Determinism is the philosophical theory that holds that all actions are pre-determined in advance of them being carried out, irrespective of the agent’s intent. It is normally seen as a direct refutation of free will. In other words, determinism and free will are seen as two contrasting states on opposite ends of the spectrum. How true is this statement though? Are the two theories necessarily inconsistent and is there any way to reconcile them?
This post will examine two philosophers who answer this question in different ways. Arthur Schopenhauer agrees that free will cannot exist due to the fact that all human actions are governed by rules of cause-and-effect (‘necessity’). However, Peter Strawson contends that a certain element of free will (one that he calls reactive attitudes and moral attitudes) will still exist regardless of whether determinism is true or not.
Starting with Schopenhauer and his prize-winning essay on freedom of the will, we need to determine exactly what is meant by ‘freedom’ of the will. Schopenhauer notes that most people view freedom in a negative way, in that actions should not be impeded or obstructed by some person or object. In other words, an animal is free if it has unfettered ability to roam. However, Schopenhauer notes that this definition is too restrictive. For true philosophical freedom we need to have both physical freedom and freedom of the will.
To prove freedom of the will, we need to show that the will itself was caused by its own willing. Well aware that this would create an infinite regress if taken to its logical extremes, Schopenhauer clarifies that we need only consider the first ‘willing’ in the chain. On what grounds did the willing occur? This is the point at which Schopenhauer introduces determinism into the picture. He believes that all events in the universe occur out of necessity, based on natural rules of cause-and-effect.
Therefore, to prove that the mind is free, we have to show that it was free from necessity, free from any grounds at all. The only way this is possible is that the mind was under absolutely no influences at all, which is of course an impossible state for a human being to be in. We cannot spend our lives in a vacuum, free from outside influence entirely. Therefore, our will is always subject to ‘grounds’, which means it can never be free. Schopenhauer therefore concludes that free will cannot exist. Furthermore, it is no use asking a person whether they have free will either. Even if they answer ‘yes’, they will never really know the true cause of their will, growing increasingly hesitant if you try to probe them on the subject.
From the view of Schopenhauer, we next turn to Peter Strawson. In his essay, Strawson takes a different approach in that he wants to find a basis of free will that does not rely on the truth or falsity of determinism. Strawson confesses that he doesn’t actually know what determinism really is, and has no interest in proving or rejecting the theory. Rather he wants to concentrate on any element of free will that he is confident can be true, irrespective of whether you believe in determinism or not. In Strawson’s own words, he wants to reconcile the positions of the ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’. Both these groups believe in determinism, but only the optimists hold that we can still be morally accountable for our actions. The pessimists insist that because of determinism, we cannot be blamed for anything we do.
The foundation of Strawson’s theory is based around the notion of ‘reactive attitudes’. These are the general attitudes we display towards other people in our day-to-day interactions. We can be angry with a co-worker for taking the credit for a piece of work, or we can feel pride that one of our children told the truth in a difficult situation. When we feel upset towards another person, we can often temper our attitudes based on the circumstances. For instance, if we accept that the event occurred by accident – the agent lacked the intent to cause the outcome that did occur – we will see the event in a new light and subsequently downplay the role of the agent.
However, in some cases, our reactive attitudes will change the way we see the agent. This occurs in the case of moral incapacity, such as when the agent is a child or is suffering from some form of permanent mental illness. We have good cause to see the agent in a new light and take the ‘objective attitude’ as Strawson calls it. This takes us away from normal relationships and causes us to view the person in an objective way, free from responsibility.
According to Strawson, there is no reason why we can’t use the objective attitude in other situations. In fact, if determinism really were true, it would be logically correct to take the objective attitude in all cases. However, this never occurs in practice, and Strawson believes this is because of the strength of the ‘relationship attitude’. Our social bonds with other people are too strong, and we would be acting against our nature if we avoided all relationships entirely and saw every other person in an objective way.
Since this will never occur, this proves that we will continue to pursue relationships regardless of whether we believe determinism is true or not. Strawson therefore believes he has made his case. A certain element of free will – the way in which we create relationships and have reactive attitudes towards others – will continue to thrive regardless of whether we live in a deterministic universe. Humans are too strongly bound to the relationship attitude.
Out of the two philosophers, I believe that Strawson offers the more plausible explanation of free will. His theory does not depend on the truth or falsity of determinism, so this only strengthens his position. Schopenhauer on the other hand, depends on us believing his assertion that all events are governed by necessity and it is not possible for minds to be free from grounds. If we were to find one thing that isn’t governed by necessity, then Schopenhauer’s theory would break apart. However, if we do happen to live in a deterministic universe, then Schopenhauer would be entirely correct in his views on free will.