Humans Are Determined
Classic Philosophical Questions Part 4 - Ethics
Baron Holbach, from The System of Nature
Kem Stone - 2 September 2007
The question of free will is one on which I have no strong inclinations towards either position. The problem runs
so deep—down to the most fundamental nature of reality itself—that I do not believe it can ever be resolved one
way or the other. There are powerful arguments on either side, one of which is given in this selection by Baron
Holbach, who insists that human actions, like everything else in nature, are entirely determined by a mechanical,
systematic nature. I have also read arguments that are equally forceful in the opposite direction, such as those of
Jean-Paul Sartre, who insists that human beings are free agents and therefore responsible for everything we do. I
find myself leaning towards indeterminism, but mostly on pragmatic rather than logical grounds, as I believe it is
better to believe that we are responsible for our actions than that we are powerless over our fate.
The System of Nature is one of the most famous atheistic philosophical works, and having read a good deal of it
prior to examining this argument, I understand the context in which it is given. In this work, Holbach is offering a
purely naturalistic account of the world we live in, seeking to explain everything in terms of the mechanical laws of
nature that determine everything. His essential claim in this argument is that because nature is governed by these
necessary laws, and human beings are within nature, humans too are governed by necessary laws and therefore
have no power to determine the course of the universe.
Though Holbach’s arguments have serious implications for ethics, he only directly touches upon ethics twice. He
makes one ethical claim at the beginning, asserting that the main reason why the majority of human beings are of
the opinion that they are in fact free agents is because of religion. If man is to be judged by God for his actions, it
would be nonsensical to believe that man has no control over them. “Society has been believed interested in this
system; because an idea has gone abroad, that if all the actions of man were to be contemplated as necessary, the
right of punishing those who injure their associates would no longer exist” (114). Thus we have the major
consequence of Holbach’s argument laid out at the very beginning—if man’s actions are determined we lose the
right to punish him for these actions. That is not to say we ought not put criminals in prison—it would still be
sensible to separate dangerous individuals from the rest of society—but we could do so only for pragmatic and
not for punitive reasons.
The nature of the will is clearly the most important part of the argument, and Holbach defines the will as “a
modification of the brain, by which it is disposed to action, or prepared to give play to the organs” (115). If I
were to offer a formal objection to Holbach’s claims, I would start from the standpoint of the Philosophy of Mind,
and point to the over-simplicity of this definition, as well as the near impossibility of determining scientifically
exactly what the “will” is. But that would go well beyond the scope of Holbach’s arguments, which remain valid if
we accept his conception of the will as reducible to the physical brain and susceptible only to external influences
rather than a soul, or inner consciousness. Holbach presupposes that dualism is false, and if we grant him this I
believe we must also accept the rest of his argument.
According to Holbach, any action taken by a man “is the result of the impulse he receives either from the motive,
from the object, or from the idea which has modified his brain, or disposed his will. When he does not act
according to this impulse, it is because there comes some new cause, some new motive, some new idea, which
modifies his brain in a different manner, gives him a new impulse, determines his will in another way, by which the
action of the former impulse is suspended” (115). So although one might immediately object to determinism on
the grounds that man occasionally acts against his impulses, Holbach insists that this happens only when a greater
impulse supersedes the original.
He offers the example of a feverish man tormented by a violent thirst, who in coming across a fountain is strongly
inclined to drink from it. Yet if he is then told that the water in the fountain is poisoned, he will act against this
impulse and refrain from drinking, unless other factors such as his inclination to risk death for the abatement of the
torturous thirst are more powerful. But the same motive operates in both cases, namely his instinct for self-
preservation. “In either case, whether he partakes of the water, or whether he does not, the two actions will be
equally necessary; they will be the effect of that motive which finds itself most puissant; which consequently acts in
the most coercive manner upon his will” (115). Thus for Holbach, if motive determines action and motive is
determined by external causes, action is therefore determined by external causes.
The most obvious objection to determinism is that humans so often act against their own inclinations. Though
Holbach has already laid the groundwork for defeating this objection, he gives it a very thorough treatment, first
by responding that man will act against his impulses if he is capable of reflecting on the consequences of these
impulses, but that so often this reflection is either impossible or completely superseded by the causes by which he
is modified. He offers several illustrations of this. A man accused of ambition will see that such things as rank,
honour, and power are the most desirable advantages in society, and those who have them are the envy of all.
