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The Universe appears to be governed entirely by laws, studies of physics seem to show that atoms follow an extremely predictable pattern of cause and effect. This presents a difficult problem for philosophy; if all physical matter is governed by the laws of cause and effect, and we ourselves are comprised of physical matter, how could it be so that any choices we make could be seen to be free?
The suggestion that our choices are set out by cause and effect is known as Determinism. Philosophers such as Ted Honderich have argued for determinism and for the consequences that it cancels out free will. It seems insensible to argue that we are not in the least bit determined, and almost all people know from personal experience that people act in a relatively stable and predictable way. For example, if I were to ask my father if he wanted tea or coffee, I would know that he would want coffee based on his love of coffee, and hatred for tea. This preference could not be argued in any way to be a choice made by him, we do not choose what we like, but simply do.
Whether our preferences are based on nature or nurture is an ongoing debate, but regardless of the final conclusion, as long as our opinions are based on either of the two options, we would be seen to be determined. Nature is not in our control, neither on the other hand, is nurture. If our personalities are based on environmental or genetic factors and nothing else then our actions are surely determined. This position is extremely convincing and was famously used by Clarence Darrow to prevent two murderers from receiving the death penalty, he argued that they where a product of their upbringing and as such could not be held morally responsible for their actions. This meant, while they could be jailed to prevent threat to society, they could not be punished with the death penalty.
The viewpoint of Determinism, while convincing, is by no means universally accepted. The argument seems to go against our intuitions that we are free -although it is notable at this point that our intuitions themselves are philosophically worthless, we cannot argue for an element of truth on the grounds that we feel it is true- and is seemingly incompatible with the view of a God who punishes and rewards his creations with heaven and hell. If our actions are predetermined, then it seems that punishment in hell would be arbitrary. God would simply be creating people in a flawed way, and then punishing them for his poor skills of creation. Needless to say, this viewpoint is not accepted by many Christians and so there have been many arguments for a lack of determinism in philosophy.
The belief of Libertarianism, is that we are completely free; in the words of Jean-Paul Sartre “I am not free not to be free”. Though Sartre’s beliefs on free will were more assertions than arguments of proofs, he summarises the Libertarian view point perfectly. All our actions are completely freely chosen, our only confinement is that we cannot be confined.
Libertarianism has the difficult task of explaining how it is possible to defend non-determined choices in an environment where all things seem to be determined by cause and effect. As already stated, if our personality is held to be nothing but a result of nature of nurture, then determinism must be accepted as a matter of logical consistency.
From this, many Libertarians would stipulate the existence of a “super-natural” element to our personality. For example, if one were to believe in a soul, then it is possible to argue the physical laws of cause and effect have no bearing on our actions. This does seem to contradict fairly obvious observable evidence. Psychology has frequently found causes for human behaviour, and it is difficult to explain the consistency and successes of this particular scientific discipline if we do not accept that our choices are determined in some way.
One of the more successful attempts of Libertarianism to discredit Determinism is the pointing to laws of physics that do not seem to obey causality. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle shows distinct examples of elements of nature acting randomly, and not due to cause and effect. There are two main criticisms that can be made of this argument; One, that this principle only functions on an minute level, while actual objects such as people still obey determined laws of physics (although science has proven the principle can be amplified to affect people), and; Two, that even where actions random, there would still not be free will, while we would not live in a predetermined environment, we would still live in a (randomly) determined environment. If one was to roll a dice in order to decide the actions a prisoner should take, they would not be considered free by any means.
The fundamental flaw of Libertarianism, is that when we examine how it would work, it seems to collapse. As all choices are made according to our personality, a serial killer, is only so because he has a serial killer’s personality. This statement would suggest determinism and could only be argued against in two ways:
Firstly, we could state that the serial killer has no personality, this however, seems nearly impossible to uphold. Without personality, we would have no preferences and without preferences we could not make any choice at all. Asking someone who has no preference of good over evil, or pleasure over pain, to make a moral decision would be rather like asking someone whether they prefer white to white. Without personality, we would not be able to make any choice at all, as no options would appeal to us over others. It could be argued, that decisions can still be made according to rationalism, but as rationalism and logic are consistent discipline this would make our actions even more predictable and un-chosen than determinism suggests. So this argument cannot be used to defend Libertarianism.
Secondly, we could suggest that the Serial-Killer was in some way in control of his personality. That he chose his preference of evil over good. This again fails. As we have already stated, choices cannot be made without personality, so to choose a personality we would require a personality for us to choose, this initial personality would determine the personality we chose. We could attempt to argue that this initial personality was chosen, but very soon we would have to give way to infinite regression.
With this in mind, Libertarianism and the suggestion that our choices are anything but pre-determined or random, is not only completely incompatible with the current model of physics and psychology, but more importantly is incompatible with choice itself (as choice requires preference, preference designates personality which in turn suggests determinism). Libertarianism is a self defeating system in that it requires an absence of will to prove free will, which would be rendered useless without will.
There is also a logical argument against Libertarianism. J.J.C Smart points out that there are two possible states of things, i.e. determinism or indeterminism. Either determinism is true, or indeterminism is true, these exhaust all possible philosophical options. Determinism would prevent a Libertarian view as our choices are predetermined, indeterminism would seem to prevent Libertarian view also, as our choices are random and thus not controlled or free. From this argument, we can see that a Libertarian argument for free will is impossible.
It seems undeniable therefore, that all our choices are pre-determined -or in the least part random, whether our choices are in fact pre-determined or random is largely down to physicists to discover, currently it seems to be that we are in fact pre-determined, but this cannot be assured without knowledge of all physics. Even if our choices are not predetermined, what they are not -as has been argued in the course of this essay- is freely chosen, at least according to the viewpoint of free will presented by libertarianism. But what would the effects of this be?
Hard determinism would argue that we cannot claim to possess free will in a deterministic environment. The problem with this position seems to be that we have defined free will incorrectly. The view of free-will as indifference, has in the course of this essay been demonstrated as problematic, and if we adopt this view of free-will then hard determinism would seem an agreeable viewpoint, the problem is, that this seems an utterly meaningless way of discussing free will.
Free will does not appear to refer to the ability of will to change itself, when we refer to a free lion, we do not mean it is free to change to a tiger or a bird, we simply mean it is free to act according to its nature. It would therefore seem to be more useful to discuss free will in the sense of “a will being able to act itself out”, we are free if we could have chosen otherwise HAD our will been different. This Compatibilist approach adopted by David Hume seems to allow us to discuss free will in a meaningful way, within what seems to be a predetermined environment.