Free will versus determinism

Zizipho asked:

Is determinism true or false? Do we have free will or not?

Answer these questions with reference to the Dilemma of Determinism.

Justify your answer and defend it against some possible objections.

Beverly asked:

From a philosophical point of view do you think human is determined or free?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

As I recall, the Dilemma of Determinism was espoused by William James. It goes along the lines that if determinism is true – an effect is the necessary consequence of a prior cause – we do not possess free will. If determinism is false, then indeterminism follows. Indeterminism rules out free will as there is a nebulousness of events which occur in the absence of cause and effect.


One objection to the dilemma could be to deny James’ implicit assumption in the first horn of the dilemma that cause and effect are deterministic leading to the conclusion that either determinism is true or it is false.

If we retain cause and effect (and as David Hume demonstrated, these could be nothing more than a cultural custom, an anthropomorphic assumption and not objectively real) then a position not of determinism but of compatibilism is reached. Namely, there may a willing of a cause which leads to an effect or consequence. The relation between will and effect is not necessary in the sense that effect had to and could not, not have occurred; the person could have willed otherwise. Hence free will is compatible with causality. It has to be or the position of indeterminism ensues.

However, at the moment a ‘choice’ is made, the factors for that choice (if indeed we are consciously aware of them) might have varying degrees of compulsion. For example, I can freely choose to answer or not answer this question. Yet as someone interested in philosophy and its problems, as a panel member of ‘Ask a Philosopher’, that I haven’t answered a question for some time perhaps suggests there was a higher degree of probability that I would have answered this question. This highlights the larger relation between freedom of will and probability.

Of course, an immediate objection is that probability is only probable, it is not deterministic. As not deterministic, free will still obtains and the person does make a choice. However, it is unlikely/improbable that being interested in philosophy etc, I would not be answering questions for ‘Ask a Philosopher’.

Yet again it will be retorted ‘You can still choose not to’, nothing stops you from doing otherwise for you possess free will’. The person can quite easily reflect upon his/her intentions, actions and in so doing become aware of alternatives and, aware of the possibility of willing them or not. Compatibilism is compatible with free will. Determinism is a survival from a Theological weltanshauung where Gods foreknowledge of what choices his creations believe they make, determines how they act and behave.


Answer by Stuart Burns

The idea of the human will being ‘determined’ comes from the physical sciences. In the physical sciences, every physical event has a physical cause. Since our doing anything is a physical event, then it must have a physical cause. What happens must be determined by the cause. Given the cause, then the effect is inevitable. Hence the notion that our choices are ‘determined’.

‘Free Will’ on the other hand, is an idea that comes from the Humanities. If we do not have free will, we are not free to choose our path in life. If we do not have free will, we could not have chosen other than we did choose. If our choices are not freely taken, then we cannot be held responsible for the choices we have made. The notion of being morally responsible for our choices (and their consequences) demands that those choices are within our control, and that we could have chosen otherwise.

These two ideas might seem to be at odds with each other. The notion of determinism seems to be claiming that our choices and actions are the result of some cause. The notion of free will, on the other hand, seems to be claiming that if our choices are not our own, then we are not responsible for the consequences.

But what would constitute our will being ‘free’? What would really make our choices our ‘own’ choices? What does it really mean to say that you could have chosen otherwise?

If you are free enough that you could have chosen otherwise, it still has to be *your* choice. It cannot be someone else’s choice. Nor can it be the result of random processes in your mind/brain, or the result of your consciously choosing to flip a coin (or some such). If your choice is not *yours*, then it is not an expression of your free will.

So what is it for a choice to be unequivocally *yours*? Does it not have to stem from your character, personality, experience, goals, desires, values, knowledge, beliefs, and the reasons and justifications you perceived at the time? How could it possibly be otherwise? But this is what *you* are. And given who you are and what you are made of, in any particular circumstance the only way that you could choose other than how you do choose, is if something external to *you* forced the issue. In many cases, your friends can predict the way that you will choose, because they know who you are. And if you were to choose other than you would normally choose, your friends would look for some unusual reason for this unusual choice.

But all that is no more than saying that you are the product of your past history. Which is all that Determinism is saying. The only difference is that this second description is couched in language from the Intentional Stance. Whereas the first description is couched in language from the Physical Stance.

Determinism is not incompatible with Free Will. The two notions only seem to conflict because they are talking about the same situation from two different perspectives. Determinism speaks of the event of your choice being caused by some physical factors in your past. Free Will speaks of the event of your choice being caused by the moral, esthetic, or valuational attitudes you have learned. Same event, same cause, different descriptions.


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