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Determinism Miscellany

By Bruce Barbour - Original October 2023 (Version 1.4 - November 2023)


Just a few more idle thoughts on the subject.

The Meaning of "Determined"

A part of the problem with the determinism/free will debate is the inexactitude of the word "determined". The word is used in different contexts that have different meanings, not excessively different but still different. For example (A) Rail lines determine where the train goes and (B) the situation where what to do on a day is determined by the weather.

The rail tracks hard determine where the train goes. The weather determines some of the options that could be done on the day. If it is an overcast or windy day a person might decide not to go on a walk. However it is a softer meaning of the word determined. A person still has a choice. They could still put on a jacket and go for a walk regardless of the inclemency. The train just goes where the rail tracks go. The difference is that in the second option (weather) there is a possibility of choice. In the first option (train on rail tracks) there is no possibility of choice.

Perhaps for the second option it could be said that the weather influenced, rather than determined, what was going to be done on the day. If the weather was really bad, cold, raining and blowing a gale then determined might be the appropriate word. But if is just cold and a little bit windy then the weather is an influencing factor on the choice of whether to go for a walk or not. Some people might still decide to go on the walk and some wouldn't, so the weather is not a determining factor. As per my previous article the weather is a stimuli. And stimuli are not determining. Whether the walk occurs at all is due to a thought process, not the stimuli.

Supporters of determinism don't acknowledge any difference between the different meanings of determined. Consequently they will argue that because the rail tracks determine where the train goes therefore the weather determines what the person does. Same word but a slightly different meaning. In their argument they are both determined with no consideration of the impact of the possibility of choice in the second option.

Total Free Will

Some supporters of determinism debunk what they call "total free will" and then, as a consequence of this, go on and say any type or scope of free will has no substance. That jump cannot be supported.

I don't think people have total free will. In the extreme total free will would require the person to have god like powers to be able to bend and cancel the laws of nature. That is impossible. People don't even have total free will associated with their own bodies. They can't will their heart to stop - thank goodness - though some yogis can slow it down. They can't stop shivering when they get very cold or perspiring when they get hot. If a person stops breathing through an effort of will they will go unconscious and then start to breathe again. A lot of the time people would "run on automatic" without having to think much.

Total free will does not exist. What concerns me is any instance of free will. If an instance of free will occurs in any circumstance then free will exists and universal determinism is broken - though partial determinism would continue.

Determinism and Religion

An observation that falls out of the determinism hypothesis.

Determinism hypothesis would mean that all religion and every religious thought that has ever occurred was due to cause and effect processes in the Universe. This is from the earliest beliefs in idols and nature worship (e.g sun worship) to the current day monotheistic religions.

Under determinism religious belief must be written into the Universe. This is not so strange when you consider that all scientific belief and knowledge must also be written into the Universe.

It also means that all wars were written into the structure of the Universe at the time of the Big Bang. In fact all of history, all of the good and evil in the world was written into the structure of the Big Bang and the Universe, if in fact those terms have any meaning in determinism.

That is some mighty fancy billiard ball interaction.

Determinism and Philosophy

According to Wikipedia philosophy has a number of branches. In summary the main branches are:
  • Aesthetics - the study of the nature of beauty, art, and taste, and the creation of personal kinds of truth.
  • Epistemology - studies the source, nature and validity of knowledge.
  • Ethics the study of values and morality.
  • Logic the systematic study of the form of valid inference and reasoning.
  • Metaphysics concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world that encompasses it.
(Other sources quote different branches or add additional branches.)

One of the aspects that struck me when starting to look at philosophy was that many of the branches are not applied across some of the other branches. Epistemology studies what's the nature of knowledge and how anything can be known for certain. In this branch, philosophers tie themselves into knots trying to determine what can be known with absolute certainty. However when a philosopher is studying a philosophy that is part of the metaphysics branch meeting the rigid requirements of epistemology for determining what is true knowledge seem to be forgotten in many instances.

