Kant and free will

Lisa asked:

What was Kant’s position regarding free will. Was he a libertarian or a soft determinist?

Answer by Craig Skinner

He was a libertarian, although neither term was used in the context of discussion on free will in Kant’s day.

Hume had argued that free will and determinism are compatible, indeed that without (internal) determinism there could be no free will, only chance and caprice: my actions are internally caused (determined) so that I can do what I want to do, but what I want is determined by my character, ambitions, plans etc., and no doubt there are deterministic goings-on in my brain corresponding to these. Of course at the moment of my free choice, there is only one option, the one I wish and choose, there are no alternative options, I could not have done otherwise. This view was later dubbed ‘soft determinism’ by William James (as opposed to honest hard determinism which says we don’t have free will at all).

Kant felt that this Humean ‘free will’ without alternative options was a ‘wretched subterfuge’. He felt that, to be morally responsible, we need (and have) a more radical free will whereby at the moment of choice we can choose, by an act of will, to do (or not to do) any one of a range of things, irrespective of the deterministic goings-on in our brains at the time.

Kant, like Hume, was an admirer of Newton and the new mechanical philosophy of nature, and regarded the natural world or world of appearances (the phenomenal’ world) as deterministic. So how did he square this with his libertarian view?

Modern libertarians postulate fancy brain activity involving quantum or chaotic microevents which somehow (they say) get round determinism without amounting to randomness. I am completely unconvinced. It seems to me that however subtle the brain activity, the outcome ultimately is either deterministic or random (neither of which supports a libertarian version of free will), or both.

Kant took a different tack. He agreed that we (including our brains) are creatures in a phenomenal world knowable to us through our senses, and bound by deterministic natural law, and as such we can have no free will. Since free will ddoesn’texist in the natural world, we can’t know of it by observation. But we are also agents who transcend the phenomenal world, and act in the ‘noumenal’ world or world-in-itself, knowable a priori by the intellect. As such, we are not bound by natural law, and can act freely according to our will, so that we can have full-blooded free will with alternative options.

Few people go for Kant’s two-world metaphysics, and I ddon’tthink a ‘two-viewpoints’ or ‘two-perspectives’ approach to one world does the trick.

My view is that we are stuck with Humean free will. And that’s good enough for me. I want my choices and actions to be determined by ME, whether we think of this in terms of events in my brain or of my motives, reasons and intentions.


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