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

Free will and determinism


To: Paul C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will and determinism
Date: 11 January 2002 11:01

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your e-mail of 20 December, with your essay for the Philosophy of Mind program in response to the question, 'Summarize the argument that free will is impossible, whether on the assumption of determinism, or on the assumption of indeterminism. do you see any loopholes that the defender of free will might exploit?'

Thank you for your news about the Chesterfield group. I wonder whether at some stage you would like to write a report on your group for the Pathways newsletter. Think about how you would advise someone who was thinking of starting a local group. What are the factors that help your group run smoothly? What are the potential pitfalls?

I have found it really hard to start on my correspondence after the Christmas/ new year break. But now I feel calm and collected and ready to tuck in!

Your plan for your essay involves three stages:

1. Discover what we mean by 'free will' (or, in the material mode: explain the nature of free will).

2. Discover what we mean by 'determinism' (or, explain the nature of determinism)

3. Look at the argument for saying that free will and determinism, as described are incompatible and see if there are any loopholes in the argument for their incompatibility.

You brush aside the suggestion that indeterminism might save free will, which is fair enough - I agree with your reasons here.

However, it could be objected right at the start that you poison the wells for the incompatibilist by giving a definition of free will which coincides with the version that the compatibilist view of free will. The compatibilist would say that what we mean by 'free will' is a distinction between different ways in which an action is determined. If the chain of cause and effects goes through the agent's responsible, uncoerced deliberation then it is 'free', according to the definition of free will given. End of argument.

You do go on, however, to canvas our ideas about free will and where it 'comes from', which is more in line with the aim of the essay. As I will argue below, there is an issue about whether we can be satisfied with 'free will' so-called, free will as defined in terms of different kinds of causal chain, or whether we want something more.

Regarding determinism, there are two basic questions: what is determinism? and does determinism hold in the actual world? It seem rather strange, therefore, to ask 'When does determinism happen?' or 'On what does determinism impact?' for if determinism holds then the answer is all the time, and on everything (as you say).

I strongly sympathize with William James and also with Isiah Berlin that the 'compatibilist' solution is not satisfactory. We are not interested in so-called 'free will' but the actual article. But the question remains exactly what this is.

So, where can we look for loopholes?

Perhaps we don't have such a clear idea of determinism as we thought. As you argue, determinism does not entail predictability of future events, the reason being that physical measurements always have a margin of error. Another point to make is that every situation is unique, so it is not possible in fact to formulate a deterministic law without adding, 'ceteris paribus', other things being equal. For example, other things being equal, a heavy stone thrown forcefully at an ordinary pane of glass will break it.

These are problems, but they are not insuperable. Here is my definition:

To say that the universe is deterministic is to say that, were a given total state of the universe S were to be repeated, the sequence of events from that point onwards would be the same as the sequence of events that followed the previous obtaining of S.

On this definition, it would be impossible to prove that the universe is deterministic. It is also consistent with the universe being deterministic that the same total state will never in fact be repeated. (To say that a match is inflammable is to say that were it to be struck, it would light. This 'subjunctive conditional' statement can be true even if the match is never, in fact, struck.)

However, our problem is not whether determinism is true, but rather whether, on the assumption of determinism, free will becomes a mere illusion. In that case, there would be 'free will' so-called, but not free will. You accept that if the quantum theory is right and determinism does not hold, that does not save free will. So it looks as though we have an open and shut case for saying that there is no free will. All William James and Isiah Berlin can say, in the light of this dilemma, is that it is necessary that we all participate in the *illusion* that human beings have free will, for example, in arguing a case, or praising and blaming, or entertaining regrets about the past.

All the best,