B. Determinism

Locke, Pavlov, Hobbes and Ayer

This part of the course has been covered for many years, so it won't be hard to find extra help if you're stuck. It looks at the basic arguments for determinism, and they are pretty convincing. As unlikely as it may sound, it does look like everything we do is determined...

Hard Determinism - Locke

Your teacher may have tried this on you - offering the chance to take the rest of the day off and go home, or stay and study. Like a keen student, you may have freely decided to stay. However, what if your teacher reveals that the door was locked and you had no choice but to stay?

John Locke said a man in a locked room who 'freely chooses' to stay merely thinks he is free. Free will is an illusion.

"A man is carried while fast asleep into a room where there is a person he has been longing to see and speak with; and he is there locked in securely; when he awakes he is glad to find himself in such desirable company, which he stays in willingly, preferring his staying to his going away. Nobody will doubt, I think, that his staying is voluntary; and yet it is clear that being locked in he isn’t at liberty not to stay. So liberty is not an idea belonging to volition or preferring but to the person’s having the power of doing or not doing something, according to what his mind chooses or directs. The moment that power is restrained, or some compulsion removes one’s ability to act or refrain from acting, liberty is extinguished."

You could call this 'Philosophical Determinism' (other exam boards do!). The principle of Universal Causation says that everything we do has a prior cause. Just because I don't know why I make a choice, there must be a reason, and that must precede my actions. Just like the man in Locke's locked room, I think I'm free because I think I could have done something else, but this is just an illusion because the universe follows deterministic laws.

Scientific (biological) determinism

'Scientific' determinism can refer to 'Newtonian physics', and you can find out more about this on the 'Free Will' pages (not linked to specific exam boards). Eduqas specify 'biological' determinism. Our personality, it is argued, is determined by our genes. Our genes can have an unexpected influence on our behaviour. For example, schools in the UK measure students' potential with Cognitive Ability Tests. This includes verbal, non-verbal and quantitative reasoning. If you struggle with non-verbal reasoning, you may find it harder to spot patterns and think laterally. These tests have nothing to do with how hard you try - they are meant to be a base-line, showing what you 'started off with'. Also, dopamine inhibitors in our brains affect how happy we are taking risks.

We can trace this thinking back to the theory of evolution, and then the discovery of DNA. Every cell in your body (well, not blood cells, but most cells) contains a blueprint for your whole body. It's not just visible characteristics that are pre-determined, but our brains are as well. In fact, by mapping your genes, a geneticist can predict how old you will be when you die (just as reliably as a mechanic can tell you how many miles are left in your engine).

Daniel Dennett, one of the 'Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse' (a New Atheist), uses the term 'genetic fixity'. He's a biological determinist, who says that our genes are determined by our parents' genes.

Despite all of this, I could crash my car tomorrow, and neither my engine or my body would have lasted as long as predicted. It is accurate to say that very few scientists claim that genes actually determine our behaviour. Instead, they mostly talk about the 'influence' of our genes. You can show that this is generally accepted by looking at the way the law works. There has been talk of a 'criminal gene' that makes it more likely for members of a family with a specific trait to commit violent crime. Headlines claim this has affected rulings in court cases, but closer inspection shows that this doesn't change whether someone is seen as guilty. It merely allows the judge to show some leniency. As a society, we still feel that genes cannot stop us holding someone responsible for their behaviour - they had a choice, even if that choice was made more difficult by their genes.

Psychological Determinism

Eduqas limits this to the 'classical conditioning' of Pavlov. Pavlov carried out (controversial) experiments on dogs. He found they produced saliva as an 'unconditioned reflex' to food. However, he found that he could elicit the same response if he rang a bell before giving the dogs food. When the bell rang, the dogs expected food, and they salivated. What was interesting was that Pavlov stopped giving them food, and they still salivated at the sound of the bell. I have tried a much kinder form of conditioning, called 'puppy training', with Willow. We gave Willow a tasty treat every time she came to us after we called her. Now we have stopped treating her, but Willow still comes when we call. What a good dog!

Skinner found he could control animal behaviour in what he called 'operant conditioning'. You don't need to know this in detail for Eduqas, but in brief, this was an experiment where a bird pecking at a particular point would get rewarded with a treat. Skinner found that this works in humans too, and claims he can control human behaviour by giving people the right incentives. Derren Brown has utilised this to make entertaining tv, for example by controlling the environment of some volunteers to the point where an ordinary person would 'choose' to perform an armed robbery.

