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Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism

Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism

Professor Shaun Nichols Ph.D.
University of Arizona

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Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism

Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism

Professor Shaun Nichols Ph.D.
University of Arizona
Course No.  4235
Course No.  4235
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  31 minutes per lecture

Do you make your own choices or have circumstances beyond your control already decided your destiny? For thousands of years, this very question has intrigued and perplexed philosophers, scientists, and everyone who thinks deliberately about how they choose to live and act. The answer to this age-old riddle is universally relevant to our lives. The implications of our views on it can affect everything from small choices we make every day to our perspective on criminal justice and capital punishment. From the Stoics to Boethius, from Kant to Hume, from Sartre to contemporary philosophers, great minds have puzzled over this debate for centuries.

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Do you make your own choices or have circumstances beyond your control already decided your destiny? For thousands of years, this very question has intrigued and perplexed philosophers, scientists, and everyone who thinks deliberately about how they choose to live and act. The answer to this age-old riddle is universally relevant to our lives. The implications of our views on it can affect everything from small choices we make every day to our perspective on criminal justice and capital punishment. From the Stoics to Boethius, from Kant to Hume, from Sartre to contemporary philosophers, great minds have puzzled over this debate for centuries.

Now you can learn the intriguing details of this fundamental philosophical question with Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism, 24 fascinating lectures by Shaun Nichols, award-winning Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science at the University of Arizona.

What Is Free Will?

Professor Nichols begins his course with a discussion of the concept of free will. You discover the three kinds of questions that philosophers ask in their exploration of free will:

  • Descriptive questions: What is free will? What is required for us to be morally responsible?
  • Substantive questions: Do we have free will? Are we morally responsible?
  • Prescriptive questions: How do we change our actions in response to our knowledge of free will?

By explaining the fundamental approaches to this familiar debate, Professor Nichols thoroughly prepares you for an in-depth study of the complexities of free will and determinism. You discover what great thinkers through the ages believe about the choices we make and understand how we might deal with their implications.

From Plato to the Present

Professor Nichols then takes you on an investigation into the origins of the question itself. As with so many central philosophical issues in Western thought, the idea of free will and determinism began with the Greeks. In fact, the Greek philosopher Leucippus made the earliest-known statement of the view of determinism, proclaiming, "Nothing happens at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity." Professor Nichols begins with a broad overview of the history of philosophical thought and exploration as it pertains to the question of free will and determinism.

Professor Nichols illustrates how the concept of fate was defined and treated by these groups:

  • Greeks: In Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex, fate decrees that Oedipus is destined to kill his father and marry his mother. Although his parents leave him to die and Oedipus spends his life trying to escape his fate, in the end he does exactly as the Oracle predicted at his birth. The Greeks believed that, for the most important things in life, a particular fate awaits you.
  • Medieval theologians: St. Augustine, one of Christianity's most important thinkers, upheld that God knows absolutely everything, including every action we take, every decision we make. Nonetheless, Augustine maintained, our choices are still free—God doesn't force us into our decisions. The idea of salvation through God's grace alone was elaborated on more than 1,000 years later by the Protestant theologian John Calvin.
  • Calvinists: Calvin promoted the doctrine of predestination, which he defined as "the eternal decree of God, by which He determined with Himself whatever He wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation."
  • Contemporary philosophers: Saul Smilansky, for example, believes that we do not have free will but that we must keep it a secret from the masses. If all people knew their behavior was determined, they would stop behaving morally, he believes.

Are We Morally Responsible for Our Actions?

The question of free will has overwhelming implications for our sense of moral responsibility. If free will makes us accountable for our choices, does the opposite hold true, that determinism absolves us of responsibility?

German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that our moral responsibility stems entirely from our ability to do the right thing—to do our moral duty. Kant's theory implies that if we can make the choice to do the right thing, we must have free will.

If we do not have free will, and our behavior is determined according to what came before—our environment, our genetics, our parents' behavior—what does that mean for our society's ideas of crime and punishment? Should we be held responsible for actions that were inevitable? How do we treat individuals who commit crimes if we believe their backgrounds led them to the crimes?

