Compatibilism and incompatibilism

Compatibilism, also known as "soft determinism" and most famously championed by Hume, is a theory which holds that free will and determinism are compatible. According to Hume, free will should not be understood as an absolute ability to have chosen differently under exactly the same inner and outer circumstances. Rather, it is a hypothetical ability to have chosen differently if one had been differently psychologically disposed by some different beliefs or desires. Hume also maintains that free acts are not uncaused (or mysteriously self-caused as Kant would have it) but caused by our choices as determined by our beliefs, desires, and by our characters. While a decision making process exists in Hume's determinism, this process is governed by a causal chain of events. For example, a person may make the decision to support Wikipedia, but that decision is determined by the conditions that existed prior to the decision being made.

The opposing view, that free will cannot be consistent with determinism, is sometimes called incompatibilism. The pessimistic version, sometimes known as hard determinism, is that neither determinism nor indeterminism permit free will; Hume also considered free will inconsistent with indeterminism. One incompatibilist position holds that "free will" refers to genuine (e.g. absolute, ultimate) alternate possibilities for beliefs, desires or actions, and that such possibilities are absent from the compatibilist definitions. In the absence of such possibilities, the belief that free will confers responsibility is held to be false. However, one compatibilist counter-argument is that such absolute alternate possibilities could only have random causes, which would actually diminish responsibility.

Some views are less easily categorized. The libertarian position is that our experience of free will implies the universe is not deterministic. Some advocates of this view consider it compatible with determinism in the "physical" universe, but believe "mental" events are different.

A more concise description can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (see link below)

The thesis of determinism says that everything that happens is determined by antecedent conditions together with the laws of nature. Incompatibilism is the philosophical thesis that if determinism is true, then we don't have free will. The denial of incompatibilism is compatibilism; a compatibilist is someone who believes that the truth of determinism does not rule out the existence of free will.

William James, the American pragmatist philosopher who coined the term "soft determinist" in an influential essay titled The Dilemma of Determinism, held that the importance of the issue of determinism is not one of personal responsibility, but one of hope. He believed that thorough-going determinism leads either to a bleak pessimism or to a degenerate subjectivism in moral judgment. The way to escape that dilemma is to allow a role of chance. He said that he would not insist upon the name "free will" as a synonym for the role chance plays in human actions, simply because he preferred to debate about things, not words.


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