The Philosophical Debate of Free Will

Updated on April 23, 2019
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L. Sarhan has a B.A. in English and Creative Writing and plans to obtain an M.A. in English with a concentration in literature and theory.

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Philosophers over the centuries have debated on the concept of whether we have free will or not since the time of Plato and Aristotle. Most philosophers fall into one of three categories of determinism, libertarianism, or compatibilism to argue their position whether we have free will or free action or none at all. While determinism argues that everything is determined based on the laws of the universe and therefore we do not have free will, libertarians argue that determinism is false based on the belief that we do have free will yet agree that free will is incompatible with determinism. However, a compatibilist argues that free will is compatible with determinism because although some events can be caused by the past events, laws of nature, random events, or agent causation, having the ability to choose otherwise during or after said events ensures a certain amount of free will based on the utilization of free action.

Before understanding the varying positions arguing for or against free will, one must understand the most widely accepted definition. Genuine free will is when a person has the ability to decide and act otherwise (Fieser, 2018). This is not to be confused with free action. While free will is required to perform free action, there is a distinction between the two. Free action is the ability to do so. Thomas Hobbes defined free will as a case of a free agent who can do as he wills and refrain as he will, granted, that this freedom to choose is done so in the absence of external impediments (Timpe, n.d.). David Hume (qtd. in Timpe, n.d.) defined free will as the “power of acting or of not acting, according to the determination of the will: that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may.” While these are commonly agreed upon views of what free will and free action are, the philosophical arguments focus on proving whether we have free will or not. These philosophical arguments focus on these perceptions of free will to argue from both an indeterminist and an incompatibilist perspective in an attempt to prove their position regarding the case of free will.

Determinism

Determinists will argue against any concept of free will because everything happens in accordance with the laws of nature, whether determined by a chain of events or by random. Their argument against free will is that we do things as a result of the laws of nature to which we have no control of and since all actions are caused by things we have no control over then we cannot choose to act freely, thus we have no free will (Rachels & Rachels, 2012, p. 110). The two main arguments determinists state are:

  1. Determinism is true. All events are caused. All our actions are therefore pre-determined. There is no free will or moral responsibility.
  2. Chance exists. If our actions are caused by chance, we lack control. We cannot call that free will because we could not be held morally responsible for random actions.

A determinist would also argue that human choices and decisions are based on a function of brain activity and since brain activity is restricted by the scope of natural laws, therefore, human choices are also restricted by the natural laws of nature (Frieser, 2018). When it comes to games of chance, such as winning the lottery jackpot, this is also a random event to which we do not have control or free will over.

British philosopher, Sir A.J. Ayers, makes a good case for determinism, although some view it as soft determinism. He believes that all human action is compliant to causal laws of the universe. However, to address the issue of random events as those found in quantum physics and those seemingly in human experience, he states:

“But now we must ask how it is that I come to make my choice. Either it is an accident that I choose to act as I do, or it is not. If it is an accident, then it is merely a matter of chance that I did not choose otherwise; and if it is merely a matter of chance that I did not choose otherwise, it is surely irrational to hold me morally responsible for choosing as I did. But if it is not an accident that I choose to do one thing rather than another, then presumably there is some causal explanation of my choice: and in that case, we are led back to determinism (Ayers, 1954, p.275).”

Even though Ayers is known to be a compatibilist, he also claims that while we are aware of the causes of our actions we are not free to make different choices. He believed within the laws of nature that “a causes b” is equivalent to “whenever a then b”. Ayers gives an example that while a kleptomaniac may desire not to steal, he cannot do otherwise. In turn, if a thief decides to steal, while he could have chosen otherwise, there may be an underlying causal reason to do so, such as poverty (Ayers, 1954, p. 276-277). Thus, I do not really view him as a compatibilist, per se, as he seems to be making a stronger case for determinism than defending the concept of free will.

Libertarianism

According to a survey conducted by Scientific American, almost sixty percent of people surveyed believe that we do have free will (Stix, 2015). Libertarians believe that free will is not compatible with causal determinism because they believe we have free will. Libertarians generally fall into one or more of the following three major categories (Clark & Capes, n.d.):

  1. Event-Causal Libertarians – those who believe that free actions are indeterministically caused by prior events.
  2. Agent-Causal Libertarians – those who believe that agents indeterministically cause free actions.
  3. Non-Causal Libertarians – those who typically believe that free actions are constituted by basic mental actions, such as a decision or choice.

Philosopher and professor at the University of Texas in Austin, Dr. Robert Kane, notes that while determinists and compatibilists disagree with libertarians, this is because libertarians define and view free will differently. He says that “the power to be the ultimate power and sustainer at least some of one’s own ends or purposes; to be a kind of creator of one’s own ends” (Kane qtd. in Philosophy Overdose, 2013). Kane explains that the meaning of can decide and the ability to do is a gray area of interpretation. He also believes that the events in our lives are shaped by our own decisions. For example, he could choose to walk out the door and either turn to the right or the left, without any reason to do either. He decides to turn left and as he is walking he is hit by a car. If he decides to turn right, while he is walking he finds $100 on the ground. Our outcome, or end, depends on the decisions we make. In quantum theory and laws of probability, this aligns with the thought that for every decision we could have made a “daughter universe” in multiverse theory is created (Powell, 2018).