Some philosophers will espouse their metaphysical philosophy, many times stating it as certainty - true knowledge. While many would try, with varying levels of success, to justify their philosophy with reasoned argument, in my opinion their reasoning would never justify their philosophy being classed as Knowledge, though it may become (small k) knowledge, personal knowledge, that to the adherents is true.

Perhaps the name should have given it away. Metaphysics means "beyond physics". In other words beyond science and the scientific method. Without the proofs offered by science it is very difficult to achieve the status of knowledge. If human determinism or free will was ever scientifically proven the Knowledge would go outside the realm of metaphysics. 

Determinism* (or causality), existentialism, free will (often called libertarianism), all religions and many other philosophies are a sub-branch of metaphysics. They should not be classed as knowledge. They are a philosophy or a belief system.

*Some people may believe determinism is not metaphysics but physics - because of the ubiquity of cause and effect. However this cannot be supported as per my earlier article.

As stated religions are a sub-branch of metaphysics. However at least in some types of religion (some types of Christianity anyway - I am unsure about other religions) may admit the uncertainty of their beliefs by saying that ultimately belief in their religion requires a "leap of faith". This seems to be more than what adherents of determinism and some other philosophies seem to be prepared to admit.

Give me solid repeatable scientific proof of human determinism, rather than fuzzy inconclusive philosophical reasoning that does not meet the standards of epistemological Knowledge, then I will change my mind.


Both determinism and free will are currently unfalsifiable.

Unfalsifiable does not mean that because a hypothesis can't be proven false it is consequently correct. It means the hypothesis can't be shown to be either false or correct - there is no way of presently knowing with certainty. The philosopher is left with arguments from reason.

Some scientists say that a hypothesis that is unfalsifiable is not a valid scientific hypothesis because there is no experiment that can be done to prove or disprove the hypothesis. I do not go that far. To my mind free will and determinism should still be classed as scientific hypothesis. They need to be subject to scientific and other research investigation.

While the hypotheses are not falsifiable at present, and this should be acknowledged, they may be in the future. Researchers have to be looking for proof one way or the other, otherwise the hypotheses will never get past being unfalsifiable.

I am agnostic on both free will and human determinism but currently lean (significantly) towards free will due to the many factors stated in this article and the other articles I have written on the subject.


Another favourite argument of the some of the supporters of determinism is that a lot of people's decisions and actions are due to the country and the culture the people are brought up in - and they had no choice in this. I agree culture does impact on the decision making of a person regardless of whether they are fully determined or have free will. It is still only one factor that is considered in decision making.

However some people can and do reject their cultural upbringing. Youth can rebel against their upbringing. People can reject the religion that they were brought up in or reject the culture in total. A person can go overseas and decide to fully adopt much of the culture of their adopted country, adopting the new language and even to the extent of changing their religious beliefs. Cultural beliefs are not set in stone.

Culture is a factor in decision making. But a person's inculturation is not set over a lifetime. It can change during a person's life and therefore its impact on decision making will also change.

The Problem with Over Extrapolation

An example of an instance where over extrapolation of a concept has proven to be problematic is where Newtonian mechanics was extrapolated into the sub-atomic.

The first model of the atom that was taught to me in school was pure Newtonian. It was the classic solar system style model. That is a nucleus, consisting of little balls of matter called protons and neutrons, at the centre of the atom with little electrons (different little balls of matter) orbiting, on nice simple circular paths, the much larger nucleus, like little planets in a solar system.

Needless to say it was wrong. Atoms are not structured like that. We were subsequently taught the non-Newtonian model later in secondary college (high school).

This is an example where extrapolation into the very small did not work. Yet determinism in humans requires that cause and effect be extrapolated into the very small, into the very complex (the brain - the most densely complex structure in the known Universe containing over 80 billion neurons) and into the consciousness (a process which is undoubtedly complex and is not presently fully explained or understood).

Maybe the extrapolation is true. Maybe it is not. I want proof, scientific proof, before I commit to a hypothesis like human determinism which would have far reaching significance for humanity and which goes against lived experience.

