DETERMINISM VERSUS FREE WILL (*)

Door: Peter Pappenheim

As with all paradoxes, the one between determinism and free will disappears as soon as we investigate what we really ‘mean’ by the words we use, to what part of our reality they refer. Our will is free if it is not subjugated to the will of another creature, if a decision is directed by our own will. That concept is not opposed to determinism or predictability: will and determinism do not pertain to the same dimension.

INTRODUCTION. The paradoxes discussed in the previous chapter are mainly of interest to philosophers. This one has had real impact on the choices people make and plays a fundamental and divisive role in some religions, opposing for instance Calvinism to Catholicism.

Determinism is the direct corollary of the concept of causality that holds that all events must have arisen from previous events in a way that is in principle unique and is predictable if all details of the previous situation and all laws governing our universe are known.

Causality is the rational basis for all scientific endeavors. If we have to abandon it, the concept of theories and laws would lose any semblance of legitimacy and explanatory validity: determinism is inescapable for the scientist. Causality is the foundation of all rational behavior. For if there is no causal connection between past and future events, then we have no basis for expecting that we can – by taking a specific action – achieve a desired goal, that we can influence the course of events to our advantage. The information process could provide no help in our struggle against the flow of the second law.

The notion of a free will in the sense of having options and of choosing amongst them according to our own set of values and objectives is also considered essential. It is the basis for any kind of evaluation of human action; it is felt to be the essence of humanity. Unless we assume that we can influence the world around us in accordance with our own and very personal values, everything we do or think is a simple dot – in space and time – on the current map of the universe.

Consequently we must admit both determinism and free will as realities of our existence. If people make a problem out of this simple solution, it is because they consider these two concepts to be incompatible. If they are, then the necessity to admit both becomes the fundamental paradox of our existence as thinking beings.

The very fact that we have always entertained both concepts to our advantage, that they are essential features of our mental make-up and that they clash only when we make a problem out of them but never in practice, should have alerted philosophers to the possibility that the paradox finds its origin not in the nature of the reality we intend to describe by the concepts of causality and free will, but in the way we treat these concepts.

1) DETERMINISM. One of the reasons why I felt obliged to tackle this subject is the number of pages that Popper devoted to it and his conclusion that it was relevant to rational behavior, especially in the field of morals and creativity. In his lecture “of Clouds and Clocks” (Objective Knowledge, 1979, p.222) he writes: “I have called physical determinism a nightmare. It is a nightmare because it asserts that the whole world with everything in it is a huge automaton, and that we are nothing but little wheels, or at best sub-automata, within it. It thus destroys, in particular, the idea of creativity.”

Popper’s nightmare is that in a physically determined world: “…any physicist with sufficient detailed information could have written my lecture by the simple method of predicting the precise places on which the physical system consisting of my body (including, of course, my brain and my fingers) and my pen would put down those black marks… . By studying the precise physical state of his body and knowing exactly his circumstances, any totally unmusical and deaf physicist could have written all of Beethoven’s symphonies; worse, he could also have written those symphonies which Beethoven would have written if the circumstances had been different.” Thus concludes Popper.

“I believe that all this is absurd,” he says. And so do I, but for a totally different reason. The absurdity does not lie in physical determinism, but in the conclusions drawn from it by applying to the living world the laws of physics in the form they have been devised to deal with inert systems. Before I present my solution, let us look at Popper’s.

First, he says, “…physical indeterminism is a necessary prerequisite for any solution of our problem.”(Popper, 1979, p 226) Physical indeterminism, as in quantum theory, holds that at a certain level of the extremely small, we cannot define in any practical way the exact position in both time and space of these extremely small particles. They can only be apprehended in a statistical way, as a probability; they obey no physical law enabling us to even theoretically predict their exact location. Yet at the level of say human existence, the range of variation of the aggregate of these same particles is so small as to be immeasurable, so negligible that we may safely assume that at the level of our normal experience physical events to be perfectly determined. We can live our lives while totally ignoring the possibility that as a consequence of the indeterminism of its particles the sidewall before our door could have disintegrated overnight.

But physical indeterminism, says Popper, is not enough. Again I agree, and again I do so for different reasons, although I subscribe to Popper’s argument of why physical indeterminism does not provide any solution to our problem. Physical indeterminism, he says, replaces the automaton by the dice. The notion that whatever I have created I did by pure chance is no more satisfying than the belief that I am just a wheel in a machine.

The assertion that – as Hume already said – there is no alternative to determinism except pure chance – must then be incorrect. Any answer that takes account of our humanity must contain more than physical determinism or pure chance. The empirical world of man exhibits two aspects, contains two phenomena, which seem undeniable and which need explanation:

1) Clearly our actions and thoughts are not totally nor even predominantly random: there seems to be some control, some “aims, or purposes, or rules, or agreements”,  (Popper’s quotation of Compton).

2) Just as clearly, our human world is to at least some extent open-ended, has a  large degree of freedom: at any moment, there are many alternatives for  action that we can consider. In fact our imagination can provide us with a  practically unlimited set of such alternatives.

Both phenomena are incompatible with the physical automaton and the (mental) dice. This apparent paradox has generated the solution of the duality or even – as in the case of Popper – plurality of existences. Besides the world of the physical, there is a world of the – in Popper’s view – contains ideas which have a real and autonomous existence, i.e. which are independent from any subject who created them in his mind.

The inherent indeterminism of physical and especially of mental systems provides the freedom, the reservoir of alternatives. In the mental world, ideas take the role of controlling the range of variance that the physical laws fulfill in the physical world. This view complies with Compton’s requirement (as again quoted by Popper): “…the solution must explain freedom; and it must also explain how freedom is not just chance but, rather, the result of a subtle interplay between something almost random or haphazard, and something like a restrictive or selective control.”

That however does not really solve the problem. For if these ideas have an autonomous existence – once discovered and communicated – and if they indeed function as do the laws in physics, then again the world has become determined (except for random elements), but now by the combined effect of physical laws and ideas (incidentally, what are physical laws but ideas?). ‘Ideas created by man’ suggests a semblance of freedom: we hold the world to be determined by laws that we accepted as true of our own free will. Yet, if these laws are indeed true, the world remains deterministic; if false, it reverts to randomness.

The absurdness that Popper discerns in determinism results from his assumption of the autonomous existence of world three objects, including determinism. If the idea of determinism has an autonomous existence, we may indeed be submitted to it and become an automaton driven by absolute and deterministic laws plus randomness.

The absurdity lies in that assumption. That becomes clear as soon as we try to define more precisely its negation: randomness. I will revert to that subject in more detail in the chapters on “Order, Disorder, Chaos and Information”, p. 419 and in “Quantum Theory, p. 423.(*)

We will find that we can define randomness in only two ways:
- As the absence of regularity, of causality, in the eyes of the information     processing subject. The number and places of impact of  cosmic particles   hitting a gene are random if seen from the point of view of the gene which is   thus mutated, but need  not be random in the eyes of a physicist investigating   the origin of these particles.
- As the impossibility, inherent in the object, of finding any law determining at   least one of its constituting elements, for instance the place, direction, oscillation or spin of elementary particles, e.g. Popper’s indeterminism. The    physician holds that this randomness is a property of these particles. As explained in the chapter about quantum theory, this conclusion is   unwarranted; the findings of physicians only lead to the conclusion that at   the level of the extremely small our concepts and methods of apprehension   do not allow for (or possibly fail to discern) any causality. Popper’s   indeterminism is in fact just a word for ‘we have no way of knowing’, for   ignorance.

Freedom in the sense of randomness is indeed a prerequisite for creativity but applies only to the input into a living being’s information system by impulses from outside (the activated section of) that system. Such randomness is not defined in terms of a (physical) property of the impulses that form the input; it is perceived as random from the point of view of the information processing entity. We even have a word for it: serendipity.

Popper’s control on the range of variance, the telic, non random element, the will, finds its origin the (evolutionary) process of life that selects – on basis of the persistence of the reaction to random input – on basis of is its contribution to survival and propagation, and which results in build-in selection criteria for reacting to random events. That creates a bias that needs only to arise ex post, and thus assumes no a priori teleology, nor any non-physical yet autonomous entities like ideas.

From the point of view of the information processing entity, randomness is required for freedom only to ensure the supply a range of alternatives sufficiently wide (as seen from the point of view of a living creature) to contain at least one that enables it to cope with any possible change in the environment. Only randomness can ensure real freedom in the generation of alternatives because any non-random generation ipso facto would a priori and systematically exclude some alternatives. As we cannot predict all changes in our environment, we cannot a priori know whether such exclusion is justified. If this functional condition of randomness is met, we can live with a world that is totally deterministic.

An illustration of the subjectivity of such randomness is the algorithms for the generation of random numbers: they provide all the randomness we need and yet are generated by a totally determined process developed specifically for its task. In fact a random error in that algorithm might result in the loss of randomness of the figures it produces. In the physical world, randomness in the statistical sense can be created for instance if a certain phenomenon is determined by various factors which themselves are not correlated, for instance the effect of a mutation and the generation of the particle inducing it. Even in a totally deterministic world, randomness as seen from the information processing subject is provided – in sometimes overwhelming abundance – by its environment. Most notably, our imagination can be seen as such a process which – in a totally deterministic way – will produce an almost unlimited set of alternatives that have a large random component. That is one reason for expecting that democracy, which puts no limit on freedom of imagination, will in the end prevail over totalitarian societies.

To be efficient, our information process must balance the required randomness of its input with sufficient determinism in processing it to ensure that it ‘makes sense’, i.e. that it can improve the odds of surviving and propagating beyond what they would be in a totally random environment. At the level of human decision making in all matters except the physics of the extremely small (and possibly extremely large or fast) we can assume total physical determinism without the risk of being contradicted by facts, without fear of taking erroneous decisions, as a consequence of this assumption. Any deficiency is due to human intervention, for instance if bureaucracy stifles the partly random creative process.

In conclusion, some degree of determinism is necessary for any rational explanation of our world as well as for our psychological comfort. And we do not need indeterminism for a rational explanation of our world and existence; acknowledging ignorance in the face of the as yet unexplainable will do. Determinism then cannot be the cause of any paradox.

OWN WILL VERSUS FREE WILL. If determinism is not the culprit, then the paradox must find its origin in the way we define ‘free will’; and so it does. As explained in PART TWO(*) about life, the notion of ‘will’ is a legitimate one. By elimination, only one suspect remains, namely ‘free’.

The paradox arises only whenever we equate free with random, unpredictable, without cause, and – in the realm of action – ‘without restriction’. These are all concepts of a descriptive, neutral, impersonal, non-normative kind. Yet in practice freedom is used exclusively in social affairs and in its normative connotation. How could such an inconsistency between a philosophical concept and its practical use subsist if not through the lack of integration of the academic world mentioned in PART SIX(*)?

By founding the will in desire, Kant probably came as close to the core of the problem of the will as anybody could possibly get in 1780. Today’s concept of life and information enables us to give his concepts a clear and operational content. We will retain from Kant that the will contains two elements: the object of the will, the desire, the ‘want’, which can become a ‘will’ only if coupled with the perception that we need the ability to bring about the object of our desire, that we can do something to realize our desire, that we can “be the cause of the object of our desire”. Quite obviously, this second element already implies the notion of determinism inherent in causality. So the notion of free will as opposed to determinism can concern only the first element, the desire. And so it does.

A desire can arise from a purely random event, either real or imagined. But we will engage in any consequent action only if we expect to be able to bias the course of events towards bringing about the objective of our desire, if we assume causality. Without causality and its consequent determinism, ‘willing something’ would be a totally gratuitous phenomenon of no consequence at all, whether that will was free or not.

What opponents of determinism really object to is the notion that our desire itself is just a link in a long chain of causality on which our personality has no influence. Yet the deterministic view of desire, and thus of the will, becomes controversial only if applied to human beings, not to a fly. Those who reject determinism of our will are perfectly prepared to accept that desire in animals can be explained in a materialistic way and is causally determined by the interplay of genes and experience. In fact we would not welcome the moment when the behavior of animals becomes totally random, and thus unpredictable. And what about our fellow men?

I fully endorse the statement that the human will is different from the ‘will’ of all other living beings. It is different on two accounts. First, man has an imagination which explosively increases the number of action alternatives he can consider, and thus of the desires and means amongst which to choose. Secondly, man can be conscious of his desire and of his will and thus can overrule the restraints which instinct could have put on it.

The specific freedom of man does not reside in the absence of causality and determinism in the generation of imagined desires and action alternatives. His freedom follows from the absence of general laws, inborn inhibitions or uncontested interference by other living beings that could limit the range of action alternatives that we might imagine. Determinism imposes no such limitations. As noted in the previous paragraph, causality and determinism do not at all preclude mechanisms that can generate ‘random’ events and thus do not curtail our ‘freedom’ of imagination.

Imagination endows man with a vastly expanded field of opportunities. But also with an equally increased set of challenges. For imagination, coupled to knowledge and the ability to reflect enables us to foresee the consequences of following a certain desire, and thus to realize that gratification may conflict with other desires. In our mind we can and must balance the various desires against each other and take decisions that are better suited to reach our ultimate goal than a creature that has to follow blindly its dominant desire.

If I love chocolate cream puffs and am offered half a dozen of them, I can follow my desire and eat all of them. I can also remember my stomach or my figure and balance these against the desire for cream puffs, which may result in my eating none or just one. An animal would eat them all. If the animal got very sick, and if it associates this sickness with cream puffs, it would just learn that cream puffs are bad, and develop revulsion towards even just one bite of a chocolate cream puff, while just one or two might be perfectly harmless. But if it did not get sick, but just fatter, it would continue to eat all available puffs, irrespective of future consequences.

An animal seldom is in a situation where it has to balance two desires against each other and thus is not well equipped to deal with it; it is quite funny to watch your dog if it ever gets in such a situation: sometimes it will show a rudiment of reasoning, but more often it will exhibit signs of stress. Man on the other hand is continuously confronted with such dilemmas. In fact, the notion of ‘I’ could be better defined by the role of arbiter in deciding which of the contingent lower-level desires better furthers the highest level objectives than by the role of observer which is usually the one referred to in arguments about the nature of self.

This notion of self as the ultimate authority in deciding between our conflicting desires is the real cause of the perception of incompatibility between determinism and ‘free’ will. If this self is to be explained in materialistic terms, then it must be explainable in terms of cause and effect. Our decisions are then seen as following from the interplay between on the one hand our current personality and on the other hand the contingencies of our present situation as perceived by us. Any random element is just a source of errors. The personality is seen as rooted in the past, developing from fertilized egg through our consequent experience. It is determined by the physical, chemical and informational history of its development, including that of its ancestors. Determinism implies that – given this factual personality and its equally factual perception of the contingent reality of the moment – a man could not have taken a decision different from the one he actually did take. The problem with this view is not a logical paradox, but a psychological one. I have noted, in agreement with Popper and others, that chance and randomness do not by themselves alone provide a satisfactory solution to the psychological anguish of being an automaton.

As stated, the only alternatives for determinism up to now have been some form of dualism and idealism, the introduction of a notion of soul or – as Popper does – of ideas having an own, autonomous existence. The assumption of such entities may alleviate the psychological ‘Weltschmerz’ often generated by the notion of a deterministic world. But that is only a palliative, a placebo. It works only as long as we do not investigate its content. The very notion of soul or of autonomous ideas implies that we have neither control over their origin, nor of their nature. We have simply added God to the laws and causes determining our personality and behavior, which then become just as predictable to anyone, say God, who is conversant with these ideas or with our soul. That was the conclusion of Calvin. There is just one difference with physical determinism, but that difference is crucial: autonomous ideas and our souls are beyond reach and control of any other human being.

What is so repellent to us in the notion of determinism, what are we really afraid of? Certainly not causality as applied to the world around us: we are doing our utmost best to make it predictable. Do we really aspire to being totally unpredictable (even to ourselves)? Do we want our personality to be random? The kind of automaton to which determinism would condemn us is an entity, a system, which has come about from a material origin by a process which is totally causal, i.e. where each step has its roots in the preceding one in a way which can be described by the laws of physics plus whatever additional empirical laws are needed to deal with living systems. Suppose we can in this way describe and explain a human being, you and me as we really are, with an own will and all the richness of imagination and the possibility to generate action alternatives for trying to fulfill our own desires. What aspect of this automaton do we find so objectionable? That these desires have a causal root in the past, our parents and our experience? That our personality did not come about as a result of some miracle or of our own merit, that we exist because our parents decided to have a child and that the laws of heredity resulted in providing us with traits of both our parents and their forefathers? Are we not glad that because of a deterministic process we can pass on to our children something of our own personality and our experience? Of course we are.

I have conducted no survey in this matter, but I am convinced that we fear the automaton because – when using that word – we do not think of living beings, not even animals, but of our own products, of machines. We are so used to applying physical determinism and its laws to impose our will on the rest of nature by making machines, that we tend to identify any product of a deterministic process as a machine. An error originating in our ignorance of what life is, an ignorance which today must at least be willful negligence.

The difference between a man and a machine, between any form of life and a machine, is that a living creature is its own purpose, while the machine has been created by a living being to serve – not the purpose of the machine – but of its creator. No machine, even the most sophisticated computer, has – like we do – an own will right from its conception. We use these machines to exploit our environment to our advantage; through them we impose our own, if deterministically generated will, on the rest of creation.

We are afraid of determinism because we associate it with machines and those creatures that do not have real power in shaping their own destiny. Clearly man does, even if it is in a deterministic way. We have the mistaken notion that if we can know exactly why everything has happened in the past, the future also must be predictable and determined, and that, if that is so, our own choices do not matter, they hardly deserve to be called choices at all. Yet clearly what we do matters; think only of a U.S. president with his finger on the red button. It is exactly the other way around: what does not matter is whether what we did was predictable or not. What do we really fear?

First, we fear the loss of responsibility and morality. As a human social being we pass moral judgments on the actions of people, also on our own. Obviously, to us our own successful actions follow from the loftiest of motives, and we hate to share that merit with our ancestors and the circumstances in which we grew up. We rely on determinism mainly to explain our failures. Some people, again for the best of reasons, evaluate somebody else’s actions exactly the other way around, especially if they do not like him. The perception of norms and justice presented in this book will help to cure us of that bias and to accept the humility that follows from determinism. We will be content to have our good actions attributed to a personality for which we have to thank a deterministic fate and we will be merciful for others when they err even if we have to punish them for it, in short we will act as Christians even if we do not believe in God… if our personality is thus inclined. If it is not, rejection of determinism will not change it for the better. Such determinism is perfectly compatible with democracy, because in a democracy we are always held responsible only for our actions, whatever the cause of them. Punishing somebody for transgressing the law is done to prevent such transgressions, and this objective is the only reason for investigating the motives generating the transgression: willfully harming another will be punished more severely than doing so unintentionally. The concept and the feeling of being responsible follows from our nature as a social being and is commendable even though this nature has arisen in a deterministic way.

Secondly, the same people who believe in causality fear determinism because it implies that anybody who has a total grasp of how we have developed can predict how we will act in certain circumstances and can manipulate us accordingly. The  culprit  is that – contrary to causality –  determinism is derived from a verb and thus implies an actor. No human being ever will have such a total grasp. Mohammedans and Christians (except for Calvinists) do have a problem: how to reconcile an almighty and all-knowing God with the notion of determinism and guilt, a problem which democrats can leave to theologists. But the fear of manipulation by fellow humans  is justified.

The only meaning of ‘free’ which does justice to what we really want is not freedom from the rigors of determinism, but freedom as guardian of our fundamental identity as embodied by our objectives, our direction in life, our will, against subjugation to the will of another human being, and men are the only creatures having that power. Freedom means to reserve for oneself the ultimate authority for deciding which of our various and conflicting desires to follow, and amongst means available to satisfy them. Whatever the origin of our personality, and however predictable our desires and decisions may be, we will have attained the summit of freedom if our actions are directed by our own will (even if that has developed in a deterministic way) and not by the will of other men. As explained in Volume One, that is not only the maximum of freedom we really want, but also the maximum we can – even conceptually – achieve. We are responsible for our actions to the extent that they follow from our own will. This conception of freedom is in total accordance with the way in which it is used in practice. Even if we hold a deterministic view of animals, we will call ‘free’ the animals living in the wild because they are not constrained by the will of another being, as opposed to those in captivity, even if in captivity they may be in a better position to satisfy their desires than in the wild. But our freedom is not a gift of nature: it must be constantly nurtured and defended.

(*) A chapter from “The Conceptual Foundations of Decision-making in a Democracy”, part Capita Selecta, page 377.  Peter Pappenheim,

Post Scriptum February 2011: Freedom and responsibility. A philosopher (I cannot at this moment remember his name) stated that we are free when we are responsible. As explained above, it is the other way around: we are responsible for our actions if and because we are free in above the sense, that we are the cause of our actions and not some other agent, irrespective of the question whether our action was conscious, well considered, instinctive or a reflexive. These only are relevant for our reaction to it.