A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will | Robert Kane | Book Summary



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A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will


The discussion around free will isn’t only a metaphysical discussion: “in what ways are we free?” It is also a discussion of ethics: “What kind of freedom is sufficient to confer moral responsibility?” In fact the latter discussion is so important that some have defined free will as that level of freedom which makes it meaningful and coherent to confer responsibility.

The compatibilists believes that free will and moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. Classical compatibilists like Hobbes and Mill believe that an absence of external constraints is free will while new compatibilists require the lack of internal constraints (e.g. mental disorders) and for actions to be checked by a reflective system in the psyche. Compatibilists are looking for types of causation that would make an agent responsible but they are hard pressed when asked how someone can be responsible for an action from a causation that was originally out of their control.

The hard determinists reject compatibilism and think that determinism is true and that free will does not exist ie. there is no coherent way to talk about responsibility. The main argument between this school and the compatibilists is whether life would lose some significant meaning if determinism were true. Some hard determinists would say that many things like desires and hopes would remain intact but intuitions like praise or blameworthiness would be incoherent.

The libertarians reject compatibility and think that free will exists. They usually have to appeal to some form of mysticism but their position is convincing if you reject reductionism. Some libertarians believe that to be responsible one needs a freedom of self formation, to determine the character at a given point with you as the ultimate cause (instead of the compatibilists position which is content on conferring responsibility to actions done out of a character even if that character’s constitution is totally out of your control).



  1. Introduction
  2. All actions are caused
  3. Human actions are free
  4. No caused action can be free

We must reject one of these premises. Rejecting 1, makes you a libertarian. Rejecting 2, makes you a hard determinist. Rejecting 3, makes you a compatibilist.

The discussion of freewill actually contains two inquiries. Firstly, it contains a metaphysical inquiry: “In what ways are we free?” Secondly it contains an ethical inquiry: “given these freedoms how should we live life and do we have moral responsibility?”

The hard determinist and the compatibilist do not have metaphysical disagreements but rather ethical disagreements. Both of these have metaphysical disagreements with the libertarian. (Although modern scholars sometimes forgo the question of freedom and go straight to responsibility, in that sense the hard determinist and the compatibilist can have metaphysical disagreements based on the mechanisms that create responsibility.)

We will first broadly examine the five types of freedoms and then explore the three different positions one can take.



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  1. Five Freedoms

2.1 Self-Realization

“The Freedom of Self-realization: the power or ability to do what we want or will to do, which entails an absence of external constraints or impediments preventing us from realizing our wants and purposes in action.”

This is a compatibilist freedom ie. It is compatible with determinism. Although few would argue that this is the ONLY freedom worth having, it includes most of the freedom we care about in the socio-political domain.

“The freedom of self-realization includes all those social and political freedoms we so highly value — freedom to speak our minds with- out fear, to associate with whom we please; freedom from arbitrary search and seizure; freedom to vote and participate in the political process with- out intimidation, and so on. Such freedoms from external constraint are essential to our conception of human rights and to the very definition of free societies.”

2.2 Reflective Self-Control

“The Freedom of (Reflective or Rational) Self-control: the power to understand and reflectively evaluate the reasons and motives one wants to act upon, or should act upon, and to control one’s behavior in accordance with such reflectively considered reasons.”

This is a compatibilist freedom. Structurally, it is the freedom of a higher/different part of ourselves to examine and change other parts of ourselves. In the literature, this is described for example as second-order desires (desire for a desire) taming our first-order desires or our values (reason) taming our desires.

This is important because this is the “lowest” level of desire at which point moral responsibility can be argued to be of effect. Some compatiblist believe that if a being has this capacity, they can be held morally responsible for their actions. Another criteria many compatibilists have added is for a person to not only examine but consciously take responsibility for their higher part of themselves.

If self-realization is freedom from external impediments (e.g. jail, chains…) then reflective self-control is freedom from internal impediments (e.g. mental issues).

2.3 Self Perfection

“The Freedom of Self-perfection: the power to understand and appreciate the right reasons for action and to guide one’s behavior in accordance with the right reasons.”

This is a compatibilist freedom. This freedom is identical to the freedom of reflective self-control except that it is now the access to the “Good” which determines whether you are free and responsible. So even if you have the capacity to change your first order desires through your second-order desires, you still aren’t responsible if you never got access to the “Good” in your development.

This is a positive/Kantian notion of freedom because it is freedom in restraining oneself, freedom through limiting ones options and aligning to a standard. This is also a very protestant freedom: in the same manner that faith can only come through grace, freedom can only come through given access to the “Good”.

2.4 Self-Determination and Self-Formation

“The Freedom of Self-determination: the power or ability to act of your own free will in the sense of a will (character, motives and purposes) of your own making — a will that you yourself, to some degree, were ultimately responsible for forming.”

“The Freedom of Self-formation: the power to form one’s own will in a manner that is undetermined by one’s past by virtue of will-setting or self- forming actions (SFAs) over which one has plural voluntary control.”

Essentially, compatibilists would think that self-determination is important BUT NOT A QUALITATIVELY DIFFERENT freedom and it can be reduced to the first three. “Freedom of self-determination is important, compatibilists will argue, but it can be interpreted in terms of one or more of the first three compatibilist freedoms — most likely, for example, as a combination of self-realization and reflective self-control. To be self-determining, they may say, is to be able to determine one’s actions in terms of the Real or Deep Self with which one identifies or to which one is wholeheartedly committed; or it is to be able to control one’s desires in terms of one’s Reason or values — as well as being able to do what one wants without hindrances or impediments.”

Compatibilists on the other hand believe that in order for you to truly be responsible for an action, you can’t have this deep self be depends on some external force, you truly must be ULTIMATELY responsible.

“Both compatibilists and incompatibilists think that the further freedom of self-determination is important for free will. But compatibilists would like to reduce the freedom of self-determination to one or another of the first three (compatibilist) freedoms, while incompatibilists insist that the freedom of self-determination must be extended beyond the first three freedoms to the fifth freedom of self-formation to account for genuine free will and responsibility.”

QUESTION: it seems like the real disagreement here is whether self-determination through a deterministic process is enough to confer responsibility. Is responsibility the only thing at stake here? The author mentioned praiseworthiness/blameworthiness but that all seems to collapse into responsibility. In the mind of the incompatibilist, what is lost when we lose self-formation other than responsibility?

ANSWER: People’s interest in freedom is twofold 1. for a metaphysical possibility for alternate outcomes (they want to know if the world branches out in it’s decisions). 2. moral responsibility, although some would argue that responsibility is so fundamental to who we are as rational beings that by shaking the pillar of moral responsibility, the whole edifice of human behavior would collapse.

2.5 Free Will and Responsibility

Most of the concern around free will is centered around the discussion of moral responsibility. Indeed one may be interested in the discussion for other motives: theological divine knowledge, metaphysical branching of the world… Responsibility is so central to the discussion of free will that some define free will (as opposed to other types of freedom) as that which is enough to confer responsibility.

In the current literature there are mostly two groups here. The first libertarian position believes that you need the Principle of Alternative Possibility (PAP) to have genuine responsibility (in this hierarchy this would be “self-formation”). The second compatibilist position believes that you only need reflective self-control. Lastly, the hard determinists usually do not believe that any notion of responsibility can be coherent.



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  1. Compatibilism

3.1 Classical Compatibilism

Classical compatibilism is the view that free will is simply freedom of self-realization that is the lack of external impediments. Hobbes and Mill are prominent classical compatibilists.

QUESTION: when someone says free will is X… do they mean that X is the only type of freedom (out of the five freedoms) that we have OR that X is enough to confer moral responsibility (so we don’t even need to discuss other freedoms even if we have them)? Clearly classical compatibilist should think we have freedom fo reflective self-control right?

ANSWER: Most philosophers would say that if your elucidation of free will does not contain some form of moral responsibility than you have deeply failed in some regard, it won’t be an interesting notion of free will. So most philosophers at least in modernity simply say that X is enough to confer moral responsibility.

QUESTION: why is freedom interesting outside of responsibility?

ANSWER: People can be interested in it for either an understanding of metaphysics “How open is the world?” or even theology about the possibility of divine foreknowledge.

To the critique that this isn’t enough and we need a freedom to have done otherwise, the compatibilist gives two responses:

  1. Our view supports this freedom! You could have done otherwise HAD you wanted to do otherwise.
  2. If you wanted something deeper that is both incoherent and undesirable. If you make an important life decision: marry A or B, how can you possibly experience the same events, go through the same train of thought and conclude otherwise? And why is that at all desirable?
  3. If you want an action that is uncaused THEN you will not have moral responsibility. It is the fact that your action is caused by your character that you should be held responsible for it! (Obvious critique is that our characters are caused as well)

QUESTION: this does seem like quite a refutation of libertarianism, why would you WANT (plausibility not desirability) the freedom to do otherwise, it seems arbitrary and random! How would the libertarian respond?

ANSWER: A libertarian could respond that the ability to do otherwise independent of reason is quite silly. For example, for Kant, it is a choice of accordance with reason or with desire that is the alternative.

We must clarify a few common misunderstandings

  1. Determinism/cause is not the same as constraint. Just because something is caused doesn’t mean it necessarily constrains you, just as the natural laws don’t constrain but rather propel the locomotive moving forward. Only certain types of causation are constraints: impediments. The fact that our characters are caused and cause is a good thing, because that means they are tied to reality in some way. That causation might be more complex and sophisticated like the learning of a neural net.
  2. Determinism does not imply fatalism: fatalism is the view that whatever is going to happen, is going to happen, NO MATTER WHAT I DO. But this is not true, whatever we end up doing is going to effect the future to a great deal. Indeed, everything is determined by causes, but our volition, desires, thoughts are causes themselves, and the future would be quite different depending on what we do. If anything it is the determinist rather than the libertarian who has more agency, at least with respect to changing one’s character, because the determinist believes that character is caused and can be changed whereas the libertarian takes a more unchangeable view.

“Determinism, Mill is saying, does not imply that we have no influence on how things turn out, including the molding of our characters. We obvi- ously do have such an influence, and determinism alone does not rule it out. Believing in fatalism, by contrast, can have fatal consequences. A sick man may excuse himself for not seeing a doctor saying: “If your time is up, it doesn’t matter what you do about it.” Or a soldier may use a famil- iar line for not taking precautions: “There’s a bullet out there with your name on it. When it comes, you will not be able to avoid it, no matter what you do.” Mill is saying that such fatalist claims do not follow merely from determinism. To think they do is a “grand error.”

The claims of the sick man and the soldier are in fact examples of what the ancient philosophers called the “lazy sophism” (“sophism” meaning a fallacy of reasoning). The proper answers to the sick man and the soldier would be, “Whether your time is now up may depend in great part on whether you see a doctor; and whether any bullet out there right now has your name on it may depend on what precautions you take. So instead of sitting around doing nothing, see a doctor and take precautions.” This is the response that compatibilists, such as Mill, would give to the “lazy sophism.” Believing that determinism is compatible with freedom, they would say, should not make you a fatalist. Indeed this belief should convince you that your life is to some extent in your own hands, since how you deliberate can still make a difference in your future, even if determinism should turn out to be true.”



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  1. Determinism does not make us robots: we are built differently, we have emotions, we have consciousness, we have feelings. All of these can be caused.

3.2 New Compatibilism

New compatibilists claim that classical compatibilism is deficient because it only gives us an overview of freedom of action not freedom of will, they only talk about physical rather than mental constraints.

Freedom of will is always defined as an ability to introspect and examine oneself be it in the form of second-order desires or values.

QUESTION: it seems that the compatibilist inevitably runs into a problem, they think you are free when you X. But the process of obtaining X may be determined (since you are not free before X freedom is like faith in Christianity) and X may be determined itself. The compatibilist is then forced to answer the question of why someone OUGHT be held responsible for X something that was ultimately outside their control.

ANSWER: The compatibilist would say that it doesn’t matter that X was conditioned, they are just concerned with finding the causes that we would consider to be responsible. They would say that as long as someone’s reflective system however it may be defined checks your actions and values then you ought be held responsible to them. They are gonna bite the bullet and would be satisfied with that definition.

  1. Hard Determinism

Modern hard determinists hold three premises as true 1. Free will and determinism are incompatible 2. Free will of the libertarian kind does not exist 3. Either determinism or indeterminism (random chance events) may be true.

“1. You do what you do because of the way you are (your nature or character).

  1. To be truly responsible for what you do, you must be truly responsible for the way you are (for your nature or character).
  2. But to be truly responsible for the way you are, you must have done something in the past for which you were also responsible to make yourself, at least in part, the way you are.
  3. But if you were truly responsible for doing something in the past to make yourself what you are now, you must have been responsible for the way you were then (for your nature or character) at that earlier time.
  4. But to have been responsible for the way you were at that earlier time, you must have done something for which you were responsible at a still earlier time to make yourself the way you were at that earlier time, and so on backward.”

