Some philosophical ideas have a bad reputation: until a few centuries ago, for example, in Christian Europe it was quite dangerous to profess atheism. Present-day forbidden ideas put you at risk of a shit-storm rather than the stake, but it’s still interesting to explore the philosophical taboos of our era.

Whether because of the aforementioned Christian legacies, or because of a society that mainly wants us to be consumers, in the West the rejection of free will has become one of these unwelcome moves. Since freedom is one of the ideological foundations of democracy, to deny it is akin to philosophical assault. Therefore, now I’m in the unpleasant position of defending an idea that most people abhor – namely, that the future is determined. I hope I won’t encounter too-harsh a disapproval.

In summary, I believe that there is no such thing as ‘possibility’, and that everything that has happened could not have been otherwise. Worse: I don’t just believe it, I find it obvious – a presumption that makes me look suspicious, because experience shows us that triviality and truth often disagree. I therefore want to test this opinion, which luckily has illustrious precursors and supporters.

Besides the ancient Greek philosopher Diodorus Cronus, who led the way for determinism with his ‘Master argument’, “the conception according to which only the actual is really possible has by no means vanished historically. Chrysippus fought it with strong arguments. Cicero vulgarized it in his doctrine of fate. It re-emerged in a new and seemingly completely autonomous form during Scholasticism. Abelard applied it to the creative action of the divinity (God ‘can’ only create what he actually does create); Averroes advocated a doctrine according to which everything that is possible also becomes effective[i]”.

In modern physics, this position prevailed until the development of quantum mechanics, which challenged Einstein’s determinism in favor of the thesis that, at the microscopic level, natural phenomena can only be described in probabilistic terms. But even in this area there are disagreements, as shown by superdeterminism, a hypothesis supported by scholars such as Sabine Hossenfelder, for whom the apparent randomness of quantum phenomena stems from our ignorance of hidden variables.

For Hossenfelder, the mistake physicists made decades ago was to draw the wrong conclusion from a mathematical theorem proved by John Bell in 1964. This theorem shows that in any theory in which hidden variables let us predict measurable outcomes, the correlations between measurement outcomes obey a bound. Since then, countless experiments have shown that this bound can be violated. It follows that the type of hidden variables theories to which Bell’s Theorem applies are falsified. The conclusion that physicists drew is that quantum theory is correct, while hidden variables not.

But Bell’s Theorem makes an assumption which is itself unsupported by evidence: that hidden variables (whatever they are) are independent of the settings of the detector. This assumption—called “statistical independence”—is reasonable as long as an experiment only involves large objects like pills, mice, or cancer cells. (And indeed, in this case a violation of statistical independence would strongly suggest that the experiment had been tampered with.) Whether it holds for quantum particles, however, no one knows. Because of this, we can equally well conclude that the experiments, which test Bell’s Theorem, rather than supporting quantum theory, have proved that statistical independence is violated.

Hossenfelder’s is a minority view and I have no competence to evaluate it, but until we reach a agreement on quantum physics, appealing to physics to confirm or deny a philosophical thesis remains a risky move. After all, random events are still a hypothesis, and their existence, which would falsify causal determinism, would have no effect on the uncausal determinism I am defending – and that I have yet to explain[ii].

In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, under the entry ‘Causal determinism’ we read that “the world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law”[iii]. My proposal is less drastic: what happens in the future is determined, although not necessarily linked to the past. Future events might happen by chance or be completely unpredictable, while remaining determined.

To explain this unusual concept, I’ll give an example. Let’s say a tile falls from a roof. According to indeterminism, the position closest to common sense, there could be various conditions under which the tile would not fall: if it were not hit, if it were not eroded by rain or moved by a strong wind, etc. The future is open. For causal determinism, as advocated by Einstein and Hossenfelder, it’s written in the laws of nature that the tile would have fallen, since it’s written that a few moments earlier a gust of wind would have moved it, that the weather conditions would have been such that the wind would rise, and so on, from cause to cause, until the beginning of the universe. The future is closed and caused by the past. Even for uncausal determinism it was necessary for the tile to fall, but not necessarily because of the wind or other causes, as a causal determinist would claim. It could happen with or without a cause: that doesn’t matter. The future is closed, whatever its connection with the past.

Now that I have hopefully clarified what I mean by uncausal determinism, I must explain why I believe that events are determined, whatever their relation to the past might be. Basically, the reason why I think that possibility doesn’t exists is that I believe in the truth of this sentence: ‘tomorrow, something will certainly happen, even if I don’t know what it is’. It’s enough to know that what will happen tomorrow is determined, even if I don’t know it now – whatever happens, in fact, can only happen exactly as it will. I don’t know yet whether I’ll be drinking coffee in five minutes, but if I do, it can only happen that way. Wait a minute: I could decide not to have coffee! Yes, but, in that case, it would be this second event that would have been determined. In short, there is only one prediction that I can always make with absolute certainty: something will happen and it will be exactly what I am now unaware of that will come into being.

