Philosophers on the Free Will & Determinism Debate

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P F Strawson

(1919 - 2006) Argued that metaphysical questions of free will & determinism are pseudo-problems. People will always express praise, blame, guilt, pride, gratitude, resentment, forgiveness, etc. These he called "reactive attitudes".

David Hume

(1711 - 1776) A compatibilist/soft determinist who argued that freedom & moral responsibility can be reconciled with determinism. We are 'free' if we can will an action & act upon our desires without external constraint. We hold people responsible not so much for what they do, but for their characters as expressed or revealed in their actions.

Ted Honderich

(1933 - ) A contemporary philosopher who accepts determinism but rejects both compatibilism & incompatibilism, focusing rather on the practical problems of the limits determinism places on our "life hopes." He says that compatibilists ignore our "dismay" at losing the idea of origination, while incompatibilists ignore the fact that we will continue to praise & blame regardless.

Patricia Churchland

(1943 - ) A 'neurophilosopher' & advocate of physicalism whose studies of the brain suggest that chemical, neural processes in the pre-frontal cortex control behaviour. She cites the case of a Virginian man whose behaviour was radically altered by a tumour. She derides libertarians for their "flat-earth philosophy" & "causal vacuums".

B F Skinner

(1904 - 1990) A psychological behaviourist who claimed he had demonstrated the illusory nature of free will & autonomous agency through a process called 'operant conditioning'. He argued that humans could be successfully manipulated & character formed in this way. In Walden 2 he describes a fictional community in which these techniques would be successfully utilised.

Thomas Hobbes

(1588 - 1679) A compatibilist who preceded Hume in arguing that a person acts freely when they act out their desire & could have done otherwise had they so chosen. Attributed this freedom to the person themselves rather than some abstract idea of 'the will' i.e. if a person does as he/she wishes they are, to all intents & purposes, free.

Jean Paul Sartre

(1905 - 1980) An existentialist who suggested that we are "condemned to be free" & wholly, terrifyingly responsible for our actions. Following Descartes, he argued that the consciousness is outside the causal order & thus "determines life". As there is no creator-God human beings have no "essential" self; "existence precedes essence". We thus have autonomy to choose our responses to past experiences - known as 'subjectivity' - & so choose our futures. We are what we do & what we do is a matter of choices we make in the light of the future we envisage.

William James

(1842 - 1910) Famously described compatibilism as a "catalogue of evasions". As a pragmatist he accepted free will on practical, ethical grounds saying that "instinct & utility" can sort out questions of moral responsibility where metaphysical speculation cannot. Determinism undermines the important possibility of human progress & making the world a better place.

Benjamin Libet

(1916 - 2007) Neuro-scientist who conducted experiments that seemed to demonstrate that a build-up of electrical activity precedes the moment-of-decision; suggesting that the conscious decision is not the originator of the action, but that it originates in an unconscious impulse that 'causes' the conscious choice.

Immanuel Kant

(1724 - 1804) Nominated autonomy of the will as one of his three "postulates of practical reason"; that is, only an action motivated by pure reason rather than desire could be termed 'free'. Rational beings, uniquely, have the capacity to deliberate & make choices not dictated by passion or impulse. The question of transcendent free will cannot, by definition, be subjectively known to us, but moral responsibility depends on the possibility of genuninely free choices made by an autonomous will not subject to causal laws.

Harry Frankfurt

(1929 - ) Contemporary compatibilist who argues for the significance of the capacity for reflective self-evaluation in humans in that they do not simply have desires, preferences, & motives but also '2nd order desires' i.e. to want to have/not want to have these desires etc. He also coined the term 'principle of alternate possibilities' & then denied that holding someone to account for their actions (moral responsibility) would actually require that they 'could have done otherwise' in this way.

Daniel Dennett

(1942 - ) A contemporary compatibilist whose defence of free will is based on "expectations". Free will is found in the capacity to do what no-one expects. For him, "could have done otherwise" only makes sense in relation to these expectations rather than some inexplicable, abstract version of the future.

Friedrich Nietzsche

(1844 - 1900) A philosopher who was particularly interested in the psychological needs encapsulated in beliefs in free will or determinism. The former he associates with a need to identify oneself with whatever is 'dominant' in the "commonwealth" of the self; the latter with a weak-willed need to absolve oneself of responsibility for one's actions.

Rene Descartes

(1596 - 1650) A dualist who claimed that the universe was composed of two substances - mind & matter. As mind is non-corporeal (separate from the body) it is not subject to physical laws & is thus undetermined in originating decisions & choices. The physical universe, however, obeys strict, mechanistic causal laws. Satirised by Gilbert Ryle as the "ghost in the machine."

Thomas Nagel

(1937 - ) Contemporary philosopher who agrees with Strawson that attempts to reduce consciousness to physical processes are misguided. For him there is always a subjective element of experience that cannot, by definition, be presented objectively. Autonomous agency is an irreducible facet of our interpersonal relationships & without it we would lose the capacity to hold each other responsible for what we do.

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