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“There is a continuum between free and unfree, with many or most acts lying somewhere in between.” (Abel, 322) This statement is a good summation of how Nancy Holmstrom’s view of free will allows for degrees of freedom depending on the agent’s control over the situation. Holmstrom’s main purpose in her Firming Up Soft Determinism essay was to show that people can have control over the source of their actions, meaning that people can have control over their desires and beliefs, and because of this they have free will. She also tried to show that her view of soft determinism was compatible with free will and moral responsibility. While Holmstrom’s theory about the self’s being in control, willingness to participate, and awareness of an act causes the act to be free, has some merit, her choice to incorporate soft determinism ultimately proved to invalidate her theory.
In Nancy Holmstrom’s Firming Up Soft Determinism essay she set out to prove that people can have control over their desires and beliefs, and therefore are in control of the sources of their actions. She believed it was possible to carry on the view of soft determinism and still hold that we are free to choose and we are at times able to do otherwise. She believed that the standard soft determinist position was inadequate. Her thought was that soft determinists had too limited of a notion of what is required for an agent to be in charge of their actions. The common soft determinist stance was that the
agent do what it pleased; the soft determinists simply ignore the question of whether the agent was in control of the sources that caused the actions. Holmstrom’s theory was that “just because some causes of desires and beliefs, such as brainwashing, make actions resulting from them unfree, it does not follow that any cause of desires and beliefs has the same implications for the freedom of actions resulting from them.” (Abel, 321)
Holmstrom believed that the notion of having control is the heart of the notion of freedom. In order to have control by Holmstrom’s theory the agent must be an important part of the causal process, and the agent must also be aware of its control. An example of this is illustrated by a person accidentally squashing an ant while walking. While the person did play an important part in the demise of the ant, the person was not aware of the action; therefore, the person was not in control of the ant’s life.
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Holmstrom viewed what is free and unfree on a continuum rather than a definite point for each. She didn’t believe there was a definite line between what is free and unfree; rather a person is more or less free according to how close they are to the free end of the continuum. A person’s degree of freeness depends on whether they are in some degree of control and whether they are aware of this control. There is very little black and white it Holmstrom’s theory, it is more a combination of shades of gray.
The greatest challenge toward Holmstrom’s theory is the very thing that she was trying to incorporate into her theory; that being soft determinism. Soft determinism by definition is having free will and moral responsibility; while not being able to act otherwise. If you are not able to act otherwise it is not possible to have free will. And if you do not have free will and you are not in control, then it is ludicrous to say that you are morally responsible for acting in a way that you could not have done otherwise.
IV. Defense of Thesis
The very idea of determinism is simply a way of attributing the cause of everything to outside sources other than the self. It is like playing the blame game and never finding fault in you. There are two version of determinism: hard and soft. Hard determinists say that you are not free, nor do you have moral responsibility, and you could not have acted otherwise. While soft determinists say that you have free will, and have moral responsibility, but still could not have acted otherwise.
If I were to choose the one version that made more sense, I would choose hard determinism since it isn’t as contradictory as soft determinism. If you are unable to act otherwise then you are not in control and therefore you have no free will. The idea that one could not have acted otherwise is very close to the idea of pre-determinism, being that if you could not have acted otherwise then is must have been pre-determined. And if everything is pre-determined then there can be no free will, since we have no choice in how we act.
Soft determinists argue that the reason that we still have free will even though we couldn’t have acted otherwise is because what is caused internally is free, but what is externally caused is not free. Again this is seemly contradictory since we couldn’t have acted otherwise. It simply traces everything out in a causal network of A=B and B=C and so forth. It merely portrays humans by a behaviorist point of view, in that we could not have acted otherwise because it is our instinct that makes us do what we do and our instinct is beyond rational thought and choice.
Determinism in itself simply breaks humans down to non-rational, unthinking animals. The very idea of determinism takes away from our ability to choose. Whether it is the hard determinist view of having no free will and being unable to act otherwise, or the soft determinist view of free will and yet still being unable to act otherwise, it simply shows that humans are predestined to act as they acted and therefore, regardless of what people say about soft determinism, are not in control and will never be in control until they can act in a way other than what they would be thought to act.
I believe that Holmstrom was on the right path with her idea of control and how you must play an important part of an act and be aware of it for the act to be free. This part of her theory in my opinion is correct, but her part about soft determinism being compatible with free will and moral responsibility is totally off base. Humans are not always in control of the situations they are in, nor do they always have free will to decide how to act, but for the most part humans consciously make decisions to act in one way or another and therefore have freewill.
While Holmstrom’s idea that to be in control you must be aware and willing in order for an act to be free is feasible, she was incorrect that soft determinism could be compatible with such a view. All she did was change the definition of what it was to be a
soft determinist so that it would appear to fit with her theory, but upon examination one can view the contradictory nature of her theory and in fact any determinist theory that tries to say we have free will while being unable to act otherwise. In order for an act to be free we must be in control of the action, we must be aware of the control, we must be willing to do the action, and we must be able to choose to do otherwise. So while Holmstrom’s theory has some merit, her choice to incorporate soft determinism ultimately proved to invalidate her theory.
Holmstrom, Nancy. Firming Up Soft Determinism. In Fifty Readings in Philosophy,
Ed. Donald C. Abel, 2nd ed (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2004), pp. 319-332.
Donald C. Abel. Fifty Reading in Philosophy. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill,