Explaining Compatabilism

(This post is repeated from an earlier blog)

The following is extracted and slightly edited from a discussion on Uncommon Descent. There is the usual chain of comments – this picks up at comment #98.

Myself (in response to a comment from Vjtorley)

I know I am not going to convince you that compatibilism is true but maybe I might just be able to explain how it works (at least in my version). I found that understanding it required a sort of Gestalt shift – seeing the duck as a rabbit.

Just to clear up a point which you may well regard as trivial. By "determinism" I don’t necessarily mean that everything is in theory predictable. There may be a genuine random element in the universe – uncaused outcomes. I just think there is nothing other than determined or random.

To briefly answer your points.

1) Acting according to my desires is not being under external control. It is doing what I want to do.

2) Actually I think chimpanzees and rats do have free will. They don’t have responsibility – but then neither does a 2 year old child – but would you deny it has free will.

3 )Yes blame is morally appropriate for healthy adult human beings because they have free will and responsibility.

4) By desires I include the desire to do good, make penance etc. We do these things because we want to do them.

And yes a stronger desire is simply the one that we decide to satisfy. That is part of what it means for one desire to be stronger than another.

5) I don’t dispute the difference between desires and decisions. Desires cause decisions – but they are not the same kind of thing. My desire that England will win the cup may cause me to decide to donate to the sports fund.

One way of thinking of compatibilism is following the progress of a human from foetus to baby to toddler to child to adult. At each point genetic inheritance and past and present external stimuli causes actions. But gradually the ways in which they lead to action become more sophisticated. As a foetus the stimuli lead to action in a simple, predictable way (although there may be a random element) e.g. kicking in the womb. You would not call this a decision to kick. In the toddler the action given the stimuli is harder to predict because the processing is more complicated – but there is a whole class of stimulus actions which we would definitely call decisions e.g. to throw perfectly good food on the floor. In the adult the stimuli may undergo the most complex processing including feedback loops where the processing may itself be part of the stimuli (a conscious decision). It becomes much harder to predict the outcome given the stimuli (but is still often possible). But being able to predict the outcome does not prevent higher order decision being free.

Of course, even as adults there are still actions which we would not call decisions – breathing, pulse racing. And I would say there are some actions which are somewhere between decisions or not – the choice of a word in a sentence spoken instinctively for example. In this analysis free will is a matter of degree. It is about one of the ways we come to act based on the environment. And that is what free will means. It just hard to take this on board when you are, as it were, inside the decision process.

Vjtorley (part of his response)

You write:

"Acting according to my desires is not being under external control. It is doing what I want to do. "

If some thing or set of things determine your desires, then they do control you. Let’s make the illustration plainer.

Suppose that instead of a thing, it was a person – let’s say a Martian – that was determining your desires, by twiddling a meter. He sets it to 0 and you feel hungry, 10 and you feel thirsty, 20 and you feel angry, 30 and you feel like going for a walk, and so on. And now suppose that for the first time, the Martian decides to reveal himself to you. He knocks on your door and demonstrates how his meter works. How do you react? Do you feel blind, inchoate rage that all your life you have been mainpulated by this being from Mars? No, of course you don’t – for he’s prudently set the meter to 40, which makes you feel calm. Now he’s smiling at you, and you’re smiling back at him.

Now, I put it to you: are you free? All yoyr life you’ve been doing what you want. What’s more, you’ve been deliberating rationally – it’s just that the Martian has controlled your deliberations. And yet I think the overwhelming intuition of the person-in-the-street is that in this case, you are not free. I think you would agree, yourself, in this case.

Now, why should it be any different if the factors determining your desires are a combination of the people whom you have met in your life, and well as blind, impersonal natural forces?


I guess a little more discussion of "control" is needed. In one sense we are all under external control. Advertisers create "needs", good employers set up working environments so we get job satisfaction and work harder. But in doing so they are not changing us into creatures that lack free will. They are not, as it were, by-passing the usual decision making processes.

An addictive drug may create an enormously strong desire that drives out all others. You could imagine a criminal master mind inflicting such a drug on a victim and this becomes very similar to the Martian case. The criminal master mind gives the drug because he knows that the victim will take on complex, dangerous and unpleasant work to satisfy the need. However, the work involves planning and decision making. So in one sense the master mind is controlling the victim. But the victim is still able to make decisions, to reflect on his addiction, quite possibly to wish that the desire was not so strong.

Has the victim lost free will? Where is the difference in principle from the employer who designs the working environment so it becomes addictive?


The hypothetical cases involving addiction which you propose are very interesting, but they differ in two significant ways from my Martian case. The first difference relates to time, and the second relates to scope.

1. Time. An addict may have a craving that he/she needs to satisfy, but once it is satisfied (i.e once the addict has obtained his/her "fix"), the addict is free from his/her overpowering urge for a while. During that time, the addict is free to seek treatment for his/her addiction. For example, the addiction can call someone for help, or go and see a therapist, or take refuge in a church. Even if the criminal mastermind has cunningly locked all the doors of the building and cut the phone lines, the addict can still pray. That, at least, is a free act, even if the addict’s prayers go unanswered and the addict never manages to escape. For at least some of the time, then, the addict is free.

2. Scope. The criminal mastermind doesn’t control all of the addict’s desires. In fact, the criminal mastermind doesn’t even control all of the addict’s ultimate goals. The drug is an ultimate goal for the addict, but so is the urge to sleep, eat, drink or relieve oneself. Any of these urges can be over-riding cravings too. What happens when these urges conflict? It is thus doubtful whether the criminal mastermind could control the entire gamut of the addict’s behavior, simply by creating an addiction in his/her victim. But even supposing that there were no conflicts of urges, and that the criminal mastermind could infallibly make the addict take on complex, dangerous and unpleasant work to satisfy his/her need, the mastermind’s control over the addict’s behavior would not be complete: it would still be up to the addict to decide exactly how to go about performing these dangerous tasks, as the criminal mastermind has not attempted to control the addict’s rational deliberations, but has merely ensured that the addict will do his/her utmost to achieve the goal intended by the mastermind.

In any event, I would say that while the addict is experiencing an over-riding craving, he/she has lost his/her free will. That person’s intellect may be still functioning, but it is the slave of the addict’s compulsive desires.

However, the Martian case which I described above (#100) is quite different from the addiction case you proposed. In the Martian case, the Martian has been controlling all of your desires, and all of your rational deliberations, all your life. Surely you would concede that you have no freedom left in this case – and yet, "the usual decision making processes," as you describe them, have been left intact, by supposition. What that suggests to me is that free will cannot be cashed out in purely procedural terms. Absence of determination is a necessary condition for freedom.

Let’s return to the other cases you propose. What about the employer who creates an addictive workplace? That’s quite a different case from the criminal mastermind. The employees presumably go home at some time. At least while they are at home, they are free to reflect on the misery of their hectic lifestyles, come to their senses and seek help. I should add, however, that if I were the spouse of an employee who died from overwork in such an environment, I would sue the company for every last penny they had, and then some.

Lastly, incentives and addictions are two very different things. The whole purpose of creating an addiction is to either destroy reason or make it the slave of the passions. An incentive works precisely by appealing to the subject’s reason. Of course, it may appeal to the subject’s appetites too. However, a human incentive is above all designed to secure the intellect’s approval for the course of action which it is intended to elicit.

I hope my analysis of the above cases has convinced you that incompatibilism (which I espouse) remains a strong, philosophically defensible position.


There was a phrase in your description of the Martian case which escaped my notice the first time which I think is rather important.

the Martian has been controlling all of your desires, and all of your rational deliberations</b<,

This rather implies that the Martian is micromanaging my deliberations – intervening in the decision making process. My model of free will does not include that. My mental processes are caused by my desires. If determinism is true, then in theory given my desires (and a zillion other things such as my memories and the current environment) it would be possible to predict how those processes will operate and the decision they will come up with (with the standard reservation about a possible random element). But the processes operate standalone as it were in my brain. It is my brain that is balancing alternatives, weighing outcomes, imagining how I would feel if … To me this is free will. As you point out it no difference if a Martian specified all my desires and environment or whether they just happened – the mental process is the same.

Here we meet an impasse. You feel that something important is missing from this rather bizarre scenario. A mysterious element called "free will". I feel this bizarre scenario captures what we call free will. I am making decisions based on what I want. I am responsible for those decisions and culpable or laudable accordingly.

As I say I only want to explain what compatabilism is. I know I will not convince anyone – at least not immediately – but sometimes it gradually takes root as an idea.

A reflection which you may find obvious. Materialism more or less entails compatabilism or the denial of free will. However, compatabilism does not entail materialism. It may be that this process, caused by my desires, is in some sense immaterial.


Thank you for your post. If I understand you rightly, your model of free choice is as follows:

(i) external forces (past and present) mold my desires. It does not matter if these external forces are personal (like my hypothetical Martian) or impersonal (e.g. blind natural processes, such as chance and necessity);

(ii) My desires determine my rational decision-making processes, but these decision-making processes have to take place inside me. They cannot be micro-managed from outside; if they are, then my decision is not properly mine and hence not free;

(iii) The decision-making processes in turn determine my actions, which are (for the most part) bodily movements.

I have a few comments I’d like to make.

1. In #98 you wrote that on your view, "blame is morally appropriate for healthy adult human beings because they have free will and responsibility," whereas two-year-old children, chimpanzees and rats have free will, but are not responsible for their actions. I have to ask: why not?

In #100, I suggested that infants, although rational, lack "a fully fledged theory of mind, in which they understand that there are other people, who have their own beliefs and desires." In my opinion, this is a sensible reason for denying moral responsibility to infants – and to any non-human animals who are incapable of having a "theory of mind." (Having duties and responsibilities to others presupposes an ability to empathize with them, and see things from their perspective. Infants can’t do this; neither can rats, and I doubt whether chimps can, either.) Would you concur with this view?

2. In #106, you wrote: "My mental processes are caused by my desires." This sounds odd. For the life of me I cannot see how a desire can determine a rational deliberation. After all, the object of one’s rational deliberation (e.g. food for dinner) can hardly be said to generate syllogisms in one’s head, so why should a desire for that object be able to do so? A desire is merely an appetite which moves someone towards an object.

Well, what about a combination of desire and stored information? Could that generate a rational deliberation? Certainly not, if you envisage reasoning as a formal process. My desires might push me to manipulate the information in my brain to obtain some end, but that would be by virtue of their chemical properties rather than their formal properties, such as logical validity and soundness.

3. You also noted in #106 that you would not be perturbed, as a compatibilist, even if the (decision-making) process were (in some way) an immaterial one.

Since you don’t particularly care whether the forces determining your desires are personal or impersonal, and you don’t care whether your decision-making processes are material or immaterial, then I can only assume you have no objection to theological compatibilism. On your own account of freedom, there is no objection which you could level at Calvin’s absolute double predestination: the notion (held by a small minority of Christians) that God decreed from all eternity that a few people will be saved, and that the remainder (who are said to constitute the vast majority of humankind) will be damned. Calvin held that God was perfectly just in punishing the damned, since they had freely chosen to perform the actions which brought about their damnation: after all, they did exactly what they wanted to do, and their rational deliberations were their own – they were not micro-managed by God, so your condition (ii) would be satisfied by Calvin’s God. (A Calvinistic God would be perfectly capable of determining people’s deliberations through either remote or proximate causes, so we can assume that no micro-management occurs.)

You might object to the eternity of the punishment of the damned, but a Calvinistic God might reply: "Well, if they continue to hate me and my laws, then why shouldn’t I continue to punish them for it? It’s a self-perpetuating cycle, and they freely perpetuate it."

You might also ask why God does not annihilate the damned; but why, on your account, is He obliged to?

The doctrine of hell is without a doubt the number one objection to Christianity, put forward by skeptics. Since most skeptics are also compatibilists, then I would argue that they are being inconsistent when they object to Christianity in this manner. Would you agree?

For my part, I hasten to add, I am not a Calvinist: if I were one, I’m sure I’d go crazy, as it would destroy my capacity to "live in the present moment," and in any case, it seems unacceptably counter-intuitive to say that I am free even if my actions are controlled. Calvinism, like reductionist materialism, is one of those ideas that you cannot accept without destroying your sanity. For me, that’s a good reason to give it a wide berth.



On morality of rats and young children

I think there are several reasons why they are not morally responsible.

1) The rats don’t have and the children have not yet developed any moral desires. They don’t want to help others and do not have any empathy for that desire.

2) I think you are right that to be moral you have to some extent understand what it is like to be someone else.

3) They are incapable of predicting the consequences of what they do beyond the very short term.

4) Much of morality is cultural (although it relies on a base derived from human nature) and rats and young children have not learned the culture specific rules.

There are probably other things as well.

On desires causing mental processes

You are right that it is desires plus stored information that cause me to undertake rational deliberation. In fact a lot of other things are necessary. It is one of the problems of discussing causality that we tend to talk about "the cause" of an event. But in fact there are always an infinity of different conditions that are necessary for an event to take place and which one you select as the cause depends on the context. For example, for me to work on a maths problem I must want to solve it, but also have a wide range of skills, a body, a way of writing down the answer, etc. Which of these is the cause? Any of them depending on the context. And even if we list them all they may be necessary but not sufficient – because there may be a random element – perhaps some quantum factor – who knows.

I don’t see it as a problem that the desires and stored knowledge work through chemistry and physics. I am a materialist so I believe the rational deliberation is also a chemical/physical process. Describing it in terms of the rational deliberation is another way of describing the same thing – as check mate is a way of describing a particular type of configuration of wooden items on a board.

But the discussion has moved away from free will to materialism/immaterialism.

On Calvinism

I didn’t say that I would not be perturbed if the decision making process was immaterial. I just said compatabilism does not entail materialism. I am a died-in-the-wool materialist.

I have several objections to Calvinism, but as you point out, I do not think it removes free will.

1) My primary objection is I am a materialist and an atheist!

2) Second – remember my definition of determinism. It includes the possibility of random, uncaused events. I believe there are such events and so no God can totally control or predict what will happen.

3) However, if there were a person who acted like the Calvinist God then I would see them as a bit like the manager who creates a sales environment which encourages sales people to behave unethically. He is responsible for what happens and so are his staff. So such a God would be responsible for all the wicked things he got people to do. And so would the people doing the wicked things. We blamed the high up Nazis for giving the orders (because they they knew they would be obeyed) and the concentration camp staff for carrying them out.


1 Response to “Explaining Compatabilism”

  1. 1 compatibilist April 14, 2011 at 2:19 am

    Hey Guys we just opened up a new blog today with our understandings, come check us out and post any questions and we’ll do our best to work together to expand our concepts together…

    Our desire through the writing and sharing of this blog is to bring sense, meaning, and purpose to the complexities of “determinism” and to determine what free will is, and to what extent it is involved in our experiences. Our conclusion thus far is that everything is “determined” and building in total unity through the influence of each previous moment, and that there is not actual free will outside of our experience of it.

    Is it possible that our experience of free will is within ourselves as observer?, or experiencer?, because man does not know the outcome of any of his choices along with having known other possibilites of what could have been, therefore causing a perception of “randomness” in which the experiencer has the liberty to make choices. Not the freedom to will any choice, rather the experience of making choices given the context of any particular moment.

    So outside of ourselves, our experiences, and our perceptions, free will doesn’t exist, rather it only exist within our perception and experience of it. So, in a sense, we are not truly ever making a choice, but rather living moments of the liberty to choose within our determined construct, ie the place we are, the things we know, the possibilities we see, and the influencial memories we carry forth into each new experience of choice.

    This blog is new and is under development so feel free to add anything you wish to the discussion or ask any questions you may have as we seek together to fully understand what it is to exist as a self aware expression of consciousness.

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