Free will, determinism and morality
Published in Australian Rationalist No70.


When the topic of free will is raised, the discussion is often mere bald assertions: "Of course we have free will"; "No, there is no possibility of free will", with little, if any, reasoning of any substance. Those who come out dogmatically in favour tend believe in a God who lays down laws of behaviour and expects compliance, or else they are Existentialists. Some people would claim that free will is a gift from God, but a gift with accompanying obligations. Those who deny that we have it tend to doubt or deny the existence of any God, but they still usually act as if they and other people have free will.

I think the issue is important. It has fundamental implications for the concept of morality. Sometimes people use the assumption of the existence or non-existence of free will to justify certain types of behaviour that otherwise might seem unacceptable. The following discussion looks at both sides of the argument.

Free will

FREE WILL is the ability to make decisions that are not completely compelled by natural, social or divine restraints.

Free will might be clearly absent from some decisions, eg, when there are compelling effects like abnormal mental conditions, strong emotions, addictions, mind-altering drugs or having a knife at your throat. Courts of law sometimes excuse people when the terrible things they have done are accepted to have been "compelled" by some condition or other. But that still leaves scope for other decisions that might involve free will.

The possibility of free will is challenged by the concept of determinism and by consideration of the process by which free will might be exercised. There are various concepts of determinism.


Physical determinism is the idea that the universe is the product of entities acting according to natural laws, and so everything that occurs is the consequence of the laws acting upon some initial conditions. Everything in the universe had to happen in the way it has done, without exception. This applies to living things as well as inanimate, and includes every action, thought and will of human beings. We could never have done anything differently or thought differently about anything. So physical determinism, if it is valid, precludes free will.

The term determinism is also used in more limited senses. For example, Psychological Determinism is the idea that the behaviour of human beings, including their thoughts, is the product of genes, physiological and environmental development and external occurrences, but of nothing else. Technological Determinism means that societies are structured by the technologies they employ, as in Stone Age, etc. Media Determinism means that each medium of communication imposes specific ways of thinking on the people using it, as explored, for example, in McLuhanís book The Medium is the Massage. These are not relevant to this present discussion.

Implications for Morality

On the premise that morality requires that there be personal responsibility to behave in certain ways, and hence free choice, there could then be no morality in a deterministic world. So does the abundant evidence we have of ethically-based actions, which seems consistent with the existence of free will, invalidate the idea of determinism?

Not necessarily. If determinism can dictate the development of physical and biological systems, so can it allow social and conceptional ones. Therefore, in a deterministic world, individual people and societies could have systems of ethics, and behave in accordance with them. But such systems would be pre-determined. The continued widespread existence of ethical systems throughout the world would merely mean that they seemed to help societies to survive. In fact, irrespective of whether determinism is true, ethical systems seem to be essential for the survival of societies. So a deterministic world in which people generally acted as if free will existed could look very like the world we know. It would be to hard argue, though, that such deterministic acts could carry moral responsibility.

Sometimes it is claimed that determinism is necessary for morality, since in an inconsistent world, no one could foresee the results of their actions. And so there would be no responsibility. But, morality arises out of the belief in the intended consequence of personal actions (in addition to a requirement to behave in certain ways). It could -.and does - indeed exist in a world where the outcomes of many, not necessarily all, of our actions were unpredictable. On the other hand, in a world of free will, belief in determinism might incline someone to act as if there were no morality. People with no feelings of moral responsibility are regarded as sociopaths in our society.

The case for and against determinism

experience of free will

Most people believe that they continually experience having and acting upon free will. "I do what I want to do, so I have free will." Our personal and social systems of behaviour are based on the assumption of free will and on the consequent principle of personal responsibility.

Determinists argue that it is a delusion that we experience free will. To the statement, "I do what I want to do, so I have free will", they reply "But what makes you want to do it?". They quote findings of neurological science, such as sites and processes of decision-making and emotion in the brain, accompanied by logical constructions, to "prove" that all thoughts and decisions are purely physical processes. But conscious experience is our subjective essence. It is also the basic element in the whole process of scientific practice and theory. Our processes of observation, measurement and reasoning arise from subjective interpretations of experience. And our consciousness directly observes occasions when we exert our will. So to go through a long process of observation and theorising, and then arrive at a conclusion that free will does not exist, suggests that there is an error somewhere in the observations or the reasoning. Could it be that the non-existence of free will is the delusion, not the experience of it? The Deterministsí answer to this argument is that while we are conscious of exercising the will, there is no evidence that it is free will. The power of the unconscious (or subconscious) mind over thoughts and actions is an illustration of how the conscious mind could be deluded.


A counter to this type of argument is that determinism is reductionist, and hence incapable of dealing with things like free will. Reductionism is the idea that anything can be explained in terms of its components, or "the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts". Thus chemistry can be explained in terms of physics, biology in terms of chemistry, and so on. Opponents of reductionism say there is an effect called emergence, that makes the whole indeed greater than the sum of the parts. For example, when people come together to live as a group, they develop patterns of cooperation, competition, specialisation, bartering, etc, thus creating a society. So free will might be a quality emerging from the complexity of the human brain, or mind. An evolutionary trail might lead from inanimate matter to the beginnings of intelligence in very simple organisms, to greater intelligence and ability to make considered decisions in vertebrates, culminating in the enhanced and flexible mental powers of human beings.

If emergence does produce something new and independent, how might it occur? Perhaps it could arise out of immense complexity of interconnection, as in the brain, perhaps from the sheer number of the interacting parts, or the number of different types of parts. If it could come from something like this, and if free will could emerge, it should be possible for a very complex computer to acquire free will - provided, of course, that a computer could have a will of any kind. It has been suggested that in a human society closely interconnected by the Internet there could be an emergent group consciousness and group free will.

It is generally agreed by Reductionists and others that in no case does the operation of the whole violate the characteristics of the individual parts. Reductionists would claim that emergent behaviour is the necessary and consistent outcome of the characteristics of the parts and of the environment they happen to be in. They readily agree that the only way to discover some of the characteristics of the parts is to see them operating in complex situations. It could be argued that we might never be sure of knowing all the characteristics of anything, because there might always be situations that we have not yet learnt about. Reductionists would (or should) concede that there are many cases where behaviour cannot yet be fully explained in terms of the known characteristics of the parts. But lack of full knowledge of the parts does not refute the principle of reductionism, nor of determinism.

induction and the scientific position

Another anti-science argument against determinism is that science is only based on induction, and therefore determinism is not valid.

Scientists donít claim that their findings are true in some absolute sense of truth. But they do claim that the process of induction gives a high probability of scientific findings being true. For any particular scientific "fact", the probability is thought to get extremely close to 100% when the number of independently and rigorously observed cases of agreement becomes very large and also there are no cases of disagreement. This is what induction means.

The philosophical argument against induction is that every possible case must be tested before a generalisation can be regarded as true. It is usually a practical impossibility to do this. This is the basis of this particular argument against determinism.

Other arguments against induction are:

An example of the first of these is the success of Newtonian physics, which, up to the end of the 19th century seemed to have been (inductively) proven beyond doubt. It is often argued that Newtonian physics is a subset of the theory of relativity, which replaced it. However, it is based on a different concept of the nature of the universe from that of relativity - which, by induction, is considerably "truer".

What human limitations and invalid assumptions might lead to wrong scientific conclusions? The first is that we might not be observing what we think. We might be looking at the shadows on the wall of Platoís cave, seeing only distorted images. The scientific community would probably argue that, unlike the prisoners in the cave, human beings are sceptical, imaginative, resourceful, more or less aware of their limitations, and continually trying very hard to get a true picture. Others would reply that human beings also have an inordinate capacity for self deception, and that the history of science shows that even the most widely-accepted scientific explanations, apparently supported by evidence, ie by induction, are often shown to be untrue.

But the assumptions that lie behind determinism are not that science is true, but that the material world, which includes human beings, operates through cause and effect, and that logical reasoning, including formal logic and mathematics are intrinsically valid.

All physical processes seem to be consistently causal when rigorously examined. But here is an assumption about rigour. So why do we regard rigour - of process or of reasoning - to be absolutely reliable? The only justification can be that we know, by induction, that they are reliable. However, if we insist on an inevitable fallibility of induction, we can never get anywhere on any argument. Furthermore, while we can never be sure that induction leads to absolute truth, there is no justification in assuming that it must lead to falsehood.

So, are free will and causality mutually exclusive? They might not be if natural phenomena were sometimes to operate inconsistently. But this would not mean that there must be free will, unless it could be shown that the inconsistencies were the result of some agency such as the mind. Free will implies a degree of capriciousness, either within the material world or beyond it. These possibilities will now be looked at.

quantum theory

It is sometimes argued that quantum theory breaks the dilemma of determinism. At the scale of sub-atomic particles, quantum theory doesnít look deterministic but probabilistic. Quantum theory also defies commonsense reasoning. An individual particle can be in two contradictory conditions at the same time, and there is no certainty which it will display if made to interact with something. The probability of how it will interact can be calculated, but it is only a probability. Yet if the combined action of a large number of particles is observed, the behaviour of the whole becomes more and more precisely predictable, that is, consistent, as the number of particles increases. (The quantum process can be likened to tossing coins or rolling dice. In each toss or roll, the coin or die may be thought of as being in all possible states until it has come to rest. The result of each toss or roll is a matter of probability, one in two for the coin, and one in six for the die, and in each case, unrelated to what the previous results were. But as the number of trials increases, the total number of each possible outcome will be more and more accurately predictable.)

Sometimes free will has been attributed to this or other quantum characteristics. But if quantum phenomena affect human thoughts and actions, this doesnít signify free will but probabilistic will. On the other hand, if the mind controlled the brain by affecting individual particles (while still maintaining the overall quantum probability) we might have a mechanism for free will. However, this implies a dualistic world, which will be considered shortly.

Quantum theory is, however, just another scientific theory, and despite its remarkable power in describing and explaining many aspects of the world of physics and producing ever new forms of technology, its claim to truth is clouded because it makes some predictions that are consistently different from observation.

a dualistic world

This is an alternative to the idea of emergence that was discussed earlier in connection with reductionism.

Modern physicists and cosmologists often speculate about there being many universes, some of which may overlap with our own and may have different characteristics from the material world we are familiar with.

Some people consider that consciousness or mind is an aspect of something quite separate from the material world. This separate entity might act according to its own rules or whims. Free will might be attributed to this entity. This would provide an explanation of how the physical entity can continue on its deterministic (albeit probabilistic) path while living organisms might sometimes have some choice in what they do. Each sentient organism therefore might consist of its material component - its body - and its own piece of consciousness, which experiences and influences the processes of the body. Belief in such an entity, separate from the material world is said to be an act of faith. But the Deterministsí belief that science will some day satisfactorily explain and demonstrate material mechanisms of life and subjective consciousness is also an act of faith.

If this other entity were to be the source of free will, it would need to be capable of behaving in a capricious way. If it behaved consistently we would still be in a situation of determinism. It might, however, be just a passive consciousness, quite incapable of any action, like someone totally paralysed but aware.

Could we know what the characteristics of this entity actually were, or even whether it existed? We might, if it acted on the material world in some consistent manner. Otherwise it could only be by subjective feelings, which may be why people who believe in its existence disagree about its characteristics.

So, while it may provide an explanation of free will - and some other things - there is no more reason to believe that this separate entity must exist than to believe in a monistic world.

Also, we still need to show how, in any kind of world, there could be free will.


There is an argument against free will, based on foreknowledge. It invokes an omniscient being who would know in advance all that was to happen. Therefore nothing would happen that is different from what that being knew would happen. Therefore no one could have free will to do anything different from what was known in advance. Two aspects of this argument need examining, the final step and the concept of omniscience.

As a concept, omniscience is not unlike infinity: both are useful in an abstract way and both have an air of unreality about them. Omniscience - knowing everything - implies the concept of truth, which is meaningful only when there is a way of testing. One way of testing without waiting would be something akin to clairvoyance, that is, looking forward (or across) through time. This might be likened to watching something happen from a distance, which would not influence events, or prevent free will. On the other hand, it doesnít prove the existence of free will.

But if the "foreknowledge" were based on a knowledge of initial conditions and of consistent processes, we are back with determinism, and this is the assumption in the last step of the argument.

If the omniscient being were a creator who precisely created every event, could there be no free will? Could such a creator include free will as part of the creation but still have foreknowledge? Notionally, an omnipotent creator could, but we are now dealing in shaky, and probably paradoxical, concepts.


Another argument is based on hindsight. If it is true that some particular thing occurred in the past, then it is not possible that it happened differently, because, - time machines notwithstanding - "you canít change the past." So it must be true that it had to happen that way. Furthermore, it must always have been true that it would have happened that way. That means the past must have been inevitable. Therefore, no one has been able to do other than what was inevitable. Therefore there can be no such thing as free will.

Each step in this line of argument depends on assumptions of determinism, disguised by confusing truth with necessity. The argument therefore adds nothing to support determinism.


There is an argument that without free will there would be no point in having knowledge of any kind, because we would not be at free to use it. A counter argument is that knowledge and beliefs are two of the determinants of our thoughts and actions.

the nature of free will

It might be assumed that if the rationale for determinism could be refuted, then the existence of free will would be automatically demonstrated. With our present mind-set, it is hard to avoid an either/or attitude, but this may be wrong. Perhaps neither determinism nor free will is true. All the arguments so far refer to the outside world, but we should also look at the human aspect.

