On Determinism

In my quest for background depth, I’m not only reading books, essays, blogs, and researched content, I’m viewing YouTube content, including the videos linked below that were reading and discussion groups. Perhaps I am interpreting it incorrectly, but these participants seem to invariably conflate the concept of determinism with an applied version of it.

In my mind, the concept is meant as a modal abstraction, which is to say if determinism were true, what degrees of freedom might one have? The idea is to accept this as a true premise, whether or not you accept or agree with it.

It’s like introductory physics—pretend there is no gravity; pretend there is no friction. I don’t believe any of these people would argue, “I can’t accept this environment. The world doesn’t work like that”. Except that’s exactly what they do when faced with determinism. It’s a mental model. Just work it as it’s presented.

Determinism: The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Causal Determinism

By this definition, every event has an antecedent cause, the (future) result of which is one and only one outcome. It’s like viewing a film for the first time; you may not know the ending, but the ending is inevitable. If you rewind the film and replay it, the ending will remain the same at every viewing. Nothing anyone can do will alter the inevitability.

Free Will

Free will is a muddled notion that basically declares at some level humans make free choices based on their own agency; that they have control over how the future is written; that the future is yet unwritten, so the film analogy doesn’t hold water.


Compatibilism is the belief that even in a fully deterministic universe. i.e., one in which everything is determined by some initial state as captured by the natural laws of physics still affords at least some limited notion of free will or at least proximate agency.

Adopting this belief in a deterministic universe necessitates relying on either metaphysical magic or semantic word games. Of course, there is nothing to say that you have to adopt a deterministic position, but if you do, you need to also explain how free will fits into the equation.


If one adopts the position of an incompatibilist this squaring up is no longer a problem, but then you are left to choose one or the other of the options as the two are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.


Although it is not necessary for any of the aforementioned monologue, indeterminism allows to some extent or another randomness to be introduced into the deterministic world. Effectively, this means that everything still operates in a causal chain or web, but stochastic or chaotic events perturb the future that might have otherwise happened.

This poses no challenges to the free will issue, as these are exogenous events and to the subject, they act the same as a deterministic event. In any case, if the source and behaviour of the indeterminacy were known, it would fold into the deterministic model. The same goes for luck and chance.

Third-Party Video Content

Whilst I found these videos engaging and useful, that the participants were not subject authorities was distracting and confusing. It was nice hearing them attempt to resolve their positions, but in the end, it turned out to reinforce Latour’s point in We Have Never Been Modern: consensus is more common than facts.

This bloke gives a crackup job explaining why compatibility is bollox.


Whilst searching for cover art for this post, I happened upon a blog entry that makes my point with the author running off on tangents and non-sequiturs.


9 thoughts on “On Determinism

  1. In order for determinism to be true, every event must be reliably caused by some prior event(s).
    In order for free will to be true, the prior event that reliably causes our choice must be our own deliberation.
    Because our own deliberation is deterministic, there is no break in the causal chain. We have determinism up to the point where we face a problem or issue that requires us to make a decision, then we have determinism within the deliberation process itself, where every thought is reliably caused by prior thoughts until the inevitable choice is reached. And then we have reliable causation following upon our chosen action.
    Because there is no break in the causal chain, determinism is satisfied.
    Because our choice is caused by our own deliberation, free will is satisfied.


    1. Hi Marvin. Thanks for sharing your perspective. I think a free will sceptic would argue that there is no ‘real’ deliberation happening and this is as much an illusion as free will itself. The logic might go that the deliberation unfolded per a sequence that could have yielded no other outcome. In a manner of speaking, the chain of prior events generated the outcome.

      Differently, I can’t poke you with a stick and blame the stick. As with prior events, I caused the stick to poke you. The stick has no agency of its own. Of course, I’d also argue that I have no agency in this scenario either as I am (my actions are) as much determined as that of the stick.

      I can’t say that I am fully bought into this causal relationship, but I feel that this is a valid argument from the perspective of a hardcore determinist.

      Not that this is not to say that the Determinist is a Fatalist because whilst the outcome is determined from prior events, it’s not teleological, and we can’t know the outcome in advance unless time works differently than we know, including if we live in a block universe. I’m not ready to chew off these theories quite yet.


      1. Yes, I’ve heard it said that, due to determinism, it is not “really” choosing. But that is a figurative statement, that actually reads “it is AS IF choosing is not really happening”. Choosing is a logical operation (like addition or subtraction) that inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and outputs a single choice. And we can objectively observe choosing happening, right in front of us, by sitting in a restaurant. We see the customers walk in, sit at a table, browse the menu, and then place their order. So, we must conclude that deliberation is actually happening there in physical reality. It is not an illusion.

