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Philosophy Free Will
by
Kevin Timpe

Introduction

Free will is a perennial issue in philosophy, both in terms of the history of philosophy and in contemporary discussions. Aspects of free will relate to a wide range of philosophical issues, but especially to metaphysics and ethics. For roughly the past three decades, the literatures on free will and moral responsibility have overlapped to such a degree that it is impossible to separate them. This entry focuses on contemporary discussions about the nature and existence of free will, as well as its relationship to work in the sciences and philosophy of religion.

General Overviews

Which introductory overview will best serve one’s needs depends on one’s familiarity with the contemporary discussions. Those not familiar with the subject at all should start with Strawson 2004 and then move on to O’Connor 2008. Levy and McKenna 2009 is the most up-to-date general overview of various central issues in the free will debates, but it will best serve those who already have some general knowledge of the topic. Vargas 2009 addresses methodological issues regarding how the free will debates are structured.

Textbooks

Most introductory philosophy textbooks and anthologies contain a section devoted to free will, but these are often very mixed in quality and dated in terms of their coverage. A number of fairly recent textbooks focus exclusively on free will, and a number of forthcoming volumes appear to be promising in this regard as well. The best extant introductory textbook is clearly Kane 2005, which gives a clear and thorough outline of the terrain, while also arguing for Kane’s own preferred view. Pink 2004 and Honderich 2002 are less broad and thorough in their treatment, but they approach the free will debates through related issues (action theory and philosophy of mind, respectively). Fischer, et al. 2007 is a good introduction to some of the leading views, but it is not as extensive as Kane 2005. Timpe 2008 contains a historical discussion of the central debates of the past forty years and helps frame the contemporary debates.

Anthologies

There are numerous anthologies currently available on free will. Fischer 2005 is the most extensive collection, Kane 2002 is a standard collection, and Kane 2005 is the most valuable and wide-ranging single-volume collection. Watson 2003 collects in one volume the papers and positions that have had the most impact on the contemporary discussions. McKenna and Russell 2008 and Widerker and McKenna 2003 are also very useful, with each focusing on a subset of issues central to contemporary debates: McKenna and Russell explore the reactive attitudes, while Widerker and McKenna look at alternative possibilities. Other than Pereboom 1997, all of these anthologies contain only contemporary contributions.

  • Fischer, John Martin, ed. Free Will: Critical Concepts in Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    A four-volume collection with more than seventy articles and excerpts from leading books. This is the most extensive collection available, though its cost makes it prohibitive for all but university libraries.

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  • Kane, Robert, ed. Free Will. Blackwell Readings in Philosophy. Malden, MA: Blackwell. 2002.

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    Contains a number of the same papers as Watson 2003 but is broader both in terms of containing older papers and covering a number of topics not touched on in Watson’s collection (e.g., foreknowledge).

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  • Kane, Robert, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    Probably the best single-volume collection of new papers currently available. The volume’s introduction offers a fairly comprehensive survey of the recent free will debates. While the volume introduces all of the central issues, the level of sophistication makes this volume less than ideal for the introductory reader.

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  • McKenna, Michael, and Paul Russell, eds. Free Will and Reactive Attitudes. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008.

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    Though narrower in focus than either Kane 2005 or Watson 2003, this is an excellent collection of papers on the relationship between free will, moral responsibility, and the reactive attitudes.

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  • Pereboom, Derk, ed. Free Will. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.

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    Contains some historical selections from ancient, medieval, and modern philosophical treatments, as well as select influential essays from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

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  • Watson, Gary, ed. Free Will. 2d ed. Oxford Readings in Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    Probably the best collection of seminal papers from the past three decades. Nearly every inclusion is a classic in the literature.

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  • Widerker, David, and Michael McKenna, eds. Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities: Essays on the Importance of Alternative Possibilities. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.

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    Focuses on the relationship between free will, moral responsibility, and the ability to do otherwise. Contains Frankfurt’s influential “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” and discusses of the impact of Frankfurt’s work by both compatibilists and incompatibilists. Many of the contributors recognize the need to locate the debate surrounding the debate over the ability to do otherwise within larger metaphysical discussions.

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Compatibilism

Compatibilist theories, which hold that free will is compatible with the truth of causal determinism, come in a number of forms. Most generally, one can differentiate “classical compatibilist” theories (sometimes called “strong compatibilism”), which hold that the truth of determinism is compatible with free will (understood as having alternative possibilities), with “new compatibilist” theories (sometimes called “weak compatibilism”), which hold that free will and determinism are compatible, but that free will does not require the ability to do otherwise. Further subheadings in this section offer further readings on both families of compatibilist views. While most works on the topic will explain compatibilism, an excellent general overview of various forms of compatibilism can be found in McKenna 2004.

Classical Compatibilism

Up through roughly the 1960s, classical compatibilism was dominant, particularly the version often referred to as conditionalism. Conditionalists give subjunctive or conditional accounts of the ability to do otherwise (see, for example, Austin 1956 and Ayer 1954). Criticisms of conditionalism can be found in Chisholm 1966 and at length in van Inwagen 1983. Works from influential advocates of classical compatibilism who reject conditionalism include Lewis 1981 and Vihvelin 2000.

New Compatibilist Views

Most compatibilists now reject the idea that the ability to do otherwise is required for free will. The impact of both Fischer’s semicompatibilism and Frankfurt’s hierarchical account on this shift cannot be overstated. Frankfurt’s pioneering articles are “Free Will and the Concept of a Person” and “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” both of which are reprinted in Frankfurt 1988. A more comprehensive and up-to-date presentation and defense of the semicompatibilist position (developed in Fischer and Ravizza 1998) can be found in Fischer 2006. Strawson 1962 has also exuded a tremendous impact on how moral responsibility is understood, and on the connection between the reactive attitudes and free will.

  • Dennett, Daniel C. Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

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    Discusses what Dennett calls the “bugbears” of free will debates, and defends a compatibilist view according to which free will consists in an agent’s ability to control his or her actions on the basis of rational considerations.

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  • Fischer, John Martin. My Way: Essays on Moral Responsibility. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

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    A collection of many of Fischer’s central papers on free will and moral responsibility, constituting a presentation and extended defense of semicompatibilism.

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  • Fischer, John Martin, and Mark Ravizza. Responsibility and Control: A Theory of Moral Responsibility. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

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    Argues that one kind of freedom (regulative control) is incompatible with the truth of causal determinism, but argues that the kind of freedom required for moral responsibility (guidance control) is compatible with the truth of causal determinism, thereby presenting a semicompatibilist account.

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  • Frankfurt, Harry G. The Importance of What We Care About: Philosophical Essays. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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    Though not exclusively devoted to free will, this volume contains Frankfurt’s two seminal papers that together argue for compatibilism, “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility” and “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.” The volume also includes a number of other related papers.

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  • Strawson, P. F. “Freedom and Resentment.” Proceedings of the British Academy 48 (1962): 1–25.

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    A seminal article arguing that the reactive attitudes—”essentially natural human reactions to the good or ill will or indifference of others toward us, as displayed in their attitudes and actions”—are central to free will and moral responsibility. Strawson argues that we neither could nor should give up the reactive attitudes if determinism is true, thus promoting a version of compatibilism. Also published in Strawson’s Freedom and Resentment and Other Essays (London: Methuen, 1974), and available online

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  • Watson, Gary. “Free Agency.” Journal of Philosophy 72 (1975): 205–220.

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    A compatibilist criticism of Frankfurt’s hierarchical compatibilism. Watson also distinguishes between an agent’s valuational systems (roughly, the agent’s values and judgments about what she or he should do) and the agent’s motivational system (roughly, the desires and passions that lead the person to act in various ways). Agents have free will, according to Watson, when these two systems are in harmony.

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  • Wolf, Susan. Freedom Within Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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    Develops a compatibilist account, called “the Reason View,” according to which free will concerns an agent’s ability to act in accordance with “the True and the Good.”

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Incompatibilism

While all incompatibilist views hold that free will and the truth of causal determinism are incompatible, various sub-versions of incompatibilism can be differentiated in a number of different ways. Libertarians are incompatibilists who think that free will exists. Libertarian views come in event-causal, agent-causal, and non-causal versions, each of which is discussed in further detail in the following subsections. In the past twenty years, the number of people arguing for skepticism about free will (i.e., the claim that we lack free will) has increased; almost all free will skeptics are also incompatibilists, though for different reasons. All of the readings in this section contain arguments for incompatibilism. Though over twenty years old, van Inwagen 1983 has had a tremendous impact on the development of incompatibilist arguments, and the novice reader would do well to begin there. A precursor to van Inwagen’s work can be found in Ginet 1966. Vihvelin 2007 critically discusses the major articles for incompatibilism. Mele 2006 addresses, among other topics, the relationship between luck and incompatibilist accounts of free will.

Libertarianism

As mentioned above, libertarian views come in event-causal, agent-causal, and non-causal versions. The leading event-causal view is put forth in Kane 1996, while the leading agent-causal view is in O’Connor 2000. Clarke 2003 argues that the best libertarian view will involve both event-causal and agent-causal elements. Ginet 1990 and Goetz 2009 develop non-causal accounts.

