Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism

Course No. 4235
Professor Shaun Nichols, Ph.D.
Cornell University
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Course No. 4235
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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
 |  Average 31 minutes each
  • 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.
Cornell University
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

Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 50.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2016-02-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Good Well presented, with a complete time line of the development of the problem be covered.
Date published: 2015-05-01
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-11-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2014-09-23
Rated 2 out of 5 by from 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….
Date published: 2014-07-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from 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.
Date published: 2013-09-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wow! Great introduction! One of the best TTC courses to which I've listened. I often measure one of these courses on my probability that one day I will re-listen to it. I already know I will do that. It's a fantastic introduction to the subject. The course starts with a review of classical philosophers and traces the history of the evolution of thought on the subject. Unlike other reviewers, I found those "historical" lectures important when launching into where the debate is today. Those were just as intriguing for me and I viewed them as essential. The one area that I found interesting, but where I do not think was about the subject, was the issue of how we punish for moral infractions if we do not have free will. These concentrated near the end of the course. While those discussions were interesting, they were not necessarily what the course was about. These later lectures are more how the results of thinking about the topic could affect one's view of the prison system. Who should get this course: Anyone with a philosophical bent. If the course title intrigued you, open up the wallet and purchase. I did and I could not be happier. Who should stay away: want to listen to a professor go back and forth over the ground again and again, from slightly different points of view, and never really resolve the issue? If you do not -- stay away.
Date published: 2013-03-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Gets better as it goes along Both the topic and the presenter grow on you. He presents complex issues very clearly, and his enthusiasm is apparent, and infectious. I did not want it to end!
Date published: 2013-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Recommended, But Some Caveats While I enjoyed professor Nichols’ course, and would recommend it, I do have a few caveats: 1. Some of his linguistic habits were distracting. He seemed to use ‘presume’ in contexts where ‘assume’ was probably called for. Also, his frequent use of ‘she’ as a universal designator for person instead of the customary ‘he’, while proving his credentials as an evolved male (did he need to prove this?), caused me to ponder this aspect of our linguistic/cultural tradition when I should have been focusing on the subject matter of the course. 2. More serious, though, was that the course seemed intellectually ‘light’. For example, while discussing Kant’s argument for free will the professor neglected to mention what by many Kant scholars is considered to be that philosopher’s main argument, which revolves around the idea of the ‘thing in itself’, i.e., the unknowability of any absolute ‘external’ reality. This has also been put as the paradox of human life as empirical, yet also transcendental. This for Kant left the question of free will (and God) ‘open’. Also, what would the position of the phenomenological (Husserl-Heidegger-Sartre-etc.) tradition be on the question of free will? How about the point of view of a linguistic philosopher in the Wittgenstein-Austin-Davidson-Searle tradition? 3. I found it particularly odd that so much thought was given to the concern regarding the possible effects on our institutions of the belief in ‘hard determinism’. This is similar to an old joke among philosophers regarding solipsism, which involves the solipsist being annoyed that he can’t seem to convince anyone of his belief. If ‘hard determinism’ is true then the effects of the belief in it are a given, carved in stone, so to speak. I noticed in some of the reviews the criticism that Professor Nichols is ‘pushing’ an agenda of determinism. I don’t agree. He seemed even handed between the various views that he did examine. Also, the professor had a quite engaging style and the presentation was very easy to listen to. On balance, and considering the importance of the subject matter, I recommend this course.
Date published: 2012-10-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating It generally takes me three or four weeks to finish a Great Course of this length. However, for this course I was so enthralled by it that I completed it in less than two weeks. Professor Nichols managed to explain a number of very difficult topics in a very precise manner and I now feel that I have enough background in the subject to continue exploring the issues discussed. It is a pity that this is the only course currently taught by Professor Nichols for the Teaching Company.
Date published: 2012-10-26
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Helpful, a bit long Professor Nichols included a good set of topics to provide a well-rounded exploration of this fundamental question. He explained most things well, so I'd recommend the course. About the only shortcoming is that it seemed like the material could have been covered in a few less lectures if the explanations had been more concise.
Date published: 2012-07-04
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Masterly Exposition of a Classic Topic Any educated person has grappled with the issue of free will. It makes for an interesting course topic and that is the first requirement for an enjoyable course. The second is that, as Nichols points out time and again, it is unlikely that we find a satisfying solution to this problem any time soon, since there is growing evidence on pretty much all sides of the debate (and Nichols goes to great lengths to make all of them plausible). The third is that, like all good problems, it encompasses many fields from philosophy to psychology, neuroscience, economics and more, hence it is a real tour-de-force. Add to this the fact that Nichols is one of the most important philosophers of the burgeoning field of experimental philosophy (which he briefly mentions in a few places) and you have got yourself the makings of a fine course: a masterly exposition of a classic topic. Apart from the general high quality of the course, a few specific points need to be mentioned: a) Anyone who has previous knowledge on the topic of free will knows that the various positions and their all-too-delicate distinctions are notoriously difficult for a novice to grasp. Here, Nichols' conceptual/analytical categorization of the problem helped tremendously in clearing things up for me. b) Nichols' elucidation of the contemporary compatibilism (due to philosopher Harry Frankfurt) was very exceptionally clear-headed. (You can try the otherwise fantastic TTC course on the philosophy of mind by Dr. Grim if you want to get a feel for how difficult it is to explain contemporary compatibilism.) c) Although I was quite familiar with the relevant neuroscientific and psychological literature, Nichols' review was concise and to-the-point, and most importantly unbiased, so much so that I realized how parochial my previous references have been. d) I deducted one point because the course's beginning lectures were less than exciting. In particular, I did not care for the relatively in-depth review of classical philosophers that went on for quite a few lectures. All in all, if you have been struggling with the problem of free will for a while, here is a sufficiently clear and unbiased review of the relevant scholarly literature that brings up many challenges, no matter what your specific view is, and is sure to stir up discussions. Those are the hallmarks of a great course. Highly recommended.
Date published: 2012-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 90% of the way there Overall, I found this to be an excellent course. Shaun Nichols is organized, clear, sufficiently unbiased, and covers a wide range of perspectives on the topic of free will and determinism. I benefitted a lot from this course and definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in these fundamentally important questions. My only criticism is that Nichols sometimes doesn’t take the last inferential step needed to draw out the full implications of the material he’s presenting. Here’s a detailed summary of the key points from the course, taking those ‘last steps’ where needed: (1) There’s no doubt that the universe is at least partially determined. Otherwise, there would be no order, no predictability, no science, no life, and indeed perhaps no universe at all. (2) The strongest arguments for determinism only being partial are that it feels like we have free will, our sense of moral responsibility is consistent with (and requires) free will, and the unpredictability of complex systems makes it possible that they’re not entirely determined. Partial determinism thus means that various factors can influence outcomes to various degrees, but no factor or set of factors completely specifies a particular outcome – outcomes are still ‘open’ to some extent. (3) Partial determinism isn’t limited to mathematically-strict physical determinism of the Newtonian/Laplacian kind. It also includes ‘looser’ forms of determinism such as genetic, biological, evolutionary, psychological, sociocultural, and historical determinism. (4) Fate, predestination, and karma are particular types of partial determinism. There’s limited evidence for them, but they’re nonetheless interesting possibilities which can’t be ruled out, and they need not apply only to individuals – predestination might even apply to the entire universe (eg, Hegel’s dialectic unfolding). Accordingly, determinism could be based on ‘rational’ principles, maybe even some sort of ‘grand plan’, but it could also be arbitrary (but then what’s its origin?). (5) While randomness may be used as a model to deal with our ignorance, it’s not clear that randomness can be an intrinsic feature of reality, since we can’t imagine what a ‘random mechanism’ could be like (the word ‘mechanism’ itself implies determinism, and indeed ‘random number generators’ are deterministic). Quantum mechanics is perhaps the strongest known candidate for intrinsic natural randomness, but the theory is still silent on a mechanism for the randomness; it’s possible that there’s a deterministic process underlying the apparent randomness, but that process may be forever hidden from us. (6) With free will, we’re proposing that there’s an aspect of us, possibly immaterial (consciousness, soul, self, etc.), which is a ‘first cause’ in the sense of being able to influence our mental experience and physical behavior, without itself being determined by anything else, and without being random either (does that make us demigods?). I suspect that something like this exists, but I have no idea how it could work, and apparently no one else does either. Moreover, difficult questions immediately arise: to what extent do other species have free will (chimps, cats, worms, bacteria, etc.), and how does free will arise during human development starting from conception (eg, an embryo at three weeks)? (7) It’s well established observationally and experimentally that our mental experience (including decisions) and physical behavior are at least partially determined by unconscious processes, and moreover these unconscious processes are partially determined by external factors without our conscious awareness. Thus, if our will is associated with our minds, our will is at least partially determined and can’t be completely free – at most, our will is partially free. Along the same lines, mental abnormality or illness can also further reduce freedom of the will. (8) Even if the freedom of our will is very limited, belief in free will may be important for the sake of morality, social stability, productivity, meaning, etc. At the same time, recognizing that our will is only partially free can foster tolerance, compassion, forgiveness of ourselves and others, appreciation for fortunate circumstances, acceptance of outcomes falling short of hopes, etc. (9) Our moral values are influenced by emotions and an instinct for justice (likely with an evolutionary basis), and the morality of behavior can be judged in terms of duties/intentions, consequences, or both. Complicating things further, when looking at consequences, we have to consider who’s consequences we give importance to, and we also have to consider both the short term and long term. But regardless of how morality is judged, moral judgment can be validly rendered only to the extent that we have freedom of will. And if we have little or no freedom of will, we can still punish people for the sake of quarantining, deterrence, and rehabilitation, but then the decision to punish is itself largely determined rather than free. In short, it seems that we do have a will with an immaterial aspect, and this will is partially free, but not fully free. We can’t explain the basis for this freedom of will, but we also can’t resist believing that it exists. Thus there is also a basis for moral judgments, but only to the limited extent that a particular individual’s will is more or less free. It seems to me that all of this is close to what most people tacitly believe in everyday life, so the ultimate outcome of these philosophical reflections and analyses may just be a common-sense conclusion. How anti-climactic!
Date published: 2012-03-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from 90% of the way there Overall, I found this to be an excellent course. Shaun Nichols is organized, clear, sufficiently unbiased, and covers a wide range of perspectives on the topic of free will and determinism. I benefitted a lot from this course and definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in these fundamentally important questions. My only criticism is that Nichols sometimes doesn’t take the last inferential step needed to draw out the full implications of the material he’s presenting. As a result, I pondered hard and long to try to fill those gaps, and the following is my resulting summary of key points: (1) There’s no doubt that the universe is at least partially determined. Otherwise, there would be no order, no predictability, no science, no life, and indeed perhaps no universe at all. (2) The strongest arguments for determinism only being partial are that it feels like we have free will, our sense of moral responsibility is consistent with (and requires) free will, and the unpredictability of complex systems leaves open the possibility that they’re not entirely determined. Partial determinism thus means that various factors can influence outcomes to various degrees, but no factor or set of factors completely specifies a particular outcome – outcomes are still ‘open’ to some extent. (3) Partial determinism isn’t limited to mathematically-strict physical determinism of the Newtonian/Laplacian kind, but also includes ‘looser’ forms of determinism such as genetic, biological, evolutionary, psychological, sociocultural, and historical determinism. (4) Fate, predestination, and karma are particular types of partial determinism. There’s limited evidence for them, but they’re nonetheless interesting possibilities which can’t be ruled out, and they need not apply only to individuals – predestination might even apply to the entire universe (eg, Hegel’s dialectic unfolding). Accordingly, determinism could be based on ‘rational’ principles, maybe even some sort of ‘grand plan’, but it could also be arbitrary (but then what’s its origin?). (5) While randomness may be used as a model to deal with our ignorance, it’s not clear that randomness can be an intrinsic feature of reality, since we can’t imagine what a ‘random mechanism’ could be like (the word ‘mechanism’ itself implies determinism, and indeed ‘random number generators’ are deterministic). Quantum mechanics is perhaps the strongest known candidate