Compatibilistic Free Will: Can you have your cake & eat it too?



(The FreeThinking Theist)


September 27, 2015

I have spent the majority of my academic career contemplating free will. For over a decade I held the view of theological determinism and labeled myself as a “Calvinist.” For years I rejected the notion that humans were free to think or act in a libertarian sense. I found it interesting that when I began to have conversations with naturalistic atheists, they would basically argue the exact same way as Calvinists, but for different reasons. One thing Calvinists and atheistic naturalists have in common is that they both reject the idea of libertarian free will (the notion that we are genuinely responsible for at least some our beliefs and behaviors).

After studying logic and metaphysics – not to mention theology – I have concluded that it is literally incoherent to reject the idea that humanity can make free choices in a libertarian sense. Needless to say, I am no longer a Calvinist. These days I argue with atheistic naturalists and Calvinists regarding this very topic all too often.

Although atheistic naturalists and Calvinists disagree on the existence of God, they both affirm that all things are causally determined. The naturalist believes that all of our beliefs and behaviors are causally determined via the laws of nature and past events regressing all the way back to the initial conditions of the big bang. Calvinists usually claim that God causally determines all things including all of the beliefs and behaviors of all people.

In past online debates, I found it interesting that I can argue with an atheist who disavows human libertarian freedom in one thread, and then copy and paste my exact same argument into another thread where I am debating a theological determinist (all I do is delete “Causally determined by nature,” and replace it with “causally determined by God”). Ultimately, as I demonstrated in my thesis work, if the beliefs of all humans are causally determined (by anything) then we lose the ability to possess justified true beliefs (knowledge). This is the case because even if our determined beliefs just so happen to correspond to reality, we could never know it.

Something else both of these camps share in common is that they will typically see the many problems they have in rejecting free will. At this point, they typically try to find some “elbow room” for free will. Both naturalists and Calvinists recognize this problem and have gone to great lengths in an attempt to diminish this criticism against their worldview. This leads many determinists to affirm a view called compatibilistic free will.

What is Compatibilism?

Compatibilists want to have their cake and eat it too by attempting to argue how both determinism and human free will coexist. At face value, it certainly seems that deterministic free will is an oxymoron; nevertheless, compatibilism affirms that the laws of nature and past events (or God) determines all things, yet we are “free” to choose to act exactly the way we want or desire to act. Accordingly, a person is “free” in the sense that nothing is stopping them from acting upon their wants and desires.

This is not the same kind of freedom that I have argued for, because although one is free to act on his wants and desires, their wants and desires are determined by the laws of nature and past events – or God – they had no choice in the matter. If our wants and desires are determined, and our actions are determined by our wants and desires, it follows that the laws of nature and past events – or God – determines all of our thoughts, actions, beliefs, and behaviors. Therefore, this so-called “freedom” the compatibilist argues for is not free at all, it is not even a possibility.

We can see the logic of this demonstrated in what is known as the “Consequence Argument,” presented by Peter van Inwagen who specifically argues against naturalism here, but one can simply replace “laws of nature” with “God”:

“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 own acts) are not up to us.”[1]

The consequence argument assumes two “rules” that demand examination:

Rule Alpha: There is nothing anyone can do to change what must be the case (or what is necessarily so).[2]

This rule seems self-evident; after all, if one could change a necessary thing, it would not be necessary; rather, it is contingent. There is nothing we can do about things that exist or occur necessarily because they must be the case and cannot be otherwise.

Rule Beta: If there is nothing anyone can do to change X, and nothing anyone can do to change the fact that Y is a necessary consequence of X, then there is nothing anyone can do to change Y either.[3]

This rule seems to be explicitly obvious as well because if an event necessarily occurs from a necessary entity, then the event is necessary and we are powerless to stop its occurrence. This has been called the “Transfer of Powerlessness Principle,” and as Robert Kane says, “our powerlessness to change X ‘transfers’ to anything that necessarily follows from X.”[4]

Compatibilists argue, hypothetically speaking, that one could have freely chosen differently if and only if their wants or desires would have been different. However, in a deterministic world, their thoughts and desires could not have been any different than the way they were determined to be. Therefore, their beliefs and behaviors could not have been any different either, even if they were “free” to deterministically act on them.

