Arguments for compatibilism (1)



I am have been working on an essay on the nature of truth, but recent discussions at Scientia Salon webzine have led to a division of attention on a separate issue [A]. Hopefully I will be able to multitask between the two interests. What follows will be (again hopefully) but the first in a series of articles on the current debate between ‘free will’ advocates, compatibilists (determinists who hold that there is a space in the description of human action for what may be called ‘free will’ phenomena – or what I’ve lately come to call ‘choice events’), and hard determinist incompatibilists – those who think that every move we make is pre-determined beforehand, whether by physics, biochemistry, genetics, or social-psychological routinization of pathways in the brain.

Social determinism and compatibilism

I gave up worrying about the “free will vs. determinism” debate back around 1990; at that time, I became a Buddhist, and studied Pragmatism, especially (in the present context) that of George Herbert Mead [1] and the little known but nonetheless important Explanation and Power: the Control of Human Behavior by Morse Peckham [2]. Buddhism is to surprisingly large extent, biologically determinist – not in the genetics sense that we understand it today, but in the raw sense that it understands that human thought and action arise from the same point of origin as with any animal body. The animal body desires, the body moves toward satisfaction of those desires. Of course, unlike other animals, humans have a complex brain capable of multiplying desires and articulating any number of excuses for moving toward them; that’s our curse – so many desires means ever greater disappointments, since the world can never satisfy them all – we will keep wanting and keep failing to satisfy; or our satisfactions will be momentary, leading to renewed desire; or we will feel secure in the having of a source of satisfaction, only to lose it to natural causes or chance [3].

To some extent, similar views can be found in Pragmatism as well; the foundation of Pragmatism is that human thought originates in quite natural – i.e., animal – needs and desires, again complicated by the capacities of our enlarged brains. This is true of the simplest and most mundane matters as for the highly complex and esoteric. We build better plows in order to increase the amount of food we can eat. We create gods because we want to feel loved. The logic of our sciences and the longings expressed in our poetics both arise from our animal nature.

But while Pragmatism begins by recognizing our animal nature, it’s understanding of how our behaviors are formed, rather takes what I have discussed before as a social-determinism. Education (which begins in the cradle, after all), culture, social psychology, develop us into the individuals we are. We are never free of social influence – even Libertarianism arises through such processes as peer pressure, social response to verbal challenge, perceiving outcomes of decision as positive or negative, etc.

Nonetheless, both the biological determinism of Buddhist psychology and ontology, and the social determinism of Pragmatism, are what, in current variations of the “free will vs. determinism” debate, are referred to as “compatibilist” – that is, compatible with some definition of ‘free will,’ in the sense that both Buddhism and Pragmatism allow for both innovations in thought and behavior, as well as the possibility of changing one’s mind. In the instance of Buddhism, the reasons for this are rather obvious: The Buddha ‘changed his mind,’ and in doing so innovated thought and behavior in a major way. In Pragmatism, as one might guess, the matter is a bit more complicated – education, culture, psychological processes, etc., are quite complex phenomena and require complex explanation. But the general outcome is the same. Through moments of what we nowadays call ‘cognitive dissonance’ a certain, latent ‘rage for chaos’ (as Peckham called it, and probably an evolutionary inheritance) comes to the fore and generates new combinations of old significations, in the process generating new responses to those significations – new thought, new behaviors, and ultimately new significations. (Pragmatism also has fairly robust theories concerning the power of reason to convince, and the power of discourse and the arts to persuade.)

Having learned from Buddhism and Pragmatism, I set aside any interest in the “free will vs. determinism” debate. Most people experience the world as if they have free will, and it requires considerable effort and study to see this, not as ‘illusory,’ as some people claim, but as habituation and acculturation. That is, our actions become habitually perceived as voluntaristic, and this perception receives strong cultural re-enforcement. This seems true for most cultures, and has functioned pretty well to balance the need of the individual (born of particularities of situation and experience) and the need of the community, at least up until the present era. Generally, as people age, I think the tendency is to reach a compromise position, in order to come to terms with mistakes made in the past, many of which, in hindsight, we thought we controlled but did not. (‘Did you really want to go into accounting, or was that your parents talking through you from the back of your head?’) So, for me, the “free will vs. determinism” debate ultimately resolves into personal experience and the individual’s own learning curve. Otherwise, it’s one of those endless debates that can never be resolved theoretically as long as someone is willing to mount an argument on one side or the other.

Social determinist positions are almost wholly compatibilist – perhaps necessarily so. [4] The warp and woof of social intercourse is too constant, too varied, too contingent, to be readily reduced to the kind of statistical exactitude we find in, say, physics, or chemistry, or even biology. Your neighbor smiles at you – what does this signify? How do you respond to it? Your best friend’s dad dies, and you know this means you will be going to a Catholic church for the service, but you’re not a Catholic – do you go? and why? Are your explanations but an illusion generated by neural firings that could have been predicted by a physicist at your birth? You fell in love with the most beautiful person in the world and deserted this person – the reasons why may indeed be predictable, but what would predict that you would think about this person for years ever after? How did this change you? Not ‘the shape of your brain,’ but you the person who has to make choices based on that experience and the responses you have made to it since.

You are an animal, living out a pitifully short existence that is filled with pain. But that doesn’t determine how you live and die. That you will face as a ‘you’ that no one else can possibly be. It may be an illusion, but you will choose how to face this. And in that matter, you have no choice.

“(The behavioral individual) is the irreducible surd of existence, the fundamental incoherence of human life, for he cannot but strive with all his might, with all his aggressiveness, for stability; and yet at the same time he is the only source of that randomization from which issue emergent innovations – which if they cannot eliminate can modify, and not infrequently for the better, our fictive and normative absurdities of explanation.” [Peckham, 5]




[3] See, for instance, James Duerlinger,; or

[4] Behaviorist psychology is predicated on a social determinist philosophy (in fact, effectively comprises a social determinist philosophy), and I’m aware that there are ‘hard determinists’ – incompatibilists – among behavioral psychologists. I don’t think they’ve been paying attention to the history of their profession.

In reviewing the so-called debate between B.F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky in the ’70s – it was really just Chomsky’s review of a book by Skinner, and some discussion by the two in separate lectures – I was surprised to discover that it was Chomsky who was the (genetic) determinist (we are born with language structures embedded in our brains), Skinner who was the ‘blank-slate’ theorist arguing that we had a choice over the education of language. Skinner had to make this claim, else-wise there would be no ‘therapeutic’ value to his psychology – which is precisely what both individuals and the government (the source of funding in such research) want from any such theory of social control.

Interestingly, because Chomsky is politically well to the left of Skinner, legend has always had it the other way around.

I suspect that one reason the left is so fragmented in this country is because it inherits its received knowledge unquestioningly and fails to deploy that knowledge pragmatically. (It’s all well and good to be ‘correct,’ but what does that get us if it doesn’t win any votes?)

[5] Peckham, Morse; Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior. Continuum/ Seabury, NY, 1979, p. 282.

2 thoughts on “Arguments for compatibilism (1)

  1. This is a post I like, very well written.
    As you say,the belief that our actions are free is a result of habituation. We are animals with desires, that some of these are complex and difficult to map doesn’t equate free choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pragmatically speaking, “the sun rises in the east and sets in the west” is a useful fact, but deterministic inevitability, while true, is spectacularly useless. Attempts to draw meaningful implications from the fact that all events are actually inevitable leads otherwise intelligent minds down a rabbit hole of irrationality. The only appropriate human response to the fact of inevitability is to acknowledge it, then ignore it.

    The fact that we continue thinking and choosing for ourselves means that we have free will. And it need only be “free” in a single useful way to be pragmatically true. The distinction that nearly everyone understands is that when someone forces us to choose something or act in a way that is against our will, our will is “not free” to act on its own. But when we are making our own choices for ourselves, our will is “free”.

    And that’s about as free as it can get. Those suggesting “free will” must be free of causation, or self, or obstacles in the real world make irrational demands for some other kind of free will that is impossible. As long as they discuss impossible things rather than real things, the useless debate goes on, and the silly paradox persists.

    Liked by 1 person

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