Why Determinism Doesn’t Matter

Here are a few things that you should already know:

  1. Causes explain why things happen.
  2. Knowing why things happen gives us some control of events. For example, medical science studies the causes of diseases in order to prevent or cure them. Polio used to cripple hundreds of children every year. But today the polio vaccine has eliminated the disease from most of the world.
  3. Causes have histories. Jonas Salk created the polio vaccine, but his vaccine was based on Edward Jenner’s work with smallpox [i]. Jenner noted that milkmaids exposed to cowpox were immune to the more deadly smallpox.  He created his vaccine from cowpox (in fact, the word “vaccine” comes from the Latin “vacca” for cow [ii]).
  4. We too have histories. We are born, raised by our family, and influenced as we grow up by our peers, schools, the books we read, and so on. Our life experiences, and how we choose to deal with them, make us who we are today.
  5. We were not always free to choose for ourselves. When we were children, there were many choices our parents made for us, like making us eat our vegetables before dessert.
  6. Today we are free to choose for ourselves what we will do. We choose the car we will buy. We choose what classes we will take in college. We choose what we will have for lunch.
  7. When we are free to choose for ourselves what we will do, it is called “free will”.  (Free will is literally a freely chosen “I will”).
  8. We are held responsible for what we choose to do. For example, if we choose to have dinner in a restaurant, the waiter will expect us to pay the bill.

So, you already knew all of that, right? If so, then you already have the correct intuitive understanding of both determinism and free will.

Determinism asserts that every event has a history of reliable causation, one thing leading to the next, going back as far as we can imagine. Salk’s work was the result of Jenner’s. Jenner’s work was based upon a history of others attempting to end recurring epidemics of smallpox. Ideas and inventions in the past lead naturally to new ideas and future invention. Human progress is an example of “causal determinism”, the natural unfolding of events through reliable cause and effect.

Free will is a choice we make that is free of coercion and undue influence. Coercion is a threat that forces one person to submit their will to the will of another. For example, a bank robber points a gun at the bank teller, demanding that she hands over the cash. Other forms of undue influence may be less obvious and less dramatic, but still remove a person’s control over their own choices or actions. For example, a mental illness that confuses a person’s perception of reality by delusions or hallucinations, or that disables their ability to reason, or that creates an irresistible compulsion can also impair the person’s ability to make decisions for themselves. Manipulation by hypnosis or deception would also be an undue influence over a person’s choices. Or they may be subject to an authoritative command, such as a parent’s influence over his child, or a general’s command over her soldiers. But normal daily influences, such as advertising or the opinions of our friends, would not compromise our free will.

As you can see, there is no conflict between the concepts of causal determinism and free will. The fact that a history of events led up to me choosing what I will have for dinner tonight does not contradict the fact that it is I, myself, that is doing the choosing. Prior causes helped to make me what I am, but they cannot bypass me or make any of my choices for me. The final prior cause of my deliberate act is the act of deliberation that precedes it. And I am that which performs that deliberation.

A choice of our own free will is caused by our own purpose and our own reasoning, and it may be influenced by our genetic dispositions and life experiences, our beliefs and values, our thoughts and feelings. Because our choices are reliably caused by these things, our choices are deterministic. Because all these things are integral parts of who and what we are, we are the actual source of our choice.

Given the same me, the same circumstances, and the same issue to decide, my choice will always be the same. And, because my choice is a product of who and what I am, I am the most meaningful and relevant cause of my choice.

Yes, It’s Real

And this is no illusion. Neuroscientists can do a functional MRI of a person’s brain while they are making a decision, and show you the electrical activity across different areas as it is happening. Choosing is an actual event taking place in the real world, and our brain is doing it.

But we don’t have to be neuroscientists. We can observe a man in a restaurant, browsing through the menu, and placing his order. Choosing is an operation that inputs two or more options, performs a comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice. We observe ourselves and others making choices every day. It is not an “illusion”. It is an objective observation.

Some have argued that, because his choice was the inevitable result of a history of prior causes, that the man in the restaurant “had no real choice”. But that is a denial of reality. He literally had a menu of options to choose from, and he actually made the choice himself. The man, the options, and the choosing were all real.

The events were all causally deterministic. The person being there in that restaurant had a reliable history of causes. The restaurant being there with that menu had a reliable history. The person’s reasons for choosing that particular meal at this point in time also had a reliable history. However, none of these historical facts contradicts the objective fact that the man, for his own purpose and his own reasons, made that choice for himself, free of coercion and undue influence, of his own free will.

There is no conflict between those two objective facts.

Logical Necessity

The choosing operation logically requires (1) at least two real possibilities to choose from and (2) the ability to choose either one. If either of these is false, then choosing cannot occur. Both conditions are true, by logical necessity, at the beginning of the choosing operation.

At the beginning we have multiple possibilities. At the end we have the single inevitable choice. If we must choose between A and B, then, at the outset, “we are able to choose A” is true and “we are able to choose B” is also true. This simple ability to choose either A or B is the “ability to do otherwise”. And if “we can choose A” and “we can choose B” are both true today, then tomorrow “we could have chosen A” and “we could have chosen B” will also be true.

At the end, we will have chosen one or the other. However, if we choose A, then it still remains true that we “could have” chosen B. The concept of “I could have” refers to a point in the past when “I can” (“I have the ability to”) was true. Whenever we say “I could have” we are implicitly referring to a past time, specifically the beginning of the choosing operation. And, at that point, “I can choose A” and “I can choose B” were both true. The fact that we chose A does not contradict the fact that we “could have” chosen B.

The concepts of “can do” and “will do” are distinct. What we “will” do has no logical bearing upon what we “can” do or what we “could have” done.

How the Single Inevitable Future Comes About

It is said that, if cause and effect are perfectly reliable, then the future will only turn out one way (and that should not surprise anyone, since we have only one past to put it in).

Note that I said the future “will” turn out only one way, because it would be incorrect to say that the future “can” only turn out one way. Within the domain of human influence, that single inevitable future will be the result of our imagining multiple real possibilities, and then choosing which future we will actualize.

When we speak of what we “can” do, we are referencing a future which has not yet been decided, a future that might happen, but then again, it might not. When we speak of what we “will” do, then we have decided which possible future we will work to create, and that will be the single inevitable future. It will have been causally necessary from any prior point in eternity and it will be decided by us.

Causal necessity is not an entity that decides things, but we are. The notion that causal necessity is such an entity is the deep delusion behind the determinism “versus” free will paradox.

Free Will and Justice

Some writers and speakers have suggested that we might be a more just society if we all pretend that free will does not exist. Rather than deal directly with the social problems that breed criminal behavior (racism, poverty, failing schools, drug trafficking, etc.) they imagine that pretending people have no choices will magically solve these problems for us. Our prison system certainly needs some reforms, but their approach is misguided.

Rehabilitation, for example, is impossible without the concept of free will. The goal of rehabilitation is to return to society a person who will make better choices on their own. To accomplish this we provide addiction treatment, education, counseling, restorative justice [iii], skills training, job placement, post-release follow-up, and other programs that give the offender new and better options to choose from.

Telling the offender that he had no control over his past behavior, and that he will have no control over his future behavior, totally undermines rehabilitation. So, the “hard” determinists and the “free will skeptics”, are giving us some very bad advice.

Summing Up

All of the utility of having a deterministic universe comes from knowing the specific causes of specific effects. We use that knowledge to change things for the better, such as curing diseases. It gives us significant control over our physical and social environment, and it enables us to bring about a future more to our own choosing.

Presuming perfectly reliable cause and effect, all events are “causally necessary” from any prior point in eternity, and inevitably will happen. While this is a logical fact, it is neither a meaningful nor a relevant fact. It is not meaningful because what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose (what we will inevitably do is what we would have done anyway). And, it is not relevant because there is nothing that anyone can, or needs to, do about it. We can do something about specific causes, but we cannot do anything about causation itself.

All of our freedoms, to do anything at all, require reliable cause and effect. So the notion that reliable causation contradicts freedom is irrational. This means that the so-called “philosophical” definition of free will as “freedom from causal necessity” is irrational.  There is no such thing. Every use of the terms “free” or “freedom” presumes a world of reliable cause and effect.

The fact that events unfold reliably from prior events, like Salk’s work unfolding from Jenner’s, is common knowledge, and universally accepted. And that is all that determinism can truthfully assert.

And yet we have popular speakers and writers, even scientists and philosophers, telling us that determinism is some kind of boogeyman that robs us of all control over our choices and our destiny. They tell us free will is just an illusion and that no one is responsible for their choices or their actions.

Take Albert Einstein. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Einstein said this: “In a sense, we can hold no one responsible. I am a determinist. As such, I do not believe in free will.” And yet just a few lines later he says this: “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.” [iv]

Einstein’s position, that he must pretend that free will and responsibility exist, even though he does not believe in either, is nonsense. Unfortunately, it is nonsense that has been repeated by many scientists and philosophers throughout history. It is about time that we start calling it nonsense, like the kid in the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes“. [v]

Determinism cannot assert that we have no control of our choices, because we are the actual objects making those choices. Determinism cannot assert that we have no free will, because most of our choices are actually made free of coercion and other forms of undue influence.

Determinism doesn’t really change anything. And that is why determinism doesn’t matter.


[i] Jacobs, Charlotte DeCroes. Jonas Salk (p. 38). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaccination

[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restorative_justice

[iv] “What Life Means to Einstein”, The Saturday Evening Post, October 26, 1929, page 114.

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor%27s_New_Clothes

Note: For a detailed analysis of the determinism “versus” free will paradox, see my earlier post “Free Will: What’s Wrong and How to Fix It“.

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