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Metaphysics - the branch of philosophy that addresses basic questions about the nature of reality.

Various branches of philosophy deal with certain parts or aspects of human experience: aesthetics with art, epistemology with knowledge, ethics with moral life and values. Metaphysics takes the whole.

We need to distinguish between fatalism and determinism:

Fatalism - 1/ the idea that there is some supernatural force that controls our destinies; 2/ the view that what will happen in the future is fixed no matter what we do

Fatalism does not posit any explanation at all as to why the future is unalterable. It is thus compatible with, yet different from determinism, which specifies why the future must be the way it will be.

Determinism - the view that every event is the necessary effect of prior causes.

An implication is that all future states of the universe are - in principle at least - completely predictable.

The principle that every event is caused is known as the causal principle. It is presupposed in science (except in some parts of quantum mechanics).

The difference between fatalism and determinism is in HOW the direction of our lives is decided.

In fatalism, we have one true "fate" and we will end up there no matter what. Our life may take whatever journey it want, but we cannot escape our eventual fate.

Determinism, on the other hand, means not only that we have one pre-decided fate that we will end up with, but also that every event in our life is decided by earlier events and actions.

In short, fatalism is the theory that there is some destiny that we cannot avoid, although we are able to take different paths up to this destiny. Determinism, however, is the theory that the entire path of our life is decided by earlier events and actions.

The principle of sufficient reason - the principle that every event or state of affairs has a complete explanation

Determinism seems to be implied by the principle of sufficient reason, which makes it theoretically very plausible. Its credibility is also bolstered by the fact that it has long been a basic presupposition of modern science.

Most of the astounding progress that science has made is on the basis of a mechanistic and deterministic view of the world.

Quantum mechanics, however, has dented determinism's prestige. According to the indeterminacy principle there are some events - the behaviour of individual electrons in certain circumstances - that are not causally determined and therefore impossible to predict.

Chaos theory is a branch of mathematics focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions.

Chaos theory is not incompatible with determinism. Complexity is not the same as indeterminacy.

Die-hard determinists can accept chaos theory because the limits it places on predictability arise from the limitations of our knowledge and reasoning abilities, not from the intrinsic nature of things themselves.


Freedom versus determinism

Let us make a distinction between metaphysical freedom and practical freedom:

Metaphysical freedom: being ultimately responsible for one's own choices (i.e. not having one's actions determined by external causes); also known as the freedom of the will.

Practical freedom: the freedom to do as one wishes

It is the metaphysical notion of freedom - freedom of the will - that is threatened by determinism.

Option 1: Hard determinism

Hard determinism: the doctrine that since determinism is true, all our choices are causally determined and are never free.

Hard determinists are unlikely to be moved by an appeal to intuition or unexamined feelings (e.g. being watched over by a divine power)

A good reason for upholding the idea that we have free will is that all our moral principles and institutions rest on the assumption that we are free.

But if determinism is true how could anyone deserve anything? (The myth of ultimate responsibility)

As far as rewards and punishments are concerned, these perhaps can be justified from a deterministic point of view, since they help to determine actions in a beneficial way.

These 2 arguments - from the way things feel and from morality - may help to explain why so many people believe in the reality of free will. But the arguments do little or nothing to demonstrate that we are free.

Determinism may be vulnerable to its own internal incoherence.

The critical question that determinists must answer is: Why should we respect anyone's belief in determinism if holding this belief is, ultimately, only the predetermined outcome of a long causal chain?

Determinism thus seems to undermine a basic presupposition of rational discussion: we ought to arrive at our theoretical beliefs solely on the basis of evidence and argumentation.

Option 2: Soft determinism (also known as compatibilism)

Soft determinism - the view that determinism and freedom are compatible.

It has attracted many adherents, among them Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and David Hume.


Soft determinism may well show that the concept of practical freedom is compatible with determinism, but nobody ever really doubted this.

The problem is the notion of metaphysical freedom (moral responsibility) and soft determinism does not
solve this.

Option 3: Freedom is real, determinism is false

Indeterminism - the view that at least some events are uncaused. According to some defenders of free will, indeterminism must be true if free will is to be possible.

On this view, an act of will (what philosophers call a 'volition') is free simply in virtue of being uncaused.

Reasons and Causes: think critically!

Always distinguish between reasons and causes when analysing an argument. This is a very important distinction.

This distinction correlates to the difference between justification and explanation. Our actions and beliefs can be explained by identifying their causes; but they cannot be justified in this way.

Only reasons can justify. Only reasons are to be respected as having legitimate persuasive force.

