Three Big Difficulties For Philosophical Determinism

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What is Philosophical Determinism?

According to the Concise Oxford Dictionary, determinism is 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). Determinism is a view that is held by some scientists and psychologists and one that, if true, would have significant implications for how us human beings are to understand life and the universe. The purpose of this essay is to present three difficulties that analysts have noted determinism present one with.

The Difficulty of Moral Responsibility

Being responsible for one’s own decisions (moral responsibility) is dependent on whether or not one was really free to perform a certain action or choose a specific path. This suggests that even though an individual decided to perform one action she could have decided to perform another for she was not bound to perform the one. Rather, she freely chose to perform the action that she performed. If it is true that human beings actually possess free will then it can be argued that the notions of moral praise, blame, reward, and punishment actually mean something.

Free will is considered a necessary condition for moral responsibility. Determinism, however, denies moral responsibility for it rejects that an individual is really in control of her decisions, and that the way she behaves and the choices she makes are wholly determined by other factors such as genetics, biochemical processes, and environmental components.

To use an example, imagine if two friends, John and Tom, are mountain climbing and a sudden gust of wind blows John into Tom which results in Tom falling to his death. It would be unreasonable to hold John morally responsible for Tom’s death for Tom’s demise was a result of external factors beyond John’s control that resulted in John knocking Tom off of the rock. This analogy applies to human decisions on determinism. If an individual’s decisions have been determined by factors other than herself then she cannot be held morally responsible for them, an implication admitted by hard determinists themselves. A leading proponent of this view is the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Harris reasons that on determinism,

“we can no longer locate a plausible hook upon which to hang our conventional notions of personal responsibility… You will do whatever it is you do, and it is meaningless to assert that you could have done otherwise” (3).

The Difficulty of Experience

A second noted difficulty stems from every day human experience. As human beings we really think that we are making decisions that are not only free but that also have moral significance. But determinism, many have noted, denies these aspects of the human experience. In fact, it is hard to imagine that one could really live as though all of our thoughts and actions are determined by causes outside of ourselves. Rather, the determinist lives with what one might refer to as the “illusions” of freewill, meaning, and morality. Meaning, it can be argued, is directly linked to free will, and free will is directly linked to morality. For many, it is hard to imagine life having any objective meaning or objective moral significance if one is not really free to make decisions.

The determinist’s every day experience would seem to affirm that these “illusions” actually exist. However, he is aware that to be consistent with his philosophical convictions he must resort to denying them. As some have noted, this raises a consistency issue for determinists. The claimed inconsistency points at the determinist’s futile attempt to live as if life has no meaning. Even those who assert that life is meaningless still make a number of what they perceive to be meaningful decisions. They still make decisions that they feel they are freely making, as well as decision which are motivated on moral grounds. Sam Harris would be an example for as a public intellectual he writes books, engages in political, scientific and religious debates, has a career as a scientist, and claims to hate intolerance and bigotry. There is much more to Harris than this but it is clear that he has his moral, philosophical, and theological convictions about certain things. But many wonder how he marries with his deterministic philosophy when they seem irreconcilable.

The Difficulty of Rational Affirmation

The third, and perhaps most significant, difficulty that has been observed is that although determinism might be true it would seem difficult for the determinist to provide a rational affirmation that this is the case. Even the determinist’s choice (an illusion for free choices do not exist) to believe in the truth of determinism would itself be determined which means that at no stage was he or she ever able to weigh arguments and evidence in order to freely make up his or her mind that determinism is true.


1. Concise Oxford Dictionary. p. 261.

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

3. Harris, S. 2012. Free Will. p. 44.



  1. ‘Determinism’ seems to be very similar to Calvinistic ‘Predestination’, the only obvious difference being whether it was the random forces of ‘Nature’ or GOD that made me without the ability to contribute to the process of determining the course of my life.
    From a Christian perspective, I see ‘predestination’ and ‘free will’ as being two sides of the same coin. GOD has made us in His image and likeness – with free will, and with limited creative abilities. But GOD can (and does) orchestrate events throughout history according to His will and purpose. For example, GOD hardened Pharaoh’s heart against Moses and Aaron. But Pharaoh was already opposed to the idea of letting the Israelites go.

