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Critically Examine the Claim That Free Will and Determinism Are Incompatible

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  • Category: Free Will

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Critically examine the claim that free will and determinism are incompatible One of the main questions that we face is whether or not, we as humans have genuine freedom. Are we free to make our own choices? Do we decide what happens in our lives in the future? Or are our lives set pathways in which we have no say at all? Are all our choices already decided? In other words, do we have free will or are our actions pre-determined, or both? Hard determinists, libertarians and soft determinists all set out to provide answers to these questions, holding different views on whether or not free will and determinism are compatible. Both hard determinists and libertarians believe that free will and determinism are incompatible but hard determinists reject the idea of free will whereas libertarians support the idea of free will and reject determinism. On the other hand, soft determinists believe that free will and determinism are in fact compatible. Hard determinists believe in the theory of universal causation-that is for every physical even, there is a prior physical cause.

Benedict Spinoza out it as ‘In the mind there is no absolute or free will; but the mind is determined to will this or that by a cause, which has been determined by another cause, and this last by another cause, and so on until infinity.’ They say that as the universe in governed by laws of nature, with enough information, we could necessitate what will happen and therefore accurately predict everything that will happen in the future. This area of determinism is known as scientific determinism who, in the words Pierre-Simon Laplace, believe that ‘If you know the speed and position of a particle, it would be possible to know their position at any other time’, meaning that you can predict the future by the state of the universe now. Humans are part of the universe and like everything else, are made up of particles and so are governed by the laws of nature. All our actions have a prior cause and choices that precede them.

This set of complex prior causes determines the decisions that we make. Our lives are run on fixed lines. Moral choice and our feelings of freedom are illusory. Our choices only appear uncaused as we are ignorant of what causes those choices. This was illustrated by John Locke in his locked room analogy which goes as follows: a man wakes up in a room that, unknown to him, is locked from the outside. He chooses to stay in the room, believing he has chosen freely. In reality, he has no option. However, his ignorance of this gives him an illusion of freedom. As a result of all this, there is no free will and so determinism cannot be compatible with it. As we are not free, we cannot be held morally responsible for our actions. Hard determinists hold that genetics may have a powerful influence on how we respond and they say that our socioeconomic backgrounds, religious-cultural backgrounds and our experience of life may affect us in such a way that our behaviour is determined rather that free.

While few scientists would argue that genes cause people to do things, the combination of all these elements might. This was argued by Clarence Darrow who was a lawyer and got his clients sentence for murder reduced by saying that their actions were influenced by social and hereditary aspects so they were not fully responsible for their actions. Hard determinism holds that there are no free acts and so no moral responsibility. If this is true them it means that we are mistaken to praise some people for being good and to blame others for being bad. With hard determinism there is no praise and no blame and this is one of the main criticisms of the theory. It is commonly assumed that we should be held responsible for acts which we freely choose to commit but with hard determinism, no act is free so how can we take responsibility? For a judicial system to be just then we need to presuppose blame, but hard determinism does not allow us to do that. In addition,, categories of full, diminished, and no responsibility become insignificant with hard determinism.

Another criticism is that the determinist’s position puts into doubt people’s hopes for the future. Many believe that the world is largely determined but we can still act freely as our behaviour is not predictable. Thomas Aquinas disagreed with hard determinism as he believed that ‘man chooses freely, not out of necessity’. Although Aquinas and others that criticise hard determinism and disagree with the hard determinist views, would still agree with hard determinists in that free will and determinism are incompatible, but would argue that we have free will but our lives are not determined. This view that free will and determinism are incompatible but it is free will that exists, not determinism, is also supported by libertarians. Libertarians believe that we are free and are morally responsible for our actions. They believe that the inanimate world is mechanical and is therefore caused and predictable but reject the idea that this extends to humans. Libertarians hold that we are not compelled to act by forces outside our moral consciousness; moral actions instead come from the character and values of the agent.

There are factors which may influence someone to act in one way but it is not certain that they will. C.A. Campbell’s notion of freedom states that when you are acting freely, the future is genuinely open to you and you can actually choose one way or another, even with given nature and nurture. Libertarians do not argue for absolute freedom but significant freedom-that it is a domain of your existence in which you can genuinely decide and for which you can be held morally accountable. Libertarians distinguish between personality and moral self. They concede that personality is an empirical concept governed by causal laws, capable of scientific explanation and prediction. It is formed by heredity and the environment which limits the choices one has and makes us more likely to choose certain kinds of actions and not others. The moral self however may counteract the tendencies of the personality. The moral self is not an empirical, but an ethical concept, operative when we decide what to do in situations of moral choice. Most commonly it involves deciding between self interest and duty. Determinists object to this libertarian view.

They say that if it is admitted that personality may be determined by such things as heredity and environment, why is it not also accepted that moral attitudes may be conditioned in the same way? Ivan Pavlov demonstrated how easy it is to condition in his salivating dogs experiment where he conditioned dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell whenever it was rung. Libertarians would argue that the act of decision-making demonstrates that we all posses free will. This is because we an only make decisions about what to do if we don’t already know what we are going to do and if it is in our power to do what we are thinking of doing. The determinist would argue against this by saying that although we believe we are free and support this idea by the experience of decision-making, we are not actually free. They say we could believe many things due to experience but this is not to say that those things are actually true. Decision-making deceives us into thinking that free will exists.

Libertarians answer this with an argument that distinguishes between two kinds of knowledge and truths. Some statements, for example, ‘all bachelors are married’, are necessarily true as they could not possibly be false, it is an analytical statement. Other statements such as ‘it is raining’ are contingently true as they are verified by sense experience and could be proven false. They believe that the notion of free will is analytical and necessary. It is universally always true. On the other hand, soft determinists, Including Thomas Hobbes and David Hume, believe that free will and determinism are, in fact, compatible. Hume says ‘…by liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may…’. This means that the will is determined but we can still choose our actions in accordance to the will. They say that determinism does not rule out free will and say that actually, freedom is dependent on determinism.

Soft determinists hold that you are free when you are not coerced to do something against your will e.g. if someone was pointing a gun to your head and telling you to rob a shop, you were not free to make that decision to rob the shop. An action is therefore free if it is not caused by compulsion or something external to the agent where the situation is one in which the agent could have acted differently if they had wanted to. You are seen to be free when you do what you want unhindered. As a result it is claimed that free will is preserved and seen to be compatible with determinism as they would argue that the psychological state constituting you such as your wishes, desires or intentions are ultimately caused by your nature, but it is in your power to have acted differently if you had chosen to do so. However they do say that if an act is not caused then it is unpredictable and irresponsible and so random acts can have no moral status.

An objection to soft determinism is that if determinism is true and an unhindered agent is completely determined to have the wants that he does have and if those wants causally determine their actions then even though he does do what he wants to do, he cannot ever do otherwise. Hume tried to respond to this by arguing that determinism maintains that what happens in the future is dependent upon the pats, determinism is consistent with the future being different given a different past. Therefore the ability to do otherwise is compatible with determinism. But there is still another objection. There is no point in talking about the decision that an agent could have made because he was always determined to have the wants to make their original decision. What could have happened doesn’t matter because the first was always determined. Also what if you are prone to a psychological disorder that prevents you from making an alternative choice? E.g. if you have to choose between a green and a red hat, but you have a phobia of red hats, are you free to choose the red hat? In conclusion, libertarians and hard determinists both hold that free will and determinism are incompatible but for different reasons.

The libertarian view is that although some conditions e.g. psychology may predispose someone to act in a certain way, it is not 100 percent that they will-they may choose to do something else as we as humans are all free and responsible agents. Plato supported this view which can be seen in his quote: ‘your destiny shall not be altered to you, but you shall choose it for yourself’ They hold that free will exists and determinism is wrong, we are not determined, as human, by prior causes. Hard determinists disagree and believe that all actions are determined by prior causes and we therefore have no free will. Soft determinists are the ones who believe that free will and determinism are compatible and are both needed for them to both work.

Their view could be summed up by saying that we are free to act as long as we act voluntarily and not out of coercion. Factors may influence us but possibility remains open. Some aspects are determined but we are morally responsible for our action. So it has been proved that free will and determinism can be compatible as it takes into account our sense of freedom but does not leave every single act up to random choices and coincidence. But who or what decides the actions that are already determined?

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