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Freedom vs. Determinism: Hard Determinism, Libertarianism, Semi-Compatibilism, and Compatibilism

Updated on October 10, 2017
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Freedom vs. Determinism

Are humans responsible for their actions?

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The Paradox: Do Humans Have Free Will?

The paradox of freedom versus determinism has plagued philosophers for ages. A paradox arises when two (or more) equally evident assumptions lead to apparently inconsistent results. This paradox derives from the inconsistent theories of hard determinism (the determinist position), libertarianism, semi-compatibilism, and compatibilism.

Is the determinist position true, or are humans free agents who can act by their own free-will? In order to better understand such a conundrum, I will first state what the multiple theories of this paradox posit, and then I will eliminate the unsatisfactory arguments to make room for the correct answer to said paradox. Finally, I will argue why I believe the compatibilist position is most correct when devising a solution to said paradox.

Hard Determinism

When discussing freedom versus determinism, it seems apparent that a paradox occurs between the two theories. If determinism is correct, then we must accept the thesis of universal causation. This thesis claims that everything that happens has a cause, and that every action is caused. Some theorists even claim that the causation of our actions is ancestrally determined. The concept of ancestral determination claims that the agent’s action is brought about by a string of causes that goes back to a time in the remote past. For example, the action of my writing this paper was determined by some unknown original cause that predates my existence and possibly even the existence of mankind.

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Freedom vs. Determinism

When understanding the multiple positions of the freedom versus determinism paradox, it can be understood that determinism is the underlying foundation of the determinist position. Determinists state that determinism is true. If every action is caused, then there are no free actions. If there are no free actions, then no one is responsible for his or her behavior. Therefore, no one is responsible for their behavior.

Incompatibilism

Stemming from the determinist conclusions follows the acceptance of the final premises of incompatibilism. The incompatibilist argues that for any action A, if A is ancestrally determined, then A is causally determined by conditions over which the agent had no control. If the agent had no control, then the action the agent performed was not free. The incompatibilist concludes with the paired statements: if determinism is true, then every action is ancestrally determined, and if determinism is true, then no actions are free. Thus, if one is so inclined to accept determinism, one must accept the final premises of incompatibilism: actions which are ancestrally determined, are not free actions.

While this may not be the intuitive approach many are searching for in their life's journey, philosophers such as Benedict De Spinoza suggest, “We think we are free because we are ignorant of the causes of our actions. Like the prisoner, if we were but enlightened concerning the true nature of our situation, we would see that we are not free” (Lehrer 95). Perhaps, like in many other aspects of our life, we are again ignorant to the truth of our current situation.

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Libertarianism

Obviously, the determinist position is not accepted by all. Many philosophers argue that not all our actions are determined. Instead, they claim that some of our actions are free. The philosophers who claim that we have free actions are called libertarians. The radical opposition that libertarians pose to the determinist position is their acceptance of free actions. Libertarians accept the incompatibility premise that holds agents morally responsible for free actions. Incompatibilism maintains that determinism is incompatible with human freedom. Libertarians accept that there are free actions, and in doing so, believe that we are morally responsible for some of our actions, namely, the free ones.

Freedom and The Shadow Principle

What, then, is considered freedom? Chapter 3 of Philosophical Problems and Arguments (PP&A) states, “To say that an action is free is to say that we could have done otherwise, that we were free to do otherwise, or that it was in our power to do otherwise” (Lehrer 98). Essentially, person S performs action A freely if and only if (iff) S performs A, and S could have done otherwise.

In order to further identify with freedom, the Shadow Principle was developed. The Shadow Principle claims that no condition of the past can prevent me from acting now unless it causes a current condition that prevents me from acting now. Current conditions that prevent me from acting now are known as causal shadows. In order to surpass these causal shadows and act in accordance with freedom, there must be an absence of external physical constraint, an absence of interior physical constraint, and an absence of internal psychological constraint, such as a compulsion or a phobia.

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Semi-Compatibilism

For many, it seems likely that there can be some compromise between the determinist and libertarian positions. Here, we find two final controversies that may suggest a radical reexamination of such a paradox: semi-compatibilism and compatibilism.

The first controversy was suggested by a philosopher named John Martin Fischer. Fischer rejects the end premises of the determinist position. In his claim, the semi-compatibilist claim, he maintains the position that there are no free actions, but rejects the claim that agents are not morally responsible for their behavior. For the semi-compatibilist, free-will has nothing to do with moral responsibility. The only alteration this claim would make is that agents should be held morally responsible for their actions, even if said actions are not free.

Compatibilism and the "Iffy" Analysis of Freedom

Thus, we have come to a point in this discussion where I shall finally examine compatibilism; compatibilism being the best solution to the freedom versus determinism paradox. Remember that a paradox occurs because the determinist accepts universal causation, that there are no free actions, and that no one is responsible for his/her own behavior; while libertarians reject determinism, claiming that there are free actions, and that agents are morally responsible for their actions, namely, free ones.

At this juncture, I hold that compatibilism is most correct when evaluating the freedom versus determinism paradox. The compatibilist position states that freedom and determinism are compatible, that the determinist position is true, that there are free actions, and that people are morally responsible for their free actions. The traditional compatibilist view states that S performs A freely only if S could have done otherwise. The suggestion of ‘could have done otherwise’ is offered by compatibilists as the “iffy” analysis of freedom. The “iffy” analysis of freedom states that ‘S could have done otherwise’ just means that S would have done otherwise if S had chosen to do otherwise.

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The Argument for Compatibilism: Reason as Causation

In order to solidify their position, the compatibilist states that the inconsistency of determinism and freedom–that if the determinist position is true then, there is no free action; and the belief that at least some actions are free–are only apparent, and not real. Essentially, “some compatibilists have tried to show that the idea of free action, that is, the idea that a person could have done otherwise, does not imply anything incompatible with determinism” (115).

The way compatibilists argue for their position is to make the claim that actions are caused, but that they are caused by something not itself an action. From this position, it is suggested that reason can be that which brings about a rational action. Reason is an explanation for an action, and is the reason for causing the action, but is not an action within itself. Suppose, at the end of this paper, I give reasons stating why I concluded the paper the way I did. The reasons are not actions, they did not cause the conclusion of my paper, and they merely explain the conclusion of my paper. While they are not the source of the conclusion, they are needed in order to establish a firm conclusion.

To help better represent the argument, PP&A suggested a helpful analogy: that of striking a match to light it. “No one doubts that striking a match is causally connected with its lighting, but to say that the striking of the match caused its lighting is to give a very inadequate causal account” (118). It seems, then, that reasoning can bring about cause, but does not necessarily have to be a cause in and of itself.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I have discussed the multiple theories that come about when surmising an answer to the paradox of freedom versus determinism: hard determinism, libertarianism, semi-compatibilism, and compatibilism. I have thus concluded that we should accept compatibilism as the most appropriate approach to understanding such a paradox.

As the compatibilist suggests, determinism is true, but we sometimes have free actions, and therefore, agents should be held morally responsible for their actions. We can accept the notion that we have, at least some of the time, free actions, because of reasoning. Reasoning allows us to bring about results, without actually generating a cause in and of itself.

Bibliography

Cornman, James W., Keith Lehrer, and George Sotiros Pappas. Philosophical Problems and Arguments: an Introduction. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.

Crash Course: Freedom vs. Determinism

© 2017 Luke Holm

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    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 2 months ago

      Wow, this is good stuff!

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      For levels of the spirit plane see:

      https://www.near-death.com/paranormal/edgar-cayce/...

      sections 10, 11 and particularly 12.

    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 2 months ago

      Mmm, beautifully said, Jay C. :) Thank you for clarifying! You mentioned the levels of the spirit plane. Do you know much about them? You should write a hub about them. I'd definitely be interested in learning more. Also, I really liked your analogy, as the more physical I feel (disconnected from spirit), the muckier my mind gets...much like walking through mud or water. Well said! Thank you for all of this. I really appreciate your input alongside my journey.

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      I will try to be more articulate. I may have misstated my position ealier and I apologize. We are talking about Materialism vs. Spiritualism (assuming the spirit exists). Why? Because if the spirit plane exists and we are creative, ultimately we have complete Free Will.

      Q. 1. How do you know that cause and effect occur only in the material world and not in the spirit world?

      A. 1. I do not know. It is a theory. The idea is that Cause and Effect or Karma in the material world is slowed down. The creative process of the mind is impeded in this plane. Being in the material plane is like walking through water or mud compared to air. In the spirit plane Cause and Effect is instant which may cause harm to self. We must learn to use our creative mind here before we graduate to the spiritual plane. There are levels in the spirit world.

      Q. 2. If energy + mind = physical body, how come a physical body still exists after death?

      A. 2. So much for math! Energy is life and the mind is the focus of the energy. The energy body and the mind are connected and inseparable. Both, together attach or detach to or from the material body which is separate.

      Q. 3. If we use our minds to create ourselves, how is it that we are born before mind is present within the body? Do you think the mind exists the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg?

      A. 3. The energy body (spirit) is always with the mind, which is the focus. The spirit and its mind are connected and eternal. Perhaps you are thinking of the brain, which is the material.

    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 2 months ago

      Jay C, thank you for commenting. Rather than an argument about materialism versus idealism, it was an argument about free will vs. determinism. Regardless, I see your argument and do have several questions about it (while bearing in mind that I too believe we are spirits manifest in the physical world):

      1. How do you know that cause and effect occur only in the material world and not in the spirit world?

      2. If energy + mind = physical body, how come a physical body still exists after death?

      3. If we use our minds to create ourselves, how is it that we are born before mind is present within the body? Do you think the mind exists the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg?

      Going back to the article, if you are still curious, my thesis concludes as such: As the compatibilist suggests, determinism is true, but we sometimes have free actions, and therefore, agents should be held morally responsible for their actions. We can accept the notion that we have, at least some of the time, free actions, because of reasoning. Reasoning allows us to bring about results, without actually generating a cause in and of itself.

      Thank you for generating some good dialogue!

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      This article seems to take the position of a materialist. What if we are actually spirits (energy)? If we are energy with energy bodies we are free to create ourselves without the cause and effect within materialism. Cause and effect occur only in the material world, not the energy/spirit world.

      Assuming we are spirit energy, our mind forms and directs that energy into what appears in the physical. Energy + Mind = Physical Body (where cause and effect occur). When the Energy withdraws from the Physical Body (death) the cause and effect ends.

      This means we as Energy have Free Will to create our environment, including our physical bodies. Use your Mind to create yourself well.