Is it Real?









I have Free Will

Will of God or of the gods

I choose  . 

What will be , will be


It was meant to be

Free Choice

Laws of Nature




without external coercion

without ignorance




Most people born in the twentieth century were raised with a conflicting set of beliefs concerning the issue of freedom.  One the one hand people have been taught or encouraged to believe that they are responsible for their actions and that they are capable of choosing from amongst the options that are presented to them.  Yet there is in the language that is used and in the ideas people claim to hold as true another view entirely, namely that there are forces or a force over which humans have no control and that determines what occurs.  There are those who claim that they are free and believe that here is such a thing as fate or destiny AT THE SAME TIME!!!

How can this be that people are free to chose their own paths through life and yet all has been set out by the forces (deities?) that have determined each person's ultimate end or destiny?

This issue deals with that conflict.   Are humans free to make decisions concerning their behavior or not?  If humans are not free then what becomes of the notion of responsibility and accountability?  What is to be done with those humans who commit crimes if they did so due to factors over which they had no control?

Are you one of those people who claim to believe in FATE? Do you think that all things occur as they were meant to occur?  Do you believe that "What will be will be" ? If you do and you think that you are FREE to make decisions and that the future is undetermined you are a believer in contradictory ideas.  The idea of a Fate or Destiny rests on the belief (in the absence of proof that is clearly convincing) that there is some power or agency that does determine the sets of experiences to be encountered by humans as well as their ultimate demise in both time and manner.  You are believing in things that can not all be true AT THE SAME TIME! 

Does infallible foreknowledge of a human act by a deity or the "fates" take away Free Will?   People that can consistently maintain both Free Will and infallible foreknowledge are called compatibilists .  They have a very difficult time providing evidence and reasoning to support their position.   People that prove that only one of them can be true are called incompatibilists. They hold that Free Will and infallible foreknowledge by any entity contradict with each other.   Here are attempts to explain and argue for each of these views.

First what do the words FATE and DESTINY mean?  Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives us the following:

FATE    Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French or Latin; Middle French, from Latin fatum, literally, what has been spoken, from neuter of fatus, past participle of fari to speak
1 : the principle or determining cause or will by which things in general are believed to come to be as they are or events to happen as they do : DESTINY
2 a : an inevitable and often adverse outcome, condition, or end b : DISASTER; especially : DEATH
3 a : final outcome b : the expected result of normal development <prospective fate of embryonic cells>
4 plural, capitalized : the three goddesses who determine the course of human life in classical mythology
synonyms FATE, DESTINY, LOT, PORTION, DOOM mean a predetermined state or end. FATE implies an inevitable and usually an adverse outcome <the fate of the submarine is unknown>. DESTINY implies something foreordained and often suggests a great or noble course or end

DESTINY  Etymology: Middle English destinee, from Middle French, from feminine of destiné, past participle of destiner
1 : something to which a person or thing is destined : FORTUNE
2 : a predetermined course of events often held to be an irresistible power or agency
synonym see FATE

So for those who will now think about this matter of fate and destiny and freedom seriously a number of possible scenarios exist and must be considered.

Let's start with you, the reader, looking at these words on the computer screen or a printed page.  You are standing or sitting in some location (L).  Now let's consider that there is a location (F) some fifteen feet away from the present exact spot you are occupying.  You think that you can make a decision and that it would be a free decision as to whether in twenty minutes from now at time (T)  you will relocate yourself to that other location (F).

SCENARIO 1: There is a cause of events (C), a FATE or FATES or deity or deities that determine each person's DESTINY.

C has determined that at time T you will be in location F and event (E) that you are hit by a meteorite and die. Sorry!   Now, you can do whatever you like but if there is such a FATE then at T you will be at L and be hit and die. Sorry again.  But you can make a decision to remain where you are now at L when time T comes and avoid being hit.  But you do not know the future and so when T comes around you have made decisions that place you at F and you get hit and die.  Sorry!

Were you free to decide to remain at L or to go to some other location (O) when time T came?  People are brought up to believe that they are so free but if there is a F that has determined that you are to be at F at T and get hit then you do not have such freedom to make the decision to be at O, act on it and to be at O and not die.  Sorry!

If it is your fate to be at F at T and have E occur then you have been determined by C to make the decisions that put you at F at T.  You have no choice to decide to do anything but to be at F at T.  

OK Let's try to get freedom back into this.  Let's say now you are at L and time is getting close to T and you decide of your own free will (if you have a free will) to go to a location (O) other than (F).   If there is FATE then when you decide to go to O something will happen that will force you against your  apparent free will decision to go to O to instead be at F at time T where you get E.  Sorry!  But are we still free?  Well not quite because when we act such as to make decisions to go to O we do not feel as if we are being forced to go to F.  We make decisions throughout our daily life and it appears as if they are free and not forced and that our bodies are not being forced into physical places by physicals agents.  So if there is FATE and FATE determines what happens to us it is not through a series of physical agents acting like thugs and forcing us to do things.  No we realize our predetermined FATE by actions that appear to be our own choosing.  If there is FATE it would be FATE that acts through us and gives us desires and aims and values and goals and they cause our decisions and they lead to our experiences and to our choices that bring us to F at T to have E.  This would be such as to make the decision to go to O and as you are  making your way to go to O you are on spot F at time T when you are hit by the meteorite E.  Sorry!

CONCLUSION:  If there is FATE there is NO FREE WILL.

SCENARIO 2: There is an agent (C)  that has powers and can bring about events but has no foreknowledge of what will happen.     OK let's suppose that there is a cause of events (C), a FATE or FATES or deity or deities that determine each person's DESTINY but has no foreknowledge of what will happen and no control over the decision making of humans. The C knows you are at L and wants to arrange that at time T you are at F and have E.  So now if there is this sort of FATE then some things, some events,  will occur where you would react and move from L to F at T and have E. Sorry!  In this case C made you move to F at T.  Were you FREE?  Did you have FREE WILL?  Could you have decided to go to O and not to F at time T?  Perhaps. But if there is FATE then when you make a decision in your daily life to do anything such as go to O you would be forced to be at F by some agencies or agents that put you at F.  Is this what daily life feels like?  Are we regularly deciding to do one thing or go to one place only to be forced to another?  If there is FATE then it determines everything that happens and the events that lead up to the "Big Events" that are so memorable and the benchmarks of our lives.  If there is FATE then it determines everything that happens whether large or small events because they all contribute to the production of the memorable and the benchmarks of our lives.  If there is such a FATE operative we would experience a near constant subversion of our free will choices and the events we do experience will seem forced against our wills.  This is not our experience on a minute by minute or hour by hour basis!

CONCLUSION:  If there is FATE there is NO FREE WILL.

SCENARIO 3: There is an agent that knows the future and has infallible foreknowledge of all future events.  This agent knows all that has ever happened and that will ever happen.

 This follows from an examination of many variations on the arguments concerning foreknowledge and  free will to be found at this website:   The reader would do well to examine all the variations on this argument to be found at that location.

Again we have event E where you get hit by a meteorite at F at T.

Now the agent C knows that at F at T there will be E. This knowledge is about the future and it is absolutely certain.  It is infallible foreknowledge.  Do you arrive at F at T for E freely or not?

If C knows D (the determined event in the future such as E) then you can not do anything that would be counter to the infallible knowledge of C that D occurs at T.

1)Yesterday C infallibly knew (D) that at F at T there would be ESo, yesterday C infallibly believed D. [Supposition of infallible foreknowledge]
(2) If X occurred in the past, it is now-necessary that X occurred then. [Principle of the Necessity of the Past]
(3) It is now-necessary that yesterday C knew D. [1, 2]
(4) Necessarily, if yesterday C knew D, then D [Definition of "infallibility"]
(5) If p is now-necessary, and necessarily (p then q), then q is now-necessary. [Transfer of Necessity Principle]
(6) So it is now-necessary that D. [3,4,5]
(7) If it is now-necessary that D, then you cannot do otherwise than to be at F at T [Definition of "necessary"]
(8) Therefore, you cannot do otherwise than be at F at T. [6, 7]
(9) If you cannot do otherwise when you do an act, you do not act freely. [Principle of Alternate Possibilities]
(10) Therefore, when you are at F at T, you will not do it freely. [8, 9]

What this amounts to is that if there is infallible foreknowledge then whatever a person does it was necessary that they did it and they could not have done otherwise despite appearances to the contrary.

