Theme Of Free Will And Determinism In "The Power Of Critical Thinking"

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In The Power of Critical Thinking by Lewis Vaughn, he presents the readers with a link between critical thinking and freedom. He asserts that we must think critically to not let our values be determined by society. Freedom is obtained when we challenge and critically think about the beliefs given to us. Our thoughts influence our actions, and our actions can only be our own if we critically analyze our beliefs. Vaughn states that there is a relationship between critical thinking and freedom but does not specifically define it. In what follows, I will define freedom according to Vaughn and discuss his argument that critical thinking is a systematic process that helps people express their freedom to explain my opinion that Vaughn’s statements conflict with those of determinism as well as explain a person’s responsibility for their choices.

To be able to fully understand Vaughn’s claims of critical thinking and freedom, we must first define his usage of ‘freedom’. His idea of freedom is for individuals to have personal freedom. Personal freedom is our choice to believe and desire what we want; we create our paths and foundations by choosing our own beliefs by critically assessing them. Whether it be for better or for worse, the ability to think critically helps us achieve a better understanding of ourselves and the world. Critical thinking is a systematic process of evaluating beliefs and standards, using logic and reasoning through methodical steps is how we can accurately judge the value of our thoughts. We are not critically thinking if we jump to conclusions based on our previous knowledge of the world. We must have a good justification for whether a belief is worth trusting. Vaughn argues that critical thinking is not “what causes a belief, but whether it is worth believing”. The better reasoning and evidence to support the belief, the more plausible it may be. Without critically thinking about the beliefs, we can not reason if a belief is good or bad, right or wrong. As young kids question that, we are raised by our parents’ beliefs and ideologies and take them in as our own. Instead of starting fresh and creating our own beliefs, we borrow those we are close with and call the beliefs our own. Vaughn asserts that if we do not question those foundations that define how we live our life, we succumb to others’ opinions and judgment. We do not truly have our own independent beliefs. He concludes that critically thinking opens our minds to different viewpoints while being methodical and using reason to determine right and wrong. Reevaluating the beliefs given to us, we can think critically about whether or not the beliefs are actually in line with our values. Through this, we earn our freedom by being in control of our lives.

Moreover, Vaughn quotes the famous philosopher Socrates by stating “the unexamined life is not worth living”. Socrates said this when he picked death over living in exile, claiming that he rather die knowing he lived his life to its’ full potential than living a life without control over what he wanted. Vaughn illustrates that even if we have the option to live, having no control of our actions is not exactly living. Following a path laid out by others does not constitute having the authority of our thoughts and ideas. Yet, personal freedom is not always correct where we may do whatever we please. When we assess our existing beliefs and create new ones, there is a reasonable standard based on the laws of nature that we should follow. For instance, killing random strangers should not be morally acceptable even if you have full control over your life choices and believe killing is okay. That being said, Socrates thought it to be better that even if you must die to have personal freedom, it is worth it to have total control over your actions and thoughts and live life to its’ full potential. Vaughn urges us to question and re-evaluate our understandings of the world, creating our own beliefs and what we determine to be right or wrong. By examining them, we are not constrained by the beliefs of others and can pave our paths to freedom. It is when we are curious and questions our foundations, we then begin to pave this path. This is the sense of freedom Vaughn had in mind when examining the power of critical thinking. Still, the question arises if a person is determined to experience personal freedom in Vaughn’s sense. Based on Vaughn’s claims, I believe a person is not determined to experience personal freedom. If we are determined to experience personal freedom, then it should be inevitable that we can think critically. But if it was already predetermined, then the things we critically think about are also predetermined. Like a slippery slope, once one action is predetermined, all other actions after must be predetermined. So, it should not be called personal freedom if we were to believe we were determined to experience it because we would not be experiencing true freedom. We ought to have the choice to think or not to think critically to achieve personal freedom.

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Though Vaughn’s arguments are valid, they contradict the argument for determinism. As stated in the Williams dialogue about free will and determinism, determinism is when everything that happens is caused to happen. One particular section of the dialogue discusses incompatibilism with free will and determinism, explaining how no person can be free and determined. Determinism is essentially a conditional event where all prior events are determined events, they were inevitable to happen because of the prior conditions. Since the actions were caused and caused actions are not free, the actions leading to the determined event are not free. If circumstances were determined to happen, then the dialogue asserts that our actions can not be free. Free actions result from free will, the ability to critically think and choose our decisions. Since determinism is opposing the fact that we can believe and choose freely, determinism and free will can not be compatible.

Let us also discuss compatibilism in the sense of the responsibility a person has and does. Acting indicates that the person acting is responsible for what they did, whether it be good or bad. To view someone as responsible for their actions, you must take into account the argument going on. The person engaging in conversation must be knowledgeable in the event and able to provide evidence and support for the argument, only then is the interlocutor responsible for what they believe and desire. If we look at ourselves as agents, capable and responsible for believing and desiring whatever we believe and desire, it does not agree with the determinism argument. According to The Journal of Philosophy: Freedom in Belief and Desire Pettit and Smith, consider how people can have free will by what they believe and desire to do.

The ability to have believed or desired otherwise will be something inherently attractive from our point of view only so far as it is the person’s ability for anything that is not rightly believed or desired always to have believed or desired otherwise. We argue that responsible believers and desires are free in the sense of having this ability.

There are essentially two premises that prove incompatibilism: an agent has the choice to believe or desire otherwise and that these choices come from within rather than outside factors. As agents, it is up to us to choose and believe we are capable of critically thinking and deciding. This ‘up to us’ thinking lets us be in control of how we act, meaning we could have chosen otherwise. In other words, having alternative possibilities in acting freely and not being tied down to one decision. Additionally, if we accept determinism to be true, then it would also be true that all our actions are based on past events. However, many past events we have no control over. We are not able to control events that happened in the past before we were born or the laws of nature. So, not all past events are determined by us making it impossible for us to ‘do otherwise. Since we can not ‘do otherwise, we are incapable of picking alternate possibilities which disregard everything about determinism. Determinism restricts individuals from freely picking their own choices and takes away their free will. If we take into account Vaughn’s claims, then we should be able to control and critically analyze our beliefs and choose our actions. Yet, if our actions are not free for us to control, then we are not choosing what we do. Furthermore, since we are free and capable of deciding, we have a certain extent of moral responsibility for our actions. Since we are responsible for all of our actions and desires both good and ill-doing, we deserve the reward and punishment relating to the action. Yet, if a person is forced or their actions are not truly their own, they are not always responsible. For example, say I am at a party and drink alcohol to where I become disruptive. This leads to me punching another person and causing a fight. Instigating a fight was predetermined by punching someone which was predetermined by consuming alcohol predetermined attending a party and so forth. Even though I acted in such a manner, my actions were not truly my own because I may have not realized what I was doing, hence, I am not responsible and it should be considered wrong to punish. So, we are free and responsible as long as our actions are consistent with our values. Agents are held responsible if there is reason to believe that they could have done otherwise, that it was not determined that they do good or bad. No outside forces can influence the agent's decision to act, it should all come from the free will of the agent.

However, many argue that free will and determinism are compatible because one can be determined while having the freedom of choice. An action can be considered free if the action is not forced or if the agent has total power over the action. How can I have a choice about an event that has a predetermined consequence that I have no choice about? For example, if I stay up all night due to homework, the next day I will feel tired and need to sleep. The need to sleep is caused by my choice to stay up. These determined causes also have free will where I can choose to sleep despite having homework or choose to not sleep despite being tired. Even though both choices are free, they determine the future actions I take. Nonetheless, determinism is understood that there should only be one determined future. If I can freely pick between sleeping or not sleeping, I could have acted otherwise which leads to more than one possible outcome. There must only be one outcome if determinism is true and if we say that determinism and free will are compatible, then it is believed that there are multiple outcomes which means determinism would be false. This proves that the determinism argument is not agreeable with free will.

As Vaughn’s claims propose, it is plausible that critically thinking about our beliefs leads to having control and freedom of our lives. We are responsible for our actions when we freely act and think critically, they are our own choices and are not influenced by outside factors. Nevertheless, as I have argued, Vaughn’s argument is inconsistent with determinism; something that happens is caused to happen. Vaughn believes that we have a choice about our beliefs, foundations, and understanding of the world. Hence, Vaughn’s and the deterministic views can not exist together. 

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