Freedom, Responsibility, and Tacos: Why Compatibilism Is [NOT] True



(The FreeThinking Theist)


December 7, 2021

It seems some of my comments have been the source of much confusion. Sometimes, something can be so clear in one’s head, yet one fails to communicate exactly what is in one’s head. I seem to be guilty of this regarding some of my claims about compatibilism.

Although many have let me know that they grasp what I have attempted to communicate and argue regarding compatibilism, there are still far too many people — especially advocates of exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) — who still don’t seem to “get it.” (As an aside, it seems that if EDD is true and a deity causally determines the EDD advocate to fail to “get it” then there is nothing the EDD advocate can do to “get it” (no matter how hard I try to explain). The opportunity to “get it” is beyond their reach and in the hands of someone else!) So, what is all the fuss about? Let’s begin by defining some key terms.

Compatibilism: the thesis that free will and/or moral (and rational) responsibility (in a desert sense) is compatible with determinism.

Incompatibilism: The thesis that freedom and/or moral (and rational) responsibility (in a desert sense) is not compatible with determinism.

Notice the “and/or” clause in the above definitions. Much of the confusion has arisen from the fact that I have made comments suggesting that I can affirm that the THESIS of compatibilism might be coherent depending upon one’s definition of “freedom.” So, in that sense, I can see how freedom (depending upon one’s definition) might be compatible with exhaustive divine determinism (EDD).

I am a compatibilist 

Freedom and determinism can “get along” in a certain sense. For example, suppose my DNA (which has been causally determined by things other than me) causally determines my taste buds to love tacos more than any other food. Thus, I have been causally determined by things other than me to have a “taco-loving nature.” So, when I go to the restaurant and survey the menu, since I have a “taco-loving nature,” then my nature does not allow me to do anything other than order the tacos at that moment (lucky me)! If nothing prevents me from ordering my greatest desire of tacos at the moment in question, then one can say that I am both free and determined to order the tacos at said moment.

To be clear: I’m not affirming that I do not have the opportunity to exercise an ability to order something other than the tacos, but for the sake of argument I will assume this is the case — that I can only order the tacos and that I cannot do otherwise. If this is the case, and nothing stops me from ordering my greatest desire of tacos, then, the compatibilist asserts that I have exercised free will even though everything about me was causally determined by something or someone else (things other than me).

Fair enough.

I can see how this could be the case. I can grant the possibility that this kind of freedom is compatible with exhaustive determinism. In this sense, I can be called a “compatibilist.”

Robert Kane agrees:

“Those of us who are libertarians about free will (who believe in a free will that is incompatible with determinism) should , I contend, concede this point to compatibilists: Many freedoms worth wanting are compatible with determinism.[1]

I am NOT a compatibilist 

Be that as it may, I have made it clear that I do NOT think that moral and rational responsibility (in a desert sense) are compatible with EDD. After all, having a taco-loving nature and ordering tacos doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing one should be praised or blamed for (unless one wants to make a case that eating tacos is objectively right or wrong).

Desert responsibility (whether we are discussing rational or moral responsibility) is something far different than ordering tacos for lunch. Now we are discussing how one ought to think, what one ought to believe, what thoughts one ought to take captive, and what one should believe. We are discussing how one ought to move his/her body and how one should treat others. If we fail at any of these oughts or shoulds, we deserve blame. If we think or act according to these oughts or shoulds, we get a thumbs up or a pat on the back!

Moreover, rationality cannot be on the same level as tacos. Sure, perhaps when I survey the menu I might only and always choose my greatest desire at that moment. But the use of reason entails the opportunity to exercise an ability (libertarian freedom) to think and ultimately believe things which are opposed to one’s greatest desires at a specific moment. This is exactly what separates humanity from the animal kingdom. As I noted in Human Freedom, Divine Knowledge, and Mere Molinism:

“Choices based on “greatest desires” are not choices based on logic and reason. In fact, if the compatibilist [who affirms EDD] claims that he can “exercise his reason,” what he really means is that his “reason” is simply his “greatest desire.” But if choices are always—and only—aimed at the target of a person’s “greatest desire,” they are never aimed at the target of truth . . . .  Accordingly, the compatibilist [who affirms EDD] cannot rationally affirm or justify any of his beliefs as objectively better or worse than a competing belief—for even the evaluations of his own thoughts and beliefs will also be determined by his greatest desires! . . . . It follows that if the compatibilist [who affirms EDD] really has rationally inferred that compatibilism is a better explanation than libertarianism, then his view of . . . compatibilism must be false. As a result, the compatibilist [who affirms EDD] has inadvertently defeated his project by way of his project. Ultimately, according to the . . . compatibilist, the only reason he has chosen to reject libertarian freedom is because he has a “greatest desire” for exhaustive divine determinism (EDD) to be true. That is not a good (rational) reason to believe anything. Subjective personal preference is vastly different than selecting a view based on objective truth” (p 184).

If objective truth exists (to deny objective truth affirms it), then if one does not reason toward objective truth, then one has reasoned poorly and reached incorrect and objectively wrong beliefs. If something or someone else, however, causally determines Jack to affirm a false belief about X in the actual world, then Jack possesses no opportunity to infer a better or true belief about X in the actual world. Thus, it does not seem as if Jack should be blamed for his bad thinking or false beliefs — something or someone else is responsible!

In this sense, I am an ardent incompatibilist! Desert responsibility (in a rational or moral sense) is NOT compatible with exhaustive determinism.

To quote Kane once again:

“What libertarians . . . should insist upon is that there is at least one kind of freedom that is also worth wanting and is not compatible with determinism . . . which I define as: ‘the power to be the ultimate source and sustainer to some degree of one’s own ends or purposes.'”[2]

“Compatibilism is not true!” 

Allow me the opportunity to explain what I mean when I say that “compatibilism is not true.” As I explained in a footnote on page 182 of Mere Molinism:

“The word “true” refers to the correspondence theory of truth. Thus, by “if compatibilism is true” means, if the thesis of compatibilism actually describes the way things are [reality].”

So, I mean that the thesis of comatibilism does not actually always correspond to reality, and thus, compatibilism does not always describe the way things are. That is to say, the proposition consisting of the conjunction of both (i) “everything about humanity is always causally determined by something or someone else” and (ii) “humanity is still responsible in a desert sense” is false. (If you are still confused, read the prior sentence several times until you “get it.”) However, the above understanding of “freedom” could still be compatible with determinism in certain instances.

Notice the vital difference between the mere thesis of compatibilism, and the claim that the thesis actually always describes reality. To miss this vital distinction will lead to multiple mistakes on the part of those who seek to oppose my arguments. To reiterate, and as I made clear in my book, I specifically argued that the thesis of compatibilism does not always correspond to the way things are.

Bottom line: freedom and desert responsibility ought not be conflated. They are two different things. So, if one says that they are a compatibilist, make sure to ask “What do you mean by that?” Make them clarify if they are talking about freedom, or responsibility, or both. Then ask them to clarify what they mean by both of the terms “freedom” and “responsibility.” Then share this article with the compatibilist to give him or her something to think about.

Finally, invite them to discuss these philosophical and theological issues over tacos.

Stay reasonable (Isaiah 1:18),

Dr. Tim Stratton


[1] Robert Kane and Carolina Sartorio, Do We Have Free Will? A Debate (2022)

[2] Ibid.

Tagged with:

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