Hume’s contribution to the Freewill Problem


Hume derives his position on the freewill problem from his theory of meaning, and so his contribution is founded in his epistemological arguments. Because of the peculiarity of the epistemological foundations for his freewill arguments there is some controversy over what his position actually is. For example Logical Positivists, who believe experience is necessary for knowledge, hold Hume to be semantically redefining the freewill problem; while Sceptical Realists believe Hume is saying there is necessary cause but we do not experience it directly so are sceptical of it.


To fully understand Hume’s contribution it is necessary to look at it in the context of Hume’s empirical scepticism. Hume’s scepticism is that we can know nothing more about the world than what we experience of it, and that all we experience are impressions and fainter impressions of ideas or memory derived from original impressions. So Hume was sceptical about the notion of connections between impressions even if they seem sequential, because we never experience the connections between impressions only impressions themselves.


The Freewill problem revolves around the idea that Determinism: the view that everything is necessarily causally determined in an infinitely regressive sequence of events, would also imply that the human individual is also determined, and thusly does not have freewill despite our direct experience of ourselves as agents with freewill.


The real significance of the freewill debate can be seen in the question of moral responsibility: it seems if we are determined then we could not have acted otherwise; if our actions were prior determined by an original cause that traces back before the individual was born then we can not be morally responsible for our actions. If an individual is free then they are the cause of their actions and so they are morally accountable for them.


This seeming paradox between our rational metaphysical understanding of causality and the existentialist experience of our own self conscious creative choosing is at the heart of the freewill problem. Attempting to resolve the paradox some have tried to argue the absolute validity of one over the invalidity of the other, while others have attempted to reconcile the two concepts, at times compromising the integrity of necessity or liberty or both to integrate them, yet none have successfully ended the debate.


Compatibilists have argued that determinism is valid but that it is compatible with a certain kind of voluntary free will: the absence of compulsion or constraint to will. While Incompatibilists argue that determinism, whether it is valid or not, is incompatible will the higher notion of freewill as freedom of origination: for the agent to be the original cause of their own will. Hume’s contribution is an attempt to reconcile freedom and necessity.


Hume claims the whole freewill problem revolves around the seeming incompatibility of the doctrines of necessity and freedom: that one can only exist at the exclusion of the other. Hume argues that whole debate is derived from an ambiguity of terms founded on an epistemological overestimation of our conception of necessity; that once the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘cause’ are defined properly it will be found that they are perfectly compatible, and that secondly everyone has always agreed with them.


Classically Hobbes had intuitive appeal when he spoke of necessary cause – that for any given effect to be produced there must necessarily be its ‘entire cause’: where certain bodies and conditions come together to form the entire cause sufficient for that effect. That a certain effect can not take place until all conditions are met to form its entire cause: that therefore all those conditions are necessary to produce that effect, and inversely once there is an entire cause for an effect the effect must necessarily follow.


Hobbes gives an example of a dice throw: the outcome of the throw is the effect necessarily determined by a sufficient cause to produce it: the dice, the thrower’s hand, the force applied by the caster, and the surface it is thrown on etc all necessarily determined its final effect and outcome.


So accepting that a cause necessarily produces its effect, and an effect necessarily follows from a cause, causality can be understood as the necessary procession of cause and effect. Hobbes claims that causes proceed from causes in a continual chain of necessity, originating in the first cause that Hobbes claims is God.


Hobbes rejects the idea of spontaneous action and claims individuals can not have a spontaneous action because individuals have their whole life prior to deliberate whether an action should be taken in itself, and so are justly morally responsible and punishable for their actions. Hobbes calls actions taken upon deliberation: voluntary actions; freely elected actions, and that every individual’s actions are voluntary because every action has had time to be deliberated.


The necessary cause of voluntary actions is the will, however the will is also necessarily caused by things outside of itself such as situational factors: and so will is necessarily caused. Hobbes argues the ordinary notion of freewill as origination is contradictory, since it in someway implies an external necessary cause will not be followed by its necessary effect on the individual. He claims freedom is the absence of opposition or impediment of motion, like water, or other non-rational things, being undamned it is free to flow, and man that acts voluntarily is free to act, even though his actions are determined in that they are necessarily caused by his will, and his will is necessarily caused by those external factors. So Hobbes claims Freedom and Necessity are in this way compatible.


Hume argues against Hobbes’ conception of necessary cause: he argues we never experience the necessity of cause; we can only experience one impression of an event following another but we cannot experience a tie between them. Even in the operation of mind on the body: where our own volition causes our body to move we do not experience a tie that binds the will to the action. For Hume all events seem entirely loose and separate: one event follows another event, however we only experience the conjunction of events but not a connection between them.


Since we do not experience the necessity of the conjunction between one event and another, only the conjunction itself, our concept of cause is derived from the constant conjunction of one event with another. The notion of cause and connection is founded upon the sense of anticipation and connection in the imagination between one event and another after we have experienced these two events conjoined a number of times. If we only experience an event follow another event once then we have no sense of a connection between them, it is only after we experience the regular conjunction of one event with another do we infer a connection and anticipate the latter from the former. Hume claims our concept of necessary cause really refers only to the regular conjunction of events and the consequent inference based on past experience and the sense of anticipation in our mind.



According to Hume’s version of causation, rather than a causal chain of infinitely regressive necessary cause and effect determinism refers only to the regular and constant conjunction of impressions of events. Hume’s determinism seems closer in actuality to indeterminism than classical determinism: without necessary connections, regularity is only a superficial coincidence that does not confine or necessarily determine events or the individual. Hume argues there may be a necessary force that actuates matter and so necessarily and consistently produces an effect from a cause but that this necessary force in matter, if it exists, can not be perceived or verified so we can not know a deeper reason behind regularity: regularity is all we can mean by determinism.


Hume argues the world is regular and so determined because hypothetically if in the universe no two events or effects were the same: that everything was constantly new, and there was no regular conjunction, we could not have acquired the concept of necessity. We may know one event followed another, but not that one event produce another and so cause and effect would be unknown to man



Hume argues that man is regular and so determined because human nature has a constant character: that there is a great uniformity among the actions of men of all ages and nations because all human nature is more or less regular. Despite individual irregularities or eccentricities human nature is on the whole universal and constant to all men. Hume claims that the temper and actions of the Romans and the Greeks can be observed and transferred to the modern men of France and England because the same motives produce the same actions just like the same events follow from the same causes. Hume claims the conjunction between man’s motives and his voluntary actions is as regular as the regular conjunction between a cause and its effect, and that this regularity is all that necessity and determinism means and so man is determined because he is regular.


Hume further points out that the interdependence of action between men is so complete that scarcely any human action is possible without reference to the actions of others. An individual works to produce a good or service on the expectation another individual will pay for what he produced, and that with these funds he will be able to buy in turn the materials needed for the production of that good or service from other individuals, and thusly sustain himself.  So inference based upon the regular and determined nature of man is core to every man’s life. All such interdependent actions depend on man’s regular nature, for it is from the regularity that we base our inferences on how our fellows will act or react to our actions and so how we should act. So the determined regular nature of man is so intrinsically acknowledged in the activities of men, that therefore all men have already agreed man is regular so all men have already agreed man is determined.


Hume is in accord with Hobbes that Freewill simply means the liberty to act voluntarily or the ability to act or not act according to the determinations of the will: if you choose to remain at rest you can if you choose to move you can: that liberty is defined relative the conditions of external reality: whether those conditions inhibit or allow you to act or not in accordance with your will.


Some such as Sartre would argue the voluntary freedom would fail to satisfy our own expeirnece of freedom….Cogito…. We cannot but experience ourselves as free.


Hume argues against `false sensation or seeming experience of liberty’. Hume argues that this sensation is an error of judgment derived from a confusion or ignorance about causation. Because individuals can not experience the necessary connection between effect and cause when they introspectively experience themselves which is self-consciousness, they believe themselves to be undetermined, the subjective sense of freedom is further derived from ignorance about our mental processes, motives, and thought process: that if we could see them objectively as a third person could we see they follow in a causal way from each other to make us determined.  and the event type our action fell under.


For Hume’s definition of free will it is not important if our will is itself determined: part of a continual sequence or undetermined: derived from a spontaneous source, what is important is only that once we have will we can act in accordance with it. In fact Hume agrees with Hobbes that our will is determined or regular with external factors, but even so man has free will so long as his actions can be in accordance with that will. So for Hume free will is not a question the nature of our will being itself determined  or undetermined, but whether our actions can be in accordance with that will, and since all men act in accordance with their will everyone has already agreed in freewill being the ability to act in accordance with one’s will.


Hume claims that because beyond constant conjunction and inference we have no notion of necessity, and if this is all we mean by necessity, then since the memory of regular conjunction and the process of inference is an integral operation of the mind and a voluntary action common to all men, it must follow that we have all agreed on the doctrine of necessity already, and that any thought that necessity means anything more than this is an overestimation the concept.


Hume concludes that since the foregoing definitions of freewill and necessity are all that we can mean by these doctrines, and that we have all already agreed to their intrinsic validity, therefore any further argument of incompatibility must be acknowledged to be merely verbal since in their right conceptions necessity and freewill are compatible.


Kant argues against Hume and Hobbes’ concept of freewill as voluntary freedom, calling it a “wretched subterfuge” and “petite word jugglery”.  He argues that it is not sufficient to the notion of freedom that the determining factors be placed within the agent rather than outside the agent for it to be called freedom. That even if the agent wills within himself to move rather than moving as the external physical effect of being thrown, if the will is itself determined by exterior cause then that will is also determined.


Where as Hume might be seen to approach the freewill problem as an Empiricist: exploring how we experience necessity and freedom, Kant could be seen to approach the freewill problem as a Rationalist: how we can transcendentally and metaphysically know about necessity and freedom before or without experience.


