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TTC - Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism


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, explaining, "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, regardless of the decisions you make throughout life, a particular fate awaits you.
  • Medieval theologians: St. Augustine, one of Christianity's most important thinkers, maintained the idea that, although salvation was only possible through divine grace, we are still free to make our own decisions. God may know what our decisions are going to be because God is omniscient, Augustine proposed, but the choices are still ours to make. 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 duty to do the right thing, defined as the action we would want everyone else in society to make as well. 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 some believe were inevitable behavior? 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 don't necessarily understand the internal causes of our own behavior. 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. These participants left the room and 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.

TTC - Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism
(24 lectures, 30 minutes/lecture)
Course No. 4235
Taught by Shaun Nichols
University of Arizona
Ph.D., Rutgers University

Course lecture titles


  • 1. Free Will and Determinism—The Basic Debate
  • 2. Fate and Karma
  • 3. Divine Predestination and Foreknowledge
  • 4. Causal Determinism
  • 5. Ancient and Medieval Indeterminism
  • 6. Agent Causation
  • 7. Ancient and Classical Compatibilism
  • 8. Contemporary Compatibilism
  • 9. Hard Determinism
  • 10. Free Will Impossibilism
  • 11. The Belief in Free Will
  • 12. Physics and Free Will
  • 13. Neuroscience and Determinism
  • 14. Neuroscience of Conscious Choice
  • 15. Psychology and Free Will
  • 16. Deontological Ethics and Free Will
  • 17. Utilitarianism and Free Will
  • 18. Responsibility and the Emotions
  • 19. Pessimism and Illusionism
  • 20. Optimism and Skepticism
  • 21. The Ethics of Punishment
  • 22. The Power of Punishment
  • 23. Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy
  • 24. The Future of Responsibility
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Tags: Determinism, philosophers, Debates, Great, choices, question, Philosophical