d’Holbach: Of the System of Man’s Free Agency

In this reading d’Holbach argues that if we accept science, which he equates with a system of material particles operating according to fixed laws of motion, then we will see that free will is an illusion. There is no such entity as a soul; we are simply material objects in motion, having very complicated brains that lead the unreflective to believe that they are free.

James: The Dilemma of Determinism

James argues that indeterminism—chance—is a feature of the universe that permits “alternative futures” and the possibility of freedom. Free actions are chance happenings.

Stace: Religion and the Modern Mind

Stace tries to reconcile free will with determinism by adopting a compatibilist view of freedom. We seem to be free, yet determinism suggests that our actions are determined by preceding events over which we have no control. The way out of this conflict, says Stace, is to realize that free actions are those that we do because we desire to and that are unconstrained by external forces.

Rowe: Two Concepts of Freedom

Rowe examines two different kinds of freedom—freedom in the Lockean (or compatibilist) sense, and freedom in the Reidian (or libertarian) sense. He argues against compatibilist freedom on the grounds that free actions are made impossible by determinism. He says that the compatibilist conception of freedom must be mistaken, because an agent can do what she wants without external constraints and still not act freely. Real freedom, he contends, is not just the power to act if we will to act, but power over the will itself.

Taylor: Metaphysics

Taylor evaluates the plausibility of hard determinism, compatibilism (soft determinism), simple indeterminism, and the theory of agency. He suggests that there are reasons to doubt the truth of hard determinism—namely, that we all deliberate, and our actions sometimes seem to be up to us. He rejects compatibilism on the grounds that the compatibilist’s notion of free actions (those that are unconstrained and arising from one’s own desires) is nonsense: actions caused by one’s desires aren’t really free if the desires themselves are caused by conditions beyond one’s control. He asserts that simple indeterminism does not make free actions possible, because uncaused actions are random and therefore not free. And he thinks that the only conception of action that accords with our intuitions about free will is agency theory.

Sartre: Existentialism Is a Humanism

In this essay Sartre maintains that humans have complete freedom to create themselves as they see fit. “Existence precedes essence,” he says, which refers to the notion that humans first come into existence and then are totally free to give themselves an essence (a purpose or set of values). Because we have such creative freedom, we are forlorn and anguished. But because we can create our own values and live our own lives, we are also blessed.