Indeterminist Compatibilism

John Dupré, Egenis, University of Exeter

March 12, 2014, 6 pm
Seminarraum VI, Theological Faculty Innsbruck


Can there be free agency in nature?  Classically, the argument that there cannot has been based on the belief in determinism, the view that everything that happens reflects the expression of universal and exceptionless laws of nature.  It has often been supposed that once the initial conditions of the universe, perhaps at the Big Bang, had been set, everything else in its future was determined.  A sufficiently powerful mind, with complete knowledge of the initial distribution of matter and the laws of nature, could have predicted 13 billion years ago that on the 12th March, 2014, a philosopher named John Dupré would be giving a talk in Innsbruck entitled ‘Indeterminist Compatibilism’.  I may have thought that I had deliberated painstakingly about whether I could fit this talk into my schedule, whether I had anything worth saying on the topic, etc., and finally decided to do it.  But, so the argument goes, my impression that this deliberation and my decision were what determined my being here is an illusion: that was settled billions of years ago.

The dominant response to this accepts the deterministic premise, but rejects the conclusion.  Nothing in the foregoing argument denies that it is indeed my deliberation that causes me to be giving the lecture.  It is true that earlier events determined the decision I would reach, but it is still the decision that determines my coming.  I am free if my actions follow my own choices.  If, as had been determined at the dawn of the universe, I had come because a blackmailer had threatened the lives of my children, or a mad neuroscientist had taken control of my brain, then I would not have acted freely.  Who acts freely, and when, on this view, is indeed determined by the inexorable laws of nature.  Some of us were lucky enough to have been determined to be free.  This is traditional compatibilism, of the sort famously espoused by David Hume.  Given this tradition, my title, “indeterminist compatibilism”, will very likely sound like a contradiction.

This account is deeply unsatisfactory to many.  They feel that their decision-making should make a difference; and though the compatibilist assures them that it does, she has to admit that this difference was settled long before she had the impression of having made the decision.  The objector, usually called a voluntarist, wants to say that as I deliberate whether to come to Innsbruck it is possible either that I will or that I won’t; it is my decision that makes the difference.  This the compatibilist must deny.

The compatibilist has a further compelling move to make, however.  Is his voluntarist opponent suggesting that the decision is indeterminstic?  What does this mean?  Is it like tossing a mental coin and doing whatever randomly is decided?  Doesn’t one, rather, hope to do whatever, all things considered, fits best with ones plans and wishes?  And why should this not be a determinate matter which, quite often, one succeeds in implementing?  In short, why would anyone want this to be indeterministic?  Is there some serious value here for which it is worth postulating strange metaphysical wobbles from the otherwise seamless regularity of the causal structure of the world?  The voluntarist is often silenced at this point, if not convinced. 

I approach this issue by rejecting the first move.  I don’t believe that the world is deterministic, or that there is a network of universal laws of nature at all.  Rather I think that causal order is a local, and often hard won condition.  What is special about humans is not their ability to evade this universal network of causal necessity, but their uniquely developed ability to create order and regularity.  Humans, I claim, are the densest concentrations of causal capacity, and hence regularity, in the world we know.  We are right, as the voluntarist insists, to see ourselves as having agency: our agency creates the order embodied in our intentional actions.

But the compatibilist is partly right too.  As an agent I want my actions to follow from my decisions and my decisions to reflect the plans or principles to which I am most deeply committed.  Does this mean that, given my plans and principles, my actions are determined?  Far from it.  I may have decided that giving a talk in Innsbruck was, all things considered, the action that fitted best with my philosophical goals, etc., but much could go wrong.  My weak will or physical ill health might have prevented me from preparing a lecture; I might have missed my plane; I might just have decided not to bother.  Indeed my giving this talk many months after the invitation was first accepted is something of a miracle: time has been devoted by me to writing the paper, by the organisers of this event for booking a venue, advertising, etc., and by airline operators, taxi drivers, hotel staff, and many others to make it possible for me to arrive far from home at a long pre-determined time.  A vast array of uniquely human capacities must be mobilised and coordinated for our plans sometimes to work out as we hope. Is the outcome predetermined?  Hardly.  But it does accord with the long held intentions of many people and, as compatibilists have long observed, lack of freedom occurs when intervening circumstances prevent me from doing what I want not when the causal order, such as it is, enables me to carry out my plans.

I have talked about uniquely human capacities, but the difference from the rest of living nature is a matter of degree not of kind.  Organisms generally are, I claim, self-organising processes that have evolved capacities to impose a degree of order on the generally chaotic surroundings in which they find themselves.  As living systems become more complex, especially through cooperation, the ability to impose order on the world increases.  Human societies represent the ultimate development of this trend.  In this lecture, as well as explaining this general view of the living world, I shall argue that human autonomy is as much a social as an individual product.


John Dupré, currently Professor of Philosophy of Science at the University of Exeter, is a philosopher of science whose work has addressed a wide range of issues arising from biology.  He is known for his advocacy of pluralism about biological kinds, and his critique of physicalist reductionism, both worked out in detail in his 1993 book, The Disorder of Things: Metaphysical Foundations of the Disunity of Science. His 2001 book, Human Nature and the Limits of Science, defended the necessity of multiple scientific perspectives in approaching human behaviour; it was especially critical of the then still widely discussed programme of Evolutionary Psychology.

From 2002-2013 Dupré was Director of the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council, UK) Centre for Genomics in Society (Egenis), and he worked on the philosophical implications of developments in molecular and cell biology.  Together with the former Co-Director of Egenis, the distinguished sociologist of science Barry Barnes, this work led in 2008 to the publication of a co-authored book, Genomes and What to Make of Them. A number of the papers Dupré wrote during this period have been collected in his most recent book, Processes of Life: Essays on the Philosophy of Biology. He continues to direct Egenis, now renamed the Centre for the Study of Life Sciences.  He recently started working on a five-year project funded by the European Research Council, entitled “A Process Ontology for Contemporary Biology”.

Dupré has formerly held posts at Oxford, Stanford, and Birkbeck College, London. In 2006 he held the Spinoza Visiting Professorship at the University of Amsterdam, and in 2013 he was the Diane Middlebrook and Carl Djerassi Visiting Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge.  He is the immediate Past President of the British Society for the Philosophy of Science and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.