One way to understand the tension
surrounding our ordinary intuitions about whether or not agents have
free will is as follows: below, are three intuitive theses.
Individually, they each seem plausible. Yet they
cannot all be held consistently together; one of them must go. The
problem, then, is in deciding which seemingly intuitive thesis we
should reject. Here are the three theses:
: Agents sometimes act freely.
: Every event is causally determined to come
about by some other event. Or: every event is caused.
: (1) and (2) are incompatible.
Thesis (1) seems plausible for at least two reasons. First, we often feel
free. When you are standing
at the coffee shop trying to decide between an Americano or a
Frappaccino, you certainly feel
if you get to choose which one you want. When you are deciding whether
you should study for that Chemistry exam or go to a party, you
as if you are
weighing the pros and cons of each, figuring out how much you really
care about the exam, whether it is worth cramming for in any case, or
whether or not that cutie you've had your eye on will be at the party,
etc. At times, you deliberate carefully and consciously, and seemingly
make a decision between more than one option. You sometimes feel as if
you act freely, and this is one reason to think that (1) is true. In
addition, however, is the fact that we treat ourselves and each other as if
we are free. We praise and
blame, reward and punish, all on the assumption that we sometimes act
freely. For example, if you get the sugar-loaded Frappaccino rather
than the (relatively) healthier Americano, you may hold yourself
responsible when those love handles start getting less lovable. Or you
may reward yourself after a job well done if you study for the Chem
exam instead of going to the party, and end up acing the exam. You also
praise or blame others for things they purportedly did freely. A lover
who lies to you is blamed for being untrustworthy. A friend who skips a
party to help you out when you're feeling down is praised as being a
genuinely good friend. Even our legal system is based on the assumption
that (1) is true: criminals are punished for breaking the law;
innocents are exempted from wrongdoing; heroes are given medals, etc.
You are even given grades in school that purportedly reflect how well
you have done, letters to represent rewards and punishments for
studying well or poorly, degrees awarded to those who preform decently,
which are eventually the basis for getting a job, etc. Indeed, in
any of these cases, if it is discovered that someone had no control
over their actions--e.g., if a criminal is deemed insane, or is forced
at gunpoint, or if a student is shown to be mentally incompetent, or
under the influence of hallucinogens that were involuntarily taken--we
tend to no longer hold them responsible for their actions. All of our
systems of reward and punishment seem to assume that we sometimes act
freely, and this is a second reason to think that (1) is true.
Thesis (2) seems plausible because of our common sense,
pseudo-scientific view of the world. For any event, we seem to think
that there was something that caused that event. Take a rock falling
off a cliff, for example. It would be odd if, in answer to the question
what caused the rock to fall?
someone replied "Nothing. It just fell." We seem to expect the world to
be ordered in such a way that there is an answer to questions such as what caused to rock to fall?
if we may not know what that answer is. For example, perhaps the rock
was precariously placed at the top of the cliff and a gust of wind
caused it to topple. And we can ask of the wind: what caused it to blow in just the way
that it did?
The answer might have something to do with the
weather patterns for that day, the high and low pressures in the
surrounding area, etc. And we can ask of the precarious position of the
rock: how did it get there?
The answer might be that someone carefully put it there, or that it had
been there awhile, ever since the cliff was formed, but that sediment
had eroded beneath it because of the wind and rain, etc. For nearly any
event we can think of, there seems to be a reason we can give to
explain why this event, or a cause that explains how this event came
about. Science seems to assume that this is true, and our ordinary
intuitions about how the world works seems to assume this as well. So
this is why (2) seems true.
Thesis (3) seems plausible because of the following bit of reasoning.
Take any event, such as your decision to go to class instead of
sleeping in. And let us suppose that this 'decision' is one of those
events where you act freely, making (1) true. Yet if (2) is also true,
then there should be something that caused you to decide to go to class
rather than sleep in. Suppose the cause of you attending class instead
of sleeping in was your desire to do well in school (to get good grades
so that you could graduate so that you could get a good job, etc.). But
given the truth of (2), there should be something that caused your
desire to to do well in school. Suppose the cause of your desire to do
well in school was instilled in you by your family, or by your desire
to get a good job eventually. But then, again, if (2) is true, then
something caused these desires, and something caused those things, and
so on. So, eventually, we get an explanation of the cause of you
'deciding' to go to class that looks unlike anything we would
intuitively call 'free will'. Put more explicitly: we intuitively think
that acting freely means acting uncausedly
But if acting freely requires not being caused to act, then this will
violate (2). So, it seems as if (3) is true.
Theses (1), (2) and (3), although each individually plausible, cannot
all be held consistently together. So one of them has to go. Your
position on the Free Will debate will depend on which of the theses you
accept and which one you reject. Below, briefly, are three positions on
the Free Will debate.
: Accepts (2) and (3), rejects (1).
Accepts (1) and (3), rejects (2).
Accepts (1) and (2), rejects (3).
There is much more to be said here, of course. We will discuss what we
can in class.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
entry on Free
Stanford Encyclopedia of
entry on Free
Will and Omniscience
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