Read the assigned reading from the chapter. Then choose ONE of the questions below to answer. Answer the question you chose in a response that is a minimum of 1-2 paragraphs.
Be sure to explain your answers and give reasons for your views. You should cite the textbook and use brief quotations and summaries from the textbook in your response. Do NOT use any other sources besides the textbook.
5.1 OVERVIEW: THE FREE WILL PROBLEM
Few things in life are more valuable to us than freedom. We want it, we demand it, we say we cannot live without it. We yearn for and expect social or political freedom, the freedom to go where we want, say what we please, and do as we may within broad legal and social limits. But we also want—and usually assume we have—a more profound kind of freedom, what philosophers call free will. This type of freedom is the power of self-determination: If we possess it, then at least some of our choices are not decided for us or forced upon us but are up to us. If we don’t possess it, our social and political freedoms would seem to be considerably less valuable. If our actions are not our own because, say, someone has brainwashed or drugged us to control how we vote, then being free to vote would seem to be an empty liberty. So the central question in free will debates is whether we in fact have this more fundamental form of freedom. The question arises because, as in many other issues in philosophy, two of our basic beliefs about ourselves and the world seem in conflict. On one hand, we tend to think we have free will in the sense just described. On the other, we also usually assume that every event has a cause. Or, as philosophers would say, we accept determinism, the doctrine that every event is determined or necessitated by preceding events and the laws of nature. Determinism says that all events—including our choices and actions—are produced inexorably by previous events, which are caused by still earlier events, which are caused by still others, the chain of causes leading back into the indefinite past. Since every cause always results in the same effect, the future can unfold in only one way. Everything that happens must happen in an unalterable, preset fashion. But if determinism is true, how can any choices we make or any actions we perform be up to us? How can we do anything “of our own free will”? If determinism is true, your reading this book right now was caused by prior events such as certain states in your brain, body, and environment, and these events were in turn caused by still others, and the causal sequence must stretch back countless years to a time before you existed. You had no say in the movement or direction of this causal train, no control over how it went. Your reading this book right now could not have turned out any other way. You could not have done otherwise. How, then, could your actions be free? Figure 5.1 Are all of our actions produced by a chain of events that stretches back into the indefinite past? Determinism is the doctrine that every event is determined by preceding events and the laws of nature. You must believe in free will; there is no choice. —Isaac Bashevis Singer 252 Chapter 5 Free Will and Determinism From this conflict comes the problem of free will—the challenge of reconciling determinism with our intuitions or ideas about personal freedom. The problem seems all the sharper because both horns of this apparent dilemma are endorsed by common sense. In our lives we recognize the work of deterministic forces: Every cause does seem to regularly and lawfully produce an effect, and every effect seems to have a cause. Baseballs obey gravity, bread nourishes, fire burns, electronics work, human bodies are shaped by genetics, and human personalities are molded by experience. All this is reinforced by science, which tirelessly traces the universe’s myriad links between cause and effect. Our everyday experience also suggests that sometimes it is indeed up to us how we choose and act, and that we could have chosen and acted otherwise than we did. But who cares whether all our actions are determined by forces beyond our control? Well, we do. Most of us are unsettled by the thought that our choices and actions may not be our own, that everything we do is inevitable, preset, or necessary. This fear of a predetermined existence is reflected in movies, books, and popular culture. In the films Gattaca, A Clockwork Orange, and The Truman Show, deterministic forces in various guises are part of what makes these movies so disturbing. The novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley shows us a futuristic society of contented citizens who are happy with their lot in life—but only because social engineers manipulate and dampen the people’s desires with a mind-numbing drug called soma. B. F. Skinner’s novel Walden II depicts another community of happy folk who want only what they can readily acquire or achieve. They are perfectly satisfied with their lives because they have been programmed through lifelong behavioral conditioning (the kind that Skinner himself advocated) to desire only what is attainable. Skinner portrays his vision as a utopia, but many think it is a dystopia in which social freedom is a reality but free will is nonexistent. People also care about the issue of free will because upon it hang momentous questions about moral responsibility, legal punishment, praise and blame, and social and political control. If our actions are not free in any important sense, it is difficult to see how we could be held morally responsible for what we do. If our actions are fully determined, how could we be legitimately subjected to punishment, praise, or blame for our actions? Punishing us for something we did would be like penalizing us for having red hair or brown eyes. As you might expect, many who reject the notion of free will think that punishing people for crimes makes no sense. Instead of punishing criminals, they say, we should try to modify their behavior. Instead of imprisoning or executing them, we should train them through behavioral conditioning and other techniques to be law-abiding. The issues of determinism and free will often come up in court when someone is being tried for a serious crime such as rape or murder. The defense attorney argues that the defendant is not responsible for his actions, for his character was warped by abusive parents, an impoverished or brutal environment, or bad genes. His life was programmed—determined—to turn out a certain way, and he had no say in any of it. The prosecutor insists that despite the influence of these factors, the defendant deserves most of the blame for his crime because ultimately he acted freely. The jury then must decide where determinism ends and free will begins. The problem of free will is the challenge of reconciling determinism with our intuitions or ideas about personal freedom. 1 Are you bothered by the thought of a rigidly determined existence? Does the idea that all your actions are determined disturb you—or reassure you? Men are deceived if they think themselves free, an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined. —Baruch Spinoza 5.1 Overview: The Free Will Problem 253 Philosophers both ancient and modern have proposed three solutions to the free will problem. The first is known as hard determinism, the view that no one has free will. Hard determinists accept these three propositions: (1) Determinism is true, (2) determinism and free will are incompatible, and (3) we never act freely. Proposition 2 is a statement of the doctrine of incompatibilism: Determinism and free will are incompatible doctrines; they both cannot be true. That is, if every event is determined, there can be no free will; if free will exists, determinism cannot be actual. Hard determinists argue that given the truth of determinism and the truth of incompatibilism, the assertion of free will must be false. To support Proposition 1, determinists typically appeal to the deliverances of science. They point out that scientific research in many fields, from astrophysics to zoology, is forever uncovering causal connections, seeming to confirm a deterministic picture of the world. Scientists now know that human behavior is shaped to a remarkable degree by heredity, the brain’s biochemistry, behavioral conditioning, and evolution. All these facts reinforce the notion that human choices and actions are brought about deterministically. Strangely enough, science—specifically quantum physics—has also provided evidence that determinism is false. Or, to put it another way, some scientific evidence supports indeterminism, the view that not every event is determined by preceding events and the laws of nature. The standard view among quantum physicists is that many events on the quantum level (the domain of subatomic particles) are uncaused. Among philosophers, however, debate still continues over what this quantum indeterminacy means for the problem of free will. The second proposed solution to the free will problem is compatibilism, or soft determinism. Compatibilists believe that (1) determinism is true, (2) determinism and free will are compatible, and (3) we sometimes act freely. So compatibilism claims that although determinism is true, our actions can still be free because determinism and free will are not in conflict (incompatibilism is false). It is possible for every event to be caused by preceding events plus the laws of nature—and for us to still act freely. But how is such a thing possible? Traditional compatibilism holds that your action is free if (1) it is caused by your own choices or desires and (2) it is not impeded or constrained by anything. You act in complete freedom when you give money to a charity—if you really do want to give your money and if nothing prevents you from doing so (for example, no physical obstacles stand in your way, no one is coercing you, and no inner compulsion Figure 5.2 A teenager on death row, 1986. To many, if determinism is true, criminals should not be punished, just trained. Does this way of dealing with criminals make sense to you? Incompatibilism is the view that if determinism is true, no one can act freely. Indeterminism is the view that not every event is determined by preceding events and the laws of nature. Hard determinism is the view that free will does not exist, that no one acts freely. Compatibilism is the view that although determinism is true, our actions can still be free. 254 Chapter 5 Free Will and Determinism restrains you). You act freely when you are able to do what you desire to do; you do not act freely when you are not able to do what you desire to do. This would be true, according to traditional compatibilism, even if your desires were themselves determined by forces beyond your control. Your will itself may be determined by preceding events and the laws of nature, but if you are able to do what you will, you act freely. In this way, says the compatibilist, free will is compatible with determinism. But some critics reject the compatibilist’s notion of freedom. They maintain that merely being able to act according to your desires without constraints is not real freedom if your desires are determined for you in the first place. The third answer to the problem of free will is libertarianism (not to be confused with the political doctrine of the same name). It asserts that some actions are free, for they are ultimately caused, or controlled, by the person, or agent. So libertarians believe that (1) determinism is false (indeterminism is true), (2) determinism and free will are incompatible, and (3) we sometimes act freely. They hold that indeterminism is necessary for free will, that free actions can occur only in a world where not all events are determined by prior events and natural laws. Note how libertarianism differs from the other two positions on free will. Both libertarians and hard determinists accept incompatibilism, but they take opposing views on determinism and free action. And, contrary to compatibilists, libertarians reject determinism and embrace incompatibilism. Figure 5.3 Physicists think that some events on the quantum level are uncaused. Does this mean that some events on the macro level (the level inhabited by rocks, stars, and people) are also uncaused? If so, would this indeterminism give us free will? Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will. —Jawaharlal Nehru 2 How would a personal belief in determinism affect your view of crime and punishment? Do you think that people are generally responsible for their crimes, or are they not responsible due to deterministic forces beyond their control? One of the annoying things about believing in free will and individual responsibility is the difficulty of finding somebody to blame your problems on. And when you do find somebody, it’s remarkable how often his picture turns up on your driver’s license. —P. J. O’Rourke 3 At this point in your reading, which doctrine are you more sympathetic to—hard determinism, compatibilism, or libertarianism? Libertarianism (not political) is the view that some actions are free, for they are caused or controlled by the person or agent. 5.1 Overview: The Free Will Problem 255 Like the other free will theories, libertarianism has its detractors. For example, some have objected that it is incoherent, mysterious, or both. They ask, How can an agent cause event A when there is no previous event B in the agent that causes event A, and no prior event C that causes event B, and so on? Because libertarians accept indeterminism, they are committed to denying such a causal sequence. But explaining how free will is possible while rejecting deterministic causal chains has been a challenge for libertarians, and some of their solutions have provoked considerable skepticism.
5.2 DETERMINISM AND INDETERMINISM
The hard determinist believes that determinism is a fact about the universe and that incompatibilism is true (that no one can act freely if determinism is true). From these two claims it is a short step to the conclusion that no one acts freely (that libertarianism is false). This line of reasoning (or something close to it) has been around since ancient times, but since the rise of modern science in the seventeenth century it has seemed to some to be much more credible because determinism itself has seemed more credible. Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789), a prominent philosopher of the French Enlightenment, has given us one of the clearest and boldest statements of the hard determinist position: 3. Do you believe that the compatibilist’s concept of free will is plausible? If you were free to act on any of your desires but your desires were controlled by God, would you have free will? 4. Suppose hard determinism were true. Would that mean we are not responsible for our actions? If hard determinism did make responsibility impossible, would that fact show that the theory is false? 5. Which theory of free will seems to agree best with your own experience of making choices and taking action? Baron d’Holbach, “Of the System of Man’s Free Agency” It has been already sufficiently proved that the soul is nothing more than the body considered relatively to some of its functions more concealed than others: it has been shown that this soul, even when it shall be supposed immaterial, is continually modified conjointly with the body, is submitted to all its motion, and that without this it would remain inert and dead; that, consequently, it is subjected to the influence of those material and physical causes which give impulse to the body; of which the mode of existence, whether habitual or transitory, depends upon the material elements by which it is surrounded, that form its texture, constitute its temperament, enter