SUPPORT MATERIAL FOR 'DETERMINISM AND FREE WILL ' (UNIT 2 TOPIC 5)

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1 SUPPORT MATERIAL FOR 'DETERMINISM AND FREE WILL ' (UNIT 2 TOPIC 5) Introduction We often say things like 'I couldn't resist buying those trainers'. In saying this, we presumably mean that the desire to buy the trainers was so strong that we couldn't not buy them, despite the fact that there may have been good reasons against doing so, e.g., that they were very expensive. But it is also probably true that most of us do not take such talk very seriously: surely it can't have been literally true that we couldn't resist buying the trainers if we'd used a bit of common sense or a bit of will-power, we could have stopped ourselves (and we often do). The problem of determinism and free will arises when we wonder if perhaps we should take seriously that idea that we literally couldn't resist buying the trainers and that freely choosing to buy them is just an illusion. It is one of the best-known philosophical problems and also, as you will see, amongst the most challenging. What is determinism? Determinism may be defined as the belief that a determinate set of conditions can only produce one possible outcome given fixed laws of nature. What does this mean? Imagine the state of the Universe at its very origin. Laws of nature will enable us to predict how things will turn out at the very next moment and the moment after that and so on. If determinism is right, there is no unpredictability here. Given how things started (the positions and properties of all the various particles or whatever other physical entities are postulated), there is only one way things could be at any given subsequent moment. But presumably human beings are just elements within this grand scheme. So if determinism is right, it follows that all our properties and actions are (in principle) predictable from the initial state of the universe plus the laws of nature. In that case, how could any of our actions be genuinely free? After all, we ourselves chose neither the initial state of the universe nor the laws. It is in some deep sense, 'not up to us' what happens, even when what happens depends on what we do. We seem to be just cogs in a machine. To be a little more specific, we could define the determinist position when considered in relation to human action as the view that our actions are the inevitable results of environmental and hereditary factors only. Many would argue that this view construes free will as just an illusion. Determinism needs to be carefully distinguished from fatalism. This is the claim that key aspects of our future are fixed independently of anything we do--for example, I am predestined to die unhappy and there is nothing I can do about this. The key difference is that determinism does not deny that certain conceivable actions of mine could affect such aspects of my life. In the example given, the determinist (unlike the fatalist) needn't deny that if I go and live abroad this could prevent me from dying unhappy. But she will say that whether I do go and live abroad is determined by preceding events (and ultimately the initial state of the universe) plus the laws of nature, not by my own free will. Fatalism is often associated with the Calvinist notion of predestination: the idea that each of us, from the very start of our lives, is destined either to be saved or damned and there is nothing that we can do about it. As we shall see later, many people find determinism a depressing doctrine, but most find fatalism to be even worse. As well as being depressing, determinism may also be thought implausible. Surely, it will be said, 1

