Does no free will necessarily entail fatalism or nihilism?

Whenever the hard determinist view is brought up in online discussions there is almost always someone that says no free will or genuine moral responsibility logically entails fatalism and nihilism. If everything that happens couldn’t help but happen and people’s choices aren’t truly free then somehow life is meaningless and morality doesn’t exist.

What is your opinion on this common claim in response to hard determinism?

My opinion is that it’s completely wrong and a fundamental misunderstanding of the matter. In reference to fatalism people still have desires to do and experience things and your choices still matter in a practical sense. People still have to do things for things to happen. Very few people would be content or able to lay in bed and stare at a ceiling their entire life because their choices are technically predetermined going back to the beginning of the universe. Choosing not to do anything out of fatalism is still a choice and a very miserable one.

In reference to nihilism I think meaning and morality aren’t dependent on hard determinism being true or false. Things still have meaning and value to people if only in a practical sense even if there was no other way for things to happen and you couldn’t possibly make choices other than the choices you made. Depending on your philosophical views this is likely the most contentious part but I think people would and can still have value and rights that shouldn’t be violated with or without determinism being true. Objective rights and value may not exist in a tangible, scientifically provable sense but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist at all. Pain and pleasure are still very much real things whether they’re determined to happen or not. Whether or not someone like Hitler, Osama, El Chapo Bundy had ultimate control over their choices doesn’t make them any less morally abhorrent or their actions any less evil or harmful. As hotly contested as the topic is I can’t recall a philosopher ever using the deterministic nature of the universe as evidence that good and evil don’t exist and the lives of sentient beings have no actual value.

Every human being behaves as if they have free will. Every other human being therefore judges the behaviors of others as if they have free will and freely exercise it. All everyday behavior arises from these two bases.

Philosophies are a side issue. People can and do behave according to their philosophies to various extents. (Except for a few extremes, most everyday behavior is boilerplate rather than philosophically tied.) Any philosophy can emerge out of these behaviors and one’s underlying beliefs. None are inevitable or impossible.

Are people therefore totally responsible for their choices? Manifestly yes, with the caveat that some choices are made out of extreme outside pressures. Judgements on those should be tempered, although the line in broad and deep gray.

Oh, it’s a bit worse than that. If you are mechanically determined and are just carrying out your predetermined responses to stimuli, you don’t exist. There is no “you”. I mean, seriously, in taking into account all calculations necessary to capture everything meaningful that’s going on here, why should I account for “you” at all? “You” don’t contribute anything. Your consciousness doesn’t contribute anything. Your set of experiences don’t contribute anything except as a chronological depiction of events as they transpired at your locus, and if I already have all the events I don’t need that. There is no “you”.


I am not a determinist. But that’s what determinism asserts as I comprehend it, whether the determinists acknowledge this or not.

I tend to start at the other end. I am conscious. I experience myself making choices. I assume it is necessary for me (and others like me) to be conscious and to make choices in order for the outcomes to occur, which implies that evaluations consist of something other than merely reading in the event data.

Where the conventional mainsteam notions unravel for me is not at the “do I have free will” end of the equation but instead at the “who am I anyway” end. I’m sociologist enough to understand and grasp that most of the ideas inside my head didn’t originate there, that I’m participating in a plural self, a cultural matrix of shared ideas. I’m physicist enough to understand and grasp that my individual self is immersed in a network of interactions that define all outcomes. But in both cases the individual “I” is affecting the rest, while at the same time the Self is not just individual, not even just plural-social, but all-encompassing, including all the factors that make my mind think its thoughts and feel its feelings.

Determinism leaves unchallenged the notion that you’re (just) an individual. And it overemphasizes the power of externalia, as if the direction of causation were one-way. Which admittedly may seem like a justifiable oversimplification: individual me and the entirety of the surrounding cosmos, why not just treat everything individual me does as the outcome of the stimuli of the rest of the universe? But the universe is composed of tiny particles like me. The causation dynamics really do work in all directions. Just like the earth is attracted to me and held to my feet. It’s not factually wrong. It is, in fact, factually wrong to dismiss it.

Oh, no! How horrifying! Except of course there is a “you”; the fact that “you” emerge from the interaction between physical elements, which are all hard determined, changes nothing about that.

Anyways, presumably your consciousness isn’t free - the processes that make it arise cost your body energy to regulate and execute. So, decision making with a consciousness likely offers some kind of evolutionary advantage, whether as a property of consciousness itself or because when you do X, Y, and Z which are useful themselved consciousness arises.

There are no houses, tanks, movie theaters, or dive bars in nature. Those are all things that did not exist, until humans showed up and made them.

The same way that we built physical things out of bricks and steel, humans created things like society, money, the nation-state, love, religion, and yes - morality.

No one argues that a bank or a toilet doesn’t exist because humans made them; but we get hung up on social constructs and whether or not they exist all the time.

Just because we made it up doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

Even if fatalism and nihilism were the logical way to go (I don’t agree, but whatever), most humans would have instincts to stay clear of those thoughts, otherwise they wouldn’t have been successful in reproducing in the past. That is, evolutionary pressure would select against that kind of conclusion.

In other words, if I had free will, maybe I’d succumb to that, but I don’t, so I won’t. :slight_smile:

Semantics and reciprocity. If that which is “I” (or “you”, to be consistent with the above) have an effect on that which affects “you” in turn, the situation is different from one in which “you” are emergent from entirely deterministic processes and “your” role is entirely passive. The former allows for the consciousness to be actively involved in deciding outcomes and the decisions aren’t the result of stimuli any more than the world of stimuli are conjured up by the consciousness doing the deciding.

I disagree. The sun is governed by fully deterministic processes (ignoring for the moment any quantum mechanic wonkiness that may or may not propagate up to a measurable level), but it has an effect on me and changes my actions every day.

You are deterministic, I am deterministic, and the interactions between us is part of that.

For example, if you never learned English, but were instead only taught a very early human (or hominid) language, one that could only communicate very simple concepts - you wouldn’t be able to conceptualize any of this discussion we are now having, right? So your internal state of mind is dependent on this that happened to you in the real world in the past.

It would if, in reality, there was no free will. We’d be the equivalent of chess pieces on the board of life having no say in the movements we make. “Good” and “bad” would be irrelevant as applied to us because only our movements, over which we have no say, could be adjudged to be “good” or “bad”.

Determinism doesn’t mean you have no say. Of course you do. Determinism means that you use that “say” to do things that make sense based on your past and present, and imagined future.

If your decisions were completely unlinked from past experience or present situation you would be functionally insane, incapable of learning or planning.

Well, I’m confused, because the title of the OP is, “Does no free will necessarily entail fatalism or nihilism?” “No free will” means you have no say. The moment I can decide for myself, I can no longer be categorized as having “no free will”.

How does it work? You are born with your brain wired in certain ways, and glands that release certain kind of hormones at certain times. You live your life in a certain environment, having some amount of nutrition and nurturing, in a home of a certain kind, all adding to your experiences.

Now it’s this morning, and someone asks, what would you like for breakfast?

Your choice is going to depend on your upbringing, your state of mind, your level of hunger and hormones, etc. But, you will make a specific choice given all of those conditions. That choice is not predictable by others, but I don’t see how you can choose anything other than what you choose – if it’s not dependent upon the physical and chemical state of your brain, what else is there?

That’s the title of the OP, but the problem is that Free Will is less a cohesive concept and more a jumbled complex of interrelated but contradictory concepts.

But the OP asks this:

I believe in determinism (quantum mechanics may or may not be truly random, which throws a wrinkle in, but that doesn’t really relate to consciousness or decision making so we can ignore that), but I don’t think it implies much about morality, etc. or about free will.

Here is why I don’t think free will and determinism have anything to do with each other.

Under a religious and dualist framework, God created the universe and humans, and gave humans a body that follows physical rules as well as a soul that can make decisions based on its own intrinsic properties, without interference from God. In this sense, Free Will means that while an earthquake or a horse’s actions arethings that God will directly mess with, he isn’t going to control human beings (unless he is hardening Pharaoh’s heart, I guess!).

This is still deterministic, though. Your soul makes decisions based on what kind of soul it is. Maybe you can purify your soul by praying and abstaining from sin, which supposedly makes it easier to continue resisting sin; while if you let the corrupting influence of sin in, your soul gets corrupted and you start sinning more. You are choosing your actions, but your choices are based on your past experiences, the inner nature of your soul, etc.

Absent that context, Free Will doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. Of course you have free will; there’s nothing to be free of. But your actions are still based on (deterministically chosen through) past experience, perceived present state, and imagined future.

ETA: There’s no conflict with holding you responsible for your actions. Holding people responsible is how society acts on your perceived present state and imagined futures in order to influence your actions, and this is a good thing.

It DOES mean that we should remember that, given different upbringing and circumstance, we would have ended up elsewhere. “There but for the grace of God go I”.

Exactly. It’s part of my environment that if I do certain things, I will be punished, so I don’t do those things. Being held responsible will affect your choice, just like being hungry or angry. That still doesn’t mean you can make a different choice.

I hope I’m not misrepresenting anyone’s view but my understanding of free will is that some of our choices are independent of any external causes. My prejudices, morality, motivations and values are caused by external causes so if they are determining my choice, I’m not feely choosing.

So free will means I make choices that are not determined by outside causes and not determined by my genetics, upbringing or environment. What is it determined by? Is it random?

How can we hold people responsible for choices that came out of nowhere? I don’t think anyone can be morally responsible unless they have reasons for what they do so morality in fact depends on determinism.

Not necessarily. I’ve made random choices just to be different. I believe I have free will, but I do believe it is affected by genetics, environment, etc. But pure Determinism as you describe it? I think it’s bullshit equivalent to, “God’s Plan”.

You may think so, but humans, like computers, are not capable of true randomness.

How do you do that? What part of your brain is not determined by your history, chemicals, the environment, etc.

It may seem random to you but human beings aren’t capable of true randomness. Your choices are limited to whatever your brain and thoughts happen to provide to you at that specific moment. You can’t choose to do something you didn’t think of doing. Our thoughts come into being without us directly authoring them.

How is this not the definition of free will?