|Source: Sider (Ted), Hawthorne (John) & Zimmerman (Dean), Eds. - Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics|
|Paper - Abstract|
- The eighteenth-century philosopher, David Hume, called the free will issue "the most contentious question of metaphysics, the most contentious science". The problem of free will has arisen in human history whenever people have been led to suspect that their actions might be determined or necessitated by factors unknown to them and beyond their control. That is why doctrines of determinism or necessity have been so important in the history of debates about free will.
- Doctrines of determinism have taken many historical forms. People have wondered at various times whether their actions might be determined by fate or the decrees of God, by the laws of physics or the laws of logic, heredity or environment, unconscious motives, psychological or social conditioning, and so on. But there is a core idea running through all historical doctrines of determinism that shows why they are all a threat to free will. All doctrines of determinism imply that, given the past and the laws of nature at any given time, there is only one possible future. Whatever happens is therefore inevitable (it cannot but occur), given the past and the laws. It is not difficult to see why people have thought that determinism so understood was a threat to free will. We believe we have free will when we view ourselves as agents capable of influencing the world in various ways. Open alternatives lie before is. We reason and deliberate among them and choose. We feel
- it is "up to us" what we choose and how we act; and this means we could have chosen or acted otherwise. This "up-to-us-ness" also implies that
- the sources of our actions lie in us and not outside us in something beyond our control.
- To illustrate: suppose Jane has just graduated from law school and she has a choice between joining a law firm in Chicago or a different firm in New York. If Jane believes her choice is a free choice (made "of her own free will"), she must believe both options are "open" to her while she is deliberating. She could choose either one. (If she did not believe this, what would be the point of deliberating?) But that means she believes there is more than one possible path into the future available to her and it is "up to her" which of these paths will be taken. Such a picture of an open future with forking paths - a garden of forking paths, we might call it - is essential to our understanding of free will. This picture of different possible paths into the future also essential, I believe, to what it means to be a person and to live a human life.
- One can see why determinism would threaten this picture. If determinism is true. it seems there would not be more than one possible path into the future available to Jane, but only one. It would not be
- "up to" her what she chose from an array of alternative possibilities, since only one alternative would be possible. It also seems that, if determinism were true,
- the sources or origins of her actions would not be in Jane herself but in something else outside her control that determined her choice (such as the decrees of fate, the foreordaining acts of God, her heredity and upbringing or social conditioning).
- Described in this way, the conflict between free will and determinism appears self-evident to most people. It has always seemed so to me. But many philosophers and scientists, especially in modern times, have argued to the contrary that the supposed conflict between free will and determinism is not real. Determinism, they say, is really compatible with free will, despite the fact that most people naively think otherwise. This doctrine - compatibilism - has become popular among modem philosophers and scientists because it provides a neat and simple solution to the free will problem. If there is no conflict between free will and determinism, if they really are compatible, then the age-old problem of free will would be solved in one fell swoop. The free will problem would in fact be "dis-solved."
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