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Free Will vs Determinism

“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is

  determinism, the way you play it is free will.” 

Do we live the lives that we determine or do our destinies dominate our decisions?

Considering the mistakes that we have done, how guilty are we? Was it all in our hands, or was the unpleasant situation that we are facing meant to be? Maybe we are shaping our lives with our free will to choose, or we are living the lives that were already determined. There is a confliction between the causality rule of nature and the person’s capability to choose from a set of actions to get the best outcome. The controversy focuses on this question: Are we really free to make our own choices or is it determined by God or any other environmental factor? This topic can be gathered under the main topic of free will versus determinism. Analyzing the dominant factor that creates our lives can only happen if we know exactly the limits of our free will and parts of our lives that we took as given. Although no one could give the best explanation to this pool of questions that are caused from free will vs. determinism, the best explanation to this dilemma is explained in the articles of Free Will vs. Determinism (by Margaret Rose Mauger) and Free Will versus Determinism (by Stuart Burns), in which it is demonstrated that one’s fate takes over the control of our lives. In other words, our environment creates our lives and all we choose depends on what is given to us.

First of all, we need to concentrate on the meanings of free will and determinism in order to get a better understanding for our concept. Free will is the power of making decisions that are not forced by external manipulation, individuals’ fate or divine will. Of course there are so many types of freedom, but the type of freedom that we are going to consider is the one that can be exercised under all circumstances, even if a person had a gun aimed to his head. Simply, if you have free will, then it means that you have the absolute control over your behaviors. When we consider determinism, the other side of the debate, there are some universal laws that influence people’s decisions, therefore their actions. Determinists claim that every action of human beings has a prior cause such as environmental causes, personal background, or directly the person’s fate. Simply, according to the determinists, the universe that we live in has some specific rules that include people and their decisions. In addition, the world has its own structure with its own causative rules and all the people in this universe need to keep up with these prior rules that determine their acts. (Pereboom 96)

Consider the last shopping that you did. Did you really choose what to buy, or was it the commercials around you that made you believe that you choose what to buy? Every day, every moment, we make a decision and with the accumulation of these decisions, we become somebody. Although it is not certain either we act according to our free will or determinism is the main factor that affects our decisions, we always need to give some decisions in order to continue to live. Take the marketing strategies, for example. The big firms at first create commercials that make you believe that you lack something. They make you believe that you are not wearing the appropriate dress, you don’t have the enough equipment you need to keep on with your life. After they made you believe that you lack something, they hang commercials everywhere which you encounter every moment. They come to your door, they find your phone number, you mail address, and send information about their products. After a while, we want to own the things that we didn’t need before. We think that we choose what to buy with our free will, but this isn’t the case. Advertisements make us believe that we choose our shopping list with our free will and this situation usually occurs in everyday life. We think that we made our decisions by regarding the probable consequences, but it is the environmental factors that blur our minds and make us believe that we really want to do or have something.

free will vs determinism

There are some dynamics in life that play crucial parts in the formation of a person’s character, such as the country that we live in, the parents we have, our wealth, the school we go to and the friends we have. These are all realities of our lives which we had no part in determining. Norman Swartz, a professor of philosophy, demonstrates in his article “Lecture Notes on Free Will and Determinism” that the contribution we make to the lives that we live are small comparing to the contributions that our environment make: “One’s genetic makeup, one’s environment and upbringing, one’s education which, at least in one’s early years, is again beyond one’s control” (Swartz, 226-227). Determinists state that people cannot be blamed for their decisions since they do not have the absolute control over their actions and people cannot be considered as definitely free because these actions are settled in the ahead of time. His words perfectly simplifies that there are much larger concepts than free will that creates life. The basic causes that determine people’s attitudes are usually social, biological, genetic, environmental factors, and nobody consulted us while deciding the most important aspects of our lives.

The concept of free will focuses on an individual’s ability to shape his or her own life. If determinism dominates our lives and we don’t contribute to it, then what makes us different from other species? The most significant feature that separates human beings from animal is the specialty of having volition. Although there are some arguments that defend humans can be considered as same as animals, determinists base this idea on that they act in order to survive. It is mankind’s ability to make choices that differs it from animals. An animal uses its instincts to take a movement; if a movement feels s right for that moment, than animals make that movement without considering further consequences. The confliction point of this argument is mankind has the power of making his own decisions by operating his mind and is considered as being unique since he can direct his own life path. While people have the ability of directing their own way, animal’s behaviors depend on their instinct and are chosen without evaluating the situation that they are in. In human beings, making a decision is more than that. A human can perceive the social events surrounding him, evaluate them, and decide on the best step to make in order to improve his or her life quality. If determinism had been dominating the world we are living in, then all of the struggles that mankind is in would be for nothing. As a result, we can reach to the idea that we cannot held animals responsible for their behaviors, even though we can say that humans are able to determine in which conditions to live, why to live and whether to live or not. Does that really mean that we have a freedom of our acts?

To be continued…



1- Jawaharlal Nehru, “The Problem of Freedom” 02/2009 <>
2- E. Greek, Cecil (2005) “Free Will vs. Determinism”, 02/2009 <>
3-Margaret Rose Mauger, (2007). Free Will vs. Determinism. 02/2008. <>
4-Augustine. On Free Choice of the Will. Benjamin AS, Hackstaff LH, trans. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill; 1964.
5- Popper, Karl, (1975), Uniting Metaphysics and Pyhsics , 02/2008
6- Stuart Burns, (2004). Free Will Versus Determinism. 02/2008. <>
7- Waller, Bruce N., (2004). Neglected Psychological Elements of Free Will Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, (Volume 11, Number 2). pp. 111-118.
8- Spence, Sean A., (1996). Free Will in the Light of Neuropsychiatry. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 3.2, (June). pp. 75-90.
9- Pereboom, Derk, (2001). Living Without Free will. Cambridge University Press.
10- MacGregor, Ronald J., (2006). On the Contexts of Things Human : An Integrative View of Brain, Consciousness, and Freedom of Will. World Scientific (Publisher)
11-Double, Richard. (1996). Metaphilosophy and Free Will. Oxford University Press.
12- Spinoza, Benedicus de, Philosophy: Free Will vs. Determinism, 03/2008 <>
13- Wegner, D.M. & Wheatley, T. (1999). Apparent mental causation: sources of the experience of will. American Psychologist, 54, 480-491.
14-Swartz Norman, Lecture Notes on Free Will and Determenism, (Oxford Press)

Uğur İnanç

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