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Having very recently started getting interested in philosophy, I'm still halfway through my first book (Think: A Compelling Introduction to Philosophy, by Simon Blackburn, as recommended in this question).

Before reading it, it was my belief that we acted according to free will, not bound by any deterministic rules (is this one 'type' of incompatibilism?). If I came upon a t-junction on a road, I could choose whether I went left, right or back. Yes, I had the notion that I would make that decision based upon every knowledge that I had acquired until that moment, thus being bound by that. I understood that my decision was bound to the way every one my my past experiences influenced my thinking and decision making process. But, despite these constraints, I possessed free-will, and I was free to choose down which road I decided to go. I had the impression something like this happened:

Here, the red dot represents a point in time where a decision was/is made. Also, the past was composed of several other ramifications such as this one, but here it can be represented as a straight line, considering that we would ignore all the choices I did not make.

However, after having read the book's chapter on Free Will, such a possibility is not even considered (or if it was, it was not clear to me). I took this easily, as I actually understand that it could be considered, as Blackburn puts it, 'bad philosophy'. This was clear to me, as soon as I read the first quote present on this chapter:

Again, if movement is always connected, new motions coming in from old in order fixed, if atoms never swerve and make beginning of motions that can break the bonds of fate and foil the infinite chain of cause and effect, what is the origin of this free will possessed by living creatures throughout the earth?
Lucretius, De Rerum Natura

Since we are indeed inserted in a physical world that responds to cause and effect, we must consider that we are too bound to this law. This makes it clear to me that determinism is very likely to 'be real' (as in be the 'thing' that really happens), since the past controls the present and the future, and we are not able to control the past, leaving us unable to control both present and future too (leaving us in control of nothing, basically). This would point toward incompatibilism, which I find easier to believe than its alternative.

So, Blackburn spends most of the chapter trying to reconcile free will with determinism, introducing the concept of compatibilism. This is where I have some trouble, for I really cannot see how the two concepts are conciliated.
He asks us to "think of the brain in 'software' terms, as having various 'modules'". Thus, we would have a 'scanner' module (which takes in information), a 'tree producer' module (that, according to what the 'scanner' says, produces options, similarly to the image I put above), an 'evaluator' module (which chooses which 'branch' of the tree is the best option) and a 'producer' module (which carries out the decision made by the 'evaluator'). This works very well, but (in my opinion) only when applied to the thinking I had before having accepted determinism (meaning the image above). I do not understand how the modules are not constrained by the same deterministic laws as everything else. Basically, this cartoon somewhat expresses how I feel:

So, throughout the chapter, the author refines a compatilist definition (that tries to reconcile the modules' free will and determinism), until he reaches this:

The subject acted freely if she could have done otherwise in the right sense. This means that she would have done otherwise if she had chosen differently and, under the impact of other true and available thoughts or considerations, she would have chosen differently. True and available thoughts and considerations are those that represent her situation accurately, and are ones that she could reasonably be expected to have taken into account.

So here I see a lot of could and would haves. This is where it really gets itchy, because the only thing I can take from this is that free will (according to these arguments) only exists in retrospective (or as an illusion in the moment when 'decisions' happen). Thus, I can perceive compatibilism as being viable only in retrospective, having my first image only as an illusion to a reality that could be represented as this:

In this possibility (reality?) there is no red dot, since I cannot see how decisions can actually be real.
The thing is that Blackburn then goes on to explain some scenarios that always end up with a lot of could and would haves, and I cannot see them as plausible. The impression I get is that compatibilism is built upon a lot of could and would haves, which cannot be proven (or at least his arguments did not seem, to me, to be able to do it).

Going back to my first example, I cannot see how the road I picked at the t-junction was ever my choice. Sure, my 'modules' are at work, analysing everything in the landscape, etc. so that I can make a decision. Sure it really seems to me that the results provided by such an analysis are the object of my own free will, but how can I ever really prove it, if in the basis of my thoughts I know that the physical world in which I (thus the modules) belong is bound by deterministic laws? What I mean is: upon analysis, I have the impression that I can choose where to go. In retrospective, I too am under the impression that I could have chosen differently. But how can I prove that I really could have chosen differently?


To sum up:
Before I could (or thought I could) see how people could act according to their own free will, unrestrained by any type of determinism, although bound to the conditions 'available' to them (however, this seems to be bad philosophy).
I now can see how we are bound to a deterministic physical world (ruled by the laws of cause and effect), where free will does not exist.
But I cannot understand the middle term between the two views. How can our notion of free choice not be restrained by our physical world, and thus bound by the laws of causation? How can free will and free choice exist in such a world?