for intrinsic natural randomness, but the theory is still silent on a mechanism for the randomness; it’s possible that there’s a deterministic process underlying the apparent randomness, but that process may be forever hidden from us. (6) With free will, we’re proposing that there’s an aspect of us, possibly immaterial (consciousness, soul, self, etc.), which is a ‘first cause’ in the sense of being able to influence our mental experience and physical behavior, without itself being determined by anything else, and without being random either (does that make us demigods?). I suspect that something like this exists, but I have no idea how it could work, and apparently no one else does either. Moreover, difficult questions immediately arise: to what extent do other species have free will (chimps, cats, worms, bacteria, etc.), and how does free will arise during human development starting from conception (eg, an embryo at three weeks)? (7) It’s well established observationally and experimentally that our mental experience (including decisions) and physical behavior are at least partially determined by unconscious processes, and moreover these unconscious processes are partially determined by external factors without our conscious awareness. Thus, if our will is associated with our minds, our will is at least partially determined and can’t be completely free – at most, our will is partially free. Along the same lines, mental abnormality or illness can also further reduce freedom of the will. (8) Even if the freedom of our will is very limited, belief in free will may be important for the sake of moral behavior, social stability, productivity, meaning, etc. At the same time, recognizing that our will is only partially free can foster tolerance, compassion, forgiveness of ourselves and others, appreciation for fortunate circumstances, acceptance of outcomes falling short of hopes, etc. (9) Our moral values are influenced by emotions and an instinct for justice (likely with an evolutionary basis), and the morality of behavior can be judged in terms of duties/intentions, consequences, or both. Complicating things further, when looking at consequences, we have to consider who’s consequences we give importance to, and we also have to consider both the short term and long term. But regardless of how morality is judged, moral judgment can be validly rendered only to the extent that we have freedom of will. And if we have little or no freedom of will, we can still punish people for the sake of quarantining, deterrence, and rehabilitation, but then the decision to punish is itself largely determined rather than free. In short, I would argue that we do have a will with an immaterial aspect, and this will is partially free, but not fully free. We can’t explain the basis for this freedom of will, but we also can’t resist believing that it exists. Thus there is also a basis for moral judgments, but only to the limited extent that a particular individual’s will is more or less free. It seems to me that all of this is close to what most people tacitly believe in everyday life, so the ultimate outcome of these philosophical reflections and analyses may just be a common-sense conclusion. How anti-climactic!
Date published: 2012-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Philosophy Lite = Less Filling This course is difficult to rate, in that it is neither a philosophy course nor a psychology course; but instead a survey course of combined philosophy/psychology appreciation. Like any "appreciation" survey course the topic is addressed in breadth rather than depth. Prof. Nichols presents his history of "the debate" in a clear and understandable manner revealing the many arguments over the years, for and against either free will or determinism. Although I have titled my review "Philosophy Lite", it is not without rigor and Prof. Nichols presents the various philosophers' opinions in myriad structured analyses. You cannot go to the gym and work out without expecting some sweat. Likewise you cannot enjoy a course on philosophical history, philosophical appreciation or philosophical analysis without exercising your brain to the point of some mental sweating. So too, will this course exercise your ability to understand and analyze the arguments; presented in the name of historical philosophers who have tackled this most important and most basic philosophical debate. This course is not a hard-philosophy course (in the guise of, say, the Libertarian, John Hospers) but it is an enjoyable track of relevant philosophical thought from the Greeks to the present. Prof. Nichols adds, almost as a spice or condiment, elements of psychology and physics to round out support for some of the philosophical conclusions. As a former trifling student of philosophy, and one who knows how taxing real philosophical analyses can be, I pronounce this course an enjoyable introduction to appreciating focused philosophical debate. Although this course is way less demanding than straight philosophy, you cannot "mail this one in." You will get your money' s worth of both learning AND enjoyment.
Date published: 2012-03-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Nice Introduction A nice introduction to the subject matter. The course opens the horizons to those who would want to delve deeper into the subject. Well worth the time.
Date published: 2011-11-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear, Consice and Intellectually Interesting Thanks to Dr. Nichols for an outstanding course. His presentation was excellent and he has a nice way of summarizing complex issues. He presented both sides of the discussion fairly and tried hard not to reveal his personal views, but it is understandably difficult for him not to believe in free will to some degree. I thought the introductory modules on religious arguments were very weak and simplistic, not due to Dr. Nichols presentation, but because the arguments are weak and simplistic. The course became more interesting and compelling as it progressed, and his summaries of physics, psychology and neuroscience were outstanding. However, he did fail to appropriately connect the dots to deterministic viewpoints. To discount deterministic views by one or two statements regarding quantum physics was misleading and an easy way to lean towards free will. Simply lacking predictability does not necessarily infer that determinism is not true. Furthermore, some of Dr. Nichols discussions failed to recognize the possible deterministic nature of his explanations due to elementary particle considerations of brain activity. On the free will side, I thought it was interesting that even D'Holback and Smilansky, major free will skeptics, discussed what free will decisions we should be making if free will did not exist. Hmmm, maybe they are even having problems accepting a deterministic universe. However, the morality and punishment elaborations were excellent and very thought provoking. Either way, free will or determinism, it was refreshing to see philosphers beginning to identify independent and dependent variables and embracing more experimental design and statistical analysis. This is an excellent course for an overview of free will and determinism and I highly recommend it to those who enjoy thinking.
Date published: 2011-10-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A complete, objective overview of topic We were very impressed with Nichols presentation in this course. He's managed to get to the point, the core, of each of the philosophies addressing free will and/or determinism, without excess blathering about any of them. I love philosophy in general, but find myself frequently thinking - "Get to the POINT!" when reading philosophical writings. I wanted a comprehensive, concise summary of the ideas involved in the free will vs determinism debate without the added work of distilling the vast amounts of literature on my own - and that's exactly what I got. Contrary to some other reviewers, I don't think Nichols favored any point of view, but rather, attempted to show both the arguments for, and weaknesses of each of the positions. It's my opinion that if anyone feels a particular position was favored, that person likely is simply responding to the logic of that position, and more easily sees the flaws in others. If that logic agrees with the individual's point of view, they like it, otherwise, they find it upsetting. I liked that he also addressed the new-agey argument that quantum mechanics proves free will - argued only by those who don't understand QM and the difference between 'unpredictable' and 'random'. I found the arguments that were from 'in betweenists' -- "It's Neither!" or "It's Both!" fascinating, and Nichols covered them all wonderfully. I and my husband, who watched this together, loved the presentation, the objectivity and the comprehensiveness of this course, and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in exploring the question of free will vs determinism and the ramifications of each position. Kudos to Professor Nichols.
Date published: 2011-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Thought Provoking Since I am a teacher in a Christian tradition that affirms predestination without nullifying human responsibility, I was eager to hear this presentation. This is in no way a presentation of the debate from a biblical or religious point of view ( though lectures 2 & 3 give a brief summary), so if that is what you are looking for, its not here. It seems to me that Dr. Nichols is a naturalist who clearly favors determinism over free will. In regards to the professor's presentation, I thoroughly enjoyed his style. He is easy to listen to and to watch. He is never pejorative to the different views and seems to desire to present views with their strengths and weaknesses. I would enjoy other courses by him. In regards to the content, I was a bit surprised that the last 8 or 9 lectures was really on ethics. His approach by this point in the lectures is to ask "if determinism is true, then how do we approach ethics and punishment." I don't think he is slighting the free will argument by focusing on determinism. I think he does it this way because if determinism is true, then many questions are raised about the ethics of blaming someone who was predetermined to do something evil, it is not their fault (Oh, I pray that no judge assumes the position Dr Nichols presents). But if free will is true, there really isn't anything different than what we are already doing, so there isn't much to talk about. I thought it curious that he basically argues: "all actions are predetermined" "The evil man is predetermined to do evil" "Therefore it would not be appropriate to punish someone that had no choice" My problem with this is that if all actions are predetermined, then my action to punish is also predetermined. Why then am I being told to change my action due to the immorality of punishing a man who was predetermined, but the criminal is being excused for his predetermined actions. You can't tell me to change my ways then excuse the criminal. Either neither of us can change or we both can. Seems simple to me, maybe I missed something. The only section that I thought was of little value was the lectures on neuroscience. They were too brief and convoluted in my opinion to be of use. Overall though, I really enjoyed this course. It made me think more than many I have listened to in a while. Thanks Dr. Nichols.