Behaviourist John Watson famously said that if you gave him a dozen infants, he could determine their futures:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors."  Watson, J. B. (1930). Behaviorism, p82

The debate between biological and psychological determinism has been called the 'nature/nurture' debate. Clearly both our genes and our experiences influence our behaviour. The hard determinist would say it doesn't matter which side we favour. The point is that the combination of the two determines our behaviour. What else could there be? Whatever you can suggest as a cause of human behaviour, whatever forms our personalities, must ultimately precede us, so we cannot be free.

Soft Determinism

Soft determinists are not soft about determinism. It's really vital to grasp this crucial point! Soft determinists agree that our behaviour is 100% determined. It has to be. There can be no such thing as 'undetermined behaviour', it doesn't even make sense. Something must determine our behaviour, even if we can't work out what it is. There must be a cause. Soft Determinists are, as the name suggests, Determinists.

It is helpful to understand the term 'compatiblists' here. It turns out that Hard Determinists are in agreement with Libertarians on one important point - free will is incompatible with determinism. If we are determined, we cannot be free, they both believe. So Hard Determinists say we are determined, and not free. Libertarians say we are free, and not determined. However Soft Determinists are compatibilists, claiming free will is compatible with determinism.

Soft Determinists ask us to look at what we mean when we talk about free will. It is easy to get a clearer picture when we consider different examples. If you ask someone whether they would like tea or coffee, and both drinks are available, we would say they have a free choice. Particularly if they like both drinks and can afford either. If you hold a gun to their head and tell them to pick coffee, they are not so free (and you'd get fired from Starbucks). If you hypnotise them or give them mind-controlling drugs, we would say they have no freedom at all.

Thomas Hobbes - internal and external causes

Thomas Hobbes makes a distinction between 'internal' causes and 'external' causes. If someone is physically forced to do something, the cause is external to them, and they are not acting freely. If someone has a sweet tooth and can't resist the offer of a candy-cane, the cause is internal, and they have chosen freely. When Michael Douglas described himself as a 'sex addict' to excuse his cheating on his wife, he didn't get a great deal of support, because the cause of his behaviour was internal - he was acting freely.

It is worth noting that our legal system generally shares this distinction between external and internal causes. Someone cannot be held accountable for actions over which they had no control. For example, in the UK if someone has a mental illness that means they didn't know what they were doing when they killed someone, they couldn't be tried for murder. They might be remanded in a mental institution for treatment, but they aren't seen as morally responsible for what happened.

Are internal causes determined?

For the Soft Determinist, who is a determinist, everything we do is determined. This may be philosophically, by universal causation, scientifically (for Eduqas, this means biologically because of our genes) or psychologically. Critics might say there are undetermined events, such as the decomposition of an atom of Uranium, which appears to have no cause. The Soft Determinist would say that random acts of this sort hardly constitute free will. A free act is one that I choose or determine.

AJ Ayer - caused acts vs forced acts

AJ Ayer developed logical positivism - you may have studied him already in the unit on Religious Language. He wanted to limit language to analytic and synthetic truths. If a statement isn't verifiable, it is meaningless. For example, a religious person might say "God hears our prayers", but there is no way of verifying that. The world in which this is true is identical to the world in which it is false. Therefore the sentence isn't communicating anything meaningful or useful about the world.

Ayer tried to do the same thing for deteminism. He looked at the way soft and hard determinists use language. Both hard and soft determinists are in agreement about external causes - when we are externally co-erced, we are not free. For example, Dave's friends notice him doing a piece of homework with his teacher after school. They ask him "Why are you doing that? It's Friday!" Dave says it was a detention, the teacher forced him to do it. Charlie was also there doing homework because he'd missed the lesson and wanted to catch up. Charlie wasn't in detention, so he wouldn't say "I was forced to do it." This is quite a perceptive point from Ayer. If the Hard Determinist is right, Charlie was forced to do the homework after school, because he was no more free to go home than Dave. However, Charlie doesn't say he was forced, he says that he chose to stay (he was the cause of his staying, in Ayer's language). Ayer has shown that the Hard Determinist position doesn't fit with the way we use language. There is a difference between caused acts and forced acts.

That's an important point. All of our actions are caused, but we only describe some as forced, so there is a difference between those that are forced and those that are merely caused.

Hard Determinist

Everything I do is determined. Determinism is incompatible with free will. Therefore I am not free.


The very act of choosing, weighing up options, presupposes freewill. If we were not free, we'd be like someone with an empty purse deciding whether she would go shopping. If there was only one thing that could happen, there would never be any choice. There is choice, so we can't be determined.