Philosophers have argued for centuries over what freedom is and whether or not we have it. Here is an overview of the different arguments…Read on to have a good old think!
Before we start, here’s a little heads up – There will be some philosophical language used in this article so there’s a glossary at the end – And there are also links to other articles if you want to find more detailed information on any of the ideas mentioned!
Determinism – The Root of the problem
The arguments surrounding Free Will stem from the idea (known as Determinism) that every event in the world is caused by an earlier event. For example, when I decide to take a photo of a friend during a night out, the decision is caused by me seeing my friend smiling, my choice to bring my camera on the night out and my desire to capture my friend looking happy. So my decision to take a photo is part of a causal chain of causes and effects, choices, decisions and actions – And this chain of causes and effects stretches back to before the night out, before I had my camera, before I knew my friend, before I was born and all the way back to the beginning of time!
Read this Stanford Encyclopedia entry for more information on Determinism.
‘Houston we have a problem’
But many philosophers have felt that Determinism causes a problem. They question how I can be responsible for my decision to take a photo of my friend, when I am not responsible for many things that have happened in the past – I was not responsible for how things were before I was born, so how can I be responsible for things that happen after I was born? When we think about choices and decisions being ‘free’, many of us like to believe that we are ultimately responsible for them – But if our decisions and choices are just part of a long causal chain, it seems that to be ultimately responsible for my decision to take a photo now, I must have started the whole causal chain at the beginning of time – But this is clearly impossible!
This rather pessimistic approach to the situation is known as Hard Determinism – Read this article to find out more about it.
‘Solution’ One – Determinism is wrong!
One way to get around the problem (at first sight) is to reject Determinism and say that not everything that happens in the world is caused by something else. Quantum Physics has shown us that some things just randomly happen without any cause. So some Philosophers have argued that our decisions and choices are free because they aren’t caused by anything or are caused by an uncaused-cause – This position is known as Libertarianism.
But this response doesn’t seem to get us very far – If my decision to take a photo of my friend isn’t caused by anything, how can I be responsible for it? Something that just happens completely randomly seems to be the very opposite of being free! So it looks like rejecting Determinism isn’t a great response – We want our decisions and choices to be caused by something in order to say that they are free.
But maybe I’m being unfair here – You can read this article
to find out more on Libertarianism
‘Solution’ Two – Who cares about Ultimate Responsibility?
Another way to respond to the problem is to accept Determinism but reject the idea that we need Ultimate Responsibility over our choices in order to be free. This kind of response is known as Compatibilism because its supporters believe that Determinism and Free Will are compatible.
So the Compatibilist accepts that our choices and decisions are caused by prior choices and decisions. And they even accept that this causal chain stretches all the way back to the beginning of time. But they argue that we shouldn’t care that we can’t be ultimately responsible for our choices and decisions. Who cares that I didn’t start the causal chain? All we should care about when talking about Free Will and Freedom is that our actions are voluntary. So my decision to take a photo of my friend is free because it flows from who I am as a person. No one held a gun to my head and demanded that I take the photo – I really wanted to do it.
Compatibilism seems to be a stronger response to Hard Determinism but it’s got its own problems too. The biggest response is this. Just as the Compatibilist can begin his argument by declaring ‘Who Cares about Ultimate Responsibility’, the Hard Determinist can respond to Compatibilism by saying ‘Who cares about Compatibilist freedom?’ – Why is the level of control Compatibilists talk about enough? Just because I can make choices and decisions, it doesn’t necessarily follow that those choices and decisions are free and responsible ones. Compatibilist-level Free Will can often seem like an unappealing half-freedom, a cop out based on the fact we can’t have the real thing.
But again, maybe this is an unfair reaction – Read this article
to find out more on Compatibilism.
Solution Three – Let Loose!
A third option is to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of both Hard Determinism and Compatibilism as a way to let loose of the problem. That is, instead of viewing Hard Determinism and Compatibilism as objectively ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ responses to Determinism, we can see them as more emotion-based responses.
On this view, Hard Determinism and Compatibilism are just like pessimistic and optimistic people. The Hard Determinist is a pessimist – He sees Determinism and cries ‘Oh God, life is terrible, there’s no way I can be ultimately responsible for my decision to take a photo of my friend’. On the other hand, the Compatibilist is an optimist – He sees Determinism and calmly says ‘Life is fine, who cares that I’m not ultimately responsible for the photo, I made the choice and decision and that’s all I care about’. So, one side sees the glass (Determinism) as half full, whilst the other sees it at half empty.
When one takes this ‘let loose’ view, Determinism is only a problem if you want it to be. If you really desire ultimate control over everything in life, then yes, Determinism is going to cause you sleepless nights. But if, like the Compatibilist, you are a bit more realistic about what kind of control you want over your actions, you can still be completely happy. So once we begin to see Hard Determinism and Compatibilism as subjective rather than objective responses to Determinism, maybe we can stop worrying about them so much! But of course (as with anything in Philosophy!) there are strong arguments that can be raised against this position too – What do you think? Post your ideas in the comments below!
- Determinism – The view that every event in the world is caused by some prior event
- Hard Determinism – The view that Determinism and Free Will are incompatible
- Libertarianism – The view that Determinism is false and we free
- Compatibilism – The view that Determinism and Free Will are compatible