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Determinism & Free Will: Are we (meaningfully) free?

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Kirsten Gerdes

on 26 March 2014

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Transcript of Determinism & Free Will: Are we (meaningfully) free?

Determinism & Free Will: Are we (meaningfully) free?
1. The problem of free will
We've been looking at different perspectives on the
mind-body problem
, mostly focusing so far on Descartes'
dualistic interactionism
. We also briefly introduced
, which we'll examine more closely here.
4. Theories about free will (or the lack thereof)
There are
main camps around the issue of whether humans have free will:
hard determinists, libertarians, and compatibilists
Hard determinists
argue that
in the universe has a
, and therefore there is
no free will
argue that we
have free will. (Note that philosophical libertarianism is
than political libertarianism.) Finally,
soft determinists
) argue that we are
, but that there is a
causes (
action) and
causes (
9. Baron d'Holbach's "soul"
is a
hard determinist
- he argues against the idea that there is anything akin to free will. Yet perhaps you noticed that he still refers to
and even
(the metaphorical heart, not the organ that pumps blood).
How can this be?
Well, he states in the second paragraph that "
the soul is nothing more than the body considered relatively to some of its functions more concealed than others
" (P&V 384). In other words,
the soul = the
(parts of the)
(that we don't completely understand).
14. Complexly material
After explaining what he means by "will" and "choice," d'Holbach offers
one final claim
in support of his argument against the freedom of the will: just because we may not understand
all the causes of a particular action function
does not mean
the action was the result of a free will (P&V 387). We're (just) material things - albeit
highly complex material things
. It's our complexity that makes us believe in free will (P&V 388).
16. Implications & questions
D'Holbach himself recognized the
common objection
to a hard deterministic view, namely that if our
actions are determined
, then we're
not morally responsible
for them. This idea has proven more troubling in an age of
2. Do we have "choice"?
So how does the mind-body problem relate to free will?
Well, think about it phrased in the form of an argument:

: All material things
follow the
physical laws
of the universe.
: The laws of the universe indicate that
every event has a cause
: If an event has a cause, it
could not
have happened another way.
: Humans are
Conclusion 1/P5
: Human actions

the laws of the universe.
: If human actions follow the laws of the universe, then they are
Conclusion 2
: If human actions are caused, then they are
the result of
free will (choice)

Do we have choice?
3a. *Matrix Reloaded* & Choice
We've seen how the first *
* movie deals with
- how we can know anything for certain. The movie series also deals with the
mind-body problem
- since the underlying sci-fi plot line is that
power-hungry, intelligent computers farm humans for energy
. (The "matrix" is the large computer system into which human bodies are plugged, making them think that the virtual reality they experience *is* reality while harvesting energy from their physical bodies.) In the 2nd film in the trilogy, Neo meets the
of the matrix, who poses a question about the
nature of "choice"
3b. *Matrix Reloaded* & choice
Watch this clip of Neo's encounter, paying attention to the
nature of the "choice"
the Architect presents him.
Is it a "real" choice?
5. Hard determinism
hard determinist
would accept the argument laid out at the beginning of this lesson. P&V point out that
universal causality
- the idea that everything's caused -
cannot be proved
, but is generally
(379). The philosopher
David Hume
argued that causality is
not a logical necessity
(the way that a square must have 4 sides), but rather that we conclude causation from seeing
repeated patterns of conjoined events
. For example, if I touch a needle to an inflated balloon, see the balloon pop, and repeat the process with another inflated balloon, and another, and another... eventually, I'll
that the needle touching the balloon caused it to pop. But Hume says
we can't *prove* causation
, since we can never
the causation - just the two events (needle touching balloon & balloon popping).
6. Kant's categories
was influenced by Hume's ideas, and asserted that while we can't know whether
is a feature of the world itself, it *is* a
part of our minds
- it helps our minds
process data
we get from our sense perception. Kant called causation a
"category" of the mind

