Category: Philosophy

Free Will

Apart from feelings and consciousness, free will is one more essential feature that distinguishes human beings from other living creatures in this world. Free will is a human ability to make free choices and not to be dependent on some outside factors. Compared to the common notion of free will, determinism mainly means a work of natural laws or quite a familiar statement that everything in this world has its reason and condition. However, there is a question of whether these two terms, free will, and determinism, can be considered compatible or incompatible. The main objective of the present paper is to answer this question as well as locate and identify the differences between the notions of free will and determinism.

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Scholarly Debate

The two terms outlined above present a subject of an ongoing scholarly debate. Professor of Philosophy at Princeton University, W.T. Stace, thinks that once the term “free will” is determined, any difference between free will and determinism will disappear. On the other hand, Professor Steven M. Cahn states that there are two different sides to determinism, namely hard determinism and soft determinism. Moreover, in his essay about free will and different types of determinism, Steven M. Cahn discusses an argument advocated by Stace. Walter Stace believes that everyone is free in performing acts and that all actions are generally voluntary. On the contrary, Steven Cahn thinks that before people desire or wish for something, they should carefully consider whether the objectives are worth the efforts necessary to achieve them. According to Stace’s essay about free will and determinism, those philosophers who deny the idea and existence of free will do so only in the course of their speeches or lectures. Stace further declares that outside their professional background, all these philosophers behave according to their free will. This peculiar claim raises the question of whether the debates around the term “free will” really exist or are initiated artificially.

The Contemporary Scholarly Dispute

The contemporary scholarly dispute is led by two distinct groups of philosophers: those who believe in free will and defend it, and those who entirely deny it. Being so different in their arguments, all philosophers tend to agree upon one strong common thesis about the incompatibility of free will and determinism. For instance, if one’s actions are so fully determined by the causes and chains of these causes then one can easily predict these causes. Free will is absent in such situations. According to this fact, it can be assumed that certain actions are still done according to free will without any predictions. Thus, free will is frequently defined as a meaning of indeterminism. Recognizing the existence of a free will and the issues connected to it, it is possible to find out whether this world is deterministic or not. In his essay, Stace provides apt examples of free will and determinism. For instance, at the end of a trial, the perpetrator confesses to the jury that he admitted an offense under the pressure of the police. Although it might seem like the perpetrator used his free will, the pressure of the police should also be taken into consideration. Let’s imagine for a minute that the philosopher was a member of the jury. As Stace mentioned in his essay, the conversation would turn out into a situation in which a foreman would argue with a philosopher.

The latter would state that confession under any pressure is not free will and that confessing after being beaten cannot be considered free will as well. The philosopher in this case would also state that “the desire to tell the truth” being under even casual circumstances also cannot be considered free will. Only then, does there appears a new question, as the philosopher says that if “there is no such thing as free will, whether he signed off his own free will ought not to be discussed by us” (Stace 167)? Probably, the philosopher in the court used the term free will in a way that is not common for the majority of people. Are there any differences then between the free and determined acts? According to Stace, free acts are mostly caused by one’s desires, while determined acts are caused by the corresponding outer forces. At the same time, one still needs to remember that all the acts made with free will were initially caused by one’s desires and motives. That is why Walter Stace in his essay about free will and determinism shows that there is no free will without any essence of determinism in it. He further states that both of these terms are not only compatible but even result from one another.

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Reflecting on Stace’s arguments, Steven M. Cahn denies them and declares that free will and determinism are not compatible. As an example and proof of his argument, Cahn decided to use the evidence of one of the most famous trials in the twentieth century. It happened in 1924, when two exemplary students and sons of millionaires were suddenly accused of kidnapping and cruel murder of a fourteen-year-old boy who, besides, was a cousin of one of the accused. However, nobody expected that both perpetrators would confess. All the people across the country called for their execution. The lawyer was looking for any chance while trying to defend the boys and save them from the death penalty. He even tried to persuade the court that both his clients were insane and suffered from a mental disorders. The lawyer stated that both Leopold and Leob, his clients, were mentally disabled and that the disease should be blamed for this crime. Interestingly, this defense later became a landmark in criminal cases. The boys’ attorney insisted that some environmental sources made them commit those crimes. He even presented the court with real facts that proved that the boys were innocent: “I do not know what it was that made these boys do this mad act, but I do know there is a reason for it…” (Cahn 170). After all, that plea was successful, and both Leopold and Leob were dismissed. The judge did believe that both perpetrators were not morally responsible for their crimes. Moreover, at the end of the case, the attorney mentioned that everyone in this world is helpless.

According to the attorney’s words, there comes a conclusion that no act in this life is free and that every action is forced by some outer factors. Cahn pays special attention to several issues. Firstly, actions can be free if only they are done by a certain person, whereas the actions that are performed under the force of any circumstances are not free. Secondly, if a person knows all the circumstances beforehand or can predict some events, this is called determinism. About the attorney’s opinion in the criminal case presented above, it was concluded that no one possesses free will or is entirely free in this world. According to this argument, Cahn presents his types of determinism:  hard and soft determinism. For instance, due to hard determinism, both of the attorneys’ arguments are considered true. Moreover, every desire, for example, a desire to read a book, is not free as it is caused by one’s need to acquire some knowledge. Another type of determinism, soft determinism, declines the attorney’s arguments proving the existence of both determinism and free will.

According to soft determinism, the action can be free. Moreover, the soft determinists state that the act made under some circumstances can also appear as a free one. They also define a free act as an act, which is made outside a person’s control. Even the term “freedom” is perceived differently from the perspectives of soft and hard determinists. The hard determinists believe that freedom can be only found in one’s control, while the soft determinists think that free acts are done according to one’s wish either to perform them or not. In his essay, Steven M. Cahn is trying to persuade readers that free will and determinism are incompatible. He explains it with the help of all his arguments and different types of determinism. Cahn also gives an example of another position on this theme, which is called libertarianism. Libertarianism agrees with the fact that if action had to occur, it cannot be considered free. Moreover, libertarians believe that the purpose of every action is to fulfill a certain purpose. That is why by providing all these examples of different types of determinism, Steven M. Cahn proves his position that there is no compatibility between free will and determinism as determinism rejects any free act as it is.

Both professors, Steven M. Cahn and Walter Stace gave their evidence that can prove the existence of the two theories concerning determinism and free will. However, it is difficult to draw any certain conclusion about who is right and whose position is wrong. Thus, the question of the compatibility of determinism and free will remains one of the most troublesome in contemporary scholarly debate. 

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