Jul 042016

Philosophical (p) compatibilists believe that free will and causal determinism are “compatible” with each other. They do this by defining the term “free will” in a way that is indeed compatible with determinism. If you have read my blog you will see that I have criticized compatibilism, but that it is always a semantic criticism about the problems with defining “free will” in the way that (p) compatibilists do. I’ve even vehemently opposed certain compatibilist thoughts and attitudes.

With that said, it is extremely important to point out that outside of the semantic disagreement (the words we use to explain things) there is quite often a whole lot of agreement over what is and is not the case between the (p) compatibilist and the hard incompatibilist.

Notice that I qualify “compatibilism” with a (p). This is because layperson intuitions do not fully align with the types of “free will” that the (philosophical) compatibilist refers to. Even when the layperson has compatibilist intuitions (thinks free will and determinism are compatible), it contains baggage that is of the more incoherent variety that suggests that one “could have done otherwise” given an entirely causally deterministic scenario and identical circumstances. Most (but not all) (p) compatibilists know that this type of “could have done otherwise” is incoherent, and therefore agree with the hard determinist or hard incompatibilist on this.

This post is going to focus on our agreements: where the hard incompatibilist such as myself and (p) compatibilist ideas align, and perhaps how we can move past our semantic disagreements. I do this to make it clear that, even though I criticize (p) compatibilist definitions, I see many (p) compatibilists as being on the same side as incompatibilists in many ways. For the most part, they understand that the type of free will that the incompatibilist addresses does not exist, they just don’t like calling that “free will” and opt for a more coherent definition of the term.

Some (p) compatibilists even understand that common laypersons do not align with the free will they are suggesting, but they are looking to change people’s conceptions over the term itself for, as Dennett would put it, a “free will worth wanting”.

Also, most hard incompatibilists such as myself would agree that the “free will”, as defined by many (p) compatibilists, indeed does exist. In other words, what they are calling “free will” are abilities that the incompatibilist does not necessarily suggest is non-existent.

So many (p) compatibilist agree that the “free will” that the hard incompatibilist argues against does not exist, and many hard incompatibilists agree that the “free will” that most (p) compatibilists argue for does exists. So why is there so much tension between (p) compatibilist and hard incompatibilists/determinists? It really has everything to do with what we want to communicate to people, the way we think it is best to do so, and what we want to show and why.

And though I will still criticize (p) compatibilist definitions due to the problems I think they cause and I will still have those semantic arguments and disagreements, I think it also important to extend a hand to (p) compatibilist and not have a divisive attitude. We, after all, agree on a whole lot. In fact, other than semantics and how we educate (or what we tell) the masses, we are quite often in agreement about what exists and what does not, and many times even what it means.

For example, many (p) compatibilists reject the idea that retribution can be validated, which aligns with the incompatibilist understandings that if a person couldn’t have, of their own accord, done otherwise, a justification for such retribution is truly lacking. That is not to say all (p) compatibilists reject retributivism, but a large bulk do reject it.

I could be wrong, but I suspect a majority of (p) compatibilists fear what telling people that free will is an illusion would do, so they look to change the ideas around the term itself in order to lessen that shock to the system. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that most were actually free will illusionists, meaning they understand that the free will abilities most people intuitively feel they have does not exist, but at the same time think telling people is too dangerous. Rather than tell people there is no free will, it makes sense to them to define free will in a way that is coherent in order to keep the term. I see this with Dennett  (a very popular compatibilist) at times.

Needless to say, the incompatibilist does not have the same fears and thinks that the consequences of keeping people in the dark are far more problematic in the long run. They think people need to be “disillusioned”, and rather than trying to educate people on a new way to think about the term “free will”, we can teach people all of the things a compatibilist would all while saying they don’t have the free will defined here. To see the differences between illusionism and disillusionism you can read here:

But when push comes to shove,  the (p) compatibilist and the hard incompatibilist have, for their own reasons, decided to either keep the term “free will” or abandon it. And the compatibilist that has decided to keep the term most often take the more coherent parts and keeps them, while abandoning the incoherent parts. The hard incompatibilist, however, abandons the term due to the incoherent parts – suggesting it not worth keeping (and often problematic to do so). But it is all about the differences in how the term is defined, and if each define the terms, there should be no reason for them to talk past each other.

Let’s keep in mind that any word can be defined in any way and are just conceptual labels used for communication. If I define the word “moon” to be what we would normally call the sun, sure that could be confusing, but if I tell you that is my definition of the “moon” you could understand that this is how I am defining the moon and we could have a conversation using the term “moon” to be that hot ball of fire that warms the Earth.  Likewise, if a (p) compatibilist defined “free will” as “being able to do what one wants”, I, as a hard incompatibilist, can say that this version of free will exists, and as long as it is clear what is being referred to with the term, can use the word “free will”. The (p) compatibilist also can see how the hard incompatibilist defines free will, and they can say that such a version of free will does not exist, and as long as it is clear what is being referred to with the term, can use the term “free will” to mean that non-existent ability.

Sure, the hard incompatibilist and the (p) compatibilist can haggle forever over the use of words and definitions of the other, but if they cannot come to an agreement over semantics, this should not prevent the exchange of ideas or other rational agreements between the two.

In my book “Breaking the Free Will Illusion” I address a very specific definition of “free will” that can be found here: FREE WILL.

I explain the reasons why this is the definition of free will that I am concerned with criticizing, and I explicitly say that the “free will” that the (p) compatibilist is referring to is not the concern detailed in the book I wrote. For example, in the chapter devoted entirely to defining the “free will” I’m referring to in the book, a say this:

There are many other ways people can define the term “free will.” For example, …

More importantly, they are not the definitions of philosophical, ethical, political, and psychological importance. Even if we use one of these definitions instead of the one I propose, the concern would only revert to what having these types of “free will” and only these types of free will mean. The same questions would need to be answered in regards to important topics such as responsibility.

I then go on to discuss the problem I see with authorities using certain other definitions that avoid the implications of not having the free will I propose. I end the chapter with this:

Regardless, the free will I’m discussing, and the free will that matters for the changing of minds that I propose needs to take place, is: The ability to choose between more than one viable option or action, in which the choice was “up to the chooser.” Read it. Understand it. And then understand the implications of not having it. By the end of this book you will.

To put this another way, even if we move the term “free will” off of the plate, both compatibilist and incompatibilist can and should talk about the abilities that people do not possess and the implications of not having those special abilities. That, to me, is just as important as the semantic discussion.

We also can talk about the abilities the compatibilist likes to call “free will” – the abilities that people do have and what they mean. Those abilities I am quite often a proponent of, because they sometimes move us away from more fatalistic types of ideas that I am against and that I do not think follows from lacking the “free will” type I propose. So there is a whole lot we can agree on.

So how can we work together?


Here are some recommendations I propose to prevent (p) compatibilists and hard incompatibilists from talking past each other.

Define Terms Upfront

There are many terms in the free will debate that need to be defined as soon as we know that one person is a (p) compatibilist and another is a hard incompatibilist or hard determinists. To name just a few:

  • Free Will – This should go without saying.
  • Responsibility – When using the term “responsibility” we need to address the different usages. I like to break them up into a strong and weak sense: Moral Responsibility – Infographic
  • Blame/ blameworthiness – Similar to the word “responsibility”, the word “blame: can be used differently depending on context. For example, we can say that a hurricane is “to blame” for tearing the roof off of a house, but that wouldn’t be the same as saying it is “blameworthy” in a more moral sense.
  • Possibility – It is important to differentiate how words like “possibility” are being used, for example, in the more “modal” or epistemic sense (not knowing the future so calling options “possibilities”), or in the more ontic sense of being able to be “actualized” (e.g. given determinism only one option is a real, ontological “possibility”).

