Just a Semantic Argument? The Free Will Free-for-All

Russell Blackford

I wish I had a dollar for each time I’ve heard someone’s viewpoint dismissed with the facile assertion, “That’s just a semantic argument!” This has become a pet peeve of mine. In fairness, it can be annoying when we find ourselves in a discussion where the facts of a situation are all agreed but one party wants to go on arguing about the correct words to use. All the same, we often need to clarify concepts and terminology to make intellectual progress. Indeed, debate about abstract philosophical issues is typically rendered almost intractable by vagueness, ambiguity, and conceptual confusions.

On this occasion, my thoughts were provoked by a social media discussion that I prudently kept out of. The participants were discussing free will, and they largely agreed that free will does not exist or that human beings don’t possess it. However, one participant admitted feeling some attraction to the so-called compatibilitist position—before dismissing compatibilism as “just a semantic argument.”

Within the extensive philosophical literature about free will, compatibilism is the idea that free will—whatever it might be or however we might understand it—is logically compatible with causal determinism. That is, it’s compatible with the prior determination of events, including human choices, through a universal process of physical causation. Notwithstanding issues about quantum-level indeterminacy, it seems likely that causal determinism is near enough to true for us to assume it in arguments about free will. (If we reject causal determinism, we’ll go down another path of the debate altogether, one that I’ll have to avoid this time.)

If causal determinism is true and causal determinism is incompatible with free will, it follows that we don’t have free will. But whether they are compatible depends on what people are actually trying to express when they claim to have free will. Unfortunately, that’s not clear. It’s likely that different cultures and eras have had somewhat different conceptions of free will, as do different people even in the same culture. It’s also likely that individuals have only a vague sense of what they mean when they claim to possess free will (so bluntly asking them what they mean will likely add to the confusion).

Furthermore, it’s unhelpful to insist on some revisionist idea of what we think the term free will ought to mean. That won’t address people’s actual anxieties that produced debate about this in the first place. Asking people to define their terms won’t help much. But we can listen to what they say, talk to them, refine alternative understandings of the concept of free will (and related concepts), study how free will was understood in classical texts from various cultures, and examine how related themes are presented in popular culture today. There’s a great deal that we can do in an effort to understand what is inspiring people’s puzzlement or anxiety.

One theme that runs through Western mythology, literature, philosophy, and culture over thousands of years is whether some things—such as our own deliberations, choices, and actions and our actions’ more predictable consequences—are genuinely “up to us,” as it was expressed by the Greek philosophers. Expressions such as up to us and free will appear, at least primarily, to be used for denials of fatalism and affirmations of moral responsibility.

If I claim to possess free will, I am claiming to be morally responsible for my own choices—at least in normal circumstances when I don’t, for example, have a gun at my head. At the same time, I am rejecting fatalism, which is usually tied up with one or another kind of religious or magical view of the world. I’m rejecting the idea that I’m a puppet of fate, destiny, the stars, the will of Zeus, the hands of God, or any other such overriding force. If I were such a puppet, I might as well give up on any aspirations to improve my own life or to help others. It’s not up to me. I might as well live in a state of apathy—though if fatalism is true, even that will not be my decision!

If fatalism is true, moral responsibility makes no sense. Perhaps, however, we can deny moral responsibility on some other ground even in the absence of an external force such as fate, Zeus, or the stars. Perhaps, for example, we are all governed by deep, subconscious drives that are alien to our consciously endorsed values. That seems enough to negate meaningful moral responsibility and free will.

This brings me back to causal determinism. Does causal determinism imply fatalism? Not obviously. Indeed, many people who reject free will on the basis of causal determinism seem to deny being fatalists. They don’t deny that we have some ability to make genuine choices and influence future events. Does causal determinism nonetheless imply that we are not morally responsible for our choices and actions, since they are ultimately caused by events that happened before we were born? This seems to be the crucial question when free will is denied by science-minded people. Finding a plausible answer will, unfortunately, involve even more investigation, this time involving different conceptions of moral responsibility.

A short article such as this is not the place to settle large, fraught, persistent, emotionally charged issues. The issue of free will is genuinely complex, and we might not find a truly satisfying answer because the central concept is so vague and chameleon-like. My point is not that we do or that we don’t possess free will. Rather, I’ve tried to show why it’s not straightforward trying to investigate such issues with academic rigor and intellectual honesty. We need to examine what people are actually worried about and what they are actually trying to say. We’ll then, inevitably, find ourselves arguing about semantic issues—but in a case such as this, there is nothing “mere” about semantics.

Russell Blackford

Russell Blackford is a conjoint senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Newcastle (Australia) and a regular columnist for Free Inquiry. His latest book, The Tyranny of Opinion: Conformity and the Future of Liberalism (2019), is published by Bloomsbury Academic.

Disputes about free will may reflect our fears about fatalism and moral responsibility.

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