The Free Will Debate

Which side are you on?

It amazes me how much of the systems and norms in our society perilously rely on the fundamental assumption that humans have a capacity for Free Will. The Problem of Free Will is one that has perplexed philosophers for centuries, and more recently neuroscientists, as they each try to reconcile what is known as the problem of Free Will:

I’ve covered this topic from a couple of angles in the past in our intuition of choice and free won’t. But here I want to take an earnest look at two views on Free Will as outlined in Just Deserts: Debating Free Will, a book written by philosophers Greg Caruso and Daniel Dennett.

Two Views on Free Will

Before diving into two particular views on Free Will, I want to set a few soft boundaries to simplify our debate. First, it is worth asking: what kind of Free Will are we talking about here? I won’t be touching on the metaphysical aspects of the debate — we aren't interested in the randomness of subatomic particles, but it sure is interesting. I also won’t be talking about Free Will from a religious perspective. Most views on Free Will can fit into a variety of religious frameworks and I encourage each of you to do your own research about your own religion.

In essence, the definition of Free Will that we are questioning here is a capacity one has to control his or her own actions such that he or she justly deserves to be praised or blamed, rewarded or punished.

  1. In Just Deserts, Greg Caruso is a Free Will skeptic meaning that he is unsure that humans have the capacity for Free Will and thusly disagrees that people truly deserve praise or blame for their actions.

  2. Conversely, Daniel Dennett is a Free Will endorser, but of a particular kind. Dennett is what is known as a compatibilist which means that he acknowledges the deterministic nature of the natural world, but contends that there is room for humans to have Free Will.

A belief in Free Will, fundamentally, is a belief that at any give moment, we could go back in time to a moment with the exact same physical conditions and make a different choice. Unlike a skeptic like Caruso, a compabitilist reconciles the fact that the world goes on around us outside of our control, but that our actions are, under normal circumstances, “voluntary, free from constraint and compulsion, and caused in the appropriate way.”

A Free Will Skeptic Point of View

Skepticism on Free Will can still leave room for acknowledgement that we have some powerful “self-making” capabilities. We aren’t just brain-less amoeba responding to our environment at every moment. However, Free Will skeptics contend that these capacities are not of our own making, and the extent that we can wield them is out of our control. We often think of criminals as wrong-doers who chose to inflict harm and therefore deserve punishment. But to a Free Will skeptic, criminals are unlucky and we should feel sorry for even the most notorious criminals.

A Free Will skeptic might still endorse punishing criminals for wrong-doing, but would think of punishment more in a public health sense. Punishment in this sense would be more like quarantine to protect the general public and would put an emphasis on rehabilitation.

A Free Will Compatibilist Point of View

A compatibilist might concede that we aren’t responsible for having acquired our “self-making” capacities (we don’t choose our genes) but if we are lucky enough to develop normally (i.e., without a debilitating neurological disorder) into a moral creature, we are responsible for protecting that ability from coercion. A compatibilist believes that we have enough Free Will within the constraints of the deterministic universe to make people deserving of praise or blame for their actions. For a compatibilist, it likely wouldn’t matter if we could somehow prove that one could not go back in time and make a different choice. If an immoral action is performed, the performer knows it was wrong and deserves punishment accordingly.

What do you think?

I am eager to read your opinions on this debate. There are a lot of nuances and aspects that I haven’t brought in that you may know about and can discuss. If you’re interested in making your opinion known, on Wednesday April 28th at 5pm CST I will be sending out a discussion board asking for you input. You’ll receive an email notification just like this newsletter, so save your thoughts for then!

Until then, have a great week.

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