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Determinism and “Free Will” by Derk Pereboom

Determinism is a well-established school of thought, arguing that all actions performed are entirely determined (hence the name) by psychological, biological, or other causes. Thus, all actions are entirely rational and could be explained. Sometimes it also precludes free will, since if all human actions are determined by their experience and biology, then that person could not make another choice.

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Derk Pereboom is a proponent of this philosophy, and he created the term ‘hard incompatibilism,’ arguing that determinism and indeterminism are utterly incompatible with a concept of free will and moral responsibility. As such, his book “Free Will” had been chosen as a reading for this assignment in order to argue that not all human actions are predetermined.

In order to do that, however, we will need to ascertain what arguments Pereboom uses in his work, define terms that will be used in this paper, and formulate the reasons for the position of this assignment. Psychological determinism is divided into two forms by Bader: orectic and rational. Orectic determinism claims that humans act in order to satisfy their strongest desire; as such, it is also called “hedonistic determinism.” Rational determinism ascertains that people make decisions based on their most active or best reason. As determinism was already explained, next will be the definition of ‘free will.’

A person can choose between various actions in any given situation unimpeded. Followers of determinism ascribe to the opinion that since every action is determined by inner and outer influences, there could be no free will. School of libertarianism, in turn, holds an opinion that agents of actions (namely, humans) have free will, and as free will is incompatible with a deterministic universe, determinism is false. Another term that is linked with the concept of free will is that of responsibility, or, as philosophy names it, ‘moral responsibility.’ In this context, moral responsibility means that any individual deserves praise, reward, punishment, or blame for an act that was performed by one’s morals.

In “Free Will,” Pereboom argues that if human actions are causally determined by factors beyond their control or by chance events, then people cannot have free will. Thus, if an individual could not alter their actions, that means that they could not be held responsible for them, removing from them any moral responsibility, be it positive or negative. In the case of unpredictable actions, he addresses them as a random element, computing error in the environment and physiology of an individual. However, there are arguments against this point of view.

The first one is that while there are causes of human actions that define the way that they act, there is still a matter of reasoning. As people become self-aware, be it consciously or subconsciously, they begin to assign priorities to their actions. That fact of assigning the priorities to the actions and structuring their execution in order suggests the possibility of a choice, thus acting in opposition to the deterministic school of thought. Moreover, those priorities could be shifted by an impulsive or unpredictable action by an individual, meaning that those priorities are not predetermined and not unchangeable, even in routine decisions.

While it is not directly tied to the question at hand, it shows that, unlike what Pereboom writes, human actions could be changed even without a cause for that to happen. That means that the causality of previous events, be they psychological or biological, is not the only decisive factor in human behavior and actions. Random and odd acts are proof that reason is not the only thing that ascertains possible behavior. In addition to that, the fact that people can control their impulses and desires proves that orectic determinism also cannot explain uncharacteristic and impulsive actions.

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The second argument is about the degrees of free will and neuroscience. Pereboom argues that free will either exists or not. However, many scientists and philosophers studying this are have suggested that it is more likely that free will has degrees. It is shown in the experiments conducted in the 1980s by Libet. These experiments have shown that subconscious parts of the brain make a decision before the individual makes a conscious choice.

It is a typical experiment that supports that free will is an illusion. Researchers asked subjects to voluntarily press a button and mark the time when they have made that decision. During that, their brain activity is monitored, especially pars that control the movement. That observation provides a conclusion that the brain activity of the individuals activates before they say that they intended to push the button. While all of that happens in the time period of milliseconds, some researchers, such as Harris and Pereboom, have interpreted those results as proof that it is a subconscious mind that makes the decision.

The conscious mind, in turn, only realizes and executes it. Still, Al Mele argues that that data has an equally plausible, if not better, explanation. While the readiness potential that Libet claims is the result of our subconscious preparing the conscious for action is indeed registered by fMRI, it doesn’t prove that that is an indication of intent. Mele argues that Libet has no reason to claim it so, as there is no way to prove that readiness potential is not just “an urge” to commit action and not a decision to do so.

It should also be stated that since the beginning of researches in that area, no neuroscientific experiment has been able to predict with more than roughly 60% of success whether an action will be performed or not. As such, no neuroscientific study, at least none that has been conducted thus far, has proven that this concept is gone.

The third argument is based on refuting by action. As it stands, the only possible and reliable way to learn what a person believes is to observe whether they act in accordance with their proclaimed beliefs or not. It quite often happens that people proclaim their beliefs, and their actions do not support or even refute their words. Based on this, it is possible to suggest that the fact of deliberation of an action in itself supports the belief in free will, whether the individual in question supports it or not. It is so because it is impossible to deliberate on the course of action without the conviction that the choice is available in the first place. For example, a person is deliberating about what to work on after they have finished their assignment.

Whether they should work on an essay for a college course that is due at the end of this week or should they listen to the newest music album that they bought yesterday. The action of prioritizing and selection of activity manifests that they believe in the possibility of an unhindered choice in the matter. In other words, they hold a conviction that they are free to pick an option, and the same holds true for every deliberation upon a course of action.

There is simply no other way to deliberate. Even the people, who honestly support the philosophy of determinism, always act otherwise the deliberate, simply because they must act so in order to choose anything. Charles Pierce, an American philosopher and a proponent of libertarianism, argued that a belief that cannot be consistently acted on could not be true, and if he’s right about this, then determinism must be false.

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The possible counterargument against this would be that we can be conscious only of what we do and not of our possibilities to do anything else. The rebuttal for this argument would be that we can be conscious of both what we do and of how we do it. Thus, we are conscious both about the act and its mode. As it stands, we are subjects of different kinds of thought and volition. Not every conscious activity is rational; sometimes, it is a product of an impulsive desire.

At other times, those desires can be suppressed, as the individual applies personal causality, refraining from acting on the impulse. In that context, our consciousness asserts that people are acting freely and can change the strength and urgency of various motives, assigning different priorities to them. In that sense, individuals act of their own volition, knowing that this is not always the case. Modern data and empirical evidence show that human actions are often affected by motives. However, while that is true, it also shows that despite this, their actions are not predetermined by the strongest or the most rational one. This proves that this counterargument is not entirely valid.

In the end, it should be said that while the topic of determinism is mostly philosophical, in modern times, science provides more and more insight into the working of the human mind. So far, no scientific evidence of predetermination has been found; as such, nothing can be ascertained. Still, provided arguments and rebuttal to the counterargument should be enough to prove at least that there are contradictions between determinism, its postulates, and known facts.

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