Do we have free will to decide our actions for ourselves, or do we conduct our lives under the influence of sources beyond our control?
This question has divided thinkers and philosophers for centuries. In olden times, for example, most ordinary people attributed events, both great and small, to the whims of the gods.
More recently, we have begun to listen to scientists who believe that our brains operate deterministically, and some thinkers have looked for ways to reconcile these two apparently opposing concepts.
These are vitally important issues, because they impact strongly on our sense of morality, the ethics of human behaviour, and issues of crime and punishment. So, can the concept of determinism ever be compatible with that of free will?
We should begin by fully understanding the terms of reference.
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Determinism – All that Happens is Inevitable
Determinism is also known as naturalism or mechanism. This is the belief that all events are inevitable and are the result of preceding specific causes. Its opposite, of course, is the belief in free will, which says we are free to make our own choices. Determinists are known as “compatibilists,” while those who believe in free will and are against determinism are “anticompatibilists.”
First, let’s look at an early theory about determinism and how it came about.
Descartes’s Mechanistic Theory
In his book Descartes, The Project of Pure Enquiry, Bernard Williams explains that Descartes insists we cannot say that it is the soul that makes a difference between a living and a dead, or non-living, thing. Descartes believes the difference between the living and the dead is purely mechanistic. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the soul.
Williams says: “A living body and a dead one differ as a going watch differs from a stopped one, and we must not say that the body dies because the soul leaves it but that the soul leaves because the body dies. This entirely naturalistic view of the phenomenon of life is a characteristic step in the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century…”
In other words, a person is not just a mind using a body, and, says Williams, Descartes believes “…the union of soul and body is a basic and unanalysable notion.” Williams says further that Descartes expresses in his work Passions of the Soul, his idea that the soul “exercises its functions more particularly than elsewhere… and this is a structure inside the brain called the pineal gland.”
“There are insurmountable philosophical objections to any theory of this kind,” says Williams, explaining that Descartes settled on this theory because the pineal gland was apparently the only structure of the brain that wasn’t duplicated. Scathingly, Williams dismisses this as “…a stupid suggestion.”
Descartes also believes that animals have no souls, thoughts or experiences and are merely behaving automatically. Today, of course, modern research and a general awareness of species that share our planet have taught us differently. We should, however, remember that Descartes lived from 1596 to 1650. He was also a soldier and a mathematician – and, in spite of his shaky evidence for his mechanistic theory, he invented analytic geometry.
Even more importantly, he is also credited with the invention of rationalism. Descartes believes that everything is open to doubt, and he starts from the famous premise that the fact he could think proved that he existed. Nevertheless, his belief that knowledge could only be acquired through the use of reason brought into being a whole new school of thought and a new philosophy.
The Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham lived from 1748 to 1832 and he is famous for his belief in the greatest happiness principle, which upholds that we should maximise pleasure and minimize pain. Therefore, the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be our first priority. This theory had its critics, since it did not accommodate the rights of the individual.
His philosophy also follows a deterministic path. In his book History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says:
“He bases his whole philosophy on two principles, the ‘association principle’ and ‘the greatest happiness principle,’” says Russell.
The association principle, which is less well-known, is the theory that leads Bentham to determinism. “He recognizes association of ideas and language, and also association of ideas and ideas. By means of this principle, he aims at a deterministic account of mental occurrences. In essence, the doctrine is the same as the more modern theory of the ‘conditioned reflex.’”
Bentham’s Association Principle versus Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflex
The difference between Pavlov and Bentham is that Pavlov’s experiments (where the scientist observed a dog salivating at the prospect of a reward) are physiological, whereas Bentham’s theory is mental.
Russell sets out Pavlov’s principle as follows:
“Given a reflex according to which a stimulus B produces a reaction C, and given that a certain animal has frequently experienced a stimulus A at the same time as B, it often happens that in time the stimulus A will produce the reaction C, even when B is absent.”
In other words, the expectation is enough to produce a reaction. It is not difficult to see the analogy between the physiological event and the mental event.
Van Inwagen on Compatibility Between Determinism and Free Will
Now we come to the difficult part. Can we ever show determinism to be compatible with free will?
Michael Norowitz, in his article Free Will and Determinism, explains that in recent times, “…as the cognitive sciences have developed, it has seemed increasingly likely that our brains work along deterministic lines (or, if quantum effects are non-negligible, at the very least along mechanical lines).”
This has caused fresh debate, and we are no longer looking at a contest between determinist and anti-determinist, but instead must examine how these two opposing concepts might be reconciled.
Norowitz presents some concise arguments by the American Christian philosopher, Peter van Inwagen, (b. 1942) who considers that people clearly can make things happens, regardless of “normal mechanistic, physical causation.” We should not, says van Inwagen, be overawed by science and its assumptions.
“However, for various reasons, chief among them being the empirical success of quantum physics, it is highly unlikely that such a complete explanation will ever come about. Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle, if it can be applied to the brain, would mean that even if we knew everything about the physical state of a brain at a given instant, we still could not predict its state in the next instant with absolute accuracy.”
This would appear to indicate that the brain cannot possibly be entirely deterministic.
Free Will and Moral Responsibility
However, were we able to prove that determinism is false – would this be a solution to the problem? Not according to Peter van Inwagen, because even if it were proven false, it would still not prove, conclusively, that we have free will.
Norowitz explains: “First, if our hopes turned on quantum effects being able to affect brain chemistry, it is still conceivable that they might turn out to be too small to be significant. Second, even if they did have an effect which was non-negligible we could still turn out to be strictly mechanical.”
Van Inwagen insists that we must have free will because we claim moral responsibility for our actions: “… a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise.”
Therefore, we do make real moral decisions based on responsibility and free from psychological causation.