This is just a short list, but whenever a word seems to be problematic, stop the discussion to ask the person to define the word. Some other words that you may run into problems with could be: choose, volition, agency, determinism/indeterminism,

At this point there are a few options:

1. Have the Semantic Argument but Do Not Mix 

If you choose this option you are having a discussion about definitions, trying to explain why certain definitions should be avoided or used, and so on. You simply must make it perfectly clear that this is only a semantic discussion! If you don’t then the discussion will definitely turn into two people talking past each other. Say to the other “I understand the definition you are using, but I want to talk about why that definition is not optimal for term X”. From that point, you can both have a productive conversation about words and how they should be used. Try to keep the semantic argument separate from the argument about whether free will exists or not, as you will run into problems if you are working with two different definitions of free will.

In the end, if you both still disagree on semantics, which is very likely, you should move to #2.

2. Move Past Semantics Through Term Qualifiers

This could very well be the better option for a direct conversation between (p) compatibilist and hard incompatibilists or determinists. This is often easier said than done and it takes participation on both sides to be able to accomplish this. Both, for example, want to just use the term “free will” rather than “compatibilist free will” or “incompatibilist free will” or c-free-will / i-free-will. But just noting the distinction between usages, and being consistent using the qualifier rather than just the term “free will” could move us past the stumbling block of who’s usage is more appropriate. We could actually have two entirely separate talks, one about what it means to have c-free-will, and the other about what it means that we do not have i-free-will.

I know that one concern I have with compatibilism is that if we simply talk about c-free-will, it most often avoids the i-free-will discussion altogether. I see it almost as a block or something that bypasses what I deem as very important topics that fall under the understanding that we lack i-free-will. So as long as we talk about both and qualify what version we are addressing each time, we can get away with using the term. But I have learned that both sides need to consistently do this. As soon as one starts using the “free will” term alone, that is where communication problems arise.

Another thing that can be attempted is to:

3. Move Past Problematic Terms Altogether

This is sometimes just as hard, but rather than use the problematic terms such as free will, the idea is to attempt to have the same discussions without the terms at all. For example, sometimes you can just talk about whether we “could have done otherwise” if the universe is causally deterministic. In that case, we can abbreviate that CHDO, which is often done in forum talks. We can talk about CHDO without using the term “free will”. We can talk about wants, desires, how decisions are processed, causality, acausality, and a whole lot without bringing up the “free will” term. We can talk about the differences between coerced acts and uncoerced acts, whether there is mental causation or not,  the types of responsibility that apply (which is basically of the utility variety), and the types that need to be abandoned, and so on. I think if we did this without using the term free will, we’d see that the (p) compatibilist and the hard incompatibilist ideas would align a whole lot. That is not to say they would be identical, but no two compatibilists are identical and no two free will skeptics are identical either.

What I’d hate to see is communication come to a halt between (p) compatibilists and free will skeptics, simply because of semantic disagreements. Yes, the semantic debate is an important debate and should take place as well, but the compatibilist and free will skeptic should both recognize where we do agree and work to be able to communicate with each other outside of the semantic debate as well.

So I extend a hand out to the (p) compatibilist. We don’t have to agree on semantics in order to talk about what is the reality of our decisions, what is not reality, and all of the important implications that follow.

Let’s create a demarcation line between our semantic disagreements and a more important talk about what abilities we do and do not possess. Of course, we should still have those semantic discussions and debates, but let’s not do that at the expense of not moving past those disagreements at times to some pressing issues such as what it means if we could not have, of our own accord, done otherwise.

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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.

  7 Responses to “Extending a Hand to Philosophical Compatibilists (by a Free Will Skeptic)”

  1. I agree that compatibilists and incompatibilists need to work together somehow. It’s as difficult as theists and atheists working together. I’m honestly not sure that it can logically happen but I think it’s something that must happen for the betterment of all animalkind.

  2. I’ve just finished your book, and from especially the chapter about ethics and responsibility, I could not avoid to think that you are a ‘compatibilist in disguise’. I think your article here is so to speak the counterpart to this impression. From the free will discussions, I draw the conclusion that if one stresses the point that the believe in free will leads to retribution, one is inclined to deny its existence, and on the other side, that one thinks that it is important that people behave as responsible as possible, one stresses that we have free will. But not this libertarian one.

