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Time, Identity & Free Will

Determinism versus Determinism

Nurana Rajabova is determined to sort it out.

Determinism, in the most common philosophical sense of the term, is “the theory that everything that happens must happen as it does and could not have happened any other way” (Cambridge Online Dictionary, 2019). This means that everything that happens was bound to happen including human actions, and this implies that choice is some sort of illusion. If determinism is true, this shatters our fundamental understanding of ourselves and the universe, not to mention our moral practices. Nevertheless, the conclusion determinists themselves come to concerning its implications for moral responsibility are not always the same.

Morally speaking, determinists are mainly divided into two camps, namely compatibilists and incompatibilists. The incompatibilists argue that determinism completely negates the possibility of agent causation, and therefore moral responsibility. On the other hand, compatibilists claim that moral responsibility is still applicable under determinism. They are both contrasted to libertarians, who defend moral responsibility through believing in free will, dismissing determinism.

What’s interesting about the compatibilists’ position, is that they adhere to the idea that everything that happens is predetermined to happen, yet still argue for moral responsibility. One wonders, what is it that compatibilists are able to see that allows them to reconcile these two apparently contradictory theories?

There are two possible explanations. On one account, compatibilism may simply derive from an arbitrary standpoint and imply logically contradictory things. We see this in the accounts of those compatibilists who reject the notion of free will yet encourage people to live as if it exists. They say that even if free will does not exist, we have to act like it does. They also argue that moral practices are important for regulating people’s behavior. Yet they fail to explain to us how anything, including moral beliefs, can have a power in changing peoples’ behavior if the course of the world is already determined from the Big Bang. What we end up with is to me a logically contradictory view that can’t be explained outside of the realm of illusion.

However, compatibilism may also derive from purely semantic differences – in other words, from having a different definition for the term ‘determinism’. This can be why at times determinists talk over each other and derive completely different conclusions on ostensively the same subject.

To show this, I’m going to give a brief comparison of the term ‘determinism’ in two main accounts. One, using determinism in the ordinary sense, leads to the rejection of free will and (so) moral responsibility. The other was defended by the compatibilist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776), who reconciled determinism and moral responsibility in a non-arbitrary and logically non-contradictory way. A brief analysis of the term in these accounts will allow us to see how much the definition of determinism plays a role in the conclusion philosophers come up with regarding determinism’s implications for moral responsibility.

Alex cartoon
Cartoon by Alex 2020

Determinism in the Ordinary Sense

The first account of determinism, which is determinism taken in the ordinary sense, takes a unitary approach to the universe. According to this account, all things in the universe are connected by threads which are the laws of nature. The laws of nature act on the natural world only according to a path determined at or by the first cause, which may be the Big Bang or God, depending on one’s beliefs. Hence, it would not be too much of a stretch if we said that this theory assigns the active power of choice only to the first cause. All other things are viewed as passive entities transmitting predetermined causal power from one to another. According to this theory, things are determined by this very first cause and happen necessarily and only according to the laws of nature. Therefore, things cannot happen any other way than the way they already do.

Defenders of this theory resist non-physical explanations of thought and extend the laws of physics to the human mind. Consequently, humans are viewed simply as a part of physics with no power of causation in their minds – no effective power of choice. In this sense, humans are simply pre-programmed ‘moist robots’ (a term coined by Scott Adams), created physically causally, and acting only physically causally. Our actions, be they evil or good, do not originate from us. We experience our thoughts, feelings and ‘decisions’ because we are determined to experience them at the particular instances we do. Even the wishes, desires, thoughts that we feel we are initiating by our power of choice are, in fact, completely outside of our power, since we have no power of choice. We have no choice but live through our predestined script, as the actors of that script. In this way, we are victims of fate. Upon this account, we would not be wrong to say that the first cause determined for each person living fourteen billion years after to have a particular feeling or emotion at any given time. Right now as I am typing this article, the speed with which I’m moving my fingers, the typos I make, and ‘choose’ to correct, were also determined at that very first cause.

The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) had similar metaphysical views. Spinoza understood the world as unitary, such that there is only one true thing or substance, which is both physically extended across space and at the same time involves a mental system of ideas. To Spinoza this substance is both God and nature. However, it is important to note that Spinoza’s God should not be understood as a superpowerful quasi-human being ruling over the world. Spinoza’s God is more the totality of everything there is. In this sense, different objects, including people like ourselves, are merely facets or modes of this one infinite, indivisible divine substance in which they all dwell.

In his Ethics (1677) Spinoza says that this substance’s essence explains its existence. In other words, it’s the nature of the ultimate substance of the world to exist; and all other things follow necessarily from this nature. Therefore all things are conditioned to act in a particular manner by God. Or, as Spinoza puts it, from God’s infinite power or nature “all things have necessarily flowed, or always followed, by the same necessity and in the same way as from the nature of a triangle it follows, from eternity and to eternity, that its three angles are equal to two right angles.” Lastly, Spinoza tells us there is no free will. Even God, according to Spinoza, does not act through free will, but from its very nature or infinite power in such a way that all things are conditioned to exist and operate in a particular manner by necessity. Put differently, things could not have been brought into being by God in any manner or order different from the way they have been brought into being.

Given this strict position on predetermination and its rejection of free choice, these defenders of determinism claim that moral responsibility is not compatible with it. After all, how could moral responsibility be justifiable in a world where everything is determined by the first cause, and agents have no power of causation themselves?

David Hume’s Compatibilism

Yet in A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), the Scottish enlightenment philosopher David Hume tells us that there is no conflict between determinism and moral responsibility. This conclusion can only be explained through his account of the term ‘determinism’.

snooker balls
Image © Michael Maggs 2008

In order to understand determinism in Hume’s account, one needs to bear in mind Hume’s empiricism, which underlies all his philosophical inquiry. As an empiricist, Hume believed that our knowledge of the world comes only through sensory perception, not through innate ideas or intuition. Based on this premise, he believed there are certain principles that help us acquire knowledge or know anything at all, for that matter. One of these principles concerns causation. As we go through life Hume argued, we constantly witness conjunctions of events: we see one thing following another on a regular basis. Based on this constant conjunction, we infer that there is a cause and effect relationship between them. So we see one billiard ball hit another billiard ball, and the second ball then moves, and we infer a causal relationship. Such observations in turn lead us to a belief in causal necessity, a universal principle that every effect must be caused. Thus we assume that for an effect to exist, it is necessary that there must be a cause, and nothing comes out of randomness or chance: “The chance or indifference lies only in our judgment on account of our imperfect knowledge, not in the things themselves, which are in every case equally necessary, though to appearance not equally constant or certain,” Hume writes. From Hume’s rejection of the idea of chance being ‘in things themselves’, we can conclude that he was a determinist.

However, he was also a sceptic about causation in the metaphysical sense. For, as we’ve seen, Hume argued that causal necessity is a relation that a mind comes up with based on the constant effects it perceives; but the mind is never capable of perceiving the actual cause. For instance, if I see one ball moved by another ball, what I experience is a ball in different positions. I infer that the movement of one ball was caused by the other one hitting it, but in reality I never perceive the actual power or cause – how one ball caused the other to move.

This sheds a light for us on the idea that Hume’s idea of determinism was different from either ‘standard’ determinism or Spinoza’s variety, which both relate everything back to the first cause. In Hume, we do not see any such long causality; rather, we see what we might call ‘potential’ causes for certain effects. One distinguishing aspect of Hume’s determinism, is that he never claims that any effect we observe today is the manifestation of a determination set by a remote first cause. The power of causation rather lies hidden in the various things that are in cause and effect relationships. In a sense, Hume tells us what we already experience in our daily lives: that, for instance, if you see smoke around, you know that something’s burning, even if you are not able to directly see the actual thing burning. So what he seems to mean by determinism is that if something happens, something else is bound to happen.

It is this view of determinism that allows Hume to see humans holding active creative power. Thus, in Hume’s philosophy, agents are not passive entities simply acting according to some script written for them at the first cause. For Hume, on the contrary, humans are free agents with consciousness, motivations and desires. He writes, “We are conscious, that we ourselves, in adapting means to ends, are guided by reason and design, and that’tis not ignorantly nor casually we perform those actions, which tend to self-preservation, to the obtaining pleasure, and avoiding pain” (Treatise, p.176). Therefore, as much as humans are determined by various causes in the universe, they also hold a determining power as they actively take part in cause and effect relationships.

It is indeed this very point that allows Hume to reconcile moral responsibility with causality. As I said, for Hume the term ‘determinism’ can be understood as implying that every effect must necessarily have a cause. But, causes are many and constantly evolving and humans do actively take a part in their creation. Human choices are not illusions in an already predetermined world. On the contrary, they provide determining factors – that is, causes – in an ever-evolving world, provoking events which we perceive as their effects.


Determinism is one of the perennial topics of philosophy, and its relatedness to human liberty and morality make it important to our daily lives and practices. Determinism is usually understood as rejecting the concepts of free will and moral responsibility, yet we see philosophers’ different conclusions on the subject. David Hume was able to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory theories of determinism and responsibility. This derives from Hume’s specific take on the term ‘determinism’, which does not reflect the standard philosophical definition, but rather only the perceived cause and effect relationship between events. But according to David Hume, human consciousness provides another factor than merely physical causation, allowing us to have moral responsibility.

© Nurana Rajabova 2020

Nurana Rajabova studied Peace & Justice in San Diego, then did faith-based social justice work in NYC. She recently moved to Dublin to start a MA in Consciousness and Embodiment at University College Dublin.

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