By - January 19, 2015 12:46 pm

Planned Choices.

In his treatment of free will, Thomas Nagel considers a view that holds that people are responsible for their actions only if they determined it. This view is really an amendment to determinism, as it only considers events that happen in the brain or mind to have caused action. Nagel holds that determinism and its amendment are troubling to the notion of free will. This trouble arises from the notion that if actions are just caused other events, it seems unclear what portion of decision making that the mind controls. This trouble remains even if one only considers internal events, as the amendment holds, for Nagel explains, “If I thought that everything I did was determined by my circumstances and my psychological condition, I would feel trapped.” It is also an overreaction to feel trapped by this conclusion, though, and such feelings (should they arise) should pose no threat to the soundness of these assertions—that determinism is true.

Indeed, such “trapped” feelings are the product of the tension that sometimes appears in the mind/brain debate. Namely, this tension is that there is a popular intuition that the mind has special power over its desires and choices, such that the mind’s desires are “lucid” and pure of external stimuli. The mantra is that “desires come from within.” But this creates a tension with materialism, then, because when something happens in the physical world, it is because something else caused it to happen. Therefore, if something in the physical world could impact desires or judgment, then it seems that such desires are not “lucid” and pure but are controlled by external stimuli, instead. However, such tension may be the result of mere semantics. If the mind desires something, then it desires it, and the stimuli that cause desire do not effect its validity. For example, consider when a person is tickled, who does not like to be tickled. When that person’s body jerks away, it is a biological reflex. Yet, even though a biological reflex controls this jerking action, the validity of their desires (to not be tickled) are not suddenly called into question. Their desires could even be informed by their biology—having inherited a disposition to dislike tickling. Yet, the person in that situation would not feel trapped by their biological imperatives, because they actually desired to stop it, anyway. Perhaps they may regret having those desires (and those genes), but that does not change the fact that they actually do have those genuine desires. Thus, their desire to stop the tickling is perfectly harmonious with their biological reaction to the tickling stimulus. And the same can be said of any other desire in the mind. So, there need not be any strife in accepting the claims that desires are informed by external stimuli and that actions are predetermined.


Nagel, Thomas. What Does It All Mean?: A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. Page 47-58. New York: Oxford UP, 1987. Print.

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