Nov 172014


Some compatibilists like to define free will as something entirely different than the definition I’ve supplied here: FREE WILL.

Notice I have both a present tense version:

“The ability to choose between more than one viable option or action, in which that choice was up to the chooser.”

and a past tense version:

“The ability to have, of one’s own accord, chosen otherwise than they did.”

They are really the same definition in different forms. Notice that in both versions there is a qualifier, that being “up to the chooser” or “of one’s own accord”. These parts basically mean the same thing, and they are only tacked on to the definitions to address “indeterminism” (meaning if some events are acausal) and how they could never be “up to the chooser” or “of one’s own accord”. They’d just happen regardless of “us”. Most compatibilist agree with this, but they say that free will isn’t incompatible with determinism. Therefore, we can truncate my definition and take out these qualifiers under the assumption that all events are causal (at least when addressing the compatibilist). If we were to address the libertarian (who thinks free will is compatible with indeterminism), such qualifiers are important.

For this article I want to address the past tense definition, minus the qualifier, as it’s more common to hear it in this form and more relevant to the study I’m about to address. In other words, just simplify my definition down to:

“The ability to have chosen otherwise than they did.” (in a deterministic universe)

Most philosophical compatibilist (such as Dennett) would agree that people don’t have this ability, but they would also say this is not how we should be defining free will. Rather, we should define it in some way that is compatible with a deterministic universe. For example, the ability to do what one desires to do (perhaps ignoring the fact that what one desires is a causal happening as well). Some go on to say that this is the way most people think about free will, and this is the crux of the semantic disagreement between the compatibilist and the hard incompatibilist such as myself.

I say that most people think that they and others could have chosen otherwise – at least in some circumstances. That all of the options before them are often “viable” options. And it’s this notion that is problematic.

But people such as Daniel Dennett might site the study by Nahmias et all titled “Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility” as evidence that a majority of people have compatibilist ideas about free will, as he did with Sam Harris.  And this may be the case in the sense that these people still think they have free will even if every event is causal. What is more important is that the definition of free will that Dennett (and the likes of most philosophical compatibilists) use are nothing like the compatibilist notions of the people in the study – so to equate the two is, to say the least, faulty (if not dishonest). What’s more, the definition I’m using does correlate with the ability people intuitively feel they possess.

First, what is “compatibilism”? It’s the idea that free will is “compatible” with a deterministic universe (again placing the possibility of an indeterministic universe to the side). So all it takes is for a person to think, even if the universe is entirely causal, that free will is still possible, and boom, they can be officially labeled a “compatibilist”. This can allow people like Dennett to claim that most people are compatibilists, disregarding that such doesn’t make their free will belief actually compatible with determinism, as I’ll go on to explain.

In other words, though most may think free will is compatible with determinism, they don’t necessarily disagree with the definition of free will that is incompatible with free will. Let me say this again, just because they think that free will is compatible with determinism, does not mean they believe in a compatible definition of free will. It’s important not to conflate these two things (as Dennett does in his response to Sam Harris for example).

So whether or not these people are “compatibilists” is irrelevant to the fact that the free will ability they believe they posses is actually incompatible with determinism.

If we were to look at the “Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility study, we’d notice some weird things. Let’s take a quick look at a scenario in the study. People were asked to read the below:

Scenario: Imagine that in the next century we discover all the laws of nature, and we build a supercomputer which can deduce from these laws of nature and from the current state of everything in the world exactly what will be happening in the world at any future time. It can look at everything about the way the world is and predict everything about how it will be with 100% accuracy. Suppose that such a supercomputer existed, and it looks at the state of the universe at a certain time on March 25, 2150 AD, 20 years before Jeremy Hall is born. The computer then deduces from this information and the laws of nature that Jeremy will definitely rob Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195. As always, the supercomputer’s prediction is correct; Jeremy robs Fidelity Bank at 6:00 pm on January 26, 2195.

They were then asked to suspend belief about whether or not such could actually take place and were asked:

Regardless of how you answered question 1, imagine such a supercomputer actually did exist and actually could predict the future, including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction):

Do you think that, when Jeremy robs the bank, he acts of his own free will?

A whopping 76% said that Jeremy did rob the bank of his own free will. This, indeed, is compatibilistic. They accept (with the suspending of judgement) the deterministic scenario, and at the same time think that Jeremy has free will in that deterministic universe. But is it the compatibilism that philosophers such as Dennett propose? Lets look at another question of the study which was used to assess whether the people in the study thought Jeremy could have “chosen otherwise”.

In these cases, participants were asked—again, imagining the scenario were actual—whether or not Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank (case 6), whether he could have chosen not to save the child (case 7), or whether he could have chosen not to go jogging (case 8).

In the blameworthy variation, participants’ judgments of Jeremy’s ability to choose otherwise (ACO) did in fact track the judgments of free will and responsibility we collected, with 67% responding that Jeremy could have chosen not to rob the bank. However, in the praiseworthy case, judgments of ACO were significantly different from judgments of his free will and responsibility: Whereas a large majority of participants had judged that Jeremy is free and responsible for saving the child, a majority (62%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to save the child?’’ Finally, in the morally neutral case, judgments of ACO were also significantly different from judgments of free will—again, whereas a large majority had judged that Jeremy goes jogging of his own free will, a majority (57%) answered ‘‘no’’ to the question: ‘‘Do you think he could have chosen not to go jogging?’’

So what does this say? It says that people’s intuitions about whether or not someone can do otherwise is contingent upon whether they thought the act morally problematic. 67% thought that an “otherwise” can  happen in a deterministic universe (for the bank robbery), regardless if some situations it cannot.

But let’s move on to another scenario given in the study and assess the same “otherwise” notion:

Scenario. Imagine there is a world where the beliefs and values of every person are caused completely by the combination of one’s genes and one’s environment. For instance, one day in this world, two identical twins, named Fred and Barney, are born to a mother who puts them up for adoption. Fred is adopted by the Jerksons and Barney is adopted by the Kindersons. In Fred’s case, his genes and his upbringing by the selfish Jerkson family have caused him to value money above all else and to believe it is OK to acquire money however you can. In Barney’s case, his (identical) genes and his upbringing by the kindly Kinderson family have caused him to value honesty above all else and to believe one should always respect others’ property. Both Fred and Barney are intelligent individuals who are capable of deliberating about what they do. 

One day Fred and Barney each happen to find a wallet containing $1000 and the identification of the owner (neither man knows the owner). Each man is sure there is nobody else around. After deliberation, Fred Jerkson, because of his beliefs and values, keeps the money. After deliberation, Barney Kinderson, because of his beliefs and values, returns the wallet to its owner. 

Given that, in this world, one’s genes and environment completely cause one’s beliefs and values, it is true that if Fred had been adopted by the Kindersons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to return the wallet; and if Barney had been adopted by the Jerksons, he would have had the beliefs and values that would have caused him to keep the wallet.

In this scenario 76% said that Fred kept the wallet and Barney returned the wallet of their own free will. This time 76% also said that both Fred and Barney could have done otherwise. Unlike what those doing this study assess about it, this actually says that yes, the hard determinist/incompatibilst is actually using the appropriate free will definition, and the philosophical compatibilist is not. The definition that the hard determinist/incompatibilist is using is the definition that most people intuitively feel they and others possess.

Which brings me to want to address this part of the study:

Nonetheless, we think that our results place the burden of proof on the shoulders of incompatibilists. Incompatibilists are especially apt to cite folk intuitions in support of their view, in part because their conception of free will is more metaphysically demanding and therefore requires extra intuitive support to offset the strength of their claims. Put simply: if our ordinary intuitions do not demand indeterminism, then why should our theories? If incompatibilists claim that compatibilism is a ‘‘wretched subterfuge,’’ a radical revision of commonsense beliefs, then we recommend that some empirical evidence should be offered to back up this claim.

To be clear, the people who wrote this study seem to be under the assumption that incompatibilists in general (rather than certain libertarians such as Kane) think that people hold to incompatibilistic ideas about free will. This is not, in any way, the case. Rather, they could (and most likely do) hold compatibilistic notions that (the incompatibilist is saying) are in actuality incompatible with determinism whether they happen to believe so or not. The point is, their intuitions about free will is that people could have done otherwise in a deterministic universe…and it’s these intuitions that the hard determinist / hard incompatibilist takes issue with. And such a belief is not any common philosophical compatibilist definition.

When compatibilists move to a definition that says absolutely nothing about the ability to have done otherwise, they are contriving a definition that avoids the intuitive feelings that most people think they and others possess (as these studies show). They are side-stepping an extremely important philosophical understanding, that being what it means that people could not have done otherwise.

I have more to say on this, but this will do for now.

Nahmias, E., S. Morris, T. Nadelhoffer, and J. turner. 2006. Surveying freedom: Folk intuitions about free will and moral responsibility.Philosohical Psychology 18:561-584.

The following two tabs change content below.

'Trick Slattery

'Trick Slattery is the author of Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind. He's an author, philosopher, artist, content creator, and entrepreneur. He has loved and immersed himself in philosophy since he was teenager. It is his first and strongest passion. Throughout the years he has built a philosophy based on analytic logic and critical thinking. Some of the topics he is most interested in are of a controversial variety, but his passion for the topics and their importance drives him to want to express these ideas to others. His other passions include pen and ink line art and digital artwork.

