philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Freedom of the will


To: Ricco L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Freedom of the will
Date: 27 April 2001 11:39

Dear Ricco,

Thank you for your e-mail of 20 April, with your essay for units 1-3 of The Possible World Machine, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism, and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

A dialogue! I'm settling down for a nice read.

I enjoyed this. You have covered many of the arguments in the free will debate.

One thing I noticed, however, is that you have not really got to grips with the idea that free will is incompatible with *indeterminism*. You do have Mark say, at one point, 'it is because in that moment the decision was made, there was no reasons to do one thing more than another, in other words it had no basis for choice'. But this comes after the claim that 'Your action was the product of antecedent causes'! You seem to have missed the dilemma here:

1. If your action was the product of antecedent causes, you shouldn't regret your decision

2. If your action was not the product of antecedent causes, you shouldn't regret your decision

The reason why you shouldn't regret is different in each case. In case 1. you had to do as you did, there was no other possibility given the antecedent circumstances. In case 2. your doing what you did had nothing to do with your character, your desires and beliefs, or thought processes up to the moment of making the decision, because the decision could still have gone either way. The decision was something that merely 'happened' to you, not something you were *responsible* for.

Later, you return to the claim that 'freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism, and also incompatible with determinism', but, once again, the dilemma is not made clear.

The general theme of the dialogue is that recognition that 'free will' is an illusion can only lead to fatalist despondency: 'It makes no difference whatever your act will be. If it should happen, it will happen! Your actions are all determined.'

Now, 'If it should happen, it will happen' is really a different issue from the issue of free will. Have another look at the unit on Fatalism (the story of the two girls at the fun fair). For the fatalist, it is completely irrelevant what the causes of our actions might be. The only issue concerns the idea that when we make a statement about the future, that statement has a definite meaning and must therefore have a determinate truth value, even though we cannot know that truth value. So if it is true that I will die in poverty, then regardless of what I do know, I will die in poverty. But, of course (and this is the bit which the naive fatalist ignores) what I do now is no more under my control, on this picture, than what I will do in the future.

To see the absurdity of naive fatalism, just consider the statement, 'If I will be hit by a bus, I will be hit by a bus' uttered by someone walking across the busy street with their eyes closed. Nothing I do, or don't do will make any difference to what will happen in the future, so I can do something totally crazy and it won't make any difference!

What the sophisticated fatalist would say is that we should adopt a different attitude to our actions. We should give up anxious striving and 'follow nature'. Just do what seems the best thing to do and don't worry about the outcome.

Is there similar advice that would one give to someone who was impressed by the argument that free will is impossible, either on the assumption of determinism or on the assumption of indeterminism? It seems that Mark is wrong to give up, on the basis of his belief that there is no such thing as free will. Mark believes, 'Whatever will happen in the future is not up to me, because what I do is not up to me.' So, for example, if he sees the bus speeding towards him, according to that argument he has no reason to try to get out of the way! In fact, of course, he will jump out of the way because he perceives the necessity of doing so. In a similar way, the street sleeper (we call them 'down and outs' or 'dossers') who makes an effort to get off the street perceives the necessity of doing so.

Those that give up do not give up because of a philosophical argument but because they have lost belief in themselves. They do not believe that they have the power to do what is needed. Are they wrong to think that? Clint Eastwood in 'Magnum Force' famously speaks the line (to the corrupt Police Captain) 'a man's got to know his limitations'. One of the ways in which we are limited is in the strength of our wills. There is such a thing as being weak willed - or, more specifically, weak willed in the face of certain temptations - and it may be beyond our power to do anything about this defect of our character.

Sartre would say that Mark, in giving up on himself, is acting in 'bad faith'. He is ignoring the fact that each set of circumstances in which we make a decision is unique. There is always the possibility of change. I think, however, there can be circumstances where one knows, with absolute certainty, that this 'possibility of change' is an illusion. Things have gone too far. The inability to account for this is a weakness of Sartre's position.

How do I rate your work? There are a lot of good things here, and you managed to incorporate the issues concerning the free will debate elegantly into the dialogue format. However, you do not seem to have thought clearly enough about the key issue, the dilemma.

I look forward to your next essay!

All the best,