CONCLUSION:  If there is FATE in the sense of infallible foreknowledge there is NO FREE WILL.


The idea of a Fate or Destiny rests on the belief (in the absence of proof that is clearly convincing) that there is some power or agency that does determine the sets of experiences to be encountered by humans as well as their ultimate demise in both time and manner.  As there is no convincing proof such an agency exists we will examine another sense in which freedom or free will is challenged.

Are humans free to determine each and every one of their own actions or is there some force, agency, or process that determines it as a result of prior experiences and there really is no free will?

Consider some simple definitions for the basic positions:

causal determinism - every event has a cause

hard determinism - causal determinism is true, and therefore, free action and moral responsibility are impossible

soft determinism (or compatibilism) - causal determinism is true, but we still act as free, morally responsible agents when, in the absence of external constraints, our actions are caused by our desires

indeterminism - causal determinism is false, since free, uncaused actions that we are morally responsible for are possible

Examine this chart to learn of the positions of the traditions on five claims. 







1. Causal determinism is true; every event has a cause.




(free actions are uncaused)





2. If causal determinism is true, then there are no free actions.




3. There are no free actions.



(actions caused by our own desires are free)


(uncaused actions are free)

4. If there are no free actions, then there is no moral responsibility.








5. There is no moral responsibility.



(compatibilist freedom allows moral responsibility)


(indeterminist freedom allows moral responsibility)

(adapted from Cornman, Lehrer, and Pappas,

Philosophical Problems and Arguments)

 So here we have the one form of the problem with the idea of human freedom.  Are  humans possessed of the capacity to make a decision, a choice that is not fully  determined by antecedent conditions or not?  Are humans free, so free that they can do things that are totally unbound by the laws of the physical universe, totally undetermined by previous acts and events and physical circumstances?  Or, alternatively, are humans as potentially predictable as a physical object, say a book.  Pick up a book, hold it about four feet above the ground and let it go.  The book will drop to the ground.  The book has no choice.  The book's actions are determined by the laws of the physical universe.  The law of gravity operates on the book. 

Well, there are those who believe that there is perhaps nothing more obvious than that they are free.  They believe that they make decisions all the time.  They believe that they have free will.

There are others who believe that as humans are physical beings that they are bound by the laws of the physical universes and that as human brains are part of that universe there are laws governing the operations of the human brain as well.  There are those who believe that the day will come when humans know enough about the laws of the human brain and human behavior that humans will be able to predict with great accuracy exactly what a human being will do in a given situation.  They believe that human behavior will be as predictable as the book which falls to the ground.  They believe that people will need to abandon the idea of human freedom.

Now you might not agree with them.  You may think that you know that you are free.  How do you know that you weren't just encouraged to believe that, taught to believe that, conditioned to believe that, trained to believe that, reinforced for believing that?

For a little thought experiment either read the material below or click on the word VIDEO for a brief video presentation:

VIDEO version 

TEXT version below:

Consider this: 

You lift up a large book, say a textbook, and raise it four feet above the ground.  You let it go and it hits the ground.  No problem there!  No surprises, just what you expected.  Now suppose you lift up the book again and raise it four feet above the ground.   In your other hand you hold a single sheet of paper, say typing or printer paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches.  You hold the piece of paper four feet above the ground at the same time you are holding the book four feet above the ground.  You let them go at the same time and they both fall to the ground.  Do it again.  Raise them both and then let them go.  Do it again.  Raise them both and let them go.  Well each time pretty much the same thing happens.  The book hits the ground first and the piece of paper arrives on the ground a second or so later.  Why does the book hit the ground first?


Proceed to the next section.

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Introduction to Philosophy by Philip A. Pecorino is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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