5.5.1 Hard Determinism: Are all our choices illusions?


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The meaning and implications for freedom of the concept of determinism.
  • D’Holbach’s arguments against human free will.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the hard determinist position.

Determinism is the philosophical position that free will is impossible and all choices derive from the inevitable effects of prior conditioning. Determinist philosophers (and scientists) hold that what appears to be a free choice really is not. Instead, every action we choose is no choice at all but is predetermined by brain chemistry and environment. Free choice is an illusion. This philosophy can take a number of forms.

Paul Heinrich Deitrich Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789)by Alexander Roslin - Hartmut Harthausen, Hans Mercker, Hans Schröter: Paul Thiry von Holbach: Philosoph der Aufklärung, 1723–1789. Pfälzische Landesbibliothek, Speyer 1989
Paul Heinrich Deitrich Baron d’Holbach (1723-1789)

Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach (1723 – 1789), was a French-German philosopher, encyclopedist, writer, and prominent figure in the French Enlightenment.

Excerpts from Baron d’Holbach –The System of Nature

In the following selection from Chapter 11 of Paul Henri Theiry, Baron d’Holbach’s (17223 – 1789) The System of Nature, Volume 1, we encounter many of (what are now considered to be) the standard arguments for hard determinism.

In the following excerpt, consider:

  • How does d’Holbach characterize the common view of the soul in his day?

[1] Those who have pretended that the soul is distinguished from the body–is immaterial, draws its ideas from its own peculiar source, acts by its own energies without the aid of any exterior object–by a consequence of their own system, have freed it from those physical laws according to which all beings … are obliged to act. They believed that the soul is the mistress of its own conduct and can regulate its own peculiar operations:  that it has the ability to determine its will by its own natural energy: in a word, they have pretended man is a free agent.


