Free Will and Determinism According to William James and Jean-Paul Sartre

The debate of free will and determinism has perplexed philosophers for many years now. The term ‘free will’ is used in Philosophy to denote a particular sort of capacity given to rational agents to select a course of action from various available alternatives (O’Connor para. 1).

Determinism is the philosophical principle claiming that all actions results from foregoing events or natural causes. Advocates of determinism suggest that the concept of free will is an illusion since agents are no more capable of controlling situations with their rational minds than any other irrational matter.

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On their part, advocates of free will argue that a universe in which rational agents do not actually make their own rational choices as suggested by determinism has no morality (“Determinism” para. 2). This paper compares the philosophical thoughts of William James and Jean-Paul Sartre on the concept of free will.

Although James believed in free will purely on ethical grounds, he vehemently argued that neither science nor his own introspections supported the tenets of free will. In Pragmatism, James argued that in situations where one action appears as coherent as the other, there would be no standard whatsoever to judge one action as necessary than the other (Dubin 1).

For example, if an individual is given an alternative of looking to the left or right, there exists no scientific ground to argue that turning to the left is necessary or turning to the right is just a matter of chance.

An advocate of atheistic existentialism, Sartre argued that individuals must rely on their own imperfect will and moral insight since there is no God (O’Connor para 23). Although both philosophers believed in free will, Sartre’s argument seems more atheistically designed to back the existence of free will above anything else.

According to Sartre, man cannot escape from making choices, and must act within his will to make the necessary choices or risk being perceived in bad faith. His strong arguments in favor of free will leave no room whatsoever for determinism. In his argument against determinism, the philosopher argued that individuals had the capacity to ignore any action as real and pretend that another action is real.

For example, one can imagine a piece of bread to be a cake. Although imagination is a powerful thing, the problem arises since advocates of determinism will try to justify the imagination as “one more neurological mechanism, explainable by deterministic principles” (Boeree para. 19). To him, determinism curtails the exercise of free will.

While Sartre completely refuted the notion of determinism, James argued along the lines of hard and soft determinism. According to the philosopher, soft determinists believe that although all actions are determined by preceding events, there exists some form of freedom and moral responsibility for humans to make rational decisions. Hard determinists believe that all human behaviors and actions require them to rebuff the concept of moral responsibility in total since they are prearranged by forces outside their control (Frame para. 2).

James rejects the above positions using the argument of regret. The philosopher questions the rationale behind regretting some actions that happen if it is true that we live in a deterministic world. For instance, determinists must not regret that they failed exams since that action had been prearranged.

In this perspective, James rubbishes the statements and takes a more rational approach of indeterminism, which believes in multiple possible realities. All in all, the above arguments can go on and on without an end in sight. What is important to note at this point is that both philosophers rejected the notions of free will and determinism albeit in varying levels and for different reasons.

Works Cited

Boeree, C.G. Free Will. 2005. Retrieved 5 Nov 2009

Determinism. n.d. Retrieved 5 Nov 2009

Dubin, M. Free Will or Determinism – A Conundrum. 1994. Retrieved 5 Nov 2009

Frame, J.M. Determinism, Chance and Freedom. n.d. Retrieved 5 Nov 2009

Haselhurst, G. Introduction: The Problem of Free Will and Determinism. 2001. Retrieved 5 Nov 2009

O’Connor, T. Free Will. In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 5 Nov 2009

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