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On a side note: I would prefer to 'believe' in compatibilism, but after having read that chapter, I really cannot see how it can be true. Also, be nice, since I do not have a lot of knowledge in this field, and sorry if the question is too long (although I do not think i digressed). :D –  JNat Jan 28 '13 at 16:28
+1 - Great question, would love to hear some of the answers from the experts here. –  obelia Jan 28 '13 at 19:04
Good question. I myself never understood how compatibilism can be thought to really solve the problem. Just a note: if we consider the view of quantum mechanics, reality isn't deterministic. Of course, being probabilistic does not solve the free will problem, since we might as well simply be bound by randomness. But it turns the issue to a slightly different direction. –  Koeng Jan 29 '13 at 14:45
@JNat Kinda, it may or may not eliminate the red dot. The first quote is correct in some sense, but we could say that the bonds of "fate and foil" between atoms are probabilistic, i.e., given a point in time, the only thing you can have is the probability of each succession. You don't have a fixed outcome like you do in determinism. That probability, as far as we know, is ingrained in reality, not simply a matter of "lack of knowledge" about the chain of cause and effect. –  Koeng Jan 29 '13 at 22:40
@JNat I certainly did not want to claim a proof in either direction here. BTW and as you perhaps know, some think that free will is perfectly compatible with determinism -- a lot (too much for my current taste) seems to depend on semantics. –  Drux Feb 1 '13 at 15:37

4 Answers 4

Compatibilism maintains (roughly):

  1. If you could choose differently, then you would act differently (thus keeping some notion of "free will")
  2. You cannot, however, choose differently (thus keeping with deterministic physics)

Therefore, we can view free will as being "compatible" with "hard" determinism.

To use the same quote of Blackburn's, but highlighting it differently:

This means that she would have done otherwise if she had chosen differently

So your question:

I too am under the impression that I could have chosen differently. But how can I prove that I really could have chosen differently?

I think is not an objection to compatibilism, because the "if...then" statement remains perfectly true even if the antecedent is never met. Indeed, I think most people who call themselves compatibilists would argue that you cannot, in fact, have chosen differently, unless the circumstances were different.

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how about: (1) even if you could choose differently, still you wouldn't; (2) you cannot, so the second part of (1) doesn't matter. –  artm Feb 3 '13 at 20:14

Note: Whether this is actually an answer as opposed to an extended comment is debatable. I write it not as an answer (because I don't actually believe your question has an answer), but as "the closest one can get" to an answer. At any rate, I've turned it into a community wiki so I don't get reputation for it.

The crossroad you have come to is common, and you should be proud you picked up on it: It's a telling sign that you actually understand determinism; a concept which — even after many students of philosophy graduate with their degrees — I can assure you many never fully grasp.

You should note that there are dozens of different versions of compatibilism, each sometimes as radically different from each other as they are from hard determinism or libertarianism. I reckon some of the early versions were designed as a sort of "easing theory", published in philosophical journals as a "middle ground" to "ease" the academic community into this concept of determinism without seeming too radical. At any rate I have yet to read a convincing compatibilist argument myself, usually they just convolute terms like "freedom" and "determined" by redefining them in slightly different ways that supposedly don't conflict with (hard) determinism. Why do they do this? Because humans are not good at giving up things they are used to, or that they cherish. One of these things is the notion of moral responsibility, and determinism destroys this notion. Determinism also destroys the notion of praise (how can you praise someone for an action they took that was entirely inevitable, that wasn't of their own choosing?). This, in my opinion, is the real source of compatibilism: it is merely an unwillingness to accept that we may very well be automata, peering out the window of a robotic body, so to speak.

I suggest you take a look at the SEP article on compatibilism and see if any arguments are convincing to you, and if not, no fear — simply cast them aside. I also recommend (one of my personal favorites) Daniel Dennet's Elbow Room. He claims to be a compatibilist himself, but his writing all but screams hard determinism. His work helped me formulate my own position, which I write briefly about in my answer to this question.

Lastly, here's another question you might find interesting regarding choice.

Hope that helps! :)

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Human's aren't just "not good at giving up", they are predetermined not to give up. –  artm Feb 3 '13 at 9:11
The sentence was about "giving up things" which is a different concept than that which is evoked from the phraseology "giving up". –  stoicfury Feb 3 '13 at 10:05

Also it's worth mentioning the you that wants control, is also deterministically choosing. Blame and praise can work deterministically in the sense that one entity which doesn't break the laws of causality responds to another like the way I assume particles do. The big problem with free will debates for me, is that people seem to care more about the moral implications over the more terrifying notion that your future is predetermined. I think this is where thought should be focused. Am I wrong? Am I confusing fatalism with determinism?

A question I have is what does it mean for something to be determined? Does it need a determiner? Is that even metaphysically coherent?

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@Shawn I've no idea what you're talking about? –  Laoch Mar 11 '14 at 16:57

You could say at 9:12am I will flip a coin. Then regardless of whatever state your physical atoms are in, you flip the coin. If you succeed, you've proven free will, because what are the chances that its a coincidence that you happened to be predetermined to flip the coin at 9:12am.

You need to pick a different time though, in case this post is part of the predeterminism.

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You can also predict when the Sun is going to rise and if you succeed you've proven that you control the Earth, because what are chances that it's a coincidence? –  artm Feb 3 '13 at 9:31

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