It’s a question that man has pondered since the dawn of time, and has been the crux of philosophical debate for the past few millennia.
There are three main views that have been developed in an attempt to answer this ever-prevalent question:
This is the view that, due to the causal laws of the universe, the fate of what happens is predetermined and always has been. But realistically, what does this mean?
Imagine you’re playing pool with a friend and you hit a ball with the cue. You’d, naturally, expect the ball to move. A cause has led to an effect; that is, the hitting of the ball with the cue has led to the effect of the ball moving. In the same sense, it can be said that the laws of the universe work in his way, but obviously on a much much more complex scale.
It’s all very well to say this because it seems to make sense, but this view holds adverse implications. Firstly, since it can be said that every cause leads to an effect, we could say that, if we knew exactly all of the causes that occurred at any one point in the universe at any one point in time, we could predict the outcome of everything. Similarly, if we knew every cause and the way that this led to an effect, if we went to the first point in time when the universe had presumably just begun, we could predict very precisely every single outcome from the first second of the universe existing, to the last second of the universe existing (if it were to end). Now that’s a very heavy handed presumption. Put into context, I’d be able to predict the rest of my life without having lived it, purely on an understanding of the complex movements of atoms.
The second implication of determinism is that of morality: The philosopher Galen Strawson holds the view that since there is only one possible line of things that will happen, there is no such thing as free will. Since morality hinges on the idea of freedom of choice (I could harm someone but I choose not to since I consider it immoral), then there is no point in holding someone accountable for any action. Very complicated stuff. The ‘ought can distinction’ helps us understand this point. It makes sense to say to someone ‘you ought to wash the dishes,’ because it’s very much within their skill set and is something that they can’t do. However, we cannot say to someone ‘you ought to walk through that wall.’ It sounds absurd. In the same way, we cannot say ‘you ought to act morally’ if we were to accept the idea of determinism, since they do not have the free will to do so.
Determinism itself is a philosophical position, but it may be compared to theological beliefs like predestination and fatalism. Predestination posits that God has already decided our fates and that no matter what we do our fate has been decided (a view called Calvinism holds the same position but also claims that God can intervene to change our fates). Fatalism is considered more of a superstitious belief from a philosophical viewpoint; is is like predestination but replaces God with supernatural forces.
Throughout time there have been various interpretations of the concept of determinism. Aristotle, in the fourth century BC, claimed that in a sense every statement about the future is either true or false. It’s going to rain tomorrow. This may be true and it may be false. Simply, the validity of this statement has already been decided, so the weather tomorrow has been determined. Karl Marx believed in economic determinism and claims in some of his earlier writings that the actions and characteristics of individuals are determined based on their social and economic circumstances.
Bear in mind that these two philosophers posited determinism way before the modern view involving atoms, was developed.
Because of the implications that determinism carries, it has faced a lot of opposition. Arguments against it state that the idea outstrips the evidence available. The philosopher David Hume claimed that we cannot observe this causal link that determinism balances on, so there is no reason to believe it.
The second viewpoint is called libertarianism, which is essentially a fancy word for the belief in free will. It stands exactly in contrast with determinism, so the two are incompatibilist theories (philosophers like to throw an ‘ism’ on the end of everything to make it seem fancy). The challenge with libertarianism is that it has to develop a strong argument against the very logical position of determinism. Because determinism relies on cause and effect, which is something irrefutable..unless you’re Hume, libertarianism starts from an unstable point. If none of my actions were caused by anything, then nothing would make sense. Think about it. I wouldn’t understand cause and effect. I wouldn’t understand that eating led to survival, or that walking led to me getting to a place. Nothing would work. So libertarians try to be more subtle with the idea of free will.
The renowned philosopher Descartes posited famously that there are two types of substance; anything with quantity (‘res extensa’) and anything without quantity, which is basically the mind (‘res cogitans’). Because he believed that the mind was in a realm not governed by the laws of space and time, it was not bound by deterministic causality. The mind is free to make choices, and the body in the real world just does it’s thing based on what the mind tells it. This avoids the problem of not having free will, so morality still makes sense? Problem solved, right? Not quite. There’re a bunch of flaws here. Firstly, how are the mind and body interacting? Descartes says it all happened in the pineal gland at the back of the head. Unfortunately, we now know that’s not even slightly true. The second problem is substantially larger: if the body is bound by causation then it doesn’t matter what the mind tells it..it’s just going to do what the external world leads it to do.
Not looking so good for libertarianism so far.
Luckily, the modern philosopher Robert Kane comes in to save the day. He uses the idea of quantum mechanics..as if you thought the article could only get simpler. Quantum mechanics at the crux of it claims that on the minutest level particle movement is random. This means that an event may happen, or it may not – it all depends on what the particles end up doing. This means that free will still exists because an event may or may not have happened. Yay for libertarianism. Almost, but no cigar. This doesn’t really pose a threat to determinism, because you could just argue that the way that the particles randomly moved was in accordance with deterministic laws, and you can’t prove otherwise.
Libertarianism is held by the majority of the earth’s populus, but looking through it it may seem less logically convincing than you would hope.
What did I tell you about philosophers and their isms. As you can guess, compatibilism aims to find a common ground for the incompatiblist theories of determinism and libertarianism. There are two main philosophers who build up the crux of the argument.
Thomas Hobbes believed that the only things that prevent my free will are ‘natural I capabilities’ and ‘external impediments.’ For example, water does not have the free will to flow upstream, because it is incapable of doing so. However, it is perfectly free to flow downstream. A rebuttal to Hobbes’ perspective would be to say that water is free to flow downwards, but only in a stream. In the same way we are not perfectly free agents. We can only genuinely be considered to have free will when we are the only factors involved in deciding something.
Another compatibilist was David Hume. In Enquiry, he wrote that ‘by liberty, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will.’ What on earth does that mean? If I want to move, I can. If I don’t want to, I don’t have to. Hume goes on to argue that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary action. Imagine you’re at the doctors and he’s doing a patellar reflex test (knee jerk reflex text). If you end up kicking the doctor in the face because he stimulated a reflex to make you involuntarily move, then it’s hardly fair to blame you. However, if you really don’t like him and decide to voluntarily give him taste of your shoe, then boo you, but also it is fair to hold you accountable. What does this have to do with compatibilism? Well Hume claimed that voluntary action is distinguishable from involuntary action because involuntary means that you are psychologically or physically constrained. Involuntary action is one of the only times you do not have free will. Otherwise, you are entirely free. Hume doesn’t seem to bother with tackling determinism in the modern sense – just that within involuntary action lie deterministic qualities.
And that’s it for the three main viewpoints.
Phew. You got to the end, and that was just a brief introduction into the arguments surrounding the idea of free will.
Comment with any flaws you think you spotted in the arguments and we’ll see if we can’t tackle them. Also, if there’s enough support for the article I’ll try and rack up another philosophical one.