Compatibilism: What’s That About?

Compatibilism asserts that free will remains a meaningful concept even within a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect. There is no conflict between the notion that my choice was causally necessary from any prior point in time (determinism) and the notion that it was me that actually did the choosing (free will).

The only way that determinism and free will become contradictory is by bad definitions. For example, if we define determinism as “the absence of free will”, or, if we define free will as “the absence of determinism”, then obviously they would be incompatible. So, let’s not do that.

Determinism asserts that every event is the reliable result of prior events. It derives this from the presumption that we live in a world of perfectly reliable cause and effect. Our choices, for example, are reliably caused by our choosing, and our choosing is reliably caused by our encountering a situation where we are faced with multiple options and must make a choice. The choosing operation is a deterministic event. It inputs two or more options, applies some criteria of comparative evaluation, and, based on that evaluation, outputs a single choice. The choice is usually in the form of an “I will X”, where X is what we have decided we will do. This chosen intent then motivates and directs our subsequent actions.

Free will is literally a freely chosen “I will”. The question is: What is it that our choice is expected to be “free of”? Operationally, free will is when we decide for ourselves what we will do while “free of coercion and undue influence“.

Coercion is when someone forces their will upon us by threatening harm. For example, the bank robber pointing a gun at the bank teller, saying “Fill this bag with money or I’ll shoot you.”

Undue influence includes things like a significant mental illness, one that distorts our view of reality with hallucinations or delusions, or that impairs the ability of the brain to reason, or that imposes upon us an irresistible impulse. Undue influence would also include things like hypnosis, or the influence of those exercising some control over us, such as between a parent and child, or a doctor and patient, or a commander and soldier. It can also include other forms of manipulation that are either too subtle or too strong to resist. These are all influences that can be reasonably said to remove our control of our choices.

The operational definition of free will is used when assessing someone’s moral or legal responsibility for their actions.

Note that free will is not “free from causal necessity” (reliable cause and effect). It is simply free from coercion and undue influence.

So, there is no contradiction between a choice being causally necessitated by past events, and, that the most meaningful and relevant of these past events is the person making the choice.

Therefore, determinism and free will are compatible notions.