Source: What's It All About?. (2007 1 ed.) p. 119 Bottom - 120 Middle.

  The debate over whether we have free will or not is one of the longest and most intractable in philosophical history. Needless to say, I can't begin to resolve it here. But what I can do is point out that we must not jump straight from the metaphysical claim that all events are necessitated by prior causes to the conclusion that ordinary human free will is an illusion. Many philosophers, notably David Hume, have argued for a position known as compatibilism. Compatibilists argue that even if the metaphysical doctrine of necessity is true, we still have free will, because it is simply the ability to make our own choices without external coercion or interference. So, for example, if you offer me tea or coffee, my choice is free just as long as I haven't been hypnotized or forced at gunpoint to take one or the other. It doesn't matter if at some deep level my choice is inevitable. Free will is the unhindered operation of my decision-making processes, not the view that these processes themselves are somehow exempt from normal causal laws. As A. J. Ayer wrote, 'It is not causality that freedom is to be contrasted with, but constraint.'
  Not everyone agrees that the metaphysical thesis of causal determinism can be so easily separated from our ordinary idea of free will. They therefore reject the compatibilist way out. But I think it fair to say that all philosophers agree that it is not obvious how accepting determinism as true can or should affect our everyday conception of free will. It may not leave it exactly as it was, but it may not utterly destroy it either.

I can't sympathize with the bolded proposition. 1. Isn't the universal quantifier all too overinclusive and overconfident? Or is this somehow truly obvious?

  1. How's this true though? One's everyday conception of free will can affect one's attitude to others. E.g., a hard determinist may mistrust capitalism (e.g. who believes improving her career impossible) more than a Compatibilist (e.g. who may still try to improve her career).
  • No matter whether determinism is true or not, we will not stop to blame and punish a criminal for his actions, we will continue to ponder how to decide, we will think that I could at any moment just stand up and go if I like to. In other words, it does not really make a practical difference and whoever thinks so lies to himself. A completely convinced hard determinist would have no inclination whatsoever to do anything but sustain her bodily functions at best. The perfect stoic. Ask yourself: Is this really realistic?!
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 2:49
  • I feel the issues are more subtle and deep than this approach allows. We need to question the whole idea of agency and not just freewill. If we assume the metaphysical reality of human agency then freewill becomes incomprehensible, as we see.
    – user20253
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 11:52
  • The sentence in bold doesn't make sense to me. I can't sympathize with it either. That "all philosophers agree" about anything seems highly unlikely. That "all philosophers agree that it is not obvious" regardless of what "it" may be is unlikely as well. There is likely one philosophy who thinks "it" is obvious. Regarding the full sentence, it seems obvious to me that if one accepts determinism as true then one must view one's everyday conception of free will as a deep delusion. That conclusion is itself a defeator for the hypothesis that determinism is true. Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 14:07
  • 1
    I doubt all philosophers agree on whether breathing is necessary.
    – Veedrac
    Commented Feb 25, 2018 at 16:03

2 Answers 2


Non-repeatability, and Gödels Incompleteness theorem, makes the claim true

"But I think it fair to say that all philosophers agree that it is not obvious how accepting determinism as true can or should affect our everyday conception of free will".

The key here is "our everyday conception". That is a sort of "common sense" definition of free will, whereas determinism deals with a very different definition of free will.

The statement claims that "it is not obvious" that determinism is something that affects us in our everyday life, because even if it was true that if we were placed in an identical situation twice, then determinism would make it play out exactly the same, this still is not something that affects our everyday lives, because in our everyday lives we will never be subjected to the identical situation twice. In our everyday lives we will always encounter unique situations, never repeating a situation we have gone through before.

Another factor that makes it non-obvious is accepting determinism affects our everyday conception of free will is that we have no way of using determinism to decide on an outcome, it is even impossible to do so.

To illustrate:

Suppose determinism is true, and you have a computer that can accurately simulate reality and do "fast-forward" that lets us see future outcomes. Then you say "Computer, I have a matter that needs deciding. Tell me what I will decide, and I will make that choice". The computer cannot calculate that, even under determinism. This is closely related to the Halting Problem. The issue is that the computer itself must be simulated too... and in the simulation, that computer is running a simulation of itself... and in that nested simulation there is yet another simulation of the computer running a simulation... and so on ad infinitum.

It becomes even more mind-boggling if you instead say: "Computer, tell me what I will decide, and depending on what you say, I will decide the opposite. And if you say that this is undecidable, I will decide on this one particular option".

Hence, even if determinism is true, it is not at all obvious that it will affect our everyday conception of free will, because cannot predict your next action, especially so if you become part of that loop. So it is up to you to use your everyday free will to decide if you will supersize your next meal or not.

Finally a famous quip from Isaac Bashevis Singer, borrowed later by for example Christopher Hitchens:

We must believe in free will — we have no other choice.


To some extent, I agree with the proposition that there could be a "happy medium" where free will and determinism coexist.

What leads me to this position is the abundance of examples where apparently conflicting positions coexist. Some examples are:
1 - Dual nature of the electron, particle-wave.
2 - Body-soul.
3 - Conscious actions-autonomous actions.

Just like some body functions are autonomous and others are under conscious control, parts of our life are predetermined while other are under control of our free will. Also, just like the conscious can take over control of some autonomous functions, the free will can preempt "predetermined" actions.

I see the dividing line between free will and determinism changing dynamically, depending on the individual, and the circumstances surrounding the individual.

  • I think what you are saying is that there is an orderliness about reality. That does seem apparent. Determinism would insist that orderliness does not come from agent causation of any sort, but from event causation. There are no agents. But if someone can make even one free choice then there exists at least one agent who made a choice and determinism is false. Commented Feb 27, 2018 at 16:18

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