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.

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