Soft Determinism Explained

Trying to reconcile free will and determinism

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Soft determinism is the view that determinism and free will are compatible. It is thus a form of compatibilism. The term was coined by the American philosopher William James (1842-1910) in his essay “The Dilemma of Determinism.”

Soft determinism consists of two main claims:

1. Determinism is true. Every event, including every human action, is causally determined. If you selected vanilla rather than chocolate ice cream last night, you could not have chosen otherwise given your exact circumstances and condition. Someone with enough knowledge of your circumstances and condition would have been able, in principle, to predict what you would choose.

2. We act freely when we are not constrained or coerced. If my legs are tied, I am not free to run. If I hand over my wallet to a robber who is pointing a gun at my head, I am not acting freely. Another way of putting this is to say that we act freely when we act on our desires.

Soft determinism contrasts with both hard determinism and with what is sometimes called metaphysical libertarianism. Hard determinism asserts that determinism is true and denies that we have free will. Metaphysical libertarianism (not to be confused with the political doctrine of libertarianism) says that determinism is false since when we act freely some part of the process leading up to the action (e.g. our desire, our decision, or our act of will) is not predetermined.

The problem soft determinists face is that of explaining how our actions can be both predetermined but free. Most of them do this by insisting that the notion of freedom, or free will, be understood in a particular way. They reject the idea that free will must involve some strange metaphysical capacity that each of us has–namely, the ability to initiate an event (e.g. our act of will, or our action) which is not itself causally determined. This libertarian concept of freedom is unintelligible, they argue, and at odds with the prevailing scientific picture. What matters to us, they argue, is that we enjoy some degree of control over and responsibility for our actions. And this requirement is met if our actions flow from (are determined by) our decisions, deliberations, desires, and character. 

The Main Objection to Soft Determinism

The most common objection to soft determinism is that the notion of freedom it holds onto falls short of what most people mean by free will. Suppose I hypnotize you, and while you are under hypnosis I plant certain desires in your mind: e.g. a desire to get yourself a drink when the clock strikes ten. On the stroke of ten, you get up and pour yourself some water. Have you acted freely? If acting freely simply means doing what you want, acting on your desires, then the answer is yes, you acted freely. But most people would see your action as unfree since, in effect, you are being controlled by someone else. 

One could make the example still more dramatic by imagining a mad scientist implanting electrodes in your brain and then triggering in you all sorts of desires and decisions which lead you to perform certain actions. In this case, you would be little more than a puppet in someone else’s hands; yet according to the soft determinist notion of freedom, you would be acting freely.

A soft determinist might reply that in such a case we would say you are unfree because you are controlled by someone else. But if the desires, decisions, and volitions (acts of will) that govern your actions are really yours, then it is reasonable to say that you are in control, and hence acting freely. The critic will point out, though, that according to the soft determinist, your desires, decisions, and volitions–in fact, your entire character–are ultimately determined by other factors that are equally outside your control: e.g. your genetic make up, your upbringing, and your environment. The upshot is still that you do not, ultimately, have any control over or responsibility for your actions. This line of criticism of soft determinism is sometimes referred to as the “consequence argument.”

Soft Determinism in Contemporary Times

Many major philosophers including Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and Voltaire have defended some form of soft determinism. Some version of it is still probably the most popular view of the free will problem among professional philosophers. Leading contemporary soft determinists include P. F. Strawson, Daniel Dennett, and Harry Frankfurt. Although their positions typically fall within the broad lines described above, they offer sophisticated new versions and defenses. Dennett, for instance, in his book Elbow Room, argues that what we call free will is a highly developed ability, that we have refined in the course of evolution, to envisage future possibilities and to avoid those we don’t like. This concept of freedom (being able to avoid undesirable futures) is compatible with determinism, and it’s all we need. Traditional metaphysical notions of free will that are incompatible with determinism, he argues, are not worth saving.

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Westacott, Emrys. "Soft Determinism Explained." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Westacott, Emrys. (2020, August 26). Soft Determinism Explained. Retrieved from Westacott, Emrys. "Soft Determinism Explained." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 1, 2023).