There's No Such Thing as Free Will and Determinism

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s no surprise that Stephen Cave’s story in our current issue, “There’s No Such Thing as Free Will,” is one of the most read and hotly debated Atlantic pieces this month. The galaxy of philosophical issues called “free will and determinism” is where morals and physics come together. In other words, it’s a subject that genuinely matters, and one that’s a hell of a lot of fun to argue about.

The relationship between physical laws and moral laws is intuitive to most people. If the rules that govern the universe that exist outside of ourselves and before we’re born apply to our actions, how can we be responsible for those actions?

But it’s worth taking a closer look at this, as some readers are already doing. This one states the case that a purely deterministic universe rules out the possibility of free will:

Conscious or sub-conscious, if our choices are governed by chemical interactions in the brain, then they are not choices or free will at all—just the result of inherently predictable and deterministic interactions governed by laws of classical physics. The only potential for free will is quantum interactions in the brain, which may or may not exist (no proof yet either way).

According to this line, the jury is out on whether we have free will, because it depends on the forthcoming findings of physics as to whether there is randomness in the decision-making processes in our brains. At its core, the claim here is that in order to be responsible for doing something—in order to have done it freely—we need to have been able to do something else. We need multiple options, or alternative possibilities.

But the following reader looks critically at why indeterminism would justify moral responsibility:

How does randomness lead to free will? Let’s say at every possible decision point in my day—coffee or no coffee, take the freeway or surface streets, place a comma or don’t place a comma—that instead of making a choice (or being causally forced into a choice), I instead have to stop and flip a coin. Heads I do one of the things, tails the other, and it’s perfectly random.

Is this anything like free will? If I landed heads and had coffee, tails and took surface streets, and tails and placed the comma, did I choose those things in any meaningful sense of the word?

Taken together, we can see the germ of an odd but appealing idea here: Perhaps neither determinism nor indeterminism leads to the kind of moral responsibility and free will we have such a strong intuitions towards. Maybe if we can be morally responsible, it’s for some other reason entirely.

I wrote my dissertation a few years ago arguing for this idea, which is called “semicompatibilism.” It’s gaining ground in philosophy circles due largely to its greatest champion, a California philosopher named John Martin Fischer. For now, it’s still a fringe view that hopes to overturn millennia of accepted wisdom about one of the oldest and most important issues in philosophy.

It gets technical fast, but the justification is simple: We have a strong intuition for moral responsibility. And if something does justify moral responsibility, it’s probably something that actually happened, not something that might have happened but didn’t. Moral responsibility is immune to the question of whether the universe is or is not determined.

Think about it for a moment: The notion that we are morally responsible for something because we could have done otherwise even though we didn’t is actually really weird, isn’t it? It’s the disingenuous logic of insurance salesmen. And to paraphrase Fischer, should our deepest senses of ourselves as moral agents really be hostage to the arcane discoveries by theoretical physicists of more and more accurate equations that describe the universe? The physics questions are a discussion of a different type, and it doesn’t seem like they should matter one way or the other.

As another reader puts it:

Why do so many people equate “free will” with “non-determinism”? Just because our choices are predictable, it does not mean that we do not make choices.

Well, why do they? If you have any thoughts on the matter, or Stephen Cave’s piece more generally, let us know: