Robert C. Priddy

Writings on diverse themes from philosophy, psychology to literature and criticism

  • Robert Priddy

    In this blog I post information and critical views concerning ideologies, belief systems and related scientific materials etc. I am a retired philosophy lecturer and researcher, born 1936.

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Freedom and fate, cause and choice

Posted by robertpriddy on June 14, 2010

The key issue – do humans have any degree of free will – is a very involved one. To elucidate its many convolution one must deal with philosophical and scientific investigations (especially in physics, neurology and biology), but also with far-reaching cultural and religious beliefs and behaviour. To illustrate this with brief examples: the philosophical issue deals with the meaning of ‘freedom’, ‘willpower’, ‘causation’ and numerous related words and also with the scope and logical consistency of the conceptual frameworks of ideas involved. In physics there is the issue of whether experimental and theoretical physics allow of uncaused events – and if so, how and to what extent (i.e. the nature and consequences of ‘indeterminacy’). In neurology, the issue is influenced by the increasingly sophisticated study of neural connections and the neurological nature of consciousness and its inevitable role in any freedom of the human will. The cultural and religious roots of the question of free will are closely intertwined with belief in the supernatural – where various powers vie with one another over human fate and freedoms and/or a creator divinity who either omnipotently runs and rules everything or allows some measure of freedom to the subjects he has created. From such widespread and hugely varied beginnings, differing theologies have developed, each with their doctrine for or against human freedom.


Few words have been used for so many things as ‘freedom’ has. The term is imprecise and so can have many different meanings. As preliminaries for discussing the nature of freedom and trying to decide what is true or false about the subject, we may try to make it clearer by asking
1) freedom from what? and
2) freedom for what?
It may also be worth remembering that the interpretations and standpoints involved are important really only because of the various consequences they have for our lives, thought and activities, such as what kind of society and culture they are likely to support. The issue of whether the individual has any degree of free will is inseparable from the question of what kind of ‘freedom’ is intended.


In essence, the sphere of discussion covering the subject human freedom and causal determinism has two poles. At the one is the idea that our will is ‘completely free’ in essence, though it may be ‘conditioned’ by the various different circumstances surrounding each person. At the other pole are the extreme doctrines of total fatalism or unalterable causal determinism. Other relevant standpoints fall somewhere between these ‘polar extremes’. It is interesting to note that the fatalistic pole is occupied both by many religious fundamentalists and many natural or physical scientists. The other extreme is hardly populated, except for some philosophers of the existentialist variety, such as Jean-Paul Sartre. The ‘tropics and temperate zones’ represent the middle way theories, which admit in one way or another of the ‘necessity’ of there being some free will while recognising that the conditioners and limitations operating upon us are either more or less powerful. Most thinkers in the social, historical and political sciences are found well away from the poles, as are those who contribute to some form of ordinary common sense, especially in modern and more Westernised cultures.

The most serious challenge to the possibility of human free will comes from speculations around the philosophy of science. Since science aims to trace the cause of every possible event or phenomenon, it is always close to absolutising the assumption that there is no freedom in that everything that happens in any shape or form must inevitably be caused by directly preceding events. This leaves no room for human freedom whatever. Therefore this issue is dealt with first of all, before the many theological speculations that also would deny any kind of freedom. Since the theological speculations all depend ultimately on belief or non-belief in a God and a doctrine surrounding this (i.e.on some irrational assumption), it primarily in the sphere of philosophical analysis, logic and empirical science that the key issue is sought illumined through purely rational and empirical means. In short, no belief in any omnipotent creator is presumed here so that the issue can be examined better on its merits independently of doctrine.


The keystone of science is the principle, “everything has a cause”. Yet how can an act of genuinely free will be caused? Likewise, how can any chance event occur, i.e. one that is uncaused? When confronted with these dilemmas, natural scientists twist and turn with arguments that almost always amount to denial of the phenomena of free will and chance.

