1. The Garden of Forking Paths
“There is a disputation that will continue till mankind is raised from the dead, between the necessitarians and the partisans of free will.”
These are the words of Jalalu’ddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet and Sufi Muslim philosopher. The problem of free will of which Rumi speaks has arisen in human history whenever humans have reached a higher stage of self-consciousness about how profoundly the world may influence their behavior in ways unknown to them and beyond their control. The advent of doctrines of determinism or necessity in the history of ideas is an indication that this higher stage of awareness has been reached.
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1. Ultimate Responsibility and Free Will
The first question about free will that I believe requires a thorough rethinking is the Compatibility Question: “Is free will compatible or incompatible with determinism?”
Most historical and modern debates about this question have focused on the requirement that free agents must have “open” alternatives or alternative possibilities for action (as in the garden of forking paths). Free agents, it is said, must have the ability or power to act and the ability or power to act otherwise. So when they do act, we can say that they “could have done otherwise.” This “could have done otherwise” condition is now often referred to as the “condition of alternative possibilities,” or AP, for short.
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1. Modernity and Its Challenges to Free Will
Can one make sense of a nondeterminist or libertarian free will described in the preceding section without reducing it to mere chance or mystery, and can such a free will be reconciled with modern scientific views of the world?
Many modern skeptics about such a free will think not. They believe that the traditional idea of being the ultimate source or ground of one’s will and actions is an incoherent and impossible ideal. And they argue that such an idea of free will is outdated and cannot be fitted to modern images of human beings in the natural and human sciences. As one of the more famous of these modern skeptics, Friedrich Nietzsche, put it in his inimitable prose:
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1. Objections and Responses (I): Indeterminism, Causation and Chance
You might find the preceding view of free will interesting and yet still find it hard to shake the intuition that if choices are undetermined, they must happen merely by chance—and so must be “random,” “capricious,” “uncontrolled,” “irrational,” and all the other things usually charged. Such intuitions are deeply rooted in our thinking and difficult to shake. But if we are going to understand free will, I think we have to break old habits of thought supporting such intuitions and learn to think in new ways.
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