Concept of Free Will as Understood in Western Philosophy: Understanding it through 3 Interesting Topics

Doctrine of Free Will in Western Philosophy!

Concept of Free Will in Western Philosophy

Concept of Free Will as Understood in Western Philosophy: Understanding it through 3 Interesting Topics


‘Will’ is a term one comes across almost in their daily lives and it is used in different contexts by different individuals, concerned of primarily emphasising upon choice, freedom to present it in a larger social context and highlighting upon the fact that it functions upon the premise that the supposed action, decision or choice is based upon volunteerism, in the sense that the individual presenting it as his will, is performing it since he/she considers it to be legitimate and important and not since they have been conditioned to follow it based on others’ judgement or experience. But, what does one tend to necessarily mean, when the term into consideration is known as ‘free will?’ What does free will as a doctrine of philosophical debate comprise of? Let us understand this by primarily churning out the essence of free will as understood in the Western Philosophical tradition.

Concept of Free Will

The concept of free will or to frame it as the free will problem, focuses upon questions such as, ‘is everything under our control?’ or are there matters outside our control? As a layperson, one might consider that everything is under our control, such as our achievements, failures, choices, likes, dislikes, interests, inclinations, thoughts and perspectives. But, on the contrary, philosophy does not truly support this position of thoughts. It, in fact stresses upon the ones conceiving it in practice, to question the belief that is it truly that we are responsible for our thoughts, actions and behaviors? Philosophy tends to state that miniscule aspects of individuals which define them such as thoughts, feelings, actions as well as domains such as the nature of the Universe are not what we might consider otherwise as being in our control. The free will problem accounts upon facts such as whether we are in control of how we act and what this control involves.

Free Will in the Western Philosophical Tradition

Free Will is often considered as synchronous and closely correlated to moral responsibility. Moral responsibility can be understood as a kind of status that is attached to judgements or suggestive gestures such as blame and praise. This kind of responsibility is considered as quite distinct than the one concerning accountability towards the actions, thoughts and behaviour of others such as those of parents towards their children.

Another concept which is commonly related to this doctrine is that of determinism. It can be considered to be functioning on the premise that at any given time till the very end, the Universe has exactly one physically possible future. Therefore, in other words, we can state that something can be said to be deterministic based upon the fact that it has at least one physically possible outcome ahead of it. It primarily focuses upon the ‘if’ of the existence of things, such as if it were so, then so and so would follow… Since it specifies terms and conditions to determine the existence of something in the Universe, it can be considered that it never implies anything with certainty. It simply defines something as it is based on its own inherent criteria.

Several aspects of the Universe are deterministic and whilst the others aren’t, it might be important to understand that whether free will is compatible with determinism, in defining what then is within one’s control in the Universe.

Several philosophers have deliberated on the given issue by analysing the possibilities of the existence of this doctrine in a deterministic universe. Whether it can exist independently in a deterministic universe is what is termed as the compatibility issue. Those philosophers who consider that free will is essentially incompatible with determinism are termed as incompatibilists. On the other hand, those who consider that free will is compatible with determinism are termed as compatibilists.

But, being an incompatibilist or a compatibilist does not decide whether free will should exist as a concept in the Universe or not. One might be an incompatibilist and still maintain the position that we possess free will or we might we even consider that we as individuals lack free will. Therefore, determinism is just a theory to delve deeper into the realm of free will and not an indicator of its substantial existence.

Another view which correlates itself to free will is that of libertarianism. It proposes the premise that humans possess free will and that it is incompatible with determinism. Libertarianism is also one of the concepts in political philosophy, but it is quite distinct from the one proposing free will. One can be a libertarian of free will even without being the one of political philosophy and vice versa.

Let us now understand the concept through the lens of Derk Pereboom. According to him, “hard incompatibilism emphasizes that incompatibilism is true and that we lack free will.” William James termed hard incompatibilists as hard determinists. Hard determinists are of the view that we do not possess free will because ‘the world is deterministic.’ The most commonly accepted views state that we lack free will, regardless of whether the Universe is deterministic or not and that although freedom might be incompatible with determinism, one simply does not have it.

In order to understand the compatibilism debate in a more provocative sense, one must understand what then is compatibilism. Compatibilism is understood differently in different contexts by different philosophers, some state that it is associated with the “can” or do-ability aspect of anything, whereas some state that it can be identified with one’s motives or values, and yet others emphasize upon responsiveness to reason. One major influential contradiction that has caught attention of Western philosophers is that of “responsibility is compatible with determinism, combined with agnosticism about whether free will understood in a particular way might not be compatible with determinism.” This view is termed as semicompatibilism and John Martin Fischer is considered as one of its prominent supporters.

Conclusively, there are views that do not fit the realms of neither incompatibilism nor compatibilism. One such views is termed as revisionism. The main ideal upon which revisionism builds itself is that the concepts of free will and moral responsibility as observably intertwined in common sense, are in thorough need of revision, but at the same time, they should be kept in mind as potentially useful ideas and should not be abandoned completely. In other words, a revisionist states that the correct amount of free will and moral responsibility easily departs from common sense.



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