1 Disho

Free Will And Determinism Philosophy Essay Paper

by Tim Harding

The idea that the future is already determined is known in philosophy as determinism.  There are various definitions of determinism available; but in this essay, I shall use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition, which is ‘the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future’ (McKenna, 2009:1.3).

This idea presents a difficult problem for the concept of free will: how can we make free choices if all our actions are determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature?  A related but distinct question is: how can we be held morally responsible for our actions if we have no choices? Undesirable consequences like these are not sufficient reasons for declaring determinism to be false; but they can act (and have influenced many philosophers) as a powerful motivator towards resolving the apparent conflict between determinism and free will. 

Some philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen have gone as far as arguing that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will (Iredale 2012: 8).[1] There are various other philosophical arguments in favour of free will – one of these is an apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass. Some scientists, such as Sam Harris argue in favour of determinism and claim that free will is an illusion. Leading contemporary philosopher John Searle thinks that the issue has still not been resolved, despite two centuries of philosophical and scientific debate. 

Most people who are neither philosophers nor scientists seem to intuitively feel that they have free will and so when presented with this dilemma are more likely to choose free will over determinism (Iredale 2012:13).  On the other hand, in my personal experience, scientists who think in terms of causes and effects are more likely to side with a determinist view.  In this essay, I intend to argue that a solution to this dilemma lies not in choosing free will over determinism, nor vice versa; but in the theory that determinism and free will are compatible – known as compatibilism.

Before going on, let us be clear about what we mean by the term free will.  Clarke & Capes (2013:1) have provided a useful definition:

‘To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely. When an agent acts freely—when she exercises her free will—it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action’.

So what does it take to act freely?  Taylor (2012: 40) states that there are three essential characteristics to free actions.  One is able to act freely only if:

(1) there is no obstacle that prevents you from doing A, and

(2) there is nothing that constrains or forces you to do A, and

(3) you could have done otherwise.

There is a diversity of philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will; but the higher-level taxonomy of these views may be summarised as follows.  Those who hold that determinism and free will cannot both be true are known as incompatibilists.  Within this category, those who claim that determinism is true – and therefore free will is impossible – are known as hard determinists.  Those who claim that determinism is false and therefore that free will is at least possible are known as metaphysical libertarians (not necessarily related to political libertarians).  Those who think that determinism and free will are compatible are known as compatibilistsThere is also a range of sub-categories within the compatibilist camp; but I will only discuss a couple of them in this essay.  This higher-level taxonomy can be visually described by the following diagram.

To be more specific, the following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5) as the Classical Formulation of the free will problem:

1)      ‘Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.

2)      Actions are events.

3)      Every event has a cause.

4)      If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.

5)      If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.

This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox.  How can these inconsistencies be reconciled?  Compatibilists would deny proposition 5).  Incompatibilists, on the other hand, might move in a number of different directions, including the denial of propositions 1), 3) or 4) (McKenna, 2009:1.5).

According to Taylor (2012: 40), all versions of compatibilism (which he calls ‘soft determinism’) have three claims in common:

(i) Determinism is true.

(ii) We are free to perform an action A to the extent there are no obstacles that would prevent us from doing A, and we are not externally constrained (not forced by external causes) to do A.

(iii) The causes of free actions are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent himself, e.g., an agent’s own acts of will or volitions, or decisions, or desires, and so on.

Claim (i) is made in common with hard determinism.  Claims (ii) and (iii) are where the compatibilists part company with the hard determinists and attempt to explain how free will can be compatible with determinism.

Taylor’s objection to compatibilism is essentially a challenge to Claim (iii); that is, that the certain states, events, or conditions within the agent herself are themselves caused by external factors, consistent with determinism.

My response to Taylor’s objection is that the certain states or conditions within the agent could include the person’s values, ethics, loyalties, priorities, and so on.  Let us call these states or conditions within the agent ‘values’.  These values may have external causes accumulated over the agent’s lifetime.  The important point is that an agent’s values could give rise to more than one possible action by the agent, all of which are consistent with the agent’s values.  Let us call these possible consistent actions ‘options’.  When faced with a decision to make, a rational agent would be likely to consider the options available to her and choose the best option.  In this way, the options available to the agent stem from causes but the agent is making a free choice within the range of options available.

A simple way of modelling this limited version of free will has been referred to by some philosophers as a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ after the novel of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges (McKenna 2009:2.1; Iredale 2012: 14).  In other words, there are alternative paths an agent could choose to take, but the paths available have been predetermined.  Within this model, the agent meets the criterion of acting of her own free will, because she could have acted otherwise.  Her ability to have acted otherwise is underwritten by her ability to have selected amongst, or chosen between, alternative courses of action (McKenna 2009:2.1).

Garden with forked path (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind.  Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness.  Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists.  If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.

