[Update: Shifted to front from 8 Aug.]
Are individuals free to make their own choices in life, or is everything that happens pre-determined? Perhaps the answer is “both”. Perhaps we’re mistaken to assume that free will and determinism are in conflict.
There’s a clear sense in which determinism enables rather than opposes freedom. Suppose you’re driving up to a red light and you want to brake, but some random indeterminacy causes you to instead step on the gas. Does that sound like a free action to you? I would actually feel much more free if I knew for sure that my actions were reliably caused (determined) by my preferences. Indeterminism doesn’t give us free will; it robs us of the ability to act on our choices.
We should take care not to confuse determinism with fatalism. Both guarantee that the future is settled – there is some fact of the matter about how things are going to turn out - but only fatalism robs us of our causal powers. It implies that the fated event would occur no matter what we did, that our actions make no difference. Determinism is not nearly so bad. It says that some event is going to happen, but only because we are going to make it happen! If we had chosen differently (perhaps because the past had also been different, and so caused us to have slightly different goals), then the future would have turned out differently too. Our actions have a huge impact: they are what cause the future to turn out as it will!
So, contrary to popular opinion, causal determinism is nothing to worry about. It is entirely compatible with our actions being caused by our own character and deliberative processes, and that – I suggest – is the sort of freedom that really matters.
Some want to further demand that our mental states be themselves uncaused, so that individuals are the ultimate causes of their actions. But this is not plausible. Surely who we are as individuals is hugely affected by external factors. You don’t get to choose your personality. Your character and values will have been influenced by the interaction of your genetic makeup and your upbringing. Your beliefs and skills will depend upon what you have been taught by others. In short: we didn’t come from nowhere.
Indeed, the very notion of pure self-creation is incoherent. Suppose you got to choose your own personality. On what basis could you make such a choice? You must base it on some prior preferences that you have. But did you ever get to choose those preferences? If so, on what basis was that choice made? We must eventually reach some foundational standards of evaluation (preferences) that you never chose to have. So “pure” freedom is impossible. Unless we want free will to be an impossible pipe dream, we’d best understand it in the previous, more modest, sense, which is consistent with determinism. What do you think? (Hopefully, reading this will cause you to make the right choice!)