Do We Have Free Will? An essay I was forced to write


This is an essay I did last year for my introduction to philosophy class. The comment was:

“This is a good essay. You have a good writing style which made it very easy to read and follow your line of reasoning. You have used quite a bit of scientific analysis in your argument, however there is some philosophical discussion that lends weight to this science in terms of the question that has been posed.

I would have liked to see the point expanded above where you refer to Plato and the necessity to not be a slave to ones passions. However overall this is a nice essay, well done.”

I haven’t bothered to edit it yet, but might do so later, so this essay warrants a distinction rather than a high distinction. The bits of science that I use may have changed by now, since science literature evolves quite rapidly. In any case, it’s an interesting topic to argue about. Enjoy.



Unless I have free will, I can’t be held responsible for what I do.’  Discuss

I believe we have responsibility over our actions, but does that necessarily mean we have free will? Free will itself is something hard to define. According to JM Fischer, freedom is simply the “freedom to do otherwise,” and this is necessary for moral responsibility . Compatibilists affirm that the only thing necessary for responsibility is “voluntary choice” and that people can be “perfectly responsible even if determinism is true” . Hard determinists, or pessimists, are more likely to argue that one cannot be held responsible for anything they do because everything has been predetermined by physical laws, or even God . Conversely, libertarians believe in absolute free will and therefore declare that we retain full responsibility over our actions.

In this essay I will argue in favour of compatibilism, asserting the idea that we are acting with our own free will to a certain extent, but are also influenced by preceding events. In order to do this I will first define “free” as the absence of physical or psychological boundaries that impede the capacity to do what we want with the choices that are available to us . Our “will” may be defined as our desired personal conduct. We have limited free will, and this is enough to hold people responsible for their actions.

The first critique of compatibilism is where to draw the line between what actions are caused and what actions were our own choice. Things that are beyond the scope of our control are evidently causal, for example our genetics or where and how we were raised. Additionally, prior events may form the foundations upon which we think. The chain of causality can go on until the beginning of time, thus the line has to be intrinsic.

Self control is necessary in order to have any form of will. As Plato states, we cannot be a “slave to our passions” . Explicitly, to have free will is to be able to control desires and impulses, and furthermore to be able to aim for a higher goal by enduring unfavourable conditions. This ability to say “no” to these “lower order preferences”  is the reason why we are morally responsible. In an interesting neurological experiment, Benjamin Libet established that the brain initiates an action before a “conscious” decision is made by a person . This suggests determinism; however, the study went on to state that people still retain the ability to override the decision the brain had already made. This implies that we have responsibility  and the ability to decide, and therefore “ownership”  for our actions. The idea that we are responsible for an action then entails that either to be responsible for this act means we have free will, or we do not need absolute free will to have responsibility. Both these reasons support compatibilism, or at least indicate indeterminism.

A determinist would argue against this reasoning by asserting that the choices we make about not doing what the brain had decided to do is also determined because of our upbringing, social constraints, and how we aspire to be viewed by others. Whilst this is true, consider the following: how does change occur? There can be many generations of people who go through life following a certain society’s codes of conduct, and those people will most likely pass on the same values to their children. But at one point there has to be someone who comes up with the idea to break out of these constraints. There may have been a cause, but the reaction to that cause for this one person must clearly be distinguished from the majority. What then, caused him to act so differently from the rest of the people? A determinist cannot merely state some physical laws – surely the surrounding people saw what he saw and were taught what he was taught. Where would a new idea originate from? There needs to have been a conscious thought making process that was separate from the chain of causation.

Contrastingly, an argument against compatibilism is that everything can be determined physically, and it is possible that even things that are considered “random” are predetermined. However, we do not currently have the ability to understand how this randomness occurs. A chief example of something that is not able to be determined by physical laws though, is quantum mechanics – in particular the electrons of an atom. An electron doesn’t choose which atom it will be situated in, or which orbital it will be placed in. If the other electron in its orbital spins one way, then it needs to spin the other way. Thus there are things that have already been determined; however, according to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal , it’s impossible to know the exact position and relative momentum of an electron at any given point, because of the force of the protons pulling them in (like a central force or idea that a person lives by) as well as the forces of other electrons pushing them out (like the effects every person has on one another). The probability of seeing an electron in a certain space at a certain time can be gauged, but it cannot be pinpointed exactly. There are also places called nodes where an electron will never be seen – another boundary or choice that the electron will never go to because of things that are predetermined. Nevertheless, the electron still has the ability to go wherever it wants within the space it has, or the choices that are offered. All the possible places the electron will go can be deduced based on approximations, and these are usually correct, but there are always exceptions to the rule. This randomness undermines the idea that since everything humans are made of is governed by predictable physical laws, our actions are also “predetermined by mechanical laws” . Even DNA seems impossible to predict – every couple has an estimated 4.5 x 10^15 possible combinations of genes that will produce a child . The probability that a particular person will be born is small to an infinitesimal degree.

Physical determinists may argue that in the future, the knowledge of quantum mechanics and electrons will increase, and people will understand the science behind determining that which is currently unknown. There is a possibility they are correct, although no one has disproved the Uncertainty Principle since the 1920s . Perhaps in the future people will be able to choose which genes they would prefer to make their children with. At this point in time however, the ability to choose genial arrangements or find out electron positions and momentum is considered impossible, and both these phenomenon are much more likely to occur due to chance and probability than any causal event.

Finally, there is the concept that at any point in time when a sane person is consciously aware of what he is doing, he can make a choice based on previous experience and reasoning. This would certainly insinuate that his choice was also something that could have been determined, however at that exact point in time, he has the capacity to choose to do either what is expected of him, or he can do the ‘unexpected’ and spontaneously act in a way that couldn’t have been predicted. Language is a notable example. The ideas presented in this essay could have been predicted, and the stance I would take on the issue could have been determined, but the phrases or syntax with which these ideas were presented would have been impossible to know beforehand . Likewise, the choices we make are innately our own decision and unknown to anyone else, although most of the time it can be predicted. These decisions are made with rationale and conscious thought. As long as he is not physically or mentally manipulated into acting the way he did at that moment in time, the action that follows his decision is now his responsibility.

In conclusion, we aren’t in complete control over our actions because there are undeniable factors that cause things to happen the way they do. Nevertheless, we still have the ability and control to choose to follow through with a decision or not, and that is free will. Free will can also be described as the ability to know what one is doing and control the actions one does, based on the choices presented. As long as we have this version of free will, we have responsibility over our actions.


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