Reading Peter van Inwagen

Peter van Inwagen made a significant reputation for himself by bucking the trend among philosophers in most of the twentieth century to accept compatibilism, the idea that free will is compatible with a strict causal determinism.Indeed, van Inwagen has been given credit for rehabilitating the idea of incompatibilism in the last few decades. He explains that the old problem of whether we have free will or whether determinism is true is no longer being debated. In the first chapter of his landmark 1983 book,An Essay on Free Will, van Inwagen says:

1.2 It is difficult to formulate “the problem of free will and determinism” in a way that will satisfy everyone. Once one might have said that the problem of free will and determinism — in those days one would have said ‘liberty and necessity’ — was the problem of discovering whether the human will is free or whether its productions are governed by strict causal necessity. But no one today would be allowed to formulate “the problem of free will and determinism” like that, for this formulation presupposes the truth of a certain thesis about the conceptual relation of free will to determinism that many, perhaps most, present-day philosophers would reject: that free will and determinism are incompatible. Indeed many philosophers hold not only that free will is compatible with determinism but that free will entails determinism. I think it would be fair to say that almost all the philosophical writing on the problem of free will and determinism since the time of Hobbes that is any good, that is of any enduring philosophical interest, has been about this presupposition of the earlier debates about liberty and necessity. It is for this reason that nowadays one must accept as a fait accompli that the problem of finding out whether free will and determinism are compatible is a large part, perhaps the major part, of “the problem of free will and determinism”.
(Essay on Free Will, p.1)

Unfortunately for philosophy, the concept of incompatibilism is very confusing. It contains two opposing concepts, libertarian free will and hard determinism.

And like determinism versus indeterminism, compatibilism versus incompatibilism is a false and unhelpful dichotomy. J. J. C. Smart once claimed he had an exhaustive description of the possibilities, determinism or indeterminism, and that neither one neither allowed for free will. (Since Smart, dozens of others have repeated thisstandard logical argument against free will.)

Van Inwagen has replaced the traditional “horns” of the dilemma of determinism – “liberty” and “necessity” – and now divides the problem further:

I shall attempt to formulate the problem in a way that takes account of this fait accompli by dividing the problem into two problems, which I will call the Compatibility Problem and the Traditional Problem. The Traditional Problem is, of course, the problem of finding out whether we have free will or whether determinism is true. But the very existence of the Traditional Problem depends upon the correct solution to the Compatibility Problem: if free will and determinism are compatible, and,a fortiori, if free will entails determinism, then there is no Traditional Problem, any more than there is a problem about how my sentences can be composed of both English words and Roman letters.
(Essay on Free Will, p.2)

Van Inwagen defines determinism very simply. “Determinism is quite simply the thesis that the past determines a unique future.” (p. 2)He concludes that such a Determinism is not true, because we could not then be responsiblefor our actions, which would all be simply the consequences of events in the distant past that were not “up to us.”This approach, known as van Inwagen’s Consequence Argument, is the perennialDeterminism Objection in the standard argument against free will.

Note that in recent decades the debates about free will have been largely replaced by debates about moral responsibility. Since Peter Strawson, many philosophers have claimed to be agnostic on the traditional problem of free will and determinism and focus on whether the concept of moral responsibility itself exists. Some say that, like free will itself, moral responsibility is an illusion. Van Inwagen is not one of those. He hopes to establish free will.
Van Inwagen also notes that quantum mechanics shows indeterminism to be “true.” He is correct. But we still have a very powerful and “adequate” determinism. It is this adequate determinism that R. E. Hobart and others have recognized we need when they say that “Free Will Involves Determination and is Inconceivable Without It.” Our will and actions are determined. It is the future alternative possibilities in our thoughts that are undetermined.Sadly, many philosophers mistake indeterminism to imply that nothing is causal and therefore that everything is completely random.This is the Randomness Objection in the standard argument.

Van Inwagen states his Consequence Argumentas follows:

“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.” (Essay on Free Will, 1983, p.16)

Exactly how this differs from the arguments of centuries of Libertarians is not clear, but van Inwagen is given a great deal of credit in the contemporary literature for this obvious argument. See for example, Carl Ginet’s article “Might We Have No Choice?” in Freedom and Determinism, Ed. K. Lehrer, 1966.We note that apparently Ginet also thought his argument was original. What has happened to philosophers today that they so ignore the history of philosophy?

