Free Will and Determinism


Everyone believes that he or she has free will and makes free choices in life.

Now consider the matter in detail. How much freedom do you really have?prison School, parents and the law ensure that most of your time, your responsibilities and your behaviour are regulated and you will be held to account if you fall short of the mark.

In addition most people have personal standards, expectations of themselves, personal pride and complexes which regulate what they do or don’t do.

Other people can see this as well – they will say “she won’t do that.” Or “I know he is capable of doing that sort of thing.”

We are known, we are predictable, we are restricted in all sorts of ways, albeit very subtle ways. So where exactly do we exercise this free will?

FATALISM The ancient Greeks believed that we were all subject to fate. The whole of life was drafted out and we could not escape our fate. Fate was even stronger than the gods. This meant that for the individual there was no escape from his or her destiny and of course no real moral responsibility for the actions a person took in life.

Not quite the same thing, but various church fathers believed that the whole of one’s life was master-minded by God, who knew whether you would be goodcalvin-john or bad and whether or not you were destined for heaven or hell. More detail on this can be found in the writings of Augustine of Hippo and John Calvin.

DETERMINISM (Sometimes called Hard Determinsim)
This is a more modern philosophical position and one which is being strengthened by scientific research, psychology and sociology. The determinist would want to say that every action in life, every decision that we make is determined. In a sense we are sort of robots responding to our upbringing, culture, sociological pressure and psychological needs. It is a theory which is very much in accord with ideas that the whole of the universe is controlled by scientific laws. Humans are an integral part of the universe and our responses are both predictable and unchangeable.
Scholars who support this view are
John Hospers
Ted Honderich
Paul-Henri Thiry (Baron d’Holbach)
John Locke – Locke is particularly interesting because his example of hard determinism brings out the point that although we believe we have free will, it is, in fact an illusion!
It is also worth looking up Laplace’s Demon – it is a bit historical, now disproved, but some examiners see this as an interesting fact.
There is a very strong scientific slant on determinism. Text books will talk about Isaac Newton’s discoveries. But there is also a wealth of evidence in favour of showing that we act the way we do because of the people that we are.
Psychological behaviourism may be seen in animals and humans – see John B Watson and Ivan Pavlov. B F Skinner wrote an interesting book Walden Two showing how induced positive behaviour in a community can produce a group of people who can be relied upon to act in a particular way. Richard Dawkins, following the principles of Charles Darwin believes that many of our “free” actions are, in reality caused by biological reactions within us.
Your text book will also tell you about Clarence Darrow at length! Beware of Darrow, he was not a philosopher. He was an opportunist lawyer, with a very persuasive tongue. He used what we now call determinism in a famous American legal case.
Nevertheless the case raises the obvious issue about moral responsibility.
If a person is a hard determinist, can he or she be held morally responsible for any wrongdoing? If all our actions are caused by external factors, which make freedom of choice a nonsense, how can we be held to account for things we do wrong?

Your text book will probably print these two terms the other way round, but if you get used to calling Libertarians, Non Compatibilists, you won’t go far wrong.
These people say that in human affairs determinism is wrong. We have and always have freedom of choice.
They don’t deny that there is determinism in the universe. The whole of science supports this and they also believe that scientific determinism impacts upon our existence. We can’t fly like birds, walk on water or defy gravity. But in the non-mechanistic universe, human beings have free will. We can and do exercise our free will by the choices we make each day.

Mr Responsibility

Mr Responsibility

For the libertarian we have free will and it is incompatible with the theory of determinism.
Scholars who support this view
Peter van Inwagen
Jean-Paul Satre
There is a wonderful branch of philosophy called existentialism, which is worth looking at in its own right. It is about each individual discovering and pursuing meaning in his or her own life, despite the moods of popular culture, relativism and the chains of authoritarian expectation.
People like Satre would maintain that all human actions are free; we are free to make moral choices but we carry moral responsibility for our own actions.

Compatibilists accept that much of our life is determined, sometimes by factors of which we may be unaware. They want to say that free will is compatible with this view. Indeed they would claim that it is necessary. It is where an individual may be aware of an action he or she seems destined to do, but makes a positive decision, a free choice to do otherwise.
The kleptomaniac who decides that on this occasion he is not going to steal from his mother. The alcoholic (which many believe is a medical psychological condition) who decides that he will live a life free of alcohol. Albert Schweitzer who despite qualifications in music, medicine and theology decided to create a small mission hospital in French Equatorial Africa called Lambarene.

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

This talented musician, respected theologian might well have been expected to pursue an academic career in German universities; instead he chose to support and care for the people of this small area in Africa.
Some compatibilists reverse the equation and say that it is our choices which determine the set of expectations we fulfil.
Scholars who support this theory
David Hume
Immanuel Kant
Thomas Hobbes
Daniel Dennett
Whatever sort of slant is given to this theory the compatibilist is saying that free will is totally compatible with a deterministic view of the mechanistic universe. It also follows that a so called soft determinist accepts moral responsibility for the choices he or she makes.

Concluding thoughts on this.

As scientific and medical discoveries disclose more about the nature and structure of humans, there is a tendency for an ever increasing number of scholars to accept the view that people’s lives and actions are determined.

On the other hand most normative theories of ethics, such as Kantian Ethics, Utilitarianism and Virtue Ethics rely on a sense of human freedom or choice. Kant believes that we can only carry responsibility for our actions if we are free to do so ie we have a choice in the matter. Utilitarianism assumes that people are free to choose between pleasure and pain. Virtue Ethics assumes that the person recognises and freely chooses the virtuous course of action.

To a large extent it depends where one draws lines between actions that are the result of free choice and actions which may be said to be caused. Very often conflicting scholars will use the same example to illustrate their point of view.


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