Free Will, Determinism and the Death of Robin Williams

In Frank Lorentzon’ s essay entitled “Free Will, Determinism and Suicide”, the author presents the reader with an authentic and informative article regarding various philosophical viewpoints on the existence or non-existence of free will in the context of suicide. After review, the information within can be used to form an opinion on whether or not the actor/comedian, Robin Williams, exerted his own free will when he took his life in August 2014.

The question itself, regarding whether or not we have free will is summed up nicely in Lorentzon’s first paragraph when he states “…the question doesn’t concern whether we feel free or not when acting or deciding what to do, but whether we are free or not.” (Lorentzon, 2005). In the first section of the essay, he proceeds to introduce the reader to the common philosophies on free will – determinism, compatibilism, libertarianism and fatalism. He defines determinism as a hypothesis that states that everything that happens has a prior cause; therefore, everything is determined regardless of whether the cause is known or unknown. Compatibilism, he defines as “…the power to act according to one’s will…” (Lorentzon, 2005), then goes on to describe how this solution does not state that your will is actually free, as it is defined by outside influences such as memories, mood and perception. Our will is therefore, part of “…an all-encompassing causal web…” (Lorentzon, 2005). In other words, your will is not free, although your choice is. Libertarianism is the belief that we do have free will and the freedom to do what we didn’t want to do while fatalism says we do not have freedom at all.

Having defined the various philosophies, he explains their weaknesses. Whether it is compatibilism’s omission that we could have done otherwise than we did or libertarianism’s seeming lack of acknowledgment for event causation that was not under an agent’s control. For example, I can get in my car with the intent to drive to the grocery store, but if my car won’t start, I then decide to call the repairman instead. My choice may have been mine, however, an uncontrollable event forced me to make that decision.

In the second part of the essay, Lorentzon uses Camus and Kierkegaard as examples of how philosophers define control over their choices specifically when it comes to suicide. Camus, who introduced us to the “absurd” as a way of describing our existence as meaningless, argued that, although meaningless is true, we should revolt against the absurdity and live life as if it has meaning. Through our revolt against the absurd, life becomes worth living.

But, suicide is not necessarily the result of an intellectual argument within oneself. Lorentzon puts it succinctly when he says “…a person considering or actually trying to commit suicide usually does so out of despair, not as a result of reflection…” (Lorentzon, 2005). The person has lost their “felt ability for control” or their perception of control. Paradoxically, killing oneself can be a way of regaining control over one’s life. By committing suicide, you have performed the ultimate act of control over your life.

Kierkegaard addresses this paradox by stating that we must affirm opposites, even if to exclude them as possibilities. Therefore, to affirm life we must accept death even as an excluded possibility. Lorentzon summarizes Kierkegaard by saying “…only in contrast to its annihilation one can evaluate the value of one’s own life.” (Lorentzon, 2005).

The third part of the essay is a subjective view of the author’s opinion on free will and its effect on suicide. He recognizes the question of suicide is ultimately one about control and that the “question is primarily of an existential nature.” (Lorentzon, 2005). It is not just an intellectual pursuit when someone contemplates or attempts suicide; it is “…a question about how we relate to our own agency and to our responsibility for what we are doing.” (Lorentzon, 2005). Ultimately, the answer to free will in this context is something we need to figure out ourselves.

Somewhat in contrast, Dr. Kohls outlines a case for Robin Williams’ death as one that was determined by external means and not a decision made of free will. In the essay “The Suicide of Robin Williams: Why We Need a Grand Jury Inquest to Investigate It”, Kohls makes accusations in the form of probing questions, suggesting that there were one or more causes of Robin Williams’ suicide that go beyond mere depression. In the introduction of the essay, Dr. Kohls provides the background for Williams’ suicide, letting the reader know upfront that the actor entered a psychiatric facility just a month before his death and that he “had been given an as yet unknown cocktail of prescription drugs that resulted in…withdrawing from his loved ones…” and “sleeping…in his darkened bedroom for up to 20 hours a day, in an apparent drug-induced stupor.” (Kohls, 2014). Williams was reported to have Parkinson’s Disease, which Kohls points out may have been an indicator of the drugs’ side effects which had even more severe withdrawal side effects including “…acute psychosis, hallucinations, insomnia and mania…which can lead a physician to falsely diagnose schizophrenia or bipolar disorder”. (Kohls, 2014).

