Free Will Exist and if So to Term Paper

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  • Subject: Black Studies - Philosophy
  • Type: Term Paper
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Excerpt from Term Paper :

Free Will" Exist and if so, to What Extent does it Exist?

The concept of "Free Will" has been debated by many philosophers over a period of centuries, not only regarding its very existence but also regarding its elements, the extent to which it may or may not exist and its moral implications. Our assigned readings have merely touched on debates that have raged and will probably continue to rage as long as human beings contemplate the "truths" about being. Though an exhaustive review of differing philosophical treatments of "Free Will" would probably take hundreds of pages, this work will briefly examine several major philosophies of "Free Will" and some of their most notable proponents. In reviewing these sources and differing approaches to "Free Will," we can see that philosophers approach the concept of "Free Will" with differing definitions, examining disparate aspects and resulting in somewhat different implications for Morality.


a. There is Free Will and it is Unrestrained:

One of the most notable proponents of the existence of unrestrained Free Will was Rene Descartes. Identifying "Free Will" with "Freedom of Choice," Descartes simply defines "Free Will" as "the ability to do or not do something" and takes the extreme position that "neither divine grace nor natural knowledge ever diminishes freedom; on the contrary, they increase and strengthen it" (Descartes, Cottinghham and Stoothoff 101). For Descartes, the breadth and depth of the Will is breathtaking, for the Will "can in a certain sense be called infinite, since we observe without exception that its scope extends to anything that can possibly be an object of any other will -- even the immeasurable will of God" (Descartes, Cottinghham and Stoothoff 173). Possessing essentially boundless free will, humans are readily held morally responsible for their actions, for "I cannot complain that the will or freedom of choice which I received from God is not sufficiently extensive or perfect, since I know by experience that it is not restricted in any way" (Descartes, Cottinghham and Stoothoff 101). In Descartes' estimation, even in those instances when we may be deceived, our "Free Will" enables us to "withhold our assent in doubtful matters and hence avoid error" (Descartes, Cottinghham and Stoothoff 171).

b. There is Free Will but it is Based in Rationality

One of the most famous proponents of this theory is Immanuel Kant, who sets forth his thoughts on Free Will and Morality in several works, including Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals (Kant). For Kant, Free Will and Morality are ultimately based in reason. We know we have Free Will because we know that we have duties. Rejecting the ideas of morality being based on practical facts, feelings or selfish interests, Kant believed that there are a priori truths -- rational laws that apply to all rational beings (Kant 506-7). Those truths/laws create "imperatives" for humans, who are only partially rational. In Kant's schema, there are two basic types of imperatives: the hypothetical imperative, essentially stating that if you want a certain goal "B," then you ought to do "A"; the categorical imperative, essentially stating that you ought to do "A" (Kant 507-8). For Kant, acting on a hypothetical imperative means acting in a "heteronomously" moral way because we are following someone else's laws. In contrast to the hypothetical imperative, Kant singles out the categorical imperative, which means acting on principles that we want for everyone, which is an autonomous type of morality. In this context, the supreme moral law is "Act only on a maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (Kant 510). Applying his formula for universal law, Kant believed gave examples of two perfect duties and two imperfect duties. The perfect or "exceptionless" duties are to not commit suicide and not make deceitful promises; meanwhile, the two imperfect duties are to develop your talents and to help people in need (Kant 511-12). Within Kant's construct, freedom and morality appear to be the same or at least two sides of the same coin: to follow our rational principles or maxims, which is moral behavior, is to be free, and that is a noble end in itself.

c. There is Free Will but it is Specifically linked to "Agent Causation"

A proponent of the "Agent Causation" concept of Free Will is Roderick M. Chisholm, who discussed the related concepts in several works, including Human Freedom and the Self (Chisholm). Chisholm supports "agent causation" and personal responsibility, arguing that personal responsibility (he studiously avoids using the term "Free Will") is not compatible with Determinism. Chisholm explained causation by the adapted used of medieval terms: Transeunt causation, in which "one event or state of affairs…causes some other event or state of affairs" (Chisholm 394); Immanent causation, in which an agent "causes an event or state of affairs" (Chisholm 394). Using Aristotle's example of "a staff moves a stone, and is moved by a hand, which is moved by a man" (Chisholm 394), Chisholm illustrates that there is at least a single immanent cause (man moving the hand), which in turn results in a series of transeunt causes (the hand moving the staff that moves the stone). Based on Chisholm's explanations, it can be argued that Determinism believes only in transeunt causes in which there is no personal responsibility. In Chisholm's schema, we are "prime movers unmoved": "In doing what we do, we cause certain events to happen, and nothing -- or no one -- causes us to cause those events to happen" (Chisholm 397). Consequently, unlike determinists, Chisholm believes that personal responsibility is possible. In fact, Chisholm argues for a type of indeterminism, believing that when a human freely acts or freely chooses not to act, he/she is doing something for which there is no sufficient causal condition.

d. There is Free Will but only in a Very Small Set of Circumstances

Peter Van Inwagen, a modern and influential philosopher, addresses Free Will and Morality by examining time as "a garden of forking paths" or alternatives that a human being considers when determining alternative futures (Van Inwagen 400). For Inwagen, questions of true Free Will and Morality are possible only when there is more than one possible path, for a single possible path means that there is no true choice for the individual (Van Inwagen 401). Van Inwagen then uses the "forked paths" construct to discuss Determinism vs. Indeterminism. In Determinism, there may appear to be several possible forks in the road but, in fact, there is only one true fork in the road that can be followed and following the other forks in the road would require a miracle; therefore, though there may appear to be more than one possible choice, there is a single predetermined path. In Indeterminism, some or all of the apparent forks in the road are real and connected, creating the true possibility of choosing more than one fork in the road (Van Inwagen 401).

Van Inwagen also confronts the mysteries inherent in incompatiblism -- "holding that free will and determinism are incompatible" -- and compatibilism -- "holding that free will and determinism are compatible" (Van Inwagen 402). Compatibilism is less common now because it requires rejection of the "No Choice Principle" (Van Inwagen 410), which states: "Suppose that P. And that no one has (or ever had) any choice about whether P. And suppose also that the following conditional (if-then) statement is true and that no one has (or ever had) any choice about whether it is true: if P, then Q. It follows from these two suppositions that Q. And that no one has (or ever had) any choice about whether Q" (Van Inwagen 404). Concluding that "there is no position that one can take on the matter of free will that does not confront its adherents to mystery. I myself prefer the following mystery: I believe that the outcome of our deliberations about what to do is undetermined and that we -- in some way that I have no shadow of an understanding of -- nevertheless have a choice about the outcome of these deliberations. (And I do not believe that the concept of agent-causation is of the least help in explaining how this could be)" (Van Inwagen 410).

e. There is Free Will but Much of What we Deem Free Will or "Conscious Will" is Actually an Illusion

Daniel M. Wegner's The Illusion draws distinctions between "Conscious Will" and the illusion of exerting conscious will. To illustrate his point, Wegner uses the following simple diagram of human action:

(Wegner 8)

Wegner separates human action into four quadrants to illustrate the distinctions between acting and the sense of acting "willfully." The upper left quadrant, consisting of normal voluntary action accompanied by the feeling of doing, illustrates the uncontroversial cases of doing while feeling and is the marriage of action and will that we normally assume as humans. So too, the lower right quadrant, consisting of neither doing nor feeling that we are doing,…

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