- Debates that claim to be about the free will / determinism problem often aren't. Incompatibilism is usually understood as the claim that the truth of determinism entails the non-existence of free will: that there is no possible world where determinism is true and someone has free will. Compatibilism is the claim that the truth of determinism is compatible with the existence of free will: that there are possible worlds where determinism is true and someone has free will. So one would expect discussions of the free will / determinism problem to focus on determinism (and related questions about the metaphysics of laws, causation, and counterfactuals) and arguments about the relevance (or lack of relevance) of determinism to free will. But the literature is mostly preoccupied with other questions.
- Perhaps the main reason for this is that incompatibilists and compatibilists tend, for the most part, to be free will believers, and therefore are quite properly concerned with more than just showing that free will is or isn't compatible with determinism. They also want to show that we in fact have (or at least might have) free will and they believe that they can show this only by providing an analysis of free will. And of course providing a philosophical analysis of anything is notoriously difficult. And in doing this, the energies of both sides get diverted away from the debate between them and towards a different debate, a debate with someone I will call the impossibilist.
- The impossibilist is someone who thinks that it is metaphysically impossible for us to have free will, either because she thinks that our concept of free will is incoherent or because she thinks that free will is incompatible with some necessarily true proposition. Neither the compatibilist nor the incompatibilist is an impossibilist (see below, for explanation), but some of the arguments that are presented as arguments for incompatibilism turn out, on closer inspection, to be arguments for impossibilism.
- Another reason for the paucity of debate about determinism is that there are other apparent threats to free will which, though logically independent of determinism, tend to be associated with determinism - physicalism and the view that we are part of the natural order of things, subject without exception to the same kind of laws (deterministic or probabilistic) that govern everything else in the universe. Compatibilists typically think of themselves in the business of defending, not just the compatibility of free will with determinism, but also the compatibility of free will with physicalism and naturalism. Sometimes compatibilists assume that an incompatibilist must be someone who believes that free will is incompatible with physicalism and naturalism as well as with determinism. This is a mistake, but of course incompatibilists have traditionally embraced dualism and the doctrine of agent-causation (the view that we cause our actions in something like the way that God is supposed to cause things - by being "prime movers unmoved"). And arguments that are supposed to be arguments for incompatibilism often trade on intuitions that concern physicalism or naturalism rather than determinism; for instance, arguments that try to convince us that if determinism were true, we would not be different, in any relevant way, from merely physical or merely mechanical things - wind-up toys, simple robots, and so on.
- My concern in this chapter is only with the free will / determinism problem; that is, only with the debate between the incompatibilist and the compatibilist. I will be defending compatibilism. But before I can do so, it is important to understand exactly what is at stake in this debate.
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2019
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)