Citation for this page in APA citation style.           Close


Mortimer Adler
Rogers Albritton
Alexander of Aphrodisias
Samuel Alexander
William Alston
Louise Antony
Thomas Aquinas
David Armstrong
Harald Atmanspacher
Robert Audi
Alexander Bain
Mark Balaguer
Jeffrey Barrett
William Belsham
Henri Bergson
George Berkeley
Isaiah Berlin
Richard J. Bernstein
Bernard Berofsky
Robert Bishop
Max Black
Susanne Bobzien
Emil du Bois-Reymond
Hilary Bok
Laurence BonJour
George Boole
Émile Boutroux
Michael Burke
Joseph Keim Campbell
Rudolf Carnap
Ernst Cassirer
David Chalmers
Roderick Chisholm
Randolph Clarke
Samuel Clarke
Anthony Collins
Antonella Corradini
Diodorus Cronus
Jonathan Dancy
Donald Davidson
Mario De Caro
Daniel Dennett
Jacques Derrida
René Descartes
Richard Double
Fred Dretske
John Dupré
John Earman
Laura Waddell Ekstrom
Herbert Feigl
John Martin Fischer
Owen Flanagan
Luciano Floridi
Philippa Foot
Alfred Fouilleé
Harry Frankfurt
Richard L. Franklin
Michael Frede
Gottlob Frege
Peter Geach
Edmund Gettier
Carl Ginet
Alvin Goldman
Nicholas St. John Green
H.Paul Grice
Ian Hacking
Ishtiyaque Haji
Stuart Hampshire
Sam Harris
William Hasker
Georg W.F. Hegel
Martin Heidegger
Thomas Hobbes
David Hodgson
Shadsworth Hodgson
Baron d'Holbach
Ted Honderich
Pamela Huby
David Hume
Ferenc Huoranszki
William James
Lord Kames
Robert Kane
Immanuel Kant
Tomis Kapitan
Jaegwon Kim
William King
Hilary Kornblith
Christine Korsgaard
Saul Kripke
Andrea Lavazza
Keith Lehrer
Gottfried Leibniz
Michael Levin
George Henry Lewes
David Lewis
Peter Lipton
C. Lloyd Morgan
John Locke
Michael Lockwood
E. Jonathan Lowe
John R. Lucas
Alasdair MacIntyre
Ruth Barcan Marcus
James Martineau
Storrs McCall
Hugh McCann
Colin McGinn
Michael McKenna
Brian McLaughlin
John McTaggart
Paul E. Meehl
Uwe Meixner
Alfred Mele
Trenton Merricks
John Stuart Mill
Dickinson Miller
Thomas Nagel
Otto Neurath
Friedrich Nietzsche
John Norton
Robert Nozick
William of Ockham
Timothy O'Connor
David F. Pears
Charles Sanders Peirce
Derk Pereboom
Steven Pinker
Karl Popper
Huw Price
Hilary Putnam
Willard van Orman Quine
Frank Ramsey
Ayn Rand
Michael Rea
Thomas Reid
Charles Renouvier
Nicholas Rescher
Richard Rorty
Josiah Royce
Bertrand Russell
Paul Russell
Gilbert Ryle
Jean-Paul Sartre
Kenneth Sayre
Moritz Schlick
Arthur Schopenhauer
John Searle
Wilfrid Sellars
Alan Sidelle
Ted Sider
Henry Sidgwick
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Saul Smilansky
Michael Smith
Baruch Spinoza
L. Susan Stebbing
Isabelle Stengers
George F. Stout
Galen Strawson
Peter Strawson
Eleonore Stump
Francisco Suárez
Richard Taylor
Kevin Timpe
Mark Twain
Peter Unger
Peter van Inwagen
Manuel Vargas
John Venn
Kadri Vihvelin
G.H. von Wright
David Foster Wallace
R. Jay Wallace
Ted Warfield
Roy Weatherford
William Whewell
Alfred North Whitehead
David Widerker
David Wiggins
Bernard Williams
Timothy Williamson
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Susan Wolf


Michael Arbib
Walter Baade
Bernard Baars
Gregory Bateson
John S. Bell
Charles Bennett
Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Susan Blackmore
Margaret Boden
David Bohm
Niels Bohr
Ludwig Boltzmann
Emile Borel
Max Born
Satyendra Nath Bose
Walther Bothe
Hans Briegel
Leon Brillouin
Stephen Brush
Henry Thomas Buckle
S. H. Burbury
Donald Campbell
Anthony Cashmore
Eric Chaisson
Jean-Pierre Changeux
Arthur Holly Compton
John Conway
John Cramer
E. P. Culverwell
Charles Darwin
Terrence Deacon
Lüder Deecke
Louis de Broglie
Max Delbrück
Abraham de Moivre
Paul Dirac
Hans Driesch
John Eccles
Arthur Stanley Eddington
Paul Ehrenfest
Albert Einstein
Hugh Everett, III
Franz Exner
Richard Feynman
R. A. Fisher
Joseph Fourier
Philipp Frank
Lila Gatlin
Michael Gazzaniga
GianCarlo Ghirardi
J. Willard Gibbs
Nicolas Gisin
Paul Glimcher
Thomas Gold
Brian Goodwin
Joshua Greene
Jacques Hadamard
Patrick Haggard
Stuart Hameroff
Augustin Hamon
Sam Harris
Hyman Hartman
John-Dylan Haynes
Donald Hebb
Martin Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg
John Herschel
Art Hobson
Jesper Hoffmeyer
E. T. Jaynes
William Stanley Jevons
Roman Jakobson
Pascual Jordan
Ruth E. Kastner
Stuart Kauffman
Martin J. Klein
Simon Kochen
Hans Kornhuber
Stephen Kosslyn
Ladislav Kovàč
Rolf Landauer
Alfred Landé
Pierre-Simon Laplace
David Layzer
Benjamin Libet
Seth Lloyd
Hendrik Lorentz
Josef Loschmidt
Ernst Mach
Donald MacKay
Henry Margenau
James Clerk Maxwell
Ernst Mayr
John McCarthy
Ulrich Mohrhoff
Jacques Monod
Emmy Noether
Abraham Pais
Howard Pattee
Wolfgang Pauli
Massimo Pauri
Roger Penrose
Steven Pinker
Colin Pittendrigh
Max Planck
Susan Pockett
Henri Poincaré
Daniel Pollen
Ilya Prigogine
Hans Primas
Adolphe Quételet
Juan Roederer
Jerome Rothstein
David Ruelle
Erwin Schrödinger
Aaron Schurger
Claude Shannon
David Shiang
Herbert Simon
Dean Keith Simonton
B. F. Skinner
Roger Sperry
John Stachel
Henry Stapp
Tom Stonier
Antoine Suarez
Leo Szilard
Max Tegmark
William Thomson (Kelvin)
Peter Tse
Vlatko Vedral
Heinz von Foerster
John von Neumann
John B. Watson
Daniel Wegner
Steven Weinberg
Paul A. Weiss
John Wheeler
Wilhelm Wien
Norbert Wiener
Eugene Wigner
E. O. Wilson
H. Dieter Zeh
Ernst Zermelo
Wojciech Zurek
Fritz Zwicky


Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium
A. J. Ayer
A. J. Ayer's essay Freedom and Necessity (published in his 1954 Philosophical Essays) made it clear what determinism or compatibilism requires, the ability to do otherwise, which alone makes one morally responsible.

Ayer claims, following G. E. Moore, that he could have done otherwise, if he had chosen to do otherwise:

"When I am said to have done something of my own free will it is implied that I could have acted otherwise; and it is only when it is believed that I could have acted otherwise that I am held to be morally responsible for what I have done. For a man is not thought to be morally responsible for an action that it was not in his power to avoid. But if human behaviour is entirely governed by causal laws, it is not clear how any action that is done could ever have been avoided. It may be said of the agent that he would have acted otherwise if the causes of his action had been different, but they being what they were, it seems to follow that he was bound to act as he did. Now it is commonly assumed both that men are capable of acting freely, in the sense that is required to make them morally responsible, and that human behaviour is entirely governed by causal laws: and it is the apparent conflict between these two assumptions that gives rise to the philosophical problem of the freedom of the will. (Philosophical Essays, p.271)

The lack of causal laws, says Ayer,
"does not give the moralist what he wants. For he is anxious to show that men are capable of acting freely in order to infer that they can be morally responsible for what they do. But if it is a matter of pure chance that a man should act in one way rather than another, he may be free but he can hardly be responsible." (p.275)

"It seems that it we are to retain this idea of moral responsibility, we must either show that men can be held responsible for actions which they do not do freely, or else find some way of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will." (p.277)

"from the fact that my behaviour is capable of being explained, in the sense that it can be subsumed under some natural law, it does not follow that I am acting under constraint.

"If this is correct, to say that I could have acted otherwise is to say, first, that I should have acted otherwise if I had so chosen; secondly, that my action was voluntary in the sense in which the actions, say, of the kleptomaniac are not; and thirdly, that nobody compelled me to choose as I did: and these three conditions may very well be fulfilled. When they are fulfilled, I may be said to have acted freely. But this is not to say that it was a matter of chance that I acted as I did, or, in other words, that my action could not be explained. And that my actions should be capable of being explained is all that is required by the postulate of determinism." (p.282)

Ayer gives one of the earliest clear statements of the standard argument against free will, that there are logically only two alternatives - our choices are either causally determined or accidental (i.e., chance or indeterminism), with both denying moral responsibility.
But now we must ask how it is that I come to make my choice. Either it is an accident that I choose to act as I do or it is not. If it is an accident, then it is merely a matter of chance that I did not choose otherwise; and if it is merely a matter of chance that I did not choose otherwise, it is surely irrational to hold me morally responsible for choosing as I did. But if it is not an accident that I choose to do one thing rather than another, then presumably there is some causal explanation of my choice: and in that case we are led back to determinism.
(Philosophical Essays, 1954, p.275)
In his 1969 book Metaphysics and Common Sense, Ayer discussed the problem of free will and backed away from his earlier compatibilist position that the antithesis between the claims of free will and determinism was illusory. Looked at from the standpoint of common sense, Ayer says that "in so far as this is a question of what people actually believe, I now think it more likely that I was wrong."
In any case, it is not always true that a philosophical inquiry will, for all practical purposes, leave things just as they were. A conspicuous counter-example is one which I mentioned earlier in passing, the problem of the freedom of the will. As often happens in philosophy, this problem takes the form of a dilemma. On the one hand, we are inclined to believe that all spatio-temporal processes, and therefore also human actions, are governed by natural laws; and from this we are inclined to infer that given the initial circumstances whatever actually happens could not have happened otherwise. On the other hand, all our moral assessments of our own and other people's conduct and all our legal practice depend on the assumption that people are responsible for their acts; but this seems to imply that, even given the existing circumstances, they could have acted otherwise. But these conclusions are mutually contradictory. It has to be shown, then, either that there is some flaw in this reasoning, or that at least one of the premisses of one or other of these arguments is false.

Again, I do not propose to offer you a solution of this problem. To do so would mean going very carefully into a set of notions of which the correct analysis is by no means obvious; the notion of causality and of natural law on the one hand, and on the other the whole group of concepts; which figure in the teleological explanation of human action, as well as our idea of moral responsibility. The concept of a person would itself come under review. One would have to consider exactly what was involved in the shift from causal to statistical laws in micro-physics, and whether this was relevant to the present issue; whether there were any logical reasons for denying that every human action could be predicted; whether there was anything at all about a human being that could not be explained in physiological terms. My own view, which I give you without argument, is that we have as yet no very strong reason to believe in the emergence of a physiological theory which will account for every facet of our behaviour, but that the possibility of it cannot be excluded a priori. [I try to deal with some of these questions in my essay 'Man as a Subject for Science'. ]

The point which I now wish to make is that it may very well turn out, in the course of such an inquiry, that the picture of ourselves which underlies much of our moral thinking, the idea of our actions as proceeding from the unfettered choices of self-propelling agents, did not stand up to critical scrutiny. If this did prove to be the case, it would not follow that the idea of freedom would have to go by the board. We could still draw a distinction between the actions which a person chose to do, never mind how the choice came to be made, and those which were forced upon him, in the sense that he was subject to unusual pressures, or even deprived of any power to choose; and there might be utilitarian grounds for our responding to actions of these different sorts in different judicial ways. But certainly a great strain would be placed on the conventional ideas of merit and of guilt; and if these ideas were given up or greatly modified, it is hardly to be expected that our moral and our legal outlook would remain unchanged.
(Metaphysics and Common Sense, chapter I, "On Making Philosophy Intelligible," p.14)

In "Man as a Subject for Science," chapter 14 of (Metaphysics and Common Sense, Ayer explores the question of "Naturalism," which presumes that human beings are subject to the causal laws of nature that apply to all animate and inanimate things.
The idea that man somehow stands outside the order of nature is one that many people find attractive on emotional grounds; so that it has to be received with some caution. It is, however, fairly widely accepted nowadays, even by philosophers who are supposed to be able to discount their emotional prejudices, and this for various reasons. One of them is of course the belief in the freedom of the will. It is argued that since men are free to behave as they choose, they are always capable of nullifying any generalization about their conduct to which they are alleged to be subject. If any such generalization is produced, it is only to be expected that someone will proudly or perversely exercise his option of rendering it false.

The trouble with this argument is that it simply assumes the falsehood of the position which it is intended to demolish. If the attribution of free will is construed in such a way that a man can be said to have acted freely only if his action is not susceptible of any causal explanation, then there will indeed be no question but that if men ever act freely, their behaviour is not totally subject to causal laws. This still allows for its being subject to statistical laws, but on the assumption, which the proponents of this view tacitly make, that a man is free on any given occasion to try to do anything whatsoever that he believes to be feasible, the possibility of there being even statistical laws about human behaviour which would be of any scientific value is effectively excluded. But now it is surely fair to ask for some justification of these very strong assumptions. What reason have we for believing that men ever do act freely, in this sense? There may be a prima facie case for holding that men are capable of acting freely in some sense or other; but it is by no means clear that an action which passes this test of freedom, whatever it may be, cannot also be governed by some causal law.

