Ted Sider Free Will And Determinism Essays

The Standard Argument Against Free Will

The Standard Argument has two parts.
First, if determinism is the case, the will is not free.
We call this the Determinism Objection. Second, if indeterminism and real chance exist, our will would not be in our control, we could not be responsible for random actions.
We call this the Randomness Objection.
Together, these objections can be combined in the Responsibility Objection, namely that no Free Will model has yet provided us an intelligible account of the agent control needed for moral responsibility. Both parts are logically and practically flawed, partly from abuse of language that led some 20th-century philosophers to call free will a "pseudo-problem," and partly from claims to knowledge that are based on faulty evidence. We shall consider the evidence and show how to detect and correct errors in the reasoning.

Part One - The Determinism Objection

Determinism is true. All events are caused. All our actions are therefore pre-determined. There is no free will or moral responsibility. Errors and evidence...
  • Determinism is not "true." If anything physical is "true," it is indeterminism.
  • Physical determinism is not "true" because physics is empirical, not logical. The evidence has never justified the assumption of strict determinism.
  • Quantum mechanical indeterminism is extremely well established. While also not logically "true," the evidence for quantum mechanics is better established than classical physical determinism.
  • Just because some events are adequately determined does not justify the widespread belief in an absolute universal determinism.
  • Some events are unpredictable from prior events. They are causa sui, starting new causal chains.
  • The "chain" of events behind a particular cause may go back to inherited characteristics before we were born, others may go back to environmental and educational factors, but some may go back to uncaused creative events in our minds during deliberations.
    Decisions have many contributing causes.
  • We say correctly that our actions are "determined" by our (adequately determined) will. This determination does not imply universal strict determinism (as R. E. Hobart and Philippa Foot showed.
  • Our will chooses from free alternative possibilities, at least some of which are creative and unpredictable.
  • The will itself is indeed not "free" (in the sense of uncaused), but we are free.

Part Two - The Randomness Objection

Chance exists. If our actions are caused by chance, we lack control. We can not call that free will because we could not be held morally responsible for random actions. Errors and evidence...

Examples of the Standard Argument

Can you see the two standard objections and the flaws in reasoning or claims of truth that are based on faulty evidence? (These are modern examples of arguments that are at least as old as the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics. See arguments from antiquity.)

Cicero's Version

"Epicurus saw that if the atoms travelled downwards by their own weight; we should have no freedom of the will [nihil fore in nostra potestate], since the motion of the atoms would be determined by necessity. He therefore invented a device to escape from determinism (the point had apparently escaped the notice of Democritus): he said that the atom while travelling vertically downward by the force of gravity makes a very slight swerve to one side. (70) This defence discredits him more than if he had had to abandon his original position. "
(De Natura Deorum, Book I, section XXV, ¶¶ 69-70, Loeb Classical Library, v.40, p.67)
Notice that Cicero's argument already appears in the form of a logical proposition, one or the other of determinism or randomness must be true. He claims that Epicurus must be denying such logical disjunctions.
(70) XXV. "He does the same in his battle with the logicians. Their accepted doctrine is that in every disjunctive proposition of the form' so-and-so either is or is not,' one of the two alternatives must be true. Epicurus took alarm; if such a proposition as 'Epicurus either will or will not be alive to-morrow' were granted, one or other alternative would be necessary. Accordingly he denied the necessity of a disjunctive proposition altogether. Now what could be stupider than that?
(Loeb Classical Library translation, v.40, p.67)

John Fiske's Version

"Volitions are either caused or they are not. If they are not caused, an inexorable logic brings us to the absurdities just mentioned. If they are caused, the free-will doctrine is annihilated."
(Outline of Cosmic Philosophy, part. H. chap. xvii, cited in James, William, 1950 (1895) Principles of Psychology, Vol. 2. Dover Publications, p. 577)

Max Planck's Version

"Let us ask for a moment whether the human will is free or whether it is determined in a strictly causal way. These two alternatives seem definitely to exclude one another. And as the former has obviously to be answered in the affirmative, so the assumption of a law of strict causality operating in the universe seems to be reduced to an absurdity in at least this one instance. In other words, if we assume the law of strict dynamic causality as existing throughout the universe, how can we logically exclude the human will from its operation?... "Recent developments in physical science [viz., quantum indeterminacy] have come into play here, and the freedom of the human will has been put forward as offering logical grounds for the acceptance of only a statistical causality operative in the physical universe. As I have already stated on other occasions, I do not at all agree with this attitude. If we should accept it, then the logical result would be to reduce the human will to an organ which would be subject to the sway of mere blind chance."
(Where Is Science Going?, Ox Bow Press, 1981 (1933), p.101-105)

Arthur Stanley Eddington's Version

"There is no half-way house between random and correlated behavior. Either the behavior is wholly a matter of chance, in which case the precise behavior within the Heisenberg limits of uncertainty depends on chance and not volition. Or it is not wholly a matter of chance, in which case the Heisenberg limits...are irrelevant."
(The Philosophy of Physical Science,, MacMillan, 1939, p.182)

L. Susan Stebbing's Version

"If previous physical events completely determine all the movements of my body, then the movements of my pen are also completely determined by previous physical events....But if the movements of my pen are completely determined by previous physical events, how can it be held that my mental processes have anything to do with the movements made by my pen....I do not think that it can reasonably be maintained that physical indeterminism is capable of affording any help in this problem."
(Philosophy and the Physicists, Dover, 1958 (1939), pp.216-7)

Norbert Wiener's Version

Wiener sees no advantage in quantum mechanical indeterminism.

Tyche [chance] is as relentless a mistress as Ananke [necessity].
(Cybernetics, MIT Press, 1948, p.49)

A. J. Ayer's Version

Ayer is extremely clear that the "truth" of determinism cannot be proved. He says that the determinist's

"belief that all human actions are subservient to causal laws still remains to be justified. If, indeed, it is necessary that every event should have a cause, then the rule must apply to human behaviour as much as to anything else. But why should it be supposed that every event must have a cause? The contrary is not unthinkable. Nor is the law of universal causation a necessary presupposition of scientific thought.
But nevertheless he states the standard argument succinctly:
But now we must ask how it is that I come to make my choice. Either it is an accident that I choose to act as I do or it is not. If it is an accident, then it is merely a matter of chance that I did not choose otherwise; and if it is merely a matter of chance that I did not choose otherwise, it is surely irrational to hold me morally responsible for choosing as I did. But if it is not an accident that I choose to do one thing rather than another, then presumably there is some causal explanation of my choice: and in that case we are led back to determinism.
(Philosophical Essays, 1954, p.275)

J. J. C. Smart's Version

Smart states two definitions - one for determinism and one for randomness and declares them to be exhaustive of all possibilities.

Dl. I shall state the view that there is "unbroken causal continuity" in the universe as follows. It is in principle possible to make a sufficiently precise determination of the state of a sufficiently wide region of the universe at time to, and sufficient laws of nature are in principle ascertainable to enable a superhuman calculator to be able to predict any event occurring within that region at an already given time t'.

D2. I shall define the view that "pure chance" reigns to some extent within the universe as follows. There are some events that even a superhuman calculator could not predict, however precise his knowledge of however wide a region of the universe at some previous time.

For the believer in free will holds that no theory of a deterministic sort or of a pure chance sort will apply to everything in the universe: he must therefore envisage a theory of a type which is neither deterministic nor indeterministic in the senses of these words which I have specified by the two definitions DI and D2; and I shall argue that no such theory is possible.
("Free-Will, Praise and Blame," Mind, July 1961, reprinted in Dworkin, 1970)

P. F. Strawson's Version

...the notions of moral guilt, of blame, of moral responsibility are inherently confused and that we can see this to be so if we consider the consequences either of the truth of determinism or of its falsity. The holders of this opinion agree with the pessimists that these notions lack application if determinism is true, and add simply that they also lack it if determinism is false.
(Freedom and Resentment, 1962, reprinted in Watson (ed.), Free Will)

Roderick Chisholm's Version

The metaphysical problem of human freedom might be summarized in the following way: "Human beings are responsible agents; but this fact appears to conflict with a deterministic view of human action (the view that every event that is involved in an act is caused by some other event); and it also appears to conflict with an indeterministic view of human action (the view that the act, or some event. that is essential to the act, is not caused at all)." To solve the problem, I believe, we must make somewhat far-reaching assumptions about the self of the agent — about the man who performs the act.
("Freedom and Action," 1964, in Freedom and Determinism, ed. Keith Lehrer, 1966, p.11)

Richard Taylor's Version

Here Taylor clearly states Peter van Inwagen's famous Consequence Argument

If determinism is true, as the theory of soft determinism holds it to be, all those inner states which cause my body to behave in what ever ways it behaves must arise from circumstances that existed before I was born; for the chain of causes and effects is infinite, and none could have been the least different, given those that preceded. Both determinism and simple indeterminism are loaded with difficulties, and no one who has thought much on them can affirm either of them without some embarrassment. Simple indeterminism has nothing whatever to be said for it, except that it appears to remove the grossest difficulties of determinism, only, however, to imply perfect absurdities of its own.

Taylor sees the asymmetry in favor of determinism over indeterminism

Determinism, on the other hand, is at least initially plausible. Men seem to have a natural inclination to believe in it; it is, indeed, almost required for the very exercise of practical intelligence. And beyond this, our experience appears always to confirm it, so long as we are dealing with everyday facts of common experience, as distinguished from the esoteric researches of theoretical physics. But determinism, as applied to human behavior, has implications which few men can casually accept, and they appear to be implications which no modification of the theory can efface..
(Metaphysics, 1963, p.46)

David Wiggins' Version

If it were false that every event and every action were causally determined then the causally undetermined events and actions would surely, to that extent, be simply random. So the argument goes. That a man could have done x would mean no more than it might have turned out that way - at random.

Wiggins also prefers determinism to indeterminism, to insure that actions are caused by character

It will be asked if it makes any better sense to hold the man responsible for actions which happen at random that for ones which arise from his character. Surely then, if it doesn't, we ought to prefer that our actions be caused?
("Towards a Reasonable Libertarianism," in T. Honderich, ed., Essays on Freedom of Action, 1973, p.50)

Robert Nozick's Version

Without free will, we seem diminished, merely the playthings of external forces. How, then, can we maintain an exalted view of ourselves? Determinism seems to undercut human dignity, it seems to undermine our value. Some would deny what this question accepts as given, and save free will by denying determinism of (some) actions. Yet if an uncaused action is a random happening, then this no more comports with human value than does determinism. Random acts and caused acts alike seem to leave us not as the valuable originators of action but as an arena, a place where things happen, whether through earlier causes or spontaneously.
("Free Will", chapter 4 of Philosophical Explanations, 1981, p.291-2)

Peter van Inwagen's Version

Here is an argument that I think is obvious (I don't mean it's obviously right; I mean it's one that should occur pretty quickly to any philosopher who asked himself what arguments could be found to support incompatibilism):
If determinism is true, then our acts are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past. But it is not up to us what went on before we were born, and neither is it up to us what the laws of nature are. Therefore, the consequences of these things (including our present acts) are not up to us.
I shall call this argument the Consequence Argument. [A variant argument van Inwagen called the Mind Argument] proceeds by identifying indeterminism with chance and by arguing that an act that occurs by chance, if an event that occurs by chance can be called an act, cannot be under the control of its alleged agent and hence cannot have been performed freely. Proponents of [this argument] conclude, therefore, that free will is not only compatible with determinism but entails determinism. [This has been dubbed "supercompatibilism."]
(Essay on Free Will, 1983, p.16)
Van Inwagen dramatized his understanding of the indeterministic brain events needed for agent causation by imagining God "replaying" a situation to create exactly the same circumstances and then arguing that decisions would reflect the indeterministic probabilities.
If God caused Marie's decision to be replayed a very large number of times, sometimes (in thirty percent of the replays, let us say) Marie would have agent-caused the crucial brain event and sometimes (in seventy percent of the replays, let us say) she would not have... I conclude that even if an episode of agent causation is among the causal antecedents of every voluntary human action, these episodes do nothing to undermine the prima facie impossibility of an undetermined free act.
("Van Inwagen on Free Will," in Freedom and Determinism, 2004, ed. Joseph Keim Campbell, et al., p.227)

John Searle's Version

Searle argues that individual particles have statistically predictable paths.

As far as human freedom is concerned, it doesn't matter whether physics is deterministic, as Newtonian physics was, or whether it allows for an indeterminacy at the level of particle physics, as contemporary quantum mechanics does. Indeterminism at the level of particles in physics is really no support at all to any doctrine of the freedom of the will; because first, the statistical indeterminacy at the level of particles does not show any indeterminacy at the level of the objects that matter to us – human bodies, for example. And secondly, even if there is an element of indeterminacy in the behaviour of physical particles – even if they are only statistically predictable – still, that by itself gives no scope for human freedom of the will; because it doesn't follow from the fact that particles are only statistically determined that the human mind can force the statistically-determined particles to swerve from their paths. Indeterminism is no evidence that there is or could be some mental energy of human freedom that can move molecules in directions that they were not otherwise going to move. So it really does look as if everything we know about physics forces us to some form of denial of human freedom.
(Mind, Brains, and Science, 1984, pp.86-7)

Galen Strawson's Version

Strawson notes the argument is familiar and cites Henry Sidgwick's 1874 Methods of Ethics. Actually Sidgwick, with the 19th century view that freedom is metaphysical, is a firm determinist and only cites the Determinist Objection to free will.
It is a compelling objection. Surely we cannot be free agents, in the ordinary, strong, true-responsibility-entailing sense, if determinism is true and we and our actions are ultimately wholly determined by "causes anterior to [our] personal existence"* And surely we can no more be free if determinism is false and it is, ultimately, either wholly or partly a matter of chance or random outcome that we and our actions are as they are? (Freedom and Belief, 1986, p.25)

Colin McGinn's Version

The argument is exceedingly familiar, and runs as follows. Either determinism is true or it is not. If it is true, then all our chosen actions are uniquely necessitated by prior states of the world, just like every other event. But then it cannot be the case that we could have acted otherwise, since this would require a possibility determinism rules out. Once the initial conditions are set and the laws fixed, causality excludes genuine freedom.

On the other hand, if indeterminism is true, then, though things could have happened otherwise, it is not the case that we could have chosen otherwise, since a merely random event is no kind of free choice. That some events occur causelessly, or are not subject to law, or only to probabilistic law, is not sufficient for those events to be free choices.

Thus one horn of the dilemma represents choices as predetermined happenings in a predictable causal sequence, while the other construes them as inexplicable lurches to which the universe is randomly prone. Neither alternative supplies what the notion of free will requires, and no other alternative suggests itself. Therefore freedom is not possible in any kind of possible world. The concept contains the seeds of its own destruction.
(Problems in Philosophy: The Limits of Inquiry, 1993, p.80)

Paul Russell's Version

...the well-known dilemma of determinism. One horn of this dilemma is the argument that if an action was caused or necessitated, then it could not have been done freely, and hence the agent is not responsible for it. The other horn is the argument that if the action was not caused, then it is inexplicable and random, and thus it cannot be attributed to the agent, and hence, again, the agent cannot be responsible for it. In other words, if our actions are caused, then we cannot he responsible for them; if they are not caused, we cannot be responsible for them. Whether we affirm or deny necessity and determinism, it is impossible to make any coherent sense of moral freedom and responsibility.
(Freedom and Moral Sentiment, 1995, p.14)

Derk Pereboom on the Randomness and Responsibility Objections

Let us now consider the libertarians, who claim that we have a capacity for indeterministically free action, and that we are thereby morally responsible. According to one libertarian view, what makes actions free is just their being constituted (partially) of indeterministic natural events. Lucretius, for example, maintains that actions are free just in virtue of being made up partially of random swerves in the downward paths of atoms. These swerves, and the actions they underlie, are random (at least) in the sense that they are not determined by any prior state of the universe. If quantum theory is true, the position and momentum of micro-particles exhibit randomness in this same sense, and natural indeterminacy of this sort might also be conceived as the metaphysical foundation of indeterministically free action. But natural indeterminacies of these types cannot, by themselves, account for freedom of the sort required for moral responsibility. As has often been pointed out, such random physical events are no more within our control than are causally determined physical events, and thus, we can no more be morally responsible for them than, in the indeterminist opinion, we can be for events that are causally determined.
(Noûs 29, 1995, reprinted in Free Will, ed. D. Pereboom, 1997, p.252)

Steven Pinker's One-sentence Version

a random event does not fit the concept of free will any more than a lawful one does, and could not serve as the long-sought locus of moral responsibility. (How The Mind Works, 1997, p.54)

Ishtiyaque Haji's Version

Among the grandest of philosophical puzzles is a riddle about moral responsibility. Almost all of us believe that each one of us is, has been, or will be responsible for at least some of our behavior. But how can this be so if determinism is true and all our thoughts, decisions, choices, and actions are simply droplets in a river of deterministic events that began its flow long, long before we were ever born? The specter of determinism, as it were, devours agents, for if determinism is true, then arguably we never initiate or control our actions; there is no driver in the driver's seat; we are simply one transitional link in an extended deterministic chain originating long before our time. The, puzzle is tantalizingly gripping and ever so perplexing — because even if determinism is false, responsibility seems impossible: how can we be morally accountable for behavior that issues from an "actional pathway" in which there is an indeterministic break? Such a break might free us from domination or regulation by the past, but how can it possibly help to ensure that the reins of control are now in our hands?
(Moral Appraisability, 1998, p.vii)

Bernard Berofsky's Version

Basically, the compatibilists charged the opposition with two confusions. Causation, which is not freedom undermining even in its deterministic forms, is confused with compulsion or coercion, which, of course, is freedom-undermining. A physical barrier or even an internal compulsion or addiction can be an impediment to action; but when one acts simply because one wants to, one is not being impeded from acting otherwise. Hence, one is expressing one's freedom by doing what one wants. Second, although determinism entails that all human behavior is subsumable under universal law, freedom is not thereby threatened, for the sorts of laws involved are merely descriptive (natural, scientific), not prescriptive, like the laws of a legislative body. They just describe the way in which people behave; they do not force or constrain adherence. Finally, the compatibilists argued that indeterminism would not be more desirable since, under indeterminism, behavior is random and not under the control of the agent, a situation actually antithetical to freedom.
("Ifs, Cans, and Free Will," in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, 2002, p.182)

Owen Flanagan's Version

Free actions, if there are any, are not deterministically caused nor are they caused by random processes of the sort countenanced by quantum physicists or complexity theorists. Free actions need to be caused by me, in a nondetermined and nonrandom manner.
(The Problem of the Soul, 2002, p.135)

Randolph Clarke's Version

Accounts of free will purport to tell us what is required if we are to be free agents, individuals who, at least sometimes when we act, act freely. Libertarian accounts, of course, include a requirement of indeterminism of one sort or another somewhere in the processes leading to free actions. But while proponents of such views take determinism to preclude free will, indeterminism is widely held to be no more hospitable. An undetermined action, It is said would be random or arbitrary. It could not be rational or rationally explicable. The agent would lack control over her behavior. At best, indeterminism in the processes leading to our actions would be superfluous, adding nothing of value even if it did not detract from what we want.
(Libertarian Accounts of Free Will. Oxford, 2003, p. xiii) If the truth of determinism would preclude free will, it is far from obvious how indeterminism would help.
(Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, September 2008)

Mark Balaguer's Version

Any event that’s undetermined is uncaused and, hence, accidental. That is, it just happens; i.e., happens randomly. Thus, if our decisions are undetermined, then they are random, and so they couldn’t possibly be ‘‘appropriately non-random’’. Or to put the point the other way around, if our decisions are appropriately non-random, then they are authored and controlled by us; that is, we determine what we choose and what we don’t choose, presumably for rational reasons. Thus, if our decisions are appropriately non-random, then they couldn’t possibly be undetermined. Therefore, libertarianism is simply incoherent: it is not possible for a decision to be undetermined and appropriately non-random at the same time.
(A Coherent, Naturalistic, and Plausible Formulation of Libertarian Free Will, NOÛS 38:3 (2004) 379–406)
In his book "Free Will as an Open Scientific Question," (MIT Press, 2009) Balaguer reduces his argument to J.J.C.Smart's exhaustive determinism or indeterminism. He calls it "D-or-R-ism."
Determined-or-Randomism (D-or-R-ism): None of our decisions is both undetermined and appropriately nonrandom; that is, all of our decisions are either (i) causally determined by prior events or (ii) random in the sense that they're not appropriately nonrandom. (p.8)

Thomas Pink's Version

There are but these two alternatives. Either an action is causally determined. Or, to the extent that it is causally undetermined, its occurrence depends on chance. But chance alone does not constitute freedom. On its own, chance comes to nothing more than randomness. And one thing does seem to be clear. Randomness, the operation of mere chance, clearly excludes control.
(Free Will: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2004, p. 16)

Peter Lipton's Version

First, everything that happens in the world is either determined or not. Second, if everything is determined, there is no free will. For then every action would be fixed by earlier events, indeed events that took place before the actor was born. Third, if on the other hand not everything is determined, then there is no free will either. For in this case any given action is either determined, which is no good, or undetermined. But if what you do is undetermined then you are not controlling it, so it is not an exercise of free will. Finally, we have the conclusion: there is no free will.
("Genetic and generic determinism: a new threat to free will?," in The New Brain Sciences: Perils and Prospects, ed. D. Rees and S. Rose. Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp.89.)

John Martin Fischer's Version

Fischer mistakenly attributes this dilemma to William James's Dilemma of Determinism, which was actually a dilemma about regret in a deterministic world.

Either causal determinism is true, or it is not. If it is true, then we would lack freedom (in the alternative-possibilities and source senses). If it is false, then we would lack freedom in that we would not select the path into the future — we would not be the source of our behavior. Indeterminism appears to entail that it is not the agent who is the locus of control.
(Free Will:Critical Concepts in Philosophy, Routledge, 2005, vol. I, p. xxix)

Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen's Version

There are three standard responses to the problem of free will. The first, known as 'hard determinism', accepts the incompatibility of free will and determinism ('incompatibilism'), and asserts determinism, thus rejecting free will. The second response is libertarianism (again, no relation to the political philosophy), which accepts incompatibilism, but denies that determinism is true. This may seem like a promising approach. After all, has not modern physics shown us that the universe is indeterministic? The problem here is that the sort of indeterminism afforded by modern physics is not the sort the libertarian needs or desires. If it turns out that your ordering soup is completely determined by the laws of physics, the state of the universe 10,000 years ago, and the outcomes of myriad subatomic coin flips, your appetizer is no more freely chosen than before. Indeed, it is randomly chosen, which is no help to the libertarian.
(Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B (2004) 359, p.1776)

Kadri Vihvelin's Version

Either determinism is true or it's not. If determinism is true, then my choices are ultimately caused by events and conditions outside my control, so I am not their first cause and therefore...I am neither free nor responsible. If determinism is false, then something that happens inside me (something that I call “my choice” or “my decision”) might be the first event in a causal chain leading to a sequence of body movements that I call “my action”. But since this event is not causally determined, whether or not it happens is a matter of chance or luck. Whether or not it happens has nothing to do with me; it is not under my control any more than an involuntary knee jerk is under my control. Therefore, if determinism is false, I am not the first cause or ultimate source of my choices and...I am neither free nor responsible.
(Arguments for Incompatibilism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2007)

Robert Kane's Ascent and Descent Version

Kane offers what may be the most attractive version of the standard argument against free will, with a memorable diagram. He describes the usual determinism and randomness objections (the two horns of the Libertarian Dilemma) as the ascent and descent of what he calls "Incompatibilism Mountain." The ascent problem is to show free will is incompatible with determinism. The descent problem is to show that free will is compatible with indeterminism. Kane says that if free will is not compatible with determinism, it does not seem to be compatible with indeterminism either.
Let us call this the "Libertarian Dilemma." Events that are undetermined, such as quantum jumps in atoms, happen merely by chance.

David Hume reconciled freedom with determinism. Two-stage models also reconcile free will with indeterminism.

So if free actions must be undetermined, as libertarians claim, it seems that they too would happen by chance. But how can chance events be free and responsible actions? To solve the Libertarian Dilemma, libertarians must not only show that free will is incompatible with determinism, they must also show how free will can be compatible with indeterminism. Imagine that the task for libertarians in solving this dilemma is to ascend to the top of a mountain and get down the other side. (Call the mountain "Incompatibilist Mountain": figure 4.1). Getting to the top consists in showing that free will is incompatible with determinism. (Call it the Ascent Problem.) Getting down the other side (call it the Descent Problem) involves showing how one can make sense of a free will that requires indeterminism.
(A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, 2005, p.34)
Note that compatiblism with determinism has always been a great deal easier to accept than compatibilism with indeterminism. Professed "agnostics" on the truth of determinism and indeterminism implicitly equate the two difficulties, whereas there is a great asymmetry between the two. Indeterminism (irrational chance) is much more difficult to reconcile with freedom than is (causal and rational) determinism.

What's Wrong with the Standard Argument?

The most straightforward way to attack the standard argument is to see that the three objections really need to become three requirements for free will.

First, there is a Determinism Requirement - that our actions be adequately determined by our character and values. This requires that randomness not be the direct cause of our actions. Libertarians do not like this requirement. Determinists who think that determinism is all they need for free will call themselves compatibilists.
Next, there must be a Randomness Requirement, unpredictable chance events that break the causal chain of determinism. Without this chance, our actions simply the consequences of events in the remote past. This randomness must be located in a place and time that enhances free will, not one that reduces it to pure chance. Determinists do not like this requirement. Libertarians say that randomness in the decision itself is all they need for human freedom.
If we can meet these two requirements, we will satisfy the Responsibility Requirement. We do this by showing
  1. that the determinism we really have in the world is only adequate determinism and
  2. that the randomness we have (especially quantum indeterminism) has negligible effect on that adequate determinism, but provides the alternative possibilities from which our determined will can choose, can make a selection for which we can be responsible.
See the Cogito model for the details and some lesser requirements.

How Do the Determinists (and Compatibilists) Go Wrong?

Determinists and Compatibilists go wrong when they mistakenly assume that any chance or indeterminism will lead directly to random actions for which we cannot be morally responsible. Though they are metaphysical determinists, they lack confidence in the personal determination of the will, guaranteed by the adequate physical determinism of our macroscopic minds. And as William James said, they have an "antipathy to chance." Our adequately determined will gives us adequate control of microscopic chaos and chance. Some of the compatibilists' fears of randomness are quite funny.
"Indeterminism does not confer freedom on us: I would feel that my freedom was impaired if I thought that a quantum mechanical trigger in my brain might cause me to leap into the garden and eat a slug." (J. J. C. Smart) "For the simplest actions could not be performed in an indeterministic universe. If I decide, say, to eat a piece of fish, I cannot do so if the fish is liable to turn into a stone or to disintegrate in mid-air or to behave in any other utterly unpredictable manner." (P.H.Nowell-Smith)

How Do the Libertarians Go Wrong?

Libertarians go wrong when they try to keep some "freedom" (i.e., indeterminism) in the act of the determining will. Their particular concern is that an agent must be able to do something different in exactly the same circumstances. Agents could not do otherwise, they say, if they are determined by any preceding events, including the results of their immediately prior "free" deliberations. Although this is not the pre-determination of the strict causal chain in metaphysical determinism going back to the big bang, libertarians over-react. They have what William James might call an "antipathy to determinism." Despite advice from Daniel Dennett and Alfred Mele to keep indeterminism in the early pre-deliberation stages, libertarians like Robert Kane, Peter van Inwagen, Laura Waddell Ekstrom, and Mark Balaguer want indeterminism in the decision itself. Kane calls it The Indeterminist Condition:
the agent should be able to act and act otherwise (choose different possible futures), given the same past circumstances and laws of nature. ( A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, 2005, p.38)
But personal determination of the will is only acting consistently, in character and according to values expressed in one's habits and customs, when one does the same thing in the same circumstances. (Note that identical circumstances are essentially impossible, given the information of the past stored in the world and the agent's memory.) An adequately determined will, given genuinely unpredictable alternative possibilities


-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website --

If you were free in doing something and morally responsible for it, you could have done otherwise. That has seemed a pretty firm proposition among the old, new, clear, unclear and other propositions in the philosophical discussion of freedom and determinism. If you were free in what you did, there was an alternative. It is also at least natural to think that if determinism is true, you can never do otherwise than you do. G. E. Moore, that Cambridge reasoner in whose shadow Wittgenstein ought to be standing, considered the matter. He pointed out that even if determinism is true, there remains a sense in which you can still do otherwise than you do: you will do otherwise if you so choose. That, on reflection, is consistent with determinism. The doctrine of the compatibility of freedom and determinism is saved. Joseph Keim Campbell, strong philosopher at Washington State University, provides the latest thinking on this seemingly unavoidable dispute. You do not have to agree that either compatibilism or incompatibilism must be true in order to appreciate the carefulness of his reasoning in this piece of ongoing American philosophy. It requires and repays attention.

1. Introduction*

This is a defense of strong compatibilism. Roughly, strong compatibilism is the view that (a) free will is essential to moral responsibility, (b) free will requires alternatives, and (c) moral responsibility is compatible with determinism. The expression ‘free will’ is intended to designate the freedom-relevant condition necessary for moral responsibility, whatever that condition may be (cf. McKenna 2003).1 Thus, (a) is true by definition. Strong compatibilism is a version of the alternatives theory of free will. According to the alternatives theory, a person S performs an action a freely only if S has or had alternatives to a. Moreover, S has alternatives to a iff S can perform some contrary action a' instead of a, where one act is contrary to another provided that a person cannot simultaneously perform them both.

Strong compatibilism has long been challenged by incompatibilists who endorse (b) but reject (c). More recently, both semicompatibilists—who accept (c) but reject (b)—and free will nihilists—who hold that no person has or ever had free will—have offered criticisms of (b). This line of attack is motivated by well-known examples offered first by Harry Frankfurt (1969) and then by others. Here is a version of my own Frankfurt example, as re-told by Michael McKenna.

“Desperate for money, Eleanor and her father Roscoe plan to rob a bank. Roscoe fears that Eleanor might change her mind at an inopportune moment. To insure that Eleanor will proceed with the plans, Roscoe secretly implants a mechanism in Eleanor’s brain. Should Eleanor give any indication that she is unwilling to go along with the bank robbery, Roscoe will use the device to render Eleanor unable to do anything other than rob the bank. As it happens, despite a splitting headache, Eleanor willingly robs the bank with her father. The device is never activated.” (McKenna 1998, 259)

Eleanor is apparently morally responsible for her actions even though she could not have done otherwise. Thus, it seems that alternatives are not essential to moral responsibility.

In this essay, I provide a new theory of alternatives, inspired by the work of G.E. Moore (1912) and R. Jay Wallace (1994). I begin with a broad framework for grasping most versions of the alternatives theory: the relevant facts account (§2). The relevant facts account is helpful in understanding both compatibilist and incompatibilist theories but I am especially interested in using it to flesh out two varieties of strong compatibilism: the two-‘cans’ view—according to which ‘can’ is ambiguous like the word ‘odd’—and contextualism—according to which ‘can’ is context sensitive like ‘flat.’ Finally, I offer a version of the two-‘cans’ view and show how my view differs from those of Moore and Wallace (§ 3).

2. The Relevant Facts Account2

I begin by restating strong compatibilism in more precise terms, e.g., as the conjunction of the following three claims.

1.        A person is morally responsible for an action only if he does it freely.

2.        A person performs an action freely only if he has or had alternatives to the action.

3.        That someone is morally responsible for some action is consistent with the thesis of determinism.

(1)–(3) correspond, roughly and respectively, to items (a)–(c) in the provisional definition of ‘strong compatibilism’ above.3

The principle of alternative possibilities, or PAP, is a consequence of (1) and (2). It is more succinctly stated as follows:

PAP: A person is morally responsible for an action only if he has or had alternatives to the action.

Note that PAP fails to distinguish between the time of action—the time that an agent performs an action—and the time of ability—the time that an agent had the ability to perform an alternative action (Taylor 1965 and Lehrer and Taylor 1965). Even if we agree that Eleanor could not do otherwise at the time that she robbed the bank there is little reason to suppose that she lacked alternatives to her actions prior to the implantation of the bank-robbing device. Perhaps we should rephrase PAP so that it implies that in order for a person to be morally responsible it is “necessary that one could have done otherwise for some acts in one’s lifetime” (Kane 2002, 697).

Unfortunately the above Frankfurt example can be altered to meet this new version of PAP. Suppose that some god-like creature—call him ‘Harry’—has a full life plan for Eleanor. He implants a device in Eleanor prior to her birth. If Eleanor were about to something that Harry did not intend for her to do, then the device would become activated. As it happens, she does everything that Harry wants her to do. Now it seems that there is nothing that Eleanor could have done otherwise. Similar comments may be made about other responses to the Frankfurt examples (cf. Pereboom 2000). For every new version of PAP, there is another Frankfurt example that apparently undermines it. In order to successfully defend PAP one needs to adopt a new strategy. What we need is not a different version of PAP but an altogether different understanding of alternatives.

The relevant facts account is well suited for grasping the standard incompatibilist view of alternatives. What does it mean to say that William James has a choice about which way to walk home after one of his lectures? Here is James’s response:

Note that the incompatibilist criterion is not an analysis since it only specifies a necessary condition for having alternatives. Nonetheless, it does identify a condition that is central to most versions of the argument for incompatibilism. As Peter van Inwagen writes: “it seems that our freedom can only be the freedom to add to the actual past; it seems that our freedom can only be the freedom to act in accordance with the laws of nature” (2000, 167; cf. Ginet 1990, 102-3). Hence, the incompatibilist claims that, given determinism, we lack the all-in ability to do otherwise. Of course, the incompatibilist believes that all-in ability is the only kind of ability, at least when considering the ‘can’ of free will.

“Lewis’s idea is that a statement attributing ability, like ‘Tim can kill Grandfather,’ is ambiguous. The statement means ‘Tim’s killing Grandfather is compossible with a certain set of facts,’ but the relevant set of facts may vary from one context of utterance to another. When we say that Tim can kill Grandfather because he has what it takes, we mean that his killing Grandfather is compossible with a certain set of facts that includes only relatively ‘local’ facts about the killing situation; when we say that Tim can’t kill Grandfather because Grandfather is Tim’s grandfather, we mean that Tim’s killing Grandfather isn’t compossible with a more inclusive set of facts that includes the fact that Grandfather survived his youth and helped produce Tim.” (1997, 143)

According to both Lewis and Sider, the truth conditions of ability sentences vary according to the context in which those sentences are uttered. Thus, an utterance of the sentence ‘Tim can kill Grandfather’ may be true in one context yet false in another.

In the above quotations, Lewis and Sider suggest that the variance in the truth conditions of ability sentences is due to a change in meaning. Lewis claims that “‘can’ is equivocal” (1976, 77) and Sider claims that “a statement attributing ability ¼ is ambiguous” (1997, 143). Both assertions are questionable and unnecessary. If contextualism is understood in terms of the relevant facts account, then it seems that ‘S can do a’ always means the same thing: that S’s doing a is compossible with the relevant facts. What varies from context to context—if contextualism is true—is the set of facts that is counted as relevant, not the meaning of ‘can.’ Contextualism is committed to a variation in the content of assertions of ability sentences—to the “proposition that embodies [their] truth-conditions”—but not to a variation in the meaning of such assertions—to “what is fixed by the conventions for the use of expressions that we learn when we learn a language” (Perry 1997).

We may contrast contextualism with the two-‘cans’ view endorsed by Moore (1912). Moore distinguishes between the hypothetical sense and the categorical sense of ‘can.’ The latter is picked out by the concept of all-in ability noted above; the former is usually identified with the standard hypothetical analysis of ‘could have done otherwise’: if S had wanted (or tried, etc.) to do otherwise, then S would have done otherwise.6 Perhaps the standard hypothetical analysis is really a version of the relevant facts account. If it is, then Moore may be wrong in his claim that the word ‘can’ is ambiguous. Nonetheless, Moore holds that ability terms and sentences have two distinct meanings and in doing so he endorses the two-‘can’ view and distinguishes his position from the one held by the contextualist.7

The contextualist about ability terms adds to the relevant facts account the claim that the relevant facts vary with the context of utterance. There are many different ways that one might explain how and why this is so. According to a popular version of contextualism—call it ‘naïve contextualism’—these variations result due to differences in our sphere of attention. John Hawthorne writes:

“When ordinary speakers utter English claims of the form ‘S did x freely’ (and their synonyms), they frequently speak the truth. But when our sphere of attention is widened by philosophical inquiry, we are rarely in a position to truly utter the English words ‘S did x freely’. Accordingly, the English words ‘S did x freely’ (and ‘It is up to S whether or not he does x’ and ‘S did x of his own free will’ etc.) must have a meaning that somehow allows its truth conditions to vary according to the sphere of attention.” (2001, 68)

Naïve contextualism is a kind of compatibilism, for it claims that in ordinary contexts our standards for determining what facts are relevant are less restrictive since we attend to only “relatively ‘local’ facts.” Yet in philosophical contexts our attention is draw elsewhere—to facts about the neurological springs of our action, or to the entire set of facts about the broad past—and we subsequently deny that our actions are free.

In this section, I sketch out a compatibilist theory of alternatives that is a variant of the two-‘cans’ view. My version of the alternatives theory is opposed to naïve contextualism but my criticisms of naïve contextualism leave room for other contextualist theories as well as other non-contextualist theories. This is all to the good. I am not certain whether ability sentences are genuinely ambiguous or whether they suffer from some more complex linguistic malady. Since it is relatively easy to talk in terms of different senses of ability sentences, I make a provisional case for the claim that the two-‘cans’ view is correct. If it turns out that ‘can’ is more like ‘flat’ than it is like ‘odd,’ or even that the relevant difference involves the contents of assertions of ability sentences rather than the meanings of those sentences (cf. Stainton forthcoming), then my comments may be amended without much loss to the strong compatibilist position.
Central to my presentation here is the distinction between two different senses of ability terms and sentences: the all-in ability sense and the general ability sense. It might be better to talk about a distinction between all-in abilities and general abilities, where S has an all-in ability to do something iff the appropriate ability sentence is true in the all-in ability sense, and S has a general ability to do something iff the appropriate ability sentence is true in the general ability sense. 

Often when we say ‘S can doing otherwise’ we mean that S’s doing otherwise is compossible with all of the facts about the broad past. It is our all-in ability that withers upon reflection, for in this sense any fact about the broad past is relevant to whether or not one has alternatives. As we discover and contemplate more information about the world, our all-in ability to do otherwise appears to correspondingly evaporate. All-in ability is exemplified in both the James thought experiment and the incompatibilist criterion, noted above.

Ability sentences may also express a more general sense. In order to understand the difference, consider first the following joke. (It is a philosophical joke, so it’s not very funny.) A man has a bird in a cage. A friend asks him, “Can your bird fly?” The man looks at the bird in the cage and responds, “No. Not at the moment.” Whereupon the friend retorts, “If it can’t fly, then why is it in a cage?”  Peter Unger (1984, 55) offers a related example: “while riding in a train with a pianist friend, a person might ask the musician, ‘Can you play “One O’clock Jump”?’ The pianist may reply, ‘Yes, I can.’” Unger notes that “the lack of any piano on the train will not falsify the musician’s claims” but that “in the hotel two months later, matters of truth will be evaluated differently: The absence of piano might then falsify.”

Given the above examples, it is natural to conclude that ability sentences are ambiguous. A bird is in a cage and someone asks, ‘Can the bird fly?’ The answer is ‘Yes’ if we are talking about the bird’s general abilities. The bird would not be in a cage unless it had the general ability to fly. But the bird does not have the all-in ability to fly, for it cannot fly in the all-in sense given that it is in a cage. Similarly, a man might have the general ability to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ even if there is no piano available. When there is no piano available it is not this general ability that is lost, though indeed another ability may be absent. For there is certainly a sense in which one cannot play a song on a piano if there is no piano available to play the song.

My distinction between all-in and general abilities is influenced by the work of Moore (1912) and Wallace (1994) but it is not the same as either of their distinctions. All-in abilities correspond well with Moore’s categorical sense of ‘can’ but general abilities are quite different from the hypothetical sense of ‘can.’ With Wallace it is just the opposite. My notion of general abilities is adopted from Wallace’s own view. But all-in abilities are different from Wallace’s particular abilities. Wallace’s distinction between particular and general abilities is a lot like the difference between one’s general ability to play the piano—in my sense—versus one’s ability to play the piano at a particular moment of time, for instance, one’s ability to play the piano now. But when I say that a person has the general ability to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ I mean that there is a sense in which he can play ‘One O’clock Jump’ now, even if there is no piano available. At this very moment—regardless of the presence or absence of a piano—there are lots of folks who can play ‘One O’clock Jump’ in the general sense though I cannot. Nonetheless, I am willing to admit that there might be another, more restrictive sense in which one cannot play ‘One O’clock Jump’ if there is no piano available to play the song.

In order for Wallace’s view to be of use to the strong compatibilist it must be amended and combined with the insights of Moore. Moore is correct: ‘can’ is ambiguous and, thus, so are ability sentences. However, Moore was wrong about the details of this ambiguity. Wallace’s concept of general ability is preferable to Moore’s hypothetical sense of ‘can.’ The new proposal combines the theories of Moore and Wallace: ability sentences are ambiguous between the all-in sense and the general sense.

Given my version of the two-‘cans’ view, how should the strong compatibilist respond to the Frankfurt example noted above? Recall that in this example Eleanor is supposed to be morally blameworthy for her action. Suppose that we slightly alter the example: Eleanor decides not to rob the bank and Roscoe simply flips a switch causing her to do so anyway. In this new case Eleanor is no longer morally blameworthy for robbing the bank. What is the difference between the two cases, the original case where the device is not activated and the new case where it is activated? One cannot describe the difference in terms of Eleanor’s all-in abilities since in both situations she lacks the all-in ability to do otherwise. The difference lies in the things that she cannot do in a more general sense. Though the Frankfurt examples show that all-in abilities are not essential to moral responsibility, it would be wrong to conclude from those examples that general abilities are not essential to moral responsibility.

General abilities are more fundamental than all-in abilities. If a bird lacks the general ability to fly, then it also lacks the all-in ability to fly. I cannot play the piano in a general sense, so I am not able to play it in the all-in sense. But as the above examples indicate, a bird may have a general ability to fly yet lack the all-in ability to do so. Similar comments apply to the pianist example. It is the fundamental nature of our general abilities that make them appropriate candidates for underlying the freedom-relevant condition necessary for moral responsibility. As the Frankfurt examples illustrate, one may be praiseworthy or blameworthy for his actions even if he lacks the all-in ability to do otherwise but few would say the same were one to lack general abilities like “the power to grasp and apply the principles that support the moral obligations we accept, and to control one’s behavior by the light of such principles” (Wallace 1994, 188). That Eleanor cannot do otherwise in the all-in sense is irrelevant to our judgment that she is morally blameworthy but if she could not do otherwise in a more general sense—as is the case when the bank-robbing device is activated, for instance—our judgment would rightfully be different.8

One might think that Unger’s pianist example is supportive of naïve contextualism but that is not so. There is a general sense in which any pianist can play the piano even if he is riding in a train and there is no piano available to play. This is why it is appropriate to call one a ‘pianist’ or a ‘musician’ whether or not there is an instrument available to play. A pianist’s general ability to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ has to do with his training and “his knowledge of the jazz repertoire” (Unger 1984, 55) not with incidental facts like the availability of a piano. Even if one believes that there is no piano available to play he might still say that he is able to play ‘One O’clock Jump’ in this general sense. In one and the same context he might admit both that he can play ‘One O’clock Jump,’ for he has what it takes, and that he cannot play the piece, since there is no piano available. This is why naïve contextualism is wrong.

Similar comments apply to the bird example. By merely asking ‘Can the bird in the cage fly?’ one automatically draws attention to the fact that the bird is in a cage. This would make this fact a relevant one if naïve contextualism were true. If naïve contextualism were true, it would be impossible to correctly answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Can the bird in the cage fly?,’ for the bird cannot fly in the all-in sense given that it is in a cage. Suppose that someone wants to take the bird out of the cage and hold it in his hands. He might ask, ‘Can the bird in the cage fly?’ before doing so. On some occasions the correct answer to this question is going to be ‘Yes.’ It is not clear how the naïve contextualist may admit this.

For these reasons, I am inclined to believe that naïve contextualism is false: the content of ability sentences does not change simply because of a change in our sphere of attention. This alone, though, does not entail either that contextualism is false or that the two-‘cans’ view is true. But it does suggest that merely attending to a fact does not in and of itself make the fact a relevant one. As I indicated above, we should separate the semantic issues—what to say about the precise meaning and content of ability sentences—from the compatibility issue. I think that I have given reason to believe that (a) on at least some occasions there are truthful utterances of ability sentences, (b) often the truthfulness of those utterances is essential to the moral praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of an individual’s action, and (c) all of this is independent of the truth or falsity of determinism. This is enough to motivate strong compatibilism even though it is consistent with the two-‘can’ view, contextualism, and a few other theories about the semantics of ability sentences (cf. Stainton forthcoming).


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———. 1999. “Descartes on Spontaneity, Indifference, and Alternatives.” New Essays on the Rationalists, edited by Rocco J. Gennaro and Charles Huenemann. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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* Versions of this paper were presented at the Bellingham Summer Philosophy Conference as well as the Western Canadian Philosophical Association Conference. I thank my commentators—David Sosa and Peter Murphy, respectively—as well as other members of the audience—especially Hud Hudson and David Zimmerman—for helpful criticisms and feed-back. I also thank John Martin Fischer, Michael O’Rourke, and an anonymous referee from the Canadian Journal of Philosophy for written comments on an earlier draft. Lastly, I thank David Shier and Harry Silverstein for useful discussions on issues related to this paper.

1. Following Peter van Inwagen (1983, 8), I use the term ‘free will’ out of respect for tradition. By saying that one has free will I do not mean to imply that the person has some faculty, e.g., the will, that has the property of being free. Perhaps the expression ‘moral freedom’ (cf. Markosian 1999, 258) is preferable to ‘free will,’ for it is common to identify having free will with having alternatives, and it is equally common to believe that alternatives are not necessary for moral responsibility and, hence, neither is free will. But philosophers who think along these lines—for instance, semicompatibilists (Fischer 1994)—generally accept that there is a freedom-relevant condition that is necessary for moral responsibility. Thus, when they claim that free will is not essential to moral responsibility they are using the term ‘free will’ in a way that is different than the way that I am using it here.

2. The structure of this section is borrowed from Keith DeRose (1999).

3. Determinism is the conjunction of the following two theses: “For every instant of time, there is a proposition that expresses the state of the world at that instant” and “If p and q are any propositions that express the state of the world at some instants, then the conjunction of p with the laws of nature entails q” (van Inwagen 1983, 65). For other definitions of the key terms of the free will debate, see van Inwagen (1983) and Campbell, O’Rourke, and Shier (2004b).

For the purposes of this essay, (3) expresses the thesis of compatibilism whereas incompatibilism is the denial of (3). Some philosophers use the term ‘compatibilism’ to designate the view that the free will thesis—the claim that some persons have free will—is compatible with determinism (van Inwagen 1983). But since free will just is the freedom relevant condition necessary for moral responsibility, this usage is not significantly different from my own.

4. Contextualist theories of ability terms are developed by Lewis (1976 and 1979) and Sider (1997). A contextualist theory of ‘free action’ is presented by John Hawthorne (2001). Both kinds of theories are discussed by Peter Unger (1984, 54-8). Richard Feldman (2004) offers several compelling criticisms of contextualism. In this section, I’m presenting broad strong compatibilist strategies, so many of the important details of contextualism are left out. For a more complete understanding of contextualist theories of freedom, see Feldman (2004).

5. For a general introduction to the grandfather paradox, and other paradoxes of time travel, see Campbell (forthcoming).

6. Moore’s own analysis of the hypothetical sense of ‘could have done otherwise’ is more elaborate and more interesting. According to Moore, we could have done otherwise—in the hypothetical sense—iff three conditions hold: “(1) that we ... should have acted differently, if we had chosen to; (2) that similarly we ...  should have chosen differently, if we had chosen so to choose; and (3) that it was ... possible that we should have chosen differently, in the sense that no man could know for certain that we should not so choose” (Moore 1912, 94). (1) is equivalent to the standard hypothetical analysis, so Moore’s analysis is clearly more detailed than the standard one.

7. Unger (1983) suggests that the distinction between contextualism and invariantism maps on neatly, and respectively, to the distinction between compatibilism and incompatibilism. But the two-‘cans’ view shows that this is not so. The two-‘cans’ view is a kind of invariantism, for invariantism is just the denial of contextualism and the two-‘cans’ view is not a kind of contextualism. What we need is a distinction that lines up contextualism and the two-‘cans’ view on the same side and incompatibilist versions of the alternatives theory on the other.

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