There is an age-old debate in philosophy about whether or not we are the authors of our story, the captains of our ship, or our story is written for us, either by some all knowing author that oversees everything we know, or by the natural world around us.

Today I’ll take you through the both sides of the argument where we’ll explore free will, determinism and it’s many different forms and finally if you stick around to the end, or just want to skip ahead, we’ll explore how both sides of the argument can be used to help us get a better understanding for what we can control, what we can’t and how this clarification can help us live better, happier, and more resilient lives.

This is the debate of free will vs determinism. Where free will suggests that you and I have absolute control over the path of our life, we are at the helm, plotting the course and making the decisions on how best to navigate the seas.

The other side of the argument suggests that we don’t have as much autonomy over our life as we might think – our genetics are predetermined, meaning that we are predisposed to think and act in certain ways due to our biology, neurochemistry, and physical attributes, all of which will be unique to you. On top of this, the determinism argument suggests that we are all products of our environment to some extent, we are influenced by culture, our company, our job, education, books we read, music we listen to, movies we watch. Even our gut bacteria can influence our mood and energy. Our choices are therefore the result of factors completely outside of our control, thereby eliminating the ability for one to have free will.

So the deterministic view of human life would argue that, while there is an illusion of free will, the decisions we make are simply the result of all that has come before us, like the last domino to fall in a chain that stretched back to the beginning of existence.

Whichever side of the argument you fall on, there are some profound realisations that come from both so lets dig a little deeper under the surface of the two.


Free will is generally thought of as the capacity for a person to consciously and deliberately decide between two or more courses of action without an influence from the outside world being so strong as to make the choice either impossible or make the choice for them.

When we have free will we are free to choose our path, we have the responsibility and stewardship of our life that allows for us to forge whatever path we decide is best at the time. This freedom comes as a double edged sword – while we have the ability to choose, and with the ability to choose comes a great deal of freedom, we also have to accept responsibility for whatever we do. We have a moral responsibility to do the right thing, whatever right and wrong might mean to the individual.

In a world in which free will is present, the individual must accept both praise for their accomplishments and blame for their shortcomings. We are held to account for the good and the bad.

Hard Determinism:

In contrast, hard determinism is the belief that free will is not possible because the choice of an individual is pre-determined by the events preceding it. Determinism suggests that only one course of action is possible regardless of how many choices there appear to be – if I’m trying to decide between rum and raisin flavoured ice cream, vanilla, mint chocolate chip, lemon, strawberry or coffee, there is only one choice and that choice is determined by all of the events in my life leading up to that point. Strictly speaking the choice is determined by all of the events since the dawn of time leading up to that point, but you get the idea. To hard determinists, things are causally inevitable, thereby eliminating the presence of free will. This is also called causal determinism.

Hard determinism, and those that believe it to be true can be split into two groups – logical determinism and theological determinists.

Logical determinists are those who believe that a system with governing laws can be predicted if the starting conditions are known. For example, if we want to simulate a crash test on a car, we can use a computer to input the starting conditions, the speed, direction, shape of the vehicle, mass of the vehicle and the material properties, and from those conditions we get a simulation of the system. Logical determinists believe that everything that happens in the system of the universe happens because of the conditions at the beginning. You nor I can do anything to change the flow of events, we’re just playing our part. As such, free will is impossible, because our choices can only be those that satisfy the conditions of the system.

Theological determinism suggests that a conscious being has pre-determined the unfolding of the universe and therefore you and I are simply acting out their grand plan. There is also some crossover here to fate or destiny.

Soft Determinism:

Soft determinism holds that free will and determinism are indeed compatible with one another. Sometimes soft determinism even goes so far as to say that determinism is necessary for free will, suggesting that choice involves preference and that preference is a form of determinism, to me this just confuses the argument a little.

Soft determinists, also known as compatibilists, therefore see the free will vs determinism debate as a false dilemma. The difficulty with this view is that where both free will and determinism both co-exists the line at which one ends and the other begins can be unclear.

The classical compatibilists view free will as the freedom to act, and they see a person as having free will if they have the choice of two or more courses of action and have the ability to choose between two or more without being physically prevented.

In another camp, the contemporary compatibilists believe free will to be one’s ability to apply reason and judgement to inform action – where a person can make a conscious choice on their course of action by weighing the options against one another based on what they believe about each one.

Final Thoughts:

I think the truth is somewhere in the middle, and that there is merit to the nature vs nurture argument. Each and every one of us will, to varying degrees, be influenced by our environment, our genetics, and our unique way our brain will process stimulus.

I also believe that free will is a sliding scale – the more we learn about the world around us and the more we work on ourselves, understand our subconscious beliefs, look at how our environment might influence us, develop the ability to view our thoughts and emotions in the moment, and generally become more mature and well rounded, the better we are able to limit the influence the world exerts on our decision making.

Free will can be seen as one’s ability to act unhindered by external influence. Therefore, I would argue that free will increases as wisdom increases. By that I mean that, where wisdom is our ability to view the world as it is, wisdom removes the ability for external events and events outside our control to influence our actions. Wisdom does this through both the understanding of a thing, and the understanding of how a thing might influence our decision making – these two in combination protect us from having our views, behaviours and beliefs influenced, and by extension protect or free will from being compromised.

However, the hard determinists would say that if one’s wisdom was to develop, it would only do so because of the unravelling of events leading up to that point, and that the growth of the individual was already determined by those events. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’d be able to logically disagree with them, however I do believe that it is in our best interests to behave as if we do have free will and that we are responsible for the decisions we make. If not, we risk falling into nihilism and the belief that nothing means anything. We also run the risk of denying all responsibility for our actions which can be a very damaging way to live life.

Morality, Ethics and Responsibility:

One last point I’ll make on determinism is that if we accept that everything a person does is predetermined by past events, and that as a result free will does not exist, we run into a great number of issue regarding morality, punishment, blame and credit.

Those who are successful and who have accomplished great things, often through hard sacrifice, are no longer responsible for their efforts.

On the other side of the coin, those who have done terrible things, and caused great harm to people have only done so because they are playing their part on the predetermined stage of life and are to some extent free of blame. Arguably these people are to be pitied, not judged.

Regardless of whether or not we believe in free will, there are deep implications on both sides of the argument that are worth thinking about.

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