Some people (Compatibilists) think that determinism and free will are compatible. They base their view on arguments such as the contrast between a baby with, presumably, no powers of judgment and a sane adult with the ability to make "mature choices". The acts of the baby are presumed to be not "responsible", in the sense that the baby cannot reason about any likely consequences. Sane adults know the motives behind their acts, and the consequences, and accordingly exert free will.

This argument can be put more persuasively by tracing the evolution of intelligence as organisms become more and more complex, and apparently more conscious. At the stage of complexity where organisms are seen to be capable of planning, as in , for example, stalking prey or negotiating their place in a social hierarchy, it is suggested that free will has already evolved, at least partially. On the other hand, it is suggested that, for example, social insects, act "purely by instinct", that is, mechanically. In (fully-functioning adult) human beings, so the argument goes, free will is completely developed.

But this type of argument does no more than explain intelligence as an emergent outcome of the process of evolution. Usually the operation of chance is invoked to break the compulsion implied by determinism. I regard what we call chance to be a the consequence of some unidentifiable or incompletely known cause. I think the compatibilist argument sidesteps the issues of what makes us want to do something and what makes us come to a particular decision when there are options. So this should be looked at more closely.

Exercising the will involves thought, as distinct from being spontaneous or reflex. A considered decision depends on some or all of the following:-

For free will, at least one of the above would need to be neither random nor completely determined. A Determinist would argue that all of them are completely determined - by genes, physiological development, experience, external conditions or combinations of these. A Compatibilist would claim that at least the thoughts about possible outcomes, invention of strategies and processing require free will. That means, we freely decide to think of outcomes, devise solutions and pick the one we like best.

So consider a choice between alternative possible actions with significant and different outcomes, involving, say, being either self-indulgent or altruistic. How is the choice made? We can imagine the person weighing up the pros and cons of each alternative, but a computer with the same inputs and biases would do the some. Perhaps the person would have doubts about the choice. But the computer could show an area of doubt, with a preference slightly towards the personís choice. Or the person might choose altruism, but ten minutes later might have chosen indulgence, with no apparent reason in either case. This type of wavering might possibly be free, but it doesnít seem like will.

A different situation would be some spur-of-the-moment decision to take one path and not another during a walk. We might imagine a sudden impatience (caused by what?) with following the same old path one more time, or there may be no reason apparent to either the person or an observer.

If the decision is caused by a combination of experience, present circumstances and personality, it may be will, but it would not seem to be free. If it is not caused by anything whatever, it would be free, in the sense used in the definition of free will given above. But it might not be free will. If the decision were random, it would not be a matter of intent, that is, of will. But what if there were a middle ground between causality and randomness, or something additional, maybe in a dualistic world, to allow for free will? After all, the idea of probabilistic causality did not arise until quite recently, with quantum theory. We cannot assume that we now know what all the possibilities are.

To date, no really convincing explanation of the process of free will seems to have been proposed. For many people, there doesnít have to be one. Perhaps the absence weakens their case. Perhaps our minds are just in a rut about causality, which stops us from seeing how free will can exist.

If we were to accept that there may be events that have no cause whatever but are not random, and if some human decisions or wishes were of this kind, then there might be a better case for free will, and therefore for personal responsibility. But without knowing the nature of such hypothetical events it is not possible to make a judgment.


Is it now possible to decide whether the concept of free will is true or false? Wherever I drive the steamroller of logic against the existence of free will, it seems to come to the edge of a deep lake. The steamroller can go no further, but is free will hiding under the water? In fact, I donít believe that logic must inevitably lead to truth. The case for free will rests on our subjective experience, which is both the very essence of our being and also often misleading.

There are some things whose existence or non-existence is generally said to be unprovable, God being the prime example. Perhaps free will is one of them.

Despite any issues about proof, any of these arguments might convince someone one way or the other about determinism and free will.

Even though some of us may prefer the determinist argument, we mostly have an existentialist impulse to feel that we have both free will and responsibility. Without living a solitary life, it would be impractical to act as if we had neither (assuming, of course, we had the free will to choose). The law and society operate as if we are responsible for our actions, subject to obvious constraints. But how would a society operate if the law were based on the principle that there was no such thing as free will?

It seems to me that if such thing as free will exists, the best practical option would be to act and think as if it exists. If there is no free will, then let us hope that the forces that compel us make us believe it exists, and take some responsibility for our actions.


Are the things we do in our dreams acts of free will, or are they determined by something else? It is sometimes suggested that our lives are really a condition of dreaming, and in Hermann Hesseís novel The Glass Bead Game (das Glasperlenspiel) there is a story of a man who alternately dreams and wakes but cannot tell which is the dream. If this is a feasible description of dreaming and waking experiences, what does it say about our experience of exercising free will?

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