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Free Will and Determinism


FREE WILL AND DETERMINISM . Free will is a moral, religious, and social concept that is central to philosophy and most religions. It has been argued that the basis of freedom lies in the contingency of natural events. Though this line of reasoning has been by and large abandoned, for freedom to exist at all the concept of strict universal causality will have to be suspended, at least in the moral sphere. Another line of thought sees the foundation of freedom in spirituality: The soul, as immaterial, is not subject to the deterministic laws of nature. Whatever the explanation, belief in free will amounts to the conviction that, as individuals, human beings are endowed with the capacity for choice of action, for decision among alternatives, and specifically that, given an innate moral sense, humans can freely discern good and evil and choose the good, though they often do not. Determinism is the philosophical view that, given certain initial conditions, everything that ensues is bound to happen as it does and in no other possible way; thus nothing in nature is contingent, nor is there any room for human freedom. The partisans of a "hard" determinism hold that none of one's actions is free, but only appear to be so; consequently, moral responsibility is an illusion as well; "soft" determinists, or compatibilists, believe that while one's actions are indeed caused, one is nevertheless free, since causality does not compel one's will.

Philosophical Interpretations

In Greek antiquity the idea of free will was clearly derived from the difference between free individuals and slaves, in modern times from the political structures of rising democratic electoral systems. A whole lineage of philosophers tried to reconcile the idea of determinism, the theological one in particular, with that of free will as uninhibited intentional action. Early Greek thought regarded free will as the denial of all intrinsic limitations upon the pursuit of voluntary goals. Plato shows in the Republic that social structures and moral conventions can be masterminded and manipulated at will. Both Socrates and Plato shifted the locus of freedom from the power to affect external events to the inner exercise of will and conviction. For Aristotle the power of free will lies in the capacity of thought to harmonize itself not only with God but with the good and the good life (On Interpretation, chap. 9). To be free meant to be rational. According to Augustine of Hippo (On Free Will), God's foreknowledge of events does not curtail the capacity to choose and indeed the necessity of doing so, since God's knowledge of eternity is somewhat akin to that of a ubiquitous present. The will is certainly free and there is no reason to believe that God's knowledge of the object of the will should impair its freedom in any way. Humanity's freedom is to love God and act upon its own will. In accordance with the same line of argument, Boethius (On the Consolation of Philosophy ) defined eternity as "the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life." Thomas Aquinas similarly held that God's eternal vision could in no way cause one's actions (Summa theologiae 1.14.13).

Modern philosophers struggled with the dilemma of divine foreknowledge and human freedom by redefining the latter, for instance, as "lack of constraint" (Hobbes); others, for example, Descartes, emphasized the infinity of the will in espousing the true and rejecting the false even though human understanding may be limited. Spinoza conceived of human free will as self-determination; Leibniz, as a form of uncaused spontaneity, which was later to be equated with "freedom from indifference." It followed from these views that God could never be blamed for human errors. Yet this concept of a mind causally undetermined, inexplicably free, was found unsatisfactory and was replaced by Locke's concept of preference as cause (opposed to the previous idea about the irrelevance of judgments to one's will), and by Hume's argument that a free action is one that could have been avoided. For Kant, determinism is phenomenal and freedom is noumenal, since the pure practical reason upon which one freely acts lies outside the realm of causation and makes up the essence and autonomy of moral life. Hegel and his left-wing followers looked upon freedom and necessity as two sides of the same coin, two ideas dialectically interconnected through "knowledge" or "understanding": Freedom is necessity understood. Other nineteenth-century idealists, called libertarians, tended to postulate a special entity, the "self," which uses the body as a causal instrument while being itself immune to causation. The materialists, to the contrary, had favored since antiquity an almost total subordination of freedom to the necessary or contingent play of natural and social forces outside of both individual and divine control.

Religious Interpretations

The essential presupposition of most major religions is that humans are born with freedom of choice. Free will is the capacity to choose among courses of action, objectives, things, desires, and so forth, and also to assume full moral responsibility for them. For the will to be free it is therefore necessary that there be no direct coercion, serious compulsion, or distortion of truth (for example, through propaganda or brainwashing) and also that alternatives for choice be at hand. A variety of conditions in society will allow for a variety of beliefs and the free exercise of human choice. Classically, this idea is defined as the absence of obstacles to the realization of various freedoms; it has a negative aspect, freedom from (want, fear, et al.), and a positive one, freedom for (worship, creativity, symbolic acts of speech, et al.). Religious freedom, including, but not reducible to, freedom of worship, illustrates the inseparability of these aspects, being at the same time freedom from spiritual coercion (for example, forcibly inculcated atheism, active proselytism) and freedom for the consciousness to believe, the individual to practice, and the community to exercise the rules of conduct and rituals of its own tradition.

The principle of determinism, which claims that the states of the universe, including human volition, are to be rigidly deduced from previous causes, and that nothing could be other than it is or was, is a negation of free will. To the extent that they involve moral responsibility, all religions must recognize that a human being is a free agent. However, the presupposition of monotheistic religions that the one God is not only omnipotent but also omniscient seems to annul the power of free decision in humanity, which leads to the contradiction of one being held responsible for some courses of action for which one is actually not responsible.

Most religions have sought a theological solution to this dilemma. In Hinduism, even though the blame for evil is usually cast upon the god who causes human imperfections and thus dooms humanity to downfall, people are still held morally responsible for their woes, as they are for corrupting other human beings; parents are considered morally responsible for their children'seven physicalconstitution. A concept present across the board in Asian religions, from Jainism and Brahmanism to Buddhism, Sikkhism, Parsi, and animistic religions, is karman, which mainly points to action and reaction in the long series of reincarnations but is erroneously understood sometimes as rigid universal determinism, fate, or even retributive justice. Actually karman encompasses the unity and interrelatedness of all phenomena, their fundamental contingency, and the acts or rituals (karman ) capable of destroying the bonds of transmigration. Under the law of karman an individual is essentially free to accept or to attempt to change the chain of cosmic events. There are many oscillations (from myth to myth and scripture to scripture) and ambiguities concerning the status of the individual in the cosmos: On the one hand, he or she might be considered as a passive entity subject to the laws of the universe, now weakened and contaminated, now strengthened and purified, by the flow of events; on the other hand, the individual enjoys a certain amount of spontaneous freedom. In any case, the goodness to which one should aspire is the integration and the harmony of ambivalent features rather than their dissociation. This is what makes the Hindu concept of free will radically different from the Judeo-Christian one.

There are two main concepts designating freedom in Indian philosophy: The one is svāraj (self-rule), which appears already in the Chāndogya Upaniad and has definite social, political, and moral connotations; the other is moka, which has the psychological and metaphysical connotations of deliverance, emancipation, and release. There is both a tension and a synthesis between the two, out of which the real notion of freedom in Hinduism emerges. Moka is, however, the ultimate goal of Hindu religion. It is freedom from karman and bondage, which in turn is freedom from ignorance, a freedom to be attained not after death but here and now through physical and mental discipline. Biological and social freedom is a necessary yet not sufficient condition for its achievement.

In Judaism, a person is born free because he or she is created in the image of God (who is free). Also, it is God's goodness that is reflected in human freedom. The faithful are to abolish completely their will in favor of God's. Yet, according to the teachings of the Bible, human obligations flow from two sources: divine law and the voice of inner conscience. In the Talmud, the mitsvot appear as absolute prescriptions, that is, decrees to be followed by man. Jewish philosophers, nevertheless, and particularly those influenced by Hellenism (e.g., Philo Judaeus and Josephus Flavius), insist on the heteronomous nature of the mitsvot, which are also an explicit expression of natural law. Judaism offers little evidence for the idea that events in the life of an individual might have been "fated" (in the Greek sense of moira ); yet the major collective occurrences in the life of the people of Israel were commanded and predetermined by God. As lord of history and judge, God both rules over nature and determines the end result of human deeds and conflicts. God may sometimes be portrayed in the Hebrew scriptures (Is. 34:17) as a caster of lots. In the rabbinical period, the belief emerged that God did predetermine major events such as the dates of birth, death, and marriage in the individual's life. Outside of these, however, there was no predetermination. Nothing could abolish the free will and therefore the moral responsibility of the person.

Islam holds the belief that major events are fated and decreed by God; this allows one to affirm the underlying uniformity and rationality of the universe. The concept of fate, however, was borrowed from pre-Islamic Arabic literature, especially from poetry that was not necessarily religious. It became subordinated in Islam to a divine predestination that by itself does not preclude the actual freedom of the individual's will. More and more, Islamic theologians shun the attribute of fatalism bestowed upon the Muslim religion. "Fate" is often a label given after the fact; to say that something is fated is to give an easy and weak explanation to an otherwise inexplicable event. The argument is that while in God's mind everything is determined in advance, the active believer is wholly ignorant of this determination and therefore enjoys fully the freedom to choose.

Christianity is among the major religions that emphasize the freedom of humanity to the last consequence. Even the existence of evil in face of the omnipotence of God is justified in terms of the supremacy of humankind's essential freedom to adopt its own goals and to choose its own course of action. The controversy between Augustine of Hippo and Pelagius as early as the fifth century set the scene for what was to be an ongoing theological debate in Western Christianity. To Augustine's almost exclusive emphasis on indwelling grace, Pelagius, a British monk who lived in Africa and was condemned for heresy by two synods, opposed the notion that the human, unassisted free will acts in a sovereign way in bringing about or jeopardizing human salvation. In the sixteenth century, Erasmus of Rotterdam defended the church doctrine of free will against Martin Luther's aggressive denial of it and Luther's affirmation of humankind's complete dependence upon God's grace. Protestant theology with Zwingli, Wyclif, Calvin, and their followers steadily upheld the soteriological and metaphysical doctrine of predestination.

In Mādhyamika Buddhism, freedom from pain, which implies a complete, blissful regeneration of humankind, is achieved by the elimination of all conceptual constructions at their very roots: the duality between "is" and "is-not." The spiritual discipline of attaining enlightenment or achieving Buddhahood through the resolution of the painful conflict between the private and the social good is conducive to wisdom, prajñā, which is itself liberating. To achieve freedom is mainly a negative process consisting in the elimination of hindrances that obscure the real, such as attachment, aversion, and all mental fictional constructions. Śūnyatā as the intellectual intuition of voidness is equated with freedom.

Avowedly the relationship between free will and determinism is one of paradox, that is, of mutual implication and repulsion occurring simultaneously. This paradox can more or less be dissolved by relegating free will to the realms of spiritual awareness, psychologically lived reality, and practical (moral) action; whereas determinism and predestination would belong to the actual ontological and existential givenness of things and events in the world. Attempts at solving this paradox have led some theistic process philosophers and theologians (e.g., Charles Hartshorne) to want to weaken the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipotence. It is not God's unsurpassable power but his monopoly on it that is denied. This should allow for openness and indeterminacy in the future in which humanity's options can be exercised freely. The present stage of the philosophical discussion of free will and determinism in relation to both cosmology and individual existence involves sophisticated epistemological arguments from the theory of explanation, causality, the symmetry of past and future, and the theory of human action.

See Also

Conscience; Existentialism; Fate; Free Will and Predestination; Israelite Law; Karman; Materialism; Moka; Morality and Religion; Naturalism; Pelagianism; Prajñā; Soteriology; Śūnyam and Śūnyatā; Theodicy.


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New Sources

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Noble, Greg, and Megan Watkins. "So, How Did Bourdieu Learn to Play Tennis? Habitus, Consciousness and Habituation." Cultural Studies 17 (May 2003): 520540.

O'Connor, Timothy. Persons and Causes: The Metaphysics of Free Will. New York, 2002.

Pollack, Robert. The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith: Order, Meaning and Free Will in Modern Medical Science. New York, 2000.

Wegner, Daniel. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, Mass., 2002.

Ileana Marcoulesco (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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