Causality Revisited

Cause and effect is not a scientific law or law of nature, but rather a concept that describes the observed relationship between two events.

In most instances if describing the actions in a system cause and effect need not be considered. Instead all the information on what happens in the system can be fully described using the laws of nature. For example the billiard ball interaction. A ball strikes another ball and it moves. This interaction can more than adequately be explained by considering the energy and momentum transfer process in which some of the energy and momentum of the first ball is transferred to the second ball. The total amount of energy of the two balls is the same as the total energy of the first ball before it struck (discounting frictional and other losses). This is the principle of conservation of energy. Momentum (which also considers the vectors - or directions - of the motion) is also conserved in the system.

If causality happens to be broken it is not a law of nature that is being broken but an observation on how things usually behave in "normal" space time.

Causality seems to be broken a number of times in quantum mechanics. One example is the famous double slit experiment. Light shone through a barrier with a double slit in it will show through on the other side of the barrier as, not two discrete points of light but, an interference pattern. This indicates the wave property of light. However when equipment is set up to measure the light as it passes through the slits the pattern of light now becomes two discrete points of light which indicates that the light is now behaving like a stream of particles instead of waves. The act of measurement changes what is observed! So what does this mean for cause and effect?

A partial explanation of this is that photons of light are effectively timeless or only have one instance of time. Because they travel at the speed of light no time passes for them. Their time is still the same as the time at which they were generated. There is no before and no after, there is no future nor past - and because cause and effect relies on things at an earlier time affecting things at a later time - cause and effect may not apply in certain circumstances with electromagnetic radiation. Though lasers can burn and scientists propose innovations like electromagnetic "sails" for space ship propulsion which does indicate effects.

Still what can be made of the astonishing outcome of the double slit experiment? What is observed is changed by an act of measurement! Humans can measure. Perhaps other life on Earth can measure in a more rudimentary way. Aliens may be able to measure but we don't know whether aliens exist. What else in the Universe can measure? I know of nothing. But drawing a conclusion from this experiment would be highly speculative and while some philosophers have gone there I won't. Just to say it shows how much science is yet to work out. The project of science is a work in progress that may take a long time to conclude, if ever.

The other comment that I will make is that some scientists researching in the field of the mind will argue that this and other quantum indeteminancy and frankly quantum weirdness should not affect how the mind works as the brains neurons are not working at the quantum level. I am not qualified to judge that. However it still shows how much science does not know.

Is the Subconscious Free?

There have been various experiments that seem to suggest that some decisions are made in the subconscious and it is only after the decision has been made that the conscious mind becomes aware of the decision. The argument is therefore made that the subconscious decision was not free because it was not a conscious choice. On the surface this sounds a persuasive argument. Is it or is there another possible explanation?

This hinges on the questions of firstly whether there is a "self" and secondly what constitutes that "self".

Determinists would deny the existence of the self, arguing that like free will it is just an illusion. People are simply highly complex mechanisms behaving solely in accord with cause and effect.

Most supporters of free will would argue that there is something like a "self" that is responsible for making free will decisions. Some may believe in dualism but others would say that the self is due to the complexity of the brain and the emergent property of the mind which has been called consciousness. It is part of the person - not separate. I am in the second camp.

Let us consider what this "self" might be. Freud proposed a model of the mind that was composed of the conscious, pre-conscious and subconscious. Often an analogy to an iceberg is used - the conscious being the part above the "water", the part that is visible, and the other two parts submerged, not easily visible, but still playing a vital part of what makes up a person. The "self", if it exists, would comprise all three parts.

Next I would like to propose that if free will exists in the conscious mind then it may well exist in the other parts of the mind as well. I propose this because some of the other parts of the mind are structured the same way as the conscious part of the mind. Much of the conscious and pre-conscious would co-exist in the same parts of the mind. I would propose that as well as the conscious mind having the structures that allow free will perhaps either the subconscious or pre-conscious (or both) also have the structures that allow free will. However of course this would require a rethink of what free will means when there is not a choice being made by the conscious mind. It sound contradictory. In this case "free will" would have to be redefined as not being bound by cause and effect.

