Dialogue 6 (April 1996) has a very useful overview by Rob Cook entitled Determinism and Free Will (back copies are available from the publisher).
Test yourself on the understanding of key terms in the free will/determinism debate (goes with the Lander site below), go to:
Tutor2u has an excellent overview of the key authors and arguments (useful for revision):
For an excellent summary of the key terms in the free will, determinism debate, go to:
For the full menu from the University of Lancaster including discussion of film clips from Back to the Future, War Games and Hamlet, go to:
Here is the clearest introduction to the three possible positions on determinism - if you can't get your mind round the differences:
On Hume's compatibilism
On Kant's compatibilism
On van Inwagen's libertarianism
More advanced links on specific issues:
An exploration of the scientific worldview and causation, go to:
The concept of autonomy, its origins and meaning, go to:
Arguments for and against compatibilism, go to:
Causation: Hume and Kant contrasted, go to:
For a more advanced essay surveying recent thinking on the free will debate, go to:Add a comment
In this useful link Ted Honderish has brought togther every article you might need to investigate the free will debate from the angle of libertarianism, soft determinism or hard determinism. You might start with this article clarifying the terms of the debate.Add a comment
Free Will and Determinism
In 1924, an American lawyer called Clarence Darrow took on the case of Leopold and Loeb, the teenage sons of two wealthy Chicago families, who were accused of kidnapping and killing Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old boy, to see what it would be like to commit the ultimate crime. Darrow convinced them to plead guilty and then argued for his clients to receive life imprisonment rather than the death penalty.
Darrow argued that his clients weren't completely responsible for their actions, but were the products of the environment they grew up in, and that they could not be held responsible for basing their desire for murder on the philosophy of Friedrich Willelm Nietszche. Leopold had written to Loeb before the murder:
Darrow argued that "this terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor ... Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it? ... It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university."
In other words, Darrow was arguing that the two boys should not be held responsible for their actions, which were determined by a mixture of their genes and their education. They should plead guilty - they did murder Bobby Franks and the evidence was irrefutable - but should not receive the sentence of death because they were not fully responsible.
In the end, the judge sentenced Leopold and Loeb to life in prison rather than sending them to be executed.
The case raises interesting questions:
For an interesting article from the New York Times 2007 on this debate, click on this link:
The philosopher's version of Darrow's defence
The philosopher's version of the defence attorney's argument may be called the ‘Causal Chain argument’ (source: Stanford Encylopaedia).
Premise (2) follows from the definition of determinism (at least given two widely accepted assumptions: that there is causation in a deterministic universe and that causation is a transitive relation).
Premise (3) is clearly true. So if we want to reject the conclusion, we must reject Premise (1).
Compatibilists have argued against (1) in two different ways. On the positive side, they have argued that we can give a satisfactory account of the (admittedly elusive) notion of self-determination without insisting that self-determination requires us to be the first causes of our choices. On the negative side, compatibilists have challenged (1) by arguing that it is of no help to the incompatibilist: if we accept (1), we are committed to the conclusion that free will and moral responsibility are impossible, regardless of whether determinism is true or false.
The challenge to (1) takes the form of a dilemma: Either determinism is true or it's not. If determinism is true, then my choices are ultimately caused by events and conditions outside my control, so I am not their first cause and therefore, if we accept (1), I am neither free nor responsible. If determinism is false, then something that happens inside me (something that I call “my choice” or “my decision”) might be the first event in a causal chain leading to a sequence of body movements that I call “my action”. But since this event is not causally determined, whether or not it happens is a matter of chance or luck. Whether or not it happens has nothing to do with me; it is not under my control any more than an involuntary knee jerk is under my control. Therefore, if determinism is false, I am not the first cause or ultimate source of my choices and, if we accept (1), I am neither free nor responsible (Ayer 1954, Wolf 1990).
In order to defend (1) against the so-called “determined or random” dilemma, above, the incompatibilist has to offer a positive account of the puzzling claim that persons are the first causes of their choices. The traditional incompatibilist answer is that this claim must be taken literally, at face value. We — agents, persons, enduring things — are causes with a very special property: we initiate causal chains, but nothing and no one causes us to do this. Like God, we are uncaused causers, or first movers.
For instance, if Joe deliberately throws a rock, which breaks a window, then the window's breaking (an event) was caused by Joe's throwing the rock (another event), which was caused by Joe's choice (another event). But Joe's choice was not caused by any further event, not even the event of Joe's thinking it might be fun to throw the rock; it was caused by Joe himself. And since Joe is not an event, he is not the kind of thing which can be caused. (Or so it is argued, by defenders of the conceptual possibility of agent-causation. See Chisolm 1964 and O'Connor 1995 and 2000, and Pereboom 2001.)
Many philosophers think that agent-causation is either incoherent or impossible, due to considerations about causation. What sense does it make to say that a person or other enduring thing, as opposed to a change in a thing, or the state of a thing at a time, is a cause? Others (Broad 1952, Taylor 1960, van Inwagen 2000, Mele 2006) have argued that even if agent-causation is possible, it would not solve the problem of transforming an undetermined event into one which is in our control in the way that our free choices must be.
Recently some incompatibilists have responded to the “determined or random” dilemma in a different way: by appealing to the idea of probabilistic causation (Kane 1996). If our choices are events which have probabilistic causes (e.g., our beliefs, desires, and other reasons for acting), then it no longer seems plausible to say that we have no control over them. We make choices for reasons, and our reasons cause our choices, albeit indeterministically. Kane's reply may go some way towards avoiding the second (no control) horn of the dilemma. But it doesn't avoid the first horn. If our reasons cause our choices, then our choices are not the first causes of our actions. And our reasons are presumably caused, either deterministically or probabilistically, so they are not the first causes of our actions either. But then our actions are ultimately caused by earlier events over which we have no control and we are not the ultimate sources or first causes of our actions.
Image: copyright the author, Hayward Gallery, The Stonepicker
The nature of the debate
Philosophers have divided on the issue of free will into three camps.
Hard determinists argue that since every event has a cause or many causes, it is nonsense to speak of freedom of the will. We only claim to have free will because we do not know all the causes of our actions.
Soft determinists or compatibilists (because they argue free will and determinism are compatible with one another) argue that we can have free will even if everything is caused. Free will actually requires determinism, otherwise it is mere chance or randomness. We may be wholly determined by genes, background, environment, feelings etc., but we can still operate as if we were free agents. Some of these causes are internal to the agent, what we understand by the human will.
Libertarians argue that there is no way of proving hard determinism is true. Our own experience suggests we make free choices. We also (as Kant pointed out) need to assume freedom in order to make the idea of responsibility meaningful. Freedom is the triumph of reason over emotions and desires, something that belongs, with morality, to the metaphysical realm (beyond cause and effect).
Below the options are summarised in a diagram, and the relation to free will made plain.
In the rest of this handout these three views are analysed in a little more depth.
The hard determinist case (also, like Kant's, a metaphysical position beyond proof) can be summarised as follows:
The assumption here is crucial: that human beings are the same as material things, obeying certain laws such as the law of cause and effect. Christians, for example, would reject this assumption, arguing that we have a God-given soul which includes free will and sense of right and wrong.
But to the hard determinist we are part of a great causal chain which stretches back to our birth. Hence although it may appear that I am in control of my actions, and have a thing called "free will", this is in fact an illusion. We are, to cite an example the philospher John Locke (1632-1704) produced, like sleeping men who wake up in a locked room and decide to stay there. It is a real and free decision, so we believe, but in reality we have no other choice, whereas a compatibilist argues it's enough that I am there voluntarily, and a Kantian would argue I can always, at least, get up and rattle the locked door.
If I am a creature of causes which act on me, then it also follows that I cannot be held responsible for my actions, and the sole purpose of punishment is to show our moral disapproval of certain actions, rather than deter the free will of others to do such things.
Behavioural scientists like B.F. Skinner argue that since we are products of social conditioning (our environment) we ought to control our upbringing and environments in order to ensure the condtioning is positive. Skinner taught positive and negative reinforcement in order that the causal effects of environment and upbrining were as positive as possible. Skinner didn't say we don't feel free, nor did he deny we have wants and desires, but argued that these desires and wants were conditioned.
Psychologists like Freud and biologists like Dawkins argue that desires are a residue of evolution or previous experiences over which we have no control. Freud argued that desire is the result of strong subconscious and subrational forces. He believed the human psyche was subject to impulses which stemmed from the relationship between the id, the ego and the superego (or conscience).
For example, during the oedipal period, Freud believed we want to have sex with the same sex parent and kill the parent of the same sex.
Dawkins argues we have developed a selfish gene which drives the instinct to survive. We are always battling against other species and threats from within our own species caused by random factors or mutations. However, he argues that we can transcend this selfish gene. Indeed, co-operation and kindness to others can be part of our survival strategy: it's actially in our own best survival interest to co-operate. We have a developed a "lust to be nice".
In an appendix to his book The Selfish Gene he argues against a morality based on selfishness.
Just as sunny days statistically tend to follow red skies, but don't necessarily and inevitably follow, so selfish behaviour tends to follow selfish genes, but is not an inevitable consequence of them.
The power of genes to determine behaviour has also led to the interest in eugenics or gene manipulation that preceded the second World War.
Francis Galton originated eugenics in France in 1870. He wrote:
"It may seem monstrous that the weak should be crowded out by the strong, but it is still more monstrous that the races best fitted to play their part on the stage of life should be crowded out by the incompetent, the ailing and the desponding....a mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak" (1870:343).
The issues still arise about our moral right to interfere with genes to produce designer babies, cloned sheep and other determined outcomes.
All libertarians are incompatibilists. For example, libertarian Peter Van Inwagen believes free will is incompatible with determinism.
Van Inwagen uses the metaphor of a fork in a path, like Robert Frost’s “two roads diverging in a yellow wood”. Both paths are genuinely open to you, as long as you could have gone down either path. This is our internal experience of real choice, of “alternate possibilities” with real power to choose.
The Garden of Forking Paths argument (van Inwagen 1993, Fischer 1994, Ekstrom 2000) begins by appealing to the idea that whenever we make a choice we are doing something like what a traveller does when faced with a choice between different roads. The only roads the traveller is able to choose are roads which are a continuation of the road he is already on. By analogy, the only choices we are able to make are choices which are a continuation of the actual past and consistent with the laws of nature.
If determinism is false, then making choices really is like this: one “road” (the past) behind us, two or more different “roads” (future actions consistent with the laws) in front of us. But if determinism is true, then our journey through life is like travelling (in one direction only) on a road which has no branches. There are other roads, leading to other destinations; if we could get to one of these other roads, we could reach a different destination. But we can't get to any of these other roads from the road we are actually on. So if determinism is true, our actual future is our only possible future; we can never choose or do anything other than what we actually do.
Several crucial assumptions have been smuggled into van Inwagen's picture: assumptions about time and causation and assumptions about possibility.
These assumptions are all controversial; on some theories of time and causation (the four-dimensionalist or eternalist theory of time, a theory of causation that permits time travel and backwards causation), they are all false (Lewis 1976, Horwich 1987, Sider 2001, Hoefer 2002).
As an argument for incompatibilism, the appeal to the metaphor of the Garden of Forking Paths metaphor implies we think that our range of possible choices is constrained by two factors: the laws and the past. We can't change or break the laws; we cannot causally affect the past. (Even if backwards causation is logically possible, it is not within our power.) These beliefs — about the laws and the past — are the basis of the most influential contemporary argument for incompatibilism: the Consequence argument.
Van Inwagen explains that if determinism is true, then any state of affairs together with the laws of nature entails exactly one unique future. This is known as the CONSEQUENCE ARGUMENT.
The compatibilist cannot show that there are multiple futures open to us. He believes the compatibilist is forced to concede to the NO CHOICE PRINCIPLE. We think we have a choice, but in fact we have no choice. The truth of the No Choice Principle, together with the truth of determinism, entails that we lack free will. The mystery of compatibilism lies in conceding this principle contradicts free will.
To be an INCOMPATIBILIST we must deny the truth of determinism. If we deny determinism, then human choices are undetermined and are random or uncaused: we lack any control, and that is inconsistent with free will. This is the mystery of incompatibilism.
Denying free will means that, in deciding between two options, it is not really in our power to make one or the other come to be. Van Inwagen thinks this is so incredible that it must be false. If I deny I have free will, I give up the struggle I often face when seeing two paths diverging ahead. Van Inwagen maintains that to believe in free will is thus less of a mystery than believing in determinism and denying free will exists.
Compatibilism - Kant, a special case
Kant believed that although we are influenced by our background, genes, and so on, but that we are not wholly determined by them. We can escape the tyranny of cause and effect, of desires and emotions, argues Kant, by applying reason to our decisions and making real choices, in a sense transcending our determined past. We are originating causes of our actions due to the activity of the human mind and will.
Even though in the phenomenal realm, the will is subject to the laws of cause and effect, in the noumenal realm, the will is free to follow the dictates of reason. To Kant these are two ways of assessing the same reality. As Richard Dean, an American academic, puts it :
So Immanuel Kant argued that it is the mind, exercising reason, which makes us free. If we act from feelings then we are slaves to our passions, but because the human mind possesses the capacity for self-reflection, we can transcend our feelings and other causal determinants.
Notice that Kant saw freedom as something that is very different from randomness, and as something wholly compatible with laws of the universe. Roger Scruton explains it like this:
Kant believed in the autonomy of the will. "Autonomy" here means "independence". The human will is autonomous in the sense that we are capable of acting from reason, and not from other influences like anger or lust.
This belief in the autonomy of the will is an assumption in Kantian ethics. He cannot prove it; it is something he requires in order to argue for moral responsibility and the ability of you and me to choose "the good". It is our own rational reflection on the moral law and reasonableness of, for example, the principle of universalisability which generates our motivation to choose to act morally. The only constraint on our freedom in Kantian ethics is our reason.
Kant argued that we should blame, for example, a child abuser even if we find on investigation that the person was themselves abused as a child.
There are strengths in Kant's form of free will compatibilism:
Classical compatibilism (soft determinism)
Classical compatibilism (Hobbes, Hume)
Compatibilists argue that human beings are both free and determined by background, genetics, education and the laws of nature.
One famous compatibilist was the scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-76). Freedom does not mean an absence of causation, argued Hume. Indeed, if the laws of cause and effect did not apply, we would simply have randomness. So free will requires determinism.
Hume argued that our will provides an internal cause in the chain of cause and effect, so that freedom is:
Freedom is, according to Hume, the power to act in such a way as to produce a desired effect, and as long as we are not constrained (eg locked up), then we are free. Notice this is very close to Locke's example of the man in the locked room who voluntarily stays there, and is unaware that the room is locked. What Hume is arguing is that the causal determinants of our action make the action predictable, rather than random, and that our internal cause of the free will (itself subject to cause and effect) is sufficient to give us freedom as long as we are not constrained. So the opposite of liberty (freedom) is not necessity (Hume's word for determinism), but constraint.
So classical compatibilists like Hume and before him Hobbes (compared elsewhere on this site ) are arguing for a weaker view of freedom than a libertarian like Kant. Some philosophers prefer to call this compatibilist idea of freedom voluntariness. In effect Hume's argument is this: many causal determinants affect the human will, but as long as we are not constrained by, for example an internal constraint of addiction (the drug addict is hardly "free"), or an external constraint such as being in prison, then we should be held responsible for our actions. Perhaps things might have been different if circumstances (antecedent causes) had been different. But they weren't.
The 20th-century philosopher A. J. Ayer sums up the soft determinist position when he says:
What sort of "special sorts of cause" (Hume's or Hobbes' constraint) may lead you to say your action isn't free?
Besides, says the soft determinist, the hard determinist, in equating "caused" with "forced" is making a category mistake. The things that make an act unfree are things like having a gun pointed at you, or being attached to ropes, or being hypnotized, or sleepwalking. All of these can be thought of as causes of behaviour.
Further: click here for an excellent discussion of Hume's compatibilism.
Modern compatibilism (Robert Kane, Peter Vardy)
The argument of the classical compatibilists like Hobbes and Hume is that free will requires determinism, although the freedom we end up with is a fairly minimal sort. Interestingly, Robert Bowie's definition of compatibilism is in grave danger of confusing us. "Compatibilism is the belief that it's possible to maintain both determinism and free will, because while some actions of our nature are determined, our ability to make moral decisions is not". This is not what Hobbes and Hume argued, though it is a possible reading of Robert Kane or Peter Vardy.
At a conference in 2009 Peter Vardy put forward the view that "most people are not free - they're constrained by their background and cultural conditioning. Freedom may be an achievement that may need great struggle and hardship to achieve. For a person really to come to understand the forces that act on him or her, to understand the effects of his/her genetic dispositions on their tendencies and inclinations..is hard and difficult and many never achieve it. These people, then, may not be free at all. However this is not to say freedom is not possible - but it is to claim that freedom and wisdom are closely linked and the path to freedom is a long and difficult one that may take the whole of a person's life and may never be fully accomplished".
Robert Kane argues something similar, that we experience deep freedom only at times of struggle when we feel pulled in two equally possible directions and have to excercise our minds and wills to choose a path of self-determination. This struggle is something close to what Neo experiences in the film The Matrix when, in scene 8, Morpheus offers him the red or blue pills, promising only the truth. In choosing the red pill, Neo is choosing a path of conflict which takes him back into the heart of the Matrix computer programme which is enslaving humans in a world of illusion. he is chosing Vardy's hard road of wisdom and enlightenment.
"Do you believe in fate Neo?" asks the determinist Morpheus. The libertarian Neo replies "no, I don't want to give up my belief in freedom".
So perhaps Robert Kane and Peter Vardy are not compatibilists at all, but need a new ascription of "limited libertarians", something closer to Bowie's mistaken definition of compatibilism.
Here is a shport handout on John Locke's famous analogy of the locked room (full discussion) locke on free will.pdf
Equating "caused" with "forced" is like equating "fruit" with "apple"; it's wrong in both cases because the second thing (apple, forced act) is a sub-class of the first (fruit, caused act). An act which is forced is a kind of caused act, just like an apple is a kind of fruit. But another kind of caused act is an act of volition or free will. So our belief in cause and effect does not mean we cannot have a type of caused act, one caused by free choice.
To argue that all our actions are caused by something does not mean:
So Hume's classic argument, that free will requires determinism in the sense of a chain of causes and effects, may well be valid. Alternatively, as this debate is metaphysical (beyond scientific proof) then we may want to agree with Kant in consigning free will to the noumenal realm, beyond cause and effect, where reason alone operates, and where the structure of our minds requires freedom to make sense of the world.
Exercise1: Respond to a cartoon
Examine the cartoon below. What issues does it raise concerning the free will/ determinism debate?
Exercise 2: Here is a link to an article attacking determinism. Write a response to this article.
Exercise 3: explain Locke's analogy fo the locked room.
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Here is a powerpoint in which Andrew Capone considers Hard and Soft Determinism and contrasts these with the libertarian position, placing Hobbes, Kant and Hume against Honderich and others.Add a comment