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Religious Studies

Free Will and Determinism

Jim Riley

1st March 2015

There are three theories of free will and determinism that you will need to be aware of:

Hard Determinism

Hard Determinism is the theory that human behaviour and actions are wholly determined by external factors, and therefore humans do not have genuine free will or ethical accountability. There are several different supporting views for this belief, which incorporates philosophical determinism, psychological determinism, theological determinism and scientific determinism.

Soft Determinism

Soft Determinism is the theory that human behaviour and actions are wholly determined by causal events, but human free will does exist when defined as the capacity to act according to one's nature (which is shaped by external factors such as heredity, society and upbringing).


Libertarianism is the theory that humans do have genuine freedom to make a morally undetermined decision, although our behaviour may be partially determined by external factors.

You also need to understand that philosophers distinguish between two different definitions of freedom. This will invariably influence one's views on free will and determinism:

The liberty of indifference is a genuine freedom to act according to independent choices that are not wholly determined by eternal constraints such as heredity, background and education.

The liberty of spontaneity is the freedom to act according to one's nature, the ability to do what one wishes to do although what they wish to do is determined by their nature which, in turn, is shaped by external constraints such as heredity, background and education.



Philosophical determinism, like all forms of hard determinism, is based on the theory of Universal Causation. This is the belief that everything in the universe including all human actions and choices has a cause. Thus all events are causally determined and theoretically predictable; you just need to know the effect of the causes (a mechanistic philosophy, put forward in the Cosmological argument, Aquinas).

The illusion of moral choice is a result of our ignorance of what causes these choices, leading us to believe they have no cause.

The philosopher John Locke used an analogy in which a sleeping man is locked in a darkened room. On awakening he decides he will remain in the room, unaware that the room is locked. In reality the man has no freedom to choose, he cannot get out of the room. However, his ignorance of his true condition has led him to believe that he does have the freedom to choose to remain in the room.

Hume, a radical empiricist was actually a soft determinist but contributed to philosophical determinism by commenting that we can observe patterns in the physical world that can also be found in the decisions we make. Our decisions thus, just like the physical world, are causally determined. Theoretically then, we could know the future if we were knowledgeable of all the causes in the universe and their effects.

“In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to will this or that by a cause, which has been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on until infinity."

Implication for moral responsibility
We cannot be held morally responsible for our actions if they are causally determined and not a result of our own moral choice. The implication thus is that Adolf Hitler is no more culpable for his actions than the good-doing Christian church-goer. Furthermore, our right to punish “guilty" criminals is removed since they cannot be held accountable for their actions. Punishment therefore is reduced to a failed attempt at tackling the problem of injustice in the world.



Psychology is the study of human behaviour. According to psychological determinism, all human behaviour, thoughts and feelings are the inevitable outcome of complex psychological laws describing cause and effect relationships in human behaviour. Thus all decisions and actions can theoretically be predicted. There are many influencing factors on human behaviour:

• Hereditary
• Society
• Culture
• Environment

In the court of law the punishment of the accused is not purely determined by the extent of the crime, but diminished responsibility takes into account other external factors such as up-bringing and background. In 1924 the American attorney, Clarence Darrow successfully defended two youths guilty of murder by focusing his argument on their lack of moral responsibility. Darrow argued that their actions were influenced by a combination of heredity and social conditioning.

However, if a court rules that a murderer cannot be held accountable for his actions, what purpose is the court fulfilling? If a murder can be dismissed as hereditary then there is seemingly no justification for the punishment of any crime.

IVAN PAVLOV (Physiologist)
Pavlov studied the digestive process in dogs, especially the interaction between salivation and the action of the stomach. He discovered that the two are closely linked; without salivation the stomach doesn't get the message to start digesting. He found that external stimuli could affect this process. By ringing a bell every time the dogs were presented with food, after a while they would begin to salivate with the ringing of the bell without the presence of food. This is the result of a conditioned reflex that has to be learned as supposed to an innate reflex. He also found that a conditioned reflex could also be repressed if the stimulus proves to be wrong, i.e. if the bell rings repeatedly and no food appears, the dog eventually stops salivating at the sound of the bell.

Pavlov believed that conditioned reflexes could explain the behaviour of psychotic people. For example those who withdrew from the world may associate all stimuli with possible injury or threat.

Skinner's theory of Operant Conditioning is based on the idea that learning is a function of change in overt behaviour. Changes in behaviour are the result of an individual's response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. A response produces a consequence, and when a particular stimulus-response pattern is reinforced (rewarded) the individual is conditioned to respond. A reinforcer is anything that strengthens the desired response. Negative reinforcers are stimuli that result in the increased frequency of a response when withdrawn.

Skinner attempted to provide behavioural explanations for a broad range of cognitive phenomena, for example he explained drive (motivation) in terms of deprivation and reinforcement schedules.


Theological determinism is the belief that the causal chain can be traced back to an uncaused causer (Cosmological argument, Aquinas), and this is God. If God is omniscient and omnipotent, we cannot have free-will and our actions must be pre-determined by him.

In traditional Judaeo-Christianity however humans are considered to be autonomous beings that are morally responsible to God. We can determine from the 'Myth of the fall' in Genesis that:

• Man is given responsibilities of caring for the world, for the animals and for choosing a suitable companion
• Man and woman have the freedom to use all resources except the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – they have restricted free will
• They are punished when they disobey – they must have had free will to decide to disobey God
• They are responsible for their decisions and must face the consequences of their choices

However, the more you stress God's power and total knowledge the less room there is for the argument that we are self-governing and morally accountable beings. The paradox is; how can God be omnipotent and omniscient and humans be free and autonomous? If God is omniscient then he knows our every future freely made decision, the implication being that when we make a 'free' decision we are simply fulfilling a pre-determined action already mapped out for us by God. Various philosophers and theologians alike have attempted to tackle this problem.

St. Paul believed that God chooses who will be saved. We shouldn't question God's right to choose since none of us deserve to be saved. People seek salvation and justification, which depend on faith and are available to all. However, although we may seek them only God can give them to us through his grace. For St. Paul, freedom is not being bound by the rules of the Old Testament, the ability to choose to accept God into your life and to overcome sin, death, flesh and darkness through Christ's resurrection. Thus humans are free to choose how to live their lives but their final destination is determined by God alone.

Parallels can be drawn between the thinking of St. Paul and his definition of freedom and the soft determinist's view of freedom

St. Augustine argued that human will is so corrupt and depraved as a result of 'The Fall' that know human being is capable of performing a good action without the grace of God and the saving acts of Christ. Augustine believed in pre-destination, the belief that only those elected by God can achieve salvation. Since no one knows who has been chosen we should all lead God-fearing lives. Everyone is at God's mercy. Just because God is omniscient does not mean that we do not have free-will. God has foreknowledge of our choices and the decisions we will make. This does not mean man doesn't make decisions freely; rather it emphasizes God's omnipotence. Augustine reasoned that there are three types of events:

o Those that appear to be caused by chance (the cause is hidden from us)
o Those caused by God
o Those caused by us

Some things are beyond our control such as death, while other things are within our control such as the decision whether or not to lead a good life.

Parallels can be drawn between the thinking of Augustine and the different causes of events and soft determinism and their distinction between internal causes and eternal causes (see below).

Greatly influenced by St. Paul and St. Augustine, Calvin argued that Paul was preaching pre-destination; that the destination of each human being is determined by God on the basis of his foreknowledge of everyone's character and life. He said that there was nothing anybody could do to change their destiny and went further to say that only 5% of the human race were destined for salvation, the other 95% were damned from the start. Everyone deserves to be punished, but the measure of God's goodness is that he saves some. God's justice is beyond human comprehension and should not be questioned. According to Calvin, there is no free will. Calvin therefore takes a hard determinist approach.


Science is mechanistic; it is based upon the theory of Universal Causation. Science tells us that for every physical event there is a physical cause, and this causal chain can be traced back to the moment of the Big Bang. If we consider the mind to be material activity in the brain i.e. chemical impulses, then our thoughts and decisions are also pre-determined. We can explore the causes of human behaviour through the many different branches of science, for example Psychology, Sociology, Physiology and Anthropology.

There are regularities in the way that nature behaves and scientific laws which enable us to predict how things will behave e.g. Newton's Law of Gravity.


Three laws of motion:

1. A body in a state of rest stays in a state of rest and a body moving in a straight line continues moving in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force
2. The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the force that is applied to it and it acts in the same direction
3. Action and reaction are equal and opposite

PIERRE-SIMON LAPLACE (French Philosopher and Mathematician)

Laplace had a mechanistic view of the universe and was the first to present the theory of Scientific Determinism. He believed that if it were possible at any one time to know both the position and the speed of all the particles in the universe at any one time, it would be possible to know their position at any other time in the past, present or future. This idea that the state of the universe at any one time determines the state of the universe at all other times has been central to scientific ideas ever since Newton and Laplace. This implies we can, theoretically, predict the future even though it might not be possible in reality.

Challenges to Scientific Determinism:

Heisenburg Uncertainty Theory
Says that it is not possible to measure both the position and speed of a particle at the same time due to the effect of photons which has a significant effect on a subatomic level. This would suggest that there is no interdeterminacy in nature. However just because we cannot measure both does not mean they cannot both be known.

Chaos Theory coupled with the Heisenburg Principle
Since the work of Heisenburg it has been accepted that, at the most fundamental level of the material world events occur randomly and by chance. The Chaos theory proposes that a quantum event at this fundamental level can ultimately be the cause of a large-scale event. This theory is also known as the “butterfly effect" as it suggests that the slightest movement of a butterfly's wings in Beijing could cause a hurricane in New York some time later.

GAIA Theory (GAIA was the Greek goddess of the earth)
This is a theory associated with James Lovelock that the world changes, adapts and amends itself in order to survive and the human race is of little significance. Humans do not control nature, nature is in control.

Einstein was unhappy about the apparent randomness in nature

“God does not play dice"

He believed that the uncertainty in nature is only provisional and that there is an underlying reality in which particles have well defined positions and speeds according to deterministic laws, which may be known by God.


Soft Determinism is the view that human freedom and moral responsibility are far from being incompatible with determinism; rather determinism is incomprehensible without it. The misconception that the two are incompatible comes from a considerable confusion over what we mean when we say we are free. Freedom is incompatible with fatalism, but not with determinism.

All actions are wholly governed by causes but there are two types of causes:

There are two types of causes;

1) Internal Causes
Lead to voluntary actions of free will, the results of one's own wishes or desires, for example when you leave your country freely because it is your desire to go abroad.

2) External Causes
Lead to involuntary actions of compulsion, contrary to one's wishes or desires, for example when you leave the country because you are forced out by the Government.

It is this distinction which explains why soft determinism requires free-will. According to soft determinists, when we say a person acted freely we mean they did not act under compulsion or external pressure - they acted as free agents, even though their actions were just as much caused as those that are not free. Soft determinists therefore define freedom as the liberty of spontaneity, the freedom to act according to one's nature which is determined by external factors such as heredity, education and background.

If one's wishes and desires may be counted among the causes of one's actions then freedom is also compatible with moral responsibility.

If X could not have acted otherwise because of external constraints then X is not morally responsible. But if X could not have acted otherwise because of internal constraints then the action was a result of his doing and his character, and Y is not responsible for his action.


Libertarianism is the view that when faced with the choice between right and wrong we do act as free agents. Generally libertarianists agree that the inanimate world is mechanistic and that the determining causal chain of reactions may even effect the animate, but they do not believe that human behaviour is wholly determined by external factors. For example, physiological and psychological conditions may dispose the kleptomaniac to steal, but when left alone in a shop no one can be certain that he will because he has the capacity to choose to do otherwise; and therefore has free will.

Libertarianists define personality as an empirical concept governed by causal laws which can be observed; formed by one's heredity and environment. It limits our choices and makes us more inclined to choose certain kinds of actions rather than others.

Our moral self however is an ethical concept operative when we are faced with moral choice. It is capable of overriding the personality and making a causally undetermined choice which satisfies our sense of moral duty.

However, how can it be agreed that a person is free to choose between duty and desire but not free in other choices s/he makes? Determinists say that Libertarianists accept the existence of free will but have no evidence for it.

Libertarians respond by arguing that each of us frequently has the direct and certain experience of being a self-determining creature when we decide to drink tea or coffee or to wear a green or brown coat. We also have sufficient experience to sustain a general belief in the existence of free will, for example whether or not to take the dog for a walk or where to go away on holiday.

We all experience the decision-making process of varying length and benefit, thus each of us must possess free will. The decision making-process can only be experience if:
a. We do not know what we are going to do; and
b. If it is in our power to do what we are thinking of doing

“I deliberate in order to decide what to do, not to discover what it is that I am going to do."

We do not punish inanimate objects when they fail to perform – this would be counter-intuitive. We do however punish people because we believe they are genuinely responsible for their actions and accept that their behaviour is deemed immoral. Free-will thus is fundamental to the objective of punishment.

Free-will is an illusion – John Locke. Benedict Spinoza commented that those who believe they make free choices are ignorant of their inability to restrain their impulses to act. They “dream with their eyes open."

Libertarians respond by maintaining that there are two kinds of knowledge, and therefore two kinds of truth:

1. Those that are said to be necessarily true:
• Cannot be thought of not being true
• Their truth is established independently of sense experience
2. Those that are said to be contingently true:
• Their truth requires empirical examination
• The possibility of error, therefore, always exists

Libertarians concede that our experience of free will may deceive us and that this is not substantial evidence of human autonomy. But in world of contingent events the possibility of error always exists and a perfect knowledge is not obtainable. Therefore, if our experience of deliberation is not sufficient evidence for the existence of free-will then all evidence about anything must be rejected since we can never be certain that anything is true, even our perceptions of material objects.

In conclusion, contingent truths may be fallible but libertarianists are justified in maintaining that our free-will is “beyond reasonable doubt."

Rob Cook wrote that reason shows determinism to be wrong because fundamental to reason is freedom of thought. Therefore, if determinism is true, “it cannot be philosophically established to be true." It could be argued that the theory of determinism thus renders itself irrelevant.

Jim Riley

Jim co-founded tutor2u alongside his twin brother Geoff! Jim is a well-known Business writer and presenter as well as being one of the UK's leading educational technology entrepreneurs.

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