The determinism dilemma is that if our actions are predetermined they are not free, and if they are random they are not willed, either way there is no free will. Even if will causation is a mixture of chance and necessity it can be split into the corresponding aspects according to an argument that goes back to Hobbes, reinstating the dilemma: "in order to make the causation somehow indeterministic, a realization of a random variable (completely uncaused and independent) would have to be put amongst the conditions." To put it metaphorically, we are puppets dangling on the strings of causality, or chance, or both part time.

A popular response is the two stage model of free will, where at the first stage actionable alternatives are "freely" generated, and at the second the one that "best" suits our goals and desiresis "willed". Trouble is that the "free" stage is not willed, the "will" stage is not free, and the freedom itself is reduced to imperfection, inability to survey all possible alternatives. Although the model itself is relatively uncontroversial (both Dennett and Kane accept it!) it concedes the Hobbesian split into chance and necessity, and merely shifts the dilemma to the second stage.

But we know of at least one type of processes, where the Hobbesian split can not be accomplished, quantum evolutions. I am not suggesting quantum mechanics as a physical model of volition (but such suggestions were made, by Compton using macroscopic amplification of quantum effects, and Penrose using hypothetical "quantum gravity"), or even saying that it is a "complete" description of reality. But it is a model where the wave function "is all there is" by definition, and it is self-consistent if set theory is.

The wave function is neither deterministic, nor random, nor a "mixture" of the two (see Bell's inequalities). We get a model for events that provably can not be split into a mixture of chance and necessity along the Hobbesian lines envisioned by the dilemma. Free will does not have to operate anything like quantum evolution of course, the point is that combinations of chance and necessity do not exhaust logical possibilities, the two can be entangled in unsplittable ways.

Is the determinism dilemma a false dichotomy? Were non chance/necessity options explored by philosophers as models of how free will might operate? Specifically, how "goals and desires" can be factored into volition without resorting to partial causation?


It is not a viable option. Only chance or necessity are implied by the fundamental fact that all thoughts arise impersonally. As William James, among others, noted: "If we could say 'it thinks' the way we say 'it rains' we would be speaking with a minimum of assumption." When added to the other fundamental fact that all thoughts "governing" movement have the immediate effect of movement unless another thought intervenes, the minimum of assumption conclusion is that what we believe to be an act of free will is an automatic response to a stimulus of unascertainable origin. From a psychological perspective, only indeterminism, supportive of either metaphysical option of necessity or chance, is viable. My essay on James's vivid engagement with the question of free will was published in the anthology The Volitional Brain: Toward a Neuroscience of Free Will, and is available on my website.


The failure of the dilemma comes in denying that free will is a primary causal factor in the physical realm. To answer the dilemma, we must posit three possible primary causal factors which can drive physical causal chains:

  1. Deterministic inputs
  2. Random inputs
  3. Free Will inputs

However, there is no direct empirical evidence or proof for free will being a primary casual factor. We posit its existence based on experiential evidence and as a solution to other logical problems required to allow for some epistemologic systems to remain logically consistent (e.g. as a solution to the problem of evil, for example).

Whether there can ever be direct empirical data which explains the mechanism of free will is unknown. Free will requires additional parameters which make a universe with free will higher order than a universe without it, and thus Occam's Razor potentially applies in cases where free will is axiomatically assumed to have no utility.

This is why I believe that free will implies dualism, though there are other possible places to eventually "find" and potentially empirically test free will, such as extra dimensions, parallel universes, or alternate realities. All of these potential options could provide a means of satisfying the mechanism for dualism and are not currently empirically verifiable.

  • 2
    There is no direct empirical evidence for determinism either, all we have are infinite precision extrapolations from classical physical laws that we now know do not even apply with infinite precision. Both determinism and free will are arrived at by the same hypothetico-deductive approach, and at present determinism is not exactly suggested by physics. it will certainly take a massive infusion of non-locality and/or hidden variables to work.
    – Conifold
    Jan 1 '16 at 3:13
  • 1
    I am not sure any additional parameters or dualism are required for free will if we stop thinking of it as based on causes residing somewhere else. Such thinking seems to be an implicit form of Hobbsian split and looking for sufficient cause, which is a persistent habit. We are so used to looking for causes that we subconsciously try to insert them even into something defined not to have them, at least not sufficient ones. This may be the source of expecting dualistic "extras". Free will has to combine influence of the past and lawlessness somehow, but in unsplittable way with no extras.
    – Conifold
    Jan 1 '16 at 3:20
  • You make good points on both cases, I'm not sure I agree on the dualism point, but that may just be a matter of definition. I'm intrigued by your concept of just not looking for a cause of free will (i.e. impact from some other realm/plane of existence/dimension/etc.). Any links on that particular topic I could follow up with?
    – LightCC
    Jan 1 '16 at 9:37
  • I find Kane's work particularly insightful, he also challenges other stereotypes in posing questions about free will. This page has a good summary of his arguments with links to original works informationphilosopher.com/solutions/philosophers/kane
    – Conifold
    Jan 4 '16 at 5:14

Upon analyzing the determinism dilemma, I find that one part is false (or incomplete). I agree that all actions are either determined, or undetermined. For the determined actions, "free will" is not present. However, for the undetermined actions, there are at least two types, random and selected. Also, for the random actions, "free will"is not present. But for the selected actions, "free will" is present. This results from the application of "free will" by the selector!

  • 3
    The problem is that the selector selects based on something (history, circumstances, internal imperatives). If that something predetermines it the will is not free, if not then it is partly random and we are back to the dilemma.
    – Conifold
    Feb 9 '15 at 4:59
  • How does selected differ from determined? What one selects is determined by one's conscious or unconscious mind, which is determined by development, environment, and circumstances. Dec 9 '15 at 18:52
  • @Conifold: Although I agree that the selector might be "biased by something," the act of choosing is undetermined, until the choice is made. We are constantly making choices. Some times, the number of choices one has to make in a day, is overwhelming!
    – Guill
    Apr 15 '17 at 23:36
  • @Conifold "history, circumstances, internal imperatives" don't need to agree on a singular selection. Thus it may well happen that deterministic factors amounts to a zero sum, which could then allow for a free will selection.
    – christo183
    Oct 27 '18 at 11:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.