to be “free of”. Thus, we have no need to escape via chaos, or randomness, or quantum mechanics. Philosophy can leave physics to the physicists, and perhaps assist them when they get tangled in their semantics.


[1] James, William. Pragmatism (Dover Thrift Editions) (p. 16). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.

[2] Hoefer, Carl, “Causal Determinism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “The Saturday Evening Post”, Oct 26, 1929, “What Life Means to Einstein”, An Interview By George Sylvester Viereck. Link:

[10] Hoefer, Carl, “Causal Determinism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.