Free-will and predestination

Revisiting the age-old debate

As perennial debates go, this one has to be right there at the top of the list. And it’s not merely an academic discussion either, for the whole ethical question of responsibility of one’s actions hinges on it. Our worldly affairs – social, economic, political, legal – are all based on rewards and punishments; and so are most religious systems, by presuming that we are responsible (at least partly) for our actions. This precludes predestination – or determinism, as it is more fashionable to refer to it now. But philosophers have always considered this a controversial matter that is far from being settled. Even among laymen (usually of the atheistic/agnostic bent) comfortable with the idea of responsibility in worldly matters, as soon as it comes to intellectual speculation or matters of theology, questions such as this are sure to be raised: Are we even free? Doesn’t God (if He exists) know from the start what we are going to do? And if so, how can we change what he already knows will happen? Do we even have power to do with our lives what we want to?

‘God doesn’t play dice,’ Einstein famously said about quantum mechanics findings. His gripe was not that some things could not be predicted on account of lack of knowledge about some initial conditions. His problem was physics’ insistence on an inherent uncertainty (randomness) that defied any prediction. If then, the decision-making process was controlled by the position of say one electron (as opposed to multitudes of electrons making the process predictable, albeit stochastically), then what we choose to do cannot be determined even if we have all the initial conditions. Many theists, erroneously, cite this as an argument against predestination and in favour of free will, although randomness constitutes anything but free will. They would have been more justified in celebrating another aspect however: that human beings will never be able to predict everything. An omniscient being that is independent of time and space would obviously still know the ‘outcome’ all along. (Even we finally find out after the experiment, do we not?) In fact, it would have been a body blow to the theists had physics concluded that given enough knowledge of initial conditions, in theory at least, we can predict everything beforehand, hence taking free will completely out of the picture.

Now let’s consider, for a moment, the supposed incompatibility between free will and predestination, and here it is useful to use the word determinism, in the sense of having power to determine one’s future or part thereof. As Dan Dennett points out, if anything, free will is harder to reconcile with indeterminism than with determinism. After all, you can’t have free will if you can’t determine your future, at least to some extent. Predestination is not inconsistent with at least some degree of free-will. Suppose you avoid getting hit by a brick by ducking. You determine your future (not getting hit) but can you be said to have changed the future? Of course not: you merely avoided what you thought could be one of the futures. The brick was never meant to hit you, was it? An omniscient being would of course have known all along about the ‘future’, which is inevitable and yet which you have played your part determining by choosing to duck. Determinism is therefore not necessarily inconsistent with something being inevitable or unavoidable. Of course, saving oneself from an approaching object could be called reflex action instead of free-will, but replace it with any other action of a more considered nature, and nothing changes much.

Here, we need to consider another likely criticism against free-will: There is now evidence that while we feel we are making decisions of our free-will, the decision has been made long before we think we are making it. Also, when we see things, the input from the memory/brain apparatus is many times more than the part provided by the eyes. That is, what is already in the mind influences whatever new evidence comes in. The result is that we see (and hear) things depending on our prior mental makeup. Any single decision that we make is based on the makeup of the mind (past experiences, upbringing, environmental factors, and physiological conditions) at that time, and is therefore predestined. This, admittedly, cannot be denied. So where does free will come in? It comes in in forming, over the years, that very mental makeup – the framework that makes decisions. In the long haul, one is free to play – or not to play a role – here. Of course, as one grows older and the habits become more rigid, it becomes more and more difficult to change that mental makeup; but it is possible nevertheless.

Somebody can apply the above to itself and raise this objection: But changing one’s mental makeup is also a decision, and therefore one is constrained in that sense. One’s single acts are tangible things: one acts one way or the other. Thoughts and habits on the other hand are fluid. You don’t decide to think; you keep thinking. Plus, the mind cannot rest on doubt, so one is free to change one’s mental makeup, although it usually takes a long time.

In summary, barring the physically impossible things and a great deal more, there are many things (from the ethical point of view, all the important things) regarding which one has a significant part to play by way of carving one’s future by taking specific decisions. In turn, while each of those decisions may be forced upon you by your mental framework at the time (hence predestined), the framework itself is to a significant degree alterable by you, at least in the long run. You may not be ‘free’ at any given time to take any one decision, but you are free (over the course of your life) to read what you read, think how you think, make friends that you make, listen to opinions that you do, and as a result shape your mental framework. And you are of course free not to do any of these things.

Hasan Aftab Saeed

The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at

One Comment;