Tag Archives: John Searle

John Searle on philosophers

‘I don’t think philosophers should worry too much about what people think about them, just get on with the work. As far as I’m concerned philosophy is the most important subject of all because other subjects get their importance by how they relate to the larger issues. And that’s what philosophy is about – the larger issues.’

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Searle on free will

What is Free Will? Our host Robert Lawrence Kuhn poses the question to Professor John Searle, in an interview from our series “Closer To Truth,”

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December 20, 2014 · 4:20 pm

Searle on consciousness

Philosopher Prof. John Searle lays out the case for studying human consciousness — and systematically shoots down some of the common objections to taking it seriously. As we learn more about the brain processes that cause awareness, accepting that consciousness is a biological phenomenon is an important first step. And no, he says, consciousness is not a massive computer simulation. (Filmed at TEDxCERN.)


December 19, 2014 · 7:29 am

Searle’s Chinese Room

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December 15, 2014 · 4:55 pm

Searle’s case for realism

by Tim Harding

Towards the end of his book ‘The Construction of Social Reality’, John Searle [1] makes a case for realism, which he defines as ‘the view that world exists independently of our representations of it’ (Searle 1995: 153).  He first responds to what he sees as the main objections to this view (Searle 1995: 149-176); and then provides some arguments in favour of it (Searle 1995: 177-197).  Searle also discusses the correspondence theory of truth which he sees as related to realism (Searle 1995: 199-226).  In this essay, I shall present Searle’s arguments and responses in the reverse order to his, and then I shall discuss what I see as the strengths and weaknesses of his case.  My thesis is essentially that an external reality is consistent with both Searle’s construction of social reality and the correspondence theory of truth.

Searle commences his case in favour of realism by noting the methodological difficulty of an unavoidable element of circularity in the arguments.  Just as it is difficult to justify rationality in other than rational terms, it is difficult to justify the framework of reality from within the same framework.  He notes that:

“One can show that this or that claim corresponds to or fails to correspond to how things really are in the ‘external world’, but one cannot in that way show that the claim that there is an external world corresponds to how things are in the external world, because any question of corresponding or failing to correspond to the external world already presupposes the existence of an external world to which the claim corresponds or fails to correspond.” (Searle 1995: 178).

He then cites what he describes as the standard argument for realism, which is that convergence in science provides a kind of empirical proof of realism.  He says that the best explanation for this phenomenon is an independently existing reality that causes different scientists to converge on the same hypotheses, theories and experimental results.  However, Searle notes the methodological difficulty referred to above – that the recognition of convergence presupposes realism (Searle 1995: 179).  There is also another possible explanation of scientific instrumentalism, which I shall discuss later.

Searle next turns to G.E. Moore’s ‘proof’ of realism, in which Moore argued that the proposition that he has two hands entails the proposition that the external world exists (Moore 1962: 144-8).  Searle notes two problems with Moore’s proof.  The first is the assumption that external reality is a truth condition like any other; and the second is the related assumption that realism is a theory about external objects in space.  Searle responds that external reality is not an empirical thesis but a condition of intelligibility for having empirical theses.  He carefully states that ‘external realism is the thesis that there is a way that things are that is independent of all representations of how things are’ (Searle 1995: 181-182).

Following on from this observation, Searle then proposes what he calls a ‘transcendental’ argument against phenomenalist idealism.  This is argument assumes that a certain condition obtains and then tries to show the background presuppositions of that condition.  In this case, the condition is that we attempt to communicate with each other by making certain sorts of utterances and the presupposition behind these utterances is external realism.  Realism does not say how things are but only that there is a way that they are that is independent of our representations (Searle 1995: 155, 183-188).

Searle next makes a logical connection between external reality and the socially constructed reality that forms the earlier chapters of his book.  He argues that ‘a socially constructed reality presupposes a reality independent of social constructions, because there has to be something for the construction to be constructed out of’.  For example, to socially construct money, property and language, there have to be the physical raw materials of metal, paper, land and sounds.  In other words, the ontological subjectivity of the socially constructed reality requires an ontologically objective reality out of which it is constructed.  He says that it is a logical consequence of the main argument of his book being that you cannot have institutional facts without brute facts (Searle 1995: 190-191).

Another logical connection is with the correspondence theory of truth, which Searle makes a case for in the final chapter of his book (Searle 1995: 199-228).   This theory implies realism since it implies that there is a reality to which statements correspond if they true . (Searle 1995: 154).

I would now like to turn to the three main arguments that Searle identifies as the most powerful against external realism.  These are the argument from conceptual relativity, the verificationist argument and what he calls the Ding an sich argument (Searle 1995: 160).

Conceptual relativity is the thesis that systems of representation, such as vocabularies and conceptual schemes generally, are human creations and to that extent arbitrary and multiply possible (Searle 1995: 151).  Several philosophers have supposed that external realism is inconsistent with conceptual relativity, but Searle disagrees.  He says that former idea just says that there is something out there to be described; whereas the latter idea says that we need to select a set of concepts and vocabulary to describe it.  The second idea does not entail a negation of the first (Searle 1995: 161).

“The fact that alternative conceptual schemes allow for different descriptions of the same reality, and that there are no descriptions of reality outside all conceptual schemes, has no bearing whatsoever on the truth of realism” (Searle 1995: 165).

The verificationist argument against realism is essentially that there is no way of verifying a reality independent of human experience and knowledge.  Searle identifies two strands to this argument.  The first is that because all we can ever perceive are our own experiences, if there is a reality beyond our experiences, then it is unknowable.  By extension, the second strand is that if claims about the real world go beyond the content of our experiences, then we are postulating something for which we have no epistemic basis (Searle 1995: 169-170).

Searle believes that both strands of the verificationist argument are mistaken.  For example, if he sees his desk in front of him, he is having a perceptual experience, but he does not ‘conclude’ on the basis of ‘evidence’ that there is a desk there; rather, he simply sees the desk.  It does not follow that it the existence of the desk is unknowable (Searle 1995: 170-173).

The Ding an sich argument is essentially a combination of the argument from conceptual relativity and the verificationist argument.  It is that not only is an external reality beyond the grasp of knowledge, but also our language and thought.  The alleged problem with such a realism is not that it is false, but that it is ultimately unintelligible (Searle 1995: 173-174).  Searle explicitly states the argument in terms of the following premise and conclusions:

“Premise: Any cognitive state occurs as part of a set of cognitive states and within a cognitive system.

Conclusion 1: It is impossible to get outside of all cognitive states and systems to survey the relationships between them and the reality they are used to cognize.

Conclusion 2: No cognition is ever of a reality that exists independently of cognition.”

In this argument, conclusion 2 is supposed to logically follow from conclusion 1. Whilst Searle concedes that conclusion 1 follows from the premise, he does not concede that conclusion 2 logically follows from conclusion 1.  He says that ‘it simply does not follow that from the fact that all cognition is within a cognitive system that no cognition is ever directly of a reality that exists independently of all cognition’ (Searle 1995: 174-175).

Having outlined Searle’s arguments for realism and his responses to the main objections to it, I would now like to discuss what I see as the main weaknesses and then the strengths of Searle’s case.

First, Searle claims that external reality is the best explanation for convergence in scientific hypotheses, theories and results; but he fails to mention alternative explanations such as scientific instrumentalism.  According to instrumentalists, scientific theory is merely a tool used by scientists to predict observations, without revealing or even relying on the existence of external reality (Torretti, 1999: 242–43).

Second, Searle notes problems with Moore’s ‘proof’ of external realism without stating the main argument in favour of it, which has become known as the ‘the G. E. Moore shift’ as follows.  Consider a standard sort of skeptical argument:

Premise 1: If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.

Premise 2: I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming.

Conclusion: Therefore, I cannot be sure that I have a body

Employing ‘the G. E. Moore shift’, we rearrange the propositions of the skeptic’s argument, thus:

Premise 1: If I cannot tell the difference between waking and dreaming, then I cannot be sure that I have a body.

Premise 2: I am sure that I have a body.

Conclusion: Therefore, I can tell the difference between waking and dreaming.” (Preston, 2014)

Both arguments are valid, but only one can be sound. Since both accept Premise 1, the question of soundness comes down to the question of which version of Premise 2 is true.  According to Moore, we have more reason to believe the common sense premise that he has a body than the skeptical premise.

Searle himself appeals to common sense in stating his case (Searle 1995: 158).  In my view, his ‘transcendental’ argument against phenomenalist idealism (Searle 1995: 155, 183-188) could be characterized as an appeal to common sense.  Possibly Searle thinks that Moore’s ‘proof’ is not relevant to his case, but if so, it would have been useful if explained his reasons in more detail.

I think that Searle’s strongest argument in favour of his position is the one related to the main thesis of his book ‘The Construction of Social Reality’.  This argument is that the ontological subjectivity of the socially constructed reality requires an ontologically objective reality out of which it is constructed.  Or to put it simply, you cannot have institutional facts without brute facts (Searle 1995: 190-191).  For example, you cannot have the institutional fact of money without the brute fact of the metal, paper or plastic the money is made from.

A supporting (but not conclusive) argument is the consistency of realism with correspondence theory of truth, which is the idea that truth is a matter of correspondence to facts (Searle 1995: 1999).  The correspondence theory is only one of several theories of truth, but if we accept it (as many philosophers have), then it implies realism since there needs to be an external reality to which statements correspond if they true (Searle 1995: 154).

In conclusion, I think that Searle makes a good case for the existence of an external reality, both by presenting arguments of his own and by responding to the main objections to external reality.  Rather than the concept of social reality based on institutional facts presenting a challenge to external reality, I think the two concepts are consistent in the way that Searle has described.  An external reality is also consistent with the correspondence theory of truth.


[1] John Rogers Searle (born July 31, 1932) is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.


Moore, G.E. ‘Proof of an external world’ New York: Collier Books, 1962 in Sosa, E., Kim, J., Fantl, J., and McGrath, M. (eds) Epistemology – An Anthology.Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2000.

Preston, Aaron. ‘George Edward Moore (1873—1958)’ in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy <http://www.iep.utm.edu/&gt;, 26 October, 2014.

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

Torretti, Roberto. The Philosophy of Physics Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. pp 242–43

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Searle against the rejection of realism

Prof. John Searle (born July 31, 1932) is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Widely noted for his contributions to the philosophy of language, philosophy of mind and social philosophy, he began teaching at Berkeley in 1959. He received the Jean Nicod Prize in 2000; the National Humanities Medal in 2004; and the Mind & Brain Prize in 2006. Among his notable concepts is the “Chinese room” argument against “strong” artificial intelligence.

“I actually think that philosophical theories make a tremendous difference to every aspect of our lives. In my observation, the rejection of realism, the denial of ontological objectivity, is an essential component of the attacks on epistemic objectivity, rationality, truth, and intelligence in contemporary intellectual life. It is no accident that the various theories of language, literature, and even education that try to undermine the traditional conceptions of truth, epistemic objectivity, and rationality rely heavily on arguments against external realism. The first step in combatting irrationalism – not the only step but the first step – is refutation of the arguments against external realism as a presupposition of large areas of discourse.” – John Searle


Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books, 1995 p.197.


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Searle’s construction of social reality

by Tim Harding

In his book ‘The Construction of Social Reality’ (Searle 1995:1) and later works, John Searle [1] discusses the problem that ‘there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement’.  He describes these objective facts as observer relative features of reality, or components of ‘social reality’, as opposed to the intrinsic features of physical reality or ‘brute facts’, such as rocks, water and trees.  He then asks the question ‘how is a socially constructed reality possible?’ and then devotes much of this book to providing some answers.  In this essay, I propose to go further and suggest that because these observer relative features are more relevant and important to our daily lives than intrinsic features, for many people social reality seems more ‘real’ than physical reality.  In other words, rather than being hard to account for, observer relative features ‘have a grip on us’.


Prof. John R. Searle

Before presenting this thesis, I need to describe in summary form, the conceptual tools that Searle provides to construct the edifice of social reality.  One of key philosophical concepts is that of intentionality, meaning ‘the power of minds to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs’ (Jacob, 2010).   The term refers to the ability of the mind to think about the external world, but should not be confused with the meaning of ‘intention’.  Searle argues that humans and other higher animal species have a capacity for collective intentionality – the sharing of intentional states such as beliefs, desires and intentions – which is essential to understanding social reality.  He uses the expression ‘social fact’ to refer to any fact involving collective intentionality (Searle 1995:23-26).

Searle draws a distinction between objectivity and subjectivity in two different senses: an epistemic sense and an ontological sense.  In the epistemic sense, we speak of judgments as being subjective when we mean that their truth or falsity cannot be settled objectively because of different attitudes or values.  For example, ‘Rembrandt was a better artist than Rubens’ is epistemically subjective; whereas ‘Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam’ is epistemically objective.  In the ontological sense, a pain is subjective because its existence depends on being felt by subjects; whereas a mountain is ontologically objective because its existence is independent of any mental state (Searle 1995:8).

Searle then distinguishes between features that exist independently of our representations of them, which he calls intrinsic to nature; and those features that exist relative to the intentionality of observers, which he calls observer relative features.  He gives the example of a screwdriver as an observer relative object only because people recognize and use this particular object as a screwdriver; whereas intrinsically it is a rod of metal with a narrowed blade at one end and a widened wooden or plastic encasing at the other end.  A useful test of whether an object is intrinsic or observer relative is to imagine what the nature of the object would be without the existence of humans.  Observer relative features exist only relative to the attitudes of observers; whereas intrinsic features exist independently of observers.  The existence of the screwdriver is ontologically subjective; whereas its existence as the unnamed object I have described above is ontologically objective.  On the other hand, some of these ontologically subjective features are epistemically objective.  Everybody agrees that this object is a screwdriver – it is not a matter for subjective judgment.  Searle claims that social reality in general can be understood only in the light of the distinction between intrinsic and observer relative features (Searle 1995:9-12).  I would also draw the conclusion that the epistemic objectivity of ontologically subjective features provides a rational foundation for the concept of social reality.

Searle then builds his account of social reality using three elements: collective intentionality (as discussed earlier), the assignment of function and constitutive rules.  Declarative acts and deontic powers are also relevant, as will be discussed later.

He makes the point that in our daily lives, we experience things such as chairs, tables, cars and houses by the way we use them, rather than simply as material objects.  In other words, we assign functions, not just to things made by humans, but also to natural things such as trees and rivers.  The important thing is that functions ‘are never intrinsic but always observer relative’ (Searle 1995: 14).   Searle makes a further distinction between agentive functions that are intentionally assigned to objects, such as using a stone as a paperweight, and non-agentive functions that are independent of our use of objects, such as hearts pumping blood.  Agentive functions require continuous intentionality by humans, whereas non-agentive functions operate independently of humans, despite being recognised as functions by humans (Searle 1995: 20-23).

Searle’s next building block of social reality is his distinction between what he calls ‘regulative’ and ‘constitutive’ rules.  Regulative rules regulate a pre-existing activity, for example, cars could be driven without road safety rules, but such rules serve to make driving safer.  On the other hand, the rules of chess actually define or constitute the game of chess – the game could not be played without them.  Or to put it positively, the rules of chess enable the game of chess to exist.  Constitutive rules characteristically have the form ‘X counts as Y in context C’ – for instance, rendering the opponent King unable to move without being taken counts as winning the game of Chess.  In this way, the constitutive rule assigns a new status to some phenomenon, known as a status function, which in turn creates a new fact by human agreement, known as an institutional fact (Searle 1995: 46).  Status functions require collective intentionality, both for their initial creation and their continued existence (Searle 2010: 59)

Searle claims that institutional facts exist only within systems of constitutive rules (Searle 1995: 28).  For example, the institutional facts of money, property and government exist only because we have rules constituting them.  If there were no rules regarding the recognition and enforcement of property rights, there would be no property.  This brings us to one of the most important powers of language – the power to create a reality by declaring it to exist.  Searle has called such speech acts  ‘status function declarations’ – declarations being one of several categories of speech acts (Searle 1975: 16-20).

Searle’s next step is to claim that language necessarily involves social commitments to the truth of utterances, if it is to form the foundation of human society in general.  Searle says that ‘When I make a statement I not only express a belief, but I also commit myself to its truth’ (Searle 2010: 81).  I assume that the basis of this claim is that truth telling is the social norm and lying is an aberration.  Indeed, the capacity to create rights, duties and obligations via status function declarations is dependent on such declarations being accepted as true.  This capacity known as a deontic power (Searle 2010: 80-84).

Having now described how Searle attempts to answer the question ‘how is a socially constructed reality possible?,’ I would now like to turn to my thesis of this essay, which is that not only is a social reality possible, but for many people social reality is more ‘real’ than physical reality.

Most of us live in a human-created world rather than the natural world.  The most obvious human creation is the urban environment, but except for wilderness areas, most of our rural environments have been modified by humans as well.  In Australia, even our natural-looking forests have been modified by wild fires started by humans.  The grip that observer relative features can have on us can be so strong that some people believe that all of reality is a human creation (Searle 1995:2).  Children are brought up in a culture where they simply take aspects of social reality such as homes, schools and money for granted (Searle 1995:4).  Many adults find it hard to imagine a world without humans, which as I indicated earlier, is a useful test of whether something is intrinsic or observer relative.  People with a science background, especially in geology or paleontology, would usually be an exception to this generalisation, because they would be aware that humans have existed for only a tiny fraction of the total life of the Earth.

In Chapter Seven of Searle’s ‘The Construction of Social Reality’, he discusses whether the ‘real world’ of brute facts exists.  He refers to ‘the current philosophical scene in which it is common to deny the existence of a reality independent of human representations and to deny that true statements correspond to facts’ (Searle 1995: 150).  So it seems that even some philosophers may be in this ‘grip’ of observer relative features, to the extent of denying intrinsic features.  On the other hand, there are some prominent theoretical physicists, such as Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, who claim that only the physical world is real and that philosophers are irrelevant (Pigliucci, 2014).

The philosophical view that the (non-social) world exists independently of our representations of it is known as ‘realism’.  Searle proposes several arguments in favour of realism and against what he thinks are the most powerful arguments in opposition to realism (Searle 1995: 153-176).   Whilst I happen to largely agree with Searle’s arguments on these points, they are peripheral to the topic of this essay.

In conclusion, I think that Searle has built a strong case for the concept of a social reality consisting of observer relative features existing alongside a physical reality consisting of intrinsic features.  This case is primarily relevant to those philosophers (and some theoretical physicists) who deny the existence of either physical reality or social reality.  For many other people, social reality has such a grip on them that it seems more ‘real’ than physical reality.


[1] John Rogers Searle (born July 31, 1932) is an American philosopher and currently the Slusser Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley.


Jacob, Pierre, ‘Intentionality’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . Viewed 10 September 2014.

Pigliucci, M. ‘Lawrence Krauss: another physicist with an anti-philosophy complex’ Rationally Speaking Blog URL = <http://rationallyspeaking.blogspot.com.au/2012/04/lawrence-krauss-another-physicist-with.html> Viewed 10 September 2014.

Searle, John R. ‘A Taxonomy of Illocutionary Acts’, in: Günderson, K. (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge, Minneapolis, vol. 7. 1975

Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. London: Penguin Books, 1995.

Searle, John R. ‘What is language: some preliminary remarks’, in: Tsohatzidis, S. L. (ed.), John Searle’s Philosophy of Language. Force, meaning and Mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Searle, John R. Making the Social World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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Determinism, free will and compatibilism

by Tim Harding

The idea that the future is already determined is known in philosophy as determinism.  There are various definitions of determinism available; but in this essay, I shall use the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy definition, which is ‘the metaphysical thesis that the facts of the past, in conjunction with the laws of nature, entail every truth about the future’ (McKenna, 2009:1.3).

This idea presents a difficult problem for the concept of free will: how can we make free choices if all our actions are determined by the facts of the past and the laws of nature?  A related but distinct question is: how can we be held morally responsible for our actions if we have no free will? Undesirable consequences like these are not sufficient reasons for declaring determinism to be false; but they can act (and have influenced many philosophers) as a powerful motivator towards resolving the apparent conflict between determinism and free will. 

Some philosophers, such as Peter van Inwagen have gone as far as arguing that the existence of moral responsibility entails the existence of free will (Iredale 2012: 8).[1] There are various other philosophical arguments in favour of free will – one of these is an apparent paradox known as Buridan’s Ass. Some scientists, such as Sam Harris argue in favour of determinism and claim that free will is an illusion. Leading contemporary philosopher John Searle thinks that the issue has still not been resolved, despite two centuries of philosophical and scientific debate. 

Most people who are neither philosophers nor scientists seem to intuitively feel that they have free will and so when presented with this dilemma are more likely to choose free will over determinism (Iredale 2012:13).  On the other hand, in my personal experience, scientists who think in terms of causes and effects are more likely to side with a determinist view.  In this essay, I intend to argue that a solution to this dilemma lies not in choosing free will over determinism, nor vice versa; but in the theory that determinism and free will are compatible – known as compatibilism.

Before going on, let us be clear about what we mean by the term free will.  Clarke & Capes (2013:1) have provided a useful definition:

‘To have free will is to have what it takes to act freely. When an agent acts freely—when she exercises her free will—it is up to her whether she does one thing or another on that occasion. A plurality of alternatives is open to her, and she determines which she pursues. When she does, she is an ultimate source or origin of her action’.

So what does it take to act freely?  Taylor (2012: 40) states that there are three essential characteristics to free actions.  One is able to act freely only if:

(1) there is no obstacle that prevents you from doing A, and

(2) there is nothing that constrains or forces you to do A, and

(3) you could have done otherwise.

There is a diversity of philosophical views about the relationship between determinism and free will; but the higher-level taxonomy of these views may be summarised as follows.  Those who hold that determinism and free will cannot both be true are known as incompatibilists.  Within this category, those who claim that determinism is true – and therefore free will is impossible – are known as hard determinists.  Those who claim that determinism is false and therefore that free will is at least possible are known as metaphysical libertarians (not necessarily related to political libertarians).  Those who think that determinism and free will are compatible are known as compatibilistsThere is also a range of sub-categories within the compatibilist camp; but I will only discuss a couple of them in this essay.  This higher-level taxonomy can be visually described by the following diagram.


To be more specific, the following set of propositions is described by McKenna (2009:1.5) as the Classical Formulation of the free will problem:

1)      ‘Some person (qua agent), at some time, could have acted otherwise than she did.

2)      Actions are events.

3)      Every event has a cause.

4)      If an event is caused, then it is causally determined.

5)      If an event is an act that is causally determined, then the agent of the act could not have acted otherwise than in the way that she did’.

This formulation involves a mutually inconsistent set of propositions, and yet each is consistent with in our contemporary conception of the world, producing an apparent paradox.  How can these inconsistencies be reconciled?  Compatibilists would deny proposition 5).  Incompatibilists, on the other hand, might move in a number of different directions, including the denial of propositions 1), 3) or 4) (McKenna, 2009:1.5).

According to Taylor (2012: 40), all versions of compatibilism (which he calls ‘soft determinism’) have three claims in common:

(i) Determinism is true.

(ii) We are free to perform an action A to the extent there are no obstacles that would prevent us from doing A, and we are not externally constrained (not forced by external causes) to do A.

(iii) The causes of free actions are certain states, events, or conditions within the agent himself, e.g., an agent’s own acts of will or volitions, or decisions, or desires, and so on.

Claim (i) is made in common with hard determinism.  Claims (ii) and (iii) are where the compatibilists part company with the hard determinists and attempt to explain how free will can be compatible with determinism.

Taylor’s objection to compatibilism is essentially a challenge to Claim (iii); that is, that the certain states, events, or conditions within the agent herself are themselves caused by external factors, consistent with determinism.

My response to Taylor’s objection is that the certain states or conditions within the agent could include the person’s values, ethics, loyalties, priorities, and so on.  Let us call these states or conditions within the agent ‘values’.  These values may have external causes accumulated over the agent’s lifetime.  The important point is that an agent’s values could give rise to more than one possible action by the agent, all of which are consistent with the agent’s values.  Let us call these possible consistent actions ‘options’.  When faced with a decision to make, a rational agent would be likely to consider the options available to her and choose the best option.  In this way, the options available to the agent stem from causes but the agent is making a free choice within the range of options available.

A simple way of modelling this limited version of free will has been referred to by some philosophers as a ‘Garden of Forking Paths’ after the novel of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges (McKenna 2009:2.1; Iredale 2012: 14).  In other words, there are alternative paths an agent could choose to take, but the paths available have been predetermined.  Within this model, the agent meets the criterion of acting of her own free will, because she could have acted otherwise.  Her ability to have acted otherwise is underwritten by her ability to have selected amongst, or chosen between, alternative courses of action (McKenna 2009:2.1).

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Garden with forked path (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is possible that consciousness is an emergent psychological property of the material mind.  Free will could be seen as a manifestation of consciousness.  Whilst we cannot yet fully explain what consciousness is and how is works, there is little doubt that consciousness exists.  If consciousness can exist, then so can free will.

Daniel Dennett (2003) has proposed a more elegant version of compatibilism with an evolutionary basis.  Although in the strict physical sense our actions might be determined, we can still be free in all the ways that matter, because of the abilities we evolved.  Seen this way, free will is the freedom to make decisions without duress, as opposed to an impossible and unnecessary freedom from causality itself.  To clarify this distinction, he coins the term ‘evitability’ as the opposite of ‘inevitability’, defining it as the ability of an agent to anticipate likely consequences and act to avoid undesirable ones (Dennett 2003:56).  Evitability is entirely compatible with, and actually requires, determinism; because without it, an agent cannot anticipate likely consequences and avoid them.  Dennett provides us with the following explicit argument:

‘In some deterministic worlds there are avoiders avoiding harms. Therefore in some deterministic worlds some things are avoided. Whatever is avoided is avoidable or evitable.  Therefore in some deterministic worlds not everything is inevitable. Therefore determinism does not imply inevitability’ (Dennett 2003:56).

Dennett (2003:58) also argues that there is a concept of chance that is compatible with determinism, which has been invoked to explain evolution via natural selection.  Through these means, he endeavours to unyoke determinism from inevitability (Dennett 2003:60) [2].

In conclusion, I have offered two accounts of how free will may be compatible with determinism – my own and Daniel Dennett’s.  However, I do not claim that either of these accounts has solved the dilemma.  There are also, of course, many other accounts of compatibilism as well as objections to them, plus alternative theories such as hard determinism and metaphysical libertarianism.  Indeed, resolving the dilemma between free will and determinism is very complicated and may be ‘one of the most persistent and heated deadlocks in Western philosophy’ (Nichols and Knobe 2007:1).


[1] Peter van Inwagen’s argument that free will is required for moral judgments  is:

  1. The moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X implies that you should have done something else instead.
  2. That you should have done something else instead implies that there was something else for you to do.
  3. That there was something else for you to do implies that you could have done something else.
  4. That you could have done something else implies that you have free will.
  5. If you don’t have free will to have done other than X we cannot make the moral judgment that you shouldn’t have done X (van Inwagen 2009).

[2] For those who would like to read more on this topic, there is an interesting online debate between Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  Dennett critiques Harris’ book on Free Will in a review titled Reflections on Free Will. Then Harris responds to Dennett’s critique in a rejoinder entitled The Marionette’s Lament.


Clarke, Randolph & Capes, Justin, “Incompatibilist (Nondeterministic) Theories of Free Will”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/incompatibilism-theories/&gt;.

Dennett, Daniel. 2003 Freedom Evolves. London, Penguin.

Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

McKenna, Michael, ‘Compatibilism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2009 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2009/entries/compatibilism/&gt;.

Nichols, S. & Knobe, 2007 ‘Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions. Nous 41(4):663-85 in Iredale, Matthew 2012 The Problem of Free Will. Durham, Acumen.

Taylor, Richard. (1976) ‘Freedom, Determinism and Fate’; printed in Time, Self and Mind Study Guide, Monash, 2012:40-47.

van Inwagen, Peter (2009). The Powers of Rational Beings: Freedom of the Will. Oxford.

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