        Figurative statements are commonly used in human communication, but they have one serious flaw: Every figurative statement is literally false.

        The restaurant example takes us out of the unknown area of subjective experience, of “feelings” of free will, and observes deliberation objectively, from the outside. The person reduces a literal menu of alternate possibilities into a single dinner order. And this physical operation is called “choosing”. Choosing, without a doubt, did happen in physical reality.

        The fact that each step in the choosing operation was caused by prior events does not change the fact that choosing happened. Nor does it change the fact that we actually did that choosing within our own brain.

        And it is that specific brain, the one poking us with a stick, that we need to correct if we wish to stop getting poked. We could break the stick, but that brain would just find something else to poke us with. Attributing the poking to the brain’s prior causes, such as its parents, might work if the brain is still a child. Otherwise, we need to convince that brain to change its behavior, and to do something less harmful to others.

        As to fatalism, determinism without free will (hard determinism) is morally equivalent to fatalism. So, the goal is to find free will within a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect. And part of that is to stop defining free will as “freedom from causal necessity” and instead define it as simply “freedom from coercion and other forms of undue influence”.


  2. Right. I am not fully committed to the Determinist position, but this is mainly because I am still subject to the illusion of free will as most people, so I could also label it as ‘denial’.

    Even then, we aren’t out of the woods because we leave the frying pan of Determinism into the fire of the Causa Sui argument, where even if we allow for a decision, we are left with who is making it. By the logic of Causa Sui, ‘you’ cannot make a decision, only the genetic and environmental influences create impulses that impel you to decide—and then you take credit for it.

    Granted, the argument relies on a lot of semantics, most notably around the definition of ‘you’. Although I lean heavily toward excluding the Causa Sui, I can as easily see an argument for including it.


    1. “By the logic of Causa Sui, ‘you’ cannot make a decision, only the genetic and environmental influences create impulses that impel you to decide—and then you take credit for it.”

      By pragmatic observations of objective reality, the genetic and environmental influences can exercise no control over my choice without first becoming an integral part of who and what I am, such that it is still me deciding what I will do. My prior causes cannot leapfrog over me and cause my actions without my knowledge or consent.

      An interesting perspective is that we ourselves are specific embodiments of the laws of nature and our own past. And when we act we are forces of nature.

      Within the causal chain, we are control links. That which gets to choose what will happen next is exercising control.


      1. Where we might differ here is the order of operations, as it were. In re “without first becoming an integral part of who and what I am,” these things make you who you are. Without them, you are not ‘you’ and organised differently, your different ‘you’ might make a different decision. This relates to either genetics or environment.

        As I suggested, this comes down to the semantics of ‘you’. As I’ve posted elsewhere but I’ll summarise here, notions of ‘you’ and ‘self’ are Gestalt heuristics, conveniences of concept and language, but they don’t exist apart from these. They are useful concepts for perceiving and talking about the world, but they aren’t any more real than the number 2. In any case, once an argument is reduced to semantics, it becomes somewhat intractable unless someone adopts the other’s definition, in which case no degrees of freedom remain and the conclusion is forgone.


      2. There’s no question as to the order of operations, since prior events precede current events which precede future events.

        But there is a riddle in the supposition that I cannot be the real cause of something, because I myself had prior causes. The riddle is this, “Which of my prior causes can pass that test?”. None of them can, because every prior cause also has its own prior causes. So, if the test were valid, then no “real” causes could exist! Thus the test is not valid, and we cannot contradict the fact that I am the most meaningful and relevant cause of my dinner order in the restaurant. And that is why the waiter brings me the bill, holding me responsible for my deliberate order, rather than presenting the bill to my prior causes or to the Big Bang.

        Semantics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the meaning of our words and phrases. To dismiss semantics dismisses meaning.

        But you are certainly correct that many interminable disputes rest upon disagreement as to the meaning of our terms. So, we try to find meaning by examining how the words are actually used in practice, what William James called the “cash value” of our words.

        So, I am skeptical of any claims that “I” and “you” do not refer to real objects that actually exist in the physical universe.

        On the other hand, free will as “freedom from causal necessity” is not a workable notion, and nobody actually uses it that way in any human scenario. But they do use free will when referring to a person who decides for themselves what they will do while free of coercion and undue influence. For example, they use it to assess a person’s moral and legal responsibility for their actions.


      3. I agree that not having a prime mover creates a challenge. But where ‘you’ are concerned, I only have to go back to the point before ‘you’ existed even conceptually. (No, I am not trying to make this an abortion issue. Let’s start at that moment of copulation (or the petri dish, as the case might be. No reason to go back further, as I see it.)

        As with any analysis where one starts affects where one ends up. ln your example, you start with the bill, but we can apply root cause analysis:

        Why did I get a bill? Because I ate in a restaurant.
        Why did I eat at a restaurant? Because I was travelling.
        Why did I eat at this restaurant? Because I like seafood.
        Why do I like seafood? Because I like the taste.
        Why do I like the taste? Because I was exposed to it and my tastebuds are predisposed to the taste.
        Why are my tastebuds predisposed to the taste? Because my parents’ genetics were predisposed to the taste.

        My point is that, having a different seed value (both literally and figuratively), I will have different predispositions. Maybe I don’t like eating in public or paying restaurant markups. Perhaps I don’t like fish. Perhaps even so, I make a ‘choice’ to overcome my dislike, so I go anyway. This could be due to being genetically more open to experiences. Were I closed to new experiences, I wouldn’t have endeavoured.

        When someone asks me if I am coming to an event with them, I fully understand when they ‘me’, what ‘me’ means, and the intent of attendance. In the end, I can claim that this unique confluence is what defines me—despite it all being recycled parts—, but I’m not so inclined to adopt this position except idiomatically.

        Of course, we could get into the Sorites Paradox and the various mental models, but these things only exist when one takes liberty with dimensions of space and time. And still I can’t keep from pondering Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”


      4. It is reasonable to presume that the world is deterministic, that each event is reliably caused by one or more prior events, such that any given event was causally necessary from any prior point in eternity. But there is nothing meaningful that we can do with that logical fact.

        Due to our own nature, as intelligent species that go about in the world causing things to happen to suit our own goals, reasons, and interests, we are usually the most meaningful and relevant cause of the events that we choose to cause. The final, responsible, prior cause of our deliberate act is the act of deliberation that precedes it.

        Choosing what we will do sets our intent upon a specific goal. First, we decide we will eat at the restaurant. This chosen intention then motivates and directs our subsequent thoughts and actions as we get in the car, drive to the restaurant, walk to a table, pick up the menu, and decide what we will order. This second chosen intention motivates us to tell the waiter, “I will have the Chef Salad, please”. The waiter takes the order to the chef. The chef prepares the salad. The waiter brings us the salad and the bill. We eat the salad, which completes the second intention, and responsibly pay the cashier on the way out. Leaving the restaurant completes the first intention.

        You point out that this chain of events started long ago, before we were born, as our DNA was being built from our parents chromosomes. And we can, at least in theory, assume a reliable chain of events leading back to any prior point in eternity. But this logical fact is neither a meaningful nor a relevant fact. Everything is always happening by one thing causing another. At some specific point we are caused. At a more distant point, we are deciding what we will order for dinner. Determinism hasn’t actually changed anything. It is still us, deciding for ourselves what we will order for dinner. And we will be expected to pay the bill before leaving.

        The distinction between to what is us, and what is not us, is how the waiter knows who gets the bill. That is a significant distinction that we all use every day. Unlike universal causal necessity/inevitability, this distinction is both meaningful and relevant.

        I think of a paradox as a self-induced hoax created by one or more false, but believable, suggestions.

        Take the Sorites paradox. The false suggestion is that there is no point at which subtracting grains of sand from a heap reduces it to something that can no longer be called a heap. It subtly introduces this suggestion by subtracting one grain at a time, hypnotizing us by repetition. But we can define a heap, and thus know for certain when the grains of sand cease being a heap. The OED defines a heap as “A collection of things lying one upon another so as to form an elevated mass often roughly conical in form.” Forming a cone from grains of sand requires exactly 4 grains, three on the bottom that support one on the top. If we wish to define “heap” differently for specific purposes, then we can do that too, and still know exactly what a heap is for that purpose.

        The Heraclitus quote appears to be a version of the Ship of Theseus paradox. Over hundreds of years of maintenance, every part of the ship was replaced. So was it still the same ship? (Heraclitus: Over time, was the river the same river and was the man the same man?). It depends entirely upon how we wish to define “same” and “different” in the context of each question. It is just like the example William James used to start Lecture II of his Pragmatism lectures: if a student walks around a tree, watching a squirrel, and the squirrel is always watching him, and backing around the tree so that he is always facing the student, then has the student gone around the squirrel or not? It depends upon the definition of “go around” we use.

        About taking liberty with space and time, this is where imagination comes in. Our imagination provides a sandbox to play in. Instead of the single actuality on the outside, we have multiple possibilities that we can manipulate to test different scenarios, to plan, invent, design, evaluate, and choose.

        Oh, and this is why the notion that determinism means we “could not have done otherwise” turns out to be false! Determinism may only safely assert that we “would not have done otherwise”. Whenever a choosing event shows up in a causal chain, there will always be at least two real options, each of which we can choose. At the end, there will be the single inevitable thing that we will choose, as well as the multiple inevitable things that we could have chosen, but didn’t.


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