Van Inwagen offers several concise observations leading up to his Consequence Argument, including concerns about the terminology used (which concerns arise largely because of his variations on the traditional problem terminology).

Determinism may now be defined: it is the thesis that there is at any instant exactly one physically possible future.Let us now see what can be done about defining free will.
I use the term ‘free will’ out of respect for tradition.

When I say of a man that he “has free will” I mean that very often, if not always, when he has to choose between two or more mutually incompatible courses of action — such that he can, or is able to, or has it within his power to carry out.

It is in these senses that I shall understand ‘free will’ and ‘determinism’. I shall argue that free will is incompatible with determinism. It will be convenient to call this thesis incompatibilism and to call the thesis that free will and determinism are compatible compatibilism.

I have no use for the terms ’soft determinism’, ‘hard determinism; and ‘libertarianism’. I do not object to these terms on the ground that they are vague or ill-defined. They can be easily defined by means of the terms we shall use and are thus no worse in that respect than our terms.

van Inwagen does not seem to mind that “incompatibilism” lumps together opposite schools – hard determinists and libertarians

Soft determinism is the conjunction of determinism and compatibilism; hard determinism is the conjunction of determinism and incompatibilism; libertarianism is the conjunction of incompatibilism and the thesis that we have free will.

I object to these terms because they lump together theses that should be discussed and analysed separately. They are therefore worse than useless and ought to be dropped from the working vocabulary of philosophers.

‘Contra-causal freedom’ might mean the sort of freedom, if freedom it would be, that someone would enjoy if his acts were uncaused. But that someone’s acts are undetermined does not entail that they are uncaused.

Incompatibilism can hardly be said to be a popular thesis among present-day philosophers (the “analytic” ones, at any rate). Yet it has its adherents and has had more of them in the past. It is, however, surprisingly hard to find any arguments for it. That many philosophers have believed something controversial without giving any arguments for it is perhaps not surprising; what is surprising is that no arguments have been given when arguments are so easy to give.

Perhaps the explanation is simply that the arguments are so obvious that no one has thought them worth stating. If that is so, let us not be afraid of being obvious. 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):

we call this theDeterminism Objection

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.

we call this theRandomness Objection

[What van Inwagen calls] The Mindargument 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. (p.16)

Note that van Inwagen’s Mind argument adds the second horn of the dilemma of determinism. He named it the Mind Argument after the philosophical journal Mindwhere objections to chance were often published.Thus van Inwagen’s Consequence and Mind Arguments are the two parts of the standard argument against free will.

Although van Inwagen is famous for the first horn of the dilemma, the determinism objection to free will (also known as the Direct Argument), he has also contributed significantly to the second – and much more difficult to reconcile – randomness objection. (also known as theIndirect Argument).

Free Will Remains a Mystery for van Inwagen

Van Inwagen dramatized his understanding of the indeterministic brain events needed foragent causation by imagining God “replaying” a situation to create exactly the same circumstances and then arguing that decisions would reflect the indeterministic probabilities. He mistakenly assumes that possibilities translate directly into probabilities.He also mistakenly assumes that random possibilities directly cause human actions.

Now let us suppose that God a thousand times caused the universe to revert to exactly the state it was in at t1 (and let us suppose that we are somehow suitably placed, metaphysically speaking, to observe the whole sequence of “replays”). What would have happened? What should we expect to observe? Well, again, we can’t say what would have happened, but we can say what would probably have happened: sometimes Alice would have lied and sometimes she would have told the truth. As the number of “replays” increases, we observers shall — almost certainly — observe the ratio of the outcome “truth” to the outcome “lie” settling down to, converging on, some value. We may, for example, observe that, after a fairly large number of replays, Alice lies in thirty percent of the replays and tells the truth in seventy percent of them—and that the figures ‘thirty percent’ and ’seventy percent’ become more and more accurate as the number of replays increases. But let us imagine the simplest case: we observe that Alice tells the truth in about half the replays and lies in about half the replays. If, after one hundred replays, Alice has told the truth fifty-three times and has lied forty-eight times, we’d begin strongly to suspect that the figures after a thousand replays would look something like this: Alice has told the truth four hundred and ninety-three times and has lied five hundred and eight times. Let us suppose that these are indeed the figures after a thousand [1001] replays. Is it not true that as we watch the number of replays increase we shall become convinced that what will happen in the next replay is a matter of chance.
(”Free Will Remains a Mystery,” in Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 14, 2000, p.14)

Van Inwagen reveals that he clearly thinks that indeterminism directly results in actions. No wonder on his account that “free will remains a mystery!”He repeated the argument more recently:

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)

Van Inwagen, Kane, and Compatibilism compared to the Cogito Model

Robert Kane has argued that randomnmess in the decision need not be there all the time, just enough to be able to say we are not completely determined. Even if just a small percentage of decisions are random, we could not be responsible for them.We can make a quantitative comparison of the outcome of 1000 thought experiments (or “instant replays” by God as van Inwagen imagines) that shows how the indeterminism in the Cogito Model is limited to generating alternative possibilities for action.

Van Inwagen’s results after 1000 experiments are approximately 500 times when Alice lies and 500 times when Alice tells the truth.

Robert Kane is well aware of the problem that chance reduces moral responsibility, especially in his sense of Ultimate Responsibility (UR).

In order to keep some randomness but add rationality, Kane says perhaps only some small percentage of decisions will be random, thus breaking the deterministic causal chain, but keeping most decisions predictable. Laura Ekstrom and others follow Kane with some indeterminism in the decision.

Let’s say randomness enters Kane’s decisions only ten percent of the time. The other ninety percent of the time, determinism is at work. In those cases, presumably Alice tells the truth. Then Alice’s 500 random lies in van Inwagen’s first example would become only 50.

But this in no way explains moral responsibility for those few cases.

Compare the Information Philosophy Cogito model, which agrees with compatibilism/determinism except in cases where something genuinely new and valuable emerges as a consequence of randomness.

In our two-stage model, we have first “free” – random possibilities, then “will” – adequately determined evaluation of options and selection of the “best” option.

Alice’s random generation of alternative possibilities will include 50 percent of options that are truth-telling, and 50 percent lies.

Alice’s adequately determined will evaluates these possibilities based on her character, values, and current desires.

In the Cogito model, she will almost certainly tell the truth. So it predicts almost the same outcome as a compatibilist/determinist model.

The Cogito model is not identical, however, since it can generate new alternatives.

It is possible that among the genuinely new alternative possibilities generated, there will be some that determinism could not have produced.

It may be that Alice will find one of these options consistent with her character, values, desires, and the current situation she is in. One might include a pragmatic lie, to stay with van Inwagen’s example.

In a more positive example, it may include a creative new idea that information-preserving determinism could not produce.

Alice’s thinking might bring new information into the universe. And she can legitimately accept praise (or blame) for that new action or thought that originates with her.

To summarize the results:

Van Inwagen Kane Cogito Compatiblism
Alice tells truth 500 950 1000* 1000
Alice lies 500 50 0* 0

* (Alice tells the truth unless a good reason emerges from her free deliberations in the Cogito Model, in which case, to stay with van Inwagen’s actions, she might tell a pragmatic lie.)

We should also note the Moral Luck criticism of actions that have a random component in their source.

Alfred Mele would perhaps object that the alternative possibilities depend on luck, and that this compromises moral responsibility.

On the Cogito Model view, Mele is right with respect to moral responsibility. But Mele is wrong that luck compromises free will.

Free will and creativity may very well depend on fortuitous circumstances, having the new idea “coming to mind” at the right time, as Mele says.

The universe we live in includes chance and therefore luck, including moral luck, is very real, but not a valid objection to our libertarian free will model (or Mele’s “modest libertarianism”).


How to Think about the Problem of Free Will
Van Inwagen recently produced a very clear proposal for thinking about free will. It is a paper to appear in The Journal of Ethics entitled How to Think about the Problem of Free Will.It starts with a very concise wording of the Standard Argument against Free Willthat includes the Determinism, Randomness, and Responsibility Objections.

There are seemingly unanswerable arguments that (if they are indeed unanswerable) demonstrate that free will is incompatible withdeterminism.And there are seemingly unanswerable arguments that (if indeed . . . ) demonstrate that free will is incompatible withindeterminism.

But if free will is incompatible both with determinism and indeterminism, the concept “free will” is incoherent, and the thing free will does not exist.