Date published: 2011-02-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good, but Uneven The course, while captivating with respect to subject matter, was a little too one-sided for my taste. In any debate, the strongest arguments on all sides should be adduced or else the whole venture risks turning into a farce. To wit, such a lopsided affair castes doubt on the legitimacy of the the debate's conclusions and, in the end, weakens all arguments including the one being advocated. Specifically, Professor Nichols allows his dyed-in-the-wool belief in hard determinism to shape debate content and outcome. Instead of going where the evidence leads, Professor Nichols tends to cherry-pick evidence to support his predetermined (no pun intended!) conclusions. Nevertheless, the course does have a great deal to recommend it. First, a competent historical survey of the free will debate proffers good background material for further study. So too, Nichols clarifies the difference between fatalism and determinism and anchors each of the various turns of argument pertaining to free will and determinism solidly within its own philosophical niche. This provides a fairly well-rounded view of the issues at stake in the free will debate and in a broad, if once again uneven, sense what solutions have been proposed in the attempt to defeat or accommodate opposing viewpoints. As an agnostic on the issue of free will, I found the potential moral ramifications in the absence of free will especially provocative. Overall, I recommend the course for its ability to challenge common and long held notions as to the types of beings we are.
Date published: 2010-07-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A broad introduction This course provides a broad survey of ancient and contemporary views on the problem of free will, from both a philosophical and scientific perspective. The focus is on recent philosophical views and research in psychology/neuroscience. The course helped me clarify my positions on this issue. Professor Nichols' presentation is energetic and down-to-earth. I rated the course four stars rather than five because I found it to progress more slowly than I would have hoped. Nichols takes time at the beginning of each lecture to summarize the previous lecture. This would be helpful if one took a while between listening sessions, but I found it tedious. I had also already done a lot of thinking and a bit of reading about this topic, so there was less new material here than I had hoped for. However, I would highly recommend this course as an overview of the problem of free will, one of the central debates in philosophical history (and a common conversation topic among those inclined to recreational philosophizing!).
Date published: 2010-04-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Another Excellent TC Philosophy Course [Audio Version] Prof. Nichols does a good job of presenting the salient arguments for and against free will, and many interesting potential implications to society if we come to believe determinism is true. As he demonstrates in the course, it's important to define exactly what is meant by determinism and have that in mind before one argues the case for it or against it, as its definition has changed over throughout the ages - case in point: we no longer really believe something was "fated" to happen, but may still believe it was determined. When listening, I found it was easy to lose sight of the modern definition of determinism - and I think Prof. Nichols could have spend a little more time on this, but perhaps it was just me. I'll give it an overall 4 stars instead of 5 because I don't think it quite ranks with some of the stellar TC philosophy courses, but it is still a very worthwhile listen. The lecture on free will and modern (quantum) physics was worth the price of admission alone - I wish my physics teachers had been as clear and concise about the uncertainty principle as Prof. Nichols!
Date published: 2010-02-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I Chose This Course -- Or Did I? I listened to the audio version through my personal (mostly instinctive) filter that tells me I really have free will. I got though the Professor Nichols’ provocative course with my original instinct intact. I’m a bit shaken, but I’m still a believer in free will. Lecture 12, on physics and free will, offered me the most hope: on some accounts, ‘basic physical objects behave in fundamentally indeterminate ways.’ Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple and is still evolving. Dr. Nichols spends about 20 minutes happily and enthiastically explaining why we cannot infer natural free will from physics. Lecture 19, covering Saul Smilansky’s ideas, sounded like a good plot for a sci-fi movie. If scientists really found out that there is absolutely no free will, this information should be paternalistically withheld from the masses. People need the illusion of free will for morally good outcomes and a sense of self-worth. This fine course covers all the bases in this ancient as well as modern philosophical debate -- as promised in the course description. I would add that if you are thinking about writing a memoir, definitely get this course. At minimum, it will help you sort out personal events. Did you freely choose your own paths in life, or were you merely a puppet? I believe the answer lies somewhere in between, but I tilt towards free will. I may never truly know whether or not I had free choice. And if I did not, I will remain deeply comforted by my self-delusion.
Date published: 2009-11-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Challenging and Thoughtful Just finished this awesome class by one of the best lecturers I have encountered through the Teaching Company's classes and my personal academic experience. Very thought-provoking and delivered very professionally. I found myself very excited after each lecture and often called friends to try and share what I had learned or to debate the ideas presented. I highly recommend this class and with Prof Nichols would so some more!
Date published: 2009-11-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I Freely Bestow a "Not Bad At All" I was very impressed with the way this course began. It brought in all of the basic ideas of the free will and determinism debate in a thoughtful, encompassing way. As the course developed, however, I was disappointed that the professor spent so much time explaining determinism over and against the concepts of free will. The image that the course evoked was that of free will and determinism duking it out in the boxing ring, with free will stumbling, about to drop from all the pummeling! Perhaps the fact that determinism is supported by so much science, including psychology, neuro-science and classical phyics, the professor felt that the evidence was overwhelming, and thus he was bound to include all of these disciplines into his presentation. However, in doing so, I felt that he didn’t present a balanced view on his subject. For example, with regard to Kant’s deontological ethics, he never focuses on Kant’s insistence that no matter how bad a person’s past has been, or what habits have been ingrained into his personality, a person still has the duty, obligation and the power of the will to better himself and to make the right decision for himself NOW – in the present moment. It was Kant who appreciated the deterministic argument better than most, and yet his contributions to the free will debate were not given their due weight. Instead of concentrating on the power of reasonable men to make decisions, we were instead given the neuro-science scenario of monkeys with wires hooked up to their brains being rewarded with fruit juice for looking at dots on a computer screen! I was also wanting to hear more about theological interpretations of free will. Nichols devotes one half-hour to predestination, addressing questions of heaven and hell, but not the practical choices and acts of people in this life. At the heart of the human experience is the individual’s wrestling with his inner self. The classic example of this is Paul of Tarsus’ cry of despair in Romans 7:15 which says, “For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” It is this fundamental human experience of the conflict of wills that really warranted being addressed within these lectures. The closest that Nichols comes to addressing this is with the presentation of Professor Harry Frankfurt’s second-order desires, but one would think such an important aspect of the free will debate would have been given more prominence in these lectures! Another question is: in what way are we free if God already knows what we are going to do before we do it? Perhaps God is like a first-order cause, and we as creatures (second-order causes) should be able to order our will to become aligned with this primary will? Nichols doesn’t go in this direction at all, but again, I think it warrants being addressed since the thought of God’s knowing what we will do before we do it seems to render the human will predictable (not free?) in principle. Yet, perhaps because God’s foreknowledge or omniscience is comparable to our own self-predictability with regard to our own future actions, it seems that we are still able to act freely? Thus, if a person is able to posit and perform a voluntary action in the as-yet-undetermined future, would this not give a definitive view of free will? A discussion of sociologist Alfred Schutz’s description of human action framed in “because of” and “in order to” motives, and our ability to frame our actions in a “future perfect tense,” might thus give us a reasonable foundation upon which to understand a tenable philosophy of human freedom. Incidentally, the latest movie in the “Terminator” series, "Salvation," gives a very satisfying theatrical statement about the power of the human free will in the face of determinism. The bottom line is that the future is yet to be written and we should never be resigned to the “inevitable.” I appreciated the way in which Nichols was able to talk at length in a competent, engaging way in a variety of disciplines including history, philosophy, religion, game theory, psychology, neuro-science and physics. He talks with enthusiasm, animation, directness and intelligence. Nevertheless, his pre-occupation with determinism, his weak defense of free will, and his ignoring the central human problem of the division of the human will made the course evade questions of high practical importance! I thought, also, that he devoted much too much time (over 90 minutes) defending the thesis that criminals might not responsible for the crimes they commit, which I found frankly offensive to my sensibilities! Despite these drawbacks, I think the course was sufficiently thought-provoking to merit a reserved thumbs-up.
