Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Freedom and determinism

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Every event has its cause(s).

Human actions are events.

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Therefore, every human action has its cause(s).

But if human action is caused/determined, how can we be justifiably held responsible for our actions, punished or blamed, rewarded or praised? How could we have done other than what the causes of our actions determined?

Determinism must be distinguished from fatalism and predestination

Fatalism is the view that whatever a person's actions and whatever the circumstances, the end is inevitable. (This view is illustrated by Greek tragedies such as Oedipus whatever you do, you can't avoid your fate.) This is not determinism. Determinism requires that certain actions and circumstances are antecedent conditions of the determined outcome.

Predestination has been the view of many Christian theologians. It states that every action (and every event, for that matter) is known (and even caused) in advance by God. So, like fatalism, predestination does not depend on any antecedent conditions, unless God is considered to be an antecedent condition (i.e., God as the cause of every event).

Fatalism states that whatever happens, the end result is inevitable.

Predestination states that all events are known in advance by God.

Determinism states that if the antecedent conditions (i.e., causes) are met, then an event (i.e., effect) will necessarily follow.

But there is more to determinism than this, since the possibility still remains that if antecedent conditions are met, human choice (or pure chance) can still operate to bring about some event, at least to some extent. In other words, antecedent conditions may limit the possibilities, but do not fully determine them. We must say that determinism is the view that every event has its sufficient cause(s). This view is known as "hard determinism".

Hard Determinism

The laws of physics operate on the premise that every event has its cause(s) (i.e., the principle of universal causation). The determinist claim is that since humans are physical bodies, just as are planets, stars and billiard balls, humans too are subject to the laws of physics, and therefore everything we do is just as determined as everything else in the universe. There is no room for free choices to be made our actions have their causes, even though those causes may be complex and numerous, and what we call free actions are simply the effects of complex, unknown causes.

Determinism collapses without the premise that universal causation is true. But must we adopt this principle? Kant argued that without universal causation, we could not interpret or understand any experience. Even Hume, who denied that causation could be justified through either reason or experience, insisted that our "habit" of imagining causal relations is indispensable and could not be given up by us even if we wanted to. Leibniz rejected the idea of causation, but insisted on his "Principle of Sufficient Reason", which came to the same thing that every event has its sufficient reason. The general consensus has been that the principle on which determinism is founded is inescapable.


If we see humans as merely physical bodies, then the Newtonian mechanical model of the universe demands that human actions are necessarily determined. But we can think of the determinist's premise as equivalent to saying that if certain antecedent conditions are met, then we can predict that a certain event will occur. With this interpretation of determinism, there may be some room for human freedom, without having to deny the validity of causation.

Many philosophers would defend determinism only in so far as it is predictability on the basis of probability. Thus, to say that every event is determined means that an event is predictable to a certain degree of probability, depending on how much we know about antecedent conditions. But the fact of such predictability is not sufficient to defend determinism, since an event may be predictable on the basis of, for example, statistical probabilities. The predictability may be a prediction of free human choices, and we can predict which choices a person will make because we know how we ourselves would probably choose, given the same circumstances.

Indeterminism is the explicit rejection of determinism. That is, that it is not true that every event has its cause. If we allow that some events are uncaused, human actions may be among those uncaused events.

It was Newtonian physics that gave determinism its strongest claims. The philosopher Pierre Simon La Place boasted that if he were given all the present positions and motions of everything in the universe, then he could predict all future events, provided he had enough time to do the necessary calculations. But modern physics has discovered the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that we cannot know both the location and the momentum of a sub-atomic particle knowing one makes it impossible to know the other. From this principle, Sir Arthur Eddington, Sir Arthur argued that determinism is false on physical grounds. (Note, however, that the Uncertainty Principle is epistemological, not metaphysical. It says something about what we humans can know, not what is.) Every event in the universe is not predictable. Many scientists now agree that the idea of cause does not apply to certain sub-atomic particles. It could be argued that because sub-atomic particles are not determined (which, by the way, not all scientists would concede), and all objects and events involve sub-atomic particles as their constituents, no event is caused or strictly predictable, and therefore not determined. (Of course, many events can be predicted with a large degree of success, but only, according to such arguments, with a high statistical probability, not because of causes.)

There are two serious objections to indeterminism

1. Firstly, even if quantum physics is true, determinism is important as a theory of macroscopic bodies. (Besides, no one has ever concluded that quantum physics is at odds with Newtonian physics. It is rather, a supplement to Newtonian physics.) It may be true that the sub-atomic particles that constitute material objects behave unpredictably, but it does not follow from this that the objects themselves behave unpredictably.

. Secondly, if we suppose that indeterminism is true, it still does not show that humans make free choices. An event that is not determined is not necessarily a free action. It may be that random neurological processes in our brains, arising from pure chance, are actually what is behind the actions that we normally call free choices. Freedom means, at least, that we are free to choose what we shall do, and that decisions we make have some effect. Note that freedom requires that our choices are causes that lead to an effect.

It seems that indeterminism can rob us of our freedom just as much as determinism can!

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