“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?
In the above quote, 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.
So, 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.
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.
Personally, 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?
Free Will Twice Defined: