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How do we Sign a Contract if Everything is Predetermined: Does Compatibilism Help Preserve Agency?

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In recent years, neurophysiological research has pushed the concept of free will towards a reductionist interpretation, largely avoiding the concept of a freely willing agent. This paper explores the ongoing debate surrounding free will, highlighting the contrasting perspectives of determinism, indeterminism (libertarianism), and compatibilism. It questions how individuals, particularly those adhering to deterministic viewpoints, can ethically navigate a world defined by causal relationships. The paper argues that reductionist approaches struggle to account for ethical responsibility and the human experience of making choices. While compatibilism offers a middle ground, asserting that actions in line with one’s desires are free and thus ethically accountable, this stance is scrutinized for its potential limitations in answering questions about personal responsibility. Specifically, it is argued that compatibilism may not be the ideal framework for a neurophysiologist confronted with ethical dilemmas, thus leaving room for the re-examination of indeterminism. Through this discussion, the paper aims to contribute to a nuanced understanding of free will that incorporates both the scientific and philosophical dimensions of human decision-making.

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  1. Hobbes writes: “Liberty and Necessity are Consistent: As in the water, that hath not only liberty, but a necessity of descending by the Channel; so like wife in the actions which men voluntarily doe: which, because they proceed from their will, proceed from liberty; and yet, because every act of mans will, and every desire, and inclination proceedeth from some cause, and that from another cause, in à continuall chaine, proceed from necessity. So that to him that could see the connexion of those causes, the necessity of all mens voluntary actions, would appear manifest. And therefore God, that seeth, and disposeth all things, seeth also that the liberty of man in doing what he will, is accompanied with the necessity of doing that which God will, and no more, nor less. For though men may do many things, which God does not command, nor is therefore Authour of them ; yet they can have no passion, nor appetite to any thing, of which appetite Gods will is not the cause. And did not his will assure the necessity of mans will, and consequently of all that one mans will dependeth, the liberty of men would be a contradiction, and impediment to the omnipotence and liberty of God. And this shall suffice, (as to the matter in hand) of that natural liberty, which only is properly called liberty” (Hobbes, 1651: 107).

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  3. This is what Sartre said about it: “I am on a narrow path-without a guard-rail-which goes along a precipice. The precipice presents itself to me as to be avoided; it represents a danger of death. At the same time I conceive of a certain number of causes, originating in universal determinism, which can transform that threat of death into reality; I can slip on a stone and fall into the abyss; the crumbling earth of the path can give way under my steps. Through these various anticipations, I am given to myself as a thing; I am passive in relation to these possibilities; they come to me from without; in so far as I am also an object in the world, subject to gravitation, they are my possibilities. At this moment fear appears, which in terms of the situation is the apprehension of myself as a destructible transcendent in the midst of transcendents, as an object which does not contain in itself the origin of its future disappearance. My reaction will be of the reflective order; I will pay attention to the stones in the road; I will keep myself as far as possible from the edge of the path. I realize myself as pushing away the threatening situation with all my strength, and I project before myself a certain number of future conducts destined to) keep the threats of the world at a distance from me. These conducts are my possibilities. I escape fear by the very fact that I am placing myself on a plane where my own possibilities are substituted for the transcendent probabilities where human action had no place.” (Sartre, 2022: 92).


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This work is an output of a research project implemented as part of the Basic Research Program at the National Research University Higher School of Economics (HSE University).

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Diana Gasparyan conceived the study, designed the methodology, wrote the initial draft, and performed all revisions and edits of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Diana Gasparyan.

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Gasparyan, D. How do we Sign a Contract if Everything is Predetermined: Does Compatibilism Help Preserve Agency?. Integr. psych. behav. (2024).

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