Free Will And Determinism A2 Essay Topics

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Free will and Determinism
(Edexcel RS IGCSE section A)

The Edexcel IGCSE specification says:

Religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about free will, determinism and predestination.

(Differing) views about whether human beings have free will and its limitations; whether determinism means that human beings’ choices and actions cannot be free; the extent to which human beings should be held responsible (and punished) for their actions; and whether God decides their fate.  

Christian beliefs/teachings about human freedom and its limitations, and predestination.

Key vocabulary:

Free will: (The belief that) the human will is free, so human beings can choose and act freely

Determinism: (The view that) every event has a cause, which may also involve believing that human beings cannot have free will, as their choices and actions are caused

Free will

Generally we work on the assumption that we do have free will.  We seem to be able to make choices about how we behave and how we act and we think that we could have behaved in a different way in the same circumstances.  When we praise or blame others for how they behave this implies that we believe that they are free to chose how to act and therefore they are morally responsible for the consequences.

Non-religious Determinism:

However, there are various reasons why we might argue that people are not free to choose how to act.  

Genetic Determinism:

Twin studies:

Identical twins provide a good opportunity to study determinism.  Their DNA is essentially identical so they have the same genetic material and their upbringing is usually very similar so they are relevant to both genetic and psychological determinism studies.

Abby and Brittany Hensel are conjoined twins who share two halves of the same body.  They have the same DNA and as near as identical upbringing as possible.  Often they seem to be of the same mind.  They say the same thing at the same time with the same inflection and finish each other's sentences.  However, they also have distinctly different preferences.  There are a lot of clips of the Hensel twins on youtube along with several documentaries.

Twins do not have to be cojoined to be interesting from a determinists point of view.  During the  1970s and 1980s Thomas Bouchard conducted a study on twins which seemed to show that identical twins - even those separated at birth and raised apart - tended to be similar in things like IQ, favourite school subjects, political leanings and many other things,

However, Prof. Dr Gerd Kempermann has demonstrated that although identical twins are usually very similar differences can occur and genes can be switched on or off due to life experiences.  This implies that both nature and nurture have a part to play in our choices.

Your genes determine (cause) things like eye colour, hair colour and so forth.  This is why children often physically resemble their parents.  They have inherited certain characteristic via genes passed on through the sperm and the egg.  Children obviously have no control over these physical characteristics.

It is also possible (and some people would argue very plausible) that we also inherit certain character traits from our parents.  You might be an adrenelin junkie because your genes make you that way.  You might be hot tempered.  You might be sarcastic.  In the last decade there have been various studies which claim to have linked a certain gene to a type of behaviour.  In 2009 it was reported that a mutation in the gene DARPP-32 could be responsible for a quick temper by effecting dopamine levels [Telegraph report here].  Genes have also been linked to obesity with those with certain types of the FTO gene up to 70% more likely to become obese as the gene affects the production of the hormone ghrelin which regulates feelings of hunger [BBC report here].  Even things like propensity for addiction or for criminal behaviour have been tentatively linked with genes [Addiction report here and Criminality report here].

Genetic determinists would argue that how you behave in any given situation is determined by your character and if this is itself determined by your genes then we no longer really have free will.  

Imagine person A is having an argument.  Person A happens to have an impatient and stubborn character.  In the heat of the moment they punch the person that they are arguing with.  We might say that they punched the person because they are naturally (genetically) inclined to be quick tempered.

Now imagine person B is in a parallel universe and having exactly the same argument.  In this parallel universe person B is exactly like person A except that instead of having a hot temper they are genetically predisposed to be patient and laid back.  They do not resort to violence but agree to disagree.

Were A and B free when they decided whether or not to throw a punch?  Genetic determinists would say no.  Their actions are directly caused (determined) by their genes.

Psychological Determinism:

Genetic determinism the 'nature' argument.  You are who you are because you were born that way.  By contrast, psychological determinism is the 'nurture' argument.  You are who you are because of how you are brought up.

