Determinism and Choice (or lack thereof)

Hi all,

I’m really not nailing these posting dates. Sometimes it feels like too much to write days back to back. Then again, I guess that’s the consequence for falling behind.

Today I want to think about how the future plays out. In retrospect, everything appears a lot clearer than it did in the moment. I would like to explore the idea of determinism, the philosophy that all choices are determined by the course of past events. What this means is that each action is simply a ripple of the action before it, and that nothing in the present can occur out of choice––each action is already pre-decided by the past.

When following this thought train further, this implies that free will, the ability to make conscious choices out of many possibilities, cannot exist because every “conscious” choice was already pre-determined.

So…does that imply the future is already decided based on the present? Yes, and no. If you were able to input every single factor that affected a situation into a computer and process the result, assuming you accurately modeled the situation, the expected result would occur in real life as well. For example, if in the future I was to write a philosophical discussion, we could simulate this by accounting for my surroundings, the computer and its keys, music playing in the background, time of day, how I was feeling emotionally that day etc. Even for such as simple case, the possibilities are already countless.

As this example illustrates, even the very near future is challenging to properly assess. As these near futures are combined with other near futures to try to predict a further future, the possible worlds ascend off into infinity. What this means is that even with unlimited computing power, it would only be possible to eliminate failed realities as we got closer and closer to the desired event. Eventually, the computer would be left with only one choice as the event happened in real time.

I’m not sure what this concept is called exactly, but the reasoning implies that predicting the distant future would not only take immense computing power, but also only be capable of producing probabilities rather than certainties.

Continuing onward, since each future is determined by an earlier future, eventually this timeline hits the present. Going further backwards, the present is determined by the past.

Image result for past present future

Eventually, this regression through time leads us back to our births as individuals. From our very first breaths, do we have choice? We aren’t capable of preventing ourselves from breathing, as this instinctual process is automatic. Each moment onward, our surroundings (parents/guardians, household, relationships) end up shaping our decisions. So, from the moment we are born till the moment we die, the idea of choice remains illusory rather than grounded in reality.

Although some may argue that in each moment we are capable of making a choice to change the future, we must consider if this is really a choice? Based on the conditions surrounding the person, their decision has already been made. Whether it’s through assessing all of the traits that impact the result, relying on gut feelings, or simply flipping a coin, all of these results can be determined in the moment of the present leading to the future. The factors leading up to the choice have already occurred/been reasoned out, hence why there is no ambiguity in this regard. Similarly, how the person feels in the moment is determined by all the interactions they have had with the world in the past few moments as well as their entire life. If the coin lands heads and the decider makes a choice, as the coin shakes to a stop, the side which is up has already been determined. Nothing is unpredictable in the immediate future as long as we are willing to assess every factor leading up to it.


That’s my case for determinism and the idea that free will does not exist. I think I’ll cover a case for free will existing in the next post.


Thanks for reading, and have a great day.


14 thoughts on “Determinism and Choice (or lack thereof)

  1. But it isn’t quite like that. If your choice was inevitable, then
    1. it was also inevitable that you would face some issue or problem that required your decision. And
    2. it was also inevitable that you would have at least two or more options to choose between. And
    3. it was also inevitable that you would apply some criteria to compare the pros and cons of each option. And
    4. it was inevitable that one of these options would score higher than the others. And
    5. it was also inevitable that you would choose the option that best suited your own purpose and your own reasons as they were at that moment.
    Therefore, we cannot say that you had no choice, because, in empirical reality an act of choosing did in fact take place, and it was in fact you that did it.

    Except when it was someone else. If someone held a gun to your head and said, “No, don’t choose that, choose this instead, or I’ll blow your brains out.”

    Free will makes the practical distinction between those two cases. Free will is when you decide for yourself what you will do, free of coercion or other undue influence.

    In both cases, the outcome would be causally inevitable, but we still have to make the distinction between the case where you inevitably made the choice yourself and the case where it was inevitable that the choice was forced upon you, against your will, by someone else.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, and all of your conditions can be met while at the same time falling under this umbrella of “practical real-world” determinism.
      1. the issue that comes to face you is inevitable and thus predetermined.
      2. You have to make a “choice” in a decision. On the same hand, your past experiences and reasoning leads you in the moment, to make a choice. Even if you decide in the moment to suddenly reject your logical reasoning, who is it to say that wasn’t also preordained due to your rebellious or erratic nature?
      3. The application of logical reasoning based on collection of real world evidence means that your decision is already determined by the expected positive and negative effects of your choice.
      4. As a logical being, you will make the choice based on already existing evidence. If you are illogical, your illogical nature also dictates that you will act without reason.
      5. All of your reasoning is sound, and I can agree with. However, as a rational actor you would make decisions in your own interest. These decisions are grounded on observations of reality, which are already determined before you make note of them. Consequently, your decision has already made because the evidence you consider already exists, your mental facilities are already present, and subsequently your conclusion can already be predicted.

      I agree with your definition of free will in that a choice must be made without coercion from others. However, free will is not present in a choice if that choice was already inevitable based on your conditions and thought processes.

      Similarly, a person who wished to spare their life would make the choice as you said. Although you may argue that this is coercion leading to a lack of freewill, the alternative is that free will simply did not exist in the first place. For the victim at hand, all of the factors that led up to the moment of “choice” had already pre-determined his/her next move. If the victim possessed a desire to live, they would do whatever the shooter asked to save their life. If they did not possess a will to live, they would simply act in the fashion consistent with their past conditions. Because of this, their “choice” had already been decided by their values and surroundings. Rather than making a choice under coercion, they simply followed a premeditated path.

      Honestly, I’m not too sure whether or not I believe in determinism or free will, and whether it’s possible they can exist in conjunction. Thank you for your comment Marvin Edwards, it was a solid argument for why free will exists and wonderful for discussion.


      1. Hi Pierre, I like to presume a universe of perfectly reliable cause and effect. It makes the argument for free will a lot simpler if we can avoid quantum mechanics. In this universe, every event is always causally inevitable, and thus, at least theoretically, predictable.

        Each event (such as a decision to choose a given option) can be said to be causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity. However, it cannot be said to be actually “caused” by that prior point. No event is ever fully caused until the last prior cause of the event has played out.

        In theory, the event could be predicted (“determined” as in “to know”) from any prior state of the universe, but it is not meaningful to suggest that it was “caused” (“determine” as in “to cause”) by that prior state. If we were to say that the prior point “caused” the event, then which prior point would we choose? We have an eternity of prior points to choose from. The Big Bang is often used, but that’s just a familiar prior point.

        So what would it mean to say that the Big Bang caused me to choose chocolate rather than vanilla? What was the Big Bang’s interest in this choice? And, if we’re all out of chocolate, and only have vanilla, why didn’t the Big Bang arrange for me to buy more chocolate when I was at the grocery store? And if we wanted to be sure we didn’t run out again, how would we go about changing the Big Bang so that I behaved differently?

        That’s why only the so-called “hard” determinists would go round insisting that the Big Bang is “responsible” for everything because it “caused” everything. It did not “cause” anything relevant or meaningful to my life or my choices. I am held responsible for my deliberate actions because I’m a prior cause that we can actually do something about.

        There is a tendency to take our metaphors too literally, because we often leave out the important “AS IF”. Due to causal inevitability, it is AS IF prior states of the universe had made my choices for me. But, in empirical reality, they didn’t. The event of deciding what I would choose actually took place in my own brain, and in no other location in the entire universe. And the act of deciding was performed by that same brain. So, we actually know for certain that (a) a decision occurred and (b) who performed it.

        And, when a person decides for themselves what they will do, free of coercion or other undue influence, it is literally a “freely chosen will”, or simply, “free will”. Why? Because that’s what we call that event when it happens.

        The fact that the event was causally inevitable from any prior point in eternity does not contradict the fact that a decision was made and I made it. Both facts are simultaneously true.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. uh wow, that was a really eloquent response. Give me some time to think about and reply to it.

        Just a small point, the one fault I find in your logic is that you assume that determinists believe that past events are sentient in affecting the future when you say “What was the Big Bang’s interest in this choice?”.

        I think we both agree that all of the contributing factors in a moment cause the immediately following future to occur, and that as a more distant future is chosen, it get’s harder to predict without immensely more computing power.

        Because I think more moderately through the deterministic lens, I agree that although it’s true to say the Big Bang led to your ice cream choice, it’s also a meaningless piece of information as the Big Bang led to everything else. I think you cannot learn anything from the previous statement, but in spite of that, it would be false to say that the Big Bang did not cause your situation that you are living in today. Although there are infinite events between then and today, had it not occurred, you would not have existed and our present reality could not have occurred.

        I agree that each person can come to their independent decisions using their own brains. Where we disagree, however, is how their brains came to said decisions. Correct me if I am wrong, but you believe that a person has made this choice out of free will. I believe that the circumstances that led to said decision had already occurred when you made this choice. Similarly, these circumstances were all created from past circumstances and people’s actions, leading back further and further until the Big Bang.

        No, the Big Bang doesn’t care about any of us, or what is going on today, but yes, what occurred ~13.7 billion years ago still has impacts that reverberate today.

        Final note, can you explain what role quantum mechanics would play in this discussion later, because I’m not really sure what it means, or what it would change.

        Thanks, and great discussion


      3. Pierre, It’s not just the infinite points between the Big Bang and now. It is also the infinite states prior to the Big Bang. Prior to the Big Bang there was a super dense black hole which accumulated enough matter to reach a tipping point, causing it to explode into a new universe. Prior to that super dense black hole, there would have been matter in a more dispersed state (probably one or more prior universes full of matter that slowly got vacuumed up by smaller black holes, which coalesced over time into a denser and heavier black hole). That’s why I speak of an eternity of prior points, even prior to the most recent Big Bang.

        So, we could just as easily pick any of those prior states and say that it caused everything that followed. But that’s a rather meaningless and pragmatically useless view of causation.

        The relevant causes are the ones we can predict and/or change. Like the robber that holds up a banks. We can arrest him and put him in jail to stop the harm he causes. And perhaps even rehabilitate him through addiction treatment, counseling, education, job skills training, post-release follow-up, and so on. We may even be able to address the social causes, like poverty, unemployment, discrimination, etc.

        But we’ll never be able to do anything about the Big Bang. So discussing its role in the robber’s behavior is pointless.

        Free will comes into the picture when we have cases where the robber is actually a bank employee, whose wife and kids are being held hostage and the actual bad guys threaten to kill them if he doesn’t come back with the money. Such coercion is what the “no free will” exception to responsibility is all about.

        So, the fact that every event is causally necessary cannot be used as an excuse from personal responsibility in those cases where it is the robber’s deliberate choice to rob the bank for his own personal profit.

        The hard determinists’s recent attacks on personal responsibility, by claiming the “no free will” exception applies to everyone all the time, is a moral harm to our society.

        As to quantum mechanics, there is no reason to expect it to provide us with any meaningful freedom from causation. Generally it is easily argued that the less reliable causation is, the less control we have to do anything!

        I described the idea of indeterminism this way in one of my posts:

        Determinism is the belief in the reliability of cause and effect. We are so used to living in a deterministic universe that it would be difficult to imagine anything else.

        But let’s try. Suppose we had a dial that let us adjust the determinism/indeterminism of our universe. When we turn it all the way to deteminism, I pick an apple from the tree and I have an apple in my hand. We turn the dial a little bit toward indeterminism and now if I pick an apple, I might find an orange or banana or some other random fruit in my hand. Turn the dial again, and when I try to pick an apple I find a kitten in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or a glass of milk. One more adjustment toward indeterminism — when I pick an apple gravity reverses!

        We need a deterministic universe. In fact, determinism is at the root of all our freedoms, because without it we could never reliably do anything, like pick an apple.


  2. Free will depends on an essential independence of the mind from both internal and external conditions to choose. It’s pretty clear that the present is the result of the past and there is only one of these and it is fixed.
    The present moment exists at the extreme edge of the past as the present unfolds and turns over into history.
    Are we free to choose a new present independent of the previous patterns? If not then we can never learn, and we can never adjust. So we must have freedom!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Robert,
      Your view on the state of the present makes sense…however, I disagree with the followup argument as to why free will exists. To argue that because we as humans are able to learn, that free will exists is a logical jump from the present becoming the past.

      I would like to challenge the assertion that “[if we are not] free to choose a new present independent of previous patterns”, we can never learn or change. In contrast, we are not free to “choose” anything, because our past circumstances and identities have already determined the choice that we would make in the future. Although you as a person may make the choice to do something, it may not be through free will, but rather the deterministic nature of the universe which induced you to make said choice.

      Additionally, learning can be done with, or without the presence of determinism. With determinism, this means that based on your nature and mindset of growth or closed, it is this combination of factors that determines whether or not you learn rather than choice. Without determinism, even the lack of freedom of choice does not prevent one’s ability to learn. When an individual becomes a pickpocket out of necessity, they may do this against their morals but in order to survive. With time, they become more skilled and learn how to be more subtle. This example demonstrates that even without an ability to choose one’s present state, one can still adapt and evolve to their environment.

      Thanks for your comment, interesting perspective worth discussing.


      1. You are assuming that the mind behaves according to the same laws as a rock…Newtonian. From the perspective of Quantum physics alone it doesn’t and we have the ability to choose ideas or to ignore seeing. In the event that we ignore events and circumstances then we become passive subjects. When we choose to observe we alter reality itself and ourselves.
        Look at reality, observe, form patterns of ideas, it makes all the difference. The more your ideas reflect legitimate patterns within the constraints of reality, the greater is your ability to work within and past them!


      2. Hi Robert, If I may, you make the great point that our observation of the reliable patterns of causation in our environment empowers us to deal more effectively with reality and helps us to shape the world into a better place.

        This is why science embraces determinism, because it gives us hope that we might learn how things works, and this knowledge gives us an ability to predict and even control events that affect our lives. We’ve made great progress in medicine, space exploration, agriculture, and so many other areas by studying biology, physics, and chemistry.

        So it is a bit perverse when so-called “hard” determinists use the concept of reliable causation to suggest that it makes us “slaves” or “puppets on a string”. There’s a logical error called the “reification fallacy” which occurs when we take our metaphors too literally, and attribute causal powers to concepts. “Causation” doesn’t actually cause anything. Only the actual objects that exist in the real world can be said to cause stuff. We happen to be one of those objects.

        When empirically observed, we find that we exist in reality as physical objects, living organisms, and an intelligent species. As living organisms, we act purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As an intelligent species, we act deliberately by imagination, evaluation, and choosing. And, when we act upon our choices, we are forces of nature.

        Reliable cause and effect is not an external force. It is us, and the rest of the physical universe, just doing what we do. Those who try to turn it into a boogeyman robbing us of our choices are empirically mistaken.


      3. Hi Robert, We pretty much exist at the macro level of Newtonian physics. That’s the level that the mind is modelling, so that’s the level where all of our terminology, like “determinism” and “free will” exist. My position is that both concepts describe certain aspects of our reality, and that they do not conflict. (The only time they conflict is when you define one as the absence of the other. But that would be an error. When someone decides for themselves what they will do, according to their own purpose and their own reasons, and free of coercion or other undue influence, then two facts are simultaneously true: (A) It is authentically a choice of our own free will and (B) It was reliably caused by our purpose and our reasons, so it is also authentically deterministic.)


      4. uh I’m not exactly sure what the physics jazz means, but I’d like to discuss the part about choosing to perceive reality or not. Even in that case, the decision of whether or not to confront reality or recede from it is determined by our past experiences and mindset. I agree that when we choose to observe reality, we alter it ourselves…but at the same time, our altering of reality has already been affected by our pasts.
        On the same token, by choosing not to observe reality, we are also affecting it by abstaining from causing change. The lack of your input into reality has created a space in which your identity is missing…intriguing but also a little terrifying.

        For you, what does a legitimate pattern within reality mean?

        Uh personally, I think it’s hard to agree with determinism, and I just thought that it would be an interesting point to attempt to support. Thanks for discussing with me, this has been pretty fun to think about.


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