Compatibilism Defined

Compatibilism holds that (a) deterministic inevitability is a fact, and that it is also a fact that (b) we freely choose for ourselves what we will do next (free will).

Determinism appears to be a true fact. Science presumes that it is possible to discover the causes of events. By understanding the causes, it may predict events (tomorrow’s weather), cause events (electric lights), prevent events (vacination against diseases), and otherwise give us better control over our lives in the real world.

Determinism asserts the reliability of causes and their effects. We sometimes refer to this reliably consistent behavior as the “physical laws” of the universe, such as the “law of gravity”.

If the character of the real world is deterministic, then I can pick an apple from the tree and expect to find an apple in my hand. But suppose the world were not deterministic, but characterized by indeterminacy. If I pick an apple I might find a cat in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or the apple may simply go “poof!” and disappear. Everyone loves a magic show, but no one wants to live in a world of indeterminacy. (Actually, life would be quite impossible without reliable cause and effect).

We observe in the real world that specific causes reliably result in specific effects. Therefore we presume determinism is a characteristic of the real world.

Determinism appears to be a true fact.

Free will aso appears to be a true fact.

Free will is a characteristic of living organisms with sufficient neurological evolution to think, imagine, plan, evaluate, and choose. Given a problem, like how to get across a stream, a person can choose to change their behavior (step carefully from rock to rock) or change the environment (build a bridge across the stream) or any other practical solution that the person can imagine and has the skills to implement.

In the same way, a hungry person could choose to make a sandwich (right) or steal a sandwich (wrong). Adults teach children that some choices are appropriate (good) and some are inappropriate (bad). Good behavior is praised and bad behavior is censored. By praise and blame we hope to deterministically influence a child’s future choices, that is, to cause the child to choose the better behavior.

This mental process of choosing for yourself what you will do is called “free will”. Your choice is your “will” at that moment. And if you chose it for yourself, rather than having it forced upon you against your will by someone else, then it is your own will acting freely. Thus “free will”.

Free will appears to be a fact of reality. It is a phenomena that we have all objectively witnessed occuring every day in the real world. We experience it in ourselves. Others confirm that they have the same experience. But it is not merely subjective. We can make a list of our options on paper, noting the pros and cons of each. We can enlist the assistance of a group, such as our local Parent Teacher Association, consider a problem and take a vote on which solution to choose.

Determinism is an objectively observed characteristic of the real world.

Free will is an objectively observed phenomenon occurring in the real world.

Both are factually true. Neither can logically exclude or contradict the truth of the other.

Therefore: Any supposed conflict between these two facts can only be an illusion.

How does such an illusion arise? It happens when we attempt to view ourselves as somehow separate from causality (an impossible condition). The paradox proposes (falsely) that if everything is causally inevitable, then it is this “inevitability” that is in the driver’s seat, and “we” are only passengers on the bus, with no control over where it goes.

That is not the real world. That is someone’s nightmare.

People who become trapped by this lie fall into two groups. One group grabs hold to free will and insists determinism is false (“anti-causal free willers”). The other group grabs hold to causality and insists that free will is false (“anti-choice determinists”). Both positions are irrational.

Those of us who can see through the silly paradox are called “compatibilists”.

Causation is not separate from us. It is “everywhere” and “in everything” that happens. We are right there in the middle of causation, choosing for ourselves what becomes inevitable and what remains mere possibility. And causation is right there in the middle of us, in our beating heart and in our functioning brain where choosing happens.

“Inevitability” cannot do anything. All it can do is sit and wait for us to act. If someone throws us into a swimming pool and we just sit and wait to see what will inevitably happen, then our choice to sit and wait will be the cause of our drowning. Inevitability caused nothing. It was our irrational choice to wait upon inevitability that caused us to drown.

We are in fact in the driver’s seat in every practical and meaningful way. The fact that we steer left or right for our own reasons, and that our reasons are causes, does not take the steering wheel from our hands. That’s still us in there, choosing for ourselves what we think or feel is the best way to go.

2 thoughts on “Compatibilism Defined

  1. Hi. This was the first post by you that I read till the end. I intend to finish reading all relevant posts by tomorrow! Coming to the point –

    “But suppose the world were not deterministic, but characterized by indeterminacy. If I pick an apple I might find a cat in my hand, or a pair of slippers, or the apple may simply go “poof!” and disappear.”

    I’ve been playing with this particular characterization of the concept of indeterminism since morning. A few questions that came to my mind:
    1. Why look at indeterminism at macro levels when it has been clear from the begining that indeterministic events only occur microscopically (like the random gene mutation), and at sub-atomic levels (Quantum mechanics)?
    2. Now if someone complains that a microscopic or sub-atomic ‘random’/indeterministic event will have no effect, whatsoever, at macroscopic levels, then I shall ask how? IMO doesn’t it tend to break the cause-and-effect chain, a chain that had begun right after the Big Bang – the first cause? A simple illustration of the point – Right after the Big Bang, the forces of the universe worked at sub-atomic and quantum levels for quite some time. Even during the early stages of our evolution, most genetic mutations were totally random in their character. Didn’t these random events get amplified over time? The plethora of different species that you see today – most of it was a product of random (birth) and natural selection (survival)! For a universe to remain purely determinitic in itself, shouldn’t every effect have a necessary and sufficient antecedent cause? If yes, then how can our universe be declared deterministic?


  2. Hi Rishhu,

    My approach is to presume perfectly reliable cause and effect from top to bottom, because if I can find meaningful free will within perfect determinism, then that should satisfy the issue and permanently resolve the paradox.

    Another problem with indeterminism is that it reduces rather than enhances our freedom. To the extent that cause and effect are reliable, we may learn how things work, and with that knowledge predict and even control certain events. For example, by knowing the virus that causes polio we have developed vaccines to immunize our children against this crippling disease. But if the polio virus were randomly mutating each year, like the flu virus, then it would be harder to control and impossible to eliminate. So, randomness is not our friend.

    At the macro level, what we consider “random” is often a simple case of unpredictability rather than lack of reliable causation. We flip a coin to see who goes first, presuming it will land heads up half the time and tails up the other half, but no one knows which. But then we might build a machine that flips the coin with such precision that it always will land heads up. After all, a knife thrower must control the rotations of the thrown knife to assure the point, rather than the hilt, hits the target. So, it may be the case that perfect causal determinism is the underlying nature of reality, and random and chaotic events are only problems of predictability rather than problems of reliable causation.

    And, that may eventually turn out to be the case also at the quantum level, where things are so small that we can’t view them except through instruments that are too large and clumsy (relatively speaking) to observe what is happening without affecting what is being observed.

    We know that there will only be one future, because we only have one past to put it in. 🙂

    The question is how will this future come about. Will it come about solely through causes that preceded us, or will it come about through causes that include us and our choices? Obviously, any event in which we are part of the causal chain cannot come into existence without us. There is no going around us. There is no bypassing us.

    We will be actively choosing what happens next. And we will be doing so for our own purpose and our own reasons. And that’s what we call free will.


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