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Determinism, Internal and External Constraints

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What is the difference between determinism and the limits on freedom imposed by internal and/or external constraints? Be sure to support your argument with primary material from the text.

Determinism, a theory used to explain that humans do not have free will, correctly states that all actions are decided based on previous factors, but incorrectly states that those actions are therefore compelled and free will doesn’t exist. Actions are influenced by constraints both external and internal, but this does not mean that all actions are already made leaving us always with only one choice. Therefore, determinism is correct but uses incorrect explanations to define why actions are based on constraints.

This point is explained more fully by W. T. Stace, also a determinist philosopher, in his book “Religion and the Modern Mind”. Stace says, “The dispute is merely verbal, and is due to nothing but a confusion about the meanings of words. It is what is now fashionably called a semantic problem” (154). One of the main proponents of determinism was a man named Paul Henri Thiry, Baron d’Holbach. He described determinism by saying that all actions are compelled due to external and internal constraints and therefore, no actions are taken freely since they are taken out of consequence of those constraints. d’Holbach described it, in his book “The System of Nature”, by saying, “In short, the actions of man are never free; they are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas, and of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness; of his opinions strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience” (149). The “confusion about the meanings of words”, as Stace says, comes when d’Holbach explains that actions are the “consequence” of constraints. In d’Holbach’s view, external and internal constraints leave no room for other choices but force a person to act in a certain way. A more clear definition would be to say that external and internal constraints influence our decisions, but do not determine them. If I learned from study or a report published on the internet that eating a certain food was found to cause cancer, I would be influenced by it, but that does not mean I would stop eating it. Either way, my choice is based on whether I decide to listen to the report or ignore it, and that decision comes from my own will. Stace tries to clarify this confusion by saying, “Is being uncaused, or not being determined by causes, the characteristic of which we are in search? It cannot be…” (156). He says that unfree acts are “are all caused by physical forces or physical conditions, outside the agent” while free acts “are all caused by desires, or motives, or by some sort of internal psychological states of the agent’s mind” (157). According to this new definition, freedom is only truly impeded when we are physically forced to act in a certain way. Our internal dreams, goals, desires and passions do not take away our free will.

Therefore, our new definition now says that external constraints do limit free will while internal constraints do not. To explain the difference, Stace uses several examples of how the same situations can be affected either externally or internally. He gives the following example:

“Jones: I once went without food for a week.

Smith: Did you do that of your own free will?

Jones: No. I did it because I was lost in a desert and could find no food.

But suppose that the man who had fasted was Mahatma Gandhi. The conversation might then have gone:

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Gandhi: I once fasted for a week.

Smith: Did you do that of your own free will?

Gandhi: Yes. I did it because I wanted to compel the British Government to give India its independence. (155)”

This example shows how an external constraint, being lost without food, forced the man to not eat while the internal constraint, choosing to fast for a cause, allowed the man to choose to eat or fast. Gandhi’s personal desire to work for the freedom of India influenced him in a way that lead him to fast for his cause, but did not compel him to do so.

However, what of very strong internal constraints? Do they not also limit our free will? The philosopher Moritz Schlick says that there are certain cases where strong internal constraints can also limit our freewill. Chaffee mentions two instances where “Schlick’s views diverge from Stace’s and other compatibilists… that there are times when internal constraints in the form of mental illness and even neuroses can act as a disturbing factor that hinders the normal functioning of our natural tendencies” (159). Mental illness seems a very understandable case for the exception that internal constraints can also limit freewill, but neuroses is less clear. From that definition, we see that personal weaknesses can also limit our freewill. However, we are able to overcome some of our weaknesses, unlike many external constraints. As a shy person, one might feel limited and be unable to go out and communicate with others. This limits their freewill. With practice, patience and perseverance, one might be able to overcome that weakness and gain back their freewill.

In conclusion, we see that actions are, indeed, influenced by both external and internal factors, but the theory of determinism is incorrect when it says therefore that all actions are predetermined and that freewill does not exist. External constraints do limit freewill, like determinism says, but internal constraints are merely influences and do not completely compel us to act a certain way. In order to be more free, we must avoid external constraints and overcome any lingering internal constraints that bind our actions in a certain way.


Desirae K on November 03, 2013:

This is a great article and it helped me out quite a bit on an essay I was writing. It has some very compelling point and was well researched. Great job, and thank you very much.

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