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Libertarianism vs. Determinism vs. Compatibilism

This lesson is a part of an audio course Free Will by Lottie Pike

Hello, and welcome back to the course 'Free Will' on Listenable. Today, we're going to be learning all about the different approaches to the free will question by looking at the 3 main approaches within the debate: libertarianism, determinism, and compatibilism. As mentioned in the previous lesson, libertarians assert that we do have free will, whereas determinists deny that we have free will…and compatibilism sort of falls between the two. Now that we've got the basics down, let's dive a bit deeper, starting with libertarianism.

Libertarianism holds that humans make choices freely, as independent, autonomous beings, unaffected by external forces. Some people, when they hear this, find themselves a bit puzzled: they feel free – we all feel free – but concerns arise when it is asserted that we must then be completely unaffected by external forces. This latter notion seems unlikely, no? After all, most would concede that we are at least a little affected by our environment: that is, our surroundings, the people around us, the country we live in. Do you behave differently around different people? In different places? Most significant, though, in the context of this debate, is the libertarian argument that prior causes do not affect our current actions. Essentially, they reject the 'Principle of Causation' in the context of human behaviour. So, what does that mean? Well, the principle of causation is the widely applied scientific notion that for every event, there must be a cause. This seems to be the case throughout nature – a plant grows if it is watered, a tree falls over because of the strong wind. The only thing it doesn't apply to, according to libertarianism, is human action. Which may seem unlikely…or not – it's up to you to decide!

Sam Harris, in his book entitled 'Free Will' mentioned in the previous lesson, writes that 'libertarians…imagine that human agency must magically rise above the plane of physical causation.' He also points out that libertarians sometimes 'invoke a metaphysical entity, such as a soul, as the vehicle for our freely acting wills.' However, he also writes that 'the only philosophically respectable way to endorse free will is to be a compatibilist,' so it would be fair to say that his account may be biased. However, having been working in philosophy since graduating from Harvard in 2000 with a B.A. degree, we might say that he has a good reason for denouncing libertarianism. We can assume he knows what he's talking about.

Next, we're going to look at determinism – essentially the opposite of libertarianism. The literature and resources on this are much more expansive, given that the broad assumption is that we have free will – determinists, therefore, have to work a little harder. Whereas libertarians believe that we are completely independent of external forces when acting, determinists argue that we are, in fact completely, well, determined by them. Whether these forces are our environment, those around us, or unconscious neural activity in the brain – the determinists believe they have all the power. Though the definition of 'free will' itself can sometimes be a bit ambiguous, it is worth pointing out that the most simple and effective in relation to the arguments at hand, is 'the ability to have acted differently.' Determinists argue that, given the environment – both physically and mentally – at any one given time was how it was, you could never have acted differently than you did. Similarly, if you were put into the body and mind of another person (though this is a rather questionable thought experiment in itself), and if you were experiencing identical conditions to them at that very moment, you would have acted the exact same as they did. This can be a little tricky to get your head around. But essentially, the argument is this: though you feel free, you are unconsciously determined by various prior and current causes, and so you can never act differently to how you act in any given moment. It is neither logically nor physically possible. However, admittedly, this view – though it may be the most scientifically sound – produces the most issues. What about morality? What about punishment? These are important things to address, but for now, we're going to leave them for another episode. Lastly, let's take a look at compatibilism.

As I mentioned in the previous episode, compatibilism kind of falls between libertarianism and determinism. It argues that free will and a deterministic universe are compatible (hence the name compatibilism). The main reason behind the formulation of this approach was to attempt to reconcile scientific evidence – causality – and the retention of moral responsibility. At a first glance, this seems great. As Hannah Montana would say – it's got the best of both worlds. But alas, it is still rejected by many philosophers. Let's try to find out why.

Harris explains that 'compatibilists generally claim that a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions.' If I want to watch a movie, and no one is forcing me to, I can demonstrate my free will by watching a movie. So far, this seems sound. However, as will be expanded on at length in the next episode, the philosophical intricacies of the concept of 'desire' would perhaps suggests that I, when I watch this movie, am not free at all. I am a slave to my desires.

Thank you for listening. I hope you found this episode interesting – next time, we're going to be exploring the notion of desire and its impact on this debate. Bye for now!

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Lottie Pike