Free Will, Determinism, And Physicalism

Understanding Free Will with the Subject | Object Dichotomy

1. Definitions For Discussing Determinism

Before we can talk about this topic, we have to define some definitions for determinism and free will1 since these terms are all vulnerable to the Sapir-Whorf Effect:

The doctrine that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature. Determinism implies that only one course of events can occur given the materialist configuration of the Universe at a given time t. Causality and empirical evidence imply determinism.
The phenomenon where one event, process, state, or object (a cause) contributes to the production of another event, process, state, or object (an effect) where the cause is partly responsible for the effect, and the effect is partly dependent on the cause. Causality is built into the way humans think, so it’s an inescapable aspect of the human condition.
Subject & Object (philosophy)
A being who has a unique consciousness (will and awareness) and/or unique personal experiences, or an entity that has a relationship with another entity that exists outside itself (an object). A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed. Object is used in contrast to the term subject.
Subjective Free Will (SFW)
The ability of a subject to consciously choose to do what it wants, regardless of whether it can actually fulfill its desires or not, and also regardless of whether Determinism is true or false.
Libertarian Free Will (LFW)
Determinism does not exist. LFW is the exact opposition of Hard Determinism. Libertarian Free Will does not exist in reality, and it is easily disproven.
Objective Free Will (OFW)
The doctrine that agents are able to make decisions independently of external factors. The difference between LFW and OFW is that LFW is incompatibilist by definition, whereas OFW can be compatibilist. OFW is false.
Hard Determinism
The doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will of agents. In other words, Determinism is true, and OFW is false. Since OFW is false, Hard Determinism is effectively the same thing as Determinism.
The doctrine that Determinism and Objective Free Will both coexist. Whether or not this is true depends on how the terms are defined.
Subject-Object Compatibilism
The doctrine that Determinism and Objective Free Will both coexist according to the subject-object dichotomy.
The doctrine that Determinism and Objective Free Will cannot coexist. Incompatibilism may be either Hard Determinism or Libertarianism.
The satisfaction of two conditions that: 1. a subject can choose to do as it wants, and 2. it is able to do it within its current circumstances. Agency exists on a spectrum, from a subject not being able to accomplish any of its desires, to the subject being able to do everything that it desires.
Essentially, the same thing as agency. The key difference is that agency emphasizes internal processes while power emphasizes external processes.
To want something. Desire is a precursor to Subjective Free Will because Desires are necessary for Values to exist. All sentient organisms have desires.
The same thing as Subjective Free Will (SFW).
A form of philosophical monism which holds that matter is the fundamental substance in nature, and that all things, including mental states and consciousness, are results of material interactions of material/objective things.
The view that all that exists is ultimately physical. It is arguably the same thing as materialism.

This file is a work in progress, so I’m still looking for ways to define and explain these ideas better, and I plan to add additional content to this webpage when I have time.

2. The Subject | Object Dichotomy

Main Article: Free Will - Blithering Genius.

Free will exists from the perspective of a subject in the sense (and to the extent) that it can do what it wants, but only hard determinism exists in objective terms.

2.1. Chart Regarding Free Will And Compatibilism

  Free Will DNE Free Will Exists
Incompatibilism Hard Determinism2 Libertarianism (Metaphysical)
Compatibilism N/A Compatibilism

2.2. Clarifying Compatibilism Versus Incompatibilism

Many compatibilists and hard determinists mostly agree on the same thing, and they merely disagree over the semantics for expressing the same ideas. For example, Blithering Genius may be categorized as a “compatibilist”. He defines “free will” as the universe’s determinism flowing through a subject as they perceive it via their own volition, so he does understand that everything is ultimately deterministic, but only from an objective perspective. And then there are people like Cosmic Skeptic who have decisively argued that all compatibilists would have to concede to hard determinism due to the metaphysical nature of causation and the universe. While Cosmic Skeptic is not wrong that everything is deterministic from an objective perspective, understanding free will in terms of the subject | object dichotomy is a more nuanced position that clarifies both semantic disagreements and intuitions about free will.

Hence, it’s not sufficient to distinguish all the different positions on free will as hard determinist, compatibilist, or libertarian. A compatibilist who understands the subject | object dichotomy has a superior understanding over a compatibilist who doesn’t, i.e. someone who believes that non-causes could “cause something to happen”. And because both types of compatibilists are grouped under the same label with nothing to differentiate the two, it makes it more difficult for hard determinists to understand compatibilists who subscribe to the subject | object dichotomy. Blithering Genius’s view (my preferred way to describe free will and determinism) shall therefore be called “Subject | Object Compatibilism” (SO-Compatibilism).

3. Determinism Versus Free Will

The evidence overwhelmingly shows that Objective Free Will does not exist:

  1. If the universe wasn’t cause-and-effect, that would require that a non-cause could “cause something”. How could something happen if it wasn’t caused to happen? If one argues that the universe is random but not deterministic, then that would mean that “randomness” affects the outcome of the universe. But if “randomness” is affecting the Universe’s outcome, then the outcome of the Universe would still be deterministic because the effects of the randomness would be determined by cause-and-effect, so Determinism is still true.
  2. No one can control the circumstances surrounding their childhoods, so everybody’s life is pre-determined. The definition of Libertarian Free Will requires that Determinism does not exist, so Libertarianism has been refuted.
  3. Agency is dependent on external factors, which contradicts Objective Free Will.
  4. There is mathematics for better understanding the deterministic nature of the universe.
  5. People cannot defy their brain structures.
  6. If the world is materialistic, then it is also deterministic.

We should not be saddened to recognize that everything is deterministic. That is merely a conflation between OFW and SFW, and believing that OFW doesn’t exist means that SFW doesn’t exist. As far as our desires and how we live our everyday-lives are concerned, as long as we have agency, that’s all that matters.

Also note that it’s a performative contradiction to reject the existence of SFW.

4. The Deterministic Effects That Parents Have Over Their Children

Many of the circumstances surrounding every person’s childhood are predetermined, and will have lasting effects on how every person lives the rest of their lives. These are circumstances that people that must grow up with, even though they don’t have any subjective free will or agency to change them. When parents decide to have children, they effectively have the power to:

  • Choose where the children live, and in what conditions.
  • Choose the native language(s) that the children speak, and potentially their second language(s) too.
    • This indirectly affects which people the children can make friends with, their economic and educational opportunities, and the media that they can access.
  • Choose the children’s education.
  • Indoctrinate the children with their beliefs, including religion, politics, and other cults.
  • Choose the activities that the children do.
  • Choose what the children eat.
  • Choose the children’s names.
  • Choose how many siblings the children have.
  • Extend their family histories and familial relationship onto the children.
  • Inseminate the children with whatever genes they have, which can affect things including but not limited to: the children’s interests, the children’s intelligence, the children’s looks, the children’s physical condition, and the children’s quality of life.

Since parents have the power to raise their children however they want, they could easily trap those children in a box, and they would never be able to escape until they become adults. Nevertheless, every person should learn to make their own success, regardless of how shitty their parents may have been.

While the facts stated in this section are all examples of how all humans have predetermined destinies and little agency as children, we should also recognize that people still have the subjective free will and agency to change the rest of their lives once they become (legal) adults. Even if someone doesn’t like the name they were born with, or the education, native language(s), activities, food, living spaces that they grew up with, they can still shape their own destinies and the rest of their lives, provided that they learn new skills, and make active changes to their living conditions and other aspects of their lives.

4.1. Spatio-Temporal Envelopes

The facts stated in the previous list are best understood through the concept of ’spatio-temporal envelopes’, which are defined as time intervals of various defined lengths through which prior events affect posterior events or chains of sequential posterior events across the designated three-dimensional space and time. Spatio-Temporal envelopes may overlap each other, and shorter consecutive spatio-temporal envelopes can be merged to form longer ones. Every individual is endowed with a spatio-temporal envelope that comprises their entire life through which they had, have, and/or will have affected their environment and the people around them.

A visual graph representing various spatio-temporal envelopes.

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5. Agency Is Always Circumstantial

There are only two reasons why anybody would ever (purposely) do anything in their life:

  1. They want to.
  2. They are forced to.
  3. They did it accidentally (but of course, nobody would argue that free will existed here anyway).

Whether you succeed or fail, you do what you want to do. You could have conflicting desires, such as the desire to lose weight and the desire to eat cake. In that case, your action would be determined by which desire is stronger. If you help someone else, you do it because you want to help them. Even if you are coerced to do something, you do it because you desire to avoid the coercive threat. No matter what you do, you always act on your desires. Psychological selfishness is absolute.

Related Topics:

6. Why People Should Be Held Accountable For Their Actions

Why should people be held accountable for their actions, if they could never truly choose their actions in the first place? Isn’t that unethical?

To the contrary, it’s precisely because people don’t have free will as to why people should be held accountable for their actions (if they knew what they were doing). The goal is to discourage undesired behavior in the future. If people truly had free will, then environmental factors wouldn’t influence them. The goal of government is to solve game-theoretic problems. If people do not receive negative feedback when they do something bad (i.e. break the prisoner’s dilemmas of society), this creates an environment where people have no deterrence from doing bad stuff.

This is the same reason why many punishments must be much harsher compared to the crimes that were done to receive said punishments. Not everybody who commits a crime will be punished if they can avoid getting caught, and people know this. But if a society greatly increases the severity of punishments for when someone does get caught, then it disincentivizes more crimes because game-theoretical decisions tend to take all the possible scenarios and consequences into account.

People certainly should be held accountable for their non-coerced choices. If a murderer murders someone, they can hardly appeal to determinism to claim that “they couldn’t help it” and became a victim of some grand mechanism that no one had any control over. The murderer was still violating the rights of the victim. Not even the insanity or mental illness plea should be a valid cop-out for committing crimes. It is constantly abused, and if mentally ill people (or anyone) are not held responsible for their actions, then society will break down. We each get dealt a hand of cards in life, and that’s the hand each person has to play.

Read More: The Problems With Deontological Ethics.

7. Determinism And Free Will From A Mathematical Perspective

In principle, if someone somehow knew absolutely everything there was to know about the current state of the Universe, they would have all the necessary knowledge for being able to predict everyone’s choices in the future with 100% accuracy, but there would still remain choices. They may be predetermined on a very fundamental, physical level, but for practical purposes, it does not make a lot of difference whether we assume those choices to be predetermined or not. And it is not cognitively understandable to reduce someone’s psychological choices purely down to physics.

There is an interesting branch of Mathematics known as “Chaos Theory”, which studies models in which small variations in initial conditions lead to dramatic changes in the outcomes. Empirical evidence proves that the Universe as a whole is fairly chaotic, and there are many Butterfly Effects that could’ve changed the course of history in ways that people could never predict with any meaningful accuracy. What this implies is that it is extremely hard, if not altogether impossible, to predict choices people will make in the future, since one of the most important conditions of being a philosophical subject is to have limited knowledge of reality.

Relevant Video: Chaos: The Science of the Butterfly Effect.

When people go about their daily lives, it doesn’t matter whether Objective Free Will exists. It cannot logically, but that is not important. What is important is that people have agency. If choices cannot be accurately predicted in practice, then they might as well be considered “free” in the true, fundamental sense, as far as practical considerations go.

In fact, if we want to be successful in life, then it is psychologically better for us that we behave as if we do have Objective Free Will, in spite of the Universe’s deterministic nature. If we act as if life is deterministic and that we have no agency to change the future, then we will be less likely to accomplish our goals. Another way to think about our subjective free will is that it is the Universe’s deterministic nature flowing through us. Our brains and bodies may be materialistic and thus deterministic as well, but each of us is still part of reality, so each of us can still act to change reality to the best of our abilities.

8. People Cannot Defy Their Brain Structures

Some more evidence in favor of materialism is how people cannot defy the physical structure of their brains. If Materialism was not true, then:

  • People with dementia could choose to defy their dementia, but they cannot defy their dementia because the cluttered build up of bad proteins within their brains prevents them from doing what they used to do.
  • People with OCD would be able to defy their compulsions by just merely wanting to defy them, but they cannot because their brains force them to do the compulsions.
  • People with ADHD would be able to resist their impulsive behavior, concentrate, and have higher agency, but this is not the case. They might be able to take a medication that affects their brain structures to give them higher agency for a while, but this is only evidence in favor of physicalism.
  • People with brain damage to some area of the brain would still be able to function the same as they did before they got their brain damage.
  • People with early onset gender dysphoria would be able to choose to never have gender dysphoric feelings, but they cannot control how they feel about their bodies.
  • People with severe autism could choose to not be affected by their autism, but they don’t (because they can’t). If it was that easy to resist autism, then it wouldn’t be a problem.
  • People with suicidal thoughts who are unable to die by suicide even though they’ve thought about it for years, since the brain evolved to be terrified of death and unable to kill itself.
  • Et Cetera

It is practical in most cases to pretend that Objective Free Will exists when living one’s day-to-day life, even though it doesn’t exist in any form at all. However, this pretending should not be done in all cases, especially in ones where the problems to be solved require acknowledging the non-existence of OFW, such as resolving the abnormalities in neurological structures that cause the mental disorders mentioned in the list above.

There’s a physicalist explanation to acquired savants too. If you read the biographies of all the people on this list, they always acquired their savant abilities after something physical happened to them (e.g. a concussion, a brain injury, a lightning strike, etc). In most cases, similar incidents would damage people’s brains and reduce their mental abilities altogether, but in rarer cases like the ones listed, the incidents cause them to acquire special abilities instead. Whatever it is, it’s probably just a rewiring of the neurons.

9. The Contradiction Between Objective Free Will And Materialism

We live in a deterministic, materialistic universe, so we know what it’s like to live in such a universe, but we don’t know what it’s like to live in a non-deterministic universe. We can ponder its properties with the following thought experiment.

  • By definition, the existence of Objective Free Will means that agents are able to make decisions independently of external factors. That prescribes that people would also not bound by how their DNA or brains are programmed.
  • In this supposed non-deterministic universe, there would be life that behaves just as life does in our universe, but there would be major differences.
  • Such a concept would probably be deserving of a different word other than “life”. Perhaps it could be “frilife” (meaning free-will life).
  • The minds of frilife would be able to act independently of how they are materialistically structured. This means that the minds of frilife would therefore be completely useless and irrelevant (aside from sending signals throughout the body necessary to maintain basic life-sustaining processes like temperature regulation, pain, senses, et cetera).
    • No matter what structure frilife has, it would be acting independently according to the desires of some supernatural force.
  • But there’s a problem. If frilife was acting independently to how its mind is structured, what else would it be controlled by to decide how it should behave and function?
    • Another materialistic structure? No, because the premises rule that out as impossible.
    • And there is no other known force in the universe that could make it act independently of its structure.
  • In conclusion (according to everything we currently know obviously), frilife is impossible because it creates a metaphysical contradiction.

This helps explain why religious people are able to believe that free will exists. They make the mistake of imagining a supernatural power that would make it possible for people to be have independently of materialism, so that free will could exist. But the reality is that this is not the case because they assumed a false premise in the first place.

10. Why We Don’t Describe People And Human Brains With Chemistry And Physics

Introduction to Reductive Physicalism:

Although in theory it is possible to use pure physics to describe how human brains work, it’s not very useful for explaining to a general audience about how brains work because in order to do so, you would need a flawless unabridged understanding of how the entire brain works, which we don’t have.

The other reason is that it would take too much effort and too many words to describe psychology and cognitive science in terms of physics. It’s comparable to machine code versus higher-level human-friendly programming languages. No productive programmer would program with nothing but machine code because it would take too much effort and complex understanding just to produce so little. Instead, we use human-friendly programming languages because they use words, syntax, APIs, etc. that make more sense to us humans. Although, it’s certainly helpful to understand at least some low-level details about how everything is running.

Thus, when we study psychology, cognitive science, and the like, we need to use terms that make sense to you and me, which is why those fields have a lot of terminology and descriptions to learn. They’re really just simplified translations of how the brain’s physics are working. Every psychologist and cognitive scientist also learns some basics about the structures and functions of neurons, as well as the regions of the brain.

As humans learn more and more about how the brain works, we will eventually create more precise better descriptions of what the processes described by psychology and cognitive science are physically. This will be a huge milestone. Just as computer science students learn what happens behind the scenes in a high-level programming language, we would be learning what happens behind the scenes in our high-level languages: psychology and cognitive science.

It should be noted that when humans made computers, machine code was invented first because computers had to be invented from the ground up. But that was too difficult to use and understand, so we invented higher-level languages like Fortran, C, Java, Python, etc.

The reverse is happening with neuroscience. When humans finally tried understanding how their brains work, they were not building the machinery from the ground up. Instead, the machinery (the brain) was already there. Over millions of years of evolution, it evolved to be so complex, that there was no possible, sensible way to study the neurological machinery with machine code (i.e. physics) from the beginning of their study. So in order to understand their brains, they had to use high-level language to understand it. They began with mapping the different regions of the brain (by identifying what biological functions stop working when each individual region fails or is lobotomized). Then they proceeded with trying to understand it with biological, biomolecular, chemical, and eventually physical descriptions.

Humans will never fully understand how the brain works until they acquire exhaustive physical, chemical, and biomolecular explanations for what is happening behinds the scenes. But even after we reach an understanding of those processes, we will still continue to use human-friendly descriptions for what is happening. If someone wants a deeper understanding, they can always learn the physics and chemistry behind those processes.

Machine code is to physics and chemistry, as programming languages are to psychology, cognitive science, and beginning-to-intermediate neuroscience. Advanced neuroscience would be akin to lower-level machine code.

The brain cannot simply be understood as neurons firing around in different ways. It’s so much more than that.

This isn’t very different from saying: “a computer cannot simply be understood as just merely being 1s and 0s. It’s so much more than that.” Of course no one would learn and understand how a computer works starting straight from machine code (1s and 0s). But you would understand that what’s going on behind the scenes is fundamentally 1s and 0s. Same thing with human brains. We understand that they are essentially and metaphysically composed of neurons, but when we start learning and understanding it, we start from our higher-level explanations, which are farther removed from the basics.

10.1. Regarding Mary’s Room Thought Experiment

The Mary’s Room Thought Experiment should instead be framed as an argument in favor of physicalism: “Could Mary use all of the knowledge, technology, and tools inside the room to emulate seeing the qualia of the Color Red?” Since she would be able to fully emulate the qualia of seeing Red, she wouldn’t learn anything knew once she finally sees it for the first time.

The hard problem of consciousness is irrelevant so long as experience always supervenes on observable physiological states. “Mary is seeing red” can be reduced to “Mary’s visual cortex is firing in a pattern which indicates a red experience.” The same predictions can be made from either, so they can be said, by that standard, to mean the same thing.

To be clear, we should note that the subjective qualia of red doesn’t technically correspond to the physical reality of one’s eyes, brains, and the object being observed. It would be more accurate to say that there are two different impressions that are correlated with each other. The “redness” that one person perceives won’t necessarily be the same “redness” that another person perceives. As an example, we can consider people with red-green colorblindness. We can never completely know what other people think “redness” is since we cannot escape our intrinsic subjectivity.



The noun phrase “Free Will” tends to be categorized more often as an epistemological concept, whereas determinism is seen more as a metaphysical concept. But “metaphysics” is a rather misleading concept to begin with since it leads people into believing in Platonism, for which there isn’t very strong evidence to support.


Technically, Hard Determinism is not the same thing as Materialistic Physicalism. It’s possible to be a hard determinist and devoutly religious at the same time, as some religious and superstitious people believe that nobody has any free will because everybody’s actions are ultimately determined by some God. Such people are not materialists or physicalists, so that’s an example of how Hard Determinism and Materialistic Physicalism are not necessarily the same thing. I’ve added this footnote because I had previously never thought of this.

Last Modified: 2024 June 08, 07:11

Author: Zero Contradictions