A Futile Controversy


Everything that exists or happens results from earlier conditions or events. Only chance loosens causality. Everything that a person is or does or thinks is determined by his biology, experiences, and good or bad luck. This is the determinist doctrine. It denies that people have any scope to make decisions that are genuinely their own.

Controversialists on both sides agree that chance operates on both subatomic and human levels. One cannot say that everything since the Big Bang was fated to happen. Frederick III, briefly German emperor in 1888, was married to a daughter of Queen Victoria and imbued with classical liberalism. He met an early death and was succeeded by his authoritarian and militaristic son William II. In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York. In February 1933 an assassin’s bullet narrowly missed President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt and killed Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak. How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events? Anyway, chance no more establishes a person’s free will than freedom from causation would.

James B. Miles (The Free Will Delusion, 2015) finds the free-will doctrine false but appealing, not only because it seems to describe what people themselves feel but also because it lets fortunate people congratulate themselves on their own characters and accomplishments while blaming others’ poverty or criminality or even handicaps on avoidable weakness of their wills. The doctrine excuses indifference to the fate of the less fortunate. It encourages archconservatives, anyway, to rejoice in blaming the poor for their plight. Thus, Miles continues, it is a profoundly immoral doctrine. It also appeals to many because it absolves God of responsibility for human nastiness. (But what about earthquakes and hurricanes and disease?) God himself, if he exists, cannot have free will (Miles, p. 223).

In 1931 both Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill were struck by cars, one in Munich and the other in New York.

But determinists hold no monopoly on morality. Free-will adherents also recognize that biological inheritance, physical and human environments, events, reading, preachments, earlier thoughts — all profoundly influence major and minor choices. But not totally. They and determinists alike can sympathize with offenders whose unfortunate biological inheritance and early upbringing have led to a life of crime. Despite this sympathy, determinists and free-will adherents alike can agree that protecting the public may require locking the most dangerous criminals up, even for life (and, arguably, deterring others by even crueler punishment for the worst crimes).

Could a man who shoots his uncle to inherit his money have refrained from this act? No, says a consistent determinist, because the murderer was driven by biology and circumstances and so forth, over none of which he had control. Agreed, history cannot be undone; but future wickedness can be made rarer by greater attention to morality in private and public life and by dependably imposed legal penalties.

The concept of responsibility goes along with the concept of freedom. The question of holding someone responsible for something concerns reward or punishment. We do not hold an insane person responsible, for he offers no point for applying a motive (Moritz Schlick, Problems of Ethics, trans. 1930, chapter VII).

How might the course of history have turned out if chance had altered some detail of any of these events?

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position. Argument presupposes that listeners or readers, although free to accept or reject it, ought to accept it without being fated or compelled to do so. In academic controversy, is every book and article, every reply, and every rejoinder predetermined in detail, except as loosened by chance? Why take part in such a charade?

In reply each controversialist might think that he is contributing to a sound intellectual environment for his fellows. Or he might recognize that he is helplessly predetermined to think and write as he does. Similarly, if Clarence Darrow argues against convicting a criminal because he could not help what he did, the jurors might respond that they had no freedom to acquit him.

James Miles emphatically condemns blaming unfortunate people for their plight. Yet he repeatedly and with gusto heaps blame on philosophers unfortunate enough to propagate erroneous doctrines. He comes close, at least, to denigrating the personal characters and morality of philosophers whom he names, especially Daniel Dennett. Is there some inconsistency here?

The determinist doctrine is irrefutable in the bad sense explained by Karl Popper: it carries built-in immunity to any adverse evidence. Whatever anyone says or does, however astonishing, is explained as the consequence of biology, experiences, and chance. The free-will position is better, though not much, regarding built-in immunity to contrary evidence. If a large random sample of persons who had thought that they had freely willed some action could be shown in convincing detail just how their action had been totally predetermined, the free-will doctrine would indeed be shaken. Conceivably, also, free will might have “emerged” from other conditions, rather as human consciousness evolved from the more primitive brain or even as life itself emerged from inanimate matter. This possibility supports the free-will doctrine, but not much without evidence.

Someone who denies free choice risks contradicting himself when urging others to accept his position.

The rival doctrines do not contradict each other on moral principles, on how anyone should live his life, or on public policy. Any difference between them is not operational. Sometimes I think that my choice is mine, free from total compulsion. My will is mine, just as my tastes in food, music, clothing, cars, or houses are mine and just as I can choose accordingly, regardless of how my will and tastes themselves may have been shaped by external causes. (On consumers’ tastes, see F.A. Hayek, “The Non Sequitur of the ‘Dependence Effect,’” Southern Economic Journal, April 1961.) Anyway, my decisions still take place, along with their moral and practical justification, if any.

The history of philosophy has left us stuck with the two terms “free will” and “determinism.” People drift into thinking that if a term is in use, it must have a referent, some thing, event, arrangement, attitude, argument, or whatever that it refers to. (This confusion of labels with things is called “hypostatization” or “conceptual realism.”) Sometimes, further, we drift into seeking knowledge of the essence of the referent by brooding over its label: what is Virtue, Honor, Democracy, Truth—whatever? Karl Popper condemned such a style of investigation or argument as “essentialism.” Joseph Schumpeter (History of Economic Analysis, 1954, p. 898) also identified “the deplorable ‘method’ of trying to solve problems by means of hunting for the meaning of words.” The terms “free will” and “determinism” exemplify these errors, and in contexts suggesting that they label opposite states of affairs.

Over the centuries philosophers have failed to specify what observations could distinguish between the states of affairs labeled “free will” and “determinism.” Both doctrines have built-in immunity to counterevidence, which, as Karl Popper might say, deprives them of scientific status. We therefore should not let their labels cloud how we perceive or describe reality. We perceive that biological and environmental conditions, along with luck, strongly affect our choices and behavior. No one denies that. Still, we have a strong sense of weighing some decisions and making choices. Even the determinist philosophers among us, to judge from their polemical writings, also have such a sense. The prevalence of two contradictory terms does not indicate that one or the other of two distinct states of affairs exists.

We might better discard those terms and describe what we actually observe. This conclusion is not some compromise (called “compatibilism”) between distinct doctrines. If we can invent a new word that aptly labels perceived reality, fine. If not, we will have to continue using a string of words. But let us not persist in empty controversies.

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Mark Uzick

People have a will; and to call it "free will" should simply mean that they are able to exercise their will without too much interference from people or other causes that would be insurmountable obstacles to their doing so.

"Free will" is completely deterministic; to define it as "undetermined will" is irrational; it's tantamount to saying that our will and our choices have no cause - that they are either random or the product of magic.

Genetics and environment cannot hinder that which they make possible - they are the prerequisite of will; and will is the motor that drives action. A "free will" refers to how a person will act in circumstances where he's able to act; or otherwise would act if he were able to do so.

There is no such thing as will that's divorced from who someone is - it would be very disturbing to see evidence of such a thing - it implies actions for which we cannot give account and for which we cannot be held responsible, driven by some supernatural entity that has usurped our own will; or, otherwise, random decisions - not a very uplifting concept for explaining behavior. Anyway, "random" is a pseudo-concept; it doesn't exist; and is used as a euphemism for "unpredictable".

Your choice of whatever it is that you wish to do is your will. If your circumstances permit you to pursue and possibly attain your will, then I think of that as "free will". I don't think that determinism precludes the concepts of "will" or "freedom", unless one were to inexplicably insist that these things can have no meaning unless they're without cause - of course, it's just the opposite that's true: "libertarian free will" (undetermined will) has no coherent meaning.

