Through the pleasures and woes of life, humans often find themselves in states of regret, denial, or any of the plethoras of emotions felt after a regrettable or punishable action. One may wonder whether these emotions or reactions are reasonable. That would depend on whether humans are actually in control of what they do, or they are pre-determined to act in a certain way. This question raises interest because it helps understand whether or not humans act based on true free will, or they are programmed to react to external stimuli in a specific way.
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Additionally, it is an important concept in religious teachings that deal with human consciousness and predestination. This essay aims to define free will and determinism, provide supporting and opposing arguments, and elaborate as to whether compatibilism is possible. It is argued that both free will and determinism can coexist; however, they cannot both be followed fully and consecutively.
Since ancient times, philosophers have been preoccupied with the subject of free will. Despite the existence of numerous approaches and theories about this phenomenon, it is possible to give free will a more or less generalizing definition. Free will is a person’s ability to govern the course of their actions unimpeded, i.e., not constrained with necessity or fate. As for historical definitions, to Plato, free will was a person’s self-mastery.
A person endowed with free will is capable of putting their rational mind to good use, namely, to control passions and desires, which would otherwise overrule a person’s life. Philo of Alexandria argued that free will is a feature of every human soul that distinguishes humankind from the animal world. Kant saw free will linked to morality; thus, a person in control of their fate was cognizant of true morals, and a moral person was granted the ability to exercise their free would genuinely. All in all, the majority of philosophers who dealt with free will speculated on the innateness of the phenomenon and its close connection to ethics and overcoming corruption.
Some philosophers succeeded in building convincing arguments in support of free will in humans. For instance, in “Fourth Meditation,” Descartes argued that one could prove the presence of free will in humans through their ability to make mistakes.
The philosopher put forward his argument within the Christian discourse that was prevalent in his era. He stated that God would not deceive a person by creating him or her with “a faculty of judging that when used properly goes awry” (Cunning 168). However, it goes without saying that every human being is sometimes wrong in their perception and chooses a wrong path. Were their actions predetermined by God, there would be no place for a human error. Yet, mistakes happen, which proves that God’s perfect judgment cannot overrule a person’s course of life.
In recent years, a scientific debate unfolded around the existence of a free will and negated its existence. Some scientific studies showed that what is commonly held as a controllable action has two elements to it – neural activity and personal perception. It is argued that a buildup of electrical activity precedes a conscious effort, which only appears to be an add-on, not the impetus. Moreover, some recent findings seem to have contributed significantly to nature versus nurture debate. 40 genes that determine a person’s intelligence were discovered (Sniekers et al. 1111). In turn, intelligence is associated with better economic and health outcomes. Hence, genetic makeup and the very nature of the human brain may be outweighing an individual’s strivings and aspirations.
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Determinism is a philosophical idea that is often contrasted with free will. The adherents of this idea believe in the inevitability of causality. In their opinion, every event that ever took place was inevitable due to an intricate network of preceding events, which all contributed to the said outcome. In ancient Greece, materialist philosophers Democritus and Leucippus became the first determinists, although ironically, the two aimed at putting forward an argument against the predestination by God. Leucippus was of the opinion that nothing happens at random but “for a reason and by necessity (Gregory 464).”
In the cosmos described by these philosophers, there was no place for a chance; on the contrary, the past fully determined one’s possible future. As for modernity, one of the major theorists of determinism was Arthur Schopenhauer. In his 1818 work “The World as Will and Idea”, Schopenhauer argued that one could not attribute an individual’s actions to them exercising their free will (566). On the contrary, each action is nothing more than a body’s reaction to stimuli that is predetermined by its metaphysics.
The concept of determinism is represented in religious teachings that build their convictions on the assumption that God is perfect. For instance, Christians believe that the Lord is great and “abundant in strength; His understanding is infinite (Psalm 147:5 New International Version).”
Hence, this heavenly perfection accounts for God’s providence and predestination. Were He not able to foresee the future, he would not take risks with the creation of the Earth. Moreover, some Christians and the adherents of a few other religions, such as Hinduism, see God as the cause of the cause. In the world of the causal network, God is something and someone who determined and brought about the first event that gave rise to all the successive occurrences.
Nevertheless, what undermines the idea of determinism is its intractable conflict with moral responsibility. For instance, Van Inwagen argued that the morality of humans is incompatible with the philosophy of determinism and elaborated on three premises in support of his belief (91). He started his argument by stating that if everything is determined by God’s will, fate, or natural laws, then the consequences are never up to human beings who cannot have any impact on them.
Thus, if an individual commits a crime, acts immorally, or fails to perform a duty, his or her behavior can only be explained by a vast array of events and external forces that led them to these unrightful actions. Therefore, “no one is morally responsible for any state of affairs,” and no one can be held accountable for what they did (Van Inwagen 181). Due to the absence of a free will, they are nothing more than the victims of a situation. All in all, if humans are moral (and there are numerous arguments in support of this claim), then determinism is not feasible at all.
When two polarizing concepts such as free will and determinism exist and are pondered continually by philosophers and researchers, it is only natural to assume that there might be a middle ground. Such a middle ground is found in the philosophy of compatibilism within which free will and determinism can coexist, and a person can hold both ideas true and be logically consistent in their convictions. The emergence of compatibilism may be explained by the fact that rejecting each of the ideas seems unattractive. Denying that free will exists seems pessimistic and deprives individuals of any self-agency. On the contrary, refusing to believe that determinism is possible to a certain extent may repel those who like to be reliant on predestination and relieve tension caused by constant control.
Indisputably, finding a way to make two ideologies compatible is not an easy task, and many people are unsure whether there might be a workable solution. One of the main arguments against compatibilism is that colliding two ideas requires using altered, “watered-down” versions of them. For instance, one may try to define free will in such a way so that it does not contradict determinism. In this case, one may reject absolute free will, i.e., the one that enables a person to take action not based on their prior activities and external factors.
Instead, free will in the sense of entertaining possibilities would be chosen. This would later help construct an argument that an individual picks an option among a variety of options that were, however, predetermined by previous events, i.e., no other options would be possible. All in all, the lack of a coherent definition of free will undermines the validity of such ideas.
However, the idea above might be slightly reiterated to make compatibilism plausible. The uncertainty around free will may be eliminated if this phenomenon is defined through morality which has been done by many philosophers throughout human history.
Hence, among a wide range of options, an individual is inclined, persuaded, or even ought to choose one that aligns with the moral ideals. In his article, List gives a prime example of the described situation. When criticizing Roman-Catholic Church, Martin Luther proclaimed “here I stand; I can do no other,” and according to List, he was “implying that these were a consequence of who he was (158).” He could abstain from confronting the religious authorities but saw doing so as his moral obligation. Hence, free will and determinism may be compatible when morality is introduced.
Free will and determinism constitute one of the classic dichotomies in philosophy. Free will is defined as the ability to take control over one’s own actions; this concept has been supported by both theists and secular philosophers. Free will accounts for inevitable mistakes each person makes, which are, however, not prevented by a Higher power. Determinism is a contrasting idea, the supporters of which believe in the total causality of events the intricacy of which makes it impossible to intervene. The concept of determinism is found in many religious teachings as their supporters see God as the ultimate source of power and knowledge that decides on each occurrence.
When developing compatibilist theories, one may face the problem of the uncertainty of the notions. First and foremost, a logically consistent approach is barely possible in the absence of a coherent definition of free will. However, the issue is nothing insurmountable if one defines free will through morality and builds an argument based on a voluntary action that is caused by the moral imperative.
Cunning, David, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Descartes’ Meditations. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
Gregory, Andrew. “Leucippus and Democritus on Like to Like and Ou Mallon.” Apeiron, vol. 46, no. 4, 2013, pp. 446–468.
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List, Christian. “Free Will, Determinism, and the Possibility of Doing Otherwise.” Noûs, vol. 48, no. 1, 2014, pp. 156-178.
Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Idea: 3 Vols in 1. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016.
Sniekers, Suzanne, et al. “Genome-Wide Association Meta-Analysis of 78,308 Individuals Identifies New Loci and Genes Influencing Human Intelligence.” Nature Genetics, vol. 49, 2017, pp. 1107–1112.
Van Inwagen, Peter. Thinking About Free Will. Cambridge University Press, 2017.