Brandeis University, Philosophy Department
Fall 2011
Brandeis University Web Stite

Philosophy 1A

Introduction to Philosophy

Professor Andreas Teuber
Prof. Teuber

Does Moral Responsibility
Require Free Will? (2)

Now it is true although modern scientific understanding of the world seems to presuppose a deterministic universe, it is also true that "determinism of this sort is a scientific conjecture . . . physics remains a work in progress, no one knows whether physical determinism is true and this means that we should not assume the truth (or the falsity) of determinism in our philosophy."

Suppose, however, you wake up to the headline:

Scientists Discover, Beyond Doubt,
Physical Universe is Deterministic

What would this mean? It would mean that the motion of every particle, including the particles in our brains and bodies, was determined In advance by the state of the universe a billion years ago. In particular, it would mean that it was determined a billion years ago that the particles that compose the mugger's brain and body and would do just what they did, and hence that he would do just what he did. And of course the same would be true of every human action. If a free act is an undetermined act, then in a deterministic world, human freedom is an illusion."

To some scientists and some philosophers, colors are an illusion. Might free will be an illusion too? What do you think?

Perhaps you are not happy with headline you woke up to and were "hoping for a different headline:

Scientists Discover, Beyond Doubt, Physical Universe is Indeterministic

Would this really be any better? If someone, anyone, does something by chance, would we think they have acted of their own accord, of their own free will or would their action merely appear random and arbitrary without will at all? "Just as it is hard to see how a person can be responsible for a choice that was determined by factors beyond his control, it is hard to see how he can be responsible for a choice that simply happens in him for no reason as a result of random chance.

Putting these pieces together, we face what lS sometimes called 'The Dilemma of Determinism':

  • (1) If determinism true, we are not responsible for our actions, since our choices are determined by factors over which we have no control.

  • (2) If indeterminism is true, we are not responsible for our actions, since every choice occurs by chance.

  • (3) But either determinism is true or indeterminism is true.

  • (4) Therefore, we are never morally responsible for our actions.

This is a profound problem. Common sense tells us that we are morally responsible because we are free to choose. The Dilemma tells us that we cannot be free, and that no one is ever morally responsible for what he does. The only way to vindicate common sense is to find some flaw in the Dilemma."

Do you think there is a flaw? Can you find one? Or do you think the dilemma is inescapable?


But if it's inescapable what are we to make of the fact that we all believe we have free will? If you do not have free will, why plan for the future? Why make an effort to improve your life if you cannot effect or change what happens to you?


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