Fully Caused: Coming to Terms with Determinism

Universal determinism may very well not be the case, but the assumption that there are reliable cause and effect relationships among events is indispensable. On pain of irrationality and disempowerment, we should not suppose human agents are causal exceptions to nature.

It’s been my experience that most folks strongly dislike the idea that their character and actions might be determined, shaped entirely by the cause and effect relationships we observe in nature. They like the idea that they can cause things to happen, but if you suggest that they themselves are fully caused,[1] they often bristle. Determinism seems to put them in a fatalistic box. They take it as an affront to their freedom, individuality, moral worth and dignity to suppose that they are fully the result of factors they themselves didn’t choose. To be a real, honest-to-God human agent that can take real credit and blame for real choices, you have to be self-created in some respect. Real choices, it’s often supposed, require that you intervene in the causal stream from an undetermined vantage point, such that you’re a miniature first cause very much like God, or as Daniel Dennett so wonderfully put it, a moral levitator. But of course there is no such vantage point. As far we can tell there are no first causes operating in the world that get to call the shots without being called themselves.

Judged from a scientific and logical perspective, the belief that we stand outside the causal web in any respect is an absurdity, the height of human egoism and exceptionalism. We should get over the idea that to be real agents we have to be self-created. After all, self-creation ex nihilo is an impossibility. There has to be something already there to get the ball of agenthood rolling; and whatever that is, it too had antecedents which it didn’t choose. For us humans it’s the fertilized zygote, derived from Mom and Dad, conceived within a biological and social environment. Once the process of being a person is underway, the accumulated internal neural resources shaped by nature and nurture eventually play a big role in modulating how we are affected by experience. But this undeniably active, self-modulating self, a powerful causal influence in its own right, is all traceable back to non-self factors – it isn’t literally self-creating in a way that owes nothing to outside influences. It owes everything, ultimately, to outside influences, including its self-modifying capacities. So it is with all life, and with every composite thing in nature, as far as we know. Everything is a function of, and participates in, the causal web; we are no exceptions.

Pragmatic determinism

Determinism says that given a physical state of affairs, for instance the state of your brain, body and environment at this instant (time T), there’s a single possible next state of affairs at T+1 as necessitated by causal laws discovered to hold at various levels of description, atomic, chemical, and biological. Excluding any randomly generated influences (for instance from cosmic rays, beta decay, etc.), the state at T+1 then necessitates the next, and so on, such that there’s a law-like set of transitions over time that would be exactly the same if we could reset all conditions back to their original state at T. Of course we can’t actually perform this experiment, but the deterministic claim rests on the rather robust intuition that similar causes produce similar effects. It’s uncontroversially true that at least at the macro level of chemicals, compounds and the larger phenomena they constitute, nature exhibits very reliable, law-like regularities as documented by science over the last 350 years. What we seem not to observe, given our ever increasing ability to control for causal factors in experimental situations, are inexplicable departures from these regularities. The success of science in explaining, predicting and controlling the world hinges on the manifest dependability of cause and effect relationships. If anything is true about nature, it’s that it exhibits a predictable order in transitions between states. It’s unlikely that we are exceptions to that order, given that we are all-natural, all-physical, all the time.

This isn’t to say determinism has been proven, or could be proved, either in general or with respect to ourselves. As David Hume pointed out, our confidence in the reliability of causal laws is based on the inductive inference that since the world has exhibited regular patterning thus far, it will continue to do so. But there’s no basis for this inference outside our confidence, which is itself based on past regularities. There’s no reason in principle that nature couldn’t at any moment run off the causal rails it’s been on thus far. Further, it looks as if behavior at the sub-atomic level is not deterministic but rather probabilistic, in that there’s no way to tell what the exact next state of a particle will be. There are only a range of possibilities, each with an associated probability as assigned by the particle’s wave function.

Both these considerations, and others that philosophers have explored (see here), suggest that we’d be wrong to declare determinism – same causes, same effects, and no random elements – a truth about all of nature. Rather it’s a useful operating assumption we employ in science and everyday affairs in order to make sense of the world. In defending determinism, I’m simply advocating for the rationality and utility of this assumption, a pragmatic determinism that suits us for all practical purposes. Even in realms where we can’t predict precisely what will happen next, whether human or sub-atomic, we can’t help but assume there are regularities to be extracted from a set of similar situations, and indeed we extract them. These regularities may be probabilistic, either because we don’t know enough about the situation, as in many everyday human interactions, or because there’s intrinsic unpredictability in nature, as in the sub-atomic realm. But we assume that causal patterns are there to be understood and used. Not to assume this would be to stand paralyzed, not knowing what to expect next, a practical impossibility for creatures needing to look out for themselves and their loved ones.

Natural born determinists

It’s striking that this very useful cause and effect picture is perceived as such a threat when applied to ourselves as agents. After all, in every other domain we are happy to take advantage of causal regularities; indeed we thrive on them and couldn’t live without them. We’re constantly predicting what physical objects will do, what other people will do, what we ourselves will do, based on prior experience of what’s likely to occur given real or imagined circumstances. We are, in fact, natural born determinists from a very early age, wanting to grasp the law-like nature of the world, including human agents. Think of the toddler’s notorious “why” question that drives parents crazy. What is this but the budding scientist, seeking to understand how things work? Such understanding is only possible in terms of generalizations that are derived from similar instances of observed behavior, e.g., of fire trucks, each of which might differ from the others in many respects, but that permit fairly reliable predictions: fires will be extinguished, people will be rescued, the local likelihood of Dalmatians will increase.

When things don’t go as we predict, we usually suppose conditions must have been such so that our prediction was falsified. This applies to human behavior as well. When someone does something unexpected, we generally suppose there’s something we don’t know about – a belief, desire, unconscious motive, something in the current situation – that caused the behavior, not that the person just chose to act in an unexpected way independent of these factors. The deterministic assumption that behavior arises as a causal function of various influences, including mental states such as beliefs and desires (not just determinants understood at the chemical and neural levels), is preeminently rational when it comes to understanding and predicting what people do. By contrast, the assumption that individuals choose and act independently of determining influences is of no practical use and without evidential foundation, hence irrational to adopt.

The seven sins of free will

But of course the fascinating fact is that many do adopt it, and hold fast to it. Why is this?  The reasons are psychological and historical, and they go very deep. Since self-help invariably has seven central points authors want you to remember, and since I want to release your inner determinist, I’ll call the following the seven sins of free will:

1)      The phenomenology of choice: It doesn’t feel as though my choices are determined. Because I’m not aware of the neural processes involved in choosing, only their output, it seems to me that I could have chosen not to check out Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle from the library given the exact state of mind I was in, in the exact same circumstances. More generally, from a first-person perspective it seems obvious that I have contra-causal free will: that I could have done otherwise in an actual situation exactly as it transpired, not just in a somewhat different situation (see here). But, equally generally, we shouldn’t trust our feelings, intuitions and other “first person data” as reliable guides to reality.

2)      The phenomenology of self and mental life: It feels like there’s something immaterial about me, something not my body that’s the essential self, something like a soul or a mental essence that chooses without being caused to choose. And my thoughts, feelings and emotions seem like non-physical mental things, in contrast to my physical body and the outside world. But again, we shouldn’t take these dualistic intuitions as a direct indicator of what’s the case, we should stick with science. Neuroscience suggests that the brain, all on its own, constructs the experience of a mental me, my thoughts and emotions. When certain neural networks are lesioned or temporarily shut down, these experiences cease or get attenuated, evidence for the physical basis of mental phenomena.

3)      Dualistic cultural inheritance: We are the inheritors of long religious and secular traditions of dualism about the human person, a dualism that exempts us from determinism. Except for Calvinism, the Abrahamic religions have it that free will, exercised by the immortal soul, is a God-given capacity that makes us, not God, responsible for evil in the world (for instance see Don’t Blame God!). Moreover, only such freedom allows us to love God voluntarily. Under the influence of religious and folk dualism, Descartes argued that we are categorically mental agents that control our bodies by means of choices that are ultimately up to the agent, nothing else. So both the religious and secular traditions hold that by having immaterial essences, human beings are causal exceptions to nature. But there is no empirical evidence to support this claim.

