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Debate Between Freedom and Determinism

Updated April 20, 2022
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Debate Between Freedom and Determinism essay

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The debate between freedom and determinism has persisted in Western philosophy for many years. This topic has been evaluated from a variety of disciplines- philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, theology, and more. For philosophers, on one end of the spectrum is classic libertarianism in which we have free will in a chaotic, random sense. On the other end of the debate lies strict determinism, or the notion that the world is completely predictable with no chance elements. It is important to note that these views are typically seen as mutually exclusive. Within our ability to make decisions lies this spectrum of opinion regarding our freedom of will. Perhaps the topic is so perplexing since the ability for human beings to make decisions is an ultimately universal trait. Every person regardless of the context within which they experience life makes decisions on a consistent basis. The natures of the decisions people make differ both in content and context and as such, these decisions have different consequences. These are some of the facts that humans cannot change. It is quite challenging to discuss or describe the main aspects of free will when it comes to the antecedent attributes of all decisions people make. For some philosophers, free will is equated to moral responsibility. For others, free will conforms to fulfillment of second order desires. From a compatibilist view and with regards to this paper, Nancy Holmstrom argues that her version of free will is compatible with determinism. I will evaluate her entire argument and discuss its objections while maintaining its plausibility.

In Firming Up Soft Determinism, Holmstrom explores all aspects of free will from a compatibilist point of view as well as the concept of what she refers to as being “unfree”. According to Holmstrom, freedom in the modern world is not a distinct metaphysical question. Rather, it is closely tied to social and political freedom, all of which are evident but to different degrees among different people. Regardless of people’s ability to have control over their desires, Holmstrom argues that these desires arise as a result of a set of complex conditions affecting one another and these conditions as well as their influence cannot be separated (Holmstrom 376). These biological and environmental conditions affecting people’s desires differ from one person to the other. As a result, the capability of every human being to have total control over the conditions affecting their desires differs as well. However, in the modern world, Holmstrom argues that it is quite challenging for a person to have total control over these conditions. For example, one cannot every have control over their race or ethnic group. With this in mind, Holmstrom’s view is one that supports the possibility of free will while simultaneously acknowledging the fact that free will differs in degree among all human beings especially when it comes to the ability for people to control all the conditions influencing their desires (Holmstrom 379).

According to Nancy Holmstrom, free will can only exist to a certain extent based on the degree to which a person has control over the desires and beliefs affecting the way they make decisions (Holmstrom 375). Holmstrom says that people’s beliefs and desires can be determined by prior events in the causal chain. However, she argues that people have a certain degree of control over the beliefs and desires that cause their actions (Holmstrom 376). It is this argument that led to the formulation of the soft determinism theory whereby a higher level of consideration is given to the sources of the causes of certain actions. According to Holmstrom, actions can be perceived as free if a person has control over the beliefs and desires that cause the performance of these actions (Holmstrom 375).

The main advantage of Holmstrom’s view on compatibilist theories is that it allows for reason. From an indeterministic perspective, there is no certainty or direct causality. As a result, it becomes quite challenging to establish truth and the laws of nature. Compatibilist theories as described by Holmstrom refuse to give chance and randomness all the power when it comes to how people make decisions. Although both determinism and indeterminism are unsatisfactory in their explanation of the freedom of human action, determinism presents an argument that supports reason and supports the ability for people to be held responsible for their actions. Holmstrom brings together causality, control, and freedom of action to describe free will.

However, Holmstrom’s compatibilist views have a number of shortcomings that all compatibilist views tend to face. First, compatibilism does not explain the possibility of a person to make an alternate decision. In this sense, it is possible for a person to think that they could have done otherwise in a specific situation. However, there is no way to tell that a person could have actually done otherwise as there is no evidence of a parallel universe where all decisions and their consequences can be evaluated. With this in mind, it is possible to argue that a person cannot know whether the decision they make is not as a result of their inability to control the effects of their beliefs and desires on their will. Second, there is the existence and nature of compulsive behaviours. People who have compulsive tendencies tend to believe that all the decisions they make are as a result of their desires. The main problem in this case is that such people could not do otherwise. They are convinced of free will but they have no control over their actions.

Another objection to Holmstrom’s arguments can be seen through a thought experiment created by John Locke. In Locke’s locked room, a man enters a locked room but does not in fact know that he is stuck in it. In relation to Holmstom, firstly it is clear that the man who enters the locked room on his own accord can be considered to possess free will and the freedom of action. However, when he is locked inside the room, without his knowledge, his freedom becomes an illusion and any decision he makes to leave the room will be constrained by his inability to unlock the door. In such a scenario, the ability for the man to do otherwise and choose to remain in the room until the door is unlocked is not a matter of free will but a matter of causality where his decisions are dictated by pre-existing conditions. The man seems to be determined by extenuating circumstances. This would mean that a person without sufficient knowledge about his past or the external influence of certain conditions on his beliefs and desires does not have free will or the freedom of choice.

