chainThe Platopus makes a good point about compatibilism (the view that some worthwhile kind of free will is compatible with the standard deterministic account of the world given by physics).

One argument holds that there isn’t effectively any difference between compatibilists and those who deny the reality of free will. Both deny that radical (or ‘libertarian’) free will exists. They agree that there’s no magic faculty which interrupts the normal causal process with volitions. Given that level of agreement, isn’t it just a matter of what labelling strategy we prefer? Because it’s that radical kind of free will that is really at issue: that’s what people want, not some watered-down legalistic thing.

That’s the argument the Platopus wishes to reject. He accepts that compatibilism involves some redefinition, but draws a distinction between illegitimate and legitimate redefinition. As an example of the latter, he proposes the example of atoms. In Greek philosophy, and at first in the modern science which borrowed the word, ‘atom’ meant something indivisible. There was a period when the atoms of modern physics seemed to be just that, but in due course it emerged that they could in fact be ‘split’. One strategy at that point would have been to say, well, it turns out those things were never atoms after all: we must give them a new name and look elsewhere for our indivisible atoms – or perhaps atoms don’t actually exist after all. What happened in reality was that we went on calling those particles atoms, and gave up our belief that they were indivisible.

In a somewhat similar way, the Platopus argues that it makes sense for us to redefine freedom of the will even though we now know it is not libertarian freedom. The analogy is not perfect, and in some ways the case is actually stronger for free will. Atoms, after all, were originally a hypothesis derived from the purest metaphysics. On one interpretation (just mine, really), the early atomists embraced the idea because they feared that unless the process of division stopped somewhere, the universe would suffer from a radical indeterminism. Division could not stop until the particles were of zero magnitude – non-existent, and how could we make real things out of items which did not themselves exist? They could not have imagined the modern position in which, on one interpretation (yes) as we go more micro the nature of the reality involved changes until the physics has boiled away leaving only maths.

Be that as it was or may be, I think the Platopus is quite right and that the redefinition required by compatibilism is not just respectable but natural and desirable. I think in fact we could go a little further and say that it’s not so much a redefinition as a correction of inherent flaws in the pre-theoretical idea of free will.

What do I mean? Well, the original problem here is that the deterministic physical account seems to leave no room for the will. People try to get round that by suggesting different kinds of indeterminism: perhaps we can get something out of chaos theory, or out of quantum mechanics. The problem with those views is that they go too far and typically end up giving us random action: which is no more what we wanted than determined action. Alternatively, old-fashioned libertarians rely on the intervention of the spirit, typically with no satisfactory account of how the spirit makes decisions or how it manages to intervene. That, I submit, was never really what people meant either: in their Sunday best they might appeal to the action of their soul, but in everyday life having a free choice was something altogether more practical; a matter of not having a knife at your throat.

In short, I’d claim that the pre-theoretical understanding of free will always implicitly took it to be something that went on in a normal physical world, and that’s what compatibilism restores, saving the idea from the mad excrescences added by theologians and philosophers.

Myself I think that the kind of indeterminism we can have, and the one we really need, is the one that comes from our power to think about anything. Most processes in the world can be predicted because the range of factors involved can be known and listed to begin with: our mental processes are not like that. Our neurons may work deterministically according to physics, but they allow us to think about anything at any time: about abstractions,  remote entities, and even imaginary things. Above all, they allow us somehow to think about the future and enable future contingencies (in some acceptable sense) to influence our present decisions. When our actions are determined by our own thoughts about the future, they can properly be called free.

That is not a complete answer: it defers the mystery of freedom to the mystery of intentionality; but I’ll leave that one for now…


  1. 1. micha says:

    I think the problem in answering this is because there are two questions about free will that tend to be conflated. (Which is why I had to use the vague “answering this” without saying what “this”.)

    1- What is free will? On the one hand we have algorithmic causality, where a given set of inputs would always produce the same output. There is a “will”, of sorts, but it’s not freedom. On the opposite extreme we have randomness, where inputs do not predetermine the output — freedom without a will. A statistical causality, where the inputs change the odds of the outputs, but it’s still a random variable is also not what we generally mean by “will”, because even if our history means it’s more likely to flip heads than tails, such randomness isn’t self-control and decision-making.

    2- Once we define free will, we can ask if it really exists, or if the whole thing is an illusion.

    Personally, I think free will and quale-based causality are going to turn out to be descriptions of the same thing. Algorithms can work with tokens, a symbol representing elephant and mammal is all I need to apply syllogisms, expert system, and computational algorithms in general. With qualia, the mental representation of the external thing being thought about is more than a token I have algorithmic formalisms for. But I really don’t know.

  2. 2. Campbell says:

    Interesting post, Peter (as usual!). I agree with your positive proposal in that whatever freedom we might sensibly be said to have must be explained in mental terms, such as our ability to conceive future scenarios. Physical determinism and quantum indeterminism seem to be largely irrelevant to the problem since the central phenomenon that needs to be explained and clarified is conscious, reflective choice.

    It seems to me that when you describe free actions as those “determined by our own thoughts about the future”, it’s also necessary to mention the normative evaluation of the possible future scenarios that lie within our power to bring about. Then we might agree with the claim that “to be determined by reason to the best is to be most free” (to quote the character of Philalethes in Leibniz’s New Essays).

  3. 3. Peter says:

    Nicely put – I wouldn’t disagree.

  4. 4. Sci says:

    Interesting post, though rather than worrying about free will I’m more focused on the part discussing the determinism/indeterminism of particles.

    I don’t understand how indeterminism works – randomness seems to suggest acausal events, which seems incoherent/nonsensical to me. If there is objective randomness at the QM level – and there seems to be – doesn’t that throw a wrench into our logical expectations for the universe?

    Anyway, two interesting takes on causality from people way smarter than me:

    1) Massimo Pigilucci – Surprise! Naturalistic metaphysics undermines naive determinism, part I:

    Part II:

    2) Raymond Tallis – The Strange Idea that What Happens Has to be Made to Happen

    ‘The talk will examine an embarrassment shared by both theological and scientific approaches to the intelligibility of the world and h ighlighted for theologians by Special Divine Action (SDA)…

    …The scientific endeavour to make the universe entirely intelligible – culminating in a putative Theory of Everything – encounters similar problems. I shall examine the Principle of Precedence in its various guises (inertia, laws of nature, probability) and different approaches to causation. They all prove profoundly unsatisfactory for different reasons. The difficulty common to various naturalistic responses to ‘Why’ is that of establishing an adequate connection between the explanandum and the explanation given that the former inevitably sets out general possibilities and the latter is composed of singular actualities.

    The goal, or regulative idea, of science – namely finding a sufficient reason for singular events in the general properties of the universe to which they belong – is analogous to the theological aim of making sense of SDA by connecting and reconciling such action with fundamental characteristics of God. I shall argue that theists and atheists both need to look critically at the very idea that things happen because they are made to happen, typically by what has preceded it characterised in most general terms; at the notion of ‘becausation’…’

  5. 5. Vicente says:


    That’s it. Bohr and Einstein went through a nightmare discussing the issue many years ago, and nothing new has been said since.

    The point is that probabilistic approaches offer a breach for and external agent to bias a physical system wihout violating the laws of physics (accepted ones at least).

    For example, if an external agent would make a radioactive sample to decay twice as fast as expected, nobody could claim that the laws of physics are violated.

    If an external agent would act on the brain slightly biasing synaptic vesicle exocytosis (through microtubules quantum activity interference), nobody could claim that physics are conceptually compromised.

    No dualism no free will, not even will, full stop

  6. 6. Vicente says:

    and even in the case that any kind of dualism applies, is still to be confirm that free will is possible.

    It is just a precondition, a prerrequisite, whatever…

    To me the concepts of will and freedom are inherently meaningless…

  7. 7. Sci says:

    Thanks Vincent, glad to see I wasn’t totally off my rocker in questioning the implications of “indeterminism”. Saying something “just happens” that cannot be 100% accounted for by prior causes, while still claiming the universe has to make logical sense, seems like papering over a big problem to me.

    Always been surprised by people blithely making claims about indeterminism without trying to pin down causality & Time. I understand Hume had some criticisms of causality akin to the one’s Tallis mentions, but I’ve not gotten to him yet.

  8. 8. john davey says:

    “They could not have imagined the modern position in which, on one interpretation (yes) as we go more micro the nature of the reality involved changes until the physics has boiled away leaving only maths.”

    Physics is more than maths but alas it’s principal tool IS only mathematics. Symbols are used to represent semantic that has astonishing degrees of mathematical regularity. But representation is not the same as replacement.

    The models never become the thing modelled. Time, space and energy don’t care about scale. To that extent physics ‘boiled away to leave only the maths’ about 350 years ago when Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica. Indeed, when reflecting on the law of gravity, Newton was keen to assert that it made no sense whatsoever, as action at a distance was clearly impossible.

    Or rather, Newton, as the inventor of contemporary physics, was the first to realise that physics made us none the wiser, at least as far as understanding reality was concerned. It just gave us something better than the crystal ball to predict future events. In fact David Hume commended Newton in fact for making the Universe a mystery once more !

  9. 9. john davey says:


    “Myself I think that the kind of indeterminism we can have, and the one we really need, is the one that comes from our power to think about anything.”

    I have to say that the use of the word “Power” implies to me a wholehearted belief in existence of free will Peter ! Indeed the phrase “the power to think about anything” suggests that there is a range of choices from time to time about what to think about, and I use my “power” to elect one over the other.

    If you ask me, physical determinism coupled with physical materialism can never be compatible with anything other than a disbelief in free will. That presents a problem for old liberal evangelists like Dennett. But if the Universe at time (T) is determined solely by the state of the universe at time (T-x) in a mathematically predictive manner (quantum mechanics is predictive without being determinitive) there’s no room for decision making. let’s put it this way – there is not one scintilla of evidence that the indeterminism of quantum mechanics is caused by, or related to, or has consequences for, the capacity of human beings to make moral choices. Moral choices do indeed seem to be high-level,aggregate features of brains that do not suggest much indeterminism whatsoever.

    If on the other hand you don’t accept strict physical materialism – rather that physics is a somewhat limited tool – then free will has a place. That doesn’t necessitate any religious bunkum, rather an acknowledgment that there may be cognitive limits to what homo sapiens can achieve. We are animals after all, and not angels constructed of pure mathematics as Mr Dennettt would have us believe

  10. 10. Peter says:


    Actually I don’t think having a power implies control of that power. I’ve got the power of sight, but I can’t control what I see (apart from moving my head, closing my eyes, etc). Having the power to think about things doesn’t seem to already imply free will.

    I’m a materialist, but I think we can accommodate free will within materialism.

  11. 11. john davey says:


    OK, so “power” can have a controlling meaning or it can just mean an ability. You choose the latter.

    It seems to me then that you just don’t believe in free will. I have no opinion on it.

    I’m not a naive materialist in the sense that I believe physics is a complete explanation – so ‘free will’ can or cannot exist for me. I’m not sure ‘free will’ should have any meaning to a materialist at all though, I’m not convinced. It’s a causal closed circle, being restricted to the effect of thought on thought. If thought is determined by particle states, then ‘free will’ it seems to me, is superfluous.


  12. 12. George says:

    We do seem to have the ability to ‘shape our minds’, by which I mean create thoughts in an ‘ideational space’. Experimenting with physical movement, one can get the impression that we generate it by creating some type of thought in our ‘phenomenal space’. In other words, if we have the freedom to create “thoughts”, then that is freedom enough. And it is compatible with physical laws.

    Erwin Schrodinger had a nice epilogue to his lecture series, ‘What is Life?’, where he expands into this. Starting on the third-to-last page, worth a read:

    “Epilogue: On Determinism and Free Will

    As a reward for the serious trouble I have taken to expound the purely scientific aspects of our problem sine ira et studio, I beg leave to add my own, necessarily subjective, view of the philosophical implications…”

  13. 13. Sci says:

    Peter, it’s an old article so you might’ve seen this but Tallis makes a similar case to your own – Free will comes from the mind’s intentionality:

    ‘The key to this ownership lies in intentionality. This is not to be confused with intentions, the purposes of actions. “Intentionality” designates the way that we are conscious of something, and that the contents of our consciousness are thus about something. Intentionality, in its fully developed form, is unique to human beings, who alone are fully-fledged subjects explicitly related to objects. It is the seed of the self and of freedom. It is, as of now, entirely mysterious — which is not to say that it is supernatural or in principle beyond our understanding, but rather that it cannot be explained entirely in terms of the processes and laws that operate in the material world. Its relevance here is that it is the beginning of the process by which human beings transcend the material world, without losing contact with it. Human freedom begins with this about-ness of human consciousness.’

  14. 14. Sci says:

    Peter, when you get a chance I recall you-as-Abacus once said on one of these pages that in any reality there has to be consistent laws of nature. You were referring to the apparent issue with libertarian free will but to reiterate I’m pondering a “lower” level than human decision making.

    I’m curious as to the metaphysical reasoning that there must be immutable laws of nature as Wigner notes that there might not be any such thing:

    ‘…it is not at all natural that “laws of nature” exist, much less that man is able to discover them.’
    -The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences:

    I’ve also noticed that some physicist are wondering about this metaphysical question:

    Frozen Accidents: Can the Laws of Physics be Explained? ->

    Is the Search for Immutable Laws of Nature a Wild-Goose Chase? ->

  15. 15. Peter says:

    Interesting question, not easy to answer briefly, but Bitbucket, the abacus character, would say the following.

    There have to be consistent laws of nature because if events were not governed by laws, anything could happen at any moment, and if that were so the universe would be incoherent and to say no worse, there would be no point in trying to understand it. Now it is possible that the laws change over time or in special circumstances, or apply only locally, but that just means there are slightly more complex underlying laws which are consistent.

    I’m inclined to agree with that, however, Blandula (the cherub) would not; he would say first that it overlooks the possibility of transcendence, whereby later states of the universe are more complex and contain laws that could not have existed or been understood in earlier states of the universe; nor does it allow for islands of incoherence in an otherwise law-governed universe; nor, finally, for the exercise of the Divine Will from Eternity, which is outside the Universe.

    I don’t mind the transcendence so much, but I really don’t like the other two (and no, I don’t think I have Multiple Personality Disorder!).

    What do you think?

  16. 16. Sci says:

    “(and no, I don’t think I have Multiple Personality Disorder!).”


    I think the universe could be fairly intelligible with fairly consistent regularities, which is the position Nancy Cartwright takes as in her mind “No God, No Laws”.

    That said, it would seem odd that things are as consistent as the sciences have found them to be. Though I don’t know if underlying laws governing the evolution of the laws of physics would be an adequate solution as that seems to lead to an infinite regress of meta-laws.

    I dislike Divine Will, as Tallis notes often trying to say God is an answer to a problem is like saying “Answer” is the answer.

    Like you I am many minds on the subject. Thanks for the reply! To tie this line of questioning it back to consciousness, while I’m sure you have a large reading list you might enjoy Freya Matthews Panpsychism as Paradigm if only to critique it! ->

    ‘I shall address four specific metaphysical anomalies.In each case I shall argue that these are anomalies for materialism but are far less problematic for cosmological panpsychism.The arguments as I present them here will be very abbreviated but can be found in more developed form elsewhere in my work.

    1.Problem of realism, or of the appearance/reality distinction
    2.Problem of why the universe hangs together, or, more narrowly, the problem of causation
    3.Problem of why there is something rather than nothing
    4.Problem of the origin of the universe, or of a beginning to time

    Of course, the hard problem of consciousness, which I have not listed, is also a preeminent anomaly for the materialist paradigm, an anomaly which panpsychism can make some claim to solve. But if it can be shown that materialism harbours other anomalies,and that cosmological panpsychism solves, or at least softens, these, this independent evidence for panpsychism strengthens it as a contender in the case of the hard problem. Moreover, a sense of the cosmological reach and origins of consciousness will provide a new and illuminating context for the investigation of our own human consciousness. In both these respects then exploring cosmological panpsychism as paradigm is relevant to the hard problem of consciousness’

  17. 17. Vicente says:

    Sci and Peter,

    The problem about the general validity of the laws of physics, is probably one of the most important ones for the philosophy of science. I think it was first “formalised” by C. Sanders Peirce:

    Even if you can write down formal laws, if they rely on probabilistic principles you are in a similar situation. This is the case for quantum physics in which the causal chain is not solid. Einstein faught and struggle with this frame of indeterminism and non-locality, and it is really worth to go through the discussions he had with N. Bohr to this respect. Good summary here:

    Sci, this debate is very relevant for the hard problem since any crack, in the causal, chain opens a panopli of opportunities for imaginative explanations.

  18. 18. Peter says:


    Fairly intelligible with fairly consistent regularities – yes, good point, no logical reason why it couldn’t be so. At that point I’m forced back on weak arguments like ‘but everything has to be motivated (in some sense)’: then if you ask ‘why?’ all I can really do is shrug. Thanks for the link.

  19. 19. Sci says:


    It’s definitely an odd problem – philosophy seems to have a nasty habit of challenging what we think to be obvious! I haven’t even gotten into Hume’s critique of causality though it’s on my reading list.


    Thanks for the links – very interesting stuff from a first glance. I look forward to reading more. If this sort of thing is of interest to you I’d recommend Matthews ‘Why has the West Failed to Embrace Panpsychism?’:

    It’s a good overview of the separation between Grecian-inspired and Taoist-inspired thought.

    But perhaps more on point to the question of mental causation that interests you is this presentation by Chalmers on how consciousness might collapse the wave function:

    An interview prior to his presentation on a variety of subjects can be found here:

  20. 20. Scott Bakker says:

    God of the gaps. When nothing else remains, the slightest amount of ignorance will do. For me, this stuff simply underscores just how much fudge compatibilism requires to get off the ground. Our ‘feeling of willing’ is INFERENTIAL as a matter of empirical fact. It’s all cosmetic concept mongering beyond this.

  21. 21. Vicente says:

    Sci, thanks for youtube Chalmers talk, I had missed this one. I did enjoy it a lot, at the expenses of being tired and sleepy this morning.

    Consider that C.S. Peirce was an outstanding mathematician and physicist, considered one of the most brilliant minds of the 19th century, quite unknown though:, very much involved in pansychic concepts like “mind stuff” :). Also worth having a look at James Ward work… member of the same club.

  22. 22. Sci says:


    Thanks Vicente, will check them out – apologies for botching your name earlier!

    You may also want to check out Whitehead and Henri Bergon, specifically their criticisms of “spatializing”time into moments. I’ve only begun looking at them but I think you’d find them of interest.

    Matthew Segall mentions both of them in Physics of the World Soul, though his focus is on Whitehead he comments on the supposed defeat of Bersgon by Einstein:

    An intro to Bergson’s ideas can be found here:

  23. 23. Sci says:

    @Vicente: I can’t link without getting eaten by spam filters, but I think you’d be interested in Talbott’s “Do Physical Laws Make Things Happen?”.

    Made me realize how bizarre the idea of coercive natural laws us.

  24. 24. Peter says:

    If you want to link, let me know and I’ll rein in the filters, Sci – I shouldn’t like to think we were missing good linkage.

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