Latest posts by 'Trick Slattery (see all)

  13 Responses to “Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined)”

Comments (13)
  1. This is a great post, so kudos for that. How ya been bud?

    Anyway, I will just ‘free form’ (not free of course *rolls eyes) a certain thought I had while reading this;

    Regarding the ability to choose differently. The very act of thinking or calculating or ‘weighing options’, the act of deciding what it is you want to do or should do or want to do in relation to what you should want to do and in relation to what you could do and in relation to what you could want to do in relation to a potential infinity of why’s, is a ‘pseudo’ reality in which one is carrying out the potential causal reality in their heads. So when I mentioned prior my favored number example, when I kept stating I am aware the numbers exist, or am aware of all the fruit I am aware of existing and have my knowledge of associations regarding them, when I am making a decision about choosing something, in my mind I am able to with varying accuracy albeit, carry out simulations of the realities in which I would be making each choice, and this is the very bare concept of what it is to make a decision and choose between potential possibilities. You then fault the result, the product of this thought, you fault the thinker, the chooser, the decider, and say “because you have made a decision, you cannot make a decision”, you have automatically created a perfect trap, which is due to your 1:1 ratio microscope inspection of the tautological nature of nature. The act of thinking, the process of weighing options in ones mind, is the proof that those options were possible, the conscious observer doing the willful weighing, is making a willful choice, for reason/s absolutely fated and absolutely not, so after the weighing they have arrived at the fruit of their calculation, the very reason for the need to calculate, to weigh, to choose, is to arrive at the result, or the product of the process of choosing, when they arrive at this result, the decision, the choice they have made through the simulations of causal outcomes according to all potential choices (think chess, think before making a move, calculating all possible moves of all pieces on the board for not only that turn but potentially more and more) you than say, ‘you did not make that choice’. That I believe is one of the cruxes of this argument, and I would say, that one who willed themselves to calculate the potentials, is a will, willing themselves to calculate potentials, in order to make a choice, which they will make, according to the freedom the posses in their abilities to calculate.

    • Hi Daniel, hope all is well. :-)

      Just to clarify, I’ve never suggested “because you’ve made a decision, you cannot make a decision”, rather that, if the universe is deterministic, the “weighing” of options, and the act of deciding, all come about through causes. They cannot be otherwise than what the causes for them dictate, and likewise, the decision cannot be otherwise than what the causes that dictates it produce (including the “weighing” of options in a very specific way dictated by causes). Just because we weigh decisions doesn’t mean that all of the options we weigh are possible, only the one dictated by that very act of “weighing” being the very way it is (must be) due to causes, all the way down the line. It’s not “because you’ve made the decision” that the decision is the only possibility in a deterministic universe, it’s “because the causality that precedes the decision cannot logically lead to a different decision” if every event is causal (including the weighing, etc).

      Have a great day! :-)

  2. The main point is that only under a deterministic philosophy does it matter what children are taught. If people had free will, their choices would be random and meaningless. Either philosophy makes it insane to say that someone deserves reward and punishment for their actions.

  3. Hello, I’ve just come across your site and read a few posts. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a fair few years now. I was thinking that some day I might write a book about the lack of free will and what that means for certain concepts of morality and justice, and possibly on to how that might shape the politics and society of the future.
    I guess I’ll just read your book for now!

    Also – this is completely irrelevant but I thought it was amusing – on the Fred and Barney example above, to begin with while it says Fred keeps the money, it doesn’t say what he did with the wallet. Equally, while Barney returns the wallet, it doesn’t specify that he returns the money! My first thought was that it was somehow a trick question. :)

    • Hi psychoserenity. Thanks for stopping by! You should read as much as you can on the topic and if you have something to contribute, the more books out there the better! This topic doesn’t get close to the attention it should. My next book is going to be on ethics (morality) without free will.

      As for the Fred/Barney example, I can see how you might think such a trick question. 😉

  4. in accordance to Quantum Biology and Super String Theory: I DO NOT BELIEVE IN A DETERMINISTIC UNIVERSE. That is the axiomatic crux of all this arguments. if it were IMPOSSIBLE for a conscious person to do otherwise, then it is not freewill. According to Thomas Aquinas who demarcated the difference between “Material Causes” and “Efficient Causes” … the argument is that Humnas (Conscious Personal Agents) are the Efficient Causers of their own decisions … INDEPENDENT of the external/ material world. Is it possible for a homosexual who’s genetics is deterministically homosexual to choose not to be a homosexual or engage in homosexual practices REGARDLESS of moral-values? YES

    Therefore, although the material world is deterministic, the human mind (exclusive of brain) is not deterministic as it can calculate all possible worlds.