into it by means of the aliments, and penetrate it by their subtility. The faculties which are called intellectual, and those qualities which are styled moral, have been explained in a manner purely physical and natural. In the last place it has been demonstrated that all the ideas, all the systems, all the affections, all the opinions, whether true or false, which man forms to himself, are to be attributed to his physical and material senses. Thus man is a being purely physical; in whatever manner he is considered, he is connected to universal nature, and submitted to the necessary and immutable laws that she imposes on all the beings she contains, according to their peculiar essences or to the respective properties with which, without consulting them, she endows each particular species. Man’s life is a line that nature commands WRITING TO UNDERSTAND: CRITIQUING PHILOSOPHICAL VIEWS (continued) SECTION 5.1 5.2 Determinism and Indeterminism 257 To d’Holbach and other Enlightenment thinkers, the theories and discoveries of science were robust proof that every event was determined by preceding events and natural laws. They saw the universe as a grand, intricate, physical machine, with every part—including human beings—predetermined to operate in foreordained fashion. In such a universe, they insisted, free actions are impossible. Free will is an illusion. We think we are free only because we are ignorant of the forces that bind us. Since d’Holbach’s day, many others have taken the findings of science to be undeniable evidence for universal determinism. After all, science has had—and continues to have—remarkable success in explaining and predicting all sorts of natural phenomena, including the choices and actions of human beings. In light of this success, many people believe that the truth of determinism is simply obvious. Nowadays, most who accept determinism are compatibilists, but a few of them see no reason to think free will is compatible with determinism, so they take the hard determinist view. Yet in an ironic turn of scientific history, reasons to doubt determinism have come from science itself. Quantum physics provides a surprising counterexample to the notion that every event has a cause. The most widely accepted view among quantum physicists is that at the subatomic level, some events (such as the decay of radioactive particles) are random and therefore uncaused. If so, it is not the case that every event is determined by preceding events and the laws of nature, and the central premise in the argument for hard determinism is unfounded. Some hard determinists maintain that these uncaused events are mostly confined to the subatomic realm and do not significantly affect the larger world of human actions. This suggests, they say, that for all practical purposes, determinism is true. But others reject this view, contending that quantum indeterminism isn’t as restricted to the quantum level as some assume, and that therefore causal indeterminism could arise anywhere. Most indeterminists do not deny that many, perhaps most, of our actions are caused by prior events; they concede that much of human behavior may be causally determined. But they reject the notion that previous events cause all our actions; they think that claim is a sweeping generalization that science has yet to demonstrate. him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant. He is born without his own consent; his organization does in nowise depend upon himself; his ideas come to him involuntarily; his habits are in the power of those who cause him to contract them; he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting. He is good or bad, happy or miserable, wise or foolish, reasonable or irrational, without his will being for any thing in these various states. Nevertheless, in despite of the shackles by which he is bound, it is pretended he is a free agent, or that independent of the causes by which he is moved, he determines his own will, and regulates his own condition.1 A man is the origin of his action. —Aristotle Figure 5.4 Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789). 4 Do you believe both that every event has a cause and that free actions are possible? If so, are these beliefs compatible? 258 Chapter 5 Free Will and Determinism Long before the advent of quantum physics, there were thinkers who posited indeterminism in the world and argued that it opened the way for humans to have free will. The “atomist” philosophers of ancient Greece theorized that the world was composed of bits of matter called atoms moving in rigidly determined fashion— except that these objects sometimes “swerved” randomly to allow for undetermined, free actions in humans. Centuries later the distinguished American philosopher William James (1842–1910) argued that indeterminism is a feature of the universe that permits “alternative futures” and the possibility of freedom. It allows some things to happen by chance. Most importantly, James says, it allows free actions, for free actions are chance happenings. He explains his view like this: William James William James (1842–1910) is one of America’s most influential philosophers, leaving a lasting impression on debates in epistemology, philosophy of religion, ethics, and free