Psychological determinists (like genetic determinists) believe that how we act is caused by our character.  However, rather than saying our character is caused by our genes they would argue that it is cause (at least in part) by our upbringing.

Children learn by imitation and are very receptive to new influences.  As we get older we are still shaped by our environment but we seem to be a bit less impressionable. This means that the influences that we are exposed to when we are young seem to be very important in shaping our character.  A child brought up by hard-working parents might develop a studious character because that is what they have been brought up to believe to be normal.  Therefore, if they work hard at school this is determined by their upbringing not their own free choice.  Likewise, a lazy slacker would be equally able to blame their behaviour on their upbringing.  

Evaluation (genetic and psychological):

There is certainly good reason to suppose that our genes and our upbringing have some influence on our character and this in term affects the choices we make day to day.  However, we could say that there is a difference between influencing a choice and causing it and a propensity towards a certain type of behaviour does not mean that the behaviour is unavoidable.  In particular, a person who disagreed with genetic determinism might argue that:

  • Children often differ dramatically from their parents and from their siblings which implies that they are not fully determined by either nature or nurture.
  • Genes for physical characteristics can be affected by other things.  A person genetically predisposed to grow tall will not reach their full potential height if they are malnourished. Therefore, genes for character traits can also be affected by other things.  Perhaps something like meditation can be used to control a genetic inclination towards anger.
  • Whilst certain genes have been linked to certain types of behaviour it is highly unlikely that there is one gene for violence (for example).  Genetics is a lot more complicated than that.

Physical Determinism:

Benjamin Libet's experiment

Benjamin Libet conducted a neurological experiment in the 1980s which has been used to suggest that free will is just an illusion.  In the experiment he asked a volunteer to move their finger whenever they liked but to notice at what time they experienced the feeling of intention (made the choice).  What he discovered was that the feeling of intention comes significantly after the action has been initiated.  When Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy repeated the experiment in the BBC Horizon programme The Secret You  he was shocked to discover that a person scanning his brain knew what decision he was going to make up to six seconds before he knew it!

Computers often seem to behave as though they are thinking and making choices.  When you open a document the computer 'decides' what program to open it in.  Sometimes you ask a computer to do something and it refuses!  More sophisticated computers can carry out human-like conversations.

However, most people would say that a computer is not free.  It behaves the way it does because of its programming.  It appears to make a 'choice' but actually that choice is just the end result of a chain initiated by the input of specific information. The computer is not free because it could not have acted differently.

Generally we assume that people are not like computers when they make decisions but we could argue that the brain is just like a biological computer.  The synapses in the brain fire in a certain way because they have received specific input (information from the senses).  Our 'thoughts' and 'choices' are directly caused by these processes and the sense of free will is just and illusion.


The Libet experiment does provide some evidence for the idea that the feeling of free will is an illusion and our choices result from unconscious processes in the brain.  However, we could argue that the experiment is a simplistic test and does not really replicate what happens when we make choices day to day.  In the experiment the volunteer knows that they must make a choice between one of two options so it is perhaps not surprising that their is a subconscious process going on which contributes to this choice.

Religious Predestination:

The ideas looked at so far are non-religious theories which might be used to argue that people have no free will.  A religious person may of course agree with them (although this raises problems about moral responsibility, heaven and hell) but they are not specifically religious theories.

The theory of predestination is a specifically religious reason which might undermine free will.


Not all Christians agree with the idea of predestination.  Many think it contradicts other Christian doctrines and makes the idea of moral laws pointless and the idea of judgement unfair.

The theory of predestination is usually associated with the French Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).  He argued that since the Fall people are inherently sinful and nobody can be good enough to earn their way into heaven.

This means that salvation must be an unmerited (unearned) gift given by God.  If it is a gift then God is entirely free to give it to whoever he wants.  It is not based on how we act.  An 'earned' gift is no longer a gift.

