The compatibilism puzzle

I am a hardline materialist. I think the material world is all that there is and I have no reason to believe in the existence ofany nonmaterial entities. I did not start out with this view as an a priori philosophical premise. Rather I have arrived at it over time as the only way that I can make sense of the world as I see experience it.

Certain consequences follow naturally from this position. One is of course atheism. I see no possibility for the existence of a god or any spiritual phenomena of any kind. Another consequence is the absence of free will and this is where I need some help from readers.

There are three views on free will, two of which I understand. There is the dualist model that says that there is some part of us (the ‘mind’) that is somehow apart from the body and tells the body what to do. This is known in the literature as libertarianism but has nothing to with the political philosophy with which it shares the name. It was aptly dubbed the ‘ghost in the machine’ by philosopher Gilbert Ryle. I think this view is totally mistaken.

The other view that I understand (and subscribe to) is the deterministic approach that says that our material body is all that there is. Our sense of consciousness is something that emerges from the workings of our brain, nothing more, and our sense of free will is just an illusion. All our actions are caused by responses of our brain to external stimuli. Our brains arrive at some decision and at some point it informs us of it, giving us the illusion that the decision was freely arrived at. We no more actively control our thoughts than we control what enzymes our glands secrete. Sam Snyder provides a list of people who have expressed deep skepticism about the existence of free will.

Our brains themselves are the product of genes and the experiences of our past and so at any given moment we could not have done anything other than what we did. It seems to me to be impossible to test the claim of those who advocate for free will that we could have made a different decision from the one we did.

But there is a third view called compatibilism that many sophisticated people hold and that is the position that I don’t understand. In Sam Harris’s book Free Will (p. 16) he says:

Compatibilists generally claim that a person is free as long as he is free from any outer or inner compulsions that would prevent him from acting on his actual desires and intentions. If you want a second scoop of ice cream and no one is forcing you to eat it, then eating a second scoop is fully demonstrative of your freedom of will.

I don’t understand how this position distinguishes itself from the materialist denial of free will, since our desires or sense of will could be purely the workings of our body and brain. It seems to be saying nothing more than if we think we have free will because there are no obvious forces acting on us, then we have free will. But I feel that I may be missing something.

Can anyone clarify?


  1. OverlappingMagisteria says

    That was pretty much my assessment of it when I learned all these things in a philosophy class 10 years ago. It seems to me that compatibilists have their own definition of freewill separate from libertarian freewill. I don’t see their position ans any different as determinism except that they try to sneak in the F word by redefining it.

  2. blazinghand says

    Compatibilism doesn’t seem like a very coherent way of looking at free will to me. The idea that we have free will just because there is no “compulsion” to eat a second scoop of ice cream (in that example) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. After all, if my brain decides I want to eat ice cream and compels me to do so, what does the compatibilist viewpoint make of that? It seems to make some arbitrary distinction between internal compulsions and the brain.

    I think the idea of free will also basically incoherent. For example, I made a choice not to attend UCLA but instead go to Occidental College. I was speaking with a friend once about this he said, “well, free will would be the freedom for you to choose to go to UCLA and not Oxy.” I thought this was a reasonable viewpoint, until I realized a lot of what makes me who I am is my decision to go to Oxy. The Blazinghand who would go to UCLA would have to be fundamentally different than me, who chose to go to Oxy. I don’t have “free will” to have done things differently, because I made all my decisions for a reason. I don’t identify with a version of me who didn’t make the choices I made.

    Given any situation, there’s a choice I will make, based on who I am, which is all derived from physical attributes of my brain and the rest of my body. The idea that I might exercise “free will” to make a different choice is not legitimate in my opinion– I would not make a different choice, because part of my definition of who I am is the structure of my body and brain, and that structure would have to be different for my choices to be different.

    This is probably the first time I’ve written this out so it didn’t come out very coherent, but basically I don’t think Free Will makes a whole lot of sense.

  3. Brian Wesley says

    I can’t clarify, but I think the whole concept of “free will” is too vague to be useful. People can’t even agree what has free will; a robot? A person in a coma? A baby? An adult chimp? An ant? An ant colony?

  4. steve oberski says

    Compatibilists are materialists who don’t like the implications of being meat robots and while they are smart enough to handle this dangerous knowledge themselves they don’t believe that the hoi polloi can deal with this and would run amuck looting and burning eventually toppling civilization.

    As far as I can see it’s the philosophical equivalent of accommodationism, you and I are too smart to believe any of those silly religious claims, but it gives the peons comfort and keeps them from getting uppity.

  5. psweet says

    I must come at this as a pragmatist — if no one else is making the decision for me, then what does it matter if I’m conscious of the moment and manner at which the choice is made? I’m still responsible for the outcome. If we were dealing with a religious viewpoint would matter — if we don’t have free will because God decided that this is the way the world will be, then we could blame him. But since I am, after all, a collection of all of those experiences interacting with a genetic program, blaming all of those past experiences is the same as blaming myself, which is the whole point of having free will in the first place.

  6. says

    To understand compatibilists you have to understand that they are focusing on the question of what we mean by “free will” and “free choice” and related terms.

    Materialists who deny free will are called “hard determinists.” Such people say we are determined, and that this means we do not have free will, we don’t really have any choices, and we aren’t morally responsible for our actions.

    Compatibilists (also known as “soft determinists”) agree that we are completely physical and our actions are completely determined by the laws of physics (setting aside quantum indeterminacy, which compatibilists agree is irrelevant to freedom). However, they reject the claim that determinism means that we have no choice in what we do. They insist that we often are free to choose among various possible actions, and that this freedom makes us morally responsible for those actions.

    Compatibilists say that there’s an important difference between situations in which we do something because we want to (e.g., I take the cookie b/c I want it), and cases in which I do something I don’t want to do (e.g., someone holds a gun to my head and tells me to take the cookie). If I do it because I wanted to do it, then I did it freely, and I’m responsible for the action. If not, then not.

    Compatibilists like me will criticize statements like this: “Our brains arrive at some decision and at some point it informs us of it, giving us the illusion that the decision was freely arrived at.” We’ll say that this assumes that “we” are something apart from actions of our brains. But a physicalist should say that we are that brain activity. I really did go through the deliberative process that resulted in the action. So it was indeed a real free choice.

    To say that it’s free isn’t to say that it free from the physics. It’s to say that it’s free from external coercion (to a first approximation anyhow).

    A good reference for the philosophy on this can be found at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

    If you’d like to see my attempts to correct Jerry Coyne’s misunderstandings of compatibilism they can be found here, and in following posts.

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    Our brains arrive at some decision and at some point it informs us of it, giving us the illusion that the decision was freely arrived at.

    The language gets confusing here. Your statement assumes “us” is something separate from “our brains.”

  8. says

    “After all, if my brain decides I want to eat ice cream and compels me to do so, what does the compatibilist viewpoint make of that?”

    The compatibilist says that it’s a mistake to assume that you are something separate from your brain.

    You just are your brain. So it’s a mistake to think that the brain compels you to do something.

    Free brain. Free you.

    “I would not make a different choice.”

    That’s right, but the fact that wouldn’t make a different choice doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have made a different choice. To say that you could have gone to Oxy is to say that where you went depended on your decision (and not on your parents’ desires, or your grades, or your finances, for instance). If you had wanted to go to Oxy, you would have — and this means that as matter of fact you could have — but you freely chose to go to UCLA.

  9. Mano Singham says

    Yes, it is hard to talk about this without implying dualism. By ‘us’ I meant the conscious part of the entire organism, the part that thinks.

  10. CJO says

    At a certain level of behavioral plasicity and sophistication of input-processing, certainly you can agree that a difference of kind and not mere degree exists in one’s ability to navigate a complex environment?

    Take an organism with a rudimentary CNS, like a planarian worm. Responses to stimuli are more or less fixed. Behavioral plasticity is so low that the CNS is evolved to be hardwired in this way: in teleological shorthand, natural selection has settled on single “right answers” to various environmental circumstances. The CNS acts in an essentially algorithmic fashion, and there’s no room in there for “will” however that is conceived. As we move up the “ladder” of plasticity and ability to integrate perceptions with memory, algorithmic responses drop away in favor of fuzzy, heuristic computation leading to behavioral output. At the far end of the scale, hugely encephalized apes like ourselves have vastly greater degrees of freedom in terms of diversity of possible outputs to similar stimuli. There are no “right answers” at all at sufficient levels of complexity of both environmental circumstances considered and internal processing ability.

    In a cosmic sense, if we live in a deterministic universe, of course there is no kind of sparkly “will” inside a human being that somehow allows us to transcend that brute fact. We are made of stuff, and ultimately that stuff obeys the same deterministic laws that all stuff does. But Dennett and others argue that this is a red herring in the question of freedom of action at levels below the “god’s eye” cosmic view that no finite being can ever have. I recommend Freedom Evolves by Dan Dennett for a book-length treatment of a defense of a kind of compatibilism. His argument there goes into quite some depth over the metaphysical question of determinism versus non-determinism, and defends the conclusion that we would be no more free in a non-deterministic universe.

    His compatibilism is characterized as a defense of a variety of “free will worth wanting” as opposed to a magical, get out of causation free card, which he rightly rejects as absurd.

  11. Sameer says

    It all comes down to the definition of “free” in free will (free from what?). The way I understand it, the dualist or contra-causal free will means that the will is free of the entire causal chain. So it lies completely outside of the deterministic chain of causes and conditions and can “freely” choose between options. I think no serious philosopher believes in this. This is the “ghost in the machine” free will you talked about and it contradicts naturalism and determinism.

    My understanding of compatibilist free will (Dan Dennett is one of the major proponents) is that they define the “free” part in “free will” as “free from any obvious external or internal compulsions on ones will”. So e.g. if someone is holding a gun to you head and forcing you to do something, it is not a “free” action because of the obvious external threat. They agree that all our desires and the subsequent actions are fully caused and fit well with the overall materialist deterministic picture. However they say that since our brains are extremely complicated decision making machines, it is helpful and valid to apply the term “free” to those actions that are free from any obvious external compulsions. So TLDR version, compatibilists redefine the “free” part to maintain the term “free will”. To me this implies that this kind of free will must then be a property of pretty much every organism that has a cortex and possibly even some complex computers (does Deep Blue have compatibilist free will?).

  12. eigenperson says

    As I understand it, determinism and compatibilism both use the same physical model of the world.

    Compatibilists just have a different definition of “free will” — one that makes more sense, in my opinion, than the libertarian/determinist definition. Compatibilists basically say that sure, your actions are determined, but most of the time they are determined mainly by your preferences, beliefs, and desires. As long as that’s the case, that’s “free will.”

    This definition corresponds with the common-sense notion of free will. It’s a reasonable standard for determining culpability — if you commit a crime of your own compatibilist-free-will, then surely society is justified in punishing you.

    People who reject compatibilism (whether libertarians or determinists) usually would not agree that this notion of free will corresponds to their notion of free will. They generally use “free will” to refer to some lack of causation that supposedly occurs when people are making choices. To me, that is an incredibly stupid view. If your choices are not caused by anything, that doesn’t make them “free” — it makes them random.

    I guess I’m a compatibilist, because I use the compatibilist definition of free will. The determinists, of course, are right in saying that we don’t have libertarian-free-will, but we do have compatibilist-free-will, which is much more important than the nonsensical notion of libertarian-free-will.

  13. Jean says

    I think this is similar to saying a coin toss is random. If you study the actual toss and the physics behind it, it can only be what it ends up being. Saying it’s random and that it could be either possibility doesn’t change the fact that a specific toss would never have been anything other than what it was.

    Our “choices” are infinitely more complex but they’re still just as deterministic.

  14. says

    But “arriving at some decision” is itself thinking. It is you that makes the decision. It would be a mistake to suppose that we are nothing but spectators.

  15. Beth says

    @ Physicalist #6 – Thanks. That was a good explanation.

    BTW, I think that Rationally Speaking has had some good posts explaining that.

    @Mano #7.1 – I think you are assuming a form of dualism when you make the assumption that our ‘conscious’ selves are somehow different from the rest of the ‘I’ that constitutes a living human being. I often like to sleep on things, letting thought percolate through my dreams and subconscious self. Does that somehow imply that ‘I’ didn’t make the decision?

    I consider myself to be the totality of my conscious and subconscious processing of my physical self and I can modify my own programming with sufficient effort of will. I don’t know if I’d call it free though. Exerting my will to modify my own behavior (ex:dieting) does take a lot of effort. But that is what I think the compatibilists are saying. That’s my position anyway.

  16. kevinalexander says

    I think the idea is that the consciousness isn’t part of the organism, it’s what the brain does.
    A naive example. A candle has wax and a wick. The air supplies oxygen. Something else provides heat to start. Then the heat melts the wax which goes up the wick and. evaporating into the air, combines with the oxygen to make more heat and the process continues.
    The flame isn’t part of the candle or even of the candle system. It’s the process.

  17. machintelligence says

    Daniel Dennett (my favorite philosopher) has written a book on the topic called “Freedom Evolves”. He is a compatibilist and has several lectures on YouTube. Here is one you might like:

    He explains how a sense of free will exists even in a deterministic universe.
    My favorite line from the talk is where he reads a quote: “We are not responsible for our actions. The fix is in. We are wired wrong.” But what does it mean to be wired right?

  18. says

    I’ve been reading a lot about the reasons why people are religious, and this has had the side effect of me being wholly against the idea of any sort of free will. This is on top of being a reductionist.

    The main reason that people are religious is because our brains are much more optimized for social activity than intellectual activity. We believe things because the groups that we [want to] belong to believe them. As a matter of fact, our human-level intelligence only came about as a way of navigating tribal politics.

    People chanting, singing, dancing, or even walking together in synchrony increases group bonding, which makes you much more likely to adopt the beliefs of the group you are involved with. Born again Christians and the military implicitly know this. Being told that you belong to a group that does XYZ makes you try harder to do XYZ (this probably explains why women are less represented in STEM fields than men).

    Then there is the art of persuasion that takes advantage (if you’re that kind of person) all of this cognitive architecture; a really good salesman will act like a “detective of influence” and not have you realize that you’ve been swayed… e.g. a menu item at a restaurant was marked as being “the most popular” and its sales increased by 13-20%. Related, there’s the neurological differences between the “modules” in the brain dedicated to liking and wanting. They are correlated, but separate. You can like something but not want it and vice versa, because you don’t actually have control over those two modules. There’s also the concept of the apologist and the revolutionary working in your brain that, again, you have no conscious control over when encountering and making sense of new information.

    All of these things don’t happen on a conscious level, they happen at the unconscious level of moral intuition and the feeling of certainty; one study showed that we temporarily adopt the moral intuitions of people we read in fiction. We don’t have conscious access to the cognitive algorithm that produces feelings like trusting people in a group or feeling certain about something, we just have the end product: That feeling. Our brain is like a government and the conscious “you” that feels like it experiences the world is more like a press secretary than the president who tries to explain what the government did to the public. Press secretaries, obviously, have no say in government policies. Overall, we have no control over any of the emotions we feel, yet it’s those emotions that drive all of our decisions. Worse yet, we all have the ego of thinking that we are the rational actors in the drama of life instead of the emotional ones. Moreover (since I arrived at all this from reading about causes for religion) high income inequality, loneliness, or feeling out of control all (subconsciously) increase religiosity.

    With all of that in mind, I’m having trouble seeing where any sort of free will comes into play. We’re a product of our environment at a level that naive introspection is impossible to detect objectively.

  19. Thud says

    I bookmarked your series on “free will” awhile back, and I pretty much agree with all that. So, I’m a physicalist or determinist or something.
    The very words “free” and “will” are problematic, not well- defined anywhere by consensus, and seemingly cause difficulties for “compatibilists”. Don’t worry too much about that, unless you’re a “postmodernist”. Pragmatism trumps hypotheticals most of the time, IMHO.
    Our decisions are completely and authentically our own, determined by who we are and what we’ve been through, including all influences, sorted by strength, such as bodily state, memory, parents, books, drugs, idiot neighbors, the guy with a gun, etc. You decide about your action, no one else, so you’re responsible for that.
    If your brain has some “damage” of any kind that strongly influences you to commit “crimes”, society will constrain you for it’s own protection, valuing their family and community more than your freedom, justly or not. If they’re kind, maybe they’ll arrange for a surgeon to remove your brain tumor or a teacher to help you reorder your priorities, but don’t count on it.
    I suspect blazinghand and psweet are aligned with this, more or less, but they can speak if they choose to.

  20. Reginald Selkirk says

    I am sure that Prof. Singham and I agree on the substance, it is merely the description that is difficult. Yes, I think your wording is more clear.

  21. Reginald Selkirk says

    a variety of “free will worth wanting”

    Redefining terms into something you want does not answer questions, it evades them.

  22. Reginald Selkirk says

    a sense of free will

    Playing word games. ‘We all think we have free will, so let’s define it as something we do have.” Sorry, I don’t get it.

    I am convinced that philosophers, in their efforts to save free will, must write long and complicated books. Philosophers, with their hands tied by long tradition to linking free will and moral responsibility, require “weasels” (subtle, slippery moves that pretend to hold untenable arguments together) to make their arguments.

    Compatibilist-free will yields so little freedom to crow about in the first place, but the philosophers up on modern science want free will so badly that writing a whole book (or two of them) is the norm. Their usual practice comes in the form of calling human decision-making “free will,” thus weaseling out of the problem. What truly amazes me is the huge trouble this causes the compatibilist philosophers. They have to write whole book after whole book on free will, because they have chosen their problem in such a way as to require “free will,” which cannot be found or defined.
    – Will Provine

  23. consciousness razor says

    Certain forms of libertarianism and determinism are both incompatibilist, which is to say that “free will” has a very precise meaning: not causally determined. Our wills cannot both be causally determined and not causally determined. It’s one or the other. You can be a libertarian and think will is “free” or a hard determinist who thinks it isn’t, and in both cases you think there is an incompatibility between free will and causal determinism.*

    The alternative to both is compatibilism. The thing that changes is basically what the phrase “free will” ought to mean. Instead of referring to something which isn’t caused, it can be the same thing a hard determinist would use to describe and explain our behavior. Libertarian free will is a useless and confusing concept, but according to a compatibilist there are still other aspects about us which we can meaningfully call “free will,” so the term should be salvaged to do that other conceptual work.

    But this is where things get tricky. I’m going to disagree with what some have said above, because some compatibilists share views with libertarians while others share views with determinists. It’s not like every compatibilist must not still be confusing the issue or getting things all wrong, simply because they’re claiming what they’re talking about is compatible. The label they slap on it isn’t something you can just take at face value, so you still have to check it out to see if there are any inconsistencies that crop up with causal determinism, or if evidence from the cognitive sciences is being ignored or presented inaccurately. Their view doesn’t need to be like a hard determinist’s view, but it can be.

    *And the extent the world is indeterministic is of course irrelevant, no matter what your position, whether it would be due to quantum effects or whatever: if the “cause” is supposed to be randomness (or deterministic chaos in a system), then you still can’t say that ultimately the source is your “will.” Instead it would ultimately be due to a process beyond your control and even beyond your own ability to predict. It may be that you “could have done otherwise” or that what you do “couldn’t be predicted” (even by you!) given a past state of the universe, but it wouldn’t be because “you” could have chosen to do otherwise as if “you” were somehow in a separate, privileged position away from the rest of the system (in other words, as if “you” were a soul).

    In addition to the SEP’s compatibilism entry linked in #6 and their main entry on free will, which are good, I think this might be easier to follow for someone who’s fairly new to the subject.

  24. consciousness razor says

    Redefining terms into something you want does not answer questions, it evades them.

    Dennett doesn’t evade the question. His answer is very clearly that we do not have libertarian free will. That doesn’t mean all discussion is over and everything’s settled. It’s just one question. You can ask, “then what do we have?” And this where it leads right back into what a lot of people actually care about when they talk about free will, which libertarian free will wouldn’t answer even if it were real.

  25. CJO says

    It’s not supposed to be the answer entire. It’s a starting point: causality-free superpower free will is absurd and as such isn’t even something we should want or aspire to. If that ends the matter for you, fine. That’s evading the question another way, by ruling it out of bounds, a non-question. I, along with Dennett, think it’s quite clear that we are in some sense more free than a planarian worm. The interesting discussion looks to characterize that sense. The really hyper-literal and incurious path of “free will in the colloquial sense is impossible. Discussion over.” just doesn’t interest me. It amounts to a dictionary argument.

  26. CJO says

    Have you read Freedom Evolves? It’s neither especially long or needlessly complicated, and the particular word game you’re convinced underlies the entire project really isn’t what the book is concerned with. When philosophers write popular books for the trade market, they typically frame the topic in colloquial terms, hence “free will”. But none of Dennett’s arguments are dependent on that term as conventionally defined denoting anything real. It’s just the rubric under which he discussion needs to be conducted if the average reader is expeted to know what the basic issues are.

  27. Rob Grigjanis says

    If you study the actual toss and the physics behind it, it can only be what it ends up being.

    Even macro processes are subject to uncertainty, if they go on long enough. It may takes years for the innate uncertainty in a coin toss to make delta-theta equal pi, but even an apparently simple system like a double pendulum is hugely sensitive to initial conditions.

    Point being, I don’t think the world is as deterministic as we like to think; we tend to think it is because we calculate processes which are amenable to such calculations, or which are sufficiently short in duration.

  28. MNb says

    Like you I am a hardcore materialistl. The rest just doesn’t make sense to me. Like you I didn’t start out as one; I used to be a dualist. Here are my two SRD.
    First of all I use European definitions. For me mind is the material part of the brain, ie everything it produces. Mind is the subject of study of psychology and thus synonymous with psyche. For eventual non-material parts I use soul. Imo the popular distinction between brain-states and mind-states only obfuscates.
    1. Bullocks. Like Herman Philipse correctly points out there is no way a non-material entitiy (whether a god or a soul) can interact with the material world and that of course includes the mind and the brain.
    2. “the deterministic approach that says that our material body is all that there is”
    Here is where I start to object. You know better than me that all kinds of physical, ie material phenomena are undetermined. Material body hence determinism is a non-sequitur. There is not reason to rule out probabilism a priori.

    “our sense of free will is just an illusion”
    So this might be a non-sequitur as well. Note: I don’t rule this option out. I just point out that neuroscientists haven’t established a satisfactory theory of the brain yet, so we should not draw hasty conclusions.
    There are two things we should take into account here.
    2.1 Just like modern physics has changed the meaning of force (and calls it interaction) it is very conceivable that an established theory of the brain will contain the notion of free will in some different form. Unlike OverlappingMagisteria suggests there is nothing wrong with changing definitions if scientific considerations demand it.
    2.2 An established theory of the brain will be a small-scale theory. We know from fysics that notions that are useful in our daily life don’t automatically apply on such a small scale. That’s what the correspondence principle is for.

    3. “free from any outer or inner compulsions”
    This doesn’t make sense to me. How can there be no outer or inner compulsion? What does it mean? To use Harris’ example: the simple fact that I just have consumed one icecream and enjoyed it or not, the simple fact that I see it’s shape and colours and the simple fact that I have to pay for it (or not) influences my decision.

    As I’m never afraid to predict, even if my predictions quite often prove to be wrong, here I go. I predict that neuroscientists will develop a theory of the brain that’s probabilistic, either analogous to Brownian motion (which is deterministic) or analogous to quantummechanics (which is non-deterministic). JAC on his site WEIT has given a few interesting examples: in some cases researches can predict decisions with 80% accuracy or something.
    Then free will has to be redefined in terms of probability. Whether you call that free or an illusion simply will be irrelevant. The important point is that probability can explain why we humans sense free will.
    Note: the objection I sometimes hear that this implies that non human-animals will have free will too is also irrelevant. A priori there is nothing against the idea that non human-animals are capable of decision making. In fact research of ants suggests a form of group consciousness – google swarm theory.

    What needs to be done is that the whole free will debate gets rid of all religious influences. We don’t reject Flat Earth Theory either because of religion; we reject it because it doesn’t fit the empirical data very well. We should apply the same standard to free will.

  29. ealloc says

    I might perhaps be called a compatibilist, although it seems to me that there are many different forms of compatibilism.

    I believe in total determinism and believe my thoughts are determined by physics, but unlike pure determinists I think there may be something extra to the story. Physics may give ‘us’ the illusion that we are making decision, but what is the ‘us’ that physics is affecting? The Turing test, the chinese room, philosophical zombies – these are all ideas related to this problem.

    To relate back to free will, compare these two situations: Chemical reactions in my brain cause me to breathe and to point at something, however I only “experience” the decision to point my finger. The finger pointing was a freely made decision by “me”, while breathing was not a decision made by “me”. There is something mysterious going on here, related to what it means to “experience” something.

    If this seems muddled, I agree. I think that other compatibilists share my impression that there is something extra to explain, but also my muddlement, which is the reason it’s so hard to pin down what compatibilism is.

  30. Jeffrey Johnson says

    If one begins with the premise of materialism, then even not knowing exactly how the brain works, not knowing how the complex networks of neurons give rise to consciousness, one can still take all known empirical facts of physics, chemistry, biology, neurology, cognitive neuroscience, etc. and convince one’s self by various sequences of deduction that the activity of the brain must be the source of the human mind, and it must be determinstic. Of course this is unproven hypothesis, but it looks very very likely to be true in my opinion. It is natural then to see that the brain has physical states, and that behavior involves some complex pathway through state space, and therefore similar to Pascal’s Demon, if we had perfect knowledge of the configuration of the brain, all initial conditions and inputs, that we could in theory predict behavior, say the outcome of some decision, in advance. Thus even though the brain can exhibit complex behavior, like making choices based on its perceived wants, the result of the choice is determined by physics, and there is no magic internal freedom to will an alternative. There are only the internal subjective states that make us feel we are willing, wanting, and freely choosing, which therefore must be some kind of illusion produced by our conscious subjective experience. To say illusion here is similar to saying that our internal visual perception, created from a 2D retinal image by the brain as an internal map to represent our physical surroundings, is an illusion created by the internal processing of the visual cortex. The world it represents is real, and the internal images are real, but the illlusion is that they are somehow identical. We know that our vision is full of what we call optical illusions. In this same sense I think it is fair to say that our limited conscious view of our own internal thought processes, which include much unconscious processing we are not aware of, gives us the illusion that some “I” is a unique point of origin of free choices that are willed. Yes, in a sense this illusion is a “real” product of the brain in action, but what it tells us is not real because even that which we will is determined by unconscious processes the concious “I” does not control. Given these considerations it makes sense to say that our choices are determined, and the sense that we freely will things is an illusion. A very simple illustration: why do we either like or not like broccoli? We are tempted to say it is our free choice based on what tastes we like. But in that last sentence, “taste”, “like”, and “we” are just tips of icebergs poking into our consciousness, caused by complex unconscious processes of which we are completely unaware. Some complex tasting apparatus, and a complex “liking” apparatus has determined that “broccoli tastes good”, and the silly “we” observing this foolishly credits itself with being responsible for deciding to like broccoli. Of course we can consistently and coherently indulge in this illusion of subjective experience, which for expediency we all do, and it is even likely that it has adaptive benefits from an evolutionary perspective. But it isn’t a reliable basis upon which to found our explanations of how humans think.

    If you begin by observing human beings as a black box, and pay attention to how they behave from an external viewpoint, there are lots of reasons one might be led to hypothesize something called “free will” exists. Our everyday decisions, our uncertainties, our indecision, our changing our minds, etc. imply that some willing thing animates a human and distinguishes humans from rocks or leaves blowing in the wind. We observe the change in behavior at death, and hypothesize quite naturally that perhaps some substance or force has left the body. Religious considerations made it important that humans were free to avoid divine determinism. So there are natural reasons to believe in “free will”, a kind of internal force that allows humans to make decisions that are uncaused by anything but an uncaused individual will. It is natural to associate this ability with spirit or soul. If by reason one abandons such primitive religious ideas, there are still non-religious believers in libertarian free will who pin their hopes on some kind of “emergence” in the brain, or some Platonic Ideal of consciousness that is a non-physical part of reality that somehow the brain taps into.

    The compatibilist accepts determinism, and they look at human behavior and see all the same things humans have seen for the lengthy history during which we believed in free will. For a variety of reasons, many of which seem very sentimental to me, the compatibilist has a fixed investment in finding some way to ensure that, despite all evidence to the contrary, the statement “humans have free will” remains true. And they are willing to trim away much of the historical semantic value of the term “free will” to accomplish this. I find it hard to abandon the idea that “free will” is some mechanism that allows humans to avoid determinism, because this seems to me to have been the most common notion of free will, based on religious spiritual conceptions of the human, for most of recorded human history. The spirit moves us. Our soul confers unique characteristics of personality, and this spiritual magic, not material processes, determines our choices and behaviors. Compatibilists rightly reject such “free will”, but for reasons I can never understand, preserving the linguistic phrase “free will” is extremely important to them. Apparently they fear that if the words “free will” are subtracted from the set of labels we attach to human properties, suddenly humans no longer have any kind of moral responsibility. Absurd, I know, but nonetheless this seems an important consideration to compatibilists. And perhaps, since humans and their beliefs are often absurd, there could be some truth to the notion that absurd humans might think they aren’t morally reponsible if someone tells them they don’t have “free will”. Apparently Daniel Dennet believes this, because he has a story in his latest book, “Intuition Pumps” about the “Truly Nefarious Neurosurgeon” who tells his patient, falsely, that a device was implanted during surgery which eliminates his free will. Dennet imagines this patient, merely on the suggestion of the doctor, is transformed into a Phineas Gage, even though there is no physical damage or change to the brain. And he uses this as a warning to those neuro-scientists and other incompatibilists who are dedicated to telling the truth by saying that humans don’t have free will. Apparently Dennet’s belief in the notion that humans have “free will worth having” is so thin that he fears any of us could be so easily manipulated by the power of suggestion. This seems a horrible weakness or contradiction in Dennet’s thinking to me.

    So for the compatibilist “free will” is no longer a mechanism, or a localized property of say, as Descartes speculated, the pituitary gland, it is no longer a freedom confered by a magical force or spirit, but it is a category of human behaviors that we have traditionally associated with the idea of “free will”: intentionality, decision making, wanting and desiring, planning, predicting and anticipating, etc.

    These behaviors are all part of the competence of the intelligent deterministic human brain, and they have always been there, even in the old days when they misled us to think humans had some kind of magic internal power that was a source of freedom to avoid causation. And for reasons I may never quite get, compatibilists are compelled to insist that this set of behaviors, all important and well worth having, must be called “free will”. To me it seems like insisting on preserving the term “elan vital” even after we have realized no such thing exists.

    As Dennet’s story of the “Truly Nefarious Neurosurgeon” suggests, at least part of Compatibilist’s motivation is that they believe people would not be able to handle the truth that our competence is not based on a magic uniquely human spark of consciousness, but rather based on very sophisticated computation done by the brain. In Dennet’s own words from his latest book, referring to the harm done by the Nefarious Neurosurgeon: “the neuroscientists currently filling the media with talk about how their science shows that free will is an illusion are risking mass-production of the same harm to all the people who take them at their word”.

    Compatibilism provides many excellent explanations of why it is that a determinstic human brain is able to exhibit such complex and competent behavior. But so much of this is offered up as a necessary basis for playing circular word games in order to justify the claim “humans have free will”. For example, one I’ve seen a lot lately is to claim that because humans make prescriptive statements such as “you ought to do A rather than B”, it somehow means that humans have free will. But obviously it only means humans can take in new information (the prescriptive statement) and factor it into a deterministic intelligent choice. There is no freedom from causation. There is no frictionless latitude to alter a choice from A to B on a whim that is somehow uncaused. It is all deterministic and caused, and compatibilists will agree with this, yet they insist that the ability to make a chioce, no matter that the outcome is completely determined in advance by the physical state of the brain, must be called “free will”. It really is maddening in my opinion.

  31. jamessweet says

    Disclaimer: I have not read the comments thread, so I may be re-treading covered territory here.

    I am sort of a compatibilist — I think the compatibilist position is essentially correct, but I think that the phrase “free will” is misleading here. More to the point: It is a mistake to use the words “free will” to describe what compatibilists mean by “free will”, because it tends to be confusing, especially to people who are not materialists (and who are therefore just looking for any justification to believe in the “ghost in the machine”).

    My favored way of approaching this is a metaphor adapted from a passage in Douglas Hofstatder’s I Am a Strange Loop: Consider a “computer” made of chains of stacked dominoes ready to fall. By careful arrangement of the timing, this “computer” can tell you whether a particular number is prime or not. You knock down certain input dominoes to indicate what number you are inquiring about, and then there is a particular output domino that will fall if the number is prime, but will not fall if it is not prime. So say we give it the input “13”, and moments later the output domino falls. Which is the more accurate answer to the question, “Why did the domino fall?” Is it “Because 13 is a prime number”? Or is it “Because the domino immediately preceding it fell into it”?

    The latter answer is analogous to strictly materialist conceptions of free will. It is perfectly accurate, but in many ways it is not a particularly useful description. It doesn’t capture any higher-level information that emerges out of the structure of the system. The former answer is more like the compatibilist conception of free will: It is glossing over a lot of details, but if you want to predict the behavior of the system when (say) you give it an input of 14 instead of 13, it is a much more useful answer.

    So to the point: The compatibilist position is essentially saying that, while it is technically true that all of our behavior is purely mechanistic, it is often more useful to think about things as if our actions are freely chosen, or at least influenced by a “ghost in the machine”. Just as there is no “essence of primality” that exists in the domino computer, there is no ghost in the machine that controls humans — but nevertheless, speaking of the dominos as if the primality of numbers was some fundamental piece of them provides a much more powerful explanation of their behavior than a purely mechanistic explanation; and speaking of humans as if we have a little homunculus choosing our actions often (though not always) provides a more powerful explanation of our behavior than a purely mechanistic one.

    That said, I can only say I am “sort of” a compatibilist, because I have been convinced over time that giving this emergent phenomenon the label “free will” is a confusing distraction — especially because, as recent findings in neuroscience and cognitive science have so dramatically demonstrated, the “ghost in the machine” model is not only technically false, but is also a poor description of our behavior far more often than most of us might have guessed.

    Nevertheless. I think that it makes sense most of the time to think and act as if we did possess free will, and that “sort of” makes me a compatibilist.

  32. jamessweet says

    Now that I have read some of the other comments, let me put it all a bit more pithily, and in a way that I think will address (though not entirely answer) the “word games” objections:

    What compatibilists refer to as “free will” is actually the thing which causes the sensation of libertarian free will. This is no trivial mechanism, and it is a very key part of understanding consciousness. That “thing”, though purely mechanistic in nature (as is everything else in the universe), is perhaps one of the most remarkable phenomena we know of. It is well worth discussing.

    That said, I partially agree with criticisms of compatibilists in that its a confusing distraction to conflate the-thing-which-causes-the-sensation-of-free-will with free-will-itself. I think the compatibilists are right in the importance they ascribe to the-thing-which-causes-the-sensation-of-free-will — but I think the anti-compatibilists are right in criticizing their sloppy use of terminology.

  33. One Day Soon I Shall Invent A Funny Login says

    This has been a very illuminating thread to me, more so than the very similar free-will threads that often erupt on /r/philosophy. I would like to highlight some points I thought were especially sharp, then add two tangential points not mentioned as yet.

    First, it seems to me the whole point of compatibilism is to preserve moral responsibility, as Jeffrey Johnson said,

    Apparently [compatibilists] fear that if the words “free will” are subtracted from the set of labels we attach to human properties, suddenly humans no longer have any kind of moral responsibility. … And perhaps, since humans and their beliefs are often absurd, there could be some truth to the notion that absurd humans might think they aren’t morally responsible if someone tells them they don’t have “free will”…

    That’s a worthy goal given the frequent charges from religionists that atheists can’t be moral (“if we’re just monkeys, why be good?” etc.) But I never understood how compatibilism achieved this until I read these points, by blazinghand

    …part of my definition of who I am is the structure of my body and brain, and that structure would have to be different for my choices to be different.

    and psweet

    But since I am, after all, a collection of all of those experiences interacting with a genetic program, blaming all of those past experiences is the same as blaming myself, which is the whole point of having free will in the first place.

    (emphasis added). So this seems to be the nut of compatibilism: we are who we are, and as long as we act from that authentic self (I’m sure they’d be happy to borrow “authentic” from existentialism) we are morally responsible agents. On the contrary, when another agent coerces us, responsibility for our actions is at least shared with the coercing one.

    First tangential point: the brain/”self” is capable of self-modification. We can and do choose to modify our own attitudes, to be different people, and often these self-changes are successful. We do meditate and increase our metta. We do kick habits. We do start new careers in mid-life. This introduces a whole new level of complexity into the question of determinism. What can you say of a deterministic system that self-modifies?

    And that adds weight to my second tangential point: being determined is not the same as as being predictable. We have far better models for weather than we have for human behavior, and we still can’t predict the weather more than a few days ahead. As Thud says above,

    Our decisions are completely and authentically our own, determined by who we are and what we’ve been through, including all influences, sorted by strength, such as bodily state, memory, parents, books, drugs, idiot neighbors, the guy with a gun, etc…

    but the interaction of all those influences within one brain has more subtle and potentially chaotic interactions than the weather over your house (especially taking into consideration the capacity for self-modification).

    Even as trivial a choice as “Coffee, or tea?” cannot be predicted, much less a significant life choice like what college or what spouse to select. Because your choice cannot be predicted, it has to be made. The only way to find out what a person’s decision will be is to wait until the decision is made. The only way that I can find out what I will choose, is for me to choose. (And if I’m in the dark, you the outside observer sure as hell are.)

    Because of this, it seems to me, the whole question of whether we “have” free will is irrelevant. We have no choice but to act as if we do. There’s no other way to find out what our choices are!

  34. Jeffrey Johnson says

    I think you have made really good comments, both here and above, that I agree with.

    The compatibilist viewpoint does seem more useful in everyday usage, and perhaps in social sciences and humanities. It seems to have nothing useful to add to a scientific viewpoint of the brain, or to the project of trying to figure out how the brain works. It throws nothing but useless confusing wrenches into this perspective, since “will” is entirely determined, and there is nothing it is free of, and it takes quite a bit of work to figure out what the heck compatibilists mean by “free will”. I don’t think a disinterested third party from Mars starting from first principles would hit on the idea of using the term “free will” in the way compatibilists do. There are just too many other descriptions that are more rational: autonomy, competence, intelligence, adaptability, agency, control, resistant to external coercion, able to pursue one’s self-interest, etc. It seems the usage of the term “free will” is chosen in order to inherit from a historical legacy more than it is to illuminate and describe coherently.

    In your second paragraph you really hit an important nail on the head: compatibilism is effectively a reinterpretation of human language in terms that acknowledge a deterministic basis for the behaviors described by that language. The brain gives us the sensation of libertarian free will, and in this context our language was created. But there is no surprise that when humans have the scientific knowledge to grasp the fact that our brain is deterministic, it does not change our behavior. We behave the same, and we use the same language, but we simply understand a different set of causes underlying our behavior. So it is not surprising that compatibilists can claim “compatibility” with “free will”, because while “free will” may have first been conceived of as libertarian, all the language and behavior essentially remains the same when we discover determinism. The behavior we once thought required libertarian free will always was and always will be based on a deterministic intelligence.

    I think that compatibilists don’t really address incompatibilists at all. They address libertarians who think that human behavior, given its diversity and flexibility, disproves the hypothesis of determinism. Compatibilists address those people who might make the mistake of thinking that determinism somehow implies humans are helpless puppets and that it is useless to make an effort if everything is determined. Anybody, even a child, can see this is not true, and it is the phenomenon that leads libertarians to fail to recognize the deterministic basis of behavior. This mistake is made by those who fail to come to terms with the complexity of the deterministic brain. They mistake determinism as implying very simple and direct linear causal chains, which don’t even begin to capture the massive parallelism of the brain. Compatibilists provide a useful bridge for libertarians and others trying to come to grips with determinism.

  35. consciousness razor says

    What compatibilists refer to as “free will” is actually the thing which causes the sensation of libertarian free will.

    I don’t think that’s actually the case. I don’t feel as if I make choices which are uncaused. I feel as if I make choices. And I actually do make choices, which actually are all caused.

  36. Jared A says


    I believe that the fundamental difference between compatiblism and hard-determinism is not about determinism, it is about moral responsibility. Based on your own definitions both groups reject free will and accept that human choices are physically deterministic. The hard-determinist believes that determinism precludes moral responsibility (the two ideas are “incompatible”), while a compatiblist believes they it does not (they are compatible). Having read your writing for many years I would diagnose you as a compatiblist. The fact that you believe that you are not seems to arise from this insidious false dichotomy that comes from certain writers.

    To reiterate, the way you set it up, there are only two camps, libertarianism and materialism. If you are now differentiating between compatibilism and hard-determinism then “free-will” in the classical sense has already been discarded, and instead we are answering a separate question entirely, which is really more to do with moral philosophy

  37. keljopy says

    Like many others have said, I’ve always felt that determinists and compatibilists believe mostly the same things about what the situation is but disagree more about the definition of the fuzzy concept of free will. I consider myself a compatibilist, but if you gave me certain definitions of free will to work with I would be a determinist.

  38. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    @Mano Singham

    If you asked Dan Dennett if the human brain was deterministic, I suspect his answer would depend on the question of whether any physical machine is deterministic or not, and that is a question of physics, and with the advent of quantum mechanics it is IMHO a question that is becoming meaningless because of its lack of testability. (I would answer similarly.)

    AFAIK, Dan Dennett is doing what Dennett does, and that is to try and salvage some sense and usefulness from terms that have been hijacked by the religious and try to restore some truth and utility to the terms. In this case, “free will” has some very clear and useful meaning apart from the magic libertarian free will. Free will can be said to be what separates us from rocks, and in Denett’s words and my words, it’s a gradual slope with no clear boundaries.

    In that sense, I don’t think Dennett would disagree with your position at all, except to say that there’s some use and truth in the term “free will”, and we shouldn’t abandon it so quickly just because some religious people have perverted its meaning and injected some talk of magic into the popular discourse. Similarly, we haven’t abandoned the use of the words “atheist” or “evolution” when religious people have distorted their meanings in the popular discourse.

    For example, free will is a useful concept when addressing moral culpability. Yes we are meat-sack machines, but I’m going to have a morality, and impose some elements of that onto others, and a central part of that is that I am going to hold people responsible for their actions, also dogs but to a much smaller extent, and I will not hold rocks responsible for their “actions” at all.

    Let me wander for a bit, as I think this will help explain the compatibilist position. The libertarian free will people are basically doing the homunculus fallacy, which shows a complete lack of understanding of the issues involved.

    For an observable system, two immediate ways to describe it are deterministic and true-random in the quantum mechanical sense. The definitions of these terms are obvious, but I think quantum mechanics throws a monkey wrench into it, and IMHO I’m not sure if you could even define these terms adequately. That is, I don’t think you could define these terms in a testable fashion. See: the better parts of logical positivism.

    My choices and behavior definitely constitute a physical, observable system, and the question then is whether my choices and behavior are deterministic, true-random, or some third option. Libertarian free will people want a third option. They say there is some magic soul which makes choices, but which isn’t bound by material physics, and thus isn’t necessarily determinism or true-random. This is just the homunculus fallacy though. They haven’t solved anything. They just added a step of indirection to the problem. Either my choices and behavior are based on my past experience, on my preferences, desires, morality, values, on my personality, or they are not. Either my choices and behavior can be predicted by an all-powerful LaPlace demon, or they cannot, e.g. either they are deterministic, or they are not. I still don’t see the possibility of a third option.

    Worse, I don’t want a third option. I want my choices to be at least semi-determined. I like my values. I like my personality. I like who I am. I like that I decide not to go on murderous rampages because of my values. I like that my behavior is determined by my values of not liking murderous rampages. I like all the aspects of who I am, which is exactly the same thing as saying that I like that I am (semi-)deterministic.

    I think the following video is my favorite lecture by Dennett on this topic.
    It’s rather long, and I assume quite dull and boring, but to some small subset of people I’m sure it’s fascinating. I might just go watch it again.

    In here, Dennet lays out his principle position, which is a weak form of emergentism. It’s “compatible” with hard materialism and reductionism. However, Dennett would say it’s still useful to talk about it in terms of the higher level concepts, and that there are useful and describable properties of higher level systems. For example, we can talk about the number of floating point operations per second that a processor can do, and it’s nonsensical to talk about the number of floating point operations per second that a rock in my backyard can do. Similarly, humans have this thing called free will, or sentience, or the ability to make informed decisions for which they are responsible, or whatever have you, and rocks do not.

    For example, is the color blue just an illusion? I say that’s not a useful or informative way to talk about the issue. The color blue is a useful property of objects in our reality which entails specific observable predictable qualities. Similarly, “free will” can be defined in a coherent, testable, observable, useful way just like the color blue.

    I’m still not quite sure of some of the small details myself, and consequently I don’t know if I can agree with Dennett fully. Funny enough, Dennett himself says that he’s just putting out some ideas, and specifically says that his talk does not give a full definition of what is or is not free will. The talk does not focus on clearly spelling out what free will exactly is and is not under t the compatibilist position. Instead, it focuses more on dispelling the myth that the conventionally understood meaning of “free will” is incompatible with determinism.

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