Mechanistic Determinism: Free, But To What Extent?

Mechanistic determinism: free, but to what extent?

Are we really free to choose or is it all written down? Is our life dominated by predetermination? Throughout history, many thinkers and philosophers have asked these questions. Free will and what would derive from its presence (or absence) has always been a rather burning philosophical issue: our subjective experience makes us lean towards the hypothesis of freedom of choice, but several studies indicate the presence of a strong mechanistic determinism.

Determinism is a school of thought based on the conception according to which all events are predetermined and explainable through physical laws. In other words, it all boils down to an infinite chain of cause-and-effect relationships. Furthermore, there are various approaches to determinism (religious, genetic, economic, etc.). In this article we will address mechanistic determinism .

Mechanistic determinism is based on the idea that the human being is comparable to a machine. According to the mechanistic view, the brain is a kind of mechanism capable of receiving different inputs, processing them and transforming them into outputs. And free will is a mere illusion generated by the lack of knowledge of the process that occurs between the input of the input and the output of the output.

To allow you to better understand mechanistic determinism, in this article we will focus on two aspects: the principles and reasons that lead us to believe in determinism, and then the homunculus paradox applied to free will.

Where does the idea of ​​a mechanistic determinism come from?

The conception of the human brain as a machine derives from the computational metaphor proposed by cognitive psychology. That is to say that with this metaphor, cognitive psychology associates the human brain with an information processor by arguing that any manifestation of human behavior can be explained through a series of algorithms and mental processes.

For this reason, the human brain has begun to be compared to a Turing machine.

Algorithms in the brain

Even if today the computational metaphor is considered obsolete – as it has been replaced by the new connectionist models – it has allowed us to formulate important reflections. Advances in psychology allow us to explain more and more processes, thus enabling us to unravel the many mysteries of the human psyche. Behaviors that we previously attributed to free will, today can be explained in terms of well-defined mental processes.

This leads us to wonder if human behavior is nothing more than a response to a chain of cause-and-effect relationships or if there really is an inner self capable of deciding. Let’s imagine that we are able to know all the variables that can influence human behavior and how they do it: would we be able to predict in an absolute way, without margin for error, our conduct or that of others? Apparently the answer to this dilemma is yes; but if that were the case, we would be denying the existence of free will, as we could determine the future.

Neuroscience has shown that our brains decide even before we know we have to. Results of this kind lead us to question the true role of consciousness. Nowadays it is still difficult to understand whether our mind is deterministic or not. However, psychology assumes that it is possible to predict certain behaviors, but always with a certain margin of error, therefore the deterministic theory is very useful for research purposes.

The Homunculus Paradox and Free Will

To conclude our reflection on mechanistic determinism, it seems appropriate to dwell on the Homunculus Paradox. It is a theoretical incompatibility between psychology and the existence of free will. On many occasions a paradox helps us to recognize our mistakes and to consider new cognitive approaches and new theories.

The Homunculus Paradox is based on the following observation: psychology tells us that any mental process can be explained and described, while free will tells us that we are free to choose which decision to make. Therefore we are led to believe that in our brain there is a “something” that is responsible for our decisions, this something takes the name of homunculus (or homunculus), because it is a kind of little human who decides for us.

If it is the homunculus who grants us the freedom of choice, who grants him free will? We would think that inside it lodges a further homunculus who decides, but at this point we would find ourselves faced with an infinite homunculus paradox. It would be like comparing the human mind to a series of matryoshka dolls.


Mechanistic determinism presents itself as a useful paradigm for interpreting psychic reality. Furthermore, it seems that the theoretical incompatibilities, combined with the evidence that come to light with time, lead us precisely in this direction. But beware, this does not mean that we have to blindly believe this theory, as it is likely that reality is much more complex than that and that neither school of thought (determinism and free will) has been right.

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