What is the Philosophy of Determinism?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines determinism as the “doctrine that human action is not free but determined by motives regarded as external forces acting on the will” (1). Or, as philosopher Carl Hoefer explains, determinism is “the idea that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature” (2). 

There are different varieties of determinism, as one commentator explains: “There are many determinisms, depending on what pre-conditions are considered to be determinative of an event or action” (3). Notably, there is causal determinism (that posits an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe), nomological determinism (a common form of causal determinism), theological determinism (that all events that happen are pre-ordained, or predestined, to happen by a monotheistic deity), predeterminism (the idea that all events are determined in advance), fatalism (the idea that everything is fated to happen and humans have no control over their future), as well as logical and adequate determinism. However, determinism, in general, is taken to mean causal determinism.


Not many people will deny the fact that some chemical, psychological and sociological factors may affect an individual’s decisions and actions. But this still falls well short of full determinism that says all of our decisions and actions are products of determining factors over which we have no control.  

It is true that hard determinism, which denies free will, is often criticized for seeming to make traditional moral judgments impossible, though some philosophers do accept such a position. 

Likewise, determinism would appear to undermine purpose and meaning. Since everything is a product of determining forces then what is the point in doing anything if we are just chemically determined? How can an individual be held responsible for his actions if they are biologically or psychologically determined? Likewise, why, if we are determined, should we trust our thought processes? Philosopher William Lane Craig explains that,

“Everyone acknowledges that we have at least the illusion of free will. I take it that my sense of freely choosing is not mere appearance only, since if it were, nothing I think or do is of any significance whatsoever. Even the decision to believe in determinism would be meaningless, no more significant than having a toothache. Since freedom of the will is a necessary condition of the meaningfulness of my life, I may as well assume that I do have it. After all, if I do not have free will and my life is meaningless, who cares?… I think that determinism is incompatible with free will, but that determinism has not been demonstrated to be true” (4).

Though Craig is critical of determinism there are several theories concerning how free will can be factored into a deterministic philosophy. For example, compatibilism holds that free will is, somehow, compatible with determinism whereas an incompatibilist position denies that to be the case. Thus, topics pertinent for the determinist philosopher revolve around questions of morality, free will, meaning, and value.


1. Concise Oxford Dictionary. p. 261.

2. Hoefer, C. 2008. “Causal Determinism” in Edward Zalta’s The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

3. Doyle, B. 2011. Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy. p. 145-146.

4. Craig, W. 2013. Freewill. Available.



  1. I don’t care much for a definition of determinism that dualistically separates the will into what, a soul? If you separate “motives” from the “will”, such that motives are external to the will, then what would the “will” be?

    The will IS motive. Specifically, it is an intent for the future, which usually animates the person to take some action. And when we are unsure of which action to take, we go through the mental process of choosing, that deterministically reduces multiple options to a single choice. And that choice is our will at that moment.

    Scientifically, we know where that choosing process took place, in the brain of the person making the choice. So we know precisely which object in the universe performed the choosing.

    We also know that identical atoms, in precisely the same proportions, will either be part of an inanimate object or part of a living organism. And the behavior of the inanimate object will be quite different from that of the life form. It is the specific organization of those atoms that accounts for the difference between objects subject only to physical laws and objects with a built-in purpose to survive, to thrive, and to reproduce.

    Physics can explain the apple falling from the tree. But it cannot explain how the apple turned up in Johnny’s lunch box 200 miles away.

    Determinism is the belief in the reliability of causes and their effects. If it is to be a complete theory, then it must also include the purposeful actions of living organisms among its catalogue of causes.

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