Cause and explanation

I believe abortion is wrong because I was raised a Catholic

Reason and justification

I believe abortion is wrong because I think the foetus has the status of a person. It is wrong to kill an innocent person.

The roots of responsibility: an indeterminist view

Many philosophers who defend the idea of free will believe that indeterminacy of some kind must play a role in any account of how this is possible.

They have offered more sophisticated attempts to view some of the anti-deterministic developments in science - quantum mechanics and chaos theory - as providing us, as agents, with the opportunity to make occasional creative interventions in the causal sequences that influence our lives.

Do we take advantage of the of the chink in determinism offered by subatomic indeterminacy?

This account of freedom contains at least 2 important ideas:

1/ The fact that the contemporary scientific worldview is not perfectly deterministic does weaken the case against free will

2/ I can be ultimately responsible for my own behaviour

There are, however, 2 serious objections:

a) The moment of volitional influence - how is any kind of mental causation possible?

b) Runs against common sense intuitions - what common sense tells us is not that we exercise free will occasionally, but that we do it all the time.

An adequate account of free will needs to accommodate this basic intuition.


The feeling of freedom

Sartre does not try to show how freedom is possible in a deterministic world. Rather, he takes the experience of what it is like to be a human being as unshakeable evidence that determinism does not hold sway there.

However, he does try to explain how freedom is possible in another sense. In his view, our freedom arises out of the peculiar nature of consciousness.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905 - 1980)

Existentialism emphasises the importance of lived experience (rather than abstract theoretical principles) as the starting point and proper subject matter for philosophical reflection.

Sartre rejects most traditional accounts of human nature, arguing that in the case of human beings 'existence precedes essence'. What this means is that we have no fixed nature that determines what we will do (like a tree).

Instead, we have to choose ourselves what actions to perform, what values to embrace, what lifestyle to adopt, what goals to pursue. (I may try to follow the Ten Commandments; but it is still my decision to view them as objective moral or religious truths).

While Sartre holds that we are radically free, he also sees this freedom as a burden. We are, in his words, 'condemned to be free', and we make our choices 'in anguish, abandonment, and despair'.

If Sartre is right, throughout our lives as conscious adults ,every moment is a moment of choice.


- Determinism has the weight of traditional science behind it
- Indeterminism has appeared in certain branches of contemporary physics; perhaps offers a loophole for defenders of free will
- Science is also materialistic: it takes reality to be entirely physical. If true, then every so-called mental event, whether it be a sense-perception, and idea or a volition, must manifest itself in physical terms
- For free will to be exercised it must be possible for a mental event to determine a physical process.

Materialism: the view that reality is essentially material

As so often happens in philosophy, one problem leads to another. The question of whether we have free will turns out to be linked to the question of how mind and body are related.

Given the variety of phenomena we encounter, it is rather remarkable how readily philosophers have asserted that all reality belongs, ultimately to a single category.

This view is called monism (contrasted to dualism) - the doctrine that all of reality consists fundamentally of one kind of thing e.g. matter

The most popular form of monism in the history of Western philosophy has been materialism.


Nowadays many scientists and philosophers prefer the term physicalism to materialism. This is because, according to relativity theory, matter and energy are interchangeable, which means that energy is just as fundamental as matter.

Physicalism, which asserts that ultimate reality is physical - a notion that covers matter and energy - is therefore seen as a more precise label.

Materialism vs idealism

Physicalism views the physical as primary.

Idealism is the opposite. It's the view that reality is fundamentally mental and that what we call physical reality is dependent on a manifestation of minds and their contents.

Temporal priority - which came first in time?

Ontology - the branch of metaphysics that deals with the nature of existence

Modern science tends to grant ontological priority to the physical world, since it views minds as dependent on bodies but not vice versa.

A religious outlook predisposes one towards some sort of idealism while the modern scientific viewpoint tends to be physicalistic.

The kind of idealism that continues to appear persuasive to many today rests on the idea that the world science describes has the character, at least in part, because it is known by us.

Mind does not create the world, but it does shape it at a very deep level. The position was first developed systematically by the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He called it "transcendental idealism".

Kant classifies the main types of knowledge by introducing 2 key distinctions:

1/ Analytic versus synthetic statements

Analytic truths (truths by definition) are statements whose denial would lead to a contradiction, such as 'A bachelor is unmarried' (the concept 'unmarried' is implicitly contained in the subject of 'bachelor').

Synthetic truths (not true by definition), by contrast, are statements that are true but that one could deny without falling into a contradiction, such as 'A bachelor is happy-go-lucky'.

Kant calls synthetic judgements 'ampliative' because we are adding something NEW.

