Are free will and determinism compatible?

There are many ways in which this question can be elaborated and perhaps over-complicated. In its essentials, it seems to me, to be the ‘hard question’ about morality, and should therefore be presented in as straightforward a way as possible. But first an historical observation. Kant was mightily impressed, as were his philosophical predecessors and contemporaries, by the discoveries of Galileo and Newton. But perhaps he saw more clearly, and certainly he felt more deeply than them, that the successes that would follow from empiricism as it uncovered measurable regularities in nature, would threaten the doctrine of free will, that is the power of self-determination or autonomy in human beings. There would be a reliance on some version of the principle of sufficient reason, possibly this one: “Nihil est sine ratione seu nullus effectus sine causa” – that is ‘nothing is without reason, no effect is without a cause’. Kant’s treatment of these issues is profound and complex. The most direct entry point to them is probably through reading Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. It is here that he states the principle that there is no thing that is good in itself save a good will. He also offers among others this formulation of his Categorical Imperative – “We should never act in such a way that we treat humanity, whether in ourselves or in others, as a means only but always as an end in itself.” My reaction to reading this book over thirty years ago was of amazement, gratitude and admiration. Kant was really bothered by determinism, as was I when I realised that many distinguished scientists were not very bothered about it at all!

The hard question about morality is whether a satisfying account can be given which shows that determinism and free will are compatible. (For simplicity I am ignoring the possibility raised by Quantum Theory that at the subatomic level there is an irreducible indeterminacy. This possibility can easily be shown to have no direct bearing on the free will question. Haphazardry, just like determinism, is unable to ground moral responsibility).
One of the most eminent analytical philosophers of the twentieth century, W.V. Quine has given the clearest and most unflinching account of Compatibilism that I know. In his book Quiddities he says ‘One is free in the ordinary sense of the term, when one does as one likes or sees fit; and this is not altered by the fact, if fact it be, that what one likes or sees fit has had its causes.The notion that determinism precludes freedom is easily accounted for. If one’s choices are determined by prior events, and ultimately by forces outside oneself, then how could one choose otherwise? Very well, one cannot. But freedom to do otherwise than one likes or sees fit would be a sordid boon.’ I strongly disagree with this elegant and incisive piece of prose. Quine’s account of freedom as absence of constraint misses entirely the quality of ‘oughtness’ that that attaches to moral dilemmas, and the inner struggle that may result. Let me enlist the support of another philosophical heavyweight, Elizabeth Anscombe. In her paper Causality and Determination she wrote, ‘Ever since Kant it has been a familiar claim among philosophers that one can believe in both physical determinism and ethical freedom. The reconciliations have always seemed to me to be so much gobbledegook or to make the alleged freedom quite unreal … The truth of physical indeterminism is thus indispensable if we are to make anything of the claim of freedom. But it is certainly insufficient.’ Kant regarded compatibilism as a wretched subterfuge, because in his opinion while all empirical phenomena must derive from determining causes, human thought introduces something seemingly not found elsewhere in nature, the ability to conceive of the world in terms of how it ought to be or how it might otherwise be. In other words the freedom of the will is a creative force, which no doubt accounts for the staggering difference between geological and human history. Whether Darwinian evolution is entirely mechanistic as is currently the prevailing orthodoxy, or whether there is some creative power which runs counter to the second law of thermodynamics without in any way nullifying it, is to my mind not finally settled. Perhaps Prigogine’s work on self-organisation is a straw in the wind.
On a personal note, without free will, (ie the possibility to both improve and damage oneself through one’s actions) the people whom I have loved would have been contingent beings without any inherent qualities they could call their own. They would in fact be soulless. I find this thought intolerable. Kant, who was a thinking prodigy, might be thought to be a little soulless himself. His mother died when he was thirteen, and he rarely talked about love but a great deal about reason. This is why I find this rare personal remark illuminating and incredibly moving. ‘I shall never forget my mother for she implanted and nurtured the first seed of good in me, she opened my heart to the influence of nature, she awakened and broadened my ideas, and her teachings have had an enduring, beneficent effect on my life.’
I shall write two further posts on this topic, the first some notes and quotes, the second a thought experiment which may have some value.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

5 thoughts on “Are free will and determinism compatible?

  1. Free will is an empirical event in which a person decides for themselves what they will do, while free of coercion and other forms of undue influence.

    Reliable cause and effect, in itself, is neither coercive nor undue. It’s just how things (including us) work. Only specific causes, such as someone holding a gun to our head or perhaps a significant mental illness or some other extraordinary condition that compromises our ability to decide for ourselves what we will do, can affect our free will.

    What we will “inevitably” do is exactly identical to us just being us, doing what we do, and choosing what we choose. That is not a meaningful constraint. It is not something that we can or need to be free of.

    In fact, every freedom that we have, to do anything at all, requires reliable causation. So, the notion of “freedom” presumes a world of reliable causation. And the philosophical definition of “free will”, as a choice “free of causal necessity” is a self-contradiction, a bit of silly nonsense.

    Kant was right in suggesting that a “good will” is the only incorruptible virtue. A moral person seeks the best good and the least harm for everyone. It is that goal that becomes the criteria for judging the morality of two conflicting rules of behavior.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, Marvin for your comment. We are however in different camps. I am with Hannah Arendt, Elizabeth Anscombe and Martin Gardner in regarding compatibilism as utterly insufficient for grounding actions as the responsibility of those who perpetrate them. Quine and P.F. Strawson in his paper Freedom and Resentment take a different view which I find unappealing and unconvincing. I want to say of certain acts that they are good or wicked without qualification. If the bad acts are the result of bad conditioning and the good acts for the reverse, we are conditioned creatures, not moral beings. We would not be the sole authors of our most deeply meditated acts. And ultimately I cannot prove the truth of my opinion, but without that belief I am also unable to believe in the human soul. I do not wish to implicate God or immortality in my using of the word soul, I only wish to suggest that each of us is responsible for the person we become through all the challenges and provocations we may have to endure and which also shape us. If there were causes for all our actions, I cannot see what role ther could be for consciousness. It would be a spectator of the life that unfolded in the body, experienced rather a person would experience rollong down a hill in a sealed barrel.
    I hope you find other posts of interest.


    1. Consciousness is part of the rational causal mechanism. In empirical reality there will be a string of thoughts and feelings, of purposes and reasons, that reliably cause our choice. That string of thoughts and feelings are what we affectionately call “you” and “me”. As David Eagleman says, “our brain is us”. So, whatever it decides, we have decided, and whatever it controls, we control.


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