Questions for compatibilists

A long time ago, everyone thought bachelors were unmarried and that it was wrong for a married man, but not a bachelor, to have sex with multiple people.  Then a philosopher got the bright idea of redefining “bachelor” to include “those married men who didn’t have much sex with their wives.”  That redefinition allowed some married men to think of themselves as free to pursue other women. They were happier.

Although it’s a stretch, something like this seems to me to parallel what has happened with the rise of “compatibilism.” That is the notion that although the universe may be deterministic in a physical way—so that our actions and thoughts are not only determined by the laws of physics, but also predictable if we had enough foreknowledge—we nevertheless have “free will.”  What philosophers did was redefine the meaning of “free will” away from its historical and religious sense, so that “free”, instead of meaning “independent of the strictures of your bodily makeup and environmental influences”, now meant a variety of other things, like, “your decision isn’t being made with a gun to your head.”

There is no one form of compatibilism: various philosophers have suggested various tweaks that allow us to say we have “free will.”

To me, the important aspect of this debate came not from philosophy but from science: we realized that our brains, like all physical objects, are subject to the laws of physics, and there was no way that some nonmaterial spook in one’s head could make “free decisions”. That was something new.

The idea of a deterministic universe, we all agree, was an important one, and so we can conceive of humans as immensely complicated and evolved machines.  That does not mean, of course, that we know exactly how they will behave, for determinism does not equal predictability—unless we have perfect knowledge.

So determinism, and its view that the mind is what the brain does, was a tremendous advance in science. And it completely dispelled the notion of dualistic free will. Here are the questions, then, that I have for compatibilists.

What kind of comparable advance was achieved by redefining “free will” so that the only thing “free” about it was its freedom to accept determinism?

Has compatibilism had an important (or might have a potentially important) influence on humanity or its behavior?

Is compatibilism anything more than a semantic gesture?

How has compatibilism helped us understand the human brain or human behavior?

I see compatibilism as a branch of philosophy, and determinism as something that is largely scientific but has philosophical implications. And—I won’t pull any punches here—I don’t think compatibilism is of any importance to humanity.

Now when I say that “compatibilism was confected to allow humans to have free will and avoid the notion that we’re automatons,” I’m pretty serious. In response, people tell me that “compatibilism has a long and distinguished history,” and was not a response to determinism.

I’m not convinced about that, because determinism itself has a long and distinguished history.  Here are two examples:

Spinoza (in Ethics): ″the infant believes that it is by free will that it seeks the breast; the angry boy believes that by free will he wishes vengeance; the timid man thinks it is with free will he seeks flight; the drunkard believes that by a free command of his mind he speaks the things which when sober he wishes he had left unsaid. … All believe that they speak by a free command of the mind, whilst, in truth, they have no power to restrain the impulse which they have to speak.″

Laplace: “We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes. The perfection that the human mind has been able to give to astronomy affords but a feeble outline of such an intelligence.”

Since determinism has been around for a long time, it’s not inconceivable that compatibilism did arise to counteract determinism, and make us feel that we really did have free agency.

But, ignoring that, I still want to know why compatibilism is considered a serious achievement in philosophy. Contrary to determinism, which does have serious implications for how we live our lives and run our societies, compatibilism is an arcane backwater of philosophy. It is not a philosophical achievement on the order of, say, Singer’s arguments for animal rights, which have real practical consequences, or Rawls’s musings on justice, which makes us rethink how we conceive of fairness and people’s rights.  I see no practical consequences of compatibilism save soothing the distress of people who, upon finally grasping determinism, get distressed that they are puppets on the strings of physical laws.

Which is pretty much how it is.


  1. BillyJoe
    Posted October 25, 2013 at 8:57 pm | Permalink

    “computers are non-living entities with free will”

    Obviously, the compatibilist has re-defined freewill.

    Someone above tried to breathe life into freewill by making an analogy between freewill and life. In fact the appropriate analogy is between freewill and lifeforce. Neither exist.

  2. Posted October 25, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    The Ego ~~ conscious control ~~ choice ~~ free will; these are all anthropic artifacts akin to the world is flat ~~ I will fall off the edge of it if I go too far ~~ the sun and the heavenly bodies circle the earth etc. I don’t mean to belittle the free will argument with excessive flippancy but it’s all but begging for it. In some ways this blog is great because it facilitates our discussing and debating concepts rarely found in other forums. However, I find myself having to repeat things that I’ve already stated in previous posts so I wish there were some way to crosslink similarly / previously expressed ideas [a fitting challenge for some app developer and/or software engineer I think]; anyway, for the purposes of addressing this topic let me revisit a previous post of mine:

    Carver Mead, easily one of the greatest practical minds ever in the history science, gives an excellent example that expresses the roots of the continued fallacious thinking of the Copenhagen School:

    “As late as 1956, Bohr and Von Neumann, the paragons of quantum theory, arrived at the Columbia laboratories of Charles Townes, who was in the process of describing his invention. With the transistor, the laser is one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century. Designed into every CD player and long distance telephone connection, lasers today are manufactured by the billions. At the heart of laser action is perfect alignment of the crests and troughs of myriad waves of light. Their location and momentum must be theoretically knowable. But this violates the holiest canon of Copenhagen theory: Heisenberg Uncertainty. Bohr and Von Neumann proved to be true believers in Heisenberg’s rule. Both denied that the laser was possible. When Townes showed them one in operation, they retreated artfully” (American Spectator, Sep/Oct2001, Vol. 34 Issue 7, p68 Carver Mead Spectator Interview).

    I believe the laser anectode provides an excellent analogy in general for those–including ardent theologians, lay people, and some Nobel prize winning scientists– who believe that there is some inherent fuzziness in nature that demands that we accept free will because of our limits in showing that quantum determinism is true empirically. As technology improves, it’s proving harder and harder to rely on this lazy approach to thought to explain why we should believe in free will and by extension some moral and or socioeconomic higher order. Yes it can be a scary world once we know the truth, as it was for those who first learned that our earth is round or that our planet revolves around the sun, a star, along the path of least resistance. But can we afford to pretend any more? Perhaps accepting the scientific validity of Hard/quantum Determinism won’t lead to an overhaul of everyone’s world view overnight but it certainly will contribute increasingly to a world of improving possibilities.

    As much as I loathe engaging in debates that center in the realm of semantics, I find it necessary to challenge Vaal’s statement that I made “a very large, ill-advised leap from the interpretation of some small set of experiments testing only certain capabilities under specific conditions.” Let me start with citing some of David Eagleman’s work again (btw/FYI Eagleman is not a hard determinist, much more of a free will sceptic if I may categorize his thinking):

    “When it comes to nature and nurture, the important point is that we choose neither one. We are each constructed from a genetic blueprint, and then born into a world of circumstances that we cannot control in our most-formative years. The complex interactions of genes and environment mean that all citizens—equal before the law—possess different perspectives, dissimilar personalities, and varied capacities for decision-making. The unique patterns of neurobiology inside each of our heads cannot qualify as choices; these are the cards we’re dealt…

    The crux of the problem is that it no longer makes sense to ask, “To what extent was it his biology, and to what extent was it him?,” because we now understand that there is no meaningful distinction between a person’s biology and his decision-making. They are inseparable.

    WHILE OUR CURRENT style of punishment rests on a bedrock of personal volition and blame, our modern understanding of the brain suggests a different approach. Blameworthiness should be removed from the legal argot. It is a backward-looking concept that demands the impossible task of untangling the hopelessly complex web of genetics and environment that constructs the trajectory of a human life” (

    And Andrew Platt, if you’re going to cite a modern physicist, please stay away from the wishy washy work of that media whore Mitio Kaku; he’s a poor knock off from the Copenhagen school dinosaurs. Not to sound elitist, but Gerard t’Hooft—a Nobel Prize winner—who has collaborated with modern greats such as Leonard “the plumber” Susskind on top notch work, including the holographic principle, helps us to see that at best our conscious minds are merely biological extensions of Nature’s immense processing devices [i.e. the Universe akin to a gigantic computer] in which “Nature does her own calculations much faster than any man-made construction, made out of parts existing in Nature, can ever do. There is no need to demand for more free will than that (“Free Will Postulate” 4,7 Gerard t’ Hooft).” For further deterministic elucidations, please see t’ Hooft’s work on Beables and Changeables.

    PS: Einstein and Schrödinger were right.
    Also it looks like we’re breaking off into competing groups of thinkers, which is fine with me and obviously predetermined. Personally I think the wisest voice in this forum is that of Kelton Barnsley; I just noted his even more thorough expression of how belief in free will correlates to terrors in our world:

    Posted October 12, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink
    Belief in free will, like the notion of sin and the philosophies of dualism and vitalism, is the enemy of compassion. I think these beliefs are even more harmful than a belief in God. God is posited to be an external being, but free will, sin, the soul, etc. tell people that there is inherent evil in other human beings that cannot be cured except by the noose (or, in our time, the injection or the chair). These beliefs are responsible for the stigmatization of having or trying to treat mental illness, and for the government-sponsored killing of human beings in captivity. They are also a continuous source of mental anguish when people blame themselves for their own shortcomings and failures instead of moving on.

    Thank you again Kelton.

    Finally to end this post on a more uplifting note, enlightened dismissal of concepts such as free will and blame allow us to embrace a new and better paradigm which I have written about and continue to enjoy immensely, summarized in the phrase: Being more pleasurable than all ones.

    • Kelton Barnsley
      Posted October 26, 2013 at 9:57 am | Permalink

      Aw, shucks.

      • Andrew Platt
        Posted October 28, 2013 at 6:54 am | Permalink

        “I think these beliefs are even more harmful than a belief in God.”

        Although I am an atheist a comment like this enables me to see things from the perspective of – and to some extent feel sorry for – the poor beleaguered believer!

        “Belief in free will…is the enemy of compassion.”

        Does the author of this comment have compassion for Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot? Read the posting about the Irishman with the Hitler birthday cake and see how much compassion is in evidence for Hitler and the Nazis. Many of the people posting in that thread will no doubt be determinists. Where is the consistency? Forgive the pun but they are having their cake and eating it!

        “They are also a continuous source of mental anguish when people blame themselves for their own shortcomings and failures instead of moving on.”

        So if a drunk driver kills someone in a crash they should just shrug their shoulders and move on? I have always been amazed how ready some people are to forgive when their family members are killed in such accidents, or even in heinous murders. Maybe the very religious can do so, trusting in ultimate justice in the afterlife. It seems determinists like Kelton Barnsley have more in common with believers than they might like to admit.

        P.S. Paul Francis is dismissive of Michio Kaku. Perhaps he has more respect for Stephen Hawking, who also believes Einstein was wrong, saying: “Consideration of black holes suggests, not only that God does play dice, but that he sometimes confuses us by throwing them where they can’t be seen.”

        Rather than turn this into a game of “my scientist is better than yours” why not just admit that no-one can be certain whether free will exists or not? That is all I am saying. Here is Richard Dawkins on the subject: “The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question…Now I don’t actually know what I actually think about that, I haven’t taken up a position about that.”

        To me, that is the wisest voice.

        • peltonrandy
          Posted October 28, 2013 at 7:45 am | Permalink

          The reason we should not do as you suggest is for the reason Jerry has stated repeatedly: where we fall on the question of free will greatly influences the conclusions we draw about how to treat people, particularly in regards to our criminal justice system. The free will issues is not just an interesting intellectual exercise. It has real-world implications. And because it does I think we need to continue to work toward a resolution of the question.

        • Kelton Barnsley
          Posted October 29, 2013 at 9:56 am | Permalink

          Although I must admit that I occasionally catch myself humming “Springtime”, I’d have to answer that I don’t feel a wellspring of compassion for Hitler (or Pol Pot or Stalin). I also know that these men were ultimately the victims of some combination of bad genes, bad ideas, and bad upbringing. This is not a contradiction. We primates are hardwired to want to see retribution exacted against people who harm us or the community. This undoubtedly served a purpose in helping groups of primates (including humans) to survive by discouraging selfish behaviour that was destructive to the group. And I must concede that if someone had killed or imprisoned Hitler before he committed the holocaust, the amount of suffering in the world would have been diminished immensely.

