Compatibilism and incompatibilism

Compatibilism and incompatibilism

:"For other uses of each of these words, see Compatibility."

Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe both without being logically inconsistent (people who hold this belief are known as "compatibilists"). [ [ A summary of Compatibilism by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] ] While compatibilists hold that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive, not allwho compatibilists would insist that both are true.Fact|date=January 2008

Incompatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are logically incompatible categories. [ [ A summary of Incompatibilism by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] ] This could include believing that determinism is reality, therefore free will is an illusion ("hard determinism"), or that free will is true, therefore determinism is not ("Libertarianism"), or even that neither determinism nor free will is true ("pessimistic incompatibilism").Fact|date=January 2008



Compatibilism, as championed by the ancient Greeks Stoics, Hobbes, Hume and many contemporary philosophers, is a theory that argues that free will and determinism exist and are in fact compatible. [Still, in Hobbes' case, the issue is complicated: he does argue that "LIBERTY, or freedom, signifieth properly the absence of opposition (by opposition, I mean external impediments of motion); and may be applied no less to irrational and inanimate creatures than to rational." (Leviathan, Chapter 21), but also that: " [...] from the use of the words free will, no liberty can be inferred of the will, desire, or inclination, but the liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to do." (ibid.) 'Freedom', then, is stripped of its importance in this respect.] Determinists argue that all acts that take place are predetermined by prior causes, including human actions. If a free action is defined as one that is not predetermined by prior causes, then determinism, which claims that human actions "are" predetermined, rules out the possibility of free actions.

A "compatibilist", or "soft determinist", in contrast, will define a free act in a way that does not hinge on the presence or absence of prior causes. For example, one could define a free act as one that involves no compulsion by another "person". Since the physical universe and the laws of nature are not persons, actions which are caused by the laws of nature, would still be free acts, and therefore it is wrong to conclude that universal determinism would mean we are never free.

For example, you could choose to keep or delete this page; while a compatibilist determinist would not deny that whatever choice you make will have been predetermined since the beginning of time, they will argue that this choice that you make is an example of free will because no one is "forcing" you to make whatever choice you make. In contrast, someone could be holding a gun to your head and telling you that unless you delete the page, he/she will kill you; to a compatibilist, that is an example of a lack of free will. (The compatibilist account sometimes includes internal compulsions such as kleptomania or addiction.)

Further, according to Hume, free will should not be understood as an absolute ability to have chosen differently under exactly the same inner and outer circumstances. Rather, it is a hypothetical ability to have chosen differently if one had been differently psychologically disposed by some different beliefs or desires. That is, when one says that one could either continue to read this page or to delete it, one doesn't really mean that both choices are compatible with the complete state of the world right now, but rather that if one had desired to delete it one would have, even though as a matter of fact one actually desires to continue reading it, and therefore that is what will actually happen.

Hume also maintains that free acts are not uncaused (or self-caused as Kant argued) but rather caused by our choices as determined by our beliefs, desires, and by our characters. While a decision-making process exists in Hume's determinism, this process is governed by a causal chain of events. For example, one may make the decision to support Wikipedia, but that decision is "determined" by the conditions that existed prior to the decision being made.

Critics of compatibilism often focus on the definition of free will: they agree that the compatibilists are showing "something" to be compatible with determinism, but they think that something cannot properly be called free will. Incompatibilists are happy to accept that lack of coercion is a "necessary" criterion for free will (a coerced act is not free), but doubt that is "sufficient" (an un-coerced act is free). They believe "free will" refers to "genuine" (e.g. absolute, ultimate) alternate possibilities for beliefs, desires or actions, rather than merely counterfactual ones. In the absence of such possibilities, the belief that free will confers responsibility is held to be false.

However, a compatibilist may respond with the argument mentioned above stating that non-determinism is also incompatible with free will, so the libertarian is no better off. The compatibilist may also argue on conceptual grounds that "free will" has nothing to do with ultimate causes on a grand metaphysical scale, but instead only refers to an apparent fact of human psychology (i.e., that conscious mental states seem to play an active role in determining the choices that are made).

Compatibilists often continue and argue that determinism is not just "compatible" with free will, but actually "necessary" for it. If one's actions aren't determined by one's beliefs, desires, and character, then it seems that they aren't one's real actions.

Compatibilism in Theology

In Jewish and Christian theology, these ideas take a more specific form: if there is a God who knows in advance how a human will choose when faced with a choice between good and evil, and this God is ultimately responsible for creating the universe which gives rise to this choice, in what sense does a human have free will, and how can the human be held responsible for a wrong choice? This is countered by the realization that a free-willed God is not constrained to realize everything, nor to consider all choices to be of equal attention.

Compatibilism in this context holds that the sovereignty of God and the free will of man are both biblical concepts and, rightly understood, are not mutually exclusive. The all-knowing God (who sees past, present, and future simultaneously from the perspective of eternity) created human beings (who have the subjective reality of making choices in the present that have consequences for themselves and others in the future) in such a way that both are true: God is ultimately sovereign and therefore must have at least permitted any choice that a human could make, but at the same time God is right to hold humans accountable because from their perspective within the confines of serial time, humans make moral choices between good and evil. [ [ Compatibilism page on Theopedia] ]


Incompatibilism means that the notion of a deterministic universe is completely at odds with the notion that people have a free will. It can be treated in at least two ways: by libertarians, who deny that the universe is deterministic through-and-through, and the hard determinists, who deny that any free will exists.


Libertarianism in the philosophy of mind is unrelated to the like-named political philosophy. It suggests that we actually do have free will, that it is incompatible with determinism, and that therefore the future is not determined. For example, at this moment, one could either continue reading this article if one wanted, or cease. Under this assertion, being that one could do either, the fact of how the history of the world will continue to unfold is not currently determined one way or the other. One famous proponent of this view was Lucretius, who asserted that the free will arises out of the random, chaotic movements of atoms, called "clinamen".

One major objection to this view is that science has gradually shown that more and more of the physical world obeys completely deterministic laws, and seems to suggest that our minds are just as much part of the physical world as anything else. If these assumptions are correct, incompatibilist libertarianism can only be maintained as the claim that free will is a supernatural phenomenon, which does not obey the laws of nature (as, for instance, maintained by some religious traditions).

However, contemporary libertarians are able to object that idea of a deterministic, "clockwork" universe has become outdated since the advent of quantum mechanics. They now have a naturalistically acceptable basis for an "uncaused cause" account of libertarianism. The major problems with this naturalistic libertarianism are explaining how indeterminism can be compatible with rationality; and explaining how indeterminism can be compatible with appropriate connections between an individual's beliefs, desires and general character, and their actions. A variety of naturalistic libertarianism is promoted by Robert Kane, [ [ A summary of Kane's views by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy] ] [Kane, Robert. “Free Will: New Directions for an Ancient Problem.” (2003). In Free Will, Robert Kane (ed.) (2003) Malden, MA: Blackwell,] who emphasizes that if our "character" is formed indeterministically (in "self-forming actions"), then our actions can still flow from our character, and yet still be incompatibilistically free.

Others may use some form of Donald Davidson's anomalous monism to suggest that although the mind is in fact part of the physical world, it involves a different level of description of the same facts, so that although there are deterministic laws under the physical description, there are no such laws under the mental description, and thus our actions are free and not determined. [ [!.rtf David Sosa -- "Free Mental Causation!" (MS Word)] ]


Determinism is the philosophical proposition that every event, including human cognition, decision and action, is causally determined by an unbroken chain of prior occurrences. No wholly random, spontaneous, mysterious, or miraculous events occur, according to this philosophy. A determinist would assert that it is simply stubborn to resist scientifically-motivated determinism on purely intuitive grounds about one's own sense of freedom. It is said that the history of the development of science suggests that determinism is the logical method in which reality works.

Since many believe that free will is necessary for moral responsibility, this may imply disastrous consequences for their theory of ethics. As something of a solution to this predicament, it has been suggested that for the sake of preserving moral responsibility and the concept of ethics, one might embrace the illusion of free will, in spite of acknowledging its lack of existence in reality under the assertions of determinism. Those critical of this position may raise the question, "if free will is illusory, yet a necessary component of ethics, would this not imply that morality itself is specious?" Others might hold this view to be ignorant or hypocritical. In either case, it is clearly an issue that, for some, the lack of free will suggested by determinism constitutes much reason for ethical debate.

Pessimistic or "Hard" Incompatibilism

While hard determinism clearly opposes the concept of free will, some suggest that even non-determinism might be incompatible with free will. This is "pessimistic" incompatibilism. Under the assertion that events are "not" predetermined (e.g., for quantum mechanical reasons), it is then suggested that any event has a probability assigned to it. Taking this concept further, it is suggested that an event is determined not by free will, but is not strictly determined at all. For example, if there is a probability of 1% that one will delete this article, then whether or not it is deleted is not considered to be of free choice, but rather a brute fact about the world. On this account, the notion of free will is considered a conceptual confusion, i.e. it does not exist in the sense which is misconceived, regardless of whether or not the universe is deterministic.

It differs from hard determinism in that it does not commit to the truth of determinism. [Pereboom, Derk. 2001. "Living Without Free Will". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-79198-7 ] This avoids any commitment on to questions of indeterminism in quantum mechanics. Typically, supporters of hard incompatibilism accept both libertarian critiques of compatibilism and compatiblist critiques of libertarianism. Hard incompatibilism is also known as "pessimistic incompatibilism".

Soft Determinism

William James, the American pragmatist philosopher who coined the term "soft determinist" in an influential essay titled "The Dilemma of Determinism", [ [ William James - "The Dilemma of Determinism"] ] held that the importance of the issue of determinism is not one of personal responsibility, but one of hope. He believed that thorough-going determinism leads either to a bleak pessimism or to a degenerate subjectivism in moral judgment. The way to escape that dilemma is to allow a role of chance. He said that he would not insist upon the name "free will" as a synonym for the role chance plays in human actions, simply because he preferred to debate about objects, not words.

An argument can be made which claims that the aspects of reality that are important to hope are unaffected by determinism. Whether or not the universe is determined does not change the fact that the future is unknown, and that a person's actions help determine that future. In fact, it is even conceivable that a lack of belief in determinism could lead to 'bleak pessimism', or fatalism, since one could potentially believe that their actions did nothing to determine future events.

See also

* Daniel Dennett's "Freedom Evolves"
* Daniel Dennett's "Elbow Room"
* Lucretius's "On the Nature of Things"
* Molinism


External links

* [ Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy On-line]
* [ Theopedia article]
* Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
** [ Compatibilism]
** [ Non-deterministic Theories of Free Will]
** [ Arguments for Incompatibilism]
** [ McKenna, Michael, "Compatibilism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)]
** [ Russell, Paul, "Hume on Free Will",The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2004 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)]

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