Philosophy 116 - 6.4.3 Determinism

The contrary view to metaphysical libertarianism is determinism. The determinist holds that human moral agents are not free from external forces. Our actions could not have been otherwise. Thus, action X at time T must occur.

Causal Closure of the Physical World

One argument used to support determinism is built upon the observation of causality. Baron D’Holbach (1723–1789), in his System of Nature, observed that we, like all other natural entities, are subject to and governed by natural laws of the universe. His so-called “hard determinism” posited that all our actions are outside of our control. Humans cannot escape the cause-and-effect relationships that are part and parcel of being in the world.

Causal Determinacy of the Past

Another argument used to support determinism is built upon the consideration of past experiences. Perhaps the simplest way to express the causal force the past holds on future events is to reflect on your first-person experience. How influential has the past been in shaping the decisions you make in the present? We use expressions that reflect this causal power—for example, I will not get fooled again, I guess I will have to learn from my mistakes, etc. What has happened in the past can, in the least, limit the event horizon of the present.

The power of the past is not limited to first-person experience. Our socio-economic status, for example, can be a powerful force in determining the actions we deem permissible. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once quipped, we tend to “don the knapsack of custom” without questioning the contents of the knapsack.

Another important distinction when discussing determinism is that of compatibilism. Some determinists will assume that free will is not compatible with determinism. An incompatibilist position asserts that due to the nature of freedom and our lack of control concerning our actions, we cannot be held culpable for our actions. A soft determinist will assume that free will is compatible with determinism. In order to salvage a sense of moral culpability, an incompatibility might challenge the definition of freedom in terms of the PAP. For example, if you consider Frankfurt’s framing of freedom of fulfilling higher-order volitions, then even when forced to take an action, it may have very well been the action you would have chosen if not forced to do so.

William James (1842–1910) offers a view called indeterminism in which the notion is that all events are rigidly controlled. What if there is the possibility that one small effect might be uncaused somewhere out there in the grand series of cause-and-effect sequences? Given the possibility that such an uncaused effect might occur, there is the chance that not all events are falling dominoes or events that must happen. Thus, even in a deterministic setting, an indeterminist can argue that the possibility of an uncaused act is a genuine one. By extension, your choices, your hopes, and the actions for which you should be praised or criticized cannot be treated without doubt as caused externally. These actions could be your own!

Think Like a Philosopher

Watch the video “Language: Contrastivism #2 (Free Will)” by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong.

Metaphysicians are concerned with freedom from causation. By contrast, ethicists are concerned with freedom from constraint. Contrastivism allows enough space for philosophers to contrast the different focuses and to appreciate the differences that these differences introduce. According to Sinnott-Armstrong, the net result is a cease-fire. How can you support or refute the contrastivist solution to the problem of free will?

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax