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Ambiguity Between Determinism and Free Will

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There exists an ambiguity between determinism and free will. Determinism can be defined as the predetermined future that results from the inevitable plans of a divine being or powerful natural forces. In this argument, humans are simply dominos in a chain of events, waiting to be knocked over into their respective places. If determinism is true, then there is only one possible future. Believers of determinism posit that free will is an illusion created by humans to satisfy their need of having control over their own destiny. Believers of free will define the concept as the ability to make choices that influence the future, when an alternative choice could have been made given the same pre-existing conditions.

Chisholm’s attempt to clarify this ambiguity revolves around the phenomena of Event Causation, in which future events are caused by prior events or states (Lecture 20, Slide 10). The concept of free will does not apply to this situation since the culmination of prior events only results in one possible future. In this scenario, humans may be under the impression that their personal choices resulted in future events, when in fact, the explicit sequence of events made any alternative choices unfeasible. Divine or natural forces took human deliberation into consideration in order to predetermine the future. Alternatively, Chisholm also believed in the existence of free choice or Agent Causation (Lecture 20, Slide 11), where the human implicitly causes the choice. There is a fine distinction between being the cause of the choice and being involved in an event that causes the choice. The difficulty arises in differentiating these two circumstances.

If a choice is caused by you, you will likely take responsibility for the repercussions of the decision, whereas an event that involves you which causes similar repercussions will fail to impact you in the same way. Suppose that you eat a banana for lunch. Right when you finish eating, you are distracted by a phone call that informs you about a family emergency. You aim for the trash can when you throw away the banana peel, but in your haste, you miss the trash can, and the banana peel lands an inch away from the trash can. Suddenly, a small child walks up to the trash can, trips on the banana peel, and falls, injuring himself. You feel terrible about this occurrence, but in the back of your mind, you realize that it was simply an unfortunate accident. On the other hand, suppose that you regularly babysit this bratty child and you wanted to teach him a lesson. You purposely plant the banana peel because you knew that the child would walk up to the trash can after you told him not to. You expected the child to trip and fall, but you did not expect him to injure himself. You would have a different reaction to this mishap. Your choice to cause harm to the bratty child makes you responsible for his injuries, even if you did not intend for his injuries to be so extensive.

According to Chisholm, this distinction allows us to evade the mind argument (Lecture 20, Slide 12). Although the mind argument does not support the concept of a predetermined future, it posits that we do not possess the ability to freely make decisions that affect our future. Humans do not fully control their choices, since decisions are often influenced by outside factors, ranging from the flip of a coin to rational advice. Given the nature of the human decision-making process, choices made by individuals do not reflect the concept of free will.

According to Chisholm, one can be certain that there exists a form of indeterminism that is fully consistent with free will and moral responsibility (Lecture 20, Slide 11). The problem with this viewpoint is that there is no apparent difference between the brain activity of the individual who makes the choice and the individual who accepts the sequence of events. However, there will be a difference in the mentality of these two individuals in the future.

Someone who feels like they are in control of their destiny will act differently from someone who believes that their future depends on the whim of a natural or divine force. For example, a person who believes in free will may view their promotion at work as a reward for their choice to work diligently, and they may choose to continue their dedication to work to increase the chance of another promotion in the future. Whereas someone who believes that their future is predetermined will probably remain apathetic following their promotion. They do not feel the pressure to devote their time and effort to attaining a future promotion, since the subsequent events have already been determined. In this scenario, the individual may calmly wait for the future to come because they feel like they cannot change the predetermined events. Therefore, personality and stress levels will be very different between these two individuals. Someone who believes that they cannot manipulate their future will blame their failures and attribute their successes to forces outside their realm of control, but someone who believes in free will may take failures and successes more personally. In other words, they will feel morally responsible for their choices.

Although certain individuals believe in a divine force that predetermines everything, believers of free will can also invoke religion to support their claim. In the book of Genesis, it was not predetermined that Adam would eat the forbidden fruit and become banished from the Garden of Eden. God provided Adam with a conscience and the gift of free will to do as he wished, and Adam’s erroneous choice resulted in this travesty. One may argue that Adam was influenced by Eve, who was also influenced by the devil in the form of the evil snake. However, Eve chose to listen to the snake and furthermore, Adam chose to listen to Eve, which demonstrates his exercise of free will.

Furthermore, the presence of guilt and the question of morality characterizes the concept of free will. One will feel morally responsible for their erroneous decisions if they believe in free will. For instance, an intoxicated driver who believes in free will probably feels responsible if they hit and kill someone. They believe that their decision to maneuver a vehicle after being intoxicated makes them guilty. However, if someone believes in predeterminism, they will console their conscience with the fact that the individual died according to divine plans. These divine plans are unalterable, and therefore the intoxicated driver could not have prevented the sequence of events. In this case, it is believed that the intoxicated driver was simply involved in the event, but that he did not cause the event.

Believers of predeterminism would invoke the concept of event causation, which posits that the state of being drunk combined with the consecutive event of maneuvering a vehicle caused the intoxicated individual to kill someone, but the intoxicated person never had the free will to decide his fate. Subsequently, the person who believes in free will may suffer from guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder. These emotions will manifest as changes in brain activity that differentiate this individual from someone who believes in predeterminism. Physically, the additional stress induced by believing in free will may result in symptoms including hypertension, sweating, and heart palpitations. On the contrary, someone who believes in predeterminism may have fewer qualms. They will accept the predetermined events, and physically, they will remain unchanged following the accident. They will remain at ease with themselves, as if the tragedy never occurred.

Although differences between the two individuals may not be immediately apparent, the mental psyche of these individuals will diverge over time. The difference in mental states will manifest as physiological symptoms later on. However, Chisholm only considers the short-term consequences for these two individuals and forms short-sighted conclusions from these incomplete observations.

Given Chisholm’s conclusions, he opts to avoid the discussion of the differences between the believers of free will and the believers of predeterminism. He simply chooses to describe agent causation as a basic reality (Lecture 20, Slide 14). He posits that there is no explanation for agent causation; it simply exists (Lecture 20, Slide 14). A shortcoming of this belief lies in the fact that agent causation only occurs in rational, conscious beings. It does not seem to occur in nature. However, humans are not metaphysically special, so the laws that govern the natural world should apply to us as well.

Although most of Chisholm’s claim is accurate, another major weakness of his argument stems from his statement that the situation in which the person controls the event by making choices of their own accord and the situation in which the person simply chooses to go along with the predetermined sequence of events are exactly identical. The metaphysical states may be identical at a specific time slice, but if the long-term repercussions are examined, the differences will become apparent. To maintain its validity, the condition that everything is only metaphysically consistent in the short-term should be added to Chisholm’s argument.

According to Chisholm, an agent is characterized by its ability to start new causal chains which have not been determined by prior events (Lecture 20, Slide 11). For instance, the human genome contains genetic code that predetermines human traits. However, if a virus attacks and alters a portion of the human genome, it may cause major diseases including cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. First the virus alters a single codon on a strand of RNA. Since RNA helps in the transcription process of DNA, a change in RNA equates to a change in DNA as well. DNA codes for amino acids, which makes proteins and enzymes. Together, protein and enzymes control the function of the human body. In this scenario, the virus is an agent that starts a new causal chain. Coming from outside the body, the virus’s existence and invasion of the human body is not determined by prior events regulated by the genetic code. However, viruses are not living creatures that act as conscious, rational agents. A virus’s main preoccupation is its replication. It contains DNA which allows it to replicate and be responsible for its behavior.

Another important distinction is that Chisholm believes that choices are influenced by extrinsic factors, which makes the concept of free will questionable. According to Chisholm, there is a chain of events that is supposedly predetermined (Lecture 20, Slide 18). If we follow this chain backwards, we occasionally hit an occurrence in the brain that is caused by a thing rather than an event (Lecture 20, Slide 18). In order to say that we act freely, this “thing” must somehow stem from our brain. For instance, a reflex reaction resulting from an impulse from the spinal cord or an impulsive action in which the individual is overpowered by strong emotions is different a premeditated decision. However, Chisholm states that the difference is brute and unanalyzable (Lecture 20, Slide 19). This statement is only half true; There is definitely a brute difference, but there are ways to analyze it.

Factors such as time can be used to distinguish impulsive reactions from premeditated decisions. Even the quickest decision-makers need some time to exercise their free will, whereas decisions influenced by emotion or advice will often be made swiftly. Free choices are characterized by the detailed processes that finally culminate in a decision. In order for the choice to come from you, the decision must be caused by your values, beliefs, and desires. These choices are made with regards to the possible consequences, and this decision-making process involves attempts to predict future sequences of events that result from the current choices. However, not all choices require long periods of deliberation.

In order to address this alternative view, one must first define the detailed deliberation that results in decisions regulated by free will. The detailed deliberation must include “causal processes”, which incorporates the knowledge, evidence, and conscience that one develops through living and experiencing. In essence, causal processes are unique for each individual because everyone possesses different perspectives and learns different lessons from their daily experiences. Genetically speaking, each person possesses certain personality traits that influence their sense of self and governs their decisions.

One may choose not to deliberate certain decisions because they are impartial to the outcome. This situation may support the claims of those who believe in predeterminism. However, if one decides that the result of their decision is trivial, the individual must actively choose to surrender their free will in favor of a more deterministic approach. However, the fact that the individual chooses not to make a decision is still a conscious choice. Therefore, choosing not to choose is an exercise of free will. This alternative viewpoint leads back to Chisholm’s idea that free choice is a basic element of our daily lives, regardless of whether or not we are fully conscious of the choices that we make or fail to make.

Regardless, it does not make sense that all elements of our lives are predetermined and that our futures are inevitable. In other words, it does not seem possible that there is only one probable outcome given the numerous possibilities. Even if a majority of the decisions that result in these outcomes are very impractical and improbable, there is still some probability that someone will make these unlikely decisions. Even if one has made the decision before, they may make a different decision if a similar situation occurred. Based on logic and mathematics, the concept of predeterminism is continually weakened.

The various possibilities for the future can be formatted as a flowchart, in which there are different outcomes for each decision. Each decision contains a series of choices, and each choice leads towards a different path. Several paths may lead to the same outcome and conversely, similar paths, with minor differences in choice along the path, may lead to diverse outcomes. Given that each choice has some probability of being freely chosen, it is accurate to say that none of the choices will have absolutely zero percent chance of occurring, even if the chance of being freely chosen is infinitely small.

Additionally life is composed of numerous choices, and even if one decides to follow a set routine, day after day, it is impossible to guarantee that the encounters and experiences of each day will mirror those of the previous day. Even slight changes such as waking up late because the alarm clock failed to promptly alert someone in the morning causes one to make alternative choices. However, it does not limit one to an inevitable future. A delayed alarm does not definitely mean that you are doomed to be late to all your classes and appointments that day. For instance, one can choose to forgo breakfast in order to arrive at their first class on time, or one can choose to forgo their first class in order to maintain their daily morning routine. One’s decision will depend on whether they place a higher priority on academics or self-care on that particular day, but there is never one single, mandatory decision that one must make. Therefore, this makes the concept of free will more intuitive than predeterminism.

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Ambiguity Between Determinism and Free Will. (2018, July 31). GradesFixer. Retrieved September 23, 2022, from
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