Free Will And Determinism

Unit 2

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  • Created on: 23-05-10 18:02

What are Free Will and Determinism?

Free Will:

Refers to metaphysical freedom. The belief that we control our own actions and have the ability to make choices regarding them.


The belief that all events in the universe are the necessary consequences of physical laws, and that these laws apply to humans as well.

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The belief that the future is determined and will occur regardless of your actions so you might as well resign yourself to fate.

Also called logical determinism.


1) We shouldn't regard statements about the future as being true or false until they happen.

2) Fatalists have the idea of 'necessity' wrong. We can say that either 'A' or 'not-A' wil necessarily come true, but we can't say 'A' will necessarily come true or 'not-A' will necessarily come true.l

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Religious Predestination

The belief that G-d has a specific path in store for everyone.


1) The problem of evil

If G-d is benevolent and omnipotent why is there evil in the world?

ARGUMENT: humans have free will and often use it for evil

ARGUMENT: can you believe in G-d and human free will?

If G-d is omniscient then He will know everything past, present, and future.

If G-d knows the future then it will happen whatever our choices.

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ARGUMENT: if we see G-d as outside time He can then see what humans do out of their own free will from the vantage point of the future

2) Are G-d's actions determined? Does He Know what He will choose?

If He is benevolent He can only choose something that will maximise the goodness of the world.

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Physical Determinism

The belief that all events in the universe are caused by the immediately preceding events.

We are able to predict how events will turn out because they are determined by the past in the ways set in the Newtonian laws of nature [E.g. Laplace]


1) Some events are just random, maybe human minds are random as well.

2) It is impossible to observe every event so physical determinism can't be completely demonstrated.

The whole theory is based on a small number of events that we can correctly predict.

It is an inductive argument.

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The belief that one event causes another.

What do we mean by causes?

Hume claims that we don't perceive 'causes' via the senses

We link patterns of experience that occur frequently

If causes aren't perceived we can't say one event 'causes' another

We could say that all events in the universe are a result of the random movement of atoms.

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Hume on Free Will

We don't feel anything in our minds forcing us to make a decision.

No 'necessary connection' between our actions and stimulus.

However this doesn't prove free will as we don't experience this 'necessary connection' between physical events either.

He is a compatibilist:

We are determined-particular human actions are linked with particular effects

We have free will-our desires a free from restrictions

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We can’t predict every event.

For example we can’t predict what number an unloaded die will land on.

Even if we had a machine that shook the die in exactly the same way each time a small piece of dust could change the way it lands.

Small differences in starting conditions can lead to big differences later on.

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Chaos Theory

Edward Lorenz said that small insignificant events could be amplified until they had a global impact.

For example the flutter of a butterfly’s wings could cause a hurricane.

[Chaos Theory/ Butterfly Effect]

This suggests that not all events are predictable and it could lead to the view of free will as a ‘random generator’ in the brain.

Steven Pinker argued that a‘random generator’ would work by the laws of physics and would still be a cause of action.

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Can Determinism and Chance be Compatible?

Determinism doesn’t claim that we can predict all events, just many of them which still could suggest an underlying mechanism.

As long as we see chance as a result of a gap in our knowledge and predictions then it is compatible with determinism.

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Newtonian and Quantum Mechanics

Newton's theories predicting the movement of objects and planets are called Newtonian Mechanics.

They can explain how larger objects behave.

But when dealing with very small objects like atoms we need a different set of physical laws.

This set of theories is known as quantum mechanics.

While Newtonian mechanics point to a future determined by previous events with quantum mechanics it's not so clear.

Many physicists believe that at this very small level the universe is not determined.

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Quantum mechanics only give probabilistic predictions because the universe itself is probabilistic, not determined.

Einstein said that the uncertainty was due to a hidden variable that had not been discovered.

He said that G-d 'does not throw dice' i.e. the world is not random.

The big number of particles in most objects means that their behaviour can be predicted with Newtonian mechanics.

Maybe because there is a link between cause and effect that humans have free will. If there was no link between me doing something and my desire to do so I would not be doing it out of my free will.

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Determinism and Humans

Biological Determinism is the belief that our behaviour is shaped by our genetic make-up.

However it only accounts for general traits and not specific behaviour.

Cultural/Environmental Determinism is the belief that our behaviour is shaped by our experiences and environment.

Which is most influential in the formation of the human mind?

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Hard Determinism

The belief that physical determinism is true and so humans don't have free will.

The human brain is determined by its starting conditions every time it makes a decision.

If hard determinism is true it would have major implications for morality and rationality.

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The Illusion of Free Will

It does appear that we have free will when we make a decision.

So how can a hard determinist prove that we don't?

The existence of choices doesn't mean we have free will. Machines can have choices, but we wouldn't say that they have free will.

Each stage of decision making is predetermined by the previous stage.

Hume says that although we feel no necessary causation when making a decision neither do we experience it in the world around us.

The illusion of free will may rise out of: the complexity of decision making; and incomplete access to the brain process.

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Libertarianism and Dualism

Many philosophers [e.g. Descartes] believe that the human mind is not part of the physical world.

Dualism is the belief that the universe is made of two substances: physical and non-physical.

Physical bodies and the brain are made of physical substances and are extended (take up space)

The mind is made of a non-physical, unextended substance.

Thoughts in the mind don't occupy physical space.

The brain and the mind interact constantly.

The brain is in the physical world which is determined by the laws of nature.

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However the mind is not and so it is free to make choices.


1) How do the two substances interact? How can they come into contact?

2) The mind is heavily reliant on the brain.

Damage to the brain impacts the mind.

So it would make much more sense if the mind was part of the brain.

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Sartre and Existentialism

Concerned with the individual, the range of human experience, and the significance of free will.

Physical objects have an essence which determines how they will behave.

They have no freedom.

Humans have no essence and so have free will.

We create our essence through what we do. "man is nothing else than the sum of his actions"

Many people convince themselves that they have an essence and so relinquish their free will.

We don't have absolute freedom as we are limited by what our bodies can do.

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Our genetic makeup and experiences may incline us towards certain behaviours but it is our choice whether to act on them or not.


We do have an essence: our brain.

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Primary Mover Unmoved/ Gap in Universal Causation

Perhaps the chain of cause and effect goes back forever with no starting point.

If there was a beginning there must have been a first events that wasn't caused.

If G-d started the universe he would have to be a primary mover unmoved; a starting point that is not caused/ effected by anything.

Perhaps humans are primary movers unmoved?

For there to be free will there would have to be a gap in universal causation.

Dualism explains this because events are caused by the mind which is a 'primary mover unmoved'.

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Soft Determinism

The belief that free will and determinism are compatible.

Most of the time we act out of free will because we could've done otherwise.

Free will is just freedom from physical constraint [REDEFINES IT]

Works with our concept of morality as we wouldn't blame someone who was physically forced to do something.

But is this what free will is?

A plant is not forced to grow but it doesn't have free will. Is it forced by the laws of nature? Are we?

To have free will we must be able to make choices.

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Implications for Morality

If the causes of our actions are beyond our control then we can't be blamed for the consequences.

We need the choice, the ability to do otherwise, in order to morally blame or praise people.

Aristotle says an agent can only be blamed/praised for an action if it had its origins in the agent.

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