There are, moreover, seemingly unanswerable arguments that, if they are correct, demonstrate that the existence of moral responsibilityentails the existence of free will, and, therefore, if free will does not exist, moral responsibility does not exist either. It is, however, evident that moral responsibility does exist.

Van Inwagen concludes:

It must, therefore, be that at least one of the following three things is true:

The seemingly unanswerable arguments for the incompatibility of free will and determinism are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallaciousThe seemingly unanswerable arguments for the incompatibility of free will and indeterminism are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious.

we call this theResponsibility Objection

The seemingly unanswerable arguments for the conclusion that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will are in fact answerable; these arguments are fallacious.

The “problem of free will” is just this problem (this is my proposal): to find out which of these arguments is fallacious, and to enable us to identify the fallacy or fallacies on which they depend.

Van Inwagen recognizes that the philosophical discussions of free will are clouded by the use of vague terminology. He recommends some terms be avoided – ‘libertarianism’, ‘hard determinism’, and soft ‘determinism’ – and that terms be confined to ‘the free-will thesis’, ‘determinism’, ‘compatibilism’ and ‘incompatibilism.’ He says

There is a tendency among writers on free will to oppose ‘compatibilism’ and ‘libertarianism’; but the fundamental opposition is between compatibilism and incompatibilism.Here is a major example (not entirely unconnected with my minor example). Philosophers who use the term ‘libertarianism’ apparently face an almost irresistible temptation to speak of ‘libertarian free will.’

What is this libertarian free will they speak of? What does the phrase ‘libertarian free will’ mean?

Although van Inwagen says he has presented the free-will problem “in a form in which it is possible to think about it without being constantly led astray by bad terminology and confused ideas,” he himself is apparently confused by the ambiguous term incompatibilism.Incompatibilists are of two opposing types; libertarians who take incompatibilism plus the free will thesis to mean that determinism is not true, and determinists who deny the free will thesisbecausedeterminism is true.So “libertarian free will” and “compatibilist free will” nicely distinguish between an indeterminist view of free will and the view that free will is compatible with determinism.

And it is impossible to define a libertarian with just one of van Inwagen’s set of terms.

van Inwagen makes his confusion clear:

Noun-phrases like ‘free will’ and ‘compatibilist free will’ and ‘libertarian free will’ are particularly difficult for me. I find it difficult to see what sort of thing such phrases are supposed to denote. In serious philosophy, I try never to use an abstract noun or noun-phrase unless it’s clear what ontological category the thing it purports to denote belongs to. For many abstract noun-phrases, it’s not at all clear what sort of thing they’re supposed to denote, and I therefore try to use such phrases only in introductory passages, passages in which the reader’s attention is being engaged and a little mush doesn’t matter.

Van Inwagen then looks closely at the noun phrase “free will” and asserts that it always means the same thing, that the agent is/was able to do otherwise.

‘free will’, ‘incompatibilist free will’, ‘compatibilist free will’ and ‘libertarian free will’ are four names for one and the same thing. If this thing is a property, they are four names for the property is on some occasions able to do otherwise. If this thing is a power or ability, they are four names for the power or ability to do otherwise than what one in fact does.All compatibilists I know of believe in free will. Many incompatibilists (just exactly the libertarians: that’s how ‘libertarian’ is defined) believe in free will. And it’s one and the same thing they believe in.

This seems to be word jugglery. Libertarians and compatibilists are using the same noun phrase, but they are denoting two different models for free will, two different ways that free will might operate. Free will is not just the words in a set of propositions to be adjudicated true or false by analytic language philosophers.


John Locke explicitly warned us of the potential confusion in such noun phrases, and carefully distinguished the freedom in “free” from the determined “will.” Van Inwagen’s problem stems in part from taking this phrase to be a single entity.In Latin and all the romance languages, as well as the Germanic languages – in short, all the major philosophical languages (excepting the Greek of Aristotle, before the Stoics created the problem we have today and Chrysippus invented compatibilism) – the concept of free will is presented as a complex of two simple ideas– free and will.

liberum arbitrium, libre arbitre (French), libera volontà (Italian), livre arbítrio (Portuguese), va gratuit (Romanian), libre voluntad (Spanish)Willensfreiheit (German), fri vilje (Danish), vrije wil (Dutch), fri vilja (Swedish)

ελεύθερη βούληση (Greek), свободную волю (Russian), स्वतंत्र इच्छा (Hindi).

