• Philosophy 101 (philpapers induced) #7: Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

    Having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions meant. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

    This is the seventh post after

    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    #4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

    #5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    and having covered idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism in the last post; the next question in the survey is:

    Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

    Accept or lean toward: compatibilism 550 / 931 (59.1%)
    Other 139 / 931 (14.9%)
    Accept or lean toward: libertarianism 128 / 931 (13.7%)
    Accept or lean toward: no free will 114 / 931 (12.2%)

    Woo hoo! Here is my most written-about topic in the world of philosophy, being the topic of my first book Free Will? An investigation into whether we have free will, or whether I was always going to write this book. In fact, the book looks to answer this very philpapers question.

    So, first of all, like all philosophers, we need to define out terms. Unfortunately, this is the nub of the problem, to the point where one could quite easily combine no free will and compatibilism in the stats above, depending on what definition is being used, and how we exemplify it.

    Libertarian free will

    If we step out of the world of academic philosophy and ask your average Joe what free will is, it would sound something like this (which is confirmed through my chats to non-philosophers and people at the talks I give on this subject):

    The theoretical ability to do otherwise in a given situation. In other words, if a person did A in a situation C, then if we rewound back to C, she could do B in that same situation C, too.

    I would refine this as: The theoretical, consciously controlled ability to do otherwise in a given situation.

    I would do this because if these things are happening non-consciously, then notions of an agent and their control are stripped away to some important degree. More on this later.

    This, then, is what is known as libertarian free will (LFW) or contra-causal free will.

    Now, as mentioned, not everyone adheres to this as being the definition of the term. However, I prefer to go with what people generally understand. In some senses, this renders the stats to the question as problematic because some might answer it doesn’t exist, whilst others will answer it does, if defined in a particular way. Indeed, this is probably what is happening with regard to the results for compatibilism and no free will.

    On the definition that I have given, this means that one could do A or B in exactly the same scenario (C). This means that if every prior piece of history, every variable at that moment (down to every individual atom), every piece of reasoning in the mind to that moment etc. was exactly the same, the person could still chose other than they did. This clearly opens up this theory to problems with grounding any given decision and thus action by an agent. For example, if I did A in C (decided to make a cup of tea at 6:15pm on Tuesday evening) and we went on for 10 minutes in this world and then rewound back to that exact moment (C – 6.15), then I could choose not A (eg B, or to not make a cup of tea). But what an earth could ground this “second” decision? Since everything, including my reasoning, would be absolutely identical, what could ground my decision to do otherwise than I did originally? Every available piece of reasoning, and indeed, my reasoning faculties as states in the brain and neurological structures, would be identical. There seems to be a problem for rationally grounding these two actions given identical scenarios.


    This is why this is called contra-causal free will, because it invalidates the notion of causality that we generally have. And this is why I reject this idea of free will (LFW). Before you even look at evidence, the logic and philosophy fail. This can be summed up like this:

    Either something happens for a reason, or it does not.

    Now, we can introduce a third factor here: random. The problem is (and this can take the shape of quantum indeterminacy, for example) that this does not help free will as generally understood where the agent has conscious control over their decision. If part of the variables which lead towards this decision are random, like a virtual die roll, then the agent is not consciously controlling and “owning” this decision making. This kind of indeterminacy is often invoked to get a sort of free version of the will, and I do not accept this move.

    We seem to have two notions here which are in direct conflict: determinism and the will. Determinism is this idea that the world works to strict natural laws of cause and effect. This is something which science accepts quite generally, and thus we have methodological naturalism, which I have talked about before. With the idea of some kind of random in the world (e.g. quantum) this idea could be invalidated. However, there are two things to consider here. Many interpretations of quantum are deterministic (i.e. the random is illusory we just don’t know enough about the systems etc.) or that the random at microscopic level does not affect causality at macroscopic level. This is called adequate determinism as espoused by people like Stephen Hawking. As wiki states:

    • Adequate determinism is the idea that quantum indeterminacy can be ignored for most macroscopic events. This is because of quantum decoherence. Random quantum events “average out” in the limit of large numbers of particles (where the laws of quantum mechanics asymptotically approach the laws of classical mechanics).[23] Stephen Hawking explains a similar idea: he says that the microscopic world of quantum mechanics is one of determined probabilities. That is, quantum effects rarely alter the predictions of classical mechanics, which are quite accurate (albeit still not perfectly certain) at larger scales.[24] Something as large as an animal cell, then, would be “adequately determined” (even in light of quantum indeterminacy).

    Without wanting to derail the discussion too much, I will disregard quantum indeterminacy as either not having the desired macroscopic effect, not existing, or simply not being able to be useful to a consciously willing being.

    Which means we are back to things either being caused or not. If something which happens is uncaused, then it is effectively random anyway, and this brings us back to not being helpful to the conscious willing of an agent.

    Which then brings us back to one option: things are caused. Whether they be brain states, other physical matter, or the will, things adhere to causality, a relationship between an effect and its causes. Some people talk about humans being influenced but not wholly caused. I call this the 80-20 Problem, which I have written about here where I state:

    Which is all good and well, but what about the issue at hand? Well, when people claim we are, say. 80% determined, but that 20% of an action is still freely willed, we have EXACTLY the same problem – we have just moved that argument into a smaller paradigm, into the 20%. Assuming that we forget the 80% fraction which is determined so not being of interest to the LFWer, we are left with the 20%. But this is devoid of determining reasons. So what, then, is the basis of that 20% in making the decision? The agent cannot say, “Well  my genetically determined impulses urged me to A, my previous experience of this urged me towards A, but I was left with a 20% fraction which overcame these factors and made me do B” because he still needs to establish the decision as being reasonable.  OK, so if that 20% is not just random or unknown (but still grounded in something) and had any meaning, then it would be reasoned! The two horns of the Dilemma of Determinism raise their ugly heads again. We are left with reasoned actions or actions without reason, neither of which give the LFWer the moral responsibility that they are looking for.

    As mentioned, science very much assumes and evidences determinism. Whether it be genetics, social science, neuroscience, physics, psychology or any other ology, science looks to hypothesise how and why things happen from a point of view of causality. For example, in Are We Free?, by Baer, Kaufman and Baumeister, which looks at free will and determinism from within the discipline of psychology, the introduction includes the sensible claim:

    A psychology that doesn’t accept causes of behaviour or the possibility of prediction is no psychology at all.

    You couldn’t step into a psychologist’s or psychiatrist’s office and ask “Why am I behaving like this?” and expect the expert to throw up their hands and say “Well, I’ll be blown if I know; you freely chose to…”. Indeed, they look for reasons for behaviour. As Schopenhauer once said:

    Man can do what he wills, but he cannot will what he wills.


    Which brings me on to the final piece of this jigsaw: compatibilism. This is the belief that determinism and free will both exist and are compatibile with each other. Whether or not we subscribe to fully blown determinism or adequate determinism (including quantum indeterminacy), one of them sits comfortably with this idea of free will. However, as philosophers like Ted Honderich have pointed out, free will (understood as LFW) seems to be a negation of determinism, so in some sense compatibilists are saying that free will and lack of free will coexist!

    Compatibilists adhere to determinism so they are sometimes called soft determinists whilst those who adhere to determinism as being incompatible with free will, and thus free will does not exist are called hard determinists (and sometimes incompatibilists or hard incompatibilists). Compatibilists will generally admit that the agent is unable to do otherwise in a given scenario. In other words, they deny LFW for the basic reasons given above, together, perhaps, with empirical evidence. Instead, they see free will as being able to do what you desire to do. Thus if I wanted to make a cup of tea and made it, I did it freely, and therefore have free will, even if I was always going to do so.

    Which is why Schopenhauer’s quote above is apt because, to me, internal causality is just as relevant as external causality. So if a person had a gun against their head or shackles around their ankles, they would not be behaving freely. But surely kleptomania and other internally caused dispositions have this same effect. Moreover, as I have pointed out here (“Whitman, tumours, the neurotypical and moral responsibility”), “normal” brain states are just as caused as “unwanted dispositions”. Our will, in other words, is itself victim to causality. Therefore, we may do want we want, but we cannot want what we want. The causal chain goes back and back and back to the beginning of the universe or similar. Causality works through us, and we are riding on its waves. We don’t consciously control that wave.

    If you define free will, then, as the ability to do what you want, then I too would believe it existed and would be a compatibilist. The problem with the question is it uses the term libertarian free will as an understanding of free will, and so this invalidates compatibilism as a position (or indeed vice versa). Thus one or other should not be an option. It should either be: free will or no free will; or compaitbilism or incompatibilism, or something similar. If  you define free will in terms of LFW, I believe it does not exist. If you define it in terms of that generally accepted by most compatibilists, then I accept its existence! The question fails on this basis.

    Now, I haven’t even looked at genetic, psychological or neuroscientific evidence to support positions in this article. You can check my category for free will and determinism here for some of that. I am perhaps biased because I am writing this from a position of thinking free will is an illusion to the mind (illusionism) and that our decisions are either caused by our non-conscious brain, and we attach intention to them afterwords (epiphenomenalism) or they are simply caused by brain states without us particularly thinking about it.

    And religion?

    The powerful ramifications of the free will debate with regard to religion couldn’t be more pronounced. The God question supervenes on this one, unless you are a theological determinist like a Calvinist, for example. This is because almost every major concept of God is a personal judgemental god who weighs up your life based on your decisions. If these decisions are invalidated by such philosophy, then that conception of God is wrong and that god does not exist.

    If in any meaningful sense I could not have done otherwise, then God punishing me eternally is rendered utterly incoherent. Which is why crime and punishment is such a rich area for debate in this topic.


    Each aspect of what I talk about here is a book on its own, so there is obviously a great deal of simplicity necessary for this piece. As ever, buy my book (which is a simple introduction to the topic)!

    The concept of moral responsibility is really important to this topic, and I suggest further reading on this elsewhere on my free will and determinism category.


    #1 – a priori

    #2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

    #3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

    #4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

    #5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

    #6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

    #7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

    #8 – Belief in God: theism or atheism?

    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPhilosophyPhilosophy of Religion


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce