Free-Will, Determinism, and Self-improvement

The fact is that it is only with determinism being true that we have any hope. People mistakingly believe that if free-will is false then there isn’t a point to doing things. That is for those that wish to change like say an alcoholic who wishes to recover or an angry person who wishes to become calmer. They mistakenly believe that free-will means the ability to change – or at least that determinism and the ability to change are mutually exclusive.


If free will were true then it doesn’t matter what you do now because it doesn’t determine what you will do in the future. There is no point in denying yourself the object of your unwanted addiction now because whether or not you deny yourself now will have no bearing on whether or not you will be able to deny yourself in the future. But the fact is if you deny yourself a cigarette all day today, and all day tomorrow and continue for about 7 days you’ll find it incredibly easier to deny yourself cigarettes in the future. And if you don’t hang around where there is the temptation to smoke. How can this be true if determinism is not?


I have heard people argue against determinism saying things like “Oh but then you give them an excuse to continue. If determinism is true then alcoholics can justify their drinking by saying “oh it’s not my fault; it’s determined””. What they fail to understand is that the alcoholic – firstly – doesn’t have to justify what he is doing. If he wants to drink excessively and doesn’t want to stop then he isn’t going to stop. If you go and berate him about it then he may give justifications to get you off his back but the reason he’s doing what he’s doing is because he wants to.


See it’s the wanting that is important. It’s the wanting that we have no control over. But once a person wants to change then he can change. There are certain things he can do now that – because determinism is true – will effect his behavior in the direction he wants later. But that change of heart – that event when one desire becomes stronger than another desire and thus starts change – is a gift. It comes without being sought (if you seek it then you’ve already got it!).


These people who hammer on about free-will don’t really care about the individual in need. They care about being able to point the finger, to cast the blame, to make themselves feel better than others.


But if free-will were true then we’d live in a truly hopeless world because no matter what actions I take today to better myself they aren’t going to have any effect upon my future behavior. If they did then you can say “My actions today determine my actions in the future”.


21 thoughts on “Free-Will, Determinism, and Self-improvement

  1. Both determinism and free will are true. The idea that they conflict is false. Free will is a cause as well as an effect. The two concepts both coexist and fit together nicely.

    • It depends on what the definition of free-will is.

      For someone to be responsible they must be the sole cause of their action. If their decision is caused by anything prior to them – anything outside of them like say god or physical laws – then they are not responsible.

      So free-will is a theory of choice that states that man is the sole originator of his decisions.

      Compatibilism is nice but it’s just wishful thinking – – free-will (in the sense people wish it to have) is mutually exclusive to determinism.

      • All prior influences are now part of who you are. There is no “person” apart from the one that was caused by your conception, your birth, your genetic makeup, and all of your experiences in and after the womb, up to this very point. This result of the interaction between the genetic organism and its environment are precisely what we call a “person”. And it is the will of this unique person alone that is making the decision. And the mental process experienced by this person in making that decision is called “free will”.

        That is the only real and meaningful definition of free will. There is no entity floating around, independent of any interaction with the real world, that is making any decisions. That entity is the straw man, not an actual person.

        And I find the word “compatibilism” to be offensive to what is accessible to everyone through common sense.

      • I agree there is no entity floating around.

        Using your definition of free-will everything has free-will. Just to say that free-will is the name we give to the mental process experienced by a person is really quite arbitrary. The mental process is a direct manifestation of the causal process. The mental process is no more an expression of free-will than say the process of osmosis.

        Compatibilism is what you are espousing if you say free-will and determinism are compatible lol.

        I agree that who you are determines what you choose. So if we define free-will as the ability to choose what you want or express who you are then we have free-will.

        Common sense is another word for social conditioning!

      • You said, “The mental process is a direct manifestation of the causal process. The mental process is no more an expression of free-will than say the process of osmosis.”

        Everything is caused. Therefore, nothing can be dismissed by the fact that it is caused. The mental process of choosing is the function that we call “free will”.

        If you wish to get out your slide rule, and carry on the discussion in terms of the motions of specific molecules and neural electric pulses, then you might have a valid claim to dismiss the concept of “free will”, and the concept of “person” for that matter. But not even Asimov’s Second Foundationers reached that point.

        The idea that people make choices, some good and some bad, is still a useful concept. It implies that an intervention, such as a penalty employed by a court of justice, might influence the criminal to make a better choice next time.

        I don’t think the word “compatibilism” was around when I resolved the paradox for myself as a teenager some 50 years ago.

      • The kind of punishment you espouse in your idea of justice is compatible with determinism – – – that kind of punishment is the result of us wanting to protect ourselves and others within our society – — but the kind of punishment that says someone deserves to be hurt because they did something wrong and only for that reason is not justifiable within a deterministic framework.

        You’re too rigid in your use of language dude – – – it’s a game. You have to discover what someone means by the words they say instead of pig-headedly applying what you mean to what they say. Conversation’s a two-man game!

      • You said, “the kind of punishment that says someone deserves to be hurt because they did something wrong and only for that reason is not justifiable within a deterministic framework.”

        First, everything, whether good or evil, exists within a deterministic framework. Cause and effect is an underlying principle of the real world as we know it.

        Second, the rationale for a penalty must be consistent with the context of justice. Justice intends to secure rights, all of them, including the right of the victim (repair the harm), the public (prevent further harm), and the offender (no more than is necessary to correct the behavior, if it can be corrected, otherwise prison to protect the public).

        The rationale for the penalty does not come from “free will”. But the nature of the crime and the person committing the crime can inform what penalty (if any) will be sufficient to correct the behavior. The penalty for a first offense misdemeanor will be less severe than for the repeat offender. And the sociopathic serial killer is probably uncorrectable, leaving only life imprisonment or death as the effective means to protect the everyone.

        Free will is not linked to the severity of the penalty. The concept of free will does not result in more severe penalties. Only the misconception of the purpose of penalty leads us down bad pathways.

  2. Hi there! This post couldn’t be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my good old room
    mate! He always kept talking about this. I will forward this post to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thanks for

  3. I took Richard Carrier’s course at on Sam Harris’s “Free Will”. One of the items we reviewed was an article by Dr. Eddy Nahmias about the effects of what he calls “Willusionism”, the assertion by some pop scientists that “free will is an illusion”. Here’s the entry I wrote on it for my blog:

    In Dr. Eddy Nahmias’s article on “Willusionism“, he describes how the belief that free will is only an illusion leads to bad moral results.

    He quotes scientists who fuel this belief with statements like these:
    ◾“Free will, as we ordinarily understand it, is an illusion” (Greene and Cohen)
    ◾“…this strong feeling [of free will] is an illusion, just as much as we experience the sun moving through the sky, when in fact it is we who are doing the moving” (John Bargh)
    ◾“It seems we are agents. It seems we cause what we do…. It is sobering and ultimately accurate to call all this an illusion” (Daniel Wegner)
    ◾“Who you are is nothing but a pack of neurons” and “although we appear to have free will, in fact, our choices have already been predetermined for us and we cannot change that” (Francis Crick)

    And he cites several studies showing that people who hear these claims are likely to “cheat more, help less, and behave more aggressively”. To explain this effect, he suggests that they come to view themselves as having less control of their lives. They feel that “their efforts to deliberate about what would be best to do were inconsequential and that their efforts to do what they think best were insignificant”.

    “Put simply”, he says, “if people are told they have no free will, they might interpret this to mean they lack willpower, and believing that might lead them to exert less willpower to do the more difficult (but more appropriate) thing to do.”

    He thinks the problem might be that the scientist’s statements are “ambiguous” because they fail to specify which “free will”, libertarian or compatibilist, is an illusion.

    I don’t think that’s the problem. The problem is that scientists who naively say free will is an illusion are simply wrong. They make two critical mistakes.

    First, they assume that deterministic inevitability makes free will impossible. Logically it cannot. If everything, just as it is, was inevitable, then free will, just as it is, must also be inevitable.

    Everyone recognizes the principle of cause and effect. We ask “Why did this happen?” or “Why is that the way it is?” By study and experiment we may discover the causes of most things and events. And if we dig further, we may uncover what caused those causes.

    Determinism carries this a little further. In theory, the causes of a cause could each be traced back through their own causes to the beginning of time. And, in theory, everything that exists today and all of the events and changes happening now will inevitably cause what happens next, from day to day, to the end of time. In summary, everything that happens is “inevitable”, it had to happen as it did due to what happened before.

    Cause and effect apply to mental as well as physical events. All mental functions are, of course, rooted in physical processes within the nervous system. But the responses of an intelligent being are more complex than those of a physical object. For example, you hit a cue ball at a precise angle, so that it hits another ball just right and that one knocks a third ball into the pocket. But what happens when you throw a billiard ball at a person?

    Each individual has their own genetic predispositions and a lifetime of environmental influences in play. And a person’s mood will vary from moment to moment. And if they stop to consider their response before reacting, then that mental process may determine their response, either rationally or irrationally.

    The response, whether rational or irrational, is theoretically inevitable. But only a being with Godlike omniscience of all causes in play and Godlike omnipotence to calculate the outcome, or the guy’s wife, could reliably predict what he will do next.

    While the principle of cause and effect is used everyday to understand the world and each other, the idea of deterministic inevitability is seldom useful or helpful. Usually when we say something was inevitable, we mean there was nothing we could do about it. But deterministic inevitability includes the functioning of intelligent actors making choices for their own reasons and sometimes dramatically altering the course of history. So, our free will is fully functional and active in a deterministic universe.

    From the decider’s subjective viewpoint, deterministic inevitability is useless. A decision begins with an uncertainty (if you knew the outcome you’d skip the process). You have to deliberate, and deliberately choose, before you will know your choice.

    And you can’t simply sit back and wait for “the inevitable” to happen, because it is sitting back waiting on you. And your choice to sit back becomes your choice — not something you’d want to try in a literal “sink or swim” situation.

    The second mistake that naive scientists make is falsely presuming that a scientific explanation of the underlying mechanism makes the thing itself less important than it’s parts, as if explaining something could explain it away.

    Because all mental processes are totally rooted in the underlying neurological system, we can say confidently that the phenomenon is a real aspect of our physical reality. And it plays an essential role in changing ourselves and the real environment we live in.

    As neuroscience studies the brain and how it’s physical functions produce our mental experience, we will continue to learn more about how the brain produces our mind. But let’s hope we don’t naively lose our minds in the process.

    • You fail to define terms!
      If free-will means the capacity to choose what you want – then free-will is compatible with determinism.
      But that isn’t the definition most people when they think about are concerned with.
      They are concerned with the definition that justifies responsibility. Now this responsibility is not reducible to some utilitarian fiction but means that people deserve punishment/acclaim for actions not to make them better members of society – or to protect society but simply because! A murderer deserves to be punished because he murdered.
      So this kind of responsibility and determinism are mutually exclusive.
      Now there is another formulation of responsibility that has arisen in response to the dominance of the deterministic theory. That is that a human can be punished to fix him, or to deter other humans from doing the same behavior, or just to get rid of an undesirable. But this formulation is so far removed from the historical use of the word responsibility that I’m led to believe it is nothing other than a ploy used by dishonest intellectuals seeking to control society to divert the authority and influence that the concepts traditionally denoted by “Responsibility” into a different set of concepts.

      The consideration “Will this insight/truth/whatever be beneficial to mankind or not?” Is irrelevant! I’m concerned with the truth – I want to know how reality really works, what things really are. I don’t care what repercussions this has on the wider world!

      • The ONLY reason that fee will is related to responsibility is because the person will face that same choice again. If nothing is changed, then we can expect the person to repeat the behavior. The penalty becomes something new that we expect the person to take into account the next time.

        The idea that misbehavior requires punishment begs the question: “Why?”

        If we don’t know why then we have no guidance in choosing the punishment. A child reaches for a cookie after we said “No.” So, what do we do now? Cut off the hand? Apply the guillotine? String him up?

        Obviously, the idea that “misbehavior requires punishment” is insufficient without knowing what it is we are trying to accomplish. Therefore, it is never, and never has been, sufficient to simply say that being responsible for harm justifies all punishments. It may look that way to the child getting his hand slapped, but it is clearly not sufficient justification for any arbitrary penalty.

        The child gets his hand slapped so that he will think twice about taking the cookie without permission the next time he is tempted to disobey. The fact that it was inevitable that he reached for the cookie to test our resolve is now a matter of the unchangeable past. But we know, probably from our own experience, that he will inevitably face this decision again. And we want to give him something new to think about next time.

        That is free will and responsibility and penalty in action. And if you have options other than slapping his hand then by all means use them.

        Determinism changes nothing. It is in full play throughout the experience of exercising our free will and being held responsible for our actions.

      • LOL you’re not even arguing against me but your tone seems to indicate you are.

        The free-will position is closely linked with that of deontological morality and retributive justice. It presupposes some absolute morality and also presupposes that you shouldn’t go against it and that going against requires punishment for no other reason then that what you did was bad and you weren’t forced to do it.

        Traditionally free-will and justice have required autonomy on the part of the criminal/actor. That is autonomy from causality because if someone was pre-determined in their behavior then they are just a tool in the hand of something else.

        Now I believe the whole system founded on deontological morality, retributive justice and free-will is silly!!!! Just as you do – I think we have discussed this before. But unlike you I feel no need to cling to the term free-will. The traditional content of that term is simply not true of the reality I experience – it is false!

      • Philososophia: “The free-will position is closely linked with that of deontological morality and retributive justice. It presupposes some absolute morality and also presupposes that you shouldn’t go against it and that going against requires punishment for no other reason then that what you did was bad and you weren’t forced to do it.”

        Intelligence has two parts: generalization and discrimination. You are allowing the deontologists to define free will for you.

