Video: Free Will Determinism and Politics

Mark Gullick joined us at the Rose and Crown to introduce the audience to the concepts of free will and determinism, to highlight schools of thought in which they have become dominant and implore us to fight for the “standard bearer” of free will: free speech

As you will see in the video below, Mark talked about three of areas in particular: he saw a direct connection between determinism and the left citing Lennin and Islam in particular; the importance of free will, free speech and practical liberty; and he talked about “compatibilism” the notion that believing we have free will is that same as actually having it. I would like to touch on these points becuase they interest me and because, looking at the first two points, I think Mark did not explain them as thoroughly as we would have liked. That’s my fault for being a stern timekeeper, but I hope Mark will make a further contribution on them.

On the link to politics, Mark cited Lenin thusly:

The idea of determinism, which postulates that human acts are necessitated and rejects the absurd tale about free will, in no way destroys mans reason or conscience, or appraisal of his actions. Quite the contrary, only the determinist view makes a strict and correct appraisal possible instead of attributing everything you please to free will. Similarly, the idea of historical necessity does not in the least undermine the role of the individual in history: all history is made up of the actions of individuals, who are undoubtedly active figures. The real question that arises in appraising the social activity of an individual is: what conditions ensure the success of his actions, what guarantee is there that these actions will not remain an isolated act lost in a welter of contrary acts?

As you will see, Mark believes that Lennin is groping at the idea that the State is what will channel and direct the power of individual actions in the pre-determined direction of socialism, and fears that Islam, which means literally “to submit”  is determinism’s newest ally.

On the link between free speech and free will, intuitively, if people have free will then the free exchange of information (“the rate of population growth affects prosperity”) , the sharing of judgements (“therefore your homosexuality is obscene” etc) and alternative views (“but population growth is not fully deterministic of prosperity”) are crucially important for individuals (as my examples illustrate). If we think individuals can, do and should make choices, then freely exchanged information is going to be essential; but if you believe that the course of history is determined then people asserting free will and talking pointlessly about alternative choices represents a risk to the speedy arrival of your predicted outcome. I wonder if I am thinking along the right lines here.

The last point I wanted to mention is compatibilism, the idea that Truman Burbank was just fine living in Seahaven until he started to notice something funny and that we might all be ignorant cast members of the Truman Show, stuck in the Matrix, or whatever. I don’t buy this. I don’t see how any decision favouring determinism on account of compatibilism might be falsified if I cannot know if the world is determined. It is akin to believing in God and well beyond what I’d consider rational. I can see how you might call it an unanswerable question, or how you might call it bunk.

I suspect though, that there is a lot more to this argument than Mark shared and that nothing I said above is likely to be new to those of you more familiar with the field. I find myself somewhat uninterested in the argument over this particular philosophical split hair as my mind  – if you’ll pardon the pun – is made up. The theory of free will is how I experience the world, I have the daily evidence of experience for it’s existence. I remember sense data arriving, I remember what I think – at least for a little while – and therefore can experience an active rational process and the chaos of a trillion tiny decisions – mine and those of others – playing out on my life minute by minute.

The idea that this chaos and the mess of lucky and unlucky interactions it causes is all “run” as Mark put it seems unlikely and simply doesn’t appeal. Before I let you see the video though, I wanted to share a section of Thomas Paine’s recent article in which he neatly explains the appeal of the indeterminate world, the world with free will.

Emphasis is mine:

For all that I recognise the role of luck, good and bad, in life it’s so central to my world-view that I don’t think I could live if convinced it is wrong, that it’s what you do with your luck that determines who you are. That every boy and girl, however crap their circumstances, however bad the hand life has dealt them, can move off towards the light or the dark by choice and have a good chance of achieving some or all of their goals. If there is no free will, life is just a worthless joke that is simply not worth having.

Great words. Enjoy the show:



  1. “The real question that arises in appraising the social activity of an individual is: what conditions ensure the success of his actions, what guarantee is there that these actions will not remain an isolated act lost in a welter of contrary acts?”

    There is another way to interpret that Lenin quote: The guarantee that our actions are causes which have effects is determinism. Any break in determinism would produce acts without consequences*. But perhaps in Leninworld determinism and the state are so entwined that it’s hard to say what he means?

    *Like voting? But I jest.



  2. “Lenin” (VIU) was mistaken – determinism (if correct) does destroy reason and conscience (leaving aside the “little” question that if reason and conscience are just “illusions”, as determinism claims, then who is having these illusions? the “reasoning I”, the mind, not actually existing – according to determinism).

    Unless I CHOOSE my actions – then talk of moral responsiblity (conscience) or using reason to decide is absurd. How can reason be used to decide – if one does not decide? If there is no real choice at all.

    And it has to be real choice – not “you think you choose, but really it is predetermined by God, or by DNA, or by your environment growing up……”

    Of course both genetics and environment have an impact (sometimes make doing the right thing a terrible effort) – but if I do not choose, then “I” do not really exist at all.

    “Compatiblism” is the doctrine that two incompatible (radically incompatible) views of what a human is are “compatible” (because the philosopher says they are compatible – i.e. it is an “argument from authority”).

    Either humans are “beings” (i.e. AGENTS capable of AGENCY) or humans are flesh robots whose actions are predeteriminted (pre programmed) by genetics and environment.

    There is no “compatiblism”.

    Pre programmed fresh robots have no moral importance – complaints about them being destroyed or enslaved make no sense. No more than getting upset about the “enslavement” of a clockwork mouse would make sense.

    If there is no “reasoning I” (no AGENT – no human BEING) then there can be no slavery – for these is nothing (other than a walking machine) to be “enslaved”.



  3. “if reason and conscience are just “illusions”, as determinism claims, then who is having these illusions? the “reasoning I”, the mind, not actually existing – according to determinism”

    Only materialistic determinism suffers from this problem, there are deterministic forms of idealism and monism. The mind doesn’t exist under materialism; that’s true. Also it’s hilarious to think that Marx, Lenin et al thought themselves mindless. We can all agree on that.



  4. I think that religious determinism is as wrongheaded as athiest determinism.

    If God determines all our actions (without any real choice of ours) then God punishing us for our actions makes no, moral, sense.

    Such things as Calvinist predestination (with an Elect chosen at the start of time – before they were born) are as weird as anything in Marxism.



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