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Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism

Dive into this fascinating discussion on the concept of free will.
Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism is rated 4.1 out of 5 by 57.
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Rated 1 out of 5 by from Strongly biased toward determinism Nichols' debate is one-sided. His presentation of the Free Will side of the debate is weak. He calls it "the problem of free will " but never considers determinism to be problematic. His presentation of the Christian point of view is too shallow to consider. He does not even consider Jesus Christ as an important person in the debate. The best part was the guide book. I could quickly read that listening to the lectures would have been a waste of time.
Date published: 2023-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Loving this series so far I bought this about a decade before the covid Era and it got packed away when I moved. I recently found it (03-20-2023) and finally get to watch it. I'm loving it so far. I've just finished the third lecture and had to say how surprised and grateful i am that the professor is able to make the subject so accessible. Very highly recommended!
Date published: 2023-02-25
Rated 2 out of 5 by from The title should be just “Determinism” The lectures are fairly clear and his presentation is adequate. However, the course title is “Great Philosophical Debates: Free Will and Determinism.” This is a lecture series on determinism. Good as far as it goes. But there was nothing on free will. The only debates are among various flavors of determinism.
Date published: 2022-08-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Exceptionally clear exposition This is a most difficult issue. The professor does an excellent job of combining theory with practical examples.
Date published: 2022-08-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Balanced treatment of Free Will Determinism debate Nice presentation of all the sides of this discussion. Left out a few considerations of determinism determining punishment. Also was up-to-date.
Date published: 2021-12-15
Rated 4 out of 5 by from I was meant to like this course... Of course I wasn't meant to like this course. I enjoyed these lectures because they were well-prepared and presented by an interesting and knowledgeable Professor Nichols. I'm a novice when discussing these nearly unanswerable philosophical questions, but here goes: Within the human realm, there is both freewill and deterministic events and processes. The determined 'things' are like: if you are born, you will die. If you live, you will breathe, eat, drink (being merry is a freewill thing); our biology is determined through eons of evolution and cannot be (easily) changed. The freewill aspects in humans can be boiled down to individual and societal. For example the societal aspects might include the broad definition of 'morality', which has been defined by societies throughout history, changing as the needs require. As individuals, we may chose (freely) what aspects of the societal morality we wish to follow. As an example, in past centuries slavery was not considered to be amoral, yet many would disagree (especially the slaves), based on their own views and reflecting their experiences. Within the non human realm, animals have a more direct relationship between animal freewill (quite different from human freewill in this discussion) and determinism. The donkey, when faced with two separate, but equal, piles of hay, will eat from both, most probably...all to help stay alive and procreate. I suppose the donkey's freewill choice is which pile he/she chooses first. In the realm of physics, almost (?) everything is deterministic. A radioactive atom will decay in a prescribed manner, releasing the same amount and type energy every single time. The aspects of quantum physics that 'seem' to behave in a more 'freewill' manner, are (most probably) a result of their not being fully understood by the human observer. All in all, I enjoyed the lectures because it made me think...possibly in a prescribed manner...possibly in my own, unique way. I freely acquired these lectures during a sale that was purposely proposed by the Great use of a coupon was divinely ordained.
Date published: 2020-03-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very impressed I got this set to answer questions I have had and was happy to see how thourogh and comprehensive it was. It is not light hearted but I reccomend it to anyone serious about learning.
Date published: 2019-11-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This course gives you a survey of the different schools, arguments, and counter arguments on the subject.
Date published: 2019-08-21
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Do you make your own choices or have circumstances beyond your control already decided your destiny? For thousands of years


Shaun Nichols

I think that regardless of whether you think that fate or karma exists, it’s a really interesting question of why it’s such a powerful cultural force. Why do people believe in these things?


Cornell University

Dr. Shaun Nichols is Professor of Philosophy at The University of Arizona. He holds a joint appointment in Philosophy and Cognitive Science. Professor Nichols earned his bachelor's degree in Philosophy from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He previously taught at the College of Charleston, where he held the Harry Lightsey Chair of Humanities, and at the University of Utah. The 2005 recipient of the Stanton Award, given to innovative scholars working at the intersection of philosophy and psychology, Professor Nichols has published widely in both disciplines. He is the author of Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment, and the coauthor of Mindreading: An Integrated Account of Pretense, Self-awareness and Understanding Other Minds. He is the editor of The Architecture of the Imagination and the coeditor of Experimental Philosophy. Professor Nichols, whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, has published more than 50 articles in academic journals in psychology and philosophy. He serves on several editorial boards, and at The University of Arizona he directs a research group on experimental philosophy.

Free Will and Determinism—The Basic Debate

01: Free Will and Determinism—The Basic Debate

Explore with Professor Nichols the evolution of ideas about free will and determinism, one of the core questions in the history of philosophy. You learn three different ways to examine this age-old conundrum.

33 min
Fate and Karma

02: Fate and Karma

Do we determine what happens next, or is it fate? What did the ancient Greeks believe about what controls our lives, and how does that differ from the Hindu concept of karma?

30 min
Divine Predestination and Foreknowledge

03: Divine Predestination and Foreknowledge

For many theologians, the question of free will is complicated by the idea that God is all-knowing. Understand why John Calvin espoused the idea that God has already determined the course of our lives, including whether we are predestined to go to heaven or hell when we die.

30 min
Causal Determinism

04: Causal Determinism

Causal determinism posits that "events are inevitable because of what happened before." In this lecture, Professor Nichols describes branches of causal determinism such as the Stoics, who believed that there was rational justification for every event.

