Phil 101: Third Writing Exercise

For this exercise, we’ll give you statements of three views/arguments. These texts are based on some of your submissions from the previous exercise. They are offered as reasonable but not perfect efforts at summarizing and expositing the original passages.

Your task for this week is to choose one of the three texts below, and formulate and motivate/justify an objection to the view or argument it offers. For this exercise, proceed as though all you have to go on are these summary texts; you never saw the original passages. (In particular, don’t offer criticisms of why these might not be perfect summaries of the originals! That’s not what this exercise is about.)

The objection you offer doesn’t have to be one you think is foolproof; it doesn’t even need to be one you yourself endorse and think is correct. It should just be a challenge to the view or argument you’re discussing that you think that position ought to address.

It’s up to you ☺ which of these passages to respond to; it can be the same or different from the passage you chose for the first exercise.

These exercises, like the previous two, will be graded only: High quality/Satisfactory/Low quality. We will grade your more substantial papers anonymously, and so you’ll have to prepare your papers for us to do that, but don’t worry about that for these exercises. For now, make sure your name is on your submission.

Unless/until you hear otherwise from your TAs, submit your exercises to them as PDFs using the course Sakai system by the end of the day (11:59 pm) on Tuesday Feb 1.

Passage 1

Determinism is the belief that the laws of nature permit things to continue in exactly one way. If all our choices are predetermined in that way, this seems to imply that free will does not exist, and only the one choice is really “open” to anyone. But compatibilists argue that determinism and free will can exist together, and multiple choices can still be “open” to us.

What is meant by a choice being open to us, even though we don’t take it? For example, at any point I could throw my computer on the ground and walk away from this assignment. Though I obviously will not be doing so, we think that the option is entirely available to me. If determinism exists, it is guaranteed that this event will not occur; however the compatibilist says the option is still open to me.

Other options are not open to me. I can’t do just anything. What does the compatibilist think makes the difference?

The compatibilist believes it is important to guide behavior with positive or negative reinforcement, depending on the behavior itself. Some may argue from a deterministic perspective that their behavior should not be punished since their choices were not made freely. But the compatibilist replies that in some cases, punishment would not be less effective in changing their behavior. For example, if a child gives their parent the “silent treatment.” If the child was mute, they would have no choice but to remain silent; and in that case there would be no reason to punish them, or benefit from doing so. On the other hand, if the child was not mute and had other choices open to them, then punishing them could be effective in guiding their behavior in the future. Our division of choices into those that are open and those that aren’t is tied to this project of guiding behavior, the compatibilist says.

Passage 2

We think that some people have abilities and others don’t, for example the ability to drive a car. Even if determinism were true, we’d still want to divide people into these different groups.

The way we ordinarily understand abilities, they’re not all the time rapidly coming and going. And you can have abilities that you’re not using right now. The ability doesn’t go away the first instant you’re not using it. Nobody thinks we stop being able to drive a car when we’re not right then behind the wheel.

All that determinism shows is that you sometimes aren’t going to be using an ability. But that doesn’t mean the ability has gone away. You can still be able to drive a car, even at times when it’s determined that you won’t drive it. Even if determinism is true, you might still be able to do other things than you actually do right then.

Passage 3

Two characters are discussing the debate about free will and determinism, and whether the fact that we deliberate is enough to show that free will exists. One view says that when we deliberate, we analyze situations and weigh options until we settle upon a choice, which we then follow through on. The fact that we weigh multiple options and choose one implies that there are multiple possible outcomes when deliberating, contradicting determinism’s assertion that there is only one possible outcome.

The passage presents a challenge to that view. What if a scientist provided electrical signals to the brain that caused the brain to analyze, weigh options in a way that the scientist specifies, and then choose the choice that the scientist intended all along. In that scenario, the act of deliberation would still have taken place with a determined outcome, showing that deliberation can not disprove determinism.

The free will defender rejects this example, saying that true deliberation doesn’t take place there, since there was no real possibility of different outcomes. But the challenger continues that whether or not we say that “true deliberation” takes place, the brain receiving the signals would experience deliberation. This makes a distinction between deliberation as a human experience versus deliberation as a point in time where one of several possible outcomes is chosen. This distinction is critical to the challenge. If deliberation of the second sort really existed, that would disprove determinism, which doesn’t allow for multple possible outcomes. But we cannot prove that deliberation truly allows us multiple possibilities, as we cannot move backwards in time to test if a different outcome could have occurred if a different decision were made. On the other hand, if we consider the human experience of deliberation, we can be more sure that this exists. But that would also be present in the example with the scientist, where the outcome was predetermined. So deliberation in that sense, which is all we know we have, doesn’t disprove determinism.