Posted by Rob Mazak (Staff Author) Posted on 22 May 2020

The Problem of Free Will and Determinism

Free will and determinism are competing ideas and beliefs without any solid resolution, and there are many varied definitions and explanations for both of these beliefs. Not only is there a quandary between the polar opposite theories, there is also a quandary between how to define them. Regardless of how we express these terms and how we present them, we have to decide what we believe. I will argue that no matter what you call free will, it encompasses everything we do in our lives. Even if we decide not to decide, a choice has still been made, and it would be very difficult to separate free will from any definition or theory.

Free will is called by many names, such as, choices, decisions, options, freedom, inclination, and intention. The basic way to define free will is the ability to choose between one or more possible actions. The dictionary defines free will in many ways, however, the basic definition states it as the ability to choose, think, and act voluntarily. Free will, by this definition, would imply that our choices are our own and we can also choose to act on them or simply think about these choices. There are other definitions that bring in the exclusion that free will is only our own voluntary decision if they were not decided by past events or divine intervention.   Divine intervention would imply different beliefs, such as theological determinism that states everything is predetermined by a divine being. Past events would be inherent in the definition of determinism, that in simple terms, states that everything is preplanned and there is nothing that free will is unnecessary or impossible. Let’s look briefly at some different types of belief and their descriptions.

Determinism is the major competitor for the idea of free will. A determinist believes that everything that we do, everything that happens to us, every thought that we have, is all determined in advance. A determinist further believes that this pre-planning incorporates the past, the present and the future and that if anything at all were changed, it would affect every part of the past, present and future. This group would say then, that no free will is necessary nor that we have any free will at all. That even though we believe we are making a decision or a choice, we are only making this decision because this is a decision that was already planned ahead of time. In essence then, determinism only incorporates the illusion that we have free will, however, these decisions have no effect on the outcome that was predetermined already. Determinism aligns closely with the belief in God, where our life is mapped out in every detail, however, we have free will under God. The belief in God, is inherent with the judgement of our actions, or in other words, how we make our choices within the boundaries set by God.

Now we find that we are in another quandary, if determinism is very similar to the belief in God, then where does moral responsibility fit into the equation? For the teachings of God, in all forms, place salvation within the bounds of moral responsibility. So how can a person be held to the standards of moral responsibility when all things are determined ahead of time? What would be the purpose of our time on earth if we did not have choices that effect our outcome? How can we possibly stand in judgement for things that could never be under our control as it is generally described in determinism? There are those that do not believe in a God, or a supreme being, who are called Atheists. Even an Atheist would believe in the moral responsibility of his fellow humans, after all, we all live under the law of the land in order to maintain civility. It would be hard to imagine that there is anyone on this planet that would agree that we should not have any moral responsibility. If we are to have moral responsibility, we must have free will to be able to be judged for our actions. If our whole life is planned ahead of time, there would be no point to the governance of the people and the laws that we live under. There would be no purpose here on this earth if everyone is going to do what they do regardless of how we think or act,

There are also many other ways of looking at determinism and there are just as many different definitions and beliefs. Biological determinism is a belief that genetics has a major role in our actions and choices. Behavioral determinism is based on how our environment effects our actions and choices. Cultural determinism is demonstrated by the way we were raised or by the effects of our “culture”. Casual determinism means that everything is based on our past and that there is nothing we can do about our future. Theological determinism aligns with the belief of a creator and that our lives are predetermined. Others include casual determinism, destiny and fate, omniscience and predeterminism. I am certain that this list can easily continue for some time, as there are many varied facets of determinism.

As you can see from the sample list of determinism definitions and beliefs, that even a determinist has to decide what to believe and they must also make a choice. How can a determinist make a choice in what to believe if he does not have the free will to do so? We are all human beings with the ability to act and to choose between multiple different outcomes. One might argue that if someone is restrained with no apparent ability to move, that they no longer have free will. I would argue that even a restrained person has the free will to make a decision to move, even without the physical ability to do so. In this situation, when a choice is made, the nervous system still reacts to this decision and “acts” by sending electrical signals along nerves. This action sounds very much like our definition of free will, the ability to choose, think and act. An action resulted from a thought and a choice, thereby enacting free will. Free will is inherent in every aspect of our lives and is virtually impossible to separate from our existence.

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