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Unformatted text preview: Behavioral Sciences and the Law 25 (2007), 183-201. Free Will in Context: A Contemporary Philosophical Perspective Patrick Grim, B.Phil., Ph.D. Philosophical work on free will, contemporary as well as historical, is inevitably framed by the problem of free will and determinism. One of my goals in what follows is to give a feel for the main lines of that debate in philosophy today. I will also be outlining a particular perspective on free will. Many working philosophers consider themselves Compatibilists; the perspective outlined, building on a number of arguments in the recent literature, is a contemporary form of such a view. It cannot, however, claim to be the contemporary philosophical perspective. There is no such thing. Against a background of the perennial problem of free will and determinism, through ongoing argument and debate, philosophers continue to try to work toward an understanding of precisely what it means for an action to be free. 1. The Dilemma of Determinism The problem of free and will and determinism has much of the impact that it does because it is not a technical problem; it is a question that almost everyone raises in their own thinking at one point or another. Let us start, then, by phrasing the problem as simply as possible: We think of ourselves as facing alternative courses of possible action, deliberating and making choices as to what we shall do. With our choices comes responsibility; our choices are morally right or morally wrong, and we are praiseworthy or blameworthy for those choices. A conception of free will is essential to our conceptions of ourselves, is fundamental to our ethical view of the world, and is central to the system of law, adjudication, and punishment that inherits much of the structure of our moral views. But we also think of the physical universe as governed by natural law. Why does a particular event occur? Because of previous events and because the laws of nature are what they are. The history of the universe is a complex chain or net of events in which later events are the natural consequence of earlier events in accordance with natural law. 1 Both of these conceptions are part of our everyday thinking. Indeed it might be impossible to live the lives we do without both (a) a notion of a comprehensible universe governed by natural law and (b) a conception of free choice and responsibility. And yet these two conceptions appear to collide quite directly in the philosophical problem of free will and determinism. We are creatures in the physical universe. Our actions are therefore events in the history of the universe, and so are produced by earlier events in accord with natural law. Given previous events and the laws of nature, it appears, the events that are our actions were therefore inevitable. So what sense does it make to say we could do otherwise, that we have alternatives, or that we can make genuine choices? If the things we do are simply the result of natural forces, how can we be held morally responsible for them? simply the result of natural forces, how can we be held morally responsible for them?...
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