Is the Free Will Debate a Verbal Dispute?

By Paul So

I’ve noticed that academic philosophers, being fairly insulated from the wider public, have largely failed to engage educated laymen who are interested, and perplexed, about free will. In particular, most people think that there are really only two plausible positions — if determinism is true then there is no free will, and if determinism is not true perhaps free will is possible. In other words, people aren’t aware of compatibilism, don’t understand it, or find it deeply unconvincing because they think it doesn’t really talk about free will.

The only academic philosopher I know who has tirelessly tried to explain compatibilism is Daniel Dennett, but many people still find it confusing at best and unpersuasive at worst. Some, like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne, have publicly accused Dennett of playing with words — Dennett is using “free will” to refer to one thing whereas Harris and Coyne use it to refer to something else entirely, and Harris and Coyne think only their notion of “free will” is one worth caring about. A public popularity contest for the vying positions has ensued, and it looks like the public jury has sided largely with Harris and Coyne — Dennett simply isn’t talking about the real, and important kind of free will.

I think that compatibilism deserves another fair hearing — a “retrial” as it were. What I want to do in this essay is try to explain the free will debate, charitably interpret people’s frustrations with compatibilism, and make a sympathetic case for the position as a substantive thesis. Moreover, I want to show that the disagreement between people like Dennett and Harris isn’t merely a verbal one, but rather is similar to other debates that have occurred in modern science. My hope is that, in the end, compatibilism will emerge as a view that is far from a mere semantic magic-trick where verbal sleight of hand is used to confuse, and ultimately persuade, people.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that one thing that motivates me is that philosophers already have a bad reputation with the public as being engaged in an enterprise that largely involves trivial verbal disputes (“when does a bunch of sand become a heap?”). Since many people seem to think that Dennett is simply redefining free will willy-nilly as a “get out of jail free” card from hard determinism, I fear that his attempt to bring compatibilism to the public may have backfired, giving people the impression that their suspicions about the petty nature of philosophical disputes are accurate. But in addition to improving philosophy’s reputation, I think the public debate on free will also needs substantial improvement. It is troubling that it essentially excludes compatibilism from discussion, because, I think, there is substantial merit to the view.

The Free Will Debate

Usually, when intelligent non-philosophers think of the free will debate they often understand it as a debate between libertarianism (not political libertarianism, mind you) and hard determinism. Both libertarians and hard determinists agree that free will is incompatible with determinism, because while free will requires that there be alternative possibilities for every action chosen, determinism excludes it. In other words, both parties agree that, in order for someone to have acted on their own free will, there must have been an alternative action that they could have chosen to perform. If you ate vanilla ice cream, and you ate it freely, then it should have been possible for you to choose not to eat the ice cream, or to eat chocolate instead. The option wasn’t merely there, but was also open for you to choose.

However, determinism states that a prior event predetermines a single outcome. Once that outcome is predetermined, there is no alternative possibility. When a billiard ball strikes another one, the second billiard ball could not have moved in any other way, given the laws of the universe and the conditions under which it was struck.

Both hard determinists and libertarians accept this basic picture about what it takes for free will to exist, and what determinism means. Where they depart is that the former denies free will exists whereas the latter affirms that it does. All of this sounds relatively plain and simple, but things become complicated once you introduce compatibilism. Compatibilists believe that free will can exist even if determinism is true. Even if all of our actions are determined like the billiard ball’s motion is, we can still act freely.

Compatibilism is an umbrella term that has many different variations, but they all agree that the existence of an alternative possibility is neither necessary nor sufficient for free will. To illustrate this, most of them will point to the work of Harry Frankfurt, and so-called “Frankfurt-style” thought experiments. Suppose a presidential race is taking place, and a mad neuroscientist installs a control chip inside of Jim’s brain in order to compel him to vote for the Democratic candidate. If Jim decides to vote for a Republican candidate, the controller will detect it and immediately hijack his nervous system, compelling him to vote Democrat. However, what the mad neuroscientist doesn’t know is that Jim was actually going to vote for a Democratic candidate all along. According to Frankfurt, when Jim, who wanted to vote Democrat all along, casts his ballot, he has done so freely even though it was what the neuroscientist wanted.

Notice that in the Frankfurt-style thought experiment there is no alternative possibility available to Jim. The control chip makes it physically impossible for him to vote in any way other than for the Democratic candidate. Yet, we still have the intuition that Jim freely voted. Why? Because his choice stems from his values, preferences, and deliberations, all of which are important ingredients to make a choice. Why aren’t those simply enough to make him a free agent? Many compatibilists think that thought experiments like this one prove that having free will doesn’t require that you have alternative possibilities open to you to choose. The free will debate, then, becomes less about between determinism and libertarianism, and more about compatibilism and incompatibilism.

Diagnosing the Debate

Many lay people find it hard to get their heads around compatibilism because, from their point of view, it ceases to talk about real free will, which requires alternative possibilities. This intuition about what “real” free will requires isn’t limited to laypeople, even John Searle raises a similar complaint. When people emphatically insist that free will requires alternative possibilities, compatibilists respond that this is begging the question, because people are assuming a conception of free will which cannot be assumed, but must be argued for.

I think there is some merit behind people’s suspicion that compatibilists are merely playing with words — compatibilists are talking about one thing and libertarians/determinists another. This isn’t to say that these people are correct, but there is a plausible rationale behind their suspicion. To see why, let’s consider what, exactly, a verbal disagreement is.

The kind of verbal disagreement that I think people have in mind here is one which takes place when people use the same words to refer to different things, and argue over whether or not the same word should be used to refer to one thing or another. This kind of verbal dispute is a linguistic, prescriptive disagreement in which sides are simply arguing over how a word should be used. The free will debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism might seem to fit the bill.

When the worry is fleshed out that way, it seems plausible. But on further investigation, the disagreement here isn’t simply over how we should use the word “free will,” but rather over the nature of free will. Does free will necessarily require alternative possibilities? Questions like this are similar to ones asked about things such as the nature of water centuries ago. People thought that water is an element, but later found out that water is in fact a compound. Scientists thought that heat consists of some kind of caloric fluid or substance, but they later discovered that heat simply is the motion of molecules. It would be bizarre to think that when scientists were debating the nature of heat they were engaged in a mere verbal disagreement. Clearly, they were disagreeing about what the nature of heat is.

Similarly, compatibilists want to claim that they are doing something similar to what scientists were doing. They are advancing a different conception of the nature of free will that still grounds moral responsibility, just as thermodynamic scientists were in favor of a mechanical view of heat that still explains why things become hot or cold. When framed this way, it becomes far less obvious that the debate between compatibilism and incompatibilism is merely verbal.

One might object that whereas scientists agree that heat exists, philosophers do not agree on whether free will exists. It’s intelligible to argue about the nature of something once there’s an agreement that it exists, but if there is an argument about its existence then it seems strange to argue about its nature in the first place. It would seem like they’re putting the cart before the horse.

One possible response is that, in some cases, if we do not know the nature of something, we cannot assess whether or not it exists. After all, what exactly are we verifying or confirming the existence of in the first place? There was a time when it was an open question on whether not the black holes exist. Einstein provided a definition and description of a black hole before astronomers discovered it. Peter Higgs had to define and describe the Higgs Boson before physicists could finally confirm its existence, and philosophers need to know the nature of free will before they can jump to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist.

Perhaps what really irks people is that there just is a very strong intuition that free will requires alternative possibility. But people have strong intuitions about a lot of things that are simply wrong. For example, people had strong intuitions about time — that it is necessarily invariant and absolute throughout the universe, but it turns out that time is relative to a frame of reference. People thought species are necessarily individuated by essences that are separate from other species, but Darwin showed that all species share similar ancestries. Yet, no one complains that Darwin wasn’t talking about species anymore, and people readily assent to the idea that Newton and Einstein were both talking about time. Why can’t we extend the same courtesy to free will?

I’ve tried to make a sympathetic case for the idea that the free will debate is substantive rather than merely verbal. I’m not really committed one way or the other, but I do think people like Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne, John Searle, and the interested public should (freely) consider compatibilism as a viable position.


  1. Let’s presume a perfect determinism, where cause and effect are perfectly reliable, such that “freedom from causal necessity (inevitability)” does not exist. In this context, what is the meaning of “freedom”?

    a) When we set a bird free (from its cage) do we expect it to be free of causal necessity?
    b) When we set the slave free (from his master) do we expect the slave to be free of causal necessity?
    c) When the bank offers you a free toaster (free of charge) to open an account, is this event free of causal necessity?
    d) When you decide for yourself what you will do (free of coercion or other undue influence), do we expect you to be free of causal necessity?

    In a perfectly deterministic universe, everything that happens is always causally inevitable. This is equally true for each of these examples. And yet the word “free” makes a meaningful distinction in each case.

    a) There is a meaningful difference between a bird in a cage and a bird flying free (of a cage).
    b) There is a meaningful difference between a person enslaved and a person who is free (of slavery).
    c) There is a meaningful difference between something given you free (of charge) and something you must pay for.
    d) There is a meaningful difference between you being free (of coercion or other undue influence) to decide for yourself what you will do and someone else making that choice for you and forcing you to accept their choice against your will.

    Since causal inevitability is always true, the idea that we can or should be free of it is irrational. Therefore, it follows that the word “free” never can, and therefore never does imply freedom from causal necessity. It must always mean being free from something else.

    Besides, without reliable cause and effect, we could not reliably cause any effect! That means we’d have no freedom at all to do anything!

    Finally, the view that causal necessity is some kind of constraint, something that we must be “free of”, is a delusion. All of those things, that cause us to make this choice instead of that one, are us. Our thoughts and feelings, our genetic dispositions and life experiences, our beliefs and values, the health or defects of our neurological system, all of these things ARE us. They are not external forces causing us to act against our will. They are instead us in the act of being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. There is no separate us that these things act upon. They are us.

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  2. Your phrasing of the debate is valuable. In the voting example, I would like to distinguish between “will” and “actualization.” The voter might “will” to vote Republican, but “actually” vote Democrat. But is the “will” changed? No. That is what I think is meant by “free will.” Our aspirations are unchanged even though circumstances conspire to frustrate them. In other words, even if our actions are coerced, our will is preserved. We will continue to seek to express that will at the next opportunity.

    This makes the meaning of “broken will” all the more poignant. Those subjected to torment with that goal sometimes report the sense of being “outside” of their bodies. They watch what is being done to them, but as if from a distance. This may be the kind of experience that caused philosophers (theologians among them) to recognize “free will.”

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  3. Hi Paul, I’m a compatibilist who has written before on the issue at EA, and agree it is not a mere verbal dispute (depending who one is arguing against). Not sure if you saw the thread for my earlier essay, but in discussion Dan Kaufman and Mark English convinced me that “Free Will” is a term/concept that we could/should get rid of as superfluous. That is not the same as becoming a free will skeptic or hard determinist, just that it isn’t necessary to get at what we are talking about and can create confusion. That still left me a compatibilist, but about something more specified that generic “free will”.

    Of course, since so many still use it, it probably isn’t going away. I think comparisons between that and thermodynamics is pretty useful, where both classical and molecular level accounts are valid yet very different treatments of the same phenomenon.

    Marvin’s argument is really well put together to “close debate” (for me), and I thought Brian’s discussion was interesting and in a way reflects the arguments Dan gave for not needing the “free” in the term “free will”. Our main concern is whether our will is getting actualized or not. So the only real important descriptor is when our will is being defeated. To say it is “free” when actualized is redundant.

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  4. The original illusion is the sense that causal necessity is a constraint, something that we need to be free from. The idea of predetermination makes us feel that something other than us is in control of our lives. But this is false, because what we will inevitably do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. And that is not a meaningful constraint.

    Determinism doesn’t actually do anything. Only real objects and forces can actually do things. Determinism simply asserts that the behavior of these objects and forces is rational, reliable, and thus theoretically predictable. By “rational” we mean that there is always an answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”, even if we never find the answer.

    Within our deterministic universe, we exist as (a) physical objects, (b) living organisms, and (c) intelligent species. As physical objects, our behavior is passive, and can be reliably predicted by the laws of physics. If you drop me and a bowling ball off the leaning tower of Pisa, we’ll both hit the ground at the same time.

    As living organisms, we are driven to survive, thrive, and reproduce. At this level we behave purposefully (but not intentionally) to satisfy our “biological will”. The laws of physics are no longer sufficient to predict our behavior. Now we need the life sciences, like biology, genetics, and physiology.

    As an intelligent species are able to behave deliberately. We can imagine possibilities, evaluate them, and choose the specific means to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Now we need psychology, sociology, and other social sciences to predict our behavior.

    Determinism still applies at each level, but the classes of causation have expanded. At the level of intelligent species, purpose and reasons are now causes of our behavior. Still, anyone with sufficient knowledge of how you think and feel about a given issue could reliably predict your choice.

    It is when we gain a deliberate will, one that is the result of a mental process of imagining, evaluating, and choosing, that the concept of will comes into play.

    Free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do. An unfree will is when someone else makes that choice for us, and imposes it upon us against our will.

    And that’s the free will we all grew up with. Johnny wants to go out to play. Mother says he must wear his winter coat or he cannot go out. Johnny doesn’t want to wear the coat because it interferes with his play. But he is compelled by his mother’s authority and power (where his meals come from) to wear the coat, against his will. When he’s older, he’ll get to make these decisions for himself, and deal with the consequences.

    This is not a complex metaphysical issue.


  5. Brian Balke: Others have taken up your exact point – “What is striking about reading the testimonies of those who have endured and survived the most brutal living conditions is how they often confirm and support Sartre’s arguments in relation to freedom”, The Sartrean radical freedom is “above” ordinary type freedoms. From Being and Nothingness, a souped-up ought-is like assertion: “(1) No factual state whatever it may be (the political and economic structure of society, the psychological ‘state’, etc.) is capable by itself of motivating [motiver] any act whatsoever. For an act is a projection of the for-itself toward what is not, and what is can in no way determine by itself what is not. (2) No factual state can determine consciousness to apprehend it as a négatité or as a lack. Better yet no factual state can determine consciousness to define it and to circumscribe it” All quoted by Baiasu [2015].

    In this view, the things that we commonsensically take as evidence of free will are perverse or paradoxical acts, either in situations where there are overwhelming causal forces for us to do X, and in fact we do Y; or in trivial situations where we could go either way, “I slightly prefer and habitually have tea, but will have coffee instead today” because I don’t want to be predictable.


  6. Well written article. The microchip thought experiment isn’t really all that revealing for reasons noted by other commenters here.

    The free will/ hard determinism debate is strictly undecidable – and has been throughout its long career in the many cultures that have tussled with it, whether phrased as relating to physics or some mind-body dualism; or as relating to the will of god vs human agency; or as implicated in some force or collection of forces (spiritual or material) that impel us to be a certain way and act a certain way yet also seem to demand choice from us, as in, say, astrology.

    The grounding assumption for free will is, “because I (feel, think, act) a certain way, the universe must be a certain way.” The grounding assumption for determinism is “because the universe is a certain way, I must (feel, think, act) a certain way.” These are strictly contrary. But no particular evidence can be produced to contradict either claim. Therefore, neither claim is falsifiable; no evidence in support of either claim will falsify the contrary claim. That’s because the ontology of “my thought/behavior” and that of “the universe” are categorically disjunct: whatever we can say of the one category will have very limited (if any) implication for the other category.

    Let’s consider this in terms of astrology, since astrology persuades its adherents precisely by blurring these distinctions. In astrology, the universe is such that stars somehow guide our fortunes. Technically, this makes this a determinism; the stars can’t control our fortunes without controlling our thoughts/behaviors. Yet we are to rely on this in order to – make choices in our thoughts and behaviors! Why? Because my thoughts and behaviors clearly implicate a certain universe in which the stars provide me opportunities to realize my fortune. But my fortune is already prophesied in the star charts, implying what my choices will be. And round and round it goes; the spin only stops wherever one wishes it to stop. My hopes are realized? The stars have proved fortuitous (determinism). My hopes are disappointed? I must have made a mistake in judgment somewhere (I have free will).

    What this suggests is that whenever confronting a strenuous debate on the topic, the question we should really start with is, what do the debaters actually want from a general acceptance of their particular position? In the Middle Ages, the function of the debate was quite clear; if divine foreknowledge was strictly deterministic, then exhortations to faith and acts were superfluous. Thus the Scholastics ended up with some amusing quibbles: grace was given freely to individuals, but one could accept it or not; we were free to believe and act well or sinfully, but god knew what choices we were going to make.

    So what is really at issue in the current scientistic/ dualist version of the debate? One has to look to the side of the proferred arguments. With the Medievals, one has to recognize that the problem really had to do with persuading the faithful to acceptance of Church injunctions on behavior. So what is it that the scientistic advocates of determinism really want from us? What are the strict dualist/libertarians asking of us? There are a number of particulars we can attend to, mostly having to do with responsibility; but I suggest that we begin with what is gotten by accepting the grounds of the kinds of responsibility with which we are offered. And the first thing we grant in accepting either position is: authority. If we side with the scientistic determinists, then we have accepted scientism as our principle source for explanations of our behavior. If we accept dualist/ libertarians’ arguments, we grant them leverage to address the universe as including immaterial, perhaps spiritual, components necessary for consciousness.

