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Determinism, indeterminism and free will


To: Howard D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner>
Subject: Determinism, indeterminism and free will
Date: 6 December 2001 14:29

Dear Howard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 24 November, with your first essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, 'Determinism and free will'.

Although you are free (!) to choose your own essay title, it is worth remembering that the original question was, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism, and also incompatible with indeterminism.' You have chosen to tackle the first part of this question. Your answer, at the end of the essay, is 'Perhaps, as Hume suggests determinism and freewill are compatible.'

Let's see how we get there.

You start of by questioning the assumption that the universe, which we are a part of, is fully deterministic. Here, of course, it would be apposite to consider whether indeterminism does in fact give us the 'free will' that we want - but no matter.

However, if determinism is assumed, then as James argues, how are we to make sense of the fact that people 1. regret what they have done, 2. wish that they had done otherwise than what they in fact did?

The determinist has no difficulty accounting for the thought that 'I might have done otherwise.' For this can be understood as saying, 'I might have done otherwise, if I had chosen.' But that does nothing to address the question how I could have *chosen* otherwise. Given the totality of circumstances that actually obtained, I could not have chosen otherwise. I chose in the way I was determined to choose, although no human being, in making a decision, is aware of the totality of determining factors. In another possible world, where the circumstances were different, I would have made a different choice: but so what? What has that got to do with how I acted in the actual world?

However, that still does not account for James' two thoughts. What is the point of regret? What is the point of wishing for an impossibility?

You go on to argue that the behaviour associated with regret and wishing things had been different can serve a useful function by effecting our behaviour in the future. This is all grist to the determinist's mill. Saying that these phenomena serve a useful function is a way of defusing the challenge they pose to a determinist account of decision making.

This issue is the focus of the second dialogue in the unit. The seminal work to read on this is P.F. Strawson's essay 'Freedom and Resentment', (originally a British Academy lecture, and reprinted in various volumes including Strawson's own 'Freedom and Resentment and other Essays'). In the dialogue, the visiting philosopher 'Maggie' is expressing my own thoughts about the limitations of Strawson's argument. What Strawson says is that the 'function' served by the phenomena of regret, resentment, wishing one had done otherwise, go a lot deeper than merely 'effecting future behaviour'. These attitudes are part and parcel of what it is to regard another human being as a person rather than a thing that behaves in characteristic ways.

But the question remains, what exactly is it that we are doing when we say 'You should not have done so-and-so, because such-and-such?' Isn't it the height of irrationality to talk as if there really was another possibility, when in reality there was no other possibility? I am not totally satisfied with the answer which I give in the unit. It is a paradox which I am still grappling with.

Though Sartre would probably deny this vehemently, I believe that the point made by the existentialist is fully compatible with determinism. The point is that every situation in which we make a decision is unique. That is why it is always wrong to assume that we are in the grip of some general truth about our behaviour, 'GK always does X, when the circumstances are Y'. GK may have done X in Y-type circumstances ever so many times, but that does not mean that GK must do X this time. This Y-type circumstance may differ from previous Y-type circumstances only minutely, but that is enough to make a difference.

In terms of determinism, 'GK always does X when the circumstances are Y' is not an adequate expression of a causal law, because it requires the addition, 'other things being equal'. But other things are never exactly equal. The only thing that would be a causal law would be, 'If the universe is ever in this state again, GK will do the same action as GK did last time.' But no-one, certainly not GK, will ever be around to witness this fact.

All the best,