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Coyne on Free Will and Incompatibilism

I’ll make some comments on some of Jerry Coyne’s thoughts on free will and incompatibilism. Some of the issues I raise here will be taken up in my next series (which won’t be nearly as long as the previous one on God and blame!). I haven’t read any responses to Coyne, other than some stuff by Eddy Nahmias, so forgive me if these points have been made elsewhere (which they probably have).

Coyne writes, “I construe free will the way I think most people do: At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise.” Notice the bolded word, ‘if’. Coyne is giving us a sufficient condition for having free will, that is, if one meets this condition, then one has free will. But surely Coyne can’t be right. For example, suppose I choose to press button A. Now, suppose that due to rare brain tumor buttons with the letter ‘B’ on them will (sometimes, not always) look very attractive to me and I will want to press them. However, suppose I only press buttons with the letter ‘B’ on them because of the tumor, otherwise, I’d always press A. On this scenario, I press button A but could have chosen otherwise. Am I then free?

Or take this incompatibilist inspired example: I am programmed by neurosurgeons to sometimes choose chocolate flavored ice cream, and other times choose vanilla flavored ice cream, but only chocolate or vanilla. Due to how they’ve programmed me, I reason through the options and always settle on one of the above two flavors. Moreover, which one of the flavors I choose is completely unpredictable. Therefore, if I pick chocolate, I could have chosen otherwise. Would Coyne say that I free? Would “most people”?

So I think that Coyne meant to say that “you have free will only if you could have chosen otherwise.” But Coyne thinks this necessary condition rules out compatibilist accounts of free will. Coyne is an incompatibilist. However, philosophers know that “could have done otherwise” is a hoary chestnut that is tough to crack. There are compatibilist accounts of “could have done otherwise.” Thankfully, Coyne presents a more “technical” definition of what having free will means:

“To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.”

I don’t quite understand how this video tape story is meant to put matters more “technically,” but the thought is helpful enough (after all, the thought owes itself to Peter van Inwagen). It is interesting Coyne switches to talk about what free will means, rather than what he means by it when he uses the term (and, he’s got to mean more by ‘free will’ what he says here, for the worries I presented above apply to this more “technical” account). For a couple of sentences above he told us that, “The term ‘free will’ has so many diverse connotations that I’m obliged to define it before I explain why we don’t have it.” Anyway, we have here a statement of why Coyne thinks free will can’t be understood compatibilistically. Coyne says that free will is an ability to do otherwise than we did holding fixed “every aspect of the universe configured identically.”

What Coyne’s trying to say here is perhaps better put by Kadri Vihvelin,

we can understand determinism as the thesis that a complete description of the state of the world at any time t and a complete statement of the laws of nature together entail every truth about the world at every time later than t. Alternatively, and using the language of possible worlds: Determinism is true at a possible world w iff the following is true at that world: Any world which has the same laws of nature as w and which is exactly like w at any time t is exactly like w at all times which are future relative to t. (See here)

And this is why Coyne holds that determinism is incompatible with free will if we hold fixed “every aspect of the universe configured identically,” for when we hold fixed every aspect of a deterministic universe, we always get the same universe.

In the upcoming posts, I’ll argue that this view is false. In order to show this, I’ll be using a recent argument by Joseph Campbell (2007), and then interacting a criticism of that argument by Andrew Bailey (2012). Moreover, I strongly doubt “most people” have this view of free will. Speaking for myself, I am simply unable to think free will should be understood the Coyne does it. In fact, Coyne’s necessary condition seems incompatible with free will, so it couldn’t be “the meaning” of free will.

But here’s a more general question I have for Coyne. First, I need to define some terms.

Incompatibilism =df There are no deterministic worlds that contain a free choice or action.[1]

No worlds = not possible, so ‘incompatibilism’ traditionally understood is, if true, a necessary truth. If you don’t like the language of possible worlds, just say, “One cannot construct a model M on which ‘determinism’ is true in M and someone does a free action (makes a free choice) in M.

Compatibilism =df There is at least one determined world that contains a free action.

Call ‘incompatibilism’ “INC,” and ‘compatibilism’ “COMP.” How does Coyne demonstrate INC? He calls himself an incompatibilist, after all. Does he have a justification for labeling himself so? As far as I can tell, every one of his arguments depends upon some contingent premise(s). But that’s insufficient to establish INC. You can’t establish a necessary truth by an argument that has a contingent premise as an essential premise.

But suppose Coyne says that he only means that creatures like us, who find themselves in this kind of world, can’t be free. So Coyne holds to something like this,

Weak Incompatibilism (WINC) =df At least one determined world contains persons but no free actions (or choice.

But COMP is completely consistent with WINC. Indeed, most compatibilists agree with WINC. Coyne has only (as far as I know) given arguments that support WINC, but that’s insufficient for him to claim he’s shown or demonstrated INC.

Perhaps he thinks he has demonstrated INC by his claim that freedom requires doing otherwise than the action A we performed at time t in the actual world, α, where we do otherwise than A at t, I guess, in some other “possible world,” w, where w is (qualitatively) identical to α up to our A-ing at t, diverging subsequently. Coyne said that if we “hold every element of the universe fixed,” (e.g., the laws of nature and propositions expressing the complete state of the world at a time t),  α will always = w, and thus we never do not-A at t in w. And this shows INC.

But here’s three counterexamples: (1) A world where some agent, ‘Adam’, exists and has no remote past and does an action at the first instant, (2) determined worlds with no laws of nature, and (3) divinely determined worlds. I’ll spell these objections out in the upcoming series.


[1] Kadri Vihvelin (2008) states, “Incompatibilism is usually understood as the claim that the truth of determinism entails the non-existence of free will: that there is no possible world where determinism is true and someone has free will” (303).


Bailey, Andrew (2012). “Incompatibilism and the Past.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXXV No. 2, September 2012, 351–376.

Campbell, Joseph Keim (2007). “Free will and the necessity of the past.” Analysis 67: 105–111.

Vihvelin, Kadri (2008). “Compatibilism, Incompatibilism, and Impossibilism.” Contemporary Debates in Metaphysics. Theodore Sider et al. (ed.), New York: Blackwell Publishing, 303–318.



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