Summary of Free Will vs. Determinism

The Determinist Argument  – (in its most simple form)

  • Actions are caused.
  • Caused actions aren’t free.
  • Actions aren’t free.

Response 1 – Libertarianism  – Challenges the first premise – some actions aren’t casually determined. Below are four brief arguments in defense of libertarianism and outlines of responses to those arguments.

  1. Argument from experience (we just know we have free will)
    Response – But that doesn’t mean we are right. Consider Delgado’s experiment. He tweaks your brain causing you act, but you think you freely did that thing.
  2. Universe is indeterministic – (not everything is predictable at the quantum level; there indeterminism appears to be part of reality.) Response – At micro level, the level of subatomic particles, this is true; but at the macro level, the level of your brain, this appears irrelevant.
  3. We can’t predict our own acts (actions aren’t predictable in principle, and thus free)
    Response – Still, an ideal observer can predict your actions, determinism means predictable in principle or by an ideal observer.
  4. Argument from accountability (we are accountable, and that implies free will)
    Response – But how do we know our belief in accountability is justified? Because it’s “natural” to believe in accountability doesn’t mean we should believe in it.

Moreover, can libertarianism explain behaviors? Can it say something about why we act other than to say determinism is false? Can it offer a positive account of how we supposedly choose? It seems not. Libertarianism can’t explain how we make decisions without resorting to ghostly souls within, or by having faith that cause and effect doesn’t affect our brains. This doesn’t seem like much of an alternative to determinism.

Response 2 – Compatibilism – Challenges the second premise – Freedom doesn’t mean actions are uncaused, but that actions are uncoerced; freedom isn’t actions without causes, but actions caused by individuals. So actions can be caused, and still be free, says the compatibilist.

To better understand this consider that  uncaused actions would be random, but random actions aren’t free actions. So free will requires that actions are caused! A person’s character, desires, thoughts, and intentions cause behavior. And the fact that we can predict someone’s behavior doesn’t mean they aren’t free. Just because I know what you’ll probably do doesn’t mean that you didn’t choose freely.

Problem with Compatibilism

Compatibilists say that we are free if our actions are uncoerced. But are actions ever uncoerced?  It seems not, since character, desires, thoughts, intentions, preferences, desires, etc. are all caused by forces beyond our control.

Ethics and free will – what are the implication of all this for ethics?

Deliberation – We still have goals—and take pleasure in achieving and pursuing them—even if we know we have them because of genes and environment. So it still makes sense to strive for things, and it still makes sense to deliberate.

Good and Bad – We can still think of some actions or people as good or bad. We can still say that torture is bad, and medical care is good. Even if we know why someone does the bad (good) things they do, the things they do are still bad (good).

Responsibility – But without free will we aren’t responsible for our actions. Here we have two options, In reply we could say:

1) Without free will one is not responsible – So let’s find out what’s wrong/right with people/cultures so that we can make them, and the world, better. Or we could say:

2) Without free will one is responsible – We might say that one is blameworthy if they have no excuses,  or praiseworthy if they have no credit-eliminating conditions.

Problem with #2 – But since none of us set our initial conditions—our genome or environment—aren’t there always excuses or credit-eliminating conditions to appeal to? And if the answer is yes, then we probably should conclude that people, in large part, don’t ultimately control either their thoughts or actions. And in that case, we shouldn’t hold them responsible.

All of this suggests that we should be empathic toward others and ourselves since we are all genomes in environments. This is one of the benefits of giving up a belief in free will. And this suggests we adopt therapeutic models of helping people. 

Final Thought – Despite the fact that we are in large part the product of genes and environment, we are not rocks or plants.  Consciousness has emerged in the evolutionary process and perhaps, along with it, a modicum of what we call free choice.

(This entry relied heavily on James and Stuart Rachels’ book: Problems from Philosophy.)

7 thoughts on “Summary of Free Will vs. Determinism

  1. There is no free will. Legal consequences for antisocial behavior should be framed in terms of society’s concern about violation of trust.

    Prison should be for those who can’t be trusted not to commit mayhem against other conscious beings. Prison shouldn’t be “punishment” but rather straightforward physical isolation of the dangerous. We keep them there as long as they are considered dangerous. No predetermined length of sentence … only periodic judicial review. (And no death penalty, as an acknowledgement of government’s imperfection … there is no way to compensate someone for wrongful execution.)

    For other categories of crime, we are dealing with lesser trust issues — ankle bracelets and other methods of monitoring behavior should be adequate. And perhaps mandatory compensatory obligations suitable to the crime.

  2. As we progress morally and scientifically we will adopt a therapeutic model for anti-social behavior, rather than our archaic retributionist model. Our descendents will look back with horror at the barbarity of the American prison system and its dungeons. Then we will finally understand what Karl Menninger was talking about 50 years ago in “The Crime of Punishment.”

  3. So if I’m not accountable and I hit you, it is wrong for you to hit me back. Is that what you are saying?
    Because that is exactly happens when you don’t punish criminals.

  4. > But are actions ever uncoerced? It seems not, since character, desires, thoughts, intentions, preferences, desires, etc. are all caused by forces beyond our control.

    That’s not what coercion means.

    “Uncoerced” means that we made the decision using our own preferences, desires, etc. and were of sound mind when doing so, etc. – no gun to the head, no threats on our family, no arm twisting.

    It does NOT mean “no causal chains”

  5. To make some further points.

    1. Free-will IS NOT about wishfull thinking. Like i want an airplane and in a split of second i have an airplane materialised ready to go off. Free will is about action, which with necessary effort, time and resources can inded lead to materialising an airplane (as indeed it has).

    2. One does not need such contrived example as an evil neuro-surgeon (and a certain neuro-biological theory it alludes to), one can make same point with a simpler and more realistic example. One can just be given false information in order to influence its actions. Guess what we are IN FACT fed with false information, propaganda and lies in many cases. Yet one can handle all this and act in various ways. This is free will. Free will IS NOT about instant omni-science, NOR about instant panoramic (360 degrees) vision. Which we dont have.

    Here is another discussion around this topic for anyone interested (my own comments and discussion at the end):

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