30 min
Ancient and Medieval Indeterminism

05: Ancient and Medieval Indeterminism

Doesn't the fact that we think about what we want to do before we make a choice indicate that we have free will? That was the belief of indeterminists, such as Aristotle's follower Alexander of Aphrodisias, who maintained that we deliberate to determine our own optimum path for the future.

29 min
Agent Causation

06: Agent Causation

Are we the sole cause of our actions? Discover a nuanced perspective on free will, in which we can decide some of our own actions and choose to react to conditions around us, but we cannot control all factors leading to our actions, such as heredity and environment.

30 min
Ancient and Classical Compatibilism

07: Ancient and Classical Compatibilism

Some philosophers maintain that there is no conflict between free will and determinism; they can coexist. Learn about compatibilism, the idea that some of our actions are determined by forces beyond our control, and in other cases we are free to choose.

31 min
Contemporary Compatibilism

08: Contemporary Compatibilism

Professor Nichols looks at a modern view of compatibilism, as described by Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, that our will is a desire that effectively produces behavior. We experience two desires: to eat ice cream or go on a diet; which wins out and what does that mean for free will?

29 min
Hard Determinism

09: Hard Determinism

Hard determinism says that events in the world happen solely as the result of other events. French philosopher Baron D'Holbach, a naturalist who argued that nature orders the universe and because the mind is part of nature, it follows that determinism is true for the mind as well.

30 min
Free Will Impossibilism

10: Free Will Impossibilism

Contemplate the Buddhist idea that the self does not exist—mental activity is simply a series of events happening on their own. British philosopher Galen Strawson offers a similar argument—that in order to have free will we must be the cause of ourselves, but since we are not, we cannot have free will.

31 min
The Belief in Free Will

11: The Belief in Free Will

Libertarian Thomas Reid said that belief in free will was a universally human trait, across cultures developed at an early age. Hard determinists, on the other hand, maintain that we believe in free will because we fail to see the real causes of our decisions. Both claims prove problematic.

29 min
Physics and Free Will

12: Physics and Free Will

Here Professor Nichols delves into the world of quantum mechanics, explaining an interpretation of the random movement of particles as analogous to the indeterminist nature of the universe.

30 min
Neuroscience and Determinism

13: Neuroscience and Determinism

Investigate a series of experiments in which animals demonstrated behavior that would be most beneficial to them in the wild, even under laboratory conditions. The result: Unpredictability is a useful evolutionary trait, but does this indeterministic behavior help us prove that we have free will?

30 min
Neuroscience of Conscious Choice

14: Neuroscience of Conscious Choice

Continuing to delve into how scientific study can influence our discussion of free will and determinism, Professor Nichols discusses experiments by Benjamin Libet that indicate that the brain prepares for an action even before we realize we intend to perform the action.

28 min
Psychology and Free Will

15: Psychology and Free Will

Although we may believe we understand our own minds, motivations, and methods, many psychologists believe we do not have as much insight into the choices we make as we might think. This lecture describes experiments that demonstrate the effect of unconscious stimuli on our behavior.

29 min
Deontological Ethics and Free Will

16: Deontological Ethics and Free Will

Here we explore the age-old question of right and wrong, and how we make the choice between the two. Kant claimed that our intention—what we choose to do—is most important in reflecting our moral responsibility, regardless of the consequences. Therefore, our free will comes in what we decide.

30 min
Utilitarianism and Free Will

17: Utilitarianism and Free Will

Utilitarianism proposes that the consequences of an action are what matters most, regardless of one's intentions or motives. This theory does not depend on free will because one's choices are not important—only their outcomes. Professor Nichols raises some fascinating ethical questions here.

32 min
Responsibility and the Emotions

18: Responsibility and the Emotions

Philosopher David Hume explored the relationship between emotions and morality in a theory known as sentimentalism, which states there is an emotional basis, not a rational one, for our beliefs, but we are still responsible for the choices we make. Modern English philosopher Peter Strawson developed a similar view that proved influential.

29 min
Pessimism and Illusionism

19: Pessimism and Illusionism

According to illusionists such as Saul Smilansky, we do not have free will but if everyone recognized that, our society would collapse. It is critical for people to believe in free will (even if it is an illusion) to sustain moral behavior and a sense of responsibility for our actions.

30 min
Optimism and Skepticism

20: Optimism and Skepticism

Derk Pereboom argues that relinquishing our belief in free will could be good for us because we could let go of negative emotions such as anger, guilt, and resentment that stem from believing people have done something hurtful to us of their own free will.

30 min
The Ethics of Punishment

21: The Ethics of Punishment

Examining the dark history of punishment in society and different views of punishment today, Professor Nichols describes backward-looking punishment that focuses simply on making a person pay for his bad actions, versus forward-looking punishment that looks at the value to future society that a punishment might have.

31 min
The Power of Punishment

22: The Power of Punishment

The question of free will is inherent in discussions of the effectiveness of punishment and whether retribution or rehabilitation will have a positive or negative effect on both the person being punished and the outside world. Professor Nichols asks whether quarantine, an approximation of our current justice system, is effective.

30 min
Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy

23: Moral Responsibility and Psychopathy

While our justice system sometimes exonerates people with mental illness from their crimes, does that sense of mercy extend to others? Examine the recent history of psychopaths up to modern discoveries about their brain activity and whether their lack of compassion has a neuroscience basis.

30 min
The Future of Responsibility

24: The Future of Responsibility

Professor Nichols concludes with a summary of the modern view of free will with an eye toward the future. How will neuroscience and the rule of law affect our ideas about free will and determinism?

33 min