Free Will and Determinism:

Some Introductory Terminology

Free Will Goldfish.jpg

compatibilism. The belief that free will and determinism are compatible.

incompatibilism. The belief that free will and determinism are incompatible.

determinism. 1. The view that every event has a cause. 2. Given a set of conditions, X, it will always be followed by nothing other than a set of conditions, Y. (And given that a set of conditions X,Y could not have been preceded by anything other than that set of conditions, X.) 3. The view that (a) all things in the universe are “governed” by, or operate in accordance with, causal laws; (b) everything in the universe is absolutely dependent upon and necessitated by causes; (c) given sufficient knowledge of the workings of any particular thing, we would be able to see not only its future but the future of all things completely mirrored in it (Leibniz); (d) given sufficient knowledge of the mass, position, and direction of every particle in the universe at any given time, and an infinite mathematical ability, one could predict every future event (Laplace). For our purposes, definitions 1 and 2 are most important.

indeterminism. 1. The theory that at least some events do not have causes (note carefully that it is sufficient to render determinism false to believe that only one event not have a cause). 2. The theory that some events (a) cannot be explained by being subsumed under general, universal laws or principles and (b) cannot be predicted, not because of our lack of knowledge but because of an inherent characteristic in the universe such as chance, randomness, uncertainty, spontaneity, novelty, an undetermined openness for possibilities to happen in the future.

free will, sense of. 1. The feeling of making uncaused, uncompelled choices, or initiating uncaused actions. 2. The feeling that given the same circumstances I could have done otherwise than that which I did in fact do. Notice that the feeling of possessing free will is completely compatible with the truth of determinism.

free will, theory of. 1. The belief that, given again the same conditions, humans can will to do otherwise than what they did do. 2. Acts of free will are caused by inner mental states (willing) of an agent but (a) not by material changes in the brain and (b) not by external stimuli. 3. The will is free in the sense of not being caused or determined by anything else. That is, it is independent of antecedent physiological, neurological, psychological, and environmental conditions. Acts of free will are alleged to be “uncaused events,” such as uncaused assents, dissents, choices, decisions.

fatalism. The belief that certain events must happen no matter what else has happened antecedent to them. Hence fatalism is compatible with indeterminism.

libertarianism. (William James.) The view that there are uncaused events in the universe. For ethics, the view that some human actions are among these events, and that this is necessarily so for freedom. Hence the libertarian is necessarily an indeterminist and an incompatibilist.

hard determinism. (Clarence Darrow, Ted Honderich.) The belief that for every event there is a cause, and therefore that there is no free will.

soft determinism. (David Hume, A. J. Ayer, J. J. C. Smart, Sam Harris.) Free will and determinism are compatible (hence, the soft determinist is a compatibilist) and indeed determinism is required for moral responsibility.

What follows is a list of optional views one could take on the free will-determinism debate. ‘?’ signifies: “do not claim to know.”

                        (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9)

Free Will           T   F   F   T    ?    F    ?    T   ?

Determinism     T   F   T   F    F    ?    ?    ?   T


(1) is clearly a compatibilist position (can you say why?), and one variety of being a compatibilist with which we are familiar is soft determinism. Some of these theorists believe that it would be impossible for free will to exist were determinism false. I don’t know anybody who holds (2), the view that we are not free and the view that determinism is false. I suppose though that somebody who believes that soft determinism would have to be true for us to behave freely would be a person who did infer that we are not free if (s)he first concluded that determinism is false. (3) is the hard determinist’s position (an incompatibilist position), and possibly the view of other theorists as well. (4) is the libertarian’s view, and probably the view of other types of theorists as well. (5) is an odd view, but I suppose you could conclude that determinism isn’t true, but then simply wonder what the implications were for free will -- perhaps because you vacillate between the various ways in which free will has been formulated. (6) is perhaps the “jaded view.” It says that whether nor not determinism is true, one thing I know for sure: we are not free. (7) is a thorough-going skeptic about the whole debate. (8) takes the stance that we are free (perhaps this person has an unconventional theory of truth), irrespective of whether or not we are determined. (9) of course has decided that determinism is true, but perhaps does not know which formulation of freedom to adopt, so that the implications of her position are unclear to her. Which position do you now endorse, and, most importantly, why?