Citation for this page in APA citation style.           Close

Core Concepts

Adequate Determinism
Alternative Possibilities
Causa Sui
Causal Closure
Chance Not Direct Cause
Chaos Theory
The Cogito Model
Comprehensive   Compatibilism
Conceptual Analysis
Could Do Otherwise
Default Responsibility
Determination Fallacy
Double Effect
Either Way
Emergent Determinism
Epistemic Freedom
Ethical Fallacy
Experimental Philosophy
Extreme Libertarianism
Event Has Many Causes
Frankfurt Cases
Free Choice
Freedom of Action
"Free Will"
Free Will Axiom
Free Will in Antiquity
Free Will Mechanisms
Free Will Requirements
Free Will Theorem
Future Contingency
Hard Incompatibilism
Idea of Freedom
Illusion of Determinism
Laplace's Demon
Liberty of Indifference
Libet Experiments
Master Argument
Modest Libertarianism
Moral Necessity
Moral Responsibility
Moral Sentiments
Paradigm Case
Random When?/Where?
Rational Fallacy
Same Circumstances
Science Advance Fallacy
Second Thoughts
Soft Causality
Special Relativity
Standard Argument
Temporal Sequence
Tertium Quid
Torn Decision
Two-Stage Models
Ultimate Responsibility
Up To Us
What If Dennett and Kane Did Otherwise?


Mortimer Adler
Rogers Albritton
Alexander of Aphrodisias
Samuel Alexander
William Alston
Louise Antony
Thomas Aquinas
David Armstrong
Harald Atmanspacher
Robert Audi
Alexander Bain
Mark Balaguer
Jeffrey Barrett
William Belsham
Henri Bergson
George Berkeley
Isaiah Berlin
Richard J. Bernstein
Bernard Berofsky
Robert Bishop
Max Black
Susanne Bobzien
Emil du Bois-Reymond
Hilary Bok
Laurence BonJour
George Boole
Émile Boutroux
Michael Burke
Joseph Keim Campbell
Rudolf Carnap
Ernst Cassirer
David Chalmers
Roderick Chisholm
Randolph Clarke
Samuel Clarke
Anthony Collins
Antonella Corradini
Diodorus Cronus
Jonathan Dancy
Donald Davidson
Mario De Caro
Daniel Dennett
Jacques Derrida
René Descartes
Richard Double
Fred Dretske
John Dupré
John Earman
Laura Waddell Ekstrom
Herbert Feigl
John Martin Fischer
Owen Flanagan
Luciano Floridi
Philippa Foot
Alfred Fouilleé
Harry Frankfurt
Richard L. Franklin
Michael Frede
Gottlob Frege
Peter Geach
Edmund Gettier
Carl Ginet
Alvin Goldman
Nicholas St. John Green
H.Paul Grice
Ian Hacking
Ishtiyaque Haji
Stuart Hampshire
Sam Harris
William Hasker
Georg W.F. Hegel
Martin Heidegger
Thomas Hobbes
David Hodgson
Shadsworth Hodgson
Baron d'Holbach
Ted Honderich
Pamela Huby
David Hume
Ferenc Huoranszki
William James
Lord Kames
Robert Kane
Immanuel Kant
Tomis Kapitan
Jaegwon Kim
William King
Hilary Kornblith
Christine Korsgaard
Saul Kripke
Andrea Lavazza
Keith Lehrer
Gottfried Leibniz
Michael Levin
George Henry Lewes
David Lewis
Peter Lipton
C. Lloyd Morgan
John Locke
Michael Lockwood
E. Jonathan Lowe
John R. Lucas
Alasdair MacIntyre
Ruth Barcan Marcus
James Martineau
Storrs McCall
Hugh McCann
Colin McGinn
Michael McKenna
Brian McLaughlin
John McTaggart
Paul E. Meehl
Uwe Meixner
Alfred Mele
Trenton Merricks
John Stuart Mill
Dickinson Miller
Thomas Nagel
Friedrich Nietzsche
John Norton
Robert Nozick
William of Ockham
Timothy O'Connor
David F. Pears
Charles Sanders Peirce
Derk Pereboom
Steven Pinker
Karl Popper
Huw Price
Hilary Putnam
Willard van Orman Quine
Frank Ramsey
Ayn Rand
Michael Rea
Thomas Reid
Charles Renouvier
Nicholas Rescher
Richard Rorty
Josiah Royce
Bertrand Russell
Paul Russell
Gilbert Ryle
Jean-Paul Sartre
Kenneth Sayre
Moritz Schlick
Arthur Schopenhauer
John Searle
Wilfrid Sellars
Alan Sidelle
Ted Sider
Henry Sidgwick
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong
Saul Smilansky
Michael Smith
Baruch Spinoza
L. Susan Stebbing
Isabelle Stengers
George F. Stout
Galen Strawson
Peter Strawson
Eleonore Stump
Francisco Suárez
Richard Taylor
Kevin Timpe
Mark Twain
Peter Unger
Peter van Inwagen
Manuel Vargas
John Venn
Kadri Vihvelin
G.H. von Wright
David Foster Wallace
R. Jay Wallace
Ted Warfield
Roy Weatherford
William Whewell
Alfred North Whitehead
David Widerker
David Wiggins
Bernard Williams
Timothy Williamson
Ludwig Wittgenstein
Susan Wolf


Michael Arbib
Bernard Baars
Gregory Bateson
John S. Bell
Charles Bennett
Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Susan Blackmore
Margaret Boden
David Bohm
Niels Bohr
Ludwig Boltzmann
Emile Borel
Max Born
Satyendra Nath Bose
Walther Bothe
Hans Briegel
Leon Brillouin
Stephen Brush
Henry Thomas Buckle
S. H. Burbury
Donald Campbell
Anthony Cashmore
Eric Chaisson
Jean-Pierre Changeux
Arthur Holly Compton
John Conway
John Cramer
E. P. Culverwell
Charles Darwin
Terrence Deacon
Louis de Broglie
Max Delbrück
Abraham de Moivre
Paul Dirac
Hans Driesch
John Eccles
Arthur Stanley Eddington
Paul Ehrenfest
Albert Einstein
Hugh Everett, III
Franz Exner
Richard Feynman
R. A. Fisher
Joseph Fourier
Lila Gatlin
Michael Gazzaniga
GianCarlo Ghirardi
J. Willard Gibbs
Nicolas Gisin
Paul Glimcher
Thomas Gold
Brian Goodwin
Joshua Greene
Jacques Hadamard
Patrick Haggard
Stuart Hameroff
Augustin Hamon
Sam Harris
Hyman Hartman
John-Dylan Haynes
Martin Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg
John Herschel
Jesper Hoffmeyer
E. T. Jaynes
William Stanley Jevons
Roman Jakobson
Pascual Jordan
Ruth E. Kastner
Stuart Kauffman
Simon Kochen
Stephen Kosslyn
Ladislav Kovàč
Rolf Landauer
Alfred Landé
Pierre-Simon Laplace
David Layzer
Benjamin Libet
Seth Lloyd
Hendrik Lorentz
Josef Loschmidt
Ernst Mach
Donald MacKay
Henry Margenau
James Clerk Maxwell
Ernst Mayr
Ulrich Mohrhoff
Jacques Monod
Emmy Noether
Howard Pattee
Wolfgang Pauli
Massimo Pauri
Roger Penrose
Steven Pinker
Colin Pittendrigh
Max Planck
Susan Pockett
Henri Poincaré
Daniel Pollen
Ilya Prigogine
Hans Primas
Adolphe Quételet
Juan Roederer
Jerome Rothstein
David Ruelle
Erwin Schrödinger
Aaron Schurger
Claude Shannon
David Shiang
Herbert Simon
Dean Keith Simonton
B. F. Skinner
Roger Sperry
Henry Stapp
Tom Stonier
Antoine Suarez
Leo Szilard
William Thomson (Kelvin)
Peter Tse
Heinz von Foerster
John von Neumann
John B. Watson
Daniel Wegner
Steven Weinberg
Paul A. Weiss
John Wheeler
Wilhelm Wien
Norbert Wiener
Eugene Wigner
E. O. Wilson
H. Dieter Zeh
Ernst Zermelo
Wojciech Zurek


Free Will
Mental Causation
James Symposium

Could Have Done Otherwise
The idea that a free agent "could have done otherwise" is a key element in the libertarian argument.
It is seen as a condition for moral responsibility, although freedom in this sense is prior to moral issues. In recent philosophical jargon, it is known as (PAP) the "principle of alternative possibilities."
A person is morally responsible for performing a given act only if he could have acted otherwise.
PAP is under attack by many compatibilists and determinists. It has been twisted by compatibilists into sophisticated logical arguments and "thought experiments" that purport to prove that the ability to do otherwise under identical conditions is impossible.
If such a capability did exist it could only be arbitrary (indeed), capricious (yes), and irrational. And to this day has led even some libertarian thinkers to doubt that an "intelligible" account can be given of free choice.
We will look at some of the arguments, then explain how randomly generated alternative possibilities are all we need to provide the opportunity to do otherwise - and thus be both unpredictable and responsible.
Robert Kane pointed out (Free Will and Values, p.9) that the idea of alternative possibilities, that "one could have done otherwise," began in modern times with the debates between Thomas Hobbes and Bishop John Bramhall.
For Thomas Hobbes, the first modern compatibilist, the idea of a free agent that could do otherwise was a contradiction and nonsense.
"I hold that ordinary definition of a free agent, namely that a free agent is that which, when all things are present which are needful to produce the effect, can nevertheless not produce it, implies a contradiction and is nonsense; being as much as to say the cause may be sufficient, that is necessary, and yet the effect shall not follow." (Of Liberty and Necessity, § 32)
John Bramhall sees no contradiction.
"I cannot see this nonsense nor discover this contradiction. For (a) in these words, 'all things needful' or 'all things requisite', the actual determination of the will is not included. But by 'all things needful or requisite', all necessary power either operative or elective, all necessary instruments and adjuments extrinsical and intrinsical, and all conditions, are intended. As he that has pen and ink and paper, a table, a desk, and leisure, the art of writing, and the free use of his hand, has all things requisite to write if he will; and yet he may forbear if he will.... (b) And indeed if the will were (as he conceives it is) necessitated extrinsically to every act of willing, if it had no power to forbear willing what it does will, nor to will what it does not will, then if the will were wanting, something requisite to the producing of the effect was wanting. But now when science and conscience, reason and religion, our own and other men's experience, do teach us that the will has a dominion over its own acts, to will or nill without extrinsical necessitation, if the power to will be present in actu primo [as a first actuality], determinable by ourselves, then there is no necessary power wanting in this respect to the producing of the effect." (A Defense of Liberty, § 32)
David Hume's compatibilist account of liberty and necessity is similar to Hobbes. Freedom to do otherwise was "unintelligible," a word still very popular with modern compatiblists and even some anxious libertarians.
"I believe we may assign the three following reasons for the prevalence of the doctrine of liberty, however absurd it may be in one sense, and unintelligible in any other. First, After we have perform'd any action; tho' we confess we were influenc'd by particular views and motives; 'tis difficult for us to persuade ourselves we were govern'd by necessity, and that 'twas utterly impossible for us to have acted otherwise; the idea of necessity seeming to imply something of force, and violence, and constraint, of which we are not sensible. Few are capable of distinguishing betwixt the liberty of spontaneity, as it is call'd in the schools, and the liberty of indifference; betwixt that which is oppos'd to violence, and that which means a negation of necessity and causes. (Treatise, Book II, Part III, Sections I-II, p.407)
G. E. Moore argued in 1912 in his Ethics that one could do otherwise, but only if one had chosen to do otherwise. Many later philosophers found this idea to be empty, since under determinism one could not have so chosen.
"It must be remembered that our theory does not assert that any agent ever could have chosen any other action than the one he actually performed. It only asserts, that, in the case of all voluntary actions, he could have acted differently, if he had chosen: not that he could have made the choice. It does not assert, therefore, that right and wrong depend upon what he could choose. As to this, it makes no assertion at all: it neither affirms nor denies that they do so depend. It only asserts that they do depend upon what he could have done or could do, if he chose. In every case of voluntary action, a man could, if he had so chosen just before, have done at least one other action instead. That was the definition of a voluntary action : and it seems quite certain that many actions are voluntary in this sense." (Ethics, p.12)
R. E. Hobart (Dickinson S. Miller) claimed in 1934 that free will involved determination and was inconceivable without it.
'I mean free will in the natural and usual sense, in the fullest, the most absolute sense in which for the purposes of the personal and moral life the term is ever employed. I mean it as implying responsibility, merit and demerit, guilt and desert. I mean it as implying, after an act has been performed, that one "could have done otherwise" than one did.'

I am not maintaining that determinism is true; only that it is true in so far as we have free will. That we are free in willing is, broadly speaking, a fact of experience. That broad fact is more assured than any philosophical analysis. It is therefore surer than the deterministic analysis of it, entirely adequate as that in the end appears to be. But it is not here affirmed that there are no small exceptions, no slight undetermined swervings, no ingredient of absolute chance. All that is here said is that such absence of determination, if and so far as it exists, is no gain to freedom, but sheer loss of it; no advantage to the moral life, but blank subtraction from it.

Thus it is true, after the act of will, that I could have willed otherwise. It is most natural to add, "if I had wanted to"; but the addition is not required. The point is the meaning of "could". I could have willed whichever way I pleased. I had the power to will otherwise, there was nothing to prevent my doing so, and I should have done so if I had wanted. If someone says that the wish I actually had prevented my willing otherwise, so that I could not have done it, he is merely making a slip in the use of the word "could".

Moritz Schlick reiterated Moore's view, and included the idea of "exactly the same circumstances" in chapter VII of his 1936 book Problems in Ethics. Schlick introduced the terminology of a pseudo-problem into the debate in this chapter entitled When Is A Man Responsible?.
The absence of the external power expresses itself in the well-known feeling (usually considered characteristic of the consciousness of freedom) that one could also have acted otherwise. How this indubitable experience ever came to be an argument in favor of indeterminism is incomprehensible to me. It is of course obvious that I should have acted differently had I willed something else; but the feeling never says that I could also have willed something else, even though this is true, if, that is, other motives had been present. And it says even less that under exactly the same inner and outer conditions I could also have willed something else.
P. H. Nowell Smith, in Mind, 1948, provided a lengthy analysis of "could have done otherwise" in his article Free Will and Moral Responsibility.
The problem arises out of a prima facie incompatibility between the freedom of human action and the universality of causal law. It was raised in an acute form when universal determinism was believed to be a necessary presupposition of science; but it was not then new, because the incompatibility, if it exists at all, exists equally between human freedom and the foreknowledge of God. As it appears to the 'plain man ' the problem may be formulated as follows: "Very often I seem to myself to be acting freely, and this freedom, if it exists, implies that I could have acted otherwise than I did. If this freedom is illusory, I shall need a very convincing argument to prove that it is so, since it appears to be something of which I am immediately aware. Moreover, if there is no freedom, there is no moral responsibility; for it would not be right to praise or blame a man for something that he could not help doing. But, if a man could have acted otherwise than he did, his action must have been uncaused, and universal determinism is therefore untrue."

It is evident that one of the necessary conditions of moral action is that the agent 'could have acted otherwise' and it is to this fact that the Libertarian is drawing attention. His case may be stated as follows: " It is a well-known maxim that 'I ought' implies 'I can'. If I cannot do a certain action, then that action cannot be my duty. On the other hand, 'I ought' as clearly implies 'I need not'; for if I cannot possibly refrain from a certain action, there can be no merit or demerit in doing it. Therefore, in every case of moral choice it is possible for the agent to do the action and also possible for him not to do it; were it not so, there would be no choice; for choice is between possibilities. But this implies that the action is uncaused, because a caused action cannot but occur." The fallacy in this argument lies in supposing that, when we say 'A could have acted otherwise', we mean that A, being what he was and being placed in the circumstances in which he was placed, could have done something other than what he did. But in fact we never do mean this; and if we believe that voluntary action is uncaused action that is only because we believe erroneously that uncaused action is a necessary condition of moral responsibility. The Libertarian believes that an action cannot be a moral one if the agent could not have acted otherwise, and he takes no account of possible differences in the causes that might have prevented him from acting otherwise. The Determinist, on the other hand, holds that the objective possibility of alternative actions is an illusion and that, if A in fact did X, then he could not have done any action incompatible with X.

If we proceed on the assumption that, to be moral, an action must be uncaused, either we shall find a genuinely uncaused action at the beginning of the chain or we shall not. If we do not, then, according to the Libertarian, there can be no moral praise and blame at all (and it was to account for these that Libertarianism was invented); and, if we do, then we must suppose that, while almost all our actions are caused, and therefore amoral, there was in the distant past some one action that was not caused and for which we can justly be praised or blamed. This bizarre theory has in fact been held; but the objections to it are clear.

C. A. Campbell replied to Schlick and to Nowell Smith in his Mind article of 1951 entitled
Is Free Will A Pseudo-Problem?
It seems to me that many philosophers (and I suspect that Moritz Schlick is among them) begin their enquiry with so firm a conviction that the contra-causal sort of freedom nowhere exists, that they find it hard to take very seriously the possibility that it is this sort of freedom that moral responsibility implies. For they are loth to abandon the commonsense belief that moral responsibility itself is something real. The implicit reasoning I take to be this. Moral responsibility is real. If moral responsibility is real, the freedom implied in it must be a fact. But contra-causal freedom is not a fact. Therefore contra-causal freedom is not the freedom implied in moral responsibility. I think we should be on our guard against allowing this or some similar train of reasoning (whose premises, after all, are far from indubitable) to seduce us into distorting what we actually find when we set about a direct analysis of moral responsibility and its conditions.

Let us put the argument implicit in the common view a little more sharply. The moral 'ought' implies 'can'. If we say that A morally ought to have done X, we imply that in our opinion, he could have done X. But we assign moral blame to a man only for failing to do what we think he morally ought to have done. Hence if we morally blame A for not having done X, we imply that he could have done X even though in fact he did not. In other words, we imply that A could have acted otherwise than he did. And that means that we imply, as a necessary condition of a man's being morally blameworthy, that he enjoyed a freedom of a kind not compatible with unbroken causal continuity.

In the course of a recent article in Mind, entitled 'Free Will and Moral Responsibility', Mr Nowell Smith (having earlier affirmed his belief that 'the traditional problem has been solved') explains very concisely the nature of the confusion which, as he thinks, has led to the demand for a contra-causal freedom. He begins by frankly recognizing that 'It is evident that one of the necessary conditions of moral action is that the agent "could have acted otherwise" ' and he adds 'it is to this fact that the Libertarian is drawing attention'. Then, after showing (unexceptionably, I think) how the relationship of 'ought' to 'can' warrants the proposition which he has accepted as evident, and how it induces the Libertarian to assert the existence of action that is 'uncaused', he proceeds to point out, in a crucial passage, the nature of the Libertarian's error:

`The fallacy in the argument (he contends) lies in supposing that when we say "A could have acted otherwise" we mean that A, being what he was and being placed in the circumstances in which he was placed, could have done something other than what he did. But in fact we never do mean this.'
What then do we mean here by 'A could have acted otherwise'? Mr Nowell Smith does not tell us in so many words, but the passage I have quoted leaves little doubt how he would answer. What we really mean by the expression, he implies, is not a categorical but a hypothetical proposition. We mean 'A could have acted otherwise, if he did not happen to be what he in fact was, or if he were placed in circumstances other than those in which he was in fact placed'. Now, these propositions, it is easy to see, are in no way incompatible with acceptance of the causal principle in its full rigour. Accordingly the claim that our fundamental moral thinking obliges us to assert a contra-causal freedom as a condition of moral responsibility is disproved.
Nowell Smith published one more criticism of Campbell in his book Ethics in 1954.
Campbell takes as a typical and, by implication, the only case of moral choice to which appraisals are relevant, that of a man who knows what he ought to do but is tempted to do something else. Now this, so far from being the only case, is not even the commonest or most important. For in the great majority of cases of moral difficulty what is difficult is not to decide to do what one knows he ought to do, but to decide what one ought to do.

Perhaps the most crucial objection to the libertarian thesis lies in the sharp discontinuity which it presupposes between moral and non-moral choice and between moral and non-moral appraisal. It is not enough to admit that we can, within broad limits, predict what a man of known habits, tastes, and interests will do and to insist that our powers of prediction only break down in the small, but important area of moral choice...For the rigid distinction between 'formed character' (where determinism reigns) and 'creative choice' (which is in principle unpredictable) it would be better to substitute a conception of continual modification of character in both its moral and its non-moral aspects.

A. J. Ayer's essay Freedom and Necessity (published in his 1954 Philosophical Essays) made it clear what determinism or compatibilism requires
"When I am said to have done something of my own free will it is implied that I could have acted otherwise; and it is only when it is believed that I could have acted otherwise that I am held to be morally responsible for what I have done. For a man is not thought to be morally responsible for an action that it was not in his power to avoid. But if human behaviour is entirely governed by causal laws, it is not clear how any action that is done could ever have been avoided. It may be said of the agent that he would have acted otherwise if the causes of his action had been different, but they being what they were, it seems to follow that he was bound to act as he did. Now it is commonly assumed both that men are capable of acting freely, in the sense that is required to make them morally responsible, and that human behaviour is entirely governed by causal laws: and it is the apparent conflict between these two assumptions that gives rise to the philosophical problem of the freedom of the will.

"It seems that it we are to retain this idea of moral responsibility, we must either show that men can be held responsible for actions which they do not do freely, or else find some way of reconciling determinism with the freedom of the will."

"from the fact that my behaviour is capable of being explained, in the sense that it can be subsumed under some natural law, it does not follow that I am acting under constraint.

"If this is correct, to say that I could have acted otherwise is to say, first, that I should have acted otherwise if I had so chosen; secondly, that my action was voluntary in the sense in which the actions, say, of the kleptomaniac are not; and thirdly, that nobody compelled me to choose as I did: and these three conditions may very well be fulfilled. When they are fulfilled, I may be said to have acted freely. But this is not to say that it was a matter of chance that I acted as I did, or, in other words, that my action could not be explained. And that my actions should be capable of being explained is all that is required by the postulate of determinism."

All this talk about "could" and "if" led the ordinary language philosopher J. L. Austin to look closely at what these terms mean in his famous 1956 article "Ifs and Cans". He carefully analyzed both Moore and Nowell Smith, but did not shed the least light on the problem of free will. He suggests that questions about "could have done otherwise" may as well be assigned to grammar as to philosophy.
"It will be clear at once that Nowell Smith, like Moore, is not distinguishing between the contention that 'could have' requires supplementation by an if-clause and the quite different contention that its analysis contains an if-clause. On the whole it seems plain that it is the second (analysis) view that he wishes to argue for: but the argument he produces is that 'could have' is (in important cases) like 'would have,' the point about which is that it needs an if-clause to complete it — as though this, which is an argument in favour of the first view, told in favour of the second view. But it cannot possibly do so: and in any event could have is liable, as we have already seen, to be in important cases a past indicative, so that the contention that it is like would have in requiring a conditional if-clause is unfounded.

Nevertheless, it must be allowed that Nowell Smith may still be right in urging that 'could have' means 'would have if' and that, as he eventually adds, 'can' means 'will if.'

It is not unusual for an audience at a lecture to include some who prefer things to be important, and to them now, in case there are any such present, there is owed a peroration. Why, in short, does all this matter? First, then, it needs no emphasizing that both if and can are highly prevalent and protean words, perplexing both grammatically and philosophically: it is not merely worth while, but essential, in these studies to discover the facts about ifs and cans, and to remove the confusions they engender. In philosophy it is can in particular that we seem so often to uncover, just when we had thought some problem settled, grinning residually up at us like the frog at the bottom of the beer mug. Furthermore and secondly, we have not here been dissecting these two words in general or completely, but in a special connexion which perhaps no one will hold trivial. It has been alleged by very serious philosophers (not only the two I have mentioned) that the things we ordinarily say about what we can do and could have done may actually be consistent with determinism. It is hard to evade all attempt to decide whether this allegation is true — hard even for those who, like myself, are inclined to think that determinism itself is still a name for nothing clear, that has been argued for only incoherently. At least I should like to claim that the arguments considered tonight fail to show that it is true, and indeed in failing go some way to show that it is not. Determinism, whatever it may be, may yet be the case, but at least it appears not consistent with what we ordinarily say and presumably think. And finally there is a third point. Reflecting on the arguments in this lecture, we may well ask ourselves whether they might not be as well assigned to grammar as to philosophy: and this, I think, is a salutary question to end on.

J.J.C. Smart tried to refute the idea of free will in his 1961 Mind article Free Will, Praise, and Blame. He explained that "pure chance" (by which he means quantum uncertainty) exists to some extent within the universe. But he does not use it to generate alternative possibilities that would permit one to have done otherwise. Instead he looks for multiple senses of "could have done otherwise."
There are some events that even a superhuman calculator could not predict, however precise his knowledge of however wide a region of the universe at some previous time...It is important to distinguish "pure chance" from "chance" or "accident." Things may happen by chance or accident in a purely deterministic universe...Now there is perhaps a sense of "could not have done otherwise" in which whether or not a person could or could not have done otherwise depends on whether or not the universe is deterministic...But it does not follow that if a person could not have done otherwise in this special sense then he could not have done otherwise in any ordinary sense. Taken in any ordinary sense, within some concrete context of daily life, "he could have done otherwise" has no metaphysical implications. (p.294-296)
Roderick Chisholm, in his 1964 Lindley Lecture Human Freedom and the Self (adapted as his essay Freedom and Action), identified "could have done otherwise if he had chosen otherwise" as a strategem used, among others, by Jonathan Edwards in the early 1700's. Chisholm says it lacks a third step to justify moral responsibility:
The expression
(a) He could have done otherwise.
it is argued means no more or less than
(b) If he had chosen otherwise, then he would have done otherwise.
Chisholm maintains we could not have made an inference to (a) from (b) unless we can also assert:
(c) He could have chosen to to otherwise.
Chisholm concludes that this stratagem to ascribe responsibility conflicts with determinism.
Keith Lehrer thought he could prove that someone who showed he could do something (by doing it) could equally refrain, and therefore establish that he could always do otherwise. Lehrer thought this argument strong enough to constitute An Empirical Disproof of Determinism, published in his 1966 collection of essays, Freedom and Determinism. He said there (p.177)
"I now wish to argue that we can know empirically that a person could have done otherwise. A person could have done otherwise if he could have done what he did not do. Moreover, if it is true at the present time that a person can now do what he is not now doing, then, later, it will be true that he could have done something at this time which he did not do. This, of course, follows from the fact that "could" is sometimes merely the past indicative of "can." What I now want to argue is that we do sometimes know empirically that a person can do at a certain time what he is not then doing, and, consequently, that he could have done at that time what he did not then do. Moreover, we can obtain empirical evidence in such a way that our methods will satisfy the most rigorous standards of scientific procedure."
Harry Frankfurt, in his article Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility (Journal of Philosophy, 1969), formalized the idea that one "could have done otherwise" as the "principle of alternate possibilities," now known as PAP in current jargon.
"A dominant role in nearly all recent inquiries into the free-will problem has been played by a principle which I shall call "the principle of alternate possibilities." This principle states that a person is morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise."

"But the principle of alternate possibilities is false. A person may well be morally responsible for what he has done even though he could not have done otherwise. The principle's plausibility is an illusion, which can be made to vanish by bringing the relevant moral phenomena into sharper focus."

Peter van Inwagen wrote in his 1983 book Essay On Free Will...

"The Conditional Analysis Argument maintains that statements ascribing to human agents the power or ability to act otherwise are to be analysed as disguised conditionals, which, when their disguise is removed, can be seen to be compatible with determinism.

"To deny the existence of free will commits one to denying the existence of moral responsibility. Until a short while ago, most philosophers would have taken this to be obvious. But if any of these philosophers had been asked to defend this obvious thesis, he would almost certainly have appealed to the following principle: a person can be held morally responsible for what he has done only if he could have done otherwise. In a recent remarkable article, however, Harry Frankfurt has presented convincing counter-examples to this principle...Even if Frankfurt is right, it is none the less true that moral responsibility is possible only if we have free will.

"By 'the thesis that there is such a thing as moral responsibility', I mean the thesis that someone is morally responsible for something — for some act, some event, some state of affairs, the publication of some scurrilous pamphlet, the currency of some malicious rumour, or the decline of classical studies at some university. By 'the free-will thesis', it will be recalled, I mean the thesis that most people, if not all people, are very often, if not always, in the following position: when they are faced with having to choose among various incompatible courses of action, each of these courses of action is such that they can (are able to, have it within their power to) choose it." (Sounds like Frankfurt's PAP.)

Daniel Dennett devoted chapter 6 of his 1984 book Elbow Room to the "Could Have Done Otherwise" principle. He says
"l have not yet touched the central issue of free will, for I have not yet declared a position on the "could have done otherwise" principle: the principle that holds that one has acted freely (and responsibly) only if one could have done otherwise. It is time, at last, to turn to this central, stable area in the logical geography of the free will problem. I will show that this widely accepted principle is simply false."

"The "could have done otherwise" principle has been debated for generations, and the favorite strategy of compatibilists - who must show that free will and determinism are compatible after all — is to maintain that "could have done otherwise" does not mean what it seems at first to mean; the sense of the phrase denied by determinism is irrelevant to the sense required for freedom."

"Instead of rising to the defense of any of the earlier analyses — many of which are quite defensible so far as I can see — I will go on the offensive. I will argue that whatever "could have done otherwise" actually means, it is not what we are interested in when we care about whether some act was freely and responsibly performed. There is, as van Inwagen notes, something of a tradition of simply assuming that the intuitions favoring the "could have done otherwise" principle are secure. But philosophers who do assume this do so in spite of fairly obvious and familiar grounds for doubt."

"If our responsibility really did hinge, as this major philosophical tradition insists, on the question of whether we ever could do otherwise than we in fact do in exactly those circumstances, we would be faced with a most peculiar problem of ignorance: it would be unlikely in the extreme, given what now seems to be the case in physics, that anyone would ever know whether anyone has ever been responsible. For today's orthodoxy is that indeterminism reigns at the subatomic level of quantum mechanics, so in the absence of any general and accepted argument for universal determinism, it is possible for all we know that our decisions and actions are truly the magnified, macroscopic effects of quantum-level indeterminacies occurring in our brains." (p.131-136)

Robert Kane, in his 1985 Free Will and Values, gives a modern specification for "could have done otherwise," which however threatens to make free will "arbitrary, capricious, and irrational."

Kane defines what he calls the Indeterminist Condition. An agent S is free at time t to make a decision J or do otherwise. As Kane puts it,

"(The Indeterminist Condition — Second Form): Given all past circumstances relative to t and all laws of nature, (i) it can be the case that S makes J at t, and (ii) it can be the case that S does other than make J at t." (Free Will and Values, p.33)
Kane calls the ability to do otherwise the dual power of the self or dual rational self-control. But Kane then says that this is an extremely problematic condition.
"There is, first of all, the problem of explaining why such a condition should be regarded as necessary for free will at all. And, second, there is the problem of explaining how a theory of free will can accommodate a condition of this kind without making free choices arbitrary, capricious, and irrational. (p.33)

"What sort of an argument lies behind these charges? Assume, first, that the indeterminist condition is satisfied for a free choice. This means that the agent may either make the choice or do otherwise given all the same past circumstances and laws of nature. Assume further that the past circumstances include the entire psychological history of the agent prior to choice (as well as a complete account of his or her physiology and environment) and thus all of the agent's earlier formed character traits, prior decisions, processes of reasoning, experiences, motives, and so on. (p.52)

"Some awkward consequences do seem to follow, If the agent might either make a choice or do otherwise, given all the same past circumstances, and the past circumstances include the entire psychological history of the agent, it would seem that no explanation in terms of the agent's psychological history, including prior character motives and deliberation, could account for the actual occurrence of one outcome rather than the other. (p.53)

"I can understand how the outcome of my deliberation may have been different, if I had known other facts, considered other consequences, imagined other scenarios, etc. But what I cannot understand is how I could have reasonably chosen to do otherwise, how I could have reasonably chosen B, given exactly the same prior deliberation that led me to choose A, the same information deployed, the same consequences considered, the same assessments made, and so on." (p.57)

"This way of stating the argument shows what is at stake in the charges of arbitrariness, irrationality, etc., made against the indeterminist condition. If the choice of A was the reasonable outcome of my deliberation, then the choosing otherwise (the choice of B), which may have occurred given the same past circumstances, would have been "arbitrary," "capricious," "irrational," and "inexplicable," relative to my prior deliberation. Similarly, if the choice of B had been the reasonable conclusion of my deliberation, then the choice of A, had it occurred, would have been arbitrary relative to the prior deliberation, In general, where the indeterminist condition is satisfied, and the outcome is the result of prior deliberation, at least one of the outcomes (choosing or doing otherwise) must be arbitrary or irrational in relation to the prior deliberation." (p.57)

Richard Double, in his 1991 (The Non-Reality of Free Will, p.194) agrees with Kane,
"Kane's point makes one wonder: why bother to deliberate if you are just as likely to opt for either of two contradictory alternatives?

"I hope to show that a libertarian account of dual rationality, control, and the ability to choose otherwise also fails.

"The most important [condition] for the libertarian is the requirement that free agents have the ability to choose otherwise under the exact conditions that obtain at the moment of choice. The libertarian's interpretation of this requirement signifies the clearest demarcation between the incompatibilists and the compatibilists and is probably incompatibilism's greatest selling point. The compatibilist's argument that the concept of "can choose otherwise" is analytically definable in terms of the hypothetical notion that agents would have chosen otherwise had some condition been different seems dubious to me. Chisholm rejects the hypothetical analysis by arguing that the categorical statement (a) "He could have done otherwise" is not logically equivalent to the hypothetical statement (b) "If he had chosen to do otherwise, then he would have done otherwise". I think that Chisholm is correct in his rejection of the compatibilist's claim when viewed as linguistic analysis. (p.191)

"the libertarian's commitment to indeterminism guarantees a dual interpretation of the control and rationality conditions. For the libertarian, free agents not only have the ability to choose in two directions, but they must be in control of either choice. This consequence could be deduced from the demands of moral responsibility. If an agent is to be truly responsible for either choice, A or not A, then both outcomes are under the agent's control. The case is likewise with rationality, although a predictable amount of strain is likely to arise. Libertarians, at the very least, need to show how indeterministic choices can be rational whichever way they turn out. Ideally, libertarians will show us how such a dual ability might be, contrary to appearances, a desirable or even necessary element of rational choices. (p .192)

The simple answer to Kane's point and Double's is that we are not "just as likely" to opt for something different from "rational self control", but as human beings we can and do choose occasionally to be irrational.
Who said just consider the present case of alternative possibilities - "I can do otherwise." Then change that to the past tense once the will has chosen - "I could have done otherwise."?
For Teachers
For Scholars
From David Wiggins, Towards a reasonable libertarianism, 1975, in Essays on Freedom of Action, ed. T. Honderich.
Maybe it is pointless to debate whether the sentence "he could at t have done otherwise at t" does have the sense I have ascribed to it in the incompatibilist demonstration of Section III above until it has at least been shown that that sense is even a possible sense, or that it could do for the libertarian what he wanted. This is often taken to be equivalent to the following question: can the libertarian even specify a possible world, however different from the actual one, in which there are particular responsible actions which people can (in the libertarian's sense) do but do not do? Hume has been followed by a large number of philosophers in holding that not even a possible world of the required sort could be specified. If it were false that every event and every action were causally determined then the causally undetermined events and actions would surely, to that extent, be simply random. So the argument goes. That a man could have done x would mean no more than that it might have turned out that way - at random. It will be asked if it makes any better sense to hold a man responsible for actions which happen at random than for ones which arise from his character. Surely then, if it doesn't, we ought to prefer that our actions be caused?

Considered simply as an argument this objection is circular, and flagrantly so.

J.J.C.Smart (Mind 1961)seems to argue this
One cannot prove that determinism is a precondition of free will by an argument which employs as a premiss everything is either causally determined or random. This is nothing other than a form of the conclusion, that whatever is undetermined is random. This is what had to be shown. But in the form of a challenge something in the objection can stand. If an event is undetermined, if an event of different specification might have taken its place, then what does it mean to deny that the event is simply random? What is it justifiably to ascribe the action identical with the event or comprised of the event to an agent whom one holds responsible for that action? In the unclaimed ground between the properly or deterministically caused and the random, what is there in fact to be found?

Chapter 3.7 - The Ergod Chapter 4.2 - The History of Free Will
Part Three - Value Part Five - Problems
Normal | Teacher | Scholar