Arguments for compatibilism (5): politics and/or philosophy (?)


This is the last in the current series on the compatibilism/incompatibilism debate, itself tangential to the age-old debate about the possibility of human beings having “freedom of will.” I personally don’t believe so, but I do believe that there are stochastic moments, indeterminacies, events of choice and insight, that leave the human animal fundamentally unpredictable in far too many ways to account for with a completely deterministic ontology of human being – which, by the way, is the real ground of the debate, although one might not know that from many of the conversations on the problem. As noted in a previous post, I lost interest in this debate long ago; the basic problem is largely irresolvable due to the diversity and complexity of human behavioral response to an ever contingent and probabilistic world of experience.
Recently, I’ve had to come to terms with the debate in different terms, with the resurgent advocacy among some scientists and thinkers of what we can call physicalist incompatibilist determinism. This position holds, 1) all science is reducible to physics; 2) physics being a deterministic science, any higher order system – such as life in general, and human life specifically – must be physically deterministic; and 3) such determinism is wholly incompatible with even the loosest definition of ‘free will’ or otherwise indeterministic behavior. If this were the end of it, it would simply fall (for me) into the ‘irresolvable’ category of ontological claims. To date no science has given us an adequate description of the physical processes leading to a decision to drive a car to work or take a bus instead. There is no modeling, of which I am aware, that depicts which electro-chemical process in the brain triggers such decisions, let alone those having lasting impact, such as what college to attend or whom to marry. Incompatibilists seem to think this a trivial matter – but it’s not. Without a fairly precise description of the process, all we have is really an argument by analogy – as electrons interact, so do genes interact, so do neurons interact, so do humans interact. One is reminded here of similar reasoning from the Middle Ages (‘as the stars revolve around the earth, so do the people revolve around their king’). It is true that electrons, genes, neurons, and people are all physical stuff; but there are even complexities in the interactions of genes that cannot be adequately reduced to the functioning of electrons. How can we then possibly reduce human behavior to the simple running out of some inherited programming [1]?

However, lately a number of problems have come to my attention. The first is that incompatibilists are developing a political agenda. The primary expression of this is in how the Justice system deals with criminal behavior (the argument being that, given that all behavior is predetermined, no justice ought to be dispensed on the basis of any presumption of guilt or personal responsibility).

The political agenda of incompatibilists, primarily identifiable in its effort to reform the Justice system, is lacking any systematization or political strategy.  Consider the argument by Anthony Cashmore, “The Lucretian swerve: The biological basis of human behavior and the criminal justice system” [2].)  Cashmore seems to be relying on the Court’s reliance on expert testimony; if biologists can all get on the same page, than presumably judges will be so impressed that they will be defining their sentencing of convicted criminals without resort to guilt (in the sense of blame) or personal responsibility. This is a simplistic reading of how laws are established and how they are enforced [3].

At one point Cashmore remarks, revealing the larger scope of his project, “the role of the jury would be to simply determine whether or not the defendant was guilty of committing the crime; the mental state of the defendant would play no part in this decision.” Anyone who thinks that motivation is not going to play a role in the construction of the case by opposing lawyers and in the minds of the jury is fantasizing. Indeed, such a reconstruction of the process would effectively dis-empower the defense as much as the prosecution. A jury would not even be necessary. But an Amendment to the Constitution would be.

Perhaps Cashmore believes that an ideologically unified body of scientists can go to legislatures and convinced politicians to accept such a radically new perspective. In which case, ought he to not also accept that these scientists must also go before the public and convince voters to elect legislators favorable to their cause? Or perhaps we need a whole new form of government operated by an elite of scientists? But if any of these programs are the one Cashmore imagines, he won’t say. And while there are judges who use their sentencing to punish criminals, in fact the grounds that guide sentencing have multiple motivations, depending on the state legislatures and judicial interpretation; the one continuing theme has been, primarily, removal of a perceived threat to society. Obviously the system doesn’t work very well; but it’s hard to see how the system roughly suggested by Cashmore (roughly rehabilitative, undeniably a good thing) would work any better in actual practice, since the problems with our prisons (conditions making them truly punitive) stem from various social issues such as race, or economics, rather than any theory of free will or personal responsibility.

