Causal determinism means that every event is completely caused by prior events. Therefore no amount or kind of knowledge can have any effect whatsoever on the flow of events.

If a person's behaviour depends on what the person knows, that person has free will. His actions are then determined by his knowledge, not by prior events.

Given that it is reasonable to ask whether there is any concept of knowledge in determinism at all.

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3 Answers 3


My answer will represent views such as those by Daniel Dennett, who is maybe the most prominent author on compatibilism, the view that determinism is compatible with knowledge, wisdom, will, consciousness, imagination and intelligence.

Note there is also Incompatibilism, the view that with determinism, knowledge and free will and such are impossible, but I assume the question is about compatibilism.

The question tries to disprove compatibilism based on simple fixed definitions, to then disprove determinism. If it was that simple, philosophers would not still be pondering this after several centuries of debate.

We can however quickly show the flaw in the argument. Let's say for the sake of the argument self-driving cars act purely on data. No information, no knowledge. Self-driving cars are very possible in a deterministic world.

But now there is the conflict: if in determinism only past events determine future events, how can data influence the direction of a driving car? That's the same argument as in the question, just replacing "knowledge" with data.

Compatibilism is the view that data, information, knowledge and wisdom are all possible as states in a deterministic world, Incompatibilism is the view that some or all of those are special and cannot exist in a deterministic world. Neither is right or wrong philosophically, as the definitions are not clear or specific enough to derive objective truth, definitions and viable assumptions can be found to either support compatibilism or incompatibilism.

That's why the debate continues even after centuries of the same arguments.

The compatibilist definition of "knowledge" is usually phrased to allow for certain artificial intelligence systems to possess knowledge as acting agents, a notion commonly rejected by incompatibilists.

In any case compatibilism implies that every thought and idea we have as humans is determined by prior events, and that we don't notice any restriction of freedom despite being entirely determined because we observe our actions logically following our thoughts.

The advances in computer science, data processing and artificial intelligence are gradually strengthening theoretic compatibilism, the view that even if the universe was indetermined, deterministic things like computers can reasonably be attributed free will, and thus the human brain could also be deterministic without losing free will.

The gradual disappearance of religious superstition from philosophy reduces the strength of libertarian incompatibilist arguments such as the one in the question.


Perhaps your question, and thus the answer to it, will be clearer if we break it down:

A. Definition: determinism means that a cause necessitates an event, such as that the cause is a previous event. Therefore, every event causes the next one.

B. Assertion: an individual's knowledge may affect his actions, i.e. his future events.

C. Conclusion: if an individual's knowledge affects his actions, therefore affecting future events, the cause for these events should be the individual's knowledge, and not previous events.

If you noticed, what you've done is provide:

  1. an assertion without justification (assertion B)
  2. a hidden assertion, that an individual's knowledge should be considered exclusively, outside of the definition of an event (which we admittedly haven't defined).

Therefore, to make your case you need to justify assertion B, and provide and justify the hidden assertion presented in (2).

Whether an event includes or not the subjective properties of the individual is a matter of definition. The common-sense determinism would probably include it, thereby render assertion 2 unintelligible.

Hopes this clarifies your question.

  • Assertion B is a truism. All voluntary actions (as opposed to causal reflexes) are determined by the agent's decisions. Decisions are knowledge, they have no measurable physical properties. By no means, by no definition, can decisions be considered as events. Feb 19 at 11:12
  • @PerttiRuismäki see, this is where you enter the realm of defining determinism. There are so so many different definitions of determinism, that your question cannot be answered without asserting the type of determinism you ask about. What I was trying to point out is that what you lack in your question, which will probably also resolve it, is proper (exact) definitions to the terms you use. Feb 19 at 13:51
  • I have now improved the definition. Feb 19 at 16:12
  • @PerttiRuismäki again, your major postulation is that knowledge is not a part of, nor does it has any influence over, a causal event. Perhaps that is a question worth asking on its own. Feb 19 at 16:37
  • Knowledge has an effect on causal events in reality. We know what we want, we know what we can do, we figure it out what we must do to get what we want. That is the essence of free will. That is not possible in determinism, where prior events completely determine subsequent events. Feb 20 at 5:02

First, knowledge has no effect unless it is put in action. Second, since the physical laws of this world are not changeable by any action of man, its hard to see how knowledge can have an effect on this wprld.

Third, knowledge is a capacity of man and not of inanimate things. A chair doesn't know its stood on the floor. A door does not know it has been openned.

The content of knowledge in determinism does not lie directly how informed a stone is, or a rock: they are inanimate and have no understanding to understand their situation. Rather, the concept of knowledge lies in extracting the laws of this world from all the determinate things that happens. This concept is what drives the natural sciences, the sciences like biology, chemistry and physics.

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    There is more to knowledge than just scientific research. People do different things depending. on what they know. In reality that is. My question was about a deterministic universe. I can see no reason to assume there is any concept of knowledge in determinism. Feb 19 at 4:09

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