In the freewill debate, a difference is made between metaphysical/libertarian free will, i.e. where an agent is free to choose among many possible outcomes, and the eventual outcome is caused by the agent, not by prior circumstances, and compatibilist freewill, where an agent is free as long as it is acting according to its own motivations, even if it is impossible for it to choose among multiple future possibilities.

Does the concept of "decision making" have any meaning independently of libertarian freewill?

If someone subscribes to compatibilism or to hard determinism, then saying that "Jane decided to have coffee instead of tea" doesn't really carry any meaning. The event of Jane drinking coffee instead of tea has the same status as the event of a rock rolling down one side of the mountain instead of the other. That she "decided" to have coffee is either epiphenomenal or completely meaningless.

Similarly, consider some software used by a bank that automatically approves or rejects applications for a loan: The software reviews a set of inputs (income, assets, credit score, employment history, etc...) and then either approves or rejects the loan application. If the outcome of the process is deterministic, then to say that the software "decided" to approve the application doesn't really mean anything other than that it performed a mechanical calculation based on the input variables. For there to have been a "real decision", there has to have been the possibility of there being a different outcome given the exact same input variables.

In the above scenario, even if there was a human agent involved, the reasoning is the same. If the agent has to abide by the results of the calculation, then they can say legitimately say that the decision wasn't theirs to make. The decision ultimately lay with whoever set the guidelines that the software's calculations are based on.

My questions:

  • What is the philosophical definition of "decision"?
  • Does the concept "decision" have any meaning outside of the context of libertarian freewill? Is it a metaphysically loaded concept?
  • If there is no libertarian freewill, then doesn't decision making amount to the same thing as calculating and data processing? Can this be construed as an argument against compatibilism (in particular that moral agency and determinism are compatible)?
  • Are there any prominent philosophers who have analyzed the concept of decision making from a metaphysical point of view?
  • There is a standard way of converting any libertarian notion into a compatibilist one. It goes back to the ancient Stoic Chrysippus, the forefather of compatibilism: distinguish between causal chains that affect the agent only externally, and ones mediated through her mind ("soul"). Although both are deterministic the agent is "responsible" for the latter on compatibilist view (with caveats for no compulsion). So Jane did not decide to fall when pushed, but she did decide to have coffee. Libertarians do charge that the distinction is meaningless, but then that's why they are libertarians :)
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 20:34
  • @Conifold but that technique no longer works. Now that we have situated cognition, semantic externalism and the extended mind thesis, does that neat separation between internal causes and external ones hold? Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 23:12
  • Many modern compatibilists are materialists, if not physicalists, and indeed one of the primary driving forces behind compatibilism is the concern about reconciling free will with the laws of nature governing the material body. For them it is fairly easy to postulate a "willing center" in the brain, and imagine tracing whether causal chains relevantly affect it. For empiricists like Quine or Putnam the entire libertarian/compatibilist divide might be moot. By the way, the common colloquialisms attributing agency to computers indicate that folk intuitions are also very much with Chrysippus.
    – Conifold
    Commented Jul 8, 2016 at 23:31

3 Answers 3


Some quick references and points of possible interest. Speaking broadly there is a long tradition of the critique of voluntarism (and perhaps relatedly nominalism). Modern exponents to consider might include Bergson (Matter and Memory) and Deleuze (especially the study on Hume, Empiricism and Subjectivity.)

Today it strikes me that Badiou is the "clearest" thinker of decision (as the practice of fidelity to the Event). But Laruelle deserves serious investigation as probably the closest thing to a rigorous critique of "decisional" disciplinary modalities. His work is particularly concerned with escaping decisional modes of thought incarnated by the history of philosophy in particular, but also those decisional apparatus that have arisen in technology, theology, Marxism, etc.


Decision making seems to be very closely tied to the Axiom of the Excluded Middle. Whenever decision making is present, it always takes a form of an entity having the ability to do two things, and changing to a state where it can no longer do one of them. In this sense, perhaps the metaphor of a rock rolling down a mountain can be updated to start the rock very close to the top of the mountain, in a metastable state. The rock can only go down one side or the other; it cannot go down both.

In the presence of perfect information, its often hard to distinguish between the inputs and the algorithm which is going to "decide" and the decision itself. However, in many cases where we use the word "decision" no party knows the outcome ahead of time, so the outcome is effectively discovered.

As for tying this into morality and such, you will generally find that if your definition of morality is incompatible with physicalism, it will have a hard time being compatable with compatabilism. Under compatabalism, everything that occurs needs to be plausable in a purely physical world. If you hold to a definition of morality which cannot possibly be defined in a purely phiysical world, it will not play nice with compatabalism either.


This framing of decision as an aspect of free will is a false dichotomy that not even our language buys into. A gut wound can decide a battle, and that is not a separate meaning of the word. The difference between the two senses is nothing but manners. The latter just takes a warm, fuzzy wrapper off the word that consists entirely of human insistence on being special.

If your machine is part of a social context which causes those around it to expect its output to be acted upon or otherwise have effects, then that machine, like the gut wound above, makes decisions, whether you like the verbiage or not.

"Jane decided to have coffee instead of tea" describes a computational process, whether or not it is about determining the future. So why ask whether it has meaning? It has reference, it shapes expectations, it conveys information. Unless you want to get spooky, that is what it means to have meaning.

I don't see how anyone can claim that the process of deciding, the algorithm or construction one goes through to reach a path to action, loses its content in a deterministic world.

From an existentialist point of view, determinism is irrelevant to life. Whether or not the future is fixed, we are still responsible for our decisions because we are social animals and responsibilities and choices are the things our social life is made up of.

Even in the most reductivist of worlds, we as animals vie for advantages. And we usually succeed by learning to make better choices than other animals. Whether or not that activity is ultimately mechanical does not stop it from happening, or remove either the subjective intention that bears it forward or the objective effects choices have on ourselves, the other animals, and the world.

If you remove the concept of making decisions, above a certain evolutionary level, you lose the ability to explain or interpret animal behavior. You simply can't say what genes do. So it must retain meaning, or we have to abandon biology as a science (not to mention the social sciences.)

  • I haven't had time (or thought that it would be well received) to construct my own answer citing Dennett's view of consciousness and free will, but this answer summarizes some of the salient point that his position would lead you to.
    – Dave
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 1:03
  • @Dave Yeah, Dennett would probably converge more reasonably. As it is, this answers only two of the five parts of the question. I just didn't want to go on and on and on.
    – user9166
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 1:22
  • I disagree with your conflating the two uses of "decision" - "a gut wound deciding a battle" is simply short hand for describing how the outcome of the battle got calculated. Saying "I get to decide who gets loan and who doesn't, i.e. I can override whatever rules and requirements there are for attributing loans" implies some level of indeterminism and agency that lies with the decision maker. Commented Sep 22, 2017 at 2:34
  • @AlexanderSKing You can decide that, but only if you have already decided it, not on the basis of any observation. The Latin word just has to do with how things get cut to length. If you choose to attribute magical value to a knife when it is in someone's hand that it does not have on its own, that is just creating meaning out of circumstance.
    – user9166
    Commented Sep 24, 2017 at 20:30
  • @AlexanderSKing Should have pointed out the point instead of being flowery. Shorthands come historically after original meanings. The original meaning of the word applies more directly to the end of the battle than to your choices about loans, since those can be changed by your successor.
    – user9166
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 16:58

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