4)      Protecting the meme: The meme of contra-causal freedom is protected by claims in modern day culture that such freedom is essential for morality, meaning, dignity, rationality, creativity and all else that makes life possible and worth living. Those who challenge the meme are therefore characterized as threats to life as we know it (see here for one example, and here for a counter-argument). This discourages such challenges and thus helps to consolidate and protect the meme of free will. Apologists for contra-causal freedom, often (but not always) religious, conservative and libertarian, do their best to discount the mounting scientific evidence against it.

5)      Personal identity: Belief in their own causal exceptionalism is central to the identity of many individuals, especially in the West, therefore very resistant to change. Admitting a mistake in core beliefs is difficult, given the psychological investment most of us have in our worldview, and in being right. This is true of academics involved in the debate about free will or belief in free will: their reputations are tied to the success of their favored view. This militates against flexibility of belief in the light of evidence and arguments, as discussed here.

6)      Psychological reinforcement: Free will flatters the self by assigning us ultimate credit for our good deeds and achievements. It also allows us the satisfaction of assigning ultimate blame to others for their failings and wrongdoings, as for instance in exacting retributive punishment. We can set ourselves up as self-made saints, others as self-made monsters.

7)      Avoiding responsibility: Free will lets us off the hook by implying that we don’t have to worry about the conditions under which people fail or succeed; after all, the conditions don’t finally determine what people do, it’s their freely willed choices. Free will is the perfect justification for laissez faire economic and social policies: since he can make it on his own, if he just chooses to, we aren’t responsible for being our brother’s keeper.

Countervailing considerations in favor of determinism

Although they help explain the grip of causal exceptionalism on our thinking, none of the above counts as justification for it. Indeed, they present formidable obstacles to a rational conception of the self and human agency, one which accepts our complete causal connection to the world. To rehabilitate determinism as a defeasible but nevertheless essential assumption in making sense of things, including ourselves, we can appeal to at least four sorts of considerations, cognitive, logical, moral, and practical:


We are naturally inclined to want a true understanding of things, to be undeluded in our view of the world, including human nature. Given this motive, it’s rational to employ our most reliable means of representing reality – science. So when it comes to deciding what’s true about ourselves, we shouldn’t suppose our subjective intuitions (should we have them) of being uncaused in our choices, or being immaterial agents, are accurate reflections of what’s the case. As individuals, we’re not in a good position to plumb the depths of our own nature, and we might be strongly motivated to reach certain conclusions about that nature, for instance that we have souls which survive death. So, with the help of science, we should strongly second guess our uncorroborated intuitions about the self and agency. Further, given that they are for the most part non-empirical and pre-scientific, our dualistic religious and secular traditions are very likely mistaken. We should instead put stock in what empirical investigation shows about the nature of the self, volition, consciousness and choice. The investigation thus far has turned up no evidence for an uncaused causer lurking within us, only a vastly complex physical system that looks to be the outcome of natural selection. A cognitive commitment to reliable knowledge thus pushes us toward a naturalistic understanding of the self and agency as argued here.


The logic of human causal exceptionalism seems hopeless. Not to be fully caused by antecedent conditions requires that an entity be in some sense its own cause. But to cause itself, it has to already exist, in which case it didn’t cause itself. As Nietzsche so colorfully put it, the sort of self-creation many hanker for is “to pull oneself up into existence by the hair, out of the swamps of nothingness" (quoted here). Seeing the logical impossibility of what’s actually entailed by contra-causal agency should help pry us loose from the myth of causal exceptionalism.


