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.)