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Free will, determinism and indeterminism


To: Iain W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will, determinism and indeterminism
Date: 18 December 2002 12:22

Dear Iain,

Thank you for your e-mail of 8 December, with your first essay for the Possible World Machine program, in response to the question, 'Examine the claims that freedom of the will is incompatible with determinism, and also incompatible with indeterminism.'

I am pleased with this first effort. I like the way you have identified the issues clearly and succinctly.

Given the word limit, it could be argued that you would have done better to omit all the stuff about why freedom is important (even though I found this well expressed) and concentrate on the question being asked. However, things aren't that simple. This is because the issue isn't simply one of *taking* the concept of free will as given and asking whether we have free will or not, but rather asking, 'What concept of 'free will' is worth wanting, and can that concept can be saved?' This is the key to the various strands of compatibilist thinking.

I have no comment to make on your account of Freedom vs Determinism. If you had more space, you might have attempted a definition of 'determinism'. (My preferred definition is 'the same thing must always happen if you run the history of the universe through again'.)

In the section on Freedom vs Indeterminism, it is not quite true that 'Einstein was proven wrong that "God doesn't play dice with the universe"'. More cautiously, we should say that the weight of current scientific evidence (since the Aspect experiment, which appeared to disprove the 'hidden variables' interpretation of QM) appears to be against it. From a logical point of view, given that we do not know everything, it must be at least possible that at some future time determinism will be vindicated, even if not exactly in the form that Einstein envisaged.

Under 'Compatibilism', you have combined several different strands of thinking, which I will try to untangle:

1. Hume's simple point that to say, 'A was free to do X' simply means, 'A could have done X if A had chosen to do so', which equates freedom with the power of rational choice, not subject to 'constraint' (in ways to be defined).

2. Strawson's point (from his essay 'Freedom and Resentment') also emphasized by Scruton, that persons are not objects. We manipulate objects, but engage in discourse with persons. Ways of interacting with objects are inappropriate for interacting with persons.

3. Nagel's point (taken a step further in my 'Naive Metaphysics') that we are incapable of fully emancipating ourselves from the subjective view, with its necessary 'penumbra of uncertainty' about the causes of one's own actions.

Another point you make which does not quite fit into this list is that 'we are the product of many influences', i.e. there is another sense of determinism, stronger than the one being considered in this essay, according to which all human behaviour is subject to one fundamental overriding determining cause (as in Marx, Freud etc.) This does not follow from points 1-3 but is rather something one would consider prior to examining the claim that freedom is incompatible with determinism.

Again, the issue of determinism and predictability which you glance on merely serves to sharpen the perceived conflict between freedom and determinism. Modern science knows that things like the weather cannot be predicted with certainty, even if determinism should turn out to be true. Hence the importance of 'probabilistic models'. But this does not touch the main question. Even if the causes of my behaviour can never be untangled, every action I do is caused - that is the worry.

Yoda's advice is hardest to categorize. Give up the illusion of 'striving'. I once read a fascinating book on this, 'The Self in Transformation' by Herbert Fingarette (who went on to write a widely read RKP monograph on 'Self-Deception'). Fingarette identifies this goal of 'freedom' with the a certain kind of psychological or psychoanalytic therapy, which identifies 'self-consciousness' as the main evil to be combated. But, once again, it seems that this does not tackle the metaphysical issue. A necessary illusion is still an illusion, a recommended mode of behaviour is not the perception of a truth as it necessarily appears to the subject to be.

Your last comment, 'both concepts [determinism and indeterminism] need to co-exist for us to explain ourselves to ourselves' jarred. I didn't see how your argument leads up to this. It might turn out that the universe is in fact deterministic. Or it might not be. But if it doesn't make a difference either way to the kind of 'freedom' that is worth having, then we should look elsewhere for the solution to our problem.

My best wishes to you at this festive season,