Category: free will


KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD is all about trying to understand the way human beings are in the world:
  • what is the relationship between our thoughts and the things we think about?
  • How do the things that seem to go on inside our heads connect with the things that seem to go on outside our heads?
  • What is this division between the internal (our minds) and the external (the rest of the world) really all about? Is there even a division at all?

Don’t be afraid to make these kind of points. They show you know what the point of all this stuff is.

FREE WILL & DETERMINISM is also absolutely fundamental to understanding what it is to be a human being living a life. Are we really in charge of ourselves in the way everybody assumes we are? Are we really autonomous beings?

If we’re not, and it’s hard to see how we are completely in control, then the important question is how much are we in control? and that’s when things get really complicated – compatibilism etc.

FINALLY: If you’ve run out of things to say it’s nearly always relevant to mention Wittgenstein and the idea that all meaning is socially constructed through language and therefore no meaning is ever fixed and certain. The meanings of words and ideas are constantly shifting and changing. It is quite possible that the meaning of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ will become changed or blurred together so that all the ideas discussed in KNOWLEDGE OF THE EXTERNAL WORLD become outdated. Remember, some languages have no word for ‘me’, does that mean that individuals don’t exist in the same way in those cultures?

IF all meaning is constructed and constantly re-negotiated and changed then what we understand by idea of ‘free-will’ will change into something different. Hume said way back that the argument was all about the meaning of the words. And Dennett trying to change the way we understand free will.

Say these things: you need the technical jargon to say them, just sound fascinated by the ideas and you’ll score marks. Although if you can remember the proper terms that’s even better.

Good luck and remember the stones.
You must read the blog on Pink below and the article Thomas Pink on The ethics of humanity and its enemies – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill before you read this.

The main point of Pink’s article (certainly the one we might talk about in the exam) is that;given the almost universal academic scepticism about our possession of an actual ability or freedom to determine for ourselves’ there is a danger that the ideas promoted by science and many philosophers, about what a human being is and the rights they have, will be redefined in a way that, for Pink, is threatening and dangerous.

His point is that if we come to see human beings as not having free will, as not being autonomous, not having any control over the course of their lives, then their worth, their ‘value’ seems to be less. Pink fears that this will mean that the vulnerable, the less able, the less skilled, the less productive, will be treated badly.

He also fears that this view of humanity as just another ‘animal’, just another lump of physical stuff, will encourage what he sees as dangerous genetic experiments.

This is another example of how philosophy and science have huge political implications.

You must read the article to get this. There is a link to it in the Pink blog below.

Thomas Pink says some very enlightening things about free will in his podcast with the lovely Nigel at

He explains how for compatibilists actions need a ‘goal’ or purpose to make sense as actions rather than meaningless events. (The difference between a muscle twitching a leg that moves a foot that impacts your leg and me kicking you because you are idle). He suggests that goals or purposes only make sense if they have a prior cause. This view is very similar Hume’s.

For me, compatibilism makes sense if you see actions and choices and decisions as events on a timeline:

> CAUSE empty belly (physiological)> EFFECT hunger > Should I have a chocolate biscuit or a carrot? (social conditioning etc. influences / determines? my CHOICE > my GOAL or purpose is either to stay slim and gorgeous or enjoy the chocolate biscuit and I imagine those possible futures as I decide > ACTION I eat a biscuit. My biscuit eating is a result of my choice, my choice gives it a goal and purpose and makes my ACTION intelligible (understandable) as an act of free will which forms part of a ‘causal chain.’

So, for compatibilists, free will: choices and decisions, only make sense as part of this chain. Without the causes, the prior events that inform my choices and my goals, free will would seem meaningless and randum, as if it had nothing to with my life.

However, Thomas Pink thinks that we ‘can have uncaused intelligible actions’ (my emphasis). He says that ‘action involves a self direction at a goal’ and that ‘the goal is provided by the very content of the mental event of choosing.’ and in that sense it is ‘internally generated’.

For Pink, choosing is about putting options and choices before ‘the mind’s eye’ and then directing your yourself at the option or goal you choose.

Although he claims to be a compatibilist, he admits that he is closer to a libertarian position. I think he is a libertarian really.

Talk of a ‘mind’s eye’ worries me (homunculous alert!), and I don’t think Pink’s position is all that convincing philosophically, but I want to believe him because I think politically I ought to be a libertarian.

What I am really (not that you’d care) is a philosophical pragmatist and ‘non-reductive physicalist’, that means that I think we are entirely physical, but I don’t want to reduce us to lumps of matter. I think the idea of ‘free will’ is a much more useful way of describing how we behave than a ‘scientific’ description. I think the problems we have when we discuss free will and determinism are probably the result of misconceptions about the way human beings are in the world. They are the result of problems with our language. I am, of course, indebted to Richard Rorty for this view, although I need to do a lot more work on it to explain it more fully.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read this.

HARD DETERMINISTS (obviously not as hard as Sam)

Hard determinists think that free will is an illusion. They think that all the choices, decisions and actions of human beings are determined by prior physical causes. Just like the atoms that form the rest of the physical world we are subject to the forces of cause and effect, we cannot do other than what we do do: we are subject to causal necessity. We are no more in control of our lives than an autumn leaf tumbling on the wind. (Ooh, lovely image!) As Baron d’Holbach put it

Man’s life is a line that nature commands him to describe upon the surface of the earth, without his ever being able to swerve from it, even for an instant … he is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control, which necessarily regulate his mode of existence, give the hue to his way of thinking, and determine his manner of acting. . . . Nevertheless, in despite of the shackles by which he is bound, it is pretended he is a free agent, or that independent of the causes by which he is moved, he determines his own will, and regulates his own condition.”

The problem that this brings about is that if we are without free will, then we cannot be held responsible for our behaviour. How can we justify praising or blaming anyone for anything if they could not have done anything else. Clearly this view has profound implications for our notions of morality and justice.

The whole point of morality is that it implies a choice: we can choose to do ‘the right thing’. We know that we ought to do the right thing. But it make no sense to say we ‘ought’ to do something if we have no free will? The word ‘ought’ implies that we can, but we can’t! See?

Free the animals.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read this.

Sartre was an existentialist. He believed that existence comes before essence’; this means that we are not born with a particular ‘nature‘ but must ‘create’ ourselves as we go along. We respond to our experiences of the world, but we are not determined by them, we are free to choose who we are and how we live. Sartre claims that ‘man’ isn’t simplywhat he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills.’ (my emphasis).

Roughly speaking Sartre believes that the very nature of consciousness is what enables human beings to have free will. He thinks that being conscious of (imagining) the different possible futures that might come about from different actions enables us to choose our path.

THE GAP: For Sartre, being conscious of the world seems to allow us to stand back from our lives and interpret them in different ways. This seems to open up a distance between our consciousness and the rest of the ‘physical’ world. This is what Sartre call ‘the gap’ and it is the gap that allows us to have free will. Easy.

Although sympathetic to Marx’s political philosophy, Sartre reverses Marx’s belief that ‘life determines consciousness’, claiming instead that ‘consciousness determines life.’

Whereas Marx believed that the way we think about the world and how we act is determined by our experience of the world, Sartre believed that we choose our experience of the world by the way we think about our place and role in the world.

For Marx the world makes us who we are. For Sartre we make ourselves who we are, and by doing so we make the world. Because he thinks that human beings have free will Sartre can be described as a libertarian, but we should be clear that he is a libertarian for different reasons to Descartes and Thomas Pink.

Sartre is rather hard on determinists, he says,

Those who hide from this total freedom … with deterministic excuses, I shall call cowards. Others, who try to show that their existence is necessary … I shall call scum.

He claims that there two kinds of ‘beings’: humans are ‘beings for themselves’, everything else, rocks, trees are ‘beings in themselves.’ (He doesn’t mention animals!). More of this next year possibly, for now the fact that he thinks consciousness gives us free will is enough.

Please leave a comment if you’ve read this.

‘Free will’ is being able to exercise control over your actions, choices and decisions. We all ‘feel’ like we have free will, but the extent to which we really do is disputed (as usual) by different philosophers and for different reasons.

choices and decisions. We all ‘feel’ like we have free will, but the extent to which we really do is disputed (as usual) by different philosophers and for different reasons.

For libertarians (incompatibilists) the term suggests a complete freedom from the causal necessity that determines all other physical things. They believe that human beings are able to somehow ‘stand’ outside the causal chain of events and thereby make free and undetermined choices.

It’s easy to see how someone like Descartes, who believed that the mind was metaphysical, could believe in free will – a metaphysical (non-physical) mind clearly won’t be determined (controlled) by physical processes. Descartes was a dualist, he believed that human beings were made of two different ‘substances’: the ‘physical‘ and the ‘mental‘. You can think of the ‘mental‘ as being something like the ‘soul’.

Please feed the animals.