Determinism, compatibilism and libertarianism

Stephen asked:

First of all, I want to apologize for my bad English.

My question is about free will.

I want to believe in free will, I think the assumption of free will is very important for ethical concepts like responsibility and I think it’s very important for the concept of human dignity that humans are able to decide about their fate and that they are not helpless bound into a strict causal chain.

But on the other hand, hard determinism seems logically true.

Physics works with determinism, and I don’t want to get into contradiction with natural science.

I am worried that I have no good, rational arguments for libertarian free will, If I want to hold on to the concept of libertarian free will.

Summarized, I want to hold on to the concept of free will, but determinism seems logically better to me.

What should I do? Should I accept determinism, or believe in some sort of compatibilist sort of free will? (besides, I find the compatibilistic free will not satisfying).

Answer by Jürgen Lawrenz

The good news for you is that your wish can be fulfilled in any halfway liberal society, where the political powers grant you sufficient freedom to make your own choices. The difference between despotic and liberal laws is, roughly speaking, that the former direct you and inhibit the exercise of free will, the latter merely draw boundaries around it and prevent you from inhibiting the exercise of free will of others.

Now I understand that this is not the gist of your question. But it is the only proper philosophical way of looking at free will. There are just two ways in which your free will can be constrained: By other people and by the condition of life itself. Being a human animal restricts the exercise of your free will to the possibilities you have as a creature. The existence of political power structures may encroach further on your personal liberty. But even the most brutal of these cannot control the minutiae of your life and therefore will leave you with the ability to make day-by-day choices of your own.

The other problems – such as causal chains, fate, determinism, the supposedly logical truth of notions such as ‘it’s all in the chemistry/physics’, ‘it’s all in the genes’ and (religiously) ‘all is written’ are mere suppositions. You need to look at them closely to discover if they are proved or circumstantially derived – or even just say-so. The latter include fatalism, pre-destination, ‘all is written’ and cannot enter serious discussion. One would wish that the claims for genes and chemistry were under similar strict scrutiny, because they are also unproved and not validated. But even though they pose as scientific pronouncements, they are derived from highly insecure data that support them in a wholly spurious way, i.e. by the deliberate twisting of the data in that direction. But if a scientific statement cannot be validated, then probity should dictate that it be dismissed as either false or mere conjecture. We (the general educated public) are very much at fault for swallowing silly slogans and not demanding that they are backed with appropriate proofs.

The situation with causal chaining is not much better. We are altogether too besotted with Cartesian mechanism, materialism, mathematics and (reductive) method to keep our eyes and ears open for self-contradictions. For the problem that hovers in the background, without being acknowledged, is the belief that science is in possession of comprehensive theories of life and mind, genetic and evolutionary processes. But this is only an assumption, indeed presumption! The context here points to a confusion – held equally by the general public, philosophers and many (though not all) scientists – between a research agenda and established factual knowledge. You will have met with many examples yourself-such as scientists appearing on the public media with provisional and/or tentative findings, and not infrequently wild conjectures, which they discuss in terms strongly suggestive of certainty.

And so to come to the nuts and bolts: We assume today, without proof, that life is sourced wholly from chemistry. We assume, without proof, that mind and brain can be put into analogy with computers. We assume, without proof, that genes code for subjective characters. And finally we assume, without proof, that evolution is a fully-understood process of generating and proliferating life forms.

I have repeated here the words ‘without proof’ to underline the predicament in which we find ourselves. Namely that all these issues have a certain amount of evidence supporting them, but all of it is ambiguous and requires interpretation, which can only be done from the bedrock of a prior conception of what we are looking at. The trouble is, however, that the same evidence also supports the case for other interpretations. Accordingly we must choose – which is a wholly subjective feature of research! And so we have chosen, to stay with the example of genes, to interpret wholly inconclusive data from genetic research to push the notion of the causal chaining of subjective characters. I wonder of course how wise a decision it was, because the result has been a widespread resurgence of belief in quasi-supernatural powers and of ourselves as their victims.

Moreover, when I say ‘we’, I mean the modern scientific western civilisation. Yet science is not monolithic; and you could easily find points of view about genes, life, evolution and neurophysiology which differ from the current paradigm. For example,

a significant percentage of scientists in the life sciences (usually hands-on biologists and medical biologists) dissent from the fashionable biomolecular theories for precisely the reason that the latter thrive 100% on conjectures and are unable to clinch their propositions with proofs. But for reasons which I find difficult to explain, ‘we’ have for the time being chosen to give them our vote.

For you, in the throes of anguish about free will, this may be cold comfort. But I would urge you to develop a healthy mistrust of dogmaticism in your reading. You seem to have read too many texts all saying the same thing. Vary your intellectual diet – it’s healthier for independence of mind! For example, when you hear of criminals, gamblers, explorers or poets that their genes made them what they are, start thinking critically and rationally about what is being proposed here. Think of the recipe in your kitchen that shows you how to bake a cake with powders, sugar, essences etc. That recipe cannot help you with turning the baking powder into a snail. Genes are recipes in precisely the same sense. They specify the chemical products required to build a body. But now you are asked to believe that, somehow, intelligence is added to compounds of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen etc.! I hope you can see just how absurd an idea this is. Moreover, there is no code for life on the gene set, so how come the proteins and other chemistry end up being alive?

To summarise: There is no proved connection between any chemical product in your body and your wish to exert your free will. There is no proved connection between any code on your gene set and your thoughts and emotions. Moreover there is no proof that any physics cause whatever has a bearing on your will, emotions, desires, thoughts and ideas. The real causes are an interplay between empirical facts and your perception, which is essentially a process of internal evaluation of their meaning to you and may engender those subjective responses – from feelings to intellectual cogitation.

The physics/ chemistry supposition in contrast suffers from the starkly obvious facts that all chemical elements are utterly lifeless. Accordingly adding up two or two billion compounds does not change the picture. They may add up to a pebble, but not to a thought! So you are faced ineluctably with the problem of finding something other than a physics item that must be added to the chemistry to make it behave in a different way from the known behaviour of the same chemical products. This ‘something to be added’ is not known. It defines the moment of truth. Wittgenstein wrote that ‘what we don’t know we should not talk about’, but we babble about it endlessly. So now you understand why I stress the immense gulf between a research agenda and proof, and how easily we confuse the two.

My last comment concerns the psychological aspect of this issue. We have been brainwashed for thousands of years to the belief that divine authorities have complete knowledge and complete control over our subjective as well as objective lives. This is difficult to dispel in just a few generations. And thus, in our godless era, we have enthroned science instead. At least science has made an effort to awaken us to the need for proving such outrageous impositions; but the temptation for broadcasting ideas that cannot be proved, and for dogmatising about issues which ordinary people do not understand, remains a strong as ever. You may wish to take this with a grain of salt, but it has a lot of historical weight behind it.

If you feel up to it, I suggest you read my book–A-Philosophical-Quest1-4438-4071-8.htm,

which is devoted wholly to these kinds of problems. There is also an essay of mine about genes in the Pathways E-Journal

which you might find relevant to your worries.

My last word is: Free will is the defining criterion of the living state. Even a worm knows the difference between life and non-life and will enact appropriate choices guided by the random circumstances of its little life! Yet we humans pretend we have no choices? Well, ask for proof in future. Not for propositions, conjectures, hypotheses, syllogisms and circumstantial suggestions, but – for proof!


Answer by Craig Skinner

Your English is fine.

What are you to do?

Here’s what. Accept that there are no good arguments for libertarian free will, accept compatibilist free will, and be satisfied with it.

Arguments for libertarian free will.

1. Kant’s ‘two worlds’ account – in the phenomenal world we are creatures bound by the causal laws of nature, and as such can have no free will: but we are also agents who transcend the phenomenal world and act in the noumenal world, not bound by natural law, and can choose, by an act of will, to do (or not do) one of a range of things irrespective of the deterministic goings on in our brains at the time. Few accept this two worlds metaphysics, and a ‘two perspectives’ approach to one world doesn’t work.

2. Modern libertarians appeal to fancy physics in the brain to somehow get round determinism without lapsing into randomness – quantum or chaotic microevents. But however fancy, it boils down to determinism or randomness or both.

Compatibilist free will.

All the free will you need. You do as you wish. Your wishes are determined by your character, needs, ambitions and plans, all internal to you, so the decisions are yours, and no doubt there are deterministic brain states and events corresponding to these reasons. I agree with Hume that far from being blocked by determinism, free will requires (internal) determinism, otherwise we have only chance and caprice. You express concern that we may be ‘helpless, bound into a strict causal chain’. Try ‘helpfully bound into a strict causal chain’. How otherwise could we make anything happen at all in a physical world.

Being satisfied with it.

What are you missing out on that libertarian free will allegedly provides. Alternative options (AO). It is true that at the moment of my free choice, there is only one option, the one I wish and choose, there are no AO, I could not have done otherwise. But the deterministic internal process includes consideration of AO until all are rejected in favour of the one I want and choose. Why would anybody wish to do other than what she wants and chooses to do? It seems that libertarians would like, at the instant of decision, for a given state of the physical world, including my brain, that there be AO in the way things unfold. Back to Kant again. To me it is incoherent. Don’t worry that Humean free will gives you problems with moral responsibility. It doesn’t. The decisions are yours and you are responsible. As a compatibilist for years I have carried on making decisions as usual, some good, some bad, some making me ashamed and intent on doing better next time, which feeds back into the processes determining my future decisions so that (sometimes) I indeed do better, whilst continuing, of course, to freely make some new bad choices.


Answer by Peter Jones

I think you sum up the problem well. The difficulty of making sense of either Freewill or Determinism, as extreme metaphysical positions, are well known, and they lead most philosophers, theologians and even many scientists to some form of compatibilism. You may find this position unsatisfying, but it does at least satisfy logic.

Freewill Determinism is what Kant calls an antinomy. It is a pair of counterposed metaphysical theses where both can be refuted. Antinomies are undecidable. This would be the reason why you cannot find a good, rational and conclusive argument for Freewill. You will not find one for Determinism either. If you ever found one there would egg on the faces of a million philosophers.

You might like to examine the view of Erwin Schrodinger. He investigated this problem and concluded that the only sensible thing to believe is a form of compatibilism. This would be the sublation or reduction of the two categories Freewill and Determinism for a more profound view than either. Specifically, he endorsed the nondualism of the Hindu Upanishads, for which all categories of thought can be sublated for a fundamental view. Freewill and Determinism would become two ways of looking at a single phenomenon, each of which would be unsatisfactory and which would need to be combined (thus rejected) for a correct view.

This compatibilist view is difficult, but it works and cannot be refuted. It depends crucially on the idea that the universe is a unity. Here is an extract summarising Schrodinger’s view from the editors introduction to the book The Volitional Brain Towards a Neuroscience of Freewill (Ed. Libet, Freeman, Sutherland).

Schrodinger encapsulated the problem of consciousness in the form of two premises:

* My body functions as a pure mechanism according to the laws of nature.

* Yet I know, by incontrovertible direct experience, that I am directing its motions, of which I foresee the effects, that may be fateful and all-important, in which case I feel and take full responsibility for them.

To avoid a contradiction here, he said, the only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt I am the person, if any, who controls the motion of the atoms according to the laws of nature. [t]his would lead you to say, Schrodinger provocatively suggested, Hence I am God almighty.

It is not possible to develop this idea here but in mysticism it would be the standard solution for this sort of problem. The problem is solved by appealing to the identity of all things. To see how it works you have to ask yourself, if you were God, omniscient, perfect, unlimited, then in what sense would you have freewill? Your actions would be completely determined by your identity, and they would be strictly determined precisely because they are wholly free and unlimited. The distinction between Freewill and Determinism would break down at the limit.

This form of compatibilism is the one we would have to refute in order to make a conclusive argument for Freewill or Determinism. It cannot be refuted, and so no such argument is possible. It is an antinomy. Note that Schrodinger sees no conflict between this compatibilist view and the natural sciences. Rather, it is his unwillingness to deny the scientific evidence that leads him to this view.


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