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Principle of Determinism by Peter Van Inwagen: Analytical Essay

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Peter Van Inwagen was an American Philosopher born in 1942 and was a prolific leader in the field of free will. Incompatibilism or otherwise known as “The Consequence Argument” was made popular by the famous philosopher Van Inwagen. However, prior to discussing Peter Van Inwagen’s first formal argument for incompatibilism, it must first be established what incompatibilism is. Incompatibilism or The Consequence Argument claims that if agents have no control over the facts of the past then the agent has no control of the consequences of those facts. However, prior to discussing this argument, I will provide more depth to Van Inwagen’s points.

In order for Peter Van Inwagen’s first formal argument for incompatibilism to be comprehendible and succinct, I will first explain the principle of determinism. Peter Van Inwagen’s definition of determinism relies on three notions: that of a proposition, that of the state of the entire physical world at an instant, and that of a law of nature. Firstly, propositions, are taken to be non-linguistic bearers of truth-value which have three main properties: there corresponds a proposition to every way the world could be, every proposition is either true or false and the conjunction of a true position and a false proposition creates a false proposition. Secondly, Van Inwagen’s explanation of the state of the entire physical world at an instant is very vague but he provides that this notion is not the core of the argument. With regards to the law of nature, Van Inwagen says that it is a proposition itself. In order to classify a proposition as a law of nature, the test is whether it is within our power to falsify the proposition, if so, it is not a law of nature. Determinism has many definitions but is broken down, Van Inwagen says it is made up of two theses: one being that for every instant of time, there is the proposition that expresses the state of the world in that moment; as well as if there are two propositions which express the state of the world at that moment, then together one of those propositions with the law of nature entails the other proposition.

This breakdown of determinism provided by Van Inwagen creates a better understanding of Determinism as a theory. As it clearly provides that every action or incident are entirely decided by already existing decisions. While Van Inwagen defines Determinism as the thesis that, given the past and the laws of nature, there is only one possible future. And this definition certainly has that consequence. It also has the consequence that the future determines a unique past”. Both these definitions and explanations of the theory of Determinism explain it very clearly as certain actions or events and provide an answer as to why future events happen in the manner which they do.

Incompatibilism or more commonly understood as “The Consequence Argument” is an argument for the incompatibilism of determinism with free will. If determinism is true, then we do not act freely and every action we make is not that of free will. This links to Van Inwagen’s presupposition that if you are acting in free will, then that requires that you could have chosen otherwise but did not; while if you could not have chosen otherwise, then you did not choose freely. For example, if you were offered a drink but the only option was apple juice, this is not free will as there is no other option of juice except for apple juice, providing that you said yes to the drink offer. This demonstrates that in order to be acting ‘freely’, there must be another option available to choose in every instant.

I will now present Van Inwagen’s first formal argument for incompatibilism. Van Inwagen explains his argument by way of an example which I will formulate as well. If a judge refrains from raising their hand and thereby issuing a pardon at a certain time. Premise 1 provides, if determinism is true, then the conjunction of a proposition that expresses the state of the physical world in an instant and the laws of nature entails the state of the physical world at the time of the judge refraining from raising their hand. This follow’s Van Inwagen’s definition of determinism as explained above. Premise 2 provides it is not possible that the judge have raised his hand at the time of him not raising his hand. Therefore, it is impossible for the judge to raise his hand at the time and for the judge to not raise his had at the same time. Premise 3 is that if premise 2 is true, then it is impossible for the judge to raise his hand, so if the judge was able to raise his hand at the time, then he would render the proposition false. Van Inwagen adds to this when he states that “to be able to render a proposition false is to be able to arrange or modify the concrete objects that constitute one’s environment”. Premise 4 states that if the judge could have rendered the state of the world false, and if the conjunction of the state of the world prior to the judge’s existence and the laws of nature entail the state of the world at the time of the judge not raising his hand. Then the judge could have rendered the latter false. Following this, if the judge could have rendered the latter false, then the judge could have rendered the laws of nature false. However, the judge could not have rendered the laws of nature false, this is because a proposition is a law of nature only if it is not within our power to falsify, as explained previously.

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Therefore, if determinism is true, the judge could not have raised his hand at the time when he ‘chose’ not to. This leads to the conclusion that if the judge could not have raised his hand, then he did not freely choose to refrain from raising his hand at all. As described before that if one performs an action, then one could have done otherwise than execute said action. As demonstrated then, if determinism is true, then the judge did not freely refrain from raising his hand. David Lewis provides an interesting insight to the consequence argument and adds depth to Peter Van Inwagen’s consequence argument. In if determinism is true, then this would lead to certain contradictions; such as the ability to change the past or the ability to break or change the laws of nature. Both of which are “absurd” to even consider as being a possibility and as such prove Peter Van Inwagen’s first formal argument for incompatibilism.

In order to determine whether Peter Van Inwagen’s first formal argument for incompatibilism is sound, I will look to discuss other arguments of free will. Although many agree and it is widely established that Van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument is the strongest argument in favour of incompatibilism. This is due to the fact that if determinism is true, then no decision we make is our decision, no everyday choice is our decision, and no individual has the power to do anything except the action or decision that is ultimately ‘made for us’. Van Inwagen’s consequence argument is so blatantly obvious and in contrast to the determinism, theory to prove it correct. This is due to the fact that it is almost impossible for any individual or person to think that in order for determinism to be true, free will must be false and any decision made is not their own; which almost always results in individuals deciding that determinism must be false. Although this Van Inwagen does admit and come to terms with the fact that his argument is not a complete argument in its entirety as if there was a possible way in which determinism can work in line with being able to do or decide otherwise then his argument will fail.

Although this, there have been many arguments that break down Van Inwagen’s argument for incompatibilism and provide a further viewpoint that cannot be ignored; due to their critical analysis of the consequence argument. One significant contradicting argument which is rarely discussed with regard to Van Inwagen’s consequence argument is one involving the presuppositions with regards to the physical state of the world and under the laws of physics, as well as when acting as a free agent what they are able to do. As Van Inwagen presupposes that there is a way in which can accurately describe and discuss fundamental physics as well as conscious free will decision making. Although as a philosopher it may be easy to dismiss the complication this presupposition infers, however, I find it very difficult to use the same language to discuss all of these areas. As it should be explicitly easy to see that when discussing physics and when discussing free will, these must be described in two fundamentally different ways. Due to this, it is difficult to justify an entire argument’s premise and point when the description and explanation of the argument itself is made up of two forms of description that in my view do not match.

Further to this, in everyday life, each individual has the same common-sense view that we are in control of what we do, each decision we make, and our general free will all include the fact that what is in the past, is set in the past. While what is in the future is still open to choices, decisions can change with each choice made. The consequence argument by Van Inwagen provides a defense to the way we justify these common-sense views. As it is instinct to believe that we can only ‘do otherwise’ if the past was different, and following that then is it possible for us to ever ‘do otherwise? James’ belief was that “determinism says that the actual future is necessary and any other future is impossible. What will be, must be. What will not be, cannot be.” Although this conclusion may sound convincing, I find it too quick to jump to this simple conclusion. While difficult to explain, I find that the future is a follow-on from the past and as such any action or decision made, will ultimately change the outcome of the future. The future is not set in stone and it is ridiculous to assume or even pretend it is such. However, the past is set in stone; there is no decision or action which will have the outcome of changing the past and in turn changing the future. Although there may be another world, in which a different outcome in the past from the same circumstances has resulted in a different future, none of the outcomes in these other worlds impact the world in which we are in. Our future is open to change due to our dependence on our choices. Our choices can be different, in the sense that I am able to critically evaluate Van Inwagen’s argument. Is this then compatible with determinism? It is for this reason, that Peter Van Inwagen’s first formal argument provides one of the best arguments for the conclusion that if determinism has any truth value, then no individual has a choice about anything in everyday life. It is as such why I find Van Inwagen’s argument so convincing and sound as a conclusion.

The Consequence argument is a highly important argument that has provided an incredibly insightful view into many underlying metaphysical questions.

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Principle of Determinism by Peter Van Inwagen: Analytical Essay. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 6, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/principle-of-determinism-by-peter-van-inwagen-analytical-essay/
“Principle of Determinism by Peter Van Inwagen: Analytical Essay.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/principle-of-determinism-by-peter-van-inwagen-analytical-essay/
Principle of Determinism by Peter Van Inwagen: Analytical Essay. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/principle-of-determinism-by-peter-van-inwagen-analytical-essay/> [Accessed 6 Feb. 2023].
Principle of Determinism by Peter Van Inwagen: Analytical Essay [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 6]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/principle-of-determinism-by-peter-van-inwagen-analytical-essay/
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