The self-flattery, demonization of others, and avoidance of responsibility abetted by the assumption of contra-causal free will are arguably moral failings. They stand opposed to the virtues of humility, compassion and solidarity espoused by most ethical traditions, secular and religious. Belief in free will brings out the worst in us: unbridled ego, arrogance, punitive contempt, and unconcern for those that could have succeeded, but simply chose not to. Is this who we want to be? If not, then we should question the free will assumption. As Spinoza said about determinism: “This doctrine teaches us to hate no one, to despise no one, to mock no one, to be angry with no one, and to envy no one.”


There are huge practical benefits of taking a virtually deterministic view of ourselves. The assumption that there exist identifiable factors which determine why human beings end up the way they do - some successful and fulfilled, but many not - is the key to empowerment and control. We can only achieve human flourishing and planetary sustainability by understanding their biological, social and environmental causes and conditions. The opposite assumption, that we humans can by acts of free will rise above our circumstances to solve personal, local and global problems, is a disempowering mystification. It prevents us from coming to grips with reality and turning its causal regularities to our own advantage. About determinism and the environmental catastrophe now facing us, see here.

The downsides of indeterminism

These considerations may not be enough to sway determined free willers, those with a heavy investment in being uncaused causers. The meme of radical libertarian freedom won’t go gently into that good night, reinforced as it is by the American myth of the ultimately self-made man. If further therapy is in order, we can point out the downsides of supposing we’re self-made:

Of no help in choosing

Being uncaused is of no use whatsoever in making choices. Why? Because an uninfluenced decider has no reason to decide between alternatives. It’s the alternatives themselves that determine the choice, based on their subjective desirability. The only time we want to be dispassionate, to the best of our ability, is when evaluating prospective courses of action: we don’t want our hopes and fears to bias the accuracy of our predictions, we want to be good scientists on our own behalf. Having made our predictions, our choices reflect the relative strength of our (possibly competing) desires as informed by the likelihood of their being realized. Something I might really want, like winning a talent contest, might be an unrealistic goal given a realistic appraisal of my talents. In an internet discussion on free will, a participant wrote: “My preference is the result of my nature/nurture. My will can decide whether I follow my preference or do the opposite." But one wonders: why would I want to choose independently of my preferences, and what would determine that choice, if not some operating desire or preference? An uninfluenced will, if it existed, would be of no earthly use to us.

Undermines authorship

Uncaused choices don’t help to guarantee agency and authorship. To count as the author of your own choices, you have to control them: they have to reflect your character, motives, and deliberations, not be under anyone or anything else’s direct control. By definition, an indeterministic or uncaused factor that helps determine a choice doesn’t reflect your character, motives or deliberations, and thus would undermine authorship of your acts. And remember: that you’re likely fully caused to be who you are doesn’t make you less of an agent; you have causal powers just as much as the factors that created you; you’re just as real as they are (see here).

Entails moral anarchy

Being uncaused would make us uncontrollable by moral norms. Although many suppose we need free will to be moral agents, the opposite is true: it’s only by being at the effect of ethical training and the prospect of being held responsible that we end up as law abiding, morally upright citizens. Were there some uninfluenced, radically autonomous core of the person beyond the reach of moral education and social rewards and sanctions, then we’d have a real problem on our hands. Fortunately, no such core exists, otherwise we’d have billions of uncontrollable moral renegades running amok, a kindergarten let loose on the world.

Reassurances and inducements

Beyond pointing out the downsides of indeterminism, the logical incoherence of self-creation, the lack of evidence for free will, and the practical and moral pitfalls of supposing we’re causal exceptions to nature, we must reassure folks that it really is OK to be fully caused. Some reassurances have been mentioned in passing above, but let’s reiterate them and add a few more:

Being fully caused…

….we don’t cease to be active agents in our own right. We still have causal powers ourselves to affect the world according to our desires.

….we don’t cease to be moral agents. We still have our full complement of moral concerns; our moral sense, bequeathed us by evolution, is fully intact; our moral norms are still operative; and we still can and must hold each other responsible to maintain order and reinforce the norms.