    • I like the points you make Jim, but one wonders if God’s hardening the heart of Pharaoh only after he chose to oppose the exodus of the Hebrews leaves you with the same difficulty faced by Calvinists. It is conceivable that Pharaoh might have softened his heart after his volitional hardening of it. Pharaoh might have changed his mind, he might have been convinced to let them go on some other ground. However, God impugned this possibility by hardening his heart even further. I wonder how you would deal with this.

  2. Do you understand why they are not difficulties?

    1) Rationality and making decisions requires causality, otherwise decisions are made via insufficient connection with nature itself. A determinist also points out that connecting one’s self with knowledge of all sorts is what allows one to make the most well informed decisions. And we want to make well informed decisions, not free ones disconnected from all sufficient causal connections. You also don’t seem to grant that it is the entire brain-mind-sensory-body and it’s lifetimes of experiences and memories after being raised in nature and culture, that makes decisions, i.e., not individual isolated atoms or individual electrochemical impulses that make such decisions.

    2) Morality is something humans came up, humans interacting with humans. God doesn’t need morality since there is nothing God needs or lacks or can be threatened by or made more perfect by acquiring. And humans agree as to phsical and mental pains and deprivations. And they know others feel similarly via interacting with others during their lives. People don’t want others or nature to deprive them of their lives or belongings. People also agree In wanting more friends than deadly enemies. Also, a sense of obligation is dynamic, not static. It can grow and wane based on further data. Though it begins often with natural imprinting, mother love for children. And can grow to a recognition of indebtedness to one’s family, extended family, clan, culture, country, global environment, etc. Of course if you learn about your family killing or stealing from other fellow human beings, one might start to question one’s obligations. Indeed, some believers in biblical inspiration begin to doubt it is inspired after reading some of the depictions of God it contains.

    We also agree as humans and law makers to punish certain people, getting them off the street, and/or seek to educate them to act better around others. There is nothing contra determinism in that.

  3. To put things another way. Honesty, selflessness, are natural values too. How many dishonest selfish people are you eager to befriend? My point is that values arise in the sphere of human relationships. God doesn’t have any of the same needs for trustworthy friends, God also is already by definition complete. But we humans have natural needs and desires. And certain bonds are naturally strong, mothers and fathers for their children, and not just in human species. And parents raise children, so their training in how to be part of the family, to treat others, what one should and shouldn’t do, starts early, too early for any of us to remember all those deeply ingrained lessons, so they seem a part of us. And what we grow up and are taught to love is what we value.

    • Relating to point 1 I did not argue that beliefs and mental states on naturalism are just a result of fizzing atoms and biochemical processes in the brain. That’s quite different. What I argued is that if determinism is true, which seems a most plausible position to adopt on naturalism, then it is difficult to rationally justify that determinism is true.

      On point 2 the same challenge remains even if I grant what you’ve raised, after all, you account supports the argument that morality, on naturalism (and determinism) is an illusion. If morality is simply the product sociobiological conditioning then it really is illusory. Similarly, if our actions are decisions are the product predetermined physical causes then we aren’t free at all, thus moral responsibility goes out of the window. It is ultimately subjective (might makes right) and we can’t claim that any act, no matter how debauched, is evil in any objective sense. Again, it just seems as if determinists can’t live consistently with this. Moreover, the moral argument that affirms moral values, for me, seems more plausible but that’s a different question.

      My contention with you other separate comment is that you outline a host of “natural values” that, you believe, arise in the “sphere of human relationships.” In other words, these values (one of which you conclude is love) are ultimately conditioned into us. They aren’t actually objectively real, they are just offshoots of social conditioning. However, you then concluded that we “grow up and are taught to love,” and that this is a sort of golden rule to live by. But I think you are smuggling in these moral values (love being a correlate of morality, i.e. it is a moral good to love your neighbour, not eat him). On the one hand you seem to explain them through conditioning then, on the other, apply them as if they are an objective moral value. Perhaps it would be better for you to say that “we grow up and are taught [the illusion fobbed off on to us of] love,” and then I’d agree that’s consistent on your view.

Let me know your thoughts!

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