Free will has been a controversial concept for many centuries, as there is no way to prove or disprove its existence. However, different philosophical approaches at different times sought to comprehend the essence of the phenomenon and explain its origin. Determinism and libertarianism represent two opposing beliefs about a person and the reasons for his actions. Baron d’Holbach argued that freedom is an illusion and the will of man comes from the brain, which dictates only predetermined impulses. Jean-Paul Sartre, on the contrary, described freedom as a unique feature of human beings who are condemned to constant choice.
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Baron d’Holbach and Determinism
Determinism is philosophical teaching about the lawful universal interconnection and interdependence of the phenomena of objective reality. Determinism, as a term and generalizing concept, serves to designate a class of philosophical concepts that assert or recognize the conditionality and determinability of all existing phenomena of the observed world. It includes a man with his inner, subjective, spiritual world, and some primary, substantial reality (for example, By God – theological determinism, by nature – naturalistic determinism, or by the cosmos – cosmological determinism, and others). However, more often, with the concept of determinism, the philosophical doctrine of the natural causality of all phenomena of the objective world of their universal, natural relationship and interdependence is associated. For the most part, these ideas relate to the world of science and rationale.
Regarding human beings, the central idea of the philosophy of determinism is the inability of a person to avoid fate. Thus, the adherents of the concept assume that every action in the present is defined by the action in the past. Determinism argues that “given the complete physical state of the world at any point in time, only one future sequence of events is physically possible” (List 88). Thus, everything in the world is governed by cause and effect, which are predetermined in advance and cannot be changed. Free will implies that there is an alternative for the agent when choosing an action. In other words, a person must make a choice in favor of one or another effect for the same cause. However, determinism argues that no such alternative exists for the agent. For any situation, there is only one possible course of action, which is predetermined by past events. Therefore, determinism and free will are incompatible since this philosophy in principle denies the existence of the possibility of choice.
Baron D’Holbach was a materialist and naturalist, focusing on the study of the physical objective world. Thus, he believed that a person cannot even for a moment avoid control of nature. Humans and their actions are determined by explicit or concealed causes over which they have no power (Pettit 00:01:24). D’Holbach argued that a person is not free since all his or her desires are dictated by nature. He explains that man “is necessarily conditioned by the impressions he receives from the external world, by the ideas which come into being within his brain” (as cited in Vauléon 113). Moreover, the philosopher notices that people think that they are free, which is a delusion. Any of their actions are predetermined by external causes, but their consciousness presents it as free will.
According to the ideas of determinism and D’Holbach, there is only one version of an event in the past. However, a person is inclined to imagine alternatives that, nevertheless, did not occur. Accordingly, people think about the future, idealizing many possible ways. However, D’Holbach believes that this is not correct since the future, like the past, has only one predetermined path of development. Thus, the philosopher claims that “the will is merely a modification of the brain, and a brain is just a physical object” (Pettit 00:04:20). As with any other physical object, the human brain obeys the laws of nature. Thus, any desire which prompts action is external and predetermined. D’Holbach also emphasizes that a person is guided exclusively by pleasure or survival, which determines his motivation. Thus, humans have no choice but are under the control of either natural or social circumstances.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Libertarianism
Libertarianism takes a completely opposite position to determinism regarding the consideration of free will. The philosophical theory assumes that “free will requires alternative possibilities, and that the world actually offers such alternative possibilities: we do indeed have the genuine choice” (List 17). Thus, libertarianism argues that determinism cannot be considered at the same time as the idea of free will. Followers of the direction see the concept as the ability to act or not to act according to the will. They believe that people are actually choosing from the many options which exist in any situation. A person is neither compelled to act nor do it randomly, which together constitutes his free will. However, people also bear moral responsibility for all decisions made, which form their moral character.
In contrast to determinists, libertarians argue that the future is not predetermined and is created at the moment a person commits an act. The strongest evidence for the existence of free will is an inner sense of freedom. Libertarians argue that by rejecting this assumption, a person excludes any evidence which comes from experience, including determinism. The theory considers a person as a combination of two factors: personality and moral character. The first is formed under the influence of external factors such as upbringing, environment, and circumstances of life. However, the moral self is different, as it plays a key role in decision-making. This part has a will independent of the circumstances, which leads to unexpected behavior of a person, which may contradict his or her upbringing. Thus, the individual obeys the rules of pleasure and survival, but the moral character can resist them on the basis of moral responsibility. Thus, libertarianism argues that human free will is the ability to resist natural factors and make choices.
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Jean-Paul Sartre is a French existentialist philosopher who denied the existence of God, and therefore predestination. The philosopher formulated a statement that later began to express the essence of the whole existentialist theory, appearing as “existence precedes essence” (Gosetti-Ferencei 51). He denied the possibility of the existence of a definite goal prepared for a person by factors beyond his control. The main differences between man, and the philosopher, represented self-consciousness and the absence of a specific goal. Created objects have a certain purpose, while a person is born without it, and only in the course of life does he or she acquire it. The only thing which, according to Sartre, people cannot change or choose is the right to freedom. They are initially born free and constantly shape the future with their actions.
Existentialism, in this case, is an extension of libertarianism, since Sartre explains that a person is not only condemned to freedom but also bears involuntary responsibility throughout life. The philosopher does not deny that people do not choose the conditions of their birth and upbringing. However, once they are aware of themselves, they are fated to make choices all the time, which determine the essence. Existence is a fact, while essence develops over time, consisting of the actions which give meaning to life. Thus, Sartre asserts that there is no God who could bestow a specific purpose, and the responsibility for everything lies only on the shoulders of a man.
The philosopher is preoccupied with the infinite amount of choice which is available to man. He believes that such primordial freedom is confusing and causes anxiety. Sartre argues that people can lead any life and become what they want to be since they have no restrictions. However, each act reveals not only the essence but also what a person should be. Such responsibility is a burden on people and makes them feel fear and anxiety. As libertarianism, existentialism discusses the morality of certain human actions. Sartre believes that any choice must be made in accordance with the essence. Thus, a person must constantly maintain his self-awareness and independence, not imitate objects, and not objectify others.
Despite the fact that Sartre considered freedom as a burden, he also condemned life without striving for it. He denied the virtue of people who accept everything that happens and do not study alternatives. Thus, by not using all the possibilities presented, the person is guilty of restricting freedom, consequently denying the essence and nature of man as a free being self-conscious creature. Thus, the philosopher believes that all is given to people in existence and freedom. They can use these components to create their essence and fill it with meaning through choice and action.
The Position Chosen
It is difficult to abandon one or another approach since it is basically impossible to prove the incorrectness of the views presented. However, the determinism approach makes one think about what, in principle, cannot be grasped. As Baron d’Holbach argued, the brain is a biological product, and therefore the creation of nature. Probably, the desire of a person to realize himself as a free being is a necessity and an illusion that was created for people. In this case, any doubt about the predetermination of what is happening is defined in advance, which makes any action or thought meaningless. In my opinion, this approach does not correlate with the essence of philosophy. This science triumphs human thought and the desire to know the world through one’s own self. Thus, determinism is more suitable for natural sciences since it implies observation exclusively.
As Sartre reasoned, the choice fills the human being with meaning and gives it essence. The approach of libertarianism and existentialism seems to be the most correct, precisely from a humanistic and philosophical perspective. Philosophy puts a person at the center of the study, and not uncontrolled processes occurring around him or her. If determinism considers people as part of a natural mechanism, libertarianism presents them as separate independent entities. Thus, the acceptance of free will as an innate right of human beings seems to be the most correct.
Determinism and libertarianism are two opposing persuasions that explain the causes of human actions. On the one hand, the future is predetermined, and any choice is an illusion. On the other hand, only the fact of existence is defined in advance for people, while all actions shape their future. In any case, a person is not yet able to comprehend the truths regarding such complex matters. However, the ideas of libertarianism seem to be more humanistic, while determinism is more applicable to the natural sciences.
“Baron d’Holbach on Hard Determinism: There is no Free Will.” YouTube, uploaded by Gordon Pettit, 2020. Web.
Gosetti-Ferencei, Jennifer. On Being and Becoming: An Existentialist Approach to Life. Oxford University Press, 2020.
List, Christian. Why Free Will Is Real. Harvard University Press, 2019.
Vauléon, Florian. Reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau through the Prism of Chess. University of Michigan Press, 2019.