"The ability to act freely requires that one could have acted otherwise.
But causal determinism rules out the possibility that one could have acted other than as one did.
So free will is incompatible with determinism."
Discuss.

Causal Determinism is the metaphysical adoption of the "everything has a cause" mechanistic view of the Universe.  The more science learns about the nature of Man and the Universe, the more likely it seems that the future is predictable.  If the future is predictable, then it is possible that the decisions you think you make freely, are not so free.  If everything has a cause, then human behaviour must also have its own causes. And if human behaviour is caused in the manner assumed by causal determinism, then where is there a place for "Free Will"?  

Free Will Libertarianism is that philosophical doctrine that maintains that an individual, regardless of forces external to him, can and does freely choose at least some of his actions.  There is considerable debate over the proper criteria for Free Will.  But as a starting point and first approximation, "Free Will" can be characterized as that defining ability of moral agents to exercise control over their conduct in the fullest manner necessary for moral responsibility.  There are essentially two primary kinds of argument for Free Will.  The arguments from Moral Responsibility maintain that the existence of morality and ethics presupposes Free Will.  And the arguments from Common Sense maintain that whatever it is that we do when we choose or decide, it is self-evident that we could have chosen or decided otherwise, and this ability just is what we mean by "Free Will".

Undoubtedly, the most significant argument that non-philosophers think of for the existence of Free Will, is the universal individual personal experience of what it feels like to deliberate, evaluate, and make a choice.   No one will dispute that whatever it is that is taking place, it certainly feels like we are free to choose how we will.  Common sense tells us that we can change our actions by our own choice.

It is not just for ourselves that the feeling of Free Will is so pervasive.  We treat other people as similar to ourselves.  We treat all human beings as thinking, reasoning, contemplating, considering, and - most importantly - choosing intellects.  The notion of Free Will is fundamental and basic to how we view ourselves, and how we interact with other people.

As for the arguments from "moral responsibility", let's consider a hypothetical scenario.  You find yourself locked in a small cubical.  On the wall in front of you are two buttons - a green one, and a red one.  In the center is a digital clock that is counting down the seconds.  You can do one of three things.  You can push the red button, or you can push the green button, or you can do nothing and let the clock run down to zero. What criteria are necessary, in such a situation, to qualify your choice as a "free" choice?

We would, I suggest, each feel justified in critiquing your choice according to our own system of Ethical standards.  And if you should ask someone else's opinion of which alternative you should choose, I think everyone would feel suitably justified in responding "You should choose .....", directing your choice to the option they would evaluate as the "best" under the circumstances.

From considering the implications of this hypothetical scenario, we can understand "moral responsibility" as meaning "answerable or accountable for something within one's power to control" where that "something" is a choice or decision or judgment where:

(i) the alternatives available involve events or situations that can be evaluated against a standard of what is desirable or undesirable that the individual has learned over the course of his experiences with reality; and

(ii) the choice made is the result of the individual's own deliberations over the consequences of the alternatives available, and not the result of coercion.

And to be "within one's power to control" includes any situation where by choosing one alternative over another, one can influence the consequences in a predictable manner. One is not considered responsible for unpredictable consequences.   Hence, one is not held responsible for random outcomes.

Whatever the source of the subjective feeling of "free will", the source must be "internal".  The decision, choice, and action must be clearly the individual's and not something external to the individual.  Whatever the foundation of the individual's choice or decision or action, for there to be "free will" there supposedly must be a sense under which the individual was free to choose or decide or act otherwise than they did.  But just what exactly is meant by this notion of "could have acted otherwise"?  

Suppose that you playing a game of chess, are in the mid-game phase, and it is your move.  You carefully deliberate and choose to move your Queen to d2.  The move could not have been the result of random quantum events, or the flip of a coin, because you had clear strategic reasons for the move.  If queried, you could list many of the reasons that justified your choice of that particular move.  If queried, you could list many of the reasons that justified your choice of continuing with the game rather than going out for lunch.  You certainly feel like you freely chose to make that particular move, rather than any of the other options you considered (including the "off-board" options like going out to lunch).  You certainly felt like you could have chosen otherwise.

In what sense, then, could you have chosen otherwise than you did?  How you evaluate alternatives is governed by your character, personality, experiences (memories), and current circumstances.  In short, how you choose between alternatives is determined by who and what you are.  But who and what you are is a product of your past - your genetics and your experiences - nature and nurture.  So if your choice is caused by anything, it is caused by the sum total of your past history.  If you make a deliberate choice, you do so because you have reasons.  And given those reasons, you would not have chosen otherwise.  That this is so is demonstrated by the degree to which we consider the behaviour of others to be predictable.  You can jay-walk across a busy street or hold a conversation only on the basis of the presumption that you understand and can predict how other people are going to behave.

