Free Will and Compatibilism

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2021. Free Will and Compatibilism, URL = <>.

Exposed brain with implanted electrodes

Given the modern scientific view of the world and of our place in it, it seems as if we are part of the natural universe. It appears that our hopes, desires and behaviours are just as much subject to the natural laws of the universe as ping pong balls and planets. Consequently, our concepts of moral and legal responsibility and our freedom to choose have been subjected to much critical reappraisal during the last 100 years. Hard determinists have concluded that we should give up on our concept of free will and, perhaps also, on our ideas of moral responsibility. Libertarians, on the other hand, have pushed back hard against the scientific view of mind and human behaviour and maintained that we should preserve our concept of free will while abandoning the mechanistic view of human beings.

What I want to do in this essay is to sketch out a view of human freedom in which we both keep our notion that we sometimes act freely and the view that we are highly complex deterministic beings. On this compatibilist view, free will and determinism are seen to be mutually complementary and not contradictory, as incompatibilists contend. I'll begin by outlining what I think common folk mean when they say that an agent exercised their free will. Next, I'll trace briefly how the meaning of free will has adapted to improvements in our scientific understanding. Then, I'll consider how statements about free will should be understood in terms of modal propositions that elucidate our feeling that the free-willing person could have done otherwise.

I recognize that in some domains of enquiry, the term 'free will' is explicitly used in the sense of a will that is not completely determined by prior physical states and events. Theologians and libertarian philosophers use the term 'free will' in this contra-causal sense of a will with no sufficient physical cause. This is a technical use of the term in use within these specialist disciplines. What I'm interested in, though, is the meaning attributed to the term in common parlance. I grant that some ordinary language users subscribing to a particular thought-out philosophical outlook (such as theism and existentialism) use the term in this contra-causal sense. What I propose to show is that this sense does not underpin the use of the term in common discourse. During the course of the discussion, it should become clear that incompatibilists are injecting the ordinary-language meaning of 'free will' with their own metaphysical presuppositions.

For the purposes of this essay, I will use terms in the following senses. By 'determinism', I mean the view that for the universe, at the macro-level of microbes and humans, every event, including human behaviours, has a set of sufficient physical causes. What I mean by this is that a complete description of the initial state of a closed macro-level system, conjoined with the laws of physics, logically entails descriptions of future states of the system.[1] By 'indeterminism', I mean the contrary thesis; that there are some macro-level events in the universe that do not have a sufficient cause.

By 'compatibilism' (or 'soft determinism'), I mean the thesis that determinism is true and is compatible with the view that human beings possess 'free will', as ordinarily understood. By 'incompatibilism', I mean the view that the thesis of determinism is not logically compatible with the notion that human beings possess free will. Incompatibilists can either accept the thesis of determinism while rejecting the notion of free will (in which case they are 'hard determinists') or reject the thesis of determinism while accepting the view that we possess free will (in which case they are 'libertarians'). Finally, in this essay, when I write about a 'free act', I mean an intentional act that is the result of the exercise of a free will.


  1. [1] I include within the determinist's thesis the possibility of indeterminacy at the quantum level as indeterminacy at this level does not impact causal inferences at the macro-level. Quantum physicists tell us that the quantum wave function collapses as soon as a quantum particle interacts with another particle, such as in any biological system.

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