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, determinism and cognitive impairment


To: Kay M.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Free will, determinism and cognitive impairment
Date: 18 June 2007 12:22

Dear Kay,

Thank you for your email of 11 June, with your first essay for the Possible World Machine, 'Free Will, Determinism and Cognitive Impairment.'

This is an interesting and well argued essay which raises some important issues.

In writing the essay, you may have had an eye on question 4. from the first list of essay questions, 'In the light of the critique of 'free will', can blame and punishment ever be rationally justified? Consider hard cases, such as brainwashing, crimes of passion, the influence of drugs, medical or psychological conditions etc.'

The idea behind this essay title is to make apparent the different possible 'readings' of the 'determinism vs. free will' problem, depending on whether one is considering this in a purely metaphysical sense, or as a practical problem faced by law makers and the judiciary.

The majority of philosophers who have considered the metaphysical problem, take the view known as 'compatibilism'. Suppose (something which, at the present date is still not known for certain) that determinism is in fact true. One way to express this is if you 'ran the world again' from the big bang, exactly the same things would happen in the same order. Sarkozy would win the French Presidential election. You would enrol for this course. I would decide to write today (e.g. rather than tomorrow) etc. etc.

However, even if that is the case, human beings have an interest in distinguishing between the kinds of ways in which actions, as events, are 'determined'. No-one ever will be in a position to 'run the world again'. We have to make decisions for ourselves.

Thus, an agent who makes a decision, not under physical duress, in full possession of his/her mental capacities, is regarded as acting 'freely', and is held 'responsible' from a moral standpoint as well as under the law for the actions which he/she does. This is so, even though we recognize (from a metaphysical standpoint) that if you 'ran the world again' the individual would do exactly the same thing again, and again, and again.

Your interest, in writing your essay, is very much in the second of the two conditions referred to in the last paragraph: 'in full possession of his/her mental capacities'. What does this mean? When are we entitled to intervene, in a person's own interest, to make decisions to make decisions on their behalf, decisions to which they may indeed be adamantly opposed?

Twice in your essay, you cite a principle which seems very plausible. 'If X could express free will, then they would choose Y.' This implies that we sympathetically adopt the perspective of X, looking at the world (as it were) from X's viewpoint, taking into consideration issues which affect X's survival and quality of life - all the things, in fact that X would consider, were X capable of doing so.

The case of the child denied treatment seems straightforward. Let's say the family are Jehovah's Witnesses and refuse to allow the child to have a desperately needed blood transfusion. Australian Law says that the child gets the transfusion regardless of what the parents say. Indeed (this is something that needs to be aired) the child gets the transfusion, even if, because of the religious beliefs acquired from its parents it kicks and screams when an attempt is made to attach the blood bag. We are not prepared to allow the child to have a say in the matter of its own survival, as judged by the doctor in charge of the case.

There is indeed something (to non-believers) particularly obnoxious about the prohibition of blood transfusions, perhaps because if its sheer absurdity, the needless deaths that arise because of it.

But now suppose that an ambitious young parliamentarian hatches the idea of a new, much tougher law, which judges 'mental impairment' on the basis of 'brainwashing'. An adult who desires something which is clearly against his/her own interests, where the source of the desire is not merely an idiosyncratic view of the world but rather a clearly identified process of 'brainwashing' received from other individuals, is not considered to be capable of making decisions which affect their survival, such as whether to accept a blood transfusion or not.

Say the daugher of Jehovah's Witnesses survives to adulthood. Faced with the need for a life-saving blood transfusion she refuses point blank. Now, armed with the new law, surgeons can go ahead and force her to receive the transfusion.

If we now attempt to apply the principle, 'If X could express free will, then they would choose Y', we face the question whether the sincere belief that it is against God's law to 'partake of blood' even to the extent of recieving blood transfusions is in fact a 'freely held' belief. The individual in question has held her belief ever since she was old enough to express beliefs, and long before she was in a position to decide for herself whether the belief is rational or not.

I hope that the problem is clear to you. My strong intuition is that the proposed law would be reckless and ill-judged, and would indeed prove to be an uncontrollable monster justifying all manners of state intervention in matters of private belief and conscience. The philosophical challenge, however, is to explain, with reasoned arguments, why that is so.

All the best,