Thursday, November 30, 2017

Objectivist Volition vs Indeterminism

In the free will-determinism debate, Objectivism stands in rare company with those philosophies that adopt the libertarian view of volition (which is free will considered as incompatible with determinism). Most philosophies embrace one of the alternative theories to libertarian free will: hard determinism, soft determinism (compatibilism), and indeterminism.  Responses to the hard and soft versions of determinism will be forthcoming. This current essay will present an overview of the indeterminist perspective on free will. Afterwards an Objectivist response to the indeterminist position will be explored, both to explain the differences between the two theories as well as to point out errors on the part of the indeterminists.

The Standard Argument Against Free Will

Fundamentally, either we are in control of our actions and of our lives or we are not. The “Standard Argument Against Free Will” is a direct challenge to advocates of the view that we possess and that we can exercise such control. This “Standard Argument” points to alleged problems to any free will account that seeks to overcome the positions of determinism and of indeterminism. The Argument takes two parts and combines them into an overarching objection: The Determinism Objection and the Randomness Objection which transform into the Responsibility Objection (Doyle, n.d., passim).

The Determinism Objection is the clear-cut point that if the human will is deterministic, if determinism is true, then our wills cannot be free. The Randomness Objection is that if the human will acts randomly, if indeterminism and chance are the reasons for human actions, then our actions are not in our control; we cannot rationally be held responsible for truly random actions. These objections together form the Responsibility Objection: no model of volition has produced an intelligible account of the control necessary for moral responsibility.

There are many versions of this argument, spread out across the history of philosophy. For an excellent online summary, consult the Information Philosopher’s page on the Standard Argument. For the next few essays, philosopher Roderick Chisholm’s version should suffice:

The metaphysical problem of human freedom might be summarized in the following way: ‘Human beings are responsible agents; but this fact appears to conflict with a deterministic view of human action (the view that every event that is involved in an act is caused by some other event), and it also appears to conflict with an indeterministic view of human action (the view that the act, or some event, that is essential to the act, is not caused at all).’ (Chisholm, 1964/1966, p. 11)

The Objectivist view of volition agrees with the points of the Determinism Objection and the Randomness Objection: human action is neither a series of unalterable, deterministic actions, nor is it a series of random exceptions to the laws of nature and of causality. If either determinism or indeterminism were true, then free will would be an absurd and laughable idea. However, Objectivism seeks to advance over these objections by showing that a certain kind of free will does exist, and that it must exist if we are going to meaningfully debate this issue, or even engage in philosophy as such. Naturally, this means that this philosophy disagrees with the Responsibility Objection: its account of volition is the best candidate for the much sought-after form of control necessary for moral responsibility.

Though it would take a book (or several) to fully address the problems with the Standard Argument, the sections and essays following this section can hopefully serve as a sketch of an Objectivist answer to it.

The Indeterminist View of Free Will

Indeterminism is the view that not all actions have causes, that an element of randomness or spontaneity is the real explanation for some actions in the universe. Determinism (the hard version) is the view that all actions have causes, even human actions, and that this form of causation precludes free selection among alternative possible outcomes; nothing is left “up to us,” there is no such thing as “choice,” and every event is caused by an antecedent event. In terms of the free will-determinism debate, indeterminism is the view that free actions are uncaused, and that determinism’s explanation for human action is false.

Among the indeterminists, there are different accounts for the alleged randomness in the universe and within human actions. Epicurus (341–270 BC) and his followers wrote of “clinamen,” swerves in the atoms which compose us and everything else, randomly altering otherwise metaphysically necessary events. Others cited the findings in quantum physics, pointing to the indeterminacy in the motions of particles and suggesting a similar phenomenon that explains the ranges of actions possible to us as free beings. Still others introduced chance and spontaneity as forces of the universe, randomly interfering with events that were otherwise unchangeable and inevitable.

