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In Regards to Determinism A Problem and a Solution


There is a problem surrounding the issue of free will and determinism. The problem is if you reject hard determinism on the grounds that it is incompatible with free moral choice, then you are still stuck with explaining how responsible moral choices are made. Contemporary philosophers have advanced a number of theories that attempt to deal with this issue, and many of them in my opinion are insufficient to advocate the theory of free moral choice. In this essay I will advocate a particular theory, known as the Agent Causation Theory, which I believe to be the most effective at explaining the phenomenon of free will. First, I will explain why I find other widely accepted theories unacceptable.


The doctrine of Hard Determinism holds that every action has pre-existing causes which determine the exact outcome of an event. In fact, the entire physical world is an intricate chain of cause and effect relationships. Each cause has an effect (event), which in turn becomes a cause for another event or events in the series of chains. Let me illustrate this with an example. If a tree falls in a forest surely you would not say that the tree fell for no reason (or cause). You would conclude that for whatever reason, the tree was caused to fall. It would not make sense to reason that the tree fell without a cause. It could be from a lumberjack chopping the trunk, or it could have a weak root system and be blown over in a wind storm. In any case, it was caused to fall. Determinism holds this principal of cause and effect to everything in the physical world. This means that since your actions are a part of the physical world, and according to modern science they are initiated by your brain, which is also a part of the physical world, they are determined.


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It seems if we accept the principals of modern science, we must also accept the principal of hard determinism. All our actions are all determined. Therefore, we do not have free will. However, there are many good reasons to conclude that hard determinism is false. If hard determinism is true, it stands to reason that nobody can ever act otherwise than they do. If this is the case, then nobody deserves praise or blame for any of their actions, and therefore no one has moral responsibility. Since moral responsibility is true, determinism must be false. Another strong argument against determinism was outlined by philosopher named Peter Van Inwagen. This is known as the Deliberation Argument. Van Inwagen explains this theory by using an example of a room with two solid steel doors. Suppose that you know one of the doors is welded shut, but you don’t know which one. Now try to imagine deliberating over which door you will use to exit the room. The point is that it makes no sense to deliberate over which door to exit by if you know there is only one possible way to exit. If determinism holds true than in every situation in which you are deliberating over which choice to make, you can actually only make one choice, the one you choose. It therefore makes no sense to deliberate, since you will end up making only one choice no matter what. Van Inwagen states that “you cannot rationally deliberate unless you at least believe that more that one course of action is open to you.” In other words, you cannot rationally deliberate unless you believe you have a choice. Taking these arguments into account it seems to me that hard determinism is not a reasonable doctrine to accept.


Similar to hard determinism is the doctrine of soft determinism which is supported by the majority of contemporary philosophers. Soft determinists believe that the principal of determinism (cause and effect) is true, and yet they also believe in free will. This asserts that free will and determinism are compatible in one doctrine, hence soft determinism is also known as “compatibilism”. Where the hard determinist holds that a choice is caused by a long chain of causes stemming from before the individuals birth, the soft determinist holds that the cause of a choice is more immediate and comes from within the individual. This immediate cause comes from the individuals “inner mental states” or “volition”. In shorter terms, a free action proceeds from or is caused by the individual’s desires and beliefs. The actions of an individual are determined not by a long chain of causes, but by the more immediate source of whatever that individual’s own desires and beliefs may be.


Soft determinism purports to show how an individual can accept the principal of determinism while also holding that they have free will. While this is accepted by many, I find a fundamental problem which leads me to believe that soft determinism is in fact false. Soft determinism holds that each action or choice is caused (or determined) by the individual’s desires and beliefs. Soft determinism accepts that principal of determinism that every event in the universe is caused by a preexisting cause, which was in turn caused, and so on. It seems then that each of my desires and beliefs then, were also caused by prior causes. This means that billions of years before I was born, a sequence of events was happening that would eventually and inevitably determine exactly what my desires and beliefs would be. So, if I act on my desires and beliefs and to eat a banana, it follows that I did not really chose to eat the banana of my own free will. Because my desire to eat the banana was predetermined, it was not within my power to have acted any other way, but to eat the banana. If I can never do otherwise than what I do, my actions are not genuinely free. It seems that soft determinism runs into the same problem that hard determinism faces, and implies that an individual’s actions cannot be both free and determined.


There is another theory that attempts to explain free will without the principal of determinism. The theory is known as the “no cause” theory, and is as follows. Every free human action is traced back to an uncaused event which takes place in the brain. An uncaused event occurs in your brain, fires your neurons and causes you to act in some way. It must be emphasized that the event in the brain is uncaused. Nothing brings it about or has any determining effect on it. It can be said that the action merely happens “out of the blue”. This theory frees us of determinism, and holds that although some events have causes, not all events are caused. Since this theory does not imply determinism it is an indeterminist theory.


The “no cause” theory is lacking in much more obvious ways than the deterministic theories. The problem with the “no cause” theory lies blatantly on the face of the argument. The main premise of the theory is that some actions can occur without any cause(s). However, the argument fails to explain how this random generation of an event can occur. It merely states that it does not require a cause. Why not? How does an action occur “out of the blue”? The no cause theory fails to explain any sort of mechanism or thesis for how an uncaused action occurs. Since the theory leaves this vital information untouched, it must clearly be discarded as an invalid argument for the hypothesis of free will.


At last we come to another theory of indeterminism that attempts to explain the phenomena of free will. This theory, however, unlike the no cause theory, explains how an action can occur without being influenced by chains of cause and effect. The “agent causation” theory can be traced back to the philosophy of Aristotle, but was first systematically stated by the modern philosopher Roderick Chisholm. The agent causation theory holds that choices are not determined by the physical force of cause and effect, but are still caused. Instead of the physical chain of cause and effect, each choice is caused by a “first event” which takes place within the individual. This first event is known as event “E”. Event E was not caused or determined by any prior event. In addition, event E was not caused by nothing, it was brought about by the individual or “agent”. It should also be noted that the agent was not caused to cause event E. There were no outside causes that caused the agent to bring about E.


So far this still does not explain how event E was caused. It didn’t just happen out of the blue, and it wasn’t determined. Many agent causation theorists explain this by using the theory of the originator, which I will attempt to do in the remainder of the essay. At this point we are left without knowing the cause of event E. In other words, what originates event E? It is my belief that the originator of E is an immaterial soul which each individual possesses. According to this theory, each of us has an immaterial soul which gives us the power of free will. Since a soul is immaterial, it is not determined by the cause and effect sway of the physical world. This enables us to go outside of the pre-existing cause and effect chain and start a new chain with event E. On this view, free will is a power possessed by the soul.


The originator agent causation theory is also known as the “soul theory”, in reference to the ability of the soul to give free will. To illustrate this theory, suppose that Jim freely makes a decision and performs and action. We can conclude that the cause of Jim’s action is not the physical world, but Jim himself, for Jim is the agent performing the action. The soul theory states that in each case in which we perform a free action the “self” is the cause of the action, nothing else. This theory offers an explanation that explains how each of our choices can be free and how we are the causes of our own actions.


Once it has been determined that our actions are indeed free, and not caused by previous events, one come to accept morality and the idea of responsible moral choices. As stated earlier, if determinism is true than we cannot act otherwise, which implies that no one deserves praise of blame. There is therefore no such thing as morality and moral choices. According to the agent causation theory and the soul theory, each individual is the cause of his own actions, the actions are therefore free. If your actions are indeed free and not determined by outside forces, you can be held responsible for each or your actions. This means that praise and blame can be distributed, and morality is a valid principal or set of principals. Morality and free will being valid, it follows that we are capable of making responsible moral choices which are not determined by outside forces. We are the originators of our actions, which holds us responsible to our actions and obligates us to make responsible moral choices.


Throughout my studies I have encountered many arguments about determinism and indeterminism which have all compelled me to come to the conclusion that I have outlined in this essay. It seems that without accepting the agent causation theory one cannot make sense of morality and free moral choice. Determinism has clearly proved to be insufficient to explain moral decisions, for if determinism is accepted morality cannot follow. On the other side of the spectrum, the indeterminist doctrine of the no cause theory cannot be true, because while it eliminates determinism, it does not deal with the mechanism which originates the free choice. The only acceptable way to make sense of morality is to accept that there is some immaterial mechanism which gives us the ability to act freely. While I do accept agent causation and the soul theory, I also recognize that it is not a definitive conclusion. But, in moral philosophy there are no definitive answers, only the most logical and probable.





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