Hello my question is a relatively simple one. But it is also one that seems to have alot of different complicated answers. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to derive a concise clear answer as to why "being able to do otherwise" does not mean having free will.

My friend used the example of a mathematician who gets more adept at deriving a singular correct answer for a math question over time (instead of giving different answers that are wrong). An obviously flawed argument would be that his "ability to do otherwise" decreases as he gets better at solving the question but this is obviously absurd as his "free will" has not been constrained in any way.

The example my friend explained to me was pretty intuitive but I can't seem to find a simple argument to explain that being able to do otherwise is not having free will.

Appreciate any help!

  • 3
    The problem is not so much that "being able to do otherwise" is not enough for free will, but that "being able" is too vague and what it is or is not enough for depends on how it is interpreted, see SEP, Freedom to Do Otherwise. One obvious objection to the literal interpretation is that "it only tells us when an agent has the ability to do otherwise, not when an agent has the ability to choose to do otherwise". I have the ability to drink apple juice, but might be mind controlled so that I will never choose to do so.
    – Conifold
    Sep 21 at 12:37
  • 2
    Some compatibilist philosophers do accept the "could have done otherwise" definition of free will, but others completely reject it--see my comment here on the reddit askphilosophy forum about Daniel Dennett's explicit rejection of this definition and his definition of free will in terms of a socially useful system of accountability (and note that his reasons for rejecting the definition are similar to your friend's example)
    – Hypnosifl
    Sep 21 at 14:45
  • 1
    Because this question may have ontological and epistemological aspects. Well, and the alienation of nature, of course, fills the answers with deep meaning. Also, for example, based on Marxist-philosophy, you can get an answer that is not at all similar to the answer of the historical-philosophy nature. But I see that you are talking about the simplicity of the answer. A simple answer, in my opinion, may lie in the moral and ethical key, in which there are universal concepts of moral norms and the law. To do otherwise would be an act of immoral action. To be able to do otherwise means not to re
    – user55993
    Sep 22 at 11:11

Why does "being able to do otherwise" not count as having free will?

This is the metaphysical notion of free will.

The metaphysical claim that we have free will is supported by the idea that we have the ability to choose between different courses of action, and therefore, once we have done something, we say that we could have done otherwise, i.e. otherwise than what we have done.

There is no doubt that if we have this ability, we have free will.

Yet, the claim that we have an ability to choose between different possible courses of action, or the ability to have done otherwise than what we have done, cannot be justified by any empirical data.

The metaphysical notion of free will is supported by a counterfactual scenario. Thus, the only empirical data available to us is about what we have done, it is not about what we have not done, even if it is true that we could have done it.

It should be said that the ordinary notion of free will is grounded in our everyday life experience. At any moment we can decide in advance our next deliberate action, and then do precisely what we have announced we were going to do. We can repeat the experiment again and again to verify that we are indeed able to do whatever we decided. Thus, the ordinary notion of free will is based on uncontroversial empirical data. It is only the metaphysical notion of free will which it is impossible to support.


The problem is that this example conflates 'ability to' with 'willingness to'. This mathematician is perfectly capable of giving a wrong answer, or of using an older, less satisfying method of solving for the right answer. In fact, she might readily do the first as a joke, and the second as a teaching aid. She could even choose never to solve that particular equation again. But in the course of her normal work, she is not willing to do those things, because solving he equation correctly and efficiently has value for her.

And clearly, the fact that she becomes more adept at deriving a singular answer implies that she is actively choosing to use new methods over an old ones. That seems to be proof she has free will: if she did not, how could she choose to use the better method?

An equation only has one right answer, sure, but that doesn't negate free will, because free will isn't in the solution to the equation. Free will is in the values we assign to the equation and its solution, and our choices can change depending on what we value. To leverage an example I like to use, nuclear fission is nuclear fission; we don't get to choose how nuclear fission works. But we do get to choose whether we build a bomb, a power plant, a medical diagnostic system, etc.


The paradox you cite (on the one hand, the mathematician has a diminished "ability to do otherwise" but, on the other hand, no one would say his free will is constrained) is predicated on an impoverished appreciation for linguistic ambiguity. Saying that an experienced mathematician is so good at solving equations a certain way that he is "unable to do otherwise" is a simple case of hyperbole. It doesn't literally mean that he couldn't do otherwise. It's just a way of praising his ability through exaggeration. He most likely is able to solve the equations with other methods. That is usually how mastery of a method works: the master is not only a master of the method in question but is well familiar with other methods, which (as would follow from the fact that the master doesn't use them) are either in fact inferior or at least from her/his view are inferior. It would be unlikely that she/he was "unable" to employ these inferior methods (in other words, he/she knows very well how to use them but doesn't use them by choice). If there is still a question here, it needs to be rephrased in as clear and literal use of language as possible (replacing idioms, rhetorical devices, and metaphor).

  • I don't think this answers the question, because you don't address the context of free will.
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 23 at 18:26
  • The whole point is that the question is formulated on the basis of a faulty use of language. It's not possible to address any philosophical question until the linguistic ambiguity is cleared up. The mathematician isn't literally "unable to do otherwise". It's just an idiomatic expression (that uses exaggeration). Once that is cleared up and it is shown in what way precisely this person's will might (or might not be) constrained, then we can move on to an actual philosophical question. First, the issue needs to be formulated clearly and unambiguously as a condition of any subsequent discussion. Sep 24 at 17:15

Being able to do otherwise makes no sense. Otherwise than what?

There is no otherwise. Time cannot be rewound to try again. The circumstances are never the same again.

We have only one chance to do one-wise. Free will is our ability to choose which-wise.

  • True replicability is an illusion, but relative replicability of things like dice rolls & coin flips, leads for instance to thermodynamics. Counterfactuals are an illusion, but a useful one, based on valid abstractions. Details here: 'Why is a measured true value “TRUE”?' philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/81655/…
    – CriglCragl
    Sep 23 at 18:24
  • @CriglCragl I think you cannot apply statistics in conducting experiments on a single person's behaviour. There is no way you could replicate the situation multiple times close enough on the average. If the test person finds himself in this Groundhog Day meets Truman Show -like experiment, he will change his behaviour to get out of it. Sep 24 at 4:49

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