The most important and significantly complex objection to Holmstrom’s compatibilist arguments is the Judas case. In order to fully understand the effect of this objection in this context, it is important to view it from different perspectives. Holmstrom argues that free will is possible as long as the agent is not coerced and enters freely in the acquisition of their beliefs and desires while simultaneously having knowledge of these beliefs and desires. Regardless of whether these beliefs are acquired from external sources, the person can be said to be acting freely. Looking at the Judas case, it is clear that he fits into Holmstrom’s perspective of free will. Judas did not make his decision to betray Jesus because he was coerced, neither did he make the decision because he was ignorant. Further, Judas’ decision was not by accident and he did not suffer any mental challenges that would have forced him to act compulsively or to lack the ability to grasp all the moral reasons that would have enabled him to control his behavior (Fischer et al. 114). However, he chose to betray Jesus purely because he had a desire to do so.

With this in mind, Judas, within ordinary conditions surrounding capacity and possibility to act differently, can be held morally responsible for his actions. These arguments significantly agree with Holmstrom’s free will theories. However, there is one perspective with the ability to completely change the scope of the Judas case with regards to its association with Holmstrom’s compatibilist theory. Judas is a character in a larger story with a wider scope where the ending has already been determined. Prior to his betrayal, Jesus was aware that one of his disciples would betray him. Assuming that he knew the betrayer was Judas, it becomes possible to argue that Judas’ actions were beyond his control. Although all his actions seem like they were of his own accord, his position as the person who was supposed to betray Jesus makes free will an illusion from Judas’ perspective (Fischer et al.,113). This leaves God as the main agent behind all the decisions Judas makes. It is possible to argue that Judas is morally responsible, given his inability to know his future or his placement within the causational chain? Looking at the Judas case from God’s perspective, it is clear that Judas had no control over his actions. This basically means that regardless of the fact that Judas’ decisions fit within Holmstrom’s free will arguments, he did not have the power to make any alternative decision.

From Holmstrom’s perspective, the Judas case involves natural coercion which according to Holmstrom violates the necessary conditions required for free will. However, since it is impossible to establish whether Judas could have acted differently if we remove God from the picture as an agent, I would argue that Holmstrom’s compatibilist views stand. This is mainly because blaming natural coercion in this sense risks the occurrence of a slippery slope argument. If all decisions are part of a causational chain of which no person has control over, then natural coercion can be used as a reason for every decision humans make on a daily basis. If natural coercion presents itself like God in the Judas case, it becomes impossible to determine the individual responsible for any wrongdoing. Such arguments would allow for every criminal or wrongdoer to defend their actions as consequences of something much greater than them, and out of their control.

Although the Judas case can be used as an objection to Holmstrom’s compatibilist theories, it is only relevant as an objection if natural coercion is considered. Natural coercion presents one major problem. Being that every human being is a natural being, it becomes quite easy to argue that nature influences people’s beliefs and desires in various random ways that they cannot control. As such, every human being would blame nature on their actions, leaving no room for reason as every decision would be based on randomness. In such a scenario, indeterminism would prevail and the establishment of truth would be impossible.

The Judas case was random as an occurrence. However, the decision that Judas made cannot be regarded as completely random and is mainly as a result of Judas’ beliefs and desires. It is also possible to argue that Judas was motivated by the payment he was to receive after betraying Jesus. Such motivation allows for the argument that Judas’ decision was significantly controlled by the payment offered to him. However, this argument eliminates coercion as Judas could have chosen to refuse the payment. This means that Judas did indeed have free will according to Holmstrom’s perspective of free will. However, since there is no way to know this, and all these arguments are purely speculative, the only aspect remaining is reason. This is mainly because the ability for people to hold other people morally responsible for their actions is purely based on reason, or attempt to be closer to truth. It is through reason and self reflection that free will is determined in its different degrees (Holmstrom 378). With this in mind, based on the ordinary practices of holding people responsible for their actions, determinism becomes irrelevant.

Looking at the Judas case, all the pre-existing conditions associated with his decision do not show any sign that he lacked the capacity to remain loyal to Jesus. This would mean that his ability to make alternative choices was not compromised. Arguing from a philosophical point of view and as an association to Holmstrom’s theories of compatibilism, Judas can be held morally responsible for his actions. This is mainly because there is no sure way to say or prove that Judas was coerced. All of his actions point towards him entering freely into the acquisition of the beliefs and desires that influenced his decisions. It is possible to argue that Judas was influenced by external beliefs and Judas being the originating source of his actions cannot be held responsible for acting upon his externally acquired beliefs and desires. However, without the ability to argue within reason and prove that these beliefs and desires originated externally, Judas becomes morally responsible for his actions.

Conclusion

The problem of free will is torn between randomness and causality as well as other issues related to the distinguishing of freedom of will and freedom of action. However, Holmstrom’s compatibilist theories argue that free will is purely based on control and it is the level of control one has over his beliefs and desires as well as the origins of these beliefs and desires that determine the level of free will. According to Holmstrom, every human being has a certain degree of control over their desires and thus, their actions. In this sense, both determinism and free will become compatible but to a certain degree. Holmstrom’s arguments on free will are quite complex. However, looking at her approach, it is possible that her philosophical theories on free will are plausible.

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