Free Will vs. Determinism

Custom Student Mr. Teacher ENG 1001-04 9 November 2016

Free Will vs. Determinism

Before one can properly evaluate the entire debate that enshrouds the Free Will/Determinism, each term must have a meaning, but before we explore the meaning of each term, we must give a general definition. Determinism is, “Everything that happens is caused to happen. (Clifford Williams. “Free Will and Determinism: A Dialogue” pg 3). This is the position that Daniel, a character in Williams’ dialogue, chooses to believe and defend.

David Hume goes a little deeper and explains in his essay, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding of Liberty and Necessity,” that determinism is this: “It is universally allowed, that matter, in all its operations, is actuated by a necessary force, and that every natural effect is so precisely determined by the energy of its cause, that no other effect in such particular circumstances could possibly have resulted from it” Pg. 54). No matter how deep you decide to delve into the definition, it is still the same. The idea behind determinism is that everything has a caused and has happened because of that cause.

If the circumstances were repeated exactly the same, there could be no other outcome. For a determinist, life is nothing but cause and effect. In Williams dialogue, Daniel, who represents the deterministic ideology, gives one main argument. He states that there is an enormous number of events which science has found causes for, including events involving human behavior. This gives us good reason to believe all events are caused. If the lights in the building suddenly go out, there is a reason for it, we may not know what the reason is, but the is a cause for the failure in the lights.

While this seems like a sound argument, Frederick, the free will defender, has a legitimate problem with this reasoning. Frederick claims that science has observed and found causes for only a small portion of events. There is no record that started at the beginning of time, and most of what we know we have observed in the last few hundred years. To base an argument on this evidence is absurd. We know very little in light of the entire span of human history. Because of this, we should not infer that everything has a cause.

That is as if looking at one lawn of grass that is yellow and dead, and concluding from that, that all grass is yellow. This sounds simply absurd, but, according to Frederick, is exactly what is happening. But, let’s put this argument into perspective. Daniel’s response was to clear up where the reasonable bounds of induction truly exist. If one were to drop one hundred objects of all shapes, sizes, and weights, and found that they all fell to the ground, then it would be safe to induce that all objects will fall to the ground. Accordingly, science has “dropped” thousands of events, and found that they all had causes.

So, according to Daniel, it is not only sane to assume, but actually should be inferred that all things are caused. The only response to this is that we still have not seen enough to make an accurate inference. Though there seems to be a lot of evidence in favor of determinism, there is one field that remains an anomaly in science. Almost every area of science is based on cause and effect, order, and a structured protocol of operation, but the Quantum Mechanics is different. All matter is made up of atoms, and all atoms are made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons.

These in turn are made up of quarks. The movement of quarks, and the emission of photons as electrons skip shells seem to be totally random. If this is true, then what are the implications on the free will/determinism debate? It may seem like an obscure point, but if you look at the definition of determinism, it says that all things are caused, and if there is one single uncaused event, then determinism must be false. So if you find one random event, then determinism is nothing more than a myth, but, in light of this evidence, a determinist only has to claim that we just have not found the reason yet.

This is a dangerous response, no matter how true, because of two things: contradictory arguments, and empirical theories. The contradiction comes into play only because of a previous argument. Daniel said that we have seen enough over the years to infer that determinism is true, and Frederick claims that we have not fully explored the possibilities enough to accurately infer anything. When it is said quantum mechanics proves a random event, and the reply is that we just have not found the cause yet, then the determinist is going against the fundamental logic behind his strongest argument.

For one argument the determinist says that we have seen enough to infer, but in a response to free will evidence, they simply say that we have not found it yet and that to infer that this is a random event is completely ludicrous. These are clearly contradicting and should not be considered because they negate themselves. The second problem with saying, “We just have not found the cause yet,” is that it deems the theory of determinism no longer empirical. For a theory to be legitimate, it must possess the ability to be proven wrong.

By saying there is a cause, but we just do not know what it is, you rule out any chance of proving it wrong, and therefore is no longer a valid theory. All in all, determinism has a very strong foundation that you could base a sound belief on, but it does have its holes. There is real compelling evidence for determinism, and if you believe all of the evidence then the holes seem very minor. Considering the evidence it seems that determinism could, certainly, be true. But before we close the debate, the free will theory should also be explained. II. Free Will.

To start, free will needs a value. What free will really is, is the ability to consciously and willingly choose between options and act upon those decisions completely under your own control. Free will is the belief that nothing is caused, and that man is completely free from all constraints to do as he wishes. There are two main arguments presented by Frederick for believing in free will: we should believe that we have free will based on our experiences of deliberation, and the idea that we could have chosen and acted differently from what we actually chose and acted upon.

Every day we have to make decisions, and how do we do this? We deliberate. Deliberation is the act of weighing the advantages and disadvantages of all the choices, and picking the one that would most benefit us and our needs at that particular point of time. There are no constraints on us, so what we choose is strictly a free choice, and thus we have free will. The problem with this argument, as pointed out by Carolyn and Daniel, is that it is based upon the way we feel. We only think that we are deliberating, and that there are no constraints on us, but we are only aware of external constraints.

I breathe and my heart beats, but am I aware of the mental processes that drive my every breath and heart beat? No, I am not, and there may be many internal constraints that we are not aware of, controlling our every thought and action. Every action we have may be caused by something embedded deep in our psyche that we have no control of. Therefore, just because we feel that we are deliberating, that does not necessarily constitute free will. We could feel that we are deliberating, but it is already determined what we will do.

The very steps of our deliberation may be caused by past experiences. If we are under post-hypnotic suggestions, we are not aware that what we are thinking is not of our own. Under a situation such as that, we are controlled, but we still feel as if we are free. Frederick then replies to this by saying that that is not deliberation. Deliberation presupposes that we are able to choose differently than what we actually chose, but if it was determined what we would “decide” then it is truly not deliberation.

Frederick’s second argument for free will is that we could have chosen differently. If one was at a candy machine, there is a choice as to what he will get. If he chooses a Butterfinger, that’s great, but he could have chosen a Snickers under the same circumstances. And, according to determinism, things could not come out any other way given that the circumstances are the same. Another example of this principle is if one was walking home, and there are two identical paths, both are the same distance, both are equally as scenic, and neither is more advantageous over the other.

Here is a definite choice. There should be no reason why one would choose this road over that road. It would be clearly a free choice. In reply to this Daniel and Carolyn point out that these two paths are not empirically identical. Though they are the same distance and look exactly the same, one is on the right, and one is on the left. For them to be exactly the same they would have to be in the same exact location, and if they were in the same place, then there would be only one path to take.

Thus, if all the circumstances were the same, there can only be one outcome. When Frederick still stands by his arguments, a big question arises. If we are so free, then why is the human nature so predictable? If we could choose differently than what we do choose, then why can we predict what others will do? These questions are best answered by Sartre. To illustrate that human nature is predictable, Sartre uses the example of leaving a bag of money in a busy park, and the fact that you could expect the money to be gone by the next day.

Even though there are small idiosyncrasies, the over all human character is very predictable, but how can we have free will and be so predictable? Sartre explains with an example: if a hiker was back-packing up a mountain, and all of the sudden gives up, why did he do it? He did it because of his fundamental choice of character. Our decisions are based upon our character, and are very predictable. For someone who has a less ambitious character, it is a given that that person will give up sooner than someone who has a very motivated character.

Yes, in a way our actions are cased by our character, but we all choose our character. “Hence it becomes evident that we cannot suppose that the act could have been modified without at the same time supposing a fundamental modification of my original choice of my self”(Sartre. “Being and Nothingness” pg. 597). All of our decisions are decided with one decision, who we are. We can always decide to change our character, thus changing our behavior, but our behavior and actions cannot change without a change in our fundamental character.

It will still be predictable, but it is a free choice of our own free will. The explanation of our fundamental choice of character also explains why our actions are not random and arbitrary. If we have free will, our actions are not arbitrary because they are a product of our character and situation, but they are free because we can always re-choose our character, which would lead to a different decision, and therefore, though we can predict what the usual outcome will be, there can always be a choice that was not chosen.

III. Determinism and Responsibility It is easy to associate responsibility with free will, but can there be any responsibility with a deterministic view? For the answer we turn to David Hume. Hume defines determinism as “Natural Necessity. ” Natural Necessity follows the idea of cause and effect, but in a way that is unorthodox to what most think. All we ever observe is regularities in nature. Events of kind A are followed by events of kind B. From that regularity we infer that events of kind A cause events of kind B.

We never actually see A cause B, we just see events of kind A happen followed by events of kind B, and our mind does the rest. We infer in our minds that A causes B, but there is no actual proof, just regularities. That is all there is to causation. Human behavior shows just as much regularity as events in the natural world, so we have just as much reason to say that our behavior is determined. This is natural necessity. Where people go wrong in thinking that we are not determined is that they think of causation needing a necessary force.

They do not feel any necessary force when they make decisions, so they conclude that they are not caused, but according to Hume, causation never involves a necessary force. So not feeling a constraining force does not show that you are not caused. As stated above, causation is just what we infer based on regularities that we observe. Human nature is full of regularities, so, therefore, is caused, but we still have freedom, or liberty as Hume refers to it. Hume defines liberty as the power of acting or not acting according to the determinations of the will, or the ability to do as you choose.

We can have liberty in this sense even though our choices and actions still follow regularities and thus follow natural necessity. Natural necessity and liberty are compatible in this sense because causation is nothing but regularities, and human behavior is regular, but we still have choices inside these regularities. So, now that it has been shown that there is liberty in causation, it can be shown that there is still responsibility in determinism. Where there is liberty, there is responsibility. It can even be shown that there is no responsibility in uncaused freedom.

If we have uncaused freedom, then it is nothing but a chance happening, and you can not blame someone for something that is totally random. If it is random, then it does not originate in their character, and we cannot, therefore, try to terminate it in their character if it is not a part of their character. For us to have responsibility, our acts must be caused by our motivations, or morals. There has to be a cause for our actions in order for us to be held responsible. The more closely the act can be traced to causes enduring in our character, the more the we should be held responsible.

But Edwards has a different view on this subject, if the true definition of determinism was taken, then we are not ultimately in control, because our fundamental choice of character was caused by happenings before our birth and happenings over which we have no control. To be truly responsible, we would have to uncausally choose our own character, but if determinism is true, then we cannot do so. Thus we cannot be held responsible because we did not choose our character, it was given to us. If we had no choice of our character, then why punish us for our character?

It would accomplish nothing because we cannot change our character. Therefore, responsibility and determinism are not compatible. The conflict of responsibility and determinism will only be solved if everyone could agree on one single, all-inclusive definition of determinism. There have been conflicts since the beginning of time, and conflicts will remain until the end of time. The question of free will and determinism will endure past all of the other conflicts, but to each their own. I totally agree with Hume.

Edwards considers Hume’s views, “a quagmire of evasion,” but I consider the idea of natural necessity and liberty coexisting very well thought out and quite comprehensible. Hume’s view takes all I believe about determinism and free will, and puts it together in a non contradicting way. We truly have the power of acting or not acting, while at the same time we work inside the regularities of the human nature. I cannot totally agree with hard determinists, nor can I agree with free willists, but Hume incorporates the two and ends up with a philosophy that explains how the evidence of both sides can coexist. To each their own.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 9 November 2016

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