John Martin Fischer and Semi-Compatibilism

John Martin Fischer is best known for the idea of “semicompatibilism” – the idea that moral responsibility is compatible with determinism, whether free will is or is not compatible.

The concept is similar but not identical to Randolph Clarke‘s idea of a “narrow incompatibilist.” A narrow incompatibilist is an incompatibilist on free will and a compatibilist on moral responsibility. Confusingly, this can include those who believe in free will and those who deny free will. Semicompatibilists assert only their belief in moral responsibility. They are agnostic on free will and argue that moral responsibility exists whether determinism or indeterminism is “true.”

A broad incompatibilist sees determinism as incompatible with both free will and moral responsibility. Broad incompatibilists thus include (very confusingly) both those who accept and those who deny free will and moral responsibility. Those who deny one or both are variously called “hard incompatibilists,” “illusionists,” or “impossibilists.”

Here is a taxonomy of determinist and compatibilist positions showing where semicompatibilism fits.

Taxonomy of Determinist Positions

Many of these philosophers reduce free will to the “control condition” for moral responsibility. This is to make freedom dependent on moral responsibility, which we call an ethical fallacy.

As Fischer says:

Some philosophers do not distinguish between freedom and moral responsibility. Put a bit more carefully, they tend to begin with the notion of moral responsibility, and “work back” to a notion of freedom; this notion of freedom is not given independent content (separate from the analysis of moral responsibility). For such philosophers, “freedom” refers to whatever conditions are involved in choosing or acting in such a way as to be morally responsible.

Free will is of course a prerequisite for responsibility. Questions about free will are scientific questions about the physical nature of minds. The question of moral responsibility is a moral and ethical question, not a question for physical science. We must separate the problem of free will from the issue of moral responsibility.

Fischer has written three books on moral responsibility and compiled what is the largest anthology of articles on free will, determinism, and moral responsibility – his four-volume, 46-contributor, 72-entry, 1300+ pages, Free Will, a reference work in the Routledge Critical Concepts in Philosophy series.

Although it is titled “Free Will,” the material is mostly about moral responsibility.

Fischer and his students and colleagues created two important blogs on Free Will and Moral Responsibility:

The Garden of Forking Paths

Flickers of Freedom

The Cosmic Creation Process in Three Stages – Matter, Life, and Mind

We trace the creation of information structures in the universe from the appearance of elementary particles in the first few minutes through the creation and evolution of the galaxies, stars, and planets that began four hundred million years after the origin. All these cosmological information structures are passive, under the control of fundamental physical forces like gravitation, electromagnetism, and the nuclear strong and weak force. Information, per se, is not involved in their creation.

With the emergence of life on Earth, relatively soon after the formation of the Sun, active information structures appeared, which we define as structures using information processing and communication to manage the flow of matter and energy through themselves. Active information structures introduced agency and the appearance of purpose.

From the tiny molecular machines that are the active components of our cells (for example, ATP synthase, the ion pumps in our neurons, the flagella, ribosomes and their chaperones, and the central dogma of DNA > RNA > Protein) up to the thinking human mind, we trace an evolutionary development that depended at every stage 1) on quantum physics as the generator of new possibilities and 2) the radiation away from the new structure of the excess positive entropy, without which the new information (negative entropy) could not survive.

As Claude Shannon has shown, the creation of new information requires alternative possibilities. In a deterministic world, information would be a conserved constant, like the conservation of matter and energy. Information is immaterial. It is neither matter nor energy, and it is not conserved, although it needs matter for its (temporary) embodiment and energy for its communication, for example to other minds or for storage in the external environment.

Despite the physical basis for our work, from cosmology through biology to neuroscience, we strongly argue against current “physicalist” theories in the philosophy of mind, in which chemistry is reduced to physics, biology to chemistry, and the mind/brain reduced to biology.

We attack neurobiological reductionism and strictly determined “bottom-up causation.” At the same time, perhaps counter-intuitively, we defend a supervenient statistical “downward causation” that allows free thoughts (mental events that are not pre-determined) to cause willed actions. Actions are ultimately statistical but “adequately determined” by our motives, reasons, intentions, desires, and feelings, in short, by our character. We offer a two-stage model of free will, one initially seen in the nineteenth century by WiIliam James.

We defend an emergent dualism of mind and matter, subject and object, idealism and materialism. Monists might like the idea that information is a neutral quantity that can ground a triple-aspect monism of matter, life, and mind. Information itself is an emergent that did not exist in the early universe. We will show that information structures emerge in three ways and in a temporal sequence, corresponding respectively to matter, life, and mind.

First is the emergence of “order out of chaos” This has given rise to complexity and chaos theories that try to explain life as a “complex adaptive system.” Ilya Prigogine won a Nobel prize for far-from-equilibrium “dissipative” processes that produce information structures, like Bénard convection cells. He called it “order out of chaos.” These “complex” systems have no internal information processing. They are “dumb” structures. They do, however, exert a gross “downward causation” over their physical parts.

Second is the emergence of “order out of order.” Erwin Schrödinger showed that all life feeds on a stream of negative entropy from the sun. He called this “order out of order.” Biological processes rearrange the information in the negative entropy to create and maintain themselves. They are “information-processing systems.” Their downward causation is extremely fine, meaning they can exert causal control over component atoms and molecules individually.

Third is the emergence of “pure information out of order.” Abstract information is the “stuff of thought.” It is the lingua franca, the currency, the coin of the philosophical realm. Mental processes create and store abstract information in the brain hardware. At the neuron level, atoms and molecules are exquisitely controlled by neurobiology to enable nerve firings and to record (and play back) information.

The core of our informational theory of mind is an experience recorder and reproducer. The ERR stores information in our neural networks about all the perceptual elements (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) of an experience, along with our emotions during the experience. They are stored in whatever neurons fire together. Later, any new perceptual element that fires the same (or nearby) neurons can activate the neural network to replay the original experience, complete with its emotional content. The unconscious mind is a “blooming, buzzing confusion” of these reproduced experiences, to some of which we focus our attention. We identify four evolutionary stages in the development of an experience recorder and reproducer that exhibits consciousness.

Objective Reality and Entanglement

Here is my four-year-old animation of the entanglement experiment …

Now consider this possible animation of the experiment, which illustrates the assumption that each electron is in a linear combination of up and down spin. It imitates the superposition (or linear combination) with up and down arrows on each electron oscillating quickly.

Notice that if you mouse click on any frame in the timeline, you will see that total spin = 0 is conserved. When one electron is spin up the other is always spin down. But what justifies the assumption that the spin of each electron is in a superposition of up and down? For the Copenhagen Interpretation, it is simply that we do not know which it is.

Since quantum mechanics says we cannot know the spin until it is measured, our best estimate is a 50/50 probability between up and down.

This is the same as assuming Schrödinger’s Cat is 50/50 alive and dead. But what this means of course is simply that if we do a large number of identical experiments, the statistics for live and dead cats will be approximately 50/50%. We never observe/measure a cat that is both dead and alive!

As Einstein noted, QM tells us nothing about individual cats. Quantum mechanics is incomplete in this respect. He is correct, although Bohr and Heisenberg insisted QM is complete, because we cannot know more before we measure, and reality is created (they say) when we do measure.

Despite accepting that a particular value of an “observable” can only be known by a measurement (knowledge is an epistemological problem, Einstein asked whether the particle actually (really, ontologically) has a path and position before we measure it? His answer was yes.

Einstein believed strongly in conservation principles – conservation of energy, momentum, angular momentum, and spin. Once a particle is on a path, with a spin, what could possibly change its spin mid-flight to its detection?

Here is an animation that assumes the two electrons are randomly produced in a spin-up and a spin-down state. Einstein’s objective reality suggest that they remain in those states no matter how far they separate, provided neither interacts (is decohered) until the measurement. Too simple to be true?

Almost every presentation of the EPR paradox begins with something like “Alice observes one particle…” and concludes with the question “How does the second particle get the information needed so that Bob’s measurements correlate perfectly with Alice?”

There is a fundamental asymmetry in this framing of the EPR experiment. It is a surprise that Einstein, who was so good at seeing deep symmetries, did not consider how to remove the asymmetry.

Consider this reframing: Alice’s measurement collapses the two-particle wave function. The two indistinguishable particles simultaneously appear at locations in a space-like separation. The frame of reference in which the source of the two entangled particles and the two experimenters are at rest is a special frame in the following sense.

As Einstein knew very well, there are frames of reference moving with respect to the laboratory frame of the two observers in which the time order of the events can be reversed. In some moving frames Alice measures first, but in others Bob measures first.

If there is a special frame of reference (not a preferred frame in the relativistic sense), surely it is the one in which the origin of the two entangled particles is at rest. Assuming that Alice and Bob are also at rest in this special frame and equidistant from the origin, we arrive at the simple picture in which any measurement that causes the two-particle wave function to collapse makes both particles appear simultaneously at determinate places with fully correlated properties (just those that are needed to conserve energy, momentum, angular momentum, and spin).

Individuation and the Necessity of Identity

Since at least the time of Aristotle, philosophers have debated what it is that constitutes an individual person or thing. What makes it a unity, numerically one? What distinguishes it from everything else?

Individuation is related to the metaphysical problems of constitution, composition, colocation, essentialism, and identity.

Given two equal amounts of matter, they are distinguished by their shape or form. Given two things with identical form, they are individuated by being embodied in different material.

In information philosophy, identity depends on the total information in an object or concept.

We distinguish the intrinsic information inside the object (or concept) from any relational information with respect to other objects that we call extrinsic or external information. We can “pick out” the intrinsic information as that which is “self-identical” in an object. The Greeks called this the πρὸς ἑαυτο – self-relation. or ἰδίος ποιὸν, “peculiar qualifications” of the individual.

Self-identity, then, is the simple fact that the intrinsic information and the extrinsic relational or dispositional information are unique to this single object. No other object can have the same disposition relative to other objects. This is an absolute kind of identity. Some metaphysicians say that such identity is logically necessary. Some say self-identity is the only identity, but we can now support philosophers who argue for a relative identity.

To visualize our concept of information identity, imagine putting yourself in the position of an object. Look out at the world from its vantage point. No other object has that same view, that same relation with the objects around you, especially its relation with you. Now another object could have intrinsic information identicality. We will identify a very large number of objects and concepts in the world that are intrinsically identical, including natural and artifactual kinds, which we may call digital kinds, since they are identical, bit for bit. This is relative identity.

In 1947, Ruth C. Barcan (later Ruth Barcan Marcus) wrote an article on “The Identity of Individuals.” It was the first assertion of the so-called “necessity of identity.” Her work was written in the dense expressions of symbolic logic, with little explanation.

Five years later, Marcus’s thesis adviser, Frederic B. Fitch, published his book, Symbolic Logic, which contained the simplest proof ever of the necessity of identity, by the simple mathematical substitution of b for a in the necessity of self-identity statement (2).


(1) a = b,

(2) ☐[a = a], then

(3) ☐[a = b], by identity elimination. 

René Descartes: The Origins of the Mind-Body Problem

In his 1644 Principles of Philosophy, Descartes identified freedom with actions that are not pre-determined, even by the existence of divine foreknowledge.

Descartes was the origin of the Mind-Body Problem. He famously divided the world into mind (the ideal realm of thoughts) and body (the material world). For him, the physical world was a deterministic machine, but our ideas and thoughts could be free (undetermined) and could change things in the material world (through the pineal gland in the brain, he thought).

Here are the relevant sections in Descartes’ Principles.

37. The supreme perfection of man is that he acts freely or voluntarily, and it is this which makes him deserve praise or blame.The extremely broad scope of the will is part of its very nature. And it is a supreme perfection in man that he acts voluntarily, that is, freely; this makes him in a special way the author of his actions and deserving of praise for what he does. We do not praise automatons for accurately producing all the movements they were designed to perform, because the production of these movements occurs necessarily. It is the designer who is praised for constructing such carefully-made devices; for in constructing them he acted not out of necessity but freely. By the same principle, when we embrace the truth, our doing so voluntarily is much more to our credit than would be the case if we could not do otherwise.

39. The freedom of the will is self-evident.

There is freedom in our will, and that we have power in many cases or withhold our assent at will, is so evident that it must be counted among the first and most common notions that are innate in us. This was obvious earlier on when, in our attempt to doubt everything, we went so far as to make the supposition of some supremely powerful author of our being who was attempting to deceive us in every possible way. For in spite of that supposition, the freedom which we experienced within us was nonetheless so great as to enable us to abstain from believing whatever was not quite certain or fully examined. And what we saw to be beyond doubt even during the period of that supposition is as self-evident and as transparently clear as anything can be.

40. It is also certain that everything was preordained by God.

But now that we have come to know God, we perceive in him a power so immeasurable that we regard it as impious to suppose that we could ever do anything which was not already preordained by him. And we can easily get ourselves into great difficulties if we attempt to reconcile this divine preordination with the freedom of our will, or attempt to grasp both these things at once.

41. How to reconcile the freedom of our will with divine preordination.But we shall get out of these difficulties if we remember that our mind is finite, while the power of God is infinite — the power by which he not only knew from eternity whatever is or can be, but also willed it and preordained it. We may attain sufficient knowledge of this power to perceive clearly and distinctly that God possesses it; but we cannot get sufficient grasp of it to see how it leaves the free actions of men undetermined. Nonetheless, we have such close awareness of the freedom and indifference1 which is in us, that there is nothing we can grasp evidently or more perfectly. And it would be absurd, simply because we do not grasp one thing, which we know must by its very nature be beyond our comprehension, to doubt something else of which we have intimate grasp and which we experience within ourselves.

42. Although we do not want to go wrong, nevertheless we go wrong by our own will.

Now that we know that all our errors depend on the will, it may surprising that we should ever go wrong, since there is no one who wants to go wrong. But there is a great difference between choosing to go wrong and choosing to give one’s assent in matters where, as it happens, error is to be found. And although there is in fact no one who expressly wishes to go wrong, there is scarcely anyone who does not often wish to assent to something which, though he does not know it, contains some error. Indeed, precisely because of their eagerness to find the truth, people who do not know the right method of finding it often pass judgement on things of which they lack perception, and this is why they fall into error.

If Descartes did equate freedom and indeterminacy with the mind, and determinism with the body, it would anticipate and be consistent with Kant‘s later view that the realm of freedom is noumenal, where phenomena are determined, for Kant by Newton’s deterministic laws of nature.

Chance in Philosophy, Physics, Biology, Psychology, and Neuroscience

Chance is often defined as the opposite of Necessity. The English word derives from the Latin cadere – to fall, especially cadens a fall, falling. Dictionary definitions refer to the fall of the dice, but the etymology suggests it is related to the grammatical idea of declension, which describes the falling or “leaning” away of the genitive, dative, and accusative cases from the “straight up” nominative case. The word connotes falling in the sense of decadence. Note the German for chance is Zufall.


Leucippus (440 B.C.E.) stated the first dogma of determinism, an absolute necessity.

Nothing occurs by chance (maton), but there is a reason (logos) and necessity (ananke) for everything.

Chance is regarded as inconsistent with causal determinism and with physical or mechanicaldeterminism.

The idea that Chance and Necessity are the only two logical options, and that neither is compatible with free will and moral responsibility, is the basis for the standard argument against free will.

The first thinker to suggest a physical explanation for chance in the universe was Epicurus. Epicurus was influenced strongly by Aristotle, who regarded chance as a fifth cause. He said there must be cases in which the normally straight paths of atoms in the universe occasionally bend a little and the atoms “swerve” to prevent the universe and ourselves from being completely determined by the mechanical laws of Democritus.

For Epicurus, the chance in his atomic swerve was simply a means to deny the fatalistic future implied by determinism (and necessity). As the Epicurean Roman Lucretius explained the idea,

…if all motion is always one long chain, and new motion arises out of the old in order invariable, and if the first-beginnings do not make by swerving a beginning of motion such as to break the decrees of fate, that cause may not follow cause from infinity, whence comes this freedom in living creatures all over the earth
(De Rerum Natura, Book 2, lines 251-256)

Epicurus did not say the swerve was directly involved in decisions so as to make them random. His critics, ancient and modern, have claimed mistakenly that Epicurus did assume “one swerve – one decision.” Some recent philosophers call this the “traditional interpretation” of Epicurean free will. On the contrary, following Aristotle, Epicurus thought human agents have an autonomous ability to transcend the necessity and chance of some events. This special ability makes us morally responsible for our actions.

Epicurus, clearly following Aristotle, finds a tertium quid, beyond necessity (Democritus’ physics) and chance (Epicurus’ swerve). 
The tertium quid is agent autonomy

…some things happen of necessity (ἀνάγκη), others by chance (τύχη), others through our own agency (παρ’ ἡμᾶς).
…necessity destroys responsibility and chance is uncertain; whereas our own actions are autonomous, and it is to them that praise and blame naturally attach.

λέγει ἐν ἄλλοις γίνεσθαι ἃ μὲν κατ’ ἀνάγκην, ἃ δὲ ἀπὸ τύχης, ἃ δὲ παρ’ ἡμᾶς, διὰ τὸ τὴν μὲν ἀνάγκην ἀνυπεύθυνον εἶναι, τὴν δὲ τύχην ἄστατον ὁρᾶν, τὸ δὲ παρ’ ἡμᾶς ἀδέσποτον, ᾧ καὶ τὸ μεμπτὸν καὶ τὸ ἐναντίον παρακολουθεῖν πέφυκεν 
(Letter to Menoeceus, §133)

Despite abundant evidence, many philosophers deny that real chance exists. If a single event is determined by chance, then indeterminism would be true, they say, and undermine the very possibility of certain knowledge. Some go to the extreme of saying that chance makes the state of the world totally independent of any earlier states, which is nonsense, but it shows how anxious they are about chance.

The Problem of the Soul, Self, Spirit, Mind, and “Ghost in the Machine”

Celebrating René Descartes, the first modern philosopher, and his famous phrase Ego cogito, ergo sum, we call our model for mind the Ego. It is implemented with our experience recorder and reproducer (ERR).

Our two-stage model for free will we call the Cogito. Our model for an objective value, independent of humanity and earthly bioethics, we call Ergo. And our model for knowledge we call the Sum.

The Ego is more or less synonymous with the Soul, the Self, or the Spirit – Gilbert Ryle’s “ghost in the machine.” We see it as immaterial information. An immaterial self with causal power is almost universally denied by modern philosophers as metaphysical, along with related problematic ideas such as consciousness and libertarian or indeterministic free will.

Descartes’ suggestion that animals are machines included the notion that man too is in part a machine – the human body obeys deterministic causal laws. Although for Descartes man also has a soul or spirit or mind that is exempt from determinism and thus from what is known today as “causal closure,” Cartesian dualism was the first step to eliminative materialism. 

But as all critics of Descartes do, we must ask, how can the mind both cause something physical to happen and yet itself be acausal,? How is it exempt from causal chains coming up from the body?

Descartes’ vision of undetermined freedom for the mind is realized since our immaterial thoughts are free, whereas our actions are adequately determined by our will. This combination of ideas is the basis for our two-stage model of free will.1 It is a model of agent causation. New causal chains originate as ideas in our minds. Once evaluated and chosen they are adequately determined to lead to willed actions. This is a model for self-determination.

The “self ” or ego, the psyche or soul, is the self of this self-determination. Self-determination is of course limited by our control over matter and energy, but within those physical constraints our selves can consider ideas, decide to act on one and take full responsibility for our actions.

The Self is often identified with one’s “character.” This is the basis for saying that our choices and decisions are made by evaluating freely generated alternative possibilities in accordance with our reasons, motives, feelings, desires, etc. These are in turn often the consequence of our past experiences, along with inherited (biologically built-in) preferences. And this bundle of motivating factors is essentially what is known as our character. Someone familiar with all of those preferences would be able to predict our actions with some certainty, though not perfectly, when faced with particular options and the circumstances. The self is the agent that is the cause for those actions.