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