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Do we have freewill and if not what are the moral ramifications

Updated on May 9, 2012

In order to answer the above question several important factors will have to be discussed in great detail. As a preliminary point we must define what the two points of view propose. Free will is the stance that holds that humans have conscious control over decisions they make in any given situation. The term decision certainly implies two or more options which the being in question can choose between. For the purpose of this essay I will therefore consider free will to be dependant on the possibility of at least two outcomes in any given situation which the being with “free will” must have a conscious influence upon. If there is only one possible outcome, as the deterministic worldview proposes, then there is no real choice between two or more options and therefore would not allow for free will. Determinism is the viewpoint that cause and effect applies to human decision making as well as to the rest of the universe and therefore the perception of two options in a given situation is illusory. In other words there can only ever be one possible outcome and therefore we do not have the ability to make free choices. I propose that the evidence for hard determinism is sufficient enough to make the idea of a choice between two futures unlikely and that therefore the concept of free will is also most likely false. The compatibilist worldview also seems unlikely if we define free will as we have above.

There are various arguments that seem to give credence to the idea that the world is deterministic. Firstly it appears as though the study of physics has revealed various deterministic aspects to the universe. An example is that Newton's laws of motion argue that the movement of objects in space and under the force of gravity are predictable rather than random. In recent years a similar conclusion has been reached in relation to the movements and properties of particles at the subatomic level. If we are simply a collection of these particles then it would also appear that we ourselves are, theoretically, also of a predictable and deterministic nature (Honeychurch, 2012). This leads to the conclusion that we could have only ever taken one path through life and that the “decisions” we have made were simply a result of the interaction of these particles at that time and that no other choice could really have been made. If we hold to a naturalistic worldview this is strong evidence for a deterministic perspective. Some argue that at the quantum level some events are still unpredictable and random and that due to this the idea of free will is still plausible. One issue is that these “random” events could still be ruled by determined laws that we are yet to discover - a pattern that we don’t yet recognise or understand. As well as this, no truly random event has been detected at the subatomic level in 75 years of study by physicists (Ash, 2003). Another distinct issue is that even if we were to say this unpredictability exists it would still not lend credence to the idea of free will. Even if the laws of physics are not determined at the subatomic level we would simply be ruled by chaotic laws of nature and not by conscious choice as the position known as free will proposes. The decisions we make would still be a result of the laws of physics and we would have no greater say in instances of choice unless this random factor in subatomic physics was under our conscious control. This proposition seems incredibly unlikely and a link would have to be proven in order for this to be evidence of free will. We are also able to perceive a change in consciousness in any individual whose physical brain is altered implying a definite link between the physical brain and our actions. Certain sections of the brain are now known to have specific effects on consciousness - some controlling memory and some language etc. Another strong argument for a deterministic worldview is that we have not yet discovered anything that does not follow the laws of cause and effect. Nothing has motion unless caused to by some previous influence and the strength and direction of this motion is determined by the nature of whatever caused it. If we roll a rock down a hill its path is determined by the strength and direction we rolled it, the shape of both the rock and the hill and any other forces acting on it. It is therefore logical to propose that we are also ruled by the laws of cause and effect and that our path through life is determined by previous events as well as current influences and not by free choice. Current neuropsychology also appears to point towards a deterministic worldview for some. In recent years we have determined strong links between the nature of the physical brain and peoples personality. This is yet more evidence that our choices are linked to our physical brain. The parietal cortex has actually been proven to activate slightly before a conscious decision is made (Callaway, 2009). This lends evidence to the theory of mind that proposes that decisions are made by the physical brain and the experience of the conscious choice actually comes after (Callaway, 2009). This would mean that when you choose to, for example, go to eat dinner your physical brain has already made the decision and your conscious experience is more likely a by-product of the physical mechanisms of the brain rather than genuinely responsible for the choice (Callaway, 2009). In daily life as well as in psychology we also perceive a general link between upbringing and a given person's personality. We know, for example, that one is more likely to become violent if he or she has a violent or abusive upbringing. In other words we know that, at least to some degree, our upbringing determines our actions and how we respond to certain situations. Psychologists are also aware of the fact that genetics has a certain degree of influence over actions and that often serial killers have some genetic predisposition towards violence (Honeychurch, 2012). As culture and upbringing is so important to human life, genetics seems to generally play a smaller role than the former in ones personality (Honeychurch, 2012). As cause and effect controls every other process we are currently aware of it seems acceptable to propose that our actions are determined solely by a mixture of our genetics and our upbringing (or environmental influences throughout life) as not yet fully understood due to its complexity. If we again use the previous example of the rock rolling down the hill our genetics would be equivalent to the shape of the rock and our upbringing or environmental influences would be the shape of the hill - as well as wind and any other factors that influence the rock on its path. Note that as the rock descends its shape will likely change (as bits of its fall off etc.) just as our personality does throughout life and that therefore how it interacts with objects as it continues to fall will also change. The hill itself will also be changed by the rock just as we influence our environment. Although at first this process would appear random physicists later discovered that it is completely predictable and determined given that we know all the factors involved. It is logical to propose that it is the same with the human body.

The arguments for the position known as free will must also be discussed in order to deduce how likely or unlikely it is that we are capable of it. Due to the above arguments that make it likely that the physical universe is completely determined many advocates of free will hold to a dualist perspective on reality. This is often due to religious belief but conversely is occasionally due to other philosophical viewpoints such as cartesian dualism (Honeychurch, 2012). There are a variety of ways that philosophers have refuted the dualist perspective but one of the more convincing points is that if there is a non physical aspect to reality there can be no empirical evidence for it due to the fact that our senses are based in the physical world. The rationalist reasons for believing in a dualistic universe - such as descartes arguments - are also effectively refuted by modern philosophy. As well as the fact a dualistic universe is unlikely even if it was proven to be true we would have to find evidence for a link between the non-physical part of the universe and conscious free choice. There seems to be no evidence that this link does or even could exist as one would have to also posit the view that the non-physical and physical universe can affect one another. There are also arguments from a naturalistic perspective that conclude that free will is a reality. One such argument appears in the form of compatibilism which proposes that the universe can be determined while retaining free will (Honeychurch, 2012). This position proposes that if we are not coerced or forced to make a decision one way or another it can still be defined as a free choice despite a deterministic universe (Honeychurch, 2012). Unfortunately we can argue that this leads to the conclusion that a vending machine can be said to have free will (Ash, 2003) which is obviously false. If you define free will as the ability take the path you want through life this viewpoint is somewhat convincing. As I stated at the beginning of the essay, however, it seems that free will by definition requires at least two possible futures for the being in question and so compatibilism does not posit the existence of free will but rather redefines free will as the ability to act uncoerced. The arguments for free-will therefore seem unconvincing and a deterministic worldview seems more likely.

An argument about morality seems to result from a deterministic worldview. If we don’t really control our actions can we still be held accountable for what we do? It has been proven in studies that people who don’t believe in free choice are more likely to act immorally (Nahimias, 2011). It can, however, be argued that morality and even law and a deterministic worldview are compatible. In the utilitarian worldview the worth of actions is determined by the amount of positive and negative emotion they create. Alongside this is the belief that the worth of an action is determined by its consequences. If we again take the example of the rock falling down the hill and imagine that when it reaches the bottom it will kill several people we can argue that the rock should be stopped. This is despite the fact that the rock was never perceived as having free will. In the same way we can argue that if an individual is going to cause suffering or death he should be stopped and even imprisoned despite the fact he may not have free will. Punishment as retribution or revenge is incompatible with this view and so the imprisoned individual should not be caused any unnecessary harm. Rehabilitation and punishment as a way to deter future offenders is also completely compatible with the deterministic worldview as the laws of cause and effect are accepted as true. As well as this form of morality being compatible with deterministic philosophy we must also note that even if it is true that determinism leads to a lack of justification for law, punishment or morality this does not have any bearing whatsoever on whether or not it is true. The effect of a worldview is irrelevant in terms of its truth or falsity. It is also interesting to note that in studies we can often predict to a certain degree how likely someone is to murder dependant on certain genetic abnormalities combined with suffering abuse as a child. In these cases courts rule that the person in question is not responsible for these actions due to the fact they do not control these two factors. It can therefore be proven that a certain degree of law can exist even if we accept that we do not make true free choices and how we act is determined by our genetics and environment. This is despite the fact that many people who believe in determinism are more likely to act immorally. The argument from morality is irrelevant in the question of whether or not humans have free will and even if it was a convincing case for law can still be made.

As the arguments from physics, neuroscience and cause and effect propose it seems likely that the universe is deterministic and that at least it is more inductively likely than the alternative. This leads to the conclusion that you can only ever take one path through life and that choice is an illusion. Thus it appears that that the concept of free will is unlikely. As well as this the various arguments for free will, such as the dualist approach and the compatibilist viewpoint, seem unconvincing and unlikely. The question of the moral repercussions of a deterministic worldview is irrelevant in deducing its truth and even if it was relevant there is certainly arguments that morality and a deterministic perspective can co-exist. Due to the various arguments and refutations made above it seems that a deterministic worldview is much more likely than both an undetermined universe and the position known as free will. This leads to the position that we do not, as humans, have free will.

Works Cited

Ash, Thomas. "Do We Have Free Will?" Big Issue Ground Essays on Philosophy, Politics, History Science and Religion. 2003. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <>.

Callaway, Ewen. "Possible Site of Free Will Found in Brain." - Life. Unknown, May 2009. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <>.

Honeychurch, Sarah. Proc. of Free Will, Aberdeen University, Aberdeen. 2012. Print.

Nahmias, Eddy. "Is Neuroscience the Death of Free Will?" Opinionator. Nov. 2011. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. <>.

Do we have free will or is life determined?

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    • gkj1992 profile image

      gkj1992 5 years ago from India

      your hub is quite good. I think that we don't have free will.

    • PaddyPhilosophy profile image

      PaddyPhilosophy 5 years ago from Aberdeen,Scotland

      If anyone ever wants to debate the issue just leave a comment!

      Thanks for the kind words gk!

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