Do Humans Have Free Will?
The non-secular determinist approach, though logical in some ways & even appealing in others, is not an entirely coherent way of approaching free will.
John Calvin is consistent both with scripture & logic to a certain extent, taking his idea of limited atonement & total depravity as a basis. The fall of man condemned all of humanity, & when Jesus died he died only for the sins of those who are elected for the kingdom of God. This seems logical as everyone else chooses instead to fall from God in some way or another – as God is omniscient he already knows who the loyal & chosen few are and so those are the people who obtain salvation.
However God’s omniscience has several implications, as pointed out by Boethius in the Consolations of Philosophy. Boethius notes that God cannot judge fairly in the afterlife if he is omniscient & so our futures are predestined – there is no free will, so how can God judge our decisions as we have not made them freely? Maurice Wiles also raises the question of God being either arbitrary or partisan due to his limited intervention across history – this is seemingly supported by Calvin who basically argues that God only loves his chosen few, going against scripture in multiple ways by denying God’s omnibenevolence & his forgiving nature.
The hard determinist approaches of men such as Clarence Darrow seem infallible. It is perhaps Sam Harris who puts this best. He outlines the case of Hayes & Komisarjevsky, two criminals who stormed the Petit household, raping the mother & burning her two daughters alive. While such acts are abhorrent and would obviously be condemned not only by those close to the Petits, but by anyone who heard the case, Harris makes the point that the men had no other choice but to do what they did. Komisarjevsky was raped repeatedly as a child & experienced psychological damage for example, this and a multitude of other factors led to the crimes, and as eloquently put by Harris “if I were to trade places with one of these men, atom for atom, I would be him” – he would commit the exact same crime.
This is because everything which makes up a human can be combined in their DNA & past experiences, something which is undeniable in everyday life. If I drank a cup of coffee every morning but one day inexplicably decided to make tea, this would not be me exercising my free will. This decisions was predetermined when I read an article on the benefits of drinking tea over coffee, or even if I’d woken up after a strange dream leaving me craving tea. Darrow’s argument cannot be denied, would Leopold and Loeb have committed their heinous crime had all the correct factors not piled together? If they hadn’t developed such a codependency or related so much to the work of Nietzsche, there is a high chance the murder of Bobby Franks would have never happened.
However because all of these factors, plus even more distant ones such as the town they were born in, the coldness of their mothers all came together to create a perfect storm which could not be stopped – all of our actions are predetermined.
Perhaps I simply do not understand soft determinism enough to do it justice, but it seems a rather redundant theory. One of the key distinctions made by compatibilists is that hard determinism need not be linked to fatalism – however this seemed to me to be directly implied with the philosophy of hard determinists!
Taking Clarence Darrow for instance, he far from taking a fatalist approach when considering the Leopold Loeb case, but rather argued that they should still be punished. Darrow merely defended the boys against the death penalty, stating that they should not be punished for vengeance (which is really all the death penalty achieves) due to something they had no control over.
This leads me on to more of a pro of hard determinism which is that the theory does not take a “whatever will be will be” approach. Of course if that is how some want to interpret determinism that is their prerogative, but the suggestions of prolific determinists such as Sam Harris are not that we abandon the justice system and let criminals roam free – it is merely that we focus on rehabilitation rather than retribution. This seems more common sense than anything else – a young man who has wound up dealing drugs in order to support his younger siblings has clearly been led to commit crime by his situation in life – what purpose would punishing him rather than leading him towards ways of living a more moral life serve?
But back to soft determinism, the biggest problem with the idea as whole is that it makes no attempt to define what is actually determined & how this affects free will. Surely even internal causes which lead one to commit voluntary acts can be determined? Just because I choose to go on holiday without external pressure does not mean that choice wasn’t predetermined by a multitude of factors just like anything else.
I see the best way to approach compatibilism is to view it as a theory proposing that the illusion of free will is beneficial to society despite all of our decisions being pre – determined. Otherwise I am inclined to agree with Kant – “compatibilism is a miserable subterfuge”.
The libertarian arguments seem to focus almost entirely on empirical evidence, which is interesting as this has time and time again been shown to be incapable of proving anything. The best empiricism can do is lead one to a probable conclusion; and even then the evidence used by libertarians can quickly be refuted.
Taking the example of Nazi Germany and the actions of the National Socialists. At first glance, it appears that free will (if slightly restricted) was present in this time. Nazi officials could either follow orders and commit terrible atrocities, or effectively choose death. While this may seem a Hobson’s choice of sorts, there is still a decision to be made, as Satre himself argues “I cannot not choose. Even if I chose to do nothing that is still a choice.” Therefore the evidence suggests we have free will.
However looking closer at this example, we can see that following on from Darrow’s argument it was already pre-determined which soldiers would choose life and which would choose death. Such self forming actions, though they do come out of moral dilemmas as argued by Robert Kane, are not exercises of free will. Say one soldier had seen his brother die earlier that day despite being terrified of death before, this may have led him to disobey orders and accept his fate when next challenged – a seemingly spur of the moment, life changing action was done due to previous factors aligning meaning the choice was inevitable. This shows that the evidence provided by libertarians in their attempts to justify free will do not overcome the arguments from hard determinists.
As well as this another significant weakness in Satre’s argument is his notion that we are born clean and untainted by the world, ready to form ourselves completely of our own volition – a tabula rasa as Locke described.
This is far from the truth, and is an idea formed from privileged. As a white man born in a wealthy country, Satre may well have felt that all of his decisions and the path he took in life had been made freely. A black girl born into poverty in Somalia may have disagreed with this notion, but due to the limitations immediately imposed upon her from birth she unfortunately would not have had the chance to challenge him on this thought.
Where we are born, our families, our wealth and social status are all factors which immediately affect us from birth and limit our decisions, actions and possible paths in life. The rest of our personality is developed as we grow, but our choices are undoubtedly affected by circumstance, and later on by experiences we have in the world, therefore meaning that our decisions are still predetermined.