Are free will and determinism compatible? An insight into compatibilism.

For more information, the recourse used for this blog refers to :“Hobbes and Bramhall on Liberty and Necessity,” 1999, V Chappell (Ed,) Cambridge University Press. (For beginners, I recommend pages x and xi in the introduction.)

Both terms being widely known : free will meaning having the ability to consciously make decisions for oneself, or being free from external constraints (as referenced by Thomas Hobbes.) Whilst determinism meaning are actions, decisions, thoughts and more are determined by external forces beyond our control.

Compatibilism and it’s importance.

The claim that free will and determinism are compatible, means that one can have freedom of choice whilst also being determined. While this seems illogical, metaphysical compatibalism is a term which is heavily used in the topic of The Problem of Evil when attempting to disprove the existence of God.

On one side, compatibalists such as William Rowe, suppose that an individual can have free will whilst also being determined. On this world view, the Problem of Evil does prove that a God of classical theism, does not exist : given that there exists horrendous acts of evil, which God could have prevented whilst also allowing us free will. So it appears that there is no justified reason why God would allow such natural evils to take place.

(For more detail, refer to the Stanford Encyclopedia’s “Problem of Evil” and Rowe’s reference to a fawn in a forest fire.)

On the other side, incompatibilists such as Alvin Plantinga refer to the Free will defence, stating that free will and determinism are not compatible, and so an individual can only be one or another. As a result, they use such a supposition to argue that God is justified in allowing evil, as by making humans free, rather than determined allows for a better world. And as such, evil does not disprove the existence of an omnibenevolent, omnipotent and omniscent God.

But which standpoint is correct? If incompatibalism is true, does that mean we are free or determined?


  • Classical Compatibilism, also known as soft determinism was defended by both Hobbes and Hume.

Hume, referred to free will as lack of constraint. This means that an action is free if :

1) The action is the will of the agent, that being a conscious choice and

2) The action is not forced. (On Hume’s account, anything that fails to meet this is determined.)

This description of free will  requires determinism. If there was no order to the universe, or put simply : no cause to your action, then our action would not meet condition 1 of free will. Random acts are not the will of an agent, as they are not conscious choices.

Let me explain this claim using examples.

“It is universally allowed that nothing exists without a cause” – By this, Hume states that all events are determined by past events, and are nothing more than a chain of causes. For example : my act of drinking is caused by me sitting in the sun all day, and an hour later me needing the toilet is caused by my drinking.. and so on and so forth. (Note within these determined causes is where human free will takes place, I can CHOOSE not to drink despite feeling thirsty, or I can CHOOSE not to go the toilet even if I need it.) Both choices will determine the later causes.

Imagine an example: Scenario 1 : Walking down the street you pass a beggar and face a dilemma : a) to give them money or b) to not give them money. Here, the act of standing in front of the beggar was causally determined by prior events (e.g. the choice to walk down that street,) and itself also acts as a cause, given you must also make a decision. Similar to my toilet example, it is here that human free will takes place, the act of giving the money is free will because you consciously and rationally chose to do this (given you could have said no.) Here free will and determinism are compatible. Free will is the result of the determined cause, you must choose to either give or deny the beggar money.                

It is also important to note that this act of giving the beggar money is one cause in a chain, and will inevitably act as a future cause. For example, you now have less money in your wallet, so must choose freely whether to go to the bank and withdraw more money.

Scenario 2 : Assume scenario 2 lacked the choice aspect of scenario 1 : and rather than choosing to give the beggar money, you drop money to which the beggar later found and picked up, then this is not free will. You have not rationally chosen to hand the beggar money given you may not have wanted to give to them, but the result of the beggar receiving money will happen regardless. Same outcome, but one was free will and the other was not – this being because of the lack of rational choice (refer back to Hume’s necessary condition 1 of free will, which is not met here.) This example appears to be a random act which lacks determinism – and is thus not an example of free will.

On a compatibilist approach, the act will happen regardless of the cause, but we only have free will when given a choice.

Let me take a different approach to explaining the fact random events that lack determinism cannot allow free will. Imagine that there existed NO determinism (or no determined cause.) Metaphysically in such a world, there would exist only random particles in motion. If every event that took place was undetermined and random, then all events, similar to the accidental dropping of the money would happen without us having the choice of whether it does or not. – For example : without the determined cause of Gravity. 

So without determinism, how could you or I make a conscious decision that didn’t take place randomly or by accident? (Note, this example is my thinking, not that of Hume or Hobbes.)  

On this proposal, it seems that a universe with NO determinism could not allow for human free will.

This implies that free will necessarily requires determinism. So compatibilsm appears correct in it’s proposal that both can coexist.

Does this seem true? Or is it possible for one to be free even if they are not at all determined and are instead face random events?

Hume’s beliefs stems from Hobbes, who similarly thought that anything that takes place necessarily requires a cause. He thought that all acts are determined to an extent, but people still hold freedom and should be responsible for their actions.

The key thing to take from Hume and Hobbes, is that human free will is the ability to act in a way that one desires. This is not the same as freedom from all external influences : as I can choose to act on my desire to have a drink, but here I cannot choose to dictate what I desire, that instead is determined by something external, in this case that being my biological need for water to survive.

I have also attempted to argue  that for this freedom of choice to happen, there requires at least some determinism.


  • Bramhall directly responded to the classical compatibilist claim that our actions are somewhat determined. Bramhall was an incompatibilist, believing that free will governs all actions. He was  a libertarian, and the following challenges will illustrate how it seems free will and determinism are incompatible, or cannot exist at the same time.

He strongly disagreed with the proposition that determinism could govern any of our behaviour. He does so on the following basis :

1. Certain things would be meaningless if determinism was true. For example, if everything was beyond our power and control, occurring regardless of our will, then why would anyone ask for advice… or study for an exam? Because if we are determined, then these actions would be meaningless.

Note :  Hobbes did reply to this challenge, by stating that even if determinism is true, asking for advice, or revising for an exam could be part of the deterministic cause. So such tasks serve a purpose.

2. Bramhall’s second challenge to the deterministic aspect of compatibilism  states that if some actions are determined; then it is wrong  to punish anyone for their actions, given they may have been determined. It therefore appears that compatibilism is closely linked to a slippery slope where nobody can be held accountable for their actions.

The Problem of Moral Responsibility.

It is this second challenge of Moral Responsibility and assignment that is the most common concern of determinism (be that within compatibilism, or hard determinism.)

Here’s an example as of why it may serve as a problem to Hobbes’ and Humes’ thought on causal determination :

Imagine, that one evening I drank a large quantity of alcohol, and became reckless with others. Imagine I began insulting an individual in the pub, to which they threatened me. This cause led me to act in an aggressive manner to which I faced 2 options : be punched, or punch them (for simplicity, suppose if you attempted to leave they would prevent you from doing so, leading to option 1 : being punched.) And so, not wanting to be attacked, I instigate a fight.

In this scenario, I insulted and punched an innocent member of the public. But should I be punished for my actions?  Some Libertarians worry that if we adopted determinism, the answer should be no. And this what Bramhall was alluding to – on hard determinism, I should not be held accountable for my actions if determinism exists :

This being because me punching someone was pre – determined by the cause of insulting someone, which was determined by the cause of drinking alcohol, which was determined by the cause of (for example) me being fired from my job that same day, which was determined by me being late to work, which was determined by the cause of there being heavy traffic… and so on and so forth. If I outline the act in this manner, as being determined : then does it not seem wrong to punish someone for an act which they had no control over? Even more so, hard determinism alludes that determined acts will happen regardless of the acts of a human.

Contemporary example : While the above example is hypothetical, is it comparable or similar to the recent events involving Cricketer Ben Stokes, following his violent actions towards people who allegedly caused him to feel threatened. By example, should he be punished for his actions if they were pre-determined by the cause of him feeling threatened, if not something else?

Certainly on this account it appears that determinism cannot allow free will, and even more so –  NOBODY can be held accountable for their actions.

Counter to Hume’s claims on necessity, does this then indicate the existence of determinism alongside free will seems counter-intuitive?

Note : While Hobbes’ did reject and respond to Bramhall’s second challenge, he was unable to refute it. So it is arguably a valid concern to claims of compatibilism.

The Problem of Moral Responsibility also holds force because even if we feel like we have free will to make morally important decisions, it could arguably be the result of the illusion of moral choice, which is a result of our ignorance of what causes our choices  – making us believe they have no cause. In such cases, it may appear that we have the ability to make morally conscious decisions, but in reality we are determined and subject to an illusion.

Such an illusion has been described by Locke, who used an analogy of a man sleeping in a room. On awakening he decides to stay in the room, unknowing that the room is actually locked. He believes that he has freely chosen to stay, while in reality he is determined to stay in the room regardless of his decision.

This discussion is common within Libertarianism : and seem to indicate that determinism, while allowing a false illusion, does not allow for genuine free will and lead to problems of moral responsibility. As such, compatibilism seems false.

Incompatibilist belief systems’

Remember, my discussion on incompatibilism adopts libertarianism. But If we conclude that incompatibilism holds more force, then we face a logical disjunction : either we are free or we are determined; given that we cannot be both.

This inevitably leads to a fork in belief system; hard determinists strongly oppose to any free will given everything is determined, whereas libertarians instead hold that at least some have free will and thus determinism is false.


Which standpoint do you agree with? Do you think that without determinism none of us can truly be free?

If you accept incompatibilism, are you a hard determinism or a libertarian?

Thank you for taking the time to engage with me,

Feel free to leave the answers to my questions below in the “comments section,” or tweet me : @theapeironblog

Jon Hawkins.

5 thoughts on “Are free will and determinism compatible? An insight into compatibilism.

  1. I approach a position on Free Will like an audience member watching an Emperor wearing a new set of clothes; as an illusion about an allusion. We are all actors on this stage of life, our only stage of life. Our dramas are dramatic, our struggles are real. Pull back far enough in perspective and fatalism will proclaim, “We have no alternative choice beyond that of life or death.” As the reclusive eccentric John B. McLemore
    tragically reiterated, the “shit-show” will go on! Cyanide was the exit drug of choice for John. For me, I am a temporal compatibilist in philosophical discussions but a determined determinist at heart without the fallacies of fate and with the
    social responsibility (response/ability) to respond.

    The context of the Free Will conversation is contemporary with a perspective of history and projections of prosperity, however, as we define these concepts, we define who we are as a species, despite any and all preconceived resignations to
    the eventuality of the Universe. It would be interesting to assign individual schemas with Stoic sensibilities and contrast with Epicurean introspection and see how these schemas overlay with a taxonomy of compatibilists and dead-end perspectives of individuation. This algorithm is something I am working on implementing into the planksip® Gadfly mnemonic app. I am planning to overlay these algorithms with multiple Markov Chains, increase
    the algorithmic overlays and watch for the correlations. Freedom, or at least the modern Rousseau-ish concept of freedom that we embrace from the French Revolution, is anchored to, and synonymous with, Existentialism and it’s fetishism on individual responsibility. Our ability to respond circles back to freedom like a doG chasing its tail. It’s in our nature. Like it or not, the ability to respond is stimulating and life-sustaining.

    For me, determinism is the embodiment of resigned potentiality and an ongoing negotiation with our individual freedoms. How do we protect the autonomy of the individual? We must preserve the autonomy of the individual! If the world goes to “shit”, our ability to react is our only exit strategy, not ancient mythical hero worship. I am not against archetype psychology and the teachings of Jung, but after all, Carl Jung was a disciple of the pseudo-scientist Sigmund Freud and talking about problems is pragmatically therapeutic. Most people can not look beyond the plethora of confirmation biases prescribed for healthy and progressive conversation.

    Akin to horoscopes and a leap of faith this dance resembles the hoky-poky with one foot in and one foot out. When will it all fall down?


  2. Sorry for being late, or to be honest, being so lazy. I have written my response to this discussion for some extent of time, but still a little progress. So I think I should reply the substantial part first.

    To summarise my point, I believe that free will is possible since, on the certain conditions, we can consider which values are to be embodied in our actions that consequently determined by any causalities.


    1. You have a similar position to Daniel Dennett, essentially you are a compatibilist with your presupposition grounded in ethics. I dig a little deeper, without denying ethics, by acknowledging the stage of life as a theatre and the show must go on!


  3. My course was charted ere I was born
    To destinations in realms forlorn;
    No power can change, nor intention,
    My course, save a divine intervention.

    Boghos Artinian


    1. Interesting, your move towards loneliness and isolation is appeased exclusively through culture. In what circumstance would you shepherd the flock of your own isolation? Less than ideal, you walking in darkness with no direction as it turns in on itself allows nothing but an agreement to the divinity that is your shared ideology. Your damned if you do and damned if you don’t when Salvation is a Christian construct. Try to lift the valance of religion, this is the divine intervention your biology is craving. Free will or won’t the argument is mute, it’s a performance. I am, of course, assuming that you are basing your identity on religion.


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