Some Problems with Incompatibalism

by E. John Winner

Social determinism and compatibilism

I gave up worrying about the “free will vs. determinism” debate back around 1990.  At that time, I was studying Pragmatism, especially (in the present context) that of Dewey [1], George Herbert Mead [2], and the little known but nonetheless important Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior by Morse Peckham. [3]  I learned that there was another way of addressing the seeming predictability of how humans behave, as well as the human predilection for individuation and diversity, without engaging in metaphysical absolutes, the fundamental ground of traditional “free will vs. determinism” debates.

The basic presumption of Pragmatism is that human thought originates in quite natural needs and desires, realized in the actions we take to satisfy them.  This is true of the simplest and most mundane matters as well as for the highly complex and esoteric.  We build better plows in order to increase the amount of food we can eat.  We create gods because we want to feel loved.  The logic of our sciences and the longings expressed in our poetics both arise from our animal nature.

But while Pragmatism begins by recognizing our animal nature, its understanding of how our behaviors are formed takes the cast of what has been understood as a social determinism.  Social determinism is not a metaphysical position but a theory about how individuals develop within a social context.  There are several major versions of such theory, appearing in philosophies East and West, but basically, they rest on this understanding: education (which begins in the cradle), culture, and social psychology are what make us into the individuals we are.  We’re never free of social influence, and even one’s sense of individuality arises through such processes as peer pressure, social responses to verbal challenge, perceiving outcomes of decisions as positive or negative, etc.

The social determinism of Pragmatism is what in current variations of the “free will vs. determinism” debate referred to as “compatibilistic” – that is, compatible with some definition of ‘free will,’ in the sense that Pragmatism allows for both innovations in thought and behavior, as well as the possibility of changing one’s mind.  Education, culture, psychological processes, etc., are quite complex phenomena and require complex explanation.  But generally, we find ourselves enacting beliefs received from others, including those about ourselves.  However, for many, perhaps all, there come moments when deeply held beliefs, helping to provide orderly epistemic structure to our experiences, are suddenly presented with contradictions and conflicts that cannot be denied.  Through a multi-level play of responses thought or felt (or unconscious), our beliefs undergo a re-structuring, re-prioritizing, and sometimes even replacement with entirely new beliefs.   This in turn generates new combinations of old understandings and in the process, generates new responses to those understandings – new thoughts, new behaviors, and ultimately new understandings.

Having learned from Pragmatism, I lost interest in the “free will vs. determinism” debate.  Traditional versions of this debate, both ancient and recent, are essentially metaphysical in nature and don’t treat very well the social issues that go into enculturation or practical decision making, or changes of mind.  Most people experience the world as if they have free will, and it requires considerable effort and study to see this, not as “illusory,” as some people claim, but as habituation and enculturation: our actions become habitually perceived as voluntaristic, and this perception receives strong cultural re-enforcement.  This seems true for most cultures, and has functioned pretty well to balance the need of the individual (born of particularities of situation and experience) and the need of the community.  Generally, as people age, I think the tendency is to reach a compromise position, in order to come to terms with mistakes made in the past, many of which, in hindsight, we thought we controlled but did not.   (“Did I really want to go into accounting, or was that my parents talking from the back of my head?”)  But habituation and enculturation are amenable to change through personal response to personal experience, in the manner discussed before.  So, for me, the “free will vs. determinism” debate ultimately devolves into personal experience and the individual’s own learning curve, within a complex web of social influence.   Otherwise, as a metaphysical debate, it’s one of those endless conflicts that can never be resolved theoretically, as long as someone is willing to mount an argument on one side or the other.  No matter how one conceives the nature of the universe, whether as theistically centered or as simple clump of material stuff, one can plump “Human Being” into it as puppet or master.  That’s because, although we are physical entities bound by certain physical forces and we are biological entities, bound to certain biological necessities, we don’t actually have any clear relationship to the “nature of the universe,” other than that we’re here.  Metaphysics, in its more esoteric form, decides nothing for us.

A couple of years ago, however, I had to come to terms with the debate in different terms, with the rise among some scientists and thinkers of what I will here call incompatibilist determinism (ID).  This position holds that: (1) all science is reducible to physics; (2) physics being a deterministic science, any higher order system – such as life in general, and human life specifically – must be deterministic; and (3) such determinism is wholly incompatible with even the loosest definition of free will or otherwise non-deterministic behavior.   So far, just metaphysics.  But ID is also developing a political agenda.  A primary expression of this addresses how the justice system deals with criminal behavior (the argument being that, given that all behavior is predetermined, no justice ought to be dispensed on the basis of any presumption of personal responsibility). [4]  Secondly, advocates of ID have assumed that the knowledge that the sciences give us is complete enough to assure the correctness of their position.  This has problematic consequences: (a) those advocating “scientism,” the position that only the sciences can produce any knowledge of the world, tend to dismiss other ways of knowing, such as philosophic inquiry, and use ID as a weapon to implicate philosophy as a whole as some exhausted form of “de-theistic” theology; and (b) ID advocates have become rigidly, ideologically contemptuous of any form of compatibilistic thought. [5]  The presumed “positive” side of this strategy would realize scientists as achieving considerable political influence well beyond their professional fields of inquiry.  But is ID really secure enough to warrant such hubris?

Incompatibilism incompatible with itself?

Let’s consider some of the problems with the ID position, especially as it presents itself as an ideological and political argument.

ID advocates speak of their position as though it were well grounded in scientific theory. But this is simply not the case!  To date, no science has given us an adequate description of the physical processes leading to a decision to drive a car to work or take a bus instead.  There is no modeling, of which I am aware, that depicts which electro-chemical process in the brain triggers such decisions, let alone those having lasting impact, such as what college to attend or whom to marry.  ID advocates seem to think this a trivial matter, but it’s not.  Without a fairly precise description of the process, all we have is really an argument by analogy: as electrons interact, so do genes interact, so do neurons interact, so do humans interact.  One is reminded of similar reasoning from the Middle Ages: “as the stars revolve around the earth, so do the people revolve around their king.”  It is true that electrons, genes, neurons, and people are all made of physical stuff, but the complexities in our social interactions cannot be adequately reduced to the functioning of electrons, without considerably speculative extrapolation. [6]

  1. Lacking such a precise description of the process, ID has no means of accounting for changes in the “programming” they claim we’re running. That is, it has no account for how we change our minds, or how we imagine and develop new ideas, or how reason can convince us or rhetoric persuade us.  When pressed on this matter, I see ID advocates resort again and again to what are social determinist arguments – socialization, response to the environment, etc.  The problem is that all forms of social determinism are compatibilistic.  They have to be, if only in order to account for education, and the manner in which education shows divergent results in individuals educated in the same way.  Furthermore, social determinism is a social theory with no metaphysical implications and thus, makes no claim on the nature of the universe. Consequently, ID advocates have to hold that social determinism is incomplete, according to their schema, yet resort to it to fill in gaps of their own arguments.

2. The political agenda of ID, primarily identifiable in its effort to reform the justice system, is lacking any systemization or political strategy. A couple years ago, biologist Anthony Cashmore made an argument – in a science journal (cited endnote 4) – that if biologists and other public intellectuals would just accept ID, they could influence the justice system to abandon old “free will” based notions of responsibility and guilt.  Cashmore seems to be relying on the Court’s reliance on expert testimony; if biologists and psychiatrists, etc., can all get on the same page, then presumably judges will be so impressed that they will be defining their sentencing of convicted criminals without resort to guilt (in the sense of blame) or personal responsibility.  This is a simplistic reading of how laws are established and how they are enforced. [7]  At one point Cashmore remarks, revealing the larger scope of his project, “the role of the jury would be to simply determine whether or not the defendant was guilty of committing the crime; the mental state of the defendant would play no part in this decision.”  Anyone who thinks that motivation is not going to play a role in the construction of the case by opposing lawyers and in the minds of the jury is fantasizing.  Such a reconstruction of the process would effectively disempower the defense as much as the prosecution.  A jury would not even be necessary.   But an Amendment to the Constitution would be.

