That’s So Raven: Determinism and Free Will

There’s a girl blessed with psychic powers. Every once in a while she gets a brief glimpse of her not so distant future. It generally involves her getting into some trouble. She tries her best to change the future. But not once does she succeed. What she sees, happens. Always. Not necessarily in the context she thought it would, but it happens nonetheless.

That in short is the story of Disney’s once famous show, “That’s So Raven”. It was hilarious, no doubt, but it raised a far more serious question with deep ramifications. Can you change your future if it is already pre-determined? Can we have free will AT ALL in case of pre-destiny? There are some people who believe we can, that determinism is compatible with free will. BUT doesn’t the very fact that there is pre-destiny necessarily imply that ultimately all our actions will lead to something which has already been determined a long time back. If there is determinism won’t it actually be incompatible with free will? Also called hard determinism, this kind of belief has deep implications on morality and ethics. If there is no free will, how can an agent be responsible for his acts? No matter what we do, good or bad, it would mean we never had the freedom to do otherwise. Compatibilists generally use this argument to prove that there isn’t a strict dichotomy between determinism and free will. However, can we really say that the two are compatible just to give moral accountability to the agent. Remember Raven? She would see the future, she would do everything in her power to change it, but what she saw always happened. Obviously it would. Isn’t that why it was the future in the first place? This is precisely the problem with determinism. If it exists, it would make free will an illusion. The other option is to do away with the notion of determinism and believe that the world is a result of random activities. That everything is independent and that nothing is pre-determined. This would give the agent absolute free will.

The argument can go on for ever and the answer shall never be arrived at. The best solution probably remains in not knowing. False impressions can’t be all that bad if they give you an illusion of having your life in your control, can they?

-Shruti Slaria


4 responses to “That’s So Raven: Determinism and Free Will

  1. A very funny entry! I always enjoy entries that point out the profound philosophy in media. Philosophy is entertaining.

    One thing though —

    You said, “The other option is to do away with the notion of determinism and believe that the world is a result of random activities.”

    If all my actions were entirely random then it wouldn’t seem like there is a great deal of agency behind my actions. It would be hard to say that those acts were actually freely willed. If my hand suddenly shot up towards the ceiling because of random neuron firings I wouldn’t consider it to be a freely done action. I would be quite terrified about my lack of control of myself — so I couldn’t be said to be free. Compatibilists often note that necessary cause and effect, determinism, seems in this way more compatible with free will than indeterminism, and they might be right. For this reason, many philosophers have concluded that quantum indeterminacy, whether at the micro or macro level, cannot amount to “absolute free will”. Compatibilism might have to be enough.

    Look forward to reading more of your writing.


    • Thank you for the comment!
      I would like to make two points here.
      1. Even if the world is a result of random activities (i.e it is one of the many possible world that could have been) it does not necessarily imply that once born the agent does not have free will. It only implies that there is no factor way back in the past which is affecting the way the agent acts in the present.
      2. To do away with determinism, is not the same as doing away with causation. A thing or an event can continue to be a necessary but not sufficient cause for the resulting effect. In this scenario the cause does not constraint the future to a single course of action hence free will can be maintained.
      This is not to say that free will is actually a boon. As Sartre says, ““Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
      But, point noted. 🙂 Looking forward to more reviews from you in the future!


      • In regards to your first point, yes, that the world is the result of random events does not necessarily imply that there is no free will, but I think we can still wonder whether free will could be said to exist in such a world. That is: (absolute randomness) doesn’t necessarily entail (~free will), but I think (free will) requires (~absolute randomness).
        And my apologies in regards to your second point, I did not intend to posit that determinism and cause and effect are synonymous. My point was that if no cause is with consistent regularity sufficient for an effect then there seems little room for the spark of volition necessary for free will.



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