International Society for Philosophers

International Society for Philosophers

Wisdom begins with wonder

PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS                   ISSN 2043-0728


Issue number 180 15th November 2013

Edited by Martin Jenkins


I. 'The Theme of Freedom, Choice and Responsibility in the Philosophy of Existence: A Critical Appraisal' by Helen T. Olojede

II. 'The Selfish Genes Doctrine: Progressive Research Program or Modern Phlogiston?' by Jurgen Lawrenz

III. 'Allowing for Every Contingency. A Dialogue on Determinism, Contingency and Free Will' by Raam Gokhale

From the List Manager

IV. Erwin Laya 'Letter from the Philippines'

V. Sharon Kaye 'Call for Papers: What's Wrong With Childhood Today?'



This edition of Philosophy Pathways centres on one issue of 'the human condition'; namely are human beings agents, free to create ourselves or, are there factors which determine who and what we are and become? That is the perennial issue of Free Will or Determinism.

Helen T. Olojede of the Department of Philosophy, University of Ibadan in Nigeria critically appraises the issue through the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre maintained a phenomenological view wherein nothingness surrounds being forcing us to be free; a view Olojede critically supports. Without this, human beings cannot realize themselves as human beings.

Pathways contributor and Panel member of Ask a Philosopher Jurgen Lawrenz approaches the issue by a critical examination of the Selfish Gene Theory of Richard Dawkins. In response to the article by Michael Uhall in Philosophy Pathways Issue 175, Lawrenz takes to task the contention that genes wholly determine the human being. I found this a welcome article challenging the uncritical belief promulgated in the popular media that genetics totally determines who and what we are.

Finally, in dialogue form, drawing on Aristotle's example of the 'Sea Battle', Raam Gokhale analyses the issues of necessity, indeterminism, determinism and contingency concerning human activity. The dialogue does not come to a definite conclusion but expresses the different perspectives concerning whether we human beings freely choose or whether other factors incline or determine our being.

Martin Jenkins


About the Editor: https:---




The focus of this paper is to examine critically the tripartite but inextricably linked theme of freedom, choice and responsibility in existential philosophy using Jean-Paul Sartre as foil. In doing this, the paper looks at the idea of existentialism, followed by an analysis of freedom and its relation to liberty and to the Other. It examines the idea of determinism and Sigmund Freud and B.F Skinner's theories on human nature.

Keywords: Existentialism, Freedom, Choice, Responsibility, Determinism.


What necessitates this paper are certain recurring themes in the works of existential philosophers. One such theme found is that of freedom, choice and responsibility which this work analyses in the ideas of Sartre; Sartre being a philosopher who dwelled more on it. It is in this light that the paper opens with a general discussion of existentialism, its emergence and the central position. It goes further to examine the idea of freedom, its relationship with liberty; the aim is to have a clear understanding of the concept and be able to grasp Sartre's notion of freedom. The third part discusses the theme and how they are all related to another; a critique is equally attempted at this point. Sigmund Freud and B.F Skinner's opposing views of freedom in terms of determinism were also briefly examined. In the conclusion, the paper offers its own thoughts and suggestions as to Sartre's idea of freedom and why his notion should be preferred to a contrasting one.


Existentialism is the philosophy of existence; it is concerned with the nature of human existence, its values and its meanings. Existentialism arose as a backlash against traditional philosophy which was preoccupied with abstract essence rather than existence. Existentialist philosophers are concerned with concrete human existence, that is, what it means for human beings to exist; they analyse and describe the peculiar characteristics of human existence. Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1946 lecture Existentialism is Humanism says 'by existentialism we mean a doctrine which makes human life possible and in addition, declares that every truth and every action implies a human setting and a human subjectivity'.[1]

A central proposition of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, meaning that human being's existence comes before and his more fundamental than any meaning which may be ascribed to human life. Existentialists hold widely differing views about human existence, but there are still a number of recurring themes in their writings like: Factical thrownness, Authenticity and inauthenticity, Despair, Angst, Anguish, Death, Man and the World, Freedom Choice and determinism etc.[2]

Freedom conceptualised

The term freedom connotes different things in different contexts. It is sometimes used interchangeably with the term liberty, there is however a very subtle difference between them that is hardly taken note of. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg suggests that many languages do not distinguish between 'liberty' and 'freedom'. Nunberg concedes that 'even in English, the words can sometimes seem to be equivalent.' However, Nunberg notes a distinction:

     ... liberty implies a system of rules, a 'network of
     restraint and order,' hence the word's close association
     with political life. Freedom has a more general meaning,
     which ranges from an opposition to slavery to the absence
     of psychological or personal encumbrances... [3]

In political philosophy, freedom is usually conceived in two different senses, in terms of negative and positive freedom. The former has to do with freedom in terms of what is not the case. Freedom in this view amount to freedom form compulsion, coercion and constraint. If there are ranges of options open to us so that we are constrained in our choice, then we do what we do freely. The positive type however, suggest that there is more to freedom than the absence of compulsion, coercion and constraint. To have positive freedom we must be free of all these and also have the capacity and understanding to exercise autonomy. Political freedom is also regarded as freedom in terms of negative and positive. It is understood negatively as freedom from external constraints of actions, while the positive aspect has to do with exercise of rights. This concept of political freedom is connected to equality, civil liberties and human rights.[4]

Freedom, choice and responsibility

This theme can be found in the works of several existential philosophers, but Jean Paul Sartre wrote much more on the subject. He defined freedom thus:

     The very being of the For-itself which is 'condemned to be
     free' and must forever choose itself -- i.e., make itself.
     'To be free' does not mean 'to obtain what one has wished'
     but rather 'by oneself to determine oneself to wish' (in
     the broad sense of choosing). In other words success is not
     important to freedom.[5]

Sartre's central assertion in this regard is that man is condemned to be free, that there is no limit to our freedom except that we are not free to cease being free. He reaches this conclusion about the nature of human freedom through his notion of consciousness, that consciousness is always that of something and can never be empty. Sartre spoke of freedom in purely negative terms as the human capacity to negate, nihilate and withdraw from the material things and situations. He believed we are condemned to free because we had no choice in the matter of being free because we are thrown into this world by chance. This is what Heidegger called 'factical thrownness in his philosophy.[6]

Stemming from this, we are responsible for our actions, for what we do in an absolute sense because it is believed that man is capable of realizing his essential finitude, to seize upon his circumstances and actualize his historical possibilities, that is, develop his potentials. Choice is therefore central to human existence; the refusal to choose is by itself a choice, freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility. Because individuals are free to choose their own path, existentialists have argued that they must accept the risks and responsibilities of following their commitments wherever it leads. These thoughts therefore show how the concepts, freedom, choice and responsibilities (commitment) are intertwined.[7]

Sartre's idea of freedom however raises certain questions. It could be asked whether man is actually totally free without any factor determining the choice of his actions. Determinism is the direct opposite of the statement that man is free. Determinism states that everything that happened is determined by prior causes, which means that we have no control over what we choose and that our choices are determined. Certain theories on human nature have also buttressed the position that we are not free as Sartre made us to believe.[8]

The psychologist, Sigmund Freud, says that all phenomena are determined by the laws of physics and chemistry. He argues that instinctive drives are internal in man, psychological factors like the environment, parental influences are various factors that determine man's freedom. B.F Skinner also opines that genetic factors influence and determine the actions of man because they cannot be manipulated. These and many other theories have come to posit that humans are not 'condemned to be free' as Sartre has made us to believe.[9]

It is pertinent to note that Sartre's concept of freedom does not exclude the Other; on the contrary, it recognises the awareness of the Other. '...the fact of the Other is incontestable and touches me to the heart...'[10] He did not conceive of man as being free in the sense man being the only one in the world or as some form of solipsism like Rene Descartes, rather, although he emphasised existential subjectivity, he also gives room for existential intersubjectivity. This intersubjectivity does not limit the freedom of the individual as Sartre opines, but simply acknowledges that there are other subjectivities. Each individual is still supposed to realise his essential finitude and intersubjectivity does not hinder this.[11]

Sartre declares, 'I must have contact with another person, the other is indispensable to my own existence, as well to my knowledge about myself, this being the case in discovering my own inner being, I discover the other person at the same time...'[12] When therefore existentialism emphasises man's individual nature, they do so to enable him to determine himself from within; that man should assert his distinctive character does not argue the case that man is an isolated being on an island. If we refuse to assert our individuality, we have no one but ourselves to blame. Man to the existentialists is totally free.


Although, Sartre's idea of freedom has received a wide range of criticisms, his conception of freedom could be more appreciated if we understand and interpret Sartre as out to make man responsible for his actions and not resort to making cheap excuses for the actions he carried out willingly. This is because; man is known to easily blame his actions on one force or the other. In Sartre's attempt to do this however, we could see him making frantic efforts to defend the concept of freedom. This is probably what made him say that obstacles are not enough to stop man's projects because to him, freedom is the freedom to change our environment, to surmount obstacles. To have a good understanding of Sartre's concept of freedom, one has to have it in mind that he is an atheist and that he believes that the Christian God or religion does not enable one to take responsibility. This is probably the reason he conceives of man as being absolutely free with no restriction. His philosophy I think is reactionary against religion or the Christian teachings.

This paper makes a case for Sartre's 'supposed' exaggerated freedom as against the theory of determinism, this is because, the former spurs one on, it breeds hope, courage, and optimism. This idea is not without obvious shortcomings of course, but I think it is a better idea to have. The reason being that, if we are too conscious of the fact that we are determined by some factors beyond our control, there is always the high probability to relent and relax in the face of challenges and obstacles. If we understand Sartre in this light, his concept of freedom will be better appreciated and probably advocated.


1. Basic Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, pp.2643-2650; Gleen Bradock, 'Sartre on Atheism, Freedom, and Morality : The Humanism of Existentialism' in Christine Daigle (edited) Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics . (McGill-Queens University Press 2003) pp. 95-107 ; Jean Paul Sartre, 'Existentialism as a Humanism', in Walter Kauffman, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, (Meridian Books, 1960) pp. 286-295

2. Nick Gier, Two types of Existentialism, A Paper presented at the Northwest Conference on Philosophy, Seattle Pacific University, November 20, 1976. Available at: http:---; see also, Joseph Omoregbe, A Simplified History of Western Philosophy vol.3 (Joja Educational Research, 2005) 44-55

3. Geoffrey Nunberg, 'Freedom and Liberty'. Available at: http:--- (accessed on May 1st 2011).

4. Political Freedom , available at http:--- (accessed on 1st June 2011).

5. Rob Harle, (1999) 'Condemned To be Free'. Available at http:--- (accessed on May23rd 2011).

6. Joseph Omoregbe, A Simplified History of Western Philosophy vol.3 ( Lagos: Joja Educational Research, 2005), 44-48; Jim Unah, Heidegger: Through Kant to Fundamental Ontology (Ibadan: Hope Publication 1997) p. xxii; F.F Seeburger, Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. xxxvi, (December 1979, No 2), pp.212-221

7. Ibid; A.C. Odesanmi 'Jean Paul Sartre and the concept of Determinism,' in Global Journal of Humanities, Vol. 7, No.1&2, 2008, pp85-89

8. Inwagen P. 'The incompatibility of freewill and determinism', in Philosophical studies, 27, 1975, pp.185-199

9. Ibid.

10. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness p.63

11. Omoregbe, op.cit., pp. 104-107

12. Ibid.


Basic Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy

Daigle Christine. (edited) Existentialist Thinkers and Ethics, Mcgill-Queens University Press, 2003

Gier Nick. Two types of Existentialism, A Paper presented at the Northwest Conference on Philosophy, Seattle Pacific University, November 20, 1976.

Harle Rob. (1999) 'Condemned To be Free'. Available at http:--- (accessed on May23rd 2011).

Kauffman Walter. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, Meridian Books, 1960

Nunberg Geoffrey. 'Freedom and Liberty' Available at: http:--- (accessed on May 1st 2011).

Odesanmi A.C. 'Jean Paul Sartre and the concept of Determinism,' in Global Journal of Humanities, Vol. 7, No.1&2, 2008

Omoregbe Joseph. A Simplified History of Western Philosophy vol.3 Ibadan: Joja Educational Research, 2005

Political Freedom , available at http:--- (accessed On 1st June 2011

Sartre Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness

Seeburger F.F. Journal of Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, vol. xxxvi, No. 2, December, 1979

Unah Jim Heidegger: Through Kant to Fundamental Ontology Ibadan: Hope Publication 1997

(c) Helen T. Olojede 2013

Department of Philosophy University of Ibadan Nigeria




Michael Uhall issued a challenge to the 'Selfish Gene Doctrine' in the October 2012 issue of this Journal, which the reader should consult before perusing my paper. I intend to pick up some of his points and throw light from a different perspective on them. Basically because Uhall does not go far enough in his critique and implicitly accepts some of the grounding tenets of the doctrine. It seems to me that, far from being (as he calls it) 'a potentially progressive research program', it is a red herring and flatly contradicts the fundamental tenets of the life sciences, to which nonetheless it claims to be making a contribution.

Accordingly I need to point out two problems even before I begin with issues. The first is verbal: The term 'selfish gene'. It seems not to have occurred to disputants that it is an intentional term and therefore radical nonsense, since a gene is a thing and hence cannot be selfish. We should not blithely concede it as metaphorical language, since the doctrine does not frame its arguments in metaphorical terms, but insinuates (strongly!) a scientific grounding.

The second is the assertion that the target of evolution is 'the gene'. No self-respecting evolutionist would agree -- indeed the theory of evolution would collapse if this claim could be confirmed. The target of selection is organisms. Genes are not equipped for survival, but organisms are; and for this purpose the organism utilises resources for which genes engender no forms of specification whatever, namely subjective characters such as the will to survive and appropriate survival strategies. An ancillary negative point is the complete disregard by this doctrine of epigenetic features with their demonstrable capacity for overriding genetically produced physical features.

Immediately we have made ourselves aware of these two question marks on the doctrine, we cannot escape querying the initial premise that 'only the replicator is heritable.' Every Tom, Dick and Harry on the street would raise eyebrows at this assertion; and rightly so, because it not only sounds improbable, but is a mere paper thought that rides roughshod over the innumerable characters passed on by parents to their offspring which belong into the class of transmissions that are (as Cairns-Smith calls them) the 'hands off' part of the cycle. I might mention instincts as typical candidates, since nothing on the genome could possibly contain a specification for them. But in truth there are more of these than we could count; and this brings a criterion of this doctrine to light which is suppressed to such an extent that no-one even seems to have the courage to speak of it. Namely, that the selfish gene doctrine has very little evidence and nothing resembling a proof in its favour.

Indeed, it seems to have been completely overlooked by its proponents that the genome contains no specification for life, which one would expect to be absolutely indispensable. Hence the question remains unanswered of how life is added to the chemical materials of which bodies are constructed. For without such a gene we have no explanation why living bodies differ from non-living bodies -- and, for that matter, why with all our science and know-how, we have not gained an iota of understanding of how the proteins are actually made that are so clearly specified on the genome. In a word: The doctrine is helpless in the face of the autonomous agency and intentional character of the 'products' of these chemical assemblies.

As a philosopher I should not pass over an aspect of this doctrine that could (at your choice) be described as 'purblind', 'pernicious' or 'dehumanising', depending on the life form under consideration. In respect to human life is undoubtedly all three, since the thrust of all its arguments is a genetic determinism imbued with a radical fatality that makes us all victims of a blind mechanism, thereby turning humans into machines for the replication of genes. I cannot think of any fatalistic doctrine more calculated than this to sap life of all meaning and purpose. This is pretty much the exact opposite of what our Western scientific and philosophical enterprise has sought to provide in its emphasis on enlightenment. What we get here is a pitch black picture of the utter futility of conscious human life.

I don't think any reader should take this to be a rhetorical over-emphasis. Rather, the boot on this issue is on the other foot. As mentioned, for a 'theory' that is in reality a mere conjecture and lacks the most elementary verification routines, to put its chest out and promulgate its 'scientific' authority in way that influences society in its educational and even legal systems, is pretty damning. But I shall leave it to readers to draw any such conclusions themselves.

Accordingly it is worth dwelling for a moment on the term 'adaptation' which is central to the theory of evolution. I invite readers to take on board the intentional flavour of the word. Adaptation is 'tinkering', change by trial and error. I would like to be shown a gene that encourages living creatures to tinker, and even more so to enact strategies for their survival, so that they will indeed live long enough to pass on their genes. But this is merely one of the innumerable holes in this doctrine.

Throughout the arguments brought up by Uhall, one also misses the mention of the infraction of Cricks' Dogma that has been put on notice since evidence of reverse transcription came to light in the study of yeast (and since then in other types of organisms). It is probably too close to Lamarckism for the comfort of Darwinists; but it needs to be said that life is not rigidly bound to one or the other. Science must be adaptive too. The selfish gene doctrine is unadaptive in principle and consequently dogmatic in high degree. On this score alone it should raise suspicions on how long we can fly with it before it runs out of fuel.

Uhall, instead, finds ontological problems. That's a pleasing philosophical stance, otherwise sorely inconspicuous in this literature. But I think he hampers himself by clinging too closely to the dogmatic line of enquiry. He assumes, as others do, that 'a gene is a functional unit'. It is nothing of the kind. Genes don't function; they are not machines. They are (Cairns-Smith again) analogous to a recipe. So the decisive criterion is hardly that a chromosomal segment may become 'invisible' to selection, but that the entire genome is invisible.

Further, the idea that the genome is an unchanging identity cannot be upheld, since mutation is the rule rather than the exception; and further that as things, genes are subject to the corruption that affects all things. Iron bars left exposed to wind and weather will rust; and so genes, left to themselves, go on a curve of disintegration from the moment they are formed and need the attention of a substantial 'staff' of enzymes whose job it is to repair the damage -- which is not ever going to transpire without hiccups. But the mutation of genes is common knowledge, which therefore makes one wonder what this queer insistence on 'unchanging identity' is supposed to accomplish.

While on this subject, there is an additional caveat to be observed respecting the presumed 'functionality' of genes -- I would say, a fatal infraction of the selfish gene proposition. A great swag of all genes (apparently the majority) are what I call contingency genes. What they release are not muscle or glandular or nerve cells, but cells that become glands, muscles, nerves etc., depending on the feedback of the environment. This feedback is not directed at the genes, but the organism, which thereupon constructs the cells as needed. For example, it stands to reason that the perceptive environment at the North Pole will differ significantly from the Amazonian jungle: accordingly the sensory equipment of a (human or animal) baby born into such habitat will vary significantly. It further stands to reason that if genes were as deterministic as we are led to believe, then (say) an orphan born to an Amazonian native, but brought up by French parents in Paris, would be very ill-equipped for life. We know this is not the case.

Therefore Uhall's critique of the ontologically dubious status of genes is well placed.

I wish finally to deal, very briefly, with the stress placed on altruism in Uhall's critique (which is indeed a sore point and frequently debated). It is entirely unnecessary, except insofar as some animals also exhibit altruistic behaviour. As far as humans are concerned, almost everything from poetry and pottery, aeroplanes and agriculture, politics and plastics to jokes and (indeed!) genetic theories is inexplicable under the terms of genetic theories. Which brings me to an eloquent passage written by Cairns-Smith in his book (from which I have already quoted) Seven Clues to the Origin of Life.

This author is very much in league with molecular genetics and compiled a seriously intended breviary of chemical wisdom in support of a theory of origin from the dirt of the Earth. But he remains wary enough to wonder some way into his book whether the whole effort may be worth nothing more than the funny old phlogiston doctrine. It was a coherent theory, he writes, which explained everything to perfection. But it gave this appearance because of the 'comprehensiveness of its error: it was almost exactly the opposite of what is the case. For 'phlogiston' read 'absence of oxygen'...' (p. 33-4).

Curiously his own doctrine cracks its head on the same brick wall, with its inconclusive conclusion about 'Gene-1' and its correlation to life (which one might call the 'from dirt to life syndrome'. The selfish gene doctrine is even worse. But what, at bottom, is really wrong with it?

Elementary, dear Watson!

Genes are neither intentional nor functional entities. They are a pure information repository of organisms; and it is organisms that initiate and carry through all the supposed functions of genes. Accordingly, paraphrasing Cairns-Smith: 'For 'selfish genes' read 'selfish organisms' and everything comes out right!'

So much so that the evolutionary facts as we know them point unequivocally in the opposite direction to what Cairns-Smith, Dawkins & Co. would have us believe. Namely that genes are products of the self-sustaining strategies of organisms. In other words, the 'inventors' of genes are organisms, not Lady Fortune, nor the roulette wheel at Monte Carlo, RNA, nucleotides or any of the other improbable candidates for extracting life from lifeless materials and processes. But I obviously cannot put this theory into two sentences; and so for the reader curious to follow it up, here is a link to a full account:


PS: Apart from the two references in the text, no footnotes appear in this paper because it is entirely self-quoting.

(c) Jurgen Lawrenz 2013




     'Though atoms fall straight downward through the void... yet
     at uncertain times and at uncertain points, they swerve a
     bit - enough that one may say they changed direction.'
     - Lucretius.
     'You will say that I feel free. This is an illusion, which
     may be compared to that of the fly in the fable, who, upon
     the pole of a heavy carriage, applauded himself for
     directing its course. Man, who thinks himself free, is a
     fly who imagines he has power to move the universe, while
     he is himself unknowingly carried along by it.'
      - Baron d'Holbach
     'The mechanics of free will is inconceivable to mankind.'
     - Kedar Joshi

Scene and Players: Ram, Kedar, Sushama are at the vegetarian restaurant Wadeshwar in Pune in deference to Kedar's and Sushama's dietary restrictions.

Kedar: You know Sushama, Ram tends to use American idioms for his titles, though they may be entirely over the heads of 'benighted natives' like us. What did you have in mind, Ram?

Ram: Now that's unfair: I am considerate of Indian preferences, our eating vegetarian here's a case in point. Re the title, I'm afraid you got me 'caught between a rock and a hard place'. Oops I'm sorry: that's an American idiom isn't it? Well I trust it's transparent enough.

Anyway the title is not particularly idiomatic. It's just part of a quote I myself thought up, but knowing how you frown upon my quoting myself, I'd determined to use it only in the body of the dialogue. The quote is: 'The will finds its freedom in determining its course by allowing for every contingency'. The title is thus just the last four words of the quote, a quote of a quote if you will, hence perhaps doubly a sin. But don't ask me to elaborate upon it just yet. I want to save it for a later more dramatic point in the dialogue, a true denouement.

Sushama: Hmm... the Lucretius quote addresses determinism and contingency. Baron d'Holbach's and Kedar's quotes -- we really should frown on any of us quoting ourselves -- both address free will and determinism. Your quote seems to have the dubious distinction of referencing all three. I say dubious because the quote seems artificially constructed to use 'free will', 'determinism' and 'contingency' by hook or crook in one sentence.

Huh... 'hook or crook' -- is that an American or Indian idiom?

Kedar: Neither. It's British so imported to India and America... though in a dialogue about free will you might do better to use 'willy-nilly', which I think means the same thing.

But I have to agree with you. Ram's quote only makes me think of another reason he shouldn't quote himself: he isn't very good. Still with the 'denouement' comment, he clearly seems to have something in mind...

Ram: All in good time people. For now I suggest we start at the beginning. Don't you find it surprising that at the dawn of science when good causal explanations were the rarity, people were deterministic?

Sushama: Not at all. Although science brings with it determinism because it explains everything, it also brings with it a confidence in the power of the will because it enables us through technology to control everything. So at the dawn of science when people wielded less power over their environment, you might expect to find more fatalists hence determinists.

The crucial question for us though is not were people deterministic but were philosophers. And that they certainly were.

Ram: Yes -- I'm sure you know the history. The first philosophers, the Ionians, were identified as such because they eschewed mythological explanations in favour of physicalist or materialistic ones. So they were probably deterministic. And certainly by the time -- 5th century B.C. -- of Democritus and Leucippus, the first atomists, we had an explicit statement of determinism, namely Leucippus' quote, 'Nothing occurs at random, but everything for a reason and by necessity.'

That is one type of determinism: physical determinism. Then with Aristotle's De Interpretatione, we have a different type: logical determinism. The puzzle Aristotle puts forth is as follows: Let S be 'There will be a sea battle tomorrow.' Then by excluded middle we can say S or not-S, or It's true that (S or not-S). Therefore it's true today that S or it's true today that not-S. So it would seem whether there is going to be a sea battle tomorrow, its truth-value, is already determined today and indeed for everyday since the beginning of time. The people on the ships can just sit idly and let it happen... what will happen will happen regardless of whether they act or not.

So logical and physical -- these are the two broad classifications of determinism even to the present day, and to me it's surprising they were known to the ancients.

Kedar: Thanks for the history lesson, Ram. But can't we deny logical determinism by maintaining that truth doesn't distribute across disjunctions, that it is true that (S or not-S) but not (it is true that S or it is true that not-S)?

Sushama: Very good Kedar. That's the denial of bivalence move that Aristotle himself proposed. For him future contingents have no truth value. I myself don't find the solution very satisfactory. After all, 'There will be a sea battle tomorrow' and 'There won't be a sea battle tomorrow' are both meaningful sentences, not at all questionable like 'This sentence is false'; they should have a truth value. Anyway, the medieval philosophers were obsessed with this problem which they recast in terms of God's foreknowledge. If God knows whether S is true or not-S is true for every sentence S, how can there be any contingency, in particular, how can there be anything like free will which Christianity explicitly requires?

I think the solution is not to deny that truth distributes across disjunctions, as did Aristotle and certain medieval philosophers, but that necessity does. Thus it is necessary that (it is true that (S or not-S)). It is also necessary that (it is true that S or it is true that not-S), so truth distributes. But contingency is preserved because it doesn't follow that necessity distributes, that it doesn't follow that (it is necessarily true that S) or (it is necessarily true that not-S). The sailors on the ships better do their jobs because though only one of S or not-S is true, the other could be true.

Kedar: In defence of Aristotle, it must be emphasized that the true proposition in S or not-S -- say, 'There won't be a sea-battle tomorrow', since we're all pacifists -- is true for all time. Aristotle's point is that after all, what other earmarks besides timelessness can we demand of necessary propositions? This is not my position but if we defend heathens like Aristotle maybe others will defend heathens like us.

Ram: Well, 'There won't be a sea battle tomorrow' is true timelessly because it incorporates a reference to a time instant. Its timelessness is just like the truth of 'There wasn't a sea battle yesterday'.

Kedar: But what's the difference between the sea-battle sentences and 'There won't be a total eclipse tomorrow' which you would want to say is physically necessary?

Ram: Well, the eclipse sentence can be derived from laws that make no reference to particular time instants -- such as 'eclipses happen in Pune according to certain function f'; the sea battle sentence presumably can't.

Anyway, we're getting a bit off track. I agree that Aristotle equates, 'true for all time' with necessary -- that's how he gets his puzzle off the ground and into the sea of puzzlement. But I agree with Sushama that that is the precise equation we must resist. And in fact a good illustration of her point is Godel's incompleteness theorems. Specifically if we let 'it is necessary that' be replaced with 'it is provable that' then it is provable -- by simple excluded middle -- that (Arithmetic is consistent or Arithmetic is inconsistent). But as Godel showed, it is not provable that 'Arithmetic is consistent' nor certainly is it provable that 'Arithmetic is inconsistent'.

This is a good illustration of Sushama's point about distributing truth but not necessity because one of the disjuncts -- 'Arithmetic is consistent' -- though it seems like it should be necessary in the sense of provable, it provably isn't. If even it is not necessary, logical determinism can scarcely have a foothold against propositions that seem more contingent to us.

Kedar: Ahem, Ram is always happy when he can sneak some maths into the dialogue, whether it is willy-nilly or otherwise I'll let you two be the judge. For the record, can I just stipulate I agree with you and mention an argument for a sort of logical indeterminism?

Sushama and Ram: Sure.

Kedar: The logical indeterminism I have in mind results from the intelligent design argument for God. The argument is: there must be free will -- the free will of God -- if there is to be a first designer. If God doesn't have free will, if he is also determined then he too would have to be designed leading to an infinite regress. So my position is that God has free will, man does not. What true free will is, is incomprehensible to man. That's what I mean by, 'The mechanics of free will is inconceivable to mankind'.

Sushama: God? Don't you know what the famous determinist Laplace said to Napoleon about God? 'Sire we have no need of that hypothesis.' But seriously I have to disagree with you. Free will is the most conceivable concept there is. The freedom from restraint feeling we have, we probably share with the ant whose path we've suddenly not blocked. Some kind of frustration, discomfort at being constrained must be felt by the ant because we can see its apparent panic when blocked.

Ram: Interesting statement Sushama... though now I'm not sure where you stand in the debate. Surely you don't want to say an ant has free will or that our sense of free will is comparable to that of the ant. Or is yours a skeptical solution, accounting for our sense of free will without thereby justifying it?

Sushama: No I'm not proposing a Humean type skeptical solution. I'm not proposing any solution, more like aligning the burden of proof before the debate starts. When you asked me to come up with prefatory quotes, I found almost all were in favour of determinism. Whether it's Omar Khayyam saying, 'And what the first morning of creation wrote, the last dawn of reckoning shall read', or Shakespeare's Romeo saying, 'I am fortune's fool' to nearly all of Macbeth, poets have found the predetermination of our fates pretty compelling. Paradoxically, I think this shows that the default presumption is in favour of free will: it is much more quotable to make statements challenging the given than supporting it. The given is 'there is free-will' because that is the common experience. That puts the burden of proof on determinism, all the fancy quotes aside.

With regard to whether ants have free will, I think there is a gradation: the ant experiences freedom from constraint when unblocked by our hands, Ram would feel freedom from constraint if we were at a non-vegetarian restaurant. The difference is one of degree but is admittedly great enough to allow us to drop the dividing line between free will and determined behaviour so that even ants have free will or only humans or only God.

Ram: Or that whale from the Free Willy movie...

Kedar: Another Americanism...

Ram: Ahem, Hollywood unlike Bollywood is international.

But seriously, I'd like to get back to the history. Leucippus's quote indicates that the original atomists were strict determinists; Lucretius's quote coming later in the 2nd century B.C. allows atoms to 'swerve' to allow for contingency. Of the two 'Lou's I must say I find Lucretius and his 'swerviness' a bit ludicrous, to bring in a third 'Lou': just because there's randomness, why should we suppose that our choices are free? Our flipping a coin between two alternatives doesn't make room for free will; it rather places the activity of willing in neutral.

Kedar: You find the same error of omission in modern day physicists like Michio Kaku who argues -- on a Youtube video of all things -- that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics allows for free will, unlike Einstein's determinism as reflected in his comment, 'God does not play dice with the universe'. How indeterminism allows for free will. is a question left glaringly unanswered.

Sushama: Well there is a sense in which if the universe were completely determined there would be at most a skeptical solution to the problem of free will.

Ram: Fair enough: indeterminism allows free will to exist but it doesn't show how it can or even what we mean by it.

Kedar: Actually I find an inconsistency in the whole notion of free will. An act proceeds from a free will if it is a contingent event. But if the free will causes the event to come to pass how can the event be contingent, since causes determine their effects?

Sushama: Very clever. Might be too clever since our intuitions about free will, though they may stand some correction, are unlikely to be inconsistent outright.

Ram: Kedar being younger always wants to expose the paradoxes of common sense while older, 'wiser' philosophers like me and, I gather you, want to make sense of common sense. Experience has persuaded me that the appropriate stance to take is a pragmatic one like William James' being merely content to classify realist and idealist philosophers without adjudicating between them. Therefore I propose we only marshal the scientific arguments for and against indeterminism and remain philosophically neutral on the issue.

We just mentioned Michio Kaku's, I would say, naive argument for free will by appealing to the indeterminacy of quantum mechanics. Pragmatic balance requires us to mention the ways in which modern physics is deterministic. Specifically, the state vector of the entire universe evolves deterministically in accordance with Schrodinger's equation because there can be no outside observer to collapse the wave packet. Similarly general relativity seems to favour determinism because of its substantivism about space-time. Because these theories are stated in mathematical terms and because they eschew traditional deterministic concepts like causality, you might be tempted to classify the resulting view as a relatively innocuous logical determinism. But the theories are dependent on how the world is and hence the view is better classified as the more inexorable physical determinism.

Stephen Hawking seems to have this in mind when he says (looks up quote on laptop):

     'The initial configuration of the universe may have been
     chosen by God, or it may itself have been determined by the
     laws of science. In either case, it would seem that
     everything in the universe would then be determined by
     evolution according to the laws of science, so it is
     difficult to see how we can be masters of our fate.'

The upshot? Whether there is genuine randomness in the world or whether our assigning probabilities merely reflects our ignorance about the 'hidden variables' is something we as philosophers shouldn't hang our hats on. Philosophers should instead answer the question of free will independently of either answer to the contingency question.

Kedar: Not so fast. You see Sushama, Ram and I always have a discussion about necessity, me saying that the only necessity is logical necessity while Ram championing a nebulous physical necessity. Don't you think Ram owes us an explanation of physical necessity in a dialogue about determinism?

Sushama: Oh I can hardly wait. In fact, to continue with my 'burden of proof' remarks, I would add that to the extent an accepted account of physical necessity is lacking in philosophy -- especially after Hume -- the burden of proof is again on determinism.

Ram: Well the burden is not all one way. The success of science in finding materialistic explanations of everything goes a long way to knock the ball back in the free will camp.

Hmm... sometimes I wonder if all philosophy does is play intellectual tennis, aligning the burden of proof, without actually ever proving anything.

Kedar: Don't wax so philosophical about philosophy; wax philosophical by doing philosophy. You still owe us an account of physical necessity.

Ram: Very well, I'll take up the gauntlet. To echo our eclipse discussion, we may say S is physically necessary if it's a logical consequence of the laws of nature.

Kedar: So the only necessity is logical necessity, right?

Ram: We've had this discussion before in the Just-if-ication dialogue. Here I don't propose to go into what exactly is a law of nature. I will only emphasize that facts like, 'If an apple fell from a tree, it would accelerate toward the ground at roughly 9.8 meters/ second-squared' are not logical truths. That they are entailed by laws of nature is a logical truth. But facts like this must be necessary in a sense other than logic. Logic is only used to mirror that physical necessity. If we were only interested in logical relationships, 'All bachelors are unmarried' could be a law of nature. We're not free to decide what are the laws of nature. That impossibility is the flip-side of their physical necessity.

Kedar: I just deny that there are any such things as 'laws of nature'. Any conjunctions between events are at most highly probable.

Ram: And you know my move: that the probabilities are what they are is a matter of physical necessity as implied by the laws of nature.

Sushama: Hold on Ram. I agree with you that certain events, like maybe the toss of a coin, can necessarily have the probability that they do. But if true, this would mean that strict determinism is false, that there are genuine contingencies in the world which is all we should be concerned about for the time being.

Ram: Of course you're right Sushama. I got carried away. I have a tight rope to walk being a necessitarian, indeterminist, free-will-compatibilist. Yes, a tight rope to walk but one that strikes a balance between the intuitions behind each camp.

Sushama: How do you mean?

Ram: Well a necessitarian indeterminist can allow for the intuition that there are genuinely contingent events in the world while at the same time allowing covering laws to give deductive explanations of these predictable, physically necessary processes. This is the true lesson of quantum mechanics that Railton captured with his D-S (deductive-statistical) model of explanation: there is indeterminism in the world but the indeterminism, the probabilities involved are strictly determined by the formalism of Schrodinger's equation. Events are probabilistically determined but the probabilities are necessarily what they are.

Sushama: So much for the necessitarian indeterminist position. How does your 'tight-rope walker' get to the far end of free-will compatiblism? By using the 'umbrella' of freedom as freedom from constraint as I was proposing?

Ram: No. Or rather not just that, because I think more is needed, because I don't think the difference between the freedom of the ant and the free-will of the human is merely one of gradation. There is a qualitative difference as well: when we choose a path, we're conscious that had the circumstances been otherwise we would've chosen differently. The ant presumably has no such consciousness.

Kedar: Is this what you meant by your title quote, 'The will finds its freedom in determining its course by allowing for every contingency'? If that's your view, you could've chosen a better title... like maybe 'Where There's a Way, There's a Will'?

But seriously, is the dialogue ending? The point at which you were going to dramatically unveil your theory was the denouement... a denouement is a surprise ending isn't it?

Sushama: You ought to know by now Kedar, there are no surprises in philosophy. Didn't Wittgenstein say something like that? I would add, there are no endings either.

Ram: OK maybe it's not much of a surprise. Instead of a denouement, I should've called it a climax in the Aristotelian sense of being in the middle of the 'beginning, middle and end'.

At any rate, Kedar is right. What I meant by 'The will finds its freedom in determining its course by allowing for every contingency' is the will is free because in allowing for contingencies, it is conscious that contingent on circumstances, it could've chosen differently.

Kedar: Are you sure this isn't a 'beginning, muddle and end'? You're using choice in the definition but what do we mean by choice if not choice of a free will?

Sushama: Not quite. 'Free choice' we can define as action free from constraint which even the ant can have. Free will comes in because we're conscious that we could've chosen differently.

Ram: Thanks Sushama. That said, maybe I should point out some of the other advantages of my position:

First, it makes sense of how the existence of genuine contingencies in the world could allow for free will. We can illustrate the problem by considering the tree-diagrams of decision theory. A decision tree has two kinds of nodes: a chance node symbolized by a circle and a choice node symbolized by a square; all our decisions are paths down an inverted Christmas tree composed of these two possibilities -- choice and chance. When swervy Lucretius or Youtuber Michio Kaku say that randomness allows there to be free will without specifying how, we're left trying as it were to put a square peg in a round hole. My account makes it clear how contingency allows free will: if there is a genuine chance node in the path of our decisions, we could've chosen differently had the chance gone the other way.

Second, the proposal is actually neutral on the contingency question. Even if everything including the toss of a coin, when a given subatomic particle will decay is determined, we can still make sense of the claim that had circumstances been different, we would've chosen differently. The counterfactual is valid even if strict determinism is the correct view.

Third, it allows for a sense in which human beings have free will but ants don't. Ants to use Sushama's distinction can have free choice in the sense of an unimpeded path but only human beings have free will in the sense of being conscious of alternate choices they could've made, by being aware of the whole decision tree.

Kedar: Interesting. But doesn't consciousness figure too prominently in your account of free will? I mean don't you want to distinguish between free will on the one hand and our consciousness of having chosen freely on the other?

Sushama: No Kedar. Consciousness should play a prominent part in the choices of a free will. If there is no consciousness -- as when we act without reflection -- there is little qualitative difference between the ant and us. In fact the American philosopher, John Searle incorporates a similar notion in his account of intentional actions. His 'intention-in-action' is an intention that must be present in the act and causing the act if the act is to be intentional. The role of consciousness in Ram's compatibilist account of free will seems to play a similar role. This is no accident: you would expect an account of free will and an account of intentional actions to intersect in interesting ways.

Ram: Good parallel, Sushama! A choice is a free will choice only if consciousness of all the considerations that went into making the choice play a role in making the choice -- that's how a choice is determined, to belatedly answer Kedar's free will paradox. Similarly an act is an intentional act only if the intention plays an appropriate causal role in the act.

Kedar: As I said Ram's is an interesting view. Inserting, the counterfactual, 'if circumstances had been different' in front of 'I could've chosen differently' makes it clear that either prong of our free choice would've been completely determined by reasons.

Sushama: That's an important point. When we're unable to think of reasons for why we acted as we did, our actions seem less free than when we can enumerate our reasons.

Kedar: Well you two seem to be in agreement and I am at least politely quiescent, which is as agreeable as my 'youthful nature' will deterministically allow me to be. What now? Does Aristotle in his aesthetics have anything to say about how to proceed non-anticlimactically from the middle to the end?

Ram: Well I don't know about Aristotle's aesthetics but the logical course would be to trace the impact of our view for ethics. Specifically, can we assign praise or blame for actions if they are the result of a free will choosing in our sense of the term?

Sushama: I think your account, Ram, is silent on whether our actions could've been different than they were. It only says if my actions were free and the circumstances had been different, I might have acted differently. There is no commitment one way or the other on whether the circumstances could've been different.

This is a virtue of your account but its noncommittal nature leaves me uncertain about where you stand on the praise/ blame issue.

Kedar: I think Ram is committed to a rationalistic ethics. If free will is analyzed in terms of decision-theoretic concepts, choices can be praised or blamed based on how rational they are.

Ram: I agree that introducing decision-theoretic concepts makes the account seem very rationalistic. But the ethics need not be rationalistic in the Greek akrasia sense, where weakness-of-will behaviour is a failure of reasoning. The payoffs for gambles and choices in the decision tree are assigned in terms of utilities but how the utilities are measured could be by the degree to which the actions promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number or Kantian duties or any other goal of ethical action which can be assigned a numerical value for the sake of comparison with other goals. Simply put, decision theory is not committed to any specific ethical theory.

Kedar: Point taken. But getting back to the praise/ blame issue, the real rub is doling out rewards and punishments isn't it? If our choices are determined by reasons and the appeal reasons have for us is determined by psychological factors over which we ultimately have no control, there can be no justification of rewards or punishments.

Sushama: I disagree. I remember the prison dialogue we had: retribution was only one goal of prisons we considered -- though it was my goal. Prevention and reformation are other goals which can be used to justify rewards and punishments, though without retribution, some of the 'moral fire' would be lacking.

Ram: I'm glad you brought up the 'Prison through a Philosophic Prism' dialogue, Sushama. It allows me to point out that my views on free will are consistent with my reformative views on the role of 'punishment'.

Kedar: Consistency being a bare minimum for a philosopher is not something to brag about.

Sushama: Didn't Whitman say something like, 'Do I contradict myself? Well so I contradict myself!'

Ram: Well I haven't read much Whitman. Maybe he is being consistent to his true character in tolerating inconsistency. Kind of like mathematics 'proving' its own consistency only if it's in fact inconsistent -- because anything and everything follows from a contradiction.

Kedar: Godel again? Talk about consistency. You just don't miss an opportunity to drag mathematics into anything do you -- even if it's willy-nilly.

(the waiter arrives with the bill)

Sushama: Don't pooh-pooh mathematics Kedar for how else are we going to split this bill up.

(c) Raam Gokhale 2013




To: Geoffrey Klempner From: Erwin Laya Subject: Re: Checking to see if you are OK Date: 13 Nov 2013 09:57

Good day Geoffrey!

I just read your email only today. Many thanks for your concern especially to our country. My place, Davao City is in the other island of the Philippines. Davao City is far from Tacloban City, the opposite island of Mindanao.

Indeed, my fellow Filipinos, especially the victims of the recent calamity really need the aid not only from our government but above all the international communities. We were really surprised by the power of Typhoon Yolanda (international name 'Haiyan'). The people of Tacloban and other provinces in Visayas region were ready for the heavy rains and winds, but not the storm surge. The storm surge nearly erase the provinces from the map.

Let us pray that the whole world will undertake some drastic solution to minimize natural calamities like typhoon, hurricane, or cyclone due to climate change.

Erwin Laya




It sucks to be a kid these days, or so my own kids tell me. I suppose it has always has.

Or has it? And does it have to? What might we be doing wrong?

Psychologists barrage us every day with new theories about how we should be raising our children -- as though they have human happiness all figured out. But wait a minute! Happiness is the purview of philosophers, not psychologists, and statistics don't tell us a damn thing about it.

How to live the good life is perhaps the greatest philosophical question ever posed. The answer may be elusive, but one thing is sure: it starts young, really young. What do kids need to be doing (or not doing) in order to maximize their chance of living well, now and into the future?

You know you have an idea. Now make an argument and find a famous philosopher to back you up.

Philosophy Pathways Electronic Journal wants to publish your article. Its length can be anywhere between 800-4000 words. The target length is 2500 words.

Submit your article by email to me, Guest Editor Sharon Kaye, Professor of Philosophy, John Carroll University, Submissions are due by Monday, December 23, 2013.

I will also consider submissions of philosophical fiction and philosophical drawings relevant to the theme.

Sharon Kaye


© Geoffrey Klempner 2002–2020