One may immediately surmise that Williams’ death was one that was caused by external causes and, therefore, determined. However, as Kohls points out in the section called “The Taboo Reality: Psych Drugs Can Cause Suicidality”, drug companies (“Big Pharma”) have control over the message being relayed to the public, which actually creates a sense that portraying free will in the case of Williams’ suicide is a distraction from the potential truth. Kohls alleges that there is a gross effort to provide disinformation in essays and websites, as well as other media platforms, to redirect the reader from the drugs to the victim. He wrote, “Most of those commentaries distract readers from making the connections between suicidality and psych drugs.” (Kohls, 2014). And, he says that this was not limited to just Williams death, but to many more folks including veterans as well as active military. Information in the media is vague about what drugs these unfortunate victims took. “There seems to be a taboo on revealing the drug names, dosages, length of usage or who prescribed them.” (Kohls, 2014). This information would clearly be useful for any autopsy to determine the true cause of death, but should also be public knowledge as a safety concern.

Drugs, however, may not be the only determining factor in the suicide of Robin Williams. As per Kohls in the section titled “Stress Induced and Drug Induced Mental Ill Health Doesn’t Mean One has a Mental Illness”, the reader gets a description of Williams’ life as an addict. His personal life was in tatters, having been an addict of alcohol and cocaine, as well as experiencing two divorces and near-bankruptcy. He still had to pay alimony and other debts, so he was forced to sign contracts. Having landed a TV show, “the pressures of working so hard got him drinking again” (Kohls, 2014), but the show was cancelled after one season in May of 2014. Three months later, he entered a Minnesota Psychiatric Facility and one month after that, he was dead. Kohls puts it bluntly – “Robin Williams ended his life shortly after being prescribed a cocktail of unproven drugs that had never been certified by the FDA as either safe or effective.” (Kohls, 2014). But, his voluntary admission into a rehabilitation clinic signifies the desire to live, since his aim was to get psychiatric assistance.

Suicide is a great mystery to us, mostly because both the perpetrator and the victim are the same person and they’re unavailable for any inspection after the deed is done. We can only look at their lives before their final act to figure out whether or not their suicide was an act of free will or determinism. Lorentzon believes that suicide is a question of an existential nature, however, we can easily see that with the suicide of Robin Williams, this may not have been a question of free will, but, instead, a series of events – causes that were beyond Williams’ control, that ultimately led to his demise. Could he have declined the prescriptions? Yes, but there was no reason for him to. He was already in the midst of depression, with a history of self-abuse through addiction, and then was given the misinformed promise of recovery – of feeling better – which had the opposite effect.

I can’t even see a possibility where Williams’ had the chance to exercise free choice, not just free will. A series of negative experiences, including addiction, as well as the imposed authority of doctors prescribing medications without full disclosure of their side effects are unquestionably causal to the final result. The fact that he sought help is a curious choice for someone who was suicidal. And, what was not mentioned in Dr. Kohls’ article was that Robin Williams suffered from Lewy Body Dementia, which impacts thinking, memory and motor functions. Lorentzon seems to acknowledge Williams’ predicament when he highlights the weakness of libertarianism. He says, “…it must be caused by the agent, but nothing must cause the agent to produce this will instead of another one – it’s an uncaused cause.” (Lorentzon, 2005). What else could the prescription of a pharmaceutical with unknown effects be other than an uncaused cause?


Works Cited

Kohls, D. G. (2014, August 25). The Suicide of Robin Williams: Why We Need a Grand Jury Inquest to Investigate It. Retrieved from Global Research:

Lorentzon, F. (2005). Free Will, Determinism and Suicide. Philosophical Communications, Web Series, No. 36, 3.