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Free Will: Comparing Determinism and Indeterminism

By Edited Sep 29, 2016 0 0

Whether free will exists for humanity is a question that has been scrutinized by the philosophical community for centuries; as a result of considerable contemplation, there are multiple theories pertaining to the notion of free will, and how this notion interrelates with a world that appears to consist of correlational patterns. Presumably, everyone confronts situations in which they feel free to choose one act over other possible acts—thus seemingly insinuating that there is freedom to will a desire as long as the decision refrains from disintegrating an indisputable causal chain of events (entailing abidance of the laws of nature). In accordance with the perceived existence of free will, the two main schools of thought are libertarianism—the belief that there is free will in an indeterministic world—and compatibilism—the belief that there is free will in a deterministic world. Until rather recently, compatibilism was generally accepted by nearly all philosophers. After all, the coexistence of free will and determinism is extremely appealing; in short, even though every preceding and proceeding event is dependent upon our one possible action that legitimizes past, present, and future, our actions still feel free. However, in order for the world to be purely deterministic, then it logically follows that the individual is rendered from making an alternative decision—hence, there are multiple problems for the notion of free will if the world is deterministic.

Granted that compatibilists face problems due to the contradictory nature of their argument, one may surmise that free will must be easier to defend in an indeterministic world where free will would not be restricted by predetermined outcomes. In contrast, free will is even harder to defend in a world that is indeterministic; for our actions would be randomized and subject to chance possibilities—rendering the conceptualization of free will implausible. Therefore, one can either revert back to the tenets of compatibilism or one can adopt an incompatabilist perspective. Herein, I will attempt to clarify the free will debate in a sensible manner. In Part I, I will highlight the problems that compatibilists face. Following, Part II will demonstrate that it is not any easier to defend free will in a world that is not deterministic. And in conclusion, Part III will reflect upon the objections of incompatibilists in order to propose a form of compatibilism that allows free will and determinism to coexist while dually addressing predominant incompatabilist concerns.

Part I

At the forefront of the problems for free will in a deterministic world is the unavoidable accusation that there cannot conceivably be free will if the future is already predetermined. Peter van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument simplifies the paradoxical assertions of compatibilism fittingly when noting, “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” (van Inwagen 1983: 5). Based upon this account, the linkage between determinism and fatalism—the belief that events are predetermined and therefore inevitable—is difficult to deny. Van Inwagen’s inclusion of ‘remote’ is initially suspect, but regardless of whether the past is remote or immediate, determinism’s premise that there is a lone possibility for the future—dictated by necessary past causes—is never jeopardized or negated. Thus, in order for there to be free will in conjunction with determinism, a semi-compatabilist perspective—embracing the freedom to act upon a will rather than absolute freedom of the will—may be a more sufficient approach.

Another significant problem for the notion of free will in a deterministic world is that it is very difficult to assess moral responsibility if one’s actions, theoretically, cannot be altered. For instance, if a young child is drowning in the presence of a bystander, then the rational ensuing sequence of events should result in the bystander attempting to save the child. However, if the world is deterministic, then the bystander never has an internal locus of control—though a judicial verdict may claim otherwise. As Isthiyaque Haji, an admitted compatibilist, recounts, “Almost all of us believe that each one of us is, has been, or will be responsible for at least some of our behavior. But how can this be so if determinism is true and all our thoughts, decisions, choices, and actions are simply droplets in a river of deterministic events that began its flow long, long before we were ever born?” (Haji 1998: 7). Perhaps, in spite of all intuition being predicated upon deterministic events, these aforementioned events form a chain in which the agent learns morality. Therefore, even amidst a deterministic world, the agent will generally choose the morally commendable course of action—in the previously mentioned case, the bystander would attempt to save the child. Nevertheless, there are times when the subject will choose the morally indecent action, and a deterministic world would entail that an alternate decision could not have been made. One can certainly argue the case that humans should be held morally accountable for their actions in clear cases independent of whether free will is technically in existence (since right and wrong is taught during early psychological stages of development); nonetheless, regardless of moral accountability and how our values manipulate desires and actions, if an alternate future is impossible, then proposing free will in a deterministic world is simply problematic since we are merely the proximate causes of our choices according to pure determinism.  

