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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Some Varieties of Free Will and Determinism

Abstract: Some of the common philosophical and theological doctrines concerning the extent to which persons have choices are briefly characterized.

determinism (hard) indeterminism
determinism (soft) chance (a priori)
predeterminism chance (a posteriori)
fatalism free will

Historically, the ethics of peoples has been based on religion. One reason ethics differs from person to person and place to place is that different cultures have different religions.

If there is to be a philosophical basis for how we ought to lead our lives and seek the good life, then this basis probably cannot be founded on God's existence. As we have seen, both a priori and a posteriori proofs for God's existence are not philosophically well developed enough to be reliable.

Thus, our task in this part of the course is to see how far we can base ethical principles on reason alone. Toward this end, it is important to mention that if scientific determinism were true and psychology is a science with the potential of accurate prediction, it's quite possible the whole enterprise of ethics would be moot, since with no free will, we cannot recommend alternative courses of decision or action.

Determinism (hard or scientific): the philosophical view that all events (including mental events) have a cause. In other words, all states of affairs, both physical and mental, are conditioned by their causes and are describable by scientific law.

Implications:  In a deterministic universe, there is no free will, no miracles, and no chance events. Sometimes mental events or "choices" are considered epiphenomena. The classic view of determinism was expressed by Laplace. Given sufficient knowledge of every particle in the universe, any future event or past event could be calculated with exactitude. ("Modern psychology takes completely for granted that behavior and neural function are perfectly correlated, that one is completely caused by the other. There is no separate soul or life-force to stick a finger into the brain now and then and make neural cells do what they would not otherwise. Actually, of course, this is a working assumption only....It is quite conceivable that someday the assumption will have to be rejected. But it is important also to see that we have not reached that day yet: the working assumption is a necessary one and there is no real evidence opposed to it. Our failure to solve a problem so far does not make it insoluble. One cannot logically be a determinist in physics and biology, and a mystic in psychology." - D. O. Hebb, Organization of Behavior: A Neuropsychological Theory, 1949). 

Soft Determinism: the philosophical view that all physical events are caused but mental processes are uncaused. Choices have only to do with mental processes and have no actual effect in the external world.

Implications:  Consider why one sees a movie twice or watches an instant replay on TV. We do not do so in order to see a different outcome, but we do so as a result of interest and active perception. Consider also the stoic doctrine that we should distinguish those things in our control from those outside of our control and be concerned only with those things in our control. On this view, what we can control is not what happens in the external would but how we think about what happens in the external world. Our choices are often restricted to "willing the next moment in spite of its inevitability" or simply to be willing to "let it be."

Predeterminism: the philosophical and theological view that combines God with determinism. On this doctrine events throughout eternity have been foreordained by some supernatural power in a causal sequence.

Implications: If world-events are predetermined, there is no free will, no miracles, and no chance events. The metaphor of God constructing and winding up a clock (the universe) and letting it run until the end of time is often used. Presumably, on some accounts, God could step in and adjust the clock and so a miracle (a violation of natural law) would occur. However, strictly speaking, the admission of the occurrence of miracles in a predeterministic universe would be inconsistent belief.

Fatalism: the philosophical and sometimes theological doctrine that specific events are fixed in advance (either by God or by some unknown means) although there might be some free play in minor events.

Implications: Fatalism does not presuppose causality, but it is compatible with choice with respect to some events and is compatible with the existence of miracles. The idea is that major events such as birth, death, major discovery, and so forth will happen regardless of causes or chance. "What will be, will be, and there is nothing we can do about it."

Suppose, for example, by means of some kind of revelation I learn that I will die from burns at 10:02 AM in the local Mercy Hospital on Saturday morning. On the one hand, suppose as soon as I learn this, I get in my car to get to the airport to get as far away as possible, but on the way to the airport, my car is hit by a tanker and I suffer intense heat. After being transported to the hospital, I linger on and then die at the appointed time. On the other hand, suppose I did not take the risk of traveling to the airport and go home and intend to stay under the bed until Sunday. Unknown to me, however, there was a wiring fault in the house, and the house catches fire and so on.  I would have choices in such a situation, but the fated event would occur anyway.

Predestination: the theological doctrine that all events are made to happen by God and not by causality in nature. In a sense, the world is being continuously created, and each moment is a miracle (a violation of laws of nature).

Implications:  Many persons who hold this doctrine believe that predestination is compatible with free will in the sense that God knows in advance what will happen, but we freely choose and, by coincidence, choose according to God's plan. Consider, for example, the fact that our best friend often knows how we will decide a difficult issue before we ourselves do . Although it is sometimes said that under predestination all events are "caused" to happen by God, this is not the normal sense of efficient cause. God foreordains or preordains their occurrence.

Indeterminism: The philosophical doctrine that denies determinism is true. More specifically, not all events (either mental or physical) are determined by past events. There is a certain amount of free play between events, possibly due to chance, free choice, or chaos. Some events are caused, and some events are not caused.

Implications:  Hence, indeterminism allows for free will, miracles, laws of nature, causality, chance, and chaos.

a priori Chance: the philosophical view that the probability of a future occurrence can be calculated from the principles of mathematics. For example a coin toss results in an equal chance of resulting in a heads or tails. Obviously, such an ideal coin could have no width (so that it could not land on its side) and no head or tails to alter its center of gravity.

a posteriori Chance: the philosophical view that the probability of a future occurrence can be calculated from past observations of previous similar occurrences. The a posteriori view of chance is wrapped up the intractable problem of induction. For example, we would base the prediction of a coin toss on data derived from past coin tosses of the same coin and tossing mechanism.

Implications: The notion of chance is not necessarily incompatible with determinism since it might be that the lack of exact initial conditions results in unpredictable behavior. In this sense, the outcome can not be known because of our ignorance of the exact causes of a phenomenon. For example, if one knew the exact shape, mass, geometry, center of gravity of a coin, and the exact amount and direction of force applied, and the relative humidity, wind velocity, and so forth, according to the determinist, an exact predication of heads or tails could be made.

Free will: the philosophical and theological doctrine that some of our choices are uncaused and effective. Free will results from the absence of causes, conditions, or other necessary determinations of choice or behavior. The usual definition of this term in philosophy is not affirmative but negative.

Implications:  Note that so-called spontaneous people are persons who do not necessarily exercise free will. Their behavior is often prompted by proximate causes.

Check your understanding of these terms with the quiz on the varieties of free will and determinism.

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