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Free will, determinism and moral responsibility

August 26, 2011

I am no philosopher (only armchair), but vey much am interested in the field. An almost defining subject of philosophy (mainly because for so long it has been relegated to thoughts as opposed to hard science) is the subject of free will and determinism. I haven’t studied the subject exhaustively, I haven’t even studied it in great depth, at least not yet, but I get an urge to discuss it, at this point. Perhaps my view and thoughts will shift as I continue to ingest more material on the matter.

If you look at the Wikipedia article on free will, you quickly become drowned in subcategories of definitions and small nuances of the basic question: do people have free will? I want to only focus on the form of free will called ‘hard determinism’ and explore why I personally find it hard to swallow.

Hard Determinism in a nutshell states that every state of affairs, including every human event, act, and decision is the inevitable consequence of preceding states of affairs. The laws of physics within the universe ultimately determine all future action. So the difference between the acts of an apple ‘falling’ on Newtons head, the top of his head responding to the bump by swelling and Newton thinking that ‘I better get up from here as I don’t want to get hit again’ are only degrees of complexity in the physical laws and chain of events. Ultimately the argument follows; if we are able to examine the neural pathways of Newton’s brain and see how they all interacted, in theory the act of Newton deciding to get up instead of remaining seated can be broken down into simple physical laws just as when the apple dropped, and thus his decision is not of his free will but rather are determined in a casual chain of events. This chain of events can in theory be predicted if a person was all knowing from any period in the past.

Free will in the basic form states that ‘agents’, mainly applied to humans but animals as well, choose a course of action from among various alternatives.

I have been trying to read articles by authors with opposing views to mine (to sharpen my own understanding) , who see free will as an illusion, and maintain that complex and intricate set of events in the environment ultimately translate to states of the mind that cause us to act a certain way.

Perhaps to better understand free will in a human context, a subset of the question can be asked – do animals have free will?

Can they respond differently if all the variables in a given situation remain the same? For example if I poked a dog would it move away or would it respond aggressively given that everything else is the same. The dog example presents too many variables and cannot give a conclusive answer to the question.

A better example has been performed in a lab with on isolated leech nervous systems that had invariant electrical stimulus applied to it. The response can be described as chose as the nervous system generated either a swimming motor programme or a crawling motor programme. Such an experiment removed all outside stimulus so the possibility of the variance could only be generated internally within the isolated leech nervous system. Yet the outcome produces different responses. Experiments showing similar results have also been done with flies as the following description of an experiment shows:

“if you put flies at one end of a tube and a light at the other end, the flie will run to the light. But I noticed that not every fly will run every time. If you separate the ones that ran or did not run and test them again, you find, again, the same percentage will run. But an individual fly will make its own decision”

Such information helps strengthen the argument against hard determinism as it is the crucial prerequisite for free will. The multiple generated behavioral options for any given stimulus as shown in the example above are indeterminate, in the sense that someone cannot predict with 100% probability how the neurons will respond to a given stimulus, even if that stimulus is the same.

This leads me to ask the next question – If it was possible for rewind the universe let’s say by 10 minutes and watch as an outside observer, are alternate possibilities in people’s decisions possible?

Alternate possibilities

In an example of the question above,Aliceis presented with a situation where she had a choice to tell a lie or to tell the truth (perhaps she could say something in between, half truth or in theory even something totality random unrelated, for now read further.)

A hard determinist would respond to the above question with a wholehearted NO, if we watched the universe replay it self from 10 minutes ago, Alice’s choice to lie or not to lie would always be the same, it would be determined by all the environmental factors; who is she talking to, the way the prior conversation went, where she is located etc, and all the internal factors, such as her beliefs, mood, feelings, motives values – her overall character. All these factors, in theory could be known and thus be used to calculate in advance how she would respond, which would be the same every time the universe is replayed.

Another possibility, which I tend to lean towards, is described by Peter van Inwagen who is an American analytic philosopher. Here is a quote from him:

Now let us suppose that God a thousand times caused the universe to revert to exactly the state it was in at t1 (and let us suppose that we are somehow suitably placed, metaphysically speaking, to observe the whole sequence of “replays”). What would have happened? What should we expect to observe? Well, again, we can’t say what would have happened, but we can say what would probably have happened: sometimes Alice would have lied and sometimes she would have told the truth. As the number of “replays” increases, we observers shall — almost certainly — observe the ratio of the outcome “truth” to the outcome “lie” settling down to, converging on, some value….

What Peter van Inwagen is describing is that the possibility of an act occurring is indeterminate – it is a matter of probability. If Alice is generally an honest person, her character will ensure that she rarely lies even if lying frequently “comes to mind” as one of her alternative possibilities and sometimes she acts on it. In other words she may tell the truth 95, 98, 99.9% of the time, but it cannot be predicted with certainty.

Taking the same scenario but with a different example, if Alice is presented with a novel situation that she never encountered before in which her beliefs, feelings, motives and values have less influence– Example would be Alice surviving a light airplane crash in sub-Sahara Africa , she has several broken ribs and doesn’t know how far away she is from civilization. After two days without being rescued, she is deciding whether to stay put or to trek into the unknown and hope to find someone. Perhaps if such a situation was replayed over and over her decision to stay or to go would converge closer to 50% as the external and internal factors have less influence.

Moral responsibility

Determinism and free will may be aligned with the question of moral responsibility for ones actions.

A person who rejects hard determinism would ask the following question; if all our actions are just a causal chain of events and are determined by all the factors externally and internally prior to the event, the person doesn’t have a choice since free will in a hard determinist model is only an illusion of choice, so how can a person be morality responsible for his actions?

Wikipedia has an example of Clarence Darrow, the famous defense attorney pleading innocence of his client based on a hard determinist position:

What has this boy to do with it? He was not his own father; he was not his own mother; he was not his own grandparents. All of this was handed to him. He did not surround himself with governesses and wealth. He did not make himself. And yet he is to be compelled to pay.

Writers such as J Greene, J Cohen & S Harris argue that moral responsibility is still possible in a deterministic world however they advocate the re-thinking in the way our system of justice should deal with people. Some version of the following scenarios is usually presented to form the case:

  1. A four-year-old boy was playing with his father’s gun and killed a young woman. The gun had been kept loaded and unsecured in a dresser drawer.
  2. A twelve-year-old boy, who had been the victim of continuous physical and emotional abuse, took his father’s gun and intentionally shot and killed a young woman because she was teasing him.
  3. A twenty-five-year-old man, who had been the victim of continuous abuse as a child, intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend because she left him for another man.
  4. A twenty-five-year-old man, who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.”
  5. A twenty-five-year-old man, who had been raised by wonderful parents and never abused, intentionally shot and killed a young woman he had never met “just for the fun of it.” An MRI of the man’s brain revealed a tumor the size of a golf ball in his medial prefrontal cortex (a region responsible for the control of emotion and behavioral impulses).

Writers such as Harris state that what people condemn in the above scenarios is the

intention to do harm and thus any condition or circumstance (e.g., accident, mental illness, youth) that makes it unlikely that a person could harbor such an intention would mitigate guilt, without any recourse to notions of free will..”

 He continues by saying that:

conscious planning tends to most fully reflect the global properties of our minds — our beliefs, desires, goals, prejudices, etc”

The conclusion that Harris comes to however is the following:

“While viewing human beings as forces of nature does not prevent us from thinking in terms of moral responsibility, it does call the logic of retribution into question.”

What Harris is arguing in the above is that free will is an illusion, but moral responsibility can still be maintained when focusing on the conscious actions of the person. The responsibility can be mitigated by some of the factors listen in the above scenarios. So far I am on the same page with him. However where Harris and other similar writers diverge is that they see the actions of the person as complex “forces of nature” who acted in the only way it was possible to act with their set of global properties of the mind. J Greene, J Cohen & S Harris argue that the justice system should move away from retribution to rehabilitation of the convicted.

There is something to be said about a pure retribution system of justice, however I would argue that the system of justice we have at least in the Western world does take rehabilitation measures already, but it also serves as a way to keep dangerous people away from society. Coming back to the discussion, where I feel the argument doesn’t make sense is when words such as planning, choosing are used in the deterministic model of the world – it just doesn’t make sense in that context. I see no escape from the problem of moral responsibility if our actions are on par with a complex computer program, perhaps a first-person shooter (FPS) or a sophisticated robot.

However what I do agree with in the above quotes is the importance of consciousness.


Writers such as Martin Heisenberg argue that decision-making does not require consciousness. Such a view allows animals, even flies, to have a form of free will, if free will is defined as actions that are self-generated. The flies mentioned earlier receive the input from a light and generally would be greatly influenced by their memory, reflexes and other learnt behavior by moving towards it, but the act is not guaranteed determinately.

I see consciousness as the self-awareness of the ideas that have been generated from your mind and the awareness of the reasoning that takes place in rejecting some of those ideas, and then deciding on the final choice of how to act. A fly is not aware of why it chose what it chose, while an unimpaired human mind does and thus can be responsible for their decisions.

There can be many factors influencing your decision some external, some internal, that is why the justice system attempts to understand all the factors surrounding the case and mitigate guilt accordingly, yet still hold the person morally responsible.

I’ll leave you with a joke:

A group of philosophers were arguing over determinism and free will, and split into two camps. One person couldn’t decide. At long last, he decided he favored determinism. He went to their camp, and they asked why. He said, “I came of my own free will.” They banished him to the free willers. When he arrived, they asked why he decided to join them, and he said, “I didn’t decide-I was sent over here.” They kicked him out, too.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. August 27, 2011 3:47 am

    I hold to the hard incompatiblist position, that being that free will (the type that suggests responsibility) is incompatible in both a deterministic universe (one where every event has a cause) as well as an indeterministic universe (one where acausal events can or do happen). I feel this is ultimately a stronger position than hard determinism (as we do not know if the universe is entirely causal).

    I am currently writing a book explaining why both are (logically) incompatible with free will, and I also explain why it is so important for humanity to begin to understand this fact.

    Take care,
    ‘Trick Slattery

    • August 27, 2011 10:55 am

      what writings where more pervasive for you to say that it’s a stronger position?

      • August 29, 2011 7:27 am

        It is only a stronger position because we cannot know if the universe is deterministic or indeterministic. Certain interpretations of quantum theory lean toward indeterminism while other lean toward determinism.

        Another philosopher that has taken the hard incompatibilist stance is Derk Pereboom in his book “Living without free will”. I believe hard incompatibilism will take over hard determinism as it prevents people from contriving free will via the possibility of an indeterministic universe as well. 🙂

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