3.  Perhaps Cashmore believes that an ideologically unified body of scientists can go to legislatures and convince politicians to accept such a radically new perspective.  In which case, ought he not also accept that these scientists must also go before the public and convince voters to elect legislators favorable to their cause?  Or perhaps we need a whole new form of government, operated by an elite, consisting of scientists?  If any of these programs are the one Cashmore imagines, he won’t say.  And while there are judges who use their sentencing to punish criminals, in fact the laws that guide sentences have long been grounded in ideas concerning rehabilitation and the removal from society of imminent threats.  Obviously the system doesn’t work very well, but it’s hard to see how the system suggested by Cashmore would work any better, since the problems with our criminal justice system derive from a number of difficult social problems, such as bureaucratic intransigence, unresolved ethnic tensions, and economics, rather than any theory of free will or personal responsibility.

  1. But regarding Cashmore’s argument against the notion of personal responsibility, I felt something was askew. What, precisely, remained unclear to me, until I read Andrew Eshleman’s article on “Moral Responsibility” for the Stanford Encyclopedia [8], which includes discussion of P. F. Strawson’s attempt to reconcile determinism and libertarianism. [9]  What Strawson says is that our understanding of moral responsibility isn’t derived from any notion of metaphysical free agency, but expresses the social connectivity of our human natures.  That’s putting it somewhat simply, but let me take the general idea further.  The kind of ethical responsibility we use to underwrite our laws and our general sense of personal behavior really have to do with our community’s determination of whether individuals as actors belong to the community in a proper way.  Punishments and rewards – both concerning criminals, but also those we distribute (and receive) in any social interaction – are simply part and parcel of our living as a certain kind of social animal.  If this is true, social determinism still has relevance as a guide to understanding, but ID hasn’t.  Because it doesn’t matter whether ID is true or false, the behaviors will continue pretty much as they do today, with (hopefully) progressive modification achieved, not just through reasoning, but through improving the sense of community such behaviors express.
  1. Here might be a good place to note the historical problem ID has: as a deterministic enterprise to humanize certain aspects of our culture, it trails behind a number of social deterministic efforts that have been ongoing for decades. In the context, consider the long struggle against capital punishment.  When this struggle was most successful, it was partly because of social deterministic arguments.  That it hasn’t been so successful lately might be partly because the ‘will-to-punish’ is too strong among the electorate right now.  It’s hard to see, then, how switching the debate to one of adopting ID will prove more effective.  Social deterministic based political theories have had limited success in democratic societies, where people take pride in their sense of agency while voting.  So how would ID prove more persuasive?  If your position is that the voter is determined bio-chemically to vote in a given fashion, why shouldn’t they “go along with the programming?”  And the greatest political success stories of any social determinist theory have been the Communist revolutions – most of which were undertaken by the impoverished, not because they saw themselves as determined to struggle for the proletariat, but because they were hungry and abused beyond tolerance.  As a social theory, social determinism is best used as a tool of understanding; in politics, only to remind us that our past has made us who we are.

I think that the political agenda of ID advocates gets them into serious trouble.  The notion that science is the purification of reason; that consequently, scientists are capable of the most reasonable explanations and the most reasonable projects for human improvement; that this can produce some sort of “great awakening,” at least among the educated, leading to massive social reform – How far do we take this, before absurdities and utopianism become palpable?  The Communist hope of deriving political revolution out of a philosophical social theory ended in disaster.  Fortunately, the notion of deriving major political reform out of a scientistic metaphysics doesn’t even get off the ground.   But insisting on ideological purity and utopian achievements actually fragments political movements and dampens the spirit of their participants. It is asking too much and promising more than can be delivered. Persuasion often takes a long time, and people respond better to carrots than sticks.  Thus, ID advocates’ ideological demands may be getting in the way of accomplishing the humane social goals they say they wish to achieve.

But it has gained attention and influence among certain scientists, who otherwise would pass publicly unnoticed were their writing confined to papers in their professional fields.  I’m not suggesting that scientists should not involve themselves as intellectuals in the public sphere.  But in writing as a public intellectual, while one certainly ought to engage in advocacy of one’s political positions, one should beware of alienating readers by advocating a rigid ideological agenda – especially one so obviously self-serving as that discussed here.


