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Compatibilism is the belief that free will and determinism are mutually compatible and that it is possible to believe in 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. [2] They say causal determinism does not exclude the truth of possible future outcomes. [3]

Similarly, political liberty is a non-metaphysical concept. [4] Statements of political liberty, such as the United States Bill of Rights, assume moral liberty: the ability to choose to do otherwise than one does. [5]


Compatibilism was championed by the ancient Stoics [6] and some medieval scholastics (such as Thomas Aquinas). More specifically, scholastics like Thomas Aquinas and later Thomists (such as Domingo Báñez) are often interpreted as holding that a human action can be free even though the agent in some strong sense could not do otherwise than he did. Whereas Aquinas is often interpreted to maintain rational compatibilism (i.e., an action can be determined by rational cognition and yet free), later Thomists such as Báñez develop a sophisticated theory of theological determinism, according to which actions of free agents, despite being free, are, on a higher level, determined by infallible divine decrees manifested in the form of "physical premotion" (praemotio physica), a deterministic intervention of God into the will of a free agent required to reduce the will from potency to act. A strongly incompatibilist view of freedom was, on the other hand, developed in the Franciscan tradition, especially by Duns Scotus, and later upheld and further developed by Jesuits, esp. Luis de Molina and Francisco Suárez. In the early-modern era, compatibilism was maintained by Enlightenment philosophers (such as David Hume and Thomas Hobbes). [7]

During the 20th century, compatibilists presented novel arguments that differed from the classical arguments of Hume, Hobbes, and John Stuart Mill. [8] Importantly, Harry Frankfurt popularized what are now known as Frankfurt counterexamples to argue against incompatibilism, [9] and developed a positive account of compatibilist free will based on higher-order volitions. [10] Other "new compatibilists" include Gary Watson, Susan R. Wolf, P. F. Strawson, and R. Jay Wallace. [11] 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. Perhaps the most renowned contemporary defender of compatibilism is John Martin Fischer.

Defining free will

Arthur Schopenhauer Schopenhauer.jpg
Arthur Schopenhauer

Compatibilists often define an instance of "free will" as one in which the agent had freedom to act according to their own motivation . That is, the agent was not coerced or restrained. Arthur Schopenhauer famously said, "Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills." [12] In other words, although an agent may often be free to act according to a motive, the nature of that motive is determined. This definition of free will does not rely on the truth or falsity of causal determinism. [2] 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 Gotland-Froejel-Kirche 03.jpg
Saying "there may be a person behind that door" merely expresses ignorance about the one, determined reality

Some compatibilists will 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. This compatibilist free will should not be understood as some kind of ability to have actually chosen differently in an identical situation. A compatibilist can believe that a person can choose between many choices, but the choice is always determined by external factors. [13] If the compatibilist says "I may visit tomorrow, or I may not", he is saying that he does not know what he will choose—if he will choose to follow the subconscious urge to go or not.


Alternatives to strictly naturalist physics, such as mind–body dualism positing a mind or soul existing apart from one's body while perceiving, thinking, choosing freely, and as a result acting independently on the body, include both traditional religious metaphysics and less common newer compatibilist concepts. [14] Also consistent with both autonomy and Darwinism, [15] they allow for free personal agency based on practical reasons within the laws of physics. [16] While less popular among 21st century philosophers, non-naturalist compatibilism is present in most if not almost all religions. [17]


Compatibilism has much in common with so-called "hard determinism", including moral systems and a belief in determinism itself Prim clockwork.jpg
Compatibilism has much in common with so-called "hard determinism", including moral systems and a belief in determinism itself

A prominent criticism of compatibilism is Peter van Inwagen's consequence argument.

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 this 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.

Compatibilism is sometimes called soft determinism (William James's term) pejoratively . [18] James accused them of creating a "quagmire of evasion" by stealing the name of freedom to mask their underlying determinism. [18] Immanuel Kant called it a "wretched subterfuge" and "word jugglery". [19] 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. [20] 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. [19] 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. [21]

See also

Related Research Articles

Free will Ability to make choices without constraints

Free will is the ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.

Determinism is the philosophical belief that all events are determined completely by previously existing causes. Deterministic theories throughout the history of philosophy have sprung from diverse and sometimes overlapping motives and considerations. The opposite of determinism is some kind of indeterminism or randomness. Determinism is often contrasted with free will.

Will, generally, is the faculty of the mind that selects, at the moment of decision, a desire among the various desires present; it itself does not refer to any particular desire, but rather to the mechanism responsible for choosing from among one's desires. Within philosophy, will is important as one of the parts of the mind, along with reason and understanding. It is considered central to the field of ethics because of its role in enabling deliberate action.

Incompatibilism view that a deterministic universe is completely at odds with the notion that persons have a free will; that there is a dichotomy between determinism and free will where philosophers must choose one or the other

Incompatibilism is the view that a deterministic universe is completely at odds with the notion that persons have a free will; that there is a dichotomy between determinism and free will where philosophers must choose one or the other. This view is pursued in at least three ways: libertarians deny that the universe is deterministic, the hard determinists deny that any free will exists, and pessimistic incompatibilists deny both that the universe is determined and that free will exists.

Fatalism is a philosophical doctrine that stresses the subjugation of all events or actions to Fate or destiny, and is commonly associated with the consequent attitude of resignation in the face of future events which are thought to be inevitable.

Indeterminism is the idea that events are not caused, or not caused deterministically.

Libertarianism (metaphysics) Term in metaphysics

Libertarianism is one of the main philosophical positions related to the problems of free will and determinism, which are part of the larger domain of metaphysics. In particular, libertarianism is an incompatibilist position which argues that free will is logically incompatible with a deterministic universe. Libertarianism states that since agents have free will, determinism must be false. One of the first clear formulations of libertarianism is found in John Duns Scotus; in theological context metaphysical libertarianism was notably defended by Jesuit authors like Luis de Molina and Francisco Suárez against rather compatibilist Thomist Báñezianism. Other important metaphysical libertarians in the early modern period were René Descartes, George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, and Thomas Reid. Roderick Chisholm was a prominent defender of libertarianism in the 20th century, and contemporary libertarians include Robert Kane, Peter van Inwagen and Robert Nozick.

Hard determinism

Hard determinism is a view on free will which holds that determinism is true, and that it is incompatible with free will, and, therefore, that free will does not exist. Although hard determinism generally refers to nomological determinism, it can also be a position taken with respect to other forms of determinism that necessitate the future in its entirety. Hard determinism is contrasted with soft determinism, which is a compatibilist form of determinism, holding that free will may exist despite determinism. It is also contrasted with metaphysical libertarianism, the other major form of incompatibilism which holds that free will exists and determinism is false.

Predeterminism is the philosophy that all events of history, past, present and future, have been already decided or are already known, including human actions.

Peter van Inwagen is an American analytic philosopher and the John Cardinal O'Hara Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. He is also a Research Professor of Philosophy at Duke University each Spring. He previously taught at Syracuse University and earned his PhD from the University of Rochester in 1969 under the direction of Richard Taylor. Van Inwagen is one of the leading figures in contemporary metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of action. He was the president of the Society of Christian Philosophers from 2010 to 2013.

Robert Hilary Kane is an American philosopher. He is Distinguished Teaching Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, and is currently on phased retirement.

Theological determinism is a form of predeterminism which states that all events that happen are pre-ordained, and/or predestined to happen, by one or more divine beings, or that they are destined to occur given the divine beings' omniscience. Theological determinism exists in a number of religions, including Jainism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is also supported by proponents of Classical pantheism such as the Stoics and Baruch Spinoza.

In philosophy, moral responsibility is the status of morally deserving praise, blame, reward, or punishment for an act or omission performed or neglected in accordance with one's moral obligations. Deciding what counts as "morally obligatory" is a principal concern of ethics.

Kantian ethics Ethical theory of Immanuel Kant

Kantian ethics refers to a deontological ethical theory ascribed to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The theory, developed as a result of Enlightenment rationalism, is based on the view that the only intrinsically good thing is a good will; an action can only be good if its maxim—the principle behind it—is duty to the moral law. Central to Kant's construction of the moral law is the categorical imperative, which acts on all people, regardless of their interests or desires. Kant formulated the categorical imperative in various ways. His principle of universalizability requires that, for an action to be permissible, it must be possible to apply it to all people without a contradiction occurring. Kant's formulation of humanity, the second section of the Categorical Imperative, states that as an end in itself humans are required never to treat others merely as a means to an end, but always, additionally, as ends in themselves. The formulation of autonomy concludes that rational agents are bound to the moral law by their own will, while Kant's concept of the Kingdom of Ends requires that people act as if the principles of their actions establish a law for a hypothetical kingdom. Kant also distinguished between perfect and imperfect duties. A perfect duty, such as the duty not to lie, always holds true; an imperfect duty, such as the duty to give to charity, can be made flexible and applied in particular time and place.

Frankfurt cases were presented by philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 1969 as counterexamples to the principle of alternate possibilities (PAP), which holds that an agent is morally responsible for an action only if that person could have done otherwise.

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that investigates principles of reality transcending those of any particular science. Cosmology and ontology are traditional branches of metaphysics. It is concerned with explaining the fundamental nature of being and the world. Someone who studies metaphysics can be called either a "metaphysician" or a "metaphysicist".

Illusionism is a metaphysical theory first propounded by professor Saul Smilansky of the University of Haifa. Although there exist a theory of consciousness baring the same name (illusionism), It is important to note that the two theories are concerned with different subjects. Illusionism as discussed here, holds that people have illusory beliefs about free will. Furthermore, it holds that it is both of key importance and morally right that people not be disabused of these beliefs, because the illusion has benefits both to individuals and to society. Belief in hard incompatibilism, argues Smilansky, removes an individual's basis for a sense of self-worth in his or her own achievements. It is "extremely damaging to our view of ourselves, to our sense of achievement, worth, and self-respect".

Free will in antiquity is a philosophical and theological concept.

Dickinson Sargeant Miller was an American philosopher best known for his work in metaphysics and the philosophy of mind. He worked with other philosophers including William James, George Santayana, John Dewey, Edmund Husserl, and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In the theory developed by Domingo Báñez and other 16th and 17th century Thomists, physical premotion is a causal influence of God into a secondary cause which precedes and causes the actual motion of its causal power : it is the reduction of the power from potency to act. In this sense, it is a kind of divine concursus, the so-called concursus praevius advocated by the Thomists.


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