There are confusing number of types of dualism, i am not sure which one to restrict the question to.

Reductionist physicalism has a dichotomy between determinism and random. Dualists like to claim that dualism offers a way out of this dichotomy, e.g. with the mind being a cause without causes, but supposedly also not being random.

But just because mind is not bound by physics does not mean it is automatically not deterministic, or not random. Even if it was a causa sui, a cause upon itself, that does not mean it is not random. Even gods in paradise could be fully determined, or partially random, victims of whatever medium they are made of.

So what proof has ever been offered that any mental experience of my life was not deterministically derived from prior experience, or otherwise erupted randomly from nothing? If suddenly I feel an impulse to buy a hamburger, that motivation could have arisen deterministically, or by pure divine random. How could I subjectively exclude those two, and what is the third alternative in dualism?

"I want the hamburger because I want the hamburger" is just circular. I just want it means random, i might have wanted a pony instead. I want it because i am hungry and want satisfaction points to determinism, with the impulse being a causal effect.

Obviously i can experience my mind not being "single minded", i can refuse to give in to urges, but that's also possible with determinism, with the decision to not give in being determined.

What would a mental experience be like that we could logically identify as neither determined nor random?

Note this means specifically I am not interested in compatibilist accounts of deterministic dualism, I am interested in those arguments claiming dualism allows "non-deterministic free will".

Of course it can be claimed that simply all experiences are neither determined nor random, but that's just a claim.

One thing I could imagine is if i did not experience myself like in a movie shot from a point of view, but like the director in the cutting room seeing the whole movie start to finish and modifying it. But i don't experience my own existence that way, and i doubt anyone does.

For inspiration, the problem of introspection to declare oneself "free" are explored e.g. in publications like this: https://thorgan.faculty.arizona.edu/sites/thorgan.faculty.arizona.edu/files/Horgan_&_Timmons%20(2011)%20Introspection%20and%20the%20phenomenology%20of%20Free%20Will%20-%20problems%20and%20prospects.pdf

Are there any other such examples?


6 Answers 6


I have not seen any dualists articulate the complete answer here. But there aren't all that many dualists, and many of those are wrapped up in religious theological constraints, so there is a much smaller population of theorists to draw upon among dualists. Much of the foundation of this argument was laid by Karl Popper, but he did not advocate what is below.

You have identified a real issue -- dualism does not intrinsically get one out of the caused/random dichotomy. So we need to take a digression into the methods one CAN use get out of that dichotomy.

The first step is to realize that the way we discover what is in the world, is by empiricism. This is an indirect realism process, NOT a rationalistic derivation from first principles. Most people realize this, but the Analytic school of philosophy tends to lean more towards logic and first principles than toward uncertainty and inferred probabilities of reality.

The second step is to realize what the caused/random dichotomy IS. What it represents, is categories of binning of events that are embedded in our evolutionary thought process. We innately think in caused/random categories. That does not mean the WORLD is limited to those bins, even if our thinking seems to be. What the "evolutionary" says though, is that selection drove us to this binning, and that implies that caused/random dichotomy is "real enough" to provide a strong selection benefit to infer its reality. But whether it is universally true -- as opposed to just often true -- that is an open question for evolved assumptions.

The third step is to realize that contingent empiricism, need not lead to monism. And it hasn't. The consensus view of science, is that it is pluralistic -- the "unity of sciences" reduction project has stalled out, most likely permanently. See section 5 of https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/scientific-reduction/. Plus -- scientism has been rejected by almost all philosophers, so there are other valid methods of gaining knowledge besides science.

The fourth step is to realize that pluralism leads to logic explosion. Starting from multiple different valid reference points -- can lead to different conclusions about the same issue. Under pluralism -- we cannot have a unitary and coherent worldview.

Step 4.5 (it reinforces step 4) is to further recognize the reality of logic pluralism. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/think/article/abs/guide-to-logical-pluralism-for-nonlogicians/EDFDFA1C9EB65DB71848DABD6B12D877 We don't have "one true logic", but instead multiple logics, which also may contradict, just as our science models can. Implicitly, different logics can apply in different parts of our universe. Steps 4 and 4.5 both show that logic contradictions are not fatal, but must be accepted.