Kant would initially agree with Hume that we do not derive the concept of causal necessity from experience: that we in fact project the concept of causal necessity onto our experience to make sense of it. However Kant argues against Hume’s argument that since we do not experience necessary cause we can only know that causality is regularity: Kant claims we can know such concepts as cause without deriving them from experience.


Kant argues that because time and space are necessary for experience but we can never directly experience them as things in themselves: that we can only experience the things in them, they exist as prerequisites to experience and so exist in the mind prior experience: that all sense experience is synthesised through the concepts of time and space. Further more than space and time, the mind projects categories on to experience which are necessary for the mind to understand it: among these innate projected categories is causal necessity. Categories are known without experience but are equally valid as experience since both the categories and experience are themselves products of the phenomenal world derived from the projection and synthesis of space and time onto the Noumenal world “things in themselves” to create our experience “things as they are experienced”. Though the Noumenal world or Ultimate reality cannot be known, the phenomenal world can be known and the categories legitimately applied to experience. The experienced world is known as caused and necessarily determined as categories and experience are woven together to form the phenomenal world.


Kant argues the law of natural necessity applies only to things as they appear, but that freedom applies to things as they are. Time exists only as a projection onto experience, and so causality, which depends on time, also exists only within how things are experienced but not how things are in themselves: the Nouminal world, existing outside of time, exists outside of causality. So though the principle of causality pervades the phenomenal world: that things as they are experienced are determined, it is legitimate that Noumenally, things as they are, are free.


Kant argues rationality exists outside of time in the noumenal: following categorical imperatives determined by reason and preformed for themselves rather than hypothetical imperatives determined by consequences and preformed for their consequences. So rational will is derived from categorical imperatives for actions in themselves outside of time and so rational will is free, while will derived from desires for experience or for certain causal consequences is determined by the laws of causality that pervade the Phenomenal world. That if we react to experience without reasoning, for example through instinct or reflex our actions are determined, but if we reason, consider things rationally outside of experience our actions are free and this is how we can be compatibly free and determined. Kant admits we cannot be perfectly Rational, but we can become more so, and there by become increasingly free from the causal Phenomenal world.


For Kant morality is rationality: morality is a categorical imperative derived from rational laws, so to be rational is both to be free and to be moral. That the categorical imperatives give us duties or things we should do in themselves, and therefore provides us with a higher a choice when we act on a higher order existence rather to respond merely to the sensible world. Having moral duty gives us freedom: we ought to have acted otherwise implies we could have acted otherwise: acted selflessly and rationally for actions in themselves rather than selfishly and desirously for consequences of actions.


Kant argues that it is this ability to have acted otherwise that makes us morally responsible. He argues pure determinism removes the ability to have acted other wise and so removes the agent from responsibility. A modern example would be a robot programmed to kill a man, the robot is necessarily determined by its program, and because it could have not acted otherwise it can not be responsible: so a human that is determined is can not be responsible for he has no freedom.


Hume would argue moral responsibility in fact requires determinates: that how morally responsible we are is proportional to the extent our actions follow from internal determinates such as character, reason, and desire. Hume gives the example of blame being apportioned less so if we are act in ignorance, without deliberation or in the moment, or if we are repentant. The explanation for this is that moral sentiment is ascribed more so to actions that follow in a determined way from our characters, reason, and desires, rather than for accidents.




Though Hume’s compatibalism is not so original in light of Hobbes’, his epistemological approach to the freewill problem is unique and has contributed perhaps more clarity than progress to the freewill problem. It would have seemed that having made a powerful argument against necessary cause through experience he might have, as Sartre did, continued on with to further progress an argument for the experiential proof of freedom and so make a resounding argument for freedom. Instead he argues for determinism though admittedly he has undermined this position by refuting necessity and creating instead a superficial determinism of mere regularity.

Hume’s contribution has also proved inspiration material as he “awakened Kant from his dogmatic slumbers”. Kant went on to try to salvage science, morality, and religion from Hume’s powerful empirical scepticism, at times replying directly to his arguments. Ironically while Hume invalidates necessity and determinism he believes in an unknowable cause as the reason behind experienced regularity Kant validates necessity and determinism but believes in noumenal and so unknowable freedom as the reason behind experienced freedom. Both Kant and Hume ultimately rely on faith in an unknowable cause, or and unknowable freedom, so rather than a providing a conclusion they create a foundation for scepticism.


From this stand off it would ultimately seem that the experience of our own freedom is equally as powerful as the metaphysical evidence in support of determinism. So the paradox of the freewill problem goes unresolved still waiting for resolution: a powerful mystery at the heart of the human condition.






Thomas Hobbes: Elements of Philosophy

Thomas Hobbes: Of Liberty and Necessity

David Hume: Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

Sartre: Existentialism and Humanism

Immanuel Kant: The Critique of Pure Reason

Immanuel Kant: The Critique of Practical Reason:


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