Free Will vs. (and) Determinism I have been having a tireless debate with a friend about freewill and determinism. We have researched and regurgitated some of other people's arguments but it seems that our arguments never confront one another's. My description of the argument will be biased (I believe in determinism - kind of). I believe there are four possibilities 1. we have a determined future: We have our brain, biology, environment, and they interact in a specific way. What can possible change that? 2. at some level, particles move completely randomly, so our future isn't necessarily set, not because of free will, but because of those pesky little particles. 3. God asserts his will, but with rationality: our future is set, because a rational God is destined to make the same decisions (that argument might be incomplete, but we don't care about this one anyway. 4. God acts randomly, same outcome as 2, but because of a chaotic God. For arguments sake, we stick only to number 1 - we have a determined future: (we have our brain, biology, environment) and they interact in a specific way. What can possible change that? I may be missing some variable here, but whatever the variable, I can't see anything that would change the path (we are always going to do what we are going to do. We will still make decisions and will have to live with the consequences of those decisions, but we were bound to make those exact decisions. His argument is, we have free will and the outcome of our lives is not set. He makes a better and more complex argument, but I don't think any of it refutes number 1. Our question: What is the best and most concise way of putting my argument (number 1), and what is the best rebuttal to it? I know this is a complicated and timeless debate, but we would love two concise arguments that actually confront each other if possible. I don't think random occurrences change anything, because that isn't free will (maybe my opinion). Thank you so much guys, we appreciate it! - Free Willy and Deterministic Dan

My first thought is that your four alternatives don't carve the territory up adequately.

Let's agree: either our futures are determined or they aren't. The way you've set up the debate, you've assumed that if determinism is true, we don't have free will. But that leaves out an important position: compatibilism. According to compatibilists, we can have free will even if determinism is true. This view has a long line of distinguished defenders, including Hume, A. J. Ayer and Daniel Dennett.

Before we go further, let's set aside the possibility that we do what we do because God makes it so. The point isn't to take a stand on a theological issue. It's just that if there's a God who makes us do what we do, it seems natural to say that God is the agent. There's room to argue, but for simpicity's sake, we'll assume that the sort of determinism (or non-determinism) at issue is natural.

Compatibilism comes in many varieties, but the basic idea is this: you're free if you can do what you want to do. Suppose I decided that I wanted to leave my desk and get a drink of water. What would happen? The plausible answer is that I'd do just that: I'd get up from my desk and get a drink. Furthermore, that hypothetical (counterfactual, to be more precise) seems true whatever your views on the laws of nature and the initial conditions. I'm free to get a drink of water because if I decided to do so, I actually would. Likewise, if I decided to sit here and finish this note first, I'd do that. So it seems that I really can do whichever of these I choose, whatever the physics of the world may be.

Now compatibilism isn't beyond objection. But once it's on the table, you see that the issue of free will doesn't simply amount to a question of whether determinism is true.

There's a parallel point about "randomness." It's often argued that if our "actions" are the outcome of random processes, then they aren't really actions and so aren't really free. But that's only relevant if indeterminism amounts to mere randomness. Believers in libertarian free will won't simply accept that. Many of them would say that free actions are authored by the self in a way that isn't reducible to the workings of laws of nature. Furthermore, even if this smacks too much of some sort of non-naturalist view of the self, there's at least one important libertarian who is content to make do with physical randomness. Robert Kane has a detailed defense of the idea that actions can be free even if deciding what to do is rooted in physical indeterminism.

So: some philosophers argue that free will is compatible with determinism, and some philosophers argue that free will is also compatible with indeterminism. In fact, there are philosophers who believe that free will is compatible with both.

Following the issue here would make this note far too long for this forum, but let me close with a thought about why you might want to take these compatibilist views seriously. There are straightforward ways in which we're sometimes not free. Some have to do with external coercion, and some have to do with our decision-making mechanism getting gummed up or tricked. It's also straightforward that much of this is a matter of more or less. We can decide more effectively when we're rested and not rushed than we can if we're tired and under pressure. Decisions made while sober are generally better examples of free choice than decisions made when drunk. In short, our usual view is that sometimes we're able to decide freely, sometimes we're not, and there's room for "more or less." We seem to be able to make nuanced distinctions about free choice. But if we insist that none of this makes sense until we settle Big Questions about the universe, everything is up for grabs in a most peculiar way. Do we really need to know about fundamental physics to know that in the senses we usually care about, we're sometimes able to decide freely? Keep in mind: physicists don't actually agree about whether the world is deterministic and they may never agree. Is the question of whether we can make free choices really a hostage to the outcome of such abstruse debates?

Some people think it is, but I'm suspicious. Life -- including our subtle ways of thinking about our choices and actions -- will most likely carry on as usual whatever the physicists decide about determinism. What matters to us when it comes to the questions of freedom and choice that actually face us seems far away from debate about whether the best understanding of the quantum world is deterministic or indeterministic. Even if there's some sense of "free choice" that isn't compatible with determinism in physics (or indeterminism, for that matter), it's not the only sense, and it's not obvious it's the one we should care about.

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