Oct 122015


This post is going to be about some of the problems with free will compatibilist (re)definitions that certain philosophers (which is different than layperson compatibilist intuitions) have. So what is “free will compatibilism”? It’s basically the idea that free will is compatible with a causally deterministic universe (and that indeterminism doesn’t account for free will). For compatibilist philosophers this is accomplished through a redefinition of free will. It’s basically a way to say that, even if our decisions are caused, the fact that we have certain causal processes which can include such things as wanting, desiring, thinking, and rational deliberation, and the fact that sometimes those processes are not prevented in some way by (“free” from) a force such as a person with a gun, a drug addiction, or something similar – that in such a context we can label that “free will”.

Philosophical compatibilists agree with the free will skeptic that their (the free will skeptic’s) type of free will is impossible, but they say that we shouldn’t be focusing on such an incoherent type of free will.

Now I’m a hard incompatibilist, meaning I think free will is incompatible in both a deterministic as well as an indeterministic universe. But given the definitions of most (philosophical) compatibilists, I have no doubts about having that type of “free will”. In fact, discussions on the topic between a free will skeptic and a compatibilist, a large majority of the time, simply talk past each other due to different semantics over the term “free will”.

The free will skeptic such as myself is often adamant over their definition of free will because they think  that it’s not only the definition that accounts for the intuitions of the masses, but they also think compatibilists definitions evade a number of very serious topics that need to adjust with the rational understanding that people couldn’t have, of their own accord, done otherwise.

This is a problem for communication of ideas, because it seems both philosophical positions are often quite adamant about their own semantic usage. This article is about addressing which definitions of free will makes the most sense to use. I’ll be using the term “free will skeptic” to refer to the hard determinist or hard incompatibilist.  This term does not apply to the fatalist, in which fatalism has it’s own problems and is not a rational account of a lack of free will. The term “compatibilist” will refer to the philosophical free will compatibilist.

It’s important to note that there is an important distinction between philosophical compatibilism (in general) and layperson compatibilism – which I will be addressing. If you are unfamiliar with these terms, don’t worry too much about them right now. Just know that free will skepticism equals someone who doesn’t think free will is compatible with determinism or indeterminism, and a compatibilist thinks free will is compatible with determinism – but that both use different definitions of the term “free will”.

To understand how the terms determinism and compatibilism are being used, you might want to read here first, because these are terms that have their own problems if not defined: Determinism and Indeterminism for the Free Will Debate

So the first thing we need to do is give some of those common definitions of free will.


For most free will skeptics, free will is defined as something that isn’t logically compatible with determinism or indeterminism. It most often addresses how we as a part of causality are restricted in regards to the outcome of our decisions, and that if any indeterministic events have a say on loosening those restrictions, those events could never be “willed” events (and thus would be even more problematic for any sort of willing). To distill this many free will skeptics will address notions of “could have done otherwise”which they conclude such is impossible in a causally deterministic universe. They also tend to address that if indeterminism allowed for a “could have done otherwise” account, such an event could never be “up to the chooser”. So for the free will skeptic, we are constrained by either entirely causal variables that lead to the only possible decision we could have ever made, or there was some indeterministic influence that was equally out of our control that interacts with causality in a way that produces a difference that we cannot account for in our willing decisions.

To account for both determinism and indeterminism, I place “of our own accord” into the otherwise definition and say that free will is the ability to have, of our own accord, done otherwise. In my book, Breaking the Free Will Illusion for the Betterment of Humankind, I take that past tense definition and convert it into a present tense version which is:

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

In other words, I make a statement on how all of the options that we think about are not all equally viable (meaning real possibilities), and if an indeterministic event brings one into possibility, that cannot be “up to the chooser”. The reason I decided to move my definition from past tense to present tense is to avoid certain confusions of thinking “well of course we can’t do otherwise for something that already happened”. The point was to make it perfectly clear that “couldn’t have, of one’s own accord, done otherwise” means that prior to the decision there is only one causal ontological possibility and an event without a cause (or a “random” event for whatever that might mean) cannot be a “willed” event (as that requires a “willer” – a “cause”).

Either way, most free will skeptics would agree that this sort of free will doesn’t exist. There are also libertarians (not to be confused with the political group) who think free will is incompatible with determinism, but they think indeterminism is somehow their free will savior. This article isn’t really addressing the absurdity of that position.

Philosophical compatibilists, however, agree that the above ability is impossible, but they do not think that should be the focus of the term free will – or of any focus for that matter. This is the problem we will review as we show the common layperson intuitions and some of the abilities they think they possess.


As I said, philosophical compatibilists agree that someone could not have, of their own accord, done otherwise, but they don’t define free will in this way.  Compatibilist can define free will in a number of different ways, but they all have one thing in common – they are defined in a way that is compatible with the natural universe.

For example, a compatibilist definition might be as simple as defining free will as the “ability to make decisions or choices” or “the ability to deliberate”.

Daniel Dennett calls free will “the power to be active agents, biological devices that respond to our environment with rational, desirable courses of action”. Roy Baumeister similarly calls “the ability to be aware of alternates and make the choice that is best for you evolutionarily” as free will. Most compatibilists have similar semantics or impressions about the term “free will”, basically concluding that certain “decision-making” abilities should be labeled “free will”

They might even suggest that we should move away from those incoherent definitions of free will and into those more coherent ones. Definitions that Dennett calls a “free will worth wanting“.


Per the compatiblist, compatibilists do, and per the free will skeptic (such as myself), free will skeptics do. But is this all just a personal preference? Is it just the case that each person simply needs to define their terms before using them? Well, I certainly agree that each person should define their terms first, but for the free will skeptic, the definition being used isn’t assessed as being simply a “personal preference”. And for some compatibilists, they may also say that the reason they use compatibilist definitions are not just preference. So if they aren’t merely personal preference, which is actually more reasonable?

To compare the distinctions, let’s have a little showdown in regards to 5 key questions (though there are more – all with the same conclusion)! Yeeehaw!


ROUND 1: Which position addresses the common intuitions of the majority of laypersons?

Free will skepticism: The very definition that the free will skeptic uses is that which aligns with the common intuitions about abilities people feel they possess. It addresses both the compatibilist intuitions of the layperson (which is not the philosophical compatibilists version) as well as the more libertarian intuitions that people have.

Compatibilism: The definitions that the compatibilists use are obvious to everyone, but entirely evade the actual abilities people intuitively feel.

To look at some of the compatibilist intuitions )of the layperson) you can read Common Intuitions about Free Will (and how it needs to be defined) and Free Will Intuitions: Fred and Barney Case Study – InfoGraphic.

To look at the distinction between the “could have done otherwise” notions of free will that most compatibilist evade with their definition, take a look at this infographic: Could Have Done Otherwise (Free Will Comparison) – InfoGraphic

In short, philosophical compatibilist definitions don’t address the fact that the majority of people think they have an ability that the philosophical compatibilist definition does not address.

ROUND 2: Which position causes less confusions?

Free will skepticism: Since the free will skeptic addresses free will abilities most people intuitively feel they possess, such causes less confusions for the common layperson. In other words, they understand that there is an intuitive and learned ability that people need to learn does not really exist. They don’t re-enforce someone’s bad ideas about their abilities by changing semantics away from those intuitions and into something that simply evades the fact that people have them.

Compatibilism: Though compatibilism addresses some abilities that people actually do have (that are common sense), it bypasses the more extraordinary abilities that the majority of layperson’s feel they and others possess.  When they inform people that “free will exists” while meaning it in one sense and avoiding these other feelings, they re-enforce the belief in these other abilities that the compatibilist is not referring to. This is ultimately more confusing than addressing common intuitions for the “free will” term.

Note: I often think that it’s the compatibilists objective to create a sort of confusion, a smoke and mirrors to obfuscate certain facts they don’t want to come to light.

ROUND 3: Which position actually addresses “moral responsibility” (in the strong sense) better?

Free will skepticism: Free will skeptics understand that moral responsibility only makes sense given a very limited scope of these words. In the sense of there being “just deserts” meaning someone is deserving of punishment or deserves more or less than another due to their actions, this type of “moral responsibility” in the strong sense is out for the free will skeptic. People couldn’t have, of their own accord, done otherwise. They aren’t blameworthy in this “desert” sense. For the free will skeptic, there is no “finger pointing” type of moral responsibility in which someone deserves that finger being pointed.

Rather, we might need to deter, quarantine, rehabilitate, or build incentives, but such would only be due to the utility of doing so – not because someone is in actuality more or less deserving of such. This type of responsibility is in the weak sense.

Responsibility can also mean other things, such as instilling a “sense of duty” – and that is entirely compatible with a lack of free will.

To read more about some of the ambiguities of the word “responsibility” read here: No Free Will and the Ambiguity of “Responsibility”

For the most part, when “moral responsibility” is used for the topic of free will, what is being addressed is the strong sense, not the weak sense. That there is something about the action that makes the person not simply the thing that did a bad act in which we may need to prevent in the future, but in some way deserving of what they get due to their conscious action. The strong sense implies more than what needs to be done for the sake of utility.

Compatibilism: Compatibilists often understand that only the type of “responsibility” applicable is the weak sense, and that the “just desert” type of stronger “moral responsibility” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. They often, however, blur the lines between these two, sometimes, it seems, due to a feeling that if people realize that they were not morally responsible in the “just desert” sense, that they might do bad things. You can take a look at this type of adverse consequence fallacy here: Daniel Dennett, Stop Telling People They Have Free Will! In other words, they suggest the weak sense and call that “responsibility” but seem very quite on the strong sense.

And though it’s true that a temporary confusion over the topic for someone who intuitively feels they have free will and doesn’t understand the implications of not  – could cause problems due to poor fatalistic thinking, there is no reason that in the long run a lack of free will and moral responsibility in the “just desert” sense would lead to this poor thinking. Rather, it’s likely to lead to great compassion and understanding for the variables of another and remove a whole lot of the hate we see today.

As a side not, a few compatibilists, such as Harry Frankfurt, believe that not being able to have done otherwise (assuming determinism in his examples) doesn’t imply that we can’t have moral responsibility in the stronger sense. He uses thought experiments  (often called “Frankfurt Type Cases”) to try to create intuitions about this, but of course for the free will skeptic who already knows what not being able to have done otherwise would imply, these thought experiments intuitively fail. They only work for those that don’t have the understanding already fleshed out (there are some problems with the hypothetical demon he uses). Free will skeptics such as Derk Pereboom have gone through and dismantled many of these “Frankfurt Cases”. In a future post I will take the liberty to address some as well.

Most compatibilist, however, don’t address this stronger sense, but rather evade it for a much weaker sense of us needing to do something in order to cause people to behave. In this way, the free will skeptic and the compatibilist often agree – but the free will skeptic also denotes that the stronger sense of “moral responsibility” needs to be both addressed and abandoned. The compatibilist, however, either tries to bury the fact that this strong sense is out or takes a Frankfurt approach and thinks it’s still in when in fact it is not.

* Check out this inforgraphic that compares the important distinction between moral responsibility in the strong sense, and responsibility in the weak sense:
Moral Responsibility (and the Lack of Free Will) – INFOGRAPHIC

ROUND 4: Which position doesn’t evade facts?

Free will skepticism: It is a fact that many of the intuitive abilities people believe they and others possess doesn’t exist. It is also a fact that the abilities that philosophical compatibilist call “free will” are not anything under contention by most people, so telling them that those abilities exist is rather redundant. Free will skepticism does not, therefore, evade the compatibilist abilities with the definition that addresses the abilities that are in actuality, factually problematic.

It is a fact that laypersons have both compatibilist and libertarian (not the political group) intuitions about free will, and that their compatibilist intuitions are the incoherent kind that the philosophical compatibilist understands doesn’t actually exist. Free will skeptics look to expose the fact that these intuitions are incorrect.

Compatibilism: It is a fact that the abilities that compatibilists title as “free will” actually do exist. Compatibilist definitions, however, do not in any way address the fact that A) most people already know they have those compatibilist abilities and B) most people do not already know that they do not have the abilities that the free will skeptic portrays in their definition. And since there is no other topic that addresses (B) other than “free will”, compatibilism entirely evades and bypasses these important facts in light of keeping people ignorant about them.

ROUND 5: Which position makes more sense for the term “free will” or “freedom of the will”?

Free will skepticism: For the free will skeptic, the word “free” qualifies the word “will”. It asks a few questions about the will, for example, how free are the conditions that produce a specific state of willfulness, how free is one to act outside of that specific state, and what does it mean that the events that ultimately lead to a “willed” state and “willed decision” are not themself “willed”? In other words, it looks directly at the types of constraints that confine the”will”.

This is direct and to the point. You don’t use a qualifier before a word unless that is the word you are qualifying.