    • Quantum events cannot help grant free will. This is why I’m a Hard Incompatibilist rather than a Hard Determinist:
      Why I’m a Hard Incompatibilist, Not a Hard Determinist.

      Neither determinism nor indeterminism can help grant free will. This study was only addressing determinism and people’s misunderstandings that an otherwise is compatible (it’s not).

      You also are mis-representing Aquinas’ use of “efficient cause” (even though we really shouldn’t be using Aquinas for our modern understandings here)…as he tied it back to a god, not the inner working of personal agency…because he A) thought infinite regress was impossible, and B) made a bad assumption that a god was the “first cause”. In reality there is no “independent of the material world” and even if we accepted the notion of a “god” (which there is no good reason to), such a god could not help grant free will — but that’s a different discussion. Even if there was something “outside of the material universe”, it could not escape the causal/acausal dichotomy and why those are logically incompatible with “the ability to have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise”.

      Is it possible for a homosexual who’s genetics is deterministically homosexual to choose not to be a homosexual or engage in homosexual practices REGARDLESS of moral-values? YES

      This is so wrong on a number of fronts. If they choose not to engage in homosexual practices (or vice versa), they aren’t freely choosing to do so. The decision they make is constrained entirely by their genetics and environment. And no, they cannot “choose to not be homosexual” (which is different than choosing to engage in homosexual practices). And of course, there is nothing wrong with either choice they make here – but again, another topic.

      Therefore, although the material world is deterministic, the human mind (exclusive of brain) is not deterministic as it can calculate all possible worlds.

      Even if the “human mind” was separate from the material world in some dualist sense (which it’s not), any indeterminism within that “non-material” mind can not in any way help grant free will. In other words it could not be “up to them”.

      Thanks for stopping by Ernest.

      • Hi, how can you prove the “non-material” could not possibly grant free will? Do you assume God doesn’t exist and then form your assertion that He cannot grant free will?

        You mentioned there’s no good reason to accept God, how do you know this? Thanks.

  5. Hi Trick,

    If the universe were deterministic in the hard sense, then you would be correct in your deductions.

    But that does not appear to be the case.

    The universe seems to approximate causality in a softer sense, of being at base something quite different – being random within probability distributions.


    • Hi Ted,

      You misunderstand my position if you think it relies on causal determinism or if you think I’m a hard determinist. I’m a hard incompatibilist:
      Why I’m a Hard Incompatibilist, Not a Hard Determinist

      This is why the “of one’s own accord” or “in which that choice was up to the chooser” are so important in my definition, because true randomness or probability distributions (indeterminism) cannot be “up to the chooser”. Your criticism burns a strawman.

      For the scenarios in the post above, however, the participants are being asked to accept entirely causally deterministic scenarios (in the hard sense), and they still (incorrectly) think they could have done otherwise.

      • Thank you for that – clarifies a little.

        Without the substantive arguments – the statement “It means that both possibilities, determinism and indeterminism, are equally “incompatible” with free will” still occurs as a statement of faith – rather than one based upon evidence and consideration.

        My objection to the logic of this specific post remains. The statement is only coherent in the case of hard determinism.

        And to be clear – I did address that in my post – which I linked to – even if your site only allows a maximum of 500 chars of it to be posted here.

        • Thanks Ted. Keep in mind that not every post on this site is about making “THE” case against free will – me pointing out my actual position is not “faith”, anymore than me pointing out that I believe in evolution without providing all of the evidence for evolution is faith given that someone makes the claim I do not believe in it.

          For the actual case against free will, I have a book and many posts here that gets into the minutia details of why it (or the definition of it that is of concern for so many other topics) is incompatible with determinism, indeterminism, any theory of quantum mechanics, and any theory of time.

          This specific post is about common layperson intuitions that are wrong-headed based on the deterministic scenarios the participants have been asked to accept for the questions – for example, that of a 100% perfect predicting machine where it specifically says:

          “… imagine such a supercomputer actually did exist and actually could predict the future, including Jeremy’s robbing the bank (and assume Jeremy does not know about the prediction)…”

          It is your post that I’m referring to as a strawman, which concludes with “So in essence, I reject your prime postulate – of us existing in a hard deterministic universe,…”

 Leave a Reply


Comments in this section should be brief, coherent, and to the point, preferably 1 OR 2 sentences long. Due to this, I've limited comments to 500 characters. Using multiple comments at a single turn will not be approved. I'd like for this comment section to be conversational and not intimidating for people to read or respond to. Essay sized posts, though perhaps interesting, should go elsewhere.  Misinformation or fallacies may not be approved. Click here for more comment rules. I appreciate your understanding. Thanks! 'Trick.


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>