    It is at this point that compatibilism becomes a cheap and easy way to imply ‘a pox on both houses.’ Which is basically where I always end up in these discussions.

    i usually remark in such discussions that I am something of a ‘social determinist,’ in that I think that our characters are shaped by our social relationships, right from the get go, which then determines certain kinds of responses to social choice situations. And I used to love discussing this issue when young, and the problems of social determinism were much of interest then, in the wake of Marxism, Hegelianism, Phenomenology and Pragmatism, as well as research in sociology, anthropology, and psychology. But I now accept that in the current climate such discussions are of little interest. Many seem now intellectually invested in either discovering a god in the machine, or a machine-like god. I’m far more interested in how people relate to other people. Microchips need not apply.


  7. I don’t follow your logic here:

    (a) “The grounding assumption for free will is, “because I (feel, think, act) a certain way, the universe must be a certain way.”

    (b) “The grounding assumption for determinism is “because the universe is a certain way, I must (feel, think, act) a certain way.”

    (c) “These are strictly contrary.”

    If we assume that I am a part of the universe, then it would logically follow that (a) and (b) would both be true. I see no logical support for (c).

    Regarding, “In the Middle Ages, the function of the debate was quite clear; if divine foreknowledge was strictly deterministic, then exhortations to faith and acts were superfluous.”

    I believe their conclusion is would also be false. Predicting and causing are two different things. For example:

    If one person is initially uncertain whether to choose A or B, he will imagine the outcomes of the two choices, and then choose the one that seems best.

    His wife and you are in another city. She has intimate knowledge of how he thinks and feels. And if you ask her, she can tell you his choice before he makes it. Whether she makes that prediction or not will have no effect upon her husband’s choice.

    She is only the cause of the prediction. He is the cause of his choice.

    Being a compatibilist, I don’t say “a pox on both your houses”, here is what I actually say:

    1) The only way that determinism and free will can be incompatible is by defining “determinism” as “the absence of free will” or defining “free will” as “the absence of determinism”.

    2) The correct definition of free will is a decision that you make for yourself, free of coercion or other undue influence.

    3) The correct definition of determinism is a belief that objects and forces within our universe behave rationally, reliably, and thus theoretically predictably.

    4) There is no conflict between the fact of me making a decision for myself and the fact of my doing so in a predictable way.


  8. Marvin Edwards,
    “If we assume that I am a part of the universe, then it would logically follow that (a) and (b) would both be true.” Nothing regarding free will or determinism logically follows from “I am part of the universe.” That’s exactly the trap of the debate.

    The two positions are contrary because the first presumes that “all humans think/behave this way (thus the universe is entirely a certain way)’ (all X, not Y (Y=not X)); the second presumes that ‘all the universe is a certain way (thus humans must think/behave a certain way) (all Y, not X (X negates Y))’ * If the first is true, the thought/behavior of humans determines or reveals the fundamental nature of the universe. If the second is true, the nature of the universe determines/ reveals the nature of human thought or behavior. They cannot both be logically true (but they both can be logically false).

    But what evidence would falsify either claim? Some people vote, some people don’t vote – does this tell us anything about the nature of the space-time continuum? No; but does the space-time continuum tell us anything about whether people vote or not? No! One actually has to presume the conclusion in order to use these as evidence in a premise.

    That’s because the behavior of humans, in any interesting aspect worth discussing, is fundamentally of a different order than the functioning of the space-time continuum. Our responsibilities, our responses, our choices, our actions are all about our relationships with other people. This won’t change the curvature of light, nor will the curvature of light effect it.

    I never said that you as a compatibilist were calling a pox on both houses. I am saying that as a compatibilist (and social determinists are necessarily compatibilists, since otherwise there’s no way to account for decisions made with historic consequences), I call a pox on both houses, because the very ground of the free will/ determinism debate (in the absolute terms it frequently takes) is itself confused.

    “I believe their (Medievals) conclusion is would also be false. Predicting and causing are two different things.” Well, that’s where their quibbling ended up, but it doesn’t actually resolve anything (if it’s causal, it predicts; if it predicts it assumes some cause or set of causes). (And it’s worth noting that the actual debate was quite complicated, and engaged some of the finest logicians in Western history.) But it served their purposes.

    And that’s what I’m really trying to draw attention to, which you have simply evaded – such debates have pragmatic social functions that have nothing to do with the actual logic involved. You may be right, that my logic here is weak – but that doesn’t change the fact that what we’re really witnessing is a turf war between scientistic thinkers and dualist/ libertarian thinkers. Cui bono? one doesn’t need to be a post-modernist to bear that caveat in mind.
    _ _ _ _ _

    (* X = free will in a universe allowing free will; Y = deterministic universe not allowing free will – again, a contrary. My own position is that both are metaphysically irrelevant to what is interesting about human behavior, and, in a different way, with what is interesting about the universe.)


  9. But, within our deterministic universe, X IS Y. The trap is making a distinction where none exists. (a) Free will is me making a decision for myself. (b) Making a decision for myself is a natural event occurring within a deterministic universe. And if it happened, then it was inevitable that it would happen, which means it was inevitable that I would make that decision for myself of my own free will.

    There is no such thing as “freedom from causation”. It is an oxymoron, because without reliable cause and effect we cannot reliably cause any effect, and that means we’d have no freedom to do anything at all. All of our freedoms, including free will, REQUIRE a deterministic universe.

    “Freedom from causation” is literally “irrationality”, because it means that nothing that happens ever has any reliable cause. Reliable cause and effect means that when I pick an apple from an apple tree I can expect to find an apple in my hand. Unreliable cause and effect means that when I pick an apple from an apple tree I cannot predict what I will have in my hand. Perhaps a kitten, or a pair of slippers, or perhaps gravity will reverse.

    Therefore “free will” cannot logically mean “freedom from causation”. Since it cannot, it does not.

    Therefore it must mean something else. So, how do we humans actually use the term “free will”?

    We use it to distinguish between a decision we make for ourselves and a choice that is somehow forced upon us against our will.

    Johnny wants to go outside and play with his friends. But it’s cold outside and his mother insists he wear his winter coat. Johnny doesn’t want to wear the coat because it is big, heavy, and it interferes with his play. But he knows he must comply or he won’t be able to go out at all. So he puts on the coat, against his will.

    When John is a man, he’ll get to make those decisions for himself, and deal with the consequences of his choice. He checks the temperature, and knowing that he’ll be more comfortable wearing his winter coat, he decides to put it on, of his own free will.

    A more dramatic example would be when the Boston Marathon bombers hijacked a car and force the driver at gunpoint to assist in their escape. The driver was not charged with “aiding and abetting” because he was not acting of his own free will.

    There are also cases of mental illness or injury that causes a defect in a person’s ability to make a moral judgment. For example, the person may hallucinate that someone is trying to kill him and kill them in what he thinks is self-defense.

    In each case, the person is said to lack free will if he is coerced or subject to some undue influence that causes him to do something he would not ordinarily choose to do himself.

    And this is a meaningful and significant distinction to make. Therefore, free will cannot be tossed aside as some kind of illusion or some supposedly metaphysical condition.

    Ordinary free will makes this distinction without any supernatural claims or assertions against natural causation.

    Ordinary determinism asserts that the behavior of the objects in our universe follow rational, reliable, and theoretically predictable causation. Humans embrace this belief because it means that we might discover the “natural laws” of the behavior of these objects by observation and experimentation. And by that knowledge gain greater control of our environment, for example, by discovering ways to cure or prevent diseases.

    A corollary of reliable causation is causal inevitability. But this is not an inevitability that is “beyond our control”, but rather one that incorporates our choices and our actions in the overall scheme of causation.

    Thus, “X = free will in a universe allowing free will; Y = deterministic universe not allowing free will – again, a contrary”, is still false, because determinism does NOT mean that the universe does not allow free will. X and Y are exactly the same universe.


  10. Whether or not the two sides are talking about the same universe, or the same acts/behaviors in that universe, their differing *claims* are contrary; the X and the Y as I’ve presented them (which distills my understanding of those claims) cannot both be true.

    You seem to have misinterpreted my discussion to engage an argument I am not making; and you have again evaded my primary point concerning the motivations behind the disputants of the free will/determinism debate.

    I’m not interested in arguing the metaphysics involved, which I think are fundamentally misconceived.


  11. I totally agree with you about the metaphysics. Like you, I’m a pragmatist, and I understand the meaning of words according to how they are commonly used. There is an ordinary determinism: the belief in the reliable behavior of objects and forces within our universe, such that we might understand how things work, and use that knowledge to improve our control of the important events in our lives. That’s what science requires to make any progress. And there is an ordinary free will: the process of deciding for ourselves what we will do, free of coercion or other undue influence. These two ordinary definitions serve our practical needs and they have no conflict between them.

    It is the corollary of reliable cause and effect, that says everything that happens is always causally inevitable, which causes philosophers to stumble over themselves. They imagine this chain of causation to somehow bind them, preventing them from doing what they would otherwise choose to do. What they fail to realize is that this inevitability incorporates them, their agency, and their choices. They effectively choose what becomes inevitable.

    Inevitability is not a spectator sport. 🙂