The Free Will Debate

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By jwblackwell



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Understanding Free Will

  • Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.

  • Free will is linked to concepts of moral responsibility, praise, culpability, sin, and other judgments which apply only to actions that are freely chosen.

  • The debate over whether free will exists, what it is, and the implications of its existence or lack thereof are some of the longest running debates of philosophy and religion.

  • Some conceive of free will as the ability to act beyond the limits of external influences or wishes, while others see it as the capacity to make choices undetermined by past events.

  • Incompatibilism holds that free will and determinism are logically incompatible, and that the major question regarding whether or not people have free will is thus whether or not their actions are determined.

  • Compatibilists maintain that free will is compatible with determinism and make a distinction between freedom of will and freedom of action, separating freedom of choice from the freedom to enact it.

  • Hard determinism is the claim that determinism is true, and that it is incompatible with free will, so free will does not exist.

  • Metaphysical libertarianism is one philosophical viewpoint under that of incompatibilism and holds onto a concept of free will that requires that the agent be able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances.

  • Non-physical theories of libertarianism hold that the events in the brain that lead to decision-making are not subject to the same physical laws as the brain itself.

  • Physical or naturalistic theories of libertarianism hold that the brain is indeed a physical object governed by the same physical laws as any other physical object but that the indeterminate nature of quantum mechanics allows for free will.

  • The problem of reconciling free will with a deterministic universe leads to a moral dilemma: the question of how to assign responsibility for actions if they are caused entirely by past events.

  • The debate over free will vs. determinism is ongoing in philosophy and religion, and different definitions of free will and types of constraints are relevant to the issue.Theories of Free Will Summary

  • Incompatibilist theories of free will suggest that free will cannot coexist with determinism, and require physical indeterminism or a non-causality explanation.

  • Non-causal theories of incompatibilist free will suggest that free actions do not require physical or agent causality, but rather rely on a world that is not causally closed or physical indeterminism.

  • Event-causal theories of incompatibilist free will rely on physicalist models of mind but require physical indeterminism. Deliberative indeterminism involves confining indeterminism to an earlier stage in the decision process, while centred accounts propose decisions are left up to chance. Efforts of will theory suggests that the indeterminacy of agent volition processes could map to the indeterminacy of certain physical events.

  • Agent/substance-causal theories of incompatibilist free will rely upon substance dualism in their description of mind, where the agent is assumed power to intervene in the physical world.

  • Hard incompatibilism is the idea that free will cannot exist, whether the world is deterministic or not.

  • Causal determinism proposes that there is an unbroken chain of prior occurrences stretching back to the origin of the universe. The most common form of causal determinism is nomological determinism (or scientific determinism), the notion that the past and the present dictate the future entirely and necessarily by rigid natural laws, that every occurrence results inevitably from prior events.

  • Destiny or fate is a predetermined course of events. Fate implies a set course that cannot be deviated from, while destiny implies a set course that cannot be deviated from but does not conflict with incompatibilist free will.

  • Logical determinism is the notion that all propositions, whether about the past, present, or future, are either true or false.

  • Omniscience is the capacity to know everything that there is to know (included in which are all future events), and is a property often attributed to a creator deity. Omniscience implies the existence of destiny.

  • Predeterminism is the idea that all events are determined in advance, and can be used to mean pre-established causal determinism.The concept of predeterminism suggests a deliberate, conscious determining of all events by a higher being, and is often associated with predestination in Christian theology, which asserts that God has fixed all events and outcomes in advance, and is a form of hard theological determinism. Theological determinism refers to the belief that all events are pre-ordained or predestined by a monotheistic deity. Compatibilists argue that determinism is compatible with free will, and that freedom can be present or absent in a situation for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics. Free will is sometimes defined as freedom to act according to one's determined motives without hindrance from other individuals, while classical compatibilists claim that a person is acting on their own will only when it is the desire of that person to do the act, and also possible for the person to be able to do otherwise, if the person had decided to. The notion of levels of decision is presented by Frankfurt, who argues for a version of compatibilism called the "hierarchical mesh". According to Dennett, free will can exist because individuals have the ability to act differently from what anyone expects due to the ill-defined future for all finite beings. Dualism is one view in which the mind-body problem is not reducible to the concepts of the natural sciences, and different epistemological methodologies are necessary to attain a full description of the world. Cartesian dualism holds that the mind is a nonphysical substance, while physicalism is a philosophical theory holding that everything that exists is no more extensive than its physical properties, and that there are no non-physical substances. The laws of physics have yet to resolve the hard problem of consciousness, which involves determining how physiological processes such as ions flowing across the nerve membrane cause us to have experiences.Views on Free Will: Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Non-naturalism

  • Incompatibilists believe that we may be mere "automata responding in predictable ways to stimuli in our environment", and that all our actions are controlled by forces outside ourselves or by random chance.

  • Decision theory poses fundamental questions about the ability of a conscious being's choices to influence the future, and philosophical problems such as Newcomb's paradox raise questions about free will and predictable outcomes of choices.

  • Compatibilist models of free will consider deterministic relationships as discoverable in the physical world, including the brain. Cognitive naturalism is a physicalist approach to studying human cognition and consciousness in which the mind is a feature of many complex self-programming feedback systems.

  • Non-naturalist compatibilism posits mind-body dualism, which allows for free personal agency based on practical reasons within the laws of physics, and is present in most religions.

  • Ted Honderich holds the view that "determinism is true, compatibilism and incompatibilism are both false" because both determinism and indeterminism threaten freedom of will and responsibility.

  • David Hume suggested that the entire debate about free will is nothing more than a merely "verbal" issue, and that the debate may be accounted for by a false sensation or seeming experience that is associated with many of our actions when we perform them.

  • Sam Harris argues that free will is an illusion, stating that "thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control."

  • Rudolf Steiner argues that inner freedom is achieved when we integrate our sensory impressions with our thoughts, while outer freedom is attained by permeating our deeds with moral imagination.

  • William James believed in free will on ethical grounds, but did not believe that there was evidence for it on scientific grounds. He believed that indeterminism is important as a "doctrine of relief" and allows for the view that, although the world may be in many respects a bad place, it may, through individuals' actions, become a better one.

  • Thomas Aquinas viewed humans as pre-programmed to seek certain goals but able to choose between routes to achieve these goals. His view has been associated with both compatibilism and libertarianism.

  • The problem of free will has been regarded as a pseudo-problem due to the focus on definitions and ambiguities in the concepts designated by "free", "freedom", "will", "choice", and so forth.

  • Buddhism accepts both freedom and determinism but rejects the western concept of a total agent from external sources. It teaches that every volition is a conditioned action as a result of ignorance.


Test your understanding of the age-old philosophical debate surrounding free will with this informative quiz. Delve into the various theories, including incompatibilism, compatibilism, and non-naturalism, and explore the different views on the existence and nature of free will. From the concept of moral responsibility to the implications of determinism, this quiz covers all the essential aspects of this fascinating topic. Whether you're a philosophy enthusiast or simply curious about the nature of human agency, this quiz is sure to

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