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Indeterminism: the false free will supposition

A substantial body of the free will debate is about the relationship between free will and determinism in science. In fact, indeterminism has no place at all in an understanding of human free will. Indeterminism is the false presupposition of the free will debate. As John Searle writes:

“The persistence of the traditional free will problem in philosophy seems to me something of a scandal. After all these centuries of writing about free will it does not seem to me that we have made much progress.”

“When we at last overcome one of these intractable problems it often happens that we do so by showing that we had made a false presupposition.”

John Searle 2007

Our challenge model [Hadley (2018)] describes human free will. It has nothing to do with indeterminism.

To understand why indeterminism has no place in the debate, we need to appreciate that determinism or otherwise is a property of a scientific theory. It is not a meaningful property of nature itself. Any set of observations is compatible with a deterministic or an indeterministic universe. There is no conceivable test for indeterminism.

We use an indeterministic (probabilistic) theory to describe outcomes from the roll of a dice or the turning of a playing card. Such theories are pragmatic, accurate and useful. Yet for both scenarios we have deterministic models. The dice follow Newton’s laws of motion, the playing cards have predetermined values once the shuffle is complete. The deterministic theories are not generally so useful. Then again we have quantum theory which is probabilistic and gives an even more accurate description of the motion of a dice. But again practical calculations are not feasible.

Quantum theory is the best theory we have of the microscopic world, incredibly accurate and never found to be incorrect. It is probabilistic in nature and in many experiments it is unable to predict an exact outcome even though we don’t have any better theory. Although the theory is indeterministic, there are models of quantum phenomena that are deterministic. All we know for sure is that quantum phenomena are context dependent. The probabilities depend upon the experiment to be undertaken.

Consider a decision making agent, what pattern of decision making could possibly evidence indeterminacy? None. If a mythical indeterministic agent existed and produced a pattern of decisions, the same pattern could be replicated by a deterministic agent loaded with the same preset outcomes.

Secondly, humans are complex organisms in a rich and changing environment, there could never be any evidence that in precisely identical states more than one outcome is possible.

It is certainly true that in similar states at different times, then different outcomes occur – but that is an unremarkable feature of a complex system.

We don’t know how human decisions are made. A wide variety of evidence from neuroscience [Libet 1985, 2009)] to psychology [see for example Stanovich (1986), Brown (20060 ]shows that we don’t know what determines our decisions, nor even the timing of them. Introspection cannot give any remotely reliable information about how our decisions are made.

We say that out actions are not predetermined, but that is a colloquial use of the word. Sadly it has been confused with the precise scientific meaning of being indeterministic. Intuition and introspection have been given priority over facts. This lead to an abstract concept of indeterministic decision making for which there was no evidence. Worse still the abstract concept was given the same name “free will”, which confused it with the fact that we have a perception our decisions are not predetermined – which the lay person calls free will. All of which lead to decades of fruitless debate.


Brown, D (2006) Tricks of the mind. Channel 4 Books.

Hadley, Mark J. (2018) A deterministic model of the free will phenomenon. Journal of Consciousness Exploration & Research, 9 (1).

Libet, B (1985) Unconscious cerebral initiative and the role of conscious will, Behavioural and Brain Sciences Vol 8, 529.

Libet, B (2009) Mind Time: The Temporal Factor in Consciousness. Harvard University Press (with a forward by Kosslyn, S)

Searle, J R (2007) freedom and Neurobiology: Reflections on free will, Language, and Political Power. Columbia University Press

Stanovich, K (1986) How to think straight about psychology. Scott, Foresman.