    • Thanks for the visit Gert and thanks for reading my book. It is much appreciated and it’s always great to see interest in the topic. As I said, compatibilists and free will skeptics quite often agree with a whole lot, and it is important that we don’t just dismiss where we do agree for only the semantic disagreement. In that light, I could equally say that I see many compatibilists as “free will skeptics in disguise”….but it all comes down to semantics here.

      I do share some concerns with compatibilists in that I believe if free will skeptics don’t educate others on a lack of free will appropriately (what it means that we don’t have libertarian free will or the more incoherent compatibilist variety that many laypeople intuit), the initial first reactions of common-laypersons often reverts to more problematic fatalistic and defeatist notions of a lack of free will (which are not rationally concluded).

      As a free will skeptic, I think it is very important that people “behave as responsible as possible”, but I also think that understanding that people are not ultimately responsible (e.g. in hindsite) leads to a more compassionate society with less capacities for inequality justification and so on. I also think that any moral/ethical theory needs to take into consideration that people do not have the free will as I and most free will skeptics have defined…even if we have the (p) compatibilist varieties.

      My next books will be on ethics without (incompatible) free will, which will address the consequentialist model that is most compatible with not having the type of free will that a large majority of common laypeople feel they possess.

      But as long as the compatibilist agrees that we don’t have “responsibility” in the strong sense as denoted here: Moral Responsibility Infographic I think much of our disagreement comes down to semantics…and a concern for bypassing certain facts about how we can and cannot process decisions.

      Later good sir. :-)

      • ‘I could equally say that I see many compatibilists as “free will skeptics in disguise”….but it all comes down to semantics here.’

        Fully agree. I think I could make a list of propositions we agree upon:

        – Libertarian free will does not exist
        – Ultimate responsibility does not exist
        – People should take as much responsibility for their actions as they can
        – People behaving against the law generally must not be treated as if they are medical patients but as responsible persons

        Both libertarian free will and fatalism, being respective misunderstandings of what we mean free will really is (compatibilist free will in my opinion of course…), or misunderstanding what determinism is, lead to wrong reactions. In the first case too harsh verdicts about people who cannot change their situation, in the second case to indifference to the fate of others because we think we cannot change something.

        So, yes, I think it is mostly a question of semantics.

        • Awesome, I love that you are an example of a compatibilist that shows we can agree on so much! I’d also like to add that the incoherent variety of compatibilism that many people hold (along with libertarian notions) does not exist either – which differs from the (p) compatibilist definitions.


          We, I believe, would also haggle a small bit over this: “People behaving against the law generally must not be treated as if they are medical patients but as responsible persons”

          I think in some ways we need to think of wrongdoers as “medical patients”, and they are only “responsible” in the weak (utilitarian) sense I showed. If by this you mean that sometimes it is appropriate to deter as well, for example, fine a person, I agree (we don’t usually do this with medical patients), but ideally, I think rehabilitation makes the most sense in hard cases as no-one really “deserves” punishment (even for deterrence which may be needed) – and incarceration needs to be thought of more as a quarantine model:



      • Yeah, I think it is important to look what is behind the labels, and sometimes we find more agreement than disagreement. Sometimes I think that the question about if we have free will or not (as it stands between you and me) is a ‘public relations’ question: it is not about what we want to sell, but how we sell it.

        I think that the risk of seeing wrong-doers as patients, is that you see them as objects to be healed, instead of responsible subjects that we try to convince with arguments that they should stick to the law. The nightmare I sometimes have can be illustrated with one word (oh, no two): Soviet psychiatry. The question who is to treated as a patient might become a political one.

        • Good thoughts, I tend to think if we agree as much as I think we do then it really is a matter of “public relations” (and perhaps a disagreement over what should or should not be “sold”).

          Fair point: I certainly agree we have to be careful of the “Soviet psychiatry” type of scenario (or even, as I mention in the book, a “clockwork orange” type of dystopia). That being said we also need to recognize that the decision a person makes was a matter of brain states at the time (and that given the same conditions we would have the same brain state and make the same decision). But I do think how we go about rehabilitation is a question for ethics, and of course a “Soviet psychiatry” used for political abuse or other types of “nightmare” scenarios or thought-experiments have consequentialist problems a-plenty. 😉

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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.


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