In traditional philosophy, the debate about freewill and determinism consists of two opposing camps: Determinists argue that the universe is governed by universal, causal laws and nothing, including ‘free will’, is exempt from those laws. On the other hand, Libertarians argue that our experience of choice, if it is indeed a meaningful experience, proves that our choice just be based on a will that is free. The belief in universal causality, on their view, is merely an unfounded assumption. The clear opposition between these two camps is known as Incompatibilism – the two positions are incompatible with each other.
However the belief that there is something meaningful being asserted in both positions has led to the development of a view known as Compatibilism. Compatibilists are also known as Soft Determinists insofar as they wish to retain a belief in universal causality, while also insisting that the experience of choice is a real experience. Compatibilists argue that the terms in the debate must be re-defined if we are to make progress.
One way to view the reality or authenticity of the experience of free choice is in terms of the philosophical movement known as Existentialism. Existentialism had its origin in the nineteenth century is figures such as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although it was at its height during the mid decades of the twentieth century. The most well known figures, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, were but a small part of a wider movement which included figures such as Martin Heidegger, Albert Camus, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Martin Buber. Existentialism is a complex, multi-layered philosophy, but if there is one thing that can said to unify all the varying themes it is that, as individuals, we are free to choose at every moment of our lives. Existentialism thus emphasises the reality of the chosen act.
According to Existentialism, when we choose, in a real, authentic sense, we choose a particular role or project – we choose, for example, to be a parent, a child, a worker, an artist, to do the ‘right thing’, to be ‘true to our self’, and many other things besides. Further, if in making that choice, we commit to it, we own that choice, we make it ours and not part of some other set of circumstances that somehow ‘made’ us do it. When we choose we do not justify that choice in terms of what other people or circumstances may have influenced us – it is our choice and ours alone. This is the criteria of the authenticity of our choices and is one of the key insights of Existentialism.
Some Existentialists go even further and argue that it is not merely the choosing of certain projects that make us free, but is also the narrative that we tell ourselves and others about who we really are. We no longer use statements like ‘my parents/ partner/friends made me do a certain action or be the person that I am’. We take ownership of our life story in terms of the choices that we make and it is these choices that make us authentically free.