It's a matter of perspective: it's true that no matter how far back a period in time that we look, before there was even this planet or its star, our next thought or action, no matter how trivial or important was already an inevitability; but from another perspective, we are sentient beings who have will; make decisions; and take actions that have consequences. This may seem contradictory, but it's merely a paradox: we do control or influence much about ourselves; others; and our environment - it's just that it was always going to happen. There is no conflict between freedom to think and act and the law of causality - it's the irrational belief that they are incompatible that leads to the rejection of reason by those who insist on the delusional concept of undetermined will; and on the other hand the suffocating; nihilistic belief of the "rationalists" (the other side of the same coin - both sides seeing only the negative view of determinism) that we are mere puppets with delusions of freedom. Yeah...we don't control having been born; nor do we control the world into which we were born, but from even somewhat before birth we begin to influence ourselves and our world. That it was inevitable we should do this does not change the fact that it takes an active exercise of our will to fulfill this destiny - we can't take credit or blame for having been born nor for our genetic proclivities and environmental influences, yet neither are we passive - we struggle; we see the fruits of that struggle; and we have the right to feel proud or ashamed of our actions - even of the noble or craven potential which we inherit from our genetics and culture.

It's really a simple idea: when people are free to choose, then they have free will - that the course of events is determined doesn't undermine the fact that they make their decisions from hard won experience and often with deliberate conscious thought; and that they may carry them out with a great effort of will or determination. That a person of strong or weak will was always destined to be fits perfectly with determinism.

By definition, there is only one universe: if the universe is all that exists, then there is nothing else. Speculation about what the universe would be like if it were different is as meaningless as wondering how things might be different if we had chosen differently. Although meaningless, like all fantasy, it does help serve the purpose of helping us to understand how to approach decisions we'll make in the future; and while the future is determined, our decision making process is part of that determined future. Free will and determinism are inseparable partners.

As for the question of moral responsibility: we are responsible for our actions, even if the circumstances of inheritance and environment determine our characters - that it's not our responsibility that we were destined to be good or evil, nonetheless we are one or the other, as determined by our actions; and the evolution of moral beliefs plays it part, for good or evil in the destiny of our characters, making moral issues worthy of attention.

The purpose of morality should not be to create an excuse for revenge; evil is a result of weakness, such as misguided or irrational values and ethical systems based on them. Moral evil, like any disease, should be addressed with compassionate treatment or cure. Morality should be used as a guide for prevention and restitution when possible, not punishment as an end in itself; people are evil when they choose to do evil things, either through weakness and fear or through errors made or learned; no one chooses to be evil: even when they say they do, what they really mean is that they reject conventional morality for a morality that they believe is better; they simply don't understand that there can be different moral systems - not to say that there isn't a correct moral system; just that there can be many different systems that contain both rational and irrational components. We are good or evil for the good or evil that we do - not for choosing to be either one. We cannot blame people for what they can't control; we can blame their weakness and fears for their evil, and try to help them to overcome these things or defend ourselves from them.

People struggle to do the best with what circumstances they're given. They feel pride and deserve credit for their efforts when they do well and they should get the satisfaction of having tried even when they fail, but they should feel shame for giving into weakness and fear, for this shows that they are capable of change and receptive to help.

Scott Robinson

Dear Leland,

Good conclusion to the article. What causes the results observed for how people act is not a single thing, but is a balance of the many things that make up the world. It's like what causes the actions taken by a recovered alcoholic, he or she suffers the consequences of their tremendous love for imbibing alcohol (determinism) and their ability to choose to not put themselves in a place with alcoholic beverages or to always bring a reserve beverage with them so that they choose to drink it instead of any alcoholic beverages that happen to be available to them (free will). What is true is that a prodeterminism person would argue that the reason why we have the power of free will to resist our temptations is also due to our genetics or other determinism cause. The problem with this is when we observe someone responding to the same temptations in different ways on different occasions. This is where the balance comes in. What action a person takes is caused by the state of balance between their temptations and their focus on consequences and their own weaknesses.

Good Article,


I struggled much of my life, determined to establish a routine of regular, healthy exercise. This past week, having recently turned 70, I found myself weeping because I couldn't choose to stop exercising and had to head out into the 38°F weather to ride my bike. I knew it would be painful and cold, and it was. We choose (?) our habits and become slaves to them. Balance requires great effort, unless we lie down on the sofa and don't accomplish anything ... we gotta' sleep every night, right? LOL ... your article is a hoot! Thanks.

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