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Free Will vs. Determinism Essay

One of the most compelling debates of the present day is the one between determinism and free will. Questions of this issue reach back for centuries. But the current controversy has been sparked by new theories in physics and science that question whether or not the universe is determined and what freedoms humans have as part of that natural system. There have been many advances in learning how the human brain functions that have put the concept of free will into question. Atheists remain divided on the question of free will. Many secular thinkers do not find the idea of human free will a robust one.

Others are convinced of the will’s free agency. Many atheists now maintain a compatibilist stance that intention and choice are possible within a determinist system. The issue is complicated for atheists by their mistrust of theistic concepts, particularly the notion of an immortal soul, which is somehow transposed on the body in a supernatural manner, and makes choices independent of the material working of the brain. Atheists generally believe that the mind is the function of the instantiated brain and the idea of a “little man” making decisions somewhere in the brain is not a salient one.

They do not accept the explanations from prominent Christian theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, who maintains that free will is so necessary that it justifies the existence of moral evil. Plantinga states that it was not within[1] god’s power to create a world containing moral good and no moral evil. Such theological arguments, combined with the mythical fall from paradise when Adam and Eve freely chose to disobey divine command, make some atheists desire to dissociate themselves from any libertarian stance concerning the will.

It is important for secular thinkers to keep in mind that the free will concept was not the only current running through theological thinking. The theologian and church father, Augustine, was not a believer in free will, although he mitigated his position somewhat with ideas of choice. Calvin, the 16th Century Protestant reformer and founder of Calvinism, was what is called a hard determinist, stating definitely that man had no free will. The 16th Century theologian, Martin Luther, did not believe in free will, but rather predestination, although his stance was somewhat softer than Calvin’s.

Many Christian theologians found the idea of free will was an antipathetic idea, as it placed too much of a limit on god’s omnipotence. However, theist philosophy did not reject the idea of the immortal soul, a concept secular thinkers do not consider coherent. It is important to keep the two strands of Christian thinking concerning free will and predestination in mind. Quite often, secular discussions of free will and determinism focus on the Christian idea of free will and ignore the determinist stance of many Christian religions.

Moving beyond theology, the question of whether man’s nature is at one with the material, causal world, or whether a person can make decisions and choices of his own volition remains a pressing one for secular thinkers in the present day. Professor Roy Weatherford states that the problem is really two difficulties: one metaphysical and the other ethical and in many ways attitudinal in kind. [2] Newton’s discovery of laws of gravity seemed to confirm that not only was the universe causal but determined. This concept was what is termed the “clockwork theory of the universe,” all matter in motion in space, obeying a set of causal laws.

Since humans were part of nature, there was an assumption that they, too, were determined, that not only their past, but their future was fixed. They were as determined in their movements as the particles of matter moving in the space of the predetermined universe. The 20th Century began to move beyond the earlier view of a determined universe. Einstein’s theory of relativity (1915/1916) began to make scientists focus on the concept that their theories and ideas are devices to organize and understand observations of the cosmos and that scientific conceptions are not necessarily “what really is.

” In 1927, Heisenberg published his uncertainty principle, which “implies that it is impossible to determine simultaneously both the position and the momentum of an electron or any other particle with any great degree of accuracy or certainty. ”[3] Chaos theory, too, was discovered in the 20th Century, which maintains that events occur randomly and by chance at the most fundamental level of the material world. Chaos theory began as a field study in applied mathematics, with applications in physics, economics, biology, and philosophy.

New concepts in physics, brought about by quantum mechanics, opened up a completely new world view. What the discovery of indeterminacy at the micro level of nature says about human freedom is very problematical. Indeterminacy seems to operate principally at the micro level, and not extend beyond it. Furthermore although the movement of particles does not appear to be determined, it is certainly not what can be called freedom in any salient sense. It is rather more of a swerve, random and apparently chaotic. Humans could not function properly if their systems operated in the manner of particles.

Such so-called freedom is virtually useless to human organisms. Most of the sciences today still work under the assumption of causality and determinism, with physics being the exception. Determinism seems to prevail at the macro level. Seeing the world causally seems to be part of the human condition. While David Hume, the skeptical philosopher (See Philosophy-Skepticism) denied causation at the theoretical level, he also maintained that humans must see the world in a causal manner, that it is a habit or predilection which we cannot help.

Kant (see Ethics) stated that the principle of universal causation is a fundamental category of the understanding. [4] Kant believed this was the only way we could analyze the object we sought to understand. At the same time, Kant stated that freedom is the precondition of our action, that it is necessary when we must act. Before the Preface discusses the contemporary issues involved in discussions of free will and determinism, it is necessary to define a few terms that most scholars are generally agreed on. These definitions will help to follow the strands of modern philosophic thought that encompass free will and determinism.

Hard determinism maintains that human actions and character are wholly determined by external factors, that humans have no free will or responsibility. Soft determinism believes that human behavior is wholly determined by causal events but human free will does exist when defined by the capacity to act according to one’s nature shaped by heredity, society, and upbringing. Free will is a philosophical term for a particular sort of capacity of rational agents to choose a course of action among various alternatives. Acting with free will, on such views, is to satisfy

the metaphysical requirements of being responsible for one’s actions. There are many constraints and resistances outside ourselves, so our success in carrying out our ends seems to reside in our “willing. ”[5] Metaphysical libertarians state that determinism is false and only free will exists. They are known as indeterminists. Both libertarians and hard determinists are described as incompatibilists. Kant’s separation of the two ways of viewing our nature still seems to operate in our contemporary world. We have learned about genetic determination, social and environmental factors and the unconscious part of our minds.

We know the large role such factors play in our development as humans. We know that our minds and thoughts, consciousness itself, are functions of our material brain; we understand the mind and the brain are not separate entities. And yet, we unwittingly think of ourselves as free and our choices as self-determined. We see alternate choices before us. Robert Kane states that we believe we have free will when (a) “it is up to us” when we choose from an array of alternate possibilities and (b) the origins or sources of our choices and actions is in us and not in anything or anyone over which we have no control.

[6] We believe that other people have free will, also, as can be witnessed by our feelings of gratitude, resentment, and so on when we are the recipients of others’ actions. There is a category of philosophers who believe that free will and determinism do not need to be at odds. They are known as compatibilists. Thomas Hobbes, the 18th Century author of Leviathan, asserted “that no liberty can be inferred to the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consists in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire or inclination to do. ”[7] David Hume agreed.

“This hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to everyone who is not a prisoner and in chains. ”[8] Hume and Hobbes were both compatibilists. The Preface will discuss the ideas of a contemporary well-regarded compatibilist, Daniel C. Dennett, below. The somewhat abstract philosophical terms and concepts that we have been following are actually extremely important concerning ethics and the question of responsibility in the present day. If everything is caused, how can there be standards for behavior? This is particularly true for the question of personal and legal responsibility.

There are cases of brain damage on record which have changed people’s personalities. Michael Gazzaniga discusses the famous Libet Experiment in the 1980’s. Libet found that the brain carries out its work before one becomes aware of a thought. “…a subject would stare at a clock and at the very moment he made a conscious decision to flick his wrist, Libet discovered his brain was ready before the conscious thought by about 300 milliseconds. [9] There are other experiments which seem to point to reduced culpability in humans, especially in many violent crimes. (Gazzaniga, The Ethical Brain, 2005.

Chapter 6. See Neuroscience. ) Yet Gazzaniga believes that neuroscience will not find the brain correlate of responsibility because he believes that this quality is something we ascribe to people, not brains. He states that responsibility is a social construct that involves humans interacting with each other. He concludes that the idea of responsibility…”a social construct that exists in the rules of a society, does not exist in the neuronal structures of the brain…”[10] Libet himself believes that the idea of the existence of free will is as good as any denial of it by determinists.

Since both theories are speculative, he thinks that until real contradictory evidence appears, we can adopt the concept of free will. He finds the hard determinism that views humans as machines completely controlled by known physical laws a permissive and not robust concept. [11] Colin McGinn, the philosopher, makes a similar point when he states that the identifying the part of the brain that makes a decision tells us nothing about the concept of freedom. McGinn maintains that freedom is a conceptual problem, not a neural one. [12] Daniel C.

Dennett is a well known compatibilist and proponent of compatilibilism in Elbow Room (1984) and Freedom Evolves (2003. ) Dennett’s contribution to the problem of free will and determinism is robust and welcome. Many secular people have assumed scientific determinism is the correct stance. They accept the as yet unproved concept that we have no volition, and yet they live each day as if we do. This contradiction can create an uneasy sense of something being not quite correct, not in some sort of balance, even if the feeling is unspoken.

Dennett takes the position that determinism does not mean fatalism. Fatalism is the concept that no matter what one does, both the action and the result are predetermined. Yet a chosen action can make a difference, as we observe in our everyday living, no matter what the philosophers tell us. Dennett explains that different patterns and complexities are being found in all of Nature now. The more complex a creature becomes, the more freedom it has. He states that a bird flying has more freedom than a jellyfish which can only float.

By contrast, humans have evolved into very complex organisms. Our evolution involves the development of language and culture. Dennett explains that our freedom is as different from a bird’s as language is different from bird song. To understand how humans have arrived at this stage of evolved freedom, Dennett takes the reader back in time to understand freedom’s “more modest components and predecessors. ”[13] It is not necessary to believe our conscious life is not a superimposition on our material bodies, including the brain.

We are evolved creatures who have developed emotions and thought patterns that allow us to make choices and take action on those choices. This Preface has moved from the theological problem of free will versus determinism to the secular quandary on an intellectual journey through the centuries. The secular thinker has no need to make a rigid choice between free will, often associated with religion, or determinism, too often associated with moral and ethical permissiveness. There is an apparent compatibility between the two stances.

We have just begun to understand how the mind works in tandem with the brain. Colin McGinn points out that “… the science of the brain has not yet progressed beyond the most elementary descriptive stages…”[14] Until the time arrives when science will explain the workings of the brain more thoroughly, secular thinkers can be at ease knowing that while the universe may be determined, the human brain has volition in the areas that matter, or as Dennett puts it, we have “any freedom worth having. ”


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