          But what if you could go back in time and give art-school Hitler a pep talk, or a seminar, or a pill that put him on the track to becoming a champion of human rights? Would you withhold such a treatment as punishment for the crimes he has yet to commit? Would this make any sense at all?

          This is not a mere hypothetical question. In the future, we will likely have pharmaceuticals for treating mental disorders which will be much more effective and predictable than what we currently have. People with underlying tendencies toward violent behaviour will be able to treat these tendencies and live normal lives. But given the beliefs about free will that currently prevail in our society, such treatments will be stigmatized. All because of the view that each person is the ultimate author of their actions.

          I know you raised other points, but my lunch break’s almost over and I feel like I’ve written a long enough post already.

          • Posted October 29, 2013 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

            But what if you could go back in time and give art-school Hitler a pep talk, or a seminar, or a pill that put him on the track to becoming a champion of human rights?

            Even more off-topic…why didn’t Jesus do so? Hitler not only would have his free willies intact, he would have had that much more willies freed. The Holocaust would have been averted (or, perhaps, some other monster would have needed a bit of inspiration as well), and we’d have had another great expressionist painter’s artwork to admire. And it’s not like it would be challenging for a super-god like Jesus; Greek Muses did that sort of thing all the time.



        • Posted October 29, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

          :) @ My scientist is better than yours. Since peltonrandy and Kelton have already handled the ethical side of this discussion–I’m using that word liberally
          because I sense that Andrew is not coming across as combatively as would warrant the term debate)–quite handily, I will proceed to focus on the rhetorical and physics-side.

          First of all, Andrew, wisdom or lack thereof, I’m glad that you’re presenting yourself as a sceptic and not a hard-line compatibilist–or even worse a libertarian. I’ve found it futile to the nth degree to try and build bridges with said types of thinkers; so at least we seem to be in the same ballpark if not necessarily playing by the same rules philosophically (pardon the pun).

          Sticking to my ‘t Hooftian influenced Weltanschauung, seeing the Universe as a gigantic processing device, what makes sense to any individual in said mechanism is arguably of little consequence / importance ultimately; however, as I have already made clear, I think the best science and most compelling proofs and, dare I say, best minds agree with the Determinist position.

          Like most things in science, including believing that our earth is an oblate spheroid and not flat e.g., there is no obvious sensory proof of this fact. Furthermore, unless one has either flown nonstop around the world with clear visual indicators of one’s journey and/or sailed around it, one must at some point accept that certain facts are scientifically verified, not subject to philosophical sophistry–which after all can argue almost anything, including that there is no truth or that it is instantaneously constructed blah blah blah or the so-called genius of pleading ignorance au your quote from Dawkins. I must also confess that I am not terribly fond of Hawking’s work either; for a physicist who has made his name as some sort of black hole expert, he certainly got burned when Susskind–along with ‘t Hooft, per the holographic principle–proved him wrong about information loss via blackholes.

          Alright I can’t resist it; I have to speak briefly about your ethical stance. I noticed a pervasive part of your argument relied on the highly sentimental, unscientific, and at best existential realm that assumes the importance of conventional retributive justice, i.e. au “law and order” of Nixon et al. Look we’re all human here and thus prone to emotional and/or irrational feelings; as enlightened people however, ideally, we neither deny nor condemn human tendencies / experience(s). Rather, we seek to sublimate them and in the process realize that the world that most of us take for granted–i.e. post-Columbus urban police states–is merely a blip in human existence thus far–and beyond that relative to the age of our earth and universe. Thus, as a Determinist, I accept that Nature, including via the human realm, has proven amoral on the whole thus far. In other words, far from condoning violence, I merely accept that it like everything else in Creation is predetermined.

          … Finally even though these final series of thoughts of mine are more closely related to another more exploratory topic, would anyone else here agree that the greatest achievement of science will be to “gaze out on the vast and elegant universe with a perspective of infinite [rhetorically not literally, Greene a top theoretical physicist is well aware that we are in a finite realm] clarity” or equivalently know the most sine qua non workings of the universe(s) / Multiverse (Brian Greene Elegant Universe 387)? More simply, if possible, to have a complete and satisfying answer to the question what is/are the universe(s) / Multiverse truly?

          [One obvious semi-answer per 't Hooft, yes he is my favorite living physicist, is that all of Creation is a massive computing mechanism, manifested in mindboggling complexity on a prima facie level but ultimately Deterministic and binary in nature {ie on the Planckian scale}, as his work--on Beables and Changeables--shows].

  3. Vaal
    Posted October 26, 2013 at 9:51 am | Permalink


    (If you are still there…)

    “That BS, pure and simple. My son has a car that goes on a push of a button….snip…Did the car go from non-free-willed to free-willed?”

    No because a car doesn’t have a will or desires, but we do. That’s why the “will” part is in the phrase “Free Will.”

    One can say, however, that once your car is no longer prevented from moving, it is now “free” to move, or can move “freely.” This is a pretty standard use of the term that we often apply to physical objects once some sort of constraint it removed: the door, once un-stuck, now moves freely. The drain is unclogged so the water is now moving freely. The kite broke free of it’s string. The dog is free of the chain. Etc.

    So the point I’m making is that in everyday, practical use, we tend to apply the term “free” to real world differences in physical conditions – describing specific instances of constraint. No magic involved.

    And that this practical use continues when we talk of human choices and “freedom to choose” and “freedom to do as we will.” If you look at the motivation for bringing in the word “free” to describe one situation with a person vs one in which you won’t use that term, what is being described is some real world, physical constraint, or lack of, removal of a constraint (including constraint in the form of coercion).

    Ask people about whether someone (e.g. the 3 Cleveland women), when held captive by a serial killer or abuser in a basement, would describe the victim as “being there of her own free will.” The answer will be “no.” Why? Because people understand the victim will have real world desires to be elsewhere and unharmed, but is restricted from taking actions she otherwise could, because physical constraints (be it chains, locked doors, coercive threats to well being, etc). That will be contrasted to a condition in which the victim was NOT under such real world constraints and then WOULD be described as being somewhere “of her own free will.” It’s not that the victim is “magical/dualistic/contra-causal” in the non-free willed situation, and suddenly becomes magic, or dualistic, in the free willed situation. No one thinks that. Rather, the difference described by “free willed” and “being free to choose” are actual, real world differences on someone’s constraint to do things she wants to do.
    That EXPLAINS and makes sense of the practical situations in which “free too choose” is actually adduced most of the time. Viewing free will as only something describing a magical contra-causal ability, as if this is what motivates everyday people’s use of the term “free” for our actions, just doesn’t
    predict, describe or capture how people adduce that term nearly as well.

    Hence, the “freedom” most people talk of in terms of being free or not free do do as we will, tends to be aimed at real, empirical realities.


  4. Posted October 26, 2013 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    One last try, because eric never got a response to this comment.

    Posted October 25, 2013 at 7:48 pm | Permalink
    Most CFW defenders do, indeed, accept that computers and perhaps even drink machines make choices

    So, let me just see if I have this straight. Coel, Sastra, Vaal, Couchloc, feel free to reply with a simple yes or no:

    The CFW position is that humans have free will in the same way that airplane autopilots, and soda machines have free will. Yes or no.

    • Vaal
      Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:43 am | Permalink


      (Though, I suspect a “simple yes or no” wasn’t really what eric wants…)


      • Posted October 26, 2013 at 10:47 am | Permalink

        Coel, for one, seems to disagree. But Jerry has now put up a new post, with this as the main subject, so let’s resume this discussion over there.

  5. Posted October 30, 2013 at 5:57 am | Permalink

    Hi Coel,

    Picking up from here:

    (1) is a misrepresentation of incompatibilism. (2) is closer to incompatibilism, but is incomplete.

    So, let me make your (2) incompatibilist with some additions to complete it:

    (2) The will that you experience is the product of your low-level brain machinery, the choices that you make are made by your unconscious brain, just following the laws of physics. That will is therefore not free of those physical causes. That your will, and mine, feels free of those physical causes is an illusion.

    I note that your (2) did not say “The free will that you experience…”, and I think that is significant when discussing free will with a dualist, because they think the will is free in that sense. These two aspects: the feeling that the will is free, but that it is not, are the key points that make it important to say, “Free will is an illusion, we don’t have it, because it is incompatible with determinism (or fundamental indeterminism) that we infer from all science”.

    But, I can see what you are getting at in (1) with “you are not making choices, compared to (2) “…the choices that you make…” , and I’d address that as follows, noting why that is different argument and why it’s ‘free will’ we are addressing here:

    At the low level physics we may argue about how far determinism goes, and quantum physics provides a challenge to this. But any quantum event, no matter how random, still appears to have deterministic consequences to us. No matter how ‘random’ the science of Physics tells us the universe is, to us it appears deterministic to a degree. The indeterminism we experience looks just the same whether it’s truly random, or entirely deterministic. We don’t see individual atoms, so we sure don’t see quantum weirdness at that level or below. If quantum physics was entirely wrong and if the universe had been entirely deterministic in the classical sense, so much of it would still be indeterminate to us, because we don’t have the capacity and acuity to experience the world to the an appropriate degree. So, even if a ‘choice’ is no choice at all, but was determined back at the big bang, it would still be indeterminate to our brains, and would still feel like we are making a ‘free willed’ choice.

    It does not matter if ‘choice’ is real or not in some metaphysical sense, it is still about the unfolding of physical events. We can have a different philosophical argument about causation, determinism, indeterminism, time, and all the metaphysics we want. But for us humans we experience the world as time related causal events that are deterministic to a large degree, but where in very quick order, the detail in complexity becomes indeterminate. In that context it makes sense to talk about ‘choices’, ‘options’, ‘decisions’, in purely mechanistic terms, for humans and all other machines.

    Free will on the other hand is quite different, because free will is a notion that describes the will being free of physical causes. Choices are still caused. Our will is still caused, and the actions the body performs as a result of the will are still caused. But ‘free will’ is a declaration that the will is free of physical cause, and is attributed to some notional ‘person’, ‘I’, as if a separate non-physical soul or a mind. This is the context of the argument with theists and other dualists.

    We can’t help, in our daily lives, suffering the illusion, experiencing the world as if we are making free willed choices. Though both the ‘free will’ and the ‘choices’ aspects of this experience are up for debate, in the context of this discussion it’s ‘free will’ which is the focus of the argument here, and there is a clear physical/non-physical argument with dualists.

    It may be that we would want to argue with a dualist about the metaphysics of ‘choices’, ‘options’, ‘decisions’ – are logic OR-gates making decisions or simply playing out an already determined outcome – but if we can’t get past free will with the dualist then their use of ‘choice’ is already wrapped up in their ‘free will’.

    The other metaphysical issue of choices is not important here. So I can accept that a ‘choice’ is something that occurs at a point in time when physical ’causes’ come together and ’cause’ one outcome or another, where prior to that point in time we could not tell which would occur. Or I can accept that ‘choice’ is a metaphor for determined outputs that are indeterminate to us.

    I could draw a logic circuit with a single OR-gate, define the inputs NOW, and the output would be determined already. We would not feel as though a choice is being made, but that a stable state exists. If I then state that the inputs will change in one second, then we might be torn between saying that the future outcome is predetermined by the future inputs, or that the gate will make a choice when the outputs change according to the new states of the inputs. Extend this circuit to a more complex one, that detects the colour of passing marbles and flips a switch according to their colour, we would be more inclined to use the ‘choice’ metaphor for the circuit’s operation – it is making choices according to which marble passes. But if the circuit is reliable and the order and colour of marbles pre-stated, then we might also say the outcome is determined, certain, and that as a whole no choice is being made. The use of the term ‘choice’ is a contextual metaphorical one, but with underlying metaphysical interpretations at stake. But it is not addressing any magic, as if the choices are ‘free’ of physical causes.

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