Freewill, Determinism, and the Illusion of Purpose: A Compatibilist Conception of Meaning and Purpose


It has been said that a donkey standing equidistant between identical piles of hay would result in the poor animal starving to death.  Piles of hay will of course always differ, so naturally there will be some cause leading the animal to walk over and eat from one of the piles.  Are human beings any different?  Self-awareness and the ability to understand ourselves in relation to the external world surely precludes this hypothetical scenario for human beings.  The awareness of oneself, as an independent entity controlling the physical body surrounding a mental state of existence seems to offer a human being the ability to choose without causal impetus.  Does self-awareness, however, necessarily presuppose freewill: the ability to make a choice?  “A person’s will is free only if he is free to have the will he wants,” Harry Frankfurt writes, “… the will of the person whose will is free could have been otherwise; he could have done otherwise than to constitute his will as he did.”1  Making a choice does not necessarily mean that one has freewill since a choice can be guided by countless factors beyond the agent’s control: an agent may “choose” the act, but remain unable to choose to choose.  If we do not have freewill, then what are the implications with regard to morality and purpose for human existence?  After all, if we are simply determined creatures with no freewill, then the purpose of each individual’s life is tautologically what he or she is deterministically bound to do.  At the heart of all philosophical inquiry into meaning and purpose therefore lies a central question: does the human individual really possess agency over his or her desires and actions?  It is difficult not to resign ourselves to nihilistic complacency without assurance that we are in fact not deterministic creatures.  Conceptualizing purpose in life thus first requires us to understand whether or not individuals lead a deterministic existence or genuinely have free will.  This paper demonstrates that strong evidence supports the deterministic argument, but human beings are nonetheless moral agents capable of creating purpose in their lives because self-awareness allows human beings to see their role in what I term “microfates,” making it possible to recognize the various choice points that precede each microfate.

Determinism versus Freewill

Determinism suggests that every event occurs as a result of specific causal impetus.  One does not choose to act, according to such a perspective, but instead reacts based on causal forces that guide decisions.  Physical laws of nature indicate that determinism is the logical view for humanity for two reasons: limited neural connections in the human brain and the influence of external events on consciousness.  First, the brain is estimated to contain 1011 neurons, each of which is connected to approximately three thousand other neurons—generating approximately 1014 neural connections.  If this network represents the realm of possibility, the immense quantity of neural connections could allow for a vast matrix of possibilities for human choice, though such a possibility matrix would remain nonetheless finite.  In other words, if dependent on neural connections, human consciousness is constrained within a defined network of neural connections, meaning that choices are constrained within one’s cognitive framework.  In contrast to this scientific position, one could argue that consciousness is not the quantitative product of neural connections, arguing instead that the relationship between the brain and consciousness is currently inexplicable.  Such an explanation is aligned with the eliminativist view that certain concepts are inexplicable, or too complex for contemporary understanding.2 

External events clearly influence human consciousness given that various events shift an individual's consciousness from moment to moment.  The events taking place around an individual can alter his or her line of thinking.  While walking in a park, a squirrel may attract a person’s attention, which leads that individual to think about the squirrel, and then the shouts of a group of people playing baseball may draw the individual’s attention, and then an acorn falling on his or her head will attract that person’s attention.  This individual will of course not focus exclusively on these random events and will likely resume thinking about the particular topic he or she was thinking about prior to these various distractions.  However, the particular topic this person is thinking about is also the result of some other event(s).  That is, an acorn falling on one’s head may only determine that person’s thoughts for a moment or two, but more significant events can determine that person’s thoughts for a greater period of time.  A death in the family, an upcoming job interview, the anticipation of a big sporting event, the new sights witnessed while on vacation, and the like, are external causes that shape our thoughts for extended periods.  Each event can yield countless reactions, which in turn can also yield numerous reactions: we could here call upon the so-called butterfly effect.  In the case of consciousness, then, an event will guide one’s line of thought for a particular moment, after which, consciousness has changed course.  Every piece of information, every event, every physical sensation that produces some mental response, can influence one’s line of thinking and as such, every thought could be a direct or indirect response to some external phenomenon by means of a mental chain-reaction triggered by one event, leading to being affected by another event in a certain way, and so on. 

We could describe these cause and effect patterns in terms of chaos or Pierre-Simon Laplace’s completely deterministic universe.  Laplace’s model would allow us to understand the state of the universe in the past because physical laws govern its operation, including human beings.  Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle has of course seriously undermined the Laplacian deterministic model by demonstrating the impossibility of precisely calculating miniscule events, at the atomic level for instance, which the work of quantum physicists like Erwin Schrˆdinger and Paul Dirac further supports.3  While this principle suggests that we cannot observe the world without affecting it, it does not preclude the possible existence of a deterministic model that we simply cannot measure.  Schrˆdinger argues, for instance, that human beings are in fact deterministic despite uncertainty at the quantum level: self-conscious beings are “if not strictly deterministic at any rate statistico-deterministic.”4  Similarly, chaos theory’s emphasis on cause and effect, and the possibility for drastically different outcomes depending on variations in initial conditions, highlights a crucial issue for human existence: countless cause and effect sequences add up to various events.  Whether or not these cause and effect patterns are unpredictable does not change the fact that there are ultimate origins for every event, which reveals the possibility that human action results from factors well beyond freewill as inherent choices. 

Much of what we would question as free choice is merely a question of ability and necessity: a healthy adult can stand up at any moment or remain sitting down for an extended period of time; he or she has the ability to understand a menu and how the selection suits his or her palate; and this person also has the ability to choose left or right at an intersection when there is no evidence that either option leads to the intended destination.  A person is able to do anything that lies within the realm of his or her physical abilities: one could stop going to work, or one could throw his wallet in a river while crossing a bridge, but for obvious reasons most people will not proceed with either of these actions.  We are condemned to be free, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggests, and we fear this freedom.5  We therefore not only fear something bad happening to us, but also fear doing something bad to ourselves.  As Sartre notes, when near the edge of a cliff, we not only fear accidentally falling over, but also we fear voluntarily lunging into it.6  The terrifying reality is that there is no one to protect a sane person from himself or herself.  A person “could” lunge over the edge, but this “could” serves as an inadequate definition for freedom of choice since the choice to not do this is likely based upon desires beyond our control.  Standing at the edge of the cliff, is one truly free to jump or not jump over the edge?  It is evident that the individual is indeed able to stay put or to jump, but this does not assure the freedom to choose.  One can argue that he is free do so, that he could jump, but chooses not to jump.  Jumping is not necessarily an option truly open his choice, for he may not be free to actually jump because forces beyond his will have determined the behavior, survival instincts being the most obvious factor in this case.  If this person does not jump, how do we know that he is truly free to do so? 

It is here useful to make a distinction between facts and values, for as David Hume suggests, facts cannot motivate actions—only values can motivate action.7  That is, if we interpret the concept of “values” loosely as desires that motivate action, we find that the benefits of keeping one’s job is are facts and the desire to do so stems from an underlying desire that discriminates between different lifestyles associated with (un)employment.8  That is, an individual has desires that are responsible for wanting to keep a job: whether it is financial security, status, a sense of belonging, enjoyment of the activities the job entails, and so forth.  Each of these potential desires also have underlying desires as well: financial security offers material comforts, while for instance status may offer a sense of satisfaction.  Each of these desires may also technically be based on even more fundamental desires, and we could thus watch this argument slip into an infinite regression where every desire is based on an underlying desire.  Unless this regression ends at some point with a fundamental desire/will, we certainly cannot consider ourselves free to choose, since the desire guiding our choice is no longer a conscious desire.  That is, if all of our desires stem from desires that lie beyond our conscious understanding, and by extension beyond our ability to control them, we may in fact be no freer to choose to protect our job security than we are free to choose to breathe.  Should someone point out that we can choose not to breathe, again, this desire to stop breathing may be based on a desire to prove your own freedom, which is based on a desire for self-mastery, which is based on a desire for success, and so on.  We could make this case with our fellow at the edge of a cliff who cannot prove that he has truly chosen not to jump. 

We can go through countless examples and likely find the same pattern: our decisions are the product of particular desires, which are in turn the product of factors beyond our control and outside the realm of our apparent willpower.  Laplace’s deterministic model could apply to the human individual, as every action is perhaps theoretically deterministically explainable by means of circumstance, genetics, and environment.  This is obviously difficult to accept, though, for it would indicate that an individual has no control over her life: the future is in essence already written in the sense that forces and influences beyond her willpower determine her responses to particular life events.  If Laplace’s deterministic model applies to human beings, then everything was set in motion long ago, and countless action-reaction sequences have set us all on a particular path that we cannot stray from.  In essence, we may very well be puppets on a string, aware of our existence, but for all intents and purposes we exist as puppets that cannot see or control the strings.  Less abstractly, Michel Foucault’s studies on the productive aspect of power reveals how the human individual to some extent leads a determined existence.  In Discipline and Punish, Foucault demonstrates how the development of great state apparatuses established an economy of power, whereby procedures were developed that allowed the effects of power to circulate continuously and in a way that individualizes human beings, producing efficient subjects.  Even less abstractly, one’s social surroundings can restrict his or her behavior merely by restricting the choices available, for how a person is raised obviously influences how that person behaves and views the world.  Taken together, then, it is clear that many social and biological forces act on the human individual and shape his or her behavior and by extension his or her will.

This infinite regress, whereby our actions and desires are motivated by forces beyond the control of our active consciousness, runs contrary with a cogito ergo sum9 spirit.  As Schrˆdinger puts it, there is an “unpleasant feeling about ‘declaring oneself to be a pure mechanism.’”10 After all, the act of recognizing “I” seems to entail freedom, but there is no freedom in this act because we cannot escape awareness.  Because we perpetually experience this “I-ness,” the idea that we are not free simply does not make sense because we do not experience this “I-ness” like a puppet on strings ordered to feel “I.”  On the contrary, we experience this “I-ness” as seemingly free beings: I am, I want, and therefore I do.  It is this “I want” that beckons the deterministic argument.  Indeed everyone can say “I am” without hesitation at this point, but how can we explain the “I want?”  The most rudimentary example entails basic biological necessity and instinctive behavior.  We must eat and drink to survive, and thus we eat and drink in response to physical demands and motivations.  The obvious rejoinder here is that we do not respond mindlessly to stimulus, for we choose when to eat, what to eat, and so forth.  It is evident, however, that the desire to eat and drink is influenced greatly by external factors.  If in fact one set of desires are motivated by factors beyond our control, it seems quite plausible that other desires are also motivated by factors beyond our willpower.  There could very well be some desire responsible determining whether or not we eat when we feel the onset of hunger. 

Moral Agency

If we are not free beings, what are the implications for making moral judgments about a person’s actions and his or her purpose for existing?  Thomas Nagel's Moral Luck highlights the role that luck plays in the consequences of a person's actions, many of which are subject to moral judgments.  People often base moral judgments, Nagel argues, on actual outcomes and results—which often depend on factors beyond the agent’s control.  As Nagel writes: “Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat him in that respect as an object of moral judgment, it can be called moral luck.”11  Thus, where outcomes depend on factors beyond a particular agent’s control and these outcomes shape that agent's moral standing, it appears that luck will invariably shape one’s moral standing to some extent.  Nagel does, however, distinguish between different forms of moral luck, where external forces shape outcomes and by extension moral evaluations.12  First, an agent is subject to luck insofar as personal constitutive properties are beyond his or her control: mental capacities, temperament, and emotional inclinations for example.  One is also subject to circumstantial luck, where a situation may be beyond an individual’s control and yet can dictate his or her behavior: what kind of political climate one is born into, for example, can present drastically different opportunities or constraints (Nagel gives as an example a young man growing up in Nazi Germany in contrast to Argentina during the late 1930s, which would clearly offer different parameters for moral action).13 

Circumstantial/Results-based Luck
“The same degree of culpability or estimability in intention, motive, or concern," Nagel writes, "is compatible with a wide range of judgments … depending on what happened beyond the point of decision.”14  As such, Nagel identifies a number of different scenarios where spurious external factors can influence the outcome of a particular action.  A pedestrian who happens to cross the street, for example, just as a driver who is legally intoxicated falls asleep at the wheel could render that driver morally guilty for killing someone, whereas another drunk driver who falls asleep while driving on a different street may only hit an empty sidewalk and face little moral reproach.  Or, drawing on a specific historical example, Nagel suggests that had Hitler suffered a fatal heart attack immediately after signing a peace accord at Munich, Chamberlain may not be associated with the moral notoriety he is remembered for today.15

Clearly chance plays a role in the outcomes of both scenarios.  However, the link between chance and the moral elements behind these events is not as clear.  The first scenario, for instance, does not represent a situation involving pure chance: the driver makes decisions along the way that risk the safety of others.  That is, the presence of pedestrians is indeed the product of chance, but the driver’s decisions that influence his or her probability of suffering repercussions from this element of chance is not.  Moral evaluations in this instance are as such not dependent on blind luck per se, but instead depend on the agent’s risk management (even if one interjects that a driver may be too impaired to make rational risk calculations, the driver can nonetheless be said to have made a risk calculation before consuming the very first drink).  The drunk driver is not morally lucky then since he or she makes a moral decision that is not subject to chance: whether or not to risk the lives of others.  The driver is instead pragmatically lucky by being spared condemnation if he successfully reaches home without incident or pragmatically unlucky by having external forces interfere with his attempt to reach home without incident while driving drunk.  The moral moment thus takes place when a decision to drive home is made, not when the driver reaches or fails to reach home safely.  Extending this line of reasoning to the other scenario, the Chamberlain example does not offer a similar causal moral decision insofar as either decision entailed risks.  That is, either decision would entail subjective judgment with regard to which option presents greater risks for Europe’s security: perhaps standing firm against Hitler at Munich will unnecessarily send Europe headlong into another world war, while appeasing Hitler will perhaps allow Germany to grow stronger and make an inevitable war all the more devastating.  History shows that Chamberlain's decision was wrong based on its results, but can history show this decision to be morally wrong as well?

These two examples thus appear to demonstrate conflict between moral judgments and factual judgments.  Two drunk drivers' actions may be identical, but one kills a pedestrian and will face condemnation for killing an innocent bystander.  “That these are genuine moral judgments rather than expressions of temporary attitude,” Nagel writes, “is evident from the fact that one can say in advance how the moral verdict will depend on the results.”16  But the proposition that a driver who hits a pedestrian is morally unlucky appears to rest more on a misinterpretation by those condemning the driver: those who assess the actions of both drunk drivers as either trivial or murderous are mistaken in treating them as morally different since each driver has made a moral decision that considers the risks involved (or should have considered the risks).  Even if one can determine that driver A was significantly more drunk than driver B and it is driver A who kills a pedestrian, one can only morally condemn him or her for having taken such a drastically more reckless risk than driver B.  It may be the case, then, that the moral judgment should be directed toward each driver’s moment of decision, and the level of impairment can be morally judged only insofar as it bears on how great a risk each driver decided to engage in.  That is, treating each driver from morally varying positions based on the result may falsely interject morality into the outcome, as opposed to the agent’s decision and intent.  This in a way mirror’s Nagel’s point, that the result will affect how others will render their moral judgment—but the point is here instead that while those rendering judgment will indeed alter their moral evaluations based on the outcome, but they will incorrectly morally assess the non-moral.  It is here interesting to compare this suggestion with Peter Strawson’s discussion on reactive attitudes, where his expressivist version of moral blame attempts to synthesize the compatibilist and libertarian views of reactive attitudes.  While libertarians argue that reactive attitudes are misplaced if determinism holds true, compatibilists suggest that reactive attitudes function as a regulatory function in light of a determinist framework.  Strawson diffuses the tension between these two positions by emphasizing that espousing objectivity toward behavior at any particular moment “is not the consequence of a theoretical conviction which might be expressed as ‘Determinism in this case,’ but as a consequence of our abandoning … the ordinary inter-personal attitudes.”17  For example, then, resentment as a reactive attitude cannot be the product of the injury itself, but must instead be the product of an injury that results from violating a relevant standard.  A driver who’s car malfunctions (where all proper maintenance standards have been met) and causes him to lose control and kill someone should not be subject to resentment, but a drunk driver who violates the standard of not unnecessarily endangering others will be subject to resentment if he kills someone while driving drunk.

Even while considering reactive attitudes, luck thus lies more in the pragmatic results: a drunk driver who makes it home without incident is not morally lucky, but rather, pragmatically lucky in that he will not face a harsh reactive attitude from his peers based on the result, but will instead face a misdirected mild moral judgment that treats his or her actions as relatively trivial (there is also the pragmatic luck of avoiding possible jail time, and so forth).  Likewise, in the Chamberlain example, moral judgments should attach themselves to Chamberlain’s deliberation and intent rather than the outcome: was his decision well reasoned/informed and was it well meaning?  There can be little doubt that Chamberlain would have been lucky should Hitler have suffered a fatal heart attack, but this would constitute pragmatic rather than moral luck.  That is, appeasement would have been no different morally (assuming that it was a well reasoned/informed strategy and one that pursued peace), but pragmatically the strategy would have received accolades and perceived moral worth.  As such, one may in fact be subject to moral luck, but it is the luck of having people incorrectly judge the result as opposed to the moment of decision as morally relevant.  Morality and luck are separate, then, where the former applies to the agent’s moment of decision and the latter to its consequences.

Antecedent / Constitutive Luck
“The result of such a line of thought,” Nagel writes, “is to pare down each act to its morally essential core, an act of pure will assessed by motive and intention.”18  Should one grant that moral judgments only apply to the moment of decision, namely the agent’s intent and rational consideration of the circumstances involved, there remains the possible influence of luck in the form of antecedent circumstances shaping the agent’s will or moral orientations.  Nagel points out, for example, how traits like conceit or feelings of superiority may have been acquired as a result of circumstances beyond an individual’s control: certain neuro-chemical imbalances, parental influence, excess ridicule as a schoolboy or girl, and so forth.  Any particular character trait can thus be out of the agent’s control, making it unreasonable to condemn someone for something that is not within his or her control.19 

There is something, however, that intuitively appears problematic with the notion of antecedent/constitutive luck.  While indeed the condition of control cannot be satisfied with regard to character traits, as Nagel suggests, there are ways to attribute personal traits to the agent.  Susan Hurley, for example, discusses what she terms the “full-blooded” blame licensing model, which holds that moral responsibility requires choice or control for causes and the causes’ causes.  Hurley contends that it is simply impossible for one to choose all of the causes behind his or her choices, and therefore turns to a non-causal hypothetical/counterfactual choice model, where an individual would choose the causes if he or she could have.20  Causal responsibility is thus not necessary for responsibility, because one would have chosen the relevant causal mechanism if he or she could have.21  Causal responsibility is incoherent given that one would need to choose all of the causes, according to Hurley, but one can still be responsible because he or she would have chosen the causes involved anyhow.  The hypothetical choice condition of responsibility is still an actual-sequence condition because what someone would do is a dispositional property of the way he or she actually is and of an actual event sequence.22  Hurley recognizes the potential objections to this model, such as the tame housewife argument and the indeterminacy of actual choices, but states that her line of argument is meant to demonstrate that regressive responsibility is possible.23  Going beyond the possibility of regression, Charles Taylor and Susan Wolf also offer frameworks that can be used to justify condemnation of moral violations.  For example, Taylor suggests that a person’s will can be self-assessed and redefined,24 while Wolf’s “sane deep self” offers a condition where one holds a “sufficient ability cognitively and normatively to recognize and appreciate the world for what it is.”25 

Though each of these perspectives offers a possible framework for responsibility, they can be further extended to justify condemnation for moral violations.  If in fact luck is responsible for a particular trait related to one’s moral transgression, it would only be unfair to condemn that person if he or she consciously did not want that particular personal characteristic.  That is, even if the reasons behind a person’s conceited nature, for example, are beyond his or her control, accepting that trait without desiring to change it appears to warrant judging that person based on the relevant moral standard that is violated.  If he or she does not reflectively dislike this particular trait, then this person implicitly validates that trait and can be subject to moral criticism based on being that type of person.  That person could only be unlucky, then, if he or she desires some other trait and was subject to the effects of this unwanted trait.  Someone who wishes that he did not display a conceited nature may find himself unlucky in being predisposed to arrogant behavior.  However, if that person is capable of self-reflection and recognizes the undesirability of that trait, he or she could conceivably work to supplant this negative trait with a more desirable trait.  It is in this case difficult to maintain that such a person is morally unlucky, since the person’s self-reflection allows him or her to change this trait and this appears to represent the applicable moral domain: choosing between making the effort to eliminate conceit or choosing not to.  It is of course unlucky to experience this negative predisposition, but since a sane person with a self-reflective capacity is capable of making the moral choice to sustain or eliminate this trait, this predisposition appears to fall in the realm of pragmatic luck insofar as such a predisposition just makes it more difficult for that person to be the person he or she believes is morally appropriate—that is, if a person conceptualizes what is morally ideal and can thus shape him or herself in relation to this moral conception, natural behavioral inclinations should fall in the realm of pragmatic luck.

Moral luck in situations where external events influence the outcome of a person’s action cannot literally be possible because morality and luck are incompatible (with the former applying to an agent’s due care / intent and the latter to its consequences).  If in fact the results of a person's actions are genuinely guided by factors entirely beyond that person’s immediate actions, then that person's actions should not be subject to moral evaluation at all—people may still morally condemn him or her, but this represents a mistaken application of morality to non-moral events.  Luck is in this situation not moral luck, but rather pragmatic luck, in the form of praise/blame and reward/punishment (which may come is the form of mistaken moral evaluation).  In evaluating whether or not moral judgments are appropriate in situations where luck determines the type of person one is, luck may indeed dictate personal traits, but the accompanying judgments by others are in fact appropriate when the agent involved accepts the antecedent circumstances of the self.  Even if the reasons for a person’s unwanted trait are beyond his or her control, accepting that trait (consciously or unconsciously) without desiring to change it appears to warrant morally judging that person since his or her implicit or explicit acceptance at least tacitly validates the trait responsible for a particular moral violation.  That person could only be unlucky, then, if he or she desires some other trait and was subject to the effects of this unwanted trait.  If this person is capable of self-reflection and recognizes the undesirability of that trait, however, he or she could conceivably work to supplant this negative trait with another and is thus not subject to blind luck for his or her moral standing. 

“Microfates” and Choice

Just as awareness presents one with the opportunity for moral choices, awareness of moments of choice offer an individual the opportunity to create his or her own microfates: an issue-specific outcome that despite being the product of countless cause and effect patterns is nonetheless determinable at one specific moment.  Certain actions and events create discernable fates that are irreversible: someone attending or not attending a particular social function can determine whether that person meets one future spouse instead of another, creating a microfate for one’s romantic life; choosing a particular road to work instead of another can mean the difference between crossing one intersection with fatal consequences as someone else runs a red light, or arriving to work on time living to a ripe old age, thus creating a microfate for the individual’s lifespan.  Each scenario would entail countless other circumstances that would produce the particular event described, but we can identify specific choice points that alone can influence whether or not each event takes place.  We simply cannot claim responsibility for everything about lives because countless cause and effect patterns have determined so much about biological makeup, our psychological disposition, our material circumstances, and so on.  At any given moment, however, we are presented with various choice sets, and the decision made at any given moment creates a particular outcome.  After the choice is made and the events play out, we can then see that events were “destined” proceed as they did once that particular decision was made.  We could theoretically retrace every cause and effect pattern, thereby understanding the reason for one choice, and then the reasons for that reason, and continue this exercise endlessly.  In this case, we would indeed be dealing with a determined universe as Laplace suggested, and we might simply conclude that purpose in life is simply what we are determined to do.  But each microfate presents us with the opportunity to choose and by extension create our own purpose.

With human beings, however, the element of choice seems at odds with this potentially determined universe.  While countless cause and effect sequence could be responsible for the circumstantial and psychological reasons for our choices, the fact remains: at any given moment, we have the opportunity to choose.  Whatever the reasons behind these choices, as a matter of possibility we are not determined to make any particular choice.  Other cause and effect sequences in the physical world produce defined possibility sets where the outcome could indeed have only turned out as it did.  With human beings, even if the reasons for our decisions are determined, alternative outcomes are possible—just as is the case with moral agency and our awareness of the possibility for alternatives.  That is, a bowling a ball once released has to strike where its momentum and trajectory carries it—but a human being at the moment of decision may have momentum and trajectory by means of circumstantial and psychological determinants, but the human being could “strike” elsewhere from the perspective of physical possibilities.  The bowling ball cannot alter its own momentum and trajectory, but the human being is theoretically not thrown powerlessly.  Each impending throw represents microfate, one where the human being is aware of the impending throw, the trajectory and momentum, and the effects.  This moment prior to the throw and the person’s decision regarding force and trajectory create a microfate for that individual.  When we think of purpose in life, we conceivably have many such pending moments that offer the opportunity to choose and create our microfates. 

