I’m fortunate to often run into students whose interests in physics go beyond what they encounter in class, and who might even develop their interests in philosophical directions. Anyway, one of my previous students has apparently been taking the ambitions of physics to describe everything very seriously, and has been worrying about the classic free will vs. determinism problem.

So I emailed him a response, which aside from directing him to the literature, tried to give a quick and dirty description of compatibilism:

It seems to me that you’re taking what’s known as “libertarian free will” (“spontaneously generating actions out of nothing”) as our unreflective, folk-psychological “theory” about what we do. But that’s debatable. Even in everyday folk psychology, we don’t say our actions arise out of nothing. They’re affected by the information we have, our values, our ability to think through the consequences of our actions and similar uses of reasoning, our personal history that led to our being the sort of person we are—that constructed our dispositions, values etc.—and so forth. That is, we often think that what we do is at least somewhat determined, though the determining factors are understood in psychological, personal terms, rather than going into further detail about of what is happening at a neuronal or even physical level. 

In that case, a “freely willed act” is largely equivalent to “an action we chose ourselves” as opposed to being coerced, reflexive or otherwise not involving conscious deliberation and choice. 

Now, if you agree with that, you might go further and adopt a “compatibilist” position regarding free will. In other words, you can say that yes, there are physical processes that underlie our choosing things, in that brains doing certain things is precisely what constitutes deliberation and conscious reflection on choices. On the one hand, everything coming down to physics means that there is no “self” running the show in anyone’s brain, if you understand “self” as a kind of immaterial soul capable of spontaneous creation of decisions, assuming that such a thing is even intelligible. On the other hand, you still have selves that own their actions, except that now there are physical processes that we can investigate that constitute these selves and enable their deliberative capabilities. 

Let me try an analogy, even if it’s a rough one. We talk of a university having institutional interests, having a mission, and we even speak of a university making choices and taking action as an institution. But there isn’t any sort of magical “soul” of a university—all we have are buildings, equipment, students, faculty, administration, staff and so forth. None of those singly drive an institution. Students and faculty come and go. University presidents come and go without usually affecting institutional continuity. And institutional deliberations have definite processes involved—a lot of mostly boring and narrowly focused committee meetings and so forth come together and give the university an overall direction, even an overall character. 

With institutional actors, we have a pretty good idea of what the processes are, and few would be tempted to attach anything like libertarian free will to an institution. But with individuals, perhaps the difference is largely one of complexity and lack of transparency about the processes that make up our psychologies. If so, well, we genuinely make choices, and we make choices because of the physical processes that constitute our choice-making.

There it is, anyway. I’m not sure I’m completely happy with it, but it’s quite difficult to do this in a way that’s short and doesn’t get bogged down in technicalities.

Does anyone have a better analogy or other device that can help quickly describe compatibilism?

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Francois Tremblay

    Here's how I would describe compatibilism: it's like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by sanding the edges.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Your philosophy is much better than my physics. Nice job.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Compatibilism focuses on the contrast between free and unfree actions.

    Ordinary Language philosophy suggests that one consider various examples to clarify these concepts.

    1. Clear cut/paradigm cases of unfree actions.
    2. Clear cut/paradigm cases of free actions.
    3. Borderline cases – actions that are somewhat unfree yet somewhat free
    4. Related Concepts (to unfree action): coercion, compulsion, manipulation, deception, addiction, brainwashing, hypnotism, etc.
    5. Related Concept (to free action): deliberation, consent, willingness, etc.

  • Angra Mainyu

    Not exactly a simpler solution, but I'd suggest trying to assess whether the sticking point is determinism, or the idea that it's physics which describes stuff.

    For instance, let's consider the following scenario:

    A full description of the universe at some t, including Joe's beliefs, feelings, interests, desires, thoughts, goals, etc., plus some laws, entail all states of the universe at later times, including what Joe will do, think, etc., but a description of all things in the universe describable in terms of mass, charge, fields, etc., plus some laws, would not entail all future states of the universe (not even the state of things fully describable in terms of mass, etc.).

    Will he think that that would be a problem for free will?

    The reason for that question is that, in my view, some replies understood as incompatibilist actually result from the idea that if a description in terms of physics, etc., entail all future states, mental states, properties, etc., are causally effete.

  • Francois Tremblay

    "2. Clear cut/paradigm cases of free actions."

    Such as…?

  • Bradley Bowen

    Some paradigm cases of a free action would be…

    Making a selection of music to listen to based on one's mood and personal taste in music.

    Selecting colleges to apply to based on considerations such as cost, quality of teaching, size and reputation of the department that one intends to major in, etc.

    Being offered two different jobs at different companies and deciding which job to accept, based on considerations such as salary, benefits, potential for career growth, work-environment, company culture and ethics.

    Making a decision about what to do in a moral dilemma situation (say where keeping a promise to a friend will involve neglecting some other personal responsibility) by consideration of various moral principles, such as 'do no harm', 'respect the rights of others', 'avoid dishonesty, deception, and manipulation of others', etc.

    It seems to me that paradigm cases of free actions involve rational deliberation about generally relevant considerations which connect with one's own beliefs and values and preferences.

  • Francois Tremblay

    This is pretty absurd… you're saying these are all free actions but you keep pointing out their causes. How are they free?

  • Keith Parsons

    Just to expand on Bradley's last post, I would say that a decision is paradigmatically free for me if it is solely determined by MY beliefs, MY values, and MY desires. But if my beliefs, values, and desires are determined, how can my decision be free? For the compatibilist, freedom does not consist in being somehow being exempt from causality, but in having one's choices determined in particular ways. I very much hope that my beliefs, desires, and values are determined–in the right ways. That is, I hope that my beliefs are determined by my accurate perception of what is true, or at least rational. I hope that my values are determined by my recognition of what is valuable. Finally, I hope that my desires are determined by my recognition of what is desirable. If my beliefs are determined in these ways, then decisions determined solely by my beliefs, values, and desires should be regarded as free. I do not consider my autonomy to be abridged if my decision is determined by MY uncoerced recognition of what is actually true, good, and worthwhile.

    On the other hand, if my beliefs, values, and desires are products of fear and manipulation–say, by being raised in a rigidly totalitarian society–then my decisions based on those beliefs, values, and desires will not be free. If I have been indoctrinated to believe that truth is whatever the Dear Leader dictates, and the good and desirable are whatever he values and desires, then my decisions are not free. This, by the way, is why the most important goal of education is teaching students HOW to think not WHAT to think.

    To claim, as I believe Mr. Tremblay does, that an a decision that is in ANY way determined must be unfree is merely to beg the question against compatibilism.

  • Bradley Bowen

    Keith – Thanks for your clarification and explanation on my examples. I am in full agreement.

  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    I very much hope that my beliefs, desires, and values are determined–in the right ways.

    And what determines that hope? Or is it perhaps that you hope that your hope is also determined in the right way? And, anyhow, what is it that makes something right in a naturalistic reality? After all some people think that it is right to follow the Dear Leader’s dictates. What is it that makes them wrong? Actually, what does it actually mean to say something is right or wrong in a naturalistic reality, above and beyond how people feel about such matters?

    I do not consider my autonomy to be abridged if my decision is determined by MY uncoerced recognition of what is actually true, good, and worthwhile.

    But what does “coerced” and “uncoerced” mean in a naturalistic reality? For example, is a cuckoo clock coerced or uncoerced to sing the next strike of the hour?

    Changing gears, I wonder Keith whether you realize that your definition of freedom based on what is intrinsically right reflects a very old Christian idea?