[Topics: Compatibilism, Determinism, Free Will, Philosophy of Language]
Free Will Twice Defined:

On the Linguistic Conflict of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism


Arthur Schopenhauer Sketch by M.R.P. - compatibilism - free will - determinism

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.
[High-res prints available here]


“Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills” (Schopenhauer 531).

Attentive readers of last week’s post in this series will have noted that its discussion of meaning, while relevant to the meaningfulness of moral action, is more broadly applicable to all philosophical discussions of meaning. Using that article as a transitional moment, I will now move away from discussing moral action directly and, at least for a time, toward discussing human action more generally.

One of the most persistent debates across the history of philosophy, when it comes to human behavior and morality, is that of whether determinism or free will is true. But in order to get at that debate, I will instead today be confronting an intimately related debate of roughly equal age, that of whether determinism and free will are compatible or not. Many laypeople are casual incompatibilists, and would be quick to dismiss this latter debate as so much sophistry, feeling that determinism and free will are intractable opposites. But various different versions of compatibilism have had some strong defenders over the years, including Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, and the majority of professional philosophers in the world today. So what is compatibilism, and how does it respond to incompatibilism?

The Linguistic Conflict (Defining Free Will):

In the quote at the beginning of the introduction above, Arthur Schopenhauer is making a characteristically eloquent point which is similar to lines of thought informing the beliefs of many modern compatibilists: the truth of determinism does not entail that a human must be unable to freely act in accordance with their determined motives and desires. Incompatibilists are apt to object, however, that the sort of free will they are discussing requires more than such empirically free action; it requires metaphysically free action.

The disagreement between compatibilists and incompatibilists, then, can be boiled down to a disagreement over the meaning of the phrase ‘free will.’ In this light, it becomes clear that what is really revealed by the fact that the majority of professional philosophers today accept the truth of compatibilism is that they accept a compatibilist definition of the phrase ‘free will,’ which for them refers to a concept that does not come into conflict with the truth of determinism.

This may seem at first glance like I am merely tautologically declaring that the compatibilists find determinism and free will to be compatible. Rather, I am clarifying that the disagreement is not so much about whether determinism and free will, as the terms are used by incompatibilists, are, in fact, compatible. The disagreement is instead about whether the desired phenomenon known as free will more closely resembles the definition of free will by the incompatibilists, which can not mesh with determinism, or the definition of free will by the compatibilists, which can.

Immanuel Kant - compatibilism - free will - determinismSo, what are the disputed aspects of the definition? One is the ultimacy of a willed action: incompatibilists are likely to hold that a willed action must originate in the acting agent for that action to be freely willed, whereas compatibilists are likely to hold that a willed action may have external causation and still be freely willed provided the acting agent has acted by matching volitions and desires. Another is the future alternatives of a willed action: incompatibilists are likely to hold that a willed action is only freely willed (and only morally significant) if the acting agent could have acted otherwise, whereas compatibilists are likely to hold that there are accounts of moral action—and thus accounts of the desired sort of free will—which do not require that the same circumstances could have yielded a different action. (For a more detailed treatment of differing conceptions of free will, see this encyclopedia entry.)

An important aside would be to note that incompatibilism and compatibilism are prospective metaphysical positions that describe only the positions regarding whether there is or is not a logical inconsistency between the truth of determinism and the truth of free will. Thus, while only a compatibilist could consistently believe that humans are both determined and free in some sense, it is perfectly consistent for a person to be either a compatibilist or an incompatibilist, and yet to hold that humans are only determined, or only free.

My Response, and the Insurmountable Experience of Free Will:

So, depending on which definition of free will is under study, I would give a different answer about if free will is compatible with determinism. Both sides have shown with considerable force over the years that what they take to be free will is consistent with their metaphysical orientation. As to my own conclusions regarding whether human beings ultimately do or not have free will of the sort discussed by incompatibilists, I do not think this can be known at present (accepting as I do the contingency of the truth or falsehood of determinism). Although I feel that the truth of determinism (or non-free randomness) is more in-line with our best science, this in no way rules out the possibility that a more complete picture of the universe will one day be available which makes the truth of incompatibilist free will, even libertarian free will, more likely. So, while I have a tentative belief in the truth of determinism, I do not hold, as some philosophers do, that libertarian free will is incoherent.

Setting aside my abstention from affirming whether humans are ultimately free in the sense desired by incompatibilists, however, I would say that humans do have free will of the sort described by compatibilists. In effect, while the incompatibilists are arguing brilliantly among hypotheticals when discussing free will, modern compatibilists have the advantage that they are elegantly describing our lived experience through their descriptions of free will.

Peter Strawson - compatibilism - free will - determinismPersonally, I would posit a phenomenological model of free will, or an inescapable practical illusion of free will, as a description of our lived experience. This is a compatibilist conception of free will. (Moreover, this view is similar in many pragmatic respects to the account of free will offered influentially by Peter Strawson.) From my perspective, humans are unable to surmount their perceptions of free will, just as I have previously argued that humans are unable to surmount the perceived objectivity of some basic moral strictures. I would note that this remains the inescapable perceptual case whether we are mechanically determined or libertarianistically free. I see free will as a perceived phenomenon of matching our actions with our motivations within our experience of what is probably a determined universe.


So, in the end, I would go so far as to say that incompatibilism and compatibilism are both correct, as their disagreement is more about language than facts. Depending on which definition of free will is considered, I could find myself agreeing with conclusions by either. In a feat of confusion, I would conclude by saying that incompatibilism and compatibilism may not be as incompatible as they initially seem. Incompatibilist free will is obviously incompatible with determinism, but is a purely metaphysical position. Thus, for myself, it is enough to make me call myself a compatibilist that the compatibilist case is not purely abstract and metaphysical; compatibilists are accurately describing some aspects of reality when they describe free will, and their description of free will is indeed compatible with determinism—regardless of whether or not determinism is true.

Next week’s article will explore an interesting question in the metaphysical discussion of free will and determinism: can a willed action be infallibly foreknowable and also free?

Work Cited:

Schopenhauer, Arthur. “On the Freedom of the Will.” Trans. Morris Zucker. The Philosophy of American History: The Historical Field Theory. 1945. 531. Print.compatibilism - free will - determinism

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[Topics: Compatibilism, Determinism, Free Will, Philosophy of Language]
Free Will Twice Defined:

On the Linguistic Conflict of Compatibilism and Incompatibilism

was last modified: June 20th, 2017 by Daniel Podgorski
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  1. A puppet is free as long as he loves his strings. Compatibilists simply bend the definition of free will. Most people believe they have libertarian free will, the ability to have willfully chosen otherwise for any previous decision.

    • Ah, to be sure, as I wrote near the beginning of the article, “Many laypeople are casual incompatibilists.” It would not have been uncharitable to change ‘many’ to ‘most,’ I suspect.

      In many ways, the compatibilist account of free will attempts to reconcile our overwhelmingly strong intuition that we have free will with the possibility or likelihood of determinism.

      My own position follows from the fact that it seems that what matters most is not whether we are, in fact, ultimately free or determined, which we do not seem capable of proving at present; instead, the key concern is our perception of freedom, which I take to be insurmountable.

      This is why I say that my position is phenomenological in nature. Even if we are, as seems at least tentatively likely, either determined or at least not free in the desired sense, our practical illusion of free will—from, for instance, our experience of ‘deciding’—makes it the case that it is coherent to speak of having free will, even if the definition must be altered.

      To put it another way, what can be said of the puppet with invisible strings? Free or not free? I expect, just as in the article, the answer relies on a discussion of what is meant by the word ‘free.’

  2. By re-defining free will as something different than what most people have always defined it as, aren’t compatibilists creating confusion and building barriers that make it difficult to talk to other people about their views? Why should it be important to own the words “free will”. In fact why would one even want to call themselves a compatibilist when its not true that they hold an opposing view to incompatibilists?

    • It is true that compatibilists hold an opposing view to incompatibilists; my article merely shows that the disagreement is less in the realm of metaphysics than it is in the realm of language. Thus, when considering each view individually, it may be consistent to say that the implications of their views (with regards to the referents of their terms) are not wholely incompatible, despite such disagreements.

      And as to your first question: a likely compatibilist response would be that the incompatibilist definition, however common, is actually not referring to anything other than a hypothetical; compatibilists would hold that their definition is how most people would have described free will if they were being perfectly rational. (Some compatibilists even hold that the incompatibilist definition of free will is self-defeating and incoherent.) Nevertheless, to say that we should accept one view of something because most people accept that view is a fallacy known as argumentum ad populum.

  3. I’ve just released a discussion paper that attempts to resolve the outstanding issues between compatibilists and incompatibilists. In it, I argue that in common discourse, ‘free will’ is not taken to refer to ‘contra-causal free will’. In fact, I question the hard determinist’s and libertarian’s contention that we intuit that we have such contra-causal free will. Using an ordinary-language analysis, I attempt to show that a ‘free will’ is an unencumbered will and that free will is restricted in four types of situations: coercion, manipulation, addiction and mental illness. Examining these situations, I distil four requirements that must be met for an act to be considered as resulting from a free will. These constitute my 4C theory of free will and are: 1. absence of Compulsion; 2. absence of Control by third party; 3. consonant with agent’s Character; and 4. Cognitive capacity to reason. I argue that, in fact, these four criteria underpin jurisprudence, forensic psychology and our ordinary moral intuitions and our practice of praise and blame. I also go on to provide a credible counterfactual conditional analysis of ‘could have chosen otherwise’ along the lines of ‘given the agent’s character, the agent would have chosen otherwise in the given situation if the circumstances were different’. I welcome your feedback. You can read the paper at http://www.RationalRealm.com/philosophy/reflections/freewill-compatibilism.html

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