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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

Course No. 4235
Professor Shaun Nichols, Ph.D.
University of Arizona
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Course No. 4235
  • Audio or Video?
  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is well illustrated and features more than 400 portraits and illustrations. There are portraits of the major thinkers on both sides of the debate, including Galen Strawson, Saul Smilansky, Immanuel Kant, and St. Augustine. There are also illustrations and photographs that explain basic philosophical ideas central to the course (such as the various branches of casual determinism) as well as key experiments that test our understanding of free will. There are on-screen spellings and definitions to help reinforce material for visual learners.
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Course Overview

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
 |  31 minutes each
Year Released: 2008
  • 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

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Shaun Nichols

About Your Professor

Shaun Nichols, Ph.D.
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...
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Reviews

Rated 4.2 out of 5 by 44 reviewers.
Rated 1 out of 5 by Misrepresented This course is about determinism, not free will. Nichols clearly believes in materialistic determinism and reductionism and that's fine with me but don't present the course as a debate about free will vs determinism. There is no discussion about libertarian free will, compatibilism, no mention of the theist point of view, I get that Nichols is an atheist but he presents the subject as determinism is all there is-case closed. Very dishonest and misleading course description. July 7, 2016
Rated 4 out of 5 by Hidden gem I almost never found this course, but am I ever glad I did. I've gone through quite a few courses now from the teaching comoany and have found something of value in them all, but this was probably the best one yet. The lecturer's style really stands out for clarity and enthusiasm for the subject and is great to listen to. Absolutely top notch professor. The course also really covers all aspects of the subject well and certainly my does it justice, no easy task since its such a long-standing philosophical topic but easily one of the most fascinating. The only complaint would be what sounded like a fair bit of repetition of some points through the later lectures. I'll definitely go through this one a few times. June 2, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Great course, over-extended at the end Audio CD review. I have mixed feeling about this course despite my “maxing” it out on all quantitative categories. Dr. Nichols is an exceptional teacher: he is clearly a master of the materiel, he uses great examples, he simplifies tough concepts into easy to assimilate language, and he has a most fetching speaking style. Through the course of covering the main issue of free will versus determinism he introduces multiple intersecting philosophical issues in relevant and very instructive ways. He most definitely treats the free will versus determinism debate thoroughly and fairly; I guarantee he will leave you pondering the issue in a profound, informed way. My mixed feelings echo some of the other reviewers’ comments regarding roughly the last third of the course. To me it loitered over the ethical implications in the event determinism happens to be true; it simply was not as captivating as the first portion of the course. If this course had been capped at 18 lectures instead of 24 it would have been perfect. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this course. February 13, 2016
Rated 5 out of 5 by Very Good Well presented, with a complete time line of the development of the problem be covered. May 1, 2015
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