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Freedom and the Problem of Scaremongers: Why Determinism is Compatible with Free Will

The philosophical question of free will – unlike most metaphysical questions – has often been heralded as uniquely “relevant” to people’s everyday lives. Unlike the problem of universals vs. particulars, or dualism vs. monism, the answer to whether or not we have free will is often said to have important consequences on moral responsibility, legal issues, and even the idea of human selfhood. The reason for the exalted status of the free will question, however, is not because it is somehow “more important” than other perennial metaphysical questions; it is because philosophers all throughout history have used a myriad of exaggerated metaphors and thought experiments to demonstrate just how terrifying a world where all our actions are predetermined (and thus, allegedly unfree) truly is.

Consider, for one, Rene Descartes’ famous idea of the “malignant demon,” an omniscient being who deceives him into thinking he has a will when in fact, he is “without hands, eyes, flesh, blood, or any of the senses, and as falsely believing that [he is] possessed of these.”[1] In addition, consider the well-known modern philosopher Robert Nozick’s statement that “without free will, we seem diminished, merely the playthings of external forces.”[2] The metaphors here are stark and brutal: “malignant demon,” and, “playthings of external forces.” And yet, throughout the history of philosophy, these are just the sorts of tricks philosophers have used to scare us into thinking there is somehow more “at stake” in the free-will question than in other philosophical questions.

While there are more varied and highly-nuanced positions on the free-will question than a single essay could explain at length, all proponents of free will have essentially pitted themselves against one idea: determinism. Determinism is the idea all our decisions are the results of antecedent causes, results which themselves are the results of previous antecedent causes, and ad infinitum to the beginning of time. Some actions may appear more disconnected from antecedent causes than others; for instance, you might say blinking your eye when someone swipes a hand in front of your face is directly connected to an antecedent cause, since it is “instinctive,” pure automata, but choosing to write an essay on free will is not. One cannot make a decision isolated from causal events, however. Choosing to write an essay on free will is an act that could not have happened without some antecedent cause like reading a book on free will influencing one to do so. But that act itself could not have happened without some antecedent cause influencing one to read such a book, and so on. It does not matter how much conscious deliberation one performs; the human brain is structured in such a way that a completely isolated act akin to quantum-indeterminacy is impossible (and even if it could be performed, it would not amount to free will – since it would be an objectless, “random” act requiring no conscious deliberation). Furthermore, some decisions may be easily reducible to pure automata and others may not seem to involve any automata whatsoever, but the difference between such decisions is quantitative, not qualitative; there is no definite line that can be drawn between an instinctive response and a non-instinctive response.

Thus, it seems that we must necessarily perform certain actions, that we are imprisoned, and that reality is a causally-closed system akin to a jail. And what if this is true? What if our actions really are causally determined and the world as we know it is a sort of jail? We may shudder at the thought that reality is set up like a jail, but even if it is, that would not eradicate free will, since such a jail – if it envelopes all reality – has no antithesis in reality with which to contrast itself. Jail implies imprisonment, but in order for imprisonment to exist, it must be contrasted with freedom. And if all reality is imprisoned and reality is all we experience, we have no real freedom to contrast with our imprisonment. The conclusion amounts to a tautology; without any competing freedom to contrast with our deterministic world, we cannot rightly say we are imprisoned or not imprisoned. The world we know is the only world we know, to put it crudely, and therefore whatever will we have is the only will we know.

Thus, the aforementioned jail cannot imply imprisonment, since the will we have is the only will we know, and it makes no more sense to call this will unfree than it does free. The problem comes down to a misuse of metaphor; many philosophers simply imagine that if every event in the universe is causally connected to events before it, then reality is somehow set up like a jail, where we are “playthings” enslaved to perform certain actions because of a “malignant demon.” But determinism is not inherently negative; if it is real, it is a condition of human existence, and therefore it is neutral. One has just as much a right to call it freeing as one does enslaving; the choice is arbitrary. As Jean-Paul Sartre so eloquently put it, “What we call freedom is impossible to distinguish from the being of ‘human reality.’ Man does not exist first in order to be free subsequently.”[3] In other words, we should not first ask if we exist, and then ask whether our existence is free. Our notion of freedom (or enslavement, if determinism is still your nemesis) is predicated on our existence itself.

Consider the example of a lottery where the mixing and drawing is performed before the tickets are sold, yet the winning tickets are still selected at random. Suppose someone complains the lottery is unfair, since the winning tickets are already chosen. It’s easy to point out the flaw in such thinking, since the winning tickets are still selected at random, just like a regular lottery, even though the selling happened after the selecting process. Yet, this is just the error many philosophers make in addressing determinism. They address the fact that there is one causally-closed trajectory of actual events that will happen as though it automatically entails “enslavement” of the will. The trajectory of actual events in the future may be causally-closed, since there will only be one trajectory, but it is still dependent on our existence as creatures (and our existence is neither free nor unfree). The winning ticket may be decided, but its status as a winning ticket is only officiated when one enters the contest and wins it. Perhaps the future course of actions we take should be considered in a similar light; the trajectory of actual events may be causally-closed, but our choices – pre-determined or not – are what bring that trajectory of events into existence.

Thought experiments can provide a valuable aid to philosophizing, as they help us consider philosophical ideas in concrete examples. But in philosophy it is vital to be wary of how ideas are represented. Sometimes, as in the case of the free-will question, ideas that are not necessarily grim by nature can come cloaked in rather grim disguises, and the role of the philosopher can look eerily similar to that of scaremonger. But determinism does not wear a grim disguise; it is a neutral force and, as such, should not be classified as positive or negative. To exist in and of itself cannot entail enslavement, and therefore, the fashion one exists in cannot entail enslavement.


[1] Renes Descartes, “Meditations on First Philosophy,” in Philosophers Speak for Themselves: From Descartes to Locke, ed. T.V. Smith and Marjorie Smith, tenth edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1940), 60.
[2] Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981), 291.
[3] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington, 1943), 60.


Descartes, Rene. Meditations on First Philosophy. In Philosophers Speak For Themselves: From Descartes to Locke. Edited by T.V. Smith and Marjorie Green, tenth edition, 49-113. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1940.
Nozick, Robert. Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness: A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. Translated by Hazel E. Barnes. New York: Washington Square Press, 1943.