A Jaunt into Philosophy 1: Freedom vs. Determinism

I’m no philosopher. But I like to think of the issue and give my two-cents every once in a while. I worked through some of the major philosophical issues a while back by writing a series of short essays. Nothing groundbreaking here, but I thought I’d share my understanding and thoughts on them. Here’s the first one on Freedom vs. Determinism.

Freedom vs. determinism. Are human able to make our own choices and decisions?  Do we truly have free will to change our actions or is our behavior merely the outcome of a series of other actions, which were caused by previous actions?  Philosophers differ in their beliefs and understanding of this issue.  Burr and Goldinger break down the different views into the determinists and the libertarians.  Determinists believe that humans have no free will and that we are merely the sum of our environment.  Everything we do is predetermined. Just as the natural laws of physics and biology apply to our world, there are human laws which govern our actions even if we cannot articulate what those are (30).

Those who doubt the determinist point of view are called libertarians. Libertarians believe that humans are free beings – able to decide what to do in any given situation. The issue of having free will is crucial for libertarians, for without it, they believe personal responsibility is no more. In their view, without free will and personal responsibility, humans cannot be faulted for any actions they do whether benign or criminal because it could not have been helped. If everything is predetermined then criminals should not be punished or heroes rewarded (Burr and Goldinger 31).

Determinists counter by arguing that no other living creature has free will, so why should humans?  They point out that the personal responsibility argument is invalid and perhaps unnecessary. Nagel explains that bad behavior pre-determined or not is just that – bad behavior which in turn may come with consequences (54).

People seemingly do random, unexpected things every day. Suppose this very minute I was to walk out to my street and punch my neighbor in the nose. That would be random and seemingly out of character. I don’t believe that I shall do this thing, but I am physically able and capable. If I did it, would it prove that free will does exist? Or would it merely serve as a reminder that I have been building up to this point all my life and finally my philosophy course drove me to the edge and made me randomly punch my neighbor just to prove that I can. There seems to be a conflict of interests. Our actions can’t be pre-determined if there is free will, yet it seems that our actions could possibly be explained using either argument. Perhaps this is the dilemma to which Nagel refers. He seems unsatisfied to accept that all our actions must have some underlying cause without making ourselves nothing more than puppets; On the other hand, he seems also perplexed to say that our actions are ours without something within us causing them to be so (58). It is this perplexing question that has fascinating and complex consequences on how we view the world around us.

So which is true? I guess it’s all about perspective.

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2 thoughts on “A Jaunt into Philosophy 1: Freedom vs. Determinism

  1. It is about perspective. But the key is that the determinism “versus” free will paradox, like all paradoxes, is based on a simple fraud. Ordinary freedom is replaced by absolute freedom, which does not exist.

    With absolute freedom, you are free from causality, free from yourself, and free from any real world constraints. But this kind of freedom is never possible. And the word “free” can never imply such freedoms. So it never really does.

    For example, if you set a bird free from its cage, do we say it is not really free because it is still subject to reliable cause and effect (determinism)? No. And if the bird was free from causality, what would happen when it flapped its wings? Nothing reliable!

    So if we insist upon absolute freedom, then we give up using the concept, because nothing is ever absolutely free.

    Ordinary free will makes no such claim. If you make a choice for yourself, and no once is forcing you to choose something against your will instead, then you are acting of your own free will. Under someone else’s coercion your will is not free, but subject to their will.

    Examples are when a child is forced to wear a coat before going outside to play. He puts on the coat against his will. When he’s older he gets to make that decision for himself, of his own free will, and lives with the consequences.

    It’s not complicated. It requires no abstract concepts, or ghosts, or supernatural intervention.

    Is it deterministic? Well, yes. If you have a new, serious decision to make then you will consider carefully your options, weighing them each in terms of your own reasons and feelings, your own beliefs and values, and all those other factors that make you uniquely you.

    And if you are very certain that you made the right decision, then you may review how you got there, and realize that your choice was inevitable, and that the other options were never really viable. On the other hand, if you still have some doubts at the end, then it might not seem so inevitable, but there will be one or more reasons why you settled on your final choice, even if you ended up flipping a coin.

    The truth is that every decision we make of our own free will is also inevitable. They are both facts and they are both true at the same time and in the same decision.

    The fact of inevitability is neither useful nor helpful. The fact of us making choices for ourselves is filled with limitless possibilities.

    Perspective: Those stressing inevitability and discounting our role in choosing what becomes inevitable are usually preaching some form of fatalism. Or, as I like to summarize it:
    Determinism – Free Will = Fatalism

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