Compatibilism FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about Compatibilism

Q: “How can it be true that I freely choose to do something if my choice is inevitable?”

A: Let’s take a moment to look at what goes on in deliberate choosing.

If it is a new and serious question, then you are uncertain at the outset which option you will choose. You can honestly say at the beginning, “I may end up choosing A or I may end of choosing B. I just don’t know yet which it will be.”

Next you begin thinking about the alternatives. You imagine the results if you choose A and compare them to the results you expect if you choose B. As you think things over you may consider your feelings as well as your reasons, and perhaps your values and beliefs come into play, or other things you’ve learned over the years from personal experience or from others.

Finally, you choose the option that you feel will produce the best result. And, if no one forced that choice upon you against your will, then the decision was freely made by you.

Afterward, you might reflect upon the reasons why you made that choice. And if you feel strongly that it was the right choice, then you may realize that, given the reasons that you considered, and given the person that you are, your choice was inevitable.

The fact that the decision was inevitable only means that it truly reflected you, your thinking, your reasons and feelings, your beliefs and values, and other things that are part of who you are. And who you were at that moment is who actually made the choice.

At the beginning, as far as you could see, you were free to choose either option. But as you thought about your options and the possible results of both choices, only one choice became clearly inevitable.

The choice was made freely by you, for your own self, and was also the inevitable result of who you were at the moment of choosing. Both free will and inevitability were clearly present in the same decision.

Q: “But wasn’t my choice also caused?”
A: Of course. But all of the reasons for the choice were your own reasons. The feelings that came into play were your own feelings. The beliefs and values guiding your choice were your own beliefs and values. Even the advice given to you by others was screened by you, and either accepted as your own or rejected as foreign to youself. All of these influences had to be adopted by you and become your own before they could influence your choice.

Q: “Didn’t these prior influences force me to make this choice?”
A: No. They have no power at all except what you allow them to have. They are impotent to cause anything by themselves. The only force in play is the force of your own will and the physical energy you expend to bring about your intended effect. You are the final responsible cause of your chosen actions.

Q: “How can it be under my control if it was inevitable?”
A: Universal deterministic inevitability is certainly a fact. But it is an especially useless fact. It has no relevant implications to human beings in the real world. All we can do is acknowledge it and then ignore it. Many otherwise intelligent minds have been led down a rabbit hole of irrationality trying to draw meaningful implications from universal inevitability. For example:

(1) Some mistakenly believe that “inevitability” always implies “beyond our control”. But that presumption is false. For determinism to be true, it must acknowledge and include ALL of the relevant causes of an event. And sometimes the final relevant cause is us making a decision and acting upon it. Inevitability itself causes nothing. It is descriptive, not causative. It would be irrational to sit and wait to see what will inevitably happen when we are in a position to change the outcome by choosing to act. And in any literal “sink or swim” situation, we had best grab hold of our own destiny and start swimming.

(2) Some mistakenly believe that “inevitability” absolves us of any responsibility for our actions. But that too is irrational. To “hold responsible” means to identify where to apply correction. If an automobile goes through a stoplight at night and kills a pedestrian, how do we prevent that from happening again? We look for the causes that were responsible for the accident. If we can correct those conditions then we can avoid or at least reduce future accidents. Suppose the stoplight was broken. Then we’d fix the stoplight and perhaps install a monitoring system that reports when it is out of order.

Suppose the driver was drunk. Then we’d arrest the driver, and apply a penalty serious enough to correct his future behavior. That’s what it means to “hold responsible”, “hold accountable”, “blame”, etc. It simply means to identify the point where correction needs to be applied to prevent future harm. We assume that at some point the driver made the conscious decision, of his own free will, to drink before driving. We want to give him something new to think about before making that decision again.

(3) If someone tells me that a choice I have to make will turn out to be inevitable, he has told me nothing useful unless he can also tell me what that choice will be! And I would not believe him until I could confirm that by actually going through my deliberations and making my choice. The fact of inevitability is useless.

(4) I cannot take inevitability into account in any useful way during my deliberation. If option A appears to be inevitable, so I choose option B for spite, then option B was actually inevitable. It becomes a pointless loop.

The fact of inevitability is totally useless. All attempts to draw useful implications from it lead nowhere.

Q: “In what sense was my choice free?”
A: It was free if it was authentically your own choice. If someone forced you to act against your will, then you had no free choice. But as long as the choice satisfied your own reasons and feelings, your own beliefs and values, and resulted from your own deliberation, it is a choice of your own free will.

Q: “In what sense was my choice not free?”
A: Some people make irrational claims upon free will. For example, (1) It would be irrational to expect your will to be free from yourself, because then it would no longer be your own will. And (2) it would be irrational to expect it to be free from the limitations imposed by the real world, because then it would be a dream, and not a will but only a wish. And (3) it would be irrational to expect it to be free from causation, because without causation the will cannot implement its choice, and the will becomes meaningless and irrelevant. So demanding that free will must be a will free from oneself, or free from reality, or free from causation is placing an irrational requirement that cannot possibly be met. It is sufficient that one’s will is free to choose for oneself without being subjugated to the will of someone else.

Q: “What about the neuroscience experiments suggesting a significant role for the unconscious mind?”

A: They are fine so long as they do not overstate their case. Take Benjamin Libet’s study, “Do We Have Free Will?” In the study he asks his subjects to squeeze their hands into a fist 40 times randomly while he monitors their pre-conscious activity with scalp electrodes, asks them to self-report when they feel a squeeze coming on, and taps into their muscle with an EMG to see when the muscle actually squeezes.

His findings were interesting. There was pre-conscious activity prior to the subject’s awareness that they had decided to clench. The subject was also able to consciously cancel the action after the time of awareness and before signaling the muscle. Libet’s question, and ours, is “What implication does this have on the concept of free will?”

Very little in my opinion. It was not a functional analysis of someone actually deliberating a serious decision.

We know that deliberate decisions usually involve both conscious and unconscious mental activity. We bring up memories, we talk things over with ourselves, we use imagination to evaluate outcomes, etc. We can even employ pencil and paper to make lists of pros and cons of each option. We can enlist the aid of others as we do at a local PTA meeting discussing school problems and voting on solutions. So clearly deliberate choosing is not happening unconsciously.

The key thing from neuroscience is that we know where our mental processes take place — in our brain and extended neurological system. And these exist in physical reality exercising functions occurring in a neuro-electrical system. So anyone you hear calling this process an “illusion” is clearly mistaken. You can walk through an illusion. You cannot walk through a physical brain.

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