How Philosophical Analysis Creates Useless Problems

Bad Philosophical Habits: Free Will and Determinism

Philosophical problems are a lot like habits, some are good, some are bad, and some never seem to change. This could not be truer for the dichotomy between Free will and Determinism, which has been debated amongst intellectuals from as early as 1525. Some philosophers champion free will, others champion determinism, and a select few suppose it to be the case that free will and determinism are compatible. To say the least, many great scholars have spoken of this subjects within their writings, for instance: Kant, Hume, etc. There have been numerous attempts to formulate a resolution to the dichotomy of free will and determinism, but none have been satisfactory. The reason, I suspect, this problem has reigned over philosophy for so long is because intellectuals have failed to take notice of one key detail: strictly speaking, there is no solution for the dichotomy.

To understand why this ancient problem has no solution, it is a necessity that we first understand the details which support the dichotomy: namely both, the meaning and usage of free will and determinism. After that, we shall be able to see why, in fact, the free will and determinism dichotomy is a pseudo-problem: a problem with no mind-independent solution.

 The Meaning of Free Will and Determinism

Although there certainly are people named Will that are inside prison and seek freedom, that is not what free will refers to – 492 years seems like a considerably unfair amount of prison time. Unfortunately for all the wrongly jailed wills, when people use the term “free will,” they are speaking about a form of causation rather than a person. If this seems unclear now, a quick analysis of how we experience causation can reveal that free will is used as a form of agent causation, sorry Will.

Our experience of causation is two-fold; put more precisely, causation is experienced at the center of consciousness, and as a property out in the world occurring between objects. For instance, we experience ourselves willingly performing actions, such as writing, but the objects which we perceive are never so willing in their actions; in point fact, the wind which has no mind, and therefore no will, disturbed the leaves in a fashion that can be characterized as mechanistic, not as agent causation. If one denies this claim, then it would be deemed perfectly sane to hold the wind accountable for murder in a court of law, particularly during hurricanes. But, of course, I take the over-bearing absurdity of doing such as evidence that we may suggest the wind has no will; nor does the universe have a property of causation in a literal sense, though that will be better understood by reading this article: Logic Cannot Explain Language.

It is the causation that we experience during our behaviours and actions that is at the center: the thought to do a given thing. Conversely, the causal forces woven between the trees and wind, which hypnotically sway branches and chaotically swirl leaves, stems from the congregation of forces that produce the world as we know it. This causation depends not on our thoughts, nor any conscious agents; it is the causation which we ascribe to the many mindless material properties around us. I may see and think myself to be lifting a cup, though I cannot have that same experience from the cups point of view; the cup is simply inanimate matter. The experiential feature of “agent causation” cannot be found in the cup, only in its human lifter. And so, there is an object causation and an agent causation. Agent causation is the meaning in mind when people speak of free will, and object causation is the meaning in mind when people speak of the mechanical universe dubbed determinism. Moreover, looming in the shadows, there remains still an important detail about these terms, which indeed must be noted. To bring this detail to light, we must ask: how is it that either of these words acquires a meaning.

The meanings for free will and determinism, we are aware of; however, as to how those words acquire meaning, we are not. Thus, let us consider the following: suppose a man is sipping a cup of coffee on a bench, and that this man is a humanist philosopher. Now suppose that a neuroscientist monitors the philosopher’s brain activity while the philosopher drinks coffee. If we ask the philosopher to explain why he is drinking the coffee, he will say that he chose to do so. And if we ask the neuroscientist to explain why the philosopher is drinking the coffee, he will say that the mechanisms of the philosopher’s brain, while interacting with the environment, evoked the behaviour. All seems as usual, the scientist explains through reductionism and empiricism, and the philosopher through phenomenalism and emergentism. But, to place focus on which approach or theoretical explanation is better would, I assure you, dear reader, miss the important details: an intellectual battle need not happen here. The important detail is as follows: namely, that the philosopher and neuroscientist had had different positions of experience, and so had had different material for conveying meaningful information; therefore, different concepts. The philosopher relies on the conscious experiences of will, and the neuroscientist relies on the experience of mindless perceptual objects. So, because the philosopher experienced the action, his report of physical reality relies on the semantics of the conscious experience of will; whereas the neuroscientist relies on the semantics derived from the temporal-spatial relationships of the many mindless objects within his perception. In the end, they have described different vantage points of the same phenomenon, and have used the idiosyncrasies of their own vantage point to formulate different concepts.

To further explain the mechanics of the process used to inform concepts of free will and determinism, consider the difference between a behaviourist and a neuro-endocrinologist. A behaviourist will say, “the child refuses to eat the lollipop due to negative reinforcement and associations,” and a neuroendocrinologist will say, “the child refuses to eat the lollipop due to a lack of glucocorticoids”. The two scientists have both described the child’s behaviour, but have adopted different theoretical viewpoints about the cause of the child’s behaviour. The behaviourists level of analysis is on the macro-level and the neuroendocrinologists level, relative to the behaviourists view, is on the micro-level. They each ascribe causation to their respective level of analysis; therefore, they each rely on varied perceptual information, which pertains to the same phenomenon, for the meaning of the information they convey.

Now, we can see the different meanings for free will and determinism, and how those meanings are acquired through experience. Free will is a concept that finds meaning from a property strictly associated with subjective experience rather than the empirical world, and determinism is a concept that finds meaning from the mindless properties of the empirical world. This understanding is important to see how a dichotomy is formed.

Pragmatic Rejection of The Dichotomy

Whether we say someone’s behaviours are carried out by free will or determinism matters not. This is because, as already discussed, Free will and Determinism are different descriptions from different levels of analysis that both pertain to the same phenomenon. To demonstrate how little this dichotomy matters, let us explore a controversial example, an example which the free will and determinism dichotomy has an important role in.

When it comes to deciding on whether to punish someone or not, we can choose between either a free will or determinist position. The free will position involves moral responsibility and agency, whereas the determinist position, seemingly, lacks moral responsibility; in addition, to ascribe free will entails a more severe punishment, and to select determinism entails a less severe punishment. These drastically differing views encumber upon us a great labour; for we must revisit the foundations of punishment and re-lay the bricks of ethics, responsibility, and so on. Is it immoral to ascribe free will to a schizophrenic that has murdered someone? Is it immoral to ascribe free will to the man who ate too many Twinkies? Indeed, these issues need resolution.

We can reject the free will and determinism nonsense surrounding punishment, entirely, and approach far more pragmatically. Since a battle between free will and determinism is a battle of descriptions rather than facts – because both can make claim to the same facts –, it becomes a matter of who has the better argument rather than who has the better evidence. Upon the rejection of this dichotomy, we can be more problem-oriented. More specifically, we can develop mathematical representations.

Suppose for every person that demonstrates symptoms X and Z, we assume free will and act accordingly. We can then ask, did this strategy lower recidivism for people with X and Z? Did this strategy deter others with symptoms X and Z from being violent? And on the other hand, suppose for every person that demonstrates symptoms A and B, we assume determinism. We can then ask, did this strategy lower recidivism for people with A and B? Did this strategy deter others with symptoms X and Z from being violent? Of course, this is a simplistic representation of a bigger picture, but the point has been made. In such an approach, we reject all metaphysical truths and, simply put, rely on what works.

Of course, “what works” is more than sheer mathematical efficiency, for that would negate morality entirely. It is not up to me to decide how one ought to interpret “what works,” for that is beyond the scope of this paper.  However, I will say, this approach is compatible with moral reasoning and is not simply a blind-algorithm. Rather, it is much like a neural network with a trainer who corrects the errors.

Thus, since the semantics of the concepts free will and determinism are neither incompatible nor able to refute each other, then a consequentialist approach with empirical testing is the only solution. The dichotomy will never be ended through philosophical analysis only.

Why Free Will and Determinism are Pseudo-Problems

Since part of the meaning for free will involves a subjective experiential feature, attributing free will to someone or something causes epistemological problems. That is, when someone says, “John drank coffee by his own free will,” they introduce a new type of causation that, ostensibly, is not physical; only because free will derives its meaning from subjective experience rather than empirical observations. Of course, it is not necessarily the case that free will is anti-physical, but there is a lack of physical evidence for free will; and so, we are left with the experience of something we call free will as evidence.

This is about the point where massively complex ideas begin to emerge about how to reconcile free will with physicalism, how brain studies are evidence which negates free will, or how the lack of physical evidence for free will indicates that it is an illusion. Once we begin to use free will as a causal description, a dichotomy emerges. But, even though the ideas and debates which proliferate in this dichotomous intellectual environment are entertaining, the issues raised are pseudo-problems, nonetheless. There need be no discussion on whether it be free will or a deterministic self-preservation instinct which stops someone from driving into oncoming traffic; there need only be a discussion about the environmental, chemical, and behavioural factors involved that mitigate any incidence where someone has drove into oncoming traffic. Those overly complex arguments, published in many academic books, attempt to solve problems which are phantasms. Free will and determinism have little to say about genuine problems.

There are two ways to categorize problems: empirical and non-empirical. The difference between the two problems is that one has a solution and the other has the illusion of a solution. For an empirical problem, such as how to engineer a robot or find a cure for a terminal illness, there is a mind-independent solution: which means, the solution is ontologically independent of a person’s desires and values. Thus, an empirical problem can inform us when we are right or wrong since reality can give us an accurate measure of whether we solved the problem or not. Conversely, a problem which depends on human values lacks a mind-independent solution: which means, the problem will continue to exist if someone wants it to; for instance, some people view high taxes as a problem, and others view high taxes as necessary – that problem is rooted in worldviews rather than reality. Of these two styles of problems, many of the issues around free will and determinism fall into the latter style, and so the issues premised on free will and determinism have no mind-independent solution.

