The Case for Determinism

By Atharva Shanbhag

A symbol representing determinism’s philosophy in regard to free will. Photo courtesy of ANGELA, Wattpad

You’re currently making the choice to read this sentence. But are you really making that choice? Or is it based upon a number of neural pulses on which you have no control over?


Free will is the concept that “we are able to have some choice in the way we act and assumes that we are free to choose our behaviour, in other words we are self determined." However, determinism states “that all behaviour has a cause and is thus predictable. Free will is an illusion, and our behaviour is governed by internal or external forces over which we have no control.”


So do you have control over your daily actions as much as you think or are you helpless to biological and inherent factors that govern your body without your knowledge?


Here’s the case for determinism, the theory that people have no free choice in any action they take.


According to determinism, biological processes affect each action made by a human causing there to be no free choice. Personality traits like extraversion or neuroticism, and the behaviour associated with those traits, are triggered by neurological and hormonal processes within the body and the mind. As Bohrn D’Holbach once said, “Everything is the inevitable result of what came before. Including everything that we do.”


A quote from Sam Harris in his book Free Will effectively captures the essence of determinism: “Either our wills are determined by prior causes and we are not responsible for them, or they are a product of chance and we are not responsible for them. If a man’s choice to shoot the president is determined by a certain pattern of neural activity which is in turn the product of prior causes- perhaps an unfortunate coincidence of bad genes, an unhappy childhood - what can it possibly mean to say that his will is free” (Harris 5-6).


Peter van Inwagen, a famous philosopher, stated: “how could I have a choice about something that is an inevitable consequence of something I have no choice about?” Putting it into simpler terms, if P then Q, but I have no control over P so I won’t have any control over Q.


Additionally, van Inwagen offers scientific reasoning about the human brain to support determinism. Imagine a lady named Emily and a man named John. John approaches Emily and asks her about what Alice did at work today. Emily has two choices, she can either confess to John or she can lie to John. So before she tells John, a pulse fires in her brain. The pulse could go between two ways, if it goes left then the will confess and if it goes right then she will lie. Currently, the pulse is undetermined and on a fork. Which way the pulse goes determines how she makes her decision.


Now for the real question: Can Alice determine which way the pulse goes?

Van Inwagen argues that she can’t determine it. If she were to decide which way the pulse goes, she must do something prior to the pulse going one way or another, but she doesn’t do anything since the direction of the pulse was undetermined; so she couldn’t decide which way the pulse goes, and the action is not free.

This image shows the two decisions through her brain and how one decision had already been determined. Photo courtesy of Stanford.

Essentially, if another factor determines whether someone chooses A or B, the choice of A or B is random and hence not a free choice.


Are you really in control of your decisions?