Free Will? What if Determinism Were TRUE?

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Few philosophical debates have as many real-life implications as the conflict between free will and determinism. What would it look like and feel like to know one was living in a fully deterministic world?

Free Will or Lack Thereof

For sentient beings such as ourselves, choice seems as real and absolute as the ground under our feet. And as secure as this intuition is, many people also see the universe as ruled absolutely by physical laws that define specific causes and effects. If the universe is in a certain configuration at time X, then following the laws of cause and effect, it must be in condition Y at a later time. More concretely, and herein lies the conflict: if we human beings are products of the physical universe, then we are governed by these same deterministic laws and thus our thoughts, feelings and actions are similarly determined.

From this vantage point, the fact that I wrote this article and that you are now reading it must happen now, and could not happen any other way. Furthermore, my subjective experience of writing this article, and not some other articles I might have in mind was equally inevitable, as was your subjective feeling that you chose to read this article when you could have been doing dozens of other things.

There are many philosophical escapes from the seeming contradiction of natural beings with free will living in a deterministic world. One could propose that sentient beings have some non-natural component in their being that is outside the laws of nature that constrain the motion of the stars and the chemical interactions between molecules. One could also point to the quantum model of reality that disallows perfect knowledge of the state of the universe, and breaks the Newtonian model of a clockwork universe. Yet even if outcomes are not discrete under quantum physics, they are at least statistically predictable. Could free will be hiding in quantum uncertainty? Thinkers are divided on this point.

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The battle of free will versus determinism has raged on for centuries and I don’t propose to try and settle it here. Instead I’d like to consider the question of what would the world look like if we thought of it in deterministic terms? What would be different and what would remain the same? Most crucially, how would we think about a world we believed to be fully deterministic?

Postcard From a Deterministic World

The first change that would emerge from recognizing the world as deterministic would be acknowledging that the subjective impression of free will, the sense that we have the ability to choose more than one course of action given a definite situation, is an illusion, albeit a convincing one. Certainly we are surrounded with convincing illusions every day. Without spacecraft or some careful astronomical measurements, for example, our earth appears quite flat.

The illusion of free will is so strong it inundates our language. Still, other illusory concepts punctuate our language as well. We say “sunrise” as if the Earth is the center of our solar system. We know it is not, yet no one will go to the trouble of saying “the earth rotated so that the sun appears over the horizon”. Our language is wrong, but useful.

A deterministic viewpoint would facilitate what Cognitive Behavioral Therapists have been advocating for decades: letting go of the ideas of “should” or “must.” Since all reality is determined, there is no “should” or “must,” only what is. That’s not to say that tragedies can’t happen, or that we might wish for things to be different, expect things to be different, or be totally surprised by events. Yet if determinism is our worldview, our inability to determine events doesn’t mean that they aren’t determined. We just didn’t see them coming.

In a deterministic world, there would still be judgement and justice, but there would be no reason for blame. Sam Harris, who wrote about a fully-deterministic worldview in his book Free Will , suggests that the worst you could say about a mass murderer is that his life is terribly unfortunate, as are the lives of the victims and their surviving friends and family. It still makes sense to incarcerate dangerous individuals and rehabilitate them as much as possible. It may even make sense to punish the perpetrator for the purpose of giving the victims’ families a sense of justice and closure. It may still make sense to have harsh penalties for crimes so as to deter potential offenders. Yet the laws, the crimes and the punishments are themselves determined events.

Pride reduces to luck under a deterministic worldview. While a person may demonstrate skills and abilities far in excess of the norm, Harris notes the ultimate causes for these feats lie long in the past, before the actor in question was even born. No matter how long a person studies or practices to hone their skills, these choices and behaviors were determined well in advance. There are no “self-made men” (or women) in the the deterministic perspective. Ultimately a person’s life is a continuation of a set of causes lost to memory. The reasonable view of personal success or achievement is gratitude that things turned out as they did and that a person is able to enjoy the experience of flourishing and achieving.

Losing a sense of being in personal control of outcomes or even our own thoughts and feelings may be frightening, yet the growing school of mindfulness-based therapies provide tools for dealing with exactly such a perspective. Many mindfulness practices ask us to detach from the sensations we experience as well as our own thoughts and feelings. This detachment includes a sense that they happen on their own and the “I” of consciousness does not create them and has limited direct control over even the thoughts and feelings. Mindfulness teaches comfort and familiarity with letting things happen as they will rather than trying to block certain events or to force others into existence.

The Practicality of a Free Will Perspective

Free will and determinism also have a place in Experimental Psychology. Whether or not our world is in fact deterministic, people have beliefs about whether free will exists or is merely an illusion. Psychologist Roy Baumeister performed experiments where he attempted to increase or decrease subjects’ belief in free will. Disturbingly, subjects who were primed to disbelieve free will were more likely to lie and cheat, were more aggressive and less helpful, as well as more conformist than those who were not similarly primed.

Perhaps free will, even if it were proven to be false, would still be a useful belief for human beings to hold. If I say that I choose to believe in free will because it makes me more moral, more pro-social and less conformist, then my statement itself implies a worldview where free will exists.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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