Dilemma of determinism

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In philosophy the dilemma of determinism historically was posed as an outgrowth from a moral quandary, the quandary posed by a belief that 'fate' determines everything, leaving no room for humans to make decisions about their conduct, and if that is so, no room for them to be held responsible for their conduct. A modern version of the quandary does not rely upon 'fate' as determining events, but rather the 'laws of nature' in some form or another and, as before, the 'laws of nature' determine our actions and we have the moral quandary of assigning moral responsibility.

Sometimes the dilemma is cast in a somewhat different manner, suggesting that 'fate' or the 'laws of nature' are not the sole agency for change, but that as an alternative at least some events might simply be random. That does not settle the dilemma, as humans are not responsible for random events any more than those controlled by outside agency.[1] It does complicate the dilemma somewhat by suggesting a dichotomy of explanation, either 'fate' or 'randomness', that introduces the added issue of an alternative to 'fate'. In ancient times, the 'gods' could intervene capriciously to interrupt 'fate'; today the 'laws of nature' are seen as probabilistic, not certain. Perhaps a broader (and more humble) view of the matter is to quote Fischer:

"If we knew that determinism were true and we also knew both the natural laws and the complete description of the universe at the present (or at any point in the past), we could predict with certainty whether or not [a] house will be destroyed by an earthquake. But in fact we do not know the natural laws or whether they are deterministic; and we do not have available such a description. Thus we make predictions based on what we take to be possibilities, broadly construed."[2]
—John Martin Fischer: Dennett on the basic argument, p. 434

Today, the 'laws of nature' appear to determine the statistical probabilities for the occurrence of events, rather than providing certainty, but that leaves the dilemma for morality intact.[1]

There are additional aspects of the 'dilemma of determinism' related to the psychological and social consequences of a belief in the force of the dilemma, for example, the possible paralysis of all purposive thought.[3] In addition, there are theological aspects; as Saint Augustine noted: how can it be "that God knows all things beforehand and that, nevertheless, we do not sin by necessity..."[4]

Horns of a dilemma

The actual 'dilemma of determinism' arises from the conflict of two intuitions. On one hand is an intuition about the way nature works, an intuition of the implacable flow of the events of a universe independent of human values and human intervention, governed either by causation or caprice. And on the other, our intuition of possessing at least some degree of personal autonomy. This conflict between two intuitions is truly a dilemma, an unpleasant choice between conflicting intuitions.

However, a more bloodless and theoretical statement of the 'dilemma' is based upon the standard argument against free will. That argument can be phrased as a syllogism with three premises and a conclusion:[5]

P1: If our actions, choices and decisions are caused, they are not free
P2: If our actions, choices and decisions are not caused, then they still are not free
P3: Our actions, choices and decisions are either caused or they are not caused
  C: Either way, our actions, choices and decisions are not free

This syllogism then sets up a 'dilemma' for the select group of those who (i) want to believe in free will, and also (ii) accept the third premise of the syllogism. This group finds itself "in a spot of bother. The trouble takes the form of what is known as a dilemma...You're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."[5] Specifically, this group is "damned if they accept the first premise and damned if they accept the second." In this formulation, the forced alternatives one must choose between are sometimes referred to as the 'horns of the dilemma', the 'horns' being the first two of the three postulates of the standard argument against free will.

This presentation of the 'dilemma' intended as a formalization of our intuitions has occasioned endless dispute over terminology: what does 'cause' mean, what constitutes a 'choice', and how do choice and decision relate to an 'action', and what does 'free' mean. This amusing diversion for philosophers, according to Strawson, misses the point: the dilemma "is not merely a matter of abstract, theoretical controversy. On the contrary, this is an issue ... with relevance to our attitude to life."[6]

The 'horns-of-a-dilemma' formulation is used to frame Russell's discussion of David Hume:[7][8]

"One horn of this dilemma is the argument that if an action was caused or necessitated, then it could not have been done freely and hence the agent is not responsible for it. The other horn is the argument that if the action was not caused, then it is inexplicable and random, and thus it cannot be attributed to the agent and hence, again, the agent cannot be responsible for it."[9]
—Paul Russell: Freedom and Moral Sentiment, p. 14

Fischer also uses the 'horns of a dilemma' description, calling the two horns the 'deterministic' horn and the 'indeterministic' horn. [10] (Fischer does not address free will, but moral responsibility, a more complex formulation.).

A general formulation of the syllogism that allows a separate discussion of the numerous issues that plague the standard argument is as follows:

The concept of determinism contradicts that of free will — the deterministic horn,
The concept of indeterminism also contradicts free will — the indeterministic horn,

and one claim of putative fact:

Some occurrences are governed by determinism, and all the rest by indeterminism — a putative claim of fact,

which statements in combination lead to the conclusion:

In the universe as we know it, free will does not govern any occurrences — the conclusion.

The premises are two statements relating definitions and an assertion of putative fact. (The putative claim of fact goes beyond any evidential assessment, which would lead to a more modest claim. Its basis is a speculation or intuition about 'nature'.) This formulation avoids including in the premises specific formulations of 'determinism', 'indeterminism', 'free will' and what constitutes an 'occurrence'. That way, these issues can be separated from the syllogism itself, and one can substitute for these terms whatever interpretation one has decided upon.

Fischer's discussion invites revisiting the definitions of 'free will', 'determinism', 'indeterminism' and, possibly, limiting what kind of event constitutes an 'occurrence'. Fischer goes on to suggest that the argument against allowance of agency underlying the two 'horns' has a similar structure regardless of which 'horn' is selected.[10]

Moral responsibility

For more information, see: Moral responsibility.

The older formulation in terms of 'fate' predates the Stoics and their major apologist Chrysippus.[11] In a critique of Chrysippus, Plutarch proposed that responsibility implied humans had a possible influence over events, and the 'possible' necessarily must be able to occur, and cannot be 'possible' if fate denies its occurrence. The conclusion is that if 'fate' exists, then at least it is not invincible. The resolution of the dilemma by a division of events into the fated and the unfated persists to this day.

Such a division was approached in the 1780's by Immanuel Kant, who had high confidence in the authority of intuition, and suggested that moral matters were to be analyzed as lying outside the rules governing material objects.[12] "There is a sharp difference between moral judgments and judgments of fact...Moral judgments ... must be a priori judgments."[13] Evidently, the dilemma of determinism is avoided under these conditions, as our moral decision processes lie outside the reach of everyday causality. "Unfortunately, not many philosophers..would be prepared today to follow Kant's way out of the dilemma of determinism."[14]

In an address titled The dilemma of determinism in 1884, William James suggested that "A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the free‐will controversy".[15] James formulated the implications of the 'dilemma of determinism' for moral responsibility like this:[16]

1. Either causal determinism is true, or it is false.
2. If it is true, then I am compelled to act as I do, and am not morally responsible for my actions.
3. If it is false, then how I act is random, and I am again not morally responsible for my acts.


4. I am not morally responsible for my actions.

This syllogism is sometimes called the classical formulation of the free will problem,[17] and sometimes the standard argument against free will.[18] Strawson refers to a somewhat more general formulation as The Basic Argument:[19]

1. Nothing can be causa sui — nothing can be the cause of itself.
2. In order to be truly morally responsible for one's actions one would have to be causa sui, at least in in certain crucial mental respects.
3. Therefore, no-one can be truly morally responsible.

James went on to argue that this syllogism argues against acceptance of the dilemma, because moral responsibility is a fact of life that cannot be abandoned.

"Moreover, in 'The Dilemma of Determinism' (1884) William James ...defined the dilemma as consisting not merely in the insignificance of human action but more importantly in the irrelevancy of human judgment because a determinist passively accepts all that happens...James argues that the world should not be viewed as a determinist machine but rather 'as a contrivance for deepening the theoretic consciousness of what goodness and evil in their intrinsic nature are'. James believes that individuals are compelled to exercise their abilities to make ethical decisions, connecting the individual will to a more ethical world and asserting that determinism left a void of moral passivity."[20]
—Rick Armstrong: “First principles of morals”: Evolutionary morality and American naturalism, pp. 141-142

Just as did Plutarch, James posited that events fall into two groups: the causally determined and the rest.

"I myself believe that all the magnificent achievements of mathematical and physical science — our doctrines of evolution, of uniformity of law, and the rest — proceed from our indomitable desire to cast the world into a more rational shape in our minds than the shape into which it is thrown there by the crude order of our experience. The world has shown itself, to a great extent, plastic to this demand of ours for rationality. How much further it will show itself plastic no one can say...If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand of uniformity of sequence...The principle of causality, for example, — what is it but a postulate, an empty name covering a demand that the sequence of events...manifest a deeper kind of belonging of one thing with another than the mere arbitrary juxtaposition which now phenomenally appears?"[15]
—William James: The Will to Believe, p. 147

In short, if forced in some instance to choose between “a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world” and morality, James would settle the dilemma by sacrificing the first.

Some modern thinkers have come to share Kant's view that moral judgments lie outside the reach of determinism, so the dilemma of determinism does not apply to them.

"We sometimes have to look at ourselves as physical objects, particularly when we try to explain our actions in terms of the laws of science, such as psychology. But we sometimes also have to look at ourselves as free conscious beings, particularly when we try to understand ourselves as beings who act in the world. Determinism, then, is not a feature of the world. It is a feature of one way of looking at ourselves..."[21]
—Manuel Velasquez: From his discussion of Kant in Philosophy, p. 211

Steven Pinker has made such a division:

"The faculty with which we ponder the world has no ability to peer inside itself or our other faculties to see what makes them tick.": [22]
—Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works, p. 4
"Science is guaranteed to appear to eat eat away at the will, regardless of what it finds, because the scientific mode of explanation cannot accommodate the mysterious notion of uncaused causation that underlies the will. If scientists wanted to show people had free will, what would they look for? Some random neural event that the rest of the brain amplifies into a signal triggering behavior? But a random event does not fit the concept of free will any more than a lawful one does, and could not serve as the long-sought locus of moral responsibility.
"Either we dispense with all morality as an unscientific superstition, or we find a way to reconcile causation...with responsibility and free will." "Science and morality are separate spheres of reasoning. Only by recognizing them as separate can we have them both." [22]
—Steven Pinker: How the Mind Works, pp. 54 -55

A similar division between the scientific or 'theoretical' explanation of the behavior of objects and the arena of human decision is proposed by Bok:

"The word 'determined' is here deliberately ambiguous...Theoretical reason is concerned to provide causal explanations of events. If we interpret claims about the ways in which something is determined as theoretical claims, we must interpret 'determined' as 'caused', since causation is the type of determination to which theoretical explanations appeal...the claim that persons are free while objects are not must mean that there is some difference in kind between the causes of our choices and actions and those of the behavior of other objects...As long as we regard ourselves as objects of theoretical reasoning...we will be unable to resolve the problem of freedom of the will."[23]
—Hilary Bok: Freedom and Responsibility, pp.199-203

In effect, these explanations separate moral responsibility and the intuitive experience of free will from the domain of the 'laws of nature'. These philosophers are attacking a position that includes what is sometimes called the mind-brain identity hypothesis,[24] the idea that states and processes of the mind are identical to states and processes of the brain. Such explanations are not universally accepted.

Frankfurt counterexamples

A much-discussed type of argument intends to show that "the kind of control needed for moral responsibility is compatible with the lack of ability to do otherwise".[25] These arguments intend to show that an intuitive idea of moral responsibility is compatible with a situation where there is no real choice available, because one chooses the moral action while unaware that the other alternatives are only apparent choices, but not really available. This constrained situation is morally indistinguishable from one where the alternatives actually were available, but the same choice was made.

This formulation divides an action into parts: the actual decision process and an execution process for that decision. Whatever may be involved in reaching a decision, restrictions might arise to modify or impede its implementation.[26]

This type of argument was proposed first by Harry Frankfurt, and they are called "Frankfurt style counterexamples".[25] A simple version is to imagine an individual called Jones free to make their own decisions under most conditions, but subject to control by means of a computer chip imbedded in their brain that is operated by a puppet master called Black. If Jones chooses not to perform act A, Black can intervene and force Jones to do A. But if Jones decides personally to do A, then Black need not intervene. Then Jones is morally responsible for doing A, even though in fact there was no choice. The conclusion is that one can be responsible for a choice even though, in fact, there is no choice.

It is generally conceded that such arguments are more a wordsmithing side-step around the dilemma, rather than a direct resolution.[27] Arguments of this sort can be lumped under the heading of the dilemma defense.[27]

Other views

There exist many subtle and complicated arguments to reconcile responsibility while asserting the claims of science, and all are debated.[10][17] They depend upon elaborate refinements in definitions and reinterpretations of subjective experience.

There are philosophers that attempt to leave human decision making within the realm of scientific explanation, but claim that moral responsibility does not actually require the ability to enforce our decisions, which remain determined by natural law. One such position was expressed by Zeno of Citium:

"The story goes that Zeno was flogging a slave for stealing. “I was fated to steal”, said the slave. “And to be flogged”, was Zeno's reply" [28]
—Anthony Gottlieb: The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance, p. 317

Still others simply deny that humans have any capacity to make decisions at all, and the impression that we can is simply illusory.[29][30]

Connection to the subject-object problem

For more information, see: Subjective-objective dichotomy.

Kant has elevated the dilemma beyond the dilemma with moral responsibility to a broader issue, sometimes called Kant's Copernican revolution:[31]

"What to do? How to think about this impossible dilemma? The laws of the universe are certain, they are not capricious, they are not temporary conveniences; there is an implacable order of nature. Yet there is no direct experience of this order. I know, with utter certainty, that every effect must have a cause, although I have never seen or experienced causal power! Is the mind of man doomed forever to speak of things it cannot be sure of when it seeks to ascertain the deepest truths about reality? ... Kant's answer to this dilemma could be likened, as he himself likened it, to the revolution brought about by Copernicus — only this Copernican revolution concerned not the movements of the planets and the stars, but the very relationship of the human mind to nature itself. Until now, Kant says, man has completely misunderstood this relationship. Until now, he has believed that true knowledge, true ideas, involve a sort of mental mirroring of the order of nature — the mind forming concepts that accurately reflect external reality. At the deepest level, Kant says this cannot be true. On the contrary, the opposite is true: The order of nature conforms to the structure of the mind! And not my mind, or your mine, but the structure of mind, reason itself. Reason legislates to nature — it does not simply obey it! At the deepest level of natural order, it is reason that is the active principle and nature that is the passive principle. Just as Copernicus had shown that the motions of the heavens are determined by the motions of the Earth, so Kant demonstrated that the laws of nature are put into nature by the mind, not merely discovered there as something existing independently of the mind."
—Jacob Needleman: The Heart of Philosophy, p. 172