2 not everything can be rigidly determined from the very beginning of time. Some things are just a matter of chance. However, the determinist need not dismiss the concept of chance or probability. It is just that she will interpret it as relating to the limitations of our knowledge of events rather than to anything objective in the world. We can say that there is a 70% chance of rain tomorrow because that is the best we can do when it comes to predicting the weather tomorrow. But if we knew all the facts that obtain even before tomorrow comes, we would be able to say with certainty whether it was going to rain or not. Probability has meaning, but only because of our ignorance. Many people assume that determinism is supported by modern science, which makes such extensive use of the idea of causation. However this is uncertain: several areas of physics seem to provide examples of indeterministic systems, at least in theory. Perhaps the real challenge is in dealing, not with the known truth of determinism (because it is not known to be true), but with the possibility that it might be true. Also, determinism may be said to come in degrees. Suppose, for example, when a human being performs a particular voluntary act, she has, on average, a 90% probability of doing it, given preceding events and the laws of nature. Then humans might be said to be '90% determined'. The main philosophical problem here, then, is that we have very little idea to what extent humans are determined. (However, in the discussion below, for the sake of simplicity and familiarity, I will continue to talk as if determinism were an all-or-nothing matter.) What is free will? Free will is not as easy to define as determinism. There are two main kinds of conceptions: free will as requiring indeterminism and free will as compatible with determinism. Free will as requiring indeterminism At first sight at least, free will seems to require that determinism be false, for if my decisions were entirely determined by preceding events (plus the laws of nature), then presumably I could not be said to freely choose what I do. In other words, free will seems to require a gap in universal causality. But while this might be necessary for the existence of free will, it should be clear that it is not sufficient. If determinism is false, this entails that not every event is predictable in principle. Such events could be purely random, but arguably if human actions are like that, then they are not genuinely free. To say that my moving my arm, for example, is a random event seems very far from asserting that it is the result of my free agency. Indeed, it seems the opposite of that. What more is needed, over and above the existence of unpredictable or uncaused events, to make it the case that we have free will? It seems that libertarians (which is the term for those who believe in this very strong kind of freedom) need to suppose, along with Descartes, that each of us is essentially a self, a type of entity that is not wholly reducible to our brains and that these selves can act on matter so as to effect our decisions, but that, in doing so, their actions are themselves uncaused. This metaphysical theory is hard to defend. In the first place, many philosophers (Hume being one prominent example) have doubted that the self exists over and above the individual mental states that we experience. Secondly, even if the existence of independent selves is accepted, it is hard to understand how, being immaterial in nature, they could act on matter so as to bring about our actions. Despite these difficulties, some philosophers are still prepared to defend some form of libertarianism. It is fair to say, however, that this is not the most popular way of defending free will at the present time, which is actually the compatibilist approach, to which we now turn. 2

3 Free will as compatible with determinism According to compatibilism, determinism and the existence of free will are compatible, i.e., there is no contradiction between them and so it is possible to believe in both. Another term you should know in this connection is soft determinism. A soft determinist thinks that: 1. determinism is true; 2. compatibilism is true; 3. therefore we have free will. A hard determinist, in contrast, thinks that: 1. determinism is true; 2. compatibilism is false; 3. therefore we do not have free will. Compatibilists argue that even if determinism is true, we can still be free with respect to some of our actions and hence morally answerable for them. These are the actions that we call voluntary. What does it mean to say that I am not free to do something? In the simplest case, it only means that it is not physically possible for me to do it. For example, I am not free to travel at the speed of light. But clearly, I can also be said not to be free to do some things that it is physically possible for me to do. For example, I am not free to withhold my taxes from the state. This sense of freedom means lack of coercion I am free to the extent that I am not coerced. It is clear that I can be both physically able to do something and not coerced with respect to it, irrespective of whether my action is mechanistically determined. So perhaps simply defining freedom as physical ability plus lack of coercion is enough to get us round the problem of determinism. This was the form that compatibilism mostly took prior to the late twentieth century. It is clear, for example, in the work of David Hume, who also identifies free will with the ability to do as one wishes. But the proposed definition is inadequate. There are many kinds of cases in which people are physically able to do things and uncoerced with respect to them, though it is doubtful that they act freely. These include the following sorts of cases: 1. Psychological compulsion, where individuals are subject to a medically recognised condition in which they are unable to stop themselves from behaving in certain ways, e.g., kleptomaniacs, who cannot stop themselves stealing. 2. Brainwashing, such as the indoctrination that cults often subject their members to. 3. Hypnosis. A hypnotist may, for example, suggest to her subject that he do some strange or immoral thing after he has woken up, which he then does. In such cases, we can argue that the agents involved have been robbed of their ability to behave as they normally would, but this is not a matter of physical inability or coercion in the ordinary sense of the word. It would seem quite wrong to hold such individuals accountable for the actions that they perform in such states, to suppose that they deserve any criticism or penalty in the case where those actions are undesirable. In order to deal with this, compatibilists have had to devise a more refined conception of free will. A typical approach appeals to the idea of critically or rationally deliberating either about one s possible actions themselves or about the basic desires or evaluations that tend to motivate them. At a first approximation, it might be said that we are free (and hence morally responsible and fit objects 3

