Free Will: “Could Have Done Otherwise”

In my previous post on this topic, I analyzed a common argument for incompatibilism and found it to not be logically valid, as it was based on contradictory assumptions. In this post, I want to say a few words about a widespread notion about free will that gets brought up by incompatibilists, by which I mean the idea that free will implies we “could have done otherwise”.

Incompatibilists argue that, since having free will necessitates that we could have done otherwise, and since determinism implies that nothing could have happened in any other way, free will can’t exist if determinism is correct. The problem with this argument is that the word “could” can be used in quite a few different ways, at least one of which makes the idea of “could have done otherwise” compatible with determinism.

Let us suppose that we are standing in a room with some number of closed doors and we have to make the decision to go through one of those doors, so we go through the one on our right. In one sense of the word “could,” it is true that we “could have chosen otherwise” as long as there was more than one door that we could have gone through had we so desired it. In another sense of the word “could”–the sense used when arguing for incompatibilism–it is only true that we “could have chosen otherwise” if the exact same person put in the exact same situation over and over again would sometimes choose to go through one door and other times choose a different one.

At first glance, both definitions of “could have done otherwise” might seem valid, but looking closely at them, it becomes apparent that only the first one–the compatibilist one–actually fits the way we use “could” in ordinary language; in the second, incompatibilist, definition, “could” is given the exact same meaning as “would”. This becomes apparent when you see that only the first definition actually makes use of the word “could”, while the second one only uses “would”.

“more than one door that we could have gone through”

“over and over again would sometimes choose”

In other words, the incompatibilist, in saying that free will implies we “could” have chosen otherwise, is actually saying that free will implies that our decisions are made, not by us judging our options and choosing the one we think aligns best with our preferences given the current circumstances, but because a metaphysical coin-flip happened to land on heads rather than tails. In other words, under this notion of “free will” we would actually have less responsibility over our choices than we would have under determinism–it is completely nonsensical.

The only “freedom” this sort of free will would give us is the “freedom” from ourselves–that is to say, it would rob us of our capacity for self-determination. The idea that this is any sort of freedom is what lies at the heart of the modern free will debate, and it’s what I’ll be addressing in my next and, for now, final post on this topic.

Other posts in this series:
Part 1 — On “Free Will”
Part 2 — Free will: on Physical Determinism
Part 4 — Free Will: Incompatibilist “Freedom”

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