        There is no “free-will position”. Free will is a simple concept that has precisely one meaning: the mental process by which we choose our own actions, without coercion by others. The “will” is what we decide we want to do. The “free” is being able to choose for ourselves.

        If you bind free-will to retributive justice, you have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Free will is NOT a religious concept. It is just as essential to rational and correctional penalty systems.

        Nor does free will in any way diminish the need to find the causes of bad behavior so that society might take earlier steps to prevent the crime in the first place.

  4. “First, they assume that deterministic inevitability makes free will impossible. Logically it cannot. If everything, just as it is, was inevitable, then free will, just as it is, must also be inevitable.”

    I’m confused????

    I think that you must have put a typo in there somewhere!!!
    The contention is that either free-will exists or determinism exists.
    It is not known beforehand (I assume) which one exists. Upon the discovery of one – if the logic is correct – the other is necessarily negated.
    Free-will just as it is….. It sounds like you’ve got this term “Free-will” and you’re saying “This means something that is already out there” So you’re assuming it already exists before you even define it!!!! I mean I could use the same method to argue for the existence of square circles!

    “First, they assume that circles being circular makes square circles impossible. Logically it cannot. If everything, just as it is, was inevitable, then square circles, just as it is, must also be inevitable.”

    I mean if that logic is correct then everything is provable – – everything becomes true!!! Because you assume existence in the very definition – – – you forget that the purpose of logical deduction and argument is to filter (it is one of many filters) the possibly true from the definitely not true!

    • Philosophia: “The contention is that either free-will exists or determinism exists.”

      And that is a silly, illogical contention. Here’s why:

      (A) We observe that deterministic cause and effect appears to be universal. And we are so confident that every event may be studied to determine it’s causes that we will assume the existence of precursors even when the causes are still unknown.

      (B) We observe the decision making process in ourselves and in others. We begin with an uncertainty between two or more choices. We review the pros and cons in our minds. And finally we choose the option we feel is best. A child may decide he does not want to wear his jacket today. The parent may allow him to make the choice, or the parent may make the choice for him. If the child is allowed to choose, then he is said to be either wearing or not wearing the jacket of his own free will. If the parent forces their choice upon the child, then what he does is not of his own will, but the will of the parent.

      So, we seem to have two objective phenomenon in the real world that are confirmed by multiple observers. Since both appear to exist, right there in front of us, the question is how did we become so confused as to think they were contradictory?

      The confusion comes from the linguistics of “inevitability”. In most cases, when we say something was “inevitable”, we mean that “it was beyond our control”, and “there was nothing we could do to stop it”.

      But deterministic inevitability is a little different. It must logically take into account all of the causes in play. And these would include the effect of decisions made and actions taken by intelligent beings to satisfy their own wills. So we are all embedded in the causal chain, not only as effects of prior events but as causes of events that follow.

      • Free-will and determinism are competing theories of choice. That is to say that determinism says “Choice is determined” and free-will says “choice is undetermined” (or rather that it is impossible to explain – give a causal explanation – for decisions).
        To site “decision making” as proof for either one is silly!

        Like many compatabilists you try to change the definition of the words in order to evade the issue – but you forget that the words aren’t what matters but what they denote. So all you manage to do is restate the deterministic truth in free-will terms but you’re being dishonest in your word usage! (I don’t mean intentionally dishonest i believe you do it because on a subconscious level you don’t want to face up to reality)

      • Philosophia: “Free-will and determinism are competing theories of choice.”

        No. The paradox is that free will allows choice and deterministic inevitability supposedly excludes it (rather than being a “theory of choice” deterministic inevitability supposedly presumes none exists). The solution to the paradox is that deterministic inevitability cannot and does not exclude choice.

        The primitive will of living beings is to survive. The tree will drive roots into the ground, causing the displacement of soil and rocks to find water and minerals. An amoeba will extend its pseudo-pod to find food. A baby will cry out for nourishment and warmth.

        Higher animal forms possess conscious minds produced by complex neurological systems. These minds allow it to create alternative ways to adapt to the environment or to adapt the environment to its will. It is all based quite soundly in physical processes. Thinking is as real as walking.

        The impact of conscious beings upon the environment is pretty strong. On the plus side we have hospitals and universities. On the minus side we have global warming and the threat of nuclear annihilation.

        The paradox is the illusion.

        Free will is the mental process by which we make choices. Determinism is the logical implication of cause and effect. Both are fairly simple to understand. And both co-exist nicely in the empirical world we live in.

      • I’ve responded to a lot of the ideas you’ve been saying in my two most recent blogs (on definition and on definition continued if you wanna have a gander)

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