However, many sciences operate with a multiplicity of causes, due to the complex interactive and many-facetted structure of matter, mind and society. Werner Heisenberg’s famous intervention is the deterministic Einsteinian physics can be summed up simply in his own words: “With the mathematical formulation of quantum-theoretical laws pure determinism had to be abandoned.”(1)

Many supporters of scientism will still not fully accept the possibility of ‘uncaused’ phenomena, and it appears that none of them accept that both meaningless random coincidences and meaningful synchronous ‘coincidence’ of events can occur. Scientists also ignore how some people experience ‘extraordinary’ meaningful coincidences argue that synchronicity is nothing more than chance or random ‘coincidence’ without statistical significance, for all meaning or purpose in such ‘coincidences’ is rejected by scientism as a merely subjective interpretations of events. This standpoint is controversial, since many thinkers are convinced that ‘meaningful’ coincidences occur, perhaps best known of these being C.G. Jung with his empirical materials to support his theory of synchronicity. In many religious and ‘spiritual movements’ the meaningful nature of coincidences is recognised, such events being somehow controlled by a higher power or god. Be this as it may, the issue alone opens a major field of discussion about the interpretation of events and, where even what little serious empirical research available is inconclusive.

Great Western thinkers have almost always pursued the goal of discovering order in life and the cosmos, whether by religious, philosophical or scientific means. Early forms of civilisation already sought to account for the cause of events by what is now widely considered to be ‘mythology’, by explaining natural events as the result of actions of deities. Superstitious as they may seem to the casual observer, such systems of belief contributed to a kind of ordering of ideas and of social relations.

The science of nature developed by the early Greeks started from ideas of an underlying order in nature itself, a ‘logical cosmos’ (cosmos as logos). The nature of certain regular physical events were examined and described, which led to ideas about underlying structures or laws of nature that determined the ordering of events in time and space. With the human mind’s propensity to seek regularity, such as causes and effects, order became a guiding ideal of rational thinking, the basis of the development of discursive reason and logic and also of systematic scientific research.

The ultimate origin, meaning and purpose of the cosmos and all its events has been sought by metaphysicians and theologians, artists and mystics, of many cultures. The ideal is all-embracing explanation and is set against the apparent chance happenings of the world and the fearful notion of ultimate chaos. Seeking solutions and explanations of the conflicts of human life and society led thinkers to the conception of an ethical order. This had already arisen in India centuries before with the concept of karma or the universal law of action and reaction in all things, including human actions. The Jews and the Greeks both adopted such conceptions of an ethical order operating on human destiny, which became a cornerstone of Christian and European thought.


Political freedom is desired from suppression of individuals or groups and for individual justice, as appropriate in each instance. Nations or races seek freedom from external forces, whether military , economic or otherwise and they desire the freedom to exercise socio-economic and political justice. Democracy is based on the ‘freedom’ of the individual to vote on who should govern. (‘freedom’ thus interpreted as ‘choice’). That such freedoms can and do exist is a historical and social fact. But the particular extent or scope of such ‘social freedoms’ obviously varies with time and place. Social freedom is also for the good of all society, being the rights a person should have so as to be able do his duty as a member of society. It is not a right or an open license to do whatever one wants; that is anarchy. Our ‘human rights’ are whatever is necessary or reasonable to enable us to serve our fellowmen and thereby also God. Whatever denies human beings the minimum of means of doing those duties is a compulsion from which they must seek freedom. Some examples of compulsion are the suppression of the right of religious belief or worship and the denial of the general opportunity of caring for others through work (and of not being an undue burden oneself).

See a fuller exposition at

A.C. Grayling has written that we require a clearer conception of free will.
“Its formal identifier is the “genuinely could have done otherwise” requirement: but not only does that itself require unpacking, we also need to look for the fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) traces that suggest which structures in the brain import novelty into the world’s causal chains, making their possessor a true agent, and not merely a patient—a sufferer—of the universe’s history.”


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