5.5 On Causality, Freedom and Determinism


By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The possible options for understanding if and how we might have free will or not.
  • The meanings of “determinism,” “soft determinism (compatibilism)” and “libertarian free will.”

Fitting consciousness into the natural world is difficult, as we’ve now seen. Another longstanding metaphysical difficulty – or perhaps a large collection of metaphysical difficulties – involves free will.  Are we free to choose between options? What would it take for us to be free? What kinds of freedom can metaphysics allow? If we are free, how are we free – that is, how does free will actually work? These are the questions to be discussed in the rest of this chapter.

Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24

Or watch the video here

Possibilities for Free Will and Determinism

Contemporary philosopher Kathy Eldred nicely lays out our options regarding the philosophy of free will in the following passage:

As we saw in our Mind and Body topic, Descartes’s dualism cannot explain interactions between the mind and the body, neither ordinary acts of will that create physical movements of the body, nor states of the body that produce mental effects.

Materialism, on the other hand, considers both mind and body as physical “substances” and can, thereby, account for mind-body interactions. The laws of cause and effect apply to the physical world, and causality explains the interactions between our physical bodies and our mental lives.

So, then we must ask: If, according to the laws of causality, every action is caused by a prior event, does a person exercise free choice, or is every decision the effect of a prior event/cause?

A primary reason for concern over this question relates to moral responsibility. If we cannot make free choices, how can we be held accountable for our actions? … there is a lot at stake as we look at the issue of free will.

What are our primary options when considering whether or not we have free will?

Determinism is the view that all things are determined by antecedent (prior) conditions. Everything physical is bound by the laws of cause and effect. Every event, including human actions, is brought about by previous events in accordance with universal causal laws that govern the world. It is important to keep in mind that determinism is not the same as “predictability.” The events of the universe are too vast for rationally predicting a necessary and inevitable future based on past events.…

Indeterminism holds that some events, including human actions, are not necessarily determined by previous events in accordance with universal causal laws. Some indeterminist theories assert the possibility of free will. There are also indeterminist theories related to other disciplines with metaphysical import, for example, in physics with regard to the behavior of micro-particles.

Libertarianism is an indeterminist theory about the possibility of free will. Libertarianism is the view that humans do have free will and make genuinely free choices, and that when humans make a choice, they could have chosen alternatively. (If you are a libertarian, then you are an indeterminist; but if you are an indeterminist, you are not necessarily a libertarian.)

Compatibilism (or “Soft” Determinism)  is the view that determinism does not rule out what is meant by free will, even though determinism is real and all events are caused. In general, compatibilists assert that we can consider human actions free in that they are internally and consciously motivated by our desires, rather than caused by external influences or constraints. Individual compatibilist philosophers have distinct expressions of their conceptions of “freely chosen” actions. We will examine one compatibilist philosopher later in this topic (Eldred, Ch. 4.2, “Do We Act Freely?”).

Also, the opposite of compatibilism is called ‘incompatibilism.’ Incompatibilism claims that determinism and freedom are incompatible. Using this new terminology, we can say that libertarians are incompatibilists who deny that we are determined, and hard determinists are incompatibilists who deny that we are free.


Works Cited

CrashCourse. Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24. YouTube, YouTube, 15 Aug. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCGtkDzELAI&list=PLUHoo4L8qXthO958RfdrAL8XAHvk5xuu9&index=25&t=41s. Accessed 12 Apr. 2022.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

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.

Share This Book