What is a compatibilist free will

Free will. The compatibilism versus the incompatibilism

Table of Contents

1. Explanation of the basic positions
1.1 Compatibilism
1.2 Incompatibilism
1.3 Libertarians
1.4 skeptics

2. The incompatibilities
2.1 The presentation of the argumentation of the libertarian Peter van Inwagen
2.2 The presentation of the arguments of the libertarian Robert Kane

3. Compatibilism
3.1 The presentation of the argumentation of the compatibilist Harry Gordon Frankfurt
3.2 The presentation of the argumentation of the compatibilist Peter Frederick Strawson

4. Incorporating a Modern Debate: The Libet Experiments

5. Conclusion - incompatibilism or compatibilism?

6. Bibliography

1. Explanation of the basic positions

Let's take a look at the basic positions first. Roughly speaking, there are representatives of compatibilism and incompatibilism. It is not that simple, however, since the representatives make various deviations within their theses. You can best recognize the different positions in Ansgar Beckermann's presentation, which I give here roughly for the sake of understanding:

1.1 Compatibilism

This is the thesis that freedom and determinism are compatible. Determinism exists even though the following theses are true:

a. A person must have a choice between alternatives; it must act differently or be able to decide differently than it actually does (condition: being able to act differently or be able to decide differently).
b. Which choice is made must depend largely on the person himself (condition: authorship).
c. How the person acts or decides must be under their control. This control must not be ruled out by force (condition: control).[1]

1.2 Incompatibilism

This is the thesis that freedom and determinism are incompatible. The incompatibilists deny that the above theses are compatible with determinism.[2]

1.3 Libertarians

These are incompatibilists who believe that there is freedom and that therefore determinism is wrong.[3] In this work I will almost exclusively take a look at these representatives.

1.4 skeptics

These advocates believe that there is no freedom because determinism is true. Everything is predetermined, we cannot decide anything freely.[4]

2. The incompatibilities

I'll start with incompatibilism to show at the end that compatibilism has the most plausible arguments. The incompatibilists believe that freedom and determinism are incompatible. I would like to briefly present your argument, later I will explain it in more detail with regard to the philosophers Peter van Inwagen and Robert Kane. The question arises as to how the above theses of the compatibilists can be true when we live in a deterministic world. When everything is predetermined by previous events, a person's will cannot be free. After all, how can the person make a different decision when previous events have long since determined how they will decide? How is the person supposed to be the ultimate author of their actions when they trace back to previous events that may have occurred even before they were born?[5]

Determinism excludes free action. It leaves no room for action variations, say the incompatibilists. The person's life is straightforward, with no branches or decisions. Everything is predetermined, the person cannot counter it. If she had free will now, she would have to be able to make decisions at different times in her life. You should be able to choose variant a, b or c and thus be able to freely choose a branch. That apparently makes determinism impossible. Both seem to be mutually exclusive - either we have free will, freedom exists. Then determinism is not true, our actions are not predetermined by previous events or the laws of nature. That would be the position of the libertarian. Or if determinism is true, then the person can never decide otherwise and never act differently. The decisions and actions never go back to the person, only to previous events. So the person is not free in their actions, since how they act is determined anyway. This would now be the position of the skeptic.[6] But both positions, that of the libertarian and that of the skeptic, seem to show that freedom and determinism are incompatible.

To prove this, the libertarians put the free will of the person in the foreground. They believe that at some points in their life the person is free to choose whether to choose a, b, or c. These decisions are not determined by natural laws or previous events. According to Beckermann, however, there are three arguments against this position.[7]

a. If the person can bring about how they decide themselves, then they intervene in the course of the world from outside, so to speak, because then it is not determined. However, if the person intervenes in the course of the world, he places himself above the natural world, he puts himself on a divine, overpowering level. And that is not compatible with scientific knowledge. These say, for example, that we cannot float in a normal space on earth. And neither could we if we chose to float now.
b. An event cannot happen without an earlier event. That is the principle of cause and effect. An example: The bottle is empty because I drank the water from it. I drank the water - in this case that is the reason why the bottle is now empty, which in turn is the effect of it. If you apply this example to the ability to act freely, my action must always have been preceded by a cause. And that would determine my action again, since it is determined by previous events.
c. As soon as a person wants to decide between a or b, they need reasons for both alternatives. So she might decide to have a bottle of lemonade in one day. Her reasons would be that she is thirsty and lemonade tastes good. The next day she opts for a bottle of water. So the reasons are the same. She is thirsty and the water tastes good. But if the person can now provide the same reasons for both alternatives, then the choice is far from justified - it is unfounded and happens by chance.[8][9]

2.1 The presentation of the argumentation of the libertarian Peter van Inwagen

In order to take a closer look at the position of the incompatibilists, more precisely the libertarians, I will now look at the position of Peter van Inwagen. He says that determinism is incompatible with the thesis that we can act differently than we do. So determinism is incompatible with free will. This means that van Inwagen fits into the ranks of the incompatibilists and especially the libertarians, since he assumes free will and therefore considers determinism to be wrong.[10]

Let us first take a look at his work “The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism”.

