Is Our Freedom Compatible with Determinism?


The concept of freedom and its compatibility with determinism has long been debated by philosophers. They hold opinions of compatibilism, incompatibilism and hard determinism. I believe that while a deterministic world involves the prevalence of causation, it is still possible for such a world to permit the existence of freedom. Freedom is also capable of existing in conjunction with fate although it is based on particular perspective and depends on the individual’s personal intent. Freedom has often been interpreted with the notion of free will.

Free will is the ability for a rational being to exercise his own volition and intention. It suggests the freedom of choice or the freedom for a being to be able to act otherwise if he had wanted to. The theory of motivation describes an act of free will as consisting of both belief and desire. To understand determinism we must first observe the notion of causation. Hume suggests that causation is based on a relationship between two events that imply cause and effect. The two events are necessary such that if the first had not occurred then the second would also not have occurred.

That is, event B will not have occurred if event A did not. This means that event A is required for the existence of event B and is hence responsible for a causal relationship between the two events. Determinism is the proposition that every event is regulated by laws of nature such that there is only one possible path of consequence and continuity. This concept involves causation as each event can only have one possible subsequent event that is maintained by the laws of nature. Many philosophers have demonstrated different views regarding the compatibility of free will and determinism.

Baron d’Holbach argues the opinion of a hard determinist and refuses the existence of free will while believing thoroughly in determinism. He presents the argument that all decisions or actions performed by an individual have been dictated by elements beyond his control. These include neural processes, passions or desires and properties of external objects that he finds favourable or advantageous. Hence, the ultimate outcome of his decision has already been predetermined by these elements and offers the individual only one optimal, feasible choice.

This suggests that while the world is coherently deterministic it is not compatible with, or even permits the existence of, free will. I believe this argument is unacceptable as it is not possible for us to assume that we have no free will. While there may be situations where only one choice is obviously ideal to the individual, the individual is still capable of selecting another option if he chooses to discard any personal priorities. Also, the individual must consider all options and apply rational reasoning before arriving at a conclusion.

I believe that the process of reasoning and its outcome assist in advancing the formation of an act of free will and do not prohibit it. In the case of judgement based on personal preference, it is exactly the individual’s partiality which defines his intention and act of free will. We can therefore conclude that free will does indeed exist. While incompatibilists can accept the existence of free will and the possibility of a deterministic world, they argue that it is not possible for free will to exist in conjunction with determinism.

Peter van Inwagen presents the argument that according to determinism, when the laws of nature are applied to the past, it determines a unique future. Since all events prior to our existence are beyond our control, as all events are governed by the laws of nature it hence follows that we are unable to act upon free will as our present actions has already been determined by the past. I believe that this argument is invalid as it does not consider the definition of free will which is that an individual could have acted differently if he had wanted to.

The compatibilist states that the individual is unable to act upon free will although it is possible that the individual could have acted differently if he had so desired. This does not defy the laws of nature as the action of free will performed by the individual will still have only one possible consequential event. Hence it is still possible for an individual to maintain free will despite existing in a deterministic world. We can further extend this argument and say that since it is possible to perform an action of free will in a deterministic world, free will is compatible with determinism.

In a deterministic world, all events are said to be governed by the laws of nature suggesting that all events must cause and be followed by another event. It is therefore possible for an individual to perform an action of free will provided it adheres to the aforementioned laws of nature and will induce a form of causation. It is possible that an incompatibilist will argue that it is not possible to perform an act of free will if one were to know one’s future actions or decisions. That is, if an individual were to have knowledge of the future.

Note that in a deterministic world there can only be one set of possible events so if an individual were to have foreknowledge of the future, it must be the correct and relevant one. I believe that free will is still coherent with such a scenario. The choice the individual decided upon which resulted in the future is a choice that the individual made at his own free will. Even with foreknowledge of this decision, the individual is assured to form the same reasoning, passion and intention as predicted because it is this unique personal desire that defines the decision.

This is relevant to Frankfurt’s concept of the ‘happy addict’ who is familiar with his desires and maintains a positive attitude or the ability to freely will what he wants. Hence the act the individual performs is still an act of free will as in the act he knows himself to perform because he could have chosen to do otherwise although he preferred not to. While involving foreknowledge, this scenario is not the same as the notion of fate. Fatalism suggests that the ‘fated’ outcome or event is one that will inevitably occur and must occur regardless of preceding actions or episodes.

Frankfurt explored another argument for compatibilism that does not follow the notion that free will requires an ability to do otherwise. He proposes a scenario based on the concept that the act of free will can be derived from moral responsibility. The scenario suggests that if an individual were inclined to perform action A and a second party were to somehow ensure the execution of this action, the first individual can still perform an act of free will if he were to continue performing action A.

However, if he was to try to do otherwise, the second party would execute an intervention and ensure that A is still executed by the individual, hence removing their capacity for free will. We can say that the execution of action A is fated or predetermined for the individual as there is no other possible alternative future for the existence of A. I think that while there is a capacity for free will in this scenario, it is limited.

When the individual performs the desired action by his own volition, it was an act of free will from only his perspective. He could not have done otherwise but he is not aware of this and hence believes that he is performing an act of free will. It is because of his belief that we can hold him morally responsible for his action despite our knowledge that he is incapable of other actions. If, for example, he was aware of the futility of resistance, it is probable that he would denounce any free will and defeated, perform the desired action.

It is unlikely that he can be held responsible under this circumstance as he is no longer showing either clear intention or retaining any disillusion of free will. Alternatively, the individual may be keen to execute the action while also retaining the knowledge that he has been predetermined to do so. This intent renders him responsible for his actions and can be interpreted as a desire of his free will. Therefore, while it is possible for free will to be compatible with fatalism, it depends on perspective and belief of the capacity for free will.

When we consider the example of the story of Oedipus, it was prophesised (that is, fated) that he would kill his father and conjugate with his mother. He attempted to avoid realising this prophecy by making the choice of removing himself from the immediate environment. In his travels he murdered a man for which he was crowned ruler of a kingdom and husband to a queen. However, it was only after he has fulfilled the prophecy that he discovers he has performed the preordained deeds.

Notice that while his ultimate fate was inevitable, Oedipus was capable of performing an act of free will, that is, leaving the original country. He was also capable of freely performing the prophesised deeds without realising he was doing so. It is possible to say that while he never maintained the intention of actually committing those deeds and never being free from his fate, was able to freely determine the sequence of events leading up to and including the method of execution of the fateful deeds.

Hence while it is not possible to ever be free from fate, it is possible to form actions of free will upon the journey toward the inexorable destiny and even to freely facilitate an undesirable outcome. In conclusion, I support the compatibilist view that freedom is indeed compatible with determinism. An individual is capable of performing an act of free will, an execution of his own intent, even in a deterministic world. Freedom is also compatible with fate as it is possible for an individual to execute an act of free will as he interprets it despite being unable to achieve freedom from his ultimate fate.