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Title: Compatibilism  
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Subject: Free will, Determinism, David Hume, Dilemma of determinism, Science of morality
Collection: Determinism, Free will, Metaphysical Theories
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This page discusses a philosophical view on free will. See other uses of the term Compatibility.

Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are compatible ideas, and that it is possible to believe both without being logically inconsistent.[1] Compatibilists believe freedom can be present or absent in situations for reasons that have nothing to do with metaphysics.

For instance, courts of law make judgments about whether individuals are acting under their own free will under certain circumstances without bringing in metaphysics (actually it is assumed in a court or law that someone could have done otherwise than they did—otherwise no crime has been committed). Similarly, political liberty is a non-metaphysical concept.[2] (on the contrary, statements of political liberty, such as the American Bill of Rights, assume moral liberty—the ability to choose to do otherwise than one does) Likewise, compatibilists define free will as freedom to act according to one's determined motives without arbitrary hindrance from other individuals or institutions.


  • History 1
  • Defining free will 2
    • Alternatives as imaginary 2.1
  • Criticisms 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5


Compatibilism was championed by the ancient Stoics[3] and medieval scholasticism, such as that of St. Thomas Aquinas,[4] and by such modern philosophers like David Hume and Thomas Hobbes.[5] Actually the scholastics, including Thomas Aquinas, rejected what would now be called "compatiblism"—they held that humans could do otherwise than they do, otherwise the concept of "sin" is meaningless. As for the Jesuits—their concern was to reconcile the claim of God's foreknowledge of who would be saved with moral agency they did not deny that humans could choose to do other than we do, they utterly rejected what would now be called "compatibilism" in the philosophical sense. The term itself was coined as late as in the 20th century. Contemporary compatibilists range from the philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, particularly in his works Elbow Room (1984) and Freedom Evolves (2003), to the existentialist philosopher Frithjof Bergmann.

Daniel Dennett thus commented the problem of relation between free will and determinism: "Determinism is the friend, not the foe, of those who dislike inevitability."

Defining free will

Compatibilists often define an instance of "free will" as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to his own motivation. That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said (as paraphrased by Einstein) "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills."[6]

In other words, although an agent may often be free to act according to a motive, the nature of that motive is determined. Also note that this definition of free will does not rely on the truth or falsity of Causal Determinism. This view also makes free will close to autonomy, the ability to live according to one's own rules, as opposed to being submitted to external domination.

Alternatives as imaginary

Saying "there may be a person behind that door" merely expresses ignorance about the one, determined reality

The Compatibilist will often hold both Causal Determinism (all effects have causes) and Logical Determinism (the future is already determined) to be true. Thus statements about the future (e.g., "it will rain tomorrow") are either true or false when spoken today.

Hume adds that the Compatibilist's free will should not be understood as some kind of ability to have actually chosen differently in an identical situation. The Compatibilist believes that a person always makes the only truly possible decision that they could have.[7] Any talk of alternatives is strictly hypothetical. If the compatibilist says "I may visit tomorrow, or I may not", he is not making a metaphysical claim that there are multiple possible futures. He is saying he does not know what the determined future will be.


Compatibilism has much in common with so-called 'Hard Determinism', including moral systems and a belief in Determinism itself

Critics of compatibilism often focus on the definition(s) of free will: incompatibilists may agree that the compatibilists are showing something to be compatible with determinism, but they think that something ought not to be called "free will." Incompatibilists might accept the "freedom to act" as a necessary criterion for free will, but doubt that it is sufficient. Basically, they demand more of "free will". The incompatibilists believe free will refers to genuine (e.g., absolute, ultimate) alternate possibilities for beliefs, desires or actions, rather than merely counterfactual ones.

Compatibilists are sometimes called "soft determinists" pejoratively (William James' term). James accused them of creating a "quagmire of evasion" by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism.[8] Immanuel Kant called it a "wretched subterfuge" and "word jugglery."[9] Kant's argument turns on the view that, while all empirical phenomena must result 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. For Kant, subjective reasoning is necessarily distinct from how the world is empirically. Because of its capacity to distinguish is from ought, reasoning can 'spontaneously' originate new events without being itself determined by what already exists.[10] It is on this basis that Kant argues against a version of compatibilism in which, for instance, the actions of the criminal are comprehended as a blend of determining forces and free choice, which Kant regards as misusing the word "free". Kant proposes that taking the compatibilist view involves denying the distinctly subjective capacity to re-think an intended course of action in terms of what ought to happen.[9] Ted Honderich explains his view that the mistake of compatibilism is to assert that nothing changes as a consequence of determinism, when clearly we have lost the life-hope of origination.[11]

See also


  1. ^ summary of Compatibilism by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  2. ^  
  3. ^ Ricardo Salles, "Compatibilism: Stoic and modern." Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 83.1 (2001): 1-23.
  4. ^ As long as determinism is here understood as the principle that "nothing happens without a cause". Cf. e.g. Summa contra gentiles, the part about Providence, c. 88-91. See also Free will#Free will as a psychological state. In times of the Counter-Reformation views which were close to compatibilism were held openly by at least two Catholic orders: the Jesuits (molinism) and the Dominicans.
  5. ^ Michael McKenna: Compatibilism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.). 2009.
  6. ^ On The Freedom Of The Will,
  7. ^ Harry G. Frankfurt (1969). "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility," Journal of Philosophy 66 (3):829-39.
  8. ^ James, William. 1884 "The Dilemma of Determinism," Unitarian Review, September, 1884. Reprinted in The Will to Believe, Dover, 1956, p.149
  9. ^ a b Kant, Immanuel 1788 (1952).The Critique of Practical Reason, in Great Books of the Western World, vol. 42, Kant, Univ. of Chicago, p. 332
  10. ^ Kant, Immanuel 1781 (1949).The Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Max Mueller, p. 448
  11. ^ Ted Honderich, The Consequences of Determinism, 1988, p.169
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