Many philosophers over the centuries have discussed the concept of free will in relation to pre-determined or undetermined causes, and have battled with the problem of the co-existence of free will and determinism. Generally, the ideas in this regard can be divided into two groups, each supported by a number of notable philosophers. These two groups are concerned with compatibilism or incompatibilism. This paper discusses the ideas of two philosophers, Alfred Ayer and Harry Frankfurt.
To comment on the theory of Ayer, we must first break it down into different clauses, and understand each one so that a clear comprehension of the concepts can be achieved. Basically, there are three premises or terms that Ayer deals with, and here we will discuss each one separately.
The first is the concept of free will. From the purely libertarian point of view, the existence of free will is undoubted, in that, free will must exist (Strawson 2004). Ayer strongly inclines towards this concept, and not only bases his ideas on it, but actually develops and works his theories by taking it for granted that free will does exist (Ayer 1954).
This maintained, he next moves on to another premise he presumes, and that is determinism (Ayer 1954). Essentially, determinism suggests that our actions are pre-decided, no matter how spontaneous or radical they may appear, even if they are purely unexpected and bizarre (Strawson 2004). A point to be noted here is that this concept does not negate the existence of choice; in fact, it suggests that although our decisions are predetermined, we are free to choose and to decide, and hence, are morally and ethically responsible for our decisions and actions (Ayer 1954). This leads us to the third premise: compatibilism. Compatibilism suggests that free will and determinism co-exist, and Ayer explains this by stating that determinism means we are predisposed to making certain decisions, which nevertheless, are ours, hence, the free will, because we are the ones who make them without anyone forcing us to do so, and that had we been predisposed to the other options or alternatives, we would have made those, again out of our own choice or free will (Ayer 1954). He makes this argument the basis of moral responsibility, as he states “if it is merely a matter of chance that I did not choose otherwise; it is surely irrational to hold me morally responsible for choosing as I did” (Cahn 2005).
An obvious objection to this argument is raw co-existence between free will and determinism. Ayer seems to be forcing libertarianism and hard determinism (Strawson 2004) together; hard determinism being the strict belief that determinism wholly exists, and is real, while free will is not (Strawson 2004). Ayer seems to be placing a lot of emphasis on the pre-determinism of our actions, while at the same time being entirely uncompromising of the fact that if, indeed, all actions are already determined, then it leaves no room for free will, which, in essence, is the ability to choose between options (Strawson 2004). In this case, we cannot and rather should not be help responsible for those actions. For instance, the incidence of the girl poking another girl in the classroom, apparently for no reason, and hence, causing discomfort to the other girl, is an example where she should not be held responsible for her action as according to Ayer her poking action was already decided for her. This objection definitely challenges compatibilism.
Harry Frankfurt, on the other hand, presents some flexibility in this argument, by first and foremost pointing out that free will cannot exist in the presence of determinism the way Ayer suggests (Frankfurt 1969). Hence, his arguments not only undermine Ayer’s arguments, but also undermine the concept of compatibilism. It should be noted here, however, that Frankfurt does not completely negate determinism, but rather objects to the form of determinism and compatibilism that Ayer upholds. He suggests that although a person may appear to be making his own decisions, it should be found out whether those decision are truly his, or if he would have rather chosen other alternatives had the circumstances been otherwise (Frankfurt 1969). He claims that we should be presented with all the options to choose from in order for free will to exist, and then whatever choice we make should be definitely ours (Frankfurt 1969). If it is not truly ours, according to Frankfurt, we can still be held responsible for our actions because ultimately it was us who performed those actions, but in such a case, this cannot be claimed that those actions were performed out of free will, because true free will cannot function under pressure (Frankfurt 1969). Hence, Frankfurt makes certain exceptions and demarcations, and therefore, undermines both Ayer’s arguments and the concept of harsh compatibilism.