Eventually, the debate on “freewill and determinism” tries to answer this question: are human free? This question is important and controversial because we have been taught throughout our life that we are free to choose and act. Are we really? It is also important because the existence of freewill is a crucial assumption for moral responsibility and modern legal system.
In the freewill debate, there are two opposite views: determinism and indeterminism (also known as “libertarianism”). Among the determinists, there are “hard determinists” and “soft determinists” (who are also called “compatibilists”).
The determinist argument can be formulated into two syllogisms. First:
(1) Every human choice or action is an event.
(2) Every event has its explanatory cause.
(3) Therefore, every human choice or action has its explanatory cause.
Building upon (3), we have our second syllogism:
(3) Every human choice or action has its explanatory cause.
(4) To have explanatory cause is not to be free.
(5) Therefore, human choice or action is not free.
The determinists believe that all human choices or actions are determined, explainable and even predictable, given enough information. They believe that our decisions are brought about by earlier events or conditions. Whatever we do is the only choice we have, which is the same as not having a choice: we couldn’t have done anything else. Therefore humans are not free. Determinists also argue that we might have the experience of making a choice, but in fact we’ve never made any real choice. The “experience” itself is part of our determined fate.
The core of determinism is the universal causality. If we accept the universal causality, the premises of the first syllogism seem to be beyond doubt: no matter how complicated the cause is (genetic makeup, family background, childhood, education, etc), there is a cause for every human decision.
The indeterminists argue against this exact point. They believe that some events are not determined, like the movement of subatomic particles. Indeterminists claim that some human actions are among the undetermined events. But indeterminists do not answer the question, “why this happens?” It is not good enough to say “it just happens.” Indeterminists also fight against humans’ basic instinct to explain and rationalize the events that occur around us.
Between the determinists and indeterminists, there are the compatibilists, or soft determinists. They hold the view that even if determinism is true, we can still have freewill. Different philosophers have different degrees of “softness”.
I believe that everyone should think seriously about freewill and determinism because this inquiry guides our daily behavior and forms our life attitude. Here I’d like to explain my standpoint in this freewill debate.
(1) Human behaviors are caused.
(2) The definition of “free” complicates the debate on freewill. If we define “free” as “a subjective feeling or belief”, then universal causality does not exclude freewill.
(3) Freewill should not be a precondition for individual responsibility.
(4) What’s harmful about determinism is what (as many people falsely suppose) follows from it.
These beliefs will put me in the “soft determinist” camp. Like most soft determinists, my views differ in one way or another with other soft determinists.
To begin with, I accept that all human behaviors are caused by preceding events, conditions and other stimuli. There’s a reason for everything we do, no matter how complicated the reason is. Either a natural habit or a basic rule, universal causality is the basis of human knowledge and understanding. We could not give this presupposition up even if we want to. At the same time, we know from our personal experiences that there are always motives that precede and prompt our behaviors, consciously or unconsciously. Our failure to explain certain behaviors only shows the limit of our knowledge.
My second point rebuts proposition (4) in the original formulation of determinism: “to have explanatory cause is not to be free.” Proposition (4) contrasts “freedom” with “causality”. Ayer eloquently argued in his article “Freedom and Necessity” that “from the fact that my action is causally determined, it does not follow that I am constrained to do it.” Here Ayer is trying to differentiate between “cause” and “constrain”.
I think the majority of our “freewill frustration” actually comes from the fuzzy definition of what “free” is. In the freewill debate, “free” is often contrasted with many different words: compel, constrain, control, cause, necessitate, etc. Each pair of contrast will give rise to a specific argument. My own belief is that “free” is a subjective term; it is a feeling and a belief.
If we define “free” as “a subjective feeling or belief that one is in control and is acting without constraint”, then it’s easy to see that the universal causality does not exclude freewill: you are free as long as you feel free; the degree of your freewill depends on (and only on) the degree of your belief. For example, I felt one hundred percent free when I was in China. And so I believed. Even if I realized that China was not quite free after arriving in the U.S., I would still say that my days in China was totally free because I felt so and believed so. In a surprising contrast, I am less free in the U.S. because now I can logically (and freely) imagine a place where I would enjoy more freedom than in the U.S. Maybe in the heaven!
I’d also emphasize that freewill is subjective. It’s irrelevant whether other people judge me to be free or not. For example, I deleted a post that criticized Chinese policy toward Tibet on my Facebook page. A friend told me that my “self-censoring” was not based on my freewill because I acted out of fear of the Chinese government. I told my friend that the deletion was totally a free choice of mine because I could have easily done otherwise. I deleted the post out of caution, not fear --- just as I would not drive on a highway with my eyes closed.
For my third point, I argue that freewill should not be a precondition for individual responsibility. It is a common belief that in order to be held morally responsible for their actions, people need to have freewill in the first place. Some people then make the following argument: “determinism entails that we can never do other than what we do, therefore we are not responsible for what we do.” Or they might argue: “indeterminism entails that human actions are random, therefore we are not responsible for what we do.” I think that neither determinism nor indeterminism could be used as an excuse for eluding responsibility because responsibility and punishment should be based on the consequences but not the motives of the action. Otherwise, all murders could be lightly justified and our mental hospitals would be flooded with criminals.
In my last point, I’d like to address why people might feel uneasy with determinism. Many people unconsciously reason that determinism would lead to pessimism, indifference and inaction, which is undesirable. They think, “If my life is already determined, then what can I do? I could only drift along and remain a ‘pawn of fate’. I don’t want this, so I don’t like determinism.”
This unstated resistance toward determinism is not justified. Boiled down to its essence, determinism is simply saying that “what is going to happen is going to happen”. This tautology does not interfere with the freedom of our will. What’s more, determinism is built on a big “if”: if we know all the earlier events and conditions, we can predict with certainty. But in real life, this big “if” is hardly obtainable.
In conclusion, I think it is not important who wins the freewill debate. What’s really important is what we get out of this intellectual inquiry. After thinking about freewill and determinism, our faith in freedom should be stronger then ever before, and we should be more willing to lead a positive and active life.