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TOEFL Writing for Academic Discussion sample: Free will vs determinism


This is an ETS official sample response:

This is the rater's comments:

These are Dr. Nanhee Byrnes' sample responses: The sample responses are excerpted based on e-course, "TOEFL Writing: Academic Discussion."  

Free will vs determinism

Professor: Which philosophical view do you believe, volitionism or determinism? That is, do you think we have freewill or do you think all our actions are determined solely by external factors? 

Kelly: Determinism is attractive to me as we are the product of factors that are beyond our control such as genetics and environment. Determinism allows us to be sympathetic with others since their wrongdoings are not their own makings.

Andrew: The free will view is more attractive to me. Most of our actions should be our autonomous choices since otherwise how could we explain moral responsibility? 

response 1

Personally, the free will view is superior to the determinism view since it fits with our common sense. If there is no free will and our actions and choices are already predetermined, as argued by determinism, how can we make sense of such mundane concepts as making choices or taking responsibility for one's action? While genetics, environment, and upbringing have some influences on who we are and what we do, ultimately, we make choices and decisions, based on our own internal motivations, convictions and reasons, independent of external influences. That is, I feel that we humans possess a unique agency in decision-making. An illustrative example can be found in the realm of moral choices. Consider the case of Sophie Scholl, a young woman who grew up in Nazi Germany during World War II. Despite being surrounded by Nazi propaganda and indoctrination, Sophie, along with her brother Hans and a small group of like-minded individuals, formed the White Rose resistance movement. They distributed anti-Nazi leaflets, encouraging civil disobedience and advocating for human rights. Sophie and her group risked their lives to resist the oppressive regime, showcasing their capacity to exercise independent judgment and moral agency in the face of overwhelming societal pressures. This example illustrates how individuals can transcend their upbringing and societal conditioning to make courageous choices aligned with their personal values, thereby demonstrating the existence of free will even in challenging circumstances.

response 2

As a student of science, I feel that determinism makes more sense than the free will ideology. An illustrative example of determinism can be observed in the growth of plants. Consider a seed planted in a controlled environment with specific conditions of soil quality, water supply, temperature, and light exposure. As the seed germinates and grows, its development is entirely governed by these external factors and its inherent genetic makeup. The unfolding of each stage, from sprouting to flowering, follows a predictable sequence dictated by the interplay of these influences. Similarly, human behavior and decision-making operate under analogous principles, with various factors such as genetics, upbringing, societal norms, and personal experiences orchestrating a course of actions that, in retrospect, can be seen as an inevitable outcome of these combined forces. For instance, consider a person born into a socioeconomically disadvantaged family, lacking access to quality education and opportunities. Their life trajectory may be greatly influenced by these circumstances, making it difficult to assert that their choices are entirely free. This perspective emphasizes that just as a plant's growth is predetermined by its environment, human choices and actions are similarly preordained by the complex web of circumstances and influences that shape an individual's life. If the laws of physics are deterministic, then it seems that our choices are also determined, since they are ultimately based on the laws of physics.

response 3

I believe that the determinism view is much more theoretically powerful than the free will view. The free will idea would lead us to an infinite regress when trying to explain the origin of our free choices. This is how: Suppose someone claims that their free choices are the result of their conscious deliberations and desires. If we ask her, "What determines these conscious deliberations and desires?" She might respond that they are influenced by her values and beliefs. This then prompts the question, "What determines your values and beliefs?" This line of questioning can continue indefinitely without reaching a definitive starting point for the origin of free choices. While we do not fully understand how consciousness works, it has to be a product of the neural network in the physical brain, implying that our choices are determined by the physical state of our brains. By utilizing techniques such as fMRI, functional magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have been able to directly observe neural activity during decision-making processes. Studies of the neural network have demonstrated that brain activity associated with decision-making can be predicted before a person is consciously aware of their choice. In other words, our brains make decisions before we are consciously aware of them. This suggests that our choices may be predetermined, even though we feel like we are making them freely. Since seemingly spontaneous decisions can be traced back to underlying causes beyond our control, free will is an illusion and determinism should rule the day.

response 4

A recent study on brain fMRI suggests that our brains are already making decisions before we are consciously aware of them. From this finding, some people argue that we cannot be said to be truly in control of our own decisions and actions, and conclude that free will is an illusion. I disagree. These studies do not disprove the existence of free will since, even if our brains make decisions unconsciously, we still have the ability to veto or override those decisions at a conscious level. We can see this happening when we overcome an obstacle or make sacrifices in order to achieve our goals. Our brain might say give up, but our conscious mind might say keep going. Our brain might be focused on the negative aspects of a situation, but our conscious mind might be focused on the positive possibilities. Our brain might be telling us that we are not good enough, but our conscious mind might be telling us that we can do anything we set our minds to. Clearly, human minds cannot be reduced to the neural states of the humanoid, C-3PO of Star Wars, who often says that the odds are a million to one. There are instinctual or neural decisions, and there are higher, conscious decisions. This distinction is important, since we humans are affected by both the deterministic factors, factors that are beyond our control, and factors that are within our control. And this is why philosopher Aristotle believed that to become a moral person, one needs to be well-born and to make a habit of committing virtuous acts. A person born in a good family has resources and opportunities to develop moral virtues as he has been raised in a stable and supportive environment, allowing him to make good choices. However, Aristotle also believed that moral virtue is acquired only through putting in the effort to make virtuous acts into habits. Putting in this effort is a conscious choice one makes thanks to the existence of free will. 

response 5

Asking whether there exists free will is akin to pondering the existence of God or an afterlife, as these concepts elude empirical testing. In this context, belief often hinges on the consequences it carries. Pascal's wager, a philosophical proposition by Blaise Pascal, illustrates this notion, asserting that a rational individual should live as though God exists and strive to believe in God. This argument suggests that believing in God entails minimal risk if God is non-existent but offers boundless rewards if God exists. Pascal’s wager can be applied to the free will question. What would be the consequences of believing in free will? Belief in free will implies that individuals are responsible for their choices and actions. So, belief in free will fosters a sense of personal agency that individuals have the capacity to shape their destinies through their choices. When individuals believe they have control over their actions and can shape their futures, they are more likely to pursue their goals with determination and resilience. By contrast, if we do not believe that free will exists and our actions are determined by external factors, we would not feel that we are responsible for our actions. For this reason, if determinism is true, then as Kelly mentioned, we can have more empathy toward other people’s wrongdoings, and this is a positive consequence. However, personally, I feel that my life would be meaningless if I am just a Domino standing in a causal chain. Since free will allows me to regard myself as the author of my own life, I personally espouse the free will view.