Free will and Determinism
(Edexcel RS IGCSE section A)

The Edexcel IGCSE specification says:

Religious and non-religious beliefs/teachings about free will, determinism and predestination.

(Differing) views about whether human beings have free will and its limitations; whether determinism means that human beings’ choices and actions cannot be free; the extent to which human beings should be held responsible (and punished) for their actions; and whether God decides their fate.  

Christian beliefs/teachings about human freedom and its limitations, and predestination.

Key vocabulary:

Free will: (The belief that) the human will is free, so human beings can choose and act freely

Determinism: (The view that) every event has a cause, which may also involve believing that human beings cannot have free will, as their choices and actions are caused

Free will

Generally we work on the assumption that we do have free will.  We seem to be able to make choices about how we behave and how we act and we think that we could have behaved in a different way in the same circumstances.  When we praise or blame others for how they behave this implies that we believe that they are free to chose how to act and therefore they are morally responsible for the consequences.

Non-religious Determinism:

However, there are various reasons why we might argue that people are not free to choose how to act.  

Genetic Determinism:

Twin studies:

Identical twins provide a good opportunity to study determinism.  Their DNA is essentially identical so they have the same genetic material and their upbringing is usually very similar so they are relevant to both genetic and psychological determinism studies.

Abby and Brittany Hensel are conjoined twins who share two halves of the same body.  They have the same DNA and as near as identical upbringing as possible.  Often they seem to be of the same mind.  They say the same thing at the same time with the same inflection and finish each other's sentences.  However, they also have distinctly different preferences.  There are a lot of clips of the Hensel twins on youtube along with several documentaries.

Twins do not have to be cojoined to be interesting from a determinists point of view.  During the  1970s and 1980s Thomas Bouchard conducted a study on twins which seemed to show that identical twins - even those separated at birth and raised apart - tended to be similar in things like IQ, favourite school subjects, political leanings and many other things,

However, Prof. Dr Gerd Kempermann has demonstrated that although identical twins are usually very similar differences can occur and genes can be switched on or off due to life experiences.  This implies that both nature and nurture have a part to play in our choices.

Your genes determine (cause) things like eye colour, hair colour and so forth.  This is why children often physically resemble their parents.  They have inherited certain characteristic via genes passed on through the sperm and the egg.  Children obviously have no control over these physical characteristics.

It is also possible (and some people would argue very plausible) that we also inherit certain character traits from our parents.  You might be an adrenelin junkie because your genes make you that way.  You might be hot tempered.  You might be sarcastic.  In the last decade there have been various studies which claim to have linked a certain gene to a type of behaviour.  In 2009 it was reported that a mutation in the gene DARPP-32 could be responsible for a quick temper by effecting dopamine levels [Telegraph report here].  Genes have also been linked to obesity with those with certain types of the FTO gene up to 70% more likely to become obese as the gene affects the production of the hormone ghrelin which regulates feelings of hunger [BBC report here].  Even things like propensity for addiction or for criminal behaviour have been tentatively linked with genes [Addiction report here and Criminality report here].

Genetic determinists would argue that how you behave in any given situation is determined by your character and if this is itself determined by your genes then we no longer really have free will.  

Imagine person A is having an argument.  Person A happens to have an impatient and stubborn character.  In the heat of the moment they punch the person that they are arguing with.  We might say that they punched the person because they are naturally (genetically) inclined to be quick tempered.

Now imagine person B is in a parallel universe and having exactly the same argument.  In this parallel universe person B is exactly like person A except that instead of having a hot temper they are genetically predisposed to be patient and laid back.  They do not resort to violence but agree to disagree.

Were A and B free when they decided whether or not to throw a punch?  Genetic determinists would say no.  Their actions are directly caused (determined) by their genes.

Psychological Determinism:

Genetic determinism the 'nature' argument.  You are who you are because you were born that way.  By contrast, psychological determinism is the 'nurture' argument.  You are who you are because of how you are brought up.

Psychological determinists (like genetic determinists) believe that how we act is caused by our character.  However, rather than saying our character is caused by our genes they would argue that it is cause (at least in part) by our upbringing.

Children learn by imitation and are very receptive to new influences.  As we get older we are still shaped by our environment but we seem to be a bit less impressionable. This means that the influences that we are exposed to when we are young seem to be very important in shaping our character.  A child brought up by hard-working parents might develop a studious character because that is what they have been brought up to believe to be normal.  Therefore, if they work hard at school this is determined by their upbringing not their own free choice.  Likewise, a lazy slacker would be equally able to blame their behaviour on their upbringing.  

Evaluation (genetic and psychological):

There is certainly good reason to suppose that our genes and our upbringing have some influence on our character and this in term affects the choices we make day to day.  However, we could say that there is a difference between influencing a choice and causing it and a propensity towards a certain type of behaviour does not mean that the behaviour is unavoidable.  In particular, a person who disagreed with genetic determinism might argue that:

  • Children often differ dramatically from their parents and from their siblings which implies that they are not fully determined by either nature or nurture.
  • Genes for physical characteristics can be affected by other things.  A person genetically predisposed to grow tall will not reach their full potential height if they are malnourished. Therefore, genes for character traits can also be affected by other things.  Perhaps something like meditation can be used to control a genetic inclination towards anger.
  • Whilst certain genes have been linked to certain types of behaviour it is highly unlikely that there is one gene for violence (for example).  Genetics is a lot more complicated than that.

Physical Determinism:

Benjamin Libet's experiment

Benjamin Libet conducted a neurological experiment in the 1980s which has been used to suggest that free will is just an illusion.  In the experiment he asked a volunteer to move their finger whenever they liked but to notice at what time they experienced the feeling of intention (made the choice).  What he discovered was that the feeling of intention comes significantly after the action has been initiated.  When Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy repeated the experiment in the BBC Horizon programme The Secret You  he was shocked to discover that a person scanning his brain knew what decision he was going to make up to six seconds before he knew it!

Computers often seem to behave as though they are thinking and making choices.  When you open a document the computer 'decides' what program to open it in.  Sometimes you ask a computer to do something and it refuses!  More sophisticated computers can carry out human-like conversations.

However, most people would say that a computer is not free.  It behaves the way it does because of its programming.  It appears to make a 'choice' but actually that choice is just the end result of a chain initiated by the input of specific information. The computer is not free because it could not have acted differently.

Generally we assume that people are not like computers when they make decisions but we could argue that the brain is just like a biological computer.  The synapses in the brain fire in a certain way because they have received specific input (information from the senses).  Our 'thoughts' and 'choices' are directly caused by these processes and the sense of free will is just and illusion.


The Libet experiment does provide some evidence for the idea that the feeling of free will is an illusion and our choices result from unconscious processes in the brain.  However, we could argue that the experiment is a simplistic test and does not really replicate what happens when we make choices day to day.  In the experiment the volunteer knows that they must make a choice between one of two options so it is perhaps not surprising that their is a subconscious process going on which contributes to this choice.

Religious Predestination:

The ideas looked at so far are non-religious theories which might be used to argue that people have no free will.  A religious person may of course agree with them (although this raises problems about moral responsibility, heaven and hell) but they are not specifically religious theories.

The theory of predestination is a specifically religious reason which might undermine free will.


Not all Christians agree with the idea of predestination.  Many think it contradicts other Christian doctrines and makes the idea of moral laws pointless and the idea of judgement unfair.

The theory of predestination is usually associated with the French Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509-1564).  He argued that since the Fall people are inherently sinful and nobody can be good enough to earn their way into heaven.

This means that salvation must be an unmerited (unearned) gift given by God.  If it is a gift then God is entirely free to give it to whoever he wants.  It is not based on how we act.  An 'earned' gift is no longer a gift.

Calvin argued that God chose who to give the gift of salvation to before they are born.  Those who are given the gift of salvation are called the ELECT.  Those who are not given the gift of salvation are in their naturally sinful state and are therefore destined for hell.  They are called the REPROBATE.

The way that this links to free will is that Calvin thought that the Holy Spirit would be active in the lives of the elect which would enable them to do good deeds.  The reprobate would not have the Holy Spirit helping them so they would naturally give in to their sinful nature.  Thus good people are the elect doing good because God helps them and bad people have no choice but to do bad because it is natural human nature.  Either way, their actions are predestined and not free.