Why then should he repress his ambitions and submit to oppression? A man accused of greed will see that in
society, though men may be chastised for the unscrupulous means they use to acquire wealth, once they are
wealthy are respected and admired. Why then should he renounce his pursuit of money? A man accused of
having too much interest in sexual conquest will see that often the only one ashamed of adultery is the outraged
husband, and that so many often brag of their debaucheries to be rewarded with applause. Why then should he
act against his natural temperament? And so on.
This, I believe, is probably the most valuable aspect of Holbach’s argument. “So many crimes are witnessed on
the earth only because every thing conspires to render man vicious and criminal; the religion he has adopted, his
government, his education, the examples set before him, irresistibly drive him to evil: under these circumstances,
morality preaches virtue to him in vain” (117). These illustrations force us to empathise with the victims of their
own passions, who have been assaulted all their lives from the external influences of societies with such mixed-up
value systems. We are taught that ambition, greed, and sexual conquest are evils, yet the most well-known and
powerful members of society are the power-hungry, greedy, and often promiscuous. “Such societies chastise, in
the lower orders, those excesses which they respect in the higher ranks” (117). So whether or not one agrees
that a man’s actions are determined, one ought to consider before passing judgment just how stacked against him
the odds were from the very beginning that when confronted with these unavoidable desires, he was unable to
suppress them. How harsh a punishment can we justly inflict upon the thief when society itself is run by thieves?
Holbach’s entire argument is summarized again in a passage following his illustrations. Man is guided in each step
by his passions, which are necessary, as beings always tend toward their own happiness. The energy in pursuing
these passions is necessary as they depend upon his temperament. His temperament is necessary because it
depends upon the external influences which act on him. The modification of this temperament is necessary
because it is the consequence of the impulses he receives from all other moral and physical beings. Therefore if
every aspect involved in an action is necessary, the action must be necessary.
The next objection Holbach deals with is that man’s freedom is proven by the fact that he is capable of choice.
This is a strong objection, one which Holbach perhaps does not defeat entirely, though he offers a strong counter-
argument. The objector might argue that “if it be proposed to any one, to move or not to move his hand, an
action in the number of those called indifferent, he evidently appears to be the master of choosing” (118).
Holbach’s reply is simply that he does have a predetermined motive for moving or not moving his hand, namely to
convince his opponent. Holbach offers a somewhat comical analogy to this argument: “If in the heat of the dispute
he insists and asks, ‘Am I not the master of throwing myself out of the window?’ I shall answer him, no; that whilst
he preserves his reason there is no probability that the desire of proving his free agency will become a motive
sufficiently powerful to make him sacrifice his life to the attempt: if, notwithstanding this, to prove he is a free
agent, he should actually precipitate himself from the window, it would not be a sufficient warrant to conclude he
acted freely, but rather that it was the violence of his temperament which spurred him on to this folly” (118).
Clearly, no demonstration—whether it be a movement of one’s hand or a leap from a window—can prove man’s
free agency, as “man has simply to recur to the motive by which his will is determined; he will always find this
motive is out of his own control” (118).
Yet I do not believe Holbach has completely defeated the problem of choice with his analogy. Clearly, there is a
vast difference between an action of such consequences as throwing oneself out of a window as there is in moving
one’s hand. Moving or not moving one’s hand will have no discernible consequences one way or another. If I
choose to move my hand, the motive cannot be, as Holbach has asserted, to convince my opponent, as he will
remain unconvinced whether I move my hand or not. If I choose not to move my hand, to what motive can this
be ascribed? How have all of the external influences which have shaped my temperament from the time of my
birth determined my decision at this very moment to keep my hand stationary? While such a causal chain may in
theory be able to be established, it nevertheless appears absurd to suggest that had I not read a certain book or
attended a certain class as a child, that I might have at that moment decided to move my hand, and therefore this
was not really my choice.
But on an even deeper level, even if my decision has been influenced by many indiscernible factors, is it not still
my decision? Regardless of the factors that have gone into my making this choice, it still seems not only logical
but virtually self-evident that I have made the choice and could have just as easily chosen otherwise? As
reasonable as these considerations may seem, I would nevertheless yield to Holbach’s arguments and accept the
claim that if we reject the concept of a soul or inner consciousness capable of affecting the will, we must consider
the action to be determined.
Holbach next responds to a rather weak objection that confuses restraint with necessity. “Man believes he acts as
a free agent, every time he does not see any thing that places obstacles to his actions” (119). Yet everything
Holbach has already established serves to defeat such an objection immediately. A prisoner remains in prison
necessarily while he is loaded with chains, but should these chains be removed and the cell doors unlocked, he
does not escape as a free agent but because of his motive to escape from punishment. The opposite example
would be that of Socrates, who chose to remain in prison in spite of the unjust ruling against him and did not save
himself from death even when the opportunity presented itself. Yet he did not do so as a free agent either, as in
this case “the invisible chains of opinion, the secret love of decorum, the inward respect for the laws, even when
they were iniquitous, the fear of tarnishing his glory, kept him in his prison” (119). Man is not a free agent, says
Holbach, if he acts against his inclination—he is always determined to act so by an even greater inclination.
At the conclusion of his argument, Holbach insists that it is only the complexity of the will that prevents us from
clearly seeing that it is determined like all other things in nature. “It is the great complication of motion in
man…that persuades him he is a free agent. If all his motions were simple…he would perceive that all his actions
were necessary, because he would be enabled to recur instantly to the cause that made him act” (120). It is
therefore only the incalculable number of causes that go into an action by a man that prevent him from seeing that
his own free choice was not the ultimate cause. If he could somehow fully understand the play of his own organs
or recollect every single impulse which has modified them, he would then perceive himself as a determined system.
Holbach concludes by sketching an image of man as a determined being that is perhaps the most perfect
illustration of his claim that can be drawn: “Man, in running over, frequently without his own knowledge, often in
spite of himself, the route which nature has marked out for him, resembles a swimmer who is obliged to follow the
current that carries him along. He believes himself a free agent, because he sometimes consents, sometimes does
not consent, to glide with the stream, which notwithstanding, always hurries him forward; he believes himself the
master of his condition, because he is obliged to use his arms under the fear of sinking” (121).
I believe that Holbach’s arguments for determinism are quite strong and that they can never be refuted completely,
as to do so I believe one would have to prove dualism or the existence of a soul, which I also believe is impossible
to do conclusively (I would cite Kierkegaard’s arguments for why we cannot prove the existence of anything).
However, for the same reason I would not say that Holbach’s arguments are conclusive, as he has not offered a
conclusive objection to dualism and therefore leaves the door wide open for the free agency of a soul within each
human being to which motives can be ascribed. If nature is not the materialistic, mechanical system which
Holbach believes it is (and I am inclined toward the belief that it is not), his arguments are rendered moot. In any
case, I do believe that they have ethical value in terms of our criminal justice system, as I would consent to the
opinion that a man’s responsibility for his crimes are at least mitigated—if not completely undermined as Holbach
might suggest—by the external factors which have moulded his temperament and predisposed him to act on
However, I would never go so far as to assert that man has no responsibility for his own actions, as this I believe
is clearly a dangerous opinion to hold. I would appeal to Sartre’s existentialist ethics, or the idea that because
man is a free agent he is therefore responsible for everything he does. Regardless of the influences that have made
him who he is, each man does have the power within him to act against violent inclinations and should therefore be
held responsible if he fails to do so.
Sartre believes that it is absurd to speak of motive as something outside of man’s own control. In Being and
Nothingness, he asserts that when a man chooses a certain action, he also chooses his motive for that action. If
because I miss my family I decide to visit them, I am not merely choosing to visit my family due to the external
cause of my experience of a longing to see them again, but I am also choosing this longing as the reason for
seeing them in the first place. I believe this offers a good framework for how to attack Holbach’s claim that
choice does not prove free agency, though I would not go so far as to say it is definitive, as we could yet have an
infinite regress of choices determined by motives determined by choices determined by motives, and so on.
But with all of these considerations aside, my basic opinion on the matter of free will is that it is a problem with no
solution, but that we ought to act as though we were free agents. The reason is not difficult to see—if we all
believed as Holbach does that we have no control over our actions and therefore have no responsibility, we will
be much less inclined to act against our more immediate impulses, which tend to be the more primitive. Without
much thought or reflection, I believe most humans tend to be selfish, and if we all were to act only in our own
interests the world would be a dismal place. Indeed the world already suffers to a great degree due to humanity’s
natural inclination towards selfishness, and a universally-held belief in determinism I am certain would only
augment the problem. Yet a universal belief in man’s free agency and our ability to overcome the natural impulses
that dwell so powerfully within us would serve to incline more people to suppress the selfish inclinations and
perhaps act on more noble impulses.
I have already written that the most detrimental aspect of belief in God is the idea that we are not in control of our
own fate, and we therefore allow all kinds of evil to endure in the world because we attribute it to God’s divine
plan and are therefore not compelled to do anything about it ourselves. The same reasoning applies to a
deterministic system of nature which eliminates human choice from the equation. We must believe that we have
the ability and the responsibility to improve our condition or our condition will never be improved. And therefore
I would say that even if we are in fact slaves to material causes, we ought to behave as though we are free agents.