Step 5 is to recognize that we have an evolved belief in libertarian free will. This is an equally strong conviction to the caused/random dichotomy, and equally critical to much of our reasoning processing. All of our responsibility, agency, and moral thinking is based on this presumption. And as with our evolved belief in caused/random, the evolutionary benefit strongly implies its reality.

Step 6 -- what dualism offers, is the plausibility that a mental plane of existence operates off a different pluralist logic set than the material does, and even if caused/random logic is likely true in the material world, then agency/willing logic is likely true in the mental/spiritual world.

A legitimate follow-on question would be to ask for an articulation of what that agency/willing free will logic IS. Here, I have to concede I have not seen a good articulation of how free will actually operates. We all seem to understand how it doesn't operate, and recognize that determinist AND random processes are incompatible with it. But I have yet to see a positive articulation of how it does work. As a further aside -- I also have not seen a bulletproof articulation of causation either, although the efforts to spell out causation are far more complete than those I have seen for free will.


I try answering my own question after reading, but i won't accept it.

We can imagine a store of so called "Magic 8-balls" https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_8-ball.

Such a toy asks the player to ask a question, shake the device, then read the answer. Such as "Will i marry before the age of 25?" - "no".

We can imagine different models than that to illustrate different philosophical models.

The cheapest 8-ball has a fixed list of answers on a rotating inner sphere, it will just move on to the next one when shaken. Responses might be:"yes, no, yes, yes, maybe, no" repeating in a cycle. This is a deterministic, predetermined 8-ball.

The next is the original, an inner dice floating in alcohol, with labels like "yes", "no", "maybe" printed on the sides. For the sake of discussion we can allow this to represent a true random 8-ball, non-deterministic by being random.

Then we can imagine an advanced new device, similar to Siri, Alexa, Cortana or similar modern voice activated search engines. It will analyse the question into a computer query, run a checks against a database, and respond with "yes", "no" and so on. This is fully deterministic based on the inner database, which can be on a USB-Stick.

Finally we can imagine the dualists 8-ball. This is the same construction as the second, a dice in a liquid, but it was enchanted by a Shaman with some ancient ritual performed on it, with the Shaman then dying without passing on their knowledge. Like homeopathic medicine maybe. This 8-ball will respond to question with "yes", "no", "maybe" in an opinionated way, the responses being sometimes wrong, but mostly consistent. Nobody knows how that happens, it just does. Opening this ball will not reveal much except that it has the same elements as the second, but acting a bit differently. This 8-ball has no will, let alone free will, it has no consciousness, it just responds to questions with reasonable answers. Nobody can explain why, nobody can build another one, computers cannot simulate it. We don't know if it's magic or just strongly emergent, as the Shaman who did the ritual is dead. That's the non-reductionist dualists alternative.

In some way, the last 8-ball can still be deterministic in the sense of always responding with the same answer to the same question, but it might not be determined by anything else than it's inner magic self.

So this is not strictly an alternative to the determinism-random dichotomy, but an observable difference in behavior and structure.

Libertarians see the escape from determinism and random like this, because they approach the question dogmatically, not empirically. To libertarians, the following statements are dogmatically true:

  • Human introspection of choice reveals free will
  • The source of choice is the self
  • The self is not physical, nor weakly emergent
  • The self is non-reducable
  • The choices of the self are non-reducable
  • The self is not dividable
  • The self cannot be forced by events outside itself, it's perfectly isolated from causation in the world except for information from the senses and meddling with the brain
  • The self works in mysterious ways

These dogmas are in place to ensure that the self remains free and responsible for its own decisions. If the choice of the self was just the results of a group or neurons firing, that would not be freedom nor responsibility. Same if the self was some kind of logic machine causally inferring conclusions from premises. That would allow reduction of it and would eliminate freedom and responsibility of the self.

There is a saying in German like: "That which must not be, cannot be." Like a police officer finding evidence that their son is a rapist, but abandoning that path of investigation because they don't want that result. Libertarians seem to act like this, building a stronghold of the self with walls made of words like non-material, non-reducable, non-dividable, inextricably linked physical-mental... to avoid explanations and scrutiny. It is not empirical nor gives positive explanations, it just rejects all that would threaten the dogma.

  • I would say that your database search engine example hits closest to the target of describing how the human mind works. It is not random, every answer is based on the knowledge in the database alone, no random data or other databases are linked. It is not deterministic, the question already implies that there are multiple possible answers. The database can consider and evaluate multiple potential answers and choose the one it sees as the most appropriate. Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 14:27
  • That's still plain determinism, according to all definitions, in philosophy, science and engineering, around the world, except your personal opinion. Computers are considered determined and deterministic. See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deterministic_algorithm
    – tkruse
    Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 21:41
  • Computers are indeed our closest approximations of a deterministic system. But even they are subject to random malfunctions and deliberate human interactions. Programming a computer requires free will. The programmer has to decide everything that the computer will do. Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 3:22
  • So free will must have been involved in creating the brain? Who deliberately created your brain? Who deliberately created the brain of the first homo sapiens? If this could happen in nature without free will, what makes free will an necessary part of creation, rather than a convenience?
    – tkruse
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 8:04
  • The brain has evolved without creation. I was talking about programming (=deciding the actions). Both a computer and a human body need a human brain to program them. Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 10:25

Substance dualism, as advocated by Descartes, doesn't work - as Elizabeth of Bohemia pointed out in Descartes' own lifetime:

"I ask you please to tell me how the soul of a human being (it being only a thinking substance) can determine the bodily spirits, in order to bring about voluntary actions. For it seems that all determination of movement happens through the impulsion of the thing moved, by the manner in which it is pushed by that which moves it, or else by the particular qualities and shape of the surface of the latter. Physical contact is required for the first two conditions, extension for the third. You entirely exclude the one [extension—i.e., spatial dimensions] from the notion you have of the soul, and the other [physical contact] appears to me incompatible with an immaterial thing." -Elizabeth of Bohemia in letters to Descartes

For more discussion of this see: Is the concept of information nonphysical? Essentially substance dualism requires a metaphysical or spiritual realm, and how it connects to the material cannot be accounted for using logic and reason.

Property dualism, is the dominant perspective in science, that there is in a deep way one substance or origin to the universe, and there are two core categories to the substance: mass-energy, and information. Discussed here: Is the idea that "Everything is energy" even coherent? In this perspective there is only causally determined or random physics, leaving no space for libertarian free-will, which requires a metaphysical or immaterial realm.

But, as well as libertarian free-will, and no-free-will materialism, there is a third option, compatibilism. This basically involves investigating and reconciling our intuitions that we are making decisions, with the idea that in principle they are determined completely by deterministic and random processes.

Supervenience is the term for the approach typically used to justify 'downward causation', of units or lumps of concepts that we group together for convenience. Eg the complex but oddly persistent set of chemical reactions we call a human. I would suggest it is better thought of that supervenience happens from rule-of-thumb explanatory layers, 'downwards' in terms of prediction.

So, we can in practice predict humans better by a layer we call 'character', than the layer we call 'chemistry': because of sensitivity-to-initial conditions meaning any initial errors grow (& indeterminacy means there will always be errors), and the chemistry layer of prediction also involves gigantically more computations. But: judges are more lenient after lunch, because of chemical reactions - the useful efficient layer doesn't make the more fundamental layer cease to have impacts, it is only that most human behaviour is better predicted by character than by lunch.

I would interpret and explain the compatibilist approach to free-will, as that free-will, character, psychology, is all part of a system or layer of shortcuts to good predictions for where data is incomplete, and computations about the data are limited. That is: not part of the fundamental reality, but in practice almost the only way to meaningfully predict other humans efficiently - and the Dunbar number points to reading intentions as being the biggest driver of our neocortex development, not tool use.

Some relevant quotes, that help us picture that we begin with our biology, but proceed from there:

"Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills" -Schopenhaur

"Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." -Hume

"man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world – and defines himself afterwards" -Sartre

Within these constraints, I would describe cultivation of wisdom as the way to minimise cognitive biases and contradictory actions and ideas, and philosophy as the method for understanding how to cultivate wisdom. Discussed here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises?

  • 1
    Elizabeth of Bohemia's argument does not seem very strong, especially since modern physics has dispensed with the mechanist picture where all movement is caused by contact forces. There doesn't seem to be anything incoherent about a picture where there are some meta-laws governing the mental realm and the physical realm that dictate how causes in the former can change motions in the latter. But I agree with tkruse's point that this sort of interactive dualism wouldn't solve the problem of assigning any positive meaning to the claim that mental events are neither determined nor random.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 17:26
  • 1
    Locality has a very specific meaning in QFT (that field operators at a space-like separation must commute) which can't be equated with "no action at a distance" in the sense of Bell's local realism. Even local realist theories needn't involve mechanical contact forces (classical electromagnetism is a local realist theory but a charge can be moved by local EM field changes rather than contact). In any case, I don't believe interactive dualism is true in the real world, my point is just that there's nothing a priori incoherent about the idea, nor about other forms of non-locality.
    – Hypnosifl
    Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 18:20
  • 1
    @Hypnosifl, EofB's argument was in terms of Descartes's own cosmology. It was Descartes who claimed that the material world is fully deterministic due to mechanical laws. EofB was simply pointing out a contradiction in his views. As a counter to Descartes's cosmology as a whole, it was pretty decisive. As a counter to dualism in general, not so much. Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 19:24
  • 1
    @CriglCragl, Elizabeth's criticism is only telling against someone who is a physical determinist. Since modern physics no longer supports that view, her criticism doesn't even apply to the average physicist any more, much less anyone who rejects the notion that the laws of physics represent the fundamental structure of causality. Commented Apr 25, 2022 at 19:30
  • 1
    While compatibilism is nice, my question is specifically about non-compatibilist, non-deterministic dualism accounts, I made this more clear now in my question.
    – tkruse
    Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 1:35

I'm not so sure in this myself but i'll put here the source i'v found this in, aswell as try to explain this briefly.

I have read this book which points to a third mechanism that is not determinisim nor random. He uses the principle of sufficent reason to state that your mind might not have a cause to it's actions, but it has a reason. Reasons come after an event and not before the event like causes. An example for this is somthing that exists forever and is very unique does not have a cause but should have a reason why is it unique (the world or the laws of physics if we assume they exists forever back).

So to your example, if you choose to eat a hamburger, nothing caused you to do it but you have a reason why you did it. Its not random because you have a reason and its not deterministic because nothing caused you to do it (it's your own free will - mind, soul, call it whatever).

  • You are on the right track. The reason in the past is called the cause. The reason in the future is called the purpose. Free will is the ability to do things for a purpose. Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 14:34
  • @PerttiRuismäki Thanks, English is not my first language and I tried to translate it. Purpose is the right word I searched for.
    – yair
    Commented Apr 28, 2022 at 15:18

You asked, what is the third alternative to determinism and randomness. Mathematically such alternavive means that the probability of an event is itself uncertain. There are multiple mathematical theories that deal with uncertain probabilities (such kind of uncertainty is called "Knightian uncertainty"). Some of these theories use the term "possibility" instead of "probability" in calculation.

So, mathematically we can describe the thing quite well except that such theories have less predicting power than stochastic (probabilistic) theories, which in turn have less predictive power than deterministic theories.

Now, is it possible that the most complete physical description of our world (as seen by an observer) is possibilistic rather than probabilistic (stochastic)?

Yes. Moreover, it is mathematically necessary the case for a subjective perception of the world. Thomas Breuer has proven (2,3) that the future evolution of a system that properly includes the observer, cannot be predicted by that observer deterministically or even probabilistically, regardless of what physical theories he decides to use.

To say it simplier, one cannot predict oneself with any amount of equipment and textbooks.

A probabilistic theory can be valid only in relative sense: when applied to a system in which the observer is not properly included. One observer can predict the other but not oneself.

Moreover, universally valid in relative sense physical theory can even be deterministic, like some interpretations of quantum mechanics (Bohmian interpretation)! From outside-of-universe perspective the universe can be deterministic.

But according to Breuer, the observer will be unable to distinguish certain states of himself (in other words, he will be uncertain about own state). There will be physically unaccessible information which nevertheless can be a cause of some events in the future!

The observer will be ignorant not only about own present state, but also, in case of deterministic universe, about his past.

Thus, in deterministic quantum interpretation, the very source of unpredictability of the future from the subjective point of view of an observer comes from the unknown initial conditions of the universe. The observer cannot know his state ergo he cannot know his past state ergo he cannot know the initial state of the universe.

So, we see that while mathematically we are capable to describe the third alternative to determinism and stochasticism, the nature of it leaves space for interpretations. It can be:

  • Unknown (in principle) initial conditions of the universe that did not affect any observable events in the past but can affect events in the future.

  • Free will

  • Other influence from the ouside of physical world: think about it as about an I/O port in a computer via which an external entity (which can be God or gamer) affects the physical world in unpredictable ways.

So, in summary, from the subjective point of view of an observer the universe is not predictable deterministically or probabilistically, regardless of the theory used, which is a mathematical fact. But this outside-of-physical-universe influence can be interpreted as free will, God's intervention or the result of initial conditions of the universe.

  • A universe that is deterministic is not necessarily predictable, not even from the outside. But a universe that is deterministic from the outside is also deterministic from the inside, even if an internal observe can never predict. So the internal observer is at a disadvantage for prediction, but that does not make it any less deterministic. Your assumption that determinism and predictability are the same is wrong. the question must be answered without the topic of prediction
    – tkruse
    Commented Nov 16, 2023 at 20:58
  • @tkruse hmm. First point. Determinsm is literally predictability: the future is fully determined by the present state. Knowing present allows to predict future. This is a quote from Stanford Encyclopedy of Philosophy: "Determinism is true of the world if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law. "
    – Anixx
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 1:24
  • @tkruse Second point. There is no ouside-of-the-universe observer. Wheter the universally-valid in a relative sense (e.g. when applied to systems not properly containing observer) theory is determinitic or not depends on interpretation of quantum mechanics but if we take the whole universe from the point of an observer (which is necessary for scientific method), the most complete physical theory cannot be determinitic or stochastic. Thomas Breuer has shown that deterministic or stchastic universally valid theories are impossible.
    – Anixx
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 1:35
  • @tkruse you can say that internal ofserver is simply at disadvantage but this disadvantage is irreducible. A thing not measurable by internal observer is not physical, because physics like all of scientific method is based on observation. So, the most complete physical description of reality (and by "phisical" I mean, observable and measurable by internal observer) has insufficient information to accuretely predict future. Hence, it is indeterministic.
    – Anixx
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 1:39
  • "When it comes to predictability of future events by humans or other finite agents in the world, then, predictability and determinism are simply not logically connected at all." plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal. Also see Scrivens paradox and philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/90764/…
    – tkruse
    Commented Nov 17, 2023 at 7:39

First: There is no need to escape determinism. There is no determinism to escape. Note, that "being determined" does not mean the same as "being under determinism".

Therefore any dichotomy where determinism is the other half is wrong. In this case the real dichotomy is the question "determined by what?"

Note, that randomness is not involved in this dichotomy either. Nothing is determined by randomness, every event is caused by something, but causes don't determine their effects with absolute accuracy. Randomness in this context means the inaccuracy between a cause and its effect.

We have two possible anwers for the question "determined by what?" This doesn't necessarily mean dualism, but only that it's a dichotomy.

An effect can be determined either

  • Physically by the previous event, or
  • Mentally by a decision to act

Physical causation is not the only way to determine physical effects. Actions by living beings are determined by their decisions, which are knowledge about the being's plans, not any physical events.

I am hesitant to talk about mental causation (hence my question about control), as that is a controversial and possibly inaccurate way to put it. But it seems quite obvious that our voluntary actions are determined by mental processes. Only spinal reflexes are caused by prior physical events.

The actual method by which the mental determines the physical is yet unknown.

  • So... Your answer is "I don't have an answer" ?
    – armand
    Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 4:00
  • My answer in short is: Dualism (or another position acknowledging the mental) works by having the mind determine voluntary actions. Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 6:16
  • As long as you can only handwave how the mental can possibly cause the activity potentials in neurons to build up and fire this answer is not an answer. Either you accept that there are two different descriptive layers of the very same process (phenomenological and physical), then the question still is how they relate to the ontology, or you have to answer that question first. Over 100 years of fierce philosophical debate say predominantly yes, there is phenomenological description and it's totally valid within its own sphere but physical description is closer to how things actually are.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 9:12
  • Explaining the technicalities of how decisions are converted to actions is not my responsibility nor any philosopher's. I am only observing the very strong correlation between thoughts and actions. I am not sure whether this correlation should be called causation, control or determination. That, I believe, is still subject to debate. Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 12:15
  • I do also observe the very strong correlation between the perceptual stimulus of a fata morgana and the belief that there indeed is water ahead. Nobody debates that people have the belief that they can freely choose to move their arms by mere thought most of the times, nor that this belief has real consequences, for example in punitive law. That isn't even the question proper. The real question is whether free will is a mere impression we have or a real thing, since our perceptions fool us often enough into believing something that, taken from a different standpoint, turns out to be wrong.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 27, 2022 at 18:45

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