We are not talking about how a person could hypothetically act or not act; we are talking about the determined thoughts and desires to want to act or not act in the first place. According to compatibilism, those thoughts, desires, and wants can never be up to us. Compatibilism is nothing more than ugly determinism “covered with frosting!”

Determinism Destroys Knowledge

Have you ever freely chosen to examine the evidence and follow it wherever it leads to freely infer the best explanation? If not, were you simply determined by the laws of nature to believe that naturalism is true? Perhaps you were forced by God to believe Calvinism is true?

Here is the point: inference to the best explanation requires libertarian free will (as opposed to compatibilistic free will), and libertarian free will is incompatible with both naturalistic atheism and theological determinism. Therefore, there is no way for these determinists to know if their thoughts and beliefs (even about their own worldview) really is the inference to the best explanation. All they can do is assume their determined beliefs are correct. This is circular reasoning (a logical fallacy) and any argument based on a logical fallacy is no argument at all. Therefore, a determinist of any stripe cannot argue for knowledge claims.

For instance, in order to be rational an agent must have the genuine ability to freely deliberate and freely infer the best explanation via the laws of logic instead of being causally determined via the laws of nature (or anything else). If all that exists is nature, then all things would be bound and determined by the laws of nature (including our thoughts, beliefs, and actions). Therefore, libertarian free will cannot exist if naturalism is true. Similarly, if God causally determines all things, then this includes all of our thoughts and beliefs.

If we are not responsible for any of our thoughts and beliefs, then this leads to major problems; namely, we cannot KNOW things. It does not matter if nature or God casually determines all of our beliefs, either way we still lose all grounds for possessing warrant or justification for our beliefs (which is required for knowledge).

For the atheistic naturalist, if the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the big bang shape thoughts, no one is in an epistemic position to know their determined thoughts and beliefs are correct. All the naturalist can do is offer question-begging assumptions and blindly presuppose that nature has forced them to hold true beliefs. Remember, this is a logical fallacy and as I stated above: Any argument based on a logical fallacy is no argument at all. Therefore, this logical fallacy does not count as justification, and without justification, even if one’s belief happens to be true (by sheer luck), this belief does not count as knowledge (justified true belief).

The Calvinist fares no better. If the theological determinist believes that God causally determines all things (including our thoughts and beliefs), they must affirm that God causally determines most people to believe lies (propositions which do not correspond to reality). Not only does this attack the character and essence of God, but since God would be forcing people to disagree with each other (including Christians disagreeing with Christians on theological matters like Calvinism and Molinism), all the theological determinist can do is reason in circles and assume that God forced him to hold true beliefs (not the Molinist)! However, since we have a “lying god” (a capital “G” God would not lie) on our hands, the Calvinist can only assume this deceiving god is not deceiving them — but this assumption is not even up to them if God determines all things. Again, this is question begging (a logical fallacy) at its finest and just as I tell all of my atheist friends, any argument based on a logical fallacy is no argument at all.

Bottom line: Compatibilism is determinism and determinism is incoherent.

Stay reasonable and freely choose to reject causal determinism in all forms!

The Free Thinking Theist,

Tim Stratton


[1] Peter van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 16.

[2] Robert Kane, A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will, (Oxford University Press, New York, 2005), 25

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.


About the Author



(The FreeThinking Theist)

Timothy A. Stratton (PhD, North-West University) is a professor at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary. As a former youth pastor, he is now devoted to answering deep theological and philosophical questions he first encountered from inquisitive teens in his church youth group. Stratton is founder and president of FreeThinking Ministries, a web-based apologetics ministry. Stratton speaks on church and college campuses around the country and offers regular videos on FreeThinking Ministries’ YouTube channel.

Learn More

More from this author