  1. See, for instance, John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct,
  1. See: Anthony Cashmore, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system,”

Although Cashmore claims a biological determinism, he is careful to avoid genetics (genetic determinism has a bad track record).  Instead, his argument hinges on the ID claim that biology is deterministic because it reduces to physics.  Cashmore tries to pretend to some philosophic sophistication; but the pretense is belied by his attempt to adjudicate between Descartes and Hume, as if philosophy just stopped by the mid 18th century.  Yet although he is presenting his position as science in a scientific forum, in fact he is engaging in ontology, metaphysics, political philosophy and philosophy of law, without any credentials for any work in these areas, and with the scantiest reference to their literatures.

  1. See, for instance, Jerry Coyne, “Another unconvincing redefinition of free will” (and pay attention to the comments!) In response to argument by Michael Gazzaniga that the ‘social contract’ leads us to be respectful of social opinion of our actions (thus facilitating a change of mind), Coyne writes: “But even diehard incompatibilists like myself, and all scientists, agree that interaction with the environment, and that includes other people, can modify the brain and hence one’s behavior. That’s not news!”  Use of the word ‘brain’ (rather than, say, ‘mind’), obscures the fact that this is a social determinist position, not ID (and all social determinist positions are compatibilist).  What would be news is for Coyne to produce an adequate description, with theoretical explanation, of precisely how social interaction ‘modifies the brain.’  I suppose Coyne thinks the neurosciences have done this; they have not.

Coyne’s post ends on a political demand:  “And let me say this one more time: philosophers who are truly concerned with changing society based on reason wouldn’t be engaged in compatibilism, they’d be engaged in working out the consequences of determinism, especially its implications for how we reward and punish people.”  Why would we want to do that?  Where is the compassion and humanitarian concern, that such a suggestion clearly depends on, coming from?  Recourse to an inherited feeling of sympathy or ‘moral impulse’ in our genetic make-up won’t do.  The efforts of scientists to find a strictly biological imperative for ethical behavior continually collapse under the sheer number of variation in behaviors, both in groups and individuals.  The problem is in reductively assuming that a single embedded motivator can explain social behavior.

  1. Theory reductionism – and ID depends upon it – has quite a number of problems. See discussion of the topic at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, . Suffice to say, that debate is ongoing.
  1. For consideration of how problematic is the relationship between the courts and scientific expertise, see, for instance: Susan Haack, Defending Science – within Reason, Prometheus, 2003; Chapter 9 “Entangled in the Bramble Bush: science and the Law.”
  1. Strawson, P. F., 1962. “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 1–25 (


  1. Hi Labnut, fair enough, I guess, but…

    “The ordinary person will intuitively believe in free will while believing in the inevitability of the laws of nature, believing that two contradictory ideas are compatible with each other. Such a person is a compatibilist. But this ordinary, everyday compatibilism is a belief and not an explanation… You will see that I listed some forms of belief lacking explanation, that of myself, Chalmers, materialists and ordinary people…”

    Except I *am* a compatibilist and don’t hold what you just said. And neither do most compatibilists I know. So…

    “You are plainly attributing something to me that I did not say. Which is why it is a good idea to quote your interlocutor’s words when you wish to object to a statement he makes. It helps to avoid the kind of mistake you made…”

    I was reacting to a misattribution by you regarding emergent properties and compatibilism. Though I guess I don’t know how you define strong emergence from emergence, or if you require that to be part of compatibilism?

    As for an explanation, I’m not sure how hard emergence is to understand. At a certain level of complexity of a system, parts of a system can be treated as acting holistically (as entities themselves) which interact according to a different set of rules than those of the original, lower level system. A common example is the difference between classical and statistical thermodynamics. There is no extra explanation” or “mechanisms” needed. When consistent patterns emerge they can be considered holistically.

    Same for compatibilism. There are no extra explanations or mechanisms needed to “join” or “bridge” free will (agency) with causation. But I and Marvin have already described it in this and prior threads (going back to So’s recent essay).

    In any case, sorry for attributing something incorrectly to your statements/position.