In what sense, then, were you free to not move your Queen to d2?  Given the circumstances that prevailed at the time, and given the sum total of your character, personality, experiences and memories, values and goals, reasons and justifications, in what sense could you have chosen otherwise?  If your friends and watching strangers could have predicted that you would make that move, in what sense could you have acted otherwise?

For any choice to be your free choice, and not the result of someone else's control of, or influence on you, you have to make the choice based on your own understanding of your options, as evaluated by the values and priorities you have learned through experience.  A choice is not freely yours if it is not based on your beliefs and your character, your experiences and your goals.  That is because these things are what you are.  If these things are not operational when you make your choice, then you are not making the choice.

Given those reasons and those justifications, and given your character, beliefs, values, and experiences, you judged the choice you made to be the best of the available alternatives.  Unless you learn something new to change your evaluation of the situation, you would make the same choice if the circumstances were repeated.  Yet it is certainly possible that you would have chosen otherwise, had your reasons and justification been different.  It is, therefore, an error in conception to presume that Free Will must involve an ability to choose otherwise, given the reasons and justification that exist.  But it is not at all extraordinary to understand Free Will as including an ability to choose otherwise than you did, had the reasons and justifications been different.

So, with that clarification, let's return to the essay's title argument.  The second premise is "causal determinism rules out the possibility that one could have acted other than as one did".  And we can now see that this premise is non-problematic.  All that it claims is that given the circumstances and your past history, the nature of your personality and character are such that it was necessary (and hence predictable) that you would act as you did.  But this does not preclude the possibility that had the circumstances been different, you might have acted otherwise.

The first premise of the argument is "The ability to act freely requires that one could have acted otherwise".  And we can now see that this premise is in fact false.  It demands as a prerequisite to "The ability to act freely" that there be some sort of uncaused foundation for your actions.  Aside from the conceptual difficulties presented by the notion of an effect without a cause (given determinism), is the difficulty of explaining how a "causeless" basis for your actions constitutes your free will, or involves your evaluation of alternatives, or your ability to act otherwise.

The conclusion of the argument is therefore invalid.  The notion of "Free Will", when properly understood, is not at all incompatible with causal determinism.  From the perspective of Determinism, the apparent conflict behind the "Free Will" versus "Determinism" results from a misunderstanding of what "Free Will" means.  "Free Will" is just exactly that mental process that evaluates, deliberates, and chooses the most appropriate response to the current situation, based on the totality of the individual's character, beliefs, values, and experiences (memories), and the reasons and justifications perceived at the time.  Free Will does not demand actions, choices, decisions, or judgments that could have been other than they were, given the circumstances that existed at that time.  Free Will is represented by actions, choices, decisions, or judgments that could have been other than they were, given different circumstances than existed at that time.

Suppose, on the other hand, that one wishes to argue that "Free Will" does indeed demand actions, choices, decisions, or judgments that could have been other than they were, given the circumstances that existed at that time.  On that understanding of "Free Will", the second premise of the title argument is obviously true, and the conclusion valid.  But in that case, the Free Will Libertarian is faced with the challenge of providing a coherent metaphysics without causal determinism.  Given that we all rely, on a daily basis, on the predictability of the world around us, it is going to be a challenge to provide an explanation for the genesis of Free Will actions, choices, decisions, and judgments that avoids causal determinism yet also provides for the predictability of the world, and the evolution of Man.  As for myself, the only indeterminist alternative I can imagine is the intervention of God.  And I find that unsatisfactory for numerous reasons best left unspecified.  So I will leave the discussion with the Compatibilist conclusion I have outlined above.

 

References

(1) Dennett, Daniel C. The Intentional Stance. The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. 1998. ISBN 0-262-54053-3.

Ayer, A. J., 1954. "Freedom and Necessity," in his Philosophical Essays, New York, St. Martin's Press: 3-20; reprinted in Watson (ed.), 1982, pp. 15-23.

Clarke, Randolph, "Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2000 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL= <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2000/entries/incompatibilism-theories/>.

Dennett, Daniel C. "I Could Not Have Done Otherwise -� So What?" The Journal of Philosophy, LXXXI (10): 1984. ppgs 553-67.

Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. 1984. ISBN 0-262-54042-8.

Dennett, Daniel C. The Intentional Stance. The MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts. 1998. ISBN 0-262-54053-3.

Dennett, Daniel C. Freedom Evolves Viking Penguin Press, New York, New York. 2003. ISBN 0-670-03186-0.

Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, P.H. Nidditch (ed.), Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1978.

Lehrer, Keith (ed.), Freedom and Determinism, New York: Random House. 1966.

McKenna, Michael, "Compatibilism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/compatibilism/>.

Nozick, Robert, Philosophical Explanations, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press. 1981.

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