A Perspective on Freedom: Free Will, Determinism and Compatibilism
Illustrated by Emily Nickerson
A hypothetical scenario: two babies are born in the same hospital on the same day. One is a beautiful girl with two loving parents by her side. The other, a boy, is unwanted, born to a deeply troubled teenage mom. Although we all love to hear amazing success stories where a person defeats all odds, the most likely scenario for the boy is that he will grow up to develop many behavioral problems that will follow him throughout his life, whereas the girl will grow up to be a well-balanced, emotionally stable person. The boy will be reprimanded and the girl will be praised, even though none of them really had control over what kind of person they would eventually become. By the time they become conscious of themselves and their choices––to the extent that they were able to become self-aware––most of the patterns of their personalities and ways of being in the world will have been laid down.
This scenario confronts us with the age old question: “Are we free?” When answering it, people often fall into two categories: those who view the world through a free will perspective, believing that their actions are freely and independently chosen, and those who see the world through a hard deterministic perspective, believing that all our actions are predetermined. According to the famous French philosopher Baron d’Holbach, “The universe, that vast assemblage of everything that exists, presents only matter and motion: the whole offers to our contemplation nothing but an immense, an uninterrupted succession of causes and effects.” In other words, everything that happens in the present is the inevitable result of what happened in the past. This includes everything that we do. But what about that time you chose to eat salad instead of pizza? Wasn’t that an act of free will?
Most scientists would disagree that your dietary choice was in fact free. The universe follows strict rules of cause and effect. We may think that our minds are not bound to physical laws and that we are capable of making free decisions; however, mental states are biological states and, therefore, physical states, meaning they abide by the physical rules of the universe. We may not see the causes behind human actions, but they’re still present and they could be broken down into three categories: beliefs, desires and temperaments. Your belief that salad is a healthy food, combined with your desire to lose weight and your temperament that predisposes you to be very goal-oriented, made you reach out for that salad instead of the pizza. The truth is, there’s no real evidence for free will, besides the intuitive feeling that we’re free when making decisions.
But if everything is already predetermined, why are we held accountable for our actions? Why should we even bother doing anything? Determinism shouldn’t lead us to defeatism. As compatibilists would say, the universe may be deterministic, but our actions could be considered free if they are inspired by an internal cause. There’s a difference between someone being pushed into a pool and someone jumping into a pool. Yes, the outcome is the same in both cases and has been predetermined, but the causes for it are different. The first cause is external, whereas the second cause is internal, which technically makes it free.
But are all internal causes free? Take the case of a severely mentally ill person in the midst of a delusion. Even if their irrational behavior is not caused by external factors, it can’t really be considered free because they lack control over it. Or even take our original hypothetical case of the boy born unwanted into turbulent arms. Contemporary philosopher Patricia Churchland believes that how free our actions are depends on how much control we have over them. The right question shouldn’t be “Are we free?” but “How much control do we have?” The more control we have, the more we should be held morally responsible over our actions.
We make thousands of choices every day. Whether they are predetermined or not doesn't really matter to us in the end, because humans live through the perspective that free will exists. We are capable of doing just about anything within the confinement of the laws of nature, but it’s good to keep in mind that when things don’t go how we want them to, it’s not technically our fault, even if it is our responsibility. Keeping determinism in the back of our minds allows us to not obsess over our failures and to develop empathy for others, because their behaviors, just like ours, were shaped by factors over which they may have had little to no control.
Green, Hank. “Determinism vs Free Will: Crash Course Philosophy #24.” YouTube, YouTube, 15 Aug. 2016, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCGtkDzELAI.
Green, Hank. “Compatibilism: Crash Course Philosophy #25.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 Aug. 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KETTtiprINU&t=419s