Often when free will is discussed, there are three main positions espoused:

Libertarian: The universe is not deterministic and there is free will

Hard-determinism: The universe is deterministic and there is no free will

Compatibilism: The universe is deterministic and there is free will

There seems to be an obvious missing category. I don't think it would simply be a matter of semantics, or unnecessary filling of a gap to include it. I think it's a sensible position to hold.

Suppose you were about to perform an action and there is a set of possible actions, more than one, that you can possibly perform. That set of possibilities has an underlying probability distribution. This would imply that the universe is not deterministic. It's possible that this probability distribution is governed by nature. In principle, given all the information about the current state of things, including the supposed agent, you could calculate the probability distribution over that agent's choices. If the probability distribution of the agent's choices is determined by nature, and not the agent, then, in a similar manner to the hard determinist line of thinking, you could argue that the agent is not free.

Is there a term for the position that nature is not deterministic, but there is still no free will? Is it similar enough to hard determinism that it need not have its own category? And does this position get argued often in philosophy?

  • 1
    I don't know if there's a term for it, but it's a pretty straightforward description of a world where quantum mechanics is true, but we don't have freewill. And yes it is often argued for, usually as a refutation of the idea that quantum mechanics proves that we have free will. Nov 28, 2017 at 18:25
  • 1
    The generic term is indeterminism. As the negation of determinism, it would cover both free will and what you describe, but in the former case more precise terms are typically used. More precise but less common term is strong causal closure:"Physical events that are not causally determined may be said to have their objective chances of occurrence determined by physical causes". Denett holds such a position, and even claims that it is "what libertarians say they want".
    – Conifold
    Nov 28, 2017 at 18:43
  • @Conifold So this potentially puts Denett in the "indeterminism and free will" camp, though clearly in a way that's distinct from libertarians. Is"causal closure" a better way of separating the free will theories than "determinism"? The position I described seems philosophically similar to hard-determinism, and Denett's is said to be compatibilist, yet they both allow for indeterminism. I wonder if placing so much importance on "determinism" when talking about free will is just a source of confusion. Nov 28, 2017 at 19:13
  • Causal closure eliminates agency as a separate cause, which most libertarians assert free will implies, but one can presumably have agency without free will (e.g. immaterial causation). Dennett prefers determinism/compatibilism philosophically, but acknowledged its problems with modern physics, and indicated that he could live with non-agency indeterminism, see On Giving Libertarians What They Say They Want. His 2-stage model is close to James's, who is "libertarian".
    – Conifold
    Nov 28, 2017 at 20:47
  • If there is no free will neither determinism, then it is apparent chaos, or inescapable contingency. Note, however, that as soon as the local chaos is somehow explained it turns into determinism at once. Note yet another thing that for an individual's free will determinism and contingency are initially the same, one something which is opposite to its freedom. Before we understand what's happened we are confined by the circumstance which is contingency for us - be it determined objectively or indetermined.
    – ttnphns
    Nov 29, 2017 at 6:12

4 Answers 4


The Wikipedia article on Free Will calls it “hard incompatibilism”.

Here is the graph showing the taxonomy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_will#/media/File:FreeWillTaxonomy4.svg


Soft determinism. The universe is not deterministic, but human behaviour is. Quantum fluctuations are not predetermined in any way, so there is no fixed future. But human behaviour is completely determined by factors over which we have no control.

  • 2
    This is not what soft determinism means, it is used synonymously with compatibilism, initially as a perjorative.
    – Conifold
    Nov 28, 2017 at 23:02

Nietzche's theory of eternal recurrence (although not really tenable in its details, now that we understand chaos and quantum fluctuation) goes with this position intellectually. Like much of his approach to life, he adopted it partly out of contrarianism, because challenging our wishful thinking is of value in itself. But it does capture a definite practical way to address this conundrum.

He assumes this is not one of the first few loops, when the universe was still converging into its set pattern, because if there are infinitely many loops the odds of the one currently in progress being that early in the sequence is incredibly slim. But he also doesn't think that we would have developed the illusion that we can affect things if it had never been true.

So there is no determinism, but our current next actions are all fixed beyond our control.

Sartre's Existentialism also accepts a notion of freedom that does not accept either free will or determinism, but instead disputes their relevance. Life is an emotional and social process, not a physical one. So what matters is how authentically you approach change, not the physical fact of whether your approach actually alters the outcome. Considering the question is a way of dodging ambiguity and avoiding responsibility for moving forward without knowing what cannot be known.

The overall point in both cases is the irrelevance of freedom to reality. So it would be kind of weird to have a name for this position in general. It would convey a sense of attachment, when the point is to detach.

  • I don't understand how eternal recurrence goes contrary to determinism. It seems to me like eternal recurrence and determinism are entirely compatible. As with Sartre, I don't see how his "absolute freedom" can be said to be a rejection of free will. Nor can I find him saying anything about determinism. I definitely appreciate your answer, but I don't see how these examples are capturing the effect I'm talking about. Nov 29, 2017 at 13:48
  • @Bridgeburners I don't care whether you actually want to read my answer, but if you raise objections that just directly contradict what I said, i am not going to answer them in comments.
    – user9166
    Nov 29, 2017 at 17:35

You are making a very common philosophical mistake. You're confusing determinism with fatalism. Fatalism claims that the universe is predetermined and this includes human behaviour. Determinism makes no claim about the future. It only claims that events and our actions are determined, not predetermined. You are a determinist.

  • This video explains it better. youtu.be/j4Oyi1T-HmU Jan 4, 2018 at 23:35
  • This video's claim is at odds with every version of the concept of determinism I ever heard. (And there's no citation when he gives us this "definition" of determinism, so I have no clue where he got this notion from.) Determinism certainly makes a claim about the universe. It's based on Laplacian mechanics (and some interpretations of quantum mechanics) with which, given knowledge about the current state of a system, you can predict the state of the system at any time in the future. How reliable is this source anyway? Jan 5, 2018 at 1:26
  • Does a dictionary count? google.co.za/… The difference is that determinism allows for random events where fatalism doesn't. Jan 5, 2018 at 8:04
  • @ZaneScheepers determinism allows for random events? Where are you getting that from?
    – TKoL
    Dec 13, 2023 at 15:13

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