The Irreconcilability of Hard Determinism

The Irreconcilability of Hard Determinism

Victoria De Capua


At the time when the idea of hard determinism, the belief that all behaviour and actions, physical or otherwise, are governed by causal laws (those suggesting every event that occurs must be predicated on a prior cause) the new implementation of scientific theory was just coming into vogue. Modern science as we know it is more than a volume of knowledge but rather a system of establishing facts based on a standard of evidence. In today’s scientific experiments, agreed-upon practices are upheld in an effort to bring uniformity to the methods of observation we understand as authoritative in codifying our experience of ourselves and the world around us.

Baron D’Holbach, philosopher of the 18th century (still far in advance of the term “hard determinism” that would later be applied to his ideas) conceptualized a philosophy based on the belief that causation was exact, scientific, and was the controlling force in both the wider world, and the actions of men and women. This notion is still contested today, particularly with respect to the level of accountability and blameworthiness that is applied to a given individual when questioning their free will and thought, but given as a scientifically supported palliative to the human condition, it is a deceptively simple and fundamentally flawed approach.

A hard deterministic model cannot be uniformly applied to every human situation and the sum of its parts, and therefore cannot uniformly predict the outcome of any given human situation, based on the sum of its parts.

D’Holbach’s understanding of “science” was, in his time, considerable, and he sought to create a kind of alchemy of genetic physicality and identity in postulating his beliefs about the human condition in his opus, The System of Nature:

“If the intellectual faculties of man, or his moral qualities, be examined according to the principles here laid down, the conviction must be complete that they are to be attributed to material causes, which have an influence more or less marked, either transitory or durable, over his peculiar organization”[1]

Naturally, his suggestion that human behaviour itself could be measured in such stringent terms brings up not only questions concerning the free will to choose one’s actions, but a question of scientific method itself. The legitimacy of a scientific experiment, by modern standards, is its repeatability, its coherent consistency, and the ability of those performing the experiment to formulate hypotheses based on predictions with evidence to support them. The idea that a human being, metaphysically, could be examined with respect to the scientific method is beyond scope, not least because of the complexity and breadth of the human experience, but the veracity of that experience, when human experience is highly subjective. Presumably, if one were able to apply such methods accurately to a human being, a human being’s future actions would become predictable to a degree as such to support the idea that hard determinism is a viable model- and effectively cure all notions of free will. It is a very simplistic way in which to measure the human experience, and the desire to apply such ideas have very heavy ethical challenges involved, especially where personal accountability and individuality are concerned.

That is not to say that there are not powerful implications behind the idea of deterministic science. Peter Millican, in his article Hume’s Determinism, discusses David Hume’s belief that science in and of itself is self-evidently deterministic:

“Here it is very clear that Hume is identifying his own position as that of the ‘philosopher.’ The rational and consistent scientist, faced with apparent irregularities in the phenomena, should  not attribute these to unreliable or chancy causation, but should instead search for hidden  factors that enable the phenomena to be explained as the consistent effects of absolutely  necessary causes. Given the track record of scientists in achieving this, we can reasonably  conclude that nature is indeed ultimately deterministic, and that all apparent chance is in fact to    be explained away as due to hidden causes. “[2]

Millican discusses Hume’s ideas about hidden causes, but also postulates that Hume was more soft determinist or compatibilist than he has been previously construed. Millican also points out that it seems the purpose of science is to pursue these hidden causes, and to bring them to light- hence the value in a system of uniformity. But it calls into question the nature of D’Holbach’s “science” theory, because it becomes more and more clear that while humans are physically and metaphysically of the physical world, and all chemical, emotional and mental reactions are physical in origin, it may become possible to test our evolutionary determinism,  but our behavioural determinism is nullified by the fact that it is both preferable and incumbent upon us to act as though we are free of will and choice.

Robert Agnew, in his study of youth, criminology and determinism, emphasizes the potential of deterministic measurement by evaluating several studies and compares the actions and choices of a person pre-disposed towards crime, and ultimately enforces his thesis that while there are deterministic aspects involved in establishing culpability or intent, that really the only accurate measurements to be observed in a deterministic paradigm are the collective trends associated with the data behind these studies, not the individual behaviour of an individual person. [3]Statistics is a numerical science, and therefore lends itself easily to Hume’s observation that science- as practiced in modern contexts- is deterministic by nature.

The question now becomes, would society be better off if it we were able to apply a hard deterministic model as a normative? Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the entire argument is that hard determinists seem to overlook the possible consequences of such a reality. In her novel, A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle creates the foreign world where sameness and uniformity are enforced, where evocative thought or free will have been stifled in the name of order. If hard determinism is taken as normative rather observed as an existing structure of casual order, then a uniformity of thought and action seems like the natural step- “On Camazotz we are all happy because we are all alike. Differences create problems,” says Charles Wallace[4], underscoring the chilling antagonist’s paradigm.

It may strike as a hyperbolic reaction to the application of hard determinism, but if our future is not determined by our choices, individuality becomes lost. Free will would, is already, necessarily sacrificed in that reality. But it is difficult to make that argument even if one is in favour of hard determinism, as even those in favour would have to admit to themselves that they are not choosing to passively act as a function of causation, but instead paradoxically behave as though they have a choice in the matter.

Göran Duus-otterström makes a case for, not the truth of whether or not we live in a deterministic society, but whether we ought to- or even want to- live in such a society in his paper, Betting Against Hard Determinism:

“As the belief in the ultimate moral responsibility of persons diminishes, we would no longer enjoy admiration and gratitude for our good action or blame or resentment for our bad. This  seems to, in a lofty phrase, lessen us as human beings, at least as we normally understand  ourselves.”[5]

He continues to later agree that there is a mixture of necessity and chance where our behaviour is concerned, and emphasizes that free will becomes a challenging concept- “in the sense of being able to genuinely do otherwise, remains obscure; very much a thing that is in need of clarification-“ though it does appear that, according to his examination, as humans we are very attached to the idea of having free will, and that our experience of life is heightened, if not always improved, by our belief in our own freedom.

It is necessarily true that humans, as a function of being human, and as a function of evolution, seek to find patterns and create connections between events in order to reconcile them with their memories, or synthesize perspectives. It may be that we inherited such an instinct by observing the deterministic patterns of nature and physics- the repetition of natural patterns observed both at a macro and eventually (with the help of scientific technology) a micro level. It seems natural, in some respects, especially to a philosopher who is just discovering a new medium of thought, to assume such a pattern could be applied to human behaviour and belief, spurred on by the idea that human evolution and language are systematic. It becomes a difficult proving ground when observed that even if such a human thing as language is systematic, to speak requires volition- and that words were spoken can only be proved in retrospect, and cannot, thankfully, be predicted with mathematical, deterministic accuracy.






Agnew, Robert. “Determinism, Indeterminism, and Crime: An Empirical Exploration.” Criminology 33, no. 1, 1995: 83-83.

Baron d’Holbach, Paul Henri Thiry. The System of Nature Volume I. 1770.

D’Holbach, Baron Paul Henri Thiry. “Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations.” In Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations, by W. F., and Roy Porter edited by Bynum. Oxford University Press, 2006.

Duus-otterström, Göran. “Betting Against Hard Determinism.” Res Publica 14, no. 3, 2008: 219-235.

L’Engle, Madeleine. A Wrinkle in Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962.

Millican, Peter. “Hume’s Determinism.” Canadian Journal Of Philosophy 40, no. 4, 2010: 611-642.


[1] (Baron d’Holbach 1770)

[2] (Millican 2010)

[3] (Agnew 1995)

[4] (Duus-otterström 2008)


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