Part II

            Now that it has been established that the notion of free will is difficult to conceive in a deterministic world, the next logical step is to determine if the notion of free will would be plausible in an indeterministic world. On the surface, free will and indeterminism would seem to be sufficient complements—designating moral responsibility and intellectual capability to the most progressive of species. In an indeterministic world coupled with free will, man would appear to never be restricted by fate; in turn, man rightfully faces the consequences of poor judgment and invites the pleasures of good judgment. However, referencing another of van Inwagen’s propositions, the Mind Argument reiterates that an indeterministic world ‘controlled’ by chance will result in actions that occur by chance (van Inwagen 1975: 695-706). Accordingly, the agent does not have control, and the notion of free will actually entails determinism. Summarily, if the agent cannot deliberate the desire that precedes the random action, proposing free will in an indeterministic world is rather baseless.

Part III

            Since libertarianism fails to effectively explain the relationship between free will and the world, the debate is centered around a compatibilist interpretation versus an incompatibilist interpretation. For the sake of presenting a feasible counterargument against compatibilism, I will begin by considering an incompatibilist perspective that denies the existence of free will in a deterministic world (as opposed to libertarian incompatibilism). Reverting back to van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument, his primary claim is that actions are not up to us due to external forces, and the agent cannot do otherwise. However, David Lewis proposes an interesting scenario in opposition to van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument. Lewis’ argument is predicated upon the following scenario—with L standing for the laws of nature:

(C1) If I had raised my hand, L would not have been true.

(C2) If I had raised my hand, my act would have been or caused an event which entails not-L

(A1) I am able to do something such that if I did it, L would not have been true

(A2) I am able to do something such that if I did it, my act would have been or caused an event which entails not-L (Lewis 1981: 113-21).

Lewis claims that the counterfactual (C1) permits the possibility of (A1), but disputes that (C2) makes (A2) possible. In other words, as compatibilists have always claimed, although the agent never has the ability to alter the past or the laws of nature, the ability to do otherwise is possible—agents merely choose X over other possibilities because of the given set of circumstances that determinism creates. Incompatibilists counter Lewis by claiming that a human having (A1) capabilities is implausible—and I agree. One cannot act in a way that makes L untrue. As van Inwagen claims, “I conclude that even if an episode of agent causation is among the causal antecedents of every voluntary human action, these episodes do nothing to undermine the prima facie impossibility of an undetermined free act” (van Inwagen 2004: 227). In my opinion, however, this is where the incompatabilist missteps.

If causal antecedents have aspects of voluntary agent causation as van Inwagen proposes, then the agent demonstrates the ability to will the will during portions of the causal chain. The world may still be deterministic and the agent is always going to choose X, but determinism and continuity of the laws of nature in the past, present, and future are maintained—without denying the agent’s freedom to choose X over lesser desires and subsequent options that are deemed less desirable for subjective reasons. In accordance with Harry Frankfurt’s interpretation of compatibilism, the agent has control in a self-determining kind of way (Frankfurt 1969: 820-39). In this way, the agent does not need the literal ability to do otherwise to exert free will; personal judgment will always lead the agent to choosing X, the most desirable option, in a dually free and deterministic manner. Rather than restricting ourselves to incompatabilist understandings that claim the agent is in total control or has no control in relation to external forces, I believe that this aforementioned compatibilistic proposal is a sufficient response to the problem of free will.

In conclusion, compatibilists do clearly face problems when attempting to interconnect free will and determinism—namely, as evidenced in Part I, free will and determinism are essentially polar opposites, and moral accountability is very difficult to assess with such competing elements. However, in Part II, I have explained that free will can surely not exist in an indeterministic world because all events would be subject to unpredictable chance. Therefore, either no free will exists in an indeterministic world or free will exists in a deterministic world. After further consideration in Part III, compatibilism is the most sensible conclusion; for although determinism is apparent, the agent still has the freedom to act and voluntarily chooses the only option that satiates the respective agent’s will and the causal chain of natural, deterministic, fundamental law.


Frankfurt, Harry. “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility”. Journal of Philosophy. 820-39. 1969.

Frankfurt, Harry. “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person”. Metaphysics a guide and anthology. 682-94. 1971.

Haji, Isthiyaque. “Moral Appraisability”. Oxford University Press. 7. 1998.

Lewis, David. “Are We Free to Break the Laws?”. Theoria. 113-21. 1981.

van Inwagen, Peter. “An Essay on Free Will”. Oxford Clarendon Press. 5. 1983.

van Inwagen, Peter. “The Incompatability of Free Will and Determinism”. Metaphysics a guide and anthology. 695-706. 1975.

van Inwagen, Peter. “Van Inwagen on Free Will”. Freedom and Determinism. 227. 2004.



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