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An Essay on Free Will Paperback – 16 Jan 1986


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This is an important book, and no one interested in issues which touch on the free will will want to ignore it. (Ethics)

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Peter Van Inwagen is at Syracuse University.

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Amazon.com: 4 reviews
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
A contemporary classic on the free will problem 15 Oct. 2004
By Sean - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
I consider Peter van Inwagen's AN ESSAY ON FREE WILL to be the best book on the topic of free will, which is written by a single author. The book has six chapters, which are entitled:

1. The problems and how we shall approach them.

2. Fatalism.

3. Three arguments for incompatibilism.

4. Three arguments for compatibilism.

5. What our not having free will would mean.

6. The traditional problem.

Van Inwagen sets out to answer two main questions in this book. First, the compatibility question, which is the question of whether free will is compatible or incompatible with determinism. Second, the traditional question, which is the question of whether we have free will.

Chapter 2, on fatalism, analyzes arguments that tries to show, on purely logical grounds, that we have no free will. Van Inwagen argues, however, that they commit modal fallacies subtle and not so subtle and hence that such attempts to establish fatalism (and the nonexistence of free will) on purely logical grounds fail.

In Chapter 3 he presents three arguments for incompatibility of free will--and he is happy to consider them as being three versions of the one argument for incompatibilism--and determinism. The most famous of the three is the third argument, which he dubbed 'the consequence argument' (CA). CA is an attempt to formalize the following intuitive argument:

"If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us" (p. 56).

Van Inwagen believes that the three arguments for incompatibilism that he presents are all good arguments (at least more reasonable than their denials) and, hence, by the end of chapter 3 he thinks he is justified in answering the compatibility question in the negative.

In chapter 4 he presents three arguments for compatibilism: the paradigm case argument, the conditional analysis of 'can', and an argument that he calls 'the Mind argument' (MA) (so named because versions of it have appeared frequently in the philosophy journal MIND). Briefly, MA states that free will is not compatible with indeterminism, since free willed actions are rational and under the agent's control, whereas the injection of indeterminism (anywhere in the deliberation-volition-action sequence) would either destroy or greatly lessen such control and/or rationality.

He believes that the most promising of the three is MA--more precisely, a 'third strand' of MA--which, interestingly, utilizes an inferential principle that is also found in CA (called Beta). Van Inwagen grants the validity of MA and is lead to deny one of its premises as false, although he confesses that he doesn't know *how* it can be false. He thinks that he is justified in holding on to the conclusion arrived at in chapter 3 because he argues that compatibilism is even more mysterious than incompatibilism--Van Inwagen thus ops for the lesser of two mysteries.

Chapter 4 concludes with an argument that positing 'agent causation' will not help the incompatibilist to lessen the mystery that is posed by MA. Van Inwagen is thus something of a 'simple indeterminist' regarding free will.

In chapter 5 he presents an argument to the effect that one could not deliberate if one truly and consistently believed that one has no free will. He charges that those who claim to deliberate but deny free will are guilty of a 'practical contradiction' of sorts. This argument has also received a lot of discussion in the subsequent literature, and it is considered (even by fellow libertarians) to be a mistake (cf. Randolph Clarke, LIBERTARIAN ACCOUNTS OF FREE WILL, p. 112).

Finally, in chapter 6 he presents an argument for an affirmative answer to the traditional question: that free will exists because moral responsibility exists, and free will is a necessary condition for ascribing moral responsibility to people. In my opinion, this part of the book is perhaps the weakest, in that Van Inwagen spends far too little time defending moral realism against various skeptical attacks. I grant that he is not a specialist in ethics, but since he raised the issue--and since the issue is so crucial to the success of his overall project--I think that he should have been more careful here.

The sixth chapter also contains some fascinating arguments about whether the truth of determinism can be established either rationally (e.g. through the principle of sufficient reason) or empirically (scientifically). He answers both in the negative.

Thus, his overall conclusion is that (i) incompatibilism is true (his answer to the compatibility question) and that (ii) free will exists (his answer to the traditional question). Since the above conjunction entails the truth of libertarianism, Van Inwagen believes that he has shown that view to be true.

In conclusion, anyone who wants to orient themselves to the issues and arguments of contemporary philosophical literature on free will should read this book. First published in 1983, it remains extremely influential in shaping the contours of the free will debate ever since.
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
Excellent treatment of its chosen subject 8 May 2000
By S. Guha - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
Van Inwagen's first major work, the "Essay on Free Will" has in many ways revolutionized the free-will debate; terms like "compatibilism", "incompatibilism", "consequence argument", and so forth, central to today's debate on agency and freedom, were invented here. The book begins by explaining the issues involved--the problems associated with fatalism, arguments for compatibilism, arguments for incompatibilism, the consequences of our not having free will, and the "traditional problem", which is mainly the question of whether or not we have free will. Van Inwagen examines and criticizes fatalistic claims, criticizes arguments for compatibilism, argues at length for incompatibilism, and claims that lack of free will is incompatible with moral responsibility, and that the belief in free will is psychologically necessary for deliberation. He then gives reasons for thinking that we in fact have free will, and defends this claim against various objections, scientific and metaphysical. Among the most striking arguments of this part of the book is a disproof of the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

This book is a treasure-trove of valuable insights on its chosen subject, clear, lucid, and impressively argued. It is worth any philosopher's careful time, but especially those who are interested in the free-will debate. The book does suffer, however, from a certain surliness of tone, and a certain persistent defensiveness, which to my mind is unwarranted and unseemly. These stylistic defects are minor, however, compared to its great philosophical merits.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
A Philosophical Masterpiece 31 July 2007
By TiZ - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
"An Essay on Free Will" is the best book ever written on the subject of free will. Van Inwagen presents the best arguments for and against compatibilism, the thesis that free will is compatible with determinism. He concludes that this thesis is false. Subsequently, he argues that we have free will, and thus that determinism is false. The book also includes arguments against fatalism and the principle of sufficient reason.
Very roughly, the argument for incompatibilism is that if determinism is true, then our acts are determined by events in the distant past along with the laws of nature; since these factors are outside our control, if determinism is true, our acts are not ultimately up to us. Very roughly, the argument for the conclusion that we have free will is that we are not morally responsible unless we have free will; since we are morally responsible, we have free will.
The book is clear and rigorous. Technical terms are defined and arguments are set forth carefully. Van Inwagen is patient with objections and the arguments of his opponents. He combines profound insight and a good dose of wit. This is a tour de force in analytic philosophy.
The book does not presuppose familiarity with the problems of free will. However, it employs some logical symbolism, and I think that those unfamiliar with the techniques of analytic philosophy will find it very difficult.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Highly influential free will classic 10 Oct. 2005
By C. Vance - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This book demonstrates the view of incompatibilism. This means that human free will is incompatible with the idea that all future events are pre-determined by past events and the laws of nature. If you are looking for an actual explanation of free will, however, this is not it, since the book concludes that free will is a "mystery." Also, it is fairly beginner-friendly, written in candid language for the most part. A novice could skip over some of the difficult parts and still understand the important points van Inwagen makes.
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