The debate continues as we gain increasing access to scientific evidence of brain activity related to moral choices. Professor Nichols's discussion of the relationship between the actions and brain activity of criminals is particularly fascinating, which leads us into the examination of whether certain types of criminals, such as psychopaths, are morally responsible for their actions.

Modern Experiments in Philosophy

When we think of philosophy, what usually comes to mind are classical Greek philosophers, ancient mystics, or Enlightenment thinkers from Europe. Professor Nichols, himself a philosopher, introduces us to his peers at universities across the United States who are exploring free will in new ways.

Advances in science and technology enable us to discover actual empirical evidence about what happens in our brains when we make certain kinds of decisions, shedding light on the relationship between what we think of as free will and what's really happening to our physical being.

One view in social psychology says we are unaware of many of the internal causes of our own behavior. On this view, much of what happens in the mind when we make decisions is hidden from us. You will enjoy exploring several experiments that support this view and question our notion of free will.

  • In one study, participants were asked to solve word puzzles that included words such as Florida, wrinkled, and gray—words commonly associated with elderly people. When these participants went to leave the building, they walked toward the elevator more slowly than others whose puzzles included neutral words.
  • In another experiment, a group was asked to imagine characteristics of a professor while another group was asked to think about soccer hooligans. Afterward, both groups were asked Trivial Pursuit questions; those who had envisioned a professor did much better than those who'd been thinking about thugs.
  • Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet explored the relationship between brain activity and decision making. He measured subjects' brain activity using an EEG and their muscular activity using an EMG. He asked them to perform certain small actions, like flexing a finger, and asked them exactly when they decided to perform the action. He discovered that their brains registered activity before they said they had decided to perform the action.

While these experiments are open to interpretation, they seem to suggest we are rather susceptible to unconscious stimuli. Are the decisions we make truly free or subtly influenced by factors we don't even recognize?

Join a Centuries-Old Discussion

Professor Nichols's thorough research and in-depth looks at each side of every argument make Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism a provocative and balanced exploration of this centuries-old discussion. In 2005, he received the Stanton Award, given annually to an innovative scholar working in philosophy and psychology. Professor Nichols, whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, also heads a research group at the University of Arizona investigating the psychological factors that influence our thinking about philosophy.