Ampliative: adding in the predicate something not contained in the meaning of the subject term. It genuinely extends our knowledge.

2/ A priori versus a posteriori

A priori truths are known independent of experience (e.g. all triangles have 3 sides). It's knowledge that isn't justified by appeal to the senses.

A posteriori truths (or empirical truths) are known on the basis of experiences (e.g. elephants are grey)


1/ All analytic judgements are a priori (relations of ideas)

2/ All empirical knowledge is synthetic (matters of fact)

Hume thought it could not be otherwise. But Kant thought it missed the possibility of synthetic a priori knowledge (mainly mathematical e.g. the sum of all interior angles of a triangle = 180 degrees).

Kant concludes that if we are going to have any metaphysical knowledge at all, it would have to be synthetic and a priori.

The interaction between these distinctions makes it clear why Kant, unlike Hume, thought that there is knowledge that is both apriori and synthetic and that this is the type of knowledge philosophers seek.

Metaphysics was supposed to discover truths that were necessary and universal (therefore a priori). It was not supposed to be a bunch of empty definitional truths, but to extend our knowledge (therefore synthetic).

Therefore, philosophical or metaphysical knowledge must always be synthetic a priori.


Immanuel Kant (1724 - 1804)

The fundamental problem he faced was how to reconcile the claims of natural science with the claims of morality and religion. His solution, in his own phrase, was to 'deny knowledge in order to make room for faith'.

The Critique of Pure Reason contains a profound critique of what Kant calls speculative or transcendent metaphysics, the kind that aims at proving claims about the nature of god, the soul, free will or the reality that lies behind the world we experience.

The empiricists were right, Kant says; we cannot have knowledge of such things. Knowledge is what science gives us, and that relates only to the world we perceive with our senses. It is a world of appearances only. So neither science nor metaphysics can give us knowledge of ultimate reality. We mistakenly try to apply to those questions the concepts which properly only apply to empirical experience.

This leaves room for faith.

There is general agreement that a statement cannot be both an analytic and an empirical truth. The category that most interested Kant is that of synthetic a priori (non-empirical) truths

Synthetic a priori = a proposition in which truth cannot be determined by linguistic meaning alone, and the truth of which is verifiable independently of experience.

He said that a priori truths (such as 5+2=7) are:

1/ NECESSARY (not contingent nor accidental)

2/ UNIVERSAL (regardless of time and space)

Kant argued that some such a priori concepts are presupposed by the VERY POSSIBILITY OF EXPERIENCE.

How can we know something about the world without having simply derived this knowledge from observing the world? How is synthetic a priori knowledge possible (such as of the causal principle)?

This is the profound question which eventually led him to a radically new view of the way mind and world are related.

Kant claims that our mind imposes the form of causality on the world. This is why we automatically view every object as participating in chains of cause and effect.

Why does our mind organise experience under these forms? It does it in order to make experience intelligible.

Kant's main point is that unless we organise the content of our experiences by imposing form on it, we would have nothing that we could call intelligible experience at all.

The radical implications are as follows:

If some of the fundamental features of the things we know are present only because they are known by us, then these things, in some sense, are mind dependent. This is why Kant's metaphysical position is a form of idealism.

Instead of the mind passively receiving an impression of the way things are (which is how it feels), it actively determines their nature in so far as they are objects of our experience.

Kant does not deny the reality of this world. But from a philosophical point of view, this world is 'transcendentally ideal', since its existence depends on the human mind. The concept of space is 'transcendentally ideal' - it is imposed by our minds, and not a mind-independent property of the world.

Kant uses the phrase 'things in themselves' to refer to reality as it is independent of any relation that we might have to it.

Watch Khan Academy videos on Kant.


The 'thing in itself': a limit to understanding

If we throw out the concept of things as they are in themselves, then we are forced to the conclusion that all of reality is entirely mind dependent - the content of our experience just as much as its form.

As espoused by German idealists like Johan Ficthe (1762 - 1814), this view became known as 'absolute idealism'.

In Kant's view, there is one fundamental fact about our experience that philosophy has to respect: namely, the fact that we continually feel as if we are encountering something other than ourselves.

Perfect understanding, Kant sometimes suggests, would require subject and object to be identical; the object could then be known from the inside, so to speak. But we are not identical to the world we try to understand; even though our minds impose order on it and thereby render it somewhat intelligible, there is forever something about it that is alien.

The metaphysical impulse perhaps does lead us to seek knowledge where none can be had. But it does not follow that we should try to purge ourselves of this tendency.

A willingness to speculate can help to expand our intellectual horizons and deepen the sense of wonder that Aristotle says is the beginning of philosophy.