If we accept that neuro-chemistry largely explains cognitive function, deterministically, how can we be accountable? Not how or why can we be held accountable but how can we earnestly be in fact accountable. If any input(system, sum of all circumstances) causes with 0 uncertainty a given result there is no free will.

Is determinism not inherently nihilist in that a person is a victim of circumstances and his urges so his own struggles come to nothing?

I am setting the issue of determinism being nihilist.

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    What do you mean by "held accountable?" I ask because we're raising the bar on the definition of cognition to the highest levels supported by biology, and accountability is a rather trivial concept to use if we hoist it up in the same way.
    – Cort Ammon
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:18
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    I would hold people accountable for dangerous behaviors, regardless of what is causing it (for reasons of practicality and survival).
    – Bread
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:22
  • Accountability (excuse me for the grammar mistake) would be the capacity to be held responsible. If you are accountable, you can be held responsible. Mar 29, 2019 at 22:22
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    @George Ntoulos That may be true legally in some states, but ethically and realistically speaking (i.e. philosophically), there is nothing that can prevent any employee from obeying their own conscience rather than their "boss".
    – Bread
    Mar 29, 2019 at 22:40
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7 Answers 7


Andrew Eshleman provides an answer to the first question: given determinism can we be accountable, that is, have moral responsibility.

In keeping with this focus on the ramifications of causal determinism for moral responsibility, thinkers may be classified as being one of two types: 1) an incompatibilist about causal determinism and moral responsibility—one who maintains that if causal determinism is true, then there is nothing for which one can be morally responsible; or 2) a compatibilist—one who holds that a person can be morally responsible for some things, even if both who she is and what she does is causally determined. In Ancient Greece, these positions were exemplified in the thought of Epicurus (341–270 BCE) and the Stoics, respectively.

The second question is whether causal determinism is nihilistic.

If causal determinism is true whether one is a nihilist or not, and how one feels about that, has also been causally determined. If causal determinism is true any argument for or against causal determinism or nihilism has been causally determined.

There doesn't seem to be much point in arguing given such a view of reality which may be an empirical justification to doubt that such views of reality are true.

An alternative might be indeterminism. See The Information Philosopher for one view on that position.

Eshleman, Andrew, "Moral Responsibility", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/moral-responsibility/.

  • What does causal determinism mean and the verb to be causally determined? Determinism is the school of philosophy that argues that everything that exists or happens is absolutely determined by its' causes. Deterministic as opposed to stochastic. Something stochastic can't be predicted other than being assigned a probability. If any input produces a certain output with 0 uncertainty our struggles would be fruitless. So we have no reason to actively try or drive our feelings somewhere. Mar 30, 2019 at 1:50
  • @GeorgeNtoulos Look at causal determinism as determinism. The "causal" part means that it comes from "secondary causation", that is, God, the first cause, was not involved in creating it or sustaining it that way. The Information Philosopher also uses words like "adequate determinism" which is not determinism. Things just happen regularly enough to make predictions. Mar 30, 2019 at 11:30
  • @GeorgeNtoulos You wrote " So we have no reason to actively try or drive our feelings somewhere." But if determinism is true, it's not just that we have no reason--we also have no ability to actively try or drive our feelings somewhere.
    – Chelonian
    Mar 30, 2019 at 13:11
  • @Chelonian we Actually can try even if we are unable to. Struggles are just an illusion, a "pyrrhic" struggle (as in pyrrhic victory). This thought deppresses me. Mar 30, 2019 at 21:25
  • @GeorgeNtoulos It depends on what you mean by "we can try". I mean, we can't to do anything, including trying, if we are unable to do that thing. So, either we can try or we can't. But if what you mean by "we can try" is "some of us may engage in behavior in which we think we are trying", yes that happens.
    – Chelonian
    Mar 31, 2019 at 23:20

Your question is formulated from a quite narrow point of view: you assume that everything in nature works according to rules of the macroscopic universe ("chemically", "If any input causes with 0 uncertainty", "system"...).

Following such fallacious assumption you consider that everything is predefined. So, you are minimally falling in the fallacies of hasty generalization and suppressed evidence.

You are forgiving that the macroscopic universe is built upon the rules of the microscopic one: in it, nothing is deterministic. Macroscopic rules are just statistically-averaged effects of the microscopic rules.

Now, take your conclusions regarding free will.

  • I am sorry if I seemed to appear to state that I assume that everything works according to rules of the macrosopic universe. Chemistry is certainly not macroscopic. I was trying to see if it is absurd(formally) to claim we are chemically programmed. I certainly believe(but what everyone believes is not a matter of the Q&A) determinism is incompatible with free will. So we either believe we are chemically programmed and forsake the notion that we have free will or we accept we have much research to do on the cognitive function and the use of psychotropic medication is necessarily frivolous. Oct 2, 2019 at 21:46
  • @GeorgeNtoulos a) "I am sorry": nevermind, this is not personal; b) "Chemistry is certainly not macroscopic": bad argument to negate undeterminism. Such fallacy is known as non sequitur; c) ..."we either believe we are chemically programmed [and...] or we accept we have much research to do [on...]" is equivalent to "either we like apples or we go to the cinema". Such fallacy is called false dichotomy.
    – RodolfoAP
    Oct 3, 2019 at 5:13

I just wish to add a few thoughts and conceptualizations that came to my mind:

As others have highlighted, there is a long debate (a) about determinism, and (b) about the definition of free will, and (c) if free will is compatible with determinism (this position being called 'compatibilism').

(a): Some answers here mentioned that at the micro-level processes in nature don't follow simple causal rules. I wonder if this makes a difference to your assumption that determinism is true. (Another remark: 'Determinism' so far refers to a concept that would also need a clear definition.)

(b): There are 'stronger' and 'less strong' definitions of free will. An example case I've heard: Suppose you are a person who values environmental protection a lot. This value seems to dictate (in some sense) your actions. You would not enter a plane in most circumstances because you hold this value. A 'strong' definition of free will might require that for any decision you make, you always need to be able to choose another option. Suppose that - given that your character trait regarding environmental protection is so strong - in situations where you need to decide between plane and train you always (necessarily) decide for train. This seems to violate the requirements for free will according to the 'strong' definition. But then suppose you would find yourself arbitrarily in a plane because all your actions were totally free - in this case it would seem hard to ascribe the act of entering the plane to you, because it seems not to express your personality. So the strong definition might be wrong.

(c): However, the 'lighter definition' might easier be seen as compatible with some kind of determinism, I suppose. One could argue that the values that drive ones behavior must not necessarily be acquired by oneself in order to be ascribable to oneself.

Some debate that focuses on the term 'responsibility' might also be particularly interesting. There are many insights, e. g. that we usually hold people accountable for forgetting something they promised to do even if they did of course not decide to forget it etc.

Last year I was pointed to the book 'Responsibility from the Margins' by David Shoemaker who argues that there are different kinds of 'responsibility' (grounded in the observation that there are marginal cases where we hesitate to call someone responsible, and also hesitate not to do so etc.) One of them - 'attributability' - has to do with character traits rather than capacities to judge among different possible acts.

To me it is not so clear how the debates on free will and on responsibility overlap, but this would be interesting to discover - and there will be different positions on the relations between both concepts.

Finally, from a very personal point of view: It just seems a very common all-day experience that I can decide what I do; that it is right to consider me responsible in many situations etc. Of course it might be argued that these experiences are illusions, but this does not really convince me. This experience is perhaps for me stronger than arguments for/against free will.

  • There was no assumption that determinism is true. I am asking if determinism and free will are compatible and if so how! Oct 2, 2019 at 21:51

tl;dr- Ethics modifies the behavior of ethical agents, regardless of determinism. For example, we can still judge a thief for their thievery to the betterment of society even if we choose to describe the thief's agency as 100% determined by physical processes.

Analogy: In video games – players have free will; but, characters are determined by physics.

Analogy, Part 1: You start playing World of Warcraft.

You're bored, so you download the famous video game, World of Warcraft. You create a new character, AweomePants the Fiery, and log in to find yourself surrounded by many other players in a massive virtual environment.

We can consider 3 different notions of AwesomePants the Fiery:

  1. The free will of AwesomePants, i.e. you.
    As the player who exists outside of the game pulling the strings, you're the free will of AwesomePants. You exist beyond the physics of the World of Warcraft, unbound by its rules.

  2. The physical body of AwesomePants, i.e. the character.
    You designed AwesomePants as a Human Paladin of the Alliance. As a new player, AwesomePants is a level-1 character. AwesomePants the character is an avatar completely bound by the physics of the world.

  3. The totality of AwesomePants, i.e. you playing the character.
    AwesomePants is neither fully bound by the world nor free of it. Instead, AwesomePants has a body in the world, but an ego that exists outside of it, controlled by you.

People playing World of Warcraft have their own ethical expectations, including rules for what's socially acceptable and notions of criminal justice.

Rough examples of the game's ethics:

  1. You won't be faulted for things you literally can't control.
    No one's going to yell at you for not running 10% faster because you can't; that's not a thing the physics of the world allows. Even if your failure to run 10% faster causes your team to lose, they can't blame you for not running 10% faster because that complaint doesn't make sense.

  2. You'll be soft-faulted for things you could influence.
    You'll be soft-judged for your performance in combat. This is, no one's going to fully fault you for sub-par performance because you can't fully select it, but they'll still tend to fault you in softer senses as you still have a lot of control over it.

  3. You'll be hard-faulted for things you can fully control.
    If you spam public chat with hateful, bigoted profanity, people'll hold you fully responsible for that because the messages you send are, for the most part (excepting typos and such), fully within your control. The harshest of punishments can be dealt out for such behavior as there's (usually) no reasonable excuse for it.

In other words:

  1. Ethics doesn't fault AwesomePants's physical body, as that's beyond control.

  2. Ethics soft-faults AwesomePants's totality, as that's within partial control.

  3. Ethics hard-faults AwesomePants's free will, as that's within full control.

Why, though? Why shouldn't people get mad at you for things that they know to be beyond your control? ...because that'd be stupid and unproductive, right?

Analogy, Part 2: Your free will is taken away as the game takes full control of your character.

You log back in one day to find that the game developers have implemented a new feature for a special event! Now, everyone's characters are being controlled by an AI.

You can still open the game and watch your character doing all of the normal things, but you're no longer controlling it. It's basically a movie that you're watching, rather than a game that you're playing.

..uh oh! Your character's yelling some really racist things in public chat! Guess no one can blame you, though.. I mean, that's 100% the AI's doing, entirely beyond your control. Seems completely unfair to fault you; they just gotta fix the AI. If anything, it's god's (the developers') fault for making the world that way – you may be doing what used to be the worst of crimes, but you're innocent.

And here's where we connect back to your question:

How can we be accountable if we are chemically programmed?

Clearly, it'd be inappropriate for the company that runs World of Warcraft to blame you, the player behind AwesomePants, for AwesomePants shouting constant obscenities. It's actually their fault; heck, maybe you could take 'em to court and sue them for offending you by forcing your character to yell such things! (Not sure such a lawsuit would actually be viable, but you know what I mean.)

Analogy, Part 3: Your character can be banned despite you being faultless due to determinism.

At this point, your AI-controlled character is still spamming public chat with hate speech. What now?

Unfortunately, if they can't reform AwesomePants (e.g., fix the bug), they'll have to ban AwesomePants.

This is, the-totality-of-AwesomePants will receive the worst possible punishment despite the abject innocence of the-free-will-of-AwesomePants.

In other words, AwesomePants is now 100% programmed, completely controlled by Determinism; there's no free-will to fault. But, AwesomePants is still a malefactor that the ethics-observing agents of the world would seem to do well to rid themselves of.

Conclusion: Ethics acts on social agents, regardless of determinism.

The point's that ethics can act on social agents, like AwesomePants, even if we understand those social agents to be deterministically controlled by the physics of that world.

In short, even if we suddenly strip away free-will from a world in which it existed, only the stripped-away free-will is innocent; the totality of the social-agent can still be productively held liable for its nature.

Addendum: Notes on omitted points.

I had to cut this answer short as it was getting way too long.

I was going to extend the story to talk about how, after the initial event in which full-AI-control was introduced, the game developers implemented a hybrid system in which players regained their ability to influence their characters, while the AI still controlled many more passive actions in the game.

For example, ya know how if you think about how you're breathing, you can control it? But then you forget, and your subconscious mind takes back over? It'd be the same thing: the player can take control in many cases, but when they're not actively managing something, then AI gets it. And then the player might have limitations on their control, where they can't always seize it from the AI.

This generalizes the video-game model presented at the start of this analogy, in which there was a clear distinction between the free-will-of-AwesomePants and the physically-determined-body-of-AwesomePants. Because, in actuality, there're a lot of interacting free-will's, and there's no clear dividing line between them and the physically-determined-body, making it a more complex picture that we can build up to.

In the end, none of this is an escape from the simple point that ethics-acts-on-ethical-agents; that "determinism" doesn't change the fact that ethical systems are socially beneficial constructs. However, it does go to help frame the unfairness I think that people can sometimes perceive. It'd be my contention that the perceived unfairness comes from the fuzziness of these models, where it's hard to attribute blame precisely to particular subordinate-agents within individual-ethical-agents.

Then I'd even want to comment on the implications of this stuff. But... that's long and complicated, so leaving off here.


I am not much of a philosopher but if I understand correctly you are saying two things:

1) There is no free will

2) If there is no free will, determinism means nihilism in the sense that if I have no choice then I am nothing.

Discussion of these two:

**1)**In the first one I agree, there is no free will and I think free will can even be defined. Of course I have heard people say that free will means acting under no obligations to do so but when we come to the reality of behaviors they are coming from somewhere and having no obligations means not coming from somewhere that does not make any sense except if we are talking about random deeds(It is fantastic that being random does not have a real definition either!).

((1 in a nut shell)) So about the first one: I think not only we do not have free will but free will can not even be really defined in the first place and is more of an illusion than a real fact.

**2)**Since you are talking in a sense that I think is about "Doer's Identity" I agree that if we define a party by the ability to act on it's own, then not having any free will leads to the nihilism for all those sort of autonomous parties. In other words: if a person identifies himself with their free will, then their are going to feel they are nothing since there is no free will. But since that is not the only thing a person can identify herself with, hence nihilism is not always the case for accepting there is no free will. But I think there is a way to get to nihilism: if we identify the person with structures, and since structures are all empty and absurd and have no foundation in really being, then we could conclude that since the person is just structures and since the structures are by definition, not really beings, therefore, the person is not a real being. If it wasn't for the qualia, I would agree with this last conclusion completely but since qualia are beings and the person can be identified with having(or to be more exact, being) qualia, therefore in this sense the person does not have a nihilistic identity.

((2 in a nutshell)) Defining a person by any sort of structure would result in nihilism as their identity since structures are all just proportions and not real beings, free will is a structure and therefore if we define a person with having free will, the person can be identified as not a real being. If there was nothing in a person other than structures this conclusion would actually be the case for everybody but since every body has(is) qualia, it is not.

  • If you have references to those who take a similar view this would support your answer and give the reader a place to go for more information. Welcome! Sep 29, 2019 at 12:28
  • Thank you, I agree I should do that. I will do that when I have read more:) at the time being I am not really that well read.
    – H RSH
    Sep 30, 2019 at 10:32
  • I am asking if determinism and free will are compatible and if so how! Oct 2, 2019 at 21:48
  • great question:) and my answer is simple: define free will. and when I say that I mean from any point of view you can, but simply be precise about it.
    – H RSH
    Nov 5, 2019 at 9:47

If we accept that neuro-chemistry largely explains cognitive function, deterministically, how can we be accountable?

if you accept full determinism, the notion of accountabilty becomes void. To be accountable, a person must have choice of alternate decisions, if that choice is absent, you abandon accountability.

Is determinism not inherently nihilist in that a person is a victim of circumstances and his urges so his own struggles come to nothing?

Nihilism becomes also a void concept, because nihilism refers to absence of a valuation system, and since determinism imposes a value system (your decisions coincide precisely with those of nature), nihilism is a word than can no longer be used in this context; in other words, you're not aimless if nature aims for you, and to be more accurate: you are part of nature, hence your cannot superimpose yourself as a separate unit of indetermination upon the determination of nature. You'd obviously have to adjust much to re-understand your feelings, and if you do so, you would go for pain to replace nihilism, whereby you describe the state of being where the Self conceives of a world and lives in another (usually the first being better than the later in some sense). It therefore becomes a matter of grasping that the first world is untrue, as it could only be constituted by a break from the deterministic world, leaving your with something similar to being able to state "1=2" without ever being able to grant such proposition any substance. My sense is that in a thorough deterministic view of existence, nihilism cannot arise, it is to value what an ill-constructed sentence is to a proposition: void of meaning.


If we accept that neuro-chemistry largely explains cognitive function, deterministically, how can we be accountable?

Thats a very big if and given the prevalence of law-courts, judging and judgements in our world and of freedom and liberty it might be better to to ask how can determinism exist. But of course that is just as silly a question as the first. They co-exist. The question that philosophers are asking when they ask questions on free-will and determinism is exactly how do they co-exist.

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