If I lived in a universe with only two conceivable possibilities, like the ‘heads or tails’ of a coin toss, I would be sure that one of them would occur – and it would be exactly that one – but I could not say which one. In sum, I know that an event will happen and that nothing can prevent it; the only difference from a past event is that I do not know its nature, because it is out of my reach. What will happen is therefore inevitable, because once it has happened it cannot be changed – and if it could be changed, it would be the changed event that would be inevitable. Even if we believe that for each event reality is multiplied by ten, a hundred, or an infinite number of time planes, all events in the various branches of time will be determined. We know for sure that what lies in the future is a precise, unchangeable event. Since we think that a precise and non-contradictory event will happen, we consequently think that the future is defined in the same way as the past.

The hypothesis that there are alternatives to the past seems a retroactive projection of the patterns we use to predict and imagine what will happen in the future. When it comes to the past, I simply know that events happened in one way. What makes me suppose that it could have been otherwise? My only knowledge is that what happened happened the way it did. ‘Possibility’ is a two-faced concept: when applied to the future it’s a compass to navigate through our ignorance; when applied to the past it is just a mistake. However, the entire approaching future will become past. As Vladimir Jankélévitch writes in Death, “everything possible, says Schelling, must happen; and we add: everything future will happen, being future what will actually happen one day”[iv]. Even if time were infinite, every instant of it takes place after a finite interval, and sooner or later it becomes concrete. Given our habit of anticipating the future, this sounds very odd, yet we have no evidence that an event should not have happened exactly as it did. On the contrary, we have at least one clue in favor of the fact that it had to happen that way: the very fact that it happened. Why do we persistently think that ‘it could have gone another way’, if we know that all the hypothetical alternatives have not happened and will never happen?

Among the first champions of determinism we find, as I mentioned, the Greek philosopher Diodorus Cronus (late 4th – early 3rd century BC). The argument he developed against possibility (known as κυριεύων, the ‘Master’) privileges necessity over possibility. If something is possible, it either is or will be true, since: a) every past truth must be necessary, b) an impossibility does not follow from a possibility, and c) something is possible which neither is nor will be true. In the words of Epictetus, the idea of Cronus is as follows: “there is in fact a common contradiction between one another in these three propositions, each two being in contradiction to the third. The propositions are: (1) every past truth must be necessary; (2) that an impossibility does not follow a possibility; (3) something is possible which neither is nor will be true. Diodorus observing this contradiction employed the probative force of the first two for the demonstration of this proposition: That nothing is possible which is not true and never will be”[v].

This argument has undergone various reformulations, such as that of the New Zealander philosopher Arthur Prior, and, before him, many critical voices, including those of Chrysippus, Occam, or Pierce. While espousing Prior’s conclusions, Hartmann argues that “after a good start, it [Prior’s argument] drops a lot”[vi]. I do not want to go into an analysis of Cronus’ thesis, but I will propose a hybrid argument with the famous example Aristotle gives in section nine of On Interpretation, that of the naval battle. Instead of the ships, however, I will use Napoleon Bonaparte.

(1) An impossible event is an event that has never happened and can never happen. (2) Napoleon winning at Waterloo is not true either in the past, present or future. (3) “Napoleon is defeated at Waterloo on 18 June 1815” is true at any point in time, so it was impossible for him to win.

Once again, it’s the certainty that the future will be exactly one way, however unknown yet, that leads me to believe in (uncausal) determinism; the idea of ‘possibility’ is a projection of our ignorance, rather than an actual reality.

Everyone excludes the hypothesis that an event has several possible versions in the past and the present, because we have (or believe we have) a good knowledge of the facts. When it comes to the future, however, we change our mind. And yet, as we said, the future sooner or later becomes the past, and even if I keep imagining that ‘it could have gone another way’, once the future has taken place, it does not leave space in any way for any other options. If I project the fancy idea of ‘possibility’ onto reality, it’s because I have some experience of similar true events (e.g., other leaders winning or losing battles), but I have no experience of that precise fact, such as Napoleon’s victory at Waterloo, which did not happen and never will. An accurate prediction made in the past, if confirmed by the future, remains correct in the past, and if a Frenchman had said ‘Napoleon is going to be defeated at Waterloo on 18 June 1815’ in 1814, he would have been telling the truth, even if his statement preceded the battle by a year.

 Let’s apply the same example to a universe with only two conceivable outcomes, such as heads or tails: as I flip a coin, I know that in the future one outcome is true and the other false. I do not know which one is false yet, but, in any case, this does not mean it’s ‘possible’ – it is only false.

Those who believe, as I do, that the future is fixed, could ask what makes this hypothesis preposterous for most people. Maybe such reticence is due to our entrenched habit of trying to predict the future, a mental task that relies on the idea of ‘possibility’. Another obstacle in accepting determinism is that it clashes with our psychological need for holding people responsible for their actions, especially when they do something wrong. Since determinism implies the absence of free will, those who accept this thesis must defend themselves against the criticism that without freedom of choice, humanity would descend into ethical chaos, because people would feel free to commit all sorts of cruelties, since they bear no real responsibility for them. This criticism is philosophically weak, because the unpleasant consequences of a hypothesis say nothing about its truth– it’s like telling a doctor who diagnoses a disease that he’s wrong because you don’t want to be sick. Moreover, the idea that abandoning free will is an ethical danger seems to be unfounded. As Sabine Hossenfelder writes in an article in which she tries to dismantle ten errors in determinism, “if the result of your brain processes makes other people’s lives difficult, it’s you who will be blamed, locked away, sent to psychotherapy or get kicked where it really hurts. It is entirely irrelevant that your faulty information processing was inscribed in the initial conditions of the universe, the relevant question is what your future will bring if others try to get rid of you”, and again, “if people don’t have free will they still have to make decisions and they still will be blamed for making other peoples’ lives miserable”. Determined or not, our actions have consequences: the idea of responsibility does not disappear, but the idea of guilt does and I think it’s a good thing.

In a long article on free will in The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman gives us the example of a murderer and a pedophile whose crimes were linked to a brain tumor, a disease which, under certain conditions, can drastically change the behavior of those who suffer from it. Once we discover the true cause of his crimes, our opinion about the man inevitably changes. If free will does not exist, every criminal must be considered condemned to perpetrate his crimes. This idea leads us to review justice in terms of rehabilitation or as a quarantine for public health reasons, giving up on the legitimacy of our moral indignation. It seems like a bad result, but moralism has no social use: on the contrary, it either leads to the erroneous impression that we are immune to evil, or to the justification of further immoral acts, such as a violent treatment of criminals. Society would not be in danger, because evil would stay evil and the rules to protect ourselves against it would remain intact – only without indulging in sadism or moralism.

In the same article Burkeman writes:

“In any case, were free will really to be shown to be nonexistent, the implications might not be entirely negative […] It’s a reason to be gentler with yourself, and with others. For those of us prone to being hard on ourselves, it’s therapeutic to keep in the back of your mind the thought that you might be doing precisely as well as you were always going to be doing – that in the profoundest sense, you couldn’t have done any more. And for those of us prone to raging at others for their minor misdeeds, it’s calming to consider how easily their faults might have been yours. (Sure enough, some research has linked disbelief in free will to increased kindness.). Harris argues that if we fully grasped the case against free will, it would be difficult to hate other people: how can you hate someone you don’t blame for their actions? Yet love would survive largely unscathed, since love is “the condition of our wanting those we love to be happy, and being made happy ourselves by that ethical and emotional connection”, neither of which would be undermined. And countless other positive aspects of life would be similarly untouched. As Strawson puts it, in a world without a belief in free will, “strawberries would still taste just as good”[vii].

If we wonder about the effects of holding a specific belief, the answer can only ever be a personal one. The idea of ‘nothingness’, for example, in its many forms, is both cause of discomfort in the West and akin to salvation in the East. As far as determinism is concerned, there is no such thing as the ‘right effect’, but only a multitude of reactions that ideas produce through interacting with biographically, historically, physically and culturally different individuals – every response, in short, is personal, and all I can offer is my own.

As I’ve noted, I never trusted free will. I have always felt as if I were driven by a will that I experience without deciding it; as Schopenhauer had already said, a man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills. If I observe my mental life, I notice that thoughts, rather than a deliberate product of my mind (who decides what the mind thinks?), are something that happens, in a process over which I have no control. But this doesn’t feel bad. In the rare moments when I can contemplate desires and repulsions without judging them, the play they weave with my thoughts has the beauty of a harmless catastrophe.

Uncausal determinism helps me to be more compassionate towards myself and others, without denying or refusing to correct my mistakes – after all, if I didn’t try to get better it would only be a demonstration that I am destined not to. The idea that the future already exists helps me to not be afraid of the passage of time, since nothing is born and nothing disappears, except from my sight. It’s easier to tolerate disagreements, because no one decides how to be born. Finally, refusing the idea of guilt, I understood that no one deserves pain. If this is an ethical debacle, well, then it’s welcome.

  • The original Italian publication of this essay is available here.


[i] Hartmann, Nicolai, and Pinna, Simone. Possibilità ed Effettività. Mimesis, Milan, 2018, p.251

[ii] Among the names under which I have found this concept there’s ‘logical fatalism’ or ‘metaphysical fatalism’. (cf. Conee, Earl Brink, and Sider, Theodore. Riddles of Existence: A Guided Tour of Metaphysics. United Kingdom, Clarendon Press, 2014, chapter 2).

[iii] Hoefer, Carl, “Causal Determinism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

[iv] Jankélévitch, Vladimir. La morte. Einaudi, Turin, 2009, p.102

[v] Long, G., Epictetus, E., Spalding, J. L. (2015). Discourses of Epictetus. Stati Uniti: Creative Media Partners, LLC. ii.19.1-4

[vi] Hartmann, Nicolai, and Pinna, Simone. Possibilità ed Effettività. Mimesis, Milan, 2018, p.250

[vii] Burkeman, Oliver, The clockwork universe: is free will an illusion? , Guardian, 27 April 2021,