Skeptical Accounts

Skeptical accounts all deny that agents have free will, though there are numerous different routes to a skeptical conclusion. For example, Pereboom 2001 accepts traditional arguments for incompatibilism, and the author presents his own—the “four-case argument.” Pereboom rejects the existence of free will because he thinks that people do not have the required agent-causal powers. In contrast, Strawson 2010 argues that free will is impossible. While this technically makes Strawson an incompatibilist, it is motivated by a very different set of concerns that those of Pereboom. Smilansky 2000 also posits that free will is impossible, but Smilansky thinks that the illusion that we have it is beneficial in a number of ways.

  • Double, Richard. The Nonreality of Free Will. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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    Argues against both compatibilist and libertarian views of free will, insofar as there is no single analysandum to be captured. Also includes an insightful discussion of the role of intuitions in free will debates.

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  • Pereboom, Derk. Living Without Free Will. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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    Develops the influential “four-case argument” against compatibilism. Argues for the contingent nonexistence of free will, and describes how many of our social practices (e.g., punishment) need to be modified as a result.

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  • Smilansky, Saul. Free Will and Illusion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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    Argues that compatibilist accounts of free will are insufficient, that libertarian views are too demanding to be sustained, and that hard determinism is unconvincing. Smilansky then argues that the illusory beliefs about free will we currently have play an important role both personally and socially.

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  • Strawson, Galen. Freedom and Belief. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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    Containing Strawson’s widely known argument for the impossibility of moral responsibility, this volume argues that we don’t have free will, and it examines the reasons why the belief that we do is so persistent. Originally published in 1986.

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The Free Will Problem and Moral Theory

The question of whether humans have free will appears to be of great significance to the field of ethics. Can humans fairly be blamed and held responsible for what they do? If they can, what do blame and moral responsibility involve, and do they presuppose the existence of some human capacity for freedom or self-determination, whether at the point of action or at the point of the will? Two key notions that need to be explained and related to free will are the notions of an obligation, the kind of ethical standard for which people are held responsible for observing, and the nature of blame, the criticism in which moral responsibility for breach of obligation or wrong-doing is asserted. A central project of English-language ethics since Hobbes and Hume, and especially since Sidgwick, has been to ring-fence ethics from any metaphysically problematic commitment to human free will. But can ethics be so set apart? Hart 2008 is an attempt to do so with regard to the issue of legal responsibility, while Williams 1985 applies Hart’s approach to specifically moral responsibility. Scanlon 1997 is an influential attempt to explain moral responsibility without a commitment to free will. Pink 2009 argues that the practice of blame commits us to free will.

  • Hart, H. L. A. Punishment and Responsibility: Essays in the Philosophy of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    An attempt in the philosophy of law to explain legal responsibility without commitment to a metaphysics of free will. This has influenced attempts within moral philosophy to apply the approach to moral responsibility. Originally published in 1968 (Oxford: Clarendon).

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  • Pink, Thomas. “Power and Moral Responsibility.”Philosophical Explorations 12.2 (2009): 127–149.

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    Explores what the practice of blaming people and holding them responsible involves. Pink argues that the practice commits us to the idea that people have a genuine power to determine for themselves what they do. He explores what a power of self-determination might involve, and whether it need take the form of a freedom of the will.

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  • Scanlon, T. M. What We Owe to Each Other. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1997.

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    An attempt to explain moral obligation and moral responsibility without commitment to a metaphysics of free will. Blame is assimilated to general rational criticism.

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  • Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985.

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    Applies elements of Hart’s 2008 approach to give an account of moral responsibility, moral obligation, and blame.

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Free Will and the Sciences

While free will has traditionally been primarily a philosophical topic, a number of scholars in cognate disciplines have begun examining the topic as well. Some scientific writings on free will have received wide public attention, most specifically the work of Benjamin Libet and Daniel Wegner.

Neurobiology

A number of scientists have examined the implications of developments in neurobiology for free will. The work of the neurophysiologist Benjamin Libet, in particular, has attracted significant attention (see Libet 1999). Libet, et al. 2000 contains a number of responses. An excellent philosophical criticism of Libet’s methodology can be found in Mele 2009.

  • Libet, Benjamin. “Do We Have Free Will?” Journal of Consciousness Studies 6.8–9 (1999): 47–57.

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    A highly cited and publicized paper that claims to show that unconscious processes in the brain initiate volitional acts before the agent is consciously aware of intending to act. Libet suggests that this leaves little room for free will except in the form of “the power of veto.”

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  • Libet, Benjamin, Anthony Freeman, and Keith Sutherland. The Volitional Brain: Towards a Neuroscience of Free Will. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2000.

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    A wide-ranging collection of papers exploring recent work in neuroscience, psychology, and physics, and the implication of this work for free will. Included in this collection is Libet 1999.

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  • Mele, Alfred R. Effective Intentions: The Power of Conscious Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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    An excellent philosophical critique of much of the recent scientific work on free will, including that done by Libet and Wegner, suggesting that much of the scientific work has established less than is often claimed.

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  • Murphy, Nancey, and Warren S. Brown. Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199215393.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues, on the basis of recent work in neuroscience, that while free will is compatible with biological determinism, the more pressing threat to free will is neurobiological reductionism—which the authors argue is false. Also contains an extended critique of Kane’s libertarian view.

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Psychology

As with neurobiology, there has been a resurgence of work addressing the relationship between issues in psychology and free will. A representative sample of recent work on free will by psychologists can be found in Baer, et al. 2008, though the work that has attracted the most attention is Wegner 2002. Nahmias 2002 contains a critique of Wegner’s work, as does Mele 2009 (cited under Neurobiology).

  • Baer, John, James C. Kaufman, and Roy F. Baumeister, eds. Are We Free? Psychology and Free Will. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

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    A collection of essays by philosophers and psychologists addressing a wide range of issues related to free will. While the quality of the essays is very mixed, the contributions by Nichols, Dennett, Pinker, and Mele, in particular, are quite good.

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  • Nahmias, Eddy. “When Consciousness Matters: A Critical Review of Daniel Wegner’s The Illusion of Conscious Will.” Philosophical Psychology 15.4 (2002): 527–541.

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    Argues that Wegner’s evidence for the claim that free will is an illusion is inconclusive, and that Wegner has not shown that conscious will does not play a crucial causal role in forming intentions to act.

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  • Wegner, Daniel M. The Illusion of Conscious Will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

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    Wegner, a psychologist, argues that intentions play no causal role in bringing about actions, thereby undercutting free will.

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Experimental Philosophy

One of the topics focused on in early work in experimental philosophy was free will. For an introduction to experimental philosophy in this regard, see Nichols and Knobe 2007. Nahmias, et al. 2006 and Nahmias, et al. 2007 describe some of the most influential experimental results to date.

  • Nahmias, Eddy, Stephen G. Morris, Thomas Nadelhoffer, and Jason Turner. “Is Incompatibilism Intuitive?” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 73.1 (2006): 28–53.

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    An experimental work that suggests that incompatibilist intuitions are not as pervasive as is often assumed, insofar as the majority of subjects judge that agents can act of their own free will and be morally responsible, even in deterministic scenarios. Also discusses the philosophical implications of such data.

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  • Nahmias, Eddy, D. Justin Coates, and Trevor Kvaran. “Free Will, Moral Responsibility, and Mechanism: Experiments on Folk Intuitions.” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 31.1 (2007): 214–242.

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    Argues that the experimental data show that what the folk think is a threat to free will is not the truth of determinism, but rather a reductive and mechanistic explanation of action.

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  • Nichols, Shaun, and Joshua Knobe. “Moral Responsibility and Determinism: The Cognitive Science of Folk Intuitions.” Noûs 41.4 (2007): 663–685.

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    While primarily about moral responsibility rather than free will, this article addresses the processes that lead to compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions, arguing that each set of intuitions appeals to a different aspect of our psychological makeup.

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Free Will and Foreknowledge

Free will impacts a number of issues in the philosophy of religion, most notably divine foreknowledge. (The term foreknowledge can be somewhat misleading, as many theists believe that God is atemporal, and thus that none of God’s knowledge is had at a time, and thus cannot be before what is known. In what follows, this complexity is left aside.) Theological fatalists argue that exhaustive divine infallible knowledge (whether temporal foreknowledge or atemporal knowledge) is incompatible with free choices. Three general responses to theological fatalism are Ockhamism, open theism, and Molinism, each of which is discussed in further detail in its respective subsection. Each of the readings in this section describes the problem of theological fatalism, as well as outlining the major families of responses to that challenge. Zagzebski 2008 will likely be the most helpful beginning point. Fischer 1989 is a collection of various responses to the issue, while Zagzebski 1991 is an extended development of a particular response.

Ockhamism

The Ockhamist solution to the problem of theological fatalism is credited to the 13th-century philosophy William of Ockham, though it has notable contemporary defenders as well. At the heart of Ockhamism is the claim that free agents have counterfactual power over some of God’s past beliefs. Readers would do well to begin with Plantinga 1986 and then move on to Fischer 1994 and Widerker 1990.

Open Theism

Open theists accept that free will and divine foreknowledge are incompatible, and they reject the latter. The most thorough treatment of open theism is Hasker 1998, while Rhoda 2007 and Rhoda 2008 are more current defenses of open theism.

Molinism

Though Molinism is primarily an account of divine providence (see Flint 1998), it is sometimes also presented as a response to the challenge of theological fatalism. However, Fischer 2008 and Fischer 2009 argue that Molinism presupposes a response to the challenge raised by theological fatalism rather than a unique solution.

LAST MODIFIED: 05/10/2010

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195396577-0047

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