Sandra LaFave

In these notes, I will describe three philosophically important positions on the question of free will. They are:

  1. Hard Determinism (usually associated with social scientists such as B. F. Skinner, Sigmund Freud, and Konrad Lorenz; usually rejected by philosophers)

  2. Soft Determinism (Hobbes, Locke, Hume, and many others)

  3. Indeterminism (Kant, Campbell, Taylor, existentialists)


I. Hard Determinism

The basic argument of hard determinism is as follows:

P1:  No action is free if it must occur.

P2:   For any event X there are antecedent causes that ensure the occurrence of X in accordance with impersonal, mechanical causal laws.

C:     No action is free.

The hard determinist defends each premise as follows:

P1 simply expresses what is meant by “free”. Surely if an act must occur, it can't be free.

P2 is the Thesis of Determinism — the notion that every event is caused in accordance with causal laws, which account completely for its occurrence. Obviously (for the hard determinist), nothing is uncaused. We can't even imagine what it would mean for a thing to be “uncaused.” The hard determinist claims that P2 is thus indubitable. (If you doubt P2 anyway, try to produce a counterexample — an instance of an uncaused event.)

Thus, since causes guarantee that their effects occur — that is, if the cause is present, the effect must occur — and since everything that happens is the effect of some cause or set of causes, everything must occur. So nothing is free.

Now, people often argue that P2 is true for the vast majority of events but is false for some human actions. Humans are different from mere things, people say. The hard determinist anticipates this objection, and gives the following argument to establish determinism for human actions:

P1:   No action is free if it must occur.

P2:   Human actions result from wants, wishes, desires, motivations, feelings, etc.

P3:   Human wants, wishes, desires, motivations, feelings, etc. are caused in turn by specific antecedent conditions that ensure their occurrence.

C:     Human actions are not free.

Thus, for the hard determinist, humans are no different from other things. Your present actions are part of a causal chain that extends back far before your birth, and each link of the chain determines the next link on the chain. Hence, although it may appear to you that you have control over your present actions and mental states, you really have no control. And if you have no control, you certainly can't be held morally responsible for what you do. Thus hard determinism, if true, is important as an challenge to the very enterprise of normative ethics, which usually assumes people can be held responsible for at least some of their actions.

Hard determinists can present their argument in a couple of other ways also. Both these arguments are of the reductio ad absurdum form, i.e., their strategy is to demonstrate that absurd consequences follow from the supposition that people are free.

  • Suppose your will were free. This would mean that your actions were not determined by causal laws. If no causal laws governed your actions, then it would be impossible to predict what you are going to do. But in fact people who know you can predict what you will do, with a fair amount of accuracy. And if they couldn't — if your actions were completely unpredictable — they'd probably say NOT that you were free, but that you were crazy. So your actions must be controlled by causal law.

  • Again, suppose your will were free. This means your actions are freely chosen, and you're morally responsible for them. How then do you make your choices? Either it's an accident that you choose as you do or it's not. If it's an accident, i.e., if you choose randomly or by chance, then it's just a matter of chance that you didn't choose otherwise. So how can you be held morally responsible for choosing as you did? On the other hand, if you didn't choose by accident, then that means there's a causal explanation for your choice, and this confirms hard determinism.

If hard determinism is correct, then,

  • There can be no freedom in the sense required for morality.

  • There is no point in punishing or blaming or putting down those who do “wrong,” since they cannot help it. Indeed, there is no point in making value judgments of any kind about other people. People are not “better” or “worse”; they are only different. And if you differ from someone else, you differ, period. If you change, it's because you “have it in you” already to change; if you don't change, you simply “don't have it in you” and can't be blamed.

  • The notion of sin becomes incoherent. If sin is incoherent, then fundamental doctrines of Christianity (e.g., redemption from sin) are pointless.

  • Persons cannot be thought of as in any way “special” or “higher” than other animal species or physical objects. Thus, the interests of humans should not necessarily automatically be thought to override the interests of animals or plants.

However, the hard determinist does not think these consequences are necessarily bad. In fact, some hard determinists argue that the consequences might be very good. You can create a much better world, they argue, once you abandon the outdated notion of freedom. For example, B. F. Skinner argues that since people are the result of their conditioning, and will get conditioned by their upbringing and environments anyway, we ought to control people's upbringing and environments as much as possible to ensure that their conditioning is positive. The science of psychology, particularly Skinner's behaviorist principles of positive and negative reinforcement, can and should be applied to this task. Such a plan would be far better than the current situation, in which people's conditioning is more or less random; receiving positive conditioning is now just a matter of luck. But because people's actions and feelings are determined, you can create a perfect society simply by figuring out how to condition people so they don't do anything harmful, make a contribution to society, and have a happy consciousness.

Note that Skinner does not discount the importance of feeling free. Like all the interesting hard determinists, he acknowledges as an empirical fact of psychology that people prefer doing what they want to do, and prefer not to be coerced into doing what they don't want to do. Any happy society must take into account what people actually want. But since the hard determinist thinks that people's wants are determined by conditioning, s/he does not place any special emphasis on what people want right now, or what they have wanted at at various points in history. Social order depends on manipulating people's wants, so they voluntarily choose what they have actually been programmed to choose.

Freud and the ethologists (e.g., Konrad Lorenz) and sociobiologists (e.g., Richard Dawkins) are determinists of a different stripe, somewhat less optimistic and utopian than Skinner. Like Skinner, they discount the importance of people's actual desires. Actual conscious human wants are simply data, symptoms, residues of evolution or previous conditioning or manifestations of mental structures over which the individual has no control. Human subjectivity has no special status or meaning. Unlike Skinner, Freud and the ethologists posit strong unconscious forces determining desire. These forces are built into human nature by evolution; thus, unfortunately, although these forces might be quite unsavory, they are not going to go away quickly. And they are quite unsavory. Freud, for example, holds that during the so-called “Oedipal” period, everyone wants to have sex with the parent of the opposite sex and kill the parent of the same sex. Lorenz holds that aggression and territoriality and sexual competition are innate instinctive drives. Thus, we are destined to want (unconsciously) to dominate and subjugate others by violence, whether we consciously “want” to or not.

All these theories agree that free will is an illusion. According to the hard determinists, since hard determinism is the only scientifically defensible way to understand humanity, the concept of free will only hides the real issues and interferes with true self-knowledge.


II. Soft Determinism

The soft determinist often begins by pointing out that the issue isn't nearly as complicated as the hard determinist thinks. After all, we don't have much trouble distinguishing free acts from unfree ones in ordinary life, do we? Sure, everything has a cause, but what does that have to do with it? That is, the soft determinist argues that an act can be both caused and also free. This is because, according to the soft determinist, the hard determinist mistakenly equates “caused” with “forced” or “compelled”. Certainly every action is caused somehow; but not every action is compelled. In other words, an action can be both caused and uncompelled.

And, the soft determinist continues, this agrees with the way we use the words “free” and “unfree” in ordinary language. We say an act is free if it's voluntary (not forced or compelled); we say an act isn't free if it's involuntary (forced or compelled).

Note that the soft determinist position is probably the one most ordinary people would agree with. People assent if you ask them if everything is caused; and also assent if you ask them if some acts are free. The soft determinist position is also the one held most commonly by philosophers; both Descartes (in Meditation IV) and Hume (in the Enquiry) give versions of it.

Soft determinism is often called compatibilism because it holds that freedom and universal causation are compatible (can both exist).

The soft determinist agrees with the Thesis of Determinism (the claim that everything that happens must happen, because everything is caused in accordance with causal laws, which force effects which, in theory, can always be precisely predicted). That's why soft determinists are called soft determinists. They disagree with P1 of the HD argument, the claim that “No act is free if it must occur”. The soft determinist says this premise is equivocal (i.e., is ambiguous because it can be read in more than one way). The following paragraphs explain why.

The HD reads “No act is free if it must occur” as presupposing that all acts “must occur” in the sense that they are all caused, and therefore not free. In other words, having a cause is sufficient to make an act unfree. The hard determinist assumes, that is, that causes are compelling; that is, that having a cause is exactly the same as being forced. Does this seem right to you?

It doesn’t seem right to the soft determinist, who says the hard determinist abuses ordinary language. A free act on the hard determinist view would have to be an uncaused act, and naturally the HD position looks strong because it is hard to imagine what an uncaused event might look like. Thus it follows trivially for the HD that no acts are free, since no acts are uncaused. But it is absurd and weird to claim (as the HD does) that when we say an act is “free”, we really mean it has no cause at all! This is the kernel of the soft determinist position.

Think again about “No act is free if it must occur”, particularly the “must occur” part. We always say an act “must occur” if the act is forced; but we don't mean to imply that unforced (voluntary) acts have no causes at all! If the bank robber says, “You must open the safe right now” while pointing a gun to your head, nobody would say that your subsequent opening the safe is a free act. You are forced to open the safe; and both the hard and soft determinist would agree that your act is not free. But does that mean that if you weren’t forced to open the safe, and you did anyway, that your voluntary act would have no cause? Not so either.The soft determinist agrees with the HD that all acts are caused; but points out that to say an act is caused is not the same as to say it’s forced. And when we say an act is “free”, we mean simply that it’s not forced.

Imagine having to open the safe at gunpoint, and compare that feeling to how you felt when you signed up for this class. Was anyone holding a gun to your head when you filled out your registration card? Most of you are probably taking this class to fulfill a requirement (e.g., Critical Thinking) that might also be fulfilled by another class (e.g., Philosophy 17). Was anyone saying “Take Philosophy 3 or die!”? Probably not, right? You ended up writing “Philosophy 3” on your reg card because in some sense you wanted to. Maybe you didn’t want to very much, but I don’t think you’d say you felt anything like what you’d have felt if you’d signed up at gunpoint.

If that example doesn’t work for you (if signing up for this class felt exactly like signing up at gunpoint — poor you!), then substitute another example — a case where you clearly did not feel forced, e.g., choosing what to eat or what to wear, while scanning the menu or the closet.

The point is, sometimes we feel forced but sometimes we don’t. And when we say an act is free, we just mean it was one of the ones where we didn’t feel forced, i.e., it was voluntary. But that is not to say that our voluntary acts are uncaused; of course they are also caused. Both voluntary and involuntary acts are caused.

But we couldn't say any of this if HD is right. We couldn't make the distinction between forced and voluntary acts at all, since for the HD, all acts, voluntary and involuntary, are equally forced (since they all have causes).

Thus, the soft determinist charges that the hard determinist conflates two notions that should be kept distinct. There are two different senses of “must occur”! Of course, everything “must occur” in the sense that everything has a cause, and so nothing is free in this sense. We do not believe that anything is “free” not to have a cause. But this does not mean that some actions aren't free in the other sense; that is, some actions can still be unforced, or voluntary.

For the SD, then, an unfree act is one that is forced or compelled or involuntary — the normal sense of “not free”. But, the SD continues, let’s not forget that many acts are voluntary; thus many acts are free, because “free” means “voluntary”. The soft determinist argues that only the SD definition of “free” as “voluntary” reflects ordinary language usage. When people say an act is “free” they mean simply that it's voluntary; they certainly don't mean to say it's “uncaused”!

The 20th-century philosopher A. J. Ayer sums up the soft determinist position when he says, “If I suffered from a compulsion neurosis, so that I got up and walked across the room, whether I wanted to or not, or if I did so because sombody else compelled me, then I should not be acting freely. But if I do it now, I shall be acting freely, just because those conditions do not obtain; and the fact that my action may nevertheless have a cause is, from this point of view, irrelevant. For it is not when my action has any cause at all, but only when it has a special sort of cause, that it is reckoned not to be free.”

Besides, says the soft determinist, the hard determinist, in equating “caused” with “forced” is making a category mistake. The things that make an act unfree are things like having a gun pointed at you, or being attached to ropes, or being hypnotized, or sleepwalking, etc. All of these can be thought of as causes of behavior. That is, the notion of a cause of behavior is a much more general notion than any of these forces. Equating “caused” with “forced” is like equating “fruit” with “apple”; it's wrong in both cases because the second thing is a sub-class of the first. An act which is forced is a kind of caused act, just like an apple is a kind of fruit.

Hard Determinist / Indeterminist Reply to Soft Determinism

The hard determinist and indeterminist have similar critiques of soft determinism. The soft determinist wants to have both the thesis of determinism and freedom; but according to hard determinists and indeterminists, you can’t have it both ways. If every act has a cause or a set of causes, and causes force their effects, then you can't admit the thesis of determinism and escape hard determinism; and only by denying the thesis of determinism altogether (the indeterminist approach) can you formulate a coherent notion of freedom.

The soft determinist places a lot of emphasis on whether or not an act is voluntary — an act is free if it's voluntary, unfree if it's not. But when we say an act is voluntary, we mean

  1. We do it because we want to; and

  2. Nobody is forcing us to do it.   

The hard determinist and indeterminist both say neither of these criteria is adequate, since a person's wants are caused by the conditioning the person has received. The forces of conditioning might be so pervasive that although we might feel that our action is not forced, an impartial observer would say, “Given that conditioning, s/he couldn't have done otherwise!” And if you can’t do otherwise — if you have no genuine alternatives — you’re not free.

In other words, the feeling of voluntariness seems to be what characterizes freedom for the soft determinist. But both the hard determinist and indeterminist say your feeling is irrelevant to the question of determinism. You might feel your acts are perfectly voluntary and yet they are determined by a series of causes anyway. Even your feeling that your act is voluntary is determined.

Sure, you often feel you are doing just as you wish; but are your wishes or desires themselves under your control? The hard determinist would say “no”; your mental states are completely explained by reference to antecedent conditions and physical laws. It's fairly easy to think of cases that stump the soft determinist: cases where a person thinks and believes her acts are voluntary; all the world would agree the acts are voluntary; and yet we'd want to say they're nevertheless not free. E.g., people sometimes argue that women don't really want better-paying jobs, because they keep choosing low-status, low-paying jobs (nurse rather than doctor, secretary rather than boss, etc.). And it's true that women do in fact choose those jobs voluntarily. But what does that show? Feminists say it shows the strength of the conditioning that women receive. Their acts are voluntary and yet not really free.


Other Arguments Against Hard Determinism

Other influential arguments have been put forward in contemporary philosophy to refute hard determinism. They include the following.

  1. The HD is using an outdated, 18th-century, mechanical misconception of causal laws. Modern scientific laws are construed more as probablistic and statistical than mechanical. Modern-day laws always recognize the possibility of results happening contrary to prediction; but they state nonetheless that most probably the predicted results will occur.

  2. The HD does not consider the possibility of chaotic, or truly unpredictable events. The new science of chaos theory is described for the general reader in James Gleick’s recent book Chaos.

  3. The HD's conclusion — “No acts are free” — admits of no possible counterexamples. Thus, if it is intended as an empirical (factual) statement, it cannot be falsified; it is compatible with all states of affairs. But what, then, does it say? Does it have any content at all? Compare it with other unfalsifiable statements, such as “Swimmers like to swim because their blood contains millions of tiny, invisible, non-sensible fish”. The claim is irrefutable, because the little fish are defined in such a way that you can’t prove they don’t exist, i.e., no counterexamples are possible. But then why believe that they do?


III. Summary so far

Thesis of determinism: Everything that happens must happen, because everything is caused in accordance with causal laws, which force effects which, in theory, can always be precisely predicted.

Hard determinism: Thesis of determinism is true and implies no freedom.

If everything that happens must happen, everything is forced to happen.

If an event is forced, it’s not free.

Everything that happens is forced.

So nothing is free.

Soft determinism: Thesis of determinism is true and is compatible with freedom, because freedom requires two elements: capability (“I can”) and desire (“I want to”). A free act is a voluntary act that nothing prevents me from performing.

Everything that happens must happen.

My wants happen.

So I can’t want otherwise. (This is the major flaw of SD, according to Indeterminists.)

But I can often do what I want.

Freedom is simply the ability to do what I want (capability + desire).

Many acts are free, in this sense of freedom.


IV. Indeterminism

The indeterminist disagrees with both hard and soft determinism. Hard and soft determinists alike accept the thesis of determinism (the claim that all events are caused). The indeterminist attacks the thesis of determinism itself.

Here are some good reasons to reject the thesis of determinism:

  1. In fact, the effects of some causal laws cannot be predicted precisely. This is why the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and chaos theory are philosophically interesting.

  2. The thesis of determinism is compatible with all states of affairs, can’t be falsified.

  3. The thesis of determinism does not elucidate – in fact, it flies in the face of – our ordinary experience.

  4. The notion of mechanical causality applies to things but not to persons. When we account for the behavior of persons, we must use teleological explanations.

Naturally, since the thesis of determinism constitutes an explicit premise of both the HD and SD arguments, these arguments immediately become unsound if the thesis of determinism can be shown to be false or dubious.

According to indeterminists, the hard determinist is right about one thing: if the thesis of determinism is true, then there is no freedom. Both the HD and the indeterminist agree that real freedom cannot exist if everything that happens must happen. For the indeterminist, the soft determinist compromise — the claim that freedom is compatible with the the thesis of determinism — just doesn’t work. The indeterminist argues against SD as follows.

The Indeterminist Argument Against Soft Determinism

  • The indeterminist definition of freedom

    Genuine freedom is contextual (always freedom with respect to something – call it X). Genuine freedom with respect to X requires three conditions:

    1. I can do X.

    2. I want to do X.

    3. I really can do something other than X.

  • The indeterminist notes that the first and second conditions are often satisfied. I find I often can do what I want to do.

    For the SD, this is enough for freedom. In fact, the SD must deny the third condition ("I really can do something other than X"), since it’s incompatible with the thesis of determinism. As long as you maintain the thesis of determinism (the notion that everything that happens must happen), this third condition can never be satisfied, since if everything that happens must happen, my so-called “free” choices must happen, too. My free choices are just like any other events in the world of universal causality: they can’t be otherwise.

    For the indeterminist, however, condition (3) is just as necessary as (1) and (2). For the indeterminist, there is no real freedom if my so-called “free” choices can’t be otherwise. This is the kernel of the indeterminist argument against SD.

    So the indeterminist notion of freedom depends on showing that the thesis of determinism is false or at least dubious.

  • There are both philosophical and scientific reasons to doubt the thesis of determinism.

    Philosophical Reasons

    • The language of mechanical cause and effect simply does not apply in intentional contexts. Teleological explanations are necessary.

    • The thesis of determinism seems to contradict ordinary experience.

    • The thesis of determinism is compatible with all states of affairs.

    Scientific Reasons

    • Chaos theory

    • Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (commits the fallacy of composition: although people are composed of atoms, what's true of atoms isn't necessarily true of people)

  • So if these reasons are sound, condition (3) can be met.

  • So genuine freedom can exist.


Reasons and Causes

Most philosophers nowadays acknowledge the necessity of teleological explanations of human behavior. One standard argument for teleological explanation comes from Kant.

