If one was to ask a random person whether they have free will, the answer would likely be affirmative, for a variety of reasons. It is both challenging and incomprehensible for most human beings to accept that their life may be guided by something other than the free will of decision-making. However, the concept of determinism, although not directly meant to challenge free will, ultimately suggests incompatibility. Determinism is a theory which states that the course of the future is determined by a combination of past events and the laws of nature, creating a unique outcome. It argues that the events that are secured in the past, combined with laws of nature that drive the real world, results in a possible reality where the very same events and natural laws would apply, and therefore, shape the future. Causal determinism is the primary argument against free will presented in this paper using the following premises:
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- P1. The universe is deterministic with past events and laws of nature bring subsequent change and a unique future;
- P2. Humans have no influence or choice about the laws of nature or events in the past;
- P3. Events of past or nature are determined by physical forces since human actions are events, in reality, then they are determined by physical forces;
- P4. If humans do not cause or originate actions, then these events are not controlled by us, thus lacking the ability of self-determination;
- P5. The no-choice principle – a lack of influence on the inputs, resulting in a lack of control over the output or predetermined future;
Determinism is incompatible with freedom of will.
P1 is the basic premise of determinism. P2 examines the human ability to influence said premise. P3 creates the sequence which affects human decisions. P4 explores how the concept of free will plays into determinism. P5 presents a theory and closing argument. The conclusion is the final logical assumption based on the premises.
There are several schools of thought regarding determinism and free will. There are the compatibilism perspectives that suggest that both free will and determinism are real and can co-exist or are mutually compatible in reality. While compatibilists believe at least partially in some effect of a metaphysical combination of past events and natural laws, the freedom of choice ultimately depends on the situation, sometimes humans are forced by circumstance while in other times, humans are free agents. Compatibilists argue that determinism does not suggest a lack of free will because it does not entail that humans ever act on their desires unencumbered
The incompatibilism perspective views free will and determinism as conflicting, with two schools emerging of libertarianism which suggests free will exists in the indeterministic world, and hard determinism that presents a world with no free will. Hard determinism will be explored here, through a concept known as the consequence argument or “no choice principle.” It follows the basic premise of how one can have a choice about something that is an outcome of something that one has no influence on. Therefore, since no human being has a choice about past events or laws of nature, the logical conclusion is that there is no choice about current decisions, supporting determinism.
According to determinism, the state of the universe results in the decision. With laws of nature stating that if a specific state of the universe would lead to certain outcomes. No one has a choice about that sequence of events or the state of the universe or laws of nature, and it is consequential that no one has any choice about the decision. Such conditional proof eliminates any aspect of free will. For example, John is placed in a situation where he has to either lie or tell the truth. This decision is based on a pulse from the brain which converts to behavioral action. For the pulse in the brain to go one way or another, one has to consider the laws of nature as well as the state of John’s brain and related aspects. For John to decide on which way the pulse must go, he had to have done something beforehand to influence it. Since he did not do this, the direction is undetermined and there is no freedom. If John was really free, he must have had an influence on the event leading up to this position, but instead, it was determined by a sequence of prior events and the laws of nature. Every action and thought coming from John are consistent with the prior event both occurring and not occurring. If there is no genuine choice, and the decision is random, it is not an exemplification of free will – fully supporting hard determinism.
The primary philosophical interest and concern in the free will v. determinism argument are actually motivated by the external factor of moral responsibility. If the no-consequence argument is accepted and determinism stands true as the force precludes free will, the same applies to moral responsibility since it is generally accepted that freedom is a necessary condition for one to take responsibility for the course of action. However, the concepts are mutually exclusive as moral responsibility is a scope of ethics rather than compatibilism and incompatibilism. It is also a matter of perception on moral responsibility, whereas proponents of free will argue that only self-determination and full control of one’s actions can present an appropriate platform for the evaluation of morality.
At the same time, supporters of hard determinism demonstrate an argument on their own. The compatibility of moral responsibility with determinism had to be proven via that the ability to do otherwise (alternative action) was also compatible. Eventually, the principle of alternate possibilities was introduced, which suggested that whether one was a supporter of compatibilism or incompatibilism, the ability to choose is not necessary for moral responsibility. It was demonstrated through a two-step thought experiment. In the context of free will, there is a person named John who is faced with a morally challenging decision, and he chooses an immoral alternative, therefore burdening the responsibility. There is an omnipotent being, a threat, or penalty which would punish John if he did not act accordingly. Any sort of coercion mechanism can be implied here, but it would only intervene if John makes an alternate choice. By coincidence, John acts exactly as the coercive mechanism wants, making the decision.
The question arises, whether John is morally responsible for the action even though he was coerced. It is implied that the threat is so significant that John has no other choice, thus the lack of “alternate possibilities.” However, since John acted according to the will of a higher being, there was no intervention and nobody ultimately forced him to make that choice. This is a metaphor for determinism, which suggests that it does not matter whether an individual has free will, because choices are not genuine, always guided by some sort of coercion, and one is unable to choose otherwise. Therefore, moral responsibility is largely irrelevant to the outcome, but rather applies during the actual sequence of events.
As criticism of determinism, it can be argued that if one has knowledge about past events and laws of nature, possessing some intelligence, one can predict the future, thus acting in free will to change it. The no-choice principle becomes challenged as, in this scenario, it would no longer meet the premise. Even if determinism stands true, it is entirely possible for the future to be unpredictable since there is an inherently weak link between a determined future and a predictable future. Humans generally lack the necessary intellectual capacity or the full understanding of past and natural events to make accurate assumptions about the future and cannot be used as an argument that determinism does not exist.
In conclusion, determinism presents a strong argument against the existence of a free will. In comparison to more abstract philosophies such as Laplace’s demon, causal determinism is more grounded in logic. The primary issue with determinism is that it is currently empirically impossible to prove that the universe is deterministic, thus challenging the premises. Furthermore, there are a number of perspectives on whether determinism and free will are compatible and able to co-exist.
The author of this paper does not align with a particular school of thought but most closely relates to compatibilism in the context of Ayer’s Paradox. Ultimately, it does not matter whether determinism is true, or events are probabilistic, as neither demonstrates free will and in both realities, moral responsibility is denied. If events could not have been avoided based on the deterministic argument, then there is no free will or moral responsibility, and the same outcome emerges even if events are random, the combination of factors and natural forces still lead to certain decisions which a human cannot interpret. Free will does not exist in the context that most people assume, as choices are bound to either causal laws or statistical law, which one is unable to escape, and this does not meet the requirements for freedom of action.