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The Concept of Determinism: Is Free Will Real or an Illusion?

We live our lives with the belief that we are capable of making conscious choices. But are we? Is this belief true or an illusion made up and upheld by us and society to give control and accountability?

The age-old determinism versus free will debate will continue to rage for as long as there are thinkers. Free will posits human control over their behaviors. On the other hand, determinism perceives free will as an illusion and says we have no control over our behavior or deeds. According to this ideology, internal or external forces are responsible for our behaviors. The proponents believe that acts are determined by something, hence the belief in causation, laws of cause and effect.

If we had no choice on who our parents or siblings are, our place and time of birth, gender, genetic inheritance, family history, and childhood experiences—all of which form the foundation of our lives—why do we think we have or will have free will in the following moments of our lives? This is one of the underlying premises of determinists.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss what determinism and free will are. It will also cover determinists’ arguments against free will.

Determinism and Free Will

Our lives are the sum of different, crucial events. Crucial in the sense that a different event from the one we have had can change our present life. For instance, if you were born into another family than you currently are and were of another gender, your life and life experience would be different from what they are.

For determinists, every event, including actions and thoughts, is wholly determined or caused by pre-existing causes. To have a different effect than what already exists is to have another cause. Moreover, determinism believes in the laws of causation and nature. The proponents perceive the present as an effect or consequence of the past, forming a chain of cause and effect. To them, effects aren’t an exercise of free will, as the effects have causes. Hence, free will isn’t valid.

On the other hand, free will is a belief in choices, the freedom to choose this or that or do something against another. The world is currently governed and dictated by the idea that everyone is imbued with the ability to exercise free will. Hence, justice and ethics follow this belief.

While determinism believes internal and external factors to be responsible for human behavior, free will argues that we have the freedom to choose how we act. For instance, a determinist will say that choosing a strawberry cake over chocolate was caused by an event or experience in the past, while a free-willist will say that the person made the decision.

It is important not to mistake determinism for fatalism because, despite their similarities, they hold distinct positions. Fatalism is an intellectual belief that posits that human decisions don’t matter because whatever happens has already been destined to happen. The ideology perceives humans as powerless, causing despair.

Arguments against Free Will

There are various instances where life has proven to be deterministic. Say, for example, you thought to yourself, “But I chose to read this article, and it was a conscious decision.” But is that the case? Can you say you had free will in this act? If we are not in charge of making our decisions, then which agency is?

The deterministic position preaches against everything free will stands for, positing that all events, including human deeds, are ultimately determined by internal or external causes. As a result, there is no free will.

A philosophical position arguing for determinism puts forward that if, per adventure, determinism isn’t true or our actions aren’t determined, our decisions don’t have a cause. The implication is that human behavior occurs randomly or happens to us, proving that it is not a product of our free will. Regardless of whatever lens it is viewed with, free will still isn’t true, according to them at least.

In addition, neuroscientists also hold the deterministic position, with the brain perceived as the agent that controls human behavior. According to them, the brain controls human behavior because it knows in advance a “decided line of action” before a supposed conscious decision is made. As summarized by Sam Harris, a neuroscientist and philosopher, we are only conscious witnesses of decisions already made in our brains.

Furthermore, neuroscience concludes that neurons and their activities in the brain determine all our thoughts and memories. Exploring the causation link, our behaviors are preceded by our brain activities, which are shaped by our genes and environment. So, if information about the upcoming decision is present in the brain in advance before we even make the decision, is that still free will?

In addition, Benjamin Libet, an American physiologist, demonstrated in the 1980s that humans have no free will. In an experiment using an electroencephalogram (EEG), he showed that activity could be detected in the brain’s motor cortex 300 milliseconds before a person feels like they have decided to move. This indicates that the brain has already decided on a course of action, and we only became aware of it later, believing we made the decision.

The laws of physics also believe in causation, which means that everything we do follows inevitably from events in the past. Einstein, a determinist, believes every physical event is pre-determined, that is, entirely caused by prior events.


This article summarized different logical arguments against free will, with no rebuttal from free will. A rebuttal is unnecessary because the belief, regardless of whether it is accurate or an illusion, currently governs our society. Diverging from this norm will be chaotic because widespread disbelief in free will undermines morality and accountability. Without it, a civic society cannot be maintained.

In conclusion, the argument between determinism and free will is, at best, a mental exercise. It will remain so unless the proponents find a way to fine-tune the ideology to fit into the civic society the world needs.


Edited by Whitney Edna Ibe

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Tags: #neuroscience #determinism #freewill #human behavior #free-willist #cause and effect #determinists #philosophers


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