‘I had no need of that Hypothesis’


In a conversation with Napoleon about the influence of God in celestial mechanics, Laplace reportedly said: "Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis". Newton’s previous calculations had led our famous British physicist to the conclusion that God would have to intervene from time to time to stop the solar system from crashing. The calculations subsequently carried out by Laplace, though, told him that the solar system would run without any divine intervention whatsoever.

But I think that there are one or two other parts of our philosophical tradition which are hypotheses of which we have no need. In particular, I consider ‘Freewill’ to be an irrelevance, except as an attempt to justify God putting offenders into the eternal flames as vengeance for their actions in this life, or as an attempt, whether by believers or by non-believers, to give Morality a status and authority which it doesn’t have.

freewill v determinism

The opposing views as to how we reach decisions are all too familiar -

There is the deterministic view which says that everything that happens in our lives, every decision we make, is pre-ordained through a chain of causes and effects going back to the big bang. The implication is that, if this is a complete description of our lives, then we have no responsibility for or control over our actions.

Then there is the freewill theory. This says that we have the power to make our own minds up and take responsibility for our decisions accordingly. Freewill is however a concept which no-one has ever really been able to explain. The generally accepted idea of freewill is that, for my action to be truly ‘free’, there can have been no sufficient prior conditions, causes, which will have made me take that decision. But as the philosopher Gilbert Ryle pointed out a long time ago, the description we would normally give of an uncaused, and therefore totally unpredictable event, ‘something which just happens’, is that it is random. And surely none of us is likely to welcome the idea that freedom of will equates to the making of a random decision.

If after all these years we still cannot even say what we mean by freewill in a coherent way, then why does the idea persist? The answer is that the deterministic view is seen by most people as not compatible with blaming people for their actions. After all, they would say, we can hardly have God consigning people to the flames for decisions over which they had no control.

But it goes further than that. There is a generally held view, even amongst non-believers, that, whatever our latest moral code may be, it is authoritative - it somehow sits above and beyond us. Some thinkers would even say that there is a "natural law" which gives us our human rights.

Failure to do as this undefined and unseen authority says can result in opprobrium similar to the guilt which religion tries to impose upon us. Hence, the excesses of the ‘cancel culture’.

And such non-believers too find the alternative of a purely deterministic view of life, with the corresponding lack of existence of any higher moral authority, to be very difficult to accept. The difficulty for all these people is that they assume that in the absence of a God or that "natural law" to tell us what to do, we cannot justify any system of law or any moral system. But does this idea make any sense? In my opinion, freewill is simply a meme which remains in existence to give support to other equally ill thought-out ideas.

crime and punishment

So let’s look at the idea that determinism removes the possibility of punishment for illegal actions. In a deterministic world the causes and effects leading up to my decision to commit a crime appear to mean that I am constrained to do what I have done, and so it is argued that I should be excused.

Although superficially attractive, this argument misses the whole point of the legal system.  If I wield a hammer and hit my thumb by mistake, then the pain I suffer is my body's way of telling me to be more careful next time. It is an evolutionary adaptation. People without pain (and there are some) tend not to live for very long, or at least not with all their limbs intact.

law as an evolutionary adaptation

And in the same way, the law is there to discourage us from doing things which would disadvantage society. The law can quite justifiably be regarded as a feed-back mechanism. Through the threats it makes and the influence it brings to bear on those thinking of criminal activity, it becomes a part of that chain of causes and effects leading up to our actions. It has a similar effect from an evolutionary point of view as pain in discouraging action which is disadvantageous to society. It too is an evolutionary adaptation.

So if we nonetheless transgress the law then, for its own good, society needs to carry through on the threat and so, we hope, discourage others from so acting, protect society and encourage the convicted person to take the law’s requirements more seriously next time.

The law can be enforced in the explicit knowledge that we are the consequence of our nature and nurture, whilst making allowance for the inappropriateness of punishment in the case of mental illness affecting our ability to reason and foresee the consequences of our actions. It can also allow for a degree of mercy (mitigation) where the circumstances of the crime call for it to be shown.

the nature of morality

Our everyday moral code - perhaps we could call it a social code instead? - is likewise a part of the cause and effect chain. It is no doubt the result of a mixture of emotions and whilst usually opposing crime, goes further in making socially unacceptable various undesirable actions not covered by the criminal law – undesirable, that is, in the sense that they are not seen as good for the functioning of society.

But moral codes do not only discourage actions, they also promote actions which help cooperation and so the better functioning of society. Steven Pinker’s analysis of the reduction in war and violent crime over the centuries as a result of changing moral codes, shows that progress is being made in producing a more peaceful and so safer society.

This was in large part down to increased reliance upon the law to take on responsibility for imposing penalties on those who had hurt us. It became no longer acceptable for an individual to engage in acts of violence as vengeance for perceived slights. It was an evolutionary adaptation which aided survival. And I'm happy to say that lawyers are an essential part of the process!

Professor of morality, and former Philosophy Now columnist, Joel Marks has said: “...just as the effects of natural selection gave an illusion of intelligent design, ...so, there are no moral commands but only the appearance of them, which can be explained by selection (by the natural environment, culture, family, etc.) of behaviour and motives (‘moral intuitions’ or ‘conscience’) that best promote survival of the organism. There need be no recourse to Morality any more than to God to account for these phenomena.”.

So in the absence of a divine being insisting on a particular type of action, there is no moral ‘ought’ or ‘should’.  I may confuse my habitual way of thinking with a moral imperative, but ultimately what I do is my decision. I may also feel guilty for things I have done,  an emotion which is I would think very useful as an ‘encouragement’ to act in accordance with our common social code on our evolutionary journey.

The lack of an absolute morality in the real world explains why it is that our so-called ‘moral code’, supposedly definitive and so unchangeable, does actually change with time. We have lived with the results of previous versions of our code, and have decided consciously or subconsciously that they were inadequate to promote our well-being. Natural selection is having its way in this as in everything-else.


What is it that we are really wanting to say about our decisions? Do we actually want to claim that we have ‘freedom’ to act against our best interests? Except perhaps in the case of mental illness, we are motivated to act in our best interests. The actual problem is seeing what they are and how to achieve them.

Now some things we do – e.g. taking our hand away from the fire - are not the result of conscious reflection on our part. Our bodies simply react to the danger. It’s a reflex action.  But it’s equally obvious that there are many things which we do only after a lot of thought. And the conscious ‘me’ is a part of the decision making process.

For such decisions, we have evolved to be able to pause before we act, rather than being swept along unconsciously by an inexorable tide of causes and events. We can say that, for the important decisions, at least, we have consciously taken part in that process and can see how we’ve arrived at them. We have to make an effort to collect and process information from Karl Popper’s third world of externally stored knowledge.

some basic concepts

So then, a few preliminary thoughts -

    1.     It is commonly assumed that in the ideal world we should try to act more rationally, less emotionally, but that it is very hard to do so because of our weakness of will. However, what is ignored is that, at the other extreme, the emotionless Mr Spock from Star Trek would be an equally poor role-model.  With all his logic he would actually do nothing unless he had an aim he wanted to achieve. And wanting is an emotion. Reason merely assists us to achieve the aims given to us by our emotions more efficiently. And what I would see as the so-called ‘weakness of will’ is the tension inherent in choosing between our short and longer-term interests (see below).

    2.     And like it or not, we are born with emotions.  Evolution has seen to that. They push us in this direction and that. As we now know the range of emotions and drives that we have is a lot wider than was once thought.  It’s not just a matter of survival, sex and eating. There are very many. They include a wish to see fairness, a wish to act in an altruistic manner (reciprocally) and an ability to be moved to help others though our empathy with them, all of them emotions which help us, and indeed other species, to function as a society. Which is why I prefer the term social code to moral code to describe the generally accepted behavioural norms which we feel to a greater or lesser extent that we should observe.

decision making and the need for conscious reflection

There are though more complex cases. I could for instance have to decide whether or not to make pension provision for my old age. I would hope that this is not something on which I am going to come to an instant conclusion. The decision will entail knowledge of how much it’s going to cost and what benefits I shall have at what age. I shall need to look at brochures and web-sites to find out what company should look after my future wealth, if I decide to go down that route.  I may want to contrast it with using a buy-to-let strategy. I may want to set up a spread sheet to help me, or simply decide to spend my money now and rely on the state pension when I am old (incidentally, not recommended!).

And the more complex the situation I am trying to grapple with, the more variables there are, the slower will be my decision-making process. I shall be concerned that I may not have taken into account all the relevant factors. I may decide therefore to put things on hold while I look for more information, or just give myself more time for reflection, to ‘look at’ and ‘feel’ the possible outcomes.

Now the making of that decision may well be explicable in terms of sequences of innumerable neurological and other physical causes and events, but unless I am consciously involved in it all then nothing will happen. My conscious involvement appears to be necessary for the acquisition of such information and its processing.

creating a picture in my mind

The construction of a sort of picture of likely outcomes in my mind, with all the information then at my disposal, would seem to be the most efficient way of getting our emotions engaged. To create hypothetical pictures of possible future circumstances, which we can change as we look at them is a very efficient way of plugging into those emotions. And, interestingly, the neuroscientists tell us that the picturing goes on in the same parts of the brain that create our internal world-view from the data it receives from the outside world directly from our senses.

random events

What about quantum level random events? In Issue 111 of Philosophy Now, Professor Kamber said that random decisions would be “more like an uncontrolled spasm than a voluntary choice”.  In his essay, ‘Of Clouds and Clocks’, Karl Popper refers to random brain events as producing what he disparagingly calls ‘snap decisions’.

I cannot though see why random events at the atomic level in the brain would be likely to emerge immediately as fully-formed decisions: they may instead present themselves as precursors to decisions, so influencing the ideas, doubts, desires, connections or insights taken into account in the final decision.

But because our thoughts, however they arise, are ultimately the subject of our (relatively) rational checking processes, then even thoughts having their origin in some random event need be no more dangerous to our sanity or worthy of being discarded than a suggestion we happen to have read in a book or arising from a discussion with a friend; they could be just as productive of a rational change of opinion. Indeed, they may actually be a significant way of our having genuinely original thought, of allowing us to look at things very differently.

the practical difficulty of forecasting people’s decisions

It is clear to me that we live in an unpredictable world, something which leaves me in a strange position. Although believing in a cause and effect, deterministic, world, actually to foretell with certainty what will happen next is impossible. To do so would require being able to examine a model having every single one of the features of our real world i.e. a complete second version of it at atomic level. After all, the butterfly effect tells us that even a minor perturbation on one side of the world can have a major effect on the other side. But having examined the model to see the future, our knowledge of it would have to be taken into account and so we would need to amend the model to allow for that and so on.

So then, all that we can actually do is watch our personal history unfold as we make our choices as to how we will react to prior events. The making of those choices tells us that we have taken an active part in our development. And it is not an illusion. But the apparent paradox remains: we cannot know what will happen next, but our choices are a part of an apparently deterministic chain that produces what happens next.

And so I will feel that my decision was personal to me, based on the strength of my underlying emotions as modified by the information available to me, from my memories and from the outside sources I’ve consulted and the reasoning I’ve applied to it. And that will be true. And so, when I look back on the decision making process, I will feel, correctly, that it was my decision.

could I have made a different decision?

Different people may make different decisions faced with the same problem, but could I personally have made a different decision? I hope not, because it was one which was based on my then perceptions of the possible outcomes and the weight they carried with me, coupled with my ability to grapple with the information gathering and reasoning processes involved at that time. If I had made a different decision, it would have been perceived by me to be a decision which had somehow been foisted on me - as if someone-else had taken over my mind - or that I was doing the mental equivalent of playing dice.

can ‘I’ have an effect on my future decision making?

Can I change how I will make decisions in the future? Yes, I can - in two related ways:

    1.    Firstly, if, viewed with the benefit of hindsight, I got my decisions wrong, I will have probably have a wish to learn from my error. Such a wish is no doubt encouraged by natural selection - repeating the same error is not likely to be life-lengthening. We see the process of learning from mistakes in many other species. And so I may from this learn the benefit of giving more weight to the longer-term and less immediately attractive. Such a transition is indeed typical of the human species.  Over the years, we learn to overcome the idea which we are born with - that instant gratification is best.

    2.    Secondly, I may come to the conclusion from my past experience that taking in information and opinions from lots of sources, rather than leading a blinkered life leads to a better quality of decision, i.e. one which gives me a more satisfactory and safer life. I may therefore seek out other peoples' opinions and learn to think more critically.


So then, as a result of the pressure of natural selection over millions of years, as a member of the human species I make decisions which, to the best of my knowledge, will be in my best interests. What I perceive to be in my best interests during the course of my lifetime will change in the light of experience and my social circumstances. I consciously take part in the process of decision-making when I consider the likely outcomes of my actions. I can look ahead and imagine the sort of life I would like to live and see the constraints to which I am subject.

I wonder therefore what else I need in order to feel that I am an individual largely in control of my own life? Certainly it’s difficult to see what the inexplicable concept of freewill adds to it. Free will is an age-old conundrum, but it really is time it gave way to evolution as the underlying explanation of how and why we go about our decision making. Personally, therefore, I am happy to say that I have no need of freewill as a hypothesis.

Paul Buckingham

18 July 2020

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