will. He was born in New York City and grew up in an intellectually stimulating family. His father was a philosopher of religion, and his brother Henry was the famous novelist. He studied abroad, earned a Harvard degree in medicine, and spent most of his career lecturing and writing in psychology and philosophy. His reputation as the greatest psychologist of America and Europe was assured by the publication of his voluminous work The Principles of Psychology (1890). After that came numerous philosophical essays and books, including The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897); The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907); and The Meaning of Truth (1909). James is one of the founders of the philosophy of pragmatism, a doctrine about meaning and truth. James is famous for articulating a pragmatic theory of truth, which says that the truth of a statement is a matter of its utility. For James, utility may mean either success in predicting events or promotion of beneficial feelings and actions. Through pragmatism, James came to the conclusion that religion is a legitimate and important aspect of life because we can plausibly accept religious claims on grounds of their utility, regardless of their lack of evidence. Ironically, James, the famous psychologist, was given to psychosomatic illness and clinical depression. Once while wrestling with the problem of free will, he fell into a devastatingly dark mood and did not recover until he had found a solution. He concluded that despite determinism, we can have free will because chance events make room for free actions. Philosophers At Work Figure 5.5 William James (1842– 1910), philosopher, psychologist, pragmatist, and believer in free will. A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants. —Arthur Schopenhauer 5.2 Determinism and Indeterminism 259 William James, “The Dilemma of Determinism” What does determinism profess? . . . It professes that those parts of the universe already laid down absolutely appoint and decree what the other parts shall be. The future has no ambiguous possibilities hidden in its womb: the part we call the present is compatible with only one totality. Any other future complement than the one fixed from eternity is impossible. The whole is in each and every part, and welds it with the rest into an absolute unity, an iron block, in which there can be no equivocation or shadow of turning. . . . Indeterminism, on the contrary, says that the parts have a certain amount of loose play on one another, so that the laying down of one of them does not necessarily determine what the others shall be. It admits that possibilities may be in excess of actualities, and that things not yet revealed to our knowledge may really in themselves be ambiguous. Of two alternative futures which we conceive, both may now be really possible; and the one become impossible only at the very moment when the other excludes it by becoming real itself. Indeterminism thus denies the world to be one unbending unit of fact. It says there is a certain ultimate pluralism in it; and, so saying, it corroborates our ordinary unsophisticated view of things. To that view, actualities seem to float in a wider sea of possibilities from out of which they are chosen; and, somewhere, indeterminism says, such possibilities exist, and form a part of truth. . . . Do not all the motives that assail us, all the futures that offer themselves to our choice, spring equally from the soil of the past; and would not either one of them, whether realized through chance or through necessity, the moment it was realized, seem to us to fit that past, and in the completest and most continuous manner to interdigitate with the phenomena already there?2 James holds that a free choice is not determined by previous events; it is uncaused. There is more than one way that the choice can go, and how it goes is a matter of chance. But even though the choice comes about by chance, it will seem to follow from previous events just as a determined choice would. Many have rejected this kind of argument, including those who believe that indeterminism is a prerequisite for free will. The difficulty, they say, is that indeterminism alone does not make for free and responsible actions. Libertarians, for example, agree that indeterminism is necessary for free will, that free actions can occur only in a world where not all actions are determined by prior events and natural laws. But they also point out that if what an agent does happens by chance (that is, randomly), then she is not free to act or not act. What she does just happens, and she has nothing to do with it. Her actions are not under her control and therefore are not really her actions. In fact, they would not be actions at all. An action is an event intended to happen by the agent, but if her intentions have nothing to do with it (because it is random), it is not really an action and is definitely not free. So for libertarians, indeterminism by itself is not enough for free will, which is why they take pains to explain the role of the agent in free actions. The conclusion libertarians draw from all this is that both determinism and indeterminism can be enemies of free will. Determinism coupled with incompatibilism.
