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Freewill Determinism Notes

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Becky Tun

Page 1 of 7

06/11/07

Is free will incompatible with determinism?
Free will is a property that gets attributed to agents. Roughly it is what makes it so that our actions can be ascribed to us. It is the idea that we have control over how we act. Being in control of how we act means that we can be responsible for our actions, which is the basis of morality, and essential to the idea which we all have, that what we do matters. Moreover we find it impossible to believe that we are not free. We could not make decisions if we did not think it was up to us to decide what we shall do. So free will is not just a property that we would like to attribute to ourselves, but in some sense a fact of experience that needs explaining. Unfortunately for many philosophers, there does seem to be a problem here, because it is possible to call into question whether and in what sense we really do have control over how we act. Most people make the intuitive assumption that our freedom is incompatible with our actions being determined or necessitated by prior causes outside our control. But this makes it seem as if the notion of free will is not compatible with the claim of determinism: that everything that happens, including our own actions (or at least most things that happen, including our own actions), has already been causally determined to occur. Many philosophers have assumed that determinism is the case. After all, the world does basically seem law-governed. But if my actions are necessitated by things outside my control, then how can they possibly be up to me? This is the kind of perplexity that leads people to believe that free will has to involve indeterminism. In this sense, then, free will is incompatible with determinism. If your definition of free will includes the absence of causal determination, then you think that determinism and free will cannot both be the case. This view is called incompatibilism. If you are an incompatibilist and you do think that we have free will, then you will have to reject determinism, and so you will also be an indeterminist. This approach is the common-sense one. A lot of typical dictionary definitions of free will go something like this one: 'the partial freedom of the agent, in acts of conscious choice, from the determining compulsion of heredity, environment and circumstance'. Some other dictionary definitions only talk about freedom from external coercion, which is by itself not incompatible with determinism, but a closer look at how the definition is used will show that the incompatibilist intuition is still there: free will is taken to be what we are exercising when and in so far as we are not externally forced into our actions. But suggesting to most people that the capacity you are exercising in those circumstances is itself subject to the determining forces of your character will be met by the reaction that this is could not be free will at all. To have free will, agents have to be capable of actions that are completely free. In what sense can an action be 'completely' free? An indeterminism might be inclined to say that the completeness of our freedom lies in the fact that there are actions we can take which are not caused by any of the facts about us or the world (basically as in the dictionary definition above). Put like that, it does sound rather troublesome. Even if there are uncaused events (as in quantum mechanics) it seems awkward to claim that free actions are such events. The notion is problematic on at least the following three accounts.

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