Free Will and Why Determinism Wouldn’t Change a Thing

April 16, 2013 - Philosophy

I want to take a look at what – at first sight – seems to be a dichotomy between free will on the one hand and determinism on the other. I’ve written a couple of articles dealing with the question whether there actually is something that can be labeled “free will” and – if so – what this free will might consist of. These are important questions, since if it turns out that there is no fee will – or that there’s nothing free about our “free” will – we are left with determinism, a position many people feel uncomfortable with. In this article I want to look at what the implications might be of assuming determinism to be true and in particular at what this “discovery” would imply for our experience of free will. As I will try to explain, a deterministic worldview would not change a thing in our experience of free will. Let me tell you why this might be the case.

When we think of free will, we usually think of a certain autonomous power – residing within our minds – that is capable of initiating (human) actions. Whether it is picking up a teacup or stroking a dog, if we want to perform these actions, we seem to be able to execute these actions. Now, let’s ask ourselves: how would this picture change if it turned out that we aren’t fully autonomous in deciding to pick up the teacup or stroking the dog? If it turned out that our brains were just responding “automatically” (read: by triggering evolutionary developed neural networks) to the stimuli received from our environments? What if – in case of you picking up the teacup – the stimuli of (1) you being in your living room and (2) it being cold, trigger your neurons into (A) making you believe you want to pick up the teacup and (B) actually making you pick up the teacup? Note the “what if” in the former sentence, because theoretically it might be possible that this is how we come to “decide” on what actions to perform; just by means of nerve cells – thus including neurons - responding to external stimuli.

But the truth of the matter is that we don’t know – and we might never know – whether this is the way our actions come about. It might indeed be that our actions – and thus our decisions – are fully deterministic in nature. However, the point I’m trying to make is that it wouldn’t make a difference if this would be the case: not as long as we keep on having the perception of having a free will. Even though we might come deterministically (read: by means of stimuli and nerve cell combinations) to the actions we perform, we still experience the sense of free will. And this experience will not change, not even if we’d come to know that our actions come about fully deterministically.

Because think about it: what if it would turn out that you – who considers him- or herself to be a creative person – depend fully upon the aforementioned neural networks and stimuli for coming to your “creative” ideas? Although you believe you came up with the ideas “all by yourself”, fully autonomous and purely free, it turns out that your ideas are a logical result of the environment you’re in and the configuration of your neural networks. At first you might feel a little hurt in your ego, but when you start thinking about it, you’d likely come to realize that this observation doesn’t change a thing. After all, your experience of having a free will is exactly the same as it was before – when you truly believed to have free will. You can still do anything you “want to”, you’ve merely come to know where this “want to” finds its origin: the combinations of external stimuli and nerve cells in your body.

Thus, the conclusion of this article would be that it is impossible to distinguish the two situations – having and not having a free will – from each other, which makes it totally irrelevant, from an experiential point of view, to do so.

But what do you think?

› tags: Autonomy / Body / Brain / Change / Consiousness / Determinism / Ego / Experience / Free will / Identity / Mind /


  1. [...] still feel like we are in charge of our lives, even if we’d know we aren’t? These are interesting questions longing for an [...]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>