Date published: 2009-09-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worthwhile This is an excellent course. The lecturer is easy to listen to and the aspects of the issues that relate to and arise form the free will deabate taht he has chosen to discuss are interesting. It would be too much to expect a comprehensive discussion of all aspects in 24 half hour lectures. One of the other reviewers says that the discussion of neurological experiments deals with only simple actions such as raising ones hand and can not rightly be generalized to more complex activities. That is true and infact that point is made by the Prof. He points out however tht since one of the arguments proving free will is that we "experience" our decisions as being freely made, evidence that how we "expeience" our decisions is false, albeit in a simplistic setting, throws this argument into question.
Date published: 2009-07-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Interesting, Well Organized, and Unbaised This course is interesting because it covers so many areas: religion, science, ethics, etc. Dr. Nichols organized the course logically: he first discusses the various arguments for free will, determinism, and a combination of the two (known as compatiabilism) and then discusses the ethical consequences if we accept a certain view. I appreciated Dr. Nichols’s objectivity. He is unbiased throughout the course, letting the listener consider various viewpoints. Dr. Nichols spoke clearly and at a good pace. I listened to the course several times and always enjoyed it.
Date published: 2009-06-25
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Narrow perspective I agree with the criticism that these lectures are more cognitive science than philosophy, or more correctly, they take a cognitive science perspective on philosophy. You will get only a partial "history" of the free will/determinism conundrum, since the series emphasizes logical-positivist arguments on topics such as "hard determinism", neuroscience, physics and so on. I say this because, much of the point of view presented by Nichols (and other contemporary philosophers) is rooted in "analytic philosophy" which is but one of a number of positions discussing "the human condition." It does not take into account any of existentialism, continental philosophy, humanism, contemporary social science, political/cultural constructions and so on. Much of the approach is "this therefore this" in a rather mechanistic way. Nichols is a bright man and articulate; you may agree with Nichols' position, but you may also, as I do, find it narrow. Although the course's description mentions the Stoics, Boethius, Kant, Hume, and Sartre, these are not discussed in an extensive manner; they are less than a third of the course. The bulk of the course focuses on cognitive science. which suggests, "now we really know truth because we can measure "free will." Contemporary cognitive science, as presented by Nichols, draws on behaviorism, economic theory and scientific experimentation, and is a clearly "rationalist/materialist" perspective. The problem is, conclusions are drawn from highly controlled experiments that do not resemble "real-life" decisions. This is also true of contemporary "game theory" and other academic views. For example, Nichols discusses experiments on "decision-making" consisting of asking subjects to identify when they "decided" to raise their hand, and comparing motor activity with the 'decision." The professor admits that such experiments are conducted because of a relatively straightforward scientific design; if you can design a good experiment, you will get "truth." But, I ask you, how much is (complex, moral, etc) decision-making about situations such as "raising your hand"? Real-life philosophical (and psychological) concerns cannot be reduced to simple lab experiments. Nichols, and similar theorists "admit" that their procedures are limited, but then go right back to theorizing and abstractions. I would contest the view that philosophy can be/should be studied in a lab setting. One the other hand, Nichols presents a popular view in current philosophical thought. He does a good job within his position and for those who want this point of view, it is a good course.
Date published: 2009-06-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An eternal debate Human cannot even fully understand the mind of animals. How can we (using single and isolated brain experiment) understand the mind of ourselves? I believe we have free will particularly in choosing between good and evil, but most human decision are based on our (conscious or subconscious) judgement that have been built thru our experience in family, church, school and other environment. Free will or determinism? It's just like the chicken-egg problem - we can never sort it out.
Date published: 2009-05-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Bemusing Topic I am somewhat puzzled by the tendency of philosophers to fiercely argue questions that have no clear answer. This topic is the perfect example. (Oops, I hope I didn't give away the ending!) Nevertheless, anyone who wants a complete overview of this bemusing debate need look no further. Professor Nichols presents a lively and informative discussion of many and various points of view. I did enjoy and learn from the course, even though the net result left me with a hint of frustration. When I finished the final lecture, one serious question remained: "Was taking this course predetermined, or did I actually listen to these lectures of my own free will?" It would take a wiser person than me to answer that one.
Date published: 2009-05-24
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