Hume, Campbell, and Skinner on Free Will
Hume, Section VIII
In this section of his book An Inquiry Concerning Human
Understanding, the philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) grapples
with the question of free will.
- Hume claims that what we should mean by "necessity" (or,
think of this as acting according to natural laws) is that
something appears to follow a commonly observed correlation.
"[This] fire necessarily causes heat" just means that in the
past we have always seen that things similar to this fire and
were accompanied in our experience by heat.
- We tend to believe that such necessary correlations
exist, and often mean something more than this by "necessary."
Are human actions an exception? Are they different than other
kinds of actions?
- Hume argues no
- We understand the actions of people from distant places
- We understand the actions of others in the distant past
- We must assume others are consistently acting in
certain ways in order to work together
- From this, it is plausible that there is (some) universal
human nature, or maybe just commonalities in human behavior,
which allows us to say there are necessary human causes and
- Why are we reluctant to admit this? It seems to deny
free will or liberty.
- Hume defines liberty, however, as "a power of acting or
not acting, according to the determinations of the will."
- Thus, we are free if we can say our will caused our
- This is called "compatibilism."
- Note that what Hume has done is argue that this problem
in part goes away if we get clear about our concepts. He
defines or redefines liberty in such a way that we can be
free and also our actions can be necessary.
Views of Free Will
- The view that all (relevant) events must
happen as they do, given past events, is called
- The view that we are free only if we can
escape determinism is called "libertarianism"
(not to be confused with the political views!).
- The view that we can be free and that determinism can be
true of human actions is called compatibilism. Hume gives the
first very clear and compelling version of compatibilism.
- Defining freedom is very hard. Generally,
the idea is that we could have done differently.
However, it is also generally agreed that randomness
does not make you free.
- Campbell begins, like Hume, by bemoaning the lack of
clarity and agreement about what free will is.
- There seems to be some agreement, however, that free will
is required for moral responsibility. So, if we can agree on
what is required for moral responsibility, we will have some
indication of some of what is required for free will.
- Campbell identifies three very strong criteria for
- Freedom seems to be about "inner acts," about
decisions and the will.
- Also, the person acting needs to be the "sole
author" of those acts -- if the cause of her acts is
from outside then she is not responsible.
- The person acting must have been capable of
acting otherwise than she did.
- This last clause Campbell means for us to understand
in a strong way. He does not mean that the person could have
acted otherwise if they were a different species or person
or had a different childhood. He means this person at this
time could have acted otherwise.
- Moral common sense, Campbell claims, will include the
claim that the moral person exercises greater moral will,
and greater restraint, than the immoral person. Common
sense assumes, then, that moral acts occur only when we are
able to do otherwise.
- Do (some) humans then have this kind of free will.
Campbell thinks there are two reasons to believe so.
- Our own introspective experience leads us
to believe (and to be unable to disbelieve) that
we are the authors of our actions. [Question:
is this a reliable guide?]
- Theory is not obviously any better a guide
than my introspective conclusions.
- Campbell next attacks determinism. He argues on
two grounds: he attacks the idea of predictability,
and arguments (as we can find in Hume) that our notion
of self-caused events and character presume determinism.
- We often can predict the actions of others.
Campbell argues that people tend to live in situations
where the choices available to them are clearly ones
they want to make. But, put people in a tough spot,
and they may be unpredictable. ( Note:
predictability entails determinism, but determinism
does not entail predictability. Campbell is attacking
the former inference, as we saw in Hume, that humans
are deterministic because we can predict them.)
- Some have argued that free will is
unintelligible, becuase it offers no explanation of
why one ought to exercise the will. If there were
such an explanation, we would be determined. If there
is none, we are acting as well as randomly. The
critic can claim that here, "free will" is meaningless
because so confused. Campbell responds that it only
appears meaningless if we assume a meaningful claim
about purpose was deterministic; but our first person
perspective shows it is purposeful and not deterministic.
This selection is from a novel written by the psychologist
B. F. Skinner. In it, he offers a protagonist who believes in
determinism, and denies compatibilism. Here is extract an
argument from the protagonist:
- The science of behavior requires that humans be
determined in their behavior; as we develop a science of
behavior we must recognize this.
- Our feeling of free will is not dependable and
tells us nothing.
- Humans are not (presently) predictable, but neither
is the weather: both are a result of complexity
- We typically associate lack of freedom with restraint
or threat, but there is another set of determinants of our
behavior: positive reinforcement.
- Stimuli fall into three classes
- Those we are indifferent to
- Those we like
- Those we dislike
- We can control people over the long term
using positive reinforcement: we create situations
she likes and remove those she dislikes.
- When we experience positive reinforcement, we
never question whether we are free. Also, we never
rebel against positive reinforcement.
- A better society will be a fully planned one:
here humans will always feel free.