Calvin argued that God chose who to give the gift of salvation to before they are born.  Those who are given the gift of salvation are called the ELECT.  Those who are not given the gift of salvation are in their naturally sinful state and are therefore destined for hell.  They are called the REPROBATE.

The way that this links to free will is that Calvin thought that the Holy Spirit would be active in the lives of the elect which would enable them to do good deeds.  The reprobate would not have the Holy Spirit helping them so they would naturally give in to their sinful nature.  Thus good people are the elect doing good because God helps them and bad people have no choice but to do bad because it is natural human nature.  Either way, their actions are predestined and not free.


The theory of predestination seems rather unfair and does not really reflect the idea of a God who wants everyone to be saved.

Calvin's theory perhaps makes more sense if you put it in context. Calvin was writing during the Protestant Reformation and one of the criticisms that the Reformers had of the Roman Catholic Church was that it was claiming to have control who could get into heaven.  Priests told the people that they could not get into heaven without the sacraments and this meant that excommunication was seen as sentencing a person to hell.  The Church also offered 'indulgences' which were prayers which promised a person time off purgatory so they could go more quickly to heaven.  Calvin wanted to emphasise that who went to heaven and hell was entirely up to God and not down to what the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy said.

Calvin is also often accused of teaching a theory which meant that people could do what they like as if they are elect they are assured heaven and if they are reprobate then nothing they do can make any difference.  However, this criticism misrepresents Calvin. Calvin's point is that a good person will go to heaven and a bad person will go to hell because how they behave reveals whether or not the Holy Spirit is active in their life (i.e. whether they are elect or reprobate).  Thus an elect person would not choose to do bad and a reprobate person cannot choose to do good.

That said, many Christians still reject Calvin's theory because:

  • It seems to make moral laws pointless.
  • It seems to make judgement pointless.
  • It does not seem to be fair - why would an omniscient loving God create the reprobate at all?
  • There are many verses in the Bible which imply people do have a genuine choice in how they behave (although there are also verses which can be used to support predestination too).

The nature of God:

Another potential problem for the idea of free will is the doctrine of God's omniscience.  If God is truly omniscient and knows the future as well as the past then he knows what we do before we do it.  If he knows what we do then we cannot not do it (i.e. we cannot make the opposite choice).  Some people argue that it is incoherent to maintain both that God is omniscient and human beings are free.

Going Further:

David Hume argued that we can distinguish between 

·         the liberty of indifference - which is the ability to have genuinely made a different choice under the same circumstances

 ·         the liberty of spontaneity - not being forced by external things

Hume said that provided we are not forced by things external to ourselves then the action is free.  Thus an action can be both determined (caused by internal causes) but also meaningfully free.

There are several possible responses to this problem:

  • God knows all possible outcomes but not which one we choose.
  • God knows the end result but not the means we choose to get there.
  • God could know, but chooses to limit his foreknowledge in order to allow us genuine freedom.  This is analagous to sight.  You can see, but you can choose to shut your eyes.  God can choose to 'turn off' his foresight!
  • God is transcendent and therefore he does not see things 'before' they happen.  All time is the present for God.


The possible responses demonstrate that it is possible to 'square the circle' and make human free will compatible with God's omniscience.  However, you might not find any of these responses particularly satisfactory.  For example, how is knowing all possible outcomes real knowledge at all?  You know 'all possible outcomes' for your exam (A*-fail) but you probably would not regard that as meaningful knowledge.

Simpler solutions might be either

  • Humans are not free
  • God is not omniscient

Implications of Determinism:

Darrow case:

Two law students (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) were charged with murder and were defended by Clarence Darrow.  Darrow argued that they were the product of their upbringing and their sense of entitlement caused them to kill.

