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The task of the metaphysical libertarian is to reconcile free will with indeterminism

Libertarianism is one of the main philosophical positions related to the problems of free will and determinism, which are part of the larger domain of metaphysics.[1] In particular, libertarianism, which is an incompatibilist position,[2][3] argues that free will is logically incompatible with a deterministic universe and that agents have free will, and that therefore determinism is false.[4] Although compatibilism, the view that determinism and free will are not logically incompatible, is the most popular position on free will amongst professional philosophers,[5] metaphysical libertarianism is discussed, though not necessarily endorsed, by several philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen, Robert Kane, Robert Nozick,[6] Carl Ginet, Hugh McCann, Harry Frankfurt, Alfred Mele, Roderick Chisholm, Daniel Dennett,[7] Timothy O'Connor, Derk Pereboom and Galen Strawson.[8]

The term "libertarianism" in a metaphysical or philosophical sense was first used by late Enlightenment free-thinkers to refer to those who believed in free will, as opposed to determinism.[9] The first recorded use was in 1789 by William Belsham in a discussion of free will and in opposition to "necessitarian" (or determinist) views.[10][11] Metaphysical and philosophical contrasts between philosophies of necessity and libertarianism continued in the early 19th century.[12]


See also: stochastics

Metaphysical libertarianism is one philosophical view point under that of incompatibilism. Libertarianism holds onto a concept of free will that requires the agent to be able to take more than one possible course of action under a given set of circumstances (also see the many-worlds interpretation and alternative possibilities).[13] As determinism would be, in this instance in order to be true, that one could flip a coin and forever show the exact output (heads or tails) infinitely. As such certainty is that from the previous conditions one can precisely determine any given output or outcome.[14]

Accounts of libertarianism subdivide into non-physical theories and physical or naturalistic theories. Non-physical theories emphasize the way in which the agent doing the choosing is known, rather then what the agent consists of, be there any agent acknowledged at all. Through free belief the identity of an agent is established. By this view an agent cannot be established to exist by emperical or philosphical evidence, because evidence forces to a conclusion, destroying the freedom neccessary in coming to a belief about the agent. Only the decisions and alternatives are taken to be matters of fact, but the agent is considered a matter of free belief. While metaphysical libertarians such as William of Ockham and Thomas Reid believe people have a soul which does the job of choosing, it would not be inconsistent with Ockham and Reid's philosophy to say that people don't have a soul, provided one arrives at the conclusion in a free way. [citation needed]

Explanations of libertarianism which do not involve dispensing with physicalism require physical indeterminism. This is because physical determinism (under the assumption of physicalism) implies that there is only one possible future -- an idea which is not compatible with libertarian free will. Some explanations involve invoking panpsychism, the theory that a quality of mind is associated with all particles, and pervades the entire universe, in both sentient and non-sentient entities. Other approaches do not require free will to be a fundamental constituent of the universe; ordinary randomness is appealed to as supplying the "elbow room" that libertarians believe to be necessary. Free volition is regarded as a particular kind of complex, high-level process with an element of indeterminism. An example of this kind of approach has been developed by Robert Kane. Although at the time C. S. Lewis wrote Miracles,[15] Quantum Mechanics (and physical indeterminism) was only in the initial stages of acceptance, he stated the logical possibility that if the physical world were proved to be indeterministic, this would provide an entry (interaction) point for non-physical entities into the traditionally-viewed "closed system" of the physical world. Thus some event might be philosophically describable as being an action of a non-physical entity on physical reality (noting that under a physicalist point of view the non-physical entity must be independent of the self-identity or mental processing of the sentient being).

Robert Nozick

Nozick puts forward an indeterministic theory of free will in Philosophical Explanations.[6]

When human beings become agents through reflexive self-awareness, they express their agency by having reasons for acting, to which they assign weights. Choosing the dimensions of one's identity is a special case, in which the assigning of weight to a dimension is partly self-constitutive. But all acting for reasons is constitutive of the self in a broader sense, namely, by its shaping one's character and personality in a manner analogous to the shaping that law undergoes through the precedent set by earlier court decisions. Just as a judge does not merely apply the law but to some degree makes it through judicial discretion, so too a person does not merely discover weights but assigns them; one not only weighs reasons but also weights them. Set in train is a process of building a framework for future decisions that we are tentatively committed to.

The life-long process of self-definition in this broader sense is construed indeterministically by Nozick. The weighting is "up to us" in the sense that it is undetermined by antecedent causal factors, even though subsequent action is fully caused by the reasons one has accepted. He compares assigning weights in this deterministic sense to "the currently orthodox interpretation of quantum mechanics", following von Neumann in understanding a quantum mechanical system as in a superposition or probability mixture of states, which changes continuously in accordance with quantum mechanical equations of motion and discontinuously via measurement or observation that "collapses the wave packet" from a superposition to a particular state. Analogously, a person before decision has reasons without fixed weights: he is in a superposition of weights. The process of decision reduces the superposition to a particular state that causes action.

Robert Kane

Kane is one of the leading contemporary philosophers on free will.[16][17][verification needed] Advocating what is termed within philosophical circles "libertarian freedom", Kane argues that "(1) the existence of alternative possibilities (or the agent's power to do otherwise) is a necessary condition for acting freely, and that (2) determinism is not compatible with alternative possibilities (it precludes the power to do otherwise)".[18] It is important to note that the crux of Kane's position is grounded not in a defense of alternative possibilities (AP) but in the notion of what Kane refers to as ultimate responsibility (UR). Thus, AP is a necessary but insufficient criterion for free will.[citation needed] It is necessary that there be (metaphysically) real alternatives for our actions, but that is not enough; our actions could be random without being in our control. The control is found in "ultimate responsibility".

Ultimate responsibility entails that agents must be the ultimate creators (or originators) and sustainers of their own ends and purposes. There must be more than one way for a person's life to turn out (AP). More importantly, whichever way it turns out must be based in the person's willing actions. As Kane defines it,

UR: An agent is ultimately responsible for some (event or state) E's occurring only if (R) the agent is personally responsible for E's occurring in a sense which entails that something the agent voluntarily (or willingly) did or omitted either was, or causally contributed to, E's occurrence and made a difference to whether or not E occurred; and (U) for every X and Y (where X and Y represent occurrences of events and/or states) if the agent is personally responsible for X and if Y is an arche (sufficient condition, cause or motive) for X, then the agent must also be personally responsible for Y.

In short, "an agent must be responsible for anything that is a sufficient reason (condition, cause or motive) for the action's occurring."[19]

What allows for ultimacy of creation in Kane's picture are what he refers to as "self-forming actions" or SFAs — those moments of indecision during which people experience conflicting wills. These SFAs are the undetermined, regress-stopping voluntary actions or refraining in the life histories of agents that are required for UR. UR does not require that every act done of our own free will be undetermined and thus that, for every act or choice, we could have done otherwise; it requires only that certain of our choices and actions be undetermined (and thus that we could have done otherwise), namely SFAs. These form our character or nature; they inform our future choices, reasons and motivations in action. If a person has had the opportunity to make a character-forming decision (SFA), they are responsible for the actions that are a result of their character.


Randolph Clarke objects that Kane's depiction of free will is not truly libertarian but rather a form of compatibilism.[citation needed] The objection asserts that although the outcome of an SFA is not determined, one's history up to the event is; so the fact that an SFA will occur is also determined. The outcome of the SFA is based on chance,[citation needed] and from that point on one's life is determined. This kind of freedom, says Clarke, is no different than the kind of freedom argued for by compatibilists, who assert that even though our actions are determined, they are free because they are in accordance with our own wills, much like the outcome of an SFA.

Kane responds that the difference between causal indeterminism and compatibilism is "ultimate control — the originative control exercised by agents when it is 'up to them' which of a set of possible choices or actions will now occur, and up to no one and nothing else over which the agents themselves do not also have control".[20] UR assures that the sufficient conditions for one's actions do not lie before one's own birth.

Galen Strawson holds that there is a fundamental sense in which free will is impossible, whether determinism is true or not. He argues for this position with what he calls his "basic argument", which aims to show that no-one is ever ultimately morally responsible for their actions, and hence that no one has free will in the sense that usually concerns us. In its simplest form, the Basic Argument runs thus:

  1. We do what we do, in a given situation, because we are what we are.
  2. In order to be ultimately responsible for what we do, we have to be ultimately responsible for what we are — at least in certain crucial mental respects.
  3. But we cannot, as the first point avers, be ultimately responsible for what we are, because, simply, we are what we are; we cannot be causa sui.
  4. Therefore, we cannot be ultimately responsible for what we do.[8]

In his book defending compatibilism, Freedom Evolves, Daniel Dennett spends a chapter criticising Kane's theory.[7] Kane believes freedom is based on certain rare and exceptional events, which he calls self-forming actions or SFA's. Dennett notes that there is no guarantee such an event will occur in an individual's life. If it does not, the individual does not in fact have free will at all, according to Kane. Yet they will seem the same as anyone else. Dennett finds an essentially indetectable notion of free will to be incredible.

Other two-stage models

Kane's theory is an example of a two-stage model of free will. These separate the free stage from the will stage.

In the first stage, alternative possibilities for thought and action are generated, in part indeterministically.
In the second stage, an adequately determined will evaluates the options that have been developed.

If, on deliberation, one option for action seems best, it is selected and chosen. If no option seems good enough, and time permitting, the process can return to the further generation of alternative possibilities ("second thoughts") before a final decision.

A two-stage model can explain how an agent could choose to do otherwise in exactly the same circumstances that preceded the first stage of the overall free will process.

Mark Balaguer, in his book Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem[21] argues similarly to Kane. He believes that, conceptually, free will requires indeterminism, and the question of whether the brain behaves indeterministically is open to further empirical research.

Two stage models have also been proposed by William James, Arthur Holly Compton, Karl Popper, Henry Margenau, Daniel Dennett, Alfred Mele and Bob Doyle. A number of these theorists have made an analogy with Darwinian evolution.

Harry Frankfurt

Frankfurt counterexamples[22] (also known as Frankfurt cases or Frankfurt-style cases) were presented by philosopher Harry Frankfurt in 1969 as counterexamples to the "principle of alternative possibilities" or PAP, which holds that an agent is morally responsible for an action only if they have the option of free will (i.e. they could have done otherwise).

The Principle of Alternate Possibilities

The principle of alternate possibilities forms part of an influential argument for the incompatibility of responsibility and causal determinism, as detailed below:

  1. PAP: An agent is responsible for an action only if said agent is free.
  2. An agent is free only if causal determinism is false.
  3. Therefore, an agent is responsible for an action only if causal determinism is false.

Traditionally, compatibilists (defenders of the compatibility of moral responsibility and determinism, like Alfred Ayer and Walter Terence Stace) try to reject premise two, arguing that, properly understood, free will is not incompatible with determinism. According to the traditional analysis of free will, an agent is free to do otherwise when they would have done otherwise had they wanted to do otherwise.[23] Agents may possess free will, according to the conditional analysis, even if determinism is true.

Frankfurt's objection

From the PAP definition "a person is morally responsible for what they have done only if they could have done otherwise",[24] Frankfurt infers that a person is not morally responsible for what they has done if they could not have done otherwise — a point with which he takes issue: our theoretical ability to do otherwise, he says, does not necessarily make it possible for us to do otherwise.

Frankfurt's examples are significant because they suggest an alternative way to defend compatibilism, in particular by rejecting the first premise of the argument. According to this view, responsibility is compatible with determinism because responsibility does not require the freedom to do otherwise.

Frankfurt's examples involve agents who are intuitively responsible for their behavior even though they lack the freedom to act otherwise. Here is a typical case:

Donald is a Democrat and is likely to vote for the Democrats; in fact, only in one particular circumstance will he not: that is, if he thinks about the prospects of immediate American defeat in Iraq just prior to voting. Ms. White, a representative of the Democratic Party, wants to ensure that Donald votes Democratic, so she secretly plants a device in Donald's head that, if activated, will force him to vote Democratic. Not wishing to reveal her presence unnecessarily, Ms White plans to activate the device only if Donald thinks about the Iraq War prior to voting. As things happen, Donald does not think about the Democrats' promise to ensure defeat in Iraq prior to voting, so Ms White thus sees no reason to activate the device, and Donald votes Democratic of his own accord. Apparently, Donald is responsible for voting Democratic in spite of the fact that, owing to Ms. White's device, he lacks freedom to do otherwise.

