-- The Determinism and Freedom Philosophy Website --

Writings on determinism and freedom, like writings on anything else, philosophical or otherwise, use terms differently. A reader needs to keep awake. It will be some help to a beginner, however, to have a guide to good usage. To have it in mind is to be a little more able to understand both what is said in accordance with it and what is not.


The term 'cause' is variously used, but perhaps mainly for one member of a set of things that precedes the effect. In this sense, it is likely to be the striking of the match that is called the cause of the lighting. It is perfectly possible to say, however, that what 'caused' the lighting, or `the cause' of the lighting, was not just the striking but the whole set of things including the presence of oxygen. Here, implicitly, the cause is what can also be called, with a lot less ambiguity, a causal circumstance or a causally sufficient condition.

The term 'determinism' is also variously used. It is mainly used by many philosophers for accounts of our human choices and actions that make them into effects of causal sequences -- sequences of such a kind as to raise a question about the freedom of the choices and actions. Determinism so understood has a limited subject-matter -- ourselves and our lives, and indeed less than that. It is not the scientific and general or cosmic doctrine associated with Newtonian physics in the past. Certainly the term 'determinism' can be differently used for the general doctrine, as it typically is in the Philosophy of Science.

Note too that determinism in our limited sense, whatever its consequences, is not in itself a claim or doctrine about freedom. It is not the claim that we are not free. Nor does it uncontroversially entail that. Many determinists suppose or say we are perfectly free.

'Indeterminism' is sometimes used in a limited sense -- to cover our human choices and actions. It thus refers to accounts of our choices and actions that deny they are certain effects. The term is more often be used in a general or cosmic way, for theories that events in general, or a large class of events, wider than the class of human choices and actions, are not certain effects.

Note that while most indeterminists take their indeterminism to be essential to a kind of freedom they think we have -- origination -- it is not true that indeterminism itself is enough for this freedom. This originating of choices, decisions and actions comes to more than indeterminism -- an originated choice is not just an uncaused choice, but also one that somehow is in the control of the person in question. The world could have indeterminism in it without origination.

The term 'free will' can be used in at least two ways. In my own preferred usage, it means the same as 'origination'. Thus it is not synonymous with 'freedom'. Freedom, rather, is a genus or family of things that includes a number of species or members.

It has to be said, however, that 'free will'  is pretty commonly used in philosophy so as to be synonymous with 'freedom'. Thus it covers not only origination, which if it exists is something inconsistent with determinism. But 'free will' in this wide sense also covers voluntariness, that kind of freedom which at bottom is absence of compulsion or constraint. Presumably it also covers other sorts of freedom -- one where being free is akin to being righteous.

Compatibilism is the doctrine that determinism is logically compatible or consistent with what is said to be a single idea of freedom that really concerns us and with a related kind of moral responsibility -- the freedom in question being voluntariness.

Incompatibilism is the doctrine that determinism is logically incompatible with what is said to be the single idea of freedom that concerns us and with another kind of moral responsibility -- the freedom in question being origination or origination as well as voluntariness.

Other things that may be taken to be compatible or incompatible with determinism are life-hopes, such personal feelings as gratitude and resentment, claims to knowledge, attitudes having to do with moral responsibility and the like, and social punishment and reward.

Strictly speaking, Compatibilism does not assert the truth of determinism, but only the consistency of this doctrine with our idea of freedom and moral responsibility. What is called 'soft determinism', in contrast, does take determinism to be true, and take our actual freedom to consist in no more than what is consistent with it -- voluntariness. What is called 'hard determinism' also takes determinism to be true, but takes freedom to consist in what is incompatible with it and cannot exist with it -- origination as well as voluntariness.

Strictly speaking, Incompatibilism does not claim the reality of either determinism or the freedom with which it is concerned. As just remarked, some Incompatibilists take determinism to be a fact and hence draw the conclusion we are unfree. The common breed, however, take their freedom to be a fact, and hence draw the conclusion that determinism is false. These Incompatibilists have been known as Libertarians .

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