Kant says persons are like things in the sense that physical laws apply to their bodies; the indeterminist might even admit that psychological “laws” govern some of people's consciousness events. But persons are NOT like things because they can be conscious of the operation of these laws. (A thing is just subject to laws; it is not conscious of being subject to laws.) Even the hard determinist must admit this odd characteristic of persons. People can thus be aware of physical and psychological laws as observers, from the outside.These laws are viewed as things that can operate on me, but there is always a sense in which I view myself as apart from them — for example, right now, when I am reflecting about them.

When I think about how to behave, I consider reasons. I never think about causes, because insofar as I am an agent, they are never relevant. I have to make choices, and I choose on the basis of reasons. In other words, the model of physical causation does not fit at all when you try to apply it to human choices. Even if all human choices were determined, the HD model would still be completely inadequate to describe the perspective of the agent, which is what really matters for morality. The HD position is simply at odds with human experience because it continually asserts that as far as human experience is concerned, things are not what they seem. (What seems voluntary really isn't, for example.)

Now, the fact that a statement is at odds with our experiences does not show it is false. Many truths are counter-intuitive, e.g., that the earth revolves around the sun. But we accept those truths because they have independent confirmation, through experiments and mathematics. Hard determinism doesn't; in fact, it can't have independent confirmation, since its assertions have no possible counter-examples. This makes it very suspicious. The indeterminist asks that you consider closely actual cases of human decision-making. Consider decisions in the realm of morality, for example. The indeterminist says you will find that there is undoubtedly a freedom to make or withhold moral effort, which exists no matter what a person's past conditioning has been.

Consider the following example: Take two people A and B. Suppose A has had a wonderful childhood — loving, supportive parents, no worries about money, good health, etc. Suppose B has had a terrible childhood — his parents didn't want him, beat him up, never enough money, etc. Suppose now that A and B are grown up. They have a mutual friend Z, who goes on vacation, and leaves a key to his apartment with A, and another key with B. Z has a watch that A and B both like very much; it occurs to both of them to steal it. Stealing it would be simple under the circumstances. Given their respective conditionings, what can we say about the relative strength of the temptation to steal the watch in A and in B? Probably, the temptation will be stronger for B. Another way of saying this is that the amount of moral effort required by B to resist the temptation will be greater than the amount required by A; for example, it might take 8 units of moral effort for B to resist the temptation, but only 2 unit of moral effort for A to resist the same temptation. Clearly, then, it will be easier for A to resist the temptation.

The indeterminist grants all this, but now comes to his major point: both A and B have to decide whether to expend the amount of moral effort required to resist the temptation. Both have to choose, and neither one's conditioning determines how they will choose. This choice is a free choice. Conditioning does not determine how they will choose — it determines only the degree of difficulty of different moral tasks for different people. Either A or B can choose either way.

So when we say some people are at a disadvantage because of their conditioning, we mean that choosing rightly will be harder for them, but not impossible. More moral effort will be required by a person with unfortunate conditioning; however, we always suppose that a person is responsible for the amount of moral effort he puts forth, no matter what his conditioning. Perhaps it is more likely that B will not put forth the effort; but A can slip too. Thus, by looking at actual cases of decision-making, the indeterminist says that freedom to make or withhold effort (moral effort, or other kinds of discipline, e.g., saving money, physical training) is clearly not illusory, and the existence of responsibility for choice can't be denied. Effort of the will is an illusion only if you deny your own experience.

The existentialist philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre illustrates a kind of indeterminism. Sartre argues that because people have self-reflective ability, they can be genuinely creative with respect to their character. They can decide to break with their past. For Sartre, in fact, there is a radical gulf between a person and his past, such that a person must continually re-create and redefine himself. Sartre thinks that far from being determined, people are so free it terrifies them. They usually can't stand it, so they make up stories about how they are determined!





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