Mar 212016

compatibilist-qualifiersIt is interesting the hoops compatibilists will jump through in order to qualify their definition of free will in an attempt to make it coherent given any number of counter-points. These qualifiers almost always miss the point entirely.

If you are unfamiliar with the term compatibilist, it’s just someone who thinks “free will” is compatible with determinism. In other words, regardless if the universe is entirely deterministic, or has some indeterminism, free will is something that is entirely compatible with causal processes. Compatibilists build this compatibility by a semantic shift, meaning they change the definition of free will to something that is actually compatible with determinism. Some compatibilists might argue that they have the “true” version of free will, but when they do this, it is done ignoring the abilities the common layperson actually thinks they and others have.

Regardless, the definitions usually start very basic, but then when challenged with a counter-point, qualifiers are added in. The problem, however, is that those qualifiers are almost always arbitrary distinctions when compared to the reasons incompatibilists give that people do not have free will, which this article is going to point out.

To understand what I mean by “qualifiers”, let’s look at just one out of many possible paths that a compatibilist free will definition can evolve into:


The below definition is just one possible compatibilist definition. There are many other starting points, but most start out with insufficient qualifiers and then “evolve” as people point to problems with the definition.

FREE WILL: The ability to deliberate on options and do what one wants.

This is a nice, basic, clean definition of compatibilist “free will”. It actually does address an “ability”, which is a nice feature compared to some definitions. Seems like it doesn’t really need qualifiers, right? Let’s, however, use some thought experiments to see if the intuitive force of this definition holds:

Imagine a scenario where a scientists embeds a microchip in a person’s brain, and that microchip has the ability to influence that brain in a way to make the person “wants” something dictated by the chip, which is remotely controlled by the scientist. That chip would force a specific deliberation process, and the person would be able to do what they “want” but what they want and how they deliberate is dictated entirely by the scientist who remotely controls the chip.

The person with the chip falls under the definition of free will above, though intuitively, most people would say that the person who’s wants and desires are being controlled by the chip does not have free will. So a qualifier is required to “fix” the definition:

FREE WILL: The ability to deliberate on options and do what one wants, uncoerced by another person.

Ahh, much better. Someone being coerced at gun-point, or by a scientist who is controlling their thoughts through a microchip obviously doesn’t have free will, so we qualify the definition by saying another person controlling or coercing is out. What if, however, it isn’t another person doing the job, but rather just the programming of a chip itself:

Imagine a person accidentally implants a microchip in their own brain (how this happened is irrelevant as long as someone else didn’t do it). That chip has the ability to influence that brain in a way that it “wants” something dictated by the programming of the chip, which is an automatic function of the chip itself. That person would be able to do what they “want” but what they want and how they deliberate is dictated entirely by the programming of the chip.

This fits in to the new definition, as a person is not “coercing” another. The problem, however, is that most people would intuit that the programming of the chip is overriding the persons free will. So we need to rule that out as well. Looks like more qualifiers are needed:

FREE WILL: The ability to deliberate on options and do what one wants, uncoerced by another person or by technological interference with their brain.

That’ll do the trick! No more of those sneaky thought experiments can beat this new and improved definition. But what of biological interference:

Imagine a person developed a brain tumor. That tumor presses on areas in their brain that cause them to want things they wouldn’t without the tumor and compels them to deliberate in a specific way and act on those wants, something they would never do if they didn’t have the brain tumor.

Certainly that fits our new definition. But once again, intuitively, most would say the person being controlled due to a brain tumor pressing on specific parts of their brain don’t really have the “control” needed for free will. We need to rule out brain tumors, and perhaps other factors as well, such as mental disorders. Right?

FREE WILL: The ability to deliberate on options and do what one wants, uncoerced by another person or by technological interference with their brain, in which the person does not have a brain disease or mental disorder that impinges on their wants, or desires.

Bam, fixed again!

The point is, this can go on and on as the examples ramp up. To give another example, I showed a compatibilist my “Compatibilist Free Will Machine“, which contains a lot of the qualities that compatibilists purport grants free will and happened to fall under his definition of “free will”:


After going through a number of qualifiers, the compatibilist decided on this one to “rule out” the machine as having free will: “The compatibilist free will machine doesn’t have a will of its own. Since you built the machine, it has your will.” So new qualifier “will of its own”, for whatever that would mean.

Of course this is anything but compelling considering that “wills” are derived through a causal process that extends outside of any person. No person has a “will of their own”. Whether the machine was built by me, or a person was built by people passing on their genes into a specific environment (e.g. giving birth) and the dictations of those genetic and  environmental circumstances she was thrown into, is irrelevant to the fact that the “Compatibilist Free Will Machine” had the same abilities (powers) the compatibilist purported as “free will”. Denoting how the machine came to be did not take away from these abilities themself. In fact, in some ways it had even more compatibilist “free will” than humans, as the machine was always able to “do what it wants and decides on” where as many people want things but do not have the ability to do those things. I’d like it if I could raise my arms and fly or float around, but I can’t do what I want here. I can’t decide to do this and take that action. The “Compatibilist Machine” can always do what it wants (e.g. pull the lever or not).

There are other qualifiers that compatibilists use as well. Some compatibilists even qualify the definition with the idea that these abilities evolved (see Dennett), as if that is an important qualifier, …or the requirement of being “biological”.  No two compatibilist definitions are identical, and the qualifiers only seem to come out when counter-examples are provided.

So what is the problem with these qualifiers. After all, any definition can have any number of qualifiers, and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem, however, is in the nature of the qualifiers that are used to avoid the intuitive force of certain thought experiments. They do so ONLY to avoid those intuitions in order to sustain the use of the term “free will”, but other than that the qualifiers are quite arbitrary when addressing an actual free will “ability” (which free will is all about specific “abilities” people possess). Rather than address an ability, they address exceptions that suggest that the ability is irrelevant as long as those exceptions exists – but as you’ll see those exceptions are arbitrary.


At this point certain questions need to be asked: Why does the coercion of a person by another, or the conditions of a brain microchip, or the conditions of a tumor, – nullify the “free will” ability? What part of the “ability” is being obstructed? This almost always comes down to a certain point of “control” that is being minimized, and where that minimized control is coming from (the arbitrary part).

The compatibilist might say because those are influences that are “outside” of the person, but this misses the entire point brought up by the free will skeptic, which is that ALL environmental conditions that help lead to a person’s brain state at any given moment are “outside of the person”, and the genes a person has was provided rather than decided.

The “hard incompatibilist” such as myself says that a person’s brain state at any given moment outputs a person’s wants and desires, and that very brain state is dictated entirely by the person’s biology (no one controls their genes) and environment (and that environment is filled with other people and things that influence those brain states all the time).

The increments of a normal brain state is not as obvious as direct coercion, a microchip, or a tumor, but the “obviousness” is irrelevant here. Brain states incrementally get to the state they are in one moment at a time. In each moment of that process the brain is in one state, and the specific environment and biological conditions leads to the very next state. Depending on that state, this will cause you to behave in a specific way within an environment (decide in a specific way), in which all of those things that are outside of a person constantly bombard your senses changing your very brain state. The internal dialogue in your mind you have no real control over.

We have an illusion of control, but in reality we have no more control over these processes than we do a microchip or tumor leading our brain states to want, think, and decide in specific ways. The distinction between an abnormal or coerced brain state compared to a normal and uncoerced brain state is irrelevant to our lack of control in these regards.

Compatibilists might say that the person couldn’t control the influences of a tumor or microchip, but that misses the point that a person cannot control their own genetics or environmental conditions any more.

Some compatibilist might say that our brains changing are “us” (a sort of “selfhood” argument), but they neglect the fact that our brains do not just change through an internal process alone and even if it did, why wouldn’t a tumor be considered an internal process? Why are abnormal processes excluded from such “selfhood” here? Again, the normal/abnormal distinction is arbitrary, when people have as much control over their incremental brain changes than they do a quicker change due to a tumor.

I think these ideas stem from slow, incremental brain changes giving people an illusion of control, where as fast changes drop that illusion.

Imagine, if you will, that 10 years from now your brain will be configured as very different from what it is today. Your environmental and biological conditions lead to someone with many different beliefs, ideas, and the way you decide on things is drastically different. Now imagine that your brain took a leap from one state to the other in an instant. To others around you it would appear you are behaving entirely differently. That you were no longer “you”. Something happened to change your brain, and you had no control over that happening. Your “programming” was changed and you had no say over the change! The main difference between than brain state and the one that took ten years to get to is the time  and causal process.

The control you had over both is the same. One you just had more of an illusion of control, because each brain state led up to a decision and movement that led to the next, so it seems like a coherent “you” persisted moment from moment. In the other, that “you” seemed to change as your brain state took a leap to a different one.

But notice that, if you were a compatibilist, you wouldn’t say that the “you” ten years from now has no free free will illusion bookwill. Would you then say the “you” with the instantaneous brain change did not have free will?  If you say that the “you” did not, why is  the free will abilities different than the you ten years from now?  If you say that you did have free will even though the instantaneous brain change happened,  why would you say the “you” with the tumor doesn’t? Or the “you” with a mental disorder (which is just a different brain state that we label “outside of the norm”)?  Or the “you” with a microchip that changes the brain state? It’s because it would be absurd to say those people have free will, so compatibilists need to use qualifiers to disqualify them from their version of free will – even if “normal” people cannot control their incremental brain states from moment to moment and do not really have any more freedom of the will than these other more obvious examples.

To make a long story short, the brain state you have at any given moment is dictated by causal processes that are ultimately out of your control. To dismiss this because we “want”, “desire”, “make decisions”, and so on,  but then use qualifiers to disqualify other causal mechanisms that would play into those wants, desires, or decision making processes because they seem “less free” – is to make arbitrary distinctions between what causal processes grant “free will” and what one’s prevent “free will”. These arbitrary qualifiers miss the greater point, which is that we don’t have this free will: FREE WILL and no process is “more free”.

And that is the free will of concern for the free will skeptic, and also the ability the large majority of people intuitively feel they possess. Stop requiring the need for arbitrary qualifiers in order to sustain your usage of the term free will.  If you want to talk about which processes are more helpful compared to which are more harmful, that discussion can be had without injecting in the term “free will”.  Save all semantic shifting for August 31st please! 😉

Here are more articles about the problems with compatibilism:

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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 “The Problem with Compatibilist Qualifiers”

Comments (2)
  1. Well said, and I agree with you. I must point out that you would have more credibility if you spelled better. Possessive pronouns never contain apostrophes. Also, “obliverate” is not a word. Were you thinking of “obliterate”? Sorry, it’s a pet peeve of mine, and I was not free to ignore it.

    • Thanks Steven, Glad you agree! :-)

      I write these very quick blog posts “on the side”, usually in the few hours I have here and there, and have limited time to edit. I usually just give them a re-read and run through a spell-check once- twice if I have time…but I always miss things here and there. I fixed the apostrophe problem. I did not find the “obliverate” word in this particular post. Was it a different post you saw that in? If so I’ll fix accordingly. I actually do appreciate when people point out the mistakes so they can be adjusted, so am very glad that you are “not free to ignore it”.

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