If Frankfurt is correct in suggesting both that Donald is morally responsible for voting Democratic and that he is not free to do otherwise, moral responsibility, in general, does not require that an agent have the freedom to do otherwise (that is, the principle of alternate possibilities is false). Thus, even if causal determinism is true, and even if determinism removes the freedom to do otherwise, there is no reason to doubt that people can still be morally responsible for their behavior.

Having rebutted the principle of alternate possibilities, Frankfurt suggests that it be revised to take into account the fallacy of the notion that coercion precludes an agent from moral responsibility. It must be only because of coercion that the agent acts as they do. The best definition, by his reckoning, is this: "[A] person is not morally responsible for what they have done if they did it "only because they could not have done otherwise."[25]

Giovanni Gentile

Philosopher Giovanni Gentile postulated free will which is metaphysically libertarian to exist in that all apparently extental determinations are fully self-created. The conscious will is then truly & absolutely free to navigate those determinations. Indeterminacy from without, determinacy from within is the dialectic of absolute free will. All objects finding their distinctions within us as subject implies universal self-creation.

See also


  1. Strawson, Galen (1998, 2004). Free will. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 31, 2009
  2. Strawson, Galen (1998, 2004). Free will (section 2). In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 31, 2009. "These anti-compatibilists or incompatibilists divide into two groups: the libertarians and the no-freedom theorists or pessimists about free will and moral responsibility."
  3. Timpe, Kevin (2006) Free Will in Feiser, J and Dowden, B (Eds.) 'Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy'. Retrieved on July 31, 2009 "Other incompatibilists think that the actual world is not deterministic and that at least some of the agents in the actual world have free will. These incompatibilists are referred to as "libertarians" [see Kane (2005), particularly chapters 3 and 4]."
  4. Strawson, Galen (1998, 2004). Free will (section 2). In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 31, 2009. "They [libertarians] hold (1) that we do have free will, (2) that free will is not compatible with determinism, and (3) that determinism is therefore false."
  5. Nichols, Shaun: The Rise of Compatibilism: A Case Study in the Quantitative History of Philosophy
  6. 6.0 6.1 Nozick, Robert. Philosophical Explanations. 1981: Harvard University Press.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Dennett, D. Freedom Evolves.Viking Books, February, 2003 ISBN 0-670-03186-0
  8. 8.0 8.1 Strawson, Galen. "Free Will" in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (1998); "The Bounds of Freedom" in The Oxford Handbook of Free Will, ed. Robert Kane (2002).
  9. David Boaz, Libertarianism: A Primer, Free Press, 1998, 22-25.
  10. William Belsham, "Essays", printed for C. Dilly, 1789; original from the University of Michigan, digitized May 21, 2007, p.11.
  11. Oxford English Dictionary definition of libertarianism.
  12. Jared Sparks, Collection of Essays and Tracts in Theology, from Various Authors, with Biographical and Critical Notices, published by Oliver Everett, 13 Cornhill, 1824.
  13. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will by Robert Kane Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition ISBN 0195399692 [1]
  14. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will by Robert Kane Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; 2 edition ISBN 0195399692 [2]
  15. Lewis, C.S (1947). Miracles.
  16. Kane, R. (ed.) Oxford Handbook of Free Will
  17. Information Philosophers "Robert Kane is the acknowledged dean of the libertarian philosophers writing actively on the free will problem."
  18. Kane (ed.): Oxford Handbook of Free Will, p. 11.
  19. Kane: "Free Will" in Free Will, p. 224.
  20. Kane: "Free Will" in Free Will, p. 243.
  21. Notre Dame Reviews: Free Will as an Open Scientific Problem
  22. (1969). Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility. Journal of Philosophy 66: 829–39.
  23. Ayer, A. J. (1954) “Freedom and Necessity in Philosophical Essays, London: Macmillan.
  24. Frankfurt, 1969. p. 829.
  25. Frankfurt: "Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility" in Feinberg; Shafer-Landau: Responsibility & Responsibility, p. 488.

Further reading

External links

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