In this paper, I will explain why I believe compatibilism is a better explanation of the issue of determinism versus free will than incompatibilism.
The metaphysical thesis of determinism is that everything that happens and every cause for everything that happens are the unavoidable results of a previous event (Taylor, 36). According to determinism, every event is predisposed to occur because of another event that has already occurred (55). Because everything is influenced by a certain cause, including the cause itself, there is only one possible future.
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Because there is only one possible future, determinism also allows for the hypothetical predictability of that future. In principle, if we have a perfect knowledge of the positions and forces of every atom in the world, we could predict the future as well as know everything that happened in the past at any moment in time.
Determinism is deeply connected with our understanding of the laws of nature and our understanding of human free action. If determinism is true, every future and the past event is unavoidable. So, if we assume determinism is true, can free will exist? The answer is no. Because every future event is essentially governed by the state of the world before it occurs, then our actions, too, regardless of whether we choose them or not, are already governed by previous actions. The ability to choose what we do would be impossible because it is nothing but an illusion (39).
It may seem to us that we can choose differently than what we do, but in reality, we are just following the causal chain of events that has existed since the beginning of time. If every one of my actions is predetermined, then I cannot be held responsible for anything I do. Free will cannot exist in a world where future actions are predetermined, only the illusion of it can. So, if I cannot be held morally responsible for any of my actions, then in what sense can I attribute the freedom of choice to myself? In his essay Freedom and Necessity, A.J. Ayers says that freedom can only be exerted when one makes a decision and then assumes moral responsibility for the conclusion of the action they chose. Ayers argues that to be free to act one must accept that they could have acted otherwise, consider their actions completely voluntary, and not be compelled to choose by others.
The first principle by itself contradicts the fundamental idea of determinism. That is, according to determinism, the order of the universe and the distant past are constant factors in the occurrences of the present. If that is the case, then how can one act differently at all? Determinism seems to make both the issue of freedom and the question of responsibility for our actions problematic because, by definition, determinism does not allow free will or moral responsibility to exist.
No compromise between determinism and freedom has proved to be as irrepressible as compatibilism. Compatibilism states that we can be both free to act as we choose and responsible for actions while subject to determinism. Compatibilists believe that in the world, there is a deterministic connection between motivation to act and our actions themselves. They identify free will with the freedom to act literally-the absence of something coercive or restraining controlling us.
The freedom to act is just as important as having the freedom to will an action, although the two are different because, in order for us to freely act, we need the will and the physical ability to do so. However, one freedom does not depend on the other. Our wills can be free even if we are physically incapable of performing an action, and we can be coerced into performing an action (trapping our free will) even if we are physically free. A compatibilist says that we are free if our free will is involved in the causal chain of events that is consistent with the laws of nature or anything else deterministic.
Compatibilism is a response to the problem of freedom and responsibility in a deterministic world because it is able to successfully reconcile freedom and determinism. Compatibilists accept what determinists say about every event being the direct result of another event; they just include our free will because although some parts of our nature are determined for us outside of our control (likes, dislikes, temperament, etc.), our ability to make moral decisions depends on nothing but our own free will and ourselves. Thus, we have the ability to take responsibility for our actions and still be free in a causal chain of events.
To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely, and to have responsibility is to have the ability to have done something other than the action performed. An incompatibilist believes responsibility for any action to be impossible. Incompatibilism, put simply, is the view that free will and determinism are not compatible with each other (Kane, 23).
The most widely discussed incompatibilist argument is the Consequence Argument (23). The Consequence Argument as stated by Peter van Inwagen says:
If Determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore the consequences of these things (including our own acts) are not up to us. (23)
Incompatibilism is a valid objection to compatibilism because what the Consequence Argument says is true: we cannot change the past or the laws of nature. Since there is nothing we can do to change either of those and because our present actions are direct results of the laws of nature and past events, then there is nothing we can do to change the fact that our present actions occur (24). Because we can never do otherwise, it is impossible to accept responsibility for any of our actions. Free will requires the ability to do other than we have done, and if we cannot do that, then no one is free or responsible.
However, the compatibilists reject the Consequence Argument. They reject it because it does not follow their definition of the word “can.” In order to be capable of doing something, according to a compatibilist, there cannot be any physical restraints preventing one from acting the way he wanted. He could act the way he wanted to if he chose to act that way.
An incompatibilist would disagree with this statement because no matter how much a person wanted to do something, and even if nothing was physically restraining him, he could not change the laws of nature or the past. A compatibilist has no choice to but to agree with the beginning of the incompatibilists’ Consequence Argument because it is true, no matter whose definition of the word “can” one goes by.
In the end, the Consequence Argument fails. The end of the argument states that because we cannot change the past or the laws of nature, we cannot deliberately choose to do anything other than we would have done. This is a fleshed-out version of Rule Beta: “if there is nothing anyone can do to change X, and nothing anyone can do to change the fact that Y is a necessary consequence of X, then there is nothing anyone can do to change Y either” (25).
But Rule Beta is invalid because the only result of the laws of nature and the past is the fact that someone about to make a choice, and unless he is coerced into choosing a particular option, the result of the past and the laws of nature do not govern the actual choice that he will eventually choose. Even if his temperament and likes and dislikes cause him to want to choose a certain choice, he can still deliberate to choose otherwise.
I have argued that compatibilism is a good solution to the problem of free will and responsibility indeterminism. It is possible to be both morally responsible for our actions as well as be free in a deterministic world.
Taylor, Richard. 1992. Metaphysics, 4th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Kane, Robert. 2005. A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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