(0:05) You make that sound like it's an easy question, like this is a starter question. But it’s
actually very hard.
So that's a good question, I think free will is...
Free will is…
Free will, I think is…
What free will is actually a pretty complicated question.
So, what is free will?
(0:31) Santiago Amaya:
Hello, this is Free Will Matters. My name is Santiago Amaya and I'm an associate professor
in Philosophy at Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. I am very happy to host this podcast.
The problem of free will has been at the center of many discussions in Western Philosophy
for the last 20 centuries. But in recent years the problem has reappeared in a fresh form.
There are new and exciting developments in the field that make this a fascinating topic of
conversation. For this podcast we have invited various philosophers who work in free will.
Philosophy might be a daunting thing, but with their help we will get to know better the
what, the how, and the why of free will. Welcome.
It is my absolute pleasure to have Dana Nelkin as today's guest. Dana is professor of
Philosophy at the University of California in San Diego and also an affiliate professor at the
Law School of the University of San Diego. She is the author of many papers on moral
psychology, ethics and the philosophy of Law. Dana is also the author of Making sense of
freedom and responsibility.
Hello Dana, let me start with a general question. You defend a compatibilist view of free
will. Can you tell us, in general, what is compatibilism and what is the strongest argument
in its favor?
(1:53) Dana Nelkin:
So, compatibilism is the view that we can act freely even if determinism is true. That is,
even if all events, including human actions, are determined by the past and the laws of
nature. So, the strongest arguments—maybe this is cheating—I think it has multiple parts.
It starts by narrowing the options. It's not clear that adding indeterminism to the world
really helps us have more control or more freedom. So that narrows down our options. We
can be compatibilists and think, “oh, we can have free will, even in a world that's
determined,” or we could be skeptics and doubt that we have free will or that free will is
possible. And I think skepticism should be the backup choice, the backup option, if we just
can't offer a plausible and coherent compatibilist account of agency. Partly because it does
seem that our commitment to our freedom does seem to be built into our rational agency.
Though I don't think that proves that we are free, it provides some initial support, anyway,
to the idea that we are. So then, that’s my, that my project or that's part of my project, an
account of freedom that's compatibilist that could explain how we could act freely even in a
Okay, so let's talk about your project. Dana according to your view, having free will is
mostly a matter of being rational. Can you explain to us why you say this and why you think
this is the case?
On the view I favor, acting with free agency is acting with the opportunity to adopt and act
on good reasons in the situation that one’s in. So it is possible to act irrationally as long as
one had the opportunity to act for good reasons. And I think the account provides several
things that we want from a good theory of free agency. So this is why I like this approach.
So, for example, it explains why we value, and we care about free agency. So this goes back
to the question why, why does it matter? I think we just sort of assume that this is really
important to us, to be free agents, and I think this account of free agency explains that,
because we care about acting for good reasons, that in some ways doesn't need even
further explanation, we want to act well and we want to act for good reasons. I think it also
explains why we tend to think that persons are special in being free and having free will.
And finally, I think it categorizes cases very well. So, for example, think I'm acting freely
right now in talking to you, and that's because they're really good reasons for me to be
doing this and I'm responding to them and I have the opportunity to do that. But if you had
first hypnotized me, then on this view, I wouldn't be acting freely because I wouldn't really
be responding to the reasons. I wouldn't even have the opportunity to respond to reasons
in this situation. So that's just kind of one example of how the view seems to categorize the
cases in an intuitive way for us.
OK, Dana, many philosophers traditionally have thought that free will requires the ability to
do otherwise. What do you think?
The answer to this question is yes and no. So, on the view I favor, if one does respond to the
reasons there are and acts well, then one doesn't need the ability to do otherwise. Suppose
a soldier throws herself on a grenade to save her fellow soldiers. She's fully aware of the
sacrifices that she's making, and she's committed to making it, she does it for all good
reasons, but she really couldn't have thought twice about it. She couldn't have done
otherwise. Then, on this view, she still counts as acting freely, despite lacking the ability to
do otherwise. But, on the other hand, if someone acts badly, say they break a promise to
meet a friend who could really use some time talking, then whether she could have done
better, whether she could have acted well does require the ability to do otherwise. So in
that case, we really do need to know whether she could have done something differently to
know whether she had acted freely.
So that's part of the answer, but it's a little bit more complicated, because I think there are
different senses of being able to do otherwise. So for example, if determinism is true, then
there's only one way that the events of the world can unfold and so in some sense one
couldn't do otherwise. But, in another sense, it might be still possible for her to have the
ability to do otherwise if there's nothing relevant that's interfering with her exercise of her
You mentioned a moment ago that your fallback position would be skepticism. That is, if
you were not a compatibilist, then you would deny that we have free will. Can you
elaborate a little bit on this idea?
So my fallback position is to be a skeptic because I just have not been able to see how
indeterminism helps solve the problems that compatibilists views have. But, on the other
hand, I'm not sure of this, if this really happened I'm not exactly sure what I would do,
because I think this would put me in a particularly awkward position to be a skeptic. As I
was saying before, I think we're just committed to our own freedom. So, I could do it, but it
would, I think, make me inconsistent.
This is a question that we've been asking to all of our guests. There are lots of new things
happening in the free will debate. Can you tell us in your opinion, what is the most exciting
recent development in the field?
One of the most exciting recent developments in the field is a focus on threats to free
agency other than determinism. I still think that's really important and we should still care
about it and be thinking about it, but I actually think that turning our attention to some
other issues is interesting in its own right, but also might help us shed light even on that
So, for example, there are threats from social psychology. There's a body of work that
seems to suggest that situational factors that we may not even be aware of or don't seem
very important to us, may be explaining our actions way more than we think we do. So you
know, a lawn mower running in the background can have huge effects, apparently, on
human behavior in much greater proportion than we would have expected of ourselves.
These sorts of results from social psychology have caused people to worry about whether
they really are free, whether they are really acting freely, or whether they're really just
being sort of thrown about by situational factors. There are also interesting challenges
from Neurosciences, and there are also challenges that arise from thinking about our social
environment. So whether one grows up in a situation of oppression or poverty or
discrimination. Also, we can ask really interesting questions about whether those things
could undermine free agency in various ways. And it's exciting that more philosophers
have been exploring all of these different challenges.
Ok Dana, one more question. So there are, as we mentioned before, many philosophers
working on free will. There's lots of questions being asked and discussed. But do you think
there's a question that has been underexplored? A question that people should be asking
Often we ask the question, Is free will possible? Which seems to be a yes no answer, or does
a person have free will in a given situation, and that seems like a yes no answer. But there
are some reasons to at least consider the possibility that free agency is itself a kind of scalar
phenomenon, and that there can be more, one can be more or less free. So that's the
question I think is interesting and still underexplored.
Free Will Matters is part of the LATAM Free Will, Agency, and Responsibility Project. It is
produced by Cerosetenta thanks to a generous grant of the John Templeton Foundation and
with the support of Universidad de los Andes and the University of California in San Diego.
For more information, visit us at freewill.uniandes.edu.co