Compatibilist and incompatibilist views among philosophers and the general public may be a source of confusion.
Many philosophers have in fact held that what we ordinarily mean by speaking of an action as freely done is not incompatible with its being causally determined; some have gone even further to the point of holding that when we say that an action is free we actually imply, or presuppose, that it is determined; others who take the view that determinism excludes free will, as this is ordinarily understood, have concluded just for this reason that our ordinary notion of free will has no application. I do not myself think that we stand to gain very much by making a conscientious effort to discover what people ordinarily mean when they talk about free will: it might very well turn out that some people mean one thing by it, and some another, and that many people's idea of it is very confused. The important question, so far as we are concerned, is whether human behaviour is or is not entirely subject to law. If we conclude that it is, or even just that there is no good reason to suppose that it is not, then we may find it expedient to introduce a sense of acting freely which squares with these conclusions. We shall presumably want it to apply, so far as possible, to the same actions as those that most people would now regard as being free, though not necessarily with the same implications, but we shall rather be correcting ordinary usage than merely following it. If, on the other hand, our conclusion is that human behaviour is not entirely subject to law, then again we shall have to decide what provision, if any, this enables us to make for freedom of action; for example, if we make the absence of causal determination a necessary condition of an action's being freely done, we shall have to consider whether we can still preserve the connection between freedom and responsibility. But the point is that before we can usefully embark upon such matters, we must first decide the issue of determinism. How far and in what sense is man's behaviour subject to law?

It may appear, indeed, that this is not an issue which one could hope to settle a priori. Surely, it may be said, we can never be in a position to show that any piece of human conduct is inexplicable: the most that we can claim is that we have not been able to find any explanation for it, but this does not imply that there is no explanation, or even that the explanation is one which it will always be beyond our power to discover. But while this remark is perfectly sound, it may also be thought to miss the point. For what is most commonly maintained by those who wish to set limits to the extent to which men's actions are governed by law is not that these actions are inexplicable, but rather that the kinds of explanation which they call for do not conform to the scientific model. That is to say, they do not account for an action as resulting from the operation of a natural law. It is allowed that explanations of the scientific type are sometimes appropriate, as when we account for some piece of deviant behaviour by relating it to a disorder in the agent's constitution, but cases of this kind are said to be the exception rather than the rule. In the normal way we explain a man's action in terms of his intentions, or his motives, or his beliefs, or the social context in which the action takes place. Consider, for example, the simple action of drinking a glass of wine. As performed by different people in different circumstances, this may be an act of self-indulgence, an expression of politeness, a proof of alcoholism, a manifestation of loyalty, a gesture of despair, an attempt at suicide, the performance of a social rite, a religious communication, an attempt to summon up one's courage, an attempt to seduce or corrupt another person, the sealing of a bargain, a display of professional expertise, a piece of inadvertence, an act of expiation, the response to a challenge and many other things besides. All these are accepted as good explanations: if the circumstances are right, they render the performance of the action intelligible; but only in the case of the alcoholic is it clear that the explanation is of a scientific character. In the other cases we find the action intelligible because we are given a reason for its performance; it is explained in terms of the agent's purpose, or by reference to a social norm, or through some combination of these two.
(ibid. p.221-223)

A philosophical question which I have not here discussed, partly because I do not think that I have anything new to say about it, is whether the denial of determinism is implied in our usual ascriptions of moral and legal responsibility.

Ayer calls here for some experimental philosophy to determine the popular opinions and common sense
In common with many other philosophers I used to hold that it was not, that in this respect the antithesis between the claims of free will and determinism was illusory, but in so far as this is a question of what people actually believe, I now think it more likely that I was wrong. This is indeed a matter for a social survey which, as I said before, would probably not yield a very clear result. I should however expect it to indicate that if it were shown to them that a man's action could be explained in causal terms, most people would take the view that he was not responsible for it. Since it is not at all clear why one's responsibility for an action should depend on its being causally inexplicable, this may only prove that most people are irrational, but there it is. I am, indeed, strongly inclined to think that our ordinary ideas of freedom and responsibility are very muddleheaded: but for what they are worth, they are also very firmly held. It would not be at all easy to estimate the social consequences of discarding them.
(ibid. p.238-239)
For Teachers
For Scholars

Chapter 1.4 - The Philosophy Chapter 1.6 - The Scientists
Home Part Two - Knowledge
Normal | Teacher | Scholar