4 of praise or blame) only if we are able to engage in such deliberation or reflection. Does this draw the boundary between responsible and non-responsible agents in the right place? Brainwashed agents do seem to be incapable of rational deliberation concerning the actions that they have been indoctrinated into doing. But in the case of other conditions, such as psychological compulsion and perhaps hypnosis, the problem seems to be not so much that the agent cannot deliberate rationally as that she cannot let the results of such deliberation determine her actions, owing to the controlling power of her condition. So it seems that the compatibilist needs to say something like this: an action A is genuinely free if and only if the agent is able to let rational deliberation affect or determine the decision as to whether to do it. But there is a serious problem with this condition of responsible action. Suppose the agent is able to let rational deliberation affect her decisions, but decides not to. This could be either because she does not engage in such deliberation or because she does so, but chooses to ignore what it tells her to do. Then isn t it likely that this fact about the agent is simply the result of some aspect of her personality that is due to a combination of genetic and environmental influences? For example, it could reflect a dislike of the process of deliberating which is itself caused by past experience of poor performance in this area due to limited intelligence. If, as a result of all this, the agent chooses to perform a bad action when better deliberation would have prevented her from doing so, is it really right to say that her action was free and to hold her responsible? It seems that the suggested compatibilist move has deprived determinism of none of its sting. Those who do accept compatibilism often draw a sharp distinction between reasons and causes. Human behaviour, they acknowledge, has causes it is part of the natural scheme of things studied by scientists. But some of this behaviour constitutes, not just bodily movements, but actions. As such, it is subject to reasons. Citing reasons and causes are two distinct ways of answering the question of why someone did what she did. To give the reasons is to treat her action as fulfilling some goal that might be open to rational scrutiny and may render her morally accountable for her action. To give the causes, on the other hand, is to explain her bodily movements in terms that might be acceptable to a scientist, who sees them as simply physical phenomena. For the compatibilist, both points of view are equally valid. The implications of determinism Hard determinism (which rejects compatibilism) seems to undermine the idea of moral responsibility. For hard determinism entails that we have no free will. If we do a good action, it is not really to our credit because we did not have the freedom not to do it. So it seems inappropriate to praise or reward us for it. The same applies if we do a bad action, though perhaps here an even stronger point can be made: it would be unjust or unfair to criticise us or punish us. Some people even argue that morality itself would make no sense if hard determinism were true. They may base their argument on a point about the meaning of the word 'ought'. This is the principle that 'ought' implies 'can'. Suppose there is a child drowning in a nearby lake. A strong swimmer would be able to save the child, but I am not a strong swimmer. It would seem wrong under these circumstances to claim that I ought to save the child by swimming to her rescue because, however, desirable that might be, it is not something I am able to do. But now the hard determinist can take this a stage further. She can say that since (as she believes) determinism is true, we are only able to do one thing in any given situation and that is the thing that we actually do--no other action is possible for us (despite our tendency to think we have a real choice). If this is right then, following the principle that 'ought' implies 'can', it is never true to say that I ought to have acted differently from the way I did in fact act. Therefore, for the hard determinist, it seems we never act wrongly, whatever we do. But if that is so, it appears that morality is rendered pointless, a 4

5 highly undesirable consequence, most people would think. Hard determinism is sometimes seen as undermining, not only morality, but also rationality. It is argued that whenever we have to decide what to believe about some matter or other, we need to be able to make a free, rational choice between competing propositions. But if everything we do, including our thoughts, is predetermined, making such a free, rational choice would appear to be impossible. If we accept this line, it has the interesting consequence that even to propose hard determinism as a rational theory is self-defeating, for if hard determinism is true, the hard determinist cannot make a free, rational choice in favour of her own theory, trapping her in a kind of contradiction. Discussion points 1. Kate says 'If determinism is right, then I am just the victim of forces beyond my control, so there is no point me doing anything!' How would you persuade Kate that she is wrong to view determinism in this way? 2. People sometimes argue that criminals are not responsible for their crimes, because it was their environment that made them criminals and they did not choose their environment. Others often respond along these lines: 'But lots of people grew up in difficult environments and they didn't all turn to crime. So all this talk about the environment is really just an excuse.' Do you think this response is a convincing one? 3. Comment on the following argument. 'We are not the victims of our genes studies have shown that identical twins do not always turn out to have the same personalities. This proves that we must be free agents.' 5

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