Free Will and Determinism

Revision cards on Free Will and Determinism -A2

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  • Created by: Lauren
  • Created on: 03-04-13 14:04

Hard Determinism

The idea of "universal causation" means that all events are caused - therefore all actions and decisions can, in principle be predicted. This is how science works:

E.g. Friction causes heat

We assume that everything has a reason and live with the rule of cause and effect.

This idea is the one on which hard determinism is based - hard determinists claim that we should apply cause and effect not only to scientific events, but also to moral decisions.

Just as heat can't be caused for no reason, a man wouldn't kill another without some kind of reason or cause compelling him to do so.

Darrow's case is a famous legal case in which hard determinists' beliefs were used to explain why a man killed a young boy. It was said that the murderer could not be blamed for his actions when he had been conditioned by many factors in his life to commit the crime. This is how hard determinism works. 

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Psychological Behaviourism

This form of hard determinism states:"Our actions are not controlled by ourselves but are determined by our environment"

 It looks at people's behaviour and tries to work out what caused it. John B Watson is a key psychological behaviourist who believed the two main causal factors are heredity and environment. According to Watson, manipulating a man's surroundings could significantly alter his behaviour.

Watson: If I had a dozen healthy children and my own world to bring them up in, I could take any one of them at random and train that one to be anything he wanted (doctor, thief, lawyer etc) regardless of their personality, talents and ancestry.

Skinner agreed with Watson and said that our thoughts and feelings are nothing more than learned responses to external factors. All we need to look at is the stimuli, and we can predict the response. The process of affecting behaviour like this is called conditioning because it means we can condition a response using positive and negative reinforcement. Even what appears to be voluntary behaviour could be changed because of learned responses. 

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Strengths and Weaknesses of Psychological Behaviou


  • It has a very positive outlook that we can do anything in the right situation
  • Empirical evidence and scientific verification can back it up - Pavlov's dogs shows that people's behaviour can be conditioned by psychology
  • Takes away moral responsibility
  • It is based on cause and effect, which we observe to be true


  • It raises worrying issues surrounding manipulation
  • It may take away too much moral responsibility and can be seen as a way of saying "its not my fault". People should be held accountable for their actions
  • Environment cannot be the only causal factor in behaviour, but this assumes it is.
  • Many of the tests providing evidence for this theory were done on animals, not humans
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Genetic Determinism

This form of hard determinism states: "Our actions are controlled by our genes"

Richard Dawkins came up with this idea and outlined it in his book "The Selfish Gene". He wrote:

"We are survival machines - robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes" This basically means that we just do what we have to do to survive.

He argued that if genes are a determining factor in our physical appearance, what would stop them from being so in our moral decision making too?

Later on, however, he did say that we have the power to overcome the selfish genes of our birth.

(Eugenics is the idea that we can maintain or improve our species and create stronger and stronger versions of human beings by altering genes. Positive Eugenics is the creation of a gene pool which will allow certain inherited capacities to continue into the future. Negative Eugenics is aimed at eliminating genes which carry disease or disability.)

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Theological Determinism

This form of hard determinism states: "God is the ultimate cause who determines all human actions"

Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards and Calvin were all thinkers who took this view

Calvin: "Not a drop of rain may fall without the express command of God".

Edwards argued that all actions must be caused (it is irrational to say otherwise). A self-caused action is impossible because a cause is prior to an effect and you cannot be prior to yourself. All actions must therefore be caused by a First Cause, God.

Edwards defined free choice as doing what one desires, but God decides what we desire, so all out actions must be defined by him. In some places in the Old Testament, God is said to be ultimately responsible for the actions of humans.

BUT this idea doesn't work for the majority of Christians, as free will is a hugely important part of Christian belief.

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This position argues that determinism and freedom are not compatible; freedom is real and determinism (at least as applied to our behaviour) is false.

Nothing can be more certain than what we experience. Experience is more certain than any complicated theory, no matter how eminent the supporters of that theory may be.

Our experience of freedom is a fact of our immediate experience, while determinism is, at best, a complicated theory. If the two conflict, this shows there must be something wrong with determinism. Although we are sometimes mistaken when it comes to judgements on perception (e.g. we might think an object is black when we look from a distance, but on closer examination it turns out to be red), this is not the case with freedom. As we have more experiences, our belief in freedom should grow stronger and stronger - when I am confronted with several alternatives, I once again experience my freedom.

However, John Locke argued that freedom is an illusion, with his analogy of the locked room. Locke gave the example of a man who wakes up in a room that, unknown to him, is locked from the outside. He chooses to stay in the room, believing he has chosen freely. In reality, he has no option. However, his ignorance of this gives him an illusion of freedom. 

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Compatibilism/Soft Determinsm

This side of the argument asks whether or not free will and determinism can work well together. This all depends on how we define freedom:

Frankfurt: Freedom is believing you have a free choice, even if you may not. We have freedom of choice rather han freedom of action. This definition of freedom is compatible with determinism because there may be times when we are free, and times when we are determined - this just depends on what we believe at the time.

Hobbes: We are free as long as there is nothing stopping us from acting. Freedom is all about being free to actually do something, not just to choose it. This can work with determinism because we observe that sometimes we are able to act unimpeded and at other times, we are prevented by some external factor.

Bramhall: Freedom exists as we have a moral self which remains unchanged - because we have the ability to reason, we must be free to decide what we do. This does not work with determinism because it implies that we are always free OR determined.

Honderich: Freedom and responsibility are pseudo concepts. We should just accept that determinism is true. Obviously, this is not compatible with freedom.

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