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Free will, determinism and indeterminism


To: Michael W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will, determinism and indeterminism
Date: 29 April 2002 10:31

Dear Mike,

Thank you for your e-mail of 14 April, with your fourth 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?'

The way you have structured your answer gives rise to a certain amount of duplication, although I can see the point of first putting the case for and against free will, then for and against the anti-free will argument then finally for and against your 'third view'.

It is a good strategy to start off with the common sense reasons for believing in free will. To fit in with this approach to the problem, the objections you consider under this heading should be also on the common sense level.

Thus, the first point that 'choice will always operate within and under these conditions' (knowledge, values, laws of nature which determine what is possible) is a common sense point. However, this is not an objection, but rather serves to clarify what is meant by 'freedom' in this context. I am not free to fly, because I don't have wings. I am not free to make a nuclear bomb, because I don't have the materials or the knowledge and so on. To stay on the level of common sense, the second point, about the possibility of illusion, would better be expressed in terms of familiar observations which anyone could make. For example, the constancy of statistics for divorce rates, etc.

When it comes to the anti-free will argument and the case against it, we have left the level of common sense observations and are delving into philosophical considerations. Is the argument valid, or are there loopholes?

To say that we 'feel we could have chosen to act differently' is not an objection, given the point you have already made that 'you cannot prove that one could have acted otherwise'. 'You would feel free, even if you are determined', the determinist will say. Your second point, that determinists 'have been unable to prove that pre-determined conditions actually cause all human behaviour' is invalid, given the structure of the anti-free will argument. As you note, the argument takes account of the possibility that determinism does not hold universally. So it is not necessary to prove that every human action has a determining cause. (I suspect that the fault here is partly your choice of heading, 'Determinism'.)

With your third way, you seem to be struggling with the thought that the *concept* of free will has validity, even in a determinist universe. This is what the compatibilists claim, when they argue that to be 'free' just means to be free from certain kinds of coercion, whether external (physical) or internal (psychological). A person exercising their unhindered rational power of decision making is 'free' or 'responsible' even if, in reality, their actions are merely events which form part of a causal sequence. That is just what 'free action' means. In these terms, as you note, some individuals are more 'responsible' than others. A child has only limited powers of rational decision making.

However, your point about punishment, under 'Consequences', seems to show that you would not accept a compatibilist view. The point about punishment, for the compatibilist, is that it changes behaviour and serves as a deterrent. It would be ineffective at doing these things - so the argument goes - if it were used on persons who were not 'responsible', according to the compatibilist definition of responsibility in the previous paragraph.

In 'Conclusions', the point about the impossibility of an experimental control is not the issue, because the anti-freewill argument has already conceded that determinism might not hold. So, for example, God running a quantum universe through a second time, might see Mike Ward deciding not to take a Pathways program - but that proves nothing so far as the question of free will is concerned.

'If we don't have free will but believe we do, that's as good as having free will' is a powerful argument. However, we are not just interested in something being 'as good' from a practical point of view. We also want to know the *truth* about ourselves. The philosopher who has followed the anti-freewill argument and agrees with it, no longer has the capacity to 'believe in free will'. Do you want to say that the philosopher is no longer 'free'?

'Whatever processes going on inside us are ours' is a good point to make in relation to the reflexivity and self-monitoring aspect of human thinking.


All the best,