Even some non-Indo-European languages combine two elementary concepts – vapaasta tahdosta (Finnish).

Polish – woli – is an exception to the rule.

The reason Aristotle did not conflate freedom with will, according to his fourth-century commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias, was because for Aristotle the problem was always framed in terms of responsibility, whether our actions are “up to us” (in Aristotle’s Greek ἐφ ἡμῖν), whether the causes behind our actions, including Aristotelian accidents (συμβεβεκός), come from within us (ἐν ἡμῖν).


Coming back to van Inwagen, he then asks what it is that libertarians, including himself, really want. For one thing, he wishes that free will could be compatible with determinism. “It would be so simple,” he says. But reason has convinced him it is incompatible.Will van Inwagen be satisfied to learn that free will is compatible with the adequate determinismthat we really have in the world? And that the microscopic indeterminism that we have need not be the direct cause of our actions?

Let us turn from what libertarians want to have to what they want to be true. Do libertarians want libertarianism to be true? Well, libertarianism is the conjunction of the free-will thesis and incompatibilism. To want libertarianism to be true, therefore, would be to want both the free-will thesis and incompatibilism to be true. I will stipulate, as the lawyers say, that libertarians want the free-will thesis to be true. (And who wouldn’t? Even hard determinists, or most of them, seem to regard the fact — they think it’s a fact — that we do not have free will as a matter for regret.)But do libertarians want incompatibilism to be true? Perhaps some do. I can say only that I don’t want incompatibilism to be true. Just as hard determinists regard the non-existence of free will as a matter for regret, I regard the fact — I think it’s a fact — that free will is incompatible with determinism as a matter for regret. But reason has convinced me that free will is incompatible with determinism, and I have to accept the deliverances of reason, however unpalatable they may be. I should think that any philosopher in his or her right mind would want compatibilism to be true. It would make everything so simple. But we can’t always have what we want and things are not always simple.

Sadly, incompatibilist libertarians have been right about indeterministic freedom, but wrong about the Will, which must be adequately determined.And compatibilists have been right about the adequately determined Will, and wrong about indeterminist Freedom, which is never the direct cause of human actions.

See the Cogito model for more details.

Van Inwagen then congratulates himself for having reintroduced the standard argument for the incompatibilism of free will and determinism. As our history of the free will problem shows, this argument has been around since Epicurus.

The Consequence Argument is my name for the standard argument (various more-or-less equivalent versions of the argument have been formulated by C. D. Broad, R. M. Chisholm, David Wiggins, Carl Ginet, James Lamb, and myself) for the incompatibility. It is beyond the scope of this paper seriously to discuss the Consequence Argument. I will, however, make a sociological point. Before the Consequence Argument was well known (Broad had formulated an excellent version of it in the 1930s, but no one was listening), almost all philosophers who had a view on the matter were compatibilists. It’s probably still true that most philosophers are compatibilists. But it’s also true that the majority of philosophers who have a specialist’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the free-will problem are incompatibilists. And this change is due entirely to the power, the power to convince, the power to move the intellect, of the Consequence Argument. If, therefore, the Consequence Argument is fallacious (in some loose sense; it certainly contains no logical fallacy), the fallacy it embodies is no trivial one. Before the Consequence Argument was well known, most philosophers thought that incompatibilists (such incompatibilists as there were) were the victims of a logical “howler” that could be exposed in a paragraph or two.

[Eddy Nahmias, in a post called Counting Heads on the Garden of Forking Paths blog, has surveyed philosophers and finds the ratio of compatibilists to incompatibilists (2:1) to be about the same in the general and specialist populations.]

Van Inwagen concludes:

The problem of free will, I believe, confronts us philosophers with a great mystery. Under it our genius is rebuked. But confronting a mystery is no excuse for being in a muddle. In accusing others of muddle, I do not mean to imply that that they are muddled because they do not believe what I do about free will. I do not mean to imply that they are muddled because they are compatibilists.

Describing the problem of free will as whether compatibilism or incompatibilism is true – a redescription that van Inwagen takes most of the credit for – is likely a major contribution to the philosophical muddle we find ourselves in.

See Peter van Inwagen on I-Phi

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