Daily Archives: April 25, 2015

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. The universe is indeterministic – (things aren’t predictable at the quantum level; thus reality is indeterministic.) Response – At the micro level, the level of subatomic particles, this is true; but at the macro level, the level of your brain, this is irrelevant.
  3. We can’t predict our own acts (actions aren’t predictable in principle, and thus free)
    Response – Still, an ideal observer could 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 don’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 to do that thing freely.

Problem with Compatibilism

Compatibilists say that we are free if our actions are uncoerced. But are our 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. 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 no one set their 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 should conclude that people 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 largely 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 has also emerged.

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