Even though it appears that Kane believes that this proves free will and agrees that free will is incompatible with determinism. I disagree slightly. Even though a person could turn right or left, as in the example above, it is as those that decision led to a determined event. So, by my thought process, the person has free will to turn right and the free will to turn left. However, whether the person turns right, left, or even walks straight forward, there may be things or outside forces that may occur that the person has no control over, such as being hit by a car or finding $100. Thus, a determinist would probably argue that if that was the case with regards to the daughter universe theory, then we have no free will still because all events and decisions are determined.

Compatibilism

A compatibilist believes that some events are influenced by other events, whether by past events, laws of nature, random events, or agent causation but that not all events in a person’s life are predetermined. In certain cases, a person has the option to exercise free will when given a choice and the ability to choose otherwise, such as shopping for ice cream and deciding on which flavor to buy. According to James Rachels and Stuart Rachels (2012, p. 116) in Problems from Philosophy, the key to compatibilism is knowing the difference between what actions are free actions and which ones are determined. Actions made when coerced or under duress are deterministic because your action is not of your own free will. These include:

  1. Thieves break into your house, restrain you at gunpoint, and steal your valuables.
  2. You are rushed to the emergency room after breaking your leg when another car ran a traffic light and slammed into your side of the car.
  3. You attend grade school because it is the law.

Other actions, based on the ability to do otherwise, are because you desire to do so. No one is forcing you to commit these actions. Some of these include:

  1. You decide to donate your belonging to travel the world.
  2. You schedule a check-up health screening with your doctor even though you do not feel ill.
  3. You decide to attend college and choose the university.

While I agree more with the compatibilist argument, a hard determinist always finds ways to refute the claims that free will and determinism are compatible depending on the situation. A determinist may argue that a person who wants to donate their belongings and travel the world may have impulse control issues, thus potentially caused by something going on neurologically, or a person who schedules a preventive health screening may be subconsciously worried about a genetic reason they may fall ill, or a person who decides to seek out a higher education may have underlying influenced guiding their decisions. Personally, I do not think this is always the case, but the debate is often based on generalities and not specific people or their situations.

Daniel Dennett, a contemporary American compatibilist philosopher, states, “All of the varieties of free will that are worth wanting, we can have in a deterministic world.” Determinists say that free will is an illusion because the events in the future are inevitable. Dennett points out a linguistic flaw in that thinking. Inevitable means something that is certain and unavoidable. While the future will happen whether determinism is true or not, certain events can be avoided (Dennett qtd. in Silverstream314, 2008).

Let’s take the natural occurrence of hurricanes, for example. We can only predict the possible trajectory of when and where the hurricane will make landfall. We can also predict the fluctuation of the strength of the storm. Now, people can choose to evacuate to avoid potential loss of life, or they can choose to stay put an install what safety precautions they can. Granted, A.J. Ayers and other determinists, who differ on the perception of free will, would argue that it does not prove free will because either decision would be causal from the desire to live or the inability to evacuate.

I also agree with Dennett that we are free agents who can choose to foster things that we want to happen, such as deciding to have a baby or going to medical school to be a doctor. However, there are events that are unavoidable, such as knowing when and where lightning would strike to being born with a genetic defect. Therefore, I consider myself a compatibilist because I can see the difference between avoidable and unavoidable events and the role we play in making the decision to either create or avoid a specific outcome.

While the concept of whether free will exists or not has been argued since the early days of philosophy, it is a topic that will continue to be debated through contemporary times as we learn more about the laws of nature and what influences human behaviors. However, the main friction between the camps of the free will debate comes down to the way each philosophical school of thought views the concept of free will and our ability or inability to act.

Bibliography

Ayers, A.J. (1954) Philosophical Essays. London; MacMillan. p. 275.

Clark, R., & Capes, J. (n.d.). Libertarians and Free Will. PhilPapers. Retrieved from https://philpapers.org/browse/libertarianism-about-free-will

Fieser, J. (2018). Chapter 4: Free Will. Great Issues in Philosophy. University of Tennessee. Retrieved from https://www.utm.edu/staff/jfieser/class/120/4-freewill.htm

Philosophy Overdose. (2013). Robert Kane on Free Will. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/rtceGVXgH8s

Powell, E. (2018). Parallel Universes: Theories & Evidence. Space.com. Retrieved from https://www.space.com/32728-parallel-universes.html

Rachels, J., & Rachels, S. (2012). Problems from Philosophy. McGraw-Hill. pp. 94-124.

Silverstream312. (2008). Dennett on free will and determinism. YouTube. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Utai74HjPJE

Stix, G. (2015). Site Survey Shows 60 Percent Think Free Will Exists. Read Why. Scientific American. Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/talking-back/site-survey-shows-60-percent-think-free-will-exists-read-why/

Timpe, K. (n.d.). Free Will. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://www.iep.utm.edu/freewill

© 2019 L Sarhan

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    • Miebakagh57 profile image

      Miebakagh Fiberesima 

      6 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

      Hi, Sarhan, my pleasure in reading this educative and informative piece. Free will exists. Those who have not the trait are cannot be humans. Animals likewise have the trait. I hope I am clear here. Many thanks.

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