Van Inwagen comes here first to speak of the concept of the state of the entire physical world, which the concept of determinism contains. It assumes two conditions for this state:

a. The state of the world is such that the world is in a certain state at a certain time and no statement can be made about what happens after this time. Example: It shouldn't read “It's time t and the hand of Jones is ten seconds after t be collected".
b. When things change (Jones raises his hand), that change must bring about a change in the world. The state of the world would then be raised before the hand t1 and subsequently t2.[11]

From this follows his definition of determinism:

a. For every point in time there is a preposition that expresses the state of the world at that point in time.
b. If A and B are arbitrary propositions that express the state of the world at two points in time, then A results in B.[12]

Accordingly, only one particular event always follows another. This is van Inwagen's definition of determinism.

In the next part of his work, van Inwagen speaks of free will. He says that many philosophers define free will as meaning that the agent has the ability to act differently than he actually does. That is the thesis of being able to act differently. If man had no free will, then that would mean that he only does what he can do. He has no choice but to decide otherwise. Yet most philosophers agree that the doer could have failed to act so that he could be held responsible.[13] This aims at the concept of culpability - because if one were of the opinion that the agent could not have omitted his act, how could he then be culpable? Before we go into this further, let's first look at Van Inwagen's remarks.

Van Inwagen now wants to finally show that determinism is not compatible with free will. He gives as an example that a person decides after careful consideration against an action that has already been considered. Van Inwagen argues that man could not have performed this action if determinism is true.[14] In doing so, he wants to make the incompatibility of free will - people voluntarily decide against the action - and determinism clear.

To elaborate on this, let's look at Van Inwagen's most important argument, the consequence argument. He describes this only in a shorter version in his work "An Argument for Incompatibilism":

“If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us. "[15]

This again describes the incompatibility of determinism and free will. Because determinism says that the world only ever runs in one direction. There are no opportunities to turn and make other decisions. But free will says exactly that - we must also be able to act differently, we must also be able to make different decisions. There cannot be just one future, there should have been the possibility that another future could come. So we should have acted differently.[16]

Let's take a closer look at the consequence argument. Van Inwagen draws on the example of a judge who could have prevented a criminal from being sentenced to death by just raising his hand. He didn't want to raise his hand, so his failure to do so resulted in the killing of the criminal. The judge was in his mind, was not drugged, and was not influenced by anyone. So there were no external or internal constraints. After careful consideration, he voluntarily decided not to raise his hand.[17]

Van Inwagen now puts forward a logical line of reasoning by which the judge could not have raised his hand if determinism were true, because then he would never have had another choice.[18] But he must have had a choice, as he chose not to raise his hand. At this point he could intervene in his personal action and decide for himself whether to raise his hand. Accordingly, not raising one's hand proves that free will is true - and that is precisely why, according to van Inwagen, determinism is wrong and incompatible with free will.[19]

In my opinion, the consequence argument becomes even clearer in the following example. There are two premises:

a. Nothing moves faster than light.
b. The physicist Jones can build an accelerator with which protons move at twice the speed of light.[20]

So Jones would be capable of a going wrong even if he never did b. And even if there were a premise c under which a could become true but Jones did not execute premise c, then it would follow that a was true, but not a law of physics.[21]

It follows that this proposition is not a law of physics if there is a person X who could make this proposition wrong by an action, even if the person X never does it.[22]

And that in turn means that determinism is only true if every action results from previous events and the law of physics. And since we have no power over earlier facts or over the laws of physics, i.e. the laws of nature, we also have no power over our own actions. Peter Van Inwagen's example and his argumentation should therefore show the incompatibility of free will (free actions) with determinism (predetermined actions).

To recap, the consequence argument proves that if determinism is true, nothing that happens is under our control.[23] And without control, we cannot act freely, because that is a prerequisite for free action.[24] In this way Peter van Inwagen justifies the incompatibility of free will and determinism.

In order to show that both are compatible, there is what I believe to be a successful criticism of the consequence argument. We argue for overdetermination. One speaks of this when several causes lead to the same result. And this in turn should show that "although certain inevitable processes can take place [...], the conclusion that they are not responsible is still inadmissible."[25] An example from Andreas Klein in this case would be the following:

Betty positions an explosive charge in a crevasse; this should be at the time t 1 go up. The explosion triggers an avalanche at the time t 3 destroyed an enemy camp. However, it should have been at the time anyway t 2 an avalanche naturally released the enemy camp at the time t 3 would have destroyed - but Betty doesn't know that. And since their avalanche was triggered earlier by the explosion, at the time t 1, Betty acted freely and is therefore responsible for the consequences. It is not crucial that the camp would have been destroyed anyway - and that is exactly what shows that responsibility cannot be undone by inevitability.[26] According to this, determinism would be compatible with free will, since responsibility is decisive for free will and we are also responsible, even if there is only one outcome of an action.