Mining the rich history of philosophy for possible answers, Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism ultimately invites you to come to your own conclusions about whether or not we control our lives.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Free Will and Determinism—The Basic Debate
    Explore with Professor Nichols the evolution of ideas about free will and determinism, one of the core questions in the history of philosophy. You learn three different ways to examine this age-old conundrum. x
  • 2
    Fate and Karma
    Do we determine what happens next, or is it fate? What did the ancient Greeks believe about what controls our lives, and how does that differ from the Hindu concept of karma? x
  • 3
    Divine Predestination and Foreknowledge
    For many theologians, the question of free will is complicated by the idea that God is all-knowing. Understand why John Calvin espoused the idea that God has already determined the course of our lives, including whether we are predestined to go to heaven or hell when we die. x
  • 4
    Causal Determinism
    Causal determinism posits that "events are inevitable because of what happened before." In this lecture, Professor Nichols describes branches of causal determinism such as the Stoics, who believed that there was rational justification for every event. x
  • 5
    Ancient and Medieval Indeterminism
    Doesn't the fact that we think about what we want to do before we make a choice indicate that we have free will? That was the belief of indeterminists, such as Aristotle's follower Alexander of Aphrodisias, who maintained that we deliberate to determine our own optimum path for the future. x
  • 6
    Agent Causation
    Are we the sole cause of our actions? Discover a nuanced perspective on free will, in which we can decide some of our own actions and choose to react to conditions around us, but we cannot control all factors leading to our actions, such as heredity and environment. x
  • 7
    Ancient and Classical Compatibilism
    Some philosophers maintain that there is no conflict between free will and determinism; they can coexist. Learn about compatibilism, the idea that some of our actions are determined by forces beyond our control, and in other cases we are free to choose. x
  • 8
    Contemporary Compatibilism
    Professor Nichols looks at a modern view of compatibilism, as described by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, that our will is a desire that effectively produces behavior. We experience two desires: to eat ice cream or go on a diet; which wins out and what does that mean for free will? x
  • 9
    Hard Determinism
    Hard determinism says that events in the world happen solely as the result of other events. French philosopher Baron D'Holbach, a naturalist who argued that nature orders the universe and because the mind is part of nature, it follows that determinism is true for the mind as well. x
  • 10
    Free Will Impossibilism
    Contemplate the Buddhist idea that the self does not exist—mental activity is simply a series of events happening on their own. British philosopher Galen Strawson offers a similar argument—that in order to have free will we must be the cause of ourselves, but since we are not, we cannot have free will. x
  • 11
    The Belief in Free Will
    Libertarian Thomas Reid said that belief in free will was a universally human trait, across cultures developed at an early age. Hard determinists, on the other hand, maintain that we believe in free will because we fail to see the real causes of our decisions. Both claims prove problematic. x
  • 12
    Physics and Free Will
    Here Professor Nichols delves into the world of quantum mechanics, explaining an interpretation of the random movement of particles as analogous to the indeterminist nature of the universe. x
  • 13
    Neuroscience and Determinism
    Investigate a series of experiments in which animals demonstrated behavior that would be most beneficial to them in the wild, even under laboratory conditions. The result: Unpredictability is a useful evolutionary trait, but does this indeterministic behavior help us prove that we have free will? x
  • 14
    Neuroscience of Conscious Choice
    Continuing to delve into how scientific study can influence our discussion of free will and determinism, Professor Nichols discusses experiments by Benjamin Libet that indicate that the brain prepares for an action even before we realize we intend to perform the action. x
  • 15
    Psychology and Free Will
    Although we may believe we understand our own minds, motivations, and methods, many psychologists believe we do not have as much insight into the choices we make as we might think. This lecture describes experiments that demonstrate the effect of unconscious stimuli on our behavior. x
  • 16
    Deontological Ethics and Free Will
    Here we explore the age-old question of right and wrong, and how we make the choice between the two. Kant claimed that our intention—what we choose to do—is most important in reflecting our moral responsibility, regardless of the consequences. Therefore, our free will comes in what we decide. x
  • 17
    Utilitarianism and Free Will
    Utilitarianism proposes that the consequences of an action are what matters most, regardless of one's intentions or motives. This theory does not depend on free will because one's choices are not important—only their outcomes. Professor Nichols raises some fascinating ethical questions here. x
  • 18
    Responsibility and the Emotions
    Philosopher David Hume explored the relationship between emotions and morality in a theory known as sentimentalism, which states there is an emotional basis, not a rational one, for our beliefs, but we are still responsible for the choices we make. Modern English philosopher Peter Strawson developed a similar view that proved influential. x
  • 19
    Pessimism and Illusionism
    According to illusionists such as Saul Smilansky, we do not have free will but if everyone recognized that, our society would collapse. It is critical for people to believe in free will—even if it is an illusion—to sustain moral behavior and a sense of responsibility for our actions. x
  • 20
    Optimism and Skepticism
    Derk Pereboom argues that relinquishing our belief in free will could be good for us because we could let go of negative emotions such as anger, guilt, and resentment that stem from believing people have done something hurtful to us of their own free will. x
  • 21
    The Ethics of Punishment
    Examining the dark history of punishment in society and different views of punishment today, Professor Nichols describes backward-looking punishment that focuses simply on making a person pay for his bad actions, versus forward-looking punishment that looks at the value to future society that a punishment might have. x
  • 22
    The Power of Punishment
    The question of free will is inherent in discussions of the effectiveness of punishment and whether retribution or rehabilitation will have a positive or negative effect on both the person being punished and the outside world. Professor Nichols asks whether quarantine, an approximation of our current justice system, is effective. x
  • 23
    Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy
    While our justice system sometimes exonerates people with mental illness from their crimes, does that sense of mercy extend to others? Examine the recent history of psychopaths up to modern discoveries about their brain activity and whether their lack of compassion has a neuroscience basis. x
  • 24
    The Future of Responsibility
    Professor Nichols concludes with a summary of the modern view of free will with an eye toward the future. How will neuroscience and the rule of law affect our ideas about free will and determinism? x

Lecture Titles

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Shaun Nichols
Ph.D. Shaun Nichols
University of Arizona
Dr. Shaun Nichols is Professor of Philosophy at The University of Arizona. He holds a joint appointment in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Professor Nichols earned his bachelor's degree in Philosophy from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He previously taught at the College of Charleston, where he held the Harry Lightsey Chair of Humanities, and at the University of Utah. The 2005 recipient of the Stanton Award, given to innovative scholars working at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, Professor Nichols has published widely in both disciplines. He is the author of Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment, and the coauthor of Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretense, Self-awareness and Understanding Other Minds. He is the editor of The Architecture of the Imagination and the coeditor of Experimental Philosophy. Professor Nichols, whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, has published more than 50 articles in academic journals in psychology and philosophy. He serves on several editorial boards, and at The University of Arizona he directs a research group on experimental philosophy.
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Reviews

Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 39 reviewers.
Rated 2 out of 5 by Many Problems The good: the prof's presentation style is good. The bad is the content. The best part are the first few lectures that describe the historical basis of the "free will determinism" debate. It is made clear in these first few lectures that determinism can never be conclusively proven, but people have an intrinsic need to explain why things are as they are. This was the high point of the course. What follows is a lot of what can be termed "philo-babble" proceeding from false premises. The entire discussion assumes a duality of some type of self, soul, or mind that is being coerced or "determined" by forces outside itself. Thus, a sort of mind-body duality is what makes the entire "controversy" possible. Modern science assumes no such duality. The use of neuro-physiological techniques to solve the "controversy" is like using satellite imaging to find Mount Olympus of Greek mythology. As we say in science, it isn't even wrong. This approach leads to absurd conclusions. At one point in the series, there is an equating of diabetics with felons.. The entire controversy takes on a very different color if we consider a "person" to be the totality of the physical entity we see before us. Obviously, it is silly to speak of such an entity as "coercing itself". Finally, the professor gives us no substantial discussion chaos theory. Chaos theory is probably THE most important development in this field since its inception. Chaos theory conclusively demonstrates that a system can be completely determined by non-linear mathematical equations and yet act as if it was random. Furthermore, even if we know the equations, we cannot make precise predictions doe to lack of knowledge of the initial conditions at the required level of accuracy. I might add that there is evidence that the brain acts as a chaotic system. In summary, the first few lectures are great, the professor has a good teaching style,, but it is downhill from there,. Personally, I felt the first few lectures are so good that they justify purchase of the course. This subject is only worth pursuing from the historical standpoint. After that, it is confusion. November 3, 2014
Rated 3 out of 5 by 1/2 decent survey, 1/2 off-topic digression I found this course to be intensely frustrating in some ways. The first half was a pretty good survey of the history of philosophical approaches to the question of free will. That's important, both to define the questions and to understand some of the traditional moves and counter-moves of a debate that has been going on for a very long time. Dr. Nichol did a good job with this material, though he is clearly more comfortable presenting materialist viewpoints than mystical viewpoints. The second half of the course drove me crazy, because it dealt with a long succession of questions of the form "If we don't have free will, what should we do/prescribe/believe/think/change about X?". Earth to philosophers: if we don't have free will, the question is vacuous. I find it very hard to believe that generations of very smart thinkers could have failed to notice that, if we are not free to choose how to behave, we are also not free to choose how to respond to others' behavior, nor free to choose how to feel about that. One might as well ask what we should prescribe concerning how tall people should grow, or whether they should suffer from migraines. The closest Dr. Nichols gets to addressing this fatal criticism is to dismiss as 'glib' the response that, if criminals are not free to choose not to commit crimes, neither are judges free to choose not to punish them. This is not a joke or an evasion; it cuts to the heart of why belief in determinism is self-defeating. There were a couple of lines of argument that are traditional in free will debates that didn't get much air time in this course. One of them is based on the idea of brainwashing, and why we feel that individuals who have been brainwashed/conditioned are not responsible for their actions. This is important when examining claims that whatever we do, we 'chose' to do in the sense required for free will. Compatibilist accounts have trouble distinguishing brainwashed or insane individuals from normal people acting normally. I also was disappointed not to get any presentation at all of the argument that rational thought, or reasoning (of the kind required to, say, do philosophy) requires free will of the libertarian sort. I can't do full justice to the argument here, but the basic outline is that accepting or rejecting the conclusion of an argument on logical grounds requires that the thinker be really free to choose on logical grounds, whereas causal determinism explicitly provides a complete and non-rational account of where all of our judgments and beliefs and conclusions come from. I think that would have been a more relevant topic for this course than pointless questions about how we ought to behave if we're not free to choose how to behave. September 22, 2014
Rated 2 out of 5 by Very Frustrating I only made it half way through this course - and I usually enjoy The Great Courses’ philosophy courses, but I found this one very fluffy and unclear, and more of a historical survey of a wide range of muddled thinking than a useful exploration of the deeper concepts. My first impression was that the whole issue of Determinism and Free Will wasn't being clearly defined, or maybe I should say sensibly defined. I enjoyed Professor Nichol's delivery in superficial ways (how he spoke), but not in how he chose to organize his subject. I was frustrated right from the beginning when he repeatedly used historical Biblical quotes and exegesis to support and legitimize the rather narrow and rigid idea of divine determinism. Then for a brief moment I was delighted to hear him mention Buddhism's idea of determinism ("karma") based on the fundamental notions of "no-self." But quickly realized Professor Nichols really didn't understand these Buddhist ideas - how there is no contradiction between how people live with a conventional sense of self (relative truth), and the deeper reality of all names being mere labels on an imperminant base (ultimate truth) - and how this includes both the self and all other objects and concepts we experience. In a nutshell this is Buddhism’s “Middle Way.” This missed opportunity to approach the whole debate synthetically and holistically (vs with the dualistic, divisive, and frankly confusingly incoherent intellectualisms which fill most of the lectures) just made me feel it was more about word play and hair-splitting than real understanding or illumination of the subject. In this way it felt very much like a college philosophy course, but not a very good one, or one which would add something to my experience of living. Over and over again I wondered what is the big issue here? Why can't there be a common sense (experiential) understanding that we live in a cause and effect world (determinism), which we can influence to some degree (free will). This kind of synthetic approach apparently is considered as some kind of lame Pollyannaism by most serious philosophers from ancient times to modern, and is formally known as "Compatibilism" (covered here in 2 lectures), but Prof. Nichols never really explored how it could be experienced practically (in a middle-way kind of way). Sure there is "karma" (the Hindu “law” of actions and their results), and Newtonian materialist physics which implies that Life unfolds in an orderly (determinist) way, but there is also a conscious aspect which can (sometimes drastically) alter events (which forms the basis for spiritual practice in Eastern traditions to purify and remove the effects of our karma) and would explain why all cultures and even small children intuitively feel they have free-will (which Prof. Nichols documents). At least in the first 12 lectures there was no sense of synthesis or resolution here, just more exploring of dead ends and shallow cul-de-sacs - I returned the course at that point too frustrated to endure more…. June 30, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Almost Great! I like philosophy courses that tackle the really deep questions head on and in some parts this course really delivers. Lectures 4-11 are excellent. Unfortunately some of the other lectures are more like filler. Too much history and too much pontificating about punishment and ethics, which while interesting, are not central to the free will debate. Perhaps the subtleties of the arguments went over my head in places, because I couldn't get past the idea that if we live in a deterministic universe then we can have no free will. Well worth listening too, I would recommend it, but its not the best course I have listened to. September 16, 2013
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