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Lecture 10: Free Will

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Free Will
The importance of free will
Human autonomy and dignity
Value of deliberation
Deserving praise and condemnation
Moral responsibility
What is free will?
The ability to act freely
David Hume
Our actions are free if they are under our control.
David Hume defines freedom as “a power of acting
or of not acting, according to the determination
of the will.” (1748, sect.viii, part 1)
Freedom of action
Definition 1:
Free will is the ability to do what we choose to do.
We are unrestrained.
Problem: is the choice free?
Is an animal free just because it can make choices? What about a
Is a brain-washed person free? A hypnotized person?
What about determinism?
Our future is determined.
There is only one possible future.
Determinism vs. fate
п‚— Fate: certain actions or futures are fated to us, in spite
of our own desires or our efforts to change things
п‚— Determinism: every thought and every action has been
determined in advance by something outside of
ourselves (e.g. God or the state of the universe before
we were born)
Kinds of Determinism
п‚— Determinism by God
п‚— God made us in full knowledge of everything we would
be and do.
п‚— Determinism by physical laws
п‚— Every thought or decision we make is determined by
physical processes in the brain
п‚— The laws of nature work the same way within the brain
as out in the world
п‚— The mind is the brain
Physical Determinism
All of our thoughts and actions are ultimately determined by the
laws of the universe. Every physical event is determined by
prior events and physical states. There are no random or
miraculous causes.
If you knew all the physical states of all the matter in the
universe at time t (e.g. the big bang), you could theoretically
predict all subsequent events, including every thought and
every action of every person who ever lives.
Determinism and Free Will
3 common intuitions:
i) Our brains are deterministic systems
ii) Determinism is incompatible with free will
iii) We have free will
One of these must be wrong!
Free Will Theories
Incompatibilism: Free will is not compatible with determinism. If
the universe is deterministic, free will is impossible. (Maintain
intuition 2)
Libertarianism: We do have free will. Therefore, the universe
is not deterministic. (Reject intuition 1: Our brains are
deterministic systems.)
Hard determinism: The universe is deterministic (or, if it is
indeterministic, indeterminism does not allow for free will
either), and there is no free will. (Reject intuition 3: We have
free will.)
Compatibilism: Free will is compatible with determinism. Free
will can exist even if all our actions are ultimately determined
by the laws of physics. (Reject intuition 2: Determinism is
incompatible with free will.)
Definition 2:
A person is only free if their choices are
Genuine (undetermined) ability to do otherwise
The garden of forking paths
Free will is possible only if determinism is false.
We do have free will. Therefore determinism is
false (in a relevant way)
1) Contrary to science
2) Indeterminism doesn’t seem to help
Agent Causation
п‚Ў A variety of libertarianism
п‚Ў Actions are caused by us as an agent
п‚Ў Agents are not themselves caused. Agents cause events in
a way that is not deterministic and not random
п‚Ў Incoherent. How can a cause be neither deterministic nor
п‚Ў How can anything be ultimately self-generated and
therefore ultimately responsible for being what it is?
Hard determinism
Hard determinism
Free will is only possible if determinism is false. But
determinism is true. Therefore, we do not have free
1) It seems like we have free will.
2) There seems to be a difference between free
actions and unfree actions.
3) If there is no free will, a carefully considered plan is
no more free than the act of a person under hypnosis.
Definition 3:
Harry Frankfurt
A person is free if they are able to make choices
rationally on the basis of their goals, desires and values.
People are not at the mercy of every passing desire.
People act according to second-order desires (Frankfurt).
Problem: Are the goals, values or second-order desires
Deep Self View
(also a form of compatibilism)
Definition 4:
п‚Ў A person is free insomuch as their actions arise from
their deep self.
п‚Ў A free action is one that you (the agent) would
endorse and identify with, on reflection. It stems from
who you are.
 How you come to be who you are doesn’t matter.
п‚Ў Problems:
 what about uncharacteristic actions?
 are you free to be who you are? Does it matter?
Another possible stance:
Free will is incoherent
The concept of free will is incoherent.
Free will is impossible whether determinism is true or
Determinism makes our actions unfree.
Indeterminism also makes our actions unfree.
Free will requires self-generation, which is
logically impossible
Free will is incoherent – not even possible to imagine.
Problem: If free will is incoherent, the term “free will” has
no meaning. But surely it means something!
Summary of possible stances
1) Compatibilism (soft determinism)
2) Libertarianism
2) Hard determinism
4) Free will is incoherent
Free will and robots
Could a robot have free will?
What would be the criteria?
Ability to choose between alternatives?
Capacity for self-modification?
Genuine desires? (What is genuine?)
The importance of free will
Human autonomy and dignity: are we less if we are
not free?
Meaningfulness of deliberation: does it make sense
to deliberate if our actions are determined by
physical laws?
Deserving praise and blame: does it make sense to
praise or blame people for their actions, if their
actions are not free?
Moral responsibility: does it make sense to punish
someone for an act that was not freely willed?
Andrew Morton, “Free Will” in Philosophy in Practice, Ch. 14.4-14.5, on
Thomas Nagel, “Free Will” in What Does It All Mean?, Chapter 6, on
Stephen Law, “Do We Ever Deserve to Be Punished” in The Philosophy Gym,
Chapter15, on UMMoodle
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