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Incompatibilism, The Consequence Argument, and the No Past Objection


Suppose you believe that free will is incompatible with determinism. It is likely that among your reasons for believing this, you will cite the “Consequence Argument” as chief among them. The Consequence Argument (hereafter, CA) is widely regarded as the best argument for the conclusion that determinism is incompatible with freedom to do otherwise.

In the early 1980s, Peter van Inwagen (1983) developed influential versions of this argument. Influential replies to the CA also appeared, most notable being perhaps David Lewis’s (1982) reply. Eventually, however, debates over the CA became stagnated. Robert Kane (2005, 30) notes that key segments of the debate “tend to reach an impasse.” Likewise, John Martin Fischer (2012, 156) claims that those responses to the CA that make the debate “a real debate” have reached “a Dialectical Stalemate.” This is not to say that no new moves were being made, but much of the debate now seemed largely confined to highly technical discussions surrounding certain contentious modal principles employed in the CA (Kapitan 2011, 131).[1]

Recently, new life appears to have been breathed into debates over the CA with the publication of Joseph Keim Campbell’s (2007) paper, “Free Will and the Necessity of the Past.” As Daniel Speak (2011) notes of Campbell’s objection to the CA: “Although [Beta-blocking and Finessing Fixities] have something of a tradition, [Joseph Campbell’s criticism] appears to be a newcomer to the debate” (124). In this series of posts, I’ll discuss Campbells objection the CA, and then a recent argument by Andrew Bailey (2012) against Campbell’s objection to the CA.


Incompatibilism is the thesis that free will and determinism cannot jointly obtain. So construed, this means that there are no possible worlds, w, at which the propositions “w is a deterministic world” and “Someone, S, is free in w are jointly true. We might call this incompatibility across all possible worlds, ‘strict incompatibilism’. 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). Many of those writing on action theory have maintained that incompatibilism and compatibilism both are necessarily true if true at all. For example, if incompatibilism is true, then it is necessarily true; compatibilism, then, would be necessarily false. On this understanding, strict incompatibilism seems to just be the incompatibilist thesis.

The Consequence Argument

Very well, how would one go about arguing for the above incompatibilist thesis? Robert Kane (2011) declares, “The most widely discussed argument in support of [the incompatibilist thesis] is the so-called ‘Consequence Argument’” (10). Since Peter van Inwagen’s statement of the Consequence Argument is taken to be the canonical statement, we can hardly do better than to start with his informal presentation of the Consequence Argument:

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. (van Inwagen 1983, 16)

The first premise is often taken to just be determinism, and its mention of “consequences” serves as the inspiration for the name of the argument. Of course, the above informal argument has been expressed with much technical precision, but I won’t need to go into much of that for our purposes.

It is worthwhile to point out that several other popular arguments for incompatibilism make use of the premise that, on determinism, our actions are the consequences of the laws of nature and events in the remote past (typically taken to be a conjunction of propositions about the remote past). Now, suppose this premise common to the best arguments for incompatibilism faced an objection that served as an undercutting defeater. Strict incompatibilism would then be in trouble. This is where Joseph Campbell comes in as a troublemaker.

The No Past Objection

I’ll skip over much of the historical background, as well as the technical details to avoid what my friend Chad call mathurbation. Joseph Campbell (2007) points out that the Consequence Argument cannot establish strict incompatibilism. It cannot do so since the existence of a remote past is a contingent truth and is not essential to the thesis of determinism (109).[2] To illustrate this point, Campbell (2007) creates “Adam”:

Consider, for instance, the possible world W. Suppose that W is a determined world such that some adult person exists at every instant. Thus, W has no remote past. At its first moment of existence lived Adam, an adult person with all the knowledge, powers, and abilities necessary for moral responsibility. Shortly after Adam comes Eve, and the rest is history. For each of the propositions that comprise W, someone is such that he has, or had, a choice about whether that proposition is true–at least there is no reason to doubt this claim. The Third Argument is not a general argument for incompatibilism. At most, the Third Argument proves the weaker claim that persons cannot have free will in determined worlds with a remote past. (109)

According to Campbell, then, in w Adam is not unfree with respect to the past since Adam has no past. As Bailey (2012) notes, “The objection constitutes [an] in-principle reason for thinking that nearly every formulation of the Consequence Argument is unsound or not an argument for incompatibilism after all” (352). Furthermore, in the event that one gets hung-up on the details of the above Adam having an “initial” moment of existence, Campbell (2010) has also offered what he views as a better example:

Oscillating Adam: suppose that there is a deterministic world, W*, where time is circular. In that world exists oscillating Adam. Oscillating Adam has always existed and will always continue to exist. He is in the grips of an everlasting, eternal recurrence. Oscillating Adam spends his time growing ‘older’ and getting ‘younger’. He begins each cycle with powers comparable with the average 25 years old and eventually develops powers comparable with the average 50 years old. Then he slowly regresses back to the state at which he began, and the cycle starts all over again. (72-73)

Says Campbell (2010): “This is better than my original example, since Adam no longer has an initial moment of existence. Still, Adam has no remote past; there is no necessity of the past to transfer onto Adam’s future” (73). The upshot is that strict incompatibilism—the purported upshot of Consequence style Arguments—does not follow from the Consequence Argument, as that argument employs an essential premise that is contingent.

Let us call the Campbell-type objections described above, “The No Past Objection” (NPO) (Bailey 2012, 352). The general schema of the NPO is that some essential premise of the Consequence Argument is contingent; therefore, the Consequence Argument does not support strict incompatibilism. However, as Bailey (2012) has argued, the Adamic fall-out is more ubiquitous than perhaps even Campbell had originally supposed. Given the common premise in the Consequence Argument that also shows up in other popular incompatibilist arguments mentioned above, the NPO would affect those arguments too. So, strict incompatibilism looks to be in trouble, that is, if the NPO works against the CA, it applies to other popular arguments for (strict) incompatibilism too.


[1] Dan Speak (2011) classifies these debates under the broad headings “Beta Blocking” and “Finessing Fixities.” The former have to do with a modal principle dubbed by van Inwagen as ‘Principle Beta.’ Beta is a rule of inference. Where we let ‘N’ be the operator: ‘No matter what you do (among the things you are able to do)’, then we have this rule: From ‘N(p)’ and ‘N(p→q)’, deduce ‘N(q)’ (Speak 2011, 117). Beta-blocking debates involve producing counterexamples to Principle Beta, which proponents of Beta reformulating Beta in ways that avoids the counterexample, then new counterexamples are provided against the reformulated Beta, to which new reformulations are given, ad nauseum. “Finessing Fixities” strategies have to do with premises of the Consequence Argument that appeal to some “fixed” state. Usual candidates are the “fixity of the past” or “the fixity of the laws of nature,” ‘NP’ and ‘NL’, respectively. ‘Fixity’ is a generally thought to be a modality of necessity, for example, ‘accidental necessity’.

[2] As Ted “Fritz” Warfield points out elsewhere: “Most incompatibilists, to be precise, seem unaware that in order to get the incompatibilist conclusion that determinism and freedom are strictly incompatible (that no deterministic world is a world with freedom), their conditional proofs must not introduce or in any way appeal to premises that are merely contingently true in between the assumption of determinism and the step at which the ‘no freedom’ conclusion is reached” (Warfield 2000, 172)


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.

_____. (2010). “Incompatibilism and fatalism: reply to Loss.” Analysis 70: 71-76.

Kane, Robert (2005). A Contemporary introduction to Free Will. New York: Oxford  University Press.

_____. (2011). “Introduction: The Contours of Contemporary Free-Will Debates (part 2).” The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 3–38.

Kapitan, Tomis (2011). “A Compatibilist Reply to the Consequence Argument.” The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Robert Kane (ed.), New York: Oxford University, 131–152.

Speak, Dan (2011). “The Consequence Argument Revisited.”  The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Robert Kane (ed.), New York: Oxford University Press, 115-130.

van Inwagen, Peter (1983). An Essay on Free Will. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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

Warfield, Ted A. (2000). “Causal Determinism and Human Freedom are Incompatible: A New Argument for Incompatibilism.” Philosophical Perspectives 14: 167–180.

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June 2013


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