Free Will and Determinism

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Soft Determinism


Philosophers who hold that freed and determinism are compatible are referred to as compatibilists or soft determinists. Compatibilism is the thesis that we are both determined and yet at the same time have the sort of freedom necessary to be morally responsible for our actions. The main argument of compatibilists is that we only need to be free in the sense in which ‘free’ is opposed to ‘compelled’ or ‘coerced’. A free act is one where the agent could have done otherwise if she or he had chosen otherwise, and in such acts the agent is morally responsible even if determined. Hence, they argue for voluntariness.

David Hume (1711-76)

On Hume’s view, the following expresses a necessary and sufficient condition for freedom:
A person’s action is free if, and only if, had the person wanted to do otherwise than the act, the person would have had the power to do otherwise than the act.
The advantage of this view is that it seems to preserve a plausible connection between actions and the desires to bring them about. It is consistent with determinism, so, if it is an adequate account of freedom, then may seem like a plausible reconciliation of freedom and determinism. This notion of freedom nicely explains certain obviously unfree situations. For example, if you are stuck in a lift, then it is not the case that had you wanted to leave the lift, it would have been within your power to do so.

However, suppose you enter a room, and after deliberating about whether or not you want to stay in the room, you decide to stay inside the room for the evening. It might seem that you freely stay in the room: you deliberated about what you wanted to do, and then you did it. But now suppose that, unbeknownst to you, the room was locked from the outside just after you entered. It seems, then, on Hume’s notion of freedom, you were not free: it was not the case that, had you wanted to do otherwise than stay inside, you would have had the power to leave. If the original intuition that you freely stayed in the room is a plausible one, then Hume’s definition does not express a necessary condition on freedom: one can be free even if this condition is not met. (The example of the locked room is due to the philosopher John Locke.) But, of course, people have differing intuitions about this case.

Consider kleptomania. Let’s say that kleptomaniacs in fact want to steal things, and that this desire at least partially explains why they steal. But, of course, if the kleptomaniac were cured of his or her condition, he or she would no longer want to steal. So it seems that had the kleptomaniac not wanted to steal (for example, if he or she were cured of her condition), he or she would have the power to refrain from stealing. If so, then Hume’s definition of freedom is satisfied. But this is counter-intuitive, since it seems implausible to suppose that kleptomaniacs are free with respect to stealing. So Hume’s definition insufficiently explains freedom, since it allows for cases of unfree actions to count as free.

A.J. Ayer (1910-89)

In considering the problem of free will and determinism, Ayer starts out by considering several libertarian conceptions of free will. In other words, he considers several ways of thinking about free will that are supposed to be incompatible with determinism. Ayer gives a soft deterministic alternative.

The first concept that Ayer considered was the assertion that someone is free just in case their action is not caused. Ayer rejects this as if there is no cause to the action then the act must have come about as purely a matter of chance. However, this is not the kind of freedom we are looking for. It cannot be the basis of morality as we tend not to hold people responsible for chance occurrences.

The second concept that Ayer considered was idea that someone is free just in case they act according to their character. Ayer claims that the problem of this view is that leads back to determinism.

Ayer comes up with an alternative – a soft determinist definition of freedom. Freedom is “consciousness of necessity”. Ayer suggests that there is nothing stopping us from redefining the word ‘free’ however we want. It may be possible to change the definition to suit the demands of an otherwise deterministic universe. But, as Ayer points out, giving the word this definition would effectively change the subject. We would no longer be talking about the notion of freedom that we began with. So we want a deterministic view of free will that conforms to our ordinary concept of freedom.

Ayer considers two cases in which freedom is lacking:

  • Being controlled by someone else (as in the evil scientist case who puts a chip into my brain).
  • The kleptomaniac.
The reason that I am not free when the mad scientist is controlling me is that my decisions are irrelevant to what happens. Even if I decided not to act badly, the scientist would force me with his mind-control device. That’s why I’m not free. Similarly, even if the kleptomaniac resolved not to steal and told himself that he would pass up the merchandise, his compulsion would take over and (in a sense) force him to go against his desires. This leads Ayer to give the final definition of freedom:
Someone is free just in case, if they chose to do otherwise, they would have. The reason that I’m not free when I’m under control is that, even if I had chosen to do otherwise, I would not have. Likewise, if I were a kleptomaniac I would not be free to stop stealing even if I didn’t want to stop.
The key thing to notice is that Ayer’s definition gives us a picture of free will that is consistent with determinism. If my actions are all determined by the past and the laws of nature, then I will make this particular choice. But, even if I have to make this one choice, it’s still true that if I had chosen otherwise, then I would have.

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