In terms more general than the issue of moral responsibility, the basic concern underlying the 'dilemma of determinism' is the inherent perplexity we suffer from trying to reconcile two instinctive beliefs: (i) the belief that there exist inexorable events beyond our control (how we describe them is only details: gods, science or destiny), and (ii) the belief in a personal ability to decide one's own actions.[32] The first belief, if applied to ourselves, challenges the second, but both beliefs are strongly held.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Paul Russell (1995). Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume's Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. Oxford University Press, p. 14. ISBN 0198025548. “If an action was not caused, then it is inexplicable and random, and thus cannot be attributed to the agent, and hence, again, the agent cannot be responsible for it.” 
  2. John Martin Fischer (July 2005). "Dennett on the basic argument". Metaphilosophy 36: 427-435.
  3. Galen Strawson (2010). “Phenomenology, commitment and what might happen”, Freedom and belief, Revised. Oxford University Press, p. 88. ISBN 0199247498.  and Galen Strawson (2012). “Chapter 5: On "Freedom and Resentment"”, Michael McKenna and Paul Russell. eds: Free will and reactive attitudes: perspectives on PF Strawson's "Freedom and Resentment". Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., p. 99. ISBN 1409485870. 
  4. Saint Augustine as quoted by Linda Trinkaus Zagzebski (1991). “Chapter 1: The foreknowledge dilemmas”, The Dilemma of Freedom and Foreknowledge. Oxford University Press, p. 3. ISBN 0195355407. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Mark Rowlands (2012). The Philosopher At The End Of The Universe: Philosophy Explained Through Science Fiction Films. Random House, p. 144. ISBN 1448116678. 
  6. Michael McKenna, Paul Russell (2006). “Introduction”, Michael McKenna, Paul Russell, eds: Free Will and Reactive Attitudes: Perspectives on PF Strawson's Freedom and Resentment. Ashgate Publishing Co., p. 4. ISBN 0754640590. 
  7. Paul Russell (1995). Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume's Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. Oxford University Press, p. 51. ISBN 0198025548. “one aspect of Hume's strategy is to reveal that the dilemma of determinism, presented as an alternative between horns A [chance] and C [metaphysical necessity] is a false dilemma...[based upon] confusion about the nature of necessity.” 
  8. The 'horns of a dilemma' is Russell's interpretation of Hume's discussion found in: David Hume (November 15, 2011). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1777). Project Gutenberg. See in particular §VI: Of probability, and §VII: Of the idea of necessary connection.
  9. Paul Russell (1995). Freedom and Moral Sentiment: Hume's Way of Naturalizing Responsibility. Oxford University Press, p. 14. ISBN 0198025548. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 John Martin Fischer (2011). “Chapter 4: Indeterminism and control: An approach to the problem of luck”, Law and Neuroscience: Current Legal Issues. Oxford University Press, pp. 41-60. ISBN 019959984X.  Also published in John Martin Fischer (2012). “Chapter 6: Indeterminism and control: An approach to the problem of luck”, Deep Control: Essays on Free Will and Value. Oxford University Press, pp. 85 ff. ISBN 0199742987.  On-line version available from University of Oklahoma.
  11. Susanne Bobzien (1998). “Introduction”, Determinism and Freedom in Stoic Philosophy. Oxford University Press, pp. 11 ff. ISBN 0198237944. 
  12. R Kevin Hill (2003). “Chapter 7: The critique of morality: The three pillars of Kantian ethics”, Nietzsche's Critiques : The Kantian Foundations of His Thought, Paperback, pp. 196-201. ISBN 0199285527. 
  13. Herbert James Paton (1971). “§2 Moral judgements are a priori”, The Categorical Imperative: A Study in Kant's Moral Philosophy. University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 20. ISBN 0812210239. 
  14. See the discussion of Kant's views in Patrick Suppes (1993). “§4 Irrelevance of physical determinism”, Models and Methods in the Philosophy of Science: Selected Essays. Springer, pp. 479-480. ISBN 0792322118. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 An address to Harvard Divinity School students in Divinity Hall on March 13, 1884: William James (1886). “The dilemma of determinism”, The Will to Believe: And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, Reprint. Longmans, Green, and Company, pp. 145 ff.  On-line text here
  16. As presented by John Martin Fischer (2011). “§4.1 The dilemma of determinism”, Michael Freeman, ed: Law and Neuroscience: Current Legal Issues. Oxford University Press, pp. 41 ff. ISBN 019959984X.  On-line version found here.
  17. 17.0 17.1 McKenna, Michael (Oct 5, 2009). Edward N. Zalta, ed:Compatibilism: §1.5 The free will problem. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition).
  18. A number of authors use this terminology. One is: Jesse Hobbs (1994). Religious explanation and scientific ideology, Toronto Studies in Religion, Book 17. Peter Lang Publishing, p. 144. ISBN 0820421979. , and another is Bob Doyle (2011). “Chapter 4: The standard argument against free will”, Free Will: The Scandal in Philosophy. I-Phi Press, pp. 27-53. ISBN 098358026X. 
  19. Galen Strawson (2012). “Chapter 37: The impossibility of moral responsibility”, Russ Shafer-Landau, ed.: Ethical Theory: An Anthology, 2nd ed. John Wiley & Sons, pp. 312 ff. ISBN 1118316835. 
  20. Rick Armstrong (2011). “Chapter 8: "First principles of morals": evolutionary morality and American naturalism”, Keith Newlin, ed: The Oxford Handbook of American Literary Naturalism. Oxford University Press, pp. 141-142. ISBN 0195368932. 
  21. Manuel Velasquez (2012). “§3.7 Is freedom real”, Philosophy, 12th. Cengage Learning, p. 211. ISBN 1133612105. 
  22. 22.0 22.1 Steven Pinker (2009). How The Mind Works, Paperback reissue. W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 54 -55. ISBN 0393334775. 
  23. Hilary Bok (1998). Freedom and Responsibility. Princeton University Press. ISBN 069101566X. 
  24. J. J. C. Smart (May 18, 2007). Edward N. Zalta (ed.):The Mind/Brain Identity Theory. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition).
  25. 25.0 25.1 Kevin Tempe (2013). “Chapter 5: Frankfurt and weak compatibilism”, Free Will: Sourcehood and its alternatives, 2nd ed. Bloomsbury, pp. 77 ff. ISBN 9781441189936. 
  26. Examples are described by Bernard Berofsky (2012). “Internal-external distinction”, Nature's Challenge to Free Will. Oxford University Press, 89-92. ISBN 0199640017. 
  27. 27.0 27.1 Kevin Tempe (2013). “Chapter 6: The dilemma defense”, Free Will: Sourcehood and its alternatives, 2nd ed. Bloomsbury, pp. 81 ff. ISBN 9781441189936. 
  28. Anthony Gottlieb (2010). The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance. W. W. Norton & Company, p. 317. ISBN 0393339637. 
  29. J. J. C. Smart (July 1961). "Free-Will, Praise and Blame". Mind 70 (279): 293-4. On-line version here. This article argues that our moral choices must be either determined or a matter of chance, and there is no third possibility. It is an argument against 'contra-causal freedom' as proposed by Charles Arthur Campbell. Campbell's paper "Is freewill a pseudo-problem" is available on-line.
  30. Kadri Vihvelin (Mar 1, 2011). Edward N. Zalta, ed.:Arguments for Incompatibilism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition).
  31. Jacob Needleman (2003). “One self: two worlds”, The heart of philosophy, Penguin reprint of Alfred A Knopf 1982, p. 172. ISBN 1585422517. 
  32. Corliss Lamont (1969). Freedom of choice affirmed. Beacon Press, p. 38.  Corliss Lamont describes the intuition of freedom of choice as follows: "the unmistakable intuition of virtually every human being that he is free to make the choices he does and that the deliberations leading to those choices are also free flowing"