The Course of Reason

A bit about free will

December 9, 2011

Hi this is Seth.  Recently there has been a bit of a flare up of the free will debate on skeptic/science blogs.  Massimo Pigliucci penned a brief criticism of the brand of determinism often adhered to among fairly prominent skeptics, like Jerry Coyne, Alex Rosenburg, and Sam Harris.  His post does a great job highlighting the important conceptual issues of the debate, that may frequently be swept under the rug, or worse, smuggled in without argument.


In response, Jerry Coyne draws parallels between the rhetoric sometimes used by philosophers and the rhetoric we in the skeptic community associate with theologians (read: undesirable argument tactics).  Coyne then presents what he takes to be the important distinctions and conceptual issues of the free will debate, and defends the view that there is no free will in any meaningful sense.

Sean Carroll, a physicist at Cosmic Invariance weighs in, examining the implications physics has on the free will debate.  Carroll defends a compatibilist position of free will and determinism hereCoyne responds to Sean, and all the fuss compels PZ to voice his agreement with Coyne.

It is pretty crazy to me to see all this chatter about free will.  It’s a topic I’ve always been interested in, and I wrote my senior thesis about it a few years ago, but have since moved on to other things.  I never expected the free will debate to be of interest to the skeptic community, except insofar as the free will defense is offered as a response to the problem of evil.

On the one hand, I’m glad to see some love shown to a philosophical topic, but on the other hand I’m bothered that more love isn’t shown to the philosophers who research the question professionally.  It may be a bias on my part, something Coyne refers to as Turf Defense, where philosophers get all incensed when a non-philosopher opines about a philosophical topic without being familiar with the relevant literature.  I see this skepticism of philosophical authority/expertise pretty regularly among the skeptic community.

There is a tendency to see a non-science discipline as being incapable of producing experts with any kind of claim-making authority.  Listen to Julia Galef flirt with the view in this episode of Rationally Speaking.  I am not sure whether philosophers can be experts in the same way, if at all, that a molecular biologist or astrophysicist is.  We don’t exactly have a large bank of empirical facts that we can assert, that would only be known after years of study.

Instead, the payoff of studying analytic philosophy comes in the form of clarity of the relevant issues and understanding how various positions logically relate to one another.  Through rational argument, we accumulate a large bank of thought experiments meant to motivate judgments about certain propositions, and responses to those thought experiments.  No thought experiment should be taken as proof of a proposition, of course, but it merely serves as a basis for a well-considered, reflective judgment.  Those judgments are always revisable in light of empirical evidence and further reflection on thought experiments.

I mention that philosophers are good at clarifying the relevant issues.  Included in this task is the identification of the possible positions one can adopt regarding a particular discussion.  Carroll writes,

We can imagine four different possibilities: determinism + free will, indeterminism + free will, determinism + no free will, and indeterminism + no free will. All of these are logically possible, and in fact beliefs that some people actually hold!  Bringing determinism into discussions of free will is a red herring.

Actually, this is not quite right.  Whether determinism is relevant or not to free will is itself a question under consideration in the free will debate.  In fact, there are no less than 9 logically possible positions one can adopt (Strawson, Galen, “Freedom and Belief” Oxford University Press 1986, p. 5).  See Pereboom, Derk, “Living Without Free Will” Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. xvi-xix for a discussion.

Here are the positions, and I pull them straight from Strawson:

D = Determinism is true

F = the free will required for moral responsibility exists

? = Agnostic/Don’t Know

Incompatibilists can be anything but 3, 5, and 8.  Libertarians are mostly position 2; they hold that determinism and free will are incompatible, and that we have free will.  Hard determinism is usually 1; it agrees with the libertarians that free will and determinism are incompatible, but holds that determinism is true.  Another view, which Pereboom calls Hard Incompatibilism, can be positions 1, 4, or 7.  Hard Incompatibilism holds that whether determinism is true or not, we do not have free will.  Position 8 is Al Mele’s position, called Agnostic Autonomism, which subsumes positions 2 and 3, and holds that whether determinism is true or false, we have the sort of free will we need for moral responsibility.  This also appears to be Carroll’s position, as he thinks determinism is irrelevant for the issue of free will.

PZ seems to adopt position 7, as he says,

I don’t understand why free will was getting all tangled up in indeterminacy vs. determinism, since that seems to be a completely independent issue.


I’ll sum up my opinion by agreeing with Jerry Coyne.

Coyne says,

Of course, whether the laws of physics are deterministic or probabilistic is, to me, irrelevant to whether there’s free will, which in my take means that we can override the laws of physics with some intangible “will” that allows us to make different decisions given identical configurations of the molecules of the universe.

This indicates that he adopts position 7 when he says that determinism is irrelevant.  This is the position Pereboom defends in his book, linked above.

Furthermore, there are no less than 7 ways one can be a compatiblist, illustrated by the following distinct claims:

1. D is true.  D does not imply that we lack F.  But in fact we lack F.

2. D is true.  D does not imply that we lack F.  We don’t know whether we have F.

3. D is true.  We have F.

4. D is true.  We have F.  Our having F requires that D be true (David Hume, and other soft determinists).

5. We don’t know if D is true.  We have F either way.

6. D is not true.  We have F.  We still have F if D were true.

7.  D is not true.  We do not have F.  F is nonetheless compatible with D, logically.

Traditionally, we associate a compatibilist view with 3 – 6, the positions that hold that we have F regardless of D’s truth or falsity.

Hopefully this is useful for anyone interested in the ongoing discussion.  Also, here’s a picture.


Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy PhD student at the University of Missouri.  His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality.  He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers [EDIT: He recently shaved his mighty beard, and has thus lost all of his philosophical powers.  :(  ].  Feel free to contact Seth at with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

This post originally appeared on the MU SASHA blog

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About the Author: Seth Kurtenbach

Seth Kurtenbach's photo
Seth Kurtenbach is pursuing his PhD in computer science at the University of Missouri. His current research focuses on the application of formal logic to questions about knowledge and rationality. He has his Master's degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri, and is growing an epic beard in order to maintain his philosophical powers. You can email Seth at or follow him on Twitter: @SJKur.




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