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Free will

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Free will is a concept of philosophy which states that when people make decisions, they do not need to consider certain things. This means that they decide freely. Free will can be thought of as a philosophical idea - whether we decide what we do, or if nature, destiny or supernatural forces control us. It can also be thought of in a legal way - whether or not you can legally do whatever you want. Sometimes people do not have the legal right to do what they want.

In philosophy

Free will presents a problem when you think about it. One way to see the world is that physics tells us what will happen if we do something. If we throw a ball up, into the air, the ball will fall back down. If the world was only physics, then all of our choices are controlled by past events. This means that our choice to throw the ball or not is determined by some past event. (See determinism) The other way to see the world is that we actually decide what we do. The past does not make us choose something.

Determinism is the concept that events in the past fully determine events in the future. To illustrate this Pierre-Simon Laplace proposed a thought experiment in 1814, which he called Laplace's demon. If determinism is the case, then there can be no free will.

Soft determinism (or Compatibilism) tries to adhere to determinism, but still claims that free will is possible. David Hume had this position. According to Hume, free will is not the ability to make a different decision under the same circumstances. Because there may be slight differences in the circumstances, a different decision was reached. Chrysippos. a stoic philosopher gives the example of a dog which is tied to a cart. This dog can the freely decide to follow the cart. William James coined the term soft determinism in an address titled The dilemma of determinism in 1884. There, James writes "A common opinion prevails that the juice has ages ago been pressed out of the free‐will controversy".[1] James went on to argue, just as did Plutarch, that events fall into two groups: the causally determined and the rest.

"I myself believe that all the magnificent achievements of mathematical and physical science — our doctrines of evolution, of uniformity of law, and the rest — proceed from our indomitable desire to cast the world into a more rational shape in our minds than the shape into which it is thrown there by the crude order of our experience. The world has shown itself, to a great extent, plastic to this demand of ours for rationality. How much further it will show itself plastic no one can say...If a certain formula for expressing the nature of the world violates my moral demand, I shall feel as free to to throw it overboard, or at least to doubt it, as if it disappointed my demand of uniformity of sequence...The principle of causality, for example, — what is it but a postulate, an empty name covering a demand that the sequence of events...manifest a deeper kind of belonging of one thing with another than the mere arbitrary juxtaposition which now phenomenally appears?"
—William James , The Will to Believe, p. 147

In law

The law assumes we have free will. The job of courts is to find out when people do things and what they were thinking when they decided to do it. For example, think of someone who kills someone else. A court tries to figure out (1) if he or she actually killed the other person, and (2) if he or she decided to do it. The courts do not ask the philosophical question above.

In science


In the past, people such as Democritus or the Cārvākans saw the universe as deterministic. Some people thought that getting enough information would allow them to predict perfectly what will happen in the future. Modern science, however, is a mixture of deterministic and stochastic theories.[2]


  1. An address to Harvard Divinity School students in Divinity Hall on March 13, 1884: William James (1886). "The dilemma of determinism". The Will to Believe: And Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (Reprint ed.). Longmans, Green, and Company. pp. 145 ff.  On-line text here
  2. Boniolo, G. and Vidali, P. (1999) Filosofia della Scienza, Milan: Mondadori. ISBN 88-424-9359-7

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