Free Will and Compatibilism

2. What Is Free Will?

Book cover: Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting by Daniel C. Dennett

In this essay, I am interested in exploring whether the notion of 'free will' is compatible with the belief that all of our actions are determined by a network of physical causes that extend back in time to a time even before that of our own birth. This is the deterministic picture painted by modern science, from the fields of neurology, information theory, evolutionary psychology, genetics and a number of other connected fields. Given that we are highly complex physical structures obeying the laws of physics, can we still legitimately describe some of our most important choices and actions as being manifestations of our free will? Much of the answer to this question hangs on what we mean by a person exercising their 'free will'.

Regrettably, much of the philosophical debate on what 'free will' means, as well as the debate about related terms, such as 'agency', 'control' and 'choice', is divorced from an analysis of how ordinary people use these words in their day-to-day living. I think such an ordinary-language analysis is the starting point for an examination of the question of whether free will is compatible with determinism. Incompatibilists argue that determinists ought to stop labelling some actions as being the result of free will. They argue that determinists should modify their day-to-day discourse when it comes to ascribing free agency to some voluntary behaviours, such as choosing which tie to wear to work. To settle this question, enquiring into what common folk take 'free will' to mean becomes critical.

I'll start by reviewing how the terms 'free' and 'free will' began use within English speaking communities. The term 'free' arose from the Old English word 'freo' in the thirteenth century. This word meant:

free, exempt from, not in bondage[2]

Between the years 1525 and 1535, the conjoined term 'free will' arose for the first time.[3] In the literature of the day and in the ensuing decades, the term was used to denote a person's will that was not constrained or forced.[4] This meaning of an unencumbered and uncoerced will carries through to the modern era. In addition to the notion that a free will is an uncoerced will, modern advances in science and jurisprudence has led to the recognition that in other situations, a person's will can also be encumbered or restricted. I've grouped the kinds of situations in which a person's capacity to exercise their free will is restricted into four classes. These are:

  1. coercion
  2. manipulation
  3. addiction
  4. mental illness

I will now discuss each of these classes and, along the way, illustrate each with representative examples of how they appear in common discourse about freely willed behaviours.

2.1 Coercion

The various forms of coercion are the earliest recognized encumbrances on a person's ability to act freely. For example, in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra [c. 1606], Octavia pleads to Caesar that he travelled to Rome of his own free will in spite of the constraints put on him by Mark Antony. As Octavia puts it, 'Good my Lord, To come thus was I not constrain'd, but did it On my free-will' [3.6.65].

In Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, Nicholas begs the young Madelaine to not marry Mr. Gride as she is unknowingly being impelled to do so. Madelaine protests, 'I am impelled to this course by no one, but follow it of my own free-will. You see I am not constrained or forced by menace and intimidation' [1843: 313f].

From these early uses, note in particular how a free will is contrasted with a constrained or forced will. It is not contrasted with an uncaused will. The constraints identified by these characters are constraints put up by other people and not causes lurking in heritable characteristics or brain physiology, as some incompatibilists argue.

To Dickens' coercive means of menace and intimidation, we can add threats of violence, hostage taking, threats to reputation and withdrawal of critical resources. Robbery at gunpoint and forced marriages are paradigmatic examples of the prevention of the exercise of free will. I will say more on paradigmatic examples in §3 below.

This idea of absence of coercion as being central to the notion of 'free will' carries through to the modern day. The Collins English Dictionary renders one of the two meanings of 'free will' as:

the ability to make a choice without coercion: he left of his own free will: I did not influence him[5]

Similarly, the Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary gives the first of two meanings to 'free will' as:

A will free from improper coercion or restraint. "To come thus was I not constrained, but did On my free will."[6]

Following are some modern day examples of ordinary people identifying the absence of free choice with coercion. In the United Arab Emirates, many women are trafficked into prostitution. The Director of Ewa'a shelters for trafficked women and children said to a news reporter, 'How many women do this work โ€of their own free will and how many are coerced is unknown' [Lageman 2016].

In a newspaper article on marriage, authors Emmanuel and Moussa [2015] explain the difference between an arranged marriage and a forced marriage.

In an arranged marriage, the meeting of the spouses is arranged by family members, relatives or friends, but the spouses agree by their own free will to marry. In contrast, in a forced marriage, one or both spouses are coerced into the marriage โ€“ the union takes place without their freely given consent โ€“ either under duress, threats or psychological pressure.

Consider a final case of armed kidnapping in the United Kingdom. Colombian drug criminals forced two young women at gunpoint into smuggling cocaine through customs. After the women's arrest, the Archbishop of Lima claimed they 'had no choice but to follow orders'. He added, 'If they have been coerced or threatened as I think they are going to argue, then the fact that they physically had it in their possession may not mean that they were intentionally or wilfully doing it.' The father of one of the women pleaded that his daughter 'would never do anything like this of her own free will' [Sky News 2013].


  1. [2] See, for example, entries under 'free' in Collins English Dictionary [2012], URL = <> and Online Etymology Dictionary [2016], URL = <>.
  2. [3] See the entry under 'free will' in Unabridged [2016]. Source location: Random House, Inc., URL = <>.
  3. [4] Examples of common use are given in the entry under 'free will' in Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary [2016], URL = <>.
  4. [5] See the entry under 'free will' in Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition, HarperCollins Publishers, URL = <>.
  5. [6] See the entry under 'free will' in Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, G & C. Merriam Co., 1913, ed. Noah Porter.

Copyright © 2016, 2018, 2021

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