Free Will – The Answers: In search of a Laplacean determinist

In my book on Free Will, published in Dutch in 2007, I asked myself how people who denied the existence of free will dealt with that fact in their daily lives.{1} In my conclusions (in Dutch) of 24th June 2012, I wondered if there were Laplacean determinists among the readers of this website. If so, I hoped that at least some of them were prepared to venture an answer to my questions of 2007. In the preceding five years, to be sure, plenty of authors had written books on the non-existence of free will, but most of these had focused on experiments that demonstrated that free will did not play a role in certain stages of our everyday decision-making. In my opinion this phenomenon has nothing to do with Laplacean determinism; in fact, if experiments  are set up to prove that free will does not play a role in part of our decision-making, they presuppose the existence of free will.

It is clearly not easy to find a genuine, i.e. Laplacean, determinist. Yet I was puzzled by my inability to obtain any reply whatsoever to my questions. Of course, I never expected that my appeal alone would open the floodgates for determinist vindication, but I had also approached people who openly professed hard determinism, and even they did not seem able to give any explanation as to how they personally coped with the non-existence of (also their own) free will.  Perhaps there were fewer Laplacean determinists than I had always assumed, and fewer yet who were prepared to make a stand. But how then could Stephen Hawking assert that Laplace’s renowned definition of 1814{2} was ‘the basis of all modern science’?{3} Could a definition really be the basis of all modern science if no one was prepared to speak out for it?

Everything I have so far written about determinism vs. free will centers around my two incompatible views (a) that scientifically speaking determinism has the stronger case, and (b) that determinism must be wrong because I cannot envisage human life without free will. Sometimes people try to convince me that these views are only seemingly incompatible so that there really is no need for my rather odd suggestion that the first view should be left to science and the second to faith. But they do so in vain, for although my stubborn faith in the existence of free will is of course blatantly unscientific, I would still rather believe that free will exists than turn to quasi-scientific evidence in order to prove that it does. We must not delude ourselves: there is a contradiction between determinism and free will, which is real and therefore important. It should not be fudged for the sake of harmony.

In my comments of 8th May, 2012, I already objected to the cavalier manner in which Stephen Hawking and his co-author Leonard Mlodinow had granted both (their own) Laplacean determinism and (other people’s) belief in free will the status of science by concocting two different classes of scientific truth, the first harbouring Laplace’s determinism as ‘the basis of all modern science,’ and the second accommodating ‘the effective theory that people have free will.’{4} On the one hand, this solution concealed the huge imbalance between the two ‘truths,’ with Laplace’s determinism in the illustrious role of true science, and the ‘effective theory’ only just tolerated as science with the feeble argument that most people could not stop themselves from believing they had free will.  On the other hand, it conveyed the impression that the difference was irrelevant because the ‘determinism vs. free will’ dispute would not be settled in our lifetime and beyond. Human behaviour was indeed ‘determined by the laws of nature,’ but ‘the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. [That process] would take a few billion years.’

When I first read this in 2010, I was less taken aback by the daunting length of time{5} than by the sudden appearance of ‘impossibility in practice to predict’ in the argument. Our ability to predict the future has been beside the point ever since Laplace presented his hypothetical ‘intellect,’ which could predict the future until the end of time but evidently did not exist. It is a philosophical concept that may occasionally keep someone awake at night but was never meant to be corroborated in a complicated way that would take a few billion years.  The point of such a concept is precisely that it separates the notion of a determined future from that of a predictable one. If the future were predestined (by Laplace’s unbroken chain of causality) or preordained (by God), there obviously would not be free will, but there is no such logical relationship between our inability to predict the future and the probability that there is free will. Unpredictability does not imply free will. The future can be unpredictable and yet be predestined.

So where do we stand with the answers to my questions? First, there are no Laplacean determinists among us, or they do not wish to come out. In the latter case I cannot blame them, for it goes without saying that no determinist is eager to explain how he copes with the non-existence of free will if all he can say is that in order to survive he needs to behave as if free will exists. But as a result, determinists and free-will advocates are indistinguishable because both live as if there is free will.

Second, it does not seem to trouble anyone that these questions remain unanswered. Most people take it for granted that there is free will and feel that those who wish to deny that can look after themselves. I must admit that I feel more at ease with this unprobing attitude than with the convoluted but ever cheerful reasoning of the authors of The Grand Design, who consider the question of determinism vs. free will immaterial. The more I read that book, the more I am discomfited by the jocular way{6} in which Hawking and Mlodinow try to convince their readers that the question of whether nature is hard-deterministic or leaves room for free will is of no consequence whatsoever because it will not be possible to prove or disprove one or the other within the next few billion years. This is of little use to a reader who is acutely aware of his two incompatible views on the determinism vs. free will dilemma but has an insurmountable distaste for smooth compatibilist solutions. In the end I find the solution offered by Hawking and Mlodinow even more unpalatable than the imprecise but well-intentioned theories of David Hume because Hawking’s ‘effective theory that people have free will’ shows a total disregard for the reasons why people may feel they have no other choice than to believe there is free will.

So this has probably been my last contribution to the determinism vs. free-will debate. I wish those who want to continue it every success. I foresee a long-drawn-out but very relaxed debate during which Laplacean determinism may reign supreme as the basis of all modern science, and faith in free will can continue to flourish thanks to the blessing of unpredictability.


1. (Translation) It continues to surprise me that people can, on the basis of scientific reasoning, reach the conclusion that there is no free will and then proceed with the business of the day. If our reality is indeed a determinist one, it seems to me that the business of the day can’t be worth much, since we then have no more choices at hand. Physicists, neurophysiologists and other scientists who tell us that their research has demonstrated the non-existence of free will must of course realize this, but they always behave as if the astounding results of their research do not apply to themselves: they continue to rack their brains about decisions to be made, passionately defend their positions, make efforts to convince others, and are disappointed if they don’t get their way. In my opinion scientists should not be allowed to declare that there is no free will without also explaining how they deal with this in their own lives. With what kind of malicious satisfaction do they keep this vital information to themselves?

2. The present state of the universe should be regarded as the effect of its previous state and the cause of its state that will follow. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that animate nature and the respective positions of all objects of which nature is composed, and was vast enough to submit these data to analysis, would embrace in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom. For such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present before its eyes.

3. Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London, Bantam Press, 2010).

4. In The Grand Design Hawking and Mlodinow define an effective theory as a framework created to model certain observed phenomena without describing in detail all of the underlying processes.

5. In full: “…. a few billion years, which would be a bit late to duck when the person opposite aimed a blow.”

6. See note 5 above.