4.1 Consequence of Hard Determinism

The main debate between a compatibilist and a hard determinist is whether life would lose some significant meaning if determinism is true.

The latter would say yes. Many of our capacities, dreams, and fears remain unchanged but we can no longer hold blame and praise to anyone including ourselves. We can still find certain actions admirable or despicable but someone can no longer be praiseworthy or blameworthy. We may still hope for things and try for certain things because we simply do not know what is determined and what isn’t.

“Desires to become a successful actor or dancer or writer, to start a business, to find love, to have children, to be admired by others — these hopes that give meaning to life would not be undermined by the belief that we are not the “originating” causes of our own characters. What these everyday life- hopes require is only that, if we make the appropriate voluntary efforts, there is a good chance that nothing will prevent us from realizing our cherished goals. Even if our behavior is determined, we cannot know in advance how things are destined to turn out. So we must go on trying to realize our life-hopes and dreams in the same manner as we would if we did believe we had free will in the incompatibilist sense, though in fact we do not.”

In our legal system, we can no longer punish because it is deserved, we ought only punish for reformation and deterrence.

But some do not share such a rosy view and believe that people must believe in the illusion of free will lest our moral boundaries collapse. We must be able to blame ourselves.

QUESTION: What are the consequences of not believing in free will on a societal level? Will we become more compassionate, caring or more devious and selfish?

ANSWER: There are arguments for all sides, we could become more compassionate, we could become more selfish, we could lose the nature of our very beings.

  1. Libertarianism

Libertarians hold these positions: 1. Free will and determinism is not compatible. 2. Free will exists 3. Determinism is false (the world is indeterminate ie. There are uncaused events).

Libertarians face the trouble of having to explain how is it possible that free will can be compatible with an indeterminate world. Most rely on positing some form of mystic identity: the noumenal realm, an eternal soul … They usually posit some immaterial substance but they are forced into explaining how they can be uncaused causers to which they respond that we simply do not know and appeal to mystery.

The greatest criticism to libertarian notion of free will is that we can’t make sense of it without appealing to mystery.

“A great twentieth-century physicist, Erwin Schrödinger, once said some- thing relevant to this point: “At the price of mystery,” he said, “you can have anything” — though, we might add, in the words of Bertrand Russell, that you get it too easily, acquiring it by theft rather than honest toil.”

But perhaps a convincing argument for the plausibility but not actuality of the libertarian position is this:

  1. Even within our current system of science we know that the deterministic view of the universe is likely to be outdated (by quantum mechanics). So the world is likely to be indeterminate.
  2. The very presupposition to think about our reality through the lens of science is a reductionist perspective. And reductionism may very well not be true ie. The minute interactions we conceive of in our particles, this Newtonian causality may be just a useful mental model to conceive of the world but not capture all it’s complexity.

The most reasonable position of libertarianism grounds one’s free will in the form of rationality. Some can take on the position that the ability to infer from p to q is a fundamentally irreducible and different type of causality than is that of newtonian objects. They can then ground responsibility in the act of reason and that is how they arrive at responsibility.

The libertarian does not view this as appealing to mysticism, instead he takes a very Kantian position: to tackle this and try to conceive of a new form of causality on the atomic scale is a doomed project because it is possible that our faculties of reason are irreducible. Perhaps we fundamentally can not know through science. We know so little about the world so it is the hard determinist who is jumping the gun on the conclusion.

  1. Conclusion: How ought I act

How ought I act given the plausibility of hard determinism and libertarianism?

Fortunately, the addition of my buddhist ethics makes one operate very similarly with both of these metaphysics.

A key concern with hard determinism is that we are viewed as automata and not worthy with inherent “dignity” that comes from the ability to set ends. But Buddhism is more concerned with the relief of suffering of all sentient beings, determinism doesn’t change the nature of suffering at all so the core of the Buddhist project is left untouched. Furthermore, the thread of compassion from Buddhism is in perfect alignment with the idea of determined sentient beings tugged along for a ride of suffering from causality.

Libertarianism may confer us moral responsibility thus praise/blameworthiness but Buddhist commands for unconditional compassion and love which overrides that. Practically: a Buddhist would not punish beyond deterrence and habituation anyways no matter the metaphysics.

Buddhist ethics overrides the main difference between these two metaphysical positions — having/not having moral responsibility — through its emphasis on compassion. Since these two metaphysical positions leaves most other human tendencies intact, the addition of Buddhist ethics tells us to act in almost identical ways.



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