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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Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 52.
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
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Tucson now on the philosophical map I am proud that someone in Tucson has made the Teaching Company's lecturers cut. Dr. Nichols gives not only a historical context for the problem of free will, but also puts a modern scientific spin on the subject by discussing relevant neuro-psychiatric research. Maybe he gives away his own position on the subject since at the end of the first lecturer after giving a brief overview of the course material he tells the listener "you have to decide for yourself."
Date published: 2009-04-19
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Overview of the Free Will Debate My title says it all: this was a good, solid overview of the debates over free will (both historical and current) OK, it may not rank up there with my favorite TC lectures, but I definitely got a lot out of it.
Date published: 2009-03-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from excellent I really loved this lecture. A nice overview is given of all sides of the debate including some experimental data, literature and its consequences. Even though no clear conclusion is given, I would say thelecturer is a determinist. But even if you think you are not a determinist, this is an interesting lecture, presented with enthousiasm.
Date published: 2009-03-20
Rated 3 out of 5 by from average i am a japanese woman who is a big fan of the teaching company's. if you want to know the history of debate between free will and determinism, i am sure i can recommend you this course. it really covers well how the notion of these two developed according to human enlightenment. but if you like me want somothing more like the determining factor to determine whether determinism is determiningly superior, you can't get what you want. an able professor would have given us a clue to this deep philosophical question.
Date published: 2009-03-02
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent course This is another excellent course. Just as I expected it. The different sides of the arguments are well laid out and the explanations are quite easy to understand and grasp. The subject itself is of course fascinating! And I guess I had to write this ;)
Date published: 2009-02-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Well Organized Treatment of a Complex Subject Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism Taught by Shaun Nichols 24 lectures Excepionaly Well Organized Treatment of a Complex Topic. The debate over free will and determinism is as fundamental and complex as any topic in philosophy. In 24 lectures Dr. Nichols draws from the many disciplines that have contributed to the discussion and understanding of this timeless debate from classical Greek philosophers to the modern neurosciences.He manages to make the subject approachable to an audience of any background, and yet keeps the depth of discussion profound. Many thought provoking questions are presented and discussed. What did the earliest Greek writers believe? What influence did the medieval theologions such as St. Augustine have on later Christian thinkers in regard to free will and determinism? How did Kant support his view of free will? What are the consequences of a belief in free will versus determinism to a fair and just legal system as well as society at large? Discussions are made of recent neurophysiological studies that have put into question ideas that we had previously taken for granted. Positions of contemporary philosophers such as Saul Smilansky and Derk Pereboom are also highlighted and interrestingly they differ dramaticly from each other. Dr. Nichols has created a fascinating course with both depth and balance.His lectures are well organized , clear and pofound. One of the best TTC courses!
Date published: 2009-01-28
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This is What Philosophers Do This course is what philosophy is all about. Philosophers raise fundamental questions that are difficult to answer. Theories are put forward and criticized. Variations on the criticized theories are put forward and further analyzed and so on. Philosophers come up with examples and counter-examples that any philosophical theory must account for. Philosophers come up with new distinctions and terminology to make the debate clearer. This course has all of this. This debate does drawn on neurobiology and psychology but philosophy is not just about scientific facts. It involves stepping back and looking at the bigger picture while taking the details into account. Some may grow frustrated with a lack of clear cut answers but that is because that is where we are at in regards to our knowledge and understanding. Our serious study of human mental capabilities and behavior is fairly new and it will take time to get a clearer grasp on the issues. But this does not mean that we haven't made progress in this debate. We have but we have to be patient and diligent.
Date published: 2009-01-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Raises good questions; don't expect answers This is perhaps not the best choice of topic for a philosophy course. Of course the question of free will versus determinism is fascinating and, if taken seriously, has potentially life-changing implications. However, as this course makes clear, the philosophers haven't gotten much beyond basic common sense answers: maybe we have free will but not determinism, maybe determinism without free will, maybe both. (No one seems to think neither.) Where you come down on these questions, as you might expect, seems to depend a lot on how you define "free will." I found the second half of the course, with its analysis of practical implications, especialy regarding punishment, to be the more interesting. Professor is articulate, well organized and enthusiastic. Certainly worth taking if you have a particular interest in a review of this subject, but don't expect great insights.
Date published: 2008-12-21
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A good course despite of the absence of sociology This course is crystal clear and interesting. Not only does it unfold philosophical ideas about free will and determinism ; it also introduces philosophical experiments and contributions of sciences to this debate. Despite of this good overall impression, I have two claims : 1) The lectures spread out a bit too slowly (in my view at least). This is a minor issue since a course had better go a bit too slow than a bit too fast. 2) Although sociology is a prominent field that could contribute to the debate about free will and determinism, that social science is not explicitly mentioned. In my opinion, at least one lecture ought to be devoted to sociology.
Date published: 2008-12-05
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