Hume’s Free Will

For over two millennia, philosophers have debated the nature of ‘choice’, and most crucially, asked if it exists at all, with the 18th century British philosopher David Hume referring to it as the ‘most contentious question of metaphysics’. Free will is classically defined as a person’s ability to rationally consider and choose their actions. It is a characteristic that is seen to set humanity apart from the animals yet its existence itself has been criticised for centuries. A key group for which free will is crucial is that of theistic believers. The vast majority of world religions believe in an eschatological reward and punishment concept, and this necessitates the existence of free will to avoid the existence of an arbitrary, cruel God.

The existence of ‘pure’ free will has been thought unlikely for centuries, with determinism becoming a more favoured view point. However, there have been attempts to synthesise these two polar opposites, forming a ‘compatabilist’ argument, the 1st and perhaps most famous of which was written by David Hume, who attempted to reconcile ‘libertarian’ and ‘deterministic’ views. Hume 1st redefines the term ‘free will’. Up to this point, free will has been assumed to mean that there was a set of alternative actions that one ‘could’ have chosen to perform, and was placed as opposed to determinism. Hume, in contrast, defines free will has ‘having chosen x’, without the need for an alternative option to have been presented, as the performing of action ‘x’ was still done in accordance with our choice to do so.  From this point, Hume’s argument rests of one of his key assumptions about the nature of causality. He argues throughout his work that causality cannot be observed and that it is merely a step of inductive logic that it will hold firm based on past observances that it has been so. He would claim that there is no way we can be sure that cause and effect will hold when you perform any action expecting a result. This lack of a ‘necessary connection’ between the cause and the effect of incidents leads Hume to claim that ‘Necessity’ is merely an expectation formulated by our imagination. Therefore, he argues that there is no necessity for any action to be done because necessity is a mental construct. As such, anything done in accordance to necessity is done of our own free will on the grounds that necessity itself cannot be said to exist. Thus, we make our choices depending on our assumptions of the effects these will have on ourselves and the world around us, making them our choices.

Hume’s argument, however, is heavily reliant on the assumption that there must be a necessary connection between all causes and effects, which cannot be observed, and thus, undermines causality. This empirical argument has been strongly critiqued by many, and is not viewed to hold much water today. It is an argument based in a fiercely particular view of the universe and makes the assumption that there is no connection between the cause and effect of an object before the interaction whereas it could in fact be argued that perception is a continuum, rather than a set of discrete perceptions. This would remove the necessity of Hume’s necessary connection, removing his refutation of hard determinism and endangering his compatabilist model.

Whilst it is not widely viewed as a coherent argument for the existence of free will today, Hume’s argument is one of the most well known defences of compatabilist thinking. It is one of many attempting to defend free will, though the success of these theories remains to be seen.

Contributed by Isaac Jarratt Barnham

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