Determinism has profound implications for our understanding of ourselves.  It also has obvious implications for thinks like crime and punishment. Understanding determinism might give people ways to reduce the likelihood of criminals reoffending.  If 'nurture' created a law breaking personality then could rehabilitation remould them into a law abiding citizen?  More radically, if certain genes are associated with criminal behaviour then could those genes be switched off or replaced?

Determinism has already been used by lawyers defending their clients.  The Darrow case is a good example of this.

Further Reading:

Free will and determinism is on many AS and A level specifications for both Religious Studies and Philosophy therefore there are a lot of very detailed resources on the web and in AS text books that you could use to go further if you wish.

  • Watch Marcus du Sautoy's experience of the Libet experiment here.
  • Read about Bouchard's similarities between identical twin study here.
  • Read about  Gerd Kempermann study of differences in identical twins here.
  • Watch this experiment and consider the implications that this might have for the issue of free will.
  • Wikipedia entry for the Darrow case here.
Free will and determinism is one of the larger topics of the A2 ethics course but it's quite straight-forward... there's basically one group who love free will and hate determinism, one group who love determinism and hate free will and a sit-on-the-fence group who say both can work together. So if you get the age-old question of assessing whether they are compatible or whether one or the other is right or wrong, the structure is pretty easy.

For almost any free will and determinism essay, starting off with the following quote would make sense to highlight a love of hard determinism and a seething hatred of soft determinism, courtesy of Honderich:
"Determinism is true, compatibilism is false."
Or you could use this John Locke quote, which draws from his analogy of a man being a locked room that he does not know is locked (and thus assumes he can leave whenever he likes):
"Freedom of choice is an illusion." 

Hard Determinism

Hard determinism is at one end of the scale. Hard determinists accept that our lives are completely determined by other factors and that we subsequently have no genuine freedom over our lives. What we do is not in our control, even if we think it is. This also means that we cannot possibly be held responsible for our actions seeing as we have no control over them.

Spinoza states that
"there is no absolute or free will"
and argues that
"the mind is determined to wish this or that by a cause."
 Spinoza is arguing that our lives are basically the result of various causes going back in a chain of infinite regress. This notion is quite similar to the premise of the cosmological argument for God's existence (no need to mention that in the exam, though).

John Hospers argues that there is always something which compels us - either internally or externally - to do what we do. He simply says that
"it is all a matter of luck."
Basically, if you have a good life it's not down to you. You've just been lucky. You've just been fortunate enough to have certain determining factors influencing you.

Voltaire supports this view, and argues that we can only be who we are, arguing the following:
"Pear trees cannot bear bananas."
"Everything is planned, connected, limited."
Therefore Voltaire would argue that it is unfair of us to expect someone to change who they are, because it is not their fault for being who they are.

  • Potential weakness: would this give people an excuse to go against society, only to justify their actions with the notion that they cannot change who they are?

Hard determinists would argue that determinism is only determinism as we know it if we don't know the consequences - if we knew which way we are compelled to take, the whole thing would fall apart.

Clarence Darrow was an American lawyer who famously had the job of defending the 1924 Leopold and Loeb case. Leopold and Loeb, two intelligent university students, had been charged with the murder of a fourteen-year old boy after desiring to commit the 'perfect crime'.

Darrow used hard determinism in his defence in order to try and save Leopold and Loeb from capital punishment. This is a great example if an essay asks whether determinism is useful/useless in the world.

Darrow argued that the boys had diminished responsibility because they were merely products of their upbringing. They could not possibly be blamed for who they were always going to be and for what they were always going to do.

"All of his was handed to him."
"He did not make himself. And yet he is compelled to pay."
"Punishment as punishment is not admissible unless the offender has the free will to select this course."
Darrow was successful (depending on how cynical you are) in his case, and the boys were sentenced to life imprisonment as opposed to facing the death penalty.


