In another post about the human possession of individual identity, I harped on about the freedom we possess to change our identities over time and the responsibilities that come with that freedom. Give that shit a look-see here.

But today I’m here to question the very nature of freedom itself. What is free will? Do we actually possess it? How can we know? What’s with all the questions?

Strap yourselves in, boys and girls. This shit’s about to get bumpy.

What is Free Will?

In philosophy, the free will of any being to take one of several possible actions regarding one specific circumstance is referred to as Libertarianism. 1Not to be confused with the political party of Libertarianism which is much more concerned with the freedom of people to make their own choices ...continue

Philosophical Libertarians believe that every decision we make is done so of our own individual accord because of the infinite number of decisions we have the ability to make. For Libertarians, free will is defined by the Principle of Alternative Possibilities, which states that an action is free only if the person making it were able to do otherwise.

Let’s say you’re hungry. You decide to eat some ice cream. That action in and of itself does not exemplify free will.

What would exemplify free will is the knowledge that you easily could have instead eaten some pudding. Or some cookie dough. Or some ice cream pudding cookie dough with a bunch of chocolate syrup and caramel and crumbled up brownies and maybe some whipped cream if you’re feeling extra naughty.

Your choice to eat ice cream coupled with the options you had of choosing not to eat ice cream constitutes your individual power of free will. As long as you have options available to you, then you are in control of the way in which your life unfolds. Because it’s not much of a choice if you only have one option, is it?

The bottom line for Libertarians is that the future is a mystery and it only unravels in the direction that it does because of the choices we collectively make. We are the agents of our creation. We decide what we do and how we do it.

You’re probably asking, “What’s the problem with all of that? That sounds pretty spot on to me. I might even have one of those ice cream pudding things you mentioned.”

The problem is that most of us simultaneously believe in the idea of cause and effect, which, in philosophical mumbo-jumbo, is known as Determinism.

What is Determinism?

Determinism is the idea that every action, or effect, is preceded by a necessary cause that precipitated it. For each instance in which some cause and effect scenario was played out, Determinists say that there existed no other initial conditions for which a different scenario could have occurred.

While the Libertarian would argue that you chose to eat ice cream because of your own free will and that any choices you make are uncaused, meaning they originate from somewhere within you, the Determinist would say that your “choice” to eat ice cream was nothing more than the effect of any one or several initial causes, possibly including your genetic disposition or your learned love of ice cream.

Determinists believe you could have never done anything other than what you did because you had no real choice in the matter; you were simply acting upon the initial causes that prompted you to “choose” the decided effect.

If we look at the physical world, we are able to clearly see the prevalence of cause and effect. The very nature of physics itself relies on a set of rules and constructs that dictate everything that happens around us. Models such as Newton’s Laws of Motion or Einstein’s Theory of Relativity outline concepts in a way that specific causes will consistently yield predictable, repeatable effects.

Science provides us with a framework unlike any other that enables us to be able to predict future actions based on initial conditions that match those of other circumstances we have repeatedly observed in recognizable patterns of continued order within the natural world.

It doesn’t take much thought to come to the realization that the physical world is determined. From the moment our universe sparked into existence and atoms began hurtling through space, the natural laws that define our world began the job of outlining each and every physical action that would follow the big bang.

So we can look at the big bang as the explosion that began the toppling of a long string of dominoes that represent the way in which our universe has actualized itself. As each domino falls into the next, we can see the way that each cause leads to an effect, and each effect, in turn, amounts to another cause.

Determinism argues that the universe is simply unraveling forward based on the initial conditions it was set up under. Everything that has happened could not have happened any other way because each individual event was precipitated by another that was precipitated by another ad infinitum.

For any different occurrences to have taken place, the initial conditions that we were presented with from the outset of the creation of our universe would have had to have been different.

The Problem of Free Will

After reading about both Free Will and Determinism, I am sure that both positions seem like logical models for the way events happen in the world.

The problem is that people often simultaneously believe in some form of Free Will and Determinism at the same time, which is contradictory.

We like to believe that we are in control of our actions and that we are the arbiters of our future. But we also like to believe that we are part of some sort of divine plan, that some things were “meant to be,” and that somewhere out there in the ether of Tinder and the line at Starbucks exists our soul mate.

But how can we have free will if we don’t even have control over the thoughts in our own heads? And, sure, the idea of soul mates and things that were “meant to be” are surely beautiful in their own right, but are they anything more than romantic notions?

Of course, people have an easy enough time granting that the world is causally determined when viewed from a scientific perspective. The trouble with Determinism comes when people are asked to extend that logic to themselves, to give merit to the idea that the actions of people are causally determined as well.

Libertarians attempt to solve the problem of free will by proclaiming there to be two different types of causation.

Event Causation, they argue, serves to explain the way in which the natural world is deterministic. Most Libertarians will cede the point that events that occur in the physical world are a part of a causal chain of events that precipitate from initial starting conditions.

But on the other hand, Agent Causation is the ability of beings that possess some form of consciousness to start a whole new causal chain that was not caused by anything else. Libertarians believe that the possession of a mind is what grants sentient beings the potential to set initial conditions for new chains of events.

The problem with that logic, though, is that it still fails to explain where exactly the decisions are coming from if they are not emanating from the determined universe. And what exactly compels someone to make a decision anyway? I don’t think there is really an answer to these questions, because if there were, they would just support the notion of universal causality.

Let’s instead look at it this way: people are a part of the natural world. Just like trees and rocks and oceans, people are also constructed of the same fundamental building blocks that make up the entirety of our universe. We might possess life, but we are still nothing more than a conglomeration of atoms and quarks and bosons.

In order to come to terms with the Mind-Body Problem, which is essential for anyone seeking answers surrounding their identity, one must also accept the tenets of Physicalism, the idea that our world is composed entirely of physical things which also includes our consciousness.

In that regard, there doesn’t seem to be any room for Libertarianism in our framework of a causal universe. The best argument people seem to have for Libertarianism is that it just really feels like we’re free. We have thoughts and then we ruminate and then we take actions.

But the feeling of something has never been enough of a justification for it to be taken as unquestionable fact. The notion that we aren’t actively choosing what we do seems counterintuitive to every “decision” that we make, but we need to realize one important point that is often overlooked: we have no control over our thoughts.

Think about it. The fact that you are now thinking about how you have no control over your thoughts should be all the proof you need.

You didn’t decide to “think about it.” You were prompted to because I posed a question to you.

Watch. I’ll do it again: pink elephant.

Now, I’m no psychic, but I’m going to take a stab in the dark and assume you just thought of a pink elephant.

man wearing pink elephant costume
What the fuck is wrong with people

Try as we may, we cannot control our thoughts. We cannot turn our incessant stream of consciousness off. Sure, we can sleep or meditate, but short of killing ourselves, we have no way to effectively control the chaos inside our brains.

Our thoughts are instead triggered either by external stimuli or an inexplicable aspect of our subconscious mind, which, might I remind you, we also have no control over.

So if our thoughts precipitate our actions, and we cannot take any action without that action first manifesting itself as a thought, and we know that we have no control over our thoughts, then the only conclusion we can come to is that we have no control over our actions.

Every move we make is just as determined as everything else in the universe.

But, wait, Mark. Why does it have to be so black and white? Can’t we accept that we live in a Determined world and that we maintain some sort of inexplicable conscious control over our actions?”

Determinism might cast a huge, threatening shadow over Libertarianism, but there is a happy middle ground where both ideas are able to peacefully coexist called Compatibilism.

What is Compatibilism?

Compatibilism, also known as soft determinism, is the idea that while we may live in a causal universe, as long as we are able to actualize self-determined causes, we are still exercising free will.

Compatibilists still believe that the physical world is determined. They believe that every action that occurs isn’t able to have not occurred. The difference between Compatibilists and Libertarians, though, is that Compatibilists believe that as long as the choice a person is making is not affected by external stimuli, then that person is choosing freely.

The “choice” one has to walk through a door is different than the forced action of a person being pushed through a door. The outcome is ultimately the same, but the causes can be debated.

This distinction is important because some people only identify as Compatibilists for moral reasons due to the fact that a complete acceptance of hard determinism seems to shirk personal responsibility onto external factors beyond the self.

Of course, the moral implications of people taking actions with the perceived knowledge that they have no choice in the matter could certainly become perilous, it still doesn’t change the reality of the fact that we either have free will or we don’t.

In our ignorance on the matter, we can entertain the notion that we do have “free will” for all intents and purposes of assigning moral responsibility, but at the end of the day, Compatibilism still comes up short as a viable model for evaluating truth.

The inherent problem with Compatibilism is the same of that of Libertarianism; it still doesn’t account for the origin of a choice or a thought. On top of that, Compatibilism seeks to bridge the gap between Libertarianism and Determinism by simply changing the definition of free will to be slightly more “compatible” with Deterministic ideals.

It operates under the assumption that thoughts and actions emanate from within a person’s conscious mind, but conveniently neglects the fact that just because a choice seems to emanate from within a person does not mean that that choice is not uncaused.

We often forget that we do not have to be able to observe causation for it to take place. Just because the causes that compel us to take actions are not distinctly visible does not mean they are not present.

So I could be pushed through a door or I can walk through it without being pushed; the former example clearly displays a cause, while the latter may contain an underlying invisible cause that is not clearly recognizable.

Compatibilism is nothing more than a semantic argument from people that are typically unable to part with the idea that personal choices emanate from some place of self. The biggest problem with the notion of a possession of free will is that there exists a self that is able to possess it in the first place.

What we need to come to understand is that just like all of the other physical manifestations and arrangements of matter in our universe that proceeded from the big bang, we too are nothing more than a conglomeration of atoms and molecules, and any individual perceptions we may seem we possess, any feelings we seem to hold, or any thoughts we seem to have, are nothing more than the product of scientific processes happening within our brains or an amalgamation of brain states and firing neurons that project the thoughts and feelings we subjectively experience.

The self is an illusion and we exist in a way no different than that of a tree or a rock or a fart in the wind.

I know what you’re probably thinking. “What’s the point of life? Why should I even do anything? I might as well just lay in bed all day because I don’t exist and we’re all just decaying pieces of organic matter.”

Hold your horses, there, sad sap. We’re not finished yet.

For those of you that were devastated by the contradictions of Libertarianism, there exists one last racehorse to put your money on. One last “gamble” that your life isn’t entirely meaningless. (This is actually a pun about what I’m about to explain, you just don’t get it yet. It’s funny, trust me.)

The fourth school of thought concerning how events come about in our universe is known as Indeterminism.

What is Indeterminism?

Libertarianism is generally set up as the opposite of Determinism. That seems intuitive, right? We either decide what happens, or we don’t.

This is a false dichotomy. The opposite of Determinism is actually Indeterminism. Determinists say that the world is ordered and we can come to understand it by observing causality.

Indeterminists call bullshit; they argue that the world is random and chaotic and it merely follows patterns of probable outcomes.

To be more clear, Indeterminism does not argue that causes do not exist; we have already covered a lot of material above that effectively displays ways in which at least parts of our universe are determined.

Indeterminists simply believe that causes are not inextricably linked to singular outcomes.  Instead, they argue that causes can result in a multitude of different effects that can come about in varying degrees of probability.

(Do you get the joke yet?!? I said “gamble” earlier because indeterminism is based on probabilities. Ha! I crack myself up.)

Furthermore, they believe that if the world were truly determined then it should be completely within our means to predict the future. We should be able to take stock of the vast array of causes to properly determine what the necessary effects would be.

Obviously, though, we are unable to do that. From a scientific standpoint, Determinism works very well on the macro level, but things get a bit dicey when you scale down to the quantum level.

Scientific models such as the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or the Born Rule provide examples of ways in which the natural world is not deterministic. The very nature of the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s Cat delineates how initial conditions may not only not result in one specific outcome, but that the outcome itself could be wholly indeterminate.

schrodinger's cat meme

So if the universe itself is indeterminate at the quantum level, then how can we expect it to be wholly determinate at the macro level?

The answer is that we can’t. Which pretty much takes us right back to where we started.

What Does All of This Mean?

If you’ve made it this far through the post, congratulations. I hope you are accepting all of this information much better than I did. (When I conceived of the possibility that I was not completely free in all of my actions, I think I just stared at a wall for a few hours in the dark while listening to Champagne Supernova on repeat as I contemplated the implications of being a tiny, predetermined being in an infinitely large, uncaring world. Not quite a snapshot of me at my best.)

You’re probably a bit confused. You have every right to be, as this is some fucked up shit. Let’s break this down one last time.

We have (hopefully) come to accept that free will by the definition of the ability of any being to take one of several possible actions regarding one specific circumstance is at least partially flawed, if not wholly impossible.

We have (hopefully) come to accept that Compatibilism between Libertarianism and Determinism is equally as flawed as Libertarianism is (if not more so) because the very nature of these two ideas demands that they remain Incompatible.

We have also (hopefully) come to accept that the universe is at least simultaneously determined and indeterminate at the same time, and that we the people luckily get to exist in the undefined middle ground between a world composed of ordered causes and random chaos.

Now comes the fun part of making sense of all of this contradictory bullshit. Yay us!

Question #1: Do we have free will? The answer is no.

Question #2: Is the universe entirely determined? The answer is no.

Question #3: Is the universe entirely indeterminate? The answer is no.

Question #4: Am I going to get any answers today? The answer is also no.


But that’s because there are no answers. There are no definites or absolutes. Maybe someday after we’ve had a chance to better understand quantum mechanics or neurology well enough to further explore indeterminate systems and manifestations of consciousness, we may come to be able to provide more specific answers to some of the questions we have posed today.

But for now, we need to find contentment in the dichotomy between Determinism and Indeterminism and take solace in the fact that we have seen the illusion of free will as an illusion itself, rendering it nonexistent.

Part of the universe is determined. Part of it is not. Some of our decisions could be determined. Some could be the result of probabilistic outcomes. In all reality, the choices we make are probably some combination of both, melded in a way our scientific understanding of the universe has not yet allowed us to comprehend.

Finding a solution, then, for the Determinism vs. Indeterminism argument is a moot point because neither school of thought is compatible with free will, and regardless of our current understanding of the prevalence of either system on our universe, we should at least be able to rejoice in the fact that the responsibility is out of our hands on both accounts.  

It does not matter if our universe is determined or if it is random; either way, nothing you have done or will ever do will have been the result of anything other than predetermination or probabilistic chance.

I have to admit that it is still a depressing realization to come to that you do not have as much control over the world you live in as you once thought, but once you are able to accept it as a fact and incorporate your lack control into your overall worldview, the results can be liberating.

Think of all of the things that become a million times easier once you know that the responsibility for your actions and decisions is not tethered to your consciousness, but instead to all of the factors that produce your consciousness.

All of the sleepless nights spent worrying about whether you should be this person or that person, whether you should embody this quality or that quality, can now come to an end as you accept that regardless of the decisions you feel you come to, you can rest easy knowing you made the right “choices” in that none of the choices were ever really yours to make.

You have instead just been constantly falling into the person that the universe set you up to be.

So go on, embrace your lack of freedom, and take on the world with your new perspective.

Or don’t. You really have no choice in the matter.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Not to be confused with the political party of Libertarianism which is much more concerned with the freedom of people to make their own choices absent of constant government intervention. Political Libertarians are worth looking into, though, if you’re in need of a good laugh. I’ll leave this here.


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