In addition, the consequence argument also wants to show that “we are puppets on the stage of world events”.[27] Nothing is under our control when everything is determined and predetermined. If a meteorite hits our house, we have no control over it - and the consequence argument judges our actions in the same way.[28] And this is exactly what shows that the concept of control is not plausible, since control over our actions is not to be equated with control over the laws of nature. We can control and carry out our actions ourselves without having to control the laws of nature or the prehistory of the world.[29]

2.2 The presentation of the arguments of the libertarian Robert Kane

Let us now briefly take a look at the outlook - Harry G. Frankfurt is of the opinion that a decision is free if it is based on our wishes, which we want them to become effective. In the next main section I will elaborate on his reasoning.

This statement from Frankfurt is important to understand that of the libertarian Robert Kane. He starts exactly at this point. He thinks that Frankfurt's argument that our free will is tied to our desires is not enough, as there is a hidden control that we do not notice. We do not feel restricted by this control (nonconstraining control).[30] It just seems like we can do anything, act freely, and have free will. There is a controller who secretly determines and guides us. We don't know anything about that.[31] If we are such a manipulated person, then it is impossible for us to be responsible for our actions - we are not free in our decisions. Our wishes are actually the wishes of the manipulator and not our own. In this case, the manipulator can be equated with neural processes in the brain that determine us.[32] From this, Kane concludes that we can only really freely decide and only have free will if our desires actually go back to us - without manipulation.This is what Kane calls ultimate responsibility.

By the way, the final authorship distinguishes compatibilists from incompatibilists, because incompatibilists recognize the last authorship as a condition for free will, the compatibilists do not.[33] And the rejection of this condition seems perfectly logical to me, as there are many actions that took place before we were born. According to natural law, we cannot be responsible for these reasons and accordingly we cannot be ultimately responsible for our own actions. That would contradict free will, because accountability is crucial to free will.


[1] Beckermann, Ansgar: Freedom of will - an overview from a compatibilist point of view, in: Open Access / Bielefeld University: http://pub.unibielefeld.de/publication/2508884, Bielefeld, 2012, p. 273.

[2] Beckermann, Ansgar: Freedom of will - an overview from a compatibilist point of view, p. 268.

[3] Beckermann, Ansgar: Freedom of will - an overview from a compatibilist point of view, p. 268.

[4] Ibid., P. 268.

[5] Ibid., P. 268.

[6] Beckermann, Ansgar: Freedom of will - an overview from a compatibilist point of view, pp. 269-270.

[7] Ibid., P. 271.

[8] Beckermann, Ansgar: Freedom of will - an overview from a compatibilist point of view, pp. 271-272.

[9] Cf .: Beckermann, Ansgar: Neuronale Determiniertheit und Freiheit, in: Open Access / Universität Bielefeld: http://pub.uni-bielefeld.de/publication/2508884, Bielefeld, 2012, p. 253.

[10] Van Inwagen, Peter: The incompatibility of free will and determinism, in: Seminar: Free action and determinism, ed. v. Ulrich Pothast, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1978, p. 247.

[11] Van Inwagen, Peter: The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism, p. 248.

[12] Ibid., P. 248.

[13] Ibid., Pp. 251-252.

[14] Van Inwagen, Peter: The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism, p. 254.

[15] Van Inwagen, Peter: An Argument for Incompatibilism, in: Free Will, ed. v. Gary Watson, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 39.

[16] Van Inwagen, Peter: An Argument for Incompatibilism, pp. 38-57.

[17] Van Inwagen, Peter: The Incompatibility of Free Will and Determinism, p. 255.

[18] Ibid., P. 255.

[19] Ibid., P. 256.

[20] Ibid., P. 257.

[21] Ibid., Pp. 257-258.

[22] Ibid., P. 258.

[23] Klein, Andreas: “I'm so free!”, Neukirchener Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Neukirchen-Vluyn, 2012, p. 26.

[24] Klein, Andreas: “I am so free!”, P. 26.

[25] Ibid., P. 27.

[26] Ibid., P. 27.

[27] Ibid., P. 29.

[28] Klein, Andreas: “I am so free!”, P. 29.

[29] Ibid., P. 30.

[30] Kane, Robert: The Significance of Free Will, Oxford University Press, New York and Oxford, 1996, pp. 64-65.

[31] Kane, Robert: The Significance of Free Will, p. 65.

[32] Beckermann, Ansgar: Free will in a natural world order, in: Open Access / Bielefeld University: http://pub.uni-bielefeld.de/publication/2508884, Bielefeld, 2012, p. 240.

[33] Kane, Robert: The Significance of Free Will, 71.

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