In summary, the self is comprised of elements from the whole mind - conscious, pre-conscious and subconscious. This is what makes up what we are or what the self is. It is fundamental. The self is more than solely the conscious mind. Decisions made in the subconscious are still decisions of the self. And these decisions are guided by who we are in total. And because as I argue these other parts of the mind are also not bound by cause and effect they are also choices which are free. Free from the absolute binds of cause and effect. Decisions guided by the true self.

Is this all speculation or hypothesis which is not proven by science? Absolutely. But at least I acknowledge this.


In the article "Determinism and Freewill" at note 5 I wrote that according to the determinism hypothesis:

"The development and diversity of all life and the creativity of that life intrinsically arises from the cause and effect processes occurring from the beginnings of the Universe. The Universe itself is the ultimate cause and the source of everything that occurs in the Universe."

Then as nearly a throwaway line I wrote: "For a person that believes in this form of Determinism it is a short step to pantheism."

How short a step it is to pantheism is the question?

A supporter of pantheism sees the Universe as god.

The sentence "The Universe being the ultimate cause and the source of everything that occurs in the Universe" does sound very god like. A religiously inclined person could very easily swap out the first use of the words "The Universe" with "God" and the sentence becomes a religious statement.

However I am sure many supporters of determinism would reject the notion that the Universe is god. Is this reasonable?

The difference between the Universe as just a material entity or a god may be whether the Universe was in some way conscious or not. A second factor may be intentionality. People in the past (and perhaps currently as well) have worshiped wooden and stone idols. It is not because of the material they are made out of. They would general ascribe a number of additional non-material properties to the idol. One of those properties would be a form of consciousness as well as other metaphysical powers. Consciousness would be a fairly universal requirement of a god.

People in the past have also worshiped natural entities such as the sun. It is easy to understand why. The sun is the "giver of life". Life would not be possible without the sun. If it stopped shining life would die out shortly afterwards. Without having asked any sun worshipers why I would speculate that they would ascribe some form of consciousness to the sun. They would worship the sun to beseech it to keep shining, as if it had a choice.

Could there be a concept of a god which does not have consciousness? It would be different to other gods but the concept of the Universe as a whole as god would not be the worse thing to pick. The Universe has many god like properties. Everything comes from the processes, the rules, the laws of nature, the materials and the energy of the Universe. As discussed in my article on "Determinism and Freewill" these laws of nature make a Universe which is creative or at least allows or demands the subsequent creativity of the evolution of life and all of the creativity made by humanity (but not, according to determinism, ascribed to humanity). The Universe will inspire awe, its size and magnificence, if a person cares to think about it enough. This may be the type of god that even an atheist could live with. However this would be a very particular interpretation or belief. As discussed usually consciousness is a required property of a god.

Some philosophers have suggested, as a hypothesis, that all material has a property of consciousness. For a rock the amount of consciousness (or qualia) would be very small. The amount in a human would be very much larger. And life in between would have varying levels of consciousness. Unproveable of course. But people need to be able to suggest speculative ideas as hypotheses (but not fact). The idea may seem outrageous or ridiculous but it may prompt others to investigate further - to prove or disprove the hypothesis - and thus advance total human knowledge.

The implications of a conscious Universe would be far ranging. What it could mean, in what manner was it conscious, is a topic far too large to cover in this short section. The models possible would probably be as many and as varied as there are currently religions in the World.

A material entity Universe (whether it is considered a god or not) behaves in accordance with the laws of nature somehow embedded into it. It just happened, as a matter of brute fact and chance, that these rules lead inevitably, in accordance with cause and effect, to a small planet called Earth in a seemingly insignificant galaxy which spawned life which was capable of looking out into the Universe and question how and why.

So when I wrote that a belief in universal determinism is but a "short step" to pantheism that was probably an over simplification - except if a non-conscious god is considered. For a god with the property of consciousness the step may be a bit bigger and more significant than might have been implied.

Complex Decision Making

As argued in my earlier article on free will and determinism, supporters of determinism have co-opted the act of reasoning as an argument for their cause. Any decision that arises out of an act of reasoning is thought by the supporters of determinism to be determined. They would say "See, you admit there is a reason you did that. It was therefore determined."

Reasoning uses learnings, current and old, to solve problems, come to conclusions and make decisions. If the problem is simple then I can see why it could be argued to be determined. However consider a complex problem. There are a large numbers of learnings and facts to be taken into account. Some learnings would be newly acquired through research and some may be decades old. Some of those learnings and new facts researched might contradict. There might be parts of the problem where the facts and learnings are incomplete. If the problem is urgent sometimes a decision still needs to be made as there isn't time to get more complete information. There are choices to be made about what weighting or credence to give to different pieces of information which may contradict and what to do about missing information. Sometimes the decision process could take days or months or longer as various options are thought through. Two people looking at the same set of facts might come up with different decisions. Sometimes decisions are made by a group of people, each working through the issues, researching  and discussing possible solutions and other options with their colleagues.

While I am sure the supporters of determinism would still argue that the decision was determined it is less than clear to me. It is another case of the unfalsifiability of determinism. Supporters just claim its all determined without offering further proof. If they are further pressed they might mention the ubiquity of cause and effect in the Universe at large without entertaining the possibility that extrapolation of cause and effect into the complexity human consciousness and brain is risky without substantial proof.

Supporters of free will would say it is just another example of a human free agent doing what a human does. And yes - again without further proof. And supporters of free will will also say that they use reason and it in no way impinges on their free will. In fact reason enhances their free will experience because it allows them to make logical choices rather than random choices. It allows them to control the direction of their life, to decide on goals, instead of just being tossed around in the sea of life.

Minimal Likes, Desires and Goals

A couple of days ago I went out for a walk. It was a lovely day. Temperature of 22 or 23 degrees, blue skies with the a few small white cloud dotted around. There was the faintest of breeze. The walk was through a large parkland area, mainly native Australian bush land. Halfway through the walk I sat on the seat thoughtfully provided by the parks authority. I just sat there for say ten minutes, enjoying the sun and the environment. Then I got up and continued the walk, returning home.

The supporters of determinism would tell me that this is all determined. The initial decision to go on the walk, the decision to sit and then to get up and continue the walk after 10 minutes, not 9 minutes or 11 minutes but 10 minutes. I just can't see it. I had the feeling that I could have sat there for half an hour at least, but didn't. What is the determined causality. I made the decisions regarding the walk. I had nothing planned for the rest of the day. I could have watched TV or read a book. On the walk, just before I got up from the seat to continue I would have had the thought that I will get up now. Just having that thought is sufficient for the supporters of determinism to say the action was determined by that thought. But what determined that thought? As a supporter of free will hypothesis I say that I initiated that thought. There was no prior cause to that. Even though supporters of determinism can not tell me exactly, or even inexactly, what the prior cause of that thought was they will still say there was a cause for the thought, initiated somewhere deep in the brain, uncontrollable by me. That thought mandated my action. The idea that the thought could have been initiated by free will agency is heretical to them.

A person with free will will utilise reasoning to decide on actions to be taken. A person that is leading a fully determined life will also act in accordance with reason. For a lot of the time how they act would be exactly the same. It is in situations like that outlined in this section where free will, through the process of self direction, may be seen more clearly to operate. There are many of these types of situations in life.

For example a person browsing a book shop without any clear idea of the book they are after, though they may have a genre or subject matter in mind. They pick a book after browsing a few from the hundreds that were of the right genre. That book could change their life - it has happened. The life change could be massive or small. This is self direction. The supporter of determinism's explanation is that the choice and ultimately that the particular life changing book was even in the store and found by the person was all prior determined.

Self direction can arguably also be seen in complex decision making - as discussed in the previous Section.

On Not Knowing
Determinism and Freewill
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