The standard argument against free will: determinism

Is everything fixed or do we as humans have control over what we do? The problem of free will is one of the most famous problems in philosophy. Many philosophers have devoted themselves to it, and many arguments have been fought out on paper. But what is this problem actually based on? There are many arguments back and forth, but there is one standard argument against free will that forms the basis of the discussion. Understanding this argument will help you understand the rest of the discussion.

The standard argument against free will

The standard argument against free will poses a problem for our normal thinking about guilt and merit. That’s why there’s a lot at stake.

Step 1: Acknowledge materialism

Materialism, the true thesis that everything consists of matter, of physical parts, means the end for man’s free will.

Step 2: Define free will

Free will consists in the fact that you could not have done an act; that the ultimate choice whether something happens or not lies with you, and is not already fixed.

Step 3a: Laws of nature, molecules and determinism

However, we could not have done a deed differently. The mind is produced by the brain. The brain determines what people do and think. But the brain is made entirely of matter, molecules and the like. And these molecules move according to established laws of nature (or chance in quantum mechanics). If all parts of the brain, the molecules, move according to fixed laws, then the actions of the brain as a whole are also determined by the laws of nature (gravity, collision and motion laws, comparable to billiard balls). Our actions are determined by the laws of nature.

Step 3b: An omniscient being

This means that someone’s actions are fixed, even though no one has enough knowledge to predict exactly what someone will do or think. If there was a being who knew everything about all the molecules, he could predict people’s actions and thoughts. A person cannot do anything other than what he does, because he consists of molecules.

Step 4: Determined free choice

Now some will say that they can lift their arm or not. And that they can make that choice. It depends on their will and therefore they are free. Actions are indeed often guided by a will, but this will consists of molecules in the brain. You can do what you want, but what you want comes to mind, you do not control it yourself, these are the molecules that move according to fixed laws of nature.

Step 5: No responsibility

There is therefore no real responsibility and guilt, because there is no freedom. People could not have done anything differently than what they did, because they are part of nature and matter, which runs according to fixed laws. No one deserves punishment, at most it is useful for society.

Responses to the argument


Philosophers have dealt with this argument in several ways. Some doubt step 1 and think that man has a soul, something completely different from molecules and atoms. The criticism of this from other philosophers is the question of how a soul and a body can work together if they are completely different things. Descartes, for example, struggled with this problem.


There are also thinkers who question the definition of free will. Instead of emphasizing that someone could have done it differently, they argue that someone is free if he agrees with his own wishes. Someone who smokes, but actually wants to quit, is not free.

Natural laws

There are also philosophers who argue that the laws of nature do not fully apply to humans, even though they consist of molecules. Laws are disrupted when molecules are organized into large wholes. Biological rules cannot be translated into molecular laws, these philosophers argue. The life force disrupts the laws. And biological organisms with thinking and language capabilities are organized differently. The organization into the spirit/thought world disrupts the laws even more.


Some philosophers think that we need not be completely free from responsibility. Talking in terms of responsibility, this is your fault, this is your merit, is simply how people treat each other. It has a function in interacting with each other and people have no choice but to (unconsciously) think in those terms. So responsibility remains. They are called compatibilists: determinism and responsibility can exist at the same time, they are compatible.

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