Compatibilism: For compatibilism, “freedom” most often addresses a condition of action rather than an agent’s will itself. In fact, even some compatibilists think that “freedom of the will” should be abandoned for “freedom of action” (though they’d remove the “freedom of the will” term in doing so – which incorrectly assumes there is no need to address the will’s constraints). For the compatibilist “freedom” often means the “unencumbered freedom for one to do what they want”.

Of course this type of freedom has various shortcomings and is only “unencumbered” in a very limited sense. For example, someone with a  constraining mental illness could be seen as having such “freedom” to do what they want, yet not be seen as having “free will”. By not focusing on the constraint of the will itself, the term freedom becomes loose and able to refer to things we wouldn’t grant free will for – such as someone with a brain tumor pressing on a part of their brain making them desire and have a compulsive drive to do something, to a person who is brainwashed to want or desire to do something, to someone with a mental illness in which they want to do something due to a “non-normal” brain function, to a brain microchip interacting with the brain in a way that makes them want or desire to do something. These types of configurations, per many compatibilist definitions, would equally have the same types of “freedoms to act in a way the person wants”.

This forces the compatibilist to create arbitrary criteria for such “freedom to do what one wants” such as the “wanting” needing to be “entirely biological (no artificial processes such as a chip), with no physical ailments such as a tumor, with no mental illness, and no brain washing” – but after all of those criteria are met “free to do what one wants”. This, of course, just ignores the fact that any normally functioning brain configuration at any given time is equally constrained (not free) based on that configuration.

Some add the criteria of the freedom to make “rational decisions”, but again, this “freedom” is entirely constrained by the brain state that precedes it.  In what way would irrational decisions be “less free” than rational ones? But arbitrary “freedom” criteria is a staple of compatibilist definitions.



Believe it or not, there is so much more to say about the problems of compatibilism. These 5 are a good starting point but only consist of a fraction of the problems. They will do for now. So is there a winner? It certainly seems that the free will skeptic has the most rational position here. Why? Because the free will skeptic addresses the common intuitions that are incorrect, causes less confusions by not re-defining terms, addresses moral responsibility in the strong sense, doesn’t evade important facts, and the “free” part actually qualifies what comes after it.

For more reasons why we shouldn’t define terms away from common intuitions, read here:

To read about some of the common straw-man fallacies that compatibilists often employ, read here:

Also keep in mind that philosophical compatibilism is ultimately more rational than believing in libertarian / contra-causal free will. What makes compatibilism problematic is not that if we accept such a (philosophical) compatibilist free will semantic that such free will wouldn’t exist. It would! Rather, it’s because the semantic shift itself evades common intuitions, important facts, and numerous issues and topics of concern. Instead, save compatibilism for Semantic Shift Day, a day dedicated to redefining the non-existent into existence. 😉

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'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.

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  2 Responses to “Free Will Compatibilism vs. Skepticism – SHOWDOWN!”

Comments (2)
  1. Excellent post as always Trick.

    Apologies for this slightly longer reply …

    Another point, when it comes to free-will intuitions. The natural philosophical argument for FW scepticism, in the “near enough” hard determinism (sense) has always roughly remained the same, albeit recently reinvigorated by the data coming from the behavioural, chemical and neuroscientific disciplines.

    However, when it comes to Compatibilism, the intuitive compatibilism, classical compatibilism “an agent has the ability to do otherwise, absent any coercion to do otherwise (mental illness, at gun point etc.) has been pretty much dead for over 50 years! The leading version of compatibilism (or semi-compatibilism – since the authors are agnostic over the metaphysics of determinism) is a philosophical savvy “reasons-responsiveness.” Doesn’t mean its philosophically wrong (although it is, since FW scepticism is the most viable position for the reasons mentioned in your post), but it certainly is not the most intuitive. Also makes it amusing when bloggers spend their time writing furiously on positions resembling classical compatibilism. Be ready to go against over half a century of philosophical theory!

    • Thanks Andrew! :-)

      The main point is that the common intuitions people possess about the compatibilistic abilities they think exists IS that people could have done otherwise (given a deterministic scenario)….today. In other words, it’s not in any way dead for the majority public. It’s only dead in some academic circles due to a problematic semantic shift. The fact that modern philosophical compatibilist re-define free will outside of the classical semantics (that are important today) is the very problem with compatibilism. “Reasons-responsiveness”, is the very type of philosophical compatibilism that this post is addressing. Also, philosophical theory within the last half-century is not exclusively compatibilist (of course).

      Catch ya’ later good sir!

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