Free Will & Determinism


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  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 22-05-12 15:18

Laws of Nature

Isaac Newton stated that everything is subject to natural laws, and this includes laws of cause and effect.  If we consider nature, then we must conclude that all results have been preceded by particular events.  A seed, for example, given the necessary conditions will grow into a plant.  Surely, then, if we are part of nature, we must also be subject to the same natural laws?

 For many, particularly religious people, we are different to animals, and therefore above certain laws of natureAnimals, possibly because they lack a mind (or soul), simply follow pre-programmed responses, whereas we have the ability to consider alternative courses of action, and act accordingly.

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Animals & People

Genetic Programming: Some dogs fight, some hunt and some are more agressive than others. The same is true of people; some are born mentally ill, some are are night by nature, some aren't.

Trained by reward and punishment: Dogs are given food for treats and are rewards for good behaviour. If they do something wrong, they are punished by being put outside. Same in humans, we are rewarded when we do something good, and punished when we do something bad. Here, morals are created

Do not deliaberate about behaviour: Animals do wait for traffic and get killed. We can rationalise and use our logic when to cross the road

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Hard Determinism

Many philosophers take a materialist point of view, denying that we are any different to the rest of nature, stating that we are merely more sophisticated.  Like animals, they claim, we are simply physical being with no spiritual or mental aspects beyond the workings of the physical brain.  This then leads to the obvious conclusion that we must therefore be subject to the same laws of nature that other animals, and all non-sentient life are also subject to


In simple terms, all our actions are the results of explainable causes, even though we might not be aware what they might be.

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“The sense of deliberation is an illusion.  Men think themselves free because they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes of them.”


Spinoza claims that we have no free will whatsoever, it is just wishful thinking on our part, a view supported by Baron d’Holbach almost a hundred years later in the mid 18th Century, when he compared man to a fly who was travelling on a gun carriage, believing that he was directing its movement.


“Man, who thinks himself free, is a fly who imagines he has power to move the universe, while is himself unknowingly carried along by it.”


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  •  All actions stand at the end of a complex network of previous events.
  • This network of events includes sociological, psychological, political and cultural influences.
  •  It is the sum total of all these influences that determines our future actions.
  • The world, which includes human beings, runs according to strict, unchangeable natural laws.
  • We are not free at all, and cannot be held responsible for our actions
  • We are like machines
  • Free choice is nothing but an illusion
  • John Hospers - something compels us to perform an action that we think is our free will (behaviourism - Pavlov's dogs)

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Implications of Hard Determinism

If Hard Determinists are correct in their theory that all of our actions have direct causes, and free will is nothing more than an illusion, then by implication, a person cannot be held morally responsible for their actions.

 Leopold and Loeb:

  • They lured and murdered young Bobby Franks they wanted to kill someone else but he was picked up to go to a dental appointment
  • They killed him with a chisel and stuffed a sock in his mouth, it was also rumoured the boy had been sexually assaulted, although the judge said there was no evidence of this
  • They removed Bobby’s clothes and left them on the side of the road and poured hydrochloric acid on his body to make identification more difficult, then left his body in a culvert
  • They then called Bobby’s mother and said he was kidnapped, the mother mailed them the ransom but then a man found the body of Franks
  • The duo burned their clothes and the typewriter used for the ransom note


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  •   Leopold’s glasses were found by the body, of which the mechanisms were only on Leopold’s glasses
  • They gave a weak alibi, then Loeb confessed, followed by Leopold. Each blamed each other for the actual killing
  •  Both admitted they were drove by the thrill of the kill and the desire to commit the perfect crime

Clarence Darrow “This terrible crime was inherent in his organism, and it came from some ancestor... Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?... It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university?” – meaning that the desire to kill was innate within them due to various factors, and therefore not their fault.

Darrow presented extensive psychiatric evidence describing the defendant’s emotional immaturity, obsessions with crime and the philosophy and Nietzsche, alcohol abuse, sexual longings and insecurities. 

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Classmates and associates spoke of their egocentricity and argumentative natures, inappropriate laughter, lack of judgement and childishness.

In reply, the State claimed the emotional responses in the boys were normal, and saw no basis for finding of mental abnormality.