Behaviourism supports determinism as a sort of mini-theory, and suggest things like genetic heritage, social conditioning and subconscious influences as prior causes. If an exam question asks about whether our lives are purely the result of social conditioning (I'd hate a question like that but I know for many people it would be the ideal question), behaviourism would be a brilliant thing to mention; it actively suggests that social conditioning accounts for who we are, putting evidence behind such an assertion.

Behaviourism basically argues that factors leading to behaviour can be manipulated or changed to make someone behave in a certain way.

Pavlov is the easiest person to remember when talking about behaviourism. He argued that people can be 'trained' to act in certain ways under certain circumstances, and attempted to show this in an experiment with dogs. When he rang a ball to feed his dogs he noticed that the sound of the bell alone would make the dogs salivate, because they associated the bell with food. Pavlov later got rid of the food and found that the sound of the bell alone, even without food, would make them salivate. He suggested that perhaps we could do something similar to manipulate human behaviour.

  • However, a possible weakness of this is that human behaviour is far more complex than the behaviour of dogs

Because behaviourism is such a small part of this topic, mentioning Pavlov should be enough. If you feel the need to expand it further, though, you could mention John Watson (and even Sherlock Holmes if you want to look stupid) and his example of how feral children show that our environment can influence our behaviour.

Steven Pinker is also a behaviourist who takes influence from Darwin's work. He argues that natural selection determines what we are like morally.

Strengths of hard determinism/behaviourism:

  • Behaviourism offers evidence for how causal factors can influence our behaviour
  • It is logical to think that certain influences actually determine us

Weaknesses of hard determinism/behaviourism:

  • Responsibility is taken away from those who commit the worst crimes
  • Many of us feel morally free to make our own decisions
  • Hard determinism is a pessimistic view of the world we live in - it would argue that certain events such as the holocaust were always going to happen and that nobody can really be blamed for it
  • Blame and praise are rendered pointless
  • The evidence of behaviourism may not apply to human behaviour


Predestination is probably my least favourite aspect of the whole ethics course, so it's a good thing that you don't really need it for the exam. It's sort of part-determined, part-free. It depends on your view of it. 

Basically, the Judaeo-Christian view is that we are free and autonomous because of Adam and Eve's freedom in the Garden of Eden. 

Some Presbyterian churches, however, argue that that God has already chosen who will be saved and subsequently who will go to heaven.

Aquinas supports the typical Judaeo-Christian view, stating plainly:

"Man chooses not of necessity but freely."
In Romans 8, the Bible hints at the idea of predestination:
"For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son."
Arguably, our actions in this life are irrelevant as God - being omniscient - has already decided who will be saved and who will not be saved.

  • This is not the case, though. God chooses people who he knows will want to act morally
John Calvin is the biggest name for predestination. He said:
"Eternal life is fore-ordained for some, and eternal damnation for others."
Behaviour isn't predestined, belief is. Basically, the following paragraph sums up predestination in one go:

Because of God's omniscience, he already knows what we're going to be like and whether we want to be moral. He can therefore identify which morally willing people will be predestined to go to heaven and vice versa with hell. By wanting to be moral, we earn God's grace. God knows you, he doesn't make you act or think in a certain way.


Libertarianism is directly opposite to hard determinism, and states that we have complete moral responsibility. We are totally free and are influenced by nothing and no-one. The idea of causal factors cannot be applied to human behaviour, libertarians would argue. This point could be used to criticise Pavlov's behaviourist experiment.

The most common argument in favour of libertarianism is that it appeals to our intuitions; we prefer to see ourselves as free individuals as opposed to puppets on strings.

Peter van Inwagen gives the following analogy of libertarianism v. determinism: libertarianism is like travelling down a road and choosing which turnings to take, whereas determinism is like travelling down a road with no turnings - just one fixed path.

Libertarians argue that because we blame ourselves and feel guilty for our actions, we must therefore be free to choose freely. If we were determined, libertarians argue, we wouldn't feel guilty about choosing certain things. Hard determinists would criticise this point, drawing on Locke's analogy of the man in the locked room.

Heisenberg supports libertarianism using physics: he argues for the uncertainty principle showing how events are random and not necessarily caused. The uncertainty principle refers to the nature of how we cannot know both the location and the momentum of sub-atomic particles. He argues that it is better to see events as statistical probabilities as opposed to general laws. Some events, Heisenberg states, are simply unpredictable.

  • Honderich criticises Heisenberg's argument, saying that such randomness only works on a sub-atomic level and does not apply to human behaviour


Existentialism is like the opposite of behaviourism, by which I mean it's the by-theory of libertarianism that doesn't need to be mentioned in great detail.

Proposed by Sartre, existentialists argue that freedom is both the goal and measure of life. Everything in life depends on the individual and the meaning they give to their life (life being ultimately meaningless, Sartre argues). If people try to avoid freedom they simply end up conforming to what is decided by others. Sartre said the following quotes, which can be used to support existentialism and, on a wider scale, libertarianism:

"Man is responsible for the world and himself."
"To be free is to be condemned to be free."

Strengths of libertarianism:

  • It recognises that humans have an intuition of decision - we feel like we can act freely
    • this is of course criticised by hard determinists - particularly Locke
  • Personal responsibility underpins our main systems of ethics and law
  • Hume argued that even if event B consistently follows event A, we cannot deduce that A causes B - that is just our interpretation. Hard determinism, therefore, is simply an interpretation of what we observe

Weaknesses of libertarianism:

  • Locke's analogy of a man locked in a room without knowing he is locked there - just because we feel free, it doesn't mean we are. Feeling free is not really a strength of the theory at all
  • If we have the power to choose, how do we choose? What criteria should be followed when making a decision?
  • Very few of us would argue that past experiences, emotion, beliefs and values have no influence on us whatsoever

Soft Determinism

Soft determinism is the mid-way theory. It states that while we are compelled by external factors, we still have ultimate freedom in making moral choices. Soft determinism is also known as compatibilism

Soft determinists simply state that the existence of determinism does not rule out free will, and that the two can work alongside one another and so are compatible. 

Certain determining factors, such as upbringing, may influence someone, but ultimate decisions are theirs and theirs alone. 

Kant accepted soft determinism. He said that determinism applies to everything which is the object of knowledge but does not apply to the individual will - the two are too radically different to both operate on just one theory.

Kant noted the two 'types' of reason:

  1. Pure reason - knowledge and the scientifically explicable world (external)
  2. Practical reason - actions of the will (internal)

Kant attacks hard determinism and states that there is no reason behind an act of will. He stated, as do most soft determinists, that pure reason is determined by external factors while practical reason is not determined and allows us to make decisions freely.

Hard determinists, of course, would criticise soft determinists, arguing that our personalities are so because of a myriad of external causes.

Michael Palmer criticised soft determinism, saying:

"Among the factors that determine our actions, we count our own choices and desires."
Palmer is basically saying that there is no differentiation between internal and external causes, and that everything is determined.

Soft determinism also allows for moral responsibility. For example, if Bob doesn't save a drowning child because he can't swim, he's not morally responsible. That's not his fault. If, however, he can swim, and he chooses not to save the child due to his personality/past experiences etc., he is morally responsible.

John Searle argued for soft determinism. He noted that there is
"a gap between having reasons to do something and actually doing it."
This implies that because there is a gap in our minds between thought process and action, we switch from being determined to acting freely.

Hobbes also argues for soft determinism.

Strengths of soft determinism:

  • Most of us accept that certain elements of our lives are determined but that we have ultimate free will
  • It provides a fair and logical case for separating internal and external causes
Weaknesses of soft determinism:

  • Hard determinists would argue that soft determinism fails to understand the degree of determinism in our lives
  • Libertarians would argue that soft determinism fails to understand the degree of freedom in our lives
  • If desires are determined, how can we have total freedom of choice?

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