What Is Determinism?

Categories: DeterminismPhilosophy

By viewing the world as a somewhat heterogeneous ball of matter, determinism is concludes that all interactions and decisions (human or otherwise) are inevitable consequences of everything that happened before. The essence of determinism is often termed “unique evolution” (Kane, 2002, p. 113), or what I would call perfect leftovers. If you could somehow freeze a copy of the universe in its present state, you could thaw it out later and it would be evolve / taste the same as the first time around.

Many determinists believe that the world evolves according to a relatively small set of laws including Newton’s laws of motion. Though modern physics rejects this notion, hard determinists maintain that departures from a perfectly deterministic world on a nanoscopic level have little or nothing to do with us on the macroscopic level. Libertarianism (indeterminism) agrees that observed effects could usually be attributed to tangible events.

That is, we can identify the causes of an event a posteriori and even predict that the event will occur with some probability a priori provided we have included a sufficient number of factors in our model to accurately represent the system, but knowing that the event occurred directs an a posteriori analysis towards different causes than would have been considered had a different event occurred.

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The material presented by LaFave (2006) suggests that hard determinism, soft determinism, and libertarianism can be distinguished based on their definition of free will.

To the hard determinist, free will implies the ability and desire to do something without identifiable causes.

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Because determinism posits that all events are caused, presumably by physical entities that the mind has no special control over, the hard determinist rejection of free will immediately follows. To the soft determinist, however, free will is the capacity to desire and act on an apparently chosen desire. Even though the choice could be theoretically calculated beforehand.

The libertarian thinks free will is the ability and act of choosing, in a non-deterministic way, from among several desires. I resonate most with the libertarian view of free will. From physics, we know that there are really no such things as causes or effects, just forces or particles that interact in various ways, and most probabilistically. Thus, the notion that there is a single set of identifiable causes (other than the universe, in which case, the utility of determinism is mute) for an event is downright false.

Moreover, if the purpose of ethics and morality is to enhance, optimize, or smooth human interrelationships in a civilization as I think it is, then hard determinism is wrong independently of whether determinism is right (I will explain this in question 2). Soft determinism seems like hard determinism from the agent’s point of view and appears to hold little meaning or utility unless paired with a view of the stronger definitions of hard determinism and libertarianism. 2. Hard Determinism

Before Baron D’Holbach released his treatise ‘Of the System of Man’s Free Agency’, all theories of determinism were rooted in theology, i. e. the notion that a divine creator brought the universe into being and is in control of its ultimate destiny. There is nothing that the individual human can do except to follow the precepts in various and sundry ‘holy books’ presumed to be the authorship of a god or its conduit. On the other hand, most atheists believe that because there is no divine creator, man is essentially free (e. g. Sartre).

Intriguingly, D’Holbach (and similarly with Edwards) was a materialist and atheist that believed everything is determined because physical laws are consistent and apply to all objects. ‘Of the System of Man’s Free Agency’ begins with a denial of a soul that exists independently of the body that transcends the material plane after death. Since the universe is comprised of physical objects and man is a physical object as well, man (along with all that exists) is bound by the natural laws of cause and effect and thus cannot act freely.

The first and most obvious act of any man is birth—man does not choose to be born and does not choose his personality, habits or ideas—instead, they are a mix of his own innate nature and his environmental influences. As such, D’Holbach argues that it would be unfair to hold him to narrow standards of virtue, especially if they would make him miserable. To the hard determinists, any human feeling of making a choice is an illusion as people are driven by the basic drives of pleasure and pain and should not be forced into virtue if that would make them miserable.

Similarly, people that instinctively love virtue should not be admired because they are simply being themselves as well. As all of existence naturally operates under these laws, D’Holbach does not believe that it was necessary for a supernatural power to bring the universe into being. Although the assertions of hard determinism cannot be falsified, D’Holbach’s arguments are not compelling because they do not resonate with human experience of making choices and significant life changes and fails to consider the problem of human consciousness outside an animalistic framework.

Determinism would be an ideal philosophy for an anonymous and detached god with a nice afterlife with no requirement of worship or rules to observe because the state of the universe is not the choice of humans (whom would have chosen that the universe revolves around them). But when a society embraces determinism, then the moral/self-identity cost for committing a crime is absolved (since one is bound to do it anyway), the cost of committing a crime also goes to zero, so the only remaining consideration for a potential criminal is the perceived value in committing the crime.

By embracing the philosophy, we have something analogous to the observer effect, with the theory being the observer that perturbs the system he studies, and in this case, that effect is very negative. The best place for a theory like determinism is thus safely packed away in a natural disaster preparedness kit, for use only on those who have come to view the natural world as an uncontrollable, malevolent force (hurricane survivors, victims of natural disasters, Al Gore, etc). 3. Libertarianism In his essay, “Has the Self ‘Free Will’” (and similarly in “On Godhood and Selfhood”) C. A. Campbell puts forth a libertarian account of free will.

He begins by noting the wider context; we should care about free will because moral responsibility is attributed on the notion that an agent has a choice to perform some other action. This fact is evident in that we consider the circumstances when we decide whether a bank teller was acting out her duties, acting under compulsion, or acting to steal from his employer. Specifically, we hold the bank teller morally responsible for taking money from the register and giving it to person X if the bank teller did so without duty (X was not just withdrawing money) or compulsion (X did not have a pistol pointed at the bank teller’s head).

If we have ever expended an effort (thereby making us the “sole author” of our actions) to commit some more moral act instead of some immoral act that was nevertheless quite tempting (thus, we had a choice), then Campbell argues that we have exercised our capacity of free will. This is an interesting argument in that it relies on a presumed experience of the reader, which is in contrast with more conventional arguments by logic, but is consistent with the overall libertarian philosophy that logic explains the vast majority of nature, but just not the initiative of the will, which is a matter of choice.

A similar belief was expressed in the popular books of Ayn Rand, whose protagonists claimed that man has but one choice, and that choice is whether or not to think (ARI). In “Two Concepts of Freedom”, Rowe discusses two refinements of the libertarian definition of free will. He begins with the Lockean account, which is essentially that an act is free if the entity chose and completed that act, but could have chose and successfully completed a different act.

This definition is in strong opposition with the view of Campbell, who sees free will as a completely internal act that is expected, but may not always, be transformed into an external action. To Campbell, moreover, the free act may actually be to suppress an otherwise instinctual or conditioned response, which seems to be outside the domain of Locke’s definition. The second definition of free will that Rowe explores is attributed to Reid, though Rowe makes a significant but subtle modification to it that further separates it from the Lockean convolution of free will and capacity to carry out that will.

The idea is similar to that of Campbell in that it focuses on the internal action, rather the external and observed response. Rowe demonstrates, through several thought experiments that will hopefully not be carried out in practice, that the act of carrying out the actions and expressing the will is distinct from the initiation of the will, which Rowe claims is the true essence of agent-causation of free will. In these two essays, Rowe and Campbell both argue that after we strip away the external influences, the genes, the environment, etc., that one act remains which was caused by the agent alone, and that is the act of causing the act of will. 4. Soft Determinism Like hard determinism, soft determinism negates the primacy of free will, but concedes the point that human beings have limited agency within a context of experience. In a simple example, most Americans would never choose to eat a dog because their context tells them that dogs are pets and not food animals. A poor person from Korea or China may beg to differ because dogs are food animals within their context.

However, a starving person will choose to eat anything that crosses his path. While D’Holbach would argue that humans cannot help being who they are and all choices (or apparent choices) are immutable, Hume believes that people do have a parameter-set of choices within their particular experience. History has yielded many examples of people that have sought to inflict pain upon themselves in order to fit an idealized social standard, which is seemingly a choice.

If an authority is forcing the ascetic to mortify himself by threatening something of great value (his life, honor, reputation, freedom), then it cannot be said that he is choosing freely. Nevertheless, if his faults are minor and his immediate social circle does not see anything wrong with him, then it is obvious that he freely chose the path of self-mortification without immediate outer compulsion. However, the ascetic’s choice to pursue self-mortification is directly derived from his strong desire to fit into a social ideal.

The same can be said of anorexics: hard determinists would argue that they are simply the products of a society that idealizes thinness and their psychology (and conditioning) may force them to pursue social ideals at all costs, while libertarians would counter that refusing to satisfy a biological imperative takes a great act of will or choice. Hume may argue that both factors are responsible for this condition, and while this is an interesting perspective, the proverbial balance sheet just is not adding up properly.

Soft determinism attempts to reconcile the prevailing views of determinism and libertarianism, but it does not seem possible to apply it in any meaningful way that does not just turn it into hard determinism (because the agent’s choice was predetermined) or libertarianism, because the agent felt like he had a choice. Unless of course, the writer’s extensive exposure to free will philosophy is introducing undue bias into this discussion. 5. Moral Luck In “Moral Luck”, Nagel struggles with what he calls “Moral Luck”, which is the fact that we often judge people based on the outcome of an act, rather than the act itself.

He frequently uses the example of a driver who accidentally hits someone, or a sportsman who accidentally shoots a fellow sportsman and is later judged a based on the circumstances, while a similar person who did not happen to hit someone is either fully within the law or given a small fine. Regardless of whether the world is deterministic or probabilistic, Nagel argues that we are holding people morally responsible for circumstances that are outside their control.

In discussing free will, Nagel moreover questions whether anything is truly left to the will after we peel away all the external influences, causes and such. He repeatedly grapples with the idea that we cannot hold people morally responsible for their actions. I think the problem with Nagel’s argument is that it removes the person from the context. Nagel forgets that the driver of the car did not just happen to find himself in the car at the moment that it struck the pedestrian or not.

There was a very good opportunity to have noticed the child or pedestrian earlier; and not doing so is negligent. We hold this act to a higher standard of legal justice than running a red light because we believe it very likely that the person who ran the red light checked for any children (or cars) crossing the street, since they certainly had to check for cars (unless the just had sadistic and suicidal desires, in which case we are talking about murder), and particularly police. Every action we take, so long as we live in society, caries with it a risk of harming oneself and others.

We hold people responsible to the degree of risk associated with the activity. We thereby reinforce the level of diligence required when performing that act, and the level of consideration that one should give when deciding whether one is capable of meeting that level of diligence. We punish people less for committing crimes that do not harm others, even though they have violated some other law, because it is far worse to punish a person who exercised due diligence but broke another law (perhaps even without knowing it) intended to make people more diligent.

It is not (yet) possible to know whether every person that did run the red-light exercised due diligence, or whether everyone who went through it while it was green remembered to check for pedestrians. But if we care at all about society to begin with, we will remember that punishing those that do hit pedestrians and who were not mindful of the power they were wielding promotes diligence more than not punishing them at all.

If one wants to improve the situation, the best solution would be a black-box recorder in an automobile that recorded the driver’s eye movements and could be examined after an accident, but even that is imperfect, as some people have sufficient peripheral vision to not need to have glanced at the sidewalk. The point is ultimately that the remedy is not removing punishment, but improving technology to the point where it can discern whether individuals did what can be reasonably expected of drivers, hunters, and politicians. Until then, we’ll have to rely on the indicators that we do have available.


  1. ARI (2009). The Ayn Rand Institute: Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed July 1, 2009. http://www. aynrand. org/site/PageServer? pagename=objectivism_faq
  2. KANE, R. (2002) The Oxford handbook of free will, Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.
  3. LAFAVE, SANDRA. (2006) Free Will and Determinism. Accessed July 1, 2009. From West Valley College. http://instruct. westvalley. edu/lafave/FREE. HTM

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What Is Determinism?. (2016, Oct 05). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/summary-of-free-will-perspectives-essay

What Is Determinism?

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