One might counter by arguing that this interpretation is too strict in defining the realm of possibilities in the physical world of bowling balls as governed by strict physical laws, while freeing the cognitive properties of the human individual from similar laws.  We know that various physiological rules govern the human brain, and according to our cause and effect logic that can determine what we think about, we could also say that human beings have momentum and trajectory, so to speak, in the same way as does a bowling ball.  In this sense, then, the realm of choice represents just as restricted a matter of possibility as does a thrown bowling ball.  After all, mental faculties are still byproducts of a physical world that is governed by physical laws, whether chemical, electrical, or biological.  The difference is that human beings are self-aware, and even though not freely so—it is impossible for a human being free from neurological disorders not to be self-aware—we are aware of our own existence in relation to an external world.  This awareness makes it possible to identify our choices as matters of possibility, and to understand alternative possibilities.  We thus have countless factors that determine the choices we make, but there are no cause and effect patterns that are responsible for understanding our choices and their effects.  Our awareness is neither free nor determined, it just is.  We are aware of ourselves as actors whose actions have effects.  We are not free in making the choices themselves, nor in feeling the way we do about the effects of those choices, but we can see the effects.  This ability to see alternative possibilities and the effects of our choices means that we are not destined to be or do anything, even if cause and effect patterns lead to make a particular choice at a any given moment.  One likely cannot see the countless cause and effect relations (such as complex psycho-chemical causes) that have produced the moment of choice, but he or she is aware of the matters of possibility when the moment of choice arrives, and as such the results of our choices are not destined until the choices are made and our awareness of alternative possibilities in terms of available choices means that our decisions are not destined in the sense that there are indeed other possibilities and we are aware of those possibilities.  We can therefore conceivably create our own purpose rather than move through life deterministically.


In short, every individual perhaps leads a determined life insofar as countless cause and effect patterns cumulatively determine actions and thought processes.  We could conceivably claim that every happening today was destined to happen since the dawn of time when initial cause and effect patterns were set in motion.  We should recognize ourselves as determined beings in the sense that countless circumstantial and physiological cause and effect patterns determine our choices, but as conscious entities our self-awareness remains independent from external cause and effect patterns and this self-awareness allows us to conceivably recognize some causes, their effects, and our control over these actions.  While we perhaps lack the freedom to choose how we regard our thought processes due to the countless cause and effect sequences beyond our control, our self-awareness and our ability to see different possibilities at decision points makes us responsible agents.  As responsible agents, human beings can create purpose in their lives by conceivably choosing from various possibilities at various choice points that lead to particular microfates.  We therefore cannot view our actions as determined in terms of matters of possibility, meaning that we cannot view events in our lives as unavoidable results.  An individual’s purpose is thus conceivably open-ended.  We are conscious of the cause and effect patterns that shape our reality, aware that various choices are possible, and in making these choices we create our own various microfates—even if we do not understand the reasons for the choices we ultimately make.



1 Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Journal of Philosophy LXVIII, No. 1 (1971): 18.

2 Some may argue in favor of a dualist understanding of the mind, or human consciousness—this would suggest that mind and matter exist as separate realms that interact with one another (see RenÈ Descartes; see Schrˆdinger, My View of the World, 1961/trans. 1964). 

3 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (London: Bantham Press, 1988), 55.

4 Erwin Schrˆdinger, What is Life? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 86.

5 Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings (New York: Routledge, 2001), 177.

6 See also: S¯ren Kierkegaard, trans. Reidar Thomte, The Concept of Anxiety (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980/Orig. 1844).

7 David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (London: Penguin Books, 1969/Orig. 1739), 509.

8 Gary Watson. “Free Agency,” Journal of Philosophy LXXII, No. 8 (1975): 98.

9 RenÈ Descartes, trans. F. E. Sutcliffe, Discourse on Method and The Meditations (London: Penguin Books, 1968/Orig. 1637), 53.

10 Schrˆdinger, What is Life?, 86.

11 Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 24.

12 Ibid., p. 26.

13 Ibid., p. 24.

14 Ibid., p. 29.

15 Ibid., p. 29.

16 Ibid., p. 29.

17 Peter Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy XLVIII (1962): 69.

18 Nagel, Mortal Questions, p. 30.

19 Ibid., p. 31.

20 Susan L. Hurley, Justice, Luck, and Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 26.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid., p. 28.

23Ibid., p. 30.

24 Charles Taylor, “Responsibility for the Self,” in Free Will, ed. Gary Watson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982): 113.

25 Susan Wolf, “Sanity and the Metaphysics of Responsibility,” in Responsibility, Character, and the Emotions, ed. Ferdinand Schoeman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987): 58.

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