The theory of predestination seems rather unfair and does not really reflect the idea of a God who wants everyone to be saved.

Calvin's theory perhaps makes more sense if you put it in context. Calvin was writing during the Protestant Reformation and one of the criticisms that the Reformers had of the Roman Catholic Church was that it was claiming to have control who could get into heaven.  Priests told the people that they could not get into heaven without the sacraments and this meant that excommunication was seen as sentencing a person to hell.  The Church also offered 'indulgences' which were prayers which promised a person time off purgatory so they could go more quickly to heaven.  Calvin wanted to emphasise that who went to heaven and hell was entirely up to God and not down to what the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy said.

Calvin is also often accused of teaching a theory which meant that people could do what they like as if they are elect they are assured heaven and if they are reprobate then nothing they do can make any difference.  However, this criticism misrepresents Calvin. Calvin's point is that a good person will go to heaven and a bad person will go to hell because how they behave reveals whether or not the Holy Spirit is active in their life (i.e. whether they are elect or reprobate).  Thus an elect person would not choose to do bad and a reprobate person cannot choose to do good.

That said, many Christians still reject Calvin's theory because:

  • It seems to make moral laws pointless.
  • It seems to make judgement pointless.
  • It does not seem to be fair - why would an omniscient loving God create the reprobate at all?
  • There are many verses in the Bible which imply people do have a genuine choice in how they behave (although there are also verses which can be used to support predestination too).

The nature of God:

Another potential problem for the idea of free will is the doctrine of God's omniscience.  If God is truly omniscient and knows the future as well as the past then he knows what we do before we do it.  If he knows what we do then we cannot not do it (i.e. we cannot make the opposite choice).  Some people argue that it is incoherent to maintain both that God is omniscient and human beings are free.

Going Further:

David Hume argued that we can distinguish between 

·         the liberty of indifference - which is the ability to have genuinely made a different choice under the same circumstances

 ·         the liberty of spontaneity - not being forced by external things

Hume said that provided we are not forced by things external to ourselves then the action is free.  Thus an action can be both determined (caused by internal causes) but also meaningfully free.

There are several possible responses to this problem:

  • God knows all possible outcomes but not which one we choose.
  • God knows the end result but not the means we choose to get there.
  • God could know, but chooses to limit his foreknowledge in order to allow us genuine freedom.  This is analagous to sight.  You can see, but you can choose to shut your eyes.  God can choose to 'turn off' his foresight!
  • God is transcendent and therefore he does not see things 'before' they happen.  All time is the present for God.


The possible responses demonstrate that it is possible to 'square the circle' and make human free will compatible with God's omniscience.  However, you might not find any of these responses particularly satisfactory.  For example, how is knowing all possible outcomes real knowledge at all?  You know 'all possible outcomes' for your exam (A*-fail) but you probably would not regard that as meaningful knowledge.

Simpler solutions might be either

  • Humans are not free
  • God is not omniscient

Implications of Determinism:

Darrow case:

Two law students (Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) were charged with murder and were defended by Clarence Darrow.  Darrow argued that they were the product of their upbringing and their sense of entitlement caused them to kill.

Determinism has profound implications for our understanding of ourselves.  It also has obvious implications for thinks like crime and punishment. Understanding determinism might give people ways to reduce the likelihood of criminals reoffending.  If 'nurture' created a law breaking personality then could rehabilitation remould them into a law abiding citizen?  More radically, if certain genes are associated with criminal behaviour then could those genes be switched off or replaced?

Determinism has already been used by lawyers defending their clients.  The Darrow case is a good example of this.

Further Reading:

Free will and determinism is on many AS and A level specifications for both Religious Studies and Philosophy therefore there are a lot of very detailed resources on the web and in AS text books that you could use to go further if you wish.

  • Watch Marcus du Sautoy's experience of the Libet experiment here.
  • Read about Bouchard's similarities between identical twin study here.
  • Read about  Gerd Kempermann study of differences in identical twins here.
  • Watch this experiment and consider the implications that this might have for the issue of free will.
  • Wikipedia entry for the Darrow case here.