Here is the definition of Free will:

Free Will: Ability to choose between different possible courses of action unimpeded.

and that of Determinism:

Determinism: All events are completely determined by previously existing causes.

In this form, they seem irreconcilable.

All three elements of free will:

  1. Choice
  2. Different possible courses of action
  3. Unimpeded Action

violate Determinism, imo:

  1. There can be no choice, if events are determined by previous causes.
  2. There can be no more than one course of action, if events are completely determined.
  3. If your actions are being determined by 'laws', then we cannot claim unimpeded action.

Philosophy has always been extremely hard for me. But here, I am not able to even grasp the definition of a philosophical term. Can someone please explain Compatibilism?

  • I am still trying to explain it to myself. Here is the SEP entry for it: plato.stanford.edu/entries/compatibilism Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 13:02
  • @FrankHubeny: Turns out it is possible as long as one does not beg the question by e.g. saying that the reality described by physics is the only one. This is closely related to asking for "proof" and an explanation of how "free will" becomes causal (see this related question). Locus classicus: Kant's Third Antinomy.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:34
  • @PhilipKlöcking Please explain it to me. This seems so difficult to wrap my head around and any help is deeply appreciated
    – BlowMaMind
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 14:56
  • This is a difficult thing to understand. It is quite easy to conclude that compatabilsi9m must be the correct answer for freewill-determinism and for other metaphysical dilemmas but difficult to make sense of it. For the most popular version of compatabilism you could check out Middle Way Buddhism, Philosophical Taoism and their equivalents. These endorse compatabilism of a certain kind for all metaphysical problems. .
    – user20253
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 15:08
  • It depends upon what constitutes an impediment. If your determined choice is exactly what you would want to do, you are free to do it. Since the same determinant determines what you want as what you do, and even whether you do what you want, or choose to do something else, there is never a divergence. This is the standard of Leibniz convention of harmony. The monads all obey the law that predetermines everything of their own free will. Much like 'This is the best of all possible worlds', it seems like a silly language game, but it isn't quite just that.
    – user9166
    Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 15:25

1 Answer 1


Sure. Compatibilism is not that hard to understand if you just start from the basic idea that compatibilists use the term "free will" to mean a different thing than--I think--you are using it.

When they say "free will" they mean a person took a voluntary action and was not forced to do that action by anything outside of their normal brain operations that interfered with their normal will. Things that might force their actions and therefore make them not free could be:

  • A person pointing a gun to one's head, demanding they do something.
  • A drug that forces the person to do something.
  • A brain tumor that dysregulates their conscious control over their actions.
  • Hypnosis
  • A brain stimulating machine that forces certain actions.
  • Being physically restrained from taking actions.

In other words, they are using the term "free will" in the same way it is used in a court setting. For example:

Judge: Did you take the money of your own free will?
Defendant: No, your honor. I was hypnotized when I took the money.

But, under normal circumstances, picking out a favorite flavor of ice cream for your cone would be an action they'd say used your free will--because no person, drug, tumor, robot, mind-ray, demon, etc., was forcing you to pick that flavor.

Important to note: Those same compatibilists would also admit that whichever flavor of ice cream you picked would be due to the state of your brain at the moment you picked it, and that that particular state of your brain was due to the previous states of your brain and the world around it, and so you were caused to pick rum raisin by the state of the universe.

But as long as no one had a gun to your ribs whispering "Psst! Pick rum raisin!", they want to call that a free willed action.

  • In the ice cream example I would state it as the illusion of free will, as opposed to true free will - although within the human experience they are one and the same I think Commented Apr 9, 2018 at 20:57
  • So brain tumor that dysregulates conscious action is considered an 'impediment'. But the fact that your will is determined by previous states of your brain and the world around it, is not?
    – BlowMaMind
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 1:17
  • @BlowMaMind Yes (if by "impediment" you mean something that constrain's one's freedom to exercise your normal conscious will) and yes, your will is determined by your brain and the world around it.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 11:37
  • But isn't "will is determined by your brain and the world around it" an 'impediment'?
    – BlowMaMind
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 12:38
  • It's an impediment to contra-causal/libertarian free will, sure. It's not an impediment to compatibilist version of free will; in fact, the compatibilist free will requires it.
    – Chelonian
    Commented Apr 10, 2018 at 13:08

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