However, Kant also saw the
link between morality and free will
if there is such a thing as a moral law, then we must have free will in order for the moral law to have meaning
(P&V 379-380).
7. Libertarianism
is the theory that we do, in fact,
have free will
. This means that at some point of decision for a subject S,
she could (really) choose
between at least two actions (A1 & A2). If she chooses A2, the
cause of A2 is S herself
. Most of us operate on a day-to-day basis that
we have this ability:
do I want to drink coffee or tea this morning? Will I walk, drive, or take the trolley to class?
about these decisions. As we've already seen, we have
powerful ethical and moral reasons
for wanting to believe that we have free will.
8. Compatibilism
P&V humorously refer to compatibilism as the "
How To Have Your Cake & Eat It Too" theory
(382). Basically, it tries to
accept both
(obviously by understanding the terms "determined" and "free" in a particular way). Determinism and libertarianism refer to
different features
of human events. On the one hand, there are events
to an individual that are determined and
beyond her control
. However, there are also
events - things like
feelings or ideas
- about which we can make choices. Thus, the compatibilist
doesn't deny causality
, but
does she
deny free will
. We'll look at compatibilism in greater detail next week.
10. Material human
D'Holbach says that we're all
just material
- there's no other kind of stuff to talk about. As such, everything about us is determined -
we come into the world not of our own volition
(P&V 384), and everything that comes after is determined by our bodies, environments, and physical laws of the universe.

He entertains the
to his thesis, but concludes that the idea of free will was an
invention of religion
and our belief that we
free will to hold people
morally responsible
for their actions (P&V 385).
11. What is the will?
D'Holbach makes his case by
the will in a particular way. He calls it "
a modification of the brain
" (P&V 385). In other words, he says later, "
[a human's] motive is always either the immediate or ultimate advantage he finds, or thinks he finds, in the action to which he is persuaded
" (P&V 386).

All of *that* to say that when we speak of
"the will,"
D'Holbach argues that what we're
referring to is our
- we
will to do
that which we
to bring about the
consequence we want
How does his example of the thirsty person who comes across water in the desert support this claim?
12. Deliberation
If there isn't any free will, then
why does it appear that we deliberate before making a decision
? D'Holbach says, "
Man only deliberates when he does not distinctly understand the quality of the objects from which he receives impulse, or when experience has not sufficiently apprised him of the effects...which his actions will produce
" (P&V 386). In other words, we deliberate when we don't have enough information about what our
strongest impulse
is - it's the time it takes us to
figure out what we really desire
13. Choice
Choice by no means proves the free agency of man: he only deliberates when he does not yet know which to choose of the many objects that move him...
" (P&V 387). D'Holbach emphasizes that
free will
- our choice is
always determined
by our
15. Understanding motives
At the end of the essay, d'Holbach offers what he thinks is humanity's
essence of will
What does he say humans tend *by essence* to do, and do you agree with him?
17. Neurolaw
, a radio program on NPR, deals with various topics related to human experience and belief - usually at the
intersection of science and philosophy
. They aired an episode in September 2013 entitled "
," and one of the segments interviewed a few people about an emerging field of study entitled "
." Basically, the idea is that as
develops better ways of
mapping the brain
and discovering how it's related to human behavior, the question arises about whether we can be held
legally responsible
for actions that were caused by
in our

The entire episode can be found here:
18. Radiolab "Blame" segment
Take a listen to the segment on neurolaw in question: some argue that
should be
taken into account
in legal cases; some argue that the concept of
"blame" is outdated
and should be replaced with legal judgments based on the
statistical likelihood
that the person will
commit the crime again
If d'Holbach and other determinists are right
- that all our actions are caused and that given
enough time & research
, we can figure those causes out -
do we need to rethink the structure of our legal system? In what sense - theologically, ethically, or otherwise - can we be "blamed" for things?
19. Is he right?
Given how d'Holbach defined
"will" and "choice,"
does it make sense to talk about our actions as determined?
How much influence
do our
environment, histories, embodiment,
and other material things have on our choices?
Can you ever choose to do something that is against your will?
Full transcript