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Factors of Free Will and Determinism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 2643 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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  If you were provided with an option to choose between an apple and a chocolate bar, which would you choose if any? The act of choosing or not choosing in this situation ties to and supports the ideas of both Free Will and Determinism. Most people would believe that the choice was truly theirs and not determined or decided before they made their choice.

What is Free Will?

 Free Will is the idea that past causes or outside influences do not determine the future. Using the same example used earlier, choosing the candy bar over the apple, many may consider an act of free will because they believe that they had the option to choose. Supporters of Free Will argue that they could have chosen the apple, and nothing external influenced their decision.

What is Determinism?

 Determinism is the idea that everything is an effect of a previous cause. An example would be choosing the candy bar over the apple, this choice may have been determined by an ad for the chocolate bar you saw earlier in the day, or by an allergy to apples etc. Within determinism there are two main types. The general definition for determinism usually covers Hard Determinism.

Hard Determinism and Soft Determinism

 Hard determinism means that everything is an effect of a previous cause. Hard determinist believe that everything is destined to happen, and humans have no real control over the outcomes. The common question associated with this topic is, if humans have no control over the future or their actions should a murderer be held accountable? Why praise or punish? To answer this depressing question a new idea was introduced, soft determinism/compatibilism.

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 While this would seem like an easy concept to grasp, it may be the most difficult of the 3 ideas to fully understand. To start we will use a new example for both hard and soft determinism. A person walking kicks a rock on the ground and falls. The Hard Determinist would argue that s/he was destined to kick the rock and fall, while the soft determinist would argue that s/he was destined to fall but was free to choose to kick the rock.  

 Soft determinist believe that past causes determine the future, but we are still free to choose when the determination is decided internally. This also means that while external actions may be determined by the past, self-determined actions should be considered chosen. Soft determinism is a way to hold people responsible for their actions internally, while still believing that external actions were determined.

The Problem with Soft Determinism

 A great example found in a Crash Course video is “the difference between someone being pushed off a diving board as opposed to jumping off.” The narrator continues by saying that “in both cases the action is determined, that is it couldn’t not happen- but when the actions of an agent is self-determined… the actions should be considered free.” Essentially, in the case of a swimmer is jumping off a diving board, the fall was already pre-determined, however, whether s/he choose to jump or not was not determined. The problem with this example is that if the swimmer chooses to jump, then they made a free choice in making that decision, but if the swimmer was pushed, was the action of the pusher a free choice or was is determined by the swimmer not jumping? If this action if determined by the swimmer not jumping then in that moment the swimmer made a free choice, but the pusher did not because it was pre-determined that the swimmer would fall either way.  This can become a bit confusing when you account for the fact that we would assume that we are free to make our own internal choices, but it may have an impact on another’s choices. For this reason, I believe that soft determinism is a scape goat that essentially makes hard determinism an easier pill to swallow. Soft determinism is essentially a way of holding people accountable for their actions but not their circumstances.

Religion and Free Will and Determinism

Famous philosopher Augustine was a Christian man, and his beliefs on religion shaped his views of free will. In the first chapter of the bible, Genesis, God introduces us to Adam and Eve. The two were told by God not to consume the fruits of The Tree of Knowledge. Eventually, The Devil disguised as a snake convinced Eve to eat an apple from the tree. Eve convinced Adam to eat the apple as well. When they disobeyed God, they introduced sin into the world. This sin would go on to cause death, hurt, anger and more. Augustine believed that Adam and Eve were the only ones to experience true free will, and since they introduced sin, other humans were destined to sin. Augustine believes that humans have a limited free will, limited being by the fact that we all were born into sin.

 In Christianity it is believed that God sees all and knows all before it happens. Meaning that before a man who becomes a serial killer is born, he is created, and God foresees all of his future. If God can see the actions of people before they were even created, how does anyone have free will or limited free will? 

 In a study done by The Pews Research Center it discovered that “80% of Hindus and roughly three-quarters of Muslims and Jews still identify with their childhood religions.”[1] These group are referred to as “religious minority groups.” The survey showed that it is more likely that those who practice faiths that fall into the minority are more likely to continue the practice as an adult. While for “42% of Americans” [2]who practice different forms of The Christian faith no longer considered themselves apart of the religion they were raised with.  This weakly support soft determinism because it proves that the majority will stick to what they were raised with. Yet, some may say it still supports free will because it shows that some freely chose with age. What is not discussed in this article however is how devoted the families of the 42% of Americans that converted were. It is possible that the 58% who still identify with their parent’s religion were raised in a family that was stricter about the faith. In other terms, how strong do external causes have to be determine an outcome? If one does stick to their family’s faith is this hard determinism or a conscious choice internally, inspired by external causes? Can continuing to practice the same religion be considered free will, if you were raised with it?

Genetics and Free Will/Determinism

 According to AACAP children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become an alcoholic. In this situation, the past and an external source is likely to impact children before they are even at a drinking age. How does this tie into free will and determinism? If children from birth are more susceptible to disease and addiction because of their parents how can one have free will? There isn’t much conversation on the topic paired with genetics, however, if you have diabetes and both of your parents had diabetes, did your body have a choice in the matter? It seems like a silly argument because after all who would want to develop any kind of disease or addiction. But the idea of determinism that I am discussing it not only relative to the brain, or the choices you make. If genetically or demographically you are more likely to experience something, how can anyone truly live and experience free will. This conversation has no real explanation however a refusal to tie science to the topic may support determinism in the end.

Philosopher David Hume and Determinism

 Philosopher David Hume discussed the idea of “liberty and necessity.”  Liberty, being free will and necessity meaning determinism. In one of his books, “First Enquiry” he states, “it is universally acknowledged that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men… and that human nature remains still the same.” [3]This is idea can be used to support determinism because he says that humans over-all are the same, which may indicate predictable. To tie this into today’s world, typically we start school around the age of 4, graduate at 18, get a car if we don’t already own one and purse work (or college before work). Many may argue that this is the American Dream and they are exercising their free will to achieve this life. This type of life or “The American Dream” has been around for decades, and often the path that parents plan out for their children. These predictable life choices or the act of pursuing a life based on what’s typical where you live supports soft determinism.

 In support of soft determinism David Hume’s “Treaties” he defines a cause as an “object precedent and contagious to another” he continues with “the idea of one determines the mind to form the idea of the other.” If you remember the idea of determinism is essentially that the future is determined by a cause past.

Free Will or Determinism

 My views on the topics fall somewhere between Augustine’s and Hume’s views. Unlike Augustine I do not believe that my views are impacted by religion. I’ve noticed that most people’s lives end up rather like their parents. I believe that people are the result of their upbringing and surroundings, which may lean determinism. However, I believe that there is still a good deal of people who consciously tread a different path than the one they know. The children who study theater when their parents pushed them to study to finance or became rich when they came from nothing. These actions could be associated with free will and soft determinism. One could have been completely free is choosing their life plans or their plans could have been defined by the past. If one chooses to reject the past and actions of their parents and set out to be different than them, is this free will or determinism? In both cases the s/he were influenced by external causes. These external causes inspired internal decisions but did not mean that s/he would take the steps necessary to reject past causes. One could hate the outcome but subconsciously lead themselves in that direction, while believing that because they chose the apple over the candy bar they have complete free will.

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 When we consider the state of the world or race relations in The United States we may see a case of soft determinism. Americans grew up with certain ideas subconsciously beat into their heads from young ages. An example is when cartoons display minorities in a stereotypical way. In western media only within the last decade has it become more common for minorities to have more leading roles and roles in which they are more than a common stereotype. When children grow up watching television where the only Black or Hispanic men in a movie are wearing sagging pants and whipping around guns to portray a “thug” they grow up to believe that the average Black/Hispanic man lives this life. As they grow, they often subconsciously disregard their Black or Hispanic friends who do not behave thuggishly, but consciously confirm their ignorant beliefs when they see the image of a black criminal on T.V. How does this pertain to soft determinism again? When people allow external causes to dictate their beliefs whether consciously or subconsciously they have allowed the past to dictate their present. This does not mean that they are forever condemned to be a racist and not even know it, rather they now must choose between two outcomes; to reject racism or to practice it (even if subconsciously). The fact that they have a choice in how they respond to the social conditioning is a great example of soft determinism. It could be hard determinism if you factor in that the percentage who end up rejecting it may have also been impacted by causes such as their race, or the influence they have around them. This would then be an example of hard determinism because in the first situation the child who knew no better did no better, and the child who learned better did better. If the first child did not have the knowledge to question these ideas, how would they have been expected to reject them? This shows that overall, that we may not have free will because we do end up in certain situation that will dictate the future. We see from the simplest everyday things such as gravity pulling objects back to the ground, that a cause can and will heavily influence the future.


  • Berry, Christopher J. “David Hume”. New York, N.Y: Bloomsbury, 2013.
  • Wormald, Benjamin. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. September 07, 2017. Accessed October 31, 2018. http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/?fbclid=IwAR2TWxTY5S4-NvuPdGpfS6rHC8vfR0jZZ4ItcHexux5TWdh-XycBK5gf9Pk.
  • Green, Emma. “More Americans Are Choosing Their Own Faith, Not Having It Chosen for Them.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2016. Accessed October 28, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/american-religion-complicated-not-dead/392891/?fbclid=IwAR2fQ-8m-o_wUuG_zhGDwD_X87wesjHP_pKC8rVdvtJgRA_h97GTqHl93gg.
  • CrashCourse. “Compatibilism: Crash Course Philosophy #25.” YouTube. August 22, 2016. Accessed October 31, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KETTtiprINU&t=134s.
  • Compatibilism. Accessed October 26, 2018. http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/SocialSciences/ppecorino/INTRO_TEXT/Chapter 7 Freedom/Freedom_Compatibilism.htm?fbclid=IwAR3-sllBdeF-elZ9221XYg7eFXZlC27-QSBLsmeZyhMmNKa19jzllE4c5og.
  • Compatibilism. Accessed October 26, 2018. http://www.qcc.cuny.edu/SocialSciences/ppecorino/INTRO_TEXT/Chapter 7 Freedom/Freedom_Compatibilism.htm?fbclid=IwAR3-sllBdeF-elZ9221XYg7eFXZlC27-QSBLsmeZyhMmNKa19jzllE4c5og.
  • Hume, David, and A. D. Lindsay. David Hume: A Treatise of Human Nature. London: Dent, 1911.
  • Hume, David, and P. J. R. Millican. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.                             

[1]. Green, Emma. “More Americans Are Choosing Their Own Faith, Not Having It Chosen for Them.” The Atlantic. March 21, 2016. (Accessed October 28, 2018). https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/05/american-religion-complicated-not-dead/392891/?fbclid=IwAR2fQ-8m-o_wUuG_zhGDwD_X87wesjHP_pKC8rVdvtJgRA_h97GTqHl93gg.

[2]. Benjamin ,Wormald. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project. September 07, 2017. (Accessed October 31, 2018). http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/?fbclid=IwAR2TWxTY5S4-NvuPdGpfS6rHC8vfR0jZZ4ItcHexux5TWdh-XycBK5gf9Pk.

[3]. Christopher J., Berry. David Hume. (New York, N.Y: Bloomsbury, 2013), 32.


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