Free Will and Compatibilism

5. Evolution of Free Will Concept

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

As a lead-in to a discussion about how the concept of free will has evolved in the face of societal changes, I want to clarify some other aspects of 'free will' talk that can lead to misconceptions. The first is that when we speak of a person having free will, its possession is not an all or nothing affair. Contra extreme libertarians, such as Sartre and Descartes, some intentional acts are free and some are not. Handing over one's wallet when a thug holds a gun to one's head is an intentional act, but it is not freely chosen. Choosing tea or coffee at a friend's house, on the other hand, is.

Allied with this, some intentional acts in particular admit of shades of grey. The act of robbing a store to feed the addict's heroin habit may have been neither completely free nor completely unfree. How free it was depends on the particular nature of the person's addiction at that time and of their environment. As Dr. Alan Leshner points out when speaking of the addict's switch from non-addiction to addiction, 'that switch probably moves gradually, not precipitously' [Moyers 1998].

This idea of the non-exclusive and graduated nature of free will helps explain why reasonable people can and do disagree about which actions are freely willed and to what extent. This is in large part due to the fact that 'free will' originated as a folk psychological concept and remains so in common parlance. It is too much to expect that folk psychology enjoys the same amount of precision as scientific concepts, such as 'mass' and 'time'.

Another spur to disagreement is the evolution of the concept of 'free will' itself. Advances in neuroscience, medicine and jurisprudence over the last century raised new questions about the nature and extent of free will. To what degree do particular brain injuries impair the patient's exercise of free will? What of drug addiction and brainwashing? Questions such as these have exercised medical researchers, philosophers and judges over many decades. The enquiry and debate continues at the cutting edges of technology, with experts disagreeing on many important points.

This evolution in our thinking about free will is akin to modern developments in our Western definition of 'death'. Prior to the modern era, clinicians and lay people had a relatively clear and unambiguous understanding of who was dead and who was not. Absence of respiration and pulse (cardiorespiratory death) were, for centuries, the indicators of a person dying. With the advent of modern neurophysiology and improvements in technological capability, we can now distinguish cardiorespiratory death from a persistent vegetative state (PVS) and from brain-stem death.

Most importantly, doctors can now keep a patient's body alive in all three states with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and artificial nutrition. As medical technology advanced, the medical profession's capacity to keep bodies alive way beyond the point of cardiorespiratory death increased dramatically. This blurring between our ordinary conceptions of life and death had crucial implications for medical, legal and moral decisions, especially around the practices of organ transplantation and euthanasia. Just as with our notion of 'free will', in the ensuing decades, philosophers, doctors and lawyers have refined our definition of 'death' to meet the challenges of technology and our increasingly sophisticated understanding of ethics, medicine and psychology.[8]

The key point I want to drive home here is that during this long and complex debate about how we should refine our definition of 'death', no philosopher, lawyer or medical expert argued that because refinements needed to be made, no one is 'really' dead. There were then and still are paradigmatic examples of people who are dead (J.F.K., Gandhi) and people who are not dead (Obama, you, me), just as there remain to this day paradigmatic examples of free acts (choosing coffee over tea) and unfree acts (handing over one's wallet at gunpoint). Advances in our scientific understanding and technological capability force us to refine our definitions by adding qualifications to previous notions of 'dead' and 'free will'. The addition and clarification of these qualifications over time is neither surprising (given the nature of philosophical discourse) nor arbitrary if it helps us make sense of our intuitions.

Some current diseases pose important questions for our notion of 'free will'. For example, does a person who experiences a benign change in personality with the onset of a brain tumour still possess free will? Some incompatibilists push these boundaries of our understanding even further with hypothetical scenarios involving created human beings and brain microchips. With these scenarios, incompatibilists expose the difficulties inherent in our notion of 'free will'.

This situation, though, is no different to our difficulties in understanding what is meant by 'dead' when we think of utilizing technologies that surpass what is currently possible. For example, scientists working in the field of cryogenics invite us to think about preserving a person's character and identity after they have experienced death, as usually understood, through a process of delaying what they call the person's 'information-theoretic death'.[9] But once again, just as the semantic, moral and legal questions posed by the possibility of delaying 'information-theoretic death' do not mean that no one is really 'dead', these kinds of questions posed by possible future technologies likewise don't mean that no one really exercises 'free will'.

These questions posed by technology and that require thoughtful answers highlight another important aspect of the debate over meanings. How philosophers, law makers and medical professionals define 'death' in their various communities is influenced by how these thinkers view moral and legal obligations. Their moral frameworks guide, to some extent, where they wish to draw the dividing line between life and death.

The situation is exactly the same with how technological advances impact our ideas about where to draw the line between free and unfree acts. When we think it acceptable to turn off a person's life support and when we think a brain tumour robs a person of their free will depends, to some extent, on our notions of moral agency and what it means to be a person. We can readily admit this complex interplay between semantics and ethics without abandoning entirely our distinctions between 'life' and 'death' on the one hand and 'free will' and 'unfree will' on the other. The upshot here is that this complex interplay is most visible at the cutting edges of technology and medicine and do not impact how we regard paradigmatic cases of death and free choice. Because of this mutual dependence between our sense of moral obligation and what hard determinists consider to be the intellectually bankrupt notion of 'free will', some hard determinists canvass the idea that we should jettison ethics altogether. I shall have more to say on this important relationship between free will and moral obligation in §8 below.


  1. [8] For a brief overview of changes in the definition of 'death', see Wikipedia [2016a].
  2. [9] For more information on the concept and implications of 'information-theoretic death', see, for example, de Wolf [2011] and Wikipedia [2016b].

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