Titus Lucretius Carus (99 BCc. 55 BC), an influential Epicurean, wrote of the swerve in the atoms of Epicurus’ theory as the explanation for human action:

Then again, if we assume that all motion always goes on in a continuous chain with new motion always arising out of the old in an absolutely determined order; and if the atoms, by means of this swerve, do not initiate a kind of motion that can break through the decrees of fate so that cause may not follow cause to infinity, then how can we explain this free will which we find in living creatures all over the earth?  What, I say, is the origin of this faculty of ours [will] which we have wrested from the fates and by which each of us goes where his pleasure leads him, deviating in our motions as the atoms do at no fixed times or places, but just as our mind has takes us? For it is beyond doubt that in these matters it is a man’s will that provides the initiative and from it the movements spread through the limbs.
Do you see, then, that, though some external force often drives people on and often compels them to be swept forward headlong against their wills, nevertheless there is something in our breast capable of fighting against this impulse and resisting it?
You must admit therefore that the same principle holds true of the atoms: that, apart from weight and the blows of one atom on another, there must be another cause for motion, from which comes this power that is born in us, since we see that nothing can be produced out of nothing. It is weight that prevents everything being caused by the blows of one atom on another, as it were by an external force; but it is the minute swerve in the atoms, taking place at no definite time or place, which keeps the mind itself from being governed by an internal necessity in all its actions, and from being as it were subdued by this necessity so as to be merely a passive subject. (Lucretius, c. 1st century, 216 ff.)

Étienne Émile Marie Boutroux (1845–1921) was a French philosopher of religion, an idealist and an opponent of both scientific materialism and of reductionism (e.g. biology reduces to chemistry, chemistry to physics). In his seminal 1916 work, The Contingency of the Laws of Nature, he wrote of the role of spontaneity in our free will, and our capacity to better ourselves by exercising our wills, or our equal capacity to reduce ourselves to lower states of being through passivity. He discusses this theme at length at one point in this work:

The perfection for which creatures were born entitles them to a certain degree of spontaneity, necessary in order to transcend themselves. The higher the mission of a being, i.e. the more its nature admits of perception, the wider is its liberty, the means of attaining its end.
In order to accomplish obligatory good and follow after the lure of the beautiful, man is endowed with intelligent spontaneity, the highest form of which is free will or the power to choose between good and evil, between those actions that draw near to God and those that separate from Him. Owing to this power, man is able to influence the current of his desires, ideas, and induced states and transform them into ever higher walls, thoughts, and sources of satisfaction. Thus, too, he dominates nature, because his soul is capable of acting on his body and his body on matter. He consequently possesses both an inner and outer freedom.

This free spontaneity, however, enamoured of its acts, so to speak, as though they are first realized the ideal, allows itself to be determined by them and is transformed into a habit.
Human activity, nevertheless, more and more determined by the exclusive repetition of the same acts, gradually degenerates into a blind, inevitable, and uniform tendency, and produces phenomena whose order of succession is perceptibly constant. Seen from without, these phenomena appear to be nothing but the expression of a positive law or a necessary relation between objects of experience. We may then attempt to systematize and explain all man’s acts, even those that come under the head of judgment and moral consciousness, without considering the existence of an intercurrent spontaneity. Statistics makes a legitimate invasion of the ground left abandoned by free will, and its conclusions are perceptibly confirmed by facts when it operates over wide areas, because the men who break through the thick layer of habit to awake and exert their free will are few in number compared with those who are swayed by habit. It is the former, however, who are really the rulers of the world: the mechanical activities of the many are but the reactions of the impulse which the few have initiated […] Those who simply go with the stream are vaguely conscious, deep within their soul, of a power to alter their course. If they attempt to exercise this power, its reality will become manifest to their consciousness; it will be so strengthened by the very exercise as to produce effects that will baffle all reckoning. Heredity and instinct, character and habit cease to be absolutely inevitable laws when they are found, in essence, to be no more than the reaction of acts upon spontaneity. The very will that has created for itself a habit can modify it in order to rise higher, and also to descend again; it can keep its habits active, so that they may become stepping-stones to higher development, just as it can also forget itself in passive habits which paralyse it more and more. (Boutroux, 1874/1916. pp. 182-186)

Whether it is a swerve, chance, or spontaneity, the indeterminists hold that some element of randomness inherent in reality is ultimately responsible for human actions. Due to this, they believe the determinist viewpoint cannot be the real explanation for human life, decisions, characters, and actions.

Objectivist Response to Indeterminism

Now, what do I think Objectivism would have to say to the indeterminists?

The Objectivist view on volition presents an original perspective on free will along with a conception of causality that is far different from the type of causality presumed by both the indeterminist and determinist camps throughout history. Due to this, Objectivism doesn’t present free will as merely an exception to cause and effect, or as special, indeterminate phenomena in an otherwise (or mostly otherwise) deterministic universe, which approximates Epicurus’s view.

Objectivism would completely reject the candidates that indeterminists have theorized to be the cause of all (or most or some) human actions. It holds that human volition ultimately comes down to our mental control and governance of our respective degrees of focus or of non-focus (i.e., drift or evasion). Our basic volitional actions then shape our more complex volitional decisions and actions in the mental and physical realms, whether the act is deciding what movie to watch, which scientific theory to research, running faster or more measured to kick a soccer ball further down a field than on one’s previous attempt, or picking between political candidates in the latest election.

We can directly experience our degrees of focus, and we can recall or notice later (when in focus) those other times or situations in which we weren’t fully in focus, or were actively evading something that we should have been focusing on. In fact, quite a bit of modern psychological counseling and therapy revolves around professionals convincing people to finally focus on and deal with personal issues or relationships that they’ve been evading and putting off for years or decades, on the unstated premise that if they don’t think of their problems, they will just go away on their own.

There are psychological laws for human volition, and psychological pathologies for its misuse and/or abuse. When people are characteristically rational, fair in judgment of others, focused on some productive career, and honest (among other positive psychological behaviors), they tend to improve their cognitive skills, their own lives, and usually the lives of others that are connected to them. When they are characteristically irrational or intellectually lazy, prejudicial, unproductive, and dishonest (among other negative psychological behaviors), they tend to be in cognitive disarray, they tend to live miserably false lives with feigned values, and they detract from and ultimately ruin the lives of others around them.

Note that these probabilities and tendencies occur due to the influence of external events and other individuals, as well as internal events that are out of our control. A suffering heroin addict could win a lottery and finally have the means to turn her life around for the better; an otherwise rational and successful person could be falsely accused and imprisoned due to a case of mistaken identity. Virtuous people are not automatically rewarded by reality, but virtuous action does maximize one’s chances and opportunities for success and happiness in life. Just as vicious people are not automatically punished by the universe, but destructive, irrational actions maximizes one’s chances at ruining and destroying one’s own aims and even one’s very life.

Objectivism’s intricate conceptions of rationality (and irrationality), volition, thoughts, emotions, human actions and characters allows it to prescribe the sorts of actions that we should engage in, and the kinds of characters we should strive to build within ourselves to live rational, fulfilling and happy lives. And of course, it also advises against the kinds of actions that we know are detrimental and destructive in respect to our lives, and the kinds of characters we should refrain from associating with or the sort of characters that would destroy us if we adopted them for ourselves.

The fact that Objectivism has this complex understanding of human reason, volition, identity, and morality, means that it simply could not agree with the indeterminist position that at least some of these actions are due to unknown, unsubstantiated chance or spontaneous events. Objectivism is not saying that psychology as a science is complete, and that we fully understand the connection between the human mind, brain, and body. But it would say that we already know enough about mental focus, about how the mind governs the body, and about how our thoughts lead to and shape our actions and characters to say that there are definite casual principles involved.

The most fundamental problem with the indeterminist position is its apparent denial of certain knowledge that Objectivism considers to be axiomatic, or corollaries of such knowledge. To wit, the indeterminist insistence on the element of chance or of spontaneity clashes headlong into the Objectivist laws of causality and of identity.

The law of causality states that entities are the cause of actions, and the nature of an action is caused and determined by the nature of the entity that acts (Rand, 1961/1986, p. 151). An entity cannot act in contradiction to its nature, and actions cannot be disconnected from or in contradiction of the entities that are performing those actions. The law of identity states that A is A, that a thing is what it is, the attributes that constitute it, no matter what it is; whatever the thing is, the law of identity states that it must be something in particular (ibid., p. 125).

Spontaneity, chance, the element of randomness, whatever the indeterminist wants to call this causal factor, its chief problem according to the Objectivist metaphysics is that it has no characteristics, nothing which tells anyone that it is capable of causing or being anything. Chance and spontaneity are non-entities, non-attributes, unaccountable, and thus are non-explanations for human action. Dr. Leonard Peikoff (1933–), clearly expresses Objectivism’s opposition to the reality of chance in a different context: “Since things are what they are, since everything that exists possesses a specific identity, nothing in reality can occur causelessly or by chance” (1979/1986, p. 108). It seems that we have no real positive reason to believe in so-called chance or spontaneity, except that it’s our (seemingly) only escape from the dismal theory of determinism.

(Though I won’t discuss the quantum indeterminacy view of indeterminism in this essay at any real length, I think they run into a similar problem as the original indeterminists, because we still can’t account for how this indeterminacy somehow translates into a coherent and systematic account of volition and self-controlled human action.)


While I agree with the indeterminist intention to fight the insufferable theory of determinism, which denies free will, I think the indeterminists did more harm than good in the history of philosophy. It was not a rational or a convincing theory of free will, and so determinism looked all the more rational, sensible, and scientific by comparison for many decades, even centuries. The upshot of the indeterminist position is that we really don’t know *why* we choose certain actions and not others, except to say that it’s some operative force that is different in kind from the more prevalent deterministic forces. This explanation is hardly different from someone experiencing a clinical psychotic break, whose ideas and actions are disassociated from reality.

Indeterminism was correct to stand against the determinist position on free will, but it failed as a theory to challenge its basic assumptions of causality and of causality’s role in human life. Instead, it accepted the basic setup of determinism, and then purported a causal factor that is merely an exception to their rules, to save freedom of the will. Many philosophers and scientists throughout history saw this effort as unpersuasive, and faced with ineffectual or incomplete theories of free will or some version of determinism, they often adopted determinism or avoided the topic entirely.

It’s one of my hopes that the Objectivist perspective on volition will ultimately settle the debate over free will, and accomplish what indeterminism was designed to do but failed: to successfully defend free will from the theory of determinism.


Boutroux, É. (1916). The contingency of the laws of nature. F. Rothwell, trans. Chicago/London: Open Court. (Original work published as a Doctoral thesis in 1874)

Chisholm, R. (1966). Freedom and action. In K. Lehner (ed.), Freedom and determinism. Retrieved from the Information Philosopher’s page on “The Standard Argument Against Free Will”: (Original work published 1964)

Doyle, B. (n.d.) The standard argument against free will. The Information Philosopher. Retrieved from:

Lucretius, T. (Circa 1st century). "The atomic swerve," Book II of On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura), 216 ff.

Peikoff, L. (1986). The analytic-synthetic dichotomy. Introduction to Objectivist epistemology. In H. Binswanger & L. Peikoff (eds.), Ayn Rand lexicon: Objectivism from a to z. [Lexicon entry: causality.] NY: New American Library. (Original work published 1979)

Rand, A. (1986). For the new intellectual. For the New Intellectual: The philosophy of Ayn Rand. In H. Binswanger & L. Peikoff (eds.), Ayn Rand lexicon: Objectivism from a to z. [Lexicon entries: causality, identity.] NY: New American Library. (Original work published 1961)


  1. Learned a lot of interesting intellectual history here. I have some questions that I would prefer to discuss by e-mail [ AdamReed at alum dot MIT dot edu.]

  2. There is an important distinction to be realized between freedom in actions and randomness in actions.

    For volition to exist, it is imperative that certain entities (and let me use the word systems), certain systems have some amount of freedom from the past status of the system and the environment. Systems like persons, for example. If that were not so all future actions of the system could be deterministically deduced from the knowledge of the past and the system would have no capability to choose.

    Once you admit the possibility of this freedom which let us call choice you have to admit that to an observer outside the system the system is progressing randomly. The amount of randomness may vary. You can make intelligent guesses about what the person values and hence what he/she will decide but until the choice is made nothing can be said for certain by the observer.

    In this sense, therefore, randomness/uncertainty is the inside-out of freedom/choice. To the inside of the system it is choice, to the observer outside it is randomness. They both are two sides of the same coin but different perspectives.

    Does this go against causality? No. But you have to be careful of your definitions now. Causality does not mean epistemologically that the cause of an effect can always be known to the outside observer before the effect has taken place. And causality does not mean that freedom does not exist. The cause is choice which is free and which one will have to take as a prime mover.

    None of this goes against standard quantum mechanics then as far (or little) as I know.

    1. I'm not sure that's correct. It seems to be covered by the Objectivist view. For example, if I go to a restaurant and look at a menu, an outsider may not be able to predict which item I am going to choose, but they know that it will have to be an item on the menu and that it will be food rather than rocks and so on. So I see no need for a freedom from reality premise. I can also change my mind and decide not to eat, or go to another restaurant, or go home and eat something there. There is a finite number of actions I can take, because actual infinities cannot exist. The freedom is freedom to act according to one's nature. Freedom to, not freedom from.