But regarding the incompatibilist argument against the notion of personal responsibility found in Cashmore, I felt something was askew; I was not aware of what it was until I read Andrew Eshleman’s article on “Moral Responsibility” for the Stanford Encyclopedia [4], which includes discussion of P. F. Strawson’s attempt to reconcile determinism and libertarianism [5]. What Strawson says, is that our understanding of moral responsibility isn’t derived from any metaphysical free agency to begin with, but expresses the social connectivity of our human natures. That’s putting it simply; but let me take the general idea further. The kind of ethical responsibility we use to underwrite our laws and our general sense of personal behavior really have to do with our community’s determination of whether individuals as actors belong to the community in a proper way. Punishments and rewards – both concerning criminals, but also those we distribute in any social interaction (and ourselves receive) – are simply part and parcel of our living as a certain kind of social animal. If this is true, compatibilist social determinism still has relevance as a guide to understanding, but incompatibilism hasn’t. Because it doesn’t matter whether incompatibilism is true or false, the behaviors will continue pretty much as they do today, with (hopefully) progressive modification achieved, not just through reasoning, but through improving the sense of community such behaviors express.

Here might be a good place to note an historical problem incompatibilists have – that as a deterministic enterprise to humanize certain aspects of our culture, it trails behind social deterministic efforts that have been ongoing for decades – in some ways even centuries. In the context, consider the long struggle against capital punishment. When this struggle was most successful, it was so partly on the basis of social deterministic arguments. But it hasn’t been very successful of late. That might be partly because the ‘will-to-punish’ is too strong among the electorate right now; so it’s hard to see how switching the debate to one of adopting incompatibilism will prove more effective. Social determinism based political theories have had limited success among voters in democracies; how much less success can we expect for incompatibilist based political theories? After all, if your position is that the voter is determined bio-chemically to vote in a given fashion, why should they not simply ‘go along with the programming?’ What is the offer that can persuade the voters to choose election of incompatibilist-sympathetic legislators?

As cautionary note, let’s remember that the greatest political ‘success’ stories of any single social determinist theory have been the Communist revolutions – but most of these were undertaken by the impoverished, not because they saw themselves as class-determined to struggle for the proletariat, but because they were hungry and abused beyond tolerance. As a social determinist, and a socialist, I have no problem with the notion that society could be better organized on values of enhanced collective well-being derived from scientific inquiry. But the achievement of that requires address to the concerns of people just as they are in a given historical social context.

So my next complaint here is that, in demanding we tow a hard line on this issue, incompatibilists may be getting in the way of accomplishing the very goals they wish to achieve. The movement for a more humane, non-retributive justice system has long been an effort of social determinists of various schools of thought. Further, pursuit of such goals has involved political alliances with liberal Christians and Jews who often have little interest in the social determinist position. Such alliances are just part and parcel of politics per se, which is a goal oriented activity in a culture with democratic pretensions. Consequently, insisting on ideological purity and utopian achievements actually fragments a movement and dampens the spirit of its participants. It is asking too much, and promising more than it can deliver. Persuasion often takes a long time, building political momentum sometimes longer. Perhaps we can’t achieve every change we wish as soon as we would like. Perhaps ‘a little better’ every generation is enough of a goal to work for.

This brings me to my final complaint here: the attitude of certainty and consequent rhetorical tone one finds among some incompatibilists. There is nothing wrong with the search for a strong theory in any field. Even when one discovers it, whether one’s own or that of someone else, an act of the imagination happens that so convinces us of the rightness of it, that we frequently fail to see that we may not have the whole picture yet. The theory seems to offer us the panacea for all problems that led us to search for such a theory to begin with; we do not see that it may only be a pause before further progress is made.

Neither the theory reductions unifying the sciences, nor the sciences being reduced, have yet achieved the completion needed to warrant the scientific claims of incompatibilism, let alone its political program (which hasn’t been fully formulated itself). So it would seem that incompatibilism advocates should welcome further discussion and debate in order to enrich their own project. Instead, they trumpet their certainty and dismiss counter-arguments. I don’t know how incompatibilism advocates think they will persuade voters and legislators to their cause by effectively refusing constructive debate with those of opposing views [6].

In summary, then, the debate over whether human ontology is entirely deterministic, largely so, or not at all – in a universe that is contingent, probabilistic and filled with diverse forms of life – belongs to philosophy. Philosophy’s relations to particular political problems are actually tangential – it effects how we think, it cannot make our final choices for us. And ideology is anathema to it.

While the compatibilist/incompatibilist debate is philosophically interesting, and helps shape our thinking on questions of human behavior, it can never provide the basis of a political program.

[1] Theory reductionism – and incompatibilism depends upon it – has in fact quite a number of problems. See discussion of the topic at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, . Suffice to say, that debate is also ungoing.

[2] “Progress in understanding the chemical basis of behavior will make it increasingly untenable to retain a belief in the concept of free will. To retain any degree of reality, the criminal justice system will need to adjust accordingly.”
Although Cashmore claims a biological determinism, he largely avoids genetics. Instead, his argument really hinges on the incompatibilist claim that biology is deterministic because it reduces to physics. (The universe is deterministic, ergo life is deterministic, ergo human behavior is deterministic.)

It should be noted that one of the problems I have with Cashmore is that, although he is presenting his position as a science article in scientific forum, in fact he is engaging in ontology, metaphysics, political philosophy and philosophy of law, without any credentials for any work in these areas, and with the scantiest reference to their literatures. That’s playing the ‘My position is fact, your philosophies mere opinion’ card that all too many scientists who dismiss philosophy seem willing to play, failing to recognize that in raising any argument on these issues at all, they are engaging in philosophy – only frequently, none too well.

[3] For consideration of how problematic is the relationship between the courts and scientific expertise, see, for instance: Susan Haack, Defending Science – Within Reason, Prometheus, 2003; Chapter 9: “Entangled in the Bramble Bush: science and the Law.”


[5] Strawson, P. F., 1962. “Freedom and Resentment,” Proceedings of the British Academy, 48: 1–25 (

[6] See for instance Jerry Coyne: “In the end, any kind of dualistic free will is ruled out by naturalism, and any kind of compatibilism is just a sop foisted on the public to let them continue believing that they can ‘choose otherwise.’ Seriously, I don’t know why philosophers occupy themselves with this arcane and diverse exercise in compatibilism, which resembles theology more than philosophy (it’s motivated, as Dan (Dennett) has admitted for himself, because some philosophers think society would disintegrate if we thought our decisions were all predetermined by naturalism).“
As I’ve said elsewhere, Coyne’s website is delightful and invigorating. I even agree with his ‘New Atheist’ attacks on religion and its pervasive corruption of social discourse in this country. But on the incompatibilism issue, he often ends up sounding strident. In another article (, responding to Michael Gazzaniga’s argument that social interaction makes possible decisions respectful of social opinion of our actions, Coyne writes: “And let me say this one more time: philosophers who are truly concerned with changing society based on reason wouldn’t be engaged in compatibilism, they’d be engaged in working out the consequences of determinism, especially its implications for how we reward and punish people.” Why would we want to do that? Where is the compassion and humanitarian concern, that such a suggestion clearly depends on, coming from? Recourse to an inherited feeling of sympathy or ‘moral impulse’ in our genetic make-up won’t do. The efforts of neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists, even ethologists to find a strictly biological imperative for ethical behavior continually collapse under the sheer number of variation, both in groups and individuals. Even in The Descent of Man [7], we see, in his effort to make such a case, Darwin side-step, categorically cauterize (“savages”), or simply denounce instances of brutal behavior on the part of groups, or lack of sympathy among individuals (“monsters,” he calls such at one point). One can certainly derive a general theory of socialization by assuming such a feeling or impulse, but relying on it as the basis of a political argument is weak to say the least. Think what a failure Marxist dependence on class identity as a spur to global revolution has been! And there is two hundred years of analysis of the phenomenon, and yet all the variant and subtle expressions of class consciousness have yet to be accounted for in a manner leading to a successful ‘global revolution.’ Perhaps a stronger description of historic change is needed – indeed, perhaps several. [8]

It is not that there is no inherited feeling of sympathy; it is not that there is no class identification. The problem is in reductively assuming that a single embedded motivator can not only explain social behavior but reasonably be extrapolated as argument for social change.

[7] Darwin, Descent of Man,

[8] Incompatibilists sometimes complain about the diversity of compatibilist theories and their sometimes divergent understandings of what might constitute moments of (non-libertarian) ‘free will’ (what I have come to call choice events) as if it were a weakness. In fact it’s a strength, precisely because it allows for constructive debate, allowing for greater insight.


4 thoughts on “Arguments for compatibilism (5): politics and/or philosophy (?)

  1. “.” I personally don’t believe so, but I do believe that there are stochastic moments, indeterminacies, events of choice and insight, that leave the human animal fundamentally unpredictable in far too many ways to account for with a completely deterministic ontology of human being – which, by the way, is the real ground of the debate, although one might not know that from many of the conversations on the problem. ”

    I disagree here. Whether or not physical phenomena are entirely deterministic or just mostly deterministic makes no difference regarding free will, since free will is negated by determinism and/or randomness, and an indeterminism that isn’t random must by definition be deterministic (even if don’t have access to know that deterministic process).

    Also, it doesn’t matter whether or not we can successfully model all of the elementary processes that lead to macroscopic phenomena such as driving a car or some other large scale behavior. The only thing that need be understood is that there isn’t a single observed instance of the laws of physics being violated at any scale, and thus the laws of physics, deterministic or random, govern everything regardless of how it occurs. This fact irrefutably negates any free will. I do appreciate the topic though and recognize that there are multiple levels of arguments that can and have been employed and refined by philosophers over the years. Unfortunately, the consistency of the laws if physics is the only thing necessary to make free will impossible, regardless of our ability to predict phenomena with certainty.


    • The argument, as a philosophical topic, tends in the direction of your point, since a general thesis need not be supported in every detail to be acceptable (although the details raise important questions for me).

      The problem is when the debate spills over into politics and law. The indeterminacy of human behavior becomes crucial when structuring education, when allocating funds for psychiatric/ therapeutic research and applicative agencies, when considering how best justly to deal with transgressive behavior – and how we address these issues in political discourse. I just feel that mounting a public argument for strict determinism in these and related issues, is effectively moving the goal posts – not for ourselves, but for the electorate. Some positions have raised the arguments for greater social justice and increased mercy for decades; must they now also advocate for strict determinism as well?


      • I hear ya. Yeah, I think that the “no free will” is important for people to accept in social policy, criminal corrections, you name it. Mainly to eliminate retributive “justice” and punishment, while pointing out the necessity to address root causes of undesirable behavior, rather than falsely looking at people as causal agents that could have chosen differently. We should still keep crime deterrents in place and other measures that work in terms of conditioning people to behave in beneficial ways, so that won’t change as a whole, although the specific ways that we implement conditioning principles or strategies may improve much more quickly once people realize that no free will exists. Currently, I think most people believe that we are products of our genes, environment, AND free will — though the latter isn’t actually supported by any evidence. I think that this free will delusion is only holding us back in terms of implementing more effective strategies to guide people’s behavior. I don’t think we need to advocate for strict determinism, since there’s no evidence of strict determinism. Rather it is mostly deterministic with an apparent underlying randomness causing some degree of indeterminism (with probability distributions as per the Schrödinger equation). Nevertheless, we can see that genes and environment are the causal constraints that matter to us most since those are the ones we can change and alter, and increasingly so over time as technological capabilities continue to increase.


      • No doubt we have a long way to go in terms of modeling behavioral causes to better determine educational programs, etc., and to best implement a consequentialist approach to government and social policy, morality, etc., which I believe has been demonstrated to be best for increasing physical and psychological well being for the most people in the long run…the most noble and humanistic goal I can think of.


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