When we project concepts that are defined by a subjective experiential feature onto the environment, such as free will or taxes, it needs to be used carefully. Free will is a concept that can be universally projectable, irrespective of epistemological issues; that is, one can say, “the atom moved by its own volition,” while being coherent. That is because the logic checks out; more specifically, free will is experienced as the causation of our behaviours and decisions, and so the logic of free will is projectable onto other behaving things – “free will caused my arm to raise; therefore, free will is a mover of things”. Yet, we can also say that the atom was determined to move a certain way by the physical environment. These, as already mentioned, are descriptions which do not change the physical environment, but do have different theoretical entailments; therefore, these descriptions can create pseudo-problems when taken too seriously. So, we must be careful about projecting concepts which depend on experiential features for their definitions; to capriciously project will create pseudo-problems, indeed. A solvable problem needs a mind-independent solution; and so, dichotomies premised on words defined by experience create vacuous problems.


Among the many important points in this article, there are a few which are essential takeaways. When philosophizing, we ought to have the caution and precision of a neurosurgeon when it comes to the use of concepts. Certain concepts should be avoided when used to describe particular phenomena, even if the logic is consistent; for example, the use of “will” to describe the behaviour of something like an atom. For those who think this point obvious, I assure you it is far from. There has been much confusion in biology about intentionality and will beng ascribed to mindless objects – (See Darwin, 1859; Dennet, 1989); and that is because the logic of the concept works as a description, even though its epistemic qualities are questionable. However, if it is unavoidable, then a great deal of caution is wise.

Another essential point: when there are two competing concepts, consider the phenomenon which the concept describes. If the there are no significant empirical differences, then adopt a pragmatic approach rather than a metaphysical one. Whether one is a realist or solipsist, perceptual contents remain the same.

And lastly, be aware of where the solution for a problem sits. Problems that are dependent upon a person for their existence have no solution, and so can mislead many people. If one views philosophical analysis as a means to an end, then problems which lack mind-independent solutions are a waste of time; only because they are the end of a means.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

5 thoughts on “How Philosophical Analysis Creates Useless Problems

  1. In your philosopher vs. scientist explanation of drinking coffee, it is just a matter of listening to each other. The philosopher says, “I chose to pick up the coffee cup of my own free will”. The scientist, instead of debating, should simply offer, “Would you like to know how free will works?” After all, the scientist can only explain it, he cannot “explain it away”. It would be inaccurate to suggest that the scientific explanation somehow replaces the concept of free will.

    I was intrigued when you said, “There has been much confusion in biology about intentionality and will being ascribed to mindless objects”. It turns out that the free will “versus” determinism paradox is caused by a similar mental error.

    I explain it in a nutshell in my blog, which I hope you’ll find has no “massively complex ideas” that you may expect.

    Determinism and Free Will

    “Free will” is when we decide for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. “Determinism” asserts that the behavior of objects and forces in our universe is perfectly reliable, as if they were “obeying immutable laws”.

    Because reliable cause and effect is neither coercive nor undue, it poses no threat to free will. Because our decisions are reliably caused by our own thoughts and feelings, our deliberate choosing poses no threat to determinism. Each choice we make for ourselves is both freely chosen and reliably caused. Thus, the concepts of free will and determinism are naturally compatible.

    The illusion of conflict is created by a logic error called the “reification fallacy“. This happens when we mistakenly treat the concept of “reliable cause and effect” as if it were an external force controlling our choices, as if it were not actually us, simply being us and doing what we do.

    But concepts are not “things” that cause. Only the actual objects themselves, and the forces they naturally exert upon other objects, can cause events.

    We are such objects. We exist in reality as physical objects, living organisms, and an intelligent species. As living organisms, we act purposefully to survive, thrive, and reproduce. As an intelligent species, we act deliberately by imagination, evaluation, and choosing. And, when we act upon our choices, we are forces of nature.

    Reliable cause and effect is not an external force. It is us, and the rest of the physical universe, just doing what we do.


    I have to disagree with your suggestion that free will implies one form of punishment, while determinism implies a different penalty.

    All forms of punishment, whether vengeful, retributive, corrective, or rehabilitative are deterministic. All of them have the same goal: to respond to harmful behavior in a way that reduces its recurrence. Christians, for example, believe in free will, but they also believe that even the most horrible sinner can be redeemed (rehabilitated). And they reject vengeance. Their teachings are filled with parables like the shepherd who left the 99 to find the one lost sheep, and the prodigal son who was welcomed home after a profligate life.

    The notion of “just desert” is a question of what someone “justly deserves” who has criminally harmed someone. We would expect such a penalty to include (a) repair the harm to the victim if possible, (b) correct the behavior by offering the opportunity for rehabilitation, (c) imprison him to protect the public until his behavior is corrected, and (d) do no more harm than is reasonably required to accomplish (a), (b), and (c).

    So, as you suggest, we must address the philosophy behind our penalties, determine what we wish to accomplish, generate options that seem promising, and apply scientific measures of success and failure to judge which options work best.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment on your post.

  2. Oversimplified much. What you presented is an explanation that has already been iterated and reiterated by quite a few spokesperson like Sam Harris (though his reasons and perspectives are slightly different in this matter). But the academia has already pondered, debated and presented cases against the somewhat prevailing view that you just showcased. I’ll return on this later. A bit too much of reductionism, I’ll say for now.

    1. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen sam harris say this, as the conclusion would argue that majority of sam harris’ books are useless.

      Could you link it to me?

      Also, could you provide an argument for how it is an oversimplification?

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