Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps


FreeWill and cowboy boots a long-running theme of Jerry Coyne’s website has been Jerry’s arguments against any form of “free will”. This usually leads to long comment-thread arguments between the incompatibilists (or “hard determinists”) and the compatibilists amongst Jerry’s readers.

I get the impression that sometimes the incompatibilists don’t properly understand a compatibilist view. They often accuse compatibilists of disliking determinism, of hankering after dualism, hoping that something will turn up that will overturn current science, or of just equivocating. Here I want to explain compatibilism to those determinists who take an incompatibilist stance (“hard determinism”). It is not aimed at libertarian dualists!

First, let’s be clear on the two stances. Compatibilism asks whether, given a deterministic universe, one can arrive at sensible and coherent meanings of terms such as “choice”, “freedom” and indeed “free will”. The compatibilist says yes; the incompatibilist says no, regarding such terms as too…

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7 thoughts on “Compatibilism for incompatibilists: free will in five steps

  1. Oh dear, that sparked a lot of comments, and I’m not surprised. The author seems to be advocating a rather weak form of compatibilism and defining everything he disagrees with in ways of his own choice. Oh dear, that choice word again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Coel is a strict determinist. I do disagree with him that compatibilism begins with accepting determinism completely. I’m not a convinced strict determinist, although I do think everything, including mental activity, happens according to the laws of physics (which may not always be deterministic), and so I consider myself a compatibilist because I think talk of choices is still productive at a sociological and psychological level of reality.


      1. It’s important to accept determinism as a starting point not because it matters whether the universe is deterministic or not but to make it absolutely clear that the compatibilist notion of free will is consistent even with an entirely deterministic universe. I don’t think Coel is actually that committed to thinking the universe really is deterministic.


    2. I think Coel got it right. Mainstream compatibilism (e.g. Dennett) is really as “weak” as he presents it, and the interpretations of the words he proposes are those advocated by compatibilists. It’s not an arbitrary redefinition because defined in such a way the words still mostly pick out the same events and entities in the real world as would be identified by incompatibilists. It’s only the underlying metaphysics that changes.


  2. I think, the debate around “free will” comes from confusion about the meaning of the word “free”. It’s meaningless without context. This article explains it very nicely.

    To give the word “free” meaning, we need to indicate, “free from what”. I like the analogy between the phrases “to be free” and “to be prepared”. One cannot “be prepared” in general, without understanding what to be prepared for.

    Imagine that I look at a playing card and see that it is a queen of spades. I put the card in front of you facing down. I know what the card is. For me, there is no chance that the card is anything other than the queen of spades. But you don’t. For you, “there is a chance” that the card is an ace of clubs, for example.

    I think, the situation with free will is very similar to the situation with the playing card. When a child “chooses” between vanilla and strawberry ice cream, it seems to the child that he is making a choice. But what the child picks may be pre-determined by factors that the child is not aware of.


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