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On Responsibility: Finding Freedom in a Determined World

On Responsibility: Finding Freedom in a Determined World


Freedom is an idea that is lacking in consensus when it comes to its ubiquity and presence in our lives. The most common conversation held in the public sphere is usually that of a cultural one, surrounding the topic of oppression and post-structuralist schools of thought, typically having the goal of regaining one’s autonomy or feeling some sense of agency. Another public conversation is also a political one; typically of acting as free agents in a free society. But it also plays an important role in criminal justice and personal responsibility. However, depending on our philosophical understanding of freedom of the will, the implications it would have over our own autonomy would have new consequences of our responsibility that we must grapple with.

There are several schools of thought on the topic of freedom and will: 1) is the stance that we have absolute free will and ownership over all our actions, 2) the compatibilist notion that we may not have complete control over our world and behavior, but we are still free to make choices for ourselves, and 3) that our lives and the universe are completely and utterly determined. In this essay, I will largely be supporting or defending this third notion, that we are completely determined by a long, possibly eternal, chain of causes and effects. But in order fully understand why it is likely that our world is the product of determined links, there are two philosophers that give us a good foundation for showing why our world is necessarily determined, and yet probabilistic in nature, perhaps giving rise to an illusion of freedom; namely the writers and thinkers Baruch Spinoza and David Hume, respectively.

Beginning with Spinoza, in my opinion, the Dutch philosopher laid the greatest groundwork for modern science and cosmology that we still fall back on today, whether or not many of us realize or acknowledge it. Albert Einstein was a self-proclaimed Spinozan, he said, “My views are near to those of Spinoza: admiration for the beauty of and belief in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony which we can grasp humbly and only imperfectly” (Jammer, Einstein and Religion, Pg. 138). The way in which Spinoza sought out to define God, was to set down a new metaphysics, while also eliminating the need for a personal, anthropocentric God. He did this in a very methodical, and some of his critics would say, a mechanical way.  In Spinoza’s seminal work, The Ethics, published in 1677, he gives us very clear, but at times obscure, definitions, axioms, and propositions that are supposed to support his claims about God. While these descriptors are precise, and my eye cannot find where they contradict, their sometimes obtuseness and lack method on how he arrived at this method, can be seen as problematic. However, for the sake of preserving consistency, I will take his work as such.

Spinoza’s most important definition is that which he calls substance. He defines it as “that which is in itself and is conceived through itself; that is, that the conception of which does not require the conception of another thing from which it has to be formed” (The Ethics, Part I, Pg. 144). 1 He then gives us his definition of God, to which he inexplicably relates it to substance; saying that “By God I mean an absolutely infinite being, that is, substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence” (The Ethics, Part I, Pg. 144). This link to God from substance intertwines the two ideas and equates them. While Spinoza works it out later in his text, God no longer resides in some immaterial space beyond space, God is now made material, occupying the vast, unbounded shape of reality. Because of this, the consequence of infinite substance means that substance qua substance, or rather its essence, “necessarily involves existence; that is, existence belongs to its nature” (The Ethics, Part I, Pg. 146). In other words, nature, or reality, necessarily exists; it exists because it could not otherwise. Later on in this text, Spinoza gives us Proposition 18:

“All things that are, are in God, and must be conceived through God, and so God is the cause of the things that are in him, which is the first point. Further, there can be no substance external to God; that is, a thing which is in itself external to God - which is the second point. Therefore, God is the immanent, not transitive, cause of all things.”

With this proposition, we have to not only have a conservative idea of God in our thoughts, but also understand its implications. As I previously stated, Spinoza presumes that God is the singular, material, and eternal substance that makes up our reality. But a charitable reading of this, and I think many readers of Spinoza would argue the same, especially our friend Einstein, is that substance represents all of nature, or the natural world. It is this fact that allows us to separate ourselves from the immaterial, and grounds us in a material metaphysics; for it is all we truly have access to. This is why naturalism has gone on to define almost every realm of the material sciences, and slowing taking on the more esoteric, social sciences; albeit with some academic push-back. Now we must consider the implications of substance being the primary cause of all things.

Being that substance is infinite, and necessarily eternal, when speaking about causes, it certainly does not make sense to talk about what causes the eternal. Simply put, it is self-caused, as Spinoza describes for us, and cannot be caused by anything external to itself; for it is all that there is. It also doesn’t really make sense to speak about non-existence either. One could describe a state of nothingness, but that is ultimately outside of our experience. There could be neither hypothesis nor thought experiment that would reveal to us what non-existence would consist of; as it would consist of precisely nothing. However, cause is something that we can still talk about, despite observations of cause potentially being out of reach, insofar as we can relate them to their effects.

Cause and effect is the primary notion for living in a determined world. If we are to take Spinoza’s concepts seriously, then human behavior is subject to very same nature that necessity dictates to substance. If naturalism is to be subscribed to, insofar as we have access to the observable evidence, then we can understand why we behave in the ways that we do. It can be understood simply, with examples like hunger and mood: if someone is susceptible to low blood sugar, and hunger is an indicator in irritability within that individual, one could infer that someone might be prone to anger in the moment because they haven’t eaten recently. 2 We can also look to something much more complicated such as sexuality, preference, and attraction. As far as primates and great apes go, after maturation and puberty, human female’s breasts stay consistently inflated their entire adult lives; compared to apes like chimpanzees or bonobos, our closest genetic relatives (Joe Rogan Experience, Ep. #1081). When it comes to heterosexual coupling, it’s interesting to think about how much influence breasts have over mate selection. What is important to take away from this, however, is how with our limited understanding, we can only really experience correlation and calculate probability and likelihood of events.

Given this, Hume challenges the notion of determinism effectively, his main argument relying on the unobservable causes, only inferring from effects. But also how human psychology affects how we view the world, especially when it comes to causality and the ‘exposure’ to what Hume calls ‘constant conjunction,’ otherwise known as the logical rule of ‘If P, then Q.’ In Section VI, of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, published in 1748, Hume expands on our understanding of probability. He says that there is “no such thing as chance in the world, our ignorance of the real cause of any event has the same influence on the understanding and begets a like species of belief or opinion” (Modern Philosophy, Pg. 555). Hume also challenges our notion of events following others, constantly, over a long period of time, in stating that an events’ recurrence doesn’t guarantee its continuation into the future. He says:

“Our seasonings, however, and conclusions concerning the event are the same as if this principle had no place. Being determined by custom to transfer the past to the future in all our inferences, where the past has been entirely regular and uniform, we expect the event with the greatest assurance and leave no room for any contrary supposition” (Modern Philosophy, Pg. 556).

This is a deep criticism of logical positivism; a common motion in the tradition of rationalism. While Spinoza gave us an assured affirmation of existence, and cause, that necessarily determines the relations of events; Hume on the other hand attempts to shatter a kind of grand, cosmological and metaphysical notion of causality. But Hume doesn’t commit to the rigor of covering all of his bases.

Hume grants that causality certainly plays a role in determining many aspects to the world. And when it comes to our behavior, he acknowledges while we are free in many ways and make choices about our lives, there are factors unseen to us that have highly influential power over us. On probability, moreover, Hume is fairly sound on this notion. But if we move up our understanding of not just mathematical, but quantum probability into the future, even then probability is merely a way to discuss the observations we have access to. In reality, it seems highly likely that the more accurate our observations become, and the greater understanding we come to about quantum mechanics, then the idea of a grand unified theory of the universe arises as a probable answer to the question of both absolute knowledge, and of knowing on specific dimensions what causes everything; albeit highly theoretical. However, a problem still looms over us, on whether or not freedom is still worth talking about, and whether or not we can be held responsible on questions of morality.

If we are not free, in any sense of the world, why be held responsible for any action? Considering Hume’s views on the self, and the lack-there-being of self, one could similarly talk about bodies. Not that we have or possess bodies, but that we are our bodies. This eliminates a need for a soul, and certainly removes agency from the equation. However, Hume concedes that punishment and reward are viable options to influence our behavior. Through our modern understanding of psychological conditioning, as long as we have the right incentives, then we can mold behavior in more desirable ways. But let me also be clear on this point, there are still inner factors that arise from our genetic predispositions that also contribute to our behavior. We also do not exist in a vacuum, as our peer groups, parents, and society around us also heavily shape who we become. There is not just one thing that determines our lives, but a multitude of variables. So on the question of responsibility, depending on the world(s) we want to live in, we are all responsible for each other.


  1. While I won’t be focusing on Spinoza’s definitions of essence and attribute, note that these are critical to his views on substance.

  2. Because we may not have access to every variable related to mood, however, we can only infer that hunger correlates strongly or weakly with mood and irritability.


MODERN PHILOSOPHY: An Anthology of Primary Sources. HACKETT, 2019.

Mastrobisi, Giorgio Jules. "MAX JAMMER, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1999, Pp. 279 (ISBN 0-691-00699-7)." Nuncius, 2001, 850-54. doi:10.1163/182539101x00866.

PowerfulJRE. "Joe Rogan Experience #1081 - Bret Weinstein & Heather Heying." YouTube. February 20, 2018.

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