The great appeal of traditional compatibilism is that it provides a plausible way to reconcile free will and determinism. It says that determinism is true and so is the commonsense belief that we have free will. Science is squared with our presumption of freedom, and incompatibilism is unfounded. This reconciliation project has been—and still is—attractive to many serious thinkers, including the ancient Greek Stoics, some English-speaking philosophers of previous centuries, and numerous contemporary proponents. Among the greatest of these are Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), David Hume (1711–1776), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). Locke sums up traditional compatibilism like this: John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding But though the preference of the Mind be always determined . . . yet the Person who has the power, in which alone consists the liberty to act, or not to act, according to such preference, is nevertheless free; such determination abridges not that Power.3 You say: I am not free. But I have raised and lowered my arm. Everyone understands that this illogical answer is an irrefutable proof of freedom. —Leo Tolstoy 5.3 Compatibilism 261 Compatibilists do not deny that all our wants or desires are caused by preceding events. In fact, they hold that determinism is necessary for free will; an undetermined choice, they say, would be random and uncontrolled by the agent. They insist that even though our desires are determined, we can still act freely as long as (1) we have the power to do what we want, and (2) nothing is preventing us from doing it (for example, no one is restraining or coercing us). Both compatibilists and most of their critics agree that free actions (and moral responsibility) require alternative possibilities, or a “could do otherwise” sort of freedom. If we are free—if our actions are truly up to us—we must be able to act in one of several different ways, to have more than one option to choose from. We must have the wherewithal to do otherwise than what we actually do. But if we have only one choice open to us, if all other possibilities are closed, then our actions are not up to us. Incompatibilists say that this is precisely what would happen if determinism were true. But compatibilists assert that we can still do otherwise even if determinism reigns in the world. But how? Compatibilists can make this claim by assigning a conditional, or hypothetical, meaning to the notion of “could do otherwise.” To them, “could do otherwise” means that you would have been able to do something different if you had wanted to. You are free in the sense that if you had desired to do something different than what you actually did, nothing would have prevented you from doing it. If you had wanted a piece of cake instead of the slice of pie that you actually got, and nothing would have prevented you from getting cake, then your action was free. Whatever you finally choose is, of course, determined by previous events. But you would have been able to choose differently if history had been different. Here is Walter Stace (1886–1967), a twentieth-century compatibilist, arguing the compatibilist’s case by trying to ascertain what we ordinarily mean by “free acts”: W. T. Stace, Religion and the Modern Mind The only reasonable view is that all human actions, both those which are freely done and those which are not, are either wholly determined by causes, or at least as much determined as other events in nature. It may be true, as the physicists tell us, that nature is not as deterministic as was once thought. But whatever degree of determinism prevails in the world, human actions appear to be as much determined as anything else. And if this is so, it cannot be the case that what distinguishes actions freely chosen from those which are not free is that the latter are determined by causes while the former are not. Therefore, being uncaused or being undetermined by causes, must be an incorrect definition of free will. What, then, is the difference between acts which are freely done and those which are not? What is the characteristic which is present [in all free actions] and absent from [all unfree actions]? Is it not obvious that, although both sets 6 Is the compatibilist’s definition of “could do otherwise” plausible? Or is it, as James called it, a “wretched subterfuge”? 7 Does it matter to you whether you have free will? Would your behavior change if you believed (or didn’t believe) that all your actions were determined by forces beyond your control? 8 Are free acts, as Stace says, “those whose immediate causes are psychological states in the agent”? Would such acts still be free if the “psychological states” were secretly controlled by someone else through hypnosis? 262 Chapter 5 Free Will and Determinism Philosophy Now Does Belief in Free Will Matter? Your belief or nonbelief in free will doesn’t affect your behavior; your acceptance or rejection of the doctrine doesn’t matter to how you live your life. Is this true? Is it true that your belief in free will is inconsequential? Some philosophers, as well as many nonphilosophers, think so. But some scientific research suggests otherwise. In studies conducted by Kathleen D. Vohs and Jonathan W. Schooler, college students who were encouraged to doubt free will were more likely to cheat than students who were not given that encouragement. This is how the researchers sum up the results: In Experiment 1, particip
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