Daniel Dennett (2003) has proposed a more elegant version of compatibilism with an evolutionary basis.  Although in the strict physical sense our actions might be determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved.  Seen this way, free will is the freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself.  To clarify this distinction, he coins the term ‘evitability’ as the opposite of ‘inevitability’, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones (Dennett 2003:56).  Evitability is entirely compatible with, and actually requires, determinism; because without it, an agent cannot anticipate likely consequences and avoid them.  Dennett provides us with the following explicit argument:

‘In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms. Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided. Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable.  Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable. Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability’ (Dennett 2003:56).

Dennett (2003:58) also argues that there is a concept of chance that is compatible with determinism, which has been invoked to explain evolution via natural selection.  Through these means, he endeavours to unyoke determinism from inevitability (Dennett 2003:60) [2].

In conclusion, I have offered two accounts of how free will may be compatible with determinism – my own and Daniel Dennett’s.  However, I do not claim that either of these accounts has solved the dilemma.  There are also, of course, many other accounts of compatibilism as well as objections to them, plus alternative theories such as hard determinism and metaphysical libertarianism.  Indeed, resolving the dilemma between free will and determinism is very complicated and may be ‘one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy’ (Nichols and Knobe 2007:1).

Notes

[1] Peter van Inwagen’s argument that free will is required for moral judgments  is:

  1. The moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X implies that you should have done something else instead.
  2. That you should have done something else instead implies that there was something else for you to do.
  3. That there was something else for you to do implies that you could have done something else.
  4. That you could have done something else implies that you have free will.
  5. If you don’t have free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X (van Inwagen 2009).

[2] For those who would like to read more on this topic, there is an interesting online debate between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett critiques Harris’ book on Free Will in a review titled Reflections on Free Will. Then Harris responds to Dennett’s critique in a rejoinder entitled The Marionette’s Lament.

Bibliography

Clarke, Randolph & Capes, Justin, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/incompatibilism-theories/&gt;.

Dennett, Daniel. 2003 Freedom Evolves. London, Penguin.

Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/compatibilism/&gt;.

Nichols, S. & Knobe, 2007 ‘Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous 41(4):663-85 in Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

Taylor, Richard. (1976) ‘Freedom, Determinism and Fate’; printed in Time, Self and Mind Study Guide, Monash, 2012:40-47.

van Inwagen, Peter (2009). The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will. Oxford.

Copyright notice: © All rights reserved. Except for personal use or as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act, no part of this website may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, communicated or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission. All inquiries should be made to the copyright owner, Tim Harding at tim.harding@yandoo.com, or as attributed on individual blog posts.

If you find the information on this blog useful, you might like to consider supporting us.

Like this:

LikeLoading...

Related

Filed under Essays and talks

Tagged as compatibilism, Dennett, determinism, free will, Inwagen, Iredale, John Searle, Paradox, philosophy, rationality, Sam Harris, Tim Harding

Author: Chelsea Haramia
Category: Ethics, Metaphysics
Word Count: 1000

1. Introduction

You probably shouldn’t steal. Common sense tells us that stealing is wrong. But sometimes stealing seems less wrong, or not wrong at all, after we discover the cause of the stealing behavior. For example, if the fact that your family is starving causes you to steal a loaf of bread, many would say that you are not as blameworthy as someone who steals out of greed or spite. And imagine a kleptomaniac who cannot control her stealing behavior. We probably shouldn’t blame her for those actions (though we might encourage her to consult a therapist about her condition).

But why shouldn’t we blame the kleptomaniac? That is to say, how are we justified in holding the kleptomaniac morally responsible? One good reason not to blame the kleptomaniac is that she cannot help her behavior. She possesses a psychological problem that is out of her control. That’s why some defendants are acquitted on grounds of insanity. If you are not in control of your actions, you are not responsible for those actions.

But what if every one of our actions is actually out of our control. That is, what if only seems as if we have the freedom to choose between actions, but we are in fact as undeserving of blame as, say, the severely mentally ill?

There are many philosophically interesting answers to this question, and they deal with some famous and famously difficult problems surrounding the concept of free will. The concept of free will brings with it the idea that at least some of our choices are ours alone—we are fully in control of them, and therefore we are fully responsible for them. Free will is the basis for moral responsibility, or so many have argued.

Philosophers commonly say that ‘ought’ implies ‘can.’ So what does this mean? To justifiably tell someone that she (morally) ought to do something, it would also have to be the case that she can do that thing. Suppose I tell you that you ought to cure cancer. If you did cure cancer, you could prevent large amounts of suffering and many premature deaths. It would be a really good thing. Nonetheless, given that, in all likelihood, it would be impossible for you to cure cancer, it seems absurd to say that you have a moral responsibility to do so, or that you ought to. Importantly, then, you are not blameworthy for your failure to cure cancer. It seems that we are only justified in blaming (or praising) people for their actions—or believing that they are responsible for their actions—when they are able to freelychoose one action over others. But as we have seen, this freedom is the subject of extensive philosophical analysis, and our everyday sense of moral responsibility hangs in the balance.1

2. Libertarian Free Will

Those who claim that we have libertarian free will argue that we make free choices when it is possible that we could have done otherwise.2 When this condition obtains, we are justified in blaming (or praising) the person who made the choice. That is, we are justified in holding that person morally responsible for the action. The idea that we possess free will has a lot of intuitive force behind it, but philosophers have struggled with the question of what could allow for free will in the face of concerns about the causal laws of the world.

3. Determinism

The determinist appeals to the causal laws of the world in order to challenge the claim that we have free will. Everything that happens can be fully explained by the causal history of what happened before. Though it seems as if we have choices, it is always the case that, for any choice we are faced with, only one of the seemingly available paths will ultimately be taken, and the other paths were never truly available.3 To suggest that we have free will is to suggest that we are somehow outside of and unaffected by the causal chain of events—that we can be the sole source of our actions—but the determinist argues that this is unsupported by facts about how the world works.4

3. Compatibilism

The determinist may then find this to be proof that moral responsibility is an illusion, or she may attempt to retain a viable sense of moral responsibility in the face of determinism. Compatibilists argue for the latter. They claim that determinism and moral responsibility are actually compatible.5 By appealing to claims about an agent’s internal state, the compatibilist will argue that agents can be held responsible when they are acting according to certain sort of disposition. And others have pointed out that we still have strong intuitions of responsibility even about cases that are explicitly deterministic.6

4. Revisionism/Illusionism

The power of these intuitions of responsibility cause some determinists to argue for a revisionist approach. They accept that appeals to moral responsibility are theoretically unjustified, but they nonetheless assert that we are pragmatically justified in accepting the illusion that people actually have moral responsibility, because practices of praising and blaming are still useful, and abandoning them could lead to chaos.7

5. Incompatibilism

Finally, there are those who maintain that determinism and moral responsibility are utterly incompatible. Importantly, both determinists and libertarians about free will may hold this view. The libertarian can then tout this incompatibility as a virtue of his view. If the two really are incompatible, then only libertarian free will allows us to retain our very commonsense intuitions of moral responsibility.8 The hard determinist will bite the bullet and claim that, if the two really are incompatible, then we are being intellectually dishonest by maintaining practices of moral responsibility, given that we can always trace the causes of an action to something that is ultimately fully outside of the control of the agent.9

This is an ancient philosophical problem that has given rise to an expanding and ever more nuanced set of views. But we can all agree that anyone who grapples with the problem of free will must also take seriously questions of moral responsibility.

Notes

1See Jonah Nagashima’s 1000-Word Philosophy essay “Free Will and Free Choice” for more philosophical analysis of freedom of the will, and for the metaphysical details underlying some of the views discussed here.

2See Robert Kane’s The Significance of Free Will (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) for more information on libertarian free will.

3Some interpretations of quantum-mechanical results suggest that the outcomes of some measurements are indeterministic, but it is difficult to argue that (1) decisions are quantum-mechanical measurements and (2) wholly random events count as “free” choices.

4See Baron d’Holbach’s System of Nature (translated by H.D. Robinson, New York: Burt Franklin, 1970)or Galen Strawson’s “The Bounds of Freedom” (in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Oxford University Press: New York, 2002) for more information on the determinist position.

5See Daniel Dennet’s “I Could Not Have Done Otherwise—So What?” (in Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2002) or John Martin Fischer’s “Compatibilism” (in Four Views on Free Will. Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the compatibilist position.

6These are commonly referred to as “Frankfurt-style cases,” made famous in Harry Frankfurt’s “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” (in the Journal of Philosophy 66: 829-39, 1969). See also John Martin Fischer’s “Frankfurt-style Examples, Responsibility and Semi-Compatibilism” (in Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2002).

7See Saul Smilansky’s “Free Will, Fundamental Dualism, and the Centrality of Illusionism” (in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, edited by Robert Kane, Oxford University Press: New York, 2002) and Manuel Vargas’ “Revisionism” (in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the revisionist position.

8See Peter van Inwagen’s An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983) for more information on the libertarian incompatibilist.

9See Derk Pereboom’s “Hard Incompatibilism” (in Four Views on Free Will, Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 2007) for more information on the determinist incompatibilist position, also known as “hard incompatibilism” or “hard determinism.”

About the Author

Chelsea is an assistant professor of philosophy at Spring Hill College. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy from CU Boulder, a graduate certificate in gender and women’s studies from CU Boulder, and a B.A. in philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently interested in metaethics, population and procreation ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics, and feminist philosophy. She once did sixteen back flips in a row, but these days she mostly practices mental gymnastics. Website: https://sites.google.com/site/chelseaharamia

 

by 1000wordphilosophy

Leave a Comment

(0 Comments)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *