Freedom in a Deterministic World

Free Will 101, Part 6: Compatibilism

Posted Oct 07, 2012


Many people think that it’s a no-brainer that if our choices are determined then they can’t be free.  However, the philosophical thesis known as compatibilism states that freedom can exist in a fully deterministic universe. If this sounds odd or even nonsensical to you, it’s probably because you assume that freedom and determinism are opposites and have never subjected this notion to critical scrutiny.

Like many contemporary philosophers, I’m a card-carrying compatibilist. I consider compatibilism to be the only sensible solution to the free-will problem, and I consequently don’t have a high opinion of increasingly frequent pop-philosophical claims that neuroscience shows us that free will doesn’t exist.  In this posting, I’ll gesture towards why I (as well as lots of other philosophers) don’t think that this view holds water.

Suppose that someone were to say “If a car is blue, then it can’t be fast.”  This would be an odd thing to say, because blueness and speed don’t exclude one another. They are fully compatible.  Similarly, compatibilists argue that freedom and determinism don’t exclude one another.  Now, you may think that that’s all good and well for fast, blue cars, but our choices simply can’t be free if they’re determined, because that would mean that our choices aren’t really up to us!  

This response confuses coercion, which is antithetical to freedom, with causation, which is a requirement for it.  Consider the following vignette. You’re feeling hungry, and decide to go to Sam’s Deli for lunch.  As you raise a bagel to your lips, it suddenly strikes you that you are eating it because you are hungry—that is, your state of hunger (in conjunction with your liking for bagels, your knowledge that Sam’s Deli serves good bagels, etc., etc.).  Next, an awful realization dawns upon you. “Oh my God!” you say to yourself, “I’ve chosen to eat this bagel because I’m hungry and I like bagels!  My choice had causes, so it wasn’t free!” 

This way of thinking would be the height of absurdity. After all, if the only free choices are those that aren’t caused by prior events, then we only choose freely when we choose to do things that are inconsistent with our values and beliefs!  But choices that are out of synch with a person’s values and beliefs shouldn’t count as free. Your decision to eat the bagel was free precisely because it was caused by your hunger and your fondness for bagels, not because it wasn’t! 

Although the bagel story is laughable, it’s on all fours with the way that many people think about the relation between freedom and determinism.

The obvious question to ask at this point is, “How do compatibilists conceive freedom?” The classic response to this question comes from David Hume’s (1748) An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding:

By liberty, then, we can only mean a power of acting or not acting, according to the determinations of the will; that is, if we choose to remain at rest, we may; if we choose to move, we also may. Now this hypothetical liberty is universally allowed to belong to every one who is not a prisoner and not in chains.  Here, then, is no subject of dispute.

Those who deny the existence of freedom of the will, or who claim that freedom must defy determinism, fudge the distinction between causation and coercion. These are very different notions. You are coerced only if you are forced to do something that you don’t want to do (you perform the act at gunpoint, as it were) or are prevented from doing something that you want to do (for example, you can’t stand up because you are duct-taped to the chair). It’s obvious that coercion is incompatible with freedom.  It’s equally obvious that causation isn’t. The mere fact that one’s choice (say, to eat a bagel) was caused by various prior events does not, by any stretch of the imagination, imply that one was coerced into eating it.  And there are no grounds for claiming, and every reason to deny, that the decision to eat it was not free.

There’s a well-worn objection to the compatibilist position that can be called the objection from alternative possibilities.  It goes like this. If our choices are determined then it’s never open to us to choose any differently than we in fact do. But one can’t be free unless there are genuine alternatives from which to choose. So (it is claimed) if determinism is true, then nobody’s free. The standard compatibilist reply to the objection from alternative possibilities is that if the state of the universe had been different (perhaps only ever so slightly different) prior to your making a choice, then you might have chosen differently, but it’s wacky to seriously entertain the idea that you might have chosen differently in exactly the same circumstances—circumstances in which you had exactly the same values, exactly the same information at your disposal, and in which your brain was in exactly the same physical state, right down to the last synaptic firing threshold.

“Choosing” differently in these circumstances would have to be something that’s radically indeterministic and therefore something that happens to a person rather than something that she does. But that’s the very opposite of self-determination, and self-determination is what freedom is all about.