Have You Ever Acted Freely?

Apr 28 2017
Written by NYU Shanghai

To stimulate critical thinking in science and philosophy, the Ad Hoc Committee on Critical Inquiry staged another lively debate on Monday to explore the compatibility between determinism and free will.

Associate Professor of Philosophy Brad Weslake moderated and kicked off the debate with three questions: Have you ever acted freely? Is the world deterministic? If determinism is true, can anyone act freely? Joining the discussion were Professor of Neuroscience Paul Glimcher and students Abiral Chitrakar Phuyal ‘17 and Paula Velasquez ’17.

“To have free will means to have the capacity to act in a way that one is responsible for his/her actions,” said Phuyal, a Humanities major who laid out definitions of the philosophical ideas as well as illustrating contrarian stances of libertarianism, compatibilism, hard incompatibilism and hard determinism.

Favoring hard incompatibilism, Professor Glimcher argued that determinism is incompatible with both human freedom and moral responsibility: “The sense of ‘having free will’ could help to shape human behaviors in a meaningful way, but there is no deep moral sense in which one should take responsibility for anything.” 

On the opposite spectrum, Professor Weslake defended the compatibility of free will with determinism. “Freedom is deliberating, responding to reasons. It may be that the characterization of what the brain is doing includes the complex dynamics described by Professor Glimcher, but it is still you doing the deciding,” he said. “Humans, as part of the universe and as a physical system, play a dynamic role in the way things evolve over time, and our actions create effects that ripple on towards the future.” 

For closing thoughts that pulled the very fabric of the mind into question, Biology major Velasquez asked: “Is our mind an equation? When we feel we have introspective power or some ability to reflect on our actions, maybe what we’re doing is ‘running the equation’ once more and not having any kind of power over what the outcome will be.”

According to Assistant Professor of History Heather Lee, the Ad Hoc Committee will have their last debate for the semester on May 10th.