Which arguments suggest that the soul is not a separate substance from the body?
[2] It has already been sufficiently proved that the soul is nothing more than the body … that this soul, even when it shall be supposed immaterial, is continually changing with the body and … consequently, it is subjected to … the operation … of physical causes, which affect the body …. Thus, man is a being purely physical; in whatever manner he is considered, he is connected to universal Nature: submitted to the necessary, to the immutable laws that she imposes on all the beings she contains,…
How does d’Holbach’s contention that we are entirely physical beings lead him to determinism?
Man’s life is a line that Nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth without his ever being able to swerve from it even for an instant.  He is born without his own consent; his bodily organization in no wise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control;…  He is good or bad – happy or miserable – wise or foolish – reasonable or irrational, without his will choosing anything in these various states.  Nevertheless, in despite of the shackles by which he is bound, he pretends he is a free agent or that, independent of the causes by which he is moved, he determines his own will; regulates his own condition. […]
[5] The will, as we have elsewhere said, is an output of the brain, … This will is necessarily determined by the qualities, good or bad, agreeable or painful, of the object or the motive that acts upon the senses; or …  by his memory.  In consequence, a man acts necessarily; his action is the result of the impulse he receives either from the motive, from the object, or from the idea, which has modified his brain or predisposed his will.
How does he explain what is happening when we seemingly freely change our minds?
When he does not act according to this impulse, it is because there comes some new cause, some new motive, some new idea, which modifies his brain in a different manner, gives him a new impulse, determines his will in another way; by which the action of the former impulse is suspended; thus, the sight of an agreeable object, or its idea, determines his will to set him in action to procure it; but if a new object or a new idea more powerfully attracts him, it gives a new direction to his will, annihilates the effect of the former, and prevents the action by which it was procured.  This is the mode in which reflection, experience, and reason, necessarily arrest or suspend the action of man’s will; without this, he would, of necessity, have followed the earlier impulse which carried him towards a then-desirable object.  In all this, he always acts according to necessary laws, from which he has no means of emancipating himself.
How does the example of the poisoned water illustrate his contention that we do not freely change our minds?
[6] If, when tormented with violent thirst, he … perceives a fountain, whose limpid streams might cool his feverish habit, is he a sufficient master of himself to desire or not to desire the object competent to satisfy so lively a want?  It will no doubt be conceded that it is impossible he should not want to satisfy it; but … if suddenly it is announced to him that the water he so ardently desires is poisoned, he will, notwithstanding his vehement thirst, abstain from drinking it; and it has, because of this, been falsely concluded that he is a “free” agent.  The fact, however, is, that the motive, in either case, is exactly the same: his own survival.  The same necessity that caused him to want to drink, before he knew the water was poisonous, upon this new discovery, equally causes him not to drink; the desire of conserving himself, either annihilates or suspends the former impulse; the second motive becomes stronger than the preceding; that is, the fear of death, or the desire of preserving himself, necessarily prevails over the painful sensation caused by his eagerness to drink.
But (it will be said) if the thirst is very parching, an inconsiderate man, without regarding the danger, will risk swallowing the water.  Nothing is gained by this remark: in such case, the earlier impulse has simply regained the ascendency; he is persuaded that life may possibly be longer preserved or that he shall derive a greater good by drinking the poisoned water than by enduring the torment, which, to his mind threatens instant death; thus, the first impulse becomes the strongest, and necessarily urges him on to action.  Nevertheless, in either case, whether he partakes of the water, or whether he does not, the two actions will be equally necessary; they will result from that motive that finds itself most powerful and which consequently acts in a most coercive manner upon his will.
[7] This example will serve to explain the whole phenomena of the human will. This will, or rather the brain, finds itself in the same situation as a ball, which although it has received an impulse that drives it forward in a straight line, is deranged in its course, whenever a force, superior to the first, obliges it to change its direction.  The man who drinks the poisoned water appears a madman, but the actions of fools are as necessary as those of the most prudent individuals.  The motives that determine the sensualist, that compel the hedonist to risk his health, are as powerful, his actions are just as necessary as those which decide how the wise man manages his.  But, it will be insisted, the hedonist may be compelled to change his conduct; still, this does not imply that he is a free agent, but only that motives may be found sufficiently powerful to annihilate the effect of those that had previously acted upon him;  these new motives then determine his will to the new mode of conduct he may adopt, quite as necessarily as the former did to the old mode.
In d’Holbach’s view, is deliberation an act of free will or a response to natural causal forces? What is really happening when we seem to freely “change our mind”?
[8] Man is said to deliberate when the action of the will is suspended; this happens when two opposite motives act alternately upon him.  To deliberate is to hate and to love in succession; it is to be alternately attracted and repelled; it is to be moved sometimes by one motive, sometimes by another.  Man only deliberates when he does not distinctly understand the quality of the objects from which he receives an impulse, or when experience has not sufficiently apprised him of the effects, more or less remote, which his actions will produce.  He would take a stroll, but the weather is uncertain; he deliberates as a result; he weighs the various motives that urge his will to go out or to stay at home; he is at last determined by that motive which is most probable; this removes his indecision, which necessarily settles his will either to remain within or to go outside; this motive is always either the immediate or ultimate advantage he finds or thinks he finds in the action to which he is persuaded. […]
[11] This mechanism, so simple, so natural, suffices to demonstrate, why uncertainty is painful; why suspense is always a tumultuous state for man.  The brain, an organ so delicate, so mobile, experiences such rapid modifications, that it is fatigued; or when it is urged in contrary directions, by causes equally powerful, it suffers a kind of compression that prevents the activity which is suitable to the preservation of the whole, which is necessary to procure what is advantageous to its existence.  This mechanism will also explain the irregularity, the indecision, the inconstancy of man; and account for that conduct, which frequently appears an inexplicable mystery, which indeed it is, under the received systems.  In consulting experience, it will be found that the soul is submitted to precisely the same physical laws as the material body.  If the will of each individual, during a given time, was only moved by a single cause or passion, nothing would be easier than foreseeing his actions; but this heart is frequently assailed by contrary powers, by adverse motives, which either act on him simultaneously or in succession; then his brain, attracted in opposite directions, is either fatigued or else tormented by a state of compression, which deprives it of activity.  Sometimes it is in a state of uncomfortable inaction; sometimes it is the effect of the alternate shocks it undergoes.  Such, no double, is the state in which man finds himself when a lively passion solicits him to the commission of a crime, while fear points out to him the danger of this choice; such, also, is the condition of him whom remorse, by the continued labor of his distracted soul, prevents from enjoying the objects he has criminally obtained. […]
What, really, is choice then? Can we freely choose?
[14] Choice by no means proves the free agency of man; he only deliberates when he does not yet know which to choose of the many objects that attract him, he is then [confused] until his will has been determined by the greater advantage he believes he shall find in the object he chooses or the action he undertakes.  From this, it may be seen that choice is necessary because he would not have acted [in this way] if he did not believe that he should find in it some direct advantage. If a man should have “free agency,” … it would mean that he should be able to will or choose without any motive; or, that he could prevent motives from diverting his will ….
[But this is not so.  It] follows that he is never the master of … his own will and that consequently he never acts as a free agent.  It has been believed that man was a free agent because he had a will with the power of choosing, but attention has not been paid to the fact that even his will is moved by causes independent of himself … If he was to render an exact account of everything he does in the course of each day, from rising in the morning to lying down at night, he would find, that not one of his actions has been in the least voluntary; that they have been mechanical, habitual, determined by causes he was not able to foresee, to which he was either obliged to yield or with which he was allured to acquiesce…
What actually determines the choices we make?
Is he acting by choice to withdraw his hand from the fire when he fears it will be burnt?  Or does he have the power to take away from the fire the property which makes him fear it?  Is he the master of not choosing a dish of meat that he knows to be agreeable, of not preferring it to that which he knows to be disagreeable or dangerous? It is always according to his sensations, to his own unique experience, or to his suppositions, that he judges of things either well or ill; but whatever way be his judgment, [the judgment itself] depends necessarily on his mode of feeling, whether habitual or accidental, and the qualities he finds in the causes that move him, which exist in despite of himself. […]
Does the mind’s ability to call up memories offer any more evidence that we have free will?
[16] It has been believed that man was a free agent because it has been imagined that his soul could at will recall ideas, which sometimes suffice to check his most unruly desires.  Thus, the idea of a future and remote evil frequently prevents him from enjoying a present and actual good; thus, remembrance, which is an almost insensible modification of his brain, annihilates, at each instant, the real objects that act upon his will.
But he is not master of recalling to himself his ideas at pleasure; their association is independent of him; they are arranged in his brain, in despite of him, without his own knowledge, where they have made an impression more or less profound; his memory itself depends upon his brains constructs; its accuracy depends upon the habitual or momentary state in which he finds himself; when his will is vigorously determined to move toward some object or idea that excites a very lively passion in him–those objects or ideas that would be able to arrest his action no longer present themselves to his mind; in those moments his eyes are shut to the possibilities of the dangers that menace him, … he marches forward headlong towards the object by whose image he is fixated on; reflection cannot operate upon him in any way; he sees nothing but the object of his desires; the beneficial ideas which might be able to arrest his progress disappear, or else display themselves either too faintly or too late to prevent his acting.  Such is the case with all those who, blinded by some strong passion, are not in a condition to recall to themselves those motives, of which the idea alone, in cooler moments, would be sufficient to deter them from proceeding; the disorder in which they find themselves prevents their judging soundly; render them incapable of foreseeing the consequence of their actions; precludes them from applying to their experience; from making use of their reason; natural operations, which suppose a justness in the manner of associating their ideas; but to which their brain is then not more competent, in consequence of the momentary delirium it suffers, than their hand is to write.

Ponder if you will….

Did you freely decide to read this textbook today, or were you compelled to do so by forces outside of your control?

There may have been negative forces–If I don’t read I’ll get a bad grade on the next assignment–or (hopefully!) positive forces–I love to read philosophy!

Either way, isn’t it the case that you were caused to read this?

Could you have chosen otherwise?

You might say “I could have decided not to read this today.” But if the determinists are right, you could not have made that choice because all events (mental, physical) in your life leading up to the choice to read compelled you to make the choice you did, that and no other.

Can you think of any thought or action in your experience that was totally uncaused by prior thoughts or actions?


[24] In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas, of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness: of his opinions, strengthened by example, forfeited by education, consolidated by daily experience.  So many crimes are witnessed on the earth, only because everything conspires to render man vicious, to make him criminal; very frequently, the superstitions he has adopted, his government, his education, the examples set before him, irresistibly drive him on to evil: under these circumstances morality preaches virtue to him in vain.  In those societies where vice is esteemed, where crime is crowned, where venality is constantly recompensed, where the most dreadful disorders are punished, only in those who are too weak to enjoy the privilege of committing them with impunity; the practice of virtue is considered nothing more than a painful sacrifice of fancied happiness.  Such societies chastise, in the lower orders, those excesses which they respect in the higher ranks; and frequently have the injustice to condemn those with a penalty of death, whom public prejudices, maintained by constant example, have rendered criminal.
[25] Man, then, is not a free agent in any one instant of his life; he is necessarily guided in each step by those advantages, whether real or fictitious, that he attaches to the objects by which his passions are roused; those passions themselves are necessary for a being who unceasingly tends towards his own happiness; their energy is necessary since it comes from  … his temperament; his temperament is necessary because it comes from the physical elements of which he is made; the modification of this temperament is necessary, as it is the infallible result, the inevitable consequence of the impulse he receives from the incessant action of moral and physical beings.
[26] Despite these proofs of the lack of free agency in man, so clear to unprejudiced minds, it will, perhaps, be insisted upon with no small feeling of triumph, that if it is proposed to anyone to move or not to move his hand, an action in the number of those called indifferent, he evidently appears to be the master of choosing; from which it is concluded, evidence has been offered of his free-agency. The reply is, this example is perfectly simple; man in performing some action which he is resolved on doing does not by any means prove his free agency; the very desire of displaying this quality, excited by the dispute, becomes a necessary motive which decides his will either for the one or the other of these actions.  What deludes him in this instance, or that which persuades him he is a free agent at this moment, is, that he does not discern the true motive which sets him in action, which is neither more nor less than the desire to convince his opponent. If, for example, in the heat of a dispute he asks, “Am I not the master of throwing myself out of the window?” I shall answer him, no; that while he preserves his reason, it is not even a chance that the desire to prove his free agency will become a motive sufficiently powerful to make him sacrifice his life to the attempt.  If despite this, to prove he is a free agent he should actually precipitate himself from the window it would still not be sufficient reason to conclude that he acted freely, but rather that it was the violence of his temperament which spurred him on to this choice. Madness is a state that depends upon the heat of the blood, not upon the will.  A fanatic or a hero braves death as necessarily as a more phlegmatic man or a coward flies from it.  There is, in point of fact, no difference between the man who is cast out of the window by another, and the man who throws himself out of it, except that the impulse in the first instance comes immediately from without, whilst that which determines the fall in the second case, springs from within his own peculiar machine, … When Mutius Scaevola held his hand in the fire, he was as much acting under the influence of necessity, caused by interior motives that urged him to this strange action, as if his arm had been held by strong men; pride, despair, the desire of braving his enemy, a wish to astonish him, an wish to intimidate him, &c, were the invisible chains that held his hand bound to the fire.  The love of glory and zeal for his country in a like manner caused Codrus and Decius to devote themselves to their fellow citizens.  (Baron d’Holbach, The System of Nature, Volume I, Chapter XI).
As d’Holbach argues here, a physicalist view of the human person at least seems to imply that the “will, or rather the brain, finds itself in the same situation as a ball, which although it has received an impulse that drives it forward in a straight line, is deranged in its course, whenever a force, superior to the first, obliges it to change its direction” (see the paragraph marked [7] above).
Our thoughts, our decisions, and our desires would seem to have to obey the physical law of cause and effect and inertia, just as all other physical events and objects do.  As an earlier hard determinist, Baruch Spinoza (1632 – 1677), put it, “men believe themselves to be free, simply because they are conscious of their actions, and unconscious of the causes whereby those actions are determined” (Archie, Chapter 12).

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Hard Determinist position:

Here are some of the main strengths and weaknesses of the hard determinist position in the free will debate:


  1. It is supported by physics – fundamental physics seems deterministic, suggesting no true randomness in the world that could allow for free choices not caused by the past.
  2. It aligns with neuroscience showing brain activity related to choices before awareness of deciding. Suggests decisions are determined subconsciously.
  3. It provides moral grounding if people are not ultimately blameworthy for choices. Criminals may then deserve rehabilitation rather than retributive punishment.


  1. It contradicts subjective experience of free will. Our choices feel free even if they are theoretically determined.
  2. It is difficult to live life according to hard determinism. We tend to hold ourselves and others morally responsible.
  3. If all is determined, undermines rational thought itself as merely following automatic causal chains. Cannot reason to truth on hard determinism.
  4. It does not solve the mind-body problem it highlights. Remaining mystery of consciousness and experience fitting with deterministic physical world.
  5. Quantum indeterminacy may allow some truly random non-determined events. And microscopic randomness may influence brain activity.

So in summary, while intellectually compelling, hard determinism clashes with moral intuitions, lived experience, and responsibility. Few can completely embrace hard determinism in practice.


Works Cited

Roslin, Alexander. “Paul Heinrich Dietrich Baron D’Holbach.” Wikimedia Commons, 1785, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Heinrich_Dietrich_Baron_d%27Holbach_Roslin.jpg. 

Thiery, Paul Henri. “Chapter XI. The System of Nature, Volume I, Project Gutenberg, 23 Aug. 2003, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/8909/8909-h/8909-h.htm#link2H_4_0018. 


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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