Aug 222016

context-could-have-done-otherwizeSome compatibilists (people who define free will so that it is compatible with determinism), when asked the question of whether people “could have done otherwise” given a causally deterministic scenario (note that this discussion does not address indeterminism such as acausal or “probabilistic” events, etc. – which are equally incompatible with the free will of importance), say that “could have” or “could have done otherwise” can be used in different ways. They often address a few different contexts in order to push the important context off of the table of discourse. This post is going to address  those contexts/usages and explain why there is only one context/usage that applies to the important points for the free will debate that the free will skeptic wants to make sure isn’t neglected.

Colloquial Usage

One of the usages is a more colloquial usage in which the words “could have” aren’t meant to be taken literally, but rather express a point about how a person acted perhaps as a warning or how an event occurred that was a close call. The language here is figurative.

For example, if someone was acting in a way that is dangerous, say playing around on a ledge, it is perfectly acceptable to say “you should be careful – you could have fallen off of the ledge” to the person who did not fall off the ledge. In this case the language of “could have” is not being taken literally; rather the person is saying “playing around the ledge is dangerous and if you keep doing it there is a chance that you will fall”, or it could just be a way of saying “you are crazy”. It isn’t saying that at the time that the person played around the ledge that they really “could have” fallen, it’s just being used as a colloquial expression to assert how dangerous the action was.

But the context here is important. Imagine I asked this question:

“Given a deterministic universe with the same conditions, could the person who played around haphazardly on a ledge 50 stories up at 5PM on January 11th 2016 but did not fall off of the ledge that day, if we were to bring back the universe to right before 5PM on that day and let causality play out, this time, fall off the ledge on that day?”

The context of this question cannot be conflated with the usage of “Yipes, you crazy nut, you could have fallen!!!”. It is this non-colloquial sense of literally meaning that given the same causal variables it was possible that the person could be found dead below the ledge that is important for the free will debate.

The colloquil sense also can be used to address an event such as “you could have been hit by lightning”, which basically means “that lightning strike hitting near you was a close call”. Again, context is important. It doesn’t mean that the lightning actually could have hit you, it’s just a colloquial expression that means “you were lucky not to be hit by lightning” an expression that would be more accurate than using “could have”. The fact that people use language in figurative ways or that there are just clumsy expressions that have different meanings does not mean that we can invoke such language in order to conflate usages.

If we are looking at what is real rather than what is a colloquial expression, then given a deterministic universe, the  lightning bolt that came close to hitting you but that did not hit you could never have hit you – regardless of someone saying “Holy Schmoly, you could have been hit by that lightning bolt”. It is this point that is relevant to the free will debate. Bringing up a colloquialism in philosophical discourse over whether we could have done otherwise given determinism is just an avoidance mechanism.

Counterfactual Usage

Another way someone could use “could have done otherwise” is by using what is called modal language to address subjunctive conditions which are in fact false (hence the term counterfactual). This is done by attaching an “if”to the “could have”. For example, in a deterministic universe, after Billy robs a bank, one could say “Billy could have decided not to rob the bank IF the conditions of the universe were different in a way that he didn’t (e.g. via a different initial condition of the universe)”.

In this sense we are using a “contingent IF” to build to the “could have done otherwise”. That “if” however, is irrelevant. Saying “if the conditions of the universe were different” misses the point that any change in initial conditions would never be up to the person. For the free will debate, that is what is important. One might as well say “if the conditions were such that pigs flew, there would and could have been flying pigs”.


Using counterfactual language is a way to avoid the facts, and it is the facts that is relevant to the free will debate. Using a counterfactual can be done for just about anything. I can, as an example, say that “if square-circles existed, they would exist”, and given the acceptance of the “if” that is true no matter how logically absurd the idea is.

The more important point is that no person had control over what the conditions of the universe were, so the fact of “if they were different” is irrelevant to the free will debate. Using counterfactual language in this regard is just a way to be slippery. The salient point is that the conditions that “were” and that “were out of the person’s control” made an otherwise decision at the time of deciding impossible.

Epistemic Usage of “Could do” or “Can do”

Some people think that the epistemic usage of “could do” or “can do” implies that they “could have done”. This, however, conflates an epistemological position with an ontological one. When I say “I could eat cake or I could eat pie instead” while looking at the menu, that is before I know what I will decide to eat, and it is another colloquialism that just addresses the fact that I do not know what one “must be the case” after all of my causal deliberation given determinism. That does not mean, however, that it isn’t true that one “must be the case”, only that I do not know which (epistemic in this sense is addressing a knowledge position).

This epistemic usage of “could do” or “can do”,  however, no longer applies once it is “known” what we “did do”. At that point we can understand, if we are assessing a deterministic universe, that the thing we didn’t do isn’t something we really “could have done”…and that even at the time of epistemic uncertainty our assessment that we “could do” was technically wrong.

Of course, given that we cannot know all of the variables at the time of the decision, we think we “can do” for the list of options in front of us, and thinking that is part of the causal process that leads to the only decision we “could have” made.

This also applies to the word “possibility“. We can use this in the epistemic sense, meaning there are multiple possibilities just in the sense that we can’t know which one is the “real possibility”…or we can use possibility in the ontic sense meaning that the only possibility is the one that can exist. Only the one that can be actualized is the real possibility, the others are just conceptual and play a part in the one real possibility.

Some compatibilists like to conflate the epistemic version of the word “possibility” which basically just means “option” with the word “possible” in the sense that it can be actualized in reality. Under determinism, only one “epistemic possibility” (option) is ever really “possible” (viable, can be actualized in the world). For the free will debate, that is an important fact that shouldn’t be brushed to the side with an epistemic context of “could/can do” or “possibility”.

Factual Ontic Sense: The “Could Have Done Otherwise” that is Important for the Free Will Debate

Now that we’ve seen three different usages that are irrelevant to the important parts of the free will debate, let’s break down the usage that is relevant.


“could” – is the opposite of can’t. It means it was within our power.

“have done” is different from “do”. It implies that something has already been done and that we know what that something is. The “done” addresses a real action in the world, not something imaginary.

“otherwise” means something other or different from what was done.

When placed together, this means that it was within our power to do something different from what we did do. That we actually could have done otherwise.

For this version, the words are not taken colloquially or figuratively. It is meant in the realist sense that the otherwise action could have been actualized. It isn’t a counter-factual with a contingent “if”, it presumes the same causal variables because it does not suggest any change in these regards. It already knows what has causally happened, so there is no epistemic uncertainty of that.


The question “Could you have done otherwise?” can be placed in a context that avoids any confusion with the colloquial, epistemic, or counterfactual usage. For example, one could ask:

Given a deterministic universe, if we were to (theoretically) return to the point right before your decision, could you have chosen otherwise with all previous events being the same?

For such a question, if one were to say “yes”, they could only answer in a way that addresses a real, actualized different decision and outcome, without a contingency. Of course, most rational philosophical compatibilists and incompatibilists would understand that determinism is not compatible with this context of “could have done otherwise”.

If we say “no” to this question, then we too have the understanding that this type of “could have done otherwise” is incompatible with determinism. For the free will skeptic, this is very important, as if we could not have done otherwise in this context, then our actual options were limited to what we actually did do. This gets into the principle of alternate possibilities in which, if we did not have alternate possibilities in the realist (rather than epistemic) sense, then there is a certain type of moral responsibility that is out, which is the strong “just desert” sense here:

Moral Responsibility (and the Lack of Free Will) – INFOGRAPHIC

This sense differs from a strictly utilitarian sense in which the way we interact, deter, incentivize, or prevent are causal factors in how people will act in the future. Understanding that we do not have the strong sense of moral responsibility makes us more compassionate over the causality of others, more forgiving, less likely to consider others truly blameworthy, less likely to try to justify extreme wealth and well-being inequality via the notion of someone being “more or less deserving” than another, supporters of a quarantine model of incarceration,  more concerned with rehabilitation rather than retribution, and so on.

Layperson Intuitions about “Could Have Done Otherwise” in the Important Context

Most common laypeople (non-philosophers) think that they and others “could have done otherwise” even when given a totally deterministic scenario and a context that cannot be confused with the colloquial, counterfactual, or epistemic usages. Most also think that people are morally responsible in the strong sense that is beyond mere utility or pragmatism.

This is uncontroversial if we were to just take an unbiased look at the world around, the legal systems in place, the ability for people to blame entire groups of people in the stronger sense, the wealth and well-being imbalances and the justifications for those that we see, and so on.

It is also evident in a few studies. Here is one, which is of educated college students:

I suspect your average household would be even higher. But even if someone were to reject the studies, the fact that people intuit this is undeniable. A large bulk of people even hold to a religion where “sinners” are thought to be punished in a more retributive sense, some even in eternal damnation (which can hardly be seen as pragmatic or utilitarian). Even religious moderates tend to hold that people should be accountable in the strong sense.

This is a huge problem that should not be neglected by pretending that since we can use “could have done otherwise” in the colloquial, counterfactual, or epistemic sense, that means we can ignore what it means that we don’t have the factual, ontic sense in a deterministic universe.

In future posts I will go over the idea some compatibilists hold that “It doesn’t matter if you couldn’t have done otherwise, as long as you (causally) could have done what you wanted to do” and why that is a non-sequitur (it doesn’t follow from “you causally could have done what you wanted to do” to “the fact that you couldn’t have done otherwise doesn’t matter”) and often a moving the goalposts fallacy. It still matters greatly for all of the reasons provided, and one issue (e.g. the fact that it is best if people can do what they want rather than be manipulated or coerced, so long as what they want isn’t harmful to others) should not be conflated with another (e.g. the large number of problems that arise when people think or believe they and others could have done, of their own accord, otherwise and in the strong sense of moral responsibility).


Further reading: The Neglect of the Traditional View of Free Will

Next Wednesday, August 31st, is Semantic Shift Day.

Spread the word to let people know and make sure you participate. This new holiday started last year. See what it’s all about on last year’s post:

Semantic Shift Day – August 31st

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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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