More implications:

  • Cannot punish (retribution) or praise actions
  • We would not be morally responsible
  • Choices are illusions
  • Ability to be spontanous
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Predestination could be considered to be a form of religious hard determinism because it claims that before we are born, God knows exactly how we will act, and what we will do in each situation.  Because we can never act randomly, or surprise God in anything we do, it is fair to assume that we are restricted and determined in our behaviour

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  • God knows person A will commit murder tomorrow
  • Person A will commit murder tomorrow
  • Person A is not free
  • God can’t be wrong

Criticism: We are free: Boethius claims God is eternal, he is outside of our time and space He is watching all time as it is happening. God knows what we are going to do, but we are still all free. He used the analogy of someone high up watching a chariot race to equate to God watching us make our decisions and sees our consequences.

"God has a plan"

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Predestination - Fatalism

Predestination could lead to fatalism, the feeling that anyattempt to change the future is pointless, so I might as well not bother to do anything about it.  

Christians, however, claim that although God knows what I will do, he isnot causing it, therefore we can make a difference, and we should take control and make choices.

  • “Written in the stars” – fateful events as opposed to causal events
  • Propositions are either true or false and will be true of false in the future
  • Law of excluded middle – “sea battle tomorrow” 
  • Incompatible with free will
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  • Aristotle – Sea battle
  • There will be a sea battle OR
  • There won’t be a sea battle
  • There is no alternative, there is so middle possibility of ‘there might be a sea battle’
  • Doesn’t take possibilities into account

Augustine: we can make a difference to it - all fated to go to Heaven or Hell, everyone deserves to go to Hell but we can make difference and be let into Heaven

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Soft Determinism

“We dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.” - Einstein

Soft determinism is an attempt to make compatible the belief that we are subject to the laws of nature, and yet at the same time free to make choices.  

Immanuel Kant considered that we live in a determined, or phenomenal world, but there is a spiritual, or noumenal world, in which we are free.  We can only make sense of what is going on around us through our own self awareness, and this means that our actions are the result of our will.  We cannot help feeling angry or jealous, but we have the free will to act, or not to act, on those feelings.

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Kleptomaniacs are caused to steal things, they cannot help themselves. However, a thief can help themselves and have a choice (or reason) whether to steal or not. Similarly, a person with shellshock cannot help their emotions and are caused to be in shellshock. In contrast, a coward can.

Thomas Hobbes was a soft determinist that claimed that a person is acting on the person's own will, only when it is the desire of that person to do the act, and also for the person has the option to choose otherwise, if the person had decided to. 

David Hume was a soft determinist that believed we are nothing more than ‘creatures of habits’, where we have the freedom to walk and talk, but we are limited and restricted by the aforementioned habits, yet we can break out of them with effort. A simple example of this would be that of our morning routine.

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Harry Frankfurt was a soft determinist who believed that there are cases where a ‘coerced’ agent’s choice are still free because coercion coincides with the agent’s personal intention and desires. He also believed in the ‘hierarchal mesh’. Traditionally, we think of choices to be weighed on a metaphorical set of scales, where some circumstances can influence a choice. However, Frankfurt believed that there is a ‘web’ of circumstances and ideas that all mesh together to influence our ideas.

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Summary of Soft Determinism

  • Some acts are determined, but we have some moral responsibility for our actions
  • Determinism and free will are compatible
  • Soft determinists have been criticised for not agreeing on precisely what is and what is not determined in human life
  • Some of our actions are conditioned by genetics and the environment.
  • Within the complex web of environmental, social and genetic prior events, there is a certain degree of choice for human beings.
  • Soft determinists conclude that we should take moral responsibility for our actions.
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Libertarianism is the view that we are completely free to act, regardless of past events, cultural and environmental conditioning and biological influence.  Libertarians believe that we are completely autonomous, and for that reason fully responsible and accountable for our actions.

Traditionally, Christianity takes a libertarian stand, with Aquinas, for example, stating that, “Man chooses, not of necessity, but freely.”  (Summa Theologica)

Our moral actions are not a matter of chance or random events, but result from the values and character of the moral agent.

Unfortunately, although libertarians reject cause and effect, they do not offer any adequate alternative explanation, failing to account for a human motive which has cause of some sort.  The best response that can be offered is that our actions are related to possible outcomes rather than previous causes.  We don’t do things because of what has happened in the past, but because of what might happen in the future. Hume - "You cannot predict the future by observing the past"

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Reasons: Finishing a project, meeting a friend, doing revision. (Libertarianism)

Causes: Kleptomania - CAUSED to steal. 

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  • According to Libertarians, we are free and morally responsible for our actions
  • According to Hume, we are at liberty to stay at rest or to move.  Therefore we have free will
  • Moral actions are the result of the values and character of the moral agent
  • Libertarians have been criticised for rejecting cause and effect in human behaviour, without giving an alternative explanation
  • Strength: Inwagen - choosing which road to go down when travelling a forked road
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