“Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism, the way you play it is free will.” ~ Jawaharlal Nehru
(1) Is Determinism True? Are our actions determined by our genes, our upbringing, the laws of physics and so on? All of these things seem to INCLINE us toward a certain direction, sure, but do we have the ability to OVERCOME these inclinations, or choose to IGNORE them? If so, how?
“It should be admitted that according to hard determinism, the rationale for punishment and reward changes. We can’t coherently say that people are getting what they deserve, since they had no choice in what they did. It may be disturbing to think that people are imprisoned merely to create an incentive for people not to do things generally disliked by society, and people are given prizes just to create incentives for desirable behavior. But if everyone’s life runs along a pre-determined line, how could some people truly deserve poor treatment while others deserve good treatment? Which line we are traveling, and the way that it runs, looks to be completely a matter of luck.” ~ Samuel Ruhmkorff
(2) Is the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP) True? Does free will require the ability to do otherwise? Imagine that you chose to read a newspaper today. Alternative possibilities seems to require that, if we rewound time to the moment that you made the choice to come to class, if you DID have the ability to do otherwise, then sometimes when we “press play,” you chose not to read a newspaper today. Is that what free will is? Or, rather, can we have free will even if we do NOT have the ability to do otherwise? 
“Intuitively, a person is morally responsible for what she has done only if she could have done otherwise. This is the Principle of Alternate Possibilities (PAP): for any person and any action, that person is morally responsible for performing or failing to perform that action if and only if she had a genuine alternate possibility open to her at the time. An alternate possibility is simply another option that an agent has at the time that he or she acts.” ~ Rebecca Renninger
(3) Do We Have Free Will? Are we in control of our actions in a way that makes us RESPONSIBLE for what we do?
“I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look before they cross the road.” ~ Stephen Hawking
Philosopher Peter van Inwagen answers (1) No, (2) Yes, and (3) Yes. Thus, he defends the “standard” view of free will called Libertarianism.
This view proposes that we DO have free will, and having free will requires that we DO have the ability to do otherwise (i.e., PAP is true, Determinism is false, and humans have free will).
1. The Case for Incompatibilism: Peter van Inwagen begins by noting that, intuitively, we think of time as a “garden of forking paths.” That is, the future holds many forks in the road, where each branch represents a REAL path that we have the ability to choose to take. For instance, when it came time for you to decide what college to go to, or even apply to, it is as if you stood at an intersection—a fork in the road—and you REALLY DID GENUINELY possess the ability to choose any of those paths. To most of us, intuitively, this is what free will IS.
So, intuitively, PAP is true (that is, true freedom requires the ability to do otherwise).
Is determinism true?
Is PAP true?
Do we have free will?
But Van Inwagen offers a better reason than mere intuition. He also provides an argument for the conclusion that Compatibilists must reject “The Principle”, and that this is absurd.
He begins by noting that some facts are “untouchable facts.” That is, they are facts that you have absolutely no control over; facts that you could not change, and could not have changed, no matter what knowledge you had, or how lucky you were. For instance, the shape of the Earth, whether or not the dinosaurs lived, and whether or not 2+2=4 are all untouchable facts — totally outside of your control. He then proposes the following principle, which he simply calls ‘The Principle’:
The Principle: If P is an untouchable fact, and if P entails Q, then Q is an untouchable fact as well.
But, now, think about what that means if determinism is true. Determinists, remember, believe that ALL events are pre-determined by the laws that govern the universe. In that case, facts about what the universe was like millions, or billions of years ago already entailed what the present would be like. That is, if scientists knew ALL of the facts about the universe 10 billion years ago, and ALL of the laws of nature, they could perfectly calculate what would happen from that moment on.
“Philosophers and scientists who believe that the universe is deterministic and that determinism is incompatible with free will are called “hard” determinists. Since moral responsibility seems to require free will, hard determinism implies that no one is morally responsible for his actions. Although the conclusion is strongly counterintuitive, some hard determinists have insisted that the weight of philosophical argument requires that it be accepted. There is no alternative but to reform the intuitive beliefs in freedom and moral responsibility. Other hard determinists, acknowledging that such reform is scarcely feasible, hold that there may be social benefits to feeling and exhibiting moral emotions, even though the emotions themselves are based on a fiction. Such benefits are reason enough for holding fast to prephilosophical beliefs about free will and moral responsibility, according to these thinkers.” (Encyclopedia Britannica)
So, then, it seems clear that—according to Determinism—facts about what happened in the remote past entail facts about what happens in the present. But, facts about the remote past are untouchable facts! Therefore, facts about the present are untouchable as well. So, ANY fact about my present actions are “untouchable” ones. For instance:
- The Principle: If P is an untouchable fact, and P entails Q, then Q is an untouchable fact.
- You are reading a blog right now.
- Facts about the distant past pre-determined that you would be reading a blog right now (according to determinism).
- Facts about the distant past are untouchable facts.
- Therefore, the fact that you are reading a blog right now is also an untouchable fact.
So, then, if The Principle is true, then anyone who accepts determinism must also accept the conclusion that ALL of your actions are “untouchable”. The compatibilist, however, proposes that—nevertheless—we DO have free will. To van Inwagen, this assertion is an utter mystery. How could we be free, or responsible for our actions, if our actions are completely untouchable such that we have absolutely no control over them whatsoever?
In short, “compatibilists make their doctrine look like robust common sense by sweeping a mystery under the carpet” (Peter Van Inwagen).
“Compatibilism is the position or view that causal determinism is true, but we still act as free, morally responsible agents when, in the absence of external constraints, our actions are caused by our desires. Compatibilism does not maintain that humans are free. Compatibilism does not hold that humans have free will. It holds that:
1) the thesis of determinism is true, and that accordingly all human behavior, voluntary or involuntary, like the behavior of all other things, arises from antecedent conditions, given which no other behavior is possible: all human behavior is caused and determined
2) voluntary behavior is nonetheless free— to the extent that it is not externally constrained or impeded
3) the causes of voluntary behavior are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent: acts of will or volitions, choices, decisions, desires etc… ” ~ Garth Kemerling
2. The Case for Libertarian Freedom: Van Inwagen then motivates the conclusion that we DO have libertarian free will.
Brief tangent: Some have tried to do this by arguing for ‘agent causation’.
Agent Causation: This view states that we do have free will, because some of our actions are caused by us, and these actions are performed without being necessitated by all of the previous events. On this view, the causal chain ends in the “agent” (i.e., the free person). For instance, consider the following causal chain: A stone moves because a staff is pushing it, and the staff moves because a hand is pushing it, and the hand moves because some muscles are contracting, and the muscles contract because of some neural events, and the neural events occur because the agent caused it. The end.
(Note that determinists would deny that the causal chain ends there. They would say, and the agent wills it because of a desire, and the desire formed because of some previous experience, and the previous experience … and so on, all the way back to the Big Bang.)
But, it is hard to see how causation could “end” at the agent. Would the agent’s free choice occur for some REASON? If so, then it DOES seem as if it is determined, and that the choice does NOT stop at the agent. If it does NOT occur for any reason, then the event seems UNdetermined, and therefore not under the agent’s control, but rather completely random, or arbitrary!
Van Inwagen prefers the following motivation:
(1) Reason #1: The Belief in Free Will is Irresistible: Think about some important decisions you’ve had to make. (Maybe your decision to attend W&M; Van Inwagen mentions his decision to propose to his wife.) Is it REALLY possible to bring yourself to believe that you had NO choice in the matter? The choice was NOT up to you?
Van Inwagen says that he finds the belief that many of his choices ARE “up to him”absolutely “irresistible”. In short, our belief in our own freedom is unshakeable.
(2) Reason #2: The Belief in Alternate Possibilities is a Pre-Requisite to Deliberation: Pause for a moment and try to deliberate on whether or not you should remain on the ground, or fly into the sky. It seems IMPOSSIBLE to genuinely deliberate over this choice, since you know that one of the options is not actually available to you.
Van Inwagen states, “I cannot try to decide whether to do A or B unless I believe that doing A and doing B are both possible for me.” In short, deliberation (i.e., trying to decide what to do) would be IMPOSSIBLE if you did not believe that more than one option was actually OPEN to you.
Van Inwagen uses the following example: Imagine that you are in a room with one door, and that you hear a “click”. You don’t know whether or not the click was the sound of someone locking the door. In short, you have NO IDEA whether or not the door is locked. In this situation, van Inwagen claims that it is IMPOSSIBLE to try to decide whether to leave the room or stay inside of it. Sure, you can try to decide whether you’d LIKE to leave or stay; you can try to decide whether some CONDITIONAL such as “IF I get up and the door is unlocked, then I’ll leave” is true; but, you try to make the plain-and-simple deliberation over whether to stay or leave.
(3) Reason #3: Libertarian Freedom is the “Smallest” Mystery: While it may still remain the case that libertarian freedom is somewhat of a “mystery”, consider the other two alternatives. They too require the belief in something mysterious.
(a) The Mystery of Compatibilism: Compatibilists must either reject The Principle, or else claim that, despite the fact that The Principle is true (so that ALL facts are“untouchable” facts), nevertheless, SOMEHOW we are responsible for our actions.
(b) The Mystery of Hard Determinism: Hard determinists must embrace the conclusion that, despite the irresistibility of our belief that we have free will, and despite the fact that our belief that various options are “open” to us is a PREREQUISITE to deliberation—nevertheless, there is no such thing as free will after all. No human being has ever, or will ever, be responsible for their actions.
Furthermore, this seems to entail that no human being has ever, or will ever, be MORALLY responsible for their actions. When we speak of moral obligations, we speak of what people “ought” to do. But, “ought” implies “can”. (for instance, it would make no sense to say that Frank “ought not” have murdered Sally if Frank’saction was not up to Frank at all, but was rather completely outside of his control. Thus, if it is impossible for anyone to do otherwise, then it makes no sense at all to speak of moral obligations. That is, it makes no sense to blame anyone for anything they do, no matter how horrific; and it makes no sense to praise them for anything they do, no matter how selfless, amazing, or wonderful.
For van Inwagen, swallowing either of THESE mysteries is far more implausible than swallowing the mystery of libertarian free will. That mystery is as follows:
(c) The Mystery of Libertarianism: Surely we always do whatever we have the most REASONS to do, right? So, imagine that you’re weighing two options, A and B, and you have a lot of good reasons to do A, but very few good reasons to do B. It seems likely that you’ll do A, right? If you really do have the ability to do B, does this just mean that you have the ability to choose to do the thing that you have LESS reason to do? If so, then this just seems to be the ability to act irrationally.
“Modern libertarians postulate fancy brain activity involving quantum or chaotic microevents which somehow (they say) get round determinism without amounting to randomness. I am completely unconvinced. It seems to me that however subtle the brain activity, the outcome ultimately is either deterministic or random (neither of which supports a libertarian version of free will), or both.” ~ Craig Skinner
Imagine some important decision you made, which involved choosing between two options. For instance, maybe you were trying to decide between going to a basketball game or watching TV. Libertarianism seems to be committed to this claim: If we could somehow “rewind time” back to the moment of your decision, given EXACTLY the same deliberation process, EXACTLY the same reasons, beliefs, brain states, and so on—in short, given EXACTLY the same conditions in which you decided to go to the basketball game—you could have instead chosen to watch TV. Is that coherent? What would explain the difference in choice? (It cannot be explained by a difference in reasons, deliberation, or brain states.)
Which of the three mysteries is the smallest, do you think? Ω
“Without free will, we seem diminished, merely the playthings of external forces. How, then, can we maintain an exalted view of ourselves? Determinism seems to undercut human dignity, it seems to undermine our value.” ~ Robert Nozick
Chad Vance, Ph.D. received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Colorado in 2013 and teaches at the College of William and Mary. Essay republished with permission. Note: I (Jason Merchey) inserted certain quotes in blue with the offset background.
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