The Free Will Problem and Compatibilism

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They may take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!
-William Wallace, Braveheart

Who doesn't love these words spoken by the fictional rendition of William Wallace in the movie Braveheart? Hearing such a phrase, we know that something truly meaningful is being communicated. But why is the concept of freedom so important? Perhaps it is because many of us in the Western world have been taught the value of civil liberties since we were young-- civil liberties grounded in the metaphysical belief that we can make real choices.   Or maybe, it's because many of us grew up in religious denominations which emphasized the importance of making theologically significant decisions-- the ability to choose good versus evil, or to follow God. Even more so, the concept of freedom just seems intrinsically good to us. We yearn for the power and opportunity to think for ourselves, make our own decisions and steer our lives in the direction we so choose. Questions of free will have been grappled with since perhaps the dawn of human consciousness. What is free will? Do humans have it? Is it compatible with a deterministic world? The twelfth century Persian poet once remarked that, "There is a disputation that will continue till mankind is raised from the dead, between the necessitarians and the partisans of free will."1 This appears to be true as the discussion still continues nine centuries later, no less vehemently than in 1100AD.

I have recently finished reading Robert Kane's A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will and plan to do a few posts summarizing and expanding on what I have learned. The current post will introduce the so-called Free Will Problem and discuss the position of Classical Compatibilism. Future posts will focus on the New Compatibilist positions, as well as the Incompatibilist positions of Hard Determinism and Libertarian Free Will.

The Free Will Problem

Let's begin with a definition, shall we? Causal Determinism is the view that every event is necessitated by antecedent events and conditions together with the laws of nature.2 This means that given certain initial conditions of the universe, as well as constant laws of nature, the future is completely determined. Under this view, a physicist who knows all the physical properties of a given system (potentially one as large as the universe itself) and understands all the physical laws of nature, could presumably predict every future event of said system. Never mind the fact that for a real physical system, even a small one, this would require massive amounts of computational power-- in theory, it is possible. There are, of course, different varieties of causal determinism besides the physical variety. For example, a religious believer might hold that an all powerful, all knowing god, exhaustively controls the events of the world such that every future event is determined. This view is called Theological Determinism.

Determinism, in light of physical law, doesn't seem all that unreasonable. In fact, almost everything in ordinary experience seems to work within this sort of framework. Regular causes and effects manifest all around us. If I drop a ball, it will fall to the earth 100% of the time. If I place a cold ice cube in warm water, the water will cool slightly, and the ice cube will melt 100% of the time. In fact, the entire scientific enterprise operates under the assumption of uniformity-- that similar causes will always produce similar effects. But wait, if the universe is fully determined then how can humans have free will? Aren't we part of the universe? And doesn't free will mean that there must be different possible future outcomes? Doesn't it mean that I have some ability to choose which fork in the road to take?

This, in a nut-shell, is the Free Will Problem. The external universe appears to be deterministic, yet human beings feel like they are in control of their futures. Prima facie, these two concepts seem to be at odds. So what gives?


While the two concepts do seem to be at odds intuitively, a majority of professional philosophers actually think they are quite compatible. Those who hold to this view are called, unsurprisingly, compatibilists. Compatibilists believe that the reason free will and determinism seem so contradictory at first glance is because there is a misunderstanding about what free will actually means. The term "free will" in common usage, they say, simply means the ability or power to do what one wants or desires to do. This means that I am free to do X so long as I have the ability to do X, and am not physically restrained, coerced, etc from doing X. For example, suppose I desire to eat the last slice of chocolate cake. Were my friend to trip me and then devour the cake before I got up, he will have taken away my freedom through physical constraint and then removal of opportunity. Or consider the Scottish subversive William Wallace from the 1995 action blockbuster Braveheart. He is naturally free to do as he wishes, marry who he desires, etc, unless of course those pesky Englishmen conquer Scotland and oppress his people. In such an event, his freedom has been taken away by physical force and coercion.

At this point, an incompatibilist might step in and ask, "What is the point?"  Even if we are free (from physical constraint, coercion, etc) to act on our desires, our desires are not in our control in a deterministic framework. Our desires are the product of our genetic makeup, our upbringing, our environment and our circumstances. This may give us freedom of action, but it doesn't seem to give us true freedom of will-- the freedom to control our desires and ultimately create ourselves. Classical Compatibilists will actually concede this point. But if determinism really is true, it is the best we can hope for.

In the following posts of this series, I will discuss some other responses to the problem, including those who hold to libertarian free will. Spoiler alert: they agree with William Wallace. After all, what will you do without freedom?


1. Kane, 2005
2. Determinism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2003
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