What Are the Main Positions in the Free Will Debate?

Mark Vuletic

This article seeks to acquaint you with the main positions in the debate over whether or not people have free will. In the first section, I will describe the traditional positions on free will that are introduced by many philosophy texts and presupposed by most others. In the second section, I will point out some of the limitations in thinking about the free will debate in terms of those positions.

The traditional positions

The traditional way of describing the free will debate takes the debate to be among three mutually exclusive positions: soft determinism, hard determinism, and libertarianism.

These three positions have something to do with attitudes toward determinism, so let's take a small detour to learn what that is. Roughly, determinism is the view that everything that happens at a given moment of time must happen exactly the way it does given whatever was the case the moment before. If determinism is true, then every occurrence in the universe, including your decisions and actions, are part of a rigid chain of cause and effect stretching back to the initial state of the universe; given exact knowledge of that initial state and of the laws of nature, someone with sufficient computing power ought, in principle, to be able to predict with certainty everything that ever happens after the first moment of time. A rigorous definition of determinism would be far more complicated than all of this, but the above should give you a rough and ready idea of the kind of thing we are talking about.

So, on to the positions.

Soft determinism is a compatibilist position, which is to say that it holds that determinism and free will are compatible—that it is possible for determinism to be true and for people to have free will at the same time. Soft determinists go on to say, furthermore, that determinism is in fact true, and that we do in fact have free will. Generally, soft determinists define free will as something along the lines of "being able to do what you intend to do," but there is variation.

Hard determinism and libertarianism are incompatibilist positions, which is to say that they hold that determinism and free will are incompatible—that if determinism is true, then we can't have free will, and vice versa. Hard determinists go on to say that determinism is in fact true, and that we therefore do not have free will. Libertarians, on the other hand, say that we do in fact, have free will, and that determinism therefore is false. Generally, both of these incompatibilist positions define free will as some special power people have that can work contrary to any preceding set of causes without (somehow) it being a random matter when it does so, but again there is variation.

To recap, consider the following statements:

(A) If determinism is true, then we do not have free will.

(B) Determinism is true.

(C) We have free will.

Anyone who rejects (A) is an incompatibilist, regardless of his stance on (B) and (C).

Anyone who accepts (A) is a compatibilist, regardless of his stance on (B) and (C).

Soft determinists reject (A), and accept (B) and (C).

Hard determinists accept (A) and (B), and reject (C).

Libertarians accept (A) and (C), and reject (B).

Limitations of the traditional set of positions

Consider again the set of statements we looked at above:

(A) If determinism is true, then we do not have free will.

(B) Determinism is true.

(C) We have free will.

Here is a breakdown of all of the permutations of attitudes one can have toward these statements:

Attitude toward (A) Attitude toward (B) Attitude toward (C) Name of position
1 Accept Accept Accept Incoherent
2 Accept Accept Reject Hard determinism
3 Accept Reject Accept Libertarianism
4 Accept Reject Reject Unnamed variety of incompatibilism
5 Reject Accept Accept Soft determinism
6 Reject Accept Reject Unnamed variety of compatibilism
7 Reject Reject Accept Unnamed variety of compatibilism
8 Reject Reject Reject Unnamed variety of compatibilism

 

We can see from this that the standard set of positions leaves out four other positions that, on the face of it, appear logically coherent and are worth considering (plus one that is incoherent). Most importantly for the contemporary debate, focusing on the standard set of positions ties one's stance on free will far too much to the question of whether or not determinism is true. Most contemporary critics of the notion of free will think it makes no difference whether or not determinism is true—they hold that indeterministic occurrences must be either random or purely probabilistic, and that both of these alternatives are just as incompatible with free will as determinism is; in short, they hold that the notion of free will is logically incoherent, as it is logically inconsistent with every possible way the universe could conceivably work.

Hence, although familiarity with the traditional positions is useful—indeed, essential if you want to read most of the literature that has been written on free will—it is important not to think that they are comprehensive, or even that they represent all of the most interesting positions. When you read about the free will debate, pay attention to mentions of the traditional positions, but make sure you do not try to shoehorn everything you encounter into them: much of it is unlikely to fit.

Last updated: 7 Mar 2017

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