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The Issues Around Free Will

Philosophy : Philosophy Articles

The question asked here is 'do we have free will?' and issues that result from this are around whether this matters - whether the impact has an effect on how we should live our lives and our attitude to others. There are also issues about whether we can be both free and not free, or whether this isn't possible.

If we had free will, then we would be able to do anything we wanted. When I go to choose whether to eat a peach or an apple, I can really choose either. And if I were to revisit that situation after choosing the peach, I can reasonably expect that I might have chosen the apple. Or can I?

Well, not really, since if the same thought processes and influences give rise to a different choice then there would be chaos in our lives, we need some structure and organisation. However, many think it is consistent to say that I was free to pick either the peach or the apple, though I would always pick the peach.

Some people say the results of free will would be that we live in total chaos - if I can do what I like, then there would be no order. We run according to cause and effect, physically, but if we could create our own causes then total chaos would result. But libertarians argue that we do have free will.

People traditionally approach the subject by saying 'of course we have free will - I can do what I want - I can go and play or I can do some work' but as they study the subject more and more they become less and less convinced, and many then say that everything we do is determined - determinism, though many think the two are compatible - they are compatibilists.

How do determinists reach their view? Well, let's look at it. Were we free to choose whether we born or not? No, we had no influence on that. Our parents decided. And their parents before them, right back to the start of humanity. We had no choice over our birth, it was determined by factors beyond our control. All processes are the result of physical cause and effect - a physical cause and a physical effect - I hit the white on the pool table and it has the effect of moving the yellow ball it strikes. This is determined by the laws of physics. Similarly with every other cause and effect.

So, before we are born it is straightforward. However, after we are born some confuse physical cause and effect processes in us to seem as though we are exercising some free will and going outside this physical cause and effect loop. When I ask for a chocolate bar, that is my own free will. There is no-one holding a gun to my head. I didn't have to ask for it. BUT, says the determinist, given the process of cause and effect, you did have to ask for it if you asked for it.

The chain of cause and effect that occurs in the world was such that it had that effect. If you could break this chain, with a genesis of some sort, then there would be chaos. If I could just produce an effect with no cause, then there would be no order in the world and everything would be untenable. Therefore everything we do is ultimately the cause of unthinking, physical cause and effect processes. We cannot break the chain.

If we accept determinism, ought we to change? That is, if the murderer in prison had no choice but to do what he did, given his genes and environment, which he had no choice over and govern how he acts, should he still be there?

Well, most argue yes, for pragmatic effects - to act as a detterent to others, and to make society liveable for those fortunate enough to not be born with those unfortunate genetics.

Is this consistent thinking? Do we have a choice about whether we put them in prison or not if everything is determined - is there any point having that debate? Yes there is, since determinism is distinct from a view it is often confused with, known as fatalism, the 'what will be will be' view.

This says that whatever happens, happens, and there is nothing we can do about it. Determinism however says that whatever happens, happens for a reason. Therefore if we did not put these people in prison, that would change the series of cause and effects that impinge on them, and hence the future will be different. This is distinct from fatalism which is a stronger view.

What do you think? Let us know!

By: Dan on Tue, Jun 11th 2002

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