Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Determinism and the Problem of Free-Will
Free will: Key terms and theories
Determinism is a philosophical position which holds that every event is determined by natural laws. In this view, nothing can happen without an unbroken chain of causes that can be traced all the way back to the beginning of time and space. The opposite of determinism is sometimes called indeterminism. It is important to understand that free will is not necessarily the opposite of determinism. In fact, some people believe free will and determinism are wholly compatible. This belief is called compatibilism.
Free will is the ability to make something happen without the influence of the environment or heredity. The opposite of free will is hard determinism, the belief that all our choices are caused. Libertarianism is the belief that free will is true, and that there is no way for free will and determinism to both be true.
It is popular to believe we have free will. Many people believe they can hold other people (and themselves) personally accountable for their actions. Without free will, this would be impossible; we can not be held responsible for actions we did not cause. Though free will may seem attractive, there are some problems with the idea. We may ask ourselves:
- Are some of our choices caused by other people or the environment? All of them?
- Is it possible that free will is an illusion?
Hard determinists say free will is an illusion. Why would they make such a statement? As you will discover in this historical view of determinism and free will, people have long disputed the possibility of free will. The nature of philosophy is to provide reasons for beliefs. Therefore, we will focus on the reasons our philosophical ancestors gave for their beliefs about free will and determinism.
The first to consider physical determinism were Leucippus and Democritus, the first to theorize the existence of atoms. They reasoned that everything that happened in the world was due to the interaction of atoms. This theory was unpopular at the time, but it picked up popularity later on. Philosophers have pondered the implications of determinism in many contexts. We will consider Western thought on determinism in logic, theology, ethics, and physics. Then we observe determinism in Eastern thought, and contemporary issues involving brain science.
Free will from the perspective of western history
The Stoics thought that determinism was supported by logic. The logic they saw behind determinism was the true/false nature of statements about the future. For example, either Jane will jump off a cliff tomorrow, or she will not. In this view, there is no “maybe”. We can claim either scenario to be true, but only one will turn out to be true. The same is true for all future events; they will happen or they will not, no matter what we believe. As a result, all future events are determined(1).
Diodorus Cronus, one of the Stoics, argued the following: Whenever something happens, it was going to happen before it actually happened. Therefore, nothing is going to happen except what actually ends up happening. This means no person can choose to do anything because once they have done something, that was what they were going to do, and there was no “maybe” as to whether or not they were going to do it(2).
Cronus’ conclusion brought about “the idle argument," which concludes that men should always be idle rather than bothering to prepare for the future; after all, events in the future will happen in the way they will happen despite our efforts to prepare for them or our attempts to prevent them. Another Stoic, Chrysippus, suggested that this “idle argument” did not take into consideration the interdependence of events. For instance, it may be true that John’s straw hut will survive a hurricane tomorrow, but it may also be true that John’s straw hut will only survive the hurricane tomorrow if he installs a steel netting around his hut. Thus, it can not be said that John’s hut will survive the hurricane whether he prepares for it or not(1).
Aristotle was critical of the Stoic’s position on logical determinism. He was not inclined to think that all possible events are true or false before they occur. In particular, he thought that events depending on the intentional decisions of humans were neither true nor false before they occurred. In this view, events resulting from intentional human decisions may or may not occur, depending on the free choice of the human(1).
Some philosophers and theologians have reasoned that God exists, and that God truly knows everything that is going to happen in the future. If God knows what we will do in the future, then we can not choose to do anything other than what God knows we will do. If we can not choose to do anything differently than what God knows we will do, we can not choose freely (this is referred to as the Principle of Alternate Possibilities). On some elaborations of these basic premises, some have concluded that determinism is true(6).
Many Stoics believed that the world is in the only state it could possibly be in; how could God, being perfectly good, make anything but a good world? The Stoics considered God or Zeus to be the origin of the state of the world, and because no one can change God’s will to be less good, no one can change the state of the world. Therefore, enlightened people should seek to find their determined place in the world and embrace it(1).
St. Augustine believed that God existed and knew everything, including every action we will take in the future. From this belief, he reasoned that it would be impossible to act in a way that God did not foresee. However, St. Augustine did not believe this was a problem for free will. That is, he did not believe that our actions are determined by what God knows we will do; rather, God knows what we will freely choose to do. In defense of this belief, Augustine compared God’s foreknowledge to our memory of the past. We remember what we did a few seconds ago, but our knowledge of that does not imply that what we did was inevitable. In the same way, God’s ability to “remember the future” does not imply any inevitability of our future actions(1).
St. Anselm believed that people have free will in that their will has the power to do what it ought to do, or what it was designed to do, for the sake of doing what it ought to do. Drawing on Aristotle’s teleology, St. Anselm believed that everything has a purpose. The purpose of the will is to be just and judge the morality of things. Justice is doing what one ought to do. In judging the morality of things, the will judges whether things are in accordance with their purpose, or if they are otherwise. Freedom for Anselm is the power of the will to do what it ought to do for the sake of doing what it ought to do, rather than for the sake of bribery or for the sake of obeying authority. Interestingly, Anselm held that freedom of the will is not freedom to choose to do what something was not designed to do; he believed free will could exist without the choice of going for or against one’s purpose. In other words, Anselm argued that the will is free because it can choose between what it ought to choose for the sake of choosing what it ought to choose, or for the sake of something else.
Socrates’ view was that when people become aware of good, they become incapable of choosing to think or act in a bad way(3). Plato agreed with this, and believed that knowing good makes it impossible to choose bad(1). To illustrate, if a noble soldier thought he could save his comrades by jumping on a grenade, he could do so. If he did not think he could save anyone, or bring about any good greater than his own life by jumping on the grenade, he would be incapable of jumping on it. This view suggests that people’s choices are determined by their knowledge of good and evil.
Aristotle did not adopt the views of Socrates and Plato on ethical determinism. In his view, people’s minds are influenced by reason and desire/appetites. One can rationally determine an action to be bad, but desire to perform the action. The person has the ability to choose between these conflicting influences, and is thus free to choose good or bad behavior. John Locke illustrated this view with the scenario of a drunkard: He is aware that his excessive drinking behavior is bad for him, but he chooses to act on his desire to drink(1).
Scottish philosopher David Hume had his own take on the idea of free-will and determinism. Hume makes a great effort to make note of another conflict in this area. Hume states that free-will is incompatible with indeterminism. Try to imagine that your actions are not determined by what actions or events had taken place before, it would seem then that your actions would be really completely random - so you have no control over your actions still. Also, a point that is very important for Hume, is that these actions are not determined by what might be described as your character. Therefore, how can we hold someone responsible for their actions that did not seem to result from his character? How can they be responsible for an action that possibly could have randomly occurred? According to Hume, free-will requires determinism. So now most everybody seems or wants to believe in free-will. Hume's view is that human behavior, like most everything else, is caused.
Nowadays, when people argue for determinism, they often make reference to laws of physics. These laws were not recognized until their formation in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Once these laws were established, people began seeing the universe in terms of physical laws that could be stated precisely. Early adopters of physical determinism began substituting physical laws for supernatural forces in their arguments for the inevitability of human actions.
The Epicureans (philosophers who followed the ideas of Epicurus starting in late 4th century BCE) believed the most basic, fundamental unit of matter to be the atom. They reasoned that the soul, which causes human actions, was entirely made up of atoms (because it was able to rouse the body to action quickly, the soul could not have been made up of larger particles which take a longer time to accelerate). These atoms, they believed, moved according to their speed, direction, and shape, and did not change direction unless bumped by other atoms. That meant the soul could not make its own decisions. This became a problem for them, so they reasoned that atoms were able to change direction without a cause.
Thomas Hobbes was a materialist. He rejected the idea that there was an immaterial soul or any other external forces controlling our behavior. He thought all our actions were the result of particles moving around in our brains, and that those particles obey the same physical laws that all other matter obeys. The only kind of “freedom” Hobbes recognized was the freedom of matter to move in its natural way without some outside force holding it back. For example, a rock that breaks free from the top of a mountain is free to tumble down to the base as it naturally will, unless someone catches it, a bear eats it, or some other external force acts on it, preventing it from reaching the base of the mountain.
However, Hobbes did not reject free will (see Compatibilism). His theory for an action to be free had two conditions: 1) that we desire to perform the action and 2) nothing may restrain us. This theory was adopted by many philosophers after him. To this day many philosophers believe Hobbes’ idea resolves the problem of free will.
Free will from the perspective of eastern history
The concept of determinism appeared in the East in the Buddhist doctrine of Dependent Origination. This is Buddha’s theory of the cause of all things. The theory posits that all action in the universe is dependent upon a complex of causes, none of which can be removed without also removing the action. No effect exists independently of multiple causes. These causes are not random, nor are they necessarily predetermined; they result from a complex of other causes. In Buddha’s words, “Because of this, that becomes; because of that, something else becomes…”(5)
In Hindu philosophy, there are several conceptions of free will. The beliefs of the Samkhya, a school of thought in Hindu philosophy, fall under hard determinism, while those of Advaita Vedanta, another Hindu school, fall under libertarianism. Free will is necessary for the Karma doctrine of the Vedanta; by exercising free will, we determine our soul's fate in future lives.
Most scientists who study the brain believe we make decisions with our brains. This belief is supported by repeated studies demonstrating activity in certain areas of the human brain as it caries out certain thoughts or activities (including decisions), and careful studies revealing the necessity of specific brain regions for initiation of thoughts and behaviors. The brain is physical, subject to the same physical laws as the rest of the universe. This suggests physical determinism of our thoughts and actions.
Recent studies have revealed that the brain may begin initiating behaviors before we are consciously aware of it. In popular science, this is often taken to indicate that our brains 'know what we are going to do' before we become consciously aware of it, and hence that there is no free will. However, the outcome of these studies, if anything, only indicates that conscious awareness may sometimes be lagging behind a little bit, that there is a very slight delay between processes in the brain and processes in conscious experience. Although reinforcing the idea that physical processes (in the brain) underly mental processes, it says nothing about the existence or non-existence of free will.
Questions for review
- What is the opposite of determinism? Why is it not defined as free will?
- Why did the Stoics believe determinism was a logical truth?
- On what theological premise did the Stoics conclude the impossibility of free will?
- What is the idle argument? How did Chrysippus deal with it while maintaining determinism?
- How did Augustine use analysis of past events to support his belief that God's foreknowledge of the future does not imply determinism?
- What did Anselm mean when he referred to the "freedom" of the will?
- Why did Socrates and Plato believe our moral judgments are determined?
- What "inner conflict" did Aristotle and Locke refer to in support of free will?
- Why did the Epicurean's belief about the nature of the soul create a problem for free will? How did they attempt to resolve this problem?
- How did Hobbes attempt to reconcile physical determinism with free will? Is his idea plausible?
- How might modern-day neuroscience challenge free will?
- Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2nd ed., vol. 3, editor in chief: Donald M. Borchert, copyright 2006 Thomson Gale
- The Longman Standard History of Philosophy. Copyright 2006. Kolak, Danial and Garrett Thomson.
- Scientific American Mind (April 2005). Neuroscience and the Law. By Michael S. Gazzaniga and Megan S. Steven.
- Historical Dictionary of Buddhism. Charles S. Prebish. The Scarecrow Press, Inc. Metuchen, N.J., & London. 1993 Page 217, entry on PRATITYA-SAMUTPADA.