Don’t Worry, You Do Have Free Will (Why Incompatibilism is Incoherent)

[If you’re unacquainted with the free will debate, see this brief introductory article about the nature and contention of free will]

With so many apparently incontrovertible arguments against the existence of free will – so neatly packaged and eloquently espoused by countless respectable scientists and philosophers – it is no wonder that droves of people are frivolously abandoning their claims to autonomy.

So compelling are the arguments, that once you grasp them, you might wonder how anyone could possibly argue otherwise. “The verdict is in: free will is out,” trills the incompatibilist chorus, “if you deny it, you either misunderstand, or you’re playing word games. That, or you’re just plain stupid.”

And I don’t doubt that many people reading this article feel affronted at the audacity of the title, and are now angrily scanning this page in search of the evidence of the author’s nescience; for any sign of a non sequitur, or an erroneous premise – “it must surely be here somewhere!”

But whether you recognize yourself in that description, are someone as yet undecided on the debate, or are simply here to see your compatibilist worldview vindicated – one thing we should all be able to agree on is a commitment to reason, and a disavowal of any blind chauvinism for whatever ‘side’ you’re on. Consider the arguments carefully and dispassionately, and whether they are sufficiently convincing, or woefully impoverished, let reason alone decide which is the case.

This article attempts to uncover the fault with incompatibilists arguments, by trying to ascertain the nature of the concepts they use. What we find is that they are guilty of a number of subtle fallacies – so subtle, in fact, that drawing them out is no easy feat, but it can be done.

In order to do so, we first need to explore the nature of these fallacies, so in the first part of the article, we’ll explore them in an arena that is not explicitly related to free will – but which makes not-so-subtle allusions to their relevance to the free will debate along the way.

After we have established the nature of these fallacies (there are only two primary fallacies to contend with), then we can start to deconstruct free will. We will explicitly define it, and then proceed to evaluate the incompatibilist (and compatibilist) arguments in light of the fallacies we’ve discovered.

What we will ultimately find is that any coherent construal of free will is in fact, perfectly compatible with determinism.

(Warning, this is a hefty article, a bit over 5000 words. Such a fraught topic requires careful analysis, and so it was necessary to run a somewhat high word count. But if you want to make an honest attempt at getting to the bottom of free will, then I assure you it will be worth reading.)

The first fallacy that incompatibilist arguments fall prey to is what we might call the ‘essentialist fallacy’. I have written an article that exposes and investigates the fallacy, but here I’ll provide a brief synopsis, specifically as it relates to the problem at hand.

Dissecting the mouse (the essentialist fallacy)

There once lived a scientist named Reductio, who had a quenchless thirst for discovering how things worked. He had been inordinately successful in his endeavors, ever since he had learned to ‘dissect’ whatever phenomenon he was trying to understand, such that he might understand it in terms of its component parts.

One day he noticed a little mouse running through his kitchen, and was immediately curious – “what makes that little thing tick?” he wondered.

Eventually he managed to capture the mouse, whereupon he began meticulously dissecting it in order to ascertain the nature of its essence. He reasoned that: “there must be some kind essence of ‘life’ – some animating substance that gives the mouse its vivacity!”

But all he could find were a host of specialized organs: pumps, filters, tubing, a centralized control unit – none of which could account for that special something the mouse seemed to have: its élan vital, or life force.

Having failed to find the essence of the mouse’s life he blithely declared: “it would appear that such a thing as we have previously labeled ‘life’, doesn’t, in fact, exist.”

As evidence for his conclusion, he indicated that the dissected mouse was, quite unmistakably, dead.

Reductio’s mistake, of course, lay in his assumption that there must be some ‘essence’ of life, that he might find if only he could dissect the mouse thoroughly enough.

An analogous mistake – which might help to illuminate the problem in precise terms, would be in assuming there is such thing as an essence of ‘wetness’, that, for example, water must assuredly have.

When one discovers that individual water molecules are rather bland little things, none of which could be even remotely described as ‘wet’, they might be tempted to declare that wetness doesn’t exist at all.

But the reality here – as with the mouse’s élan vital – is that wetness is an emergent property. It emerges from the properties of individual water molecules, as well as their interactions with each other.

The property of ‘living’ is similarly accounted for by the individual components of the mouse, as well as their collective interactions with each other. It is the gestalt activity of all components working in tandem that give rise to the property of life. ‘Life’ therefore, cannot be broken down (or reduced) any further; there is no essence of life to be found on the ‘lower levels’.

We can all readily see, and hopefully agree, about the irreducibility of the concepts of ‘life’ and ‘wetness’. We understand that neither of these concepts has an absolute definition; a pure, unambiguous essence we could point to that adequately, absolutely defines it. Instead, their definitions are contingent upon nuanced definition.

As we are going to see, the incompatibilists’ denial of free will makes precisely the same mistake as Reductio – they dissect ‘free will’, failing to find the essences they thought it should have, and so declare that it doesn’t exist at all.

There are at least four intimately related concepts that go the way of the mouse’s life in the incompatibilist arguments:



‘The self’


All of these are inextricably bound to the notion of free will – as we’ll later see.

Incompatibilists either implicitly endow them with an essentialist definition, or, they mangle them beyond recognition. In any case, what this leads to is incoherent conceptualizations – which render the incompatibilist arguments void of meaning.

In the latter part of this article, we’ll see this fallacious reasoning in action, but first, we have another fallacy to contend with.

The level-crossing fallacy

There once lived a wild rat, who roamed the city streets and sewers, on a never-ending quest to satisfy whatever instinctive urges overcame him.

For the rat, food was never in short supply, and so he was never forced to forage specifically for something to eat. Instead, he would simply happen across various morsels here and there over the course of his wanderings.

In order to cater to its biological imperative to eat, the rat would simply follow the following rule:

If: Morsel spotted

And: I feel hungry

Then: Eat morsel

Otherwise: Continue with previous task

In other words, the rat’s decision on whether or not to eat a given morsel was reducible to a few rather simple logical rules.

Now, remember our friend Reductio? It seems his interest in rodents doesn’t stop at mice – he had also been studying this rat for quite some time, intrigued at its eating behavior.

Reductio was interested in answering the question: “what causes the rat to eat a morsel?” and so one day he wired the rat with a technologically sophisticated portable brain scanner – capable of scanning the rat’s brain activity down to the level of individual neurons.

Reductio could thus monitor the rat’s brain activity as it went about its daily business, and could see the precise chain of neural firings in its brain that lead it to eat a particular morsel. He noticed that whenever the rat would eat a morsel, the specific set of neural firings was never exactly the same, but that there were characteristic firing patterns in the rat’s hypothalamus and visual cortex. These signals would lead to neural firings in the rat’s motor cortex, which sent a cascade of signals to the specific muscles the rat used to eat the morsel.

Reductio eventually concluded the following:

“The causes of a rat’s consumption of a morsel are quite multifaceted and convoluted, and there are seemingly infinite ways in which it can happen – but always it is a consequence of specific neurons firing in the rat’s brain. The cause of the rat’s consumption of a morsel on Tuesday differs from the cause of consumption on a Wednesday. Last Wednesday, for example the cause was activity in these particular neurons in the visual cortex, and these in the hypothalamus” – he indicates specific neurons on a 3D computer model of the rat’s brain – “however, last Tuesday it was these neurons that appear to have caused it to happen” – he indicates a different set of neurons.

Is Reductio’s explanation satisfying? If you think so, compare it to the explanation given earlier – namely, that the rat’s decision is caused by its consideration of specific logical rules.

Which description is more ‘explanatory’?

Specifically, the problem with Reductio’s explanation is that it uses concepts from a lower level of description (the firing of neurons), to describe concepts at a higher level of description (a rat’s ‘decision’ to eat food).

We’ll call this the ‘level crossing fallacy’, and I’m going to try to demonstrate why it is incoherent.

Think about the concept of a ‘decision’.

For simplicity, let’s simplify the definition to something like what the rat’s decision involves – namely, a series of logical operators that process input information, and output the decision.

If you want, you can quite easily extrapolate this definition to encompass the rather more human decisions we are familiar with. Of course, these are slightly more complicated, and their logic is of a higher level of abstraction than the rat’s. For example, when we make a decision, we reflect on a variety of convoluted factors, like whether the decision is emblematic of who we are as a person; whether it accords with our values, and so on.

But regardless of whether we use this conception of a decision, or the rat’s more primitive one, what we can see is that, by definition, it depends not on the underlying neurobiology (although to be sure, the firing of neurons are necessary to facilitate it), but on the factors that go into the decision.

The rat’s decision is simply not reducible to the firing of specific neurons. To talk about a decision being caused by neurons firing is not only facile – it is conceptually incoherent.

As I show in this article, the definition of any concept – far from being reducible to some absolute ‘essence’, is contingent upon, and defined by, other concepts. In this case, a ‘decision’ is defined by concepts like ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ and ‘goals’ and ‘desires’ and ‘agency’ and so on.

You cannot reduce the definition of a decision to ‘neurons firing’, because in doing so, you have mutilated the concept of a ‘decision’ beyond recognition.

‘Decisions’ inhabit a different level of analysis to ‘the firing of neurons’. One can reconcile the two, in that we can see how the former ‘supervenes’ on the latter, but we cannot collapse them into a single level of description; they are conceptually isolated from one another.

It is therefore incoherent to say that the rat’s decision was caused by a particular array of neural firings.

On the other hand, it is perfectly coherent to say that the rat’s decision was caused by the higher-level logic of the decision.

Defining free will

Finally, we are in a position to investigate free will – but of course, in order to do that, we’ll first need to define it.

When we define free will, we must remember that we’re not trying to get at some ‘essence’ that is perfectly captured by some ‘correct’ definition. To attempt this would be another example of the essentialist fallacy. Instead, defining free will – like any concept – is akin to defining the borders of a country.

Very often, the specific details of a border are contested by neighboring countries, and what both parties quickly come to realize is that there is no perfect, non-arbitrary means of defining it – there are no special ‘border atoms’ that demarcate a line that unambiguously cleaves the land in two.

Yet the border isn’t completely arbitrary – for example, it shouldn’t snake circuitously in and out of the two countries’ main cities. Rather, there are certain criteria that it must satisfy.

It’s the same thing when we define concepts, like free will; namely, a definition should satisfy certain criteria that we (mostly) agree on, but there is no ‘absolute’ definition – it’s always going to be a little fuzzy around the edges.

With this in mind, let’s press on with an attempt at defining free will – and we’ll do so using the two criteria that are widely touted as being the fundamental defining features:

  1. Free will requires that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.
  2. For any given volitional action, free will requires that I could have acted differently than I did. In other words, I could have done otherwise.

If we’re happy with this definition, then the next step is to outline the incompatibilist arguments, which purportedly demonstrate why these two criteria are not satisfied. And then we’ll illustrate why the arguments are flawed. Specifically, we’ll see that the arguments are guilty of both ‘dissecting the mouse’ and the ‘level crossing fallacy’.

The final step will be to show that any coherent interpretation of the above two criteria also lends itself to a confirmation of their validity – that is, we’ll show that ‘compatibilist’ free will is true.

  1. Authoring actions

Here is a quote from the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris (taken from his book “Free Will”), which summarizes the incompatibilist response to criterion 1:

“Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intuitions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware, and over which we exert no conscious control.”

The idea here, is that any decision you make – any thought you have – is the product of an inexorable chain of causation, mediated by the laws of physics and biochemistry. The external environment impinges on your senses; photons, sound waves and other artifacts of the outside world cause your various sensory neurons to fire, sending ripples of electrochemical activity through your brain, which ultimately manifests as your physical actions.

When you decided what to have for dinner last night, you actually had no say in the matter. If you chose to cook fish, that ‘choice’ was in fact completely out of your control: if you could trace the causal chain from the moment of your decision backwards in time, you would see that one neurochemical event in your brain was caused by another, which was cause by another, which was caused by some sensory input, and so forth. Every link in the chain of causation was determined by the laws of physics, and nothing else. Therefore, you were not free to choose fish; the choice was made for you by the ineluctable laws of physics – as is any other ‘choice’ you fancy yourself to have made.

Now, if all of the above made sense to you, then you are, for the nonce, an incompatibilist.

But before you settle firmly into that viewpoint (if you haven’t already), let’s look carefully at the above argumentation, and see if we might find instances of the aforementioned fallacies.

First, we must not overlook one very crucial concept that is inextricably tied to the notion of free will, and is therefore intimately involved in the arguments above: the concept of ‘you’, or, ‘the self’.

After all, in order for me to have free will:

“I must be in control of my own actions, and for any action I perform, I could have done otherwise if I had wanted.”

I have a sneaking suspicion that the self is being glossed over in the incompatibilist arguments, in their impetuous rush towards the conclusion they are trying to reach.

What happens is that they tend to conceive of the self as the kind of absolute, essentialist entity we all intuitively imagine it to be. It is easy to be led astray here, because it is such a natural mental shortcut for us to make when we hear the word: ‘I’ or ‘my’ or ‘you’ etc.

But it is also completely fallacious, since we have long since dispensed with the notion of an immutable, free-floating soul; that ineffable essence that is ‘us’.

In contrast, a coherent conception of the self must be entirely denuded of any inexplicable magic, and is instead anchored to the specific cognitive features of our brains.

Of course, there are those who assert that the self doesn’t exist at all – but this is another misguided example of ‘dissecting the mouse’. In this case, what happens is that they find our traditional, benighted notion of the self to be utterly wrong, and reach the subsequent (non sequitur) conclusion that it doesn’t exist at all – it is the essentialist fallacy writ large.

The sensible thing to do is to acknowledge that our conception of the self just needs updating – and there are perfectly legitimate and satisfying ways of doing this.

For example, you might define ‘you’ as the particular information processing modules in your brain that make decisions according to the collection of beliefs, values and desires you hold. A decision made by ‘you’ therefore, is one that is made with reference to these things; made by reflecting on your own self-identity.

On the other hand, many trivial thoughts you have – for instance, an automatic thought triggered by something you happen to see in your environment – is not authored by {you} in the same way.

(I will use curly braces around a word whenever we need to be cognizant of the fact that it means something specific – i.e. when it is contingent on nuanced definition.)

This is akin to the knee-jerk reflex of being tapped with an object below the knee. This ‘action’ came about as a result of electrical signals being passed through certain areas of your nervous system – but, crucially, they didn’t pass through the areas that we care about; those that reflect who {we} are – so, {we} didn’t author that reflex.

Thus, our actions fall on a continuum of varying degrees of self-authorship.

When you engage in deep introspection and rationalization, in which you reflect on your own self-identity – your beliefs, values, and desires, and use this process of reasoning to form new beliefs or actions: these beliefs and actions are authored by {you} in the strongest sense possible.

So, with all this in mind: did {you} choose to have fish for dinner?

The answer is not necessarily a clear-cut yes or no. If the decision came about as an impulse – for example, after you smelled the delightful aromas emanating from a seafood restaurant – then {you} cannot claim much credit for the decision.

If, however, you made the decision to have fish because you reasoned that you had better get some omega fatty acids into your diet, since they’re crucial for your health, and since you value your continued health because it enables you to live in a manner you’re happy with – then, {you} made the decision in a much stronger sense.

The upshot of all this is as follows: as long as we form a coherent definition of ‘self’ (as opposed to the parochial ‘essentialist’ definition that incompatibilists blithely, if unconsciously, employ) then there is no problem in claiming that {we} can author our own decisions.

In fact, if what incompatibilists mean by ‘we’ or ‘I’ is something like the traditional, absolute notion of self, then their argument is meaningless, because that definition of self is incoherent.

Yet, perhaps the incompatibilists are unhappy with this assessment: “you still didn’t make the decision to have fish in any true sense,” they decry, “it was the mindless laws of physics that led your brain through the information-processing steps of the decision.”

But be careful – are you not making precisely the same mistake as Reductio, when he explained the cause of the rat’s decision to eat a morsel?

At one level of analysis, we could talk about the firing of neurons, but this level is isolated from the level of analysis in which we talk about concepts like ‘decisions’. A decision is not made by the firing of a neuron; it is made by an information processing entity with beliefs, values, and desires, who weighs them all up before making the decision. This is the definition of a decision, and if you try to redefine it in terms of neurons, you’ll quickly find that these two levels of analysis don’t readily mix, and that one must distort the definition of ‘decision’ beyond recognition in order to force them together.

If you want to use the concept of a ‘decision’ in an argument, then you must understand the referent of the word – and it seems as though incompatibilists do not.

So then, what ‘authors’ a decision? Or, in other words, what is the cause of a decision?

Do we go the Reductio route, and declaim that a decision was caused by the firing of neurons? Or do we take the sensible, compatibilist measure of carefully considering the meaning of our terms, and noting that decisions are in fact made by agents with agendas?

To conclude this section then, let’s reexamine criterion 1 for free will:

“Free will requires that we are the authors of our own thoughts and actions.”

In order to evaluate this statement, we need to have well-defined concepts, including ‘self’, and ‘authorship’. It is not sufficient merely to assume that our intuitive, essentialist notions of the words hold – we must examine them carefully.

And when we do, we find that the only coherent way in which they hang together, is the way that also licenses us to declare that {we} are indeed the authors of our own actions.

2. Could have done otherwise

 The incompatibilist argument against the notion that we can never have done other than we did, runs something like the following:

For any action you perform, you were determined to have performed it precisely as you did, and therefore you could never have done otherwise. If you rewind the clock to before the action, the universe would be in precisely the same state as it was the last time around, down the last detail. Therefore, given that the laws of physics unfold deterministically; with one thing leading invariably to another; each particle moving precisely as the laws of the universe dictate – then the exact same series of events will play themselves out. Ergo, you could not have done otherwise.

 These arguments are, on their face, indisputable – so do we concede that ‘we can’t do otherwise’ and therefore forfeit any claim to free will?

Not quite. These particular arguments about ‘could have done otherwise’ are the contrived, esoteric fantasies of philosophers. Do they really reflect what the phrase ‘could have done otherwise’ should mean?

Well, what should it mean?

 To answer that, let’s examine why this criterion for free will was even touted as important in the first place.

The reason, is that often when we behave in a certain way, or make a particular decision, we feel like we could have done things differently. And it is this feeling that, along with the feeling of self-authorship (which we have already vindicated), gives rise to the notion of free will.

Of course, the construal of ‘could have done otherwise’ outlined earlier, purports to render our feelings that we could have done otherwise entirely illusory – but are they?

When we say “I could have done that differently”, do we really mean: “with the state of the universe – down to the last quark – being precisely as it was when I did that thing, I could have flouted the laws of physics and did a different thing, thereby violating the laws of causation”.

Ask yourself, is that what you mean when you say you could quite easily have chosen toast instead of cereal for breakfast this morning?

Or, do you mean that is was within your constitution that you could quite happily have chosen toast – but for a slight shift in the unfolding of fate.

I would contend that people do mean something like the latter, and that this feeling is wholly compatible with determinism.

Let’s take a closer look.

Consider the following utterances that you might hear in everyday parlance, along with the incompatibilist responses to them. Ask yourself, are those incompatibilist responses justified, given what the utterances are intended to mean?

“Well that could have gone a lot better..”     “No it couldn’t have”

“I totally could have won that race!”   “No you couldn’t have”

“I could have been a bit nicer about it.” “No you couldn’t have”

“I can’t believe I made that mistake – I know I could have gotten it right!” “No you couldn’t have”

 In making the “I could have” claims above, the speakers are giving voice to the feeling they have about how it was within their {self}-constitution to have done differently. Again, it is this very feeling that, in part, gave rise to the notion of free will in the first place.

Is it justified then, for incompatibilists to hijack our own intended meanings – arrogating for themselves the ‘true’ definition of ‘could have done otherwise’ – and then to declaim “no you couldn’t have” with a kind of arrogant authority?

Or is it the case that perhaps, if we dig into the details of what we actually mean, and what we feel when we say these things, our own definitions are fully compatible with determinism; that we’re really just referring to our own sense of who {we} are, and what {we} are capable of – and are not in fact making claims about our ability to violate the laws of physics?

 If we reject the incompatibilist conception of ‘could have done otherwise’ then, and adopt the more sensible approach, it is true that we could have done otherwise.

Thus we have satisfied both criteria for free will.

Breaking free

 So where does ‘freedom’ come in to any of this?

The first notion of ‘freeness’ I want to articulate is that which is relevant to our own authorship.

If you perform a ‘free’ volitional action, this simply means that you were not constrained or forced by some kind of external agent. If you rob a bank because someone threatened to kill your family if you didn’t, then the decision to rob the bank wasn’t a ‘free’ one.

This is, and always has been our intuitive notion of ‘freeness’, and is perfectly encapsulated by the legal query: “are you signing this of your own free will?”

Of course, the incompatibilists would claim that, just as surely as the bank robber’s decision was coerced by external agents, any decision you make at all is ‘coerced’ by the external agent that is the laws of physics – therefore, they say, it’s not a ‘free’ decision.

Can you spot the fallacy?

The argument presupposes an absolute, essentialist definition of ‘freeness’ – specifically, it requires that ‘freedom’ is the quality of being free from everything, including the laws of physics.

But this is not what ‘freedom’ meant in the past, and it’s not what ‘freedom’ means now.

The term acquires its meaning by virtue of how we humans actually use it, and what we mean by it – and since we use it in a universe that is deterministic, it cannot mean “freedom from determinism” – otherwise we’d never have started using it in the first place. The new definition has only been imposed by the ad hoc reasoning of people thinking about how free will should be defined – and the reasoning isn’t very good, either, since it succumbs to the essentialist fallacy.

If one were to accept this definition, they would be forced to conclude that an uncaged bird is no freer than a caged one, and that the aforementioned bank robber is no less free to commit the crime than a hardened criminal with a lust for money and a disregard for consequences.

What kind of absurd epistemological world would we be forced to live in if we accepted such definitions? Everything would promptly crumble into meaninglessness.

I think we can thus happily ignore the incompatiblisit conception of ‘freedom’, and continue to use it in the manner that we always have.

So then, there’s freedom from the external influence of other agents – but there’s also room for some slightly different kinds freedom, which I think align quite nicely with our intuitions.

First, we can have freedom from our own emotions.

According to our definition of the {self}, an action that came about as a result of impassioned emotions, rather than from a reflection on {your} values, was not authored by {you} to the same degree – as revealed by statements like: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me”, or “he wasn’t himself when he did that”.

If a sudden flaring of anger temporarily clouds your judgment, and leads you to lash out irrationally, then it is perfectly reasonable to say that {you} weren’t in control. This is why the law tempers its judgments on perpetrators of ‘crimes of passion’, while severely punishing the cold, calculated crimes of psychopaths whose {self} is fully in control.

Thus, we can distinguish even more degrees of freedom: the more an action is motivated by a deep reflection of one’s beliefs, values and desires, and the less it is compelled by the overpowering flames of passion, the ‘freer’ it is.

We thus begin to reveal the implicit definition of ‘freedom’ as something like: “controlled entirely by our own volition (the volition that is reflective of our core sense of self.)”

This definition alludes to another degree of freedom we might have: freedom from the caprice of chance.

The more uncertain a particular decision is, the more it is liable to be swayed by chance. If you are undecided about whether to get McDonalds or Burger King for dinner, then your decision is easily buffeted by trivial things – like a particular line of reasoning you happen to go down which leads you to choose McDonalds, or a particular scent that subconsciously reminds you of Burger King, leading you to choose that instead.

The decision is thus in some sense held captive by the vicissitudes of nature’s dice.

On the other hand, the decision you make everyday not to kill people is much freer – in that it is not at the mercy of anything but your own volition, which arises from the deepest sense of who {you} are.

Free will is thus the freedom to do as you will. An action is completely free if {you} made it according to who you are, what you believe, what you value, and what you desire.

This has always been our intuitive notion of free will – and it most certainly is not toppled by the fallacy-riddled incompatibilist arguments.

Moral responsibility

 I don’t wish to explore the implications for moral responsibility in depth, since that job has been done by much more competent philosophers than I (see Daniel Dennett).

But I would like to make one point.

The benefit for advocating an incompatibilist denial of free will (in addition to its purported veracity) is, at least according to Sam Harris, the positive effect it will have on our ability to empathize with others. The reasoning goes something like this:

Adolf Hitler was not in control of his actions, any more than an atom is in control of its own – therefore, it is irrational to regard him with opprobrium. Instead, ‘evil’ people like him should be treated as victims. In other words, there is no such thing as moral ‘responsibility’.

Retibutive justice is unjust. Punishment is only justified insofar as it removes the threat of bad actors causing further damage, and serves as a deterrent to other potential criminals. We should therefore not inflict further suffering on criminals, since this would be gratuitous, and irrational.

I agree that this is a benefit (while denying the claim that ‘moral responsibility’ doesn’t exist) – but we don’t have to formulate an incoherent definition of free will to get it.

If we simply work within a moral framework that compels us to maximize flourishing and minimize suffering (i.e. utilitarianism), then we should reach precisely the same conclusions.

Utilitarianism commits us to structuring our justice system so that it inflicts the minimal amount of suffering in order to maximize the benefits it serves: namely, to isolate dangerous people from the public, and to dissuade other would-be criminals (see Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” for an edifying analysis of how crime deterrence works).

Of course, convincing people of free will’s nonexistence might be a more effective means to reach this end, since it tweaks their empathetic dials such that they might be more motivated to follow through on the utilitarian ideals – but that doesn’t change the fact that the incompatibilist worldview is incoherent, so this modest benefit doesn’t outweigh the price of muddling peoples’ epistemological frameworks.


 As we have seen, the arguments around free will are not nearly as simple, and clear-cut as the incompatibilists would have us believe. Their arguments are contaminated with fallacies and they rely on one not looking too closely at the particular concepts invoked in order to pass muster. Unfortunately, the fallacies are subtle, because we humans are prone to making the essentialist fallacy over and over again, and because we don’t tend to explicitly consider the meanings of the words we use – thus many people have been taken in by the arguments.

What this article has hopefully accomplished is an inoculation against the incompatibilist arguments. When you come across them, make sure your interlocutor has coherent definitions for the concepts he or she uses.

What do they mean when they invoke the self, as in: “you didn’t make that decision, the laws of physics did”?

Do they make the same mistake as Reductio when explaining the causation of a decision?

Is their definition of “could have done otherwise” the same as what you mean when using the expression in everyday parlance?

What do they mean by ‘freedom’ exactly?

When you drill down on all these details, you find that the only way all for these various concepts hang together in a coherent manner, is with the definitions that also render them compatible with determinism.

If they capitulate and say – “fine, the self doesn’t exist, and neither does freedom, nor free will” – kindly advise them that they are making the essentialist mistake of attributing absolute definitions to concepts, and wish them all the best in inhabiting a world where nothing at all exists – since they would be forced to abandon all of our every day concepts, because none possess an absolute essence.

But whether or not you can convince them, the fact remains:

{We} are free.


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