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Free Will and Determinism Analysis Essay

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Updated: Sep 4th, 2021

The recent years have brought a resurgence of interest in philosophical questions about free will and determinism. In the current paper, one more attempt is made to understand these notions, their importance in human life and the complexity of their close interconnection and interaction.

Free will is people’s ability to choose according to their desires. Having free will means making unforced decisions. Jonathan Edwards, in his fundamental work The Freedom of the Will (1754), argues that the will always choose according to its greatest desire at the moment of choice. Few simple examples illustrate this fact: if a person can choose whether to stay at home and have a tedious time alone or to go to see his or her friends and enjoy meeting them, the person will surely choose the first alternative. But if, for example, the person is to decide whether to read up for an exam or to go to a disco that night, he or she faces a more difficult dilemma. In this case, the person realizes that he or she will get more benefits from studying than from the short term enjoyment that dances will bring. So, when the person chooses to study, he or she still chooses according to personal preferences, all things considered.

A question might appear: what determines a person’s preference? Determinism theory states that every event, including human cognition and behaviour, decision and action, is caused by a chain of prior occurrences.

There exist different points for free will compatibility with determinism. Some philosophers, known as Hard Determinists, argue that this world is deterministic and deny that there exists free will. Others deny that the world is entirely deterministic and argue for contra-causal freedom. Also, there are such philosophers who do not agree that free will is incompatible with determinism, they are known as Soft Determinists or Compatibilists.

Roger Sperry, in his work Changing Conceptions of Consciousness and Free Will, tries to prove that free will exists. This neuropsychologist argues that while consciousness is determined by the biochemical activity of the brain, it also helps to integrate and organize this activity. This gives people some degree of freedom from purely physiological mechanisms. But even though Sperry argues that contra-casual freedom would not be freedom at all, it still does not allow one to call him a compatibilist. The neuropsychologist believes that free will depends on “degrees of freedom” from causal control rather than complete freedom (Sperry, p. 10).

If, according to Sperry (1976), a subject’s conscious intentions or volitions do not simply emerge from brain activity but help to organize and control it; they serve as the causal determinants of behaviour. Sperry claims that there is

a causal sequence of brain events leading to and determining a given voluntary act or decision” even if the occurrences concerned are “no longer conceived to be restricted to a series of neurophysicochemical activities (Sperry, p. 14).

The author distinguishes between having “degrees of freedom” and having complete or absolute freedom from physical determinism. The idea of having a degree of freedom implies that voluntary, conscious decisions modify ongoing brain activity.

Patricia Smith Churchland’s work Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy is also concerned with neuroscience and philosophy. The focus of our interest here is Churchland’s, Free Will. Considering the problem of free will, the author suggests the thesis that

there are systematic neurobiological differences between being in control and being out of control, and that these differences can be characterized in terms of fuzzy-bordered sub-volumes of the multidimensional parameter space (Churchland, p. 232).

The author explains her point by examining a large scope of sources on psycho-neurological deficits, presenting empirical proofs to the old Aristotelian idea that humans are responsible for their deeds to the extent to which there are no mitigating circumstances. Churchland states that from this, it comes out that responsibility matches with being in control. The author considers this assumption to be pragmatically justified: society is interested in adopting this assumption. The recently popular assumption that freedom of the will may be an effect of quantum indeterminacy is, on the contrary, considered by the author as empirically vacuus and the one that raises more questions than answers (Churchland, p. 2002).

One more research is interested in terms of the problem of free will. Benjamin Libet studied the existence of free will experimentally. The experimental approach that Libet has taken to this question is reflected and thoroughly considered in his work Do We Have Free Will? Here, Libet states:

Freely voluntary acts are preceded by a specific electrical change in the brain (the ‘readiness potential’, RP) that begins 550 ms before the act. Human subjects became aware of the intention to act 350–400 ms after RP starts, but 200 ms. Before the motor act. The volitional process is therefore initiated unconsciously. But the conscious function could still control the outcome; it can veto the act. Free will is therefore not excluded. These findings put constraints on views of how free will may operate; it would not initiate a voluntary act, but it could control the performance of the act. The findings also affect views of guilt and responsibility (Libet, p.47).

Seeking an answer to the question of whether “our consciously willed acts are fully determined by natural laws that govern the activities of nerve cells in the brain, or whether acts and the conscious decisions to perform them can proceed to some degree independently of natural determinism (Libet, p. 55) Libet stresses on the fact that “free choices or acts are not predictable, even if they should be completely determined.” (Libet, p. 47)

Werner Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty that states that it is impossible to simultaneously determine the position and momentum of a particle prevents people from having complete knowledge of the underlying molecular activities. Quantum mechanics deals more with probabilities than with certainties of events. According to chaos theory, a random event shifts the behaviour of a whole system in some unpredictable way. However, Libet states,

even if events are not predictable in practice, they might nevertheless be in accord with natural laws and therefore determined (Libet, p. 55).

Libet considers both deterministic and non-deterministic views on free will and claims that neither of the two theories proposes even a potential experimental design to test the hypothesis about the existence of a free will. Still, the author suggests adopting the view

that we do have free will (until some real contradictory evidence may appear if it ever does). Such a view would at least allow us to proceed in a way that accepts and accommodates our own deep feeling that we do have free will. We would not need to view ourselves as machines that act in a manner completely controlled by the known physical laws (Libet, p. 57).

This permissive option is similar to the one advocated by R. Sperry we talked about above. Libet closes his study with a relevant quotation from the novelist Isaac Bashevis Singer where he stated his strong belief in people’s having free will. In one of his interviews, Singer stated that

The greatest gift which humanity has received is free choice. It is true that we are limited in our use of free choice. But the little free choice we have is such a great gift and is potentially worth so much that for this itself, life is worthwhile living (Libet, p. 57).

One more work that is worth considering in terms of the problem studied is Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves, where he seeks freedom and free will in a deterministic world. The philosopher states that there is freedom and free will in this world. He uses a lot of provocative formulations to show how people alone among the animals have evolved minds that give them free will and morality. One part of the Freedom Evolves presents especial interest for our investigation; this is, Are You Out of the Loop?

In this work, Dennett suggests that the traditional psychophysiology of free will is reminiscent of the myth of Cupid. If someone had taken this myth literally, they would have a false theory of romantic love. The laws of life are such that people do fall in love but do it in another way. By analogy, Dennett suggests that someone who believes in the theory of free will as due to the soul’s interventions in the brain activity has a false vision of free will. The same as with love, people do have free will, but in a different way.

Dennett’s view of free will is based on Daniel Wegner’s assumption that free will is an illusion that depends on consciousness. Dennet claims that although in the strictly physical sense, human actions are pre-determined, the abilities that people evolved enable them to be free in all the ways that matter. Free will, as Dennett sees it is the freedom to make decisions without the press of causality. Dennet introduces the term evitability as opposed to the inevitability defining it as humans’ ability to anticipate possible consequences of their actions and act in a way to avoid undesirable ones. It is obvious that evitability is entirely compatible and even requires people’s actions to be deterministic.

Thus, we can see that there exist different views on the compatibility of free will and determinism. The more scientists and philosophers try and investigate this problem, the more solutions appear. Still, we are inclined to believe that this is human life and experience that are to give an adequate answer to the question about what people’s behaviour is ruled by.

Works Cited

Churchland, P.S.’Free Will,’ in Brain-Wise: Studies in Neurophilosophy (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2002), pp.201-237.

Dennett, D.C. ‘Are You Out of the Loop?’ in Freedom Evolves (New York: Viking, 2003), pp. 221-257.

Libet, B. ‘Do We Have Free Will?’ Journal of Consciousness Studies, Vol. 6, No. 8-9 (1999), pp.47-57.

Sperry, R. ‘Changing Conceptions of Consciousness and Free WIll,’ Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Vol. 20(1976), pp. 9-19.

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