Libertarian Freedom and Incompatibilism

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This is the forty-first post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I enumerated the main views that can be taken on the issues of freedom and determinism. Now I'd like to begin looking at arguments for and against the various positions.

In an earlier post in this series, I presented several arguments for thinking that we are free. Some people have taken those arguments as arguments that we have libertarian freedom. I don't see how they can be arguments for that. They might come alongside an argument that libertarian freedom is the only kind of freedom worthy of being called freedom. Then the whole package could support libertarianism. But those arguments don't come close to showing that we have libertarian freedom. A compatibilist could present the same arguments and say that they support thinking of ourselves as free. I'll return to this point in a couple posts when I look at some of the reasons people give for being compatibilists. I thought it was worth pointing out here because I want to make it clear that those aren't strictly speaking arguments for libertarianism but simply arguments for thinking we are free. Arguments for libertarianism don't conclude that we are free but that freedom is of a certain nature, and those arguments don't argue for any conception of what freedom is.

I do think the strongest arguments for libertarianism are actually arguments for incompatibilism combined with the conviction that we are free. So if incompatibilism is true, and we are free, then we must have a kind of freedom that isn't compatible with determinism. I won't try here to motivate any further the view that we are free, so nothing in the argument I'm about to present would be objectionable to the hard determinist, who accepts that incompatibilism is true but insists that we don't have freedom because we are predetermined. Assuming that we are free in some sense, as most people do, we now proceed to look at a reason some give for saying that we couldn't be free unless we had libertarian freedom (i.e. unless determinism is false).

I take this version of the argument largely from Peter van Inwagen, in particular from his book An Essay on Free Will and his chapter on freedom in the second edition of his Metaphysics book (which has a correction of a mistake found in both the first edition and the earlier free will book). These are probably among the best presentations of contemporary libertarian arguments that you can find. Some libertarians won't agree with van Inwagen on everything, but I think he follows arguments where they lead in a way that some libertarians seem a little squishier to me (but I'm open to finding that there is more hope for certain views than van Inwagen allows for; at this point I don't see it; more on that in the next post). So this post and the next one will be heavily dependent on van Inwagen's work on this subject.

The primary argument van Inwagen gives for incompatibilism is roughly as follows. Following Clifford Williams' term from his excellent little book Free Will and Determinism: a Dialogue, I usually call this the before-birth argument in my classes:

For any unchangeable fact p, if p ensures q, then q is an unchangeable fact. If there’s something that took place long before I existed, then it certainly qualifies as an unchangeable fact. If that determines everything about who I am, so that my desires and beliefs are all a product of that prior time, then how I am now is an unchangeable fact, and what determines my decisions now is an unchangeable fact. Why? If an unchangeable fact fully determined the way the world is now, and the way the world is now fully determines what I do, then what I’m now doing is an unchangeable fact.

This is why incompatibilists think freedom and determinism are incompatible, and a hard determinist basically agrees. We can look to compatibilists’ arguments to see if this argument is sound. For now, just understand the reasoning. Libertarians take this to be the commonsense view, one they thinks everyone believes anyway, and if that’s right then it shouldn’t take more argument than this to convince you, at least until compatibilists try to shift your allegiance their way. If there's no way I can change a fact that basically ensures that I do something, then I'm not free in doing that thing. Since determinism implies that there's nothing I can do to change things that affect what I do, and this is true of everything I do, then I'm not free if I'm predetermined.

This is main line of reasoning for incompatibilism, when combined with a conviction of being free, leads to libertarianism. In the next post I want to present a difficulty that libertarian views face, and then I'll look at reasons for compatibilism and how compatibilists try to get out of this argument. So while I'll move away from this argument for a little bit, I'll come back to it later on. I don't think it's really possible to do a fair treatment of the compatibilist response to this unless we have a good sense of why many philosophers find compatibilism plausible and libertarianism implausible. Those reasons are going to provide the compatibilist with the resources they will use to resist this argument.

5 Comments

I don't quite get the difference between the soft determinist and the compatibilist but I'm almost there. I'm just trying to work it out to see where I place myself on this spectrum.

So determinists who don't deny free will are called soft determinism. While compatibilists hold that freedom is compatible with determinism. "They don't necessarily hold determinism to be true." They try to argue that we can be free even if we’re predetermined.

And libertarians affirm human freedom and deny determinism, while hard determinists accept determinism and deny free will.

A soft determinist is a compatibilist who thinks determinism is true (and therefore finds free will unproblematic). However, a compatibilist need not accept determinism, as long as we still could be free if determinism were true. This is actually the dominant view among philosophers today.

Keep in mind that determinism is a broad-ranging view. If determinism is true, there are no events that are uncaused, and there are no events are caused in a way that has less than a 100% guarantee between any set of initial conditions and any set of later conditions.

I am not a philosopher.
In rational exercises you have to have large swaths of certainty before you can fill in the islands of uncertain with reason alone. You get large swaths of certainty largely through deterministic processes.

In a sense people are free because there exist islands of uncertainty that blind our minds from operating purely deterministically.

I'm getting the sense this debate is concerned with the reality of whether pure free will exists. It is hard to argue that it does. Humans are a type of creation and as such are in bondage to the dictates of our design.


I think we're setting up a unresolvable dispute when we assume an all or nothing with free will. Freedom in my estimation is the degree to which we vary from the deterministic processes that constrain our actions.

Thus far, I think I have the range of this spectrum: 1) hard determinist, 2) soft determinist, 3) compatibilist, 4) free-will libertarians. Might I be missing something else?

Augustinian theology would suggest that free-will, concerning our ability to make correct moral choices does not actually exist. That is, we do not have the ability to choose God, however, we have the ability to reject God. I do not think that everything in our lives is pre-determined. Yet, I do believe there is a range of freedom from which we have the freedom to choose and still make the right or wrong choices; but I think there are somethings that have been already been predetermined. I guess that makes me a soft determinist...or maybe a compatibilist?

If some freedom to choose does not exist, we cannot be truly human. Yet, if some things are not already predetermined, then the existence of God's will would seem to be in question.

Compatibilists would be a broader category that includes soft determinists.

Augustine insists very strongly that we do have free will. He doesn't think we're capable in our natural, fallen state of achieving what's required for truly pure moral action, but he thinks we're able in the natural, fallen state to make free choices to do things that have various degrees of imperfection, some not as bad as others. He's even willing to call the less bad ones good as long as it's clear in context that he's not talking about truly pure moral action.

Augustine flatly denies determinism as I've defined it. The philosophers associated with determinism in the ancient world were the Stoics, and he thinks their view is false. He doesn't think we're caused to do what we do by the kind of causes they believed cause us to do what we do.

I'll probably come back to him when I explore the difficulties for libertarianism, because his view tries to get around one of the problems with formulating a libertarian view. My own understanding of Augustine's view is that he's neither libertarian nor compatibilist but something in between, at least some of the time (and I'm not convinced of how much of the time). But he says different enough things in different places that scholars divide on how to interpret him. Some think he's a libertarian. Some think he's a compatibilist. Some think he's a libertarian about humans before the fall and a compatibilist about humans after the fall. Some think he wants to have it both ways and contradicts himself. Some think he's somewhere in the middle but maintains a consistent position.

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