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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: Neither compatibilism nor incompatibilism (24/50)

Ted Honderich continues our series on fifty of the best ideas of the century so far

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

tpm cover art by Felix Bennett

What it is for an event to be an effect can be explained clearly and without the clutter of modal logic or the metaphysics of possible worlds. Something was an effect of a causal circumstance if it would still have happened no matter what else had been the case along with the causal circumstance. If your deciding this morning not to leave your partner was an effect, it was in that sense necessitated and nothing else was possible.

Determinism can also be explained clearly enough, despite the philosophy of mind. It has in it a conception of conscious events and a few propositions. One is that your decision, say, was the effect of a certain sequence or chain of causal circumstances and effects. That brings in a proposition about correlates of the decision, some neural. The third proposition is that our actions are also effects.

The philosophical dispute about determinism within philosophy has not mainly been about whether it is true. (That remains wholly possible, to my mind probable, partly because of the dire state of interpretations of Quantum Mechanics, the well-known mess.) The philosophical dispute has been about what follows with respect to our freedom and responsibility and such practices as punishment and reward if determinism is true.

Since the 17th Century there have been two regiments of philosophers, Incompatibilists and Compatibilists, often bad-tempered. The first maintains, seemingly naturally, that if determinism is true, we are not free and responsible. The second regiment maintains that if determinism is true, we can still be perfectly free and responsible. Both regiments are still on the parade ground of the philosophy journals today.

Each depends on an idea of freedom. Incompatibilists take it to be origination – free will as often understood. In short, decisions and the like are not effects, despite being within the control of their makers. Obviously this freedom cannot co-exist with determinism.

Compatibilists take freedom to be voluntariness. That is deciding as you want, without compulsion or constraint, making your decision out of embraced rather than reluctant desires. It is deciding where that is an effect of one kind of causal sequence rather than another. Obviously this freedom is compatible with determinism.

David Hume in the 18th Century is given pride of place in the history of Compatibilism. Immanuel Kant was the first to condemn Compatibilism as word-play – without, incidentally, embracing the other view, anyway exactly.

You can make your way to a good idea about all this by some plain thinking.

Does either Compatibilism or Incompatibilism have to be true? You’ll probably say, whether you use the names or not, that there is the law of non-contradiction or the law of the excluded middle. It can’t be that a proposition and its denial are both true. It was not both raining and not raining in Highgate Wood this morning. If you settle what you mean by rain, it was either raining or not raining. So either freedom is compatible with determinism or it isn’t. There is no third possibility.

Let me not beat about the bush. Suppose there are two things that are Highgate Wood. One in London and one somewhere else. Well then, it can both be raining and not raining in Highgate Wood. To speak only a little technically, if there is reference failure with respect to “Highgate Wood”, if it is so used that it does not pick out one thing, then obviously it can be the case, so to speak, that it is both raining and not raining in Highgate Wood.

So there is the possibility that what falls under a term can be both compatible and incompatible with something. There is the possibility that freedom can be both compatible and incompatible with determinism – if freedom is not one thing. Speaking more carefully, and in line with the dispute between Compatibilists and Incompatibilists, freedom can be neither compatible nor incompatible with determinism if we do not have a single and settled and important idea of freedom, but rather two.

In the tradition of both Compatibilists and Incompatibilists, as confidently as both, I say it is obvious that we have two settled and important ideas of freedom. There is the man in jail or the woman of whom we say that she is compelled to wash her hands 40 times a day. They lack the freedom of voluntariness. There is your adversary who wounds you by telling the lie about your past at the crucial moment. You believe or want to believe he could have done otherwise as things were there and then. He had free will.

Of course there is more to say. When isn’t there? There is another problem of determinism and freedom. Look at How Free Are You? for sure. Or just go to www.homepages.ucl.ac.uk/~uctytho/

Further reading
How free are you? The Determinism Problem, 2nd edition, Ted Honderich (Oxford University Press, 2002)

Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus of the Philosophy of Mind and Logic at University College London

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2 comments for “Ideas of the century: Neither compatibilism nor incompatibilism (24/50)”

  1. If there is doubt that we have free will, just make your choices in life as though determinism is true.

    Posted by peter | September 20, 2010, 7:53 pm
  2. Insofar as the freedom of the individual is the freedom to regard all else as its environment, and hence consumable, then freedom is universal cannabalism.

    And insofar as we are forced to sup on our own souls then both freedom and determinism yield to satiation.

    Posted by John Jones | September 20, 2010, 11:34 pm