…we remain rational agents. We needn’t be causally disconnected from the world to understand it and act successfully on our own behalf. In fact, rationality depends on having reliable cognitive mechanisms such that our representations track the world accurately. We don’t want any indeterministic noise distorting our sensory, perceptual and deliberative assessments of reality.

…we don’t fall prey to fatalism. Fatalism has it that a particular fate is in store for me no matter what I do, that my actions don’t play a role in how events unfold. But they do, just as much or more than anything else in my vicinity. And as we’ve seen, being uncaused in some respect doesn’t get me anywhere; it doesn’t add to causal powers, authorship, or responsibility. More on fatalism here.

…is not a universal excuse. For all practical purposes it’s safe to assume that you and your actions have their causes, but only a subset of these causes counts as excuses. If you’re insane, coerced, or accidentally do someone harm (without it being negligence), then you’re excused. But if you’re acting sanely under your own control, it’s proper and essential that you be held accountable for any wrongdoing, despite the fact that you were determined to do it. Only in this way will you and the rest of us manage to walk the line of responsibility. But seeing that you are fully caused in your wrongdoing leads us to more compassionate and effective responsibility practices, see here.

…we remain unique individuals, capable of creativity, self-actualization and initiative. Taking the cause and effect, deterministic perspective doesn’t lessen human variability, nor does it undercut our capacities for self-change, innovation, or determination to get things done. It only explains where these valuable capacities come from: our biological and cultural heritage, our upbringing, education and role models. Despite its bad rap, there’s nothing at all un-American about determinism when appreciated from an individualist can-do perspective. As the Merovingian points out to Neo in The Matrix Reloaded, understanding causality is the key to power. Relatedly, understanding that individuals are fully caused isn't a justification for coercive state control. Instead, since we are inevitably controlled by conditions (laws, policies, advertising, social environments and institutions), we have to be vigilant that the controls are open to inspection, ethical, democratically chosen, and in our own best interest. To suppose we are immune from control in some respect is delusory and disempowering, exactly what some controllers (such as advertisers) would like you to think. For this reason, psychologist John A. Bargh argues here and here that we'd be irresponsible not to inform folks that they likely don't have contra-causal free will.

…doesn’t mean we’re predictable. This is guaranteed by the sheer complexity of the human animal. Should it turn out that there’s nothing random influencing behavior, it’s still a practical impossibility to know in advance precisely what we’ll do in most situations. Even so, we’ll be predictably ourselves, which is a good thing.

To these reassurances we can add the following inducements to rethink our relationship to determinism:

Seeing that we’re fully caused…

…we grasp our complete connection to the cosmos, historically and in the present moment. We take our rightful place in nature; we find ourselves at home in the world.

…we’re led to compassion for others, and for ourselves. Dropping the fiction of the ultimately responsible, self-made self, we see the causal story behind human failings. This awakens and reinforces empathy: there but for circumstances go I. It helps to foster an interpersonal ethic of support and solidarity, and motivates progressive social policy.

…we gain power and control by virtue of understanding what makes us tick, of seeing under just what circumstances human beings can sustainably flourish, along with other species on the planet.

…we gain freedom, freedom from a disempowering illusion: freedom from free will.

Will all this be enough to rehabilitate determinism, and should it? Remember that determinism, as defanged above, is simply shorthand for reliable causal relations between entities and events, including human beings, their antecedents and their actions. Although universal determinism may well not be the case due to indeterminacies in the sub-atomic realm, there’s good reason to believe such reliable relations exist, that macroscopic creatures such as ourselves are fully subject to them, and that our well-being depends crucially on understanding them. Moreover, indeterminism doesn’t add to our power, control, responsibility or dignity. If and when all this sinks in, the human ego will find itself considerably streamlined, but still intact, put on a more realistic footing. The assumption that we’re fully caused is a close approximation to the empirical truth, and will stand us in good stead should the naturalistic revolution in our self-concept come to pass.

TWC, July, 2009


[1] See Ken Batt’s online compilation of quotes and notes about the virtues of taking a causal view of ourselves, Fully Caused: The Benefits of a Naturalistic Understanding of Behavior.